This was my fifth Strathpuffer, but I’ve never stood in the damp January air listening to the piper, shivering before the traditional run to the bikes, and faced the prospect of doing all the hard work myself. If that was a daunting feeling, there wasn’t too much time to dwell on it, as the shout to action rang through the crowd and I got lost in the muddled stampede of disco slippers on tarmac. Truth be told, I’ve always been a little in awe of the silent, solitary figures of the endurance specialists – like clockwork ghosts turning tirelessly around the course while everyone else succumbs to the wet and cold and their bodies’ cries for sleep. Your Jason Miles’s and Rickie Cotters make it look like a case of smooth sailing and simply willing the pedals to turn for that long, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea how they managed it. As far as I was concerned they were full of cogs and gears, not muscles that could hurt and fail.
The last few years I’ve begun to find the pleasures hidden in a long day’s (or days’) ride, the burn of fatigue and the welcome folds of sleep. Our trip to Iceland in 2014 was my first cycle tour, and one of the most memorable days was the very worst: a longish day of 100km of gravel road stood between us and some food and rest: not drastic, but for the Icelandic weather. In the end it was a slog of 11 hours, and food ran out some time before the end. A good solid headwind and a road that seems endlessly uphill drove us round the bend, but at the very least it gifted us some toughened resolve and the knowledge that it will end eventually, as your wheels keep rolling forwards. Other trips since have included some incredible days’ riding, a deeper well of experience and a better ability to listen to my body. In 2016 riding the Highland Trail 550 as a long and lonely ITT added to my faith in my own legs to keep going further than I would have thought they could.
In the end, this race came down to planning and preparation, mostly in the fuel department. Annie and me both entered as soloists, not expecting to have any support with us and to effectively ride it as an ITT, so we knew from the start that having all our needs thought of and easily accessible in the van would be crucial. As far as I was concerned, the plan was very simple: to ride continuously, to the very end, with minimal stopped time. As long I was moving I could ride at whatever pace I liked, and a right-through effort would be a big win in my eyes. Our preparation included turning the kitchen of the house we’re currently house-sitting into a production line of rice cakes, tiny pies and miniature Spanish omelettes as part of a ‘real food’ approach, avoiding gels and shot bloks, that hopefully wouldn’t turn our stomachs inside out over the course of consuming thousands of calories.
The start was the usual tangled blur of legs, bikes and shouts as the mobile melée squabbled its way up the fireroad; I planned to put in a harder effort initially to make sure I stayed ahead of the bunching on the singletrack, all part of that ‘always moving forwards’ plan. It was clear that the weather gods were smiling on us this year – after climbing out of fog at the bottom each lap there were clear skies, a frosty nip in the air and a course that was pretty dry (for Scotland. In January), before we ducked back into the cotton wool again for the finish, and repeat. As the riders spread out I tried to settle into a rhythm, but the racing bug is inside all of us and it was difficult to switch off from other peoples’ rides and focus on my own. The usual good-natured banter was there in spades, with the wide spectrum of bikes, riders, abilities and motivations that makes the Strathpuffer such a good event. I climbed the fireroad on lap four or five with Javier, a Spanish singlespeed mountain goat, who told me the secret to endurance was keeping yourself warm and comfortable, just before a treacherous bridge separated us again for a few hours.
We had only just gotten going when the sun began its long descent to the horizon. I wanted the night to come quicker: the semi-darkness felt like a taunt as the light was slowly taken from us, although the encroaching fog cast a ghostly curtain of light over parts of the course, a pretty unique backdrop to race against. When it did finally come, the darkness encouraged solitude and focus – no distractions outside of your personal pool of white LED light. I stopped for a few minutes to down some warm tea before heading out again, with no idea how I was doing or where Annie was, but I knew my laps were consistent and I didn’t feel too bad, although at eight hours in I still feared the uncertainty of whether I could pedal through this fifteen-hour night. I also put on a warmer pair of gloves and a jacket, despite not being overly cold, as I thought Javi’s advice might have some truth in it. I owe him a debt of thanks as it transformed my mood. Warm hands equal a happy mind, I’ve been told, and it worked this time for sure!
Early on in the night I did see Annie, who was riding strongly on her borrowed plus-wheel hardtail, and soon after Emily Chappell, who despite being ‘not a mountain biker’ was also going really well. If I was worried about the boredom of the many hours spent alone in darkness I needn’t have been, as the gods were about to throw in an exciting new card: ice. There is much discussion each year about whether snow and ice will feature at the ‘Puffer, but no-one had turned up expecting it this time round after a week of sunshine and balmy temperatures. Those temperatures plummeted after nightfall, reading minus five apparently, and quickly everything began to freeze. Polished, frozen dirt; frozen water-splash on the rocks; even frozen water bottles that became useless after forty minutes. I began to see casualties being tended beside the course, and there was a new element of unpredictability to the heavily braked-on chutes that made me wonder if each lap might be my last. I told myself that there were no prizes on offer for crashing, and tried to go calm and steady to increase my margin for error on the technical sections.
