Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On Islands

For reference before I start, the general point of this blog is one particular race trip, and this is a rambling personal missive, not a race report as such. Consider yourself forewarned.

I've had a hectic few weeks, between the 9-to-5 and travelling to races, though that's not unusual. In amongst all of that was a long weekend out in the Western Isles, and I guess this is vaguely a short story about that trip. It's always hard to know where to start these kind of blogs: okay, this is just a blog about a specific event, but the history of that event and my relationship with that event go back a lot further than just the weekend itself. Anyway, I'll add lots of pics to make this a nice photo story and hopefully draw your eyes away from some of the drivel for a second or two...


So, once again, I was honoured to head out to the Outer Hebrides to shoot for organisers Durty Events at The Heb, a two day, 200km Adventure Race up in the Uists and Benbecula. The quick summary of that trip could be "had an awesome time, took some pictures, met some ace people, loved it", but that doesn't even scratch the surface of how I feel about the race and the place, which is more the point of this blog. The race report is up at SleepMonsters anyway - head over there if you want to hear the story of the race itself.

I first travelled to the Outer Hebrides in 1998 having just finished my A-levels, backpacking up the islands for a month with two of my best friends. It wasn't always the easiest trip, physically or mentally, but it's one that's stuck with me for many years and for many reasons. Not long after I got involved in Adventure Racing, met a bunch of people up in Scotland for a training weekend and ended up at the current race's predecessor, the Hebridean Challenge, in 2003. I was again blown away by the place, and made some new friends there who are still very good mates to this day, and mostly still racing in one form or another. One of them, Nonie, roped me in to race at the Hebridean Challenge in 2004 (blogged here - re-reading that now makes me a bit emotional!). I marshalled at it again in '05, raced again with Team Eat Cake in '06, and mixed marshalling, photographing and writing about it for SleepMonsters in '07 and '08, which turned out to be the last race under the Hebridean Challenge banner.


The old race takes some explaining: 750km, 5 days, teams of 5 is the headline figure, but again that doesn't scratch the surface of the logistical complexities. A mix of running, road biking, mountain biking, swimming and kayaking, relay style but with concurrent stages (ie, a run, a bike and a paddle starting and ending at the same points, next stage couldn't leave until all three incoming competitors arrived), bonuses for multiple people doing certain stages, handovers on tarmac only and tweaks like towing bikes/skates/scooters in to distant road-ends for outgoing runners to use boggle the mind. Never mind the logistics of getting five people, four bikes and a sea kayak into a single vehicle and out to the Islands themselves. Anyway, after the last Hebridean Challenge, I missed some intervening years of the Nav4 B2B adventure event, but headed back to the islands in some form or another regularly, evidently caught up in some kind of a minor love affair with the place. Then, some time in 2014 or 2015 I heard rumblings about a new race in the Hebrides. Paul McGreal, who I first met and loosely raced against back in 2004 when he was part of H4 (Hebridean Hash House Harriers), was planning a new race, a long weekend rather than a week, that involved no large vehicles and no additional qualifications: Leave the car at Mallaig, get the ferry out as a foot passenger, get bussed to the start, ride, run and paddle 200km over two days, then get the ferry home again. A great simplification, more accessible and manageable, and yet also a big enough challenge to make the journey worthwhile. The inaugural 'The Heb' race launched in 2016, and Paul very kindly invited me to photograph it. Because of (or maybe in spite of) all of the potted history above, I couldn't possibly refuse.


It's hard to put a finger on what pulls me back up to the Hebrides each year, especially since we rarely get consistently good weather - all three years of the race so far have had one good day and one not-so-good day. When the weather does blow up, there's precious little shelter and precious little respite, especially as a racer out on a bike or on foot - okay, it's a little better for me driving around taking pictures. But the weather adds something else, and that's a sense of community: the racers have to work together to beat it, have to tow each other along the beaches for physical support and huddle together and talk to each other for emotional support. The 'everyone meets up, travels together, camps together, eats together' ethos means people look after each other. Someone this year phrased it as something like "arriving as competitors and leaving as friends", and that's a pretty perfect description. I remember as a racer being told to 'get on the back' and draft a potential podium contender on a bike stage at the old race - I was no threat to his lead and evidently looked like I needed the help. The same happened this year, three podium contenders worked together to help each other out into a brutal headwind down the beaches to Orasaigh, shaking hands and splitting up after the hill CP, having put aside racing each other temporarily for the sake of all of them getting through the stage relatively unscathed.


The other thing that's always appealed about the races up there is the tactical side and the ethos that everyone can do as much or as little as they're able and still feel challenged. I remember Jon Brooke, when he was RD of the Hebridean Challenge, sitting with a novice team and talking them through their plans for day two, after they'd utterly flattened themselves on day one, trying to nail everything and running way, way over time. The same exists in the new race: you can pick your battles and people did, avoiding extra run CPs, avoiding the most technical sections of biking - the Hebridean Way sectors are tricky and slippy in places. Play to your strengths to succeed, and work out in advance (or change on the fly) what your measure of 'success' is: compete or complete. For a minority of people success means first place, everything else is failure. For a handful of others, success is a podium position. For some it's clearing the course. For the majority, just crossing the line is a win. That and working out how to Strip the Willow at the Polochar Inn after the race...


Most of all, though, what I think I love is the landscape. It's hard to describe as to a lot of people it's cold, open, bleak, exposed - especially when the weather is headed south. But that's the same as anywhere, and when the weather is good it's simply stunning. The whole place is wild, weatherbeaten, exposed, as you'd expect for a place bearing the full brunt of the north Atlantic. The Uists are a tricolour: the white beaches - usually deserted - the green strip of inhabited and loosely cultivated land in the middle, the red-purple heather of the hills behind.  Harris and Lewis are a little more muted, higher, rockier, more grey and mountainous, but with brilliant flashes of white beach in between - Seilebost, Riof, Bostadh. It's all bordered by blue, at least on a good day; more grey on a bad one, with that narrow line we call the horizon a very, very long way away. The Heb is subtitled 'race on the edge' and it's true: make a right turn while riding south down the beaches of South Uist and the next land you'd hit would be the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. I've never been there, but I reckon that's probably similarly wild, exposed and windswept.



Anyway, wrapping up this little sermon: If you've never been to the Hebrides, you should go sometime. I can ramble on about the place, but hey, I'm biased. Get a ferry out, see what you think, immerse yourself, be wild and windswept yourself, enjoy the views yourself. Maybe next year's Heb race? If so, I'll see you there. I'll be the slightly weathered looking beardy one with a pair of cameras and a faint grin.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Dirty Reiver

The Dirty Reiver is an event that's been on my radar since its first edition a couple of years ago. A big gravelly day out around Kielder Forest, it's had the kind of reviews that kind of appealed, in a slightly masochistic way, to my sense of humour. That said, I wasn't sure of whether I'd be capable of the 200km it entails - finishing was uncertain, and the weather turned out to be rubbish that year. I held off the first year, and vowed to enter the second.

