It is fair to say that 12h40 did not meet my time objective for the race. I’ll own up now and say that I was shooting for 10h40. However there is always something to be learned from each race and that knowledge kept me going to the finish line. Also, 6000 miles is a long way to travel home without a finisher’s medal. If I had to have a bad race this year then I’m glad it was this one, and I hope that the lessons learned will prevent similar disasters from happening at Nice and Louisville. So let’s talk about the race, what when wrong, what went right and what I need to do in preparation in training for the next races.

Some niggling injuries had hampered my training early in the year. Fortunately they did not manifest themselves on race day, nor were they aggravated by the race. A bout of knee tendonitis prevented most of the run training in February which hampered a lot of distance work as well as the valuable brick sessions. Two short flirtations with shoulder tendonitis also curtailed the swim training a few days earlier than expected and a sudden and painful lower back problem two weeks before the race meant that the training taper was more of a complete drop off in activity two weeks out from the race. Nevertheless I arrived in Port Elizabeth in good health and as race ready as I could be. I saw Herve Faure, the sole French pro representative at CDG as I left and took the opportunity to exchange a few words with him. Unfortunately he had a problem with his ticket and I believe he had to delay his flight out by one day. Not a catastrophic event for me, but for a pro the final days preparation are planned to the Nth degree so I imagine that he was not best pleased and I was not surprised to find out that he did indeed drop out of the race somewhere during the bike course.

Upon arrival I found my digs at a great guest house and set to work assembling the bike. The next morning I went to the swim training at 8am. Being reasonably fearful of the sea, or more precisely, what may be in the sea, I only did 150meters out and back a few times working on the entry and exit. I am led to believe that the beaches here have shark nets, but I know that these things do not provide 100% guaranteed protection, and unless I’ve got 1700 other idiots in the water around me to lower the odds even further I am quite happy to stay close to the shore. Then at 10:30 I tried out 1 lap of the bike course. The 10Km long climb seemed like nothing at all. It wouldn’t even compare with our “homme mort” back home in Paris. The wind was in my face on the outbound section of the circuit but once I had completed this the wind helped me fly the second part of the course keeping the speed above 40Kmh for most of the time. I returned back to the guest house with 65Km on the clock at an average of 33Kmh. Three loops like that on race day would be fantastic. That afternoon day I visited the Addo elephant park and took a two hour trip round the park. On the way home I stopped off at the Addo Crocodile and Lion park, a much smaller establishment but very interesting nonetheless.

On Friday morning I went to register for the race and visit the Expo ad this turned out to be quite an eventful visit. The first thing I learned was that Powerbar would not be providing the race drinks as advertised since they didn’t have enough bottles in the country. So Poweraid had stepped in. I was quite perturbed by this news and rightly so as it turned out. The poweraid mix was much sweeter and harder to digest on the bike and I certainly could have used some training time to adapt to this. I then visited the Cervelo stand to find out if they were selling their bikes any cheaper for the South Africa market. Local produce is so very cheap here for European and US visitors. The primary race sponsors had to give heavy discounts this year to the South African Athletes so that most of then could afford the entry fee. In interesting part to this bargain is that the athletes that accepted the discounts had to wear the Specsavers race gear on race day or take a 6 minute penalty. With this in mind I was wondering how Cervelo would be selling a 4.500 Euro P3C in this market. Rather surprisingly they are selling them in this market at the SAR equivalent of that price and they are indeed selling a lot of them as I would find out later. As I was talking to the Cervelo guy, up walks last year’s winner. Gerardus ‘Gerrit’ Shellens. The Cervelo rep had talked him into taking his own P3C for a ride a few days prior and Gerrit had stopped by to give him the feedback. He loved the bike and actually wanted to race it on Sunday. I couldn’t believe that a top pro would change his bike after one ride and only 2 days before a major race. With minor details like tyres, crank length and power meter set up discussed in a mere 30 seconds Gerrit is off and has made his decision to race a P3C. I make a mental note to check the bike park the next day. Whilst Gerrit is a runner rather than a cyclist, it shows amazing confidence in a) his running ability to catch up Tissink from up to 15 minutes down at the start of the run, and b) the greatness of Cervelo’s top range bike.Friday evening is the Pasta Party and for yet another evening I try to stuff as much pasta into me as I can take. All the pros are there the most interesting part of the proceedings was Gerardus and Natascha being presented to the crowd. The applause for Gerardus is polite as we remember that he is indeed up against local hero Raynard Tissink and Natasha of course brings the house down as her personality and character at there for all to see in that wonderful smile that you never see her without.

On Saturday I attended the race briefing, returned to the guest house and made my final adjustments to the bike (adding the handlebar tape and putting on a sexy new Zipp bottle holder) before taking a leisurely 1 hour ride followed by a very light 20 minute run in which I calibrated my polar foot pod over a 1Km section I had measured on the bike. Then I headed over to the bike check in. As far as my bike configuration goes, I’ve gone for the most aggressive approach possible. I only have one bottle holder (many competitors are riding with up to three) figuring that with the aid stations 15Km apart I will easily have enough fluid available. I have Continental Supersonic light racing tyres. As a result I have spent 1 hour practicing tire changes and have a second spare inner tube which you can see stuffed neatly under the saddle. No Bento box is needed, I will have some gels and bars taped to the cross bar which will be transferred to my tri suit pockets within the first kilometer and a hand pump is there in case I can’t work the CO2 canisters. Note the minimal amount of tape on the bars and none at all on the base bar. Why add the weight if I’m suppose to be in aero for 99% of the race?

The bike is checked in, the Transition bags are racked and competitor 1049 Neil Hammond is ready. I spend a few minutes visualizing the important T1 transition process and then head off, camera in hand; to see what is interesting in the bike park.

The evening before the race I make probably my biggest mistake. Having retuned from the bike park I let too much time slip away before heading out for an evening meal. I tried a new restaurant and was served a humongous portion of pasta again which I unwisely consumed. I didn’t get back before 11pm and realized then that the food I had eaten that day would probably not have the chance to make its way completely through my system before the next morning. Maybe this would be the first IM where I would need to do a serious pit stop.

I awoke at 4am and ate half of my energy cake along with some powerbar drink. I evacuated what I could from my body but I knew I was “heavy” shall we say. I rested until 5:15 and then checked on the guys in the other rooms to make sure that they were up. I had suggested a buddy system the day before because I don’t know of a triathlete yet who has not had nightmares about oversleeping for the race. At 5:45 we set out on the 1Km march to the start and bid each other good luck upon entering the transition area. I have a few alterations to make. I decided to tape my food to my top tube rather than leave it in T1 and also I add sunscreen to my T2 bag and one or two other minor details. At the bike rack I strike up a conversation with Mike Barber (1047), one of the 6 Canadians represented here who is racked next to me. He is an experienced campaigner, with many IMs including Hawaii qualifications on his resume. Now, however, he is into IMs for the destinations. An early season outing for a Canadian is difficult with most of their bike work restricted to home trainers. With tire pressures checked, double checked and then checked again it’s time to get on the wetsuits and head over to the start. The swim drop zone is now a huge mountain and we make our way eventually down to the beach. There are already huge crowds with the African dancers livening things up on the beach in front of the starting tape facing the athletes. The start area is very wide and there is no jostling for position among the AGers. The Pros are about 10 meters in front in their own section. A small technical point I’ll touch on here. I have now got into the habit of putting the swim goggles under the swim cap and I can not for the life of me work out why the majority don’t do the same. This protects my goggles from being swept off by a stray hand, something that happened to a friend of mine at Embrunman. He was very lucky because at the time his arm followed through the swim stroke and happened upon the goggles in the water. It’s usually not light when Embrunman starts, so but for this stroke of luck, his whole race would have been ruined. Something else I do slightly different to most is have my tri suit unzipped under my wetsuit. The first time I swam with a tri suit underneath a wet suit I felt very claustrophobic and restricted. The next two races I swam with the upper half of the tri suit rolled around my waist, but I thinking this time I can get away with just happing it unzipped. The last thing I need is to break the zipper on my suit as I feed the arms in T1. This is exactly how I broke my club tri suit just a few weeks previously, fortunately not in a race, so I settle on this compromise. It’s also one less step in my T1 process. I check my watch for the ready and wait for the start.

