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It’s mid-May and already my third 70.3 of the year.  This one’s in Aix-en-Provence and being done with good mates and fellow cr@ppers Tom and James who I trained most of last year with for IM Wales.  WAGs are in tow too, so a good weekend of Provencal sights, food and drink and maybe some racing beckons.

Having done the really challenging 70.3 St Croix the weekend before I spend the lead up week before travelling trying to ease my legs back into working order by hardly training and getting super helpful massages at Agile… they really helped and by Friday morning I’m feeling absolutely full and energy and looking forward to it immensely.

We’re getting our bikes shipped to this race, a new thing, and we packed off the three bikes a week ago, and are hoping they get to Aix OK and on time… my bike is brand new, and really testing the ‘don’t try anything new on race day’ rule, I’m riding it outside for the first time… schoolboy error I know.  It’s also got Di2 which I’ve never used before either, so what can go wrong…

Our travel is smooth and everyone’s ( well, the boys at least ) are dead excited.  We fly into Nice, so a 90 minute transfer and by late afternoon we’re in Aix, which is absolutely stunning.  Weather is great and it looks like it’s going to be a warm ( not too hot though ), clear, not too windy weekend, which is great news.

Getting to Aix early enough means we can register, pick our bikes up and hit the merch tent on Friday to save some time on Saturday.  We’re very happy to see a) our bikes are looking good and b) the merch tent is literally infinitely better than the week before.  I quickly blow a pretty tame 50 euro on a t shirt, race bottle and coffee cup and resolve to come back for more action tomorrow.

Then it’s back to the lovely house Tom has airbnb’d for us, and we get carried away with the kronenbourgs pretty quickly.  We head out for an amazing meal, more beers and some wine and carry on with the beers back at the house… it’s midnight before we know it and everyone’s nicely drunk… great race prep.

Saturday is Ironman faff day.  First up packing bike and run gear into the various bags, and then heading into town centre.  It’s a split transition ( swim lake is 25km-ish from Aix and the finish area / T2 ) so we do the English race briefing at midday ( some completely stupid questions being asked to slow the process which amusingly wind Tom right up ) rack the run bags in the sun at T2, then take our bikes to the busses ready to go rack at the lake & T1.

That’s generally a well organised process, though after racking ( AWA status means I get to rack next to the pros… nice ) and checking out the lake, we wait ages for a bus back and it’s hot and frustrating considering it’s the afternoon before the race.  That’s probably the only bit of disappointing organisation though, so isn’t the end of the world.  We do see ( and definitely hear ) a car that’s driven all the way down from the UK with bikes on the roof completely miss the overhead barrier to the main car park and the bikes hit the metal with a huge crunch.  Everyone watching goes quiet and the car pulls away sheepishly… we wonder what happened to him.

Back in Aix, we relax a bit before finding a delicious Italian carb fest, and take lots of water tonight rather than French beer.  The girls have had a good day around town so everyone’s in good spirits.  We do the race predictions for 10 euro in the pot each.  Big money.  I go for 6 hours overall time, but am hoping to beat that by a little bit despite it being a pretty hilly course and with the 70.3 from last weekend still in the legs.

I’m in bed by about 10pm, with the girls watching Eurovision.  Tattoos are on and everything’s laid out for the morning ready to go.  Sleep is pretty awful and I’m awake regularly through the night and knackered and boiling hot when the alarm eventually goes.

It’s a 4.25 rise and I jump in the shower to wake up a bit, sadly inevitably waking Karen up.  I’m last down for breakfast ( porridge / crumpet / coffee ) which we all force down after only eating what seems like a few hours earlier.  We know it’s vital though so get on with it.  Then I get changed, do final house toilet stops and final checks to make sure everything needed for the bike ( drinks, garmin, lube, salt tabs, gels ) and swim ( cap, goggles, wetsuit, timing chip ) were all ready to go.

We agree the night before to try and get an early bus to the start at about 5.30 ( 30 min bus ride )… it’s a 5 min walk into town, and though we take a different route, we  accidentally find the bus queue in a completely different place to where we were heading… a near miss.  It’s much more organised than the day before and within a couple of minutes, we’re on a bus and heading to the lake.  I’m still tired so take advantage of a 15 minute bonus sleep as we wind our way North.

