Saturday, 29 October 2011

Talking with Frogs, the Male Ego and a Beginners Guide to Catching Colds - Dusk 'til Dawn 2011 Race Report

Dusk 'til Dawn is the big local enduro, so I have wanted to do well at this for a long time. It was also my first exposure to long distance racing a few years ago. On a dry and dusty night in 2009, I attempted the race with 2 chums and we had an awesome(ish) time. However, on the final lap, as the sun was rising, my blood sugar levels were crashing in a big way! I was rescued by a very chipper Chris Nightingale of Thetford MTB Racing who "scored" me a Torq bar - Torq bars are generally lovely, but this particular morning, I can assure you that nowhere in England did anyone have a sweeter taste in their mouth than I.

To make a change for an MTB race, I actually got to the venue more than 30 minutes before the start. With an 8PM kick off, I was at High Lodge a clear 6 hours before the start - very unusual for me. It was mainly at the persistence of some Iceni Velo chums you who were doing the mixed pairs, so I thought I would actually sort myself out and get their at a decent time. This gave me plenty of time to tinker with my bike and get in a pre-ride of the course.

During the pre-ride lap, we were passed by a chap I had seen at a few races over the past 6 months - I said "hello mate!" in my usual jovial way, but the response was a kinda "don't speak to me, scum boy" type of "hello". What happened next taught me a good deal about competitiveness and the male ego! Backtracking a little bit, this particular gentleman was at the Thetford Summer Enduro (by far the most fun/dry event of 2011) and he put in a stonking performance - finishing an unmentionable number of laps ahead of me, and even pulled a few laps clear of Mr Pointer - which, to be honest, usually requires either a motorcycle or a special prescription from a certain Dr. Ferrari. A few months later, at the 62 mile feed station on the Kielder 100, I stopped off to get a few supplies and I spotted a rather distinctive bicycle and recognised the owner. I said hi and mentioned the Thetford race - he didn't appear to be on similar form today, and was having his bike cleaned before hitching a ride on the broom wagon! I, on the other hand, was well up for more muddy race action, and said "Right! Time for some more - I am loving it today!" and kept the wheels turning until the finish line. Judging by his response in Thetford, I guess he had checked the results ;) Well...getting back to the pre-ride, I was crusing around with my triathlete chums, who were taking it easy (which kept me in check so I saved my legs for the actual racing - much needed). A few miles down the trail, we came to Tom's Bomb Hole. This tricky WW2 bomb crater had defeated me the previous weekend, and I just couldn't work out how to ride up the sharp, sandy exit, thus resorting to shamefully pushing my bike out. However, on this occasion, I aced the entrance to the crater, and spotted "our friend" loitering on the far side of the hole with his large group of chums, clearly waiting to see if other riders were getting out of the hole or not! Did I feel the pressure?! Competitive, moi?! I managed to carry the full momentum of my descent into the switchback exit of the hole, and absolutely nailed the line out - I don't think Danny Hart  himself could have done it any slicker! As I floated out of the exit, I took a glanced over at our friends, and they all turned away and rode off. Quite possibly the best feeling I have ever had on a mountain bike!

Towards the end of the lap, some light rain started to fall across the forest and we hoped it would bed down some of the dusty trails. It managed to do that, but rudely, it didn't stop there. All week the weather forecasts had said it would be clear - however on the Thursday, weather reports seem to start getting more pessimistic. The rumour was that it would be dry until midnight, then rain for the rest of the race. Sadly, the rain decided to start and about 5 and gradually began to get heavier. Dean had his kids this weekend as Mrs Dean was working, but he was still planning on starting the race 2 hours late, and then trying to beat me - apparently I needed at least a 2 hour head start! I gave Dean a call at 7 to recommend trunks and googles - which he seemed stumped by, due to the distinct lack of rain a few miles up the road in sunny Norwich. With the prospect of 10 hours of drivetrain-rotting mud and general dampness, Dean offered to just pit for me. Which was extremely kind, amazing and gave me extra motivation for the race. Dean was the perfect pitter - excellent mechanical skills, nutritionally wise, a seasoned enduroist and very, very positive.

The word was that the rain was going to really kick in around midnight, so my race strategy was to hit it hard in the first 4 hours whilst the trail was fast, then keep it going at a steady pace for the rest of the race. Having spent the week looking at the dry weather forecast, I was excited about doing a fast, dry race and trying to get in a massive number of laps. Despite a morning of being disappointed that it probably wasn't going to pan out like that, I managed to switch my perspective and realised that if it got nasty, a large percentage of people would just drop out of the race, and I could aim for a decent overall position.

Due to some serious faffing with getting the perfect position for my Exposure Joystick, I found myself towards the back of the start group. Note to self - if you get to a race early, sort your kit out before updating your facebook status! This was not too cool, as I planned on working my way through the traffic in order to avoid bottlenecks at the start of singletrack sections and the bomb holes. On the start line, I found myself next to Team Cycle Aid ally and generally nice chap, Mark Goodman of Weldtite Endurance. Fortunately, the extra start loop meant that we had about 3-4 miles of fire road before we were funnelled into the first section of singletrack. Mark is a very experienced racer, and knows a thing or two about weaving through a bunch - from the off, we were just giving it that little bit of extra power to slide through that pack and get a good position. Within a few minutes, we caught up with my cousin, Johnny V, and our three man group started to get towards the front. By the time we reached the first section of singletrack, everyone around us rode seamlessly into it and kept the pace going - ace! We were amongst friends. The same thing happened with the first and second bomb holes. Having spent the first hour of Kielder stopping and starting because I was stuck behind riders who couldn't ride up switchbacks, I was really pleased to be riding with people who were at a decent skill level and didn't keep stopping. Absolutely no disrespect to such riders who do stop (I was one of them until not that long ago!), but....when you're on a mission, a clear path ahead helps.

