Two days after completing the 2018 Alpe d’Huez long distance triathlon in August I started writing this blog post. But my emotions were still too raw for me to make much progress. Parts of me were also too raw, but the less said about that the better.
The Canadian pro triathlete Lionel Sanders talked about the wisdom of applying a 72-hour rule before getting too analytical about races, before going on to emotionally dissect his disappointing Kona 2018 performance after 48 (video here). Now I’ve just made it past 72 *days* I think I’m finally ready to analyse how this race went. Here goes…
Alpe d’Huez tri was my Kona. The race I’d been targeting all year, and sacrificed time, money, lie-ins, etc. to be ready for. And I’d planned the tattoo ready for if I completed it (because I didn’t know whether I would): it would be my biggest challenge to date. My trophy shelf suggested I was having a good year, with five overall wins, three age-group wins, and qualification for the 2019 half ironman world championships. But behind the scenes it hadn’t been a great year for me. I’d taken some time off training at the end of 2017 to undergo IVF treatment, but the treatment had failed. Triathlon training became a bit of a lifeline, a much-needed distraction from feeling very low. I decided to use the year to tick off my bucket-list race: Alpe d’Huez long distance tri in the French Alps. Having this iconic race to focus on and look forward to gave me so much joy when there was little else to smile about. And the continued friendship, support and coaching I got from the Hartree JETS tri squad helped to motivate me.
Alas, my race started going wrong three days before it started. At Geneva Airport. For some reason it took about an hour for luggage to be removed from the plane, so I missed the train I was aiming to catch. Alpe d’Huez is not easy to get to, and my journey was supposed to involve two trains followed by two buses. With a bike. Even if all had gone to plan it was never going to be a relaxing day. I had looked into other transport options but as a solo traveller the costs were prohibitive. Missing the train from the airport was annoying, but I didn’t realise at that point that it was the last train that would enable me to get to Alpe d’Huez that day on public transport.
What followed was a day of increasing stress levels as I chased down connections, and missed each one by only ten minutes. Arriving in Grenoble after the last bus had just gone I desperately jumped in a taxi, but the driver didn’t understand my attempts at conveying “follow that bus!” (and the roads were too congested to make any headway on the bus anyway), so we missed its subsequent stops too. As I made the longest taxi journey of my life, I tried not to look at the alarming figures on the meter as they ticked upwards, and tried to convince myself that it was only money.
As I dejectedly put the €180 taxi fare on my credit card my mood began its all-too-familiar slide down the slippery slope that I associate with my depression. Depression is an old companion of mine: sometimes distant, sometimes close, but always there. I’m careful with my money, and the big hit caused by the failure of my travel plans called into question my abilities not only to budget and plan, but to do anything. I even doubted my ability to swim, bike, and run, despite months of training and good results. I wondered what the point of any of this was, particularly why I’d dragged myself to the French Alps at great expense for something as pointless as a triathlon. When my depression is distant and well-managed I get really excited about racing because I love it – it makes me feel so alive and invigorated – but this time there was no excitement, only self-doubt. I recognised what was happening, and tried to tell myself the bad journey was not worth getting down about, that it wasn’t a reflection of my own abilities. But I’m not a good listener when it comes to myself. I needed the comforting perspective of a good friend, and regretted travelling alone to this race. I regretted entering this race and just wanted to go home.
Race day came, and I got myself to the start. The weather and the scenery were both stunning. What a day to be alive! What a great opportunity! Were things I knew I’d be thinking if my depression would leave me alone. The mass swim start of all 1000+ competitors in Lac du Verney was intimidating, but the 2.2 km swim in my wonderful Aqua Sphere Phantom wetsuit was actually enjoyable, and I cheered up a little. Maybe I can do this after all, I thought.
Then it was on to the 118 km bike course with its 3.2 km of ascent (approximately Ben Nevis plus Scafell Pike plus Snowdon) and its finish at the top of the 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez: the main attraction for anyone entering this race. The mountains and lakes were spectacular, and I gasped in awe when the surrounding fields and forest suddenly dropped away and the road took us over the incredible Viaduc de la Roizonne (110 m high: I was glad it wasn’t windy!).
