Race report: Long Course World Championships, Belfort, France, 1st June, 2013



06:13:52 4th AG

I’m lying in the medical tent with a drip in my arm and meltdown threatening both ends. For this reason I’m grateful that I am at present the only patient in the tent but it does prove how far out of my depth I’ve just been. How the heck did this happen? Short answer:  Roz McGinty.

Roz - Malsaucy: too cold to swim
Roz – Malsaucy: too cold to swim

Preamble: She lured me in, Your Honour, by pointing out the Long Course format – 4km swim, 120km bike, 30km run – and how this would suit someone who likes swimming a lot more than running, and how much fun it would all be, with that winning smile and you-can-trust-me-I’m-a-nurse manner. Anyone who has ever been persuaded into some mad feat of endurance by Roz, and we are legion, will know what I mean. And I thought: Eastern France in June, should be warm but not too hot, nice-looking lake, the French know about cycle courses, a fun weekend with Roz and as close to an Ironman as I ever need to go, sounds good.

So we applied, qualified for Team GB (in my case on my half distance results because I have never done a long distance race) and signed up, along with Kris Boyes (racing – brilliantly of course – for Denmark) and Alex Thompson (former Tri Londoner, now living the good life in Somerset with Jo and Steve). And then I more or less forgot about it, consumed with prep for the London Marathon and mountains of work.

But suddenly the marathon was done and Belfort loomed. A flurry of hotel and flight booking and it was also inescapable. I checked that nice 120km bike course and discovered to my horror there was a mountain involved with proper hairpin bends on the ascent and descent, not to mention quite a few bumps along the way there and back. Never ever been up or down a mountain, in fact I had done almost no cycling thanks to our great British winter. And when I did venture round Regents Park I was dropped like a stone before the words Let’s go! had turned to steamy breath. Oops. What to do? Well, obviously, when the athlete is beyond redemption, spend money on the bike. Those nice chaps at Pretorius Bikes got my brakes working, gave me back my missing gears (seized rear mech) and added a couple more to help me up the hill. And Adam at Bike Science/Velosport made sure I was sitting in the best place on it. With no more excuses I did a 100 mile hilly sportive and convinced myself that I could climb hills, slowly but surely and so would probably make it up. Down was another matter. I alternated nightmare visions of flying off a precipice or walking shamefully down the whole damn thing: just couldn’t decide which was worse.

Meanwhile got my swimming into quite good shape, at least 3 swims a week and several open water sessions, and let the running jog along, trusting that my marathon training would be enough to get by on. Hindsight is for history.

Race day now fast approaching and the weather just gets colder and colder. In France, where they despise the English for talking about the weather, they are writing newspaper articles about the mauvais temps and the worst May on record. There’s snow at the top of the mountain and word starts leaking out that the swim may be shortened to 3k or 1.5k. Or even cancelled. I pack my wetsuit, hoping and praying for some warmth to save my swim and my chances.

Pre-race: Roz and I meet at City Airport, lugging our matching bike boxes and husbands – who are both, I assume, profoundly grateful to discover that the other one is not some triathlete-loving freak but quite a decent bloke, since they are going to be thrown into each other’s company quite a bit over the next few days.

Ballon d'Alsace
Ballon d’Alsace

Several hours and many deviations later, we are standing at the top of the Ballon d”Alsace, the rather unlikely name of the dreaded mountain, with a ski lift dangling by our heads. No snow, in fact it’s quite a pleasant afternoon, if a little chilly, so we assemble our bikes, put on a few layers and set off to recce the descent. And, as if by magic, my rictus grin of terror becomes a smile of joy, as my bike tells me this is what it was built to do and to trust it to go round the corners and spin down the traverses in between. By halfway down, where the hairpins turn to swooping curves, I am giddy with excitement and my inner ten year old has burst to the surface, playing dares with the boys not to touch our brakes on Milton Hill. We spin down to the lower levels and catch up with our boys in a village after a bit of posing for the video camera. Roz has not had quite the same experience though – the TT bike being distinctly unimpressed with having to give up its straight-line superspeed for twitching round sharp corners. So, with that, and confirmation that the race is now to be long course duathlon format of 10k/87k/20k, we have some thinking to do for Saturday. Mostly about what to wear. Not about my fear of duathlons.

