Zoë Stagg

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Marseille 5150: The Bike, Run, and FINISH…

“That’s it. That must be it.”

They were the first vehicles I’d seen in an hour, in a giant, lumbering convoy of ambulances and trucks. That’s what’s chasing me — the clean-up crew who’d close the course and decide who was far enough along to finish. As they passed me, a dude leaned out a window and very obviously cased the race number inked on my arm. NOOOOO.


I peeled off my wetsuit with minimal hopping around, lucking into a first-time three-minute transition. I was actually looking forward to the bike ride. I knew that I had two hours to finish officially, though actually less because I needed to leave myself more than an hour to run. 40km / about 25 miles, so the speedometer had to stay above 13 mph, or I was done.


“Helmet, shoes, bike, okay go.” I chugged it out of transition, and pulled to the side to let the dudes with the aero helmets and those filled-in wheels that are not hobby wheels, clip in and shoot past. The ride started up the main drag to the beach, veered right and out of town.


You know how it’s smarter to read between the lines of real estate listings and job descriptions? “Cozy space for a real go-getter” means you’re going to be working 27 hours a day in the square footage of a porta-john, etc. Race descriptions are the same deal, it turns out. Everyone wants to trumpet their “fast and flat!” courses — and if they don’t? I’d read the blurb. I’d looked at the map. I’d even Google Earthed part of it. “Okay, a road. Got it.”

NO GOT IT. NO DIDN’T GOT IT until eight miles in.


(Course photos thanks to Crazy Guy on a Bike, if that says anything.)

I was trucking along on plan, 15-16 mph, and starting to drink the Gatorade clipped to my frame, which was suddenly so salty after an hour in the ocean that it burned my throat. A short out and back with a tiny hill, and enough leisure time to scan the riders ahead of me and coming down, looking for my friend from Italy.

“Allez, Zoë!”


With my bib spun around to the back as instructed, and a short enough name printed on it to read at a distance, I was getting nice hollers from riders as they passed. It was friendly — and to be very short-lived. In about two miles, no one was going to have extra oxygen for pleasantries. Here’s the course as they describe it:

The bike course will lead athletes to the entrance of the famous city of Cassis by the famous pass of La Gineste located at 327 m. 40 km of bike will be made in a return and will request all the “cyclist qualifications” as the bike course combine both rolling sections and “bumps”.

Reading it now, afterward? I SEE YOUR COZY SWEATSHOP, LIARS.

Keywords: Pass. 327m. Qualifications. Bumps.

What that actually meant out there on the course? A 327m climb over 5k. (1,200 ft over 3 miles for my imperialists.) The ride was eight miles of normal, eight miles finding hill after hill around corners with a rocky drop to your right, and eight miles to white-knuckle the destruction of all of your previous effort. Thank God my training included a lot of slow-and-steady German hills dragging a 45 lbs. bike trailer. It did not include any “descent qualification building,” however.


The bikers with the filled-in wheels who had already tackled the up, were flying down at car speeds. I had no idea when the torture of up became the horror of down, so I kept pedaling. I tried to look around and enjoy the scenery, anything other than the speedometer that said, “6.0,” but between the wind blowing across the road, and the effort, there was nothing to do but push-pull, push-pull, push-pull.

Every so often I would get enough speed to pass a rider or two on the ups, only to have them pass me again on the short downs. Shrug. I have a very healthy respect for gravity.

//20 km FINISHED\

Said the spray paint on the road. Halfway. And still up. One more corner. At this point crude pictures of tiny mountains started appearing with 3km! and 2km! next to them. So it does end, eventually. The barricades appeared, BEEP ME CHIP MAT, and I started the treacherous down. It was the sound of the engines made me look up from my handlebars. One, two, three- six big vehicles in parade. I’d read horror stories, but I didn’t know what I was really looking for. THAT. That’s the fleet that blocks off the road, collects your bike, and ends your race.

And they were maybe five minutes behind me.

“NO. NOT TODAY. You’re going to have to catch me.”

