Daniel & Jean-Claude Besse

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Ironman Kalmar, new IM PB

Frankfurt’s rebound

Following the disappointment of Ironman Frankfurt, I wrote (https://besse.info/news/658-Ironman-Frankfurt-2019) ‘I’m not sure what comes next. Maybe another attempt later this year, at a colder place. Maybe not. I need a few days to digest.’ I was in France already, for the “Ecole de Physique des Houches” for the full month of July. Trying to process what just happened and how I would recover from it.

I recovered well, muscularly speaking at least. And I let Matthieu tempt me into a cycling race on the following Sunday. 135km with 5 alpine passes. A chilly rainy morning. Skipping breakfast to spend the day in good company (but barely exchange a single word). Maybe I needed that. I enjoyed it at least. Later Philip sent messages asking why I would start a new training bloc, if there was the option to go to the next one in Europe (well after Zürich, whose registration deadline was missed already): Kalmar. You may have never heard about it, but it is one of the flattest, and fastest, Ironman around. Known for its spectators, and cool windy conditions. I like my Ironmans like my dad like its coffee… cold!

So there I was, riding mostly within the Chamonix valley (as running was made harder with the slopes and swimming pretty much impossible without any pool nearby). Confident that biking is what I need to do most anyway. And cumulating 15hrs+ over the two weeks following Frankfurt. Not quite the typical recovery program, but I can afford it, thanks to having stopped early in the marathon. It was still a lot for my body though, and I was not in great shape when coming back to Zürich to watch the Ironman. 4 weeks went by relatively quickly and I was back home, though with a tense muscle on the right leg from some downhill trail running.

The short road to Kalmar

Then started what I called “the short road to Kalmar”. 3 weeks, the first two training, the last one tapering. One long jog at marathon pace over slightly above 32km. Rainy, drenched, no problem whatsoever (felt too easy). A bit of a swim focus for a few days. Mostly to convince myself that I was still able to swim. Two long rides (one from Zürich to Lausanne with 36km/h average, the second from Lausanne to Bern with 4x10min fast). And that’s pretty much it. I am less nervous than before Frankfurt. The weather forecast shows potential rain, but otherwise close to 20°C. All is set to go well (though as people say, anything can happen).

Having organized a flight to Copenhagen, we still wonder for a bit whether we rent a car for the 4hrs drive, or take the slightly faster train. I push for the second option, as more relaxing. Turns out destiny had planned another sort of travel: Swiss somehow booked 2 bikes on the return flight only, and a single one on the way to the race. ‘We have to check if we have enough space’. (I better hope so). I decide to pack my stuff in a big black sports bag, to which Daniel jokes at the airport, it may be a bomb. Then on the train from Denmark to Sweden, he claims to see the CIA agent from Homeland. And when we jump off to change train in Lund we learn that all trains northbound are canceled, as one station burnt down along the tracks. A bit stranded, and stuck on a non-responsive Swedish hotline, a fellow competitor tells us that replacement buses take no bikes with them. The car rental is the only option other than 3hrs taxi.

And thus we get on a coast road trip to Kalmar. 2 days before the Ironman. Music blasting to the Swedish radio hits. When we arrive there our local agent Sarah informs us how our room works, and gives a short briefing on the city surroundings (true James Bond’s style). Happy to have her take some part of the organization. Our room couldn’t be closer to everything (just cross the road to the start line, 200m from finish and 300m from transition).

A city living for its Ironman

City of Kalmar
The day before in Kalmar.

Pretty soon one thing is obvious: Kalmar is all-in for the coming Ironman. It might not be a big town, with a single Italian restaurant in the city center, but they planned huge tribune close to the finish line, music is getting ready, flags hung up along the main street as well as high up on the castle, shops open longer (and from 5am on race day), and plenty of yellow bags running around. We should go to our registration, as it closes in two hours. Skip the queue next to the AWA line (not even in the AWA line, sorry I’m a PRO). Come back and mount the bike. Grab a pizza (‘I can eat a ton of it’).

Not much on the plan for the day before the race. A short bike ride of about an hour to check the setup, and get the legs rolling (and wonder why the pedals stop working, and the Garmin freezes, all things you’d rather have the day before). Seems to have a good road surface, long straight lines and only tiny up/down gradients. The wind is blowing already noticeably, though as I expected Daniel claims it is “nothing to get out of the bars for”.

PRO briefing is done in barely 20min. Bikes checked-in with the bags. Time for a last nap and cooking the pasta for dinner. Tomorrow is the day. While I slept well and was relaxed the day before, the last night I only managed to get a 22h30-2h30 sleep before waking up every twenty minutes to check my watch and wonder if I’ll miss my start.

World-fastest swim

The swim in the Baltic see is an interesting one, and being so close to everything we have plenty of time to walk a bit along the harbor to see the final buoys being installed. As soon as we walk in the ramp the harbor starts to fill with spectators. The water is at a nice 19°C, not as salty as the Mediterranean. We have a few minutes to do some sprints before getting out. I look around (as I pee in my wetsuit), rarely seen such a packed swim start. Frankfurt comes close to give the same “surrounded” feeling. We get to the line with 3min to spare, and Breggren starts actually moving forward. One meter, two, five, Paul says something on the speaker, but there are no line nor kayak, and the motor boat does not dare coming close. Ten meter now, another athlete calls him out as everyone else (me included) joins his level. He decides to swim a little. Seconds later all PROs are 30m beyond the start and the organisers have no other choice but to fire the cannon and declare the games open.

As usual it is all out, going far in the see. I find myself again watching some feet disappear, slightly too fast for me, and hanging onto a next pair. Out and back, with current from the side. There is a bit of action in my group and I decide to not lead this time (I think I could have at some point). We get close to the harbor again. In a little altercation at the buoy I lose my swim cap (which I had placed above the goggles this time around, with another cap below). We are along the walls of the city, and as the currents and competitors push me I almost crash in the concrete a few times. Reaction? Push back a little, and do not worry too much. But it is a nice feeling to almost see feet in your head every time you breathe to the left for 200m. Later along the castle the water is more shallow, and the group extends a little. Less collisions, time to prepare to ride. Total time slightly below 49min (missing 130m on my watch). The first is far away with a world-fastest IM swim (course can make a lot, I know). Daniel gets second out of the water.

As the ramp ends up straight into T1, one needs to be fast to remove the wetsuit. But I did not race short distance and Junior leagues for nothing…

Fast windy bike

Bike reco Kalmar
Bike (course reco the day before).

Onto the bike as first of my group, it doesn’t last super long until the Öland bridge arrives. 40m climb to get to the top, a descent onto see level again, and about 5k in the crosswinds. I’ve seen people nearly crash their bike, and don’t feel confident on the bars there. As soon as we turn South onto the island it is less of a safety concern as the wind is head on. Strong but consistent. Riding 250W I manage, depending on whether a small forest yields some protection or not, between 32 and 37km/h. Not quite the 38+ I envisaged. I should stay head down, well positioned on the bike. And keep pushing. I stand once or twice but it doesn’t really help. I will be able to relax once we turn back … but that's not for another 45km. I feel like most of my group has passed me, and ride alone for a good while. Miles still go by quite fast. Speed does not increase. I start extrapolating to 180km, and clearly that is above 5hrs. Keep believing (and stay within reasonable power outputs)!

At some point the road turns left and we head inwards. A little climb, and a wind ¾ back. It feels weird to have so much sailing effect in the wheels. As usual there are here and there a small family, or a retiree with a frying pan and a wooden stick to cheer you on. Another left turn and we start the northbound fraction of the course. I consciously drop the watts for a while to recover, and yet a quick sight to the Garmin shows 45km/h. A little later a group of 3 catches up with me, and I think “now would be the time to hang on”. Still they are a bit fast. But a 4th is sort of slowly getting dropped by them and riding my pace. You’ll be my guide for the next kilometers. We’re at the 80km mark, and I am riding 240W behind this guy at 47km/h on a flat road. It really was just the wind. Extrapolating now is a whole other story, and 4h50 should be easily doable. I take more time to stretch and get out of the bars now that the apparent wind is very small.

On the second island crossing the wind is more noticeable. Both because the direction is 2/3 front now, but also because the wind is slowly picking up as the day progresses. The second bridge passage is also strong in crosswinds, especially the descent on Kalmar side. I wonder how the disc wheel people are doing it. Two thirds of the course are done by the time we ride again close to transition, and only the inland loop is waiting. After the first 15km that we had seen the day before, the course heads onto slightly smaller roads with more turns (and speedbumps in 30km/h zones, that I jumped on with 46km/h). By km 140 my tempo guy is standing and stretching and I take the lead. We have not always been very equal in efforts, and the distance varied between 10 and 40m, but it’s still 60km that we’re together. The flats are still flat but slightly less (if it makes sense), the straight are slightly shorter before comes a turn. The headwind on the way back, for the last 30km, is just as present as before.

Bike J-1 in Kalmar
On the bike course J-1.

We approach transition, all seems good to rock the marathon. 4h41 on the saddle.

You never know if you never try

As I enter T2 I see the orange dress of Daniel waiting next to the bags. It relaxes me. A bit sad to hear that he has to stop, but happy to see he’s clever enough to not even start running. Your time will come. Now it’s on me. Shoes in, gels packed, sugary drink in hand. Very happy to consciously let the running visor in the bag as the day is cloudy. Let’s go!

Daniel starts to run next to me. He wants to exchange a few words on the way to his white street bag. I am just too happy to run, and only tell him: ‘too fast’ (though I’m giving the pace). 4min/km, or a few seconds below. And I feel good. After the few out-and-backs in town, and heading out north, I start wondering if I am risking it all at that pace. Maybe, but “you never know if you never try”. Lots of people around the course, wind in the back, passing a few PROs that exploded (and the single AG that caught me on the bike). Km 7 is here before I can think about settling in a proper pace. A local triathlon club has installed a 10m long red carpet, balloons over the road, and a huge speaker blasting “ta, ta tada, ta tada tada tada, … I’m an albatroaz!” It’s true what they said, Swedes are encouraging everyone, not just people they know.

Marathon Kalmar
On the marathon.

The euphoria never lasts forever though. And the hard thing is, the return path to the city is against the wind, with more slight up/down underpasses, and with less people. I start feeling my right leg. Maybe starting on a 2h50 pace was indeed too fast. But now it’s too late. Time to hold, and find some salt…

What remains stays on the same track. Probably slowing down as the marathon progresses, though I looked at my watch once only (km 10, 39’27). Increasing pain and tenseness in the right leg, increasing the asymmetry of my running because of it. And causing blister and knee pain on the third lap. I won’t make it to the 8h30 despite my initial fast pace (or maybe because of it). But I’ll get pretty damn close!

Marathonn Kalmar
Keep running.

I am super proud to close in 8h32, with a 2h58 marathon. There wasn’t more in the tank for the last kilometers. 34 to 42 was a fight, despite the last music station claiming the “sun is shining, and so are you”. Sarah is directly with me for a medal and a coke, another volunteer brings me to medical for my blisters, and after a little to eat, a short massage, a bike checkout, a kebab, a look at my whastapps, …, I start to realize at the finish line party what a day it really was. I’ve long claimed 8h30 was a dream, and while I technically haven’t reached it, I convinced myself I can aim higher on a perfect day. But that is a story for another time…

Finish line Kalmar
Finish line with Sarah helping out.



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What it takes to be an ironman pro?

— A look at our bike weakness

Frankfurt and Kalmar DNFs

Jean-Claude already went into the details of our disappointment at IM Frankfurt which was supposed to be our main objective this year. It was a hell of a furnace and I totally agree with him: being a pro is also being able to try and say, “Today was not my day; I will try another one later”.  And while we are not full-time pro triathletes, and deciding to race Kalmar meant more investment than for others (like taking vacations from our 100% job), I am still convinced we took the right decision of not finishing in 9 hours or more on the last day of June.

Race-day on Kalmar
Early morning race-day wake-up in Kalmar.

So, then came logically the question of why Kalmar. The famous spectators? The great swim and run course for supporters? The fast course? No, we wanted one in Europa (less travel), not too hot, and not too late because the form was there already with Frankfurt’s preparation. Left on the list were Kalmar and Barcelona, with an advantage for Kalmar due to being earlier. And so we did our short transition from Germany to Sweden. Well, saying it went without troubles would be lying; Jean-Claude had to go to France for work for one month with complex training possibilities while I did not run at all and spent a few evenings at the physiotherapy for an inflamed Achilles tendon. Alright, Kalmar may be fast, but may also not be anything for me. Health is still the priority over an ironman and it is not THE race of my life that I have to finish at all costs. So yes, DNF is again an option. However, it also means I have more possibilities to try myself out and make a good training out of it. Jean-Claude will detail the race I guess, for me this was just an introduction to my point of today: How pro are we actually?

Race-day on Kalmar
Pre-start selfie in a refreshing atmosphere.

