Pre-race

Tom and I returned to race the 70.3 Aix after having an epic time at the same one 12 months earlier.  This was the first IM branded race I’ve done twice (to be joined later in the year by IM Wales )… Being the ever-generous husbands, we took Karen & Nicola who love nothing more than 72 hours of triathlon talk and faff.

We flew out on Friday morning for a Sunday race.  Packing and travel was all pretty smooth other than Tom having amusing stress trying to get his pedals off his bike (probably for the first time ever) and me with a slightly edgy moment when the Canyon wouldn’t fit into bikeboxalan, but eventually all was good.

After a 90 minute drive from Nice we arrived into Aix early Friday evening.  The town centre was a bit mental as there were roadworks everywhere and so we had a bit of a walk to our airbnb.  The location was immense – right opposite the reg tent, 100m from merch (result) and 150m from the finish line.  Honestly couldn’t be better.  It was a lovely flat in a building dating from the 1600’s and with Tom on the trip, we hoped the plumbing had been updated.

We headed out to register (stupid system with a one desk for license, another desk for race pack and another desk 100m away for the athlete rucksack).  The rucksack is WAY better than last year’s which was pretty lame.  Then one of the highlights of any IM race — first hit of the merch tent.  Only 50 euro blown this time (with Karen’s encouragement) but I knew I’d be back (and duly was as you can see…).

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The weather was tremendous (25 degrees & it was the same all day next day too), so went to find a bar for a drink.  Everywhere was pretty busy but we found a spot in the sun and got a couple of beers and a couple of mojitos.  In a massive disappointment the only beer they had on tap was Grimbergen which really did live up to its name.  Who drinks it knowingly remains a mystery. 

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We moved onto to another bar or two for much improved beers and then me and Tom shared an awesome 1kg steak and a bottle of red in a lovely restaurant. Nutrition = fifth discipline (fourth clearly is merch).

Back at the flat we caught the end of the Cardiff Blues game which was ace, another beer and then a pretty early night.

Saturday morning was much more stressful.  Putting the bike back together was easy work til it came to the final bit, the left pedal.  It wouldn’t go on at all by hand so I used the pedal spanner, eventually it got half way in but was pointing at a really funny angle.  I took it off and tried again but same result.  A bit panicked I didn’t want to force it so went straight to IM bike service (also right opposite the front door thank God) to get some help.  I got a MASSIVE sick feeling in my stomach when the mechanic’s face dropped when he saw it, and I timed it just right as a big queue built up behind me and they started sending people away.  Disaster was thankfully averted when his much more gentle approach eventually got the pedal on at the right angle.  ‘Don’t touch it’ he commands and I was completely on board with that advice.  Lesson learned = be more gentle with the vectors and build the bike straight away just in case…

We all grabbed a quick coffee and then me and Tom decided we probably should go to the briefing in case anything had changed since last year.  The one English briefing (a bit mad when 40% of the field isn’t French) was rammed, but we’ve booked so we get a seat and wait.  Two things stood out – a) they reiterated it was closed roads which turned out (again) to be a big lie; b) the weather forecast was a bit ominous (it had been all week, but given it was 25 and hot Friday and that day we’d refused to believe it) so we were advised to put all the clothes we owned in the bike bag just in case.  Hmmm.

They also showed an epic video of last year’s highlights, which soon got the heart pumping.  

We then headed back to the flat to finish packing the bags (nice to have someone in the building to compare contents with) and then headed out for more faff.  This race has a split transition, with the swim and T1 about half hour drive north of Aix.  We’d booked the first shuttle to take the bikes and bag up and after a bit of a scrum to get on we were on our way.  Enjoyed a quick siesta on the bus.

We’d seen all we needed to see of the swim and T1 last year, so we racked the bikes, took a look at which pros were racing (Gossage, Wurf – the latter who chickened out, probably after seeing the weather forecast) picked up the timing chip and then caught the bus back to town.  

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After another sleep on the bus, we met Karen & Nic at T2 with run bags and then checked out the new T2 location and layout.  It was big and confusing, but was calm compared to what it would be like in about 20 hours time. But all that fun was to come.  AWA status gets me a racking spot right in front of the entrance which is nice.

We then had a quick walk around town, another beer, stopped in the supermarket (next to the flat — immense location) for post-race provisions (beer, crisp and dry roasted nuts) then it’s back to the flat to watch more rugby.  After a massive pizza and litres of fizzy water, we get an early night.

