IRONMAN Finland 2021

Where shall I start? 🤔 19th of July 2020, I finished my registration for IRONMAN Finland in August 2021, with in mind the goal of being much stronger than before, and also to finally finish a full IRONMAN. The one I did in Nice in 2019 was shortened due to the heat wave. I also had a secret goal of qualifying for the IRONMAN world championship in Hawaï, for which I had to be in the top 3 of my age group (30-34 years old). This was a bold goal, as I ranked 27th at Nice, a long away from the podium!

I didn’t come up with this objective randomly. I knew I had a chance given what I thought I should be able to do with a decent training plan, and the statistics I analysed for other athletes who qualified the previous years. So I thought, why not?

And it turned out… It was a success!

To cut a long story short, we ARE going to Hawaiï! I managed to finish second in my age group and 13th overall, way beyond my expectations. I had five sub goals when I arrived at the race:

  • To swim less than an hour on the 3.8km (~2.3 miles) swim - I failed ❌
  • To cycle less than 5 hours on the 180km (~111 miles) bike race - Also failedl ❌
  • To run less than 3 hours during the marathon (26 miles) - Failed again❌
  • To qualify for Hawaiï - I succeeded ✅
  • To do an awesome race and be proud of myself - I succeeded ✅

Two out of five, not that good, the two most important ones are successes though. I almost managed to nail the other three too, so quite awesome overall! Here are some details about the race:

  • Finish time 9h16’21”
  • 2nd in my age group (30-34 years old)
  • 9th man overall
  • 13th overall (yeah the pro females are faster than me, they are SO impressive!)
  • Swim 3.8km - 1h02’02”
    • 1’38”/100m
    • 34 strokes/min on average
    • 47th overall (not so good)
  • Transition T1 - 2’54”
  • Bike 180km 1200m D+ - 5h04’10”
    • 35.51 km/h
    • 200 Watts on average
    • 211 Watts normalized power
    • 220 TSS
    • 59th overall (this is bad…)
  • Transition T2 - 2’14”
  • Run 42km 400m D+ - 3h05’04”
    • 4’24”/km
    • 309 Watts on average
    • 159 RSS
    • 3rd overall (this is good!)

Still some work to do to improve swimming and biking, running is good enough. Let’s see what happened during the race.

Training plan and going to Finland

This was in fact the most crucial part to perform correctly during the IRONMAN. One year of training and planning, trying to validate steps and improvements, all of this during several lockdowns. I definitely wanted to reach the next level on the bike and the swim, as I was pretty fed up of being largely beaten by other athletes. I knew my running was enough though, but it wouldn’t be enough to be on the podium!

Anyway, my swim time during IRONMAN Nice was 1h01’, going for a sub 1 hour was in my reach. But, that assumption was in an ideal world without the Covid pandemic, that led to shutting down the swimming pools in October…. I didn’t even have the time to re-start swimming seriously. However, I was super determined to do a good preparation, and even more determined to make it to the starting line with no regret and no excuse. It’d be too easy to say “I could have done better without the Covid”.

So I went to my parents to pick up an inflatable swimming pool, just deep enough to swim statically in it, and I set it up in my garden. It was just a matter of time before I had fixed a rope on the pole outside the swimming pool, tied that rope to an old inner tube (to get some sort of elasticity), then tied that tube to a belt around my waist, and here I was swimming ! It’s boring, it feels different , but at least I could train. With my wetsuit on obviously. I still wonder what my neighbors thought when passing by next to the house 😅

Quick reminder on Norman weather in autumn and winter, it’s not that warm. The water in the pool slowly cooled down from 13 degrees to less than 5 starting in December. It was ok when it was around 10 to 13, but I had to put on gloves, neoprene socks, and an additional neoprene hooded vest when the water was between 5 and 10. And I swam for 15 to 20 minutes before I thought I would freeze to death! It was almost impossible to swim more than 15 minutes below 5 degrees. I don’t have enough fat on my belly 😁

Your body loses its heat really rapidly when you are in cold water, and once it starts cooling down, all your blood goes to your vital organs, so no blood in your hands, feet, etc. Then it starts to really hurt. I am not usually the soft kind, I can handle pain, but it was really very painful. The worst being when you finally take a shower and the blood goes back to your hands. I am not ashamed to say that I actually screamed a couple times because of the pain 😅 such a pleasant experience.

