You haven’t come this far, to come this far: Ironman South Africa 2023 Race Report
You haven’t come this far, to come this far.
I’ve got a few mantras I pull out of my pocket to shut up my monkey brain when it tries to kill me, or make me give up, in an Ironman. You haven’t come this far, to come this far slid into them last year when I wanted to give up on big climbs. But a reminder of all the training I had done to get there quickly put me back into the mindset to get shit done. And it was the perfect theme for the day for Ironman South Africa on Sunday.
Friends invited me to their wedding in Cape Town and then a cycle tour after (yes, they are multisport friends). I laughed. That’s a long way to go, I said. “Oh C’mon, it’ll be amazing, it’s in March 2023.” March you say? There’s an Ironman in South Africa in March, and I’ve heard it’s an epic course. Some quick thinking and the seed was planted. When Ironman announced the slot allocation for the women’s World Championships in Kona, the slot allocation was generous - not as generous as Texas, Coeur D’Alene and a few others closer to home, but there were enough and the timing felt right. Wedding, Cycle Tour, and Ironman. THAT seems worth flying thousands of miles for! And a look at the Ironman site, and some quick currency conversion and the race seemed like a bargain ;).
Training through this year’s winter in Boulder had me feeling like an asshole for picking such an early season long course race, but I had a mission: keep my streak of improvements going, keep getting stronger and a slot to the World Championships in Kona. This was an extremely bold dream for me. I’m sure many people felt I was overreaching, but I didn’t care.
There may be faster athletes, but the last couple years of racing and working with Julie has taught me this: I work hard. I am extremely coachable. I have an evil genius in my corner coaching me. And I can suffer more than most.
I flew to South Africa feeling nervous, sure. But Julie told me I was ready, and I believe my coach. I felt fit. Camp in January had kicked my ass nicely, and set the tone for the rest of my build. It may have not been an ideal outdoor build, but it was solid. I was healthy. My bike and gear made it. Things are looking good! Add to that a massive surprise: the women’s field was SMALL. The race has an Ironman and a 70.3 on the same day, with about even fields. But the women’s field was just under 150 athletes! And 12 in my age group.
I did all my shakeouts and felt great. I ate well, and rested! But race eve, I woke up several times with GI distress and started to be really concerned. The alarm went off, and the GI issues continued. I now knew I was dehydrated as hell, and nauseous. And this was BEFORE even heading to the start. I thought “It would be dumb to start.” BUT then I thought “I haven’t come this far to come this far.” I flew around the world. I was going to see what the day brought, do my best. My brain and my heart hurt. I was grieving before the race even began. Dreams of crushing it and getting a slot were being mourned. But that’s not the only reason I race, and I was in an amazing place, and a lot of sacrifices were made to get my ass to the start line. So off I went.
It was pissing down rain, which would be the theme of the day when it wasn’t HAMMERING down. Bike checked and headed down to the beach for the beautiful swim in Nelson Mandela Bay. The early morning fog had rolled out. But the clouds looked ominous. The lightening started as we all waited in the corrals, shooting wide across the entire sky over the Indian Ocean, and touching down out to sea. “We’re getting started in just 5 minutes!” announced the lovely South African Voice of Ironman, Paul Kaye. Sure we are Paul!
Sure enough, right before the pro men bounded in, the swim was postponed for 30 minutes. We sat in the sand and watched the storm, hoping it would pass. I had a front row seat for the African dancers, and they really performed for their captive audience. I was overwhelmed at how damn lucky I was to be there, and despite the persistent fear that I might shit my pants before the swim even started, I was now excited to race.
But at the thirty minute mark, they announced we would swim in 10 more minutes, but it would be a shortened swim. What should have been a 2.4 mile swim was now a 900m choppy slugfest. Oh well, let’s go. A few minutes in, I realized I should have seeded myself sooner. I had to swim around or over a lot of people. But I felt ok swimming. Maybe not great but not bad. I was later happy with my 1K TT time!
Off onto the bike! The course flew through town and then turned and started a 12km climb out of town. This wasn’t steep just a steady climb which was a lot like a lot of the false flats in Boulder. People lined the bike course even though it was pouring, cheering and super excited. This would persist ALL DAY! We rode through the “suburbs” of Port Elizabeth and then we came over a ridge and WOW. Suddenly, it was just a long stretch of rollers through the countryside. Dense forests and open fields. Dirt roads and tiny villages. And at any intersection, tons of locals all happy to have us! We then came into the little (and pretty white) town of Seaview, with it’s gorgeous cliffs and of course sea views! There we turned and started a solid climb up and then down, with another little climb before the turn around. BUT THE VIEWS HERE! Dense forest on one side, cliffs off to the sea on the other. At the top, we came aorund a curve and were treated to a coral colored sand beach - giant dunes that seemed so bright in the overcast gloom and created a mountain across the beach from us. And we get to come back here again. When I signed up for this race, I was intimidated by these hills. But I found them not too bad.
But I was starting to falter. My power the first 3 hours of the bike was right on plan, but as I started the fast return back to town to start loop two, and I was struggling to keep nutrition down, I felt like a balloon deflating. My fitness was there and I was strong - but being sick was taking its toll. Push harder, you can run even after a hard bike I told myself, but the power just felt like it was sucked out of me. I kept trying to get my nutrition down, but was having a hard time even drinking hydration. Luckily I had packed some Precision Electrolyte pills, so I started taking them with small sips of plain water. And then a Pepto chaser. I choked down my beloved Precision gels, because I knew I would not make it through the run without them now. But my stomach felt increasingly worse, and I was stunned there had been no lower GI emergencies yet. It felt imminent.
