The Strathpuffer 24 hour mountain bike race takes place in mid January in the North of Scotland which means that there is likely to be winter weather such as snow, wind, rain and freezing temperatures. There is definitely going to be a lot of darkness. If you regularly watch the Adventure Show then you are likely to have come across this race.
The course consists of a 10.5km loop which you aim to complete as often as possible in a 24 hour period. There is the option to take part as a team of 4, a team of 2 or solo and this year for the first time as a team of 10 (as it was the 10th anniversary of the event). 2015 would be my 4th participation. In 2008 I’d taken part as a team of 4 followed by a couple of participations as a team of 2. During one of those I decided that it would be easier to ride this event solo, so that is what I entered as for the 2015 event.
Apart from the unique nature of the event itself entry only opens 2 months before race date making if feel like a frantic 2 months to get ready and trained up. Contrary to previous team attempts I started getting out on the MTB from Sept ’14 onwards on a very regular basis to get my MTB skill and fitness level up and to work out what I would need kitwise and what would help improve the bike without breaking the bank. Over the following months, new wheels and tyres were bought, Xmas wishlist was adapted to incorporate stuff I may need and I invested in a very good set of cycling lights. GreaseMonkey Cycles also agreed to help me out with spare parts and made sure my bike was in top condition before race day.
The race setup is that you bring your own crew and most will stay on site in some form or another – tent, van, caravan, camper or similar. In the past we camped using a big family tent but my past experience was that this meant that both rider and crew would just eventually get really cold. It is not uncommon for teams to have big log burning fires or stoves set up. This year we went for luxury and hired a campervan from Bunk Campers. The bike got luxury accommodation too in form of our big family-size tent. My crew, consisting of my girlfriend Fiona and Lynn – a good friend and also one of my athletes – were those spending most of the time in the camper but it was very handy for keeping me warm too for when I wasn’t on the bike.
The race started at 10am on Saturday morning (January 17th) and finished 24 hours later at 10am on Sunday morning. If you are still on the course at 10am on Sunday you are allowed to complete the lap you are on for it to count as long as this lap is completed by 11am.
We arrived Friday afternoon and managed to get a great spot for the camper right on the course which allowed Fiona and Lynn to see me twice in quick succession (just before heading to start finish then again on my way back up) so they had a couple of minutes to sort stuff – food or drink in particular – out for me.
The weather in the run up to this year’s event was testing to say the least – especially for the organisers, as Scotland was battered with high winds and snow for days. In the days before the race the race route still had to be cleared of fallen trees. It was looking increasingly that race conditions themselves would be pretty tough. Forecast though was promising with temperatures around freezing, winds dying down to around 5 mph and sun due out on the Saturday. But this being Scotland I had not much trust in this and queuing up to pick up my parking permit outside Squarewheels Cycles in Strathpeffer we were buffeted by a snowstorm.
My plan for the race was simple: start steady and hopefully not let the pace drop off too much as the race progressed. With the event having teams as well as solos a steady start felt depressingly pedestrian as I was basically aiming to do a lap at roughly double the time of some of those in 4 person teams. The start is a Le Mans style start meaning we got to walk – accompanied by a piper – around 400m away from our bikes and the race village only to then turn around and run back to them. I gave Lynn the honour to pass the bike on to me for my first lap. After handover I ran a bit further before actually mounting the bike and getting going – only 23 hours and 55 minutes left then.
I mentioned weather above: Well, we were truly blessed! No wind, sunshine and a pleasant 0 degrees. There was snow lying on the ground, on the tracks and over the mountains, everything was bathed in sun, the sky was blue, it was glorious! Absolutely unbelievable really! It stayed like that all day and into the evening, giving us a beautiful sunset too.
Apart from my pacing plan there were a few other things I’d agreed with the crew: My main thoughts would be to do a nutrition pit stop roughly every 3 hours which as it turned out would be roughly every 3 laps. I’d also agreed a plan with Fiona what I thought I would like to eat when. From past experience I felt it should be lots of hot food as I would mostly be cold. Lynn had made a great butternut squash and chilli soup which I had a couple of times, I had rice pudding other times and the plan was to have Frankfurters (specially imported from Austria) on a couple of occasions; we left those in the freezer at home though so that was one delicacy I had to do without.
