Gigathlon 2012 by the numbers

2 07 2012

Our mountain-biker said it best, just after he crossed the finish line covered from head to toe in mud: “All you have to do is shut off your brain.”

Of course, he was talking about the biking leg of Gigathlon 2012, this past weekend’s athletic extravaganza in the Swiss midlands, and about how torrential downpours and impending darkness turned his route into a rather messy and slippery lottery.

Our mud-splattered mountain-biking hero after crossing the finish line.

(The second part of the sentence was: “Let go of the brakes, point the bike downhill and hope there is no tree in front of you.” Our swimmer responded: “That bit about the brain – that’s the crucial difference between men and women.”)

But what he said really was valid for all of us who made up the “Flying Five,” a rag-tag group of over-39 amateurs, tossed together by fate, self-discipline and the ambition to overcome physical and psychological limits. Our goal: to swim, cycle, skate, mountain-bike and run to the point of exhaustion, to complete the two-day endurance race 1) uninjured and 2) within the allotted time frame.

And we did both, crossing the finish line together at 11pm on Sunday evening, 40 1/2 hours after the starters’ gun went off. We had spent two days competing in extreme weather conditions – day one was hot and humid, day two blessed us with fog, rain and hail – and sleeping in a tent whipped by one of Switzerland’s most destructive overnight thunderstorms in years.

There were many times in the past couple of days when we all just shut off our brains.

Sunday morning, 730am: wet, wet, wet.

You read about my preparation for this year’s race a few weeks ago, and now I could give you a play-by-play like I did last year, with the highlights and low-lights, the dramatic moments of pain and agony and the equally dramatic moments of indescribable adrenaline-induced euphoria. Gigathlon 2012 had all that too, trust me. But this time I will just stick to the numbers; they also tell the story of our exceptionally active, life-affirming weekend.

First the team:

Hours, minutes and seconds the five of us were underway in competition:  30:27:37

Hours, minutes and seconds the winning team beat us by: 11:24:00

Rank at the end of day one (out of 1,000 “teams of five”): 756

Final rank after two days of competition: 723

Distance skated, swam, mountain-biked, run and cycled: 460km/287.5mi

Temperature on Saturday: 34 C/93.2 F

Thunderstorms experienced on Sunday: 3

Beers consumed on Saturday: 2

Beers consumed on Sunday: 8

Accidents: 0

And I know you people also want to hear about my personal statistics for the weekend, so here goes:

Distance skated: 92km/57.5mi

Hours slept on the campground (two nights): 6

Times I felt like quitting on Saturday: 4

Times I felt like quitting on Sunday: 0

Ball bearings trashed: 16

Accidents witnessed: 5

Pasta meals consumed: 3

Sports energy gel tubes consumed while skating: 3

Blisters: 4

Toenails lost: 1

Hours slept after getting home (one night): 11

**********************

Team Flying Five….. before…..

…. and after.

A HUGE, HUGE thank you to: Martina – our team captain and tough-as-nails cyclist, Raphaela – our running goddess, Beat – our meerkat-like mountain-biker, and Reto – our swimmer who rescued the team’s ranking on both days. You guys were a whole lot of fun to be around, even when the things got really, really tough. You were the reason I kept on going.

(Anyone up for Gigathlon 2013?)

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The mighty race called Gigathlon

29 05 2012

Today in a month is the first day of Gigathlon 2012. For those of you who remember my heroic efforts at last year’s event, you will shake your heads and cry for me. For those of you who do not, here are the stories from before and after.

Gigathlon is a Swiss invention, and encompasses every hobby-athlete’s worst nightmare: five disciplines (swimming, running, mountain-biking, road cycling and inline skating), performed on two days (including two nights sleeping in a tent on a campground), in the midst of mountains. There are three categories: single (the serious nutsos), couple (similar nutso-potential, divided by two) and team of five (mostly sane, mostly rational individuals). I am a team-player and as you know, I skate.

Final equipment check before hitting the road

Gigathlon 2012 is, at first glance, a somewhat tamer version of last year’s event, where as a team, we climbed 2,500 more altitude-meters (8,000 feet) than Mount Everest is high. This summer’s event takes place in the Swiss midlands (as opposed to the Alps) and is, at least as far as the inline skater is concerned, seemingly civilized. It’s like they took last year’s two skate-legs and ironed them flat. But what the routes are lacking in altitude difference they make up in lateral distance. If I make it safe through the two days, I will have skated nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles) in less than 36 hours.

Take a moment to think about that because I don’t really want to.

