Ironman, the shared experience – by guest blogger Richard Wright.

The year was 2011, and I had entered IronmanSouthAfrica with the hopes of winning myrich iron medal age category. Fate changed that. Fate also taught me about another Ironman, one I never knew existed.

4 Weeks before race day, I decided to scratch due to a foot injury. However, a chance phone call to my CEO’s PA changed that decision. You see, the CEO was competing in his first ever Ironman, and in passing conversation it emerged that she was very concerned about him finishing. The two of us decided upon a win/win solution. I would get to earn another Ironman medal without the pressure of competing on an injury, and Andrew would get a seasoned veteran of the race to hold his hand as it were, and make sure that we got to the finish line in one piece. A quick call to a very happy Andrew, and the deal was sealed. “It’s going to be slow, I’m very under-cooked” he said. “I’m counting on it” was my reply.

Let me say this; how an incredibly busy, hands-on CEO of an international Real Estate company, who is on and off planes,  in and out of meetings, who makes time for a busy family, and yet still manages to fit in any training for an Ironman event is beyond me. An average day that starts at 4am, and ends at 11pm does not sound like the ideal format for success on an Ironman course. Particularly for a man who did none of the 3 disciplines before 20 odd months before the race. Yet Andrew did, and still does it, and has the drive to match. Respect. I know we all struggle to fit in the required training, but I think that for some it is just WAY harder. Its no secret that Ironman success is predominately about how much time you have to train. Sure, talent plays a part, but many of the top age groupers are successful because they don’t have a full time job, or they have a job that allows them time to train. They also have time for the important discipline called rest.

0019_01287My run up to the race was extremely different to any other I have done. No worries about distance, speed work, taper, diet, nor anything else. No pressure at all. I was 4kg heavier than usual, and in much worse condition. It was pretty cool to listen to some of the serious athletes and giggle at their replies to the prediction question. There are not many who you speak to the week before who will admit they are going for a win or a podium. They are full of excuses before the race even starts, and they are ‘just doing it’ not actually ‘racing’. I learned some lessons there, because it sounded all too familiar. The registration was fun, I was smiling and joking and already experiencing a vibe unlike any I’d felt before. To anyone who asked for my predictions I said I was hoping to break 15 hours, knowing that they were looking at me through the same eyes I had looked at the above mentioned ‘tjops’  🙂

Bike racking was bliss. Very little to do. I planned to have one juice bottle on my bike and no other nutrition. I figured that for the first time in my triathlon career I would  make sole use of what was provided along the course.

The plan was to meet Andrew on the side of the swim start. Whose stupid idea was that anyway? 2000 Athletes all with caps and goggles on and wearing wet-suits. Errm, maybe I had been a little lackadaisical. The cannon boomed and the wave surged forward. Well actually at the back it’s more of a creep than a surge. I reckoned I would let all the athletes pass me as I turned and faced them, hoping to spot Andrew. No Andrew. New plan needed. I felt a little panic creep in.

I decided that I would sprint the first lap of the swim to attempt to gain ground (or is that water?), and then I would wait on the beach and hopefully see Andrew as he ran back into the water for the second lap. I wasn’t prepared for the solid wall of swimmers that I now needed to swim through. I was so accustomed to 3 or 4 deep around the bouys, and a resulting quick turn. What I had to negotiate around the bouys was a pack of swimmers 30 to 40 deep. I made the decision to swim right on the outside of the wave so as to avoid any resistance. I looked at my stopwatch as I ran out of the water onto the beach for the first time, 28 minutes. I had gained a lot of water, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be in front of me. When I reached the water’s edge again to re-enter, I stopped and turned around to see all the athletes coming past, waiting for Andrew. To say the reaction from the crowd on the beach was comical was an understatement. People screamed at me to go, as if I might not realize I still had another lap. Others were very concerned and asked if I was OK. Some who recognized me asked what the hell I was doing. I explained that I was looking for Andrew, and described his wet suit. Before long I had the crowd playing along. Shouting “is that Andrew?”, at every man in a black wet-suit who looked vaguely similar to my description of Andrew.  15 Minutes waiting felt like an age. I was incredibly relieved when I saw Andrew run towards me, and judging by the look on his face, so was he. But he was bang on target to his predictions. Good man!

