Made in Yorkshire

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It’s now a month to go until Highland Trail. How the hell did time go so quickly? Something that has been in the distance for well over half a year is now approaching at pace. Time is becoming compressed. I’ve still got plenty to do before then… a few long rides, a 12 hour race, preparing final kit choices, maybe a few summer series CX races, and a wedding to go to.

I’ve now made all my big purchases, and while there is always something else to tempt me, I’m confident I can rely on my current gear. There is just one final piece to the bike packing jigsaw – a framebag. I’ve done without so far, but for a ride of this duration, I really want to get all the weight off my back.

There are a few companies out there now specialising in this kind of gear; Wildcat, Revelate Designs and Alpkit amongst others. In the end I decided to go down a slightly different route though. Restrap are a Leeds based company, who initially started life making foot retention systems for fixed wheel riding. They have started to diversify into messenger bags and rucksacks, and I wondered whether they’d be interested in knock me up something custom for the Kinesis FF29.

A quick email to Nathan was all it took to set up a meeting at Restrap HQ. I brought along the bike, and Nathan got to it, measuring and taking notes. We talked about a few different set-ups and the pros and cons of each. While no bikepacker, Nathan has got a real feel for what I will need, and a wealth of knowledge when it comes to constructing this kind of stuff. The final product will be tailored to my preferences, and fit the bike perfectly. In the end I went for a framebag, and a gas-tank style bag for easy access to food and similar items.

And that is where I left it for now. We are meeting up in a week or so to run through the initial designs, giving us time for any final tweaks before the big event. In the age of the internet and online shopping, it is a pleasure to deal with real people, and a local company. So, alongside Garage, I now count myself really lucky to have the support of a two great Yorkshire businesses.

I’ll be updating the blog with pictures from the design/build process, so watch this space…

Grizedale Duathlon Race Report

Run, bike, run.

The commas are important. In a duathlon, these represented the transitions. The briefest of pauses to swap shoes, to grab/replace bike, and probably not much else. Each of my stops were around 90 seconds. The quickest people were nearer 30 seconds per stop. Where did two entire minutes go? Those two minutes were the difference between a top 10 overall and my 15th place. There is no way I could have shaved off two minutes from my run. I may have been able to on the bike, but more on that in a bit. Two entire minutes?

The Grizedale Duathlon took place on a bitterly cold morning, starting from the Forestry Commission trail centre. We arrived early (Jenn was meeting her brother to go and have their own epic adventure on Coniston Old Man), and wandered through the huge complex of trail centre buildings to find registration. There has been a fair bit of development since I was last here (which, to be fair, was probably 15 years ago). Modern buildings sit within the forest, complementing the landscape really well. I can imagine lolling around on the grass after a summers bike ride, drinking tea and eating cake.

The transition area was small, cramped maybe. But, it was early, so I had a choice of where to rack up my bike. I went for as close to the exit as possible. I laid my MTB shoes out neatly, open and ready to be stepped into. I placed my helmet on top of them. I hung my gilet on my bike, aware that while I would be more than warm enough running, I could well cool down while on the bike. I sipped flat coke, I felt nervous. A different kind of nerves to what I have experienced previously. I had no doubt that I would finish it, no doubt that I would do reasonably well. No fear of the total exhaustion that 12hrs+ of racing brings. I did have fear of the intensity, fear of the pain, fear of the taste of blood at the back of my throat, fear of cramp. Fear of not finishing the race having given everything. Fear of wishing I had pushed harder, fear of what could have been.

I did my best to empty my mind of those thoughts. Matt Brown, @singlespeedmatt from twitter recognised my kit and bike and came to say hello. It was reassuring to see that someone else was stupid enough to attempt this on a singlespeed. Unfortunately, Matt is seriously fit, a good rider, and a good runner. He also works for Inov-8 and was sporting some spanky new shoes.

Time stretches and compresses before the start of the race. The hours before seem to drag, nerves mean watching checking on a regular basis. All I want to do is start. Then, at about 30 minutes to go, everything seems to change. I am focussed on last minute fettling. I am focussed. I am. I am taking of my warm layer. I am standing on the line. Near the front. I want to get away fast, I don’t want anyone in my way. I am.

