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Scottish highlands are beautiful - shame I'm only there to race!

Strathpuffer ’19 Write up

The infamous Strathpuffer gives you every excuse to back out before you race. 24-hour race, buried deep in the Scottish Highlands, held in the middle of winter, around 17 of the 24 hours are in absolute darkness and the weather is freezing and miserable. Having soloed ‘Puffer three times, I know how fickle and difficult Strathpuffer can be and this year was no different.

The course was 2 or 3km longer than when I last raced in 2017, taking us further north into the forest above Contin and it was damn icy from the start. After the mad dash for the bikes in the Le Mans start, we were all climbing the long fire-track battling for a good position before we hit the singletrack. At the top of the climb, over the first few rock gardens, you realise how icy it was and how tricky this one was going to be.

Dad kicking me off to a good start
Le Mans-style race start

Sliding out on an off-camber line I took too aggressively, I took my first crash on the first lap. I rode hard for another three laps and nearing the bottom of the fastest descent, I washed out the front wheel, span the bike and cracking onto the rocks beneath me. Getting back on the bike, dazed and in shock, I was determined to keep riding hard. Getting to the pits I asked the guys to try to find some studded ice tyres for the next lap but nowhere had any left – I was stuck riding without any grip.

After few laps later, I was confident over the whole course. I knew where there was grip, I had a good line through the technical sections and where the climbs were. A couple of laps after this we were in absolute darkness. The temperature fell with the sun and it didn’t get above zero for the rest of the race.

After six hours, it was getting dark and I was yet to stop.

Six laps and just over six hours into the race, the lap-times were slowly getting longer, and I needed some food. The big lesson from WEMBO was how much more I should be eating. I was forcing calories on every lap – stocking up on Trek bars and a couple of gels while on course, but I still needed the odd stop with ‘proper’ food occasionally.

Still busy in the middle of the night
Main race marque well lit throughout the night

I started making stupid mistakes on the descents and wasting energy on the climbs, but around 1900hrs I was told how I was doing. Of the 123 soloists, I was sat in 21st or so. Keep riding like this and I was sure to out perform previous years. This thought spurred me on and kept me out for a couple more laps.

Ten laps in and I began stopping after each lap to rest, stretch and eat. Coated in sweat, if I stopped more than 10mins, I would start trembling from the cold; at this point, I was always kicked back onto the bike. The guys kept me warm, fed and kept the bike rolling smoothly… but they never let me relent. I hated them for this, but I love them for it now.

There is always a dead patch between 0200 and 0500 when there are fewer riders out. If you’re going to get some rest, now is the time, but throughout these hours I kept lapping, never stopping for more than 20mins at a time. In the early hours of the morning I had climbed to 13th.

This is the difference having a crew makes.

Tired in the early hours of the morning
Looked after by the guys in the pits when ever I stopped

I had soloed Strathpuffer without a crew three times. I had to clean and service the bike, cook the food, keep the fires going and still manage to motivate myself to keep riding. This year was totally different. I had a larger, more experienced crew than ever before, and the best pit set-up I have had. Every lap, I was given food, a fresh water bottle (that hadn’t frozen) and encouragement. I couldn’t have kept lapping through the night without my crew, sister and her team mate.

From around 0700 you start noticing the light coming up. Strathpuffer runs 1000hrs Saturday to 1000hrs Sunday. When the sun comes up, you know you’re on the home stretch. The problem is that everybody else has noticed too. Lap-times start dropping as everybody becomes more confident and all the teams are trying to squeeze the most out of the final few hours. As a soloist who had been riding through-out the night, you’re slower and need to make sure you let others race. Everybody there has been riding through -10ᵒC and are utterly shattered, yet most are still polite and have a laugh.  

With three hours left on the clock, I had noticed that my feet were in a bad way. My shoes were new, and cleats may have been too far forward, putting a lot of pressure on my toes – I knew they were buggered. I couldn’t walk without limping, but I knew I had to keep riding. If I stopped now the race would be lost and I would have wasted a ton of effort. My feet had been cold, numb and sore since the early hours of the race, but I couldn’t relent.

