Deca-Ironman, November 2010, Monterrey, Mexico
It must be something like 20 years since I did my first triathlon. I announce, probably boasting a bit, that during 20 years of practice, I never gave up and « DNF'ed ». Still, during the last 6 years, I've been pretty much active, with several « ultras » (trail, road, triathlon...) per year. In 20 years, I moved from a very occasionnal practice, which to some extent is pretty much what fits a teenager, to a way of running which causes my doctor to raise his eyebrows when I announce him that I need yet another medical certificate. « How many miles did you say? ». A deca-Ironman, what's that beast exactly? More than 23 miles swimming, 1118 miles on a bike and 262 on your feet. What for? This isn't even the longest race. A « double-deca » is organized, same place, same start time. One can always find more « ultra » than oneself. So what's the point in flying from Europe to Mexico, cross the ocean to compete for days on a ridiculous 1.2 miles ring? Still, everything drives me back to this event. It's mythical. You take the « Ironman » distance. Something most people agree to consider long, even the longest conceivable. Then you multiplicate it by 10. Not 2, not even 3, just a plain 10 factor. Totally nuts. Each part of the race (swim, bike, run) taken alone can raise problems, including when done by « specialists ». To take the run as an example, there are races longer than 200 miles, but not that much. 100 miles is usually considered to be enough for athletes to express their talent, and after all, one must stop at some point... But why stop? I'm 35 years old, but I still have this childish curiosity that drives me and pushes me to try and know what's on the other side. I want to know. I'm not in a big hurry to get old, I can wait. So why wouldn't I try this thing, this « deca » which itches me so badly? So it's Sunday morning in Monterrey, Mexico, and I start a deca-Ironman.
Race start. Swim. Stay calm. Zen. The longest I've ever done swimming is a little more than 7 miles. My training log, for the last 10 months, including races, reports I've done less than 60 miles. This is obviously not enough. My bet is that swimming, as far as triathlon is concerned, represents nothing, and that this part of the race is usually perceived as real small compared to the rest. Great. My arms look ridiculous compared to those of Uwe Schiwon, an athlete who's racing the « double » (he's gone for 47 miles...) and who swims in my lane. Mr Muscle. Arms like my legs, and legs like... well, stop comparing. The third guy in our lane is Dominique Douvier, the other French guy, whose swimming preparation is pretty much the same than mine. On the paper, we're simply not ready. But who cares, the raced is not held on paper, it's held in a swimming pool.
After 100 meters, I feel definitely too hot. I wait a little bit, to make sure not to take too quick a decision but after half an hour my mind is set, I take of my swimming suit. Some athletes choose to put ice cubes in their suits. Every one finds his/her own solution. Swimming without the thick suit makes it harder to keep my legs at the surface of the water, and besides I don't want to waste my legs energy in keeping them horizontal. But this 85°f water gives no real choice. Talking about the water, that one is chlored. Race director tells us it isn't, but the double guys, after more than 2 days spent in it, would swear the contrary. I'll put my suit back on 7 hours later, the water being down to 83°f. Plus I'm getting tired and fatigue makes me feel cold.
Dominique and I share a common position on this swim: it was fun until mile 12. The rest was harder. More exactly, it was painful. I never got distracted from my plan, which, for the swim, was to swim without stopping but for a planned « every-half-an-hour » break. At these stops I would drink, eat, and satisfy other low-level practical needs. I only have to think about the next 30 minutes, the rest is outside my scope, I'm not concerned. Valerie, my spouse who is about to crew me for the whole race, takes care about all the logistics. Each time I stop, she's there, with drinks, food, informations about my mileage, I need nothing else. Perfect.
The last miles are a real pain. 20 miles. 21 miles. 22 miles. I can't take my arm from the back of my body to the front « ready-to-push » position. Strange enough, the act of pushing, what propulsates me forward, isn't a problem. Yes, my shoulders are numb, but it's not that bad, I'm trained for that. But the other part, what happens outside the water, in the air, making my hand land in the water in front of my head « as far as possible », is a nightmare. I can't do it any more. It hurts too bad. So I don't do it completely. My hand gets in water just a few inches ahead of my shoulders, and rather far on my side. This is the best I can do. I'll learn, later, that several guys from the double had the same problem, and the same solution. Only it was even worse for them. I could even consider me lucky to have been touched only on my right side. My left arm is quite OK.
Valerie tells me « only 3 left! ». My skeptical mind make me think this means only 300 meters. But in fact it means only 150 meters. So at the very moment I've finished those 38 000 meters, I go back for yet another... « Christian, Christian, Christian! », it's not easy to call a swimmer who's spent more than 17 hours immersed... I crawl (!) to the ladder and get out of the water, pretty happy to be done with it. But well, I was somehow expecting something worse. It was long, tiring, but nothing more. Still on the feasible side of things. Now what's next?
1 118 miles
Rule #1: never race before the real race starts. I follow the rule of thumb that says « endurance starts at the last third ». We're not there yet. So I don't care about who's in front, who's behind, this will change anyway. And I'm a moderate to bad swimmer. But I'm a great sleeper. I learnt, at the 6-days in Antibes – in fact I learnt that before, but I verified my theories in Antibes on a very real race – that playing with fire is dangerous, as far as sleep deprivation is concerned. A fair amount of sleep, of deep sleep, is needed on multidays races. My plan is simple: up at 4 in the morning, and never less than 2 hours sleep per night. I started at 9 am. It's 2:30 pm. So tonight I'll make an exception – the first night is special anyway – and won't have my long comfortable 2-hours-in-a-row night. I lay down in my sleeping bag, wearing warm pyjamas (yeah, I brought my pyjamas!) in a room which is right beside the pool, reserved for that usage. Technically, I'm in a transition, almost already on the bike side. Still, I'm sleeping at the pool. I can't fall asleep. I'm pissed. One can't force oneself to sleep. I still enjoy an hour and a half of quietness, before the bike. This will be a long day. The other ones too. It's 4 in the morning, I must go.
4:30 am, I'm on my bike. At last. A short ride on open roads, followed by a police car which protects me until I enter park Ninos Heroes, a place which I'll soon now very well, along with all its details. Especially the track the race is held on. 939 bike loops. It's wise not to count them, this would give the feeling of trying to empty an ocean with a mere spoon. There's already some people in the park, those of the quintuple, who have finished the swim long ago, and the deca guys who swam faster than I.
5 minutes per loop. About 5. Less than 5 minutes, fast loop. More than 5 minutes, slow loop. I stick to a pace which I judge being the right pace. It's my training pace. Almost 16 mph in the early morning, 15 mph most of the time, and slower when night comes. I'm steady. I initially planned to stop every 4 hours. But there's a problem with that. The race does not offer the traditionnal « nuts & chocolate & dried fruits » supplies I would find on a typicall race in France. So it's hard for me to snack on the bike. It's also hard to rely on that kind of food for if you put food « in the open » on a table with the idea to pick them up from time to time, you get the bee problem. I mean, there are bees everywhere during the day, and food gets covered with them about a few minutes. So well, I inform Valerie that I have a new plan: stop every 2 hours, and have a real meal at every stop. This means eleven to twelve meals per day, night adjustments might change the details, but you get the spirit.
This proves efficient. The « cantina » offers all kinds of food, a real cook is here, preparing different stuff every day. OK, if you don't like scrambled eggs, corn, and beans, you're in deep trouble. But we had a great time eating bunuelos, quesadillas, hot-dogs, hamburgers, pizzas, watermelon, melon, clementines... For me, it was perfect, it matched my « eat-anything-I-stumble-on » profile, to the point that after the race, I kept having meals at the same place, without finding it to boring. Only bad point: coffee is made the american way, it's just hot water with a brownish color. These « deca-stops » (5 minutes each, 10 minutes max.) are completed with water and energy drinks I carry on the bike in dedicated bottles.
This is how between 4:30 am (first pedal strike) and 1:00 am (last pedal strike) I managed to put 20:30 - 12 x 10 '= 18:30 of « efficient » bike. This regularity did pay. At 15 mph it gives a total of nearly 280 miles at the end of the « day ». I was very close to the traditionnal « Audax » average of 22.5 km/h. On the track, I was one of the slowest guys. Everyone was passing me, again and again. Those and the quintuple where just going faster. Shorter race. Those on the double (don't bother saying « double-deca », let's call it « double ») were out of the pool long after us, so they were in better shape, from the bike point of view, for quite a time. And all the other deca guys, with the exception of Sergio Cordeiro (who will end up 3rd of the race) passed me. I couldn't follow them on the track. Still, I was almost always 3rd or 2nd. Being steady is a must, I learnt that observing Marina Haussmann, a great 6-days and other ultra/multi-days running female expert. So I would never go too fast, never, ever. I never accepted to go beyond the point where my legs would have become « hard ». Never in the red zone, always thinking about economy. I'm not strong. I must be clever.