Cotic X: Ready to roll
2017 came up and in went my entry to the newly announced 'Dirty 130', a two-thirds(ish) version of the Reiver, for those like myself who didn't want to commit to the 200. All well and good, with the late '16/early '17 riding going well until the Kielder Cross, my shakedown and fitness check event: that itself went well enough, but the weeks after were plagued with hip and lower back problems that despite stretching, physio, exercises etc, stopped me getting in any decent training rides from February through until April. With no chance of being able to get the fitness back in time, I emailed in to cancel my entry. No refund available because of the late notice, but the offer of a deferral to 2018 and, yeah, why the hell not. The rest of 2017 got a bit better, and I got a lot of the niggles squared out and dealt with, so as soon as entry for the 2018 Dirty Reiver opened, I emailed in and took up that deferred spot. The 130 seemed like the best option, a long day but maybe more within reach than 200km when it's still fairly early in the season. Winter was rubbish for training, but I've had some better rides and results in the Open5 Series, some good longer rides, especially over Easter, road riding with friends in the Lakes. I was still thinking of the 130km as a challenge (ie. Something where finishing isn't a certainty), as 130km would still be, I think, the longest single off-road ride I've ever done. But, my fitness was about right, my mindset was about right, and I reckoned it would be a good day out on the bike one way or another.

Registration mugshot. Pic: Endura
I took the Friday off work to get everything finalised, though I'd been gradually sorting gear out for a fortnight or more. Mandatory kit was simple but maybe bulky: small first aid kit, waterproof, lights, phone, water and food. A partial frame bag went on the bike that took the essentials and some extra mechanical spares. The weather turned from it's winter coat to beaming sunshine a few days before the event so the 3/4 Roubaix bibs got canned off my kit list and lighter shorts got added on. Feed bag full of sweeties on the top tube, small rucksack with a hydration bladder and a few other bits, saddle bag with tubes and multitool. I packed the camping kit and headed up to Kielder, stopping at Hexham for a cuppa and a sarnie on the way, in glorious sunshine and deep contemplation. I rolled up to Kielder Castle and registered, enjoying the day, the atmosphere and the fact that events like this are a small, strange, interlinked little world. With little else to do except pitch my camp and mooch around the Gravel Expo I got chatting with Andy and Bryan from organisers Focal Events (old acquaintances from the Porage events) and Stephen from 4Play Cycles in Cockermouth (who's worked on Rivers Ride), and then bumped into event photographer Andy H, who's also a Porageer. Word gets around, it seems. The Expo made for a nice little gazeboed village outside the castle, with a few offers and incentives to visit the sponsors and the Nomad Bar teepee to keep us refreshed while we were doing it - local First & Last Brewery supplying the ales. A bit of pottering, tent set up, kit checked and faffed with for the Nth time, a beer or two and it was time for an early bed.

I am not a number...
The alarm went off at 6am and I was already awake, others on the campsite being obviously earlier risers than me. It was a chilly, dewy start to the day, the campsite being pretty well shaded by trees first thing. Kettle on, porridge pot made up, coffee pot brewed and on with the biking gear; bibs and baselayer, knee and arm warmers, jersey, gilet and windproof, picking up helmet, Buff, gloves and glasses from the car as I headed to the Castle to line up. I'd thrown a bit of change in my gilet pocket to try and get another hot drink before the off, but never got the time as I was queuing for the toilets for too long!

With the best part of 1,000 riders to get across a two or three rider width gateway, there was a decent queue starting, even at 7am on the dot for a 7:30 start. Knowing I was in for a steady, conservative day I lined up near the back, chatted to a couple of riders around me and tried to shake some life into cold fingers under thin summer gloves. I hadn't realised yet that this wouldn't be the only time I cursed my gloves that day, but all I wanted here was slightly thicker ones. I started my Garmin as the start was sounded, but it took a good five minutes to make our way to the gate, hence the discrepancy between the Garmin time and my chip time for the day. We rolled out, down the hill from the castle, along the road for a short while before turning into the forest and onto the first gravel climb of the day.

The first 24km loop of the ride put a couple of things into nice positive focus for me. I was spinning away steadily, plodding along as I do, there were no really steep climbs, just long grinds on fairly decent gravel surfaces, and I was making time up on loads of people! Two reasons mainly: 1) so many people were puncturing, on both climbs and descents, and 2) so many groups of riders faff like crazy at the top of a hill. The first I'd seen before, on the Kielder Cross; whether it's wrong tyre pressures, losing comfort by having them too hard, dropping pressure for comfort but then flatting on rougher sections, it seemed to be unending. I was running 40c Nanos, tubeless, at 35-40psi and didn't have an issue all day, so that was a bonus. The amount of faff from some of the groups around me was amazing though, maybe only to those of us who predominantly ride solo, but it was eye-opening. At the top of every climb, there'd be a group of 5, maybe 10, maybe 20 riders pulled up, some eating, some repairing punctures, some drinking, some off weeing in the trees. I to-ed and fro-ed all day with one group of riders, whose club I won't name, who could have been a pile faster than me if they'd stopped less, they certainly always passed me at a good pace, only for me to overtake them again at the top of the next hill.

Mamba country: Miles and miles of bugger all.
The first proper rough descent also vindicated one of my kit decisions. The mandatory list said ‘ability to carry 1.5 litres of water’ so I’d opted for one 750ml bottle and a litre reservoir in my pack. As the trail turned downwards and the surface went south with it, the potential for loss increased exponentially. The first instance especially, but all of the more technical descent sections were littered with ejected bottles, dropped food, bounced bananas and slipped energy gels. One section of trail even appeared to have sprouted several wild Pepperami plants...

I managed to keep hold of all my food and stuck with my gameplan to eat something small every half hour. We dropped out of the forest towards the first cutoff point, at Cranecleugh outdoor centre at 24km, and I glanced at the clock to see how far up on the cutoff times I was - over an hour, as it turned out. No problems, just another climb back into the forest, steady away, spinning the cranks. The roll over to the first Feed Station at 60km was more of the same: Long climb, steady flat, rolling descent, warm air, bright sun. Eat. Drink. Be relatively cheerful if not totally merry. We soon dropped out of the woods for a short tarmac out-and-back to the Feed Station, the marshal at the junction wielding a guitar and serenading us with a bit of Tom Petty as we went past - a burst of Free Fallin’ that raised a smile or two. The musical philosophy continued at the feed stop itself, with The Beatles ‘Within You and Without You’ filling the air serenely as I and a few others stretched tight legs and aching backs on the grass, refilled bottles, munched on some lovely Lemon Drizzle cake and chatted. I ditched the gilet and the arm warmers as the temperature was getting up quite nicely, from 4°c at the start up to 20°c there at Stonehaugh. The knee warmers stayed on - I’d had a couple of niggles with my left knee in the run-up to the event, and the coverage was more psychological than anything. I was an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff here, the only one that would really impact the 130km riders, and feeling pretty damn good, so after a quick word with both Stephen the mechanic and Sarah - another events regular - I was off again.

Decend! Pic: Stephen Smith @steph3nsmith
The rollout from the feed was pleasant tarmac, and a bit shaded, so nice to clip along at a decent rate. We turned right and the gradient rose gradually, with the whole kilometre of climb visible ahead. The young lady on the mountain bike next to me told me being able to see the whole climb was making her want to cry, which seemed a little odd. As before, nothing was steep, just long and steady, and I distanced her a little as she stopped at one point, hopefully not to actually have a cry. She passed me again somewhere along the way, in good form, but had a bit of hesitation when we made it to the ford and I rolled past her again while she deliberated walking or riding. I rode through, staying left as the marshal suggested, and crossed absolutely fine. To be honest, it was nice to cool my feet down in the river a bit, in hindsight I should have taken a minute and splashed in full body. I’d still have been dry within minutes.

From the next high point came the next longer, rougher descent. Myself and another gent on a gravel bike dropped in at the same time, me having great fun on slightly bigger tubeless tyres, him admitting he was running sealant-filled Slime tubes and they'd worked so far. Chat got interrupted by some of the roughest sections, and I passed the marshal and photographer at the bottom of the hill looking somewhat, shall we say, focussed. As you can see from the pic, my apparently standard angry race face was out in force - thanks Stephen for capturing that one. Truth is, my hands were taking a beating, and my gloves weren't helping. Whether they'd stretched and slipped, whether something was loose, I don't know, but whatever part of the bars I used, I was starting to get hot spots between my thumbs and my index fingers, probably right on the edge of the glove padding. That positioning meant they were sore when I was riding on the hoods and just as bad when I was down on the drops and braking. Just what you need on the rough stuff.

We caught another pair of riders at the bottom of the hill, two friends who'd ridden last year's 130 and were on for the 200 this time out, both on shiny titanium gravel bikes but both taking the mickey out of each others budgetary choices - there's a bit of cost variation between a Salsa Ti Fargo and a Sonder Ti Camino (The former costs pretty much double the latter, for those not in the know), but both looked great and their owners seemed happy with them. The four of us rolled on on the tarmac and farm lanes, passed a happy marshal telling us it was only 5km to the next feed station. We all wondered if he was lying, but it turned out not, and the only thing between us and the 96km feed stop was one more gradual tarmac rise. Hmmm.

Feed station 2: Bliss.
I'm not going to say the wheels came off at this point, but I started feeling lightheaded. I'd been eating regularly, so it wasn't that, but with the heat I suspected I hadn't been drinking enough, despite the bottle-and-reservoir plan. I finished the bottle off, took a long pull from the reservoir, and remounted to plod on, knowing I could get some respite and rehydrate in a couple of kilometres, not realising that the mercury had hit 27°c - I just knew it was damn warm and I was feeling it! Fortunately, the feed stop was at the bottom of a rolling descent, and I pulled in, dropped the bike and went straight for the water butts. I'd brought both Tailwind powder (energy drink) and Zero (electrolyte) tablets with me, so I made my mind up to have a full bottle of electrolyte before I left the feed stop. That didn't take long, so I had a second just in case, then refilled with Tailwind for the last 30km. We'd been able to leave a drop bag to pick up here, and I'd stashed a couple of samosas in mine, the spicy savoury making a nice change from the sweet stuff I'd been munching all day. I ditched my baselayer into my pack, likewise my knee warmers. Feeling a chunk better having thrown some liquid down, I pulled on my mp3 player as well and churned off out of camp.

Passport control at the top of Kershope Burn
The next hour and a half was pretty painful. Firstly, the steeper rise out of the feed station and a couple of shorter ramps, though a bit of the Afro Celt Sound System in my ears kept me tapping along with a decent steady rhythm. Secondly the next descent, on rough forest road, newly and badly patched, with the gloves chafing my hands to the point where I stopped, threw them in my pockets and rode bare-handed to try and ease them a little. Dropping out into sunlight from a dense block of woodland, I saw the U-turn point that marked the start of the Border climb - 7.5km up the Kershope Burn with 200m of continuous, gradual ascent. I'd heard about this, though I'd never ridden it before. I trotted on, though the surface was just rough enough to make settling into a rhythm nigh-on impossible. A handful of riders to-ed and fro-ed with each other all the way along, each pausing to eat, drink, wee, have a quiet word with ourselves etc. Half an hour of true grind later the border crossing appeared, the picnic table, bridge and signs that mark the boundary between Newcastleton and Kielder forests. I stopped, dismounted, took a couple of pictures and stuck my head and hands in the stream. The valley was sheltered and windless, but like a moderate, rough, lumpy oven to ride up. I wasn't the only one suffering a bit though, so after a short break four of us left the temporary idyll and crossed the bridge to head for home.

"130k Finisher". That's the important part.
 There was a cruel jab first though, one more short rise, probably the steepest thing we'd ridden all day. Well, I say 'ridden'. The guy at the front of our little bunch stopped to walk up it and the other three decided that that was a convenient enough excuse to do the same. At the top, we remounted and realised it was down down down from here. An arms race began, who could get up into the big ring and get cranking first, and we all did. Shooting down towards Akenshawburn there was a short gravelly rise, a group of us pedalling furiously, determined not to get off. We were greeted at the top by two figures: Bananaman and a Chicken. Hmmm...

This was the 200/130km split point, and these two unsavoury characters were our encouragement. Dropping to 130km? Chicken. Heading out for the big kahuna? Hero, have a banana. I chuckled, grinned, high-fived the chicken and spun off towards home, spirits lifted by a bit of daftness. Down Akenshaw Burn and into Lewisburn, back towards the arced Lewisburn Bridge and onto the Lakeside way, relishing the down and the flat. Soon, we were alongside the lake and the Bakethin Weir track, then the North Tyne and definitely homeward bound. An unfamiliar section appeared, and I realise we were headed across the road past Butteryhaugh and the next pop out onto tarmac would mean the final short climb to the castle and the finish. I'd passed a couple of riders on the trail, and myself and two others were in a short, fast train headed for home. We hit the tarmac, and turned right and left, with a good number of spectators near the Anglers Arms and lining the grass up the hill, cheering us and everyone else in. The other two stood up to climb, I stayed sat, upped my cadence and passed them both, slightly to my surprise. A sharp right turn at the top and into the driveway, past the timing point to stop the clock at 8:21:21. I turned and clapped the other two in, gratefully accepted my finisher's beer, badge and Tunnocks Teacake and slumped off into the grass to have a nice long sit down in the shade.

They had beer and pies. Win.
The hard work done - and well under the 10hrs I'd been preparing myself for - the rest of the evening was a laugh. I loped back to the campsite after a veggie chilli and a cuppa, and decided to go chill my legs in the river, since I hadn't at the ford. 15mins of sitting and splashing and I felt pretty invigorated. I grabbed a shower, got changed, chugged another bottle of electrolyte and wandered back up to the castle to cheer riders in and grab a drink. The guys at the Nomad Bar were pulling the pints of Reiver ale, and it seemed rude not to. A couple of those, a couple of rhubarb and ginger G&Ts and a good chinwag and I was a slightly tipsy but very happy individual. I chatted with the Focal Events team for a while, grabbed a steak pie to try and soak some of the gin up. Andy H and I made a rough plan to meet down at the Anglers Arms once him and his mate had eaten, and I sauntered down around 9pm to grab a pint and sit outside. By 9:15pm I was halfway down that pint and also half asleep in it, so decided I'd finish it and go put my head down, and catch up with Andy another time. Turns out, they'd both dozed off after dinner as well, so both sides missed each other! I turned in for the night and slept like a log, save for the half hour listening to the drumming of the rain, the crash of thunder and watching the bright flashy lightning going off directly over my tent at about 2am. Interesting way to cap a long day off, definitely...

