Challenge Vichy

When we came out to France a week early and it was already hot – in the high 20’s and it just got hotter as the week wore on. I was in the Dordogne for the first couple of days and drove to Vichy on the Thursday evening where the local papers were full of warnings to check on the old and vulnerable as they were very much at risk (along with the foolhardy triathletes!)

All the British entries were numbered consecutively so I met and chatted to a couple of other guys about the following day – the weather dominating the discussions. I had ridden the bike to transition but the chain had come off of the ways so I had spent some time trying to get the front derailleur changes smooth but couldn’t get them quite as I wanted so I took it to the “bike doctor” who adjusted it for me. Better safe than sorry.

As the morning of the race dawned it was already 24°C by 5.15am which apparently has risen to 32°C by 8am! After packing my nutrition, clothing and a few other bits and pieces we headed to the race start.

Packing – the wetsuit unnecessary as it turned out

I spent some time in transition sorting the bike and nutrition. My shoes were already attached to the bike and I added 5 flapjacks and filled the speedfil to add to the sunglasses, helmet gels and race belt. The only things I had in the T1 bag was sun lotion and socks.

I reattached my spares bag and gas canister that I had had to use the previous day adjusting the derailleur and I was pretty much ready. Via a visit to the lavatory I headed to the water’s edge to get the wetsuit on and get ready for the off.

The Swim

As I walked down to the lakeside and over the threshold of the edge and was frighteningly confronted by loads of Frenchmen in Speedos I began to get the idea that the day was not starting out as planned. After a few words with some fellow competitors I discovered that it was indeed a non wetsuit swim.

All the announcements over the speakers had been in French and no other languages. It is of course a French race in France but something as important as that in a race with many nationalities involved announcements in a few languages would have been appreciated.

Look! No wetsuit!

More confusion followed at the swim start as we were sent into the water to swim to the start line. As a few of us got to the pontoon in the middle there were more announcements over the speakers and most started to swim back to the edge. I was chatting to another (non French speaking) European trying to work out what on earth was going on.

We joined all the others swimming back to find out there was a delay to the start only to be sent straight back out as soon as we had reached the shore. Not a great start.

I knew that a non wetsuit swim would add a decent amount to my time especially having unnecessarily swum a fair distance before the start, and it did! The swim itself was relatively calm with very little biff but just took a long time. They had announced the water temperature at 26.2°C although it may well have been higher in places as I’ve swum in colder heated pools than that! I exited the water in about 1:25. Disappointing but not unexpected.

Swim time: 1:25:16 (231/412)

The Bike

I only had socks in my T1 bag with the rest of my gear ready on the bike and was out pretty quickly which was where the problems began. I had the shoes on the bike and as I went to slip them onto my feet the elastic bands snapped. I looked down to try to spin the shoes round with my foot, must have changed direction slightly, clipped the kerb and came off in the gravel verge. An embarrassing schoolboy error!

I took me a minute or two to get back on with the help of a couple of spectators and was on my way with blood running down my leg and shoulder. Only 179.5k to go on the bike!

Throughout the race it seemed that things were conspiring against me. The bar tape on my tri bars decided that this was the moment to come undone and gradually unwound throughout the bike.

Heading out…..

The professionally adjusted bike dropped the chain off the small ring 3 times during the first 90k loop meaning 3 stops to put the chain back on. Despite all this I came in on my target of a three hour first 90k with a 30.1kph average speed and 136 heart rate. It was however beginning to feel substantially hotter. Despite the weather the first bike loop had gone pretty much to plan. I had ridden strongly up the hills but within a sensible heart rate – my max was 148. I had not pushed too hard on the downhills, taking on nutrition and liquid as planned.

The bike route on paper looked quick. The first 20k were basically up with some parts steeper than others with the rest of the loop rolling but predominantly down. The reality was that the up part was going out of the town and generally shaded. The middle half was out on a large plain with no shade from the sun or protection from the strong southerly wind. The last 15k felt like the quickest part of the course, downwind and on better roads.

It was the second loop where the suffering really started. According to the European Long Distance Triathlon website temperatures reached 43°C at the height of the day (It sounds even higher if you say 109.4°F!). My Edge 500 left on in transition from about 6am recorded a minimum of 25 and a max of 45 degrees. I’m not sure this is entirely true but it was ridiculously hot! Rather than taking a bottle on the fly and filling my Speedfil, on the second loop along with everybody else we were just stopping at all the aid stations and being hosed with water by the volunteers, drinking as much as I could manage before moving on. The heat, especially reflecting off the newly laid black (and melting) tarmac was intense.

I started with the nutrition plan that worked at the Outlaw, eating every 30 mins alternating flapjack and gel, 350 cals per hour plus High 5. After 2 flapjacks I just couldn’t stomach any more. It felt like putty in my mouth. Rather than eat the next on the hour I tried small mouthfuls every 5 mins. Still made me feel nauseous. I changed tack and relied on gels and this seemed to work but at a cost later on.

…and back.

I filled the Speedfil at each aid station plus drank extra at each stop, I reckon over 10 litres minimum and didn’t pee at all on the bike. The wind, mainly a headwind or side-wind on the plain was strong and it was really tough going. It felt like 40k of a false flat uphill grind.