As with all of these types of races the best laid plans are there to be adapted and from the initial plan of a stop every 3 laps we changed to a 2&1 system after the first 3 lap stint which meant a short stop after 2 laps and a longer one after another, the short one being trackside with a flapjack and the longer one for hot food in the camper. I also pulled over on route occasionally for a few jelly babies and a bit of some nuun drink.
The first proper break after 3 laps also coincided with a wheel change. I had opted – as had many others – to start the race on Ice Spiker tyres. The conditions were nothing like they had been the first time I took part in the Strathpuffer where we had sheet ice in many places but seeing some others skid and fall without Ice Spikers in a couple of places made it clear that at least initially they’d been the right choice. After 3 laps I was glad to be rid of them though as it lightened the load significantly. So between 1-4pm I was enjoying 3 fun laps in the afternoon sunshine on what felt like a light bike with me still having reasonably fresh legs.
As this type of event is nothing without the crew around you I asked Lynn and Fiona to put down in words how things went for them:
Having the hired camper van was great, but it did cause a few issues. One was that the sink blocked up quite early on. We had a go at trying to clear it, even unscrewing the plug hole (having a load of tools with us for bike repair was useful) but nothing worked. We had to tip the waste water from the kitchen sink into the bathroom sink, which continued to drain fine. In retrospect I wonder if the kitchen sink actually froze up.
We’d brought a water container that we use when camping, so that we had an easy supply of water in the tent. We’d put it on the table. In the end we only really used the tent when we were changing the wheels. We had a bit of a struggle to get the quick release on the shiny new wheels to do up, and in the end Karl had to do it himself. Just as he was finally heading out there was a bang from the tent. The water carrier had fallen off the table and burst (I think it may have hit the bike stand). Unfortunately the tent has a built in groundsheet, so the water just formed a big pool in one corner. I had to get a mug and scoop it into a bowl to pour it away.
The camper has a battery for the vehicle and another that powers the lights & other things in the living area. Unfortunately we didn’t realise that we could also recharge things from that second battery. We only gave Lynn’s phone and much more importantly Karl’s Garmin some recharge from the vehicle battery, but that was enough to run it completely flat. So on Sunday morning when everyone was leaving we couldn’t start the camper. Lynn and I on our own were not strong enough to get it moving so she flagged down the next passing car and asked for some help. Pretty soon we had a team of helpful men pushing us along. Finally the van disappeared down the steeper slope, leaving Lynn and I to walk down after it, hoping that Karl had managed to bump start it. Fortunately, he had. Possibly this was not what he needed after a night of cycling…
When we went down to the start/finish marquee to get burgers for our dinner, there were not burgers left. Fortunately there was steak pie and chips, and very good it was too.
See Lynn’s reflection later in the report.
I’ll try and do a short description of the course and how it changes as you ride through it. Additionally this 8 min video shot by someone who walked round the course will give you a real flavor of it:
From the start/finish tent it is roughly a 3-4 km climb along fire roads/land rover tracks. This is briefly interrupted by an approximately 500m stretch of single track which ends in a fairly significant river crossing which I actually quite enjoyed as I quite early on had worked out what I believed to be the best way through which meant going in through the right (not left) entrance and swinging round a big boulder thus avoiding the deepest part of the river and losing the least amount of speed which was necessary to get over a the short sharp incline just after the river. The rest of the up route was uneventful in that it remained a land rover track which remained snowed over and packed down more and more as the race progressed. The land rover track before you got to the uphill single track was littered with vans and campervans and marquees all along and fires outside them which meant there was a good amount of support along there. There were only a couple more higher up.
At the point of leaving the land rover track to take the single track over the top section and then eventually back to the finish there was an ambulance van station who gave us support all the way through the race.
No rear brakes
The next bit of the course is technical for about a km and then it is just rough for another km, a km I got to dislike more and more as the race went on as it was very energy sapping. In the technical first km I had marked out 2 points were I would push the bike down a slab of stone. I had ridden them both a couple of times but I was in it for the long game and didn’t want to do anything silly. It cost me very little in time. At one point I did realise that the reason I struggled to get down one of the slabs was because I wasn’t using my rear brake, the reason I wasn’t using my rear brake was because it wasn’t working and hadn’t been from early on. Lynn found this out to her horror when she was cleaning the bike during one of my stops and pointed out that the rear brakes weren’t working and I went: I know, I am just using the front brake, don’t worry about it!
