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: