Late report for Nationalpark Bike Marathon 2020

Posted on October 6, 2020 with tags cycling, sports. Part 8 of a 8-part series on bike races. See the previous or next posts.

A single race for a special year…

I don’t have to mention that 2020 is a special year, so all the normal race plan was out the window, and I was very happy and fortunate to be able to do even one race. And only delayed 3 weeks to write this race report :/ So, here’s the story ☺

Preparing for the race

Because it was a special year, and everything was crazy, I actually managed to do more sports than usual, at least up to end of July. So my fitness, and even body weight, was relatively fine, so I subscribed to the mid-distance race (official numbers: 78km distance, 1570 meters altitude), and then off it went to a proper summer vacation — in a hotel, even.

And while I did do some bike rides during that vacation, from then on my training regime went… just off? I did train, I did ride, I did get significant PRs, but it didn’t “click” anymore. Plus, due to—well, actually not sure what, work or coffee or something—my sleep regime also got completely ruined…

On top of that, I didn’t think about the fact that the race was going to be mid-September, and that high up in the mountains, the weather could have be bad enough (I mean, in 2018 the weather was really bad even in August…) such that I’d need to seriously think about clothing.

Race week

I arrive in Scuol two days before the race, very tired (I think I got only 6 hours of sleep the night before), and definitely not in a good shape. I was feeling bad enough that I was not quite sure I was going to race. At least weather was OK, such that normal summer clothing would suffice. But the race info was mentioning dangerous segments, to be very careful, etc. etc. so I was quite anxious.

Note 1: my wife says, this was not the first time, and likely not the last time that two days before the race I feel like quitting. And as I’m currently on-and-off reading the interesting The Brave Athlete: Calm the Fuck Down and Rise to the Occasion book (by Lesley Paterson and Simon Marshall; it’s an interesting book, not sure if I recommend it or not), I am beginning to think that this is my reaction to races where I have “overshot” my usual distance. Or, in general, races where I fear the altitude gain. Not quite sure, but I think it is indeed the actual cause.

So I spend Thursday evening feeling unwell, and thinking I’ll see how Friday goes. Friday comes, and having slept reasonably well entire night, I pick up my race number, then I take another nap in the afternoon - in total, I’ve slept around 13 hours that day. So I felt much better, and was looking forward to the race.

Saturday morning comes, I manage to wake up early, and get ready in time; almost didn’t panic at all that I’m going to be late.

Note 2: my wife also says that this is the usual way I behave. Hence, it must be most of it a mental issue, rather than real physical one ☺

Race

I reach the train station in time, I get on the train, and by the time the train reached Zernez, I fully calm down. There was am entire hour wait though before the race, and it was quite chilly. Of course I didn’t bring anything beside what I was wearing, relying on temperature getting better later in the day.

During the wait, there were two interesting things happening.

First, we actually got there (in Zernez) before the first people from the long distance passed by, both men and women. Seeing them pass by was cool, thinking they already had ~1’200m altitude in just 30-ish kilometres.

The second thing was, as this was the middle and not the shortest distance, the people in the group looked differently than in previous years. More precisely, they were looking very fit, and I was feeling… fat. Well, I am overweight, so it was expected, but I was feeling it even more than usual. I think only one or two in ten people were looking as fit as me or less… And of course, the pictures post-race show me even less “fit-looking” than I thought. Ah, self-deception is a sweet thing…

And yes, we all had to wear masks, up until the last minute. It was interesting, but not actually annoying - and small enough price for being able to race!

Then the race starts, and as opposed to many other years, it starts slow. I didn’t feel that rush of people starting fast, it was… reasonable?

First part of the race (good)

Thus started the first part of the race, on a new route that I was unfamiliar with. There was not too much climbing, to be honest, and there was some tricky single-trail through the woods, with lots of the roots. I actually had to get off the bike and push it, since it was too difficult to pedal uphill on that path. Other than that, I was managing so far to adjust my efforts well enough that my usual problems related to climbing (lower back pain) didn’t yet appear, even as the overall climbed meters were increasing. I was quite happy at that, and had lots of reserves. To my (pleasant) surprise, two positive things happened:

  • I was never alone, a sign that I wasn’t too far back.
  • I was passing/being passed by people, both on climbs but also on descents! It’s rare, but I did overtake a few people on a difficult trail downhill.

With all the back and forth, a few people became familiar (or at least their kit), and it was fun seeing who is better uphill vs. downhill.

And second part (not so good)

I finally get to (around) S-chanf, on a very nice but small descent, and on flat roads, and start the normal route for the short race. Something was off though - I knew from past years that these last ~47km have around 700-800m altitude, but I had already done around 1000m. So the promised 1571m were likely to be off, by at least 100-150m. I set myself a new target of 1700m, and adjust my efforts based on that.