Race day

The bedroom was way too hot, and so when the alarm went at a pretty respectable 4.45 I’d had shocking night’s sleep even for IM standards.  The shuttles started leaving at 5.30 from about 5 mins walk from the flat (genius).  Breakfast was a bowl of Tom’s pretty disgusting Aldi porridge (the only flaw of the place was that it didn’t have a microwave for my stuff) a banana and a coffee.  Final check of the street gear bag and a last minute debate on what to wear.  I settled on a cr@p tri vest with the new cr@p tri top on top.  It was the first outing for the new top, which turned out to be very much in the crop-top style despite ordering a size up.  ‘Second skin’ was an apt guide to sizing.

Karen murmured good luck and we were soon on the bus on our way. 

We got to T1 about 6 and it was surprisingly busy.  People and cars everywhere.  The weather was decent — cloudy but not cold, no wind.  We were relieved to have dodged that bullet… We were also delighted to hear the official water temp was 20 degrees which was nicely warmer than the River Ely the previous Thursday in my first wetsuit outing for 8 months.

We both did our final bike checks (well, nearly at least…), dropped the drinks, nutrition and garmin on and after the final toilet stop found a bench to relax til it was time to get suited up.  

Unbelievably we spotted another person taking a dump in the field next to us (just like last year, with heart rate monitor on again).  Then after dropping the street gear bags we head to the swim start.

It was the usual rolling start system which I’m a massive fan of.  Tom’s thinking 35 ish, I’m 38 ish but we queue together for a bit before I hung back towards the end.  On my own with my thoughts I realised I didn’t check tyre pressure, so for all I knew at that point, both of them popped late Saturday afternoon and I’m in for an epic T1 time.  ‘Can’t do anything about it’ I told myself, and in no time I saw Tom flying (well, walking gingerly) into the lake, just as the leading male pro is finishing up (22 minutes, fine work).  I was relieved to see everyone had loads of room in the water.

Heart rate naturally increased as I jogged into the water, but the temp was fine and really quickly I got into good space and rhythm and I felt happy.  I had a tight chest for a few minutes after a few hundred metres which was a bit weird, but I knew it was temporary and it soon passed.  

I felt like I was moving pretty well.  Overtaking people which is a novelty for me in the water, and occasionally trying (and failing) to draft feet in front.  It was quite pleasing to be quicker than the swimmers I was trying to follow (probably not for them as I clipped their feet on the way past).

The swim is basically a long straight out, a 90 degree right turn, then another after about 20 metres, then a long straight to the finish.  The first straight passed pretty quickly and all felt well.  There’s a cheeky indent in the lake on the way back which last year I thought was the finish (as many do this year I could see) but I ignored that and pretty soon I saw the finishing arch.  My lines were reasonable for me, though according to garmin I still managed to find a bonus 200m.

A volunteer helped me up the ramp and the swim was done.  Quick glance at the watch shows under 37 minutes which is a comfortable 70.3 PB for me.  Very happy with that indeed.  Official time was 37m 12 which puts me a lowly 1,165th out of 2,029 starters (153rd in my AG of about 400).  That though was a whole FIVE minutes quicker than last year, so I was off to a good start.

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It’s a 5 or 600m jog into T1 with some nice support along the path.  Found my bike gear bag easily enough and then I began my comically slow attempt to get my wetsuit off efficiently.  Failing miserably, my good start was partly wasted away and because the weather still seemed good and I want to get a shift on, I made a CATASTROPHIC decision to leave my arm warmers and gloves in the bag.  I eventually got my dazzling pink socks on, race number in place, helmet and sunglasses on and ran off to find my bike.  

Pleased to find a toilet right by my rack (AWA perk for sure) I took a quick pee then grabbed the bike and headed to the bike start arch (thankfully tyres are still in good shape – no early disaster there).  

The distance from the lake to T1 means it’s never going to be a record breaker, but 7m 42 is a still a tad slow… ouch.

The first 90 mins or so of the bike was really similar to last year. It’s a gradual drag uphill for the first 20k or so, couple of sharp climbs lasting 2km or so each and some absolutely fantastic descents on switchback roads in stunning French countryside which had me literally shouting out in enjoyment.. definitely one of the best bits of the day and favourite parts of all the races I’ve done.

I was a bit surprised to catch Tom at about 25k, much earlier than expected.  He’d had a very strong swim and said he was feeling good.  We had a quick chat and then I moved on.

