Ironman African Championship South Africa 2017 – I am an Ironman!

9 April 2018
By: Michelle Mortimer (aka Morts)

Living in Port Elizabeth this time of year is always exciting. There’s ironman fever in the air! Watching my club mates prepare for the big day I am remind of my own journey to the magical red carpet. To that end, here is a little recap of the day I conquered IMSA!

The road to Ironman for everyone is very different. We all have our unique stories that brought us to the point of attempting to slay the Dragon that is a full Ironman Event. For me, it came as a progression, pushing myself from one event to the next. After a few 70.3 East London races, I felt confident that this was the next logical step. Looking back, entering a full Ironman is anything but ‘Logical’, but it was a hell of a journey.

So once the mind was made up that I would be lining up I approached my trusted coach, Dr Sally Waterworth, to lay out the plan going forward. How were we going to get me to the finish line!

Plan laid out, training began in earnest. You find your routine and try to stick to it as best you can. Which at times can be interesting when life, family and work also need to compete for your attention. But the weeks ticked over and trusting in the plan I moved forward. Sessions became longer, they required a little more motivation to get started, but always felt great once complete. Club training partners, supportive family and friends all help to get you through the hard sessions. You remind yourself that it’s either hurt today… or hurt on race day, so in short, “Suck it up buttercup, go train!”. Eating became not so much about what you like, but about fueling for the next training session. Learning what your body can tolerate and what you should really avoid. The best part of the week though would have to be “Magic Hour”, this is the hour after the long session on a Saturday when I could treat myself to the craving that may have been bugging me all week.

Before I knew it, the weeks had melted away and the challenge that seemed so far away was upon me. It brought with it a wealth of emotions. Confidence fades to fear, which gives way to excitement, the anticipation and pretty much any other emotion you can imagine. This roller-coaster followed me all the way to the start line. I’m not one to panic prior to an event generally, I like to save all my nervousness for the last possible moment, the start line. That is when I will distract myself talking nonsense to complete strangers while internally giving myself a little pep talk. I remind myself that I am doing this for the enjoyment and that if anything goes wrong and I can’t finish the sun will indeed still come up again in the morning. Don’t be fooled by the smiles and laughter though, on the inside I’m an absolute wreck desperately trying to keep it together. Let’s call it “Race Face”!

I remember arriving in the dark on race day and having a quiet chuckle knowing I’d only be leaving in the dark once more. Once you accept the fact that it is just going to be a long day, it does make the thought of what you are about to do a little easier. “How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time”. With that in mind, I handed in my special needs bags and headed into transition to get everything else ready.

Bike and bags checked, one last walk around to get the lay of the land and then out of transition to get ready for the swim. I found a quiet spot away from the crowds to have a little peace while trying to get my wetsuit on. That always seems more tiring than the swim itself. Final hugs to friends, fellow athletes and supporters, drop of my streetwear bag and down onto the beach to take my place on the sand. It’s hard at this point not to notice how nervous those around you are. There’s no turning back now though, I was ready! The pros go off, and I had another chuckle wondering if I’ll be off the bike before they finish. Small thoughts like that amuse me.

Then it’s our turn, the age-groupers. Somehow, no matter how hard I try, I never quite get the seeding right into the water. The crowds move in an odd way. Just ignore that and shuffle forward ‘til you’re at the front. Smile at the volunteers who look almost as nervous as everyone else, thank them for their assistance… and you’re off. Your Race has begun. I was on my way to the red carpet!

I don’t remember much about the swim to be honest. I found my rhythm fast, being fairly comfortable in the ocean and siting and set about to the task at hand. The new starting system is much better than the old mass start, you don’t end up in the washing machine. However, there is still traffic that requires a little navigation from time to time, if like me you get the seeding a little off. I remember it being a little choppy, those without experience might have thought it was rough. I kept siting, kept on line and kept my rhythm and before I knew it was heading round the pier and back towards the sand. What I do remember was the sand looking quite shallow, saying to myself, “It is still too deep, don’t make the rookie mistake of trying to stand!”, then trying to stand anyway and yes… it was still too deep. Another little chuckle for being an idiot and kept swimming ‘til hand hit sand.

Quick look at my watch and was surprised to see I was spot on target for my predicted swim. Funny that, you train for months and then are still somehow surprised when it goes to plan.

