Embrun is located between Gap and Briançon, France, at the eastern end of the largest artificial lake in Europe, the Lac de Serre-Ponçon. Embrun is host every year to the Embrunman long distance triathlon.
3.30pm on Saturday 15th August, the 3.8km swim and the 186km alpine bike ride have been completed and now the moment of truth, would my recently damaged calf muscle survive any running at all let alone 42kms? A year of preparation had come to a grinding halt 10 days before the Embrunman Long Distance Triathlon when after just 3kms of a gentle training run I ended up hobbling and barely able to walk. I'd torn my Soleus Muscle in my right calf very badly, things were not looking good.
Almost as an afterthought I texted a friend who was a sports physio, his reply came back almost straight away, he was on holiday, but he contacted a local sports doctor who was able to see me the next day. It was a long shot but I thought after so much effort that any help was worth a try. Trevor is a doctor at the cutting edge of sports medicine and he suggested some autologous blood injections, basically taking some of my own blood and immediately injecting it into the damaged muscle. I was of course a bit nervous about something that sounded a bit like doping, but this technique is above board and just a way of speeding up the body's own repair mechanism. Two injections over 4 days and a visit to a sports physio at least gave me some hope of attempting the event. However I was still barely able to walk at the COLT club training swim 5 days before the event.
Tom, Alistair, Emma, Matty and Alfie aka the support crew.
Wednesday saw myself and Alistair plus our support crew (Emma, Matty and Alfie) head out to Embrun, getting 5 of us plus two bikes and camping gear into one hire car was the first challenge, and after an hour of repacking we drove out of Geneva airport and after a night with friends near Grenoble we arrived at Embrun, a small town that for one weekend becomes the centre of attention in French Triathlon.
The Lac de Serre-Ponçon at Embrun
What makes this event different from any other long distance triathlon is the brutal 186 kms bike ride over the 2300 metre Col D'Izoard close to the French Italian border. That alone would be enough for most fit cyclists, but the ride also takes in two other major climbs and many other shorter hilly sections that add up to over 3100 metres of climbing, in potentially baking hot summer weather. Especially brutal is the 350 metre hill that weaves its way above the town just 8kms from the end of the ride. The event is special due to the amazing support all around the course, and the many sections of closed roads that allow you to ride the alpine roads without oncoming traffic. It's as close as you can get to feeling like a rider in the Tour de France, which often passes over this area.
Of course the day started much earlier, at 4am we sat outside the tent eating rice pudding and drinking coffee, not talking much, both in our own little bubbles of contemplation. We thought we were perhaps a bit early, but on arrival at the transition (we had left our bikes in place the night before) the floodlit compound was a hive of activity. We both rechecked our equipment and handed in our food bags for the Col D'Izoard pick up and the half marathon pick up points.
Start line preparations in the transition area
"You're the Brits" a cheery voice greeted us. It was Simon who had entered the event last year but failed to complete it because he overslept and had arrived just as the swim was finishing! (He was allowed to do the run and the ride, but that must have been very frustrating!). Simon told us that Embrunman was a really big thing, you are almost revered by the spectators and the locals even for attempting this event. Simon was the only other UK based rider attempting the course this year, apart from Stephen and Bella Baylis of course, both expected to be challenging for first places.
5.50 am, the female competitors set off and we walk down the blue carpet towards the lake. Being hardened to cool (freezing?!) British waters the 22C waters of the large boating lake felt very welcoming and the red flashing lights of the lead boat was to be the moving target for the 1000 swimmers in the main field. After some grim experiences in UK events being trapped in the middle of a flailing pack of competitors I decided to hold back and swim on the very left of the field, this proved to be a perfect choice. I could "sight" on the many canoeists shepherding us around the flashing beacons on the buoys and got an amazingly clear swim, only having to tread water around a couple of sharp turns, and only one kick in the goggles. The darkness ebbed away and a bright band of sunlight hit the peaks to the East of the lake. Being able to concentrate on technique rather than survival was great and although I'd never previously swum 3.8 kms in one go, the finishing ramp was within sight after what seemed no time at all. Perhaps the warm water helped but the normal heavy legged feeling was absent as I walked up the ramp to great applause and headed into transition. Forcing myself to concentrate I really had to make sure that I set myself up well for the long ride ahead. In a sprint event I take less than a minute to do the swim/bike transition, today I invested 8 minutes in preparation, and headed out into the long shadows of sunrise ready to tackle perhaps the most ambitious bike ride of my life.
Swim 1 hour 17 mins
Bike 186kms (3200m ascent)
Despite still being 6.30 am the temperature was already around 22C and the initial loop of 40kms with 600 metres of ascent saw everyone riding with high spirits and excitement. Surprisingly, there were a number of road-side casualties with punctures, broken gears, etc.
