Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Embrunman Triathlon - France

The “Embrunman” is one of those races that all triathletes of a certain “vintage” will know of. Triathletes are now spoilt for choice if their particular taste for Tri is satisfied by the more challenging Ironman distance races. But Embrunman really is the daddy.... or the mother!

Back in the day, when long distance races were few and far between, Europe only had a handful and this race was viewed as an Ironman for the unhinged. Held in the pretty French town of Embrun on the shores of the pristine Lac Serre Poncon, the race features (among others) the “Hors Category” climb of the Col D'Izoard (2360 meters) high during it's 188k bike leg.

Serre Poncon

 As a teenager I'd marvelled at French Ironman athlete Yves Cordier doing battle over it's crippling bike course and challenging run. I'd even ventured to Embrun one year on a bike tour with a few mates, simply wanting to visit the mythical location and ride some of the course.

The race had remained firmly on my list of “gotta do” races. And the 33rd year of Embrunman would be the year I'd finally decide to give it a go.

If any of you follow me on Social media, you'll know I endured the nightmare feared by many travelling athletes, that of arriving in another country while their race bike gathered dust in some dark corner of a UK baggage office.

I won't bore you with the details suffice it to say that when my bike FINALLY turned up the night before it had to be racked, I felt like a spent force.

I should have been so fired up for the race but, honestly, I felt like I could no longer be arsed...

That sounds a little melodramatic now as I type it... I mean it was only a missing bike. But I really felt Easyjet had robbed me of those relaxing few days “sharpening the saw” in beautiful surroundings and just getting in the right head-space for what was likely to be one of the toughest Ironman distance races I'd attempted.

But I had my bike, it was in one piece, I was healthy and (physically at least) ready to race.

Able to finally relax!
With my racing mojo still “MIA” though, I resigned myself to try and enjoy the race. I'd treat the bike section like a long training ride and see what I could do with the marathon. And, in actual fact, for an Ironman that I had been told might take 2-3 hours longer the “normal”, it was probably a sensible approach.

In the days before the race, clear skies at night had always bought “fresh” mornings – particularly so in the mountains. So waking at 3:30am on race day to warm air was perhaps an omen for things to come. After breakfast Claire drove the 10 minutes into Embrun and then walked with me to transition. After the third security check (stopping just short of a DNA sample) I was into transition.

Relaxing tunes permeated the warm morning air, punctuated by the occational hiss of tracks pumps as they popped off valves. No deafening tannoy. No pumping (read annoying) Euro House. Just a lovely chilled vibe. Just the ticket.

Plastic Lawn Chair would come in handy later!
Claire managed to pass me a welcome coffee though the fence and I sat in my personal plastic lawn chair to gather my thoughts.

The 5:55am girls wave soon rolled around. The high mountains surrounding the Serre Poncon lake meant the skies were still pretty much pitch black. I watched as the gun shot sent the girls on their way in frenzied mass of arms and legs. Within moments, they were lost in the darkness.
“Nager vers la lumière” we had been instructed (swim towards the light). Fine I thought... Though I wasn't sure which of the myriad beacons twinkling on the opposite lake shore they meant!

5 minutes later and it was the our turn. I positioned myself sensibly as the gun sent 1000+ competitors charging into the water for the first of our two laps.

I put in a strong start but I quickly found myself in the middle of a typical French bun fight... or should that be baguette fight? I fought to stay afloat as swimmer after swimmer aggressivity battered my body. Everyone looking desperately for the direction of travel in the darkness. Now this is all par for the course and I was giving as good as I got but, at one point, a swimmer decided to use me as “resting pontoon” and pulled himself onto my back like I was a life raft. I was completely submerged for several seconds before choking back to the surface for air.

So my plan to just “enjoy the day” was so far... going to shit.

After a few seconds to regain some composure, I gradually started to come good. By the second lap the skies had lightened and the visibility was good. I found myself in control and moving comfortably through the field.

Catching up to the back of the girls wave had slowed me slightly, but I exited the water in 1:01 which I was pleasantly surprised with considering the navigational difficulties and my near drowning in the opening 500 meters. 