The bus is a pretty quiet though typically multinational affair and as we get closer to the lake, it gets really, really foggy.  As we arrive at T1, the place is shrouded and visibility is terrible.  ‘Bound to clear’ we reassure ourselves…

We go to our bikes to sort stuff, rack B1.4 for me.  Everything is soaked with dew, but I get everything in place quickly and am pleased with my pigeon French and my ability to borrow a pump to get my tyres up to 100psi ready to go.  Quick check of the Di2 gears on the bike confirms they seem to be working…

The I meet back up with the boys we head to the portaloos for another toilet stop… there are absolutely loads of them but half are locked, so it leads to big, slow queues.  We eventually get sorted then head to the lake to check it out.  It’s covered with fog and we can barely see the first buoy let along the full length of the swim.  The sun will have to rise quickly and burn it off if there’s not going to be a delayed start.

We take a seat and wait til it’s time to get the wetsuit on.  Everyone’s especially amused by one fella who’s got fed up of the portaloo queues and is taking a dump in the field, in full view of everyone, stark naked.  You can tell he’s a triathlete though because he’s kept his HR monitor on… obviously doesn’t want to go into the red zone just yet.

We eventually get suited up, drop the ‘street’ gear bags in the boxes and head to the corrals for the rolling start.  I’m with James in 41 minute territory, Tom’s up at 36ish.  The pros start at 7.30am, age groupers at 7.40 but it’s 8.10 before we’re in the water, and the leading pros and AG-ers are done with their swim… we look on enviously as they head to the bike.

My swim start is completely terrible.  Awful.  Must be the worst for about 18 months.  It’s cold, the sun’s in my eyes, I’ve not done enough wetsuit practice and my breathing is all over the place.  Whatever the cause, I find myself off line and struggling with breathing.  After some worrying thoughts of a 1h+ swim time, I have a strong word with myself and get into proper swimming.  Very shortly I’m back to feeling really good, there’s loads of space because of the rolling start ( and my lack of speed ) and as we make the turn for home after about 1000m, I’m feeling good, though really frustrated with the wasted minutes early on.  Must do more wetsuit practice I promise myself.  Tom reports later he had a bad start and James suffered from a cramp, so maybe it was dodgy French water…

The rest of the swim is great – sun behind so sighting is easy, speed feels decent.  I get hauled out of the water by a volunteer and I’m dreading looking at my watch, especially after my slowest ever 70.3 swim last week when I felt much better!  I’m relieved to see it’s 42 minutes not 52, and resolve to have a better day on the bike and run.

It’s quite a long run from the water to the bike bags and then bikes ( 600m according to watch ), but apart from struggling to get my wetsuit off as always, it’s fine.  I dump the bike bag then off to the bikes.  I’m happy to see lots of bikes still in the pretty huge bike park, and quickly grab the new bike and head off.  T1 time isn’t bad considering the distance, at just under 7 minutes.

Once I’m on the Canyon, as always I plan to take it easy for the first few km to get the heart rate back in check, though that plan is not helped by the Di2 not responding the first few times I click the shifters… thankfully it’s me not quite pressing hard enough and I’m soon getting up to speed.  That could have been bad.

What a stunning bike course.  Meanders through the Provence countryside, up and down a few hills ( plus a few mountains ) finishing in Aix town centre.  Scenery is spectacular and it’s generally a really really enjoyable bike ride, though has plenty of elevation.  Lawrence, as usual, dishes out wise advice before hand to take it easy, especially early on and on the hills with the new bike.  We both know I’m in unknown territory with a 70.3 last weekend.

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Our research ( i.e. a quick look at the athlete guide ) tells us the first 20 or 30km is going to be uphill and that turns out to be the case.  It’s generally what you’d call rolling, apart from one decent hill with a couple of km’s of climb.  I was worried about the more aggressive gearing on the new bike, and this first test doesn’t leave me feeling great about the real monster hill at 68km, especially given the experience last week in St Croix.  But the descent is quite fun and I find myself passing much more frequently than being passed, as tends to happen on the bike.

I plan to pay much more attention to pacing and heart rate this week after a bit ( well, a big bit ) of a crash and burn ( apt word ) on the run last week in the heat.  I’m pleased to see early on that there’s quite a bit of cloud cover and although the temperature heads into the high 20s later in the bike, the weather is generally perfect.

After an hour or so, I take a look at my total time on my watch to see what’s what, but see the time of day instead of total time… I’ve somehow managed to switch it off at some point in the last hour, which is really frustrating.  I won’t have a full garmin record of the course.  I then remember I’ve got the swim on the watch, my bike garmin will have the bike and I’ll restart the watch for the run.  Panic over, but that’s a bit frustrating.

