Why did I chose Ironman France for my first Ironman distance event?

Completing Ironman 70.3 Bintan in August, 2016 was the first step towards accomplishing a long term objective with which I began my triathlon journey. Post discussing my development plan with my coach Deepak, I meticulously started identifying the next Ironman Challenge for 2017. My first priority was Ironman Malaysia as it made sense financially. But till then there were no signs of registrations opening up anytime soon and most of the other courses I was looking at in Europe were sold out. Ironman South Africa was another option, but it was too close and would not allow me sufficient time to prepare. Keeping parameters such as timing, logistics, cost and destination that can be clubbed with family holiday into account, I narrowed down on Ironman France and Ironman Wales.

Honestly, looking at the run course for IM Wales, I din’t have the balls to sign up for it as my first Ironman event. On the other hand, IM France has one of the toughest bike course with almost 2000 meters elevation gain, but it is equally spectacular. Not to forget the beautiful swim in the Mediterranean and flat run course in along the beach in Cot d’Azur. Coach put me in touch with Gael Couturier who had done this course 7 times and had registered again for 2017. I spoke to him and dint take too long before signing up for it towards the end of December, 2016.

Challenging training period

For me, the Ironman  challenge began from the day 1. The training period brought with it a host of challenges at all fronts. Despite doing things the right way, something or the other continued to go wrong. And then I had another bike accident (the one I have no recollection of till date), caught severe cold post a 200 km brevet and stomach infection closer to the event: in all setting me back by 2.5 months. Moreover the only pool functional in the city during winters was almost 25 kms away and the time slot available conflicted with m office hours. So the months of Jan and Feb went without a single swim session and managed to squeeze in two sessions in the month of March. On numerous occasions I tried to make a plan to visit the hill stations over a weekend to get used to a hilly terrain, but it dint materialize.

Majority of my training blocks were done during the peak summer months in Delhi. After the accident, I restricted my rides to an Indoor trainer and for swim I relied on the 21 meters pool in the residential complex. The only condition was to access it during the first slot in the morning at 6:00 a.m. to avoid the feeling of a fish market. For my runs, I found the 2 kms loop of my residential complex quite convenient. It used to get boring to run in loops during odd hours in the afternoon or late night after coming back from office. But it allowed me to simulate my hydration and nutrition for Ironman by keeping the supply at the starting point and accessing it again after every loop.

I had moved my job in September 2016 and was spending more time traveling; not because my office was far, but owing to the crazy traffic. Lil Kenisha was turning 2 and everyone who has met her has a sense of how active she is and can’t be left alone even for a few seconds. While Karuna and I were getting accustomed to this change in our life, the weather conditions in the city were at an extreme end – swinging between 37-45 degrees on any given day. I had to find time to train at some odd hours to ensure my work and personal life doesn’t get impacted. Even if that meant starting my rides or runs at 9:00 / 10:00 p.m. in the night, leaving me with the option of having dinner at midnight. But I ensured I spend enough time with my family over the weekends after my longer workouts. To get an idea of my training volume, you can check my log on Strava here

It ain’t over till it’s over

The hurdles kept popping up time and again till the last minute. To an extent, that I felt jinxed! Despite all odds, we finally landed up at our Airbnb apartment in Nice on the eve of 19th July. Got my registration done at the Ironman expo, which was another story and with help from my friends I managed to secure the medical certificate for a single day license. The Ironman France Expo had most of the triathlon brands with their collection and I picked a few accessories, salt tablets and an Ironman Hippo for Kenisha. I met another Yoska club athlete and a fantastic runner, Mahesh at the expo. We got along pretty well and especially Kenisha, who became very fond of him.

Next morning, I took my bike out for a spin and my wheel got stuck in a gap between the road and rail track and I landed up on my tail bone. Took me a few minutes to get over the terrible pain. Stepped aside, sat down on the bench for few minutes, fixed my handlebar and continued the ride. I wasn’t sure of the directions and there was enough traffic on the main road by then. Not to forget the left hand drive which took a while to get accustomed to. I decided not to venture out too far as the idea was just to do a short ride and to ensure if the bike required any further tuning post assembling it.

