Diving in at the deep end: Aaron recounts his first triathlon- the Evergreen 228 Alpine Ironman
I like wilderness and I like adventure. With that in mind, the well-oiled and perfectly waymarked racing events like Iornman races have rarely spike my interest, until recently that is. Despite this, and having never done an Ironman, or in fact any triathlon before, something about the brutal infamy of the Evergreen XXL really attracts. The multidiscipline nature of the event certainly appeals but is there much adventure to be had when you’re amidst a fully-supported competition? I wanted to find out what the fuss was about, and if I’m going to all the effort of attempting an Iron-distance triathlon, I may as well make it worth the pain and try one of the hardest out there, right?
Evergreen XXL seemed the perfect contender, it provides a seemingly ludicrous test of endurance yet does so in a stunning Alpine setting. The distances come out very marginally longer than a conventional Ironman but it’s the vertical gain that sets it apart - a combined 7800m of ascent over the course of the bike and the run. After hearing Emily was in for another attempt after sadly missing the bike cut off time two years ago (in some incredibly unsavoury weather conditions), I wanted in.
But could I prepare myself to complete this crazy race having never swam, biked and ran in the same day before? If this wasn’t already enough of a challenge, I get very anxious when swimming, something I’d intended to face for years but hadn’t got around to. What better way to face up to those fears?
Trail run: 42.1km
Beating my fears
My swimming issue isn’t about deep water, or even jumping in, for whatever reason I have long since been incapable of swimming with my head in the water, making effective front crawl pretty much impossible. Any attempts resulted in shortness of breath, a tight chest and grossly undignified panic. I would need to address this if I was to have a chance at completing the first 4km before taking on the rest of the Ironman.
Looking back, I can only come up with one negative association of water in my childhood. Jumping into a deep river pool at home, I can’t have been older than 5 or 6, I didn’t understand my wellies would likely fill making getting back to the surface a harrowing struggle. Luckily for me, I managed to kick off one boot and reach the surface but not without a fight and a little help from my older sisters. From this point onwards, I looked to dodge swimming lessons whenever I could, certainly never mastering the front crawl.
Now aged 30, I’m back for a swimming lesson except this time I really want to learn. I personally found pool sessions to be a little crowded and overwhelming. I find myself becoming quickly uncomfortable and very self-aware thinking all the "pro" swimmers are judging me when in fact they almost definitely don't care why this pasty 6’2” child can’t swim properly. I discovered I preferred to swim out in the open water, and the more isolated, the better.
Swimming coach, Sean from Swim Open agreed to take me a 1-on-1 crash course and see what was going on. His relaxed and understanding style was a great help for me and after some simple breathing exercises I was swimming up and down for a few strokes with my head under. Through I was still tense and pretty anxious, it was the foundation of me beating my fears.
I was up in the Lakes the weekend that followed, and keen to keep the momentum up. I hiked up to a mountain lake near my family home called Bowscale tarn and began to swim (despite the and and off torrential rain and flood warnings). The water was cold but the area completely deserted allowing me to undertake my 200m lengths without worry. I was eventually now able to do 9 or 10 strokes before bringing my head out of the water for a breather, not perfect but solid progress.
Now just a couple of weeks before my race, I needed to up my game. Thankfully, my girlfriend Ella and I had a holiday booked to the island of Corsica. Grinding out 1-2km of swimming each day helped hugely. As well as the physical training component, I was swimming distances that eventually resulted in a calmer and more composed approach. There’s no doubt the beautifully clear and turquoise Mediterranean water was helping keep me calm at around 24 degrees but unfortunately it was an Alpine lake with a water temperature of 10 degrees or less that was coming my way in now less than a week.
My swimming tips for nervous swimmers
1. Get a wetsuit, keep warm and add float (buoyancy shorts actually worked the best for me).
2. Start with breathing exercises face down in the water until you’re really calm then begin swimming slowly.
3. Get a nose plug if you feel you need one. Lots of people find water comes into their sinuses which can be uncomfortable. You might look dumb but it’s worth it to feel confident.
4. Get a coaching session. If nothing else you’ll be socially obliged to face your fears with the guidance of a professional - SWIM OPEN.
5. Find somewhere quiet to swim that suits you, which if you’re anything like me this won’t be in a swimming pool
Time had run out, my swimming was coming together (just about), and I’d done some trail running and mountaineering but hadn’t really ridden my bike much over Summer, not ideal for the 190km ride coming my way.
T-minus 16 hours until Evergreen starts. Race briefing is relaxed and seeing the simple buoy set up settles my nerves somewhat. Having never done a triathlon of any kind, it takes me a while to get my head around all the bag packing for each transition and the two food caches on offer from the race organisers.
The big day
After a short and unsettled night, the 5am alarm comes as no surprise. Thankfully we were able to arrange accommodation in Morzine making for a super short drive to the start line where I’m surprised by dark it still feels. We take care of finishing preparations, squeeze into my sickeningly tight wetsuit and I’m just keen to get going now.
The mass start of the swim wasn’t as daunting as I’d imagined with plenty of space on the bank and first light starting to come over the hills on the distance. My fellow 120 competitors head off very quickly however I’m struggling to find a rhythm forced to breathe every other stroke rather than bilaterally (1 breath per 3 strokes). After around half of the first kilometre, I start to calm a little as the pack thins and a glance at my watch suggests I’m on track for well under 2 hours at this rate which I'm buzzing about.
Kilometre 2 and 3 feel good, some of my most strongest swimming to date, and again I’m all good for time. If anything I’m swimming a bit harder than I’m used to, but the race adrenaline keeps my ticking over. Getting first glances of the encouraging supporting faces of Ella and my good friends, Paddy and Will (who’ve come to make a short film of our endeavours), I can’t help myself find time for a quick wave and polite exchange. Exiting the water in just under 1.5 hours, I feel a little dizzy but massively relieved that my race hasn't ended before it ever really began).
After jogging right past my bike kit bag in all the excitement (what an amateur), I loop back around to begin an otherwise smooth transition. Pleased to see Emily wasn’t too far ahead despite being a pretty strong swimmer and we even find time for a quick picture.
I manage to find some time for an important bite to eat and get off pedalling ahead of quite a few more competitors overtaking them in transition. I'm back in my comfort zone and excited to start chasing down some fellow racers and settle into this epic bike ride
Hot, sweat and gears
After a few KM of downhill I continue to stuff my face and the daunting task of 190km over 5 Alpine cols begins to sink in. I catch Emily for the first time just as we settle into the first, and incidentally highest climb of the day. I’m feeling some cramping twinges in my calves, a feeling I wouldn’t quite manage to shake all day. Regardless, I begin to attack the climb a little bidding farewell to Emily, though probably not for too long.
The small pack I'm riding near make fairly light work of the first climb, particularly enjoying the mild temperatures still only 9 in the morning. The views of the Mont Blanc as the Col du Joux Plane (1691m) plateaus are some of the best in the Alps, and the rapid and technical descent doesn’t disappoint either. The cyclists start thinning out over the next couple of hours until our first food station where the two longest routes split, Evergreen 118 heading left avoiding too many more hills and the 228 taking in what feels like every hill in the Alps.
The col du Romme (1297m) pulls up away from the valley floor at a fairly punchy gradient leaving it hard to tell if I was tiring quickly, or it was just a brutal start. Looking around it seemed the latter, so I get my head down and keep grafting for what feels like a long old climb. Without a clear sign at the top and having not seen anyone for a while, I begin to question if I’ve missed a turn. After stopping to check the route, I’m relieved to be passed by another rider who I descend the next section with and we’re back into uphill before I know it.
The Col de la Colombière (1613m) is a reasonable gradient but sheltered from any wind at all, the hot sun really takes it’s toll. With little shade and snack supplies all out, there’s no hiding and I’m feeling pretty empty. Eventually reaching the top, I knew a proper feed was essential if I was to be able to keep going. Coming off the bike for not much longer than 5 minutes I get as much food down me as I can before Emily and keeps moving onwards. With a target to chase, I head after Emily and we enjoy riding together for around 20km or so before I pull away again, though still suffering terribly from the heat on the never ending climbs.
After chatting to a French girl for a while, she’s very concerned we’re going to miss one of the mandatory cut offs. I get my head down and crank hard over Col de la Croix Fry (1467m) and make quick work of Col des Aravis (1487m) down through Flumet and off through Megeve. 120km in, I’m finally starting to find my normal cycling rhythm and even after pushing really hard, I'm surprised to find myself still fighting to stay in the race with the cut-offs getting tougher as you go along. I realise how real the risk of getting cut is with only 1.5hours left to ride from Combloux to Chamonix, not desperately far but knowing that area quite well, there's a fair chunk of uphill still to come.