The next 30-60 km section is pretty nice… nothing too interesting to report… plenty of time in aero on the Canyon which I’m getting very happy with.  My nutrition is going well, 4 gels and a bar and plenty of salt and energy drink.  There 3 aid stations in total, reasonably well spread out and usually after climbs which makes sense.  There are loads of cars on the road here though, going both ways, which makes it a bit interesting ( and unusual for an IM race )… we weren’t warned about it either so it might have been a bit dangerous if, say, you were used to riding on the left and had your head down…

Anyway, after 60km or so a pretty big mountain looms into view and the course worryingly is heading right at it.  ‘That’s going to be a test of the cassette and legs’ I’m thinking, before we get some relief as the course bears left where the slope is less dramatic.  Then at 68km the foot of the climb looms into view and the 4km time trial ( with about 200m of climb ) starts.

It feels proper Tour de France like ( not that I’ve done much TDF riding and this is a bit tame compared to what they get up to )… hairpins and spectacular views, locals either side of the road, often in full bike kit supporting.  I find myself re-passing people who’ve recently gone past me on the flat, so feel pretty happy.  Although the climb is a drag – averaging about 8 or 9% over the 4km, I don’t feel too bad.  I get a really good sweat on, but there are a few sections of 2-4% where you get a good rest and pretty soon the archway saying “You Did It!” is over us and we’re into what I was hoping was a very fast section for most of the rest of the course.  I’m very happy to get up the climb comfortably on the new bike, banishing the thoughts of having to do a girly push, like on The Beast last weekend.

Our research of the last 25km or so was a bit rubbish, as we were basically expecting a free wheel into town.  The proper descent from the col isn’t what I was hoping for as there are too many switchbacks with sheer drops to get serious speed up ( max speed in this steepest downhill section was only c. 50 kmph ).  And after that there are one or two climbs just to take a bit extra out of the legs ready for the run.

One highlight is catching up with Tom at about the 70/75km point… we have a good chat about the bike and swim and agree to see each other on the run.  He stays pretty close behind for the remainder of the bike and looks good ( in fitness terms I mean ).

Pretty soon we’re into Aix town, though the course cruelly takes us on a pretty comprehensive tour of the place before we reach the rotunde where T2 is.  Then I start to see people on the run course and know the 90km bike is nearly at an end and the half marathon is nigh.  I’m feeling way better than last weekend though and hoping to beat my overall time prediction with a touch to spare.

My bike time is 3h 9m.  Not quite 3h dead that I’m secretly hoping for, but with 1200m of climb according to the course guide, it’s not bad ( same climb as last week where I was 17 minutes or so slower ).  I later find out I’ve passed 300 people on the bike course, which I’m pretty chuffed at.

On reflection I’m pleased with way I paced.  In St Croix I spend a third of the bike in zone 4 HR which is mental.  Here it was more like 20 mins, which was the couple of nastier climbs.  The rest was Z2/3 which helped the run A LOT.

T2 is a bit rubbish.  It’s an unusual set up where the bikes are racked in order of how we arrive rather than by bib number.  It’s a sensible system, but I miss the volunteer next in line taking bikes and sort of have to backtrack to find someone to take it off me.  Then I grab the rack to turn the corner towards the bags and pull the rack over… poor form I’m sure!  See Karen and the girls and get a nice cheer as I teeter towards the change chairs.

With hindsight, that run is longer than I expect and I should have a) walked it before to check it out and b) taken my bike shoes off.  I then forget my bib number and take run bag 373 instead of 337.  After having a mini-strop with a volunteer who points out my error, I profusely ‘pardon’ and go get the right one.  Cross with myself for wasting another minute or two, it’s time for the run.  T2 time is 4 minutes, a bit slow.

The run course is three loops of 7km around the town and in and out of a nice park.  We’d assumed the run would be pretty flat, but were disturbed the day before to see the athlete guide had given the run the same difficulty rating as the bike… we’d find out why.

The start of the run feels infinitely better than last week, but I still do the maths on how much of the run is complete with the passing of each km.  1km done, 5% down, 2km 10% and so on.  I know there’s really 21km in a half, but the last km doesn’t count.

The first km or two are pretty flat and feel pretty good.  As usual, despite feeling like I’m running really slow, my watch disagrees and says I’m going at 4min per km which is a recipe for disaster.  Force myself to slow to c. 5m 15 per km on the flat.  Then we hit the first of the various quite lumpy hills on the course and the reason for the difficulty rating becomes clear.  The sun has also come out and the temperature is high 20s in the shade and more in the sun.