It was also around this time, that it started lightly raining. The ground being around -10ᵒC, the rain instantly froze and coated every exposed rock with a sheet of ice.

We were all so close to the end of the race and suddenly it changes. The lines you picked out have been polished by all the other riders. I decided to take it slow and just focus on getting around – I had already taken six falls in the race and two were nasty. It was now just about survival and keeping the laps coming.

 I finished at 0947hrs. 17 laps – equalled my previous highest, but with a course 20%-30% longer, I was stoked with how the weekend had gone. I had dug deeper and pushed myself further than ever before. Total ride time was 21hrs 43mins. My toes we in trouble and I couldn’t walk, but I ended 15th of all soloists in one of the hardest races in the UK. I was f**king stoked!

Thanks

Crew – I’ve ridden ‘Puffer three times without a crew, just sharing a pit area with my sister and her teammate. This was the first year I have had raced with anybody ready to help when I came around. I had my Dad, little brother and a good friend – and they were all incredible. They rigged up a heated marque and kept the music blaring out! After 12 hours of racing, you start making bad decisions and forgetting what needs to be done – and this is where they come in. They were proactively making decisions, kept me fed, warm (enough) and kept my spirits high. What’s more is that they did all this while putting up with my moaning about the cold and my feet and without more than a couple of hours sleep. They were heroes.

ProBike Tools – The first guys to sponsor me; this lot keeps the workshop and pits stocked with some great bits of kit. The mini-rachet is a great tool to have out on the trail for when the bike takes a hit! 20% off with code: ben-pbtuk20

Skye Bike Shack – Tucked away on Skye, these guys supported me with spares, shoes and pretty much a whole new drive chain just before the race. This made the climbing easier than before. Marks insights to riding on Skye are awesome, and when it comes to bikes –  he knows what he’s talking about.

Island Engineer – A small white good’s repair company from the Isle of Skye, they donated the van for my dad to drive over a ton of spares to give me piece of mind. A hardy bunch, working in the middle of nowhere – I’ve never heard a bad word about them!

TL;DR

21hrs 43mins of riding, ground temperatures recorded around -10ᵒC, sheet ice over half of the trail. My strongest performance at Strathpuffer – most laps, furthest distance, race position, and several mental barriers further than before. ‘Puffer ’19 was a brutally cold, sufferfest and I’ll be there again next year!

Logo was taken from their official site. http://www.wembo.com.au/

WEMBO World Champs write up

I have been riding for just over four years and racing 24-hour events for most of them. Taking things more seriously this year, I had my first podium at the Kielder Chiller and took on the gruelling 606km This Is Not A Tour. The World Endurance Mountain Bike Organisation (WEMBO) was holding the 24-hour solo world championships in Fort William. It was going to be my only opportunity to race the world champs on home soil for years – I had to take it. After a quick chat with the race organisers, it was sealed – I was to enter the Elite class of the World Championships.

Come October, I was going to be one of the youngest riders in the entire field and probably the youngest in the Elite class! F*ck me!

I can't take serious photos... :/
Sun is shining for the pre-practice lap goofing around!

During the final few months building up to the race, everything else took a back seat. I left work behind when leaving the office, my diet was dialled, and my training became the priority. Putting in >20-hours of training in each week on-top of 37hrs in the office doesn’t leave much time to see your girlfriend (sorry Nic).

Fast forward to October and I had roped in a good friend, Mike, and my girlfriend, Nic to crew. With help from friends, family and a couple of new sponsors – I was set. The bike was rolling well, spares and tools were covered, I was focused and hadn’t been fitter. I held little hope to be competitive on the world stage, but I was ready to give it a shot!

It didn’t sink in until I was there. This was much bigger than I expected it to be.

It hadn’t registered that I was at the World Champs, racing against professional riders in the Elite category until I got there. The calibre of competition was insane. I was there with one steel framed enduro-style hardtail and was racing pros who were sponsored a couple the latest carbon XC bikes. Saying I was an underdog was underestimating it! If I could take on a couple of these guys, I would be happy!

