It’s the best of the best – Eulali Gouws Ironman Story

In this episode of The Kona Edge we chat to fellow South African, Eulali Gouws, about her triathlon experiences, training challenges and what drove her to take part in the Ironman World Championship (Read the transcription of our chat here)

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Podcast Transcription:

 

BRAD BROWN:  It’s a great pleasure to welcome my fellow countrywoman onto the podcast. I don’t get to chat to too many South Africans, but I love doing it because we’ve got lots in common and I just feel a common connection with South Africans. As we’re recording this, for the rest of our international audience, just so you are aware, as we speak in South Africa, we’re dealing with massive, massive electrical, they’re calling them ‘load shedding,’ but load shedding sounds like you’ve got too much so you’re getting rid of some. We don’t have enough electricity, so it’s literally rolling blackouts.

We’ve both just come out of the second one for the day and there’s another coming later, so hopefully we can get through this without the lights going off Eulali Gouws, welcome onto The Kona Edge, thanks for joining me.

EULALI GOUWS:  Thank you Brad, thank you so much for having me.

BRAD BROWN:  Eulali, the struggle is real as South Africans, as they say, it’s one of the joys of living in this amazing place isn’t it?

EULALI GOUWS:  It’s ridiculous! You don’t just check your training peaks for what you have to do training-wise; you check your load shedding schedule to see if you can actually do it!

BRAD BROWN:  It’s a different level of struggle, that’s for sure. I guess everyone has their challenges and this is one of the challenges we need to deal with as South Africans, I guess. I’m pretty biased, I say we live in the most beautiful country in the world and this is one of the downsides of living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

EULALI GOUWS:  Everything has to have a negative as well.

BRAD BROWN:  Absolutely. Eulali, let’s dig into your story. Kona last year was your first race on the big island, it went pretty well, I think top 15 finish for you, which I’m guessing you’re chu ffed with? That’s an amazing performance first time out and let’s take a step back though. Where did this whole triathlon thing start for you?

EULALI GOUWS:  I started doing triathlon about six years ago and then I did my first Ironman in 2016. I was lucky enough to qualify for Kona only on my third attempt at the Ironman distance.

BRAD BROWN:  Awesome!

EULALI GOUWS:  Loving triathlon. I’m currently in hectic training for Port Elizabeth, that’s in three weeks’ time.

BRAD BROWN:  Just about to start dip down I’m sure, it’s almost taper time, that’s for me, my favourite part of Ironman training, is the last couple of weeks before race day.

EULALI GOUWS:  Absolutely, this coming week will be the last hard week and then it’s two weeks of taper, which will almost feel like holiday!

BRAD BROWN:  I’m built for tapering! I think that’s the only reason I do this sport is to be able to taper. Prior to triathlon, do you come from a sporting background or has this just sprung up sort of thing?

EULALI GOUWS:  Actually I’ve always been running, been running since school. Always been a track athlete, cross country, all types of running. Then one year I just decided I’m going to buy a bike and do the 94.7 which is a big cycle race here in Joburg. Did that and thought no, I’m pretty good at this cycling thing. Then I decided Half Ironman, that’s what I’m going to do. The only problem was I couldn’t swim, that’s why I think all my competitors also know I’m not the best swimmer. I’ve been working on my swimming for the last five years constantly to try and improve.

BRAD BROWN:  I love that, Eulali, you talk about coming from a running background, anybody who runs in South Africa would know about the Comrades Marathon. I have to ask the question, has that been on the radar at all?

EULALI GOUWS:  It’s definitely on the radar, not yet. Me and my coach said we’d do it the year we turn 40, so I’ll save that one for a bit later. I believe that anybody that can run in South Africa should do the Comrades; I’ve heard that it’s just spectacular.

BRAD BROWN:  I was going to say, save that for when you’re old and slow. There’s no rush, the race is going nowhere, it’s an incredible race to do but if it’s not on your immediate radar, don’t do it, it’s definitely going to slow you down. The entry into triathlon as a sport, South Africans are sporting mad in general and there’s a massive upsurge in triathlon, it’s an amazing sport, but it’s difficult. I think this is a global thing too, it’s expensive, it’s not a cheap sport. How have you found your transition into the sport from running into doing three sports?

