How to race Ironman South Africa

gallery32Whether you are aiming for your first finisher’s medal, a PB (Personal Best), or an age-group podium place, I can guarantee that an ironman event will both test you and stretch you to your limits. The hardships that you face on race day will reveal your character, of that I have no doubt.

The objective is to try and make it as easy as possible and more importantly, as enjoyable as possible. If that appeals to you…read further.

The months of; hard work, sparrow’s-fart alarm calls, sacrifices, injuries, family disowning’s, enough supplements to fuel a Russian weightlifting team, and many many kilometers of training are over. You arrive in Port Elizabeth feeling bloated, heavy and Michelin-man-like due to at least a week’s worth of taper. Your stomach is a mess from nerves, and you feel on edge at best. Arriving at the expo and registration area is an exercise in fear all on it’s own. A glance in any and every direction leaves you feeling that there are literally hundreds of athletes who are in way better condition than you are, and with way better equipment than you have. Your personal predictions for the day disintegrate.

The most fearsome looking are the bling bling okes from Joburg, with their impressively even and orange spray-on tans, their bling bling botoxed wives, and their bling bling bikes on which they’ve dropped at least R70 kay (and that’s not even including their latest aero wheels, helmets and other kit).  They parade around in their compression socks, supplement bottles in hand, with Donald Trump-esk attitude. Let me tell you a secret, even the pro’s are envious of their kit. And then you see it…that same look in the eyes that you’ve seen in your mirror. That same fear and apprehension. And suddenly you realize right there that behind all the kit, each one of you is kit-less, and at the mercy of this thing called IRONMAN.  A fancy bike and a spray-tan won’t get you around the course.

The cannon fires!

Hobie Beach, ready to rock ‘n roll

So, try not to focus on everybody. I have trained and prepared for top 20 finishes in years gone by, and have arrived at registration, taken one look around, and convinced myself that I wont even make the top 100 athletes. Yet every time, as the race unfolds and the hours go by, there are fewer and fewer athletes in front of me. The race is about YOU, nobody else! Don’t let anybody psych you out. Race against yourself and your heart rate.

Don’t buy anything new at the expo that you intend to use on race day. Now is not the time for new, light, racing flats, new nutrition, or untried kit. Stick to your game plan. If you haven’t swum at Hobie beach before, attend one of the pre-race swim sessions. Use the opportunity to sight past the buoys. On race day its often hard to see them.  Find a landmark on the horizon that will help. I use a crane in the harbour, and a hotel on land.  The weather is the favored topic of conversation. You will be told how last year’s weather was the worst that any ironman in the history of ironman has ever experienced. Despite the fact that it might well be true, that’s not the point. The only way of knowing what the weather will dish up will be to open your curtains on race day.  And then notwithstanding your best endeavors, you cannot change it! In other words, those conversations are futile and will only make you nervous.

Friday is the night you want to get to bed early and get as much sleep as possible. On Saturday you will be lucky to sleep much at all (and that’s OK). Stay out of the sun, and keep your legs up. Drink lots to make sure you’re well hydrated. The bike check in is a great opportunity to practice the transitions and make sure you are well acquainted with the routes you will follow and where everything is situated.  Play out the race in your head and walk through the sequences imagining you are in the race. Eat light, easily digestible food on Saturday night. Nothing that is likely to upset your stomach nor leave you feeling heavy. Try to appreciate the support of those who have dedicated their lives over the past year to putting up with your; tiredness, hyperglycemic moods, expensive kit obsession, mountains of dirty, sweaty tri-clothing, and cupboards-full of bottles, lotions, potions, and every herbal remedy known to mankind. Oh, and then there’s your absence in their lives. So be nice, you will need them along the side of the road! Don’t forget to thank them when you cross the finish line. I have found that the sooner you reward their backing with expensive gifts, the more likely you will be allowed to start training for the next one.

Race day dawns. You feel wired, and amped, and petrified, and excited, and exhilarated all at once. Eat whatever you’ve practiced on. I like oats with honey, it works for me. Off to the start, and the pre-race ritual of putting the bottles on your bike, checking the transition bags, making sure your tyres are hard and the bike is in the right gear, and then make sure you’ve lubed under your wetsuit. Put your timing chip under the wetsuit to make sure that it doesn’t get yanked off, and your goggles under your cap for the same reason. I always go to the warm up beach, swim about a bit, and get lots of water in my wetsuit to make it fit properly. Sort out your goggles, a quick pee in your wetsuit, and then you’re ready to go! A hasty gel washed down with a carbo drink does the trick for me on the way into the start pen.

