Paul Burton’s Ironman South Africa 2015 – Kona Booked.

“Obsessed is just a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated.”

That’s one of the cringeworthy ‘inspirational quotes’ that obsessed athletes wheel out to defend their mindset and what they do. It’s a load of rubbish. I’ve been utterly obsessed. I think everyone who puts themselves through endurance sport training with the aim of being as good as they can be is obsessed. Obsession is good for performance or else you wouldn’t put yourself through what it takes to get there. It can also be highly damaging if not kept in check to make sure some form of balance is maintained. But anyone doing this silly sport of ours who claims they’re not obsessed is most likely lying. Ask their families…

I didn’t particularly choose the obsession. I thought that qualifying for Kona might be possible one day, but it was a distant dream. Watching the Kona pro race unfold online into the small hours in early October for the last seven years. Seeing a number friends qualify and have the trip of a lifetime. And then I went 9:30 at Ironman South Africa in 2013, missing out by one place. From that day onwards I’ve not gone a single day or a training session without thinking about it. Totally obsessing about it. Maybe 700 or 800 training sessions with it being bang in the front of my mind. The near misses and explosions along the way only heightened the obsession. I simply had to do it. Having said all that, it helps that I adore training and racing. That makes the obsession work with other parts of my life. No matter what is going right or wrong in work and relationships, training is my constant – my control mechanism. My go-to stress reliever and drug of choice. My balance. It also helps that I’m analytical and love solving complex problems. Getting myself onto the start line of an Ironman and in physical and mental shape to execute a race to the best of my ability has been like the business analysis I do on a daily basis for work.

My friends have a lot of faith in me and everyone knew I was going to qualify eventually. Quite often I’ve been asked ‘What’s the plan after Kona?’ ‘What happens when you get there?’ ‘Of course you’ll get there – what next?’ Truthfully I never let myself think that far, which for someone with an obsessive planning mindset is very out of character. I just had to get there before worrying about anything afterwards.

Whilst it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time, in hindsight the way Ironman Wales in 2014 panned out was the best thing that could have happened to me. For two reasons. Firstly I had a bad day – for about seven hours I was feeling crap, performing way off what I’m capable of – yet I pulled out a strong second half of the run, a negative split marathon and learned that a bad patch in an Ironman, no matter how long it lasts, can pass if you stick at it. Previously I’d capitulated mentally when things go off-plan. Secondly, not qualifying for Kona was a blessing. Missing out by one place again was painful. But that performance didn’t deserve to qualify. I needed that ‘failure’ to send me back to the drawing board and make sure I qualified with a strong performance. Otherwise I’d be going to Kona with doubt in my mind whether I really can race this stupid distance.

So back to Ironman South Africa after another winter of training whilst everyone else is in bed or the pub. Compared to previous years, I turned up with not that much training under the belt having been fatigued and sick throughout November and December. I started training again in January, only 12 weeks out from the race. I was panicking about this, but James (my coach) was relaxed that we’d be fine. I managed to get two weeks training in Spain in February in between jobs, but even then James held me back to only 23 hours a week – that’s no more than some top age groupers do in a normal working week. The result was that I turned up on race week a little undercooked compared to where I might normally be, but physically and mentally fresh. Also I turned up on race day healthy. Doing less training and some diet changes meant I was purposefully 3kgs heavier than normal race weight. Strong not skinny. And this time I didn’t get sick on race week. Who knew?

 

