Europe -- Continent #5
France -- Country #6
June 23, 2013
Seven years went by since competing in my last Ironman. In the 1980’s triathloning used to be a weekend brag, now it is multi-national, multi-million dollar business and an honorable lifestyle for Type A’s. After chasing races in the States since moving out of Thailand I needed a change in direction and move on to compete in different continents and countries. Changing the race distances and countries generated new energy into a sport I was already passionate about. The progressive change in racing was no different than growing up in life with mixtures of age, careers, and sports.
In life we use identifying labels for aging such as baby, kid, preadolescent, teenager, young adult, adult, middle age, and senior citizen. Along the way we age up. We get re-labeled. We develop and use various new skills. Business people may relate too using a different set of labels. These may include new hire, individual contributor, supervisor, manager, director, mentor, VP, C-level executive, and retired personnel. In sports you go from being the rookie, to a starter, to experienced, on to a number one ranking, top of your game to seasoned, and finally phasing out to past prime, or worse, retirement.
The different stages required new skills along the way to develop, thrive, excel, cope, recover, and stay interested. For my body and mind I changed my destiny with geography and distances to keep some control of my life over my pre-disposed genetic and biological fate of aging out of athletics. For work I changed across multiple professional disciplines to feed my need for continual changing newness. The new challenges continually energized me for better relationships with family. More engagement in the work scene. And kept me interested in a sport I expressed passion for over more than a quarter of a century. The fusion of these key elements in my life strangely worked together to provide for a more meaningful existence.
My choice to complete in Ironman France turned out to be a reunion with an international friend. Jamie Quinn and I met on the streets in Bangkok in 2005. I introduced myself to him as we pedaled our bicycles on a Sunday morning training ride on the side streets north of Sukhumvit Road. Sukhumvit traffic on weekend mornings was about like Lake Shore Drive in Chicago traffic during rush hour only much hotter and dirtier. He remembered me as the guy who had asked him how he did in the Laguna Phuket Triathlon race months earlier on the beautiful resort island in southern Thailand. We never shared names back then, just a brief friendly exchange between expat vacationers on a destination race weekend. Jamie’s memory is at least on par with the elephants in Thailand. Over the next couple of years in Bangkok we rode together infrequently but stayed in touch.
We both moved away from Bangkok in 2007. He went back to London in January to join his family who left months earlier. My family left for the Chicago area in July. Jamie and I e-mailed back and forth over the next five years about getting together for a triathlon.
In 2012 five states remained to complete my 50 state triathlon journey. A new journey of competing in a triathlon on all continents started getting teed up to continue in 2013. I had already competed on four continents: North America, Asia, Australia, and Africa. That left me with Europe and South America to knock off the remaining continents. Well, Antarctica, too, if a race director ever plans one there. After competing in three races over four weekends in July 2012, I took a breather and committed to Ironman France (IMF).
Traveling to different States or different counties didn’t seem like strange behavior. In Arizona residents live amongst the best rated golf courses compared to anywhere else in the world. Still some of my more fanatic co-workers there with disposable income planned destination vacations to play rounds in neighboring California at higher rated courses. Others flew to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to play golf at the top courses on the largest islands in Hawaii. During our international assignment I met business people who golfed at destinations around the world.
We met up with expats and their transient bosses in other companies who thought nothing of finding work related requirements in far off countries to nab a tee time on the best greens and fairways anywhere in the world. Traveling with their clubs was on par with continually earning miles in their chosen frequent flyer programs. Outside of my tri-centric world I’ve read of other cults whose members attended Major League Baseball games in 30 different stadiums in 30 days. Others pace themselves across multiple seasons but covering the full portfolio of sports venues in the major cities for football, hockey, and basketball games.
And some people travel to shop. When living in Seattle, neighborhood outings were organized road trips to sales tax free shopping south of the border into Oregon. In Thailand we played tour guide to friends, family and visiting co-workers to the behind the counter shopping of specially discounted jewelry and DVD’s. And many uber rich foreign carrying passport holders come to the US to shop at stores in off-hours for the privacy of their own buying experiences and think nothing of racking up six figure sales receipts.
Others, like me, travel to compete against the best triathletes in the States and world. In shopping for my European race I chose Ironman France because of the five figure bike climbing. Over the 112 mile course we would gain a total of 11,193 feet in the foothills to the Alps. The most climbing of any of the Ironman courses.
I also committed and entered the race after talking with Steve Wade. In August 2012 looked up his USAT Nationals’ results and saw he didn’t do well. He had been diagnosed earlier in the year with melanoma, skin cancer, on his lip and was in active treatment. Doctors removed a portion of his lip and surrounding area. He was on a cancer treatment drug called Interferon until spring of 2013. After sharing this information with Chris, she told me to sign-up for IM France, “You never know what may happen to you.”
I will never regret embarking on this self-centered journey. The adventure became the one thing in life I chose to do after marriage and parenthood. I didn’t want to die before completing this multi-year and strenuous journey. While I worked hard while on the journey I also realized how important my kids’ activities were to them. Did my triathlon involvement encourage them to stay with sports or did their involvement motivate me to show them the US and the world with my racing? An unanswerable family chicken and egg conundrum. The more all of us got involved in the others’ activities, the more we continued to grow-up as a family. Our variety of activities opened all of us up to ever more options instead of getting pigeonholed into a single sport, a profession, making another buck, or solely trying to get ahead.
