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The Mighty Arch-2-Arc: What’s It Like to Race One of the Hardest Ultra-Endurance Triathlons?

By Jonathan Bouchard (Polska à vélo)

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 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. In the last part of this series, we will let you have a taste of what such an event is like from the team’s point of view. For this, we reached out to Ryan Bowd, Perrine’s head coach, who was kind enough to communicate with us during the whole attempt.

On the morning of Monday, June 18th, your team announced that “if everything stays the same”, you will start at midnight. We assume that you didn’t pick out this time at random. What was the reasoning for this specific start time? Later, the start was delayed to Friday 22nd. Could you explain the reasons for this?

Originally, the plan was to start on Monday the 18th at midnight to enable Perrine to finish the run 25 hours before starting the swim. As the swim window closed, Tim (our Channel swim coach) decided to delay the start due to poor conditions. We then opted to start on Friday the 22nd. This time we went for an early morning start, 5h30 am, thus creating the 25-hour window which we needed. These decisions were up to Edgar W. Ette and Tim, our swim coach.

The Run

The event started at Marble Arch, London on June 22nd at 5h30 GMT under bright sunny sky. This is how it unfolded.

Ryan, how do you feel about Perrine’s current speed? We see this as extremely fast.
Perrine is on schedule. She wants to run steady and relaxed as long as she can and then walk and run again as she goes. She is doing very well and we are comfortable with her current speed.

Could you give us an idea of what she has been fuelling on so far?

First and foremost, she is consuming a lot of fluids. Fluids like electrolytes, carbohydrate drinks with proteins, simple water and a few espressos along the way.

As for solid food, she favours bananas, dates, oranges, ham and cheese sandwiches, almond paste bars and nugget bars. Now add to this menus some sweets, pasta pots, apple compote bars and more!

Ryan, could you tell us about Perrine’s choice of equipment?

She wears all Nike clothes and shoes for most of the run. She is swapping clothing from tights and long sleeves to shorts and short sleeves as the day is warming, and the same with socks and shoes to keep them dry as much as possible.

As the evening will set in, she will change into warmer clothes (tights and long sleeves) and into dry shoes and socks again. She also swapped her Garmin watch midway to prevent battery from dying.

Ryan, when is the one expected sleep time? In your opinion, how much sleep will Perrine need?

To be honest, Perrine will run the full 140 km in one shot. Following that, she will require between 6 and 8 hours of sleep in Dover, which for her should be good. She has trained for sleep deprivation through the BikingMan Series as well as on weekend blocks. As such, she’s confident in her ability to perform at minimal sleep.

For example, she recently did a 700km bike ride with all the elevation in the BikingMan Corsica race in 51 hours with just 3 hours of sleep.

Once Perrine stops for sleep, what does her body recovery process look like? We were looking at the duration of massages, any other physio recovery? What about her nutrition for the next day?

As soon as she stops, Perrine will have a warm bath and then stretch and work out sore areas and eat a meal immediately! She will have pasta with protein sources. For this we have a nutritionist taking care of her food intakes. She is lucky to have her friend Laura to help with these things over the course of the challenge, and then on the bike Laura and her Dad. Though it’s an individual challenge.

Along the way, this team has included Tim, the Channel swimming coach, Mat, who helped with swim sessions in Doha, nutritionists, sports doctors, a great personal trainer, and more.

Tell us about the accommodation, what are the plans here?

She’s staying at the Best Western Hotel, right by the finish of the running stage, and the start of tomorrow’s swimming part. This in order to maximize her sleep time. Maximum rest and recovery!

This time makes Perrine the second fastest solo athlete and the fastest woman to ever complete the Arch-2-Arc Solo Run part.

The Swim

We talked to Perrine’s medical team to find out what their main concerns are about the swim.

Well, the main concern with Channel swimming is obviously drowning! Such an attempt gives rise to many issues, such as exhaustion, hypothermia, dehydration, and swimming-induced pulmonary edema (SIPE). These are under the control of the experienced boat crew, an Enduroman observer and the coaching team who constantly monitor the athlete’s welfare and put it before everything else.

Ryan Bowd: Well, Channel swimming is extremely difficult, the tides and conditions are out of your control. You can only make your best decisions on the information available at the time in order to try to set up a successful swim, but in the end conditions can quickly change.

As a coach and an athlete, Perrine and I have worked with an experienced Channel swimming coach and will listen to the organizer and founder Edgar Ette as well as to the boat captain.

Ryan, could you tell us about Perrine’s equipment for the swim?

She used a HUUB wetsuit, Acara 3:3, a fantastic one, with really great mobility and flexibility properties. She also used Vaseline for skin protection and a special silicone neckband.

Perrine has been in the water since 6 am. What are your feelings right now?

