Ironman South Africa – a sprint finish for the podium!

Ironman South Africa has been a “bucket list” race for me, for a number of reasons:

rob4kona – I grew up in South Africa, but I’ve never raced there
– My parents would be able to see me race an Ironman for the first time
– My brother-in-law Grant and I have shared many adventures since we were “young”, so it would have special meaning to take part in an Ironman with him.
– It would be awesome to stay in a friendly home environment, catered by sister Nikki!
– It’s a beautiful course (even more so this year with the new bike course).

The Short Version:
09:53, 3rd place M35-39 (that means a kona slot too), 29th overall. Pretty happy with the result considering relatively low training volume
Swim 1:03  (under-performed but still a PR). 23rd in AG, 176th overall
T1: uneventful besides passing 38 people, 5 of whom were in my AG. Came out of T2 in 16th
Bike 5:19  342 TSS, .80 IF, 236W NP, 215 AP, VI 1.1, Pw:HR -1.98%, 6000ft elevation gain (there were some nice fast downhills but I descended like a bit of a chicken). Worked my way up to start the run 32nd overall, 4th in AG. Here is my bike data
Run 3:24 (not my best time but I was happy with that considering the tougher than average bike course, and strong wind during the run). Finished 29th overall, 3rd in AG. Here is my run data.
Sprint finish to take 3rd place! my fastest mile of the day was mile 26 (6:30) with the last half mile @ 5:44/mile… That made the day super exciting.

– It was a tight race in M35-39 with only 90 seconds between 2nd and 4th
– Fantastic course, amazing people, superb event organization
– as with all Ironman races, I learned something new. This time I finally nailed my pre-race nutrition (i.e. in the week leading up to race day, and the 2 days prior)
– St Croix 70.3 will now be a “pressure-free” race and I can focus on having fun!
– Full details and pics in “long version” below!

The Long Version:
After IM Los Cabos in 2013, I decided to not race another early season Ironman again. I had a great race in Cabo but the long training days over the dark/cold winter are really tough; it’s just a lot easier getting big training done in the daylight hours of summer. However, after Kona in October, I decided that I would like to race IMSA in 2014, since I may not get the opportunity to do so again soon. The race seldom sells out, so I was pretty relaxed about getting my entry in. The day I decided to pull the trigger, the event sold out! Appraently the fact that it was the 10th anniversary made it that much more appealing to everyone! I put my name on the waitlist, but honestly didn’t think I’d get a place. A few weeks later I received the confirmation that I was in! I was already entered for St Croix 70.3 on May 4th, so after talking through it with Coach Coady, the plan was basically to do IMSA on half-ironman training, with a 2 week IM specific block before IMSA.

From Dec 1st through April 1st, I only averaged 14.5 hours per week (low for me), with two bigger 25+ hour weeks in March (big for me). Everything was high quality with very little “junk” in there. Most of December and January would be focused on improving my swim, and just maintaining good bike and run fitness. I also took a really long time to get back into running shape after Kona. In fact it wasn’t until February that I saw some vaguely decent numbers coming back (by decent I mean pace vs HR for specific efforts). So February and March were solid training months, getting back my form just in time for two high volume, high quality training weeks (mostly run bike with a little bit of swimming) as my build for IMSA.

total volume leading up to IMSA

total volume per week leading up to IMSA

If you exclude swimming from my weekly volume, you can really see I did low volume (but very high quality) for most of winter. Most of it was under 10 hours, but I ramped it up for the critical IM build phase.

bike-run only

With 3 weeks out I did my single race rehearsal, which was one of my best race rehearsals to date:

swim: 2.4 miles in 55 mins (pool, no wetsuit, feeling very easy)
bike: 3:45 @ 238 watts NP (feeling comfortable)
run: 8 miles @ 7:00 / mile (feeling “easy”)

With the return of my form, my race confidence also returned. I was now looking forward to race day, and I knew that I had done enough work to race for a chance at a kona slot.

PMC sidebar: For those that train with power and are familiar with TSS/ CTL etc. here is my Training Peaks performance management chart. Peak CTL 2 weeks out was 144. My peak before kona was 170, but that was 3 weeks out. However, my CTL with 2 weeks to go was also around 144. My main take away from that data is that it’s critical to time your taper correctly, taking into account your ability to recover, and how fast you lose fitness. There is a trade off during the taper, where you are gaining freshness but losing fitness at the same time. You want to arrive on race day being fresh enough, but without losing too much fitness. I think we can still fine tune the taper a little bit, as I was feeling “like superman” on April 1st.

