Why do we test ourselves? Why must we do things we don’t need to do, push ourselves towards intangible limits for no gain or glory? It’s different for professional athletes, of course – for them, pushing yourself physically is their stock in trade, but for the mere mortals that make up the bulk of the population, it’s more ephemeral, George Mallory’s response to the question, “why do you want to climb Everest?” It’s hard to argue a need to do endurance events, because there’s little glory in it beyond your own band of brothers (and sisters). You’re not going to make the news, the bank balance isn’t going to swell, and, outside of your fellow competitors, no-one’s really going to care. So. Why do you get a four-man team together for the Wiggle Mountain Mayhem 24 hour endurance mountain bike race? Because it’s there. Mallory would approve.
Team NTG are newcomers to the whole Mayhem thing, which goes way back to 1998 as the oldest 24 hour mountain bike race in the country. We picked up the gauntlet for the first time last year, as the event moved from the legendary Eastnor Park to new premises at Gatcombe Park, and although Mayhem has a reputation for being unlucky with the weather, it was dispiriting last year to have to spend a whole day collectively slithering through mud and along the ground. Still, where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling right? Right – the entry for the 2014 event was being planned long before the clag had been washed off the bikes.
This time the weather was outstanding, bright sun and blue skies all day long. The rules for a 24 hour mountain bike race are pretty simple – at twelve midday on Saturday, there’s a mass running start to the bikes. You can then commence lapping the 7.3 mile course right up until midday on Sunday, and any complete lap started within that timespan will count. Accordingly, as the team member who so far hadn’t yet started a race, I found myself amongst the masses lined up as the clock ticked towards midday.
There was a great, carnival atmosphere on the line, and it was hard to resist the temptation to run like the wind when the klaxon, especially with a horde of lean athletic types bounding past me like gazelle. I’m not an athlete – no, really, I’m not – but running is way down my list of sports I’m less bad at, and the outstanding first few yards that saw me in the top fifty at turn one had dwindled to a position as Tail-End Charlie, barely ahead of the solo riders (yes, solo racers at a 24 hour race – it’s not right, it really isn’t) who, less bothered by a rapid start, were walking the kilometre to their bikes.
Mayhem’s course designers have learnt a thing or two about building a track, and the opening miles were fast and open, which meant very little in the way of tailbacks, even with many hundreds of cyclists setting off at roughly the same time, plenty of room for passing if you were quicker than the rider in front. Gatcombe Park is Princess Anne’s garden, and it is glorious, rolling wooded hills and meadows – under the summer solstice sun, what had been slick, rutted tracks last year now became great, fast-moving trails. Downhills were the order of the day for the first half, culminating in the fantastic Red Bull timed section, but the payoff was a climbing-dominated second half. Ah well – you’ve got to have the bad to appreciate the good.
After the fast and technical Kenda descent, clearing the last climb out of the valley was a challenge for overheated riders, a natural sun trap in the bright glare of midday, but that led you to the final mile of the circuit, which led through the campsite itself, addressing a criticism of the event from last year and giving riders a great atmosphere as they panted their way to the line. I peeled off after one lap and handed over to Steve after a hard sixty five minutes in the saddle. Still just under twenty three hours to go…
Steve was on it and was back for changeover after less than forty five minutes – team captain Jon was next up and even quicker, clocking a sub 43 before Luke dropped in a solid anchor leg, putting me back on the bike little more than two and a half hours after I’d last stepped off it. If ever you have any doubts as to the elasticity of time, endurance racing like this is a great experiment – time on the bike can seem very quick, on the good downhills, or very slow, on the tough climbs. And between stints, when you’re trying to rest and recover as best you can, it flies like an eagle.
Having been tonked by my team mates on lap one (and, err, being lapped by the leaders, into the bargain), I pulled the pin on my second lap and gave it my maximum sustainable pace – the end result was that I was still miles off the pace, but quite a bit more fatigued, having no problems throwing water down my neck but struggling to eat, going big on malt loaf and flapjack. By half eight I was back out again, the heat having gone out of the day and a simply amazing dusky light settling across the estate, racers flying through dappled patches in the woods. After handing over to Steve, I hit the caterers for a pasta bolognaise and a brew – a curious sensation, I felt desperately hungry, but had absolutely no desire to eat, even though it was very nice. I forced it down anyway, and was very glad I did.
As darkness fell the woods became a moving cosmos, bright lights flitting between the trees, and NTG played what’s as close to a tactical ace card as we had – two lap stints overnight were planned in order to allow everyone to get as much rest as they could through the night. Having given ourselves a rough guideline of an hour a lap, we were way ahead of schedule, starting my night shift almost an hour and a half early, around half ten. Riding through the night is a different experience, each rider isolated in a little cone of bright white light, with little to be seen outside your own personal bubble. Modern night lights are astonishing, way too bright to be safely deployed on the road, but even they can do little to dispel the encompassing darkness of the woods at night, owls hooting and unseen creatures crashing through the undergrowth as you passed.
