Alain’s first IronMan 70.3 at Sables d’Olonne

IronMan 70.3 Sables d’Olonne, June 15, 2019 (L)

Race Reporter: Alain

Finally, after my first sprint in England 2 years ago, I am now tackling the half-IronMan distance, on this symbolic first edition of the Sables d’Olonne IronMan 70.3 !

The first chapters will focus on very practical and logistics aspects of the race, while the last one will cover more personal impressions regarding my first long-distance triathlon experience.

Thank you Sonia for offering me this opportunity of reporting for ExpaTRIés, and I hope this read will prove both useful and interesting to you !

Disclaimer : this event was my first experience in the IronMan brand realm, so many things I found impressive in comparison to previous road races and triathlons I have taken part to before might actually sound pretty normal to more seasoned IronMan participants !

  1. Race context

This race was the first IronMan 70.3 distance to be held in Les Sables d’Olonnes (a.k.a. « Les Sables »), one of the main seaside resorts in Vendée, on the French Atlantic Coast.

Situated between Nantes and La Rochelle, the city is reknowned for its special relationship to the sea. Fishing port, shipyard, the town is also a good spot for everything surfing and sailing, thanks to its wide sandy beaches and windy conditions. The port is also host every 4 years of the start/finish of the Vendée Globe challenge, a solo round-the-world sailing race, and the IronMan 70.3 swim actually follows the same route through the port as the one taken by the sea racers when leaving and finishing the race.

The weather in the area can be variable at this time of the year. For instance, a major storm hit the coast the week before the race, the battling sea capsizing a lifeguard boat, killing three of them, along with the person they were rescuing. This sad event also induced a very special atmosphere during the race, especially at the start of the swim, some of the lifeguards on duty to watch after us having lost colleagues the days before.

  1. Accomodation/Transport

Les Sables is about 4 to 5 hour-drive from Paris, train is similar and involves connections, making the race one of the closest to Paris IronMan events. Driving and parking in the city center, especially near the expo and the bib retrieval area, during the race weekend can be difficult. However, the rest of the city is quiet, though public transportation is limited. Cycling is the best means of commuting around, walking is also a possibility, but the involved distances can be a bit of a stretch (I will come back to that in the « Expo/Transition area » chapter).

Mid-June in Les Sables is the beginning of the summer season, and only the 70.3 distance is organized, attracting around 3000 participants. Consequently, in comparison to Vichy, which hosts both a half and full IM in late August, affordable housing is easier to find. When I booked my AirBnB in February for June, there were still plenty of options available.

  1. Bib, Expo and Transition Area

Bibs can be retrieved on Friday and Saturday. The hours are quite peculiar (bib retrieval closes at 7pm on Friday, 2pm on the Saturday), especially considering it takes about 5 hours to go from Paris to Les Sables regardless of your transportation mode. For that reason, I highly recommend to try to get there on the Friday. It seems exceptions can be made for late-shows if you call beforehand, but I cannot totally confirm it.

Parking around the Casino area (where the expo is located) is a bit complicated, but not impossible. Nothing specific to describe there, it is well organized and queues remain limited at the end of the day.

The expo is rather small, especially from a nutrition perspective, but most of the last minute race-related purchases are possible there. Regarding the goodies, I was glad to see almost no flyers, useless samples of food or relief balm which I never really use or want to experiment during a race weekend, ending up in the trash bin most of the time. Meanwhile, the IronMan bag, the clippable LED light and the removable running arm sleeves might turn out to be useful !

The first organisational difficulty came with preparing the Bike (T1) and Run (T2) transition bags. For instance, they have to be provided to the organizers on the Saturday afternoon, along with the bike. On race day morning, access to only the bicycle is allowed. Consequently, it is necessary to really carefully compose those bags, especially regarding the food, since it will have to stay in the bag during the whole night and part of the race day. Apparently, it is possible on the race day morning to ask volunteers to add something you would give them to your bag, but I did not test that option.

The second difficulty, and one of the main « misses » of the organisation, is the location of that transition area : it actually is about 20 minute-walk away from the start and in the Western area of the city center. Consequently, depending on where your accomodation is, going there with the bike, and walking back home afterwards might induce a quite heavy walk for a race’s eve. This will also have to be accounted for on race day, when walking from there to the start, and at the end of the race when retrieving the bike and transition bags. Good thing is the « StreetWear » bag drop-off is near the start/finish line, meaning those walks can be done wearing sneakers and not barefoot or sandals. If possible, I would thus recommend trying to find housing in the city center.

