How It All Went Wrong

I know I’ve been a little quiet on here recently, but that is because things have been far from quiet for me. Since my last post I have been moving house up to the Borders area. This a big improvement over the flatlands of south Lincolnshire, topographically if not metrologically. There’s also been jobs and a million and one other little things to sort out but I’m just about settled in now and can have a bit of a catch up on here. The most obvious omission from the last few months is of course my write up from the 24hr World Championship. 
I’m sure you all know how it is when a race doesn’t go well, you first just try to forget about it, and then look for the reasons why. There also comes a point when you actually have to sit down and write about it and I can now put this off no longer.

It is of course much worse when the race which didn’t go well is the biggest race of the year, probably the biggest race I will ever do, a World Championship on home turf.

The 2014 24hr World Champs were held at Fort William on the course at Aonach Mor. I headed up nice and early, on the Wednesday morning, for practice. It was actually quite a nice day, unusual for the highlands at that time of year.

I headed out for a practice lap or two, expecting it to be rather boggy and horrible, as despite the fact that it wasn’t actually raining at that exact moment we had had quite a lot of rain at home in the preceding days. I was however, pleasantly surprised, there was even dust to be seen in a few places.
The course itself was tough, especially a couple of the shorter but steeper climbs, which I knew would be especially difficult in the latter stages of the race. For some reason finding grip seems to get harder and harder as a race progresses. I think it’s because after twenty hours of racing all my finesse is gone and attacking climbs like that with enough speed just to get up them merely results in wheelspin and wasted energy.

I recognised a lot of the route from other races I have done there over the years, but there were some sections I hadn’t ridden before, including the decent down from the bridge to the start/finish which was a lot of fun. I was also relieved to note that neither Nessie nor the Blue Crane would be part of the course, they are challenging enough when it’s broad daylight and I am wide awake and I still bear the scars from several unsuccessful attempts over the last decade.

With the first practice lap complete a group of us spent some time on the first rock section, practicing it over and over again, trying to get the lines right and shouting encouragement at those who were struggling before the sun set and we retired for tea and cakes.

The thing I like most about these races, apart from the 24hrs of suffering and torture, the cold, the wet, the dark, the numb hands and feet, the endless energy drinks and bars, the wind and rain, the nausea, and of course the sheer exhaustion of it all is the people. They are, without exception, all lovely guys and girls and regardless of how well the race goes it is always great to see everyone again. It is such a shame that we all have to go to work and can’t just spend our time travelling the world racing with each other. We spent a lovely evening catching up with old friends before eventually calling it a night and heading back to the bunkhouse to bed.

Thursday morning was also bright and sunny. This was most unexpected, two consecutive dry days in autumn in the Highlands. After a leisurely breakfast we headed back to the track for another practice.

For some reason I was lacking any get up and go. I normally can’t wait to ride my bike, especially on bright, sunny dry days in the Highlands but on this occasion I really had to force myself out to ride. I did two laps and then had a bit of break while I helped some friends sort out some spare bikes and wheels. Ant from Mt Zoom brought me some new brake pads over which I swapped for a supply of Accelerade drink mix. I did one final half-lap before calling it a night and heading back to the bunkhouse.

Our neighbours had arrived, including Carole, my pit crew from the previous races in Australia and Italy, so we popped round for a cup of tea and a catch-up. We also took the opportunity to do some baking, getting plenty of food prepared for the race, including a fairly substantial flapjack and some rather nice homemade soup.

Friday was a much less pleasant day, it was raining hard when we woke up and didn’t really ease off until mid afternoon. My mojo had completely deserted me and I had just lost the will to go out and do anything, the idea of another couple of practice laps really didn’t appeal. We went into Fort William town centre to find a bike shop and stock up on clothing. I was applying the logic that the more money I spent on waterproofs the less likely it was to rain during the race itself and so I bought loads, tops, shorts and gloves. The rest of the day was spent sorting out all of the little tasks which need doing, sorting out all of the food, lights and clothing I would need and building my pit garage.

