With our year-long feature series coming to an end, competition winner Katy Campbell reaches race day for the Alpe d’Huez Long Course Triathlon. Plus, her coaches Chrissie Wellington and Matt Edwards give their feedback.
It’s quite something to think about a single day for so long, but I’ve been focused on the Alpe d’Huez race since before Christmas. After a recce trip to the Alps in May, I was horrified that there were only nine weeks to go! Then before I knew it, I was packing! And I packed plenty of options.
Chrissie’s comments: “Katy had learnt to make precise and comprehensive lists so that she covered all eventualities and saved any unnecessary last minute panics. Controlling the controllables!”
Matt adds: “We hoped to make at least some of Katy’s preparation habitual, so getting kit together for example doesn’t take too much thought or energy. ‘Kit faff’ is a great way to lose focus!”
Chrissie helped plan my nutrition – 380cals and 60g carbs/hr, with my own food in small bags on my top tube and in pockets. It was also possible to leave supplies at the halfway feed station as back-up. For fluids it would be electrolyte tablets and water at the feed stations.
“Anyone who’s experienced long-distance triathlon, at any level, knows that it’s as much an exercise in fuelling as it is about fitness,” says Matt. “Over many months, almost all of Katy’s training sessions had at least some guidance on practising nutrition. It’s very hard to replicate race-day conditions – either physical, mental or indeed metereological! – but by the race Katy had a solid, simple plan.”
My taper started the fortnight before – bliss! I felt ready, but raring to go. I flew to Geneva the Tuesday before with my husband Ed and my parents, leaving plenty of time to acclimatise. The rest of the K-team support crew arrived gradually, but the surprise visitor was my brother Greg, thanks to Chrissie!
My build-up consisted of two final sessions: a short ride including some hairpins, plus a short run. On Thursday I went to collect my race numbers, freebies and various kit bags from the event village in Alpe d’Huez. I’d also arranged to meet up with a couple of other Exeter Tri Club members – new friends with whom to share feelings of trepidation! I had a simple, quiet dinner back in Huez – pasta and tomato sauce with no onion – followed by an early night. Everything was packed and I knew what I needed to do.
Chrissie’s comments: “Katy followed our advice and stayed off her feet as much as possible, and packing her bags the day before gave her that vital peace of mind. Regarding her dinner, she had learnt from her Malta experience, when she went out to eat at a restaurant and couldn’t guarantee the menu or the quality of the food.
“This time, she brought her own food with her from home; much better than relying on shop brought food. It was fantastic to see Katy so relaxed and quietly confident. Of course, she was nervous but she also knew she had done everything she could to prepare and felt ready for this amazing challenge. This shows just how far she has come since we started, and the self-belief that she has developed in her own ability.”
Time to atttack
Up at 6:30am for the 9:30am race start. I have my usual pre-event breakfast of Ready Brek with soya milk, banana and nut butter, diluted juice with electrolyte, and coffee.
With Ed kindly carrying my enormous kit bag, I cycle the short, downhill and very scenic journey from Huez to the start. It’s chaos getting into T1 but, once in, the organisation is impeccable. I’m back out in no time, queuing for the mobile toilet, putting on my wetsuit and listening to the race briefing.
Chrissie’s thoughts: “A year ago I think Katy might agree that a split transition, a half hour bike ride to the start, and the apparent chaos of 1,200 triathletes in a field might have sent her over the edge. On race day our spies tell us she was nearly a model of Zen calm!”
Time to don my pink hat and get in the water! It’s actually not too cold at around 16°C, but others are struggling. I avoid the inevitable crush that comes with a mass start of 1,200 athletes and focus on keeping calm and avoiding the thrashing, drawing on my practice at the Bristol Tri and the Tribal Aquathlon (a 3km swim, which helped me psychologically with the duration), and I’m soon wobbling onto the ramp. 2.2km in 51:17mins, 645th position.
Matt says: “The Alpe d’Huez swim is not easy, it’s definitely on the chilly side, but it is spectacular. Katy had deliberately swum over-distance in training, and was luckily familiar with colder water. Most mass-starts can end up being fairly rough and if there is one element of a long triathlon which can induce anxiety, it’s a mass swim start. Clear water, an easier effort to start, and remembering to breathe are very useful!
