Monday, 12 May 2014

Some mud and a wee bit of climbing!

75km.  2700m of climbing.  Mud like a rainy Glastonbury festival, but on slopes you'd struggle to walk down.  Rocky singletrack descents.  Slippy climbs with no traction.  Swooping fast trail centre descents.  A bit of tarmac.  More climbing.  A bit more mud.  A little bit more climbing.  Oh, and just a bit more mud.

That was fun!

Saturday saw several hundred mountain bikers arrive in Selkirk for the Selkirk MTB Marathon, and over a hundred of us were taking part in the British National MTB Marathon Championships.  I did this last year in the open "sportive" event rather than the National Champs.  It's the kind of event I've focussed on in the past: more about the endurance and long distance than the shorter, faster XC races I'm focussing on this year.  Last year was over 20 degrees (in Scotland, yes!) and we had dry, dusty trails, dehydration and cramp!

This year, I looked like this by the end of the race:

Just a wee bit muddy!  But, given the forecast was for torrential rain all day, we were pretty lucky!  Despite the recent rain causing a bit of a mudfest in some parts of the course, it stayed dry from the race start and we even had some sunshine as you can see in the photo!

If you've been reading my blog so far this season, you'll have heard me mention the "priority" of my races.  Given my focus on XC racing this season, and the timing of this race, I'd marked it as the lowest priority: C.  This meant I might not do it if I wasn't feeling up to it, and if I did do it, I'd use it to try things out.  

I was feeling good leading up to it and was excited about competing in the national champs this year instead of the open "sportive" version (which offers a 25km, 50km and the same 75km route as the champs).  So, I had to do it despite the weather!  I also decided to experiment a bit with my pace at the start and my nutrition, just to try a few things out in the lead up to some other long endurance events I'm doing amongst the XC races: the Glentress Seven on 24th May and Ten Under the Ben on 21st June.

We were lined up on Selkirk High Street just before 10am and they set us national champs riders off first, into a neutralised zone on the road until we soon turned off and up into Bowhill Estate where the racing really got going.  Remembering this climb from last year, I decided to really push myself on it, knowing that there was a nice descent afterwards.  I had done a short warm-up, but not my usual warm-up I use at XC races, as I knew the neutralised zone would give me time to warm-up in such a long race.  My heart rate got up to way beyond my lactate threshold, which means my legs should have been burning, but I somehow managed to keep pushing on.

There's no way I was going to keep up with the lead group - they don't categorise the MTB Marathon Champs like an XC race so we were all together: Elites, Expert, Sport, Masters, Vets - everyone from amateurs to pros.  However, I managed to overtake a few people on that first climb so was pretty happy.  I had two goals for the race: 1. To do a sub-5 hours time, which I felt was achievable, and 2. To come in the top half of male riders (this, I wasn't really sure was achievable).  I felt at this point that I might have been about half way up the field but wasn't sure.

On the descent after this climb, I was overtaken by a couple of people but I didn't mind - I'd rather take it easy at this point in the race and also look after my tyres.  There were already some people at the side of the track with punctures - these rough landrover tracks can be full of sharp rocks and are very rutted so it's easy to either puncture, or worse, get spat out of a rut and into the heather!  I was really happy with my tyre choice - the Bontrager XR2.  XR1s would have been far too light and prone to punctures on a course like this.  I did contemplate XR3s for a bit more grip but the XR2 was the perfect compromise.  It did spin out on some of the slippy, grassy, muddy climbs but everyone seemed to be in that situation on those climbs.  It had enough grip for most sections, stood up to the rocks and was fast enough rolling for the few tarmac sections.

I did, however, lose a few places on the next section as I struggled a bit on some of those slippy climbs and when I had to get off and walk some sections (which most people did), an old achilles injury of mine flared up a bit.  To cut a long story short, walking in cycling shoes is very bad for my achilles and calf so I always lose time if I have to do a bit of "hike-a-bike" in a race like this.

I lost some further time on some later descents, especially the ones that were like a river of Glastonbury festival mud.  This is an area I really do need to work on - I'm not the worst technical descender but I could definitely improve a lot so I'm going to focus on this in my training for the rest of the season and over the winter my plan is to go in search of slippy muddy descents!  I feel this often lets me down in race situations, losing places when it pushes me a bit out of my comfort zone, but at least it's good to know what I need to improve.  It let me down by more than just lack of speed in this race - I had a few silly crashes.  But I'm sure plenty of riders did too as it was more like surfing than cycling down some of those descents!  At one point, I had a complete rear wheel drift and ended up hugging a tree . . . it didn't hug me back but instead did this to my face:

Not the worst mountain bike injury I've had by any means, but if one more person asks me "did you cut yourself shaving?" . . . . !

