Earlier this year, a mad woman I was on a team with at Strathpuffer suggested that it would be a good idea for me to try a 24hr solo. The fact that she was planning to take part in a stupid big race that runs the length of the USA should have told me to ignore her, but the idea stuck.
6 months later, after a lot of planning and quite a bit of riding, Chris and I packed up the car on Friday to head down to Endura Sleepless in the Saddle. The car was stuffed to the gunnels because, this being my first 24 solo, I had no idea what I'd need when things got tough. I didn't really expect to do the full 24 hours, so I had also packed plenty of warm clothes for hanging about spectating and helping out the other folks who were racing.
After a 5 hour drive with much nervous chatter from me, we arrived at Catton Park to find that the rest of my support crew had found an ideal spot to set up the gazebo right next to the track, beside the Singletrack team's gazebo and directly opposite the entrance to the solo area - perfect! Yes, my support crew - more on them later, but Chris, Shaggy, Mel and later Steve were a god-send!. There was just enough time for us to pitch our teepee, have some food and a beer before I went off to bed to try to get as much sleep as possible before it all started.
The forecast for the weekend wasn't great, but the brilliant sunshine when I woke up on Saturday morning fooled me into a false sense of security. I had heard about SitS in the rain and didn't like the sound of it one bit, so I really wanted it to stay dry.
Porridge and my first cup of proper tea for over a month (another piece of advice from the mad woman was that I should avoid caffeine for at least 4 weeks before hand so that the caffeine really worked when I had it) and I went to sign on. I had a lot of time to kill before the 2pm start, so I went to have a chat with the Endura folks who told me they had broadband and that the forecast wasn't good, not good at all.
So back to the teepee and made sure that the mud tyres were ready...just in case. Then it rained. Heavy, driving, winter like rain for a couple of hours and my heart sank. As Steve and I lined up at the very back of the crowd on the start line, my plan was just to see how it went.
I walked round the "run" quite slowly, taking a few swigs of Steve's beer - I knew there would be a huge traffic jam, so there was no rush and I also had several hours of riding to do, so there was no point wasting energy running.
When I eventually got to the first section of singletrack, my heart sank. Aside from the traffic jam of riders, there was thick, sticky mud which meant that a lot of the first section of trail wasn't really rideable. But I plodded on and managed to get ahead of the worst of the traffic jam. Half way round my first lap, where the track comes back in past the arena, I shouted over to Chris to get the mud wheels ready - I'd be needing them. From the look of horror on Chris's face, I suspect I looked like I needed them...it was already almost an hour since I set off and I was only half way round the course. It didn't really bode well and my target of 10 laps was already starting to feel almost impossible to achieve.
The rest of the first lap didn't really get much better. The little bit of swoopy fast singletrack I remembered from last year had turned into a long slow trudge and the two exciting decents on the second half of the course were like icy toboggan runs. So when I eventually finished my first lap and came back through the transition area, the only response I could think of to the question Chris-D asked about the course was "It's a bit grim".
My support crew immediately got to work cleaning down my bike, changing wheels, getting me some food and water before gently pushing me back out of the gazebo and back onto the bike.
And so it continued. I'm not sure how long my laps were taking, but I suspect it was somewhere in the region of 2 hours. By my third lap, I had all but given up on hitting my target number of laps, so I just decided to try to stick it out for as long as I could. It was at some point during that third lap that one of the guys I was riding (pushing) around with told up to keep our nerves steady, the whistle would blow in a few minutes and we'd have to go over the top. Last year's Somme Woods at Mayhem were nothing compared to this year's Flanders Fields at SitS. I finished that lap with the tune from Dad's Army going round my head.
Every time I came back into the pits my support crew just got right to work cleaning off my bike, giving me cups of tea (I really have no idea how they knew when I was coming in, but the tea was always at just the right temperature!), checking how much water I'd drunk during my lap, making sure I had enough to eat and then putting me back on my bike. They had already decided on a rota to make sure someone was up to sort me out whenever I came in, so there was someone there for me at the end of every lap.
When I came in after a lap at around 3am, I really wanted to stop and have a nap. Chris had gone off duty, but Shaggy, Mel and Steve were still there to sort me out with food, water and motivation (although, I had to humour them when they tried to convince me that the sun was coming up...yes, I did hear Steve protest that it was just light pollution from Birmingham, but Shaggy's shushing proved that these guys really did want me to do this). I also decided that was the time for my first change of kit. I was completely covered in mud, so fresh shorts were fantastic. Shaggy's declaration that it was no longer about fitness but about strength of character gave me something to think about as I plodded round again.
My next lap actually took me to dawn. By that time, the course was very, very quiet, a huge area of the campsite had emptied and there were very few lights on around the campsite. I think a lot of people had decided to take some rest. My feet were aching and covered in blisters because of the amount of pushing I was having to do (Sidi's are ace, but they aren't made for walking) and I really wanted to stop and go home, but once again, my support crew got to work on me when I came in, cleaning off the bike again, feeding me and persuading me to just try one more lap.
By the time it got to 10am, I was trying to figure out a strategy for finishing. I had set my mind to the fact that I cold only do one more lap and that I would have to stop and take a break, otherwise, I'd be finished way before 2. However, my support crew kicked in again and suggested that I go out and do one more now and that they'd figure out where I had to lurk. My brain was a bit addled by that point, so it didn't occur to me that I'd have to do a 4 hour lap if this was to be my last one, that would have been a lot of lurking!
During that lap, the sun came out and it started to warm up, so my spirits lifted. I also started seeing some of the guys I'd been riding around with during the night - Paul West of Endura/Shred and Fig Roll guy (I didn't get your name), you guys were ace too and helped keep me going - it was good to see those guys were still going too. The crowds had come back out too and the cheers and good wishes from the crowds made it much easier to keep going.
The last pit stop was a very quick one. By that time, I wanted to get the final lap out of the way as quickly as I could so that I could get it all over with and take my shoes off. So, a quick refill of water, a gel and a stinger sweetie and I was off again. I rode and pushed that last lap with some of the guys I'd ridden with during the course of the last 24 hours. A sense of relief that we'd made it along with a real sense of camaraderie made it easier to finish the lap despite the aches, pains and tiredness.
As I crossed the finish line, scanning the crowds for a familiar face, I felt a bit overcome with emmotion. I saw Chris D holding out a bottle of Grimbergen for me, which was very, very welcome as a change from electrolyte. I downed almost half the bottle then wobbled my way slowly towards Pat Adams and finally saw Chris waiting for me at the barrier at the bottom. That's it!
A big hug from my support crew finally brought on the tears of relief, joy and disbelief that I'd actually managed to finish (it didn't even take Mel touching my thumb to make me cry this time!). I didn't think I could do it at all, never mind get the third place that I somehow managed to get. If it hadn't been for my top support crew, I would have sneaked off to bed at about 4am and not got back up again, so thank's to you guys!
So it's done. I've worked towards it all year and I managed to do it. No time to sit back quite yet though, the 3Peaks is just over a month away. I will take it easy this week though and I'm looking forward to sitting in the seat at the front of the bus for the elderly and infirm tomorrow on the way to work instead of riding in, but the new cross bike is due next weekend and I suspect the temptation will be too much.
[pictures to follow]