Chrissie’s words about not sitting down are ringing in my ears, yet I manage the wetsuit removal fairly easily with only a tiny bit of cramp and I’m soon in my bike kit and on my way.
“It is good to remain standing during transitions if you can – to save time but to also keep momentum and stop yourself seizing up,” says Chrissie. “Katy had suffered quite a bit from cramp, so it was good to know that she only had a “bit” this time!
I’m glad I don’t have my shoes clipped to my pedals, as the bike route starts with a fairly steep ramp.
It’s great to know the course from our trip in May. The first section down to Sechelienne is flat or downhill – a good warm-up. I stop to fill my bottles, remove my gilet, and then it’s time to attack the Col de l’Alpe du Grand Serre. A climb of 15.3km, 1,003m ascent and an average gradient of 6.5%, but fine if you take your time and I arrive at the top in good shape. The views on the descent are beautiful, and I even whoop with delight at one point!
Matt adds: “’Arrive at the top in good shape’ is a great motto. Triathlon is not a bike race. It’s a whole sport. Anyone who’s been in a tri club or been at a race, certainly a longer one, will have heard this a few times: ‘Yeah, I had a great bike but my run let me down’. Worth just thinking about that for a little while!”
At the valley bottom there’s a cheeky little ascent, which I remember hating in training, but this time my legs just take it in their stride. The section to the personal food station at Valbonnais is slightly uphill and a real slog, but overtaking a couple of guys really helps.
Next, the ‘easy’ climb up Col d’Ornon – 14.4km, 563m ascent, average gradient 3.9%. Apparently it’s a bad idea to think any alpine climb is easy! The descent is fun as I’ve done it several times before, and somehow even manage to clock my fastest time on Strava.
Just Alpe d’Huez to go – 13.2km, 1,071m, 8.1%. Having ridden it twice before, I’m full of confidence. The first five hairpins to La Garde are notorious for being the steepest, but I know where I am at all times and just tick them off. The steeper sections don’t cause me too much trouble, largely because I’m overtaking people really struggling. But the sprinkling of spectators shouting ‘courage, courage!’ give us repeated boosts. My family are at Huez and I’m emotional as I draw closer… then cry all the way through!
Matt says: “Back in the winter I rode with Katy near her home when she bailed on a hill which was reasonably steep, but in comparison to the Monster that is Alpe D’Huez, barely even registered as a hill. Katy is now a hill-climber!”
I carry on plodding, and am soon at my second merry band of supporters, including Chrissie, surely the loudest person on the Alpe! The last section is a blur but I’m suddenly in T2 hunting for my running kit. With a bike leg of 7:02hrs, I’m placed 843rd, although my climb up the Alpe is more respectable at 768th!
Now onto one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done, and without the following factors I’m not sure I’d have made it. Firstly, catching up with my new friend Ian from Exeter Tri. We meet in transition and discuss how dreadful we feel, then spend the next three laps overtaking and re-overtaking each other due to my loo stops! Secondly, my own support crew. The lapped course means I see them at least six times, cheering their heads off, waving pom poms, offering advice, and generally behaving like loonies.
“We had a fantastic time, and enjoyed several beers and French pastries whilst Katy slogged it out!” says Chrissie. “Katy remained focused, despite having a few stomach issues. It is an incredibly tough run course, due to altitude and the gradient (and the 2.2k swim and 115k bike ride beforehand). Katy didn’t give up, and remained calm even during times of discomfort. Her form was good, although there were periodic reminders for her to relax her arms!”
I can’t say I’m enjoying a single step, but every cheer makes me take the next. I have to walk up the hill on the final lap but other than that I run nearly all the way – 14km in 2:35hrs, ranked 779th, and I finally shuffle down the blue carpet to high-fives galore. 838th overall out of 883 finishers, 75th out of 78 ladies. I’ve done it! Big hugs from everyone, and more than a few tears. Chrissie dashes off to find me some food and Matt’s asking how I feel and if I’m confused. ‘Exhausted but okay,’ is the reply.
Matt says: “It was an absolutely privilege to be there to watch Katy finish. Having coached her I know how hard she has worked and the sacrifices she has made. I also know how much self-doubt she has let go of in recent months, and how much the story of doing this for Laura means to her. Triathlon is defined by numbers and hours and speeds – but it’s also about emotion, it’s about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and that was evident with a few tears at the end!”
