Monday, 27 August 2012

XC Marathon Championship, Ballyhoura, 26th August 2012

After last week’s good performance at the Cooley Thriller I was full of hope and good feelings. We travelled towards Ballyhoura on Saturday evening to avoid early morning wake up the next day and spent the evening eating, watching Father Ted and massaging my tight calves (the first two were more successful than the other). I had a pretty bad week preparation-wise, with skipped lunches, overtime, hunger, thirst and tiredness happening far too often. It worried me a bit but I tried not to think about it and stay positive.
Sunday morning. We arrive at Ballyhoura with good moods and bad legs, I hope however that it may be one of those races when your legs feel awful but work great. The weather is lovely, it’s sunny and warm, the atmosphere is cheerful, we go to the start line and wait impatiently for the race to start. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! Off we go!

It starts at the fireroad to spread us out and after a few minutes I can see Orla and Jacqui passing by me but we still have over 70km to go so everything is ok. My legs are still heavy but sometimes they wake up on a singletrack after the first hard climb so I keep my hopes up. After maybe 5 minutes we enter a short singletrack, a group I’m in misses a turn but we’re back on track in no time and soon I catch up with Jacqui and manage to stay on her wheel all the way on the fireroad. I fail to overtake her before the next singletrack however and it’s too narrow there to pass by so I just stick to her wheel getting a bit frustrated and on the next piece of a wider road I push all my energy onto the pedals and just about manage to get into the forest ahead of her. Then I’m starting to open the gap. A very small gap, but still a gap. 10km in I already know that my legs are not going to wake up and judging by the people who overtake me I see that it’s not going to be a “feel bad but race great” kinda day. I start to struggle. And there’s still 60km to go.
I fly down the singletracks, they’re fast and flowy and not very technical although numerous sharp and blind corners add to the feeling of adventure and speed up the heartbeat every time the track just disappears in front of the bike.

The marshal at the first feed station hands me my bottle with a caffeinated Honey Stinger gel and after a minute I can feel the soft sweetness on the honey seeping into my legs and filling them with new energy. I drag myself up the climb and then enter the singletrack like from a fairy tale. The forest there is completely dark and full of slowly moving mist, it looks magical. And it’s fast and enjoyable. And after that we climb. And it hurts. And we climb and climb, towards the masts at the top of the hill. And we climb. And I look behind and see Jacqui. And that’s not good. I push harder and climb to the top almost feeling her breath at my neck, then I blindly go down the rocky descent and slide on one of the loose rocks. I lose just a second but it’s enough for her to pass by. And then she gets into the singletrack in front of me. There is one singletrack after another, they seem to go forever, in any other situation I would have enjoyed it immensely but now, pulling on the breaks at the berms and tricky corners, I’m angry with myself that I let her get in here first. Finally the singletrack ends and Jacqui spints up the hill leaving me in a cloud of dust. I slowly struggle behind her. The good thing is I have a clear run in the next technical section and catch her just at the end of it, only to see her fly up the hill once again. I know it’s over for me.

It starts raining and it gets cold.

