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Race Report: Alp d’Huez Long Course, Sanna & Ville

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Long Course and a long day. The idea of doing this race has been with us at least a year and we were planning to register at this on January. I was not even given the chance to register myself because Sanna enrolled as both to this race already in December, as a gift to me. So everything that follows can be blamed on her…

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Well, truthfully this was a bucket list race for us in many ways. Sanna is going to do the Lake Tahoe IM on September, which is a hard course and in some ways a similar han this is. For me the biggest thing was that I got to ride the most famous climb in road cycling, Alp d’Huez. I knew that this sort of race is possibly the worst for my physique, lots of elevation change on the bike and a run at the elevation of 2000 m above sea level, but thankfully we do not take ourselves too seriously with this hobby.

The Race itself

This was the 10th round of Alp d’Huez triathlon and I have to say in hindsight that the participants might have been the fittest triathletes I have seen in one place. This is not Norseman, but still a very tough race. The performances we saw were mostly very good and a majority of the folks were looking really fit during the race. I have to remind that they call this a triathlon festival and there was a Duathlon, Kid’s race and a short distance race too, all on different days. Ours was a Friday and the morning seemed very nice when we woke up at 6 AM.

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Although this was a “big” race there was no possibility to rack your bike the night before. Everything had to be put in place on race morning. So at 7 AM we were at T2 to put our gear there.

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The T2 was also the race centre and it was really nice to have some artificial grass under your feet instead of a muddy field like at Kisko.

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And yes, it was cold at that time. Somewhere around + 5 degrees Celsius.

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After that we jumped on our bikes and got riding to the Swim and T1. It required to go down the first 5 bends of Alp d’ Huez and then taking a different route to the lake in question. You would guess that this route would have been really well marked? Well no, there was a rough map from the organisers and a request to go by bike to the start. The route was simple but this was no Ironman race where every turn and info booth is really well marked.

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We got to the swim start a little before 8.15, the race started at 9.30. It was a really great time to get there, the cues to body markings and toilet got significantly longer after that. After putting our bikes to T1 we went to check the swim start.

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The swim was a 2 loop course on a reasonably clear lake. It should have been 2,2k but we have our doubts about that.

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The information was really clear that the lake would be quite cold and that info was correct. During the race briefing which was held simply by talking to the megaphone when people where setting up their bikes they informed that the water temperature would be 15.5 degrees. Fortunately for us the Summer in Finland had been very bad weather-wise so that temp was almost normal for us.

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Swim 2,2k (ish)

Sanna: 48.27

Ville: 48. 54

The racers were allowed in to the water 15 minutes before the start and we got in there somewhere middle of the pack. Some of the people went to sit on the rocks on the opposing side of the start line, we stayed in the water all the time and tried to get some swimming in.

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The start was a nice one. A bit like standing on Champs-Élysées during New Years eve. No cannons or beeps just a “roar” from the participants and people following from the shore. Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 22.03.03

The water felt somewhat cold but I do not think that it had any major influence on our swims. I had a neoprene cap under my race cap and Sanna used two swimming caps. The swim itself was the weirdest I have ever done. Although the route was very simple I have never seen such bad navigation from racers. The first 200-300 meters were good and the swim was quite clean, after that I felt that there was always somebody going across the straight line. My navigation was far from perfect but this was the first time I had to push somebody out of my way when he was swimming almost 90 degrees off course. For me this meant that I had to be navigating all the time to avoid the congestion.

For Sanna this was a little bit worse, because she got stuck between some gentlemen and had to stop for a second or two swear her frustration. Hopefully somebody heard her shouting bad words in Finnish. There was plenty of space for the 1000 something triathletes but getting a good swim line was hard for both of us. When getting nearer to the swim exit we both knew that this was not a good swim from neither of us and also that the distance of 2,2k was off. I would guess from looking at the Garmin data (could be off a lot) and looking at the times from pro’s that the distance was from  2400 to 2500 meters.