  1. Race Day – Swim

The starting area beach

The race started unusually late (around 10:30am), the organizers actually sync-ing it with the low tides. The bike area opened on time (8:30am) for final checks, and that part went quite flawlessly. Driving there and leaving the car in a parking lot area is what we did, though I strongly advise getting there about 25-30 minutes before the opening, as the parking lot gets quickly saturated and the trafic a bit chaotic.

15-20 more minutes walking with our streetwear bags, and we finally got to the beach for the start. Since we got there fairly early (9am), there was a little confusion regarding the Streetwear bagdrop, as it opened only at 9:30am ! In addition, the volunteers we asked were not aware of its location, another small miss in the IronMan machine. But finally, we could put on our wetsuits (no lockers found?).

On preparation day, the strong winds coming from the sea were a bit stressful, but on the D-day they had slowed down significantly (about 14kph), which was quite a relief. The starting area included swim time-based corrals, up to 45-50 minutes predicted, time limit on the swim being 70 minutes. Be advised however that the rolling start (6 participants every 8-10secs) induces a wait of up to 1 hour from the initial start for slowest corral swimmers, which is rather long and stressful.

The swim starts with an Australian start : about 100m run to the seashore, and then dive in the water (around 17°C) ! The first 200-300m are towards the high sea, against the current and the waves. The ocean was pretty quiet on that day however. A quick pair of right-hand turns then lead swimmers in the Sables port approach, in canal-like conditions, with a surprise : help from the currents ! More precisely, the race starting in rising tides hours, the current is actually pushing the swimmers forward, leading to impressive speeds : my personal 100m time was almost 40 seconds quicker than what I usually achieved in a pool !

Consequently, it is after a rather short swim (38mins instead of predicted 45-50mins) that I got to the landing ramp, climbing there with support from volunteers (expect a bit of traffic here too) before running to transition T1.

  1. Race Day – Bike

Nothing very notable in T1, volunteers are nice and supportive, and getting there among the last triathletes because of my late start also meant finding my bike was quite easy. And off to the bike course we got !

The first 1-2kms leaving the port area were a bit awkward, slaloming across an industrial zone and a parking lot where fresh concrete had been poured on purpose for the Ironman, creating a smooth but narrow path that was a bit complicated to navigate amidst the biking traffic. But that quickly transitioned to proper paved roads.

  The bike route in the Vendée countryside is a very fast and flat one. The +600m total climb is really distributed along the whole 92km route, with no serious climb or descent, only a lot of hills or long and gentle upwards straights. To sum up, the landscape is more British Midlands than Vallée de Chevreuse, and even flatter actually. As written earlier, there was little to no wind, but my guess is the area is usually subject to much stronger winds, which would then lead to a very different story.

Fast cyclists might complain about that lack of climbs and discriminative areas, since it meant they would stay in groups during the many long flat stretches of straight tarmac, leading to drafting penalties-related nervousness. That problem is less true at lower speeds, even though FFTri referees were visible and patrolling regularly.

On the bike route is where the IronMan organisation is the most impressive. With 2 or 3 volunteers at every crossroads, including the smallest ones, and signs everywhere, the cycling was extremely smooth. Tarmac was perfect almost everywhere, many roads having visibly been renovated recently, with only a few patches of scattered gravel here and there (I only witnessed one puncture during the whole race). I missed one sign at some point, leading me to take one wrong exit at a roundabout, but that did not cost me much time. A bit more stressful was the 2-minute stop at KM60 due to a crash and the corresponding triathlete being evacuated. Quite a powerful reminder it was not a walk in the park.

Water points were perfectly identified, filled with Enervit bottles, water and bananas (perhaps more things but my personal strategy usually avoids using water stops). Support on the side of the road was variable, but Vendéens seemed quite aware of the event and did gather in small groups to watch and cheer us while enjoying the sun and barbecues. Expect to come across the smell of grilling steaks and fish !

The final 8-10kms breeze through the Forêt d’Olonnes park, a very quiet road among the trees where I felt a bit lonely until entering Les Sables city center, back to the transition area.

  1. Race Day – Run

Transition T2 was also quite uneventful, apart from my usual difficulty finding my bike spot, especially since the vas majority of the triathletes were already back and had put their bicycles on the racks, creating a very dense forest of wheels ! My advice : try to memorize or write down somewhere the number/letter pair identifying your row.