My pulse rose to 155 pretty quickly (88%) although I felt like I was taking it pretty easily, I knew I'd settle down to an easier pace but initially just rode on autopilot and enjoyed having fresh legs and amazing views, almost every house and "hameau" (hamlet) had groups of cheering supporters, even at this time. The first return past Embrun was through a corridor of cheering supporters, amazing! Now the long approach to the Col D'Izoard. Being a much better cyclist than a swimmer I was now gaining places, on flatter sections sometimes overtaking large groups of ten or more in one fell swoop - very satisfying! Every 20kms there is a main feed station, so you can take on fresh bottles of water, isostar, or coke, as well as a wide selection of food, I chose water or isostar and bananas, and consumed energy gels from my top tube bag every 40 mins or so.
70 kms in to the ride and Simon recognised me as I caught him up on the spectacular Guillestre Gorge section, we chatted a while and I took some photos of him much to the amusement of the other riders around. Simon had completed the swim in around 1.08 hours and from now until the very end of the race we would trade places.
On the gentle incline I left Simon behind for a while, the Izoard was now beckoning and sections of hairpins on the approach roads led onto some steep long straight climbs in the full midday sun. A slight tailwind meant there was no breeze and again I was struggling to keep my pulse within reasonable limits.
Only when the first hairpin of the main climb arrived was there any relief, the sudden turn into the breeze was a great relief and the gradient of the hairpin bends was far more friendly.
Suddenly you emerge from the tree-clad slopes into the barren moonscape like environment of the last few kms. Even more cheering supporters here, "courage", "Chapeau", "allez", every rider getting superb encouragement from the appreciative spectators. Just before the final summit hairpins the road descends a little way through huge rock pinnacles and giant scree slopes. A statue to Coppi and Bobet at the roadside reminds you of the history this col has. Now it's time to soak in the feeling of elation at reaching this high point at 2350 metres, but there is not enough time to appreciate it all as the feeding station demands your attention. I hear my number called out and my food bag is handed to me whilst I exchange my drinking bottles and stuff yet more bananas into my pockets. From being in sight of many riders on the slow ascent you are now stretched out by speed on the descent. Even though I am used to steep descents the unknown road demands my full attention, my GPS shows upcoming bends which is very useful to avoid overshooting some of the more severe switchbacks. The 15km descent takes just 15 minutes, and with no oncoming traffic (like 90% of the ride) this is pure pleasure, although the slight headache from overheating meant I had to concentrate on drinking steadily to rehydrate. It was somewhat of a shock to ride through the deserted streets of Briancon and then head "down the valley" into a desiccating hot headwind.
In many ways the toughest part of the ride was yet to come. The route back from Briancon to Embrun involved several long climbs and descents up and down the valley sides, along narrow traffic free roads. Increasingly I saturated myself with water from my water bottles, which I refilled at every opportunity, the hot headwind now really starting to sap my strength.
Next was the technical descent to a small airfield where the pre-race brief had warned of sharp turns and gravel, then a short length of main road where huge queues of traffic were being held back by police and volunteers. Embrun came back into view at the 180 km point, but still a final climb awaited, sharp hairpins taking now tired riders through the houses above the town. Really great support here spurred me on, with a cooling hosepipe, and even a watering can offered by the locals, and finally an enthusiastic bugle player announced the top and the final freewheel for 4kms back into transition.
I'd put thoughts of the run out of my mind pretty much, but now the moment of truth was approaching, would I be able to complete 42kms, in the heat of the afternoon?
Bike 8 hours 3 minutes.
Run 42kms (400m ascent)
Back in transition after a great welcome it was fairly quiet, the field now well spread out. A couple of volunteers offered me a massage, so whilst sat down in my chair getting items ready, my legs were receiving some welcome treatment! Once changed into running gear the moment of truth had now arrived. My ploy was to change my running style to avoid straining my calfs, so I'd inserted 2cms of extra padding in my running shoe heels and was aiming to run flat footed rather than on my toes. Exiting transition the winning male was running towards me just 1km from the finish, (he would soon be 20,000 Euros better off). The first of 4 loops around the swimming lake went OK, with no signs of any problems, and gradually I settled down and forgot about the calf and thought more about the seemingly endless run. Breaking it up into segments seemed the best "mind game" and without a watch to remind me of the minutes and seconds I tried to just keep a comfortable pace and posture, and soak in the support and atmosphere. Children held out their palms for you to touch them as you passed. "Embrunmen" are held in great esteem it seems and once when I dropped my sunglasses at a feeding station a young helper instantly found them and handed them back to me with an amazing sense of urgency! Simon passed me once again whilst I was fiddling with my camelback, and shortly I caught him again and exchanged brief notes. 10kms came after an hour and eight minutes, I was happy to settle for that. Next I counted a third of the route completed as the temperature seemed to soar (probably high 30's air temperature, but feeling hotter still in the full sun). Even some of the French competitors were flaking out by the road side, some with medical crew on hand. A medical support crew on one section asked me if I was OK (did I look ready to collapse?). I asked for some sun cream, but they didn't have any. The three leaders in each class had riders in front of them on bikes to prime the crowds, but the support that I and every other competitor got was just as amazing. Unofficial water and food stops were also welcome, some with huge buckets of cool water in which to fill your hat before drenching yourself others with cold sponges to shove down your neck. Oddly going downhill was the hardest bit due to my thigh muscles, already tired from the bike ride now having to power me around the run (the change in running style causing this transfer of load). Still I was moving and soon I was approaching 21kms and the return past the finishing line to collect a token neckband to indicate I was on my second lap.
