A Shaky Report on Pays d’Aix  Ironman 70.3

Pays d’Aix  Ironman 70.3  – 13th May 2018 

Race Reporter: Charles

It was during a post race euphoria in Asia that I signed up for Aix 70.3 with two Singaporean buddies before my move to Paris from Singapore in August 2017. The initial excitement of a first European race was quickly halted by plantar fasciitis in October.  The most painful part was being told by my orthopaedic colleague that this is likely to be due to overuse (running) and is age-related (wear & tear).  Nevertheless, I managed to get back to some semblance of training at the end of March, after trying rest, physiotherapy, massage, infrared, osteopathy and insoles (I was also offered steroid injection to the plantar tendon but decided against it because of the dubious benefit).  I was happy that I could run short distances without the debilitating heel pain like before. However, as the race date drew closer, I realized that I had been so focused on my foot that I had neglected the swim, which is my weakest discipline.

To calm my nerves and do some ‘last minute’ training, I joined Bertrand Raymond’s tri-camp weekend in Aix three weeks before the race.  This turned out to be the best decision I made in preparation for the race. It was not difficult to understand why Aix 70.3 was voted as the second most popular race in the European ironman circuit. The beautiful scenery and landscape in Provence were just like what I had seen on the internet.  The weather was perfect during the recce ride on the race route. I took in as much as I could the beauty of Mt St Victoire & its surrounding because I knew I would not get to enjoy the scenery on race day (little did I know how true that would be later on).  The cycling course is known for its climb and it did not disappoint.  The first 10km was beautiful, along side the river.  There were gentle slopes at about 20km and 45km, followed by a fun and fast but tortuous windy descent down a forested area (reminder: fingers on the hoods and not tri-bar!!). Then there was the deceivingly calm open yellow fields with canola flowers and the charming small town, Pourrières.  Deceiving because this is where I would imagine most people will let their guard down before the real climb at 70km.  After a right turn off the main road (the orange IM logo was already stenciled on the ground with an arrow sign), the sight of Mt St Victoire’s grey rocky top against a colourful base foreground beckoned.  The steepness gradient is an average of 6-7% for 2km on strava.  What that meant for me (coming from a flat island country) was using up all my gears, painful quads, swaying side to side, slowly grinding up at 8-10km/hr.  Just when I thought there was no end in sight and was tempted to take a break, the radio tower popped up.  I knew then that the course was ‘do-able’ but with respect.  The last 15km of the cycling course is a good time to rest the legs (before the run) as it is mostly downhill.  During the tri-camp, we recce the run course (which is 3 loops with gentle slopes in the city) in a car but we went for a trail run up Mt St Victoire instead. The thing that jolted me most in the tri-camp was the swim in Lac Peyrolles.  I had heard the water temperature can be cold during May and in fact, the swim leg was cancelled in 2016 because the water temperature was 13.8 degrees C (just below the triathlon cutoff of 13.88 degrees C!!).  The recce swim was thus met with trepidation but the water temperature (I think about 15 degrees) on recce day was not a problem.  I acclimatized to the temperature in a few minutes but realized my swim was rusty big time.  I was breathless/hyperventilating and tachycardic even with a short swim.  That really shook me and in retrospect, that was the most valuable lesson learnt.  I knew I had three weeks and subsequently put in a few practice swims during that time which helped clawed back some confidence in the water.

As if the race preparation was not disruptive enough, after the tri-camp, I flew back to Singapore for a family function and stayed there until I flew back with my mates and our wives three days before the race.  We transited at CDG airport and took a direct TGV to Aix-en-Provence.  Our three large bike bags must have broken all the escape route rules on the TGV but somehow we got there.  Picking up our bibs, wrist tags and transition bags on the Friday at La Rotonde (the finishing area) was a piece of cake and very relaxing as the main crowd will only be there on Saturday.  The finishing line was in a very happening part of town, with lots of people, shops, cafes, restaurants.  We did the usual optional….I mean…obligatory shopping (had to get the T-shirt with my microscopic name printed on it; think it’s no longer decipherable after one wash).  On Saturday, we did a short test ride in the morning and checked in our bikes & bags in the afternoon.  This was my first race where T1 & T2 were at different places.  The check-in was very well organized, no hiccups.  The weather was great all this while but we knew the forecast on race day would be cooler with a chance of rain.

Fast forward to race day. Helped by the jetlag, I got up at 4.30am, feeling reasonably fresh and surprisingly calm.  Having read a bit on triathlon (and nothing to do with me being a gastroenterologist), I always have a ‘digestible’/low fibre breakfast on race day.  Time passed quickly.  Before we knew it, we were on the shuttle from Aix to Lac Peyrolles, with our wet suits half worn.  The supposed 25minute journey took 45minutes because of traffic jam leading up to the lake.  I just had enough time to top up the water bottle on my bike before they closed T1.  Another lesson learnt: take the earlier shuttle and top up the bottle on check-in day.

