Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ironman...the sequel

Forced recovery

Five days after IM Choo, I had surgery.  A similar surgery in 2012 forced 8 weeks of hard rest and months of recuperation dealing with the side effects of blood loss, so my expectations were firmly in check concerning the length of recovery I might need.

It takes a lot to force me into doing absolutely nothing, and having surgery happens to be one of those things.  Consequently, the "off" season began in earnest on October 2, with me being very down and out, reacting badly to anaesthetic and having to really dial things back.  However, the surgery itself went so much better than last time, and my complications were pretty limited, so after two weeks I was able to start gently exercising again.

The marvelous thing about mandatory rest is that your body has no choice but to repair.  My brilliant discovery two weeks post surgery?  I felt fantastic.


A positive race is incredibly addictive.  And while Choo was not a perfect race, nor my fastest, it reinforced to me that there was the potential for a good race.  I didn't feel done for the year.

The "idea" of racing again is one thing.  Maintaining the enthusiasm through to the point of execution is quite another.  End of season rebound...we all know it.  The self-justification that you need to do "something" with all that hard earned fitness, remnants of the finish line high, trying to fill the time void that not training leaves.  Unfortunately, I know only too well how this usually plays out - the gas tank usually runs empty well short of race day, and it ends in a miserable rebound race.  Late fall training in Vancouver also presents a double whammy as the dark, short days and torrential rain test even the most resolute.

Undeterred, the "Ironman sequel in 6 weeks or less" program got fired up. Cue the Whole Foods dinners for one and long solo workouts.  A flight was booked and the semi-secret ninja ironman training started with my sights set on IM Arizona.  After all, if Robert Downey Jr can make Ironman sequels seem sexy in his forties...why can't I?

Consistency...what's that?

I am a full time professional with a demanding career.  I don't have the luxury (or the interest) in being a "full-time" athlete, and thus choosing to race requires a delicate balancing act.  The integration of training and racing with my professional life is something I am very familiar with, and something I feel I have become quite good at.  My feeling has always been that they are (generally) complimentary to each other - being an athlete makes me a better professional, and being a professional makes me a better athlete.  For better or worse, it usually all works out as long as I stay focused and regimented.

Unfortunately, work demands do sometimes command more of my time than an ideal training schedule would have.  Shortly after resolving to race IMAZ, the work balance started tipping a lot.

To say the least, it was not a perfect build.  As it does in the fall, it got dark.  It got rainy.  My enthusiasm waned as the fluid trainer made an appearance, and I remembered that fall training is like being on detention.  Then, I ended up travelling several times for work, including a long overseas trip, and it all looked like it was going to hell.  I envied those athletes who were smart enough to pack their bikes up for the season while I continued.    Honestly, it was ridiculous to think that I could race an Ironman on the low (no?) volume I was doing, but on a hope and a prayer that the base was there, I forged ahead.  Luckily, running shoes are portable and Jasper was understanding of these commitments.

Perhaps the experience at Choo made me less fearful of the less-than-ideal build, but I have come to understand that there is no perfect training plan.  I did what I was able to do leading into Arizona - probably far less than I needed to, with no long rides and no runs over 2 hours, rarely making my early morning swims.  Honestly, it didn't faze me - the race was a bonus, and it was all a great big fun experiment.


The most glorious part about Phoenix was the opportunity to bask in the sun.  I won't lie - sun was as good (or better) reason to get out of rainy Vancouver than racing.  The few days before the race were spent tootling around Scottsdale and gathering race provisions.  Sunshine, oh lovely sunshine, just has this uncanny way of improving my mood -  it was relaxing, warm and perfect.  

(I'll fess up now that my enthusiasm for being in the sun had me hiking up Camelback on Friday before the pro meeting.  Not a good pre-race plan at all - my quads were absolutely killing after - but hell, you only live once.)

Views out along the Beeline on the bike course.  Nobody here but the cactus.
The lovely Camelback hike
Doing cactus impressions on Camelback (instead of resting...)
Pool at the condo was a little nicer than Tempe Town Lake

Getting down to business

I will admit that the lovely, sunny days leading up to the race had me wishing I was doing anything but racing on Sunday.  I had little interest in the chaos of pre-race (and completely avoided the race site the day before, opting to check in on race morning - this is a huge pro perk) and that 3:45am alarm hurt as much as it ever does.  Those parts of racing are decidedly not so fun.

My glorious sunshine also disappeared, replaced by a rather bleak, cloudy morning.  I had joked days before about the "rainy" forecast (at the time, it called for less than a mm), but in the darkness of transition, it was no joke: the weather had made a significant turn for the worse.

I never feel "amped" before a race - it's just not the way I am.  At worst, I am a nervous wreck.  At best, it is quiet execution, quickly moving through transition and not getting caught up in the craziness around me.  Unfortunately, I found the transition area in Arizona really awkward, which necessitated moving against a sea of people several times.   There was also no shortcut to the front of the swim, and I had to move past all of the age group corrals.  I barely made it to the front of the swim before the men's start, and quickly jumped into the water for a short warm up.  I felt rushed and not ready.

Referring to the body of water that we swam in as a "lake" is a pretty generous term for the man-made, sludgy, murky, cold water that we jumped into.  Not happy.  Not happy at all.

My happiness did not improve during the swim.  I was cold.  I had trouble seeing (despite wearing blue tinted goggles).  I didn't understand the sighting (should have swam the wall, not the crooked buoys), and just past the halfway point I became an age group punching bag.  Did I mention I was cold?  I have never experienced such a nasty swim and was really, really pissy by the time I emerged from the swamp.  Attitude really drives everything, of course, so it was not a shock that I swam a 1:11.  Shit swim for a shit attitude.

Rock, scissors, paper, tri bike

Going into T1, I was cold, grumpy and pretty done with racing.  My brain was in full-on negotiation and it was pretty sure at that point that I was not finishing the race.

My nephew does this funny thing where he plays "rock, scissors, paper" against himself.  It's terribly cute, terribly funny and seems pretty pointless, as a rational person would tell you it is not possible to negotiate against yourself.

I would play the devil's advocate on this one, however, because the majority of the forward movement I was able to achieve at IMAZ was as a consequence of me negotiating against myself.  And so, it began, leaving T1 with a self-bargain to do "just one loop".

Brain:  You can do this. 
Body:  I'm cold. I hate this.
Brain:  Just one loop.
Body:  I know what you are up to.  You are tricking me.
Brain:  It's only 60k, then you can come back and sit down.
Body:  It's a trick.  You are going to make me do the whole thing.
Brain:  Pinky swear.  Just one loop.  

And so the day began, with "just" one loop.

I really, really struggle to find much positive to say about the bike course except that it is measured to a tee.  180k exactly.  30k out, 30k back, 30k out, 30k back, 30k out, 30k back.  Around and around you go.  Not exactly inspiring.  Flat-ish, windy-ish, dull-ish.

This way.  No, that way.  Round and round we go.  Stop when you hit 180k.
My power meter also decided to be awesomely not awesome and told me that 35 kilometers per hour on a slight uphill grade equated 110 watts, so the only real measure of effort I had was cadence and common sense, the latter of which was a little lacking seeing as I was riding my TT bike wearing basically nothing in the freezing, windy desert.  Happy times.

Little did I know that the first loop would in fact be the best loop, or I may have been more inclined to pack it in and go for a margarita.  The wind kicked up on lap two, as did the congestion on the course.  Brain and body continued their negotiations.

