Sunday, August 11, 2019

From the Archives - Riding La Marmotte - Part II


This is the second part of the heart-wrenching (for me) tale of racing La Marmotte, a 108-mile cyclosportive race in the French Alps I did in 2003. For the first half, click here.

La Marmotte Part II – July 5, 2003

At the halfway point, the race seemed to be going just about perfectly: after my audacious full-throttle ascent of the Col du Télégraphe, my heart rate was back down to a sensible 162 bpm, my average speed was 16.7 mph (seemingly on track to best that of the previous year’s winner), and I found myself in a small group of very elite looking guys, exceeding my own expectations.

There was just one problem: it was here that I cracked.

Something had given. Some bodily threshold had been exceeded. Something had gone wrong with the human machine. There was no sound of the transmission dropping out and landing on the ground, but I did feel that sudden loss of power your car suffers when, say, the timing belt breaks, leaving you just enough juice to get over to the shoulder if you’re lucky. But I wasn’t lucky: I had half the race to go.

Perhaps one day sports medicine will have everything figured out, and the exact cause of such a meltdown will be easily and precisely diagnosed. It wasn’t a blood sugar crash; I’ve had that and know what it feels like. This was different. I found myself struggling just to keep going. The short descent to the feed station at Valloire had become long, and felt like a climb.

Had I missed it? I asked a couple of guys in the group where the food was; actually, I tried to ask, but in my turmoil couldn’t form the sentence properly in French. Or maybe the words were right but the volume was too low. Finally a guy seemed to understand: he motioned toward his mouth and said “manger?” I think French wasn’t his first language, either. I nodded. “One kilometre,” he said. It ended up being two, and very long ones at that.

The feed station was a couple of card tables. The guys working it kept asking if I wanted water. They’d evidently not heard of Gatorade, the word I thought would best convey the idea of caloric drink. I started shouting, “Sucre, sucre!” and one of the guys finally got the point. He filled my bottles with a liquid the color of weak lemonade or dirty water. I grabbed a few handfuls of dried apricots before pedaling onward, beginning the bleak climb up the Col du Galibier. I cannot recall feeling more despondent, before or since. Where was my body, the good one that had worked so well? What was happening to me? And how could I possibly make it all the way to the finish, with the fearsome Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez still to come?

The energy drink was so weak I thought it might be water. I plodded along, already in my lowest gear, not quite believing what I still had to do. My legs were now impotent Wiffle bats, and either my heart wasn’t being asked for more than 145 beats per minute, or it couldn’t fill a bigger order. Everything had gone slack; pedaling hard was like trying to pluck a broken guitar string. I started getting passed by my competitors. Finding the road ahead too depressing to contemplate, I stared miserably down into the ravine off to my right, and saw an actual marmot down there. It was running, half tumbling, and I was surprised how big it was. Shaped like a groundhog, it was the size of a dog. It finally tumbled through a hole in the ground into its underground lair. Where could I go?

I ground my way up the climb, looking down occasionally at the switchbacks below, seeing rider after lone rider, the original packs having exploded long ago. Though many of my competitors looked as wretched as I felt, others had doubtless been pacing themselves, biding their time, and would finish strong. Occasionally I would marvel at how quickly I was gaining elevation—the Galibier forces you to—but at other times I would look up at the mountain ahead, the dizzying switchbacks, the increasingly stark landscape, and feel despair beating at my door.

It was an amazing road, very exposed, rather bleak but oddly pretty against the backdrop of formidable snow-covered peaks. As I passed above the timber line, vegetation became sparse and the air grew chilly. Though it had been hot on the Télégraphe, there was still snow up here. I ate apricots as often as I could (even in the cold air, the sweat leaching through my jersey had completely rehydrated them), and kept working on my bottles until they were empty.

The road narrowed. Signs posted by the race organizers taunted me with the number of kilometers remaining. The remaining switchbacks, of which there were quite a few, were all laid out before me, in plain view, a scaffold of fiendishly steep roads, like a parking garage, and I began to bitterly resent the very idea of subjecting humans to such a thing. This climb is sick, I thought. The whole enterprise seemed an abomination.

My calf muscles started cramping up, for the first time in my life. They threatened to go from pliant muscle to useless stone. Each time a calf hardened, I had to back off and let it recover, over and over. I was on the verge of panic, fearing my legs would lock up and I’d tip over.

