Strathpuffer 24 - Race Report


Race Report by Barry Middleton

Strathpuffer 24, 2014.

First off, please understand i write with open honesty, firstly for my own diary and catharsis, to learn. I share it with others in the spirit of humility.

This is Monday morning, I've now slept, i hurt a lot, in some places i have no feeling at all. My brain unlike yesterday is starting to comprehend the weekend just past. Im not into bullshit or egotistical stuff, i try my best to experience something as it really is. No fluff, to wait and listen, and from something as giving as this event, there's a lot to hear. This is the best time to capture the raw lessons.

The Strathpuffer is a unique 24h mountain bike event held near Strathpeffer about 20 mins north of Inverness in January. It essentially asks teams of 4, 2 or 1 to ride round a 11k hilly (about 800ft per lap), rough and technical course as many times as possible in 24h. 10am Saturday to 10am Sunday. On average you're looking at about an hour per lap. This was its 9th running, my 6th. Twice as a 4, once as a pair, and now this was my 3rd year in a row riding solo.

Each year on solo i had raised my bar, each year i came back to raise it some more, albeit at the mercy of the weather gods. The longer an event, the more exposed it is to influence by the elements. Given its not long after midwinter, course conditions have been everything from 24h rain, sleet, sheet ice, blizzards and thick deep sludge. Deep forest to open hill side in the shadow of Ben Wyvvis. It breaks your bike. Its dark from about 3.30pm to 9am, thats the part that breaks your head.

I wasn't really solo however, as before, my wife Polly was there as my support crew. To ensure i have no temptation to sleep or lie down, i don't turn up with a tent, camper van or motorhome. We use the small event marquee which is where each lap starts and finishes. Polly spends 24h in there, waiting for me to finish each lap, then jumping into action, clean bike mechanics, spray lube, change bottle, replace food in my pocket, check for life. A few crates of supplies. She has power of attorney. Not for the first year at this event, people have said she is a one off.

I had just turned 40 a few days earlier. New decade, start with intent. I turned up with no excuses for lack of preparation. Its scary, but frankly more honest to yourself, to turn up at the start line, do your best and whatever happens that is where you're at. Thats how you progress, based on honesty and humility? I used to hardly train, partly to give myself the beating i thought i deserved, then at least have a set of excuses to fall back on. My training had been different than the previous 2 years, taking some of the experience of before and improving it, i hoped.

The weather had been better for riding outside rather than indoors, so i made full use of the world class trails on my door in Aviemore. I ran less and kept my swimming high. For those interested I use November as a base phase, i get my body used to the greater efforts, with lots of high intensity and building more power, preparing for December, which is my beast month, lots of harder sessions adding more endurance to the power. In the week leading up to the event i keep the sessions in there but at lower duration. I don't over taper for endurance events.

So onto the event. Its around 8.30am, I'm signed in and now changing my front tyre from an ice tyre to a normal set of rubber. The cold conditions and ice forecast have subsided and its looking like mud is the flavour. The event starts with a le mans start, i.e. all together running from the road about 200m to the bikes and the sound of the pipes. Its about 1 Degree, so quite cold to begin, but its forecast to get up to 6 overnight. Just before the start i sensed a quiet nervousness and broke the silence with a shout of "good luck everyone". Then it is all go.

I find the first few laps euphoric, my legs feel great, old hills i counted as enemies were now more friendly. There were patches of ice, but they wouldn't last long. I usually plan to gently warm into it, take it easy, but my first 2 laps were taken with just a little more vigour. I beat my lap tally last year by riding all night and not stopping hardly, so to beat that i have to do the same but faster, avoiding accidents. Easier said than done and early into this event, all your thoughts are to save yourself for later. I normally have places on the course i eat and drink at like clockwork, repeating until the end, but my body sensations were different this time, less demanding. I still had Polly's home made flapjack and a drink each lap. After 4 laps i was going well but worried i might be pushing too hard a pace and not fuelling enough. I told Polly my thoughts, "you need to think more for me here". As the race unfolds, my brain will shrink. I swapped my trusty red wooly hat for a thinner thermal buff, it was quite warm.

Given i was feeling good, i decided my strategy would be to get a few extra laps in before dark, then settle down to a slower pace all night. This way i would be ahead of last year from the start, fully aware this was going to be full on committing so early. Around lap 5 i was stopping to pee every lap, proper put a fire out peeing. Unusual since i wasn't drinking that much. Something wasn't right here, but best push on and adapt. Lap 6 to 8 i was in a bad place.  My legs were burning, almost screaming at me. I was worried, i was fitter than this and was trying to work out what was up and how i could possibly keep going.

Thoughts of quitting even came onboard. The mild panic inside was kept at arms reach but i wasn't immune from its influence. It would be easy to say i was going too hard to begin with but i was still riding well within myself. I was eating and drinking what i knew was enough before.  Not for the first time in the event, i heard the calming voice of my yoga instructor from Aviemore saying "i am relaxed". The difference with such long events is you accept bad phases as normal. Hopefully i was getting my bad moments out of the way early.

The bike was going fine too mostly, but for my gears which not unusually get out of play with all the grit and abuse. The track was like a bucking bronco in places so i turned a dial on my front suspension to soften the rebound. My back wheel came loose on a rocky section and the rear break pads seized together as a result. It took a bit of swearing to fix that. Some old pals were out for some entertainment, so while i took a breath before lap 7, they fixed the gears. Of all the body parts which i thought would hurt at the end, its my right thumb which gets the beating, from changing gears non stop for 24h, even now its completely numb 24h later. The whole event I'm mostly 100% focussed on my making sure i don't pedal too hard, i change gears at the same points on the course each lap.

