Ironman South Africa, April 2015 – Race Report by Tony Cullen

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After a reasonably good performance at Challenge Dubai it was now only  four weeks until Ironman South Africa.  Preparation had gone okay over the winter although deep down I knew that I had not achieved enough bike miles with the weather being so bad during December and January. So I tried not to expect too much from myself, which was hard.  That said I still wanted top 5 in my age group.

After arriving in SA on my own, having to leave my very own supporters club behind due to cost…my 4 girls.  It was nice to be invited out to dinner by my friend James Gill and meet some other UK athletes who were also racing.  The meal was great and I was welcomed by Lucy, Paul, Tom, James, Anna, Troy and Elle amongst others who were all great company and made me feel very welcome.

The weather had been very wet in the days leading up to the race until the day before when the sun came out and was forecast for the same for the following day.  PE was an incredible venue for an Ironman race and the whole town seemed to get behind the race.  Also logistically it was perfect only being 3miles from the airport with lots of cheap accommodation along the coast and only a one hour time difference from the UK makes this race a must.  After a short swim on the course and a 60 minute spin on the bike it was time to rack my bike and get an early night with alarm set for 4.30am.

For the first time ever I didn’t sleep one wink, so I got up just before the alarm.  Porridge, coffee, 20 minutes of stretching and I was off down to the swim start.  I was in the first AG wave at 6.45am.  After adding my nutrition to my bike and checking transition bags it was down to the swim start for a warm up.  The sea was choppy but not too bad.  It was important to get a good starting position at the front to avoid as much carnage as possible.

Swim

I managed to gain a very central position on the front line of the swim start, the idea being to run as fast as possible into the sea until I couldn’t run anymore, then 50 hard strokes and settle down and cling onto anybody’s feet who came past.  The countdown began with 30 seconds to go, I looked to my right and stood right next to me was Paul Burton (Blackline London),we shook hands wished each other good look and set up like we were running a 100m sprint!

Bang! the gun goes off and all went to plan as I didn’t get caught up in any carnage.  As the stronger swimmers passed me I managed to cling onto someone’s feet and settled in.  The swim was just one large lap which made sighting near impossible with the chop and the buoys being so wide apart.  I just stuck in the middle of a pack and hoped the guys at the front could see where they were going.  The swim was smooth and felt easy so I was surprised to be out in under an hour.

59:54, 17th in AG and 133rd overall.  First job done!

Bike

T1 went smooth and I was out on the bike within 3 minutes.  I was supposed to ride to power but my power meter decided not to work so I had to go off feel.  After a few minutes I came along side Paul Burton from Blackline London & Tom Babbington from Sensecore race team which meant my swim must have gone quite well as these two both usually swim 55/56mins for an IM swim.  I asked Paul if he wanted to come with me but he declined so to stick to his race plan, my thoughts were that I was going to see him again! Tom came with me and we started to progress through the field and after the first lap which had only taken us 2hrs 30mins I still felt comfortable.  We had moved into the top 50 overall and in the very top few in our age groups.  Just after starting the second lap Tom became sick and had to back off so I decided to try and bridge the gap to the next group which was about a mile up the road.  This turned out to be huge mistake.  It took me 45 minutes to bridge the gap and just as I made it across to the group the climbing started and I just didn’t have it to stay with them, so they rode away again up the first climb.  Now I had to be very sensible and think about the damage I could do to my marathon.  I was 130km into the bike with 50km to go, it was flat back to town with a head wind so I rode what I thought felt comfortable and didn’t let my cadence drop.  I lost a lot of places in the last 60 minutes, so was really happy to hear that I was still in the top 60 overall and probably top 10 in my AG.  I would say that the bike course is definitely a challenging one with the climbs, poor road surfaces in places and the head wind back to town but I wouldn’t put it in the same league as Wales, Lanzarote and UK (new course).

I knew my cycling wasn’t where I would like it to be for this race and after making the mistake of spending 45 minutes bridging a big gap I was happy to get off the bike in 5:21, 6th in AG &  59th overall. Second job kind off done!

Run

T2 was interesting as I picked somebody else’s bag up tipped it out onto the floor realised it wasn’t mine then in a fluster I just ran off to find my own bag and left it on the floor.  Luckily some very helpful stewards put the wrong bag back together.  My run training had suggested I could hold 7:35 per mile pace but with not being bike fit I decided to play safe and go for 7:45 per mile, which should give me under a 3:25 marathon.  The atmosphere in the town for the marathon was incredible it seemed like the whole town came out to support.  The first 16 miles went reasonably smooth with no problems holding pace but now it had begun to get really tough and my pace had started to drop down to 8:30 per mile pace.  I decided to walk through each aid station on the last lap and make sure I took enough nutrition/hydration on board to get me to the next and hope I could hold race pace between stations.  This worked well and coming into the last 4 miles I knew if I could keep going I could achieve a 3:27 marathon time and under 10 hours overall but it was going to be close.  I ran with Ellenor Haresign (female pro) for the final few miles.  We were both really struggling but continued to push each other.  In the final 2 miles guess who came past, Paul Burton who was on course for achieving his Kona slot with a perfectly executed race plan.  I knew I was going to see him again!  As I ran through 26 miles I was still not near the finish, I realised this marathon was over distance and now a sub 10 hour finish was in danger.  There’s nothing worse than an Ironman marathon being over distance when you have suffered for so long.  I eventually arrived on the red carpet which was packed with cheering supporters. I crossed the finishing line in a marathon time of 3.31 (26.85m) and an overall time of 9:58:45 Just made it!!!  6th in AG, 60th overall.  Third Job done!

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All in all a very solid result 6th in AG and achieving another Kona slot which I decided not to take and most importantly another fantastic Ironman experience.  I would like to thank James Gill and Lucy Gossage in particular as well as Eleanor Haresign, Paul Burton, Tom Babbington, Troy Squires, Susie & Rob Cheetham, James Beckinsale, Anna Sykes Brown, Steve Berry and others for making it such a memorable week.

And a big well done to Lucy 2nd & Susie 3rd and Paul & Troy for picking up Kona slots.

Hope to see you all again soon…….Maybe IMUK!

Train hard, smart and be safe!

Tony

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