Monday, April 11, 2016

Misadventure Racing: Open5 Todmorden

End of the Open5 series for this winter and we were headed to the steep sides of Calderdale, the land of dark satanic mills, packhorse trails all over the place, and the kookiness that is Hebden Bridge. As usual, I opted to stay fairly near the venue because I know I hate early starts, so first order of the night was to find my accommodation up at the Mankinholes YHA. Easier said than done, because even in a little Skoda Fabia with a fairly decent turning circle, there was at least one junction that required a 3-point turn to get round! No pre-race paddling this time either, but at least that gave me a Saturday free to do semi-domesticated things like servicing my bike, bleeding my brakes and getting some kit washed, so at least I had some clean stuff to race in and brakes that worked properly this time out.

Dinner was a nice Korean salmon stir fry, and after some dark chocolate and a beer or two I retired to bed early. I'd booked a private 2-bed room since there was a chance a friend was going to race with me, but he realised he'd double-booked, so I got a nice quiet room to myself for the night! Morning came quickly, as it does, and after a quick breakfast and the short drive down to Todmorden High School I was ready, if not raring to go. A misty start to the morning had started to burn off by about 9:15, so about 9:20 I punched out and set off.


Bike - http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1421405855

I made a few nav cock-ups on the bike, wasting a bit of time that could have helped me get a few more points on the run. Two - one on a bridleway bridge and one on a bench at a reservoir inlet -  were a case of starting to look for the CP too early, and either not reading the map properly or just convincing myself I was in the right place when I wasn't. The others were just poor route choice given the terrain, taking a more direct line when a longer but better surfaced alternative would probably have been quicker. I cursed myself for one of those at the end of the bike leg, should have just used the more rideable farm lane and road grind rather than what turned out to be a humorously crap narrow muddy bridleway that I ended up pushing most of.

I'm pretty sure the way I climbed up onto the moor - up the main road to Cornholme then up past Shore - was a decent, efficient (if steep and sweary) way up onto the tops. I'm not sure whether the first 'inner' loop I did was genius or stupid, but it tagged off 3 CPs that would have been a bit more faffy to get at the end of the main 'outer' loop, although in hindsight I can see a way that could have worked. The first section of the Pennine Bridleway was one of the aforementioned nav cock-ups, and about 10 minutes of dithering. The next was another 10 minutes of dithering at the head of Cant Clough, though I think heading back down the reservoir and using the Pennine Bridleway again saved some time spent pushing and swearing if I'd used the permissive path up Rams Clough. The two dog-legs at the north end of the map both picked up low scoring, with the first one on Swinden Water requiring a lot of effort. Meeting Jeff, Eddie and Ben headed the other way there was a definite suggestion of "Ah, we're not the only ones who got suckered into this one..." Not sure it was worth the push back up the zig-zagging trail, but there you go. The descent to Widdop reservoir confirmed I was right to have ridden the Element, though, and I was very glad of a bit of rear suspension in places!

The run home was the site of the humorously crap push, and I do think I could have saved another 5-10 mins if I'd just exited onto tarmac, though that might have been debatable in the sense of the rules - farm track marked as footpath rather than bridleway, I think. Even without that, a daft choice and a lack of attention around some houses meant a detour I could have avoided, though at least it was onto a decent surface. The final CP was a 40 pointer and then it was a long, steep dive down back to the valley bottom, a minor-and-swiftly-corrected wrong turn at the roundabout in town, a final hammer down the road and into transition.


Run - http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1421435849

There's not a lot I can say about the run. It was simply a token trot to the nearest (and easiest to find) CP to make sure my score counted. I'd got into transition with something like 28mins to go, so it was just a quick change of shoes and out. I contemplated going for one more - another very close one - but decided it just wasn't worth it going for a handful of points that I would then almost certainly lose in being a few minutes over time. Up the road, punch the CP, back down the road, finish. And with that, the series was over for me. Sound the fanfare, and let the fat bloke sing. What do you mean, 'he's lying down by his transition kit going "ouch"'? Typical. He'll want a beer next, I suppose?...

Punched in and done. Pic: James Kirby

As far as analysis of the season in general goes, I think the series comes under the category of 'learning experiences', however I can definitely say I'm glad I've got off my backside and got out. The winter's an awful time for motivation for me, and while I can't say I've ever got to the intended point of getting much 'training' in between races, I have got out for other rides (though not really runs) and feel like I've pushed myself a bit more, physically and mentally. It's a difficult thing to quantify, since the seasonal motivation has changed as the weather has (marginally) improved, but the last race of the season definitely felt easier, mentally, than the first and second.

Over the series, I've done 20 miles of running and 105 miles of biking over 24hrs 23mins total race time, taking in 4056m (13307ft) of total ascent (and, presumably, the same in total descent, otherwise either my maths has gone wrong or I'm hovering...). I've managed to avoid running over the allotted 5hrs each time, so have not taken any penalty points. I've made a good few silly mistakes, but I've also been to a few fantastic locations that I probably wouldn't have got to otherwise. Slaidburn had my longest run at 6.4 miles. The end of the season at Todmorden was my longest bike at 31.2 miles. I've ended up 29th out of 125 who've raced Male Solo over the season, 28th of 32 who've raced three or more for a full series ranking.

As a series, all the events I've been to have been fantastically good, so big thanks to James T as the series organiser and to all the various event planners and volunteers for making them worth getting out of bed on a Sunday for. My favourite of the season, and my best result, was out in the snow at Blanchland, where I managed a really good bike and a decent-but-short run despite a knackered calf. My worst, quite easily, was the first race at Muker, where I forgot a watch, ran for too long, made a bunch of nav errors, and had horrible mechanical problems on the bike. Oh, and the weather was crap too.

