Ironman South Africa 2017 Review

MedalIMSA17Race Preview
Race Report

That was my 34th Ironman finish and it feels that I know less about being well prepared for an Ironman than I did back in my early days. Even things like race nutrition are more back up in the air than they were when i started. I wonder whether I now over think things. Back then I didn’t know anyone else doing Ironman, didn’t read anything about training. I just did what felt right. I didn’t periodise, didn’t particularly taper I just did pretty much as much training as I could day in day out, week in week out. I was also younger.

I touched on it in my preview but I still suffer from remembering how I was then and probably approaching the race and race execution with my former self in mind rather than the preparation I’ve done in mind. I’ve come to the conclusion that I actually spent a good 5 years early on digging myself in to a big hole and then have spent the time since about 2010 suffering from fatigue which I’ve noticed as lacking motivation but never (until now ?) considered the lack of motivation is probably a symptom not the cause. This period coincided with post my foot surgery and I felt thats blinded me to the true cause.

This has made me positive though as my excellent motivation the past 6 months fits with this hypothesis. It fits with my body finally being recovered and ready to train. If this is true my motivation will continue and given how excited I am about Ironman Frankfurt I’m hopeful this is right. It also means, though, I’ve got to be realistic. Kona qualifying fitness doesn’t just arrive in a season, it’s multi season hard work. Was my fitness 6 months ago when motivation returned better than when I started doing Ironman in the first place. No way of knowing for sure but I would suggest it’s not as high.

Back to this race. I am disappointed with the race but with a few days to think about it I’m positive and wonder whether my disappointed is based on unrealistic assessment of where I am. I’ll be honest, my preview was reserved. I seriously thought I was in excellent shape. I had to hold myself back in race week. I felt rested and very fit. I felt I could ride hard and run at least a 3:40 off it. I felt for sure I could go under 10 hours. I was way off that mark.

I feel that it’s rare in a Ironman you don’t get pretty much the result thats reflective of your training. With this in mind I’m also in this review going to try and address why my result was so far off where I felt it should be.



I’m going to use these graphs for each discipline. They each show my weekly volume for my whole triathlon career (except the first year when I didn’t keep a training diary). The blue columns are each weeks volume (distance – KM for swim, miles for bike and run). The red line is a rolling six month average weekly volume and the yellow vertical lines show the dates where I qualified for Kona.

My swimming has been fairly constant throughout my triathlon career. Only occasionally does the average drop below 10k. The peak in late 2009 was a combination of not running much post foot surgery and being in Christchurch with superb pool and squad facilities. This consistency really pays off as my swimming is consistently good and slowly improving year on year.

At this race I persuaded myself to be relaxed at the start and not push to the front. I started 5:30 after the very first people and it was a very wise choice. In a race with a similar set up I would in future start even further back to try and ensure I had people to pass on the bike. In fact, I can imagine with time the competitive athletes will start “gaming” the system like this as they realise it’s to their advantage not to start at the front.

I said, “similar set up”, because here they were very structured – setting 7 people off every 7 seconds. The outcome of this I think was

  1. Packs to swim in didn’t really form. The chances of you starting with others your speed are slim and with 7s gaps the chances of groups of similar speed coming together are slim
  2. Swimmers are very spread out so swimming through was no issue whatsoever
  3. Starting later meant I would get at least some draft.

The net effect was a swim somewhere between easy and moderate in effort, where I swam consistently, never got out of breath and got a half decent time (for me).



This looks a little different from the swim one. We can see that since the start of 2016 it’s only by last summer where my 6m average got anywhere near 300 miles. During the period where I was qualifying pretty much whenever I tried the 6m average stayed above 300 miles for long periods and occasionally peaked above 400 miles. In fact, since my last qualification I’ve only hit that 300 barrier twice.

