Now, some people may disagree with the title of this post, probably those people living in either North Wales or the Scottish Highlands, but having spent considerable time in both, it is something I stand by. The reason for this bold statement was the crazy idea to do the EDF Alpe d’Huez Long Distance Triathlon which, 9 months after the original idea came to mind, all came together last week.

Before I go on, I just want to say that if either you’re thinking of doing this race or you’re thinking of doing a race abroad and don’t know which race to do, do this one. It is the most spectacular, beautiful and inspirational course you’ll ever do. It may also be the hardest, most challenging one as well, but that just makes it even better when you cross the line.

Somehow we got a team of 4 together from the office to take part of which we were all equally minded/naive about what we had signed up for after deciding that the short distance would be too easy. After a stop over in Reims we eventually arrived in to the Alps on the monday afternoon and this is where it all became very real.

We drove through Bourg-d’Oisans and turned onto the road up to the Alpe d’Huez, the car suddenly went very quiet as everyone was looking out the window speechless. The road turns the corner and straight away hits an 11% gradient and then just goes on and on and on, climbing and climbing through it’s legendary 21 hairpin bends. It’s something that you really have to go and see with your own eyes as I simply can’t describe it and do it justice. The views at every bend are stunning and you can see more and more as you crawl your way up the mountain. By the time we reached the top we understood why it has earned its legendary status within the Tour de France and were suitably nervous and starting to wonder what we had signed up for…

Bike/Run Transition at the top

At the top we checked in to the ski resort and went for a little run to loosen up and explore the run route before finding a restaurant and eating as much as we could. The next day we assembled the bikes and took them down 3 bends to make sure they worked. Unfortunately, or I like to think quite luckily, this is where I got Cadelled, getting my only puncture of the trip after getting a tack in my back wheel. I knew my wheels were very slick and this forced me to buy a new pair of tyres ahead of the race which did not let me down. We also used this opportunity to get some pictures of us on the climb ahead of the race before heading back to the hotel. One thing we did notice is that everyone else in the town was looking very serious, with over half in ironman t-shirts.

The tack from my tyre

Climbing the top bends of the Alpe d’Huez

In the afternoon we decided to drive down to the lake and drive the bike course, something that I’m really glad we did. This allowed us to see where the climbs and descents were so that the following day they wouldn’t be as much of a surprise. We then went for a quick 20 minute swim before again hitting the restaurant for more food before prepping the bikes and having an early night, there was nothing more that we could do now…

We woke up at 6:30 for the 9:30 start where we ate and put our running shoes in the second transition at the top before getting on the bike down to the lake with our wetsuits in our rucksacks. So before the 2.2km swim, 115km bike and 22km run, we had to do a 21km descent to the start line, just to make it that bit longer! (This is also longer than your average half iron-man, something which I didn’t realise prior to entering.) In fairness it was a beautiful descent which only took about 30 minutes and it was the perfect warm up. We timed the arrival perfectly and after we had set up and got our wetsuits on it was less than 10 minutes to the start.

Swim/Bike Transition by Lac Verney

Lac Verney

Lac Verney is absolutely beautiful and the water was a lovely temperature which was perfect for the race. The water is so clear and you could see almost as much underwater as in a swimming pool, something unheard of for an open water swim. The atmosphere in the water during the countdown was electric and was building and building as the countdown got closer and closer to the start. As we hit one minute to go, the thud of a helicopter appeared and hovered about 50m above the start before the horn went and we were off. As always the start was chaos, every time you turned to breathe you could just hear the helicopter overhead and just see a mass of people in the water, but being able to see underwater was invaluable. I avoided too many knocks and bumps and quickly settled into a nice rhythm which I kept throughout. It was the nicest swim I’ve ever done and I almost forgot what lay ahead.

Coming out of the swim was busy but I quickly found my bike, trying to put some more sunscreen on before setting off on my way. The first 26km were downhill and allowed me to take on food and drink while still going quickly. This is where it first became clear that is was going to be a hot day, according to my Garmin, the average temperature over the bike was a rather warm 30°C, peaking at over a scorching 37°C. Just another little factor to make this race even harder than your average half iron-man.

