I remember as a kid hearing about this strange race, which happened in a far away place. The strange people in this race combined a swim, a bike and a run into one event! Like many kids in South Africa at the time I used to swim a lot and when I was not in the pool I was on my bike, but running too? Those people were strange. I remember soon after hearing about this race trying out the swim-to-bike thing around our house in Morehill, Benoni. I started with a swim in our pool then road around the neighbourhood. It is one of my earliest memories – I must have been 8 or younger at the time.
These memories are from around 1982 – well before the internet, when information was hard to come by. The only information I had was hearsay from friends and family, however, even with this lack of information this race held a strange fascination for me, it felt like something mythical, as if it only existed in a story book or another world.
Through my teenage years I swam competitively and rode my bike more and more but I never ran. After school I carried on going to gym but mostly to do weights – I didn’t believe in cardio. I still held a fascination for swimming, biking and running but didn’t actively do them myself.
This all changed one day in 2008 while sitting on an incline bench in a gym in London. I had just completed another set of incline flyes when I realized that I was bored. Spending hours in a gym every day had completely lost its charm and although I was strong, that strength felt like it had no purpose. I decided then and there to stop doing weights and enter the London triathlon. At this stage I had never run more than about 1km at a time in my life (when people asked: do you run? My standard answer was: only when chased ). The buzz / fear / doubt on entering that first race was amazing, but first I had to ease myself into running: beginning on the elliptical trainer, then the treadmill before venturing outside. I also bought my first road bike in years and began to brave the London traffic. Fortunately swimming came back to me pretty quickly. By the time that race came around I was well and truly hooked.
Commuting in London means you spend a lot of time listening to music or podcasts, and in my case with my new love of triathlon I listened to mostly triathlon related podcasts. Most of them were great and very approachable but there was one podcast where the audience was a bunch of crazy people who did something I could never hope to do: Ironman. I listened to it and heard about this crazy race in Hawaii that sounded strangely familiar and heard about “the big 4” and the “Iron-war” and “Mark & Dave” hill (where the Iron-war was decided in 1989). It dawned on me that crazy race was the same race I had heard about as a kid but now I had access to the internet so I could read a ton of information about it. The more I read, the more it seemed impossible, like something only other people could do.
I continued to train and made a deal with myself: if I was still injury free by the time we moved back to South Africa in early 2010 I would enter Ironman South Africa. January 2010 came around, the move went smoothly and now I had no excuse – I had to enter the race. I think my heart rate was in about zone 6 when I clicked the enter button– I was terrified!!
I trained for that race without really knowing what I was doing and without knowing if I could complete the race at all. In fact the day before the race I was a complete wreck. I had no idea what was going to happen the next day – could I even complete the distance? The night before the race I had a moment of clarity: in an instant I knew, that whatever happened the next day, NOTHING was going to stop me.
Each milestone on the next day felt like the finish line – the first turn buoy, the first bike lap, completing the bike then eventually knowing that I was on the run and all I had to do was keep going and it would happen – I would be an Ironman.
I eventually crossed the line in 12:37 (probably the equivalent of about 13:07 on the new course) but I had done it, I had done my impossible. After that race I needed a new goal and I immediately knew what it needed to be: that crazy race in Hawaii! There was only one problem: I was nowhere near fast enough. For the next 2 years I continued to chase this goal and made improvements but I was still over 1.5 hours from where I needed to be so I decided to get a coach. Around this time Cindy (my wife) decided she wanted to buy some muffins from the Woolworths factory shop, so I said sure, as long as we can stop at CycleLab on the way. Those were the most expensive muffins we ever bought as during that trip I met Kent, heard about MTD, bought a new mountain bike and tri bike, and also bought some muffins.
When I first met Claire my goals were clear: I wanted to go to Kona. Whether I got there by getting fast enough or through the legacy program (by completing 12 Ironmans) I was going to get there. Nothing was going to stop me. I set a new PB in my next Ironman, dropping under 11 hours for the first time (on the old, faster course) but was still well down the field.
I set my goal on qualifying for Kona in 2014. I trained hard and was in the shape of my life targeting a 10h30 race (first year on the new course) however things went horribly wrong the night before the race when I had a back spasm that meant I couldn’t walk on the morning of the race. I put in a panicked call to (physio) Jayne who met me on the grass before the swim and helped get me into some form of shape to start the swim. I decided to start the race and see how far I could go, knowing that any chance of qualifying was out the window. That was a tough day, but a thoroughly enjoyable one too as all the pressure was off.
For 2015 I decided to take the gloves off – I would do any/ everything (legal) to qualify: I would work half time for the months leading up to the race and focus on training to ensure that I would be in Hawaii in October. I had an awesome training block leading up into the race but knew it would still be tough. The field in the 2015 race was fast: 30% of the entrants were international, and I knew in my age group 20 people had PB’s of under 10 hours (at faster courses). So I knew it was going to be a tough day.
The swim went OK – I was out the water in 6th in my age group and the bike went ok too – I reached T2 in 7th but the run was another story. I did a PB for the marathon at Ironman but still got passed by 10 people – which meant I ended in 17th in my age group.
It took a lot of convincing from Cindy and Claire to get me to go to slot allocation on Monday – when I got there I was convinced that there was no chance so I was pretty relaxed. The first guy in my age group (Sam Gyde) took his slot but the second on third guy didn’t (they had already qualified at other races). Given that there were 12 slots in my age group that meant that 14th position would now be offered a slot – there was a glimmer of hope (it was around this time that Claire almost went into labour, but I’ll let her tell you that story).
They kept calling out names and the stress level around the table increased until pretty soon it was clear: 3 more people had turned down their slots and I was going to Kona!!!! When I heard Paul Kaye call my name I couldn’t believe it, all that work, all those years working towards this one moment – my name called at an Ironman World Championship slot allocation. I jumped up, hugged Cins then Claire and went off to have a lei put around my neck by Paula Newby-Fraser (8x Ironman World Champion) and accept my slot.
On 10 October 2015 I will be racing the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I will line up with the world’s best triathletes to swim with turtles, cycle through lava fields and run down Ali’i drive. And I will have a new goal – sub 10 anyone?
I’m honoured and blessed and truly privileged to be living a dream.
Thanks to my beautiful wife / top supporter and lead sponsor Cindy Toms.
Thanks also to my coaches Claire Horner and Kent Horner and to all my fellow
My Training Day athletes. It’s been epic!