The first 2-3km will feel a bit like « déjà-vu », since they follow the transition area to start-line route walked early that same day. Except that at that time (around 4-5pm), it will be busy with tourists wandering around the port. Participants being probably 5-10 seconds apart, each one then grabs a lot of public attention ! A couple hundred meters are through a non-closed pedestrian sidewalk, which could disturb some, but it is very short.

Similarly, down a quick flight of stairs, the route returns on the starting beach, mostly covered by the sea (tide is high now!) and falso locks of tourists and sunbathers ! It is a quite striking and funny feeling to run in triathlon gear among families chilling in swimsuit. However, the public is cautious and the volunteers always there to ensure a (rather narrow) path remains free to the triathletes. Be careful when running on that sand : despite the many runners, the sand remains quite soft and irregular, hard to really fly on such a surface ! Luckily, that rather weird section is only about 250m long and ends with a final flight of upstairs (might be treacherous if you’re exhausted), that leads to the Sables coastal promenade (« Le Remblai ») for three laps of about 6kms each.

That circuit is generally flat, with only a short smooth uphill road. It also includes about 400m around a pond, on a smooth gravel trail instead of pavement and this is also the only section with shades to be found. Almost the whole circuit is covered by the sound system, inducing a very rock’n roll and joyful atmosphere. At that point, the route is now filled with running triathletes, some starting their laps, others finishing. A lot of cheering and support is available here, even though it might to fade a bit starting 5pm, when the final quarter of the participants is still running.

Again, the organisers have done their job quite well : no less than 4 water stations are available on that 6km circuit ! Water, sparkling water, coke, Red Bull, sprinklers… Almost anything can be found at every spot ! Please note referees are also present during the run part, especially one in the final straight, whose main duty is to ensure you properly zip the tri-suit back completely before crossing the finish line ! No nudity allowed, at all…:)

  1. Finish line and Bike check-out

The post-finish line area is rather short, at first sight : medal, StreetWear bag retrieval, and that seems to be it. But actually, the post-race is mostly concentrated in a sports center next door, and this is where the post-race fun begins, with the recovery/physicians area, and a full buffet with water, fruits, biscuits, but also beer, pizza, pasta, cakes and local brioche Vendéenne ! A nice place to chill and refill after the competition.

Unfortunately, I would recommend not to stay for too long there, especially if the return train or drive is planned straight after the race. Bike check-out for retrieval of the bicycles, but also the used transition bags, opens around 5pm, and involves returning to the transition area, thus an other 15-20minutes walk. Initially quite fluid, the area becomes quickly cramped with triathletes (quietly) queuing to check their gear out, peaking at 20-25minutes wait around 6pm ! As written at the start of this report, that remote location of the transition area is the main logistics difficulty of the Sables d’Olonne IM70.3.

  1. My Race

Les Sables d’Olonne were my really first take at the L distance, and the biggest challenge in my still recent runner/triathlete life. I was quite confident I could take each stage separately, but how I would fare in the whole experience was really a question mark. My biggest concerns were especially around the open sea swim and the mid-afternoon run. The whole preparation and equipment drop stages went quite smoothly, but tension really started to rise while on the beach, during the short swim warm-up and even more during the very long wait in the 45-minute swim corral before my actual start (at 11:30am, almost an hour after the pros!)

But what a start it was ! As the queue was slowly pushing me closer and closer to the starting line, I could hear the buzzer rythmically sending participants to the sea by groups of 6 every 8 seconds or so. And when it was finally my turn, the sight of the cheering crowd both sides of the path to the sea as I was running on the sand towards the shore was so exhilarating and exciting, I think I will keep that very fleeting but striking view in my memory for a very long time! And finally, I got to hit the water and start swimming.

The first strokes were a real struggle. I am unsure whether it was the water temperature (17°C), the waves or my lack of open sea swim experience, but it took me at least 300m before I finally found my pace. Before that, I basically felt like I did not know how to swim. I did not know how to breathe anymore or if I had to keep my head under or above water. I think it was a kind of short panic attack. However, as I passed the first buoy, then the second and turned into the port, I felt much better and could finally feel at home. Probably the sight of walking supporters on the dock or on boats’ bridges was reassuring in comparison to the relative void of open sea. The rest of the distance went very smoothly, thanks again to the pushing tide.

