Ironman France, Nice 2010


“sourire courir sourire” – “to smile to run to smile”

I generally think of Ironman events as excuses to explore new places, in the hope they’ll make great (family) holiday destinations in future, with a tad of exercise thrown in for good measure – Iron tourism.

PBs, while exceptionally satisfying in a completely meaningless way (in my case), are secondary to quality of experience and that, of course, is defined by a wonderfully complex mix of the social, location, travel, ergonomics (of the environment) and climate but not necessarily in that order.

To date I have four PBs – one for each different ironman I’ve completed.  That makes me feel good and that’s motivation enough.

Nice, my fourth Ironman, was a top notch experience, especially as the family were on board and had a great time – my 18 year old son Jamie, having taken his last A level exam on Friday morning before flying out that afternoon, got so caught up in the atmosphere that he ‘pledged his allegiance’ (Jamie, someday soon, you will be an ironman) and Mand, my wife, was just blown away by Nice (and our hotel room – I’ll come back to that in a mo.).

Having claimed finisher’s t-shirts in Austria (Klagenfurt), Germany (Frankfurt), Switzerland (Zurich) and France, Nice is easily no.1, with Austria and Switzerland tied in second place (in my humble opinion), although Germany comes top for race bags!

Getting to these destinations is also a big deal for me, which is why I’d rather go with an airline that declares its costs upfront, than one that purports to give value for money then charges for ‘extras’ like baggage and sports equipment!!  So, I appreciate details like booking seats on-line 24 hours before departure (included in the fare) and avoiding the whole ‘pay for priority’ nonsense, which just seems to cause anxiety and confusion, especially if you don’t pay for it!!

(Reads a bit like a Morrison’s ad.  I’ll see if I can fly with them next time.)

Despite La CGT’s industrial action, on Thursday 24th June (protesting over the government’s plans to raise the retirement age to 62) I arrived just 45 minutes behind schedule and caught express bus no.98 to my hotel for €4 – result!

So, to the hotel – quite a bit more posh than I’d have chosen if I’d been travelling solo but at around 500m from the start and with a balcony overlooking the Med (and the Promenade des Anglais), it just made it for the Mrs (it made it for all of us – collective jaw drops!!).  Hotel West End had ‘tried on’ a €40 per night supplement for an extra bed advertised as “free”, so, I’m pretty sure due to a couple of polite, yet insistent emails from me and intervention from the on-line booking agent (, we were upgraded at no extra cost to a real stunner of a room – a Junior Suite, in fact!!  Mand & Jamie were able to watch parts of the race from the balcony and as the hotel’s wi-fi was free, keep an eye on the splits that mattered and wander down to the Promenade to cheer us all along; doesn’t half make a difference having the family cheering you on.

Having settled in on Thursday, assembled the bike (tyres to 135 psi, thought you’d like to know that) and had a wander down to the expo to register and check out the start and transitions, my longstanding head cold took a liking to the beautifully warm weather and started its own journey south (to my throat and chest).  By Friday morning, I was sounding “awful” (thanks John!) and by the time of a ‘shake down’ ride with Ivan, John and Kevin that afternoon, following a generous pasta lunch (in the company of the aforementioned and that young dude – Ian Tivey), I was having a job making myself heard through a ‘low pitched rasp’.  I have to say that I still didn’t feel at all bad, just sounded it, but the ‘enforced isolation’ of existing in a mucal bubble (melodramatic & slimy) with a fast developing hacking cough was starting to get to me.  I’m sure it wasn’t particularly pleasant for the others either.

We had a very positive ride, taking on Nice’s version of Croydon Hill – the 500m 10-12% climb, at a most sensible pre-race limp.  This part of the course seems to attract a lot of attention, but it’s a drab little link road, connecting two main routes.  Still, I suppose all gradients of this order are not to be taken lightly, or rather, they ideally should be taken lightly if you’re able, to be lighter that is.

(Generally speaking, you’ll find this ideal weight and race condition about a week after completion.)

