IRONMAN France – Race Report

The Setting

Be Careful, Nice can be a dangerous place...

Be Careful, Nice can be a dangerous place…

The town of Nice is a very cosy city.  Located on the French riviera you can get there through its airport if you come from outside the country, or by train if you come from Paris.  Personally, I chose to travel by train from Paris and it was quite easy.  For those looking for details on travelling with a bike on the TGV, an older post here may provide the information you need.

The train station is not very far from the core of the city and you can walk to most hotels although I still recommend a short taxi ride if you have a bike with you.

I personally chose to come with my wife who needs little other than a beach and a book.  This worked perfectly as we also combined it with our 10 year anniversary.  We stayed in a hotel the race finish.  To those who might be looking for a hotel in Nice, I’d recommend the Beau Rivage.  It is not where I stayed but where my friends who had done the race before did.  It is right across from the start and finish!

We arrived 2 days before the race and enjoyed the local restaurants which have plenty of the right foods for triathletes.

Before the race

My war machine racked and ready to go before the race.

My war machine racked and ready to go before the race.

Having lived in France for three years now, one of the main cultural differences lies in the fact that the French don’t hold your hand as much as Americans do.  They expect you to read the bit of information provided and to guess the rest.  The same is true for the Ironman in France.  The signs aren’t necessarily clear as to where check-in is nor does it matter to them.  The athletes will figure it and most of them eventually do.  The volunteers were as always very helpful however.

At check in, we received our bib, a our four bags for clean transition, a great backpack and the most important part:  the pocketbook race packet.  It would be easy to discard it, but indeed this small race packet was very important and should be read by all athletes since that’s the only information you have as an athlete and there are a couple of important items in there.  Do not expect a race-briefing in 15 different languages like you have for most other Ironman-branded races.  This is France, you get a small book and as a triathlete, you should know how to read.

Some important points I noted:

  • If you are a foreigner, bring your medical certificate and/or your license.  Seriously…the French don’t mess around with that stuff apparently.
  • The run bag MUST be dropped off along the bike the day before.  Additionally, you will most likely not be able to get to it the day of the race.  This can require some adjustments since people like myself prefer to leave a bottle made with our favorite energy drink.  And most energy drinks don’t survive well sitting 24 hours on the black tarmac in a warm plastic bag.  (Note that your special needs bags however are race-day drop offs).
  • Pin your bib in THREE places.  Yes, most races require you to pin the bib in two places.  Yes, most race belts only have two places to pin a bib on.  The French want three and they will check!  As we entered the transition area to check in the bikes, all of them were checked and people who didn’t have their BIB pinned in three places on their race belt were sent on their merry way to find a solution on their own.  Seriously, plan for it, I’ve seen plenty of stressed individuals because of this subject.

Beyond that, most of the pre-race events are rather standard and occur in the same fashion as any other Ironman or 70.3 you’ll be doing.

The mass start of the swim is broken up into corrals, but be careful starting too slow as the pack moves inward and you can get stuck amongst hundreds of swimmers.

The mass start of the swim is broken up into corrals, but be careful starting too slow as the pack moves inward and you can get stuck amongst hundreds of swimmers.

The Swim

Race morning…The excitement!  Years of training, 9 months of specific preparation, countless miles, training camps, early swims, cold runs, windy rides and more.  Finally it was there.

The swim start is very wide along the beach with various corals.  I went to the back of the 1h00 to 1h05 coral not wanting to get too up front or go out too fast.  The start was a mad house and with the wide start quickly moving inwards, the first few hundred meters were very slow where I swam mostly with my head out.  The swim is a two loop course with an Australian exit.  The particular thing is that both loops aren’t the same and therefore have different buoys.  I hadn’t studied the course well enough and instead followed the bulk of the people.  Unfortunately, many of them headed off towards the wrong buoy and made the course a fair bit longer than it needed to.

