Why not me? That’s the question Desi Dickinson asked herself after she traded her love of ball sports for the Ironman lifestyle.
She shares her journey into triathlon on this edition of The Kona Edge.
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BRAD BROWN: It’s a great pleasure to welcome onto The Kona Edge, someone who I’ve been following her triathlon career for quite a while. And it’s great to eventually have her on, and she’s a fellow South African. We don’t get to chat to many of them here on The Kona Edge.
Desi Dickinson, welcome onto The Kona Edge. Thanks for joining us.
DESI DICKINSON: Thanks for having me Brad. I didn’t know I had a stalker.
BRAD BROWN: Well Desi, the triathlon community in South Africa, it’s not massive, but it’s growing. The sport is definitely on the up here. You tend to notice the good athletes, and you’re one of them. You’re one of the athletes that time and time again just put in great performances. Your sporting background, where did you come up from? What’s your sporting pedigree?
Trading team sports for triathlon
DESI DICKINSON: I’ve always been sporty. I think that’s a story that everyone has. But I was very into the ball sports; I played hockey, I played softball. I played softball for South Africa and I was so into it from probably the age of 13 to 30. And really into my ball sports. Action cricket, hockey, softball. Not much into the endurance stuff at all.
And then when I was 32 I decided to give up the ball sports, and in my 30’s, dabbled a bit with Argus, I did 94.7. I did a couple of sprints. To be honest with you, when I look back, I spent a lot of my 30’s just being mediocre. Playing around with this, playing around with that. And that’s the amazing thing about this journey that I’m on now. Just a new level completely.
BRAD BROWN: It’s quite interesting coming from a team sports. You talk about ball sports like softball and that sort of thing, and they’re team sports. Even though you might be training in a squad. Triathlon, and particularly Ironman triathlon is quite a solitary thing. Particularly when it comes to racing. It’s all about you.
Be in control of your Ironman results
DESI DICKINSON: But I do love that because your results and your destiny’s in your own hands. You learn a lot from team sports and I love those days. I made so many friends but I do love being in control of my own training, being in control of my own results. I think I thrive on that actually. But it is funny, when I made the Gauteng team, way in the beginning; I made the Olympic distance Gauteng team. And I remember going to East London and I was in the Gauteng suit and I wanted to high-five every person in a Gauteng suit because I come from that background. And it just wasn’t like that at all.
BRAD BROWN: It’s very competitive. Was it that competitive in the softball space? Although it’s in a team environment it might be slightly different. Even though everyone does like each other in the triathlon scene, there is a massive competitive nature in the sport.
Get friendly with fellow rivals at your Ironman race
DESI DICKINSON: Well, look, I must say, for me and particularly being an age grouper, I’m very competitive. But I also don’t take it too seriously in the sense that I think we are just age groupers. There are people out there, I’m in my 40’s, my late 40’s, and I’m not a professional. I’m there to have fun as well, and I really enjoy seeing other people in my age group and speaking to them, and greeting them on the course. For me that’s what the bind is about.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, absolutely.
DESI DICKINSON: Yet when I race I’m like a bull terrier, you know what I mean?
BRAD BROWN: Where does that competitive spirit come from? That’s one thing I’ve picked up with chatting to as many age groupers as I have; there is this inbred competitive streak. They might be placid and docile when they’re not racing, but when they put on that wet suit and swim cap something happens inside.
Wired to win triathlon
DESI DICKINSON: I think we’re a particular breed. We’re a particular breed that we thrive on the pain, we thrive on the challenge. I don’t know what it is. I think you have to be a particular kind of person. Because, let’s face it, there are thousands of people just competing for enjoyment. I admire that as well. But there is a segment of us that are particularly wired, I think.
BRAD BROWN: Slightly OCD, I think. Let’s talk about life outside of triathlon. You mentioned you are in your 40’s. You’ve obviously got a life outside of the sport. What do you do for a living, what’s life like when you’re not training and racing?
