It appears that we have reached the edge
That zenith where stimuli and comatose collide
Call it reckless abandon if you like. Call it a reaction to the utter sickness in waiting to get here. I would have called it a good idea. Get off the front on the first lap, going against everything everyone said to do, what I said I’d do and what most people would do. Get to the tricky bits before any groups snarl them up. Get it over with and get a clear run at them.
It works and I get through the rocks, round the switchbacks, off the drops after a summer away from mountain biking and the skills it creates free of accomplices. This speed is good. This speed is what I need. Say goodbye to comfort straight away.
Other riders join me, bathed in sweat. I’m not. I’m not gasping for breath. I’m flat out and happy where I am.
It’s taken so long for this race to start, to get here that I’ve given up training for it months before. Turned my attention to other things. Not forgotten about it, but come to regard it with a distant, cold, dispassionate sense of awe. It’s a huge undertaking that I couldn’t care less about.
That first fast lap turns into two. Three. Hours. Flavourless cold energy drink is poured down my neck as I cruise on. Fast up the hills, crap back down them. There really is not substitute for riding a mountain bike. I clip a rock with the back wheel and blow my feel out of the pedals, landing awkwardly, twanging something in my back. Stealing all my momentum. All of it. I call into the pits for the first time. Eat something and take a couple of ibuprofen to shut my back up. It works well enough and as the darkness descends I remain as removed from the physical effort as I can. I know I will soon feel rough. I always do. I await it.
We labor for pleasure and abhor the guilt of pressure
The halfway point passes and I allow myself a joke – I wish it was a 12hr race – so far the sickness hasn’t come, the bike is working fine and Phil has lent me his Reflex light, which is throwing out masses of light. I’m trying not to care but I’m feeling like this is going well. I’m suddenly telling myself I can do this. From a distance.
I’m overtaken by Ant White, but fight back for a few laps. Fighting the course as much as anyone racing on it as my crashes, trips and slips become more frequent. Tiredness sets in as the true darkness of the night closes in, in the early hours of the morning. The hard, cold chill of the air matches the unforgiving rocks making up the course as I stumble my way round each circuit, with every descent sending shivers down my spine.
The face of the earth is scarred with the walking dead
A thousand small crashes do not a problem make in these circumstances. Everyone one on the course is suffering. The night cannot hide it and I find some solace in seeing people pushing where I can ride, stumble when I clear a section and pull ashen faces that mach my own. I fail to catch my mind as it wanders while descending and, in a split second, I am flung as the bike ricochets away from a slab of granite. Off the brakes and drifting the tyres is instantly turned into grinding to a halt using my skin as the brake. An instinctive thrown forward hand is jolted painfully back towards my forearm as the air in my lungs is blown out by the force of the impact.
I leap up, realise I’m completely devoid of oxygen and slump back down to the side of the course, gulping and gasping, with my arm tucked in close and my leg freshly bleeding.
I don’t check the bike over as I remount. I can already tell I’ve fared worse than it as I limp to the bottom of the descent. I can’t pull the back brake, or absorb the impacts. I can’t counter the lurching steering caused by clattering over poor line choices forced by trying to use just the front brake and right arm to direct myself. I creep back to the pits.
After an eternity slumped in a chair I know that I need the numbness inside, towards the race, to be matched on the outside. I get some strapping wrapped around my arm by the medic and try another lap. I still can’t hold on. I can climb, but barely survive each drop back down. I try another lap but the answer is clear. I’m out. Off the pace and not willing to risk bigger crashes to crawl round chasing everyone elses coattails. Done.
I watch epic performances by people I’m proud to know, proud to have know me and beat them all in wishing for the race to be over, no matter how hard they try.
Thank you to everyone who helped me during the race – everyone in the pits, everyone who recognised and encouraged me during the race, everyone who commiserated when it ended and everyone who worked to organise it. It was once of the hardest, and hardest fought, 24hr races I’ve seen. It, and everyone who fought it, deserves respect. If you were there, in any form, you can be proud: Pit crews battled as endlessly as the riders. Marshals and organisers kept the flow when everything could have ground to a halt and, even from a distance, it was truly world class.
Pic by Toby Gregory