In the afternoon I went with Mahesh for a short swim, but I guess the timing was wrong. There were strong waves and the water was extremely choppy, as compared to how calm it was during the morning hours. A short run was something which I skipped completely, but ensured I followed my short core routine as per the plan.

Day prior to the race, packed my transition bags and special needs, spoke to my coach Deepak and then hit the bed around 9:00 p.m. But just couldn’t get any sleep and hardly managed to sleep for an hour. Woke up at 3:00 a.m. and got ready. The only people on the streets at that hour were either the participants and their supporters or people who were returning home from night long parties. The thought of not getting enough sleep was bothering me, but once inside the transition area, I put it all aside.

Swim – Complete Bliss

Despite not having experience of swimming in open water (except during the previous Ironman 70.3 Bintan event) I was not very bothered or hassled about it. Swimming in wetsuit was a different experience and I ensured I did a full distance simulation in the pool a few days before the event. As one of my friend and Ironman triathlete Gaurav joked, people around must be wondering who this batman is, dressed in a wetsuit doing 91 laps of the pool in this heat. I think I was just short of burning and wanted to squeeze myself into the freezer.

The start setup was energizing and there was a small tribute paid to the people who lost their lives last year during a rampage at Promenade Des Anglais. I popped in a gel 20 mins prior to the start, cleared my head, did a short stretch of swim in the sea and moved towards the starting lineup. The water was not very cold and not very choppy. Two loops of different lengths and I managed to come out in 1 hr 21 mins with just one punch and kick in my face. Went a little off course on two occasions before realizing it. Unzipped the wetsuit and ran towards the transition. There was a fair amount of distance to be covered on foot before reaching the bike and I decided not to wear my cleats before reaching the end point to avoid looking like a flapping penguin. But I ended up losing time in transition while taking off the wetsuit.

Bike – Death of the flatlander 

“Keep calm and slow down … it’s a long day ahead” I kept telling myself. Ignored everyone who zipped past me in the flat stretch right at the beginning, but I eventually caught up with them. At the 20km mark, could see the hills and the ascent was not too far. Then came a sharp left turn with steep uphill climb of 13% gradient. It looked like a wall and everyone was off their saddles and running out of gears. If you stopped, you would fall and won’t be able to get back on the saddle until you have good amount of experience in such elevations. People on either sides kept cheering as they knew what we were in for. Kept pushing hard until I covered 3/4th of the climb and then decided to pull a Froome. Unclipped a cleat while pedaling, moved to the side, signaled the rider behind me and got off the bike. No shame in doing that, I told myself and ran a few meters till the top of the climb to turn around and see some more riders following the suit.

Terrain for the Ironman France bike course there after went through numerous serene and beautiful villages like like Gourdon, Gréolières, Bouyon, Saint-Jeannet and Gattières. Soon enough a rider came from behind and initiated a conversation with me. It went like:

Rider: Hey mate! Which part of India are you from?

Me: Delhi. Are you familiar with the place?

Rider: Yeah! I know couple of triathletes there. You know Ingit?

Me: Yep, he is a part of our tri club but I have never met him.

Rider: I know him well from my days back in Ahmedabad

Me: Ah ok (wait a minute) Then you might also be knowing Gael. He has done this route couple of times

Rider: That’s me! I am Gael mate

[I leaned back to read his bib]

Me: It’s me, Siddhant! Remember?

What a funny way to finally meet him. We chatted up for a while and he sounded amused that all my training was on an indoor trainer for this course, as there were no hills in NCR region. Since I was taking it easy, it was difficult to keep up with him. I asked him about the climb and he was extremely generous to say that he will give me company for the climb and then we can take off at our own pace. However, I saw him slow down so that I could catch up with him. I dint find it fair for him and told him that I dint want to slow him down. And off he went like he was riding on a flat terrain. As the GSP tracker hit the 50km mark, the road took a turn and then began the never ending climb. I just moved to the easiest gear, maintained a cadence of 80+ cadence and keep the effort anywhere between 60-70%. I stopped by at all water stations from this point on and by the time I hit 73km mark, I threw up and my body refused to accept any solids. My food pipe was literally burning, I could feel my mouth dry up, my feet and back began to hurt. There came a point, when I decided that I can’t do this on anymore. Stopped my bike on the side and sat down for a few minutes.

