Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Post 161 - Peebles duathlon

I raced the half ironman world championships in South Africa on 2nd September 2018. Exactly 2 weeks later was the Peebles duathlon – a 5k run, 20k bike and 5k run. I was in agony after the half ironman worlds. My legs were completely crippled. I injured my Achilles at the start of July and had done minimal running training for South Africa – probably less than 10 miles in 2 months, when in usual circumstances I might have done 200-300 miles of running in those 2 months.
So my legs were incredibly deconditioned. My fitness was good, as I had been smashing out sessions on the bike and in the pool, but my legs didn’t have the conditioning to deal with running at the level of fitness I had. Plus, my Achilles was injured. So after miraculously managing a fairly decent half marathon to finish the half ironman world championships, I genuinely couldn’t walk. My legs were trashed. Muscles shot to pieces. My feet had softened up and the shock of running a hard half marathon had caused massive callouses to form on my feet. These were complete agony to put weight on too. And this wasn’t just for a few days. It was for weeks.
So, even thinking about doing the Peebles duathlon wasn’t a good idea. It was even less of a good idea when the day before race day came and I was still in leg pain and foot pain, and I had done pretty much no training whatsoever in the two weeks since South Africa. You can’t count as training eating junk food, pizza, chips, buns, cakes, chocolate, beers, you name it and I devoured it.
Also, my racing bike needed a full service after South Africa – it had got soaked and caked in mud, grit and dust. I still hadn’t managed to fully put it back together and get it to the bike shop. It was still lying in pieces on my living room floor…
So I was in pain, unfit, overweight (yes, yes, in relative terms, but it didn’t take long to put on a few kilos after South Africa), I didn’t have my race bike available, and basically was in no state to be doing a duathlon.
But I had agreed to travel down with a couple of friends (runners, now dabbling on bikes and in multisport racing). Well, I could just go and spectate. Then I thought, well, I could just bring my road bike and maybe go for a spin and watch the race. Then I thought well, I could just bring my gear anyway and try a little jog to warm up and see how it feels.
So we drove down on a day that was threatening to rain. We got there and parked. Well, I could just register, there’s no harm in that, I’ve already paid for the entry fee, I don’t necessarily have to start the race… I even asked at registration what the protocol was for withdrawing from the race before the race actually started.
Registration done, body marking complete, timing chip strapped around my ankle… Well, I suppose I could just rack my bike and get everything set up and then try a warm-up jog…
Well the warm-up jog didn’t feel great (actually it felt horrific, I had to completely change my stride to avoid landing on the callouses, which meant I was running pretty much like a lame duck, probably after a few kilometres I’d be quacking in pain too) but, well, it’s only a 5k run, a lot of it is on grass and trail anyway, and then you’re on the bike and there’s no impact forces on the bike, and well, don’t worry about the final 5k run, you could just bail out after the bike or even if you don’t bail out, well, it’s just a final 5k…

Transition on the banks of the River Tweed 

So, possibly foolishly, I started the race. I’ve started lots of races. Been there, done that, countless times. Everyone always starts too fast. Especially in duathlons. Let them go. You’ll catch them back. I was fourth or fifth after a mile. After 2 miles I was first. Cardiovascularly I was quite comfortable, but my legs and feet were in pain. Just get through it. One more mile then you’re on the bike. It was a tough enough run course, along the river, over a bridge, up and down steps, up and down slopes, on path, trail, grass, over another bridge. Difficult to get into a rhythm.
I was first onto the bike. My road bike is a lot more lively and responsive than the time trial bike and I quite enjoyed the ride on the undulating course along the river Tweed. It was damp, and I was working hard, and the visor on my new aero helmet was steaming up from the inside, and collecting water on the outside, so I kept having to wipe it. More learning – I’ll need to buy some anti-fogging spray for it.
I was surprised at my average output and surprised at how decent I felt on the bike. I had thought I’d do well to hold 260 watts, and that I’d feel terrible, but I was well over 280 watts and feeling reasonable. Could I maintain the power though? It was an out-and-back course. Heading back was tougher, into the wind, but I could see how much of a lead I had. I reckoned if I could be first off the bike, I could suffer 16-18 minutes for the final 5k and hopefully hang onto the lead. I could deal with the damage later, after the race. I’ve never won a duathlon before, and here was a chance.
So on the homeward stretch, I kept everything low and tight into the wind and powered back to transition, was first off the bike, and started the final 5k run. Wow, it was immediately painful. My feet felt like they were on fire. My legs were trashed. I had recovered a little from South Africa in the two weeks since, but the first 5k here had completely set that back. But I still felt like I had fitness, I wasn’t deep into the red zone. I felt, surprisingly, that I had the fitness for a decent final 5k, I just didn’t have the body to allow it.
In the end I won by something like three minutes. I hadn’t expected to have the fitness levels I had. I respected the race and I raced as hard as I could for the whole thing. Maybe I should have backed off a little and reduced the damage done to my feet and legs, but you’re in a race. You’re racing. Go hard or go home. Respect it. Respect everyone else's efforts. It was nice to get the win in what was my final multi-sport race of the season – it was something of an unlikely win, possibly undeserved given what was a dreadful 2-week build up.
I quite enjoyed watching the rest of the duathlon unfold – Iain came in twelfth I think, but surely a top-10 would have been possible had he not been wearing massive baggy red shorts – not quick on a bike… Amanda was third female, a great result in a close ladies’ race – two good runs either side of a bike that has a lot of potential to improve… Then it was off to a café to eat some more junk food… A decent day in Peebles, it’s a nice part of the world.

The Borders triathlon series was coming to a close the following week with the Peebles triathlon. I knew I wouldn’t make this as I’d be at a wedding in Ireland. I ended up second overall in the series with three second place finishes (two sprints and one standard) and two wins (one sprint and one duathlon) out of the seven events in total (I entered five races). The series winner was the 2017 European and World M30-34 sprint triathlon champion. It’ll be interesting to see how much I can improve for next year, given that this was only my first season doing shorter triathlons. I’m sure in later blog posts I will reflect in more detail on the season.
And that was it for my triathlon/duathlon/multisport season. I’ll have another few weeks of proper rest and recovery and “indiscipline” – i.e. eating whatever I want, drinking whatever I want, doing whatever I want, and not training much. I’ve got a wedding in Ireland (a 4-day thing…) and then I will have to start picking up the training, with more of a running focus, for the winter cross country season. The first cross-country race will be in mid-October and I’ll try to get to a level in December where I might be considered for Scotland East selection again for the Scottish and UK inter-district championships in early 2019. I’ll do a little bit of swimming and cycling over the winter to keep my hand(s) (and legs) in, and then look to ramp up for the multisport season again in early 2019.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Post 160 - Ironman 70.3 World Championships, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Well. What a couple of weeks it has been at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Port Elizabeth in South Africa.”70.3” being how they describe a half-ironman, as the total distance covered is 70.3 miles. It was epic, and so this will probably end up being an epic blog post to try and do it justice.