While the day's temperatures would end up well into 30's, I'd been warned that the opening 2-3 hrs of the bike could be quite cool – cold even, so I opted for bike shorts, jersey and a windproof gilet with arm-warmers over my tri-suit. T1 then, although about 4 minutes... seemed to take an eternity!

Onto the bike and I was generously treated to about 200 meters of flat blue carpet before a left turn threw me into the first climb of the day! 500 meters straight up in the first 15 kilometers. At this point Olympian pocket rocket Emma Pooley danced past me. She'd had a 5 minute head start in the swim so had clearly been focussing on her biking for the road race AND time-trial in Rio. I gave her a cheer and watched her speed effortlessly into the distance. I raised a smile as I watched a few ego driven males try to go with her pace.... let it go lads... let it go.

A fabulous high speed decent then followed with the most spectacular views of the Serre Poncon below. Truly breathtaking. I was in a great little (legal) group and as we descended at pace together on ribbon smooth tarmac, I was grinning like a fool.

After 45k I had completed the first loop back to Embrun. I spotted Claire jumping around, waving a Union Flag like a loony. She gave me a huge cheer as I sped by. My sprits buoyed I now had a 40k stretch which include a long gradual climb up the amazing Gorges du Queyras. This includes one of the areas famous “Balcony Roads” cut straight into the sheer rock face and so beautiful it almost bought me to a standstill in places!

Gorges du Queyras
I was snapped out of my day dream by Emma Pooley, who was now passing me for the second time? She obviously wasn't having a good day having clearly stopped for some reason (allowing me to pass). She was working hard and didn't seem up for socialising. She was not moving so quickly at this point – I could only imagine she was exhausted from her busy last few weeks. I later learned that she would not make it through the run – but one tough cookie for starting.

I had become aware that my bike had developed a little “click” in it's lowest gear perhaps as a result of it's days at the mercy of baggage handlers. I hadn't really needed the granny gear yet but recognised the noise as the tell tail sound of the rear-mech cage scuffing on the spokes. The last thing I wanted was to tear my rear-mech off while grinding up the steep slopes that beckoned, so I opted for a quick pit stop to make the necessary adjustment. I also took the opportunity to stash the gilet and arm-warmers which were now surplus to requirement.

Quietly back on the road I made the sharp turn to begin the serious business of the Col D'Izoard. I was 3 hours in the saddle to this point. The mountains had so far offered me protection from sun but now, as I tackled the opening straight drag to Arvieux, I was exposed to it's full brunt. 8k later the serious switch-backs started and I was gaining some real altitude. The gradient was unrelenting and I was at the very limit of my semi-compact gearing – At this point I was ruing my decision not to have fitted a full compact chainest..... and stronger legs.... and maybe a small electric motor.

I was rarely out of my lowest gear, often having to resort to “out of the saddle” grinding on the steeper pitches. Sweat was pouring off me in rivers as my pedestrian pace offered little in the way of cooling airflow.

But I was making steady progress and passing a number of riders who had clearly been writing cheques their bodies couldn't cash earlier in the day.

A little over an hour on the climb I passed though the famous Casse Déserte with it's iconic barren slopes and rock pinnacles – A few moments later I was cresting the summit. Here I took a short pit-stop to pick up my special needs bag containing two fresh drinks bottles. I also emptied my pockets of gilet and arm warmers which I was now certain I would not need for the remainder of the ride.

Cresting the Col D'Izoard
The decent was fab – smooth tarmac with corner after sweeping corner. From here, back to Embrun, I'd foolishly imagined the course would be predominantly downhill. Silly boy. While the road did track a descending valley it also tracked up and down the neighbouring foothills in a series of punchy climbs. This combined with the block headwind and searing heat made the return leg the hardest section of the entire course for me.

Start of the Izoard descent
I continued through the heat and when my pace slowed to single digits on the climbs it felt like I was being cooked alive. Fortunately it was never long before a small village would bring the welcome refreshment of a spring fed drinking fountain and I made use of these on more than one occasion over the next few hours.

