I first visited South Africa in 1999, as a fresh-faced university graduate dressed in flip flops and dubious coloured beach shorts, embarking on a two year global traveling adventure. Sport comprised dancing all night at music concerts and exercising my drinking arm by sampling all the local grape derived beverages. I travelled for a month with a Brazilian (girl, not the beauty treatment) called Aline, an Australian named Luanne, and a South African called Jude. With her unbridled passion for the natural world, it was Jude that changed my outlook on life, encouraged me to be introspective, identify my own individual passions and aspirations, and have the confidence to pursue those dreams. And that, I realised, was in international development. Consequently I reneged on my decision to be a lawyer and decided to undertake a Masters to empower myself with the knowledge needed to follow the path I had chosen.

And, so it was that I came back to South Africa in 2002 as a suit-wearing member of the UK Government Delegation to the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Time was spent juggling Ministerial demands, eating a few canapés, and spending long nights pouring over the minutiae in a 1000 page international agreement. Not a braai or a piece of biltong in sight.

And in February this year I returned to South Africa for a third time, as a lycra-clad professional athlete, complete with dubious tan lines and oversized calves and carrying my new Cannondale Slice. I named that new bike Jude.

I based myself in the beautiful town of Stellenbosch, 30minutes from Cape Town – staying in the most amazing self catering flat in the Vilaroux apartment complex (www.vilaroux.co.za). The owners, Suzette and Francios, and their staff went out of their way to help me, and I want to thank them once more for their unwavering support and encouragement.

Stellenbosch is surrounded by vineyards (a heavy dose of willpower was required not to frequent them) and beautiful mountains. The buildings are whitewashed, the streets lined with oak trees, cafes and open air restaurants. It doesnt get any better. Truly.

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I trained at the University of Stellenbosch pool, and  – like all the professional athletes – I saw Francios Retief for my strength and conditioning work. Francios is an ex world champion power lifter – about 200kg of solid muscle and with biceps the size of my head. When Francios says ‘do a single leg squat’. You perform said squat.

I am firmly of the belief that when in Rome…..so my culinary exploits included a weekly dose of lean, mean ostrich steak, several kilograms of biltong (a cured raw meat delicacy, which can be like chewing on a piece of old rubber, but is surprisingly addictive if you don’t mind getting lock jaw), and gallons of rooibos tea. Of course I also smothered everything in Mrs Balls. ‘Hot and Spicy’ being my favourite type of Ball.  Lekker!

The ‘when in Rome’ philosophy did not extend to haircuts. The distinctive mullet, which has long been relegated to the haircut graveyard in the UK, seems to be worn with huge pride in Stellie – particularly by the numerous rugby players. Given that they all resemble large tanks I was not about to make any derogatory comments about their choice of follicular style – lest I found myself at the bottom of a rather large scrum.

I digress. For me, having had the chance to spend time in South Africa, and develop a real love for the country and its people, undoubtedly made racing Ironman South Africa so much more meaningful and special.

I flew from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth the Tuesday before the race. With street names like Cardiff Road, Brighton Avenue, and even Skegness Street it was home from home. Without the rain. The IMSA team had kindly arranged a great self catering apartment (www.loftwoodcottage.co.za) for me, in the grounds of a family home. Like my adopted family in Stellenbosch, the Mutlows went out of their way to help. The word hospitality doesnt even come close. And once, again, I really cant thank them enough for everything they did to enable me my dreams on race day. PE has been nicknamed the ‘Friendly City’ and it more than lived up to this title.

I had a few days training and before I knew it race day was dawning  – bright and clear, and hot, but fortunately not that windy. There are not many races in the world that you can stand on a clear white beach, watching the sun rise over the ocean, and see a pod of dolphins playing in the waves. Truly an amazing sight. I stood there, closed my eyes, internalised the image and used its energy to power me through the day. And, of course, it will be there for me to draw on in the months and years ahead.

The water wasn’t as nippy as I had feared, but I was still thankful to have my second neoprene skin in the form of the TYR Hurricane. The swim went well, and aside from a couple of rugby scrum (minus the mullet) punches to the nose I escaped relatively unscathed, and during the short run on the beach between the two laps I got a sense for my position, and knew that I had found myself in the pack I had wanted. The waves were decidedly more wavy on the second lap, and I am sure the dolphins are slightly frustrated by the fact that half their ocean has disappeared down my throat.

Onto Jude, I tried to settle into my rhythm but I have to say that I didn’t actually feel the mojo until the second half of the bike. The course was a 3 lap affair, taking in some of the town, and then heading out – and up – along a beautiful undulating road to the turnaround, retracing our steps for 10km or so we then headed east along the coastal road, the clear blue ocean stretching to the horizon, the waves crashing onto the shore, the sea birds soaring overhead, and vegetation that gave off an aroma decidedly similar to a skunk. Not altogether pleasant. But then, after 180km of cycling I didn’t smell that good either.

