I tried my best not to freak out about the $300 bike box charge on Delta out of LAX telling myself, you want to play with the high rollers than you are going to get charged a lot so you better get used to it. I was told this is part of the airlines “restructuring” and that since my ticket was issued after July 31 that I was susceptible to this double charge. I remember a day when there was no charge for international travel with a bike. Anyway, as a simple massage therapist and triathlete, I was humbled by the experience. But I was also grateful to have a bike and a box in which to put it. My deep passion for racing and traveling would conquer any adversity met along the way. After all, this was all part of the experience. And I never met a finish line I didn’t like.
A feudal anomaly or “tax haven,” Monaco is the home to people like Princess Grace and the Grimaldi family who has controlled the state since 1297. For those of you who have raced Ironman France in Nice or who have traveled to the South of France, you will know that this race venue rivals our own Malibu triathlon in its glamour and beauty. I call it Malibu meets Vegas in Europe with Formula 1 and yachts mixed in. The most disturbing thing I saw the whole time I was there was a dirty Bentley, but there had been rain that morning. Monaco is perched on the side of a steep piece of land between France and Italy. Adjacent to Eze, the most romantic town that ever existed, they aren’t kidding when they say Cote d’Azur. While the Mediterranean’s water quality may be an issue (drink Evian or Perrier) the water color is the blue that comes from lots of sun and rocks: clear light blue with a swell that suits the yachts of the richer than rich and triathletes who are faster than fast like Chris McCormack. There are tourists from cruise ships and casinos but no junky shops or riffraff as you have to be Von Cleef or Chopard to afford the rent. So I was in good company.
I spent the first two days doing the normal things triathletes from California do when they travel to Europe for a race: try to go to the bathroom in the morning and try to sleep at night. All restaurants in Monaco open at 7:30 PM so of course, I was always starving at 5:00 PM. I learned first hand why Café de Paris, a 24-hour a day restaurant in Monte Carlo, is an institution. It is always good for a salad nicoise, a cappuccino, or pasta. If you are a foodie, there’s a lot on the scene including Louise XV and Metropole’s Robachon.
But back to the “Formula 1” of racing. This event is put on by the Triangle group and they are good. (Race directors from IM Malaysia could use an internship with them.) They own six races and in their own words only IM North America has more races. There were cones marking the course and barricades as well as signs and stickers on the ground. There were a lot of helpers on the course. The website is updated often,--they are so organized, have virtually eliminated the race meeting, but they still host pre-and post-race dinners providing convenient transportation to both. There was espresso but no mechanic.
The transition zone was the triathlon version of the Louvre with a single path leading through single rows of bikes. You needed your passport to get in and out of there since some bikes were ripped off in a past year. They took a picture of every racer with their bike and your bike got a wristband, too. It did not look like typical ”yardsale” because transition bags were provided and you dropped everything off the day before. The port-o-potties were in transition, were gender-specific, and there were no lines! The music was relaxing “euro-blend.”
At the expo, I picked up a fold-up map of the bike course. It looked like the kind of map you get at Jackson Hole when you go skiing. It detailed a route with pictures of snowcapped mountains signifying climbs of which there were three but then a grand finale of a half climb. The descents were a combination of zigzag skinny yellow and red lines with caution signs with exclamation signs around them. I did not want to drive so I paid a lot of money to take a cab. The driver was nice and he knew all the roads. Had the course not been so harrowing, I would have never been able to keep my eyes open not because it was scary, but because I think it was like 4:00 AM California time so I felt like I had been up all night. I counted twelve hairpins on the decent from Turbie and that was before the Col de Nice. (Note to self: tighten everything on your bike when you get back to the room.)
There was something about a bike cut off at 12:30 PM. I could see why. This gave you about 5 hours to do the bike. Sadly there were several first timers who I never saw on the run because they didn’t make it. They were many others who didn’t make it due to crashes and even though the “fast” people were gone by the time I hit the curves, there were a lot of crashes that day. It was an obstacle course. People don’t buy a fast bike and forget to learn how to ride it! Also, you don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to know that roads are slippery when wet: it had rained that morning. I am convinced that you have to be born in Europe to ride the bike in 2:37 as the bike relay winner did. It also helped that he was a pilot--good at judging distances on the way down (sat with him at the awards dinner).
