Ironman South Africa - Coach's race report

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I’ve been consistently helping athletes qualify for Kona since 2002 and have been in awe of the Big Island since coming into triathlon in the 90’s. I wanted to share my Ironman South Africa race report with you from a coach's perspective.

Kona to me is a magical/ sacred place, a place of dreams that only a few ever qualify to go. BUT… even though I’ve had opportunities to go out to Hawaii with athletes, I have always sworn never to step foot onto the Big Island unless I qualified to be there myself… and that was my target in South Africa…

The race:

This is my second year of doing Ironman South Africa and I think this was maybe my 11th Ironman altogether. Only once have I ever set myself a target in an Ironman and that was in 2006 at Ironman Austria where I wanted to go under 10 hours. I remember getting off the bike feeling a whole world of pressure (and thinking how the hell do the pros race this distance?!) and this weakness putting me in a bit of a wobble on the run. I did get my head together and eventually came home in 9.59.26… I know!!!

As a coach I have never had the inclination to totally dedicate myself to the selfish training required to go fast at Ironman. I am far too passionate about the athletes I work with improving their performance. However, South Africa sits at a good time of year for me as a coach. We have just come out of winter training, we have done some great bike work on training camp and I can squeeze in my key run sessions without disrupting what I need to do as a coach.

I also want to make sure the structure of the training plans I write for Ironman athletes are sound and the progression and overload allow them to hit optimum performance in their race. Even from last year to this year I made some significant changes to the bike workouts that have improved the overall Ironman training plan structure.

A quick overview of my race:

Great few days pre race in South Africa, some of the friendliest people I have come across in the world. Feeling great had a couple of massages on race week for a tight neck (after a battle with a few waves in the ocean!), but this seemed to loosen one thing and tighten another. The day before the race I woke up and literally could not run, the pain in my back was so severe (I had a vertebrae out around my thoracic spine). After about an hour of gentle movement/stretching it seemed to pop back in and I could do my pre event warm ups… phew!!!

Race day:

Swim: I’m not a fan of rolling starts. It’s not triathlon and it’s not Ironman (I think ITU have a lot of work to do here for elite racing but not for age groupers). Mentally and physically dealing with that pressure and hard start is part of the race, especially for those hoping to qualify for Kona. Possibly think about setting off age-group waves so you are always in a race.

To be honest I got a little disorientated and maybe dropped about 4–5mins… but felt strong and took a deep breath and looked forward to the picnic to come.

18th in AG.

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Bike: I know there are lots of schools of thought out there but to me a power meter is a no-brainer in Ironman. It baffles me why people ride up inclines at 300–500w and think they can run off that. Every hill I came to I had women, big men and whomever else coming past me like I was standing still. I kept my power about 15–30w higher than I wanted to on the flat (and 100% no lactate build up) but these little speedies flew past. Even paced with no/limited power spikes is the only way to ride an Ironman bike.

Ironman biking to me is about dialing into the numbers (220w for me), with a smooth pedal stroke (80 rpm for me) and then having a picnic every 20mins (shot block, carb drink and water) and enjoying the beautiful scenery that South Africa affords you.

For sure on the final lap the old ‘nether regions’ are a little distressed and the legs are tried, but again the power meter allows you confidence that you are in the right place.

6th in AG off the bike.

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The business end:

Running felt good off the bike (and a flipping relief to take pressure off down there!), however a couple of km’s down the road a weak point hit and I kicked in my first weak point plan (WPP)… counting and holding best form. I could feel I had lost rhythm and was not moving very well.

Now these moments for most people can be quite traumatic. In my job coaching people we talk through these moments all the time, whether young children taking their first steps into the endurance world or Olympians fighting to stay in contact at the pointy end of our sport. They know my feeling on the mental side and to me its 80% of what we do. So during my weak points, if I capitulate, it’s like a barrister losing their first big case in the high court… when they really should win, no pressure coach!

The reason they are called weak points is because you don’t feel strong, you are not frequenting the fight side of the cognitive fight & flight response… you want to step out of the arena, you want to pull the blanket over your shoulders and turn over for the nightmare to end.

I walk all aid stations and make the runs between as rhythmical and economical as possible. The next aid station I walked, I took on the coke/water, and I picked up the run again still no rhythm, still no fight, still applying my WPP. This time I’m also tapping into my 2nd WPP, the training I have done… 6 x 5k reps, 20 x 800m, 30k tempo… I’m thinking about the young guys in my team - I want them to be able to look at their coach as someone who has suffered like he asks them to suffer and come up with the answers as he asks them to… A few more km’s of suffering… I don’t wear a GPS or look at my watch. I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know I’m running slower than I want to… the job is now 100% mental. I dropped from 6th in AG to maybe 16 -18th.

In South Africa, the crowds start to pitch their tents on the roadside a couple of days before. They have their braai’s going, beers in hand, but what’s quite weird is they seem to get the sport… After about 8km and out the other side of an aid station, I found some reaction when I asked my legs to lift the pace, the supporters seemed to get this and they encouraged it… It was not easy, but I seemed to be finding a little rhythm again.

Entering ‘no man's land’ (the middle of an event or mid way on a run) I used my 3rd WPP, by looking around and appreciating all the different types of people that do this sport, big, small, fat, thin, black, white blah blah… all suffering to some degree or another and getting energy form our united suffering. If I catch an eye of a fellow athlete, a wry smile or look to say ‘come on, we can do this’ or a quick chat (which always gives me a massive boost) before they drop me or the other way round. The one thing I missed in this event is finding another runner with the same rhythm as me to run with, I find this is always a massive benefit.

The final few laps I was feeling stronger and stronger, I had come out of the bad patch, I had battled the demons and now I need to collect on a few lost km’s earlier in the run. I’m still walking the aid stations; even with a few km’s to go the wheels can come off. But I felt strong, rhythmical and tapping into good form.

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It transpires that I was in about 12th going into the final lap of the run but the guys around me were all just within a few minutes of each other. As I crossed the line I was 6th in AG, however due to the rolling start another athlete came in a few mins later that moved me down to 7th in the age group.

As I’m now in the 45–49 age category, I knew we would have about 10 slots as one of the biggest age groups so was almost certainly heading to Kona. Nevertheless after seeing the Facebook messages from the guys in the team, I could see I had been very close to messing this up. Phew… Kona baby!!!

There is a little apprehension though, as there is the small matter of preparing an athlete for the Rio Olympics when I would normally be kicking off my Ironman preparation – but we’ll worry about that later! For now, job done. Aloha!