Race report: Alp d’Huez Triathlon (long course)

Having elected not to go to Worlds in Lausanne this year due to cost, summer 2019 became all about tackling the long game. With a house move planned and consequent job uncertainty, I decided against joining my Berkshire Tri Squad peers in Ironman Austria. I just couldn’t commit to solo training for full distance with so much life change on the horizon.

So as a compromise, Paul and I agreed to enter Alp d’Huez long course. Our thinking was that in going there just the two of us, there would be less pressure to “perform” if training didn’t go as planned, the long, hilly bike course would suit me, and the difficulty factor would scratch the itch of stepping up to longer events. Plus, Paul had unfinished business after a less than enjoyable attempt in 2011!

Training went OK, I hit most of my sessions, though I probably peaked a little early and backed off a bit too soon. Running was going very well, with paced PBs in both 10km (43:33) and half marathon (1:34:50) distances in the spring. In April, we tackled an endurance MTB race in Wales, followed by a longer distance off-road duathlon where I picked up some goodies for the mantelpiece. We completed 3 long days of Tour of Wessex in May, which put some good climbing miles in the legs (and saddle sores in the nether regions!!). Finally, in our last big effort pre-race day, we completed our first aquabike. Absolutely Jimmy Nailed it with a win of 13 minutes over the next lass 😀

Marlow aquabike win 🙂

So after finishing up with work, and getting closer to selling Paul’s house, we set off in the van for les montagnes! The late ferry was fine, and we elected to drive a couple of hours beyond Calais before parking up in a motorway “aire” to bunker down for the night. Our van sleep routine of a couple of sleeping pills washed down with a glass of wine worked well, and we got a reasonable sleep in despite the enforced spooning. In the morning we grabbed a service station croissant and yoghurt, before getting ready to hit the road. We saw another English family rooting through some bins as we were leaving; turned out that their motor home had been broken into overnight whilst they were sleeping, and they’d had all of their passports and cash nicked. Thank gawd for having a converted former AA panel van with locks like Fort Knox! 🙂

Van life: breakfast in the Aire de Service carpark

Aside from the insane heat in the un-airconditioned van, and an old codger reversing into us at a toll booth, the rest of the journey down was pretty unremarkable. We arrived to our campsite where we hired a static caravan for the week, and the surrounding views were A-MA-ZING! On Monday morning we got up and decided to ride the Alp d’Huez climb so I had an idea of what to expect on race day. Taking it very steady, we got up in 1h08, which felt very comfortable. What we didn’t expect was for Paul’s fully charged Di2 to fail on the way back to the campsite. Unable to “fix” it, we limped back with Paul drafting me (it can be done Mr Fazackerley!) whilst spinning like a nutter. After a panic-stop at a local bike shop and a plan to drop the bike in in the morning, we managed to enjoy some carb-loading with a couple from our home tri club. Miraculously, when we got up the next morning, Paul’s bike was back to being fully-functioning. We can only guess that prolonged exposure to the heat had temporarily disabled the electronics! Lesson number 1: check your bike electronics are fully juiced and able to withstand extremes of heat!

Campsite with a view

Over the next few days we did a couple of short jogs, a full bike course recce in the van and had a swim in the Huez pool. Unfortunately, we missed any official swims so had to make do with a single lane in the public session, which wasn’t ideal. Lesson number 2: take advantage of official swim opportunities. In the background the mercury kept on rising, with temperatures averaging around 35 degrees Celsius in the day and not dropping much below 25 at night. Unfortunately, I do sweat quite a lot for a fit lass, so perhaps not the best prep for race day… Lesson number 3: up your fluid and electrolyte intake in the days leading up to long course.

Alp d’Huez hairpins
Official run recce

Then came registration and racking and a chance to meet Daniela Ryf, who had elected to race ADH long course as part of her prep for Kona. Dammit my chances of winning just went down the toilet! 😀 She seemed very busy and I felt a bit starstruck, so we just admired her from afar and did the necessary. Final preparations involved a quiet night in and some sausage pasta, and the obligatory bag packing/re-packing/game of “where’s my effing race belt” of course.

Race morning finally arrived… battle braids were plaited, I did my best with local supermarket food breakfast and then followed the 30 minute cycle to the lake/T1. Usual amount of faffing, then came an insane queue for the ridiculously small number of toilets available.

