Tuesday, September 22, 2009

5ème Grimpée du Semnoz

5ème Grimpée du Semnoz

How rapidly can you get your heart rate to go from a relaxed resting state to being completely maxed out? Today I discovered that it only takes 77 seconds.”
The “5ème Grimpée du Semnoz ” means in English, that today, Sunday (20th Sept ), is the day of the “Fifth climb of the Semnoz”. Semnoz is a long ridge rising up to 1690m altitude directly from the scenic mountain lakeside town of Annecy (470m) – running parallel to the lake and on the western side. The challenge, created by the Vélo club of Annecy, is simply to cycle up this mountain as fast as possible.
This is not a gigantic event like the recent one in Marseille, but a very small event - and probably for good reason. Maximum sustained effort in climbing against the clock is brutal.
I arrived late the night before the race in my van, parked just outside the campsite where the race was to begin and had a good undisturbed sleep. On this occasion toilets and coffee were available close by in the morning so everything was very civilized. Chris arrived on time and well organised, permitting a 20 minute warm up prior to placing ourselves on the front of the start grid. We had chosen a 10am start. The organisers were friendly, cheerful and helpful. The weather was fine and it was all enough to generate a truly false sense of calm and security.
...5, 4 3, 2, 1, we’re off! As more or less anticipated my best efforts to capitalise on a great start position were immediately scuppered through a failure to get the left shoe cleat into the pedal and also having chosen a stupidly low starting gear so that I am spinning out immediately. Typical beginner’s mistakes for sure! Both feet secured in the pedals and 77 seconds later my heart is already maxing out at 172 bpm. The climb is 1000m vertical, 14km long and average gradient 7% so we are moving into completely uncharted territory here. How long can the body and mind sustain this truly maximum level of effort and what is going to happen? Mentally you simply accept it as an intermediate form of suicide. You tell yourself that you are going to push until you explode so that way you know at least you have given it your best – just go for it until something gives. You can’t have a clever strategy when you are in the trenches and the commanding officer tells you to charge over the top – you just go. The big problem– as Chris puts it – is when you don’t explode. Yes, this level of output is sustainable the whole way - absolutely. My average heart rate on the day was an unbelievable 167bpm (96% max). There’s not a lot to say about the climb itself. There’s no point drafting as the speeds aren’t high enough so it’s really a pure time trial up a mountain – a grind. By 3km from the finish my doubts about having the capacity to sustain the effort to the end have gone and so I am able to dig even deeper. Pushing a slightly bigger gear and keeping the same cadence (av. 62) I gradually overtake about half a dozen riders, but one makes it back and overtakes me about 150m from the finish. I’ve learned already that this is not acceptable – it is a competition – so somewhat surprising myself I pull out a burst of strength and blast past him at an uncatchable 25kph over the finish line with heart rate going over the top at 175bpm. Looks like I’m going to have to accept 175 as the real maximum now.
Results: Me: 63rd 57:25 14.6 kph 8th out of 23 in age category (45 to 50)
Chris: 30th 52:11 16. 1 kph 2nd out of same age category (45 to 50)
Overall Winner: 40:45 20.5 kph Demolished the record for this climb!

In total there were 134 participants. Last year there were 110 and the fastest time was over 44 minutes.
I’m convinced now that my 10kg bike is the heaviest being used in the whole of France. Calculations with power and weight show that replacing the bike with something light and modern and not carrying excess water would gain 3 minutes on this climb – weight really counts in climbing. (The only place my bike model can be found on the internet is at www.bicyclemuseum.com). This might sound slightly petty as the real benefit is the fantastic training that the race gives you, but thinking competitively is not petty at all. Competition stimulates a performance that is simply not possible in normal training. I’m lucky to get my heart rate up to 160 when training normally and can’t imagine having the willpower to push well past that for a long sustained effort. (Though perhaps the lessons learned from racing might change that.) Racing just transports you elsewhere and your brain definitely works on different settings with different thresholds.
Training during the week precedent had involved a fast 17km trail run followed the next day by a 40km bike run – with a good hill climb involved. Both Chris and I were still recovering from Marseille so fatigue limited the number of sessions possible and likewise it was important to take time to recover energy for today’s race. My calf muscles had been cramping from training right up until the morning of the race. The SportTracks training software I’m using along with my Garmin GPS had correctly predicted full proper recovery (“Training Load”) by the morning of the race. This free software has impressed me greatly – it’s just like having your own successful personal performance coach. I actually donated money to the software developers because I’m so impressed at the amount of pain and suffering it has already saved me from.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Les Bosses du 13 – Marseille

Race number two, with Chris Harrop...

