Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Battles with a Sleep Monster: Jotunheimen Rundt

It was 24 hours before the start Jotunheimen Rundt, and our group of 10 (8 riders and 2 support) was in Lærdal with no where to sleep. The house we had rented on AirBnB had been double booked somehow. In the chaos that ensued, the guy renting out the house found another house outside of town for Sigmund, Kristin, Noëmi and Fredrik, while Audun, Marius, Ingebord, Vibeke, David and I drove 45 minutes to Sogndal to crash in a friend’s basement. We didn’t get to bed until midnight, but at least we weren’t in a rush the next morning.

Since Jotunheimen Rundt started at 9:20 pm, the day before the race was an odd one to say the least. I ate, napped, packed my drop bags, snacked, watched Tour de France, repacked my drop bags, picked up my bib, delivered my drop bags, ate even more and took one final nap before putting on my kit. It was time to see what would happen if I tried to ride my bike all night and most of the next day.

Start - Vang (86 km)


David (in blue and yellow) and Kristin (smiling) in the sea of riders before the start.
At the start, a couple of hundred riders milled around nervously. Most were kitted out in the race’s reflective vest, and everyone had red back lights and white front lights. When the gun went off, the field rolled to a creaking start. Our team of 8 riders started together, but soon we were stretched out in the big, fast moving group we were immersed in.

Headed out of Lærdal (I am in blue).
The first, flat stretch up the valley passed in a blur of dripping rain and easy pedalling. A hundred red tail lights snaked up the road ahead of me. I kept an eye out for my teammates. I was looking forward to riding in a smaller group. Such a large group behaves like an accordion, slowing and speeding up with the slightest changes in terrain. I was hyperalert, scared riding into a back wheel and ending my race early.

Finally the climb to Filefjell, the first of the three passes on the course, began in earnest. Our group of 8 found each other, and I declared that I would be taking it very easy on the climb. I switched my watch to display my heart rate, keeping it consistently between 150 and 160 BPM, and mentally prepared myself to be passed. To my surprise, no one did, and when I looked behind me, I realized there were 40 or 50 riders on our tail. It felt strange to be deciding the pace for all of these people, but I figured they would pass if they wanted to, and resolved not to worry about them.

I wasn’t hungry at all, but forced myself to start snacking nonetheless. As I had told people repeatedly before the race, Jotunheimen Rundt is basically an eating contest. You don’t eat, you don’t finish.

The climb flattened out for the final section up Filefjell, and our large group fell into drafting formation. As I caught a wheel, my heart rate sunk to 130 BPM and I was suddenly very cold. I tried to put my jacket on while on the bike, but I was off balance and didn’t feel safe with all the people around me. So I stopped to put my jacket on, thinking I would be able to catch to group. Fat chance. Luckily Marius had seen me disappear off the back of the group, and helped pull me up to the others.

It was raining now and starting to get fairly dark as we crested the top of the climb and headed downhill. I didn’t want to ride too close to anyone for fear of falling. Now wet from the spray of the road and the rain, I began to shiver uncontrollably. Marius, Audun and I had lost the rest of our group and were riding behind some other riders. Partway down the descent, Marius launched into an attack, and, wanting to warm up, I jump on his wheel.

It was wet, it was nearly dark, I was shivering and the road flew by below me. It was surreal, but at least the hard pedalling was warming me up. Miraculously, the rain stopped and we hit dry pavement the last stretch before the aid station at Vang.

Vibeke and Fredrik were there with the black van, offering to fetch things for us and coaxing us to eat more. It was a chaotic stop, and I felt like it took a long time when in reality we were only there for 8 minutes. If only I knew how long we would spend in the aid stations to come!

Vang - Fagernes (59 km)

The section between Vang and the next aid station at Fagernes was flat, fast, and mercilessly dry. We quickly set up our double pace line and began moving quickly through the flats. I soon saw riders other than our eight rotating into the front of the line and realized we had picked up twelve riders. This would be a theme for the night. The eight of us seemed to have some sort of critical mass to vacuum up other groups into our pace line. I suddenly recognized a gruff voice, speaking Northern Norwegian dialect, shouting at two riders in front to “shut up, put your heads down, and ride!” and that we had picked up Tingvoll Bicycle Club.

I was exhilarated that we were moving so fast, but starting to feel sleepy. It was the darkest part of the night now, and I resolved to drink some coffee at the next aid station.

When we got to the aid station, there was no clear direction about where to pee, so I spent about 5 minutes wandering around looking for a sheltered place to squat. The longer the race went on the less shy I got, but this was still relatively early. By the time I had my cup of coffee in hand, everyone else was ready to go, and all of a sudden I had an overwhelming feeling of not wanting to continue.