The one thing I regret along the journey was not letting me be happier. Never had a personality that being happy and having fun was a choice. Chris always encouraged me to be happier. Never learned that lesson until I witnessing the girls being happy with what they participated in and competed at with their perceived limitations of what they had to work with. I learned how to be happier from my kids. They successfully broke me of my old habits or at least got me to realize I could choose to unencumber myself to a happier life.
Steve’s diagnosis became my compelling reason to continue on the journey. Chris’ comment represented my personal business case for a sense of urgency to commit to my next milestone. This one set in Europe. I hung up the phone with her and signed up for IMF that night. Before I went to bed, sent an e-mail to Jamie informing him I was in. With the time difference between the Twin Cities and London, he was already asleep. By the time I woke up on Friday, I received a note stating he too signed up. We were on for Nice. With all the planning and training required meeting up with Jamie turned out to be one race and ten months away.
On December 31st the local triathlon club, Multisport Madness, held its annual 100 x 100 workout; four lengths of a 25 meter pool, swam 100 times. Training for IMF started in earnest on the last day of the year. We swam as the six D’s in Lane #1: Dr. Craig, Dana, Dannylynn, Deena, Debbie, and me. Purposely showed up late having already run nine miles and hung in there to swim 4,500 meters with them. I left exhausted, though ready to bring on the increasing mileage needed for serious IM training.
For people living in the Upper Midwest, a June Ironman Triathlon is an early season race.
To appreciate the challenges of living in the upper Midwest, or the northern tier of the United States, and trying to train for a full Ironman triathlon and parenting intellectually-challenged children, I’ll share a note sent to my wife and sister on April Fools’ Day.
From: Doug Morris
Sent: Monday, April 01, 2013 7:26:35 PM
To: Christine Morris; Scodro, Greta
Subject: April 1
Well there is a about a foot of snow on the ground, the lakes are frozen from Madison (Wisconsin) to here (Woodbury, Minnesota), and the St Croix River was frozen except a small strip outside the water treatment warm water outlet. Oh yeah, and it is supposed to be 20°F tonight and the girls think the Easter Bunny lives and while they enjoy the candy they're kind of creeped out that she came in the back door.
Happy April Fools! Probably be funnier if all the above wasn't true. Ld
I thought by now bike training would be outside for hundred plus mile rides. While I wanted different weather conditions for training, learned to be flexible and adjust. The same approach adopted for parenting.
When mapping out my life in the 1980’s, I thought, had hoped, of training runs and bike rides with my kids when they would be in their late teens/early 20’s. This was before we had kids and we understood what limitations the girls would have in their lives. These days, I wonder what they dreamed of doing with their dad, if I were home more often.
Weather challenged us past winter as the Twin Cities area experienced the second snowiest April on record. In mid-April I was downtown Chicago on the beachfront running in snow in lieu of a bike ride the morning after Hayes attended her first Blackhawks hockey game as a guest of her Uncle Joe. An additional four weeks went by before I rode outside.
Received periodic e-mails from the IMF race organization that prepped us for the race. Sometimes offering travel arrangements for flights and lodging. Others were general information about pre-race services, race news, and other tourist activities to get us excited about the race. Closer to race time I received the official race program. These were translated from French to English for the non-French reading racer population. Each e-mail was welcomed as it reminded me of the translations experienced in Thailand. All of the phrases were entertaining yet understandable. Here’s one on expanded qualifying spots for Kona: “Good surprise for them who will try to get their slot for Hawaii on next 23rd June: Ironman France-Nice will exceptionally offer 60 slots instead of 50!” And another for sightseeing outside of Nice: “Discover the village of Gattières … its abundant historic past with many remains illustrating it throughout the village... With its ovoid shape, the village is perched on a rocky escarpment at an altitude of 290m. The village streets are going down in a concentric way. Façade lines are sometimes broken by vaults giving all its charm to this medieval village.”
What was my translation of all the e-mail communications? Excitement! We don’t have villages in the US. And I experienced many strange places in Thailand but nothing like described above. This more than offset any uncertainties I felt about the pending travel and race.
When signing up in early August wasn’t sure I could complete an IM let alone be competitive in an IM, especially after pulling out of IM Louisville 2007 and my half ironman distance performance in Kentucky in July 2012. Also, I had not traveled outside of North America in six years since returning from Thailand. I had not competed in an Ironman distance triathlon in seven years. I was faced with over 12 hours of travel time to get to the 140.6 mile race once I arrived there. Most of my training bike rides were relatively short and on flat roads. I wasn’t sure I put in enough distance training on the bike and run. I wasn’t sure I rode the bike at an intensity level that would help me deliver a quick time split at the race. I was looking forward to an Ironman Triathlon race on a new continent and seeing an old friend.
On Tuesday, put in my last bike workout, an easy spin in Woodbury followed by a fartlek run workout. On the run picked a daisy from a garden in Markgraf Lake Park to remind me of my mother. The daisy, her favorite flower, became my bookmarker for the entire trip. And now adorns my office cork board. Drove home to Geneva from Twin Cities early Tuesday afternoon. Before going to the house drove directly to a baseball field to watch Hayes in her FVSRA (Fox Valley Special Recreation Association) Tuesday night softball (not Chicago ball size) league game. Six teachers from Hayes’ SAIL Program – Students Attaining Independent Living skills -- came to watch “their” kids play, an amazing turnout. Hayes thanked each of them for coming to watch her play. She always thanked people who came to watch her. She always means it too. Spectators make her day by making her feel happy when she is appreciated by others. I would go to her games, if in town more often, even if she didn’t thank me. We went home afterwards. I packed. I slept.
