One of the main benefits of both fasting and a ketogenic life style is that it gets you from a size XXL jersey down to a size M in a matter of a few months! The size M even looks slightly baggy here! Today would be another test of ketosis over a long course of 166 km. The “Bosses du 13” (department 13) is a tough race with lots of climbing even though it takes place close to the Mediterranean sea. In the past I’d only attempted the middle distance of 134 km and always finished it suffering – so it was relatively scary going for the long course and on a very low carb diet. Every time I put ketosis to a test like this I expect it to fail. One of the rules of this race is that a Voiture Balai (sweeper up van) would come along at an average 20 kph and eliminate anyone that it passed. With steep climbs totalling close to 3000m that might include me! I’ve had one close encounter with a friendly Voiture Balai in a smaller competition before but this one appeared to be particularly aggressive and needed to be avoided at all costs.
I arrived in Marseilles at the University “Campus de Luminy” on Saturday to register for the race. There is a large amount of secure parking area there so that makes an overnight sleep in the car the idea solution for this event. My eventing meal was just bought from a supermarket because I wanted to eat “high fat” and to avoid carbs as much as possible – which is not easy in a restaurant. Eating this way also left me a lot of time to relax and organise everything without stress – and to get to sleep very early for the anticipated 5:45 AM early morning rise. We needed to be at the start for 7:30 AM but although getting up at 5:45 seems like ample time it really isn’t! There’s always a lot more to do for good preparation than expected. The night was mild – around 20°C – which made a relaxing change from the cooler temperatures of the Alps. This also made me decide to wear only one layer for the race and to not carry any additional clothing. During the eventing meal I ate lots of cream, cheese and nuts and in the morning I would eat a full breakfast cooked in coconut oil (for MCT –Medium Chain Triglyceride fats) and eat a good quantity of nuts. I had my coffee mug ready with its ground coffee inside and built-in filter – with a glass bottle supply of filtered tap water (to remove chlorine). I use our old stainless steel pans for this type of cooking as they are less toxic than aluminium camping pots – but not as good as iron – which would just be too heavy for on-the-go cooking in front of the car. It was still so dark that everything had to be done with a head-torch. One of my two extremely powerful Chinese head torches is still working after several years! Careful eating didn’t prevent my ketosis (acetone) breathalyser from registering zero just before the race! This was slightly annoying because earlier in the week I’d been registering a very high level of ketosis and would have preferred it to remain this way for the race. I suspected a few dietary issues weren’t adding up too nicely regarding the proportion of carbs, despite strong efforts to avoid them as much as possible. The breath testing unit that I use isn’t designed for low levels of detection and a zero reading can represent anything from 0 up to 1.7 mmol/L of acetone (blood content) – with 0.5 mmol/L being already inside the Nutritional Ketosis range – so I was no doubt still well within ketosis (producing ketones from fat burning) and the large dose of MCT oils would ensure ketone production within the next few hours regardless. It would be over 3 hours into the race before I would attempt to eat anything so it was important to get this right.
Before the race start I saw Jacques Matt who was entering the 134 km race but there was no sign of Chris who was cycling to the start from his hotel about 10 km away. I knew Chris would arrive either at the last minute possible or be late. It’s extremely difficult to juggle all the balls he keeps in the air – business, entire family with him and race demands – all simultaneously. Unfortunately the organisers here left no margin of tolerance as everyone had to be manually checked in at the start from the campus. Despite the start being delayed there was still no sign of Chris. I had waited at the back of the hundreds of participants but couldn’t spot his distinctive Macot jersey anywhere. The 94 km race had its own separate start lane with about 1000 entrants and would start about 10 minutes later than us. The 134 km and 164 km (166 km in reality) started mixed together and the bifurcations for each separate course was at 58 km the 94 km peeling off to the left first and the 164 km peeling off to the right about 100 m further on.
