Sunday, I completed Ironman France with a friend in Nice. I crossed the line with a time of 11:01:35 which is a fairly good time for a first participation – especially since I hoped for a sub-12 hours finish time. The weather conditions were almost perfect, which made it a fantastic and well-organized event that was an absolute pleasure to share with the friends that followed us. We also managed to raise 4,610€ for children in South-East Asia, which was an extra boost for both training and racing. In this post, let me briefly present our way to Ironman France: the idea, the training, the event, the race and the learnings.
Last year, a friend of mine, Antoine, suggested we should try to complete Ironman France together. “You’re crazy,” I said first, but we decided to give it a go anyway given the fact that we both had a decent background in endurance sports (we completed half-marathons and marathons together, I spent a couple of years cycling competitively) and it was a great opportunity to spend time together. We would have to train a lot, but it was great to have that crazy goal to achieve.
We also had in mind to raise funds for charity, because it is so much more rewarding to tackle such a challenge with a greater goal than just for the personal satisfaction of getting through. After some brainstorming about which charity to choose, we settled for Enfants du Mékong (“Children of Mekong”), which is a well-known French NGO which works to make lives of Kids in South-East Asia better. We both had ties with Enfants du Mékong, and we knew that they were very active in the Paris running scene with a program called Défi du Mékong (“Mekong Challenge”), so we got in touch with them and they nicely responded and said they could need funds to build a school in Bu Sra, Cambodgia.
In November 2012, we were both officially registered for Ironman France, and the fundraising page was live. Antoine downloaded a training plan from the internet and I got myself a coach (Rick Wetherald). The journey could begin.
We didn’t start from scratch, of course, and already had a track record in endurance sports. We ran the La Rochelle marathon together in November last year (which I finished in 03:13:07) so we had a solid basis. But tackling an Ironman requires specific training, with a lot of cycling and at least a weekly swim session, and we started this training in December.
We didn’t have exactly the same training, here’s mine:
As you can see, most of the training time is dedicated to cycling: before race day, I spent 115 hours on the bike ( km) 43 hours running ( km) and 31 hours swimming. Add 51 hours of so-called “bricks” which is when you train on two disciplines during the same workout (the majority of the time is spent on the bike). So overall, I trained 240 hours in 6 months, 40 hours a month, 10 hours a week, on average. This corresponds to what I read on the internet about training for Ironman beginners (see here, here or here), estimating a finishing time of 12 to 14 hours on race day.
We did most of our long rides during the week-ends (of course, we both work full-time) and sneaked in running and swimming sessions in the mornings before work (for me) or the evenings after work (for Antoine). In February/March I struggled with a knee injury, which prevented me from running and made me miss the Paris Marathon… but that’s OK, you’ve got to accept these miscallaneaous events. Very briefly, that’s how the 6 months were structured for me:
- December: Mostly running, a little bit of cycling and swimming
- January: Mostly running an an increase in cycling, a little bit of swimming
- February: I took a break, a little bit of cycling and swimming (no running, because of the knee)
- March: Picked up cycling and swimming again (no running, because of the knee)
- April: Lots of cycling and swimming, started running easily
- May: Lots of cycling, running, swimming and bricks
- June: Again lots of cycling, running, swimming and bricks before a 2-week tapering phase
June is a weird time, because you have to taper (in other words, rest and let your body prepare for the big day). So after one or two weeks of training early in June, the last two weeks are very light in terms of training. It feels weird because you feel like you loose your strength and build up fat again, especially when you have to eat a lot of carbs (which I usually don’t do).
But, trust me, these two weeks are needed. And I didn’t increase my body fat at all, even though it felt like it:
As you can see in the above graphs, my body didn’t change much during the whole training period: my weight, pulse and body fat (all measure in the morning after waking up) remained quite stable. I must say that I didn’t follow a particular nutrition plan, and that I ate and drank whatever I wanted. When you train so much, you don’t really feel like restraining yourself, and Ironman training is not a diet. You’ve got to fuel your body for the workouts, and you burn those calories anyway. The only noticeable change is that my upper body became larger, which is normal because I never was big, and swimming opens up your shoulders.
We had a very bad (cold and wet) spring this year, which made training particularly hard at times. We would have loved to drop the shoe covers and the long gloves in March or April, but the weather didn’t allow it, which made the whole training period feel like a winter training – except for the last month or so. But when you train for an Ironman, bad weather shouldn’t prevent you from training, and I don’t think it did. It probably even helped because it strengthened our will (my weak point), and on race day we knew what we’ve been through during these cold months. The encouragements from our friends and families helped a lot too, as well as the steady stream of donations on the fundraising page, which kept us going.
We arrived in Nice on Saturday morning; the race started on Sunday morning. It’s a tight schedule to get everything sorted out, but it’s definitely enough. In the days before the event, you get a bunch of emails and race documents that explain how/where to get your race number, to deposit your bike etc. And the city is really beautiful.
Since we had “small” race numbers, we had to wait until 6PM to deposit our bikes in the bike park. This gave us plenty of time to get our race package, walk around the Ironman Expo, check into the hotel and have a walk around the city.