I woke up early Wednesday, went for a run, swam, grabbed my bike, race bag, travel bag, and headed to the airport for an overnight flight to Frankfort, Germany then a second flight down to Nice.
The plane left Chicago on cloudless, beautiful afternoon. We flew over South Boulevard Beach in Evanston where I rented an apartment for three years from the summer of 1982-’85. I ran, swam, and tanned there. During that period I lived an abbreviated beach bum life before triathloning on an inland sea in the Midwest became my sport of choice.
The plane landed in Frankfort on time, at 5am. We were shuttled by bus from the arrival gate to immigration in the main terminal. During the brief commute a European sounding siren, “high~low, high~low, high~low”, blared out from a police car that went racing by on a nearby taxiway. I watched the Bourne movie series way too many times to panic. Wondered what this trip would have been like if traveling with Hayes and Caroline. Both are obsessed sirens at home, always fearing the worse: dead bodies from a traffic accident, dead bodies from a shootout, dead bodies from a house fire, etc. Neither of them would have stopped talking about the sirens or speculating of the surely to be found dead bodies were the cause of what. Strangely, the sirens were signs of being in a foreign land. I was at peace with the excitement of opportunities that lay ahead in Europe.
I grabbed my bag, bike, backpack, and a taxi at the airport and rode to the hotel arriving before noon. The room was not ready for check-in. It didn’t seem like lunch time. I changed into running gear and went for a run along the Promenade between the transition area and the Nice Côte d'Azur Airport. My hotel was two blocks from the transition area. On the run the air smelled of classic salty sea air, a delightful and welcome smell since first experiencing ocean smells in Huntington Beach, California. The Mediterranean Sea was a beautiful azure blue under the partly cloudy skies. The two to three foot high waves crashed almost at the shoreline. Beachfront was made up of rocks, not sand. On the run a topless bather walked on the beach. Her youthful back to me and her front exposed to the sea. This was an American’s fantasy of French Rivera urban legend come true. Welcome to France!
The Mediterranean Sea was beautiful, a different color than the day before, now more translucent greenish, greyish blue, almost milky in color. I never swam in anything like that before. My initial swim challenge was walking on the rocks. These were about the size of smashed down baseballs or oval shaped hockey pucks depending on your sports preference. All rounded but uneven. I put on my goggles and stumbled into the water without a wetsuit. Everyone else had a wetsuit on. A wetsuit vendor provided loaners to competitors to generate some sales and rentals in front of the race. I passed. During my pre-race swim the water was a mix of cold to cool to warm temperatures. I did a 500 meter loop to loosen up and get a feel of the water before race day. I stumbled again when getting out of the water. The waves broke right at the shoreline. I fell trying to find solid footing on rocks that shifted under my feet while inflicting pain on the soles of the feet. I laughed at myself in case anyone was watching but more out of frustration than showboating.
Jamie showed up Friday evening. We caught up on conversations that started back in Bangkok like old friends.
The last Ironman Triathlon I had competed in took place seven years earlier in 2006. I finished 14th in my age group at IM Australia in Port Macquarie. I was lost from my journey there by not focusing on racing in new states or new continents. I wanted to do well in that race but didn’t set specific goals other than visiting Australia again. The difference at Nice combined the goal of a new continent and desire to get back to Kona. The difference in those who get a qualifying spot and those that don’t is great conditioning, an injury-free and healthy body, tailored training to the challenges of the specific race course, some luck, and the ability to handle any and all unknowns that present themselves during race day for the duration of the race.
After a relaxing dinner and restless night, race day came early. We headed over to the transition area before daylight to see a full moon shining on the Mediterranean Sea between broken clouds. The clouds closed in before race start.
The transition area and Ironman Expo tents took over Nice’s Promenade des Anglais for over a mile in length and 25 meters wide. The swim start was set in the gap between the transition and the Expo. The competitors started on the rocky beach, not in the water. A key reason to race at an Ironman event in Europe was I told myself repeatedly since Kona 2004 that I could return there and do better. My dissatisfaction from that race kept a bit of motivational flame in me to get re-qualified to return to Hawaii to race. My training through winter and into a late spring was the momentum to be ready for race day. And there I was ready to go on a beach 4,550 miles from home standing beside a training partner that I met 3,055 miles away in Bangkok.
The swim start was packed as we stood shoulder to shoulder across 100 meters of beach front. Chests pressed against backs, 15 people deep. I started 10 people deep. I showed up at the starting line 10 minutes before the 6:30am start time and could not penetrate the mass of competitors to get any closer to the Sea. Standing at the starting line my entire body was getting pounded. Music played loudly. My ears pounded as the bass heavy speakers blasted out the energetic beat of Christina Aguilera’s I Just Want to Feel the Moment. The lemon sized though slightly flatted rocks pounded my feet with every shift of my weight driven by the beat of the music and uncertainty from the pending race. My heart pounded from nervousness, adrenalin, the slightly expanded heart chambers from all the endurance training, and the syncing beat of the music. The horn sounded for the start. Thirty seconds passed before the surge forward allowed me to enter the water. Once entering the water, if not getting climbed over, then I was climbing over someone else. Not planned. Not pretty. Not pleasant.
