Nice time in IM France?
Ironman Nice 24th June 2012 – Race Report
I’m writing this race report for a couple of different reasons, the first is, as an Ironman virgin I gathered a lot of valuable information and inspiration from other peoples race reports so hopefully this may be of some help to others, either contemplating their first ironman race or their first race at Nice. My second reason for the report is that I plan on doing another Ironman race in two years so I want to put down my thoughts and experiences while they are still fresh in my mind. Finally I’m hoping that there may be some cathartic value to writing down the details of my race, because to be honest I had things go wrong on the day, some within my control, others maybe not, that combined left with a time that I disappointed in.
Pre Race –
My training plan was based on two books – Be Iron fit by Don Fink and Going long by Joe Friel. It was a 30 week training plan but due to a calf injury before the Galway 70.3 which resulted in no training for 3 weeks I had to add an additional 8 weeks of base training just to get a basic level of fitness back.
The training plan called for 3 weeks of growing work loads followed by a week of recovery – less time and no intensity. This worked very well for me up until 10 weeks before the race when I decided I knew better then the experts and I skipped a recovery week, 2 weeks later I injured my calf which meant no running for a month. Luckily 3 weeks before the IM France I was back running a few 10ks with no pain but I missed a lot of crucial run sessions. This was a very silly and costly mistake – lesson learnt!
The Swim – 1:19
2647 people registered for the 2012 edition of Ironman Nice, 2556 line up on a 100 meter stretch of pebble beach. Lance Armstrong is the big noticeable absentee from the start line. The 100m stretch is divided into different pens from sub 55 minutes to over 1 hour 25 minutes.
The swim is a 2 loop course, the first is an anticlockwise 2.4k loop, 1k out, 400m right and 1k back in, a quick 20 meter run on the beach and back in for a 1.4k clockwise loop. It sounds simple and looking at the diagram from the race briefing it looked simple, however on race morning standing on the beach, straining to see the buoys that are a kilometre away the task of navigation is a lot harder. My plan is genius but simple, make sure that there are swimmers to my left and my right and hopefully have a pair of feet I can draft off. I had hoped to swim a 1:20 so I elected to go in the 1:18 pen. At 6.25 the Pros are sent off to a large cheer from the age groupers and the thousands of spectators. At 6.30 the klaxon goes and my 226 kilometre journey begins.
The first six or seven hundred meters is more a boxing match then a swim. I swear there’s less contact in WWE wrestling. I’m sure none of it is intentional but with over 2500 people swimming for the one point I receive a few kicks and slaps. I did get a great tip to wear my goggles under my swim cap. After having my goggles knocked off twice this was a great piece of advice. After the first seven hundred metres the swim settles down apart from when we arrive at thebuoy at the 1k mark, then it gets crowded and the fighting starts again, I survive none the worse for wear. At the second buoy I’m a little less fortunate and receive a fairly strong kick to the stomach which leads to a sharp intake of breath, bad idea when your face down in the Mediterranean. Note to whatever Deity may have created the Med – you need to check your recipe it’s grossly over seasoned!
After my experience at the second buoy I approach all the other buoys, about 5 metre out, with my head out of the water. It is amazing the current a few hundred swimmers create as you are slingshot around the buoy with minimal effort and then it’s back to a regular stroke.
At the end of the first lap there is a 20 meter run up the pebbled beach over a timing mat and back in for the second shorter loop. Thankfully they have some carpet down on the pebbles and helpers to pull you to your feet. I check my Garmin and see 49 minutes on the stop watch, fix my goggles and jump back in for the second lap. The second lap is much more spread out and is a comfortable swim. Back out of the water, under some fresh water showers and of to T1.
Transition 1 – 12 minutes
The transitions in Ironman Nice are long, my Garmin clocked it at over 800 meters. So when you see 12 minutes for T1 it’s not that I stopped for a cuppa or anything but here is where I made my first mistake of the day. I planned on a full change for both transitions and this went well. I stripped out of the wetsuit, on with my bike shorts, cycling jersey, socks, helmet, layer of sunscreen and then proceeded to put the loose items in my jersey pockets. I was very over cautious on the amount of stuff I took on the cycle and it really was dead weight. Seriously I needed a Sherpa, I had 4 spare tubes, tyre levers, Co2 gun and 5 canisters of Co2 and a full set of Allen keys. The night before I actually though about buying a chain tool, I have no idea how to fix a snapped chain but that did not deter me, the fact that I don’t know what a chain tool looks like did.
So on to mistake number one, after putting my swim stuff back into the bike bag I grab it and tear off down transition to my bike, it was only when I got to my bike that I realised I still had the bag with me. I had to run all the way back to the drop off area (right beside where I had changed) and then back to the bike. A needless ½ k run. Lesson learnt, on to the bike
Bike – 6:52
There is no such thing as an easy Ironman however Ironman France is definitely one of the tougher courses, best probably by Lanzarote, Kona and possibly Canada. One of the main factors in making IM France such a tough race is the brutal bike course. A maximum elevation of 1200 meters (nearly 4000 ft), with a total elevation gain of just shy of 2100 meters (7000ft). This was going to be no easy Sunday ride. 10 days before the race Lance Armstrong tweet the following about the course
“6 hrs on the bike.Pre-rode the #IMFrance course then some. Course is HARD. Lots of climbing and very technical.”