After the practice lap on the Friday it really hit me, and the nerves crept in. The course was long, hilly, technical and rough; the weather wasn’t looking much better. The course was incredibly physical – two main hilly sections, a 2km stretch of rocky downhill and a bonus stage of roots and thick mud. It followed the cross-country world cup track, but we were riding it for the full 24 hours!

 

With the bagpipes roaring, the crowds cheering – we’re off.

20 mins before midday and it starts raining.  Marched out by a couple of marshals on trails bikes and the timers start. Sandwiched in with all the other riders, there’s no room for error – time to get your head down and ride hard. The sections that worried me the day before became easier when keeping pace; the hills were less daunting when racing alongside 150 riders.

My lap times hovered around the hour mark for the first 5 before settling into a steady 1:15 lap. It isn’t where I wanted to be, but I had my strategy and couldn’t ride someone else’s race. Nic and Mike had me laughing when they read out my race position – I was a long way from where I should have been.

They are more painful than they look
They hurt more than they look!

The one thing I didn’t account for was wet hands – I had no waterproof gloves. After 10 hours of riding in the rain, my hands and gloves were sodden. The pain in my hands started was taking its toll. 10 hours without drying or warming them and I was getting worried. Reassured that Mike had seen worse when kayaking, I got back out and rode on.

 

You should always take care of contact points – hands, feet and bum are all key to staying comfortable. My hands were by far the worse!

 

 

 

In the early hours of the next morning I had been going with no stop longer than 20mins for 15 hours. By this point, the course and conditions started taking out a lot of riders. The rocky course pounded your body as you constantly absorbed hits. The heavy rain made the roots and rocks more a slipping hazard, and the racing line kept getting worse with all the riders hammering it. The amount of traffic on the course dropped as riders started pulling out. I just had to keep my head down, keep my focus and keep lapping – I slowly began climbing the table.

There were a couple of howlers just before sunrise. I was down to emergency lights after refusing to change my battery pack and put in another half a lap blinded in one eye due to grit. A couple of sloppy mistakes saw me clipping a tree and ending in a bush, another saw me taking a dodgy line over a drop and having to stop and regroup – but through it all, I kept riding.

Sunrise came and gave a nice psychological boost to all riders. When you can see the sun, you know you’ve broken the back of the race – just 5-6 hours of riding left.

My whole body ached more than I have felt before. Pulling the brakes hurt. Standing up hurt. Sitting down hurt.

Concentration face!
Get your head down and ride hard!

The final few laps were a struggle.  Your resolve is tested as you convince yourself to get out and keep riding. Nic and Mike kept me going, pointing out how far I was climbing up the class – I was doing far better than expected.

I finished my penultimate lap with an hour left on the clock – there was time for one more. I hit the pits, ditched everything I didn’t need, grabbed a new bottle and shoved some food in my face. Heading back out I had a massive grin on my face. This was it. A victory lap to enjoy my time competing on the biggest stage. I knew I had done better than I expected to. In as much pain as I was, nothing could have wiped the grin off my face.

Just before the final hilly stage, I passed the car park for the last time and spotted Nic and Mike in the distance standing with another couple as they cheer on all the riders. As I got closer, I noticed it was my parents – they got up at 0400 that morning to drive here in time for my last lap! It came from nowhere and I was stoked to see them – and even more happy that I put in that final lap so they didn’t see me sitting in the pits!

Finishing the race I realised what I had just accomplished – and it felt amazing.

Still grinning like an idiot
Stoked I did it. Stoked it is done!

I can’t stop grinning as I come over the line. I pick up my race mug, print out of the official standings and medal and have a camera shoved in my face – I am the idiot at the end grinning like an idiot saying how “battered” I was. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnMVcOj3QBw. Ending with a nice photo shoot and giving my friends and family a big muddy hug.

I ended up 17th in the Elite Male Solos and was stoked. I was beaten by several riders in age categories and was let down by my nutrition plan and lack of wet weather gear… but honestly, I couldn’t care less. I have learned a ton, and the exposure to compete in this field was fantastic. To place as highly as I did with as little experience as I have was incredible! I went toe-to-toe with some of the best riders on the planet, and with rotten hands and a cramping stomach, I kept my focus and kept riding. I couldn’t be happier.

They say it is a solo race, but there are a lot of people I couldn’t ride like this without!