Over the past five years I’m finding myself wanting to quit early on in most big races. IMF was no different. After getting banged up during the first 300 meters of the swim and before I could establish any steady breathing pattern I hyperventilated. With a little bit of self-induced panic I thought of quitting. Wanted to veer off and head for the beach. Wondered if I’d ever calm down and feel good. Instead, I focused on relaxing. I chose to do the race, the whole race. I came as a competitor, not a spectator. Hang in there and this situation would pass. It did. (I felt the same way two months later at the US Nationals as I damn near maxed out on oxygen at the start swim by going anaerobic, and still not being able to keep contact with racers in front of me. I felt my body was telling me to angle towards the shore and withdraw from the race and the planned one for the following day. Fortunately, my mind overrode what didn’t matter.) I kept swimming and was breathing steady. Took a minute, felt like five, didn’t realize it went away until on the bike assessing how the swim went in my mind. We forget or get re-directed mentally so quickly in a race. And that’s a good thing.
The swim course was, well unusual. We swam a 1.5 mile arcing loop in a clockwise direction. At the end first loop we were pulled up on the beach by helpers getting us out of the water. The volunteers stood where the small one foot breakers came in smacking the 3-4 foot rocky beach incline. These volunteer helpers were the strongest people on the whole course. The beach rocks shifted underneath their feet yet they held steady as they reached out over the water, grabbed our arms and pulled us onto the beach. They did this for over 2,000 swimmers. The volunteers handled this Australian style exit with a steady process of reach, release, and repeat. Racers hobbled across the pain inflicting stones in our bare feet for 10 meters to cross a timing mat and jump back into the Mediterranean Sea for Loop #2. This swim portion was 9/10’s of a mile in a counter-clockwise direction that bisected the first part of the first loop. Nowhere else did I race on a course with such an unusual cross-over.
The sea remained a translucent bluish green color under the cloudy skies. Sightlines were clean with the flat water. The water had more swells than elevation gains of the following week’s Tour de France course held in Nice for the race’s team trial segment.
Swimmers returned to the shoreline using the Ironman Banner and the Hotel Mercure building as sighting points. We were once again pulled from the water, more hobbling across the rocks, then directed on to T-1 to strip from our wetsuits and get ready to ride. I had not worn my wetsuit in over nine months before putting it on 15 minutes before race start. It felt like a second skin though and kept me buoyant and warm throughout the swim leg. I’m now faced a similar situation with my bike. I had not been on my race bike in over nine months. I needed my bike to be fast, keep me safe, and feel like an extension of my body. It did all three.
The bike course took us south towards the Nice Airport paralleling the French Rivera away from the transition area. People cheered and cowbells clanked as we pedaled our way towards the mountains. The first climb of the day started at Mile 12 into the bike leg as marked on the pre-race map, except the map showed 20 kilometers. All distances were marked in kilometers on the course and on the maps. We turned off the main road onto a paved alley and started pedaling up a 12% incline. About the average incline of streets in the central business district of Seattle. This was also the steepest climb of the day.
The quick change from flat to steep in the road bed and the quick narrowing of the road caused the bike pack to bunch up and sync up in a common speed. Call me out on drafting but no one gained an advantage as all racers were treated equally because of the course conditions. Picture us as cyclists in an hour glass timer, wide at the top and bottom, bunched up and moving slowly through the tube section. We dropped in speed from mid-20’s miles per hour (mph) to less than 10 mph. A few competitors dismounted their bikes, moved to the side of the road and walked up. With so many different colored bike jerseys we looked like multi-colored ants swarming up a hill, shoulder-to-shoulder and wheel-to-wheel. I’m moving up inside on the left hand edge of the tightly packed riders. Due to the steepness of the hill, we rocked side-to-side standing on our pedals. We huffed in and out. We climbed up from down. The quads burned intensely inside out. The pack developed a natural rhythm on the first climb. I adopted the pattern with the pack. If I didn’t, the guys on either side of me would have tilted into my shoulder knocking me off kilter, into someone else then to the ground only to get run over. For a few brief moments we flowed up this alley hill like a moving mosh pit of rockers in sync on some natural frequency. At the top of the 500 meter climb a spectator shouted out in German, “that’s the first climb of the day boys!” A chuckle flowed across the pack, with the initial recognition of it being funny while releasing the laughter of fear due to all the climbing remained in front of us. Then we turned left out of the alley back on to a main road expanding to at least twice the width of the hour glass tube. Gaps appeared between each rider and drafting failed to materialize.
We picked up speed on the initial false flat knowing 100 miles remained while climbing 11,000 feet total in the first 60 miles of the bike leg. On this stretch of road the bikers quickly became stratified by climbing speed as we spread out on the all so slight of incline into the beautiful French countryside. We entered the foothills of the French Alps to start the series of six more climbs with distances up to 20 kilometers long broken up by some intense, steep, and winding downhill stretches.
On the first descent beauty gave way to grave reality, a rider down. He lay motionless in the roadway, near his bike with the scene depicting an undesirable outcome. Emergency personnel transported him out. He never recovered. A minute of silence was observed for him at the post race dinner on Monday evening.
Being non-judgmental to the fallen triathlete, bad things happen for unknown and uncontrolled reasons. I defined a race mantra for remainder of the bike leg, “Don’t do anything stupid.” The full understanding included:
Take no risks
Keep hands on handle bars
Keep eyes on the road looking forward
Stay clear of faster riders
Overtake slower riders with caution
Ride within my limits
Go home as safe as I arrived
We bottomed out and sobered up on this descent with a whiplash transition back into climb mode. The swarm of ants from the first climb now morphed into a line of ants marching up each subsequent multi-mile climb.