The start was in two parts – everyone just had to get going and ride downhill out of the campus for about 3 km and then along the main road for a bit to the “official” start at the foot of the Gineste climb. I decided to start my own timing from the moment I went through the campus gate – which would give me sensible kilometre readings. This was a good move because the organisers did the same – matching our times almost to the second – despite their claims of an official start 8 km away. I’d pause the counter at the stop for the official start – but that was only a 2 minute stop anyway – not even enough time for a last minute pee! (I then went through the entire race sort of wanting to pee but not quite getting there.) My intention was to hop up onto the pavement at this point and move right up towards the front – and sure enough Chris was right there in the middle of the bunch right up were I’d expect him to aim for. No point starting way at the back and missing all the advantages of a fast peloton! There are a lot of people start with “priority numbers” to try to claim this advantage – but asserting your way forward in confusing situations like this is much more efficient. I knew I wouldn’t see Chris again until after the race but it was good to know that he made it. While we were heading down the hill to the official start there were numerous individuals cycling as hard as they could uphill against us to try to get to the manually recorded start. Hopefully they were all signed in. The tolerance level of the race start combined with the vicious Voiture Balai makes for a less than friendly event for some.
When the race kicked off I could feel that not only was I not warmed up properly – but there was no “carb buzz” to help me over that and the legs didn’t feel strong. This is clearly partly an illusion (or I have lost a lot of muscle from fasting) because my heart rate was hitting 172 bpm within minutes and I even hit 176 bpm for the first time in three years. (So my max cycling heart rate has to go up from 174 bpm to 176 bpm). When Jacques Matt overtook me before the top of the climb I resisted any temptation to chase him – thinking of the long game and the fact that I was on a longer course with more climbing. It’s easy to blow up at the start by overdoing it. The problem here is that if you don’t move you don’t get in a fast peloton – and I was about to pay the price for that. Once over the initial 3 km climb there is a long faux-plat which is always hard work. I ended up isolated with one other guy. We automatically started to work hard together in rotations to catch up with a substantial peloton about 100 m ahead but no matter how hard we tried it was impossible. Close to the end of this stretch we were then swallowed up by another peloton coming from behind us – so all that work was simply wasted. You have to treat those things philosophically – it was all a very good workout!
From this point onwards I managed to keep a fairly steady heart rate of around 160 during climbing but my speed of climbing was steadily dropping. Despite a good cardiovascular effort the legs didn’t feel very strong. This is probably due to the muscles still at some level not being fully keto-adapted. When you first go into a ketogenic state the appropriate ketones produced are used by the brain and the muscles can’t make use of them. The more acetone that is detected in the breath then the more ketones of the right type are also supplied to the muscles. I’m not sure of the fine details of this process – but there again I’m not sure if anyone is. The tail off in speed can be seen during the first hour and twenty minutes of the graph below…
When speed picked up after 1 hr 20 mins as the gradient leveled off then a peloton started to form around me and grow – so when we hit the next small climb at about 1 hr 40 mins then we kept a good speed up this climb. It was at this point, going up that hill, that I heard a security motorbike coming up quite fast from behind. Nothing unusual with that – but as he went flying past there was a bunch of cyclists right behind him! The speed was unbelievable! This was clearly the lead group for the 94 km race which had caught us up just a bit before the course bifurcation. When we arrived at the first bifurcation it was announced by a man with a crappy Tannoy – in French numbers – which made him completely unintelligible. Fortunately the tiny road signs clarified the situation and I went straight on and so did the entire peloton. The next bifurcation was only a short distance ahead and this time it was a policeman on the Tannoy and luckily I did hear the words “Soixante Quattre” and “Droite” – but it didn’t sink in quickly and I couldn’t turn off anyway because I had a big peloton of about 30 individuals mostly on my right side all going at about 35 kph! I had to stop and wait for the group to pass then make a U turn. The entire peloton had continued and I was the only one to go on the long course! That felt pretty weird! For the most part of the course then – over 100 km – it would turn out to be mainly a solo time trail. I’m used to doing workouts like this anyway so that’s not a problem – but it felt a bit lonely nonetheless. Fortunately one or two guys were visible up ahead in the distance so it wasn’t a complete ejection from the race atmosphere and