Nearly the end of me, certainly the end of the day.
All in all, I'm really chuffed with the day and with the ride. The course was excellent, the atmosphere fantastic, a brilliant venue and a cracking event all round. I'm really happy with how I went, like I said, 1:40 quicker than I was preparing for and with genuine potential to have gone a bit quicker - not necessarily riding wise, but I could have reduced the stops, especially at FS2. Admittedly, the time-out and forcing liquids down was very necessary, so I'm not beating myself up about that. My Garmin download shows 7:38 riding time out of 8:27 total, so 50 minutes stopped of which nearly 30 was that feed station: That's okay with me. My legs held up, my knee held up, I've got bruised hands and a sore backside, but you know what, that's all good. I've been laid the challenge of "200 next year or we’ll press gang you onto the team" from one of the Focal crew, so who knows. I'm still not sure whether I'd last the 200, but I can certainly say I enjoyed the 130, and hey, there's a year to think about it either way...

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Misadventure Racing - Open5 Grassington

So, for once in the whole ‘Misadventure Racing’ topic, I’m going to start with a massive bunch of positives about how the latest Open5 race went, as barring a couple of things I’m fairly happy with my performance.

Firstly, I felt way better than I have in any of the races so far. Obviously conditions help, it was a really pleasant day and stayed dry, but evidently my fitness is also bit closer to where it should be as well.
Secondly, my score was my 3rd highest ever at 385, behind a 430 at Broughton way back in 2006 and a 415 in the snow at Blanchland in 2016.
Thirdly, I nailed my second longest bike leg on an Open5 - 44km behind the 50km I did at Todmorden in 2016 - and my 3rd longest run. The latter is maybe more significant, because in both of the higher distances (Muker and Slaidburn, 15/16 series) I ran first rather than biked first.

All really good stuff. Unfortunately, those positives are tempered by a few issues:
Firstly, my CPs score was 445, but I ended up with -60 in penalty points for being 17 minutes late in.
Secondly, I made a big navigational error on the bike that probably cost me half an hour - you see why that 17 minutes is an annoyance?!
Thirdly, I could have lost more time on the run. I thought I’d made a big nav error in the woods, but looking at the GPS track after I actually wasn’t a million miles off where I planned, and I was always moving in the right direction. I just wasn’t 100% sure where I was at the time.

So, as a very quick TL;DR summary for the short of concentration, before I get into the play-by-play:
I had a damn good day, and while I’m annoyed about the mistakes, they’re something to learn from for next year.

Right, now for the long, involved, boring bit! Pull up a coffee...

Marking up at the start. Pic: James Kirby
The last race of the ‘17-18 Open5 Series ran from Grassington, which was lovely for me since it’s only about an hour from home, I didn’t need to book a Youth Hostel for the night before, and it’s an area I know a bit of from various kayaking and biking adventures over the years.

I pitched up for 8am after an early start and a decent breakfast, headed up to Registration to sign in and grab a coffee and a chat with Joe again. Looking at the map I'd guessed the area for the biking fairly well - Mastiles Lane at one end, Burnsall at the other. A few tracks on the board that I'd ridden, a few that I hadn't, but a couple of decent looking loops to get stuck into. I nabbed Ian Furlong's highlighter (note to self: add one of those to the kit, it makes spotting bridleways - like the one you missed last time! - so much easier...) and scribbled a bit, planned a couple of things, and headed back to the car to kit up and get started.

Bike: 44.10km / 740m ascent / 3:38:37
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2610268800

I started early and set off on the bike as usual. A first loop north from base, getting nicely warmed up climbing through town and up the road to pick up an easy CP and loop east across the old lead mines and down a lovely bridleway and track down the Hebden Beck valley. A few riders I saw taking this loop the other way had definitely picked the short straw, it was much easier (and more fun...) to descend the rough stuff than climb it!

Dropping onto the road again in Hebden itself, into a back lane behind the church for another CP and then down a very muddy, rubbly, smelly lane out to the road again. There were probably marginally faster routes for that leg, I'll admit. Down the road towards the footbridge and stepping stones below Hebden - which we were forbidden to cross! I was expecting the bloke with the 3 questions out of Monty Python - turning left and heading towards Hartlington for another CP, then over the bridge at Burnsall, hitching on behind a couple of road bikers and getting a little bit of a tow up to the bridleway entrance down to the footbridge again. The nice policeman pulling out of the little layby at the entrance waved me in ahead of him, I hopped off and walked with my bike down the steep slippy steps, punched in and watched a certain male pair walking back across the bridge (stuck behind a woman with a pushchair) having obviously dropped their bikes at the north side and walked across. As Mark Chryssanthou pulled up just behind me, I pointed it out and we had a quick chat about how that should be deducted from their score, as the map plainly said "Do not cross the river", not just "Don't take your bike across the river".

Smiling for once! Must be early, I'm clean... Pic: James Kirby
Anyway, away from that grumbling, up a muddy, grassy bank with Mark C and Ian Furlong alongside, both moving faster than me. Across a couple of fields and out onto the road, taking a slightly longer route rather than a short steep shock, out-and-back to CP12 and down the singletrack bridleway through CP13 and down to road, into Linton and over the gravel track to CP10. I'd been debating this loop with myself a bit, and with 20/20 hindsight I should have been more confident and gone 13, 12, 20, 10, 7. Playing it probably a bit too conservative, I opted to drop 20 when, realistically, I was going quite well and should have gone for it.

After a quick stint along the road and onto the gravel track to 7, the decent day I'd been having came unglued and I made a massive nav error. My plan was to go from 7 to 5, up on a road/bridleway crossing up on Malham Moor - see illustration. I had two route choices, with little distance difference, maybe 500m, but a difference in the gradients. The slightly shorter road route descended away from CP7 to climb again very steeply whereas the off-road route climbed gradually along it’s distance. If the surface was as I expected it to be, decent 4x4 shooters access track, I didn't think there'd be a massive time loss by taking the longer off-road route. Mark Cryssanthou arrived at the same time as me again (I'm assuming he'd been further than I had!) and again, a quick chat about route choice. He opted to take the road, I decided to take the off road route, fixed it in my mind, set off from the CP, and promptly took the wrong track…

Spot the non-deliberate mistake...
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see where I went wrong: the track I took is marked just as a footpath - pink dots - but on the ground is another decent 4x4 track. I took it because I was looking for a track, not just a path, which I guess I expected to be just to be pedestrian-sized, not vehicle-sized. Looking closer at the map, the track I should have been on left the CP to the right, with a left-hand bend to turn it in the direction I was expecting to go. Evidently I should have just been paying more attention, which is probably the story of my life. It cost me 20-30 mins at least, which is a huge pain given how well I was going. It also added about 5km to my ride, which I probably could have done without, saving my legs for the run a bit might have been nice.