The worst part, the hardest part, was the Megan Monkey Brain that kept trying to creep in, telling me that I sucked, why did I even bother? I wasn’t going to do well. I wasn’t going to get a Kona slot. WHO DID I EVEN THINK I WAS?
But I know who I am. I am someone who doesn’t quit, and certainly not because I am not meeting some definition of success. I know how to #embracethedarkness. I do hard things. The harder the better. You didn’t come this far to come this far. I rolled into T2 unhappy, but also surprised that even though the power had dropped significantly (about 15w NP) on the second lap, I wasn’t that far off the time goal I had guessed for the bike. Hmm Meg, maybe you underestimated your healthy self there? BIKE COURSE REVIEW: EPIC. GORGEOUS. HANDS DOWN ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BIKE COURSES I HAVE EVER SEEN.
Despite feeling like I was going to vomit all over the sweet girl who was trying to help me, I had a decent transition. I had no idea how I was going to get through the run, as I was even more dehydrated now and my stomach was in knots. Two more peptos and some ginger gum and let’s see. Maybe my body would surprise me.
It did. The first half of my marathon was not far off my target pace. The crowds were AMAZING, including a gauntlet of people and tents and parties all along the course. It’s a partially flat, partially rolling course, with most along the waterfront and gorgeous but also a fairly industrial section with a short but annoying hill. Not bad at all. But the course is 4 loops! Great for spectators and those with families racing! Not so great for running by the finish line 8 TIMES before you get to hit that carpet. And I had to run by my apartment 8 times too!
The GI issues were looming the whole run, causing stomach pain but no cramps. But I could barely choke anything down. The marathon was fueled by a little water, a little Gatorade, and then sips of Coke, which I started way earlier than I normally would. And one aid station had tiny cold boiled potatoes. One guy said “ooh those look like someone touched them” I’m sure they had, but at this point, It felt like something I could try. They were bland, mushy and startchy. My marathon was fueled by coke and 3 tiny potatoes. I do not recommend. But the potatoes kept the dry heaves from turning more sinister.
The crowd support kept up, and I was struck by how many women cheering told me that I was their hero and they wish they could do it - SPOILER YOU CAN. I am living proof that any woman can. No super athleticism required. Just the willingness to work, learn and a fairly high pain tolerance. Women have those things in spades.
The last loop, the rain picked up again and it hammered down hard on us. But then it let up a little and VIOLA. Gale force winds on that industrial section. I was running up the little asshole hill holding my hat on thinking “oh this is stupid.” But I decided that the wind would blow me downhill once I got to the top and back toward the finish. I was wrong, but it got me to the top!
On my last pass of the finish for the last out and back, a referee told me “you have 52 minutes.” Panic set in, I was so pissed at myself. Not only was I hitting no goals, I was now maybe going to complete 140.6 and DNF? Oh hell no. So, despite having absolutely nothing left, and everyone else walking (long before this too), I hammered it. OR AT LEAST IT FELT LIKE IT. I turned myself inside out. The nausea got worse and I was sure I was now definitely going to Poo my pants before I crossed the line. I was woozy. But just keep pushing Meg! And please, please please don’t pass out now.
I came down the main drag and could see the finish - and they could see me. Paul Kaye cheering me on, telling those still at the finish line about me, and urging me on. I still had to go up and around and then down the chute and I had 1 minute to go.Pushing as hard as I can but can I make it? Wow I hope I don’t puke at the finish oh well.
I crossed the line in the most agony - but it was all GI and mental. Looking at my watch, I had missed the time the referee gave me by 1 minute. But they called me in, gave me a medal and were checking me out. BUT DID I GET A FINISH TIME? Paul then said “well we have 29 minutes and hopefully some more finishers” and I HEAVED a huge sigh of relief. I had not missed it by 1min, I had made it with time to spare.
But as I collected my stuff, the disappointment set in. This wasn’t the day I came for. I was grateful for the chance to race, and be challenged (oh boy) in such an amazing place, But my goals were going to have to live another day. And the crowds had buoyed me all day, calling my name. But no one at the finish, not just to help me, but to just be there, felt lonely. I lugged my stuff home and cried. I did not get what I came for, but I did get an epic challenge and I embraced it. Julie told me I gave my best on the day, and I finished. I just needed to grieve a little - and just be sick finally.
I got up in the morning and felt blergh, but ok enough to start some laundry and get some packing done. I was able to keep tea down but nothing appealed to eat. I was just going to stay in my room when Phoebe my daughter texted and said “Go get that slot Mom” and I laughed. And then she reminded me what I always say “Always go to rolldown. You never know what’s going to happen.” So I trekked there and couldn’t find it. The signs outside said there were 5 slots in my AG. I didn’t even know my place after my miserable finish the night before. I figured I was DFL in my AG - and I was. I was 7th out of 7. 5 women had not finished. I sat myself down in the back and thought :There aren’t a lot of women here. Why is a much longer discussion, and I think another blog.
They did the pros and then got the age groups. They skipped around and my AG was called. The first two slots went to #1 and then #4 and the third slot went to: ME!!!! I may have squealed and race walked my ass to that stage to get my slot before they could change their mind! I hugged the race director tight and danced off to pay.
After, I wandered around the weird hotel mall rolldown was in, and called my sleeping husband “We did it. We actually did it. I cannot believe I get to live this life.” And I cried.
Would I come back here? Absolutely. The weather is the weather. The course is AMAZING, and the volunteers and crew are top notch. But the people of South Africa? They make this place and this race extremely special. Bucket list achievements: unlocked!