After 180k I was back in Embrun, but I wouldn't be climbing off my bike just yet. In their wisdom, the organisers of Embrunman decide to throw in one last climb before the run. And it's a doozy. The Cote de Chalvet or “The Beast” was part of the original (shorter) Embrun Triathlon back in 1984, and it's been part of the course ever since. Now I'm all for a bit of history, but to be perfectly frank, I'd have been more than happy to have called time on the bike without taking on it's rough, potholed, gravelly flanks. If the climb is bad, the decent is worse. An MTB or cyclo-x bike would have been more at home. I winced as I bounced and skidded my way back down the mountain, dodging potholes that would have broken my bike in half.

Another 8k later I was back on the blue carpet and running with my bike.

I say running, more hobbling really. My quads and Achilles had taken a really hammering in the mountains and were now rebelling as I called them to action for the Marathon.

It now became clear why each competitor is given a chair in transition. Standing on one leg to remove my bike shorts and pull on my running shoes I felt my quads start cramp, so I slumped down on my backside to complete the operation and pull on my arm cooling sleeves and cap.

I managed a semblance of a jog as I left T2 onto the first small dog-leg along the lake shore. I looked enviously at the families playing in the cool water... Dads drinking cold beer, kids splashing each other with water.

I was soon onto the run course proper and thrown into the main challenge, a 4k meandering climb from the lake up to, and through, the cobbled back streets of Embrun. This would be tackled on each of the three laps and I felt sure somebody was cranking up the gradient each time!

The remainder of the lap is run on a mixture of rough Tarmac, cinder paths and farm tracks. During the first lap I learned that the aid stations were not quite as frequent as I would have liked, so I vowed, on the subsequent laps, to grab and carry a bottle between feeds.

Once up to speed, the legs actually felt ok on the first lap. My normal 3:15 – 3:20 hilly Ironman marathon pace was feeling surprisingly comfortable and I felt like I could have run quicker. Lap one was dispatched in 1hr 6 minutes and I came through the start / finish area feeling great and happy to soak up the cheers from Claire, and also Vonnie and Mark who had driven over the mountains from Alp D'Huez to support.

Lap 2, the legs were holding up and the fuel was going down – I was moving well and overtaking a steady stream of fading athletes. But I did get the sense that my energy supplies were dwindling. Not surprising really as, in any other Ironman, I would chilling in the recovery tent, shoving pizza down my gob by now.

I was having to take longer in the feed stations to cool myself down which were now very congested and looking increasingly like a war zones... They were largely a “self service” affair, so really could not be “run through” if I wanted to get fuel on board. 1 hr 13 minutes for the 2nd lap – still ok I thought.

Through the cobbled streets of Embrun

Lap 3 was where things started to unravel. My gut had pretty much packed up – there is only so much liquid fuel it can deal with and it must have processed gallons over the last 11 or so hours. So water was now all I could take on board, and most of that had to go over my head. Time to deploy the Ironman shuffle and just keep running. I had to avoid walking at all costs. Walking a lap would have taken 3 hours and I wanted this race over with. I managed to trudge round the final lap in 1hr 20 minutes.

It cost me the sub 12hr finishing time I wanted (12:13). but I was so pleased to have kept running when every cell in my body was praying for me to stop. I finished 14th Vet male (40+). There's clearly plenty of very quick “old gits” in France!

Overall, there were 785 finishers from over 1000 starters. An attrition rate of over 35%. 

It takes a certain kind of athlete to fully “race” the Embrunman. I'm probably not that kind of athlete and my strategy was all about making sure I got round in one piece. Pushing any harder on the bike would have been suicide for me. And the run really was the very best I could have done in the conditions.

I have NEVER vowed more solemnly, while racing, to NEVER enter a particular event ever again... But this race gets under your skin and I'm always amazed how quickly those bad memories fade. I'm now thinking a sub 12 would be nice!

Embrunman makes a refreshing change from the corporate monster that Ironman racing has become - A lovely reminder of what really matters and what doesnt. It's a French race aimed largely at French athletes and the organiser makes no secret of the fact that he'd like to keep it that way. Every year though a few Brits sneak in under the radar – about 11 of us this year. But I think only a couple of us finished. 

