Embrun race report
We’re typing this from the sun drenched balcony of our rented maison in Embrun on – THE DAY AFTER. Enjoying the most scenic of Alpine views, a cloudless sky and the chink of my glass of wine from the local Cave by my side (Super U). So yes, the day after Andy and I undertook the Embrunman long distance triathlon a good time to reflect and recount. We thought we’d share a combined review. You can guess for yourselves who wrote which bit!
Billed as one of the hardest long distance events in the world, why the hell were we doing it? Well, in 2015, we undertook the Alpe d’Huez (ADH) triathlon. That was some challenge in itself, but we caught the bug for racing on the continent and making a bit of a holiday out of it too. In the week after ADH, one of us was flicking through You Tube videos to see what was on offer for the following year. We came across Embrun, we watched the video which was totally engaging but made me snort with laughter – after coming across the ADH finish line I’d been super pleased with myself for undertaking the hardest race of my life, but couldn’t quite see why anyone would want to do anything harder (and ADH with a glacial swim, a 115km bike leg including 3000m of climbing and a 21km trail run at altitude was pretty hard). So the video of Embrun with it’s unique racking system of erm….plastic chairs, a swim in the dark, 188km biking including the infamous Col d’Izoard (and a few other hills) and a marathon including a cobbled climb….well, that was just for the hardened Nutters .
We’re an interesting couple. For those that know us, they know that there is the super talented and disciplined one with an awesome power weight ratio, and the other one. Super talented at many things, but when it comes to triathlon, this one is a finisher. Trying to find a race that suits us both is challenging – and one that fits the holiday rules. We ruled many out, including a bonkers middle distance in Norway with an 8 hour run and Embrun kept coming back to haunt us. So in early February 2016, we signed up.
Race organisers had two major challenges to contend with; firstly the security situation in France meant checking ID’s and bags repeatedly. Local government had also mandated a major focus on reducing the environmental impact – including mandatory restriction to re-use 2 bidons and carrying a plastic cup round the run to re-fill at aid stations. Straightforward registration, although massive posters encouraging blood donation seemed a bit incongruous.
We’d arrived with 48 hours to relax and recover from the drive down from Zeebrugge. It’s quite difficult to do nothing but we were trying to heed Chrissie Wellington’s advice. Not eating any fibre (fruit & veg) was pretty hard and we were both off caffeine and booze too – kicks out most of our favourite things. The actual race was on a Monday – it has a fixed date of 15th August. So on the Sunday, we were able to rack our bikes and headed off to do that in the early afternoon timing it with the race briefing at 5.30. Lugging all our kit to transition only to be told we could only rack the bike and not leave any kit was a bit disappointing. Fiona had race number 25 which put her back to back with the ‘pros’ and we had a bet for a pint to see who could see Emma Pooley – fresh off flight from Rio – first (we saw her simultaneously). We gave up our hard fought parking spot (The French really do park anywhere) and headed back to the town centre for the briefing – a bit odd that so many competitors seemed to be travelling in the opposite direction. All became clear when we arrived at the Hotel de Ville and they were still asking for blood donors….we were meant to
be back where we’d come from. Simple things like this shouldn’t stress you out but pre a big race like this, you’re bound to be building up adrenaline and we only just made it back for the briefing time….which was then delayed by 45 minutes! Still it left a bit of time for the Expo. Whilst we know it’s not a good idea to be trying on new race kit the day before…but a sun visor seemed like a good investment with the glaring sun.
So on race day. Up at 3:30 for breakfast – porridge and bagel didn’t seem especially French – final kit check and get down to setup T1. Plastic crates supplied day before meant fairly easy to drop off kit; never racked my bike vertically on a metal fence before so was glad to see it had stayed upright. Had the option of sending personal bags to aid stations at top of Col d’Izoard and for the run. Transition was pretty relaxed affair – French TV crew and a massive crowd.
