I wouldn’t describe my warm up swim in Germiston lake the day before Sunday’s 5150 triathlon as pleasant. As my six year old daughter put it (loudly, and to not much amusement from the serious triathletes in the vicinity), “it stinks, Dad. I can’t believe you’re going to swim in there.” But the weather was good, the water comfortable, and, except for the occasional stray duck feather and slimy lily tendril brushing my legs, it was fine. Fun, almost.
Having registered for the event after my swim, feeling warm and tingly, and wearing the brand new, free and quite flattering goodie bag T-shirt, I was feeling a lot more confident that this triathlon was going to be just fine.
I woke up at 4am on Sunday after an anxious night of semi-sleep. The weather had turned nasty. It was cold, overcast and, a wintery wind was blowing hard. For the first of many times that day, I considered baling from the event. The wetsuit I had borrowed didn’t fit, and the thought of doing the swim in that weather without a wetsuit made me a little green. But I got up, dressed in the dark, and packed up the bewildering variety of triathlon equipment (goggles, ear plugs, cap, sunblock, cycling shoes, running shoes, towel, bike, bike fixing equipment).
The weather was no better by the time I got to the lake. Having checked in my bicycle and slid it into its slot, I laid out my gear as neatly as I could alongside it, then went and sat forlornly on the lawn and waited for my wife and daughter to join me. Withdrawal from the event still seemed like my best bet. Some good news was that the water temperature was 19 degrees – six degrees warmer than the air temperature.
The presence of my wife and youngest daughter must have spurred me on because the next thing I knew I was up to my waist in green water in something called the “holding area”, under starters orders. There were about 200 people in my starting group. I saw one other who wasn’t wearing a wetsuit. I became aware that I was practicing the swimmer’s distress signal described during the pre-race briefing.
Then a siren went off and we were swimming. The wind was moving the surface of the water so that it was like being repeatedly slapped in the face as you moved through it. I saw several people being fished out by paddle skiers and the safety boat. I remember in particular the ashen complexion of one guy not far from the start who didn’t look like he was going to make it. He was treading water, with a wild look to him and all I could think was, “get away from this guy because he is going to grab you and pull you under”.
The 1500 metre swim leg was a rectangular trip around three buoys – It was supposed to be 730m to the first buoy, a couple of hundred to the next and another 500 or so to the shore. The swim to the first buoy had a nightmarish quality to it – the nightmare where you are trying your best to move but objectively you are not going anywhere. There were times when I would look up and the buoy seemed even further away than it had been the previous time I looked up. With knowledge gleaned after the swim that the buoys had moved (in the wind apparently) and the actual length of the swim was between 2000 and 2100 metres, and not 1500, maybe this was not an illusion.
I got through the swim solely by telling myself that if I just made it to the shore, I could withdraw from the race and get warm. But as I stumbled out of the lake past a man wielding an underwater camera, a strange euphoria enveloped me and I think I even managed a little strut up the aisle into the transition area past my wife and daughter who were both shouting anxious encouragement at me. Before I knew it, I was pushing the bike out of transition, struggling to swallow two bananas, clipping in and pedalling.
I was aware that not only had the sun come out, but also that it was now scorching hot.
The swim had taken me a depressingly long 50 minutes (in retrospect, not absolutely shocking given the conditions and the extra length), so I realised that I needed to try and make up some time on the bike. I barrelled along for the first 32 km of the cycle leg averaging a swift (for me) 31km/h and I was actually starting to enjoy the triathlon experience for the first time that day when I felt something go wrong at the back of my bicycle followed by the familiar repetitive thud of a punctured tyre. I had 8 kilometres more to cycle of the 40 kilometre out and back course, and the last 8 kilometres were all uphill. I considered getting off and changing the tyre, but I knew that if I did that, there was no way I would get back on, so I pedalled the last quarter of the cycle leg very slowly and very uncomfortably.
By the time I got to transition, my average speed had dropped to 27 km/h, my right leg had started to seize up, and I was in the quitting mood once again. I racked the bicycle, and started changing out of my cycling gear, very slowly and petulantly, chewing on an apricot energy bar, my mouth too full. I hoped that everything about my manner was communicating my disdain for the whole experience, my rejection of the concept of the quick triathlon transition in particular.
I was by now aware of pain in a number of places, and I wondered what formalities were required in order to withdraw. Then I realised that even if I walked the entire 10 kilometre run, I would still make it before cut off. And then I was lacing on my running shoes and jogging out of transition alongside Germiston Lake, feeling momentarily stoic.
I got through the run with a fair amount of hobbling and quite a bit of walking. Everyone was being amazingly friendly. I think those who were at around the same time as me had realised that they were going to make it without being cut-off and a good natured atmosphere was in the air and everyone was encouraging everyone else to hang in there. I saw that guy Stan, an amputee, and that dad who does this type of race pushing his child in a wheelchair.
With about a kilometre to go, I realised I was going to finish. I began to feel quite emotional. As I crossed the finish line, with my wife and daughter cheering, it was suddenly all too much and I was hunched over, hiding my face, choking back tears, clutching my medal.
Today, I feel as though I have been run over. The few serious triathletes I spoke to after the event all said that this triathlon was particularly difficult, mainly because of the swim (which turned out to be longer than the swim in a half iron man), and because of the wind. It certainly ranks among the very hardest things I have ever done. And it is just about impossible not to spout platitudes here, but the reward of tapping your very last reserves of emotional and physical strength to conquer pain and fatigue is a very powerful one. I can see why people do these things again.
Oh. My time? I did it in 3 hours and 50 minutes. (The winner did it in 1 hour and 55 minutes.)