Then the thought of all the hard work I had put in during all these months and the hurdles I had to overcome to reach this point would go in vain hit me hard. I remembered what coach Deepak and Allan Pitman had spoken about during the conversation a weekend prior … “Focus on the process and go one minute at a time”. Got back on saddle and continued to focus on 1 min at a time. At the 100 km mark aid station, I was surprised to see Gael. He had a flat tire which he had just managed to fix. I asked him how the climbs were for the rest of the journey. He said “Mate, the tough part is gone. You just have very short climbs now and then begins the downhill”. Somehow the short chat with him got me pepped up and I decided that I was not giving up at any cost. After another 25 kms, I looked at my watch and did the math to realise that if I dint push myself now, I might not be able to make it to the cut off despite completing the run. I changed gears, not literally, and pushed myself hard for the remaining ride on just bananas and water. By the time I completed the ride, I crossed lots of athletes who were already finishing off their first or second loop.

Run – On an empty tank

Met Karuna and Kenisha at the transition who were excited to see me. I had zero energy left for the run but they cheered me up. They were surprised that I took this long for my ride but were equally. Took it easy in the transition, stretched myself and then with whatever was left in my body, mustered all my courage and began my run. I deliberately started much slower than my usual brick run as I knew that the real run would only begin after hitting the 30 kms mark.

Through the run, I kept a watch at my HR and every time it crossed 155, I would start walking and bring it down to 127-130 before running again. The sprinkler showers on the route were quite tempting, but I avoided them to keep my shoes and feet dry. At every aid station, I began having 1:1 portions of coke and water in a small cup to keep going and one salt capsule every hour. Clearly, this was not sufficient to keep me going but I had no choice. I was disappointed looking at my pathetic pace andchanged the screen on my Garmin watch to show only distance, total and HR. Everyone I came across by the end of first loop had 3 bands, which meant that they were finishing their final round. It was quite demotivating, but I kept moving. With every loop, the number of athletes on the track kept dropping exponentially.

After completing my 2nd loop I stopped at the aid station and started chatting up with the support crew to divert my attention. I asked him the time left and did the backward calculation. I realized that I would have to maintain this pace for the remaining 10 km blocks to finish within the cut off time and I could not afford to slow down further. Did just that, put my head down and focused on the process. And there it was, my last loop when there was no daylight and the u-turn point at the 36 kms mark looked like a secluded dark ally. The crowd was very encouraging and as I got closer to the finish line, I knew I had finally overcome all the hurdles that came my way in not just those 15+ odd hours, but the months building up to the event.

Race Summary (nothing great)

SWIM – 01:21:05

T1 – 00:11:39

BIKE – 08:18:01

T2 – 00:15:33

RUN – 05:38:51

TOTAL – 15:45:06

I am pretty satisfied with the time I clocked for the swim. Ride was a disappointment but definitely gives me a fair amount of idea on what to expect during such elevations. The time for run was nowhere close to decent, but the fact that I dint quit on a bad day and finished my Ironman is the only thing that makes me content. It was purely a battle of mind over body.

You can’t do it alone

A lot of people to thank for helping me to accomplish this – Karuna and Kenisha for bearing with my training schedule, Moose and Cherry for being good companions during indoor rides on trainer. My folks and sisters who always encouraged me. Deepak Raj for being a mentor and coach through this journey. YOSKA for providing a good training platform. VeloGCR riding buddies for always being around to help and guide, Sorav for helping me get the wetsuit from UK, KPS Oberoi for offering me the new rear wheel cassette, Aman for helping me get some nutrition for training, Jatin for getting me the compression gear from US, Rama for getting me the new helmet and gps watch from US, Yogesh for carrying some accessories from UK, Vijay for helping me with the indoor trainer and Mark for lending me his bike case again. And there are a lot more people who were always supportive and around for offering their help – right from the IM Swim Group buddies to some of my friends who have been very supportive through the journey.

The beauty of the Ironman France course and the experience of the event cannot be truly captured only in images. But I loved some of these shots taken by Activ’images which have just done that.

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