Thanks as ever to Ractime Events and our fantastic team sponsors. Zone 3 Wetsuits, Giant Bikes, Skechers shoes and USN Nutrition. Body and equipment was pushed to the limits at Embrunman and my kit was never found wanting!

Huge thanks to Claire for (trying) to keep sane while I waited for my bike to arrive and for all the incredible support and cheers on race day (Thanks Vonnie and Mark for that also!).

After 27 years racing triathlon, this was my toughest gig so far.... but I'm only now starting to realise how much I loved it.

Monday, 22 August 2016

How to Qualify for Kona - As an Age-Grouper

To most amateur triathletes, crossing the famous finish line on Ali'i Drive still represents the pinnacle of Age-Group triathlon achievement. Each year over 80,000 athletes try, but only around 2,000 succeed.

So how does one qualify for “Kona” as an Age-Grouper?

There are a number of routes in and the specifics vary year to year. So what follows represents a basic guide on how to gain that coveted Age-Group spot on Dig Me beach!

You can earn an outright qualifying spot in one of the many Ironman branded events around the globe. All full distance “M-Dot” races offer qualifying places. At the time of writing, two 70.3 races were offering outright Kona qualifying slots and they are both in China. Races in the first part of the year qualify for Kona in the same year. Once past the late August races your Ironman race will qualify you for the following year's Kona.

You can earn a “legacy” spot by completing 12 Ironman branded events and then joining the queue for one of the 100 legacy spots awarded each year.

If you are in the armed forces (in any country) then you can qualify for Kona's new “Military Division”. This year there were three qualifying races. Ironman 70.3 California (Superfrog Triathlon), Ironman 70.3 Cairns and the Ironman 70.3 European Championship in Wiesbaden, Germany. But hey, the military guys and girls tend to be pretty quick, so this is by no means a soft option.

If you are a hand-cycle / Wheelchair athlete, then you need to shoot for your qualifying spot at either Ironman 70.3 Cairns, Ironman 70.3 Luxembourg or Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs.

All other Para-Triathletes need to apply to Ironman and then get chucked into a raffle for a random draw of 5 places.

You can of course be famous enough to be given a spot – lets call this “qualifying through the kitchen” since Gordon Ramsey is probably the most famous contemporary example. Realistically, not a viable route for the majority.

You can apply for the Ironman “Executive Challenge”. You need to be a high flying executive type, ideally American.... and rich. A few spots are awarded this way each year and the rules seem rather arbitrary. Again, most probably NOT a realistic option for the majority.

You can even buy a Kona spot. For this route, you'll need to be VERY rich though. Ironman auction off a handful of Kona spots on e-bay each year, with proceeds going to (their) charity (the Ironman Foundation). You'll need at least £40k in change..... probably more.

Oh and then there is (was) the Kona Lottery. A “golden ticket” to some, an “unearned accolade” to others but, critically, in the eyes of the U.S Justice Department at least, simply “illegal gambling”. So the Kona Lottery no longer exists as a back door to Kona. WTC were fined the sum of all their profits from the Kona lottery over the last three years and the Feds are now $2.76 million better off as a result. Thanks WTC.

So, for most, outright qualification and Legacy remain the two most likely routes in. 

For legacy spots it's pretty straight forward. You just need to keep plugging away. Do your 12 full Ironman events (they must be M-Dot branded races of course), get your name on the list and wait your turn. There are a few nuances of course. For Kona 2015, within your 12 finishes, you needed to have competed at least 1 full distance Ironman in each of the preceding two years and you need to be registered for an Ironman in 2015. Don't imagine you'll get your Kona slot as soon as you have your 12 either. In all likelihood, it'll be another season before you find yourself in the top 100 on the waiting list. Indeed, legacy is likely to take even longer each year as qualifying outright becomes more difficult and more people accumulate the required 12 M-Dot finishes. 

