Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Relentless Solo

I packed a suitcase for Relentless. The things that would sustain me for twenty four hours of mountain biking.

A suitcase I would unpack, item by item through the long night and into the dawn. Holding up each piece, turning it over, putting it to use.

On the start line I was at least as curious and hopeful as I was nervous. Reminding myself that racing is not something I can just do, it’s the distillation, the essence, of the training I’ve put in.

I kissed Chipps good bye and we were off.

The start was easy, like the rides with mates where I’d race up the climbs. A little awkward on the descents, feeling the weight of the work I’d put in and the journey still to travel, anxious not to blow it in an inadvertent early crash. There have been too many of those this year, one too many moments of inattention. This race would not, must not, include one.

As the afternoon mellowed and the light turned golden, I was skip happy on the climbs and smiling on the way down. Carrying the memories of a summer of riding, of friends and chat and chilled out evenings as I swooped the descents, weaved my way through the woods and swished over pine needle paths.

But there was no chilled out evening this time, as the sky dimmed. There was a chill, the cold bright beams of lights contrasting with the black. Gels and bars to fuel me and the imperative to keep moving. There were memories of dark laps of Cragg Vale in the Calder Valley rain and mist. Pounding the climb on my limit. Over and over. Hard rides. The kind of rides you don’t just do for fun. And now was the time to make them pay their dues. My legs may have burned and my stomach churned but I tapped out the rhythm up the stiffest hills. I breathed in the dark, rasping to the top. And then my lights found me downward ribbons of relief. They flowed, bearing me onwards, sometimes better even than in the daylight.

I carried on. Lap again. With a nod to the night I’d spent phoneless and a little lost making my way from home to Horton in Ribblesdale on the Pennine Bridleway. The night laps blurred together mirroring that lonely ride. I was grateful for the Thursday night pub rides over the last month, reminding me what it is like to ride in the dark after the long days of summer. Checking kit and gauging clothing for warmth.

The course, which had started to dry in the late afternoon became slithery with night damp and I started to take more care as mud slimed over rocks. The dull exhaustion of repeating the Coed y Brenin Enduro course twice reverberated in my mind. Dragging myself round with Chipps, once ‘moderately’ and once ‘fast’ (although my sapped limbs had only been marginally brisker as I urged them on). I didn’t do that course twice with leaden legs to stop now. I pushed myself to ride on.

Breaking through the double figures barrier was encouraging. The course had few moments when I needed to fight my own disbelief that I could ride it. I kept taking on its challenges. 

It took in the end of the fourcross track, sending riders rolling over what would be jumps hit from another angle. I reminded myself of BMXing with the Monday Night Pub ride. No hesitation out of the gates. No hesitation now.

The roots of doom, snaking out of a muddy rut, sometimes outfaced me, but I applauded my own efforts when I succeeded at our showdown.

Leaving the pits every lap, I dreaded the first stony steep climb. Not so much for my legs as for the awful desire to hurl the contents of my stomach and reject the calories I’d carefully ingested. Stroke on stroke I remembered the Kickelhahn. The steep, steep forest path straight out of the back of my parents’ house in Germany. Slippery and stony, entirely permeated by heavy drizzle, I’d conquered it repeatedly in measure for stomach churning measure. Walkers had encouraged me. I could do it again.

And then, with just a few laps to go, Chipps told me that I was being chased. The gap was staying constant but I could not let it diminish. So I dug into all the nights on the turbo. All the stupid repeated intervals. Go as hard as you can for so long. And so long. And so long. 

There were draggy fire road climbs I could take in hand and pound out a rhythm from start to finish. Then stroke, stroke, stroke, up the northshore climbs. And heave and turn into the delicious final climb, up and away, corner by corner, coiling its way from a wide flow trail into singletrack in the woods. No let up. I’d not spent evenings staring at the seconds passing, praying for them to click through the minute barrier with every fibre of my being, whilst I pushed the pedals as fast as I could, for someone to catch me now.

And as the light started to filter upwards through the dark, the task lightened too. The gap wavered with a mechanical, but held. And I rode the last lap on a plan. Every bit practiced nineteen times.

Climb the boardwalk through the woods, heave up the tiny kicker (twenty times and the bastard hadn’t got me yet), metronome my way up the stony path, head down and not looking up as it steepened, just thinking of flying down the rolling pathway beyond. Tickling my way up the next stiff challenge and out onto the fire road that bore me to the top. Remember to look out one last time on the Nevis range, glowing in the light. Remember to smile.

Then head down and focussed on the narrow stony, twisting descents. No false moves, no big risks. A few dabs on the greasy bits but nothing too slowing. Wind back up the singletrack, the boardwalk, the smooth curves of the pine needle path, slither my way round the rooty bit and not let it phase me (a dab doesn’t matter, stopping or crashing does). I could fly down the bowl and up out the other side. Breath slowly over the narrow bridge (a handlebar caught on the handrail would be messy). 

Scrabble round the edge of the car park scrappily, walk the only bit of the course I was prepared to give in to by the end, to the edge of the dual slalom. Right hand held wide off the brake so as not to lose it on the now-sloppy roll in chute. Then over, and out. Once the path turned onto the final climb I was happy. Smooth. Knocking it out. Down that last lovely descent, curvy and swoopy and fast, dipping my bars left and right, skimming the stony patches, shoot down the last steep section, fluttering the final twists, out of the woods. Gone too soon. But into the peace of knowing that another lap. The last lap. Was done.

All those rides wrapped into that one, long day. Rides with friends, rides alone. The whole spring and summer condensed and distilled into one. My baggage unpacked, each piece appreciated. It had served me well.

For twenty four hours I hadn’t asked where I was in the race, because this was about riding. Finding out how far I could go, how high I could climb. The shadows of the other riders crossed my tracks now and again, a chaser chased but I didn't know whether for first or last place. This, absolutely, was my ride, I’d done my 20 laps. 200km. 7,000m of climb. The ride of my life.

second vet woman, third overall
not bad then 

Thank you to Chipps, the best pit crew in the universe (among many things), to Jason Miles for sending me the impossible sounding task lists which packed the suitcase, to everyone who's ridden out with me, put up with me, fed and cheered me on, you are all lovely. 

Thanks also to Scot Nicol for sending the gorgeous Ibis Tranny for testing at Singletrack (I think I've comprehensively checked it over). 

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Saturday, 17 October 2015


Training. Again. This time for Relentless at the end of October. Solo.

I wondered, out loud, whether I had one in me whilst racing pairs at Mayhem in the summer. Pairs seemed ok, enough of a break between laps for some recovery. Even a nap (and time to get over the quiche incident). I felt well-prepared. But how much more would I have to do to 24 hours solo? Nearly twice the number of laps. Could I do it?

The danger of saying this kind of thing out loud when there are seasoned 24 hour racers in earshot, is that they'll say yes. Yes, you should do that.

Jenn was in the Singletrack tent as I came in between laps. She said the inevitable. Cheerily.

So it's been three months of training since then. Training that has involved both long rides and interval sessions. Twenty minute hill climbs, eight minute seated efforts, four, three, two, one minutes flat out. Thirty seconds at max. These last, particularly, are best done on a turbo. Pushing yourself as hard as you can, staring at a blank wall.

I try focussing on my pedal strokes. Thinking about my day, things I'm going to do, things I've done. Rides in the outdoors. People I love. But my eyes stray back to the clock. How long until I can stop? A minute to go, thirty seconds, fifteen, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. Gears down, legs spin, breathe.

This constant countdown has me wishing the seconds away. My legs burn, there's sweat running in unbelievable quantities, I'm gasping. My head pounds. Things, in general, hurt. I catch sight of the timer. How can there still be so long to go? Each moment that clicks down is an eternity. How can a second be so slow? But amongst the desires for each session to end, there's another meditation.

You see Jenn has cancer. She's been on a finite thread for over a year. Despite being invincible in so many ways, things are happening to her no one can control. They can slow, they can alleviate, but they have cannot stop it. And despite this, she's running, riding, doing as much as humanly possible. Sitting in the Singletrack tent at Mayhem, dishing out magazines and advice to racers. Packing life in.

I cannot, should not, wish seconds away, because, well, sometimes they're all you've got. So every few seconds - as the sweat pours and my vision becomes a bit ropey - I try and remind myself to enjoy every moment. I probably don't manage full on pleasure, no matter how hard I try, but I appreciate them. They're seconds, I am alive.

It's a sharp, bitter reminder that all our time is finite. We only have moments really. Each one is precious, we mustn't let them slip away, unlived. They need to be packed with days of glory.

Jenn died yesterday. I jokingly said I'd thank her after Relentless for encouraging me to enter. It was unimaginable that I wouldn't be able to. Jenn, mountain goat, endurance goddess and indomitable force was no meek victim. But cancer is cruel, twisting the things that make us strong. Shocking as it robs strength and breath, second by second. So the clock ticked out. And the words for the awfulness, the unfairness, are completely lacking. Relentless is looming, and I'm just sad that I can't say thank you.

Good bye Jenn. And, thank you, anyway.

Jenn and Barney in the Peaks

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Crash and Burn... the Mayhem remix

Back in the mists of 2014, when I was dreaming up goals for this year, Jason (concocter of super training plans and 24 hour soloist extraordinaire) said "let's do the Bristol 12 as pairs". A couple of weeks later, after I had (with some trepidation) said yes, he added "we'll win". Oh. OK. No pressure then.

So I applied myself to the matter of getting faster with urgency and fervour. And with some success. Second at the Glentress 12 told me that the training plan was working. But I'm not one to stop there - we were going to Bristol and I didn't want to be the one to let down the team (aka world-record-holder-Jason-Miles-champion-solo-24-hour-racer). There were two more weeks of hard work and a week of tapering to get through before THE RACE.

At that point, by some sleight of hand, THE RACE got upgraded. The combination of a little date vagueness and a wedding Jason had to attend meant we were no longer doing Bristol. Instead, he cheerily informed me, we could do Mountain Mayhem the week after. And, hey presto, the twelve hour race I'd been training for became 24. Oh, and our mate Daz would stand in at Bristol so I wouldn't miss out... Sometimes people can be a bit too kind.

I stuck to the plan. Intervals on Tuesday - or I could go circuit racing locally. There's no substitute for racing to make you go fast, I muttered to myself as I left the turbo alone and set off in the rain. Sadly, the turbo might have been a better idea. Within a lap I was taken out by a side swipe, knocked unconscious and bundled into my car for a trip to A&E. It had happened so quickly I'd not even let go of the bars and landed - fast and hard - on my cheek and elbow, scuffing both as well as my knuckles. It was not pretty.

As I sat in A&E waiting for my X-Ray and took one of those honest selfies that I didn't want - but had - to take. Just to make sure I properly grasped the reality of the situation.

They checked on me regularly but, whilst it looked bad, I knew I'd felt worse. My perfect blood pressure reading cheered me up. The X-ray didn't. The fancy full skull scanner showed a cheekbone fracture. It didn't hurt too much, I told myself. It would mend. One of the race organisers kindly brought Chipps - both for moral support and to drive me and our van home. By 2am I was allowed to eat and a kind nurse made me a plate of toast. Shortly after, a doctor released me with a packet of industrial strength ibuprofen and head injury instructions. No contact sports for three days. Good, I thought, cycling isn't a contact sport.

Chipps wasn't so convinced.

"Promise me", he asked, "you won't go racing on Friday".

I looked down at my feet. Friday was stage one of the Holme Valley Two Day Stage Race. It was going to be as good as a road race gets for me, even though it would be insanely tough. Plus I'd already cased the course and it would be my friend Hannah's first road race - I couldn't miss that! He raised his eyebrow and added,

"Without talking to a doctor. Ask Jim."

Jim is an anaesthetist who's worked in A&E. I'm sure he's seen far worse, so I nodded.

Luckily I wasn't working the following day so I trundled to Hebden Bridge and got my bike fixed and the fantastic Blazing Saddles. The wheel needed trueing, the Di2 resetting and the bars needed new tape. Meanwhile, I started treating my facial road rash with medical grade honey - it's antiseptic and keeps the scabs moist which helps healing and prevents scarring.

The swelling seemed worse on Thursday so I caved in and took an ibuprofen before setting off for work. My colleagues were sympathetic. Poor you. I didn't feel too poor though, I felt I just had to fix myself and get going again.

By Friday I was beginning to feel myself. I even spoke to Jim, who was suitably vague. His advice went along the lines of "if you feel ok and you haven't been sick or seen double, you probably are".

I told Hannah I'd pick her up in the van and if I felt up to it I'd start on the line. Once there, of course I felt up to it. After all, there was a proper sense of occasion. All the Women's Tour of Britain pro team riders were lining up, ready to test their legs for their big race in a couple of weeks time. I didn't care whether I rode along at the back, I just wanted to be there, bobbing in the wake of road cycling's elite.

In fact, I didn't just ride at the back. I applied myself very hard to riding well in the bunch. Although I seemed to have a hard time on the flat I was reeling people in on the last climb of the first lap when the race was pulled up. A car had had an accident - nothing to do with the race - in the finishing straight and the road was closed. That'll be the only time that I get given the same time as Laura Trott then.

On Saturday I felt pretty chirpy. We did a time trial followed by a road race and although coming 30th overall is no great shakes, both Hannah (her first road race and 28th) and I finished. There were girls crying on the verge in the last stage so crossing the line was good enough for me. Scabby but unbowed, I began to feel a bit better. Helped a lot by the infectious enthusiasm of my Racing Chance Foundation team mates who seemed to be really proud of my endeavour.  Thanks!

The following week was tapering ready for Bristol and I took extra care because healing is tiring work. I took daily photos of the process, which was kind of fascinating. The swelling kept reducing and the scabs receded. The honey had worked and they left just a smooth red mark in their wake.

The Bristol 12 race was hard. We lapped one on, one off, relentlessly. The weather was grim and I spent most of it feeling sick. And we still didn't win.

Daz was doing a great job of lapping between 32 and 36 minutes, and I went from a pretty nifty 35 up to a stomach churned 48. We missed the podium by a minute - if we'd been even a tiny bit strategic and swapped a lap we would have been on it. The whole thing was a blur - twelve hours seemed to go so quickly. And I was suddenly, very, very worried about Mayhem.

I spent an afternoon stalking the previous years' lap times - they wouldn't be much longer than Bristol. So I pleaded with Jason for us to do double laps from the start to create a bit more recovery time. During the week, my final scabs dropped off, leaving only a red mark on my skin. Even if I felt worried, at least I looked ok!

Once the race started, I should have stopped worrying. Jase did the run, grabbed his bike and was off.

Two laps and just over an hour later, he was back and it was my turn. I enjoyed the course, enough fun to keep me entertained thoroughly.  I put in a decent time - even though I snapped my chain on my first lap and had to ask for help from passing - and kindly - Jo Burt.

We double lapped with steady efficiency, opening up a lead with the first set of laps. Jason is a machine. An ace, cheery, enthusiastic teammate but a machine nevertheless. I just had to keep going (and not listen to my self doubts) and between us we'd rack up a decent total. The baking sun gave way to a blissful shower. He came in from his laps.

 "It's a bit greasy so be careful out there". He paused, and smiled. "But not too careful, right?".

I tried to keep it steady but I caught up with one of the VCUK Ph MAS team girls near the beginning of that lap. I wasn't really racing her but I'm always being beaten by them on the road so it was a matter of pride to make sure I came in first on my home turf. Even if I'd done double the laps she had.

The only real glitch was the quiche incident. Back in the pits, cyclist brain pattern kicked in: nom, nom, hungry... aha quiche... nom nom, quiche gone. I thought that would be ok an hour before I set off on my laps. By halfway round the first one I was feeling sick. I saw Jase as I passed through the pits and asked if he could do a three lap stint to give me a break. By the end of my second lap the sickness had eased off a bit, but when I came into the handover I received stern instructions.

"Don't eat quiche. Go to Debbie, she will tell you what to do". Debbie, Jason's wife, queen of the lap times, team strategy and the food stores, told me not to worry, to get some pasta down and have a rest.

Once I'd done as I was told, it was my first night laps. The sickness was gone and I was lit up with the power of several suns courtesy of Exposure so I positively zoomed round the first of my laps. Sadly, a couple of the suns went out (full beam on the head torch only lasts for a single lap, something I'd failed to think of before setting out with it on max) so the second lap was a little less radiant and consequently slower. But I was back racing and there was no more sickness. Our lead kept increasing steadily.

"Don't over do it", Jason said, "keep it steady", as he handed over. "Tidy job this".

That's good then, I thought.

Two more dark laps and I was fine, a little tired, but fine. I nearly ran into a chap whose lights had gone out at one point - so I lit the way for him for the rest of the lap and got him back to the pits safely. Then it was light again. Laps 11 and 12. I was beginning to crack slightly and wondered out loud whether Jason might like to to an extra lap again. "Not really", he said. And to be honest, I didn't really mind, if he trusted me to keep trucking that was fine, I just didn't want to slow the job down as I could see my lap times creeping up.

Between us we had 25 laps done - and a 4 lap lead with about 3 hours to go. As I was thinking about getting ready for my next set, I heard a surprise voice outside the tent.

"Let's have a brew".

Debs had done the maths and told Jason we'd won as he passed the pits, the last straight of lap 26. He'd got off the bike at the handover (a lap before I was expecting him) and come to tell me. Our nearest rivals were flagging and calling it a day - and even if they hadn't, their lap times meant they couldn't overtake us in the time left. It didn't quite sink in properly but I definitely enjoyed that coffee.

A couple of hours later I changed into my favourite cycling dress and did a valedictory lap with Chipps for company. We reminisced about the insanely fast 'how late can you brake' grass stretch, the evil ever-increasing-in-steepness penultimate climb (which somehow I rode lap after lap, even after I'd stopped believing I could) and the weird trail litter shaken loose from bikes. We found Daz near the end, broken by soloing on an empty stomach and shepherded him back safely to the bar (what could possibly go wrong with that?).

In some ways it was easy. A nice clean, systematic accumulation of laps - 27 in all (which would have put us as 4th in men's pairs). In other ways it had been hard. The night is strangely quiet and plays tricks with your head. Worrying that I wasn't going fast enough was probably sub-optimal. I'd never done anything as long and intense before - but now I know that I can, those thoughts need to be laid to rest.

So really, overall, Mountain Mayhem was awesome. Less than three weeks before, I'd crashed my brains out and everything looked bleak. But I held my nerve (and whatever he thought, Jason didn't ever suggest I shouldn't do it) shook myself down, kept going and we got to stand at the top of the podium, grinning from ear to ear.

Thanks to Chipps, Debbie Miles, Singletrack Magazine and Team JMC for sorting so much out, Exposure lights for illumination, mechanical assistance from Fibrax (and Jo Burt) and Ibis for making the fantastic light and fun Ibis Tranny I rode. Thanks too to Jason Miles for his crazy idea. And being an ace teamie. Nice one.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Tweedlove magic again. A better Glentress Seven...

I loved the Glentress Seven course last year. The monstrous climb was truly rewarded by proper singletrack fun. But I was only a couple of weeks after a cold and not as fit as I'd hoped to be. I'd managed five laps and come in way down the field.

This year I was going to try out the Ibis Tranny. With a dropper post and 1x11 it was light enough to help me on the climbs and fun over steep and rocky. Dropping the security of my full suss Ripley was a gamble. But I was determined I'd get more laps in than last year - and that the key to that would be to climb like a goat on turbochargers. The Tranny is always game on for a bit of turbocharged caprine climbing. As long as my legs play ball.

By some miracle of weather patterns, Saturday dawned clear and sunny. After sign up I even rooted round my kit for sun cream. For once I seemed to have eaten enough in the run up (the Tontine did us all scrambled eggs and coffee at a very uncivilised 7.15am) and I felt as prepared as I could have been.

