Sunday, September 07, 2008

On Failure

Yesterday was the second mountain bike race that I've ever quit. It was supposed to be 12 hours solo, but even from the beginning things weren't smooth. Driving down, the deadline for registration came and went as I got lost trying to find an area I'd only ever ridden cross country to. The lazy part of me was thinking that this was a pretty good excuse - if they don't let me in, there's nothing I can do. In the event, I was just in time to sign up with an hour before the start.

I set to work replacing brake pads, brushing the worst of the muck of my bike, and getting ready to go. It looked like I might be in time! The solo riders area was just a part of the camp-site that followed around the edge of the track and I was parked miles away so I was glad to be able to stash my gear with Kathy's excellent track-side position. We joined the start near the back - there's no point in rushing the first lap - but with a couple of minutes to go, I realised that I'd left my keys in my unlocked car. I manage to bounce across the tussocks, grab my keys, lock the car and nearly make it back to the start before the race began at 12pm. Hmm... starting in dead-last.

The first lap was typical queuing and the course had degraded a bit even since riding it a few days before. By the end of the lap, I was 21st in solo and feeling ok. The second lap, I got a clean run so I let the bike run a bit and fell twice for my effort. Still, by then I had reached 14th. Two hours in, it was time for a bite of malt-loaf and back onto the course. It wasn't long before team riders started lapping me and on one open corner, I went wide to let a faster rider through. He went wide too, so I was forced wider until my tyre hooked up on the mud on the outside of the corner and I went down hard on my knee. During the remainder of the lap, blood flowed down my shin and, even now, it's a throbbing reminder of how not to corner.

At this point, much of the course was draggy, some hills weren't worth the effort of trying to ride up and there was hardly any free-wheeling to be had. It was going to be a long day. Adam turned up to say hi, which was a good diversion from the unrewarding ride. Eventually, I'd reached 11th place and things were seeming ok. The course had even dried from slop to goop in places. As 7pm rolled around I stopped to pick up my lights. Rather, the Ay Ups I'd borrowed from Tas. But as I went to fit them, I realised that the extension cable was in my car. So, it was back across the tussocks and losing race-time without even resting. At least I bumped into Richard on the way over and had the chance to chat to a friendly face.

With lights fitted, I set off once more. It was light enough outside the trees but I had to rely on using the force inside them. I didn't really know if the lights would last so I bumbled through for an extra half-hour before switching them on. I was well into eating at this point - on the potatoes and fig rolls nearly every lap as mealtimes skulked past. The rain had started again and the course was becoming horrendous. Nearly every part was an effort of dragging through mud, only the steep climbs brought the relief of walking. And my head was going out of the riding. I fell twice in 100m through lack of concentration. I smashed my shoulder into trees by taking ragged lines, I dabbed, I fell, I walked, I came close to falling off the wooden bridge. I saw a kitten on the trail - it turned out to be a tree-stump. This was seriously worrying and I couldn't have been more glad when the 1.5hr lap finally ended. I stopped for some food, feeling cold and in pain. I decided to take break, as I couldn't think of a single part of the next lap to look forward to. I sat on the damp, dark grass, I wanted to pull up my knees and hug myself but my cut knee wouldn't allow it so I just lay back and watched the sky, mulling. Could I do another lap, would I still be falling as much?

Fortunately, one of the Tunnel Hill Trolls took pity on me and invited me over to their camp-site for tea and cake. It helped me to feel a lot better, but when I went back to the bike, I still couldn't do it. 9 and a half hours in, shivering and confused I quit.

So, what to take from it? There are two things that keep you going in that situation - mind and body. I'd got both of them wrong. I had a dry top to put on that would have helped to stay the shivers, but I didn't use it. If I was going to ride that hard, I would have needed to train more and not to have cut so many corners in the run up to the race. But all things are connected and the mentality that had let me cut a 5.5hr training ride into a 3.5hr ride was the same mentality that wanted to feel self-pity instead of grabbing some merino and getting back out there.

I suppose it comes down to why you're doing the ride. There was no joy to be had on the course, or training in The Chilterns so all the drive had to come from inside. From irrational bloody-mindedness. That is something that I have possessed in the past, but seems to have drained away. There plenty of cases where a bit of suffering can be worthwhile to experience something unique, but just going for 12hrs isn't enough any more. I want to enjoy the rides again, to know why I'm doing it. So, I can look back on a 9hr training ride for Iditarod and hope that I won't break the same way out there. At least there will be progression out there and beauty out there. For now though, I can do this last season of riding in circles for hours and then find something more fun to do.

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