Altriman 2021 Race Report by Ian Houston

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Altriman has been on my wish list for 8yrs & with the ever changing Covid situation it was quite the challenge getting to the start line so you’re going to hear it all.

Altriman is a full distance tri in the French Pyrenees all set at 1500mtrs so you’ve got altitude issues across all 3 disciplines. The swim starts in the dark & you follow car lights & flares as the sun gradually rises. The bike is 198km with 5000+mtrs climb & the marathon is 40/60 trail/tarmac with 800+mtrs climb.

I first entered Altriman in November ‘19 & trained through to June before bowing to the inevitable & asking for a refund. As it turns out the event went ahead as a bit of a DIY affair & the travel window was open for travel to France, but Nicola & I had already made other plans.

Fast forward to Nov ‘20 & I entered again. Entering a race 8 months early may seem optimistic but I like to have skin in the game & having committed myself training could begin in earnest.

I say training, but there was no swimming for the next 5 months & if I wanted a run in the hills I had to cycle to them. For the last 2 or 3 months restrictions eased & training normalised to a greater extent. 

My problem now was travel to & from France. France was happy as long as we were double jabbed, but our government kept hinting at changes but failed to make a decision….in my favour.

4 weeks before the event after a few weeks of half-hearted training I sacked the race off again, contacted the organiser to trigger my race insurance, booked a week away in Aberystwtyth & my training dropped from 12-19hrs/wk to 5-ish hours.

A fortnight later Grant Shapps announced that travel from France was to be opened from the 19th July & all my plans changed.

The next few days I was like a headless chicken organising :-

  1. Annual leave
  2. Race entry
  3. Eurotunnel
  4. Campsite
  5. PCR tests, Brexit shit & Passenger Locator Forms
  6. Insurance
  7. Caravan & camping shizzle
  8. Clip-ons, new brake pads, fresh chain, race wheels & 32 tooth cassette on bike, but no time to wash it.
  9. All the race kit I might need

3 days later we were making our way down France.

Our journey through France wasn’t without its problems. We caught the tail-end of the heavy rain that had hit Europe, particularly Germany, which made for a soggy few days. My finest moment was as we approached the Pyrenees. Due to the rushed departure I didn’t have chance to pour over maps & routes to find our campsite. Instead, like a millennial, I relied on Google. It was an interesting route & I saw a good part of what turned out to be my bike route, but towing our caravan up & over Col du Pradel did not endear me to Nicola.

Fast forward – you’ll be glad to hear – to another busy day, the day before the race. Let’s have another list to show how it went :-

  • 0900: Short SBR checking out new clear lens goggles, bike & trainers
  • 1330: Download app, get QR code cycle a mile from campsite to registration & get numbers, goody bag etc. Didn’t get Special Needs bags.
  • Faff about wrt race equipment/clothing/nutrition etc
  • 1600: Go back to get Special Needs bags & rack bike. Couldn’t rack bike without race number on belt & helmet.
  • 1630: Back to campsite, get helmet & number. Finally rack up bike.
  • 1730: Grab an evening meal
  • 1900: Drive 20mins away for race briefing
  • 2030: Get back to campsite & try to sleep.

Up at 0315 the following morning to force some rice pudding & bananas down. A quick check on the BBC News shows that Grant Shapps has backtracked on travel from France opening up because of an island off the coast of Africa & that we’ll have to self-isolate for 10 days on our return. It’s a shitter, but I’ve got other things to think about. It’s cold out there, it’s on with full winter coats, pick up transition bag, torches & walk through the Haunted Forest Of Doom to the start. Get to start, realise we’ve – okay, I’ve –  forgotten Special Needs bags with food, 3 litres of drink, spare inner tubes, CO2 etc….Aaaaargh!! I continue into transition to faff while Nicola speedwalks back through the pitch black Haunted Forest Of Doom to pick up Special Needs bags. Time slips away & too quickly I find myself wetsuited up making the short walk with the other 250 competitors through the woods across the pontoon to the swim start.

It’s 0515, we’re all masked up, standing on the shore & all competitors & supporters are hollering away to Life is Life by Opus & similar Euro classics. When The Final Countdown starts I know things are about to start. 

We’re in taped off lanes of 5 with bins at the water’s edge to get rid of our masks as we enter the water. It’s a mass start in all but name. It’s a 2 loop swim with an Australian exit & run over the pontoon between loops. We can see the fire engine on the far lake bank with all the lights flashing to aim for. 