Les Bosses du 13 – Marseille
Amazing race with fantastic organisation. Ambulances sorting out casualties all over the place!
Chris arrived a day earlier so his kids could race – but ended up on the beach instead. Disorganised to the core on this occasion, he ended up in a hotel smack in the centre of Marseille 10k away from the Sports Science Faculty site where the racing was happening – however he thoughtfully collected my electronic “dossard” (start number) for pinning to the shirt, and the number for attaching to the handlebars.
Knowing that there were 2078 starters (three races combined), and wanting a good position at the mass start meant that we had to be sharp in the morning. After a rushed evening meal in the centre of Marseille I scampered back to the Faculty before access was stopped at 9pm, and settled in for a quiet, secure night’s sleep in my van. At 4:30 I needed a pee and really did not want to go out so, as the car park was still mostly empty I peed out of the window. At 6am a constant stream of cars started arriving so I got up in the dark and started to cook my porridge with apple chunks just outside the door (but out of range of the pee). When it came to the boil I tried to grab it quickly, with the result that pot fell over. Now the door area of my van was a shameful mess of urine and porridge with apple chunks. No time to worry about all of that as there were plenty of preparations to get on with. Chris was concurrently completely lost in a parking compound and undergoing a much more harrowing time than me anyway. With 10 minutes to go before the last time of entry to the starting park Chris called me to see if I had any safety pins to attach the numbers – to which I replied “yes, but I don’t have a number”. My following failed attempt to find him amongst almost 3000 cyclists (there were other activities in addition to the race) caused some harrowing frustration, but we got there somehow – all fixed up – but at the back of a massive number of cyclists. NO problem! Chris just picks up his bike and starts to walk authoritatively through the crowd – and they let him – so I think that I’d better follow him. We get to the front, but there is a barrier with attendants because the priority top racers are to file out of another channel before the rest of us. The depart begins and the priority numbers start to head out, so immediately Chris hops over the barrier with his bike to the jeers of about a few hundred people behind him. The attendants protest, but Chris just shrugs and as they have to turn to attend to things he hops on his bike and is off – very shortly followed by me and one French guy. Great move Chris!
I’d learned from my first race two weeks earlier that you have to gun it from the start because if you don’t then you won’t end up in a fast peloton (group), and if that happens then the race is over for you already. This was the reason for our determination to get a good start. Knowing that Chris was ahead and that I wouldn’t see him again I just got my head down and went for it. If there was any thought of planning, strategy, pacing etc. that all went to the wind immediately. The roads were controlled mainly by the police and they did an excellent job, blocking the circulation of cars completely to let us through. We started with a descent of a few kilometres then straight into a hard 5km climb. When I eventually looked at my heart rate after 20mins it was above its theoretical and up until now empirical maximum – so this was obviously going to be interesting. At this point I was definitely overtaking a lot of the priority numbers and only a few were doing the same to me, but the thought that runs through your mind when pushing that hard is “how long before payback: lactic acid nausea, cramps and deep muscular pain, fatigue and general refusal of the body to cooperate?” In fact when it gets to that point the mind plays just as many tricks – so perhaps it’s the body that keeps the mind going when you start to think that this is perhaps not such a good idea after all and so why bother putting up with all this pain and discomfort – it is so easy to just stop all this nonsense etc. etc. Chris had taken some painkillers before the start and offered me some too, but I refused having already doped myself to the eyeballs with caffeine – which has a similar effect for improving pain tolerance.
