It’s an event that is so big, so popular and so special, that the entire word is capitalised. And while the word iconic is overused and has become hopelessly clichéd, it’s surely permissible, to use it to describe IRONMAN South Africa.
I am sure that when the organisers of the first IRONMAN event on African soil first sat down to plan their inaugural race, way back in 2005, they fully expected it to be a success and to still be an annual event ten years later. I’m also pretty certain that in their wildest and most ambitious dreams, they didn’t have a clue how massive IRONMAN South Africa would become. Massive not only in the number of competitors entered but also how big the IRONMAN brand and sport of long distance triathlon would become in our country.
To give you an idea of the scale of this event, ten years ago there were 786 competitors. This year there were 2,371. And there could have been plenty more had entries not been capped for the sake of safety and sanity. Of those entrants, 519 (22%) were international visitors. And a massive 2,085 (88%) were from outside the Port Elizabeth area. It’s small wonder then that given the massive cash injection the event gives to the area that the Nelson Mandela Bay authorities give such great support to this race.
For the uninitiated, an IRONMAN distance triathlon comprises a 3.8 km swim, 180 km cycle and 42 km marathon distance run. While other major South African sporting events may have more competitors to deal with, they don’t have three disciplines spread over a 226 km route, some of it in the sea. It’s a logistical nightmare and requires the kind of planning and attention to detail that would scare NASA mission planners.
There is a group of 21 athletes who have travelled the ten-year path with the race, having entered and finished all ten events. Most IRONMAN athletes ‘do’ one or two events. Some even enter five or six. To do ten is very special. The amount of training and dedication required to achieve that is simply astonishing. Being a lover of stats, let me share these numbers with you.
In the ten events to date, the ten-year athletes would have each covered the following distances:
Swim – 38 km
Bike – 1,802 km
Run – 422 km
Total – 2,262 km
To give this some context, these distances are equivalent to:
• Swimming, cycling and running from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg and back.
• Swimming, cycling and running from London to Barcelona and back.
• Jumping down the Bloukrans Bungy 10,472 times in a row.
• Scaling 5,937 Empire State Buildings.
And that’s just the race distances. Training for an IRONMAN is where the real distance and time is put in, and you can safely multiply those distances by 50. It truly is exceptional.
To celebrate their 10th anniversary, IRONMAN South Africa shuffled things around a bit to safely accommodate the number of competitors on the course. The swim went from two laps to a single, big 3.8 km slog around Nelson Mandela Bay. The big change though was to the bike leg, where it went from being three relatively flat laps in the past, to two longer laps that included the very hilly new section out to Maitlands and Seaview.
The new course may have been jaw-droppingly beautiful, but the combination of the newly introduced elevation gain and a strong headwind, which is now famously known as the ‘beasterly easterly’, would combine to turn many a racer’s day into a localised version of hell on earth. Athletes who previously had planned to return a personal best in their race were now changing their goal to finishing before the dreaded psychological moment; when light turns to dark and the organisers hand out glowsticks to those still left on the course. When the glowsticks come out, there are still 5 hours left for athletes to beat the final 17-hour cut-off.
It’s a very long day out on the road for the athletes. It’s been an equally long ten-year road for the race organisers. For both, there can surely be very little to beat the feeling of satisfaction and achievement that they must feel.
Here is a gallery of some of my favourite IMSA images over the years.