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Welcome to the Ironman France, Nice - 22 June 2008

If it is run in such perfect conditions as a calm, clean ocean for the swim; a flat, windless terrain for the bike; and a shaded, good-surfaced road for the run, then completing an Ironman is a hard task for the 2,000 or more pros and age-groupers that take to the startline each race. If those conditions make completing an Ironman hard, then Ironman France, run in and around the southern French coastal city of Nice, was bloody tough!

I'm sure there are plenty of more difficult courses and conditions under which Ironmans are run (although having never raced in Kona, Hawaii - and certainly having no intention to after France - this is apparantly unforgiving), Ironman France served up its fair number of challenges in each of the three disciplines - 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42.2km run. More about each of those in the 'Race Day' section below, but what I can say now is that living in north-west Europe does not prepare you particularly well for a scorching 38C / 100F day in late June on the Cote D'Azur. And that's if you're just going to the beach!

Anyway, I've just successfully completed my second Ironman (the first being Ironman Switzerland 2007) and I'm relieved, tired, sunburnt but very happy. Here are some of my stats:
  • total time of 10hrs 47mins 
  • 65th in my age-group out of 510 starters 
  • in top 10% overall at 212th place out of 2,230 age-group athletes 
  • third Australian home out of 17 who competed. 
And here's how it all went down:

Race Preparation   

Having completed one Ironman before, I sort of knew a little more of what to expect this time around, although experience is a valuable thing in Ironman. In between travelling regularly for work during February to May, which was the main reason for me not contracting a coach to develop a specfic training programme this year, I had to tailor my training myself to ensure that I built up a solid base and had completed a quality three-month training block by no later than a month out. Away from home and regular training base takes some adapting, but if you can get access to a hotel pool and the streets of the city that you are in, then training doesn't have to suffer too much. Just keep in mind though that if you go running for 2 - 3 hours at 6am in a foreign city that you remember the way home so you can actually make it to work that day!

My strongest and most comfortable leg in a triathlon is the bike. However, like most people, too much of one training discipline can make me begin to lose interest and ability, so from October last year to January this year I took a complete break from the bike and concentrated on other things, like supporting Nicki to finish her first marathon. I was confident this break would only benefit me, I still managed to log more than 5,000kms once I got back on the saddle, and I knew my fitness and form was in good shape with a solid test event a month before Ironman (see Tilff Bastogne Tilff). Come Ironman France race day, I would need this form.

gibbo enjoying the pasta party
No risk of Gibbo not having enough calories in the system come race day!

Apart from a few changes to the amount of work I did and the constantly changing schedule that work presented, I found my preparation for Ironman France to be exactly how I wanted. Strong and confident in each discipline (although swimming in a cramped 25m pool doesn't provide much open-water practice but it does give a good 'washing-machine' effect), I remained injury-free and raring to go come race day. One major difference I made for this race though was experimenting a little with weight, losing about 7kgs from my first hit-out last year so down to 75kgs by race day, to see if it made any difference. I continued to monitor how I felt during training and never felt like the weight loss was negatively affecting performance, so feel this is where I should be.

When tapering, you want to cut back the volume and also get in some rest, including early to bed each night. However for me this year, 4 days over the weekend before the Ironman was anything but restful as I attended the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in France as part of my job. This involved long days, lots of walking, and very little sleep (including only 2hrs on the Saturday night), but it was a great experience. With the help of supportive and understanding colleagues, and even less sleep than the job allowed, I was able to squeeze in some easy training and managed plenty to eat (most of which happened during team meetings over breakfast!) so my preparation didn't suffer.  

Nicki and I flew to Nice with Transavia.com on Friday afternoon before the race on Sunday. Having been to Nice a few times before, we didn't need to do any site-seeing and with temperatures already in the 30s, there would be no going to the beach, which is all pebbles anyway. Our hotel (www.hotelunivers-nice.com) was 5min walk from the start/finish and registration, was clean with a large corner room that was great for bike storage, but it had a very basic and processed breakfast. However, it was perfectly located for dashing back and forth when needed. I did an easy 600m swim on Saturday morning in the wetsuit, and one lap of the run course (10.5kms) on the bike Saturday afternoon. Registration and bike check-in took a little longer than hoped in the hot sun, but everything was in order, which is the main goal. I've only been to two organised IM Pasta Parties before and it's safe to say the one in Nice was fantastic. Held in a huge exhibition hall, it was buffett style with two types of pasta, bread, loads of great cakes for dessert, fruit, soft drinks and even non-alcoholic beer for the many who were keen. Carbo-loading at its very best.