I struggle to make my way up the hill, in fact I hardly make it forward, Kenny is passing by and he slows down asking if everything is ok and if I need anything. He’s not the only one showing me his concern today, I must look the way I feel. It’s heart lifting to see so many people caring about you, reminds of the fact that even at the peak of the competition we’re all one big mountainbiking family. Slightly insane one, it must run in the blood. It’s 37 km in, half way through. I have my first thoughts about withdrawing, I’m just too tired to finally make up my mind. Kenny lets me go in the singletrack first, but after that he speeds up on the hill and I will see him again only after the finish. I count down kilometers to the second feed zone, I need to break it all down into sections to make it look doable. This time I stop, grab some mini chocolate bars and jellies on top of my gels and energy drink and that sugar shot brings with it new energy (maybe there is some racing left for me today after all)… that lasts some 5 minutes. I now just want to make it till the end, that’s all.
A stroke after stroke after stroke. Lost focus on singletracks. My back hurts and every time I go off the saddle it feels like something is tearing my muscles off. The bike handling goes wrong and it’s up to the spasms of pain not up to the consciousness where I go. My head goes dizzy and I make small slips and mistakes. Then there is a beautiful track like a shelf cut into a slope with a cliff going down to the right and a vertical wall going up on the left. I stumble on the corner and go to the left, hitting the rock wall with my cheek. That was stupid. That hurt. I make it till the end in one piece and start climbing slowly up yet another fireroad. 
It’s been 4 hours now, the girls must be already there eating a hot dinner and forgetting about the race or at least getting close to the trail centre. Mmm, a hot dinner, I’d eat something hot. What would I eat? Oh, the race, focus, pedal. The faster you go, the quicker you finish. That’s a good motivation. Pedal. Head down. Left… right… left… right… And then I hear joyful “Hello Agata” and Orla flies by me. What where how what what??!!??!  How can she be so fast and yet be behind me at 58km? What the heck has just happened here? What? How? Why? I recover after a while, decide that she must have a mechanical or something (Turned out later she missed a turn, lost a few minutes, and I overtook her there) and I just continue my struggle up the hill. It’s not that I could catch her anyway. Pedal. Left… right… And then I see Jacqui on the side of the road fixing a puncture. What the heck!? So all that time she was only a few minutes in front of me??!! I make sure she has everything she needs and I keep going. I can’t believe what is happening. It’s only 15km to go, maybe I can make it… I push on the pedals harder. Oh, do I? I feel a bit pathetic, like a little green turtle trying to pretend it can climb fast. Nonetheless, I try. 
I keep looking behind me, counting down metres to the feed zone, Orla must be far gone by now, but now I have my own new battle here. I stop for a second, get another Honey gel, get a sip of water. “You are the third or fourth girl”, the marshal says. “Fourth, I’m fourth. And there’s the fifth one just behind me. How many kilometers to go?” “13. There’s a bit of climbing now, and then a singletrack till the end.” Singletrack. No matter what, I need to get there first. I head off, checking the time and looking behind me every few seconds. Eventually I see two riders at the bottom of the hill, one of them must be Jacqui, I don’t have anything left in my legs, oh, singletrack, where are you? I keep pushing. “A bit if a climb”, huh? Quite a big bit I must say…But then, I’m not very objective at the moment. 12km to go. Pedal. Pedal. 
Finally the track turns offroad, but something feels wrong with the bike. Maybe it’s just me, I may be going mental. But no, it is the bike, it is the shock, it feels too stiff. Jacqui is somewhere just behind me but I need to stop and figure out what’s wrong before it’s too late. The lockout got blocked somehow and I was descending with a stiff fork. My muddy gloves slide on a muddy bike, I think I moved a few parts too many, oh well, it feels better now. Down the muddy hill and once again into the dark misty forest. It’s so beautiful here. I pedal hard on a downhill section, going almost blind, dizzy from tiredness, just about making the corners, faster, faster! Then across the road and back in the forest. But the ground doesn’t go down. It’s flat or slightly uphill, maybe +1%. Pedal, pedal, harder, climb. What kind of a singletrack is that supposed to be? go down, you… you…. you flat singletrack you! Boardwalks, plenty of boardwalks, that’s good, Jacqui doesn’t like them. Well, neither do I. I look at the Garmin as often as at the track, counting the distance till the finish in 100s metres. I see Terry from Epic in front of me and push harder trying to catch him. A bit of a climb, I look back, no Jacqui in sight. Push, push, nearly there. A technical muddy descent, Terry crashes just in front of me “Ouch, aaaw, I’m fine, keep going, aaawaaaw, I’m fine, I’m fine, aaaaw”. He gets back on the bike, I push on the pedals hard. Well, as hard as I can. A marshal shouts “Well done, 500m meters to go.” “Yeah, right, it’ll never end.” “No, seriously, it’s just there”. A few meters later another one: “Down to the road and left, turn left, and straight to the finish.” I’m on the road, I see the finish. I pedal harder, speeding up. Where is that energy from? Tears roll down my face when I cross the line. Never did I feel so relieved. It’s over.

I finished after 5h 4mins in fourth, 2 minutes behind Orla, and 2 minutes before Jacqui. Although it was a struggle all the way through, I could still see that it was a good, fun course. The singletracks were not technical, but very fast. It was my first time in Ballyhoura and I’d like to go there again (next year marathon champs J ) It’d be advantageous to be familiar with the course and to know what can be expected behind the blind corners, but after all everybody likes surprises, right? J

The organization was fantastic, the course marking was great (a few places left me in doubt but I just followed the trail), marshals on most of them pointing the right direction well in advance. Feed stations were located in good places, with marshals handing bottles and offering food (the girl at the last station even peeled a banana for me). And the results were up shortly after we got back home. A really brilliant event, I’d recommend it to anyone.

The race should have had much bigger attendance, the 75km maybe looked scary but compared to the 50km-long Cooley Thriller this course was much faster and technically easier and more suitable for less skilled riders. It was also weather-resistant, with the rain having hardly any impact on the rideability. Also, the organization was incomparable. 

I’ll definitely be back for more next year 


  1. Great account of the race! Well done. Very impressive achievement!

  2. Well Done Agata, it was as tough mentally as physicaly yesterday. I think we're all improving with the close competition between us!

    1. Indeed Orla, and we all had some misfortunes this time, with your lost turn, Jacqui's puncture and my feeling bad. Hopefully next time it'll be only up to our strength, skills, endurance and all those... ;)

  3. A brilliant race report, you've some way with words, Agata. Looking forward to the memoirs being published in years to come! A best seller for sure.

    Well done on the race, too. I don't know how you find the strength to keep pushing until the end. Much respect.

    1. I just didn't know in what direction home was.