Bring up the topic of tough triathlons and for most people ‘Ironman’ comes to mind. However, for the crazy few, like French lawyer, Perrine Fages, there’s a bigger challenge to complete: the Enduroman Arch to Arc, a brutal event that starts with an 87-mile run from Marble Arch in London to Dover, followed by a swim of the English Channel and, finally, a 181-mile cycle from Calais to the Arc de Triomphe, Paris.
To date, only 34 athletes have completed the challenge. Yet, in August 2018, Perrine not only finished the event but set a new women’s world record (wetsuit swim) in the process. I grabbed some time with Perrine to get the details and to find out why she’s drawn to such immense endurance challenges.
Before we chat about endurance sport, your background is in mountaineering isn’t it?
When I was 26-years-old, I started to backpack solo everywhere, travelling around the world, developing a real thirst for the discovery of new cultures and countries, while also looking for different and maybe more adventurous challenges than litigation issues at the office (Perrine is a lawyer). This is how I discovered mountaineering. I started to climb one mountain, then another one, then high altitude became a passion.
I spent time during summer in the Alps to acquire some skills, but I totally fell in love with mountaineering for reasons I still find rather hard to explain. Is it the humility of mankind facing nature? Or is it the necessity to adjust to the elements rather than trying to tame them? I’ve been fortunate enough to climb many summits and participate in very high altitude expeditions, which have forced me to overcome my physical and mental limits. Most of the time I’m climbing solo with one guide. My wish for the next 10 years is to become a guide and join some non-commercial expeditions. But I put mountaineering on hold since I have other [endurance sport] projects.
How did you go from mountaineering to running?
One day, as I attended the Paris Marathon to cheer on a friend of mine, I realised that this fantastic race had its fair share of drama, heroism and, above all, camaraderie. I could feel the pain of these people, but also their emotions, whether they were winners or finishers. More importantly, this experience deeply transformed the definition I had of the word ‘competition’.
Prior to that day, driven by my horse-riding experience (Perrine represented France in the junior national team), I could never have pictured myself participating in a race that I had no chance of winning. Although not every jogger can realistically dream of being an Olympic champion, he can dream of completing a marathon. Since then, I decided that I was going to run the Paris marathon. And this is where it all began…
How did you go from marathon runner to triathlete?
Three years ago, I had a fantastic professional opportunity which brought me to live in Doha. As I’d already completed a few marathons by then, I quickly turned to triathlon. I fell madly in love with cycling! 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.
I started dreaming of [completing] an Ironman. Six months after my first ever bike ride in 2016, I completed IRONMAN NICE in 12:19 hours. I believe that anybody, if they have the desire, can finish an Ironman. While people were telling me that I had to practice triathlon for 3 years in order to complete an Ironman, I started training just like I did for the marathon when I started running, focused on finding life-work-training balance and determined to enjoy the adventure.
Within three years, I’d completed six full Ironman distance triathlons on four continents, including the Ironman World Championship, plus the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon in Norway, five half-Ironman events, including the Ironman 70.3 world championships, UCI Grand Fondos, including the World Championships in the south of France, and Enduroman. I also became an ultra-cyclist and won the Bikingman series, and started enjoying long distance ultra trail running.
Phew! What do you like about ultra-endurance events, and what gets you through them when it gets really tough?
Throughout all my adventures the constant lesson I have learned is to move forward, live with passion, be humble, and don’t be afraid to push your limits and overcome obstacles. But without high levels of commitment and sufficient time dedicated to training, success and the pleasure of achieving your objective is almost impossible.
Ultra-endurance is a sort of meditation – it teaches you who you are, and it’s unpredictable.
Tell me about your training for the English Channel swim – how often did you swim each week and what kind of distances did you cover?
When I started my Enduroman journey in December 2017, I had never swum for longer than 1.5 hours. Obviously, we focused on the swim. I spent around 16 hours in the water each week and spent over 6 hours in open water and then various sessions in the pool. I also spent some time in France and the UK practising cold water training.
(Perrine also swam for 11-hours non-stop in Ullswater lake during training!)
During these long training swims, what kept you going? Mentally, did you find them tough?
I used some meditation in the beginning but then it was more auto-hypnosis. I have to say it wasn’t enjoyable every week. But – and I’m feeling very emotional thinking about this – there is something very strong when you swim in the sea for such a long period of time. You can feel the change of tide you can feel the strength of this element. You are not alone. It’s a bit similar to mountaineering at some point. There is something mystical about it.
Was it tricky to fit in your training around your work?
Training and work were OK – a week would consist of 35 hours of work and 35 hours of training, but nothing else. Literally just work and training for the whole year. Every single minute of my 7 months was planned and organised. My friends and family were an amazing support after such a selfish period.
In 2018, you were crowned Bikingman World Champion and rode 700km in 51 hours. What kind of training did you do for Bikingman?
