The Steep Way - World Marathon Championships 2018
World Championships (nearly) always delivers a challenging circuit but the Dolomites stretches competitors limits more than anywhere else. The stats only tell a small part of the story: 4200m ascent over 102km. 35km are relatively flat which leaves 77kms of very steep ups or downs.
The first ever World Marathon Championship took place in 2003 in Lugana. This years edition would be the fourth hosted in Italy.The Worlds course is the same as the 3Epic one, except for a few parts including the additional climbs used on the men’s Worlds course. There is military history in the area with the High Fork Monte Piana climb which is now partly paved and partly dirt being an old military road used during the First World War for troop movement and supplies. The Auronzo Hut – Three Peaks of Lavaredo climb takes you to the highest point in the race at over 2320 metres altitude, the fatigue on arrival is rewarded by the incredible mountain scenery.
I arrived at the event without the fitness of previous years, I was feeling pretty unprepared but planned to be safe and to enjoy the race and the opportunity to wear the GB jersey once again.
The start line was buzzing with the arena and grandstands packed with excited fans that went crazy whenever the commentators mentioned any Italian competitor. The start music rattled eardrums until moments before the start time, then silence until a huge bang from the start gun. The crowd goes wild! Time seems to slow down for a few moments before 180 adrenaline filled men charge out of the arena onto the main road sprinting downhill towards the inevitable carnage at the 90 degree turn on a wooden bridge. Surprisingly everyone squeezes on fairly politely but on the gravel track that followed numerous big crashes happened including one that took down defending champion Alban Lakata, he spent the rest of the day chasing. I was happy with my start feeling comfortable and not pushing too hard knowing what lay ahead.
The first climb was insane, 4.5 kilometres at 12.5% average but with many pitches much steeper on loose gravel. Engage granny gear and try to turn those pedals. I was climbing really well going from my start position of 72 up into the top 40. My Simplon Razorblade climbing like the mountain goat it is! The climb just went on and on, you'd turn a corner and there would be another steep ramp up the ski slope we were scaling. Nearing the top my chain jumped off the big sprocket into the spokes, I was left fishing out the chain whilst all the hard work on the climb was undone. Finally at the top of the first crazy climb we slid and bumped back down the trails until a rear puncture slowed me, not sure if I burped some air or if the tyre resealed but I'm at 10 psi and need gas. Fortunately we aren't far from the feed zone so I ride on and find a track pump there to re-inflate but am losing more time. Oh well it's a long race.
Two smaller hills follow before beginning the longer more gradual ascent up to the beautiful lake at Misurina. A good group formed early on on this 45 minute climb including me and fellow Brit Nick Corlett. The pace was good but as we got closer to the top me and a German rider drop everyone else and started work chasing down the Italian and French rider ahead.
The next climb scales another crazy ski slope before the course descends into some slippery rocky trails. I was pretty nervous about the descents having not got my confidence back from my crash in July and this was impacting my flow on the trails massively, I was riding the bike all wrong and it was only a matter of time till I crashed. I clipped a root and fell off the side of the hill, barrel rolling a few times fearing the worst until I grabbed hold of a tree. Few! Thought I was gone then! I abseiled back up the slope to find my bike and the trail.
I pulled myself together and began the task of making back the places I'd lost and moving up through the field. The legs were still feeling strong until we hit the Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb where my energy levels ran out, a huge hunger flat left me grovelling in the easiest gear. 3km to the top signs, I hoped there would be water or food at the top. 2.5km to the top, I'm not sure I can do this. 2km to the top, I can't do this. 1.5km to the top, I'm still moving. 1km to the top, my mouth is wide open. 500m to the top people could have walked quicker than me, my eyes are doing funny things, how am I going to ride down the next technical descent? I shamefully walk a few sections but cannot control the bike, I arrive in the next feed but can barely speak. Mike from MarathonMTB is there, he force feeds me 2 gels and a banana. This was 4hr20 into the race and I'd only had 2 bottles till this point, I'd had 1 bottle handed up earlier at feed 3. It wasn't enough though, I said I couldn't continue but Mike said I had too. I rode to the bottom of the descent and at the start of the next climb I flopped onto the floor unable to pedal. I ate another 2 gels and drank 1 bottle of energy drink. After 10 minutes I'd gotten my breath back and thought about trying the final big climb. I'm not sure how I did it but I made it to the top where some crazy guy was cheering everyone and waving around a chainsaw! I could almost freewheel the next 10km all the way back to the finish. Getting closer to the finish but there were a couple of steep shorter climbs to summit first, I weaved my way up them.
I made the finish line through perseverance and pure stubbornness. I had some kind volunteers in a couple of feed zones but it wasn't enough in this heat and on this tough a course. You can't do this game without a proper support team. All the issues are problems that can be solved, with better preparation and execution the day could be so different. I want the opportunity to show what's possible, I just need to find a way of making those opportunities. So proud of myself for persevering and finishing this epic race. I'll be back for another crack at a decent result. I'd earned a double scoop of gelato!
Thanks to the Australian, British, Norwegian and Iceland riders for an awesome week in Italy. Well done to Imogen from MarathonMTB.com for her fantastic results at both Cross Country and Marathon World Champs and a huge thanks to Mike for all his help on this trip. The race didn't go to plan but that didn't stop us having fun. That was my final race of the season, it's been one crazy adventure with 24 days of racing and many more days travelling making memories. There's been some amazing highlights and also some pretty tough days. Seeing the enjoyment guests had at the first ever Ben Thomas Race Camp, riding the amazing trails at Alps Bike Festival and visiting beautiful Norway were 3 of the biggest highlights.
Now its time to head home for winter. Ciao Italy! Looking forward to some rest before a big winter of preparation on and off the bike to ensure everything is in place for a successful 2019. If you fancy spending some time in sunny Costa Blanca this winter join me on the Ben Thomas Coaching Training Camp.