It's been a long long time since I first heard about ultra-triathlon. Must be at least 20 years ago. When I started - triathlon, I mean - I had heard about Fabrice Lucas, about the "Fontanil" (an ultra-triathlon which was held in France, some years ago). All this looked very distant to me. Meanwhile, I have raced "single" Ironman distances, ran ultra-trails, 100km, but well, participating in a "double" or a "triple", and even a "deca" sounded highly unlikely to happen.
Still, participating in the Spartathlon , something changed. Something changed because at kilometer 170, I met Emmanuel Conraux, and we talked. We talked and talked - while running - and he told me about the multiple-Ironman ultra-triathlon distances, how races were, about the ambiance. And it sounded cool. And sort of "doable". So well, I decided to go to Lensahn in 2009, to complete my ultra craziness ;) This German race is a "triple" : 11,4km swim, 540km bike, 126,6 run.
My preparation was pretty much the same I would have done for any other race. My theory is that, for an ultra, all that really counts is to be in good shape. Then you can get to the starting line of pretty much any raise, provided you've the ground endurance and took some rest the week before. I mostly trained running, did some significant bike, and a little swim. It's funny to note that whatever I'm preparing for, my "base training" is a standard "one hour run", at a moderate pace. I just jog. To specialized for this peculiar race, I decided to participate in a 24h foot race in Brive, France, to get used to race "many laps" on the same track, and race a triathlon just to remember how it feels to practice the "triple effort". And here we go, I'm ready!
I left home on wednesday before the race (start was friday morning) and halted at Sa´d's home, and discovered his painting workshop. The next day, it's raining and raining and raining. I'm starting to fear this is not going to be easy at all.
Arriving in Lensahn, I very soon meet the other French guys participating in the race. Emmanuel Conraux, Pascal Jolly, Fabrice Lucas and Guy Rossi. All of them are specialists of this discipline, and very pleasant to talk with. I plant my tent, as planned, pretty much anywhere. We also have the possibility to sleep "inside". I use this facility, since I have 3 little kids (aged 2, 4 and 5) and last night storm certainly must not be fun when sleeping in a tent! Once set up, we go to the "pasta-party".
I'm not saying I'm "stressed" but well, the official start is tomorrow, and I still don't have my race number. Plus these medical certificate quite get on my nerves, there's this hematrocrit test I'm not sure to understand and in a general manner, I would just like these things to be done and over. In fact, there's no reason to panic, the race number is given at the athlete presentation ceremony. It's very nice, the IUTA seem to have set up a special protocol, where all competitors shake hands and smile each other. Neat. I talk with my neighbours, and get the basic paperwork done with Meike a few minutes after.
The other good news I get this evening is that I got a crew! Unbelievable, several German girls offer to assist me during the ''whole' race. Initially what we had planned was that my spouse ValÚrie was supposed to help me for the "minimum" tasks such as transitions and some basic food refueling, but well, given the fact that she also has to take care of our 3 young little girls, she clearly can't match the efficiency of my new German team. Myriam and her friends - Myriam rapidly prooves to be the one that speaks English the most fluently, and as my German is just ridiculously bad, she's the one I'll talk to most of the time - know the race very well. Better than I! They have an impressive equipment, including a tent, chairs, and everything I could dream. I'm supposed to explain them how I view things and what I'll need, but I soon realize they are much more experienced than me. So well, I simply explain that all my food is in that box, that I like everything in it (I choose what's in it, after all), and clothes are in this bag. What I'll need depends on the wether and well, just forget it, let's go to bed, we'll see tomorrow ;)
I have a terrible time before going to bed, trying to pin 100 times my numbers, mixing my clothes, checking the chip is in the bag, and so one. Beginner's panic. At its maximum.
I get out of the room, take a breakfast. Milk, muesli, nothing else. I head toward the swimming pool, and meet Cynthia, one of my brand new crew members. Everything's all right. Only Myriam and Cynthia look skeptical and concerned about how few food and drinks I have preparred for the swim. I naively thought a single bottle would fit. I had up some chocolate, a banana, sirup and coca-cola until both girls seem satisfied. After all, they have the experience of the race. I don't. I can certainly run 3 or 4 hours without eating and drinking much, but swimming might proove another story. Next, they ask me if I have some cream. Cream? Why cream? Cream for my neck? Oh yeah! Unfortunately, I have no cream. Will be for the next race ;) I also meet Fabrice Lucas and ask him about what he has planned. He plans to stop every 20 minutes. I judge this is quite often, so I decide - this is a last minute decision, 10 minutes only before the real start - that I'll stop every half hour. So it will be easy for my crew to know when I stop and get ready for the "pit stop".
