“To have a narrow escape; to avoid injury, disaster, or some situation that turns out to be undesirable, disastrous, dangerous, or otherwise harmful.”
I can’t quite recall the exact moment, the hour, the day, that I suddenly found myself actually committed to taking part in the Ironman, the big daddy, and the mother of all triathlons. I remember brushing off a few friendly taunts and abusive remarks that have become standard issue over the years, I remember narrowly avoiding a few pub bets gone almost wrong, I remember avoiding triathlons altogether for years and years on the simple account that I would drown in the first discipline and never get to see my bike or my running shoes again.
So how I came to be on the start line at Port Eilzabeth is a complete mystery, even to me. I have a trophy cabinet that speaks volumes for a track record of dodgy decisions, it’s dusty and near bare shelves bearing testament to a history fraught with immaculately ill-conceived escapades, most of which are born with little more than a deep burning desire to explore life beyond the comfort zone and soak up the experience. This usually involves a very basic 3 step procedure of ignorance, pain, and swallowing a healthy dose of humble pie, which has become a standard ‘before, during, and after’ routine, well ingrained after being repeated over and over and over.
My history of dabbling in the world of exercise is a frightening read. Your first marathon is supposed to be a big deal. And mine was, but for all the wrong reasons. Attempted at around the age of 18 or 19, it was an unforgettably dismal failure of epic proportions (at that age everything is a big deal), and I punished myself afterwards through an insufferable period of self doubt and torment that would see eight years, and many miles of self-discovery, pass beneath my running shoes before I went anywhere near signing up for another attempt.
Fast forward a few years and my first ultra was a gnarly trail run that took almost 10 hours before I had the finish line in my sight. My first hundred miler was only attempted because my entry to the 50miler got lost. My first canoe race was the Dusi canoe marathon, committed to before owning a boat and knowing how to hold a paddle, and the following year we tackled a 320km river from source to sea in the driest of months that tore and ripped cracks through the boat and sank it after 8 days of bailing and carnage and it would be another 2 days and a desperate attempt at picking up the pieces and getting our sense of humour and sense of adventure and sense of seaworthy all on the same boat to get to our destination at the river mouth.
But without doubt, the piece de resistance in a history of unmentionably stupid and ill-fated decisions has to be awarded to signing the entry form to my first bike race, which I entered before owning a bicycle or knowing how to ride the thing. The Freedom Challenge. A race that took me 25 days to cover the distance, a distance of roughly 2300kms across South Africa’s harshest terrain, in the heart of winter, where our temperatures ranged from the upper 30’s to below -11, and we climbed the height of Everest 4 times over (I was blissfully ignorant as to exactly what those numbers meant beforehand. Apparently the word ‘ascent’ is meaningful when you’re on a bike).
So surely tackling the Ironman as your first triathlon is just another normal step in an abysmally abnormal sequence of events? My friends will know that I seldom accept responsibility for my actions and this case would be no different from all the rest. I have a friend who decided over a cup of coffee one fateful morning that it would be a novel idea to watch me suffer the fate of the Ironman, who kindly put it on himself to foot the bill for the experience and satisfaction, and who even agreed to take part alongside, perhaps purely for the entertainment value of watching the spectacle unfolding from a close-up vantage point. His name is Caine, a word that would become synonymous with many other profanities in my arsenal over the months that followed.
Besides him, almost no-one else knew. I managed to keep it completely under wraps, to the point that most of my friends knew nothing until they thought I was a fraud a few months later for sporting an Ironman t-shirt.
But breaking the news to my mom and dad was by far the most entertaining part of the build-up to race day. I usually leave this part of the process until the absolute last possible moment, where my mom barely has time to speak before I lose signal. But on this occasion I gave them plenty of warning and the silence on the other end of the line evoked images of eyes rolled back in despair and quiet prayers begging that one day their son may find some much needed guidance in his life from above. Who on earth would want to voluntarily put themselves through this. Has our son gone completely off the rails I could hear the silence asking.