CTL - all

I flew out to South Africa on Sunday evening, a week before race day. 38 hours and 3 flight connections later I landed in Port Elizabeth. Jet lag was going to be an issue, so I had started getting into the new time zone on the plane, by taking melatonin at my “new” bedtime, followed by benadryl to keep me sleeping. I slept sporadically on the plane trips, but it must have been ok quality wise, since I arrived feeling quite fresh.

My parents met me at Johannesburg airport and flew down to PE with me. It was really great to see them again (I’d last seen them 18 months ago).

With my dad at the Boardwalk

With my dad at the Boardwalk

My sister Nikki met us all at PE airport and whisked us back home to get settled. It was great to see Grant and my two nephews (Ben and Caleb) again, and after some rigorous unpacking Grant and I headed off for a quick bike ride. I felt amazingly good, as I said before “like superman”. The watts were falling from heaven without much effort at all. This was a good sign, although I always get a little worried when I feel so good and race day is still 4 days away – I need to be feeling like that ON race day! I knew that I had to do just enough training to “keep the rust off” without building any more fatigue. We did a quick swim that night then back home for dinner.

feeling like superman

feeling like superman

Talking about dinner, I have been fine tuning my race-week nutrition, and this was my first test during an actual race week. Basically I would eat high fat low carb from one week out, then boost the carbs on Friday, eat normally Saturday, race Sunday. Most meals were made up of stuff like bacon, eggs, avocado, and some veggies. More details on that below, but I feel like I’ve nailed the protocol and will repeat it for future ironman races.

On Thursday we went to register. I took a bit longer because I had to stand in the “internationals” line and Grant could go in the “locals” line. I had to sign an extra credit card form, which would serve as payment should they have to take me to hospital during the race, and avoid being taken to a state hospital (which you really do not want to happen in SA). I was a little reluctant to put all my CC details on a piece of paper, but I’d rather be defrauded than end up in a state hospital!

Registration done!

Registration done!

On Friday, I did a 10 min easy run followed by 3 mins @ VO2Max pace (a bit faster than 5K pace). This in theory boosts the uptake of glycogen into the muscles once you start eating carbs again. I followed this workout immediately with a high-glycemic carb breakfast (waffles and syrup, yeah baby!), and then 50g high GI carbohydrate per hour for the remainder of the day. High GI is good in this case, you DO want an insulin spike because insulin is a storage hormone that is needed for glycogen to be effectively stored in your muscles. It’s important to not eat too much at once, and spread it out at about 50g/hour. To make it easy, I made 900g of white rice (cooked weight), and mixed that with some honey, cinnamon and condensed milk. I would then eat 200g of that per hour until it was done (5-6 hours). I also ate some sweet potato for lunch, a few slices of pizza and some oatmeal for dinner.

Saturday was back to normal, but relatively high carb eating. Oatmeal breakfast, hake (white fish), white rice and sweet potato for lunch, sweet potato mid pm snack and a large bowl of oatmeal for dinner. I also took 2 scoops of Osmo pre-load.
I went to sleep at 8:30pm and slept soundly until 11:30pm. After that I was lying awake the rest of the night. I decided to get up at 3am and eat breakfast (small bowl of white rice mixed with ensure) so it had time to “pass through” by morning time. Grant was awake too, so there there 2 of us were, foam rolling in the lounge at 3am! I finally fell asleep at about 4am, only to wake up to my alarm 30 minutes later. Well, at least I got a good night’s sleep on Friday night!

Race Day

All the bags were packed, so after a quick bathroom visit I put on my tri suit, wetsuit (bottom half only), put some sunscreen on and then we jumped in the car, chauffer driven by my sister Nikki and my Dad to the start. Grant and I quickly pumped our tires, I put my nutrition on my bike and then we got into the water for a quick practice swim. After that we got out, said hi and bye to my folks, Nikki and and the boys, before getting into the “wave 2 start chute” behind the pros on the beach.

 

ready to rock n roll!

ready to rock n roll!