I start rather fast, I don't wish to be last in my lane, and be blocked by others. I think I'm sort of "underrated" and could possibly be in one of the faster lanes. I'm in lane 5, having announced an Ironman distance time of 1h20'. This was my real time, but since I signed up for the race, I trained and now I swim faster. There's music. It's dull, I can't here it when swimming, but I guess spectators enjoy it. My ears are filled with that typicall crawler's rumbling. I really enjoy swimming. Not only today, but in general. I like water. I'm not a great swimmer, but the very fact to take some pleasure being there is a real plus. The 50m pool is really cool. Distances look shorter than in the crowded 25m pool I usually train in. Today, the pool looks like a "boulevard" to me, there's room, it's big, clear water. I appreciate.
30 minutes since race start. As planned, I stop. Hey, where's my bottle? I was sure to have put it somewhere round here! My bottle? My bottle? Panic on board! I stay here, stuck, not knowing what to do. When I hear on my left "here! here!". OK, I lost my brain in the pool, Myriam was just one meter on the left, with my bottle, ready and all. I drink, and go.
Kilometers go by. I do not count my laps, I just check my watch from time to time. I know that if I swim well, I can get out in 4 hours. After 2 hours, a symbolic barrier is reached : I had never been that far in water, swimming. ValÚrie and the kids are here to say hello. It's nice to see them. I'm happy.
Two hours thirty. Time to stop again. I drink mint-flavored sirup. I add up some chocolate (delicious, with big whole chestnuts in it, yummy!). Then I just look behind me and see two swimmers. Since I'm one of the fastest in my lane, if I let them pass me, then I will need to pass them again, and I don't feel like doing this. So I start up right away and push very strong on my legs to get some significant initial speed. Aouch!!! Cramp in my left calf. Gosh, it hurts. I'm in a bad position, my mouth is filled with half-chewed chocolate and nuts, one of my legs can't move, and I've got 2 swimmers on my track, just behind. I paddle as hard as I can with my arms not to slow down and disturb the others behind, while trying to relax my left leg. After something that must be about 30 meters only but seems to last for an eternity, my calf contraction finally stops. Next time I won't push like this with my legs, and I'll finish eating my chocolate before going back to swim.
After 3 hours of race, I'm pretty impressed by my overall "freshness". Yes, I'm thirsty and I badly need to take a pee, but my arms do not feel much worse than after the first hour. This is good news!
My official swim time is 3h46'35". I'd swear I did a bit less than 11,4km but only something like 11,3km but after all, I didn't really count them. My opinion based on broken calculus improvised after 3h30 swimming is certainly an order of magnitude less reliable than the official count. Who cares anyway.
Being out of the water, I decide to opt for warm clothes. Usually, in a triathlon, it's enough to start fast on your bike to annihilate the coldness one gets swimming. But here, on an ultra, I don't want to start fast. So I put on long sleeves and "long everything", almost ready for winter. Additionnally, I do not really know what the weather will be like in an hour or two.
I wait until I'm on the real road to get on my bike. A good ol' moutain bike, with road "slick" tires and some basic triathlon accessories, to be able to "rest" on my elbows and spare my arms. This is unusual, most other athletes do have real race bikes. I like mine. Heavy but comfortable. And cheap.
So I discover the bike course. I take my marks. OK, here's the tent where my crew is waiting for me. And this is the first U-turn. The other one is... Hey!!! Oh, yes, sorry, I missed it. This is where it was.
Now, I'm getting hot. Manu too. I change clothes. I eat a lot. And I can't stop changing and changing over. This is not something I'm used too, I'm more of the "wear this T-shirt from kilometer 0 to the end" type. But this day, in Lensahn, for reasons I can't really understand, I hesitate. I think I'm scared to be too hot and dehydrate myself by sweating too much, and also scared to be too cold and have digestion problems (this is common with me, I fear cold for that) which would be a very bad situation.
So well, after some time I decide to make "big official pauses" at 12h00, 16h00, 20h00, 24h00, and so on. Every 4 hours. These cycles correspond to a "4 meals a day" rhythm, assuming the day is a "normal" day and not one of those crazy 24h/24-never-ever-stop race days. A plate of sausages and puree makes me feel much better.
In a general manner, I judge I stop really too often, and I loose much time by doing so but well, my main goal is to finish the race, and in the long run these stops might proove to be usefull.