THE SWIM.The race starts at exactly 07h00m00s on my watch and off we go. I’m right at the front of the wave and we charge down the sandy beach and into the surf. At about thigh height I dive into the water and begin my swim stroke. There is really not much bumping at all going on even if there is a 90 degree turn at 300 metres. The time quickly passes and at the congestion builds at the first bouy. In fact it’s a complete traffic jam and having been stopped for 10-15 seconds I follow a few of the swimmers who have ducked inside the buoy and head off on the 700m stretch to the 1Km buoy. A few hundred meters later I get that sniff of diesel in the water. Almost as I’m telling myself not to get any in my mouth, I catch a mouthful and immediately start choking it out. I recall STer Julian Allen’s experience from 2006 in the same race and also testimony from other triathletes who have imbibed diesel. It’s not good and can have permanent effects on your digestive system. I get going again and try to draft as much as I can. I’m successful for a few hundred metres but eventually lose the guy in front. There are no intermediate buoys so its difficult to get a good line on the next marker from a distance. The swell and chop are building up a bit too. I’m breathing on every third stroke on alternate sides and every alternate breath I search the skyline for the buoy. Eventually I see it and mark its place against a taller land mark behind it since the conditions are such that you don’t get to see the buoys every time you look for them. Finally I arrive at the 1Km mark. I’m hoping for a 17 minute time here and I’m rather shocked to see that 20 minutes have already passed. Another 90 degree turn which congests the field a lot and there is a 200 meter stretch to the next buoy before we turn 90 degrees again for the journey back. On the way back the sea conditions worsen a little more, we arrive at the 4th buoy and then turn right for the finally 129 meters back to the beach. I come out of the water and get a time check. 42 minutes. I’m stunned. This is going to give me a 1h25 swim which will be my slowest ever by far, And that’s even if I can swim the second lap as fast as the first which we never do since we tire and lose the draft as the field thins out. I’m very concerned at this point as I head back into the water for the second lap. This is a new experience for me as all my previous IMs I have swum better than expected. I make the first buoy again and head for the second time on the long 700 meter stretch. I smell diesel at exactly the same place and although I managed not to get any in my mouth this time it still gives me nausea. As I approach the 1Km buoy (2.9Km total) in 1 hour my stomach starts to feel really heavy and I know I’ll need a pit stop very soon. I’m also peeing regularly which is unusual and worrying. I make the turn and then the next one and start on the long straight back for the last time. I’m feeling really ill now and the sea chop and swell has gotten even worse. About half way through this part I turn over onto my back and pause for a few seconds, I start up again and then vomit a few times. I continue onwards but I know that I’m not swimming close to the speed I can do, I just want to get this over with now and I’m not sure I even want to get on the bike. I finally reach the last buoy and head for shore, vomiting a few more times even in that short distance. I finally see swimmers standing up next to me, I take a few more strokes in the water and then do the same and start wading out wondering what I’m going to do at this point. Its moments like these that I love. I’d planned and rehearsed the T1 transition so much that two things occur. Firstly I’m determined to see exactly what kind of T1 time I can do and secondly, as I exit the water, the preparation and training completely take over and it’s like I’m on autopilot. One of the more positive things I did tell myself during the swim was that the conditions were the same for everyone, and indeed they were. The only six athletes came out the water in less than 1hour. My time ended up being 1h34m093. A 50+minute second lap!!!!! If I would have held on to that positive thought a little more the I wouldn’t have lost an additional 10 minutes on the swim out of discouragement. I had the feeling that I was somewhere near the end of the pack when in fact I was #782 out of the 1308 finishers. Middle of the pack, but I think a lack of effort on the second half cost me 300 places. The HRM data shows a good solid effort for the first lap with and average HR of 142bpm and then a continual decline during the second lap with an average of 116bpm. I can hide behind the sickness a little, but I have to own up and say that a large part of the lack of performance for Lap 2 was due to a psychological failure.

