Field Notes on Enduring: Ironman France Race Report

Two years ago, I tore my shoulder in a bike crash a week before Ironman France. First domino in a series of losses. I chose that race because my mom loved everything France, spun a myth of its food and cycling culture and joie de vivre as I grew up. She was losing more of herself to Alzheimer’s as I trained. The trip would be my first to France and a chance to trace her stories and maybe recover, or absorb, more of her as she lost the ability to tell them. An epic embodiment of any kind—a race, a kiss, an amazing meal—can be an act of rebellion against death, plain and simple. An act of resurrection.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

#Ironman is a cauldron. A kiln. A refining fire that burns away momentum, moderation, luck, and exposes the core. Where the spirit meets the bone. In between inhale and exhale. What’s there? What belief? Faith? Power? Vision? Oath? What energy that runs beyond, underneath, before, and after the body’s chemistry?

What strength, what second or seventy-seventh winds, what miracles are your birthright? Are your work in the world?⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

We can get to that core with one, deep, long, full-bodied breath. We can. But some seasons, some battles call for a fire dance. A full immersion. A joyfully chosen war.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

This race was mine. Sweat revenge, as much as a revelation and celebration that there is a grace, a poetry to the timing of our lives that takes a while to reveal itself, to resolve. That all the magic is in the swerves, the revisions, the tension, healing, the second, the seventy-seventh chance. That after the final no there comes a yes. And it’s sweeter. It’s weightier for it all.

I wrote here about the power of endurance challenges to grit-ify us in ways that long outlast a race. A new year for me always starts in the fall, so post-race I am asking the big questions abot what’s next. One of the gifts of endurance training is it makes lots of time for the big questions, for new vision, fresh dreams. What are yours? What’s a challenge that’s calling for you, that’s big enough you’d have to grow into?  What physical, spiritual, mental, and communal goals are stirring in you? It’s been such a joy over the past year to lead the OATH community journeys and work one-on-one with my coaching clients. I will be leading a fresh 40-day version of OATH starting this October, and have a few opening for new coaching mentorships. Let me know how I can catalyze your becoming. As I trained for this race over the past 6 months, here’s what I learned.

💎 Don’t judge a workout, or yourself, by the first 10 minutes. Or even 10 miles. Your body is made to adapt, and it takes time to shift. You have extra gears you don’t know about. Some are in your mind. Give yourself a chance at the miracle of a second—or seventh—wind.⠀

💎 With enough time, you can grow into anything.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

💎 A training plan is all about margins: space to play, party, get sick, injured, get it wrong, remix. Build in space for the unexpected.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

💎 Strength is more than physics, or physique. When you dedicate a season to train for a goal, know that everything that flows into your life can strengthen you toward it. Including injury, heartbreak, friendship, ‘distracting’ joys.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

💎 Sleep is your secret weapon. No supplement, monster workout, techy gear can make up for its restorative magic.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

💎 Train hard; love harder. I wish you astonishing goals, but more than anything I wish you a committed tribe along the way. Friends who are our kind of crazy. Like @travis_leigh who’s trained with me through broken bones, flat tires, doubts and drama to face her first Iron race like she’s made for it. She is.

💎 We’re made for strength we can’t even imagine. Get curious.

— the race —

Vichy is a beautiful, weird little city. It felt like it had shut down about 15 years ago, but is still populated by a mass of squatter retirees. It’s dusky, dusty, outdated, with flourishes of stunning beauty. Two or three-hundred year old mansions and administrative buildings lining the river or surrounding the belle epoch opera house and promenades. A silent street of cornices townhouses interrupted by an 80-year-old woman walking with a cane, coral lipstick, and pearls. It was the (shadow) French capital during the Nazi invasion of France, and a Roman spa town. I kept imagining a screenplay about a group of stylish retirees who moved here for the hot springs. Bill Murray would feature.

I love reading super detailed race reports when preparing for a race, so here’s mine for you. I highly recommend Vichy for either the half or the full if you’re considering it, even though there’s a few improvements that could be made.

This is only the fourth year of Ironman France in Vichy, and the course is getting a reputation for being fast, stunning, and well supported. The swim is in a partially damned river which feels like a lake with a minor current, except in the case of a summer storm. The bike course is an unbelievably beautiful two loops, rolling through farmland of tall corn stalks, sunflower fields, fresh cut hay, and just enough climbing the last third of the loop, through a shady forest National park and descending into Vichy. The marathon is four semi-shaded loops around the shores of Lake Allier, across two majestic bridges, and through the finish shoot, which gives a jolt of energy before re-starting the loop. Late August can be a gamble in central France, probably a beautiful, sunny day in the mid 70’s F, but summer storms can roll through, dropping temps to lows in the 40’s, or a heatwave can mean temps in the 90’s. Conditions for the half Ironman the day before were terrible, turning the swim into a cold, choppy nightmare and raining on and off with temps 40-60 F. Lots of no-finishes. The storm cleared for the full race on Sunday, though low temps in the 40’s in the morning. A pair of fuzzy leopard print slippers I was okay with losing saved the day as I waited for the swim start on the rocky lakeshore. (How did I not get a pic? They were awesome enough someone nabbed them before I could come back for them 🙄)

