Ironman France is in the bag – not wonderfully in the bag, but completed nonetheless. This was tough one, but they all are – this is Ironman, but sometimes you just keep wishing it was a lot easier. The key details are as follows:
As usual, to bring the race report to its crescendo, I finished in an official time of 12:40:56. To put this in perspective, it is almost 2 hours better than my first brush with Ironman in Austria in 2006, where I finished in 14:26 and almost 1 hour worse than my PB at Ironman Canada in 2009, when I finished in 11:40. In terms of timing, I have provided my garmin times against my pre-race plan (which appears to be more of pipe dream in hindsight!!)
Swam 3.8 km in 1:11; plan was 1:08 – ok considering the full body contact in this race
Bike 180 km in 6:07; plan was 5:35-5:45 – disappointing but a tough bike course
Ran 42.2km in 5:10; plan was 3:45-3:50 – demoralizing, hell, hot, painful, why do I do this??
Let me now put some context around the race, to give you a little better feel for my personal journey at IM France. For those of you who ride or compete in triathlons, hopefully the devil of the details will be interesting to you, for everyone else, I apologize for the report’s length and its detail – you could probably stop right here and feel like you have a sense for my day – very tough, just like ironman should be. It is painful for everyone out there, no matter what their times. It is a great sense of accomplishment although every one of the 42.2 kms of the run, I questioned why the hell I do this to myself. I love the training, I love the discipline of training, I love the fitness involved, I love the positive impact it has on my fitness, I love competing – I hate the pain of Ironman! Thank goodness Dianne was out on the run course, cheering, egging me on every 5 km because otherwise I am not entirely sure I would have been able to hear those magical words –
“Quentin Broad, you are an Ironman”
at 7:10 pm on June 26, 2011 in Nice, France.
Now the Devil of the Detail for those who have an interest (be forewarned this even longer than my usually verbose blogs):
I arrived in Nice on Wednesday night and managed to find my way to the “youth hostel hotel” as my wife calls it – Hotel Ibis, about a 15-minute walk from the starting line. Now perhaps knowing better, as my fine friend Milt Bonellos does by competing in his 3rd IM France, I should have booked the Meridien, which is located right on the start/finish line of the race – one of the best places to view at least half of the race (stay here on floor 4-8, rooms 00-10 even numbered if you are planning to race IM France).
Thursday morning I had planned to register, drive the bike course during the afternoon and then join up with Milt on his arrival Thursday evening. Unusual for Ironman, the Expo was empty when I showed up 10 minutes before its slated opening time of 10 am, so I waltzed right in at the stroke of 10 am and was registered in under 15 minutes. A couple of things about IM France. They request that you have a “one-day” racing license and if not you must bring a medical certificate signed sometime in the last 60 days and pay 30 euro. If you have no medical cert, of course they will have a doctor on site who will also charge you 30 euro to stamp your clean bill of health. Well, for those contemplating competing in the future, I would suggest that you just bring your USAT card or even your OAT card, and save yourself $42.00 – as they didn’t check my med cert, but certainly were looking for the money. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, largely flew by as I hung out with Milt waiting for Dianne to arrive as she went through her own travel hell just trying to get to Nice. We did some pre-race swims, which would prove useful only insofar as I had never competed in salt water. However, with no buoys to define the race course prior to race day, figuring out what sighting would be effective was useless. He had lots of pasta, kept well hydrated and tried to stay off my feet.
