vrijdag 8 september 2017


15th of August 2007 was a day I would never forget. The day I finished the Embrunman I suffered a lot that day, especially during the run. I promised myself I would be back one day. Last year after finishing the Triathlon de Salagou, I felt I was ready to take on the challenge. But instead of the Embrunman, I reckoned that there are so many nice races, I rather take another one that was on my wishlist instead. I tried to enter the Norseman, but was not selected. So 10 years after Embrun, I chose to enter the legend of the Altriman. A high-altitude, full-distance triathlon in the Pyrenees. Sounds like fun to me!

Winter preparation

Unlike 10 years ago, when I participated in a full-distance triathlon the second year I practised the sport, I was building up to this event from scratch after Tijs was born 7 years ago. From sprint, to olympic distance onto half and occasionally some more adventurous stuff (NisramanHel van Kasterlee). As soon as I discussed my plans with Caroline, I started the preparation. I wanted to be be confident on the run, so I decided to build up some confidence doing trails, preferably multi-day events. 
Fortunately, there is the X-trails series from Sport-events. In december, they have the X-trails Houffalize, which I participated in as a preparation for the Hel in 2015. This year, to make it a bit more challenging, I was thinking of doing the 51k on Sunday... But before I registered, I wanted to finish a marathon with a good feeling. I picked out the one in Kasterlee, not too many participants and a race course of 80% off-road, exactly my cup of tea :). It was tough, but I felt good the whole run and finished "fresh" together with the boys in 3:46:52. I recommend this marathon to everyone who doesn't care about his/her PR or getting his/her shoes muddy :)

So the first step was taken. Next, as promised, I would run the X-trails in Houffalize. The X-trails is a fun concept with 3 trails in 2 days. Starting with a Kamikaze Sprint in the morning (approx 4-5km), followed by a semi night trail of 21km and after a good night sleep, you can pick different distances from 11 to 51k. Last year as as a preparation for the Hel, I did the 25k on Sunday. As I have difficulties staying within my boundaries, I had to step out to do the 51k :s Which, I must admit, scared me a bit... Luckily, I had Ward, a good friend and guide, with me, who already had experience on longer distance trails. I took it easy on the first day, trying to survive the Kamikaze and go easy on the 21k, as I didn't know if I would be up for the task on the 51k. Never ran more than 42 and this 51k had more than 1400m elevation :-o... 
I got up on Sunday, feeling very small... But as soon as the race started, I enjoyed myself. It's magical to run in the dark in the beautiful forests surrounding Houffalize. As usual a lot of the guys passed us by in the first few kms. Most of them didn't run the day before... But after 26k or so, we started to catch up on some of them. Ward and I stayed together the whole time, when one of us started to run faster, we slowed each other down, not to crash. When one of us slowed down, we encouraged each other to keep running. It worked out very well. There was not one dull moment and we finished in 6 hours and 20 minutes, 50th place on 190 participants with only 4 or 5 guys before us who did the X-trails. The trail itself was amazing with different types of tracks, it was never boring. I felt great afterwards. Another big step taken!

 As from January, I had to become one with my bike. The bike track on the Altriman was going to be a killer, so if I wanted to be able to run a decent marathon, I had to work hard on the bike. January and February was tough, with lots of wind and rain going out for long rides... When spring came, the long rides got more fun as more teammates came out to play, especially Vanessa sacrificed herself many times to join me in the fun :) and Michel to go on the team trail with me!

X-Trails Vosges

To keep myself motivated and to change the scenery a bit, I registered for the X-trails in the Vosges on the 29th and 30th of April. Same concept, different view. The weather in April was nice, so I decided to go a bit earlier to ride my bike and get used to some real climbing. But the week before the X-trails, winter decided to join the fun. In two days, 50cm of snow fell on the Grand Ballon, exactly where I would be staying... Great. After being stressed out about how to get there and not being able to ride my bike, I just let go of the negativity, and hey, sun was shining when I got to Le Markstein on Thursday evening. I quickly unpacked and got on the bike for a short ride to the top of The Grand Ballon. Amazing. Snow everywhere, except on the road - why can't they get that done in Belgium when there is 2cm of snow :p.

 After a good meal and good night sleep at Auberge du Steinlebach, I waited until the snow on the roads (during the night a lot more snow had fallen) melted before I left for a day of climbing. The views were simply amazing and I had a great time. The climbs were sometimes killing, but that's what I came here for. The sun was shining the whole day at least in the valley, until I arrived back at Le Markstein, where I experienced that riding in the snow is more fun than in the rain :D (at least when you know you don't need to do anymore descents!).

