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Finishing the Ironman Triathlon – an adventure in consciousness

Dr Sibis Mouton

The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon is a long way: 3,8 km swim, 180 km cycle and 42,2 km run. Due to these excessive distances, the athletes who are brave enough to participate, have a cut-off time of 17 hours; basically one full day until midnight. The highlight is finishing this grueling race after many months of disciplined training.

In March this year (2005) the SA Ironman Triathlon was held in the friendly city of Port Elizabeth. We were about 800 competitors of whom 150 were from other countries than South Africa – as far away as Japan and Australia. I have never attempted a Full Ironman before – I have always reasoned that 42,2 km is too far to run, it must be bad for the body! My favourite international triathlon race, the Nice Ironman triathlon in France is a threequarter Ironman with much more sane distances: 4km swim, 120 km cycle and 30 km run. This race I have won twice in the veteran section (in 1998 and 2001) and love the ambiance and special touch of the French to present a real great race with all the flair and parties in great joy de vivre style.

Always one to welcome a physical challenge, I decided that the time was now ripe for me to attempt my first Full Ironman. I was also looking for an adventure in consciousness. My part time profession is that of facilitator of the ZEST4LIFE weekend course. Here I try to convince my clients that the real journey in life is the spiritual one, no amount of money or power will ever satisfy us as human beings simply because we are foremost spiritual beings, we just happen to be in human form at the moment. The long hours spent training for such a huge physical effort allow for a lot of time spend outside in nature. The beauty of Creation becomes more visible and its optimism and colourfulness invariably bring one to a more elevated plane. Being mostly in the grip of the material plane and its dictations, these training sessions can be enormously liberating. It is an avenue to explore our role as children of a Higher and Magnificent Power.

Real physical tiredness also assist in successfully reaching one of the quest advocated by all great spiritual teachers: the ability to focus and stay only in the present moment. As human beings we are all overly conditioned to be very rational, in executing our tasks in our daily jobs we become cause and effect followers. Our minds are predominantly in left-brain mode and we are so aware of time, it frustrates us if certain things can’t be done today! Mean while there is a total different kind of world in stall for us if we escape the mind and its conditioning, its chain of habit thoughts and automatic pathways. We need to work but can do it with a different attitude and in a more relaxed style. When one is physically exhausted from good and healthy outdoor exercise, the mind stops doing its normal thinking. There is a more peaceful and 'present in the moment” feeling. This is the doorway to a more spiritual experience of life. Habitual meditation will have the same liberating effect.

Back to the real race: this is foremost a mental battle! The real athlete knows he must focus on the successful outcome of the race. Pre-race visualization of successfully finishing this day’s long ordeal is essential. Emotional preparedness is just as important. One must feel happy and in control of your life to accept such a big physical challenge. And naturally, one must be physically prepared: the body will only manage that for which it has been trained. The last balanced component of any happy and purposeful life is the spiritual component. In training, the success of our eventual race will depend on our day to day choices. It is important to have enough rest as well as enough sessions that simulate the race. Our spiritual well being will also always depend on our choices in life. These choices will govern the outcomes of the circumstances in our lives: we will make either a moral choice or an immoral choice. The real inner journey where contact with the Eternal is sought will lead to guidance to make the correct choice - the moral one, which will benefit yourself, will benefit those around you and will also benefit the earth. The real journey of growth and inner peace starts when one realizes that one’s life on earth is transient when compared with the immortality of one’s soul. Its greater purpose is to learn to come closer to one’s Creator. Then searching for money, power and fame becomes fleeting. Training for a tough physical challenge simulates the search for real life and has all the same pitfalls and tribulations. We always have the choice to stay in the lower realms or to live a more fulfilling and purposeful life. The more we explore the life of spirit the more we will become tough and resilient and the illusionary nature of material things will stand out crystal clear. One emerges as the real warrior, the real winner; the one who conquers fears and experiences real joy in victory over self as opposed to the mere satisfaction in victory over others.