Next stop – energy party on Friday evening.  Headed off with Ivan & Rachel for a pile of pasta at Parc Phoenix – a special site in Nice, right next to the airport, with  “a 7,000 metre square glass structure containing rare orchids and tropical trees”, very exotic and wonderful.  All would-be Iron bods were routed through this massive greenhouse to an inner (outdoor) garden, buzzing with that festival type atmosphere the occasion generates – much tasty food in good company.

By now my voice had dropped at least another octave, so it was actually the Carlsberg voice over man who later met the Mrs and son at the airport, giving them what was “probably the best airport welcome in the world”.

Spent most of the night working on the cough, trying to get it just right, with intermittent switches to nose trumpet technique.  Mandy appreciated the frequent fanfares and deep guttural choruses, but Jamie, (and this is just typical of teenagers and kids today), completely oblivious to the educational value wasn’t bothered and slept through peacefully oblivious.

Saturday morning – down to the start for a first wetsuited dip in the Med.  Sea was calm, sun was shining and I thought the famous Nice pebbles didn’t feel that bad under foot.  Obviously, you’d avoid running on them, especially in and out of the water, unless it was a real emergency. Once in the sea, the land drops away steeply, so within 10 or so strokes you’re in deep water – beautifully clear.  I’ve never ‘swam in anger’ (triathlon specific term) in a wetsuit in the sea before but it was great, surprisingly smooth and with beams of sunlight shining diagonally down to the blue depths…. pretty spectacular.  You’ll understand that the sun had its part to play in this scenario, it wasn’t a scene just created by swimming in a wetsuit!

Swam round a couple of buoys, back to the beach, minced out gingerly (takes freckles to do this convincingly) and checked the Garmin – just under 800m, took a breather, enjoyed the warmth of the sun, then got back in for another 500m – 1.3 km, approx. one loop of Chiver’s lake, felt just right for a pre-race tester.

Back to the hotel for breakfast (on the balcony, ‘darling’) and to faff for the rest of the morning and early afternoon, preparing the bike and transition bags and trying a few last minute improvements for positioning the bike shoes with elastic bands, oh yes, fast and smooth T1 guaranteed!

After finally racking the bike that afternoon, memorizing its position (with much help from the family – ”it’s behind you”) and doing the same for the bike and run bags, it was off into town for a gentle amble and Calippo – worked for Eddy Izzard and he’s a guy to be taken seriously.  The temperature was getting up, now in the low 30s and probably a combination of anxiety and cold bugs were starting to work their nauseous evil (on me).  I was ordered to bed by nurse Mandy and promptly dosed up with meds.  My rising temperature “doesn’t seem too bad”, she fibbed, “it doesn’t matter if you do it, I’m alive” (reference to a nasty car crash she had 4 months earlier), “we’re here and we can come back next year, you’re more important than this race” (so I was obviously at death’s door!!).

I didn’t move or eat for the rest of the day.

In perfect health, dozing in bed the day before race day, might actually be a good plan, it takes away that concern of having a good night’s sleep two nights before the event and daytime dozing softens the blow of that desperately early morning alarm.  Unfortunately, I was feeling decidedly rough and glad to ‘escape’ to the land of nod for as long as possible.

In the meantime the Mrs had some quality time with her little boy.

By 4:15am, when the alarm sounded, all seemed well again, breakfasted and slowly wandered down to the bike to load a bottle and pump up the tyres (135 psi, I did mention that didn’t I?).  It was a beautiful morning, calm and warm.  I took my place in the 1:02 ‘swim start area’ by 6.00am; decided a warm up swim was unnecessary and for 30 minutes mentally prepared myself to get “kicked to death” (one of Eggar’s, your majesty).

