Ironman 70.3 Les Sables d’Olonne

So this was my destination event this year. We wanted to go abroad for a race again while making sure that my few tick boxes were met – not too expensive, not too hot and certainly no chance of a non-wetsuit swim.

So this new race in June, in Northern France with a swim in the Atlantic seemed to fit the bill. Logistics for the race didn’t look to bad with everything situated in a mile or so radius of the centre of the town. We got an Airbnb apartment that overlooked the swim exit and was a couple hundred meters from transition. In fact, I’d say our apartment was nearer the bike mount line than the far end of transition was.

We decided that the best way of getting there was to take our own car and the ferry – and we settled on Portsmouth-Le Havre on the way out on an overnighter. We were pleasantly surprised at just how nice our cabin was – better than most of the cruises we’ve done.

Arriving in port at 0730 we drove with a couple of short stops to Les Sables d’Olonne arriving around 1400. Thankfully French motorways are much quieter than ours.

Registered that afternoon and had a wander around to scout things out and noticed the iconic Vendée Globe canal had a noticeable flow to it as the tide was going out. Thankfully the race was starting just after low tide so whatever flow there was going to be would be upstream. Quite how much I didn’t know but it was a relief when I checked a local tide calendar.

Saturday was a pretty busy day with English language briefing in the mid-morning and afternoon bike racking with most of the in-between taken up with procrastinating over bag packing and bike prep. Actually that’s a good time to mention my bike issues on the day we left for France……

I’ve had this Achilles injury and due to the position had stuck to riding the road bike as the TT aggravated the injury further. Problem was at the point I was loading the bike into the car I noticed a problem with the rear wheel on my road bike, basically a spoke had come loose but nothing I could fix. I tried swapping the road bike 10 speed cassette onto the 11 speed TT wheel but didn’t have the right spacers or the time to faff about indexing. So in the end TT bike went in and I’d have to deal with it.

Mid-afternoon took the bike out for a 5-minute spin before taking it to transition and then in the afternoon we went for a nice stroll and a giant steak – better than pasta before a race – I’ve got enough carbs on tap already.

Went to bed earlyish with no real level of confidence – not sure about the swim, worried about the bike and then how the run would go. At least with Outlaw I was only worried about the run!

Didn’t sleep well and in the morning I wasn’t sure if the late start was a blessing or a curse – walking over to the start on the beach (about a mile) I remarked how I’d normally be getting off the bike around the time I’d actually be starting. Race started at 1025 but it was gone 1130 when I got to the front of the rolling start pens. I must admit I very nearly bailed in the morning at a number of points.

Took it easy on the jog down the beach and waded most of the way past the breakers – I probably had about 100m to go until the first buoy where we then had to turn right and swim parallel to the shore. Another 200m and we were turning right into the canal. This was always going to be the hardest bit and I was pleasantly surprised to do the opening 400m in 10 minutes flat.

The next section was one of the best bits of swimming I’ve ever had – while the tide wasn’t coming in significantly it was funnelled quite nicely by the canal and I rocketed along the next bit – focussing on staying streamlined and flat with methodical strokes I swam the next 1000m in about 15 minutes. Realising I was going to smash my PB for the distance (big fat asterix accepted) I relaxed for the remainder of the swim and came out of the water in 41 minutes. Just the 27 minutes faster than at Outlaw Half a month ago!

Main thing about that was it gave me an extra half hour to play with given the 8 hour cutoff. I was my usual methodical self in T1 but given the 700m of distance involved 9 minutes wasn’t too bad. Unsurprisingly transition was pretty sparse when I got there.

Out onto the bike which included passing our apartment balcony in the first few seconds I tried to get up to speed early – at outlaw I think I soft pedalled the opening 10k! The ride was going well, the various electronics were working – garmin, PM, Di2 and I felt comfortable. Support was very good all around the course – and given my mediocre standard of French (my C at GCSE feels a long time ago) I pretty much just said “Merci!” a lot. Having your number on the back means nobody sees the UK flag until you’re gone and unlike somewhere like Mallorca the vast majority of entrants were local.

The roads were nice and smooth and I barely saw a pothole and elevation was similar to Outlaw Half. Most of the climbing was between 30-45km but helped with a bit of a tail wind on the outbound leg.

Aid stations were a bit more like a sportive than I was used to – their preference was to top up your existing bottles with water but that wasn’t explained until I’d thrown one of mine. I stopped for drinks at the first two aid stations and also grabbed bananas and gels. It might seem a little thing but grabbing right handed is different to doing it left handed while at home. Deffo something to practice for someone racing abroad for the first time.

