Head vs Legs: WEMBO 2018

Normally I like to get a good old bloggage out of my head and in to some sort of media form ASAP after an event. It’s sort of like a post race evaluation and head clearer for me. I’ve been holding off writing up this one for a while as I wasn’t quite sure how to play it. For those few readers out there you may have noticed a bit of a theme this year about hard times, hard luck blah blah etc. So I wondered whether or not to give this one the full shake down sob story. You’ll be glad to hear that I’m not going to go there in detail, sometimes I think it’s best to just focus on moving on and onwards upwards to 2019 I think.

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few WEMBO events since my first in 2014 where as a relative newby to 24 hour racing I managed to come away with a ‘world champion’ jersey. To date I think it’s still possibly my best performance ever as I was perhaps looking for top 30 say overall and hoping to challenge for the podium in the everyone gets a prize small age cat we have in WEMBO. I certainly didn’t expect to be coming home with a jersey or equally my best WEMBO performance to date until this year back at the same venue four years later.

No Fuss Events set the benchmark for endurance events and this year was no exception. Fraser, Spook and the rest of the team had really opened up this year to take on rider feedback and ideas to make this the best and toughest WEMBO to date. Simple things that seem to elude some other WEMBO events like having the course marked out properly, pits marked up and generally just being good race organisers, No Fuss seem to hit the nail on the head with the basics. This means they can focus on the harder stuff like safely getting hundreds of riders through 24 hours of the worst that Scottish conditions can throw at them.

I drove up with Dai Bowkett in a van he had conveniently borrowed from work via a stopover with friends for the night in Glasgow. It always amazes me no matter what size vehicle you take to these things you always fill them to the brim with mountains of crap. I had somehow managed to avoid the family lurgy that had been floating round for weeks so was pretty pleased to have even made it to the start line. We made good travel progress and were setup in decent time on site in the Team JMC heartland. We were truly blessed with a whole host of JMCers being around and not one but two mechanics available to sort any issues thanks to the guys at bikeshak! Also fellow racer Neil had kindly offered to form one half of my pit crew with long suffering mate Rich (who should know better by now what’s involved in these sorts of things at Fort William) for some reason agreeing to make the journey for the third time! They were standing in for family Sarah and now Rory who I felt (before they said no anyway) that an eight hour drive to Scotland with baby to then stand in the cold wasn’t the best use of family happiness credits.

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Team JMC top bunch of supporers

The practice lap was a bit of an eye opener to what was to come. Having ridden here in 2014 I had vivid memories of how tough it was then but the course only went and got tougher for 2018. A new loop was added which meant some seriously steep kicks to finish riders off before probably the only flat bit on course, a lap of the pit straight.

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Rich, Neil, bike, mud protection

Practice done, pit set up. Time to swing by and pick up Rich from the train station before a supermarket sweep and off to our accommodation for the night. I’d booked a little peaceful retreat in a quiet spot via airbnb. After an initial wrong turn involving traversing a sketchy bridge and a direction check with some slightly suspect looking foreign speaker residents we got to the accommodation. Whilst Rich and Dai unloaded the van i knocked on the door to be greeted with confused looks, “our guests for the night are already here”. Turns out this numpty had booked the wrong weekend. It was 6:30pm on a night you wanted to be stress free and we had nowhere to stay.

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The arse end…

Thankfully modern technology enabled me to source, book and apple pay for a hotel in central Fort Bill with enough time to drive down the road to our new destination for the night. Needless to say Dai and Rich saw the funny side and proceeded to take the piss solidly for the rest of the evening as we carb loaded at a local pub after we couldn’t find the Italian that Dai was 100% certain was “just round this corner”.

We made it to bed at some sensible time which was a bit of a relief after a far from ideal start to proceedings. Making it up to the venue there were some nervous looking faces around as some fairly big weather was due to head in later on that day. Some chose to hideaway, others to chat nervously about what to wear. What was certain was that most people were scrambling around fitting full mudguards and if you weren’t, well you were very silly. Front and rear Mudhuggers for me, no messing about, 24 hours with grit rubbing in your arse, no thanks. Others followed suit.