After 6 hours on the bike and 6 climbs in the legs, I went to bed early, as on Saturday the X-trails
would start. First of, 5.4km sprint trail. The legs didn't really like this after the rough day they had on Friday. In the evening, we had a lovely 21k semi night trail. It was fantastic, with a magic sunset behind the snowy mountains. I finished in 2 hours in 16th place on 90 participants. I didn't push it too hard, as the next day, we were in for a treat: The Trail Du Grand Ballon. 
Roughly 1900m  elevation. 

On Thursday, I had met Vincent, who organized the event and set the track for this fantastic trail. He warned that there was deep snow at the Grand Ballon. Although a lot of the snow had melted by Sunday, there were holes, where the snow had gathered to surprise you: dropping 50cm in deep snow! As I participated in the X-trails and was in 8th place (there were roughly 28 participants), I was allowed to start in the front. As a consequence, roughly 50 men and women passed me by in the first 10k descent to the bottom of the Grand Ballon. My legs didn't like it a bit... But once we began the climb towards the Grand Ballon, I starting catching up on a lot of them. I also passed by some of the X-trailers who were in front of me. The view was amazing, I felt great, I was really enjoying myself! I continued to catch up on a lot of the participants and I finished 14th on 135 participants and surprisingly, I was in 4th place in the x-trails. This weekend was great, I had fun and I gained a lot of confidence.

For the video of the event, check it out here.

The last stretch

Back home, it was back to the good old flat land, riding between farmer fields and along the canal. I went in every direction, not to get bored too much after the treat I had in the Vosges. I also participated in the 111 in Bilzen, which went rather well (in spite of losing my swimming goggles when entering the water...) and was really fun with the BrTC bunch!
But from that point, things were getting a bit more busy at home. The training hours were building up, more work at home with the massages (which obviously is a good thing), I love to work in the garden and grow my own veggies - which takes time as well and I definitely didn't want to neglect my family, they are what is most important in my life! All of this added up, made me more tired every day and I was questioning why the hell I was doing this. But I wanted to set things straight after Embrun, I wanted to see what I was capable of. I was getting more confident that I would be able to finish, but I wanted more. Not many guys run their marathon in less than 4 hours. With the trail experience I had, I wanted to be one of them! But then I got a mail from the organisation, the bike course was changed: the col de Pailheres was moved to later in the course and the run track was changed as well, we would have to do the climb to the lake twice instead of once... My confidence and hope for a fast run just got squashed... But in the meanwhile, we were getting closer to the race. Only one and a half month to go. I was building up the last big training blocks, but the weekend of the Tour de Trappistes in Chimay (a two day bicycle tour from Chimay to Houffalize and back, day 1: 200k, Day 2: 180), things got wrong. I left home with a little bit of stomach ache, but thought it would pass. Although I took it rather easy the first day, I felt really bad the second day, couldn't eat and was sooo tired, I was struggling on the bike and died like a 100 times... Miraculously after 140k the last day, I found some energy and finished the 180 with a rather good feeling, I was happy that after crashing 140k, I resurrected :). But the week after, I got really ill. Stomach aches like crazy. I wisely decided to skip my last training race the next weekend and rest as much as possible. Better to be fresh on raceday than to stubbornly try to do all the training I planned. After a week of probiotics and a lot of sleep, I started feeling better and two weeks before D-day, I felt my energy level was back where it was supposed to be! Just in time! I was ready!(?)

Off we go!

We headed South on July 5th. After roughly 13hours, we arrived in the region of the Pyrenees. The last 40k, we rode the roads that are part of the bike course.
The hills were steep and the descents on narrow roads... and this was supposed to be the easier part. It would have been good if I could have explored the entire bike course, but there was not enough time, unfortunately. The next day I went to do the first part of the bike course, 45k with two climbs and two descents. The first part was relatively easy, but the first descent already gave me a good impression of what to expect. Very narrow roads, and lots of small gravel stones, creating as we call them "Haexe bochten". But amazing views! The second climb was getting a bit harder but the descent was a clean one. Unfortunately, that was all I could explore.

On Friday, I took it easy and in the evening, we went to the lake where the boys participated in the kids swimrun. They did very well all three and my mind was distracted from my own race. I was happy to see the boys enjoyed themselves!


The next day (some would still call it night), it was my turn. Ater a good night sleep, I woke up around 3:45 am(!). Why? The race starts at 5:30, yes, that means it's still dark :D. I wasn't really nervous, more happy that this day was finally here! My favourite support team got out of bed and were in time to see me standing at the side of the lake for a late night swim!

