As the T-shirt says: 2.2km swim, 118km bike, 20km run, 21 bends, 1 legend. The legendary race – Alpe D’Huez triathlon.
What made me do it? Heaven knows. My friend Simon said he had signed up. But then again many of my friends regularly signed up to similar stuff and that has never really swung a decision for me to do, for example, an Ironman.
I had been thinking of spending some summer training time in the Alps. I knew I was nowhere near adequately prepared for it since I’ve only been training for standard distance triathlon. However – I had completed the Marmotte cycling event and therefore knew what it was like to climb the Alpe D’Huez after a long bike ride, albeit 6 years ago. And I have recently completed a long mountainous sportive in the Pyrenees, although I would never even have considered a run afterwards. My longest run since Brighton marathon in April 2017 was about 13km, and certainly not at altitude. 2.2km swim – well that should be the easy part although apparently the water could be very chilly.
So I entered the race a mere 3 and a half weeks before race day. For most people, that would be nearly taper time. I managed to fit one long hilly bike ride in and a “long” run of about 13km.
It was HOT in the Alps. Temperatures were over 30 degrees Celsius. We were lucky – as we racked our bikes they announced that the water temperature was just over 18. Perfect – I won’t start the bike course with numb feet.
Amazingly as I was racking my bike I saw an old triathlete friend – which really made me appreciate what a small and wonderful community this is.
After racking my bike I went for a last minute loo stop – only 6 portaloos for about 1000 athletes and no chance of loo roll. So I gave myself a 10 minute before race start cut-off for queuing. Still had to get the wetsuit on, so was one of the last to enter the water.
By then the start line was 8 or 9 deep at least and there was literally nowhere to “go wide” for a clear swim, what would be my usual strategy, so I just had to suck it up.
Well, it sucked me up, almost literally. It was near impossible to even start swimming, and around the first buoy I had to just stop and lift my head up, and find my way out of the crowd, because I was going nowhere, the washing machine had taken over. Arms and legs everywhere, in a very disorganised fashion. Which made me think I should remind my head coach that this is why we need to teach people to swim properly with good technique, because everyone will have a much better day for it.
So I swam wide, very wide. A fellow swimmer decided to draft on my inside, side-by-side, and in doing so he kept pushing me further out, clearly not looking where he was going. I found it very annoying to say the least, I guess it’s a free for all, but he clearly wasn’t thinking, just doing. So I lifted my head up and bizarrely he did too and I said angrily shouted at him to get off me, which I think miraculously worked, or perhaps he was just getting tired. After that ordeal I found myself swimming side-by-side with a fellow athlete going at exactly my pace, good technique all round, holding his line, joy, until we lost each other around the last buoy.
Swim done, up the very steep blue-carpet-over-big-rocks ramp into transition, still undecided as what I was going to wear. My tri suit alone would be pretty uncomfortable for a 6 hour plus bike ride in the heat, I’ve only ever worn well cushioned shorts on long rides, and nope, I’m not an Ironman athlete. So I put on a pair of shorts over my tri suit, and decided it was worth digging into the wetsuit bag again for another layer of sunscreen! Didn’t have tri shoes since I preferred the comfort of proper cycling shoes, but I did put on a pair of running socks in anticipation for the run, since I only brought my normal trainers which would most certainly give blisters without socks.
So off I went on the bike. Knowing that this was my worst swim in a race ever, I was very surprised as I climbed the little hill out of transition to look into the lake below and see many many swimmers still in the water and some only starting their 2nd lap of 2.
But, as usual on the bike, it felt like the WHOLE of the field came past me in those first few kilometres, perhaps 100 overtook me for every 1 I overtook. The first bit was quite fast downhill and flat, but knowing how ill prepared I was for the race, I was never going to push too hard, at any point. So I just let them go.
Then we hit the first climb. Beautiful, lush, green, overshadowed by tall trees, we passed a beautiful waterfall twice. It was a long climb though – 14km with a gradient of 7% in most parts, no mean feat.
Then, after about an hour, I reached the summit. I stopped for water, but there were too many people and not enough water at the ready, so I decided to continue, but didn’t quite know how far to the next water point. So when we rode through a little village shortly after at the start of the second climb, I spotted a fountain and decided there and then to risk hopefully clean mountain water over running out of water. Thankfully the second climb was fairly short.
Descents! The only part of a race where I truly overtake other cyclists – just love them. The feeling of flying, the freedom, the how far can you risk it going round a bend. Every time I saw a sign “descente dangereuse” I got just a little excited.