The other French guys keep on passing me. They always have a nice word for me. To be honest, not only the French pass me, it looks like everybody is going faster and that I'm the slowest guy on track. It might be true as well, since started at position 17th, I'll end up 27th (out of about 40).
The afternoon goes by, and we get soaked by the rain. I feel a little concerned about my clothes. I do not have that many weather-proof stuff, and if I change too often to wear dry items, I'll end up with everything being wet. This is because these years, I mostly run when it rains, and I practice cycling only when the weather is cool. This was a bright idea at the time I was only racing "foot races", but now that I'm getting involved in triathlon, I'd better get more bike-compatible good quality clothes. And one cheap thing I'd need badly now is this transparent water-proof jacket everyone seems to have, but me. So well, I'm hesitating between my two jackets. Should I put the best one now and risk it to be soaked too soon? Or keep it for later, but risk getting cold right now? I can't remember exactly what I did, but what I'm sure of is that the weather wasn't that bad. Had it been worse, I would probably have regretted not to have come with a more adequate equipment.
Night comes. People continue to race like mad. I'm impressed by the level of the best athletes. They go fast, real fast. After up to 200km of race, and probably 300km for some, the rhythm remains pretty much the same. On a popular 24h foot race, at night, you would see many competitors taking a rest. Here, no. Maybe pit stops tend to be a little longer, but that's all. Impressive.
I'm having problems with my lights. I had initially planed to use my wife's bike lamps. Unfortunately here bike was stolen, in France, a few days before the race. And I forgot to buy another one. So when I left France, I picked up (last minute!) some lamps that were taking the dust in an old box, and here we go. I though I could rely on my old Petzl Zipka (head lamp) tied to my bike. But... one of the girls who help me explains me one needs *two* lights. Neglecting the fact that many other racers only have one light (I don't want to argue) I use some tape and fix a "spare lamp" on the bike. And that's it. Solved in 3 minutes.
This little problem illustrates the spirit in which I handled this race. I prepared the minimum, was serious on the important points (I actually *did* have a spare lamp, just in case) and for the rest I had a "wait and see" pratical approach.
My "team" does a great job. I mean, really great. I want a soup? I have soup! Puree? I have puree! Everything on demand, it's better than I dreamed. I just have to ask for something, and next lap, it's available. Sure I tend to stop for not-so-required stuff, but enjoying their warm greetings is something I certainly don't want to miss.
I start getting tired. One in the morning. I feel dizzy. For the second time I "miss" the (obvious) U-turn near the stands. My rhythm is fading too, I'm way over 20 minutes per lap. I'm not physically exhausted, but I'm tired, I want to sleep, be elsewhere in a warm bed.
Two in the morning. I'm supposed to wait yet 2 hours more before my next official "big stop", at 4h. At about 3 in the morning, I try and think and figure out that my main goal being to finish the race, I shouldn't get exhausted at its beginning. And, this is still the beginning. So I do what I had planned *not* to do, I get ready to take a nap. I'm about to get some sleep right on the ground when my crew insists that I use the bed (yes, there's a bed too!) in the stand. I lie down and insist a bazillion times that it's of the utmost importance to wake me up in 15 minutes. I finally let it go and try to fall asleep as fast as possible. I hear the other bikes. It's just so cool to be here and not have to cycle and cycle again. I calm down. I don't care any more about time, laps, and the rest. Then I sort of half wake-up and look at my watch, convinced the girls forgot to wake me up (sorry for not being able to trust you :| but well, I guess I was too stressed). But no, it's been only 10 minutes since I've lied down. I go back to "sleep". Just when I was about to really fall asleep "Christian, wake up!". I ump out of the bed, drink a coffee as fast as possible, get ready, and go!
I worked, I feel just so fresh, I feel like boozing, having a great party, my legs are perfect, I sing in my head, I'm happy to be here, on my bike, at night, after over 300km. Everything's fine.
How long this magic will last, I don't know. But If I can manage it until the sun rises, it's enough.
And here comes the sun. I'm still on my bike. Now I don't feel like being the slowest one any more. I'm in the race. At last! This feeling is probably not due to the fact that I accelerated, but more probably to the fact that the first ones are already running, and have finished the bike part.
Last but not least, rain is back again.
A few laps before I'm done with the bike, I see a group of people on my right. Stupid accident (I don't know what happened, he probably got asleep on his bike), an athlete is here with his broken bike, not too badly hurt, but at least well shocked. This makes me think I might have been really wise to take that little nap, a few hours ago.
