Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Mudfest at Bontrager 24/12 2012

Bontrager twentyfour12 - a race we've been waiting for for a year, since our last year's fun and good performance (report here). Once again we are to start in the 12h mixed pair category and after getting 2nd last year the goal for this year is simple: to win.
We've been counting days down for weeks now, and here it is, long-anticipated, loaded with big expectations, Bonty 2012...

Thursday, 6th July
The bikes and all the cycling gear went to the UK in the morning with Aine and Conor in their van; with Sean (his report from the race here), Claire and Phil we take a night fly to Bristol and stay in Wookey Hole - a picturesque place with Ice Cream Parlour - highly recommended!

Friday, 7th July
We leave Wookey Hole after having all-flavour ice-cream for breakfest. We head towards Plymouth, listening to disturbing weather forecast on the radio, as if our car's wipers working like crazy were not enough to convince us that it was going to be a tough weekend.
We arrive at the place in the afternoon, to our surprise the guys had pitched all the tents and gazebos, we help with the last preparations and have time to go on a reconnaissance lap. The course is in relatively good conditions, considering the forecasts, but it doesn't look particularly interesting. In fact, it looks boring. Quite feature-less, not technically challenging, with fire road descents where you lose the elevation quickly without getting any reward but instead with a feeling that something is missing here. The good thing is that there are no long hard climbs like last year, but no fun sections either. We recall the fantastic roller-coaster bomb-holes from the previous race, how they made all those horrible climbs worthwhile being the main feature of the course, the one you were looking forward to for the whole lap. Nothing like that this year... But maybe when ridden at a high racing speed it'll get more exciting, as it sometimes happens with such courses. Hopefully.
There is a jump made of a few pallets however, which makes me feel uneasy. I want to do it, it may be "the feature", something to remember, but suddenly I'm lacking the confidence to do it. Nobody in our tent rushes to show how the jump should be done ;) I know I can do it, I've done such things before, on my hardatil, but now I ride around it until it gets dark and I can no longer see the pallets. I'll try tomorrow.
It starts raining.
We sit in our gazebo till late, having barbeque and beers and fun, and eventually go to sleep.
The rain gets heavier, it gets windy. Then it rains even more...

Saturday, 8th July - the Race Day
We step out off our tents into angle-deep water, the whole field is flooded! Fortunately (for us, maybe not for himself) Phil was awake at night, noticed in time what was going on and managed to save most of the things from our gear tent. Yes, "most of", a big part of our clothing was soaked so Aine and Paddy O'Brien set off on a trip to a launderette which turned out to be in a nearby town. Now, that's a novelty amongst race preparations... Two minutes before they come back, my bag falls into the water and my cycling gear, base layers and socks get wet. Hm, nice, I'll try to dry them in the car so.

It is also discovered that the river's level got dangerously high over the night and the bridges we need to cross a few times during the lap may be washed away and so we need to now wait till 11am for the decision to be made whether the race goes ahead or is it cancelled. Nobody is sure what outcome we should wish for, some people leave the camping field and go back home, others just don't show up in the morning, it hasn't stopped raining, it all looks so miserable...
Finally, the decision is announced: the race will start as planned, however it may be cancelled at any time. Fair enough.