My previous blog post talked about what a nightmare it was to dismantle and pack the bike. It was genuinely a nightmare, for a number of reasons:

One: the bike box I borrowed had “seen better days” according to the guy I borrowed it off. This was true – of the 6 clips on it, only one worked properly. So I had to rely on rolls and rolls of parcel tape and cellophane parcel wrap to secure it, and I had to reply on pure hope, and a wing and a prayer that it would hold together over the 60 hours it would be in transit, across 6 different flights. I was grateful to have been able to borrow it at all – there weren’t many alternatives at short notice – a new bike box would cost £400, or paying a courier or triathlon bike delivery company to take the bike and deliver it to my guesthouse in Port Elizabeth would also cost around £400. Or I could make do, with zero monetary cost, but a fairly high stress cost…

Two: my handlebars, from the bottom of the base bar to the top of the tri-bars are quite high – too high to fit in the width of the box. Dismantling the handlebars meant measuring and photographing all the customised angles and dimensions, accessing a whole pile of inaccessible nuts and bolts, removing the front brake, taking off the front bottle cage (which I remember being meticulously cable tied in a difficult, but ideal position) and then knowing it all had to be put back together again at the other end…

Three: Probably the most significant factor - my uselessness - I don’t really like bike maintenance work, I didn’t have great tools, I had never fully dismantled a bike before. Talk about learning the hard way.

Four: Realising that the bike box weighed 15kg when empty, knowing that that bike would weigh another 8-9kg, and further knowing that this would leave me only 6-7kg of luggage allowance for everything else… I overcame this by taking a huge hand luggage bag and hoping the check-in staff wouldn’t notice or say anything.

From this...

...to this - quite an achievement (thanks to IC for the help and DB for the bike box!)

All the while, I was wondering, “what is this all for?” I injured my Achilles on the 14th July. Since then, I had managed a total of about 4 miles of running training. My Achilles was sore. I’d done everything for it – massage, foam rolling, creams, anti-inflammatories, rehabilitation and strength work, hot Epsom salts and lavender and eucalyptus oil baths – I figured that smelling like a granny’s boudoir was a small price to pay if my Achilles got better.

But I couldn’t afford to give it the one thing it really needed to get better – time. So I wasn’t in a great frame of mind for the trip – I wanted to go to a world championships in top condition, ready to deliver a strong performance, one that I could say "that could not have been better." I was a long way from that, so really struggled to get excited about the trip. I had no expectations. I figured I’d be OK on the swim, and on the bike, but I’d probably end up walking most of the run.

The swim would be in Nelson Mandela Bay, close to Shark Point Pier. Something about this makes you think that the waters might be a place where sharks hang out... Anyway, I’ve read Nelson Mandela’s book – “The Long Walk To Freedom.” An inspirational and dignified book. I figured I’d be on a long walk to “freedom” in the run – “freedom” being finishing the damn race and being done with it, and then not having to worry or think about my Achilles, and training, and anything to do with triathlon for a while. But my long walk probably wouldn’t be especially dignified or inspirational. Oh well. I was going. I’d do the best I could with the circumstances. I might not deliver the ultimate best performance I am capable of, but I’d do what I could to do the best I could with the circumstances I had.

Finally, I got packed - the receptionists at work did a great job keeping track of all my deliveries - bubble wrap, cable ties, masking tape, parcel tape, pipe lagging to pad the bike, cellophane wrapping, and other bits and pieces. I crossed my fingers at the airport as I watched the bike box disappear on the luggage belt, hoping I would see it again, in one piece. I was flying from Edinburgh to Qatar to Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth, and was assured that the bike would be checked right through to Port Elizabeth, along with my other piece of checked-in baggage.

On the first flight to Qatar, I had three seats to myself – great. What wasn’t so great was that I was sitting at the back of the plane, and so was last to be served with my dinner. They had no vegetarian meals left (always the safer option, especially with airline food) so it was Thai red chicken curry or nothing. I’d probably have been better off with nothing, as the chicken was awful – grey in colour, and the sauce was just red grease. I spent the next few hours with my stomach turning and rumbling quite ominously, and hoping that it wouldn’t get any worse (thankfully it didn’t!)

A short change in Doha and I was on the overnight flight to Johannesburg. The priority was to sleep on this flight, so I asked very nicely for an upgrade – if you don’t ask you don’t get – surprise surprise, I didn’t get. What a shame, business class looked amazing. But I did get three seats to myself in cattle class. Brilliant. I curled up like a foetus (6 feet and 1 inch still doesn’t go that well into three seats) and had a fairly bad sleep – but this was infinitely better than no sleep, and I got up just before the dawn.

I love looking down from an aeroplane on the landscapes below. I’d rather do that than watch in-flight movies. So the final couple of hours of the flight were spent watching the sun rise, and looking down on a whole lot of brown nothingness over Mozambique and South Africa. Dried up river channels were very obvious. When was there water there? The odd dirt road. Who used these tracks? No signs of humanity, other than the odd pin-prick of light in the dark, or the odd tiny settlement, barely visible in the sunshine. What do people do there? Why did they settle there? How do they get by? Do they ever see anyone from outside their little worlds? The lack of any obvious paths or trails or roads would suggest not. I wondered what they made of the planes flying overhead.

A landscape untouched and unchanged for millennia

We got to Johannesburg. I passed the baggage carousel. I had been told my bike would go straight to Port Elizabeth. I had a long lay-over in Johannesburg and wasn’t in a rush, so I decided to wait at the baggage carousel to see what would happen. Looking behind me, about 50 bikes were sitting in the baggage hall. They were obviously unclaimed. Shortly afterwards, all the bikes from our flight arrived and were set beside these bikes. I asked a few questions. In the end, it turned out that bikes (and luggage) entering South Africa for the first time at Johannesburg had to be reclaimed and checked in to the onward flight. No-one seemed to know this, and it wasn’t what I had been told in Edinburgh. So a lot of people ended up in Port Elizabeth without their bikes and baggage…

I picked up my bike and took it to the check-in desk for the Port Elizabeth flight (departing in 7 hours). I was told (literally) to leave it in the middle of the check-in hall, in full view of the exit. So I sat for the next 5 hours watching the bike until someone came and took it to put it on the plane. I wasn’t risking someone deciding they fancied a nice bike… There were a lot of triathletes waiting at Johannesburg airport for Port Elizabeth flights. I enjoyed watching the entire spectrum - plenty were running up and down the terminal, ensuring their Garmins were recording. Others had rubber bands and were simulating swimming. Others were stretching. Some were resting. I was eating a burger and chocolate (it was a veggie burger, and I scraped off the cheese-flavoured goo and the other manky contents, so basically it was vegetables and bread). There wasn't much other choice - no pasta, no potatoes, no falafel, nothing I'd call acceptable...