Brain:  OK, maybe just one more loop.
Body:  Dark moments.  So dark.  
Brain:  You are being dramatic.
Body:  Not dramatic.  Legs are lead.
Brain:  Spin.  90 RPM.  You got this.
Body:  You suck!  This sucks!
Brain:  60k is a pansy Sunday ride.  Do 120k and you can eat some pizza later.
Body:  Pizza!  Squirrel!  OK!

I hit a pretty low point around halfway where my body really started hurting.  Staying in aerobars consistently for 5+ hours is actually pretty painful, and I would choose a hillier course over flat every single time.  Despite my mental struggle and the start of the real physical one, I had started moving through the female pros and knew that I was moving along just as well as any of them.  This motivated me enough to keep cruising through to lap 3.

The rain arrived just in time to match any motivation that I had in continuing.  By the time I left town for the last time, it was no longer just a light sprinkle...cold, heavy, windy rain.  Although I am fairly comfortable riding in rainy conditions, my bigger concern was the congestion around me and staying safe.  I had come around the back of the age groupers and was now passing continuously.  Conditions were slippery and dangerous, and I was on the verge of getting very, very cold.

I was forced to slow down enormously on the last 15k, but realized that I was still going to post a personal best bike split.  It would have been awesome to be able to finish up strongly, but I recognized that rubber side down was preferential.  The last section into transition was so slippery that I was unable to brake...a volunteer caught both me and my bike just before I skidded out.  I guess that's one way of dismounting.

Brain:  We got this!
Brain:  Just go to T2 and change.
Brain:  The tent will be warm.
Brain: Shut up.  

My T2 time was about as glacial as my toes, but the time spent was a necessary evil in keeping me in the race.  The volunteers were amazing and had warm towels to dry my feet, and they draped another towel around my shoulders to help me gain some body heat while I put on dry shorts and socks.  I was shivering and sore, and not at all excited about the prospect of running a marathon.

The first few steps out of T2 felt like they always do - junky and gross.  I was still cold, but felt a little better after splashing some water on my face and shoving a gel down.  The only thing you can really do is just keep moving, as crappy as it feels.  However, what happened over the next 2k was really interesting.  I started to feel great.  Running felt easy.  I felt light, and dare I say, happy-ish.  Of course, this good feeling terrified me and I chalked it up to too much gel.

Brain:  WTF
Body:  Wheeee!  Let's go!
Brain:  Go easy.  Slow down.  This is not normal.  
Body:  Wheeee!  You said PIZZA...let's go!  
Brain:  It feels easy now but this is not going to last.
Body:  Screw it!  Let's go!

And, in a complete reversal of the way things usually play out during an Ironman marathon, my body trumped my brain.  Through 10k in 49 minutes.  Half marathon in 1:44.  Perfect little metronome splits.  Just waiting, waiting for the crash.

That crash never came.  The first lap featured pouring rain and conditions that would rival a regular fall day in Vancouver, my shoes were soaking wet and I was drenched, but managing to stay warm.  I ate gel at regular intervals, in fact more gel than I usually manage to get down, and I started on the cola at the halfway mark as usual.  My feet didn't hurt.  My legs felt fine.  My heart rate was controlled.  Dare I say, I felt fantastic.

The silly ridiculousness of the entire thing was not lost on me at all, and I spent most of the run absolutely beaming at the absurdity of the entire situation.  It was pouring.  In the desert.  We were slopping through mucky red puddles and sliding around on slippery concrete.  And, most absurd of all, after riding a 5:07, in my second ironman in two months, six weeks after surgery, I was simply chugging along happy as can be.  If that's not something to smile at, not much is.

Happily chugging along.
The only real issue I encountered was that, due to the cooler weather, I just wasn't sweating out my hydration the way I usually do, which necessitated about 4 potty stops. Moving time on my watch reflected a 3:29 marathon split, so those stops cost me about 4 minutes in total because my stop time was 3:33. While frustrating (and what ultimately would cost me my sub-10), I am not sure I would do anything different in retrospect. The amount of food and drink I was consuming was keeping me buoyant - whatever it was, was working.

I crossed the line as the 15th pro female, in 10:01 and change, and about 16 minutes faster than I have covered the distance before.  I'd like to say that it was all of the hard training, a positive mental attitude, great race execution, blah, blah, blah, but the truth is I have no idea how I pulled that race out of my a**.

What I can say, however, from someone who did not come from any kind of "elite" sporting background, this season has ended up being a marvelous foray into possibility.  None of the three sports that add up to a triathlon come particularly naturally to me (especially at a "pro" level), nor do I have any kind of sporting pedigree.  I'm just an Alberta kid who who learned to swim and bike at the age of 35, with the (at the time lofty) goal of finishing a sprint distance tri.

Six years later, at ripe age of 41 (eek!), I am looking back at a season that not only included a 900k bike race, but also two ironman finishes, and damned close to that oh-so-elusive sub-10 time, and a 15th place finish in a deep pro field.  That's a lot of shits and giggles to me.  More incredibly, none of this was done on a "conventional" training plan - in fact, far from it.  It came from slugging it out, more than a few moments of being talked off the ledge by my coach and my own brain, rolling with a lot of punches, more Whole Foods single-person dinners than I care to admit to and more than a few strokes of good luck.

I certainly don't have it all figured out (far from it, actually), but am appreciative of the journey, of these experiences, of the low moments that yield high ones, and the opportunity to learn each step of the way.  

The best laid training plan is not what gets you to the finish line - it's the determination, execution and guts it takes to lay it down day after day, believing in the process, and trusting that you are capable of getting there.  And, on the days when you don't trust yourself, trusting the people around you when they tell you that it is going to be fine.  Most importantly, getting to the line requires moving forward, even when things aren't going so great.  Races, and life, are long enough to afford you to bounce back from the little bumps on the way.  No matter how shitty those moments are, no matter how many of them there may be, no matter how many times you have to traverse the same path in order to get it right, that long road has a purpose.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Impromptu racing - IM Choo

Long distance triathlon is a pretty strange sport. For whatever the reason - perhaps because of the time consuming training, the desire to obsessively plan, the need to book travel, or the hope of participating in high-demand events - I have since my first year of triathlon laid out The Plan.  Moreover, The Plan always has a theme - prioritizing races to culminate in The Race, followed by "off-season" where I attempt to be "normal" but really end up secret race planning for the next season.

Deviations from The Plan and/or failure to put a check mark beside The Race are in equal turns distressing and frustrating, because they usually mean that things are not going well.  Work, reality, injury, fatigue...whatever the reason. When The Plan goes off the rails, experience is that it's probably time for a break and a reset.  In irrational, Type A, success-driven, triathlete-land, however, the ability to accept the need to hit reset is usually a last-ditch attempt to salvage The Plan.

The Plan definitely did not have me backing up the Haute Route with any more racing, but after the unexpected DNF in Whistler, I honestly felt a little lost.  With the idea that the long ride days at the Haute Route would contribute to my bike fitness, I discussed the possibility of racing IM Chattanooga with Coach Jasper and tentatively signed up just before leaving for Europe.

Was this audacious?  Ridiculous?  Against my better judgement?  Probably all of the above.  So I stubbornly did it anyway.

Ready or not...

Upon returning from Venice, the illness I had fended off the during the Haute Route promptly turned into a nasty head cold and sinus infection (of course, I blame the long overseas flight and not the 900k of riding that preceded it).  The brutal head cold, in addition to some serious fatigue, left me unable to do any meaningful training and pretty much stuck on the couch.

