my upside-down Ironman

When the opportunity to do an overseas Ironman came along last fall, I jumped at the chance to race the 10th anniversary edition of the only Ironman on the African continent. If you’re going to go to the trouble of packing your bike in a box and getting on a plane, you might as well make it count.

The months between registering and last Sunday brought everything I’ve come to expect from Ironman training. Hours in the saddle tracing the California coast. Early morning treadmill sessions. Chatty runs with loyal training partners. Guiltless lazy evenings with beer and House of Cards. Salads when I wanted pizza and two-hour trainer workouts when I just wanted a happy hour. Countless early mornings and two stubborn black toenails. Losing my footing on both running trails and relationships.

Ironman South Africa.

Port Elizabeth. Looks a lot like San Diego!

The sweetest, best mechanics a girl could ask for, Tess and Theuns! They assembled my bike and then helps tweak my brakes and gearing later in the week.

Suddenly, my taper arrived and I pulsed with energy. I started to let myself dream: a sub-11 finish—or at least please just a sub-4 hour marathon. That elusive Kona slot, bolstered by tales of deep roll-downs at other races and South African athletes who would “never be able to afford the trip.” A dangerous storm grew, under clouds silver-lined with hope.

The days leading up to the race were busy with outings and prep and taking in a new place. Suddenly it was 3:30 pm on race eve, and I’d been on a sleeping pill hangover all day hanging out in the sun chasing rhinos. Bike and bag check-in was at 5 and I was exhausted. I went through the motions, a little surprised at how calm I felt. Swim, bike and run gear into their respective bags. That’s it. Nothing I haven’t done before.

Pre-race practice swim…

…and coffee with my two handsome dates, Eric and Jeron.

A 15 minute nap, some fresh air, and the buzz of the transition area rejuvenated me, and I returned to my hotel room for some down time and catching up with friends and family online. I ignored the “don’t try anything new on race day” motto and took my last remaining sleep aid pill around 7:30 pm. I awoke at 3:30 a.m. refreshed, with time for an (almost) leisurely breakfast. Score! The bad kind of race morning anxiety was strangely low, but I was feeling better than I had on the trip thus far and was ready to execute my plan by “attacking” the swim. I strolled down to the race site with my new South Africa friends, Eric and Jeron, with plenty of time to prepare for my 7:00 start time.

On the beach a line of drummers played while I examined the clearing clouds and wondered if I should’ve chosen tinted goggles (nope, I was good). The announcer’s voice interrupted my thoughts, talking about all the months of training we had under our belts, and now here we were, just six…three… one minute away from our big day. That crack of time is so charged, maybe the most emotional of an Ironman day for me.

Kragga Kamma game park

Visiting Chuck the rhino on Saturday at Kragga Kamma Game Park.

Ironman South Africa

Stickered up and ready to go.

Ironman South Africa

Easy spin out to the craggy coastline along the bike course

Then, a cannon blast. In that moment all the intangibles—hopes, expectations, goals—are replaced by very solid things. Face hits water, elbow meets body, foot contacts face. I swam a personal-best 1:07—pushing myself, jockeying for position and clawing my way after bubbles and buoys. I exited the water 12th in my age group, ready to tackle my first race on the new Slice.

I took the first loop conservatively, in hopes of better executing the run I was trained for. (Being in the last wave made this plan inevitable, with crowds of age group men to pass without getting dinged for drafting. Those first 56 miles ended up being the tightest, most strategic riding I’ve had to do in an Ironman yet.) I tried my best to stick to my 180-200 watt range, but when I saw my three-hour loop one split, I let pride sneak in. I don’t bike a three-hour half! What’s up? I started to push, as Port Elizabeth began to step up to its “Windy City” nickname. The local motto, “West is Best, East is Beast” proved true—the latter was our prevailing destiny. The only perk was that I had a lot more space on the second loop, happy to play cat-and-mouse with a strong female cyclist whose bib read “Kirsty.” I came in at 5:54:33, fourth off the bike in my age group and sixth overall amateur woman. For the geeks out there, I pushed a normalized power of 181 watts, slightly lower than my watts in Cabos last year. A little disappointing, but I was purposely holding back and the wind…oh, the wind! (Later athletes speculated that it took more out of people than they thought.)

Ironman South Africa

Friday night dinner with the Endurance Sports Travel crew. (Kudu, springbok and warthog on the menu.)

Ironman South Africa

Checking in my bike on Saturday.

Kirsty and I trotted out of T2 together, even chatting a little. “How many of these crazy things have you done?” she asked. And we went from there. It’s funny how intimidating someone can seem on the bike, but when feet hit the pavement, everyone seems human again. We stayed together for the first two or three miles, clocking a steady 8:15 pace, until I pulled away to use a porta-potty. I caught back up, and we backed off to 8:45-9’s.

I knew it was coming. That old familiar chest pain I’ve bored so many of you with, and which I can only explain as a demon-ulcer. Those first few miles with Kirsty were so pleasant in retrospect they now seem like a dream. I’m never sure of the exact moment the pain comes on, but looking at my splits, mile 14 seems to have heralded the end. I remember seeing a 9:48 minute mile, as if ushering in the negativity and discouragement. Jen stop looking at your watch, just run. The knife in the chest. The first walk through an aid station. The questions: why does this matter so much? But you’ve trained so hard…maybe if I just walk for a while it will pass…

Ironman South Africa bike

Hard not to get distracted by the view.

A gift from a friend rode the whole way with me.

But it never does. No Tums or Pepto Bismal tablets or deep breathing would help. My mental strength was in short supply. I was losing the fight. My sternum burned, my chest spasmed as if with hiccups, and my belly began to bloat. I ripped off my heart rate monitor and stuffed it into my bra, aching for relief from the tightness. The run of my life was slipping away right in front of me, as quickly as my competitors began to trot by. My watch beeped 10, 11, 12 minute mile paces. I gave up a thousand times along that course lined with just as many strangers: Go Jenny! Go Jenny-fer! You can walk tomorrow! Go lady! And I talked myself back in a thousand times more. You’ve come all this way. You have to at least finish. Just get your medal. 

As the sun set, a chill came over my body and I joined the family of Ironman walk-runners. Finally, one last lonely stretch through Nelson Mandela University, and then I was able to pick it up for the final two-mile stretch (if you can call 10:30’s picking up the pace). Finally, finish line lights to chase and the sweet, sweet end.

Ironman South Africa course

My Ironman South Africa files. I swam straight!

Ironman South Africa

Day start to day end. Surrounded by thousands of others to alone in a McD’s.

Medal around my neck. Foil blanket. A patch of trampled grass that felt like a feather bed. A massage therapy student who might as well have been an angel. Tenderly bending to pull my morning clothes over my salty body. Trudging the two miles back to my hotel, zombie-like. Floor. Bath. Room service. A McDonald’s flurry. Texts like long-distance hugs. Insomnia. Sleep.

People keep telling me that finishing an Ironman is a huge accomplishment. That I should be proud. And they are right. But I don’t do it for the finish anymore. We all do things others perceive as remarkable, yet to us are as common as getting out of bed in the morning. We climb mountains. We sell out auditoriums. We tend to a sick child. We design and build and write and create. Just because they are common to us doesn’t make them less remarkable to others. But just because they are remarkable to others doesn’t mean we should apologize for our dissatisfaction.

Addo Elephant Park.

Elephants! No better way to recover. (At Addo Elephant Park.)

Addo Elephant park.

Picnic lunch at Addo.

I don’t know if this makes sense, but regardless of how happy I should be with my 11:44 finish, I’m not. I was trained for faster. It was why I trained. I worked so hard, and this physical nut I just can’t crack stole it from me. I’m not trying to get over it just yet, I’m letting it sink in and looking for how it can make me a better athlete and person. I’m asking the hard questions and writing about it and talking about it with whoever will listen: Over beers at the after-party with my new South African friends (the aforementioned Kirsty being one of them!) until the dance floor pulled us away. With my loving husband, thoughtful friends, and endlessly supportive family. With a pro on my flight back home who didn’t have a good day, either, and in our short conversation, said many wise things I’ll take with me through the next few days. (Thanks, Jessie!) Needless to say I’ve reached a new level with wanting to figure this chest thing out.

I spent my last morning in South Africa, as usual, around a table with the breakfast club and one too many croissants. After saying my goodbyes, I took a stroll along King’s Beach, the first extended period of true solitude of my whole trip. I wrote my finish time in the sand, and let the waves come and wash it away. I let the ocean drown out everything else, and let myself be truly disappointed for one last moment in time. Then it was off to the airport for 30+ hours of travel, back to real life, waiting patiently on the other side.

Instagram from my beach walk, and medal.

For more pictures, view my Facebook album here.

Gear run-down: Aquasphere‘s killer, kick-resistant K180’s, old and comfy-as heck Nineteen wetsuit, Cannondale Slice RS (with Zipp Vuka Bull base bar, Profile Design T4 aerobars, Cobb Saddles 55 JOF and Reynolds/Continental wheel/tire combo), Specialized S-Works TriVent shoes, Champion Systems/Betty Designs kit, Giro Selector helmet, Speedfil A2 aero bottle, XLAB cages, Infinit Nutrition, Betwixt chamois cream, Newton Distance running shoes, Oakley sunnies, and Fuel Belt sprint palm holder.

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