There are definitely things I can still improve on, aside from the obvious two of 'get fitter and eat less pies' and 'make less nav mistakes'. I've got better - and perhaps a bit more ambitious - at planning my race routes, but I still don't plan by score. With the score sheet give-out at the start, I tend to pause only to cross out the dummies and then head out to ride/run, so there can be a bit of awkward pausing to try and read a score sheet while riding, and I've often put a lot of effort into getting a CP only to realise it's a really low scorer. That's a tactical element that I could work on, maybe taking an extra minute to scribble the scores onto the map would help. Playing to my strength and biking first has helped for the last couple of events, though a bit extra fitness and speed on foot would have helped for those last gasp token run CP dashes.

Eating and drinking is another thing I had problems with at intervals. I'm not usually short of a desire to eat, but especially on this last race, I've been lax at keeping myself fed and watered. I've only carried one bottle, which isn't really enough, so need to grab a hydration bladder for my Macpac race pack to make drinking more convenient!

Overall, it's been a great series to race in and a decent enough season for me as a racer. In a way, I'm just glad to be back doing some racing for myself, instead of just taking pictures of other people doing it. It's gone more-or-less the way I'd expected, nothing spectacular, no heroic performances, no fireworks. It's been hard, frustrating and marginally painful at times, but mainly it's been fun, and that's what I wanted out of it.

Cheers all, 'til whatever misadventure happens next!

Pyro

Back the other side of a camera. Pic: James Kirby

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Misadventure Racing: Open5 Askham

One more for the monthly Misadventure Racing series, and one more to go after this. Very unusually, there was no pre-race paddling this time round. My sincerest apologies to both my readers, and I promise to get back to normal shonky form for next month.

I'd love to say that the latest Open 5 from Askham continued my triumphant (ahem...) re-entry back into the world of Adventure Racing, but knowing the state of my racing, I don't think I'll ever fool anyone into thinking the triumph is on the menu. This minor resurrection has been about the same as my standard racing day; less sudden dramatic fanfare and leap through the curtain, more  slow, sweaty, sweary plod from the back of the auditorium to the stage. Hey ho.

I like my planning and logistics, but frankly the planning for this one was a bit shaky. I'd been asked to help out on the Mighty Deerstalker trail run/obstacle course event the night before the Open 5, and had said 'yes' having not checked the dates properly, thereby committing myself to an 'interesting' amount of travelling over the weekend. Since I'd landed myself in the s**t, I decided the best thing to do was to drag a few willing idiots friends in there with me, so roped three friends in to help me out with the Saturday night. I'd also failed to string it together as being the weekend after the National Student Rodeo, and obviously hadn't adequately accommodated for the contagion impacts of being around 1,000 students for a weekend, so had spent the week before being sneezy, snotty, coughy, shivery and several other lesser Dwarves. Sweary was definitely in there as well.

Anyhow, come the weekend itself and I had Sean and Ruth travelling up with me from Leeds and Rachel joining us from Edinburgh later on, so we were fully staffed. The Leeds trio headed up to my folks place in the Lakes on Friday and after a nice meal, a decent night's kip and a lie-in, Thunderbird 2 was go again and headed northbound up the M74. A quick briefing with Stu the Race Director, chats with a few old friends, and we were free to wander, so we went and stocked up on food and coffee before headed back to the main briefing and then filed as two pairs out to our assigned locations on opposite sides of the course: Sean and Ruth got the skinnies on Caddon Bank, Rach and I the roped descent on the back of Pirn Craig; Sean and Ruth were finished by half past eight, Rach and I were in place until the best part of 11pm. Joy!

Deerstalker duty done, the three of us skedaddled back to the Lakes, knowing that we'd be on an early start on Sunday morning. As typically happens when you really fancy an easy drive, it all went a bit wrong. Setting the sat nav to alleviate the amount of mental processing required led to it taking us on the 'fastest' route, over the tops via Tweedsmuir and the Devil's Beef Tub and down to Moffatt. That might well be the fastest route on a fine, clear day, but on a dark, foggy night, when visibility's down to 20 yards max, it gets a little bit slower. Eventually we got to the motorway, got back to Carlisle, then back home at 1:20am, just time for a handful of hours sleep before getting up to go race.

We got through to Askham, having taken a minor diversion due to closed roads and bridges after the last bout of flooding in Cumbria, dumped the car and wandered towards registration, only to be asked to move it straight away. I'd left Sean the keys so a bit of sign language later and the car was duly moved while I went and signed my life for the next 5hrs away. After a quick chat with Joe on porridge duty and a ramble out to work out where the hell the car and all of my kit was, I started getting sorted out and ready to roll out, grabbing food and drinks bottles and working out, well, what to ride.

The other bit of lax planning had been on bike choice and bike maintenance. I've just finished building up a new full-suss 29er, a Rocky Mountain Element, which was just about ready to go, but with the post-NSR lurghi I hadn't had a chance to actually have a shake-out ride and check everything was done up and functioning properly. My other bike, my On-One Scandal hardtail 29er was theoretically good to go, but hadn't been ridden or even cleaned and re-lubed since the snowy day out up at Blanchland, so it was a split decision of new-and-shiny-but-untested vs older-and-true-but-probably-squeaky. I'd thrown both onto the roofrack just in case, thinking I might have done a short ride on the new one on Saturday, but no joy. I pulled both down to sort out - I'd need to swap my map board mount and saddle pack over if I was using the new one anyway -  and after a quick fidget with a slightly-in-need-of-a-bleed rear brake and some extra air in the shock and forks, I opted for the Rocky.