The rules for this race required the use of a rear light during the hours of darkness and the guys at Exposure had got a TraceR ready for me, which I had to go and collect. Not only is this one of the brightest rear lights out there but the battery life would be more than sufficient and, just as important although I hoped it wouldn’t be tested, the waterproofness should be easily up to the job too.

My fiancé Gina was there to help, full of enthusiasm but very little experience. This was her first 24hr, she had done very well at the Gorrick 12hr earlier in the year where she had helped me to a top-10 despite a broken bike but a 24 is a very different beast and much tougher on the pit crew. We had therefore tried to get a pit as close to other friendly faces as we could, everyone at these races is more than willing to help out if they see anyone else having problems. We were right at the end, just where everyone turned out of the pits and back onto the race track, we had Carole and the AQR team right behind us, Ant across the way with Stuart Goodwin, Iwona Szmyd and Gareth Hayes sharing his pit, and our Catalan friends Carolina and Marcel next door to them.

We had also left our cosy little bunkhouse and moved the van up to the pits, the awning meaning that could get between one and the other without getting too soaked. With little inclination to go for a lap we spent time chatting to more old friends and drinking substantial quantities of tea before getting an early night ready for the big day.

The big day itself actually dawned surprisingly sunny, the vast amount I had spent on wet-weather gear the day before had clearly helped. It had even dried up sufficiently for me to venture out on my dry weather tyres, not at all expected in Scotland, never mind Scotland in October.

The tension rose as midday approached, the 146 riders were called forward in the main arena, gathering together behind the pipe band. I don’t know where all the people had suddenly appeared from but the crowd in the arena seemed huge as we followed the band out towards the track, they peeled off and we were then lead out by the motorbike. He turned off at the bottom of the big hill and the race was on.

It never ceases to amaze me just how quick the early stages of a long race are, with 23hrs58mins still to go everyone was flat out up that hill, really going for it, desperate to be the first into the narrow singletrack at the top. I had started somewhere near the front but lost a few places as we climbed and found myself at the back of the leading bunch as we turned into the lovely swoopy section at the top.

There was one rider in the middle of this who had clearly been very good at climbing, but was proving to be much less good at the downhill bits, this allowed the frontrunners to get away into the distance with the rest of us line astern behind. The guy in front of me took ages to find a way passed, but I recognised her and shouted for space in Italian, which worked much better and I set off in pursuit of the leaders.

I was already some way behind the front runners at the end of the first lap, down in 28th place. I grabbed a new bottle of Accelerade and a couple of gels and headed out for lap two. The second lap was my fastest of the race, not quick by everyone else’s standards, but 46m46s was respectable enough, and although the next two were a little slower I managed to stay under the hour easily enough.

Me ahead of someone early on.
It didn't last.

Up at the front American Kelly Magelky had made an excellent start and was disappearing off into the distance, pursued by Scotland’s Rob Friel in his first ever 24hr. It is impressive enough doing a World Championship as your first attempt at anything but his do or die attempt at scaring the big boys was winning him a lot of plaudits. Englishman Richard Dunnett was in third with the defending champion, Aussie Jason English, playing the long game and taking it easy early on, content in the lower reaches of the top-10.

In the women’s race local lass Lee Craigie had shot off at the start, leading for three laps before her race came to a premature end. Former UK and European champion Ricci Cotter and kiwi Kim Hurst were battling it out behind her, but this quickly became a fight for the lead of the race, Ricci leading on lap 4 and Kim on lap 5.

Further back, I was struggling. The problem appeared to be mainly down to food, I just couldn’t seem to get enough of it into myself. There was plenty there in the pits but my appetite had just deserted me, I was really having to force myself to get anything down, especially in the middle of the laps.
Darkness fell about 7pm, but attaching the USE/Exposure MaxxD and Joystick lights cost no time at all thanks to the clever mounting systems. With the disappearance of the daylight the temperature also began to fall, it was chilly enough for those of us out on the track racing, it must have been properly cold standing in the pits. A lot of the marshals had little braziers burning away, keeping themselves warm as best they could, they became a very welcome sight as the night progressed.