DESI DICKINSON: Well it’s quite an interesting story. My life has been in sales, generally speaking, and when I first got the Kona slot, it literally changed my life. I then left my corporate job at the time and I joined Virgin Active as a personal trainer. So I really changed my life and I did that for a year. But there are a lot of challenges in that environment, but I’m back in corporate now. I work for Teljoy; I’m the Direct Sales Manager, Customer Experience Manager. So, I think my life is people. I love people; I love interacting, relationships, that kind of thing.
You’ve got to want the results
BRAD BROWN: How do you get the balance right? Qualifying and racing on the Big Island doesn’t come easy. You’ve got to put in the hours and the hard work. How do you get that balance right between work and having a personal life and training?
DESI DICKINSON: It is tough hey. I think it’s about being OCD and striving for those green blocks in training peaks. At the same time, and I do coach a few athletes, one of my big things that I ascribe to is balance. So I’m all about balance and I always tell my athletes as much as we want to be the best and improve ourselves, life also happens.
I’m not so hard on myself in that aspect. I’m one of those people that make the time. I will find time, I’ll get up early, and I’ll find a spot during the day. I do tend to stick to what I have to do and I think its discipline. And wanting the end result, a lot. You’ve got to want that thing a lot.
BRAD BROWN: The drive I think, is one thing that also does help to get to and qualify for a race like Kona. You have to have that ambition. It’s when you’re tired, and you have a late night and you know you have to be up at 4 or 4:30 the next morning for a run. Or for a ride. If you don’t have that carrot dangling in front of you chances are you’re going to lie in. You’ve got to have that ambition, I think. That’s a huge part of it too.
Time is a precious commodity
DESI DICKINSON: And that’s where the people you train with come into it. Because for me, the way I know I will get up in the morning, I have to arrange to meet somebody and that’s one of the things I’ll do. Then I know I’ll be up. If there’s an arrangement I’ll stick to it. That thing of time.
Time is one of the most precious commodities and I think it’s one of the real things that can differentiate age groupers. It’s that precious thing we have in different quantities. And I do admire people who’ve got the time to train and rest and eat and get the massage, all that type of thing. This goes to great performance.
BRAD BROWN: But in saying that, the flip side of that coin, that’s not always the ideal either. I’ve got friends who coach a lot of professional athletes. Sometimes they reckon it’s best for that professional athlete to go and get a part-time job, so that they’re not just racing and training. Because they then tend to over analyse things and almost get paralysis by analysis which is also the complete opposite of not having any time.
DESI DICKINSON: Fair point, yes.
The value of training in a triathlon team
BRAD BROWN: Des, the transition from team sports to triathlon; did it come easily for you? You mentioned pottering around with cycle races like the Argus and the 94.7. For people listening to this outside of South Africa, those are the 2 largest timed cycling events in the world and there’s literally thousands and thousands of people that do them. But did you find the transition easy from a team sport, where it’s short bursts to the endurance side of things?
DESI DICKINSON: I think I did. When my performance really picked up and my ability to race and train picked up, was when I did join a group. I do think I, even though the performance itself is individual, being part of a group is so invaluable. To surround yourself with likeminded people is one of the most powerful things. Getting to be your best.
BRAD BROWN: Making the decision to go on and do the long stuff, there’s lots of opportunities to do sprints and Olympics, but making the step up to 70.3 and full Ironman distance. That takes a lot of commitment and a big decision. Tell me about the decision of what pushed you to the long stuff.
If others can do it why not me?
DESI DICKINSON: It’s weird, because I didn’t realise I’d be this good at it. In my very first triathlon, it was one of my colleagues, we started running together at lunch time and we were only running 5k at that point. And then we were doing a bit of gym together. He said to me let’s do 70.3 East London in 2013. We got a program off the internet and we trained together. It was so weird for me because I think I came 9th in my age group that time. I have to just say I knew all the people in my age group. I’d studied them, I knew what times they did and I never saw myself there, I had these people on pedestals.
I can remember a very distinct time or period, it was over a period that I started to ask myself this question. And it was why not me? If these people have jobs and they’re flesh and blood, what are they doing that gets them to that level, and why can’t I do it? So that question of why not me was quite pivotal in me getting to where I am now.
