Ironman 70.3 in Aix on September 23rd 2012 was my first triathlon covering a 1.9km swim, 90km bike and half-marathon (21km). I’m not sure why I didn’t start off with an Olympic distance triathlon (1.5km swim, 40km bike, 10km run) and build my way up but I suppose it’s because the distances don’t seem that daunting, ie I run 20km every Saturday and swim 3km three times a week, so how hard could it be to do the three disciplines back to back?
It’s actually, as I discovered, the training that’s tough. There are days when you don’t want to get up or want to go to bed at 8pm, and biking for endless hours alone is equally a mental test. By the time race day arrives, you are physically ready – and just want to finish so you can have a few days off. My sister-in-law Nikki in Toronto, who has a Masters sports psychology, found an 18-week program for me (http://www.trinewbies.com/tno_trainingprograms/tno_HIM.asp), which I adjusted to 16 weeks. I have never used a program to train for anything before and this was brilliant, as I simply had to look at the schedule to know what was required of me that day. Also, I didn’t concern myself with speed and interval training elements; my objective was to finish the race. I didn’t set a goal time, and in fact, I wasn’t even sure I could complete the bike distance within the cut-off time. I began cycling in August of 2011 (the last I was on a bike was 35 years ago) and while I absolutely love it, I lack the confidence of veteran cyclists. What does that mean? Well, I am much more cautious when sharing the road with cars, and descents for me are a nightmare. I love the thrill of climbing, but what goes up must come down, and I cling to the breaks. The advantage to training on the Coast is that you’ll be well prepared for the cycling part of the triathlon, which includes some severe climbs and often for athletes looking for qualifying race times, this is a deterrent. I am grateful to Victor at Velo-Station at 144 rue de France in Nice (http://www.velostation.com/-Nice,17-). He not had the advice I needed about equipment but kept my bike tuned to perfection.
Swimming produced my second hurdle: a fear of meduse (jellyfish). The jellyfish in the Med late June and July this year were ever present, and even though I was told the classification I was swimming amongst did not sting, the visual of the disgusting creatures so close to me created surges of panic. Not ideal when you are swimming in the sea. A combinaison (wetsuit) helped, and I equated putting it on to wearing a superhero’s costume: I would protect the world from all jellyfish. I started swimming last fall, and consider myself decent enough (I finished 6th in my age group), but swimming at the Jean Bouin pool is not the same as open water. Fortunately the Ironman Aix swim is in a fresh water lake, so there would be no enemies below surface to worry about.
Registration in Aix
Registration and the Expo Village are near the end of Cours Mirabeau in Aix en Provence, by the Fontaine de la Rotonde. Give yourself time on the Saturday (or the days before) to register and drop off your bike and Bike & Run bags. You’ll need to give yourself time between picking up the registration kit and getting stickers on your bike and helmet, and bibs on clothes to put in drop-off bags.
The shuttle bus for Lac Peyrolles, the swim and bike start location, departs just near the Expo in front of the fountain, which is also where you’ll hand over your bike. (The drop off for your Run bag is just steps from here.) I didn’t realise that Lac Peyrolles is about 20km from Aix. Unless you are going to drive, you’ll need to rely on the shuttle to take you there. There aren’t many of these so plan wisely.
Once at the lake, you then need to wait until your bike arrives (it usually follows the bus) and then check it in at the appointed area. Here your photo is taken, bike chip scanned and registration number written on your arm and leg. If your stickers aren’t placed correctly, you can’t register. This isn’t necessarily time consuming but if you are depending on the shuttle, you need to coordinate with bus times.
Tip: If you drive to Aix, be careful where you park. On race day, some of the fenced off roads (especially in near the bike/run transition area) are closed until 5am the following morning, and there’s NO access from certain hotels, parking lots etc. So you could wind up spending the night.
The bus to take athletes to Lac Peyrolles departs at 6am from Ave Napoleon Bonaparte, just down from the Fountain and Expo. Don’t be frustrated. It will take a little time to get the first buses sorted and off before the second lot arrives. If you’re not worried about getting in a good warm-up swim (I was not) you’ll still get there in lots of time to check your bike, put on your wet suit and drop off your Swim bag with your street clothes. (If you’re driving to the lake on race morning, car access is limited even for athletes so be prepared to walk some distance.)
There are porta-potties and that’s where I headed to first. They do close the park by 7:30, and herd everyone over to lake, which in late September is a cold barefoot walk on a long stony path leading you to a muddy shore. Cold feet. Literally. My favourite memory is walking to the start of the swim at 7:30am and seeing a little snack bar selling warm chorros.
Ironman Aix Swim – 1.9km loop Lake Peyrolles
Be prepared for a non-official start. Pros start 5 minutes ahead, while the remaining competitors huddle along the mud-covered beach or stand anxiously in the water. Both editions of this race have had muddled starts. So just go with it.
It’s not a huge lake. You swim straight out to the furthest dinghy, circle right to the next one and and then swim back. I’ve never swam in a group of a thousand people, so my advice is 1/ don’t stop swimming even if people are kicking you. 2/ Stick to a side BUT if it’s that side of the turn, be prepared to feel crushed. Just keep going.
Once you get to the dock at the end of the 1.9km, you then have to run back over the stony path way to the transition area. This takes a few minutes. Don’t slip. There are closed changing quarters at the transition if you prefer.
Ironman Aix Bike – 90km
First, study the course beforehand, know where the climbs are.
The bike route takes you through nine towns, and there are three aid stations. It starts off on a flat well-paved national road but you will face some tough climbs and less than ideal asphalt conditions so watch your speed. There were quite a few people with flats. If the steep climbs are one challenge, the wind is another.
At about 11km you’ll git your first 4km ascent. It’s 4.8% grade and not too bad but near the 22km mark, there’s a 5.27% grade climb over 10km to the Col du Sambuc, and then right after, at 36km, another steep 5km ascent (Col des Portes; 4.1%). From here it’s all downhill … sort of. At around the 65km point, you have a small climb (5.44% over 4 km) but wait! It’s a two-parter here – just when you think you’ve finished the last climb there’s another mount. Don’t despair – the scenery is fabulous and there are villagers lined up in all the towns to cheer you on. After this point, you cycle flat back to Aix near the Fountain. Pay attention though as you approach the city centre: there are lots of roundabouts, some of which aren’t easily signposted as to which direction to take. If the volunteer is busy talking, you can easily take a right instead of a left.
Ironman Aix Run – 21km/3 loops
The run is three loops from the Fontaine de la Rotonde through town, by the cemetery, up through the park and back along by Cours Mirabeau. There’s a large aid station and toilets in both directions once you get out of the old town. Each time you come back towards the Fountain, you get a coloured wristband. When you have four, you go for the Finish Line, just to the right if the Fountain. Here you collect your medal, t-shirt and EAT!
The Ironman Aix event (http://ironmanpaysdaix.com/) was a perfect start to my triathlon “career”. I would highly recommend this course: it’s well organised, offers stunning scenery and there’s unbelievable encouragement from crowds in the villages and Aix itself. The 2013 edition takes place on September 22nd.