I turned it around a bit on the return leg, having re-arranged the order of some CPs during my little navigational embarrassment to pick up CP3 at the top of Mastiles Lane first, then dropped down the road to 5 then across the grassy bridleway to 6 - or at least where 6 should have been. I arrived to another racer searching the area and looking puzzled, no SI box to punch in on: Description said it should be on the fingerpost; definitely not on the fingerpost. I wasn’t in the mood to hang around so told him I’d vouch for him being in the right place if he’d reciprocate, swapped rider numbers, and headed off down the track at pace, only to spot the SI box on a completely different junction half a km down the lane. Very strange, but I checked the ID and punched in anyway After that it was across Conistone bridge, where we put on for trips down the Wharfe with the Canoe Club, and down the back road to pick up one more CP before the dash back to transition

Run: 8.99km / 171m ascent / 1:35:15
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2610283707

Lack of running time/fitness is still making the run harder than it should be for me, but for once the run was a good one. I was in and out of transition in a decent time - 2:51, including raising a couple of protests/comments with one of the transition staff (the misplaced CP6 and the naughty pair on the footbridge). 15th overall for that leg, and at least I'd remembered my running shoes this time so there was something to actually do in transition! I grabbed a chocolate waffle from the transition bag and shoved it down my neck as I jogged out of the car park, sucked the last of the water out of my reservoir and trotted off.

Navigationally complex? Just a little bit.
The run route looked good, a chance to pull in a few more CPs than I've hit normally, in a decent sub-10km loop. An easy start down Sedber Lane to the bridge at Linton Falls, dodging tourists and walkers gawping at a section I've kayaked many times - it looked in good condition as well! - to the little stone bridge and the first CP. Two more CPs alonge the riverside past Ghaistrall's Strid and up towards Grass Wood. I had a bit of an internal battle going on, knowing my lack of run fitness but not wanting to trot home on the road with 40mins remaining, so decided to go for the wooded loop. The wood was a maze of small paths, some mapped and some not, so it was always going to end up complex. I hit both 36 and 33 spot on, despite a modicum of confusion, and opted to ditch 35 (just on the edge of the illustration) in favour of turning home via 31 and 27. Simple tracks running to the marked crossing point, then hit some smaller paths running the way I wanted to go, and then it all got a bit sticky. The series of question marks are to indicate that this was the way I went, but I'm not sure how the hell I did it...

I never saw the wall that route assumes I crossed, just after the marked crossing point. I popped out into an unmarked clearing with a couple of major cairns, also unmarked, so sighted off Grassington bridge, took a rough bearing and continued. Bushwhacking between a couple of rows of rock outcrops, I eventually spotted a wall below me, the bottom edge of the Bastow Wood enclosure, and followed an unmapped track parallel to it, popping out at the gate right on top of 31, utterly by chance. Serendipitous, but likely slower than I could have been if I'd gone to 35 and used the bigger paths and top wall as handrails. Again 20/20 hindsight and probably a lack of confidence in my running.

I knew I was running late by that point, so the final stretch across the fields to 27 and then down through town to the finish was done as quick as I could manage. Okay, not that quick overall, but more continuous pace that I'd had hacking through the woods. Punched in in 1:35, putting me 17mins over. I know I could have avoided that on the bike, so the slower section of the run would have been fine. With a bit more confidence in myself, I could have taken an extra two CPs for an additional 45 points as well: That's annoying, but something to learn from.

Queueing for Nav4 chilli, coffee and cake! Pic: James Kirby
At the end of it all I ended up 28th out of 38 male solo racers on the day, and 21st in the series, out of 26 that completed at least 2 races, 80 that completed 1 or more. Without the penalties I'd have been 15th place on the day, plus 2 places higher in the series standings, which would have been a major results, but you know, some times s**t happens. In spite of the penalty points, I'd class these as my best bike and run legs of the season, and while I'm disappointed in myself for the mistakes, I'm also very heartened by the work I put in and the distances I covered.

Big thanks as always have to go to James Thurlow and the team at Open Adventure for putting on 3 fantastic races for the winter series, to the planners of each of the events, to the marshals for looking out for us and to NAV4 Adventure Catering for caffeinating and feeding us. This was an awesome way to cap off a brilliant series.

I'm off to clean and dismantle the race bike, since I'm building a new one for next year. Well done to anyone who made it this far!

Cheers all

Pyro

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Misadventure Racing - Open5 Edale

I might have to go with a Friends-esque episode subtitle for this particular blog entry.
Unfortunately, that subtitle would have to be "The one with loads of Rookie Errors."


There are some races you relish and reminisce about, and there are some you just have to chalk up to experience and try and learn from: Edale was one of the latter. Some good bits, don't get me wrong, and no issues that weren't entirely of my own making. Not the worst score I've ever had on an Open5 event either, I think. But too many little things wrong..

I hadn't had the best of preparations for this one, not that that's an excuse. Not enough time on my bike over winter, and while I'd tried to do a bit more running after the December race, tearing my left calf just before New Year put paid to that. The weather's been awful, the motivation has been low, the pizza shop is oh-so-handy, all the usual cobblers. I'm carrying a few extra pounds, I know. I'm working on it...

First I drink the coffee, then I do the stuff. (Pic: James Kirby)
Being awful at mornings, I did the customary thing of booking into the nearest YHA for the night before the event. Edale hostel was plenty handy but very full, so a relaxing evening was spent reading a book and drinking a beer on my tod in the quiet entrance/boot room bit of the annex block. Got an early night but didn't sleep particularly well, though not due to a snorer in the room this time round. Early start, up at 6:45 just after another racer in the same dorm room had got up - I was awake anyway, and there was no way I was getting back to sleep before my 7am alarm anyway. Headed to the kitchen to put the coffee pot on admire the inches of snow that had fallen overnight while prepping breakfast. The sun was coming up, the snow was still coming down at varying rates, so it seemed like an idea to head down to Registration to have another coffee and a chat with Nav4 Joe on catering duty again. The usual confusion of trying to do some rough route-setting while still not quite with it, then back to the car to get kitted up and discover...

Rookie Error #1: When packing the car for a biking and running event, it helps to remember to pack your running shoes.

It wasn't just the running shoes, really: I'd neglected to load the drybag rucksack which is my normal transition bag. That tends to contain a small paktowl, spare gloves, spare buff, spare warm layer and bit of extra food as well as the trail shoes. Everything bar spare shoes I had in the car, including another dry bag, so that lot got made up into a transition bag. The shoes part was a worry though, even though I knew the run would be the smaller part of the day. The end solution was to ditch my normal stiff carbon-soled MTB race shoes for the pair of Specialized Cadets I fortuitously also had in the car - a more trainer-like, less stiff shoe that I only normally use for casual bimbling and commuting. They wouldn't be great across muddy fields on the run, but they'd be better than the race shoe for as and when I ended up pushing the bike as well.

Off early for once! (Pic: James Kirby)
That terrible decision dealt with, I got myself kitted up - not excessive numbers of layers given the conditions, but enough. Come 8:55am I was ready and ahead of my own schedule, ending up being one of the first to roll up at the start. I knew my time of trail-breaking wouldn't last for long as there'd be plenty of faster people starting behind me, but it was a novel situation to be in, as I rolled across the start line at 9:03am (by Jim's watch as the big race clock was on the fritz...)