“I don’t want to do this!” I whined to Audun, on the verge of tears. “This isn’t any fun!" You knew this wasn’t going to be fun, a voice in my head said, get back on your bike, and take your double espresso gel. 

The woman at the aid station table told me if I wanted to quite I could have a warm blanket and wait for the bus. This only strengthened my resolve; my race would not end here! I clambered back on my bike and headed up the second pass, Valdresflya.

Fagernes - Beito (38 km)

The 38 uphill kilometers between Fagernes and Beito are a blur of fatigue and grouchiness. I grew so tired I felt that ever fiber of my being wanted me to go to sleep. The fatigue was a monster, here to do battle until I gave up. We were climbing slowly, steadily.

It was slowly getting lighter out. Everyone said sunrise would make me feel better. I wasn’t sure I believed them. I’m not cut out for staying up all night. I wanted to lie down and close my eyes and give up and not care. I had almost stopped eating, and all I could thinking about was getting to the next aid station so that I could quit.

At the Beitostølen I didn’t even bother picking up my drop bag. My teammates around me were rushing to fill their bottles and changes clothes, but I just sat down and cried. I told Audun and Sigmund that I wanted to quit, and to my surprise they told me I could if I wanted to.

“If you really aren’t having any fun, you can just stop here,” they said. I was somewhat put off that they didn’t even try to convince me to continue. I realized that if I was going to keep going, the decision was going to have to come from me and me alone. Right then and there, I just wanted to stop and give up. But I realized two things:

1) I would never forgive myself if my only excuse for quitting was ‘I felt really, really sleepy'.

2) Everyone said it would get better at some point. If I quit now, I would never know if I would have passed that turning point.

My teammates were getting restless, so I grabbed my warm gloves and some food from my drop bag and threw myself on my bike. If it didn’t get better, I resolved, I would quit at the next aid station.

Beito - Randsverk (66 km)

From Beitostølen, the climb continued and I continued to feel awful. My contact lenses were itching and shifting. I sang a few songs to try to cheer myself up, but didn’t succeed.

Part way up Valdreflya, we passed the black van where Vibeke and Fredrik were asleep (they had taken a short cut past the past two aid stations). I almost crawled into the van and went to sleep with them. I told myself when they drove by us a little later I would quit.

It was a beautiful morning. Mist obscured the high tops of Jotunheimen in the distance but the landscape around us was open and green. Through my sleepiness, I felt happy to have made it this far and be able to see this landscape.

Enjoying the view over Valdresflya
A solo man in black cycling attire had joined our group after Fagernes, and I chatted with him, telling him I was thinking about quitting. He encouraged me to keep eating and drinking, so I did, although I had forgotten to refill my bottle in the aid station.

The was a small descent before the final climb to the top, and I felt my eyes shift out of focus and try to close, despite the fact that I was riding at nearly 50 km/h.

We crested the top of Valdresflya around 6 am, and as we began to descend something inside me snapped. I was leading the pace line, riding fast into the fog, and I began to shout song lyrics into the wind. I was awake! The night had ended! There was a turning point!

Riding in the rain on the way into Randsverk
Elated by my newfound awakeness, I was chatty and perky the rest of the way to Randsverk, despite the fact that it had started raining again. Now that I was feeling better, I could see everyone around me struggling in their own way. Ingeborg mentioned she was having knee pain, while David was having trouble eating. When we rolled into Randsverk, Vibeke and Fredrik were waiting for us with encouragement, and help, and (for me) new contact lenses.

Marius and Sigmund are excited to keep riding in the rain at Randsverk.

Randsverk - Lom (44 km)

Heading out of Randsverk, I was a new woman with new resolve. Now that I had found the turning point I was on a high and determined to make it around the mountain.

There was a long, fast, joyful descent to Otta valley, where I caught Marius’ wheel and we rode as fast as we could given the wet roads and our state of fatigue. It was raining, but my combination of Castelli Gabba jersey covered with a rain jacket, wool socks with neoprene shoe covers, and wool leg warmers was keeping me toasty and happy.

My main problem now was eating. Most everything I put in my mouth made me nauseous, and the thick gloves I wore made it difficult to open plastic wrap around energy bars and so on. I had to put morsels in my mouth, swallow, and then wait for the wave of nausea to pass before eating any more. An eating contest, an eating contest! I reminded myself.

During the rolling ride into Lom, the sleep monster attacked again. It was just as painful as the first one, but this time I knew I could battle my way through it. Still, when I stopped to pee by the side of the road I almost lay down on the soft moss and didn’t get back up. Ingeborg was in serious pain now, and had launched ahead of us to make it to Lom as quickly as possible.

