To be honest, it seems a little silly to write a race report about Ironman France now. I gave myself a month to decompress and process after a pretty frustrating day in Nice that led to my second Ironman DNF in a row after Cozumel. But to be depressed after a bad day at a sporting event seems trivial in comparison to the horrors that happened along the same Promenade des Anglais on Bastille Day just over a month later. So I wrote the post a few weeks ago, published it, reconsidered and then took it down just a few hours later.
But I (admittedly) kind of swept Coz under the rug and would hate to do the same for France. So here are some of the things I learned from flying all the way to France to swim, bike and crash out of an Ironman thousands of miles from home.
Ugh, this is a long one, I'm sorry. Scroll past the boring stuff based on the headlines if you want to get to the exciting part (gory stitches photos, excuses galore, etc.)
All the Boring Pre-Race Stuff, Feel Free to Scroll Past...
I had some of my best training days in the lead up to Ironman France. I had a 100+ mile day on the bike up one of the toughest mountains around that I crushed, solo. This same ride was during a doozy of an 18hr week on the bike (not counting swim and run), three weeks out from race day. I was on top of my swimming game and masters had me cruising through some of the harder sets. My running was starting to come into form, including a 20-mile "taper" run at 7:30 pace in the heat. I felt great.
But you can do all of the big things right in training and still be somewhat of a sh!tshow. I swear sometimes I think I'm the most type Z triathlete out there when it comes to anything other than training (including training, sometimes... now that I think about it). At the same time I was headed off to France, my boyfriend was leaving for Portland for the entire summer (current countdown: 14 days, phew!!), so I found myself skipping more and more workouts to squeeze in quality time with him.
Tip #1: The little things count more than you think.
I opted out of Rev3 Knoxville olympic to go bananas on the XTERRA Alabama course and concuss myself at the same time. But, hey, got a nice little LAVA mention out of it! In general, I failed at the recovery piece of things. So while looking on paper my ramp up to Ironman France seemed half-decent, it was really just piecing together "the best I could do" at the time. I'm sure we've all been there at some point, right? Oh well.
Tip #2: What seems like the most fun, usually isn't the best choice.
So without too much vacation time to spare (started the new gig in January), I flew to Italy (cheaper) on the Wednesday before the race. Tired from running around in the days leading up to it (plus perhaps a little help from Lunesta), I was out cold and missed the first two crummy airplane meals before waking up in Milan, 9am their time, ready to go). The original plan was to take a train from Milan to Nice but with rail strikes in the days leading up to my trip, the plan changed. While at the airport in Charlotte, I jumped on Europcar and booked a little Fiat Panda.
To set the tone of the entire trip, I was trying to do a three point turn while lost somewhere in Italy within the first twenty minutes of my drive on back-roads (but oh, the cyclists! So many of you!) and could not for the life of me figure out where the reverse gear was. In my automatic car, the reverse is to the left of first gear. Apparently in the little Euro-Panda, it was to the right. It would take me two more days to figure this out. So I hopped out of the car and pushed that little Panda backwards myself, cross-fit style.
Long story short and a love/hate relationship with European roads/drivers later (for the love of God, don't cut me off like that unless you want to plunge into the sea... thank you for staying right except for efficient passing... let's ramp this Panda up to 90mph... I'm moving over I swear, you don't have to honk within the nanosecond), the 3.5 hours Google Maps promised it would take me to get from Milan to Nice ended up being over SEVEN hours. This Euro-traffic put DC to shame (and that's saying a lot).
Then I got to Nice and despite being promised a parking opportunity outside my AirBNB, I could not even figure out a way to drive up to the AirBNB in the old town without driving through a heavily-populated square. After 2hours of driving within a 2-mile radius, I ended up parking a half mile away, spending close to $300 in parking the entire trip, and having to lug my bike and all my gear up the steepest hill in Nice to where I was staying.
Tip #3: Extra cash up front can sometimes save you (more) cash and headache down the road.
I just kept repeating to myself that "even if you're hemorrhaging money now, a little splurge never hurt anyone...." as the cortisol levels shot higher and higher... I know I sound like I'm teeing up one of the most epic @triexcuse posts ever. I'll totally own that fact. But just because these are "excuses", doesn't mean most of them were not created in part by my poor planning.
Crying Tally, Day 1: IIII
I ended up waking up the day before the race with a massive rash across my entire back and a throbbing swollen spot on my upper right rib cage. I would end up being able to feel the soreness each stroke on the swim. I ended up going to the derm a month later as it lingered on, convinced I had "Shingles, Part II" (I had them back in 2011) but they didn't really know what it was. I didn't get much of anything as far as workouts go in the days leading up to the race because I literally only arrived with about 48 hours to spare. Despite the fact that my deep sleep on the flight over made me feel like I was on European time, the whole time I think I was really suffering from serious jet lag and just didn't realize it.