Outright qualification can be broken into a number of sub divisions. These divisions don't actually exist physically and certainly are not clear cut, but they do give the would be qualifier some options when planning their route (and level of fitness) needed to make it to the Big Island.

Your options are......

Be either very, very old or very, very young.

Now I don't mean this to sound agest but the reality is, Ironman popularity (and athlete ability) tends to peak between the ages of 25-45. While the total qualifying spots in a race are divided up “pro-rata” based on the number of athletes in each category, Ironman has to offer at least 1 qualifying spot in every age category in every qualifying race. This can be used to your advantage if you find yourself in the very young or very old categories.

Now you may find, if you are very young or old, you'll only have have a handful of competitors in your Age-Group. In this instance the numbers are very much in your favour. For example... In many races, the female 18-24 category may only have 1 qualifying spot but perhaps as few as 5 competitors, some of which might not finish. Whereas the male 40-44 category may have up to 7 spots but likely over 60 athletes trying for each of those one spots. So, on the face of it, odds of 1:5 are way better odds than 1:60.

That being said, you are still likely to find yourself up against some stiff competition in the younger and older Age-Groups. I have super talented young friends (18-24) who have missed qualifying with 9:02 finishing times! Fact is, every Age-Group will likely have it's super stars and, unless it's you, you'll have to rely a little on the next element... detailed below.


The day after every Ironman race, Kona slots are awarded at a presentation – “The Kona Roll Down”. If a qualifying athlete decides not to accept their Kona slot then that spot “rolls down” to the next athlete on the list in the same Age-Group. This is quite common in the younger and older Age-Groups where athletes might not be in a position (or want) to race Kona. Smaller competitor numbers in these Age-Groups also mean athletes have a better chance of “getting lucky” even if they have finished some way behind the outright Age-Group winner. 

Roll down is less likely in the more hotly contested and heavily subscribed categories. But it does happen. Indeed, it's not unheard of for qualifying spots to roll down quite some way in some categories. Case in point.... Ironman UK this year, one of the female categories had two Kona spots up for grabs. The first spot went to the Age-Group winner, the 2nd spot rolled all the way down to 26th place who finished 3 hrs behind the winner of the Age-Group. 

So, an important point... if your name is called at roll down and you are NOT present to accept your place, with the means to pay for it ($890 at the time of writing) then you lose your place. Ironman will NOT hold your spot, it just keeps rolling down until there is somebody physically present at roll-dwon to claim it.

I have another friend who had been trying to qualify for Kona for many years and one year, after finishing an event some way outside the qualifying spots, decided to forego the roll down presentation.... And yes, his name was called – gutted doesn't come close.

So, if you think you have even the remotest chance – go to roll down because..... you never know!

Another nuance worth noting is if places go unclaimed. This can happen in the (much) older categories where there may only be one or two athletes competeing, but there will still be a single qualifying slot available. Now if nobody finishes or none of the finishers in the category want the slot, then the slot gets allocated to the biggest Age-Group of the same gender (typically 35-39 or 40-44). So, extra slots can become available in a category at roll down. But you likely need to stay until the end of roll down to know this.

A chap at Ironman Coppenhagen maybe knew this. All the M40-44 slots were allocated and rolled down. Those missing out all went home dejected..... One chap, finishing 233rd in the Age-Group stayed to the end. An older Age-group slot went unclaimed so was transferred to the M40-44's and he was there to claim it!! So if you miss out by one place at roll down and you are in the biggest Age-Group..... STAY TO THE END OF ROLL DOWN.

Just earn a qualifying spot outright 

I say “just” not because doing so is simple, but because the concept of what you have to do is simple. You don't have to be a certain age, sex or rely on luck. You just have to be one of the very best in your gender / Age-Group. And looking at past performances from Kona qualifiers gives you a pretty clear idea of what you have to do....Simple. Apart from the whole training and having no life outside triathlon thing!

As already mentioned, Ironman qualifying spots are awarded pro rata across all Age-Groups. The Age-Groups with more entrants get a larger percentage of the available slots. That might mean 6 slots go to the male 40-44 category, while the female 30-34 will only get one or, at best, two. A guide for the Kona Spot allocation is offered in advance of the race, but only confirmed once all athletes have registered. 