Race specific road markings painted on the pavement informed us of how many kilometers to the top of a climb written as “Apex”. Each number shown was a countdown by one kilometer, one marking every 6/10th’s of a mile of distance covered, plus whatever a particular’s climb elevation offered. Each marking seemed far apart when biking at 12 miles per hour (mph). At these bike speeds I sized up competitors, their bikes, and the beautiful countryside. Something I dare not do when screaming downhill at 35+ mph on bike tires less than an inch wide with almost cliff-like drop-offs inches beyond the paved roads reaching down thousands of free falling feet!
Aid stations were spaced apart based on the top of the climbs, not a set distance as in other triathlons on flatter terrain. At the third aid station a Frenchman thinking he was squeezing his water bottle over his head and into his face mostly missed and sprayed me as I rode by. Either by coincidence or subconsciously, I tossed my mostly empty water bottle towards him instead of in the eco-zone at the end of the break stop. While not understanding his French, he didn’t yell: “Good luck!” or “Godspeed!” or “Have a nice day!” The loudness of his words and the pissed off expression in his face communicated he was not happy with a water bottle thrown in his direction. I didn’t appreciate the ad-hoc shower he directed my way.
About half of the triathletes competed on road bikes, the other half of the field rode on tri bikes. One guy’s mount was a Blue Vélo bike. Vélo Bleu (or blue bicycle) is an easy to use self-service bicycle rental system in place for residents and tourists in Nice. Nothing aero about the bike: big and bulky, heavy and wide, and blue as the Mediterranean Sea. The guy pedaled the bike over the entire course and beat the cut-off time of 5:15pm. I chose to ride my black Kestrel Air-Foil tri bike with light Mavic wheels to minimize the weight on the climbs. The offset was less stable handling on the downhills, yet another reason to use my mantra.
On the fourth climb I looked up to see a solid line of bikers steadily moving up multiple sets of switchbacks, stacked upon each other. The parade of bikes reached up a few thousand feet in elevation over six miles (10 kilometers) of roadway. Below me were more switchbacks I pedaled up already. The line of ants continued down the mountainside on the switchbacks. The roadsides were covered in blooming wildflowers. A rainbow of colorful blooms carpeted the mountainsides while a dropping fog engulfed us as we continued our climbs to the next apex. Their colors of yellow, orange, red, blue, and white contrasted against the green of the plants and the grey of the fog. The misty fog cooled our exposed skin as body core temperatures increased with the severity of the climbs.
The sports drink on the course didn’t sit well with me. Usually patience with caffeinated drinks until at least Mile 5 on the run, I switched early on to Coca-Cola. Its caffeine fueled me with the energy of enlightment until crossing the finish line.
At this point cyclists’ race places stayed almost steady relative to each other. Though occasionally a younger and lighter rider passed me or I passed a younger and heavier rider. Looking at my skinny arms and I felt more of cyclist than a runner when climbing on the bike. Over the six major climbs I seemed to be passing the same competitors on each climb. Didn’t notice for sure if they leaped frog around as riders sped by on the downhills like Franz Klammer, a generation younger on wheels instead of skis, and riding like a daredevil yet under control. I didn’t possess the nerve or handling skills to ride beside them like an elite cyclist on the French Alp descents.
Descending after each climb as a flatlander living in Chicagoland brought on uneasiness and exhilaration watching the speedometer reach 35+ mph continuously for five to ten minutes. This must be what a dog experiences while sticking its head out a car window. At least I wore a helmet and sunglasses. A dog goes without either. They snort, sneeze, and shake out teary eyes while wearing a dog smile and wagging its tail. I held on to the handlebars, firm and steady, relaxed and under control. My faced showed a more serious expression than a smile. We both however experienced rides of our lives.
The first three descents were straighter and closed-in on either side with trees. The second half of the descents were more open starting with wild flowers giving way to forests and more open views of valleys with 1,000+ feet drop-offs. Guard rails were rarely in place. Beyond the valleys more mountains with higher peaks reached upwards and outwards from the race course. The last descent flowed back into town with landscaped homes replacing the vast swath of trees.
The race presented pleasant surprises. In one mountain village beyond the halfway point, race organizers bused spectators up from Nice to cheer on their favorite competitors. They came with handmade signs showing racers’ names, numbers, and many with French, English or other foreign phases of encouragement. Multiple languages and accents could be heard along with clapping. Experienced fans came with cowbells to save both their voice and hands from a long day of cheering. People at this organized mid-race cheer spot were family of triathletes.
Though none of my family came with me to Nice, they traveled within my thoughts throughout the entire course. I always get closer mentally to my family when in a race. And the longer the race, the closer I get as the further we proceed to the finish. I imagined Chris and our kids especially when coming down the mountains. A smile for safety, a cheer for speed, and a wave for endurance. I thought of my mom and dad in how much they encouraged sports participation early on. In these day long competitions an imaginary self-made bubble of concentration allowed for peaceful exploration of the mind. I wandered to places not thought about in an everyday work world.
Throughout the bike descents riders encountered hairpin turns and everyone slowed, then sped up coming out of the turn. At every turn on the road and every time a cyclist with superior riding skills went by I thought of the day’s mantra.