My T1 went as smoothly as I had planned it in 2m36 seconds. Faster than Natascha Badmann and another 9 of the 28 pros. In fact I had the 29th fastest T1 time overall and by the time I was on the bike I had passed 210 athletes since exiting the water and I was in 572nd place.

The Bike.
I got onto the bike and surprisingly was feeling much better now that I was out of the water. I get the bars and gels transferred from my top tube to my tri-suit pockets and start to get some drink inside me. I get my feet in my shoes and start my watch, probably missing 1Km of the course already. I know how this is going to go for the next hour, I’m going to be passing hundreds of cyclists in an attempt to get into the top 200 places. The difference between IMSA and my last race where I was in a similar position is that here we don’t have oncoming traffic. We are only supposed to use one side of the road but it’s fairly generous. Also the swim has really stretched out the field and there is a nice 10Km climb at the beginning of each lap of the 3 lap course. Quickly I find myself at the 3km mark where there is a turn to begin the climb. It’s very gentle, about 10Km to climb just less than 200 meters with a slightly steeper section at the start and another at the end. There is no drafting in evidence anywhere and for the most part I can stay in the overtaking lane and just keep going past. Occasionally I have to brake to allow an overtaking maneuver in front of me and very occasionally I have to tuck in right to allow past that rarest of species, a triathelete who is a better cyclist than me (not so rare in itself) but also a poorer swimmer. I tuck down into aero position and keeping a high cadence reach the top of the climb without difficulty. In fact I now enjoy the climbs as my winter work has made me much stronger in this area. The course is a loop with one 6.5Km out and back section from the Km 17 rejoining the loop at Km 30. Now in my original plan, I figured that I would reach Km17 before the lead riders had reached Km 30. Thus I would be able to count all the riders in front of me as we did the out and back and then keep track of my race position. As I reach the start of the out and back I have already realized that the lead riders have already gone passed by some time. Nevertheless I begin counting. As I reach the end of the out and back 6.5Km later I have counted 390 riders in front of me. From this point forward I play a little game to keep my mind from focusing on other things like pain and discomfort. Each time I pass a rider I count down from 391 and each time one passes me I count back up again. This turns out to be hugely motivating. By the time I’ve completed the first lap I’ve got the number down to about 320 and there is still a stream of riders in my sights. I reach the climb for the second time and hear a friendly “Hi” from IRON MIKE BARBER who pulls up alongside. “I guess the home trainer did work” he grins as he passes me. He seems to be competing for pure enjoyment and being a heavier rider I realize that the climb we have just started has slowed him down somewhat and he is not pushing on ahead. So I make the most of my climbing skills and press on, passing him and continuing my number game which is closing in to the 300 mark. At the top of the climb I now need to relieve myself so I stop the bike and nip behind a tree. 10 riders pass me including Iron Mike and I jump back on the bike eager to recover the lost ground. In fact it takes me 20 Km to catch up to Iron Mike again and he had taken 10 riders in this time. Still, a reminder in how much time can be lost just stopping for a wee. Now the sun is out and the temperature is slowly rising. Mike was worried about it being cold during our pre race chat and was even thinking of taking a jacket on the bike. I ask “hot enough now” as I pass him for the second time on the bike. I hang with him for a short Km and then push on trying to lower my race count. The second half of the loop takes us down to the coast and back to PE along the shore In my training ride on Thursday the wind was firmly behind at this point and send me flying home between 40-50Kmh. There is definitely wind today but it’s