The first 20k of the cycle is flat and I took this nice and easy keeping my heart rate at low zone 2 sipping electrolyte enhanced water (High 5 Zero). Every 15 minutes my garmin would beep to let me know to take a mouthful of Perpetum, my fuel of choice for the race. I had a bottle of Perpetum mixed at a concentration to last me 3 ½ hours and I had a bottle of Perpetum powder in my special need bags on at 70k marker that I would mix with water and again would supply me with 3 ½ hours fuel.
The first taste of the pain this course could dish out happens at the 20k mark where there is a 500 meter climb, with a gradient of 12% to 15%. It’s short, but enough to remind me to park the ego if I wanted to get around this course. My aim for the cycle was to keep my heart rate in zone 2 which for me is below 160 bpm but I knew it would spike on this hill, it does, spiking to 178 bpm. At the top of the climb it eases into a very gentle climb 1% - 2 % gradient for another 10 or 12 k. Then comes the first decent, it’s an 8k stretch and it is the most fun I have ever had on a bike. It’s a game of follow the leader played at over 55kph with some long sweeping turns, a few chicanes, and blistering straights. Then, at the 49k marker the fun ends as we reach the start of the Col d’Ecre a 21 k constant climb, no flats with an average grade of 5% but with some 3 – 4k sections of 7% - 8%.
This 21k climb is where things really start to go wrong for me. I would note that my ego cost me a little because I should have gone with a compact cassette which would have given me one or two easier gears but cost me my hardest gear. On reflection this might have helped avoid the problems described below. Things start easy and all is well for the first 10k but then
- 10k mark - I break the tree line on the mountain and the sporadic patches of shade that offered some relief from the 35 degree heat are now all gone.
- 12k mark - I drop to my lowest gear, my speed is just over the 10kph the heat is unrelenting but the humidity is the real killer, I feel as if I’m trying to breathe soup.
- 16k mark - I’m starting to question my ability to keep going, I can’t breathe, my heart rate is 185+bpm and my speed has dropped well below 10kph. There is just no air, no breeze, no shade and hope is fading fast.
- 19k mark- I am at my lowest point, I’m ready to quit, it may only be 2k to the top but it may as well be 200k. Still can’t catch my breath, my heart rate is still over 185bpm and nothing seems to bring it down despite the fact I’m barely moving. I was about 2 minutes from calling it a day when there is a loud bang and my front tyre instantly deflates. Frustration, like my core temperature is at boiling point but the minute I get of the bike the world starts to spin, I quickly take the 2 or 3 steps to the 20 inch tall wall at the end of the road as I know I’m about to throw up. If I wasn’t going to throw up before, the site of the 100+ meter sheer drop on the far side of the wall cements the need to empty the contents of my stomach. After this unplanned lightening of the load I sat on the roadside for 5 minutes and sipped water, poured more over my head and thought about quitting. Even now I cannot believe how close to giving up I actually came. In the end I decide to change the puncture and see if I could get to the top of the hill. In total this stop was about 15 to 20 minutes but it gets my heart rate back to just under 130 bpm. I get back on the bike and slowly make my way up the final 2k
- The final 2k to the top is not as bad as I fear, it’s still hotter than hell but I keep my heart rate below 170bpm and mentally I’m coming out of that dark place where quitting was not only an option but a very real possibility.
As I crest the top of the mountain I reach the special needs station. I grab a bottle of water and my special needs bag from the aid station. In my Special needs bag is a water bottle with Perpetum powder in it. It’s not premixed as in the heat Perpetum will spoil. I start to add the water and somehow let the bottle fall. Half the contents of bottle spill. I’m in trouble – I threw up most of my first bottle and now I just spilled half the second bottle, but the real mistake I think is I did not have a backup plan but figured I’d just use the course nutrition.
The middle section of the bike course is mainly rolling hills and I start to feel a bit better. The fact that I can go fast enough to create a bit of a breeze is starting to revive me. A little after the 100k marker there is a 6k climb of about 6% grade, it’s tough but has a real nasty little kick at the end but luckily there is a fire station near the top and they have their hose out creating a cold mist to cycle through. The shower is amazing, its cold and refreshing and drops my heart rate from 173 to 155 in the 15 seconds it takes to cycle through. I get out of the saddle and power to 300 meter to the top of the hill. I know that I’m at the 110k all the climbing is done its pretty much flat until the 125k marker then it’s a mix of flats and descents.
The descents are fast and technical in spots. The organisers painted a large triangle with an exclamation mark in luminous orange on the road about 25 meters before any bad turns or switchbacks, so you know to get on your brakes. This section is fast and I fly past a lot people, heart rate is about 150bpm and there are times when my speed is well over 60kph (according to my garmin my fast speed was 71kph). There is also a lot of braking. On two separate occasions I come across people that are being air lifted off the mountain due to crashes and it is a reminder that gaining a few minutes back is not worth a broken bone or worse so I ease off a little.
