How I finished Ironman 70.3 and raised over R50 000 for charity when I thought I never would

Philippa Dods
Jun 21, 2019 · 10 min read

A few months ago, I set myself two personal goals; to finish the Ironman 70.3 by the cut-off time of 8 hours and 30 minutes, and to raise R50 000 within one month for Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, which is an NPO very close to my heart.

On Sunday the second of June 2019, I crossed the Ironman finish line in 6 hours and 41 minutes. That night, over R56 000 was sent to Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.

I’d wanted to do both for a long, long time, and believed both goals were impossible. Until I achieved them. Here’s a few lessons I learnt in the build-up.

The thing about ambition

Entering another Half Marathon is relatively easy for me. I know that even if I don’t train at all, I will make the 3 hours 30 minutes cut-off time. I enter them regularly, it’s a couple hundred bucks, it takes me roughly two hours, and when I want to make it more challenging for myself, I just try to beat my PB.

Entering the Ironman is an entirely different ball game for me. Not only is it treacherously taxing both physically and mentally for the duration of the course as well as the months preparing beforehand, but between the entry fee and trisuits, wetsuits, flights, accommodation, bikes, watches, energy foods and gadgets, it’s heavy on the pocket too. Most importantly for me, making the cut-off time is no guarantee. The Ironman is a commitment.

Cut to mid-April, stepping into Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust Headquarters in Observatory.

I’ve never been to a place for the first time that feels so much like home.

I knew one thing for certain; that if anyone I knew was ever sexually abused, I’d want them to go straight to Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.

Aside from the comforting space making my heart happy, I also learnt about the real impact that the NPO is driving in our community. I heard about how they were raising money to support women in court to relive the trauma of telling their stories to juries in court, to fighting for the conviction and imprisonment of rapists, to providing survivors with the professional counselling and care they need, as well as raising awareness about sexual violence in local communities.

There is no NPO I’d rather wholeheartedly campaign for, while training to do the impossible.

I set up my campaign on Backabuddy who make it a requirement to list the target you want to reach. My immediate thought was R10 000 — my reasoning being that at least if no one in the world donated, I could still manage to reach that target — but shook that off and settled on R25 000, promising myself I would do everything I can to get as many people as possible to donate.

But deep down, I knew how hypocritical this actually was. I had one month to go — I could make R25 000. Why wasn’t I setting a goal that I didn’t think I could make, and challenging myself to achieve that, instead?

I’m continuously preaching to “aim higher, get better, do bigger.” I preach how “lack of passion is fatal” and am the biggest advocate for setting big, hairy, audacious goals. Why, then, when it was my time to make my goals public, was I settling for something easy?

’Cause here’s the thing about setting ambitious goals — they’re great, because if you don’t make them, at least you still did more than you initially wanted to achieve.

You want 70, say you’re going for 100, work for 100, and when you get 80, it’s okay because that’s still more than 70.

But they’re not great because working for 100 is hard. Chances of hitting 100 are slim, which means chances of failure are high. Would you rather say you’re going for 50, because then when you hit 70, everyone will be wow’ed. Are you staying at 70 your whole life just because you don’t want to double the work and effort, and you’re scared of letting yourself down?

I changed my campaign target to R50 000, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.

(Not) caring about other peoples’ opinions

Over the next few months, I spread the news of my latest challenge thick and fast but was unpleasantly surprised by many people’s reactions. I was met with eyebrow raises, forehead furrows and the doubtful, “Ooh — that’s gonna be tough.”

“Oh boy,” I found myself thinking, “Are these people really so pessimistic / jealous / bitter or are they actually absolutely right that I will not be able to do this?”

One day, I even got a “You’re crazy,” which, of course, immediately bought to mind Serena William’s show-stopping line, “So if they call you crazy, show them what crazy can do,” in Nike’s latest #DreamCrazier series. I must have looked seriously delusional to this person as I smiled to myself and skipped off to training.

People have so many damn opinions. When you’re taking a rest day, it’s “Ooh — you know it’s Ironman soon” and when you’re training twice a day it’s, “Ooh — you know burnout is real.” There are only two things you should listen to; your coach and your body.

What I learnt very quickly is that it is my ability only — not anyone’s opinion of my ability — that is going to get me over the finish line.

What life throws at you

In the two months after registering for the race in January, I was promoted at work, then given the news that my direct manager would be heading off to our London office, and then flown to Berlin for a high-paced week-long Management Summit. All of this is incredible — my attempt at getting into Berghain is a story for another day — and I was ecstatic about finally getting the promotion I had been working so hard for.

But it also meant my work-load doubled overnight, months of late nights in the office, a lot more to learn very quickly, and work pressure both during and after office hours. Which is great — it’s what I live for — but training suddenly proved much more difficult to squeeze in than I’d expected.

What I’m really glad about is that I registered in January (admittedly, it was on a hungover whim after a crazy NYE celebration and the registration fee was going up the following day so obviously it was meant to be). But if I’d waited until I was ready, I never would have (a week before the race I was freaking out because I “wasn’t ready”) and if I’d waited until “the right time” at work to register, I never would have either. Training for an Ironman and doing anything else at all simultaneously, is never going to be a smooth ride.

The “right time” is a myth that your subconscious tells you to justify your laziness. Do the thing and do it now.

How to handle bad days with grace and grit

I don’t have a single OCD bone in my body but boy, a few weeks before race day and suddenly everything had a meaning.

I was counting everything from the steps I took to the number of lightbulbs in a room and if it were an uneven number, this meant bad luck. I made sure not to step on the cracks of tiles on the floor and was keeping myself up at night stressing that it meant bad vibes for not falling asleep straight away.

These were low days for me — the extra and unnecessary anxiety it bought me was exhausting.

