Alpe D’Huez Triathlon – You didn’t disappoint. You had it all!

Renowned as one of the toughest triathlons in the world, this iconic event certainly didn’t disappoint. Some words that come to mind on reflection having managed to conquer the event include; Brutal, Savage, Exciting, Fast, Hot, Very Hot, Altitude, Epic, Beautiful, Pain, Hydration, Support, Steep, Mechanical, Cramp, Elation! That just about sums it up but let me elaborate a little.

My partner, (Nat) and I fancied an event that would be a little different from our usual flat and fast triathlons, something a bit iconic and challenging at the same time. Nat suggested Alpe D’Huez would be a good event to do whilst at the same time allowing for a bit of altitude training, our version of a ‘normal’ persons relaxing holiday! Ok then, sounds fun!

With many France elites turning out for this iconic event I was never going to feature in the top spots but I would enjoy and battle to do the best I could do.

I built this into my training plan so to complement rather than detract from my A race which is the Worlds in Australia in September. Whilst we didn’t have chance to do much familiarisation before the event, the drive up the mountain to the accommodation told us all we needed to know, this was going to be one tough as hell event.

Into the blue.

The event swim takes place in lake Du Verney at 700m altitude, and is open for swimming only once a year as EDF shut down operations whilst it takes place. The temperature was in the high 30’s (like most of Europe at the moment) this is hot under normal clothing but slipping into a full wetsuit it literally boil in a bag territory, I couldn’t wait to get in the lake to cool down. Now the swim start in most open water triathlons can be brutal, with arms and legs everywhere all with the same aim in mind, getting to the next buoy in the straightest line as quickly as possible. I would describe this at times like a feeding frenzy of piranha’s. I have competed for long enough and before that played rugby league for long enough to be able to hold my own and most of the collisions are accidental, but this was a whole new level of brutality. With 1000 men starting all at the same time it was never going to be pretty!

After some early exchange of blows I managed to find some free water in front but this didn’t last and after about 500m with the first buoy still some 100m away I felt contact on the back of my legs, this repeated and started to get further up my body, I realised someone was about to swim right over the top of me. I was left with little choice at this point other than to kick out in case he didn’t realise, he continued so I repeated the blows even turning around to give him a little verbal warning shall we say. After one final kick he got the message and moved to the side, not sure what the etiquette is in France but I wasn’t having any of it, I was in self-preservation mode. Each turning point created havoc as blows seemed to reign down as we concertinaed up before finding water again rather than a body part to propel yourself forward. Overall my swim time of 19.44 wasn’t too bad.

The climb.

On to the bike and within the first 1km I had a chain off so had to stop to rectify. The first 15km was flat and fast right up to the bottom of the climb, I took advantage of this and put the hammer down making up ground on some of the faster swimmers. After a little discussion with a guy from New Zealand about drafting I hit the bottom of the climb with an almighty deceleration! From here it was about finding a pace I could sustain for the next 13.8km of the climb that averaged between 8-10% gradiant, this never let up. That moment when you realise that you have no more gears to select, you know the next 13.5km are going to be testing, add to that the temperature which was in the mid 30’s with the triple whammy of altitude to deal with. Well I suppose it is in the top 10 toughest triathlons for a reason.

All of those minor points aside haha, the support all the way up the mountain was fantastic, plenty of drink stations and even supporters pouring the mountain water over your head as you picked your way up the famous 21 hairpin bends. This was certainly testing the body physically but even tougher was the mental battle, with the body screaming to stop it was the ability to endure the pain and keep pushing that was the challenge now. The body is capable of much more then we think, if only the mind will let it.

Despite having a few dark moments during the climb I maintained a decent pace to come into transition in a respectable climb time of 68 mins. If that wasn’t enough it was now time to run at 1900m on an undulating course for 7km. Trainers on and gel in hand I was away, I hadn’t come this far to only come this far!

It was too much to expect a simple flat run and it was anything but. The run went out of the village and around the airfield taking you off road and up and down for a while before a water station appeared, which at first was like a mirage but I was so pleased that it was real, no chance of running past this without taking some water onboard and over the head in a desperate attempt to keep hydrated and cool at the same time. Back on tarmac and out to the turnaround point which they hid behind a mountain to mess with your head a little more.

Keep going.

CRAMP!!! I had to stop running immediately, no choice with the searing pain, I had luckily carried a gel from transition so smashed that in, rubbed the affect part of my leg and then carried on, whilst remaining on the edge of cramp the rest of the way it amazingly held out. As I began to run again some of those behind had obviously gained on me. At this stage it was more just keep running, I then started to rationalise that it was ok for the 2 that passed me to beat me as long as I could hold off anyone else. This quickly followed by a counter argument in my head of, ‘why are you giving up on those two places this early’? With about 1km to go I managed to both distract my body from the shear exhaustion it was feeling and hold on to the other 2 competitors through the power of the mind!

As we approached the last 150m I passed one andclosed down on the other, as we entered the blue carpet I could see he was lapping up the glory with supporters and friends, still focussed on the finish line I pushed one final time to overtake him with 20m to go, whilst it was only 1 place in reality, in my mind it was a victory for the mind and body that just refused to give in and the feeling you get from them moments is a big part of why I love to compete.Epic.

I was met over the line by Nat who had an ama

A job well done!

zing race, finishing 3rd in her age category, 16th girl overall and 3rd Brit as well, massively proud and privileged that we get so much enjoyment from the same things.


The remainder of our time out in France involved some gruelling but beautiful rides, scenic altitude runs as well as some fantastic top of the mountain lake swims as we maintained the focus for the Gold Coast in September.

If you have a dream gofor it, don’t die wondering!

About the Author

Paul Clucas is a Firefighter and Triathlete based in East Yorkshire.
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