A few years ago, I was out with some friends and ran into Tom Lacy. I never knew him well, but he was memorable in a Gatsby sort of way. He was just back from Monaco. You have to go to M-o-n-a-c-o, he tells me in what I think is the most pretentious tone I have ever heard. I don’t know what it was about him or that moment, but the suggestion lodged in my brain.
I try not to freak out about the additional $300 airline bike box charge and decide to treat this trip like the marathon portion in an Ironman race and suspend all judgment for the first eight miles.
The half-Ironman at Monaco is sort of a warm-up for Ironman France next year. Monaco is close to the Nice course and features similar terrain: a hilly bike and a swim in the amazingly blue Cote d’Azur, which I have foolishly thought of as the Mediterranean all my life.
It’s Malibu meets Vegas in Europe with Formula 1 and yachts, and I spend the first two days doing the normal things a triathlete from California does in Europe: I try to go to the bathroom in the morning and try to sleep at night. Both are hard. Restaurants in Monaco don’t open until 7:30 p.m., and I’m always starving before that. I learn why Café de Paris, a 24-hour restaurant in Monte Carlo, is an institution and eat the majority of my meals there as it is good and convenient with all the fare that is a staple for an American: salad nicoise, cappuccino, and pasta.
The Monaco event is put on by a group called Triangle. They own six races and say that only Ironman North American has more races. I have already decided that the race directors from Ironman Malaysia could use an internship with Triangle. Triangle is perfectly organized; they eliminated the race meeting and just give all the information on the Website.
At the expo, the area where you can buy race gear and presents for people back at home, I pick up a map of the bike course. It looks like the kind of map you get when you go skiing at Jackson Hole, detailing the route with pictures of snowcapped mountains and indicating climbs. There are three climbs here, plus a grand finale of a half-climb. The descents are a combination of zigzag skinny yellow and red lines with caution and exclamation points around them. After my fiasco at Malaysia, I will not take another chance on a bike course, so I pay almost as much as it cost to get my bike over here to see it before I ride it.
The driver is a sweet man, an Italian, wearing an ironed, button-down shirt and slacks with dress shoes and cologne. The cab is a Mercedes, and it feels like I have a private driver instead of a smelly, frenetic cab ride. He knows the route well and shows me where I need to be careful.
It is 4:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, but I am able to keep my eyes open because the roads are harrowing, and they jar me awake at each turn. I count twelve hairpins on the descent from La Turbie. On the way up the climb to the Col de Nice, we come upon a freshly overturned vehicle. A woman lies on the road, and two others huddle around her. It’s not gruesome or anything, but there is a smell of oil and gas, metal on pavement. Sirens come up behind us. We keep driving, but I decide I’ll tighten everything on my bike since there will be no mechanic and I don’t want to die.
There’s a pre race and post race dinner, with convenient transportation to both, unlike Ironman Lanzarote where I had to find my own rides. In Monaco, there is even espresso at the dinners. I don’t have any—I’m having enough trouble adjusting to a normal schedule—but it’s elegant that they have it. Although to them it’s just standard.
The transition zone, the areas between the various parts of the course—the swim, bike, and run—doesn’t look like the traditional yard sale which starts with everybody’s personal items lined up, and then, later, after the swim when everybody shucks their wetsuits, turns into a small Midwestern town after a twister. Here, gear bags have been provided, and they are neatly labeled. One even reads “street wear” for clothes you might wear to the race in the morning. There are changing tents like at a full Ironman, and since we’re checking in all of our stuff the day before, there will be less to do tomorrow. We can just show up and race. It’s the triathlon version of a visit to the Louvre, with a path leading through a single row of bikes to a line of Porta Potties marked for women and men. The music is a relaxing Euro-blend.
I brought my passport since security is tough—some bikes were ripped off last year, including that of the world champion. They suspect a ring of some sort—these bikes cost several thousand dollars each—and they will put a stop to it by taking a picture of every racer with their bike. This slows things down quite a bit; even your bike needs a wristband and race number.
I notice the simplicity of the European racers’ bike preparations. One racer, a tan, tall, boy, has what looks like a travel-size shaving cream taped to his seat post. I point and ask, what is this? It’s the air and glue, he says in case, he gestures toward the tire, a flat. We don’t speak the same language, but I need to research its contents and application and make it part of my race repertoire.
