It’s 01:17 am on Sunday, March 22nd, 2020, and I am drenched, shaking and in excruciating pain.
In my mind, however, I tightened my fist in victory. I had done it. I had just crossed the finish line of COVID-19 Ironman, a socially-distanced full Ironman course in Dubai.
I expected to be running through that finish line, but I was limping from the sharp pain in my ankle, and shivering from the downpour that had soaked me to the bone.
3.8 km swim – Check. 180 km bike ride – Check. 42.2k run – Check.
My Coach Tom Walker on how he got me through choppy seawater, rain, wind, lightning, sandstorm – every kind of hell that made up our COVID-19 Ironman course.
To give you an idea, here’s what the weather looked like on the day.
The race lasted about 18 hours and even though I had resilience training from running 250kms across the Sahara desert twice, I still quit about six times over the course.
It was a dreadful, painful, liberating experience, and I knew when I finished that I was meant to have had it.
It changed what grit means to me, it reaffirmed the concept of controlling the controllable and it reconfirmed the weight of a commitment to me. Heavy stuff.
How It All Began
On Friday, March 13th, over a month after I had finished the Half Ironman in Dubai, we learned that the Ironman race scheduled for March 29th in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, had been postponed to November 2020.
I knew it was coming as COVID-19 ravaged the world, but those of you that know me know that when I set a goal, I go after it.
I had made a public commitment at MDRT last year that before I come back to my next Top of the Table meeting, I would have finished my first 70.3 (Half Ironman) in Dubai, and my first Full Ironman in South Africa.
The race had been cancelled due to COVID-19, but I didn’t want my goal to change, no matter what. Postponing my race (and hence not fulfilling my goal) was really only going to give me anxiety, and cause my self-assurance a blow.
So my coach Tom and I talked. Because of the athlete that he is and the coach that he inspires me to be, we decided that we had trained too hard not to do this.
Quick side note: I don’t see myself ever being a fitness coach but I do mentor and train professionals in the Life Insurance business. In that or any other capacity, when I guide and help people to their goals, Tom is the role model Coach that I aspire to be.
So, the plans were made, Tom mapped out a full-length Ironman course and set a date for the race. Miranda Mason, a relentless athlete decided to do the course with me as she too had the same South Africa plans that I did.
Even though she was miles ahead of me throughout the race, knowing that she was there on that track, going through all the same gruel that I was going through, kept me from quitting. Thank you, Miranda.
On Saturday, March 21st, I woke up to a 3:30 am alarm, after a weak 4 hours of sleep. Anxiety kept me up late.
I had to get some breakfast in me well before the swim. But when I looked out the window, I saw that the wind was picking up and it was raining.
At a proper Ironman event, they would have cancelled in these weather conditions on the bike course in the least.
My anxiety about the open water swim came rushing back. I’ve always had a bit of a fear of the open water, although I’d never admit it to anyone. And so, my self-talk begins (FYI I’m big on self-talk).
Was I nervous? Yes. But don’t get me wrong: At no point in my mind here am I considering the ‘what if I don’t finish’ scenario. There was NO PLAN B for me.
But the rain was coming down, I could hear the rumble of thunder. I checked my phone, and Tom said we’d head over to the beach to take a look at the waters and decide next steps.
No cancellations yet.
We got there and decided we’d do the 3.8km stretch along the buoy line, before the water gets too deep AFTER doing a 500m warm up… this would officially make this my longest swim ever.
And it began. A struggling, gulping, choppy 1 hour and 45 minutes later I finished my swim. Ideally, I had estimated 1hr 30 mins for the swim, but I was just glad I finished it.
Goal 1 – Check.
I felt like I’d done the most important bit, so now I could give up. And I did give up, several times.
Next, I got driven over to the bike track. Instead of a regular 3-to-10-minute transition between the swim and the bike in a regular triathlon, we had a 30-minute drive to the bike track. Plenty of time to think about what I’d just finished, how wet and cold I was, and how I had a 180km bike ride and a full marathon still left before the finish line.
The Bike Ride
I cannot begin to describe that ride.
It was 9 hours and 25 minutes of sheer willpower exercise for me. I quit over Whatsapp to my coach, Tom, once, but he has a way of keeping me on track. Literally and figuratively.
We had a furious sandstorm whipping around us, rain, high winds – everything that Mother Nature could do to slap me in the face with the exception of snow, she did.