Barely pro by the numbers

If we follow the guideline of the Swiss triathlon federation, anyone in the 10% of the top-level worldwide athletes can ask for a professional license. So yeah, good for us, they only go by competition results, because with a 100% job (PhD in physics at ETH for J-C and microelectronics engineering at ACP for me) and no links to a national team or any structure from the federation, we would be pretty chanceless otherwise. Let’s see: an ironman winner in the 7h45 leaves us an 8h31:30 finish. Tight, very tight but not unachievable. Breaking it down:

  • Swim: 45’-48’ x 1.1 = 49’30-53’ (1’18-1’23 /100m)
  • Bike: 4h05’-4h10’ x 1.1 = 4h29’30-4h35’ (39.3-40 km/h)
  • Run 2h45’-2h50’ x 1.1 = 3h01’30-3h07’ (4’18-4’25 /km)

Compared to my typical time, the swim "cut-off" is quite easy to achieve (48’-50’ with wetsuit, 50-52’ without). The run one is doable if not too tired from the bike (at least on a good day, already did sub-3h in Barcelona, and 3h10’ or less has always been the goal even if not always achieved). But the bike is a whole different story, I started my ironman races considering a 4h50’ as too optimistic, more or less planning for a sub-9h with the 30’ on 8h30’ lost almost entirely on the bike. 40kmh on the bike was what I was looking for on an Olympic event and to hold the same on 4.5 times the distance and then run a marathon was an idea very far from me.

Bike frontal position
Frontal bike video one week before Kalmar.

Since then however, I have got Powertap P1 pedals with power, a Velocomp aeropod to analyze my position on the full event length, and an opportunity in Kalmar to compromise a bit my marathon if it has to happen, because anyway I will have to decide in T2 if I put the shoes on or not. And there it was, just like that, dreaming of 4h30 and making my thoughts on whether it will one day become a thing for me and not only for those extraterrestrial überbikers.

I did it

If there should be a single reason why I am happy I did travel to Sweden this week-end is that now I can confidently say that it is doable. After a freaking fast swim in 45’ and leading the first pack in the water, I did a 39.4km/h bike in 4h32’ on a flat and windy course. Sure, the conditions were there to perform great and it might not be the same on any course I will take part, but I did pace my race alone and was well into 40km/h average up to 140km and still very close to it when we include the last part with front wind and a lot of turns on smaller roads. Also, this time no one (me included) can put my performance on the group effect or on drafting. I was basically leading the first pack during more than half of the swim (with one athlete more than a minute ahead, the one who made the times so fast by forcing everyone to take a scandalous head-start on the start line by taking advantage of the fact that there was no line, no kayak, or no one saying anything when he started swimming before the gun). Then the bike resumed to me being passed by a lot of people too fast for me up to kilometer 30-40, sometimes trying to keep up with them but giving up when I saw my power numbers going up to 320W. Riding with another guy and a referee from 37 to 50 and then dropping him and finishing my ride all alone. Yeah, no drafting, barely any pacing from someone and a well-regulated pro race if everyone experienced the same (a big if).

What did I do?

Position

Most of my thinking goes then to what changed or what I did differently such that it was made possible. I think personally that we have to go back a little and explain part of this in comparison to previous years and not directly trying to isolate this race. One thing we changed with Jean-Claude is position on the TT bike; once or twice in bigger steps (such as when we changed bike), a lot more times in ever-so-slight steps that the difference is almost imperceptible and the impact more-so unsure with all the sayings and contraries one can read on aerodynamics. The end result is nevertheless undeniably present and no one can deny that our position noticeably improved on the long term. My elbows got a lot narrower and lower than at the beginning and allowed me to have a tucked position with the head completely or almost completely hidden in the aero-shade of the back. I often have to think about it to hold the position but when I do it is quite nice.

Bike position pictures (pictures from Kalmar are finisherpix previews).

Confidence

I was almost going to merge this point with the precedent about position, but somehow this is sometimes the (hardly-learned) difference between a nice position on a roller or in wind-tunnel and an aero position on an ironman. Öland, the island in front of Kalmar where the first 120k loop takes place, was windy Saturday; at least for our Swiss standards with Jean-Claude. A few years ago, I would have probably left the aerobars for the safer feeling in the drop-out position relatively often. This time, I just pushed more watts in the two main crosswind sections of around km 50 and 90, partly because I feel more in control when I can push on the pedals and partly because I knew tailwind sections would follow and allow me to relax a little. The point of a good position is to ride it. In Klamar, the only time I didn’t felt like riding it safely was for the very short descent of the bridge on the way back around km 115. Ideally, I would have had a bigger gear for this portion to be able to push and mentally feel safer; once in 180km is not a big deal though. À propos material, Kalmar is the typical course where I would have had a bigger chain ring and dropped the small one and the front derailleur if I had to optimize everything…

Power

It seems up to now that I am putting everything on position and course, but in the end I still pushed some watts and it does come down to this. 273W normalized and 268W average to name it, not nothing in my opinion. And for once (maybe because of my mentality of not worrying about the marathon too much), I did not fear to push more on some portions and modulate them depending on tail-, cross-, or headwinds. If you ask me now, I have the impression that I almost went out too fast at the beginning and allowed myself too many portions over my wattage and speed goals. Some effort modulation is good when there is wind, climbs, or other course particularities, but it can cost you something in the end if exaggerated.

