4:15am on race morning, just 2 and a half hours before the start of my first professional race, I’m jogging along Marine Drive towards the finish line where I hoped to arrive in less than 12 hours’ time. It’s dark and there’s fog in the air. With nobody around, I’m alone with my thoughts. At this stage I’m feeling the same nervous tension I always do before a race, a mixture of anxiety and excitement. 2 hours and 15 minutes later I walk on the sand and line up next to the athletes I’ve admired and looked up to throughout my amateur career. Now I’m shoulder to shoulder with them, racing against them. For the first time in years I’m nervous. Butterflies are in my stomach. Deep breaths now. Beyond the waves and swells at sea is a beautiful sunrise, a fitting way to start a day I’ll remember forever. I smile.
The first few hundred metres is frantic, taking the usual feet and elbows to the face and body. Things settled down very quickly and I found myself swimming comfortably, which was surprising as I’d fully expected the opening 300-500 metres to be the most uncomfortable of my life. During the warm-up I expected the conditions to slow the swim down a bit, and the opening few hundred metres did little to change that opinion. I’d already swallowed more sea water than normal, trying my best to stay on feet and not swim alone. Soon after the first turn buoy I lost the feet I was following, an error which proved to be costly. Struggling to sight the buoys ahead, I veered off course slightly and found myself swimming solo, exactly where I didn’t want to be. There were 50 other professionals in the field, but in that moment I felt completely alone. I found some company in the form of British athlete Craig Twigg and followed him to shore where we had a short beach run before starting the second lap.
I sat on Craig’s feet until the first turn buoy, at which point we began to run into some of the age-group swimmers who were on their first lap. Whilst trying to weave through the traffic, I was looking out for the pro coloured swim caps, trying to find someone to follow. I was in the midst of learning my first important lesson racing pro – do not lose contact with the pack. Well, I had and I was paying the price. More weaving and dodging and I came out the water in just over 54 minutes, a half decent time all things considered, but I was 5 minutes down on the lead swimmer and most importantly, 2 minutes down on the second pack.
T1 was uneventful, the only thing of note being that I was the only one in there! Once on the bike I settled into a comfortable rhythm, conscious of not starting out too hard.
With no intentions of attempting to bridge any gaps to those ahead, the plan on the bike was simply to race my own race. My nutrition plan was dialled and I was confident in the training done light that it wasn’t going to be a big disadvantage, although conditions weren’t quite as perfect as they were in 2011. With that in mind, I figured a bike split somewhere in the region of 4:40 would be on the cards. Lap 1 went by slightly under my target power in 1:35, a few minutes slower than I hoped. Up ahead there was a breakaway off the front, followed by a pack of close to a dozen riders. I was learning my second lesson racing pro - do not lose contact with the pack.
Lap 2 went by in the same time and as with the swim, we'd caught some of the slower age-groupers. This meant you had to stay alert to what was going on around you, with the potential for crashes or an accident higher. It wasn't planned, but on the third lap my power started dropping below my target pace. Time seemed to be ticking by more slowly and my thoughts turned towards the run. The final lap went by in 1:35 for an evenly paced bike split of 4:45:32. Full of intent, purpose and hope, I ran out of T2 a man on a mission, desperately in search of that magical sub-3 hour marathon.
It's usually a good sign when you're telling yourself to slow down. The first mile went by in 6:24 - too fast. I slowed down a bit, but not enough. The second mile went by in 6:40 - still too fast. I saw my training partner Kyle Buckingham (who incidentally was smashing the age-group race, demolishing the age-group course record and on his way to the second fastest Ironman time by an age-grouper in history!) and told him to take it nice and steady. Now if I could only take my own advice. I slowed to a more sensible pace and concentrated on taking in as much water as possible at the aid stations. I was soon reminded of why this is one of the best races in the world – the crowd. Few events have crowd support that can match that of South Africa. Lap 1 went by in 59:30, bang on target pace. Throw a couple more of those together and I’d have my sub-3 marathon. Easy. At least it seems so in theory.
At 9 miles I went through a bit of a low patch and had to concentrate to maintain pace. I took in more fluids at the aid stations and soon felt better, thanks largely to the power of Cola. A second wind had arrived and I went through lap 2 in 59:45, still on pace.
How many times have you read a report that said ‘Everything was going well until mile 18…’? Well, here’s another one. I hit the aid station at mile 18 and I walked. It wasn’t planned. I’m not even sure it was a conscious decision. I’ve walked aid stations in races before, but usually only when it’s been in the race plan. Once I’d taken the fluids on board I resumed running, unsure of what the next 8 miles would have in store. The miles were going by 30 seconds slower than they had been an hour earlier and the sub-3 goal was slipping away. At that stage I knew that a run PB was still on the cards, as well as a huge overall PB, so there was plenty of motivation to keep at it. As we approached the final two miles, I lacked the ability to push on and really give it everything to the finish. My calves were screaming at me, every footfall a painful reminder of the previous 24 miles run. Running past the crowd in the final few hundred metres was amazing as always, and as I approached the finishing chute I picked up the Seychelles flag, proudly crossing the line as the first professional triathlete to represent Seychelles, finishing with a 3:03:58 run.
8:48:01 and 11th place pro. I leant over with my hands on my knees, with absolutely nothing left in the tank. The feeling of joy would come later, but for now there were only aches and pains.
5 years ago I did my first Ironman in 10:49, completely unaware that I’d started upon a path that would shape the rest of my life. The initial appeal of Ironman was the uncertainty of whether I was able to finish it. Now the question is how fast can I finish it? How good can I be? Time will tell. The journey this far has been amazing and I see this as the start of a new chapter. I continue to be privileged to meet some wonderful people through the sport and love what I do more than I can possibly explain. I’m ever grateful to my buddy Kyle and his family for hosting me during the last month and making my time in South Africa so memorable.