The hooter sounds, the red flares are lit & we’re 0ff. Before getting into my stroke, the first 10 minutes are spent in a state of mild panic. Everyone is considerate enough, but I struggle to get my head around swimming in the cold, dark water with everyone around me & there’s quite a loud internal monologue going on & a lot of head up swimming. As I ran along the pontoon I hear Nicola cheering me on & realise she must have managed to get my Special Needs bags to transition after 2 laps of the Haunted Forest Of Doom. I didn’t realise it at the time but the forest was the least of her worries. Her biggest problem had been fighting against the flow of competitors crossing the pontoon to the start while carrying 2 bags. I believe it involved a bit of hysterical hugging of bemused Frenchmen as the pontoon shook from side to side. Apart from the cloud coming down a bit & temporarily losing sight of the shore the 2nd loop was comfortable & I made my way to T1 65th out the water in 1:12.

As I made my way to T1 I realised that I’d not been wearing my clear lens goggles & had picked up my darkened, polarised goggles on my way to the swim like a complete chopper.

T1 was full of comical, shivering wrecks as we all tried to get clothes on our soaking bodies. Base layer, bib shorts, ss club top, punched myself in the face putting on arm-warmers, socks, shoes, helmet, screamed at my stupid frozen fingers as I struggled to put on winter gloves, finally coat & off I went.

The bike route was great, I love cycling in France & this route was stunning. Loooong, but stunning.

Having said that the first 40km was a strange affair. I was sticking to my power target but was getting passed for fun & lost 45 positions. I’m still not sure if it was the cold – it started at 2degC – altitude or recent lack of cycling, but I persevered & for the rest of the day I was picking people off. 

It’s difficult to summarise the bike, but despite being on the bike for 10.5hrs it didn’t seem a long time. I had prompt cards taped to my bike telling me where to expect  the climbs & feed stations to break things up. As the day warmed up – it climbed to 32degC – I shed my winter layers & this coupled with the odd conversation, feed stations, remembering to eat, losing count after 8 wee stops & ever changing scenery meant time flashed by. I got into T2 in 83rd place.

As ever I entered T2 in a happy place, glad to have a run in front of me. Off with my cycle top & bibs & on with a running top, trainers, cap & a vest with gels/Clif Bloks/ Nurofen/salt tabs/ProPlus.

As on the bike – due to Covid – the feed stations weren’t giving us bottles/cups. We would have to mix our own drinks with the Isostar provided. This info had been sprung on us at the race briefing – 10hrs before the race start – much to the annoyance of many. Fortunately I had a small, collapsible, silicon cup I could carry.

The run was 2 loops, firstly along trails in the now sunny Forest Of Doom before heading to Les Angles & a helluva slog 400mtrs up to Lac Balcere & back again. My running was reasonably comfortable for the first 8km until I hit the climb for the first time. At this point, everyone around me was walking, as was I. I was still picking the odd person off but it was a slow motion kind of affair like lorries overtaking on a motorway. I was still happyish descending & onto the trails back past transition & towards our campsite where I saw Nicola. At this point I realised the wheels were falling off, I gave her my running vest & told her to get to bed as I was going to be awhile. I popped into transition as I passed to pick up my headtorch & headed back to Les Angles & up that bloody hill again. I knew I was gassed & knew equally well through experience I that half a dozen ProPlus would get me back in the game but this was tempered by the fact that all I wanted to do was sleep & if I popped them I would be awake until dawn….so I just slogged it out for a bit. The sparse supporters did all they could. The French with “Courage” & the Spanish with a more excitable “Venga, Venga”, but as it got darker I switched on my headtorch & hit the trails back to the finish. It was here that I made a silly mistake. The dropping of the sun had brought out loads of frogs across the trail & while keeping an eye on them I’d missed a right turn. It was a lazy error & ultimately didn’t cost me any places, but fired me up for a comparatively sprinty, sprinty finish. As I approached the finisher’s stage I tried to compose myself by getting rid of my headtorch, taking off my hat & forcing a rictus of a smile onto my face but my hands raised above the head was a poor effort compared to some of the Bolt poses, dance routines, marriage proposals & tearful family reunions that I’d seen. I’ll do better next time.

I finished 4th in cat, 57/158 & there were 99 DNFs.

Obviously I couldn’t have managed any part of this without Nicola’s help – AGAIN – she was chief supporter, psychologist & soigneur throughout the whole process & I’m as ever forever in her debt. Although this has been paid off somewhat by the decorating I’ve done while self-isolating since our return.

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