La Marmotte

Saturday 03 July 2010
GPSies - La Marmotte
Build Up
The “Marmotte” is recognised as the toughest cyclosportive in Europe. Five thousand meters of climbing over 174km. Forget the “Tour de France”. Unlikely as it may seem the real show is here. 7000 participants from all over the world all determined to complete it – as one American said to me afterwards – so they don’t have to return again to finish the job!
The race starts in Bourg d’Oisans which is a small town in the heart of the Alps south of Grenoble. Bourg has been a mecca for climbing and skiing for generations but more recently it has become a mecca for road cycling and is extremely popular amongst foreign, especially Dutch cyclists. Having completed the Marmotte and experienced the terrain I can easily understand. It’s not just the mythic climb up to Alpe d’Huez, made famous by the Tour de France, but the unique combination of long flat valley bottoms with wide roads that are very cycling friendly and spectacular mountain passes amongst the highest in Europe.
I arrived early Friday afternoon in Bourg, having stuffed myself with wholemeal spaghetti (Sarasin and Epeautre grains) early, before leaving home. The force-feeding process was an attempt to start carbohydrate loading for the race the next day. On arriving at Bourg it was surprising to find the place reasonably peaceful as I’d expected there to be a serious level of overcrowding and traffic. The event was being organised by the totally useless “” outfit so it meant that everyone had to go all the way up the mountain to Alpe’dHuez to collect their start numbers – but the road was quite clear despite a number of people cycling up and down the mountain in a futile effort to get fit for the race, simply tiring themselves out. I was slightly worried about getting my race number as I was pretending to be Mark Hardie and had to give them a copy of his latest medical certificate – but there were no issues when handing over the document along with the acceptance letter issued during initial registration. I walked out relieved and tested the electronic chip on a computer on the way out – number 891 was ready to go. Unfortunately for Mark, who is one of the UK’s top triathletes it was very unlikely that my results would enhance his reputation…
All of Chris’s gear was in my van because he had decided to come by motorbike over the mountains, the direct route, taking in the cols du Telegraph and Galibier that would play a major part in the race. Motorbike is a great way to travel in the mountains when the weather is good. Despite massive thunder and lightning storms in our own Tarantaise valley in the evenings there was nothing but heat and sunshine where we were. Returning home after the race I found the expensive fanless power supply for my main computer grilled by the lightning despite being protected by a special line interrupter and several fuses and the computer having been switched off. While waiting for Chris at Alp d’Huez – I managed to buy a new helmet from one of the stands. Most items were at half price compared to shops so later we both stocked up on high tech Continental GP4000s tyres at a bargain price. The following day I was wondering why I did that as it felt distinctly like I might never want to cycle again.
Back down the mountain in Bourg I parked in the peaceful courtyard of the “chalet” (everything and anything can be marketed as a “chalet” in France) where Chris was staying the night with his friends, Justin, Paul and Anthony. Despite being completely autonomous it was nice to have access to a proper clean toilet. Unashamedly antisocial I heated up my own special pre-prepared pre-race evening meal in the van while the others were shopping for their own meal. Basically, I absolutely stuffed myself with the remaining spaghetti from lunchtime – an impressive mound of spaghetti and sauce. This gave the advantage of eating earlier which would also mean sleeping a bit better – hopefully. When it became apparent that some were going to spend the evening watching the World Cup football on television I opted for early retirement to the van. Sleep however was not so forthcoming because it was so hot. The van windows were all kept closed because there were mosquitoes in the area and they were not welcome roommates. In the morning I was up bright and early at 5am and preparing porridge with a banana within minutes. It’s best to get the food cooking first then focus on shaving and dressing properly. While the porridge was cooking three bottles of long endurance sports drink were prepared from powder – one to consume with breakfast and two for the bike. I’d several large water bottles as a water supply in the van as part of its autonomy. Basically if the van could float and be put to sea it would be totally self-sufficient. Next I prepared the high protein, high carb pre-race energy paste. This is the stuff that has proven to be inedible in the past, but I’d taken a risk and bought a new 20 euro tub of the powder with a different flavour. The previous horrible stuff was “praline” and the new one was “Chocolate flakes”. The new one was very much more edible – thankfully – so I felt no guilt at having tipped most of the praline version into the bin. I think that I’d finished stuffing my body with high energy substances about an hour before the race start – which meant that I went to the start semi bloated but at least with the stomach clear enough not to cause too much discomfort. Chris and I left for the start before the others because they were being very “English” and intending to follow the rules, which meant they would be in the latest of the three starts. The start was is groups of 2000 according to race numbers and they were 20 minutes apart. I was supposed to be in the first start at 7am and Chris in the last almost an hour later. We decided to try to get Chris into the first start group so as we were funnelled in to the appropriate lane Chris weaved his bike so that nobody could read the number on the handlebars and it worked – straight past the marshal. We still had a thousand or so before us in line for the first start, but as many of the fastest people would be racing in this group there was still a good chance of quite a fast start and joining a fast peloton.