Denial is king, and they have good reason to doubt at times considering my track record, but eventually the silence on the other end of the line broke. It took a few months to do so, by which time the race was now looming just a couple of days away.
In hindsight the conversation was borderline comic had it not been so absurdly serious…
My mom: “Good luck for the weekend my boy. So, you swim on Friday, ride on Saturday, and run a marathon on Sunday?
Where to even begin explaining.
I cant recall the exact details of the conversation that followed but there was a lot of silence (again), and numerous lame attempts to put their minds at rest that their son was a) sane b) perfectly normal, and c) not under the influence of alcohol when signing up for the thing.
Perhaps downplaying the fiasco by suggesting that this was only a training excursion for the Namibia journey simply butchered all previous attempts at calming them down and put a blundering end to the conversation, after which I hurriedly put the phone down and busied myself with rehearsing the highly undignified art of wangling out of a wetsuit and into cleats in under 10 minutes. A bike without a tent strapped to the handlebars is a enough of a foreign concept for me, but mounting a road bike in cleats is on another planet altogether in my frame of reference, and I’m suddenly against all odds for transition-survival.
I do have a weakness, a very big chink in my armour of self-preservation – and that is a very inherent and deep resentment, not of being told what to do, but being told what not to do, being told that something is not possible. It is not a healthy obsession because it’s seen me on the start line of journeys that should, by all accounts, be far beyond my means.
And once again, that sleeping bear inside me had been poked in the ribs and rudely awakened and now, as with everything else that has gone before it, this monstrous event was looming on my radar simply as a massive and monumental challenge that consisted of nothing more than a long day out, no different from any others I have endured and something I knew deep inside that I could, should, would just have to, somehow, at all costs, survive… if I could just get out the water before drowning, before the sharks ate me, or before the cut-off.
I have earned a somewhat dubious reputation over the years for having a primitive approach to my training methods. I have successfully avoided the trappings of modern society for most of my exercising life, opting for an approach that has earned its dose of abuse for being increasingly uncouth, uncultured, and certainly unconventional.
Think Rocky Balboa dragging logs through the snow and you’ll get an inkling of where my inspiration comes from.
While we’re obviously in different leagues, and I’m not planning on fighting the Russians anytime soon, as a kid growing up in the 80’s that was exposed repeatedly to those big screen exploits you couldn’t help but be inspired to take up any challenge, come what may, and against all odds. You didn’t need fancy gear and the latest equipment, you just needed the heart of a lion. Sorry, a tiger.
And the build-up to Ironman was bang on target with that philosophy.
Being cautious with your budget (aka cheap) is also a good motivating factor behind that log-dragging approach. For fear of shelling out hard earned cash to workout in the plastic confines of a gym cell, my workshop floor has become my gym over many years, with a pain-equals-reward routine of press-ups and sit-ups everyday to earn that 10 o’clock coffee. Chin-ups are done by hanging on a board used for rock climbing training, and core work is tackled either by trying to remain upright in an unstable canoe or on a slack-line strung out to a palm tree in the garden out back. Weight training consists of lifting bricks, duct-taped together over a broom handle, interspersed with the physical nature of my work that’s caught somewhere between being a jeweller and a blacksmith that includes hammering, beating, and rolling metal.
I have always, without exception, been the smallest and scrawniest kid on the block. Where others have a six-pack, I have a rib-cage. All this training may sound primitive but I figured that somewhere through all that gut-wrenching blood sweat and tears, I had to somehow hopefully rattle that rib cage and finally find some muscle worthy of hauling me through 16 hours of triathlon-torment.
When it comes to swimming however the absence of the luxury of a gym contract is a completely different kettle of fish. Without that little piece of plastic that gives access to a lane in a pool in a building in the suburbs, the only alternatives were either a dam in the mountains, or the ocean. The dam is one word. Stunning. It is a pristine and picturesque miniature Swiss-styled lake, set in the heart of the mountains of the Cape peninsula – calm, and with pitch black water thanks to the fynbos, but it has become the stomping ground for seasoned triathletes to show off their mettle and if you’re a complete hack like myself you simply don’t go there. At least not until you’ve moved on from the water wings.
