medal1The year was 2011, and I had entered IronmanSouthAfrica with the hopes of winning my age category. Fate changed that. Fate also taught me about another Ironman, one I never knew existed.

4 Weeks before race day, I decided to scratch due to a foot injury. However, a chance phone call to my CEO’s PA changed that decision. You see, the CEO was competing in his first ever Ironman, and in passing conversation it emerged that she was very concerned about him finishing. The two of us decided upon a win/win solution. I would get to earn another Ironman medal without the pressure of competing on an injury, and Andrew would get a seasoned veteran of the race to hold his hand as it were, and make sure that we got to the finish line in one piece. A quick call to a very happy Andrew, and the deal was sealed. “It’s going to be slow, I’m very under-cooked” he said. “I’m counting on it” was my reply.

Let me say this; how an incredibly busy, hands-on CEO of an international Real Estate company, who is on and off planes,  in and out of meetings, who makes time for a busy family, and yet still manages to fit in any training for an Ironman event is beyond me. An average day that starts at 4am, and ends at 11pm is not the ideal format for success on an Ironman course. Particularly for a man who did none of the 3 disciplines before the 20 odd months prior to the race. Yet Andrew did, and still does it, and has the drive to match. Respect. I know we all struggle to fit in the required training, but I think that for some it is just WAY harder. Its no secret that Ironman success is predominately about how much time you have to train. Sure, talent plays a part, but many of the top age groupers are successful because they don’t have a full time job, or they have a job that allows them time to train. They also have time for the important discipline called rest.

0019_01287My run up to the race was extremely different to any other I have done. No worries about distance, speed work, taper, diet, nor anything else. No pressure at all. I was 4kg heavier than usual, and in much worse condition. It was pretty cool to listen to some of the serious athletes and giggle at their replies to the prediction question. There are not many who you speak to the week before who will admit they are going for a win or a podium. They are full of excuses before the race even starts, and they are ‘just doing it’ not actually ‘racing’. I learned some lessons there, because it sounded all too familiar. The registration was fun, I was smiling and joking and already experiencing a vibe unlike any I’d felt before. To anyone who asked for my predictions I said I was hoping to break 15 hours, knowing that they were looking at me through the same eyes I had looked at the above mentioned ‘tjops’  🙂

Bike racking was bliss. Very little to do. I planned to have one juice bottle on my bike and no other nutrition. I figured that for the first time in my triathlon career I would  make sole use of what was provided along the course.

The plan was to meet Andrew on the side of the swim start. Whose stupid idea was that anyway? 2000 Athletes all with caps and goggles on and wearing wet-suits. Errm, maybe I had been a little lackadaisical. The cannon boomed and the wave surged forward. Well actually at the back it’s more of a creep than a surge. I reckoned I would let all the athletes pass me as I turned and faced them, hoping to spot Andrew. No Andrew. New plan needed. I felt a little panic creep in.

I decided that I would sprint the first lap of the swim to attempt to gain ground (or is that water?), and then I would wait on the beach and hopefully see Andrew as he ran back into the water for the second lap. I wasn’t prepared for the solid wall of swimmers that I now needed to swim through. I was so accustomed to 3 or 4 deep around the bouys, and a resulting quick turn. What I had to negotiate around the bouys was a pack of swimmers 30 to 40 deep. I made the decision to swim right on the outside of the wave so as to avoid any resistance. I looked at my stopwatch as I ran out of the water onto the beach for the first time, 28 minutes. I had gained a lot of water, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be in front of me. When I reached the water’s edge again to re-enter, I stopped and turned around to see all the athletes coming past, waiting for Andrew. To say the reaction from the crowd on the beach was comical was an understatement. People screamed at me to go, as if I might not realize I still had another lap. Others were very concerned and asked if I was OK. Some who recognized me asked what the hell I was doing. I explained that I was looking for Andrew, and described his wet suit. Before long I had the crowd playing along. Shouting “is that Andrew?”, at every man in a black wet-suit who looked vaguely similar to my description of Andrew.  15 Minutes waiting felt like an age. I was incredibly relieved when I saw Andrew run towards me, and judging by the look on his face, so was he. But he was bang on target to his predictions. Good man!

We set off for the second lap. For the first time I got to feel what it’s like to be a part of a mass participation event as a part of the real race. And by ‘real’ I mean the average participant who makes up the race. This is what an Ironman is about. Nobody jostling for position, nobody pulling at my ankles, nobody trying to beat me to the bouy. Just a whole shoal of swimmers with a common goal. Move forward. Together.

Swimming backstroke, taking in the views, actually feeling the water and the sea swells, and concentrating on everybody else’s movement and not my own was an amazing experience. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was watching the race from within the race. What an incredible gift. I think I smiled the whole day.