The final 20k back into Nice is into a very strong head wind, where was this when I was passing out on the Col d’Ecre 4 hours ago.
Transition 2 – 10 minutes
I walk like a new born calf through transitions, rack my bike and grab my run bag. Again the plan is a full change of clothes and slap on a layer of sunscreen. How this took me 10 minutes I’ll never know
Run - 5:40
The marathon for IM France is 4 laps of 10.5k, 5.25k along the Promenade de Anglais as far as the Airport, then back to transition. It’s pancake flat, with no shade but there is a little sea breeze. At the end of the first 3 laps you collect different colour “chouchous” (wristband). On the fourth lap you turn right and its a 200 meter dash to the promised land.
I start of feeling great for the first 3k of the run its hot at about 30 degrees, it’s not as hot as the cycle but there are some clouds rolling in. IM France don’t do ice or sponges but they do have showers on the course that you can run through. I thought these were a great idea but had read that some people got blisters as there are large puddles in the area. I’ve done all my running in Ireland I was certain that my feet were impervious to blisters – I was wrong. Nearly 7 hours of sweaty cycling, and over 5 and a half hours of running in puddles meant I developed massive blisters.
The blisters I could run through, it was the cramps in my hamstrings, quads and calfs that cause me to end up walking a k running a k. By the 3rd lap I resorted to just walking, walking fast but walking none the less. At the start of the fourth lap I checked my watch and knew I had 60 minutes to do the last 10.5k to come in under the 14 hour mark which coming into the event was my worst case target time. Through gritted teeth I ran 3k at the require 5 minute 30second a kilometre pace hoping that walking the previous 10k and taking on nutrition to replace some of the stomach contents left on the Alps Maritime would ease the cramps. No such luck as I could feel all the liquids slosh around in my stomach and I was brought to an agonizing halt by cramps where I could not even walk. I thought about sitting down for a minute but then realized that if I did I probably would not have the power left in my muscles to get back up. I’ve seen enough ambulances pull collapsed athletes of the course so sitting down is not an option I just stand at the aid station sipping warm fizzy coke.
I started again but with the realization that I was not going to make the 14 hour mark I was walking a k and running only 300 or 400 meters at a time. Finally I made it to the finishers shoot collected the Irish flag and sprinted for the line. Sprinting for the line was silly for numerous reasons– I had missed my target time substantially, missed my worse case time by 16 min, my muscles were screaming at me, I didn’t take in the atmosphere of the finish chute and when I finally got over the line I’m handed my medal, a bottle of water and then proceed to throw up!
After the race.
After throwing up I’m taken into the medical tent and it’s like a scene from an old war movie, hundreds of stretcher beds most of them filled, IV’s everywhere. My blood pressure is checked and I’m told it’s a little low so I’m told to sit there and they will check on me again in 10 minutes they do and I’m given the okay to leave. I’m greeted by my wife, father, brother and his girlfriend and we sit on the grass verge – I eat some McDoland’s and it’s the best thing I’ve ever had!
I learnt a lot from my first Ironman that will help me if future attempts at the distance.
- Experts know what they’re talking about don’t second guess them.
- Recovery is as important as the training.
- Don’t dismiss the psychology sections in the training books as touchy feely American crap – there are dark hard times during the race.
Ironman is an amazing Journey, I was disappoint in my performance for the first few days after the event a little more time has given me more perspective – I made it to the finish overcoming, heat, humidity, a boxing match of a swim, a brutal bike course and silly personal mistakes. I would like to thank all of Galway Triathlon Club for the help and encouragement coming up to the event. There are some people in particular that I would like to mention. Before joining the Club I barely swim, 3 years later I did a 3.8k in 80 minutes feeling very comfortable – thanks to Grace, Adam and Fiona for all their work. John Cunniffee, Chris Burke, Deirdre Hassett and Fergus Dunne where a mine of information and took time to answer all my questions from training to nutrition to traveling which made things a lot easier.
If you’re going to do an event like Ironman you’re going to need a good Physio. I was lucky to discover the miracle worker that is Jane Ann Healy. Jane Ann kept everything working even when I did my best to thwart her efforts. She also became a great calming influence for when I would panic.
Having family and friends around for the lead up to, during and after the Ironman was great. My Dad, David my brother and his girlfriend Amy were great in helping lug my gear around, keeping me calm before the race, cheer me on during the race and a whole host of other things. If it’s your first event don’t under estimate the importance of having some family around.
Ironman is also a selfish journey. You sacrifice a lot as life becomes about training, eating correctly (was not too good at this) and getting enough sleep. By extension those closes to you also end sacrificing a lot. My biggest thanks to my beautiful wife Camilla who put up with me not attending family events, disappearing every weekend and organising her life to suit my training schedule. She did all this with a smile and encouraging words. She was very supportive right up until the point that I mentioned I was not happy with my time where she then threatened to throw me of the mountain that she had been so worried about me crashing on!
Looking forward to my next attempt in 2014!
24th July 2012