Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
With the arrival of the little fella (or lass) beeping increasingly louder on life’s personal radar, I started the year ambitiously focussed on squeezing in as many great sports escapes as possible! I had loosely planned to do the infamous “Escape From Alcatraz” as my last tourist sports escape.
I liked the gritty sound of it which meant potentially some good story telling. It conjured up superb images of “The Rock” and one of my heroes, Sean Connery, escaping for the 2nd time, amongst many an explosion. It also had the kudos of being a sports event that defied the principles of Alcatraz.
The race starts with a 1.5 mile swim through icy cold, apparently “shark infested” waters, a huge difference to Hong Kong’s positively warm 26 degrees! This is followed by an undulating 18 mile cycle, with a few gruelling steep sections to spice it up and then finishes with an 8 mile run. Overall pretty close to an Olympic level triathlon and quiet manageable if you tough it out a little in the cold water and don’t mind particularly blue toes…
Unfortunately the 2013 event was moved forward in the year. This meant that the water was going to be even colder than normal, which was not an attractive thought but, more importantly, it would clash with the Atacama Adventure.
During a catch up with my mate P.W. Colin he suggested an alternative option was to tag on to his July trip to compete in the equally famous, Alpe D’ Huez Triathlon. In Colin’s opinion it would be a “very similar” experience to the “Escape From Alcatraz”!
The Alp D’Huez has a distinct romantic charm to it which involves cycling up the famous 21 hairpin bends which wind high up into the French Alps. This is the route so often featured on TV during the Tour de France coverage when the world’s toughest racers battle for the prestigious yellow jersey. Even better, this year’s event is the 100th anniversary of the famous tour and, as a result, would even see 2 Alpe D’Huez ascents in one day.
The French Alps in the summertime, represent a distinct contrast to the sweaty, aromatic streets of Hong Kong. They conjure up lovely temperatures, blue skies and all that healthy, fresh alpine air to suck deep into the lungs. Almost like a sporting equivalent of spa retreat! Then not so like a spa-like, the delicious baguettes (made with that great french flour), huge amounts of local cheese, all washed down with free flowing wine…. Yum! Plus a great opportunity to catch up with old Hong Kong mates through a little sport.
A quick pink ticket (all 17 pages) was formally approved by the wife and I was in! My entry fee was sent off and the date was marked down on the annual calendar. It was a couple of months later when I realised what I’d signed myself up for. I’d made a classic school boy error and hadn’t actually read the small print. What I thought was a fun Olympic length triathlon was actually an awful lot further and likely to be considerably more gruelling. Colin!
The swim sounded delightful! It was due to be 2km in a beautiful, cool alpine lake with water temperatures a touch chilly but comfortable 17°C. This on its own was fine, as I was easily able to visualise gliding through the crystal clear water, surrounded by incredible Toblerone-style mountains. After all, who wouldn’t want to go for a swim in a lake filled with France’s best Evian water?
The distance of 2km was equivalent to about 80 lengths of the HKFC pool and therefore easy to train for. As a build up, I completed Hong Kong’s “Big Wave Bay to Shek Ho Challenge”, a 2 km open water swim, about 10 days before the event. I was comfortable with the distance in open water (without being able to push off the pool side every 25m or about 40 times) and knew that it would take about 40 minutes. I had actually really enjoyed my first open water swim. The biggest learning point had been the complexity of swimming amongst all the other competitors. It was quite claustrophobic and very physical, as as they paddled forwards at different speeds and angles, some getting in your way and some also paddling over you, which can be a little daunting.
The small additional challenge was the regulation that requires you to swim in a wetsuit, as the water is cool. The wetsuit can provide buoyancy making the swim smoother and faster but it restricts your shoulders, so consuming more energy. There was a definite need to practice in a wetsuit but in Hong Kong, the warm waters make it particularly hard. You quickly overheat and step out of the water not just sweating but actually steaming! You also look a bit of a tit when everyone else is in speedos!
For some final preparation I turned to the internet and found a great little swimming site called http://www.smoothswim.com. This gave some useful tips on sighting (seeing where you are going without disrupting your stroke), open water breathing (both sides helps you swim straight) and wetsuit fit (get a mate to shoehorn your wetsuit on so that it does not restrict you too much). Swim wise, I was physically and mentally ready. Importantly, I need to give big thanks to Ironman Greg for the loan of the wetsuit.
The cycle was the core part of this famous event and would attract the majority of the entries. Further investigation revealed that it wasn’t simply a tough ascent up the 21 hairpin bends that wind back and fore to the top of the Alpe D’Huez but also 115 km on the road, with three huge climbs.
The first climb is a massive 1,000m up Col de L’Alpe Du Grand Serre, followed by 700m up Col D’Ornon and then the finale, 100km into the ride (with exhausted legs, full of lactic acid, when every peddle is already agonising) only then, the famous 1,000m meandering route up Alpe D’Huez. All together a total vertical ascent, closer to 2.7km and some of it up particularly steep terrain.
Training was gong to be the biggest challenge and demand the most time. To give it perspective, a friend who knew HK well had recently tested the course. He likened it to ascending from Hong Kong’s Happy Valley (sea level) up to the famous Peak (at about 450m ) a shocking 9 to 10 times and potentially six whole hours in the saddle! The most I’d ever done in the last year was one Peak ascent on a mountain bike, with very easy gears!
Road biking in Hong Kong is tough going! Despite romantic notations of all the bicycles in China, very few people in Hong Kong have actually ridden a bike. This means that they don’t have simple bicycle awareness on the road. They are naturally impatient and to be honest, particularly poor drivers (the Brits didn’t help here) even when at their best. From a cycling perspective this means that they will not politely wait for an overtaking gap in the oncoming traffic but are far more likely to push past you, just inches away, as they accelerate down the narrow Hong Kong roads. It’s pretty scary.
As a result most wise cycle enthusiasts crawl out of bed in the incredibly early hours of the morning to train, mainly to get to the roads before the traffic builds up. Many friends are regularly out plodding, sleepy eyed and torchlit, along the road at 5:30 AM.
I, valuing my sleep, have never been and am still not a big fan of this tactic and decided to brave the traffic instead. This means I then need to contend with the 95% humidity and potentially 30+ degrees Celsius temperatures, which make a simple cycle much, much harder. You just can’t win !
An additional concern, that was toying with my subconscious, related to recent reports from the Canadian and the UK police. The change in the last 5 years that now sees many police patrolling by bicycle has had some unexpected side effects. Many a macho cop has apparently found that they are having problems in the bedroom. There is a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that bicycle patrols are resulting in erectile dysfunction ! Eek! This is something I wasn’t keen to have attributed to my brief Alp’s experience!
When you first start to cycle a lot, your bum and delicate underside region, really do get rather sore! Nervous about the big picture and the threat of dysfunctional tackle I asked many friends numerous questions (having focussed on those who who had fathered children ) and was assured that it just took a little time for everything to “toughen up” and that it would soon go away…. I’m not sure if it actually toughens up or if you just slowly numb all the nerves “down there” but admittedly, things did get better and fortunately my wife remains happy.
Some other good advice, linked to this was to get a professional bike fit done. This ensures the bike is set up in the best way possible for my personal shape and size, partly for riding efficiency in order to give the best power output per pedal push but also to reduce the chance of injury and get the right saddle position for my goolies.
I’m a big fan of the “train ugly” concept, which basically means that you do far more than will be required in the race so that, on the big day it is easy. It was impossible to do anywhere near enough of this for the bike, so I was going to have to rely on the “wing it” principle with a dose of sheer determination and lots and lots of bananas and energy gels.
The finale was a half marathon, which as I have done a lot of running recently I was pretty comfortable about . The only real challenge here was going to be the fact I would be waddle- running, like John Wayne, after six hours peddling and peddling with a bike seat wedged up my bum! I concluded a little strategically positioned vaseline might help the running motion.
The only opportunity to try and help prepare for this transition was a couple of trips to the gym to practice peddling and then moving direct to running on the treadmill. This was an attempt to try to get the legs used to the quick change needed from the cyclists’ circular motion to the runners’ shuffle (being realistic as I didn’t think I would be striding out much).
On Thursday 17th July, as I watched the TV coverage of the Tour de France grind up the Alp D’Huez, I concluded it looked hard, both times. It was going to be a tough race. I was both excited about the adventure and nervous about the physical challenge of bringing all 3 disciplines together.