I was using power and trying to hit a 200w average for the bike and was bang on track.  Average speed was also pretty good at 29/30 kmph which was on track.

One disappointing thing early on was that this was clearly not a closed road course.  At the briefing they said there might be one or two French gents out getting their Sunday baguette, but for one stretch of about 5km there were loads of cars, both sides of the roads and when you’re down on the bars doing nearly 40kmph, it’s a bit disconcerting to see cars flying towards you.  Poor form for an IM race.

Anyway, from about 50km there were occasional bits of rain, but up til about 2h of the bike it was all fine… the temp was OK, the wind wasn’t too bad and I thought I might just have got away with the choice of clothes.  Nutrition was also going perfectly.

IMG_4265Then the day got a bit nasty.

At about 60k whilst down on the bars on a pretty innocuous piece of road, moving nicely, the temperature felt like it dropped by about 10 degrees instantly.  It was like hitting a wall of cold, I’ve never felt anything like it.  ‘Uh oh’ I thought.  The forecast was probably right and my clothing was probably going to be a problem (most other riders had sensible jackets on or were stopping to get more layers on).

At a similar point on the course, the final, big climb starts to come into view and where last year it was gloriously clear and beautiful, this year we couldn’t see even remotely close to the top because it was covered in nasty looking clouds.

Then the rain really started to hammer down and the wind picked up.  The 4km climb ( about 600m elevation so not a really biggie) was ok as the climbing kept me warm, but at the top it was ridiculously cold and windy.

The Garmin showed the temperature dropped to 3 degrees on mountain from about 13 at the start of the race and 25 the day before.  3 isn’t pleasant any time, but with my choice of outfit it was shocking.

The last 20km or so of the bike should be fantastic.  It’s mostly downhill, a great chance to get the average speed up, lovely switchback roads and great scenery.

This time it was carnage … multiple ambulances, loads of crashes, people being taken into people’s houses to warm up, groups huddled under blankets, there was lightning (frightening thought when you’re on a carbon bike) and I genuinely can’t believe they didn’t call it off.  At one stage there was a ambulance in the middle of the road just after a blind corner on a descent and I was sure they were stopping people.  As it was they were picking someone up off the road and I gingerly made my way past.

For most of the last 15/20k I had my brakes fully clamped on, trying to stay on the road (turns out carbon brakes really are really bad in torrential rain), everything was absolutely freezing cold and I was genuinely really close to jacking it in (I probably would have had it not been so far from warmth).  Nutrition and drink went out of the window and I finished the bike with 2 full bottles of energy.

After counting down the km’s, I finally got to T2 and a nice passage of supporters for the last few hundred metres.  I was shocked and gutted to see people were on the run course … again I’d convinced myself they would have called it off, but they hadn’t, the buggers.  I figured I’d go into transition, get changed and work out whether to run or not.  I was thinking not.

My bike time was 3h 13, which was 4 mins slower than last year and 13 mins over target at the start of the day.  I had though overtaken a couple of hundred people and was up to a lofty 922nd / 2,029 (132nd in AG).

I got into T2 in a complete daze, managed to find my racking spot and headed to get my run bag and thankfully a spare seat under a gazebo.  It was comical in there.  There were ambulances and foil blankets everywhere, people (including me) shaking comically with the cold.  There must have been loads calling it a day.  There was good trench spirit amongst fellow competitors under the tent and one by one we make the very difficult decision to get on with it.

It took me a spectacular 11 minutes + to do what should have taken about 3.  Getting my fresh socks and trainers on took ages, trying to take the now even tighter tri top off was a nightmare, though the fresh, mainly dry pink cr@p t shirt felt lovely to pull on.

I had no idea how to get out onto the run course, but eventually found the way and, thank god, got a foil blanket off a medic, wrapped it as fully around my top half as I could and started running.  I realised I hadn’t stopped my watch after the bike, so my splits will be all over the shop.  Ah well.

I saw Karen and Nicola (huge kudos for even leaving the flat in that weather) right at the run start who apparently didn’t even get an acknowledgment let alone a smile.  Then pretty quickly I saw Tom coming into the final 100m of the bike and give a big shout.  He seemed reasonably cheerful to me, though later found out he’d had a similarly epically tough last hour or two.

The run course is 3 loops of about 7km (slightly less this year as it was a bit short), around town and through a (usually nice) park.  3 feed stops on each lap.

I was wrapped in the foil blanket and so had little idea how fast I was going, and resolved to do everything on feel as time has long gone out of the window – this was now about the medal and getting to the finish line.

