Ironman France 2014 Race report
I completed ironman Wales in a time of 13:20, after about 3 months of training. I knew with more training I could go faster, and set myself the ambitious challenge of knocking off 3hrs and 20 mins to go sub 10hrs. I promised myself in Wales that I would never have to do it again, but I found myself booked into Ironman France less than a month later.
Over the winter, training went slowly to start with, as it was too icy to swim or bike outside, so I focused mostly on running. I purchased a turbo trainer to train on my bike indoors although this got less use than I anticipated. I also realized that I would need to get a job while continuing my application to join the army, so I began a 5-week intensive personal training course in London with the hope that it would go hand in hand with my training.
The spring came and I was now a qualified but jobless PT so I began training my most important client- me. I started biking when it was warm enough but soon started having problems with my back and neck, then my hip and knee. I changed everything on my bike setup to try and fix these problems but it turns out after studying some bike fit videos that my £400 beauty was too big for me and this was probably the cause of all the problems. I carried on biking but wrecked my knee with only 2 months to go. I couldn’t even walk up stairs let alone train any more. I decided then that I would have to rest for a couple of weeks, start looking for a new bike, and start focussing on my swim as the lake became just about bearable in a wetsuit.
The knee gradually got better but still has not quite fully recovered. Luckily Dad came to the rescue and put up a substantial amount of money for a second hand time trial bike. What a beauty though, a Specialised shiv, with an integrated fuel system. I took 8 mins of my PB for a 20 mile loop around Norfolk and a wave of relief as the pain in my knee became more manageable and the possibility of going sub 10 was still possible. A week in Scotland biking up some big hills on the new speed machine was great training for the monster climbs that would come in the Alps. The last few weeks went well and I gradually tapered off in the week before flying out on the 24th of June.
After carrying my bike and equipment up 4 flights of stairs to the apartment, I realized that I would need all the time possible to acclimatize to the heat. I unpacked my bike only to find that the rear derailleur had been snapped off in transport and would need to be fixed at a bike shop. There went my plan to go and check out some of the bike course on the first day. A friendly triathlon shop reattached it that afternoon so I could go for a bike the next day. Time for a swim instead. But the red flag was up on the beach as the wind had picked up and made the sea too rough to practice in. Hmm. We awoke to thunder and lightning on day two with it chucking it down. Looks like I wouldn’t be biking today either.
DAY 3 dawned, it was sunny and I managed to get in a good bike and readjust all my gearing. Then a swim and a short 3 mile run along the promenade des anglais, to get a feel for the heat. The next day was check in. I packed all my transition bags, filled up the water bottles on the bike and strapped some brownies to the top tube before going to racking. This wasn’t like wales; people weren’t here to just complete the course, they were here to race.
Woke up and looked at my watch- 3:59am, and then the alarm went off. It looked like I was ready to race. A brownie, scrambled eggs on toast, jam and toast , followed by a few pan au chocolate, and a handful of dates. Down to the transition area. The Promenade was already packed with athletes and spectators. Into my wetsuit and goggles on. Dropped off my street wear bag and walked to the beach for a quick warm up swim, only to step on a huge piece of glass on the road. Luckily the hardened skin from a year of blisters stopped it from being anything serious. Glass out and put it on top of a lamp post nearby, while warning others to watch out for their own feet.
Into the water for a nervous pee and quick swim. I line myself up on the beach in the 1hr 06 swim time area, alongside the other 2,700 athletes. This was ambitious since my best time in the lake had been 1:12, but I hoped the extra buoyancy and current would shave off an extra 6 mins. The pros set off and the 5 min warning went out to the rest of us. 30 seconds. Holy shit, you had better get in the zone Tom. I hit the start on my stop watch and then we were off. The start of the Wales swim would be described as a tranquil frolic compared to this swim start. Bodies piled in on top of each other. I put my head down and tried to swim out of the frenzy but there was no chance. Remember the scene in Titanic when people are in the water drowning each other to save themselves? Well it was like that, except instead of Kate Winslet it was some of the most muscular endurance athletes in Europe.
Ten seconds in, elbow to the face and left goggle filled with water. A gasp for breath resulted in a gulp of over seasoned Mediterranean. 1 minute in and I had to keep my head out of the water to try and see through the stinging salt. I tried to move left and get clear of the swarm or writhing bodies still battling it out but no escape, right, same story there. Couldn’t go under it, couldn’t go over it, have to go through it, “we’re not scared”. It turns out that the people behind me could go over it, as someone yanked me back by my ankle and tried to swim over me. A firm kick sent them back again but did not deter others from trying to do the same. After the first km the field began to thin out and I could start getting into a rhythm. I was feeling pretty shaken up, my arms felt tired from the first ten minutes of rugby, my eyes were stinging and I thought I might be sick from the all the sea water I had swallowed. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming”. Out of the water onto the beach. I glanced at my watch, 35 mins. Need to pick up the pace. A quick run and dive straight back in for the second loop. The second lap was less eventful and I found myself in clear water for most of the way. Out on the beach and watch read 1:12 (overall rank 1082). Oh well, time to make it up on the bike. But what was this? 1000 other athletes were trying to get up the stairs to transition and blocking my way. After 3 minutes to get up 20 stairs I was into the transition area. Sprinting into T1, Issy saw me and came for a chat, while I rushed my wetsuit off and my bike shoes and helmet on. T1 6:45. Not great but it would have been slow for everyone.
