After a year in the planning, Friday 24th July finally rolled around and the Bowler family set off with a loaded car yet again, this time for foreign shores. A rapid crossing in the Eurotunnel and a stop overnight near Dijon, then the awesome sight of the Alps rising up before us as we came out the other side of Grenoble and started the final leg of the journey to Vaujany. Driving up the winding road from Lac du Verney toward the village, we were all stunned with the beautiful scenery, and me more so, with the ridiculous gradient of the climb! We pulled up outside the chalet at about 2:30 to be greeted by our friends that we were sharing with, who had arrived a short while before us. The chalet was absolutely fantastic, 3 separate accommodations all linked together, very comfortable and great views across the valley to the huge waterfall cascading down the verdant slopes. I decided I needed a pedal, so set off further up the mountain up the Col du Sabot for 30 mins and took in the spectacular views and as much oxygen that I could find!
Breakfast was generally a communal affair, then each to their own for riding, running, exploring, etc. The many famous climbs around us tempted me but I resisted as I knew Wednesday would be a big test. Others enjoyed the Col de Le Croix de Fer, Glandon, Alpe d’Huez, Telegraph, Galibier, etc.
Race day for the long course soon arrived for me. Having registered over the previous 2 days, race day morning was a quick drive down the valley to Lake Verney for the swim and T1, our T2 kit being transported up to the top of Alpe d’Huez for us. The lake was beautifully clear and 17 degrees, a welcome on what was already turning out to be a scorcher of a day.
With the helicopter overhead, the swim started and soon developed into the water fight it usually is for me. I kept sighting for ages but the turn buoy never seemed to get any closer. Eventually I was heading back to shore and exited in 36:46, which was pretty much as expected. Through T1 and out onto the bike. After a short climb, it was pretty much descending for about 30 mins before hitting the first climb of the day, the Alpe du Grande Serre topping out at 1375m. I couldn’t believe how long it went on for! Over an hour of climbing, but quite enjoyable, still feeling fresh and shaded from the sun. Once over the top, it was back down for a while before undulating for a bit, climbing again, then down into the cauldron where temperatures high in the 90’s started sucking every drop of moisture and energy out of me. Having used my own High 5, I took a bottle of water and an energy drink from the feed station. One sip of the energy drink decided that it would have to be water from now on, as it tasted like something my dog wouldn’t touch, and he eats horse shit and drinks out of puddles. Routine developed as 2 bottles of water on the bike and one emptied over the head. Signs soon directed us to the 2nd climb of the day, the Col d’Ornon at 1371m. However, the climb never seemed to begin and the road looked flat. I couldn’t figure out why I had to be in my small chainring and 21 on the back and was still struggling. After an age I finally crested the Col, and as I started to descend I realised just how high we had climbed on what was obviously a very deceptive false flat. This descent was great fun, very twisty and fast. At over 40mph, it still took a while to reach the bottom for the run through Bourg d’Oisans before the moment I had been looking forward too/dreading all along. Heat now was just bloody ridiculous and with no shade from the evil fireball in the sky, the ascent of Alpe d’Huez began. Anyone who says that it’s not that bad is a bloody liar as it rises very steeply from the word go, before continuing steeply for a lot more. Any thoughts of racing, pacing or strategy slipped rapidly into thoughts of survival and there were times when I honestly thought I was going to fall asleep on the bike, it was that draining. It felt slow but not many went past me and I took a few and so it went on as I counted the hairpins up the mountain. Up towards the top I spotted a rival from local club Berkshire Tri, slumped over his crossbar. He was bonking nicely as I crawled past, so I said hello, smiled and tried not to look back! Once up into the town, the route wound its way around to T2 where I was more than happy to get off the bike. Bike split 4:54:27. Onto the run. Now I haven’t read Dante’s Inferno, but I believe there are 9 circles of the journey through Hell. This turned out to be the 10th. Not noticeably recognising the effects of altitude, I was now finding I was struggling to get my heart rate up and the gas was definitely running out of the tank. The run course was vicious, a mixture of road and track, and plenty of climbing, again in the suffocating heat. Half way round lap 1, I began to feel the first twitches of cramp in my left thigh. This rapidly accelerated into full blown paralysis of both legs as the cramp in both my thighs then extended over my hips and dumped me onto the grass verge, screaming like a girl, dribbling and wondering how I was going to get up, let alone finish. This lasted quite some time, and it must have been a good 5 minutes before I was able to stand again and start hobbling onwards. Fortunately, the hobble developed into a limp, then a walk, and finally back to a run. After more climbing up above the airfield, we descended again down towards transition. Running past transition, the evil bastards then sent us back up the town for a very long kilometre before giving us a lap band and sending us on our way again, to start the 2nd lap. This lap was no better and at exactly the same spot, the cramp struck again. After the same procedure I carried on, doing my best impression of Douglas Bader as I willed my way to the end of the second lap.
The last lap, and at least the light at the end of the tunnel. This time, when I reached Cramp Hill, I decided to walk up it and thus avoid the agony. Then, finally, the last band on my wrist, I entered the finish chute and crossed the line in 7:52:22. Harder than an Ironman, that’s for sure.
If anyone wants to experience this long distance race, simulate it at home. First, go down to your local community pool, pick a really busy lane, and start punching as many young tattooed males as you can, whilst swimming 2200m. Then go home, put your bike on a turbo with the front wheel on a couple of crates, in the smallest room with the doors and windows shut. Then turn your heating up full, get into a sleeping bag and pedal your biggest gear for about 5 hrs. Then, whilst still in the sleeping bag, put a plastic bag on your head and run up and down your stairs for a good couple of hrs, periodically hammering nails into your thighs(people living in bungalows may not fully experience realistic conditions).
Never, ever, again……well when I say never…..