Race day was the usual mix of emotion. Dianne and I planned to leave the hotel at 5:15 am to get to the race site at 5:30 where we would join Milt (of course he just had to waltz out of his lobby and he was at the start line). Some of the many challenges of racing in another locale, let alone another country that is an 8-hour plane ride away is ensuring that you can stick to your routines. I got to bed around 9:45 pm, but mostly rested, not sure how much you really sleep before one of the these races. I had asked for a wake-up call and set my numerous electronics for various times, 4:15 am being the first wake-up. Unfortunately, finding breakfast at 4:30 am in any place is tough. Having your breakfast that you would normally prepare at home in advance of a big ride or run is also made difficult when you are staying at the Hotel Ibis. With no fridge, no coffee maker, kettle, microwave etc., I was left to my devices to create a breakfast. On Friday, I had managed to pilfer a plastic bowl from the pasta party and used it to make oatmeal I brought from home, mixing in warm tap water – YUM! I then managed to down a banana, and put together a small baguette of PB and Jam. Key for me, however, was no coffee – I always drink a coffee – preferably a Timmies – before the big workouts to get things jump started, but not today. I filled my bottles for the bike, they were premixed with the eload carb, electrolyte adds, and the powerbar perform. I made three up, one for the aero bottle and the other two for my cages. In hindsight, this was a mistake, at most I should have had just two filled with water and probably could have gotten away with just the aero bottle filled. The organization of the feed stations on the course, makes it easy to keep weight to a minimum and just substitute out bottles when you need them, keeping things light for all the climbs.
We walked down to the transition area and met up with Milt. Things were hopping already, with the race still an hour away, they began warning athletes that the transition area would be closing in 30 minutes. Of course, all I needed to do was drop off my bottles, and add air to my tires (hoping that I had taken enough air out the day before so that they hadn’t popped while sitting in transition on Saturday – why leave any air in you say? So that I know if they popped or have a slow leak, then I can fix them before the race begins!). So after some hello’s, how did you sleep, how was breakfast etc. Milt and I went to find our bikes. When we racked the bikes the previous day, I was very lucky to be situated in a row where the light standard above had two of its three lights missing. Since this was a 500-metre-long transition area (a very long transition zone, in my experience), and there were 15 light standards in total, this proved to be a key landmark for me since I was able to quickly locate my bike as I came out of the swim. In shorter distance triathlons, it would also enable you to rack your bike quicker on the way in from the bike portion, but in Ironman they do the return racking for you.
Hmmmm,….I am standing right in the area that I left my bike yesterday afternoon……where is my bike????..... Announcer: “Athletes you have 20 minutes to clear transition”, no problem, lots of time, I look one rack over to my left, I look one rack over to my right – no bike!! WTF is going on? I keep staring at the bikes in front of me, checking them again and again – that is why I put red handlebar tape on the bike, so it sticks out. Nope, none of these are mine. I start to lose it a bit and return to the light standard to get my bearings. Nope, still no bike. I figure I should find a pump while I am noodling where my bike might be, so I flag a woman down who is standing outside of transition with a pump and ask in English if I can borrow it. She responds in French something about her husband needing it while pointing at him. I go talk to him and he tells her it is ok so she hoists it over the fence. I now start trying to figure out my bike riddle. I start scanning the bike numbers trying to figure out where it should be given this is supposed to be in numeric order. Announcer: “athletes, you have 15 minutes to exit transition”. OMG, as panic starts I get to the other end of the row to find my bike exactly where I hadn’t left it (they had reversed the order of the rack, or the first rider to have racked his bike put it in the wrong end the day before)!! I check the tires, they held air so I started pumping quickly, pushed in 120psi, threw the bottles into the racks, and filled the aero bottle. I turned to give the pump back to the women and I see her walking away from the fence – Announcer: “Athletes –10 minutes to exit transition”. I start yelling at her in my best French – hey mademoiselle, mademoiselle, le pump. She isn’t listening, what else is going to go wrong. Finally my yelling is heard and she stops, looks at me and sheepishly comes to the fence to take her husbands pump. Whew, Announcer: “Athletes –5 minutes to exit transition.” As Stew McGuire would say, “See, tons of time to spare”. I exit and find Dianne and Milt waiting just outside transition. At this point I need to have my daily constitution, so I make my way across the street to Meridien, use the facilities and return to get the wetsuit on. I give Dianne a kiss, we get a photo of Milt and me and begin the descent down to the beach for the start of IM France.
