In 3 weeks I am racing the Marathon World Championships through the UCI qualification process (long may it continue). I’ve been racing for 5 years, starting in Sport (the beginner XCO category in the UK) in 2007. Riding a bike seriously-ish for 8. I’m feeling like a duck out of water but I do like a challenge.
I’ve not done tonnes of marathon racing, so getting myself ready for this event was going to be a challenge. Not only do you need to be able to ride fast for 4-5 hours but you need to know what to eat and drink and when, how to get your bike ready, what shoes and socks to wear, how to prepare… there is a lot to think about. So I am going to tell you how I am preparing which is partially trial and error and partially carefully thought through. Judge for yourselves…
To get my mind in the zone I thought I would try something that to me was going to be even harder and more terrifying. At 125 kilometres and with over 5000 metres of climbing some say that the Grand Raid Cristalp may even be the hardest race in the world. I haven’t even been to the high mountains before let alone ridden my bike in them, in hindsight I have no idea what I was thinking!
I’m going to blame my companions on the trip Tim Dunford (Cannondale Racing) and Chris Pedder my team-mate for encouraging me to join them in their adventure which started off as a mega roadtrip across France. Accompanied by Lana del Rey we ate lots of Paul sandwiches and quiche before arriving in Verbier, Switzerland where everything is even more expensive than in London.
My first stab at riding in the mountains was quite pleasant, we pottered up the big hill and then found some interesting looking bike trails to get us down again. In the evening sun the singletrack had looked very inviting but we soon discovered that the Swiss are good at MTB for a reason and also that we were on a downhill trail on our carbon hartails. You do the maths!
4.30 am. Time to eat breakfast. I learned Lesson 1 here – don’t eat too much nutella and coco pops before racing.
6.30 am. Lined up in the town centre where there were a surprisingly large number of spectators and supporters. Jane Nuessli came over for a quick chat after remembering me from our National Marathon Championship earlier in the year. That was going to be the last I saw of her for the rest of the day.
We set off up the hill and I had a made five minutes trying to stay in the front group. After realising this wasn’t going to happen I decided to go steady and save my speed for later in the day well that, my chocolate fest was playing havoc with me. This meant that almost everyone seemed to pass me on the first climb or descent. ‘This was the plan’ I kept repeating to myself, ‘You can recover position on the descents’. Well that turned out to be madness too as the insane Europeans seemed to have skills and balls on dusty descents that I could never dream of. Lesson 2 – I am not as good at descending as I think I am!
Hours 1-2 pretty much continued like this. Feel a bit sick going uphill, feel a bit scared by the other riders going downhill.
Hours 2-5 I recovered myself and started to feel pretty good. I was working my way through my gel supply and there was loads of lovely lemon flavoured isotonic drink at the feeds. I started climbing really well and was gaining places all over the place. I was also motivated by all the amazing supporters out on the course. Having never heard the “allez, allez” and “courage” cheers before I continued to find it surprising how many people were out and about just for us racers (we need to work on this in the UK!). Unfortunately at this point two things happened – the temperature rose over 30 degrees centigrade and I ran out of gels….. (Lesson 3 – carry more gels).
Therefore hours 5-11 were rather tortuous as the heat got to me and my stomach decided it could not cope with solid food. Every time I ate a bit of bar I ended up fertilising the alpine meadows, much to the confusion of the onlooking cows. Lesson 4 – I am not good in hot conditions. I have to admit at this point I thought about quitting, but I had no idea how. We were in the middle of nowhere, my French language skills had completely disappeared and I did really want to finish, it just seemed very far away. Plus by now the good trails had started appearing and I was having quite (possibly a relative term) a good time racing a tandem and a couple of other girls who I would overtake on the climbs and twisty tree bits but who schooled me on the wider descents.
And then we hit the Pas de Lona. I have done the 3 peaks cyclocross twice and so I thought I knew hike-a-bike but this one is something else. I think it must have taken me hours to get up the scree like slope. I stopped so often it was ridiculous, but I had so little energy as for the past few hours I had only been eating bits of banana and drinking the odd cup of coke along with water (which I used to cool my head as well as keep me hydrated). After what seemed like an age I reached the top knowing only one little climb stood before me and a mega descent to the finish. I could do it.
The last descent was amazing. I was so out of it by this point (I was wearing my gilet despite the 35 degree temperatures – not a good sign) that I couldn’t be tense, so I sailed down the 10km of dusty, gravelly fire-road without any issue. Lesson 5 – being tense does not help skill levels. I knew the boys would be worried about me so I was eager to let them know I was fine, if a bit exhausted. Crossing the line I saw them and they both switched into caring mode. Chris made me drink loads and sit down in the shade and Tim washed my bike. Can’t thank them both enough!
After 11 hours I was pretty wrecked and vowed that the event was too long for me (I am potentially revising this decision now). But it definitely served its purpose – I had lots of pointers to take into my last race prior to the worlds the Kielder 50 mile.