Swim - 3.8k - 0m+

I positioned myself at the left and started very fast to stay out of the tumbling. After roughly 100m, I looked around and didn't see many of the other 200 swimmers. There was one guy swimming close to me, I guess he was a bit scared in the dark :).

Luckily I swim rather straight, so I didn't have too much difficulties swimming to the light at the other side of the lake. Last winter, I did a swim test with underwater cameras to make my technique better. As I wanted to spent as much time on the bike during the training periode, my swim training was mostly technical training. It appeared to be a good choice. I felt I was not getting tired, but was still advancing rather well. At the first buoy, I noticed one guy well in front of us. But I didn't really care, I was enjoying myself and it felt as if I was taking it easy. We had to do two laps and apparently, I was in 4th place after the first one. The second lap, two guys decided to go a bit faster, but I wanted to keep the same feeling. After roughly 58 minutes, the swim part was over - the easy bit! I felt good. I did a fast transition and got on the bike in 4th place!

Bike - 190k - 5000m+

The only flat part of the day done, I was now up against the most difficult bike course I ever rode (and probably will ride). 190k with 7 climbs and roughly 5000m of elevation. At the briefing on Friday evening, they warned about the steep slopes and the rather dangerous downhill roads. With two weeks of vacation in the Pyrenees and at the Costa Brava to come, I wasn't going to take any risks of spending these two weeks in a hospital or on crutches.
With only 200 participants, I was hoping that not many guys would pass me by on the bike and I was kinda hoping to be able to catch some of them again at the biggest climb of the day, the Port de Pailheres. The first climb was rather easy, not too steep and not too long. I was passed by roughly 4 other guys, among them, the winner, Flavian Lafay. What struck me immediately, is how most of them encouraged me - this is one of the things that attracts me so much in this kind of races. There is much less competitiveness than in many other races. It's all about finishing and doing your best, not about beating the other. The other reason why I like these races so much, is because the roads and scenery are just amazing!

The first descent, which I luckily explored, went rather ok, I knew where to go easy but I also had some confidence where to go a bit faster. Once at the bottom of the
descent, the second climb started immediately. The first part was not that steep, so I could keep a good pace. It was a nice climb with some steeper slopes after the first half. Some guys passed me by. But I wasn't paying to much attention to them, I was riding my own race. I was too afraid of what was still to come and didn't want to blow myself up. The second descent was the last one I had explored on Friday. This was a good road, so I knew I could go fast without taking too much risks. Back at the lake, we started a long descent, that became more curvy towards the end. Not knowing what was behind the next bend, I didn't take any risks. Which started to frustrate me a bit, as many guys caught up with me towards the end of the descent.

The next climb was rather easy, not too steep, but again, the descent had lots of small gravel stones, so caution was required once more. Down at the river, we took a beautiful rocky road that lead to the next climb, the col de dent. This one kept us busy for quite a while, it was steep and rather long (especially for a Belgian guy who is only used to bridges over the highway). But again, amazing views (much nicer than the canal in Schoten :)). After descending again on small gravelly roads. We arrived at the part that we passed by car. There was a short but steep climb. One guy caught up with me and we started talking. Apparently he lived just around the corner and had already participated 2 times. A bit further, another one passed me by, it was his 4th participation and he lived in Nice. He asked me where I was from and he was amazed that I was brave enough to take on the challenge that this race clearly is, coming all the way from flat Belgium. It was at that point that I started realizing I was doing something extraordinary. I cared even less about the guys passing me by (must have been 25 something that had caught up with me at that point), most of these guys all live in areas where you can practice climbing and descending, all I had was the wind... I just reminded myself to enjoy it all as much as possible. So I did! Before he passed me by, I quickly checked with him what the big climb was going to offer us. So I could at least prepare myself mentally for the hardest part of the day: the col de Pailheres!
The first part was not too heavy, the slope was steep, but do-able. The weather was still nice as well. All of that changed once we passed Mijanes. Clouds appeared and the higher we got, the harder it rained. A dutch guy passed me by (which made me think about another crazy dutch guy who was having fun at the Frysman at the same time as I was here). He warned me about the last parts. He seemed to be struggling a lot. I was still watching my heartrate closely and holding back for what was to come - after all, a marathon was still awaiting me. At the top, the wind was blowing hard and it was raining (with occasional hail). I took my time at the aid station to eat and drink before taking the same road down again. The rain and wind (and a lost cow on the road, that I only just managed to miss) made it a rough descent. My fingers started to freeze and I was happy to be back in the valley in one piece. - a week later, I had to go back to have a look how the climb actually looked in the sun. Judge for yourself:

Back in the valley, I was relieved to have survived the hardest climb of the day, but I was thinking so much about the run, I forgot we still had one col to climb. It was longer than I expected and got me worried a bit as I started to feel tired. But I managed to overcome the last one and finally we got some Flemish race conditions : head-wind and rain! I felt great and was ready for an afternoon run!

