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!