Ironman South Africa Race Report – A Change of Mindset

South Africa was chosen as I heard nothing but great things about it from friends, it’s been one of the softer races for Kona qualification in the past and had increased from 30 to 50 slots. So Nico and I entered and set about a winter’s hard training. We weren’t the only ones with this cunning plan – a scan of the entrants revealed a large number of Europeans, many of whom had been to Kona before. So this wasn’t going to be straight forward…

We all love a good excuse in a race report. I have none. Preparation went perfectly. November and December were a struggle getting back into the swing of it through the fog of the festive party season, but I had a good week with James Beckinsale and the Optima juniors in Spain and then pushed on with consistent training over January, February and March, including 10 days in Lanzarote with my coach, Richard Hobson. A 1.21 half marathon in February and 2.55 Ballbuster in March showed I was in decent form.

Finally, a word about training partners. They make an Ironman. The race itself is just an expression of everything you’ve put into the previous months. This is what Black Line is all about – getting a group of like minded folk together for rides and runs, cake and coffee, and make the hard yards significantly less hard. So to all the gang, thanks. For this race Nico and I spent every Saturday and Sunday in eachother’s company with a shared goal, a shared coach and, it turns out, a shared dry sense of humour. A winter that I truly enjoyed, despite the weather. Dankie, bru.

I got to Port Elizabeth on Wednesday, enough time for a few quiet days and to see the course. It was good to spend time with Declan Doyle (Team Freespeed), Graeme Buscke (Clapham Chasers) and others. Everyone had eyes on Kona slots, and it was clear that Nico, Declan, Graeme and I might be pretty close in the race. There was the added twist of Graeme being in my AG – but we got on well and both were sensible enough to know that everyone was a friend until the final 10k of the run.

Race day was glorious with barely a cloud in the sky. Most importantly the wind, whilst an Easterly (wong direction for fast bike times), was down – a rare treat in the ‘Windy City’ and a world away from the storms of 2012. It was set to be a fast day. There were likely to be 6 or 7 slots in my AG, so whilst the controllable aim was to be smart and get to the line in 9.30 or so, the non controllable goal was to be in the mix and get a slot, automatic or rolldown.


The wind was down but the swell wasn’t – much choppier than the days before. Sighting was a game of luck whether you saw the buoys. As expected, a mass start of predominantly South African men led to the most physical swim I’ve done. One guy was particularly keen on my new wetsuit as he was trying to take it off my back. I can’t say I enjoyed it – a little bit like survival, and smooth technique went out the window in exchange for something faster, choppier and with a lot more kicking. I got out just under the hour which given the conditions I was delighted with. 22nd in AG. Now onto the bike, which is where my fun starts.


My plan was to sit on my power number, which was in a 10w range depending on perceived effort and HR, and minimise surges. On the day the bottom of my range felt right, so I just kept it there. It’s a 3 lap course, with a minor climb in the first half, a fast out and back where you get a good look at who’s around you, before descending to the exposed coast road back to PE. The surface is pretty poor. Not Surrey potholes, but just rough that led to a bit of teeth chattering. I was making good progress and saw Graeme was 60s behind at the first turnaround and Nico was maybe 6 minutes further back. I felt great and the pace was easy. At the first lap I saw I was on sub-5 hour pace and that the lap was slightly short, so times would be fast.

Paul Burton Ironman South Africa Bike

At the second lap turnaround at 90k I had made my way towards the front of the AG race but there were lots of fast looking guys within 2 mins, reminding me to keep focused and keep the power down. To my surprise (I hadn’t clocked him earlier and this meant he had a good swim) a smiling Dec arrived with: “we’re right at the pointy end of things here!” This was my one decision to make in the race – go with him (he’s very strong!), or keep plugging away as I was. I decided to up the power. Riding in a pace line (legally at 10m) with a couple of guys in an Ironman can make a huge difference. It keeps you focused, on pace and moving along. Graeme then caught and we were in a group of four. Game on. As they had been riding faster, I went to the back of the line to assess how they were moving and I was feeling. After 5 mins things eased off a bit so there was no risk with me sticking with them. At about 115k I went on the front, feeling great so I tickled the pedals a little harder. When we got to the end of the lap I looked back and a gap had opened up. So I stuck at it, and what followed was the most enjoyable 2 hours of sport in my life. My legs felt free, power felt easy, my HR wasn’t rising and I was running out of people to catch. I got to the 150k turnaround and there was not much ahead or behind. No heaviness in the legs that you normally feel after 4 hours. I felt like a rockstar. I wanted to hammer it but kept telling myself to keep it in my pants and stick to the plan. I had picked up a Danish follower and bullied him into taking a turn at the front, but when he did the pace felt too easy so I dropped him on the descent and headed back to T2 solo.