Bike - http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1386566967

The start was a short ride from the car, all uphill, so a nice little warmup. I hadn't looked at the map much before the start, and when I got to transition there were only a few minutes before the Solo riders start closed, so it was straight in, drop the transition bag, gloves on and ready to go. I opted to keep the same strategy as the Blanchland race, do a longer bike first then pick off a few run CPs with the time left, so up to the marshals and the normal start routine of picking up the points sheet, scribbling out the 'dummy' CPs and trying to configure a decent loop and I was off. First leg was the uphill struggle onto Askham Fell and over to the Cockpit, where James the event photographer managed to snap me looking, well, angry. No reason why, I was actually having a fairly nice day, I just look very unhappy to see him. Sorry about that James.

Angry Beard is Angry - Pic: James Kirby

The big split decision from the Cockpit was whether to go for the 40 point CP up on Loadpot Hill, committing yourself to 5km slog and 1000ft of ascent up the old Roman Road of High Street, which I decided wasn't worth it for me and the way I was feeling. The descent may have been awesome but the climb would have done me over, so I turned off right and onto the descent down to Howtown, loving the rear suspension and soaking up the hazy sunlight. Stopped by one CP by a stream crossing to slurp down the remainder of my bottle and top it up from the stream - always a lovely feeling in spring - and then down more before climbing from Howtown round The Coombs to the new(er) church at Martindale. As I climbed, the lad behind me, who'd been with me for a little while, says "Are you going to 17?"... Erm, yes. I wouldn't be going this way if I wasn't... "Damn. I wasn't planning to. Serves me right for tailgating I guess." Serves you right for not reading your own flipping map, pal!

The payoff for climbing to Martindale was the blast down the zig-zags down The Hause, though I did it forwards and carefully, not backwards on one wheel. The tarmac spin back to Pooley Bridge was despatched fairly quickly having caught up with another racing friend, Roger, and we chatted our way back along the road before I dropped off the back climbing up to Celleron and back towards Askham. I'd been looking at the map and evaluating my time, and decided I would go a bit longer on the bike, having only been out about 2:30 on the first loop. There was another shorter route I could do, mainly on tarmac with a handful of bridleways, so I headed south for Helton, then up onto the fell again, dodging tourists and their dogs out for a walk, down a short bridleway then looping round Rough Hill and back towards Butterwick and Helton again, and back to Askham on the road. Bumped into Sean and Ruth sunning themselves with a coffee on a bench by Askham Stores having been for a walk up onto the fell. They started making me jealous with talk of steak pie, so I headed off to transition and get a wee wander on foot in myself.

One bit of preparation that had gone right was my transition bag, and the secret weapon therein. I may have attracted a couple of jealous glances as I sat down to changes my shoes and pulled out my still sealed, still hot enough insulated mug of coffee, followed by two pain au chocolat. A veritable feast mid-way through a race, and yet I was still only in transition six-and-a-half minutes, pretty swift for me.

Run - http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1386570359

"Where's the finish dibber?! I want to stop!" - Pic: James Kirby
The run was a typical short ramble, a touch over 6km and four CPs, lollipop style, heading up onto the fell end first, then up over Heughscar Hill, back through a channel between two blocks of woodland and jogging steadily back down the track to the finish. I finished on 375 points, which knocks one of my first two races off the 'top 3 scores' Series table. The best news was no mechanical issues on the bike and no twinges of the calf, so it seems like that's healed up okay and I know how to bolt frames and forks and such together, which is nice. I evidently just need to now start getting the fitness back in, something I've been saying since the first race of the series back in November! The jog downhill at the end felt pretty good, and I'm always saying I need to get time back in on foot, so now with lighter nights I'm hoping to start trail running a little more. We'll see what happens come the last race of the series at Todmorden in a months time, the steep Calderdale valley sides are not going to be forgiving if I've not done a little bit of hill work I suspect...

Monday, February 15, 2016

Misadventure Racing: Open5 Blanchland

Third race of the Open5 Series, with some things changed, some kept the same, and a faintly interesting end result.

The same: I'd been kayaking the day before. Come on, I'm not changing that unless I absolutely have to. We'd had a good day on the Leven, though I took another swim at Backbarrow, which seems to have become an annoyingly bad habit recently. Poor line and a failure to roll, the latter being the more annoying part as I've actually worked on my rolling recently and re-outfitted the boat to help with that, and in the end didn't even try, just panicked and pulled the rip cord. Something to work on anyway.

Different: I've been struggling with a calf injury since just after the Slaidburn race, picked up at a parkrun while trying to get some actual training in. I wasn't even pushing hard, heading for a similar 'around 30min' pace when, at the 4km mark, I felt like someone had stabbed me in the back of the leg. So since then it's been a case of rest, ice, compression and gentle functional movement to try and recover without making anything worse.

I stayed at Edmundbyers YHA overnight, with a few other racers. Got a decent nights kip despite at least one snorer in the dorm (probably two once I'd dropped off...). Driving into Blanchland in the morning was a little skatey and skiddy in places, and despite thinking I'd never been there before I recognised the village. Turns out an old kayaking friend got married there a long time ago, and we made merry in the Lord Crewe pub and then us poor impoverished student kayakers who couldn't afford hotels or holiday cottages slept in our tents on the village playing field, apart from the one who'd broken his collarbone biking the morning of the wedding who got given the groom's brother's bed.