With all that going on, I was pleased to find that I wasn’t really tiring mentally. With a quick cupful of tea or coffee every three or four laps while I restocked my feedbag, I managed to fend off thoughts of sleep and rest. Lap times stayed solid and the fatigue in my legs that had crept in during the day was kept at bay by regular food. I was fearful of the lull of sleep deprivation, knowing what it feels like even as a quad team to go through the night, and knew that if it robbed me of much alertness I would start forgetting to eat and drink regularly, and from there things would unravel fast. I did my best to stick to the back of a napkin calculations I had done the night before, giving a rough number of calories needed per lap, and mechanically shovelled in some sticky rice or a potato pie on cue as there was no-one to do it for me.
In a funny way, time began to speed up during the night, rather than slowing down. I still didn’t know how I or anyone else was doing, having only stopped long enough to say hello to Ronan in the pits. The course was quiet in its wee-hours lull: I don’t know if that many folks had crawled to bed or if the cloak of darkness just made it feel as though there weren’t many of us out there, but the stripping away of the daylight stripped my awareness of other people as well. Usually it’s tough to deal with, but since I’d been trying to ignore everyone anyway it just felt like another distraction had been put away out of sight. The task became as simple as counting down blocks of three laps before a refuel: 1,2,3, coffee; 1,2,3, coffee. There were few things to focus on except the stars and the siren-song of cold rubber rolling over water ice, trying to seduce me into tapping the brakes or tensing up, ready to grate my face over the rough ground if I gave in to those temptations. There was no-one to race against but myself, and as the big ‘ticks’ came and went – 8 hours, 12 hours, 16 hours, sunrise – I felt that this pace could continue right through.
The sunrise lap. If you have ever raced a Strathpuffer you’ll know exactly the feelings that it conjures. If you haven’t, then I’m afraid you will have to go and earn them, won’t you! The weight of tiredness and many miles drops away from your body as the first grey light filters through the mist at the top of the course, and the shadows gradually gain depth and definition. For the first time in hours you can see the faces of the people still out riding, and they are generally smiling, just like you. It also means that there are only a few hours left to go, that you can do this. I decided to change from the Scott Scale I had been riding all night to the Tallboy that was lurking in the back of the van, thinking that some traction control from a non-frozen fork would be welcome on the increasingly deadly ice – as more riders came back out on course after a break for sleep the polished sections were rapidly getting worse, and new patches of black ice would crop up from one lap to the next.
It was a good move; the change of bike was a huge refresher and I felt that I could fly more efficiently over the chunky top section. Having had another gulp of coffee and some food, I upped the pace for the last couple of hours, finally giving in to the mental calculations that had been swirling half-seen in my head for a while, and acknowledging that I could make my thirty laps at this rate. I saw with a smile that both Annie and Emily had gone out for final laps, thinking that they must both have ridden well, and used up what reserves remained in my legs on the final few sharp climbs before coasting one last time down in to the finish. After 24 hours of riding I still had no idea where I stood or who my competition had been, only that the night was done and I hadn’t given in to the sleep monster; that was success enough for me. Javier met me at the finish and told me that I’d done enough for second, twenty five minutes behind the ever-dominant Keith Forsyth, who had absolutely blitzed the early laps and held the lead ever since. Emily took the solo ladies’ win with 23 laps, closely tailed by Annie with her 22 laps.
The result was a lovely bonus, but mostly I’m pleased to have stuck to the plan and ridden for the sake of the ride more than anything else. I’m convinced that eating ‘real’ food and drinking enough to let my gut do something with it was the reason that the 24 hours slipped away without too much suffering. I don’t mind saying that I’m proud, not of having beaten x, y or z, or having completed a certain number of laps, but of having kept the ride my own and nobody else’s for all those hours; of having actually enjoyed it! Simplifying the instructions down to ‘go forwards’ might sound a little too neat and easy to say, but that was what it came down to, and it helped me, enormously.
So there you go – I’m sorry it’s not a cut-and-thrust account of tightly fought racing between titanic foes, although for all I know that may well have been happening somewhere else. Like every Strathpuffer I’ve been to, it was a bloody excellent event put on by bloody lovely people, so thanks to Alastair and all the team for all their hard work dragging us off the sofa at this time of year. Many thanks to Ronan Dugan, not just for the use of his lovely photos, but for lubing my chain and keeping the coffee in the pot during the night! Not to mention hacking great lumps of ice from the stays when they got a bit too big… See you next time!
Thanks to Hope Tech for their continued support, as well as Glenmore Lodge for use of their Scott bikes, and Bothy Bikes in Aviemore for all those unanticipated last-minute fubars!