Ironman South Africa 2008 – Learning to do things a different way

I’ve been meaning to write this for sometime now. To be brutally honest, I didn’t want to write it until I had completed the Ironman because my nature is that I don’t like to talk about things that I don’t know for sure that I can pull off. Even on the starting line, last Sunday morning, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to manage despite the training I had done.

The fact that I was standing on the starting line at all, I told Chris while we were putting on our wet suits before the race, was because of an ex-colleague by the name of Werner. He had found the video of the 2006 Kona, Hawai Ironman World Champs and had shown me a copy. It’s hard to watch that and not get inspired. So that planted the seed but the reason I decided to do it went quite a lot deeper.

I’ve always been blessed, or sometimes I think cursed, with a more than average natural ability. So things like running and most sports come quite easily to me. What hasn’t come easily has been the the gritty determination to keep going year after year, season after season and to keep focusing on one thing.

I was the schoolboy who did almost every activity at school. I ran, swam, played hockey, rugby, cricket, badminton. table tennis, tennis, squash, cross country, rowing and in fact most sports saw me making an appearance at one time or another. Most of the coaches commented that I had good natural ability and could go very far. This was usually my cue to move on to something else.

Compare this to my partner, Gary, who will readily admit that there were many people who had more natural ability than him at cricket, but what he excelled at was the professionalism, diligence and tenacity to keep practicing and working harder than anyone else to get ahead, which he did, eventually playing more than 100 tests for South Africa.

So I decided that the way I learn best is by experience, so why not take on something that I couldn’t do on the seat of my pants. An event that without training, would flatten even the most talented athletes. The Ironman requires skills in swimming, cycling and running while most people focus only on one. The bottom line was that if I didn’t prepare with diligence and tenacity, I was going to be left lying on the side of the road.

My objective – to experience preparing for something over a long period of time, sticking with it when the going got tough and seeing it through to the end. I initially hooked onto the idea of the Ironman in 2005. I took the decision to do it at the end of 2006 and started my initial training in Jan 2007 for the April 2008 event.

My initial training was a bit all over the place and despite employing a coach, I didn’t get any real traction until late in 2007 when I locked onto the Ironman 70.3 (this is a half Ironman consisting of half of all the distances – 70.3 miles is half the total distance of 140.6 which makes a full Ironman).

Early in 2007 I went through a number of false starts where I started training, trained for about a week, caught a cold or flu, took a week off to recover and then started again. Clearly something wasn’t working.

The 70.3 was in East London in Jan 2008 and I wanted to use it as a major milestone towards my major goal. I employed the services of www.markallenonline.com and set about training.

The style of training was really good for me. My natural style is “no pain – no gain” which the Mark Allen program immediately dispelled. In fact his program was counter-intuitively the opposite. While it was hard to keep to the eight sessions a week, the actual sessions were not painful at all. Through a technique where I managed my heart rate, I gradually increased my speed and my ability to exercise fast at lower and lower heart rates.

Up until the Mark Allen program, my training runs had consisted of heading out my front door and up the mountain where my hear rate quickly climbed to 150 and then averaged in the 180’s for most of the run. I now started exercising at a heart rate of no more than 133 for my long runs and was amazed as my speed gently increased while my heart rate stayed low.

Back to East London in January. The 70.3 was a tricky race because it is short enough to push quite hard and the pacing challenge is to go fast enough to do a decent time while slow enough to last for the 6 or so hours that it will take. Needless to say I ignored my heart rate goals and pushed hard in the cycle. Starting the run, my heart rate was off the charts and I didn’t give it any time to settle down, I just pushed on. Before I knew it I hit major exhaustion about 2/3 of the way through the race. My last 7km lap of the 21km run was agony as I felt nauseous and had severe cramps.

It took me a few days to reflect on the race and work out what had happened. I was happy with breaking 6 hours but wasn’t happy with how I felt at the end of the race. I was a bit confused and unsure how I would tackle double the distance.

My intention when setting out to do the Ironman was to do something different and when I got down to basics, the 70.3 wasn’t any different to how I had done previous races.

After the 70.3 my body was clearly taking strain. I suffered an ankle injury doing a long run a few weeks later which niggled my running and prevented me from doing speed work for the rest of the lead up to Ironman. I also suffered a ham string injury on my bike while doing a training ride which is still with me and had me in agony on the day of the Ironman. It only hurt when I peddled, but at roughly 90 turns a minute for 6 hours, I had about 5400 jolts of pain to keep me focused :-)

I really believe that the injuries, I suffered, while not being serious enough to stop me competing, were all as a result of how I had done the 70.3. I believe I put my body under severe strain, more so than was necessary, and I wanted to know if I could do better not only in time but also in how I recovered afterwards. I still wondered how I could possibly keep going for at least another six hours, while doing another 70.3 miles. I certainly couldn’t have done it on the day that I finished the 70.3.

Leading up to the full Ironman I took some time to write down my strategy for the race. I wanted a strategy that I could refer to throughout the race and it would guide me in the decisions that I needed to make. Different decisions to the ones that I had ever taken previously.

I knew from experience that at points my brain would become fuzzy and I wouldn’t be able to think clearly. At those points, I wanted to make sure I had guidance. I decided that if I worked towards a time at any cost then I would be affecting my ability to finish the race as I could exhaust myself early in the race which would have severe consequences later.

I took a different approach by writing down my strategy. See my previous post. To summarise it consisted of:

  • Have Fun
  • Finish the race
  • Food and nutrition to sustain myself
  • Follow the plan which consisted primarily of my heart rate limits that I planned to stay within and my nutrition plan – what I was going to eat and drink in each stage – particularly the cycle which is the longest and most crucial stage.

