At 20km into the outward bike leg you make a sharp turn to the right and up the hill at Schoenmakerskop. On 30 June 1647 a Portuguese man o' war, the Sacramento, ran aground at Schoenies and sank. The ship was carrying cannons to Portugal's Indian colonies. 72 sailors made it to the shore. There they waited for 11 days, before they realised no one was going to rescue them. They would have to walk to safety. This was before Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape Colony in 1652, before there were any Westerners in South Africa. Indeed it was even before there were any African tribes in the Cape. The sailors would have to walk along the coast to Delagoa Bay (Maputo), 1330km away. In between was nothing but bush on the left and ocean on the right, beach ahead and sand behind.
Our home for the weekend, Aristotle Guest House, played host to a motley crew of Sue and I, three Australians and a South African father and son outfit. One of the Australians was a leggy female brunette called Annabel. One of the two blokes was a diminutive and deeply tanned blonde named Simon. The third was an absurdly tall yet oddly pudgy fellow whose name I didn't catch. The son was Shakir who drove down from Joburg with his dad Hassan in support. Shakir quickly identified himself as a grass-green novice. This was not only his first ever triathlon, but he was riding a 16 year old road bike, had never swum in the sea before and wore a pharmacy shelf on his neck in terror of wetsuit chafe. Shakir had set himself a monumental task for 2016, what he called the big 6. The Duzi, the Argus Cycle Tour, some hike in the Northern Cape, Ironman, Comrades and the 94.7 Cycle Challenge. He had already completed two of the 6 and Ironman was next on his bucket list.
At the Boardwalk registration I noted that a shade under 1870 athletes had entered Ironman PE in 2016. Of those athletes some 200 did not start the race.
My race brain kicked in big time on race morning. I had decided not to take my cellphone with me. Sue dropped me off on Marine Drive and I walked along the beachfront in the dark, along with the other athletes silently contemplating the day ahead. When I arrived at transition I suddenly realised I had forgotten to pack the bottles so carefully mixed the night before – and left in the bar fridge. I immediately flipped into panic mode. A kindly soul named Ridwaan agreed to call Sue for me but of course, I wasn't entirely sure what her number was without my phone. He dialled what I thought was the number but without success. He even called the guesthouse but there was no answer. I then had to get hold of someone with (a) a cellphone and (b) Sue's number. Lucie was the obvious answer. I entered into transition looking around desperately. The first person I saw who I knew was Marko Albert. Although as a pro he had every reason to be focussed only on his own race, he kindly called Lucie for me. She was standing at the fence very close by. "It's a disaster" I blurted out and explained my predicament. Lucie calmed me down and called Sue who was back at the guesthouse. Without fuss or frills they made an arrangement to meet, while I was to return to the same spot every 10 minutes for an update. Kim was standing by and gave me updates every few minutes on Lucie's progress. By 05h55 Lucie was back and had given the bottles to the race referees who by the time I found them had already put the bottles onto my bike. All sorted. So my addled race brain got by with some help from my friends – thanks to all of you who helped me.
The swim was beautiful though I found the sighting very difficult on the way out due to the swell and to my poor eyesight. At the half way point I was at 40 minutes but came back pretty straight and hit the beach at 1:15 after a peaceful and enjoyable swim.
The bike leg was incredibly long and dare I say it, lonely. Despite being an experienced cyclist I am not used to long rides without companions and could not believe I was still riding after 13h00. I found myself longing to see someone from Trifactri but could not seem to pass or be passed by any friendly faces. Some parts of the ride I remember with the utter clarity of the present, other parts I drifted in and out of presence.
Into T2 I was feeling ok even if the heat was getting to me. I set out on the run and about 1km in, Grant and Sue jumped out at me, cheering their heads off and shouting "You're nearly there!" I retorted: "I've only got 41 km to go!". Craig would rightly fine them for this remark at the Trifactri Braai. Shortly thereafter James got his revenge and skipped past me.
It was then that the demon I had feared and dreaded slammed open the closet door. In the build up to the race I had suffered from long nights at the office, a severe sinus infection which stopped me training for a week, and then with 10 days to go, a debilitating stomach ailment. It was diagnosed as gastritis and I went through a course of treatment and stayed off training for the second week in a row. But I could not shake the feeling of painful nausea in my guts.
As I moved into the second kilometre, I felt the all too familiar sensation, the painful twist and churn. How could I possibly run a marathon like this? The race became a blur. Inside me was an alien twisting and turning and gnawing, looking for a weak point to burst out of my chest and bare the fangs of its double mouth. Is quitting so bad? I looked around for Ripley, hoping she would burst out of the crowd with her blaster cannon and kill me as an act of mercy. I was dimly aware of the heat and thirst. Lucie said I was doing well Alex, but she could not see the alien. Vomiting would not help I knew, just totally dehydrate me. FUBAR. I tried to repeat the lines of Wilfred Owen's poetry I had adapted for this race. Only hazily they came to me: "I balanced all, brought all to mind. The years ahead seemed waste of breath, a waste of breath the years behind. In balance with this life, this death."
But I was not dying and this was not a choice between life and death, as it was for the Portuguese sailors trudging along Algoa Bay. This was a race which I had chosen to run. I crested the hill on the city side of the course, with the third band on my wrist. As I turned I felt a cool breeze in my face. Like morning mist on the lake, the miasma in my gut dissipated and my brain cleared. Ahead lay 15km but I knew I would make it. Now the question was how long it would take?
A 10:45 was already out of reach. I could still manage a sub 4 marathon running at 5:15/km from here on in. Let me try that. But once the alien was gone, terrestrial troubles made their presence felt – sore legs and plain fatigue. The constants were Chantelle's mile-wide smile and the bridge. The supporters and fellow athletes were leaves in the forest, dappled in sunlight. The sub 4 slowly slipped away. I was jogging peacefully through the autumnal forest, the shouts of encouragement were the rustling of the higher branches in the wind. Let's try for a sub 11 now, I would have to finish by 17h56. Only orange slices and coke now, back to halftimes of my childhood. I saw the very last cyclists come in and felt desperately for them. Then I had 2km to go but less than 8 minutes to break 11 hours. Not possible. The leaves were falling and the light was fading. Last option was to finish by sunset – which I had joked with Sue about. Eugene and his glowstick. A final turn to the right and onto the red carpet. Chantelle's smile was there again. It was 17h58. The last rays of sunlight bathed the arch. At last it is done. I slowed down to a walk for the last few steps and breathed in the words. You are an Ironman
The others? You all know what happened to the Trifactri crew. Annabel Luxford is a professional athlete who crushed a 4:49 bike leg to get off the bike first, but who faded on the run to finish 5th overall. Simon Johnson did a 9:43 and qualified for Kona in the 35-39 age group. Lee den Hond had scaled Everest with a bunch of Canadians in May 2013, but today she got a DNF. Shakir Dudhia finished at 23h42, in sixteen hours, twenty eight minutes and thirty two seconds. His dad Hassan was there to cheer him in. Tick that one off the list. They stayed to watch the last athlete not to make it.
Of the 72 Portuguese sailors who made it to shore, 63 perished on their slow odyssey along the coast. The remaining 9 made it to Delagoa Bay, crawling in on 16 January 1648, more than six months of suffering after their ship ran aground. By midnight on race day, over 1560 athletes had finished Ironman PE 2016. No more than 150 athletes started but failed to finish. Only a handful truly raced the event. Why was there such a discrepancy in the success rates? Maybe, just maybe, there's no need to choose between life and death when you can choose to live on the edge of both