Friday, 24 August 2012

Oh crêpe!

A half-baked race report

When the alarm went off at 5.15 last Sunday morning, it wasn't to wake me up, rather to signal that it was time to stop trying to get any sleep at all. With France in the grips of the European heatwave, our budget hotel room near the race start would have made the innards of a Thermos flask look positively drafty. I peeled myself from the sheets and forced down some muesli before lovely boyfriend took me to the start area.

I wandered down towards transition, where my trusty bike had been stowed over night, and noticed that The Eagles' "Hotel California" was playing out through the darkness. How fitting, I thought, that such a relentlessly long song was being played ahead of what should be the longest race of my life. Completing an iron-distance triathlon, with 3.8K swim, 180K bike, 42K run, has been an ambition long before any actual committed effort to run more than a half marathon began several years ago. Today, after 8 months of training and a long drive from Oxford to central France, I was going to have a go at achieving this at Challenge Vichy.

The temperature inside our Popemobile had risen steadily as we drove through France the week before, until we finally stepped out into scorching sunshine on Thursday in the dusty carpark in Vichy. Sweat dripped uncomfortably down my back as I signed up for my number and tried to interpret some of the complicated French race instructions. Still, it's just a bit sunny, right? I can do this. I bought a white running cap at the expo and promised to keep drinking water.

A Friday morning swim in the lake and a short cycle up the only tangible climb on the course both calmed and cooled the nerves. The water temperature had been recorded that morning at 24oC, the maximum temperature allowed before wetsuits are not longer permitted to race in. A decision would be made on the morning of the race, and relayed to competitors then.

Temperatures reached high 30s on Saturday and, with no breeze, any particular movement in the sunshine was creating some considerable effort, not to mention perspiration. "This is France in August", said lovely boyfriend, trying to reassure me that I had signed up for this. I took my bike to the transition area, where a concerned looking marshal was handing out pieces of paper to competitors. On them were written the organisers' plans for tomorrow's conditions. Race day was expected to reach more than 40oC so we were being briefed that we may be taken off and checked over at any time by the medical staff. Essentially, they could withdraw us from the race at any time if they thought we were in danger. They also reserved the right to stop the race for everyone at any point. We were only to start the race if we were, "in perfects conditions and in full possession of your faculties".

So, in the darkness on Sunday morning, grateful for some relative cool before the sun came up, I sipped water nervously, questioning my conditions and faculties, and waited for the final announcement about wetsuits. An English-speaking volunteer spoke up on the PA system,

"Ladies and gentleman. As you are aware, we are in a grade 2 heatwave. As such the organisers of Challenge Vichy have decided to cut the distance to a half ironman."

The race that dare not be named had become the race that dare not be raced. I stood still, letting the news sink in, pulling the same face I'd make if I'd just dropped a big piece of chocolate cake on the floor, buttercream icing face down. At first, nerves were replaced by disappointment and frustration. A shameful urge to cry came next; thankfully, I avoided that by deciding to pick up the cake from the floor (5 second rule applies) and bloody well enjoy it anyway, reassured by the knowledge that this bit of cake was less likely to leave me in hospital on a drip.

The race video below sums up the atmosphere from the day far better than I could ever hope to in words. If, understandably, you have more important things to do that watch the entire 17 minutes, I'd recommend taking a look between 3 and 4 minutes to see the swim start. I have heard a lot about mass starts at ironman races and I'm so glad I got to experience what it's like to race with 600 people in the water at the same time. If you try to count the pink swimming hats, you'll notice how few women there were competing (something I think we do much better in the UK). The water takes on a strange consistency with all that testosterone thickening it and, unless you're out at the front, you're unlikely to find any space of your own to swim in. Arms and legs everywhere, it still takes more than a few aggressive boys to scare me. It was awesome. Knowing what that feels like now, it gave me goosebumps to see what the race looked like:

 Race video, Challenge Vichy 2012.  
Recommended viewing conditions: turn the heating up, switch the oven on, and layer up with jumpers until it reaches 43oC. 

Another ironboy completed, it would be tempting to feel frustrated with the decision made and disappointed with a goal not realised. It's hard not to look back on the past months and think of the laps and laps of my local watersports lake, trying to up my swim mileage; turning up to friend's hen night 4 hours late in cycle kit; not to mention the 300 Euro entry fee for only half a race and lovely boyfriend's unrelenting dedication in driving all the way to France. I have a medal that says I'm iron and a conscience that knows I'm not.

The organisers have since published details of their decision process leading up the race and, upon reading this, I'm certain they made the right decision to shorten the race. 4 volunteers alone collapsed on the Saturday afternoon, helping to set up the event. The decision to shorten the race, rather than stop it halfway, allowed us the opportunity to cross a finish line; however disappointing, it would still be a more satisfying experience than a forced DNF and our safety was priority throughout. The event was superbly organised, which you'd be right to expect from such a huge entry fee, but this and the commitment and enthusiasm of the the volunteers made it a very enjoyable race.

So, instead of frustration, I'm going to take away the positives. This year, I've joined a cycling club again and have some badass training buddies; I've made some steady progress with my running and tackled my 6th marathon comfortably and with confidence, over an hour faster than London 2011; and I'm swimming further and faster with ease than I was 12 months ago. I've also just completed a half ironman in the hottest conditions I have ever experienced, let alone raced in.

I've dusted off my dropped piece of cake, and eaten it anyway. This may sound greedy, but I still want a proper slice of iron cake. It's just a case of finding the right recipe.

 Out of the 7 people in this picture, only one is doing The Mobot.


  1. You are my hero.

    Honestly, I'm not joking, you're a flippin' ROCKSTAR.

    I'm so scared of entering into the tri-world, I'm a teribble swimmer and cycling freaks me out, but lady, this blog post pretty much inspired me to give it a go....

  2. Aw, schucks. Thanks.

    You should have a go - don't be scared!

  3. oooh that video of the mass swim start gave me goosebummps - it looks like some mad shoal of fishpeople... You are awesome no matter whether it's a half or full ironman - I'm sure many people have come up with that old quote about life being about the journey and not the destination and all that. Anyways, like I say I think you're awesome whatever. Well done.

  4. Well done lovely - not only have you done all the hard training for the bigger one but then shown your true IronWoman qualities by shifting the massive disappointment into some really great positives. You are a shining star of what endurance competitions really mean, my love: none of this look what big balls I've got, just look what a massive heart and a great attitude you have. Proud to know you chicken. Xxx

  5. Go you! Or as the French would say, chapeau, madame, chapeau! Even doing just an Ironboy is a humongous achievement. I'm dead impressed and just a bit envious... Congrats again!!

  6. Nails, King. Bring on the 30 miler. xx

  7. You make it sound so easy... I'm impressed, think I would rather wear the wetsuit just to keep me afloat. Great Mobot too. Congratulations

  8. You're Iron in my eyes! Congratulations!


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