During the first part of the race I had trouble getting into a good peloton and even made one whole descent with just one another rider, working really hard and getting tired, only to be passed by a group of ten others at the bottom – so I told myself not to do that again! When we came to the biggest climb which would take about 50mins it was every man for himself again. Here I felt my lack of training letting me down although there were no direct repercussions from earlier efforts. That was fine and well until I was overtaken by a rider with no legs! Yes, no legs. Not only did he have a carbon bike but he had carbon legs too – from the knee down. Yes my old steel bike and mushy organic and calcium based legs probably weigh a lot more – but I was seriously impressed. At moments like this you have to ask serious questions about yourself and your own efforts, then put that aside and get on with it. On the way down from that climb I found a good little peloton of about 20 riders and at the bottom they had another larger peloton in their sights – a long way ahead. It was all I could do to just hang on to the tail as they hit over 61kph on the flat – but the drafting effect was fantastic and just pulled me along. It didn’t bother me at all that the rider directly in front of me was a woman – because she was just hanging on too and not contributing either. We caught the other peloton and made a group of about 50 riders now and to my relief I passed the guy with no legs on the next climb and didn’t see him again - but that could be because he continued on a different course. Shortly after that we hit the fork for splitting the course into the shorter 94km and longer 136/164km versions. I went left to the 94km course as planned and my entire peloton went right, so I was on my own again with one other rider. He was a big guy, powerful and on a mission so I let him drag me up to another peloton ahead – without complaining. The great thing about drafting in the peloton is that you get to recover some energy and when you recover your breath you can drink – which I forced myself to do. Unfortunately I find that drinking when working extremely hard makes me uncomfortable – so it takes a real conscious effort – I can’t rely on “thirst” at all.
I don’t know what was going on with the riders ahead of us but quite frequently we’d come across ambulances at the side of the road picking people up, bandaging them or even putting them into stretchers. I wondered where the ambulances came from and still can’t figure it out. Chris said later that his peloton had come round a turn and found five riders sprawled out all over the road in a mess of bikes, bodies and bits. The weather was perfect, blue skies and sunshine, so I don’t know what brought about all of the carnage.
For us it was now just a grind home with two more big climbs to do. Only on the final interminable climb did my legs being to complain – but I certainly wasn’t alone in that experience. In the last 10k of climbing I lost quite a lot of ground to others, but still kept a steady pace and cadence through the difficulty – the legs were not ready to give up yet and there were no deep pains as I had felt on my first race. After a descent the end was unfortunately a climb back up to where we had started earlier in the morning and that is a cruel way to finish. I saw one rider fall over off his bike as he went across the finish line. The trouble was that it was a maximum effort finish but you had to stop dead after the line – there was no place to go to cool down. I reacted to it by feeling literally asphyxiated – I couldn’t breathe in and it was a bit unpleasant for a few minutes.
The winner of the 94km course finished in 2:24:20 out of 1233 participants with an average speed of 39.08kph.
I finished in 2:58:38 in 290th position with an average speed of 31.57kph, And 26th out of 145 in my category age group. My average heart rate was 157pm (91% max). I’m totally amazed by this result in many ways, not least because I’m so new to it all that I feel like a complete impostor on the course – Mr Bean in a bike race. 11 women out of 70 participating finished ahead of me but I don’t know what became of the rider with no legs.
Chris spontaneously changed his plan to do the 136km race and did the 164km – swept along by his peloton. He placed 87 out of 278 participants in 5:26:30 with an average speed of 30.14kph – despite his legs having gone for the final 10km climb. Two women finished ahead of him. The winner was in 4:36:51.
The food dished out after the race was totally inedible – some vile species of ravioli, dry and smelling of fish. I asked some of the staff where the showers were and in unison the pointed “over there”. Twice I asked “how far” as they didn’t seem to consider that important and eventually they responded “around 600 metres”. Instead, I headed for the beach and had a great swim in the Mediterranean as my “recovery” followed by a shower on the beach and a proper fish meal in a harbour restaurant. Back to the van for the night, near the beach – but definitely no more peeing out of the window!

Results: LES BOSSES DU 13