The weather websites had been predicting heavy rain all week and as I got up at 4:30am to the sound of rain bouncing off the window, it was apparent that the weathermen had, for once, got it right. I lined up at 6am somewhere near the middle of the field. Not where I wanted to be, but the start channel was narrow and I'm typically British in my attitude to pushing in. That meant that when the race set off for the neutralised first couple of miles, I bounded along the verges until I pulled in somewhere in the top 30. Shortly after, the trailer pulled off and bang, everyone went off like it was a short-course XC race. I tucked in with a group of riders somewhere around 15th-25th position. I guessed a few of the guys were going too hard, yet I didn't want to drop too far down the field and get stuck behind slower riders in the technical sections. So a pattern emerged where I'd reign myself in on the climbs and let the group pull away before dragging them back on the flats and descents. I wasn't really gaining any of the benefits of riding in a group, but it did at least mean that I wasn't getting a face full of mud by sitting on someone's wheel. As the miles passed, the group began to whittle itself down as those that had over-stretched themselves dropped out the back. As we reached the feed station at 23 miles, the few left in the group stopped to refill bottles. I'd decided to go with a race Camelbak so that I'd only have to do one stop, so I pushed on.
That left me out on my own - I wasn't to see another rider until the half way point. Nothing to do but plough on through the driving rain. The course varied between fireroad, double-track forest roads and the odd bit of trail centre singletrack to briefly raise the spirits. By the time I'd put in 40 miles, it had been raining heavily for hours and there were several miles where double-track had turned in to a choice of which stream you wanted to ride in. The water running down one descent was so bad that there was white water.
48 miles was the mid-way feed station. I'd done a bag drop and picked up a load of gels and re-filled the Camelbak. One poor guy was crouched on the floor, struggling to change disk pads because he was shivering so hard. A couple of riders came in after me and left just before me. For the next few miles the three of us rode separated by about 50m, each of us tapping out a similar rhythm. Sometimes gaps would close, sometimes they'd open. We crossed the border in to Scotland and a poor piper stood under a gazebo in the middle of the wilderness playing bagpipes. Grinding up a trail that had turned in to a flowing stream in open moorland in strong winds and driving rain, I began to get really cold; I was losing feeling in my hands and feet and started shivering even though I was pushing pretty hard. I made a mental note to start watching for (further?) signs of hypothermia. Fortunately, we got off open moorland in to forest, which cut down on the exposure and allowed me to think a little more lucidly. I realised I'd not eaten in nearly an hour - stupid! I wolfed down a gel and a bar - my energy levels and spirits rose and I began to reel in the two guys in front.
By the time the water stop at 62 miles came round, we'd come together. Whilst they stopped to refill bottles I carried on. I was out on my own again. Through some woodland on to a long false flat running beside a raging river swollen by the rain, trying to keep a decent cadence without checking the speedo every couple of minutes (natch, only another 0.2 miles covered...) Through the final feed stop at 78 miles and on to the long drag to the finish. Mile upon mile of dirt road, ticking off the miles, trying to count the number of tyre tracks in the mud to guess how many riders were in front of me. I was still keeping a good rhythm - not fast enough to catch anyone in front, but not slow enough to be caught. I gave a small woop as I passed the '5 Miles to Go' board, before hitting some of the mountain bike trails near to Kielder. Digging deep in the knowledge that there were only a few miles left, I blasted past the '1 Mile to Go' marker and on to a downhill singletrack trail to the finish. I passed a poor guy who was running with his bike - he was the first rider I'd seen in nearly 40 miles. And finally, across the finish line in 9 hrs 21 mins. I'd been planning to ask those at the finish where I needed to go to start my second lap, but that particular piece of wit deserted me as relief and the need to get in to warm dry clothes took over!
I came 14th overall and 10th in open men. I was aiming for sub-9 hours, but it hadn't quite panned out. The winner, Ben Thomas from Team Torq went round in a smidge over 8 hours. Unbelievable in those conditions.
Oddly, I didn't find it that bad. I was cold and exhausted, but my legs felt fine, mentally I'd coped with riding 70-odd miles on my own in attrocious conditions and the only time I'd been thinking about pulling the pin was if hypothermia had started kicking in properly. Others didn't fair nearly so well. Of the 800 entered, only 177 finished. Some just couldn't handle it, lots went through brake pads or other components, and plenty missed the cut-off points.
I reckon I'll be back again for more punishment, but with more training, better preparation and with any luck, drier conditions!
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