• Parasports World

INSIDE THE IRONMAN // by Geert Schipper I ParaTriathlon

Updated: May 25, 2019

Paralympian Geert Schipper tells about his experience as ParaTriathlete at the Ironman in Kona, Hawaii.

Geert Schipper: The Ironman start line at the infamous Kailua-Kona Bay

IRONMAN. Kona, Hawaii.


There are only a few sporting venues on earth that evoke such feelings with just their name. Nazare beach, Portugal throws up images of barrelling waves threatening to consume the surfer within, El Capitan, California forces the mind to imagine 3,000 feet of sheer granite and the perilous task faced to summit. Kona, Hawaii triggers images of searing heat, wild winds and one of the toughest endurance races on the planet.


Kona is synonymous with Ironman and Ironman is synonymous with Kona. Since 1981, Big Island, Hawaii has hosted the yearly world championships of the Ironman events. A notoriously brutal event consisting a 2.4 miles (3.86 km) open water swim in Kailua-Kona Bay, a 112 miles (180.25 km) bike ride across the Hawaiian lava desert to Hāwī and back, and a marathon (26 miles 385 yards, 42.195 km) run along the coast finishing on Aliʻi Drive, Kona.


As Christie Wellington, multiple Ironman Champion put it. “There is a special mystique about the marathon, but for us that’s just the bit you do at the end of an Ironman”. Bluntly, it’s tough and only those strong enough or stupid enough enter.


About six years ago I did my first, recreational, triathlon. I really liked it, and at the time I even jokingly said ‘Bring on the Ironman!’. The Idea of competing in the Ironman stayed with me as I developed into a true para triathlete over the past years.


Image: Putting in some hard training miles in Hawaii for the wheeling section.

Last year, my friend and rival Jetze Plat competed in Kona. I’m a competitor so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous but honestly I didn’t feel ready for a heavy long distance triathlon back then. Seeing him on the coast of Big Island definitely spurred me on though, and probably gave me the final push I needed. After getting the qualifying time I needed in Luxembourg in June I decided to sign myself up.


Life of course, is never that straight forward. It was January. The tickets were booked, and I was getting into the details of setting my training plan through to October 2018. Right then my wife Thalita told me that we were expecting our third child. I think Thalita could see me trying to figure out the due date before she could even finish her sentence!


It looked like October was going to be a busy month! Thalita was fantastic, and we decided I’d go ahead as planned. The Ironman in Kona is just one of those events. To someone on the outside it might seem selfish but Thalita knows me. Winning the Ironman would be a life goal achieved and there are always sacrifices that have to be made.


My preparation was tight. I switched my training to suit the longer distances for a longer period of time and headed for Hawaii two weeks in advance, so I had the time to acclimate and train in the extreme conditions. I brought a truck load of spare equipment to make sure I would never have to retire because of failing equipment. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.


I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic coach, Bas de Bruin, who I trust entirely. The Ironman is outside of the national federation’s calendar so he had to take vacation days to come and train with me in Kona. That’s dedication. With his guidance we set a clear plan for each stage of the 3 part race. It was surreal to be training along the course of such an iconic event but as race day rapidly approached I felt confident.


Geert Schipper: Getting some time on the road before the Ironman, I was expecting Hand Cycling to be my strongest section, but 180km would be a test.

In the days before a big race I get extremely focused, shutting out almost everything else. This time it was a little different. 24 hours before the race was due to start I got news that Thalita was in labour. It seemed like the third little Schipper didn’t want to miss the race. Via a video call I stayed in contact with my wife and daughters and around 5 A.M, my third daughter was born. Seeing them all, but not being able to be there focused my mind. Bring it home.

I slept well, safe in the knowledge that I was well prepared. In the race I started off really well, finishing the swimming a little less than a minute under my targeted time. After the swimming, the 180 KM cycling was next. In the extreme heat, through hilly terrain, I managed to finish my strongest part in five minutes less than the targeted five hours and forty minutes.


Being about five minutes ahead of schedule, gave me two hours to complete my wheeling part. After 500 M into the wheeling part, it was clear to me that that was not going to happen. It was way hotter than expected and splashing water from others caused me to lose grip on my hoops. Which causes all the energy input to flow away. Besides that there was barely enough space for my wheelchair on the narrow road between the running competitors.


That’s when the doubt set in. I felt exhausted. The heat was getting to me and I was allowing the negative thoughts to creep into my head. But I’d been here before. I knew to take it one push at a time, embrace the suffering. The thought of every push, no matter how slow, bringing me closer to the finish line and all the efforts dragged me through. I simply would not have accepted quitting just because I didn’t feel like it anymore, after all the sacrifices I had made, my wife had made, my family had made. Giving up was not an option. I would have dragged my ass over the finish line if I had to.


Geert Schipper: What a feeling, crossing the finish line. Paralympic World Champion is a nice feeling, too!

09:19:47 after I launched myself into the water at Kailua-Kona Bay, I crossed the finish line at the famous Aliʻi Drive. Two hours and ten minutes ahead of the second quickest wheelchair athlete. I never felt like I would not make it, and when the crowd started growing and cheering louder, it gave me an amazing boost towards the finish line. And then, after all the blood, sweat and tears, the words I’d longed to hear, ‘Geert Schipper, you are an Ironman!!’


It was a great experience and a chance to write my own little part of Ironman Kona history, but I’m not planning to do it again any time soon. Proud and very satisfied with the result I went home to my recently expanded family, where my doorstep was the true finish line. Because coming home is always the best part of going abroad.

Geert Schipper: Back to life, back to reality. Ironman? Parasport World Champion? No chance, here I'm just Papa!

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