The very worst part of the race is the 10 minutes before the start; your stomach is in your throat, the drummers beat an emotional and nerve-shattering rhythm on the beach, the helicopters clatter above the sea, thousands of wetsuit-clad athletes push up close together, and the final prayer is delivered as if you are receiving your last rites. It is a short instant in your existence that is life-changing and one you’ll never forget. But the moment the cannon on the beach fires, your body jolts into action, the adrenalin powers through your veins and your thoughts focus on the task at hand. Get to the finish line.

20x30-PESA0065I start on the side of the wave, for me it’s always on the right, as I breathe to the left and like to sight over the swimmers. It keeps me straight. I break the race into segments. I swim as if I am only swimming one lap of the swim, it’s all I focus on. The race is far to long to see it as a whole. By breaking it down you are creating easier goals and milestones. If the swim is your nemesis, you might consider swimming from bouy to bouy. Just till the next one…just till the next one, and so on.

Expect to lose your breath in the 300m sprint for open water and the first bouy. It happens to the best athletes. As soon as you can, try to block out all the movement around you and focus on the length of your stroke, and on breathing comfortably. Its going to be a very long day. Start slowly! The swim is your warm up, in the greater scheme of the race it’s practically a non-event, approach it that way.

“Hold back until you see the red carpet.”

Out of the water and up onto the beach after the first lap. It’s your first opportunity to experience the crowds that PE is famous for. I have never experienced such support and encouragement in any race anywhere. Soak it up at any opportunity during the race. Smile lots, you’d be amazed how a smile makes your entire body relax. It takes the pressure off. Try it, you won’t regret it, I promise. Try also to acknowledge the helpers, the traffic officers, and the marshals. Firstly it feels good, and secondly you wouldn’t be racing if it were not for them.

The second lap is fabulous, the wonderful feeling of  ‘this is the last time I am swimming to that bouy’ etc. Before you know it, you’re onto the beach again and through the showers. Use them to get the salt water off your face, and use the water troughs to get the sand off your feet. The transition tent is a hive of frenetic activity, allow the helpers to help, and take your time to get it right. Loads of block out cream, and I even put on thin socks for the cycle. Comfort over speed, 180km is a long ride in any book. A race belt for the race number is a must.

Onto the bike, and the real race begins. The first lap is always pretty cool. The route is fresh for you, the road is reasonably clear of other athletes, and your legs are feeling good. And the inevitable happens, you start to push harder than you should. Places are jostled and the ego takes over. Bad mistake. How do I know, because I’ve done it! I will say it over and over, the race is about YOU! Nobody else. It doesn’t matter whom you pass or who passes you. An ironman is about how fresh your legs can feel after 180km of cycling. Fact! Break the bike segment into 3 laps of 60km, and try for a negative split. In other words, aim to make your last lap the fastest. Chances are it won’t happen, but it will ensure that you don’t cook too soon. I always race purely on heart-rate. I ignore my average speed, and set my cycling computer on time which I use for nutrition purposes. My whole day is controlled in 30 minutes sections.

20x30-PEBE1318Ride the first 10km easy, pour fresh water over your trisuit, get rid of the salt water and allow your heart-rate to come down a little.  If there is wind in the day, don’t fight it. Choose a gear at least two easier than you would normally use, and save your legs. Any time you lose you will more than make up with the wind behind you. Resist the urge to  power into the wind. Take it easy going up Walmer and into Buffelsfontein, it’s a steady grind. Over the top and the first opportunity to relax the legs a little. Change your position on the bike frequently. Most importantly, try to relax your body as much as possible.  I stretch out my legs on the bike often too.

Now, here’s the truth about an ironman, any ironman. There is no such thing as a perfect race and an event-less day. Something somewhere is going to go wrong. A cramp, nausea, mechanical issues, nutrition issues, muscle problems, blisters, the list is pretty long. And the race plays no favorites, it happens to the best of the pro’s and the slowest of the slow. How you finish the race will depend on how you approach these hiccups. The positive thing is that the race is long enough for you to recover from most ailments and setbacks. Back off, sort it out if you can, and start off slowly again. Walk if you need to. The human body’s ability and propensity to recover is truly remarkable. I have felt at my absolute worst three quarters of the way through an ironman, and 30 minutes later have felt my best, and have had the best finish.

Prepare yourself mentally for the middle lap of the ride, its the hardest. Your legs are starting to feel it a little and the race is beginning to feel like an ironman. Mentally its hard because you know you still have another lap to go. Do not get caught up in your position within the race, ride your own pace, and decide that pace based on how you are feeling. Above all else, stick to your nutrition plan. The conditions on the day will often dictate a certain amount of your intake. Be flexible, but only for a good reason. The last lap of the ride is bitter sweet. You’re celebrating the last time you pass each milestone, but you’ve also had enough of the bike, your ass is screaming at you, and you cannot wait to hit T2. 10 – 15 km before the transition of the third lap, back off completely, spin the legs out a bit but be careful not to cramp. Sit up and stretch your back. Mentally start to get ready for the last segment of the race. Picture the transition area and what you will need to take on the run with you.