The Race
Prior to starting the race I’d made the decision not to pace myself for the extra long distance. In all the previous races I’d simply raced the hardest I could and in doing so discovered unexpected capacities – or incapacities. Sometimes that approach could lead to a catastrophic failure, but without pushing hard and really racing there was no way to find out – so the decision was to race and deal with the consequences. With hindsight it was definitely NOT a good decision. The race began at a fast pace along the flat straight and wide road northwards from Bourg d’Oisans at 730m altitude for about 6 km before turning sharp right towards the climb up to the dam and the Lac du Verney. The luxury of fast flat road lasted another 3km until the start of a long gradual climb of 25 kms up to the Col du Glandon. I was alongside Chris for the first 15 km but we parted company on the first serious sustained climb. There appeared to be something wrong with my ability to perform into my higher heart rate zones. It was unusually hard to get the heart rate up high or to make the required effort to do so. Later on Chris revealed that he didn’t feel right either and even had a slightly sore throat. I had targeted 8hrs for the entire course (non adjusted times) and Chris 7:30, but we were both destined to fall far short of our targets – in my case quite spectacularly. Nonetheless the time up to the Col du Glandon (1932m) was good at 01:55hrs total so I still felt confident of a good result at this stage. Most people stopped for a rest at the col because the descent was excluded from the timing to prevent high speed accidents on a very long, fast and winding descent. Only right at the bottom of this 30 minute descent was the timing started again at Saint Etienne de Cuines, where another change of direction took place, again to the right – now heading South East along a “faux plat” steadily climbing up the Maurienne valley floor. I had not wasted any time at the top of the Col du Glandon because I wanted to get into a dynamic and fast peloton to work with along the valley floor. That is precisely what happened. Our group grew from about 6 to over 5O as we caught up people in front of us – so I fortunately only found myself working at the front once and was able to hitch a fast ride the rest of the way. This section was from kilometer 56 to kilometer 79: 23 km of fast progress, but hard work that had my heart rate in the red frequently, something that had not happened on the climbs. I could feel however that this really did not feel sustainable today. Just before getting to the end of this section I had a run in with a miserable little French idiot who took offense at the fact that I almost shouldered him off his bike. He had allowed a split to develop in the peloton and I was boxed in behind him, unable to get out to the left (middle of road) or to slip back. He was wandering around quite a bit so I took the opportunity to slip through on his inside, just at the moment when he wandered back over and “closed the door”. Fortunately I was through and slightly in front so when we came shoulder to shoulder I had the best position and continued through. I’d shouted to warn him when I saw him closing the door, but he didn’t hear. His reaction was to swear at me at the top of his voice in French, but rather than react to him I simply stood up and sprinted across to the group in front and left him behind to stew in his own juice – regretting that I hadn’t knocked him over properly. At Saint Michel de Maurienne at approximatey kilometre 80, we took a sharp turn right again directly South and entered the climb up to the Col du Télégraph, starting at about 704m altitude and ascending steeply to about 1556m. Right at the bottom of this climb I checked my average overall speed and saw it was over 24km/hr which put me on course for a fast overall time – but it was already clear to me that something else was wrong – there was no strength left in the legs for climbing and everyone was overtaking me now. In the end I must have been overtaken by about 2000 people and my speed slowed down so much that I didn’t manage to overtake more than two or three others for the rest of the day. I was rapidly in quite serious trouble so the obvious had happened – the race was over as I’d blown up – bonked! The climb up the Col du Télégraph immediately joins the climb to the Col du Galibier so with a 2000m climb directly ahead the question now was about simply getting home, the business of racing was over. In addition, there was also the final climb up the Alpe d’Huez so the prospects of finishing seemed very slim. My heart rate began a steady decline whilst climbing the Télégraph – from 160 bpm to 145 bpm over about an hour. Just before the top of the Télégraph there were traffic lights and police manning the traffic. They had to stop the competitors or no traffic would ever get down the mountain as there was practically an unbroken line of several thousand cyclists climbing the mountain. Frustration was intense amongst the cyclists for being forced to stop and one had been arrested and was being held aside by the police. Police, being the most corrupt form of unintelligent life of the planet, were, as might be expected, having lots of problems dealing with the situation. Luckily for them the cyclists were not organised to throw them over the side. I found out later that Chris had a good attempt though – trying to barge his way past the red light and only being stopped by the second policeman who jumped in front and stuck his hand on Chris’s chest threatening to arrest him. Yes, Chris was perhaps not having a great day but he was still on form in other ways.