The plan had been to go out for pizza – optimistic! I’m already struggling to eat and my stomach’s not happy so I head straight home instead. I manage to have a shower and to eat a few bits, but soon have to lie down. Despite feeling okay all day, things then go rapidly downhill. The resulting drama completely knocks me for six.
“At the end of a race it’s always important to monitor how you feel, and for your friends and family to also check your well-being,” says Chrissie. “At the finish Katy seemed fine. Tired, yes, but happy and totally coherent. She gobbled down some pasta and after some photos with the race winner, Emma Pooley, left to go and have a shower and planned to meet us in an hour for a celebratory meal. We had no inkling of what was to come, as she hadn’t displayed any symptoms of distress or ill health.”
Despite excellent preparation in terms of training and nutrition, that evening I become very ill. I’d had a mild upset stomach since before the swim, but had put it down to nerves, and managed to drink and eat as planned during the race.
After going to bed, my body periodically empties itself and at 3am I suffered a seizure due to hyponatraemia, breaking and dislocating my shoulder in the process! Thank goodness for the quick thinking from Ed and my family, brilliant paramedics, speedy ambulances and the fantastic hospital in Grenoble. I’m soon pinned back together and refilled with all required substances, very tired but definitely on the mend!
Matt adds: “Katy, Chrissie and myself have all thought through what we know – and have read up more – on hyponatraemia since the race. We may well not be able to nail down what the specific cause was, and probably it will have been a combination of factors, none of which were severe in isolation.”
In August 2014, I nervously drove to Bristol to meet Chrissie and Matt. I didn’t know what to expect or what to say. I’ve never felt so in awe, overwhelmed and unworthy before, and it had a strange effect on me.
Fast forward through weeks of sleeplessness and stress about having to make the most of it, and needing to find the ‘perfect’ goal. When we finally figured it out – a tribute to my late friend Laura based on the places she lived, culminating in Alpe d’Huez – a huge weight lifted.
Then came the stuff. A huge thanks to Specialized, Brooks, Greepers, Xlab and Tyr for the mountain of fantastic kit. Big thanks also to Renee Macgregor for sending me a copy of the excellent ‘Training Food’, and to 33shake for the nutrition samples.
Then came the people. Charlie and Chris at Bristol Physio Clinic for sorting out my body and teaching me how to run! BW cycles and Mike at Bridgtown Bikes for the fantastic bike fits. And Oli Beckinsale for a super-fun and super-useful bike skills session.
The support and interest from near and far has also been humbling and I’ve raised £3,500 for St Peter’s Hospice so far. People were asking weeks ago: ‘What’s next?’ I don’t know, and I’ll be convalescing for a while. But I’m sure I’ll set some new goals as so many more doors feel like they’re open now, and it’s going to be a tough choice indeed.
Chrissie’s perspective on the year
“This year has been a once in a lifetime experience for me. It’s been an absolute honour, privilege and total joy to work so closely with Katy, Matt and the rest of the K-Team, to help Katy achieve her goals.
“Having never mentored anyone before this was a whole new experience for me, and one that I approached with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Did I have what it took to help Katy? Could we develop a strong relationship? What if she didn’t like me? What if I didn’t know the answers to her (many!) questions?
“As always, these fears were unfounded. We are all scared of trying something new including, for me, mentoring; but we also learn and grow from doing things we may not have done before. I know I learnt as much from working with Katy as I hope she did from me. It’s been a wonderful, rollercoaster journey for us all!”
Matt’s perspective on the year
“From my point of view as a coach, the last year has been a very successful one. Katy achieved what she set out to achieve. She has learnt a lot about the sport of triathlon. She has done something which she thought was certainly far, far out of reach 12 months ago.
“Not everything went as planned, which is absolutely as expected. We had a couple of short illnesses, a minor injury, but nothing which impeded her progress for more than a few days. This is absolutely down to Katy’s preparedness to learn and make sound judgements – as well as accept a strong ‘NO’ from myself or Chrissie on occasion!
“I can only guess really at the highs and lows which Katy has experienced, and it’s been a huge pleasure to watch the rollercoaster! I am hugely pleased with her performance and what it has clearly meant to her, particularly in relation to Laura’s memory. She may not know it but this is why I coach, for experiences like this. I’m also delighted that she has developed her self-belief, something we all need a reminder of from time to time.”
(Images: Photobreton.com / Jonny Gawler)