Copy of

I like to put on fresh socks for the run, grab clean sunglasses, a peak, some nutrition, and off I go. Once again, break the run into segments, bite sized chunks. Start the first 3 to 4km very conservatively. You know your legs will feel like tree stumps, and because you can’t really feel them you inadvertently think you’re Mo Farah. Don’t do it, it’s a recipe for the ‘early walk syndrome’ or the, “it feels like a little man jumped out of the bushes and fired both barrels of his shotgun at me syndrome”. Neither are ideal, so give your legs time to  recover from the bike. If your plan is to walk early, stick to the plan. Very importantly, the earlier you can back off when you start to hit the wall (or one of the many that seem characteristic of an Ironman), the better, and the greater your chances of recovering again. Stick to your nutrition plan, and try to keep your heart rate as low as possible. Don’t forget to smile. Engage with the crowds (they tend to start thinning a little as the sun sets, so make use of them) and if you can, high five the kids. It takes your mind off the hurtbox you’re trapped in. The fact that your name is printed on your race number is a wonderful thing and allows for people to engage with you. I will admit to folding it over at times when I am too shattered to want to engage though.

Lap 2 of the run is hardest part of the race. Especially the long lonely section around the back of the university sports fields and back past Humewood Golf Course. Its dead quiet, horribly flat, and seems to last forever. Count lampposts if you have to. Walk one, run two. If your running shoes do not have drainage holes in the soles be careful not to pour too much water over your legs. A build up of water in your shoes is a recipe for blister hell.

Lap 3 is fantastic just because its the last section of the entire race. Everything hurts like hell however, your sense of humour has gone AWOL, and you feel like you will do anything to make the pain stop. But you knew it was coming, and you start chanting your personal mantra under your breath to take your mind off your present condition. Mine is, ‘I’m strong, feeling good’, repeated over and over again. And it truly works for me. I repeat it in rhythm to my breathing and cadence. Now the water points appear on the horizon like a distant oasis, each one taking longer to reach than the last, even sweating is an effort, and at times you feel you’ve run out of sweat. You’ve run out of pretty much everything. You cannot stomach the thought of another gel. You suddenly realize that the orange, broken looking bling bling dude you just passed only has 2 bands around his wrist, and you have 3. You resist the urge to say something only because it’s too much effort.

medal1Then, you see the lollipop! That godsend little lighthouse that signals the last 2.5km of the day. The smile is back, relief etched across your sweat stained face. The emotion starts welling up inside you, the pain subsides slightly, and your pace (even your stumble/drag/walk) increases fractionally. The music from the finish line beckons, getting louder and louder.

There are simply no words that can adequately describe the feeling of reaching the red carpet, hearing the voices on ironman; Paul Kaye and Mike Finch, booming through the speakers.

Its just you…and the finish line. Emotion overwhelms you. Your life’s single most important goal over the past months culminates in this moment, and a lifetime of bragging rites.


Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, I hope you found it helpful. If so, please share it using the link below. Comment and engage with me. You can also find me on twitter @thewrightrich. Good luck and happy racing 🙂


21 thoughts on “How to race Ironman South Africa

  1. What a wonderful, humorous and honest blog on what to expect for my first ever Ironman. Thank you! I thought I may need to isolate myself in a padded room… Lest someone else does it to get to race day with all the butterflies!

  2. Perfectly written…

  3. Kathleen Lee says:

    Kudos to you Rich and all the other crazies out there that take part and complete Ironman. What a fabulous blog honest and to the point 😉

  4. Ginja nija dad says:

    Nice work Rich…..maybe one day !

  5. Russell says:

    Best article (bar NONE) on the subject. ALMOST makes me want to do another one.

  6. Doreen Straarup Sykes says:

    Great read Richard! I kind of felt the emotion with you. Must be rather exciting despite the nervousness.

  7. very well written, but time to give the author gig a rest and get back to racing IM.

  8. Carolyn Mowbray says:

    Richie, as a TOTAL non-athlete (as you know), your worst part of the race is my PB. Those 10 minutes on the beach…sunrise, our national anthem, total silence save the helicopter overhead, and then the cannon …goosebumps, tears and an overwhelming feeling of respect for you, and every other athlete. Congratulations ! You ARE ‘Iron Man Dad’.

  9. Dad says:


  10. […] I am no motivational speaker. If you are looking for motivation, head on over to this selection of YouTube videos and see if you don’t choke back a few tears. Neither am I a seasoned IronMan vet — if you are looking for wisdom from a battle-hardened campaigner, read Richard Wright’s excellent article here: […]

  11. Green says:

    Excellent article, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s