Challenge Vercors 2015 (121 km)

  • 33rd out of 99 (Age Category)
  • 171st out of 372 (G C)
  • 4h 16m 53s (official) 120.3km 2600m climbing
  • Ketogenic – no supplements or food during comp
  • BAC (Body Acetone Concentration) 0.06%  by 6pm
  • Sodium bicarbonate used as H+ buffer



Nine months of constant ketosis is starting to bring a significant performance gain at last. Until now all I felt was a constant weakness. Weight loss – down from 77kg to 63kg by the start of winter last year was mainly gained through fasting and that probably sacrificed too much muscle. Had the weight loss been when in ketosis (avoiding carbohydrates between  weekly fasts) then the muscle would have been spared. When going through all the fasting I had no knowledge of ketosis, being misled by a book on fasting by Dr Fuhrman. Furhman is a vegetarian low fat diet guru who also happens to advocate fasting. Unfortunately the two things are totally incompatible and that reality is revealed through understanding ketosis. During May this year I’ve been training every day, alternating between running and cycling, covering 1012km in total, 155km of the total being running and all of the cycling being in the mountains. Before ketosis I was never able to train without between one and three complete rest days per week. During this month I was eating to gain weight – gaining around 3 kilos. I’d eat a breakfast and then nothing until after training – around 6pm. The intention is to gain as much muscle as possible and then once strength is good to try to lose the new fat while in ketosis – to keep the muscle gain. I enjoy being thin but do not enjoy feeling weak. One new factor has however come into play in this whole process and it appears to be a game changer. Consuming sodium bicarbonate about an hour before exercise dramatically overcomes the apparent limitations of strict carbohydrate avoidance. Since going ketogenic every training session has been very sluggish at the start, taking between 20 to 40 minutes to warm up properly. Somehow this seemed to be less of an issue during competition, probably due to adrenalin but it was still a perceptible problem even there. The bicarbonate acts as a buffer against hydrogen ions created during the metabolism of glucose in the muscles. For some strange reason this seems to be a bigger problem than usual when in ketosis and not using glucose as the primary fuel. Muscles tie up quickly with far less effort – unless there is a substantial warm up. Even after a good warm up there appears to be less ability (or perhaps motivation) to sprint or push very hard for the same reason. You even get to the stage where you try to avoid excessively hard efforts. In my case the lack of strength once warmed up could however be due to the muscle lost during fasting and have nothing to do with ketosis. Whatever, taking sodium bicarbonate just simply stops all of this. Most significantly it appears to facilitate performance at a level that would encourage new muscle development. The fact that the muscles simply don’t tie up lets you use all your current strength and it feels very good.  I’d like to know why bicarbonate has such a big effect when in ketosis. The pancreas produces a form of bicarbonate by itself. Considering the pancreas is also where insulin comes from there might be an interesting connection. This thought prompted me to do a little research… Perhaps a lifetime of carbohydrate addiction and toxic or acidic abuse skews the system adversely. It looks like a lifetime of punishing the pancreas with excessive carbs may cause a drop in the capacity for the pancreas to produce bicarbonate. Just swallowing a spoonful seems to compensate for this. There might also be a mechanism whereby when eating loads of carbs and producing excessive insulin with the fat metabolism switched off then there could be less need for the acid buffering effect of bicarbonates – so any developing pancreas “bicarbonate” problem simply wouldn’t be spotted. Perhaps all of the above contributes to the long three years needed to attain the full benefit of ketosis for sports performance. One problem with sodium bicarbonate is that you want to consume it on an empty stomach so it isn’t neutralised by stomach acid – so timing is difficult in the morning. Some sources recommend taking bicarbonate about 45 minutes before activity but others say that you can build up in the preceding days and don’t even need to consume any on event day.   For this morning’s race I had a full ketogenic breakfast with the addition of extra lactofermented vegetables – including beetroot. The carbs have been fermented out of this food and turned into lactic acid. Lactic acid converts to lactate which is fuel – the preferred fuel of the heart and brain – in competition for that honour with ketones! When lactic acid turns into lactate the bicarbonate buffers the hydrogen ions that it gives off. Just eating food like this gradually increases the lactate threshold (tolerance) – as does training at lactate threshold levels. Better athletes have higher levels of lactate in their blood and muscles. The limiting factor in muscle use is not lactic acid – it’s the H+ ion. My “feeling” is that by bicarbonate allowing the muscles to use lactic acid more efficiently this gives time for fat metabolism to kick in and ketones to be produced without performance being compromised in the meantime. I suspect this is why supplementary bicarbonate removes any apparent performance issues of ketosis.  

