Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ironman Vichy Race Report

I traveled to Vichy, France for my first international race and I tore that shit up, bro! I did the stars and stripes proud by being the first American across the finish line! I smoked more than half of the other pros in the race enroute to finishing as the 10th male pro and racking up some solid Kona Ranking System points. Word.

If you read enough triathlon race reports -professional or otherwise- you start to develop a pretty good b.s. detector. I do get tired of all the friggin spin, whiny excuses, and convenient omissions written into race reports. An opening paragraph like the one above should raise some eyebrows to anyone who knows the sport. Here's the thing: all that stuff about my race at Ironman Vichy is true, but it also has a heavy dose of spin and a few convenient omissions. I plan on giving you the full spin-less report below.

To get us started, it is definitely true that this was my first international race. In fact, it was only the second time ever that I have traveled internationally. This actually plays a big part in setting up my race performance. My primary reason for being in France was to deliver a paper related to my sabbatical research at the International Cycling History Conference. If you are interested about that part of my trip, I wrote about it here. Also team sponsor Sammy's set me up with a French Look tri bike this season, so it only seemed appropriate to go race the hell out of it on home soil! Since a trip like this was quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience I planned on experiencing as much of French culture as possible regardless if that might be detrimental to my race. What this meant in practice is that I partook of a wide variety of French wines at just about every lunch and dinner while I was there. I ate an obscene amount of carbs in all sorts of wonderful bready configurations. In the 10 days prior to the race I only got in 4 short workouts. It seemed like a better idea to go out and see as much as Paris as possible rather than the alternative of staring at the bottom of another pool for an hour a day! Some late nights coupled with major jet lag also did not make for an ideal taper! I hope this doesn't fall into the category of the whiny excuses I just called out above, but rather just gives you a sense of how I approached the whole trip and race.

Since this was a new Ironman race (it was a Challenge brand race for 2 or 3 years prior to 2015) I want to include more course detail and logistics than I usually would.  I found very little in the way of English-language information about the race other than the official site. More than likely the cheapest overseas flights for Americans will into Paris. From there you can either take a high-speed train (TGV) to get you somewhat close to Vichy followed by a slower regional train. I was coming from southern France, so I took the TGV into Lyon and then rented a car and drove 2 hours to Vichy (a fun? experience in and of itself). Flying into a nearby Eurpoean city like Geneva, Switzerland would also work for this race. Dragging my bike case plus luggage around everywhere was a huge pain in the ass. If you can figure out a race bike rental or way to get your bike to Vichy without taking it with you everywhere I would recommend doing it!

Once in Vichy I lucked out with an amazing homestay. Race organizers will help out professionals by coordinating local homestays. This can be a real hit-or-miss system, but it is definitely one of the unique aspects of professional racing. For me homestays help to humanize race travel which can be lonely and a real grind. I stayed with Marie-Laure Morel in her apartment in Vichy. Truthfully this was one of the best parts of the trip. Marie spoke very good English, while I can only manage bits and pieces of broken French. Staying with Marie was the anti-tourist part of my trip. She was great for bouncing all sorts of French cultural and language questions off of. Sitting in a bar along the river/lake that we swam in with a bunch of Marie's friends one night before the race was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Alright, let's start breaking this race down. Vichy is unique because they run a 70.3 race on Saturday and then a full Ironman the next day.  This is an interesting strategy that WTC may end up trying elsewhere. There were 30 male pros on the start list. About 25 of these actually showed up to race, so a pretty big pro field for a first-year event with a smaller prize purse. Average highs for Vichy at the end of August are mid-70s which sounded wonderful when I signed up. As luck would have it, a heat wave hit just for race weekend raising temps to a high of 95 degrees on race day (here's where the conscientious race report writer must be careful not to start with the excuses and general whineyness).

My over-arching goal for this race was just to make the most of the experience. Going into race day I said that my goal was to race all day with gratitude and gratefulness for this opportunity. This is a great strategy, but still a challenge to adhere to when the deep pain of Ironman racing sets in. Given the course and my fitness level I thought I would probably finish somewhere in the 9:20s and maybe top 25 overall on an average day.  That did not happen.....uh-oh we just lost some more spin.

Great venue for a triathlon!