The horn sounded right on time and we were off.  All the usual nonsense ensued and I scrapped away merrily for a good 20 minutes or so until a little bit of open water presented itself and I could finally get into some sort of smooth rhythmic swimming.  The goggles were fab – Aqua Sphere ‘Kayenne’ and even a direct blow at one point didn’t dislodge or cause them to leak, well, not significantly.  As we swam clockwise for the first loop (buoys to our right), I deliberately moved left of the field, staying reasonably close but avoiding as much chaos as possible.  We took our first little run on the pebbles after 2.4km and hit the water for a shorter (1.4km) anti-clockwise loop.  At that point things started going wrong for me, I felt lethargic and slightly ‘disconcerted’ by a more pronounced Mediterranean swell (than the previous day), although I didn’t actually ever feel sick.  By half way round that final loop I’d had enough, energy levels at zero, I moved a long way right of the field (buoys now on our left), considered that being a shark’s breakfast might not be so bad and flopped along uncomfortably slowly and closed my eyes and started to drift off to sleep.  I ‘sighted’ a little while later to discover I was completely off course, swimming parallel with the shore while the field had turned left (for home).  I dialled in a new heading and consoled myself that it was ‘game over’, no Nice 2010 finisher’s t-shirt for me today.  As swimming is the thing I tend to do most efficiently (albeit for the slimmest of advantages in an ironman context), you’ll appreciate just how bad I was feeling.  The plan now was to make it to shore, find a marshal and quietly ‘take my leave’.  I didn’t feel at all bad about the notion of quitting because I just felt too rough to care and after all, it was working so well as a family holiday – roll on 2011.

4.19km later (!!) I made land and started staggering along, nothing like adding the equivalent of an extra 17 lengths when you’re feeling under the weather.  At this stage Mand described me as looking ‘ashen’.  I had that super-low-blood-pressure, emergency tent feeling.  Anyway, caught up in the group dynamic and atmosphere I thought I’d run up to transition before calling it a day.  The moment I started running my condition improved (quite spectacularly quickly in fact) and by the time I was heading for the bike bags I’d started thinking that a little bit of fresh air out on the ride might do me good.  I carefully picked out someone else’s bike bag and jogged into the changing tent.  Hmmmm, nice silver bike shoes – didn’t ring any bells – whoops, whisked the bag back (into it’s proper place I might add) and found my own.  I started feeling very happy that ‘my day’ wasn’t over after all, but mindful that I was somewhat out of sorts, decided to just take it easy and enjoy; any potential time targets were cancelled, no chance of 11:15 this time round!!  (Who am I kidding.)

Incidentally, I’d decided some time back, to wear the club kit for the bike and run, but unlike Kevin’s choice of the tri suit, or tri top and shorts, I opted for tri shorts + a long sleeve top (the club’s winter top).  Time, I thought, to put another crazy ironman theory to the test.

My reasoning for the long sleeve was that, on the one hand it would guard against sunburn and on the other, help to keep me cool, especially if damp.

As far as I’m concerned this worked a treat, not a hint of sunburn and when dampened with water, kept me feeling wonderfully cool on the bike and during the run.  For this and much to John’s incredulity I owe a debt of gratitude to kangaroos and their habit of licking their forearms to keep cool in the fierce outback temperatures.  Not quite that fierce a heat in Nice, but somewhere in the 30s was warm enough.

Just before collecting my bike, I had a quick word with the family to let them know things were looking up and headed on out of T1 (with my own bike).

The elastic bands, holding the shoes level, worked perfectly, snapping off on the first revolution.  I heard of at least one athlete slipping in cleats in transition and limping to bike out.  Barefoot rules!  Bare feet rule! (Choose your pick.)

Before long I was nipping along the Promenade des Anglais at a good clip (38kmh), at which point I eased off completely.  Didn’t want those fresh legs leading me astray again, I’ve been down that road in Germany and suffered on the run – once is enough.

Every 20km on the bike route (and 1.7km on the run), the aid stations offered Infinit (nutritional energy drink) in addition to the other usual refreshments.  Infinit are the official sponsors of IM Austria, France, Monaco and South Africa and I’d done all my training using their standard bike and run drink mix formulas.  No eating, just drinking (although, I appreciate Ian Tivey nibbled in addition for the first half of the bike and that obviously worked very well for him).  This race nutrition is THE BEST.  I’m pretty sure we should get a club discount when ordering – must check that.

