Alpe D’Huez long course triathlon. Race report.

The French ski resort of Alpe D’Huez is arguably the most iconic mountain in sport. Synonymous with the Tour de France, this 2.2km / 115km / 22km triathlon, now in its fifth year has become something of a classic already.

The seed of interest was first sown by a friend of mine Martin “Wiganer” Holden, and promptly dozens of us had signed up for this and it became the “TriTalk on tour” event of the year. Unfortunately however, Martin ended up having to pull out, but his day on the Alpe will come! The majority of us stayed at the Colportuer campiste which is conveniently located at the bottom of the Alpe D’Huez climb. Having travelled down on the Saturday we had the opportunity to get some rides in and check out key sections of the course, plus a little acclimatisation up at Alpe D’Huez itself.  Although, for some the recce of the long course resulted in them switching to the short course race! This was definitely going to be a tough day at the office!

My objective for the race was for it to be a learning experience in preparation for my first Ironman distance. Having spent the last few years trying to get fast at half ironman distances, my longest race time was only just over 5hours, so this was going to be into unknown territory as far as racing was concerned. It was also to be my first swim start with more than just a couple of hundred people!

Preparations in the few days leading up to the race were spot on, I felt refreshed from the travel and all training sessions had gone to plan. So while everyone was getting worried about the bike and run, I was more concerned about surviving the swim start! I was still carrying my usual array of injuries, so was strapped up with Kenesio tape and compression gear, something I was very grateful for as I had none of my usual pains, even if it did provide comedy value for my friends! The organisers had racked us in groups based on our country and club so there were plenty of people to share the “excitement” with.

The setting for the start of this event is magical with crystal clear waters, albeit a little on the chilly side, and we were blessed with calm waters and clear skies.

After a short hold in the water, we were off, with the expected mass of fists feet and churning white water. And somehow after a few hundred meters of swimming over, and being swum over, we started to swim properly. Fairly soon I was aware of the helicopter hovering just above us and the pack started to break up giving clearer water and a few feet to follow. The leg out to the first buoy seemed to take a very long time, and as we turned for the second buoy we swam straight into the rising sun, all I could see was the mass of white water in front of me but we quickly made it across to the second turn and started the return leg. I got into a good rhythm and started to go past loads of swimmers who must have gone off too quickly, as I managed to nearly swim straight over one poor bloke who inadvertently kicked me in the throat, but luckily no damage done! He did stop and check I was OK though, which was nice!

Out the swim, and into T1 was straight forward, and I took my time to put extra sun-cream on. The first section along the edge of the reservoir and over the dam I again took my time to compose myself and get some nutrition on board, then the long fast gradual descent to the foot of the Col de Grande Serre. Dropped into my bottom gear and kept an eye on the powertap, and began the first long climb of the day.

A great touch by the organisers was to have our name and countries flag on our race numbers, so as we span up the climb there was plenty of banter between us all. The summit came eventually after a lovely ride through the woods, however I was aware we were now hitting the middle of the day, and the openness would soon take it’s toll. A quick stop at the feed station then an amazing descent through some stunning scenery, not overly fast, but thoroughly enjoyable. Then we were on the climb up the Col D’ornon, but by now the heat and lack of wind was taking effect. Unfortunately my guts decided to stop working and I couldn’t eat anything and even drinking started become an issue. So I decided to just try sipping water and nuun for a while and hope things settled down. The climb itself wasn’t difficult but just dragged on, and I passed many people stopping in the shade to cool down and stretch out the cramps, not a good sign with the Alpe yet to come! At the summit I again restocked and managed to get some gels on board, the descent cooled me down and I started to feel loads better. Gels taken on, and I was soon at the start of the final climb, the reason we were all here.

Again, I kept things controlled on the climb, with a close eye on the powermeter, well aware that there was still the small matter of a run to do, and the fact that our club’s Ironman junkie “Big E.” cramped up and DNF’d on this section a few years ago. If it humbled him, I certainly needed to take heed. At several points up the climb groups of supports were pouring ice cold water from the streams over our heads and down our backs, shockingly cold but very welcome. I kept to my rhythm and soon enough I was into T2 after passing the TriTalk support crews. And this is where my race ground to a halt. As I was changing into my run shoes my guts cramped up. The original plan was to use a run-walk strategy (1min walk, 9 min run) so I started to walk out of transition, the camps settled so I began to run, but as soon as I did the cramps returned. Just as I was leaving the transition area I spotted an old friend, Tracy, in the crowd who I’d not seen in 3 years, and I ran over and just hugged her! Thankfully she realised who the sweaty, slightly disorientated strange man was before I got a slap! Tracy very kindly walked with me for the first mile or so chatting away about the last few years, and although she didn’t realise it at the time, this certainly saved my race as I was close to passing out.

And so a process of run-walk, but more walk than run, began. I very quickly realised that my race was over and it was a case of survival and hopefully completion. The first time I’d had this experience in a race, so at the end of the first lap I stopped to talk to Mark Ashwell and the rest of the TriTalk crew who were supporting. The diagnosis…. I needed salt. Matt Savloy ran off and fetched me a load of pretzels and I wolfed down a load of crisps and coke. On lap 2 I started to feel slightly better, but running was no more than a shuffle. The support crew were amazed to see me running back round at the end of the second lap and I later found out they didn’t think I’d make it as I looked so bad! Lap 3 was completed and I was into the finishing chute. By that stage I was pretty much spent. Again, the experience of Mark and Michelle Ashwell paid off as the forced me to eat, drink and keep moving, when all I wanted to do was lie down. My friend Tony then drove me back down to the campsite and a feast of pizza awaited!

Finish time was 9hrs24. A long day and considerably longer than I had initially hoped for, but many lessons were learned regarding nutrition in the heat. Less solid food required for one thing. So the overall goal for the event was achieved, I finished and I learned about long course racing. Recovery from the event was remarkable considering the state I was in at the finish, something which I’m attributing in part to some recovery gear I was testing- accapi nexus clothing, and will be researching in more depth in the coming months. The following week I was round in Chamonix for a week of mountaineering which culminated in a 17hour walk/climb, again, more long distance event training!

Bring on Ironman Austria 2011…… !!

A few thanks to those who made this event possible, firstly my girlfriend Louise for being so understanding- especially as it meant I was away for your birthday!! Martin for persuading me to enter and the race jersey, Nadya for organising the accommodation and just generally being amazing, Dave and Neil for the pre-race prep nerves and advice, Mark and Michelle for your experienced words of wisdom when I thought it was game over, Matt for fetching salt, Tony for being my chauffeur and camera man, and Tracy for not slapping me then accompanying me for the start of my long walk. It was also great to catch up with all my old friends, and meet new ones from the TriTalk community.

Will I do it again? there is already talk of the Ryton Tri club making this the “club trip” in 2012, whether I’ll be there I don’t know, but there is the small matter of taming that run and doing the race justice…..