My friends were in good form and they seemed to think i was too. I didn't think my poker face was that good. I felt like shit and was completely overwhelmed with what lay ahead given how i felt physically. I thought i was better than this. I said to Polly "i need a new mental strategy here, I'm getting to lap 8, i will take on more food and figure out how to solve this".

I got to 8 laps before it got dark, it was a real boost to be ahead of myself from the year before by 2hrs, but didn't think i could sustain it. All i could see ahead was too far ahead, worrying about how i could keep going all night. I was peeing like hell every lap, despite not drinking too much. A 1 minute pee stop every hour for 24hrs is a lot. The kidneys were flushing something out, i wondered if it was my legs leaving the building. My body wasn't happy. My mind was my only choice. Back to "i am relaxed". I had a venison burger and chips with a cup of tea while Polly cleaned the mechanicals on the bike. I normally avoid chips, but hell these were good. Time to get the lights on the helmet and enter the darkness.

It was lap 9 and i pulled myself together. The burger and chips must have been cooked in holy water. My burning legs went back to being 2 husky dogs with wagging tails. My mind now dealt with the challenge as i had done in years before. Rather than worry about laps too far ahead, i resorted to my old mind game of laps of 2 at a time. The positive was i had done 8 early. I was on 9, then my next would be 10. Once at 10, i would get to 12. I was at 14 by 11.30pm or something. Still about 3 hours ahead of last year. Back in the game. Another burger and chips went into the furnace. I recalled one of many phrases i store away for moments of need, this one was "decide you want it more than you are afraid of it".

The real Strathpuffer begins at midnight. 14hrs into it. This is when lots of teams and solo riders hunker down in their camps to rest or sleep. Why miss out on such a fertile field of self discovery. The moon came out for a spell, my feral spirit growled as the human i once was retreated deeper into the core. My plan now was to get to 2 am, then get the ishuffle out so i could change things up mentally with music. At 2am i asked Polly if she wanted to get a sleep in the car, i would do 2 laps and sort myself out giving her a few hours.

In the end the music quickly proved a distraction, so i turned it off. At least the last tune was U2, appropriately "where the streets have no name", a good one to linger.  Probably the biggest change i made at this point was to change my top clothing. I had been wearing my 14 year old green buffalo jacket which now weighed about 10kg more from the coating of mud. Why ride with that extra weight. Dougie Vipond from the Adventure Show joked that i looked about 20 stone in it.

14 laps became 16. I was only 3 laps away from last years tally and it was early doors. 4 laps to get to 20, which was my primary goal. The danger at this point is your levels of concentration are wrecked from the exertion and especially the mental strain of riding in the dark so long, did i forget to mention sleep deprivation? My earlier strategy meant i was ahead of myself, not chasing at the end. Psychologically this was a big deal. I just had to make sure i didn't crash, lose concentration or bonk. Lo and behold i had a miraculous save as my front tire washed out from under me on a mega fast descent on the last section of the course. I was falling asleep at the wheel. Time to wake up. I was still worryingly stopping on course for a long pee every lap. I had a double espresso energy gel and rode well technically again, mentally i was wired. For some reason laps 17 to 18 i knew would be hard, 19 to 20 would be great since i was hitting my main goal, and so it proved.

Polly met me after her nap around 4am and resumed her chores. Amazing dedication. It was then that i sat in a chair for the first time since breakfast. It was like breaking my enchantment. I gobbled chocolate raisins and porridge. I was feeling mentally strung out. I had a few minutes of the Dementors trying to take me to Azkaban. While Polly was away washing my bike, i actually started to cry. Undistilled emotion was trying to break through the cracks. There were people around so i had to keep it to myself. I stood up and got back on the bike. Rule 5. I was driven on by the belief that it was coming together. I visualised some of my training sessions,  they were for this moment. Another phrase came to mind from Joe Friel, "a dream becomes a goal when you create a plan, and a reality once you fully commit to it". Push on. I made 20 laps by about 7.20am. Last years tally of 19 was beaten hours early. That meant there was time for more.

At this point in the race, about 7am you can sense that you can make it to sunrise, which begins around 8.40am. The sunrise lap in this event is for me one of the most glorious experiences in your life. By this stage you are more feral than human. You have sent all but essential functions and thoughts to the vault. I do understand in these moments that I'm not all modern man, there is still a prehistoric code that in such moments is dominant and powerful. We were once sun worshippers and I am again. Out of my peripheral vision I can see a lightening of the sky. I'm seeking it with a hunger now. There are mountains nearby, forests which give silhouette. The red glow of this winter sunrise emerges and the energy this gives is hard to describe. It is like frost melting. I think this was lap 21. I knew i could do 2 more in the light no matter what, so i did. I thanked the incredible marshals. I even had a good race down the last swooping descent with someone to get the finish line to end lap 23. Finish strong.

At this point, 23 had me top ten at 9.40am. Holy shit. Word was there were only 3 guys behind me who could better my tally (I remember passing them) and they were unlikely to get another lap done in the time limit (if you go out for a final lap before 10 and get back before 11). I decided i was done. I treated myself to a pee in a real toilet. The fingers on my left hand were stuck in place as if they were still hanging onto the bars. In the end i found out later the 3 guys did go out and do another lap in time. Had I known it was so tight I would have done another lap and held a few pees in. I ended up 13th, but content. Perhaps a different team talk would have got me round another lap, but it was still mission accomplished. The next set of training blocks begin now, but once my body is healed and once I can sit on a saddle. I've made one big mistake the last 3 puffers and I never learn. I didn't wear cycling shorts.

Barry Middleton