Race Preparation

May 30th 2011 was the last time I participated in the Challenge Vercors. On that occasion I did the long “Masters” course (168km) but it was probably a bit over-ambitious. This time I’d chosen the shorter, more sensible  “Senior” course which is also the more popular of the options. Preparation for the race involved a long 115km hard ride on Thursday then an easy “recovery” 11km run on Friday, leaving a full rest day on the Saturday. The big ride on Thursday was just a fraction too close to race day and even though I didn’t let my heart rate climb too high my body had been very tired afterwards. Regardless of this the recovery was sufficient to permit a fully satisfying performance during the race. I drove to Meaudré in the early evening after eating at home and found the parking zone just behind the race start area – about 200m further on. The parking area was large due to it being built for winter skiing clients with a full ski station being situated right there. They even left clean and organised pubic toilets open. I found a quiet corner of the car park away from most of the big camper vans and within easy walking distance of the race registration building in the morning. I really like sleeping in my estate car – it’s like camping but without any fuss. I had a flask of coffee and plenty of snacks for the late evening plus an internet connection from my tablet. The air was fresh but warmer than usual for this altitude and this particular mountain range. Sleeping was easy and comfortable. Race morning was straight forward being up at 6:30am, two hours before the race start. Even with all this time at hand I still managed two glitches. Food and water were fresh having been stored in insulated bags with frozen gel packs. I’d brought two separate heart rate monitoring systems because my new Mio Fuse optical wrist HRM (Heart Rate Monitor) was already showing serious battery problems (after only 5 months). I changed all the settings to minimise battery use as much as possible and then launched the Endomondo App on my brilliant Sony Z1 compact phone. This app connects to the HRM though Bluetooth 4 when paired with the Mio Fuse. One serious Mio fault is that it cannot be “paired” with normal Bluetooth protocol and is actually paired directly through the app itself – rendering it dependent on app compatibility! That’s a BIG negative for Mio! Simultaneously I was using a Garmin ANT+ chest strap and running the Runtastic Road Pro app for that. When the Mio uses its ANT+ connection any Garmin signal in the near vicinity takes over and you lose your own heart data and start recording somebody else’s – another very BIG negative for Mio. This way I’d however have two correctly functioning independent  devices and be able to make a comparison at the end. I set Runtastic to give audio feedback but left the switching on of my Bluetooth 4 earbuds until the last few minutes and they just didn’t get any sound – so with my phone in my back pocket I’d now not get any direct feedback during the whole race. That was glitch number one! Now glitch number two! All of that technical fluster was exacerbated by a last minute dash to the toilet and a massive diarrhoea attack – with only minutes to go before the start. This might have been due to eating too much cheese the night before. I seem to react badly to the casein protein in cheese.  

