IRONMAN South Africa Race Report - Mal Joseland @ 30 Apr 2017
Training had gone very well - no injuries or setbacks, plenty of hard sessions and lots of easy, recovery sessions in between. My training volume was slightly higher than in previous IRONMAN preparations, but mainly just increased intensity on the hard sessions.
I was very blessed to have a great support crew come with me to South Africa. Even though our girls could not come, Jan, Mum, Dad, my sister and her family and my youngest brother all made the long trip to be there.
I was quite nervous in the build-up and was told more than once that I was a bit of a pain, with my mind focussed on IM.
There were a few issues on my flight over to South Africa, including an unplanned stop in Oman, then an unplanned night in Dubai as I missed my connecting flight. Otherwise it was a great trip, enjoying business class thanks to my darling sister at Emirates. Jan and I had a few lovely days in Cape Town, featuring Table Mountain, Cape of Good Hope, Kirstenbosch Gardens, the waterfront restaurants and surprisingly, really good coffee and food in some funky cafes, including Truth Coffee (http://truth.coffee/), voted the best coffee shop in the world in 2016 by The Telegraph. We then drove across the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth.
When we arrived in PE, I was keen to check the water and went the next morning to do a practice swim – it was great – cool, calm and good sighting options on the course. In the afternoon, we drove the bike course and I soon understood what I thought were relatively slow bike times in 2016. There were about 50 speedbumps on the bike course, with many on the descents. At the bottom of most were 90 degree turns and a few spots with gravel, definitely warranting caution and braking before most corners. The climbs were not steep, but the quality of the road was very poor in some parts. While the asphalt itself was not coarse, there were bumps and potholes in the surface, that would cause lots of vibrations and more muscle fatigue. Lower tyre pressure would help by absorbing some of the bumps, but would also increase rolling resistance and be a bit slower. I was glad to have a 25mm tyre on the back and wished I had put a 25mm on the front also. My plan of a sub-5 bike split now seemed very optimistic.
Check-in and the usual build up was fun, albeit slightly different from the usual Ironman processes, as it included biometric photos and fingerprint scanning of all athletes at check-in. Why? No idea.
Race morning, I woke from an unusually good IRONMAN eve sleep and was feeling great about the day ahead. That feeling didn’t last. I stuffed up the rolling swim start and I didn’t get into the water until about 15mins after the first age group starters. I should have seeded myself much closer to the front of the field. With hindsight, this was my biggest mistake of the day by far. I struggled to find a decent draft and a change in wind direction created choppier conditions than we had seen for days. It seemed to get worse as the swim went on. At the half way mark, I knew it wasn’t going to be a great swim, but I decided to be conservative and stick with any half decent draft I could find, rather than go it alone.
Out of the water in 1:10, only seconds ahead of my previous best IRONMAN swim. I could not help but be extremely disappointed, even angry. My swimming has improved heaps in the pool over the last couple of years, yet I had barely improved at all come race day. Not happy. My support crew (especially my darling wife) were a bit concerned as they knew I was 83rd out of the water and had a seemingly insurmountable gap to the leaders and a Kona slot. With hindsight, it is no surprise that they avoided giving me any news on my place in the field during the bike leg, as the news wasn’t good at all.
T1 felt fast, just quickly drinking 500ml of sports drink, then onto the bike. I had to try to be optimistic about being able to turn the situation around. Optimism came pretty easily, as within minutes I was passing many competitors on the bike. The race rules included having to wear race bibs on the bike as well as the run. As I passed people on the bike, I could often read their bib, which included their age group. I knew I was climbing through the field, I just didn’t know how fast and if it was fast enough.
There was still plenty of the day left and it would be crazy to push harder than planned, so I just stuck to my numbers on the bike and kept clawing my way back. My bike plan was to ride to 145 HR and use power data, to manage peaks and troughs on hills and descents. Everything was going to plan. A tailwind on the first 45k to the lap turnaround point was great. The headwind on the return leg seemed to slow others down more than me and I gained lots of places into the wind.
Kudos to both the competitors and officials, this was probably the best triathlon I have competed in at any distance regarding drafting. Even coming back into the headwind, I saw almost no drafting at all. There weren’t many officials on the road, and no other circumstances I could see that deterred drafting. It just didn’t happen. It was a very fair race and I loved that. Drafting is a blight on virtually all Australian long course triathlons and it makes me wonder why culturally this occurs.
Lap 1 of the bike was done and I was happy to see my support crew, who wisely gave me nothing in terms of my progress, just shouts of “Go, go, go!!” The usual Ironman delays in updating split times meant they had nothing other than 83rd at the end of the swim. It was best to keep that to themselves.
Go, go, go!!!
The turnaround to start lap 2 seemed to coincide with a change in wind direction, meaning the tailwind I was looking forward to was now a headwind back out of town. A tailwind home on the 2nd return leg was nice though. The professionals started their race about 30mins before me and speaking to the winner, Ben Hoffman a couple of days later, he confirmed that they were fortunate enough to time the change of wind direction so that they got a tailwind on 3 out of the 4 bike legs.
I had a coach inspired KPI in the plan to “drink enough that you need to pee by the 120km mark of the bike”. I stopped at the drink station at about 110km and felt much more comfortable after that. It was good to know I was well hydrated and could keep the fluids up for the rest of the bike.
Heading into T2, I was hoping for news from my support crew that I was now somewhere near the top 10 and getting close to Kona qualification, which I figured required top 8 in my age group. Despite giving them strict instructions to keep me updated, I got donuts, nothing, nada. Just lots of encouragement. Go, go, go. I later found out the live tracking data was extremely delayed and they still didn’t know where I was in the field.