On Friday it rains hard, all day. The Vosges mountains are hidden in thick cloud, the little expo is a mudbath and our bikes sit forlornly draped in bin bags waiting for the morrow. Nothing is as the team briefing would have it and there is no way to tell where any of the ins and outs of transition are. The French all clocked off at 5pm and the ITU officials are struggling to finish the set up. Already challenged by this new idea of having to put different stuff in different bags I am further thrown by not leaving our bags as instructed. Another 12 hours of twitching about what to wear. The team gathers for dinner, to marvel at Alex’s Candide-like voyage through life and laugh at Roz trying to order butter with her bread. Our hotel, though on paper a workaday motorway pitstop, is surprisingly pleasant, with good food much appreciated by us and the other triathletes staying there – and the French ladies’ handball team, in town for their big match. But when we all descend like locusts at six the next morning the kitchen is rather taken by surprise and there is a scary bread and croissant crisis.

Enfin, Race Day: Good news, it’s not raining. It’s not warm or sunny either but it’s not raining and we’ll take that. Finally decide on thermal top under GB tri suit, with two bike jackets, arm warmers, two hats, two sets of gloves in my bike bag: it’s going to be like a jumble sale in T1. The boys drop us and our bags and set off to be the mountain photographers for Team GB – yes, it’s that kind of big-spending operation.

Roz and I get set up, warm up, pay a nature visit to the woods, chat to a few other GB and NZ ladies. I get my welcome rush of pre-race euphoria and line up with the other two GB ladies 50-54, Jeannie and Judith. We are in the last wave, a minute or so behind Roz and the other young ladies and just in front of the Open competitors.

Warned that the run course is narrow and prone to bottle necks and with the thought of being trampled under foot by eager Open men, I decide to go with the absurdly fast pace of the opening km and then calm it down from there. My HR stays pretty high even though I feel very comfortable running at between my 10k and half marathon pace. There’s a small hill about 2km in and a bigger one 4km in, then plenty of downhill. It’s around the lake and local farm lanes and tracks, and though I know I won’t enjoy these hills later they’re fun now. I see Jeannie heading off at speed ahead but I looked her up and know she’s a multi-Ironperson and a faster runner than me. Just have to hope she didn’t play out with the boys or brought the wrong bike.

Roz and I hit T1 more or less together and get our clothes on and change shoes, leaving the muddy run shoes by our bikes. Squelch out to the road and head off through a string of little villages and gradually start to climb into the scenic foothills. It’s still not raining and I feel quite warm. My plan, if it can be called such, is to ride as if there were no mountain and no first 10k run and treat it as a half distance race from this point on. Yes, it’s true, I know nothing… But for now I enjoy myself, toing and froing with a French lady called Martine who is better at going up hill but slower at coming down. My Garmin has gone mad and after telling me for a while I am doing 209kph has packed in for the ride, which is liberating. Roz comes by but I come back past her and maybe that gives me a bit of a kick as I push on, chasing Martine up the hills towards the Ballon and really enjoying all the villagers Allez!Allez!-ing along the way. I wave and cheer them and they give back in spades. Honestly I don’t care too much about the race right now, this is just so much fun.

We reach Sewen, which is the start of the 13km ascent and I soon see Andy and Martin on a crag, looking like pros and snapping away. Give them a big wave then settle into the bends and the hill. It’s rarely very steep but it goes on for a long time.

Ascending the Ballon
Ascending the Ballon

Still I am lucky to be a light person on a road bike and I go past plenty of TT men who had the better of me down in the lowlands. By the time we reach the top we are shrouded in thick cloud and visibility is down to bugger all. So glad we did that recce as you can’t even see the next hairpin. My glasses are blurry with damp but I think it will be worse if I take them off so I perch them Granny style on my nose to look over but still try to shelter my eyes from the wind. There’s one ambulance at the top loading up and another scraping somebody off the tarmac three bends down: pay attention. Halfway down I overtake my friendly rival Martine and try to take as much advantage of the downhill as possible but she still catches me before the end of the ride. My left calf is cramping spasmodically and whatever muscles join my top half to my bottom half are throbbing like Louis’ Armstrong’s rhythm section but cycling steadily is fine and the mountain is just a pleasant memory.