Toward the summit, spectators began to appear. There is a certain breed of French spectator—maybe not even a breed but a single one, though I noted his presence often enough to assume a whole race of men—who is a connoisseur of suffering, who studies it intently like a sommelier sampling a fine wine. I encountered one such fellow, a small man with a dark beard, on the last kilometer of Galibier. To say he cheered me on isn’t exactly right: he saw right into me, touring my pain as if exploring a dark cave. To borrow from Poe:
Deep into that darkness peering,
long [he] stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams
no mortal ever dared to dream before.
He made a gesture, holding his hands low, palms up, fingers curling and uncurling, and murmured gently in French, making a throaty rumbling sound like the burbling coo of a pigeon. It was encouragement, to be sure, but scaled to the nature of my endeavor, so much more attuned than someone shrieking “Go, go!” or “Allez, allez!” I don’t know that I felt inspired, but at least I felt appreciated, that I hadn’t suffered unseen. 

The very top of the climb finally came into clear view, and I realized this was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen, on as perfectly clear a day as could possibly be. The distant snow-covered peaks looked like you could reach out and touch them. The atmosphere, completely free of glare, fog, and mist, seemed to shimmer somehow, and sparkle. And yet, I couldn’t enjoy it—imagine trying to take in a masterpiece of landscape painting while somebody strikes you repeatedly with a hammer. As I crested the summit, cheered by a large handful of what seemed, at least in my quasi-delusional state, to be a group of old French peasant women from the countryside, I felt that I would weep, if only I had the energy.

Once I began the descent from Galibier, I felt like a bike racer again. For maximum aerodynamic advantage, I didn’t put my jacket on. Sure, the air was frigid, but what’s a little cold when your entire body is screaming out in anguish? I took the curves good and fast, and though I only passed a couple of guys, I’m sure I extended my tenuous lead over many of the riders behind me. Moreover, I was going fast, and for awhile could forget how weak I was. I didn’t kid myself that the resting would do me any good—that would be like “fixing” a TV with a burned out tube by letting it sit awhile. But as the road flattened out somewhat and a group of six or eight guys caught me, I was able to do my share of the work and we were making good time.

It’s close to 30 miles from the top of the Galibier to the base of Alpe d’Huez, and I was relieved to be in a pack as we were fighting a stiff headwind. One of the guys in the group was massive—I reckon he was a Dutchman—and he and I took up the bulk of the work. Since powering on the flats uses different muscles from climbing, I was riding fairly well and my spirits improved a bit. (Going through tunnels in a group, by the way, is kind of a trip. Needless to say you have to have complete trust in your fellow riders; you can’t see each other too well in the dark and have to be very smooth. I enjoyed the visual effect of seeing only the silhouette of the rider ahead of me, like a paper cutout against the light at the end of the tunnel.)

Around 10 miles from Bourg d’Oisans (my grasp of distances, in fact of numbers in general, was shaky at this point), we hit a small climb steep enough to require the small chainring. To my horror, I threw my chain. A guy in the pack pushed me along while I tried to shift the chain back on. A nice gesture (if also pragmatic), but it was in vain. I had to stop to put the chain back on, and watched miserably as the group rolled away without me. Fighting the headwind by myself the rest of the way to the base of Alpe d’Huez, still with empty bottles, losing even more time to the crush of riders behind me, brought my morale all the way back down to Galibier levels, maybe even lower.

I rolled into the second feed station, drank a big bottle or two of water, and ate a million orange slices while a woman filled my bottle with Coke. This was the same woman, by the way, who served the hot lunch back in elementary school, whom I would watch slopping the food grumpily on the tray on those sad days when I forgot my sack lunch. The intervening decades have done nothing to improve her cheerless attitude. But then what was I expecting, Mary Lou Retton?

I hit the road again, pleased to have, at last, a full-strength sugary drink to help me up the climb. Then I remembered my emergency medical stash: two Tylenol and a NoDoz in my jersey pocket. I reached in there and felt around, and all my fingers found was a paste of completely dissolved tablets. I considered smearing this into my mouth, but it was hot now and I’d probably hurl.

