Monday, 23 June 2014

I said I'd take it easy . . .

. . . but that's a difficult thing to do when you pass through the pits after 5 laps to be told you're in 3rd place!

I'm actually struggling to sum up how I feel about the 10th Anniversary No Fuss Events Ten Under the Ben (TUTB).  A couple of years ago, TUTB was the first endurance event I attempted solo, as a build up for getting into 24 hour solo events after doing a few in quads or pairs.  It's a multi-lap 10 hour endurance event where you complete as many laps as possible in the 10 hours.  A bit like the recent Glentress Seven, this is the kind of event I've been doing before I got into XC racing this year, so despite my current focus on XC, these events mean a lot to me.  They're like a benchmark for showing how far I've come in the past few years with my mountain biking.  And this is why I'm struggling to sum up my emotions after this one.

At my first TUTB only two years ago I came 20th out of 61 Senior Male Soloists.  On Saturday I came 3rd out of the 103 senior males soloists in my category and, in fact, 3rd overall out of all 233 soloists (senior, vet and senior-vet, male and female)!  I still can't believe it and I think this might mean even more to me than my win at Cathkin in the SXC.  I know that sounds strange but this is because (a) I wasn't peaking for this race, (b) it was a 3rd place in such a large field of riders, and (c) because these events really do show me how much I've improved over the past couple of years.  "Happy" doesn't even begin to describe how I feel right now!

Rewind a few days to Wednesday and I was actually thinking of pulling out of this race.  I had it marked as a C priority race on my training plan.  One to do more for fun and in the middle of a build period in my training, as I work towards peaking for the British National XC Championships in July.  I'd had a couple of nice days off work after last week's BCXC in Wales, but had eaten too much over those days (well, you do need a treat sometimes!), was feeling a bit lethargic, wasn't really up for training this past week and was really busy with work.  I just wan't feeling up for it.

Later in the week my mood changed and I started to look forward to it.  I thought I'd just take it easy and have fun.  Still try of course, but not go 100% and use it as a big endurance training ride, soak up what is always a great atmosphere at No Fuss Events races and just enjoy the course.

We headed up to Fort William on Friday night, nipped into Nevis Range to register and then got to our nearby B&B for an early night.  With about 1200 people taking part, including solos, pairs, trios and quads, it was no surprise to find the other people in our B&B were also taking part (as a trio).  It was nice to chat to them over my porridge in the morning before the race, and probably made it easier for the B&B that we all wanted breakfast at 6.30am!  With the race starting at 9.30am, this was perfect for the 3 hour gap I always try to leave between breakfast and the race start.

When we arrived at Nevis Range, it was drizzling a bit.  The forecast was for a couple of light showers in the morning, with some sunny spells and mostly cloud throughout the day.  I was glad to see the temperature back to 12 - 14 degrees after the heat and humidity of the previous weekend in Wales and the 20 - 24 degrees we'd even had in Scotland in the week leading up to TUTB.  The temperature was pretty perfect for racing and I hardly noticed the couple of light showers during the race.

I only did a gentle warm-up for this, partly because of the length of the event, but also because we were going to be doing a long rolling start behind a vehicle and that would give plenty of time to get the legs going.  And in true No Fuss style, it was a rather interesting start!  

They obviously had hundreds of riders to line up so I got to the start early to get on the front row.  Despite saying I wasn't taking it too seriously I also didn't want to be held up when we hit the first singletrack section and it pays to be near the front to avoid any carnage.

So, the interesting start . . . We were first led off by a pipe band and then taken down the access road from Nevis Range behind a Model T Ford!  A pretty cool way to start a race!  The motorbikes then led us onto the first forest road where they gradually built up the speed and the racing was on!

At this point, it's hard not to go into "race mode" despite saying I was going to take it easy!  I didn't go all out but I pushed on up the first climb to make sure I was in the top 20 to 30 riders on the first lap.  

As usual with No Fuss Events, the course was a mix of some pretty tough climbing and some fun singletrack descents.  Not quite as much off-piste as they usually include but it was a good course.  I'm tempted to say it was a climbers course, and that suited me well, but it also had the entire Nevis XC World Champs descent in it, which while not crazy technical, is quite fast and rocky and does require concentration and skill in places.  So it suited me overall and I really enjoyed it.  The course was about 16km long with around 470m of climbing!  That gives you an idea of how tough it was!  It also included a new section of blue trail (called Blue Adder) which was good fun, and a tricky technical rocky climb which I really enjoyed.