One week before race day, all my workouts were shelved in favor of an emotional breakdown and 18 hours of sleep.  I began packing (aka throwing lycra into a pile on the floor) with about as much enthusiasm as a trip to the dentist for a root canal.  The thought of travelling across the continent to stand on the sidelines (or worse, a DNF) was a lot more than my heart had in it.  I also did not have a ton of support in my corner - pretty much everyone I knew thought I was stark raving mad to consider it.

If you had seen me the day before stepping on the plane, popping antibiotics, wads of Kleenex in hand, you would understand just how preposterous the idea of racing 5 days later was.  Under any other circumstances I would have pulled the pin, but knowing that I was facing surgery in early October, I felt a little like there was nothing to lose.

There were several serious and panicked conversations with Jasper in the days before I left, and I am sure Jasper started to feel more like a psychiatrist than a triathlon coach during many of these discussions (read:  meltdowns).  There are many coaches who are great, experienced athletes, who understand human physiology, and who can plan workouts - I see this as a baseline, but not what makes a coach truly exceptional.  It is Jasper's uncanny ability to see the big picture, to wrap everything together with a band of possibility, that makes him nothing short of awesome.  He listens, he sees potential, and has an incredible way of putting it in grasp.  Despite the horrible immune response my body was in, he believed from experience that there was a big base of endurance underneath it.  Admittedly, even he thought it was a bit of a gamble and, in his words, "it would either go well or be total shit".

I giggled at this after Choo was over, because I realize that it really says nothing and covers all manner of outcomes.  What I realize now is that, in his wise, experienced manner, Jasper was putting the expectation entirely on me.  By forcing me out of my skepticism into a place of belief and possibility (it "could" go well), no matter how much of a gamble it was, I started optimistically believing that the former could (and would) be true.

And so it goes...

Even under the best possible circumstances, I would have a lot of anxiety about racing Choo. As things became less and less ideal, it compounded.     

I frame all of this not to be negative, and not to create excuses, but because I find these are the things few athletes speak of - the expectations, the emotional weight, the pressure, the physical strain - and how they deal with it.  I ask myself often why I race, why I put so much pressure on myself. The answer, I am afraid, is far from rational.  I know I choose it, and it really ends up being a lot about chasing an intangible - that amazing feeling, the accomplishment, the summer wind.  It only takes one perfect race in a lifetime to make you a total junkie for it.  You also never know if, or when, you will ever find it again.

Exacerbating my stress about the state of my health and self-doubt over the lack of quality swim and run training leading into the race was my general feeling about triathlon in general.  It weighed on me that I had not finished an Ironman distance race in over a year (since Norseman), had chalked up two DNF's (Mallorca and Whistler) and was honestly starting to feel like I was an old, ugly duckling who was not cut out for the sport.  Whether I would be able to overcome the self-doubt while racing was foremost on my mind.

I know two things.  One is that if I had let myself believe in failure, it would certainly have found me in the days before Choo.  The other is that I am fairly certain my triathlon "career" would have ended with another DNF.  If I was starting, I was finishing...in one way or the other.

Choo Choo!

As it turned out, Chattanooga surprised me. I didn't really know what to expect of the town, the race course or my own performance, and perhaps this is what made it so utterly fantastic in retrospect.

While it is a reasonable thing to debate the "difficulty" of various Ironman courses, and acknowledging that Choo features a down-river swim, I found the course not only fun, but challenging.  The swim simplicity is more than offset by a long bike course (an extra four miles!) and an absolute bitch of a run.  What makes IMChoo so exceptional, however, was the people - small city hospitality, and everyone so very friendly and welcoming.  Incredible restaurants and lodging (OMG Whole Foods!), easy to get around (bike share!), great weather.  It honestly reminded me a bit of Penticton in its heyday - all of the volunteers and spectators were spirited, supportive and incredible.

I have spared an overly detailed narrative and the play-by-play of the swim, bike, run.  The day was about as fun as 144.6 miles could possibly be, with the typical array of highlights and lowlights (...this is awesome!  no, it's not! why am I here?)  

The swim was definitely a highlight for me, curiously enough, and while the river was not running as quickly as it was in the previous year, we did catch a little draft enough for me to crack an hour on my swim (slow swimmers rejoice!).  Jumping into the river in the pre-dawn darkness, crickets chirping was pretty surreal, and was one of the most peaceful and enjoyable race starts I have experienced.  Although I quickly lost touch with the fast swimming pack ahead of me (damn, those women are fast!), I was excited to discover I was only slightly behind the female pro directly front of me.  Besides, it makes it very easy to spot your transition bag when you are DFL pro out of the water :)

My greatest fear in racing pro for the first time was not belonging, and I was really pleased to be able to make short work of DFL shortly after jumping on my bike.  Slowly, but surely, I was able to make up some of my swim deficit and start picking off some of the pros at the back.  Racing at the so-called "front" of the race is a great experience - definitely a hard, honest effort, but so worth it.  I love, love, loved being out of the age group scrum, free to ride my own ride without the stupid surging.       

I didn't have much company on the bike, but far from being lonely, I found it an incredible opportunity to keep my effort even and race my own race, at the intensity I wanted.  There was occasionally some cat and mouse with pro women that I was able to catch, but for the most part it was a solo affair.  The bike course was great - fast, lots of rollers, pretty Georgia countryside - and for the first time in weeks, I felt awesome. 

Riding happy in an Ironman.  Unicorns do exist.
The second loop of the course was a bit more challenging, having come back around the end of the age groupers, and I was frustrated to be slowed down by traffic delays and congestion.  I probably would have been more annoyed had I been "in" the race, but as it was, there was really little I could seek to gain by riding aggressively.  My split read 5:09 at 180k (albeit with 4 miles left to go on the long course), and I have honestly never felt better during a race.  In retrospect, I probably went a little too easy, having been out of view of the other female pros and not feeling terribly competitive, but it was a good experience.

The start of the run beckoned with the usual dead legs and "why am I doing this shit" narrative, but the yucky brick legs quickly warmed up with a bit of a nasty hill out of T2.  With the complete lack of run training going into the race, I knew it was a matter of when, and not if, the wheels were going to come off, so I ran at a conservatively optimistic pace and tried to just keep it under 5:00/km.

Smiling out of T2
My legs decided to pack out for the day around 18k of the run, during a series of brutal hills (that we would have the pleasure of repeating), and the remainder of the day became a little walk / run adventure with the usual cola fueled soul-searching.  A package of shot blocks placed in my special needs became the best food I had eaten all day, and I resigned myself to "just finish", albeit with a smile on my face.  Walk, or no walk, it was in reach.  

While the almost total lack of run fitness was not ideal, it was not unexpected either.  I would have been far more disappointed with my day had I believed I had put the requisite run work in, but knowing the base I had, I was pretty happy with the finish.  Not every race needs to be a personal best to be a success.  I realize that I am sometimes fine-tuned to being my own own worst critic, to ripping apart every aspect of a race execution, so very erroneously focusing on "fast" instead of "happy".  