Finally, I was aboard the Port Elizabeth flight. At least three-quarters of the people on board were travelling for the race. A giant Russian athlete plonked down beside me. I smiled and said hi. He pointed at my bag. "Ironman, good!" he said, and offered his giant hand. When he was done crushing my hand, he covered his head with his coat and snored the whole way to Port Elizabeth. It was a small plane. I wondered how all the bikes would fit in… We sat for ages on the tarmac while the baggage handlers evidently wondered the same thing. On arrival at Port Elizabeth, there were bikes missing, and I can’t explain how glad I was when I saw mine being carried into the terminal and handed to me. There was another pile of unclaimed bikes at Port Elizabeth airport, and I heard that the airlines had to charter a flight specifically to clear the backlog of bikes… People were justifiably flapping in Port Elizabeth, 2 days before race day, whose bikes were still missing in transit…

Bike chaos in South African airports

I was so lucky to have a guesthouse owner who was on my side. He picked me up from the airport, took me to the supermarket so I could buy in food and supplies, lent me tools, gave me lifts and advice. Brilliant. I was lucky to be staying where I was, in a good neighbourhood, a 15-minute walk to the race headquarters at the Boardwalk on Marine Drive – the centre of all the action. In my neighbourhood, all the houses had 10-foot high walls topped with metal spikes and electric fences, with guard dogs, CCTV and private armed security. A different world.

Yum Yum Peanut Butter, must have liked me, wanted my phone number

I had a good sleep and I got the bike built the next morning. I understand now why a lot of people opt for all-black bikes, because my white frame became filthy with oil and dirt. I headed down to book it into the official bike mechanics for a service. This (I have to be honest) was a complete farce. My bike needed maybe 15 minutes of straightforward work and checks. I had done most of it, but I wasn’t able to bring the tools to do everything - I really should buy a torque wench. I had written them a list of things to do. But the reality was that the official mechanics were doing very basic bike servicing on an industrial scale, at a fairly high cost. About half of what I wanted done wasn’t covered by the basic servicing. They didn’t want to commit to anything other than what was on their basic service list. I managed to persuade them to do the extra, and was told to come back that afternoon. I was keen to get the bike back, and get out for a ride.

I went back that afternoon. Not ready. Come back in the morning, they said. I went back in the morning. Not ready. Come back in half an hour, they said. I went back in half an hour. Not ready. Come back at 5pm, they said. Patience wearing thin, I said, “Come on guys, the bike has been with you for 2 days now.” I went back at 5pm. I was handed the bike. I looked at it. I could see straight away that very little had been done. The frame had been cleaned, and not much else. They had (unbelievably) removed all the cable ties that were securing my rear saddle bottle cages and mount on to the bike. I cannot understand the thought process behind this. They had lost the patch that covers the valve hole on the disc wheel (and angered me when they said that there hadn’t been one, and then said there had been one but it was ripped when they received it – lies). They hadn’t mounted the front bottle cage properly. They hadn’t sorted the gears.

I spoke to the guy running the show and he said to come back at 10am in the morning (Friday morning) and promised that it would all be done. I was getting fed up. I had arranged to meet a few people on Friday at 1pm for a bike ride to see the course. I went back on Friday at 10am. I didn’t expect much. I wasn’t disappointed. Not ready. I had seen a facebook message saying that there was an independent bike mechanic in the car park at the back of the hotel, operating out of the back of his jeep, and he was open for business. I took the bike to him. 10 minutes later, the bike seemed perfect. There is a significance here to me using the words “seemed perfect”… more on that later…

I can’t say I recommend travelling with a bike. A necessary evil. Maybe a road bike is easier. My triathlon bike is indeed particularly awkward. All that aside, Summerstrand (the area in Port Elizabeth that hosted the race HQ, start, finish, transitions, swim, expo, and had all the restaurants, bars and so on), was a brilliant venue. There was loads going on. People of all nationalities, of all ages. The weather was great, if a bit windy. The sea looked brilliant. The course looked great. There was a great vibe. Plenty of people were getting in the water, testing it out, having a wee swim. I was tempted, but I’ve never been keen on practice swims in the couple of days before a race, I don’t think they achieve much. Loads of people were running/jogging along the seafront. I really wanted to go for a run, but didn’t dare to risk the Achilles.

The “parade of nations” was brilliant – I think there were over 100 nationalities represented, and all the countries got together and paraded down from the top of the Boardwalk to the beach. Superb stuff. I got chatting to most of the Irish (maybe 20 of us, the usual craic and banter), and it seemed that more of us were Irish expats (living in England, Scotland, UAE, Australia etc) than actually living in Ireland…! There was one Hungarian representative in the parade in front of us. There were a couple from the Faroe Islands. The Italians behind us were giving it large. There were two or three from Sri Lanka (definitely not known as a hotbed of triathlon). And numbers in the hundreds from South Africa, Australia, USA. It was such a laugh. 4500 athletes in total were due to race in the first ever triathlon world championship in Africa and it seemed most of us had turned out for the parade, as it took ages and ages to get the entire parade down on to the beach…

I’m not usually too bothered with pre-race banquets, pasta parties, and briefings. But I was keen to do as much as I could and experience as much as I could here in Port Elizabeth. They had set up a massive marquee in a cricket field for the pre- and post- race feeding, drinking, entertainment, briefings, speeches, prizegiving etc, and I headed that way about 20 minutes before it was due to start. There was already a queue a couple of hundred metres long. Could I be bothered? I had made a pile of pasta back at the guesthouse and it was waiting in the fridge…

I got chatting to a great Australian girl in the queue, and my Northern Ireland accent was overheard by a couple from Northern Ireland, and before I knew it, Nakita, June, Stephen and I were in the marquee knocking back red wine… peer pressure is a terrible thing… not how I had seen my pre-race preparation going, but then the entire preparation had been a disaster, so a red wine (or two) wasn’t going to hurt. We must have been one of the first to order red wine, and they served it in a massive plastic tumbler, full to the brim. I think not long after, they realised that wine was only to be served in much smaller quantities or they'd run out. So I had the equivalent of about three glasses of red wine. The pasta and food was great too, as was the chat and banter.

The mayor of Port Elizabeth made the best speech ever: "Ladies and gentlemen! Ladies and GENTLEMEN! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! Welcome to Port Elizabeth! Welcome to Port ELIZABETH! WELCOME TO PORT ELIZABETH! Nelson Mandela Bay! Nelson Mandela BAY! NELSON MANDELA BAY! NELSON MANDELA! MANDELA! Port Elizabeth! Thank you! Thank YOU! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!" And to rapturous applause he left the stage. I had an absolute blast, such good craic, and I doubt I could have met three better people out of everyone there. I think by the time the pasta party finished we were all already looking forward to the post-race party on Sunday night…

I got out for my bike ride with the group on Friday at 1pm. We had received pre-race warnings: “what to do if you’re attacked”, “what to do if your car is hijacked”, “do not cycle alone”, “only cycle in the official police convoy at 9am every morning for safety”. I took these with a little bit of a pinch of salt, and was sure our group of 6 or 7 would be fine. We had no problem, even cycling up through Port Elizabeth in the traffic was fine. When we got down onto the coast road, it was great for cycling – such great scenery, wide, empty roads, sun out. The wind kept us honest and kept us concentrating, and kept us from enjoying the views too much. Crashing at this stage would be just as bad as drinking lots of red wine… I did manage to whip out my phone and take a couple of snaps. I really enjoyed this spin out on the bike, after the long journey and the hassle of travelling with the bike, and getting the bike sorted. It was a good group, good chat, and I noted that those who took it easiest up the long drag out of Port Elizabeth were freshest on the run-in back to Port Elizabeth. The bike was working well. It was just what I needed and I enjoyed feeling good in the final 10 miles zooming back into the Boardwalk and finish area.