But reap what you sow, so I would go back three times a week, not knowing if my swimming would improve, but at least I wouldn’t get worse.

So many months after, the swimming pools eventually opened again, it took a couple months to go back to my previous level. Since I was determined to have the best chance of succeeding, I thought it would be interesting to swim in open water too, as the swim race would be in a lake. But we don’t have lakes in Normandy, we have the sea, but it’s definitely not the same. So… I had a look on Google Maps, spotted two big ponds (around 200 meters long) next to the Château du Bec (a big medieval castle you can rent for weddings), and called the owner. I explained my plan to her and everything. She was really enthusiastic and told me to come and give it a go! Here I was, once or twice a week, walking down the castle enclosure with my wetsuit in my backpack to go for a swim in the lake. An amazing experience, I could get used to swimming with the wetsuit, swim in a straight line, not freak out when a fish came next to me or when I touched a stick floating in the water 😅 What a blast for a medieval fan like me!

Regarding the bike, I had already made some improvements since the half IRONMAN world championships in Nice in 2019. The idea was to keep improving and also work a lot on the aero position, as I now have a real triathlon bike. Maintaining a good position is a real challenge when you have to keep it for several hours.

Apart from a couple of outside rides, I stayed indoors on the trainer, i.e. in my garage in front of a screen. Some workouts would be super intense but would last an hour, some would be easy but really long (4 to 5 hours). I spent quite a lot of Saturday mornings watching films, listening to some podcasts or music, reading books, etc.

The main advantage of the trainer is that your legs always have to push the pedals, so there’s no coasting during a workout (brief periods where you don’t pedal at all). That makes the workout much more time effective. Plus you don’t have to worry about the weather or the cars on the road.

In the end I went up to around 15 hours of training per week, which is quite a lot when you also want to spend time with your family and go to work! There’s always a moral contract your family and you have to agree on, otherwise you’re going to have some issues. All my workouts were in the calendar, including the time at which I would do them and how long they would last. I would share my feelings about my training, and make the necessary adjustments if needed, because life is not straightforward ! I also didn’t want triathlon to interfere with my life too much. My daughter doesn’t care about my training, she won’t ask if I’m tired, she just wants me to play and run after her 😁 that’s what it really takes to be an ironman !

Anyway, here we are arriving in Finland, fully vaccinated, fully prepared for the race. Audrey and Livia are with me, we get to the house in the evening on Tuesday, the race is on Saturday. The wooden house is right next to a big lake in the middle of the forest, we definitely are in Finland! Three days to go to the athlete registration, do a quick bike ride on the roads we are going to race on, swim in the lake, check the legs can still run fast and drop the transition bags and the bike on Friday. We also made the most of that time to have some rest, it’s been a while since our last holiday!

I could feel the stress mounting as the race day got closer. One evening, Audrey gave me a big envelope in which I discovered a TON of letters, drawings, cards, and cheerful messages from my family and friends. My sisters even made a special song just for me ! I will come back to it later on but I was really (REALLY) touched by all that love and I must say I cried a lot 😆

Race day, finally, legs are burning from excitement, stomach filled up with breakfast. Audrey didn’t sleep well, but funnily enough I did 😆 Our daughter woke up on her own 15 minutes before departure, she’s a perfect little girly.

We jump in the car and go to the transition zone only five minutes away for home, super easy logistics for this IRONMAN! Last bike check up, I put all my drinks and food in the bags and on the bike, last mental visualisation of the transition to perform, and we walk to the start line. Weather is amazing, a clear blue sky with 17 degrees, it’s going to be a fine day.

Just enough time to warm up a bit, put my wetsuit on, and give a last kiss to my daughter and wife. So much effort and training to be here, so many people behind me to support me, it’s finally happening. I turn to Audrey and say “I’m going to cry so hard if don’t focus” 😆 (I’m still trying to focus when writing the report!). I went to the starting line, started doing fist bumps to cheer on other athletes, this is going to be so awesome! In position, 3, 2, 1… BIP! All out now!