Quite the opposite, finishing Choo was all about "happy" and having perspective.  First of all, it was a finish.  This is a crazy, hard sport, and 144 miles is a ridiculously long way.   I realize that 10:23 and 24th place pro is not blazing fast, but I am truly appreciative of that result.  It was an awesome learning experience to race with the pro women (at the age of 40 years young, no less), and one that I will always be proud of.  Stepping back and taking it all in - my humble triathlete beginnings to the most un-ideal race prep possible to getting to toe the line with pros to shaking the DNF demon - I felt like what I did in Choo (even in a very limited perspective) was a pretty cool and amazing thing.     

Actually smiling in the finish chute...for real.

Finishing Choo also saved me from the weight of failing The Plan, as ridiculous as that may sound.  It didn't feel fast, and there was a lot left to be desired with my shitty run.  However, it refreshingly felt like there was possibility once again, and that I actually had a place there.  My "pro" litmus test was whether I could go under 10:30 (which I did) and whether I would have won my hypothetical AG (which I did).

Oddly enough, I have never recovered more quickly from a race and my cold went away the day of the race.  I was out and about only hours after finishing, and moving well the next few days - it was a strange thing to finish an Ironman and feel better than the weeks leading into the race.  Perhaps this was because my brain was telling me it was off-season (foreshadowing...), the pressure was off, and the relief was enormous.  Eat at will.  Drink coffee.  Dream of next season.  Focus on real life.  Appreciate.  


I cannot express enough thanks to both Jasper and Speed Theory for supporting me in this impromptu race, for talking me down from my panic, and for making sure I got to that start line with my head facing the right direction. Thank you.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Haute Route Dolomites 2015...the rest

If there is one thing I can pass on from my humbling experiences in life, thus far, I will tell you this, the next time someone tells you "the absence of expectations is the absence of disappointment, do not listen. Have expectations. Keep them great. It'll be a very bumpy ride. You'll even get bruised, sometimes very badly. Sometimes, you'll come to an abrupt halt or even fall off your ride. But you'll grow. And if you do not grow, you do not live.” 
― Pandora Poikilos

Splitting my recollection of the Haute Route between Day 4 and Day 5 was very intentional.  My mindset up, and through, Day 4 was very naive.  I really had no idea how my body would be affected by 7 days of solid, challenging riding, and even more importantly, how my mind would react.  And, whether intentional or not, I had expectations of myself, of the ride, and how it would play out.

Not surprisingly, the variances in weather and physically exhausting days left me feeling tired and on the cusp of being ill. I felt physically damaged.  What was happening mentally, however, was quite the opposite.  The adversity of the weather, the difficulty of the riding, was so absolutely humbling, harder than anything I had ever done before.  If I allowed the difficulty to get to me, quitting was in reach.  Stepping back and appreciating the ride, however, enabled me to grasp what was at hand.

It is so easy to map out a plan for for the ideal situation, but when the race starts and doesn't go in the way of your expectations, you are left with nothing more than grit and resilience to get you through.  There is a choice.  It is at this point where you can allow all of the long hours of training and preparation to come into play, enabling the ability to endure despite resistance, reaching the point where your mind simply tells the body what it needs to do.

Appreciate...Stage 5 - Bormeo to Merano

I woke up on the morning of Stage 5 feeling awful.  Uninterested in food, exhausted and coughing.  If this had been an average, everyday training ride, I would not have hesitated in heading back to bed.  Here, the choice was stark:  the ride was leaving at 7am, like it or not.  If I wanted to finish, it was go time.

Layered up with every warm piece of gear I had packed, we rolled out onto the cold cobblestones of Bormeo.  At a mere 4 degrees in the village, Stage 5 was the beginning of a theme that would persist for the next three mornings:  climb cold.  No warm up was afforded to us today, with the intermediate climb to the base of the Gavia beginning immediately as we departed Bormeo.  The mood in the peloton was introspective, lots of steamy breath and no words, and no one rode very fast at all for the first 10k of neutral climbing before we reached the beginning of the "official" climb.

Although we climbed from what is apparently the "easier" side of the mountain, I cannot imagine ever describing this climb as easy.  As I had already learned, the 6.7% promised "average" failed to mention several double digit kickers where I am absolutely sure my bike was actually sliding backhill, and in particular featuring one section that I am grateful to have kept the crank moving, period.  Whether it was the cumulative fatigue of the preceding days, the fact that I continued to feel under the weather, or the cold itself, this climb was downright hard.

Despite the cold, however, it was a stunning bluebird day.  It would have been very easy to get caught up in my pity parade and absolutely miss the wonder surrounding me, but instead I just soaked it in.  Every section higher up the mountain yielded a scenic delight, beginning with emerald forest, yielding to carpets of green in the sub-alpine and finally a vast tundra of rock and snow in the alpine.  Topping out at just over 2,600m, the summit was an icy and unforgettable wonderland.  Ski touring at its most amazing...on a bike.

Words don't describe the beauty of the Gavia as well as these pictures do.  Heaven on earth on a bike.

Meandering through emerald green bliss at the base

Starting to get a bit punchy mid-climb...but the views never stop
Rewarded with the crazy descent
After cresting the summit and taking a short break at the top to layer up, we pitched ourselves over the top into a decent that was simply trancendental.  That there are places like this in this world, so much larger than life, so captivating, so unworldly...I have no words.  The icy rock once again yielded to emerald green expanse as far as the eye could see.  Despite the cold, the terrible frigid cold, it was an absolute wonder to descend the Gavia.

The rest of the ride really didn't matter, for the high of the Gavia would last me the rest of the day. The next climb, Passo del Tonale, was rather unforgettable, although the descent down it was an incredible amount of fun featuring perfect, sweeping turns on fantastic pavement that I enjoyed immensely. #nobrakesrequired

In the usual Haute Route fashion, we had a long section of relatively flat interlude leading up to the last climb, most of it on a twisty bike path.  Although many of the riders complained about this section, the weather was great and it was a fun section to ride with a group.  Not a "road race" at all, but a nice change of pace to my mind.

The organizers, however, completely undersold the final climb up the Passo Castrina and seemed to have some challenges in both correctly measuring the distance of the day's ride as well as appropriately locating aid stations.  Dubbed as one of the "easiest" climbs of the week in all of the race literature, it was anything but.  The heat had crept up through the morning, and it was approaching nothing short of downright hot.  I peeled all of my layers - leg warmers, arm sleeves, vests - and jammed it all into my very tiny jersey pockets.

The warmth of the sun was invigorating, and I realized that I had a lot of energy to spare.  Recalling the final climb on the first day, I shoved down gel like it was going out of style and went for it.  Unfortunately, there was nothing "easy" about this climb, and the mileage markers were about 8k off...meaning that I dropped everything I had with way too long left.  Undeterred, I pressed on and had one of my best finishes of the week, promptly followed by an incredible, and equally uplifting neutral descent into Merano.

South Tirol is stunning and the smooth winding descent through the village was the perfect reward to another difficult day.  Castles, sweeping green valleys, cascading waterfalls, long sweeping roads.  Simply magical.

The stunning valley leading into Merano (photo credit: not my photo!)
Although my physical state had not really improved, the ride left me in an incredibly positive mental state, fit to overcome the odds.  Where there had been dubious moments during the previous four days, at this point there was no question that I would finish...no matter what obstacles presented themselves.  I was too close, having fun once again, having realized that all my expectations were so naive.  At the same time, I realized that this ride wasn't about the finish at all - it was about the ride to get there, with all its bumps, and challenges, and horrible horrible demands.  