EULALI GOUWS:  Sjoe, I’m a training fanatic, I actually love triathlon because it’s not the same thing every day. The one day you swim and bike, then the next day you run and maybe run again and then the next day you swim again. I absolutely love the diversity. We do other gym work in between. It was actually quite easy for me and quite nice for me to do a bit of cross training because the running got quite tough. I think that’s also the thing if you’re planning on running the Comrades Marathon, you’re just running every day, running-running-running, whereas I find my days quite nice. You’re going out for a run and then maybe doing a swim later or if you don’t feel like doing anything, just grab your pool buoy and go swim and you get some good training done.

BRAD BROWN:  As far as getting the balance right, you work fulltime, it’s not easy and in a city like Johannesburg there’s traffic, so I’m guessing you do sit in a bit of traffic as well, it’s difficult to get that work/life juggle right. How do you deal with it? What are some of your ways to make sure you get the sessions in you need to get in and do the work you need to do at work and don’t fall asleep under your desk in your lunch hour, for instance?

EULALI GOUWS:  That’s a very, very good question. I do get up very early. I do a lot of biking indoors. I only ride outdoors on a Saturday with a group, so a lot of indoor sessions, a lot of early starts. Then, obviously getting to bed early because my work day starts just after 7:00 and I only finish after 4:00 and then usually go and do another training session, either in the gym or back here at home.

BRAD BROWN:  That doesn’t include any naps at the office either, that’s a full day of work?

EULALI GOUWS:  No naps, no, unfortunately they don’t allow that yet!

BRAD BROWN:  That’s why I work for myself, I can have an afternoon nap if I need to, which does happen quite often. Have you found the triathlon things come quite easily to you? Has it been a steep learning curve or have you found like, you know what, I feel like I’m home and I’m comfortable here?

EULALI GOUWS:  I felt so comfortable, my first ever race was a race in Bela Bela, the 5150 there.

BRAD BROWN:  If I can jump in there, that’s the only swim in the world where you can actually walk.

EULALI GOUWS:  You know what Brad; you just took the words out of my mouth!

BRAD BROWN:  Just so people know. Let me explain this race, it’s awesome. I’ve actually announced at that race, I love that race, but the swim is in one of those cable water skiing, it’s a manmade thing and it’s the shape of a donut. If you can think of a donut, there’s a little island in the middle and you swim, I think you have to do two laps. If you start with one of the later swim ways, it’s quite nice because there’s a bit of a current. You don’t even have to swim, you just float and you’ll finish! It’s not that deep, you can actually stand up in it and if you get tired, you just take a walk.

EULALI GOUWS:  Exactly and I’m female, so we’re always the last ways, so by the time we get in, there’s a proper current from all the men and I must say because I’m not from a swimming background at all, my primary school didn’t even have a pool, I walked most of that swim, yes!

BRAD BROWN:  As they say, the bug has bitten. It’s six years later and you’ve been to the World Champs in Kona, it’s been an incredible journey hasn’t it?

EULALI GOUWS:  I know, that’s why I’m saying, I’ve just been so comfortable with triathlon, it just clicked with me and I just love it. The biggest thing I could do for my triathlon was getting a coach and joining a tri group, that just put me into another level and gave me the edge to start winning my age group here in South Africa.

BRAD BROWN:  How soon after starting did you join or get a coach Eulali, was it fairly soon or did you take a season or two before warming up to the idea?

EULALI GOUWS:  No, it took a season or two. I actually did my first Ironman without any coaching, just self-coaching. Did one of those where you download a programme from the internet and you make the most of it. Only at the end of 2016 I actually got a coach and started training very specifically and focusing on my weaknesses and my strengths.

BRAD BROWN:  Why Ironman? The reason I ask that question is, you talk about the 5150 and we’ve got two 70.3s in South Africa, there’s a couple of other independent race organizers who do half Ironman events, but there’s obviously the African Champs, what’s the attraction to the long one?

