Strathpuffer, for those who don't know, is a 24 hour mountain bike race. It's held up in the North of Scotland in the middle of January and is considered by many to be the hardest race of it's kind in the world.
Hicksy and I are nothing if not reckless and over ambitious, so last year we decided we'd give it a go. After all, 'how hard can it really be?'
But it was all just talk until an email conversation I had with Alastair led to a more definite 'let's do it.' After that we posted a recruitment note on the blog looking for our 4th team member. We had a lot more replies than I expected. Clearly our readers are as crazy as we are. From the dozens of entries, we selected Hazel from Falmouth as the 4th rider.
At this point, I had a few concerns about the race. Apart from it being notoriously hard, we would be riding with two people we had never ridden with before and who we had only really spoken to through emails. It was all a bit 21st century. A bit digital.
I needn't have worried, though. As I soon realised once we'd picked the others up and arrived at the race, the experiment in cloud sourced team building had been a great success. Both Alastair and Hazel were funny, friendly, down to earth and genuinely nice people. And even better, they could both ride. Fast.
The race started at 10am, and my first lap of the unknown course shook me a bit. The seemingly endless fire road climb covered in thick layers of slippery ice, the narrow teetering bridge, the big rocky decents, the muddy ditches. This was all seriously new territory for someone who's previous 24 hour racing experience had all taken place in the summer months on fast dry trails.
It didn't take much to get back into the swing of things, though. Seeing the excitement on the faces of Hazel and Alastair as they got back from their first laps left me itching to go back out and soon the doubts all faded away and the race melted into a dream of exhilaration interspersed with tired moments recovering in the camper with cups of tea and hot food.
As night fell, things changed again and the course seemed to take on a whole new character. With the ice melting and the wind and rain taking turns to lap the trails with us, things started to feel faster and faster. Although our exhausted bodies complained that this was no time to be riding harder.
Alastair had a couple of flat tyres, and I had folded my rim by riding one rocky section a little too last with not quite enough air in my tyres. Hicksy, still recovering from a bout of flu was also finding things tough. Our times slowed a little, but this is where we were most glad of having Hazel with us, as she continued to push on, never lapping in over an hour.
Some time around this point, we realised we were running second in our category, only a few minutes away from the lead. It was good news, but in a way it seemed almost irrelevant. What did it matter? We were just doing what we could to get round each lap.
Then, just as the night became the very early morning, disaster struck. I was out on my last lap before my turn to sleep. I was tired, but with the promise of a few hours in bed, I thought I could push on and give it a bit more. I reached the top of the hill, passing everyone I saw along the way. I was feeling good about this lap. I turned the bike down the first descent and went for it.
Moments later I was over the bars, sliding across the muddy ground and wincing as my thumb snagged a root. I lay there, winded, leg cramping and thumb piercing white stars into my vision. I wasn't sure what to look at first. I staggered back to the track, checking my bike for damage and pushing off down the hill.
Your mind starts to behave strangely in this situation. It tries to protect you from yourself. I told myself 'take it easy now, this is a good excuse for a slow lap.' But another part of me didn't agree. There's no excuse for backing off. I finished the lap after an all too familiar Jekyll and Hyde struggle and staggered over to the Rescue Medic's station.
'Rest it and see how you feel in a few hours' I was told. I went to bed, but I'm still not sure if I slept or not. I lay listening to Al and David coming and going for their laps, other riders passing outside and the wind and rain fading in and out until my next lap eventually came around and I decided to go for it. My thumb felt better.
All the way up the first climb, things felt good. Maybe it was just a sprain.
I realised it was worse than a sprain down the first hill. I winced at every bump and could hardly use my rear brake. For the first time in my riding life I began to wish the descents away and was longing for the hills.
I don't remember much of that lap. I just got it done, checked on our teams position (still second, but falling back) and climbed into bed, telling the others 'that's it for me'. This time I slept. I didn't wake up until the race was over. Alastair had finished with a heroic double lap after David also declared himself out after a long battle against the tail end of the flu.
Broken, battered and tired we trudged down to the prize giving. We weren't expecting anything, we weren't even sure we had held onto second, until we were called up to the podium to receive our prizes. 4 bottles of Strathpuffer beer, 4 engraved Exposure lights and perhaps most excitingly of all, 4 second place snow globes.
We set off for home, driving back down to Inverness for a coffee with Alastair at the airport before the rest of us made the trek down to Edinburgh for what felt like the most well earned curry and cider in history.
The next day, we disbanded and David and I set off on the final leg of the homeward journey to Cardigan Bay. Pulling in at A&E along the way to discover that my thumb had actually been properly broken and will require surgery and pinning.
All in all, and despite the bump, team howies had a great time at Strathpuffer. Through the wind, the rain, the mud, the ice and the dark, we all kept smiling and we'd like to thank the organisers for laying on such a great event. And even more importantly, thanks to Anna for making it possible for us to keep riding through the night by helping out with food and making sure the right people were in the right places at the right time.
And last but by no means least, thanks to Mr. Tom Johnstone of Carbon-Monkey for lending us his demo pack of Exposure lights. Without his generosity we would have been racing in the dark.
Tom runs skills coaching courses for all MTB riding levels and can also arrange for lights to hire if you need. Check his site here for more details.