I feel good. Perrine is swimming well, even though she is finding it tough mentally. We are waiting for the ebb tide to come on and push her down the French coast.

Could you tell us how such long-term exposure to salt water is affecting Perrine’s skin?

It causes the skin to swell and become tender. It is normal for Channel swimming and it will take several days to recover from that. The salt builds up, especially in the wetsuit where it can cause very painful chaffing issues.

The captain of the support boat orders Perrine to stop swimming a mere 3 nautical miles from the French coast. A decision which, under the Arch-2-Arc Guidelines, is irrevocable. Following this unfortunate turn of events, Perrine climbed on board and headed to the nearby Port of Calais for a well-deserved rest.

“I am afraid there is no way that we can validate her attempt by giving her an Enduroman number,” Edgar W. Ette said. “She understands this as we understand how hard she worked to achieve what she did. Her standing with Enduroman is (as all the others that did not quite make it) her times are (still) recorded. I am sorry there is not much more we can do.”

Ryan, just a few hours before the abort, you were optimistic about Perrine’s chances of completing the 2nd part of the challenge. What exactly happened there?

At that time, I was very optimistic. As we later realized that the ebb tide did not come on as strong as expected, it left Perrine in a position where it would be difficult/impossible to land in the next tide, and the swim would move into an overly dangerous duration.

As such, the captain, Edgar, Tim and I made a decision to end the swim for safety reasons due to the tidal effect taking away realistic chance of success. Without a doubt, Perrine was strong enough to finish, but a series of factors caused that the swim did not end in success, the most significant of which was that final ebb tide not coming through. Had this not happened, Edgar and Tim were unanimous in thinking that the other factors would not have stopped her.

The Bike

After the disappointing call for abort a mere 3 nautical miles from the French shores, Perrine showed great resilience. Instead of accepting defeat and abandoning the challenge right away, her immediate decision was to pursue her Arch-2-Arc attempt nonetheless. A decision which any athlete, professional or amateur, would definitely applaud.

Ryan, could you tell us about Perrine’s condition this morning? What about her motivation?
Obviously, she is disappointed, but at same time very determined to get to Paris. Her mental strength is very impressive, and she quickly got going and found the positives in the beautiful ride.

Could you tell us about Perrine’s choice of bike and set-up?

She is riding her Open Gravel Bike on road tyres in the first very hilly 40 km before switching to her TT bike and then swapping back to the road bike on the run to Paris.

150 km before reaching the finish line at around 9 pm, we noticed that Perrine opted for a pit stop at a fast food chain. What were the reasons for such an odd choice?

Honestly, she needed to add more data credit to her phone and we needed the free WiFi 😉

Okay, we’ll give everyone a well-deserved break and accept this answer!

The Arch-2-Arc is a sporting event not many people can actually relate to. The incredible physical and mental requirements needed to even prepare for such feats are beyond most people’s realms of imagination. An old quote by Georges Mallory comes to mind. To a journalist who asked why he even wanted to climb Mount Everest, he simply replied “Because it’s there.”

Perrine, a little over 3 days after your incredible Arch-2-Arc attempt, how do you feel both physically and mentally?

Physically I am OK, no muscle soreness, but I do have some very serious salt burn injuries due to a build-up in the wetsuit and the resulting rubbing between my swimsuit and skin, as the skin swelled in the salt water. As a result, I cannot go to Peru for the IncaDivide Race scheduled soon.

Mentally it’s different. I feel a bit empty and miss my crew, my support team with whom I shared every second of the adventure.

In a world where mainly record-breaking successes are praised in the media, you showed tremendous perseverance. From your decision to pursue the Arch-2-Arc, at what point did you feel most exhausted both physically and mentally?

When they told me to go out of the water, I was surprised because I knew I could swim more and I was supposed to be almost there. It was confusing.

But then they said that because of the current, I would never be able to reach the coast. I respected the decision of the pilot, but was devastated. My body and mind were exhausted, yet I accepted the decision. But I couldn’t accept that it was over, even when from then on, I couldn’t go for a record, of course.

Instead of thinking of my bubble bath and dry warm clothes, I was just thinking of a way to finish the race, I asked if I could go to Paris the next morning. The race organizers offered me to finish the race to Paris under the official race conditions.

I smiled and asked my team if they were in. They were and we decided to go to Paris. Frankly, we had a very relaxing cycling day, with amazing views. A beautiful ride, just having fun with the team.

What would be your advice to an aspiring athlete out there?

Oh, I don’t have any advice to give to anyone, I just think that if you want something, then go for it, you can do whatever you want. Organization is key. Hard work pays off, but the most important things are pleasure and passion.

Next up in The Mighty Arch-2-Arc series