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.

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