However, it seemed nothing was going to go to plan on this trip. Halfway round the bike, my heart rate monitor stopped working. I had resigned myself to having a poor run on race day, but if nothing else, I wanted to get data from my bike on race day – speed, power output, and heart rate. The reason being that there is also  full Ironman held on pretty much the same bike course (over two loops rather than one), and I wanted to see if it was feasible that I could possibly come back for the full Ironman and look to have another tilt at Kona qualification.

I’d done my homework – Kona qualifiers in my age group would swim around an hour (this should be fine for me), cycle somewhere between 4:55 to 5:10, and run something like 3:10 – 3:20. A finishing time of 9:30 or better has usually been good enough to qualify. So I figured I needed to bike quicker than 2:30 in the half, ideally closer to 2:20, to translate into a full ironman bike that would be in the ballpark of 5:00 – 5:10. I also wanted to see my power and heart rate data for the bike, to learn more about what power outputs were needed to hold the speed required, and what heart rates it took to sustain them. I wouldn’t want to come all the way back to South Africa for the full Ironman without being reasonably confident I could challenge to qualify.

So, I was annoyed that my heart rate monitor wasn’t working. I wanted to watch the women’s race the following day, but I had a new priority – going to the Ironman Expo and finding a Garmin technician who could sort out my heart rate monitor. Then I’d go back to my guesthouse, get everything ready to rack in transition, then I’d go and watch the ladies on their run, and then I’d go and rack everything in the transition areas for my race the following day.

Another curveball was thrown when I finished my Friday bike ride/course recee and went to switch my Garmin bike computer off. Usually it gives a short beep before turning off. This time, for whatever reason, it held its beep for about 20 seconds and then froze. Great. So now no Garmin and no heart rate. Having no Garmin computer meant power and heart rate were useless anyway as the data is all displayed and recorded onto the Garmin. I fiddled about with it back at the guesthouse but it wouldn’t fully fire up, and it wouldn’t pick up the power meter or heart rate monitor. I didn’t have my laptop with me to check the software or do a re-set. So it would all have to go down to the Garmin technicians at the expo tomorrow morning. I told myself that they’d fix it, and to forget about it until tomorrow.

So on Saturday, rather than getting to watch the ladies do their swim and bike, I headed straight for the Garmin stand in the expo. “How can we help?” they said. “Everything has worked fine for years and the day before the world championship it has all clapped out…” I could barely believe I was saying it. All the batteries were fully charged, all the software updates were up to date, there was no reason for it to have happened. After 90 minutes of faffing and fiddling and plugging into laptops and blah blah blah, a full factory re-set restored the Garmin, and hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of South African Rand (the currency) were handed over to buy a new heart rate monitor.

All sorted. I could go and watch the ladies on the run. As I was cycling to the run, I realised the factory re-set had deleted all my settings and parameters on the Garmin, so it was another hour of work to try and remember everything and get it all set up again. I have about 16 data fields scrolling across the screen, all of which need to be manually input, along with my threshold and stats. I’m not a massive gadget geek, and I’m not obsessed with Strava or TrainingPeaks or analysing my data to extremes, but tomorrow of all days I did want a record of power, speed and heart rate to work out how I might go on the same course for the full ironman.

Anyway, I got it sorted and by now it was early afternoon and it was scorching. The ladies were getting it tough on the run, that’s for sure. I went out to the far end of the course where there weren’t so many spectators, and enjoyed a couple of hours of viewing. Daniela Ryf had already won the pro race, but it took another couple of hours to get everyone started in their various start waves, so by now the course was busy. It was pretty much a flat course, but where it turned off the main Marine Drive at either end, there was a gentle uphill for a few hundred metres to a turn, and then back down. One African guy was standing opposite me waving enthusiastically at the athletes and telling almost every one that they were “about to climb Everest” and that he “respected their sacrifice”. Probably it did feel like climbing Everest, I’d find out and suffer it tomorrow…

I’d say about 90% of the runners were running reasonably well, looking tired and strained, but fairly reasonable. I’d say 5% looked incredible – absolutely flying along, faster than anyone else. And the final 5% were really suffering – for whatever reason – illness, injury, not used to scorching conditions, not hydrated enough, went too hard on the bike, whatever. I saw Nakita, moving well, looking like she was somewhere in the reasonable 90%. I saw Sheila, an Irish girl, looking good. I missed June – I did a little stretching and had a couple of port-a-loo visits and a shop visit so she must have sneaked past when I wasn’t watching. I really wanted to go down to the finish area, but I had my bike with me and the finish would be jam-packed, and anyway I had to go and sort my kit and get to both transitions to get sorted and ready for my own race tomorrow.

The "Everest" man

Tri bikes really are quite narrow and aero,
and racing tyres really do have quite a small contact patch with the road...

Photos showing the ladies race, transition, and the walk back

With a last check of the weather forecast for race day showing cloud cover and not much sun (yep, good), strong winds (just great), and thunderstorms (perfect, really throwing all the good stuff at us), I headed off and got everything racked. I didn’t waste much time, headed back to the guesthouse, ate some pasta and went to bed. The sharks, wind, storms, rain, lightning, and my Achilles, could all do their worst. I told myself it would take more than that to keep me from finishing, one way or the other…

Race morning was overcast but dry. I hoped that I would at least get started in the dry, and that I would make it onto the bike and dry out, allowing me to get warm. Then if it rained, so be it – but I didn’t want to be getting out of the swim wet, and then not getting dried on the bike, as I knew I’d get cold – with my body type I don’t deal well with cold. I must say I’ve never seen better port-a-loos than those in transition – every time someone emerged, a volunteer would go in and properly clean, and there was loads of soap and sanitising gel available too. Rest Of The World – take note and take lessons in port-a-loos from South Africa!

I just about had time to watch the pros finish their swim and blitz through transition – it looked an exciting race – Jan Frodeno, Alistair Brownlee and Javier Gomez were up front with another handful of athletes. It had been billed as a race between those three but it looked like others were keen on getting in the mix too. Then it was into race mode for me – wetsuit on, post-race kit thrown into the lorry, a gulp of water, a gel, a pre-race pee in my wetsuit (such a great feeling, warms the legs up no end, shame I can’t do handstands…) and into the queue to start. My M30-34 age group was due to start at 8:25am. I wasn’t bothered about being at the front of the queue, and at 8:30 exactly, I started. Nakita was apparently standing just a few metres away and got some great photos but I didn’t see or hear her at all – I was too “in the zone” (the yikes-I’m-going-to-run-into-sharks-here zone?!), or maybe it was my earplugs and tunnel vision dulling the senses to everything but the water ahead…

A couple of bounds over the waves and I got swimming. It felt fine, not too crowded, the sea was fairly flat, it was quite easy to sight. All good. The ladies had said it was cold, but I was fine. Apparently it was 13-14 degrees for the ladies, but the currents and winds had changed and we were up at 19-20 degrees. Brilliant. Due to the cloud cover, there was no blinding sun. I had heard that there were divers underneath the marker buoys, so I was prepared for this – had I not known, I’ve no doubt I would have thought “shark” and literally died on the spot. Apparently they were holding some sort of device in their hands – possibly to keep the sharks away…?! Who knew? I just wanted to get out of that water in one piece. I took one hefty kick to the face but it didn’t do much damage. I smelt a bit of a diesel smell on the inward leg of the swim - maybe the rescue boats in close proximity?