Onto the bike and I accelerated out from the mounting line while people faffed around trying to slide their feet into the already clipped in shoes. Is that actually quicker? Thud, a great big speed bump caught me unaware 200 meters in, and my water bottle popped straight out of the holder. Fuck. Brake. Shit . Angry French men shouting at me while a helpful spectator grabs my bottle and hands it to me. Both eyes open Tom, concentrate. Off I went downing as much off the loose bottle as I could in case it should happen again, as well as to wash the salt out of my mouth.
Pass the airport as the sun came out, on to the flat part of the course for 18km or so at a nice steady pace. Then the first bit of climbing after a sharp left turn with a gradient of 12%. I was glad I had practiced this the other day as I knew to drop straight down to the small ring and spin my way up while others struggled and one person even had to walk . Then it was gradual climbing and flats until the 40km marker where it turned into descending. The climbing was fine and I gained as many as I lost. The flats were good and the descents were great as I kept pedalling in the aero position to pick off others happy to coast down the hills and corner in the upright position. Then the main course of the bike, the col de lecre, with 20km of steady climbing varying between 2% and 7% gradient. I settled into my 2nd lowest gear and spun my way up taking places on the long ascent. Training in Scotland had paid off. Signs on the road marked out the distance to the summit 6,5,4km left.
I could feel my legs starting to tire. Thankfully the clouds came in and it began to drizzle giving me continued strength to carry on up 3km, 2km, 1km to go and I had to change down to my lowest gear to keep my cadence up. Eventually we reached the peak, and what a great feeling it was to know that I had 1200meters of potential energy. The next 20km of the course was mostly flat with a bit of descending and climbing and used this opportunity to eat and hydrate as much as I could before the big descents. At one point my rear tyre skidded out on a corner where the road was wet and I let out a little whoop as if I had it under total control. Scary stuff. The sun came back out for a long 10km stretch of descending and my average speed shot up. It was a feeling of pure elation, and the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike. There was the odd hairpin turn where you had to really get on the brakes and pray that you would slow down in time for the bend, or hope you can fly.
It was on one of these that a Frenchman thought he would pull out to the left and take a wide line through the bend, unfortunately he didn’t see me flying past. I braked as hard as I could and shouted, but he went straight into me, wobbled, and hit the deck hard. The sound of bike and rider grating against tarmac was gut wrenching and I felt awful. I stopped to see if he was OK and he seemed to shake it off well enough to stand up and say he was fine. I carried on and found myself in a battle with a German called Patrick who had calves the size of rugby balls that were sculpted from marble, and thighs that would make Chris Hoy blush. I would gain speed in his draft as he over took and take him back on the corners, only to find him powering past me on the straighter sections. This continued for 20 mins of the race before he pulled away as the course began to level out. I would get him on the run. Another bit of climbing, my legs were tired but had recovered well on the down hills and felt like they had more to give. A look at my watch told me I was almost 4hrs into the bike with just under 70km to go but it was all flat or downhill from here. If I put the hammer down I might be able to make my target of 5hrs 30 for the bike.
But then, just as I could start to get a whiff of a cracking bike split the clouds closed back in and it really rained. This song started running through my head https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v24F5uItSP8 as it turned into a proper thunderstorm. Shit. Issy’s words of warning rang out in my head to make sure I come back from the bike, and not to go too fast if it was dangerous. I slowed down for the corners and had two more occasions when theback wheel started to slide out. Then I got cocky deciding I could hold these power slides. The result was inevitable; I braked too late for a corner going too fast. The road had a horrible layer of grease and water on it and it was like cornering on ice. The rear tyre slid out before I had finished braking in time. I couldn’t let go of the brake or I would almost certainly not make the corner. The front wheel slid out and down I went. Bang. Hip hit the road and the bike skidded away from me. I slid across the road like it was an ice rink resulting in some beautiful road rash on my thigh and elbow, until I came to a stop at the edge of the road.