EULALI GOUWS:  You know where they say some people have got petrol engines, some have got diesel engines, I’m more of a diesel engine. I don’t know if it comes with age, but it takes a while to warm up, but once I’m warmed up, I can keep on going forever. Riding 180km just comes so easily for me and the marathon is really something I love, so it was just, I can’t go fast but I can go on forever, so I tend to outrun my competitors because they slow down and I can just keep on going. One guy I trained with, he says Ironman is not about how fast you go, it’s about who slows down the least. I’m one of those; I can sit into a pace and keep at that pace forever.

BRAD BROWN:  I love that and I’m sure as much as you joke about your swim being your weakest and it’s frustrating, I’m sure if I gave you the choice, you would take it the way it is as opposed to me saying, “You can be the first out of the water, but I’m going to take that strength of your run away,” I’m sure you’d say it’s cool, I’m happy with the way things are.

EULALI GOUWS:  Perfectly happy with the way things are because you know what? You can’t win a triathlon on the swim. If you’re just there more-or-less, then you can outrun anyone.

BRAD BROWN:  Eulali it’s interesting you say that because I hear from a lot of age groupers who are super frustrated with their swim, because they started swimming as adults, they just feel like they’re always fighting the water. As much as you need to work on that swim, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, it’s a work in progress and we realize that. The other two disciplines are where it’s won or lost and you can, it’s getting harder and harder to qualify for a race like Kona, being a weak swimmer, but it is possible, as opposed to being a very weak runner and strong on the swim and the bike, you’ve got a better chance if you’re a weak swimmer.

EULALI GOUWS:  Absolutely, if you’re a strong biker and a strong runner, triathlon is absolutely for you. I know a lot of guys that are such strong swimmers and they come out of the water first and then it’s like people just overtake them. I must say, there’s a mental thing about people overtaking you in a race. You just feel like, I’m not going anywhere, whereas you are overtaking people coming from behind, overtaking them. There’s really a confidence booster there that I think I get from racing.

BRAD BROWN:  It’s a massive psychological thing and I know, I speak from experience because my swim, out of the three, I’m probably pretty even-steven, my swim is probably one of my stronger and I just feel like I’m going backwards. Even if I’m going well on the bike or well on the run, I feel like I’m going backwards the whole day as opposed to the other way around. It is, such a confidence booster where you’re passing everybody on the last lap of the run for example, than everybody passing you.

Let’s talk about your going from Ironman South Africa and deciding to get a coach to going, I want to go to Kona. I always joke on this podcast that if you had to drill a hole from where we are in South Africa right through the core of the earth to the other end, the closest land mass is going to be Kona. We are literally on the opposite end of the earth. To go to Kona is a massive commitment; it’s a long way to go. What’s the attraction for you, what made you want to go?

EULALI GOUWS:  I think anybody that does the Ironman; it’s a dream to go to Kona. It’s the World Champs; it’s the best of the best. It was like the Half Ironman World Champs was here in South Africa last year, everybody wanted to go. There’s just something about a World Champs event that makes it so special and I mean going to Kona, all the pro-triathletes are there. If you’re a triathlete fanatic, that’s the place to be. I can’t even describe the Ironman village, it’s just Ironman everywhere.

The expo is actually a whole street long. There’s things, you can shop forever, it goes on forever and ever and it was the most amazing experience. Yes, for us South Africans it’s very far to travel, it’s literally a 12 hour time difference. I got up in the morning when my friends here went to bed, so you can’t really chat to anyone because you’re in such different time zones. The whole experience, just being there, training there, we went two weeks before the race, training there, it’s something that you can’t describe. You have to see it for yourself.

BRAD BROWN:  As far as the buildup to it too, we’re coming out of our winter, I’ve trained for an Ironman through a Jo’burg winter, funny enough as well, it’s not easy. How did you deal with that? I think it’s a massive disadvantage coming from here and that’s where I see South Africans who do really well there, it’s amazing because they’re coming out of pretty cold conditions, having to travel really far, literally the other side of the world and to deal with the time changes and the total difference in climate. How did you deal with that? Was it a challenge or did you find it came pretty easily?

