Monday, 1 August 2011

From Mojo to Mojito - A lesson in happy racing...

We weren't supposed to win...
I saw Simon shooting back through the start for his second lap at a ferocious pace with a massive grin on his face. "Slow down!" I shouted - this was a 24-hour pairs race, not a 2 hour blast around our local trails. Although I had competed in this event several times, this was Simon’s first 24 hour pair and I knew (from unpleasant experience) how easy it is to push too hard in the early part of the race and just blow up.

Most people seem to think that a 24 solo is the hardest race category. I would have to disagree. A 24 hour pair is often much harder. Rather than it being a race ‘just about you’ a pair is a ‘very long relay of sprints’ between you and a partner. In my mind this is worse because you think it's going to be easier than a solo as you are sharing the work, meaning you push too hard and risk blowing up. The stronger rider also goes faster, so the other rider gets less recovery and gets more and more tired (usually me;-)), requiring a high level of awareness of your partner and communication in the short change over, which gets harder as the night draws on. Then you have to think about the potential your team mate will actually blow up, or get injured, meaning you might have to take over more laps, so how hard do you race?  You want to race fast, but to race smart you have to hold so much back.

So 24 hour pairs is hard enough, but mixed pairs adds another challenge – that of racing with a woman!  Understanding the complexities of the female brain in normal circumstances (so I’ve been told) is a mystery in itself ;-)  Communicating effectively with that same brain at 4am after 16 hours of riding can be a massive challenge!

Simon and I had never raced together before. My usual race partner (Ant, who I have raced with lots, and has a wonderful gift of understanding me even when I am exhausted and incoherent) had broken his collarbone. Simon, my domestic partner, had gallantly (naively?) stood in at the last minute.

To race a 24-hour pair well you have to know both you and your partner’s strengths and weakness. Simon and I are fully aware of our domestic strengths and weaknesses, but the fact that I know he is a great cook and he knows I am rubbish at ironing is actually not that useful in a 24 hour race! And as for that 4 am change over, Simon and my communication at 4 am has usually been limited to “stop snoring!” or “give me back the duvet!”. Again, not particularly useful. So you can imagine that I was a little anxious - This race could be Pandora’s box!

We had talked on and off over the past couple of weeks about how we would race. We both agreed that neither of us was peak race fit – I was still recovering from Exposure24 and Simon was only expecting to do a 12 hour team race with some mates – not compete as a defending champion in a 24 hour pair... We were also going on our annual family activity holiday with our 4 kids the next day, so we really didn't want to be completely knackered for that (!?). So we agreed some very basic race rules – our goal was simply to “ride for fun”. If either of us stopped smiling, we would stop riding. I knew he was serious about this strategy when I saw him enjoying the beer tasting the night before and cooking a fry up of eggs, bacon and mushrooms for his ‘race’ breakfast!! In his words, “24 hour racing is 90% a mental challenge”, so he was doing everything he could to be in the right mental state of mind.

Sprint stop, sprint stop is very wearing and we decided that right from the start we would split the race into chunks of about 2-3 laps (at our pace a lap is about an hour) between changes, to be agreed at the change over and to be stuck to unless either of us stopped enjoying ourselves. Looking at Simon’s face on those first 2 laps, he was most definitely enjoying himself (!!) but was he going to blow?

First changeover happened after two laps and I got my first taste of the course - ok I get it now, this course is fantastic – no wonder he was smiling so much! Technical, yes, and hilly, but with so much reward!! Everything from roots and rocks, to rivers, open moorland and free flowing singletrack, with the most ridiculously steep climbs thrown in to keep you on your toes. This was such a fun course, despite there being no let up. This was going to be a true test of endurance, but it was grin factor ten, tempting you to ride it faster than you really should.

Consciously I held back. If Simon was going to blow his legs up in happy ignorance I had to be prepared to take over – as Ant had done for me in previous years.

At 5 hours in the pit crew were ecstatic - all the Cotic / AQR Holidays’ teams were in top 4 positions. We were in the lead of the 24 hr mixed pairs - but only by 4 minutes. Oh no! This was not part of the plan… We were supposed to be riding for fun, not racing!!!. This pressure could make it difficult to stick to our 'happy laps' game plan. At the next change over we established that despite riding reasonably 'fast' we were both smiling and that we would ignore our position and just keep enjoying the course. The sun was shining and as the course dried out it was getting better and better.

Nightfall arrived and lights went on. We were now in the lead by 11 minutes but I didn’t want to know. I met Simon in the change over area. Both still smiling? Yes :-) Right - off I go for my next two laps.

Cotic  / AQR Holiday's pit
At midnight Simon and I decided to give each other an opportunity to sleep by doing 3 laps each. I was really looking forward to this longer stint on course - I could relax into my 24 solo pace and concentrate on smooth efficient riding.

After my first lap of three I knew the 12-hour race would have ended and I was desperate to know how my teammates had got on. As I came past our pit I could tell by the whooping and hugging that there was good news. This was the only time during the race that my smile wavered. I was torn between needing to ride and wanting to join in the celebration!  We had got 3 podiums, including two wins and Rachel coming 2nd doing her first 12-hour solo. Sod it - I just had to go and give her a hug! As AQR Holidays’ physio and dynamic core guru I knew all about her tough journey to this point, having fractured her pelvis earlier in the year. I was so happy for her!  Hug done and back out on course. With the 12-hour riders gone, and many other riders seemingly given up for the night, the course was deserted.