Minutes to go, and they hang in the air, like a wave waiting to crash down. Seconds span hours of thought. Go. Run, a line through chaos. In front of chaos, clear. Passing runners in front of me, gradient increasing. My system hasn’t yet caught up with what I am asking it to do. The beauty of the first few hundred metres. Pain receptors start firing. My lungs start to try and wrestle control of my deliberate breathing pattern. Legs already want to slow down. Ignore it all. Just keep running.

I can’t keep this up.

Just keep running.

At the top of a dirt road, there is a sign pointing to the right. Straight up. I can’t keep this up. And I can’t. My pace drops, but so does everyone’s. The climb gets steeper. We burst through, and back onto fire road. Flat. Quick, again, then back into a jumble of rock and mud. Steep. Upwards. Top out, and drop like a stone. Legs full with blood and lactic struggle to move fluidly and react to the technical, rocky descent. I don’t flow, but I progress. I stay conservative, no wild jumps and leaps, just safe foot placements, and progress. Until, after an age, I pop out on to the farm track back to transition.

Kick running shoes off. Put helmet on. Pull cycling shoes on and try to do up ratchets. They won’t grab. The plastic teeth are so worn, there is no purchase left. Finally I get both shoes secure, grab my bike and pass through on to the bike course. CX style remount and start riding. As I set off, I see Matt arriving into transition. I was expecting him to pass me on the run, but give him a cheer, and wait to be passed later. The climbing starts immediately. Jelly legs push my singlespeed gear. This feels wrong, but the gradient is ok, the track smooth, I keep pushing, ignoring the alien feeling in my legs. I turn on to singletrack climb. Steeper, rockier and requiring strong pushes and attention to maintain momentum. It would have been a pleasure if I was fresher. Grit teeth. Keep going. Why, oh, why did I decided to do this on the singlespeed? I struggle to stay on top of the gear. The trail joins fireroad, and my legs are able turn at a faster pace. I drink, take on a gel, spin my legs as fast as they will go, get passed by people cruising by. Where I can, I tuck in and grab their wheel for a while. At some stage, I am aware that my seatpost is slipping. My legs are becoming more and more cramped, unable to stretch to an efficient pedalling position. Stop, get passed. Re-adjust. Go!

Often, when the trail turns rougher, and back into the rocky singletrack, I am able to catch and pass people again, the higher gear forcing me to maintain momentum. Dig in. The Kinesis FF29 is so fantastically capable. Despite the tiredness, despite my mind being focussed on the race, it affords me moments of pure joy as I carve a corner, or manual through a rock section. It feels like a precision instrument. A scalpel cutting through the trail, rather than a chainsaw chewing it up.

After a long descent, the trail points straight up. The path, cut into the woods is steep, and unmade. In the interests of energy conservation and keeping cramp at bay, I dismount and push up, running where I can. My legs scream. I continue. I’m passed. I continue. Back down. Traversing. Descent. I sense the end. Another gel. Keep riding. Christ it is cold. I can’t feel my hands.

I run through the transition process in my mind. Park bike. Remove shoes. Replace running shoes. Leave. Quick.

Park bike. Remove shoes. I can’t feel the buckles, but no problem. Replace running shoes. Jam left foot in. Try and wriggle the heel cup up. I can’t feel anything, I can see my fingers are where they should be though, and eventually the shoes slides into place. Repeat the tortuous process on my right foot. Ignore the pangs of cramp in my abdominal muscles. Just try and relax. Stand up. Breathe. Go. I know what is to come. I hit the first climb, like a slow motion replay of my first lap. Gravity has grown stronger over the course of the last 90 minutes. My legs no longer have the power to push onwards. I simply move one in front of the other. Despite this, I am making up places. Onto the proper steep stuff. I can no longer maintain a run. Quick, long strides replace my shuffle, and still I progress. I can hear myself breathing. Gone is the controlled two breaths in, one breath out. It is replaced by a ragged sucking in of any available oxygen molecules in my vicinity. Groan.

Despite slower progress than the first lap, the climb seems to pass more quickly. I start descending, cautiously initially, but keen to keep those behind me at bay, and aware that others are not far in front of me. I will have nothing left when I cross the line. Powerful strides, quick paces, jumbled legs. This is no game of chess; I am not plotting a line, just the best place to plant my next foot strike. Reactive. Switch off head. I can hear the person in front of me. I am faster than him. I am gaining. I am running out of time. I will have nothing left when I cross the line.