Anyway, leaving the half-recalled drunkenness aside, there had been snow during the Saturday afternoon and evening and a freeze overnight, but the morning itself was bright and calm with the odd snow shower and squall. Joe Faulkner and Nav4 Adventure were providing the catering, so I grabbed a coffee and a Danish and settled down with the maps to delay my start a little bit. Early starters would have the joys of both trailbreaking through the four inches of snow on the higher trails and risking ice on more major tracks and roads. I set off about 9:25 and reckon that was about premium; the snowy trails were compacted enough to be firm but without having yet turned slushy and muddy, and any ice on the tarmac was thawing and becoming less of a hazard.

Because of the weather and the leg issue, I changed my gameplan for the day and biked first rather than running, reasoning that if I ran first and blew my calf up, it would knacker both disciplines, whereas if I got a good long bike loop done in a decent time I could take a token leisurely stroll round a couple of run checkpoints to validate that section and not risk further injury. That worked out well, and kit choice did as well, no issues again, with enough layers to stay warm without overheating. There was a pretty wide temperature difference through the day, alternating between cold grimaces while pushing through the snow squalls and enjoying the sunshine and blue skies between them. Technically, I had a couple of minor chainsuck issues late on on the bike, but I'm sure that was just mud and snow gunking up the drivetrain and nothing like as bad as the Muker race.

Bike: http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1347038733/

Had problems with my bike GPS turning itself off mid-ride, think it twisted on my stem while I was pushing at some point and the power button pushed on the bolt for my map board, but this is the route and the relevant time. The route itself worked out well, did the major climbs on tarmac and/or good gravel track, descended on the rougher stuff. Could be faster if I was fitter, as always, but tactically and technically no mistakes this time, which is nice to say. Following some of the smaller trails would have been hard for the first off, the moorland singletrack would have been nearly indistinguishable under the snow. A couple of judgement calls about which direction to take certain loops worked in my favour and I cleared all bar one of the bike checkpoints in 3:42. The one I dropped looked like a bit of a deathmarch, a 3-4km of out-and-back moorland singletrack, worth 30 points but likely to have been slow going.

Run: http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1347040565/

My transition wasn't too slow, sub 5mins, and the plan to take it steady worked out well as there were four CPs making for an easy sub-5km loop without too much climb. The tarmac up to the first two was patchy with ice, so taking it gently worked well, then a slippy, muddy field-edge bridleway linked across to the third, with tarmac and then a lovely clear wooded trail to the final one on a waterfall just outside the village. I jogged gently on the flat and down to test the muscle a bit, backed off if it twinged and just enjoyed the stroll. Made it back well in time, 4:48 in total, having enjoyed the day at a pretty steady trot.

Got myself changed and then headed back to the hall to download and eat (soup, chilli, flapjack and coffee, thanks again Joe!), and ended up surprised that I'd actually scored higher here than I have in either of the previous two races, obviously the enforced tactical change paid off, and I probably made pushier choices on the bike rather than playing it safe and dropping CPs. I just need to keep rehabbing the leg and try to build the fitness (as always!) before Lowther in March.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Misadventure racing: Open5 Slaidburn

Third race of the Open5 series, but second one of the season for me. I was entered for the North Wales event in December but had been suffering with a horrific cough that I couldn't shift, so decided to save my health and skip it. Kind of glad I did, as I only managed to shake the cough in the last week before Christmas after a fair amount of rest.

Anyway, lessons learnt from the first race of the season, I remembered my watch for this one. Not sure I was any better prepared, I threw together some bits of kit the night before, had at least tried to sort some of the mechanical problems I'd had last time out, and hadn't been out on the lash 48hrs before the start. I had been kayaking the day before, because some things never change and kayaking is fun. Kit worked out well again: Buff, bib shorts, 3/4 tights, base layer and a thicker jersey. Waterproof stayed on for the entire day, as a windproof layer more than waterproofing (there were only occasional showers), wool socks (Woolie Boolies) and my old Wave Harriers for the run, waterproof socks (from Mapdec) and my SPD shoes for the bike.

Run - http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1305492129

'Run' is still a bit of an optimistic term, but this one went better. I neglected to wear my compression calf guards, which might explain the horrible tight achilles pain I had both during and after the section (and still have the evening after), but I shuffled around anyway. The best part for me was no nav cock-ups, and I was much more decisive about setting a loop and sticking to it. At the Muker race I'd been very vague and picked the next CP on the fly, which combined with the lack of a watch, meant I wasted time and didn't actually get very far. One positive, that'll do. I'm still not in any sort of shape (apart from 'round'. Round is definitely a shape), so I'm contemplating one of the 'Couch to 10km' programs to get my backside out and about and try and build into things. At least I got my timing right, 1:45 was pretty much bang-on what I was aiming for, so I was happy with that.

Bike - http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1305725287/

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I made one major mistake, towards the end, that cost me a bunch of points and a lot of time and energy. The majority of the route was grand, the CPs configured so those not looking to clear the course could pick a route that was predominantly tarmac with various dog-legs and out-and-backs to pick up CPs. I'd written off some of the further out checkpoints in favours of setting a fairly reasonable loop that I felt I could do in the time, which was grand. The 'hindsight' part comes in because, with some extra information about trail surface I could have easily got at least two if not three more CPs further out on the course. That would have also occupied some time and prevented the daftness I had at the end, where I decided to try and push up a horribly crap bridleway onto Dunsop fell which would have been easier to kayak down than ride or walk. I'd got to my planned penultimate CP with over an hour still on the clock. The choices were to stick with my plan and finish 30 points up and probably 30-40mins ahead of time, which would have been fine energy wise but annoying planning wise, or to gamble on making the 35 pointer on the fell top. I gambled and it didn't pay off. The bridleway was so humorously crap that continuing would have put me out of time, and by the time I'd realised this and turned around, coupled with a much worse linking bridleweay than I'd expected and failing energy reserves, I was cooked. I finished just ahead of time but failed to get either of the two possible CPs. Not the best end to what had been a pretty good day, but my own daft fault.