Finished!
These two kept me and my bike going

I can’t speak highly enough of my crew. Nic and Mike were ready for me every lap and only got 40mins of sleep each themselves. They did everything that was needed, including helping me get out of wet clothes (sorry again, Nic!), and put up with me the whole time. Their encouragement and happiness made it easy for me to concentrate on my race without worrying about them.

ProBikeTool sorted me with a bunch of the nicest tools I have come across and Jim’s encouragement was fantastic. Jon from Moomar Designs has been helping with this website and contributed to all the spares and gear. Knowing I had everything in the pits ready and waiting, should I need it was a weight off my mind.

My family have always been behind me and have supported me throughout doing these stupid races – I couldn’t have got this far in four years without your support. Finally, another shout to Nic, you put up with me away training and working for most of the week. You put up with me when I am cranky because I am not getting enough sleep. You don’t mind too much when the food bills rocket in the build up to a race. This was the first race you have crewed – and hopefully you now see why I do it.

Leathery!
Finished the race, time to look after myself again

Stop thinking and enter the race!

24-hour racing – Open for everybody

24-hour races are open for everybody and what’s more is that everybody should try them. They provide a unique insight into your physical and mental limits while remaining relatively safe from most of the stresses of ultra-endurance racing.

Committing to a race sets the stage for you to learn about your body, push what you think is possible and have an adventure with a group of friends!

Not convinced? Read on and see for yourself – 24-hour racing has something for everybody.

Mind set

24-hour races put the onus one you, the rider, to keep pushing beyond your previously known limits; to keep riding through the worst conditions you’ve experienced on two wheels, to push through some dark mental spaces and the hardest pain barriers.

It is only when you’re pushing to the point of failure do you get a baseline of what you are capable of. At the end of the race, you’re left with an enormous sense of pride – not because of how you placed in the field but because you went toe-to-toe a challenge which appears impossible. Regardless of how you think you performed, getting there out of your comfort zone is rare in our day to day lives – and this is an achievement in and of itself.

You go away knowing that you can do more than you ever thought possible.

You can’t fail

The point of all ultra-endurance events is to push your mind and body to their respective limits. While most disciplines tailor to the very fit, 24-hour races cater to everybody. The object of the day is not to beat the rest of the field, it isn’t to get from A-to-B; the only aim is to push yourself.

The safety of having a pit to rest in, friends to monitor you and boost morale and the fact that it is a time-based discipline literally ensures you can’t fail.

Time-limited racing

The challenge is time based – not distance. If your 24-hour race contains four hours of hard riding, then that is your race – be proud of it! This should be respected as much as the guys who rock up with two bikes, a three-person crew and ride the full 24 hours.

Provided you’re true to yourself and you really pushed for those four hours, this is what should be celebrated. 24-hour racing is not about racing for 24 hours, it’s about racing as much the day as you can!

Designed to do it

Homo sapiens evolved of millennia out in the thick of it. Battling against the elements just to survive. These events are not unnatural in any way – you’re using your body for what it is there for. You’re not reaching for the thermostat to warm up – you’re riding harder. You’re not eating more than your body needs – you’re metabolising what ever fuel your body can use. You’re not giving up at the first hurdle – your focused and driven to continue.

 

The people who take part in 24-hour races are not special and they are not freaks. If they can do it – you sure as hell can!

Focus for Ultra-Endurance Racing

One of the most common things I am asked about training for ultra-endurance events is “how do you keep going when every fibre in your body wants you to quit?”. Ultra-endurance events are mostly in the mind so this question deserves a real discussion.

People enter these events for all kinds of reasons, from those looking for an excuse to get some more time in the saddle, to the competitive guys at the front trying to outdo one another. Regardless of the reason for signing up you’re going to go through the same thing as everybody else..

It is ultimately going to come down to two things:

  1. Keeping your head strong
  2. Listening to and looking after your body

Obviously, neither of these two things are easy – especially when pushing yourself, but there are several things you can do to keep yourself going through your darkest hours.

