Flashback: after my first triathlon in 2015, when I tackled the Embrunman – a challenge I enjoyed – the next step with to take up an even more difficult challenge. The Norseman in Norway was firmly ensconced in my mind, and since it takes place in August, like the Embrun, the timing suited me perfectly.
To prepare for this slightly crazy race in August 2016, there was an intermediary preparation stage that was really ideal: the Ironman in Nice on 5 June. An ambitious opportunity to shake myself up early in the season and dive into the specific training for a triathlon at the end of the winter. So in September 2015 I signed up for the IM in Nice and planned to take part in the draw for the Norseman. But I failed to take into account the big number of lunatics who had the same idea and the small number of dossards to be allocated: my name wasn’t picked out in the draw. No Norway, no Norseman, no « daunting dream » for August 2016!
And no direct alternatives. The Swissman or the Celtic – the Norseman’s little brothers – take place at the end of June. They didn’t fit in with my schedule.
April 2016: I immerse myself in training for the Nice Ironman in the swimming pool (counting the lengths, but taking advantage, most of all, of the training dynamic at the Aix Triathlon Club) and paid a first visit to the lake on 14 April, the day before my birthday. I wanted to make it a symbolic occasion, but the water was at 12°C that day, and I swam exactly 38 metres. I gave up almost at once. But after covering 1% of the Ironman distance, I’d made a start! Six weeks to go to train for the remaining 99%!
Late April 2016… During a chance discussion during training, I hear about the INFERNO triathlon. A mixture of asphalt and cross country, swimming – cycling – MTB – running (trail)… absolutely perfect for me!
The race was scheduled to take place on 20 August around the Eiger in Switzerland.
155km, 5650m of elevation gain, a format similar to an Ironman in terms of stamina. Bingo!
And so I went back, more or less, to my original plans. The Ironman in Nice is a great race in itself, but also a stage in the overall training programme, so that I’d hit Olympic form in August. A totally coherent programme, excepting that my own Olympic Games would be in Switzerland that summer!
Nice, 5 June: my first official « You are an Ironman », achieved with the level of motivation and fitness I had at that time.
I liked trying my hand at triathlon cycling and training for two months (thanks to #FX for starting me off!), I liked gaining confidence in swimming and feeling at home in the under 1 hour 8 minute « corral », I liked the weather, without too much sun, I liked taking on my first flat-road marathon, I liked managing my day, I liked my own personal feeding stations – yes, I loved it!
What I liked less was the self-centred side of some competitors, the obsession with sensors, numbers and gels.
I liked less the start, which was less emotionally moving than I’d been told and less magical than a UTMB.
I liked less the attitude of some of the referees, with their policeman/inspector spirit.
And what I also liked less was I didn’t get to the end of my « instant » report on Facebook (if you’re interested and want to read it here and now, then have a look at the next post, featuring the complete story of Nice, including the running adventures – exclusive!).
But let’s get back to Switzerland and our Swiss chocolates!
I signed up for the Inferno Triathlon via a bank transfer (no online credit card payment… Switzerland… banks… things don’t seem to work the same way there), I got the thick envelope that’s sent to each competitor two months before the race. Transition bags, triathlon swim cap, bike number plate and race number stickers, instructions (in German), it’s all there.
Inferno Triathlon, 19 August, the day before the race.
Since it’s a race from point A to point B (we don’t return to the starting position), the organisation the day before the race is actually quite simple. You need to turn up, go to each ‘transition spot’ (3 spots for 4 sections) and leave your stuff at each spot. So I got everything ready at home, and was well assisted by my weekend support team (my coach and my press agent!). We set off early in the morning to drive 3 hours (because Savoie is at the centre of the best of all possible worlds, and in less than three hours you can go anywhere – Mont Blanc, the Alpine lakes, Paris, the shooting stars, TV relay stations, Italy, Switzerland… and also the Eiger and its Inferno).
We did a tour of the transition areas with about an 80-km drive (the triathlon takes a few detours for the pleasure of the eyes and the leg muscles), drop-off points for bags, the bike, equipment and… FOOD. The scenery is already a delight. Interlaken, Wengen, Mürren, Eiger, Grindelwald, Jungfrau… we’re in Switzerland!
The rest of the day, we took a break in the valley below Mürren, where the running race starts (AT3) and the morning shuttle buses set off. A valley surrounded by mythical mountains, but completely flat, highly typical, with its mountain glaciers and torrential waterfalls. A treat for the eyes and a dream landscape!
Everything’s ready, so off to bed in the tent at 9 p.m.!
Early in the morning (5 a.m.), we head for the start, 45 minutes away by car. No need to take the shuttle bus because I have my chauffeurs-agents-supporters with me.
In the town of Thun the start is on a beach looking out over the lake along all its length. The 450 solo competitors set off at 6.30, the 400 relay teams (teams of 2 to 4) start out 15 minutes later.
