Friday, 17 October 2014

A long race to end a long season

It's been a long season.  It didn't just start in March with my first race of the year.  It started way back on 25th November 2013 when I kicked off my training plan for the season ahead.  A training plan that was focussed on XC, not the longer endurance races I'd focussed on in the past.

I have to admit that a couple of weeks ago, before reaching my final race of the year, I was already set for the off season.  I needed a rest.  I've really enjoyed it.  I am over the moon with how successful it has been.  But I just needed a good rest and a break from training.  I was verging on "burn out".

Probably not the best frame of mind to have going into the final race of the season on 11th/12th October: the WEMBO 24 Hour Solo Mountain Bike World Championships!

But you can't go into a 24 hour solo MTB race with anything other than the strong determination it takes to get through one of the toughest things you can do to your body.  Fitness gets you to 12 hours . . . but everything thereafter is all in the mind.  Just one more push, just one more effort, I knew it was not time to give up yet . . . 

. . . and this just shows you what that determination can do:  A bronze World Championships medal in my category!

I didn't think this season could get any better!  But it just did!

I've competed in the No Fuss Events Relentless 24 Hour race for the past few years, but this year No Fuss were hosting the WEMBO World Championships.  WEMBO was formed to keep 24 hour solo racing going at an international level, with the past two years' rounds taking place in Italy and Australia.  It's off to California next year and New Zealand in 2016, but this year, in October, riders from 23 different countries arrived in Fort William to brave the Scottish weather and a very tough course.

As well as the Elite category, the rest of us mere mortals were split into age categories and I have just recently crept into the 35-39 category as it goes by your age in December . . . can you tell I'm clinging onto being 34?!

On setting up my pits on the Friday before the race, I could already feel a great vibe around Nevis Range, the home to many No Fuss events.  The team at No Fuss always put on great races, but this just felt bigger, more official, and even a little bit overwhelming.  My sponsors at the Alpine Bikes Trek Store had kindly provided a gazebo and flags to give my pit area an even more professional feel and this all just added to the sense of excitement on Friday night as we headed over to the Nevis Range cafe for the race briefing.

I don't know if it was the recent burnt-out feeling, or the fact that I'd spent the Friday up there on my own setting up the pits and doing a practice lap, or the fact that I hadn't trained for 24 hour races this year, or just the overwhelming nature of competing in a World Championship event . . . but I was starting to feel quite nervous by the time my pit crew arrived on Friday night (i.e. my wife, my dad and my mum!).

I don't usually get that nervous before a race.  I guess it was just a mixture of everything above, but I had planned my preparation and race strategy well so knew I just had to stick to it.  I got a practice lap in on Friday afternoon and knew that one was enough.  I know the trails really well at Nevis Range so there was only one section I hadn't ridden before.

The course was tough.  Very tough.  It had some fantastic fun and technical descents, which really suited my riding style, but you really had to earn them with 468m of climbing in a 13.4km lap.  And some of those climbs were pretty steep thigh-burners!  It was tough, but it was my kind of course!

On Saturday 11th October we were led off up the forest road and onto the trails by a pipe band.  A great feature for the riders visiting from all over the world!  The sun was even shining!  

They must have wondered what all this fuss was about with Scottish weather!  In fact, the weather for the entire race was great.  It only rained once, and while I'm told it was quite heavy in the pits area, I just experienced it as a light drizzly shower around midnight.  I didn't even need waterproofs.  Just some good thermal clothes for during the night.

As the pipe band peeled off and the lead-out motorbikes left a gap between us and the elite field in front, we got up to race pace up the first climb.  This is where my experience of 24 hour races set in and I knew not to go at XC pace up that climb and hit the red zone when the race had only just started.  With people from so many countries, the only other rider in my category I knew was Martin Graham, recently crowned Scottish Masters XC Champion, having won the last SXC round at Dalbeattie in September.  I know Martin is faster than me so I wasn't going to try to keep up with him on that first lap.  Just settle in and ride my own race, which is what I did.