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And just like that, 3.8km of swimming was over and we were walking through the showers and into the transition. Time to take it all in, fabulous. I seem to remember that we were in the transition for more than 15 minutes. Andrew had packed for any and all eventuality. He emerged after a bathroom break in a complete change of clothing, smothered in sunscreen, and with enough nutrition to feed a small triathlon team. I got to sit and watch, to engage with other athletes and feel their trepidation for the cycle leg. The camaraderie was truly something special. I marveled at how prepared Andrew was. He had left nothing to chance. A very good way to approach your novice Ironman. Time is not the objective.

We set off at a conservative pace, maybe still a little too fast. I had forsaken my ‘sperm’ helmet for my normal one, and felt more like a spectator in the race than an athlete. Conscious of drafting regulations and a penalty for Andrew, I spent the cycle moving around him and staying as close as I dared, making sure he gained no advantage from my slipstream on the odd occasion I found myself in front of him. I had decided that I would help as much as possible without aiding him physically at all. He was going to earn his medal all by himself. The way it should be.

For those who are not familiar with the front of the race, here is some insight:

The average top 100 competitor spends 8-10 Hours on the course without uttering a single word to another  athlete. No smiles, no acknowledgements. No thank you’s. Should you greet them, say hi, ask how they’re doing or give some encouragement, the result…you might as well not exist. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just different,perhaps not competitive enough, but for me, engaging with others assists me. My Ironman PB is a 9:17 and 16th position overall. I engaged the whole time during that race, as much as I could. It makes the race go by faster, and the experience is shared.

What I experienced that day with Andrew was very very different. The back three quarters of the race is an antithesis to the first quarter. Its simply the best! Everyone engages, shares jokes, shares stories, regales ailments. Andrew frequently told me to get lost, “go and talk to that lady there” he’d say. He needed some alone time, time to focus and cope. And so I did. I made a lot of friends that day. And I had a lot of fun.

On the second lap I noticed I was no longer telling him to back off the pace. We stopped at water points and got off our bikes. I ate bananas, energy bars, gels, sarmies, whatever was offered to me. And the whole time Andrew cycled on, the pace rarely changing, a solid steady average.  Me yelling out “time to drink” every 30 minutes, and passing on some advice on cadence, pace, gear changes and bike position. But by 150km it was clear that Andrew was taking major strain. The talk subsided substantially, I backed off and made some more friends, all the while watching as he gritted his teeth and pushed on.

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Not a moment too soon, and we were sitting in T2. Andrew looked at me, his face ashen, and his voice subdued, “I can’t run” he said, “my legs are finished”.

“No problem” I answered, “then we will walk until they come back”. “No way they will, we are going to have to walk the marathon. Do you think we have enough time?” said Andrew. I just grinned and replied, “oh yes they will, sooner than you think”

We set off at a walk, and not a fast walk either. 10 Minutes later we tried the first slow jog. I suggested just a minute. Next came 2 minutes, then three. Andrew started smiling a little. For most of the run we averaged a 5-10 minute run with a 2-5 minute walk in between. A steady rhythm. I talked a lot to Andrew that day. We discussed many things (well actually I discussed and he grunted) It proved to be the longest job interview in history. I started a new position at the company the month after Ironman. I learned that day that if your CEO can’t physically talk back, your chances of getting what you want are far higher 😉

I had started the run with both a cap and sunglasses. It’s what I was used to. I dumped them after the first lap. Neither were needed. It was already getting dark. I was excited to use those glow-sticks I’d always seen but never been given. Andrew pushed on with the tenacity of a man determined to reach the red carpet no matter what. I saw Andrew delve deep, deep into that dark place. That place every Ironman athlete gets to know, and of which we speak little. That place that reveals character. And that day I witnessed the character that made it obvious to me how this man had achieved extraordinary successes in all facets of his life. With every step it became more and more of a privilege for me to be sharing this journey. This maiden Ironman voyage.

Each timing mat that we crossed became a small victory. A little signal to all those following our progress. We are getting closer. We are nearing our goal. I made sure Andrew crossed each one in front of me. This was his race, not mine.

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The last lap of the run was agony for Andrew. I admired his perseverance  We had said nothing about a projected time, and had decided to take the day as it unfolded. What would be, would be. But for the first time, and with 10km to go, we worked out splits and I said what was on both of our minds. “If we keep going at this pace we will definitely break 15 hours”. I saw Andrew’s jaw tighten, resolve accumulating, and he broke into a jog again. I was grateful I’d decided to run in normal training shoes. Not racing flats. My legs hurt. I ran on ahead from time to time, or back along the route to chat with athletes I knew. I needed to stretch my legs out a bit. But that was the only pain I felt on the day. I guess that’s what made it so enjoyable for me. Andrew was telling me how grateful he was to me for sacrificing my day for him. I tried to impress upon him how grateful I was to him for allowing me to share in his day. True synergy. I didn’t need to push him much, he pushed himself. All he needed was encouragement and some guidance.

