1-September-2023, Hotel Four Seasons in Geneva by Lac leman. The attendees of the 6th Workshop on Medical Applications of Spectroscopic X-ray Detectors organized at CERN have gathered for dinner in the majestic ballroom of the hotel. There are dozens of tables under large crystal chandeliers and people are dining and networking.
At one of the round tables, there are people who all have been working in Medipix team at CERN. Sami Vähänen (CTO of Advafab), Erik Fröjdh (Detector scientist at PSI) and Viros Sriskaran (ASIC designer at CERN), three endurance sports-minded people were thinking of a common ultra-distance sports event where to participate. Erik and Sami had a history working in the Medipix team 10+ years ago and Viros is currently working in it. The crazy idea was to find a common, tough sports-related challenge that could be experienced together. Cycling was chosen to be the form of sport because it suited everyone but the event was left open.
A few months later we found the Tour des Stations (TdS) event organized in Verbier, Switzerland. The “Ultrafondo the Everest” course of TdS is one of the toughest one-day cycling events in the world where the route goes through many of the ski stations in Valais. The 242km long course with a whopping >8,848m of vertical ascent must be an epic experience that will be remembered for a lifetime whether the riders finish the event or not. The course is extremely tough where an average climbing percentage of 3.7% over the whole distance. Passing the course requires high-level fitness and/or a natural ability to perform strongly in ultra-long events. Viros had participated in one of the previous TdS events for a 130 km journey and he had good experiences of the TdS event. He was our local guide who knew the routines of the event already and shared his experience with Erik and Sami.
The TdS event was organized during the first week of August 2023. The weather forecast kept us on our toes until the last day before the start. The weather forecast showed exceptionally cold rainy weather and there was a risk of having wet shown at places at high altitudes. Fortunately, the weather forecast was improving for the event day and the probability of freezing in wet clothes wasn’t likely anymore. We gathered in Verbier for 1-2 days to chill down before the start.
In ultra-distance sports, one needs to find its own pace that feels rather easy in the beginning, but maintaining it becomes hard towards the end. The challenge is not only physical, but they are mentally taxing as well because the good and bad sensations alternate over the journey. The common question is why the heck I decided to register and pay to attend the event during difficult moments when finishing the course feels like a never-ending story.
We decided to do the event based on our own pace and split the team into two starting groups 2:30 AM (Viros and Erik) and 5:00 AM (Sami). It was raining in the night and it made the conditions chilly, but fortunately, the rainy clouds moved away in the dawn and the rest of the day was sunny. All the riders should arrive at the finish at Col de le Croix-de-Coeur by 20:30 and there were also cutoff points along the course. The route passed through many villages and valleys in the beautiful Swiss landscape. There were 9 main climbs with ascents of 400 m – 900 m, and about the same number of service stations along the route. The nature of the event is such that all the riders must be able to service themselves between the aid stations no matter what the weather is. It is of paramount importance to eat enough carbohydrates per hour to keep muscles working and the mind bright and optimistic.
There’s always some pain involved when pushing the limits. In cycling, the pain is typically located in the lower back when the abdominal and gluteus muscles get tired and it will cause the hip to rock from side to side. When the lower back muscles are stressed for many hours, there will be a sensation of pain that can be very difficult to handle at the end of the course. The pain cannot be avoided in this kind of event it can be considered as a part of the journey, but the overall journey and the priceless experience are the things that will be pursued in the end.
All three of us made it to the finish line. This is a great result because finishing cannot be taken for granted. After the race, there was a long discussion of each of our experiences along the journey. Moreover, the feelings of the group were high because we all completed the course successfully and it further boosted our personal experiences. Our group avoided crashes on the tricky course, but Sami said that a veteran rider had a severe crash with a rabbit in the first downhill. It was still dawn, there wasn’t much light and that’s the typically active moving time of animals. Sami finished 89th (13h 47 min), Erik 219th (15h 47 min) and Viros 287th (17h 04 min). We celebrated our success with two beers in the event; we could have not tolerated more. 462 brave riders started the race out of which 344 finished thanks to the great sunny, but not hot weather.
The TdS experience was great, and we are looking for other epic challenges in the future. The bike may also be changed to skis; who knows? This is an example where professional networking can lead to great non-professional experiences, friendships, and happy moments together.
You can find YouTube video of the TdS by Sami in the link below: