I've actually struggled to write this blog entry, maybe because I'm pretty much still wrestling with what went on in my own mind and body during the race. But hey, here we go...
A good friend's had a few episodes recently where he's been questioning why we do what we do, and a lot of the stuff I've written in previous entries has been focussed around that: WHY I adventure race, WHY I hurt myself and WHY it makes me what I am. Still, even after the boost to my confidence in surviving Sleepless in the Saddle, I was very very apprehensive coming into Man of Porage last weekend. For those who don't know what Man of Porage is, it's a bit of a cult event in UK AR circles. It's a long bike/run event, ostensibly just for fun, and one for which you cannot buy an entry, you have to be invited. The tales around it's origin are vague and sometimes contradictory but essentially it is this: A bunch of people go for a long ride/run event, from somewhere to somewhere else. There may be some silly activities along the way, usually a little alcohol somewhere, and you end up staying somewhere overnight for food and some more alcohol. There may be some arbitrary prizes, and somewhere there are some trophies, but it's the riding and the laughs that are the important part. This is my third invite and the second time I've taken up the challenge. 2 years ago in Dundee I rode with Lesley, El Sutton and Andrea Nightingale for the majority of the day. I crashed hard, and we got taken off the course before the finish, but I had a fantastic time and vowed I'd go back. Last year I missed out due to a broken bike and a lack of money/fitness/motivation. This year, well...
I'd been debating whether to go for a few weeks. Questioning my own fitness, motivation and skills, I'd tried to come up with some excuses not to go: A training weekend with Nina and Steve would have been a good alternative, lack of money for train fares a possibility also. Basically, I was scared - my last Porage was made great by the company. This year, I feared, I would be on my own for the day, and those are the times when the worst of the gremlins come a-callin'. So, anyway, after seeing Chez and Nic and having a pretty decent ride (albeit with glitches) at Sleepless, I decided it was time to listen to my own advice and cut the bull. I needed to go and do Porage, because I'd be kicking myself if I didn't. I could trudge at my own pace and who cares if I'm last? It wouldn't be the first time and it sure as hell won't be the last!
Come the day, the nerves hadn't gone. Dad drove me over to Nateby and I tried to shut out all the extraneous noise (him included) and focus on the job at hand. After a bit of faff and a brief Porage Prayer (and blessing of the bikes with porage oats) we were off. And up. And up. And up. And I was off the back…
My legs felt rotten, like I was trying this the morning after Sleepless, like there was a dead dog attached to the back of my bike, like someone was sticking hot skewers through into my calves and thighs. And we were still on tarmac! Endless pushing, stopping to check saddle height, drink etc. After what seemed like an hour I reached the map giveout. "If this is to be the theme of the day then I may as well just give up" crossed my mind more than once, but as I made the slow painful ascent to Nine Standards Rigg I knew that I needed to keep pushing myself - every race is about pain, suffering and getting through it on some kind of level, and if I wanted to learn anything then this was something I just had to go through. At the top Nic greeted me, I took a brief photo of the view and the cairns (the Nine Standards) and then slithered off down the descent. It was fun for once, fast in places and soft and boggy in places. The experience of my 2006 crash and breaking my mech at Sleepless meant I had decided on a 'no heroics' tactic: If it looks too steep/boggy/sketchy to ride, it's probably worth pushing, to conserve energy and avoid personal or mechanical failure. Still, it was nice to let rip after such a horrible climb. Saw Jon at the next checkpoint (the bottom of the hill) and then began the agonizing crawl to Tan Hill, the highest pub in Britain. After a stop at the 'rare Cumbrian banana pine' I decided it was time to stop swearing at myself and put on the mp3 player. Honestly, I'm not sure I could have felt any worse at this point - a hell of a long way left to go, and the knowledge that not one step of it would come easily were severely messing with my head, so my usual mix of country, blues and metal were the only way to shut out the little voices saying "You can't do this. Give up; it'd be easy to do. Go on, quit".