Endure...Day 6 - Merano to Cortina

Waking to rain pounding on the balcony of my hotel was an abrupt return to reality.  Summoning every bit of positive energy from the day before to head out in the rain, the start of Stage 6 evoked memories of the cold, damp time trial.  To say I lacked enthusiasm as I rolled to the start was an understatement.

The first climb of the day, Passo Sella, was listed at 8.5km, 7.5% grade.  In reality, the climb started only 20km from the start, from the village of Bolzano - we would ascend for 60km, nearly 2,000m from the get go.  At first, it was gradual, playful climbing, followed by steep, aggressive inclines before we even reached the listed "base" of the climb.  Scattered showers and plummeting temperatures added to the mix, with visibility at nearing the top of the pass no more than a few meters.  This was more than an honest effort, it was simply a beast - unrelenting, unrewarding.  In fact, if you could design a cycling purgatory, it may well look like this.

At the top of the Sella, the winds were whipping my face with ice fog.  I have experienced similar days only on a ski hill in the middle of Canadian winter, and never in my wildest imagination on a road bike.  The image of me at the top of this climb speaks volumes - devoid of pleasure, my face tells the misery.  Hands frozen, barely functioning as I tried to maintain control over my bike.  Teeth chattering.  Toes like soggy icicles.  Nerves stinging from the cold.    

My entire body felt in crisis.  I was too cold to fathom either stopping or continuing, as both seemed to be equally awful choices.  Badly in need of fuel from the feed station at the top because I had grossly underestimated the time required to reach the summit, I hurriedly grabbed several of the much maligned eucalyptus-horror gels.  I was quickly ushered back onto my bike and down the hill by several volunteers that were obviously tasked with hurrying us along.  There was no need to explain this to me, as I knew that the longer I stopped, the harder it would be to go on.  Much from being a reprieve, the steep and short descent to the next pass was vicious.  Words cannot describe how cold I was, shaking uncontrollably, my mind focused on one task alone - staying upright.  My entire body was rigid, fleeing the situation as fast as I could possible manage, not knowing if it would actually get better, but trying so hard to convince myself that it would get better...it sure as hell could not have gotten any worse.

As I descended and immediately started upwards again to the Passo Pordoi, my miserable mind recycled these dichotomous thoughts:  "this is stupid" and "I am not quitting".  Powered by those two thoughts alone, disconnecting from my physical discomfort, my legs simply became an engine.  I can only imagine that this place, with its towering limestone cliffs and steep valleys, may have been stunning on brighter day.  On this day, however, shrouded in ice and fog, the Dolomites were nothing short of menacing.

The timers marked my finish at what I thought was the intermediate timing mat with their usual pronouncement of "Chrono.  Stop", but then tentatively added (in broken English), "Today".  This confused me, as the route had us descending to the base of the Passo di Falzareggo before finishing our descent into the charming Italian ski town of Cortina.  Simon met me at the finish and affirmed their statement - the race had been called due to weather concerns, with the Italian police threatening to pull the race permits if any remaining sections were timed.

I am not sure if I was relieved or disappointed at this point, as the next section of the course (albeit shrouded in fog) was one of the most scenic.  What the impromptu finish did have going for it, however, was a delightfully warm ski lodge that welcomed the legions of cold, tired, wet cyclists.  Three delicious hot chocolates and many giggles later, everyone's spirits had improved.  

Apres ski on the mountaintop...I mean, ride. 
The organizers confirmed that the stage was called at the top of the Pordoi, and the riders had the choice of either being transported to Cortina (several buses were dispatched) or continuing along the route.  Given my shaky health, the cold weather and my soaked clothing, it was simply the smarter decision for me to take the ride.  Disappointed, yes, but also the smarter thing to do.

Arriving in the ski village of Cortina, the air remained cold and it continued to feel more après-ski than après-ride.  The temperature hovered near zero for evening and into the morning, but thankfully our rustic lodging was warm, comfortable and welcoming.  My suite even had a jetted tub (oh the bliss!) and the northern italian cuisine was warming comfort food at its finest...these simplicities, creature comforts even more appreciable given the conditions endured to get there.  

The soaring mountainous panorama of Cortina
Exalt...Day 7 - Cortina to Venice

As slow and drawn out as the journey felt at times, tens of thousands of pedal turns later, I awoke to realize that a "mere" 174 more kilometres separated Cortina us from the final destination in Venice.  Incredible to believe, seemingly impossible in so many moments, and yet that final day seemed to appear in the flashest of flashes.

It was almost as though Stage 7 greeted us, the reward for the resilience of the past days being a glorious, crisp, bluebird day.  It is truly incredible how quickly the mind forgets the pain and exalts the task at hand, drawn by possibility of overcoming impossibility.  A limestone wall could have well stood in my path at that point (well, in fact it did) and I would have embraced the challenge.

The organizers once again pulled no punches and got straight down to business.  We ascended straight into a first class climb, the Passo Giau, nearly 20k of climbing and our final ascent to altitude (2,236m) for the week.  Whether it was the tired legs, the climb felt steep and never ending, but was as visually rewarding as it was difficult.  Compared to the day before, when we were shrouded in ice fog and the mind was left to wander in grey misery, the stunning, sunlit peaks provided endless fodder for the imagination to run wild here.  We began the base of the climb in the early morning shadows, poetically drawn by the sun streaming from the top of the summit, cresting the top just as the rays of the sun reached across the crisp dusting of snow.  It was simply perfect, so perfect.  

Bluebird morning over the snowy pass
Invigorated by the sun for one last monster Dolomite climb
The reward of the snowy descent
The chilly descent was the final chance to let loose under timing - cold as all hell, but visually stunning and so rewarding after a long week of hard, wet descents.  The steep descent yielded to a more moderate, but still screaming descent, leading us out of the Dolomites and into the Veneto region.  Like a roller-coaster ride, you simply could not help but smile at the enjoyment of it all, essentially a carefree effort for the next sixty kilometres, provided you found a good group to work with.

On paper, it was easy to dismiss the final climb up Passo San Boldo as a mere speed bump, but once again we were subject to the trickery of the "averaging" methodology...meaning that the "up" sections were actually well in excess of the posted 3.2% average.  I can honestly say that I left it all out here, on this final climb on the final day, even though my speed was probably pretty laughable.  Before I even realized it, one blissful final call of "Chrono.  Stop." and the timed section was done, the last ascent complete.  All of the negative thoughts and the mental trickery was beaten, having more appreciation for the power of belief in myself than I have possibly ever had before.

The very awesome descent of Passo San Boldo
We had to traverse another 70k of road before reaching the final destination in Venice, the final section consisting of a flat, social procession.  The finish line was almost anti-climactic, minds turned from the challenge of the road ahead to recounting the tales of the days past.  Those days already felt mythical and unreal, with reality slowly creeping back in.  A medal and a finisher's shirt a mere souvenir, the memories being the true momento of the journey.

The sense of personal achievement, the individuality of an event like this, is what makes it like no other.  It is less a race than it is avoidance of attrition, and truly humbling. In seven stages covering 900k, resilience trumped pain.  Presence of mind trumped disbelief.  Belief in possibility trumped fear of the unknown.  I feel a huge sense of personal achievement, regardless of the relative weight of my effort compared to any other endurance feat.  It is the realization that this matters to no one but me - so many stories and anecdotes of these days will go untold, remaining only in my memory.  At the same time, the experience makes me smile, a very personal smile, and my heart swells with the belief that I persevered.  There were times that I simply hated it to the core - the cold, the pain - and yet, even days after, I longed for the days spent on my bike.

