Last year I raced Ironman Nice. I had a solid race and managed to come 6th in my age group and qualified for Ironman Hawaii. I expected my times to be what they were, but I did not expect to come 6th let alone get a sought after slot! So when booking my flights I opted to come back on the Monday morning. This meant that I didn't make the presentation awards, which you have to attend to accept and pay for your entry! I'm sure as I was in the taxi to the airport I could hear my name being called out...
Fast forward a year and I had decided to return to try and recreate the perfect race; and maybe go a bit faster to make sure I got that slot. My training had changed a bit, with more consistent, hard indoor bike sessions and whilst my nutrition in the previous year had given me enough energy, I decided to alter a couple of things.
For some reason I had decided to only tell a few close friends that I was doing Nice again. I didn’t want too much pressure being put on me. I had told people I was racing Majorca and that had gone well. It was a great opportunity to put into some Nice strategies into practice – and they worked.
Once in France things were coming together nicely and I was confident that I would go faster than last year. Whether it would be good enough for a Hawaii slot I didn’t know, but I was willing to give it a bash and see where I would be placed at the end of the day.
I was hoping for a hot race – last year a lot of people suffered on the run and while it's never nice to see others suffering, I benefitted from not blowing up as much as others. The heat didn’t arrive. The race was nearly a month early as the football was due to take over the whole of Europe, so the temperature was about 10 degrees celsius cooler than last time.
The swim was also different. A rolling start had worked well in Majorca as they had let off 5 people every 10 seconds, which meant less crowds. However, Nice is famous for its mass start. After two steps you are up to your neck due to the steep slope on the shore. Arms, legs and bodies all got mixed together, but that didn’t last long as the start line was very wide. But this year it was different. The gun/cannon went off and everyone had to filter through an arch. When you crossed the timing mat, you were racing. It was chaos! It was quite possibly the most aggressive swim I've ever done. It was like a battle scene from Game of Thrones, only with fewer dragons.
After a frantic start it settled down and I hauled myself out of the water in 54 minutes – 2 minutes faster than last year. A good start. Onto the bike, where the plan was to hold about 240 watts over the whole day. I'd been working with Best Bike Split to predict and plan my power for the race and had enjoyed success with it. Staying at 240 watts would leave me with enough energy to run a good marathon. My nutrition plan was simple – 10 gels, 10 salt tablets, and 5 bottles of energy drink. Drink when thirsty and make sure the gels have gone by the time the bike is parked in T2.
Being a strong(ish) swim/runner and an average biker, I knew that there would be a constant stream of people going past me. I'm used to this and my ego can cope with it, but at times you do get lonely. There was the odd dark moment, but I felt I was riding well and my body was not having too many issues.
(That's me in training, no horses on the IM Nice course thankfully... Image: Will Newbery ©)
I racked my bike, and after saying “Oui Monsieur” to a very helpful lady who asked if I wanted sun cream on my neck, I set off. The plan was as simple as on the bike. Stick to 7:05 minute miles for each and every mile. Take salt tablets regularly to stop the legs from cramping and seizing up; and take something at each aid station.
Keep your head up and your hips will follow. I did my first mile in 6:55. Bugger. Slow down. The second mile was 6:59. Bugger (but getting closer!). 7:01; 7:02; 6:56; 6:56. M first lap was 2 minutes too quick. After a quick shout at myself, I settled into the second lap. 6:57; 7:01; 7:00; 6:54; 7:03; 7:12. Pretty darn consistent.
But, I hit halfway point in the run at 1:31, 4 minutes too fast. The wheels were well and truly going to come off. Lap 3 started with a 7:20 (and I had a chat with a friend/athlete I coach whilst still feeling like David Rudisha) then a 7:01 and a 6:55. I was running very nicely with an Italian and a French guy who were younger than me.
Then it went wrong. At the turn of the third lap, I laughed out loud as the fat lady started to sing. 7:18. 7:27. 8:16 (tried the double gel trick). 7:44 (asked the fat lady to sit down). 7:23 (the double gel trick seemed to be working!). A 25-minute half lap doesn’t sound disastrous at all. But I was struggling. I picked up my special needs bag with my special drink in and that just settled everything. More shouting at myself and the last lap was underway.
I started to pick up the pace. I was back on it for the out section and I was flying for the last bit. A 21:26 final 5.4km was way more than I expected and I was running on adrenaline and the fact that I was staring down the barrel of a low 9:30 Ironman – more than 10 minutes faster than last year – and a possible Kona slot. No dramatic aeroplane across the line this year. It was a rolling start so I knew that people who crossed the line after me could still be faster than me and I didn’t want to lose by seconds. I went over the line and...splat.
I finished on 9:32:49 – 11 minutes faster than last year. With a 3:02:29 run split. Pleased doesn't even come close to describing how I felt at that moment.
Then I found out that I was 10th. TENTH??? I had overtaken Leanda Cave and left the former world champion in a cloud of dust. I had run 2 minutes faster than I had planned. 9 minutes faster than last year, where I had the 21st fastest run overall.
And that is what makes this sport amazing and yet so frustrating. I had the race of my life. But so did lots of other people. To share the course with at least 3 professional World Champions was an honour. To be 41 minutes behind the winner of our age group was pretty humbling. To be 4 minutes 38 seconds off the podium is on the one hand hard to swallow, but I just didn’t have those 4 and a half minutes. My best wasn’t good enough and I can live with that...
Will Newbery is Head Coach at 9 Endurance Coaching and helped David Lloyd Leisure establish their national “Power of Three” triathlon program. As an athlete himself he has won races from sprint to Ironman, and in 2015 he qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona by coming 6th in his Age Group at the very competitive Ironman Nice, France.