I love the 'score' format of the Open5 events, because it's easy enough to pick and choose your own route based on your ability and inclination. Apart from the daftness at the end, my route picking was pretty good, and I'm happy enough with that. I said this series was me trying to re-develop some bits over the winter, and I'm going to end up learning some lessons, even if those are mainly how unfit I am. Next up is Blanchland, County Durham, in February, so on we go.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Misadventure racing: Open5 Muker.

So, Sunday was my first race of the season. Okay, I'll admit it, it was first race in a very long time, so this will be my first race review in a while where I go "well, I was pretty rubbish yesterday..." (though I suspect not the last). It will also be very boring and factual. The race, for those concerned with these things, was the first of the Open5 adventure race series, 5 hours of run and bike score orienteering, based out of Muker in Swaledale. For the geographically challenged, Muker is a small village in a relatively steep-sided valley. That meant lots of up.

My race preparation involved: no training; a Chinese and a night of heavy drinking on Friday; a hangover, a day kayaking the Tyne, a curry and a night in a cold camping pod on Saturday; a coffee, a tea and a Danish pastry for pre-race nutrition. Because, you know, I'm one of those finely tuned Adventure Racer athlete types, obviously.

One of the small positives, though: I got my kit selection about right. Base layer top and tri shorts, bike jersey, gilet and arm warmers. 3/4 tights for the run, swapped for bike shorts for the ride and pulled on my waterproof at transition as well. Just as well I got it right, the weather was bad: intermittent showers and gusty winds on the run; heavier rain, horrible wind and fog on the bike, just to add a frisson of excitement. I was warm enough, but only just - the short enforced stop on the bike leg could have got nasty, but I managed to shelter myself a bit.


Run - http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1243029169

'Run' is probably over-egging it a bit. It was a slow and steady plod. It's only now, plotting it into the computer, that I realise exactly how slow it was. I know I'm lacking in fitness, especially running-wise, but it definitely wasn't pretty. My route was generally okay, but I made a couple of nav cock-ups, missing a stile on the proper, if slightly vague, footpath and contouring on rough ground through some old quarries. Frankly, just a general lack of fitness and speed on foot was the main issue, though. I haven't been out for a run in a good while, so no surprises there.


Bike - http://www.mapmyride.com/workout/1243008357

The bike leg was a bit of a comedy of errors. The first couple of CPs went okay, but as I started the loop up from Ivelet the chain got gritty and I started getting chainsuck. Further up, the chainsuck got bad enough that I snapped the chain, I think breaking the original snaplink. Put in one of the fastest chain repairs of my life, because frankly it was cold, wet and miserable, and sitting still for any length of time got very unpleasant indeed. Carried on upwards but more chainsuck meant I was stuck to keeping the chain in the big ring (24-38 double setup, for the techy geeks out there) to keep tension on the chain, which meant the steeper climbs were a push. Started on the descent, feeling slightly glad I rode the loop clockwise - think the climb would have been a longer drag anticlockwise, but it's debatable -  then had to stop part way down as my left crank had started working loose. Got back down to Ivelet in decent time, stopped just below the road junction to help a gent who'd also snapped his chain and was having trouble getting it sorted, re-tightened my crank again, then headed home as fast as I could go. Got in with just under five minutes to spare, so no penalty points, fortunately.

The later small positives were mainly seeing a few people afterwards, to have a chat and a cuppa, and to catch up with a few old friends. I didn't win anything, to my complete lack of surprise, but had a good natter and some excellent soup and chilli, courtesy of Joe Faulkner and Nav4 Adventure Catering. I'm entered for the full Open5 race series over this winter, one race a month, so I guess this is one down, five to go. I'm left with a lot to work on one way or another, but then again I always knew that would be the case. Onwards and outwards to the next one in North Wales in December!

Pyro

Monday, September 22, 2014

Lakes full of Porage.

Porage has always been a mixed experience for me. First of all it was this mythical, uber-elite invitational event, shrouded in secrecy and wreathed in misinformation and rumour. Then in 2006 I got invited and I became part of its own little world of pain and oddness.

My Porage record is not a good one:
Dundee 2006: Rode with Lesley, awesome day out, big crash, timed out at pub, driven to finish.
Placing: Joint last.
Pennines 2008: Rode solo, physical hell across Bowes Moor, driven between feed stations 1 and 2, awesome descent of High Cup Nick to finish.
Placing: Last.
Strathaven 2010: Rode with Ross, awesome day out, snapped rear mech, driven to finish.
Placing: Last.

Usually, being recurrently last at an event would be a bad thing, but the calibre of riders invited to Porage pretty much means I will always be at or near the bottom of the results, and I've no problem with that - hell, I'm chuffed just to still be getting an invite - but you'll note in that little hat-trick that I'd never managed to cross the line without getting a lift somewhere. And that niggled me. I said at the end of my Strathaven Porage blog "I'll complete the next one", but that was 4 years ago and I'm not in the shape I was then. I'm a touch more 'padded', shall we say.

Being the South Lakes this year it was pretty obvious there were going to be some big old climbs and descents. I'd had a handful of longer rides over the past 6 months - the Jennings Rivers Ride at 38 miles, the Rhinog Raptor Adventure-X at 44, a ride up the Wharfe valley to Dent at 64 - so I was happy enough with another long, slow day in the saddle, and that's probably better prep than I'd had for any other Porage event. Ross and I had chatted about riding together again, since the company definitely helps on these kind of things, though his preparation was marred by his mountain bike wheels getting nicked from his garage a few days before the event. A spare set was donated, and we were back on.

