Sunday, August 28, 2011

Embrunman Triathlon Race Report 8/15/2011

Hautes-Alpes, France August 15, 2011
by Benoit Pelczar

Having spent many months of August vacationing in the area in my youth, I was aware of the Embrunman Ironman-distance triathlon way before I started thinking about possibly doing it one day.

To try and understand the particularity of this race, I rode the bike course 2 years ago, over 2 days and on a rental bike. I rode the smaller loop of the figure 8 course one day and the bigger one the next day. I finished exhausted and with a total riding time of about 9 hours. What I learned from this was that renting a bike was not a satisfactory option (heavy and ill fitted) and that the course was to be taken seriously.

With a trip in France planned for the summer of 2011, I had intended to start preparing for the race about a year in advance, with a shift to a gradual bike focus over the winter. It turns out that I overraced during the summer and was sick from mid-August through mid-December. Once recovered, I started to train again, playing by ear and relying on the option to sign up a few weeks before the race if my preparation was going well.

In January, I started to seek the hills on each single bike ride, gradually increasing the total amount of climbing. This culminated with over 40 hours in July and 50,000' gain. My training was heavily weighted on the bike, by design, keeping the run work around half-marathon distance until a late push to the marathon one. 

My swim training was minimal, not by  choice but by necessity after a couple setbacks such as a sick family member in March and a self inflicted bike fall on Memorial Day which resulted in stitches on lip and finger as well as chipped teeth and a dead nerve needing root canal treatment one month later. Coincidentally, my load of business trips increased by about 50%. I did not panic and kept trying to get ready, though, as I trusted I could swim the distance, maybe slowly, but in an economical way which would not drain me too much for the rest of the day.

Having recovered from the bike fall and trusting I could prepare myself to take on the challenge, I registered for the race at the end of June.

Logistically, since renting a bike did not work out, I looked at shipping my bike to the race destination, to avoid having to carry it through airports and in a rental car. The quoted cost of about $400 each way made me look for an alternative and I bought a Pika Packworks bag.

I flew to France the first week of August, headed North for a family reunion before driving back South and reaching Embrun 6 days before the race.


I got to the transition area at 5 am, relaxed and feeling ready for the challenge ahead. 

There was a small line getting into transition. No big deal, I thought and started chatting with my neighbors. The line was not moving fast, though. Pretty soon, the women were cutting through, worried about missing their earlier start. 

By 5:20 am, the line started to move fast, after they stopped taking racers' signature. I was still strangely relaxed. I organized my area, pumped my tires, found my dad to give him my pump and was ready to go by 5:50 am.

My daughter and 2 nephews had raced the kids race the day before and they had lined them up in the transition area before having them gather on the beach for the actual start. 

I was in queue, in the transition area, waiting to be allowed on the beach when I heard a "start" signal. Surprised, I asked my neighbor "that's not the actual start, is it?". Sure, it was. Oh well, it was a long day ahead anyway, so I calmly waited my turn to get in the water and started swimming.

Earlier during the week I had had the hardest time escorting my fish-daughter in the water as she was training for her own race, before putting my wetsuit and having a bad swim, in contrast to the great swim I had had earlier in the English Channel. That bad swim dropped my confidence a bit but I waved it off as not being used to the elevation yet and stretching to keep up with my daughter.

The first buoy of 5 was easy to spot and I swam relaxed. The rest of course was tougher to navigate after that in the dark but I did an OK job, aiming for the Morgon peak out and the transition lights back. I understood my confusion a bit better on the second lap once I realized there were more buoys than the 5 described in the pre-race meeting. No problem since I was there to race the course and not a map on a slide.

I managed to find calm enough water, except for a swimmer with a very wide stroke whose right hand smacked me in the face. On both laps, at the same location, I felt hot in my wetsuit, made a mental note of it and wondered whether it was a sign of things to come.