I am a projectile shot out of the bottom of the trail, on to the track. He is in front of me. I can only hear my breathing. I’m sprinting. Not like at the start. There is no semblance of control, no reserve of energy. This is my last gasp. I’m alongside him. 20 metres to go. I accelerate.

I have nothing left when I cross the line.

It turns out I was racing for 15th place. This isn’t the glory of the podium. I’m not even that bothered that I came 15th instead of 16th. But, I absolutely had to feel like I had given everything. I would not have been satisfied if I sat up. I’d like to think that I would have sprinted as hard if there was no one in front. I had to give it everything. In the end I held Matt off – he finished about 6 minutes after me, after an over-the-bars on the bike stage robbed him some time. Still a strong effort, especially given a super-stiff gearing choice.

So, a few days down the line, I look back. I can pick points that I would like to have gone better. Yes, my transitions could have been a bit smoother. No, singlespeeding was not the fastest option. Yes, if I’d have checked my bike more thoroughly I might have noticed that my seatpost clamp wasn’t as tight as it should be. But, most importantly, I have learnt to give it everything in a shorter race. My ability to work at an intense level for a “short” (I know 2.5hrs isn’t short) length of time is improving. Ironically, I won’t be doing many short races for the rest of the year. But, it is nice to know I can.

Thank you as always to Kinesis for giving me a superb bike to race, and Garage Bikes for making sure it works and never let’s me down (and giving me the most visible kit on the start line!)

Running into the night

Blinking felt weird. Dry and a bit painful. I realised it was probably because I hadn’t closed my eyes for quite a while, as I was scanning the frozen trail for the line of least resistance.

I don’t do many fell races, but I liked the sound of Mr Sparkle’s Dark Un, not least because it was on a Friday night, and seemed like a good way to kick off the weekend. It is a traditional fell race format, of broadly up, then broadly down, over around 5 miles. The twist is that, as the name suggest, run in the dark, with a headtorch added to the usual compulsory kit list.

Friday night was bloody cold. Sub-zero, and bone dry. The trails were rock hard, and almost sticky, in the same way your fingers stick to an ice cube from the freezer. Other than the icy sections, of course, which were as slippery as, well, ice.

I started near the front of the 75 strong field, and it was good to see a few familiar MTB faces there, including Phil Simcock, Amy and Ali. Jenn was also there, doing her first ever fell race. The pace was quick from the off, but not that quick. In fact, I seemed to be making up places, and while I was working hard, I felt comfortable. This was sustainable. We actually descended to start, and I let my legs go, and body plummet down the smooth, sandy trails. I moved up some more, but had someone right behind me, casting a shadow in front of my line. Luckily, we turned a corner and headed up hill, as I pulled away from him and passed one other person, as we chose different lines past the sheet ice that covered much of the trail. I was aware that there were at least two people in front of me, but I rarely got a glimpse of their lights as they pulled away. I had a man behind me as we settled into a regular pace.

At some point, along the ruts of the moors, I was re-passed, but stayed on his heels, actually welcome for a rest from choosing my lines, and able to follow someone else, learning from their experiences of slippery patches, or looser sections. A marshal shouted out 3rd and 4th. I’ve never been this high up in a fell race (or any other race, actually… other than the odd endurance race, before things have settled down, and I’ve shuffled back through the pack). Don’t mess things up now. I allowed myself a rare look behind. I could see the next placed runner, but there was a reasonable gap between us. Stay focussed on my own running. 3rd placed man increased his pace. I matched it. He slowed down, I moved onto his heels, and towards his side. He sped up. I hung on.

Intensity. I can never push myself this hard on a bike. I think I’d fall off. Every cell in my body is devoted to the act of propelling me forward as quickly as I can. One foot in front of the other. Simple. I’ve been doing it for nearly 33 years. A simple act transformed into the sole reason for breathing, for existing for 36 minutes.

And so it stayed, until the last rocky descent. We both had “moments” on the way down, requiring some rapid correction to prevent a nasty fall. The gap opened after I had one such trip. I couldn’t quite close things back down. Oh for a flatter run in after the descent. We crossed the line, a few seconds apart.