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Our swim times were very slow and actually the official times are almost a minute more than our own watches, the timing line was somewhere else than right at the swim exit. However, we were glad to get of the water and to the main part of this race. The bike route. We had agreed to take the T1 quite slow to put on sunscreen, socks and even riding gloves. It was fun to change some words at the bikes and Sanna was a bit before me on her bike.

Bike 115k

Sanna: 6.03.47

Ville: 5.48.17

There are no questions about this. People come here to challenge themselves on a hard course and the bike is the meat of this burger. Organisers profile looks like this:



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Although there are a bit more climbing involved, especially between the first and second hill. Our Garmin’s calculated the elevation difference to be 3000 meters during the 114 km’s and the route ends overs 1000 meters higher than the start point. A brutal ride with the climax of Alp d’Huez at the end.

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The first part of the ride was a gentle downhill and naturally there were a lot of people around us.

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Our plans on the bike were centered on the uphills because most of the other parts were downhill and somewhat crowded, so a lot harder to focus on power goals etc. After getting a good feeling on the bike and passing some people I saw Sanna on the road and shouted some encouragement to her. Feeling was really good and the weather was absolutely great for the race. Temperatures were rising nicely but there was no risk of a very hot day.

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After going through the first 25k quite fast we got to the first uphill Col de l’alpe Gran Serre. 16 k of steady climbing for a vertical rise of 1000 meters. My plan was to ride all the hills between 250-270 watts and Sanna was going with the same idea with watts suitable for her (150-165). Naturally we were listening to our bodies for the most part, but a clear and reasonable power target is a good way to stop you going too fast at the beginning.

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The first hill went nicely from both of us. The data seen here is from me and because I am having some troubles with Vectors dropping the signal a and bit my guess is that the normalised power of 245 watts from the hills is a bit under. I would guess that the real number is 255 to 260. Average heart rate was 144, which is a good and steady effort level for me. My anaerobic threshold on a bike is a bit over 160 bpm. Sanna’s performance was good also on the first uphill. Steady work of 166 watts with 153 heart rate. Right on plan for both of us. Quite surprisingly both of us got some lower back pain on the first hill, something neither of us have ever experienced during a ride or race. Same bikes and set up.

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The next downhill and the rolling hills before the second mountain were the key point for both of us in this race. We both had gotten less energy down than  needed on the first uphill and the different set up of the aid stations did not help us to remedy the situation. Note: This is not a complaint about the aid stations, just our challenges to adapt to the system here. The first real aid station was at the top of the first mountain and the selection was good: water, sports drink, gels, cookies, energy bars, cheese (yes, cheese), hot dogs…The challenge was that you basically had to have a picnic there and not even try to do the usual “grab the bottle and go”. Sanna was a lot more alert and did just that. She put her bike down and went to have that picnic, ate, drank and got her bottles filled. I tried to be quick and got a energy bar and changed my bottle to a new one filled with water (most of the bottles were small ones, not the usual PowerBar or similar). My plan was to get 300 kcal’s of energy down every hour and at this point I was lower than this. I just did not realise this yet.

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Ok, the first signs of trouble started when the climb to Col d’Oron started. It is an undulating hill and there is no sudden change in grade like there is at Alp d’Huez. My feeling worsened quite fast and I could not get reasonable power out from my legs. Naturally I realised that the reason was on my nutrition and I tried to make it better by getting more of the gels down from my second bottle, which actually went quite well. I did not have any GI issues, I just did not take in enough calories probably because I was a little bit afraid that I might run out of water before the next aid station, partly due to the smaller bottle I had now. In hindsight this was quite silly, but in my energy depleted state I did not react well to the situation at hand. Sanna was strugling too, but she was more aggressive with nutrition and she recovered better than me. During Col d’Oron I first started to think about quitting, I was suddenly feeling a lot worse and this was the hottest part of the course. The negative feelings were naturally caused by the too low intake of energy and I actually recovered a bit at the end of Oron.

