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Why would anyone want to compete in one of the Top 10 toughest MTB events on the planet? 24hrs of racing, in the middle of winter, with a guaranteed 17hrs of darkness…? I’m going to try to explain that…

Darkness and working hard don’t bother me. I’ve done plenty of endurance events to know what is required; however, none of these have been in the winter, on a mountain bike, or as part of a mixed team with 3 other guys that I  do know, but maybe not well enough to be completely comfortable with the idea…

TRAINING

With the event coming hard on the heels of the festive period, my training plan was fairly basic and consisted for the following:

  1. Pedal up lots of hills.
  2. Get strong by doing lots of core, legs and arms work in the “gym” (our kitchen). Andy has been getting used to being woken by the sound of me doing jump squats in our “gym” at 6am…
  3. Pedal up some more hills
  4. Get braver on my bike. I happily ride red trails but need to improve my  confidence on black ones…..although this is fine as Strathpuffer, I have been reliably informed, is at max easy-red graded. But I need to get faster downhill, which means pushing my limits of what I dare do. Therefore I need to get braver.
  5. Maintain/improve my already good level of fitness and don’t slacken off over Christmas.
  6. Go find some hills with 3 inches of crusted snow on, and pedal up those just for good measure…
2nd morning sunrise
Sunrise on Saturday morning

WORRIES & RACE PREP:

1. My Team: Firstly, thanks to Colin, our name. ‘Strathearn Monkey Butt Cheese’ – like really? Do you really expect me to ride in a team with THAT name?!

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There it is in red letters for the world to see!

My team were Colin, Tom and Dan who I know, but not brilliantly. I have no idea what any of them are like when they are physically and mentally tired and sleep deprived. What if we don’t get on? It could be horrific. Colin, Tom & Dan can pedal up and down anything. I am strong on the uphill but more cautious on the down. What if they get annoyed that I am slower than them? I want to be able to pull my weight in the team otherwise I will feel rubbish by the end.

Disaster struck 5 days before the event. Dan broke his foot in a freak accident while riding his exercise bike. Mild panic ensued.  Who would be crazy enough to stand-in at 5 days notice to ride in this mental race? We sent out desperate messages pleading with anyone we knew who rides a bike. At the final hour Rory, a friend of Tom’s, stepped up to the plate, a complete hero and lunatic all rolled into one! Not least because he was only 2 weeks ago hospitalised due to flu. Tom assures us he has good banter and is, despite his near death experience,  fit as a fiddle; both are  vitally important in this sort of race.

2. The Course: What if the course is beyond my capability to ride? I have had no time to head north and recce the route. Colin assures me that I will ride it no problem, but there is still a wee nagging worry about the unknown trails. I dread holding up other riders.  I know that gnarly, highly competitive guys, touching my back wheel and itching to pass will stress me, and my bike handling skills may suffer. Cold temperatures, big dumps of snow, thaw then freeze = ice. I hate cycling on ice, in fact I normally avoid it completely if optional. If there is ice about I leave my bike at home and run instead. What if I fall off on the ice and break myself badly? Again…

3. My Bike: Saracen Zen plus hard tail. I love it, great fun to ride and the only mountain bike I have, so no choice there. Tyres, I would have to sell a kidney to buy studded tyres for my bike. I will take the cheaper option of simply praying for a thaw.

4. Lights:  Having enough battery charge to last through the night is a key logistical issue. We have a generator, so I need to stop stressing and assume all will be good. But I buy a spare just in case.

5. Weather: Wet course, snow turning to slush. The Comrie Croft Bikes guys kindly fitted a mudhugger mudguard. Being as dry  and clean as possible now comes before bike looking cool. Freezing temperatures: I don’t have an unlimited budget for this race so 1 x pair of large neoprene over shoes purchased for the bargain price of £5 will have to do. I will also pack every  pair of ski socks I own, and every single glove option I have. From plenty of previous experience temperatures do not have to drop far below zero for bladder tubes to freeze. I fit a bottle cage to my  bike,  another MTB  fashion crime but I no longer care. I know that Colin’s dropper seat post froze on a training ride in sub zero temps; I must remember that if it was below zero to leave the seat where it was and not touch the dropper lever!

