Alpe d’huez triathlon. 2nd place. Every now and then I question my own sanity. Last Thursday was one of those days. 2 days after Ironman UK I flew out to Lake Annecy for a holiday with some of my best friends. Hiking, biking, Tour de France, lake swims, red wine, good food, late nights, late mornings and lots of laughter. Just the tonic I needed to avoid the post-ironman blues. The trip had been booked back in January. At the time I figured the only way I could really justify an unstructured fun training week was if I combined it with racing Alpe d’huez triathlon so I persuaded one of my friends to stay out an extra week and race it with me. But then I decided to race Bolton. No worries – I’d simply head over to Alpe d’huez with Jo and watch the race instead.
So that was the plan. On the Monday Jo dropped me off while she drove the van and I set off on what I figured would be at worst a 5hr ‘adventure’ ride to the top of Alpe d’huez. Turns out my maths wasn’t great; 6 hr 18 minutes of pedalling later, having run out of food 3 hrs previously, I crawled my way to the top of the mountain and staggered into the apartment, somewhat delirious. And in that delirious state I decided, evidently rationally and logically, that of course I should do the race 3 days later. Arguably a crazy decision, particularly given the circumstances in which I made it, but not a decision I regret. Opportunities to race in the mountains don’t come round often. If I’m honest I was kind of intrigued to see what kind of performance I could pull off with no taper and an ironman in my legs. So once my mind was made up that was that. I had 2 days to eat as much as I possibly could (this was hardly a chore!), rest as much as I could and superglue my toe back together (don’t ask!)
The race itself is iconic. Brutal but awesome. Tough if you’re fresh; even tougher if you’re not. Nothing about this race is easy but so much of it is unique. The race starts with a 2.2km swim in a glacial lake. Then a 120km ride with 3 cols (3.5 this year – they added an extra small one this year because of road works) and >3000 meters climbing. The ride ends at the top of Alpe d’huez, at 1800m. And then there’s the small matter of a 22km undulating run at altitude. One of the most special parts of the day for me was rolling down the mountain to the start with hundreds of other excited competitors as the sun was starting to rise over the mountains.
I wasn’t nervous for this race. I didn’t expect to be at the pointy end and was more intrigued as to how hard it would be than to how fast I’d be able to go. Yet somehow I found myself first out of T1 and onto the bike. And for the first hour of the ride my legs felt great. OK I thought. Just roll with it. Maybe you’re fresher than you think. But then it hit me. Half way up the first climb my power started to drop and from then on I was running on empty. Jeanne Collonge passed me at the top of this climb; I tried to hold on but soon realized that, unless she blew up, today had to be a day for me to do my own thing. It’s a tough bike ride to finish when you’re empty. But I was kind of relishing being empty. I’d wanted to test myself and this was for sure a test. When else do you get to race in the mountains, with the sun shining and a motorbike camera crew riding up to you every now and then? The views are stunning. The descents are fun. The climbs are tough. It’s a race like no other. Crawling my way to the top of Alpe d’huez I honestly wondered how I’d be able to get round the run. I felt as though I’d emptied the tank 3 hours previously. The thought of a half marathon seemed impossible. But your brain can get your body to do wonderful things if you want it to. So somehow, I managed to put one foot in front of the other, and endure the run. By this point I wasn’t racing. I was surviving. At times, on the climbs, it felt as though I would be quicker walking. But I kept trotting along. One step, two steps, three steps, four. One step, two steps, three steps, four. It was HARD. I was going so slowly that I stopped looking at my garmin. I’ve only felt as bad as this in races twice before. Once in Zofingen at the world duathlon champs in 2012. And secondly, last year in Kona. Running on empty is a soul-searching experience, but one which makes you a stronger athlete for sure!
Lots of people would say I’m bonkers for doing the race. I don’t think I am. I’ve spent most of my triathlon career following my heart and not my head. Whenever I’ve taken the ‘sensible path’ I’ve lost my love for the sport and have ended up underperforming. Sometimes it’s good to do races just for the hell of it. Just to see what happens. Just. For. Fun. And if you can wing your way to second place by doing so you’re definitely laughing.
Congratulations to Jeanne Collonge who put together a stunning performance to get the win. And also, to my wonderful friend Parys Edwards who had an equally tough day to finish 3rd.
Next up – who knows? Kona isn’t far away now but you’ll definitely see me on a start line at some point between now and then. But probably not for at least a couple of weeks!