Transition one – T1. The swim to bike transition. It’s a place of refuge between the frantic swim and the 112 mile bike stretching out before you. What eventually comes beyond the bike is immaterial. It never enters your mind at this point. It can’t. The mind cannot process it. For now, you are just thrilled to be out of the water and anxious to start knocking off miles on the bike.
After grabbing my T1 bag, I had a seat and took out a bottle of cold water. It was 7:50am, and I could already feel the heat of the day beginning to settle in. I rinsed the salt out of my mouth, then drank the rest of the bottle. I rummaged around in the bag and began pulling on bike shorts, tri top, socks and shoes, sunglasses, helmet, gloves, etc. A volunteer assisted me with applying sunscreen to my back and shoulders and then I made my way to my bike as quickly as I could in that awkwardly ambling way you are forced to run when wearing bike cleats. I was happy to see that there were still a huge number of bikes in T1, but also knew that a vast majority of them would pass me over the course of the next hundred, plus miles.
The first twelve miles was almost entirely flat, but I knew that at mile 13, there was a brutal, if very short, uphill section. I knew that it began with a left hand turn onto Condamines Road at the 13 mile marker, so knew to gear down into my easiest gear as soon as the left turn appeared ahead. Sure enough, as soon as I made the turn, the asphalt reared up like a startled beast – an uncomfortable 10% grade (which looked and felt more like 20%). It was only a 500 meter climb, but it was a genuine struggle to keep forward motion. I knew that this would be the steepest, if not the most difficult climb of the day.
After passing the village of Tourettes, (whose name made me wonder if the syndrome had been christened to commemorate the spontaneous cursing by cyclists in this area), we were treated to the first real downhill section of the race. It would be a while before we saw anymore downhill, so I tried to enjoy this brief respite to the fullest extent. I was feeling good, keeping to our nutrition plan of 300 calories an hour, plus all the fluids I could drink. I was not feeling any ill effects from the swallowed salt water. I was even looking forward to the infamous twelve mile hill section that loomed in my immediate future. Bring it on.
And then it started. The twelve mile climb to the summit of Col de I’Ecre that we had all spent a year dreading and talking obsessively about. It started so mildly, so innocently, that I wondered early on whether or not I was even on the actual hill. It rose up at a modest 3.5% grade for around four miles. And then the real fun started. It was a predominantly 8% grade for the next eight miles. The brief, fun downhill had been replaced by countless switchbacks, grinding 5 mph pedaling and discouraging views of the road as it wound up the mountain ahead of us. I was passing a few people, but mostly being passed by others. The heat had risen 20 degrees within minutes it seemed, and the sun beat down mercilessly.
By around the halfway point of the long climb, I began to feel nauseous. The cumulative effects of three mouthfuls of swallowed saltwater, high heat, dehydration and the hardest physical exertion of the day were playing havoc on my stomach. I could no longer eat the bars in my bento box and the very thought of eating the peanut butter and honey sandwich that awaited me at the summit, where our special needs bags were located, nearly caused me to wretch. I was shocked at how quickly my physical condition had deteriorated. Literally within the span of two miles, I had gone from feeling good to feeling like hell. I began to focus all of my energies on just getting to the summit. Once there, I could rest briefly, do a system check and attempt to get some solid food into my stomach. The kilometers marked on the road went by with a mind-numbing, grinding slowness.
Finally, after stifling the growing urge to puke for several miles, I made the summit. I was in bad shape and near delirious as I pulled into the special needs area. I could not even remember my race number, and didn’t have the presence of mind to simply look at my arm where it was marked. A race volunteer motioned for me to pull forward where another volunteer was waiting to hand me my bag. How do they know my race number?, I wondered. My addled brain was not connecting the fact that the number was plastered in three places on my helmet.
I took one look in my special needs bag and nearly vomited. Of the sandwich, bars and other goodies stashed there, I took only one small package of Gu Chomps – a sort of soft candy-like alternative to gels. This was the only thing I could even begin to imagine eating at that juncture.
There was no place shady to stop, so I pedaled out of the special needs area about 100 yards, where I found a bit of shade under an ancient, windswept tree. On the way there, I grabbed a bottle of Coca-Cola from a volunteer, which I knew from races past just might settle my stomach. I was dazed, distressed and thinking to myself that if the hill had been 13 miles long instead of 12, I probably would not have made it. I got off the bike and stretched a bit, tried to gather myself and took some small comfort in the fact that I was nearly done with the uphill portion of the race course, save one lingering 6km climb at about the 70 mile mark.
Over the last forty miles or so, the course was mostly down hill – some of it very fast. There were some hairpin turns and you had to pay attention, but at least the uphill was done. I began to slowly recover during this section and over the last thirty miles or so, I was able to eat again. I went through full two packets of Gu Chomps and every bit of Coca-Cola I could get my hands on at subsequent aid stations, which provided much needed calories. I also made every effort to drink as much water as possible because of the dehydration. I began to feel a sense of optimism return as my stomach stabilized.
By the last six miles of the bike course, which ran along the seaside and back into town, I was fully recovered. After not being able to eat for thirty miles and going through serious doubts as to whether I would ever get off the bike, I was alive and well. I felt like Lazarus.
As I pulled into T2, I had a new lease on life. I was worried though, about Melissa. I had seen everyone else on the bike but her. I wondered how she was doing and where she was at that moment. With thoughts of her, I changed into my running gear and made my way out onto the Promenade des Anglais for the 26.2 run along Nice’s spectacular coastline. It was 4:30pm.
Through-hikers along the Appalachian Trail call it “trail magic”. This generally refers to the unexpected good fortune which comes their way every so often along the trail, just at the moment their morale needs a boost. A good-hearted local sharing fresh-baked cookies, rides from strangers into town, a Styrofoam cooler filled with ice left behind by a knowing and kind soul on a hot day. These unexpected instances of serendipity often make the difference between someone finishing the AT or not.
