It’s hard to compare one Ironman course with another. Some bike courses are hilly and some are flat and windy. Some swims are wetsuit legal while others are not. Some runs are four loops, while others are two. These variations play to your strengths or weaknesses in various ways, depending, in part, on the course’s similarity to your home geography, your physical and mental preparedness on race day, as well as variables both unpredictable and uncontrollable, such as the weather.
Read through the various blogs, magazines and internet sites out there and you’ll get a feel for the courses that are generally considered the toughest in one category or another, and you can adjust your training accordingly (though I’d caution against delving too deeply into the labyrinth of often dubious information and opinion out there, which can result in “paralysis by analysis”).
One common thread that binds every race in the IM series though – you have to swim/bike/run 140.6 miles within the allotted time in order to collect one of those coveted metals. No matter how you analyze, forecast or prepare for it, 140.6 miles is an awful lot of ground to cover. You can waltz into a sprint, or an Olympic distance race half trained and struggle through it. You can probably even fake a half, though it will hurt. There is no faking an Ironman – it will find you out.
This is the allure of the IM, as well as what keeps you up, tossing and turning, unable to sleep the night before a race. Well, that and the “thump, thump, thump” of club music coming from the loud party directly below your rental apartment in Nice following the Spain vs. France match in the Euro Cup.
The night before
The FreeHouba racers, including Andre Olivier, Martin Dvorak, Lori Cove, Melissa and I, were joined for dinner by our friends, family and “sherpas”, Fran and Nita (Melissa’s parents), Lyn and Patrick (Mel’s sister and brother in law), Luke (Lyn’s son and our nephew), Joanie (Andre’s wife) and our wonderful new friend from Prague, Renata. We first sensed trouble when we realized that France was playing – against hated rival Spain, no less. As we dined under a cerulean, early evening sky along the market on Nice’s rue St. Francois De Paule, every restaurant had large screen televisions around which people thronged. They were pressed in and intense in their focus and the energy in the air was palpable. I can only compare it to the pre-kickoff intensity of a Southeastern Conference football game in November when division races are tight. There were loud boos as the Spanish team was introduced and you got the sense that, win or lose, this was going to be an interesting night. We all agreed that it was too bad we had a race to do the next day, because the people watching that night would have been first rate.
After dinner, we retired to our sixth floor rental apartment, which Melissa and I shared with Lori. Our apartment overlooked the bike transition area of the race course and afforded us spectacular views of the Mediterranean. With a 6:30am start the next morning, we agreed on a 4:30am wake-up, set our alarms accordingly and we were in bed by 10:15 or so. Literally within minutes, the music started up. We had heard nothing from our neighbors in the few days since our arrival. This night, of all nights, was the one they chose to throw down like Johnny Cash on a five-day bender.
The music vibrated up through the floor – base throbbing rhythmically as a din of party voices wafted into the night air like so much cigarette smoke. After about twenty minutes we got up to investigate and verified that the party was, indeed, coming from directly below us. I briefly considered venturing downstairs to ask them to quiet down, but wasn’t sure how, exactly, I would do it. I didn’t speak French and doubted they spoke much English. Also, who knows how they would have reacted to such a thing – this self-important American interrupting their party so that he could sleep – I didn’t see it going well. And so, with gritted teeth, I crawled back into bed, hopes rising with the end of each song that the party might be over, only to be disappointed when the thumping started over again, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always some variation of that base… “thump, thump, thump”. At one point, around midnight, the springs of an ancient and endangered bed frame somewhere below us got a furious workout as a couple of partygoers found enough privacy to assist each other in relieving post game frustrations, (Spain defeated France 2-0), providing convincing and emphatic evidence of just how passionate Europeans are for their soccer.
Sleep was distant and unreachable. We had passed the point of being able to take a sleep aid, and simple arithmetic added to our growing stress levels. 12:30 am – we can get still four hours of sleep; 1:15am – maybe we can still get a little over three hours; 2:00am – this ain’t good… this went on until around 2:30am when the music finally stopped and we fell into a fitful, dream filled half-sleep.
Less than two hours of poor quality sleep before an Ironman race. It was one of those unpredictable variables that have the potential to break you over the course of 140+ miles. I remember thinking before finally nodding off how easily the sweat and sacrifice of nine months of training can be jeopardized. There was nothing we could do about it now. Ironman Nice was here.
Next: race day