We set off for the second lap. For the first time I got to feel what it’s like to be a part of a mass participation event as a part of the real race. And by ‘real’ I mean the average participant who makes up the race. This is what an Ironman is about. Nobody jostling for position, nobody pulling at my ankles, nobody trying to beat me to the bouy. Just a whole shoal of swimmers with a common goal. Move forward. Together.

Swimming backstroke, taking in the views, actually feeling the water and the sea swells, and concentrating on everybody else’s movement and not my own was an amazing experience. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was watching the race from within the race. What an incredible gift. I think I smiled the whole day.

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And just like that, 3.8km of swimming was over and we were walking through the showers and into the transition. Time to take it all in, fabulous. I seem to remember that we were in the transition for more than 15 minutes. Andrew had packed for any and all eventuality. He emerged after a bathroom break in a complete change of clothing, smothered in sunscreen, and with enough nutrition to feed a small triathlon team. I got to sit and watch, to engage with other athletes and feel their trepidation for the cycle leg. The camaraderie was truly something special. I marveled at how prepared Andrew was. He had left nothing to chance. A very good way to approach your novice Ironman. Time is not the objective.

We set off at a conservative pace, maybe still a little too fast. I had forsaken my ‘sperm’ helmet for my normal one, and felt more like a spectator in the race than an athlete. Conscious of drafting regulations and a penalty for Andrew, I spent the cycle moving around him and staying as close as I dared, making sure he gained no advantage from my slipstream on the odd occasion I found myself in front of him. I had decided that I would help as much as possible without aiding him physically at all. He was going to earn his medal all by himself. The way it should be.

For those who are not familiar with the front of the race, here is some insight:

The average top 100 competitor spends 8-10 Hours on the course without uttering a single word to another  athlete. No smiles, no acknowledgements. No thank you’s. Should you greet them, say hi, ask how they’re doing or give some encouragement, the result…you might as well not exist. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just different,perhaps not competitive enough, but for me, engaging with others assists me. My Ironman PB is a 9:17 and 16th position overall. I engaged the whole time during that race, as much as I could. It makes the race go by faster, and the experience is shared.

What I experienced that day with Andrew was very very different. The back three quarters of the race is an antithesis to the first quarter. Its simply the best! Everyone engages, shares jokes, shares stories, regales ailments. Andrew frequently told me to get lost, “go and talk to that lady there” he’d say. He needed some alone time, time to focus and cope. And so I did. I made a lot of friends that day. And I had a lot of fun.

On the second lap I noticed I was no longer telling him to back off the pace. We stopped at water points and got off our bikes. I ate bananas, energy bars, gels, sarmies, whatever was offered to me. And the whole time Andrew cycled on, the pace rarely changing, a solid steady average.  Me yelling out “time to drink” every 30 minutes, and passing on some advice on cadence, pace, gear changes and bike position. But by 150km it was clear that Andrew was taking major strain. The talk subsided substantially, I backed off and made some more friends, all the while watching as he gritted his teeth and pushed on.

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Not a moment too soon, and we were sitting in T2. Andrew looked at me, his face ashen, and his voice subdued, “I can’t run” he said, “my legs are finished”.

“No problem” I answered, “then we will walk until they come back”. “No way they will, we are going to have to walk the marathon. Do you think we have enough time?” said Andrew. I just grinned and replied, “oh yes they will, sooner than you think”

We set off at a walk, and not a fast walk either. 10 Minutes later we tried the first slow jog. I suggested just a minute. Next came 2 minutes, then three. Andrew started smiling a little. For most of the run we averaged a 5-10 minute run with a 2-5 minute walk in between. A steady rhythm. I talked a lot to Andrew that day. We discussed many things (well actually I discussed and he grunted) It proved to be the longest job interview in history. I started a new position at the company the month after Ironman. I learned that day that if your CEO can’t physically talk back, your chances of getting what you want are far higher ;-)

