Monday, July 4, 2011

La Marmotte 2011

Some excellent photos of the Marmotte 2011 here: LaurentSalinoPhotographie

Nationalities Participating
France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, England, Dubai, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Galicia, Ireland, Canada, USA, Philipines, Brazil, Luxembourg, South Korea, Wales, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Mexico, Australia, Andorra, Poland, Bolivia, Malaysia.

The Benchmark
The Marmotte has become the international benchmark as the toughest of all cyclosportives. The thought that frequently enters your head when participating in this event is "Do I really want to suffer this much?" or "Perhaps I'll quit cycling!". The brain has a way of forgetting pain very rapidly and only remembering the good parts  - it's nature's way of propagating this race and building its popularity beyond all reasonable proportions.

Somewhere between 7000 and 8000 people queuing for the start in Bourg d'Oisans 2 July 2011

Which mountain?
The day before the start of the Marmotte - which was at 7am and 8:30 am (there were two starts) on Saturday 2nd July 2011, we found ourselves stuck. Chris has a Cannondale bike and despite Bourg d'Oisans being a real mecca for cycling, with a disproportionate number of bike shops for one small village, Chris could not find anyone with the special tools required to repair his bike. One thoughtful staff member from a shop directed us to another ski station - Les Deux Alpes - not far away - where there was a major mountain bike event taking place and where Cannondale had a stand with technicians. Instead of chilling out in Bourg we first had to go up to Alpe d'Huez to get our start numbers for the race then come back down and then go all the way up to Les Deux Alpes. Basically it worked and we got the bike fixed - but next time Chris please think about buying something more standard! The scale of the mountain bike event however was enormous and made an impressive distraction. I took the following video of some risky trial cycling. Although you only see one person there were actually two people on the ground with balloons between their legs and both balloons were burst simultaneously...

Chris getting his bike fixed at last...

We stayed in a camp site at the foot of Alpe d'Huez with the rather long and forgettable name "La Rencontre du Soleil". It was fine because it was where we wanted it to be and they took on-line bookings which guaranteed us a pitch location for the tents. The only problem there was that our stupid neighbour had brought a dog and it had fits of barking during the night. I wished I had a machete to lop its head off with. How dumb does someone have to be to keep an entire camp site awake with their stupid dog and do nothing about it?

Pasta Party Crash
In the evening we met up with Justin and Paul from last year and their friend Michael an ex pro who had previously done the Marmotte in 06:42hrs - a time that none of the rest of us could even dream about. Chris and I basically gate crashed their pasta party and we were well looked after with excellent hospitality. If anything I ate too much - if that's possible before a challenge like the Marmotte. I wasn't stuffing myself out of greed but out of pure worry.

Race Start
Race morning was quite chilly so we both took extra layers - me just a body wind breaker and Chris a full sleeved windbreaker. I prefer the sleeveless one because I don't like trying to remove a sleeved jacket while cycling. This was probably a wrong move because a lot of the time it was windy and surprisingly cold. Prior to the race we had found a cafe to warm up in while everyone else was queuing and so had a nice relaxing moment. There was no way that we were passively going to join the end of the monster queue so when we arrived there we got off the bikes and casually walked up the side of the river bypassing hundreds, perhaps thousands of people without hearing a single objection. Eventually we were spotted by Justin and company, who called out, so we figured that it was perhaps reasonable to break off the queue barging mission and join them instead. I fumbled around with the stupid Endomondo app on my mobile phone trying to get it to run properly - which it didn't really in the end. First of all the phone had to be switched off and re-booted, which took ages and we had started to move by now. Next the phone refused to give me audio feedback. The phone was collecting heart rate data but stopped as soon as the race started. GPS, speed, altitude etc however were logged throughout the race and as an experiment the internet connection had been turned off to see how the battery coped for a monster workout. In the event - over a period of 09:30hrs the battery still had 27% remaining - which is quite impressive. When there is a reliable app available then this will definitely replace the dedicated Garmin unit. Meanwhile I was very glad to have the Garmin - with its spare battery attached. All this extra gear is probably not sensible when setting out to climb 16,400ft but there is nothing sensible about any of this for that matter. Before leaving the cafe it was essential to pay that extra visit to the loo - but I was rocked by the "world falling out of my bottom" so to speak! Not a good sign only minutes before the start of a horribly gruelling physical challenge leading far away over the mountains .

