Embrunman

My dad and I flew to France on a Monday. The race was the following Monday. From Monday to Monday, I had one single night of good sleep. During that jet-lagged, sleep-deprived week, I ran a total of five, leg-aching miles. Six would have snapped a tibia or two. And the day before the race, I was still in the dark about how we were required to handle the bike feed zones. Stop and unscrew our bottles to be filled by volunteers, or were we able to ride through like normal and grab a new bottle? Confusion, fatigue, and less-than-confidence-inspiring-runs were mounting. Things were not looking good, except for our cheese selection in the fridge. The cheese selection (my dad is an amatuer cheese maker who happens to focus on French alpine cheeses) was fucking spot-on. But everything else was sliding off a cliff, like a plate of Tomme cheese…sliding off…a cliff I guess.

Yet, somehow, I managed to finish what would end up being the hardest race of my life. Just 41 seconds behind the winner.

Embrunman did not begin like other races. The men’s field started all at once—pros and amateurs together—ten minutes behind the women, in a line 30-meters across on the beach. There was pushing, elbows, more pushing, more elbows. We crept forward as the seconds ticked by. The first buoy flashed from a red blinky light. The others were lost in the predawn darkness. Or maybe there were no other turn buoys. It was impossible to tell.

I counted down in my head, guessing when the gun would go off, wondering if my reaction time would be better than 0.1 seconds. It was not. The gun boomed, we sprinted, I reached the water and dolphin-dove into third or fourth position, my right google filling instantly with water. I didn’t veer to the right quickly enough, and a dozen more guys were suddenly in front of me. From there, chaos ensued as incredibly slow (relatively slow) swimmers were now dog paddling in my way, cutting me off from a fast, easy swim on the feet of the three or four leaders, who already had a gap. I made my way around the slower guys and eventually fell into a decent rhythm a few hundred meters into the race, only to be intentionally pushed under water by someone behind me. I came to the surface, beyond just mad, and doubled down on revenge. From there, things finally settled. 

Things settled too much. The pace became pedestrian, or whatever that translates to for swimming since a pedestrian pace of three or four miles an hour would have been pretty damn good. What we were doing felt half-assed. I moved up, realized the pace was okay, and sat in, telling myself it was fine to have a slow swim because it was going to be a long, solo slog for the next nine or ten hours. There would be no big bike pack to bridge up to today. The bike course was 116 miles with 12,500 feet of elevation gain over rough, technical roads, summiting a 7,700 foot peak, and more turning than every single triathlon I’ve done, combined. And the run was longer than five miles.

I got out of the water at some point and found myself pedaling up a steep climb out of town between a thick throng of spectators. Spectators? At a triathlon? It was weird. And welcomed. In fact, spectators were out in force at every little town we passed through. 

The first climb had pitches of up to 22%, but was mostly undulating and peaceful. The air and my worries were still chilled. I looked down and saw an average power of 350 for the first 20 minutes. Totally unsustainable. Totally dumb. I’ll regret this later, I informed myself. But it doesn’t even hurt yet! My dumber self replied. And I probably swam like an hour! I felt like I had to make up serious time. (Later I saw that I swam 51 minutes and was 5th out of the water).

The first descent ensued and I began botching corners left and right, unable to commit to the outside line, which may or may not have contained an oncoming vehicle since the road wasn’t closed. One guy, who had been sticking with me for the past few miles, passed me and was instantly 10 seconds up the road, screaming down the descent. I lost more confidence in my descending when he vanished out of sight. The road became increasingly technical, and turned directly into the rising sun for what must have been four or five miles. I shielded my eyes with one hand off the bars to scan the upcoming turns. By the bottom, the guy who’d passed me was almost a minute up the road, and had connected with another rider for the flat section of the course that followed the lake. In hindsight, I realized that this race attracts good cyclists (obviously), and that my performance on the bike wasn’t quite as bad as I felt like in the moment. However, if I were to do this race again, I’d practice these damn descents. 

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I continued riding too hard, angry with myself for not descending faster. If I can just get up to those two guys ahead, I’ll have someone to work with as we make our way up to the ten other guys that must be five minutes ahead by now. Eventually I did catch them, right as the original guy (Kevin Rundstadler?) was forced to stop when his chain fell off. I rode around the other guy (former winner William Meneson) and put in a pretty good surge to gap him. No reason to tow a better runner than myself along up the road.

But then I found myself alone again. Damn. Not ideal since the next 20 miles were relatively flat, though still hilly compared to most races. And by this point in the race I was getting feedback from the side of the road that the leaders were three minutes ahead, down from four when I was in pursuit of William and Victor a few miles prior. It was progress, albeit slow. 

The highlight of Embrunman is the col d’Izoard, an above-category climb that tops out at 7,743 feet. I’d climbed it a few days earlier and met my dad at the top. I think I told him that it “wasn’t particularly hard,” considering we have plenty of steep, high-elevation climbs in Boulder. But mid way up (the categorized section of Izoard is something like 13 miles) I began feeling it. I was approaching threshold and a cyclist out on a training ride was keeping pace with me, uncachable just a few bike lengths ahead, for well over two miles. In my defense, she looked pretty damn strong. 

I choked down a power bar from a feed zone (I’d finished all my other food by then) and finally passed her. Earlier, it was confirmed that there was only one guy ahead of me (not the five or ten I assumed), and I’d narrowed the gap to two minutes. I pushed on as I approached the switchbacks. Just 8K of climbing to go. My power meter had gone haywire less than two hours into the race, so I went by feel. Which wasn’t ideal, since I felt like catching whoever it was up the road. At all costs.