You see a lot of competitors dressed up like on race day (sports clothes, running shoes, compression socks etc.), which I always find a little stupid, but everyone has his own way to prepare for the D-Day, so why not!
Once you have all the race package, your sit down in a nice Nice terrace, and enjoy a huge bowl of pasta, or a pizza, which was what I did. You get back to the hotel, prepare your stuff for the day after, set your clock at 4AM and go to bed. The night will be short, but as soon as you had a good night sleep between friday and saturday, that’s no problem!
There’s no need to pull an Ironman starter out of bed, she/he did it enough during months of training, and on race day you’re really excited to start. We headed out early and went for a 20 minute swim before the mass start, just to get used to the sea and the waves. The pros started at 6:25AM and we went off at 6:30AM. I knew it would be a battle in the water, so swimming with 10 people around me wasn’t too hard. It took about 1k to get a little breathing space and swim easily. It felt great. After 01:05:57 I crawled out of the water, changed and hopped on the bike.
The bike course starts flat for an hour or so (see the map and profile), which gives you time to eat, drink and take on a good rythm. Even with a rather low temperature and clouds, I started having a headache 30 or 40km into the race, which was to ideal. When that happens, you try to concentrate on your legs, eating and drinking, contemplating the gorgeous landscape and staying safe on the bike.
I felt great in the climbs, enjoyed the descents and pushed through the flat sections the best I could. Cycling is the longest part of the day, and it’s crucial to keep the marathon in mind, and to fuel the body with energy for the rest of the day. Running is more energy-consuming than cycling, so you’ve got to prepare the bady for the last part of the Ironman. I didn’t feel great at the end of my bike ride, but I was happy to get back to Nice, where I would see the familar faces to cheer us on. And I was surprised how good it feels to get off the bike and start running 🙂 Seriously!
In Nice, the marathon consists of 4 laps along the Promenade Des Anglais, which is not as boring as I would have expected. A good way to stay focused and concentrated is to segment the run into small chunks, as if you were running from one feeding zone to another, knowing that they were three of them, with one mile between each. Sounds weird, but for me it worked: I knew that at the next Powerbar stand I would get water, coke, cookies & cream energy bars and a cold shower 😉
After each completed lap, you get a scrunchie that you attach to your wrist: this year we got a green one after the 1st lap, a yellow one after the 2nd lap and a red one after the 3rd lap. At the end of the 3rd lap, instead of heading to the u-turn, you proudly turn right towards the finish line (so there’s no need for another one). I did that after a little more than 11 hours, Antoine did it after a little more than 12 hours and 30 minutes. We both surprised ourselves with our times, and very extasic to share this wonderful moment with our families and friends. I wish everyone out the there to experience the same feelings. Exhaustion, emotion, pride, pain, happiness, exhiliration… a wonderful mix.
But this year was particular because one competitor died on the road, which made veiled the event in a shroud of sadness too. Such sad race events rarely happen, but when they do, they get you thinking about the relative value of completing an Ironman. The athletic performance is one thing to be proud of, but it is nothing compared to the sacred value of life, and the luck we have to be safe. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the young British competitor, who were waiting for him to cheer at the marathon.
A couple of days after the race, with a clear head, I can reflect on that whole Ironman experience. It was a fantastic experience, even though the training phase was hard, not only because of the bad weather this year. Training for 6 months is long, and you’ve got to train consistently even through the occasional dips in motivation and the injuries. When that happens, don’t panic and stay focused on the final objective. Having a coach (Rick Wetherald) helped me personnaly because I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about my training plans – he would adapt it to my schedule and motivational lows. Thanks Rick, that really helped!
Another learning concerns fundraising. As I said earlier, our families and friends donated a total of 4,610€ during the whole fundraising period, from December 2012 to June 2013, which represents more than 1/3rd of the project (building an elementary school in Cambodgia and running it for 3 years)!!! That’s amazing, and surpassed our expectations by far, as we estimated we would be able to gather 2,000€ or so.
I’m so happy that we could gather this money for Enfants du Mékong, and hope that they will get the rest on the funds soon to kick off the construction in Bu Sra. For those who plan a similar initiative, I’d advise you to keep your “audience” regularly posted about the progress of the fundraising efforts, to leverage social networks, both online and offline, to talk about your initiative. The US site of the Ironman Foundation has some tips for those who are interested. Unfortunately, Ironman doesn’t run fundraising programs outside of the US (that’s partly why we did our own Défi Du Mékong).
Last but not least: I think anyone can complete an Ironman. Of course, you need an endurance basis, but finshing the race in 16 hours is absolutely feasible for anyone who really wants it. At Nice we saw crazy things: one guy completed the bike course on a 17 kg bike from the city of Nice (see this video and this forum thread), another one completed the marathon in a Union Jack morphsuit. Another competitor, who had only one arm, overtook me on the bike course and finished way in front of me at the end.
So, as prestigious the race is and as hard it seems to be when you tell someone the race distance, as more I think that it’s not an elite-only competition. And after completing my first Ironman, I couldn’t agree more with the Ironman slogan: