I’m pretty sure I got my bad luck out of the way the night before the race while cowering in my tent as billions of midges lurked at the door; two bulbs in my nice little camping light went ‘pop’, as did the bulb in my headtorch, leaving me groping around in the darkness, trying to eat lots of carbohydrate rich foods & mix energy drinks by the light of a mobile phone. Suffice to say I went to sleep wearing most of it.
Dawn dawned, as it often does, but by the time it bothered to do so I was already up, dressed for a day in the saddle and had shovelled down a big bowl of luke warm porridge (my gas stove ran out of gas as I grovelled around in the dark trying to cook, leaving me uttering sarcastic comments towards anyone and everyone listening (ie no-one)). Pre-race faffage was done under a slowly brightening sky and by the time Phil, Jase and myself had ‘dibbed in’ and taken up residence on the start straight it was as light as you could hope for silly-early-AM.
NOT that silly-early-AM was a problem; the series of Daft Rides Jase and I had undertaken over the course of this year and last meant that I was almost used to being in the middle of nowhere on a bike before the sun came up and, as an unexpected side effect, meant that riding for long periods of time was fairly normal too, which made for a nice relaxed start-line attitude. In fact it as easy to forget what we’d be doing all day, nattering away while waiting for the nutralised lead out to the start of the race proper.
Around us, the growing crowd chatted, gossiped, told tales of last years race and mapped out the day as they hoped it would unfold to each other. Kielder castle was dwarfed by the stationary peloton, the race had attracted a massive number of people, from the whippetiest of whippets, silently building themselves up to a day of flat out hammering at the front of the queue right through to the baggiest of short-ed, flat pedal using unknowns, trying to make light of the task ahead of them with good attitude and piles of pork pies waiting for them at each food station on the route.
In the middle of it all I had high hopes for us. Jase, Phil and I were fit enough to get round the course (I believed) in a fast time, long days out were becoming our forte and this was to be a long day out with added pace. I resisted the temptation to shout “bring it on” loudly as the lead out car quietly pulled away through the still-sleeping village…just, and instead set about working my way through the field towards the front as we made our way into the wilderness.
As the lead out car pulled off and the pace suddenly shot up I found myself a bit further down the field that I would have liked, but over the first few miles I got into a group, working well to close the gap on the bunch ahead of us as we flew up the fire roads and swooped through the first sections of singletrack. I was able to work my way across to this slghtly faster group as we closed in on them and sit with them for the first 20 or so miles, feeling comfortable and hapy with how I was riding.
Unfortunately, I’d made the mistake (it turned out) of not carrying many gels or much drink with me, choosing to rely on the feed stations on the course and pick up more as I went. As a result I had to stop to grab some more from the bag I’d prepared the day before, after rummaging around trying to find it in the pile of remarkably similar looking bags, while watching the group disappear off into the distance.
I wouldn’t make contact with them again.
The next few miles contained some of the best tight-through-the-trees singletrack I’ve ridden in ages, I pushed myself a bit on the climbs to see if I could get back to the group, knowing that working with others on the long, wide open sections would be much faster than sitting alone, but didn’t want to go flat out so early on so I forced myself to take occasional glances at the scenery and chill out a bit. It was worth it, around me clouds hung low in the valleys as I rode in the morning sun, hiding the hundreds of riders behind me and letting me imagine I was totally alone in the hills. Ace. Just me, the bike and a whole day of flying round the countryside. That’ll do. The only additions being a heart rate monitor and a desire to stay ahead of anyone behind me.
Miles became blurs of swoopy singletrack goodness, sometimes through the shaded trees, where still cool air and clouds of midges reminded me that it was still the morning and I was still in the Scottish borders and sometimes flowing across open moorland where hidden ruts kept things interesting and made me glad I wasn’t mid-field with hundreds of others, stuck wheel to wheel. Throughout it all climb after climb on featureless fireroads reminded me that this was an ‘epic’, pulling at legs muscles and giving me something to get my teeth into (metaphorically; I saved the face planting for a couple of tricky corners where marshalls could see and, once they’d checked I was OK, offer a bit of ribbing about my lame riding style).
Sadly, the featureless-ness of some of the fireroads meant that Jase, when he was sent the wrong way at a cross over point (where the course looped back over itself) didn’t realise at first and lost loads of time before getting back on track (that wasn’t the end of the misery for him, but he can tell you how crap everything turned out better than I can over on his site).
As the heat of the day burned off the last of the mist and cloud under which we’d begun the race I hit the boardwalk sections high up on the hills, a section I recognised from the reconnaissance ride Jase and I dd back in winter. well, I say recognised, last time it was covered in snow and surrounded by a blizzard, this time it was dry, grippy and fast.
