In the weeks leading up to our trip to France, I was glued to weather.com and other such websites, where I would check almost daily on high temperatures in Nice. After reading several race reports from years past, I was struck by how nearly everyone mentioned the extreme heat. I was a little perplexed by this, because the historical high for Nice on June 24th was a seemingly perfect 76 degrees, and that fell right in line with how temperatures were trending leading up to the race. I chalked up the reports of high temps to freak, unseasonal spikes and took further comfort in the fact that the race day forecast called for cloudy skies – the only cloudy day in the extended forecast.
After spending a week in Nice though, I will tell you that weather.com’s reported highs are strictly theoretical in nature, and must be taken deep in the shade of some ancient French oak. Highs in the direct sun were closer to 90 each day.
In addition to higher than expected temperatures, we discovered that the beach – where our swim start would commence – was designed not by the loving deity of children’s Sunday school stories, but rather by some vengeful, sadistic and angry God. A real Old-Testament curmudgeon. This, we discovered two days before the race when Melissa and Lori and I walked down to the beach from our apartment on the Quai de Etats-Unis. We wanted to take a quick dip in the Med to get a feel for the water temperature we’d be facing during the race. Rather than the soft sand of the beaches back home, the beaches of Southern France are covered by smooth rocks, ranging in size from small pebbles to fist-sized, oblong monsters that are inevitably turned up at the most painful of angles.
Melissa and Lori smartly remained behind and let me take the test walk. I kicked off my flip flops, braced myself and with a deep breath, started toward the water. Arms extended for balance, I made my way slowly, painfully, tender feet searching in vain for comfortable purchase. I must have looked like some tight ropewalker in the throes of severe GI distress by my jerky, convulsive gyrations. Though I dared not turn around, for fear of total collapse, I could sense that Melissa and Lori had averted their gazes, disassociating themselves completely with the dumpster fire that was my tortured walk to the sea. Cursing mightily and causing a bit of a scene among the svelte and deeply tanned natives (who made walking on the beach seem totally effortless – damn them), I finally made it to the water where I gracelessly flopped in, belly first.
My exit – which I delayed for nearly thirty minutes, was similarly painful and if it is possible, even less graceful, as I was now exiting the water uphill. This walking on the beach thing was going to be no joke. What’s more, the swim was two loops, which meant that at some point, we would have to exit the water and run along the beach before starting the second, shorter loop. It seemed like torture, and frankly at that point, it seemed impossible.
The alarm clock rang out at the appointed time – 4:30. More accurately, it crowed, Gamecock-like, at 4:30. Melissa chose the rooster crow for our alarm tone the night before the race in recognition of the Gamecocks’ improbable bid for a third consecutive College World Series Championship in Omaha, some 4,000 miles away (gosh, I love my wife). Lori, a Clemson grad, was a great sport about it.
We were groggy, still not quite believing the near total sleep deprivation of the previous eight hours, but feeling surprisingly good, all things considered. We made coffee and ate French bread with peanut butter and bananas. At around six am, we made our way down to the chaos of the bike transition area, where we had dropped off our bikes the day before. Here, we pumped tires, made last minute gear checks, then found each other and made our way to the swim start, some 200 yards up the coast.
You could have powered a large city with the nervous energy in the air as we, along with 2,500 others, made our way to the beach, walking stiffly, barefooted and in our wetsuits. We did not have an opportunity to take a last photo with our Sherpa’s as planned – race mornings seldom go according to plan – so we did our best to clear our minds and focus on the task at hand, knowing that our Sherpa’s were there, somewhere. As we walked along – Melissa, Lori, Martin and I – we took comfort in each other and fed off of the collective strength of the group as we counted down the final minutes to our 6:30am start. We somehow missed Andre, yet knew he was nearby, lost among the crowd.
Even the rocks did not hurt now, as we found comfortable positions. We helped each other zip our wetsuits, soaking in last reassuring glances, as we were swept up in the frenzied excitement of the moment. Pulsing music, not unlike that which had kept us awake the night before, now was welcome for the energy it brought. A helicopter flew overhead, filming the scene. Excited voices shouted encouragement over the loud speaker in French and English.
Two minutes to go – focus, check goggles, deep breathes.
One minute to go – take this all in, for in 60 seconds you will begin a very long journey. A last, knowing and wordless glance and kiss from Melissa.
Thirty seconds to go – I have to pee… wait until you’re in the water and pee in your wetsuit – how many gallons of pee do you swim through in an Ironman race, anyway? Best not to dwell on that now.
Fifteen seconds to go – more deep breathes. Really try not to drink the water.
We made our way, like tightrope walkers in GI distress, toward the sea, leaning on strangers in front and beside, all with one common goal – to get off those damned rocks and into the water. Once in the water it was a great, churning maelstrom. Speed dating for teeth and elbows.
Almost immediately I swallowed a mouthful of the briny Med. Sonofabitch – that’s not good. Can’t think about that now – what’s done is done. Keep on moving. Keep on churning. Elbow in the ribs. Kick in the jaw. Where’s that damned marker buoy? Just follow the crowd – hope the crowd knows where it’s going.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 45 minutes, I reached the end of the first loop. Out of the water, onto the rocks. Hurts like hell. Run thirty yards are so – back in the water – this time going the opposite direction. A shorter, counter-clockwise loop. More banging, more chop – visibility not improved. Saw two jellyfish floating about three feet underneath me – kind of freaky under normal circumstances, but not now. I’m more worried about the guy flailing beside me. Get the heck away from him before he knocks your goggles off.
Then, after an hour and seventeen minutes, it was over. T1 was a beautiful sight. I wonder where everybody else is? Run under the freshwater showers to rinse off the salt. Get that damned wetsuit off. Be methodical. Take deep breathes – it’s a long race. Put on sunscreen. Think it through. Don’t screw up now!
Thank you, Lord, for delivering me from the drink.
Next: The bike and run