The lineup this year most agreed was the strongest a 24 hour race has seen probably ever, in the world. I counted about 14 ‘elite’ male riders who were extremely strong and that was even before looking at those who had wedged themselves in to age group despite having results that would have placed them well in elite previously. To get in the top 20 overall here you were going to have to be going some. It was equally good to see a strong female field with a handful of riders in contention compared to the usual 2 or 3 outright favourites.

For me personally I had come in to this thing feeling somewhat nonchalont. I’d just had too much other stuff going on and had the aim just to survive and not muller myself before an overdue family holiday and a pretty hectic time at work that was scheduled the week following the event. I know everyone says that before a race not wanting to reveal their true aims but that was honestly it. I felt a bit guilty saying this having dragged two buddies up to the start line, they no doubt wanted to hear things like yeah I’m going to smash it etc, but I just wasn’t in the mood for that level of optimism. One thing I did have at Fort bill is a good track record, from 2013 I’d been on a podium there every year I’ve raced. This year #dadbod was going to find the climbing hard going and I don’t quite have the same descending advantage I might have had in years gone by. Daddy preservation mode kicks in a bit more these days, but I knew I could go as well as anyone on my day there.

A very slow walking man with those annoying pipes led us out from the start, so slow that we were doing track stands just to not overtake him. Those things must indeed suck all your lung capacity to blare out the terrible din. It was pretty amazing being around such world class riders and although we’re a pretty niche sport it’s a cool feeling to be mixing it up with the best in the world at any sport.

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Man carrying bags, walking slowly

The first lap was a bit chaotic as our travelling friends from around the world struggled with the slippery conditions in places meaning dodging fallen bodies left right and center. At some points later in the race it looked like landmines had been placed amongst the rocks and roots with riders scattered all over the place. It was getting hard to just hang on to the bars at times with the rough carnage that the mountain offered up lap after lap. Some special lower arm exercises helped there though as I felt pretty strong all the way through even on a hardtail.

Immediately I sort of felt a bit hollow, not like my aerobic capacity was lacking or my legs were aching, my pre race feelings were indeed being played out and I really just didn’t want to be there. A pretty big off soon followed a couple of hours in, twisted bars, blood from a few places etc and at that point I really just thought “I can’t be arsed with this”. I then spent pretty much the next 18 hours in the biggest in race battle I’ve ever fought, not with my competitors, but with my own head. To be honest the only thing that kept me going was guilt, guilt of having dragged a couple of mates all the way to Scotland to stand in the now pissing cold and rain for me and that I’d taken the best part of £600 out of the family finances to ride round in circles then have the audacity to be able miserable about it, what a twat. It can’t have been particularly fun for Rich and Neil hearing me lap after lap not really saying much other than looking grumpy, particularly as the relatively clement weather during the earlier part of the race turned in to proper windy mucky stuff overnight.

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Head somewhere else, leaking knee

As the wind and rain drove against my face at the top of the course in the darkest middle of the night I like many thought “what am I doing here?” But, having done a few of these things now I have gotten to know my own mind pretty well. I can recognise a bit what’s going on and accept, rationalise and move on. The moving on bit is the challenge but knowing that you will at some point gives you hope. I was still going though and the course was getting mighty quiet.

Fortunately bikes and equipment were all on point thanks to last minute prepping by Taylored Cycles. A fairly risky decision to try out some new Vitoria tyres paid off as there was no hint of a dreaded puncture all the way through.

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Rich and Neil doing a sterling job of keeping me going

I hadn’t asked for any info on position from my pit crew as I assumed (correctly) I was doing a bit shit. However, I was still doing and it became increasingly evident that others weren’t any more as I saw gazebo’s being packed up in the night. If I could just force myself to keep going then who knows what will be left of the now decimated field come daylight. I focused on keeping fed and warm as those were the things I knew would be cutting short people’s race. I haven’t changed clothes as much as this in many years with some laps requiring a completely fresh waterproof after an hour of riding as it became completely saturated. Fresh glove changes and headwear were also way more regular than normally just to keep everything ticking over. I even deviated away from my normally strict eating regime to experiment with a bacon sandwich to boost morale which did help a bit.