The 79 ladies lined up for le grand départ. It was 05.45, it was pretty much pitch black. There were lights out on the lake which were barely visible as buoys but there was a boat with a big spotlight that we were due to follow. The 3.8km swim was two laps of the Lac de Serre-Ponçon and we’d had a bit of a fright in the briefing when we found that French triathlon rules meant that if the water temperature was 24 degrees, it would be ‘sans combinaison’. As it happens, the temperature was 23 degrees and as the pistolet fired, it was a like a mad frantic run into a big warm bath, fortunately with wetsuit. Anyway, the blackness turned out to be not such an issue, in fact the atmosphere at the start of the swim as you just swam into blackness was one of the most memorable parts of the race. The ladies had started a little behind schedule and the 1121 men who lined up to follow, set off just 4 minutes later. So it didn’t take long for the lake to become one big washing machine with wave after wave of men bashing their way past the women. This wasn’t so great but we both posted great swim times and ahead of our race targets. The sun when it did come up, rose rapidly and by the time we were halfway round, the big yellow buoys were perfectly visible – nice, easy straight lines and whilst the water was quite weedy, there were no other nasties – all in all, about as good a swim as you can expect in this size and length of race. Very impressive how much support there was out there so early in the morning. The cheers were audible throughout – all very uplifting!
Fully carpeted route into T1 with showers and changing areas. Wetsuit into crate grabbed bike and off. Went for two piece tri kit so longer than usual to get top on and grab gilet just in case. No drama but straight into 7km 5.5% gradient. Cragg Vale?
To be fair, we had entered this race expecting a punishing bike ride, and that’s what we got. We’d done some pretty hefty training rides, stuck to the plan and ultimately were as prepared as we could be (I maintain, post race, that another 2 months of training would not have made any difference). Anyway, there were markers every 10km advising us how many km left to go and after the first climb, we followed the route of the Olympic distance race which was going to be later in the day (if you want to sample Embrun, the OD race is pretty challenging in itself!). There wasn’t much that was flat but the scenery was simply stunning as we climbed up various mountain passes heading to the start of the Col d’Izoard. The start of Col is gradual and you can get caught out thinking it’s not so bad, as for the first 16km, it’s a
gentle, steady climb. However, the village of Brunissard is where it gets really hard – a series of never ending hair-pins, nothing less than 8.5% and all of this in 34 degree heat. It felt like I was being fried alive and I was hoping against hope that the lathering of P20 that I’d done at 4am would hold out for me. One of very few criticisms of the race is that they should have had sun cream at every feed station – there was none. A marshall gave me some of her personal sun cream but on what was the hottest day of the year, I couldn’t understand why they weren’t throwing it at people. Anyway, the first big feeling of achievement comes at the top of Izoard (2361m) and after re-loading with drink and food, the big descent started towards Briancon. I saw someone come off on one of the hairpins, skid across the road and come to a stop just metres from my front wheel – he sat up, and fortunately there was an ambulance just behind….so I carried on. It puts the frighteners on you though and I’m not exactly known for my descending skills at the best of times. At this point, I was not surrounded by fellow competitors though and the field had really thinned out….I was still good, hadn’t bonked, hadn’t crashed, hadn’t suffered any cramps and I was drinking by the bucket-load (given the temperatures). The route continued to be lumpy for the next 40km with a nasty headwind to contend with but I made steady progress. There was another nasty 11% climb before the route back to Embrun. I overtook a few people who were walking up here and from this point on, there were plenty of competitors who were just sat by the roadside looking all-in. I had a nasty moment where my quads seized up and I had an attack of the cramps like never before – a series of electric shocks just attacking me for 10 minutes. I added some emergency electrolyte tablets to my bottle and took a bit of time to re-group. I’d had a similar situation at ADH last year so I knew that the moment could pass. Fortunately it did and I continued back to Embrun. I knew there was one last hill but it was a 7km killer with some really steep climbing. Again, I felt good that I was still going, still positive, hadn’t experienced any of the ‘black moments’ that can come in a long distance race but at the top of the climb, there was a feed station where I had to just unclip and down a large bottle of coke. The last 3km of the bike was the hardest of the lot. Super twisty, steep over a bumpy and uneven road. I arrived at the bottom a bit dizzy and ready for T2 – but what an achievement to have finished that ride within the time limits. I’d had some Garmin issues so wasn’t altogether sure of my time but ultimately that was 188km done!
