Jo Coombe was on location at Ironman South Africa for the team. She gives us a unique overview of the race as a previous competitor, a spectator and a by the end of the day a windblown, drowned rat. 

Having raced South Africa in 2010, where Pete, my husband dragged himself through the race with a broken shoulder, I decided to be support crew this year, while he found his redemption. So I know this race. But this year, the race wasn’t like any other year.

Race announcer Paul Kaye summed it up when he said, “if you set a PB out there yesterday, you were racing your first Ironman”.

With a 12% DNF (did not finish) rate, this Ironman, which saw Chrissie Wellington smash the World record in an Ironman branded race last year (8:33:56), was reduced to a battle of attrition by the elements.

The entire top five male and female pros, which included 6-time Ironman World Champion, Natascha Badmann, agreed it was the hardest race they had ever finished.

Badmann, who came back from a horrible injury at Hawaii in 2007, to become the oldest female professional to win an Ironman, at the age of 45, proclaimed that the swim was “the most cruel, worst swim I have ever had in my life” – she swam a 1.14:43. She described that the current caused her to have people swimming over her throughout the swim, and the chop making her lose her rhythm every ten strokes.

Dianna Riesler, who finished third, told me that she looked up to sight the final turn buoy and had been swept so far off course by the current, it took her ages to actually get back to the buoy. She gave a lot of credit to the age groupers, for even finishing the race.

The lead female out of the swim was Switzerland’s, Simone Brandli in a time of 1:00:04, clearly a slow time. The swim course record here is under 45 minutes, and the first placed male (Clemente Alonso-McKernan) swam 56 minutes, which Illustrates how slow the times were.

The bike in South Africa is usually fast, thanks to a relatively flat course, with a prevailing wind that allows for more tailwind per lap than headwind. However, this year, the wind was so powerful, with gusts up to 100kph, just staying on the bike was the biggest challenge. In fact, the wind was so strong that there were athletes pushing their bike up the first ascent, just five kilometres out of town.

Badmann said she had to have a discussion with her famous bike, “Cheetah,” as she went out onto the bike course. “Cheetah, you know, if there is wind, you have to hunt anyhow, otherwise you will be hungry, so you must still hunt”. And with that, despite an almost 15 minute deficit from the leader and the last female pro out of the swim, Badmann hunted down the field, and came off the bike in second place.

The bike course is three laps, and the wind increased throughout the day, so for the slower bikers, it really was horrendous. I rode a mountain bike 14 km from town, into the wind along the coast road, and it was incredibly difficult to stay on the bike. My legs were ruined the next day. I couldn’t believe these athletes had to ride 3 laps of that! But the South Africans are bred tough, and when my husband was finishing his last lap of the run, there were still plenty of amazing age group athletes coming in off the bike. Only 11 athletes who started the bike course, missed the bike cut off, and did not voluntarily withdraw. Only one person did not make the 17hr deadline (he was unfortunately only one kilometre from the finish line at midnight).

The run in South Africa is three laps of 14km. The first section is about four out and back to the east of transition. Then there is a two kilometre section out to the end of Summerstrand, and a loop around the University, before you head back past transition. The conditions this year meant that athletes were facing about seven kilometres of headwind per lap, which after such a challenging bike leg, made for a lot of unhappy runners. Badmann was happy with her 3:12:02 run, however, she said that she had been working on it recently. She was overjoyed to have come back from an injury in 2007 where she was told would be a career ending injury. Crossing the line in first place in a time of 9:47:10, it should be noted that Badmann not only won, but also clocked up the fastest bike and run times of the females.

I was curious to learn more from a woman who has had such a phenomenal career. Her main pieces of advice were

a)     The wonder of Ironman is: If you are struggling in one leg, remember, you always have another two legs to go!

b)     Never give up, even when it is very dark, hard and windy. Just keep going and you will reach the finish line.

She stated that she is happy if she feels she has inspired other people. With her performance this year, I think she has.

Considering the conditions, I have to say Triangle Sports did an amazing job of not only keeping this a race in the first place, but making everything run so smoothly. I can highly recommend South Africa as a destination race. These conditions were freakish – it can be windy, but that was extreme. The flights are cheap, accommodation is plentiful, cheap and luxurious, and once you’re there it’s a cheap place to be in. Port Elizabeth – the Friendly City – is just that. Walking down the beach to the race start as the African drums are being played really is an amazing experience.


1stNatascha Badmann 9:47:10 – 1:14:43/5:14:55/3:12:02

2ndSimone Brandli 9:52:26 – 1:00:04/5:23:51/3:23:40

3rdDiana Riesler 10:01:14 – 1:12:27/5:26:57/3:17:14

Special mention to Dianne McEwan who came 4th in her first race as a pro – 10:07:55

About The Author

Stef Hanson. Chief.

Chief and founder of WITSUP

Serious about what I do, but don’t take myself too seriously

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