The final ride was a pleasing 4.51. Although it was only 176k, so c.4.57 pace for a full course – more like it. The most pleasing thing was that this was done without any risks. For power geeks I rode at 73% FTP – not hard – and a VI of 1.01, so pretty smooth. Power and HR remained constant with no up or down drifts. With that data and how I felt, I thought I’d judged the bike right and felt great heading onto the run. I was up to 5th in AG – bang in the mix. But as they say, bike for show, run for dough. All to prove.


To my surprise I was in the tent with Raoul de Jongh, an SA athlete in my AG who I think has been first AGer overall at this race a couple of times. I had also dragged the Dane who was also in our AG into T2. Having out transitioned them I was up to 4th and 8th AG overall on the run. This is new territory. Very quiet with nobody around. Shit, what am I doing here? Did I miss a lap? With only 5:55 on the clock there was also the prospect of going well under 9:30 if my run legs showed up to the party. Exciting stuff.

Paul Butron Ironman South Africa Run

Normally I start with legs like lead which free up after a few km. This time they were raring to go. The adrenaline of unchartered territory? The plan was to run the first lap easy, at 4:40km pace if all was well, the second on pace and the third with whatever was left in the legs and heart. Not to ‘race’ anyone until the last couple of km. The first 2ks were both under 4:30 – I gave myself a telling off. Raoul and the Dane were long gone – they flew past running 4:00 pace. After the excitement I settled down into 4:45s. Perfect. Then I realised that it was hot. Really hot (29 deg). So I just kept on top of my hydration and nutrition, getting carried along by the unbelievable crowds, all high on braai and beer. The 3 lap course is out and back for a few km, a quiet loop up at the university, then back through the tunnel of noise and the smell of chargrilled beef. First lap was ticked off at 4:48k pace. Spot on.

At the start of the second lap I was overtaken, so down to 7th. The battle started in the second lap. It was hot and I was beginning to suffer. You don’t quite know how hard to push as there’s still a long way to go, but a bunch of guys behind ready to pounce. 4:50’s slipped to 5:00s, to the occasional 5:10. The target 3:20 marathon was not happening, but I was still on for a sub-9.30 and was scrapping it out for a slot. At one point I noticed Dec was about 50m behind me but then he was gone again. Second lap completed in 5:04 pace. Still 7th.

The final lap was auto pilot. I was hurting. Not cramping, just in agony trying to cover the ground in front as efficiently as possible whilst the body was slowing shutting down. You take on water, coke, anything. Battling to keep core temperature down. I slipped into 5:15s but not the 5:30s+ that would see places bled. With about 8k to go I heard word I was 7th or 8th. That was great to focus the mind. At some point between 32k and 37k I was overtaken by 2 guys in my AG. Down to 9th. The final 5k is pure pain. It’s hard to describe. I knew I was in a fight. The enemy is unseen – you don’t know people’s AG, some have their number concealed, others are hiding how many lap bands they have. If you can’t beat them, join them – I tucked my sacred white lap 3 band under my Garmin, away from view. A couple of guys flew past at 4:30 pace. No idea if it was their last lap.


