Haute Route Alps 2013: Epilogue. (Lessons learned; what this means and what it doesn’t…)

Two days after completing the Haute Route Alps (HRA) 2013, I am writing this epilogue to share suggestions and lessons learned before my memory of the challenges will fade and only the glory will remain.  Please keep in mind that I write this on the plane from Nice to Frankfurt to Chicago as a stream of consciousness, not as an exercise in exposition.  (And I apologize that this is so long; I don’t have the time nor energy to write it shorter, paraphrasing Churchill.)

My overriding feeling after finishing the Haute Route Alps is …

gratitude.  I am grateful for Shannon, my wife and the love of my life, for encouraging me to take on this challenge in December and supporting me all the way through 8 months of training, and most importantly through the HRA week of trials.  Grateful for my kids for their belief in, and encouragement of, their papa, and for clarifying the meaning of my life.  Grateful for my family and friends for “being there” for me, either in person at the finish, during the races and the week, or remotely via SMS or the Internet.  My overriding feeling after the Haute Route is one of gratitude that I was given the privilege and opportunity to experience this and achieve my three goals: to complete it, safely, and, at a far distant third, to finish it with a decent ranking.

What this means and what it doesn’t mean …

Completing the HRA is not only my biggest physical achievement to date; in a certain sense, I have overcome my biggest challenge ever.  The sense I am referring to is not the economic, social, academic or any other sense by which we may be judged—completing the HRA means absolutely nothing along those metrics of conventional life: it is truly inconsequential.

The sense I am refering to is the purely personal one of being pushed to your limits along multiple dimensions simultaneously.  During my 46 (47 now!) years, I have experienced my share of emotional, intellectual, social and physical challenges.  What was completely new to me was the simultaneity of challenges along multiple dimensions.  The physical limit was expected, and is obvious to those who are familiar with riding a bike when they consider the riding times, altitudes, and lengths of the consecutive days.  What I did not anticipate, and failed to appreciate until recently, were the mental and emotional limits being pushed simultaneously.  Endurance athletes know the importance of mental toughness.  To experience, in addition, the greatest emotional peaks and valleys ever was new and unexpected.  And I am emotional, not a machine…

What I have learned…

Is that overcoming challenges as an average participant is more significant than doing so as the best participant.  I would think that when friends would be asked to describe my achievements the typical ones would be proffered.  I surely am proud of those too, but they were, in a certain sense, easy.  While pursuing the goals aligned with your talents requires determination, perseverance and effort, they are single dimensional pursuits.  Pursuing goals requiring competencies of which you only have average natural endowments requires much more.  The average person suffers more and has to dig so much deeper than the gifted one.  The analogy that comes to mind is when cycling, skiing, or hiking: the best go easy and fast and will wait occasionally for the others, meanwhile recovering, renewing and even increasing their confidence.  When the slowest one finally catches up, the group takes off again, without the slow ones getting any break or recovery.  While they get no recognition, the average ones get tested more, have to dig deeper, and their completion simply means more.

Why we do this…

Is to live life to the fullest.  Instead of pursuing mediocrity, I believe I was put on this earth to try to become the best I can be: the best husband, the best father, the best child, the best family and friend, the best person.  While I am no stranger to pleasure or enjoyment, that pursuit is not why I participated.  (I did not hear anybody say that stage 6 was “fun.”) We don’t do this for “fun” nor am I a masochist who seeks pain.  There are various existential explanations too.  I believe we do this to do our ultimate best, to identify our limits, and to transcend and push beyond them.

One can summarize it in the words Karolientje uses when I ask her to tone down her energy: “I came to live out loud.”

For the cyclists and Haute Route aspirants: What I would do differently in goals and training…

In addition to the metaphysical reason above, one first should be clear to oneself on the specific personal goal for an event like this.  There are at least three:

  1. Do you compete against others and go for time and general classification?
  2. Do you want to complete the event within the cut-off time?
  3. Do you want to ride with others?

All three goals are very different.  I went for the first one, and am happy I did.  But if I would ever contemplate doing something similar again, I probably would pursue the last goal.  After this experience, I have nothing more to prove on the bike to myself.  I know my “natural rank,” I know I can complete and even compete, but I probably would almost do equally well, and surely enjoy it more, taking it down at the beginning and going steady each day surrounded by friends.

