Above: The author in 1993 at France's Le Defi Mondial de l'Endurance, ("The World Challenge of Endurance"), including the sprint finish after 53 hours, 28 minutes!

France's Triple Ironman Triathlon:
Multi-Sport Meets Ultra Distance

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, Summer 1993

Spend enough time in the ultra endurance circles, and you eventually catch wind of an amazing variety of interesting events. For the past few years I'd been hearing nothing but rave reviews about a Triple Ironman Triathlon in France, so I committed to doing it this year. It was a sage move on my part, for the race proved to be a fantastic adventure.

Formally titled "Le Defi Mondial de L'Endurance" or "The World Endurance Challenge," the event is triple the distance of the famous Kona race which put triathlon on the map back in the late Seventies. Now in its sixth year, Le Defi covers 7.2 miles of swimming, 336 miles of cycling, and 78.6 miles of running in and around the Prealpine area of Fontanil, a suburb of Grenoble in southeastern France. This region is the sports and outdoors capital of France and the people of the region embrace and support events of this kind with open arms. The race itself is headed up by the Mayor of Fontanil and his wife, Jean-Yves and Jocelyne Poirier.

A Sprint Finish?

After 53 hours of non-stop triathlon racing, it all came down to a sprint—a 100 meter dash to see who would take home the trophy—for 17th place. I had maybe two miles left to run when German triathlete Gunter Teichmann passed me. It took all but five seconds to decide I wouldn't be passed that close to the finish. I poured on the steam and rolled him in and soon we were running seven minute miles, not bad after 76 miles of running, not to mention the cycling and swimming beforehand. Teichmann soon put me on the spot, though, when he asked whether we would finish together. Pounding the pavement in the hot sun after two days without sleep, I pondered my dilemma: be a sportsmen and say yes, be aloof and hardcore and say no, or maybe... a compromise.

I settled on the latter: "We stay together, then we go very fast the last 100 meters." Teichmann agreed and we slowed to eight minute miles. As the finish line came into view a while later, we agreed on the sprinting mark, a red double decker bus on the side of the road. Then, with hundreds of spectators standing stupefied, we let rip what was certainly the fastest sprint of my career. Despite our best efforts, we finished in a dead heat. But I'm ahead of myself...

The reasons for my participation in the race were many: to challenge myself to three times the distance of my previous longest triathlon, of course, but also the opportunity to race in Europe in a truly global event (14 countries were represented by a field limited to 32 entrants), and to spend time with my brother Keith who lives in France with his locally-born wife and daughter. Keith had organized and directed support teams for friends of mine who had raced Le Defi the last two years (Ted Epstein and John Dooley) and would do the same for me this year. His previous crewing experience included several UMCA record attempts of mine back in '85 and '87, my 9th in RAAM '87, and Elaine Mariolle's 2nd place in the '91 Paris-Brest-Paris. As Directeur Sportif of Kostman Sport Group / Europe, he also represents the company's interests on the continent as well. An orange belt in Shotokan Karate with a growing interest in peaceful warriorship and outdoor athletics, he's also interested in racing P-B-P '95 on tandem with me. At any rate, Keith's my biggest fan and best friend. I knew he'd do an excellent and amusing job of organizing my crew: Damien Segransan, Stephan Corporan, and Jean-Claude Corporan, plus Brigitte, Jean-Christophe, Erika, and the others who joined us along the way. They all did a great job!

The Swim

The race got underway at 8 am on May 14 with the 7.2 mile swim. French Triathlon Federation officials forbid swims of this distance in fresh water at this time of the year, so the swim is held in two 50 meter pools in Grenoble. That means down and back 114 times! That's also why the race is limited to 32 entrants, so I feel extra fortunate to have been selected to compete. I shared a lane with Belgian Wito DeMeulder, the two time winner of the Double Ironman held in Huntsville, Alabama. On one end of the pool were the race officials, one per entrant to count their laps, while on the other end of the pool were our support crews. My goal was to stay comfortable and energetic for the duration of the swim, plus execute the best possible flip-turns, a technique I had "learned" during the eight training swims that I did prior to the race. Thanks again to Mike Ruffner of the Piedmont Swim Club for teaching me this all-important technique!

The swim proved to be more enjoyable and interesting than I had expected. Highlights included the numerous spectators and media types who paid particular attention to me because I was on the lane against the wall and thus more accessible, and also because I had my fingernails painted five different colors per hand. (I guess this makes watching somebody swim for hours on end at least a little interesting.) Lowlights included swimming through a cloud of puke that Wito launched into the pool (thankfully it sank quickly), and being paranoid that my laps were not all being counted. At any rate, I exited the pool after 4:25 and having run the gamut of emotions: anger, warm fuzziness, paranoia, sadness, awe, courage, and bliss. Of 29 starters, I was 22nd out of the pool. (Not bad considering I never swim train. I teach SCUBA diving, but essentially never do any normal freestyle swimming.)