I rode a pace which I call moderate, conservative even, but competent and efficient. I experienced deep pleasure when I passed some guys who had cracked. I don’t think guys on P3s like being passed by a girl in any situation especially on a hill but that’s what a compact crank gets you. Thin and windy roads travel past country hideaways--stone buildings with blue shutters on the hillside with overgrown vines with bridges leading to their wooden doors. I rode past a church in a valley whose bells were ringing since the race was on Sunday morning--or was that my spoke? It was a harp sound and then a pitter patter like horses pulling a carriage. My wheels did seems a little “crushed” or at least stuck together when I removed them from the bike case. Despite mechanical anxiety, I was able to appreciate that course, the café with the handwritten menu board with lunch for 15 Euros, the cheapest lunch I’d seen, in a town that had a private feel. I felt privileged to ride through it. I know I say this in every race report, but if I ever fall in love, I would go here.
But enough about my personal life and the bike course, triathlon is swim, bike and run. So the swim was hilly and as I said it had rained that morning. The weather was better than beautiful the whole week so of course there has to be a downpour on race morning. The one person who covered his bike in transition must have felt brilliant. Anyway, it cleared and we left as a mass start at 7:00 AM swimming right into the sun. There was no glare just an orange sunrise which is how you always think triathlon is supposed to be. Yeah, I had seen two jellyfish on a practice swim, but this was not on my mind as I was surrounded by 1000 other predators of the first buoy. After this it spread out a bit and I stayed behind somebody who I ran into at least three times but I was afraid to pull a stunt and end up alone out there as now we were in the high seas swimming between two cruise ships. I looked at my watch 24:00. “Wow, this is going pretty slow, oh well.” Right about now I decided no more buoys just land mass sighting like Christopher Columbus must have done. There was a risk of getting sick I realized as I cruised a light blue hill on the way to that elusive second burrito-shaped Powerbar buoy trying to get my “sea legs” while swimming and focusing on the rock formations of upper Monaco and the Fairmont Hotel whenever I took a breath. So this was my worst half IM swim time ever, but what the hell, it was my best swim experience. When the idea of doing a triathlon was just a swim cap in my hand as I stared at a roped off section of sea in the Dominican Republic a few years ago on a vacation, this is what I thought it would be like. So thank you Mediterranean for keeping it real.
Since I have already described the bike course I will just add to points: the map was for once accurate and they served Infinit which I had already practiced on. Also, of course, they have Coke on the bike in Europe which I love. (Note: fast people probably running now.)
The famed run on Avenue Princess Grace (!!!) is a loop that alternates between a 4-star hotel and a 5-star hotel. It travels along the yacht harbor where all I can remember is a boat called “Amnesia,” from Georgetown, Grand Cayman. Obviously a commuter between tax havens. I thought the run was 4 loops but they used the word, “approximately” so I wondered if this meant you had to run up that hill one more time as my splits seemed way too fast. Good problem to have. Of course you had to do the hill 5 times not 4 so I ran it every time getting progressively slower which was sad but I still tried hard. (It wasn’t worse than the one that leads to Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica coming up from channel which thankfully I had practiced on.) If it was hot during the run, there was always an aid station ahead with mounds of shaved ice, or a breeze under some shady zone, or a wrist band to be gotten. So always something positive to focus on.
I never met a finish line I didn’t like and even though I came in an hour later than Cherie (my coach) and I had hoped for I finished strong. Best part was the Erlinger “Alkohol Frei” I had previously heard so much about from Markus, the young German pro I had hosted a few years back, a beer with B vitamins for recovery. They also had little “gummy” pellets and an electrolyte tab. I think the races in Europe are harder but all that much sweeter or maybe it was the Nutella.
Overall I enjoyed being an American getting away with speaking only English since everyone else speaks their language plus English. When I said I did Lanzarote earlier this year this got me some respect. I saw Guenther, the Austrian living in Germany, one of the boys who helped looked after me in South Africa in 2006. I never forgot the episode in the car when we were driving the bike course in Port Elizabeth when Markus and Guenther were speaking German and Guenther defended me by saying, “Speak English!” There’s an American in the car!” Girlfriend in tow this time, he still invited me to St. Tropez for a few days after the race…aaah the Europeans, they really know how to live! But this American, I think she did alright: there was no charge for the bike on the way home. I will go back to Nice for the Ironman in 2009.