La Bourgui – 10th National Ski Instructor’s Challenge

Ten Ways to be Sensible – and return straight back to bed
When the weather turns really foul it’s amazing how many excuses you can invent for not participating in outdoor events. Yesterday at the 10th edition of La Bourgui – billed as the “The National Ski Instructor’s Championship” (notably – ESF – French ski instructor communists) – my own list was growing quite long. This would be my second participation at the event and last year I had found it very hard, demoralising and just unpleasant – and that was in very good weather! This year my left foot had been killing me when cycling recently and the problem had become badly aggravated though running “barefoot” long distance. The issue was so bad that a possible abandon would be on the cards – unless I could manage to climb uphill pedalling with just one leg. To make matters worse I’d gone running a few days earlier, after a two week lay off from running, with cushioned running shoes. Although that didn’t seem to hurt the foot it did leave me with an appalling attack of d.o.m.s – the muscle soreness being so bad in the thighs that even a light touch with a finger was painful. Now, on the morning of the race it was debatable whether I’d just been woken up at 5am by the alarm clock or by the torrential rain hammering down outside. The other thing in favour of a quick retreat was that I hadn’t managed to register or pay online and so not only would I not lose a pre-paid fee but I’d avoid the more expensive 30€ starting fee that has to be paid for those registering at the race itself. There were a lot of good sensible reasons to go back to bed.

How to successfully avoid being sensible…
Perhaps the greatest appeal of those events is the fact that there is nothing sensible about them. I knew that if the weather cleared up later I’d be really annoyed with myself for not going – so there appeared to be no option but to go. The bad weather must have been a warm front because air temperatures were still acceptable despite the dense cloud cover. After breakfast, wearing waterproof jacket and waterproof shoes I loaded the car and set off just as dawn was breaking. The headlights of another car were immediately in my rear view mirror and it happened to be someone else heading for the same destination  – St Martin de Belleville only 32km away. It was reassuring that at least this madness was collective and I wasn’t completely alone. The drive was through pouring rain and dense patches of clouds at different altitudes. Moûtiers is at 483m altitude and from there it is a 20km climb up to 1450m altitude at St Martin de Belleville. The clouds were in layers at different altitudes so you would go though one dense layer where driving was difficult and come back out into clear air again. This didn’t seem to make much difference to the deluge that was coming down constantly though and we would have to descend back down though this freezing rain on our bikes soon – on partially flooded roads with gravel and possible rock falls washed onto it – with brakes that would scarcely work and tyres that might not grip on the turns. For me priority would be to stay warm and in control of my body as much as possible – having learned the importance of that at the recent Etape du Tour (Etape out of Hell) where over half the participants abandoned due to hypothermia.

Registering – familiar faces
Last year I remarked that there is no one in this race over 3ft 6ins or over 50kg – and this year it was not much different. It’s a race for mountain goats really and everyone else appears to avoid it. After parking up and registering by 7am in the centre of town (for an 8am race start) I headed straight for the neighbouring café for a final warm coffee before changing into racing kit and readying the bike. Inside were the familiar friendly faces of John and Carolyn Thomas (Mâcot-La Plagne club) on their usual family podium hunt and Jacques Matt who is the only Bourg St Maurice club member to turn up at races without fail – regardless of his physical condition. Everyone was being reasonable and going for the short 80km (1750m climb) course – except me – sticking to the principle that there is nothing sensible about any of this anyway so might as well do the 124km (3624m climb 11,900ft) course and be completely absurd. Last year it was this long course that I’d hated but the only way to find out if there was any improvement in performance was to do the same course again. With the short course having only one climb at the end I couldn’t just try and see if my foot would be okay and then switch courses. The switch would come before enough climbing had been done to see if the foot was bearable or not.

Race Start – Micro climate

Rain was pouring down at the start of the race. In front of me was one lightly dressed man shaking with cold already – how he would survive the 20km descent down to Moûtiers at the start of the race I really don’t know. I’d put on a base layer, jersey and proper waterproof jacket. In addition I had a membrane/fleece under-helmet hat on top of a wide bandanna (normally for stopping sweat running into the sun glasses) and neoprene full fingered gloves on top of normal fingerless mitts. I also had full arm and leg warmers and a waterproof covering for the shoes. The shorts getting soaked through and being cold was a worry – but there was no problem with that in the end. All this clothing seemed to create a small clothes based micro climate that sustained itself all day with only opening and closing front zips on the jacket and jersey. I never stopped to alter any of this because there was always a threat of having to stop again and reverse the decision as the weather remained unstable all day.

