I had built it up in my head so much I expected to see an iceberg floating by. The water was cold, wetsuit-compulsory-brain-freeze cold, but all 1500 athletes still got in the water. The Alpe d’Huez long distance triathlon has a big reputation and with reputations come expectations. I floated by the marker buoy, staring down the long start line, thinking of my own expectations. Off the back of two bad races, I wasn’t overly confident in how I was feeling but, for the time being, I was just thankful I could still feel my toes.
Abruptly, the race started. I hadn’t heard the official start, I just got going when everyone else did. It was a washing machine of elbows as we all merged into the racing line to swim out the 2.2 kilometres. My fate was sealed pretty quickly with so many people and a slow start. Without the skill and speed to move through the thick swarm, I eventually settled into a steady pace behind Has-To-Be-Size-11-Shoes, Mr. Arm Slap on my right and Neon Green Wetsuit Man on my left.
With two loops of 1.1km done, I swam toward the ramp where the grabbers helped me out of the water. I took my time in transition, zipping on a cycling top with all my food stuffed in the pockets, and weaved through the congestion before leaping on my road bike.
Bike choice is big deal for Alpe d’Huez. With 3000m of climbing, a light road bike looks more appealing than a dedicated-to-speed triathlon bike. However, with flats and downhills too, there is a case for both. I chose a combination of a road bike with clip on aero bars and, with the speed on the flats and a lighter bike for the climbs, I was really happy I did.
When I hit the Grand Serre, the first 14km climb, I was easily sitting at my target pace and enjoying it. Then some girls sped past me. My legs kept turning but my mind froze. Should I follow their pace? I had never raced something this long before. Risk it or stick to the plan? With the disaster and disappointment of the past two races on my mind, I stuck to the plan.
The bike course was a dream. It was the exact terrain I loved. Small French roads, long steady climbs, relatively untechnical descents. But where were those girls who had passed me at the beginning? On the second big climb, the Col D’Ornon, which was more of a drawn out uphill drag, I couldn’t see any sign of them. I started to realize I had made a mistake but with the 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez looming, I wasn’t sure where that left me.
I hit the base of Alpe d’Huez with tired but responsive legs. I was holding pace easily and, despite the heat, the switchbacks were coming quick. Nineteen. Fourteen. Eight. I wasn’t breaking any records but I was steady, exactly what I had planned. The road was steep in places but each switchback offered a little relief, each town seemed to have a patch of flat, and I kept wondering why there weren’t more races like this! Three kilometres from the top, the hairpins were more stretched out. They were far from one another and it broke my rhythm a little. More so when I arrived in the village and then we still had to ride to transition, which was further uphill.
When I could see the dismount line, I was more than ready to hop off. I had sent my T2 bag up with the organizers so I hunted for my transition spot. I slid my shoes on, grabbed all my extra food, and off I ran. Just as I left transition, the top women were finishing their second of the three laps. I was so far behind.
My rubber legs struggled to find footing on the gravel and dirt sections and the course was way hillier than I thought. There were sections that were really slow, portions that were really fast, uphills, downhills, flats, off road, on road, large cheering sections and silent areas, not to mention the altitude and complete lack of shade. It was tough but one of those courses where the distance keeps ticking off. It seemed to take forever at the time but, before I knew it, I had 1.5km to go. I booked it as fast as my legs would carry me all the way to the finish and, for the fist time all year, I was smiled as I crossed the line.
I haven’t had good legs for a race all season and, man, what a difference it makes. I don’t have to remind myself that I like the sport, that set backs are a part of the process, that I am getting better, blah, blah, resilience, blah, because I actually enjoyed the race. I was disappointed I didn’t take full advantage of my form but that’s just experience and a whole lot easier to cope with than the darkness of a bad performance. One good race can show you what is possible and, next year, who knows, but I’ve got kick-ass plans.