Ironman France 2015 Race Report

Richard Bartlett

At the last Tri Surrey social I promised Matt a race report, and actually thinking how useful these were for me on my Ironman Journey it seems like a very good opportunity to give one back to anyone else planning to attempt one these silly but addictive races, that I would do nothing but recommend.

As I retype this from a set of handwritten notes put together on the plane home, I have realised that the majority of this is not actually about the race, but more about the IM journey itself. So apologies in advance, but I do hope it gives a bit of an insight on how competing in an Ironman does not mean a year of eating Quinoa, 30 hour training weeks, no sleep and no social life.

So why did I choose to do an Ironman? This is a question I have been asked many times, but have never really asked myself properly until now. I think the reason I have delayed trying to find an answer is that it is nowhere near as profound as it should be. It wasn’t some journey of self-discovery or one of the many other reasons you hear that always seem so noble. Really, it comes down to a few very simple points;

  • It seemed cool

  • I am hopeless at ball sports

  • I get frustrated when people are fitter than me… definitely not faster!

  • I saw an ironman poster that said “go as far as you can and take another step”, I liked this.

  • Mainly though, it seemed cool…

So when out riding with a friend of mine who was off to compete at Ironman Austria for actual noble reasons, he presented the idea to me with enough enthusiasm that I decided to look into entering one.

Ironman France, that sounds good! Hilly course, warm flat run, good support… 400 Euro entry, what!!! Immediately shutting my laptop and carrying on with real life, like the fact I was getting married in 4 weeks and was figuratively trying to cycle and run the distance to our wedding venue in Italy, the things we do to try make training interesting…

Either way the thought of Ironman never really left my mind. So after slipping “I will support you in all you want to do, like climbing mountains and doing an Ironman on our anniversary” into my wife’s wedding vows, I had my ticket and entered the race on our honeymoon whilst sipping a mojito by the pool, what an Oxymoronic thing to do!

So how much of a Triathlete am I? Time for a few truths… I started doing triathlons in 2012, I did a super sprint on my Hybrid (I had sold my road bike deciding I would never really ride it again). In 2013 and 2014 I did the same super sprint but also managed a slightly longer event taking part in Helvellyn Triathlon. I had never run a half marathon never mind a full. It’s fair to say, I was embarrassingly wet behind the ears to be competing in an Ironman. So much so I seriously avoided the question of my triathlon experience whenever asked.

Anyway, all of that didn’t matter, I had just spent 400 Euro on entering one and there was no going back.

So training through the rest of 2014 was on and off, I did okay at Helvellyn and I managed to spend quite a good chunk of time on 2 wheels. After a 4 weeks Christmas break in South Africa though I was back to zero and commencing Ironman training Base Period 1 on the 14th of January. Well actually, I put together a training spread sheet on the 14th, but that counts! The spread sheet detailed perfectly, the traditional base, build, peak, taper training plan, I soon realised this regime does not really fit into real life and as such I changed my approach somewhat, ending up like this…

I found out my HR zones, set an alert on my watch to beep at me when I was outside of Zone 2(Z2) and proceeded to go everywhere in Z2. I started cycling to work, the long way. If I felt I hadn’t really run enough, I would go for a run. If I felt I hadn’t swum enough, I would go for a swim. If it was cold, I would apply rule #5 and man up, if it was still cold, I would go to the gym or if that seemed like too much work I would sit in front of the Television pretending to exercise doing “core work”. If I was injured I would apply trusty rule #5, if I was still injured I would go to the gym and spend hours on the cross trainer in Z2 watching Ironman Kona highlights, I really do mean hours, I once did 3 hours (training for the mind and body)… It was sometimes boring, it was sometimes lonely, it was sometimes a chore, but the important thing was that it was getting done.

Warm weather turbo training… my poor wife.

I was pretty consistent throughout and this haphazard routine was working for me. It felt like a routine, which was the main thing, and most mornings I hurt so I guess that meant I was doing enough… overall the training totals were (thanks to my trusty spread sheet);

Cycle – 3400km  Cycle – 139 hrs

Run – 722km Run – 52 hrs

Swim – 78km Swim – 28hrs

Gym – 33hrs

Average 11.5hrs per week

Total 4300km

Although this didn’t really equate to the 20 or so hours a week people often assume is required for doing an Ironman I was always honest with my hours, a 40 minute gym session would not include the drive, shower and muscle flex mirror time. A 4 hour cycle would be 4hrs pedalling, not including the tea stop at the top of Boxhill. I genuinely believe such an approach was the most beneficial thing for me; I was always honest with myself on how much I had done, and how much I thought needed doing. I tried to listen to my body. If I was tired, I would have a rest!