The Bike

A police motorcycle escorted me and my support van out of Grenoble to the cycling loop, a 40 mile loop that we would all ride eight times. (This time it was red tape and logistics that necessitated multiple laps rather than one huge loop.) The course was definitely challenging, what with 1,500 feet of climbing per loop and widely varying weather and road conditions. One minute it was potholes in the rain and the next it was steaming, busy highways in the hot sun, but my ever adaptable Bridgestone XO-1 proved to be the perfect choice for such varying cycling conditions. (When my legs begged for lower gears for climbing the hills, I simply swapped wheels - but not tyres - with the mountain bike of one of my crew members!) I equipped my XO-1 with Bridgestone's Moustache handlebars and a Scott USA clip-on aero bar, Grafton Performance cranks, bottom bracket, and pedals, plus Ritchey USA rims, stem, post, saddle, and Wheelsmith wheels. Not wanting to hassle transporting a lot of gear, I took just the one bike and no spare wheels. (I have faith in my equipment.)

Despite the loop format, there was surprisingly little interaction with other competitors. Each loop passed through Fontanil and the starting line, which looked like something out of the Tour de France: banners, stage, lights, sound system, Radio Monte Carlo's huge mobile radio station and DJ booth, music, race announcer, media, spectators, hype and hoopla. It was truly an impressive assemblage and always a highlight of each loop. Each time we'd pass through my crew would momentarily stop to receive a new lap card to certify my progress, as well as a printout of the stats on all of the entrants, accurate right up to that minute. Wow! In all, the 336 miles would take 25:02, far from a PR, but still intensely satisfying. I hit the run course in 18th place.

The Run

The run loop was app. 2.6 miles in a figure eight around the village part of Fontanil, with the same start/finish line from the bike loop situated in the middle. So, with 30 loops to run I would pass "Hype Central" a total of 60 times: A perfect opportunity to soak up more positive energy, wave the Hawaiian "Shaka Sign" to the crowds, crack jokes with the officials and spectators ("Are you sure you shouldn't go take a nap? You're look pretty tired" I'd ask, for example.), as well as randomly smooch and give flowers to some of the more supportive fans... Evidently I was not exhibiting typical stoic triathlete behavior, so people really took to me (and me to them). What fun, and what wonderful humanity!

What with all the human interaction, the triple marathon run proved to be the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the race. It was practically never the death march drudgery that some might imagine. Perhaps you'll have to stretch your trust in me here, but I daresay that the run was the most fun I've ever had in a race. It was a blast! Of course, the weather varied from blazing sun to pouring run and I did encounter the usual maladies (blisters, tight muscles, sleepiness, miscellaneous aches and pains), but I loved nearly all of it. After 16 laps I decided to play it safe and stop for a massage, but that proved to be a bad move: after hitting the course again, I found myself incapable of running or hardly even jogging. Either the stop allowed my muscles and ligaments to seize up or the massage was too invasive for my body at that point, I don't know. Needless to say, I was bummed and didn't really relish the extra several hours that would keep me out on the course, but c'est la vie, n'est-ce pas? The best way out is through, though, so what's one to do but take it in stride? I kept on striding, putting my best foot forward.

I did surrender for a single 20 minute sleep break around sunrise on Day Two, but otherwise I kept moving until it was all over. After 53 hours, 27 minutes, 40 seconds, a tie for 17th place was great for me and for Teichmann, but we look forward to settling that one at next year's race. Or maybe at the Double Ironman in Belgium this August that Wito DeMeulder puts on?... We shall see, but needless to say, I can't wait!

Special thanks to Bridgestone Cycle USA, PACE Sportswear, UNIPRO Performance Nutrition, Grafton Performance, Ritchey USA, BPP/Vittoria, Scott USA, Wheelsmith, Mike Ruffner/Piedmont Swim Club, and my support team members for their support of this adventure!

For another article about this 1993 Triple Ironman experience, and what I learned from it, click here!

For the 1994 Triple Ironman report, click here!

Chris Kostman has competed in ultra sports continously since 1983. Besides producing the Furnace Creek 508 each October since 1990, he also produces a five-day cycling training camp with yoga called CORPScamp Death Valley, plus the Death Valley Century, Ultra Century, and Double Century in March and October each year, Hell's Gate Hundred, Mount Laguna Bicycle Classic, Rough Riders Rally, and the world-famous Badwater Ultramarathon.