I stopped twice in the top section during the race – once early in the night and once sometime after midnight – to fix the front brake. Funnily I stopped at exactly the same spot. Apart from the readjustment needed the front brake pads served me well throughout the whole race.
Anyway, top section, rough surface to ride on, slabs to get down, short switch backs to go up and down, bridges to cross, snowy tracks which turned to muddy tracks, which turned to snowy track. We eventually got spat out onto a flat, wider snowy track which led to the final, short climb to the highest point on the course. Up until this point nothing had changed from previous Strathpuffers I had done.
The descent off the high point had been changed a bit but then returned to the known track up a steep incline – some quick gear changing required – but I had worked out a good route through avoiding slush and ice. This climb was followed by a flat section along a loch and then some lovely rolling single track turning eventually into the last sustained climb which was punctuated with a steep entry and a steep exit both of which were regular out of saddle experiences for me and I was wondering when the time would come that I’d be pushing up those steep sections. To my surprise that time never came but more on that later.
I had overheard somewhere that the final descent had been changed, not that I could actually remember what it looked like except that it was fast and sweeping and fun ending in a progressively worsening muddy hole.
Well, they left the initial fast bit – the first 100m of it roughly – chucked in a sharp left, over a couple of tree roots and through some gloopy mud before sending us through descent section part 2. This can be best described as: mud, glorious mud, followed by much more of the same. I think it was intended to be muddy but as it was the main south facing hill of the ride the sun shone right on the snow that was lying there adding lots of snow melt to the already muddy track. There wasn’t a lap where this part of the course looked the same. I thought I would get to hate this section as the race progressed but although it changed constantly it didn’t turn into a hard to get through part of the course as it stayed wet and thus more easily passable than if the mud had turned gloopy. The top section was much more to my disliking. This part on the other hand was a fun challenging to aim to get right every time and I felt I did a pretty good job of it. Just as we got to the end of it we came through a smaller camp of crew/supporters and then onto the final bit of single track past my crew down to start/finish.
That should give you a rough idea of what the lap looked like. Compared to other years I didn’t feel it worsened as much as it could have done. The final section got really muddy very quickly and then just stayed that way. The climb off the land rover track got more difficult to the point that walking up it was just easier and there were small bits were it got a bit more icy over night or muddy during the day. Overall it remained remarkably the same throughout with just some of the snow vanishing. Maybe for me the changes were more gradual as I did every lap of my team of 1.
Legs, Back and Arms
Now then, how did my body cope with this? As mentioned earlier I did get feeling that I was starting to grind out some of the sections of the course and expected to run low on energy at some point resulting in me having to push the bike. As the event went on I did see a number of riders doing this.
My legs never really seemed to get tired throughout the 17 laps I did, or hurt for that matter. I got a couple of cramps in my hamstrings mid afternoon, so before nightfall, but that then settled. Two things really bothered me during the race:
- My lower back started hurting early on mostly on the climbs and descending out of saddle felt more comfortable than climbing in the saddle. It crossed my mind that I should see the onsite massage therapist. Lynn suggested trying a heat pad in my back pocket which we went for. I have no idea if it helped or the fact I stopped a couple of times in the following laps but the back seemed to settle down allowing me to concentrate on the task at hand.
- The other thing that was starting to get really unpleasant as the race wore on were my forearms, wrists and hands; palms of my hands to be precise. I couldn’t initially pinpoint the cause as I was sensing it coming from vibrations on the rough sections of the course. With that in mind the crew hatched a plan to pad out my handlebars a bit more. Sadly it only helped a bit as the cause seemed to come more from tension of pulling on the handlebars and thus mostly hurt when climbing the toughest sections. The best I could do to minimise pain was regularly change my hand position on the handlebars. It turned into my worst issue though.
- The only other thing of note was one crash I had during the night when I wasn’t actually on the bike. I was pushing down one of the slabs as I had done numerous times before but this time awkwardly slipped and landed hard on my bum. With a bit of bad luck all this will be caught on camera and shown on The Adventure Show. It turned into one of my less memorable laps as I just wasn’t getting to grips with the course that time round and thus it was a good time to come in for a stop with the pit crew.
