The Grand Raid

The 2011 Grand Raid goes down as my worst day on a bicycle. The event is one of the toughest MTB marathons in the world at 125km, but it is not the distance that makes this a killer, it is the climbing- 5025m of ascent on a combination of road, fire road, single track and even a 45 degree scree slope. The scree carry comes on the final epic climb involving a 2km push and carry at well over 2000m in altitude. Ouch. To top it all the 2011 edition was run on just about the hottest day of the year with temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius. I should also mention that the race takes in some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Alps, not that you get to enjoy much of it along the way.

Having got up at silly O’clock to get to Verbier for the 0630 start, I lined up with the other six-hundred or so starters for the full distance race. The first two hours were nice and cool and I felt comfortable until after the first descent into Nendaz where my back was beginning to become painful. This got worse and by the time we reached Heremance I was losing positions but felt able to carry on. Then the heat started to take effect.

Mindful of the dreaded hunger knock I stuffed my face at the bottom of the Mandelon climb, however this turned out to be a big mistake as just five minutes later I was vomiting at the side of the road. I plugged away up the climb but a corner had been turned: I was now definitely suffering and questioning whether to bother carrying on at all. There was another feed station at the top and the pattern repeated itself: stuffed face, vomiting five minutes later. This time things got even worse because on dismounting to be sick my hamstrings went into severe cramp. The words of my wife came into my head: “activate the paired muscle when you cramp” so I focused on tensing my quads, only for them to cramp as well. There I was screaming on the side of the trail as other riders just carried on until one very kind chap turned and offered me a sachet of Magnesium. I rammed it down and it seemed to do the trick, so on we went.

The dirty secret of the Grand Raid is actually not all the climbing. The real problem is dealing with mixed downhill sections of technical singletrack, very loose gravel and steep, rough ski slopes when you already have hours of riding in the bank. There is little chance to rest as the body gets hammered in a different way, and so it was on the long and occasionally technical run down to Evolene.

The final massive climb from Eison (1650m) to the Pas de Lona (2787m) killed me. Soon after Eison my back went from bad to worse, as I found I could not pedal for more than five minutes without it seizing up in agony. On long road bike climbs a good strategy is to climb out of the saddle for periods to relieve pressure and stretch the back a bit, but the MTB forks had lost their damping and did not lock out (this probably explains some of the punishment on the descents as well) making every pedal stoke a psychological blow of energy lost. I fell into a routine: five minutes pedaling followed by a few minutes walking- not the fastest way up but a way up. The sun was relentless above the tree line, and having reached the crucial last time cut at L’A Vielle I knew that come what may I would finish this bloody race.

That was until I rounded the corner and saw the hell that was a 2km push and carry up scree to the Pas de Lona. On the last rideable section before this I gave one final dig in the granny gear only for the chain to give way under pressure and snap. I was a fair way from any mechanical support on one of the more remote sections of the course and really had no idea what to do (in hindsight always carry a chain splitter and missing link in an event like this…). Acting on impulse as the next rider came through I asked in my best ‘Franglais’ if they had a chain link and it turned out he did. Somebody somewhere wanted me to finish this race as the chain had snapped perfectly leaving two ‘female’ links that took about ten seconds to reattach.

On reaching the highest point of the race at 2792m I wept with joy at seeing the ‘Grimentz 15km’ sign- all downhill. Minutes later I was still weeping but now from the pain in my wrists, arms and back descending a very rocky and rough track to the Barrage de Moiry. The final singletrack into Grimentz was gruelling on a broken body, but soon enough the 1k to go sign appeared and I had a bit of an emotional few minutes from the combination of pain, knowing my wife was waiting at the finish and I suppose just from knowing that against the odds I was going to finish. I crossed the line in tears.

My time was 10hours and 30minutes, two hours slower than I had hoped to achieve and this put me in 236th place. The winner, Urs Huber completed the course in a staggering 6hours 9minutes. My time would not have even got me in the top 10 of the women’s category, in fact it was the Brit Sally Brigham who won the ladies event in a fantastic 7hours 52minutes. However to put things in context the slowest finisher allowed to finish was 12hours 36minutes, and there were one-hundred and nine riders of the six-hundred starters who either quit or did not make the cuts at the timing checks along the way. I could very easily have made that one-hundred and ten…

The emotional response in the 24 hours after the race has been quite interesting. Yesterday evening, following the event I was seriously re-evaluating my choice of hobby, ready to sell all the bikes and get on with other projects. This morning was then spent looking at ways to avoid this years mistakes: spend more time on MTB setup (and on the MTB full stop); carry better spares to deal with most mechanicals; carry electrolyte sachets on really hot days. Like a bad hangover, yesterday I was saying “never again” at the Grand Raid, today I can’t stop thinking about next time…

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2 Responses to The Grand Raid

  1. maryka says:

    Funny how that’s a typical Ironman response too — often during and immediately after the race it’s “never again” then the next morning you’re already thinking about the next one! That’s why rushing into any major decisions about selling bikes is never wise right after a race. Incidentally, I discovered a few months ago that childbirth is no different (though selling the kid and finding a new hobby wasn’t really an option…)

    Congrats on sticking it out on such a tough day. The pain fades but the feeling of success only grows with time!

  2. Nick Hussey says:

    Great write-up Steve. It takes real honesty to admit where you went wrong and to say you broke down in tears. If you haven’t been to the depths you don’t know the heights you can push yourself to! Christ knows how much fitter you are than me, so no way I’d have been a finisher. I read recently that the course had ‘excessive’ climbing this year. So extra big congrats! N.

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