We were about 3 rows back, on the right hand side, ready to rock and roll! We then spotted the first cheater of the day. There was a short guy with a beard in the front row, wearing a blue seventy helix with floatation pads stuffed down the side of his legs! The other guys were joking with me that I clearly bought the “non-premium” helix 😉 Unfortunately there is no way to identify someone on the swim, so I assume he just got away with it…

Swim (1:03:02)

With 1 minute to go, I adjusted my cap and it tore down the middle. Fortunately there was a referee standing on the beach and he was able to give me a new one with 30 seconds to spare. Half a minute later, BOOM! the canon was fired and we were off… I ran down the beach and towards the right, diving under the waves and started to swim. I started off strong but steady, and didn’t have very much contact until the first turn, where I had some but not as much as I’ve had in the past. I found a set of feet and just settled in behind him. He seemed to be sighting well, so after a while I just put my head down and followed him. We were swimming right of the main group, maybe a little further than we needed to, but I took the option of just staying on his feet.

Screenshot 2014-04-14 at 4.11.33 PM

I’m in there somewhere on the right (wide turn)

At the half way turn, he followed the main bunch, who were now swimming too far to the right. Grant and I had worked out the sighting during the week, and figured out that we need to aim straight for the radisson hotel on the way back. These guys were swimming far to the right of that, so I decided to leave the group (and the good feet!) in favor of swimming straight. It turned out to be a good decision, as I made some ground on that group of swimmers. I found a new set of feet and followed him most of the way back. We rounded the final buoy and started the final 300m back to shore. As we were getting close, I saw some swell approaching and decided to catch a wave in. My intentions were great, however my foot and calf cramped up as the wave got to me, so instead of catching a ride I got pummeled underwater – LOL. Once out, there was a little run up the beach, and up some stairs, under the arch where the timing mat was. I saw the clock reading 1:03, which although was much slower than I would have liked, was a lot better than I’ve seen in the past. By the way, Grant does virtually no swim training and came out 30 seconds behind me… damn that’s annoying! 😉

I grabbed my bike bag off the rack, headed into the change tent, stripped the wetsuit and put on my helmet, then started the fairly long run to the bike racks. I passed quite a lot of guys who were running in their bike shoes (I was still barefoot). It turns out I actually passed 38 people in T1! That’s free time! After a rather long run around to the bike racks, I grabbed my bike and headed to the mount line. As I jumped on, I heard something fall to the ground. Fearing it was some part of my bike, I looked back and saw my digital pressure gauge lying on the ground. For some reason I had left it in my shoe! Oh well I wasn’t about to go back for it now…

Bike

I saw Nikki as I rode out of T2, she said I was 17th in my AG coming out of the swim. This would help me track my place as I progressed through the field on the bike. As planned, I started off riding easy, allowing me to warm up and get the blood flowing into the legs.

captain t1

 

Shortly after the start, it’s pretty much a gradual uphill for 7 miles, where I kept the power on the higher end of my race pace, but not too high (for me, this meant around 250 watts). After the climbing there is a long fast downhill where I was hitting 42 mph (68 kph) – the wind becomes slightly gusty and side-on half way down this hill, and my bike was shaking around a bit. Holding on for dear life, I made it down but made a mental note to go a bit slower on lap 2. After a long fast rolling section with a tailwind, we turned right into the new hilly section of the course. The climbs were pretty manageable, and I had to really hold myself back; my power was reading above 300w and I was trying to stay at around 280w. Several bikers flew past me, stomping up the hill like their lives depended on it. I had to be really self controlled here and not give in to ego. In most Ironman races outside of kona, I’m usually the one doing most of the overtaking, and this time there were quite a few guys riding past me, fast. I managed to keep my composure and ride my own race, sticking to the plan I had trained to. After the hills, there were some long fast downhills, where I think I lost quite a bit of time due to riding like a chicken. There was one hill after Colleen Glen, where it’s pretty easy to get up to 45 mph / 70 kph, but the catch is that there are two speed bumps half way down! I took them at about 38 mph but there were guys flying past me over these things… kudos to them, I really need to grow a pair!

Going all the way down you get to the farthest end of the bike course, with amazing views of the maitland sand dune and the Indian ocean. The scenery truly is spectacular! One more climb, followed by another fast downhill on rough road surface, and you get to to a long coastal stretch back home, on this day straight into a headwind (easterly wind, unusual for this time of year). It was a long grind, with great views, all the way back to transition and the start of lap 2. I knew I was on track for a slower time than expected, so any time goals were immediately discarded and I began to focus on the numbers that matter.

Ironman South Africa 2014 from Bigshot Media on Vimeo.