perfect ironman morning
A glorious morning on the Cote D'Azur for the start of Ironman France
Race Day

Scheduled to start at 6:30am, I headed down to the start alone about 1.5hrs beforehand to pump the tyres and add the nutrition to the bike before coming back to the hotel to have breakfast, collect the wetsuit and rev up the support team x 1.  Apart from the pure swimmers amongst us, I'm sure everybody was just hoping to make it through the swim in a decent time without having to outlay too much energy at the beginning of what would be a long day. I mentioned Ironman experience before and there is only one way to gain experience in the swim and that's by doing it. Everyone means well, but you simply can't avoid kicking or being kicked in the head, swimming over the top of someone, or catching their googles during your normal stroke as the swim course is so crowded.

swim start
See you in 11 hours.....

Even when I thought I had some open space and began pushing that bit harder, I would always seem to run into a wall of swimmers and have to either change direction (wasting energy) or slow down (wasting time). Of course, once past the initial start mayhem, the fun begins again at each turn bouy. IM France even threw in a short land exit and run of 20m before you dived back in (going through a mini-start again) to complete a second loop.  In the last 1km of the swim I was thinking to myself that I had to do more open water swimming as I was zig-zagging too much as I tried to keep my eyes on the exit.  Out of the water in 1hr 11min which was a little disappointing but not disastrous either. Most importantly, I felt good and ran the long, long way to the transition where no volunteers were available to help me shed my wetsuit, but no bother as it came off easily anyway. Put on the helmet and sunglasses (already had the clothing on), stuffed my wetsuit in the bag and threw it towards a volunteer, then ran the long, long way to collect my bike and out onto the 180km bike. I spent 5mins in T1 and are certain that 4mins of that was running!

heading out of T1
I'm outta here....heading out onto the 180km cycle leg with the temperature already close to 30C

The first 20kms of the bike were flat and fast with only a little wind. The drafting referees were out in force however and as soon as we got away from town, they started blowing their whistles and yelling for us to break up. I am dead against drafting in any triathlon and hate guys and girls that continually try to break those rules. However, on narrow French backroads, it's hard to keep that 7m space behind another rider, forcing (perhaps to your benefit?) to push the pace and try to get away. 2,000+ athletes makes that difficult though. Now, I had done as much research as possible into the parcours of the bike leg, without actually having done any reconnaissance, so knew there was going to be lots of climbing. I was surprised to find out just how much climbing there actually was, with what appeared to be very little - or at least not fast - descents.  I found out later that one of my splits was a mere 14km/hr average which was about the pace I was trying to maintain on the bigger climbs.  Add to this difficult amount of climbing the fact that the temperature must have been around 35C with no shade or no breeze as we went up. But again, I felt good and strong and consider myself a decent climber so wasn't afraid to tackle the cols. However, the Europeans were much stronger in this area and simply rode away from me on the climbs, but I was able to bridge the gap back to them on the descents and flats, so confidence remained high.

climbing
Pretty much the story of the day on the bike - going skywards.

It wasn't until about kilometre 140 that we started to come back down to sea-level, and of course by then, my mind was going nuts trying to work out how much longer I would be out there and what sort of marathon I would have to run? I 'consoled' myself as I recorded a bike split of 5hrs 34mins in the knowledge that if I were in this shape doing IM Switzerland again, I would have ridden a very fast bike split. I was to find out later during the run that only three age-group athletes went under the 5 hour mark for the bike (one of them being Laurent Jalabert, the former pro cyclist, who rode 4:45 and the second fastest split of the day) and that I had put in an excellent time with the 255th fastest bike leg of the day amongst the age-groupers (and thirty of those ahead of me actually had to pull out of the race before the run so were recorded as DNFs).

coming into Nice
Still stayed as aero as possible even in the closing stages of the bike.

Another few minutes in T2, again running but this time more quickly because of the hot bitumen on my bare feet while I collected my run bag, and out onto the marathon. This is the part of an Ironman that, for me, is really hard to comprehend. For anyone who has run a marathon before, you know firsthand what a tough event it is, but to run one after (what I always like to say to people) 6 or 7 hours of flat-out exercise is just mind-blowing. Still, you try not to think about that too much on the day......