My training worked and delivered what it was set up for: endurance so I can complete.  What I did not appreciate is the difference between climbing and racing a mountain.  I had trained for climbing: I can keep going at a decent pace for 5 or 6 hours, but I had never raced in the mountains.  There are various differences when you race up a mountain:

  1. To race the Haute Route one must train to ride each day: 1hr at threshold  +  1/2 hr rest (descent) + 1hr threshold + ½ hr rest + 1hr threshold, and repeat 7 days.  That is just SO HARD in the flatlands of Chicago; I just don’t have the mental strength to do that during training (I know some who do, though).  I think I could do it if I had a 1hr climb at 6-10% near my house, but it is TOUGH.
  2. If you are average like me and cannot ride with the best, you are riding against the mountain, not against the others.  The strategy to use is Stephan’s (he’s way better than me and still does this): from the start go at the maximum level (threshold) you can repeat thrice for one hour. .  Don’t do what I did the first two days: trying to keep up with the lead group at the beginning of the climb.  I should have gone 250W steady from the start of each climb.
  3. Unless you have Stephan’s experience and do it by feel, a power meter is the way to set that level.  A heart rate monitor does NOT work because your heart rate falls considerably over the 7 days.  (Given that I no longer have my power meter I cannot quantify the heart beat reduction for the same power over 7 days, but Mark McKillop, who raced great and just got better over the week, told me his HR for the same power dropped by between 10 to 15bpm!)  My max HR was dropping and sadly I do not know what power I was putting out in the last days—wish I knew…
  4. The training load for racing is harder than riding (duhh).  For those into numbers: my estimate of 250 to 350 TSS per day was too low for the HRA.  It was harder than I expected: my actual first two days (while I still had my bike and powermeter) were 470 TSS (raced) and 402 TSS (rode).  Those are HUGE numbers for me; it is reasonable to estimate that the other 3 days were 400 or more, and the TT day 200.  This means TSS 2270 for me for the week; if I had ridden stage 3 it would have been a TSS of about 2600 for the week, which is unbelievably hard.  (It explains why I felt completely drained yesterday, and still today.)

Finally, realize that no one-day-race can compare to this.  (Not in the least for the absence of simultaneity of dimensions being pushed.)  Be well prepared for structured days where you always lack time (even though the only thing you think about is the bike): know how to prep your food, the stage, the clothing, the bike the night before. Get up early, eat as much as you can, get to the stage early.  During the last hour of the stage, already start the preparation for next day: hydrate and eat continuously, recovery drink as soon as you finish, sign up for massage, eat, try to find some time to rest (I didn’t), prepare, go to the briefing, eat, try to sleep early and long (I coudn’t).  The Haute Route truly is the closest an amateur ever gets to the professional Grand Tour experience.  I have so much more respect for stage racers now and rather keep my job…

I will add to this if I think of more, and I encourage any readers to add their thoughts to this via comments.  I know I learned my from Gerry’s blogs and hope to give back some to others via this way.  Thank you!

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23 Responses to Haute Route Alps 2013: Epilogue. (Lessons learned; what this means and what it doesn’t…)

  1. amanda says:

    love this! thank you or sharing, Jan! definitely inspiring.

  2. Sharon Shachar says:

    Congratulations. Great accomplishment and thank you for sharing your journey with us.

  3. Tim Elebaut says:

    Live life to the fullest. One should be reminded of it regularly. Thanks for sharing, Jan, I enjoyed all the entries and congrats once again.

  4. andy says:

    hey jan,
    glad you did. lotsa work. nothing like the mountains. AND …I see a new DI2 or 11 speed RED machine in your future to be used for NEXT. be well and rest up for the fall classics.

  5. Love Karolien’s “I came to live out loud”!

  6. Jan Van Besien says:

    Thanks for sharing your “lessons learned”. Interesting information for somebody like me who has subscribed to do the Haute Route Pyrenees next year 😉

  7. Sheila Kessler says:

    Great post Jan, and congratulations. I was sorry to hear your bike was stolen, but knew that you would make the most of it. I especially appreciate the average person ruminations, good reminders to everyone regardless of their place/abilities.

    “I came to live out loud” just may be my new mantra.

  8. aaronwest says:

    Appreciate the blogging. Between you, Gerry and some others, I really felt like I got a sense of the ride. Maybe I’ll see you there next year if you choose to do it again.