With that said, the two loop course breaks down the swim nicely and the second loop being shorter than the first gives you an extra boost at the first exit point since you’re more than half-way done.  By the time, the people start spreading out as well limiting the elbows to the cheeks and kicks to the face.  I must say there were a fair amount of those.  Nevertheless, even though I ended up swimming about 200 meters longer than needed but my 1:03:38 still put me 90 seconds below my goal while still feeling refreshed.

Transition 1 was fairly easy and uneventful.  I grabbed the helmet, race belt and glasses from the bike bag and the bike from the rack without issues and went off for the long scenic ride.

The Bike

The bike starts with a flat 20k which is great to slowly warm up the legs.  Although I’m not a fantastic biker, I considered myself in good bike shape but I was stunned to see how quickly some of these bikers passed me early in the course.  Some of them looked like they were on a 40k time trial.  I stuck to my plan and felt rather confident that I’d see some of them again.

Half way into a climb - I think it was the third - during the bike portion of the race.  A lot of people passed me during the uphills, but I made up for it on the flats and descents.

Half way into a climb – I think it was the third – during the bike portion of the race. A lot of people passed me during the uphills, but I made up for it on the flats and descents.

The first difficulty comes up after about 20k with an 18% grade hill.  The short burst of energy can be treacherous if you don’t expect it and I saw someone break a chain who wasn’t in the far left on both the front and rear derailleurs.  Those who didn’t expect it were in for a surprise.  After that, I took my time along the false upwards flat.  I tend to do well on low grade climbs (2/3%) and managed to kept a good cadence focusing on hydration and nutrition.  At 45k the first downhill came up and I knew it well from my reconnaissance ride.  I knew that I could get down on the handlebars and push through, the 11 cog came in handy.

Please note that there are still a couple of tight corners and to use caution.  Additionally, some of the rocks stick out from the walls on the right and can be dangerous.  There was unfortunately a fatal accident during the race at the bottom of this first descent.  Please be careful.

After that comes the major difficulty of the course.  The two part climb reaches 7-8% grade which is very manageable but as a non-climber I took it slow.  A lot of people passed me on these parts but I did pass a couple of those early sprinters.  One of them was puking on the side of the road, it didn’t look pretty.  It took me about 1h10 to make it to the top of the climbs and my legs felt good.  I was probably passed by several hundred people but I was committed to keeping it my race, I knew I’d make up for some of lost time later.

At the top of those climbs, I grabbed my special needs bag. Ham and cheese sandwich, two new bottles and I didn’t use my spare tubular which I had left there just in case (I had another spare on the bike).  This next section is nice and flat although sometimes windy.  It’s a great time to refuel.  I got in the aerobars and started eating the sandwich, washed it down with the soup-flavored energy drinks and by the time I was done the flat section was finished and I started on a short descent.  Beware of the hairpin turn at the bottom before starting another flat section, even middly uphill.  Then comes a long downhill…and it was incredible.

I rode the course previously with my bike in race configuration and I had studied the course afterwards as well.  I knew each turn and with the exception of a couple, I knew that I could take most of the turns in the aerobars and full aero position.  This was incredibly enjoyable.  I passed countless athletes and even some referees on their bikes.  Once again, please be very careful in these sections.  The female winner Mary Beth Ellis fell in this part of the course so it can happen to anyone.

Of course I was posing for the photo, nobody looks that good half-way into the Marathon portion of an Ironman...

Of course I was posing for the photo, nobody looks that good half-way into the Marathon portion of an Ironman…

Then at km 105 (mile 65), the final hill of the course.  I used the same strategy taking it very easy and letting people pass me.  I used the opportunity to refuel and drink before getting ready for the next descents.  The final descents are in two parts.  The first part is just like the first one and not very technical.  The second is slightly more technical with an interesting leap that can surprise people.  After that, you’re home free.  The 20k flat section is generally free of major difficulties with the exception of some occasional headwind which can be challenging, especially to the morale.

I used this time to finish up my nutrition and increase the leg cadence to get ready for the run.

The course is slightly short with 108 miles but it makes up for the healthy elevation of 6700 feet.  You can find the details of the bike course here.  I came to the finish at 5:49 which I was happy with.  I had hoped for between 6 and 6h15.  With the course a bit shorter, I was right on pace with my goal.