I pried my fingers off the brakes, put my head down, and flew. At one point I looked down and saw 26.6 mph. That’s beans to a lot of cyclists, but I start safety monitoring at about 20. At least I was making my average speed closer to what I had planned. Civilization started reappearing, and I hadn’t heard engines over my shoulder for five miles. I unclenched my shoulders a little and looked at my stop watch. 2:20. I lost them. I had three miles left. And I wanted off this bike.


Barreling down the blocked-off course of the main road, but well behind the bulk of the pack, meant that pedestrians and cars had started to ignore the barricades and cross at will. I was pushing 20 mph when a motorcycle t-boned the course and just stopped.

“HEY! HEY!” (Caps Lock isn’t actually as loud as I yelled.)

Because no dude. My bike doesn’t have a motor. YOU MOVE.

Around the inexplicable fake statue of David, and I heard Ryan. “You did it! I love you!” Off the bike, wobbling toward my discarded wetsuit and shoes. Ain’t nothing left but a 10k. The sun was more enthusiastic by this point, and I wished I’d thought to keep a SPF chapstick with my stuff. My lips burned with salt and sun. I was actually hungry at this point, though I’d managed a whole bottle of Gatorade on the bike. I choked down a gel, chased it with some water, and allowed myself a moment to collect my mission.


I’d left myself about 1:20 for the run. My slowest ever-recorded 10k was 1:16 — ten years ago sure, but without three hours of mountain climbing before it. A quick loop around by the statue and I trotted out on the first of two loops. And immediately ran into a hill. COME ON. Luckily it flattened out after and stayed pretty reasonable, and all that was left to do was keep moving, ignore the sun, and try to pass the time.


“CORAL!!!!” I saw the pink stripe on her bib and her purple top. The only person I knew on the course was running toward me. I pumped my arms up.

“Yeah! You’re doing it!!” She didn’t know I’d made any of the cutoffs until that moment — she threw up her hand for a high five — which I blew. Oh well. They don’t shave off minutes for being cool. Buoyed, I trucked along to finish the first loop, and BEEP BEEP, got marked. One more. I turned around and saw a traffic cop monitoring the situation at the hub of the course. On the outside of the barricade was a big truck hauling a 30-foot boat on a trailer. He let one, two, three runners ahead of me pass by and then-

Hand up. After more than three hours, he was making me give up that very important rule of objects in motion: IT’S SO MUCH HARDER TO START AGAIN.

“Je suis désolée,” he said, shrugging. No je suis. No je suis.

And my face crumpled. He could tell he’d made me cry, even under my sunglasses and visor.

GOOD. The people in the front might be working to win, but the stragglers are working to survive, and until I can prove otherwise, it’s much harder to race for four hours than two.


(Not where I needed it.)

I willed my breath back under control just like I’d done in the water, and tried to get my rhythm back. And then I saw them again. The Convoy of Doom. The course-closing parade was chugging up the main road, with the last two bikers allowed to continue in front of them. The bikers grabbed hands as they rolled past and I yelled “YEAH!!!” as loud as I could. We were still in this.

I took water at every table, one for my head and one to drink, took one more gel at the turn of lap two, and headed toward the end. I was recognizing landmarks, I was following the barricade maze around parking lots toward the finish until suddenly the pavement looked unfamiliar. I looked up, panicked. No signs. No monitors.


A nice lady who was just watching pointed at the turn I’d missed.


“Gone, I think?”

I’d yelled in the direction of an innocent bystander, and I felt awful — but I had seriously missed the last turn. I get that it’s hard to man your post for a whole morning, and harder to pay attention when your charges slow to one every few minutes, but OH MY GOD. I MISSED the last turn.

“Yeah, Zoë!!!”

There was Coral on the sidelines.

“There’s a little loop at the end, but you’re almost there!”

That was some course news I could use.


“I’M COMING I’M COMING I’M COMING!” That was the only way I could think to relay the fact that I was not stopping again to the beach goers who were strolling across the chute. WAIT.

I was in the chute.

There was the finish line.

And a clock with a time that started with a “3.”