The Race

Those pre-race issues however were the only minor glitches. I’d put on a base layer and made a good decision there because the air was still a bit fresh and long descents in the shade would keep their chill all day. The result of all this faffing around and the toilet adventure was that I lined up right at the back of the 372 strong field for the start. I started my two apps about half a minute after the start signal but we hadn’t even moved by then at the back. It took almost two minutes to get across the start and not only would we all have the same start time (despite having timing chips) but by the time I crossed the line the head of the peloton would be a good kilometre away. The logic here is that at the end of the race when your cross the finish line you know for sure that anyone behind you has been beaten by you. There are no annoying surprises that way. The negative side of this is that it means queuing up about half an hour before the race start if you want to actually start with the gun. When I finally got going there was no question about what to do – it was a case of going flat out an trying to catch up as much as possible.  Although I began a solo charge up the field soon after others joined in. Two guys in  “Team La Forestiere”  were on a mission to make up ground and they were strong. When they passed me, perhaps coming out of my own slipstream, they accelerated and I managed to hang on behind and settle in for the tow. The two of them were alternating the lead in rotation and as they were clearly happy to do so alone I held back to conserve energy. After a good 20 minutes the front of the leading peloton with the safety car became visible on a straight section of road only about about 400m ahead. I figured that we had passed about 200 racers and as the lead peloton would itself be going fast this was a pretty good start. Getting no heart rate feedback meant I’d no idea how high I’d been going into the red but I felt good. The bicarbonate had obviously worked because even without a warm up there was no sluggishness and I was straight into it. One of the guys I’d caught up with let out a loud groan in French, saying that he hoped the rest of the course wouldn’t be as fast as the start or he would explode. It was actually quite refreshing not to have earphones plugged into my head for a change.  When we hit the first real climb there was a bit of re-settling amongst the group with one bunch passing me. I tend , especially after such a flat out effort, to take a while to adjust when suddenly arriving at steep climbs. Lots of people can just charge ahead but they often tend to pay for this later on in the climb. What was encouraging was that after the initial surge there was no more slipping backwards in the pack and in fact I began catching people one by one more than being overtaken. This is always a good sign! To be honest most of the race is just a blurred memory. Not having feedback meant that I had little idea where I was and what lay ahead. In some ways that was good because I didn’t attempt to control anything and just went with the flow – working as hard as possible. When you don’t really know what the body is capable off then it often works out better this way. Perhaps the top elites can calculate precisely how their performance will pan out but I doubt even that. All I know is that the best races seem to be when you push hard from the very start. When you go slower and try to pace yourself then you just never seem to get going and end up even more tired. During the first descent it was a bit surprising how slowly some were taking it. Guys who had left me behind on the climb were losing all their hard won advantage. When cornering at speed all you need is a good racing line for security. Enter the turn wide – cut close to the apex and exit wide if there is no traffic or within the limits of your lane. Visualise the whole thing in 3D as if the road tilted to stay at 90° to the bike. Getting the line right makes a massive difference to security and that gives confidence to go faster. I’d become isolated close to the end of the highest (but not biggest) climb up the Col d’Herbouilly as most of those around me were stronger climbers. Until now I’d been catching them all on the descents. They were still visible ahead near the top, but that difference in distance gives them a serious advantage when they hit the descent in a group. I’d been lucky until near the very top because there was always a few hard working people around to work with and slipstream on the flatter sections. After the Col d’Herbouilly there was a long 10km descent followed by 20km of faux plâts. During the long descent – for which my average speed over the 10km was 53kph – I caught up with and collected several others again. Only one person caught up with me and he appeared to be particularly strong on the descents so I didn’t let him get away. From the bottom of the descent however it was clear that it would be up to me to pull the newly formed group. To my surprise none of them came to the front to do a turn. Normally when someone wants to speed the group up a bit this turn around happens automatically but they all appeared to be content with my pace – or just unable to take the front. The long descent and this long “faux plât” together amounted to close of 30km without respite – and that following on from the highest climb of the day. I was surprised at having the strength for this and also still feeling quite good. When the climb steepened up to the Col de Saint Alexis one of the younger guys I’d been pulling along for ages went to the front and having fresh legs started to drop me. He spotted it though and deliberately slowed down to show his appreciation and pull for a while until the climb itself took command over everything. Starting in earnest up the climb to Col de Saint Alexis it began with about 10km from the summit on a sharp hairpin bend. As we came around the sharp bend and could see back down the road I was astonished to see loads of riders in the few hundred metres behind us. That meant that I’d pulled all that way for nothing basically and I could have sat comfortably behind any of that lot saving energy and not losing any time. This turned out to be quite a fast climb – around 16 Km/h so it was good to be amongst people who could now provide me with some motivation and a little slipstreaming. The climb was followed by another monster descent which I loved a lot. I just like anticipating the road and trying to nail the corners as fast as possible. At the bottom one guy in yellow just pulled past me and when we hit the flats he kept up his speed and I enjoyed being pulled along at around 40 to 50 Km/h for quite a stretch. This is where the course bifurcated between the 170km version and 120km version. I was very glad to be only on short one. The biggest surprise was seeing how many peeled off to go up the 170km route – considering that they had started out half an hour before us! That’s a lot of catching up! One guy in red behind me commented that he was doing his best to hang on staying on my tail. I think he had been behind me for about 40km by now. After the next climb he made an effort to go in front and do some work on the descents. Descents are just as demanding if you go in front and act as the main airbrake. He was doing well  but there was a very long harsh climb to come after Saint Martin en Vercors and this would split up everyone so he should really have conserved his energy for that.  He did create a real problem though because he took random lines into each turn and so was totally unpredictable. This caused both of us to skid slightly at one turn – but I’d been on guard for this so nothing bad happened. I didn’t want to force my way in front either because I was aware of the climbing ahead. On the Saint Martin climb three guys pulled ahead of me and about the same number dropped behind. Meanwhile I was still climbing at around 15km/h and overtaking quite a few others along the way. The guy in yellow I’d been with earlier had been one of the three who pulled ahead but near the top he started to crack and although he’d been a few hundred metres ahead at one point I caught him back up. That was aided by someone else who overtook me near the top which allowed us to accelerate up to 30km/h before the climb was fully over. For all I know he was slipstreaming me for miles before he shot past. I think I’ll install a mirror for future races because I really haven’t a clue about what’s happening behind. The guy in red was now dropped and that left me with Yellow for the final descent. This descent was stunning – a road carved out of the face of a cliff with overhangs and tunnels – fantastic bends for high speed turns – not so tight that too much speed was lost but tight enough to make you keep your wits about you. When the next climb started, still on the spectacular cliff faces, Yellow pulled past me once again. He’d apparently been on my tail for the descent. I was pretty much clueless about how long we had been going and how far we still had to go so I asked him. He told me 10km but I wasn’t sure whether he meant to the end or just the end of the climb. Regardless, what should have been a stunning last climb was rendered horrible because for the entire distance – which turned out to be a very twisting 5km of cliffs – the entire road surface had been stripped off for resurfacing. It was like riding uphill on cobbles. We even had a bus try to overtake us on the way up and he struggled getting past the bikes due to his fear of hitting the overhanging cliff above. About half a kilometre from the top Yellow cracked again and I left him behind. I was still averaging about 13 km/h even climbing on the cobbles and the legs felt ok. Popping out of the top of this onto proper tarmac and a relatively level road was wonderful. However there was still 5km to go, uphill and now against a headwind. I just “bit the bullet” and increased the effort in the certainty that it would all soon be over. The final straight back home to Meaudré has a view about 500m ahead and I could see the guys who had pulled ahead way back at Saint Martin. They weren’t that far ahead. About 200m from the town Yellow came flying past me slipstreaming someone who had teamed up with him. He pulled a funny face and I shouted that it wasn’t fair but accelerated and got behind him. Fortunately the actual entrance to the town has a sudden climb and when Yellow’s tow pulled a few meters ahead and opened a gap Yellow was finished and couldn’t keep up the speed. I had enough strength from the brief period of slipstreaming to accelerate and then sprint to the finish putting Yellow about 12 seconds behind.