motivation. Those guys somehow seemed to be affected by this too because they had slowed down significantly – as if they had decided that the race was over. My momentum was still going strong here so I caught them up but eventually – on this longest climb of the day – it ground down to an eve slower pace than earlier in the morning. On the graph from about 2 hrs 10 mins to 2 hrs 50 mins the slow climbing pace can be seen as a continuation of the steady decline in speed from the very start of the day. The air temperature had been fine the whole way – slightly warm but chilly in places. By the time the first big climb was over 3 hrs into the race all my water was gone and I was getting thirsty. I knew there as a feeding station somewhere on the plateau at the top so kept an eye open for it. It was now about 3 hrs 10 mins into the race and I managed to eat the first small chunk of coconut just before the feeding station. Coconut is not easy to eat as it doesn’t dissolve in the mouth and if you breathe at all through the mouth you inhale the bits of coconut in your mouth and spend the next five minutes coughing them out. I could feel that I needed to eat but had no actual energy dip. My heart rate and effort level had remained very constant despite a very gradual slowing down in climb rate. The guys I’d caught up earlier on managed to overtake me again and disappear before the top of the big climb (Col de l’Espigoulier)– but I’d see them again at the feeding station. Given that my body now had a significant “carb debt” I knew that carbs could be consumed at the feeding station without impairing ketogenesis. I must have drunk about seven cups of fairly strongly concentrated Isostar while my water bottles were being filled by some kind helper. The carbs did seem to buck me up. When your body has a large carb debt during endurance exercise then eating some carbs will apparently not interfere with fat burning or ketone production within the body. Apparently you get the advantage of both fuels.
Our course now had a descent and a loop ahead before climbing back up to the same feeding station and the summit following that. The guys who had overtaken me were not strong descenders and as I felt quite lucid I was able to attack the descent quite strongly. One guy remained not far behind so at the bottom of the descent – realising that there was a fairly long faux-plât against the wind I waited for him to catch up to share the work. He gave a big smile as he caught up – fully appreciating the gesture. Drafting allowed us to keep up a high average speed for the next twenty minutes or so. From the bottom of the second big climb of the day, returning homewards from our loop I just signalled my thanks to the other guy and told him I’d slow down and take my own time on the climb. Off he went ahead and disappeared from view – catching a few others on the way. Although there weren’t many on this long course there were always one or two others visible. One thing that struck me at the bottom of this climb was that my thinking was still clear and effortless. Normally, on a high carb diet, the brain is in a fog by this stage. When the 100 km distance was announced in my earpiece it was bang on 4 hours from the start. This meant that after 5 hours this is where the Voiture Balai would be. If I made it to the top of the big climb before 5 hours then I’d be safely on a long fast descent away from this dreaded van before it had even arrived at the start of the climb. It was important to have worked this out because I did not want to be declassified. After about 4 hrs 30 mins , before getting over the steep part of this climb something odd happened. On the Granfondo even in Les Deux Alpes the same thing happened – there suddenly seemed to be more energy and strength available – and so I accelerated – rapidly finding, catching and overtaking the other guys who had pulled away from me half an hour earlier. From this point onwards until the end of the race the shift in energy would remain constant.
For the final two hours of the course I would catch people and pull them along – against the wind - until eventually dropping them on climbs. Speed remained consistently higher than in the morning even on steeper climbs. I had taken more Isostar at the feeding station at the top of the big climb – but the acceleration had started before that. I also drank some more when we had to go through an obligatory control point at another feeding station later on. The main thing however was to avoid dehydration. Each time I drank Isostar when stopped and then just pure water on the bike. Altogether I managed to get about three pieces of coconut in my mouth – usually when actually feeling hungry. It was just too difficult to get the stuff out of a pocket and delivered to the mouth! On the final two kilometres of the big climb I’d spotted a guy about a kilometre ahead and could see that by staying on the big front chain-ring he was being reeled in rapidly. He remained ahead when starting the descent but before long I’d caught him on the technical and tight descent. He then drafted behind me for the next 25 mins as I kept the power on going up more faux-plâts – until with no real drop in speed the gradient really started to ramp up. He was dropped there and then someone else came in sight – and he was swallowed up on the next climb.