6. Time of the month: Guys don’t know how lucky they are not to have to deal with this, which, Sod’s law,  seems to come around just in time for many of my big events. Not only is it another tricky logistical issue to deal with,  but over the years I have also noticed that it can significantly  affect my performance,  obviously something that I really don’t want to happen. I’m told that eating lots of iron rich food (like Jelly Babies, Haribo and Chocolate Brownies…??) may help in that respect.

7. Food: I have pushed myself hard on long events before. I know about eating for them. I also know that when you are working hard for a long period it kills your appetite completely, and so any food you can actually face eating is the right food. It’s all about consuming calories in whatever form you can stomach. Often you have this great plan to eat the perfect energy filled food, and after 6 hours of racing just the thought of it makes you want to barf. So, the food plan was to take lots of options, both sweet and savoury and to pack loads. I am starting to learn that Tom eats a lot, and I think Colin also. I pack  emergency gels and Coca Cola for when nothing else will stay down….

8. Team base: We have 2 campervans + awning and numerous tarps and a gazebo for 2  teams.  Andy was also in a team with Rhian (my partner in many events), Nelson and Rosie, and the plan was to pitch camp together and share resources. There were actually loads of people I know taking part, which added to the excitement.

Strathearn Puffers. Colin, Emily, Tom, Rosie. Marc, Andy, Nelson, Peter, Doug.
Strathearn Puffers at the pasta party.

RACE WEEKEND

Strathpuffer is starting to take over my life, obsessing over kit, weather, food, bike, course conditions. I’ve never known so much admin involved in a race. Friday morning Colin and I drove up the road in convoy, in a blizzard.

leaving crieff
Heavy snow leaving Crieff

We managed to get the vans parked next to each other about 200m from the start. No snow chains meant we didn’t even attempt to climb the fire-road where, for those better prepared, there was a possibility to camp on the side of the course, Tour de France style. Our early morning start paid off and we had time to recce the course before dark. All my worries were put to rest. The course was amazing.  There was a lot of climbing!  A long initial climb up the fire road, a bit of descent then lots more climbing, some steep and technical.  I was very glad of all the squats I had been doing! I rode everything no problem and the scenery was stunning.  The conditions were great with lots of firm, consolidated snow and very little ice. The forecast was for sub-zero temperatures until Sunday mid-morning. The course was likely to stay in good condition throughout. Better than I could have hoped for.

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Big smiles with Tom on our recce

Back to camp and it then started to snow, huge beautiful big fluffy flakes, the sort I normally get really excited about as snow generally means lots of fun. However, at that point I wasn’t sure that I wanted anymore to fall on the course.

I slept like a baby on Friday night, a full 10 hours, full of pasta, cheesecake and a couple of pre-race beers. We woke on Saturday to a frozen world and -8 degrees. Everything looked beautiful, sparkling in the early morning light…..everything apart from the bikes, covered in frost. Frozen bikes are bad. We spent some time checking moving parts. Brakes, gears, a ride up and down the track. All was good – Phew!

1st morning
Frozen camp on Saturday morning

We headed for the race briefing with trepidation, none of us really knowing what to expect. There were hundreds of people. I couldn’t hear a word of what was said. The piper began playing,  and next thing we knew Tom sprinted up the track,  leapt onto his bike and powered off with only 4 riders in front of him. Literally the best start we could have hoped for.

tom racing at the start
Tom tearing up the fire road at the start

Our plan was to ride in order, Tom, Colin, me then Rory and to keep it like that until we finished. Time flew. It wasn’t long before I was back down to the changeover to wait on Colin and my first lap. The trail conditions were completely different to the recce lap. Deep powder, climbs that I had easily ridden before had me off and running with the bike. There was so much climbing throughout the course that getting cold was impossible. I needn’t have worried about holding grumpy riders up either. “Rider behind, no rush, let me know when it’s convenient to pass” was the general chat, everyone was so polite and friendly.