Descending safely though the deluge
People were suitably cautious on the first descent and although the front peloton vanished into the distance very quickly everyone else focussed on safety. Water was flowing down the road in parts and rim brakes don’t work too well in those conditions. I made sure to do all of the braking in a straight line before the bends but sometimes it seemed like it was already too late and that I couldn’t slow down in time. I’m sure that with good tyres (as I have) taking bends fast and less braking would have been possible but there was no desire to put this to the test. I don’t want to spend the rest of summer with a broken collar bone or worse – and most people seemed to feel the same way. Down in the valley however the skies were already clearing and after passing Moûtiers and starting to warm up the body properly from pedalling it felt great to be there. I knew then that the decision to participate had been the right one.

Painful Preparation
During the week before this event I’d managed one workout on the bike and a run. The cycling had once again aggravated the painful left foot even though I used my old shoes/cleats that had never troubled me before. I guess the damage was already done. A few days later I tried running again after a two week lay off since the foot flared up. The pain was on the outside edge (underneath) and near the middle of the foot and both running and cycling were aggravating it. To help with the running I used cushioned low profile Mizuno road running shoes – which allowed proper natural technique (more or less) but with the cushioning preventing any serious foot pain. This appeared to work and there was no increase in pain during the run nor any significant deterioration afterwards. I’d reduced the distance to a short 6km (1000ft climb) route but ended up running it in record time – all because of a mistake! I’d used the smartphone training app with GPS in “beat yourself” mode to run against the best previous performance. Right from the first kilometre the audio feedback told me I was 12 seconds ahead – so I got into it properly despite the lack of run training. Having had a good rest up until this point it was easy to focus properly on technique, coordination and cadence but the sponginess and lack of tactile feedback from being back in cushioned shoes was horrible. After the second kilometre I was 12 seconds behind and then started dropping even faster behind – so I started working harder but by the top of the climb was a full 2 minutes behind. Gritting my teeth I accelerated on the downhill – despite good form being difficult to maintain with the heels on the shoes almost preventing a forefoot landing on the descent. Eventually I managed to pull back over a minute of the lost time and finished only 57 seconds down. The time didn’t seem to be quite right though and then I noticed that I’d selected the wrong route and was actually racing against my bike which would have been climbing up towards Granier. In fact I’d beaten my personal best by 4 seconds despite a long lay off. The price to pay for this would be very sore muscles and the impossibility of recovering completely before La Bourgui.

Instead of just going in for the race and hoping for the best I decided to go by feel and actively try to reduce the pain in the foot. Direct massage was making things worse and ice seemed to do nothing. Ibuprofen removed the pain temporarily until the foot was used again – but I didn’t want to use painkillers in a race as that can be detrimental to many aspects of your system. If soft cushioning could make running possible then perhaps it would work for cycling too. I tried on several cushioned footbeds in a big sports shop finally selected one that had a big pad right under the sore spot on the outside of the foot and also a strong arch support. The footbeds were trimmed and squeezed into the cycle shoes. This would add weight for sure – but that was a minor issue in this case. I had no idea if this would work or even make the situation worse, but time would tell. I also found that my Speedplay cleats were on the wrong way around on my new shoes which made adjustment of the position impossible. The cleats were switched around and pushed as far to the inside as possible to make the load on the foot more to the inside – whereas it had been about central before. It was also possible that the high saddle and “toes down” action were contributing – the ankle being held stiffer and stronger as force is applied to the pedal  – but I really didn’t want to change that too and risk losing efficiency and effectiveness.

Returning to the race…
Basically I’d managed to do exactly the same as last year and get myself pretty much at the back of the pack from the start, never to see it again! The small pack I was in at Moûtiers turned out to be mainly people on the short course and so they would all vanish shortly after the start of the first climb where they would turn off and descend back down the valley. The first climb is quite demoralising because you think it is short but it isn’t. After about half and hour of steep climbing there is a sign saying “10km to Summit”. This sign would show up 3 times today and was always extremely unwelcome! The field was so strung out from the start that there was no overall change of position during the climb. I was overtaken by two people and overtook two myself. Last year I remember pushing really hard on this climb and paying for it later. This time the speed was probably higher but the workload seemed easier and heart rate averaged around 158bpm – which is not too excessive. I knew that the main difference from the previous year was technique – the high saddle position and the pulling up on the pedal with the core muscles being involved. Although I’d managed to use this to excellent effect on short hill climbs and even to get on a podium at Les Arcs I’d never managed to convert this into results in long endurance – which this was going to be. The positive thing so far was that the race was becoming enjoyable. The clothing had been effective for warmth on the descent and it was tempting to stop like some others and remove all the extra stuff – but this climb would eventually reach higher, cooler altitudes and be followed by another wet descent, plus the rain was not totally switched off yet. I kept the clothes on. At the tiny village of Naves (1350m) at the top of the first climb there were a lot of people out to cheer us on. With this being a dead end at the top it’s probably the only excitement they get all year. Once again the public were impressive in their selflessness for overcoming the bad weather to encourage others. The last few kilometres of road up to Naves were horrible with patches and bumps all over the place. This is the sort of section of road that is exposed to all the winter elements and might not even be open in winter as the main road up to Naves is on the other side of the valley which we would later be descending. One clever thing about this course is that all the climbs are on twisty narrow back roads but the descents are wide open and fast – when dry. The first part of the descent however is still very bumpy and somewhere along there I lost my second Zefal Air Control CO2 regulator in under a month. The stupid thing was well screwed onto a CO2 bottle which itself is screwed onto a holder attached to the bike. There was a big screw thread and it was on the upside so it would have had to unscrew a long way upwards! What on Earth makes that happen? It’s just so perverse. If I’d had a puncture it would have been a problem. Further down on the descent I stopped to assist someone who did have a puncture – but he had tubular tyres and had broken the valve on one when trying to inflate it. There was nothing I could do to help and once I stopped he kept on wanting to talk as I tried to get away – as if we weren’t in a race! As Sting says “No act of kindness will go unpunished!”