The lake

I started in the crisp, mirror-like lake around 20 minutes ahead of Paul. By my reconing, I would probably stay ahead of him until around 2/3 of the way through the bike. The 2.2km swim was cold and serene, and afforded stunning views with each sighting breath. There were no major dramas and a I exited the water a slightly disappointing 41 minutes later.

On to the bike, and the undulating ride out to the first climb of the day seemed pretty good. My nutrition “strategy” (and I use this term loosely) was to have the equivalent of a Veloforte bar prior to all climbs (I had bought the pre-portioned mixed bites bag) and then woof down a gel prior to each descent. Climb one – the Alpe du Grand Serre (1375m) – initially felt great. I was catching some of the girls in my AG, but in doing so I definitely overcooked the watts. The thermostat was palpably rising and half way up I really began to feel it. Somewhat surprisingly, Paul passed me on that first ascent. Not knowing whether he was having a blinder or I was having a shocker, we exchanged a few words before he pedalled off into the rising sun. I think it was the start of the second ascent up the Col d’Ornon (1371m) where my body started to feel bad. I was no longer managing to keep solids down so was relying on gels and fluids to get me to T2. Somewhere around here I was even more surprised to pass Paul… he was starting to suffer with cramp in the heat and had needed to stop and stretch at a feed station. Another descent and I remember passing someone I had met on a tri camp a few years back – he’d unfortunately had a blow-out puncture. I eventually got to the foot of Alp d’Huez, and started up it’s 21 hairpins. Having scoped this part of the course out several times virtually on Zwift (PB 53 minutes – racing Emma Pooley) and once earlier in race week (68 minutes – relative pootle), I had my eyes on a 50-60 minute climb time. Although I passed many people who had stopped to seek shelter from the scorching sun or to get some water from waterfalls (40+ degrees C at this point), and re-overtook my tri camp acquaintance, my legs felt like jelly and I limped up in 78 minutes with an average power of just 151w, to come into T2 with an overall bike time of 5 hours 41 minutes.

I could see that Paul had not come in as we were racked side by side, and the rack next to me was empty. Unsure as to whether he had DNF or was struggling on, I got out onto the run and that’s when the real fun started.

The run course is a 3x 6.7km undulating, off-road loop at 1800m altitude with very little shelter from the elements. I think there were 2 official toilet stops (imagine HOW grim in 40 degree heat!!), somehow I found another (unofficial) loo, and thank GAWD I did! Cue flashbacks to our Thailand triathlon, this was possibly worse and I would estimate I averaged 2.5 poops per lap. At least I had a 2 piece on 😀 My pace was pretty terrible, but I managed to keep going and only walk through feed stations, and found that watermelon was staying down OK. I think I may even have picked a couple of people off, although undoubtedly more picked me off in exchange!

The run

Coming into the finish after 2 hours 11 minutes of running, I couldn’t control my emotions and the tears flooded down my face. I had done it in 8 hours 41!

After staggering to my medal, it all got a bit hazy and my lack of sugar overcame me. I managed to prop myself up next to something, but must’ve looked like sh*t as some lovely bloke fetched me some Coke and crackers and made sure I wasn’t going to completely pass out. Paul managed to find me on the floor and helped me to exit the finish area with slightly more dignity than I had entering it. We collected our bags and got the news that our entire tri club at home had been glued to the live feed and were somewhat speechless that I had a quicker bike time than Paul, and had managed to come in 4th in AG. Result!

Post race beer fixes most things!

After the race, we realised the Tour de France course wasn’t too far away from us and was scheduled to come our way a day before we were due to leave. In a very unlike us move, we made a last minute decision to pack up and hot foot it to spectate. The whole episode would be a blog post in itself, but suffice to say it was worth the trip to see G in action!

Sporting our freebies
The spiky end of the field

Would I do Alp d’Huez Triathlon again? Yes, but I would definitely sort out some better fuelling strategy and pace myself a bit more on the first 2 climbs. I’d also hope for slightly cooler weather! Has it put me off attempting a full 140.6? Not sure. I’d want to break 11 hours and be “competitive”, but not sure how realistic that is. Watch this space 😉