After Switzerland and a week back on deck I fortunately had a couple of weeks annual leave booked in. I think for anyone who is doing an Ironman some time off after is pretty important! I was certainly physically and mentally a bit gone and it's hard to keep pushing forward after such a big event.
Two weeks in France was on the diary, the first week I spent on actual holiday with Rosie in Annecy. Some very fun light training and ticking over but mostly rest and recovery (or hiking, paddle boarding, cycling, swimming!). After that it was onto Alpe Dhuez for a week including a race and some fairly big bike miles.
This was my 4th year at Alpe Dhuez and taking on the world famous triathlon there. It is one of my favourite races in the world and one I feel should be on most athletes bucket list! You start with a 2.2km swim in a beautiful hydro dam with the Alps towering above, you then ride 120kms with 3200m climbing (3 main climbs) and the end of the bike is of course up Alpe Dhuez the 14kms 21 hairpin 7.9% average climb. At the top around 1800m you run a 20km undulating on/off road run! It is somewhere between a half and full ironman and always a long day out in baking heat!
It's a Thursday race and we arrived in the Alps on the Monday for a few days of "light" training and enjoying the landscape. One thing I find really bizarre before this race, possibly as you are all in such a small area is the couple of days before are a real pissing contest. Every run I was going on you'd seem to have people staring, judging etc, the same would be in the pool with guys sprinting past you or getting right on your feet. On the bike everyone looking at each others's set ups or how hard you're riding the Alpe before the race. For me I just don't get this, focus on yourself, your own race and save all the bravado and energy for race day!
Soon enough race day came around and I was heading down the Alpe to the swim start, I hadn't felt great energy wise all week and my plan was to just enjoy the day out and do as solid as I could. I hoped I would ride strong anyway after my recent form. I'll be honest I hate the swim at Alpe Dhuez its a fairly chaotic mass start and I always find myself getting dunked, pulled pushed and punched, this year was no different and I almost had a panic attack. I get why people enjoy mass starts and not rolling but this swim is just always chaotic. I kept telling myself it would spread out and strangely it just didn't, I guess I was swimming that pace a lot of guys can hold and just tried to keep to my own space as best as possible and control my breathing. It was a relief to get out the swim in a decent time! Into transition and all my kit was actually covered by Sam Long's wetsuit, for some reason he didn't use his transition bag and this cost me quite a bit of time. He got a penalty for this and I've seen has tried to justify it on social media since but we all had the bags..so I'm not sure I buy that.
Onto the bike and the first year for me on a TT bike, it's always a debate before the race which is faster but honestly I think if you can climb and descend any course can work on a TT bike. The start of the bike is fast and furious down to the first climb with a lot of guys fighting to move up the field its great time to get settled have a drink and prepare for the climbs ahead. I learnt in my years previous that guys go off so hard in this race, on the first climb it's like the TDF with attacks all over the place. For me I just stick to my own power, race my own effort and stay confident that I'll see some of the guys later. Coming onto the first descent I had a few guys passing me on road bikes and started questioning my choice, however just as I thought that on the next hairpin 3 guys went down in-front of me and crashed into the wall, this race is all about risk vs reward!
I felt strong enough on the ride, I climbed well but struggled a bit on the flatter long drag sections, it wasn't the same feelings as IM Swiss but to be expected I just kept the head down and tried to keep hydrated. Good friend John Macavoy was appearing in different parts of the course in a lead car and his encouragement and energy kept the spirits high and the motivation to keep pushing.
Off the final desecent I was still feeling good and mentally ready for the Alpe. Again from experience and years before I knew a lot of guys would be suffering up the Alpe and slowing down, the last time I raced I caught about 20 or so guys on the climb and no one caught me, I decided this would be a similar target! Unless you've ridden it its hard to explain the first 1-5 hairpins on Alpe Dhuez, they hit you like a wall and at that stage the climb seems fairly endless after already 100kms and over 2000m climbing its even worse! However I soon found my rhythm, good power to ride at and started catching a lot of guys, no one overtook me on the climb and I was able to drop anyone I was with. Good feelings to go into the run!
At this point I knew I wasn't in an amazing position, I knew the race had a seriously strong field so my hopes of top 15-20 were long gone but I wanted to aim for around top 30 or so. Onto the run I didn't feel great, I struggled to get into a rhythm which that course does to you and the altitude and ride were getting to me. I ran solid enough catching quite a few guys but was frustrated not to be able to go with guys who came past on their laps 2/3. I pride myself on my strong run so when it's a struggle I do find this difficult mentally to dig in. They had a new section this year running down the steepest airfield I have ever seen so this was killing the legs every lap along with all the other small ups and downs. I just tried to enjoy it, push the best I could and keep fighting on.
On the second half of the last lap I just relaxed I knew I was in 31st probably wouldn't catch anyone else and wanted to enjoy racing in such an amazing place. I had an ironman in me and this race was meant to be more for "fun". It's funny when you relax a bit, stand a bit taller and enjoy yourself I think you naturally start to run better. I crossed the line happy enough in 7 hours 44 minutes. Deep down I was a bit disappointed I wasn't more in the race or higher up but given the previous months and effort I think it was the best I could manage on the day. I have dreams of a top 15 at Alpe Dhuez one day and this is a race I'll definitely look to target in a future year.
Top tips for racing Alpe Dhuez!
- Pace yourself it's a long day with a lot of climbing, don't forget about the Alpe and the run!
- Pick your gearing and set up wisely, TT bars are a must but so are low gears
- Stay calm in the swim, keep to the outside and possibly start further back
- Use the downhills on the run, they hurt but can keep your pace rolling!
- Look around you, enjoy the landscape and where you are racing it doesn't get much better
- Stay a couple days after the race and enjoy the scenery, riding and what is on offer!
More to come on Part 2.