Swim

I jumped in the lake (turns out I just walked in the water when I had a look at Audrey’s video 😂, not so epic) and started swimming. Water was perfect (20 degrees), compared to the swimming pool in the garden in December, it’s heaven. It almost has a sweet taste, so much better than sea water. I scream in the water to let out some emotion, I am so happy to be racing!

That can seem a bit weird, but we are so filled up with adrenaline, hormones, and emotions that it has to come out one way or another. My arms felt good. Now I just had to wait for 3.8 km… It’s quite a long way when you swim, and since you can’t hear anything (your head is mostly below the surface), nor can you see (or really quickly when you take a breath), it tends to be a bit boring.

I still made the most of it though, the lake and the landscape was beautiful, the sun was just above the treetops, I had almost no one around me so it was easy to relax and swim like during training.

Out of the water in 1h02’, that’s 2 minutes behind schedule but I felt really fresh, as if I hadn’t swum at all, which is good because there was still 8 to 9 hours of race ahead. I ran to my bike, put on my helmet, bib, and socks and rushed through the exit, less than 3 minutes, very good. My bike shoes were already clipped on the pedals to save some time, I just had to slip my feet in and start pushing the pedals for the next 180 km!

Bike

Riding your bike is fun, you can go fast, you see a lot of different landscapes, but most of the time it ends with a sore bottom.

After a quick ride on the same road a couple days before, I was pretty confident I could ride the 180 km in less than 5h. It was not a technical road, it was long straight lines between the trees. So much different than in Nice where you had to really concentrate! It was never flat though. No big climbs or descents, but the real challenge was to handle the always changing road where you could hardly maintain a regular pace for more than a few minutes. On top of the undulating road, the trees and the lakes next to the road would create strange air masses, making it hard to understand why you would suddenly ride at 30 km/h in a descent and speed up to 45km/h in the next climb with a strong headwind. That was quite disturbing, so I focused on my wattage to stay in the power zones I knew I could hold for four or five hours.

The course was split into two 85 km loops, and connected to a 5 km (3.1 mile) segment towards the bike park. The weather was really nice, it was warm and sunny, and despite the strong wind on some portions, I enjoyed riding my bike! But even though I had made some significant improvements on the bike, I was still unable to compete properly with the other guys, which was a bit frustrating… But that was not enough to disturb me or make me diverge from my plan. An IRONMAN is first a race against yourself, trying to overdo it or following someone you don’t know nearly always ends up in failure.

So stick to the plan, and trust yourself. Speaking of plans, I also strictly followed my nutrition and hydration plans, with custom date bars and honey gels. When we think about sport, we most of the time think about the workouts. When it comes to endurance sports, and especially long races like an IRONMAN, nutrition and hydration are key! You simply cannot hold your pace for multiple hours without fuelling your body, that’s humanly impossible. And the more quality food you ingest, the better. You are not going to put standard gas in a race car right? Same goes for your body. It’s also better to eat the same things you are used to eating during training, because your gut becomes highly efficient to digest that food, the easier the better!

A fine bike leg in the end, no mechanical issues, no sliding, nothing but strong riding through the middle Finland landscapes. It rained heavily for the last 20 minutes, the weather started to deteriorate unfortunately…

I eventually reached the bike park after 5h04’, a bit behind schedule again, but I had to hold back during the last 40 km as my left thigh started cramping during climbs. And boy you are going to need that leg on the 42 km run race! The only thing I had in mind was to show the other athletes that even though they beat me on the bike, I would crush them on the run.

Run

I jumped off my bike and ran to my rack position, I emptied my shoes carefully, in which I put my nutrition for the run, that’s a pro tip to avoid forgetting something 😁 I then rushed through the bike park and started leaping like a stag. My legs felt a bit achy but that was the normal state after 5 hours of bike, I knew that wouldn’t prevent me from running fast. First kilometer done in 4’06” (almost 15 km/h), it didn’t feel like I was running, it felt so easy!