As we started to head back toward Vichy the wind swung behind and I began to realise the end was nearing. Either I got a second wind or the others around me were slowing as I passed 8 or 10 in the final 15k. Inevitably the loop was much slower especially with all the stops – by around 20 minutes – 27.5kph and 131 heart rate. I knew that any pretensions of time goals were well out of the window and that I would be lucky to even get anywhere near my Outlaw time.

Bike Time 6:20:33 (237th)

The Run

It was utterly brutal. It started badly in transition when I was told my a marshall or volunteer, I’m not sure which, that I wasn’t allowed to take the two 500ml bottles of water I had in my T2 bag out on to the run. In the athletes guide they had said that you could have personal nutrition passed to you as long as it was within 50 metres of an aid station. This was changed at the briefing – no problem – that’s outside assistance and I was surprised it was being initially allowed anyway.

But to not allow me to take a bottle of water out onto the run at 2:30ish in the afternoon, the height of the day and 40ish degree heat. WTF? Maybe if I’d put it in a fuel belt that would have been OK as there was plenty of people using those. In fairness some of the other volunteers were giving me support but there was no changing the lady’s mind. I was not a happy camper.

Others of course were being given plenty of drink by family and friends just outside the transition area, not that I blame them given the conditions, but I did feel somewhat aggrieved that I was being penalised for trying to stay within the rules.

It was at this point that my stomach started playing up properly. Exiting T2 I knew that a visit to a portaloo was pretty essential both for the spectators and my dignity and fortunately found one quickly (there were none at all in transition.)

I guess if you only put in gels eventually only gels come out and that was certainly true and more than a little unpleasant. Given the UK weather this year I hadn’t had the opportunity to test a nutrition strategy in this kind of heat! It took a little time to find my running legs but managed the first 10.5k loop in 58 minutes.

I had to keep taking nutrition on board to survive especially as I had taken less than intended on the bike. I tried a mouthful of banana at one station but it was just like the flapjack and I spat it out before it had the chance to come back up of its own accord. Gels it was despite the awful stomach cramps.

A pattern soon developed. Take a gel just before each aid station. Stop and get hosed and soaked with water. Jog on to the drinks, stop and have 4-5 cups of water with a Saltstick tablet. Take 2 sponges from the volunteers and place inside my top so I could squeeze the water out of them gradually over the next kilometre before I’d dried out completely and be desperately needing the next aid station to arrive.

Doing this I only had to visit the portaloos every other aid station. After reliving myself I was OK for one station but after the next gel the cramps began again. Nine times in all I stopped for the toilet and I still don’t remember peeing. The loos were pretty grim as well. A wooden box with a curtain at the front. A bucket under the wooden top and a bucket of sand and a ladle with helpfully written beside it – “pee pee 1 scoop poo poo 2 scoops.” As the day wore on the visits got less and less pleasant.


I kept running (slowly). 95% of the people I passed were walking. It was carnage really. There were guys sitting under the trees in the third of the route that was shaded lying down, stretching or just sat with their head in there hands. How the quick guys finished in the times they did I don’t know. Maybe it was a good thing that I couldn’t look too far ahead, I was only ever worried about reaching the next aid station or toilet.

The second lap was 1:05 and the third 1:11. I didn’t dare stop running apart from the aid stations and toilet breaks because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get going again, mentally as much as physically. I was only passed by four people on the run, all of whom were laps ahead of me. Jamie Whyte as he was in his last 3k on his way to third place and I was I think on my second lap, a Polish guy who I think ended up top ten and a couple of others. I still kept passing people and some I’m sure I lapped!!

I don’t know how many places I made up on the run but it must have been a fair few. I just wanted to survive and looked forward seeing my wife, son and dad near the finish each time around. By the time I started the final loop I was fed up of having to go to the toilet and decided just to go with the High 5 drink and hope that was enough to get me round the last 10k and fortunately it was with a final loop of 1:07, a marathon of 4:22 and all of it (apart from the obvious bits) run.

Run time 4:22:03 (64th)

In the end it was 12:15:01 Nowhere near the time I wanted and some 40 minutes slower even than my Outlaw time last year. But I had survived, the weather and all the other issues, and actually I’m quite proud of that. Loads of people didn’t. Over a quarter of the field DNF’ed I think and my wife saw at least two people taken off in ambulances and there were more than a few on drips in the recovery area.

Overall though I think I’ve got to be pleased. With the probable 20 minutes lost because of the non wetsuit swim and the 15 minutes or so lost for toilet breaks I would have been about my Outlaw time in much harsher condition. I know these are all what ifs and ultimately my finish time is my finish time regardless however I’m still left wondering what I could have achieved in different circumstances. I will of course never know but I am proud to say I’m a Challenge Vichy survivor!


  1. Ozzie

    Hi Julian,

    Great read. I am starting triathlon and like you have thrown myself in the deep end signing up to Vichey 2014. I am looking in to swim suits etc and was wondering what time of year you did your race?

    My race is August the 30th so hight of summer. Do you think the water temp will be over 24C?

    Any and all help appreciated!

    1. Julian (Post author)

      It was August 21st in 2011 and I think they’ve been unlucky with the heat in a couple of the years it was run as a Challenge race. Central Europe is always a bit of a gamble in the height of the summer but it’s not usually 40 degrees plus like it has been on at least 2 occasions.

      Plan for the worst and hope for the best…!


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