My second 10kms had slowed a bit to 1 hour 12 minutes, but being on the second lap was a huge boost. On the run I gradually sipped isostar and water from my camelback I also consumed more bananas and rice pudding, but the sheer volume of energy gels, bananas, and fluid now consumed seemed to cause my stomach to go on strike. I had to remind myself to drink more, to avoid overheating. Suddenly I heard a friendly voice from behind me, Simon had caught me up again and he had support from his wife and son who were riding some of the sections alongside him. His wife then accompanied me for most of the last section as Simon had support from a local marathon runner who volunteered to run with him. Once again I changed places several more times with Simon but the presence of someone to talk to, made the kms pass far more easily. Even though my legs felt at times as if they were ready to collapse under me, I just knew I must not stop or I'd seize up and that would be it. So passing feed stations I walked and grabbed for items rather than stopping. Just 10kms to go now and I was pretty sure I would make that, even though I'd slowed to 1 hour 16 mins for the last 10 kms. At times I barely seemed to be shuffling, but my pace actually held up over the final sections around the swimming lake once more. Some runners on this section were heading out without the neckband, they still had the full run to go. I was also thinking of Alistair, despite seeing Simon on many occasions, I had not seen Alistair since the start (I had started the bike ride just a few seconds before he finished the swim), I hoped that he was still going strong. Not far now, just a couple of kms, then the run around the transition area before the final stretch of blue carpet and the finish line.
Elation at the finish line
Emma, Alfie and Matty were there to cheer me on along with hundreds of other supporters. 14 hours and 30 mins after starting I had made it. Over the line my medal and finisher's t-shirt were thrust into my hands and I staggered around barely able to think what to do! I saw a chair and tried to sit down, this I found impossible as spasms in my thighs prevented me lowering myself down even a few inches. Then I saw Laura, one of the officials who spoke English and who we had talked to the day before. She seemed surprised to see me (you have finished already?!) "Go for a massage" she said and pointed to the medical tent where a welcome lie down for a few minutes and a massage really helped.
Run time 4 hours 58 mins
Daylight faded away as I waited with Emma for Alistair, the other COLT member. Figures appeared out of the darkness to rapturous applause.
Then there was Alistair, looking good up the final few metres, meaning we had both completed our first ironman distance race well inside the cut-off time.
All too soon it was the next morning and we were making our way with tired legs to the crystal clear waters of the swimming lake, to cool our aching muscles and compare our experiences before a lakeside coffee and croissant. There was a lot to remember!
Soothing tired muscles in the Lac de Serre-Ponçon the morning after.
238 GBR V2M E135667 PHILLIPS Thomas CITY OF LANCASTER TRIATHLON
Position 387 (approx 850 starters and 681 finishers)
Category position: (VET 40 - 49) 138
Swim time: 1:17:22
Swim position: 691
Bike time: 8:02:37
Bike position: 359 (+275 positions gained)
T2 approx: 10 mins
Run approx: 4:56:23
(I wasn't given a time for T2 so these are estimates)
Run position: 470 (+29 positions gained)
239 GBR S4M E135674 SHAWCROSS Alistair CITY OF LANCASTER TRIATHLON
Position 570 (approx 850 starters and 681 finishers)
Overall time: 15:42:29
Category position: (Senior) 323
Swim time: 1:24:56
Swim position: 797
Bike time: 9:08:03
Bike position: 695 (+68 positions gained)
T2 approx: 8:26 mins
Run position: 391 (+159 positions gained)
Thanks to Iain and Trevor for healing me so quickly!, Sports Physio in Milnthorpe, the support crew of Emma, Matty and Alfie for being so patient, Jill and Paul for a stop over on the way down to Embrun, and of course to Barbs for allowing me to put in so much of the required training time over the previous few months.
Tom Phillips is the founder of http://www.pcoms.com/ who provide web site services including design, promotion and marketing and hosting amongst some of their products. Previous clients have included Ronhill, the Kendal Mountain Festival, the Alpine club and Carradice bike bags.
PlanetFear media is funded by our online store. Consider shopping with us for your latest climbing and outdoor gear: visit the planetFear shop here.