I'd discussed with Chris the fact that I was not going to go hard at the start of the race. Last year doing just that had led to bonking early on and the entire Telegraph, Galibier and Alpe d'Huez had to be climbed in painfully slow survival mode. Chris had obviously listened to this because later he told me that he had paced himself too for the first time ever.  For Chris it paid off, but for me I'm not so sure there was even a choice. The volcanic start to the morning signalled a sore stomach for the entire race and probably dictated everything else.

Col du Glandon
Leaving Bourg the race starts along the flats of the Oisans valley for about 10km before starting the long haul up the Col du Glandon - the first major climb of the day. Half way up I was already forced off the bike to pee - and it seemed to take forever. So I'm standing there pulled over at the side of the road desperately trying to relax enough to have a pee as hundreds of people file past me, then a woman rider just uphill drops her water bottle  - which starts rolling straight down towards me. She gets off her bike and comes running downhill straight towards me chasing her water bottle. How is it that fate organises events in this way?  This didn't help to encourage relaxation, but the job was done by the time Justin went by and called over to see if I was okay. We kept company then until the top of the col and my main focus was on keeping the heart rate below 155bmp - which meant deliberately slowing down on many occasions. Keeping  the  heart under 155bpm should normally guarantee immunity from bonking and so give an improved overall time - assuming that it also works out well tactically. With so many participants there was never any reason to become isolated for any length of time. During the climb we passed hundreds of people which was a bit surprising at this reduced pace. Some people however were already visibly struggling so goodness only knows how they would complete the course. At the top of the Glandon there was a complete traffic jam because it was also a refreshment stop. I decided to get off the bike and climb over the hill because I didn't need any water - the cold had meant that in the first 2 hours I hadn't drunk anything at all - being well hydrated before the start anyway.

Video link - climbing over the col...
(Macot shirt red/yellow/blue  and  white/black/red shorts - end of the first clip with the white Canyon bike.)

Intermediate times are registered at the top of this col and again at the bottom of the descent. That's because the time between the two is not counted. The road is open to traffic and the descent too dangerous to race down. You can race down if you want to but it only puts you at risk for nothing. Despite this there was a remarkable amount of carnage with ambulances scooping up bodies all over the place. It always amazes me how those ambulances seem to be there out of nowhere - I really don't get it.  On just about every bend there was someone repairing a puncture - that's another phenomenon I don't get either. The most memorable thing about the descent for me was that it was cold. I'd not really warmed up even on the climb - hence not drinking - but now it was uncomfortably cold. Cold doesn't normally affect me in a race so I'm putting that down to being a little bit under the weather and also perhaps a bit tired in general. In addition to lack of sleep in the camp site I'd not gone to bed until about 3am on a couple of nights during the week and also dealt with having to hobble around all week from serious muscle soreness from running - which only cleared up in time for the race. Altogether I'm not sure that I had the strength to go much faster during the climb and the descent was just uncomfortable with the cold and danger making it worse.

Nicolas Ougier  (no. 6)  Not wearing his Macot La Plagne jersey. (he placed 11th overall)

Maurienne Valley
The entire Maurienne valley is a long "faux-plat" - which means that you think it's flat but it isn't - it's climbing. Increased speed causes your overall climbing rate to be almost the same as when climbing a col. This is a vicious trap to fall into. Speed brings exhilaration and adrenaline along with it and you get carried away - removing any last hope that the next cols are going to be fun. I was not going to fall into that trap so the 155bpm rule was once again applied and for the most part it worked. With thousands of people on the road it didn't take long to be swept up in a large fast peloton where it only required a moderate workload to hang in. Only a couple of times was it necessary to let the heart creep up to 160bpm for a couple of minutes to stay with the group on uphill sections - but nothing punishing.