The flats from Aigueblanche to Cevins would have to be done as a time trial because as happened last year there was no one around to ride with. On the short climb at Les Léchères below the start of the Col de la Madeleine I was just going over the crest and starting to descend when the main peloton was coming up the hill on the return leg – already! Talk about demoralising! It didn’t get to me though as I felt good. Last year riding this leg alone had been depressing but this time I was enjoying the workout and relative dryness after the early morning deluge. Reaching Cevins, the mid point and turn-around for the flats I was caught by someone who I’d overtaken on the climb. He signalled that he’d worked hard to catch up but willingly worked his share of drafting until we got back to the climb below the Col de la Madeleine where he must have died because I never saw him again. (but thanks for the help on the flats whoever you were!) To my great surprise there were about half a dozen or so other riders descending, coming towards me just as I’d done with the main peloton. If I had been demoralised then they certainly had a lot more to be worried about. That cheered me up a bit!

From then on I was on my own for the rest of the race. Through Les Léchères, Aigueblanche and up the climb to Doucy (1250m) I saw only two people – the two who slowly ground past me on the climb. There is a very improbable small ski resort at Doucy which links to Valmorel. Despite living in the Tarantaise valley for many years the only reason I know this resort exists is because of this bike race! Already on this second climb my legs were not cooperating so well, heart rate was down to 154bpm, I was dropping through the gears and power was evaporating. Regardless of all of that I felt fine and still enjoyed the workout. At Doucy some locals were still out clapping and encouraging the stragglers. Each section of road was etched into my brain from the year precedent and was associated with one form of unpleasantness or another. This year seemed like a re-programming exercise as that slate of bad memories seemed to be in the process of being re-written with a much better and more positive script. It was weird how the memories came intruding into the mind at each turn and straight and how I could feel them being exorcised from deep within.

The foot had started to feel a bit numb on the first climb but then returned to normal. Astonishingly the adaptations had worked completely and there was absolutely no pain – even when standing up on the pedals. The d.o.m.s. pain had only been felt at the very start of the race until the legs warmed up. All the reasons that had piled up to try to prevent me from racing had proven to be fallacious and just a result of that natural instinct to avoid potential hardship instead of overcoming it.

The descent from Doucy was enjoyable and I was able to drink freely having refilled a bottle at the feeding station just before Doucy. I’d consumed a gel just before climbing and now another on the descent (plus one earlier at Cevins). All that sugar is pretty horrible but you just have to make yourself eat it. Aigueblanche was rapidly traversed and then heading up to Moûtiers the second guy who had overtaken me on the Doucy climb was coming back towards me having taken a wrong turn and ended up on the motorway. It’s a problem with this course because not all the junctions are marshalled and last year I also ended up on the motorway in the other direction. He seemed pretty annoyed with himself and tore off in front of me to make up time (in the right direction). He did seem to have the energy for it though and I didn’t. Lack of marshalling would make cheating extremely easy on this course – and I’m sure it has been done! After Moûtiers was the main climb of the day – 25km from Moûtiers at 483m up to Les Menuires at 1850m. Right from the start of the climb I was in the granny gear universe.

Endurance Scale
It has occurred to me that there should be a scale for “endurance” based upon each 1000m of climbing. Currently on the 1st 1000m I’m “Very Good”, 2nd 1000m “Good”, 3rd 1000m “Not Good”, 4th 1000m “Bad”, 5th 1000m “F****d”! Untrained riders would hit the “F” category on the first 1000m and the best would stay at “VG” the whole way. This year I went through VG to G to NG and to B on the last climb. Last year it was G to NG to B to F.

