Tuesday, 30 August 2016

British National Marathon Championships 2016

2009 was the last time Wales hosted the National Marathon Championships. On that day, as I rolled across the line to be greeted by my wife I told her, “Never, ever let me do that again”. She forgot! Seven years later and back in Wales, another epic day of suffering awaited. Amazingly the day would prove to be a considerably tougher challenge than the 10hrs of the alpine Grand Raid the week before.

I had returned from Switzerland to stories of a heatwave and drought effecting the UK. In fact it wasn’t until the shape of the Severn crossing loomed on the horizon that grey clouds closed in, and as I drove into the Brecon mountains the rain began to fall.

Llandovery was the base for the Marathon Champs this year. The race starting with a 7km neutralised road section out to the course proper. The 60 or so riders were gridded and then followed the commissaire cars out of town. As soon as we hit the trails it was slippery and muddy. The kind of slick surface over solid rock foundations that provides zero grip. What only a few days previously had undoubtedly been fast flowing dry dusty singletrack, was now a sodden sticky mess. Through the gloop jutted the Welsh rock, ready to throw the bike off line into an unrecoverable slide.
Within a couple of miles riders and bikes were totally coated in mud, all apart from our shoes that is, which had been cleaned by the stream crossing, the water level swollen by the rain. Our shoes were soon needed as the course turned upwards and we were all scrabbling for grip. No hope of riding the incline in these conditions.
In fact there was a reasonable amount of walking to be done. Not only were some of the climbs steep and traction limited, but also the descents were dangerously slippery. Having passed buckled wheels and bloodied bodies, I decided discretion was often the better part of valour!
It very soon became apparent to me that the day wasn’t going to be about racing, but pure survival. Sections of the course seemed to run along streams, the surface of the path hidden under flowing water. There was also the unrelenting change in gradient, the course constantly climbing up and back down again. The miles seemed to tick away painfully slowly.
The course consisted of two 40km loops of 1500m climbing. From 20km onwards I really began to doubt I would even start the second lap. Conditions were appalling, and the repetitive sapping climbs really meant there was no respite. The final grassy climb of the lap was especially challenging. I had been riding for 3hrs and the thought of making myself do it all again was a really tough ask. I still hadn’t decided if I was going to pack it in or continue as I approached the arch marking the end of the lap. More importantly it marked the opportunity to take the road back into town and end the suffering. If the sun hadn’t come out I probably would have called it a day.
I didn’t and continued on at a slow plod. Conditions improved slightly in the sunshine and at least I was able to commit to some of the descents I had walked previously. Many of the climbs had been churned by dozens of wheels so were just as impassable. On the second lap I didn’t see another rider for almost an hour at one point. When I did we met each other like old friends, congratulating each other on our stupidity and sharing tales of woe. Both of us were suffering visibility problems due to the mud in our eyes (glasses were pointless as they became coated in moments.)
After 6 hours and 30 minutes of riding we had a little tussle up the final climb, my one bit of racing for the day! I crossed the line 20th, but just reaching the line was reward enough on a day like this.
For the second time in 3 weeks I finished behind the winner Ben Thomas, who reclaimed his National title for 2016. This time my wife wasn’t there, but it will definitely be NEVER AGAIN!  

Monday, 22 August 2016

Grand Raid 2016

The Grand Raid is a mountain bike endurance race in the classic mould. Big mountains and epic scenery. 2016 was the 27th edition of this 125km event which runs across the Swiss alps from Verbier to Grimentz.

Scruntineering sticker means your good to go!
The Raid has been on my radar for several years and I decided early in the year to make the event my main focus for 2016. Training had gone well,  primarily based on weekend 4 to 5 hour rides. My confidence over longer periods of time was slightly plagued with doubt, given some nutrition related stomach and fatigue issues. As we drove from the airport at Geneva into the alps I was also reminded of the massive scale of the mountains, that no amount of training in the UK can prepare you for.

