Six Mountains, Seven Hours and 106km: John Beats the Maratona dles Dolomites

Friday, July 3, 2015

It was February when I first announced my plans to tackle the Maratona dles Dolomites sportive. Reading back on my blog post, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to double my training efforts and get a lighter bike.

As I wrote then:

“It’s one of the biggest cycling events in the world, with thousands of amateurs and professionals gathering in Italy every year to push themselves thought sweat and agony against the beautiful backdrop of the Dolomites.”

“Those mountains may be intimidating but after seeing everyone from 90 year olds to veteran amputees cycling alongside me, I know I have no excuse. Should the day come when I can no longer cycle, I don’t want to look back and feel I wasted my good health.”

Now that I’ve finished the Maratona dles Dolomites, I can safely say that I have not wasted my good health. In fact, it’s been tested far beyond what I thought possible.

Alongside my close group of cycling friends, I’ve managed to tick off many of Europe’s greatest sportives, including Marmotte, Nove Colli, Mozrine and Mont Ventoux. Each served as a powerful milestone for me, balancing the mental challenges of my day job with intense physical tests. The Maratona dles Dolomites, however, was in an entirely different league.

The big day started at 4:45 with a breakfast to match, as my friends and I eagerly fuelled ourselves for what would be over seven hours of non-stop cycling.

Euphoria buzzed in the air at the start line as 14,000 fellow cyclists from around the world united in excitement, determination and more than a bit of dread. The tension was at a hair trigger as the announcer counted down, “Tre… due… uno!”

Despite our promises to support each other through more than a hundred kilometres, my group lost each other almost immediately in the throng. From there the battle was my own against six mountain passes and 38 degree heat.

During my cycle training I took trips down to Box Hill in Surrey to test myself on a climb, but that ten minute ascent was incomparable to the hour-or-more trials up the Dolomites. Aside from spending every weekend in the mountains, there was nothing I could have done to prepare myself.

But mountain cycling isn’t pure punishment. For each gruelling ascent there’s a thrilling descent, giving your legs a rest as you speed through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. It’s a gratifying rhythm but one that takes a heavy toll.

It was on the 33 winding, climbing bends of Passo Falzareggo that I started drawing on my last reserves of energy and willpower. I assumed I had reached the final summit, only to discover that there was another kilometre to go. The end was within sight but every burning muscle in my body begged to rest.

When I reached the peak of exhaustion, I took my mind as far from the Dolomites as it could go, back to my childhood home. I walked through every room, opening every cupboard, reminding myself of each piece of furniture and little trinkets. This well known distraction trick works doubly well for me as it’s equal parts psychological and architectural. Even at my most spent I still think about design!

The final descent was pure joy. Gravity took over and I could lose myself in the exhilarating race down to the finish knowing I had earned this unforgettable moment through hours of intense hardship.

At the finish line my group eventually reunited, all of us having successfully completed the course with no injury. We all enjoyed a single, precious day of rest before returning at 2 am Tuesday to get back in the office. Already, we’re planning our next adventure – perhaps South Africa’s Cape Argus sportive.

The Maratona dles Dolomites is by far the most challenging cycling I’ve ever endured and I recommend anyone considering next year’s event to start preparing now. Ideally I would have built more endurance, eaten less and dedicated more time to training but I am still incredibly proud of myself and my team for conquering our hardest sportive yet.

John Dyer-Grimes