So I was left to scrape the barrel, and the end of the line is the ocean. Literally. The last railway station south along the peninsula ends in Simonstown, and where it ends is a beach. The waters are murky, windswept, bitterly cold, and shark-infested, but setting foot in that ocean for the first training session was like paying homage to the years of staring wide-eyed at the big screen watching Rocky dragging those logs through the snow. There was no turning back now.
That last sentence is actually frighteningly accurate – there really was no turning back. Thanks to Google Earth I had marked out a lap, starting at a pipe at one end of the beach and ending 200m further down. I had this as my first goal – swim to the mark, turn, come back.
It was mid-January, with a little over 3 months to learn how to swim.
And I couldn’t make the return lap that morning. There quite literally was no turning back.
The water chilled my core as it seeped into the wetsuit, and my lungs filled with sea water on every breath as I was lurched through the choppy water being churned up by the thumping south-easter winds. And my mind was filled with a combination of fear and loathing for what I had got myself signed up for. After much flapping and flailing, by the time I did eventually reach that 200m mark, I was so stuffed I had to get out and walk back along the beach.
The psychological battle that endured for the next few months of preparations was off the charts, but come hell or high water I knew I had to figure this swimming thing out. Back in the workshop I immediately drew up a grid in 100m increments, and began colouring it in each time I progressed.
Then I Googled how to swim. (that is not a joke!)
Allow me to rewind briefly to put this non-existent swimming career into perspective. I grew up in one of the coldest places in South Africa, deep in the heart of the southern Natal midlands, in a small town whose surrounding landscapes and farmlands were dwarfed by the peaks of the Drakensberg. The town has been known to be completely isolated and cut-off from the outside world because of snowfalls.
To top off that summer feeling, we did not ever grow up with a pool in our back garden, the closest we ever got to having water in our backyard was a string of oversized birdbaths strewn across the lawn that iced up in winter and provided a challenge to see if we could get the ice out unbroken. And to escape those rare scorching summer days, both of them, we were mostly told to run under the sprinkler in the garden, once the snow had melted of course. All this was hardly conducive to the launch of a good swimming career and I found myself embarking on a passage through the corridors of boarding school staring petrified into the deep end of the swimming pool and wondering how I was going to explain my way out of this one. By the time I turned 30 I could stay afloat to save my life, but that was about it. There were no heroic back flips off Durban’s north beach pier, and I learnt to water-ski out of pure necessity of having to hang on to that cable wherever the boat went because the less appealing alternative was drowning.
And so I stuck to that beach on the Cape peninsula, through thick and thin. Most of my training was deliberately done on week mornings when there were fewer people around to witness the spectacle unfolding, though despite this I am sure the NSRI in Simonstown was put on alert on more than one occasion.
My short-lived swimming career proves a colourful read after having being repeatedly roughed up and dumped by near gale-force south-easterly winds. I have swallowed more sea water than I care to remember – I like to consider this as doing my part for climate change by preventing the sea levels rising. I have survived tides laden with blue bottles, and a close call with by far the largest jelly fish I have ever seen when mid-stroke I almost pushed the thing flat handed under the water. I have been discoloured by a thick, ugly, red-tide that usually sees millions of lobsters walking out the ocean in an oxygen-deprived stupor (par for the course with my training)
And I have had three training sessions interrupted by shark scares. One I had barely entered the sea and had to scamper out, one I swam regardless, and one I practically ran on water to get out. There is nothing quite as disconcerting as the knowledge that a great white is doing laps in the lane next to you, although I like to consider the exit out the water that day as my most efficient training for the exit to transition on race day.
These were the encounters I knew about, I shudder to think of the ones I did not.