It was time for a quick check on nutrition. I had already gone through 1500 calories in 2.5 hours, on the upper end of my intake range. Based on my metabolic testing I knew I was burning 800-900 carbs/hour at this pace, but only taking in 550-600. I could feel that I was at the max of my intake ability (slight feeling of “fullness”), so I decided to hold back for 40 minutes and only take in water. I also took a look at my TSS (if you don’t ride with a power meter, this won’t mean anything to you). In general I would aim for a TSS of around 300 for an IM bike split, maybe a little more because I’m able to take in a higher than average number of calories. However after lap 1 my TSS was reading 170, which was way more than it should have been. So in addition to backing off the nutrition for a bit, I decided to dial it back on the bike for a while. I focused on keeping RPE (perceived exertion) at around 4/10 creeping up to 5/10 on the hills, and I took every single opportunity to coast where I could, over 28 mph. The wind had picked up on lap 2, and I was even more cautious on the downhills. Guys would get about 60-70 seconds ahead of me on the downhills, but I kept on telling myself that I wouldn’t be able to run with a broken arm! It was a huge relief to get to the bottom of Maitland hill – I knew I’d get home in one piece from there without wiping out. The downhills were done, but I was faced with the final menace – 50km of riding into a heavy headwind. I focused on keeping my watts steady, I didn’t push too hard, and just tried to conserve as much energy as possible. My watts were still too high, but I was just doing what I needed to do in order to move forward!

At this stage I wasn’t sure how I was placed, but I knew I was doing ok since I had passed a few pro men, and then rode past Natascha Badmann who was struggling with her small body into the wind. I focused on getting the last of my fuel in, with the marathon now within sight I had to be prepared and ready to run well. I knew I had biked a little too hard, and that I would be at risk of glycogen depletion on the run if I didn’t slow down and eat more.

As we drew near to T2, I saw a few of the male pros on their first lap of the run. I didn’t see any age groupers, but I knew there will still some ahead of me. Despite riding easier, my TSS was still really high, now almost at 350. I knew that I’d need to start running on the conservative side in order to finish strong. I entered T2, grabbed my run bag, put on my socks and shoes, grabbed my bottle (frozen coke), sunglasses, garmin and cap and headed out on the start of the marathon.

Run

I started off at what felt like a very easy pace. I was aiming for 7:15-7:30 / mile, so I was surprised when I glanced down at my garmin and saw 6:55 / mile. I knew this was too fast, so I eased up. When I looked down again I was at 6:40 / mile! I consciously just let it flow and ran as easily as I comfortably could, but I still went through mile 1 in 6:52. Miles 2 and 3 were similar with 7:03 and 7:10. After that there is a bit of uphill, and no spectators, through the “university section”. I did a few miles around 7:45 before settling in to my goal pace of 07:30. At this stage I was in 4th place, but I didn’t know. I knew I was in the top 6 (there were 6 slots) but I really had no idea what place I was.
The crowd support was fantastic. It was great to see my mom and dad, Nikki, Ben, Caleb, and other friends Ron, Shara, Tam, Roy, Brian, Brendan, Neil, Louise and more! This is what it’s like racing on home turf! Halfway came by pretty quickly, then it was the next 5 miles that were a bit of a grind. 07:30 no longer felt easy, in fact 07:45 felt like hard work! I was trying to get more coke down but was just really sick of drinking. I allowed myself a few miles over 8:00/mile until I hit mile 18, when I started to dig deep. I told myself just get through the next few miles, and then you’ll just have 10K to go. I’ve done 10K hundreds of times. I told myself that I just needed to dig deep and imagine I was starting a 10K right then.