As an athlete, I have always refused to take part in a marathon. I reckoned it is too hard on the body and takes the fun out of running. I have always preferred the shorter distances and my favorite and best discipline in running has always been the 4km run in a cross country race; out in nature, short but hard and tough. However, so my thoughts went, having turned 50 in January, my body should be hard enough to get through the challenge of a Full Ironman. On my fiftieth birthday, I gathered all my best friends together at one of the most charming spots on earth, the fisherman’s village of Arniston at the south tip of Africa. We all hiked along the beach in the heat of the Saturday noon to the wellknown cave of this village, Waenhuiskrans se grot. The previous year I checked the tides and lo and behold, it was exactly low tide on that Saturday at 1 o’clock – it was as if fortune was smiling at me. Here I made my birthday speech and was privileged to have my 81 year old Dad there with his new girlfriend – they were going to get married the following Saturday. As we were opening the champagne to celebrate, one of my friends noticed some dolphins in the water outside the cave. As I turned, I saw their fins slicing through the blue ocean against the dark opening of the mouth of the cave. What more can I say, I felt honoured that the dolphins came to celebrate with us. I had the feeling that all my hopes and plans for the future were going to be blessed!

The final raceday was perfect; the sea in Mandela Bay was calm and there was only a slight breeze at 7 am when all 800 competitors ran into the Atlantic Ocean and braved the waves in the first 400m. Hundreds of spectators and supporters were standing on the pier at Hobie Beach amongst the colourful and festive banners. The swim is the shortest part of this race, it takes a fit and able athlete about an hour to swim the 3.8 km. I had a reasonably good swim, my wetsuit just chafed my neck and it was bruised and red for 3 days. It is always more difficult to swim with the men; at the end of the first lap of 1,9 km we had to swim to shore and ran out around two pillars and then dive in again for the second similar lap around the four big red buoys. I had a particularly rude male athlete swimming next to me on this first exit; he kept swimming into me and pulling me under! Having had the experience in the Nice Triathlon of starting together with 1800 other athletes mainly male, I was not intimidated. My French triathlete teammate Blandine – we belonged to the Triacastin French Club Team in 1998 - has instructed me well on how to take care of the stronger males. You make a fist and hit them hard doing the normal freestyle stroke and you kick equally hard! This I dually did but ended up with quite a severe cramp in my left hamstring from the effort. Fortunately this was enough to make the hindrance swim in a different direction out of my way! After the second more calm lap, I ran out of the sea having managed to catch a small wave on the last stretch. Then it is the long changeover run past the crowds into the tents for the change into cycling gear. Now the longest haul of the day starts: 180 km on the bicycle - three laps of 60 km. Some athletes already drop out during this discipline, the mental challenge of getting through 3 laps are sometimes too much, especially if the athlete is not feeling emotionally strong on race day. I had some great moments of euphoria on the cycle! We experienced a slight head wind going along the beachfront and then heading through the Walmer Suburb area. I was aiming for a 6 hour cycle which translates into an average of 30 km/hour on the bike. I was however very careful not to start too fast. On the first 30 km it seemed that the 30 km/hour average was not going to materialize. I was going at about 24 km/hour but things changed for the better when we turned into the Sardinia Bay Road and were going along the sea, heading back to the transition area. There was a roaring tail wind and suddenly I was flying along the blue ocean at about 45 km an hour! Great stuff! My first 60 km lap was just over 2 hours, right on schedule. This was ideal for one’s mental state; going into the second lap one just kept thinking of the last 30 km cycling with the wind at one’s back.

On the Thursday before the race day on Sunday, I have accepted a new job as lecturer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology after 2 months of an awful waiting period. I applied in the beginning of January. I have also taken the plunge and resigned my teaching job in the beginning of March without knowing whether I would get the new job or not. After 22 years in this profession I reckoned I had done enough for 'Volk en Vaderland” to use an apt Afrikaans expression; I needed something new in my life and simply trusted that what is best for me will happen. When all the uncertainty and doubts finally ended on Thursday afternoon at 3 pm just before I was due to fly down to PE the next day when I phoned the Human Resource Department to let them know that I will accept their second offer made to me, life suddenly perked up again and I was naturally in a state of euphoria! Deciding to be stubborn (which I can be) I, in the face of all the tension and suspense, rejected the first offer the university made to me. I emailed them the week before and said I must be paid what I am worth. I used the words of John Shango, the firewalk facilitator, who cajoled and motivated 22 mad adventurers (of which I was one) to walk over 12 foot of blazing coals at the Quest show in Devon England the previous year: 'I am worthy, I am worthy!” The Ironman distances looked minor in the face of the stress I had to go through the previous two months!