Six months later, after some ups and downs, some time off, forced and unforced I arrived in Nice feeling grossly inadequate amongst the toned athletes jogging along the promenade, at least my silky smooth legs matched theirs!

Towards the end of your training and in the run up it seems very common that you get mixed emotions. A combination of excitement and then massive doubt becomes quite overwhelming as you try and walk through your strategy. Not only in this last week but throughout, it can become totally consuming, to the point where you begin to lose the joy of it. This moment will come, when it does, step back go out and do something different, re-connect with the joy. You do not want to be going into 10hrs+ of racing with a mind-set of suffering, it’s always meant to be fun!

Okay so I knew it was going to hurt, but I didn’t want to just get through it. I had to find joy in it; luckily I have always found an element of joy in burying myself, particularly if it means passing the person in front, even in a strange way if that person is me. That is part of the enigma of Ironman, trying to cope with those dualities. Thinking you haven’t trained enough, but actually you probably have. In any rate, that can’t be controlled now. You have trained as much as you have, some didn’t even make it to the start line.

Whatever you have done isn’t enough, but actually it probably is, because it’s what you have done. Because by getting to the start line, a lot has been achieved already and nothing more can be done except getting your game face on, to race, to finish, but to enjoy!

It will be painful, boy it will hurt, but that for me is the joy of it. It is humbling, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be the natural partner of competitive endurance sports but it is truly humbling.

Registration was awesome, the expo was awesome, although Ironman is undoubtedly a corporate machine, I couldn’t really care less. They make you feel like a pro and that is what I have decided you pay your money for. The taper week was pleasant; my hamstring kept on tweaking which after a week of ice and compression seemed to sort itself out by race day. Other than that, a couple of swims, a quick ride (resisting the big hills surrounding Nice), 2 runs, limited consumption of coffee and alcohol I woke at 3am on the 28th of June wished my wife a happy anniversary and headed to the bike park.

On route to bike check in

Walking past the start line you could chew the nerves in the air. For the first time on my own plugged into the iPod, it did all catch up with me, with a few goose pumps and teary eyes I got my race face on, dropped off my streetwear bag and headed down to the shore.

I knew what I had done to get this far, I knew the preparation was there and quite frankly I wasn’t actually that nervous I just had to trust my training and get on with it.

BANG! 3000 people run into the sea…

Disturbia

The moment when you realise the full consequences of an action/decision. To entertain the idea of or to complete something that others find hard to understand or disturbing

The moment you say “Oh Shit, what the hell I have got myself in to now, engage survival mode”

I’m sure all of you who have done triathlons agree that an open water swim in a race is a funny old thing. You go from the intensity of the start, people under you, people over you, clowns to the left, jokers to the right etc. But in time you find your rhythm, if lucky a nice set of feet to sit on and off you go, it’s almost enjoyable with time to think about the rest of the race. Where did you put your shoes, is your helmet where it should be in T1? You go through the motions knowing the race won’t be won but it can be lost by going too hard. Unfortunately for me I never quite got over the initial panic, salt water burned my throat, wetsuit felt tight, I couldn’t see the buoys over the swell and I barely took a stroke without either hitting someone or being hit.

This is what it looks like from the air – https://youtu.be/feVSfTAT5-w

This is what it was like in the water – https://youtu.be/SHmd0GkyDt0

The swim was quite frankly, disturbing. I threw all aspirations out the window and settled in for a big fight. Joining in on everyone’s nervous energy my first splits were actually okay, but by the time I got back in the water following the Australian exit and everything bottle necked again, panic ensuing, I made the conscious decision to slow down, try and get over the sea sickness and just get round. On the final turn, breathing only on my right (sorry Martin) I had a great view of the sun coming up over Nice and knowing it was the last 800m home, with a distant view of the crowd on the shore I was able to take it in… shit, I’m doing an Ironman, this is cool!