Run - 42k - 1000m+

Finally I arrived back in the transition zone, after 9 hours and 15 minutes, quite a bit longer than I hoped for. The main reason for that was that the descents were more technical than I expected and that I had to pee a lot :). But hey, we made it in one piece back and I was happy to see my support team! They said I was around 42nd place... damn, lost a lot of spots... Anyway, time now to see what is left in me after roughly 10 and a half hours... It's gonna be fun: two laps with 500m elevation each. With just before half way, a steep climb of approx 1km. Not a chance to get bored!

I didn't have time to explore the run track, so the night before, I tried to memorize as much as possible the profile of the track. The first bit I knew, it was the way to the campsite and then on to the dam. At the end of the dam, there was an aid station, where we did a u-turn and took the same path back to the transition zone. That was the first 5km. Although it looks flat on the profile, that first part was heavier than one would think, partly running in the woods and on the beach of the lake. I took off, as I wanted to see what was left in the legs. I had the feeling I was holding back to whole day, so now it was time to give my all. The first kms, I ran around 13km/h. It felt great. After passing the transition zone the first time, I was still going strong. But from that point, the track was unknown to me. It appeared to be mostly off-road, which reminded me a lot of the triatlon de salagou, one that I will definitely do again next year. 

The track was getting rougher and rougher each km and I tried to remember the profile. In my head, the steep part started around km 8. So, again, being cautious, I slowed down and started walking in order not to blow myself up. But I noticed the others kept running. I thought they were going too hard and I continued walking. At that point, I noticed that my heart rate had dropped a lot. I tried to run again, but my head started to feel light, it felt as if my engine just stopped running. I wanted to run again, but it was at that point that the actual real steep part started, so that wasn't the place to start again. Damn, I had the feeling I wouldn't be able to run again, not another Embrun failure... One guy passed me by running up the steep climb, damn again, uphill running is normally my strong point thinking back at the trails I ran... Almost at the end of the steep part of the climb, one guy passed me by walking. Triple damn... I was not going to be passed by someone walking... At the top of the climb, I noticed he took some salty biscuits. I decided to try the same. I took coke and biscuits and tried to run again. One guy who already got back from the lake (3km further where the next u-turn and aid station was), said that it was pretty rough down and up to the lake and back again. I got a bit scared that my engine would not hold it, but after a few km, it kicked off again. 

At the lake, I felt a lot better. I just had to keep running. On the way back, the leader (a guy from Montpellier Triathlon, the team I was with 10 years ago) passed me by. I felt he was not running much faster than I was. It made me confident for the rest of the run. I congratulated him, he said thanks and off he was towards victory. Back at the aid station on top of the climb, it was downhill all the way back to the transition zone, where I was going to see my support team again. The kids were playing at the lake. Seeing them and Caroline gave me a boost to start the second and final lap. To my surprise, I saw the guy who ran passed me on the steep climb, a few hundred meter in front of me. I decided to run slowly towards him. 

At the aid station on the dam, I caught up with him. I took some food and drinks, enjoyed the view over the lake and continued my chase. Halfway the dam, I passed him, he congratulated me with my recovery and we wished each other good luck. I felt great again. After passing by the aid station again, I now knew what I was up against. I was going to keep running and not let my engine stop again until I crossed the finish line! At the point where I started walking during the first lap, I now kept running. It paid off, I passed by a lot of guys. I recognized some of them from the bike course. They were as surprised to see me, that guy from flat Belgium, as I was to see them again:). I wished them all good luck and was off. On the steep part, like I do on the trails, I alternated running and walking to keep my engine going and not to blow up my legs. I felt great again. I was now passing by a lot of participants. Some of them wearing a head-light. Those guys were running their first lap. But I was going to finish soon! I started to feel excited. At the last u-turn, I thanked the volunteers at the aid station and I knew I had the hardest part behind me. I just had to take it easy on the steep downhill, but after that, it was all out towards the finish line! At the last aid station, I recognized the guy that I saw on the first climb, when he was 6km in front of me. Damn (in a good way this time!), I was really catching up a lot of guys. When I passed by one of them, he said I was smelling home. Indeed! I was getting really close to home. I got wings and at roughly 13km/h (the same speed as when I started) I was flying towards my support team. They were the only ones I could think of! I saw there was one guy running just in front of me, he was looking back the whole time. I knew I could catch him, but instead of sprinting, I wanted to enjoy the moment of finishing with the kids. So I held back a bit. Seppe and Tijs were playing at the lake, they didn't expect me back so soon. I called them and they came running with me the last few hundred meters. 