So to the race itself. The most important thing I’ve been working on with James is the mental approach to racing Ironman. Bad patches are inevitable. What defines your race is how you prepare physically and mentally deal with this bad patch – how do you get out of No Man’s Land, whenever it may hit you, alive?
The swim and bike went to plan. The swim was hard with lots of swell, and 59 minutes got me out 15th in 30-34 age group. The hot, hilly and windy bike was also hard, which is perfect, ensuring most guys blew their legs off while I quietly went about my business. My HR monitor battery died almost immediately, so I was down to my other two pacing metrics of perceived effort and power. Losing HR didn’t bother me. One less thing to worry about. Whilst my power was maybe 15 watts down on target I knew I was riding well, the effort felt right and I was in a good position, riding away from guys around me in the second lap. So I didn’t let that power stress me either. The bike of 5:25 got me up to 6th at T2, with an expected eight or nine slots in my age group (as African Champs the race had 75 not the usual 50). 0995_032954 Whilst everyone talks about fast Ironman marathons that we could/would/should be running, the truth is that in the four previous Ironmans I’ve raced with a realistic goal of qualifying for Kona, a 3:30 marathon would have done the job. Whilst we think I’m capable of faster, my game plan was to set out at c.3:20 pace (4:45kms) and if it turned out to be a tough day I had Wales to call on and get suffering once more. I entered No Man’s Land at 13k. Earlier than hoped, but consistent with previous races. The euphoria of getting off the bike and starting running wears off. You realize how hot it is, how far is left to go and the gorilla climbs on your back, pulling you back. After covering the first 12k at 4:43 pace it slipped to high-4:50s then a few in the 5’s. The old me would have capitulated. ‘I’m now slower than 3:30 pace before halfway so it’s bound to be curtains’. But now I knew to be patient and I tackled my No Man’s Land with the mental, fuelling and technique tricks we’ve worked on to minimise the damage . 13k-22k was 5:03 pace, pretty solid for the bad patch, and then I came out the other side and was running 4:50s and it felt pretty good once more. Back in the game. A couple of things on the run stand out… firstly I ran from 14k to 40k with a tall guy called Warrick who was a lap behind me but bang on my pace. We got chatting and teamed up – walking aid stations, cadence in sync and a fist bump for every KM split in the 4:40s. It was exhilarating and we had a blast. Secondly was seeing friends on the course – both for friendly faces and also as a benchmark of how you’re doing at the out and back. Carla and Sam in support were amazing, Lucy was flying, Dec and Tom were suffering, Anna, James, Rafal and Andy were running solidly… and most excitingly was seeing my bro, the big man Troy in exactly the same place each lap and only 5 minutes back – he too was having a good run and race. Fair to say we’ve both put a lot into this. To be wrestling strongly in the bear pit with a mate was thrilling. Part of me wanted to kick on in the second half and suffer like I had at Wales – but I knew I was 6th or 7th with a buffer behind, so no point rolling the dice. Until out of the university on the final lap, where with 5k to go I finally opened up and finished with KM splits of 4:31, 4:41, 4:50, 4:36 and 4:31. It was like running on clouds given what it’s taken to get there. That finish snuck me past Tony Cullen, a fast 40-44 Brit, and at 500m to go got me back on the shoulder of Martin Muldoon, a sub-9hr ironman London-based Irish athlete who I’ve admired from afar and who’d blitzed past me with 8k to go. Whilst Martin wasn’t having his best day, to be in this company was pretty cool. I think I surprised him and he had a finishing kick that I didn’t, so off he went and a look back told me that I had what I’ve dreamed of… a Kona slot in the bag and a clear red carpet with nobody chasing me down. Unashamedly this was the cue for show-boat central and a minor dampness in the eyes as I gleefully walked across the line. The final scores on the doors… the run was 3:27:01, but for the third year running it was long at 42.8k. So 3:24 ‘pace’ on a course which is notorious for slow marathons following a hard bike on a tedious road surface that saps run legs. I’m capable of better, but to negative split (4:51 pace first half, 4:49 second half) my second Ironman marathon and this time to do it when well in the slots… that’s a lot more like it. 9hr 57min finish was 60th overall, 22nd age grouper, 7th in my age group and it turns out first British age grouper (we’ll ignore the pros including rather spectacular performances from the Brit girls on the podium, who all smashed me!). Being called up the next day by Black Line London pal Paul Kaye and collecting my lei from Paula Newby-Fraser with James and other friends there will be a lifelong memory. We finally did it. To share the moment with Troy also qualifying – it was perfect. It could only have been better if James had snuck a rolldown having finished five minutes off… next time, boss!  

 

It’s safe to say we Brits (& Troy) won the after-party – we had a cracking night with old and new friends, the pro girls celebrating their podiums and the rest of us cutting loose. Never Stop Moving Forward (in-joke). It capped off a great week. South Africa is one of the very best races in the world (I’ve done it three times now), it’s an amazing country, and a group of us shared a memorable holiday. If you can, do the race.

Other than 45 minutes in the run, the race was patient, controlled and as a result it felt ‘easy’. It’s a new sensation for me, knowing you’re both in a good position in the race but you’ve held back and have got more to give. I’ve finally learned how to ‘race’ an Ironman and I want more of that.

So now I have qualified I can address the ‘what’s next?’ question. Short term… a summer of short, sharp racing before starting the Kona build, with the plan of qualifying early coming together to give me a shot of having a good experience there. Longer term I love long distance triathlon and have no plans of jacking it in yet. I’m hoping that James and I have taken the hand-brake off… I can’t wait to see what we can do.

Feeding my obsession has been a huge amount of fun. Thanks to everyone I’ve shared it with. Now you can all stop sending sympathetic ‘don’t worry, you’ll do it next time’ messages!

I’m going to finish with two extracts from my Wales write up last year

Firstly some specific thanks:

The Black Line London gang… we’ve shared goals and hundreds of hours of training. They are some of my best friends, they have my back and we share adventures. Doing this sport alone is fine, but sharing it is what it’s all about.

Optima Racing Team… the passion and commitment that James leads with is shared by every member of the team. It is a performance environment that is infectious.

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Secondly, a passage from Roger Barr’s race report when he qualified for Kona. I couldn’t put it better, so haven’t tried:

“The guy in 6th has found inner peace, is on continuous high, wakes up and pinches himself, he thinks about it at least a few times every minute, has a trip of a lifetime ahead, will spend the rest of his life knowing he’s taken part in the Hawaii Ironman. The world’s most iconic endurance race. A race that all triathletes would love to do. Something he’s had dreams about as a grown man. It’s literally changed my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity, talent, luck, strength, understanding family that allowed me to achieve it.”

Kona baby. That’s pretty cool.

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One comment

    Paul,
    Great write up think you’ve missed your calling….. Top effort you must be rightly chuffed with qualifying. Envious to say the least!
    Been following your posts and races for awhile as think I’ve raced against you a couple of times at IM UK & possibly elsewhere. Interesting to read that you felt ‘undercooked’ yet still managed a cracking result. Think there’s a temptation to get through loads of volume without really moving forward & getting quicker. Did you have any key sessions you felt really helped getting you ready for SA?
    Think my Kona quest will have to wait awhile as it’s fairly tricky trying to fit some of the training needed around a full time job & baby boy. You never know though, stranger things have happened! All the best for the summer & Hawaii. Look forward to the post race report.

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