At the top of the Télégraph I took on water (had done so also at the top of the Glandon) and then made myself swallow a 100 gram sickly sweet gel. In fact this was the first time I’d ever managed to do so in a reasonably controlled manner. While descending on the bike I had first of all to screw off the top of the gel without losing it, then put the nozzle into my mouth. Then the trick is to suck the gel in and swallow it in small amounts – fully controlled so as not to vomit the lot back out – which is precisely what Chris did later on in the day when he barfed the lot out inside a tunnel. Once the gel packet was empty I put the top back on to avoid runny sugary stuff running into my pockets and then could drink some water to wash it all down and facilitate digestion. The descent from the Télégraph was over rapidly as it was only a blip in the 2000m overall climb up the Galibier. No-one seemed to have been suffering too much going up to the Télégraph but I had definitely been the slowest towards the top so things were not looking too good. Starting to climb again towards the Galibier there was a sign saying 17km to the summit. My low morale was now ebbing towards rock bottom and this sign didn’t help and neither did the headache or being overtaken by everybody and their dogs. It was around this point that I started to reflect on whether it was even sensible to try to complete the Marmotte. There is an option open to all competitors to cut out the final climb up the Alpe d’Huez and just stop at the bottom. It seemed most likely that I’d be forced into his option and the result is then called the “Marmotton” which means “baby marmot”. For those who don’t know a marmot is like a ground hog but a bit bigger and fatter. Plodding up the long road to the Galibier my energy started to return a little. I’d completely forgotten that I’d eaten that gel and was too tired to make the association at the time – but reflecting on the situation later it is now clear that the sugar was getting through to the blood and muscles and I should have eaten much more. Up until this point I’d only eaten one energy bar and drunk two bottles of complex carb drink, plus the gel, and it was now about 5 hours into the race. During the following 5 hours I would only eat one more energy bar and take one more bottle of energy drink. Sweet sugary stuff becomes very unpleasant to consume after a while and there is no sensation of hunger while the body is engaged in physical effort. Despite the low consumption of food it feels like you are overeating. I think that the correct rule is probably “eat, eat and eat” while competing, but that is a challenge on its own.
Approaching the top of the Galibier presented us with an unforgettable spectacle – possibly the longest line of cyclists in the world. There is a long straight line leading up to the final dramatic series of hairpin bends ramping steeply up to the top of the ridge. You look up at the sight and think “Oh My God”! 

Just before this section the thunder had started accompanied by heavy rain drops – which were very welcome despite the significant temperature drop at this altitude. Chris and I had set off with no rain or wind protection so it was a little bit worrying that the storms were starting so early and I was moving like a snail with a million miles of hills to cover before reaching shelter. Fortunately the brief shower was a one off and there was no real threat of hypothermia that day. There was still quite a lot of snow on the Galibier and melt water rushing down the road. I’d discovered long before this point that the only way of getting up there with no power in the legs was to stand up and use body weight to turn the cranks, SLOWLY so as not to turn it into a sprint – which would have the opposite effect of being extremely tiring. This definitely removes the load from the leg muscles and as long as it is kept slow it really facilitates climbing at low energy levels. There is another unexpected benefit of this tactic and that is that it enables deep breathing as your stomach can move down and lower ribs expand more easily to let the diaphragm descend when breathing in. Breathing deeper then allows the retention of breath to last slightly longer and for a better exchange of gasses deep down in the lungs where most of the gas exchange actually takes place. There is a tendency when sitting to breath in a shallower manner using the top half of the chest – which is really detrimental to any aerobic activity. It was this breathing that made me realise before the top of the Galibier that I was also going to be able to climb the “Alpe” at the end of the race. Competitors were already starting to crack on the Galibier, with some stopping due to cramps, though this would be nothing compared to what was to come on the Alpe. Once again at the top of the Galibier I recharged with water and launched into the descent. Descending from the Galibier at 2600m altitude was the only cold period of the day. The chill lasted perhaps 10 minutes until enough altitude was lost for the air to warm up – thankfully justifying our decision not to carry any extra clothing.