I felt reasonable on the swim, neither brilliant nor bad, but when I got out of the water and looked at my watch, it still said 8:something, so it wasn’t yet 9am and so I must have been under 30 minutes. The results said 28:36. No idea where that came from. That was in the top 25% in my age group, and in the top 12% overall. I’d never have predicted that. I swam 31:something in Edinburgh and had thought I’d had a good swim there – maybe Edinburgh was long, maybe South Africa was short, maybe the winds and currents… maybe maybe… whatever.

So it was onto the bike, keeping to my strategy of putting bike shoes on in transition and then enjoying jumping on the bike, clipping in, and pulling away from those with bike shoes mounted on their bikes, struggling to get their feet into their shoes and their shoes fastened. After a minute, I realised – damn, I didn’t start my Garmin. After all that hassle, start the bloody Garmin! Then it was a long pull up through and out of Port Elizabeth. I was trying to be strict about riding to a power cap and kept things under control, despite the bikes streaming past me. Let them go too hard now. Do your own race. I’d see them later. I wanted to start off at about 220 watts, and gradually ease up to 240+. Not an easy thing to do when most of the races this year have been sprint distance races where you can go as hard as you want (300 watts) and hold it for the 20km (30ish minutes). And also not easy to do when everyone else is zooming past you…

Especially in the first half of the bike, it was difficult not to ride in draft zones. You are supposed to keep 10m back from the rider in front, and if someone passes you, you are supposed to drop back. Slipstreaming saves lots of energy, and deliberate prolonged slipstreaming is cheating – there are no two ways about it. It’s so much easier to ride up close behind someone as they break all the wind resistance while you get “towed” along. At the athlete briefing, the race referee said he wanted to be the “most bored person in South Africa” on race day – they don’t want to be giving out penalties. The referee asked if anyone was planning on drafting. A couple of hands went up. What?! Smart asses. I’d have given them their 5-minute penalty there and then…

I had heard there were a lot of penalties doled out by the marshals in the female race, and with twice as many men racing as women, the course was pretty congested. I didn’t want to get a penalty. I wouldn’t ever intentionally cheat. People do, and they get away with it. But it’s difficult to stay out of draft zones the entire time when you have so many riders going at different speeds on the same part of the course. I guess that’s why they staggered the swim starts by up to 2 hours, to try to reduce the number of bikers on the same part of the road. I did my best, rode hard to pass slower athletes and clear their draft zone as quickly as possible, and eased back to let quicker athletes go. The big issue was when a train of faster athletes came through – you then have to drop back for all of them and you lose quite a bit of ground. I told myself that the odd minute of easing back wouldn’t hurt. I thankfully didn’t get any penalties. I heard it said that because the women had got so many penalties, maybe the marshals had been told to cool it a little for the men’s race.

That arm and rider behind me - in my draft zone...

After maybe 10 miles we got up to the top of the rise, out of town, and then there was a big swooping gradual downhill for a few miles. Most people were cruising easily down here, not pedalling too hard, and recovering from the drag out of town. It was drizzling and I was wet and getting cold, and I didn’t want to get any colder. So I powered down at full speed in the full aero tuck, hitting nearly 80 km/h, flying past everyone else. It was exhilarating stuff, but it needed full concentration. We picked up the coast road and hit a couple of hills near the turning point. We went over a couple of vicious speed bumps too, I was glad everything was well anchored onto my bike as (literally) thousands of pounds worth of equipment had been shaken off bikes at the first speed bump (on a downhill, so hit at speed). All the gear (computers, bottles, gels, tools, spare tubes, tyre levers, etc etc) was just lying in the middle of the road. What would you do? You’d have to keep going – riders zooming behind you would make it difficult to stop and walk onto the course to retrieve anything, it would be pretty dangerous. I’d say a lot of people lost gear without even knowing.

At the top of a hill, with an amazing view across the coast to a massive sand dune, with a big downhill ahead leading to the turning point (literally a cone in the road requiring a dead stop) I heard a clunk. Dammit, that clunk was from my bike. What the hell was it? Dammit dammit dammit, my front brake is hanging off… it was literally hanging by its cable, off its mount, banging into my front wheel. Disaster. Firstly, I was now on the steep downhill, with only one brake, and the roads were wet. Secondly, the brake was banging into the front wheel so there was no way to continue unless I held the brake off the wheel with one hand, and then kept my speed down by pulling the rear brake with the other hand. Thirdly, going slowly meant the race was passing me by. Riders flying past, at speed, going downhill, on quite a narrow road. Please don’t let anyone come flying into my rear end… Fourthly, what the hell to do?!

The brake was missing its spacers, they had obviously fallen off, and so there was literally nothing I could do myself as I didn’t have spare spacers. I knew there was a mechanic station near the turn. I knew it was probably a few kilometres away so I would have to crawl along to the mechanics, holding the front brake off the wheel with one hand and pulling the rear brake with the other hand, and hoping like mad that the mechanics would have a solution. I wasn’t too hopeful though as the brake isn’t a common brake – it’s a special aerodynamic brake, only made in the USA, and specially-ordered. They aren’t run-of-the-mill parts found everywhere. What if they couldn’t fix it? I’d just have to get them to cut it off and carry it in my back pocket, but then I couldn’t “race” the rest of the bike – it would be too dangerous on windy, wet, undulating roads, with other riders all around. I’d have to just cruise back at low speed. The one thing I wanted from the race was a set of good data from the bike, and now I wasn’t even going to get that. Bad mood? Not half.

I was pretty despondent pulling into the mechanic station. “My brake is feckin’ banjaxed,” is exactly what I said. Fortunately the African mechanic understood the “my brake” part, and could see it hanging off. He tried to screw it straight back on, but I said it needed spacers to hold it off the fork. He understood this and I could see him thinking “how can I fix this…” He called over all the other mechanics. They all had a look. They could see what was needed, but they didn’t have an obvious solution. Nor did I. How to improvise? Could they figure something out? Or would they just shrug, forcing me to tell them to cut the feckin’ banjaxed thing off, which in turn would force me to ride slowly for the final 30 miles to the finish…

Alleluia, one had an idea. They had loads of spare tubes, obviously. The valves on the spare tubes come with a valve cap and a screw ring. Would these screw rings fit the threaded bolt on my brake…? Please, please, please fit… miracle! They fitted. They frantically unscrewed 5 or 6 screw rings, screwed them onto my brake bolt, and re-mounted it. I had a good check that it was nice and tight and operational, and gave them all a massive fist-bump. I’m sure they are well used to dealing with flat tyres, but I doubt they’ve ever seen a rider whose brake had fallen off. I’ve no idea how it happened. I mounted it myself, nice and tight, and it had been checked by a mechanic. Did it just work loose? Was it damaged in transit? Was it just bad luck? Some suggested it might have been sabotaged. I couldn’t believe this. I just couldn’t see how it could have come loose. Anyway, it didn’t matter, I couldn’t change it and thinking about it wasn’t going to change it.