Sean gets ready to do the first lap of our race, we all gather at the start line, 12pm, off they went! A few minutes later they go through the field again after doing the mini start loop, Sean is at the front, a nice view :) I have no idea how long the lap will take him (the course was changed after the night), so I go to the transition zone early and wait for him impatiently.
He arrives after 42 minutes, covered in mud, and it's my time to check out how much the course changed over the night. The rain is getting weaker now, but for how long?
The course starts with a climb where a few people overtake me and then turns into a forest where after a short while my bike is not clean any longer. It's muddy and slippy but still rideable if you pick the correct lines and have some strength in your legs to keep the wheels rolling. I feel well but don't remember all the turns from the practice lap so I still need to stay very focused and look well ahead to spot the corners. I close the gaps to some riders in front of me and soon come to a long fireroad descent which seems to me like a perfect place to bed in my new break pads. The bike gains speed, I pull on the breaks and the back tire overtakes me. Splash! I land on the ground and glide in a mud for a few metres. Ok, muddy fire road are not the best places to bed in your breaks.
I hit the camping field, which marks the middle of the lap, after 25 minutes. Then there is time for some climbing and some more mud riding. Some sections are particularly bad and it takes a lot of energy to keep the bike in a relatively straight line, not to mention pushing it forward. A few times we we're all forced off the bikes, some people walk, I have enough strength to run and surprisingly to me I do it with quite an ease. Hm, maybe the running experience from the race in the Davagh Forest pays off?
After 40 minutes or so I can see the tents through the trees, the finish line is getting closer. But here is where the course holds a big surprise for me - the singletrack which was perfectly rideable the day before now is worse than anything else we fought against so far. Every few meters the bikes just stops, the wheels spinning in place. I run up that muddy singletrack, slipping on roots and soon come to the top of it, just to discover that the rest of the section looks the same. The trails goes along a narrow ridge and every now and then my bike slips down and I must drag it up again so soon my arms get tired more than my legs. A bit of cycling, a bit of running and finally there is the long grassy descent to the field.
I see the pallets in front of me, I'll do it!,  I pedal faster, change the gears up to gain more speed and then my chain gets stuck and the pedals come to a halt. I turn right in the very last moment, a few meters before the pallets, change the gears back down, and a bit disappointed pedal through the field.
The transition zone, Sean is waiting, your turn my dear, have fun!

Now, he did the previous lap in 42 minutes, now he's warmed-up so may do it faster, I decide to be ready in 35 minutes. Quickly, to our tents, get a sandwich with peanutbutter and honey, a cup of hot tea, change the bottle, clean the bike (now, that takes a good while, everything is clogged with mud and grass, I also pick some small branches from my cassette which blocked my chain before the jump), go to the loo and be ready for the next lap. I go to the start/finish area with Claire where we wait for what seems ages. Finally Sean is here, "more running this time" he says and I think "ha, been there...".
I start the climbing with a girl cycling next to me, we're similar pace so we start chatting and it turns out that she's doing the mixed pairs as well! Apparently we're in 1st and 2nd and I overtook her on our previous lap. Hm, it may be... Soon, she drops a little behind and on the muddy singletrack I open the gap. The mud is getting worse, it's more and more difficult to handle the bike but I can see that I'm strengthening our 1st position and that makes me feel better.

They've opened a short bomb-hole section this time, it could be fun in the dry but now there is a half-calf deep puddle of cement-like mud and my bike stops in the middle of it. I step into the mud, push the bike and then hear the weird metallic sound so dreaded by mountain bikers. Derailleur!! Oh no! I lift the bike and bring it to the fire road, fortunately the hanger looks straight but there is something else wrong there. The whole bottle of my energy drink is used now to wash out the mud so I can see my bike again and it turns out that something in that puddle caught the quick release and opened it, the chain got stuck behind the big ring, the wheel moved awkwardly and got stuck at a weird angle, and doesn't want to move at all! It takes me long minutes of wrestling to get it all sorted, bad thoughts rushing through my head, but I still don't see the girl behind me. I push hard for the rest of the lap (more running than previously), the chain drops before the pallets so no jumping again and come to the transition zone properly tired.

Sean takes off and I rush to our feed zone to get ready for the next lap. I'm getting hungry and thirsty (didn't drink at all during the last lap, after using the bottle to clean the gears), I'm soaked and cold. I'd like to change, I'd like to sit down and eat. I look for the car keys to get my dry-ish gear out but they are not where they used to be. Usually working so well under stress, today I feel lost and lonely. The thoughts are speeding in my head, the clock is ticking, eat, drink, clean the bike, check the gears, get warm, get dry, go to a toilet, drink, eat.
Ok, no time for that, focus, prioritise! First things first - there was a mechanical so the bike is the most important, we won't do much without it! So with the hands shaking in the cold I wash the bike, check the derailleur and chain, remove the back wheel, take the grass off the rings, close it properly, and make sure everything is in the working order. Finally it's done but there's no much time left for anything else. There are rumours of some sections being closed so once again Sean may be here earlier than expected. I grab a handful of dates, a gel, some drink and go to the transition area, where once again I wait long time and get cold in my wet gear before I can hit the road again and get warm once climbing. I didn't have the time to check where the other pair was so all I can do now is to push hard and gain as much time as possible.

