This 3-part series is an account of Perrine Fages’ attempt to complete the Arch-2-Arc challenge. In this ultra-triathlon, solo athletes are expected to link the London’s Marble Arch and Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. The race starts with a 140-kilometre run to Dover on the Kent coast, then the athlete has to do a cross-Channel swim (shortest possible distance is 33,8 km) to the French coast, and then the challenge is finished with a 289,7-kilometre bike ride from Calais to Paris. What does it take to prepare for such an event? Let’s ask Perrine about her training.
Thank you for taking the time to have a chat with us, Perrine. First question, just to get to know you better, what got you into the world of triathlons and more specifically the whole Ultra-Endurance part of it?
Well, first I must tell you right away that I am super passionate about Mountaineering and High Altitude Climbing and this since for many years now. That’s how I started as a sportswoman.
Then, in 2015 as I had already entered and completed a few marathons (which got me into top shape physically). I had a job opportunity which brought me to Qatar where I worked for a leading sports television channel. Because of the amazing weather in Doha, I quickly turned to triathlon and started cycling at the same time. To be honest, it all seemed natural for me because of the endurance part of it.
Then, as I became a more experienced triathlete, I naturally turned to long distance races, which allowed me to travel the world and discover new horizons while following my passion.
In the last months, I completed the following races on four continents:
1) I did 6 times Ironman 140.6km and 6 times 70.3km (including participation in the World Champs in Chattanooga, USA).
2) I also did the Black T-shirt at the Norseman 2017 in Norway which is widely considered the toughest triathlon on the planet.
3) I participated in the UCI Gran Fondo World Champs. I must tell you that as of yet, I am not competitive in such races because I don’t have enough experience and don’t get the strategy yet. I did manage to qualify for the World Champs because the qualifying events for women are of longer distance than usual, and because there was a big storm during the race (which wasn’t an issue for me).
Could you tell us a little bit about your last year’s training plan for the Arch-2-Arc?
Well, I decided to officially register for the event at the end of October last year. From then on, it has been like a snowball rolling down a mountain!
My first step was to start training in December, after a bike accident in November where I was unlucky enough to break two ribs and suffer a small concussion, but nothing serious.
First, I must say that running was probably the least exciting part. Look, I really like the traditional marathon format, that’s my favourite distance. But I am not interested in being an ultra runner. So in order to prepare for the Arch-2-Arc challenge I did an Ultra 75km running race in Oman where I came in 2nd place.
Then, I had to start learning how to run slowly because the nature of the Arch-2-Arc is completely different from a traditional marathon since I have to swim afterwards!
We did a lot of race simulations, like 1/3 or 1/2 of the running distance in order to adapt my body and mind to the swimming part after only a few hours of sleep. I did some 60 km of running and 10 hours of swimming once, but not more.
Right away I will say that this was by far the toughest part for me. I had to build up my long swims sessions gradually every weekend and work on my interval sessions during the week in order to progress. That meant about 40 km of swimming weekly.
I realized that I had to hire a personal trainer for 2 hours a week to work and strengthen my shoulders, arms and back because otherwise I would injure myself for sure during the Arch-2-Arc, given the length of the swim across the English Channel. You see, physically, you just cannot handle such volume of work without building up strength.
In practice, I started my endurance training with 2 hours of swimming, then moved on to 3 and 4 hours. At that point it took me a while to reach the 6 hours swimming mark. It was the same challenge to reach the 8 hours’ swim and the 10 hours’ swim.
At that level, these 2-hour additions are really hard to reach as you cannot just go from 8 hours of swimming to 10 hours of swimming and expect you’ll succeed the first time you try.
Trust me, you will fail, fail again and then start again. So the best way to reach your 8 hours mark is to do 4 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the afternoon. Do it a few times, and weeks later try the 8 hours’ swim.
Oh and a funny little footnote, I was lucky to have a jet ski following me at all times during my training sessions in open water.
Also, I want to say that there are a lot of technical aspects to such training. You need to practice swimming alongside a boat so it does not disturb you when crossing La Manche! You also need to learn how to eat in the water (and trust me, it’s easier when running or riding a bike!).
Once you are ok with such long swimming sessions as an athlete, it’s time for the cold water training, because training in warm sea water isn’t the same as floating in the North Atlantic waters! So for this, the Arch-2-Arc ask you to do an official 6-hour test in cold water with people monitoring you. I did it in France in April. Yesss, cold!
A few weeks before the event, I went back to Europe for some additional cold water swims because you see, most people attempting the Arch-2-Arc will do only 6+ hours of swimming 2-4 times before the race. But for me, it was very important to do it every week.
Now, what did I initially think about cold water swimming? To be honest, at the beginning I did NOT enjoy it one bit.
Then it became something awesome to me; swimming in the sea for such a long time is magical! You know, I also really like altitude mountain climbing as a hobby and I see similarities to the swimming part of my challenge; it’s very powerful because you feel the strength of the sea… Hours after hours you can feel this thing moving the currents, changing the tides etc. Much like fighting (and working with) the elements which you have no control over in mountain climbing. I guess it’s hard to explain, really.
Perrine, we know that the Bike part is not an issue for you considering what you’ve achieved on two wheels so far. Tell us about your training for the Arch-2-Arc’s Bike part.
In fact, the training was psychically tough. Last year, I used to race every month at events such as Ironman so I was “bike prepped”! But this year, because my regular job as a lawyer asked sometimes for 40 hours per week, I had to sacrifice bike training time. I compensated with the BikingMan races in Oman and Corsica because training-wise, it helped me regarding sleep deprivation.
All modern sports disciplines have learned a lot about nutrition and accepted it as an intrinsic part of every athlete’s program. Tell us about your nutrition.
I am very lucky to have a great nutritionist who monitors me, but above all, this regards the swimming part and what to eat during the race because that’s where it really matters. On a personal level, I eat a healthy diet anyway and didn’t change it that much, to be honest.
A little anecdote: I had to put on 6 kg (for the swim) as follows: 3 kg of muscles and 3 kg of fat for the crossing of the English Channel…
To conclude, is there anything else you’d like to share with us? Anything that would help us better understand the preparation for such an event?
Hmmm… Ok, so I will say this: This training was the toughest I have ever done. It required a lot of sacrifices. But it has been an amazing adventure. And no matter what will happen now, I am very proud I have been able to undergo such an immense amount of physical and mental training and most of the time had fun doing so.
I have learned so much along the way and it has been an amazing part of my life. As I am replying to you right now, I am just happy I made it to the starting line 🙂