“That’s my wife! You did it!!!!” I could hear Ryan yelling as I looked up to remember the time as I crossed. And then, it was done. I had finished it. Twenty-five weeks of training, a week of worrying, done in a few hours of effort. I wandered in a daze through someone putting a medal over my head and a t-shirt thrust in my hand — I needed the out. How do I get to my family?


Finally. I pushed past the water tent and saw them coming toward me. I picked Frankie up out of her stroller in a squeeze, and I was really done. The real finish line.

Because I couldn’t have gotten there without them.

(Find the beginning of the story at “The Swim.”

The Stats:

Finish time: 3:49:20

Swim: 45:53 / T1 3:46 / Bike: 1:50:26 / T2 5:02 / Run: 1:04:03

12 / 17 in Age Group
799 / 836 Starters

Consumed: One red Gatorade, Two chocolate gels, water.

Trained: 22 miles of swimming; 685 miles of biking; 230 miles of running.

Currently Have: A tab open to register for my next one.

Marseille 5150: THE SWIM…



The air horn shattered the still dawn for the second time that morning, and I turned to look over my shoulder. This time it wasn’t sounding a start — but an alarm. It meant that the pitiful five-minute “head start” I’d been able to eek out, was about to be demolished by the fastest and most aggressive swimmers of the first wave of men.

“Well, this might be the end right here.” And I kept paddling.




I had just finished setting up my transition spot, with the pantomime of putting on gear that goes with it, and saw two guys with wetsuits rolled on to their waists. WAIT. At registration the day before, I’d asked, “C’est possible apporter le wetsuit?” Knowing that wearing my very new, very expensive security blanket that may well be worth ten minutes of speed, hinged on the water temperature.



“Non? Are you SURE?”

Oh non oh non oh non. There went that plan, and with it, possibly the whole race.

That morning, there were first two scuba-bepanted dudes, and then a few more, and I raced over to the official at the transition gate. “C’est possible apporter le wetsuit?!” She turned to the woman working next to her who was listening, “Oui.” She tossed off.




Thank God I’d left it in the car from the day before. I hadn’t taken it out in the water to practice, because I thought I’d be flying au natural, but it was there AND I WANTED IT. I had practiced though — the first open water swim of my entire training was the day before the race. This is not a how-to guide. The first time in was…traumatic. I hate oceans I hate fish I hate that a moving shadow could be the octopus dude from 20,000 Leagues and above all I hate being able to SEE whether something creepy or slimy is about to get me. There were a few false starts because swimming while you’re screaming is hard. Eventually I was able to get my head under control, and swam the buoy line, along the jetty, and practiced sighting back to shore. That was key session #1.

Key session #2 came later that afternoon, when we returned for bike check-in, with a woman I’d met back in Italy, who posted on Facebook a month ago she was doing the race. »Me too!« Like button, like button, like button. She wasn’t just doing the race, when I met her she was the life guard at the pool where I started training for the 200m swim of my first multi-sport. Life guard. As in, professional swimmer with three years of ocean duty behind her. I babbled on about how freaked out I was, and she very graciously offered to go out with me for another try.


Hours had passed since my first paddle out, and that morning’s breeze had since tickled the sea into a rolling froth. But I wasn’t by myself, and it was okay. She and her dad, both seasoned triathletes, gave me advice, “If you feel a hand on your ankle, kick like hell, because you’re about to be swum over the top of,” and maybe most importantly, I got to be in the water at its most unpleasant. This would prove VITAL the next morning.

As we lined up on the pebbly beach, staring out at the bobbing yellow markers of the course, the sun was inching up, coloring the mountains around pink like the swim caps in the women’s wave. Strangely, I wasn’t nervous. There was nothing to be nervous about. Either I could, or I couldn’t.


“PHREEEEOOOOOOOONK!” This is it, I guess.

The beginning of our wave charged into the water, and I protected my place at the rear. I don’t know what propelled my feet forward, but they went, and I was quickly deep enough to start swimming. That’s key, the “start.” Here’s something I haven’t read in any of the magazines or blog posts or books — if you’re susceptible to motion sickness, say, SEA SICKNESS, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a boat or not. If you have your head in the waves, you can’t see the horizon, and you’re done. And it was rough. Roll after roll after roll.


