Well over a decade ago, shortly before Debbie and I were married, we both learned how to scuba dive. It was a horrible experience. Diving itself is cool, but it was a horrible experience because we learned to dive in the middle of winter in a flooded quarry near Lancaster. It was so cold that our faces froze but we knew that we were paying our dues now so that we could enjoy nicer (ie warmer) diving later.
Our honeymoon, planned for 5 months after the diving in the murky, freezing depths of the quarry near Lancaster, would include diving at the Great Barrier Reef. In contrast to the quarry near Lancaster, the Barrier Reef would be warm, inviting and wouldn’t need us to wear protective clothing that made us look like a bloody Michelin Man. We wanted to enjoy the experience without having to spend part of the holiday learning the ropes so we decided to get that out of the way before we went.
Getting the horrible stuff out of the way, nailing it so that a better life can be enjoyed later.
Around 14 hours into last weekend’s Relentless 24 in Fort William, I started to recall memories of those dives in the quarry. I was leading the race, I was feeling strong and I was quietly and cautiously confident that I’d be able to stay consistent through to the end of the race to pull off the win. At the same time I was freezing cold, sick and tired of the constant rain and I was trying to decide if this was indeed the most miserable conditions at a 24 hour race I’ve ever had the misfortune to race in.*
When the weather worsened and The Persistent Bloody Rain was joined by its good friend The Howling Sodding Wind my mind was made up. This was miserable beyond anything I’d done before.
Despite all that, the things that maintained my focus on the job in hand (apart from caffeine-laced Shot Bloks) were the excellent and fast trails that made up the course and the fact that there was a trip to the World 24 Hour Solo Championship in Finale, Italy for the overall solo winner of this race. A 24 hour race. On the Mediterranean coast of Italy. Warmth. Dust. Lovely glass of rosso, Signore? Oh, don’t mind if I do. After this lovely, warm, dusty 24 hour race though, eh compagno? Don’t bother with mud tyres. Don’t forget the factor 30.
I was heading for the win and in fairness, I had been since lap 2. I was keeping it together and my lap times, for me anyway, were nice and consistent. I’d have to stop occasionally to re-apply chain lube and replace brake pads but I was staying in front of Huw Thomas, a guy very much in form at the moment and a rider that I knew I would have to gap early on. Every so often my lead would be cut by a couple of minutes as I swapped brake pads but I seemed to be coping ok with that and responding by putting in a quicker lap next time round. It wouldn’t take too much for me to lose the lead, a major mechanical would see to that, so I had to keep extending it.
Meanwhile, Dave hadn’t been feeling 100% and eventually he dropped out when he started to feel worse, deciding he’d achieve more by helping me keep my bikes working and joined Angela in the pit. From that point on I’d have a clean bike each lap with a freshly-lubed chain, with brakes that worked and a fresh bottle. Occasionally Angela would present me with a flask of hot ravioli or a small cup of hot coffee – I was constantly cold so the occasional few mouthfuls of warm food and drink was working pretty well to keep my spirits up.
The darkness laps seemed to last an eternity – it’s a long time between sunset and sunrise in the Scottish Highlands in October but once the dawn did arrive, I knew there would only be 5 hours to go. I needed to make sure I was way out in front by then.
A torn rear tyre on the spare bike was a setback, the tube (yep, still running tubes on the spare bike) popped through the sidewall and exploded like a bomb. I rode half a lap on the rim, worried that I was going to destroy a 70 quid rim in the process but also mindful that if I ran the 4 miles or so back to the pit, I’d probably lose the lead.
Back to the pit. Back on the main bike (tubeless!). Smash it again.
Dawn arrived and I found myself, as planned, way out in front. I remained consistent, motivated by the daylight and the constant encouragement from Angela and Dave. The rain continued. I was wetter than an otter’s pocket. But I didn’t care anymore. Still thinking of the glittering prize, I was having this.
Last lap. I thanked all the marshals. An hour of being very careful indeed. Angela took my jacket just before I rode across the finish line. I dismounted, held the bike above my head (I’ve always wanted to do that) and embraced my two completely knackered friends that had stayed up all night to make sure I was able to win the race by two clear laps.
After a quick shower and the presentation (The overall solo winner’s ‘Opportunity to race at the Worlds in Italy’ confirmed by the man with the microphone. Yay!),I phoned Deb and I played Internet catch-up with friends and family, most of whom had been flooding the Twitter and Facebook feeds with congratulations.
A quick kip in the hotel, then we were out in the bustling metropolis of Fort William for a large meal of pies, curly fries, haggis, hot dogs, pizza and lashings of real ale to properly seal the win.
*despite the miserable weather, Relentless 24 really is a gem of a race – brilliantly organised with an irresistible sense of humour and inclusion, using trails that don’t fall apart at the first sign of water, all the facilities that you could possibly want in one of the most stunning locations in the country. Do it.