So my motto was to not panic, let other go fast if they wanted too. Still, you need some strong self-control not to feel offensed by all those mexican rockets. Indeed, the track was closed to motorized traffic, but bikes could go there. So dozens of bikers would simply humiliate us – of course they didn't mean to do that, they were just innocently training on their usual course – by passing us at such a speed we would sometimes doubt we could follow that, even not in the deca context. I see the positive aspect of this, it's a plus for us, animation, ambiance, it's great, much better than being alone for hours. It's like the ducks, it adds fun to the race. Yes, ducks. Ducks in Monterrey are cool. Ducks don't race. They don't quack. They are. And you'd better not hit one of them. Beat Knechtle, winner of the quintuple this year, had the bad luck to hit one last year. He broke his shoulder and had to quit. Sad DNF.
The first day, my shoulders did hurt real bad. From the swimming. Valerie had to dress me up, I couldn't put a simple t-shirt without her help, let alone handle long sleeve items, which are definitely required at night. The race number we had to wear also proved to be a problem in that context, we had to take it off and on again at each minor clothe change. This got better the second day, at least I could grab a fork or a spoon without carying my right arm with my left hand. Yes! Third day was butt day, this was my worst day in term of mileage, I just couldn't stand that saddle any more. This saddle was broken from race stard, had probably be broken for months but I just didn't realize that while training. So for some reason the upper part of the saddle is just stuck right on the hard tube which comes out of the frame, most of the cushionning is gone. With a rolled pair of socks, Valerie and I found a temporary solution. Additionnally, when it was cold enough, I was wearing three biking shorts, one on top of the other. My arms were also a problem, my elbows were not used to resting for such a long time on the areo/triathlon bars and it was also a pain. Last, but not least, my bike shoes were a little too small, I found it useless to by new ones before the race (great, you're gone for at least 4 days of bike, and you save money on that...) so I kept an old legacy model which I had chosen for short races in warm weather, when I don't wear socks. But well, I just take of my shoes at each stop and jump in my sleepers instead. Once again, Valerie did a terrific job, anything I wanted, I had it just next lap (remember, 5 minutes only...).
Bike was also the occasion to discover and talk with other entrants. In this race « drafting » is forbidden, but as in most long distance triathlons, running side by side with two yards between each other is tolerated as long as you don't spend too much time this way. People are very different, ranging from the rather reserverd Hungarian Antal Voneki to the ever-ready-to-talk american Wayne Kurtz. I try and remember every English joke I know to fuel the conversation. We had a good laugh. Making the race a nice time, socially rich, is my solution to transform this grueling event into something more acceptable, something fun. It's a race, for sure, but it needs to be handable. One needs to last. So past midnight, when fatigue is overwhelming me, I just sing aloud some funny song, driving like a zombie at about 11 mph, zig-zaging and fighting hard not to fall asleep on thhe bike, but basically happy to be here, being conscious that it's a gift to be here, and that I'm living great times.
As the end of the bike approaches, I start worrying about my position. I seem to be rooting in second place. The first one is about an hour ahead. I only have 60 miles to go. It's about 11 pm. Finishing the bike now and sleep afterwards is tempting. But it would mess up all my sleeping habits. I strongly believe that to sleep only 2 jours and a half per night, and still feel great, sleep must imperatively be spent in good conditions, and, among other things, at fixed time. I just want to change anything. Not now, it's too early in the race. Soon after 1 am, I leave the track, let my position become whatever it can, I'm just 20 miles behind, but I go to sleep. I take a shower, the last one, before slipping in my bed, in my 3rd floor room at the olympic village. Tomorrow I'll only have 25 miles to go. An hour and a half if, as usual, I bike strong early in the morning. Then, I'll run. Running is where I'm (supposed to be) strong.