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My power during the hill dropped to 200 watts but I was happy to get to the last downhill. I had my own picnic at the aid station (crisps tasted good!) and felt better during the downhill. The idea of quitting had disappeared and I was thinking how would I feel after Alp d’Huez. The downhill and short flatland felt good and I was looking forward to getting to the hallowed ground of cycling: 21 bends of Alp d’Huez. Note: I was in total survival mode after the halfway point of Col d’Oron. I knew that a “good” race was not going to happen. The only goal was to get to the finish line, or to the hotel (which was at the T2). Sanna managed the situation better and she was just 15 minutes behind me at this point.

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If you are a cycling fan, you now very well what Alp d’Huez means to road cyclists and I knew that I had to get up that hill just out of respect of the hill, if not for any other reason. Every one of the 21 numbered bends are named after Tour de France Stage winners there, most of them have 2 names because TdF has climbed this hill so many times during the years.

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The hill is not impossible in any way, but when you have messed up your nutrition the 11% gradient at the start is not easy. The first km’s are the steepest and I was quite fine at the start. Blood sugar had risen during the downhill and flatland and my spirits were quite good at this point. Again, I was on survival mode and just tried to get to the top to have some chance of running. This dream lasted about 15-20 minutes. After that I was again at the same feeling I had during the previous hill. I got liquids and energy but it was too late at this point. I knew that this was a death march to the top and I felt worse than ever on a race. My lower back had been aching since to latter parts of the first hill and I was just trying to keep my legs spinning. Pushing 200 watts felt really hard – which is warm up/base ride power for me normally. I think my face tells the story better than these words.

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There was one aid station during the hill where I stopped, eased my back and continued to the top. I knew that the possibility to even try the run was really low but the knowledge that your hotel is at the top and getting a lift from the organisers would probably take forever. After 1 hour and 30 minutes of climbing I was near T2.

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Sanna was just 15 minutes behind me, struggling but in better form than me. Her power output had droppe a bit, from 166 watts on the first uphill to 150 watts to these last two. The differentiating factor was that her heart rate was somewhat higher on the last hills – as expected and mine was lower.  One thing I have not mentioned yet is that the altitude started to affect the performance at Alp d’Huez, usually this happens when you go over 1500 meters, which this mountain clearly is. Thankfully our support crew was waiting at the top. They might have got distracted at some point…

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Finally we were at the top. Good thing to note, is that the T2 is not at the actual top of the “original” climb so the unbelievably good times of the Pro’s (under 50 mins) are not strictly comparable to the times posted by TdF riders less than week before us. The difference is not massive, maybe 50 to 75 meters of vertical rise, but still not the exact same route.

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Naturally Sanna could produce a smile a lot better than my grin.

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Run  22k (ish)

Sanna: 2.14.26

Ville: DNF

I rolled to T2 and felt my legs were totally empty. I have never felt my legs that tired and knew that it would be really hard to complete the race. My face was white, I was somewhat nauseated and had a headache. The route is so brutal that my legs would have felt empty even if my nutrition would have been perfect, but my failure in this part of the race was very clear at this point. I did a slow change of shoes, got some water and energy and started an easy jog to the run route. If I would have been totally pragmatic I would have just ridden to the hotel, but even I wont give up without trying the run first. I jogged forward, found a toilet after 1 k and felt  a little bit “better” after that. On the first uphills I walked and tried to do some jogging. Legs totally empty, headache getting worse etc. After 2 k I was ready to call it a day for real. I might have been able to walk the route, but I had no desire to wander there for 3 hours just to finish. I knew that I had messed up my nutrition and I did not feel any need to validate this thing by trying to force myself to walk to the finish. You’re first full distance race maybe the one where you would try to finish at “any cost” but I play on the safe side on these. So I got to the aid station, drank some coke. Told the officials that I am quitting and tried to find the shortest route to get my stuff. The walk of shame was slow and I have to say it is a funny feeling when somebody else is yelling at you to not to quit when they hear that you say that you are done. You have to love the other racers.