As this is a race report that may or may not encourage people to complete an Ironman themselves, try not to put off by the experience above. I made a few mistakes, I joined the 1h10m pen, and although I swam a 1h11m leg, it would have been more pleasant starting further out with perhaps some clearer water away from the buoys. Not every race has a mass start which I think next time would be a preference for me. That said, looking back at it now, if I just been a bit calmer at the start I could have sacrificed a few minutes for the benefit of enjoyment.

Finally out of the water, well not before falling backwards, grabbing the guys shoulder in front and causing a dominos effect wiping out about 10 of my competition. I docked land with wobbly legs, but phew I was on land. The swim was in the past and now it was the fun bit, a 180km bike up into the Maritime Alps.

The support round T1 was great, luckily for me my mini fan club had lined up right alongside my changing area so I managed to have a bit of a chat, taking my time getting ready, making sure everything was exactly right. Now was not the time to jeopardise an entire race by breaking a toe when slipping on your pre clipped in shoes (Martin to explain how this is even possible?!?). Off on the bike with a huge smile on my face, I had 919 people in front and now I was in the mood for a race.

As I explained earlier, all my training had involved using my HR monitor and unsurprisingly so did my race plan, so what a time for my watch to read “no signal”. The one thing I knew with Ironman is not to kill yourself so much on the bike that you have no way of completing the marathon, and anyone who knows me on a bike knows I tend to see every person in front of me as someone that should be overtaken. The only thing I trusted to help stop me behaving like that was my watch beeping at me and sounding the Mr T quote of “Slow down fool”. Obviously this wasn’t to be today, but the great thing about genuinely preparing for something is that it gives you the ability to react accordingly, a quick chat with myself stating the immortalised words of “trust your training” I tucked in and set about enjoying the only flat section of the course… watching the TT bikes whizzing by, whispering I’ll see you later.

The bike course is amazing; starting off relatively flat out of Nice you have a chance to get the average up with a little effort over the first 20k. Soon after, you hit a sneaky 500m climb which is near on 17%, chuckling at those TT bikes seemingly rolling backwards. You get over that hurdle and continue through the undulating valley before hitting the big one of the Col de l’Ecre. It’s not the toughest Col in the world, but it does go on for a while, 13km climbing 700m. Getting to the top I glanced down at my now drastically reduced average pleasantly surprised, it was still above 24km/h and with only one more small Col in the way and a good 30km downhill there was a chance to achieve my target of a sub 6 hour bike.

The scenery on the course was spectacular and for the most part the roads were good, the support in the towns was unbelievable with everyone spilling out into the streets banging their pots and pans shouting the familiar Allez Allez. I was truly in cycling heaven and again at times, struggling to keep my emotions under wrap. My spirits were pretty high throughout, chatting to people where I could and being my usual cheeky self. Unfortunately a few people seemed to take the whole thing a bit too seriously and were less than impressed with my sometimes perceived juvenile approach. It was 32 degrees, my arse was killing me, my legs hurt and I had just taken a pee cycling at 60km/h down a hill forgetting my pee now covered all my gels taped to my crossbar, all of that knowing it was only going to get worse… if you don’t make that bit enjoyable then really what hope have you got.

Riding back down into Nice, I was excited, the race so far had flown by, 5h40m on the bike I was 20min under my target time of trying to break 11h30m. Best of all I was going to be seeing my support soon. I also knew the many people who were tracking me back home and that registering that time would have bought some nods of being moderately impressed.

I once again relaxed in T2, wishing my wife a happy anniversary through the fence and chatting to the marshal. Running shoes tied, cap on, caffeine gel consumed and useless HR strap thrown in the bin, now with 420 people in front I took off on the run. The Nice run has mixed reviews, it essentially involves 4 laps of running to the airport and back. Each lap is approximately 10.5km but as it’s on the same road the support is immense throughout. You also have the opportunity to really break up your race into stages which for me is ideal. I would never choose to run a standalone marathon in this fashion, but as part of an Ironman I would have it no other way. At this stage my support had broken up into 2 groups, my Wife and Mum at the finishing straight/turn-around and my Brother in law and his girlfriend further towards the airport. This meant I had a lift on the race 16 times; on top of that as your name is on your number a load of other supporters shout your name and the odd high 5 appeared to go a long way.