For those of you who have not been to Nice, it’s a gorgeous city, abutting the Mediterranean. You descend a long ramp to the rocky beach (not much in the way of sand, just huge rocks or big pebbles – ones you would have no chance of skipping on the water). Unusual for the 3 races I have competed in, IM France creates corrals based on expected swim times. The pros are located right in the middle with times expanding to the left and right of them. I choose the 1:06 corral (I was targeting 1:08) and slipped through the group to go frolic in the water for 5 minutes. I managed to get 50 metres of strokes in before they started calling the swimmers in with 15 minutes to race time. The course had only been set up that morning so we had not had a chance to see the race course in any of the practice sessions, so there was a lot of talk in the corral of exactly where we were going. It seemed logical to me, so I just focused on my game plan and didn’t get caught up in any chatter.
At exactly 6:30 am, the gun went off and my long day of IM France began – all of the times I have put in this race report come from my Garmin, which is slightly off from the official race times). I will try and post some of the race photos Dianne took on the beachescycling.com blog, the mass of athletes moving into the water was unbelievable when viewed from the shore. The mass of athletes when viewed from the middle of the washing machine was even more unbelievable. In my 3 ironmans, I have never had the body contact that went on in this race. There was no place to go, you moved as fast as the person in front of you unless you got real aggressive and tried to push your way through the bodies (sidebar: much is said about getting in open water swim practice – I believe it is almost useless for ironman swimming – it is quite useful for wave starts, but with the mass of bodies, the churn of the water – which makes anything other than the breast stroke ineffective for sighting – it seems to me you just keep swimming in ironman, bilaterally breathe and make sure there are people on either side of you. If somebody all of sudden seems to be cutting in front of you almost diagonally to your current course, then check to make sure he’s going in the wrong direction not you). The first loop of this course had 3 turns over 2.6 km, then an exit from the water and then another 1.2km swim with 2 turns. The congestion never ended, at each turn it was like the gardiner expressway at rush hour with a 7 pm Leafs game – lots of irritation but nowhere to go. Throughout the battles, I had to adjust my goggles about a dozen times as I was getting smacked and kicked and was taking on salt water. I couldn’t see effectively given the salt irritation, so I just kept pulling into a breast stroke / treadwater and try to get them back on with a good seal. Notwithstanding the craziest ironman swim ever, I came out of the water just 90 seconds behind my goal time split. I went back in for the remainder of the 1.2 km and I was able to finally find some sort of rhythm only to have it crushed at the first turn, returned for a bit and then was thrown off from the second turn through home. I got out of the water and my watch seemed to say I had produced a 1:11:27 (garmin) swim, a good number given the experience in the water relative to my expectations.
Now for the bike – one of my best disciplines. I had told Deirdre Casey (my coach) that T1 (or the first transition) was going to be a long one. As I mentioned earlier, the transition area was huge, I estimated almost 500 m of length in the bike corral alone, not to mention the run up from the beach. Then I wanted to ensure that I was slathered in sunscreen given I was going to baking for at least 9.5 hours (or more!!) and figured skin cancer is not a good outcome. It took me 6:34 to get through transition, which I think is ok all things considered. You could possibly shorten this by 2-3 minutes.
I jumped on the bike and began the longest leg of the ironman race. The first 10 km of the ride I was getting comfortable, took on a little bit of hydration and spinning quite effectively. My average speed was 37.3 km/h, my average power was higher than it should have been at 240 watts and cadence was 95. Heart rate was elevated at 154. This is a fairly flat, to slight uphill as we exit Nice going toward the airport and then divert towards the wondrous mountains. My second 10k was flowing nicely also, the muscles were getting into the rhythm, I began taking on some food, with a gel, and keeping the hydration going. We made our way up a short 500m steep 12% grade climb, which marked the beginning of the hill work – not really the beginning, but a taste of what is to come – this little test signals that this course is different than the others! My average speed had dropped to 33.8km/h, watts were still 238, cadence at 95 and heart rate was down to 151. I felt good, execution was probably a tad aggressive – in hindsight, I may have killed my effort by what appears to be too high a watt output.
