The trick with suffering is compelling your mind to go quiet while taking stock of your body, making sure you’re only doing temporary damage. My wife understands that I understand this, which is why she simply said, “If you think you’re doing permanent damage, please stop”.
This was two days before I left for South Africa. My bike was disassembled, carefully packed in its case, and staring at me from across the living room. The question was this: Should I bring my bike with me? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to race. And if I did, regardless of how I felt, I might end up racing, even though I shouldn’t.
My bike wanted to go. I could tell. But I’d been tending to an injury for the past 45 days, and even though I’d been on my bike and in the pool 20+ hours a week during a proper build-phase of periodized training, I hadn’t run in awhile.
Michelle and I discussed this at length while my bike — like a loyal friend — looked on. I decided to bring my bike and to attempt the Ironman African Championship.
The flight keeps some people from visiting South Africa. For others it’s fear of disease and violence . . . the dark star, the great unknown.
When looking at the continent of Africa, I’d only previously spent time in Egypt. But South Africa has been a long-time dream. Perhaps it began after reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and maybe it percolated after watching Matt Damon lead the national rugby team in Invictus. Or it could’ve simply been the thrill of doing an Ironman (something that has become fairly “normal”) in a new locale.
I cannot pretend to have seen Cape Town, Johannesburg, any of the nature reserves, or very much of South Africa. But I did spend six days on the ground in Port Elizabeth. Each day (just before sunset) there were kite surfers jumping waves in Nelson Mandela Bay (which was the view from our hotel room). There were people jogging and cycling along Marine Drive (in the heart of PE). The sun was high, the wind was great, and the culinary delights — locally-sourced springbok, kudu, warthog, crocodile, and wild boar — were yummy.
So should you wish to visit Port Elizabeth, or should you find yourself interested in signing up for the Ironman African Championship, read on.
Getting there: LAX/FRA/JNB/PLE
My friend Brad was known to cry when talking about air travel. While I don’t get as emotional, I do love to fly.
Loyal to Star Alliance, I booked a round-trip ticket on United Airlines’ website from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt to Johannesburg via Lufthansa Business Class. I completed the itinerary with an Economy Class fare via South African Airways from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth. (For the points geeks: I collected just under 50,000 award miles on UA for this ticket, and I collected over 15,000 AMEX points. I value each point at .04, as I redeem them for travel in premium cabins. As a result, I find that the points earned on this trip offset my total ticket price by half, putting me very close to the price I would’ve paid for Lufthansa Economy Class. In other words, I believe that this ticket enabled me to fly all four long legs in Business Class for the price of an Economy Class ticket).
I parked at The Parking Spot Century (they have a 25% off coupon on their website). The shuttle whisked me to the Tom Bradley Terminal, where I quickly made my way up to the Star Alliance Lounge for some butternut squash soup,
and some more noodles (with chicken this time)!
It was not long before my flight was ready to board. This was my first experience on an Airbus A380, and I was psyched.
Boarding was divided by those sitting on the lower deck and those sitting on the upper deck. I was among those sitting on the upper deck of the plane. During the boarding process, we took an escalator up to the jetway, which aligned itself with the upper deck of the plane. That was cool.
The seats were nice, and they were spacious, but while the A380 offers a newer product than the much older Boeing 747, I realized that the arm rests and the foot rests on the 747 offer considerably more room than the A380.
The flight lasted for just over 10 hours. Upon landing in Frankfurt, I decided to maximize my 11-hour layover by going into the city.
The train from the airport to the city costs approximately $5. Three stops and 15 minutes later, you arrive at the main train station.
Walking around Frankfurt was a reunion, as I raced Ironman Frankfurt in 2004. Twelve years later, much of it looked the same.
After a day in the city, I returned to the airport to have a shower at the Lufthansa Lounge.
I felt like I had the whole place to myself. (Note: For those with a layover in Frankfurt, the Lufthansa Lounge has lockers, which enable you to store your carry-on luggage while you venture into the city).
The next leg — Lufthansa 747-800 to Johannesburg — lasted another 10 hours, and then it was time to fly South African Airways to Port Elizabeth (Note: I typically ship my bike via TriBike Transport. When TBT is not available, I typically have to pay the airline’s “sports equipment” fee, which often ranges from $100-250 each way. Neither Lufthansa nor South African Airways charged me to transport my bike!)
I folded up like a contortionist in order to squeeze into the taxi (along with Keish, our luggage, and our bikes), and we drove 15 minutes to our hotel: The Protea Hotel Marine.
The Protea Hotel Marine is a Marriott property, so I used 40,000 Marriott Rewards points for four free nights. Of course, when you use points for four consecutive nights with Marriott, the fifth night is free. This was a nice savings, and the hotel honored my Gold Status by upgrading us to an ocean view room!