Midnight was announced by the firing of a big red distress flare from the start/finish line. Half way. The way I was feeling I wasn’t at all sure I could manage the other half, and just to help matters it was starting to rain.

That shower was actually the only rain we had during the race, probably only around 30 minutes in total, which for an October weekend in the Highlands is pretty good going. I was wondering why the race hadn’t been held in the summer, mid-June for example would have given us the best part of 23hrs of daylight and much better chances of sunshine. It turns out the answer to this was midges. They aren’t too bad, relatively speaking, while you are moving, but for those standing around, such as pit crews and marshals, it would have been absolutely hellish.

Anyway, back to the race. By midnight Magelky had dropped to sixth and Jason English was way out in the lead. Rob Friel was still impressing everyone and clinging onto second, he had been down as low as seventh on lap 6 but had kept fighting while those around him were starting to suffer. He was pursued by Dave Powell and my team-mate at XCRacer, Ant White. In the women’s race Kim Hurst was out front with Ricci Cotter and another kiwi, Erin Greene, trying as hard as they could to keep up.

My race was going from bad to worse. I was still really having to force myself to eat, and I really don’t think I was getting enough food. My legs were dead, the climbs were a complete nightmare and, a really bad sign, I was looking for any excuse I could find to extend my pit stops.

It is never a good thing when you get this stage, a pit stop should be as quick as possible, pause, eat whatever it is you’re given while the bottles are changed and the food in your pockets replenished, and then on your way again. I on the hand was sitting down (no, don’t do that!- Ed) fussing over lap times, positions, layers of clothes, anything I could think of really to avoid going out and riding again. It was hurting my race and I knew it but it was such an effort to head out again for yet another lap.

But head out again I must, and indeed did, many, many times. The course was brutal, by far the hardest I have ever ridden in a 24, and I could take a little comfort from the fact that other riders seemed to be suffering too. At one point I even managed to pass the legendary Brett Belchambers, well unlap myself, briefly. Even for someone of his stature the course was proving tough. Of course he wasn’t helping himself by doing it all in one gear, and I obviously had no such excuse.

I had first met him at the previous race at Stromlo, the 2013 World Championship, and he had obviously recognised me as he spoke to me before the race to appologise for the actions of his broccoli-wielding fellow Aussies. It’s a long story, ask me if you see me. He passed me again soon enough and disappeared off into the distance.

Brett on his dawn lap. Even more impressive than his win in the 
singlespeed category and his sixth place overall was his ability
to ride all night in short sleeves. They obviously breed them tough
in Tasmania!

Actually, this made the defending champion only the third most famous person at this race. In addition to Mr Belchambers Guy Martin was competing. I was expecting him to do pretty well given his results at Relentless and the Strathpuffer over recent years, and he was indeed having a good race and would go on to finish 16th in the Elite men’s race, and 32nd overall. He did seem to spend a lot of time before and after the event being asked to pose for photographs with various people, competitors and spectators alike.

I’m digressing again, back to the race. I was having some terrible laps in the wee small hours, and getting slower and slower. My worst one was the one which began at about 4:30am. I had twiddled a very small gear up the main climb, and pushed in a fair few places too. I eventually reached the very top of the course, up by the big berms, and I felt rubbish, really queasy. I put the bike down and wandered off into the undergrowth at the side of the course, bent over and heaved up what little food was remaining in my stomach.