I have also learnt that an upright hand above ones head appears to be the universal warning signal for a shark fin, and not a cheerful greeting by someone walking down the beach as I had initially thought.
On top of all this, I have also swum through quite possibly the most surreal experience anyone training for an Ironman could imagine – an entire fleet of amphibious navy craft ramping up onto the beach like something out of a documentary on the Normandy invasion, with what followed that appeared to be an ambush of the beach and the surrounding buildings. I could never work out exactly what was going on, if I had found myself in the middle of a SA Navy training exercise, if there really was a terrorist threat trying to blow up Simonstown railway station (I know Metrorail and Spoornet aren’t too popular on a good day but this was taking it to a whole new level), or if I had unintentionally found myself in the middle of a movie shoot, in which case point me to the catering tent because that swimming training ramps up the hunger in unprecedented volumes.
Regardless of their intentions, it suddenly became very real when the soldiers raced past in front of me – we were all probably equally confused, I’m quite sure there were no people in wetsuits and goggles on Normandy beach – and threw themselves deep into the beach sand with rifles pointing at the train station. If I thought I was confused there must have been a few train passengers even more bewildered. Having said that, the overriding comforting factor here is that this after all the SA Navy we are talking about, the very same who can crash their own submarine on the ocean floor, destroy another one in the safe confines of their own harbour by plugging the electrics in wrong, and accidentally deploying an entire barrel of live ammunition at an innocent fishing vessel during training off Agulhas, and throughout all this still not kill anyone, so I was, in reality, quite safe from harms reach.
During this time, the progress chart I had drawn up was gradually being coloured in. I could eventually swim the 200m and turn and come back. I pushed it to 400m down the beach and made another landmark, then 500m. Eventually I could swim the 500m there and back, and then back again, and finally cracking the 1 mile mark was a magical and unforgettable milestone to reach. At last, 24 years after leaving school I could finally swim the distance of the Midmar mile. By this time there were just two months to race day.
It was also around that time that something inside clicked and something started to happen in the water. I didn’t get any faster, but I got comfortable. Comfortable with the motion of being adrift, comfortable with being in a world so foreign to what I was accustomed to, comfortable with waves washing over me and comfortable with the meditative repetition of breathing in and blowing bubbles out, that once used to be a dreaded routine of panic stricken gasps and swallowing lungfuls of water and not being able to blow anything but confusion back out into the water.
Comfortable with the pain, and comfortable with, almost eagerly awaiting, the dead dogged tiredness that would follow the days of long, windswept and weather beaten swims.
With about ten days to race day I was finally ready for the feared long swim of the training, 3 and a half kms from Glencairn to Simonstown. By now the water temperature seemed to have drastically dropped overnight and for a KZN boy was the equivalent of jumping through a hole in the ice. By half way, an hour in, I was succumbing badly to the cold. I could feel my body drained of any warmth as my limbs gradually turned numb and useless, and the only comfort lay in the belief that it was hopefully also far too cold for the sharks too. It was 2 hours later when we got out the water in Simonstown, with only one thought racing through my mind. Surely, surely, PE has to be better than this.
If the swimming was a leap into the deep end of life beyond the comfort zone, there was still the matter of a ride and the run to come to grips with. My cycling career began in sheer panic in 2012 so I don’t exactly have a wealth of experience to fall back on. Most of my riding has been done on a mountain bike with a tent and sleeping bag strapped to the handlebars, and laden with heavy backpacks training for the Knysna rides, so I was debating doing the ride on my trusty mountain bike but was eventually talked into investing in a flimsy contraption known commonly as a road bike. With its unconvincingly thin tyres and barely an ounce of fat on the frame it was like sitting on a paper plane on wheels, and my only thought during the only training ride I tackled prior to the race was why couldn’t I have had this bike when we were portaging Stettyns. Apparently its common practise if you’re training for Ironman to either rack up a serious bill on an even more flimsy bike known as a time-trial bike (?), or the alternative is to pimp your existing ride by stripping it down to the bare essentials and spending about just as much as buying a new bike by kitting it out with the appropriate components – all this of course to save the massively important few grams.
Besides being brutally physical, the build-up to Ironman was also highly educational, and I have learnt that nothing, nothing on this planet, comes as close to the obsession cyclists have with trying to save on a single milligram of unnecessary weight.
The cheaper alternative of course would be to simply shirk a few kg’s of body weight by avoiding the bakeries that line the popular cycling routes (or could it be that the popular cycling routes are built around these institutions), who’s evil trade wafts out onto the street like cheap perfume luring their innocent prey in. And this, I have learned dear reader, must be the biggest irony in the world of cycling, a sport that is so fundamentally obsessed with weight, where you will find hardened cyclists feeding themselves on pastries and cream scones, while in-between mouthfuls discussing in infinite detail the weight of their bicycles outside. Unless I’m missing something, it doesn’t seem like rocket science to me as to where the scales of reason have gone off balance. While I’ll be the first to admit I can’t ride past a coffee shop without indulging, the accompanying conversations are completely lost on me, bar for the humour of the situation.
That aside, I was a very happy and equally nervous passenger taking my new found road bike out for its maiden, and only, voyage before the race – a 160km trek through the winelands outside Stellenbosch. I wont deny it, the exhilaration of travelling that distance on such a light bike was unbeatable and I discovered you can get from one wine farm to the next so much quicker, but my nerves were shot at the end of the descent off the Franschhoek pass and every corner was gingerly nudged by at snails pace.
With my swimming career on a grand total of 3 months long, and the cycling relying mostly on 2 years of mountain biking to get me through, the last discipline was the one I was looking forward to the most. The run. Having grown up most of my life running, for various reasons – running away being the predominant theme, I will gladly admit there was a dismal lack of focus on the training accompanied by a distinct air of simply relying on history to get me through the marathon. My cause was helped tenfold by a natural build-up in the months preceding the race, from the Puffer 6 months before, then the Hout Bay Triple Trouble at 4 months before, a marathon with 2 months to go, and the Wartrail 4 weeks before, so I just let it roll from one to the next, while in-between indulging in a few low-key sunrise excursions to restore some sanity and coffee levels to the training programme.
And then, with less than a week to race day, entirely in keeping with my unorthodox build up to the event this happened…
I can’t claim this to be anything vaguely valiant like having fallen off my bike while riding, or fighting off a shark while swimming, or being hit by a car while running. Simply put, a lawnmower fell on my leg. Yes – that’s it, and in the words of my 6 year old son, how does a lawnmower fall on your leg? All I can say is it hurt like hell while I watched in a slow-motioned stupor as that heavy metal rim and the blade hit my shin and chiselled its way nice and neatly down to my ankle.
So there I was, and if I was Rocky there would be blood smeared snow all around and it wouldn’t stop him so I wouldn’t let it stop me. My bags were packed and the next stop was PE.
It’s Sunday morning in April. I’m finally in PE. It’s been two days of high paced action – the world is buzzing with excitement, a far cry from hibernating in my preferred solitude, with masses of people everywhere and claustrophobia starting to set in. Lean mean looking athletes lay out their gear in the transition area and prep their bicycles that look like more space-age rockets than descendants of the graceful Penny Farthing. I swallow my pride and quietly wheel mine over to its stand in the far corner. It’s a far cry from anything resembling a rocket. By comparison it’s a postman’s bicycle to what’s out here, but in my world it’s my fighter jet, my horse, and my best friend, and we’re about to go to war together.
I’m in my wetsuit, standing staring with wide-eyes into a magnificent sunrise at the other end of the ocean. The orange and pink reflections on the water are being churned into a froth of white by the pounding surf. The helicopters are buzzing overhead and the crowds are gathered. Its electric.
I’ve officially stepped into the ring.