Listen to your body

Your body will tell you what it needs to eat and when it needs to rest – you just need to listen. There are a few ways to quickly get a psychological boost of giving mind what it wants:

  • Give yourself a variety of food in the pits – this allows you to select what ever your body feels like you need (just try to avoid too much sugar!).
  • Short, more frequent stops – Stopping occasionally for 5-10 mins can stop you from becoming so broken you must sleep.
  • Fix pains before they become problems – Pain is the bodies alarm system, telling you when something is wrong (it’s not a punishment!) – try to understand why you’re aching and think about what you can do to fix it.

Generally, if your body is telling you something, listen to it; but be strict and get moving as soon as you can.

Look after your body

This is all about preventative maintenance!

Keep yourself fed, hydrated, warm and dry.

This will not only reduce the physical loading during the event, so you can keep going for longer, but also keep the mental suffering to a minimum. This is particularly important for winter racing. Keeping your hands and feet comfortable is tricky – too many layers and you’ll sweat excessively, not enough and you’ll suffer unnecessarily. Naturally this is heavily linked to listening to your body!

Environmental training.

Planning the next few hours

Hours into your ride, your body is aching, fatigue is setting in and a crack begins to form in your mental game – you need to stay focused! Planning the next few hours of your ride is a great way to keep your head in the game while distracting yourself from what you’re going through. Not only have you repressed any negative thoughts, you’ve got a plan of how to attack the next few hours of the race and you’re motivated to get around the course and execute the plan.

Focus and assess what’s happening

Keeping a solid head space is tough. You have so much time to do little other than think that if negative thoughts take hold, they can be hard to get out. It is easier just to get rid of them as soon as possible. The easiest way is to focus and assess what’s happening around you.

Where is that creaking coming from? When did I last eat? What is my rough lap average? How many laps until sunrise?

It’s surprising how much time you can spend figuring out what lap you’re on!

Mental tricks

There are a ton of tricks that people find useful, but these are more personal – you have to find what works for you. Hopefully you’re training will be close to the race conditions and you’ll find a few of these work. Use them when ever you can.

  • Recede into your Pain Cave – focus your mind and your body. Don’t let external thoughts enter in – get your head down and keep riding.
  • Remind yourself why you’re doing it. To win? Bragging rights? To get fit? All of these things say you should keep going!
  • Concentrate the small details. Breathing and cadence are good metronomes to keep you chugging on.
  • Counting down from 100. When you undoubtedly lose track – start again. This will keep your mind from wandering too far. Get down to 0? Do your 13 times tables.
  • Music / podcasts. Taking your mind off can ruin your race plan, but if the idea is just to get around they are a fantastic tool!

 

Night riding gives you time to think and refocus on what is important

Coming back from injury

Dislocated shoulders, broken bones and removing chunks of flesh; all of this can be expected when crashing. It doesn’t even take a particularly big one to cause damage – just an unfortunate landing. My most serious injury came in 2016 on a practice lap for Pivot TwentyFour12. I took an aggressive line around a corner, buried my front wheel in some bog, went over the bars and my back landed on my outstretched arm – ripping my shoulder out of place. No 60ft road gap. No 15ft drop-off… just a patch of boggy mud I didn’t see.

It is easy to quit after sustaining an injury, people stop riding as aggressively and others quit the sport all together; it is key to remember that the benefits of riding generally far outweigh the risk and time off.

Here are four tips to get you back riding again after taking a spill.

Get back on the bike

Don’t avoid getting back on the bike. The longer you’re off it, the more likely the fear is to set in and the less likely you’ll be to getting back out. This can ultimately lead to taking longer to build up your confidence.

You should make sure you are mentally and physically ready to handle the route or trail you’re about to attempt; but this is no different to when you’re race-ready. Take it easy and have a few relaxed rides to get back into it, then slowly build up the pace and distance. When ready visit the crash site and prove to yourself that you can do it to finally banish the fear!

If the incident takes you off the bike for a while, try visualising being back on the bike and try to go through the crash. Don’t let yourself associate the bike with pain and injuries – it is worth so much more.

Think of the longer term

When everything is going well, you can see your progression and you only ever think of the present. Taking a crash makes you step back and forces you to take time off training and undo a lot of hard work. At this point it is all too easy to focus on how long it is going to take to get back to where you were, and this can soon spiral.