To me it now appears clear that I am still setting expectations based on how I was not how I am. I guess a lot of my friends still view me as the high volume guy but that is because they don’t know what I’m doing. My volume is way down. It wasn’t like I was doing anything fancy in training I was just riding a lot. If I felt good I rode hard, if I didn’t I just rode. That was when I could ride an IM bike leg holding between 240-260 watts. The 225 I rode on Sunday is probably a fair reflection of where I’m at now. The low 5hrs or quicker bike split required to be competitive probably requires me to go back to riding those sort of volumes. Not for just some build period of a few months but consistently year in year out.

On the day I felt I went out a little too hard. Looking at my actual ride data shows it wasn’t as bad as I’d initially thought.


The graph shows my normalised power for each 5k together with a moving average for each 20k. The red line shows net altitude gain. The first 5k was a bit full beans but after that it settled. After 90k my normalised power was 229k and luckily for me on the day I understood that the way I felt meant more than the power range of 230-250 I had in my head. I felt I was over cooking it and decided to focus the next 45k on backing off the effort and eating. This paid dividends in the final 45k where I felt good pushing some of the best watts of the race and my morale went through the roof as I was passing so many people.

I finished with a bike time at the bottom end of what I thought was needed to be in with a shot of a Kona slot going on to the run.

Could I have paced this better ? I am certain I can. I was perplexed during the race and after that having rested up I at no point felt anywhere near how I felt several times during my time on Lanza longer in to a ride in the middle of days of consecutive riding. I wonder now that starting out hard is a very bad idea. None of my training rides kick off at full beans. Instead I almost always build in to them. This wouldn’t have dramatically changed the time but I feel fairly certain I would have managed a little quicker with a much more conservative approach.



This further illustrates what I identified in my race preview – my lack of appropriate run volume for quite a few years now. The period of no running in early 2009 is my FHL Foot surgery and marks a step change in my run volume. Pre that period I had numerous extended periods of averaging over 50 miles a week for 6 months.Post that I’ve come no where near. In fact for the majority of the period post that I’ve been below 25 miles per week average. It’s just no where near enough. The two qualifications post surgery have been a bit of a conundrum as they were done on lower run volume. I think this just shows that the run fitness carried over for a period: in both races I was in the 3:30s for the marathon – which is slow compared to previously but still fast enough. It also shows how the amount swim and bike training I was doing set me up – in Lanzarote I was starting the run with 6:20 on the clock and at Busselton only 5:44 on the clock.

Following the last time I did this race I struggled with plantar fasciitis and by the summer decided to just stop running completely and give it a chance. This introduce a bigger gap in running that following my surgery! With hindsight this was a sensible thing to do. At the time it just felt like the right thing to do. Through 2016 I was able to run but was constantly managing the issue. I was confident though as it was improving. This year it got so minor that I stopped noticing it that often and couldn’t even pin point the time when it completely disappeared. This allow an increase in my run. Since November 2016 I’d averaged over 40 miles a week and we can see the rolling average is tending towards where it needs to be. I have to be realistic that I could need a year or more of this sort of volume to feel confident about performing well on the marathon.

I still am a little perplexed about the run as it just did not reflect how I’d felt during long brick runs off long bikes. I’d run better in training and during big training block off harder bikes. I ran better at Texas in worse heat.

I’ve thought a lot about the impact on not having a watch. I’d done all my training with a pace watch and got used to just seeing my splits at a KM. I remember times when I’d feel I wasn’t running well, it was hard work then see my split and realise it was because I was running fast. I also get motivated chasing averages. I also realise that when I was mentally rehearsing the run seeing splits and working towards a pace were key in it. Never considered what I would do without a watch. In future I will do runs without looking at pace, I’ll carry another watch – even having time of day would have allowed me to see my KM splits were.

Luckily as another great part of this race they had loads of run timing mats. They were also relatively evenly paced (all 2.5 or 2.7k apart) and they gave a split at end of each lap.


