Dig deep then dig some more

Introduction

After completing the Marmotte in 2014 I subsequently ended up on Sportcommunication the organiser’s mailing list. They run a lot of other events in their Cycling Classics France & Grand Trophee series including the less well known evil sibling to the Marmotte called the Tour du Mont Blanc. Later that year I remember the first time I received an email promoting this ultrasportive - self titled as the world’s hardest one day event. Immediately laughed at who would be insane enough take on a 330km circumnavigation of Mont Blanc with over 8000m of climbing including nine climbs of which 5 are HC’s in under 20 hours. It doesn’t even stay in the one country as you start in France and move through Switzerland and Italy before returning to the start. Only run since 2010 it has quickly garnered a reputation as one of toughest events on the European sportive calendar.

Fast forward two years and I was at a work team building day where we had a motivational speech from Gerry Duffy a relative endurance novice who went on complete 32 Marathons in 32 consecutive days across each county and then won the DecaIron, which involved 10 consecutive full ironmen over 10 days. I had always wanted to try one of the long distance ultra or iron man events but had never found something to inspire me to do the required training as I hate running on concrete and my swimming has gone backwards following a shoulder dislocation mountain biking. I thought my chance of attempting this type of event was over but with my head still filled with Gerry’s mantra about making the impossible possible I coincidentally opened my email two days later and there was an email promoting the next Tour du Mont Blanc. Light bulb moment and off on the next challenge.

My 2016 attempt was doomed as I got a virus a few days before. Did start but knew on first climb the tank was empty and it was going to be a short day. Having a chance to see the course and route I realised that even in full health it was a massive challenge. Initially I had no thought of going back immediately for a second crack thinking I needed a bit more long distance experience but after an injury free winter with a good endurance base, a trip to the Dolomites booked a month before to have the climbing legs in gear and holiday plans working out it became a now or never as with the kids get older I’m getting less free time instead of more.

Even though I had been unwell last year I felt I had unfinished business from last year and the longing to go back and finish the job had increased instead of waning over time I cheekily looked for an extra permission slip from my long suffering ”cycling widow” wife as I had already got a trip to the Dolomites. I floated the idea on the premise that the training was done and would save a further commitment in years to come. Think I caught her in a moment of weakness but maybe she just figured that having an absent puppy for a few days is a lot better than having to look at a sad and grumpy puppy. Like a lot of us with young kid’s time for cycling is hard to find and requires an understanding and accommodating other half for which I am most grateful to have.

Booked again with Velocamps who are one of the few companies to offer a supported trip. Ed laughed when he picked me up saying he didn’t expect me to back. Didn’t know if that was a good sign. Arrived the Thursday afternoon and met the tour group. Having been there before I was being quizzed as to what lay in store. I lied as I didn’t have the heart to tell them what really lied ahead. I had watched Rocky 3 earlier in the week and I could remember Clubber Lang’s (aka Mr T) response when asked by the commentator about his prediction for the upcoming fight against Rocky: “I predict pain”. Think this summed up what was in store

Event day

Got a few hours kip before the 3.15am alarm call. Had a communal breakfast and nerves in the group were evident. Knew how they felt as apart from my first sportive it is the only event where I can honestly say you wonder if you will get to the finish. I was trying to stay calm as I deliberately didn’t want to waste energy worrying and was trying to be mentally positive and kept telling myself I had done the training and for once was not recovering /suffering from some virus or bug. That meant no excuses! Need to have a glass half full rather half empty mentality for this type of event as any negative thoughts are amplified out on the road.

Completed the last-minute checks, packed the day bag which had enough stuff to survive a week in the outback and arctic and made sure I had helmet, shoes and last but not least water bottles which I have form on forgetting. Into the van and up the hill to the start line in Les Saisies. Weather forecast was good so decided to brave descent with minimal gear so put leg and arm warmers back into van. Only blip was that power meter didn’t work for some reason despite my last minute attempts to kick-start it back to life.

At 5am nearly 700 foolhardy souls were let loose like gladiators to wage war with the course. With the pre-dawn start it felt like I was in the opening sequence from the Kinds & Queens video by 30 Seconds to Mars as the DJ cranks up the music and the peloton is released onto the descent to Megeve. The descent in the dark is a unique experience and has a magical feel as the peloton becomes a giant red and white snake cutting through the hairpins at breakneck speed. You just have to accept the poor visibility, bumpy surface and go with the flow. Definitely not for the nervous. Did my best to keep near the front as the run in to Servoz is one of the few chances to get a group tow.

First 90km pass quickly as the route climbs up the route du Vaudagne, passes through Chamonix onto the Col des Montets before crossing the border into Switzerland at high speed and up the Col du Forclaz. The initial climbs are Irish type climbs with 400-500m elevation gain. Arrived comfortably at the top of the Col du Forclaz with nearly 2,000m of climbing done - a good Irish sportive completed. However, this is only the warmup as there are now five consecutive HC’s to negotiate.


Arriving at top of the Forclaz

Before these is the first descent where you can really go for it. The Col du Forclaz is 14k of dreamy descent down to Martigny. The road was redone for the Tour de France last year and it was just begging to get attacked. At home I tend to descend like a sack of potatoes as I have very little fate in the handiwork of Wicklow county council however when I get on the continent I seem to metamorphose into a descender that can hold their own. Given my height to weight ratio it is what I should be concentrating on! I was flowing through the hairpins in a near horizontal plane and was passing scores of cyclists until some Audi estate driver ruined my buzz and wouldn’t let me by for the last 6k.

Temperatures were rising in the high 20s as we started onto the Champex the first HC. This is a brute of a climb and is real leg softener. 11k in total as your rise over 900m at 8-9% with a 6k section over 10%. It is a climb with nothing to distract you as it passes through pastures/woods and you just have to grind it out. The Swiss camber the hairpins so you get no relief. When you reach the top you are rewarded with the stunning vistas over Champex Lac. Lunch was set up over the lake with superb views and on another day would be a great place for an extended stop.


Champex Lac – Think fishing is easier than this cycling lark

Over lunch there was a mini regrouping and we headed down the bumpy descent into Orsieres and onto the start of the Grand Saint Bernard. This is the biggest climb of the day (28k with 1650m elev gain) and has a fearsome reputation in the cycling world. One of the most historical passes in Europe having been used by the Romans and Napoleons army it was today suffering a Lyrca invasion. Looking up the valley is intimidating as the road stretches off into the distance as far as the eye can see. On last year’s event I immediately had a sense of deja vu and my father later confirmed we had driven across it in a Renault 5 on the way to the Ireland v Romania game in Italia 90. 27 years on and it is still instantly recognisable. I was hoping I would be looking back with equally fond memories.

Temperatures were up, the initial gradients are a gentle 5-6% with a few flat sections but it is still tough work in the heat. Simon my flatmate for the weekend has a similar climbing pace and we stayed together for the entire climb which really helped to break the climb up. Surface is good but it is a main road and traffic is heavy. As you get higher there are some long tunnel sections which are really claustrophobic but do offer some nice respite from the sun. After 20k of climbing the cars continue into the tunnel and you take a turn onto the old road up to the pass. This is where the real suffering starts. After a flat km, you turn the corner and the road immediately rises into a 7km slog at 9-10% to the Col. This section is really tough as the legs are tired and you never really see where the road is going until the very end. Passed one or two already walking up. Finally, you see the old hospice famous for the rescue dogs and you wish they would take you in. Unfortunately, there was no St Bernard Dog waiting with a drop of brandy in their barrel to revive tired cyclists.

Rolled down half a km towards the border with Italy for an extended stop to refuel. It is the halfway point where the lucky riders doing the relay get to swap over and pass the suffering on. 158km and 4200m done in 8hr 15 – bang on schedule. Unfortunately, one of the group has already succumbed due to back spasms which is a constant reminder you can’t take anything for granted. What goes up must come down and there is the reward of a 35k descent down to Aosta. The top section is just a hammer fest with sweeping turns and good visibility as I fly past cars at speeds up to 90k/hr. Reaching Aosta it is a humid 33 o C which is a big change from the 6 o C start. There was a welcome cooling headwind on the gradual climb for the next 20k to Pre St Didier. It is a bit like a long embankment (the real embankment and not the Billy Parker Marmotte version!). Arriving into Pre St Didier I was feeling good as this was where the wheels had come off last year and I was nearly two hours ahead of last years’ time. Quick refuel and onto the climb of Petit Saint Bernard.

Ed from Velocamps has said this is the climb that breaks the most participants. On paper at just over 5% average for 23k (1200m elev gain) it appears the easiest of the HCs but with 220 k and nearly 5,000m in the legs it makes any cracks in the armour turn into fissures. Unfortunately for me around a third of the way up the climb I started to feel off. Stomach wasn’t good and I was slowing down and struggling as some of the guys I had passed earlier overtook me. Got to Le Thuile and had a toilet stop and initially felt better but went 100 m and started to retch. Got back onto the bike and went a bit further but had to stop and get sick. Felt terrible and sat at the side of the road, couldn’t drink water and was wondering what to do next. Couldn’t believe this had happened out of the blue and that it was going to end like this. Tried to get back on the bike twice but still felt nauseous, got sick and sat down again. Just didn’t have the heart to ring the broom wagon but given the climbing left I was thinking I had no option.

I had stuck a post it note inside my phone cover with the phrase “dig deep then dig some more”. This was to act as some motivation in case I went through a bad patch or considered quitting. I had got a present of Cycology t-shirt with cycling phrases for Christmas and on the way over I had worn it. After reading all of them on the plane I felt this really captured what was required and would be good in any emergency situations.


Motivation!

At this stage I did consider ringing the van but the thought of that post it note inside the phone made me refocus. I knew if I made that call I was on the path to quitting and was basically left no option but the proverbial Rule 5 – HTFU. Forced myself to think that I would not be back to try this and it was now or never and as long as I gave it my all and failed I would accept that it was just beyond me but at least go down fighting. Instead of thinking about the finish I just started to concentrate on getting to the top of this climb and to take it from there. Reluctantly got back on the bike and started going. Still had 800m to reach the peak and every one of those metres hurt like hell. It was like the march of the cycling dead. I was like a cycling zombie with head down and pedalling squares. I could only go one to two km’s at a time and then take a five minute break.

Every time I stopped it seemed like the organisers on motorbikes stopped to check if I was ok and it felt like they were trying to entice me into the broom wagon. It was tough to resist but I kept inching my way to the top as if my life depended on it. Couldn’t drink or eat and was really worried I was going to go over the edge. The mind was just forcing the body to keep going. The broom wagon/van became the enemy as I convinced myself that sitting in the van looking out at others fulfilling your dream was worse than the pain I was suffering on the bike and in some strange way this kept me going. Don’t think I have ever been so single minded in my life. The only solace I could take is that there was carnage all around me. There were guys worse than me, some getting sick and others getting into the broom wagon which meant there was one less spot for me. Finally I arrived at the summit which is the border with France. All I can say is France you never looked so good. Got to the van and went for the emergency pack I had prepared for such eventualities. Knew I was on sugar only to the finish and I had two bottles of Lucozade Energy that I had frozen the night before. They were still cold and I gulped them down and started to feel better, 500 calories of sugar was like an instant shot of adrenaline and colour started to return to my face.

It should have comfortably taken me under two hours but had actually taken 2 ¾ hrs to reach the top so I was now in danger of not making the 8.00pm cut off in Bourg St Maurice. Didn’t have much time to hang around so loaded up bottles with electrolytes so I could try and recover on the descent. Also had a few jellies as it was all I could stomach. Straight into the descent. Rather than hammering down I was concentrating on fluid intake and manged to get 1l of electrolyte in. Had stupidly knocked Garmin off while it was charging on the decent so wasn’t actually sure how far to Bourg. With time ticking was getting worried I was cutting it fine but reached the checkpoint at 275km with 20mins to spare. Amazingly was feeling good again and was able to eat bananas and jellies at the stop.

Started into the Cormet de Roselend. The Roselend is a 1150m climb over 19k and has two long sections at 7-8%. Didn’t really know how body was going to react. I was feeling good but lots of guys started passing me like I wasn’t moving which was disheartening but kept to my pace. The first section is through a forest on crappy surface which just gets steeper. Just put my head down and kept the legs turning. Heart rate was surprisingly low, probably because I was half dead. Approaching the halfway point I was beginning to catch all the guys who had passed me earlier and saw a good few quitting and getting into support cars – a reminder that it all about the consistent pace. The forest ends and suddenly it opens into a huge open mountainous bowl of national Park. It is beautiful scenery and for long periods you have Mont Blanc framed between two peaks to distract you. The second half of the climb was probably my favourite part of the day as I had recovered from the gastric meltdown on the PSB, the scenery was fantastic and I had got into a really good rhythm. At the top the van was waiting. Sun was setting and was told to try and get as far down the descent in daylight as it very bumpy and twisting surface. Descent was spectacular with the sun setting behind the peaks and it just got dark as I went around the Lac de Roselend. It was then into an eerie descent in the woods towards Beaufort. It was crazy doing the last 15k of descent in the pitch dark.


Sun setting over Lac de Roselend

Finally got to the turnoff for the final climb up to the finish in Les Saisies. Stopped for a few minutes at the junction to have some food and mentally prepare for the final push. It was like Fawlty towers as there was a lot of people frazzled. There was one English guy crying on the wife’s shoulder saying he couldn’t go on. I was going to try and give him a pep talk and mention Rule 5 but decided to stay out of it. Hope he made as it would have been terrible to retire so close to the finish. After the PSB meltdown I knew my goal of getting home in under 18hrs was gone so I enjoyed the circus for a few minutes more.

