The event was not a race as such, more a sportive. The British mtb marathon champs were being held on the course so for those men and women it was well and truly a race, but for the rest of us mere mortals it was just a chance to ride on some amazing trails and singletrack in a very beautiful area of Selkirk. We massed in Selkirk town centre at the very civilised time of 12.30 and the sun was beating down. There was a field of about 350 folk of all shapes and sizes including some ridiculously skinny elite athletes who were taking part in the british champs. Luckily they were allowed to go off first. It would have been embarrassing to knock one of them off their bikes during the 4 mile de-neutralised zone!
This 4 mile start is supposed to allow riders to sort themselves into some sort of natural order before we hit the trails. I found myself moving up the field quite comfortably so I just went with it. I was really excited and felt pretty confident I was going to enjoy the ride. At the 4 mile point the race split and the 25 km riders went off one way through Bowhill Estate while the other riders (50km and 80km) went off in the opposite direction. I found myself in a small group of 4 but no-one was riding very fast so I nipped past them and then caught a few guys in front. I reckon there was about 5 men in front of me and I was definitely the first female. It was very early days but I felt strong so I really pushed myself. I gave some of the men a run for their money on the uphills and then our first descent of the day I nailed it. It wasn't particularly technical but there were some quite tricky bits and I couldn't help wonder how some of the other 25km riders I'd seen at the start would cope.
Before long the group of guys had built up a few minutes lead on me and I was on my own. This turned out to be a good thing as there were some bits of trail along the river that were quite tricky. The trail was very thin and rooty and there was quite a drop down to the water, so I was glad I could negotiate it without anyone around me to put me off.
Before long I was heading towards a welcome bit of road where I knew I'd see Matt marshaling. Just as I approached it another female came up behind me and we ended up side by side on the road. We seemed pretty well matched and I asked if she'd seen any other females from the 25k group nearby. She said no so in my head I thought "ok, I could at least be first or second"! I kept pushing and when I reached the junction where Matt was he said I looked strong and he really hadn't expected to see me so soon. A few hundred yards after Matt we reached feed station 1 where my friend Ali was handing out goodies along with her daughters and Ruby. It was great to see the kids and I took a cup of water and guzzled it down. I asked Ruby to give me a gel which I wouldn't normally have, but it was so hot and I'd not eaten much that morning. I tucked it away just in case and headed off. This is where it all went a bit wrong, but in a good way!
Basically just after the feed station there was another split in the course and I was supposed to take the left fork. Me and the other girl didn't see the signs and we kept going straight on. We were now on the 50km/80km route! We had no idea we'd gone wrong so on we rode. By this time we were being passed by a lot of elite riders and where we were pushing our bikes they were spinning up the hills looking fresh as daisies! I kept glancing at the numbers on the rider's bikes that passed us and they were all low numbers which meant they were doing the longer courses. This made me rather pleased as it meant we were still the leading female riders, of course we didn't realise the other 25km riders were on a completely different (and much less severe) course!
The ascent went on and on. I had to push my bike up most of it and eventually I wondered if I'd actually be able to get back on and ride ever again. The other girl was doing the same and we were well matched. Just when I thought it couldn't go up any more the single track went up again! We were climbing for such a long time and all the while the sun was beating down on us. After one last very steep ascent I reached the top of the '3 Brethrin'. I had to stop at the top to catch my breath, even though the other girl had disappeared on the downhill by this time. I had been looking forward to some downhill, but this wasn't like anything I'd ever done before. A very narrow channel of loose rocks with high sides covered in heather. It was so difficult and I really had to concentrate, especially as other riders were on my tail and they were desperate to get some time back after the long climbs.
The open hillside finally gave way to a forest and the trail narrowed even more and the joy of roots and low branches added to the fun! I managed to up my speed for a while until the track got steeper and more technical. I didn't care who was behind me at this point I just needed to get down in one piece. At the bottom of this section there were some Mountain Rescue guys who gave me a big smile and said well done. I didn't dwell too long on why they'd been stationed there, but again my mind wandered to think of all the 25k 'rookies' who I'd seen at the start. How the hell would they cope with that descent? (yip...answers on a postcard!!)
