The last race report I wrote dates back to nearly four years, November 2018 to be precise, for a rather simple reason: I haven’t pinned a race number since. What with being well settled in the (wrong) side of my forties, I admittedly didn’t expect to ever do this again, but yet here I come with a new blog post about a triathlon race.
In early April this year, when I first got word of an Xterra taking place in Super Besse, on the very slopes where I learned to ski as a kid, I immediately thought that it was about time Xterra explored the spectacular terrain my beloved Auvergne region has to offer. Despite having run and mountain biked my way in quite a few idyllic spots across the globe, I’ve always known that the volcanic trails on offer across the chaîne des Puys could compare favourably with those to be found in off road meccas such as Rotorua (NZ), Scanno (Italy) or Whistler (Canada). Home is where the heart is you see, and the good trails too!
The seed was planted, the occasion too good to pass, and came late May I went for it and entered the race.
Soon after that Maui 2018 mud fest, a race which itself was already kind of a come back after my “official” retirement at Ironman Barcelona the previous year, I had fairly easily come to terms with the idea of not racing anymore. I had done my time, enjoyed a great (and unexpected) decade of competing and traveling in exciting corners of the world, and was ready to move on to the next chapter. Which I happily did, putting all this newly found spare time into some exciting music related projects (which some of you might have read about if you follow me on the socials or check out this blog from time to time).
I wouldn’t say that I didn’t miss competing at times, and more specifically the feeling of being fit and the reassuring routine when preparing for a particular event, but I had accepted the fact that in life there is a time for everything. My wetsuit ended up in the bin directly after IM Barça, with both bike box and home trainer following suit a year later post Maui. Sure enough I’ve kept on running and swimming a bit, but nowhere near the levels and intensities of yesteryear. Besides, and despite the drastic easing down in training load, my lifelong Achilles/ankle injuries never really went away, to the point that I was pretty much ready for surgery on my torn ATFL ligament only a few months ago. In March 2022, shortly after having caught covid for the 2nd time, I can safely say I was at my lowest fitness level in about 20 years, probably since my bout of pneumonia in 2002.
Then I read about Xterra Super Besse. The date fitted in my calendar, the race being held on the only free weekend of a summer overflowing with parties and festivals, and I knew I couldn’t miss it. It didn’t matter that it was advertised as an “XL” race (I’d never heard of an Xterra XL before, let alone done one of these), I had three months to get back to some kind of shape in order to be able to enjoy the stunning but oh so tough Sancy trails. Thirteen years on after my first ever Xterra (in 2009 in Zittau, Germany), I would be back racing as an age grouper again, with no other objective than embracing the moment and reaching the finish line.
See below what was on the menu:
There was supposed to be some swimming too, in the tiny but beautiful lac des Hermines, but sadly that was cancelled at the last minute due to a high level of cyanobacteria caused by an unusually long lasting heatwave. Quite a shame as the swim was the one discipline in which I had kept a level close to what it was during my racing days (!). Not that it would make a huge difference overall, what with the epic bike and run portions on offer, but still that would definitely change the race dynamics quite a bit.
At first we were told that the swim would be replaced by an extra 6.5K run loop (complete with 300m D+ !), but after -understandably- receiving some complaints from a few of the athletes, the race directors decided towards a more palatable 3K loop. 1.5K up the slopes, 1/5K down. To be honest, despite running being my strong discipline, I was happy with the decision as the course was hard enough as it was!
Come race morning, it felt great to see familiar faces from the circuit which I hadn’t seen for a long while (Hey Nico ! Hey Nat ! Hey Mi…what was your name again ?!), and to toe the line next to my old buddy Graham Wadsworth, with whom I’d shared some really cool moments on the European and World circuit, most notably the once-in-a-lifetime South-Asian tour we did in 2012.
As the pressure started to build up nicely, we could hear legendary xterra speaker Chun De Stokel urging athletes to take it easy on the first run as apparently we had a long day day ahead. I couldn’t agree more and so when the gun finally went I made sure not to get carried away. There were fast guys at the front, starting with mountain biker/trail runner extraordinaire Sebastien Carabin, and I was in a very different league. Barely five minutes into the run most of us were already walking (!) on a crazy steep section with huge steps which we would have to endure two more times a few hours later. I somehow reached T1 in 6th position, having made my way through the field, and so started the bike in a fairly good position.
I had recced the bike course on the Friday before the race and knew what was in store: some rolling bits, roots, lots of dust, and lots of slow climbing. Graham flew past me right out of transition, as did a few others in the first 15K or so. When I finally managed to (just about!) hang on with a bunch of riders coming from the back, it was pretty much when the course started its way back up to the station. I got caught in the game and started racing like it was 2012 (when I was at my fittest) and a standard (not XL) xterra. Up to the front (of that group) I went, throwing caution to the wind and simply loving the moment. Once a racer… Shortly after and rather unsurprisingly the legs started to complain a bit; by the time we hit the bottom of the majestic hairpins of the chemin de croix (living up to its name both literally and figuratively) that leads back to the station, I’d started to feel cramps building up in my abductors – an all too familiar feeling which I had all but forgotten about. Flashbacks to races like Alpe d”Huez LD or Xterra Xonrupt started to come through as I released the pressure in a desperate attempt to control the cramps while pedalling uphill (which sounds as awkward as it actually is).