Waking up is hard. Yesterday I started in super-rocket mode, this morning I'm having a bad time, but I've no choice, I got to go. As planned, the remaining bike seems nothing to do. I put my running shoes on, and discover park Niños Heroes from another point of view. On my feet, and « reverse ». I mean it, it's very different. We use the inside of the path, alternating between sidewalks and gentle paths, and if you add to this the fact the moving speed is (very) different, one could almost believe this is just another place. I claim there are, on this races, 5 different loops. The bike loop when the sun is up, the bike loop at night, the running loop during the day, its counterpart at night, and finally the last « running » loop, which is even different from all the other ones. But the last loop is just very far away. 222 laps to go.
I can't help following the evolution of the first guy on the race. I think he made a mistake. He didn't sleep. He is now more than 15 miles ahead. 13 laps. It's a lot, it's about4 hours at our average pace. At the same time, I did sleep, and he didn't, so I'm ahead in terms of sleep, I have that in the bank... Tactically, I've never experienced something as interesting as this. Dave Clamp, who is ahead, is a very good runner, with personnal records on marathon and « regular » Ironman which are far better than mine. He's in his fifties, has great experience, and has already finished a « deca ». Still, he didn't sleep. Experience or not, I'm deeply convinced he'll pay for that.
I start right on, without making too much of it, but strongly decided to maintain constant pressure. My reasonnable bike, never hammering it too hard, did preverve my legs, and my morning jog is just a breeze. I set up a variant of the strategy I had on the 6 days in Antibes, I walk 40 minutes and run 1:20. I adapt this according to the weather, if it's not too hot, I run 1:30. If the sun is too strong, I let it down to 1:15 running, 1:00 if needed. My average pace is good. And I continue to eat every two hours. You don't change a winning team. Valérie, once again, is doing a great job. With her help, I can eat while I walk, because at the very instant I need it, my plate is ready and full of mexican food, I barely need to stop. And on some occasions, I do not stop at all. I don't run that fast, I don't walk that fast, but the « zero stop » strategy is just so efficient.
My goal is simple: tonight, I want to have, at least once in the day, been ahead of Dave. Tomorrow, I want to have made up my 4 hours, that is being in the same loop than Dave with equivalent sleep status. Then, pull ahead. Dave impresses me. He's just so tough. He's marked by fatigue, heat doesn't help, still he doesn't let go anything, always in the race. I feel sort of disappointed for I feel this ain't the right thing to do and this isn't his perfect race. I'd have preferred he did his ideal race, this way both of us would, I think, have gone even faster.
When night falls upon us, I check our mileages. My estimation is that, if I don't make a big blunder, I can win the race. Dave was finally forced to sleep and handle various problems. Meanwhile, I kept moving. About 80 miles in less than 20 hours on the first day. Not bad. Ideally, I should maintain that for the next days. 80 miles a day is what I did in Antibes on the last 4 days. So why not here ? If I do this, I can even tackle the world record. I'll head for that. If I do it, it's great. If I don't, well, I just have nothing to loose, I came here to finish the race, and I'm now given an opportunity to win it.
I took a special option tonight, sleeping outside. I don't want to climb – let alone go down – the stairs that lead to my room. And I also think it's now time to play it hard, race, attack, that sort of things. I was rather optimitisc (that means, « I was a fool ») in deciding to sleep on the grass and not settle on the concrete floor on the other side. In Monterry nights are cold, but in addition to being cold, they are humid. When my clock rings, I'm stuck in damp clothes. Everything is wet, my sleeping bag is wet, my running shorts are wet, my shirt is wet, my hat is wet. I'm shivering. I start walking, not very proud of this stupid blunder, but still determined to make up my 80 miles until the next « sleep ».
This is a terrible day. It's hot. Hot and humid. I'm waiting until the evening comes, to be able to run for good. In the afternoon I very often, if not always, replace my running sessions by walks, believing I'll make up the lost minutes later when it's cool. But the night is humid too, running is barely possible for me, I sweat a lot as soon as I start running and when I walk I'm freezing after a matter of minutes. I use my MP3 player as an external motivator during the night, but this ain't enough, when I finally go to bed, I've only done 75 miles. This is not good. Maybe things would have been different if my night had been better ? It's useless to rewrite the past, I'll just do it better tomorrow. As as Guy Rossi states « c'est la vie, et elle est belle » (« that's life, and it's beautiful »). Tonight I'll sleep in my room, sleeping outside just plain sucks. Next time I'll plant a small tent on the side of the course.