Matti was waiting a bit further with my Caroline, who gave me all the support I needed and who I love so much. I stopped to give her a big kiss. She seemed to be happily surprised as well that I was finishing already and in a fresh way :). The last 100m I realized what I accomplished and I was indescribably happy to experience this with my kids (yes, in these "small" races in France, kids can still cross the finishline with you!). The female speaker called my name, she congratulated me and the kids - she cleary remembered 4 Van de Mieroops finishing in one weekend :) ) It makes the whole experience even better if you are welcomed like that, the same way Hans Cleemput does in Belgium :). I am an ALTRIMAN! YES!!!! My marathon was not below 4hours, but 4hours 29min is not that bad given the track profile and off-road character!

At the finish line, Caroline came to tell me I was 5th in my age group. I didn't believe her. She was wrong :) I was 7th in my age group, 21st overall. Damn (again in a good way :) ), I did well! And I feel good, what a difference with 10 years ago!

The aftermath

The next day, it's paella time. I miss the medals ceremony while standing in the queue for the paella :). My legs don't feel bad, not sore at all... After a race like this, it should be almost impossible to walk... I start to feel strange. I get the feeling I should have gone faster. If I had taken more risks in the downhills, if I wouldn't have held back so much on the bike, if I hadn't started walking during the run... if if if... I could have ended up on the podium +40... Something I kinda was hoping for that it would be possible. I start to feel disappointed... I learned a lot during the race, I have gained experience, but for what... will I ever participate in a race like this again? This was my chance to shine... The training was hard, I spent so much time on the bike. Time I could spend with the family, working in the garden, doing stuff in the house... Is it really all worth it? 2 months later, I am still not sure. I still need to convince myself that I accomplished something amazing. Which it really was. I had very little climbing training (most of my rides involved water (canal or rain) and lots of wind), I had very little downhill training (bridges don't really count...), the bike and run track was too much unknown to me. But still I managed to pull of a great performance. Should I be disappointed I missed the podium or should I be proud? I know I should be proud and happy, but that's easier said than done... One thing I am most proud of is that I believe I didn't neglect my family too much during preparation: I did most of my trainings in the morning after dropping the kids off at school, so I would be home by noon to work, get them back from school, prepare diner and work again in the evening or go to my Sporttherapist course I had every Wednesday evening. I hardly trained in the weekend so I could spend time with my loved ones. But even though I had a lot of time in the morning, it was taking more energy than I expected. Not sure I will be able to manage the same training program again... Given all of this, I should definitely be happy that I finished one of the hardest races in the world (in 21st place!) and that I really enjoyed doing it. I should remember and cherish that! Looking back, I also had a lot of fun during the training, for which I should be grateful as well! And although the descents on the bike track were a bit dangerous, the whole race was amazing, from start to finish! I would do it again (if I didn't have to train so hard for it :) - but that makes it even more rewarding to finish it :D).

As the cliché goes, there is more to life than triathlon. Although it takes an import part of my life and I like to excel, I should not pursue to be the best, I should just enjoy myself. And that is what I am going to do, whether that is on a full distance triatlon or a 5km run, my aim will be to have fun! In the end, I am so happy I took my life in my own hands (which was not easy, as you can read here). And I am very grateful I am able to do all the things that make me happy: work in the garden, swim-bike-run, do a job I get a lot of satisfaction from and above all spend a lot of time with my family and friends! One thing this triathlon does, is it brings us to some amazingly beautiful places. Perhaps the best reason to continue doing it :)


Wow, this turned out to be a long one... so I should start by thanking you, for reading through all of this. Hopefully you liked it, perhaps it even inspired you :) Next, I thank everybody who trained with me, especially Vanessa, Ward and Michel for going on the long runs and bike rides. I also thank Hans Vander Mast and Luc Smets to help keep my body fit. I also thank everybody who cheered for me during the race from a distance. It feels great to see so many people wishing you well. And of course, last but not least, I thank my family and especially Caroline and the kids, for letting me do this, for being my support team! They are my inspiration, they give me my mental boosts. 

Peace and Love. I am out :)  

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