My team this year comprises three women (road cyclist, runner and moi) and two men (mountain-biker and swimmer). We call ourselves the “Flying Five” and our bib number is 1984 (a very good year, for me at least). Our average age is, I’ll say, late-30ish. It just got bumped up a notch yesterday because I turned 42.

Last summer the skaters had the privilege of kicking off the event on both race days, giving me a wake-up call at 0-dark-30 two days in a row. While 4,000 other gigathletes were still snoring in their tents on the campground, visions of energy drinks dancing in their heads, we 1,000 or so skaters were busy tightening wheels by flashlight, strapping on protective equipment, lining up in front of the porta-potties and limbering up sore and aching muscles.

(Let’s just say I ain’t no great fan of camping.)

In this year’s race, “Urban Saturday” for me will begin at 4am. Again. Grrr. And off I go, for 52 kilometers (32.5 miles).

Yellow = skater, blue = swimmer, black = mountain-biker, red = road cyclist, green = runner.

At least I get to sleep in on Sunday, when I am the third of the five relay athletes in my team. I shall certainly be celebrating, on “Celebrating Sunday,” for another mere 40 more kilometers (25 miles).  Piece of cake.

Follow the yellow brick road…

The Flying Five aim to finish the race uninjured, and within the time limit (ie. daylight). I have taken Monday off from work, just in case we need a little longer than planned.





On the Rocks at Gigathlon 2011

4 07 2011

We did it.

Our team of five crossed the finish line of Gigathlon 2011 in 705th place and after 26 hours and 1 minute of racing – safe, without injury, exhausted and overjoyed. Which is more than a lot of other participants can say.

For those of you unfamiliar with Gigathlon, go ahead and read my previous two blog entries, here and here so that the rest of this story makes sense to you.

The "race of death" begins.

I anticipated Saturday’s skate to be challenging, but not impossible. The night on the campground had been sleepless, frigid and uncomfortable, but 33 kilometers (21 miles) of mostly flat and slight downhill grades wasn’t rocket science. If nothing else, it would be a great morning training run.

We hit the road at 8am, and I wanted to try to get my day’s work done in less than 90 minutes. Long, straight speed passages took the pace up to about 60 km/h, much too high for some skaters. The result: mass roadkill. I sped by at least 7 bodies lying in various states of injury and disrepair left and right along the route. Later I heard that there was a huge pileup somewhere behind me and one participant even broke a leg. Ouch.

For me, the 33 kilometers flew by without incident (I will spare you the details of my close calls – tree roots peeking out of asphalt like mini-speed-bumps, train tracks popping up unannounced, hidden potholes, hairpin turns) in a solid 1 hour and 25 minutes. I thought that was pretty darn fast till I looked at the standings. But whatever. We weren’t here to set a world record, we just wanted to cross the finish line in one piece.

Bruised and bloodied (and taped and bandaged) but not broken, skaters braved a 4am wake-up call the next morning to really find out what they were made of. We were off again before sunrise, to attack a 6-kilometer flat stretch followed by a 14-kilometer climb up the side of a mountain. The vertical difference between start and finish was 750 meters – that’s about half the depth of Grand Canyon.

On skates. Poles optional.

Since I had never done anything this crazy before, I had no idea how long it would take me. I told my teammates to expect me in two to three hours. But I was in the business of just making it to the finish line before the sweeper bus, and trying not to worry about the competition or the clock.

My mantra crawling up that hill? “This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing….”

And it worked. I arrived in 2 hours and 26 minutes. As far as I am concerned that’s closer to two hours than to three. Mission accomplished.

This is what sheer exhaustion looks like. And that gingerbread man in the background is mocking me.

36 hours later, endorphins are still playing tricks on my sanity. Despite the pain, I am enthralled. The event has a certain irresistible, fatal allure.

So when the last muscle stops aching, when the sleeping bag is washed and folded away, and when registration for Gigathlon 2012 begins, I’m not sure I will be able to take full responsibility for my actions.

In the meantime, I certainly will have one “on the rocks”. I think I earned it.

***********

Personal Note: Many, many thanks to the other four members of Gigathlon 2011 team “Isches nah wiiiiit?” –  Thierry (Team Captain and intrepid cyclist), Roman (our mountain-goat-like runner), Miriam (knock-‘em-dead swimmer) and Lauri (master of disaster mountain biker) – for taking me up into your ranks at such short notice. You are all unbelievable athletes and you accomplished the impossible last weekend. I’m so proud of you.





Counting down to the “Race of Death”

1 07 2011

The other day a friend emailed me and asked, “So when is this race of death you were blogging about?”