Col du Télégraphe
Right at the bottom of the Col du Télégraphe, still on the main road though the Maurienne valley in St Michele en Maurienne, there was a second drinks stand - but once again there was no need to stop. The plan now was to stop at the top of the Télégraphe as water was holding up well. I was more inclined to be peeing it out than consuming it. This was where my legs had died the previous year after making all the strategic mistakes in the book. This time the strategy had been impeccable - but once again there was not much juice in the legs. That's when I realised that it was the 82 kilometre mark - exactly where my legs had let me down the previous week. It's almost as if it doesn't matter about the power output - it's the distance itself dictating when the legs are going to hurt. Coincidence may be the most significant parameter in all of that, but this is becoming a fairly regular occurrence. People filing past in droves gives a clear signal that something is not quite as it should be. For about 8 km this continued though most of the people overtaking were not making a great deal of headway. Very oddly this situation completely changed for the last 5 km of the climb. I accelerated and started overtaking everyone in sight with the leg discomfort disappearing and keeping the heart below 160 bpm even at the strongest effort. The plan had been to ramp up the effort about now anyway so it looked like it might be working after all. Stopping at the top of the Télégraph it was impossible to get water. There were a couple of taps and long queues of people waiting with impossible patience to get their bottles filled. There was absolutely no way I'd be joining a queue like that. Mumbling abuse at (the organisers) I got back on the bike and set off downhill to Valloire - a brief descent before starting the major climb up to the Col du Galibier. Right at the bottom of the descent in Valloire itself was water trough and fountain with nobody there! What a relief. The bottles were rapidly filled and Isostar tablets added. There was eventually a large official refreshment stop a few kilometres further on but this hadn't really been made clear and the impromptu one was better anyway.

Col du Galibier
The climb up the Col du Galibier is just a pure grind. It goes on forever. The only thoughts in your head are along the lines of "When will this stop?" or "Why am I doing this - it's horrible?" or "I'm a free human being I could just stop cycling forever - I really don't have to do this." 

During this climb it was impossible to recover the form that had appeared at the top of the Télégraphe. Instead of things improving they started an irrecoverable slide towards increased entropy (you can look that one up!) It was starting to become difficult to keep a heart rate above 140bpm but with some effort it was still possible. This seemed more like a pure tiredness and mental issue not bonking. The sore gut and need to pee were still there too. The second part of the Glandon is where you first start seeing signs of people cracking - cramping, bonking, stopping. Gaining altitude the number of people stopping at the roadside increases almost linearly.

I really wanted water refills at the top but it was another utterly disorganised mess so it was not worth stopping there other than to put the wind shield on again for the descent. Next drinks refill would have to be at the base of Alpe d'Huez - but again it was not hot and so I wasn't drinking much.

Descending from the Galibier is pretty horrible and it goes on forever. There was a very powerful and cold head on wind. This made it impossible to take the hands off the drop bars to sit up and relax a bit. There is a great deal of tiredness immediately after a major climb like the Galibier/Télégraphe so concentration is already difficult without being buffeted by the strongest wind I've ever encountered on a bike. The descent also has several very long and badly lit tunnels that require skilful removal of sunglasses at 70 kilometres per hour and careful placement of the arms into the air vents of the helmet - just as all goes black in front of you. The organisers had issued free led lights for everyone - probably as a legal requirement - but not many brought them. It has to be said though that those using them in the tunnels were much more visible and it did make it easier to judge the distance from them instead of running into the back of them. Arriving at a flatter section I had to stop and pee again and sure enough relaxation was a long time coming. It seemed like a million people overtook me while I was standing there waiting for nature to function properly. Back on the road I let a lot of people shoot ahead of me instead of battling into the wind. Even in descending this wind was a struggle. Eventually during this endless descent I started to recover a bit and so joined in with a few others to press on. This was good timing because it made it posible to settle with a fast group in time for arriving at the long straight valley floor plateau and the grind along the flats to the foot of Alpe d'Huez. I sat behind the group at 35kph all the way to the next refreshment stand. So far in around 8 hours of effort I'd only drunk 2 litres and continued to pee - which is odd.

Alpe d'Huez
This is the climb everyone dreads - because they have already covered 160km and 4000+ of climbing and by now it is very hot at the bottom of the valley and out of the wind. Yes from cold to boiling in the space of a few minutes due to the orientation of the hills to the sun and wind. The start of the climb is at 14% gradient and for the first kilometre this only lets up on the apex of the switchback bends. After the second switchback I came across one female cyclist lying unconscious on the ground - being supported in the recovery position by someone with a very worried look on his face. Others were calling the emergency support number which we were all issued with on an information card to carry with us. Further up the mountain there were increasing numbers of people struggling and stopping. The entire climb was animated with the constant wailing of police and ambulance sirens going in both directions - constantly. It was however unbelievable that the road was not closed to public traffic. You would think that the passage 8000 people would merit priority at least for one day of the year. At the start of the climb I was still fine and plodding along as on the previous climbs - having given up hope of stepping up the performance again. 08:10 hrs into the exercise and 01:20 hrs from the end my heart rate dropped and decided not to come back up again. It wasn't a real bonking it was just tiredness with no will left to change the situation. During the Alpe d'Huez climb you can see the top from miles below and it is extremely disheartening. You long to be up there at the end already but dread the battle ahead that you know can't be avoided. Just to rub it in, about 5km from the top we were met by that violent wind again - mostly head on and chilly. Sometimes I couldn't tell whether I was hot or cold any more. I skipped the final drinks stand having filled two bottles at the bottom of the mountain and being certain that this would last until the top. It had become a game to make myself drink at each of the numbered switchbacks on the way up - figuring that it was better to have the liquid inside me rather than be carrying it up there in the bottle. Anything to take your mind off the pain and discomfort of turning the cranks when you don't seem to have a low enough gear any more. With one kilometre to go I decided to test myself to see if my difficulty was completely physical or partly mental and so I accelerated strongly. Picking up speed I was able to keep on getting faster right up until the end - but looking at the heart rate monitor data the heart rate was not getting above the 150s even with this big effort. There just wasn't much left to give.

I finished feeling depressed and disappointed thinking that I'd performed even worse than last year despite a lot more preparation. I didn't hang around at the end for the disgusting food so just recovered for a few minutes and then headed straight down to the camp site. The descent was cold and very windy again and by this time I was thoroughly fed up braking and having a numb left hand. Chris was already packing at the campsite having finished earlier and we were out and on the way home as soon as I could get a shower and pack the tent.

Ultimately the result wasn't a total disaster. My official time (which cuts out the descent of the Glandon)
was 08:57:26 which was 31 minutes faster than last year. Amazingly this got me 2:34 mins inside the gold diploma time. I found that amusing for such an off day and bad performance. My placing was 3004 out of 6232 finishers and 308 out of 712 in my age group. Apparently I lost over 1000 places after crossing the Galibier and had been doing reasonably well up until then. That pee stop was a bit lengthy!

Chris did extremely well after pacing himself and came 1128 overall and 86 in the same age group with a time of 07:48:56.

Justin, who I'd thought was behind me and was expecting to see again as I slowed down, was somehow ahead of me by 15 minutes at the end. I've no idea when he went past - but records show that at the bottom of the Glandon descent he was 5 seconds ahead of me - and I really didn't see him. Perhaps If we'd stayed together it would have given us a both a bit more motivation and mental distraction (from pain) to work harder. Justin just missed his category gold by 2 minutes with an overall time of 08:42:56 (Though the online certificate does say "Gold!")

Michael the ex pro apparently went out too hard (probably imagining that he was still at his pro level) and bonked on the Galibier making himself very sick - so he had a pretty miserable time altogether. It did cross my mind that perhaps he might have had stomach issues too as we had eaten together but we didn't meet up again to discuss the matter.

On descending from Alpe d'Huez I spotted Paul climbing - just the same as last year - but was just too late to call out to him and try to encourage him. Had he not been in a shadow at that point I'd have spotted him earlier.

I'm still way too fat - need to eat much less. Saddle needs to be raised higher. Need to sleep more.

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