Not a marathon or ultra but an amazing destination race and endurance event. I finished in 8:28:42, 285th place out of 855 starters.
Having seen a DC Triathlon Club review of the 2015 event it sounded like a great destination race and an interesting challenge.
We were planning a group trip to France to watch the Tour de France just South of Geneva, and I noticed that the dates fitted with the 2016 race.
I had decided to have a break from Iron distance triathlon in 2016 to focus on running, aiming to BQ in a Spring marathon, but wanted to enter a triathlon to ensure the cross training continued and this seemed perfect.
My friend Pete was easily persuaded to race too.
Over the winter I joined the DC Tri Club Off Season Spin Program which gave me good base cycling fitness coming into the new season. The main take away being the focus on faster cadence.
The first four months of the year were focused on running with a couple of days a week commuting on the bike. Going through Rock Creek Park to Bethesda meant I could do 13 miles out and 13 back and I adapted the route to take in as many hills as possible.
I ran the Run for the Red marathon in early May, and then turned my focus back to triathlon. I knew I had the running miles in my legs so just needed to keep the running ticking over. I wasn’t too concerned about the swim as I was doing two pool sessions a week with the DC Tri Masters Swim Program and had planned a couple of International tris to refresh the open water skills. Most of my training focus was on the bike as my weakest discipline, and the hardest part of the race.
I did a couple of loops into Maryland (MacArthur and Tuckerman, turning off MacArthur a few times to add additional hills) and a long ride at Thurmont, North of Frederick, criss crossing the ridge.
I had been told that Skyline Drive in Shenandoah was the best place near DC to train for Alpine climbs. I did one out and back from Front Royal to Skylands. (88 mile round trip), which was a good ride and some great (?!) hills. I had planned a second trip to do the same route but time and illness prevented it.
My wifes work took us to Colorado over Memorial weekend and I managed a couple of runs there. I’m not sure how much it helped physically but psychologically I knew I could run at altitude.
There are companies that will book the trip for you but we booked everything ourselves. We camped at a lovely small site (Camping la Ferme Noémie) in the valley a couple of miles North of Bourg d’Oisans, in between the swim location and the Alpe d’Huez. There were several other athletes staying there. We got a lift to the start with family and they were at the finish watching which worked well (some people stay at Alpe d’Huez and cycle down to the start. We passed a few cyclists cycling to the start from Bourg d’Oisans and coming down from Alpe d’Huez, there is a significant climb up to the reservoir so we were glad we hadn’t opted to ride.
I thought about flying with my bike but decided against it due to the amount of moving around we were doing. Instead I hired one from Cycle Et Sports in le Bourg d’Oisans. I considered the top end race bike options but decided to hire a cheaper road bike instead and use the money to hire it for longer and get some practice in. I ended up with a Specialized (not sure of the model) with a triple designed for the Alps. I took my own pedals but could have hired those too. It was a great service from the shop and they were even ok with me dropping it off the morning after the race so I didn’t have to rush back down to beat closing time. Pete was driving out from the UK so he brought his bike with him.
I flew out overnight on Thursday a week before the race, changing at Heathrow, then on to Geneva. We had a few days at Samoens (small village in valley between Flaine and Morzine ski resorts) to watch the tour pass through on Saturday (We did a short run in the morning). On Sunday I had planned to hire a bike for the day and go up the Col du Joux Plane (an HC climb that some say is harder than Alpe d’Huez). All the bike shops were out of road bikes so I borrowed Pete’s mountain bike and went up on that. It was a good introduction to what Alpine climbs are like. We just did the climb, had a coffee and cake then enjoyed the descent.
On Monday we moved onto Bourg d’Oisans. I had considered doing the duathlon on Tuesday (a run in the valley, cycle up the Alpe d’Huez, then run at top) but decided to save the Alpe for the race. On Tuesday we picked up the hire bike and cycled up the valley to do climb to Les Deux Alpes, a Category 1. We stopped for lunch then cycled back to Bourg d’Oisans and did the first 6 bends of Alpe d’Huez before turning around. It was good to get a feel for the bike and to experience the first few bends of the climb.
On Wednesday we had a rest day and went up to the glacier at Les Deux Alpes then up to Alpe d’Huez to register. It was good to drive up the climb to see it, and we realized the route went beyond the 21 hair-pins – more climbing after the official end of the climb!! Registration was well organized (though not well signed). We picked up swag and a had a quick look at the expo, then back to the campsite to get prepared.
Pete and I were up early and had coffee, porridge with nuts and dried fruit, and a banana for breakfast.
I had a banana and coconut water at start as I was racking my bike.
It was forecast to be hot so I filled both my bottles of electrolyte (Nuun tabs) but decided against my camelback. The race umpires were very strict and officious around transition compared to local races and even the Ironman I had done the previous year.