My official time was 4h: 16m: 53s and I’d consumed only two 700ml bottles of filtered tap water – with no actual stops. Towards the end I was feeling a bit headachy and slightly low on energy. Breakfast was low carb / ketogenic and so the goal was to rely on fat metabolism. I’m pretty convinced however that those symptoms were dehydration. After the race I avoided eating and just drank water and coffee and all the symptoms disappeared. Perhaps in future I’ll try to drink more during races. Driving home in the afternoon I did start to feel a bit tired. This is where I’m trying to determine whether eating would be beneficial. I now know it’s not essential but soon I might start to experiment with eating after the race or even certain supplements during. This will need to be researched properly. Perhaps it’s more important to simply eat protein to protect muscle than to worry about energy sources. The afternoon tiredness tells me however that food might be useful.

      • DISTANCE               120.3 km
      • DURATION              4h:16m:53s
      • AVG. SPEED           28.1 km/h
      • MAX. SPEED           68.1 km/h
      • FASTEST 10K         52.8 Km/h
      • CALORIES              4123 kcal
      • HYDRATION            4.01L
      • AVG. HEART RATE 155
      • MAX. HEART RATE 171
      • MIN. ALTITUDE        717 m
      • MAX. ALTITUDE       1419 m
      • TOTAL ASCENT      2600 m
      • TOTAL DESCENT   2592 m

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