3:30am in the Morning.
- "Dad ! Dad ! It's daytime !".
I try to ignore him, hoping that he fells asleep again.
- "Dad ! Dad ! It's daytime ! Get up !".
Nothing to do. I have to resign to the brutal reality. Close to the summer solstice, sun rises quite early in the morning, this combined with Poland's time-zone being the same than Paris. The frenchman I am has learn to cope with it with putting some dark clothe on my eyes in the morning, but my son, only 3 years, obviously not.
I try to gather my thoughts and remember what today was supposed to be. Bloody hell, this is Saturday, the day of Karpacz !
Karpacz, the legend
There are few bike marathon promoters in Poland, each of them with its own geographical region and kind of attendance. Powerade-Garmin MTB marathon, unlike Skandia Maraton Lang or Bike Maraton, sticks to mountainous regions in the south of Poland. Fewer people take part in the events, but most of them come from clubs and the cream of mountain-bikers in the country. It is not rare to see on top of the rankings some men or women that defend the national colours in UCI events. As for average people like me, Wojtek or other fellows, what we can usually expect is to finish somewhere in the middle of the Mega category, or in the last third of the Giga category (Mega being approximately 50km and Giga 80km).
Amongst the Powerade-Garmin MTB series, one marathon stands above all the others in terms of technical difficulty, quality of the itinerary design, and beauty of the ridden areas: this is the Karpacz marathon, taking place in June, on the foothills of the Karkonosze mountain range, highest in the Sudetes. Strewn with granitic boulders of all kinds and sizes, it is like no other, and it is commonly said that "it hurts the ass", as one completes the event.
2011's Karpacz had already been informally considered like the best event of the year amongst MTB communities in Poland, which fulfilled me with satisfaction of having chosen it, and having completed the Giga distance within a more than correct time for a newbie. However, it was said that the organizers were frustrated of not having been able to design the route in one part of the range that borders the national park, not having obtained the necessary authorizations in time. The area in question is located east from Karpacz, in the direction to Kowary, which I eventually had partially explored in the following autumn, alone.
This year's Karpacz was said to be even more challenging than the 2011 edition, and despite the route map wasn't available on the official website till four days before the event, the rumour ran that Grzegorz Golonko, Powerade-Garmin MTB's spiritual leader, had managed to obtain the green light for the Kowary area, owning more challenging than ever pieces of singetracks, including a ruthless climb to the Okraj pass.
Judge it by yourself, while the Giga completed 2300 of elevation and 1500 for the Mega in 2011, this year's Giga reached almost 3000m and the Mega 2000 !
Having not cycled a lot this spring, and despite all the running events, I considered wiser to register in the only Mega distance. The Mega is visiting the new eastern area of the marathon while the Giga is repeating some routes from last year. Furthermore, most of my friends, including my neighbour Wojtek, were doing it. And since I decided to go for a full week-end with my wife Dorota and my son Mikolaj, I did not feel like abandoning them for eight hours during the whole Saturday.
Where is the water ?
Which leads us to the rest of events. It's six in the morning. My son keeps watching cartoons since he woke up. I just finished my breakfast and I am packing things for Karpacz. The Tomac is waiting on the Balcony, oiled and fully checked.
Eight o clock, we're heading to Karpacz under a heavy sun. I would have preferred to go a bit earlier, but oh well. My eyes are kind of sleepy, but I am trying to convince myself it's only brain tiredness, not physical...
Lots of traffic is met on the road, and I am starting to get anxious, the start is at 11am. We finally reach Karpacz at 10:30, and the first thing to do is not the registration, but to drop luggages and pay the accommodation ! "Feel at home, take your time !", says the owner of "Villa Eliza", the only cheap B&B I found available for that week-end. But I need to explain him I need to run to the town's stadium, couple of streets further, for the marathon.
I am at the registration desk at 10:45, and competitors are already getting in line ! I am quickly fastening my number, "435", while Dorota and Mikolaj slowly arrive on foot, to encourage me and watch the start.
"Your number ?" asks the agent aside the starting lane, in charge of indicating which starting sector. "I don't have anything like that on my list, go behind at the very end of the lane". I find myself on the very last position, kind of disappointed not to be together with my team-mates, to who I did not even have time to phone. Once the barriers of the starting lane are closed, I brutally realize that in my stress and my sleepiness, I have forgotten to take... water ! And it's 26°C today in Karpacz....
"Daleko Jeszcze ?"
I am seeing for a last time Dorota and Mikolaj applausing, while the bike crowd is slowly moving away from the stadium, onto the streets of Karpacz. we quickly get out of the town, heading to the Okraj pass and the unknown. For some time, a large forestly track allows me to overtake competitors from the queue of the peloton. I am pedaling as fast as I can, my secret goal being to catch back the same level than my friends. But these hopes are vanishing as suddenly a huge traffic jam forms: there is the first serious downhill, on a narrow singletrack, obviously most people ahead can't cope with it and are walking down. We are waiting there several long minutes. Some guys start getting nervous: some overtake all people aside in the forest, some others no not hesitate to make their way in the waiting crowd like rugbymen, arguing that after all they are racing !