One of the coolest experiences during the bike segment involved the descents. The expert riders did text book turns; eyes front, slight leans, and smooth body motion made them look so slow as they went flying by me. The bikes swaying left to right and right to left. The cyclists smoothly shifting their body weight tracking on mentally created fall lines down the mountain roads. Experts knew how to balance on turns bending out a left leg/knee on left hand turns then bending a right leg/knee on the right hand turns, more leaning in than actual turning of the bike wheel to roll through turns.
I learned on the fly what to expect by looking ahead and studying the next rider’s actions. I rode in the middle of the right hand lane, slightly away from rock sided mountains and away from steep drop-offs along the roads not lined with guard rails. On each descent a small group of cyclist formed a loose pack, not close enough to draft, not too far apart to lose contact. The make-up of riders kept changing as someone would always pedal faster and break free from the others and someone else would coast falling off the backside.
Multiple small groups of cyclists performed together in a stretched out non-drafting pace line racing down the mountains. Riders popped in and out of turns like a group of synchronized swimmers who disappeared underwater only to pop back up in a new formation from where they disappeared. The lead cyclist tilted right to start another turn followed by the next cyclist some 10 meters back. A split second later but with enough of delay to notice the next cyclist would follow the same movement with a slight tilt movement to the right, then the next and next and next. The line of cyclists was a synchronized, rolling and tilting movement of turns by individuals in the group. And so it would go for the five to six riders in the pack. Turns were completed by controlling the body through a series of leans, left to right and back right to left, instead of moving handle bars to turn the front wheel. Meanwhile 60 meters forward as the lead biker finished carving his turn he brought his bike perpendicular to the roadway, then would lean left and start carving the next turn at about the same time the last rider in the small group straighten up. The lead rider would come out of the turn and go perpendicular again as the last rider leaned left. Everyone committed to the same unmarked line on the pavement. This steady flow of unplanned synchronization continued down the mountainside; a fluid flow of carbon fiber frames, high tech wheels, and low resistant rolling rubber, powered by revved-up humans pedaling towards the finish line to become an Ironman.
Occasionally a motorcycle or a car would be intermixed between competitors on the way downhill. Once an ambulance breached the strung out line of cyclists. Six motorcycles over the entire course found their way between me and other bike riders. Some on motorcycles were race officials. Others were not supposed to be there. A couple of times cars came out on the road though quickly escorted off by an official on a motorcycle. Each time a vehicle went in front me or came up behind me I needed to alter my fall line when coming down. For the ambulance I slowed to let them pass uninterrupted. No different when driving a car except that would have been to a hard stop. People in need of urgent medical care are far more important than any weekend race. Yet as I slowed to let the ambulance pass me, other cyclists picked up speed and crossed the center line to pass the ambulance and impeded its progress to the closest hospital. Ironman racing creates crazy behavior in some people.
After the last significant climb of the race we entered the small village of Coursegoules, well over 3,000 feet above sea level with a population of 500 people. We climbed up a short street then turned right into an alley with buildings probably older than the US on either side and about as wide as the hallway in your local health club. At this point I’m in no man’s land, no one to be seen in front of me or behind me. For a few seconds I thought I took a wrong turn. I kept going through the alley for two blocks then as I popped out a view of a life time opened up. In the distance but easily seen was the Mediterranean Sea, behind me were the Alps. This quaint mountain village laid out to my sides, and to my immediate right, a small bistro with outside seating who’s customers and I shared smiles and high fives as a pedaled by confirming I was indeed still on course.
At the awards dinner met Dale Beach and Becca Smith, an American and Brit married couple who lived in Spain. Told them about this being my favorite part of the course. They knew the village well, Coursegoules. They drove over from Spain for workouts in the mountains earlier in the year. Weather was much colder then. Dale and Becca came through the village drenched in sweat from climbing on their bikes but then quickly turned cold from a descent in snow and freezing temperatures. They stopped at the same restaurant I described. The towns’ people wrapped them up in blankets and put them in front of the fire to get them warm and dry. They fed them too. Dale and Becca both looked for a familiar face during the race but didn’t see any of the people who helped them weeks before. What an awesome village with great people to bike through when enjoying what this great world offers.
Meanwhile outside of my race sphere and in the fourth dimension of time, Jamie would come rolling by the same areas later in the race. He flatted further down the mountain. He fixed his flat tire but the tube experienced issues and continued to slowly leak air. Jamie repeatedly stopped and pumped up the tire as he rolled down the mountainsides. He stopped at an aid station explained his situation in fluid French. One of the volunteers offered the use of a repair kit and air pump which Jamie started to use to get his tire up to racing standards. Meanwhile a nearby official noticed the conversation and pulled out a camera to record Jamie’s activities. Jamie interpreted the official’s actions as capturing documentation of Jamie receiving outside assistant and thus grounds for disqualification. Jamie attempted to engage the official in conversation to understand what was happening but to no avail. Fearing a risk of being DQ’d, Jamie left the tools behind and continued to bike the rest of the course at a safe pace. He periodically stopped to pump more air in the tire. With 21 miles remaining he pedaled a full flat tire to T2. Frustrated but ready to race, Jamie popped a stellar run split of a three hour marathon. Something any 40 year-old would take after completing two legs of an Ironman triathlon.
