Gorrick Rd 2 was never in my original plan. I had planned to start the TCTP, breeze along it and around about week 8 start dabbling in racing, when the programme recommends you will peak. However with my favourite local ride being Swinley Forest, Gorrick Rd 2 was just too hard an opportunity to pass. I figured why not do my first race on home turf? Why not use this early event to learn what racing’s about and get a feel for everything? There were a few reasons to give the race a go, not least because I was eager to get started and gauge my current fitness.
I arrived on the morning nice and early enough to catch a few of the juvenile racers finishing their laps. They’d clocked some good times, and after I’d picked up my number I inevitably did what I usually do whenever I go… well… anywhere and realise I’d ridiculously early and had nothing really to do. It was 10.00am and my race wasn’t until 13.00pm. Plenty of time, I thought, for a warm up and a practice lap.
I strapped on my Garmin and headed round the track. It started with some pretty gruelling up and down forest singletrack, which whilst relatively simple technically felt like a bit of a constant struggle through soft ground and roots. After about 2km the forest opened up into a stretch of gravelly fireroad leading to a bend. I started to accelerate and keep my heart rate below any sort of zone that was going to waste any energy for the actual race, but as soon as I hit the bend I saw it.
I’ve heard of it. I’ve heard stories about it and people who ride Swinley frequently fear it. Despite this, after two years of riding Swinley (frequent visitors will appreciate this fact) I’d never actually come across it, due to Swinley being the size of a small country.
It was an easy decision to walk it, but the tough 35 degree rocky climb for probably 70 metres or more was going to be tough on foot or bike. At the top I optimistically told myself I would have to climb it at least once.
After that we hit the Labyrinth section of singletrack – Swinley’s best technical descent. Honestly, at the top of the hill I was seriously wondering how, only 2.5km into an 8km lap I was ever going to complete three of these. It played on my mind for most of the practice lap that there was still time to transfer to the 2 lap ‘Fun’ category, despite it’s pride hitting name. However those thoughts quickly evaporated when I bombed down the Labyrinth causing all practicing riders to move quickly out of my way, assuming that I was part of the current race.
After that the course cut through more forest trails with another couple of sweet technical downhills through forest, a tough forest hill and finally coming out at the timing van clocking at about 8km.
After a chat with Matt at the Torq Fitness stall (I always use Torq products) he agreed that three laps was a good number, and I agreed. Whilst the beginning was tough, it got a little easier afterwards and I decided that it was worth the punt. Surely I couldn’t be the least fit guy there, nor the worst rider.
I ditched my baggies for the bib tights, changed the lenses in my goggles and filled up two bottles. Shoving a couple of Torq Black Cherry gels in my jersey, I sat down to strategise.
I set myself the following goals. Bearing in mind that I am not only two weeks behind in my training due to illness, but I am racing six weeks too early into an 11 week training program. I am not ready to challenge anyone, and because of this my main goal was simply…
Goal 1 – Finish the race
I told myself that apart from huge mechanical failure (I carried a spare tube and pump to cover for a flat – though I’ve impressively never had one on my Rockhopper) or a crash and injury that I had to finish all three laps, no excuses and preferably not last.
Goal 2 – Manage your energy
If I was going to finish the race, I had to manage my energy levels properly. To do this took a little experimenting but as a base I was using the tried and trusted Joe Friel and Chris Carmichael recommendations. They equate to roughly one 500ml bottle of water per hour of racing, and 35-50g of carbohydrate per hour, to be consumed after 15 minutes and throughout the race. This equated to two bottles, one filled with Torq Natural Orange and a couple of gels – although one of those was a backup and this was anticipating a potential two hour ride.
Goal 3 – Play to your strengths
I figure in racing you always have to play to your strengths, but what was I really bringing that set me apart from others in the open category? I figured there were only a couple of things at this stage in my training. I’ve been mountain biking seriously for ten years, and this has taken me all over the UK to some of the biggest and best trail centres around. Whilst I haven’t been out three times a week for years on end, I do have experience on some of the most technical descents and climbs in the country and I figured this would give me at least a slight advantage over a few of the riders in a general category such as open – mainly less experienced riders or road riders making the change to MTB.