However, that first lap soon turned into a bit of a disaster.  As usual, it was really busy when we hit the first section of singletrack descent and I let my frustrations get the better of me.  I tried to cut by a few riders on a corner and took a stupid inside line which led to my front tyre washing out on the gravel.  Down I went.  Cut elbow and damaged pride, but I picked myself up and got on with it.

I continued to be held up by slower riders on the descent who just didn't seem willing to let faster riders by.  This was disappointing as there's usually good etiquette at these races and I always let faster riders by.  Thankfully this was the only time this happened in the race but it lost me several minutes on that first lap.

I soon got by and made up time, starting to catch up with other riders later in the lap, but I had to slow down on a few descents as a piece of kit let me down.  I can't believe I'm saying this, as I'm usually a slave to the brand of Oakley, but my new Oakley glasses really let me down.  Having recently broken a pair of Oakely Radars, I replaced them with Racing Jackets.  However, they steamed up so badly I couldn't see for the last few descents of the first lap and was having to ride painfully slowly!  I handed them to my pit crew at the end of that first lap and rode the rest of the race without glasses.  Something I'm not happy doing being a contact lens wearer, but I had to risk it to be able to see!

Thankfully, by half way through lap 2, I was actually starting to enjoy myself.  The course was so much fun.  Yes, the climbs were tough and I knew they'd really start to hurt in the early hours of the morning, but the descents were fantastic.

I settled into my routine for nutrition, with hand-ups from my wife ensuring that I didn't need to stop at the end of each lap and could save a few vital minutes.  My brother had arrived by this point too so it was great to hear my wife, dad, mum and brother all cheering me on at various points throughout the laps.

Most 24 hour racers will tell you that their lowest points are probably around the half way point at midnight or the dark early hours of the morning.  Well, I had my low point around my 5th or 6th lap, before it even got dark.  I was absolutely hating the final climb of each lap, which was up a section of trail that is usually a descent.  It wasn't that steep but it just felt like it went on forever and it was starting to wear me down.  I wasn't feeling great and perhaps had eaten a bit too much so switched from my carb drink to plain water for a couple of laps to help.

You have to break 24 hour races down into sections or you will never get through them mentally.  I break them in 4, with stops planned at each 6 hour quarter point in the race.  The only way I got through those 5th and 6th laps was knowing that a stop was approaching soon.

I stopped at around 5.30pm as that's when we were not allowed to start a new lap without lights on, just in case it got dark during the next lap.  I had completed 6 laps by just before 5.30pm and was going well.  I was in 4th place in my category, although I knew I was likely to slip back to 5th with the pit stop.  But this is all about the long-haul so I had plenty of time to make that back up.

While my wife fed me and helped with a change into warmer clothes and gloves, as well as putting my lights on the bike and my helmet, my dad quickly got to work cleaning and re-lubing my drive train and cleaning my brakes.  This made such a difference having a larger pit crew.  I've done these races with no support or with just one supporter but this saved so much time - and it also ultimately can save your bike and your race.  Keeping the brakes and drive train clean every 6 hours can mean the difference between your bike lasting or not lasting the 24 hours when you're riding the gritty Scottish trails at Nevis Range.

And off into the night I went, currently sitting in 5th place . . . 

Within a couple of laps I'd soon made up the 15 mins I'd lost to Michael Novak from the USA and was back in 4th place behind Martin Graham in 3rd, Cristian Ragnoli (Italy) in 2nd and Craig Bowles (England) in 1st.  By midnight I was over 30 mins ahead of Michael and the gap was growing.

I was loving it!  I can't believe I'm saying this but my favourite part of this entire 24 hour race was the 13 hours in the dark!  That climb at the end of the lap that I hated in the daylight . . . well, I loved it at night!  It may have just been the illusion of speed with the lights on, but I even felt like I was descending faster.  I was genuinely enjoying myself!

I've re-discovered my love for night riding.  You end up in a little bubble of a few metres, in your own little world.  Just you, your bike, and the section of trail lit up by your lights.  It shows every feature on the trail in a whole new light (or shadow!) and I quite enjoy the solitude of it all.  There wasn't as much of that at this race as most 24 hour races.  I think that's because it was all solo competitors and we were all competing in a world championships.  At most 24 hour races, it can get very lonely at night, sometimes going 20 or 30 minutes without seeing another rider as some team members go for a sleep or take a break.  However, even though with us all being solos I did see more riders than usual at night, I still got those nice quiet times on my own; just me, my bike and my thoughts.

Often those thoughts turn negative at night but I managed to keep them positive.  I was doing surprisingly well considering everything I've already mentioned and I was enjoying myself.  I was keeping myself going by breaking down the time, singing to myself, chatting to other riders I passed (including a really nice guy from Portugal telling me it was 30 degrees back home!) and even starting to write this blog in my head!

When it got to 8pm I thought "a third of the way through".  When it got to midnight, the No Fuss team set off a firework and we all knew it was the half way point.  A great trick at this point is to start counting the hours down rather than up . . . 12 to go, 11 to go . . . the next thing you know you'll be in single digits!

I had a break just after midnight and 12 laps in.  I still had a good gap from Michael back in 5th place so I felt confident I could maintain 4th in my category, which I would be pretty happy with!  My dad got to work on the bike again but as I went into the campervan to change my jersey and base layer and get a new battery pack plugged into my lights, I suddenly felt really faint and dizzy.

It could have just been the pressure relief from removing my helmet.  Or stopping after moving for so long.  Or a sugar/caffeine low.  I was told to sit down but I knew I couldn't.  If I sat down I wouldn't get up again.  I had a strong coffee and some food and just had to get going again after a 10 minute stop.

Thankfully, the dizzyness went away and I soon got into my rhythm again.  At this point my wife, who had been amazing all day long, went for a well deserved sleep, while my dad did the nightshift.  I don't think some people appreciate how difficult the support job is at these races.  I've got mountain biking to keep me amused but with my lap times at just over an hour overnight I don't know how my wife or my dad kept from getting bored!

One thing my dad did was always stand at a section of trail where I came by the back of our pits to let me know how I was doing from the live results.  It was then about 15 or 20 minutes until I actually came back round into the pits so this was good to know and I could tell him what nutrition I wanted for that lap.

At about 2am or thereabouts he told me something remarkable . . . I was in 3rd!  It had to be some mistake.  I wasn't planning to stop on that lap but I did, quickly, to find out what had happened.  It looked like Martin Graham had pulled out.

I found out in the morning, on seeng Martin as I passed his pits, that he had a knee issue.  I don't know if it was a crash or just an injury that flared up over time.  I'm really gutted for Martin and I hope he recovers fully but I'm sure he'll agree with me that it's all part of racing: your bike, brain and body all have to last the 24 hours so I can't feel bad that I moved up a place due to him having to pull out from injury.

As daylight came, I was on a high from knowing I was currently sitting in a podium position at a world championship event!  But my mood got even higher due to my favourite part of any 24 hour race . . . 

Many people ask why we do it.  Yes, there's the challenge.  There's showing what the human body can be put through (they are amazing machines, aren't they?!).  There's the satisfaction of crossing the line after 24 hours.  But my favourite part has got to be sunrise.  It feels amazing knowing there's about 4 and a half hours to go and seeing a view like this:

It made me happy!

I stopped at around 7.30am to remove my lights and change my base layer and jersey one last time.  I had about an hour to spare back to Michael in 4th and soon lapped him.  I just had to keep it smooth and controlled, keep the bike going, no mistakes, and I was guaranteed a medal!

My dad gave the bike one final once-over before going for a well-deserved snooze and my wife got me going again with fuel and dry clothes.  

I had some real ups and downs in the last few hours though.  I started to hate that climb again at the end of the lap.  My legs were burning on every single climb.  The blisters on my hands were burning too.  My stomach was churning with all the sugar.  I didn't want to eat anything else but I knew I had to.  I forced down a caffeine gel and some jelly babies.  Anything to get me through those last few laps.

I actually got a bit faster again on my 21st lap (probably from the caffeine and sugar) and I knew that I didn't really have to do a 22nd lap to guarantee that 3rd place.  But I'm a "completer-finisher" and there was no way I was going to stop at 11:25 when I knew I could fit in another lap (as long as you start your last lap before 12 noon you can finish it, by 2pm).