Considering I had been going for 24 hours the above is minimal pain to have in all that. Being a bike event I would equally rely on a working bike and something that had failed me in the past when I did this event as part of a team. One year when I’d done it as a team of 2 with my mate Craig, I’d broken my rear derailleur while his body was broken. The difference in body height between the 2 of us meant that I couldn’t just hop onto his bike and take us further up the leader board. This time I had tonnes of spare parts with me from brake pads, chains, derailleurs, inner tubes, tyres and so on only to not need a single item. With the exception of the aforementioned rear brakes nothing went wrong. We’d replaced the wheels after 3 laps as planned and that was it. Grease Monkey Cycles had obviously done a fabulous job in getting the bike ready for me ahead of the event. Maybe even more important though was Lynn’s work in keeping the bike clean during the event. Every time I came in for a bigger pit stop of more than 5 min she got to work cleaning all the vital working bits presenting me with a perfectly functioning bike when I would head out again.
“Arriving at the car park in the morning I managed to squeeze into the last space with the cheery marshal saying not to worry that he would be there in the morning with his landrover if I needed to be pulled out of the snow/mud…reassuring…
How to fill the time whilst Karl was out cycling round and round? Easier than I thought as there were many jobs to do to ensure we were ready with food and bike cleaning kit to keep Mr Z going.
Being next door to some mad Cumbrians who had a wood burning stove set up in their bike station gazebo helped with drying out wet gloves and kit. Also very entertaining listening to them shouting abuse to their riders as they came past! ‘whose the dirty cumbrian’ etc.
A walk around the lower part of the course it was amazing to see some of the teams base camps. One had a generator and a tumble dryer! Others had bonfires going using wood from the forest. Fiona and I spent some time collecting wood for our neighbours. Another van and tent combo had lit their camp up with fairy lights. Some had started to build snowmen. Neighbours on the other side were a ladies pair with a transit type van and each time one of them came in she burrowed under a pile of blankets and coats and slept or was fed soup and tea by their support crew. Great to see the blokes looking after the girls.
I walked up the course before it got dark to get some photos and catch Karl for some encouragement further along the course. I was wearing my official looking Grease monkey jacket and as I was walking up the hill someone on the way down shouted to me that someone had come off their bike and had either dislocated his shoulder or broken a collar bone as if I was a marshal and should do something….eeek! A bit squeamish at the best of times I didn’t relish this task but luckily a couple of bemused walkers found him and walked him back to base camp.
Down to base camp a couple of times to get water and charge batteries, lots going on there with teams coming in and swapping riders, others dibbing in and somehow summoning up the energy to leave the warmth and the lights to head out on another lap. All manner of bikes including a tandem!
Steak pie and chips went down very well before we got to the wee small hours in spite of sweaty, steaming cyclists sitting around us.
A few quiet moments reading in the van me with my easy ‘holiday’ read and various triathlon magazines and Fiona with her quantum physics book! However I soon discovered I needed to keep moving as I was starting to doze off.
Thinking of ways to clean the bike kept me busy, filling the wash bowl and squirty bottles with water and ripping up old t-shirts to use as cleaning cloths.
As dawn broke the support round us got noisier, the cow bells came out and whoops and shouts came from riders and support as the end seemed in sight.
We headed to the finish to watch the final lap come in, riders covered head to toe in mud, absolutely shattered. As I stood in the bike cleaning queue there was lots of chat, relief it was over and plans for next year……maybe.
Discovering our van had used up its battery power was a blow and persuading poor tired mountain bikers to push us down the hill was interesting but they were great, probably realising they had to help as we had blocked the fire road!
I’ve helped and watched many races over the years, some pretty tough ones too but this one…..something else. 24 hours, round and round an 11k lap (and not an easy lap either) in January, up in Northern Scotland……enough said!”
Back to the race:
I did feel as if I was riding somewhere at the back of the field as overtaking other riders was a seldom experience but then being a lapped course which allowed pit stops it was very difficult to judge how you were doing.
Thankfully my crew kept me up to date with positions – although maybe not as regularly as I would have like, but then this might have been a good thing. I believe after the first lap I was 48th out of 92 which I was pleased with as it showed that I hadn’t gone off too fast.