The first loop wasn’t even done and I knew I was in trouble. All my mates were gone ahead, never to be seen again. In fact I did not overtake one single athlete during the whole bike course, which pretty much sums it all: not only I wasn’t ready for such a long and brutal course to start with, but those burnt matches early on really didn’t help either. And so did not an epic aid station fail at the 45K mark, as I threw away my half full bidon only to drop the fresh one I was given… Why oh why did I not turn back and pick it up (I guess I was still on race mode at that time), as that left me in no man’s land for a good hour, without any fuel nor fluid and running on a tank that was pretty much empty. At my lowest point I was so wet and dehydrated I was feeling shivery while riding uphill in the scorching heat…
At the top of the steepest climb of the course, past a chèvrerie (a farm where they make goat cheese), I remembered spotting a fountain nearby. In a happy delirious moment I decided to fill up my empty bidon and started to sing Hallelujah, until a bemused local urged me NOT to drink that water as it was non potable. As cruel as can be. I had a few words with myself, considered lying myself in a cross position right there and then (would that sort me out?), but in the end there was no other choice but to soldier on as I was literally in the middle of nowhere, in the rising heat, with only a few goats to call for help. The next aid station became my ultimate goal. Survival mode on, not even sure I’d be able to even stay on the bike on the steepest sections – but I got there eventually (the 60K mark). Never before had the sight of a trail side buffet overflowing with gels and fruits and isotonic drinks felt so close to heaven. Blimey, there was even some coca cola – paradise!
“What do you want?” I was asked. “Bit of everything” I replied. I indulged for a good few minutes and felt much better instantly. Some watts reappeared in the legs and as I finally reached T2 I then thought I might be able to complete the race (which had been unthinkable only an hour previously).
As I would find out post race, my second loop on the bike was a good 20 minutes slower (!) than the first one – just a little blow up 🙃
Entering transition I vaguely overheard that I was in 26th position, not that it mattered much anymore. As per tradition I took all the time in the world in T2, putting on fresh socks, fresh vest and a backpack filled with drinks and gels, and headed out onto a run course I had not recced (but my brother did and had warned me). Vincent, my mate from high school, appeared right there and then, and ended up running alongside me for a couple of hundred meters, in his flip flops. A rather comical sight from the outside I suppose, but that could well have been the deciding move which got me to the finish line. No way out from this!
To cut the story short, the run was extremely tough. 800m D+ over 20k is a lot of climbing (and some brutal descending!), which was made even harder by debilitating cramps (those damn abductors) and a very inflamed Morton’s neuroma under my foot forcing me to a walk multiple times (walking up while physically pushing the cramps away with my hands was really a first for me!). I even had to take off my right shoe and run shoeless at some point! Despite the stunning scenery as we passed near the summit of the Puy de la Perdrix (1825m), there was never a time I could really run properly and fully enjoy the moment. Survival mode all the way, which to be fair seemed to be the case for almost every other athlete around me – even in my sorry state I managed to “run” past a few athletes in distress, and when I finally made it to the finishing chute I was rather surprised to find myself in 17th position overall, and a winner in the 45-49 A/G category (unbeknownst to me I had overtaken the then leader of that A/G at the last aid station).
Six hours, twelve minutes and nineteen seconds of mostly pain, that’s over one hour more than winner Sebastien “Xterra-terrestre” Carabin (who was already fed and showered by the time I arrived), some 35 min deficit to Joeri Hofman in 2nd and 25 min to my mate Graham who had a stellar race, finishing fourth and winning the 40/44 AG.
Thirteen years after finishing second in my A/G for my first ever Xterra (in Zittau, Germany), the circle seemed somehow complete with winning my A/G on my “return” to racing.
An A/G win means a qualification to the World Champs, to be held this year on the 1st of October in Trentino, Italy, at the heart of the Brenta Dolomites – the first time ever outside of Maui. Though that was never in my plan, it suddenly became quite appealing, even more so since I was asked to DJ at the after party by Marketing Director of XTERRA Europe Konstantinos ‘Kostas’ Koumargialis only a couple days before. Could definitely make out for a fun and unusual weekend!
I definitely needed a few days to reflect and think about how feasible this would be (hint: probably not), and so in the meantime I decided to do something I had always wanted to: ride up from from my parents’ flat in Clermont-Ferrand to the top of the Puy-de-Dôme, using 90% of trails. A tough but incredible ride which I did that two days after the race, right after lunch and a fair few glasses of white wine, in 35ºC+ heat. The more I climbed, the better I felt, and I was literally in the zone when I reached the top. Go figure.
The day after that, Silvia and I went off the grid for a few days of hiking in the Monts du Cantal, part of the largest volcano crater in Europe to be found two hours south of Clermont-Ferrand. So stunning I had to include a few pics here.