Being competitive over the Ironman distance
For me, it’s about having a measure of talent. Which I think I have. And then putting in the hard work. And I realised the combination of those 2 things would get me to where I am. The other thing I realised as well with my swim being the weakest of my 3 disciplines, it would suit me to go longer. That’s exactly what’s happened. On the Olympic distance, because I come out of the water a bit later, I can never catch someone over a swim and a bike of a shorter distance. But I’m very competitive over 70.3 and a full Ironman, because of that.
BRAD BROWN: I think a lot of people get hung up on trying to make the gains on the swim, but we’ll chat about your swim in a bit more detail in another episode. But I think you’re spot on there. It’s one of those things that if your swim is your weakness you probably will lean towards the longer stuff. Then once that penny had dropped and you said to yourself why not me, when did you actually realise it?
Good enough for Ironman World Championships
You have sporting ability; you don’t represent your country in another sport without it. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. And you can translate; we see it so often, where somebody translates from one sport to another.
When did you realise that you were actually good enough to start competing for world championship slots?
DESI DICKINSON: There’s a magical thing about getting a podium. I always say to people when you’ve had that first taste. It started happening for me in the 51/50’s and that’s probably because Kim Dovey wasn’t at the race. I got 1 or 2 podiums, and 1 or 2 first places. And this gift of being able to compete in your age group, which is unique to triathlon, is such a fantastic thing. It really is, who gets to compete and go onto a podium and be recognised at the age of, I’m 49 this year. It’s incredible.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely, I think it is incredible. And that’s one thing that I love about the sport too, is exactly that. How excited are you to be turning 50? You age group up and it all starts again, doesn’t it?
Embracing the triathlon lifestyle
DESI DICKINSON: The other thing for me is I’ve trained consistently. When I say this Brad, and for me it really is, I think this is one of the key things. A lot of people are out there and say they’re training for a race, but for me, this has just become a lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that I love. I love getting up on the weekend, riding, coming back, and eating like a horse. Chilling for the rest of the afternoon. It’s my favourite thing. So, it very much is a lifestyle for me.
BRAD BROWN: Desi, I’m going to give you a compliment here because I actually cannot believe that you’re turning 50. I’m serious. I’ve seen your results but I didn’t actually click what age group you were in. I thought you were around my age group, the 40-45, early 40’s. Kudos to you and I think it’s a good advert for the sport as well. It keeps you in unbelievable nick.
Let’s talk about something else that’s not Kona related. It’s a story that popped up and I don’t think many people outside of South Africa will know about it and I want to share it because it’s a very cool story. You had a very interesting experience at Ironman 70.3 earlier this year. I saw it pop up on social media with the request of somebody looking for somebody to guide them and you stuck your hand up. Tell us a little bit about that story.
Taking a break and giving back to triathlon
DESI DICKINSON: Yes. When I got back from Kona this year, I really was depleted on a lot of levels. Financially, energy, just tired. So, Lucie and I chatted and it was what’s next? And I saw this thing on Facebook and I thought this is just perfect. People talk about giving back but it was also great for me in the sense that I could take a break literally. And I could help someone in the process. So, participate without the pressure of competing. I think I needed that for a period of time.
Anyway, I saw this thing with Helen. She has Albinism, she’s partially sighted and she needed a guide for 70.3 and Ironman. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what I was signing up for. It was a very interesting journey and very rewarding. We had a very interesting time. It was week in and week out on that horrible tandem. Which she’ll know what I’m talking about. We gave her a nickname. Her name was Sissy. Sissy the tank, horrible bike.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me about getting onto that because I saw one in the first posts on social media after, I think it probably was your first ride on that tandem. And if anybody has ever ridden a tandem they’ll know what we’re talking about. It takes a special kind of crazy to be able to ride a tandem. If you’ve never done it before, for a laugh it’s probably worthwhile but it’s not something you want to do long term.
The art of riding a tandem in Ironman training
DESI DICKINSON: No. She called me her fighter pilot and she was always like, ‘are we going to make this corner’? I’m like, ‘of course we’re going to make this corner’. The only time we ever fell, was like if you clock out and one unclicks left and one unclicks right. Those are really the only times. If I think about it we got on that thing almost from day one and we rode well together. There were no problems with that.
