I could never…do a triathlon

This story is all about the challenge: creating it, accepting it and doing it.  When Chris Shead was looking for something to do, he settled on a triathlon. But no ordinary triathlon – the Alpe d’Huez triathlon: a legendary mountain in cycling terms. And in deciding on what to do, it doesn’t have to be your thing forever – do it and see what happens next.

 It shows that by committing (entering an event) and taking the first step (or pedal or stroke) you can do it and still have fun along the way. 

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Q. Can you explain what the Alpe d’Huez triathlon is?

A. Well, it’s a triathlon, so swim, bike, run, but the beauty of this event is it’s in the French Alps. Alpe d’Huez is a famous ski resort, but there is an amazing road up the mountain, which is famed for its steepness and to negotiate the steep face of the mountain it has 21 switch-backs. From the air it looks like a winding snake and if anyone is keen on the Tour de France bike race they will have seen footage – it’s an iconic, brutal, mountain stage which the Le Tour includes about every three years.

Most triathlons cover standard distances, the standard being the ‘Olympic’, or ‘international’ distance which is 1.5k swim, 40k bike and 10k run. The Alpe event offers two distances, called, dramatically, “Long” and “Short”. The long is considerably longer than the standard and the short is slightly shorter. I opted for the short course.

Q. Had you done triathlons before? What made you choose to do it?

A. No! What made me choose to do it…I wanted a challenge. Simple.

I have always cycled, even from my teenage years I covered long distances, we didn’t have a car. In 2004 I started running and started to enter running events – doing organised races really gets me going, it’s so good to set a target, plan for it, go there, get nervous, do the event and then look back. Fabulous feeling. Around 2008 I decided I wanted to build upper body strength, so I joined a gym, but being locked away in a room doesn’t feel great so I started to swim. We have an outdoor lido nearby so I started to swim outdoors. The only stroke I was any good at was breast stroke which was fine for building strength but I felt I lacked a real reason to go to the pool – outdoors, sometimes chilly etc, I wanted a good reason and suddenly realised that training for a Tri would be a good objective. So I remember searching on-line for an event and found the Alpe d’Huez Tri. It had only started in 2006, and of course I knew the Alpe from following Le Tour. I entered in September 2009 planning to do the July 2010 event. I was scared stiff, I couldn’t even do the ‘freestyle’or front crawl stroke that is expected in a triathlon!

Q. Was it an easy decision? Were you confident you could do it when you signed up?

A. Hmmm, I wasn’t sure about ‘could’ but knew I would do it – even if it took me longer than anyone else and I came last, I didn’t care. The website had terrific, almost scary footage of previous events. I just badly wanted to do it, so the decision was easy. I was conscious of cost, but I figured I could sleep in the car en route, camp and keep costs down.

‘Could’ do it, involves some sense of what is the standard required. I looked at race results and times across the three disciplines. I knew I wasn’t going to win, but I realised I could train, develop new skills, achieve new levels of fitness, enjoy preparing, sharing the journey with friends and meet new people.

Q. What happened between signing up and the event?

A. A pretty heavy training schedule. My wife bought me a famous triathlete training manual and I realised I would be training everyday. I developed a schedule, RunSunday, SwimMonday, BikeTuesday, etc. I even had to spend more time in the gym on specific muscle groups. I told people because I was very proud to have entered such a tough event.

We decided my wife would travel down with me, so the idea of sleeping in the car, camping, etc soon vanished! We booked hotels and started to plan a very pleasant week away.

The motivation came from the simple idea that the training was great, doing me good and it had to be done if I was to perform to any kind of standard. The biggest problem was the swimming. I struggled to learn the front crawl, or freestyle, that’s expected in a Tri. I studied the technique and I graduated from the lido and local pool to an outdoor swimming venue where I knew other triathletes trained. Sunday mornings, 06.30 am putting on a wetsuit and getting into a chilly lake was pretty memorable. I remember one marvelous morning when I was out in the lake, it was big and it felt wonderfully peaceful treading water with mist on water and swans gliding past. I took lessons and worked really hard but it was my weakest discipline, but when other swimmers asked me what event I was training for, they were all impressed to hear I was going to the Alpe d’Huez. That felt very cool.

Getting equipped was motivating. I went to a big Tri event around October because I heard that some companies who hire race bikes out during the season sell them as the season closes. Sure enough, a guy sold me a decent bike, and I bought clip-on pedals, bike shoes, a ‘Tri suit’ which you can wear for all three disciplines. Other equipment included swim trunks, flippers, hand paddles, etc for training, goggles and a wet suit for the event. The lake that they use is fed by alpine glacial rivers and it’s cold, even in July, so the wetsuit is obligatory. The kit-list was considerable, but really fuelled the excitement and brought a new level of technical discipline to my training. I was loving it!

 Q. How did it go? How did you feel afterwards?

A. It was wonderful. I was shocked by the swim section. The lake is surrounded by dark rock, very steep mountains slope straight into the water. The start area was crowded, it was cold and a storm arrived as we waited for the start. The clouds were dark, really low and forboding. It started to hail, the dark rocks all around seemed to turn black, like wet coal. There was a helicopter flying low, lots of commands over the megaphone. The atmosphere was tense, electric and claustrophobic. I saw a few people panicking and they were hauled out of the water into marshal’s boats. It felt amazing to be there. I knew what I was there to do – my best – and I was focused enough to realise I was going to swim-bike-run my race. I wasn’t going to get drawn into any personal duels.

I was disappointed with my swim section, I wasn’t last out of the water but I could see loads of people getting started on their bikes and getting away. I knew I would catch a few of them.

The bike section was awesome. I remember smiling as I shot through the countryside, through some small towns always with the Alpe getting closer. The roads were closed and gendarmes added a real feeling of a professional sports event. I overtook some guys and then hit the start of the Alpe. Wow, it was like a wall of tarmac. I had trained on the steepest hills I could find, some at 19%, and the famous Ditchling Beacon in Sussex, but nothing was as long as that road with it’s famous 21 bends.

The run was fun. I remember running with 3 other guys and we were chatting in broken English as we ran a loop course around the top of the mountain to the finish.

How did I feel at the finish……very, very satisfied

Q. Do you have any tips for people thinking about doing a triathlon/something out of their comfort zone?

A. Know what you want to achieve and be realistic. Enjoy the experience. Get advice.

Triathletes love their kit, and their ‘tech’ equipment. If you do a Tri, you will need to get the kit.

For me, most important is to set a target. Don’t just talk about it, find a target, make a date, commit. Then organise and enjoy the ride!

Q. What are your current or future challenges?

A. Nothing specific. I run and bike, but swim a lot less. I have just looked at the Alpe d’Huez Tri web-site, and they now have a Duathlon event planned. That’s run, bike, run – no swimming!

If you might be interested in the Alpe d’Huez triathlon you can find out all you need to know here: http://www.alpetriathlon.com/en 

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