And then, like clockwork on the 3:00:00 mark, the route exited the forest, the sun got out of the clouds, and the temperature started to increase from 16-17°C to 26°+, with peaks of 31°C. I’m not joking: at 2:58:43, temp was 16°, at 3:00:00, it was 18°, at 3:05:45, it was 26°. Heat and climbing are my two nemeses, and after having a pretty good race for the first 3 hours and almost exactly 1200m of climbing, I started feeling quite miserable.

Well, it was not all bad. There were some nice stretches of flat, where I knew I can pedal strongly and keep up with other people, until my chain dropped, so I had to stop, re-set it, and lose 2 minutes. Sigh.

But, at least, I was familiar with this race, or so I thought. I completely mis-remembered the last ~20km as a two-punch climb, Guarda and Ftan, whereas it is actually a three-punch one: Guarda, Ardez, and only then Ftan. Doesn’t help that Ardez has the nice ruins that I was remembering and which threw me off.

The saddest part of the day was here, on one of the last climbs - not sure if to Guarda or to Arddez, where a guy overtakes me, and tells me he’s glad he finally caught up with me, he almost got me five or six times (!), but I always managed to break off. Always, until now. Now, this was sad (I was huffing and puffing like a steam locomotive now), but also positive, as I never had that before. One good, one bad?

And of course, it was more than 1’700m altitude, it was 1’816m. And the descent to Scuol shorter and it didn’t end as usual with the small but sharp climb which I just love, due to Covid changes.

But, I finished, and without any actual issues, and no dangerous segments as far as I saw. I was anxious for no good reason…

Conclusion (or confusion?)

So this race was interesting: three hours (to the minute) in which I went 43.5km, climbed 1200m, felt great, and was able to push and push. And then the second part, only ~32km, climbed only 600m, but which felt quite miserable.

I don’t know if it was mainly heat, mainly my body giving up after that much climbing (or time?), or both. But it’s clear that I can’t reliably race for more than around these numbers: 3 hours, ~1000+m altitude, in >20°C temperature.

One thing that I managed to achieve though: except due to the technically complex trail at the beginning where I pushed the bike, I did not ever stop and push the bike uphill because I was too tired. Instead, I managed (badly) to do the switch sitting/standing as much as I could motivate myself, and thus continue pushing uphill. This is an achievement for me, since mentally it’s oh so easy to stop and push the bike, so I was quite glad.

As to the race results, they were quite atrocious:

  • age category (men), 38 out of 52 finishers, 4h54m, with first finisher doing 3h09m, so 50% slower (!)
  • overall (men), 138 out of 173 finishers, with first finisher 2h53m.

These results clearly don’t align with my feeling of a good first half of the race, so either it was purely subjective, or maybe in this special year, only really strong people registered for the race, or something else…

One positive aspect though, compared to most other years, was the consistency of my placement (age and overall):

  • Zuoz: 38 / 141
  • S-Chanf: 39 / 141
  • Zernez: 39 / 141
  • Guarda: 38 / 138
  • Ftan: 38 / 138
  • (“next” - whatever this is): 38 / 138
  • Finish: 38 / 138

So despite all my ranting above, and all the stats I’m pulling out of my own race, it looks like my position in the race was fully settled in the really first part, and I didn’t gain nor lose practically anything afterwards. I did dip one place but then gained it back (on the climb to Guarda, even).

The split times (per-segment rankings) are a bit more variable, and show that I was actually fast on the climbs but losing speed on the descents, which I really don’t understand anymore:

  • Zernez-Zuoz (unclear type): 38 / 141
  • Zuoz-S-Chanf (unclear type): 40 / 141
  • S-Chanf-Zernez (mostly downhill): 39 / 143
  • Zernez-Guarda (mostly uphill): 37 / 136
  • Guarda-Ftan (mostly uphill): 37 / 131
  • Ftan-Scuol (mostly downhill): 43 / 156

The difference at the end is striking. I’m visually matching the map positions to km and then use VeloViewer for computing the altitude gain, but Zernez to Guarda is 420m altitude, and Guarda to Ftan is 200m altitude gain, and yet on both, I was faster than my final place, and by quite a few places on overall, only to lose that on the descent (Ftan-Scuol), and by a large margin.

So, amongst all the confusion here, I think the story overall is:

  • indeed I was quite fit for me, so the climbs were better than my place in the race (if that makes sense).
  • however, I’m not actually good at climbing nor fit (watts/kg), so I’m still way back in the pack (oops!).
  • and I do suck at descending, both me (skills) and possible my bike setup as well (too high tyre pressure, etc.) so I lose even more time here…

As usual, the final take-away points are: lose the extra weight that is not needed, get better skills, get better core to be better at climbing.

I’ll finish here with one pic, taken in Guarda (4 hours into the race, more or less):

Climbing in Guarda
Climbing in Guarda

Until next year!