EULALI GOUWS:  No, it was a big challenge. Flying for 33 hours, you get to Kona, you’re swollen, even wearing your compression socks, there’s water retention, it’s so difficult. Then as you said, training, especially in Joburg, I’m sure if you were in Durban which is at the coast it’s easier because there it’s hot but here what I did was, if I was on my indoor trainer, and it’s probably torturing yourself, but not open any windows. Make the room as hot as possible. Then not using my fan. I must say I’m back to using my fan now, but not using your fan at all.

My long runs, I started at 12:00 midday on a Sunday, do them in the heat of the day just to get some heat training in and then obviously swimming was a challenge because you can’t even attempt the dams here without a wetsuit in the winter, you will freeze. The swimming was quite challenging because you know Kona is not a wetsuit swim, so that I had to do in a pool, but once I got to Kona, we actually went swimming on the course every day and it’s quite nice. The daunting thing is no wetsuit, mass start, everything you’re not used to anymore here because we’ve got the nice rolling starts now with all our races, which I absolutely love.

BRAD BROWN:  I want to talk to you, from someone who is not the strongest of swimmers, how did you cope with that in Kona? Those are two things, the wetsuit is a big one but that mass start, when I started in my triathlon career I quite liked them, but I’m a big guy and I used to play rugby, so I don’t mind the odd kick and punch, but it’s not that way anymore, except in a race like Kona. It’s a big adjustment isn’t it?

EULALI GOUWS:  Absolutely! We spoke about the Bela Bela 5150, that’s actually still a mass start, but when I started, when I did my first half Ironman in East London it was also a mass start. At least I have done the mass start thing before. What I found, it’s a lot in your mind as well. I just decided, you swim, you fight for your spot, you go. I must say the women are less aggressive than the men. I’ve heard some horror stories from the men’s starts where they really hit each other. The women are more apologetic. I’ve had so many apologies from women while swimming, saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” because they hit you in the face or something. It’s not that bad.

BRAD BROWN:  It’s a different beast in the men’s age groups, that’s for sure. Talk to me a little bit about what you still hope to achieve? You’ve been now, top 15 finish, I’m taking it you’re fairly competitive and you’d like to go better but it’s a long way to go. You probably need to sell a kidney or a limb to get there; it’s not the cheapest of trips from South Africa. Is the plan to go back?

EULALI GOUWS:  Yes, the plan is definitely to go back. It’s actually my goal is 2020, so next year. This year I won’t be going, I’ve actually signed up for Ironman Barcelona, which is also in October, I think it’s the week before Kona. There you can qualify for 2020, so I’m giving myself two chances, if it doesn’t happen in Spain, then I’ll be back in PE next year again to try and get a spot to go back to Kona. A top five is really what I aim for at Kona. I also want one of those fruit bowls, the umekes, that is the goal, yes.

BRAD BROWN:  Barcelona is an interesting one, that thinking of going to a race to qualify for the following year around Kona this year, talk to me a little bit about that. I think there are lots of people who have that, I don’t want to say marginal qualifiers, but I think a lot of people think that way; all the top contenders are going to be at Kona, let’s pick a race. Do you think it’s going to be more tough or easier to qualify at a race like that than at an African Champs for example in Port Elizabeth?

EULALI GOUWS:  I think it’s going to be tougher. The thing with African Champs is there are so many Kona slots. I think there’s 70 or 80 slots whereas Barcelona would just be a normal race with 40 slots, especially for women it’s either win your age group to get a slot or you don’t get a slot. Usually they only have one slot and I think the start lists are already out and we’re like 20 in my age group. It’s either a win, all or nothing.

BRAD BROWN:  Level of competition at championship races has included a hell of a lot as well and with Nelson Mandela Bay being African Champs, have you found that over the years, that it’s becoming harder and harder to get those age group positions? Not necessarily just to qualify for Kona but to win your age group or to podium in your age group at a championship race as opposed to a non-championship, like Barcelona for example?