One benefit of my last 20k of the bike is that I’ve used hardly any energy apart from trying to warm up, so I’ve got loads of gas for the run.

The course is very slightly different to last year, but it’s mostly familiar and first loop actually went pretty quickly.  I saw Karen & Nic again just after getting the first lap band, though they were in a different place to last lap just to confuse us.

I finally took first look at my watch at 8k (!) and I’d done 41m something which wasn’t too bad, so I started to concentrate again.  I’d warmed up a fair bit too, so I took off the blanket but tucked it into my race belt in case the rain got worse (which made me look like I was running in a freaking tutu) and headed off to try and do a 1h 45 HM and get under 6h total.

The second lap felt WAY better than last year (the middle bit of the run is always the worst bit for me) and my pace was on target (the new target at least).  I’d left my salt tabs and gels in T2 so only took on cups of energy drink and water at the feed stops, which I mostly walked through.

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The second lap band was soon on, and it was onto the final lap … I was feeling way better than 2h earlier in the day and maintaining good pace.  The first half of the loop has a couple of hills in (total run course has 200m) so that slowed me a bit, but I was still running c 4m 50 / 5m per km and feeling decent.

The best bit of the run is the final 1km / 1.5km, all downhill, down the main street of Aix and towards the big fountain and finish line.  I saw Nicola first and then Karen right at the finish line and that was it.  As usual I forgot to look up at the arch to check official time, but my watch shows 5h 49 which was, amazingly, EXACTLY the same as last year.

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I felt really drained at the end and had a quick hug with Karen before heading into the athlete village to get the medal, nice finisher t shirt and collect my street gear & bike bag and get a lifesaving hoodie on.

As usual I couldn’t even look at the food, sadly didn’t  come close to taking the beer that’s on offer, but I did  manage two cups of coke which tasted great and helped out.

Then I headed out to meet the girls to see Tom home.  It was still freezing and stopping moving didn’t help me stay warm sadly, but it wasn’t long til Tom was on the final straight and finishing.  He still looked pretty cheerful, good effort fair play.

I dropped my stuff at the flat then went to meet Tom outside the finishers’ area … we had a good hug (slightly too long for comfort, but it was a tough day) & a look of ‘that was bloody hard’.  We decided to go collect bikes & bike bags straight away and headed back to the flat for a good hard warm up and sit down.

Official time was 5h 49m 31s, which was actually 6 whole seconds quicker than last year.  I’d overtaken another few hundred on the bike so finished 661st overall (2,029 starters) and 91st in AG.

Post-race

The evening after as always was great – reliving the horror of the last hour of the bike especially, we had some drinks and a great meal, but also as always, tiredness kicks in after an 18 hour or so day and I was in bed well before midnight.  Lightweight.

Lucy Gossage is about as quick at writing race sports as doing the race, so her report is read over dinner (https://lucygossage.com/getting-2018-off-ground/).  She’s had a fine but hard day too and we felt better that the pros didn’t get an easy ride by finishing before the nasty stuff started.  She’s miffed (to put it mildly) that a drug cheat has beaten her to the podium.  A bit of research revealed that particular cheat didn’t just dope but also tried to bribe the officials – fine form.

In the end I was a bit frustrated the weather hit and took probably 15+ minutes off my time.  I was feeling really strong on the bike and after delivering a PB swim I was hoping to comfortably beat last year’s time and get something around 5h 30, a respectable time for me on that course.

But, I was also very happy to have finished and not succumbed to the real temptation to jack it in after the bike.  It’s a good thing me and Tom didn’t finish the bike at the same time as he was feeling the same way.

The DNF rate was confirmed at 27%, the highest I’ve ever seen, with over 500 people of the 2000+ that started calling it a day, probably at the top of the col or at T2.

Looking at where I placed I’m happy to have finished much higher up in my AG and overall compared to last year, but a big miffed to see the same number of IM points as last year.  Can’t figure that out at all.

T2 will stick in the memory for a while – it was awful.  Never shivered so violently.  Later we find out that someone spent 1h 27 there (good stats work Karen)!

After doing this race two years in succession, I can very strongly recommend it.  The course is beautiful and usually the weather behaves.  Split transition is a bit of a bind but they organise it pretty well.  And Aix itself is a spectacular place. We’ll be heading somewhere new next year though.

My next event was Tour of Pembs 107 mile hilly sportive the following weekend … it was TOUGH but sunny & balmy.  Funny thing the weather.  

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