The weather, which has been better than beautiful the whole week, takes a turn on race morning with a downpour. The person who covered his bike in plastic must feel brilliant.
Moments before the mass swim start, it clears, and we kick and paddle straight into the sun. Remarkably, there is no glare–just an orange sunrise. This is how I always imagined a triathlon would be; I’m so happy. I’d seen two jellyfish on a practice swim, but it isn’t on my mind while I’m surrounded by one thousand other predators at the first buoy. After that first turn it spreads out a little, but I decide to stay behind somebody whose feet I’ve run into three times. The sea has some rollers, and we’re swimming between two cruise ships. I remain calm and resist the urge to pull some kind of stunt that might result in me having to swim alone. There’s a chance of seasickness, and I sight off rock formations and the Fairmont Hotel trying to get my sea legs while swimming to that elusive burrito-shaped second buoy marked with the PowerBar logo. Twenty-four minutes in and I still have a good portion to go, so my dreams of an incredibly fast swim time are dashed. It’s my worst half-Ironman swim time ever, and even though I’m well within the cutoff, it has taken fifty minutes. It was my best swim experience though, and I’m not sure what to make of the inverse relationship.
Next is the bike, where we climb our way out of town. This is the exact start point of the Tour de France next year. I know from watching Tour de France on television that the morning’s rain has stirred up all the Formula One race oil, and roads will be slick so I have to be even more careful on these descents.
The cutoff to finish the bike course is 12:30 and I can see why—you could easily spend the whole day out here, and riding in darkness would be suicide.
They allow for about five hours for this section, and I ride at a pace I call moderate, conservative even. I am competent and efficient in my climbing and later pass some guys who crack. I don’t think guys on Cervelo P3s like being passed by a girl in any situation, especially on a hill, but I have a compact crank, which makes it makes it really easy to spin up a hill.
Thin, winding roads reveal private bridges leading to blue-shuttered hillside hideaways, stone buildings shrouded with overgrown vines. There’s a church on my left in a valley. Bells are ringing since it’s Sunday morning, or is that my spoke? It’s a harp sound and then a pitter-patter-clickity-clack like horses pulling a carriage. The church is behind me now but the sound isn’t. My wheels did seem a little stuck together when I removed them from the bike case; maybe something is wrong. I tightened everything, but maybe there’s some damage to my equipment from the airline.
Despite mechanical anxiety, the race gives me permission to ride through the intimacy of the French countryside, past a café with a handwritten menu board: lunch for 15 euros. I don’t stop for lunch, but I do grab a Coke from the aid station.
The course is decorated with kilometer markers and cones and lots of people helping along the way, but it is also littered with fallen racers. Theoretically, the fast racers are way ahead of me, but here they are with their expensive bikes. It’s as if they bought these fast bikes and then didn’t take the time to learn how to ride them. I go around them and arrive back in town, unscathed, through a stone tunnel with an etched arch.
The run takes place on Avenue Princess Grace and is a loop that goes from a four-star hotel to a five-star hotel. According to the race literature, you’re to run each loop “approximately” four times, so something’s lost in translation as I realize I will have to run up this steep, hard hill a fifth time to make the thirteen-plus miles. It’s hot, and I try to focus on the aid station with mounds of shaved ice ahead.
This is a pretty hard half-Ironman; I’ve done the others they say are the hardest—the courses at St. Croix, Wildflower, the new course at the Honu, half in Hawaii —and nothing compares to this bike course; plus the run up to the casino wasn’t easy. This is a different animal. You almost have to be a pro-American, or maybe living in Europe to be here, and I am proud of myself for getting this far.
Half Ironmans are usually over by the time it starts to hurt, but I’ve been hurting for a while, and there’s still more race to go. I’m on the part of the course that runs along the yacht harbor, and I try to focus on the breeze. I keep passing a boat called “Amnesia,” from Georgetown, Grand Cayman, a commuter between tax havens.
Part of me hates the race when I’m not running in the shade, but part of me is enjoying it like I don’t want it to end. I finish about an hour later than I hoped, the salt stains on my clothing my only testimony to the sea outside and the sea in me I’ve sweated out. I have arrived, not only at the finish line, but in the sport and in myself.