Just before the road started to go up, a large pack of riders, maybe 10 or 12, passed me at a good clip. It was a menacing reminder that, poorly as I’d been riding, I still had a vast number of racers behind me and a potentially decent position to defend. My ride time at this point was a bit under 6 hours and 15 minutes. If (hypothetically speaking) I rode Alpe d’Huez as fast as I’d done it in training, my goal of 7 hours for the whole course was still within reach.

But of course I wasn’t going nearly as fast as before. It was a slog.

I can’t recall exactly when I got Ravel’s “Bolero” stuck in my head. Normally my brain chooses rock music as accompaniment for cycling. A short climb on a training ride might invoke the guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”; on a particularly fast team ride recently my mental deejay chose Beck’s “Loser” (perhaps for ironic effect); and on the Col de la Croix de Fer earlier in this race I’d somehow dug up “Gates of Steel” by Devo. I almost never get classical music. But the utterly repetitive, plodding dum-de-de-de-dum, de-de-de-dum, de-de-de-dum-dum-dum foundation of “Bolero” matched my cadence and my eternity of rote suffering pretty well. In fact, my fried brain left out most of the more interesting melodies laid on top of this backdrop, and created a new extended dance mix of just the dum-de-de-de-dum business. It was the quasi-musical equivalent of a prison sentence, and thus perfectly appropriate.

Rider after rider passed me. Looking for some vestige of athletic dignity, I made a habit of checking their numbers. A low number meant a high finisher last year whom I’d caught and dropped earlier—slightly less demoralizing than a high number, indicating someone who’d not finished high before, maybe a first-time Marmotte rider like me, and moreover someone who may have started well behind me, maybe even minutes behind me, who had paced himself perfectly throughout the ride and would use the entire Alpe d’Huez climb to pass people. The majority of the riders overtaking me did have low numbers, and were obviously classy riders I couldn’t be ashamed of losing to. But among them were also high numbered riders whose form wasn’t even that good, whose bikes were older and lesser than mine, who didn’t have team jerseys—riders I know wouldn’t be passing me had I not completely botched the race by going too hard on the Col du Télégraphe.

The switchbacks on Alpe d’Huez are numbered, in descending order as you climb, so in theory you can mark your progress, like a countdown. But this only helps when you feel like you’re actually making progress, like the distance between switchbacks isn’t stretching out before you.

Alpe d’Huez had a lot more spectators than the Galibier, but many were there to cheer specific riders, and others seemed to be observing the spectacle without really engaging with it emotionally. Sure, a great many did cheer, but I couldn’t help notice others who looked at me with pity. Others seemed to consider me almost contemptuously, as you would look upon a scabby, humiliated dog wearing a giant satellite-dish collar.

Here and there I encountered the connoisseur-of-suffering type, always a small, bearded Frenchman, always making the finger-curling gesture and the rumbling burble of encouragement. (Could it have been one guy, somehow zipping ahead on the course? Or maybe a hallucination?) In most cases what I was seeing was not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather a kind of restraint, as though spectators were thoughtfully letting me die in peace.

One fellow told me, in French, that if I would sit down in the saddle he’d give me a push. Unfortunately my sluggish brain only parsed the sentence some 10 or 15 seconds after the fact, so I didn’t sit down; even so, he did give me as good a push as possible without crashing me. The climb went on and on, and finally after the last switchback I knew I was near the end. At this point I saw two riders in my sights and decided to pass them. After all, I had to feel like I was beating somebody. I managed to get by them, but they weren’t exactly fighting.

Finally I reached the top. Alpe d’Huez had taken more than an hour and fifteen minutes, almost half an hour longer than it had in training. I hit the flat section at the top and began sprinting, not for any particular reason other than to get the last bit over with. There was fencing set up along the sides, and some turns, and thick crowds, and I did have the thrilling feeling of going pretty fast. Not because I was, of course, but because I was finally on a flat road—it’s the same phenomenon that produces the feeling of floating over the ground after you’ve been on a treadmill for half an hour. A couple hundred meters from the line I even had the presence of mind to zip up my jersey. The road was slightly downhill now and I flew toward the line, spotting Erin and my mom right there on the sidelines, cheering me on. I crossed over the black pad that stopped my timing chip, but was so disoriented I didn’t grasp its purpose. For some reason I expected some official to come wave a wand of some kind at my ankle. I tried to pose a question to the riders around me and got nothing but exhausted, blank stares. Finally I realized I was really done.