From time to time I look at my bike odometer (by default it does not display distance, only time, showing distance is too bad for ones mind, it's a motivation killer) and the "540" limit is closing.
I'm happy to be done with this part, at last I will have the permission to go and run with the friends!
I make a smooth transition. I don't want to hurry. Still one last-minute adjustment on my running clothes, I trade my initial pair of shorts for some warmer stuff. Weather does not really look like it's summer here ;)
My first running laps feel surprisingly very easy. My legs do not hurt at all. No problem, no nothing, everything's fine. I feel I could peak at 13km/h if I wanted. Some tried to do it. They now regret it ;) Experience taught me that the "comet attitude", firing and wasting all bullets too soon, is always a bad move. So I keep calm.
Very soon, and even with my slow start, I slow down. The course is rather nice and varied. But fatigue can't be fooled like this. I finally reach the point where I have "only 100k to go" (and for the second time in the race, think of it, the Triple Ultra Ironman is one of the only race that allows this!). At this point, I feel really tired. Sort of fed up with all this. Only 100k to go. Yeah, great. Sure. Piece of cake. What kind of an idiot am I to get involved in such events?
Cynthia is with me on the bike. That's the big plus of choosing a mountain bike for the race: I can lend it to my crew ;) Others will accompany me as well, but I think Cynthia did really the big part of the job. I did not count the laps she did, but she did many. My crew had the bright idea to move the stand to the most obvious and convenient place in the world, just about the finish line.
The Conraux/Jolly team is efficient. They look tired but this is quite logical, and they are a bunch of laps ahead of me... Guy Rossi moves slowly, but with a constant pace. Fabrice Lucas is good for a DNF, he's wounded (something at the ankle, as I understand it).
I talk with Manu Conraux, and come to the conclusion the one thing I have to do is not to start walking, but keep running instead.
So I invent my own rhythm, almost a ritual, which makes all that thing acceptable. Each time I cross the finish line, I allow myself to walk a bit, and stop a bit as well to get some drink and food. This way I can "handle" my 10 minutes running laps. I know that after 10 minutes, a little rest is waiting for me. This sort of "oasis" makes it feasible to run the rest of the time. Every 4 hours, I still allow myself a "big" break. "big" means something like 2 or 3 minutes. To this, I have to add another type of breaks, because my stomach is starting to get upside-down, and I'm having serious digestion troubles. Good thing there are restrooms just on the side of the track... And, yes, believe me or not, the public toilet paper standard, here, in Germany, is way higher than in France. Instead of that awfull raw stuff we get in the Hexagon and which is barely better than a sheet of newspaper, here we have thick, soft, almost perfumed high-quality stuff. That's comfort, and I appreciate it!
So you might have noticed it, I just can't stop stopping. On one hand, this is not very efficient. On the other hand, I only walk near the finish line, for the rest of the course, I run all the time, including during the little "climb" (looks ridiculous to call this a climb, but after a while, one feels it's somewhat steep). Still, running 10 minutes in a row really feels hard. My stomach is getting real bad. It's alternatively warm and rainy, and I'm fed up with this race. ValÚrie transmits me encouragements from the French UFO Forum and their SMS. I try to stay positive but I kind of fail to do it. I'm thinking I still have 10 or 12 hours to go...
So I decide to stop for one more "quarter of an hour sleep". The second one. I lay down in my tent and ask Cynthia to wake me up fifteen minutes later. I give her my watch. Since I have my feet outside the tent, my head is "below" the rest of my body and I feel the blood getting into it. So I pick up some random clothes, pack them into a little pillow to have my head highter, and get ready to sleep. I just let everything go away, like if I was surrending, ready for a DNF. It's over, I want to rest.
Cynthia touches my ankle. I wake up. The rest is over. I go back on track. Once again, I feel much much better. It's too bad this technique eats up 20 minutes, since it's so efficient. I'm really in the race again. One lap running, walk near the finish line, drink it, walk 10 meters, go back to run, and do it again.
I have good reasons to think my global performance and position will be correct, since I see many participants walk a lot. At this pace they will need hours and hours to finish the race.
The first one (sort of a martian to be, he's dressed in green and goes so fast he might come from another planet) has finished. Pascal and Manu too. Night is here again.
At the very instant I have "only a marathon left" I feel great, almost like I would be on ecstasy. I surprise myself to dance near the finish line (there's music). The following couple of laps are really great and I dream of a bullet-finish, get rid of this last marathon in less than 5h30 and arrive before the symbolic 45h00 limit.