Unfriendly trees and cut faces aside, one of the best things about this event is not just the challenging course, but the locations it takes you into.  Although, it was difficult to admire the scenery when my glasses were caked in this much mud!

At the foot of one of the descents I was caught by another rider and we ended up riding alongside each other for a while.  We'd actually been chatting on the start line and after finally introducing ourselves on one of the climbs, realised we follow each other on Twitter!  It was nice to have company for a while and ride alongside Finlay Strivens, who races in the Expert category at the SXC series.  I let Finlay go ahead on the next descent as I knew he would be faster down it than me and he was!  I was back on my own again and got the head down and got on with the next climb . . . can you tell there's a fair bit of climbing in this race?!

I probably hit my low point about then as I was struggling up this particular climb and was caught by another rider.  I also lost my concentration a bit on some of the next descents, but soon got myself switched on again after the next feed station.  Durty Events, the organisers, were running a bottle transfer service which I made good use of.  At XC races, it's easy to have a support team in the feed zone who can pass you a bottle every other lap or so, but on one large 75km loop in the middle of nowhere it's a bit trickier!  Thankfully, the organisers transferred bottles for us to the 4 feed stations and I was very glad of it being there at the penultimate station at the Innerleithen 7 Stanes trail centre.  I also chose this point, while climbing the red route climb at Innerleithen, to fuel up with some of the food I'd been carrying in my pockets and it definitely gave me my "second wind".  

I was much faster up that climb and enjoyed the following descent, especially knowing there wasn't long to go.  On reaching the final feed station for another quick bottle swap I knew there was just one more semi-serious climb and then it would be downhill all the way from the Three Brethren back to Selkirk!

As I glanced at my watch and started my final descent to the finish I knew I was cutting it fine to make my target of sub 5 hours.  But I gave it my best shot!  As I crossed the line, my own watch and GPS said 5:02 hours but the official timing has me at 5:08.  A few people did mention that their own timing disagreed with the official timing so perhaps they started the official clock a bit early, but regardless, I was just over my target time of sub-5 hours.

But, to put this in perspective, when I did the same course last year in the open sportive category, it took me 6 hours.  So that's a dramatic improvement and in a race where I had not peaked my training for it, was not prioritising it, had not trained specifically for longer events, and was experimenting with strategy and nutrition.  I finished 55th of 82 men, and as that includes all the pros as well as us amateurs, and given I was not far off my target time, I'm actually pretty happy with that . . . as can be seen in my cheesy finish line picture:

I don't often mention my bike in these blog posts but I have to say how good my Trek Superfly was in this race.  A full-suspension lightweight 29er is perfect for these endurance events and this kind of terrain and it performed flawlessly.  Thanks to Andrew at Alpine Bikes Glasgow for getting the bike in good shape for the race and for sorting it again afterwards after the beating it took on this terrain!  I promise I did clean the mud off though before dropping it in to get serviced again after the race:

As already mentioned, the Bontrager XR2 tyres performed well and everything else on the bike stood up to the Scottish mud and grit!  Despite being caked in mud, my Shimano XT gears were still changing smoothly by the end and the 100mm of Fox suspension on the Superfly was just perfect for this kind of terrain.  For anyone considering the move to a 29er, it's on courses like this with that amount of climbing when you'll really appreciate it . . . and it's great on the downhills too - it's my skill that runs out before the bike's abilities do!

So, in summary, I'm pretty happy with my result and time, I've learned what I need to improve on, and my nutrition/strategy experiment has given me a few ideas for what to do in some races later this season, especially Tour de Ben Nevis in September.

Even if you're not interested in doing the official British MTB Marathon Championships, just enter the open category of this event next year.  It's an epic course, really well organised and a great atmosphere.  Thanks to all the marshalls for standing out there all day supporting us and well done to everyone who finished it.  Whether you were the winner (Dan Fleeman) finishing in an insane time of 3:44, or whether you took your time, enjoyed the scenery and took 8 hours to finish, it's a tough course and an amazing achievement!

So, it's back to XC racing this coming weekend as we head north to the banks of Loch Ness for the next round of the Scottish XC Series at Abriachan.  I'm really looking forward to it as I've never been there before and I've heard it's a great course.  Check back here next week for my write-up of that.

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