Another rough day was the Sunday before race day — exactly one week to go. Also, the start of taper week and, for me, when the realisation set in that there was not much more training that I could do to improve my fitness by next week. This realisation sent me into a mild panic where I convinced myself that I would not be able to finish the swim, would be thrown off-course and wouldn’t even get to cycle or run, let alone finish the whole race (when I did get out of the ocean on race day, ten minutes quicker than I’d expected, I ran to the cycle station, cheering loudly, arms swinging wildly above my head like a rhapsodic Neanderthal. “It’s not the finish line, darling, still got two more legs of the race to go,” spectators offered. “I know! I didn’t drown!” I screamed back in blind euphoria).

I also had a string of bad days just after race day. In hindsight, I was probably feeling some post-race blues, missing the hype and the adrenaline, but my immune system was crashing too and soon I was woman down. I soldiered on, with what felt like every bug in me, for the next two weeks in which my calendar consisted of friends’ birthday parties, company recruitments and a business trip to Nairobi that saw me getting sick in between meetings and conferences. It was a nightmare. But I packed my toothbrush and travel-sized perfume in my laptop bag, tied my hair up, put my lipstick on and pushed through.

I’ve had more bad days in the last six months than the rest of my existence combined. I’ve wallowed in self-doubt and nauseating anxiety. There were many times I wanted to throw in the towel both in the office and in the gym.

But I have also consistently said my morning mantra to myself — “you are strong, you are bold, you are capable,” even when I really didn’t feel it. I’ve learnt how to handle a bad day — not at all sorry for the appropriate use of this cliché — like a damn boss.

I remember one particularly tough workout; it had been a long day at work, I was tired, and I wanted to cut my training session short. Something made me think of Franziska Blöchliger; I thought of Hannah Cornelius, I thought of the victims of the Rhodes Memorial rapist, and every other woman and girl out there that didn’t make the headlines. I remembered I was doing this for something bigger than myself and it was more than just a physical challenge of my own.

I was doing it for these women. I was doing it for every survivor and every victim. I was doing it for every person who’d shared their story with me, and every person who is still too scared to tell anyone. I was doing it for people I know, and for people I don’t. I was doing it for every donation that came through my campaign, and every message of encouragement that I’d received on that page.

When I felt low again, I scrolled through my Backabuddy campaign page — now my RCCTT highlight reel on Instagram — and remembered.

This carried me straight through that bad day and many others.

What gratitude really feels like

In the months I spent training for Ironman, I came to realise how grateful I was feeling for my body and how comfortable I was feeling in my own skin; something that has been quite rare to me throughout most of my teenage and adult life.

I felt immense pride in myself and my physical health for pushing through tough workouts, beating my time trials, feeling myself becoming faster and fitter. I even felt proud of myself after a workout that I’d had to drag myself out of bed at 5 a.m. for, or for getting into the pool on a rainy day after work — cause that shit is hard. But the feeling of beating my PBs, flying through spinning classes and gliding through the water, made me feel really, truly grateful for my body.

I was reflecting on this during and after workouts — and it was putting me on a high. My first thought every morning and last thought every evening was gratitude for being able-bodied free from injury and illness.

A couple of months into training, I began noticing a baby ab here and a baby bicep there, but it was just the cherry on top (who am I kidding; I got so over-excited that I ran into my boyfriend’s flat lifting my shirt and flexing as hard as I could, shouting, “Look! Look! I have an ab!”).

I was simply feeling good — the strongest, fittest and healthiest I’ve ever felt.

People find peace with themselves in different ways — I know now that I don’t have to be sitting with my hands at heart-centre on the top of my yoga mat or journaling before bed every night to practice gratitude or meditation, because my favourite me-time, and when I feel most grateful for my body, mind and soul when my legs are cramping like hell and still going round and round and round in my cleats.

Today, I love my body for its ability to move, to improve, to carry me over finish lines.

There is always Humanity

I was met with a fair share of people who challenged me for fundraising for Rape Crisis, and even more who made it clear they didn’t think I would reach my campaign target or finish the race. And in doing my research on the stories and rates of sexual abuse in South Africa, it was easy to feel disheartened and let down by humanity.

But then there was every person who had donated to my campaign — friends, family, colleagues and strangers — who were generously and selflessly supporting this cause. I’m so grateful for each and every person who donated and wrote such inspiring messages.

There were the guys who I made friends with at the Ironman start line — who nicknamed me “Nails” because they couldn’t believe someone with such long manicured nails could be doing the Ironman; honestly, I couldn’t tell if they were more impressed or more “this chick has no idea what she’s getting herself into” — they made me laugh, calmed my nerves and I’m so grateful to them for that.

There’s the incredible team at Rape Crisis Cape Town, who shared my excitement for every single Rand raised throughout the campaign. The organisation will be offering a scholarship in my name which will fund volunteers who want to train to become a professional rape counsellor but can’t afford it. I’m so grateful for this team, and the work they are doing to improve our community.

There’s my dad; who teaches me how to change a tyre and then insists on doing it for me anyways. And my mom, who says things like, “You need a medal just for registering.” They are my biggest supporters, and I am so grateful for them.

And then there was the sunrise.

I’ll never forget it — standing on Durban beachfront in my wetsuit on race day, singing the South African National Anthem, fist to my chest, heart beating like crazy, lump in my throat, with 2 600 other athletes from all over the world, watching the sun rise above the horizon.

I’d take the bad days, the stomach bugs, the stress, the lack of sleep, the doubters and the pain any day to experience that feeling again.

Ironman, this isn’t the last you’ll see of me.

Philippa Dods

Written by

Media Intelligence @Meltwater | Empowering entrepreneurs @Future_Females | Change-maker at @WEF Global Shapers Community. Lack of passion is fatal.

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