The gentle rumble of mountain bike wheels over fireroad leeched into wherever my subconscious had taken me. I raised my head from my toptube to see the silhouette of a rider, detail shadowed by his helmet and bar lights. I mumbled a hello. Why was I sitting on a picnic bench instead of my bike? How the hell had I fallen asleep? How long for? What on earth was I playing at?
The entire lap so far had been horrible. Nausea, double vision, and an inability to keep my eyes open left me feeling pathetic, and opened the door into the dark corner of my mind. The one full of self doubt, the one that revels in suicidal thoughts, the one that cares about nothing, but attaches negative value to everything. I didn’t want to be me, let alone the me that was two thirds of the way through a 24 hour race. I swung my leg off the bike. Sat on the bench and forced a gel down my throat. It was time to regather. It turns out regathering led to 40 winks, but at least I felt a little better for it. Back on the bike, shivering as my hard earned body heat had long since risen into the misty/damp sky, I rolled down one of the wonderful trail-centre descents. No longer whooping, pumping and jumping I was nevertheless savouring the opportunity to not turn the pedals for a while.
The previous 30 minutes had defined my race. I am not the endurance racer that I want to be. Yet.
36 hours earlier, I had arrived at Rock UK, lying next to the 7 Stanes trails of Newcastleton. Nice and early, I set up camp next to the course, in a perfect spot for my pit crew to look after me during the race. Over the next few hours I caught up with Jase, Dave and the other JMC boys. Amy and Ali arrived, as did Greg and Pauline. My own pit team arrived in the Bike Doctor Leeds van, and I settled into the task of eating, drinking, talking, eating, drinking and repeat. Sleep came surprisingly easy.
Newcastleton Village centre… 11.30am, just before race start. Nervous chatter fills the air. Everyone looks fit and focussed. This is not your usual race. The minimum 12 hour solo option self-selects a certain kind of rider I guess. It felt like the whole village had come out to cheer us off, and there was a lovely atmosphere as we were counted down and rolled out behind the USE van along a neutralised tarmac section up to the trail head, and race course proper. BAM. The pace went through the roof as soon as the van peeled off. I was in a reasonably good position, and held that for the most part, which was useful as we hit the mud-like-plasticine-but-more-slippery-steep-climb-through-the-trees. Something wasn’t quite right though. It took a few seconds to work it out. My seatpost was slowly slipping. GRRR. A frustrating couple of minute stop sorted things out and I was back on my way, but worked that little bit harder to regain time lost.
I caught up to Greg on Lap 2 and we shared a quick chat. He stayed in sight for a good while longer, but at some point I had a bit of a low patch and the gap opened to 15mins or so.
The first 8 hours passed remarkably quickly. I ate, I drank, I rode, I walked some of the steeper climbs. I felt ok. Food wasn’t going down so well – I was regularly feeling rough for the first third of the course while my body struggled to digest whatever I put in it. Including gels, which is unusual, as I normally cope really well with them. This had the effect of making high effort sections like the climbs really unpleasant, but it’s a 24 hour race, I wasn’t expecting it to be pleasant. Head down and crack on Tom.
Night arrived quickly in the woods. My borrowed USE Exposure 6 Pack and Diablo/Joystick combo was, frankly, amazing. I kept both the bar and helmet light on low the entire time, and was never wanting for more power. It was a pleasure not have to worry about swapping batteries. A couple of minor hiccups though… somehow I managed to not charge the Diablo properly, so that died midway through one lap. Oops. Quick swap to the joystick saw things back on track. Later, on a rough fire road descent, the 6 pack bounced off its mount. ARGH! Thank god for a helmet light. I think my number plate had somehow flicked the otherwise excellent release button on the clamp.
And then, the lap of the nap. I’ve never, ever, ever stopped like that during a race. Not in my previous 24 hour race, not in anything shorter. I’m furious that I did, but at the time, I simply didn’t have the mental strength to keep moving. Doing some forensics… I think I can identify a few cause factors:
- Fitness. I’m reasonably in shape, but did I follow the training plan that I set out for myself back before Christmas? Not really. I allowed excuses to get in the way too often
- Mental strength failure. Black, dark thoughts have become a normal way of life for me over the last couple of years. I failed to identify them as a symptom of tiredness, and manage them immediately. Instead they grew into something almost unmanageable.
- Lack of caffeine. I largely used caffeine free gels and drink. I think a few more hits of the chemical pick-me-up may have seen me through the vital last few hours of darkness.
Lap from hell was finally completed. Layers changed. Much needed pep-talk from Andy received. Back out into the dark, but in the knowledge that there was already a feint inky blue tinge to the previously black, black sky. Rebirth. I rode. I enjoyed riding. The simplicity of being on a bike was wonderful. This is all I want to do. And it was all I did until crossing the line a few hours later. It wasn’t easy, there were more dark moments, but an element of mental strength had returned. I would not be broken. Not by my own thoughts anyway.
My final lap was a relaxed affair, taking things easy, chatting with Rachel – who went on to be the womens winner. Wow. Great effort from her in her first 24 hour race.
And then, over. Relief. Happiness? I guess. Satisfaction? I guess… no, actually, no. I didn’t do what I set out to achieve. This wasn’t just a result of the 24 hours of the race, but the months beforehand. I can still do more. I will do more.
But, another race compete. 16th in the Open male isn’t too shabby, and I’ve got some brilliant memories from the weekend.
The thank yous:
- Andy, Gemma and Alex. My wonderful family, and perfect pit crew
- Garage Bikes, Morley for the lights.
- Greg, for his good humour and shoe strap
- Amy, for making me laugh
- Ali, for being lovely
- Pauline, for her cheering
- Jase, Dave, Phil, Lee and the wider JMC crew for wise words, piss taking and encouragement
- The organisers for putting the event on
- Super happy snail trail
- Thunderbird and Bumblebee marshalls
- Cruising the blue
- Chatting with Rachel
- Beer on the finish line
- Monster meal in Newcastleton in the evening
- Torq rhubarb and custard gels
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved”.*
Enough of the eulogising though. I’m off to ride my bike as fast as I dare and have fun for 24 hours.
*Quote courtesy of Helen Keller, with thanks to Rob Lee who included it in his book “Endurance Within”
This time next week, I’ll be a nearing the end of 24 hours of Exposure.
I’m experiencing my usual pre-big-race mixture of emotions.
- Feeling unprepared
- Feeling unfit
- I’m scared. Scared of embarrassing myself, scared of the pain, scared of the mental torture
- Worried about putting my brother, sister and two friends through 24 hours of looking after my every need, watching me self-harm
- Worried I won’t do as well as I should
- Excited that I’ll be testing myself
- Excited about riding a fast bike along lovely trails
- Excited for every single moment of clarity, where it is just me, a bike, a trail. The ultimate escapism.
- Looking forward to meeting old friends, and making new ones
- Feeling fit
- Feeling prepared
- And repeat
Bring it on.