I stopped for a pee in a portoloo – I’m guessing about two minutes by the time I’d found it etc. This means my first lap which was just under 55 minutes (for 10.5k and thus 3:40 pace) was actually running ~5:00 pace and in fact when you exclude the first couple of KM which for me are always slow you see I was running at ~ 4:53 per KM pace from 2.6k in the end of the first lap (so for 8k). This was also in the hottest weather and it was effectively on for about a 3:27 marathon – i.e. faster than I felt I could do. Without any feedback I felt was just running relaxed. I didn’t feel I was running fast. As I started the next lap I started to suffer. In my head I remember thinking shit, you’ve not run that well for the first lap and you’re already suffering. I mentally started to break and by halfway there was detonation as can be seen above – once I’m above 6 mins per k I’m doing a reasonable amount of walking.

Would it have been different with splits ? I’m sure it would have been different. I would have known at the end of the first lap I was running well. The feeling of starting to suffer would have been considered to be expected. I would have slowed but tried to maintain a more realistic pace. This is not an excuse it’s an attempt at explanation. It actually confirms what I thought in the race I didn’t have it mentally for the run. The lack of pace data allowed me to assume the worst rather than the best.

As the race progressed having Mark slowly chasing me down helped a lot. It would have been nice for him to have a better run but if he had it would have been the nail in my coffin. As it was he was only slowly catching me and on that third lap where my pace dropped I was waiting for him to run by. I was planning to asking for some pace info ! He didn’t catch me, so he must have been suffering a similar amount. I then decided to try and get something out of this and see if I could mentally push. I forced myself to run and, in hindsight, was running well (sub 5 min Ks). I remember when it felt like hard work I’d push again. It was fun, it felt great. It lasted 5k was actually better than the above looks in terms of running as my shoe lace came undone. I stopped to fasten it and noticed the timing chip was cutting into my ankle so took the safety pin out and adjusted it over my sock. I estimate I ran those 5k in 25 minutes. To me it rather confirmed that a big part of my running in Ironman is now mental. Post race I had a WhatsApp conversation with Jo and she (kindly) was brutally honest. She was equally perplexed by my run as she was well aware how much better I was running. When I suggested I didn’t have the mental toughness for this she agreed commenting “those other guys are just willing to hurt themselves a lot more”.

With hindsight I certainly think I had a sub 4 hour marathon in me possible sub 3:50 but I just allowed a few mishaps give me an excuse to fall apart. It’s actually quite positive.



For completeness I’ve included my overall hours. It shows just what volume I was doing back when I was qualifying. Went for years with the 6m rolling average not dropping below 20 hours and spending huge periods above 30 hours. Thats long term consistency. When you look at the dips they coincided with end of year. In the past few years it’s rarely got above 20 hours. I wonder whether this is a big part of why I struggle to work out how best to taper for Ironman. I’m remembering the days of high volume and back then I didn’t really taper. Take one of my best races Lanza 2007 – the two weeks ahead of race week I trained 47 hours then 24 hours. With that level of fitness I think there’s a decent race in you almost at any point and thus the details of the final week or so become not so important. Trying to perform well on less hours I think requires a more specific approach to freshening up. This race I thought I’d got i right but my performance suggests otherwise.

During the race I had moments where I’d decided to give up doing Ironman races. it’s amazing how now I feel more motivated than ever. more positive. It’s the first time in a long that that post Ironman I’m desperate to get out training so soon after.

Thoughts for going forwardL

  1. Swimming – keep as is
  2. Biking – consistent volume
  3. Run – continue what I’m doing. Trust it will just take time to build robustness. Plan to train straight through London marathon and focus on Ironman Germany
  4. Start further back in swim
  5. start bike very conservative. Aim to build in thirds
  6. Spare watch in T2 bag !
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1 Response to Ironman South Africa 2017 Review

  1. Pingback: Ironman South Africa, Port Elizabeth 2017 | Steven Lords Website

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