The last lonely leg behind the university stretched before us. Even the ‘run one lamppost, walk two’, became a massive effort. At times the only sounds were our shoes on the tarred road. The crowds had thinned, but those who remained yelled encouragement. The friends we’d made had either fallen back or had surged ahead. The loud Canadian, Brent, who had given us many laughs and who had been with us for a big portion of the run had stopped a while back to recover. And then we saw the lights from the finish line….

0019_39568I looked at Andrew’s face. The pain that had been etched there had disappeared, his jawline softened, his eyes lit up. And the next moment we were running, yes running, down the red carpet. Andrew’s daughter running next to him. We were celebrating! He beat me, by a second. An important second.

I heard Paul Kaye on the mic, Welcoming Andrew by name…YOU…ARE…AN..IRONMAAAAAN!!! A high-five, a hug from Andrew, and eyes that said everything they needed to say.

And then Andrew’s wife was hugging me over the fence, her tears of relief and gratitude mixing with the sweat on my cheek. That is what an Ironman is about. It’s a shared journey.

Its not always about time, 14:43 with an average heart rate of 109 beats per minute for the race. No, it wasn’t about that, for once not about the numbers. The athletes that deserve the greatest amount of respect are those like Andrew, one of the 1500 or so athletes like him that day. It was a long day. A hard day. They overcame huge obstacles to cross the finish line.

It was about a finisher’s medal I count as one of my proudest memories. A friend who gave me a reciprocal gift.  A day nobody can ever take away. A mutual bond that is commonly understood. Respect for a man who dug as deep as any can. My CEO.

It is no secret that in helping another we receive. I was a blessed recipient that day.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, I hope you enjoyed the read. 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 🙂

Ironman, the shared experience.

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How to race 70.3 SouthAfrica (Buffalo City)

20x30-IBES0039East London has been a happy hunting ground for me in the past, with a couple of age group wins, and a best result of 11th overall in the race. It is because the race is ideally suited to the fourth discipline of an endurance triathlon; mental discipline and strength.

If you can race to your strengths, ignore the rest of the field, and hold back on the first half of the bike, to the point that you feel that you might be making a horrendous mistake, you are likely to race your personal best on race day.

Just like any other major triathlon, Buffalo City 70.3 with its 3000 entrants will always make even the most seasoned triathlete weak at the knees early on race day. What follows is a take on how to approach the race to ensure not only your fastest possible time on the day, but also a race that will hopefully be one of the most enjoyable days you could experience.

Race day dawns, you’ve swallowed down a breakfast two hours before the start, you’re well hydrated, and you make your way down to the beach. Everyone is worried about the weather, and you have been following hourly updates for the past 3 days. What you now realize is that there was absolutely no point in that exercise. All it did was get you uptight, and for what?  Here it is…whatever ‘it’ is…same for all, and not a thing you can do about it!

Don’t forget to apply anti-chafe on the places under your wetsuit where you tend to chafe, have an energy gel 20 mins before the start, and I always like to put my goggles on under my swim cap.  Losing your goggles in the bunfight that signals the start of the race is no fun at all.

A rolling start is a perfectly civilized way to get your day started, but make sure that you start in an appropriate position. There is absolutely no point in adding extra pressure by starting with faster swimmers where you feel like you’re being left behind throughout the swim.

Ideally you want to be with swimmers who you can slipstream. I like to swim on the right of a bunch (as I breathe predominately to the left, and like to look over the swimmers, which helps me to sight and swim straight). Starting in the middle of the pack (even in a rolling start) is always going to be stressful and either athletes will be swimming over you, or you will be swimming over other athletes. Regular sighting to the front will make sure that you swim the straightest line possible.

East London seems to deliver cold water on race day (I have no idea why) but I always find that the less I think about it, and instead concentrate on my stroke, breathing and swimming on the feet of a slightly stronger swimmer who is swimming straight, the less I feel it.  It’s normally only cold for the first 200m anyway.

The swim is a great time to try to relax, the first 300m or so will always be an adrenalin frenzy and might take your breath away, so expect that.  Even the pros feel that on race day, it’s perfectly normal.  So the sooner you can consciously deepen your breathing, stretch out on your stroke and find a rhythm, the better.  Unless you are completing for a podium place, the swim is about pacing yourself to ensure you leave the wet stuff behind with plenty of gas in the tank!