Down through the valley and, have I mentioned the breathtaking scenery? Before the third climb there was a stop with sunscreen. I decided it was time to top up. So I asked the French lady who spoke no English and she literally covered me from head to toe in more sunscreen, and she did all that with the biggest smile ever! Who said the French weren’t nice?
Then, the climb. It started out very gradually and got steeper at the top. It was very exposed and temperatures were soaring by this time. It was gruelling! People were now at the point where they were stopping, getting off their bikes, stretching their legs out; the distance we have done, the heat, the effort, starting to take its toll. But, somehow, I made it through, slowly but surely. Then, another absolutely gorgeous descent, the final one of the day, before the ultimate climb, the famous Alpe D’Huez.
Pen on paper will never do this climb any justice. The only way to put it, is, it’s relentless, no letting off. The 21 switchbacks wind their way in one direction only – up the mountain. After 5 you look down and catch a glimpse of how far you have come in a relatively short space of time, knowing that you’re not even nearly halfway there. The big difference between this and the other climbs is – the traffic! Tourists, supporters, large trucks, all making their way up the mountain, the noise being quite disturbing, but with some gratitude to the supporters playing their music and shouting out their windows “allez allez allez” and “bon courage”. There were a couple of water stops – where the locals were quite happy to drench weary cyclists in water from the hoses, a nice relief on an otherwise hellishly hot climb (according to Garmin maximum temperature of 40 degrees), which provided but short-lasting relief. My heart sang when the signs pointed out that only 10 of the switchbacks remained – over halfway there. If I had the energy I would have done a little dance, but alas, this day was not over yet.
And whilst climbing the scary thought going round my head was – after this gruelling ride there was still a 20km run to deal with, something I had never done before after such a ride. By this point I had made a pact with myself to make it to the finish line, even if I had to walk the 20km, so I resigned myself to start the run by walking, and see how I felt.
Finally, the final switchback and the end in sight. Very relieved to have made it to T2 I changed into running shoes, donned a visor and started the walk. My legs were not feeling great at this point. But, after a couple of hundred metres, I managed to find the energy to jog slowly. I decided another top-up of suntan lotion was in order, this time I had 2 people tending to me.
There were signs at each kilometre and it was a 3 – lap run, so I just started to break it down to myself, at the first turning point I thought, 1/6th of the way there, after 5km, a quarter, and so on. I walked whenever I needed to (mainly on the uphills) and sometimes when I didn’t even need to. It was late afternoon on top of the mountain, and thankfully a little cooler. My stomach started cramping but it was bearable. Chatting away to fellow runners along the way, appreciating the wonderful French support, it all made the time pass fairly quickly even though in reality it was my slowest ever 20km by a very long way. I was surprised that the altitude didn’t have an enormous effect on me, I barely noticed it, but it could be due to the slow pace. Finally, the last turn into the finishing straight. I ticked off a couple of women who had come past me in the last lap, and decided I’d do my best to finish strong. And then, the finish line. I knew it would be emotional, and it was. I hugged a couple of fellow athletes, and was very very pleased to see my friend Simon waiting just beyond the barrier. As it turned out, he started late due to having to go back to the hotel to pick up his forgotten bike shoes and helmet, and didn’t manage to catch up enough to make it to the top of Alpe D’Huez before the cut-off time. I was gutted for him!
Back to T2 to pick up the bike. I could barely consider getting back on the bike, even though it was only a wonderful descent back to the hotel. Eventually I did though, and it felt like the reward to the day, cycling down the Alpe D’Huez, in a stunning sunset setting, the road to myself, going as fast as I dared, feeling the freedom. The best possible way to end the day.
As I cycled and ran all the teachings from this experience were circling in my thoughts:
- Unless you're perfectly prepared for an event – pace yourself appropriately, don’t get carried away by what anyone else is doing.
- Good advice from a fellow athlete: “tough it out”.
- Know your strengths and abilities, but more so, know your weaknesses and limitations, and work within that.
- There is no shame in walking.
- Running socks are actually not very comfortable in cycling shoes.
- Wear sunscreen.
- The French are actually very very nice, despite popular opinion.
- Get to the race early enough to cater for unforeseen eventualities.
- Find your place in the swim start, preferably before the swim start.
- Sometimes, just sometimes, do something out of your comfort zone that will challenge you mentally, physically and even spiritually.
- Train properly for the event you will be doing.
About the author: Christine Lutsch is a Team GB Age Group triathlete and Sundried ambassador.