By about half way, like at Outlaw I’d had enough, and struggled to keep up the power and after the 72KM timing mat it dropped off a cliff. The scenery was really nice all the way round – lush and green with odd bits of wetland and forest. The last 12km after the 80km marker was a proper struggle, tired and into a headwind – I was having to force myself to pedal for a count of 100 before allowing myself a short freewheel and if I hadn’t done that my performance would have been even worse.

I was standing and stretching trying to gauge how my legs were but you never really know until you get off. Stopped my bike Garmin 50 yards short of the mount line at around 3h48 and then the lap button on my wrist after getting off. Took the bike to its rack – 28 rows from the front, and squeezed it into the small gap left, including detaching a pedal from the chain next door. Changed for the run and out onto the course in under 4 minutes – that’s actually good for me.

Kathryn was there at the line and jogged alongside but I really needed to stretch my legs off a bit so walked. Set myself to fast walking the opening mile before joining the first of three 4 mile laps. Lots of cheers from people in the restaurants we passed but also quite a few finishers already walking back to transition. Pretty demoralising.

Having rounded the harbour we got to the bit of the run course I think they should change, where they take you down some steps and onto a couple hundred yards of beach. I took it easy for fear of getting sand in my shoes but with the amount of people on the beach it wasn’t well managed or even obvious what line to follow.

Back up the steps and onto the main course proper. Obviously it was the busiest time for finishers and the support was really good on both sides of the road. From here course was basically a 4 mile loop consisting roughly of a mile and a half up the seafront, a mile loop of the lake and then the same mile and a half back. There were three aid stations on the course two of which served in both directions. The course was also very exposed to the sun and with it being 3pm it was at its hottest.

It was on my first lap of the lake I noticed that blisters were starting to read their ugly little heads – I’d taken the gamble of speeding things up in transition by not putting on toe socks and I was about to pay for it. Very quickly my 8kph speed dropped to under 6 and I was in a lot of pain more than aware that they were likely a bit messed up. My right foot was painful to put down on every step. I managed to find a hobble that wasn’t so painful and pressed on pretty thankful that the swim time had given me a decent cushion I wouldn’t normally have. At this exact moment I was in more pain than I think I’ve even been in a triathlon and that includes dislocating a shoulder.

Wristbands were handed out a couple hundred yards before the turnaround point and it never helps when the person handing out a lap one band is surprised to see someone. Most of the people around me were collecting their final band at this point and I still had 8 miles to go. In not too long the pain in my foot eased but to be honest I was fairly sure, and correct, when I guessed the blister had ripped and bled into my sock. At least I wasn’t in so much pain for the rest of the run but whenever I did try a run it lasted 50m or less and wasn’t really any faster than my walking pace. I slowed a bit over time but nothing that risked the cut off.

Having cheered me on from the same spot for the first 2 laps Kathryn did come to check on me towards the end and to be honest I think I was pretty grumpy about it – I think my mind needed just to channel ignoring pain and a simple distraction wasn’t doing it. Sorry Wife!

On the last lap I overtook a few people who had passed me early on in the run but by this point I was in the last 10 or so people still on the course. I passed the 20km marker, collected my final wristband and managed to limp a very slow jog to the finish line. I wasn’t impressed at this point that the course read a mile after I passed 20km. BIg support from the remaining spectators, many of whom had finished racing and were with their families got me to the end.

Crossed the line, missed my cheering wife (sorry again!) and almost went straight past my medal. I was in a bit of a daze but I think the announcer called out my name as I was coming down the finishing chute but I’m not overly sure. Got my Tshirt – skipped massage and food as I couldn’t find the former or face the latter – and then we headed to bike collection.

This was the least organised bit of the day and I think I spent about an hour waiting to exit transition with my bike. My feet were sore and at times I was leaning on the bike just to take the weight off. Thankfully we were close to transition – I wouldn’t have wanted to then have to walk a mile or more back to where most of the hotels were with bags and bike.

I had a shower and pretty much went to bed as we had to get up early to pack the car and checkout. The drive wasn’t too bad to the ferry and we stopped in a couple of shops in Caen, including what must have been the world’s biggest Decathlon store. We both had a nap in the cabin on our ship – the room wasn’t anywhere near as good as on the way out but the ship itself was better. Arrived back to Portsmouth around 2130. Kathryn was kind enough to stop in Winchester for me to pick up a pizza – I was proper hungry at this point. A closed motorway junction added 30 minutes to the journey but we were home and in bed by 1am.

My feet are still a bit of a mess. I’ve also learned one big lesson and that is that I am not racing that distance injured again. Injured means I can’t train, can’t train means I race unfit, racing unfit means I get more injured. It’s a vicious circle that I have to break. If that means I miss LCW in July and/or Cotswold Classic in August then so be it.

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