Below is a race report for the Alpe D’Huez Long Course Triathlon and is written by Premier Tri member David Rees. The views expressed are his alone!
So here I am eight days out from the toughest race of my life and I’m faced with a dilemma. Namely, which end of my convulsing body to aim at the toilet. It turns out that if your ‘mate’ offers you an opportunity to partake in 3.6km swim race down the Thames as a ‘warm-up’ it may not be the benevolent act first figured. And so it was that having two more days ‘rest’ than originally planned and with an enhanced distain for Thames Water avec Rats Urine I set off for the Alps with Premier Tri super star Ellie Dorman and interloper and aforementioned ‘mate’ Barry Crane.
The views almost make the gruelling cycle worthwhile
When we booked onto the Alpe D’Huez Long Course Triathlon earlier in the year we were under no illusions as to how tough it was likely to be. Having scoured numerous forums for advice on what to expect the recurring words to be found were ‘inhumane’, ‘hell’ and ‘gruelling’. Figuring these were from the mouths of the underprepared and undertrained and with the tinges of overconfidence at having completed a half iron man in under 5hrs the previous summer I figured all would be well.
Race co-pilots Ellie and Barry
And so I came to be stood on the edge of a glacial lake preparing for my first mass start alongside 1200 other weirdos. The swim of 2.2k was undoubtedly in cleaner water than the Thames. Possibly because it was so cold not even the meanest kind of bacteria would want to live in it. Officially recorded at 14degrees I can only imagine the thermometer was broken on the day as probably over three quarters of the field sat on the rocks at the side of the lake rather than swim to the start before the hooter went. My initial thought of ‘I’m gonna freeze to death’ was quickly forgotten once we got underway. To be replaced by ‘I’m gonna drown’. Whilst there is definitely a degree of over exaggeration here, it was certainly the toughest swim I’ve done, and as swimming in normally my weakest discipline the swim to the first buoy was pretty stressful.
Once settled into my stroke however, I began to actually enjoy myself, I no longer felt the cold and could feel people tapping my toes. That’s right, people were drafting me! If only they know what a terrible sighter I was they may have re-thought this strategy. The first lap completed and feeling good I ploughed round for lap two. Around this point I started to notice the little finger of my left hand going wayward, a condition soon to afflict the rest of my hand. Seemingly the adrenalin had made me unaware that my left hand was steadily going numb but I swam on, minus one fin, to finish in under 40mins. Delighted at having achieved this first goal I staggered out of the water, mounted my steed and readied myself for the 115km bike.
Race day kit
The first 30km is a false flat downhill and offers a good opportunity to get some pace up. I’d been really looking forward to the bike having trained especially hard on this over the winter and having driven the course a few days before I knew it was epic, beautiful and tough. Looking at my heart rate monitor out of the swim it read 171bpm. Going downhill. I’d assumed this was misfiring as a result of the swim but 10mins later it still nestled around 170bpm. I could only assume the cold, stress, excitement, caffeine gel and exertion had assimilated into a tachycardic cocktail so I tried to slow down, calm down and remind myself it was a long day. A really long day…..
The first climb up the Alpe du Grand Serre is according to the race website ‘not particularly difficult’. Lies. It really is not one to be underestimated and I was careful not do overdo things. Ever one to see the positives in life I took the amount of people going past me on this climb as a sure sign that I had indeed had a really good swim. The descent down the Alpe du Grand Serre was truly one of the most glorious passages of cycling I’d ever done and made the effort worthwhile though. The second climb up the Col D’Ornon was made tougher by a frankly unnecessary headwind and I was by now, as they say, peddling squares. The joy of seeing the ‘2km to Summit’ sign was erased by the horror of seeing my pace as 8kmph. Like I said, a long day.
And so to the climb up Alpe D’Huez itself. Steeped in history, it really is amazing to be racing up the 21 switchbacks. I use the word racing in the loosest terms here. As a physio, I feel I have a good grasp of human anatomy but some muscles I didn’t even know existed started to cramp as I attempted to put in a spurt of effort. Resolving to sitting and spinning in my smallest gear, whilst drinking my bodyweight in flat Coke, I started the slow process of dragging myself up the climb. It’s worth noting that the atmosphere all throughout the bike was amazing, with all the riders encouraging each other and this undoubtably helped spur me on to T2.
Ellie on a recovery spin a few days later
My first thought coming into T2? That’s a lot of bikes. It’s difficult to know if I’d had a bad ride, or in fact I’d actually had a good day and just wasn’t as conditioned as I’d hoped. Either way, it had been really tough and I doff my cap to the Tour de France riders and what they achieve. Chapeau sirs. Still, the run is my strongest suit I was sure to go past a few people on a hilly course that would normally suit me…..
The runs consists of three laps at the top of Alpe D’Huez, each one taking in 400metres of climbing on what for large parts constitutes a fell run. It is beautiful but brutal. The mental games started early, promising myself that if I ran for 3mins, I could walk for 1min, I would also frequently have to pause, adopt a semi-squat and let the cramp abate. I can honestly say that at no stage did quitting feel a good option, it just felt like the run would take a long time. And it did. My quads felt on fire throughout but slowly, slowly I got round. The feeling and atmosphere coming down the finishing shoot was unbelievable and something I will never forget.
Finish line elation
My time on the day was 9hrs 14mins. Considerably slower than my aim of 8hrs 30mins, though exactly what this aim was based on I have no idea. It really is a race like no other and almost impossible to predict how you’ll manage. As for my compadres? Ellie finished in 10hrs 15mins and proceeded to tell us what an amazing day she’d had. A strange emotion as far as I was concerned at this point. I roundly ignored her and her positive attitude for the rest of the evening in favour of introspective self pity. As for Barry, he smashed it in 8hrs 6mins. He then proceeded to have an acute asthma attack, walk around trying to remember the French for bronchospasm (it’s ‘bronchspasme’ in case you wondered) and persuade the marshals to let him into transition to grab his inhaler. An irate, confused, hypoglycemic Glaswegian is hard to understand at the best of times but for the French, near impossible. That said, they quickly realised the gravity of the situation and all was well.
The following days, full of coffee and pastries, thoughts progressed from ‘never again’ to ‘what an amazing race’ and finally ‘do you want to come back next year?’. It is the toughest day I’ve had in a race and we all felt suitably pleased to have just completed it. They say enjoyment is sometimes retrospective, and in this case that is probably true, but I do find myself looking at the photos thinking, ‘it wasn’t that bad, was it?’. As to whether I would want to do it again, well let’s wait until my legs stop screaming at the mere thought of stairs, but, as they say never say never…..
Tips if you were thinking of doing the Alpe D’Huez Long Course Triathlon:
1. Think very carefully. Only joking, it really is a one-off race and a true bucket lister.
2. Cycle. A lot. Ideally get some time in the Alpes or somewhere similarly hilly.
3. Affix a dinner plate as your largest gear. If that isn’t possible – an 11×28 cassette is pretty much a necessity.
4. Wear two hats on the swim. It’s cold. Keep to the back if mass starts stress you out.
5. The support stations are excellently stocked and you can swop water bottles just like the pros!
6. Prepare yourself for the fact it will be a long day and take it easy to begin with on the bike.
Details of the race can be found on the official website at www.alpetriathlon.com/en