Tip #4: The earlier you can arrive before a far-off race, the better. I think general wisdom is one day per time zone.
We had a great, extra long pro meeting that was conducted in both French and English and featured a variety of ridiculous questions, per usual. I ran into Karen and Leslie, happy to speak English with ease for the first time after the past few days of helplessly mangling the French tongue. And, oh yeah, I do have to brag that I functioned in a foreign country for 3 days without phone or internet as my cell phone charger mysteriously disappeared on the flight over and chargers + converters were hard to find.
Race morning, I lined up next to Leslie, which was comfortable since we're friends from back in my HPB days. She would go on to crush the entire field and make it to the podium. I started out okay, pushed hard and swam for the first buoy. About twenty minutes in, I started feeling weird. I would later ask some of the other pro females whether it got very shallow on the far end of the two-loop-lollypop course. Apparently it did not.
All I remember was that even in the deep waters, it felt like the rocks were coming up towards me. I described my feeling to someone who told me it sounded a lot like vertigo, something I've never experienced. But it definitely threw me for a loop and I felt off the entire swim.
On the far side of loop one, I was hugging the buoys and lane rope they had set up to barricade the turn. Despite being directly outside the buoy line, one of the kayakers cut in front of me and made me swing extra-wide. I would later find out from a faster female pro that another kayaker did the same thing between the first four leaders, effectively splitting the front pack and forcing them into two groups of two. To this day, I don't know what the kayaker was trying to accomplish, other than slowing us down, illegally.
Even before the end of the first leg, I knew I had a bad swim. But I ran out of the water, excited to put my climbing capabilities to good use and crush this difficult course.
Hello, Legs? Are you there? It's me, Margaret.
Overall, my power was dismal. I could not get into a rhythm and on the climbs found myself stuck grannying in my easiest gear as people passed me right and left. As someone who has spent the past two years doing nothing but crushing similar climbs, I was surprised to find that day that my legs did not show up. I had no idea what to blame—perhaps jet lag or the weird viral-like rash that showed up pre-race or maybe just sub-par training in the months leading up to the race. But even before the crash that would ultimately take me out, the bike I had at France was not indicative of what I was capable of on that day. It was a huge disappointment, to put it mildly.
The one thing I will say is that the views are stunning at Ironman France and once I recover mentally, I may be back in a few years. The climbs left you with amazing panoramic views and finishing an epic climb at the top of the mountain—the closest race experience I have had in the last few years that reminded me of Norseman or of biking here in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Finally, the last twenty or so miles featured a treacherous descent back to the start, with athletes crashing out whenever they took a switchback too aggressively. Looking at some of the splits compared to fellow female pros, I must say I rode the descents like a B.A., out-splitting most pro women aside from eventual winner Tine Deckers. In all honesty, the IM France switchbacks were nothing worse than I would find on any of my home loops, save for cars that actually respect the white line/median. There were a few close calls between several cars and cyclists that make me surprised that everyone made it out alive post-bike.
Tip #5: Closed Courses are the best—but everyone could stand to brush up on their bike-handling skills, if only for safety purposes
The last few miles have you stomping on the pedals down the Promenade des Anglais in incredibly tight quarters given that it's a bunch of cyclists hungry to get to T2. There was barely enough passing room in the final stretch and I had a guy sitting aggressively on my wheel as we hammered it into T2. I was feeling okay—but not awesome—and there were no great warnings as to when the end of the bike was coming up. So with about 2 miles to go, thinking the end was near, I took my feet out of my shoes and placed them on top. Waiting, waiting... waiting, T2 was nowhere to be found.
Tip #6: Know the Course. Like, really know the course. Down to scoping out T2 and planning when you'll start to prep for Transition.
With about a half mile to go, I was foggy and my foot slipped and my pedal swing down and within seconds my shoe was flying off my bike and into everyone's way. I thought to myself, "shoot, there it is. Intentional littering and $300 bike shoes, down the drain."
By the time I was done filling up my mental online shopping cart of the next bike shoe I should buy, we hit the dismount line. I ran, barefoot, bike in hand, down the narrow transition pathway. I would later find out that the normal bike catchers had been scheduled for race support—but along with the train strike, they too were on strike.
On a serious note, this is what made the Nice attacks so real for me: the Promenade is incredibly narrow. You do not realize it until you are there. So narrow that the transition racks are shorter than most races and even then, only one bike can fit through the free space in the aisle at a time. I think about the poor people watching the fireworks and knowing the confined space and that there is truly nowhere to go and simply cry.