By 20km, Nice was becoming a bit of a memory as we headed out into the Provencal hinterland.  After the short, sharp climb I mentioned earlier, followed by a drag up to Cote de Gattieres, it was reasonably flat until 40km, then the fun started – a 10km downhill section, which was a blast.  The corners were never too sharp, so it was possible to aero down on the tri bars and seriously increase the average speed for very little effort (as you may have picked up from the split times).

Then came the toughest challenge of the day – a 20km climb, well it certainly would be tough if you intended to get a move on.  I couldn’t have been going much faster than 11kmh for most of this, but that allowed me to soak in the scenery.  This course is a stunner with beautiful forested valleys, ancient ‘pitted’ mountainsides, pitted, that is, with caves (‘les grottes’, common throughout Provence) and little terracotta-roofed villages nestled in wooded hillsides, all sheltering under a cloudless deep blue sky.

It was all going so well and then came a bit of a dilemma – at the aid station at 60km (Gourdon), after confidently navigating past a traffic jam of cyclists queuing for water (which seemed a bit odd) I looked out for Infinit and saw none.  I’ve checked the course info and this was a management error (and a serious one in my opinion), absolutely no Infinit on offer – disaster!!

In these circumstances, it must be said that I’m not the brightest spark (thinking on your feet is one thing, in the saddle it’s another story) and I cycled on trying to figure out how to cope with one more mouthful to last the next 20km uphill, which at this conservative pace was a fair amount of time and potential fluid intake.

But not to worry, I hatched a plan, a plan it must be said that had no grip on reality, practicality or logic.  I would scan the road for (full) dropped bottles of Infinit, grab whatever I found and ride on triumphant.  My faith in this plan was absolute.

You have to give plans like this time to work.  This one took about 10 minutes and there, sure enough, on the side of the road, was a full bottle, just waiting for me.  You’re expecting a catch aren’t you, especially as I’d passed several half full bottles of water in my very specific quest, but no, no catches, I’d found quite by chance and probably against the odds (as it was a smooth uphill climb) a full bottle of Infinit (and yes, I’m sure it was Infinit) – I’d missed maybe one mouthful in that time, all bets were back on – all bets that is for a steady ride on to Nice.

In a completely hydrated state I still had the presence of mind to realise the ridiculousness of what had just happened, but following my ‘recovery’ from the swim, which at the time felt nothing short of miraculous, this serendipity felt like miracle number two.  If miracles are offered to me, I have no problem in accepting them, always with good grace you understand.

The undulations continued, although there were no more massively long climbs.  Following another ripper of a descent at around 90km, (that’s at the 90km point, not at 90kmh, you understand), the remaining descents seemed a tad more technical – tighter corners, hairpins to navigate down and towards the very end of the ride a less than perfectly smooth surface (bit like most of the roads around here).  I hit what felt like a pot hole on the final descent, just didn’t see it coming and took the full force of the impact through the wrists…ouch, but essentially got away with no real damage to myself or the bike.  Around 5 hours into the ride I started coughing uncontrollably, which was both annoying and distracting and meant I simply couldn’t attack those more technical descents with same gusto I had earlier.  Around this time I checked the distance covered and still had 60kms to go.  I resigned myself to a 7 hour + ride.  I thought even in good nick, sustaining a 30kmh average is tough, but with the help of the remaining descents, regardless of their demands, the average just kept increasing.  Having held back most of the ride, I flew down the Promenade des Anglais from the airport to T2, passing a whole bunch of riders, only diving on the brakes when disinterested pedestrians seemed hell-bent on crossing the road in our path.  Despite the marshals’ best efforts, I saw the aftermath of one such collision.  It seems desperately unlucky to survive the swim and 99% of the ride, to fall within site of transition due to someone else’s impatience or carelessness.