I know deep down that it’s going to hurt. It’s going to be a long, ugly, and hard fought bout that’s going to go from daybreak to well into the dark hours beyond nightfall. But I’m here and this is what I do best, roll with the punches and take the knocks, and then fight for all you’re worth to pick yourself up and stand up again and start putting the broken pieces back together to make sure you finish what you started. I’ve done it before and survived, and I’ll do it again.
Before I had time to contemplate any more lurking thoughts about the meaning of life and its perils I suddenly found I had shuffled my way to the start of the swim and the official timekeeper was counting us down. 5 … … 4 …My life was flashing before my eyes … 3….. while thoughts raced through my mind and my heart was thumping in my chest… 2… and my palms were sopping wet with anxious sweat dripping off and I was ….1 …. trying to slow down time, while hoping the timekeeper would start counting back up to ten and then he suddenly shouted at us to go and I looked down and my feet were instinctively running across the beach carrying me involuntarily towards the water and I had one last momentary rational thought before I got beaten across the chest with the first wave to wash over me and sweep me clean off my feet. The thought wasn’t a prayer of help or a plea of forgiveness for all my sins and it wasn’t for world peace or eternal happiness. It was a very simple outright statement. “Caine you bastard, I’m going to get you for this”
And with that the second wave swallowed me up and I all but disappeared from sight into the vast depths of the Indian Ocean. I could no longer feel the sand beneath my feet and I knew this was it, I was officially and quite literally out of my depth. Was I going to be the first Ironman competitor ever to be washed out to sea? The upside to that would of course mean that I would at least get around the first buoy 300m off the beach, and then, currents depending, I would either end up drifting north to the next buoy 2kms up the coast towards the harbour, or in the opposite direction, south towards the great Atlantic Ocean. It was a 50 / 50 chance.
Gambling has never really been my thing. Buying a Lottery ticket is even borderline for me. So I decided to put my head down, or rather lift it up to gasp for air, and forge on through the fog of pounding surf ahead of me. Those first three hundred metres were absolute carnage and I was suddenly longing for Simonstown and its icy waters and thumping south-easterlies and blue bottles and jelly fish and red tides and sharks and army invasions, longing for something familiar that I knew I could survive because I was suddenly completely so far beyond my world that I may as well have been on a different planet surrounded by aliens.
I’d love to be able to write of the glory of the swim, the joy of the freedom of movement in the rhythmic swell, the mental transformation from human to dolphin, the succumbing to the moment and being immersed (submerged?) in the Ironman experience. But in reality I can really only remember two moments that stood out, the one being the look of pity on the lifeguard’s face as he sat bobbing on his ski nearby always at the ready to rescue me, and the second one was the feeling of finally rounding the furthest buoy and turning back towards the pier and knowing I was an hour in and I could maybe, just maybe still do this within the cut-off.
It was a monster swim and it was an hour and forty something minutes later that I got washed up to shore unceremoniously and I suddenly felt solid earth beneath my feet again and I was smiling big, really big and about to bend over and kiss the sand like a shipwreck victim landing on a desert island but the ocean was not finished with me yet and just then another wave had its way with me and dumped me up onto the beach. I scrambled to my feet and through to the transition area trying to look like I knew what I was doing while doing mental high fives and fist punches and spent most of my time getting ready for the bike thinking back to the daunting and harrowing days of Simonstown that suddenly seemed an eternity away.
With my mind still adrift in the glory of having survived the swim, I raced out, grabbed my bike, which wasn’t difficult to find in the vast transition area because by now all the bikes were out on the road, almost got disqualified because in all my eagerness I started riding too soon but the marshall obviously realised I wasn’t a contender for the podium and let me go on my way.
I was relieved, one giant leap closer to the famed red carpet and I was now on the bike, my fighter jet, my home away from home with the ocean now behind me. I felt the wheels ticking over and my legs starting to warm up into a new rhythm of the ride. The ride is a simple format – 45kms out and 45 back, twice, totalling 180kms, officially the furthest I’ve ever attempted to ride in a single sitting. The first lap out and back was an uneventful meander along the coast road with the exception of stopping for a pee break and no sooner had I got all ready for it than the TV helicopter buzzed directly overhead filming the front guys racing past. And therein lies my moment of glory on the Ironman, broadcast to millions of viewers being lapped while peeing.
But for what it lacked in interest in the first lap, the second lap of the ride made up in abundance and soon became a complete fiasco of survival, of humour, of dealing with an absurd sequence of events that went from breaking a spoke, to duct taping it together using a stick found on the side of the road as a splint, to removing the front brakes because the wheel was now buckling so badly it was rubbing on the frame, to getting so roasted and sunburnt, to having a puncture and then losing the valve of the new tube into the roadside foliage as it shot out from the pressure, and having to find a second tube to put in, to the chain constantly slipping off because the large chainring was somehow missing a tooth, and then the final nail in the coffin of breaking a second spoke with a few kms still to go and having to run with the bike then carry it then trying to ride it because the wheel was now so buckled it could not turn and I was hanging on for dear life and when I reached the dismount line my bike stopped instantly by itself without having to pull any brakes because it was now completely and utterly at its breaking point. The timing was truly miraculous – the bike could quite literally not go a metre more. I hopped off, (not that I had an option) smiled a toothy grin at the marshall because I was thrilled to have simply arrived here and he must have thought I was some kind of travelling freak show that had just arrived at his transition, and I carried the bike the last few hundred metres to finally lay it to rest in its rack.
It was now late afternoon going into evening, I bade farewell to the day that had been – to the swim, to bike admin, to misery and to the scorching sun. I laced up my shoes and took the first few strides out onto the road to begin the marathon. I was instantly happy. The run. The part I had been longing for since sunrise. Since I signed up and entered this race. The most admin you can have now is a shoelace that needs tying. Or a stomach that needs purging with a finger down the throat. I’ve done that plenty of times and survived, I have hours in hand now and I know deep down that this race is something I can finish.
It’s a four lapper course, boring by standards but well designed in that the crowds carry you throughout. The first lap starts off as a late afternoon introduction to the crowds who are gathered to make sure you get through this. You’re a new face on the block, someone they haven’t seen all day and they jump into action and by the time you get to lap four you know each other by name and by face and by their drinking habits, and their initial looks of reservation and concern have elevated to unrivalled celebration that carry you through that last lap like you’re some kind of hero – it seems as much celebration on their part that they’ve successfully got you there and they’re high-fiving you and high-fiving their drinking buddies alongside and the atmosphere is unmatched as you take those last few steps along Port Elizabeth’s beach front road and the marshal looks at your wrist and asks how many laps you’ve done and you shout “all of ‘em” and he smiles big and waves his flag to one side and ushers you down off the beach road toward the final home straight, towards that red carpet.
And it was as if the Gods that had steered my athletics career to this point, to a long awaited debut onto that famed lush red carpet of the Ironman, were about to have the last laugh at my expense again, for as I entered the home straight and saw the finish line up ahead my stride instinctively opened into a full gloried sprint and I raised my arms triumphantly into the air and I had waited years, and now 14 long hours, to hear what every athlete dreams of hearing at least once in his triathlon career as he crosses over this line. And I knew that with each passing step I was just getting this all completely wrong because in that moment, as I closed my eyes, I knew the guy just up ahead of me was about to steal it all, about to take my moment on the finish line. And I could see it coming, and then it came, the concluding act amidst a stream of misfit moments that I will forever cherish as memories that made this day truly, truly, unforgettable. The voice of the announcer excitedly proclaiming over the speakers, “MO…. YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”
And as he said that and as I took my last stride over the line I mentally gave myself a quiet pat on the back and said to myself “Its okay Eric, so are you”
And with that another chapter came to an end. One that started off as highly improbable and almost certainly completely unlikely that it would have a conclusion at all, a red carpet to wrap it up with that seemed an eternity away was now suddenly a thing of the past.