That 27 years of experience shows, as the Grand Raid is very slickly organised. I rolled down into Verbier from our rental chalet at 11am on Friday the day before the race. The main street was already closed and the postal building had been converted for registration and bike scrutineering. I collected my number board and then watched nervously as two mechanics ran through their checks on my bike, before fitting the sticker that confirmed I was ready to race!

Saturday started early with a 5.15 alarm call. The street lights were still on, the sun well below the mountains, as I rolled down to the start. If you are gridded, as I was, you can literally roll up a minute before the start and climb into the 'elites' pen at the head of the 600 strong field. If not you'll have to fight for your place among the masses. Unless you are genuinely racing, starting at the front does however have its disadvantages. Firstly there is the temptation to race off with the leaders, and when you have successfully resisted that urge, there is the knock in confidence you get as, what feels like every mountain biker in Switzerland, floods past you on the first climb.

Talking of the first climb, there is no warm up. It is straight up the high street through Verbier and onto the wide gravel road that leads to the cable car station at the top of the mountain. I rode most of the climb with my friend Ian, nervously chatting and pacing each other for the long day ahead. At the top there is a rare section of level gradient. I grabbed a wheel and took a tow as a chain of riders snaked across the mountain side before the first descent.

Again mainly on wide gravel roads we wove our way down at break neck speed. This early in the race you needed eyes in the back of your head to avoid those nutters coming through from behind, while passing the more tentative riders ahead.

What follows are mere undulations compared with what was to come, but as the route winds around Nendaz and through to Veysonnaz there is plenty of climbing and fun fast descents. The vast majority of this on wide maintained paths and tracks. As you race through various villages each junction is taped, every road closed, or the riders are given priority. Locals line the route, tables and chairs set out as they make a day of it. The next proper drag is up to 2000m at Les Collons, this climb uses slightly less major forest tracks and finishes with about a mile of really sweet wooded singletrack. I also enjoyed the descent down from here, whooping with excitement! It is still terrifyingly fast, but with much more varied terrain and some slightly more technical sections to mix it up.

At this point on the route map there are only two climbs remaining, but you are still barely half distance. I had been racing for 4 hours 30 minutes with still 6 hours ahead of me! Much of the pre-race conversation had been about the forecast of heavy rain, which even provoked the race organisers to confirm the event would go ahead via Facebook and email. We'd been lucky so far but a heavy shower hit as I left the feed station at Heremence, so I pulled on my rain jacket. Many around me didn't and as we began the long tarmac ascent the rain eased and despite persistent drizzle I had to stop again to remove the jacket to ensure I didn't overheat.
I briefly donned my rain jacket.

I found the feed stations well stocked, with a variety of fruit, energy bars, and drinks on offer. I stuck to bananas and water to which I added my own SIS tablets. Many rode with just a single bottle and although I probably could have coped I ensured I filled up both my large and standard bidon at each stop. I also carried a top tube bag containing 6 SIS Go bars and 2 gels. On an event like this, in order to prevent problems, I preferred to use something I knew my body was familiar with.

The climb went on for what felt like forever! It was all on tarmac up to the next feed stop, before it set off across the top of the mountain. This section was tough. Damp rutted and rocky, I had to shoulder the bike several times and although it was actually going downhill much of the time, I made slow progress. To add to the physiological battle, the inflatable arch at Pas de Lona was visible on the horizon. Not only was it clearly much higher than my current location, it was also the other side of a very, very deep valley.

All that hard fought altitude had to be surrendered, and by now the descent was hard work for a weary body and mind. At least in the valley it was noticeably warmer and had stopped raining. There was quite a crowd down here and another feed station to boost the moral before it was back to the climbing. Up and up, we rode in silence. We'd slowly pass one another staring blankly at the track ahead, each rider in their own world of suffering and pain. I knew there was a 'hike a bike' section up to the pass and I began to long for it to arrive just for some variety - how wrong I was. Eventually after over an hour, I cleared the tree line and the summit came into view. My god it looked a long way off! I could make out riders like ants creeping up to the inflatable arch we had seen earlier.
The epic scenery of the Grand Raid
The walking started much earlier than I had expected and I was almost immediately wishing I could get back on the bike. Pedalling a constant rhythm was what I had trained for, carrying a bike over a mountain in carbon soled race shoes was pure agony. The gradient became so steep that several times I struggled to maintain my balance and stop myself falling back down the scree slope. I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that it was the only way to end the suffering, there was no alternative now. I stopped looking up as that was far too depressing and concentrated on tiny steps. Although well above 2500m the sweat literally poured off my nose and chin. People had gathered up here to support the riders. They waved flags, rang cow bells and shouted, "Bravo Ben," but I didn't and couldn't look up to acknowledge them.