Bike: 33.34km / 765m ascent / 3:54:24
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2492396344

I started off pretty well. The first couple of CPs were an easy spin along the tarmac, and both being high points they were a no-brainer. After that it was a split decision, whether to dogleg back along the road and commit to the climb up-and-over to the end of Ladybower reservoir or to stay on the road  and low in the valley. I opted to risk the climb and it was well worth it. The wind was behind me, which made it an easier go, and the snow abated briefly. James Kirby, the regular Open 5 Event Photographer (whose fine images adorn this blog regularly) appeared, so there's actually a shot of me on the hill for this race, unlike Coniston. A grin and a greeting exchanged, onwards and upwards. One easy CP on a gate at Jaggers Clough and then a second climb where the wind made itself known, glasses back on as scoured snow whipped into my face and stung. A few drifts to trap your wheels if you weren't paying attention, a few comedy offs, but soon into the shelter of the forest and a steep, nasty rocky descent to the reservoir that mainly ended up being a walk. On a social ride on a good dry day in summer I might have ridden a good chunk of it, but not on a cold snowy day during a race, discretion over valour and all that jazz.

First climb, wind at my back (Pic: James Kirby)
Down by the reservoir it was beautifully sheltered, and I think I got lulled into a false sense of security. A fast spin along the shoreline track, picking up another CP opposite the Ladybower Viaduct, then past the dam - the sinkhole roaring with overflow water - and down into Thornhill on tarmac, with a short zig-zag down and back to pick up another 15 points. Gentle road climb into Aston, chasing down the guy on the fat bike whose tyre prints I'd seen in the snow up on the top, and then turning south and across the main road into Bradwell and a short steep climb up to CP15 at the road end. A quick look at the map, slightly fuzzy through the melted snow and spray on the mapboard, down the road and start turn left onto the climb towards...

Rookie Error #2: Look at the map. Look at the map again. Really, really, look at the map. Seriously...

I'd half discounted CP10, or decided I'd climb up the road the south side of Hope Quarry and drop down to it before climbing back up to CP7. That seemed better than dropping back down almost to Hope village, going a decent way out of the way and descending further only to have to climb back up. What I'd failed to spot on the map was the neat, almost contouring bridleway through the woodlands at the east side of the quarry and into Pin Dale, which would have taken me nicely past CP10 on the way to CP7: no dog-leg out-and-back required. I don't know whether I'd missed it entirely,  or half spotted it and discounted the pink dashed line as a footpath, but I obviously hadn't clocked it as a far better route choice than the one I ended up taking. Steeper - the same height gain total but all in a shorter distance on the climb out of Pin Dale - but considering how my actual route went probably little difference in time and one extra CP to be gained. Ho hum.

Wintery hill, teeth gritted (Pic: James Kirby)
The climb was a slog, no two ways about it. A couple of inches of compacted snow, plus low-ish profile rear tyre, plus headwind, plus gradient meant off the bike and push. Not an issue in itself - I'd been vaguely proven right about the shoes - but slow going. A few attempts to remount and ride were fairly abortive, I'd get on, get clipped in, get a few yards and have to unclip and step off again: It was less faffy just to push. I got up to a decent point where the gradient eased a little and hopped back on, feeling better for some opportunity to actually ride for the first time in a while. The road was still covered in compacted snow, but was surprisingly ridable when the wind was playing nice. A few hard gusts and a few ruts meant a foot down intermittently, and while it was hard going into the direct headwind, it wasn't as bad as the climb - at least I was pedalling rather than pushing. As I started to curve northwards the block-headwind became a side-headwind, and started causing more problems, pushing me towards the hedges and ruts I was trying to avoid.

Just as I was resettling myself after a near-off, I'm jolted by a furious revving and honking behind me. I hadn't heard a car, and thought that any driver with any sense and anything other than a 4x4 would have stayed down in the valleys, but no, there's some numpty in a relatively sporty looking rear wheel drive Lexus slithering his way up behind me. I won't say I dived out of the way, but I did make sure I was well clear as he slid past, revving furiously to keep momentum up. He disappeared off around the curve, though I got the last laugh when I came across him 10min later, trying to dig himself out of a three foot deep snowdrift. "I've got winter tyres on, I thought it would be alright!" he moaned. I gave him a brief hand trying to push the car out while his partner sat in the driver's seat, but it was going nowhere and I wasn't exactly kitted up to stand around in the snow for too long, I needed to keep moving.

I made it to the junction of the tracks, opted not to drop down to CP10, the climb had taken me far too long, even without the RAC-stop. I met up with a few people making their way up from Pin Dale and turned back into the headwind toward CP7, fighting through the wind, trying to avoid the ruts, trying not to get blown off the bike again. Starting to feel a little the worse for wear and lashed by spindrift, I pulled my glasses back on and a Buff up onto my face to get some protection. Finally slogging over to Oxlow House and the top of Winnats Pass, I'd given up any thought of dropping down the broken road so hauled myself up to Windy Knoll and the notch at the end of Mam Tor. Looking on the map, there was one CP I could get on the way back...

Rookie Error #3: When you're handed the control descriptions at the start, cross out ALL the 'No Control' CPs.
And also...
Rookie Error #4: If you haven't done this, don't lose your control descriptions sheet on the hill.

I joyfully, wearily, hauled my backside up to the notch, and pulled over where the bridleway leaves the road, down to CP5. Checked my control descriptions - oh no, hang on. They're not in their usual location, in the mesh side pocket of my feed bag. They must have blown out or been dropped somewhere on the hill. No matter, I'll drop down to the CP, do a very quick check, and if I can't see it within 30 seconds, that's it. Get the hell out of Dodge.

The first 30 yards of the bridleway was ridable, the rest would have been more suited to a luge track, quite fittingly. Sliding ever downwards with the bike, laughing quietly at how idiotic this 'Dubious Mountain Judgement' was, to paraphrase Mr Faulkner. Slipping and sliding, I made it down to the junction of the bridleways and headed right through to the stream crossing where, utterly predictably, I couldn't see a CP unit. I searched around for a moment, but the utter lack of other tyre tracks didn't inspire any confidence, so I binned it and rode back as quickly as I could. I made it to transition in a shade under 4hrs, knackered and annoyed with myself. While I hadn't yet realised my error around CP10, I was annoyed I'd wasted time on the 'No Control' CP5 when I could have been back a good 10mins quicker if I'd just come down the road from Mam Tor. 'Fuming' didn't cover it

Anyhow, at least the lack of a change of shoes meant my transition was fairly swift, sub 2 mins, probably the only thing I took a Top 20 time for that day (16th overall in 1:54, apparently!). The lovely transition staff handed me a replacement set of descriptions, and I headed out the gate again with roughly an hour available for a short shuffle.

Run: 6.55km / 58m ascent / 1:08:39
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2492399807 

The run route was pretty nice for me, despite the discomfort of running in biking shoes. The planner had very nicely located five CPs within a 1.5km radius of the Start/Finish area, so that gave a nice looking 6km-ish run with 120 points available.

First one was easy, just down the road from the transition. Trotting up the lane towards Ollerbrook Booth, chatting with another solo who had loads of time to spare having started well behind me. Perhaps I should have moved a bit faster and chatted less, but we got to the CP and turned left again back towards Edale. I should have paid more attention again, but I was starting to flag after the hard work on the bike, and missed a turning onto a slightly shorter footpath option, ending up going further north to emerge by The Old Nag's Head and Cooper's Cafe. Pulling myself together, I stopped myself from shuffling off down the Pennine Way and turned onto the right footpath, slithering my way acros s sodden fields south-eastwards to pick up another CP near Shaw Wood, then on to Barber Booth and a fourth on a footbridge over a the river but under a railway. One more CP to go and I could go home, but I was flagging badly...