mainly crosswinds on the course and difficult to identify anywhere on the course where it really benefited us. This caught me out a bit as my average speed does not get the jump in the race that it did on the training ride. So instead of my target laps of 1h45 I did the first one in 1h50 and I’ve even slowed down a bit for the second lap which is about 1h55. A strange thing happens a few Km short of completing the second lap. A van pulls up from behind me in the opposite lane with a huge race clock on it. NO! It can’t be possible, and then with some quick mental arithmetic I realize that it damn well is possible. I’m being lapped by the lead pro. Sure enough a few seconds later, Bjorn Andersson on his Black P3C with the lowest drop you’ll see anyone riding sweeps by. The guy has enormous thighs and is very stockily built for a triathlete and that’s the first thing you notice about him. I head some commentary coming through from the van and hear that he has about a 10 minute lead over the field. That’s huge, but how fast can he carry those powerful legs over a marathon. Time will tell I presume but it sets up an interesting men’s race. I reach the end of the second lap with out seeing the second men’s pro (thankfully) and I’ve got my own race count down to 250 meaning that I’ve passed 141 riders at this point. Starting on the final lap I’m interested to see how I will handle the climb. In fact I have to get out of aero to climb this time as the back is really starting to hurt. The change in position may help me when I get back into aero for the remainder of the bike section. I know realize as I’m doing my race count that I’m probably lapping a few cyclists myself, definitely, in fact. It’s easy to see which ones they are as I come up on them far too quickly for them to have stayed ahead of me for 120Km. I make a point of encouraging each and every one of them as I pass. It was less than 2 years ago that I was in that area and I know how it feels and what kind of day they still have left ahead of them. Also the aid station folks get a loud voice of thanks as I pass each one for the last time. One day I will serve on an IM race station myself to give back some of what these superb volunteers give to the athletes. They seem to be enjoying themselves here to, more than on most courses that I have seen with music and cook outs going on at most of the stations. On the out and back section Iron Mike passes me again and like the previous times does not push on further. I repass him again after we have rejoined the main loop. In the third lap my lower back pains are getting bad and I have to come out of aero more frequently with every turn, change in elevation and excuse to do so. Also I realize that I am definitely going to need my serious pit stop very soon and wonder if I can possibly hang on to T2. About 5K out I realize that the situation has become very urgent and I pull over by the side of the road and dive into the bushes. The stop probably takes about 5 minutes in total and there’s no disguising from the other riders passing by as I emerge from the bushes with my tri suit rolled down to the waist rubbing my hand over a patch of grass on the side of the road. I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks. I get back on the road, since I’ve was hidden I’ve no idea how many riders passed by me. Iron Mike certainly would have been one of the first but I’m guessing about 20-30 others would have also done so. I had gotten my race count down to 191 plus the riders I had missed when I started the count. Actually I finished the bike 40 places and 6 minutes behind Iron Mike. So my best estimate is that both pit stops cost me 8 minutes of bike time and 50 places. Ok I’ll eat much earlier the day before the race next time. I get it. I crack on and hammer the last 5k seeing Bella Comerford on the run in second place “Great Job Bella! Fly the flag!” I shout to her and I do get an appreciative nod as she pushes on. I pull up to T2 and clock a 5h52m16s bike split. This beats my previous best IM bike split but a few minutes and I would have certainly been sub 5h45 without those pit stops. I have the 221st overall bike split and 25th best in my AG.