The swim was a rolling start according to self-declared timing, from the ‘beach’ end of the lake.  The sky was overcast but it wasn’t raining nor windy.  I chose to start between 43 and 45minutes.  The pros went first and it must have taken another 30minutes or so to come to my turn.  The ticking buzzer grew louder as I eventually made it to the starting line.  There were no heroic run dives into the water.  Everyone was just wading into the water slowly, taking care not to injure our feet on the rocky pebbles.  In contrast to the tri-camp swim, I felt in control of the swim.  The halfway point came sooner than I thought.  Then out of nowhere, I felt a mild cramp in my right calf (and I wasn’t even kicking that much) so I kicked even less.  Fortunately, it didn’t get worse.  I surfaced at my usual spot-on 45minutes but importantly, I did not feel breathless or dizzy. 

The weather still looked the same, overcast but no rain and not cold.  The run up to T1 was a long one (about 100-150m).  As usual, I struggled to remove my wet suit.  I had a gilet and arm warmers in the T1 bag but only took the latter because it did not feel that cold then (I regretted big time later on).  The first part of the cycling progressed as expected.  There was the occasional mild drizzle but that did not bother me too much.  It was a bit nippy at times but I thought I could ride through it.  Then the sky opened up just before I reached the Mt St Victoire climb.  The rain was torrential.  There was thunder. There was lightning.  There was everything.  I was overtaking a few cyclists when I realized why.  I had a helmet with a visor, which in retrospect helped to shield my eyes from the rain (At that time, I was thinking of innovating a visor with wipers). I started to feel cold, very cold as I was making my way up Mt St Victoire.  The quads were stiffening up in the cold.  The shivering came next.  Then I noticed ambulances and a lot of bikes on the sides of the road.  Being a doctor, I knew I had the signs of hypothermia (blurred vision and clouded state of mind) but strangely enough, in my confused state, I did not fear the prospect of crashing.  I saw some cyclists on the road side with the silvery thermal sheet so with the little common sense left, I decided to stop next to a stationary cyclist and a lady (not sure if she was an official or just someone watching the race) in the hope of getting something warm. But as soon as I stopped, my calves cramped up and I just fell down like timber.  The kind lady helped dorsiflexed my feet and brought my bike to the road side.  I was lying in the middle of the road and had to shuffle/roll myself to the road side to get out of other cyclists’ way.  After a few minutes, the cramps subsided but the shivering remained.  There was no warm clothing or sheet.  I was close to DNF but decided I had to keep going as staying there would be even colder.  The last 7-8km of the cycling was the worst physical experience I had ever experienced.  I was shaking uncontrollably and could barely feel my fingers (hence the worry about braking).  To this day, I still cannot recall the last few km of the cycling.  I don’t remember how I got to T2.  In my confused hypothermic state, I could not find my number for racking the bike.  It was a surreal moment.  Luckily, an official, who must have realized I was not well, guided me to my number.  He kindly pointed to a tent where I could put on my running shoes.  The tent was full of other participants, some taking their time to put on their shoes in the midst of shivering.  That’s when I realized that a lot of people were affected.  After fumbling for a few minutes, I finally put on my running shoes and decided stupidly to carry on (I was not thinking straight at the time).  As I left the tent, I saw other athletes going into a holding room in a building in T2  so I followed.  I was shocked to see the room was packed with athletes, everyone at different stages of shivering/shaking.  It was like a scene from a Hollywood sci-fi horror movie.  As a newcomer (or I must have been shaking so badly), a kind guy pointed at me to a medic.  The medic took me to a separate medical room, where the top of my trisuit was stripped off me and warm dry clothing and blanket were wrapped around me.  I didn’t know the exact time I spent there then but found out after the race my T2 transition time was 1hr and 22minutes.  I thought I would DNF and felt a sense of relief immediately.  I wanted to call my wife but being totally dependant on iPhone, I could not remember her mobile number. After a hot drink and a sandwich, the shaking eventually subsided. Then I looked at my watch and thought to myself, since I already suffered so badly, they jolly well better give me my finisher medal!!  I didn’t know my exact timing then but estimated I had between 2.5 and 3hrs to finish the run before the cut-off time.   So, I told the nurse I wanted to continue.  She checked my temperature twice (both times 29degrees C! I dare not imagine what my temperature on arrival was) and my heart rate before she decided to release me reluctantly.

The rain had stopped when I started my run.  The run was quite lonely.  Most had either completed or had DNF.  There was also no crowd lining the run route.  It felt like a training run but slower.  Ironically, my plantar problem which was my main pre-race concern was not even an issue at all.  It was encouraging to see some athletes going home after collecting their bikes/bags shouting “allez allez” to me.  Finally, I reached the finish line (with 23minutes to spare before the cutoff), to the cheers of the Singapore support crew and my wife.  That has to be the toughest medal I had ever earned, by a mile. It was a totally humbling experience.  Will I come back again? The answer is a resounding YES!!!! (but with better preparation and a gilet).  I also need to improve on my T2 transition time 🙂