Lap three of my night stint and I was suddenly aware that it had cooled down. Dew settling meant the course had become slippery and I fell, misjudging some off camber roots.  After my hypothermia problems at Exposure 24 (just 2 months before), I went into a sudden panic. I was out on the open moor with no one else about and I was petrified of getting cold. “Focus! Keep riding safely! Up the pace to keep warm and don't stop!!" I told myself.

The last run into the campsite is an awesome, fast flowing down hill section. My full suspension Cotic KP 24 shot down it like an arrow. It was such a great end to a lap that I half hoped Simon wouldn't be at changeover, giving me the chance to keep riding. But there he was - looking as fresh as at the start of the race.

My turn to sleep. I have the ability to fall asleep instantly and anywhere. I lay down in the tent and nodded off in seconds.  I woke an hour later with a sore back - something to do with my multi tool and pump still being in my back pocket! Doh!

For me this is the hardest part of pairs riding. It's now just gone 5 in the morning. We have been racing for 17 hours. Not only have I been pedaling for nearly nine hours, when off the bike I have been making decisions about food, hydration, bike choice and race strategy.  Our pit crew (Ant – my normal race partner – and Carole) was fantastic, doing all the bike maintenance and my catering. All this is great, but getting up after an hour’s sleep and having to decide between tea and coffee is just too hard!

So it’s dawn and Simon is out on the course somewhere.  The crew told me we were now at least 2 laps up. What had happened to the people in second and third? Had they stopped for a sleep and, with fresh legs, were they already out there blasting out some quick morning laps? I met Simon in the changeover and he was early - he was still putting in some good lap times. If this is Simon riding for fun I couldn't help wondering how he would fare racing with some serious endurance training!! I said we were up by two laps, and we quickly established that we were both smiling and that we wanted to keep riding - who wouldn't? I was having a great time - the course was great and my bike was awesome to ride. I had bent my brake disk rotor at Exposure24, but the guys at Magura had come up trumps, not only with a new rotor, but also with some new forks that meant both my bikes gave me confidence on this technically challenging course.

Team mates

We agreed I would do two laps and off I went. As I came past the AQR pit, just before leaving the campsite, a massive cheer went up! It makes such a difference when racing having a happy pit! As I rode around that lap I thought about how the whole Cotic / AQR Holidays team had been helping and supporting each other throughout the race; Swapping bike bits, massaging legs, lending spare kit, making the pit look lovely with fairy lights for the night laps. I also reflected on what a difference a year had made.  Meeting up with Kate and Ian at their base in Luchon the previous Summer transformed me from being the support rider in this event the last year – let’s face it, Ant had always put in the lion’s share of laps in our pairs – to being very much an equal partner this year.  Not only that, but a year before this course would have freaked me out, particularly at night.  I have learnt so much from both of them. It was impossible not to keep smiling with this the fun course, legs that were coping well, being part of a brilliant team and with Simon nailing his first 24 pair.

In fact I found my legs wanting to go faster and faster - yee haa! I cant remember ever feeling like this after 21 hours of racing. After my second morning lap I flew down the last descent and into the changeover area. Simon at 6ft 4 is hard to miss, but a second quick scan and he clearly wasn't there. I rushed over to the pits where I found him mid conversation.  “Wow you were quick”, he said. Half of me was pleased that he noticed and the other half annoyed that he wasn't ready for me. “We have won”, he said. The second place team had stopped through the night and we were five laps up.  The third place were back on the course, but with two hours left it was impossible to make up five laps. He said he would go out if I wanted him to, or I could go out again, but he would prefer to save his energy for our holiday…

Then it dawned on me. Really? We had won?!!!! But that wasn't the plan!!! Women can be so unreasonable sometimes ;-)

I am now lying on a beach in an activity centre in Turkey writing up this blog and reflecting on what is easily the best race I have ever ridden in. It has nothing whatsoever ever to do with first place. It's simply because we had so much fun. If you can smile for 24 hours, keeping riding is just easy.

Recovery ride in Turkey

Massive thanks go here to an awesome pit crew, who worked tirelessly to keep us supplied with clean bikes and butties, and to my teammates who made it such a fun weekend. Also thanks to AQR Coaching – to Kate and Ian – for their continued advice and support.  My stamina has improved immeasurably over the last year with Kate’s programme and this course would have been a nightmare without Ian’s technical riding training. But the biggest thank you has to go to Simon. Simons 'racing happy' rule was exactly the right plan – we both loved the course and had such great conversations with fellow competitors along the way! But most importantly, we discovered out that we can communicate effectively (even in a sleep deprived state) on topics beyond the status of the duvet at 4 am ;-)

I still think that 24 pairs is tougher than a solo, but a good race partner and full pit support eases the burden! Full credit to the other pairs, teams and solo riders for completing the race and a final massive thanks to everyone at the Bontrager Twentyfour12 organising team for putting on a great event.  Roll on #7 in 2012!
Mojito - the next Torq recovery drink?

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