One Saturday morning in Dubai, back in 2008, my husband Noel and I were discussing how we could celebrate his 50th birthday. We wanted a new adventure, something that would pose a challenge for both of us. ‘Ironman’ came up in the discussion. To this day neither of us will admit who mentioned it first. We googled the distances; all that we had to do was a 3.8km swim; a 180km bike and end with a 42.2km run. How hard could that be? Little did I realise that the journey we had set in motion was going to be nothing like we could ever have imagined.
Our journey was about to begin……

Both Noel and I were runners. Running requires minimal equipment; with a pair of trainers and with a basic stop watch you are ready to go. Triathlon on the other had is a whole lot more technical and the amount of equipment required is never ending! We needed bicycles for starters, and had not one clue what kind of bike we needed.

Expert advice was needed. First stop Wolfie’s Bike Shop. This was our first reality check. Road bike, Tri bike, Shimano, Ultrega, Dura Ace, Cleats, Cranks, Cassettes, Chain rings….it was a whole new language and we didn’t speak it!

Before I knew it we had suddenly bought fancy road bikes and my initiation into riding a bike began. I had never even owned a bicycle as a child, so learning to ride at the age of 40ish was not just a challenge but a frightening experience. We were a classic case of ‘all the gear and no idea!’.

In those days there was no beautiful Al Qudra cycling track. The first few times we just rode around the block in Jumeriah. Needless to say at every stop I would forget to unclip my cleats and fall over; much to the amusement of any motorist or pedestrian around at the time. It hurt a little, but my pride was dented a lot, so I took to cycling when there was no one around. I was terrified, whenever, a car or bus over took me. The first attempt on the bike was about 10km. Oh dear, what had I agreed to? How was I going to be able to sit on a bike for 180km? My heart sank as the reality of what we had, in a moment of excitement and ignorance, decided to attempt began to seem like the impossible.

Give up, my head screamed! But I’m no quitter and would never admit out loud that I might have been a bit over enthusiatic with the idea.

We followed a somewhat amateurish programme for the next 4 months comprising of roughly the following: 3 swims at the local Dubai Masters swimming sessions, 3 short bike rides and 2 to 3 runs a week. Totalling about 8 hours, this seemed to take up all of our social time, as we were working full time as well. Our days would pretty much be comprised of train, eat, work, train, eat and sleep. Already we were alarmed by the workload, as we knew that we would have to double or treble this later in the year and it would only get tougher. To add to our discomfort the weather was getting increasingly warmer as summer arrived.

Many a tounge-lashing took place behind the scenes as Noel and I debated who’s stupid idea this was, but having a full time training partner was a blessing, we motivated and comisserated with each other. The bike continued to be a challenge for me and my ‘parallel dismounts’ continued in spectacular fashion. I rode with both hands firmly gripping the bars and fingers on the brakes, so in order to drink I had to stop, as there was no way I could remove the water bottle from the cage while riding. A couple of close friends who did cycle were very encouraging and took us out with them, and our bike rides increased from 20km up to 70km. We ventured out on a few Hatta rides and after a while we were able to join the Dubai Roadsters on their Friday morning rides. Even if I was probably the slowest and arrived back at Lime Tree last, I was managing to do the distance and that was important for me. My technique on the bike and swim were seriously lacking, but was slowly improving the more I did.

We decided on our event. Ironman Western Australia on 7 December 2008 was our goal, chosen because it was a flat course and had good roads. The choice of event seriously eroded the preperation time.

Fortunately after a chance encounter, in Wolfie’s Bike shop, with Rob Pickard, a professional coach based in Australia, we began a proper Ironman training program which we began on 1 September 2008. Rob mentioned that in most cases people started with the sprint or olympic distance and progressed to the Ironman distance after a few years, but we were only going to do one Ironman race and then go back to our passion: running. Rob made several major adjustments to our programme and boy did he lay it on! Eishhhh!!!! We were now actually paying someone to add to our pain.