On my first lap, despite my legs being warmed-up, I don't think my brain was!  I was a bit slow down the descents and didn't seem to have my "flow" switched on!  I soon sorted this and gave myself a damn good talking to and by the second lap I was flowing down the descents.  If you've read my blogs you'll know I beat myself up for my technical descending at times, but that's on the rooty muddy stuff.  Other than a couple of very short rooty/muddy sections, the descending on this course was mostly rocky or flowy.  This suited me well and I know the XC World Champs descent really well as it often features in No Fuss races, of which I've done several. 

Despite having to let a few people by on the descents in the first lap, from my second lap onwards it felt great to be either catching people on the descents or building up gaps from those behind me, or at least holding the gap constant.  I was really enjoying myself and having loads of fun!

The atmosphere was great and the vibe from all the riders was so friendly regardless of category or ability.  I always asked politely to pass and was even called a gentleman twice because of my polite overtaking! :-)  And everyone I passed was so friendly and did all they could to give you space.  Everyone was just there to have fun, regardless of how fast or slow they were. 

At the end of my 3rd lap, my wife (aka support crew / aka manager / aka amazing person in general with whom I couldn't do these races!) told me I was in 6th place.  This is when the "taking it easy" mentality started to switch to race mode!  I set out with a goal of getting into the top 20 so to already be in the top 10 made me decide to just go for it.

By the end of lap 4 I was in 4th.  And by the end of lap 5 I was in 3rd!

3rd!  With only Greig Brown (legend and human machine who wins these races every year!) and Roger Campbell-Crawford (last year's Scottish XC Champion) in front of me, this felt amazing.  To think back to my first TUTB two years ago, when I was really just getting into this endurance mountain biking malarkey, and then realise only two years later that I was up there with these guys . . . well, race mode was most definitely now switched on!  Could I maintain this and step onto the podium as a soloist for the first time in an endurance mountain bike race?!

One thing I've learned over a few years of doing these events is to stop as little as possible.  After practicing nutrition and stopping strategy at the Glentress Seven a few weeks back, I planned to do the exact same thing at this race.  I was eating on the move, my wife was passing me water bottles and flapjacks when needed, and I planned one stop at the half way point.

Just after half way (in time) I had done 6 laps and was still sitting in 3rd place.  I stopped for a banana and some Lucozade Sport, and to re-stock my pocket with energy gels.  I also re-lubed my chain at this point as it was drying out a bit and I didn't want to risk a mechanical.  I had been using teflon dry lube recently but I think its limit is probably a shorter XC race and will stick to wet lube from now on for the endurance events.  Other than that very minor issue, my Trek Superfly was fantastic yet again.  The brakes were great, the suspension was perfect, the gears changed smoothly, and my tyres were a dream!  The Bontrager XR1s are fantastic.  Pretty light and yet strong enough to take the rocks on a course like this one.  And I've also learned from some recent issues with grip, and some advice from Douglas Shearer (thanks!), that I've been running my tyre pressures too high.  I ran 25psi rear and 23 psi front.  The grip was amazing, even on the couple of short rooty sections in the course.

While I mention re-stocking food, some of you may be interested in my nutrition for this race.  It was pretty similar to the Glentress Seven other than the amounts extended due to this being a 10 hour event.  As well as my breakfast, I then had a flapjack about an hour before the race, sipped on Lucozade Sport beforehand and had a gel on the start line.  I then consumed the following in the 10 hours of the race itself:
  • 10 energy gels
  • 6 x 500ml bottles of carb drink (although I probably should have had more)
  • 5 of my home-made healthy flapjacks
  • 2 bananas
  • 1 bottle of Lucozade Sport
  • 1 bag of jelly babies

So, back to the racing . . . 

When I set out on my 7th lap I had no idea what the gap was back to the guy in 4th place behind me.  However, due to the shape of the course, it comes back near the pits area at about the half-way point and my wife was able to tell me that the gap was only 30 seconds.  In my head, I had thoughts of the SXC Round 3 at Abriachan come flooding back.  This time, there was no way I was letting go of that podium place!

Despite my lap times slowing by 2 - 3 mins from my first few, as they always do at these longer races, I pushed on.  I really pushed up the climbs (it's worth noting I didn't use my granny ring once in this race and I'm seriously considering switching to a single ring as I can't remember when I last used it in a race!).  I remained smooth and controlled on the descents, which actually made me faster.

By the end of my 7th lap this paid off and I was 4.5 mins ahead of 4th place.  By the end of my 8th lap I was 9 minutes ahead.  Then 13 minutes ahead at the end of the next lap.  My legs were burning on those climbs but it was paying off!  I was also cheered on by some of the guys from the TrailScotland forum who were out on course too and this really did help!  In fact, the cheering on from all the spectators and marshalls was great.  The marshalls were brilliant, in particular the two girls at the bottom of the World Champs descent who rang their cowbells and demanded a smile every lap!  In return I demanded a big high five from them both on my last lap!