The next strength would be endurance and leg strength. For the past year I’ve been in the gym four times a week at least, strengthening my core, legs and upper body whilst reducing my body fat down to 8% or so. Whilst not all of this is directly beneficial in mountain biking and much more on bike training is needed, it does give me excellent conditioning and endurance – and I wanted this more than anything to come through. I had probably trained harder in a general way than 80% of the guys in the cat, and despite them all probably having more on bike training I figured over the course of three laps I might be able to outlast some of them.
I wasn’t nervous in the start to the race. I’d never done a race start but I knew to not go crazy as I had yet to reach any power intervals in my training program and quickly sprinting out of the starting grid would tire me for the rest of the race and could seriously jeopardise goal number 1 – finishing the race. I figured for the first lap I just wanted to make it round and gauge what happens.
I was a little nervous to see a lot of top team riders lining the front of the grid, most notably from Team WIggle etc. However towards the middle where I was we were a bit more relaxed and logo-less. I figured here would be a good place to hang back and see the start from a safe distance.
And then the horn went. D Day.
Everyone pushed forward suddenly, the gates were down and it was every man for himself. To the left of me a few guys collapsed in a heap. I rode around them, not thinking about anyone but myself. If I didn’t get moving, I’d be on the deck too. I kept riding until I got myself some space and fell into a tight but strangely free moving mob of riders. Another crash in front of me and I overtook a few more guys. Every man for himself.
As the riders began to settle and split up about 2km in it came to the point where we all knew for sure would split the men from the boys. That bloody hill.
My initial promise to climb said hill at least once suddenly seemed wholly unrealistic. Whilst I was floating comfortably near the rear of the pack my heart rate had not come below 165 for the whole start of the ride (my LTHR is 171 and I’ve only trained so far at 8 and 10 minute bursts of 158-161 – this was now 8 minutes at 166 and counting). I was feeling a burn and whilst I was comfortably warmed up, I was worried about burning out early and ruining my day. I jumped off and walked, along with most everyone else. My lower back began to burn along with my calves as we climbed up the hill, but at the top I knew my strength. The one point where I could take some guys down.
However it turns out that in the places where you’re strong enough to gain momentum, so are most other trained riders.
In Labyrinth I was hot on the rider in front of me the whole way. I was constantly having to touch heavier on the brakes behind him. He was going fast and cornering well, but I just had that edge on him. If I could just get round him safely I could feel I accomplished something on that stretch. The corners were getting tighter and I was nailing every one, but I couldn’t safely pass the guy. He knew I was on him, and he seemed willing to give way but there was just no safe way to do it. Go too wide and you were heading 20ft down a muddy hill. There was nowhere to pass.
Then a burst of sunlight. The singletrack ended and a stumpy little dirt track came into view. He pulled in slightly for just a second where the path opened out – and I picked the worst line possible. I came off my pedals (I ride flats – and thank God I was then or I’d have been off) and whilst I regained control of the bike quickly he was now six or seven feet further ahead up a gravel hill. I’d lost my chance.
My legs were burning nicely and the adrenaline was pumping as we headed into the next section but I was focussed on getting my HR down. I agree with people who say you probably shouldn’t race with a HR but I had my reasons this time. I’m still not far enough into my training to accurately know when my body is giving up and I need to put a number on it. Unfortunately that number had now been flashing on my monitor for over twenty minutes and 4km. Surely this was going too hard?
I pressed on, and had to walk those final hill climbs (as did many people. A girl passed me just as we entered the forest. She was climbing like a pro and asked to pass me on my right.
‘Are you leading the women’s open?’ I asked. They were due to start five minutes after us.
‘Yes, thanks for letting me through’.
Good bloody work. half way round and she’d made at least five minutes on me. I wished her luck and carried on.
As we came into the second lap there weren’t many riders around. Lot’s of people you thought you were chasing were actually practice riders when you got close. I plodded on and did one of my gels. About half way round I started to feel it in my back.
I’d mentioned to my trainer about lower back pain on rides of around 2 hours or so before. Usually most noticeable during technical singletrack, my back seizes up and… oh hell, you’ve all had this problem. My worry was that I still had 5km or so to go on my second lap and I could do nothing to stop it. All the exercises I’d been doing to prevent this seem to have only delayed it.
Also the lack of riders around had me thinking. My HR was still 160 odd so I figured I was pushing all I could, but not having anyone to chase was making me wonder whether I was falling behind. I was passed by a couple more of the women’s leaders, which was fine, but the fact that I’d not been passed by any men in a while was encouraging. There was no way I was last, there were too many behind me at the start. And if they weren’t overtaking me they must be behind.