It is important to focus on the long term. Bones heal, scars fade, and fear settles down. You can’t simply throw away years of being passionate about your sport for a few months off.

Develop mental resilience

Cycling has inherent risks and the amount of time you need to ride for to prepare for these events makes crashing inevitable. It can take years to realise injuries are simply part of the game – and that everybody riding has taken time off because of them.

When you get over this spill, you will be mentally stronger, more prepared and better equipped for mental side of racing. Take this time to focus on why you ride – crashing can reinforce why you do it and coming back from shows grit and determination.

“If you’re not crashing, you’re not trying hard enough!”

Learn from your mistakes

Rather than focusing on the injury itself, think about what caused the accident. Is there anything you could have done differently? Could you have picked a different line through the corner? Distributed your weight better? Used your brakes better? Use this as an opportunity to learn as a rider to get better.

Still crashing? Take a little time out to focus on skills development – start here: Skills Training

My First 24-Hour Race – Strathpuffer 2015

I had been riding mountain bikes for around two months when my sister asked me to join her in a 24-hour race – the infamous Strathpuffer. She was looking to enter a team of four of her friends and was one nutter short.

24-hour race, in the middle of winter, through Baltic temperatures across the mountainous Scottish Highlands – with a couple of months to get ready – why not?!

A couple of weeks after agreeing to join her team; I was putting in 4-5-hour days in the saddle, so I decided challenged a friend to enter as a pair. He agreed, I pulled out of the quad and got myself ready for a gruelling 12-hours. Then, as part of some karmic retribution, on the day of registration my friend bails.  Naturally, I decide to solo it and immediately sign-up without a clue on what I am getting myself in for!

A couple of months later and the day of the race draws near. We travel up to Strathpeffer with my entry-level 2012 Specialised Rockhopper crash in a hostel for one last night in the warm before taking on the ‘Puffer. Getting to the site just after day-break of race day, we didn’t have long before the riders brief at 0945. We find a good spot, just off the main track, pitch a couple of tents and we’re pretty much set – all winter gear, camping stuff, spare parts and tools are still in the car, but my sisters team will get this after the race start… or so I thought!

The race started at 1000, I rode the first lap in a big bunch and had no idea what the track had in store (always ride a practice lap the day before if you can!). Strathpuffer is a thorough-bred technical-XC course. It has a ton of climbing, rock gardens, steep, fast descents with a couple of drops thrown in for good measure – it was a million miles away from the flowing singletrack I had been training on.

Strathpuffer was a million miles away from the flowing singletrack I had been training on.

A couple of hours after midnight, I have done more riding than ever before – and there is still 10 hours left on the clock. I am freezing, soaked to the bone, tired and have hardly eaten – I decide to take a little rest and get changed. When I get to my tent, however, there is nothing besides my clothes and tools. No sleeping bag, no roll matt, no thick coat, nothing. They had left all my camping gear in the car!

My sister (who is asleep, spooning her friend, under a duvet and in a sleeping bag), sleepily hands me a picnic blanket and falls back asleep.

20-sleepless-minutes later, I decide I must get out riding or else I am could be in a little trouble…

My overshoes weren’t doing anything by this point, so when my hands were so numb I couldn’t work the zip, I cut them off and change into my waterproof socks. In a warm, dry set of clothes, I head back out into the freezing night and ride hard to get the body generating heat and the blood flowing back into my hands. Thankfully, the first 3km is uphill over a fire-track – perfect for warming up before things get a more technical.

I ended up putting in 16-laps within 18-hours of ride-time in some of the worst conditions I have ever ridden in! Crashed into the same thorn bush three times (on three consecutive laps), picked up some insane saddle-sores, lost sensation in a few fingers and toes that stayed numb for weeks… and with that, I was hooked! I have ridden the ‘Puffer a couple more times, Mountain Mayhem and the Kielder chiller and I am just getting started!

Not even a severely dislocated shoulder has turned me off 24-hour racing – they are that good!

Ready to take on Strathpuffer? See here for our race review or sign-up here.

Thinking about taking on your first? Head to our training section for hints and tips.