I make more mistakes on the mud this time and I know I'm beginning to lose it. It's so early in the race, I shouldn't be getting so tired yet! But being fair to myself, it's the sixth hour of the race and I haven't sat down even for a minute, I didn't eat enough simply because I didn't have time and that frustrates me a bit because I know that food is crucial for endurance races! Especially for riders with fussy stomachs.
I'm weaker and the course is muddier, so I catch some branches and thorny bushes on the side of the paths a few times, shiny and clean red blood oozing through the tick layer of mud on my leg. The course changes every lap, with the rain and a thousand of wheels continuously carving their way through the soft ground.
At the end of this lap I'm feeling weaker than I should but fortunately Aine shows her mercy and offers cleaning the bike for me. I'm tired and have some problems with thinking, I can't find anything in the tent, I waste time looking for those car keys again, I can't find the food I want so I just grab what I can find even if some weak voice in my head tries to say that it's not the way to go. But my stomach feels full now and it feels happy, I get a dry jersey (still wet shorts though), grab the bike of Aine and start my fourth lap, hearing from Sean that they're going to close more unrideable sections.
First seconds in and I pay for my stupid mistakes, I get awful stomach cramps and soon can't even get the proper breath. Everything hurts but I soon discover that it hurts whether I push hard or not so the decision is easy - push through that, it hurts anyway so at least try not to lose too much time.
While walking through a muddy section once again, I see the marshal saying that this section is going to be closed for the next lap. Hm, hasn't Sean heard that already?
At some stage I see the girl from the other pair walking through a muddy singletrack and I ride past her. I may be not the strongest climber but I can ride my bike off road! :) Even with my stomach cramped. We're first again.
After half a lap however I can't stand it any longer and the stomach throws up whatever it'd got inside. I lose precious time and feel only a tiny bit better. (Next time only gels, caffeine and smooth bars. Porridge and peanut butter sandwiches may be considered as well.) Walking and pushing the bike hurts even more than cycling, there is no way I could run so I just focus on each step and try to get to the transition zone. Finally I see Sean and Claire, jeez, I feel so happy to see the friendly faces, I ask Sean to do a double lap and see the worried look of Claire, well, I presume I don't look my best now. We spent maybe 10 minutes chatting, the first human conversation I've had in 6 hours, and I already start feeling better.
This time I have 1.5h - enough time to get a shower, change into dry clothes, get hot peppermint tea and porridge. The world starts looking bright again.
I feel bad for Sean who has to run out there for two laps in a row so I promise myself to make up for that and be extra-ready when my turn comes. When the stomach feels comfortable enough I get coffee and caffeinated Isogels and get ready for the night lap.

This time I feel great, I'm dry, fed and fast. I overtake many people and for the first time really enjoy the ride, having enough energy to run all the muddy sections again. I don't know what's our position but I ride hard and clean and finish happy and strong.
Back in the field the screen with the results is still off, apparently they're doing the results backup but there's nobody around to ask about the positions. That's pretty annoying because it's difficult to work out your strategy after swapping the 1st and 2nd places for over 10 hours, if you have no access to any data. Fingers crossed we'll finish in the lead. Soon Sean comes back, and at 11:49pm I start our last lap, having no idea where the other pair is.
(Sunday, 8th July - the Race continues)
I took Conor's and Cormac's lights as they are stronger and enjoy the last lap in the darkness. It feels weird to chase the shadows, we may be leading, or we might have already lost the battle, I need to keep motivating myself to ride as hard as I can, no matter what, I set myself time targets for particular sections of the course and race against the clock.
When it comes to the last muddy section along the ridge, I don't even bother trying to cycle it, it's faster to run it, people around look at me surprised "who's this lunatic still willing to run in the mud in the middle of the night?" Well, there are more of us like this... Nearly at the end, when I run down a small drop, my left tight hits a sharp stone or a tree trunk, I can't see in the darkness, the pain almost knocking me down. But it doesn't matter, I'm almost there. I push as hard as I can and finally, at 1 minute to 1am, I cross the finish line.
And then I see the guy from the other pair.
He got here first.
2 minutes 44 seconds earlier than me.
My heart breaks.