Here is my data from the ride, just copy and paste the link and you will get a sense of the route and the climbing.
The hills (mountains) start at about 20k, through to 70k, with rolling terrain from 20-50 (net flat I believe) but the piece between 50 and 70 is a killer 20km climb up to the col de l’ecre – a peak of 1,120 metres – 3.5 times (ish) the height of the CN Tower. My pace was beginning to reflect the changing nature of the course as it dropped to 25km/hr, but watts were firm at 242, cadence had now dropped to 90rpm, but that was still in my tolerance to spin as much as possible. Heart rate, was high, not a good sign at 159, I needed to start backing things down or blow the engine. From 30-40km, I dropped the watts to 214, mostly because I felt I shouldn’t have been where I was and because we had more downhill than up. I managed 30.6km/h, 92 cadence and the heart rate had settled down a bit to 154 but the goal was sub 150. My eating and hydration felt really good. For readers of my IM Austria ordeal, you will note that there were no upchucks on this ride, and I managed to ingest pieces of banana at almost every aid station in addition adding a gel almost every 40 minutes or so. The next 10k saw me hit 40.5km/h average speed as I was taking strong advantage of the descent opportunities, getting into my drops and being as aggressive as possible without putting my bike off the edge of every cliff. Cadence remained perfect at 91, watts had slipped to 208 and heart rate was now on my 150 high end target. Through 50kms, the course had been a delight, some good climbing relative to Ontario roads, excellent quick, twisty descents and even some in the aero bar flat road. Through 50kms, I had taken about 92 mins or an average speed of 32.6km/h – right on target for the 180kms!! Piece de Gateau!!
From km 50 to km 70, IM France took aim and fired – I wilted. For the first 10kms of the climb my watts dropped to 218, not bad for a flat road, but the mountain began eating me up. The heat was starting to take hold as we moved from morning sunshine and lots of tree canopy, to a higher sun and fewer trees. My heart rate was now 161 and my cadence was dropping and averaging 78, I couldn’t keep things spinning with the gears I had. Speed of course, as an outcome of these inputs, fell to 16.5km/h. No problem, I say to myself, as a 3 time racer of IM France, Milt suggested that the last 110kms is almost as fast as the first 70kms – so just grind it out QB, you can then use your aggressive descent skills to make up time. Well the next 10k certainly doesn’t get easier as you race to the summit. Skinny short people, skinny tall people and even some not-so-skinny people are passing me left and RIGHT (the ones passing on my right I keep yelling at to pass on the left). At this point, I harken back to Chris McCormack’s book (a must read for any triathlete or cyclist for that matter) and on page 110 he says; “at 177 pounds (that is what I weighed on the IM France start line!!) I am way too big to race Ironman France (now remember this is one of the most vaunted professional triathletes to walk the earth – just ask him!), they would have to pay me a hell of a lot of money to go there because I just can’t climb with those little guys – its just physics, I weigh 177lbs, they weigh 130lbs”. 10kms at an average speed of 14.5km/h takes a long time. My watts had dropped to 197, but my heart rate had remained elevated at 159. My quads had now begun their major protests. Every time I tried to stand out of the saddle they would screech, I would then sit back down and they would spasm, first the right, then the left then both together. It was like they were playing a symphony of pain. I kept chanting David’s (my yoga instructor) admonishment, keep breathing, this isn’t about being physical, keep breathing! That works for yoga, it wasn’t working so well for the hill climbing. I kept sipping my electrolyte drink thinking maybe I was out of sorts given every athlete that I had gone by me had “white” shorts on (sidebar: when you are cycling at 14.5km/h, you get to study very closely and for much longer periods than you would like – everyone’s butt and by this time, almost all of them were heavily covered in salt stains). Well the climb to the top of the col de l’ecre, 20kms straight up, had cost me 78 minutes. However, according to Milt, it was easy from here and I was under 3 hours to this point – barely (note to reader – what goes up must come down in a looped race therefore I was going to experience 1,120m of descent. However, coming down this high of a mountain requires a lot of twists and turns, not ideal for making up time).
