“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.
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.
“WHERE AM I GOING? WHERE AM I GOING!!?”
A nice lady who was just watching pointed at the turn I’d missed.
“WHERE ARE THE HELPERS????!!!”
“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.
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.”
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.