I had started the run with both a cap and sunglasses. It’s what I was used to. I dumped them after the first lap. Neither were needed. It was already getting dark. I was excited to use those glow-sticks I’d always seen but never been given. Andrew pushed on with the tenacity of a man determined to reach the red carpet no matter what. I saw Andrew delve deep, deep into that dark place. That place every Ironman athlete gets to know, and of which we speak little. That place that reveals character. And that day I witnessed the character that made it obvious to me how this man had achieved extraordinary successes in all facets of his life. With every step it became more and more of a privilege for me to be sharing this journey. This maiden Ironman voyage.

Each timing mat that we crossed became a small victory. A little signal to all those following our progress. We are getting closer. We are nearing our goal. I made sure Andrew crossed each one in front of me. This was his race, not mine.

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The last lap of the run was agony for Andrew. We had said nothing about a projected time, and had decided to take the day as it unfolded. What would be, would be. But for the first time, and with 10km to go, we worked out splits and I said what was on both of our minds. “If we keep going at this pace we will definitely break 15 hours”. I saw Andrew’s jaw tighten, resolve accumulating, and he broke into a jog again. I was grateful I’d decided to run in normal training shoes. Not racing flats. My legs hurt. I ran on ahead from time to time, or back along the route to chat with athletes I knew. I needed to stretch my legs out a bit. But that was the only pain I felt on the day. I guess that’s what made it so enjoyable for me. Andrew was telling me how grateful he was to me for sacrificing my day for him. I tried to impress upon him how grateful I was to him for allowing me to share in his day. True synergy. I didn’t need to push him much, he pushed himself. All he needed was encouragement and some guidance.

The last lonely leg behind the university stretched before us. Even the ‘run one lamppost, walk two’, became a massive effort. At times the only sounds were our shoes on the tarred road. The crowds had thinned, but those who remained yelled encouragement. The friends we’d made had either fallen back or had surged ahead. The loud Canadian, Brent, who had given us many laughs and who had been with us for a big portion of the run had stopped a while back to recover. And then we saw the lights from the finish line….

0019_39568I looked at Andrew’s face. The pain that was etched there had disappeared, his jawline softened, his eyes lit up. And the next moment we were running, yes running, down the red carpet. Andrew’s daughter running next to him. We were celebrating! He beat me, by a second. An important second.

I heard Paul Kaye on the mic, Welcoming Andrew by name…YOU…ARE…AN..IRONMAAAAAN!!! A high-five, a hug from Andrew, and eyes that said everything they needed to say.

And then Andrew’s wife was hugging me over the fence, her tears of relief and gratitude mixing with the sweat on my cheek. That is what an Ironman is about. It’s a shared journey.

Its not always about time, 14:43 with an average heart rate of 109 beats per minute for the race. No, it wasn’t about that, for once not about the numbers. The athletes that deserve the greatest amount of respect are those like Andrew, one of the 1500 or so athletes like him that day. It was a long day. A hard day. They overcame huge obstacles to cross the finish line.

It was about a finisher’s medal I count as one of my proudest memories. A friend who gave me a reciprocal gift.  A day nobody can ever take away. A mutual bond that is commonly understood. Respect for a man who dug as deep as any can. My CEO.

It is no secret that in helping another we receive. I was a blessed recipient that day.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, I hope you enjoyed the read. If so, please share it using the link below. Comment and engage with me. You can also find me on twitter @thewrightrich. Good luck and happy racing :)
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We have used this article with permission from Richard Wright. Richard blogs on a host of topics. We highly recommend you checking out his blog on http://doingitwright.wordpress.com/

Also, give us at SBR Sport a follow on www.facebook.com/sbrsport – the aim of the page is both to inform and inspire.

About sbrsport

SBR Sport specialises in Swimming, Biking and Running. On the medical side we are able to do intensive bike setups, leg assessments and soft tissue release. Follow us on twitter - www.twitter.com/swimbikerunshop and/or facebook - www.facebook.com/sbrsport.
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