Rookie Error #5: Even if you're blowing hard on the bike, remember to eat and drink. It helps keep you moving.

I'm told I look this p***ed off 60% of the time. (Pic: James Kirby)
I knew that was what had gone wrong. Thinking back, I should have been eating and drinking more as I was pushing up the hill out of Bradwell, but I hadn't, and I was starting to pay for it. I threw one of my 'emergency' gels down my neck and washed it down with the last of the Tailwind in my bottle, and trudged across yet another muddy field, munching down a cereal bar to try and render myself human, if only briefly. Strangely, when I'm having a bit of a low, I invariably feel too hot, so the skullcap came off, the gloves came off, jacket and gilet unzipped as I punched in at the last of my loop CPs and contemplated the return route. Continuing on the field-edge footpaths east then north down a bridleway was ever-so-slightly shorter, but I was slipping and sliding enough. retracing my steps to the road and trudging home on tarmac was maybe a little further, but flatter and likely to be easier. I turned tail and headed for the road, climbing the last stile and heading for home, alternating a jog-walk to try and hold pace but also avoid damaging my calf any more. The cleat bolts in the shoe sole made their presence felt more on the tarmac, but I trundled on regardless.

I'd love to say I put in a glory sprint, but I'd be lying. I jogged up and dibbed in, pretty well spent. I'd run slightly over time, a touch over 7mins, so took 16 penalty points to drop my score from 340 to 324. Again, that's not my worst score, but I could have realistically had another CP in there and no penalties if I'd not made the Rookie Errors. We all live and learn, though, and there's one more race in the series to try and correct a few of those, at Grassington in the Dales in March.

Until then!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Misadventure Racing - Open5 Coniston

As you may have noticed from the lack of 'Misadventure Racing' blogs last year, I managed absolutely none of the Open5 races in the 2016-17 series. Unfortunately, every race clashed with something else I was booked up for and couldn't reschedule - annoying, but such is life sometimes. To try and avoid the same happening again this year, my series entry went in as soon as they opened for '17-18! I know full well that  I need something other than just kayaking to keep me motivated and out over the winter, so three races (one every other month) should definitely help. Handily, this season's races are all fairly easy for me to get to as well - Lakes, Peaks and Dales are all within a couple of hours drive so relatively close.

Coniston was first up this year, and I was looking forward to it despite having had a very odd summer season. Early on I'd been in fairly good shape, getting in plenty of time on the bike at least, with bigger cross/gravel rides at the Kielder Cross in Feb and while working on Peaks Pioneer in May, two good days of mixed-surface touring on the Sandstone Way in April, a road century on Ride to the Sun in June, then good fun sportive rides of 30 and 70 miles on Cycle the Solway in July and York 100 in August. After that, unfortunately, it went physically downhill. September and October were very booked up with event work - all good fun events, but not as much physical work as I might have liked - November with kayaking and  social weekends (though I did get a decent gravel loop in while in the Peaks) and then... oh look. First race of the season, too late to get any extra training in. Here we go again...

To keep me honest and give me some extra motivation/competition/abuse, Steve H - occasional team-mate, some time support crew and general partner in outdoors crime - had entered the series as a Solo as well, so we shared transport, drove up and kipped at Holly How YHA to be able to get a decent night's sleep and not have such an early start from Leeds. The 'decent night's sleep' part of that got kiboshed by an extremely loud snorer in the dorm unfortunately, but we got the not-so-early start and a decent breakfast, and race base was then just a short trot down the road at John Ruskin school. Registered, coffee'd, planned and chatted with caterer extraordinaire Nav4 Joe, The Heb (and other things) director Paul and a whole host of others,  it was time to get going.


Bike: 33.62km / 844m ascent / 3:37:51 
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2374464423

Pre-race deliberation - Steve and I  (pic: James Kirby)
I opted to bike first as usual, and headed out just behind Steve who opted to run first. I'd eyed up a loop that crossed a load of trails we rode in a past Man of Porage event, so I at least had some prior knowledge (albeit in reverse for a few of the sections). Roughly, looping north from Coniston via Hodge Close quarry and Little Langdale over to Elterwater, then back via Skelwith Bridge, Iron Keld and Hawkshead Hill, all went pretty well. I've rebuilt my Scandal 29er hardtail to race on and in general it rode really well despite a decent amount of ice on the ground. A couple of slips since I'm running a very much summer/dry conditions Crossmark on the rear, but in general pretty damn good. I could have maybe saved a little time by taking a slightly different CP order early on - removing a loop and picking up one of the CPs on the way back to transition wouldn't have made much difference in terms of distance would have avoided some climbing. Otherwise the only real notable mistake/regret was my route from CP 11 to CP10 - a steep narrow singletrack that turned out to be sheet ice in more than a few places. Pretty much unrideable as a climb, a pain in the backside to push up in carbon soled MTB shoes, but with no easier/more viable access without a lot of extra mileage, I took 23 minutes on a 1200m leg, the shortest of my route. With 20/20 hindsight, it may have been better to skip that and give myself more leeway on the run. At least from there I had a fairly simple and clear run back to Coniston for the changeover.





Run: 8.52 km / 102m ascent / 1:15:03 
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2374467879

No pics of me on the hill, so have a pic of just the hill  (pic: James Kirby)
Back at transition in around about 3:40 - a little longer than intended but in the right ballpark - and time to sort myself out for the run. I was through transition pretty quickly, a shade over 5 minutes, just time for a couple of shots of coffee from the tiny flask I'd filled before the start, a change of shoes, ditching the gloves and the helmet and having a quick pore over the map and descriptions. Again, I'd half made my mind up about a route before the start, but had to change a little since two of the closest checkpoints turned out to be dummies. I set off south along the lake shore path, picking up three CPs and keeping an eye on the time. The intention was to get those then loop west and climb up from Little Arrow to get one or two CPs near the old quarries, but the little bit of time overage (and a lack of running fitness on my part) meant the high CPs would have to wait and I was in for a 3km dash back along the main road. I beat myself up a bit, thinking I was going to be over and incur penalty points, which it's been one of my main aims to avoid. I pushed myself steadily along the road, cursing my legs, my back, my lack of training, my lack of fitness (etc etc) with increasing regularity, and dibbed in to finish still thinking I'd gone over the 5 hours. Steve arrived home not long behind me, having gone hard on the bike and very nearly blown, knowing he was over by about 10mins as he'd tracked the whole lot as one on his Suunto watch. I'd split mine across bike computer and watch so wasn't 100% sure. On the negatives side, I need to do more running over the winter, just to get the time in the legs so I don't feel quite so lousy. On the positives side, the new Saucony Peregrines were bang on for the conditions (grippy enough for the loose wet bits but with enough cushioning on the hardpacked frozen stuff) and it looks like I actually plodded a fairly-respectable-for-me distance at a fairly-respectable-for-me pace. With greater time in the legs hopefully the pace might increase a little and the levels of cursing might decrease...