Take in the experience, don’t wish it away too quickly. You’re privileged, you’ve worked hard to get there, and many wish they could be you. Absorb all of it.

As I exit, always like to wash my face off under the showers, and get the sand off my feet. Take your time to do so, it’s worth it. The pros will sprint up the steep little hill from the swim exit to the transition.  Resist that urge!  Walk up and catch your breath.  This particular half ironman is all about how fresh you can feel once you’ve completed the bike course.  The race is all about second lap of the run.  The more you have held back, and the more disciplined you can be about pacing yourself, the better your run will be, and ultimately, the more athletes you will pass on that last lap of the run.  Trust me on that one!

Because there are so many athletes, and its a rolling start, it is impossible to gauge how you are doing overall. As an age grouper completing for the first 3 positions I found this hard, but have always successfully raced this triathlon by focusing on my own race, my own pace, and my own strategy.  It has worked for me, and the results prove that. Race yourself, nobody else.

Find your bike transition bag, and take enough time in the transition to make sure you have everything you need.  I normally use socks for a half IM, favoring comfort over the 20secs I lose by putting them on.  Hopefully you will have practiced your transitions well before race day.  It is very important to use the first 10km on the bike to get your heart rate down.  Settle into a rhythm.  I like to take a bottle of water from the first water point to spray over my trisuit to wash off the salt, and will always carry whatever I need on the bike with me.  However, if your goal is a finish and not a win, make use of the aid stations. Take the time to say thanks, say hi to the athletes that pass you or that you pass.    Little things, but they tend to lift me, and help me to focus on positives.20x30-IBEC0191

Now, here’s the key to Buffalo City…. Set your cycle computer onto the time setting. NO average speed, NO current speed.

If you can set it on Heart rate, even better. It’s no secret that the bike course is hilly. I have seen so many really strong bikers think that they can hammer the bike, and that they will do well as a result. All of those athletes (bar none) have found out the hard way that that strategy doesn’t work! As a strong cyclist the aim is to use that strength to complete the course with lots of gas still in the tank. I will say it again…this race is about how good you can feel once you’ve climbed off your bike.  Therefore, I will always set my computer on the heart rate setting and will keep my HR between 150 and 155, my max on the bike is 171. I do this regardless of who passes me, how slow I am going, how much I need to slow down to keep the HR low.  And it always works.  I love to make a mental note of all the athletes that pass me, and there are always many. I cannot tell you how good it feels to pass them all again on the run, or towards the end of the bike.

So sit up on the longer climbs, breathe deeply, spend time in your small blade. Especially on the way out to the turnaround. It will all pay dividends. Spend a moment to savor how cool it is to be cycling on a National Freeway!

You start the race with a full box of matches, and each time you over exert or push your heart rate too high, you burn a match… keep your box as full as possible.

If you must, put the hammer down a little on the way back, you have been disciplined so enjoy the downs, but… The last climb back into town is the perfect time to sit up again, back off slightly and let your legs spin a little.  Try to recover a little so that when your legs touch the ground again they don’t want to buckle under you.

Transition 2 is the same as the first one.  Take the time you need without dilly dallying.  Take your time over the first 3-4 km of the run, ease into your running style, walk early if you need to.  Set small goals for yourself like 2min walk, 2 min jog. Your running legs will come back. Give them some time, and don’t stress.

Finishline 70.3

Finishline 70.3

There is only one big climb each lap, mentally prepare yourself to run slowly or walk up the hill.  I find that I always have a better overall run split if I take those hills slowly, and work the flats and downs hard, than if I attack the hills hard.

There is no shame in planning to walk Bunkers before you even start the race. The time you will lose you will make up by not depleting your reserves.

When you pass the athletes you recognize because they powered passed you on the hills on the bike course, resist the urge to say something like “hey bro, you smashed the bike…well done..hang tough, you’ll get to the finish before cutoff for sure!”  Nobody likes a smartarse!

Glowing inside…is enough.

From the 15km mark, the run becomes a mind over matter exercise. no matter how much you have held back. Keep yourself cool. Stay hydrated. Keep smiling, it helps.

Before my first endurance race I was given some really awesome advice that I’ve never forgotten, ‘hold back until you see the finish line at the end of the red carpet’.  It’s all about your ability to pace yourself, not get swept up in the emotion of the day, and the competition with the other athletes on the course.  Aim to finish the race with something left.  What I can promise is that there won’t be…but you will look back at a really fantastic race, and you have the best opportunity to finish strong. Good luck, and most importantly, have fun!