In 2009 I raced the Alpe d’Huez Long Distance Triathlon(you can read about that here). I swore I would never do it again. So I did it again.
July 24th 2013 and here I was again, throwing myself on the mercy of the mountains. A human sacrifice, if you will.
The lure of the challenge, the long distance, the unique parcours, the utter beauty of the high mountains, it is just such an awesome race that a return was inevitable. In reality, I have my buddy Eric to thank for enticing me back to the Alps. He had entered at the beginning of the year, and knowing I had been there before, asked for advice on where to stay. Thinking that he was taking the family, I suggested staying near the race start, and places that would enable his wife and children to watch at various spots along the route. ‘No, I’m going on my own’ was the reply. Hmmm. And so I went rapidly from coming along as support crew, to entering myself. Could I really stand and watch others racing and not do it myself?
Alpe d’Huez presents a pretty unique challenge for us non mountain goats. The swim is straight forward enough, 2200m in the clear, but cold glacier fed waters of the Lac du Vernay. But it’s the bike course that sets it apart. 115km, but with 3500m of ascent, culminating in the climb of Alpe d’Huez. Then it is a matter of the 22km run at the top, half off road, half on, and continuing the theme of up and down.
Six days previously, the Tour de France had passed this way, not once, but twice. The ‘double d’Huez’ stage. The names still plastered over the roads, ‘Allez Voeckler’, ‘Go Johnny Johnny Johnny Johnny Johnny Go, VaVa Froome’ and my personal favourite, clearly written by a Brit, ‘Knob Head’.
Preparation for the race had been all over the place this year. Having had a busy year last year, this one was supposed to be low key, chilled. But then doing Liege Bastogne Liege in April meant doing more riding than I had planned. Then an Achilles injury all winter meant practically no running until March. Then the decision to do the Worlds qualifiers at Deva and Liverpool, throw in the Alpe d’Huez, and my training plan looked like it was written by someone with triathlon Tourette’s. Still, remember, I’m taking it easy this year! Some last minute hill repeats of Wattlington Hill would have the expected benefits. Naff all.
Eric and I were staying in a hotel in Alpe d’Huez itself, with the race start and T1 down at the lake. Another unique part of this race is that athletes staying at the top are encouraged to ride to the start on the morning of the race. A very respectable start time of 9:30, plus the fact that it was downhill all the way, makes this perfectly reasonable, and certainly wakes your brain up as you make the long, fast descent to the lake. T1 in plenty of time to use the portaloo for visit number 5 of the morning(a new pb) and the race brief given in French, English, and Dutch. All the standard stuff, blah blah blah, no drafting, blah blah, no shirt unzipped in run, blah blah, lake temperature 14.2…whoa there, 14.2? Chilly.
Eric and I wished each other good luck and braved the water. It was a bit of a shock to be fair, but I warmed up for about 8 minutes before the start, and found as much space as I could amongst the 1000 odd other athletes. As the TV helicopter hovered closely above, we were off. Now, I have done many mass starts, a lot of them with much bigger fields, and some in very cold water (Bala 2011) but for the first time I immediately found myself in trouble. I started hyperventilating and taking on water. It didn’t seem to matter what I did, I couldn’t calm down. I started swimming water polo style, head up, to try and get some air. Eventually I had to stop and try to breathe, but as I looked behind, all I saw was the mass of thrashing bodies approaching, so I had to decide whether to stick my hand up for rescue, try to swim across the pack to try to get to shore, or MTFU and get on with it. The idea of coming all the way to France and lasting only 1 minute of the race was too much for my stupid man brain, so MTFU I did. Forget about speed, just steady strokes and concentrate on breathing out long and slow in the water. Thankfully, after a minute or so, I managed to settle into my normal routine. Panic over. It felt like the episode lasted for about 5 minutes, but in reality, was only 2 or 3. The swim course was 2 laps without an Australian exit, and I eventually emerged in just over 38 minutes. Luckily, my panic attack hadn’t seemed to cost me much time. As I reached my bike in T1, Eric’s was gone, as I expected. He is a fish, after all. Now to the business end of the race. A road bike was the choice for the day, despite the first 23km being a fast gentle descent on the main road towards Grenoble. But then the first climb starts, the Alpe du Grand Serre, 1000m of ascent in 15km. It was during this section that I noticed the familiar kit of Eric just ahead. As I approached I said in a pretty rubbish French accent, ‘Number 522 you ave ze penalty for drafting’. Eric merely dropped his head slightly, looked at his computer, and said ’50 minutes, is that all it took?’ Nothing in the Chilterns can replicate the type of climbing in the Alps, and that first climb was over an hour. Then over the top you enter a plateau of breath taking beauty. This scenery accompanies you as you continue down some fairly rapid descents and on through a valley where we eventually hooked up with this year’s TdF course, near Vallbonais. Then onto the Col d’Ornon, a Cat 2 climb with no shade. Although shorter than the first climb, it’s a slog to the top, but the reward is a fast, technical descent, with hairpins, sweeping bends, sheer drop offs, the lot. Soon though the road joins the main route into Bourg d’Oisan, with only a brief couple of km’s to gather your thoughts before the wall of the hors category Alpe d’Huez says hello, turns you around, and starts kicking you in the arse for the next 14km of 7.9% average gradient . Fortunately, feed stations are approx every 4k on the ascent, and they are welcomed. Water over the head, water in the bike cage, coke in the mouth, more water over the head, head down, and grind to the next one. Repeat. Before leaving for France, I’d ummed and aahed whether to replace my standard chainset with a compact. Hours spent with the calculator working out the different gear ratios screamed at me that it was the best option, but a heady mixture of testosterone and stupidity was persuading me to stick with the big, butch, manly, standard. Fortunately, for once, common sense prevailed and I went for the compact, giving me the option of a 34×25. Quite frankly, if you’d have offered me a 34×28 on the day, I’d have bitten your hand off. And in truth, lots of the pros ride compacts in the mountains and they don’t go running afterwards! I’d like to say ‘soon I made it to the top’ but I will replace the word ‘soon’ with ‘eventually’. 1hr 15 minutes later, to be precise. No sooner than you finish the climb, you are suddenly upon T2, which was on an astroturf football pitch. A lack of bikes in my section of T2 was an encouraging sign, and after a bit of a fumble with socks and shoes, I set off on the 3 lap run. Springy astroturf soon gave way to tarmac, then to stony mountain track. Then, inevitably, after about a mile, the snarling, yappy, snapping, pointy toothed dog of cramp viciously attacked my quads. Oh, here we go again! Memories of the last time I raced here came flooding back, lying in the gutter, screaming like a little girl. But no, grit teeth, stretch, swear, throw water from first feed station over legs, walk, jog, run, breath. This pattern would repeat itself for the rest of the run, managing the cramp before defcon 3. The lap is mainly undulating rocky track for half a lap, then turns back along paved road and climbs above the airstrip before descending again, back towards T2 to start another lap. On lap 2 I saw Eric, who was nearly a lap behind, and we high fived whilst looking at each other with the 1000 yard stare. At the end of lap 3, I turned right instead of left, and headed for the finish chute. A final bite of cramp stopped me about 50m from the line, but after a quick stretch, I finally crossed the line and headed straight to get the finishers T shirt! Finish time was 7hrs 26mins 30sec. 119th overall and 10th in age group. Splits were swim 38mins, bike 4:52, and run 1:50. Eric finished in 8:10, and after time in the ice baths and grabbing some food in the finish zone we hobbled back to the hotel to shower, as we could not get our bikes back until later. Reaching our hotel, we directed a rather ragged looking competitor, still completing the bike course, toward T2. Now that was going to be a long day! As for us, it was time for beer and mountain food.
So all in all, this race turned out to be exactly how I expected; unique, stunning, brutal, breathtaking, challenging, beautiful. Am I glad I did it again? Hell yes. Will I ever do it again? Probably. I would love to come back one day with my daughter Stassi, and race it with her. This really is a bucket list race.
Right, off to buy some new legs….