On race morning it was pretty warm even before the sun came up. I'll try to highlight the important differences between standard WTC rules and the French Triathlon Federation rules that this race operated under. One of the first is that the wetsuit cut-off for the pro race was 24C/75F (standard WTC pro wetsuit cut-off is 72 degrees). Temperatures were right at the cut-off, which I find way too warm for a wetsuit. The IM Vichy swim is held in a lake that is also used for rowing competitions. The swim was a strange two loop affair- it was essentially two long, narrow loops and you got out of the water between loops, ran a bit, then dove in off the end of another dock. Navigation was a bit tricky, but I liked that I didn't have to swim around people on the second loop. The swim was a deep-water start and I had a decent warm-up before the pro men went off with pro women 2 minutes behind us. Since my swim background was as a sprinter I never have a problem making the first swim pack initially. On the other hand, I have lots of problems staying there for very long!  One thing that is very different in a pro race is that the field is smaller and staying in a pack is much harder. About 500 yards in and I had already fallen off the lead pack and was with a much smaller chase pack. As the race played out I ended up leading more than drafting, but this was because most of the other pros were ahead of me. I was definitely overheating in the water, but other than that swimming ok.  I put in some extra effort on the second loop. I'm pretty sure I stayed ahead of all the pro women as well as the fastest age group swimmers who could have made up a 10 minute deficit.  My swim time was a not-very-pro: 1:02:33. The course was a little long since the best pros "only" swam 51's and there were a couple that can go sub-50.

If I've lost a bit of swim fitness over the last few years, I have made it up many times over on the bike. Cycling used to be my weakness, but in the last few years I have been able to turn in much better bike splits for long races. The IM Vichy bike course is in a picturesque valley ringed by mountains. It is not that difficult on paper.  It is 2 loops with about 3400 feet of climbing. It is an easier bike course than IM Wisconsin or Lake Placid, probably similar to (or a little easier than) IM CDA or Louisville. None of the climbs are very steep or very long. There are many turns and roundabouts which do sap your speed. Some of the road surfaces were pretty rough as well. On this day wind and heat played a big factor on the second loop.

This is how I will remember the Vichy bike course. This and wind.

Compared to the swim, I felt really good starting out on the bike. My long rides and a couple half Ironman races had went pretty well leading up to this race. Again I was caught out somewhat alone for the first part of the race. Most of the male pros were out of sight and no age group pelotons had caught me (yet). For most of the first loop the temps were reasonable and the wind was low. Part-way into the first loop the first pack of lead age-group racers caught me- meaning they had made up 10 minutes overall on me (but, wait, I thought you were the 10th overall pro?! WTH?). Here it is worth pointing out that the official French Triathlon Federation drafting rules are quite lax compared to stated WTC rules. For Vichy the bike draft zone was 10 meters instead of 12 meters. The real kicker though was at the pro meeting when the head official explained that if you are close to being inside of 10 meters the officials will blow a whistle at you instead of issuing a penalty. From what I saw the best age groupers were well aware of the lax rules and rode more like 5 meters apart and then moved back if they got whistled at. Frustrating (and possibly whiny) but if you are an American considering this race you should know what to expect until the WTC rules are actually enforced at all their events. So, first lap, no issues, very good power, little to no back pain (which has become a chronic problem for me). I moved up at least one or two positions in the pro field and was able to adhere to my nutrition plan. No pros caught me because most of them were still ahead of me. The course was gorgeous which definitely helped. We rode past sunflower fields and through roundabouts that made the race feel like the Tour de France. The race worked its way through a handful of quaint small towns each loop.

Central Illinois? No, Central France!

News flash: the sun is hot.

Beginning the second loop things were still going well. I soon saw fellow American Pro AJ Baucco's Ventum bicycle (its kind of hard to miss!) on the back of a truck. The bike looked ok, so I hoped it wasn't due to a crash. Turns out he tubular flat which wouldn't seal up. This unfortunate mechanical was of great assistance in moving me up towards that first American finisher thing I mentioned (are we even spinning anymore? I can't tell.).  Somewhere around mile 70 I started losing power and my back started hurting to the point where it was affecting my race. By this time it was also pretty hot and windy, so I was moving slower. Nutrition was ok, but a few of the aid stations gave me only 1/2 full bottles of sports drink which may have shorted me a bit on calories/carbs and fluid. Somewhere around the 4 hour mark the wheels really came off. Incidentally this was also about the time that Natascha Badmann went around me on the bike. She was in second in the women's race at the time and had made up the two minute difference in our start times, plus my lead over her swim time. Natasha is one of my all-time favorite professional triathletes.  She has 6 Ironman World titles to her name (early 2000s). She almost has to have the record for the longest pro triathlon career. At age 48 she is still turning in top overall finishes and wants to race Kona as a professional when she is 50! She said something encouraging when she went around me which is classic Natasha! I tried to match her pace for awhile, but the legs and back weren't having any of it. My last hour on the bike was miserable suffering. My average power dropped nearly 50 watts which should never, ever happen. So why did it happen? First I was in this race to race, not sight-see. I raced the first half of the bike aggressively at the top end of what I could theoretically ride it, but I must not have had the deep bike fitness to back it up. Second, my low back continues to give me lots of problems on and off the bike. After my back muscles hit a certain point of fatigue I can't generate power on the bike. I lost many places and quite a bit of time during that last hour. Coming into T2, I was really surprised to see that I had rode a 5:02 (22.3mph). For me this ended up being the highlight of my race. I was still able to turn in a 5:02 on a rolling, windy, and hot course with one terrible final hour. Under average conditions I thought I would ride 4:45-4:50 for that course, so I guess pretty ok all things considered?

