Friday, 5 August 2016

The Manx 100 . . . Brutal!

Yes, it's been a while.  Several months, in fact, since I last wrote a blog.  I really don't want to dwell on it but it's been a rather challenging season on the bike again this year, with injury, illness and a variety of other things meaning I've not done most of the races I intended to.

One race I definitely did not want to miss was the Manx 100.  100 miles with 5000m (16,500 feet) of climbing, mostly off-road, around the Isle of Man.  A proper adventure.  A grueling challenge of endurance, both for the body and the mind.  The type of event that originally got me into mountain bike racing in the first place.

It's fair to say I'm not enjoying going round in circles at XC races these days, but I didn't want to miss an epic adventure like this.  I knew I wouldn't do as well as I could, given I've lost fitness, put on some weight and not been training as hard as usual.  But even finishing this race is an achievement in itself.

It's hard to describe for those who don't mountain bike.  To put it in perspective:  The last time I did 100 miles on the road it had about 1300m of climbing and took me 5 hours.  The Manx 100 is mostly off-road, on some of the roughest most brutal, physical terrain I've ever encountered.  With 5000m of climbing.  That's 5 and a half Scottish munro mountains.  It's well over half way up mount Everest!

That's why it took me 13 hours!

We arrived on the Isle of Man on the Saturday evening before the race to be greeted by a really friendly welcoming bunch.  The Manx 100 is one of the best-organised events I've ever done, and that is testament to the hard work of the whole team.  At sign-on, we received our race number, a hoody and a special Manx 100 beer.  We were also told we'd receive a second beer if we finished the 100 miles - a good incentive!

Thirst aid!

With the race briefing done it was off for an early night in the campervan as the race was to set off at 6.30am from the famous Isle of Man TT grandstand on the Sunday morning.

The IOM TT Grandstand start.  Photo courtesy of the Manx 100 Facebook page

We were escorted out of Douglas by a police motorbike rider for a few "neutralised" miles before the proper racing began as we turned off road into the hills.  Despite being such a long event, the pace was high at the front and I soon slipped back from about 10th to around 20th within the first few miles.

I'd set myself a target of top 20 and finishing in 12 hours but I knew I wasn't at peak fitness and would definitely lose places on the climbs.  With so much climbing, I tried to not beat myself up as I slipped back into the 20s.

The scenery was simply stunning.  It was my first visit to the Isle of Man and the terrain very much reminded me of Scotland, but in a lot of ways it was even tougher than anything I've ridden at home.  I've done the 97 mile West Highland Way in one go, and despite it having more "hike a bike" sections on it than the Manx 100, I would say this route around the Isle of Man was considerably tougher.  

It has to be one of the toughest endurance mountain bike races in the UK, if not Europe.  Not only was it an insane amount of climbing, but some of the climbs were steep and strewn with loose boulders.  I'm not exaggerating . . . boulders and rocks; not stones and gravel!  It was so difficult to keep traction on some of these climbs.  Fine if it's early in the race and you have plenty of energy but I had to get off and walk some of them later on as my body was so tired and beaten up.  Upper body strength is absolutely vital in an event like this and as I sit here a few days later, my legs don't feel too bad - it's my back, shoulders and neck that are still sore!

One of the smoother trails!  Photo courtesy of the Manx 100 Facebook page

The descents too . . . wow!  Some of them were also covered in large, loose rocks.  The kind of descent where speed is your friend, but where you have to balance the benefit of speed for skipping over the rocks with the chance of a crash if you make a mistake.  Thankfully, I didn't crash at all during the race, but my body felt like I had!  The descents were fun, but very very physical in places, especially on a short travel XC bike. 

I'm so glad I used my full suspension Trek Superfly.  Without it, I'd be surprised if my back would still be in one piece!  The bike was amazing.  I dropped my chain twice, but the terrain was so rough I can't really fault the bike for that.  Otherwise, not a single mechanical issue.  I ran Bontrager XR2 tyres without any punctures.  My pressures were a bit higher than normal to help prevent punctures but it's so impressive such a lightweight tyre withstood that kind of punishment.  I'm also pleased to say there were no issues in the saddle department thanks to Crotchguard.  It lasted 13 hours and not a single saddle sore.  I've never had a traditional chamois cream able to claim that!

There were three really low points in the race where I was seriously thinking of giving up.  As I was grinding the pedals slowly up yet another steep, loose, relentless climb, I just didn't think I could go on.  But it's amazing what a bit of food, some fluid and a descent can do for your morale!  The bag drop service provided by the Manx 100 team was essential and really well organised.  The marshals were fantastic too; not just providing water, timing and safety checks, but in their ongoing encouragement for all riders.