T1 was a bit of a nightmare, mostly because of the wetsuit. While seeing and hearing a cheering crowd nearby again was recomforting, I also got frustrated when removing the soaked wetsuit, that took ages. It definitely requires more practice and probably a few tips ! So, I decided to slow down and do my transition properly and without rushing it. When I got in the bike area, the sight of its emptiness, as I started in the second to last swim corral and everyone was on the road already, was a bit discouraging, but I managed to maintain my enthusiasm nevertheless.

I started the cycling part strong, probably too strong, but I was motivated. I kept a good pace for the first 30kms, overtaking a few people. But then I started wondering if I should not try to spare some energy for the run, especially as I felt the external temperature rising as time went by. And unfortunately, I did not have any real clue about what that meant. Should I generally slow down ? Or only push less uphill ? Stop pedalling downhill ? I kinda improvised, but will also have to learn more on that point for my next races.

Kilometer 60 was a bit of a shock as, just before a curve, we were stopped by referees because of a crash and the ambulance evacuating the injured triathlete. It seemed pretty bad, as that curve was also slightly downhill and covered with smooth gravel. As we were allowed to walk past the ambulance, I preferred not to look at it or listen to people’s comments. I do not have news about that person. Nothing dramatic was reported, which is a relief, but I guess it was not a scratch either. Cycling full speed across countryside secondary roads remains a dangerous thing to do.

The last kilometers of the cycling felt a bit long but were quiet, with just the sight and smell of late-lunch barbecues to interrupt my fairly random trail of cycler’s thoughts (« Should I eat now ? », « What’s that weird noise coming from the gears ? », « Should I drink now ? », « Please don’t puncture. », « Oh, that’s a nice house ! », « I love that smell of grilled fish, makes me hungry. », « Should I eat now ? »).

And finally, after 92 kilometers, I was finally back to the transition area, now filled with bicycles. For information, those two additional kilometers felt awfully long. I took my time returning my bike, got a bit lost on the way, and transitioning to my running gear. I was already too exhausted to try rushing it.

As mentioned earlier, the first two kilometers of running, leading to the running circuit, were an interesting experience. I felt good, it was almost like if I was alone with the supporters and wandering tourists. I really had the impression everyone was watching and cheering me. Similarly, the short section on the sand felt totally out of this world. The beach, that was a hundred meters wide and empty when we started at low tide, had shrunk to a dozen meters and was filled with families and sunbathing vacationers. It was again a short but quite striking view.

In comparison, joining the running circuit filled with participants at various stages of exhaustion felt almost dull, or back-to-business. The first 10 kilometers were long, but went well, with many supporters, and numerous water points to refill (a little) and shower with fresh water (a lot). The continuous flow of comments and music coming from the sound system along the road was a fairly welcome distraction, as my legs started to feel very tired, especially as I got into the second lap.

I am still not a big fan of lap-running. Being able to count laps is a bit discouraging at the beginning, and seeing triathletes finish while you still have 8 or 9 kilometers to go is a tough sight. But I admit it also helps during the second half of the run, when the lap count is now downwards towards zero, and not upwards.

That second half is where I started diving deep down to find the energy to move forward. At that point, heat and exhaustion start taking a serious toll on the body. At that point, eating the same food over and over becomes a challenge itself. At that point, the brains need to compensate the dying thighs. I picked will and stamina in a whole variety of sources. I alternately focused on finishing, succeeding in a new challenge, thought of my friends and family who were following me from afar or of all the events, sports-related or not, that happened in the last few months as I was preparing for that event. I also really thank both my experience at the Madrid marathon in April, that showed me how far I could push my limits, and my interval work on the Charléty track with Sonia’s Striders team, that helped me build up strength.

The last 200m felt almost like a dream, only interrupted by a « Please zip your tri-suit entirely, sir ! » thrown by the referee apparently in charge of public nudity. A bit startling, but I forgot it quickly as I got through the finish line. Surprisingly, crossing that line was not as emotional or strong as the rest of the race. It felt more like « Job Done. » than « Congrats, you did it ! ». But still, it was the conclusion of an exhilarating and rough experience. Temporary conclusion actually, since an other IronMan70.3 awaits me in a few weeks. And probably the full one later ? It has never been that close…

Thank you for your attention, I hope this report has or will help you preparing your own tri-adventure, and also that you enjoyed reading those notes as much as I enjoyed typing them !