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Not a bacon buttie but a bike swap and Torq bar in the space of seconds

Riders out on course as ever were encouraging each other along, something I note a lot more amongst the English speakers as you don’t seem to get much out of the more serious faced continental bunch. I tried to keep talking to other people as I know that’s something that as stoked freeriders would say they ‘feed off’ but I do and it helped me keep going. As always the pit crew supporters gave great cheers all the way through even from competing pits. Hearing your name being shouted at 3am is a great boost I can tell you.

24 hours is a long time to have a lot of thoughts and I also forget most of what has happened but usually there are pivotal moments in these things that always stick out. Whilst having a piss at the side of the pit gazebo sometime when daylight was just around the corner I at last uttered the words to Rich, “go on then tell me where I am”. 13th Elite and somewhere in the 20’s overall. Blimey I thought that’s not quite as far back as I thought, what the hell had everyone else been up to whilst I’d been effectively limited to soft pedaling by my lack of head game. The 18 hour cloud lifted and I think I said something along the lines of “oh bollocks I better put some effort in then, I need drugs (for my back which was killing at that stage) and caffeine, lots of caffeine). As the cloud lifted my head allowed my legs to do what coach Jon knew was in there when his pre-race pep talk told me “you have the fitness” he also knew that this one would be about my head game which up until this point had, as expected, had been somewhat lacking. I won’t say what other advice Jon gave me as that’s for me and him but it’s amazing how some things come through when you most need them. “Right let’s get on with it, stop messing about”, I thought (at last).

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Remembering it’s only just riding bikes after all

Fortunately, due to lots of messing about in the preceding hours as a result I had a lot left in the tank so proceeded to unload this in the last few hours. It would be interesting to see a line with a track of progress overall as I went from nowhere to 10th overall in the space of a few hours (the drugs were just ibuprofen I promise).  I was overtaking a lot of people, unlapping myself, lapping others and catching people. I had no idea who was who but it felt good. Young Carwyn came up behind me to what I had assumed was him lapping me but coming through the pits I was told he was just behind me. Sod it, might as well try and drop the hammer and try and drop him. To my surprise I didn’t see him again as I had expected from a speedy xc fast finisher. So it was fun catching people, apart from when I caught my buddy and fellow Team JMC rider Jason on the second to last lap, he looked like absolute death and I did pause briefly to offer some words along the lines “oh bloody hell get yourself warm mate” to which he thankfully did minutes later in the car with whisky I’m told. Such was my progress that 24 hour flyer Max Suttie was sent out for a safety lap from 5th elite rider in case I continued at my current rate of progress and caught him (sorry pal). So yes that meant I was unbelievably up to 6th Elite and 10th overall which I’m not quite sure I believed until checking the actual results at the end for myself.

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Rolling over the line I was pretty happy and smiled at long last. I’m still a bit in disbelief. I’m not sure whether I should be happy with 6th Elite or frustrated that I hadn’t had the focus needed to train and race hard from mid summer this year. The following week at work my project hosted an EU commission visit so looking rather unwell all week wasn’t the best impression! I inevitably succumbed to the family plague so have been a bit ropey ever since.

It’s been a year when I was pretty ready to become a mid-pack rider if Rory had turned out to be a sleep depriver but thankfully he’s been golden for the most part. I could have trained harder this year but quite simply I haven’t wanted to. I need to spend some time thinking now about next year and if I give 24 hour racing a wee sabbatical. The world champs are in the depths Brazil so I can’t imagine being able to get to that whilst the European champs are in Portugal. Nothing from the past three euro champs inspires me with confidence of a good course and well organised event that I would want to justify the cash to go to despite of course wanting these events to be successful.

Massive thanks as ever to my supporters and sponsors Taylored Cycles, USE/Exposure, FUNN, Granite Design, ESI Grips, E3coach, Torq, Team JMC.

On to the end of the year now where I’ve been helping to organise the Lap of My Mind event where I’ll be doing the last leg covering about 440 miles and 10,000 meters of climbing in 48 hours on the darkest day of the year all for charities Mind and Calm and in support of Mind Over Mountain world cycle height record attempt.

For now though it’s time to clear my head and have a bloody good rest on holiday with my besties.

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