Monday, 17 September 2012

The Inferno Triathlon - Racing into the thin air...

Race reports are something I try to keep to a minimum, but when I come across a race that I consider to be "a little bit special" I think it's worth sharing...

For Claire and I, more than previous years, 2012 was always about having fun with our racing. We felt a break from chasing Ironman times would be beneficial as we'd planned plenty of that for 2013 in our attempt to qualify for Hawaii!

While the pressure would be off – the challenges we set ourself would, however, remain tough – it's how we roll!

As such, racing would be varied and include marathons, ultra-races, some tough 70.3's, Olympic distance events and the National Cross Tri. But perhaps our toughest race would be a crazy multi-sport event set high in the Swiss Alps.

And so it was, on August 5th, we packed up the T5 with road and mountain bikes and headed to Europe for a 2 week road / training trip which would culminate with the awesome “Inferno Triathlon”.

Since this trip was doubling as our summer holiday, we had planned to visit a few of our favourite locations and get in as much swimming, biking and running as possible – the race in that sense, would be just another day training as we had planned no real taper.

Week one saw us tackle some classic French Alpine road climbs including the Col De Joux Plane, Ramaz and the climb to the Ski station of Avoriaz all in the area around Morzine.

This was a great opportunity to acclimatise to the heat, altitude and the physical demands of climbing for hours at a time! A number of specific Wattbike sessions prior to our departure had meant that the climbing legs were ready for whatever greeted us!

A week - Riding around the Alps...

As well as riding, we also found the many trekking tails hard to resist and completed some incredible runs in the mountains around Samoens as well as a wonderful, solitary swim in the crystal clear waters of Lac Mondriond.

Amazing Running..

And swimming in glacial lakes...

Towards the end of the first week, we ventured to Switzerland, stopping off in Sierre to compete in the Classic Seirre – Zinal mountain race. An epic jaunt over 20 severe miles and 2200m of climbing with a break neck 800m descent to the finish in Zinal. We both put in strong performances finishing in 4:00 (Claire) and 3:37 (Duncan) – a great little training run!

A few days later we were back on the bikes taking on the awesome Swiss passes of Grimsel, Fukar and Susten in an amazing 80 mile ride that possibly ranks as one of the most beautiful we have ever done.

The incedible Grimsel and Furka passes

So not quite your normal long course triathlon taper week - but as we'd said, this trip was all about having fun and not taking the racing too seriously. In any case, we'd been getting plenty of sleep, and lots of wonderful Swiss meat and cheese – so the legs felt pretty good as we prepared for Inferno race day a few easy days later!!

The Inferno is unique in that the bike section is tackled on both road and mountain bike. The event starts with a 3000m point to point swim from the shore of lake Thun near Interlaken to Oberhoffen. From here athletes pick up road bikes and cover 90k and well over 2 vertical kilometers of climbing over the Grosse Scheidegg to Grindlewald where the tarmac road runs out. Here competitors switch to the mountain bike for another 30k and further 1000 meters of climbing over the Kleine Scheidegg and then a white knuckle descent though the Ski station of Wegen. Then it's on to Stechelberg for the final leg – a 25k moutain run – straight up 2500 meters to finish atop the famous Schilthorn mountain at around 3000m above sea level.

The Inferno Triathlon Race Profile - at least the sswim was flat!

So having spent the entire day before the race busying ourselves with the logistics of getting all our kit to the four corners of the Bernese Oberland – we hit the hay (well the T5) for an early night.

Our day started at 3:30am with our customary pre-race breakfast before a moonlit stroll through the darkness to meet the coach that would take us to the swim start in Thun about an hour away. We arrived in ample time to complete our pre-race rituals and then made our way to the start.

The swim is a straight line though not particularly well marked. The sun was still to rise and the flood-lit castle on the distant shore of Oberhoffen was our target.

Before long we were under starters orders. Another appealing aspect of the Inferno is the relatively small entry field (300 odd athletes). This, and the strict cut-off times, meant that the normal bun fight that occurs at long distance swim starts failed to materialise and, once the gun fired, we both quickly found clear water.

The 300 strong swim start - only the brave need apply

The water was warm, clear and very calm – at least for the first 1000m. I struggled slightly with navigating as the organisers had deemed it unnecessary to provide intermediate marker buoys along the point to point course. I resigned myself to just finding a rhythm and let the numerous canoe marshals and the swim pack guide my way.

I felt ok in the water – not great, perhaps due to the fact that swimming had been limited in the preceding week. I gradually found my rhythm and settled into a comfortable cruise - I wasn't in much of a rush to be honest! The swell increased as the swim progressed into the lake. In my isolation, my mind started playing tricks on me and I imagined I was at the back of this elite field having a really bad swim! This sense of foreboding continued until, with 200m to go, a familiar pair of goggles drew up alongside me. It was Claire! It's incredible how often this happens in our races. Training together means that we are really in tune with each other's pace and we often find ourselves sharing the same patch of water among 100's of swimmers!

fairly uneventful swim...

This lifted my spirits as Claire has been swimming brilliantly (and quicker than me) all year – so this meant my swim had been pretty good after all.

We excited the water in 52:29 (Claire) and 52:58 (Dunc) ran into T1 together and began putting on sufficient kit to protect us from the strength of the sun which was now making it's presence felt. I stole a march on Claire and headed off on the road bike section.

I was lying in 43rd position in the Vets (35-44) field and Claire was 7th in the women's race.

me leaving T1 with Claire in close quarter (top left)

Onto the bike and now I felt at home! The riding felt easy on the smooth roads in the clean air. We were both quickly into the climbing and gaining altitude over several small but testing climbs. Small is a relative term of course – small by Swiss standards, pretty big by UK standards but nothing compared to the beast which awaited us at the end of the road bike section.

Our training in the previous week and key sessions on the Wattbike (using the magnetic resistance setting) had served us both well and, happily, we were both feeling strong.

We had both decided to take a cautious approach to the ride – knowing how easy it would be to overcook things over such mountainous terrain. I decided to treat the first 40 miles as just another tough training ride – but then work for the 15- 20 miles or so over the final climb. I was trying not to get goaded into racing too soon. Sadly the course was dogged with large draft packs (the road bike is supposed to be non-drafting), but my strategy meant I was happy to let them go. I had a feeling I'd see many of them again on the final climb. I was certainly not going to involve myself in any drafting – or pull the cheats along.

Meanwhile, Claire was also feeling strong and enjoying the first part of the ride through the amazingly picturesque surroundings.

After 3 initial testing climbs, the mid section of the ride rolled along, hugging the lake shore. A turn away from the lake then took us onto the final climb of the Grosse Scheidegg. The severity of the bike course is bought home by the fact that total altitude gained is similar to that gained at the Ironman Lanzarote – those guys get 112 miles to fit the climbing in – we only got 60! Steep does not begin to describe the final accent and I was never out of my compact 27 ratio. Indeed, I was often left praying for more gears!

By now, the sun was overhead and adding to the effort – as was the altitude. But this is where I had planned to start working. So I got my head down and settled in to a solid effort which would see me climbing through a furnace for the next 1 hour 30 minutes. I was now coming to realise why this race was called “The Inferno”

Feeling the heat - but loving it!

The road, got steeper and the sun got hotter, but I was in my element. This is what I had been doing for the past 10 days and I felt great. I was picking off riders steadily. My road bike was perfect for the terrain and I passed many riders struggling on TT bikes on the steep incline.

Once we crested the Grosse Scheidegg, it was time to buckle in for the seriously high speed descent to Grindlewald. I class myself as a reasonable descender but even I struggled to match the speed of some riders who seemed to be benefiting from local knowledge. The decent was twisty and technical with enough rough patches to to insure you could not afford to loose focus for a second. For most of the descent I was locked in a battle of nerves and skill with a French rider as our pace seemed to increase with each hairpin.

Claire decided that discretion was the better side of valour on the decent and was happy to concede a few places in order to arrive at T2 in one piece – a decision I always support as there is only room for one loony in our relationship!!

The MTB - Waiting at Grindlewald

I flew into T2 after a 3:59 bike split having moved up 9 places in the Vets race – not bad for somebody out training! Ha ha !! I was quickly onto my MTB and tackling the 15k climb of the Kleine Scheidegg.

Claire arrived with a 4:49 bike split. By playing it safe on the descents she was now in 25th position in the women's field but knowing her conservative approach would pay dividends on the run.