This left me feeling rather dizzy so I had a bit of a sit down on a rock near my bike, my back resting against a fencepost. I waited for everything to stop spinning, then dragged myself to feet and retrieved my bike. My GPS claimed that it had been stationary for over 20 minutes! How had that happened? I don’t think I had nodded off but with a delay of that length I can’t think of any other explanation. Stopping moving for that length of time had left me absolutely frozen too, which didn’t help matters at all, and so I had another stop at one of the burning braziers to attempt to get some feeling back into my hands. With the small fire on the bottom corner of my waterproof extinguished by a helpful marshal I set off again.

As I limped around back to the pits the sun was starting to reappear, just a feint greyness to the sky at first, it wouldn’t be until the end of the following lap that I could remove my lights. The sun coming up is always a huge psychological boost in these races and my lap times did indeed improve a bit, all the way from ‘terrible’ to ’poor’ in fact.

At the pointy end things were getting very exciting. Friel had finally blown up and was starting to struggle, but ages after everyone had expected him to, he was down at the bottom end of the top-10. Richard Dunnett, Mark Spratt and Richard Rothwell  were having a huge fight over the final podium place. After 23 laps Ant White had got the gap to Jason English down to a far from comfortable 14 minutes, and was gaining. With 3hrs still to go this was anyone’s race. The gap between leader Kim Hurst and pursuer Ricci Cotter was about the same in the women’s race, this was very much a two-horse race, Erin Greene was miles behind in third but with an equally big gap over fourth placed Danielle Musto.   

I was still plodding away, and there was a lot of plodding being done, I was finding that I just couldn’t ride up most of the climbs any more and so was just pushing up them in a desperate attempt to just keep myself moving in the right direction, and keep myself awake. The descents were not much better, my brain had about had it and concentrating well enough to be able to steer through the rocks was something of a challenge.

Me in Trying-to-keep-warm kit rather than team-kit.

I crossed the start/finish line at 23hr09min to begin my final lap. If I was still able to do the pace I had been doing early on I would have been able to get round in time for one more but this clearly wasn’t going happen. I made it round in one piece, relieved to cross the line at last but ever so disappointed with my result. I had had high hopes for the race on home soil but things just hadn’t gone well. I was 77th overall, and 23rd in the Elite men’s race at 24hr50min, a far cry from the dizzy heights of the 13th had achieved at Stromlo the previous year.

It was difficult to say exactly why I had done badly at the time, my bike had been faultless, the lights were perfect, I hadn’t broken anything. I clearly hadn’t eaten enough but nothing I had with me food-wise was new, it was all tried and tested, I just hadn’t been able to force myself to eat any of it.
However, it wasn’t long before the reason for my failure became apparent. I felt rubbish on the Monday, the day after the race, but I had just done a 24 and so was expecting to feel terrible. However, I was worse on the Tuesday and by Wednesday was properly ill. Tonsillitis. I was in bed for a week.
Suddenly it all seemed to make sense. Gina’s house-mate had had it. My lethargy in the days before the race was probably a good sign that I was coming down with something and should probably take it easy for a bit, but of course I had a big race to do, and that race must have completely trashed my immune system, there was no way I was going to fight it off after that.

Still, could have been worse. My ride of the weekend has to go to Craig Bowles, even better than Rob Friel I think (he eventually finished 10th by the way). Craig was racing in the 35-39 age group (I’m not sure why, as a former European Champion and World Number 3 he is more than capable of holding his own in the Elites) Anyway, after a steady start he had kept up some very decent lap times and had spent much of the early hours in 3rd or 4th places overall, before running into trouble on lap 21, when he started to lose positions rapidly. His chest was hurting and he was having difficulty breathing. He knew he couldn’t hold on to the overall podium position but he was leading his category and was determined to hold on to that.

Despite the pain he was in his final lap times were still pretty respectable. He eventually crossed the line to take 16th overall and the win in his class. However, he never did get to stand on the podium, Mrs B was drafted in to replace him as he was spending the first of several days in hospital, with suspected pneumothorax. No, I had never heard of it either, it’s when some air gets outside of the lung and enters the rest of the chest cavity. All vaguely familiar to anyone who has seen the 24 Solo film… Anyone who hasn’t should, it’s great.

