It was a top world-class endurance challenge. The swim would be 1,500m in the Mediterranean Sea at the base of the Nice coast. The cycling leg was 100km that did have a few flat sections. But the course would distinguish itself in the relentless climbs and extremely technical descents on the small French roads of the Maritime Alps just behind Nice. Then the dessert that first year would be a final challenge of running a marathon. It wouldn’t match IRONMAN for its distance, but it would certainly make up for it by demanding the athletes be capable of speed, endurance and technical skill.
We heard about the first ever Nice Triathlon immediately following the 1982 IRONMAN World Championship in October. The invitations went out to every triathlete in the world to come and experience triathlon European style. We were all buzzing at the possibility of such an amazing adventure. The US contingent was already dreaming of what it would be like to race in a new culture on a new continent. For most of us it would be our first ever trip to Europe!
I would be going as part of a newly formed triathlon team. It was called Team J David. The team included me, Scott Tinley, Scott Molina and Kathleen McCartney. About the only top American triathlete not on the roster was Dave Scott.
I was pinching myself. How lucky was I to be in France for the first time! I was an invited athlete competing internationally in my first year doing the sport. I felt like I had just expanded into a whole new chapter in my life. Tinley and Molina seemed more consumed with getting the run done before the restaurant shut down for the night back at the hotel!
That first dinner proved to be a cultural experience as well. I didn’t know any French at the time so was struggling to figure out what to order. One thing I saw on the menu was “Fruits de Mer”. I thought how wonderful! A fruit salad. I’d start with that. The plate came, and there wasn’t an orange or banana or berry on it. There was an exquisitely arranged assortment of tentacles and half-shells with their slippery inner bits still attached. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the translation really meant “Fruits of the Sea”. Lesson learned. It was delicious just the same!
There was snow on the back peaks of the Maritime Alps that we would be scaling during the bike leg. That didn’t bother me. There was more than enough climbing and very technical descending to take my mind off the crispness of the air.
But what did have me on alert was the temperature of the Mediterranean. It had dipped to 14C or 57F. That was the official word. My estimate is that it was a whole lot colder. Swimming wetsuits hadn’t been invented yet. And searingly vital for me was figuring out how I would even make it out of 57F degree water that I would be in for around 20-minutes. For some it would be a piece of cake. But I am not good in the cold. I was forced out of a race just weeks earlier in Malibu, California because of hypothermia. The swim length and the water temps were almost exactly what we were looking at in Nice. I was nervous!
I clamored out of the water race morning frozen but coherent…and ecstatic. I was giving everyone a “thumbs up we made it” gesture.
Long tights and an insulated cycling jacket went on over my regular gear for the bike. The air was in the high 40’s at best and it wouldn’t get any warmer as we climbed into the Maritime Alps. About halfway through the bike my core temperature started to finally catch up and I was sweating. I stopped, got off my bike, took off the tights and the jacket, then continued on. I told Molina about this piece that no one was around to see after the race. He said, “You did WHAT? You got off your bike and spent the time to take off your tights and jacket????” I guess he thought that was a waste of time. In the moment, I thought it was a pretty good idea!
Yes, I had raced my first ever IRONMAN World Championship in October. But my derailleur broke on the bike as I was leading with Dave Scott. I was forced out of the race before I even ran one step of that marathon.
My top priority for the run in Nice was to have as little up and down motion as I could. I knew 26.2 miles would tear my legs up. Avoid pounding the road period. Yes, run fast, but run flat and smooth and light!
When I caught Molina, I could see he had a lot of bounce going on. As I went by him, I said, “Don’t bounce so much you’ll tear your legs up”. Molina had a marathon PR of around 2:20 and tons of experience at the distance. Here I was running my first marathon, taking the lead from him, and giving him a lesson on form mechanics? Needless to say, he was not appreciative of my comment. He looked like he wanted to deck me.
The marathon seemed to fly by. I ran hard but held my effort within what I felt I could sustain. And it worked. I crossed the finish line winning the first ever Nice Triathlon. I completed my first ever marathon that day as well. My overall time was 6:33:52. Molina would finish in second almost eight-minutes back in 6:41:50. Scott Tinley took third in 6:45:50.
I love Hawaii, but my race earlier that year had been challenging on a very, very deep level. I could feel I was not in synch with the spirit of the Island. It would take me years to gain that intimate connection with the heart of the land.
Nice was different. From my first race there it was a place of grace for me. Even if the day got tough or seemed impossible, I found a way to ride on top of that challenge rather than get crushed by it. I was excited by the immensity of the competition and the descents and the distance and the conditions. I felt it was my job to keep an eye on the beauty of where I was so that I could shape a day that would be supreme even with all of that.
In my first ever Nice Triathlon I knew the ocean was cold, but I was inspired by its beautiful. The climbs were intense but I couldn’t help but look out beyond the cliffs and see how breathtaking it was. The run was long, but it felt historic as I was being led by motorcycles through streets hundreds of years old where countless men and women and children had lived their lives.
We all find our places where we can rise up with almost no effort. Nice was one of those for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would be at the start line nine more times during my career. I would also cross the finish line nine more times in first place. Stay tuned for more stories from the Nice Triathlon!
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Photo courtesy of FFTri
I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.