The race started at 9:30am on the Wednesday morning, the swim was glacial (I was worried about the cold), but that feeling went away after the first 500m and little did I know that it would be the least of my worries.
Then came the bike split, 115k over three cols. And it was brutal. We began by dropping down from the lake into a rather fast rolling section before reaching the start of our first climb. 30 minutes into the climb, my group hit a hairpin that had a sign reading “5k to the summit”. We all gasped. It took us an hour to complete our first climb, at an average gradient of 8%, the same amount of time it took me to complete the Alpe d’Huez a few days earlier which is 14k long at an average gradient of 10%. I was in trouble.
The second col was less steep and almost as long, but by this time it was fully exposed and the temperature was rising. It was halfway through the bike split, I had consumed 3 bottles on nutrition as well as 2 bars and I was dehydrated. Stopping at the aid station before the decent, I finished a bottle of water. It was now 40 degrees and I everyone was feeling their skins burn, their salty sweat irritating their eyes and the itchy sting of wasps that surrounded us on the ascent. What was happening to us all? I don’t remember much of the drop into Bourg d’Oisans, probably because I was dreading the climb of Alpe d’Huez, but it arrived in no time.
And now the last 14km; I got off the saddle for the first leg of the 21 hairpins (the first 5 of which are notoriously steep), and just like a portable telephone, I could feel the energy drain out of me. My lower back was aching, my lips were chapped, my quads were burning, my eyes were itchy, my throat was scratchy, my mouth felt like it was filled with cotton and my shoulders were stiff and tense.
It all started here, an abyss was created in front of me and my mind began to wander. The first phase involved excuses: didn’t rest enough, didn’t do enough training, then came the blame game before things took a turn for the worse. I am an awful athlete. Not good enough at what I do. I will never qualify for Kona; I have peaked and it is all over for me now. Why am I wasting my time? The one fragment of enjoyment and hope I had was out the window, everything else is in a state of flux, work, love, family, everything. I am alone and will die alone. I will amount to nothing, be penniless and create no impact. I am over.
I looked down at my bike monitor, I was moving at 4 miles an hour and my heart rate was not even in zone 2. I passed a man who got off his bike and screamed “this is inhumane”. He sat by the side of the road, in the little shade provided by the wall on the edge of the road. Then every single negative memory I had, creeped up on me: my failed relationships, the regrets I have had in choosing my career path, giving up on my art, not spending enough time with my family, the friendships I had lost, the unfortunate things that had happened to me and those around me, the list went on. I stopped. Got off my bike at an aid station and threw water all over myself, found a bit of shade and sat down.
For a moment I thought of nothing and began to drift and day dream, like a haze, hearing my own heart beat get louder and my veins throb as a thin cloudy veil was put over my eyes. The last time this happened to me in my life was 2006, when I took a break from running. New job, a break-up, new city, no friends, you know how these things go; when it feels like every pillar in your life is seated on sand. But that didn’t stop me from planning a trekking/camping trip to the Himalayas. The premise was simple: no need to train (just go to the gym once in a while), fly to Kathmandu, chill out, meet new people, then start the journey.
So there we were, just over a week into our trek, crusted in mud, covered in leeches, surrounded by sherpas carrying our food and kit, leaning on our walking sticks, and complaining. We were overheating, our feet were swollen in our brand new boots, we were walking for too long without a break; all I wanted was a proper shower and a Starbucks. Then, there he was, I could see him from the corner of my eye, the sprinter. He went by so quickly, hopping from rock to rock, with no aid and no assistance. We all stopped to stare.
He was the farthest definition away from an athlete you can imagine. In his 60s, hunched over, wrinkly, toothless with white hair. He was wearing flip flops that were so worn down, their backs were missing. But that wasn’t all. He had a huge fridge-freezer strapped to his back, locked onto him with a long piece of fabric that was resting on his forehead, he was delivering it to base camp, 4,600m above sea level, full of bottles of coke for “weak” tourists like ourselves. He wasn’t an athlete, he was superman.
Six year later, I found myself cycling to the top of Emosson dam and I looked back at that moment in conversation with my coach. Not because I have achieved something super human but because I had a back-pack full of my running clothes for a 5k T-run at the top, preparing for the Alpe d’Huez triathlon. For something that seemed so impossible to the me in 2006, here I was, 6 years later, up the dam for my second time, achieving something out of the ordinary to the average person. My coach told me it was a first for her, to see someone carry such a heavy back pack and run at the top of the damn in thin air. This would be perfect preparation for my race in the coming weeks for my race at the Alpe d’Huez. And the year prior to that, I would not have envisaged myself doing such a thing.
I stopped daydreaming at that moment as I noticed a familiar face come up the mountain. It was my team mate and cycling buddy, a beast on the bike. He was also struggling. I felt a wave of emotion and hugged him. We were almost at the top, he said, but he needed a break. So I got back on the bike and promised to meet him at transition.
Clawing my way out of the Abyss. I thought of my parents, my brothers who supported me on my first Ironman. I thought of my godchildren, my friends, my brave coach who is going through hell and coming out triumphant. And I climbed. 5km to go, I was almost there.
And as though a wave of relief came off my back, the wind picked up, cooling me off and almost carrying me the last few hairpins. I cried when the line of familiar cafes appeared. I was almost there. The marking on the ground of the Tour de France writers appeared, completing was my goal.
Before I knew it, I was in transition. I rested for a while, took on some nutrition, caught up with my team mate and we made a promise to finish. We ran and we walked, we shuffled and we sprinted, but we got through the 22k run and crossed the finish line.
To this date, I consider this race my biggest achievement. I cannot compare it to anything else that I have done but it taught me a lot about myself. About racing and about my limits. Endurance is not just a physical test, it is mental as well. At many points in our lives do we fall apart, but there is always hope and perseverance if we have the right attitude and composition. I had a brilliant race and thank every second of it. Onwards and upwards.