A slight headwind and choppy waters accompany this 3200m swim in a straight line. We head towards a château (the transition area is in the château courtyard). Except that, spotting a château on the lakeside, 3km away, when the sun is rising, when you’re swimming with your head down near the surface in choppy waters – well, it’s hard to aim right. The peloton is much less dense than in my previous adventures (just 450 swimmers!) and I start to get a bit bored, with no feet to tickle and no slipstream to take advantage of. I float far off in my mind and turn my arms like a water wheel (quite a slow water wheel!), and when my mind returns to Switzerland and the lake, I suddenly feel alone. I lift my head out of the water, no one in front, I take a look to the left, no one, then to the right – and I’m relieved to see a whole bunch of swimmers, but 25-30 metres to my right, I’m swimming in parallel with them, but all alone!
Since it’s hard to imagine that they’re all lost, I realise that once again I’ve wandered off course and I’m putting in extra yards. My watch shows 3420 m at the end – 200 m extra – so not finally very surprising!
Over an hour’s swim, not great! After a swift transition I’m off again on the bike. I hardly took the time to sit down at the table, just took a few gulps of St Yorre water and two mouthfuls of grub. I check that my small camera is there in my back pocket and set off for 103km with 2250m of elevation gain.
The cycling route is uphill right from the start, with about a 600m climb, and I wasn’t expecting it to be so steep straight off the bat. Never listen to people telling you about their past experiences. Over time, they forget the real details and they idealise it all, they look at reality subjectively. Due to pathological lying or memory loss, everything seems more cool, everything seems to be OK. The climbs almost turn into descents, big drops in energy levels turn into « I managed to accelerate at that point »! But why didn’t they tell me the ugly truth?!
After this hill and the 10km that followed, we come to a rapid descent with high-speed steering required. 82km/h around a steep turn, I loved it! Then we passed alongside a lake and then another (in Switzerland, it’s commonplace!) and we overtook cars on their right with their blessing (that’s less commonplace!).
After quite a few miles on my own, I’m overtaken by a group of 12 riders. Drafting is forbidden, they said – oh, really? With my ‘hard to see’ size and my smooth and light pedalling, I join the group and enjoy 10km of mega-drafting-forbidden-but-feels-good. No arms waved – no chocolates, no referees – no warnings (you won’t tell anyone, will you?).
After this pleasant interlude, a new little climb of 1350m. It might be pretty to look at – wonderful scenery – but a 1350m climb is very long. It’s a real mental trial. A very long climb full of 9-10% sections overlooking high mountain landscapes. Delicious. Goats’ cheese sandwich, a few hastily taken photos, and contemplation while you pedal – it helps you forget the pain in your legs. Another special section: 500m at 15%, which you spot just a few seconds beforehand. Nobody had mentioned it! A new challenge. Quite a few cyclists get off their bikes and walk. I try to get through it on the saddle. With a few good zigzags and a winning mentality (!) I’m make it! It’s great for my self-esteem, but not so great for my thighs and calf muscles. It was hard work!
The top of the mountain pass is not open to cars. Only the local inhabitants (pastoral farmers and shopkeepers working in the pass), pedestrians and cyclists are allowed. A narrow road, but with tarmac, a bit bumpy. A great atmosphere. One more photo while the glacier is groaning up at the top after a serac fell! Serac… yes, a nice goats’ serac with honey, that’s what I’d like to eat now!
At the end of the climb (the altimeter finally agrees to pass on some good news and says we’ve reached the top) a shower of rain together with high altitude air currents takes our minds off things. Most of the riders stop and put on an extra layer of clothing. I try to think fast: after the high point, we’ll be going downhill and at the bottom it will be hot again, so I’ll need to take off the jacket. Very happy with this flash of enlightenment, I set off directly downhill at top speed while clenching my teeth a bit. What good judgement! The descent is straight, bumpy and wet. I test the grip on the tyres the first couple of times I brake, skidding kept under control – but OK, I’ll be careful!
The descent calls for concentration and vigilance. It’s tricky, enjoyable, I overtake a few people, but I still pay attention to what I’m doing. After my recent misfortunes with carbon rims (broken five days earlier in the middle of a descent, but no harm done!), I have fun braking with my aluminium Xsirium wheelset. Feeling safe and sound.
The 1000m descent finally goes by quickly, but without a second of inattention. I’m fully concentrated, my arms are numb with so much braking and metal going over the bumps. After a flat section at the bottom of the valley, very quickly the transition area arrives and I jump on the mountain bike.
It’s still raining, but I’m not cold. I leave behind the rest of my food (I didn’t eat it all!) and pick up a little backpack with a repair kit and some extra food. Ovomaltine, condensed milk, aniseed syrup, Côte d’Or hazelnut chocolate… just the ticket!
After just 100m of trees overhead, we start another climb up a tarmac road between pretty little chalets. It’s raining again, so there are no Heidis at the windows. It’s pretty steep! Happy to have MTB pedalling power with a few gears in reserve. Your muscles have a chance to relax, but you don’t go too fast. I also pumped up the MTB tyres to the limit (3.5 bars) to get more performance in the climb. It’s still an uphill struggle and I feel like the effort I made on that endless climb on the road bike was just a few minutes ago and that now we’re faced with a 1050m elevation gain.