Tired but resolved to see this through in Lom, with Audun in the background.
We ended up taking a very long break at Lom. I ate my soup and went to the bathroom and was ready to go fairly quickly. Others than me were suffering now. Ingeborg was crying in a chair, loathe to admit defeat by way of a painfully swollen knee. David was slowly spooning soup into his mouth, staring off into the distance with a glazed expression on his face. Outside, Noëmi was riding her bike around the parking area, ostensibly to keep warm. I let them have their time. They had given me mine.

The scene at the aid station in Lom

Lom - Sognefjellet (50 km)

Leaving Lom was a psychological victory, although I was queasy after downing a mixture soup, coke and coffee. We still had 136 km to go, but I somehow felt that if we left Lom, we would make it to the finish. The cyclist in black who had been with us since Fagernes was still in our group, and would finish along with us, glad to have found people who held a similar pace to himself.

The first 20 km out of Lom were flat and we fell into our pace line efficiently. Then the climb started in earnest. Everyone drifted into their own rhythms, and the sleep monster came out to do battle again. Will you just GO AWAY already?! I wanted to shout at it. It would not.

I talked, almost aggressively, to everyone around me. Keeping my mouth moving kept me awake, and slowly the sleep monster crept back to its lair. When I started talking with Kristin, I realized that she was in even worse shape than me. Despite going multiple rounds with my sleep monster, my legs and the rest of me were in good shape.

David and I on the climb up Sognefjellet

Later during the climb, I noticed David drifting off the back of the group and decided to hang back to see if I could encourage him. Audun dropped back to join us, and managed to coax to cookies and candy into him. Then Vibeke (who is David’s fiancé!) drove by in their van, and that perked him right up. Satisfied that I had helped everyone I could, I shot up the road towards Sognefjellet at a relatively hard pace. I found myself wondering if my body should feel that good this late in the race!

We had another long break at Sognefjellet. I had entirely stopped caring about how long this would take us; my only thoughts were to helping everyone to the finish line. Our support, Fredrik and Vibeke, had managed to commandeer a large area in a tent where we could sit and warm up. David and Kristin were struggling and both took the time to change their clothes and eat properly. I was still getting nauseous from most food - even the fresh waffles that I had looked forward to at this aid station! I would try at little bit of everything until I would something that felt appealing in my mouth. In this case it was chicken soup and 'vørterøl' - unfermented beer (strange combo, I know).

Sognefjellet - Luster (42 km)

It was foggy at the top of Sognefjellet, no epic views for us today. There were patches of snow on the landscape around us, and I was glad I had warm gloves and a wool shirt for the long descent. The first section was rolling hills, before the road descended steeply from Turtagrø. From here the race clock was actually paused to discouraged dangerous riding.

The sleep monster reemerged on the descent.  My eyes were once again trying to close despite the high speed and hairpin turns. I shook my head back and forth, telling myself to concentrate on what I was doing. This was not the place to make stupid mistakes. It struck me as I flew by a camping car headed in the opposite direction that doing this descent in the shape I was in might possibly be the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.

Snacking at the base of the descent from Sognefjellet
We paused at the base of the descent to discard extra layers before rolling the flat section to the final aid station at Luster.









At the aid station, I was elated to only have 40 km to go. At the same time, 40 km seemed like a frustratingly long way. “Aaaarg!” I yelled unintelligibly as we rolled out of the aid station, in sleepy pain, in happiness, in determination. The yell snapped me awake again, and I remained that way for the rest of the race.

Luster - Finish (45 km)

From Luster we spent 15 km drafting in flat terrain before hitting the final, small climb to Marifjøra. Marius surged ahead, and Noëmi and I pedalled along ahead of the rest of the group chatting. My legs still felt great, and when we passed Vibeke and Fredrik blasting music at us, I stood up and made a show of climbing hard.

On the final climb from Marifjøra
The group gathered for the descent, and the final 15 km into Lom felt like a victory lap. Oddly, my stomach had chosen this time to get hungry and I began eating some of the sandwiches that had nauseated me for hours. We hit a head wind along the coast for the final kilometers, but rode hard in our excitement and crossed the finish line as one, in 19 hours and 26 minutes.

Team photo after the race
Epilogue

Jotunheimen Rundt is the hardest race I have finished, and I feel stripped bare and rebuilt by the experience. I was physically well-prepared, but nothing can really prepare you for the rigors of racing all night except… racing all night. I absolutely would not have finished without the patience and encouragement of my team (Audun, Sigmund, Kristin, Marius, Noëmi, David and Ingeborg) and our biggest fans who drove nearly all night to cheer us on (Vibeke and Fredrik).

David and I, finally lying down and closing our eyes at the finish line. (It felt awesome)

Will I do it again? At the moment I’m more keen on focusing on running, but never say never!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

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