BRAD BROWN: And by the looks of it you had a good laugh while doing it. It just looked like it was a ton of fun. And you mentioned rewarding, you’ve been able to race in Kona, you’ve had some great performances. How high would you rank your 70.3 and Ironman finish this year in helping Lucie get her medals?
DESI DICKINSON: It’s Helen by the way.
BRAD BROWN: Sorry my bad. In helping Helen.
A slow triathlon is physically tough
DESI DICKINSON: It’s an interesting question. What was great about it was the red carpet. But in terms of the whole race, the tough part for me was to go off at the back. To come out of the swim, almost last. When we were coming out onto our run, I could hear Paul Kaye congratulating people on their Kona slots. It was tough in that aspect and I think what people don’t realise it wasn’t that easy for me. In the run I had to ask Helen if we could walk because I was so sore.
My knees were hurting, and my ankles. When you’re used to running and I’m saying this humbly. I’m not saying I’m a fantastic runner, but when you run slowly it’s a lot harder on the body. So, when I talk about the whole experience it was physically quite tough for me. And my partner Kim, she said to me after the race, I’m never that broken after an Ironman as I was this year.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, it’s incredible that. My Ironman experience in South Africa in 2016, I experienced the same sort of thing. Where I went in with an injury and I walked the entire run, and I knew I was going to. I thought well, how hard can it be to walk a marathon? I never, ever want to do that again. I would rather gargle with razor blades than have to walk a marathon again. It’s hard, and people don’t realise how tough it is.
But kudos to you, I think a wonderful, wonderful gesture. I followed that journey and I thought it was amazing. Let’s get onto Kona now, and the racing on the Big Island and what makes it that special. Tell me a little bit about your experience in Hawaii.
The energy of the Big Island
DESI DICKINSON: The other day I was sitting at home and I just long for that island. It’s the funniest thing. It has such an incredible energy, it’s hard to put into words but I actually long to go back there. I think which is probably why I will try to go back.
It is this incredibly long plane trip. You’re half way around the world but when you arrive you immediately know you’re somewhere special. Even from the airport itself. The airport is like this open air thatch vibe.
So, there are 2 things. It’s the race on the island and then the island itself. I had, I don’t know if it was mystical or magical experiences.
It’s like swimming; suddenly you’re in a school of dolphins. The turtles that are swimming anywhere when you go swimming. I can’t explain the energy of that place. It’s incredible.
The best of the best at Kona
Then the Kona vibe added to that. Let me tell you, you can feel very small on a big island when you get there. And I’m sure people know this. It is the best of the best. Everyone’s there for the same reason and when we talk about those personalities and how we are driven and focused. That’s the kind of person that’s on this island, in that time.
People would have told you at any given time leading up to the race there are just people running, cycling and swimming all day long. But people with the most fantastic bodies. With the most amazing kits, with the latest bikes and technology. All with that focused look. You see people running with that look, where they look at their watches. I even had that look when you’re looking at your splits. It’s quite an intense vibe leading up to the race, but it’s incredibly special.
BRAD BROWN: And from a race perspective itself, you had a pretty decent day out. I’m sure you were chuffed with the way things panned out on the day.
Getting to Kona with a goal
DESI DICKINSON: The first time I went, I went with an entourage of friends and family. There were 14 of us who had an absolute ball. I was there only 5 days before the race and suddenly the race was there, and suddenly it was over. But the 2nd time I went, I went with a specific goal in mind and that was really to have my very best race possible on the day. I trained for that and I wanted to get a top 5 finish and I finished 7th.
But I know I had the best race that I could put together on that day. It is incredibly tough. The course not so much but the conditions are incredibly tough. I had my fastest swim ever, my bike was slightly disappointing and I had a great run. So, I don’t have anything to complain about to be honest.
BRAD BROWN: But there is unfinished business. You want to go back and get a podium in Kona, don’t you?
DESI DICKINSON: I do. I want that bowl. I never cook but I want that salad bowl.
Give it your all at Kona or have fun?
BRAD BROWN: Desi, talk to me about the difference in approaches, to the 1st and 2nd one. You mentioned that 1st one; the experience and having that entourage and then going back with a one-eyed focus of that’s what you’re going for.