I was angry, and I wanted to take the anger out on the bike, but had to use every ounce of self-discipline to rein myself in, stick to the power cap, and not burn myself out. I tried to work out how much time I lost. A few minutes was lost when I was going slowly, and then how long was I stopped at the mechanics? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? I reckoned in total I lost somewhere between 7-10 minutes, and my data later confirmed that it was around 8 minutes. As I got back into my rhythm, I found I was feeling fresh and strong, the enforced break no doubt the main reason. Not many people passed me in the final 25 miles, and the final 10 or so on Marine Drive back to transition was great – my legs were holding good power, I wasn’t fading. And it was obvious those around me were fading in the latter stages of the bike – I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt (got piles of t-shirts in fact) – so it felt good to feel strong, even if it was a bit artificial.

8 minutes lost due to the mechanical issue, but how many minutes gained back in the final stages of the bike…? Certainly one or two anyway. My official bike time was 2:34, at an average of 157bpm and 234 watts average power, 242 watts normalised power, at about 63-64kg. Without the mechanical it would have been 2:27 or so. The wet conditions probably slowed things a little. Not quite fast enough to be saying I could definitely come back and do a 5-hour full Ironman bike, but certainly not so slow that a 5:10 would be impossible. But none of those projections (1-hour swim, 5:10 bike) will matter if I can’t work out how to improve my ironman running. My standalone running times (1:11 half marathon PB) would indicate that I should be capable of a sub-3 hour ironman marathon. Even with a 3:15 ironman marathon time, that would be good enough to qualify.

I've no photos from the bike (yet)... I may well end up buying the official photos and updating this in due course... (NOTE: Now updated!)

One other change I made for the race in South Africa was to change to a totally liquid-based fuelling strategy. I was using Tailwind Nutrition – a powder that you mix with water that contains all the calories and salts/electrolytes you need, and that hopefully won’t mount up inside your guts like solid food – this inevitably results in all your energy exploding out without much warning - if you're lucky you'll reach a port-a-loo in time... if you're unlucky, well, it gets messy. Tailwind claims “no gut bombs”. And also claims “tasty all day”. Taking on gels repeatedly for 9-10 hours in an Ironman (or even for 4 hours in a half) makes you want to vomit. So let’s see how this Tailwind stuff goes…

Coming into transition, I felt Tailwind had gone well so far – I didn’t feel hungry, I didn’t feel burpy, I didn’t feel barf-y, I didn’t feel port-a-loo-y. Long may that continue, at least for the next 13.1 miles. And so I set off on the run. A huge, huge unknown. In the shorter triathlons earlier this year, my run had always been my strongest point. But the longer the run, the worse I get. My biomechanics aren’t suited to long runs. And, I had next to no miles in my running bank from the previous 7 weeks. Anything could happen. I honestly didn’t expect to be faster than 1:50, and I thought I’d be walking plenty of miles. I started to run. I felt great. OK, my Achilles hurt, but it wasn’t restrictively hurting. My first mile was a 6:09. Ridiculous. If I was fit and trained, this would have been too fast. For someone untrained and injured it was just plain stupid.

I reined myself back to a 6:22 for mile 2. Still ridiculous. And did a 5:58 for mile 3. What on earth?! I was loving it. I love to run. I hadn’t ran properly for weeks and weeks. I was able to run here. I wasn’t pain-free, but the pain wasn’t stopping me. I was managing. The course was great – 2 loops of a flat out-and-back along Marine Drive, with a little hill at each end, spectators everywhere, a great atmosphere, not too hot. I was passing so many people. I think in the first 10 miles, only 2 people passed me. I was sensible enough and well enough hydrated and well enough nutrition-ed that I was able to limit myself to one gel and a gulp of water at each end of the course, around 25 minutes apart. No point in having a gel every 10 minutes and then ending up in a Port-a-loo. I was having a blast. I saw Nakita, and June and Stephen - “Come on Portstewart!” being a good call, as you have your first name written on your number and so everyone is saying “come on John” and you can’t distinguish anyone who calls you by your first name…

I heard the "come on Portstewart", then stuck my hand out for a high-5,
then realised Stephen was holding two cups of coffee, and June was taking a video.
Stephen tried to do something with the coffee cups, but we both realised it wasn't going to
happen at around the same time, so I ran past laughing.
I was enjoying it at this point, as this screenshot from the video shows.
I've never looked as happy in an Ironman/half run...
The hearts? Well either I am loved or someone can't work out how to use modern technology...!

My fourth mile was a 6:04, then a 6:13, then a 6:12, then a 6:14, and I kept thinking that it was all going to fall apart soon, I’m going to fade, I’m going to explode in a port-a-loo, my Achilles will go and I’ll have to limp to the finish. If I continued with this pace, I’d run close to sub-80. I can’t articulate how unlikely and ridiculous this was. I wondered what my heart rate was – I could easily find out with the press of a button on my watch, but decided against knowing – it wouldn’t benefit me anyway.

Going good...

Going tough...

Around the halfway point I could feel blisters on both of my second toes. Stupid. I’d had Vaseline in my running transition bag, but didn’t use it. The blisters were sore, and I thought they would get a lot worse, but they didn’t seem to get worse and it was manageable. Mile 8 was slightly slower at 6:38 (must have been on one of the hills and through an aid station, both of which would slow you down). The little hills (not even hills, just short gentle inclines) were now indeed feeling like Mount Everest. Mile 9 was 6:19. 4 miles to go. I might just be able to keep this going. If I can keep this going I can run under 1:25. In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have thought I would be running 1:25 here. My first ever half marathon, in Inverness in 2004, was a 1:25. Could I beat that?

Forget about anyone or anything else, that was what kept me going in the final few miles. Beat 1:25. Hang in there. The legs were getting sore. The deep fatigue was setting in. My bounce and spring had gone. I was suffering now. A few people started passing me. Just damn well keep going. I did a 6:34 for mile 10, to go through 10 miles in 62:33. Mile 11 was up the hill and it was like running through treacle. I so much wanted to run this mile under 7 minutes, but going up the hill my pace was slower than 7 minutes. Would the quicker pace on the flat part of this mile be enough to balance it out…? The watch beeped. Mile 11 done. 7:00:09. 9 hundredths of a second off.

I was inordinately and unreasonably hacked off with this. I’d have bitten your hand off (probably your whole arm) to have been offered a 7:00:09 mile at mile 11 of the run. I used it to spur me on to a 6:48 mile 12, and crossed the line in just over 1:23. I think the course was 30-60 seconds short, but it was still a sub-1:25 run (done at 173bpm average). I have no idea – none whatsoever – where on earth that run came from. My run was in the top 6% overall. Madness. Surely a sub-1:25 run with no training would translate into no worse than 3:15 in a full…? If you could guarantee me that it would, then I would book flights back to Port Elizabeth immediately and enter the full ironman straight away. I’ll have to have a think…!