Anyway. A quick change into warm dry clothes and in to download and grab soup and chilli from Joe, and it turned out I'd got back in 4:58:12, so just inside time. 325 points all told, not my highest ever but a solid enough score for me. As I've said up above, a few things I know I need to work on, but this was a pretty good check of where the fitness is right now - not brilliant, but not completely appalling either!. February's the next race on the calendar down in Edale, plus I've a couple of other event entries in the calendar for March and April as well as the final Open5 in the Dales. There will always be more to do, but at least this has been a solid start to the winter season.

Until next time!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Kielder Cross Challenge

The Misadventure Racing blogs are set to look a bit different this year. I'd planned to do the Open5 series again, since I felt like I'd enjoyed them and made a bit of progress last year, but unfortunately for me they've all clashed with other events. I'd been roughly planning to start trying some of the Gravel Rides, so decided to get some entries in to motivate myself over the winter. Come the first one, it had half worked - I had some fitness, if not as much as maybe I'd have liked, but I think that's always the case.

The Kielder Cross Challenge came up as an early-season possibility. 40km night ride, 60km day ride, based out of Hawkhirst Scout Camp on the side of Kielder Water. I stuck an entry in fairly early, got accommodation and meals reserved, so all that was left was  to get fit and sorted. That was all going reasonably well until an enforced fortnight off courtesy of a gig, a fall and a somewhat damaged shoulder, so after a couple of gentle weeks, one 'test' spin to see if the shoulder would hold up, I was on my way North once again. I landed at Hawkhirst around 3;30pm, got myself signed in, and sorted the accommodation - I was camping, so pitched my tent in the trees not far from the centre - and had a brew. Gradually, more riders started arriving, and soon enough it was 6pm and time for the off.


Saturday - Night Ride: 41.65km, 412m climb - 2:12:41
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1582134723

I did a bit of a silly. Well, I did a couple of sillies, to be honest. The first one was not switching my Garmin on before I actually rolled over the starting line, so the GPS trace starts part way out onto the course. The second one was that I got overexcited at smooth gravel trail and other people on cross bikes and went off a little bit too hard.

The Lakeside Way was a great bit of trail for a fast lap, undulating with lots of places where it was easy to carry speed. The only disadvantage of doing it at night was trying to brake in advance of the few dicey hairpins - I nearly lost it on a corner at least once, but generally managed to keep a rhythm and keep things upright. There were a few confusing points, a couple where maybe there could/should have been an extra bit of waymarking, but the route was generally really good. I'd set myself the target of remembering to eat every half hour, since I regularly forget to eat at all on events. I stuck to that, but cocked up in a couple of places and lost a lot of momentum stuffing food into face with my right hand when I also needed that hand to change gear on a climb! I still didn't drink enough, and had slight cramps late on - only carried one bottle, no drinks bladder, and didn't finish that one bottle. Things to work on, as always! On the plus side, I never felt like I was wanting for more lumens from my lighting - Exposure Equinox on the bars, with a small Support Cell to give a longer burn time if I needed it, and a Mk9 Joystick on my helmet

Night Rider (pic by Stephen Wilson / www.granddayoutphotography.co.uk)
With the start being in small windows rather than en-mass, I'd deliberately started as early as possible to give myself as much leeway as possible if I was slow, so ended up back not long after 8pm. That worked nicely as I had an evening meal booked at the Scout Camp, so I crammed down soup, pasta & meatballs, garlic bread, cake, and a couple of large cups of tea, then rinsed the bike and hit the hay early, tucked up in my sleeping bag. I read for a little while, but was soon dozing off and out like a light.


Sunday - Day Ride: 61.40km, 1056m climb - 5:02:30
https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1582134807

I was up at 7am having slept really well. Breakfast, again at the centre, wasn't being served until 8, so I fired the stove up and made myself a pot of coffee to sip at while I sorted myself and the bike out again. Extra food packed - sticking with the same doctrine of eating every half hour. Hydration bladder filled and packed - learning from Saturday! Most comfy bike shorts on - that one's a no brainer. Soon enough breakfast time came, and while I wouldn't normally go for a cooked breakfast before a ride, I knew I'd probably need it. I'd said to myself all night that I was going to take Sunday conservatively, knowing I'd gone too hard on the night ride and would probably end up paying for it, so a bit of extra food and a bit of extra kit seemed like a good plan.

As I was back as the car getting everything finalised, my Dad rolled up, having driven over from home to say hello and to go for a ride round the Lakeside Way himself. I was hoping to see him again while I was out on course but never did. He'd been out for 3:30-ish and was knackered when he got back so headed off to Kielder Castle for food and a brew. Still, not bad at all for a man in his 70s!

Speed Trap (pic by Stephen Wilson / www.granddayoutphotography.co.uk)
Our route was a lot less straightforward than Saturday had been. More climb, some singletrack, one horrible boggy hike-a-bike up and more or less hike-a-bike back down, and (naturally) the longest, highest climb in the last 10km. I stuck to my game plan, spun steadily as much as I could, carried speed where I could, ate and drank on schedule on the move. I had a few short stops, pausing to stretch out a sore lower back at different intervals. Not sure whether that's saddle position, ride position or just core strength, but it came under 'irritating' rather than 'debilitating', so I carried on regardless. There were some really nice sections and moments, descents that ranged from 'fast and fun' to 'slow and sketchy', seeing sculptures and artworks in daylight that I'd totally missed the night before. Another nice thing was that every rider, MTB or CX, faster or slower, that passed alongside said hi at least. Especially nice was riding in some company on the last long fire road drag to the highest point, having a bit of chat with another rider on the way, helping to break up the monotony of the gravel drag. While he dropped me before the summit, I took my own break there to grab food and also (very geekily) to grab a shot of the Trig Pillar that sat 20 yards off the forest road. The last descent was all forest road and shorter than I would have liked for the time I'd been climbing! After that there was a fast spin along the tarmac, reeling in the two riders ahead of me just before the turn back into Hawkhirst, and down the access road to cross the line in just over 5hrs. Better than the 6hrs I'd prepped for and set off anticipating, so I can't complain. And hey, I bagged another Trig. These little things make my day.

Robin's Hut (pic by Pyro)
Trig! (pic by Pyro)
On the whole, a great weekend. Small negatives: poor pacing on Saturday, niggly back on Sunday, but nothing insurmountable. Big positives: better feed strategy, fitness a touch better than I thought it might have been, and my bike worked really well. No gearing issues, though squeally brakes need a tweak or fresh pads, I'm not sure which (if they didn't need new pads before Sunday, they almost certainly do now! I'm still tweaking my saddle position, which might alleviate the back pain a bit. Oh, and after seeing a dozen or so CX riders dealing with flats, I'm happy to say that having gone tubeless seems to have paid off. Hunt 4Season Gravel Disc wheels set up with 40c WTB Nanos worked well for me, the tyres sealed easily and held up nicely. They seemed to roll fast enough on the harder stuff and there was only one point (the clay-slick flat at the top of the aforementioned hike-a-bike) where I felt like I was wanting for grip, but since even a fat bike rider said they'd struggled there, maybe I'm not alone. I've longer and harder plans for later in the year, but this has been a pretty good start to the season and a pretty good indicator of where I am and what I need to do from here.

Many thanks to High Terrain Events for a brilliant couple of days out, Hawkhirst Scout Adventure Centre for accommodation and food, and Grand Day Out Photography for the two shots above.