I let out a roar of pain, anger, and frustration, jumped up and hopped around a bit trying to shake the pain off. Shit. Was this race over? I looked at my thigh and elbow, grazed and bleeding but nothing serious. Then I looked at my bike. The wire on the rear derailleur hand been cut clean off but was till attached at the nut. I could still change gear. The chain had come off got jammed around the chain ring. Then I saw my spare tyre kit on the side of the road which had previously been taped to the back of my saddle. Shit. I had no pockets on my super tight race crop top. A bit of quick thinking and I downed the rest of the water in my bottle and stuffed the gas canister, tyre iron and tube into the bottle and just got the lid on. Thank goodness I had stopped to pick it up at the start. Next I unjammed the chain and got it back on, assessed myself and felt fine to carry on with a new hunger and determination. Back on and it only felt like 30 seconds. A quick glance at my watch showed I had lost 10 mins though. Shit. Idiot. The next half an hour I descended at half the speed. The rain kept poring down and I started to get quite chilled as I was hardly pedalling and moving slowly. The rest of the descent was still sketchy with marshals telling me to slow at every corner. As well as having another two wobbly moments, I passed 3 people all on the floor. Eventually I made it to the last 20km of flats and unleashed the frustration of the crash and slow last descent through the puddled roads. I made in into t2 with a 5.50 bike split (rank 727th) and race time of 7hrs 10. 10hours had almost certainly slipped away unless I could run a 2.45 marathon!
A quicker T2 of 4 mins and onto the pancake flat run course. I concentrated on hydration and nutrition on the first 10.5km loop, drinking water at each aid station and a chunk of banana at every other one. The first loop took 47 mins; a solid opener, not too fast and not too slow. Thankfully the rain had kept drizzling down for the first loop keeping me cool and it remained cloudy for the second loop, keeping the heat at bay. It did however mean that the wet bunched socks were making my feet blister. The second loop I focused on run form and began drinking coke instead of eating bananas. As I approached the 15km mark things began to hurt, my legs were drained and my hip had started to stiffen up from the crash. At this point I passed Patrick the German cyclist I had battled with earlier, and this encouraged me to focus on athletes ahead and run them down one at a time. The second loop took 50 mins. I was slowing and the sun was coming out. Within minutes the roads dried and the temperature climbed. Shit. I started to use the showers at the aid stations to keep cool and chucked cups of water over my head. I tried to keep good form and had a couple of gels, and energy drinks to pick me up. Needless to say all that water, coke and energy drink made trips through the shower stations more frequent, and slightly more subtle than one guy who just went for it in front of all the spectators .The third loop hurt. It was slow at 55 mins.
Last lap. I was hurting bad, and my legs began to cramp. Water, coke, energy drink at each aid station seemed to help and I squeezed the last out of my legs. I imagined that the people with three lap bands ahead of me were stags that I was chasing down. Another, then another, I regained some speed and was onto the last 5km straight back to the finish line. A mile out I got locked into a battle with a much older age grouper. I let him go ahead of me until the last 200 meters then kicked for home blazing past, leaving him with no response, onto the blue finishing carpet to see another competitor celebrating before the finishing line. A 16 pointer. last lap of 52 mins for a 3.24 marathon. finish time of 10:39 (400th overall out of 2,759 and 12th in my age group out of 69)
Medal, bottle of water. Relief. Not quite the buzz after finishing Wales but an equally good feeling, with enough left in the tank for me not to totally collapse. Massage, first aid, collect my stuff (very slowly), find Issy then get my bike and go and sit on some grass to bore her with all the details of the race. A guy next to us is wrapped in a tin foil blanket and starts vomiting on the grass next to us.
As about the 30th youngest athlete on the course I was very satisfied with my race time. The race organisers said it was the toughest conditions they have ever had for the race. I was also very happy as I had beaten one of the finishing professionals. I had a slower swim than I wanted but then again I was 10 minutes faster than Wales. An epic bike ride that was a rollercoaster of emotions spoilt only by the bad weather and crash towards the end. A 5.30 bike split might have been possible if the rain had held off. Still I had improved 1hr 40mins from Wales . The run felt good and I hit my target of a sub 3.30 marathon. Maybe I could have gone faster if it wasn’t for the injury from the bike crash, but I don’t think it would have been much of a difference. The quest for sub 10 is still on, and I have gained valuable experience from France to help me achieve it. I need to be looking at a 1.10 or better swim 5.20 bike and a 3.15 run, allowing 10 mins for transitions and 5 mins of error for bottles popping out, and bike crashes. It is probably now worth me getting some coaching in all 3 disciplines since I have been completely self- coached this last year relying on YouTube videos and endless forums for tips and help. I start at Sandhurst in September, so the Ironman quest will hopefully continue if I can find time to train while training, and race for the Army team. Once again thanks go out to my entire family, particularly dad for the new bike and for mum for taking me to the doctors surgery again when she had a busy day already “why do we always seem to be at the doctors this time of year?” she said. Thanks to Issy for supporting me on the journey and for her words of encouragement, “I don’t think you’ll do sub 10 Tom” (3 days before race day) although annoyingly she was spot on with my time. Apologies to any remaining friends for boring you to death on the physics of wind resistance, why carbon is king, and how great it is being super fit. Hopefully now I can drink a few more beers, have some later nights . If anyone has made it through this dissertation of a race report, and hasn’t been put off, then once again I urge you to try it. I guarantee you it will be awful, but you will love every second.