It's fair to say that, outside the youngest and oldest categories, qualification is likely to be equally tough. Fewer competitors in a category, fewer spots available. More spots available will mean more competitors vying for them. So it's swings and roundabouts.

It's also worth noting that things are likely to get harder still in 2016. There is a limit on numbers at Kona – that can't change. There are more qualifying races each year and most events in 2016 (outside Championship events) will only have 40 spots up for grabs. So all athletes will likely need to be targeting a podium in their Age-Group in order to qualify.

If you want to earn a spot through this route, then you need to do your homework. Racing an Ironman will give you some idea of where you are in relation to those gaining the tops spots and this should give you a clear idea of the size of the task you face. Resources like Russ Cox's excellent website ( are also a great way of finding out what level you need to be at (for a specific race) if outright qualification is your goal.

Qualifying for Kona by gaining an outright Age-Group slot doesn't “just happen”. Most gain their spots having followed a very carefully executed plan and often several years of dedicated training from a base of solid, Ironman performances. Most will have coaches (or guidance of some sort) and they take their sport very seriously (most probably, bordering on obsessively).

Sporadic training and then hoping the taper will bring about some miracle on race day really doesn't happen. To qualify outright, you need to do your homework, know what level you need to attain, train to attain that level and then execute on race day. In other words, you need to toe the line at your selected event knowing that, if everything goes to plan, you are fit / fast enough to qualify.

It also pays to pick your race. Do you race well in extremes of temperature (hot or cold) where your opposition might suffer (Malaysia, Bolton). Are you a big, physically strong rider who would benefit from a tough (hilly / windy) bike course but would favour a flat run (Lanza). Or is strength to weight your main advantage meaning a hilly bike and run is likely to benefit you (Tenby). You can play to your strengths by picking the right race.

So how good are Kona qualifyers and how hard do they train? It's perhaps a little hard to say as has been discussed qualification standards do differ between Age-Groups and from race to race. But safe to say, domestically at least, would be Kona qualifiers will be well used to standing on podiums in their respective Age-Groups and the “middle Age-Groups” probably quite used to racing at the sharp end overall.

For those working full-time, it would be rare to find a Kona qualifyer who does not devote a big chunk of their available spare time to training. Athletes differ of course, with some requiring more volume than others. Anything less than 10 hours training per week would be very rare. Weekly training volumes between 15 and 20 hours are more common. And there are those who train even more!

If you are in one of the “prime” age categories and it's an Age-Group podium you're after at Kona, then the level needed is close to that of the professional athletes. In fact, on the day, you'll need to beat a good many pros if you fancy a “fruit bowl” (the prize awarded to the top 5 in each Age-Group).

Universal amongst most Kona athletes would be time management (fitting training in early mornings, and lunchtimes for example). Another given is training consistently. Week in, week out, month in, month out. If your lifestyle, career etc, does not provide a predictable routine, then training consistency will be hard to achieve and the necessary gains hard to achieve. Self sacrifice is also par for the course. Be that spare time for other hobbies and pass-times, an active social life (outside of the sport) or career progression! So some tough choices need to be made.

Training with the degree of dedication required will place stress on families and relationships so a partner (and family) needs to be 100% on board for a journey who's destination might be several years away. I do know plenty of top Kona Age-Groupers who somehow manage to juggle training, work and family without dropping any balls – it can be done. But there are also plenty of single Kona qualifiers with no kids, or those who have a triathlete partners with the same goal!

So there you have it.

It's fair to say that a genetic predisposition for endurance is required (along with all the training) in order to qualify “outright” for an Age-Group Kona Spot. And the level of dedication / sacrifice required probably stretches what would be considered as acceptable for many amateur athletes.

But if you want it badly enough – you can always play the long (and expensive) game of Legacy entry.

I harboured dreams of qualifying for Kona at Ironman Zurich in 2009 but missed the mark by over an hour. It would be another 5 years before I finally got that spot.

But it's that challenge that makes the reward so worthwhile.