As per all my other previous ironman finishes, coming down the finishing straight
I heard absolutely nothing, and saw nothing. No idea what music was playing,
no idea what the announcer said, no idea I had my own personal photographer standing 2 feet away

So I finished happy. There aren’t many ironmans and half-ironmans (OK, there are none) that have ended happy for me – 12 iron or half iron races entered, and 12 disasters isn't a great record, but I’d take this one. I’d still class it as a “disaster” because ultimately it was massively compromised by injury, lack of training and mechanical problems on the bike. But I’ll say it was a “happy disaster” (if there is such a thing – there is now!) I wish I hadn’t had the issue on the bike, but then I learned about the value of “rest” on the bike – I should freewheel the downhills more often to get recovery – I’ll lose 20-30 seconds doing this, but more than make this up in the final stretches of the bike due to feeling stronger, and will be much fresher for the run. Would I have run 1:23 if I hadn’t had the enforced break on the bike? Probably not…

The Tailwind nutrition had worked a blinder and I never once had to threaten a port-a-loo. My overall finishing time was 4:33:27. I’d have loved to have broken 4:30, and without the bike issue I probably would have done, but given everything that had happened, I couldn’t be too disappointed. My finish time was good enough for top 12% overall according to the results.

The athlete’s village took a while – queues for everything – food, massages, medal engraving (the medal was massive!) It started to rain. Heavily. The queue to pick up your bike was a mile long (almost). It was lashing rain. People were frozen. I had changed into warm, waterproof clothes but other people were frozen in their skimpy tri-suits. The announcer kept reminding us that it is a blessing when it rains in Africa. They should have played "Africa" by Toto on continuous repeat - great song - there are quite a few pertinent lyrics in this song, but the key lyric for the athlete's village would have been "I bless the rains down in Africa..."

I got chatting to an Ecuadorean with a 27-minute 10K PB and a 2:09 marathon PB. He ran 1:18 in the race, and he didn’t look that young either! Good going. It was a long, soaking wet, miserable, painful trudge back to the guesthouse. What was usually a 15 minute walk took about 45 minutes. I was completely soaked through. My arm was locked due to carrying 4 transition bags full of kit. I had to physically move it with my other arm to get my clothes off. Agony. I got straight in the shower. My arm eased. My guesthouse owner washed and dried everything. What a hero. The rain was still apocalyptic but I didn’t feel too bad. My Achilles was sore, and my legs were a bit sore, but otherwise I felt pretty decent.

Post-race nourishment was, well, absolutely freezing

I didn’t fancy the walk to the banqueting marquee in the rain but my guesthouse owner solved that too and dropped me off. Such a good guy. June, Stephen and Nakita were already there, in the company of a table full of beer and wine. And another guy from Ireland. Happy days. I got stuck straight in to the drink. The food was tremendous too. June had finished fourth in her F60-64 age group and got a really cool lion trophy at the presentation. Not bad for a newcomer to triathlon. They announced the finishing splits of the prizewinners. The top amateur age groupers, from 20 years old right up to about 50 years old, were all probably good enough to be professionals. I really can’t fathom how you can swim 21 or 22 minutes (I swam 28). I can probably get my head around biking 2:20 on that course, but I can’t get my head around 2:15 and then following that with a 1:15 half marathon. Such speed… It’s not called the world championships for nothing and the best in the world were here. The female winner, Daniela Rfy, made a speech when presented with her trophy – she spoke very well – I liked her – very humble. The Mayor of Port Elizabeth was back, and he had worked even harder on this speech: "Ladies and Gentlemen! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! Thank you! Thank YOU! THANK YOU! Congratulations! CongratuLATIONS! CONGRATULATIONS! Port ELIZABETH! NELSON MANDELA! THANK YOU!" Tremendous, proud, inspiring and passionate stuff from my favourite mayor and speech-maker.

Plenty of drinks later, we were literally the last 4 left in the whole marquee. So if they had 4000 there that night, we were in the top 0.1% of finishers...! We were ushered out, and headed for the Boardwalk hotel’s bar – a few of the pros were hanging about there. More drink. More craic and banter. June will go to do Ironman Barcelona in October. She may well qualify for Kona. Good luck to her. We ended up being the last four left in the hotel bar too. A dubious claim to fame. We finished up in the hotel lobby at something like 3am. Such a great night.

I'm as baffled by this photo as I was about my run. What on earth...?!

I paid for it the next day. It was a horrible mess of pain. I had an awful hangover. I was so dehydrated. I had the shakes. And my legs had become unbelievably sore. No running for 7 weeks and then a 1:23 half marathon will lead to extremely sore legs. I’ve been running since my late teens and I have never, ever, ever felt worse. My quads and IT bands in particular were just shot to pieces. They were not functioning. My Achilles was pretty sore. When I finally summoned the resolve to try to get out of bed, I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t stand up from a sitting position, and I couldn’t sit down from a standing position, and I couldn’t walk. Horrific. I could have done with a wheelchair.

I wasn’t really up to much for a couple of days. I got the bike dismantled. I rounded 4 Allen keys trying to get my pedals off and then gave up and limped the bike shop, where a big spanner did the job in 4 seconds flat. On the way back I sat at the seafront for a while, not doing anything in particular. I got chatting to an older guy, who had worked in the nearby Volkswagen car factory. He had trained the mechanics and seemed particularly proud that he had trained the first black African mechanics in the factory. Apartheid must still be quite raw in the memory in South Africa – it’s still recent history (Nelson Mandela became president in 1994). I had thought Volkswagen was a German outfit, but I suppose the labour and production costs are cheaper in South Africa. I ended up being given a tour of the factory, which was amazing. Unfortunately I was told not to take any photos, but it was a really interesting experience. The global economy in full swing, doing what it does best, economising – producing stuff as cheaply as possible and selling it for a big mark-up, with the profits going to a select few and not to those toiling to make the products…

It didn’t take too long for the event organisers to get everything packed away and even just a couple of days later there was a real sense that the party was over. People were leaving – heading home, or off on safari, or off on the Garden Route to Cape Town. There weren’t as many people left around Port Elizabeth. It was quieter. Port Elizabeth, and especially the Summerstrand area, were getting back to normality. With my flight ending up being a day later than expected, I had an extra day to kill.

I was lucky enough to get chatting to a great American girl and a great Italian girl living in America, and we ended up renting a car and taking a mini road trip. We headed to Jeffrey’s Bay, known for its surfing. It was windy! Anna and Amber went for a proper swim, I could only brave it up to my thighs, but it helped to ease off my legs a little. Sand went everywhere and I ended up dumping half the beach on the courtyard of my guesthouse when I got back. We visited the Shell Museum (sea shells, not the oil company), and what could have been a horribly tacky museum was actually quite cool, with some impressively large (and tiny) shells on show. There’s a famous shark attack video of a surfer being attacked by a great white shark while at a world championships. I hadn’t realised that it was at the very same stretch of sand in Jeffrey’s Bay, which isn't all that far from Port Elizabeth...

We headed down to Cape St Francis, past some sobering townships by the main road – filth, rubbish, shacks, goats, pigs, cows, and people, just trying to get by. And us, with our first-world problems of self-inflicted sore legs and how to fit a triathlon bike into a bike box… Cape St Francis was wild – rocks, high seas, and a windswept lighthouse. One of the ends of the world. Next stop Antarctica. And, under the lighthouse, away out here in the middle of nowhere, a penguin rehabilitation centre. There were no staff anywhere to be seen, everything was locked up, and the penguins weren’t giving much away as to how and why a penguin rehabilitation centre had been founded here.