Somewhere in the early evening hours I found out that I had moved up to 43rd place. I disappointing improvement in my books as I felt I had been lapping consistently and I was hoping to have people falling by the wayside gradually. Several hours later though Lynn shouted news at me that nearly made me fall from my bike. I was now in 26th place. This was around 10 or 11pm so even before the night ride had really started. If I was expecting to move properly then it was going to be between the hours of midnight and 6am I thought. Turns out I wasn’t quite right about this. My main move came before midnight. I mostly held position overnight suggesting that a number of solos were on the same strategy. Well there were 2 main strategies: either keep going or put the head down for the night.
Up until the evening hours I mostly felt good about my laps, found good lines, enjoyed the weather, was warm (mostly) and tiredness wasn’t causing any issues. During the evening I started to struggle a bit with the occasional lap, the one when I fell on my bum being the worst. The toughest 2 laps were lap 13 and lap 14 which were completed between 2am and 4:30am, not that lap 12 was much better after which I’d taken a decent break. When I stopped at 4:30 continuing became questionable and both Fiona and Lynn had asked me if I wanted to go to sleep. I was virtually falling asleep on the chair I was sitting on anyway. I wasn’t prepared to go to bed though as it first of all would have involved getting changed and felt I was admitting defeat to riding through the night. I made myself comfortable on the couch and nodded off to sleep as did the rest of the crew. Approx 45 min later we rose again, I slowly ate some rice pudding and sipped some coffee and got ready to get out again. I felt very groggy and expected a repeat of lap 14 although I was hoping to see some daylight creeping through the trees eventually. I left the camper at 6:25 am.
A new dawn
The start to the lap was slow but I perked up quite quickly and was feeling good about things to the degree that I felt we could knock a few more laps off. Initial plan was to do a lap and see. Well I did lap 15 and felt good, great actually, so pushed on for lap 16 half way through which I could finally switch the bike light off. A bit of me was thinking as I was going round lap 16 that I had done a fine job and could leave it here but luckily the last bit of each lap was more pleasant than the rough bit at the top and I was up for lap 17. I stopped briefly at the camper to get rid of the bike light and battery pack and headed round for my final lap with the sun now rising over the mountains and presenting us with another glorious day. I finished my 17th lap exactly 24 hours after I started my first.
The last 3 laps had a bit of a Phoenix from the Ashes experience as I felt surprisingly good and I virtually put 3 continuous laps together. I was aware of that experience from my double Ironman I had done in 2009 but wasn’t sure the same would happen here. I don’t think it would have happened if it hadn’t been for that 45 min kip I had.
One of my main concerns I had in the morning hours was that I would start dropping back from my 26th position as those who had gone to bed would rise and start putting in a few more fast laps. Luckily this didn’t happen and I didn’t just consolidate my position but instead moved up a bit more finishing in 22nd eventually.
As Alan Cardwell, who was there competing in a team of 4, said to me in a post about their efforts: Not bad for a bunch of triathletes. I felt a bit the same with my efforts: Not bad for an ultra marathon runner.
Both triathlon and cycling had taken a step back over the last few years. Going into the event I was banking on my endurance from long distance running to be the key to success as I wasn’t really a mountain biker and was competing on an inferior piece of kit. When I bought the new wheels (2nd hand) I double the value of the bike. I was riding on a set of 26” wheels which looking around during the race were not the best choice especially over the top section. 27.5 or 29 would have been better. I could have also as the race progressed done with lower gears. That said thought I am chuffed to bits for finishing 22nd and completing 17 laps or nearly 190km with over 4500m of climbing.
My lap times remained remarkably consistent between 70 and 80 min which shows how good my endurance was and the overall race strategy worked. Huge thank you to Fiona and Lynn for all the help and support before, during and after the race and to Grease Monkey Cycles for the technical help.
4 times at the Strathpuffer is enough for me though, although my sparring partner from a couple of years ago is trying to get me to join a team for 2016.
With Strathpuffer now over it is time to look ahead to the next big thing. In the week before Strathpuffer my name got pulled out of the ballot for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc Ultra Marathon. So it is off the mountain bike and on with the trail shoes.
Some good photos of the event on the Redbull Site.