With the heat of the day gone, it was a really pleasant environment to be cycling in, but the fatigue load was making it very hard going – physically tired, hydrated but hungry, and desperate for some sleep. It was the thought of sleep that kept me going, trying to work out how much time I had, even planning strategies on my return to minimise the time taken to secure my kit before I could hit the sack. It’s at times like this that my respect for the solo riders is at it’s utmost – even now, just two days later, I know I can only get a sense of how bone-tired I was at that time, and how utterly incomprehensible to me it was that people had been riding non-stop since the race had started. The atmosphere and camaraderie on the course was fantastic throughout, riders chatting and encouraging each other all the way through, but to have a solo rider cheerfully tell me “ keep going, you’re doing well”, at nigh-on one o’clock in the morning as I slogged dispiritedly up a slope while he bounced past… I wish I knew who that person was, because in its own insignificant way, in that tiny moment, I caught a glimpse of what people are physically, mentally and spiritually capable of, and I knew how vast the gap was between those limits and my own. Even in the darkest depths of my own personal midnight, it was mightily inspiring.
It was just gone one’o’clock when I finally stumbled back to the changeover area, Steve handing me the transition jacket (© NTG VC), pedaling blindly back to the tent and jumping still fully clothed into bed, the alarm set for half five. But it was earlier than that when I awoke, still fatigued and wishing I could stay in bed for, ooo, another week or so. As I listened to the world slowly waking up in the earliest of the dawn light, I could hear Jon treading very carefully around, and gave him a quiet shout, see if he knew when Luke had set off so I could judge how long I had left in bed. But as we were chatting, disaster unfolded – Luke, unable to eat since before the race began, had been subsisting entirely on gels and energy bars, and the acidy fuel was playing havoc, giving ferocious acid reflux on top of the physical and mental fatigue. By six in the morning, he was through.
So it was an urgent jump out of bed, grab the bike, fill a bottle and time to head straight out on the circuit. Things were starting to hurt, but the air was lovely and cool and crisp, the campsite still asleep as the eedjits on bikes kept whizzing through. With the sun rising, the little damp that had developed overnight started to dry out and the return of visibility made the course fun again. But my concerns were purely selfish – I knew I had one more lap left to do before the end of the race, and I was becoming increasingly worried there might be two on offer. I knew from speaking to Jon that Steve had suffered cramps during his night stint, and there was an outside possibility we might end up down to two riders. I didn’t think I could face any more laps…
I was thus even more happy than normal to see Steve waiting for me in the transition area, and celebrated with a bacon and egg roll and a cup of tea before returning to camp – again, it was that curious sensation of feeling starving, but really feeling unable to eat. It was a struggle, but the food was delicious and I felt ten times better for having eaten something solid. Rejuvenated, I returned to camp and prepped myself for the endgame – which largely consisted of a change to dry clothes, some water, and a refill of my water bottle. Then all there was to do was wait.
As nine o’clock approached, the sun was well up and it was time to get back on the bike. I won’t lie, it hurt, but I knew that the backside pain would ease a few miles in – the leg pain, however, was going to be here to stay. Jon was in to hand over all too soon for my liking, and it was time to go.
It was a weird lap. I knew that, if nothing went wrong, I should be in time to hand over to Steve, then Jon, and they were still lapping plenty quick enough to finish before twelve, which left the possibility of another lap. Like a lot of blokes, I take a stubborn pride in never giving up in the face of adversity (see common perceptions of men reading instruction manuals, for example), but the realization was dawning that I didn’t want to do this anymore – could I still ride the bike? Physically, yes, I guess I could turn the pedals and still push up the hills, but… I just didn’t want to do it anymore. Mentally, I’d thrown in the towel and it was a hard realization to take.
But with that realization came release, and it was both a sad and enjoyable last half of a lap, knowing that I wouldn’t be riding this course again, at least for this year. One last attack down the Kenda descent (and how much more fun was that in the dry, compared to the slithery slide it was last year!), then out into the field for the last climb up the valley. Already crowds had started gathering as the final hours of the race drew nearer, and I was absolutely determined to ride that last climb out. I won’t lie, it felt a bit emotional riding the final mile through the campsite one last time, throwing a (very basic) shape over the plastic Jump Of Doom ramp before handing the baton to Steve. And I don’t mind admitting I had a little tear in my eye as I returned to camp for the last time.
We did ok, by our standards – 25 laps in 24 hours, 55th in Open Men out of 80. The post race celebrations were satisfied but pretty muted, and as I write this, two days later, I’m tired and it still hurts to walk up the stairs. Genuine consideration was given to not returning again next year, on the basis that it’s never going to get any better than that – that’s how good it was. But whether we do it or not (and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion we will…), there’s no doubt there’ll be thousands ready to take up the challenge for 2015. Why ride Mountain Mayhem? Because it’s there.