I forced a smile for this photo but this was one of my lowest points in the whole race.  A really tough climb which went from gravel like this section to steep, loose and rocky.  It nearly broke me!  Photo courtesy of the Manx 100 Facebook page

At the 100km point, you get the option to drop to the shorter (but still tough) 100km route and finish there.  This is still respectable and no shame at all in doing so, but despite my two low points up to then, I had just finished a descent and seemed to have forgotten about the pain of the climbing.  I'd done over 3000m climbing by that point so there was more to come, but I couldn't give up.  I had to finish the 100 miles, even if it took me all day!

I was comfortably within the cut-off times at all the checkpoints.  They provided a great live timing service, with a clever timing chip built into your race number board.  British Cycling could learn a thing or two from this, rather than their archaic manual timing at national XC events!  The checkpoints were not just there for live timing but to ensure you pass them at a point that will enable you to finish the full route before dark.  I was well within the cut-off times and although not as fast as I'd hoped, was still on target for doing the full route in about 12 hours.

However, the climbing in the last 68km of the full 168km course (yes, it's actually over 100 miles!) nearly broke me.  I didn't think it was going to be flat at the end of course, but every time I came down a descent I felt like I was just straight onto another tough climb, grinding up it slowly in my lowest gear.  There is only one truly flat section on the whole course.  For the rest of the 168km, you are either going up or down.  Simple as that!

By this point, an old injury in my left calf had flared up and felt like someone was stabbing a knife into my calf muscle on every revolution of the pedals.  It would then seize up on the descents when not pedaling.  My back hurt.  My arms hurt.  My hands were covered in blisters (despite wearing gloves).  I was drinking and eating to plan and definitely keeping my energy stores topped up, but every climb just got harder and harder.

One thing that definitely kept me going was that my wife and in-laws had come over to the Isle of Man to spend the day doing touristy things while I was out on the hills, but they also came to a few key points to cheer me on.  This definitely lifted my spirits.  I felt bad not stopping to speak to them the last time they did this but I only had about 10 miles to go and thought if I stopped I wouldn't get going again!

Towards the end, there were some great flowing trails through a forest nearer the south of the island.  Some man-made, some with more of an "enduro" feel to them.  Great fun and quite different from the rough, exposed, physical, rocky descents from earlier in the day.  Definitely helped to lift the spirits a bit towards the end.

As I turned off one of the final short tarmac sections and back onto a forest trail to head to the official finish line, I knew I was going to do it.  I hadn't done it in 12 hours and I wasn't in the top 20, but I'd finished.  And that's the main achievement for anyone in this event.  It is one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life.  Yes, I've done several solo 24 hour races, even came 3rd in my category in the 24 hour solo world championships . . . but I felt more tired and beaten up than at any 24 hour race I've ever done.

I finished in 13 hours 4 minutes (although they add on 10 minutes to everyone's time for the "neutralised" ride back from the official finish line to the TT grandstand).  I was 11th in the Masters category and 28th overall.  That's out of about 30 and 80, respectively, who started the 100 mile route.


Yes, I know I could have been a lot faster and higher up the finish results if I was at full fitness, but I'm so happy to have finished and to not have given up despite some very low points and not feeling fully fit.

How do I feel now?  Glad it's over!  Proud of myself for finishing it.  But very unsure if I'll ever do it again.

With my (well deserved!) finishers beer and medal!

I always say that after events like this and then end up signing up again the following year.  But this feels different.  It was just so so tough that I feel I don't have to prove anything again, even beating my time.  I finished it, in a very respectable time, and I'm happy with that.

However, I've heard the great news that the Manx 100 is going to be the British MTB Marathon Championships next year, so that is very tempting.  They'll be using the shorter 100km route for the British Champs but you will have the option to continue on and do the full 100 mile route.

Ask me in a few months and I'll see if I've changed my mind!

All I want to finish with is a massive thank you.  To all the marshals.  To the whole team at the Manx 100 for putting on one of the best organised events I've ever done (although they are truly evil for putting that much climbing in!).  To my wife and family for their support and encouragement, as well as all my friends for their kind words after me completing the race.

I'm really enjoying riding my bike again after the various challenges so far this year.  I've got a few XC races left but probably won't do them.  I'm enjoying longer more adventurous rides rather than putting silly pressure on myself to compete in XC races.  I'm enjoying what I consider to be "real" mountain biking far more than going round in circles!  So, I will still do the British MTB Marathon Championships and the Tour de Ben Nevis and focus on what I enjoy!  The Manx 100 may have been brutal, but it reminded me that's why I ride my bike . . . to spend an epic day in the mountains!