I arrived days before the fourth edition of the Ironman 70.3 Durban took place on Sunday, 3 June and the Suncoast Casino, where most of the activities were held, has been a major construction site for months!
Large signs shouting Something hot is coming! offer little comfort as plastered walls, milling crowds in cramped walkways and accompanying dust combined ominously ahead of the 4th edition of this race.
Although the ubiquitous scurrying of construction workers and their buzzing tools cannot be compared to the careful cut of a conscientious surgeon’s scalpel, their work promises the same outcome. Future beauty and worth beyond measure.
Despite it all, we had our distinct mission. Promote the first ever Ironman 70.3 World Championship on African soil to athletes who still had a chance to qualify.
As a steady stream of athletes started spilling to the registration and exhibition tents using a makeshift footpath meandering through sprouting monoliths on either side, Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism’s Titus Chuene, Mandela Bay Development Agency’s Luvuyo Bangazi and I took turns to man our exhibition stand.
We were ready. However, I was ill-prepared for the stories of anticipation and hope from some of the athletes trying their best to hear their names called at the Slots Allocation Ceremony after the race.
I was especially touched by the story of retired Port Elizabeth Principal Chris Viljoen. His wife told me with a beaming smile that they undertook the trip to Durban as her husband did not attend the slots allocation ceremony after the Ironman 70.3 Buffalo City earlier this year.
To bring some of the other novices like me in the picture. The names of triathletes are called out thrice at these gatherings and if they do not claim the spot immediately, their chance goes begging.
Unbeknown to Chris, he qualified in East London, his name was called but he felt so tired that he did not go to the ceremony. The harrowing reminder of his missed opportunity to compete at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, propelled them to make the journey to Durban, to try again.
Other stories like the Addo farmer, Louis de Villiers, who already qualified, but came to participate anyway or that of Juan Francisco Vivero who travelled all the way from Ecuador to compete for a chance to participate in Port Elizabeth in September, kept me intrigued.
However, in the end it all depends on the times clocked during the swim, bike and run totalling 113 kilometres.
Come race day, Durban’s Suncoast casino ripped off some of its plasters to welcome visitors and athletes to a sun-drenched morning with a troop of monkeys (perhaps due to the extensive development) getting in on the act.
A flustered volunteer managed to keep the frolicking monkeys at bay and the "grace under fire" of a mounted-unit police officer was tested when her horse unceremoniously off-loaded a steaming load right in front of the cheering crowds as athletes contested the bicycle course.
With a masterful sleight of hand and armed with a plastic bag she managed to dump the remains of her horse’s breakfast in a nearby rubbish bin before nonchalantly trotting off in a flamboyant gait. A guest at the Ironman VIP tent comments. “Geez, why not use a motorbike instead!”
The longevity of the appeal of monkey business and horsing around was short-lived as the pulsating pace of the age-groups only race saw South Africa’s Ryan Schmitz crossed the finish line after a blistering four hours, 15 minutes and 13 seconds.
Nelson Mandela Bay’s Thembile Nxele and Siyabulelo “Jabu” Mpengesi, both part of the Mandela Bay Development Agency Triathlon Stars Program qualified in the 35 – 39 age group after finishing 8th and 9th respectively. Peter Gatang’i, also a local triathlete, already qualified to compete at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in September when he finished 13th at the Ironman 70.3 Buffalo City earlier this year.
Their excitement was palpable on the Saturday ahead of the race as both Thembile and Siyabulelo proclaimed that they will succeed while passing our exhibition stand. The fact that they could convert their confidence into excellent performances bodes well for their chances in September.
Some world championship hopes were dashed in a packed tent (a direct implication of the ongoing construction) while others managed to tick another major achievement off the bucket list.
“It is going to rock in PE in September!” was one of the audible sentiments with high-fives and hugs going around after the slots allocation ceremony came to a close.
With qualifying slots still available at Ironman events across the globe approximately 5 000 athletes are expected to compete on 1 and 2 September.
When the Suncoast Casino's bandages come off and hordes of visitors adore its new facelift, hopefully the monkeys will still have a home to call their own.