I did three Bikingman events in 2018 – what an awesome event and race! The craziest one was the last one in Taiwan which was 1200km of cycling and 20,000m of climbing, non-stop and self-supported, with some parts of it in the jungle.
Actually, Bikingman was part of my training for Enduroman Arch to Arc. I was using the long ride during Bikingman as the long duration effort for Arch to Arc, so I didn’t really train for it. But if I’m doing some next year and want to be more competitive, yes, for sure, I will work more on intervals and strength session.
Your run to Dover took 18:33 hours. How did you prepare for this in training?
I didn’t really train for this long run, although I had done a 72km race and one 100km event. I was running 70km a week in training, I would say. That would include one marathon, some speed and a shorter session.
What was the toughest aspect of your Arch to Arc training?
Normally, recovery is part of the process to become stronger. You cannot be faster or improve if you don’t rest. But for A2A it was a bit different because the volume of training was very high and I had to train on a tired body. Also having no life for 7 months and staying productive at work [was a challenge.]
Did you do anything to prepare for the sleep deprivation of Arch to Arc?
Of course. Sleep deprivation was the key to my success. I practiced during the Bikingman races, made some mistakes such as no sleep versus 1 hour’s sleep to find the balance. I did a lot of night training and also three race simulations on the weekends: 8-10 hour walk/2-hour sleep/run for 8-10 hours/swim/2-hour sleep/ 8-10 hour bike.
In July 2018 your first attempt at the Enduroman Arch to Arc was cut-short by officials due to the tides in the English Channel. How did you deal with the disappointment of ending it early?
My mountaineering experience helped… it is what it is, it wasn’t my day, you cannot fight against the elements.
On your second attempt, how did you feel during the run from London to Dover? Was it difficult staying focused when running in the dark?
Second attempt was a nightmare. The gear I needed, my passport, and everything in the car was stolen at the start of the run (Perrine’s support car was broken into). I had to manage the bank issues and passport on the phone while I was running, so I forgot to drink and eat, and I hit the wall after a few hours.
On my first attempt, I did the run in 16 hours; it was so easy. The second attempt was horrible – my mind wasn’t where it needed to be. My coach and race organiser lost their passports too, so we weren’t sure they could come on the boat, so I started to panic. Then I had to calm down and keep running in the dark without my own equipment.
What did you eat, and how often did you eat during your run?
I ate normal food such as sandwiches and potatoes every 10km.
How were you feeling by the time you got to Dover with the swim ahead of you? Did you have any time to rest?
So, as I said the first time I attempted A2A, I arrived in Dover after 16 hours of running feeling fresh like a daisy. Because of all the challenges on the second attempt, I was late on schedule and was feeling very down… It was 5am and I told my coach: ‘I’m not gonna make this… I will make it to Dover but I will be destroyed.’
Then I remembered the basic rule of ultra endurance: you never know how you will feel in one hour – things can change very quickly. I decided to sleep for an hour to calm down, and when I woke-up I was perfectly fine, feeling great again, so I ran to Dover, slept for 2-3 hours and was in a fantastic shape for the swim.
Did you have to battle any mental fatigue during the swim?
For some stupid reason I was persuaded that as I’d had horrible weather the first time, it would be easy the second time! I started swimming and people were like: ‘What a fantastic day, the Channel is a lake today!’ After 30 minutes, the wind started and it was very bad conditions again. This time I just didn’t say anything and fought at each stroke swimming through the night, but in the morning the current was very strong. It took me four hours to land. My arms were so painful I had tendonitis. I was mentally not in good situation, but coach found the right words and then I was totally goal-oriented and swam to the coast.
Were there any tough moments on the bike or could you see the world record in sight?
Between you and I, my goal was to beat the male world record. But because of the bad conditions on the swim I knew that I had lost the male record, but there was still the female one. I decided not to sleep after the swim, because I wanted to be on my bike.
Amazing! More recently you finished the Oman by UTMB race. How was your experience?
I was so technical. But I loved it. I just did it because it was in Oman, close to Qatar. But I’m not a trail runner, you know. This one was mental – 140km with 8000m of elevation but it was mostly rock climbing so it took forever. Only 40 per cent finisher. Crazy, but awesome! I’m pretty sure that I will do more trail running.
I guess what I love the most about ultra-running, cycling and swimming is just going through the night in nature, seeing the sunset and sunrise. I feel so blessed and grateful. I’m telling myself that I am the luckiest girl in the world.
What are your plans for the off-season and what events are in the pipeline for 2019?
Off season with family. And 2019… One extreme triathlon in Chamonix, a couple of ultra-trail running events, a few ultra cycling races, and a solo cycling expedition project…
What are your favourite items of kit for training and racing?
Well, apart from that I am in love with my bikes and I talk to them, I love my Rapha cycling kits.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?