Onto the hot, hot run
On the run and just 4 laps of a 10.5km loop to go.....

With temperatures now into the ridiculous, it was a four-lap slog along the Promenade D'Anglais to Nice Airport and back in the middle of the afternoon. No shade, no sea breeze, just hot sun and even hotter tarmac facing me for the best part of 4 hours. In training, I had been practicing running 10-12kms off the bike without stopping as I knew this is what the marathon held. To my happiness, I held on for 12kms before stopping at one of the drink stations on the second lap to walk and take in much needed fluids (I had drank on the run in the first lap). With such hot conditions, salt loss was always going to be a factor in finishing the race without cramping or sickness. During the marathon, there were far too many people either passed out on the side of the road and receiving medical attention, or bent over vomiting. Although I didn't have salt tablets with me, I made sure I threw extra on my meals in the day leading up to the race and added 'extra-salted' potato chips to my special needs bag on the bike. They were salty, but went down fairly well, and hoped this would help me later on (I guess it did as no cramps or illness).

38 degrees and getting hotter
Part of the run course along the Promenade - it was all flat, open and very hot. 

Whilst on the subject of food, I found it difficult in my first Ironman to get the necessary calories into me on the bike and run legs. However, this time around, everything went down much easier and I made sure I put loads of liquids (water and Powerbar drink) and food (Performance Bars, Isostar Bars, SIS GO gels*, chips and a wholemeal cheese roll would you believe) into me on the bike. I stopped to use the toilet (well, I actually didn't use a toilet but you know what I mean..) once on the bike and, to my delight, once on the run indicating a good level of hydration. On the run, I tried to stick to two gels per lap and again took in water and Powerbar drink, adding some coke on the last lap (which I will probably start on about 30mins earlier next time).

* These things are winners. If you're not already, get on them.

down the finishing straight
The best part of an Ironman and one you savour - running down the finishing chute.

I was keeping a close track of my times on my watch and receiving my 5.25km splits from Nicki, who was receiving them via Shirley and Kylie, who were watching my progress on the internet back in Australia (where the time was approaching 2am) and I knew I was getting slower but I was still happy with my progress considering the conditions. I remained fairly consistent across the whole 42.2kms with first and fastest split being 24mins and last and slowest being 32mins.  I was fast approaching my IM Switzerland time of 10hrs 46mins but didn't care if I went over that as I know that I had swam and ridden well and ended up taking 11mins off my previous IM marathon time at the end, running 3hrs 52mins. I crossed the line in front of thousands of people (truly worth the whole day of pain) in 10hrs 47mins, so just one minute slower.

Once crossing the line, I was sort of stumbling around and thinking to myself "what the hell that?" and looking for recognition from anyone that looked my way. Although you wouldn't have known it from the huge smile I had on my face.

Made it - Ironman number 2 
Made it!

Post Race

Straight into the Finishers Area with medal around my neck, I collected my t-shirt and looked what was on offer to refuel. Limited appetite but I managed some noodles and an alcohol-free beer, which goes down surprisingly well as it's different to the water, sports drink and coke that you've been guzzling for the past 10 hours. Back in the hotel, it was time for a shower, a few cold beers and a pizza before heading back down to the finishline to cheer on all of those that would make it before the 16 hour (10:30pm) cut off.

The following morning, Nicki and I headed off to Italian coast for a week's recovery. Nothing on the agenda but eat, drink more beer and lay on the beach. The weather continued so was a perfect way to relax.  However, I did take to the opportunity to get some active recovery in with open-water swim practice in the wetsuit, doing two separate 1.5km swim, an easy 6km run and a gentle 20km bike. Have recovered well with little fatigue and no soreness. A gentle week or two of training now before throwing myself back into it for Ironman UK in September.

In finishing (this race report stupid, not the Ironman) I wanted to add that I'm positive very few, if any, people can do an Ironman alone. We may take the mental and physical pain in training and racing, but the people in our lives are with us every stride, step, shuffle and stagger of the way. Therefore, my Ironman start and finish no. 2 was all for Nicki.

For more info on Ironman, check out 
www.ironmanfrance.com or www.ironman.com

Photo Gallery

To see more photos from the event, and of me suffering, click here to check out Nicki Allitt's Gallery of Photos.

A well earned beer as a finisher of Ironman number 2
Gibbo enjoying a well earned beer on the Italian coast the day after completing Ironman No.2 

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