At first, I was surprised to see a half dozen other pink caps in my general area. I was keeping up! In between peeks, I valiantly tried to establish some kind of freestyle rhythm. I tried to just ride the waves and swim.

That. Was not. Happening.

I don’t know when I gave up the stroke I’d fought so many hours in the pool for this year, but my head was out of the water when the men started, and out of the water when I reached the first of three buoys marking the “out” of the out-and-back course. It felt like it had been a week, maybe two.

I looked at the stopwatch that I’d started at the air horn, and that would run all day as my allotted four hours ticked down:


Oh. Okay. To the next buoy then. I swam ahead in the horrible, head-above-water breaststroke of someone who doesn’t swim. “I’ll get it back when we turn the corner. Surely it will be better, currents, wind, waves, etc.” I battled on. And then I could hear it. The lashing churn of a thousand arms thrashing. And it was getting closer. The men were coming.


By this point I was well to the inside of the course. It turned out to be a pretty good place to be, less of my flank was exposed to the reenactment of Sparta that was coming from behind me. I passed the second buoy close enough to touch it, just as the first men started passing me. At this point my goggles were foggy enough that I couldn’t see my watch, so I just kept going. The mental gymnastics started in earnest at about this point. At no time did I feel winded or tired or like I was in danger of not keeping myself afloat. Endurance-wise, I felt great, the only fatigue came from swimming a stroke that I hadn’t trained, that uses a whole different set of muscles. Ironically, I think my awful form saved me some contact. My legs were frog kicking like Nemo in a puddle hit by lightning, and no one wanted to get NEAR my back end.


Through the middle section, there was a lot of mantra-ing. “Swim your swim.” “Keep going.” “Right, to the next buoy then.” And some cursing as the life boat chugged by, churning up the already tough surface. It felt like my ridiculous non-technique was gaining me no ground, so to speak, but now that I was at the far end, there seemed to be nothing to do but round the last corner buoy into the last leg.


That’s when stuff got hard. I rounded the corner and found myself staring directly at the sun. All I could see was a bright haze and the next wave as it slapped my face. I had no idea where I was going or what I was swimming toward. I thought back to sighting the shore the day before, and realized that had been hours later. But now, the sun was sitting right on the beach, lasering my eyeballs. The best I could do was sight the swim caps ahead of me and squint.

I don’t know why I thought the water would be smoother coming in. I guess you have to have some kind of hope. But it wasn’t. At all. As another swell battered the side of my face and I spat out half of it, I started to feel more hands at my feet. The mid-pack male swimmers were upon me now, and in addition to feeling the course monitors eye on my straggling pink cap with, what I presumed was a giant fish net in hand, I had more company — and it was not helping matters, being treated as a human ladder.


I don’t know why, I’m not proud of it, but it’s the protest I needed to assert a little space for my struggle. I think around this time, giving up started to sound kind of nice. How would it work? Could I just wave over a kayak and end this? SPLASH. SPIT. SPLASH.


And then I looked up, and thought I could make out a buoy. Is that an OLD buoy or a NEW buoy? I counted caps going toward it. It’s a new one. That’s a new one and I can see it. Okay then. I started making mini goals. To get to that buoy. To get inside the rock jetty, where maybe the water was calmer. To get close enough to see the shore. I thought the waves would help out here. Don’t they go in the direction of the shore, too? Give a gal a ride? It didn’t feel that way at all. It felt like a water treadmill. Paddle, paddle, paddle, nowhere.

Suddenly the glare broke, and I was at the buoy! And — WERE THOSE FINISH LINE FLAGS? Could I see where the end of this was? WAIT. Could I hear music?? I passed the edge of the jetty, and paused. I moved my watch around until I found a break in the fog. 41:14. I was going to do this. And if I was going to, I better pee NOW.

The flags were close enough now that I knew they weren’t a mirage, and I wanted at them. I considered trying to freestyle coming in to save face, but I decided I didn’t care about anything but getting land under my feet. “Swim as far as you can. Don’t waste energy trying to stand up,” was the advice from yesterday. I put my hand down to see if I could feel the bottom. No. No. YES. I tried to stand up, staggering under the reintroduction of gravity, and disbelief.