From here the race remains a tough test, it is a net downhill for sure, but there are still 3 more climbs to be made and they are not insignificant. I felt that my bike was solid but my legs were telling me that I was asking a lot from them. With a goal time of 5:35-5:45, I was in clear danger of not holding this together, not because of the time I had taken to get to the halfway point of the bike (3 hours 28 minutes) but because my legs were not feeling resilient under the constant climbing, which did not bode well for the run.
The rest of the ride was slower than I might otherwise have hoped given its profile. This race course is materially different than anything we ride in Toronto, or for that matter what I rode at IM Canada or even IM Austria, which both had large climbs of their own but very straightforward fast descents. What makes these mountains even tougher for a cyclist is the technical nature of the descents and the fact, let’s face it, most triathletes do not have great bike handling skills. Add to this the fact that many were riding tri bikes and trying to negotiate descents in the aerobars and it makes for some tough passing and clogging of the road. This isn’t an excuse, it is a fact. The many turns, switchbacks, cars on the course, narrow lanes, and harrowing falls off the cliff if you miss a turn, all make for more trepidation when descending than I would ordinarily like. I think the roadbuilders might be bike collectors as many of the “guardrails” are 12-18” high stone blocks that would serve simply to stop the bike from going over the cliff, leaving the rider flying through the air with the greatest of ease.
At this point, my goal is to get this bike done in 6 hours and hope that I have something left in the gas tank to make my way through the marathon. Throughout the ride I have been taking on lots of water, electrolytes (critical that it is not straight water given the salt loss) food, gels etc. The race plan has gone reasonably well except for the timing of the bike but more importantly what feels like a heavier toll than I expected on my legs. At just over 6 hours, I can still reel in a good run and be able to post an 11-hour ironman finish, very respectable and a PB.
I got back to transition and jumped off the bike, leaving my shoes on the bike (unusual for me but I felt it was the best way to go given the long transition zone). I picked up my run bag and slathered some more sunscreen on my arms, shoulders, neck and legs, very fearful that I was being burned to a crisp. All through my training and I had been doing brick work (this is the name for running right after cycling; for those who don’t do triathlons, going from the bike to running is very challenging, you almost need to reprogram your legs to run). I felt very comfortable making this transition and in fact throughout training I was having to hold myself back in terms of pacing.
I had planned with Deirdre to do the run on a 5:15-5:20/km pace, which would equate to a marathon time of 3 hours 45 minutes to 3:55 – very respectable. For the marathon at IM France, the runners go from the start area, out to the airport, which is 5kms away along the waterfront and then return to the start/finish line. Each time you come back to the start line, you get a coloured bracelet to take back out with you. Collect three of these bracelets and then you know the next time that you return from the airport you will be running down the finisher’s chute to become an ironman.
So as I began my last leg of IM France, with now the largest component of the race completed, my concern as I was coming out of transition was how were the legs given the ride and would they hold up for a marathon. Given the time I delivered the clear answer to both questions was NOT WELL and NO. Perhaps the better question should have been how tough was the mind, and was it prepared to handle the pain that was about to be foisted upon it? This was an equally dismal answer, but the development of this story at least took a few kms!!
Dianne was at the bike transition area as I came in, so I was able to get a kiss and some good words of encouragement! As I left T2, I heard her shout our family’s favourite race mantra from the movie of the same name: “Run, fat boy, run!” And an added, “Don’t embarrass us!” I got the legs moving relatively well coming out of T2, easy to do given this is the finish line for the race and the crowds that had gathered were significant, the music was blaring and there was lots of cheering. The run course is a mixed bag. Fantastic because it is flat, boring given it is an out-and-back loop of 5 km each way. Tough because it is right along the Mediterranean and has absolutely no shade outside of 50 m during the 5-km route. With 28 degree weather, we were certainly getting toasty warm out there and the only respite available was to run under showers that were positioned at each aid station. Of course, if you were doing this, you were going to complete a marathon with soaking wet feet, not something I wanted to do.