My tactic is to walk through the aid stations, take a drink of water, then energy, then more water, then dump water down my back.  I already know I won’t be able to eat or take gels ( stomach is finely balanced as usual at this stage ) so I know I have to rely on my nutrition on the bike to get me through, plus the calories from the energy drinks.  Salt tabs twice a lap too to try to keep off the cramps.

The first half of the loop is quite tough.  Some of the hills are pretty nasty and get the heart rate higher than I want.  I’m trying to keep it between 145 and 155 most of the time, only going above that on the steeper hills.  Generally this is going ok and I’m feeling strong.  No signs of any cramp – a major improvement on last week.

At about 4km we get the first sight of the lap band volunteers which I know later in the race is going to be one of the best bits – those guys are giving loads of support, which to be honest, apart from the finish area is a bit lacking on this course.

The second half of the run loop is easier – more downhills, getting the lap band and then onto the final straight with loads of people, before the slightly demoralising left instead of right turn onto lap two instead of the finish chute.

Lap two of three is inevitably going to be the hardest and it proves to be.  It’s largely uneventful though, getting more familiar with the harder bits and where I can push the pace a bit.  I’m getting pretty confident of knocking out 1h 55 or better, which should mean under 6 hours for the race.  Not a spectacular time by any means, but not a car crash on a hilly course.  See James mid way round, he’s moving steadily and seems OK.  We have quick chat and agree it’s a bit hilly.  See the girls at the end of the lap for more nice cheers.

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The third lap is quite nice indeed… I know it’s ‘only’ 7km and then we’re done.  I continue  with the tactic of walking through aid stations until the last one, then hopelessly miscalculate how far is left and decide to bomb it to try and do 1h 45 for the HM, which would be close to a PB for a 70.3.  It turns out there’s about 2.5km left, and I almost have to calm down again, but then the final lap band guy gives a big shout ( great feeling ) with my red lap band and I know I can bring it home.

I give a big swear when 1h 45 comes and goes, but then I see the girls again, get to turn right instead of left and there’s the finish arch.  Done.

There’s no finish time on the arch ( I can later see from the pictures it’s on the one side but not the one I’m looking at on the final stretch ) so I have no clue of total time til later.  My run time is 1h 46, which is very pleasing, especially the amount of energy I had left for the last few km and taking into account the hilly bike and the 70.3 the weekend before.  Later find out I’ve passed a couple hundred more people on the run.

I feel pretty knackered and a bit sick in the finisher area, so take a seat after collecting the medal and finisher t shirt.  I quickly neck two bottles of water and feel a bit better.  As usual I can’t face the prospect of food yet.  They’re also giving out free beer, and despite the fact I desperately want to want it, I can’t face that either.  Poor form, but there’s time for that.  I collect the bike and street bags nice and quickly and head back to meet Karen and the girls and watch Tom and James come home.

I take up a nice place in the sun, close to the finish line and Karen tells me I’ve done 5h 49, which is decent.  29 minutes slower than PB but this isn’t really a PB course relative to Dubai back in January which was loads flatter.  Learn that Tom is coming through shortly and James a bit after that but both doing well.  We see Tom home, then go sit for a couple of beers in a nice French cafe before seeing James home.

We then go and get our bikes and run bags, drop the bikes back off at ship-my-tri-bike and hit the merch tent one last time ( nice hoodie to add to the gear from Friday ) before heading back for some well earned beers, food and champagne.

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The late afternoon and evening are fantastic… great company, reliving parts of the race, relaxing, having a great meal etc.  Always one of the best parts of race weekend.  We’re disappointed to find out Tom has absolutely nailed his pre-race predictions and has clearly changed his tactics to win the 18 euro from me and James.  Inevitably though around 10pm everyone’s knackered and it’s time for bed.

Next morning we have a lazy brunch in another cafe with a couple of beers in the sun which was a fantastic way to end a great weekend in a beautiful place.

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I really, highly recommend this race.  It’s well organised, though has the downside of a big distance between T1 and T2 and the wait for the bus on Saturday was a pain.  Probably bad luck on our part.  The bike course is stunning and though challenging, must be one of the best ones I’ve done.  The support is a bit quiet in places, nothing compared to IMW for example, but in the heart of the town it’s really nice.  Not PB territory but a great race to do.  Might well do it again one day.

My next event is the 95 mile Dragon Ride in mid-June with about 20,000 metres of climbing ( not quite ) where I have some demons to banish from 2015.

A quick check of Ironman points ranking when I get home tells me I’m third in the UK for my age group… not bad at all, though probably because I’m the only one in the country who’s done 3 races so early in the year!  The only way is down…

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