As the world is getting smaller through increasing means of communications, I found out about the 31st edition of the Maratona Dles Dolomites. It is basically a Gran Fondo, a cycling event somewhat equivalent to a Marathon for running. Searching further into this event, I found out that it is where most of the action of the Giro d’Italia takes place, in the Dolomites Mountains part of the North Italy Alps, also a United Nations Heritage Site.
Being committed to this prestigious event, I have managed to convince three of my cycling friends to join: Abdulla Abdul Salam, Ebrahim Touq, and Sara Al Salam.
It is summer time in Bahrain. We’ve never done a Grand Fondo before, and not to mention that we don’t have mountains around to train in. Where and how to train were the biggest factors we were facing.
Time went by, and we reached Alta Badia, the village famously known for cycling in summer and skiing in winter. This area is suitable for hiking and rock climbing as well. One thing I noticed? Everybody is fit and healthy in Alta Badia.
I cannot even put into words how beautiful this place is. Without any hesitation, I can say that I have never ever in my life seen a more beautiful place than this. You wouldn’t believe it is real until you actually move closer to the mountains. It is more beautiful than any poet can describe.
The event has three different distances to choose from, a short (50km), a medium (106km), and a long (138km). In my own words, hard, harder, and hardest. During the first four days, we tested our legs in some of the nearby mountains to assess where we stand in finishing one of the three distances above. Immediately we found out how difficult this was going to be. There is nothing we can do to improve our chances of completing the long option we originally came for. There were a lot of factors that no matter how much you try, training in Bahrain is just not enough. The country cannot mimic the altitude and uphill gradients. However, we did not give up. We decided to fit our bikes with mountain specific gears that allows the bicycle to go slow, but the legs to spin faster, easing off the pain while climbing the mountains towards 2200 meters of elevation, about seven times.
Because of the strict cut-off times, none of us was sure before the race what sort of distance we will end up competing. The organisers allow you to choose while you are competing in the race.
So many questions and so little answers we had for this challenge. You need to be as light as possible carrying yourself and pedalling up the mountain. However, you have to take all the necessary gear with you. Rain cover, spare tubes, food, drinks, and perhaps even a phone (We live for that perfect Instagram photo today right?)
The race began, Sara was up in the second wave in the female category, and the rest of us in the third wave. We needed to pace ourselves yet meet the cut-off times to be allowed to continue towards the long distance option. With more than 9000 other ‘lucky’ participants, we climbed the first mountain. It was so packed that we had to almost halt in some uphill turns at 14 percent gradient. We look up and down the mountain and can see thousands of participants all over the mountain, something that gives chills to the skin.
I had a lot of information displayed on my Garmin device, but the most important one is time. We started at 6:50 am, and I needed to pass through the turn towards the long option before 11:45 am. I had five mountains to climb first.
Going up I wanted to take off all my clothes because of the body heat, and coming down I wanted the thickest blanket to cover myself in. The temperature was around 12 in the bottom, and 7 Celsius on top. But coming down the mountain at almost 90km/hr was not something pleasant. Actually, the whole going up and down thing was confusing for the brain to plan, it was all new.
“Nothing is more beautiful than climbing the Italian Alps and this trip is definitely one to do every year! I am very proud to be the first Arab female to participate and represent Bahrain.” – Sara Al Salam –
I was able to make the cut-off time and reached exactly 11:00 am. I made the turn and felt relieved. Now, the real challenge begins. Yes, after all this time, the scary mountain of going 10km for an average of 10% gradient was approaching.
Here I began. I wanted to shut my mind. I thought of what would I do if I won the lottery, and then find myself on top. Nope, it didn’t work. Every pedal was painful, and my lower back started hurting a lot, while my energy started fading. After about an hour, I reached 6km and needed to stop for a breather.
Gradually, I was able to get to the top, stopped an ambulance and asked for some Ibuprofen for my back. The toughest mountain was done and dusted, time was good, and here I knew I was on my way to finish. I reached the finish line after 8 hours and 21 minutes. I was so proud of myself, especially that I was wearing the Bahrain Merida outfit. Hundreds of cyclists and spectators shouted time and time again at me with “Bahrain” and “Nibali” which gave me a significant boost throughout the race. Sometimes it is small things that matter, and this time, everything mattered.
Sara completed the short distance in a fantastic position, finishing 5 mountains ahead of many locals who actually train in the mountains themselves. She said that “Nothing is more beautiful than climbing the Italian Alps and this trip is definitely one to do every year! I am very proud to be the first Arab female to participate and represent Bahrain.” Abdulla had a mechanical problem, but he managed to finish the medium distance. Ibrahim, on the other hand, who never did a full IRONMAN or any other endurance event before, made it through the long distance in 9 hours and 10 minutes!
Ebrahim said at the end that “what we did was a great achievement by itself because we weren’t used to the high altitude and trained in a hot and flat area. I am very proud to be one of the first four Bahrainis to do this Maratona competing against more than 9000 world class cyclists.”
I am writing this with mixed emotions, just before boarding the plane back to Bahrain. This place is beautiful and difficult to leave, but there is no such place as home.
Alta Badia, we will be back!