We settled into our race rhythm. Ride hard, change rider, back to camp, put dry clothes on, have a hot brew, something to eat. Back out to cheer our rider in and see next rider off.

Then it was dark. Our plan of riding double laps through the night went out the window. We stayed in sequence, one lap each.

Em & Tom before tom's 3rd lap
Keeping warm waiting for Rory to arrive

The last lap for the team was down to me. Pressure now. The boys had been studiously ignoring the race standings. However, thanks to some “spoiler” texts from friends, I knew we were neck and neck with another mixed team for 1st place. The final result  would come down to our total time. It was daylight. Trail conditions had changed again and I was loving it once more. Riding the last berms towards the finish felt fantastic; I couldn’t have gone any faster. I knew we had done enough to take 2nd but was it enough for 1st?

Em high meadow
My first lap up on the high meadow

HIGHS

  1. Saturday was a bluebird day, the views were spectacular. I felt as though I was riding through the magical land of Narnia. The trees had their branches dipped low due to the weight of the snow, everywhere glistening white in the sunlight.
  2. Packet thai soup & instant noodles in a mug – hit the spot.
  3. All the children taking part. It was absolutely brilliant to see so many U18s riding the course. I am inspired to find a team of local school kids to support and chaperone for a future Strathpuffer. I was particularly amazed during the prize giving to discover that the youngest rider was just 10yrs old and had completed 5 laps. Incredible.
  4. There were no injuries – yay.
  5. We had no mechanicals, our bikes worked and nothing froze.
  6. Fan heater turned up to 11 in the van all night…..mmmmmmm enough said.
  7. Lap 2: The snow had compacted and conditions were perfect. The sun was setting.  I rode the entire lap with a massive smile on my face.
  8. Bean chilli, cheese and nachos, in the middle of the night went down a treat.
  9. My team were amazing. We all got on; no one was grumpy; we looked after each other; there was top banter and no one was jack (military term for selfish/lazy/workshy). The whole team gave it their all and no one could have ridden any harder or faster.
  10. Our result: We were 2nd mixed quad completing 23 laps and to top it off we were 22nd overall out of 342 entered (teams or solos) – WOO HOO the icing on the cake of an awesome weekend.

LOWS

  1. Portaloos – tackling a portaloo with bib tights with lots of warm kit over the top is emotional.
  2. Ice Ruts of Doom, waiting to catch your wheel, throw you off balance and hurl you into the forest
  3. My 5th lap at 4:30 in the morning. -12 degrees so I hear….. It took me much longer to warm up, I was at the top of the fire road before I felt comfortable. The course had become more icy, with a lot of the snow stripped away. The Ice Ruts of Doom greeted me on every descent. I was working as hard on the downhill keeping myself upright as I was climbing. It was so cold that I started the lap with warm water in my bottle and by half way round it was frozen. I caught a rut that sent me and my bike tumbling down the trail, swearing loudly on one of the final descents. I recovered, no damage, just my pride a bit, even though no one was there to see.
  4. Packing up. Our van and campsite looked like a war zone. Washing up had gone out the window in favour of wiping clean or just leaving. There was kit, food, blankets, sleeping bags, batteries, bottles everywhere.

Will I do it again? Oh yes. I have come to realise that I absolutely love being part of a team, I thrive on it. Individual challenges are great, but having team mates to go through the pain, and share the achievement with, you can’t beat it. I will be back next year, try stopping me. I just need to persuade another female to go in a pair with me….Rhian Evans???

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The light aurora through the night. This stunning photo was taken by Martin Macbeth who has kindly given me permission to use (it is also copyrighted).

 

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