My own bit of “trail magic” happened as I was about a quarter mile into my first loop. I caught up to Andre, who was heading out on his second loop. Only in the Ironman could one heterosexual male describe running into another heterosexual male as “serendipitous” or “trail magic”, but then again, the Ironman casts everything in a different light. Finding Andre, I now had the opportunity to run with a compatriot for 20 of the 26.2 miles. What this does for morale cannot be overstated. The opportunity to chat about the bike and swim – or about anything else, really – with a good friend was invaluable. It kept our focus away from the little nagging aches and pains that often cause you to walk if left to your own devices. It provides motivation and gives you someone to share the burden. It absolutely made my day.
The only way to tackle the marathon on an Ironman course is to focus on going from aid station to aid station. To think beyond that is simply overwhelming. The aid stations in Nice were set up generally every mile or so – some a little further, some closer. The run consisted of four out and back loops, which ran from T2 to the airport and back along the Prom. There were three aid stations, meaning that you passed them going and coming, for a total of six aid stations on each out and back loop. Each aid station had cool showers to walk through, water, fruit, Power Aid and Coca-Cola.
We quickly settled into a pattern of running at around a 10:30 minute per mile pace between the aid stations, then walking slowly through each station, taking our time to cool off as we passed under the showers, after which we’d take a swig of water and a bit of Coke. Just enough to stay somewhat hydrated, but not enough to upset the stomach. Then we would start the pattern over again. Run to the airport, run back to T2. Walk through the aid stations. Drink a bit – not too much. Most of the water we took got dumped over our heads. Keep that body temperature down.
After we made the turn at the airport and were passing through aid station number two, on the way back toward T2, I finally saw Melissa. She looked on the verge of tears. She was frustrated, feeling sick and not sure if she was going to make it. She had had it much worse than me on the bike, and had really suffered through a vast majority of the day. She was nauseous and on the verge of calling it quits. Her trail magic came in the form of Martin, who ran a loop with her, coaching her, encouraging her, making her walk when needed, keeping her focused. I didn’t find out until later that she had hardly been able to eat or drink at all for a large part of the day. It was a miracle and a testament to her toughness and drive that she ever even made it to the run course.
By the time Andre entered the finisher’s chute and I made the turn for my last lap, I had just about had my fill of Ironman Nice. My feet were killing me – they were completely water-logged as a result of walking through the showers at all of the aid stations. I could tell they were swollen and it felt like the skin on my soles was about to split wide open. I imagined the bloody mess I would find later when I took my shoes off. No time to dwell on that now. I hoped for the best and kept plodding along. Aid station by aid station, just keep going.
As I made the last turn out by the airport, everything in me was telling me to walk. I was on track to finish now, regardless of my pace over the last three miles. All I wanted to do was finish – that was the goal. But then it occurred to me that if I ran, I might be able to make a “PR”, by improving on my Ironman Cozumel time – if only by a few minutes. This motivated me during those last few miles, as I ran on sore feet the best I could. As I slowed to walk through each aid station one last time, I paused to thank the volunteers – those kind, patient souls – and I took the time to hug Melissa too, when we crossed paths as she headed out toward the airport one final time. She was on time to finish as well and I felt immense relief at this, even if she couldn’t share in that relief right then.
Leaving the final aid station, I had less than one mile to go to the finish. It was almost 9:30 – blue skies faded to purple and orange and it reminded me of the color of torn plums. As the Mediterranean slowly swallowed the evening sun, a welcome coolness took hold.
I entered the finisher’s chute and was lifted by the incredible energy of the crowd. I saw Melissa’s family smiling and waiving and I thought of my family and our friends back home, who I knew were tracking us on line. I felt intense relief, but was not completely able to enjoy it. Though I was very confident that Melissa would finish, I was anxious to see her.
I accepted my finisher’s medal and made my way beyond the medical tent, where I lay down in the grass. I lay there for a long time – maybe fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to move and thought maybe I’d spend the night there. It felt so wonderful to be perfectly still in that soft grass as night gathered around me – the weight of the medal on my chest somehow medicinal against the rising din of protesting muscles and joints and ligaments.
Martin and I finally found each other and a few minutes later, Melissa came across, with a brilliant smile that gave no hint of what she had been through that day.
We walked back to the apartment with the aid of Melissa’s family and after quick showers, were asleep before midnight.
It is hard to imagine going through an Ironman race without the good cheer and constant encouragement of our friends and family – both those who could be there and those who cheered from afar. It was a constant source of inspiration and their thoughts and prayers were felt during our most difficult moments.
I will never forget Renata running up and down the Promenade, encouraging us – “you’re almost finished!” I think she ran as many miles as we did that day. And Joanie was great as always – she was a fantastic “Lead Sherpa”. Melissa’s family – I was so impressed with their tireless dedication and seeing them as I ran through the finisher’s chute is something I will always remember. I know everyone in our group feels the same.
Likewise, I could feel my family – gathered for the annual McClam/Piercy/Creel/Sanders reunion in Isle of Palms, South Carolina – offering up encouragement. It was palpable. Finding the many encouraging comments on Facebook the next day was awesome as well, and we realized how much people loved and supported us. It was humbling and we wondered how we could be so lucky.
The next day, feeling better than we had a right to, we rented scooters and rode east along the coastline to the tiny port town of Vellefranche. It was a perfect day – warm and sunny. We were Ironman finishers, all of us. Even then as we rode along, pleasantly sore, eyes feasting on the impossible beauty of the Mediterranean, some part of us wondered what the next adventure might be and where it would take us.