Normally I enjoy descents, taking pleasure in fast turns and high speeds but the very long descent from the Galibier towards the valley of Bourg d’Oisans was not enjoyable through such a wall of tiredness. I remember being able to still ride ok though on the flats and short climbs with a small group – so I wasn’t exactly dead. The tunnels were long and horrible being very badly illuminated or not at all in some cases. One group of cyclists slowed right down at a dark bit in a tunnel and I almost went straight into them. It was black, resembling cycling with your eyes closed at points. That suited me fine as I really couldn’t care much by now anyway. Luckily I didn’t encounter Chris’s barfed gel and slip on it. My only real moment of lucidity was when we went past a stunning waterfall dropping off a massive cliff face. Even someone as far gone as I was couldn’t fail to appreciate such a marvel of nature. With the descent over we were greeted on the valley floor with shockingly high temperatures of around 39°C and a very long flat straight back to Bourg d’Oisans. People continued to pass me and now I had no interest whatsoever in tagging on to a group. Despite a slight headwind I was very happy to proceed at my own pace, alone. Nearing Bourg, on the opposite side of the road, there was a stationary police car with three gendarmes around it. Two were leaning back against the car hiding a third with a mobile radar held against the roof. God I hate those morons. Police must be specifically selected for both lack of intelligence and zero moral fibre. More than likely it’s illegal to hide such equipment when in use so I hope their community finance raising scheme ends up being challenged in court. Shortly after passing the morons Bourg appeared floating like a mirage in the distance through the desert-like heat. At this point I was not really aware of many cyclists around me and people were probably quite strung out on the flat road. Certainly, since the Galibier the flow of people overtaking me had slowed down to a trickle in comparison. I don’t recall refilling with water in Bourg at the bottom of the climb, but probably did. The actual start of the Alpe climb was further on, right at the bottom of the actual climb where an electronic timer was situated to get the split times and also for the Marmotons.
The first few kilometres of the Alpe climb are the steepest, but I went into it with no doubt about finishing. Morale had hit a low on the Galibier, but since then I’d realised that things were not going to get any worse and that as there were no acute discomforts there was nothing to get anxious about. I’d worked out a way to turn the cranks and with the breathing improvement it seemed possible to plod on forever, up anything. When climbing the Alpe it seemed to get busy again and there were cyclists all around me and all over the place. Generally, people recommenced overtaking me at a prodigious rate as my pace was often as low as 5km/hr when standing on the pedals in first gear, but more and more the numbers were increasing due to people having stopped at the roadside. The first ones I came across were slumped over the fronts of their bikes, for all the world looking like they were dealing with technical problems with the wheels or brakes. They would fiddle with bits like that – obviously not wanting people to think that they were stopped for other reasons. Further on people were starting to sit on the wall at the side of the road or to lie down on the grass. Huez village is about 8km up the 14km climb and there was a water stop there where I filled up once again. There was a shower strung across the road but somehow I managed to miss it. People at the road side were pouring water over the cyclists and somehow I managed to miss all of that too, despite passing right in front of them. Regardless of all of that the plodding was going to plan and nothing appeared to threaten it. A few kilometres further on and people were now stopping to refill their water bottles at mountain streams flowing through channels and under the road. The numbers at the side of the road were increasing steadily and the police were even controlling one watering hole that seemed to be causing traffic problems. People must have skipped the watering station at Huez to end up in that situation. One guy even filled up his bottle from the roadside gutter! Even though the water was probably from the glacier way up above he must have been desperate. Getting into the last few kilometres people were really starting to suffer and one guy started screaming at the top of his voice. It wasn’t necessary to even look back because it was obvious that he had severe cramps – that being the only reason why people scream like that. He went on for ages like an adult baby. It must have hurt though. Further on someone was holding out chunks of grapefruit to the cyclists and I accepted one – it was delicious, refreshing and very much appreciated. Shortly afterwards one guy, stationary at the roadside, straddled over his bike, threw up the entire contents of his stomach right in front of me. It was amazing to see all the stuff that was still in his stomach at this point in the day. He’d eaten all sorts of lumpy stuff that hadn’t digested. He wasn’t alone though as I saw another cyclist throw up and there were several more sick piles on the road, let alone what might have been in the grass at the side. Once up at over 1900m altitude the air had cooled a little and there was slight refreshing breeze. My plodding was slowly getting me there and seeing the suffering and catastrophic breakdown of others helped to put my own plight into perspective. It was really good to have continued and not bailed out to end up as a “baby marmot”. The sights going up the Alpe were nothing short of amazing. My only loss on the day was in not getting a proper race time, which although a real disappointment was not really important. I learned here that finishing was much more important. Most people seem to have come here already understanding that. Crossing the finish line was almost an anti-climax. Bonking is not a nice feeling and to continue another 7 hours non-stop after bonking is guaranteed not to be enjoyable. At least I now know it is possible. 

