So, my final big race of the season. In some ways it came around far too soon, and in others i was glad that my last target was soon after Kielder, where i’d been feeling pretty good, only to be stymied by seemingly endless punctures! The marathon was on the Sunday after the southern XC champs on the Saturday at what has become an extremely well-known venue this year, the Pippingford estate. When i was down there at the national XC champs, i got a brief run-down of the planned marathon course from team mate Steve Jones, and it sounded pretty incredible. Challenging climbing and technical descending sounded like they would make for a hard, but rewarding race.
Fast forward two and a half months to the weekend after the Kielder 100, where i had a less than perfect race (see my report). I had an axe to grind. I’d had a very very gentle week in between the two, remembering from last year just how hard it can be to recover from 100 miles offroad, and by the Sunday felt pretty good and ready for another marathon effort. The race started at 10am, requiring a pretty early start from Cambridge, but even the early start didn’t faze me and after a short warmup around the xc loop, i was ready for the race. We started down a grass slope towards a guy in a high-vis jacket (poor dude was pretty much a target for the field sprint!), and i found myself following Dave Clarke’s wheel. I had just enough time to think “hey, i’m following a premier calendar winner’s wheel” before he hit a patch of sheep poo which hit me square in the face. Cheers Dave!
The first section of the course was similar to the XC course, it was pretty tough and undulating, and rewarded those who could remember the good lines after 25km (i don’t think anyone had the time to preride). Unfortunately, my simple strap carrying my spare tube, tyre lever and gas canister came unshipped here, and then once i’d got going again i then landed on the back of my saddle leaving it pointing skywards (ala Wasing!). In spite of my mechanical misadventures, there were some great sections of singletrack that had the “oh, up there” factor going on. The open moorland sections added a definite wilderness feel, and the skyline was spectacular in places, given how close we were to the big smoke. The sad thing about these sectors was the lumpy, quishy heather that had obviously been a deer run, but never had a pair of wheels roll over it before, which made it a real slog. I’m all in favour of tough climbing, but there’s something so upsetting about being slowed to a crawl by soft surface on a slight incline – it makes you feel so lame.
The climbing led to some sensational singletrack alongside a stream, and up back towards the arena. It was here that the vets winner, Alex Glasgow, caught and passed me like a rocket, and also here where i lost sight of the jerseys ahead of me. I knew what was coming from here on in, we would head up across the lumpy grass field and into the fantastic twisty descent that started the national champs xc course. I loved this part of the course, and even after the heavy rain had made it sticky and slippery, it was great fun to ride and a great motivator to slog up the hills earlier in the lap. Back through the start finish, and some of the guys who’d set off fast ahead of me were already on the side of the track – this was definitely going to turn into a serious battle of attrition over 100km, my favourite sort of race.
Into the second lap, i pushed on – i was feeling good and felt like i could keep the same pace on the climbs without going into the red (not a good idea over such a long race). I was a little shocked that my first lap time suggested that this race could be around the 6hr mark for me (Oli Beck took over 4.5hrs – a long time for an 85km race!), and concentrated on trying to keep the calories and fluids coming in. Familiarity with the descents meant that i could pick up time here and save a bit of energy. The second lap was lonelier, and i allowed my mind to wander a little more than i had in the first lap – constructive distraction can so often be a help in these races – if you concentrate too hard, you realise how uncomfortable you are, whereas if your thoughts drift you can pedal just to give your legs something to do whilst you enjoy the view and the sunshine! Through the transition and i couldn’t see the leaders, which was something of a relief - i was seriously worried that i’d get lapped! Again, the second half of the course was great, although a slight hint of cramp through the quarry section intimated that maybe i should be a little bit careful...
Into the third lap, i decided i would try to pick it up on the climbs, aided by being chased up the first climb of the lap by team mate Steve Jones (to be fair, he was in a white van rather than on the stock xtc!). It was getting hot by this point, and i was being careful to drink plenty – Rachel was handing me up bottles of water mid way through the lap to keep me from turning into a prune. Some deer on the moorland made for some impressive wildlife, and kept me entertained trying to work out where they were going to go next. I managed to shovel down a caffeinated gel, which did the trick, and although i was starting to feel a little tired, i knew i’d be good to finish – after all 85km is a lot less than 100miles!
Through the transition i grabbed another bottle of water, and then headed off down the awesome descent, possibly a little fast as i really did nearly miss the corner at the bottom this time (getting cocky perhaps!). Through the first sections of the xc course, i started feeling a bit detatched and weird – it felt like someone else was riding the bike and i wasn’t properly in control. This had its perks, but when it came to climb up from the bottom of the course the 100miles of Kielder hit me like a bear on my back (i got this phrase from a mate of mine who’s a decathlete – he always used to tell me how when running the 400m, at 300m in the bear jumps on your back and you stagger the rest of the way to the line...). I got to the start finish in time to carry on and finish in 11th place, which would have seen me get UCI marathon points, but i was pallid and feeling very sick by this point. I sat in the feed trying to summon the energy to even contemplate finishing, but i was too worried that the organisers would end up sending an ambulance out for me if i tried, my descending having degenerated from “controlled chaos” to “reckless lunacy”. I packed in after 3 laps, possibly the worst time in a race to call it a day – you have already done the damage, you’ll be sore for days and you’re almost at the finish, but you still have those three dreaded letters “DNF” next to your name.
So, a season pretty much over, sadly neither of my big aims for the year came off, but i’ve learned a great deal and there’s always next year. Thanks as ever to sponsors AW cycles for being awesome support. Ride it like you stole it....