Words fail to describe how I felt over the next 3 months, constantly dehydrated and tired. Going from one training session to the next. Our days were getting longer; it was not uncommon to get up at 3am for a long ride and get into bed after a evening run around 10pm. Noel’s 50th birthday was a 3am start with a 100km cycle up and down Beach Road and then a 10km run off the bike. What a birthday to remember!

We would not have survived the training without Riza, our housekeeper. Preparing never ending meals to keep the worms at bay. She had to stay on top of the extra laundry generated from 3 training sessions a day and kept our hydration bottles full ahead of the next session. She was also a star at preparing ice bricks for our weekly ice baths. Ice was just another idea we added to our weekly programme of madness. The idea was one Noel had used in the past and aids in the recovery process. The language as we sat down in the ice water still echoes in our bathroom!

We both sufftered a number of injuries, I had picked up runners knee back in April and it nagged me for months, the increased swimming resulted in aching sholders. Thankfully we had an amazing physiotherapist, Rosemary Rhodes, who was a miracle worker. She enjoyed inflicting pain, as she applied her elbow to the trigger points, almost reducing me to tears and begging for mercy.

The workload requires a lot of calories each day, as well as a fast recovery, to be ready for the next session. Cramps were becoming a problem while swimming, after much research and following advise from friends we decided to suplement our diet with Power Bar (gels, hydrate and recovery drinks). The product of choice was not available locally, so we had to order from suppliers in UK and SA. The supplements solved the cramping problem and contributed strongly to getting us through all the training.

Ironman or any race is made up of a combination of factors and is a challenge of a person’s physical and mental abilities. Training the mind is as important, if not more than the physical training.

The summer heat gave way to more bearable conditions and by the end of November our bodies had started to look like ultra distance athletes ie. gaunt and skinny. Our friends and family no longer saw us as we had simply dissapeared into our own little world.

With no previous triathalon experience or even road biking we started to feel very apprehensive as December grew closer. All too soon the date for travelling to Oz was upon us.

Monday, 1st Dec: Completed our final run in Dubai. We took the bikes to Wolfies to be packed into our enormous bike bags, taking photos and notes to ensure we could reassemble the bikes at the other end. Packing for an Ironman takes time as we checked and re checked our check lists.

Tuesday, 2nd Dec : Finally we were on our way to the airport and the adventure was about to begin. We landed in Perth with one short delay as they searched a very indignant Noel for narcotics (must have been his gaunt look) and we were on our way to Busselton, a town some 200km away.

Wednesday, 3rd Dec: Awoke feeling weary after the journey but excited to see the swim course. The jetty streches out to sea for 1,841m but the sea was on it’s head and we were meant to do a 1.5km training swim. No way! We decided we would rather assemble the bikes and go for a spin.

Thursday, 4th Dec: After an easy half hour run it was time to registerfor the event at the Ironman village. The buzz was electric, the whole town was alive with Ironman frenzie, athletes, supporters and voulunteers. Everyone seemed to know exactly what to do and where to go. My butterfies would not settle. Entries and goodie bag collected we were now officially signed in and ready to race.

The next 2 days consisted of trying to do a few short sessions, eat properly and keep hydrated and most of all relax, well that wasn’t going to happen was it?

The pasta party before the event was held on the Friday evening and we got to hear lots of incredible Ironman stories, some of which were very moving and served to motivate us more than ever. The next day was spent getting everything ready and racking our bikes. It was all very confusing to me. T1 and T2 (these are the transition areas between the swim bike and run). I hoped I had all the right gear in the right transition bag, as I would look stupid running in cycling shoes! Then time for dinner and and early night, not that I would be able to sleep a wink.

Sunday, 7th Dec: The big day; Race Day!

I got up, showered and dressed. I was a wreck, my stomach was in knots and I felt sick. I tried to calm my fears by listening to some music, before heading out to the start. All I had to do was make the cut off times of each dicipline. My goal was to finish and enjoy the experience. The weather was cold, but the wind of the previous days had settled and it was a beautiful calm sea that faced us.

