Last weekend I raced at Embrun, an ironman distance race in France. It was a bit of a last minute decision, as on Sunday night Brett emailed me with something along the lines of “ stop being a mush mouse, being a wimp in training, thinking too much, and go do Embrun next weekend. You can descent ok, so chances are you won’t ride off any cliffs, and it will be a nice, long sufferfest day for you, which you need.”
At first I was in denial that 6 days later I would be racing one of the hardest races possible. I figured maybe I would not be able to get an entry in time. Or maybe couldn’t find a rental car last minute, or maybe the earth would open up and swallow up my bike as a sign.
Then came fear as each day James would have another story about how hard the race is. It takes 2 hours longer than most other races, there is 5000 meters of climbing ( which did not mean much to mean before hand, but sure means a lot more after the race). The bike course includes a climb up Col D’Izard, which has been a climb in the Tour de France, until they apparently decided the descent was too dangerous. Just to give you an idea, when you first start climbing there are forests, grass, nice lush green views, as you go higher the trees turn to shrubs, the grass gets more sparse, the views much more arid, then eventually there is no grass, or trees, just dust, rocks, and grey views which make you think you are on the moon. The swim is in complete darkness, and the weather could be freezing, scorching hot or anything in between. Not only that but my knee had been a little dodgy for the past month, so might training had been less than stellar ( hence the mush mouse comment).
A 5:50 am swim start for the women meant my alarm clock went off at 3:10 am and by 4:45 we were at the race site. The sun is not out yet at that time, so the swim start is in the pitch black- line up on the beach, look out into the dark, where there is apparently a lake ahead of you, and start running till you hit water. I hit a couple of photographers first as I was running into the water, since they did not jump out of the way of my super sprint fast ( not likely- I can’t even sprint for the bus) or maybe it was just because it was so dark, and we were all wearing black wetsuits. Once in the water we were supposed to follow the boat with the light. Well, there were a few boats, and a couple of them had lights, so I swam to the wrong one first, asked where I was supposed to go, and they told me to swim towards the other boat. Hmm, this is already a trickier race than most I thought. The rest of the swim was pretty surreal, I was just following a blinking orange light ahead of me, sometimes it was far ahead, sometimes close, sometimes almost beside me. Luckily by the second lap the sun started to come up, and the bouys became visible, as did the swim exit.
Transition was pretty smooth, and once on my bike I knew the day had truly begun. I was aware that immediately out of transition there was a 7 km climb. I started cycling, feeling ok, working hard up the hill, thinking “this is not so bad, I must be about half way up the hill now” I looked down and had only gone 2 km. Yikes, I realized just how long a day this was going to be, and how difficult the hills were going to get. I tried to focus on each hill or downhill as it came (there was very little flat riding in this race) and reminded myself to keep on track with my eating and drinking. It was a pretty lonely ride, a few of the pro men passed me ( they started 10 minutes after us), and about 2 or 3 amateurs, but otherwise it was just me and a lead motorbike a ways ahead of me. The Col D’Izard lived up to all the stories. It was long, it was hard, and it was cold at the top ( only about 3 degrees Celcius- while at the base it was easily in the low 20’s). I was amazed at all the spectators lining not only this hill, but most of the other hills on the course- and there were quite a few. Every once in a while as I passed some spectators someone would pat my butt and yell “allez, allez, courage!” Hmm, in the tour de France it seems they push the riders up the hill as they go by, where was the push for me?
I always thought I was not the best of big hill climbers, I am more of a time trial- rolling hills kind of girl. So I just figured I would pretend I am riding on a flat, which happens to be tilted up a bit. On my Cervelo P4, in my 3T aerobars, while it seems most everyone else was on their road bikes with aerobar clip-ons. I later found out people thought it was pretty unusual, and kept asking for the big screen tv in the transition area to show more of the crazy girl going up the mountain on a time trial bike, in her aerobars. Well, I must admit 6hr40 + is a whole lot longer to sit on a bike than the usual 5 hours it takes me. And there were far more hills, and switchbacks than I expected. I was happy to just survive the bike course and finally make it back to transition. I had no clue where the other girls were in relation to me, pretty much the only split I had was that I had a 10 minute lead at about 70 km. So I had no clue where everyone was after 185 km.
After my usual SL3 compression sock wrestling match in transition, I was out on the run course, feeling less than sparky. The race started a new rule where there would be no disposable cups at the aid stations, you were supposed to carry your own plastic cup, at each aid station fill it up, and then continue on reusing it for the rest of the race. It is a great idea to cut down on the waste in races, but this method still has a few wrinkles it needs to work out. Especially since it was completely new to everyone, and nobody was certain how it would work. But luckily enough I bought a waist pack bottle holder the night before the race, to have my own way of carrying fluid, and it came in very handy. I struggled the first 6-10 km of the run, but eventually found a bit of a rhythm. Like the bike the run has very little flat, which is what makes it challenging. I started to feel much better at the beginning of the second lap, only to step into a sewer grate and kind of jam my ankle and knee. It is the silly stuff that can get you in a long race. My knee seized up, and I had to do the one legged, hop, skip, jog walk shuffle for about 8 km till there was a bit of a flat again and I could run again without too much pain. It seems pretty easy writing about it now, but at the time I was not sure I would even make it to the finish line. Fortunately off the bike I had over 20 minute lead, and the run course was providing challenges for the other women as well, so I was able to get to the line first. A very, very excited, and tired, and sore “ mush mouse”. I figure if I could get through this course I am on my way to “mighty” rather than “mush”.