But I ran down the narrow pathway, admittedly feeling slightly light-headed and slightly like I did during the swim when the imaginary rocks were zooming at me. An amateur male ran out from the racks in front of me, and cut me off as he ran to his T2 bag. I started to swerve to avoid him but in my out-of-it state, swerved too far and my front wheel hit the concrete block that was holding up the fence surrounding transition.
I went head over bike and was momentarily stunned, out of it. Thankfully I still had my helmet on at that point. The adrenaline was still going so I started to try to stand up but could see the blood pulsing out of my front right foot. My rear cassette had taken a chunk out of my foot, three deep bites. My head hurt and my left knee hurt. I tried to stand up and get my bike and just saw the blood pooling around my foot and was looking down into the tendons of my foot. I started to cry, knowing it was over.
The amazing medic team came and they decided that there was no way I could continue on. I stood up, trying to walk to medical and I did nothing more than leave a puddle of blood trailing behind me in transition. They told me to stop. I eventually was carried along in a make-shift wheelchair to the med tent, where the medics decided that I need stitches there unless I wanted to continue to lose even more blood.
Tip #7: If you happen to crash a bike, be sure to keep your shoes on.
Med Tent Stitches
They gave me some painkillers and a local anesthetic. The french woman stitching me up pauses when she sees me start to cry.
"Does it hurt?" she asked in broken English. "Do we need to apply more anesthetic?" I say no, the pain of receiving stitches does not hurt—it is the pain of not being able to finish the race.
I ended up getting six stitches altogether, though in retrospect I think the largest incision on my foot could have used some extra closure.
Despite being covered in blood and bandages/stitches on my knee/foot, it was surprisingly hard to actually clock out and finish the race. I actually wasn't able to turn in my timing chip until close to 9pm when I finally woke up from my pain-killer stupor and decided that I had to retrieve my bike and turn in my timing chip.
Crying Tally: Race-Day: IIIIIIIIIII
That time I almost gave myself a Tetanus shot
The weird thing about France is the way they do healthcare. I read online that you have to first go to the Pharmacie and pick up your shot and then find the doctor to administer it. After much googling ("how to ask for a tetanus shot in France", "what beauty products should you buy while in France") I walked into the Pharmacie and after 20 minutes of staring a beauty products, I managed to bumble through my request for "un vaccin contre le tétanos" and "pansements" (bandages). They fulfilled my request, plus also threw in 3 La Roche Posay samples, I think out of pure pity. Let's just say the freebie CC cream and moisturizer made the trip worth it—new staples!
I then spent the next three hours roaming the streets of Nice on my gimpy foot—by now, bleeding through the ghetto band-aid saran-wrap I had set up and swollen—trying to find a doctor who would be able to administer the tetanus serum, by now probably rancid from being out in the Côte d'Azur sun.
Tip #8: If your doctor says stay off your feet, stay off your feet. Holy moly swollen foot!
I actually texted fellow Pro Karen Thibodeau, also a nurse, to see if she could shoot me up pro bono. Unfortunately she didn't see it until after I found my French doctor, but that would have made for another hilarious story.
Crying Tally: Day after the Race IIIII
Found some great places along the Coast
If you do go to the south of France, I highly recommend Menton as a place to go. Despite still working East Coast hours while on the trip, I managed to stop in Monaco and Menton on the drive back to Milan and enjoy some of the amazing food, wine and coastal sights to help make up for the debacle that was the rest of the trip.
Home Sweet Home with some Hitches
Unlike the trip over, I stayed awake the entire trip back. I got back to Charlotte and lo and behold they lost my bike. I'm normally not a pushy person but at this point, after they told me they knew my bike was in the US but just not sure where, I was on high alert. I made the gate agent walk back through Customs with me. And then we found another guy, who I convinced to walk me back through to the intake area. It only took me 2 hours of harassing people but I got my bike and was able to drive the two hours back to Asheville, never happier to be home, sleeping in my own bed and (relatively) all in one piece.
Tip #9 Persistence with a smile can get you further than you think.
Crying Tally: Flight Home III
I've spoken with Stover some and we've added a new race day rule that any races requiring significant travel, particularly those in foreign countries with foreign languages, should include some sort of sherpa or travel buddy. For me, unless everything goes smoothly and to plan, traveling and racing solo has been nothing but a headache and added stressor that distracts from the race. So for now I am focusing on domestic racing and will potentially re-evaluate in 2017 and/or start bugging people to travel to races with me.
Tip #10: Avoid all international travel without some sort of sherpa
The END—thanks for staying with me!