The pro’s were off at 6am sharp and the age groupers went in shortly behind them. I stayed back and kept as close to the jetty as possible. Suddenly it was time to dive in and start swimming. I can only describe the first few minutes as a nightmare; people swam over me, pushed me under, kicked and elbowed me. I was beginning to panic. Nothing could have prepared me for this. After about 500m things began to get better, the faster swimmers had gone ahead and there was space around me to swim, I could relax. The water was crystal clear and I could see the scuba divers below us, there for our safety. I enjoyed the rest of the swim feeling a little sad as I exited the water that the swim was over. No time to dwell on it as the 180km bike was about to begin. Thankfully the wind had still not come up and I was able to enjoy all 3 laps. The country side was beautiful and although I felt like I was the slowest rider, with so many people passing me, I was actually enjoying myself. I had plenty of time and was going to make the most of my day. By the third lap, however, I was wishing it was over and was more than happy when I handed my bike over to the waiting volunteer and put my running shoes on. Only 42.2km to go and it would be in the bag. The crowd support was amazing, cheering us every step of the way. I still had some energy as I had not exhausted it all on the bike. I was even catching some of the good riders, who had flown passed me on the bike and were now walking. I felt good, no I felt great! Now don’t get me wrong everything hurt, but I was heading to the finish line and the completion of my first Ironman. I just had to keep going forward.

The run consisted of 3 laps, which meant you passed the finish line twice and could hear the commentators congratulating the finishers, next lap that would be me! Finally the blue carpet was ahead of me and I was heading straight to the finish line, I heard those magical words, ‘Julie Rossouw you are an Ironman’. I still get emotional at the end of each race and those words never loose their magic. All the emotions of the day welled up and could finally be released. A medal was put around my neck and a towel around my shoulders. I walked slowly into the recovery tent to find Noel. What an unbelievable 12 hours and 24minutes.

Once we were home and all the excitement was over we were hit with the Ironman blues. Our bodies needed/wanted/craved another challenge, to be pushed to the limits, to conquer our fears and to triumph. We were hooked.

And that was just the beginning ….

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It’s all about choices.

Having been bitten by the Ironman bug it’s wasn’t long before we had signed up for another Ironman. Realizing we needed time for our bodies to recover, not just from the race but also from the intense training we had endured leading up to the race, we chose a race 14 months away.

The goal was now Ironman Malasia, 27 February 2010. Still being pretty naïve triathletes, we did not research the location, race routes and profiles, temperature, past reports, we were Ironmen and having achieved fairly good results we could conquer anything! Little did I realize how much this notion was going to be my down fall.

The training was intense, our coach almost doubled the training. Bike rides moved from 120km to 130 – 150km and then a 12km -16km run off the bike. We were training in mid Summer in Dubai and we were suffering. The shine and memories of those magical words “Julie, you are an Ironman” started to fade and it was a mental struggle to keep going. Thankfully we joined in sessions with other Dubai Triathletes. We lived from one training session to another. Friends who did not train with us saw less and less of us. Family members thought we looked gaunt and thin, we were lean triathlete machines. Going out was not an option, as we needed the sleep in order to get up in the morning to face another run, bike or swim. We lived in a bubble, but thought it would all be worth while; we were going to go to Malaysia a lot fitter and more experienced, so we should nail this one.

In June 2009 we had a break in training to climb Kilimanjaro. A well earned rest at this stage of the training!

Everything went according to plan, we arrived in Malaysia in peak condition. And then things slowly began to unravel……

It was unbelievably hot and humid, a small car accident the day before had us waiting around in the midday heat with no water.

Our lives are all about the choices we make. Whatever we choose to do results in consequences, some good and some not so good.

Triathalon training is our life style choice. We have realized that we have to make some compromises and it is important to balance way all parts of our lives. Choosing to focus on the 70.3 Ironman events, for now, makes sense for us. Triathlon to the exclusion of all else is not an option, but let me not write off another full distance ironman, the magic may fade but the spark never dies, it just needs a nudge, a suggestion to fuel the fire.

The focus right now is 70.3 Ironman World champs in Moloolaba, in Australia. A two week holiday to rest the body and mind

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