People get really excited here when they find out I’m Canadian. “Canada!” they repeat back to me, with big eyes and a big smile. Their eyes get even bigger when I tell them it was -27 in my home town this week, almost confirming it’s another planet. It’s two long-haul intercontinental flights and 24 hours of travel; you change seasons! Africa is far.
It’s also far from your expectations. Somewhere in between the enchanting giraffe-roaming natural landscape pictured in travel magazines and the nation’s complicated history, is East London. It’s not a place you dream of going but add “Ironman 70.3” to it’s name and it becomes a destination for the swim, bike, run crowd.
Once you’ve done a few triathlons you can go through registration, bike check-in, and the race briefing with your eyes closed. But this is Africa so we quickly cover sharks in the race briefing too. That’s when you realize that you could focus on what you know—the same blue, white, and red bags; sticker placement; backpack collection—or you could zoom out and see you’re in Africa. Things are a little different here.
It’s a little rough around the edges. The city seems dated, save for the fancy hotels on the beach front, and there is broken glass everywhere. But even with your eyes closed, there is one thing you can’t miss. With only 3 Ironman events on the continent (all 3 in South Africa; 2 half, 1 full) you can feel this race is a big deal. There aren’t just a noticeable amount of athletes out on the road for pre-race training, they have taken over. There are multiple pelotons cruising up and down the beach promenade and run packs of over forty checking out the run course. In it’s 11th edition, the locals don’t bat an eyelash but my eyes were wide open.
South Africans must make up 99% of the field (and they boast the high 25% female participation). It’s the height of their summer and people are raring to go, amped to qualify for World Champs which is also hosted in South Africa this year, all the while I’m just thinking about getting my feet wet again. Except I can’t. With the beach closed before the race and no in-water warm up, when the start gun fires the Indian Ocean feels like the Atlantic. I gasp for air as I duck dive and am forced to start with a slow crawl. As the pack swims away, me and a counterpart navigate the cross-surf together. I drag myself out of the water, feeling like half the ocean is in my stomach, and die a little inside as my cement legs resist moving up the steep hill into transition.
I zoom out of transition, along the stunning beach front, and head to the out-and-back highway course. It’s not the most inspiring course but they have shut down the entire highway which is pretty impressive. The rolling course on grippy chip-and-tar is uphill out and downhill back. My legs, however, remind me it’s January and seem to wondering what is going on. Up top, my brain is wondering the same thing. I guess I’m the one who is a little rough around the edges. The rain starts to fall and I acceptingly stare down the long highway knowing it’s going to be a really long day. My power meter isn’t working but that’s probably a good thing. I just need to put my head down and get through this. And then something catches my eye.
On the side of the road, walking down the top of a highway safety barrier was a vervet monkey. It was grey with a black face and long tail. I could see the fingers of his left hand gripping the steel and I watched as he turned his head to look at me. He sat up as I passed. I turned to watch him disappear into the bush. Oh yeah, I was in Africa.
Not even two campaigns up Bunker Hill (the leg crushing steep climb on the run course) could break me out of my “stuck in gear one” legs so instead I tried to get it all in. From the stunning seaside view, the singing aid station girls, the bike marshal that said my name every time I passed, the “looking lekker”s from the constant support of never-ending spectators, and, of course, the sun in January. I might not have had the performance I wanted but my sunburnt lobster-coloured face proved I was out there getting the most I could out of racing in Africa— sharks, monkey, and all.