The first 500m I took off like a sprint, 1000’s of people, feeling high on adrenaline I forgot where I was… not having my “slow down fool” watch to shout at me I relied on the more rational bit in me. The run strategy was simple: for the first lap, run at 4m45s pace between aid stations, walk through the aid stations without worrying about pace then ultimately run the first 10k at about 50 minutes, from there I would slow down consistently ultimately spitting me out at 4h30m, but if I’m lucky a sub 4h.

The first 10k went bang onto plan, it was actually a bit quicker but I felt strong. My run/walk strategy seemed to be working, and my nutrition of nothing but coke and temperature control of stopping under every shower was doing the trick. I ran the second 10k even quicker. I was now in unchartered waters, I had never run further than a half marathon and every Ironman story I had read spoke about the time when everything just gives up. Running alongside my brother in law, who was giving me huge encouragement about time and just general appearance I took off onto lap 3, same time again… I couldn’t believe it, at this last turn around I had a few decisions to make. I was hurting, but I knew I had an hour and a half to break 11h so already my expectations were smashed, I could have gone for a sub 3h30m marathon which I didn’t believe was possible on a standalone race but I knew I would have had to have run hard and sacrifice a few things that were just too important to me…

A unique feature of the Ironman is the use of the special needs bag, these are bags you have access to either on the run or the bike and within it you can place what you want, some people pop a clean pair of socks, some a marmite sandwich. On the run, mine had a collection of notes from some friends and family, just in case I found myself in that well documented dark place and needed some help getting out of it. Luckily I wasn’t in that place but none the less I was not just going to leave them on the side of road without ever knowing what was written. The other thing I needed to do was to say thank you to my Wife, the biggest sacrifice in completing in an Ironman comes from your family.

The difference…

Lets be honest, it’s a selfish sport… it affects your moods, it affects your sleep, it affects your time spent with others. I had literally spent the last 6 months, either training, looking for clean clothes to go training in, or talking about what training I should be doing. On the odd rest days, it wasn’t much better, spending most of it feeling guilty. Its encompassing and the biggest thanks has to go to those nearest and dearest. I did not want to be in a position at the finish line choosing between a sub 3h30m marathon or stopping for the most memorable hug and kiss since the one I had a year ago on my wedding day.

So the last 10k came and went, it hurt, but it’s meant to hurt. Judging by the scene at the medical tent there were clearly people hurting more and I don’t think my words of encouragement or a pat on the back were really going to get them to end of the line, but unfortunately I couldn’t offer much more.

The beginning of the end, 10k to go

 

Hitting the red carpet of the finish line is one hell of a feeling, talk about a sensory experience. Looking for my Wife and Mum, I paused to take it all in. Do this when you do one, give a thought to the time and effort that goes into getting there. This was my first; I hope even on my tenth, whenever that may be, that I will still pause to take it in.

The finish – https://youtu.be/qPnqas4p-wk

For me, the ironman isn’t about the brand, it’s not even about the distance, and it’s not really about the race day itself. It’s about the effort that goes into getting there and achieving your target whatever that may be. For some people they achieve that by completing their first sprint triathlon, perhaps after spending years out bringing up a family. For some people it’s about completing the Marathon des Sables as that is what they need to feel fulfilled. So I guess looking back at the original question, of why did I do an Ironman, having reached the finish line, it was to feel fulfilled, feel proud and make others proud of me.

I heard Daley Thomson discussing recently on why people put themselves through things and his response really made allot of sense; to see how good you are? This is surely something that drives all of us and actually by taking the courage to ask yourself this question is the first step to taking on your challenge. I must say coming to end of the season, my first with TriSurrey, and hearing people talking about their first year in triathlons it is clear that being part of the club is helping people ask themselves that question, take this I read on our teamtalk blog…

In May this year I’d never run further than 10k, couldn’t swim more than 25m crawl and hadn’t really ridden more than a couple of miles on the bike. My first Tri was a super sprint with the aim of finishing without getting swept up by the marshals. I never imagined I’d be doing an Olympic distance in September although running the half marathon was on the summer target list. The club is so friendly and supportive and really makes you believe you can do something. Everything is good enough if you try your hardest :)”

So if you are reading this wondering whether to do an Ironman, do your Ironman whatever that may be. It’s all about the journey of getting “there”, the only slight issue seems to be, “there” moves on. It’s an addictive game, bordering on unhealthy, but completely worth it.

The end of the journey, 30 mins later I was vomiting and shivering in bed.