Three weeks exactly after the fiasco of the Alpe d’Huez, I am back in Hautes-Alpes territory for the almighty Embrunman. Longest running triathlon in Europe, 29th edition this year. Toughest iron distance race in the world, arguably. The bike course is 188k long – we’re in France after all, so why not? – and includes the ascent of the mighty col de l’Izoard amongst some 5000m of positive climbing; the marathon is the correct distance but features another 400m of elevation and is usually run under a deadly sun.
Why did I come back here then? I finished 10th last year for what was my first ironman and my first marathon. I suffered (a lot), travelled to some really dark places (especially between the 25th and 35th k on the run) but my aim was mostly to finish and call myself an ironman. Better still, an embrunman! When I signed up earlier this year, the plan was to arrive here better prepared, with more specific training (ie long rides and long runs) in the tank…for multiple reasons (months of endless rain, injuries) this wasn’t to be. If anything I am less ready than last year. Plus I know what to expect. Pain, buckets of. Scary.
The 6am swim start in the dark is spectacular. We (1080 of us) all line up trying to figure out which boat light to follow before the sun rises slowly. Fortunately here the swim is rather smooth as no one really wants to fight with such a long day ahead. I exit in 15th, some 5min down on the leaders, with barely a cramp in sight. As per usual I let the Del Corral-express-train-on-a-mission go, aiming to ride smart (sic). The first 8k or so take us from 700 to 1300m altitude. No messin’ about. I am feeling rather good and catching Reboul and a certain Matteo Annovazzi (of whom more later) pretty quickly. Not necessarily a good sign knowing how experienced Gilles is…
A couple of hours later I am in 10th, some 10′ down on the leaders, and about to attack the mythical Izoard. 14k of ascent with the last 6k the steepest and most punishing. As last year this is where I start to struggle and realise how tough the day will be. A very impressive Jeanne Colonge rides past me in the final meters of the climb – she will end up crushing the women’s field. The buffet at the col (2300+m) is a godsend. Gingerbread, apricots, bananas and (down) we go.
All the regulars know it – this is where the race really starts. From Briançon there is 70k to go and not much rest. The “mur du Pallon” is indeed a wall. 1k or so at 14% average. 11kph business. Un mur. Quads are crying. Back is screaming. A few more undulating roads and we finally reach Embrun. But this not quite the end of the bike. 188k remember? Well those extra 8k include the terrible côte de Charvet, a soul destroying climb that includes some 22% portions. Yep. I didn’t need that. At all. Matteo, who caught me before the Pallon, seems stuck on the tarmac just ahead of me. Same for Antoine Perche just behind me. Ouch. One last technical downhill and we are in T2.
I am 11th, some 30min (!) down on the leaders (Dellow and Del Corral) and I am cooked. I start to run and I am scared. No running legs, I am empty. The heat is reaching dangerous heights and I sweat like a fountain. My achilles is badly inflamed already. I have no reason to go on really. I can barely run when I reach the pedestrian street of Embrun, despite the party vibe. Why am I doing this to myself when I could be enjoying a fresh beer in the shade? A few kms later I am running alongside the Durance river. Fresh clear turquoise water. Why…when I could be cruising on a raft?
Negative thoughts galore. But I am now at km 11 and I start to feel something. I am actually running. Not jogging anymore. Not exactly flying, but enough to lift me up. “High Feelings” pops up in my head. I think of my family who have been following me (literally!) since the morning; my friends who’ve sent me some positive vibes. The next 10k are easy. I know I will finish. Matteo goes past me at the start of the 2nd lap, but I decide to keep steady. I am now smiling when I am back in the town centre. Almost tempted to dance a few steps when I hear a (dodgy) rendition of La Javanaise. Every aid station I get my water bottle filled and have a coke and a few apricots. Some potatoes even at k35. I guess I am in 9th now, with Reboul less than a minute behind. K 36 and I am 8th. Time to push a bit. “Dans le dur” but still going. My aunt Cathy runs with me for 100m or so…I am now at k40. I am told I am 7th. Really? 800m to go, my dad is there and tells me I am 7th. I wave my arms in despair.
Before the race I told everyone I want anything but 7th. There is prize money only for the top 6 this year…but here I am in 7th…then I look ahead and see Matteo about 100m ahead. And he sees me. Bollocks. I got to try nonetheless. I start to sprint like Taoufik Makhloufi. Desperate but my legs seem actually happy with the change of pace ! Matteo’s coach screams at him. We are now in the home straight. I am flying like in my days as a 1500m runner. Matteo can’t respond, I got it! 10h 42’22”. 6th! Big big smile. I finished an ironman with the last 400m in 52″. At least (sic)! I feel quite proud though.
The whole day was an amazing roller coaster of sensations, mental and physical. I learned a lot. Mentally I know that I can go on even when my body clearly says stop. Chase the negatives and think positive. Get lost in your thoughts. Enjoy your bubble.
Physically I have realised that I can’t do much better than that on this type of races with my routine of 14hrs of training per week. My time is the same as last year’s. I can be competitive on xterra and 70.3, but not longer. I would need to ride a lot more. Zamora finished a whole hour before me. That’s the price. He and the likes of Del Corral and Dellow ride 500k week in week out, and probably run about 100k per week. Can’t compete with those guys. I am now an embrunman x2. I won’t do another ironman unless I am better prepared. If I do might try a fast one. Or maybe Nice again. Or maybe Embrun…
Soon I realised that I actually sprinted for 7th, not 6th. Oh well…