I kind of hoped that the descents would keep coming and I'd be on my way back down towards Selkirk at this point. Unfortunately I'd forgotten my Garmin so I couldn't even check my time or mileage. If I had my assumption that I should be continuing my descent to the town would have been spot on, but unfortunately I wasn't on the 25km route so what should have been a fairly straightforward ride back to the finish turned into a bit of an epic! The fire road continued uphill and this bugged me cause Pete had told me there was only one climb on the 25k route. It didn't bug me enough to stop and ask questions, and actually there were no marshalls about, so on I went.
There was no sign of the other girl who I'd been riding with and for a while I just assumed she's nailed the downhill and got some time on me. After a while (and more climbing) it started to dawn on me that perhaps I wasn't going the right way and I had visions of her having taking a turn off that I'd missed and her speeding her way back to the finish to take all the glory!! I kept climbing and finally I reached some dibber points. That was the moment I realised I was on the wrong course! I started to ask other riders if they knew what distance we were at and none of them knew, but they did know that they were all doing the 50 or 80km ride! PANIC!
I got my phone out and called Matt. I was upset cause I had used up most of my energy and I was really worried that I'd got to a point in the course where I'd have to keep riding for another 20 or 30km to get back. I also felt upset cause I was standing at the dibbers that marked the beginning of a descent that had red signs saying 'Warning. Gnarly trails'. Matt couldn't offer anything other than sympathy as he had no idea where I was so I called Ali. She didn't really know where I was either but said she'd phone Pete and come back to me. At that moment I found a local rider who talked to Ali and confirmed our location and to my relief he said that at the bottom of this descent (of doom) I could bail out onto the road and get back to Selkirk. I felt better immediately and I even dibbed my dibber so I could record my time on the death descent!
The downhill was indeed 'gnarly' and had it not been for my recent mountain bike skill course with Andy Barlow I probably would have face planted on some rocks. I took my time and remembered what I'd been taught and even managed to enjoy some of it. I was put off by a female ride who looked the part (muscles/lycra/spds) who kept falling off infront of me. She kept saying 'damn, this always happens!' and I did the obligatory 'are you ok?' and passed her and then when I had to stop she'd overtake me and fall off again! lol
Finally I reached the bottom of the descent only to find the other 25k girl being comforted by a marshall. She'd followed the same route as me and had just crashed and taken a chunk out of her ankle! First thing she said when she saw me was 'I think we went the wrong way'!!! hehe, no shit Sherlock! Bless her, she was still walking but the marshall had alread called mountain rescue so she wasn't allowed to leave. She was really upset when I told her I knew the way out and back to Selkirk and I intended to ride back. I saw her arrive later in the land rover with her bike tied to the top. Not quite the ending she'd hoped for I'm sure!
When I finally got out of the forest and back onto the road I was buzzing! I knew I'd achieved something that I never imagined I could. I'd ridden harder and taken more risks than I ever thought I could and I'd survived to tell the tale! It may not seem that remarkable to some people but this was the hardest thing I've ever done and looking back I feel really proud that I managed it without hurting myself! Matt came to meet me on his bike and was delighted to see me smiling (he thought I'd be in bits after our telephone call earlier!). We rode back to Selkirk together and I crossed the finish line in 3hrs 26 mins which for a 25k is pretty poor, but for a technical 35-40k isn't too bad for someone like me :)
The picture below has been posted on the event website today. I hate pictures of myself doing anything sporty, and this one is no different but given that no other images of me or my lovely bike at this event are available then I'm just going to put it out there! This was just before the point I realised I was way off course, so I was tired but still enjoying myself!
I'd highly recommend this event and I may even enter the 50k next year ;)