IMG-20140406-WA0004

Meantime, back in California at some ungodly hour, Michelle was checking the athlete tracker and sending updates to my family via whatsapp. She knows exactly what type of info I need, which was super useful as I ran past Nikki who told me I was in 4th place, 3 minutes behind 3rd. I tried to go a bit faster, but couldn’t manage much of an increase. Laps 19-22 were all slower than 8:00/mile and I wasn’t gaining at all. At mile 23 I threw my bike bottle away and just focused on getting my form right. Every step was a very conscious and deliberate effort to get me back into the zone. Soon things started flowing again, I was moving fast and feeling more natural. As I headed back into town, I was running strong. At this stage I was more relieved about my ability to defend 4th place, than I was on getting to 3rd. I just assumed that I would not catch him. I ran past Nikki for the final time, and she told me I was catching him. Honestly I thought she was just saying that to make me feel better, but about 30 seconds later, with 2km to go, this guys runs up behind me, looks at my number and then starts looking me up and down. I see that he has 3 bands on his wrists, meaning he’s on his final lap. I (correctly) assumed this was 3rd place who I had just  passed without knowing it. I look him in the eye and throw down the gauntlet – you up for a sprint finish? Without hesitation he says nothing and just bolts away from me. As if by magic, my heavy feet spark to life and I give chase, staying right on his heels as we make our way to the finish line. This guy was smaller than me, and I knew he would have the edge over a long distance, but that I would probably have the edge in a short sprint. As the adrenaline kicked in, staying with him seemed effortless, and I started preparing myself mentally for the right moment to make a move. I knew that if I started too early, he would outrun me. I cast my mind back to my school days as a 400m athlete, and mentally put myself back in that situation, prepared to do a 400m sprint. I blocked out the fact that I was at the end of an ironman! We ran past my Dad – I heard him shout “go, Rob, you can take him! Take him Rob!”. We went past my mom, past Brendan and past several other people that I knew. All of them were shouting my name. All fatigue evaporated and I was ready to surge. We were still about 800m out, and I could see the bridge across the road which I knew was close to the finish line. We were now flying along at about 5:30/mile, weaving in and out of the slower runners who were now on their first lap. I patiently waited, the only thing I could hear was our feet pounding the pavement in unison. I could now see the coned section of the finishing chute looming up fast as we veered right, increasing pace with every stride. We were now running under 5:00/mile as we turned the final corner before the red carpet. I felt the energy surge through me as we took the corner, I stepped wide and past him on the outside. It felt like every fiber of my being was bursting with power as I accelerated down the red carpet, not looking back until I was over the line, safely in the unexpected podium position! Huge thanks to Lionel Roye for giving me a run for my money. Afterwards I checked his results on athlinks and he’s a badass athlete (regularly in the low 9s for ironman distance). I am honored to have had the opportunity to race him. He has, however, vowed revenge in Kona where we hopefully repeat a sprint finish down Alii Drive… (although given that he beat me by 30 mins in 2013, he’s probably safe!)

HR shooting up

HR spikes from 148-168 for the fast finish

That final sprint had me amped for hours. I had a quick massage before seeing my family in the finish area. They were over the moon with excitement and there was much celebration!

outside the massage tent with nephew Caleb and my Mom

outside the massage tent with nephew Caleb and my Mom

We then went back to the sidelines to support Grant. He was still looking strong despite having some major GI issues. It was a special moment being able to greet him as he crossed the finishing line. Even though this is an individual sport, there is something incredibly unifying about having overcome the same tough day together, suffered through the pain, and reached the finish line.

grant rob finish

The next day we attended the rolldown, and I’ve got to say the IMSA organizers really made this a celebration. What usually is a rather dull formality was turned into a real high production event, with Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman/WTC, handing out a lei on stage to all Kona qualifiers. I was super stoked to meet my online friend Matteo (who raced in my AG @ IM Los Cabos and see him realize his long time dream of getting that kona slot! Congrats Matteo!


The awards banquet was superb. Great food, great atmosphere, and a super fun time!

Overall I cannot say enough good things about this race. The organizers are a level above all other IM races I’ve done outside of Kona in terms of the level of professionalism and their attention to detail. The course is spectacular (although tough), and the PE locals are super friendly and welcoming. If you are looking for a great race to do, do this one!

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3 thoughts on “Ironman South Africa – a sprint finish for the podium!

  1. What a great Race Rob!!!!!
    Congrats to you for podium and thanks to the kind words for me…
    We’ll meet in Kona next time!!!!!!!!!! Yeah!!!
    ps:I was also scared for the speed bumps taken at about 60 km/h….
    Ciao,or better aloha!!!!
    Matteo

  2. Always enjoy reading your race reports and even greater when we could be part of your race week. Was a fun and exciting week and a privilege to watch you race on race day – talk about a machine :). Sorry the wind did not play along – was hoping for a PB for you, but think it affected Grant more than you in the end. Think it was one of the toughest IMSA to date thanks to the new bike route with the easterly thrown in to top it all. It’s not called the beastly easterly for nothing!
    Last one for Grant…..hmmmm….sure his rubber arm will be twisted though to try out some of your race week nutrition ideas to see if it will sort out his stomach issues on the run.

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