Well, this was expectable, this euphoria does not last. OK, I have done 3 times 3800 swimming, plus 3 times 180km cycling, plus 2 times 42,2km running, so to some extent, I only have one ninth to go. A marathon, yeah, piece of cake. Except this marathon is just sooo long and so slooow. This is not fair. I swam, cycled, ran for 100km, and this is still not over. I've got the blues again, my spirit is going down, I'm cracking from everywhere, the end is near.
Two hours before the end (I now count time in 10 minutes slices, I don't think in term of kilometeres, it's too depressing) I feel my pace is falling down. I still jog, but it's now really a slow plod, and I'm exhausted. So for the third time, I'm going to try and take a little express-sleep. Only 10 minutes, I can't spare more, since I only have 2 hours to get my "investment" back.
I wake up. This time the magic does not work as well. My legs are sore (no kidding!) and hard like wood. Plus I'm cold. Still, I take a new pace which is much better than what it was before stopping. My head thinks "yeah, come on, show what you can do!" which is an order of magnitude better than the previous "OMG everything is lost I'll never make it to the end".
Several runners have finished now, including some which looked real bad. In fact, any of the runners left could be finishing next lap, from what I know. After my little rest, I start seeing Guy Rossi again. I wasn't seeing him much lately, I guess we were on the opposite positions on the track. Now I do my laps in about 11 minutes, and he does them in about 14 minutes, so we get to see each other again. I feel my 15 minutes "invested" in a rest were not such a bad bet.
The question I'm asking myself is "who will be the next finisher?" doing his last lap in reverse, with his national flag in hand. Guess who? Guy Rossi! Himself. Hey man, that's funny, considering Sa´d told be just two days ago a story in which Guy was just 300 meters before him in a 24h race. This guy is real strong.
I didn't take the time to ask my crew, before my last break, if there was someone before or behind me. Had I known Guy was at hand, I might have found enough motivation without even stopping, and since my main problem was a bad spirit, this might have been enough. But wait, it's easy to rewrite history and make the race afterwards, comfortably installed behind a computer or with a beer chatting with friends in a bar. No, seriously. I was just doing my best. No regret.
So well, I just cross Guy who's going the other way, then make my own U-turn and meet all the other runners on my way back. We shake hands, they congratulate me, I wish them a good journey. 4 of the girls (yeah, 4 girls, and this is only a fraction of my crew during this crazy extended week-end!). I'm not very tender with them since I set the throttle "on" and simply go as fast as I can. Fortunately this is not too fast, but they are tired too (they've spend so many hours helping me, being at the stand, cycling, even running beside me) and I guess everyone is exhausted at the end. It might sound stupid to do this final rush (who cares about that extra minute more or less, seriously?) but I really, really, want to get under 46h. It's like that. Runner's stuff, I guess non-racers might not get it, but I do have some sort of competitive mind, especially when I'm running against myself.
It's almost 5 in the morning, the sun is rising, I've done it.
Until the end my crew has been efficient and close to perfect. My sandals are here, on the finish line, waiting for me. This feels so good! I wonder what I'd have done without all this valuable help. The story would certainly not have been the same.
I'll finally keep an excellent "souvenir" of this race. I remember all this participants, all of them highly motivated, well-trained and nice to talk with. I remember the last one to arrive, 5 minutes before the overall time limit. Have you ever seen a happy guy smiling? I did. I remember Manu, at night, at something like 2 or 4 in the morning, encouraging me in what seems like 4th dimension. I remember the 4th (Ferenc), always smiling, and his beautiful running style. All these tents, illuminated at night, with life everywhere, this crazy night cycling and cycling forever, hoping rain won't come too soon. The spectators which now call me "allez papa!", an allusion to my little girls crying "go daddy go!" in French. And my daughter Lise, who, while I was sleeping after the race, made a little drawing on a sheet of paper and wrote "daddy, I wish you a good race!".
My 2009 season is over. I might one or two little races after, just to keep in shape, but nothing significant. After something like this, I need a serious goal to get the machine back on track. What could that be? Surprise!
PS: did I tell you this race in Lensahn is great, and all the people there great too? Well, probably ;) But the better proof I can give you that it's so cool is that... next year, in 2010, I'll be back again! With my father Jean-Paul. Racing too.
PPS: OK, this is not really secret anymore, my main 2010 goal is to complete a "deca". Just like Lensahn, but a bit longer.