On the day, I had taken some advice from a friend Janel who did a very impressive sub 11 hour Ironman a few years ago. She said not to get too manic at the start and in the transitions. She had walked down the beach into the water and had used the transitions to catch her breath between each stage.

Following this advice I did a good swim at 1h10mins and then climbed on my bicycle for the 180km cycle. The initial 15km’s were uphill which pushed my heart rate up above my 139 limit. I slowed down and averaged a pedestrian 19km/h to the highest point 183 metres above sea level.

From there it was downhill for a fast section before easing into undulating hills which lead out to turn point about 25km’s out. From the turn, the wind got behind us and I quickly made my way back to the start for lap two. That wasn’t so bad. My knee/hamstring injury was sore but not bad when I peddled continuously.

I’d like to say I didn’t think about anything other than what I was doing and the next lap but that would be lying. My main thought in the cycle was ‘will I be ok in the marathon’. I was constantly surprised that I was still alive as I had built up a fear of the cycle. By the time I finished the last lap and climbed off my bike to begin the run, I felt surprisingly good.

The run started well, it was a relief to be off the bicycle. I got to see some more of Dee as I came past a little slower on foot. Even stopped for a big kiss at some point. Lap two was about the hardest. Running past the finish and seeing people coming in and knowing that I still had another 28km’s to go was hard. My friend Chris had an awesome race and grew his lead as we passed each other a few times, each of us hanging in.

My legs got more and more stiff and sore but my energy was still good and I was nowhere near the sheer exhaustion that I felt when I did the half Ironman. It started getting dark as I went into the last lap and made my way out to the furthest point of the loop. It was starting to get a bit messy out there with people vomiting and lying around in pain, there days ending sooner than they had planned.

I heard the announcer and the crowds and knew that I was less than 3km’s from the end. My legs were sore and not working all that well but kept me moving forward. And then suddenly I was there, coming down the carpeted shoot and over the finish line to finish the 42km run and complete my first Ironman in 12h31.

I recovered remarkably well and after a good meal, a bath and some relaxing I was felt pretty good. It took me a day or two and the stiffness in my legs was gone.

While the Ironman was a great achievement which I feel good about, the real value I got was my learning of the real power of having a simple strategy to guide my actions. I lecture strategy to final year business science students and run scenario planning exercises for companies so I understand the importance of strategy for business. This was however different, this was my personal strategy around the event.

Now how much more powerful would that be if applied to my whole life.

Watch this space.

race 4 literacy

It’s ten past eight on the 12th April 2008. I’m sitting in a hotel in Port Elizabeth and tomorrow is the Ironman. My first Ironman so I’m a little nervous. Actually make that a lot nervous. My wife Dee flew up today to support me which is great. I’ve had a good day getting everything ready for tomorrow. Lots of checks and re-checks of equipment.

The thing about Ironman is that besides the fitness and the racing there is a whole lot of other logistics that need to be in place. Things like bags for running and cycling gear which we pick up during the transitions from each stage so that we can get changed. The bike, making sure it all works and that I don’t have a last minute puncture. And so on…

I’ve also spent the day responding to mails about the race 4 literacy which is an initiative we launched to link our Ironman effort with building a classroom for kids. The classroom is an Edutainer which is a converted shipping contained – so maybe the reference to Iron is appropriate. I’ve included a picture below and if you read how significant this classroom is to these young lives and how positively affects them, then you will probably feel like the many many people who have provided sponsorship for our Ironman event so that we can build a classroom. You can read about this at www.performancezone.co.za/race4literacy. We’ve had a fantastic response and have already raised a lot of money from all over the world. It’s great to have linked our efforts to something so meaningful.

So the months of training are now at an end and tomorrow morning at 7am we dive in the sea and start what will be anything from a 12 – 14 hour effort. I started thinking about what would be success tomorrow and quickly realised that by putting just a time to it, I would put myself in such a hard place to succeed or fail. So while the time I do is important, there are many more and better things that I can build into my plan which are in fact much more strategic as well.

So I came up with a race strategy which consists of Four ‘F’s which include what I believe are the key aspects for me to have a successful race. This is my first one so I’m sure by this time tomorrow I’ll know if I was on the right track or not. Part of doing an Ironman is to learn (more on that in another post) so irrespective of what happens tomorrow, if I come away wiser I will be satisfied.

My Four ‘F’ strategy for Ironman consists of:

  1. Food – the nutrition and drinks that I need leading up to, during and after the race to perform at my best and recover.
  2. Fun – enjoy myself and don’t take things too seriously. I’ll have a chance of interacting with many fantastic people during the day.
  3. Finish – while this might sound obvious, going out too fast, not looking after myself or trying to perform outside of what I have trained for, and am capable of, will put this in jeopardy. An hour spent irresponsibly at the beginning of the race will have dire consequences later on. So maybe obvious but very important for me, as I have a tendency of going too fast too soon.
  4. Follow the plan. I created a basic plan which has plans for what nutrition I will take, what heart rate I will stick with based on my training programme with Mark Allen and the pace that I should work towards. The pace does of course give me times to work towards which should be the worst case. The pace/time is also secondary to this strategy and I won’t push beyond my heart rate to achieve the time. My heart rate is the most important indicator of what is going on in my body. Too high and I’m pushing too hard or not taking in enough fluid, too low and I’m possibly in need of food.

So I have a strategy which I think is sound. I’m excited about the day and looking forward to getting started now. So I’m going to sleep and will post a follow up when done.

Don’t forget to support those kids at www.performancezone.co.za/race4literacy

You’ll make a real difference in their lives.