The mountain bike section is one climb – but it's a biggy. 1000m straight up over loose shingle and forest tracks. The heat was now quite oppressive and the reduced speed of the MTB meant the cooling effect was reduced. Sweat was coming off me in rivers. The route passes into trees periodically, but the majority of it is completely exposed and sauna hot!

The climb was unrelenting. At no point did the gradient ease for even a minute. As we neared the summit, it became clear we were well into the winter ski areas – with the pistes being easy to identify even in their naked state. The last section must surely have been a black run as everybody was reduced to pushing for 10 minutes or so.

I reached the summit of the Kleine Scheidegg in just over 1 hour 30 minutes – 6.25mph average!But now things were gonna get fast! Once again, time to disengage brain and let rip. This time, a 15k, snaking fire road descent to Wegen. I do love my mountain biking, and really, while steep, the terrain was not technical. Not by UK trail centre standards at least.

It felt great to be tearing down the mountain at speeds I'm more used to on a road bike! It also seemed that the vast majority of riders were more at home on tarmac and I was able to pick of a few more places.

Claire continued to climb strongly and proceed with caution on the loose descent – her race would start once the final leg began!

The last section from Wegen to Lauterbrunnen did actually get quite technical as open fire roads were replaced with steep rooty single track. I continued to pass rider after rider struggling on the technical terrain – many pushing. Oh the shame!!

A final 4k road section bought me to Stelchelburg in just over 2 hours for the MTB section. I had continued my move through the field and now placed 27th in the Vets race.

Claire arrived in 2 hours 44 minutes and now also placed in 27th position.

The run actually breaks you in quite gently with a pleasant 4k trail section along the river to Lauterbrunnen. But the fun doesn't last long. Once the turn away from the town is made – the slog to Murren at 17k begins. We had been told that most of this section was run-able so I set myself the challenge of doing just that. This is where mental fortitude took over and it was simply a case of putting one foot in front of the other and trying to maintain forward momentum. There were occasions when the terrain simply became too steep to run economically, at which point a “power walk” became more energy efficient. They key was to just keep moving, whether running, power walking or crawling on hands and knees!

The ski town of Murren was packed with supporters and the narrow roads through the centre were run-able even though the legs pleaded otherwise. Once beyond Murren though – things got pretty crazy. The steepness of the terrain was the sort you experience for maybe a kilometre or two in the steepest parts of the Peak District – we had 8k to go and it just didn't let up!

Running through Murren

The heat was now fierce. We were now well above three line and into seriously high altitudes. Runners were spread over the mountain in various states of fatigue – some reduced to a death march , some managing to muster a decent hike – but nobody running. Not in this terrain... Not in this heat... not at this altitude.

I forced myself to break into a trot whenever the gradient reduced be even a few degrees – but these moments were few and far between and often left me gasping for breath in the thin air. This was survival – but Claire and I were both surviving better than most.

Claire pushing into the thin air

Our cautious approach to the road bike section and effective fuelling throughout the day were now paying dividends. Everybody was suffering – but we were suffering that little bit less.

The last few kilometres were some of the most amazing I'd ever run – almost otherworldly. 3k from the end you could see the summit and hear the Germanic ramblings of the race organiser over the PA – it was surreal in the extreme!

And so it was after a 3:33:13 “run” split I crossed the line, outside the famous revolving restaurant, atop the Schilthorn some 10:29:53 after starting. I had passed a further 9 Vets during the final section to finish 18th in my category. Interestingly I'd have placed 11th in the Senior category (under 35)

The Inferno then – clearly not one for the youngsters

Meters from the finish...

Meanwhile, Claire was continuing her determined climb up the mountain – overtaking a steady stream of fading men and women.

Claire battling on...

At 12:23:27, Claire finished after a terrific 3:56:24 run which moved her up 11 places to 16th in the girls race.

The Crazy race finish!

There can be little doubt that mile for mile, hour for hour, the Inferno is one of the toughest multi-sport races around. It's severity is not to be underestimated yet it seems many do.

In total 14 racers from the UK took on the challenge......

But I think only two made it all the way to the top!

Bringing home the bacon for the UK

All in all, an incredible race. If you decide to take it on, make sure you respect the cut-off times - but the views are worth it!!

amazing views...