At the start I talked myself into setting a steady pace. No racing off and blowing up from the off. Even so I couldn't resist the feeling of satisfaction as I cranked past a few other women. For the first time in my life I got to the top of the climb and thought 'well, that was short'. Training pays. The descents were everything that I remembered, and after initially worrying that I was 'only' on a hard tail I let go and just rode. As I came into the final slalom through the field I could hear another lass beating up behind me. 'Oh no you don't', I thought and let rip over the grass. We raced right down to the finish and I pipped her to the dibber. Just for fun - there were still seven hours left and I didn't want to blow it by pushing too hard. 

I stopped briefly to swap bottles and then caught her again on the climb. She looked as though she'd pushed herself to get ahead. I felt fresh and slightly smug. She wouldn't be able to keep pace on the climbs as long as I kept my steady pace. As I reached the Buzzards Nest car park I remembered every time I've felt knackered on reaching it. And revelled in the fact that I didn't. More laps? Bring. Them. On. 

And so it went. Grind up, blast down. Three laps in and there was a serious danger I would be on track for an eight lap race. Except, suddenly, my gears told me otherwise. A season of gritty riding suddenly decided to interrupt my flow. As I turned from the dragging, clay enhanced, gradient of  'Rue de Souffrance' on to the rolling switchback climbs where I could really kick along, the gears refused to shift up. Aaagh. I spun along frustratedly, wondering what to do. I'm quite happy to tinker with my bikes at home, but race head only distinguishes between 'working' and 'not'. I become unable to look for subtle problems. There were no flapping cables or obviously broken bits. At the top of the climb I tried thrusting my bike at the gaggle of cake ingesting chaps gathered around the Big Bear Bakery feed station. Genius that cake stop, incidentally. They concurred that nothing actually looked wrong and the gears shifted if not under duress. I filled my water bottle and decided to keep going.  I'd finish, no matter what.

The gears worked intermittently. There's no question that I lost some time and some of my fitness was wasted. But I could ride fast on gravity on the downs, keep my steady pace on the steeper climbs and spin a stupid fast cadence elsewhere just so I didn't lose too much time.

By lap six though I realised I wouldn't make eight laps. I was kind of relieved. Relieved enough to pile straight down the loose chute of dirt at the top of the top descent without heeding that I was on the tail of another rider. She had 'my' line. As I struggled to find alternatives I realised I wasn't prepared for that at all and gave up, into a tree. No harm done though and I rode off.

There are some cracking descents on that course. Linked by little inclines on which it is imperative to get ahead of anyone who looks as though they might impede progress on singletrack. As I stuck my head down to blast my way past the column of dragging, tired riders I heard one exclaim "ooh, bottom". Apparently the tree I landed in earlier had had its revenge on my shorts. And given me a bit of a scratch. Ah well. Best way to deal with it was to ride so fast the no one got chance to inspect it too closely. My favourite bit of singletrack was ahead, snaking though the woods althen cutting down into red earth round an off the brakes if you dare curve. Off the brakes, though, and gravity would gift you the climb out.

Last lap and tiredness suddenly hit. Climbing out of the pits trying to eat. Fluffing the first greasy descent. I'm sure the roots had moved. Grinding a little on the climbs. But the last lap. After initial sulkiness I was cheered up by a chap offering me his shorts as I passed him. No thanks, far too warm. But it got me back into my rhythm. No incidents, a bit of spinning with gears jammed but a satisfactory last lap.

At the finish I had no idea whether there were hordes of fast girls ahead of me. The occasional woman had passed but I'd managed to check that most were in teams. The only other solos I had seen for definite were the girl I'd raced on the first lap and one in green I'd passed earlier, thinking I'd lapped her. I think she'd passed me back at the end of the lap, giving the lie to that, but I had not chased her, forcing myself to pick up food at the pits so as not to blow up.

I saw her at the finish, and had a quick chat. Only then did I realise that she had won the event before and being just behind her meant I had a shot at the podium. I was amazed. And chuffed. I like training but the logistics of fitting it in have been hard. Being called up to take my place on the podium made me realise that it was working. I could ride fast and for a long time against women with experience and proper palmares. Liz and I (now we'd been introduced) shared a small chuckle that we'd both beaten all the under 40s field too.

I was five minutes off the win. Next time I'm changing my gear cables before I set out.