EULALI GOUWS:  Absolutely Brad. The foreigners stream here to PE. Firstly it’s cheap and there’s so many slots. We made a lot of friends there in Kona with some of the British guys and they all qualified in PE. You said, “You’re coming here taking all our slots,” because they can’t get slots in the UK. You look at the start list these days for PE and half of them, they’re foreigners and it makes it so much more difficult for us South Africans. Firstly, going anywhere in the world, never mind Kona is expensive for us, so now they come here and they take our slots in PE. Not even if your goal is to go to Kona, just the podium position, it’s getting so much tougher than it used to be.

BRAD BROWN:  It’s a long way to come. We talk about going to Kona being far, but coming to South Africa for most people, if you’re in Europe it’s an overnight flight but anywhere else, if you’re coming from the States or you’re coming from Australia, it’s definitely a long way but there are advantages. You mentioned it being so cheap, the ticket prices are expensive but when you take the rand/dollar exchange rate into account, it’s probably one of the best value for money holiday destinations you’ll ever find. I think that’s one of the big attractions too and I think a lot of people realise that with 70.3 Worlds last year is that a long way to come, but what a great place.

I’m still seeing photos popping up on my timelines across the various social media platforms of safaris in Addo Elephant Park, if it’s on your bucket list, this is a shameless plug for South Africa but if it’s on your bucket list to do a destination race, I think Ironman South Africa has got to be one of them. The vibe at that race is just something else. It’s probably one of the things that gets you going back every year.

EULALI GOUWS:  Yes, absolutely, that’s one of my favourite, between all the races in South Africa, that’s my favourite. The whole town, that Summerstrand, they all buy into the race and it’s a beautiful little place to be and everybody is close and you can walk everywhere. You just need to get to the airport and you can Uber to your Airbnb and then you’re there and you can cycle on the course and you can swim at Hobie Beach, it’s just beautiful, it’s definitely my favourite Ironman race in South Africa.

BRAD BROWN:  Crowd support, especially on that marathon is just incredible. I absolutely love it. It’s probably my favourite marathon. I’ve run a few stand-alone marathons, but just from a crowd support perspective, that crowd support on the marathon, I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

EULALI GOUWS:  Absolutely, there’s people at every step of that course. It doesn’t matter where you are, there’s always somebody there, shouting, supporting, it’s amazing and we also; we always go back for the finish line at 12:00 to support the last people that finish. I think doing the race in 10 and 10.5 hours, you can go home, you can shower, you can have a nice dinner and then there’s those people that it takes 16/17 hours. That’s a long day; I take my hat off to them.

BRAD BROWN:  Eulali, some of us are those people! I’ve been there, I think I’ve got a 16 hour Ironman, I know what that’s like, it’s not fun with the glow sticks at night, that’s for sure.

EULALI GOUWS:  That was one of my goals in Kona, never mind getting a top spot, I was aiming for top 20 but it was also being a daylight finisher, because that was a big thing in Kona, being a daylight finisher.

BRAD BROWN:  I tried that in Zurich a couple of years ago, obviously it gets darker a lot later, I thought, here’s my chance of finishing in the daylight, is go and do Ironman Zurich, it didn’t work! I still finished in the dark unfortunately. It’s starting to sound a bit like an infomercial for Ironman South Africa, so Paul Wolff and Keith Bowler better send the cheque now that we’ve advertised their race so much. It’s definitely a race that must be done. Other than Barcelona, what are some of the long term plans in the sport? You mentioned a Kona podium, but is it a case of racing age group as long as you can, until you’re 80 and long in the tooth, are you still going to be doing it?

EULALI GOUWS:  Yes, if I just keep on going, I can win maybe one day the 60-64, if I don’t get a first place now, I might get it when I’m older!

BRAD BROWN:  They’re getting faster and faster Eulali, it’s getting harder and harder.

EULALI GOUWS:  Exactly, I’ve got no intentions of racing anything other than just age group.

BRAD BROWN:  I love it. Eulali, it’s been great catching up, thank you so much for your time here on The Kona Edge, I look forward to talking about the individual disciplines, but we’ll save that for next time.

EULALI GOUWS:  Thank you, thanks Brad.

About Us

Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).

Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.

He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.

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