And then with 3k to go I had this incredible desire to just… stop, and sit down. I’ve never had this before. A negotiation started. ‘Fuck off’. ‘No, it’s time to stop and sit’. ‘Just wait 15 minutes and you can sit down all you like’. ‘How about a short walk then – it’s quiet here, nobody will see?’ ‘FUCK. OFF’. Mid argument I noticed a familiar squat, blue & red Freespeed figure in my rear view mirror. Dec was back. I think it was about 2k to go. This snapped me out of it and made me realise it was time to floor it – you never know who you find walking in the last 2k. Get to the line. Graeme was walking on his second lap. No time for sympathy, I was having a good day and wanted the pain to end. As we hit the final straight the crowd was epic – a tunnel of noise. Dec finally reached my shoulder with 1k to go. He looked exactly how I felt. Destroyed and very, very deep in the pain cave. He said we were in the clear – nobody behind, nobody in front. We agreed to cross the line together. We were ‘sprinting’ at 4:45 pace. With 300m to go someone flew past. I think my exact words were ‘DEC, WHAT THE **** IS THAT?’ Confusion reigned. I had no sprint. Dec tried for 50m but he was gone (turns out he was in neither of our AGs!). This time there was nobody behind and we could enjoy the finish. Collecting high fives on either side before meeting to cross the line hand in hand at 9:30:25. The delirium of finishing, the pain ending, plus a splash of bromance – I think that’s clear in our faces!

A 21 minute PB for me. The hardest I’ve ever raced and an honour to finish with such a gent, who had an incredibly gutsy return to racing after 2 years out. At 4th in AG, he is returning to Kona.

I ran 3:34. Whilst the bike was 4k short, the run was 500m long, so 3:31 marathon pace – the same pace as my 3:18 for less than 40k at Wales. Not what I wanted, but in the heat it was ok.

I limped to the timing tent to find out I was 10th. Someone had got me in the final 5k. Elation turned to deflation as I realised that would probably not be enough. It wasn’t – there were 7 slots and the next day it rolled to 9th. He was 2 mins ahead of me, and only 34s separated 7th to 9th. The margins are wafer thin. 9.30 saw me (joint) 44th overall, (joint) 22nd AGer and would have been 2nd in the AG below and 7th in the AG above. Shit happens. It’s not easy racing in the same AG as Kyle Buckingham!

Pretty gutted, but I’d have taken 9.30 before the race. With hindsight there’s nothing about my race I would change. We thought I was in shape for a low 3:20 run, but maybe the heat got to me? Heat chambers aside, it’s not easy to condition yourself for 29 degrees when it’s snowing at home. When it became clear my run legs weren’t quite firing, I managed the decline well. On the day I got myself to the line as fast as my fitness and the conditions allowed. I gave it everything, and there’s no more than that.

To my friends also on the start line – massive congratulations Dec and Liz Pinches from Thames Turbo that got their Kona slots. Graeme, Glenn and the others had a pop but it wasn’t to be their day – everyone’s got it in them, so keep at it. It also wasn’t Nico’s day, but to see him pause his race and to stand and scream encouragement at me as I headed into the final stretch of mine – thank you buddy. It’s what Black Line is all about.

I would recommend IMSA to anyone. I’ve done some crackers in Roth, Frankfurt and Wales and this race is potentially the best of the lot. The laps just work, the course is fast but has teeth (choppy swim, heat and the potential on another day for serious wind), the crowds are amazing and the organisation is flawless. The race director is a Kona qualifier and it shows – everything is thought of from the athlete’s point of view.

Amongst the lovely messages after the race from friends, family and team mates, one from fellow Blackliner Laura struck a chord: “it’s pulling off the performance that changes your mindset”. For her that was IM Cozumel where she had a great race but didn’t qualify. I had a long look at the front of a competitive race and loved the view. I’ve been open about my Kona goal but never really knew how realistic that was. Right now I’m not good enough, but now I know it’s within touching distance.

I have three big races this summer – a qualifier for the Olympic distance age group world champs in London, Ironman 70.3 UK and Ironman UK. I’m hoping to show my nose towards the front of those races, and with a bit of luck have some big races to plan my end of season around.

Thanks to everyone for the support. You know who you are.

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    Great, great report. Very honest and very inspiring. Onwards to faster places and faster times now mate. Really well done.

    Gripping account-heart rate up just reading it. As for the event-RESPECT. Words not enough. Hope to see you in Chorley.

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