I could hear Ryan yelling from the sidelines as I shuffled up the blue mat laid over the sharp rocks leading toward transition. Right then, it wasn’t a mat, it was a red carpet. I had done it. It was over.


And I was getting on that bike.

To be cont’d…

"Pardon Me, Do You Have Any…"

Dijon. I knew OF it of course, anyone this side of a ham sandwich does — but I didn’t know what we’d find there, other than a place to stop halfway to Marseille.


What we found was entirely charming. It doesn’t matter how many places I see, it never fails to inspire gawping. I might actually be surprised by how surprising it still is.


Timber frames. Mosaic roofs. Steeples, squares, places to stroll.


It was warm in the sun, entirely pleasant in the shade of buildings along the store-lined streets, and best right next to the fountains in the middle of the Place de la Libération.


We only had an afternoon through the next morning, but it was enough time to explore. Streets without cars are probably the most beautiful amenity you can hope for with a toddler who loves to run, and we went from our hotel at one end (the centrally-located, very reasonable, and recommended City Lofts) through the Place and back, running off the car trip until someone needed a lift.


I should really be punished more for my lack of recon, but instead we stayed between an H&M and the best health food store I’ve been in in Europe. They had ALL the milks, to-go salads, avocado hummus, the works. I stocked up for a picnic dinner there, and Ryan and Frankie found a pizza place down the street.


While Ryan waited, I took Frankie outside and she practiced her “smell don’t touch” on the flowers arranged on the sidewalk outside a florist — and was very sweetly rewarded with a daisy that matched her hair. Yeah, this city is pretty great.


We didn’t have plans to see anything in the morning, we thought we’d gotten a good enough taste, but a quick run around after breakfast is always good car-trip strategy. Again, nothing but dumb luck led us to a row of antique dealers setting up for the day. Frankie picked out four tiny ceramic figurines for a euro as our souvenir treasure.

Down one more street—

"OH RIGHT. ‘Les Halles,’" I said, pointing back at the sign we’d passed. "Means ‘market.’"


Yes, it does. A whole ornate hangar full of food. I’ve mused about how these markets make buying beautiful, whole food a sort of treasure-hunting experience — but I think the difference might be this: There’s how you go shopping for clothes, and how you go to the grocery store. At the grocery store, you move down the aisles, toss stuff in the cart, and check off your list. Here, it’s the same way you’d shop in a department store. You wander, you see what colors catch your eye, you’re drawn to attractive displays…


Like blueberries the size of your thumb.


And stacks of whiskery radishes.


And you wish there was a little more time to stay and try them all.

Just One…

Okay, two from the race. A before and after. I have roughly a billion things to say about yesterday, as probably does the traffic cop who had to make the call to let the 30-foot boat pass in front of a gal who didn’t appear to be running all that fast anyway, but who very clearly started to cry when she had to stop and wait for 20 seconds. I’m sure his day was less fun for a little bit too.

Luckily for all of you, I have a whole day in the car to write, so it will probably be less recap than recapifesto.

Before. Probably seconds before I realized that I didn’t just have to worry about MY swimming wave, I had to worry about the wave of men who started a teeny tiny five minutes behind me. NOT ENOUGH.

And after. The medal should really be around the neck of the amazing people who came with me, Ryan, who put my bike on top of the car and off again conservatively 47 times from home to the start line, and who did everything that was beyond my very-nervous capabilities in the last 72 hours, which was mostly everything — and Frankie, who was a champion yesterday, having to be up before dawn and hang out all morning, she was a trooper, and they rock.

More than you would ever care to know very soon, but I have a full day of complaining loudly about riding in a car.

"I had an epiphany!"

"What’s that?"

"Okay, so in New York, you make finding the rats in the subway a game. Like, if you’re looking for them, they can’t startle you. It’s the same for fish! FISH ARE THE RATS OF THE SEA."

I went in. I put my face in. I did mental gymnastics not to scream. It was even pretty choppy this afternoon, and I did okay. Now. I am still not convinced that I’m making ANY of the course cutoffs tomorrow, but I’m going to give it my best. And I should be getting out of the water in exactly 12 hours.