I got out of the water, had a calm transition and got on my bike. I had no idea of my time as my stop watch died before the start, until I asked a racer if he had a split, which made me then estimate I had a 1:15 swim and a 5' transition.

My heart rate was elevated for the first 20 minutes out, despite my efforts to calm myself, but surely due to the excitement of the race and the 2000' climb right out of transition. It is not until the start of the downhill back into Embrun I realized I had been moving very fast. I instantaneously lowered my target HR but it had little impact on my downhill speed. I passed Les Crots after riding for only 1:30 while it had taken me 1:45 earlier in the week at my target pace. That difference freaked me out and I made sure to ride extra easy from that point on. I was hoping to see my supporter crew of family and friends but figured they had probably missed me due to my unexpected fast pace.

I was trying to drink a little more than planned due to my hot feeling in the swim while staying on my eating plan and was moving at a satisfactory pace and low heart rate until we started the Izoard climb where it became more difficult to do so while maintaining forward motion. 

I made sure I did not come close to my red zone, stopped eating but started on the Coke I had grabbed at the bottom. I made it at the top by 12:05, right on my estimated pace and rewarded myself with sitting at a picnic table to eat the treats I had dropped in my support bag.

I had really enjoyed the descent 2 years ago and did again this time, despite getting cold through the unprotected parts of my legs. I focused on drinking and eating plenty, bracing myself for the rest of the course. By 1 pm, I starting having negative thoughts so I refocused on eating and drinking, which helped. By close to 2 pm, I finally saw my family, lined up by Champcella on the steepest section of the whole course. They had been there early enough to watch the leaders.

 It really gave me a boost to see them. I was wondering whether they would try and follow me and wondered when I would see them next. At the same time I was bracing myself for the last climb (Chalvet) which I had found difficult both 2 years ago and again this week when pre-riding it. To my surprise, I found a second wind and did not suffer too much that time.

After the last fast, twisty and gravelly downhill, I was back in transition by 3:40 pm where I was greeted by my family again. I took my time to get ready and started to run, my favorite event.

I moved well for about 5 km before hitting a wall. I was unsure what was happening as my HR was low and decided it had to be the heat. Strangely I never recognized it on the bike, but my Garmin could not lie, reading above 90F. It is only then I realized it had not even occurred to me to train for a hot run. Well, it was late to prepare so now I had to deal with it. 

One of my goals was to run the whole marathon and I threw it quickly out of the window, making a deal to walk up and run the flats and downs. That lasted only so long before I started to walk even flat sections.

I then forgot about any type of time goal, calculated I could finish within the time limits even walking at 6 km/h and focused on making sure I would not get pulled for medical reasons. One motivation was to not leave unfinished business and save the option to not race that course again. I was trying to drink a lot and eat a little.

By the 25 km I vomited the little food I had, after which I limited my calorie intake even more. I found my running legs at seemingly random intervals before losing them again without notice. I distracted myself talking to racers around me, who had a story strangely similar to mine, and playing with volunteers or spectators.

By 9 pm I had 4 km to go and was walking with a gentleman hoping to break 15:30. I had a click and decided I wanted to finish with as much light as possible (the sun had just set) and started running at a good pace. The barn effect must have worked as I crossed the line elated, with family members in tow - once I realized it was encouraged by the organizers - around 9:20 pm.

I thought I was done but not quite. I gathered my gear only to stand for 20’ in line to get out of transition and exchanging the chip for a 10 Euro bill. People were falling like flies around me and I was starting to get dizzy myself by the time I rejoined my family. 

I sat down on the ground while they were getting organized to leave when they surprised me with a Champagne shower which was the perfect conclusion of a day of racing amongst family, friends and fellow endurance athletes.


Dennis the Mennis said...

Awesome! Great race and report... and amazing prep! What a huge commitment.

Heater said...

Benoit - Now that was hard to read. I think i lost a gallon of fluid reading your report. Dark up to Dark down. bruital!!!

Congratz on sticking it out!