Back to the lakeside, rack bike, clomp to the bag racks and change tent. I take my shoes off gingerly to avoid cramp and then, maybe rashly, peel off the thermal top as I feel pretty warm already and I always get hot running. I think I see Jeannie just ahead and feel very encouraged (must have been wrong but there’s a few over-optimistically blonde ladies in my age group:  yes we are in denial, why do you think we are doing this?) Just 20k to go now, less than half a marathon, what could possibly go wrong?

And the first 10k goes right according to plan. My timing is such that I meet a great rush of GB men coming by on their second lap so we give each other mutual encouragement – more necessary to me than them I guess. On the first hill I meet Martine again, only now she has teamed with a young Frenchman who appears to be chivalrously running with her. Hmm, I can’t see any of my GB teammates doing that, they are in it to win it. Just as on the bike I am behind on the up hills and ahead going down. After the big hill at 4km I decide Martine et son ami are too dangerous to dice with and put in a big effort to get some distance. We come back to the start, set off again and when we hit an out and back section I can see I have about a minute on her (and she’s alone). But now those middle muscle strings are all out of tune and my gut has had enough of high speed eating and drinking and being shaken about. The cramp is ever present in my left leg and incipient in both feet. I have to run on my heels to stop my legs seizing up – not ideal in shoes with no heels. The only thing that keeps me going now is the urge not to get caught, by Martine mostly, but also knowing that Roz will be making steady inroads on the run after the handicap of her TT bike. I am so slow that I am starting to get cold and though the sound of the finish line is tantalisingly close, we have to loop away and then back again. Finally round the corner and onto the finish, across some muddy grass – don’t fall down or cramp now – get a flag from a GB spectator, last few yards and across the line.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Aftermath: Stumble my way into a tent, full of men drinking lager – have I barged a beer festival by mistake? I escape and I think meet Roz now (it’s all a bit blurry). I’m really cold. Get the dry clothes bag and try to get changed in the (cold) shower room. Luckily Roz is helping me or I might just stop here but with much groaning and huffing I get dressed. Outside again and Martin is telling me firmly to sit down, so I do. Uh oh I will never get up, I think – but then some nice men come along with a stretcher. Thank God, I don’t have to stand up. I lie there and get strapped in, feeling a bit guilty that I am getting a free ride to wherever they’re taking me. Another tent, no beer drinking men, good. A sweet child in ambulance kit bends over me, asking what’s wrong? Ask Roz, I should tell him, she never said it would be a duathlon. But now we are into blood pressure (none), drips (two), blankets (three), a foil wrap and a heater to warm me back up. I understand the true meaning of gutted. My darling husband looks after me well beyond the call even of marital duty, especially after sitting all day on a freezing mountain photographing anonymous obsessives. Meanwhile, Roz and Martin, not only saintly and funny but also eminently resourceful and practical, extricate my bike from the “secure” transition and load everything up while I get put back together. Roz doesn’t properly eat or rest for hours after her race because of me but is still all smiles as we finally get into the car to take us back to the Hotel Charme and a very necessary meal with the lads.

I am delighted to find that my efforts were good enough for 4th in my age group, a minute ahead of Martine but over ten behind Jeannie who got the bronze medal, so even if the wheels hadn’t come off I don’t think I could have improved on my position. Frankly, in a duathlon, this is nothing short of a miracle!

And after two days of recovery, ibuprofen and yoga I’m beginning to feel human again.

Many thanks to Martin, Roz, Alex, Andy and Kris for making this a wonderful trip.

Team Tri London/Belfort
Team Tri London/Belfort

I’m glad to have reached my edge but don’t think I need to go there again. Mountains on the other hand…

Olivia, June 2013