From T2 onwards, we experienced quite different races…
Entering the race, we knew the run wasn’t flat. I’d come into T2 needing time to re-group and still experiencing some cramping, I accepted the massage on offer – making good use of my plastic chair. I’m truly grateful to the two French physios taking a quad each while gently murmuring ‘courage’, ‘bravo’ and ‘super’ to me. I was later surprised that I’d only been in T2 for 9 minutes but those two women got me back together and out onto the run route, still feeling that with 5hrs 45 to go, if my run went to plan, I’d be finishing the race with time to spare. The run route was 3 laps of 14km which included a quick out and back along the lake ‘plage’, a run up through the town and up a punishing 5% shocker before taking you out into the countryside underneath Embrun and back again. The goal was to break it down into 7km stretches but right from the start I was off my pace, I struggled to get much momentum, at 6pm the sun felt as hot as it had at midday and the dizziness that I’d felt
at the end of the bike turned into complete disorientation that seemed to come and go. I took a bit of time to re-fuel (but I’d drunk so much, I couldn’t believe I was dehydrated) and kept on plugging away. I made it into lap two – phew, still well inside the cut offs, still with people behind me…but I got to 17km and had a bout of disorientation that forced me to stagger and then stop. I sat down for 10 minutes with a couple of lovely marshalls and then got started again…only to fall down immediately. That was it for me. Game over.
However, if you were having a good day…
Nice straight final 500m to dismount with plenty of time to get feet on top of shoes. Offer of “voulez-vous un massage” slightly bemused me as I was in full on race head trying to get out of T2 as fast as possible. Remember to grab the dreaded plastic cup and some of my own gels as all the aid station ones were caffeinated which for 3 hours+ would have me hyper.
After three laps you know what’s coming so once up the climb for the final time the last 12km feels achievable. Run through Embrun town massively well supported from the various bars and cafe’s. Slightly worried about suddenly blowing as I’d decided not to risk more than two caffeinated gels and that’s all they had at the aid stations. Final 2km along river looking up to the medieval city walls had excellent crowd support – names and nationalities on race numbers gives supporters plenty of opportunity to try English translations of Allez and Chapeau. Into finishing chute with PA announcing arrival is a great moment only marred by struggle to find water. Once I get round the corner I realise there’s a full recovery area in shade with bar serving beer (and wine?) frites, hot food and various baguettes; plus massage tent and hammocks.
It was a bedraggled, sweaty and tearful individual who staggered back to the transition area having uttered those horrible words ‘J’ai abandonné’. Andy feeling the joy and euphoria that (I imagine) you feel at the end of completing a long distance tri and me feeling totally desolate. It was meant to be a joint celebration but c’est la vie.
The interesting thing that I’ve found post race, is that I don’t feel too bad about not finishing. Yes I’m disappointed and after all that training, all those bricks, all those long long torturous rides….that I didn’t make it. But I’ve found pleasure in positivity. Making it around a 3.8km swim in one piece in a decent time. Finishing the bike leg of one of the most punishing triathlons in the world. Starting the run, not giving in at T2, finishing the first lap, starting the second – and so on. It’s all a massive bloody achievement and I was out there for over 13 hours in 34 degree heat. I’ve impressed myself. And in the subsequent days when you think, how bad was I, could I have carried on? I know in my heart that I couldn’t. I wasn’t alone – many people didn’t finish due to the heat (even Emma Pooley). The marshalls were stretchering people out regularly and there were people just lying by the wayside.
So in summary, that just brings home to me what an achievement it is for Andy. To finish in 13hr 04 is pretty awesome – including a 3hr 40 marathon. In those conditions, on that tough a course….chapeau à mon marie. I might borrow his t shirt…
P.S. Don’t even ask about next year…