My throat was raw with the cold, and my eyes still sore as I blinked rapidly to try and rehydrate them. Deep breaths. Sharing stories on the finish line. Pint of shandy, chip butty, home (after Jenn collected her prize for 2nd place woman – not bad for her a 1st fell race!). Great start to the weekend.

I was 2nd senior male, 4th overall. I’ll be happy if I can carry that form through the year!

Thanks to Simon (Mr Sparkle) and the rest of Darwen Dashers for organising.

Nice news

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The kind of news that has made me feel excitable for a few days.

Kinesis Bikes are kindly giving me a FF29 to race/ride/play on this year. The FF29 is their first foray into the world of big wheels, but looking at the reviews it has received so far, they took their time to make sure they got things right.

Bike Radar
Quest Adventure
Singletrack

I will be building the frame up with Kinesis’ own IX carbon forks initially, although I may swap between them and some suspension forks as and when I feel like it. Other parts will be an eclectic mix of stuff that I already own and a few new bits and pieces. Can’t beat shiny new kit. I’ve decided to keep things super-simple to start, and run the bike single speed. Again, I’ve got a full complement of 2×10 gears to fit should the mood take me. And for some of the events, like the Highland Trail, I’m not sure if one gear will be a compromise too far for me. Riding all day on an SS is ok. Riding all day for days on end might be a bit much. We shall wait and see. Plenty of time to make up my mind on that front.

So, the next few days will be a matter of waiting for the odd parcel to arrive, doing a bit of preparatory fettling, and trying not to get too giddy while I wait for the good stuff to make its way up to Leeds.

Oh, and on a final note, the frame will be “sick green” (Kinesis’ description, not mine). I love the colour. (Un)fortunately, it will clash amazingly with my Garage Bikes race kit. I’m going to spend a year looking like a two wheeled tic-tac. I actually quite like this 🙂

Huge thank you to Dom at Kinesis for the frame. I just hope to do it justice, and have fun while I do so 🙂

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January

Not only has January snuck up on me, but it is now nearly the end of the month.

I’ve not raced since an ill fated Rapha Supercross in October (sticky mud and wide tyres in the CX bike were not good bedfellows). This was all part of The Plan. A rest. Time off from racing. Riding for fun. Not riding so much. This has been a mixed blessing. I’ve enjoyed some rides with mates that I might have missed out on otherwise. I’ve been doing more running (see post below). But, occasionally I have struggled mentally. I’ve missed long rides, yet not felt motivated to do them, yet beaten myself up for not riding more. Telling myself it is part of The Plan doesn’t always help.

Post Christmas and I have gradually been getting back into things. A few more miles, more regularly. A mystery New Years bug and a cold haven’t helped, but I’m slowly but surely getting fit again. I’ll need to, I’ve got some fun plans for this year.

February
-Hit the North… 2 hours intense riding. Crashed out last year. Lots of Good People going. Will be fun.

March
-City Cross… Not yet decided whether I’ll race, but should be a laugh
-Edale Skyline fell race

April
-No races planned yet, but an Easter break on Skye will involve lots of riding

May
-12hr solo champs – only two weeks before the biggie
-Highland Trail – 400+ miles of Scottish wilderness. Brilliant. Bit scary.

June
-Brisol Bikefest – so much fun in a team last year, back to do it solo this year
-Mountain Mayhem – only a week after Bristol. Maybe another team ride?

July
TBC

August
TBC… Summat big

September
-Scotland Coast to Coast. Did it two years ago. Fancy another crack
-3 Peaks CX

The ultra that wasn’t

After a Christmas break in the Lake District, with the bike left at home, but running shoes packed and used every day, I thought I might as well use the little bit of condition that I had earned and enter a race.

I like the simplicity of running. Even when compared to riding a bike, which needn’t be a complicated sport (although we often seem to do our best to make it so), I love that all I need is a pair of trainers to run. I also find it much easier to up the intensity when on foot. I really struggle to do an intense 45mins on the bike, but when running, I find it relatively “easy” to push myself to the point of exhaustion.