After the downhill we hit the town of Séchilienne where there was the first opportunity to pick up more water, before turning on to the climb of the Col du Grand Serre. Luckily this was mostly shaded and was never too steep. It did however go on and on for 14km and I kept wondering if this bend was the last one but unfortunately most times there was just another hiding around the corner. The views from the climb were stunning and we could see right across the valley at points, and towards the end we were pulling level with the top of the mountains opposite. All along the climb the support was great with supporters both scattered along the route but also cars driving past with flags out of the window with all the car shouting ‘allez allez’. At the top was the first feed station which was much appreciated and I swapped by two empty bottles for new ones.

After this climb there was a short descent which was much appreciated with a little climb before we could properly descent into the next valley. This is where I really started to feel the heat and knew that I’d not been taking on enough liquid. My lower back started to get really painful and I couldn’t put any power down. I carried on for another few kilometres but in the heat which had now reached 35°C, as soon as the road flattened out I had to pull over and try to stretch it out. At this point is was seriously starting to think I was beaten, although I was about half way on the bike I still had 2 massive climbs to go. I was overtaken by Lizzie who offered to help but there was nothing that she could do and I wouldn’t have wanted to slow her down. I got back on and made it to the town of Valbonnais which was a few kilometres down the road where there was a food stop and this completely saved me. I ate lots of food and drank as much as possible, restocked both my bottles and covered myself head to toe in water to try and cool down. This definitley helped and I felt a million times better, just as well because as soon as we left the town the climb of the Col d’Ornon began.

When we drove this section the previous day it didn’t seem too bad, it looked like a steady climb with a shallow gradient, however in the heat and on a bike it was a different beast. By this point it was peaking at 37°C which just sapped all the energy out you and everyone tried to take any refuge they could in any shade available. I took every opportunity to cover myself with water, the best being some of the locals who stood in the road with a hose, offering to spray people as the past to which I saw no-one say no. Towards the top of the climb I looked back down the valley where you could see just how much we had climbed. At the top was another much needed food and water stop before a beautiful descent winding down the mountain towards the next valley.

Descending the Col d’Ornon

As we got further down the mountain you could start to see more and more of the Alpe d’Huez, a gentle reminder that we still hard the hardest climb of the day ahead. I used the opportunity to eat and drink as much as possible before going through Bourg-d’Oisans where there were plenty of supporters cheering us on before the road turned towards the mountain.

Now, words cannot do the Alpe d’Huez justice, you really have to see it to believe it, and I recommend you do. Straight from the outset it hits 11% and the first 4 bends are horrible. The heat scorching down was intense and I had to stop numerous times to let my body cool down just a bit. A lovely British couple helped me at one point, filling my water bottles and checking I was ok before driving past me shouting support later on. It’s said that the average gradient is 7% but I would have to disagree, it never really lets off and just keeps on climbing. In total it’s a 1,130m climb over 14km, taking you up to 1,850m at the top. In total the climb took me 3h:19, but I made it up eventually and I couldn’t be happier the bike was over. Over the course of the bike route I burned 3,641 Calories, climbing a total of 3,837 m.

Almost at the top of the Alpe d’Huez

Out of transition my legs actually felt ok, there was a food stop straight away which was much appreciated then it was 3 x 7.3km loops around some beautiful trails. The biggest issue I found was the altitude, I would try to run but just couldn’t breathe in any air. This got easier over time and I found the last lap the easiest. Over the course of the run I managed to catch a glimpse of everyone from our group and that’s when it hit me that we were all going to complete the race.

Running the half marathon

On the final lap I couldn’t wait to finish and it was a great feeling dropping back into the town, going back through the transition and turning on to the final straight. Having your name on your number makes a huge difference and the support was brilliant, 2 of the group had already finished and were there to push me on to a sprint finish. Crossing the line was a great feeling of relief and the realisation that I had completed this huge challenge.

Finally finishing!

In total my overall time was 10 hours, 53 minutes and 14 seconds, but I couldn’t care less, I had finished, and if my biggest injury was the sunburn it couldn’t be too bad. Now I just need to find my next challenge for next year.

For those of you who are interested, the data from my bike leg can be found here and were splits were:

Swim: 46:17
Bike: 6:59:29
Run: 2:59:18

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