Story for Strathpuffer 2017 Laps 1-9
All puffed out? – Never Say Never Again
It was 6am and I crawled sheepishly into my tent, exhausted. There were still two hours until sunrise and five more until the 2017 Strathpuffer 24-hour mountain bike race in Contin was finished, but for me the race was over. At that moment I was done and I knew I would never be back to ride it again; it had proved too much for my body to handle. On my last lap my body had started to shut down quite dramatically due to the cold and fatigue I was feeling. On my penultimate lap I stopped to lend my tyre pump to a fellow rider who had punctured and as I sat slumped against a tree waiting for him to make the repair I started to doze off. Overnight the temperature had dipped down as low as -7°C, but until 5am it hadn’t bothered me much, but then I started to shiver. Even on the uphill my body was trembling with the cold; my mind was losing focus and I was struggling to keep the bike upright and moving forward over the black-ice covered rocks. I knew that I could do no more and I needed to get into my sleeping bag – if I continued it was likely that I would get into serious trouble and possibly hurt myself.
I always knew my initial target of 20 laps of the demanding 6.5 mile circuit was ambitious, but on paper 130 miles didn’t seem too daunting. However, factoring in sub-zero conditions, four miles of technical single-track, fatigue and 1000 feet of climbing on each lap then it becomes more of a challenge, not forgetting that 17 hours of that riding is done in darkness. Despite this, when I came up six laps short of my target I was extremely disappointed. I felt like I had let myself down and I had let others down. Perhaps it was exhaustion dictating my emotions, but I felt close to tears and it took me the last of my remaining strength to crawl out of my sleeping bag at 8am and face my mechanic who had supported me all night with food and more than once chipped blocks of ice off my frozen gears. He was standing frying himself some bacon as I approached and his jubilant smile took me by surprise. He had also been up all night offering support to me and plenty of other riders too, and he grabbed my hand, shaking it vigorously. He was having none of my wallowing in self-pity and he quite rightly told me how lucky I was to be able to participate in such an event, to get over myself and if I wanted to do better, then I needed to train harder. Chastened, I poured myself a mug of tea and started asking others how they had done. Everyone had found it tough (unsurprisingly). One friend had been taken to the medical tent suffering from mild hypothermia, and everyone was filled with stories of their own private battles they had experienced through the night. Some asked if I had seen the meteorite that had lit up the night sky at 4am (I had, but had almost put that down to hallucinations); others asked if I had seen the Northern Lights (I hadn’t). It was clear that what had occurred over the last 24 hours had been something special. It can be hard to describe the emotions involved in taking part in such an event, but for those that have there is a shared understanding of what it means to push yourself to the limit and survive to tell the tale.
In 2014 I completed my first Strathpuffer as part of a team of four. I said then I would never be back again, but have I appeared at the start line every year since then. This year was going to be my final “hurrah”, there was going to be no unfinished business to make me want to return again. By the time we were driving back down the A9 I was already making plans on where I went wrong and what I could do to make it better in 2018.