Each time the road flattened a little it was an excuse to move the gears back up and try to increase speed a bit. Working heart rate had dipped at the start of the climb but was now back up to 152 bpm though power output was simply not great – I’d slipped clearly into the NG category. Mentally things were fine and so I kept working. The smartphone GPS output had gone haywire some time back but the music kept playing until after 5 hours the playlist had run out. I’d listened to music the whole way because it was obvious that there would be no one to talk to and with the bad weather it would really help morale and to ignore various pains. After the music stopped it was however very nice to pull out the ear plugs and hear the world around me again. I took another gel somewhere on a plateau and the energy/protein drinks were doing fine. In total I’d drink less that two litres due to the cool temperatures. Only two people overtook me on the entire 25km climb but that’s probably because there weren’t many left out there. As soon as you slip from the VG category people start to overtake and the further you slip down the more guarantee there is of being overtaken.

The final drinks station was back in St Martin de Belleville and here I had one bottle filled up again and Isostar tablets dropped into it. From St Martin de Belleville it is still steep to begin with but then the climb flattens out on the main road. It’s great to be able to get some speed up once again and realise that the legs aren’t really dead. The last section up to Les Menuires however is a killer because you keep thinking that it is over and as you come around each potentially final bend there is yet another long steep straight lying ahead. Only in this very last section – reaching into the 4th 1000m did I feel that I was slipping into the B category and not enjoying it any more. “B” or “Bad” is when the legs still work in a weak but regular way but there is no enjoyment left and all you want is to finish. (F is when the legs have gone too)

Crossing the finish line is always a bit of a disappointment when there is nobody there! To be fair the rain was now heavy again and everyone was sheltering plus riders were arriving about 10 minutes apart now. It had really started to cool on the final 10km with the rain picking up in intensity again so I was very glad not to have stopped and removed any clothes during the lower part of the climb. There was a stand at the finish serving drinks and food – real food not sugary gels and first priority was to devour some of this. The best part was a hot sweet tea and some chocolate squares. Within minutes this brought a warm glow inside as energy seemed to flood back into the body. I should add that this simply does not happen if you reach the “F” endurance stage – from that unfortunate state there is no quick return. With the temperature dropping and rain increasing I decided to waste no time before descending to St Martin de Belleville to get back to the car. On the way up that last leg several people had shouted encouragement to me when they were returning to St Martin – and it really did relieve the isolation factor – so I made a point of doing the same for those still climbing because they were pretty obviously near or in the “F” stage.  It just seems so much better than everyone bombing back down ignoring those who are still battling and suffering. Getting to the car in the pouring rain was the second best feeling next to the sweet tea and chocolate. Getting into warm dry clothes prolonged the euphoria. From St Martin I drove back up to Les Menuires for the pasta party – basically to feed properly after the exercise. The hall was pretty full but there was plenty of food, drink and coffee left. My only problem was that after eating all I wanted to do was go to sleep – so when the prize giving presentations were starting I quietly slipped away. I just wanted to get home now and chill out watching movies for the rest of the day – nothing else would be possible anyway.

My final time was 6hrs 15mins and at first I felt very disappointed because it didn’t seem like much of an improvement over last year’s 6hrs 25mins. Initial disappointments like that are usually due more to fatigue than anything else and quickly pass away. A great deal of time had been lost on the slow descents so times would not really be comparable. The best reference would be the against the winners. The same top people were up there on the podium as last year and their performance level does not change a lot. last year I’d been 2hrs 15min behind them and this year 1hr 50mins – quite a significant improvement considering they would not have been descending as cautiously as me and all my subsequent gains must have been made on the climbs. That’s where the tiredness and exhaustion were coming from. The d.o.m.s. had not been an issue and the foot was completely pain free plus the rain and weather posed no problem at all. Thank goodness I’d been reading “Feet in the Clouds” about hardcore fell (mountain) runners and their exploits in all conditions or I might have not had the inspiration to resist returning to bed in the morning. Building endurance up from scratch is a long term job and sometimes appears to just not be happening – so any positive measure of success is an encouragement to persist and keep up the training. It gets more enjoyable too the better you get at it.

My placing on the long course was 42nd out of 49 finishers and 10th out of 12 in age group – basically only hard core mountain goats were left after the rain washed the rest away. 63 either abandoned or did not turn up – more than half the field – there was no detailed information as to how many abandoned. One young woman who finished over half an hour after me finished 1st on the podium for her category. For me the satisfaction was in having enjoyed the exercise, the mountains and the whole event.
(Last year I placed 107th out of 117 and 18th in age cat out of 19 – seems like the best way to improve my result is to hope for bad weather!)

In the short course 94 finished and 56 didn’t. John Thomas came 12th overall and took 2nd place in age category – but he also greatly reduced the gap to the winner to only 5 minutes from last year’s 15 minutes. Carolyn also ended up 2nd in her category and they should really be given a special first prize for being the most successful couple participating.

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