Jon Hobson

Things were even more tense at the very front, Ant White was hunting down the defending champion Jason English in the closing stages. The gap was down to a little over 10 minutes at one point, but then disaster struck. Ant’s chain snapped, just at the crossover on the figure-of-eight racetrack. This would normally only be a 2-3 minute fix but the accumulation of 23hrs of cold, fatigue and the associated numbness left his hands barely able to hold a chain-tool, never mind work it properly. It took him an agonising 15 minutes, almost within sight of his pit, before he was able to get it back together and get underway again. His chance of glory had gone, but he had had a comfortable lead over Mark Spratt and was able to hold on to second. Spratt on the other hand didn’t have much of a lead over his pursuer and, having dropped from his early front-running position down to 9th at one point, Richard Dunnett was able to pounce on the final lap and get himself back into the final podium position.

Jason English’s employers had been far from supportive of his endeavours. Despite having won the previous four World Championships he was only given two days holiday to compete in the event. He lives somewhere near Newcastle in New South Wales, where he works as a teacher. He finished work at 3pm on the Thursday (all teachers finish work at 3pm every day don’t they?) and then drove down to the airport in Sydney. With the time zones working in his favour on the way here he landed in Glasgow late on the Friday and drove up to Fort William. He raced Saturday and Sunday, won, collected his medal at the venue and was already on the plane back to Australia as the rest of us were settling down at the post-race meal in Benavie, apart from poor old Craig. With the time zones working against him on the way back it was a late arrival back in Sydney and then back at work first thing Tuesday morning. He was quoted as saying that the nature of a 24hr race means that the jet lag may have actually given him an advantage!

Although the leading positions had not changed in the women’s race, with Kim Hurst crossing the line ahead of Ricci Cotter and Erin Greene it was a fantastic mix of nationalities, 10 different countries were represented in the top 15. Actually, the men’s race was just as diverse with 11 different nationalities in the top 15.

When WEMBO had first taken over running the World Championship in 2012 questions had been asked about their ability to attract not only a sufficient number, but also a sufficient range of competitors to make it credible. The fact that the 146 riders represented 23 different countries seems to have laid this to rest.

Elite Results

1.  Jason English                             Australia
2.  Anthony White                          England
3.  Richard Dunnett                         England
4.  Mark Spratt                                Wales
5.  Richard Rothwell                       England
6.  Jason Miles                                England
7.  Einaras Sulskus                         Lithuania
8.  Elias Van Hoeydonck                Belgium
9.  Michael McCutcheon                Ireland
10. Robert Friel                              Scotland

1.  Kim Hurst                                  New Zealand
2.  Ricci Cotter                               Wales
3.  Erin Greene                               New Zealand
4.  Danielle Musto                          USA
5.  Iwona Szmyd                            Poland
6.  Giuliana Massarotto                 Italy
7.  Lisa Kamphausen                     Scotland/Germany
8.  Alex Nichol                              England
9.  Elena Novikova                        Ukraine
10. Louise Humphreys                  Scotland

This race was also the 2014 National Championships, the titles going to the highest placed Brits, Ant White and Ricci Cotter. There was no prize for most cheerful rider but if there was this would almost certainly have gone to Pedro Maia. He would normally be a shoe-in for this award anyway, even in the pouring rain in the middle of the night while freezing cold and absolutely knackered, but winning his age-group had made him even more jolly than normal.

I would like to say a very big thank-you to the usual suspects, XCRacer/Scimitar, USE/Exposure, Accelerade and Mt Zoom as well as Spook, Fraz, Fiona and co from No Fuss who organised the event on behalf of WEMBO. However, the biggest thank-you must go to Gina for all her hard work before and during the race to get me prepared and keep me going when it got really tough, and then for looking after me the following week as I lay curled up on the sofa eating ice cream and feeling sorry for myself.

The pictures are all from Sportograf.

No comments:

Post a comment