I wanted to do a sub 3h marathon, so that meant staying at a 4’16”/km pace or lower. The course was quite technical, a lot of little climbs and descents on gravel roads or trails, not that easy! Maintaining a steady pace was again not possible, and there were almost zero entirely flat sections. But nevermind, legs are good!

Four 10km loops for this course. One of the good things about being at the front of the race is that you’re on your own on the first laps, so you have all the supporters on the side of the road just for you! Especially the two best supporters of the world, my wife and daughter 😁 Even when they were out of sight, I could hear Audrey’s megaphone. I would then run proudly past them, waving and smiling at them. Hard not to cry and keep your composure to be honest!

I am not the kind of athlete who remains concentrated and focused on the road in front of him, I like to enjoy the encouragement and thank the volunteers (even if it’s just a smile when you are gasping for air). It gives so much energy to share this moment, and not to mention that smiling makes the effort easier.

After 25 km, pace was still steady and I had already overtaken most of those who had beaten me on the bike. I told you the race was not finished! Third lap ongoing, there were a lot of people on the course now as they had finished the bike leg.

One month before the race, I told Audrey that I was a bit afraid of the marathon, not about finishing it but rather being able to maintain the pace I had in mind. I feared I didn’t run enough kilometers. I would do 40 to 50 km per week, which is not a lot when considering a marathon training plan, but I thought that focusing on bike and swimming would be more beneficial. Well, it turned out I was right, the last 10 km were really tough! After 30 km, I could feel my thighs had become as hard as rocks, and they felt really achy. I didn’t feel like I didn’t have energy, just that my muscles were burnt. On top of that, it started raining, like heavy rain, we were all soaked to the bone.

I then used one of the things for which I made a lot of improvements lately. It took me 30 years to realise how powerful emotions are, how to listen, understand and make the most of them. I would describe myself as cold blooded, that’s not the case anymore. During such a long race, you experience pain, suffering, motivation, despair, determination, euphoria and so many more emotions. What you do with them can totally change your race. I can’t remember how many times I finished some workouts in tears, because the intensity was so high and it would take all I had to go through the pain. But using emotions helps you go way further than what you think, where physical pain is no longer a limitation. It’s disturbing, you feel ridiculous for crying on your bike, but it feels so good!

So I used it all, all the emotions, the support from the people on the race, the shot of love and adrenaline each time I passed by my little family. The pace had slowed down a bit, my body was hurting and begging to stop, but I hanged on and thought about all my family and friends who were following the race on the IRONMAN tracker! There’s no way I will stop. 35, 36, 37, less and less kilometers to go, 38, 39, 40, last aid station, 41… one kilometer, just one to enjoy the present, the race that went almost according to plan, the feeling you gave it all.

I couldn’t see the finish line yet but I was already crying. I sprinted through the last climb, I saw Audrey on the side next to the red carpet. My body was moving on its own, I barely remember these moments, I can only remember when I crossed the finish line, jumping and screaming my happiness.

I met Audrey after the finish line, took my daughter in my arms, I was exhausted but so happy. One of the athletes who arrived just before me was in the same emotional state, he was French and we would later realise that on top of being a super nice guy, we were going to share the two first places on the podium, amazing.

Even with the pace slowing down at the end, I did the 3rd time on the run with 3h05’, I said that was my specialty 😂 Time to rest now.

Three days have passed since the race, the soreness is gone but I’m still a bit euphoric. I am really proud and pleased about my performance, and even more about my qualification to Hawaiï for the IRONMAN world championships.

I cannot end this report without saying thank you a million times to all the people who were with me (even remotely) during that journey, my family and friends. All I can say is I love you, I am deeply happy to have such wonderful people in my life. I said it a lot of times to Audrey, it felt weird and I was embarrassed to receive so many messages just for me. I’ll say it again, I was really (really really) touched.

I would also like to thank my running club LHSA, my local town Mannevillette and my employer Doctolib for supporting me in my adventures, and it’s not over yet! Thank you so much Nathalie for letting me swim in the Château du Bec lake, it’s been awesome! hank you again and again to Rosalie from LibreForme8, my nutrition angel 😊

See you in Hawaiï, aloha!

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