This was the view from our room.
We still had time before athlete check-in closed, so we walked to the expo (a short 3-5 minute walk). The expo was a flurry of vendors, athletes, and volunteers.
Because it’s called a “bay,” I expected the water to be more tranquil and calm. This expectation should be modified by anybody considering this 2.4 mile swim. Nelson Mandela Bay was as violent (if not more) than any ocean swim I’ve completed. One must make an effort not to swallow water with every stroke, for the undulating nature of the “bay” — coupled with the undercurrent and the swelly conditions — creates a cacophony that, at least for me, served a proper wake-up call.
I left the practice swim thinking, “Ok, I wasn’t previously worried about the swim. But I’ll need to toughen up in the next 24 hours”.
Keish and I went on a short ride to stretch out our legs and make sure our bikes were shifting and rolling well.
The roads were covered in chip seal, but the views were spectacular. Wind would make or break our bike split on race day. Known as the Windy City, Port Elizabeth had the potential to make a 112 mile bike ride brilliant or punishing.
It was now Saturday afternoon and time to drop off our transition bags and our bikes.
With gels on the top tube and baby powder in the tires, my steed was racked and ready to roll.
12 hours remained until race start. I’d already carbo-loaded and made every attempt to top off my electrolytes. What I required was extra support for my lower back, as I didn’t know if the injury I’d sustained would get ugly. I reached for a roll of MuscleAidTape, my trusted source for muscle support.
Race morning came quickly. The IM African Championship began with a rolling start. Keish and I seeded ourselves at the back of the sub-one-hour group, sandwiched between 1,600 athletes and a massive throng of spectators.
The swim was challenging. If you’re considering this race, and if you’re not particularly strong in the water, you might consider Ironman Arizona or, perhaps, Ironman Lake Placid. This swim was tough, and it took me 1:08 to finish.
As I stepped out of my wetsuit, I noticed that the MuscleAidTape continued to adhere well through the swim, and I was counting on its support on the bike.
The bike leg was beautiful. The two-loop course offered occasionally lackluster roads, and there were several speed bumps that required one to slow a bit, but the absence of wind meant that today might be an opportunity to go fast.
I made an effort to ride at slightly lower power than normal, as I wanted to respect my lower back. All went according to plan until mile 80, where my inner quads seemed compelled to cramp. This became a legitimate concern for the next 32 miles.
At bike dismount, I was eager to see if my body would run. And since I was only 6 hours 45 minutes into the race, a decent run on the 4-loop run course would put me in contention for a Kona slot. But that was the racer in me. I did try to override such thinking by reminding myself to simply have fun and to, under no circumstances, cause irreparable damage to my body.
My plan was to try the 9:1. I’d run for 9 minutes, and then walk quickly for 1 minute. I hadn’t run in 45 days, which is not ideal preparation for a marathon. But out of the transition tent I marched, and the first few miles went smoothly. By mile 8, though, I found it hard to believe that only 2 or 3 minutes had passed when I’d swear it must’ve been 9 minutes and, thus, time to walk. But I was still moving along at a decent pace, and since my back was cooperating, I kept pushing.
Right around mile 15, things started to get ugly. My back was supportive, but my legs were cramping. It must’ve been around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the next three miles saw my per-mile run split rise from 9-10 minute miles to 12 minute miles. And at mile 18, my back started to hurt.
Typically, I’d push through any pain from mile 18 onwards. However, I made a promise to Michelle, and I aimed to honor it. So for the next 8 miles I walked. There were, according to some estimates, 100,000 spectators lining the run course. The hardest part about walking the last 8 miles was not running when the spectators would encourage you to do so.
But that was that. I gave it a good nudge, and I made it 132.4 miles. The final 8.2 miles would have to be covered in a brisk walk.
I joined forces with an Aussie named Ben, and the two of us walked the final 8.2 miles together. At some point Keish overtook us, gliding like a Kenyan.
Overall, I deem this race a success. I had fun, I didn’t exacerbate my injury, and I managed to finish an Ironman, which is aptly termed “one of the most grueling days in sport”.
The next morning I did feel like I’d been hit by a truck, but I suppose that’s reasonable given my insufficient run training in the build to this race. I do know that I couldn’t have finished without the support from great sponsors, friends, neighbors, family, and my awesome wife.
Big thanks to Mdrive, MuscleAidTape, East West Bikes, TriBike Transport, Blue Seventy, and Ph.D. Nutrition for their support. And of course, much love to Michelle for looking after me, and helping me remember that racing for a spot on the podium is not the only reason to show up; she believes it may be healthier to just go out there and have fun. As usual, I think she’s right.
Next race: Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in Cairns, Australia.