Back on the bike and only 15k and 1,000m between me and the finish or so I thought. Strange experience climbing in the dark without a clue of where you are going. Was primarily following lights of other riders as I had no clue where I was going. As we approached the half way point I could see Hautleuce. We came to a turn and I unfortunately followed the lights of the only rider ahead of me. After two or three km’s was starting to get a bad feeling but saw a few houses in the distance so kept going. Eventually came to a T junction and the guy ahead had come to a stop. There was only a sign for the Col du Joly. All I will say is that I wasn’t too jolly. Quick check of google maps showed wrong turn had been taken. So close yet so far as they say. Descended back down with one hand on front brake and phone with google maps giving directions in other hand until I re-joined the route above Hauteluce. In hindsight that was pure madness. The detour had added 9-10k, some extra climbing as if there wasn’t enough already and I had lost 40 minutes with all the flaffing.

The van was waiting just after Hauteluce. They were about to send out the search party for me. Had a laugh about it but it was annoying. One last banana and onto the last section. Col markers were back like mini tombstones to warn you of impending gradient for the next km. My tombstone lottery ticket wasn’t bringing me much luck as they were all 7-8% instead of the wanted 1-2%. Surprisingly the legs were still good and I felt I could have kept going for longer.

At this stage I knew I was going to make it and started to get a bit sentimental and started to think about the journey to get to this point– from returning to cycling after a long hiatus by buying a bike in the back in 2010 to get fit following arrival of first son, being strong-armed at work into doing the Wexford Cycle my first sportive (and alongside this still one of my toughest days on a bike), the great spins/ adventures since I joined Orwell and a particular mention to the orange- red riders collective spirit to keep pushing middle agers like me to improve in a friendly but ever so slightly competitive way and to complete challenges like the Marmotte, Raid Pyrenees and Dolomites that I had only dreamed of.

Had to snap out of it as around 4k from Les Saisies the battery on my front light died. The lights had literally gone out but there was no stopping. I would have walked from there. After my eyes adjusted I spent the next 2-3k riding on the white line in the middle of the road as it was all I could make out in the moonlight. Finally into the suburbs of Les Saisies, and onto the main street. In my head I was on the final bends of Alpe d’Huez with the crowds cheering but the reality is it is midnight in a French ski resort out of season with everything shut. As you get closer there are shouts of support from other cyclists. Those final 500m were special. With the end in sight the body releases the lid on all the emotions that have been bottled up. Was able to find the symbolic big ring and power over the finish as the MC called out my name and country. I had arrived back nearly 19hours after I left.

At the line I didn’t know whether to celebrate or cry. It had been a long day and it takes a few minutes to reorient yourself as you have been in your own personal bubble for the last few hours and running low on everything. Ed took my bike away and I went to get my medal and finisher t- shirt. The finishing hall is more disaster shelter than party central as bedraggled cyclists pick at the remains of food from the buffet and wrap themselves in foil blankets to keep warm. There is a bit back slapping and nods to other competitors who have shared the pain. Like band of brothers we have suffered together and nearly all retreat to reflect silently on the achievement. I think I sat for 15mins in a chair trying to digest what I had just put my body through while clasping the finisher’s medal. Even though I was more lanterne rouge than maillot jaune that medal had been hard earned and in my mind was worth its weight in gold than whatever cheap alloy it is made from. The bars were shut so I couldn’t even get a celebratory pint.


All that effort for a medal!

The morning after was great as after the bikes were packed up, the champagne came out and got to celebrate in earnest. Like war heroes the tales of suffering were told. Everyone had suffered badly at some stage for different reasons and in general had pushed through to finish with an 80% completion in the group. For the record, I read there were 686 starters and only 412 finishers. 40% attrition rate in relatively good conditions sums up the challenge.

Reflection

My experience is probably best captured by the following quote:

“One small crack does not mean you are broken, it means you were put to the test and you didn’t fall apart” (Poindexter)

It may sound sadistic but it is more of a test than a sportive. The course is more designed to break you and tests you in many different ways - some expected and others unexpected. The reward and sense of achievement comes from finding a way to get through those tough moments. Having been so close to quitting getting to the end felt even sweeter as I had to push through a few mental and physical glass ceilings on the way.

Others will fly around the course (winner was 11hrs 40mins which is insane and a new course record) but based on my level just getting to the finish line and surviving the continuous trench warfare was the ultimate goal. At the end, I feel I can stand tall as I’ve joined the 1,500 individuals who have completed this event in it eight years of running. Don’t think I will be going back for more but best of luck to the next round of adventurers who take this on and happy to offer any advice.

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