Coming into T2


A few weeks out from race day and I can clearly and vividly remember that I did not feel pretty ok when I hit the change tent. It is common for both pros and amateurs to doubt whether they can keep going and finish the race. I was hunched over from back pain and not sure I could run. Anytime I thought about possibly dropping out I remembered that I had to come home to my wife and kids who sacrificed a lot for me to even have the opportunity to race in France. I couldn't imagine going home and trying to explain to a 7 year-old and a 4-year old why I quit during the race.  The fact that the changing tent was probably up over 100 degrees inside did not help things. In any case, I got my running shoes on and headed out into the sun. Usually my back loosens up when I start running. It took longer than usual this race, but eventually that pain was supplanted by the regular pain of the Ironman marathon. #winning?

There was a long stretch of no shade on this bridge and immediately after.

This isn't some strange French cultural practice. It was just crystal clear skies and relentless sun.

The IM Vichy run course consists of 4 very flat laps that go around the lake, through parks, and past some historical sites. The fact that a good deal of the course was shaded (at least 50%) was an absolute godsend. Unfortunately, unlike every other IM that I have done, this one had no ice at the aid stations. I also learned about another French Triathlon Federation rule when an official yelled at me for not having my jersey zipped all the way up! Seriously it's a rule. They had officials who could have been out enforcing a fair bike leg yelling at competitors for having a partially unzipped jersey. C'est la vie. Like most normal homo sapiens I hate running in extreme temps. For awhile I thought the flat course and shade was going let me turn in a decent marathon. My first of four laps was actually pretty close to on-pace, but things fell apart again although probably not quite as bad as on the bike. Natascha was struggling on the run and I caught her on the second loop (she later bounced back and went around me again!). Because of the four loop format spectators were quite good for this race. For part of each loop we were on a lakefront gravel path that had outdoor bar patio seating right alongside it. The French spectators really seemed to get a kick out of my last name which was printed on my bib number. For much of the run I was just in survival mode. I started walking every aid station to get in enough liquids, but this tends to add 15-20 seconds per mile. I wasn't really racing and was trying not to think too much about my overall place or time. I ended up running a 3:30 marathon which is one of my slowest.

First run loop with partially unzipped jersey. Don't do this in France.

I got to race in one of my favorite-sounding French numbers dix-huit (deez wheet)!

These splits plus some long transitions add up to a 9:40 overall time. I only used a watch for the run, so I didn't know what my overall time was until hours after the race. Given the conditions and how I felt I was surprised the time wasn't slower. I did end up as the 10th male pro, but only because about 12 guys dropped for various reasons. Mainly reasons like Ironman is real extra hard when it is 95 degrees.

10th male pro still sounds pretty awesome to me and it would be if there weren't also precisely 46 amateurs and 3 female pros also ahead of me! See, it's all about how you spin it and those convenient omissions. I did end up as the first American after another American pro dropped out. Since we're laying it all out here it should be noted that the next American across the line was my friend Alyssa Godesky who was only 12 minutes behind me. She ended up 4th overall in the women's race and ensured there was at least one American up on the podium at the awards ceremony!

With Alyssa at the awards banquet

French awards banquets are pretty much like you would expect: outstanding!
I love France.

Natascha beat me, but I won't let that get in the way of her being one of my all-time favorite triathletes!

So there you have it. A spin-deconstructed race report. Good things did come out of this race, just not necessarily what I was expecting. My workouts since this race have indicated I do have really good fitness that I wasn't able to fully tap into. Racing in France was a great experience, but at the same time trying to race an international Ironman at 100% of potential is quite difficult. In retrospect the whole trip was amazing and almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (at least the racing professionally in Europe part!).

A shorter teaser video re-cap of the race can be found here.
Full 40 minute video of the race is here.

I need to again acknowledge that my wife was supportive enough to let me travel to France solo while she wrangled the kids during the very hectic first week of school. I don't think I would have even considered this race without the great support that I've had this year from my Ego pb Sammy's team! Don Thorpe at Aches Away massage therapy has helped manage my back issues and keep my body together for hard racing and training. Workouts from my coach at Purple Patch Fitness have helped my make the most of my limited training time. This was the first Ironman that I have done with First Endurance's new EFS Pro and that was definitely a success- great stuff, give it a try! Xterra wetsuits have kept me competitive in their excellent Vendetta wetsuits and speedsuit. Thanks again for all the support!  Next up is one more crack at that sub-9 Ironman at Beach 2 Battleship!


ole-m said...

Liked your race report. I also did this race and for me the heat made this one of my hardest race experiences ever. Spot on about the conditions (and lack of ice(!) at the aid stations). It only took me a month to recover from this thing...

Julia Jones said...

Thanks for the report, thinking of doing Vichy in 2016...hmmmm...heat is not my friend!