The summit of the Pas de Lona after 2hrs climbing
The track was loose and it was hard to get a good purchase. Then I felt the gradient lessen. I raised my head in time for a photographer to take my picture. I had reached the arch. The relief was immeasurable! Stiff limbed I climbed back aboard the bike and charged off down the other side. It was rough and challenging so even this didn't come as a relief. I'd studied the profile and knew there was another kick up before the final descent, but it had looked like an insignificant lump sitting at home on the sofa. Nothing is insignificant at 2800m and rounding the corner to see the snow lined hairpin path high above, with riders scattered along it, was a bitter pill to swallow. At least it was better than walking!
Happy to cross the line in Grimentz!

At last I crested the final climb, but the bottom of the valley wasn't even visible. What lay ahead was 40 minutes of punishing descending, on challenging rocky and loose terrain with steep gradients. I splashed through one of the stream crossings and looking up I could eventually see Grimentz below. That really lifted the spirits as I tore down the mountain side scattering rocks and dust in my wake. I crossed the line in 10hrs and 32 minutes.

The views and the scenery had been amazing. This race takes you to places you'd never normally visit as a tourist. Farming hamlets high on the mountain, that looked unchanged for hundreds of years. The simple breathtaking scale of the Alps hits you when you find yourself in such remote locations. It was without doubt the best day I have ever spent on a bike. Incredibly challenging physically but beautifully brutal!
Family congratulations!

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Brighton Big Dog 2016

The Brighton Big Dog is an event with its own unique 'cool' vibe. Stanmer park provides the ampitheatre, in which the DJ blasts tunes to the assembled masses, as they swarm around the trade tents. The sunshine attracted a large crowd this year to cheer on the riders. These included some big names in the world of British mountain biking, inlcuding Ben Thomas the UK National Champ.

With only 7 days until the Grand Raid I wanted to use the Big Dog as my final tuning ride before packing the bike for the flight to Switzerland. This made the day a slightly weird experience. Instead of jostling to the front of the huge field of starters I intentionally went to the back. This meant my first lap was paced by those around me without the temptation to chase the leaders. 

The brutal course was designed by Ian Leitch a multiple Big Dog winner. Rather than the repetitive up / down nature of recent years, there were long leg burning climbs which rewarded in terms of some gloriously sweet singletrack decents. Two climbs in particular challenged the power in your legs. To demonstrate the effort riders were putting in, on one lap I passed 3 riders repairing chains on the same steep section of chalk.

The first few hours passed relatively uneventfully. I gradually caught and passed solo riders, while the pairs and team riders kept surging by. I was trying to take it easy, enjoy the ride and not pay much attention to my position. This became especially hard on the 7th lap when two riders I knew were in my category came past as I spun up a climb. It was hard but I resisted the overwelming urge to stick to their rear wheel and carried on at my own pace. 

I finished my 8th lap with 44minutes of the 6 hours remaining. Just about time for one more lap, I was feeling fine so decided to let myself off the leash! My final lap was my fastest! 

I finished 10th, exactly as I did last year. This has given me a lot of optimism as I rode well within myself whereas last year I truly gave it my all. I've also woken up today not feeling too sore, and completed a gentle recovery ride so I am optimistic that I haven't taken too much out of myself ahead of next week.

