Among a lot of great triathlons world wide, Ironman France in Nice still is outstanding for its flair and beauty. About 2.800 athletes compete waves, hills, blazing heat and above all: Themselves.
Start in the Day: The Swim Lag
It is still dark when I approach the Ironman area right on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. But most of the athletes are already there and busy: Pumping up bike tires, attach bottles and nutrition, getting into the wetsuit and warm themselves up. Then, a few minutes before the start, the music is the only sound next to the rushing of the sea. Most athletes stopped chatting and look out on the water to wait for what is coming up: One of the longest days of their lives.
The Pro's start takes place at 6:25 in the morning – 5 minutes prior to the age groupers. This year the sea is unusual wavy, heavy clouds keep the sun away. A small group including last year's winner Frederik van Lierde from Belgium breaks away early and follows the leading canoe.
Mary Beth Ellis from the United States leads the women's race after 17 minutes. The leading group of the men's race is already on their way back to Nice for going on a second swim round at this time.
Hit the road
Out of the wetsuit and into transition 1: For the athletes time to get rid of the salty taste of the sea, relax arms and shoulders and better put some sunscreen on. Then: Hit the road. I get on the motorbike, still somewhat wobbly on the feet after an hour on the boat, and my driver starts following the race.
After an hour also the first age groupers finished their 3,8 km swim and went on the bike course with 180 km with 1.850 meters of climbing ahead of them.
Temperatures are still moderate. The athletes pass the legendary Hotel Negresco for the first time – at this point most of them probably can still enjoy the view.
We left Nice's city borders and approach the first hills after following the river Val. Aid station number 1 is right before the first climb, time to switch bottles.
Vence, Tourette sur Loup, Chateauneuf de Grasse, Caussols, Coursegoules, Bouyon… The Maritime Alps around Nice not just offer winding roads and spectacular scenery, but also some fascinating old villages.
After gaining some altitude the road eventually gets narrow and winding. And then they appear: The famous mountain villages of Nice's hinterland. But no time for a cup of coffee in one of the cafés.
Reaching the top
The athletes' reward for a lot of suffering uphill, always on the edge of not burning too much, is the moment you finally reach the top and know: From now on, it is all downwards. But until this very moment: Fight. Smiles are rare at this point of the race.
A tragic accident on the road stopped my motorcyclist and me after 40 km on the bike course. To keep up with the race we unfortunately had to cut the most beautiful part of the track.
Back to Nice
Time to smile: Most of the ascents are done for the faster athletes at this time of the race. All the meters climbed so far now give them the extra speed for racing back to Nice.
Back to Nice, passing Hotel Negresco for the second, but not last time today and heading down the Promenades des Anglais for transition 2.
After hours in the saddle, for some body parts it is a relief to get off the bike. Unfortunately, that lasts just for a few minutes in the transition zone. After the athletes got rid of their bike, switched shoes and put on another layer of sunscreen, it's time to run. A long, long run from the Jardins Albert 1er all the way along the beach to the airport. And back. Four times.
To make it an Ironman it needs not only 3,8 km of swimming and 180 km on the bike. There is still a marathon to be done. 42,2 km along the beach with the sun finally out and flimmering heat. Better cool yourself and take a sip.
Two times winner Frederik van Lierde is working hard to make the hat trick: He still leading the men's race while passing the aid station in front of the Negresco again. Meanwhile second placed Jeanne Collonge from France tries to keep up with Mary Beth Ellis.
An arch with a huge orange Ironman-M on top, a merciless counting clock and for the first arrivals even girls holding a ribbon: 2.382 athletes finally reached the finish line this year. Some still running, some walking. Some celebrating, some breathing hard. But all winners.
08:08:59 / 09:12:54
All eyes on the winners: Frederik van Lierde and Mary Beth Ellis both set course records with winning nearly 4 and 8 minutes ahead of the second placed Bart Aernouts and Jeanne Collogne. Van Lierde won the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii later this year.
For most athletes an Ironman is not a race against the clock or the competitors. It is a race against themselves. Finishing an Ironman within the deadline of 16 hours is one of the greatest things most amateur athletes will ever achieve.
Some celebrate with friends and family on the last meters, some just smile and some don't realize yet, what they just finished: An Ironman. But in case: Their body will remind them the next day.