A highlight for the ride was only being passed once and that was by a guy who passed me going up one of the few hills. He clearly didn’t ride with a power meter, as he thought it was a good idea to power up hills, then roll down them. Needless to say, I passed him again a couple of kms later and then didn’t see him again.
I was stoked to get off the bike with a split of 4:58, under the seemingly impossible 5hr bike goal, and achieved without exceeding my HR target or doing anything silly. Fantastic! Now the run – my strength. This had the potential to be a fast run - four quite flat 10km laps and the crowd was amazing – supporters tents lined much of the run course. I’m told that to secure a tent space on the run course, the locals are a bit like German tourists with their beach towels, marking their territory well before race day with spray paint, tent poles, etc.
Check out the crowd lining the course
Out of T2 and on the run
I was about 500m out of T2 and I checked my watch – 6hrs 16mins. Seriously! Wow. My transitions must have been quite fast. If I could run the 3:15 marathon I thought I was capable of, then sub 9:30 was still a possibility. After that crap swim, I might still be able to do it. That felt good and was a real lift as I knew in previous years in South Africa, sub 9:30 would have won my age group all but the previous year when the winner did 9:28. Ignoring everyone else, a 9:30 would definitely be fast enough to get a Kona slot. Stop, don’t get too excited, there is still 40km left, just stick to the plan agreed with Supercoach Mat Tippett – fast through T2, then ease to c. 4:45 pace for 1-2km, then pick up to c. 4:30 pace and to a HR of at least 150, but up to 155. Hold that until the last lap, then give it everything.
Lap 1 of the run felt good. After 5km, finally some news. My brother told me I was 13th off the bike. This was good, not great, but enough. Of course, I hoped to be placed higher, but I was confident in my run.
The run was getting hot, hotter than I had expected - 29 degrees apparently, but with no shade at all, it felt hotter on the asphalt. Thankfully, I’d done heat training, but maybe I should have done more. On the last lap the wind picked up and it cooled down a bit, but by then, there were more and more people walking.
I had held a steady pace of 4:30-4:40 for laps 2 and 3. I was hot and feeling fatigued, so late on lap 2, I decided I needed more fluids, so decided to slow down/walk at each drink station, to have an extra cup of drink, so either 2 sports drinks or 1 sports drink & 1 coke. With hindsight I think it was a wise decision. Drink stations also featured plenty of cold sponges and water over my head, which meant wet shoes and inevitable blisters.
The middle of lap four, about 5kms to go, I got my two favourite pieces of encouragement for the day. As I ran past my sister, bless her, she pointed and screamed “He’s my brother”. The crowd cheered, I laughed. She even woke her 5 month old daughter with her 3 word motivational speech. I think that emotional message would lift any pained heart and mind. What blisters?
Not far up the road, my brother delivered this much more rational gem. “Mal, we think you’re in 4th place. There’s a guy 30 seconds in front of you and another 30 seconds behind you. 3rd or 5th, it’s your choice.” History will show, I was actually in 5th place and I did make up the 30 seconds to the guy in front. When I passed him, he was walking. After no doubt training for months, this poor guy is in 3rd place and only has about 3km to go, yet is reduced to walking. It reminded me of hearing Craig Alexander speak a couple of years ago, after coming 2nd in a 70.3 in Malaysia. He said something like this – “I wanted to give up so many times in this race. It was so hot and hard, but you just don’t give up when you’re in 2nd place.” I couldn’t help but think, bloody hell this Ironman caper must be hard. It is no doubt tough physically, but also tough mentally. I suspect that guy regrets walking.
I found enough in the legs to finish strong and cross the line in 4th place, with a run time of 3:14. Finish time 9:28. While it was not the podium place I aimed for, it was a 20min PB and definitely enough for Kona qualification. Woohoo!! Now I finally have the chance to race on the big island of Kona, Hawaii.
Big smiles after crossing the finish line.
Now weeks later, I still can’t really believe how the day panned out. I am really pleased, proud even, that I recovered psychologically from the swim and put the emotion from that aside and just focussed on sticking to my plan for the rest of the day. I executed the bike and run legs that I thought were possible and am super happy with. The swim goes to show though that thinking something is possible and doing it are two very different things.
Not surprisingly, they didn’t have a post-race media conference for 4th place in Male 45-49, but if they had, it might have gone something like this:
What is your next triathlon goal? A strong performance in Kona of course. I’ll share more details about that at a later date.
The Kona slot locked in at rolldown the next day
You seemed to have a very strong support crew out there today. Did that help? I am blessed with the most amazing wife and family, who do everything they can to support me and my Ironman goals. The crowd today was brilliant, but my support team were the best of the best. I know how lucky I am.
It is great to hear the Port Elizabeth crowd was brilliant. Does that mean you recommend your triathlon friends come and race in Port Elizabeth? As a destination race for Australians, an Ironman in South Africa has a lot to offer. The event was very well run, the race was fair and the crowd support, especially on the run, was brilliant. Beyond the race, we got to enjoy lots the country has to offer. On safaris only an hour from PE, we saw elephants, giraffe, lions, zebras, antelope, springbok, rhinos, hippos and buffalo. We tasted beautiful wines in the spectacular surroundings of Stellenbosch and enjoyed great, fresh food. We’ve met many lovely people. Thankfully, we haven’t experienced any safety or security problems ourselves, but we have heard stories and there must be some truth to them, as we have seen plenty of barbed wire and electric fences, so bear that in mind. The 70.3 World Champs are in Port Elizabeth in 2018, and while I have intention of going back for it, it will no doubt be a great, well run event.
Do I have things to improve on? Of course, my swim obviously has plenty of room for improvement. I’ll sit down with super coach Mat Tippett and review this race and prepare a plan for Kona.