Half way around the first lap, Mark had gone on ahead, and I was starting to settle into my rhythm. The rain was still coming down gently, but the course was fine and the first lap rolled around without any problems. Quick bottle stop, and back out for more. I spent most of the second lap riding with Johnny V and we had a small group forming in our slipstream. Another lap, another bottle change. Kept eating the bars and gels. This time, Dean was in the pit area and in good spirits :) Johnny V didn't stop, so I had a quick change, then spent the rest of the lap trying to bridge back to him. Coming into the pits, I saw he was there, so quickly got my stuff together, Dean relubed the chain and we both went off into the night for lap 4. My memory is starting to get rather hazy about anything that happened after this point. I seem to remember yoyoing off the back of Johnny's wheel for part of the lap, and eventually just settled into my own pace and let him go. During the first half of the lap, we joked about riding the rest of the night together and just having a final sprint at the end.

I can't really remember much of what happened for the rest of the evening, other than it rained a lot more, the whole course got very slippery, I blew up on the last 2 laps, I kept chugging along and we loved every single moment. Well, every moment except falling off at the bottom of Tom's bomb hole on the penultimate lap. After I dragged myself out of the hole, I had a few minutes to collect my thoughts, scoff a gel and sip some cold, refreshing water. At this point, I had a good chat with the legendary Tina Potter; it was great to chat to a friend and someone else who was enjoying the adventure.

For the last two laps, Dean insisted I used his Exposure Six Pack and freshly charged Joystick on full chat. I know we are sponsored by Exposure, so not exactly going to say bad things about them, but I was blown away by how utterly awesome their lights were. It felt like I had one of those search lights you see in prison break movies when the wardens are searching for the cons as they scale the perimeter fence. By illuminating the entire fire road, I was able to pick the best lines and felt inspired to go faster. The Six Pack blasted the singletrack sections, and the Joystick filled in the details - kinda like the Simon & Garfunkel of MTB lights ;) We didn't just write to all the light companies and beg them to sponsor us - we hounded Exposure until they gave in! They rock. Exposure are the Aston Martin of mountain bike lights - perfect British engineering. If James Bond ever had to use a mountain bike for one of his missions, Q would whack a Six Pack on his handle bars (he'd probably try to pretend it was some top secret MI6 piece of kit, but we all know he was lying). Apparently, the boys and girls at CERN did some research and they found that light emitted from the Six Pack actually travels faster than the speed of normal light ;) Joking aside, these rock. Follow CycleAid on Facebook and we will be giving away some lights in the next few weeks.

There is no denying that in order to do a 12 hour race, you need to have the legs and lungs to keep going for that duration. But in order to keep "on it" for all that time, you have to have it together mentally. My confidence for the race was high - during the year I had made massive progress with my (previously dodgy) technical riding skills, knew my fitness was pretty good as I finished strong in the Thetford 10 hour enduro and I managed to survive (and enjoy) the wet Kielder 100. 12 hours is a long time to be alone on your bike in the rain, so you might as well enjoy it. My initial goal with Kielder this year was to go sub 10 hours. When the rain started, my goal soon slipped away. I was pretty despondent. Then it hit me - everyone else is hating this just as much as me, and if I stick at it, I am not sure too many else will. That instantly changed my mood, and I started smiling and kept the pedals turning. True enough, out of the 7-800 people who started, and I was one of only 177 people who made it to the end. Same thing happened here - the call of a warm sleeping bag screams loudly over the ambience of the solo tent! However, I was deaf to it - after each lap, I just wanted to refuel and get out. No change of clothes, no "proper food", no blood transfusions - in Tommy Simpson style, just put me back on the bike. And sure enough, one by one, riders started calling it a day (well, night). The first 6 hours had been pretty full on, but by about 4am, the course was decidedly empty, riders didn't seem to want to engage in my incessant nattering and the pit area was pretty much empty. The course was getting more and more slippery, my bike was snaking around and surfing skills would have gone a long way in being able to control the bike. It was nasty. Very nasty. By this point, I was absolutely loving it! The rain was so strong, sightings of frogs became as common as people. My girlfriend has a thing for frogs, so I convinced myself they were messengers sent from her to tell me to keep on it, keep pushing the pedals and do my best! Utter, utter nonsense, but it gave me that edge. In Kielder, Dean had quite a good chat with his son's smurf that was attached to his handle bars! Sounds completely mental, but stuff like that works. If you feeling happy, feeling the love, your legs will keep spinning and you will do your people proud.

My approach seems to be working, as about 200 people signed up in the solo category, and I came 19th.

During the night, a lot of team riders were saying to me "why do it solo?" - if you have to ask, you will never understand!

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