The swim was cold at first and had a stronger currant than I expected on the 2nd & 4th laps, when you’re swimming upstream. The most frustrating thing about this race management was an unexplained ban on swimming in the lake at anytime before the race. I heard afterward there was an official practice swim on Friday morning, but it wasn’t well publicized. I don’t usually swim in a wetsuit but with the unexpected temperature drop I borrowed my friend Leigh’s Synergy spring wetsuit and was so grateful to have it. (Synergy is my new wetsuit crush; they’re somehow soft, easy on & off, and maximally buoyant). I did the thing you’re never supposed do, and was so glad it did: bought new goggles at the expo the day before the race because I wanted a lighter tint for the overcast morning. I put on the Roka’s without being able to try them in a swim and didn’t touch them once during the race. They were perfect. Vichy is a 4 lap swim with a short Australian run exit in between laps 2 and 3 (swim knto the shore, run about 20 paces, dive back into the 2nd loop). The course could be improved by widening the 2nd and 3rd lap lanes; they’re narrow and choppy. Took my usual strategy of getting as far outside the mass of athletes as possible and swimming the edges of the course, focused on low heart rate and long glide, and took first in my age group.

Which I then made up for with a leisurely, princess-level transition. The air temp was still in the 40’s so I was glad I had put a bike kit in my bike bag instead of biking in a wet suit. As it was, with dry clothes and arm warmers, it took an hour for my teeth to stop chattering in the bike. Heart rate was way higher than ideal that first hour as I just tried to get warm. The sky was clear but once we hit farmland just outside  Vichy, a weird fog moved in for about an hour, keeping the temp cool and partially obscuring the fields we rode through. It was magical, if cold, and I was grateful for a hour less of direct sun exposure.

I loved the two loop course and ended up negative splitting the bike. Knowing what was coming on the second half I felt more confident about energy management. I can’t handle too much sweet gu/energy drink/etc, and was really happy with my nutrition plan of Perfect Bars (slightly savory real food), a Bearded Brothers maca mocha, 1 espresso Gu shot, and EFS lemon-lime electrolyte mix in the 2 water bottles on my bike (I dilute it pretty heavily so it’s not so sweet). I still had some GI cramps on the run, but went into it well-fueled without totally overloading on sugar. The bike course rolls through tiny, unique French towns of maybe 10-50 homes and farms, and it seems like the whole town comes out to cheer on the athletes. My favorite fan was a guy probably in his 70’s, overalls, long hair, huge smile, who pulled off his little powder blue vintage car into a field and sat ringing a cowbell over a picnic of wine & baguettes. I turned into the second loop 3 hours later, and there he was, still ringing and toasting. Salut! I started throwing up a ‘Je’taime’ hand sign when I road through, and the response was amazing, little crowds erupting. A reminder of how support is a two-way gift.

I pulled my hamstring about 10 days before the race and wasn’t sure if I’d even start it up to 3 days before. Certainly wasn’t sure I’d make it through the bike, just took one mile at a time. So when I found my legs after the first standard wobbly mile of the run, it was pure gift. I was running sub-9:00’s, and just decided to go with it and aim for a sub-4 hour marathon (my previous attempt 4:00 exactly). I knew it was a gamble on energy stores, especially with the growing heat, at this point high 70’s and full sun. But setting micro-goals is essential on an Iron marathon, when your body is absorbing the effects of a long race. The run course in Vichy is unbelievably beautiful, as the whole lakefront is lined with wild flowers, old trees, cafes of increasingly drunk Rosé toasting fans. The course turns into the center of town for about 2 miles over cobblestones but through a lively shaded park at the center of old Vichy. I loved the characters at the aid stations dressed up and unbelievably happy to hand out bananas or water, the only thing my stomach could handle the whole marathon. Just one sip at almost every aid station does add up to enough over the course of a 4hr marathon.

The wheels fell off the sub 9min mile train in a big way at mile 16. Everything hurt. Mostly muscle pain; I was still amazed the hamstring hadn’t flared up (I blame the 6 days pre-race completely off running thanks to the injury. Sometimes that deep rest I wouldn’t have otherwise taken protects in all kinds of ways we can’t imagine). I walked through one aid station around mile 19 and got a taste of how good it felt. I knew if I walked another minute I would’t run again. So much muscle pain, but I suddenly realized even though I felt terrible it was still possible to P.R. for the race. I committed to keep running. Once I did, I was surprised that I was going faster than I expected to see given how I felt. Such a simple realization but true: we can feel terrible, and still be doing well. Grit wells. The best part about the Vichy run course is that it passes through the finish shoot at the end of every loop, so you get supercharged with energy before heading out again for another 6.5 miles, and you get to see and cheer on the joy of finishers along the way.

What’s at the bottom of the well always amazes me. We don’t get there often. It’s why I race and train long. To get all the way down and see what’s there. Like a sub-8 pace for the last half mile. Like the tears and dreams that surface nearing, and after, a big finish line.

Given the journey, Vichy’s finish was a rush of so much: hope, faith, grace. The power of second chances. The mystery of the ways we continue to live along with loved ones we’ve lost. Mom. In all the rush of a finish line like Ironman or even your first 5k, take a moment for yourself after to feel it all. I walked through the loud hippodrome behind the finish line to the T1 area for a moment with my Mom, the journey, gratitude for improbable healing.

Grateful for every minute of ability in this race. It felt like extra. Like nothing is a given; everything is gift. An Iron PR by 10 minutes. And the #joymetric: a high five’s PR!

The best thing about racing in France is hearing the course echo with ‘Bon Courage!’. Literally, ‘Good courage!’ Keep believing. Keep risking the heart. Onward. Heartward.