T-2 was great with volunteers applying sunscreen to my back as I was putting my shoes on.  I had ripped one of my bike bib’s attachments to I grabbed the second bib that was ready in my run bag, my visor and I was off.

The Run

The run is about as simple as they get.  A flat out and back 4 times under the southern French sun with no shade.  Some people hate it, others love it.  Personally I enjoyed the 4 loop course as it helped me break down the run into manageable chunks of 10.5k per loop or even 5.25k each way.  My plan was simple, if I had to walk, I’d walk only the aid stations.  The first loop felt great.  I even got to talking to one of the escort of the third athlete overall at the time Antonio Colomb (I was one or two laps behind him of course).  The escort was even discussing how upsetting it was to have such an athlete famous for doping allowed to race in such events.  I knew him from his race in Mallorca and had found out about his doping suspension which ended in 2012.  Although this may be the subject of a separate discussion, we are seeing a bit of trend of former dopers and/or cyclists who come to the IRONMAN circuit.  Of course, I feel that rules should be tougher within the WTC for doping violations.  In this race, Antonio owns the bike course record at 4h30, something entirely crazy by anyone’s standard.  I note, that he would fall apart on the run and loose several places.

Grinding my teeth at the end to finish strong!

Grinding my teeth at the end to finish strong!

But back to my race…I was able to run continuously for the first 14k and then the legs started feeling quite heavy.  So I put my plan in place to walk the aid stations.  As each aid station ticked by, I would walk longer starting from the very beginning of the aid station to the very end…but I never walked outside the stations.  Coke, Orange, Water, that was my mixture of choice at each aid station and worked well.  At 14k I also had to take a healthy bathroom break which took a few minutes but was much needed by that time.

Each loop I saw my wife who would come up from the beach to cheer me on.  It was very helpful and between each loop she’d go back down to the beach to tan and read her book.  It was perfect for the both of us!

The third lap was the hardest for me, and from the looks of it, the hardest for everyone.  It’s inspiring to see everyone’s struggles, there is something to be said about sharing the suffering with others.  All of us suffer differently, some silently, some loudly, some grimace, others focused but the eyes never lie and it is clear by that point that everyone hurts.  This is obviously where I took the longest.  I ticked the first loop in about 55 minutes, the second in 1h, and the third in 1h10.  The beginning of the fourth wasn’t exactly pretty and I was on pace to finish in 4h20 or so until another athlete with whom I’d been playing yo-yo put his hand on my back and told me to run with him.  I did and we stayed together for the last 7 k or so.  When one of us would hurt, the other would push him, it worked very well and we picked up the pace. Towards the end, I saw that I might make it in 11h17 but my coach had told me I had 11h15 in me.  So with a couple of miles to go I started picking up the pace.

Although I was far from convinced and had hoped for 11h30, my coach called it exactly: 11h15.

Although I was far from convinced and had hoped for 11h30, my coach called it exactly: 11h15.

The last mile went by fast, the people alongside the road, the energy of the finish, the journey that got me there, my family, everything comes back to you.  Soon enough I saw the finish clock and made a last ditch effort to make it in 11:15:32 to be exact.  Not bad for my first marathon in 4h13 keeping it under a 10 minute mile pace.  For those interested in the course map (although it’s rather simple), you can find it here.

The End

The end is always too short.  With this long a journey you want to stand on this finish line and kiss it, you want to dance with the cheerleaders and hug the announcer, you want to bathe in this feeling of joy and accomplishment.  It’s funny how looking back I know that my legs were shot but it’s hard to remember the pain.  All I remember are those emotions after such an accomplishment.  What is more interesting however is that this feeling isn’t entirely unique about the race itself but rather of the journey and what I’ve learned through it.  I discovered much about myself, about others, about the world and it has fundamentally changed my philosophy on life as a whole.  Most importantly, I learned that what was once a goal has created a new lifestyle and that my first Ironman was but a milestone within it.