Building up to my 2nd attempt at the half ironman distance (1.9km swim: 90km bike: 21km run) I was very excited. I truly believe this longer format of triathlon racing is where my strengths as a professional athlete lie. The race becomes more of a mental challenge for each athlete rather than just a physical battle. I will admit I had forgotten just how challenging it is to race at such a high intensity for over 4hours, something I am now once again acutely aware of as I struggle to perform basic domestic activities. We are all in a little discomfort this morning from the last brave soul to cross the finish line to the 1st (Donovan Van Gelder) but I can guarantee you each and every one of us awoke with a smile on our face.
Having family in nearly every corner of the globe is something I will never take for granted. Once again I was welcomed with open arms by my aunt and her family allowing me to travel up to Durban a week prior to race day in order to settle in get acclimatized (humidity/heat rather than altitude) and have the opportunity to scout the race venue and plot my attack on this very tough and demanding course. The week leading up to the race went smoothly, beautiful warm sunny days something we were not lucky enough to have on race day. Another big thank you must go out to Gareth Harrington who not only sorted out my calf niggle but hooked me up with a pool, transport as well as accommodation in Pietermarizberg the evening before our race.
On race morning we woke to the distinct sound of rain droplets falling softly outside my window. So much for the dreaded heat and humidity I had been mentally preparing for, it was freezing! Car packed and we were off to Midmar dam for another awesome day of racing along the midlands meander. The race was held at Midmar dam about an hours drive inland from Durban and surprisingly just over 1000m above sea level. A one lap 1.9km swim lap, 4 x 22.5km bike loop (90km) and 2 x 10.5km run loop (21km) lay ahead of each athlete who had opted for the ULTRA event. A shorter sprint event was held in the morning prior to the start of the main race to ensure everyone who was willing to participate had an opportunity to join in on the action.
After a slightly delayed start to the ultra race due to poor visibility caused by thick midlands fog which had settled over the Midmar dam we were off and soon I found myself down in about 20th position fighting to find my stroke. Either my warm up had not done its job or the period of time between my warm up and the race start was a little long and my muscles had cooled down but either way the first 200-300m was a real struggle. Once my arms had warmed up for the 2nd time I managed to move myself up into the top 10 alongside Michael Cannon and Gerhard De Bruin. Jeff Norton was racing as part of team GU and had opened up a pretty sizeable gap but I was happy to find myself up front amongst the favourites in the individual race. The swim was a 1.9km clockwise triangle and after rounding the first big bouy, about 500m into the swim, I was feeling very comfortable and felt happy with the pace we were swimming. Exiting the water all of the major players in the individual race were in a group no more than 10seconds apart. Myself, Gerhard De Bruin, Michael Cannon and Donovan Van Gelder all entered T1 together. With this race being the longer format of triathlon there is less emphasis on having a fast transition but rather on ensuring that you have everything in order for the following leg of the race. Racing over 4hours requires a very specific nutritional strategy, get this wrong and no matter how well you have prepared you will begin to crumble after 2-3hours of intense work.
Exiting T1 I was determined not to worry if the stronger riders went out hard and I was not able to stay with them, but thankfully it was a very steady pace and after a few attacks we all settled down into a relatively comfortable pace. Donovan was clearly the strongest cyclist so I was happy to let him dictate the pace and conserve my energy for later in the race. This was a non-draft legal race meaning there must be a 7m gap to the rider in-front of you to ensure no rider gets the advantage of saving energy by sitting in a fellow competitors slipstream. Pro cyclists call this the test of truth and I couldn't agree more, time trialing leaves no room to hide and if you are a weak cyclist you will soon find yourself out of contention for overall honors. On lap 1 of the cycle all the riders were well regulated by the marshals but by the time we were on lap 2 and 3 all of the ultra competitors were out on the bike leg of the race. I really enjoyed this race and thought it was run very professionally but if I have one complaint it is that road closure to vehicles is a must. Due to the fact that we were doing laps on the bike we were already having to deal with slower riders being caught, add vehicle congestion to the mix and it is a recipe for disaster. A number of times I found myself having to overtake cars/trucks against oncoming traffic, this is not only extremely dangerous but also forces me to come out of my TT position, brake, check there are no vehicles coming in the opposite direction and then ounce again accelerate losing valuable time to the competitors up front. A number of fellow competitors also began using the cars to draft behind. I don't think this made a significant change up front in the race, Donovan was clearly the strongest rider on the day and deserved to come off the bike first so all is well which ends well. I was able to hang in there with Donovan and Gerhard for about 50-60km and then the pace combined with a few congestion issues began to take their toll on me. My lack of experience at this distance began to tell in the final lap, my focus and my form were out of sync and it took everything I had to stay composed and stay positive telling myself the run (my favourite discipline) was still ahead of us.
Coming off the bike and into T2 I got the splits to my competitors ahead, Donovan had nearly 4minutes on me and Gerhard had just under 2minutes. In hind sight I should be relatively happy with this performance on the bike. A 2h15 (Avg 40km/h) bike split is not something anyone should be disappointed with especially on a very tough and demanding course with a few variables thrown into the mix as mentioned before. However I was still well behind the race leader and although I always back myself on the run, closing down 4minutes to a seasoned professional was something even I knew was very unlikely. Beginning the run my legs felt great, light and responsive something I was not expecting but soon my feet began going numb. I am not sure if this is caused by the lack of training in my racers or the lack of blood flow due to my muscles constricting the arteries taking blood to my feet but either way it was very uncomfortable and knowing I would have to run this way for the next 16km I was not looking forward to it! The run course was 2 out and back laps of 10.5km so it gave each competitor the opportunity to assess their competitors running in the opposite direction. After passing Donovan near the first turn around I could see he was running well and knew my chances of catching him were all but gone unless he had a major break down. Gerhard however looked rather laboured in his running style and I was convinced I could catch him and at least salvage a 2nd on the day. At the 12km point I caught and passed Gerhard but the strains of this long day were beginning to tell on my stomach and the discomfort was growing with every stride. At the final turn around point I got the opportunity to see how much time I had put into 3rd position and although I had opened a gap he was not giving up just yet. On one of the descents my stomach really began to hurt and I knew I was not going to be able to finish this run without finding a bathroom first. To my great satisfaction there was a toilet with about 2km to go, I ran in did my business and came sprinting out not sure if I was now in 2nd/3rd position. I ran hard until I could see that I was still in 2nd position and looking back I couldn't see 3rd so I slowed a little and tried to find a rhythm again. Running down towards the finish line I could see my family on the side lines all with cameras in hand ready to capture the final few moments of the race. little to my knowledge Gerhard had been working hard over the last few kilometers and with 3-400m to go my cousin shouted "careful!" I am pretty sure "RUN" would have worked better but as I turned around I got the picture, Gerhard was about 5meters behind me and running hard, without the warning from my cousin I am sure he would have past me to take 2nd position. I put in a quick surge and crossed the finish line just 2sec ahead of him. Just a couple of weeks prior the shoe was on the other foot with me catching Gerhard only to lose in a sprint finish so to get one over him was a good feeling. Disaster avoided there are many positives I can take from this race. I am only 23 and this was just my second ever attempt at this distance so to be performing relatively well already I can see a bright future for myself in Ironman racing. A big congrats to Donovan van Gelder for showing us youngsters how it's done!