The wonder and beauty of it all finally sank in on that long cycle ride in the Ironman race. I have landed with the job that I have been wanting for the last 10 years and have applied for unsuccessfully a couple of times. Some parts along the cycle route with the breaking waves of the blue ocean on my right and the tailwind from the back, I was shouting with joy to no one in particular – life is great! On the last two laps of 60 km each, my average went down a bit but I still managed a respectable 6 hours 22 minutes cycle time – 28,5 km per hour on average.

The run was the most difficult part of this Ironman race for me. Due to a debilitating piriformis injury in December and January, I struggled to fit in the correct mileage for such a long race. I spent a lot of money on physiotherapy and rehabilitating massages. Having been so wise (ie foolish!) to choose to do my first ever marathon in real life after 180 km on the bicycle and not having been able to put in enough long runs, I dually suffered on the run! I recalled jogging past Lindsey Weight, former Comrades winner, who was supporting her husband in the race, in the first kilometer of the marathon and sharing with her the honest truth: 'I have never done a marathon in my life!” Her apt reply was: 'You are certainly going to do one today!” After 30 km I was really struggling. To move forward in a mere shuffle was a big effort; I could feel a severe blister developing under my right foot. I was thinking about the wise words of Professor Tim Noakes, world famous sport scientist at UCT: 'The human body was designed to go 30 km and no more.” At this critical point in the race – we had three laps of 14 km to complete and this was 2 km into the last lap – I took his advice to heart and started to walk. All my previous opinions of the foolishness of running 42 km came back en force. My legs were just too sore to try and hobble on in a shuffle! It was helpful that I was not the only one who took to walking. Here and there I experienced some nice companionship, striking up a meaningless conversation with a fellow suffering athlete who also circummed to the physical pain at this latter stage of the race. In the last hour of my race – it was now already after sunset and getting pitch dark on the forlorn road through the UPE campus on this last 14 km lap – it started to thunder with some of the most spectacular lightning patterns colouring the velvet sky. I was starting to feel sorry for myself in the subsequent cold and wet drizzle that followed. However, the finish line was getting closer, slowly but surely. During this part of the race I had no thoughts about experiencing some alternate reality – I was suffering too much. Now I can look back and write about the hardships we invariably encounter in life. The best motto is still: 'This too shall pass, a new dawn is always awaiting us somewhere along our path”. We can eliminate a lot of suffering in our lives if we are willing to see that in each adversity there lies the seed of an equal and greater benefit. The Pandora’s box mythological experience says it all: after all the terrible things came out, the last being to emerge from the box was Hope.

After 13 and a half hours I was finally sprinting down the finishing tunnel, elated that I could succeed in completing one of the toughest manmade physical challenges. I joined the warmth and camera die of the other finishers in the big marque tent, all standing patiently in the line to collect the much coveted finishing t-shirt, the final trophy of our victory over self.

The reasons for participating in any race is manifold. Athletes must not underestimate the inspiration they sometimes give to family members or friends: A father that completes such a feat can inspire his son or daughter to be more disciplined and to attempt new challenges. This is also true in the journey of life. Dr David Hawkins, spiritual teacher and kinesiologist, maintains that the consciousness level of mankind, which stood at 190 for many centuries, has now recently jumped to 207. On his logarithmic scale, 200 is the critical point, the level of courage and integrity. Our consciousness as a whole in this century now supports the positive instead of the negative. So each one of us that grows in awareness and truth, has a profound effect on the rest of mankind. In the Buddhist tradition, one seeks enlightenment for the good of all mankind. If the way we live our life inspires others to follow the same path, we are having a profound effect on the future of our planet.

On a consciousness level, our intentions in life’s journey will influence our experience of life. When our disposition is that of harmlessness to man and nature we will create good karma. When we seek to live truly and in touch with our spiritual nature, life will start to flow more effortlessly. Where the power of Spirit is present, more and more meaningful synchronicities befalls such a being. Living with appreciation and gratefulness over the miracle called life, begets more of the same, more experiences of the greatness and awesomeness of it all. Life becomes a mystical and miraculous event where we can truly set free those touches of immortal splendour which God has placed within all of us at our beginning.

This article was published as 'The Mystical Event”, May/June 2005 issue of Odyssey, also in MSM - Multisport Magazine issue 3, 2005 page 30.