We finally get onto the singletrack, which I am forced to walk myself as well, since most people in front also do. Finally, we land on a new large forestry track, which I quickly recognize as being the endless track leading to the Okraj pass. My hopes to reach back to my teammates are already far, but who knows, the climb is long, and climbing fast is one of my assets. I quickly find a good tempo and overtake a mass of people, one after one. I finally reach a guy climbing the same pace as me, wearing a yellow and red jersey which I recognize: "Daleko Jeszcze ?" ("Still far ?") is the name of the team in which I registered. Despite I don't know him, we're exchanging few words. "So you're in our team ? welcome ! Wojtek ? Oh yes, he's quite far ahead already !".
Mateusz, his name, is climbing fast as well, and we will form a duo that will last till the top of the Okraj pass, where are the first refreshments. So far I didn't suffer too much from lack of water, but I am just starting to feel really thirsty. I am swallowing four glasses of Powerade (there is only Powerade !) in a row, and start the next descent, feeling kind of ballooned of having drunk so much and so suddenly. Mateusz didn't stop and I won't see him anymore.
The first very-steep downhill starts. I had seen this portion aside the track during my autumn reconnaissance, and told myself : no one will never manage to ride this down ! Here we are ! Some parts can be carefully negotiated but most of it needs to be walked; worse, recent rains caused a deep mud in some places and my shoes get all wet. As we end the downhill, another large track starts ; it will take us again almost to the Okraj pass, just a bit below, before new downhills, with technical parts, again and again...
A gruelling finish
We finally cross Karpacz via the main road, secured from cars traffic by some police officers, to get to the western part of the loop. Meantime, the choosen route to cross Karpacz goes via tiny streets and some stairs, giving it a taste of urban riding for a brief moment !
I'm starting to suffer, I'm really thirsty. I've drunk again countless glasses of Powerade at the last buffet, but it's not enough. There is no long climb neither any long downhill on the west part, only little hillets after each other, but it is exhausting. I suddenly notice a full bottle of Powerade on the ground, that somebody must have taken from the buffet and lost it in the meanwhile. This bottle partially saves my life, and here I am back, pushing hard again. Will I finally manage to catch back my teammates, Mateusz or Wojtek ? As we all start another long steep hill to climb, I notice another half-full Powerade bottle, which I grab as well. This new refreshing break reinvigorates me again. We arrive at the top of the hillet, there is a last steep couple of meters, and I quickly kicks the gear to switch to the small plateau.
CRRRR.... Holy shit, my chain it blocked between the frame and the small plateau ! The first attempts to cycle gently forward and backwards to set it back fail. It is totally blocked, kind of twisted. I need to stop and put the bike upside down. I grab with full hands the oily chain and pull in every direction. Countless people pass me. Only five minutes later, I manage to get it back in order.
I recognize the final bit of the circuit when we reach the hill overlooking the Karpacz mountain resort: we rode it in the end of the 2011 edition too. They kept the best for the end, the cherry on the cake ! The final downhill is more than challenging. Many photographers have settled there in order to get some good and/or funny shots of bikers dealing with the obstacles. I had walked everything last year, exhausted after 80km. Since a year, my downhill skills have improved a bit, and I decide to give it a try. I am forced to step down only as I reach a sharp turn, but I ride the second lace as well. Another sharp turn and here I am, near the end... too early to shout for victory: Following a wrong trajectory, my front wheel hits a large rock, but I had time to minimize my speed. The back wheel slowly rises, and I stand like this for a couple of seconds, wondering how long this extraordinary position will last, if and how I will collapse. By some miracle, I land back as I was, causing some swearing behind me "out of the way !", shouts the guy behind, forced to stop...
I enter the Karpacz stadium, ride under the inflatable arch, hearing my own name, while looking for Dorota and Mikolaj possibly awaiting my arrival, but I don't see them. An SMS waiting for me will tell me why : "Eric, Mikolaj sleeps at the room". Wojtek, Mateusz, and all the lads of Daleko Jeszcze are freshly arrived, near the arrival. Some warm soup and glasses of water are waiting for the finishers. I only have one urgent need. Drink. Drink. Drink !!! I drink countless glasses of water after each other.
After that, the first thing I did was having a short siesta at the flat till Mikolaj woke up as well. I've been up since 3:30 am !
Eventually, I will discover that water wasn't the only thing I forgot. I had ridden all the marathon with the spare inner tube and repair kit, but the tire levers had stayed in the other suitcase ! What a marathon...
EpilogSunday. I have slept like I have never done for ages. Today is dedicated to spending time with the little familly. I am taking them to Pec pod Snezkou, and we are precisely crossing the border at Przełęcz Okraj, where for few minutes we decide to make a break : "see, Dorota ? we made it till here yesterday during the marathon !"
As we walk to the mountain hut located near the point where the circuit turned back, I notice a van where few bikers are busy packing and unpacking bike gear. For sure they rode yesterday. As they notice I am observing the bikes with interest, I get closer and decide to start the conversation.
- "So you did the marathon too ? I was in it, but Mega only"
- "Oh really ! Well, we also did the Mega. Giga was too much !"
- "Cool, we might have met at some point. What were your rankings ?"
- "Well, we finished around the forty-fifty I think".
I realize suddenly how ridiculous I am, remembering all the events, while noticing the registration number is from Podhale, giving an idea of their acquaintance with rough terrain...
- "That's a great achievement, congrats ! That was a tough one, isn't it ?"
- "A tough one ? You must say the hardest I've ever done in my life!"