3rd day running. Hell on earth. Waking up was real hard. I try to run. Impossible. Oh yeah, sure I can run, but 200 yards, and that's it. After that, I just blow up. I try to recall what a training session is. Just one hour running, that's nothing ! But here, after a single minute, I need to stop, there's noting left, no energy, no motivation. Additionnally, I get strange feedback from the back of my legs, hurts in weird places, feels like injury isn't far. The second is now way behind, tactically, the race is over. World record is still a little ahead, I try to start the machine again and go for it, but nothing comes. I eat, I drink, but this doesn't seem to help. Heat is getting on my nerves, it does not make it easy, even if it's still very tolerable. I've handled worse, as far as weather is concerned. I'm bored. I'm alone. Valérie tells me I've got a great lot of fans, over there in France, cheering me up. Yeah great, but I'm here in this park with no one arround, no spectators, it's just depressing.
Hours go by. I don't run anymore. Total demotivation, did I start too fast on the first day ? Even now, as I write those lines, I don't think I did. But it's hard to have a clear idea of the situation at this stage of the race. I have seen elephants on the course as I was on the bike, I saw hieroglyphs on the ground while I was walking yesterday. Hallucinating almost every night for a whole week, I just need a break. After all, I planned this race as a « big six days », and this is day 7. Maybe I was wrong. Any way, I can't be wrong in believing that under any circumstance, I need to keep moving. So I walk, trying to minimize stops. And at night, I walk too. No sleep tonight, no fancy 2:30 night at the olympic village. I wasn't fast enough on the track, so I'll make that up on my sleep time. I'll still do some little 10 minutes naps now and then and a bigger break of 30 minutes in the early morning, and that's it. This night I was just alone, only 3 bikers from the double-deca where on the track too, all the other runners were asleep. Again, this is only possible with the help of Valerie who was there to wake me up and fix all my needs. This ain't such a bad day, I almost did 60 miles.
Last day on my feet. Last day of the race. I'm pretty confident I'll be done with it today. Less than 9 days, for sure. Not bad. I just need to walk all day and it will be over. I just need to keep moving. I got nice blisters, one on each feet, my legs feel like wood sticks, but I've got no serious problems. Just this crazy impossibility to run. Yesterday I was even wondering if, some day, I would be able to run an hour in a row without stopping. I came to the conclusion I would not. I'm out of order.
And then the sun comes up. And then it's 9 am. And hey, you know what, after walking all that long, it's like I had a rest and I'm in great shape. And, that's crazy, but if I manage to do 27 miles in... 8 hours, I can finish in less than 200 hours. I just can't miss that. I pick up my mind. I start and run. I was doing 26 minutes laps, now I'm doing 14 minutes laps. I do 9 of them. 2 big hours. I've never been so motivated, so happy. Valérie went for a nap, she doesn't have a clue I just accelerated. To cheer me up, I populate park Niños Heroes with all my friends, yelling « Go Christian » as if I was in the Tour de France. This works. It's just easy to build such fantasy when one has lived along with hallucinations for days. I use a great deal of water to cool me down, I pour it on my head, use my large hat made of cotton, way more efficient that all this synthetic caps, which dry out in seconds. It's the most beautiful marathon of my life. Valérie comes back right in the middle of this « hey I'm racing again » section. She seems happy. My feet (almost) do not hurt anymore. This pain which in Antibes I did attribute to the « Poilu » (this was a mistake, it's just that after 200 miles, it hurts) disappeared along with my bad mood. You need to stay positive, this will never be repeated enough.
After those crazy jours, I eat, and offer myself a little break. I fear the instant explosion of my body. After all there are still several hours to go, the sun is shining hard, and I almost didn't sleep last night. I continue on an intermediary rythm,and for the last lap, Valérie and I decide to offer an ice-cream to all the other guys on the déca. So it's with this international formation, mostly smiling, that we cross the finish line, a little after 4 pm, on a monday afternoon, one day in November, under the Mexican sun.