I also have to mention Crazy Dancing Lady!  Those who have done TUTB will know she's featured for the past few years.  As well as bands playing on the stage in the pits area, to keep support crews and spectators entertained, there was a DJ at the top of the course too!  You don't get that at many races!  I have no idea who Crazy Dancing Lady is but she was up at this high point of the course with the DJ, dancing away and encouraging us on.  Crazy, but brilliant!

As I set out for my 11th and final lap, I knew that as long as I didn't make any silly mistakes or have any mechanicals, that I was guaranteed that 3rd place on the podium.  I still pushed it though, to make sure I didn't lose anymore time, and crossed the line after, 11 laps and 10.5 hours, 15 minutes ahead of the 4th place rider.  176km of tough mountain biking with over 5000m of climbing!

I simply couldn't believe it.  I did it.  3rd place.  My first solo podium at an endurance mountain bike race, and with so many competitors it meant even more to me.  And with the added bonus of not being lapped by Mr.Greig Brown for the first time ever!  (sorry Greig, you know that's one of my goals in mountain biking and I've finally achieved it!).

I have to mention Greig at this point . . . It may be no surprise that he won, but when you realise what happened to him you really do understand how much of a machine the man is!  On his 2nd or 3rd lap he punctured twice in one lap and broke a spoke.  He ended up about 20 minutes behind Roger who was in first at that point but by the end of the race he won it by over 20 minutes in front of Roger and Greig could have even fitted another lap in if he'd wanted!  Simply amazing to come back from such a gap and then flip it the other way round!  Not that Roger is slow by any means though . . . he finished about 20 minutes in front of me and is also a fantastic rider!

Well, that was definitely one of my longer blogs posts, but it was the longest race of my year so far so I guess it's appropriate!  I just want to thank the No Fuss Events crew for putting on a fantastic event yet again with an amazing atmosphere, all the marshalls, the first aid crews (who dealt with 48 incidents!), all the spectators, the other racers, and last but absolutely not least, my wife for her never-ending support and encouragement.

It's holiday time now as we are away for a week.  I'm taking the week completely off the bike so it'll be a good break and rest before coming back to peak for the British XC Championships in July.  I'll do a bit of running just to make sure I don't lose any fitness but it's an R&R week for sure.  I'm sure I'll come back raring to go after a week without cycling!

I was going to be missing the Scottish XC Championships while we are away, but that's been cancelled due to some land permission issues and will now be later in the season.  While I appreciate that's rubbish for those who had entered, from a selfish point of view that's worked out well for me as it means I can now do it!

Thanks for reading and, as always, if you have any questions, please just leave a comment below.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Hot, humid and hilly . . .

. . . is how I would describe Round 3 of the British XC Series at Margam Park, near Port Talbot in Wales, last weekend.  I've never come so close to giving up mid-race, as I really was suffering, but I'm oh so glad I didn't.  I finally broke into the top 20 in a British Series race with my best BCXC result yet: 18th!

Having learned from previous experience of doing the later practice session on the Saturday and then being too tired for the race on the Sunday, we got up at stupid o'clock on the Saturday morning so that we'd get to Wales in time for the earlier practice session from 12 - 2.30pm.  I did four practice laps of the course and decided that it suited me perfectly.  Some really tough climbs in it, which would definitely take their toll throughout the race, but that does indeed suit me.  It also had some nice wee singletrack sections, nothing crazy technical, but technical enough to keep your concentration through some slippy muddy rooty sections and a few tight turns.  There was also a fun bermed section to bring a smile to your face on each lap!  Overall, probably my favourite course of the British series so far.

There was also a good vibe at Margam.  Some good friendly chat between riders during practice and I'm getting to know a few more riders now through meeting people at the races so it was good to chat to some other people from my own and other categories.  It was also pretty cool to see Dan McConnell and Rebecca Henderson, both Australian champions who compete on the World Cup XC scene for Trek Factory racing.  They had been in Britain training and decided to take part in this race again as they did last year.  Not surprisingly, they both won their races on the Sunday.  I chatted briefly to Dan and was rather jealous of the Shimano XTR Di2 kit on his Trek Superfly!  We basically have the same bike, but it's just that he has all the latest toys on his!

After some dinner and a wee stroll along Aberavon Beach on the Saturday evening, it was off for an early night to catch up after the morning's early rise, all set for race day on the Sunday.

Not only was Sunday race day; it was also my first wedding anniversary!  I can't write this blog without mentioning that because I have the most amazing wife in the world for letting me race on our first wedding anniversary!  Don't worry though, I made up for it by taking her away for a nice romantic couple of days afterwards!  And as always, she was fantastic supporting me in the race from the feed zone.

A new addition to my warm-up routine at races is the use of rollers.  Being a relative newbie to rollers, here you will see what I call my "concentrate and don't fall off" face!

You may be wondering why I've bought rollers when I already have a turbo trainer, or indeed why I'm using either of these things for a warm-up.  The best warm-up I have had this season was at Cathkin when I took along my turbo trainer and a second bike.  If a race venue has a nice long flat road nearby then I can do the exact warm-up routine I have planned, but when it's a bit hilly then you risk cooling down too much on the downhills.  So, a turbo trainer or rollers let you do a really consistent warm-up and build up gradually.  The reason I've bought rollers is to save me bringing a second bike because my Superfly can't fit on a turbo trainer due to the bolt-through rear end.

So, following this warm-up I was feeling good.  It was really hot and humid, with the cloud having come in just in time for the Masters race, which is now later in the afternoon at 3.15pm along with the Vets categories.  There was a bit of light drizzle just at the start but it didn't really come to much.  Being Scottish, I knew I was going to struggle in the heat, but I felt good on the start line.

I got a reasonably good start but I'm still finding the pace in the first lap is just incredible at these British races.  I was gridded 18th and had slipped down to around 28th by the end of the first lap, despite getting a reasonably good start.  On looking at lap times afterwards, you can actually see that a lot of the top guys in my category do an incredibly fast first lap and then drop about a minute for their second lap, holding it at that pace for the rest of the race.  So, I need to work harder in training to really push it on the first lap.

I was held up a bit on the climbs in the first lap as we bunched up as usual and then someone made a couple of mistakes through the rooty sections which held me up further.

However, I soon started to work my way up the field and on passing through the feed zone at the end of lap 3, was told that I was about 20th.  Could I get into the top 20 for the first time at a British race?

Shortly after having this thought, my mind changed to thoughts of giving up.  The heat and humidity really hit me on lap 4 and I have never been so close to pulling out of a race.  I couldn't bear thinking about another 2 laps at this pace in that heat.  My legs felt heavy and I was really struggling.  I started to make silly mistakes on sections that I had ridden easily on previous laps and in practice.  My concentration was going.

But thankfully I got myself together and reminded myself that my base endurance was still there.  I kept drinking, had a gel, and focussed on the rider in front, Robert Cross from team Dyson.  I had a good battle with Robert during lap 5, but just couldn't catch him.  I kept him in my sights and at the start of lap 6 just decided to go for it on the first climb.

I used every last drop of energy and will power in my body to go faster up the first few climbs and then focussed on being smooth and controlled through the technical sections so as not to lose time like I have done in previous situations like this (namely, the Abriachan SXC race!).  I managed to stay ahead and crossed the line in 18th position, 20 seconds ahead of Robert.  We shook hands afterwards and had a good chat - another friendly face to add to the people I'm getting to know at these races.  Despite the fact that we're all racing each other, everyone is really friendly and sporting.  

Not only is this my best BCXC result yet as a position, but it was my highest result as a percentage of the total riders present, with there being more riders at this round than the previous round in Cornwall.  I'm sure you've already guessed it, but I'm so happy with this!  It was one of my season goals to get into the top 20 in a British race and so now I just need to keep building on that.  It's great to see the ongoing improvements as my training builds and as I gain more race experience at this level.

So, I ended my day with two things to celebrate: my first wedding anniversary with my wonderful wife and my first top 20 in a British XC race.  If only all race days could finish like this, with a wee glass of fizz and some luxury:

You didn't really need to see that, but I couldn't resist! :-)

So, after a nice break away for a few days, I've been back doing a bit of training Wednesday and Thursday this week in preparation for No Fuss Events 10th anniversay of Ten Under the Ben this Saturday 21st June.  It's a multi-lap 10 hour endurance race, and the kind of event I used to specialise in before switching to XC.  I'm viewing this one as a C priority race just to have some fun so I'll be soaking up what is always a great atmosphere at the No Fuss races and trying to enjoy the course rather than just all-out racing.  However, I'm sure when I get onto that start line I won't be able to resist going for it, so we'll see . . . !

The forecast is looking good and I'm looking forward to it.  There are over 1000 people entered, so it's going to be busy but I'm sure there will be a great vibe as usual and my money is on Greig Brown to win the solos.  There are 198 senior male soloists and I know what position I'm aiming for, but I'll let you know afterwards!