Tan Hill was reached, and a 'taste of the area' in the bag - Wensleydale and Gingerbread - and off down the road and onto the gravel to Sleightholme farm - things were looking up as the surface improved, but from the farm over to God's Bridge I was back to the bog. Endless pushing as I struggled to find any kind of rhythm, hopping off for muddy patches and climbs, ankle deep peat washouts and steep only half-existent trail pieces. Dropping to God's Bridge Martin and my Dad were waiting for me, and I waded under the bridge to sign the Porage visitor's book - "Looks like I'm the last then. SO F*CK?! I'm enjoying it. Pyro" - and the truth was, I WAS enjoying it, in a really masochistic way. It was painful, and hard, but I wasn't beaten yet.
The next few hours went the same way. Intermittent pushing, riding, swearing, cranking up the stereo, eating, swearing some more. I got to the first food stop at Gold’s Carr and got shipped a short way by van to the next food stop - I was half an hour behind anyone else (admittedly, closer than I had thought) and wasn't exactly going to make up ground. They ferried me on to get me back into the pack and give me a chance to finish the event at least. Looking at the maps, I was happy of it but hacked off at the same time. Hacked off with myself mainly - how was I so slow?! Why the hell was this ride killing me. I know that Sleepless the week before will have played its part, but was I really just that unfit? Questions and comments that are still bugging me now, nearly a month later.
We got to Cow Green reservoir and I sat at the food stop, eating and trying to get my head together again. Some people arrived and left, headed out on the long loop over Cross Fell. I looked at the short loop map, over High Cup Nick and down to Dufton and questioned whether I could even be bothered with that. Did a quick brake-fettling job for PC while he stuffed his face. Had a few swigs of Newcie Brown and some local fudge. Bruce came in and pulled out, ITB problems ending his race; I gave him an extra jacket and some of my excess food. Scotty John and Andy Simpson came in, and Andy announced he was taking the short; the ride so far had killed him off. Slowly, without even noticing, I'd pulled myself together...
I set off, eventually, back towards Cow Green Dam and onto the trail to High Cup Nick, a fantastic climb up wet grass and rock-slabbed sections. Back into my normal plodding pace, and feeling better that I'd at least decided to keep moving. Along the side of the river I wandered, pushing in places, riding in others. Descending briefly to the Nick itself, I was gobsmacked. I'd seen pictures of this monstrous cleft in the hillside, but to sit at the top of it and stare down the sheer sides was phenomenal. Pausing to munch on a few bits of dried mango and jelly babies I glanced behind me, sure that either Andy or Paul would catch me soon (the first time in the day anyone would have been able to without lapping me!), but no-one appeared. Traversing the edge of the Nick on rocky singletrack was an exercise in caution and balance, carrying away from the edge at times, careening towards it others. And the descent out to Dufton? Just awesome. Top Fuels aren't really designed for seat down, eyeballs out, popping every drop -type descents. Mine coped though (though I have checked the frame over carefully just in case I managed to crack a weld...)
Rolling in to Dufton to absolutely no fanfare at all, I found the YHA and managed to locate Andy and Bruce. The rest of the evening is a bit of a blur - booze, curry, banter, trophies and good fun. A good natter with Chez before she headed off to the Alps for a couple of weeks. Losing my shiny new Nokia phone (which has since been found at Morgan’s house. Yey!). Sleeping like a dead man, then heading back home, first to my folks place then back to Leeds, mind and body utterly numb. Getting in to Leeds I was so sore I couldn't even ride my bike back from the station home - I hopped a train to Headingley station and walked.
As I say, since then I've been wrestling with it, but maybe writing this down will help, it sometimes does. As El said "after that, nothing is ever going to feel that hard again" and maybe she's right. In one way, I've questioned myself a lot. In another, I've got a new found confidence. We'll see which of these takes the upper hand in the not-so-distant future.
Anyway, if you've made it this far, thanks for reading. See you out there sometime.