Sea rats willing.

Here to Fore[cast]…

If I had to articulate what trial and error has shown to reveal as my unique super power, I would have a hard time choosing between:

  • Can operate any foreign plumbing fixture with innate precision.
  • Can turn any length car journey into an ALL DAY affair.


We left Dijon yesterday morning at 10:30. It was a less-than four hour trip in the car. The bike was securely perched on top, after a few minute “OH NO WE LEFT THE COFFEE CUP ON THE ROOF” jaunt around the block.

All was good. Until.

The plan was to get to Marseille in the early afternoon for one of two whole open water practices I was going to get. Alas, the “open water” was the kind unleashed from the sky in giant pellets of ice that had cars stopped on the side of the road, cowering under underpasses, and trying to hide from the assault.

Soo… we got to Marseille at 7:00 p.m., approximately the amount of time it would have taken had I rode the bike, instead of sitting under it.

NOW THEN. Let’s go check out that surf, shall we?

Why I am not now, or have I ever been, a camper.

Food and gear and clothes and more gear and more food — and this is just mine and hers, minus a bike and a stroller. AND we’re sleeping indoors.

Never mind, I can’t do the race, I’m too tired now.

(Gear layout behind the car so I CAN’T forget to repack anything.)
"Um. Do you need help?" 

The guys in front of me in my (attempt at an) unobtrusive corner looked back, seven, eight times before they gave in, and tried to figure out why their people watching was suddenly bikini, bikini, bikini, Jacques Cousteau. 

"It’s new, I have to practice, thank you, I know it’s ridiculous."

Kids literally pointed. I was like the Baby Ruth in Caddy Shack. 

But my 500m time trial was 12:00 — times three, and we might be okay on Sunday. 

Then people can laugh all they want.

"Um. Do you need help?"

The guys in front of me in my (attempt at an) unobtrusive corner looked back, seven, eight times before they gave in, and tried to figure out why their people watching was suddenly bikini, bikini, bikini, Jacques Cousteau.

"It’s new, I have to practice, thank you, I know it’s ridiculous."

Kids literally pointed. I was like the Baby Ruth in Caddy Shack.

But my 500m time trial was 12:00 — times three, and we might be okay on Sunday.

Then people can laugh all they want.

Try Club: Week 25…

If last week was gloom and worry, this week is playing defense. The charge: will I be able to finish the swim in an hour? The argument: (I am clinging to like a life raft), when I very first started training for a multi-sport event, I timed my 200m at almost eight minutes. This is eight minutes doing breast stroke, with my head above water. If I make that time stretch to 1500m, it’s almost an hour. SO. By that quadratic equation, if I swam my untrained worst, I could do it?


I mean, also keep in mind, I was dealing with some very big crimes against aerodynamics back then-


-that I have CLEARLY sorted out in the “looking cool” department.


This is my last-ditch effort — turning myself into a raft. I wasn’t going to suit up. The water is supposed to be warm enough to go without, and it seemed beyond my scope for a first go. Though, if the first go ends if I don’t make the swim? I’m pulling out all the tricks.


And that’s how I found myself at the EXCELLENT Wheel Sports in Weselberg. It’s a magical oasis of technical goodies in the middle of a rural town.


I kind of wanted everything in the store. They were incredibly helpful, and very patient with my undignified contortions, trying the joker on. I ended up with an Orca Sonar, and a big no-no — no new gear on race day.


Well, it won’t be totally new — I AM going to take it out once before we go, and once the day before…and practice my inaugural open swim at the same time. I know. I KNOW. But that’s the element I couldn’t help.


I trained all of the above — and too bad. I’ll have to add inopportune stuff at the end. Cookie, crumbling.


I had a pretty good last full training week, and it’s close enough that I’m planning nutrition and supplements (sodium tabs, Marmite) and checking the weather. I’m SUPPOSED to be done by 11:00, when it’s about 80. So barring disaster…


Though if disaster finds me? I’m sure we’ll find something else to do with out time.

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