They must be feeling the same things. Surely I can’t be the only one hurting? My legs feel fine, apart from my back I feel great. I can do this. Besides, I only need to finish.
I kept pushing. I overtook a guy at the start of lap 3. At this stage he could have been anyone – a Vet or someone just starting, an Open guy I’d caught up to, a practice rider. It didn’t matter, it felt good. ‘On your right!!’ I shouted as I passed him at 2mph. Him crawling uphill at 1.5mph. I know how he felt.
I pushed through the initial rooty bit. The soft mud that had been almost unnoticeable during my practice lap had become chewed up and soggy through hundreds of riders churning it up. It was getting tough, my heart was still beating at over 160rpm and had been doing so for over an hour. My legs were tired, my back was locked. On the path leading up to the hill I could see riders again. Just a few. Some were practicing. Some were lean, fit and sponsored – the sport category had begun.
I pushed up the hill. Despite how my back felt I still felt excited for Labyrinth. I bombed down it, y internal monologue spurring me on the whole time. You might not see anyone, but noone’s passed you either. Half a lap to go. You’re bossing this part. You brought one thing today and this is where you can show it off.
Weirdly for other periods my internal monologue sounded like the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket with my voice and accent. Weird. Anyway…
As I got towards the last hill in the forest something interesting happened. One of the women caught up to me and asked to pass. She was probably third or fourth in the open, and I let her through as I was slowing down. My knee began to hurt inside, bringing back an old stress injury I picked up walking the length of Manhattan in October, which came back in the gym a few days later when sprinting but I hadn’t had since. It was back, it was painful and it was slowing me down.
Anyway after I let this girl past she went up the hill and out of sight. However within minutes I was winding down the other side of that hill through the forest and I caught up to her. I was about 2km from the finish and that was all I needed. The rest is technical and you’ve GOT this. Just finish it!
I bombed through the forest towards the finish. I tried sprinting but my back wouldn’t let me. It lasted a couple of seconds before I had to stop trying. My back and my right knee was killing me. I just had to finish. Everyone I passed became a victory. Some guy who’s having a mechanical, I’ll take that. Some guy who’s clearly in another category – you’re mine! Some lady walking her dog, some kid on a bike. I destroyed them all.
As I came to the last, awesome yet lethal stretch of bumpy roots and dips I heard the unmistakable sound of another rider behind me (see pic). No way. Not now. It couldn’t be a sport rider he was way too far ahead. It wasn’t a girl. It had to be my nemesis. For the next thirty seconds, he was my mortal enemy. Whatever position I’m in right now, it isn’t last. He could change that. He wants to change that.
I felt him breathing down my neck. I kept going. The track opened into a small fork. On the left was a drop off and small jump. On the right was a slightly soft path which went round a small tree. I took the left. Nailed the drop off. Took off over the jump. There was no way he was taking me. Not with me throwing myself all over the show like that. The rules state you don’t have to give position, and there was no way I was giving this guy my spot. When I hit the tape path leading to the exit I knew I’d done it. I’d finished.
103rd out of 120 was pretty good for my first race. It was tough, but it was a load of fun. My lap times were around 39, 40 and 40 mins which is interesting for a few reasons. My avg lap time, let’s call it 40, was actually quicker than a lot of people’s last lap who finished higher. A lot of people got progressively worse as the race went on and whilst I though I was, my laps were almost identical.
Does this mean I didn’t push hard enough? Does it mean my endurance was great after all?
I’ll have to think hard about what they mean. I’m surprised that my third was as good as my second. I definitely began to feel it on the third lap but the consistency gives me the confidence that around 25km is my limit for an XC race.
My avg HR of 166 which concerned me for so long actually surprised me at the end. I didn’t feel like it was beyond my means, and I expect to race at this in future. I do feel that perhaps my practice lap was a bit too aggressive and may have contributed to my tiredness later, but this will be remedied in future.
Most importantly I learnt what racings all about, had a blast and picked up two injuries. Minor injuries, but ones that will come back and won’t go away unless I work on them. I’m visiting my physio this week to work on my lower back and knee and will report back. Better they happen two laps into a XC race two weeks into training than 2 hours into a 12 hour enduro six months later…