Room for improvement

Power, power, power. It is improving for us but surely not to the professional level. Boris Stein (who took the win and passed me on the bike) has reportedly said before the race that he planned to push around 350W to catch up on the faster swimmers and then go on with 320W. If the time difference is huge on the bike, the difference in power numbers is as well. This means just one thing, training; more and better.

There is another pattern however that came up both in Frankfurt and Kalmar: I get tired after 4 hours of riding. With me being more used to do long rides with the TT in training, the fatigue towards the end of the bike portion doesn’t show up all too much in the time, but it is a very clear felling for me that translates into me getting bored of the aggressive aero position and have more and more the tendency to get out of the aerobars on every small climb or curve to stretch and change the stress on the legs muscles. I am not yet 100% sure what it is exactly, I suspect simply muscle fatigue and boredom of the regular effort without changes in the position; some may come from energy levels and nutrition as well though. If I don’t have a straight solution for this, the end effect is very clear in that I spend too much effort in the end of the ride to keep up the pace at a critical time just before the marathon. Until now, this turned out better than it seems as the massive change in muscles being used from biking to running made for a better-than-expected feeling at the beginning of the marathon. I would still consider this a problem that would be nice to fix. This pattern was up to now purely based on feeling, but it is also clearly recognizable on the wasted watts plot by the aeropod.

Velocomp Isaac wasted watts
Wasted watts export from Velocomp's Isaac software for the bike in Frankfurt. I get more and more tired and out of aerobars with the duration of the ride.

What now?

One of the reasons of this post is to vent about not being able to race Kalmar and answer all the people who congratulated me and told me not to be upset about not finishing. While I find it very nice and thoughtful, I must say I did not find it too hard on myself to give up in T2. I took the decision fully conscious that it would probably mean that I am not going to finish an ironman this year, but prioritizing the recovery of my Achilles tendon made much more sense at the moment, just like not forcing an overheat on my poor body made perfect sense in Frankfurt. I love racing ironman (I wouldn’t for the money as I am a pro spending to race), but ironman is not everything and none of those two was a race I had to finish so bad that I would put the result over my health. So first and foremost, get healthy and running pain free again.

Nevertheless, running 1.6km with Jean-Claude after a 10 minutes break in T2 felt nice and I even felt like I could talk although the pace he set at the start of his marathon was way too fast in my opinion (targeting 2h50’ or below). Therefore I believe that this tiredness at the end of the bike is still somewhat linked to the bike position and, if I can solve it, running a 3 hours marathon after biking a 4h35’ or the like is possible. It is easy to say it like that without having done it, but this is my key outcome from Kalmar and I am very happy to have done the travel there to have confirmed this. Very happy, I am of course for Jean-Claude as well, who seriously put into danger my record time from Barcelona and got oh-so close to 8h30’, which he always told me was a long term goal but probably not achievable that soon for him. Every couple of minutes now is a matter of details, and we still have a lot of those to tune in perfectly. Somehow it also means taking more risks as we are clearly racing to the fastest time our condition allows rather than racing to finish. If that’s what it takes to race pro, I will continue like that (well, without injuries…) because I like feeling like a pro and shooting for the best.

Links to activities

And because there is nothing better than checking by yourself instead of trusting someone relating his impressions, here my data for both races in Frankfurt and Kalmar. Any comments or analysis welcome!



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Strava: Flat, cool, should be fast (wind dependent)

Flat, cool, should be fast (wind dependent)

Vélo sur Strava par Jean-Claude: https://www.strava.com/activities/2623321430

26km - 50' - 86m D+

Hallå där

Vélo sur Strava par Daniel: https://www.strava.com/activities/2623322957

29.8km - 56' - 111m D+



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Strava: No more pasta (yesterday's 👌)

No more pasta (yesterday's 👌)

Vélo sur Strava par Daniel: https://www.strava.com/activities/2609653658

72.2km - 2h14' - 565m D+

New tires, last checks

Vélo sur Strava par Jean-Claude: https://www.strava.com/activities/2609645678

72.4km - 2h14' - 526m D+



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