Race Stats:
  • Position : 10th
  • Race Time : 5hrs 54min
  • Distance : 60 miles
  • Winner : The other Ben! National Champion - Ben Thomas

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

New kit from Owayo!

Came home to find an exciting parcel from clothing firm Owayo. My new kit has arrived just in time for a summer of racing. Thanks to my sponsors McMurdo Group and Ranger PLB. Look for the M!

I can't recommend the service from Owayo enough. This is the second time I've used the company and both times with excellent results. The website allows you to design your own jersey by applying logos, images and text to a range of standard templates. They answered all my emails promptly and provided really clear and concise approval images. Despite only ordering a single jersey I still felt my custom was fully valued by Owayo. The jersey quality itself is very good and my previous shirt has shown good durability, still looking fresh after more than 4 years of heavy use.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Grand Raid race numbers have been assigned!

With just over a week and a half to go race numbers have been allocated for the Grand Raid! I want to hear them all cheering “Come on number 85!!”

Over 600 riders will be on the line in Verbier with more than a 1000 more joining us at the alternative start points along the route.

Good to see 25 riders from Britain, including some familiar names!

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Last training ride

Today was my last weekend training ride before 3 busy weeks of back to back races.

13th August - Brighton Big Dog
20th August - Grand Raid: Verbier Switzerland
28th August - British National Marathon Championships: Llandovery Wales

It was an early and slightly eerie 7am start in the drizzle and mist. After two more punctures in the opening miles I continue to worry about my tyre choice for the upcoming races, especially the rear tyre. More concerning, I hit the wall following our coffee stop 4 hours in. Key lesson learnt - don't eat a large slice of cake and a banana in the middle of a ride!

Ride stats:
  • 5 hours 20 minutes
  • 58.5 miles
  • 1400m vertical ascent

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Fast Find Ranger PLB

I’ve been given a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) by McMurdo for my trip to the Alps in a few weeks. Here is the low down on this pocket sized life saver.

The beacon provides access to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite constellation which has been attributed to saving over 37,000 lives since its inception in 1982. When activated the PLB obtains its global position using GPS. It then transmits the co-ordinates via the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites to mission control, who inform the local search and rescue co-ordination centre. All within a couple of minutes. Follow this link to read of some of the many rescues.

The real benefit of this service is when you are out in the wilds or off shore, far from mobile phone signal. A PLB will work ANYWHERE in the world and if you have the misfortune to need it, the service is free of charge once you have bought the beacon. The Ranger PLB retails for around £175 to £200.
The handheld beacon itself is a stocky, rugged little fella. Weighing about 160g and measuring 36x50x112mm. It is an easy to locate bright orange with a tough rubberised case to protect against the expected bangs and knocks it might receive in a backpack or pocket.
Once activated it’ll operate for 24hours, although you could extend this by periodically turning the beacon on and off. The battery is not user changeable so you will need to contact a service centre for a replacement approximately every 6 years.

To operate the beacon:

Caution! This is a single operation device and intended only for use when your life is in critical danger. False activations are extremely expensive as every activation must be taken seriously. You might be held accountable for this cost, and you could be taking resource away from a real emergency.
  1. Flip up the red handle at the top of the PLB.
  2. Pull sharply on the handle to remove the cover. This will break the fixing point so the cover cannot be replaced. (A single spare cover is provided in the box just in case you get curious.)
  3. In my experience the metal blade antenna will probably deploy when the cover is removed. If not ensure it is unwrapped from the beacon and extended to its full height.
  4. Press the 'ON' button.
  5. Ensure that the beacon has a clear view of the sky. It needs to be able to see the satellites orbiting overhead to obtain its position and transmit a distress message. If possible avoid wooded areas, cliffs and deep valleys or ravines. If you are injured and cannot relocate do not worry; the beacon is likely still to work, but it might just take longer to obtain and transmit information.
  6. Initially the strobe will flash rapidly on the top of the beacon to indicate that it is on and searching for a GPS location. When the strobe speed slows this means that it has obtained a position fix, and a long flash followed by three short flashes means an emergency message has been transmitted and help is on the way.