Race report: bike, run, ski triathlon

Iain Martin

by Iain Martin |

Iain Martin writes about his experience in the the Courchevel Dynastar X3 in France

The Dynastar X3 in Courchevel claims to be a "triathlon hors norme". As a veteran of over 100 "normal" triathlons, I can confirm that there is nothing ordinary about this event.

Starting with a 930m climb on the bike, before a hilly trail run and then finishing with another 900m climb on touring skis – all in the oxygen-deprived air of the French Alps – this is not your normal race.

Like most trail runners, I love the mountains in winter as well as in summer and this event has been on my radar for some time. This year, I realised I could tack it on to the end of our annual family ski holiday.

Once I’d entered, then started the challenge of training. When you live at sea level (I live in Brighton) and your nearest ‘mountain’ offers only a 140m climb, the only option is to do it again, and again, and again. You simply can’t replicate either the altitude or the climbing, but at least I was used to going uphill.

With the obvious absence of snow in East Sussex, ski touring training was restricted to trips to the Alps. I did manage to visit Andermatt in Switzerland in March and replicated the on-snow stage for two days there.

Otherwise, it was straight from our ski holiday in Les 2 Alpes – where at least I’d had the benefit of skiing as high as 3600m on their glacier – to Courchevel and a whirl of logistics on arrival in resort.

One of the appeals of trail running is the relative simplicity over triathlon: put on your shoes, maybe grab some fuel and water and you are ready. This event required both bike and skis, so first up was a short visit to borrow a bike from a friend in Meribel, before driving up to Courchevel 1850 to register and collect my rental equipment.

Normally one of my key mantras is to test everything before race day but, apart from trying on the ski boots, there was no time to get on the mountain and, by the time I’d moved the saddle to the right height, it was back to family time.

Sunday morning was an early start, back to Courchevel 1850 to set up my gear in transition, before driving back to our apartment, then actually cycling on the bike for the first time as I descended on the way to start through the very hairpin bends I’d shortly have to climb.

This race was “all about the taking part”, so I seeded myself to the back of the field and as the starter horn went off reminded myself to dial back on the testosterone and focus on smooth pedalling.

I tried to avoid changing down to the lowest gear (“tout a gauche”, as the French say), preferring to save that for the steeper, later sections of the race. Instead, I tried to spin my way up, swallowing my pride as I slipped further down the field.

The climb is 13.9km with an average gradient of 6.7%. To put that in context, it’s not so dissimilar from the iconic 21 hairpin bends to Alpe d’Huez (13.2km, 7.9%).

As the day warmed and the different ‘stations’ of Courchevel passed by, I finally reached transition by wading through deep and melted snow, carrying my bike until it was taken from me and racked by a race volunteer.

Changing from bike to run shoes in transition was about as normal as this race got, then it was out on to the hilly 6.3km trail. ‘Hilly’, of course, is relative: 180m up and down seems quite tame compared with the climbs on the bike and skis, but the running on slush is as sapping as running on fine sand. It was a technical run, requiring constant adjustments to balance as my feet lost their grip or disappeared to the shins in the snow.

The next transition was a first, as I took off my trail shoes and put on ski boots. It was probably the longest I’ve spent in T2 since my first triathlons back in the early-90s, but I needed to be sure my socks would not rub as blisters can be the ruin of any ski touring outing.

I felt like an amateur as I struggled to clip into my skis (ski touring boots have a precise pin system that you need to get just right), but eventually I started the final climb – another 900m ascent to the top of the Courchevel ski area.

This was a tale of two climbs: the first 2.2km at an average gradient of 10%, then the killer second section, of 2.5km at a punishing 27%. Add in the thin air from 2000m onwards plus the heat of the afternoon and this was seriously taxing.

As for ultra-marathons, my mantra was ‘just keep moving forwards’. As long as you do that you’ll always reach the finish eventually and 3h48m after the start I pulled myself across the finish line to a bizarre greeting of palm trees and a Hawaiian garland.

If you also love the mountains and want to try something ‘hors norme’ for your next event, then the Dynastar X3 in Courchevel is the perfect place to start.

Find out more about the Dynastar X3 at www.courchevelsportsoutdoor.com. Iain rented skis from Intersport Ski Hire and stayed in La Tania.

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