Into transition, wetsuit off, and bike stuff on. Took a minute to get lots and lots of sunscreen and was off to find my bike. Now for the mental part of the race – The Ride. The ride is long and can be lonely. Heading out you do a mental check for anything that doesn’t quite feel right and force yourself to slow down a little. The sheer exhilaration of being out the water tends to make to fly into the ride. But there are many hours ahead, no point blowing in the first 90km. The bike was very methodical, everything I’d practiced in training. When to eat, when to drink, etc… you get comfortable and pedal away. The best part is knowing you’re coming up to spectators. Seeing friends and family littered at various points on the course gives you that momentary lift. I found myself riding towards those points, eagerly looking for family and friends to draw strength from and they did not disappoint. End of lap one I stopped at Special needs to pick up my extra nutrition. I was helped by a friend, Toi, who asked me how it was going. I remember telling her, “It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be”. She asked what I’m going to do and I just responded, “Keep Pedaling!”.  There was a red carpet to get to, and I wasn’t going to miss my date with destiny. The second lap went by in a bit of a blur. Most of it was spent trying not to think about the run. Then turn around was upon me and I was heading back to the beachfront. Saddle was starting to feel a little hard, but otherwise body was doing well. Was blessed with an ever so slight change in wind which gave me a tail wind push home along marine. Then I was back in the chaos and energy that is the beachfront on IMSA day. People everywhere, so much excitement. Off the bike, and a walk stretch through transition to get ready for the run. A little more suntan lotion, quick bathroom break and off to the run course. Quick glance at the watch and happy that all is still going perfectly to plan.

I knew the run was always going to be a bit of a grey area for me on race day. Those who know me, know that my running is not the strongest part of the race. Adding to that, I had never done a marathon distance prior to this day. So, with confidence in my training I moved forward into the unknown. The run at IMSA is absolutely amazing. There are definitely highs and lows, but what I remember most are the highs. The course can basically be broken down into 3 zones, the part in the middle is cheers, laughter, encouragement and excitement. The two turn-around ends, in contrast, are quiet. Both have their advantages. The busy part to draw on much needed strength and motivation from friends, loved ones and random strangers. The quieter part to do some self-reflection and system checks. The first 18km was an interesting ironman shuffle… keep moving forward. At 19km though I started taking a lot of strain and switched to walking a bit more which felt much better. Did some quick math and worked out that walking the rest will only take roughly an extra 20min, give or take. I had time to burn at this point so made the decision to move to the walking part of my race. Early into lap 3, while walking at pace towards my goal, I passed a lady from the UK, Francesca. She asked why I was walking so fast and I pointed out there was a place I needed to get to. With that, I invited her to walk with me, as we were both heading in the same direction anyway. While we walked we chatted away about all sorts of things. Not only was the chatting a great distraction to pass the time, but it’s always lovely meeting new people. As we were heading back into the crowd I warned her it might get a little loud as I know quite a few people on the beachfront, and indeed it was. When we emerged the other side, she may have been a little overwhelmed, but ready to go. We walked together ‘til the last 2km when she found the energy to run on. I wished her well and told her I was saving myself for the last km.

As you approach the red carpet the most amazing thing happens, all aches and pains dissolve into complete exhilaration. There I was running again, while it may have looked like a hobble I felt like I was flying. Back in the light, spotlight on me. High fiving everyone who was still out there showing their support. The smile is no longer a grin, it is ear to ear. Bursting with joy as I heard the immortal words, “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!!!!!!!!!!”. To the end of my days no one will ever be able to take that achievement away from me. I fought against the odds to complete a mammoth task, that I’m certain many had thought was impossible. I finished in a time of 14:57:51. My target was a sub 15hrs. Once finished, space blanket wrapped around me and medal firmly round my neck I left the fabled red carpet to be greeted by my friends and family. Thank you all so much for your love and support, without it, the day would not have been half as memorable. This may have been my first IMSA, but it certainly will not to be my last. 2019 I plan to do it all over again.

So, to those taking part this week, enjoy every moment of your race. The good, the bad and the ugly. It all comes together to make the most amazing day. Roll with the punches and do whatever it takes to get to that red carpet. Best of luck. Trust your training, believe in yourself, you’ve got this.

‘Keep going until you reach the red carpet or someone tells you to stop, always!’

Challenge 2017 Complete!