  9. barry says:

    Brilliant – I’m reading Racing Weight at the moment and designing my own training plan based on TSS (and CTL) – very interesting to read your training plan called for 250 TSS per day. In hindsight are you happy with the training plan you followed? What would you change if anything?

    Congratulations on an amazing achievement – I hope to do the same if I can get myself from 2.7 watts/kg to more like 3.5 but I’ve got a long way to go. Fortunately I live in the Alps though.

    Best wishes,

    • Barry: I believe my training plan was reasonable given what I knew and where I live. The thing that WORKS is the periodicity of increasing building blocks. Here’s what I would change:
      1. the daily TSS during Haute Route is at least 400 per day (I gave the two actual TSS while I still had my power meter). Now, that does not mean you should reach at CLT of 400 — I don’t think that is feasible nor required. I did reach a CLT of 180 going into the race. Was that sufficient fitness? Don’t know: I did seem to get more weak than others as the days passed, so perhaps a CLT of 200 would be better.

      But it takes a sh*tload of training work to get there…: CLT 200 means that you have been training, on average, at 2 hours FTP per day for about 60 days in a row… This became a true job for me, which I no longer enjoyed near the end but any endurance event trainer will tell you the same thing. I would insert more rest days. (But that means you even have to put longer training hours in during training days and I couldn’t do that… It is better to have 2 rest days and 5 days of 5hours than 7 days of 4 hours, which is what my most demanding training week looked like.)

      2. my structure of training was wrong due to living in the flatlands. The training should try to aim for a daily repeat of: 1hr @ FTP, 1/2 easy, 1hr @ FTP, 1/2 easy, 1hr @ FTP. That mirrors 3 1hr-ish climbs per day with two descents in between. Given that you live in the Alps, you can do this. I don’t even have a flat stretch of road where I can go 1hr without stopping, let alone at my threshold… When you have a good 1hr sustained climb, then this becomes much more doable and you will be in better shape!

      3. Last, it’s all about your W/kg at FTP: you pretty much can predict your rank/performance based on that. Just to put it in perspective: Peter Pouilly holds 6.0 W/kg for 1 hour, but don’t let that discourage you: you end up racing with guys of your “natural ability” and that’s fun.

      Good luck and let us know how it goes!

      • Rob says:


        I have much enjoyed reading your blog of the HRA experience, and it has moivated me to train harder! 6 months to go and I expect to be around 4.2-4.3w/kg FTP going into the race. Any clue where that might put me? Hopefully top 150 (top 25%). I’m racing to ride with friends as the top guys on my team will all be around the same fitness level, and I’m not strong enough to race it (5+ w/kg). Thanks!

      • Rob: thanks for the kind words. I would estimate that you join the top 100 with 4.2-4.3w/kg and if you can stay consistent throughout each day. Good luck!!

  10. Great summary Jan and it was a pleasure to ride with you. It seems water finds it’s own level in an event like HR and there were a group of common faces that turned from competitor to friend as the race progressed. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to ride with you…a friend…at some point in the future.

    • Hey Rob: I hope so too!
      Ps: You have an apt description: water finds its own level. There is no sandbagging or wheelsucking when climbing 20,000m in a week and when most ride near their threshold: similar watts/kg coalesce — there is no fighting of the physics.

  11. OzzieJohn says:

    One minor point my friend – Stage 6 was fun 🙂 A great blast up the valley with tailwind for the last segment towards Auron!!

  12. Mark says:

    Hey Jan,

    I’m competing in the Haute Route next year. I also live in Chicago and would like to learn more about your experience.

  13. Pingback: Haute Route 2014 | obeyrulenumber5

  14. Neal says:

    Just came across the blog as I am contemplating Haute Route myself. Great info and good reading. Thanks for documenting your journey.

    Only thing I would add is that I think you have underestimated your FTP as some of those TSS values seem too high, e.g for the TT it’s not possible by definition to accumulate 200 TSS in 2 hours since FTP is the highest power you can maintain for an hour. .92 IF for 6 hours is also not possible if your FTP is set right. Don’t mean to be nit picky just wanted to point that out, your FTP may be higher then you think!

    • Neal: thanks and you make a good point: perhaps my FTP was higher. I do know that my first day was my best day. Second day was less, and then my bike got stolen and had to ride without a power meter, so don’t have the power stats.

      Good luck!

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