At this point, I'm genuinely surprised by my own uncharacteristically defeatist attitude which is starting to kick in. I need to stay above 15kph all the way until the transition while taking in the steep switchbacks and another 1000m ascent on already weary legs. I start to face the fact that this already horrendously long day might be finishing prematurely but take some solace that Emily was still behind me and at least we can finally go for a beer. Briefly exchanging our worries with a very small peloton I ended up in, I begin to grit my teeth and pull away leading these somewhat deflated crew of cyclists.
My dedicated entourage give just the right encouragement at exactly the right time, I continue my aggressive assault keeping the pessimism at bay. Then the next hour comes some of the best riding I’ve ever put down, seeming to ride TdF speeds up the final bends to a minor high point. Thereafter the moderate uphill to Chamonix town feels like nothing at the speeds I’m riding, and with some bold overtakes and manoeuvres through town I’m amazed to find I’m literally 1 minute within the cut off, and therefore the race isn't over just yet!
Can’t get off that easy
My reward for getting here on time? To run a further 42km with around 2500m ascent in the dark. But luckily for us, Emily comes in just 5 minutes later and due to the late start, they let her through. The rest of the worried peloton never did make it back in time.
Emily and I had previously discussed completing the run together, so in a complete fluke, it was all coming together nicely. Having had our fair share of night epics and adventures, it came as a great relief to be able to keep each other moving.
The first loop heads up to the Mer de Glacé, and though I’m moving reasonably well there certainly isn’t any energy to spare. We jog occasionally but our legs aren’t in a position to be running too many ups. The Balcon Nord is pleasant although getting our temperature right proves difficult with such tired bodies. I find myself hitting what most would describe as “the wall” shortly before the second aid station, feeling like gravity just got 10 times heavier.
Another dose of mini snack sandwiches and as much sugar as I can force down me, I start to come around again and we’ve got 90 minutes to cover around 8km back to Chamonix. A new lease of life, we pace it right down to the valley floor, being careful not to trip on the technical ground in darkness. We also manage to overtake another 5 or 6 racers, and make it back for our final cut off before the last loop of the race.
The graveyard shift
Yet more food, a water refill and now we’re 20km off completing this ridiculous challenge. Acutely aware of a brutally steep final 1000m ascent that was coming for our shot legs, I calculate we want to get this climb done in a modest 2 hours to ensure we can make it back down to Chamonix in time for the finish.
This is a fairly manageable pace however at this point we’ve been up racing for over 21 hours straight and are over 200km from where we started all those hours ago. The dense forest feels like a black hole, everything inside of us is telling our bodies to sleep but we can’t concede. I can see Emily’s falling asleep and her pace is intermittently slowing, but we’ve not come this far to miss this final cut off. The occasional erratic but affectionate shout “Wake up Scottie! Keep those legs moving!” wakes me up as much as it does her and eventually we make it to some light. After I have my own brief micro-nap leaning against a rock, we appear to be finally leaving the woods from Sleepy Hollow, and even better sunrise is coming!
We reach the top of the Flagere lift, the graveyard shift is over and for the first time all day we start to know for sure that we’ve got this. The power of the sun lighting up the Chamonix once again makes for a spectacular setting as we make our way across the petit Balcon Sud to Plan Praz. Met by yet another amazing volunteer team at the aid station, they greet us with a coffee and a twix and we head off running down to join the Vertical KM, across town for the last time.
Across the finish line, Emily and I are met by a surprisingly spritely and warm crowd including our incredibly kind support crew and even the race organisers who’d caught wind that this was my debut triathlon. We’re incredibly grateful for the support of Emily’s family (especially her sister Lucy) and Will, Paddy and Ella for supporting us throughout one of the longest days of our lives. Without them, and without Emily, I’m fairly sure I would not have completed my first ever triathlon.
My advice - don’t let others projecting their own self-doubt onto your goals stop you from trying the impossible. Be bold and back yourself.
I was so very confident after completing Evergreen 228 that the Ironman box would be firmly ticked and that would be my first and last. Now looking back, I'm thinking maybe my triathlon career isn't over just yet.
Despite the extremely experienced pool of athletes who enter, most of whom with countless Ironmans under their belt, 50% of those who attempt Evergreen 228 do not finish. 2019 was no exception.
After 27 hours and 30 minutes, Aaron and Emily crossed the line at 09:33 in joint 58th position overall. Emily was one of only six females to finish and Aaron started his triathlon career with a bang.