The toughest part of both the 134 km and 164 km courses is the final hump back over the Gineste to the end. This section starts with a steep climb up from the resort of Cassis then tapers into a very long gradual climb –always against a strong wind. I felt great! I was catching one guy after another and only one managed to stay in my slipstream and get relief from the relentless headwind. He stayed with me right to the top and when he came alongside he made a point of thanking me for helping him up the climb. I had tired myself pushing against all the elements so just let him pull away on the descent back down to the university. The final 3 km is a gradual climb, finishing with a short steep climb right at the finish line. Slowly I started to reel the other guy in again and then coming around one bend there was a sudden strong headwind that had almost stopped the guy in his tracks again. This meant that I caught and overtook him just before the entrance to the university. Once through the gates it was a bit of a confusing maze of signs to follow to the finish line but I was determined to use what strength remained to stay ahead – crossing the line 5 seconds ahead of my immediate rival. Later on I’d hear from Chris that in a similar battle for the finish line he had been hit by cramp 100 metres from the line and had to get off his bike – losing about 10 places to a whole team that was behind him! Chris had an amazing result about one hour ahead of me. My official time was 6hrs 40mins for 166 km with close to 3000 m of climbing – and the horrible Voiture Balai was over an hour behind! Only 196 people were in the classifications with anyone under 20 kph eliminated. There is no figure given for the number of eliminations. 196 for such a well publicised course is a very small number. There were close to 1000 on the 94 km course and 400 on the 134 km course – but on a fine day like this those numbers are even quite small.
170th out of 196 classed (no figures give for DNFs) in 6hrs 40 mins. 166km. Chris came 76th one hour ahead – the long course being his usual choice at this event.
After the race I ate a small amount of crappy pasta at the race meal but mainly just ate the cheese off the top. Likewise I ate the apple from an apple pastry and then went for a coffee. I felt very, very physically tired from the enormous effort over the final two hours – but oddly this didn’t feel like an energy drop. Ketosis has enormously altered the range of sensations that accompany endurance exercise and I’m still in very unfamiliar but extremely interesting territory here. Before, when burning carbs as the primary fuel I’d have been destroyed at the end of a race like this – in fact I never even attempted the long course at Marseilles and always hated the final Gineste climb. The feeling of power, mental strength and clarity over the last two hours is completely alien to me – excluding other recent similar experiences with ketosis.
After spending a brief moment with Chris and family at lunch I headed straight off to the beach at Cassis to go for a swim. The beach has been destroyed in the past three years with more and more noisy beach bars being allowed to eat up space on the the tiny beach front. This must be due to corrupt officials because no reasonable people would allow this to happen. The parking is now paying and expensive – it was free the last time I was here – but I tried to put all that nonsense out of my head – changed into swimming gear after parking up and walked under the road (tunnel) straight onto the beach and into the water. The water was great – soothing and delicious to float in after such a monster effort on the bike. I swam for about 10 minutes but decided not to tempt fate because violent leg cramps can strike at any moment after a bike race and that could be a problem in the water. There is a lifeguard station on the beach – but I’d rather not put them to use.
My final acts in Cassis were to shower, dress and then sit down at a café across the road from the beach and buy a coffee and Magnum ice-cream. Then I started to feel both recovered and good. My BAC was back up to 0.02% (above the legal driving limit if it was ethanol!) so my body was now strongly back into ketosis – despite any carbs that may have been consumed. At this point I was able to call Christiane and let her know that all was well and that I’d drive home (500 km) that night rather than hang around Marseilles. That way the Monday traffic would be avoided and I’d not have to waste a whole day driving. When I’d raced on carbs before I was not capable of driving that distance home afterwards simply due to overwhelming tiredness – even from the medium course!
View of Cassis Port
View of the little pebble-stoned beach being overrun by stupid, noisy beach bars.