On the Alpe my heart rate steadily dropped from 145 bpm to 125 bpm by the end. I can only assume that this was due to my failure to keep on eating and taking sports drinks. The finish was chaotic with thousands of people around. There was a queue for the food and thousands of bikes in the area. No way was I going to leave my bike unattended, so I just had a drink of juice, sat down for a rest and decided to move on away from the excessive public address noise and excessive throngs of people.

Descending back to Bourg was slow due to traffic being blocked by the cyclists coming up. By this time my palms were swollen and painful so descending was becoming uncomfortable. The balls of my feet were also swollen and painful from 10 hours of pressure. Worst of all, my backside was raw and a real mess over a large area. I have no idea why this happened because it my saddle had not given any pain at all until this race but the problems began quite early on in the day. Perhaps it might have been due to sweat, which is slightly acid and very salty, as this is the first time that it had been so hot. After the race I also found that the seat post had lowered itself by about half an inch during the race – probably due to some very violent bumps on the road and not having tightened the seat clamp bolt quite enough so as to protect the carbon frame. (Have since tightened it more.) The seat lowering probably partially explains the breathing difficulties, but since then I’ve also discovered that it was way too far forward. The forward position explains why in very long races I was getting a bit of knee ache (didn’t happen this time though – probably due to standing a lot) and why I was cramped over the handlebars and unable to use the top bar of the handlebars – always aiming for the brake hoods instead. The excessive pressure on the hands would also perhaps be explained by this setup.
Three days later (Tuesday) and I tested the bike out with the new seat position and it really does feel good – answering a lot of problems. The legs however still feel completely dead, struggling to get my heart rate over 130 bpm, almost like a continuation of the Marmotte itself.
Five days after the race (Thursday) and I went for a ride up the Versant du Soleil, looping back through Bourg St Maurice and Macot. The legs now feel great and stronger than they felt at any point during the Marmotte. There is still a general feeling of tiredness so my system is obviously still recovering.
Why did I bonk early on in the Marmotte and not at all at Morzine? Not a clue! If the legs were just too tired for a long effort then I don’t understand why that should relate to “bonking”: running out of glycogen. How do you relate fatigue from lack of recovery, lactic acid (and other metabolic by-products) and blood/muscle sugar levels?
Despite everything my final result was 3092nd out of 5206 finishers out of over 7000 starters. This translates to 411th out of 804 finishers in my age group. The final time of 09:28:52 was with the descent from the Col du Glandon removed – and I had recorded that at around 30 minutes, taking it easy. Chris’s final time was 08:00:17 which placed him 1157th overall and 118th in the same age group as me.
Speaking to Chris a few days after the Marmotte, he said that during the course he found himself asking himself why he was doing this. Strangely this question never entered my mind on the day. During a few of the previous races however I’d posed exactly the same question and realise that it is more of a sentiment or emotion. It’s good to hear that the same things happen to others sometimes, regardless of fitness or strength.
Only two months ago I had no intention of even attempting the Marmotte as it seemed out of reach with no training in the bank. It’s clear now that trying to RACE the Marmotte with less than 2000km of training in the legs is not a good idea, though finishing it is a perfectly attainable goal.

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