Everything was well organized and our only complaint was the lack of toilets.
There were queues to get down the bank and into the water for the swim, so I was still swimming to the start line when the hooter went off (some people had got in early and waited on the rocks for the hooter). The water was very cold but got warmer as you got out into the reservoir, away from the river entrance.
There was a lot of congestion at the first and second turn buoys which put me off my stroke but then I found open water and really enjoyed the swim. It was lovely clear water and I didn’t feel the cold too much once I got going, though some people were wearing neoprene hoodies / booties. I just had a wetsuit over my tri suit and a second swim cap.
The swim exit is up a steep carpeted bank which was slippery but there were several people on hand to help pull you up. I completed the swim in 42:36.
I didn’t rush transition as I wanted to make sure I was comfortable on the bike.
There is a short sharp climb out of transition then it is mostly downhill after reservoir, all the way to the first aid station. I noticed lots of drafting on this section but not many race officials. Pete flew past me on this section and we exchanged a few words.
The first aid station is at the foot of the first climb. I had been slower on the downhill but passed a lot of people on the climb. Most people were riding road bikes but there were still a few tri bikes.
I stopped at the top to refill my bottles and eat (watermelon and an energy bar) from the well stocked aid station. There was then a very long downhill with some sketchy corners and chaos with people overshooting, losing bottles etc.
I was making sure that I was drinking plenty on the bike, stopping at aid stations to fill my bottles but they were handing out bottles so I could have thrown mine and grabbed new ones.
The next section was undulating through villages and countryside. I stopped at the bottom of next climb to fill my bottles and eat.
On the climb over Col d’Ornon I was pulled up for drafting and told I would have a 5 minutes penalty before starting the run. There were so many cyclists that it was difficult not to draft and the umpires were pulling in and booking groups of people. It was a long hot climb up Col d’Ornon and I stopped at the top for refueling.
There was then another good downhill with more sharp bends into Bourg d’Oisans. There was a feed stop in the town, where I refuelled on more solid food, deciding I’d move onto gels on the alpe if I needed it.
All that was left was to climb the Alpe (and run). I didn’t stop on the climb, just taking bottles from and throwing my empties, I also moved over to one water one energy. I felt good and enjoyed the extra gears which made the climb easier and pushed me up the rankings. Friends and family were following our progress and it was an amazing boost seeing them at different bends. I had a gel about 2/3 of the way up and another a couple of bends from the top as I could feel cramp coming on.
I entered transition after 5:40:27 on the bike, and taking 1:19:39 to climb the Alpe. I took a quicker transition as I new I could eat / get prepped in the penalty tent which was on the way out of transition for the run. I put on a T-shirt and cap to protect me from the sun. I had opted for trail shoes for the run but road shoes would be fine as it was mostly tarmac.
I paced up and down for 5 minutes in the penalty tent (which was busy) with a few token stretches then I was out onto the run course. It was hot and I could feel the effects of altitude. I took the first lap easy scoping out the route and struggling a bit on tired legs. It is an undulating course with a couple of switchbacks on a road taking you to highest point (Didn’t we see enough on the Alpe!). There were a couple of aid stations giving water, energy drink watermelon, energy bars and assorted snacks. I stuck to water / energy on the first lap and watermelon, on subsequent laps mostly just watermelon as I felt I was over hydrating after the bike.
I pushed harder on the second and third laps, although my pace didn’t increase by much and then put in a spurt from the long downhill back into town. There was an amazing atmosphere in the finish shoot and lots of high 5s. I completed the run in 1:57:11.
Once across the finish line I got my finishers t-shirt, and a stuffed marmot toy. There were plenty of snacks, liquid and hot pasta on offer. I drank a bit then sat in the ice baths (one of the sponsors had a load of demos set up). After the ice bath I had bowl of pasta while cheering in other runners. You exchange your timing chip for your wetsuit which has been transported up to the summit.
We missed out on the post race stuff as we were staying down the hill so picked up our bikes, and drove down to shower and find something to eat.
Hints / tips / lessons
Staying in valley is a good option if you have transportation.
There is great support out on course. And it’s a great one for friends and family to watch. Ours watched the swim from the road so saw us about a mile into the bike, then went for something to eat and headed for the Alpe. They had a couple of cars so were able to watch at different points during the climb up the Alpe which was great motivation to know there would be more familiar faces a couple of bends up.
Strict umpiring. As well as drafting penalties I saw several pulled over for outside assistance eg someone handing a runner an ice pack on the run course!
I was happy with my fueling strategy – start eating early and eat lots on the bike. And keep hydrated.
The road bike was a good choice and I was very happy with the hire bike (I almost considered making them an offer…!)