Spectators can read competitors’ first names on the race numbers that take up half the front of a racing kit top. Doug, while a common name in the US, caused non-native English speaking race fans a challenge. In Thailand most people pronounced Doug as “Duck”. In France my name was pronounced as Doog like the first syllable in Doogie Howser MD without the ending ‘e’ sound. Spectators encouraged me on with an extended “Go Doooooooooooogggggg”. I welcomed whatever I heard. I was hurting.
I knew better but started the run leg with new shoes, new socks, and new sunglasses. The glasses and socks were fine. I always bought two new white Ironman socks ones for IM races. One pair each for the bike, and a second new pair for the run. No problem. But the shoes turned out to be a big problem. They had five miles on them. I knew better, my mistake.
The run course paralleled the transition at the north end and stretched 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) to the Nice International Airport to the south. The course was flat. The only arguable rise was the artificial ramp underneath the finishing banner. The Mediterranean Sea provided more elevation variation during the swim than the run course. The Promendade was bare of trees. Palm trees did line the west side the road across from course but were not tall enough to cast shadows across the runners’ path.
The run conditions served as payback for the spectacular bike course. By afternoon the skies were mostly clear and temperature shot up to 85°F. We did four identical loops for the marathon run. The swim with its two loops provided more variety. We ran 26.2 miles within a rectangle measuring 25 yards in width and 3 ¼ miles in length. 2,500+ competitors ran four laps within the rectangle. Competitors and spectators ran, walked, rested, or baked under azure blue skies in hot temperatures. I did all four at some point along the course.
I put in two good miles coming out of T2 while pacing a Hispanic pro who was on Lap 3. He did a double take to make sure I was an age grouper. By Mile 2, my back spasmed and my right foot cramped. I stopped and stretched my back. Also pulled apart the elastic laces on the shoes to free up room for the forefoot to spread out. Both activities eliminated the pain. The ball of the foot on my right side stayed numb into July. After running another 10K lap a sharp pain on the soul of my foot began. Felt like a pebble in the right shoe. Stopped, took off the shoe, and cleared it of debris. Ran some more but still felt the rock. Stopped again, pulled off the shoe, then the sock and cleared them both out. The sock and shoe went back on but the sharp pain remained. Found a blister about the size of quarter on the bottom of my right foot while showering off the salt and grime that night in the tub. Ouch!
Unlike on Thursday when running on the Promenade, I didn’t see any topless bathers on race day. I don’t remember seeing anyone on the beach during the race, only people cheering for us as we ran on the street. The male competitors were more conservatively dressed than the beach crowd as tops were required for all competitors regardless of gender.
With no shade on the course, my body over heated on the run. Jamie told me on Friday he didn’t know my skin complexion was so white. He saw me only in Bangkok where we swam, biked, and run outside year-round in the tropics. Tanned skin was normal for me there. Now living in the upper Midwest and swimming inside year-round and running mostly before sunrise, I showed up without a suntan. I paid for lack of coloring on Sunday. Even with a sunblock application before the bike and again before the run, I got sunburned and peeled days later. I sweated. I got dehydrated and lost too many electrolytes which created muscle cramps in my quads and hamstring muscles. I physically and mentally struggled on the run. My running slowed. I walked when unwilling to run any longer. After a solid swim and bike ride, was I walking my way off a podium and a potential Kona qualifying spot. That motivated me to keep running as much as my body and mind allowed, though slowly, still quicker than walking. Had the volunteers not draped us with color coded green, yellow and red lap arm bands for counting laps, I would not have known what how many laps were left to finish.
Jamie looked flushed on Saturday evening before the race. He was exhausted from the heat, getting registered for the race and tired getting his bike race ready. I thought he would be challenged during the race, especially in the heat of the day on the run. He excelled.
Jamie went speeding by me on the run at the airport turnaround. He was going so fast I didn’t recognize him until too late to yell out encouragement for him. Jamie ran a 3:11 marathon. If you factor in his extra effort on the bike due to a flat tire, he would have bested three hours. On top of that, Jamie beat the heat while not wearing a hat, visor, or sunglasses. With the sun full out, he ran full out. Two guys came up to him after the race and told him he ran great.
I abused my body. I had a difficult time getting both eyes to focus together the rest of the evening. My left hand was badly bruised on top between thumb and forefinger, from being banged by another swimmer or kicked. Or the bruise came from the severe cramping both hands experienced during my message after race and well into the night. All day on Monday my voice was octaves higher than normal. None of it matter though as I looked at my finisher’s medal in my bag before Jamie and I headed out for a day of being a tourist in Nice and finding a relaxing lunch spot. One thing not on our planned menu for eating was anything we consumed on race day.
The IMF’s official Athlete Guide stated over 2,800 athletes signed up representing more than 60 different nations. About 1,600 volunteers provided their services in some capacity. More than one ton of bananas would be consumed during the race. That’s almost three bananas per person. Over 20,000 gels would be squeezed out or seven per person. Add in all the calories from our own supplied nutrition packets. We would consume 7,500 gallons of PowerAid and water or almost three gallons per person. That’s 24 pounds of fluids. Finally, there would be another 2,500 gallons of cola with enough caffeine to keep us awake until at least the end of the race!