Do you advise people first time out to have that approach or is it a case of you know what, you’re getting this opportunity you might never get again, give it your all. Do you look back and think maybe you should have given that first one a proper tonk as well?
DESI DICKINSON: Brad, having said that I went there, I will always race at my best and I train my best. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t give them both equally my best effort, but I would say that I enjoyed the spirit around the race a little bit more in the first one.
In the 2nd one I was very conscious. I got there to train, eat and sleep. Which is what I did, I got there 10 days before. I rested a lot indoors. But maybe I should have been out and enjoying that more. I think that’s the difference between the 2.
The fine balance of being prepared
I’m quite a strange one where a lot of what I do is by feel. So, you won’t find Power on my bike. I can go and run and I will know exactly what pace I’m running at without looking at my watch. So, I’m very much about feel and emotion and headspace. Just the difference between the 2 experiences is purely one of enjoying it more I think.
I saw people who were so focused on this race but got so stressed out by it that they blew in the race. It’s such a fine balance going there prepared and mentally prepared and mentally focused, but appreciating the moment. A lot of people talk about that. It’s about being in that moment, enjoying each moment whether it’s in the race or out of the race. Because I think there’s so much that can slip by without us even realising it. And for me, I don’t want to look back on anything and say that was great. I want to know it in the moment, not in retrospect.
Enjoy each moment in your Kona race
So, that’s my advice if you do go to Kona. Just appreciate everything within the context of having a great race. We can’t be stupid but within the context of going there to race, is just to lap up every moment. And lap up every moment in the race because I promise you that day goes so quickly.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Desi, as far as people getting into the sport of triathlon, we’ve got quite a range of people who listen to this podcast. There’s obviously age groupers who have qualified and who are pushing to it, but we’ve also got a lot of novices and newbies just getting into the sport and contemplating doing their first Ironman. If you could go back and talk to yourself, and give yourself advice when you were starting out in the sport of triathlon, what would you tell yourself? Is there anything that you would do differently? What have you learnt over your triathlon career to this point?
Get help and improve your Ironman performance
DESI DICKINSON: To probably have gotten help sooner but I don’t know that I would have done that differently. That was a pivotal moment. So I would say to somebody you have to get help and train with likeminded people I think, if you want to get better.
And the 2nd thing, if I think about it now in the moment this is the thing to tell myself, is to be kinder to my body. I will train through an injury, which is what I always do. But to give myself more rest I think. Because the key and I’d say this to anyone, is consistency of training.
It’s pointless doing all the sessions but then having to be out for 2 weeks. Rather do three-quarters of the sessions but be able to string that together over a 3 week period. I don’t have any regrets Brad, that’s why I’m stuck with this question.
The key to Ironman training is consistency
BRAD BROWN: I love that you said be kinder to your body because I think that’s something a lot of triathletes do. Especially when they first come into the sport. Because the vibe is amazing it’s easy to get sucked into that vibe of racing all the time. And we see it so often, I’m sure you see it too.
Somebody comes into the sport all gung-ho and they put in a couple of great performances, and a year or two later they’re gone. You never see them again and they’ve burnt themselves out. And that’s a real danger within the sport as an athlete you’ve got to guard against.
DESI DICKINSON: And one of the things that’s a new thing. It wasn’t around when I started. This thing about numbers and measuring, and while I do agree with it, I always tell people what’s the point of measuring these things to death if you can’t put together 3 weeks of solid training. It’s about getting the basics right. That’s what I think it is, is back to basics.
Get back to basics for improved Ironman performance
I heard someone say recently that it’s all a numbers game but if you can’t listen to your body, it’s like driving somewhere with a Tom-Tom and never concentrating on where you’re going. If you aren’t able to go somewhere without that Tom-Tom, I think that’s with all these measurements and power and all of that. If you don’t know your body exceptionally well and you don’t know when to listen to your body in a race. When to go hard and when not to go hard without looking at numbers, I think that’s a weakness. I always tell my guys, get the basics right and then we can look at all those fancy things.
And I say this knowing I do train by heart rate and I do look at power but I think if you can’t add in a huge dose of guts and a huge dose of being able to push through pain, the numbers mean nothing.
Add in a dose of guts to get you to Kona
BRAD BROWN: Agreed. I agree 100%. And it’s so funny. Last week I chatted to someone here on the podcast, Meghan Fillnow, if people haven’t heard that episode yet go back and listen to it. And we delved really deep into the mental strength. You talk about guts, and in South Africa we’ve got a wonderful Afrikaans word called Vasbyt. If it’s translated directly it’s called to bite hard, basically just to hang on.
And you talk about the guts and in order to perform and race and win races and podium and get to Kona, you’ve got to have a huge measure of that in you. Do you think that’s one of your strengths that you are able to just hang in there when times are tough?
DESI DICKINSON: I do have an ability to push through the pain and I think there’s a 4th discipline to triathlon. And it’s the ability to race. A lot of people can win a training session. You can win the track session. Or you can win the long ride or whatever. But can you put it all together on race day?
Put together a great Ironman race
After a race you’ll hear so many people say I blew on the run. Or I went too hard on the bike. The ability to put a great race together is for me, the 4th discipline. And I feel that I’m quite disciplined in that but I think that I’m quite fortunate in that I know how to put a great race together, from swim to a good bike to a great run. That’s how I see it. I like to finish off with a great run.
BRAD BROWN: Let the cat out of the bag. How do you do that?
DESI DICKINSON: It’s so weird because I never thought of myself as a good runner. At Kona I think I came out of the water 39th in my age group. And then I was 18th off the bike and 7th off the run. So, I feel good when I run off the bike. I can’t explain it. I think it must be something genetic. But I do enjoy running off the bike.
And I think I have an ability to know how far to push on the bike and that as I say, without having a power meter. I know how hard to go. Where I’m having a good bike but I know how to put a great run together.
Experience gives you a good Ironman race
BRAD BROWN: It comes with experience and I get the feeling that you’re battling to put it into words but for me its experience. Not like I’m a great racer but I think a good example, and I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about it on the podcast here. In 2012 at Ironman South Africa, you’re probably aware of it, but the weather was absolutely horrific. We had gale force winds, it rained, and it was terrible. And I was in pretty good nick and I was going for a PB.
I got on the bike and we were literally, there are YouTube videos, I’ll try and find the clip and put it in the show notes, where guys were sitting on their bikes, into the head wind and they were grinding like they were climbing mountains. And it was a dead flat piece of road. It’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen and I just got on the bike and realised all bets off. Today was not going to be a PR day and backed off on the bike.
Back off on the bike and have a PB Ironman run
And I was like ‘you know what; I’m going to enjoy it, let’s just have fun’. I got off the bike and I had a couple of different emotions going through my mind. One was like I was angry, because I had put in all this work and now all of a sudden the elements haven’t played ball. But from a physical perspective I wasn’t tired because I didn’t push on the bike. I got off that bike and absolutely smoked the run. That I ran a marathon PB that day. It’s not just Ironman marathon PB, it’s a marathon PB. And I learnt the lesson that day if you back off on the bike you’ve got a much better chance of running well as opposed to being on the limit the whole time on the bike.
For me, that was a massive lesson. In tough conditions I could still run like that and I think you only learn that when you learn it.
DESI DICKINSON: Well that’s exactly it. You won’t know till you’re in the race conditions and faced with those challenges.
A good plan to get back to Kona
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Well Desi it’s been great sharing your journey. What’s next? When are we going back to Kona? Are we waiting until we turn 50 and then age grouping up, or what’s the plan?
DESI DICKINSON: Yes, I think so. At the after party at Ironman, some guy was introducing me to his fiancé and he said you know this lady, in her heyday, she was quite good. And I said ‘my heyday was October’. So I do feel it’s time for a comeback. I am training for a 70.3 in Durban. I’d like to have a great race. Let’s see how things pan out. And then we’ll see. A lot of it is also financial. Let’s see what happens there. But I would like to go to Kona one more time. And I think when I’m 50 is ideal.
BRAD BROWN: Desi thank you so much for your time. Much appreciated. Look forward to chatting a little bit about your swim, your bike, your run and nutrition. But we’ll save that for another day. Thanks for your time today.
DESI DICKINSON: Good. Fantastic. Thanks Brad.
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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