My average speed on the bike is 25-27km/h in normal conditions.
The 180km ride that I thought would take me about 6 hours and 40 minutes to finish, took me a grueling 9 hours and 25 minutes.
But I finished. I sat down to change my socks to a fresh pair of my signature Bright Pink compression toe socks (story for another day). What usually takes me 1-2 minutes to do now took me literally 12.52 mins just to get those socks on.
I quit again, but Tom said, ‘This is the part you love – the running. You’ll hate yourself if you quit now. Give me just 5 kilometers.’
Ok, 5kms, that’s about 30 minutes and then I’m out.
To be honest, breaking point for me had come about 60kms ago. That bike ride wrenched every last drop of determination I had in me, or so I thought.
So, I started running, and you know what happened at the 5 km mark? I couldn’t stop. It felt so good to be running.
I decided to power through and finish. 18 down, 24.2 more kilometers to go.
And then came the thunderstorm.
My GPS watch died on me at 28.48 km, my right ankle and my left knee started to give in and the rain and thunder wouldn’t stop.
It was cold, dark, and I wanted to be anywhere else but there. At the same time, right here is exactly where I should be.
I pushed on. Was it the reserve determination tank? Stubbornness? Tom’s voice in my head? My resolve to fulfill my promise? David Goggin’s voice in my head? Angela Duckworth choosing me as a subject for further research on Grit? Knowing Miranda had finished?
I’m not sure.
Every single motivational or inspiring book I listened to on Audible came rushing back to me and I pictured myself as the subject being written about – whatever works for you, right?
I pushed on.
At some point, my phone buzzed and I saw some horrifying messages being exchanged on Whatsapp. Somewhere in Dubai, painful pellets of ice were raining down on people’s homes and cars.
In that moment, I couldn’t care less if the storm came my way. In my mind, if I did get hail, it would be a new experience.
At 11:30pm, I had 12 kilometers of the run to go. I stopped to refuel where Tom and the crew were waiting for me.
I explained to Tom that my right ankle was busted, my shins were killing me and if I wanted to finish this last stretch, I’d need to walk it.
I told my selfless, amazing squad, who were drenched in the rain and waiting for me to go home.
And then I set off on that last march, and slowly but surely…
I crossed the finish line shivering uncontrollably.
What a day it had been. What an unbelievable day.
The General Stats
Before I share my final numbers, let me put the whole thing into some perspective for you.
It takes the average Ironman athlete 12.5 hours to complete an Ironman course. Getting under the 11-hour mark is a barrier many beginner Ironman athletes work towards breaking.
It takes an elite athlete, who is just short of professional, about 9.5 hours to complete the course.
The best 30 athletes in the world finish the course in under 8 hours and 15 minutes.
These elite athletes train for up to 35 hours a week. The average athlete has varying training plans, but usually in the 15-20 hours a week range.
Most coaches will tell you if you’ve never done a triathlon before, you’ll need about 12 months to get ready to compete in a full Ironman.
I committed to Ironman in April 2019, right after I finished running my second Marathon des Sables.
I really started training on October 2019 – four months prior to my first half Ironman and five months prior to my first full Ironman.
My training volume was at 18 hours per week for the last 2 months only before which it was at 12-13 hours/week
My coach and I had estimated that I would complete the full Ironman course in 14 hours.
But instead, here’s what the numbers said when I crossed the finish line of Tom Walker’s COVID-19 Ironman Dubai:
Race Start Time: 6:30 am on Saturday, March 21st
Race Finish Time: 1:17am, Sunday, March 22nd
Total Race Time (With transitions from beach to track): 18 hours, 21 minutes
Total Moving Time (time I was swimming, biking or riding): 17 hours, 28 minutes
This was probably one of the greatest experiences I’m ever going to have.
Some huge personal accomplishments for me:
I did the whole race distance without any music or podcasts or audiobooks. Just me and my thoughts.
I’ve got a big message here to share with you.
I know the world is going through something we have never experienced before. I know everything has changed: plans have washed out, events cancelled, usual revenue streams have dried out completely for some people and organizations. Pay cuts and layoffs are the norm right now even for the most righteous organizations.
Instead of drowning in the uncertainty of it all, you’re going to need to find a way to make it happen.
No matter how crazy or unusual your alternative path might be, find it.
The goal can’t change. But your road to it can.
It’s not business. It’s personal.