That 22nd and final lap was horrible.  I put on a brave face and a smile for all the marshals to thank them - they were amazing and we couldn't do this without all their help and encouragement.  But on the rest of that lap I was like a zombie.  Just staring into space in pain, blocking out everything . . . "no pain, no pain, no pain" . . . 

After 24 hours, 36 minutes and 16 seconds, after 22 laps, almost 300km and almost 10,000m of climbing, I crossed the line.  I'm sure I'm trying to smile . . .

Happy doesn't even begin to describe how I felt, but all I needed was a wee seat and my finishers beer!  Thanks to No Fuss for the beer and the bobbly hat, and for putting on an amazing event!

Well, what else can I say? . . . 

3rd in my category, a podium, a bronze medal at the 24 Hour Solo MTB World Championships!

I was 28th overall out of all 146 riders in all categories (including Elite) and if I'd entered the elite male category I'd actually have finished 15th out of 30!  Not bad for an amateur who hasn't trained for 24 hour races this year!

I do need to explain the lady on the male 35-39 podium . . . Craig wasn't feeling great so was having a lie-down when the ceremony took place so his wife collected his medal and winners jersey! :-)

 I'm currently battling with that good old question . . . will I do it again?  I'm honestly not sure.  I don't have anything else to prove with 24 hour races and I'm really focussed on my XC racing now and want to take that to another level next year, but we'll see . . . !

After 46 weeks of training and 8 months of racing it's time for my post season rest now!  I've not been on a bike all week.  I'll start cycling to work again next week and I'm looking forward to just riding for fun for a few weeks.  Then it's a nice relaxing holiday to complete 7 full weeks off training.  I'll start to put my training plan together for next year soon and I'll be back raring to go in December!  In the meantime, I'll probably still blog a bit so watch this space.

Thanks so much for reading this and for reading any of my blogs this season.  I hope you've enjoyed them as much as I've enjoyed writing them.

I just need to finish with a massive thank you to everyone who helped me not just for this race but for the whole season.  Thanks to my sponsors, the Alpine Bikes Trek Store Glasgow for all the kit, support and bike maintenance that led to not a single mechanical the entire season.  Thanks also to them for the gazebo/etc for WEMBO.  Thanks to my in-laws for the use of their campervan - it makes such a difference at these races both for the support crew and for me.  Thanks to my dad for staying up all night, cleaning the bike and feeding me at WEMBO and also for cheering me on.  Thanks also to my mum and brother for coming all the way up to Fort William to cheer me on.  Thanks to my friends who have come along to support me at other races too this year - it really pushes me on to hear your cheers.

And, finally, the biggest thanks of all to my amazing wife Heather for everything she has done.  Helping me through the highs and lows of training, pushing me on when I wanted to give up, going all over the UK with me and giving up her weekends to help support me at all these races and kicking my bum out of that campervan at midnight to get on with completing WEMBO!  I simply couldn't do it without her!


I didn't want to fill the whole race report with kit reviews but just a few brief highlights to call out for anyone who is interested:

  • I ran Bontrager XR2 tyres (29 x 2.20) front and rear.  They were amazing as always - no punctures and loads of grip
  • Overnight, I wore Bontrager Race Windshell gloves.  They were so warm and cosy and I'd highly recommend them
  • I would not recommend Oakley Racing Jackets - they steam up so easily.  I'm switching back to Oakley Radars
  • Exposure lights - fantastic as always. I ran a Diablo on my helmet and a Toro on the bars
  • Endura Baa Baa base layers kept me warm
  • And by far the most amazing piece of kit that has revolutionised 24 hour races for me: Ergon GS1 Grips!!!  Last year after Relentless I had nerve damage in my hands that meant I couldn't open bottle tops or hold a pen properly for about 2 months after the race.  This year, I was absolutely fine the very next day.  I still had blisters from holding the grips, but the big difference was the ergonomic shape meant no nerve issues or grip issues afterwards and no hand pain at all.  Simply amazing!  I'll go back to foam grips for XC but will now always use Ergon GS1s for endurance races