Having said that, I didn’t enter a short race. In fact I decided to enter my 1st ultra marathon. An ultra is technically anything over the regulation 26andabit miles of a marathon. My choice of the Anglesey stage of the Coastal Trail Series was 33 miles. Fairly short in terms of ultra distances, but a good 5 miles more than I have ever run in a day before. It was also 75% off road, much of which was on undulating and tricky coastal trails. The kind of race that needs suitable training and preparation. I signed up with 3 weeks to go. Then got injured. Ace.

I managed a pain free 5k run into work on the Thursday before the race on the Saturday and declared myself fit and ready to go. The weather forecast made for “interesting” reading, but our (Jenn was coming across too. Originally planning to do the marathon, a late entry meant that she ended up on the ultra course too) main concern was whether we would be able to drive to Anglesey; heavy snow was predicted for the North. I took the most sensible approach and tried to ignore it.

The drive to Anglesey turned out to be beautifully easy. Little traffic, and no snow. It was surprising when a friend posted up a picture of a heavily snow covered Holyhead on twitter. It was literally only as we crossed the bridge over the Menai Straits that the snow started to fall, and we almost immediately got stuck in a queue of traffic on the A55. It took over an hour to drive the 15 miles to Holyhead, but we got to the B&B, and started eating and faffing with gear and eating in preparation for an early start on Saturday. Again, I tried my best to ignore the foot or so of snow outside. At 8pm the cancellation email arrived. Frustratingly late, but the organisers had been working hard all day trying to mark courses, only for the markers to be covered by fresh snow. By way of compensation to those who had travelled up, they were still running a “fun” 10k course around and up and down Holyhead mountain. Not quite the ultra I had been psyching myself up for, and I was thoroughly deflated.

Luckily a big breakfast helped cheer me up… Never one to stay grumpy when food is on offer.

Saturday was beautiful. Blue skies, sunshine, and lots and lots of snow. We met Amy, Ali, Greg and Pauline at the event centre and set off around the course… Stopping regularly to admire the view/throw snowballs/bury Pauline. The snow made things heavy going, and despite there now being a trail trodden through the snow, it regularly came up to calf height. The first guys through had the pleasure of some waist height drifts. The full 33 miles would have been an epic challenge, and one which was rightly saved for another day.

That does leave me with an itch to scratch though. I still fancy ticking off an ultra in 2013…

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3 Peaks, my alternative report

Sorry for the swearing.

I have written up how the race went for Kinesis, over on their website. It’s a description of a race. It’s true, but on reflection, it isn’t a description of my race.

I looked at the skies at the start. I knew what the weather forecast was. Good. I wanted to suffer. The clouds were as black as my mood has been recently. It’s hard to describe, but I am trying to climb out of a self-created pit of negative thoughts and feelings, of anxiety, confusion and hopelessness… illness, mental illness. Emotions carry an extra weight at the moment. Every emotion. What makes this harder is that it becomes harder to distinguish what is “real” and what is a misfire of my tired, confused brain. I needed something to cut through the shit cloud. Something real.

Pain and suffering feel real. The hills are real. The weather is real. There was a beauty in suffering through doing something that I could have chosen to stop at any moment. I revelled in the futility of it all. I could channel every lingering emotion into one simple goal of survival.

A sense of total elation overcame me when I topped out over Simon Fell, and felt the full force of the wind for the first time. Fuck you comfort zone. Fuck you being sensible. Fuck you wind. Fuck you anything that isn’t about moving forward.

Into the calm of the road stretch to Whernside. An opportunity to stop fighting. To recoup. To eat and drink. To think. No… to fight thinking. To play mental games, and perform calculations. Average speeds and maximum speeds and projected times.

The descent off Whernside (the ascent was nothing. It was just steps. I didn’t need to play mental games; I could just feel free from thought). The first time that it clicked that reality isn’t a game. I can’t choose when to press pause. I’m cold. I’m tired. Deep play. The best kind. I’m in control. I’m making the right decisions, I’m being conservative. I don’t need to take risks, there is enough thrill to be found from walking the tightrope of being “safe”, no need to try and do it backwards, while blindfolded.

Pen Y Ghent, and my body is letting me down somewhat. Cramp is hindering progress, I should probably have another gel, but I am too focused on just getting this done. I know I am too cold and empty for this to be sustainable. I also know that I will be home in less than 30 mins.

And finished. Beautiful silence. Sitting in the car warming up. A calm head. Empty. Sheltered. Free, for the time being.