And, in retrospect, as the post-traumatic stress and saddle sores heal, I miss being there.  There is allure in the simplicity of it all, just getting on your bike and moving forward.  Hearing my breath, challenging my own being, believing in the possible and having the incredible opportunity to admire the stunning world around me.  No amount of training could have prepared me for the adventure, and no words truly capture the experience.

We did it!
The journey is not without gratitude as well
...to Roger and Geoff for convincing me that this amount of fun (read: suffering) was in fact possible, albeit not a very relaxing way to spend a vacation.
...to Martina for gleefully agreeing to come along, for commiserating in the most positive of ways, and for making those low moments so much brighter knowing I had to chase you up a mountain.
...to Matt and Simon at Magic Places for being well-humored, and so expertly navigating the logistics, providing moral support and generally putting up with my shit.  Cycling in Europe will never be the same without you.
...to Coach Jasper for constantly believing in the somewhat crazy plans I get myself into.  

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Haute Route Dolomites 2015...the first days

On Sunday, August 31 at sunrise, I rolled out of Geneva in a peloton of just over 400 riders, commencing what would be a true roller coaster ride. Seven days and some 900km later, I rolled into Venice, completing an adventure that traversed the Swiss Alps and Dolomites, What transpired in between was a test of resilience, grit and fortitude that I could hardly have imagined when we rolled out of Stage 1.

This post is long (the first of two), and full of details and photos that are probably most interesting to only me, intended to preserve my memory of an extremely challenging and introspective week on two wheels.  The "fun" aspect of the race is starting to bubble to the surface, here and there, perhaps as the immediate pain subsides, and despite the fact that the immediately gratifying moments seemed at times to be in short supply during this week.  As with all events of epic proportions (and I do not use the term epic lightly...it really does belong here), I expect that the not-immediately-apparent fun will seep out more in the days, months and years following.  Remember when...?

Hot hot heat...Stage 1 - Geneva to Crans-Montana 

From the get-go, the organizers made it clear this was no cruiser ride.  Stage 1 was 176km, the first 20k of which was neutral, followed by three peaks of climbing, a 60k neutral section through the beautiful green slopes of the Valais, and a final climb into Crans-Montana.  On paper, this "seems" reasonable enough.  Add heat, incredible scenery, relatively rested legs...shake it up a little with some over-enthusiastic ignorance...add a little more heat, and you have a hellishly hard day on a bike.  I did, however, learn a lot about the modus operandi of the Haute Route that would serve me well in the following days.

The first three climbs were in quick succession, and after stopping for a brief "nature break", I fell back into a small peloton 10-12 riders who were happy to work together as a group (sidebar...it is amazing how many riders do not realize that working together is actually better!)  Although these initial climbs were comparative foothills to the behemoths we would face later in the week, I naively underestimated them.  The first two were "third class" climbs and the third a "second class".  This would be the first big lesson of the week:  6% may not be steep in isolation, but it deserves respect when you compound it climb after climb.  I was pretty shelled by the time I hit the top of the first timing mat of the day...and the best (worst?) was yet to come.  

In my mind, I was 3/4 done the ride...and yet I had over 80k to go.  For *most* people, 60k is a decently long ride, not an interlude between two races. The 60k of neutral between the timed climbs is what I learned to be pure Haute Route evil.  The race itself was perhaps half of your day, but you still had to cover a substantial time and distance in the saddle to get from point A to point B.  So while my race time shows 3-something hours...ride time was actually 7-something hours.

The further unanticipated factor on day 1 was the heat.  Hot, brutal, desert heat.  As we rode through the vineyards in the Rhone Valley, the landscape made it pretty obvious that the heat should have come as no surprise.  By noon, it easily in the thirties, and we found ourselves dipping our heads into the water fountains in the little villages as we passed through the Valais. Anything to cool down.

When we reached the based of the final climb, the temperature was hitting 40 degrees.  At the final aid station, I was not entirely appreciative of the gruff reminders from Geoff and Rich to eat and drink like crazy ("eat like it is your job!!!"), but nevertheless dutifully listened and stocked up my bike with more water and gel than I had reasonably expected to consume.  I had completely underestimated my nutritional needs and had already consumed my pre-packed 6 hours worth of "treats", thus forced to dig into the nasty race-supplied gels.  I would only make this mistake once...mint and eucalyptus-flavored gel is simply AWFUL, akin to slurping on rancid toothpaste.  Who thought that was a good flavour?

I would love to say how scenic and lovely the climb into Crans-Montana was, but I really don't remember much except that it really hurt.  Twenty-one fully exposed kilometres, close to 1,000m of elevation gain.  Along with newfound respect for over-anticipating nutritional needs, came an understanding not to trust the elevation charts provided to us.  "Average" 4.6% grade does truly mean average, so when partway through the climb the road starts descending, comes the horrible realization that the average must now be equalized upwards.  What number makes -5% average to 4.6%?  Something bad, very, very bad indeed.  The "equalizing" 10-12% grade at the top was brutal, sheer brutal on some very shell-shocked legs.  Diesel-engine-survival mode, which unknowingly would become my default for the rest of the week, kicked in...turn the pedals, forward forward, don't think about the pain, turn the pedals.  
The look on my face as I finish the day tells the tale:  what the hell just happened?  And I have 6 more days?
I realize that none of this sounds like an endorsement for the ride so far, but to be honest, my system was just shocked after Stage 1.  It was one of the hardest, hottest days I have ever endured.  I was more wrecked than I have been after some Ironman races.  To say I was "enthused" about what lay ahead would be lying...I was terrified of what was to come.  We weren't even really in the Alps yet!

Finding my breath...Stage 2 - Crans-Montana to Andermatt 

The organizers split the start of Stage 2 into three waves, separated by finish position for the day before.  With my finish at 132, I was to start in the final wave.  Unfortunately, this would prove to be my undoing as I was quickly dropped after the 60k neutral start by a group of over-eager hyenas racing up the intermediate climb to the base of the Furkapass.  We had been pre-warned not to overcook ourselves on this section of intermediate climbs and false flats leading into two first class climbs for the day, so I sat back and puttered along by myself.

In contrast to the day before, I was pretty cognizant that I was now riding at the back of the race, and even had the company of the Lanterne Rouge during the first timed section!  There is little more motivating than being at the back of the pack, and I found my groove as I started spinning up the base of the climb.  Bear in mind that we had tootled a "mere" 80k along the valley before reaching the first "real" climb of the day (wearing the legs down), and while I knew that the summit of the Furkapass would be a challenge, the first real look at the indomitable climb took my breath away.

If you could fashion a mountain climb, it would look like this.  Stunningly cinematic - sheer rock, switchback after switchback, exposed rock staring down, threatening to swallow me whole.

What struck me most about Furkapass was not the stunning visual beauty, however, but the deafening peacefulness.  I could hear my breath with every push of the pedals, occasionally a car passing or another rider, but then just my breath.  Vacant sounds of cowbells resounding through the valley, like distant crowds cheering a race I was never in.  Breathing harder as the switchbacks grew shorter, steeper, more frenzied.  More breath, sharp gasps, as I looked above me and saw tiers of riders atop me...so many tiers of them...up up up.

Sixteen unrelenting kilometres of breath.  The 5k to go sign passed, and it grew steeper, unrelenting.  1k to go.  The wind started, the fog, the cold.  Breathless cold.  

