I did my second full distance Ironman in Port Elizabeth South Africa on April 10th. Unlike my first Ironman, I actually trained for this one and came with the intent of being competitive in the race. Still, heat preparation proved lacking, and as the mercury rose in the second half of the race I dropped from a 3-man breakaway on the bike to an eventual 15th place finish at the Ironman African Championships.
The swim was among the easiest of my career, yet with a choppy ocean swell it was fast enough to split the pack by several minutes. I began the bike with a substantial lead over guys like Ben Hoffman, who eventually won the race. After a long T1, where I fiddled and lost time, I managed to ride back up into the front where I stayed in a 3-man breakaway for the first 100 kilometers of the bike.
The weather in Port Elizabeth this time of year is normally quite temperate, and it is one of the reasons I picked this race. Between expected mid-70s temperatures, strong winds and hills, I thought the course would be the right kind of tough to suit my strengths. On race day, however, a heat wave blew through the area, the temperatures were unusually high and the wind, which had been howling in the days leading up to the event, was still. The pavement was hot and the air stagnant and as the day wore on the African sun was unrelenting against my Chicago-white skin.
Around 100 kilometers into the bike, and on the second lap of the course, my power dropped and I couldn’t keep up with my fluid loss. By the final turnaround I was a couple minutes behind the breakaway, and a few kilometers later I was passed by the main chase pack, which had been several minutes down at the half-way point.
I wanted to quit. I was begging for an excuse, but it didn’t come. I just kept turning the pedals and eventually reached T2. I looked around for Abby, knowing that she would be terrified, given my history of heat stroke, and would give me an excuse. She was in hiding, so one foot in front of the other and I began running. Tired. Broken. Well out of contention and unable to stay with any of the athletes who passed me.
This, I realize now, is what Ironman racing is about. How do you handle the mental doubt? What do you do when your body fails you? Do you let your mind fail you as well, or do you keep digging? Is there such thing as a perfect Ironman? Can you race for eight hours (or 10 or whatever) without thoughts of quitting? I wouldn’t have clawed my way back in contention, and forcing my body to push through heat problems wouldn’t have been good for my health, but what if it had been cool? What if I’d been in sixth place and feeling the same way? Would I have been looking for an excuse to quit, or could I have been the one instilling doubt in my competitors while letting my confidence claw me up to a podium?
I learned more at this Ironman than in the previous one. I maintain that an Ironman hurts less than a short course event, but the duration and the need to push through mental doubt and physical fatigue is a challenge unlike the pain that I’ve trained so hard to tolerate at the shorter distances. To succeed at this distance requires mental fortitude and tenacity in the race of adversity. No Ironman will go to plan, and how I learn to deal with those setbacks will be the determining factor in my future of Ironman racing.
Fifteenth place was not the result I traveled to Africa to achieve, but I’m actually quite proud of what I learned through the process. Ideal conditions and a top finish could never have taught me so much. This experience will make me a better athlete.