My bike, not Ross's.


We started from Brathay Hall with the usual briefing and Porage Oath, and then a short Score-O leg to split the riders up. I navigated, Ross wrote down the CP answers, and we trotted round in a reasonable mid-pack time, before picking up the bikes and heading out onto the road. Looking at the first stage map it sufficed to say the climbs were going to be brutal and the descents superb, just as we expected. We lost a little time in a humanitarian effort on the first descent, when we came across Roger, Zoe and Ed patching up Beth after a really nasty crash. We helped check her over and then walked with her and Roger out to Skelwith Bridge for a pickup. Onwards through Elterwater on a modified route, to Cathedral Quarry and the first activity: Candle-lit caving. Ross, Roger and I bimbled our way through the tunnels, eventually emerging blinking into daylight, Helen had sorted our maps for us as we stumbled around in the dark, and we set off again, Roger soon dropping the two of us bimbling along at the back.

From there, via Hodge Close, Oxen Fell, Iron Keld into Hawkshead, grinding the climbs and Ross admitted he was suffering. We knew we were on a shortened route, having missed CPs on the first stage and being advised to skip more on this one - an extra loop round High Wray and Claife Heights - but he was talking of withdrawing once we made it to the next manned point at Grizedale, which was a bit disheartening. The climb out of Hawkshead into the woods was a bit of a shocker, and as we started the descent down the North Face trail we kept separating. I thought I'd carry on, ride at my own pace and wait for him at the cafe, at least if he withdrew at that point there was hot food and potentially a lift back to Ambleside. I arrived, grabbed some hot food from the cafe and a much needed cup of tea and waited... and waited... and walked back up the trail... and came back down... and turned on my phone to a text message telling me he'd continued following the TNF Trail arrows beyond the cafe and out further onto the loop. Realising his mistake, he'd started heading back but was running on fumes and going to retire. I didn't see him again from there until the finish, but I hoped he was alright. As it turned out, he eventually got back to the cafe, ate his fill and then limped back to Ambleside along the road.

I lobbed another tea down my neck as the marshals chatted with the organisers by phone and then advised myself, Ed and Zoe of a best-option short route. The main route ran west over to the shores of Coniston Water before looping back East to Newby Bridge and Fell Foot. Riders a bit ahead of us were taking a more direct route to Newby Bridge, but even then, at our pace we'd still be at the back once we got there. After a chat I headed off on the best 'get you back in amongst it' route, due East from Grizedale over a rocky, horrible push of a climb, onto forest road and then a sweet, technical descent to Esthwaite, then tarmac through Near and Far Sawrey and down to the Windermere ferry. A short wait, another cup of tea, followed by a bottle of water and the realisation that I'm craving tea because I'm really quite dehydrated. Ed and Zoe arrive behind me just as the ferry lands. Over the other side, we chaingang along the main road south and then a short sharp shock climb up to Ghyll Head and the next challenge: Archery! I managed to hit the board with 5 out of 6 arrows, and scored a faintly respectable score, troughed down some flapjack, and got on the go again. A few people came and went since we were back in the middle of the pack coming up from Fell Foot, and it was nice to have a chat as they arrived/passed me again, since I was now ostensibly solo again.

A lot of up and down

The next leg across to Staveley started well, a gentle climb up the road and then off across a grassy trail and gravel track  towards Crook, when the wheels (at least metaphorically) started to fall off. I was deliberately skipping one checkpoint to avoid a nasty descent and climb, but the gradual grind that replaced it, along the main road from Mitchelland to Crook itself, cooked me. I stopped in a driveway and ratched through my bag, marvelling at the amount of food I'd brought but not eaten, and set about eating a good chunk of it, contemplating an inglorious departure from the event at the next manned point. I always have these lows on events, and more often than not they're nutrition related, but riding on my own doesn't help. I ate a while longer, set off for more wobbly pottering, and then had a quick stop to take a photo of a llama, for humour value more than anything else. Some of my favourite adventures have featured llama in the cast list somewhere. I don't know why.

I eventually made it through to Staveley and was greeted at the CP with "Would you like water, soup, or a beer?" All of the above please, in that order. A couple of glasses of water first, a cup of lovely lentil soup, some more food out of my drop bag since it was there (cold pizza!), and then settled in to a bottle of Cumberland Ale. I was all set to withdraw from the event here, and pulled on my arm warmers and gilet to help keep warm while I was waiting, while others came and went on what turned out to be quite a long foot orienteering section.I realised that, because of the short cuts I'd taken, even suffering as I had been, I was still in the middle of the pack. I could set off on a short route home and could still make it back in a reasonable time and, hopefully, state. The last part of the ride was the bridleway descent through Skelghyll Woods and Jenkin Crag, which is a bit of a classic, and once I found that out it was sort of essential to keep going.

I won't say that the cloud lifted and I suddenly became a riding god again (as if i ever was in the first place), but I kitted up and headed out again, just wanting to get home and enjoy the finish. I aimed for what looked like the easiest straight line home, along the cycleway out of Staveley and then up the road through Mislet, over the Trout Beck and up to Town End, to the old Post Office, then West towards High Skelghyll and stopped to take a quick photo of the sunset over Windermere. Standing on the hill, looking down over the lake, glad I'd ridden on, eagerly anticipating the ride back - a million mental miles from how I'd felt at Crook. Just the way these things go.

Sunset over Windermere

I'd picked my headlight battery up at Staveley and was glad of it as the trail turned downwards and dropped into the woods. Past a couple of surprised walkers coming up the path, lights on and adjusted and trying to pick out a decent line through the multitude of cracked bedrock lumps. A crash at this point would have been painful, awkward and embarrassing, but wanting to rail the last descent as quickly as possible meant balancing speed and caution. I often went for the side of speed and just tried to spot lines that seemed less likely to end up with me being ejected over my own handlebars, and silently thanked whoever convinced me that 29” wheels were a good idea. Spat out onto tarmac at last, with a massive grin on my face, I trucked through the streets of Ambleside headed for Clappersgate and Brathay. Andy, the third place 'full course' finisher, appeared behind me as I got to Brathay's driveway so I tried to keep pace with him up to the bunkhouse and what turned out to be one final challenge: the Pamper Pole. Simply harness up, climb a ladder and then staples up a 20-odd foot telegraph pole, step up from the last staples onto the top of it - like that's a simple act of balancing when you've been riding for 10 hours and have a bad case of the disco legs -  turn round 180° and then jump off. Yes, that's right, jump off. Aim to touch the big inflatable ball that's hanging level with you, but 10 feet away.

Like the whole day, a bit of a leap of faith. I'm glad to say I made it, on both counts. I finished my first Porage with no external mechanical assistance. I'd short coursed a lot, I admit, but had still taken in a fairly epic 70km of riding, plus the orienteering, caving and archery. A lot of up and down, physically and mentally, but a great day out and one I’m really glad I managed to finish.

A big thank you to Paul, Helen, Sally and Ant for organising, and to all the helpers and marshals. I’m looking forward to next year now.


As a well done for reading this far, I’ll leave you all with a picture of a llama:



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Remembering how to suffer.

It's an oft-used phrase in road riding, Tour de France commentary etc: "He knows how to suffer". The truth is, everyone knows how to suffer, but a big part of any endurance sport is knowing (or at least learning) how to suffer and yet keep moving; How to accept the suffering and still push forward in spite of it. A skill I think I've possessed at intervals, but perhaps forgotten in the last couple of years. A skill I need to re-learn.

This weekend was one of remembering how to suffer for me. I'm working on getting back in shape, getting some miles back in the legs before Porage in September, getting some weight off and doing myself a few favours. I've built my cyclocross bike up and have been trying to use it more, I've got comfortable with being juddered around on a set of Midge bars, braking from the drops and trying to hang on to my teeth on rough sections. I even took it out for a spin around Llandegla forest's 'True Blue' route on Saturday to shake the legs out and get used to typical man-made trails on it. But Sunday was the real challenge - the Rhinog Raptor Adventure-X event.

The Adventure-X events are a sort of cyclocross sportive, long haul mixed on-/off-road routes designed for 'cross bikes or hardtail MTBs. The Raptor was based out of Coed y Brenin trail centre and had two possible routes, a 62 mile 'Massif' route and a 44 mile 'Mini Massif'. I'd offered to help the organisers (Rather Be Cycling) out with Registration first thing and then have a ride round the 'Mini' as a sweep rider. I'd also seriously underestimated the amount of climbing on route, which, frankly, led nicely to some of the pain I experienced later on. This blog may possibly read like a catalogue of errors, to be honest.

A not-great night's sleep and a 5am start kicked the suffering off nicely. I was on site at the Coed y Brenin centre by half-past and sorting out remaindered signage by quarter-to, and a couple of cereal bars and a coffee served as breakfast (probably Mistake #1). Registration kicked off in a typically laid back fashion and we gradually got people through, sorted and ready for the off, while slowly kitting up and nibbling bits of food ourselves. Just after 9am, Kevin and I rolled down to the start line to get briefed by Chez and set off as the backmarks, he for the Long and I for the Short.

Mistake 2 was probably going out a bit too hard. The first section of the MinorTaur trail is nice, swoopy, Blue-grade singletrack, and easy to push hard and carry a lot of speed through, especially on a CX bike. We cracked along, probably a wee bit quicker than we really should have, out through the early berms and little whoops and drop-offs, enjoying the easy speed, something you don't quite get on 2-inch-plus MTB tyres. Having caught the last two riders, we tucked in behind and settles in for the relatively easy spin down to Dolgellau, chatting away as we bimbled along, punctuated only by one slow puncture on my front tyre (pumped it up and kept going) and one fast puncture for a rider (changed tube quickly and kept going). So far, so funky.

The gentle spinning continued, after I'd taken a couple of minutes at Dolgellau to chat to one of the event medics and change the tube in my front tyre - the slow puncture was getting quicker. A nice spin along the Mawddach Trail, down the river side, and caught up with Kevin and the previously punctured rider sat with yet another puncture. We wandered back to a nearby car park to RV with Gav in one of the support vans to grab a spare tyre, and while waiting and stripping the rear tyre in anticipation we found the issue, a small shard of glass embedded in the casing, which had pushed through as the rider crossed a cattle grid. We managed to scrat it out of the tyre, loaded the spare tyre and tube from Gav into my pack as a backup, tweaked the gents V-brakes for good measure as one was binding, and set off again along the old railway line, towards the sea and the wooden toll bridge at Penmaenpool, across the bridge and a nice roll along to the main road crossing at Pen-y-Bryn.

From here, the pain began. The backroad up to Taicynhaeaf is steep and twisty, and the forestry road above it climbs pretty much endlessly. The next 7km climbed 365m, and my legs ran out of steam trying to wrench a 34-32 low gear up it. The only small mercy was that the track was dry and relatively smooth, so there was less technical thrutching and more sat-down grinding going on. Graham O'Hanlon, an acquaintance from way, way back, was waiting with the event medic at the top marshalling point and we shot the breeze while I stuffed Jelly Babies and electrolyte down my neck to try and recoup some of the energy and salt deficit from the climb. We then powered on, through a wee bit more climb, Graham waiting for me at the summit proper (this became a very much a theme for the day, he's in better shape than me and was on an MTB) and then straight into a fairly raucous 10km of descending.

Another mistake: Maybe the descents were something I hadn't factored into my energy levels. To keep my backside from getting hammered into next week by the saddle, I had to 'hover' over the bike and let it buck around underneath me on the rough sections. I underestimated in a few places how much doing that for a prolonged period takes out of your thighs. I tried to stay loose and not death-grip the bars either, but balancing the available speed with the desire to float over stuff and not pinch flat the 35mm tyres is a skill I'm going to have to get used to, 14+ stone of rider and 'floating' are not things that go together easily, so not only were the climbs beating me up, so were the descents. So much for a 'gentle spin'.

We rolled back into Coed y Brenin, through the underpass from where the old trail centre used to be, the roughest bit of the course so far and too narrow to carry any speed to 'float' over the sharp pointy cobbles. Back into the start/finish/feed station area for water, Jaffa Cakes and Flapjack, a quick natter with Chez to sort out some bits and we were off again. Again, probably a bit too fast along MinorTaur, enjoying the singletrack far too much, and then onto the tarmac and forest road drag up, and up, and up, and up...

If the first major climb was 'endless', I don't know how I'd categorise the second one. There were a few short downs, but the whole thing was mainly up: 8km of pretty much continual climb, average 3% gradient, steepest section at 11% gradient. I ground away on the pedals as much as I could, and occasionally admitted temporary defeat and walked. At which point a blister started developing on my right heel, so when that got too painful I got back on and tried to ride again. A brief stint on tarmac, even a little bit of downhill, and we met up with Gav and the support van, marshalling the point where the two routes crossed each other. I toddled in looking a bit punch-drunk, I suspect, and Gav delivered on his earlier promise of saving me a Breakaway biscuit. In fact, he saved me three. I guess he (rightly) assumed I needed the sugar. I'm not sure whether 'Breakaway' was a cycling-related pun or not.

I was hoping for a gentle cruise from here but it wasn't to be. There was another major climb to be conquered. From the crossing point we got a brief descent and a gentle meander along the upper reaches of the Afon Gain, then turned right and up again, towards the saddle between Foel Boeth and Moel y Feidiog, across the former Trawsfynydd Artillery Range. Signs still tell you to keep off the moors, the National Parks rushed through an exemption to the CROW Act to stop people getting their legs blown off by previously unexploded ordnance. I don't blame them. I fell into an almost military forced march as I trudged my way towards the high point of the ride, pushing more and more as my legs got worse and worse and the gradient cranked up and up. The last kilometre, a nasty little sting in the tail, nearly finished me off. I finally reached the top, Graham far, far ahead of me and waiting. I’d sucked down an energy gel on the way, and it hadn’t helped at all, I was running on fumes. The majority of the remainder was descent and flat, but there were a few climbs left to go, and they weren’t going to be pleasant.


Many, many sections of 'up'.

The descent down through the forestry road was great, again, giving my thighs a malleting, but good to get some distance in with gravity assist. Far too soon we got spat out at the re-join of the two routes and had a quick chat with the guys marshalling there. Down into the valley, over the Mawddach again, and one last major climb, one I’d probably despatch fairly easily if it came earlier in the ride, but yet again, one that had me grovelling. We eventually summited it, soft pedalling onto the forest road above Capel Hermon and into the final stretches. I started sucking down my emergency packets of Haribo to keep me rolling, and just tried to focus on getting to the line. One little descent finally proved my lack of ability to ‘float’ the bike when tired, and I pinch flatted the rear tyre. We stopped, I stripped the wheel off, sat down and could feel my thighs cramping. I was out of electrolyte so I’d just have to suck it up. New tube in the tyre, CO2 inflator applied, back in the frame and we were off again.

I can’t remember much of the last few kilometres. I soft pedalled, walked, plodded, sucked back Haribo and listened to Graham tell me about the history of Coed y Brenin and the stories behind some of the trail names. My responses were probably reduced to grunts. Eventually, the line hove into sight and I used the last bits of a failing reserve to put in a cheeky little burst past Graham. He swore loudly, kicked again and pulled level with me. We crossed the line side by side in formation. I just about fell off my bike, was presented with a finisher’s medal, and went in search of cake.

So much of that story reads like I didn’t enjoy the day; that would be wrong, I had a fantastic day out. The ride route, while brutally hard for me, was as beautiful as it was painful. I’d ridden at Coed y Brenin before, but only ever on the waymarked trails in the forest itself. To escape that, to see amazing sights like the Penmaenpool toll bridge, to climb out of the forest onto the wild moorland of the Artillery Range, to learn a bit about the area history, to catch up on gossip and reminisce with an old acquaintance; all superb moments of a superb day. Yes, I re-learned what suffering on a bike is like, and I feel like I’m still paying for it 3 days later. But I did it in a beautiful place, on a fantastic event, with a lovely group of people. Definitely worth the pain, definitely worth the somewhat arduous drive home, even worth the huge quantity of coffee and junk food I had to shovel down my neck at a motorway services to get me through that drive home. Another relatively big adventure, and a cracking weekend.

Many, many thanks to all of the event crew, especially Chez and Gav for inviting me over and Graham for looking after me!