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Sanna had handled herself better and she started the run 15 minutes after me. She felt bad too, but was able to keep on jogging. At least when the first uphills came. She decided quite fast that she had to walk the steepest parts to get herself to finish the run. I can guarantee that she was not alone doing the walking. Although the field was very fit, trying to run at the altitude of 2000 meters after climbing 3000 meters on a bike, you are quite done.

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When I was trying to get my stuff from the transition are and slowly walking to the hotel to get some energy Sanna was fighting the run. Her good pacing was shown that she could keep up the same speed almost throughout the first 2 loops and the third one was not much slower. The run should have been 22 k, it was probably closer to 20 k but I did not hear anybody complaining about this. Wonder why…

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After some 9 hours and 14 minutes Sanna arrived at the finish. My better half Daniela wanted to run with Sanna to the finish. Looking at Sanna’s face I think that Daniela’s pace was a little bit too much for Sanna. After the finish chute Daniela wondered why Sanna is squeezing her hand even harder. Well, she literally felt sick and she had to do some vomiting to the finish carpet. After she had finished her, umph, task the crowd gave her a good cheer!

Results:

Sanna: 9.14.29

Ville: DNF

Summary

All in all this was a great trip! That might sound a bit weird because I had to quit the race and Sanna’s performance was far from perfect but the experience was still well worth it. Sanna got some very valuable information for the upcoming Lake Tahoe IM and I got my first real taste how it feels to screw up your nutrition in a race. I am usually very good at pacing and nutrition but in this race I managed to mess up the nutritional part. The challenging bike route and the different style of aid stations played some part in this but it still should not have happened, you have to be able to adapt. I should have been able to react to the situation a lot better, like Sanna did. After some calculations after the race I was 600 to 800 kcalories down on my plan after the bike and when that happens there is not much you can to do. It is funny how your thinking is impaired when you get tired and let your blood sugar drop during the race.

We do not see coming back to tis race, at least not in near future, but we are very happy that we made the trip!

Something to note if you are planning to do this race

In addition I feel that I need to mention a couple of things about this race if you are planning to attend in coming years. All the most important stuff for getting the race done were done well from the organisers part. Timetables wear clear, aid stations did not run out of food or energy, there were enough volunteers etc. That said, the organisation was not nearly at the same level you see in Scandinavia, Germany or IM races in general. You could see that this race is for the experienced racer, you had to know how this works and then everything was OK. If you are a very fit for this but you have not done multiple Triathlon races there might be some surprises or additional anxiety before the race when the information is not as clear as it could be or there are not that many signs to point you in the right direction.

There are two main things I would like to organisers to do better:

  • Route and transfer markings. Although on our race day (Friday) the routes were clear enough, on Wednesday when the Duathlon was on we saw runners asking the audience where they should go. Although we found the correct route to the lake reasonably easily, we saw plenty of people on Saturday morning (Short Course Day) who went to the lake from the “wrong” route. They found they’re way but it just took longer.
  • First aid people and their attention to the well being of racers. I saw many ambulances on the roads and fortunately I did not witness any hard crashes nor did not hear about them. I would have liked the personnel to be a little bit more interested in the well being of the racers. When Sanna came to the finish line she vomited and clearly was not in the best of feelings but nobody even came to ask if she is OK. I understand that she had Daniela by her side but still just to come and check that she is fine to go on. When I quit the race during the run I would have liked some questions asked by the personnel – just for safety and make sure everybody is OK – but that seems not to be the way at this race.

Race files

If you want to check our race files:

Sanna’s Bike (wrong distance)

Sanna’s Run

Ville’s Swim

Ville’s Bike (power data not completely accurate)