The Inferno Triathlon really is great, but it’s also an incredible mental challenge. It feels like you’re continually going uphill!
There are few stops for food during the climb, but I don’t take much advantage of them – I’ve got all I need – but at one of them I stop to pour water over my head. I’ve almost got sunstroke, despite the relatively cool temperatures.
We are now just beneath the Eiger. I look for access routes up the north face that could be tackled with a few strokes of the pedal. I try to decipher the legendary route up the face of the mountain. It’s impressive… and takes your mind off things.
Another long, long effort including 400m pushing the bike uphill towards the end because the route is so steep (nobody stays on their bike), and then it’s the mountain pass, the atmosphere, the crowds of people. A sudden contrast and a new dilemma involving the windcheater… which is not an advantage for me. A brief stop to lower the pressure on the tyres and I plunge into the descent, hurtling towards Wengen down below.
After a big descent on a road with a few nice turns to negotiate and some high-speed sections, we enter a trickier area reaching as far as the valley. The brakes start heating up and screeching, even more so when a cow (a Swiss cow, but not a purple one like in the adverts for Milka chocolate) appears in front of you in the road. I grip the brakes and take a snapshot: the cow’s eating barrier tape! I’m having fun and glad I’ve set off with new, well-adapted tyres.
A change of scenery: fields, tree roots, narrow paths and hair-pin bends. It’s challenging, but everything is going well.
Plenty to enjoy, plus a few scares with everything more or less under control before I get back on a section of road again.
A few kilometres along the tarmac and here I am at the transition area for running, at the same spot where I slept in the tent the night before.
The MTB is all over with 35km and a 1260m elevation gain in a little over two hours. A glance at the penalty table to see if I’m in the list: drafting behind the bikes should have cost me five minutes. But no! Where are the police when you need them?
After a fast transition in seven minutes (very fast for me at this stage in a triathlon) I set off again for the last big section: 25km with a 2240m elevation gain and an arrival at an altitude of 3000m.
I got out of my way to run fast along most of the 5 km valley bottom, but when the track turns upwards again towards Mürren with a 800m elevation gain in about 10km, I walk practically all the way. It’s not very exciting, it’s not memorable but my instinct tells me to take it easy because the end at the top will be tough.
The setting, the cliffs, the waterfalls and the landscapes still make for a wonderful background. We go through Mürren with 6 km to go and a 1350m elevation gain!
And we’re off for a jaunt in trail style. My team – press agents – coaches – storytellers – dustmen (#FX and #Laurianne) have been with me since the start of the running section. I’m not in a talkative mood, but the company certainly does me good. They make the most of it, recalling memories of their Infernos in 2014 and 2015, drawing motivation for 2017 (probably) and indulgently sharing this section of the challenge that belongs to me.
The “dustman” role requires a little explanation. With feeding stations every three and then two kilometres for 25 km, they go out of their way to pick up all the cups, wrapping paper and rubbish left behind by the runners over a distance of 500 m or even 1 km after the feeding stations, and a long way after the « clean zones » that have been set up. A very commendable action, which my “dustmen” have time to carry out to perfection – because I’m not going very fast – but I still feel sickened. This sort of behaviour is widespread in triathlons, and it means taking the race volunteers for servants, and above all it shows that you don’t care about nature and the basic rules of respect. I think the same way about lots of cyclists and fans of outdoor activities who like going from place to place – I don’t understand and I’ll never understand this kind of attitude. We achieved a record of 52 cups and 20 wrapping papers between two feeding stations. If this is normal behaviour, then I will never be and never want to be a real triathlete. But I’m convinced that the opposite is true. So I will ask anyone who experiences anything similar to go out of their way to show a good example. Respect the clean zones, pick up litter and gently remind anyone you see committing sin like this. Amen!
With steep climbs and shorter breath, the summit is getting closer. Small valleys, névés, gaps in the mountains and high-altitude atmosphere surround us. The finish is a delight.
There are even sections with hand rails, a few ropes fixed to help reach the finish of this Inferno Triathlon at the Schilthorn platform at 3000m.
It took me 13 hours and 10 minutes to finish. It felt like a more demanding event than an Ironman, like the one in Nice, but probably a bit less than the Embrunman as it’s a bit more varied and a bit more accessible.
As often in a triathlon, and even more in a nature triathlon, the equipment has some importance, and to have tried-and-tested kit and well-adjusted components is a key to success as well as a source of enjoyment.
And lastly, the relay format (from 2 to 4 people) for the Inferno Triathlon is enjoyable for people who like a big day in the great outdoors because you can share the challenge, it doesn’t involve as much specific preparation, and it shows you a slice of life of the country of chocolates and purple cows!
That makes me feel hungry again!
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