At the top of the climb (and the finish of the first timed section), I grabbed every bit of spare clothing I had for the descent.  I ate the best stolen breakfast croissant of my life.  The wind was howling, and my frozen fingers could barely control my bike as I navigated the hairpin turns down.  The steep grades and tight corners that made for such challenging climbing also proved brutal in the reverse.  The road on the descent was barely wide enough for two cars, let alone a row of cyclists navigating the steep pitch.  The Swiss also apparently feel it is unnecessary to have guard rails or any sort of crash protection, so needless to say, the descent was terrifying.  The term "white-knuckled" got downright personal with me.

Being seriously serious about the harrowing descent of the Furkapass. 
I managed to thaw a little upon reaching the ski village of Andermatt, with the organizer's having devilishly planned a route that teased us with an out and back climb up the Oberalpass.  Oh how tempting it was to simply stay, especially when realizing that the 144k posted route did not include the descent back to a warm shower.  Bonus kilometres?  At least they were downhill!  Surprisingly, I managed to find my legs on this second climb of the day, finally warm for the first time all day, passing quite a few riders from my place at the back and even had a little left for a finishing sprint.

The little engine that could.
Unfortunately, the day did not end with the descent into Andermatt as we had a long coach bus ride to St. Moritz to tag onto the next section of the route.  In order to get the route from Geneva to Venice in one week while traversing the storied climbs in the Alps and Dolomites, this was a necessary evil, and unfortunately made for an irritating end to a very long day.  What was waiting for us in St. Moritz, however, was almost worth the bus ride...a lovely family run hotel with the most wonderful, strange, amazing German / Swiss / Italian bistro.  Impossibly inexplicable culinary genius to tired riders?  Yes!  Heaven only to me?  Probably!

Soggy doggy...Stage 3 - St. Moritz time trial

Stage 3 was as furiously miserably rainy as Stage 1 was hot.  The weather pattern had shifted, and mother nature had a very different day in store for us for our time trial up the Bernina Pass.  In a word:  heinous.

This stage began our foray into not only the Dolomites, but into winter.  At 2,330m, the top of the pass was forecast to be 5 degrees, with relentless driving rain ensuring that my entire body was soaked through by the time I reached the summit.  No sooner than I had exited the first roundabout heading out of St. Moritz, than a garbage truck passed me with a large wave of water that engulfed every inch of me.  My clear jacket clung to me, and I would have probably laughed had I not been too busy swearing to myself at the time.

The rain is still funny at this point.  
One would have thought that the smart thing, when utterly drenched and teeth chattering with cold, would not be to ride one's bike up a mountain pass.  And yet, sensibility tossed aside, my brain had already fixed my legs into doing just that.  Shut up and keep moving.
Could be a smile, could be a grimace.  I will never tell.
As I crossed the timing mat and started winding up the mountain, the game changed.  The audacity of the task at hand became really clear to me.  The Haute Route is big, it is bold, it is hard.  It is supposed to be!  And, if it were not already hard enough to get up each day and climb relentlessly, the weather was making the task even more brutal.  I wanted to cry, I wanted to quit...and what I did was fight back.    

At some point during the time trial, I just made a choice. That choice was to stay in...no matter what, no matter how audacious this was, just stay in.   It was no longer a race, but survival, and whatever it took to survive the ride, I was in for.  While this certainly sounds melodramatic in retrospect, I can assure you that in 7 degrees and driving rain, after two long days and 14 hours in the saddle, with four more long days staring you down, it is not.  As soon as quitting becomes an option, as soon as you allow that to happen, it becomes easy to do so.  I was not making that an option.  I was in.

When I reached the top, I was soaked through and cold.  Following Matt's instructions, I changed into warm clothes and put my bike into the van instead of doing the (optional) descent.  For me to make it through the next four days meant making smart choices, like choosing not to descend into driving rain and dangerous conditions.  Climbing into cold is so very different than descending into it, and as we drove down the hill and picked up another half-dozen hypothermic riders, it became pretty apparent that unless the weather changed that there would be safety concerns about upcoming aspects of the ride.  When the organizers made the decision that evening to abort the Stelvio climb the next day due to weather concerns, I fully understood that it was a necessity.  Disappointing? Yes.  However, ultimately this was the right decision as we approached several days of unexpected winter.

Still smiling!  The summit of the Bernina Pass
Ironically, the sun came out in the afternoon and treated us to a simply lovely afternoon to enjoy St. Moritz and warm up for what would be a cold few days to follow.

The fleeting St. Moritz sunshine
Resilience...Stage 4 - St. Moritz to Bormeo

Despite my efforts to stay as warm and rested as possible, I woke on Day 4 to a head cold and sore throat.  The furious weather and hard efforts of the previous three days had caught up to me, and I was firmly on the suffer bus.  Feeling lethargic, stuffed up and more than a little miserable, I was thankful for small miracles that the horrific rain had departed.  Moody, cold sky faced us, but at least it was dry.

Safety concerns in mind, the organizers required all of us to wear the very awesome, race-provided yellow vests and equip our bikes with lights.  Memories of Norseman flooded back as I pinned on my ill-fitted vest to prevent it from flapping in the wind.

With the brutal Stelvio (disappointingly) out of the picture, Stage 4 was now essentially an extended time trial that did not play well to my strengths.  Four second class climbs and corresponding descents, nothing too brutal, but a lot of punchy climbing and fast descending, favouring strong power riders.  Not the ideal for a little diesel like me, even on the best of days, and particularly not the ideal for an under-the-weather diesel.

It would be simply perfect if life were chock full of nothing but "hell, yes", but it is learning how to shake yourself out of "hell no" that drives character more.  Stage 4 was about resilience, about continuing in the wake of a whole lot of "hell no", about springing back even as I knew I was losing time to the front of the field, about riding my own ride and listening to what my body was capable on the day.

What riding a little slower gets you is an ability to process your surroundings.  Admittedly, there are many races that I have done where the surroundings passed without notice because I was so focused on maintaining a hard effort.  On Stage 4, my slower speed afforded me the ability to truly soak in the incredible surroundings.  Again, a game changer.  Not only was I in, but I was soaking it in, and if you have traversed the Dolomites on your bike without stopping to soak it in, you are truly missing out.


Careening down roads designed like ski hills, the descents were short but exhilarating, hypnotically addictive, inducing complete amnesia concerning the last climb, and so absolutely worth facing what was coming next.  It is no wonder the Italians are so fond of their race cars and race bikes - these roads simply beg to be traversed.  Fast.  The Dolomites stretched invitingly ahead of us, jagged grey teeth towering over a carpet of emerald green.

I was not fast, but I rode smart and within what my body felt it could afford on the day.  I preserved what strength and health I had for the next day, and I finished descending Passo Foscano with a smile on my face.  The 20-something kilometre descent into the charming village of Bormeo was nothing short of dazzling - this is truly road bike heaven if there were one.

In light of the aborted climb of the Stelvio, Matt and Simon graciously offered to take us to the summit to check out what we had missed.  The highest paved pass in Italy (and second highest in Europe), the Stelvio features 48 hairpin turns, masochistically numbered at each corner, as though taunting you of the sheer brutality of this climb.  Although we played car tourist on this day...you can be assured that I will return to conquer this one.    

Afraid of heights?  Hope not!

Happy to be warm and not climbing.
Our home for the evening, another lovely family run inn, was so warm and charming that I hated to leave.  Continuing to feel under the weather, I gave up on conventional race prep and attempted to charm my cold with a couple of glasses of Nebbiolo.  With cold weather forecasted for the next day's ascent of the Gavia, it certainly couldn't hurt.  Besides, I slept like a baby.  :)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Haute Route Dolomites 2015 - Staring down the devil

There are so many fitting descriptors for my Haute Route experience. 

Fearsome.  Challenging.  Breathtaking.  Traumatic.  Staggering. 

Only days removed from ride, I am exhilarated, but also completely shattered.  It is not an experience I will be able to forget anytime soon, but it may take weeks, months, or maybe even years to fully appreciate the enormity of it. 


Several friends had ridden Haute Route events in previous years (the Pyrenees and Alps events) and in the fall had started discussing doing Swiss Alps-Dolomites 2015.  I was told exactly how hard these rides were, but doing Norseman last year left me with a taste for more adventurous, unique races, and this definitely seemed to fit the bill.  A cycling-only adventure also intrigued me, and the opportunity to share the experience with a group of friends made it even more attractive.  At best, a challenging ride with friends…at worst, there would be familiar faces to commiserate with.   

The organizers bill their events as the “highest and toughest” cyclosportives in the world – each ride being an amateur, 7 day stage race featuring a relentless mountain route.  The Dolomite edition further has a reputation for its brutality.  This is no leisurely countryside bike tour, and is definitely not a ride for the faint of heart.    

Winding the 900 kilometer route through the high mountain passes between Geneva and Venice was an unprecedented challenge for me.  To date, my endurance adventures have all been focused on single day events, granted not easy ones, but certainly nothing like the Haute Route.  I do not particularly excel at long, successive days, never mind the treacherously long days that the route promised.  The ride terrified me, but that terror appealed and intrigued in a way that only endurance / adventure junkies could possibly relate to. 

Based on several recommendations, I chose to travel with one of the organization’s travel partners to help navigate the impossible logistics of the week.  Race briefings, early starts, shuttles, routes changes, bike storage, luggage transport, long days, quickly sourcing quality food and recovery…it was all pretty overwhelming.  It seemed to me that negotiating rural areas of foreign countries was challenging enough, never mind when you are completely shattered after riding for 7 hours.   In retrospect, this was one of the best planning decisions I made and vastly improved the quality of my experience.  

Matt and Simon from Magic Places (a Victoria-based cycling experience powerhouse) expertly shepherded us through all the crazy logistics of the week and, quite honestly, saved the entire ride for me several times over.  I cannot say enough about their knowledge and assistance.  

The ride…abridged

It is practically impossible to relay the collection of feelings and experiences of the last week in a short blog post.  I also realize that not everyone is interested in hearing the fine details of my suffering.  As such, I have written the abridged version here and am slowly working on a separate longer version (the latter for my own memory more than anything else).

My trusty Garmin tells me that over 7 days, I amassed 30 hours of riding. 900 kilometres.  20 cols. 16,000 meters of elevation gain.  Yes, meters.

That’s a lot of sweat, a lot of grit and a lot of chamois cream.

The backdrop for this descent into cycling purgatory was stunning.  We rolled through bucolic countryside, winding our way to the end point in Venice via storied mountain villages – Andermatt, St. Moritz, Bormeo. Cortina. 

As expected, the landscape was also as treacherous as it was visually appealing. There was just no easy here.  Long days, long climbs, crazy descents, repeat. Each day featured several forbidding climbs, including some of the most emblematic and striking mountain passes in the Swiss Alps and Dolomites - Furkapass, the Gavia, Passo Giau, Sella, Pordoi, San Boldo.  These passes are as visually fierce as they are to climb - sharp, craggy ridges rising like devilish forms above you.  You are constantly reminded just how tiny you are in this universe as you inch your way up these goliaths. 

The forbidding and breathtaking Gavia
Tranquil beauty....and ice...at the top of the Gavia

Despite having raced in Europe before and (somewhat ignorantly) believing that I had some comprehension and requisite experience to manage what I would face, I was completely blown away by how difficult the week was.  Demanding terrain, talented competitors, temperamental weather.  The Dolomites have earned their reputation and command respect. 

The cycle of pain and reward is always present in endurance events, and you come to expect it.  Here, it was amplified, not only by the sheer audacity of the task at hand, but also by the progression of fatigue over the accumulation of miles and the treacherous weather.  There were many moments where I was so cold, so challenged, so physically tapped that I felt like I could not go on any further, wishing to be swallowed by the gigantic teeth of the rock face rising above me, only to be reassured by an exhilarating descent through the dazzling emerald valleys that would follow.     

The week was an indescribable roller coaster ride, a true battle with my mind, my body and the elements.  Unlike shorter distance races, which command attention for a specific period of time, this event demands patience and acceptance.  I learned to go into each day one moment at a time.  Start.  Warm up.  Climb.  Eat.  Drink.  Keep going.  Above all else, keep going.  The sheer distance between the start and the finish demanded a repetition of exhilaration, pain, fear, desperation and resilience.  The mind will take the body along with it, and make no mistake, simply finishing is victory alone.

In an event like this, the focal point of your existence becomes very narrow. I constantly reminded myself to take in the scenery, to appreciate the extraordinary surroundings - in fact, this was the mental battle I faced for all thirty hours.  It was easy to get distracted by my own mind, focusing internally on the brutality of the moment, my physical suffering, the cold, the pain...the typical "everything is wrong but nothing is wrong" cycle.  I stubbornly refused to get drawn into this cycle, instead focusing outwardly and appreciating the sheer of the climbs and the elements.  What an incredible privilege to feel such pain and to witness such beauty at the same time.   


Writing the post-script before fully finishing my introspective may be premature.  I expect I will come to appreciate different parts of this journey as time passes, and my feelings towards it will undoubtedly change as the imminent pain is forgotten.  I arrived in Geneva with equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation, and I left Venice exhausted but with an incredible sense of achievement. 

Whether completing the Haute Route is a remarkable accomplishment is all a matter of perspective.  I do not mean to downplay it - it certainly ranks amongst the most difficult, soul searching, shattering experiences of my life…and yet, you return to real life and it becomes difficult to assimilate into the realm of "normal".  The experience is almost incomprehensible to a layperson, the gravity of it so hard to comprehend without fully being immersed in the struggle.  

What did you do for your summer holiday?  I rode my bike from Geneva to Venice through some of the most staggeringly difficult and beautiful terrain in the world.  My heart just swells.     

But my head is firmly in check.  This matters to no one but me, and my finish pales in comparison to the accomplishments of many endurance athletes.  I cannot even fathom being one of the “iron” riders (who completed two weeks) or the “triple crown” riders (who completed all three events) who faced multiples of the adversity and distance.  My finish also pales in comparison to the very extraordinary Christian Haettich, who has now completed the triple crown multiple times...with one arm and one leg.

Will I go back one day?  I have no doubt I would never want to return as a mere tourist, for there would be no reward without the effort.  The brilliance of the mountaintop hot chocolate shared with friends after climbing 2000m over a mountain pass in sleet, rain and fog cannot be replicated without getting back on a bike and going through it all again.  Post-ride pasta has never tasted so good.  A hot shower has never felt so incredibly luxurious.  

I am certainly not ready to get back on my bike just yet...the experience is still months from being recalled as "fun".  However, when I watch the video and relive the event, there is an instinctive, visceral reaction.  Maybe.