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Best of 2013 | In Search of Iron

by Katie de Klee / 26.12.2013

Originally published 25 February 2013.

Life in Cape Town can trick you into thinking the world is small. I climbed to the top of Devil’s Peak and turned to look at the city spread out beneath me, and like the devil himself I felt that I could reach out my hand and play with people below me, gather up the corners like an old tablecloth and swing it round my head a couple of times. The highways looped up and over each other like children’s toys and I could have flicked the metal cranes in the harbour way out to sea.

The heat of the morning intensified and the flies began to buzz in the air. And so I descended from the breezy heights and the green of the mountain fynbos back to the hot tarmac of the road.

Beyond Cape Town though, as the city peters out and you pass its corrugated petticoats you realise that it’s you that’s small and the world that’s immense.

When we left the city, the sun had heated the car so much that I could hardly rest my legs against the seat. I sat on my hands instead. Did you know that a car tyre turns around 394 times in a kilometre? Before we had even gone over Sir Lowry’s pass the tyres had turned over 21000 times each. And for every time the wheels turned I felt my eyes trying to take in something else, watching the horizon, reading the street signs. The further east we went the cloudier it got; we chased the sunrise and by now it was late afternoon. The grey clouds dimmed the distance and turned the mountains into broad shouldered silhouettes. It softened the world, kindly obscuring the details from my tired mind. It is known as a pathetic fallacy: to see human emotion in the world around you. But this, this was just a sympathetic fallacy, and I was grateful.

Just before we turned off the coastal road we stopped by the sea and swam. It started to rain as we showered off the salt water and as we turned into Nature’s Valley it thundered in the jungle.

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Hostels are barefoot places. Good hostels are anyway, in the worse or less hygienic ones people keep their shoes on. But a good hostel in a warm country has the same kind of reverence amongst travellers as temples do amongst the faithful: shoes come off.

That evening people sat clustered around guidebooks and ashtrays waiting for supper, gathered like the moths had around the lamps and candles. The moisture in the air had made their hair lift and curl around their heads, and the light shining through gave each of them a sort of halo.

In the morning I woke in one of two single beds pushed together and l left him sleeping. The rain was fine and formed a hazy curtain between the clouds and the fog that lifted off the trees. I looked out through the steam that rose from my tea to join it. And then we left and drove onwards to East London, which, by the way, is 13,925.65 road kilometres from London, UK, where I come from, (nearly five and a half million tyre revolutions).

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Our East London landlady had fake nails and do. Her house had a small indoor swimming pool and garish orange cushions. Friends of ours found stains on the sheets and a used condom in the drawer. I kept my shoes on.

From Cape Town to East London is around 1050km. If you ran at 10 kilometres per hour (finishing a half marathon in just over two hours) it would take you 100 hours to run from Cape Town to East London. That’s more than five days of solid running day and night. You could maybe make it faster on a bike. The world record for 1000km on a bicycle is 45 hours, held by a man called Pap Zoltan. If his name is anything to go by, he’s a hard man to beat.

The Ironman Triathlon was conceived in 1977 on a Hawaiian Island. During a debate about who were the fitter athletes – swimmers, runners or cyclists – U.S Navy Commander John Collins suggested that they find out by combining the three existing long-distance challenges: the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (3.86km), the Around Oahu Bike Race (185.07km) and the Honolulu Marathon (42.2km).

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The man who finished the race first would be the Iron Man. On the bottom of the pages of race rules that Collins gave each of the athletes he wrote, “Swim, Bike, Run. Brag for the rest of your life.”

In February 1978 15 men started the race early in the morning and 12 completed it. In January 2013 there were 3000 entrants for the East London half Iron Man. Half the distance of that first Hawaiian full, but a gruelling course all the same.

And so the athletes gathered. Never have I seen so many smooth tanned calves. Never have I been around so many men whose legs were more hairless than mine, and I am by no means feral. Though I felt it then.

There didn’t seem to be much that the athletes had in common. There were a few muscle-bound – straight jacketed by their own biceps, some women, some older men, those who did and those who didn’t look svelte enough for the months of training an event like this must involve. What they shared wasn’t corporeal; it was something deeper…

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Would you do an Iron Man, knowing what it involves? If for a moment you are hesitating, if your eyes are drifting across your head and you’re wondering, if – god forbid – you start to nod your head as you think it’s feasible, then you’re one of the ones lost to the challenge. The Iron Man is not about winning. It’s about finishing what you’ve started.

I can’t explain what it is that appeals to the modern man (or woman) about this intensive kind of physical challenge. We live in an era where we don’t have cultural rites of passage that take us from childhood to manhood. We don’t hunt, we don’t slay lions, shoot arrows at wild beasts or fight hand to hand in blood soaked fields. We have no real coming of age moment or chance to prove our virility. And we’re a principally sedentary society – something must get pent up.

Marathons and other endurance races are one of the only ways to prove that you have extreme physical toughness in a non-aggressive way. And yet they share the same kind of morbid fascination to a spectator as bare-fist boxing does: who will bleed, who will live, who will die.

The selection of restaurants in East London won’t satisfy a true gourmand. But the night before a race all you look for is a good feed of carbs and then you pray for sleep. But sleep is like the finish line, elusive, part of wakeful dreams.

That morning he woke in the dark and left me sleeping. I went later to watch from the other side of the barriers. I watched as waves of bodies ran into the sea and the heads bobbled like a colony of seals. I watched wetsuits being pealed off and I watched bicycle wheels disappear off towards the N2 and King Williamstown.

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By the time you really see anyone’s faces the sun is hot and hours have passed. Four hours or more into an intense race the athletes have legs of lead and wills of iron. The sun cream that some kind volunteers were rubbing into their shoulders was sweating out, like warhorses with sweaty white flanks.

Some came over the finish line and threw their hands up; others came over and dropped down on their knees. Many moved slowly back towards the sea, where it had started that morning, and soothed their hot bodies in the cool water.

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Bodies take a while to recover after such an excessive workout, days sometimes. Dehydrated muscles take a while to rebalance their minerals and can involuntarily twitch at night, but it passes. The pain is temporary, the glory is forever.

We broke the journey back to Cape Town into three. Then we drove up over Sir Lowry’s pass and through the Cape Flats. Back in the city I saw the Waterfront – the least authentically African part of Cape Town, with its foreign crowds and its German Ferris wheel. The Cape Town wheel turns four times in 15 minutes. If the wheel could move, four turns would take you about 500m. Travelling 1km would take about half an hour. Travelling from where the wheel is in the V&A to East London would take about 20 days. That’s bound to make you dizzy.

*All images © Katie de Klee.

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