Thursday, 4 August 2011

Bontrager 24/12

Bontrager was the second endurance race I did in a mixed pairs category with Sean. Last year’s 10@ Kirroughtree was one of the best races I’d done and I hoped Bontrager would be similar.

Saturday welcomes us with sun and high temperatures, and the course is becoming drier every hour. Our target is simple: to have fun. Both Sean and I are in pretty bad form and I’m also a bit worried about what impact my anemia will have on such a long race. All in all, to have fun and to enjoy ourselves seems like a good plan.

Sean’s going to do the first lap to get a clear field so we won’t get stuck after people struggling on singletracks. Himself and Oisin take good spots in the front row at the start line, the tension is rising, the countdown starts… and off they go! Sean is sprinting and by the time he finishes the first lap, the slower people are left behind. It’s my turn now, so here we go! Show me that trail! A short loop on the field and then a slow grassy climb cools my enthusiasm. A short singletrack through a forest, and then climbing again. Down for a while, and up for ages. Every time I hit a hill, I feel like if I hit a wall. It’s tough.
And then, after some 45minutes I get to a long and flowy singletrack, a roller-coaster of small and twisty and muddy bombholes, tricky in places but great fun when the correct lines are taken. My heart lifts. “Woohoo! Now that’s what it is about!”. I can’t stop grinning. And overtaking more and more people only adds to the fun and boosts my confidence. I can ride it forever. Everything is going according to the plan: it’s fun.

I reach the field where our team is camping, they greet with a loud cheer and I sprint to the finish to set Sean off for his lap. And then I hear: “MAD/Cycleways team! Second in mixed pairs!” ... WHAT??!! At the transition we have only time to exchange surprised looks. Now, that’s not what we have planned.
Ok, I have less than 50 minutes before Sean is back. I don’t feel like eating but I know I have to. I feed myself with an oat bar and custard. I try to spin slowly, but the pain in my left hip/thigh makes it impossible to spin, and to sit, and even to lie. But it’s gone when I’m back in the race. I enjoy the second lap much more than the first one. Now I know where these climbs finish. I know that after that corner there is a steep climb so I need to reduce the gears. I know that just over there, there are loose stones at the edge of the path. And that the course takes turns at the top of bombholes. And the third lap is even better. And then the fourth one… They seem to be shorter and shorter, and more enjoyable. We’re still 2nd, however the gap is only 4-5 minutes with 6 hours still to go. Anything can happen.
We write short notes to each other, there’s no time at the transition to chat. At the beginning the notes say “Enjoy. Don’t worry about the time, just finish the laps. Have fun.” Then they get a more competitive sound: “We’re 2nd. We can keep it if we keep the pace”. And then even more “Still 2nd, only a few minutes gap. Keep the effort up!” We are racers, we can’t help that :D And we are having fun, oh, we are! And getting medals is such great fun too!

It's getting harder, my joints hurt when I’m off the bike, my mind is a bit out of the place when I’m trying to do something sensible during the break. Thanks God there’s Aine there – the good spirit of our team, holding everything together, doing the job our tired brains refuse to do.
I seem to think clearer out there on the trail, with adrenaline flowing in my veins. High5 Isogels with caffeine do their job as well. I feel happy even if it hurts. My forearms, unused to holding the bars on a sketchy terrain, are on fire. On downhill sections it feels like someone is trying to pull them out. But I need them. I shout out of pain speeding on rocky descents. But it doesn’t matter. We’re still 2nd.

On an evening lap (photo from here)

I do my first night lap with the lights on (borrowed from Mel – thank you). I get stuck behind people for whom dusk apparently is a problem, but I eventually manage to overtake them and gain some time back.
Before the last lap, around 10pm, I try to change my clothes as it’s getting colder. I’m so swollen that I struggle to put the tight lycra on. It takes me ages and I don’t leave myself time to rest. I’m late for the transition, Sean is waiting for me. I take off for the last time but I feel that just like something clicked on after the first 45 minutes, it’s clicked off now. Time flies by so quickly on familiar trails, I cannot believe when I reach the by now well-known spots for the sixth time this day. People struggling with darkness hear me coming and step to the side letting me go by. I finish at 11.30pm, and Sean goes off for the last lap.
0:30 and it’s over. We’re 2nd.
Despite my earlier worries, I did the laps at surprisingly consistent pace: 59:35, 1:02:16, 1:02:58, 1:02:26, 1:04:06, 1:10:04.

We stay awake to cheer up the 24h riders, get less than 4 hours sleep in the morning (which definitely doesn’t help the recovery) and can hardly move the next day.

We ask ourselves and each other “why do we do that” countless times. We cannot formulate the answer but we can feel it dwelling somewhere within us.
Being out there in the forest on your bike, racing for 6 hours, or 12, or 24, during the day and at night, when most “normal” people are fast asleep, with a tiny thought sitting somewhere at the back of your brain saying “hmm… that is a bit insane” and then seeing 2000 people around doing the exact same thing and enjoying it as much as you do… surely there is a reason for which we do that.
And still in pain on Monday morning, feeling muscles which we didn’t know we had, we’re already making plans for the next year’s Bontrager.

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