I summited about 90 seconds behind him (eventual winner Niek Heldoorn), stopped to refill on food and water, and began the agonizingly technical, switchback descent. I tried staying focused as I approached each corner, but no matter what I did, I braked too much, or took a shitty line, or both. I simply wasn’t used to this kind of descending, which requires a ton of braking at relatively slow speeds. It didn’t help that I was riding a disc wheel with rim brakes. But that’s no excuse. I lost over a minute to Niek on the descent, and there was plenty more descending to do even after I rode through Briancon and got back, briefly, onto the highway.

This next phase of the bike leg was all doom and gloom. I needed water, but none was to be found. One of my bottles got ejected from my rear cage on the Izoard descent, and the other one had only been filled half way. I had now come to terms with the fact that I’d pushed way too hard the first few hours, and I hadn’t gained any energy from coasting down the Izoard. I was still losing power with every pedal stroke, and even though I had plenty of food to eat, my legs were growing weaker and weaker. But what made me really get down on myself was the realization that there were still 50 miles to ride and at least 4,000 feet of elevation to climb. And a marathon. It was all beginning to feel a bit impossible. 

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The remaining climbs were long and steep. The roundabouts were incessant. The traffic in the roundabouts was also incessant and I was damned if I was going to slow down for anyone. I made up for the risks I hadn’t taken on the Izoard descent, passing cars on the inside of the roundabouts at times. My stomach was queasy from the high quantity of sugar I’d already consumed. But I had to keep eating. I forced down gummy candies and caffeinated Cliff Bloks. I felt worse and worse, yet the gap somehow remained stagnant at four minutes. While I didn’t think I’d be able to finish the marathon (in fact I knew that I wouldn’t be able to finish it) I vowed to give the remaining bike leg a solid effort, and pray that I wouldn’t get caught by too many guys. Being re-passed on the bike would be pretty damn embarrassing. There must have been a mounting hoard just behind me at that point, I assumed. 

Cruelly, the bike course ends with one last 15 minute climb. Right as you get back into town, you’re diverted up, up, and away. Then, when the climb finally tops out, you’re awarded with the worst pavement of the entire ride for the technical descent that follows. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Because this was the type of racing I’d been seeking ever since I started the sport.

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I came off the bike with just a three minute deficit to Niek. I wasn’t sure what the gap was back to third (Andrej Vistica, another former winner), but let myself believe (falsely) that the gap was 15 or 20 minutes. Right away I could feel  that I was going to be able to run fairly well. My chest and lung cramping were minimal. My legs felt wobbly and weak, but not achey or dead. The main issue those first few miles was getting enough water on myself to cool down. Unlike Ironman, the aid stations weren’t every mile, and the early afternoon heat was baking in.

The first lap went by without too much agony, and at the turnaround to lap two, the gap to Niek was still exactly three minutes. I noted the average pace on my watch (6:30 per mile) and knew that it was unlikely that I’d be able to go any faster this next lap. In fact, 6:30 pace was way faster than I thought was possible. But I was only going to get slower, so my one chance at catching him was if he slowed more than me.

The details of the second lap are already growing hazy. The moment I remember most clearly was when two spectators yelled, “Go Kennett! We met your dad and he’s very proud of you!” This brought a smile to my face, and I briefly sped up. I continued looking for any chance to smile—and refocus my brain away from the pain it was dwelling on—whether it was through feed zones or giving high fives to little kids. It seemed to work for a while.

The gurgling in my stomach grew throughout that lap, and I eventually decided it needed to be dealt with. Now. Not later. With no porta potties in sight, I peeled off the top of my tri suit and stepped off the dirt path into a field. Out came liquid furry. It was over and done with in mere seconds, though my gap to Niek increased from 2:30 back up to three minutes.

The third and final lap was the hardest, obviously. My legs had absolutely nothing in them as I climbed the switchback hill that headed up into town. I didn’t dare look at my pace for that entire mile, knowing it would only be depressing. I was pretty sure I was going to be caught by Andrej at this stage of the race. He’d narrowed the gap to three minutes at the start of the lap, and I was frequently informed that he was coming. “Third is coming! Third is coming!” As if he were winter.

I kept drinking, kept forcing disgusting caffeinated gels down my throat, kept dumping liter-and-a-half bottles of water over my head whenever I had the chance. Kept telling myself that I could hold him off. And you can still catch 1st! I tried to convince myself with around five miles to go. I didn’t believe it, but a few miles later, when Andrej had cut the gap to less than two minutes, my body finally cooperated. I’ve never caught a second wind that late into a run before. With four kilometers to go, I dropped the pace by 30 seconds per mile. Then by nearly a minute per mile. I was no longer worried about being caught. I was running so fast, at least compared to before, that I actually thought there might be a chance to win. It felt as if all the sugar and caffeine had finally made it out of my stomach and into my bloodstream. The pain disappeared. I let rage take over, sporadically yelling and grunting like a wild boar. I’m sure I was not a pretty sight. 

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As I approached the transition area, I could hear the crowd cheering Niek down the finish chute. There was no chance at catching him, though I pushed all the way to the end anyways, filled equally with relief and regret. Relief that I hadn’t been caught, regret that my body hadn’t cooperated until it was too late. I crossed the line in nine and a half hours, less than a minute behind Niek, which must be the closest this race has ever been. 

By far the most important aspect of the trip was having my dad there. It was the first big trip he and I have done together since I was in middle school, and capping the adventure off with such a huge result made the experience unforgettable.

Until next time, Embrunman! 

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