IRONMAN South Africa, 10 years on

Words: Tracy Knox ǀ Photos: Chris Hitchcock & Courtesy of Caroline Koll

In Europe, running a marathon is a big deal. In South Africa, with its people who seem unlimited in their quest for challenges, a marathon is most often considered to be a weekend training run as part of an even bigger challenge. It is for this very reason that when the IRONMAN triathlon first came to the shores of Port Elizabeth in 2004, it immediately attracted a sizeable field of some 750-plus endurance athletes willing to take on this outrageously difficult event.

Photo credit: Chris Hitchcock

Now, ten years on, the event has grown to such an extent that 2,500 entries sold out for this edition, and it attracts a huge amount of interest from international athletes. Since its conception, there are 23 athletes who have competed in every event. We chatted to one of these athletes, who is one of only two women attempting ten consecutive IRONMAN South Africa races, the only professional to have competed since the very beginning and the current 2014 SA Long Distance Triathlon Champion - Caroline Koll.

Q: Can you recall the very first time you lined up on Hobie Beach?
Yes, for sure! Although it wasn’t my first IRONMAN South Africa (I had already competed in my first when the event was held in Gordon’s Bay), this one was a few years later and I was much better prepared. We were far fewer athletes back then, just over 700, but everybody was really nervous and didn’t know what to expect. When the drummers started to play on the beach I think I started to cry!!

Q: What inspired you to do your very first IRONMAN South Africa?
I have always gone after big challenges. It has never been something I have done to brag about, or make others think I am some sort of a heroine. As a kid, I was quite shy, skinny and wore thick glasses, so I guess it has always been a quest to prove to myself just how strong I could be. Luckily, skinny in this sport is quite advantageous!

Q: How was that very first IRONMAN South Africa experience in PE?
It was simply marvellous! There really was an IRONMAN fever going around, from the athletes to the volunteers, everybody was super hyped and I don’t think that has toned down at all. In fact, I think it will reach frenzy status this year! Personally, I don’t remember much of the day at all (amazing how you can forget all the pain a day after the race), except the amazing feeling running down the red carpet, with the cheering crowds and knowing that I had made it!

Q: How has the gear changed over the past decade?
Actually, looking back, the gear doesn’t look that ridiculous or archaic as when one looks at pictures of triathlons in the '80s. I think initially, in 2004, it was more about your mettle than your equipment – that has changed a lot over the years! I think it can be a little off-putting to new triathletes to see the IRONMAN athletes from Joburg with thousands of Rands worth of equipment. The truth is, in this race, I believe that success lies in the everyday effort you put in, not the free speed you think your money can buy! That said, all the equipment sales are great for the bike industry.

Q: You are the only Pro to have competed in all nine editions so far, and only one of two women (the other being PE local Paddy Cloete). Why do you think that is?
With regards to being the only Pro, I think most of the Pro athletes are internationals, so they tend to move around a lot and choose new races every year. As for me, I think it is more about the fact that PE is my home race, and even though I have done many other IRONMAN events across the globe, I still feel the urge to give my best performance at this one (my best finish was fifth place), and the organisation rivals any of the top international events.

We are only two women to have competed in all the editions, but I think this is just due to the initial demographics. It is really promising to see, over the years, how many more women have taken up the challenge and are now competing in the IRONMAN, er ... IRONWOMAN. In my opinion, on race day, the women always seem to look better and are stronger.

Q: The course for the swim and bike has been changed for the first time this year. How do you think this will affect the race?
I believe that the changes were made in the interests of safety and fairness for all competitors and can only be a good thing. I do advise a gear ratio change to something more suitable to the additional climbs though.

The division of the swim starts into various waves is a significant improvement. The mass start was always spectacular for the TV coverage, but with more than 2,000 athletes, the thrashing and bashing was becoming a bit too unpleasant.

The bike course has turned into a bit of a monster, with some new difficulties that have been included, and I think that it will considerably affect bike splits and finish times. If you do a new PB on this course, then you know you have achieved something.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Caroline Koll

Q: After nine years of competing in this event, you must have gained some valuable experience that you can pass on to those attempting their first IRONMAN South Africa?
For sure! I think I have learnt from mistakes, big and small, at every edition that I have competed in. Here are some pointers:
• Pop in and out at the expo. Don’t spend all day on your legs hanging around there. If you want to chat to friends, rather invite them to sit down for a cuppa somewhere.
• You don’t need all the fancy gear you see at the expo, stick to your old tried and tested gear, and especially don’t try something new you bought thinking it will make you go faster. It won’t!
• Your training is done, so don’t head out and smash yourself on the bike two days before the race because you see everyone else ‘training’. Rather, put your feet up and watch some DSTV in your hotel room.
• Don’t try new drinks or drink too much water (too much will flush your body of valuable minerals) before the race.
• Be careful of what you eat. I know someone who had a samoosa as a snack and ended up in hospital, at the time he should have been racing, with a bad case of food poisoning!
• Lube up. If you are from inland, you will not be accustomed to how abrasive sea water can be. Get a good, waxy lube that won’t come off in water. Also pay special attention to your neck, which can get quite raw from wetsuit rub.
• Take a small bottle of water with you to the swim start. This is great for rinsing your mouth and goggles after you have warmed up, and if your mouth is as dry as the Kalahari from nerves, a great thirst quencher.
• Focus on not panicking in the first few hundred metres of the swim. Everybody is nervous, and don’t give hard kicks or clouts over the head because someone touched your foot! Keep calm and be nice.
• Run through the shower at the swim exit, it will rinse off most of the saltiness that could cause discomfort later on.
• For the bike leg, do not start off at a pace that you know you would not be doing in your last 20 km. Commit to your own pace and race plan! This is also the most important time for fuelling, so consume enough calories regularly to carry you through.
• For the run, use trusted socks and shoes, and when things get tough, smile! Smiling, oddly enough, seems to make the pain dissipate and the crowds will love you for it!

The DO IT NOW team wishes Caroline all the best for her tenth IRONMAN South Africa.

More information
For more information on IRONMAN South Africa, visit