By now we were hungry and we went to St Francis Bay village – obviously a wealthy holiday village, with lots of second home, with its own private airfield, with massive houses centred around artificially landscaped marinas. And a great bakery, with cakes and pies that were so cheap and tasty that it was impossible not to eat a good few. And, in contrast, just a few miles up the road, the town of Humansdorp with its poverty where I felt just a little bit vulnerable driving through on the way back to Port Elizabeth. We made it back OK - a great day with great people.

And that was it for me – my flight was the next morning. I was gutted to be leaving, but also happy to be leaving - it was all over, the magic was gone. No reason left to stay. I’d have happily wound the clock back two weeks. I was happy that I was happy, because after all the time and effort and money and stress and injuries and low expectations, it was good to come away on a high.

Superb aerial photo of the race venue (mostly in the lower half of the photo)

I hadn’t given much thought to the flights home. I was told the bike would go straight to Edinburgh. I knew what I’d do though – check all the baggage carousels en route home. It took a while to check at Johannesburg: the baggage conveyor broke down and we had to move to a different one, and I waited and waited and watched time getting tighter and tighter for the next flight. No bike appeared and finally I told myself that the bike must indeed be on its way to the Doha flight.

That's my bike, top left. I watched them handle it onto the plane. They handled it well, to be fair.
An Irish guy, James, living in Perth, told me he watched his bike in much the same way, but
he watched them fail to load it on the plane (not enough room obviously), and his plane
pushed back and took off with his bike left behind! Nightmare! It turned up a couple of days later...

So then I rushed to the Doha flight and was one of the last people to board. Not a good idea when you have a large carry-on bag with fragile contents (bike gear, helmet etc). I got told on boarding the flight at Johannesburg that my carry-on bag was too big. I protested. I had been on 4 previous flights with it, on the same ticket, and there was no problem. I told them that the bag squashes down small anyway. Show us, they said. Despite best efforts, the bag didn’t really squash down. I was last in the line. Everyone else was boarded. Please guys, don’t make this a pain in the arse. A supervisor was called. He looked at me. I looked at him. Be nice.... “Hurry up and board him guys!” Fist-bump, cheers mate, and with a big smile at the staff who had tried to make things awkward, I was on the plane.

I had been told that I would be OK to carry my CO2 cartridges (for rapidly inflating a flat tyre) in my hand luggage, by none other than Qatar Airways. It turned out that I got pulled at Doha airport in Qatar as their scanning machines picked them out in my luggage. I was told they weren’t allowed and I’d have to surrender them and the police would take my passport details as a result. I protested. “But Qatar Airways said it would be fine!” “But it’s already been on two flights with no problems!” A supervisor was called. A Qatari policeman appeared. This was starting to look like it could get a bit serious. I asked why they needed my passport details and asked if I was in trouble. They said if I kept resisting (resisting?! I was only repeating what I had been told, and trying to find out why they wanted my passport details) then it would get worse. They said if they confiscate items they need the name of the passenger for their report, and no I wasn’t in trouble currently, but I would be if I kept “resisting” and I would be if I was caught with CO2 canisters in future. I wasn't going to win this argument. I gave them my details. And then legged it to the next flight.

The next flight was the overnight flight to Edinburgh and it was packed. No chance of three seats to myself. Trying to sleep bolt upright wasn’t a great success and I gave up and watched some mindless films in a bit of a stupor. We touched down at 7am on Friday morning, and I was pleased to see the bike box had made it back too. For some reason, on the homeward leg, I had been made to sign a liability waiver saying that the bike would only be covered to the value of 20 dollars per kilo, which meant if it got damaged or lost I would get 300 dollars. That wouldn’t even pay for a front wheel. I protested signing this too, but was told to either sign it or leave the bike in South Africa. Tempted as I was to leave the damn thing in South Africa, I signed… I had looked at bike insurance, but none seemed to cover the bike when it was in the “care” of an airline.

It’s now 9 days since race day. I’ve eaten my fair share of junk food. Yesterday I ate cheesecake for breakfast, in front of my bemused boss. He is more used to seeing me eating healthy food like carrots or bananas. Yesterday I ate 8 cookies (and two baby beetroots) for dinner. I’ve done precious little exercise. It was a stupid idea to enter the Scottish National Olympic triathlon one week after the world half ironman. I bailed on that. There’s a sprint duathlon this weekend (2 weeks after race day). I tried a run 2 days ago. Not having done any running for ages, my legs have lost all their conditioning, and my feet have softened up. After the run in Port Elizabeth, massive callouses formed on my feet. Usually my feet are hardened up and are used to running miles and miles every week, but they weren’t used to it in Port Elizabeth.

So a short, 10-minute jog along the canal meant that the hard callouses pretty much acted like abrasives, and damaged the skin underneath, and I literally cannot run a step without being in agony. So the duathlon may have to be canned as well. I have been selected by Ireland for the European Duathlon championships, on the party island of Ibiza of all places, at the end of October. I am probably going to bail on this too. I don’t need the pressure of trying to train and run when injured, and spending all the time and money on something that is going to be sub-par. I need to recover, re-set, and re-charge. The season is over.

What next? Well, the bike needs a full strip down, clean, and re-grease. I need some rest and recovery, and I need to get my Achilles and legs and feet back to normal. I want to do cross-country running over the winter, and to do that I need to be able to run (talk about stating the obvious). So I just want to get back to the simple act of running, pain-free.

I’ll keep my hand in with the swimming and cycling once a week over the winter, and I’ll have two big targets for next year – the world duathlon championships in Spain in April, and the world sprint (or Olympic) triathlon championships in Switzerland at the end of the summer. I’ll also look to do the Irish and Scottish national sprint and/or Olympic triathlon championships.

I’ll have a think about committing to a full ironman again, likely in 2020, likely in Port Elizabeth, with a Plan B at Ironman UK later in 2020. One last tilt at Kona? Maybe? Or maybe I’ll scrap the above plan to do shorter stuff in 2019 and decide to go for Ironman South Africa in April 2019… or maybe not. I’ll let the dust settle and have a think. But if that’s how good the half ironman world championships were, how good must Kona be?! I suspect so many people enjoyed Port Elizabeth so much that they may well end up coming back to race the full ironman there – and these are the world’s best – which will make qualifying there more difficult. But these are all thoughts for another day – for now I’ll settle for coming through the half ironman world championships and having had a great time in South Africa.

Training done (or more accurately “lack of training done” (or perhaps I should say “tapering done”)) in the run-up was as follows:

Mon 27 Aug: Rest
Tue 28 Aug: 30 min turbo
Wed 29 Aug: Rest
Thu 30 Aug: Rest
Fri 31 Aug: 2 hour bike
Sat 1 Sep: Rest
Sun 2 Sep: Half ironman world championships:

Swim 1.9k: 28:36. T1 3:34. Bike 90k: 2:34:48 (2:27/28 without the mechanical issue), 157bpm, 234/242W. T2 3:27. Run half marathon: 1:23:04 (6:28/mile, 173bpm), 4:33:27 overall.