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Challenge France « James Cunnama’s Blog

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Challenge France

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This past weekend was Challenge France, the first time I have raced a Challenge event, or an event in France for that matter… By all accounts it was a great event, and I look forward to doing many more Challenges!

Rebekah and I travelled to the race only the day before, wanting to fit in our full weeks work before heading up to end the weeks training with a race. The race site was a little over 4hrs drive away in a small town called Nederbronn les Bains near the France-Germany border.
We arrived and realized the swim start and 1st transition were about 25km from the village and expo and spent a hectic afternoon running around trying to get everything organised and check in our bikes. We eventually got to our chalet and met Lucie late that evening and were thankful the race only started at 11am the next morning – the French like to sleep in on Sundays apparently.

We awoke race morning to miserable weather. It was pouring with rain and the car’s thermometer said the temp was only 13C. Brrrrr! After a relaxed morning, compared to most early race mornings, we drove to the race start and organised our stuff in transition. The rain was coming and going, but was never far away and there was no doubt that it was going to be a wet day.

I opted not to check the water temperature with a ‘warm-up’ swim, knowing that it would leave me anything but warm, and rather stayed dry until the last moment. Unfortunately it was a water start, which meant bobbing in cold (14-15C) water for a while anyway. Luckily they didn’t hold us too long and the race was underway…

I got into my rhythm quickly and the cold didn’t seem to bother me much. I found some feet pretty quickly and the arms felt good so I knew it would be a decent swim. I had someones feet to swim on until about halfway when they were pulled away by a passing swimmer who was too strong for me.
Out of the water I was about 2mins behind the leaders was happy with what was a very good swim by my current standards (which are being raised every day here!).

Onto the bike and cold was going to be an issue. I chose to wear my long compression tights under my suit in order to keep my legs warm, as they don’t perform well when cold, and don’t warm up once cold! It was a good decision as my legs warmed up quickly after the cold swim and I got into a strong and comfortable tempo. The roads were wet and caution was necessary on the twisty route through forests and small towns, (as the Challenge CEO found out when his motorbike lift crashed – get well soon, Felix!).
I was riding well and feeling strong, but was not risking a fall and my whole season with it. I caught a few athletes early on and then from about 15km to after 60km I didn’t see a soul. There were times when I worried that I had lost the route! At 60km I caught three guys and some tactics were called for: Do I just keep my pace and effort level and cruise past them, risking pulling them through behind me, or sit 20m’s off the back for the final 30km and let them pace me while I conserve my run legs…?
I opted for the middle ground. Once I was near them I could tell that their pace was slower than mine (obviously – I had caught them) so I eased up and decided to take a little breather. I felt great, but took it easy and ate and drank and gave myself until the 70km mark to judge how my legs were before I was allowed to go past them. When the 70km mark came a few km’s later I was still feeling good and powered up the legs again. I passed them decisively, not wanting them to sit on my wheel, and a few minutes later I glanced back and they were out of sight. I gained another position in the final kilometers, but at this point I had no idea where I was lying or how far back – French updates from spectators were Greek to me!

I started the run in 7th place I think, although I didn’t know this until I was halfway through the run when a familiar South African accent gave me my position and split to the next athlete – thanks Natalie Tissink! I was running strong and feeling great so just kept pushing the pace. The run route was 2 laps and mostly off-road. It climbed up into the forests for the first half, and then descended for most of the 2nd half. It was my kind of run course and I loved every minute of it, despite the thick mud in places and sucking for air up the steep hills.

With about 3km to go I passed 4th place and finished in that position with a run time of about 1h15. Chris McCormack had won in 3h50, with Olivier Marceau 2nd and Raynard Tissink 3rd, 3mins ahead of me. Having forgotten to start my watch in the frigid water I didn’t know it until hours later, but I had broken 4 hours by a few seconds, a half-IM PB by almost 15mins!

Post-race was as hectic as pre-race as I was whisked off for drug-testing, where they asked for ID… Seriously?! I don’t usually race with my passport in my pocket! I gave the sample then hurried off to get my passport from our accommodation.
Starting the race late is great in the morning, but leaves little time after the race. By the time they presented the awards at 7pm I still hadn’t sat down, or even got my bike out of transition! We had orders from the boss to get home that night though, so it was another couple of hours of packing – three bikes, a bike case and all of the girls luggage (they don’t pack light!) doesn’t just slide into a car – and then we hit the road at about 9pm. At least I was sitting down at last…

Congrats to Rebekah, winning the women’s race, and Lucie for her 4th place. Next weekend I will probably be heading north again for another Challenge race, this time in Germany…

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