The road surface ranged from smooth as a baby’s bottom to almost off road. We also had a few speed bumps to contend with, and  – despite my pre race efforts to ensure the security of my rear Cytomax bottle – when bike hit bump I was helpless to stop said vesicle being launched 100m into the air and into a skunk bush. Luckily I had put a spare in Special Needs (top tip – always put a spare bottle in your special needs bag, even if you wouldn’t ordinarily need it). However, given my bike handling sills this was a recipe for complete catastrophe – given my inability to simultaneously control the bike one handedly, open a tightly tied bag, extract bottle, place bottle into XLAB and oh yes, at some point applying my breaks. David Blaine would have had a hard job pulling off that particular magic trick. Luckily I managed to escape unscathed, and I was able to embark on the final two laps.

Fortunately the Slice is a cut above the rest in terms of its vibration-limiting technology. Granted there are times when vibrations can be somewhat pleasurable (but that is an entirely different story and doesn’t involve the Beach Boys), but an ironman is not one of them – the more vibrations on the bike, the greater the toll on your body and the harder it is to run well afterwards. Luckily my machine comes with SAVE technology, which means that the lumps and bumps don’t resonate through the frame, and yes – saves my legs from the not-so-good Beach Boy vibrations.

I came into T2 after 4hr45 minutes not knowing what the split times were to the girls behind me. As I donned the ‘Chrissie’ Brooks T7s I was actually relishing the thought of running my first marathon of 2011 – slightly masochistic given that the thermometer was hovering around 30 degrees, and it was beginning to feel like racing in a sauna. Initially I actually felt quite lightheaded, and had a small stich in my right side, but having experienced this before I knew to stay calm, focus, breathe rhythmically and have the confidence that the feelings would abate. And they did.

The run was a 3 loop ‘lollipop’ type affair, with the stick of the pop being an up and down along Marine Drive, and the lolly a little loop around the university. The contrast between the two was amazing. The crowds on Marine Drive were huge, noisy and so incredibly uplifting. They had been lined up, 5 or 6 deep, since the crack (of dawn), cheering, shouting, eating, drinking and creating the most amazing tunnel of energy (not to mention the delicious aroma – not of skunky foliage – but from the traditional SA braai). I do remember one man who shouted to me ‘Chrissie you are so sexy!’ – which was a welcome boost, but given that I had a bright red face, dribble hanging off my chin and unsightly tan lines I think he may need to take a trip to Spec Savers.

It wasn’t until about 3km from the end that I realised I could break the World Record. Giving my lack of talent for anything numerical, I just about managed to calculate that I had15minutes in which to run those last km’s. I tried to summon as much energy as I could, whilst simultaneously soaking up the atmosphere and the scenes around me, smiling and waving to show my gratitude to all the crowds and my fellow athletes, who used some of their precious energy cheering me on, and powering me onto a 2.52 marathon.

The finish chute at IMSA truly is one of the best in the world. I ran down the red carpet, a new World Ironman Record of 8.33 on the clock, a rainbow of confetti raining down, a beaming smile on my face, and finished with a victorious Blazeman roll (www.waronals.com) over the line – overcome with a huge sense of pride, satisfaction, exhilaration and joy.  And a deep craving for the biggest, greasiest burger that PE had to offer.

Ironman South Africa

Chrissie - IM South Africa

As I have said before, my goal is for self-improvement, to do justice to my hard work (and the support of the amazing team of people who surround me) and to continue to challenge my own limits.  I never expected to break the World Record at Ironman South Africa, and in doing so I have challenged my own preconceptions about what is possible. I don’t find it easy. I endure highs and lows just like any other athlete, there are times when my body is screaming, when I don’t know if I can finish, and when I question why on earth I am actually putting myself through this torture. But that’s where the mind takes over, and I draw strength and confidence from people who inspire me.

I am so happy to have been able to give something back to a country I have grown to love, and hopefully inspire existing and future athletes to reach that little bit higher.

I would like to finish off with words of thanks. First of all Keith, Paul, Wendy and the rest of the IMSA/Triangle team for inviting me to this race, and putting on such an amazing event. And to all the race sponsors (especially Spec Savers, who should definitely sponsor the aforementioned spectator).  Of course, a huge congrats to my fellow Brit and close friend Rachel Joyce (whom I met over 12 years ago at University when our triathlon comprised drink-dance-pass out), to Diana, and of course to Raynard, Andy and James, who all smashed the course record  – with Raynard smashing it just that little bit more. And then there are the 1500 age group athletes, whose strength, determination and passion shines through for all to see. You are the true stars of the show.

Finally, a huge thank you to the PE community  – especially ‘The Mutlows’, to Triangle Sports Shop (www.trianglesports.co.za), for going that extra mile and of course, to Tri247 for capturing the moments at http://www.tri247.com/article_8419.html – and the thousands of volunteers who give up their precious time to help and who’s enthusiasm, energy and selflessness help make the race such a success.

So, after a few days in sunny Stellenbosch, I have flown home to be with my family and friends, celebrate, rest, recover and taper for the next Big Event – The Wedding. No not the much hyped Royal One, but the much more important marriage of my brother Matthew to his wonderful girlfriend Kelly. Its time for me to shed the lycra, attempt to rid myself of unsightly tan lines, and don a posh frock for what will be the most incredibly special day.  April 2011 is going to be a month that we will remember for a lifetime.

The big question is – can these ‘cows’ cope with funky chicken dancing in a pair of stilettos!?

wellingtongallery