I walked myself out of a Kona qualifying spot on Sunday missing it by one. On Monday morning I put on my Granddad Taylor’s Hawaiian shirt, my paternal grandfather’s original rayon Hawaiian shirt he bought circa 1950 in Honolulu, a couple of years before he died. After lunch Jamie and I walked a mile to the distribution of Kona Race slots gathering. The slots were doled out by age group, first females, then males. In half the age groups, all qualifiers claimed their spots. Qualifiers were instructed to say “Oui” or “Yes”. In the other half of the age groups roll-down spots were announced. All of us waited anxiously in the hot university lecture hall. Were we in or not? Finally the 55-59 males were announced. Two slots were available. The age group winner’s name was announced and he claimed his spot with a “Oui!” The second place finisher’s name was announced. Silence. Everyone looked around to see if he will claim it. The MC announced his name again. Again, silence followed. Final call. Nothing. The next name read was “Doog Morris”. I claimed it. “Oui”. “Yes!” “Whee!” Thanks Granddad. Your shirt would again visit Hawaii, this time on the Big Island, come fall.
The next challenge came in getting enough money to pay for the slot, I needed $775 or an equivalent in Euros. I came to Nice with the intent and confidence to get qualified for Kona. I didn’t come with the same level of expectations or readiness. I didn’t tuck away a Hawaiian stash of US money for the race. You would have thought I learned my lesson in Michigan. I didn’t. I had enough money when combining my US dollars and Euros but the cashier would not take the mixed currency. I asked for time to get the money. Granted. I ran out the building and over a city block and up a block to the ATM. I could not get enough Euros out to close the gap. I ran back and tagged off to Jamie. He ran out and tapped the ATM with two different cards. We combined our money and I had enough Euros for the entry fee. We settled his ATM withdrawals by me covering the hotel bill. Without Jamie I would not be going back to Kona nine years after my first competition there. Thanks Jamie!
Late Monday afternoon Jamie left for the airport and home. I headed out to the celebration banquet at Parc Phoenix. The event was festive with a beautiful evening, great food, a full moon, and well attended by tired but happy athletes and volunteers. The MC’s started the celebration with a full minute of silence to recognize the loss of life to an athlete during the race. She specifically directed us to think about how grateful we are for life and everything in our lives. I had a lot to think about and be thankful for in my fortunate life: wife, kids, ability to compete in triathlons, financial capabilities to travel to them, desire to excel and much, much more went through my mind. Still does. Every day I’m grateful.
The blended sport of triathloning is like a great Meritage wine with a blend of above average and more uncommon varietals to create a great wine. The swim, bike, and run in above average venues combined with above average performances by its participants, created a great triathlon race. The Ironman France celebration went on and on like a great wine with a good long finish.
I enjoyed the evening with Dale and Becca and Sidney Hoyt and his wife, Gulshan. During the awards, the podium was shared by each level of the male and female place winners. Two people stood on a space 18 by 18 inches, smiling and proudly showing their awards and flowers. It’s a French thing but this sharing added to the celebration and uniqueness of the event.
In overnight e-mail I received congratulatory notes from family and triathlete friends. What stood out though were notes not received from triathlete acquaintances. Friends were the people that appreciated your successes in the sport. Acquaintances were the people who resent others’ accomplishments to higher successes. This identification of categories is little different than in a professional work environment.
On Tuesday I woke up and stepped outside for a well-earned recovery run and swim. Still sore, stiff, and tired but not enough to miss a great day to enjoy the Nice coastline. On the run I reflected all my meals were eaten outside except the day before race at the hotel for breakfast. The last time that happened we were on vacation in Hawaii in 1995. While stretching on the beach before swimming I talked with a British triathlete Catherine Faux. Recognized her from the night before and acknowledged to her she won her age group and overall top female amateur finisher. Four months later in Kona she earned top amateur status for all woman. She was fast.
We saw competitors wearing finishers’ shirts on Monday as we toured Old Nice and at the Parc Phoenix celebration. There were 20 competitors on Tuesday in Monaco. One guy rode his bike with its number still attached to the seat post. Most competitors wore their azure blue finisher’s shirt, some still with bracelets, and one carried his IMF backpack. All of these are easy markers to recognize the competitors. More shirts worn on Wednesday morning at the airport as competitors scattered for home like I did on my 6am flight up to Zurich, Switzerland then on to Chicago.
I’m sitting at the airport thinking about how I’m going to miss the sound of foreign languages in contrast to my Native American English. Definitely not sick for Thailand but missing my global encounters. We boarded our flight to Zurich. The Mediterranean Sea was again a beautiful azure blue already. I could track part of the bike course from the airplane window and above we saw snow in the Alps. As we continued to fly north the Switzerland countryside came into view full of green with its expansive forests and farmland. When flying into Zurich a cornfield “curved out” with the Victoria logo and wording greet the plane with great advertising for the ubiquitous Swiss Army knives.
Jamie turned out to be a celebrity magnet. He told me of his chance meeting of Sebastian Coe, former world record holder in the 1500 & 800 Meter Runs and Chairman of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, in London at an uptown cafe. Jamie pulled out his camera and asked to have his picture taken with him. Granted. Upon arrival at the Nice Airport he saw the Arsenal Football Club manager Arsene Wenger and introduced himself with a handshake. And Monday morning on a sidewalk by a café we were stepping into for coffee, Jamie reached out to acknowledge a former UK Defense Minister who was not friendly nor had time for recognition. After the encounter, Jamie smartly commented, “Not surprised the guy lasted a single term in office.”
During my whole trip I only recognized Jamie, who had not aged a year since we last saw each other on Sukhumvit Road the day before he left Bangkok 6 ½ years earlier. I’m hoping we plan another race well before waiting that long again. We never know what may happen if we wait too long.
Results: 522nd Overall. 3rd in age group