I was feeling OK, but before too long my back and nether regions started to hurt, and I tried to work out why. Leith Cycles had kindly loaned me a super-light Moda carbon road bike, which I’d previously found comfortable for hilly rides up to 8 hours in length. My mistake was not noting the seat height and handlebar angle that had worked so well, and then thinking that, once I’d reassembled it in France, a quick test run round the car park would be an adequate test of the setup I’d had to guess at. How could I have been so stupid? I berated myself for this fundamental oversight: something that was so simple and very much in my control. My mood began to spiral lower.
The remainder of the cycle was a mental and physical slog, not the joyous feeling of speed and freedom that I usually thrive off in triathlons. I was being overtaken rather than overtaking people, and I was dreading the 21 hairpins that I’d come here for. I couldn’t wait to get off the bike, but knew I had to scale Alpe d’Huez first. And to add insult to injury, the drinks at the aid stations turned out to be mint flavoured. Mint! It was like drinking mouthwash – each mouthful made me gag and it was a real effort to get it down. Thankfully I’d relied on my own supply of CLIF Shot Bloks for energy and electrolytes: this was one part of my race that went well.
Eventually I got to the foot of the hill that my running shoes were on top of. The snag was that the hill was Alpe d’Huez: 13 km long with over 1 km of vertical height gain. Surprise, surprise: it was a bit tough. I felt broken, but just kept turning the pedals and climbing upwards. At one bend I got a drive-thru cold shower from a guy with a hosepipe, who I nearly proposed to on the spot. And from about halfway up a passing British cyclist (not in the race) detected my forcefield of negativity and decided to chum me to the top while recounting all the tough climbs he’d blasted up that week. Pretty annoying if I’m honest, but also very helpfully distracting.
Then I was at the top. The cycle had taken 5 hours and 37 minutes. I was completely humbled by this epic challenge, and had never been so pleased to hang up my bike to start the run. Just a hilly half marathon to go! I felt OK (relatively speaking!) on the first of the three laps, but after I’d been racing for nearly 7 hours my body decided it had had enough. I’m used to racing hard for 5 hours over the same kind of distances as in this race, but I hadn’t properly considered the demands of the more challenging terrain. I started giving myself little opportunities to walk: firstly the aid stations (drink two cups, throw two cups over my head), then the hills, then some of the flats too. Whatever I could do just to get to the finish.
But I wasn’t going to walk the finish chute: see my sister’s video of my finish, from the livestream coverage. Note my sister’s weeping in the background (it had been an emotional day for my family too) and the cat joining in.
My half marathon took 1 hour 52 minutes, and my total race time was 8 hours 12 minutes. I’d hoped to be quicker, but had no real basis for that expectation. Surprisingly I was 11th amateur female, and 3rd veteran female. And from a bit of research on those who finished ahead of me I think I was the first (or maybe second) female who had never raced an ironman-distance race. So I topped my newly-created ‘totally-out-of-their-depths’ race category.
This video gives a stunning view of this amazing race, complete with stirring music and Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean. It turns out I’m faster than him at triathlon.
But was I pleased about the rest of my performance? My thoughts on this have changed with time, hence the wisdom of applying the 72-day rule in this case. I was pleased to complete this utterly epic race. And a podium place is certainly not to be sniffed at, especially in such a tough race in which I faced more mental and physical challenges than usual. But I was bitterly disappointed that I hadn’t enjoyed this bucket-list experience I’d worked hard all year for. True, there were some factors I couldn’t control, but there were also things I need to shoulder the blame for. It wasn’t an experience I wanted to commemorate and be reminded of with a tattoo. I now feel proud of what I achieved, but think I could have done better. ‘Better’ might not necessarily have meant a higher position: I’d have settled for a more enjoyable race experience.
So would I think about doing this race again? I’ve pondered this a few times:
- During the event: definitely not.
- The day after the event: definitely not.
- Two days after the event: probably definitely not.
- Recently: I do have unfinished business with this race…
- While writing this blog: I’ve just entered the 2019 race. Oops.
Many thanks to Joel Enoch and Scott Findlay for expert coaching, the Hartree JETS for companionship and banter through the tough sessions, Aqua Sphere for my excellent swim kit, Leith Cycle Co for the bike and maintenance, PedalSure for the bike insurance, and CLIF bar for fuelling my training and racing.