The moment my feet hit the ground on dismounting from the bike the backs of my legs shriek in pain. The course commentator catches this and comments on it over the PA. I give him a wry smile and hand the bike off as I start to run through T2. I grab my bag, go into the tent and get into my socks and running shoes. I waste some seconds getting my speed sensor started and restarting the Polar on the run settings. Then I head for the run start. T2 is not quite as impressive as T1. 3m47s and the 134th best T2 overall.

Well the exit from T2 was about as good as it got for me on the day. Following a disastrous swim I had worked my way up to 265th place overall and 40th in my AG. The beginning of the run was marked by some serious discomfort. Firstly it feels like all my insides between my waist and my neck are sore with bruising. I suspect I have some stomach cramps and hope that eventually they will go away which they do after about 5K. More serious however are the extremely tight hamstrings which are severely restricting my running. I run through the list of potential causes. Dehydration, tiredness, sunburn, tight tri suit legs but I strongly suspect that the main problem is the result of an imperfect bike fit. I know what I can do to prevent the problem in the future but there’s really not much I can do about this now. Almost immediately I start the run Raynard Tissink runs by in first place as he starts his third lap. He looks in reasonable shape. We run 2Km to the Avis turnaround and there is a course commentator at that point absolutely delighted to have seen Tissink run by in the lead. He mentions that Shellens is about 500 meters back and looks happy to hold on for second place. Sure enough Gerrit then runs past me, but in no way does he look like he’s running to hold on for second place. This guy is an unbelievable runner and he looks to be going at an incredible rate. 500 meters and 12Km to make it up in seems for all the world like the easiest thing for him to do and the commentators head games are not having any effect on the Belgian. My initial run speed is up around 11Kmh and for a short while I wonder if I would hold on for a 4 hour marathon. But I know the feeling, I know Ironman marathons and I know that you don’t get faster as the race goes on. It’s just the opposite isn’t it. I try my best but slowly, ever so slowly, that average speed on my watch keeps nudging downwards. I see Bella run past me and to my surprise Edith Niederfriniger shortly afterwards. I fear that Bella will not hold on to second place. I run back along marine drive and I am still running up the short climb up admiralty. As it flattens out, guess who comes up beside me. Yes its my old friend Iron Mike again. Actually I had exited the transition 10 seconds behind him and gone past him in the first 100 meters of the run without realizing. But as I inevitably slowed down, IronMike draws along side me for the umpteenth time today. I run with him for about 400 meters and we chat about the race to date. Buddying up with him would be a smart move for me at this point as I’m sure he’s headed for a 4 hour run, but I realize that I won’t be to make it so I let him go on and this time I know I won’t be catching him up again. I actually keep him in sight for the next 7K, 16 K into the race, but it is at that point that I break. My legs are pure agony at this point and I know that I will not even beat my IM best time (11h42 in IMUK). But I’m not going home without a medal even if I have to walk the rest of the course. I turn around at AVIS again and head back past the transition zone with some severe stomach issues. I ask a referee if I can go into transition to use the portaloos and get told that my best be is to use the ones that are located behind the aid stations. I make it to the next aid station and make another serious pit stop. Before running again I try to stretch out those hamstrings but its’ not really going to have the desired effect. I carry on along marine drive getting close to the halfway point. As we turn up admiralty and out past the university I meet up with Jean-Pierre Kruger. Jean-Pierre would prove to be my saviour and I, in turn, his. He is from Jo burg and is doing his first IM and is in trouble on the run. We buddy up and spend most of the last 21K running as opposed to walking. We complete lap 2 and we are joined by a third, Andy Stockwell, a local guy again doing his first IM. We form a great trio and although the last lap is not without pain, the camaraderie will be the memory that lingers longest. Andy has brief visions of breaking 12h30 but JP and I are happy with our 12:45 ETA. The guys are really delighted to be finishing their first IMs JP is 33 and has done a fair amount of cycling and although he has lost some weight in training, still wants to shed a few more of his 90Kilos. Andy is only 23 and has done some world class rowing at college, even been over to England to compete against our guys. He is 82Kg of solid muscle and used to do 4 hour cool down training rides in the afternoons as part of his rowing training camps. The light is fading now but our spirits are rising as the last few kilometers are eaten up. My polar run speed sensor has proven to be remarkable accurate and we are counting off the distance every 200 meters from about 5K out. We eventually approach the filter lane off to the chute and make the final run in. Jean-Pierre grabs his two young boys and the 5 of us, hand in hand give the finish line photographers their busiest few moments of the evening. So there it is. Number 4 in the books and still a 100% completion record for my IMs. New challenges, new problems, new lessons learned and new friends made. I hope that never changes for me in all the IMs I hope I will do in the future.

And now….Well the preparation will soon be starting for IM France-Nice and the IMSA experience will be invaluable in what I think is my best shot at at Hawaii slot this year. In short here are the things I learned in doing IMSA that I need to correct for the next race.

    * Meals on the day before the race, less food and earlier.
    * Work consistently on the bike fit in training and report back on the run feeling after different fits.Long cycle sessions permanently in Aero position with 18K runs afterwards.
    * Goal is to do 4 hours bike at 35Kmh followed by 18K run in 90 minutes with out stiff back or legs.
    * Bike glasses can be taped to bike, don’t need to be in bike bag.
    * Start polar speed sensor before putting on shoes to avoid waiting
    * Have some sunscreen in sachets on the bike