I had never felt so disappointed after the race, I had never rode so well and lost by so little. What hurts the most is the fact that we could have won it. If only we were allowed to see the results, we would have seen that their faster rider is doing multiple laps and they're closing the gap. Sean would have done the last lap, and even if tired doing the double, he would have still been much faster than me. Surely more than 2min 44sec faster.
I can analise what could have been done better forever but there is no point thinking about the weather or the crashes or the mechanicals, they can always happen and we're all in the same boat and there is only that much we can do about it. But if only we'd known where we were, if only we could play tactically, we would have had it. As a team, we were faster. We should have just let the faster rider do more laps. We were well capable of getting it. And it hurts so much.

Sean, me and Morgal the MAD mascot

Monday, 9th July - A drive, a flight, and a few dinners and showers later

I know we gave a good performance. Over a 13-hour race we lost by only 2:44 min. Both our teams did thirteen laps, while the pair who got 3rd managed to do "only" eleven - that's a big difference. Based on the time, we would have also been fourth in Male Pairs. That gives some sort of satisfaction.

But I also wasn't impressed with the course itself. I know that not much can be done if it rains that heavily but in many places the trail might have been made more weather-proof. That long draggy section at the end of the lap which everybody had to run could have been shortened, to save on our misery a bit. You could hear people complaining all the time that there was more walking than riding involved, and that can be pretty frustrating.
And that screen with the results that was off for over an hour, or maybe more, with nobody around to ask about the places - now that was a serious flaw at such a race.
And when I think about how much it cost us - all the traveling, the flight/ferry and food/accommodation costs, 3 days of holidays used - I just feel we put in much more than we received. And after all, the course simply wasn't fun. I really hoped we could win it and never have to come back again. But now I'm feeling too bad about it all to let it go. More training, better organisation and one day we'll be back. Maybe not next year (or maybe yes) but some day we'll get what we want.

What I loved however were regularly cleaned showers with hot water, a fantastic massages that made it all less painful (and I made all the massaging team laugh on Sunday morning were they saw my scratched and bruised legs, that apparently were "worse than anything they saw during the whole event" and weren't entirely sure where they can touch it). And the tent with hot food, swedish meat balls, baked potato, and delicious, full of marsmallows, Rocky Road cookies.
It all still hurts today but in a few days or weeks the bad memories will fade and we'll be laughing at all that and reminding ourselves funny moments (i.e. Paddy falling off the bike and then not able to ind it - until the guy behind him points out the mud-full puddle where the bike is fully submerged. Sorry Paddy, I know it may not have seemed funny at the time, but now it sounds hilarious :D ).
We traveled for a few days, saw some lovely places on our way, rode our bikes in crazy conditions and spent a lot of time with fantastic people. That's what's important and that's what makes it all worthwihle.

I need to say a big Thank You to Sean and our friends (esp. Claire and Phil) for their unlimited support. They kept pointing out how good our race was and how good performance we gave, they were around ready to talk and to listen, and at the same time, staying so positive, they gave me the time I needed and simply let me mourn.

And today, with the sun outside and the chocolate cake in the oven, I'm already planning the next race. And I know they do it too, even if two days ago some of them (Claire ;) ) were swearing they would never get on the bike again.
But once again we'll forget our suffering and the misery of walking bikes through the mud at night and we'll remember the time we spent together, the view of cyclists slowly moving up the hill in the light of a big golden moon, the fresh smell of the forest after the rain and how lovely and sunny it got just after the race ended.
And once again we'll take our bikes and go out in the mountains, and we'll love it.

“It's snowing still," said Eeyore gloomily.
"So it is."
"And freezing."
"Is it?"
"Yes," said Eeyore. "However," he said, brightening up a little, "we haven't had an earthquake lately.” 

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