My first km was on a 5:10 pace, a little quick but I knew it would be given the crowds and the desire to get on with things. My heart rate was 148, which was just fine and it would certainly be ideal if I could keep it south of 155, while maintaining pace. Hmmmm….I backed things down a bit in kms 2 and 3, fearing going out too fast would exact a heavy toll. So I put up a 5:15 and then I walked an aid station, and posted a 5:46 ooops, need to get that back. Then a 5:35 and 5:42. At this point I had reached the airport turnaround and was feeling decidedly bad. This is how almost everyone feels, but somehow when you are feeling it, it feels really bad. At this point I noticed my equilibrium was off, a little dizziness and the fact my ears were not clearing. Perhaps the combination of water in my ears and the altitude from the bike, left me with clogged ears, meaning that my breathing was amplified in my head. My heart rate was now pushing 160. I tried walking two aid stations, see if I could find something that give me a jump. I took on some coke, banana, orange, cracker and hit of a gel. I had a pee (at least I was hydrated enough). Nope, nothing, notta. My pace was dropping to a shuffle, the race was disintegrating before my own eyes as I posted 2x 7:48kms.
This was becoming ugly and we weren’t done 10 km yet!!!! I started hoping to see Dianne, to pick up my spirits and get things moving. I pushed things a bit, got it back down to a 6:43 pace but this felt like hell and it wasn’t even fast – in fact, as I was running, I thought I was shuffling relatively quickly maybe a 5:40 or 5:45 pace only to look down at the garmin and see how really slow it was. I finally saw Dianne at about the 9-km mark, she yelled out my name, had a big smile and a huge sign for me. I stopped to talk with her and hoped that she might not talk me out of quitting. Fortunately or unfortunately, she just suggested that I should keep going, one foot in front of the other, I could do this.
The rest of this story is just a painful recollection of km after km of legs telling mind that they weren’t interested in playing any more. Mind telling legs that they only had to get to the third stop light and then they could walk again. Legs telling mind that he was lying about the third light, because now we were at the sixth light. Legs deciding to cramp up in protest, spasms moving to groin area, all my body parts working in concert to get mind to quit this stupid game. Mind praying to see Dianne and getting a boost each time from her encouragement, reminder that I have trained to do this, that I have done this before – twice! Mind reasons that this just makes me insane because the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome – pain is always the same outcome of IRONMAN. What was I thinking? Why do I do this to myself? The run/walk becomes a walk/run and for those of you who have done ironman, you will know exactly when this transition occurs because you have experienced it or because you see it in the competitors around you. I managed to get Dianne’s support on each 5-km segment, which at least made this experience a shared one.
The interesting thing about ironman is you can’t fake it. There are a lot of things that you can deliver in life by going through the motions but this event won’t let you just go through the motions. It demands your respect, it demands that you train your body for what is one of the toughest race formats around. Inherently it demands that your mind is trained as thoroughly as your body for the extended period of discomfort if not pain that you need to deal with on this day. However, the 5+ hours that I got to spend on that marathon course, got me to wonder why I do ironman and will I do it again. As some of you know, I have put my sights on qualifying for two events; the Boston Marathon and Kona. I have missed qualifying for both three times. Unfortunately, I am very competitive and I don’t quit and while I continue to think these goals are lofty they are achievable despite some race results that might indicate otherwise. I told Dianne during the race that I wasn’t going to do Ironman again because it was just too painful and that while I loved all of the effort that went into getting ready for this event, the race itself was just hell. She suggested that, like any mother during labour who swears she’ll never have another baby ever again, this too shall pass. Thankfully our memory of pain is short so I will have to give this another go. It will need to wait for a bit, and like Macca, I may have to choose my race course a little more carefully, ensuring that it suits my talents, whatever they may be at the time.
Until then, I am proud of the fact I finished IM France and can now call myself a 3x ironman finisher.