Feet out of and onto shoes for the final approach to T2 and a dismount, which, I’m glad to say, greatly pleased an American woman “nice job, Gareth”, it was indeed a fine exhibition!  A much quicker transition ensued, in fact I’m not quite sure why it took me the best part of 8 minutes to replace one hat with another and put on a pair of running shoes.  My time for doing precisely the same thing in Germany, 2 years earlier and no doubt a record that I’ll never get close to again was 1:53.  At least here in Nice, despite being out of sorts, I was really looking forward to the run and trying out my secret weapon – the smile – “to smile to run to smile” (one of Stuart’s your majesty, quite so).  Now, whether or not this expression travelled the considerable distance from my brain to my face is altogether irrelevant.  Inside, I was smiling and having my best marathon leg of any ironman ever and incidentally, this was still the case when I’d slowed to a 6.5kmh power walk, some 15k in.  I’ve been in the medical tent for a drip or two in the past and I really didn’t want to push myself horizontal today.

I think I saw all our guys out on the run, with the exception of Webber, who I don’t think I’ve met, but certainly Kevin, Ian, Ivan and John.  I had a great chat with John for at least 11k, and then, he decided to run for it with two loops remaining and a notion that the cut off was 15.5 rather than 16 hours.

Great wearing the club kit – had loads of “go Cambridge” which I responded to with my loudest thumbs up and completely unintelligible rasp.

It was pretty hot for the run and despite Julio’s warning to not run through the showers (for fear of blisters), I ran through them and didn’t get a hint of blisters until at least 30k!  Doh!  So now, the plan for the next hot run is to most definitely avoid the showers (good advice Jule), but keep cool by employing my other cooling technique, which worked a treat – a cup of water poured down both arms, with extra cups now and then poured over head, thrown in face or down the back, or a combination of all those approaches.  Remember, I wore a long sleeve shirt and the wet material (against the skin) was like having a personal a/c.  Interestingly, two loops of doing this was enough after which I was looking forward to warming up.

Jamie, my son, kept me company for the final 11k loop, we had a good natter, albeit from a distance of a cone apart, as requested by a run course referee (well, we wouldn’t have wanted Mr Jim to pace me, to finish somewhere slightly higher in the end of the mid pack), wouldn’t be fair and rules is rules.  Then, in the nick of time, I invited him on to the run course proper, to sprint down that infamous blue carpet for a triumphant and emotional crossing of the finish line together – priceless.

Following an emotional family hug post race and celebrating no ill effects whatsoever, it was back to the hotel for a quick shower, to watch the spectacular 10.30pm fireworks (from the balcony, again ‘darling’) marking the end of IM France 2010 and head out into Nice for a midnight nibble with team Cambridge.  Awesome!!

Having the family along just added that special fairy dust to the whole experience.  Thanks Mand and Jamie, you were both fantastically supportive and it was a blast to be able to share it with you.  Enjoying a couple of extra days in Nice together wasn’t half bad either.

Nice, it has to be said, makes for a monumentally good ironman course and location.  It’s not easy or particularly fast with a ‘looped’ sea swim, mountainous bike course, which if my Garmin is to believed, yields an elevation gain of 2504m (similar to Lanzarote) and a hot run with 4 switchback loops, but it’s an inspiring challenge, great for spectators and just a stunning experience.

Post race analysis and more thank yous:

Here’s something which surprised me, whether down to condition, weather or design – I didn’t take a single loo break throughout the entire event; from arriving at T1 at 05.30 until finishing at nearly 20.30.  I drank 600ml an hour for the entire race (2 gulps every 10 minutes) and not even the need to pee!!

Taking 1.25 hours out for the swim, that’s an intake during 12.75 hours of just over 7.5 litres, oh yes, with the occasional (make that 10) Pro Plus caffeine tablets thrown in for good measure.  In fact, I didn’t consider the loo until I’d collected my medal, finisher’s t-shirt, waited 20 mins to get the medal engraved, checked my bike out of transition and cycled back to the hotel.

Seems mad, felt fine.

Also, really appreciated your words and cheers of encouragement Rachel & Beth.

Last but not least, a special thanks to Mark Mathews, in Nice with his own group of young elites, for his loud and generous support during the run.

About Gareth Stuart 59 Articles
studio owning tonmeister/pro tools engineer/musician/producer, p/t university lecturer, dad/husband, ironman (triathlete) & keen skier

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