I loved it. The trail through the trees that had been a long walk back in February was easy enough to spin over this time round, apparently a lot of people hated how it was rocky and loose, I was just glad I didn’t keep sinking up to my waist in snowdrifts as I rode past the scottish piper, ceremoniously piping me into Scotland.
I noticed that I’d not eaten anything (with the exception of a few gels) yet on the ride, despite already having passed the 50 mile point. I wasn’t overly worried, I still felt OK and wasn’t having any real trouble on the climbs so decided that to stay just suing gels rather than start trying to eat ‘properly’ and risk upsetting my feeble excuse for a stomach as I continued towards the next feed station at Newcastleton.
Somewhere along the way to the 7 Stanes trails at Newcastleton, that were included in the race route I must have hit a rock a little too hard and punctured the rear tyre. It didn’t deflate quickly so rather than lose time fighting the tyre off the rim and changing the tube I decided to push on and figure out what to do with it while at the checkpoint, which also contained a ‘tech station’ (ie some incredibly hard working mechanics fixing bikes as they came in – top work guys!).
By the time I’d swigged a couple of cups of water (having noticed that I’d barely drunk anything in addition to not eating and realising that this could hit me very hard later in the race) and picked up a ham roll becuase I couldn’t resist it, my chain had been relubed and the now soft rear tyre had been pumped back up to somewhere near a million PSI.
As I thanked the mechanic, Ant White and Rich Rothwell (who I’d been secretly feeling pretty smug about being in front of ) came into the checkpoint, stopped for somewhere ner a nanosecond, said hello and promptly buggered off again at a fantastic pace.
I stood around for a minute or two, trying to cram ham roll down my neck as quickly as I could, gave up as my innards had decided that eating wasn’t on the cards today and rode off up the hill to the start of the red route hoping to catch a glimpse of them. I didn’t (in fact they rode right up into the top ten over the second half of the course) but kept my pace nice and fast along the cross border route, wishing I was in a group so we could share the workload but at the same time glad I had the countryside to myself. I kept an eye out for deer as I headed back to the England/Scotland border, remembering the last time I rode this section of trail with Jase, watching the wildlife and spilling energy food all over ourselves, and crossed the bridge back into Englandshire in high spirits about how the race was going (I was pretty sure I was still in the top twenty and wasn’t feeling too bad despite the calorific deficit I must have been at).
Annoyingly, as I arrived at the final feed station and grabbed my last couple of gels the wheels came off my wagon – not the bike, that was fine…even the slowly deflating rear tyre had only needed a couple of brief stops to pump back up using CO2 canisters, losing me very little time, but me.
There as a climb straight from the checkpoint and as I rode up it I just got slower and slower. I knew there was around 20 miles left, so had no worries about getting to the end but I began to realise I wouldn’t be able to pick the pace up at all to get there. I began to grovel as the fireroads continued, buoyed by the marshals encouragement and reminders that the end was getting ever closer as I passed them, but falling back into a bit of a funk on the seemingly endless climbs through the trees. A couple of people rode past me and I didn’t bother to try and jump onto their wheel, realising that I’d do better staying at my own pace rather than blow up completely. I began cursing myself for not being smarter with nutrition – my legs felt fine but I didn’t have the power to use them properly and my attempt to squeeze down a couple of gels nearly ended in course-side retching. I passed the “10 Miles To Go” sign and realised that it was going to require a hefty dose of MTFU to get to the finish in any sort of shape. Head down and get on with it. Ignore the marshal telling me that there was only one climb left as I knew deep down there wouldn’t be and look up only when I find myself back on the singletrack trails surrounding Kielder castle itself.
This stategy worked quite well. I was passed by a couple more riders as I stared down at my front wheel while climbing and manage to offer a some slightly slurred encouragement to them before getting back to chuntering to myself about “bloody well eating something next time, you pillock” and making a right hash of what does actually turn out to be the final climb, slipping about on loose rocks and sand that make up the trail, causing me to dab my foot a couple of times.
I recognise the final descent from the February trip and try to keep the bike upright as my brain looses the ability to stay focussed on what’s going on. I hear the slap of a chain hitting chainstays behind me and put everything I’ve got into speeding up a bit to stay ahead of at least one person, sketching my way round corners and off drops until the bloke behind me shouts “it’s alright mate, I’m a marshall” just as the trail evens out and I spot the finish line a couple of corners ahead.
I pretty much slump my way over the line and don’t stop, desperate to get back to my tent and get some food and drink in me before heading back to the race HQ to pick up my finishers goodies and find out my final time.
8hrs 52minutes isn’t an earth shatteringly fast time (the winning time being nearly an hour quicker!) and my inability to race over the last 20 or 30 miles meant I ended up in 16th (I’d hoped for something in the top ten) but the result wasn’t aawful and, in a strange way, I’d sort of enjoyed having to battle on at the end – it made what was meant to be an ‘adventure’ exactly that.
It also gave me something to kick the arse of next time