My family found me right away and my mom conjured up a ice-cold Coke.

I straddled my bike for awhile, trying to figure out what to do. I could barely stay up, but climbing off the bike meant lifting a leg high enough to clear the saddle, and I wasn’t sure that was possible. So I just slumped over the bars and mourned my awful ride.

I managed to dismount and collapsed on a patch of grass. I wasn’t even prepared to deal with the Coke. Erin was excited, figured I’d had a great ride, and had no idea how emotionally crushed I was. She asked me how it went and after I felt I’d regained enough composure to talk, I tried to answer her. But what could I say? “I blew it,” I finally said. A wave of feeling poured over me, something between relief, awe, and despondence. After six months of intense training, burning off more than 20 pounds of extra body mass, and all the psyching up for this one event, I almost had a brilliant ride but instead fell far short. What difference might better judgment have made? I was having difficulty explaining myself, and difficulty trying to eat, and eventually found myself sobbing into some orange slices.

Erin couldn’t understand. I’d looked pretty fast to her, having finished before she’d really expected me to—especially, she said, since the form and physique of the riders who’d come in before me seemed, to her, much better suited to such a course.

I lay back on the grass and Erin held a jacket over me to block the sun. She was a bit concerned. I didn’t look so good.

After I rested awhile I felt better, and after a kiss from my little daughter was able to smile a bit.

Even so, Erin insisted I get checked out in the medical tent. One medic looked me over and then called in another guy, a big bearded dude with yellow teeth and cigarette breath, who explained that my body was having trouble re-oxygenating. He talked for some time, and the odd thing is I understood everything he said, though he was speaking French at a very fast clip. He prescribed pasta. Within half an hour I felt well enough to pick up my diploma and medal, turn in my timing chip, and make it back to the car.

Looking back now, I’m not completely displeased with my performance. As badly as I blew up on the Télégraphe, I did manage to salvage the ride somewhat, and I only missed my (albeit arbitrary) goal by 23 minutes. And to have achieved the fitness I needed even to compete in such a thing is something I hadn’t done in 12 years. Now that I know the course, and what not to do, it seems a shame not to put that knowledge to use … so I hereby resolve to return to France one day to settle my score with La Marmotte…

My Stats

*I don’t have the rate of vertical gain for the Télégraphe or the Galibier... I was too shattered to remember to start and stop the lap timer on my altimeter.

  • The winner, Laurens Ten Dam, was from Holland and finished in 6:07:04, a new course record. [Ten Dam went on to ride for pro teams including Rabobank, Giant-Alpecin, and CCC, and finished 9th in the 2014 Tour de France.]
  • The second place rider was also Dutch, and finished only 41 seconds behind. (My wife, driving up Alpe d’Huez during the race, was able to watch these two duking it out.) Third place went to a Frenchman, 3½ minutes behind second.
  • The top woman finisher was French, 36 years old, and placed a very impressive 50th with a time of 6:55:19. There were 72 female finishers under age 40, and 36 who were 40 or older.
  • The top finisher in the men’s 40-49 age group was a Frenchman, age 42, who finished in 10th overall with a time of 6:29:14. The top men’s 50-59 was age 54, from Andorra in a stellar time of 6:49:35 (31st overall). The top men’s 60+ was 62, from France, in 8:03:04 (496th overall).
  • The youngest men’s finisher was 16, from France, in 10:00:43 for 2,475th place. The youngest woman was 20, from Holland, in 10:32:40 for 3,039th place. There were two 71-year-old men, one from Belgium and one from France, finishing in 11:50:47 (4,036th place) and 12:52:26 (4,457th place) respectively. The oldest woman was 48, from Holland, in 13:05:39 (4,486th place).
  • The last finisher clocked in at 13:49:40, an average speed of 7.9 mph.
One American beat me: a 42-year-old who placed 91st (20th in his age category) with a time of 7:07:21. I’d hoped to be the top American. But then, I’d hoped for a lot of things.

Here is a breakdown of where the 2003 finishers hailed from. (Not listed: the ~2,000 who dropped out.)

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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