Ah yes, the race of death. Thank you, David, for that charming, succinct and perceptive description of my upcoming 4th of July weekend. Hoping you have something fun planned, too.

The weekend's five-star accommodations.

The gigathlon is less than 24 hours away, and I must admit, I can’t wait. Either I am committed or I am crazy, but there is no going back now. I still have not met three of my four teammates, and I have no idea what level of fitness I am at compared to the other 900 or so skaters that I’ll be competing against.

And of course, how I will feel when I hit The Wall on Sunday.

The Wall. A 20-kilometer crawl up a sheer cliff face, climbing 750 meters in altitude. On rollerblades. Ever tried that? Me neither.

Fortunately, the organizers have decided to allow skaters to use cross-country ski-poles for the Sunday skate. It will be a kind of Nordic skiing on asphalt as opposed to snow. So in addition to the natural hazards of skate-racing (which could include, for example, shaving a layer of skin off an elbow, shredding your shorts and breaking a few bones – been there, done all that!) there is the added thrill of having an eye taken out as well. What fun!

Poles: The end you want to hang on to...

... and the end you don't want to mess with.….and the end you don’t want to mess with.

In its rules and regulations, the organization committee recommends wearing glasses of some sort for safety reasons. (Whew, glad they thought of that, too!)

But of course the vast majority of participants will have never held such poles in their hands before Sunday, let alone used them to pull themselves up a mountain. So I am expecting everyone else to get in my way, and hoping, at the end of the day, that I won’t need stitches.

As for my own preparations – I skated with sticks for the first time in my life this past Monday, and thanks to instruction via YouTube I am now a pro. AND I even went out on Tuesday afternoon to practice, too! So we’re all set! Nothing stands between me and victory!





Zen and the art of Alpine racing

22 06 2011

Gigathlon.

The word kind of sounds like the Wrath of God, doesn’t it?

First let’s take the back part of it: “thlon”. “Duathlon” and “triathlon” are the other two common words with this suffix. Any other contexts you can think of? Nope, me neither.

Right, then let’s look at the beginning of the word: “giga” – reminds you of storage space on computers, SD-cards and USB-sticks, right?

OK. So whatever it is, it seems to have something to do with activity, and lots of it. And since this is Switzerland, that means it probably takes place in the mountains, and probably has a few thousand participants with an irrepressible urge to torture themselves. (Taking the software-storage analogy one step further: “Kilothlon” and “Megathlon” just sounded too wimpy, I guess.)

I first heard the word “Gigathlon” when I arrived in Switzerland a few years ago. The Swiss – Masters and Mistresses Of The Universe when it comes to physical activity – invented the Gigathlon as just one more fun thing to do outdoors during an action-packed summer. It is an ultra-endurance race that spans not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE disciplines and is usually held on some (hopefully warm and dry) July weekend in the Alps.

Yep, count 'em. Five.

Altogether the distance to be covered in the 2011 edition of the race – on bicycle, mountain bike, inline skates, by foot and in the water – is 340 kilometers (213 miles), and the difference in altitude from start to finish is 11,111 meters (37,000 feet).

No, that is no typo.

There are three categories: Relay teams of five (each person responsible for one discipline), two (a man and a woman dividing the labor unequally) and one (contested by athletes whose sanity I must question).

A friend and I wanted to put together our own team of five – we had been discussing it since about this time last year. Despite weeks of querying, prompting, nagging and cajoling, we could not find three equally-motivated individuals to join us. She too lost interest and energy, and her last deed before heading off to the beach was to hook me up with a team needing a female skater.

And so lo and behold, in my seventh year here, I find myself as a registered Gigathlon participant. Our team name is: “Isches nah wiiiiit?!” Loosely translated from Swiss German that means: “How much fuuurrrrther?!

So in nine days I will travel to a valley in the southwestern corner of Switzerland with four strangers, sleep in a tent, and skate a total of 55 kilometers over the course of two days. Saturday’s skater route is a relatively civilized and flat 35 kilometers, Sunday calls for 20 kilometers up a sheer mountain face. The relay races on both days start at the crack of dawn (with skaters heading out first) and, if successful, I will have completed my share of the work by 8:30 a.m.

Gigathlon 2010: Skaters trailed by an ambulance.

And now that there is just over a week between me and this year’s race (subtitled: “On the Rocks”), that oh-so-obvious and sneakily familiar question pops into my consciousness like a blinking red traffic light: “What on earth was I thinking?”

Along with its bastard cousin: “Who the hell am I kidding?”