2017 has come flying out of the traps. Never in my life have I enjoyed the month of January so much and we still have another week to go!
Of course, January nominally for me is consumed by the Strathpuffer 24 hour MTB endurance race. Normally after the event I feel a sense of satisfaction and relief. Today, despite the sub-zero temperatures at the weekend, I feel warm and satisfied. It’s was the best Puffer ever for so many reasons. Why, how? Where to start?
These days my brain operates by summarising things (usually in threes oddly) at a high level and then drill down into details. This Puffer was the best ever because it felt like a celebration (rather than a race), it was convivial and friendly and it was also the Puffer when the females came to the fore, particular with Naomi Freireich and Stuart Macleod winning the pairs and the Adventure Syndicate/SWC finishing third in the quad categories. Not by sub category (i.e. gender or age), outright! Like I wrote last year when Mike D and I finished 6th overall, but 3rd male, the females are coming, thick and fast! But the third reason, was simply because I had the privilege of riding it with my 12 years old daughter Katie (see photo) who was making her debut – in the solo category! Something her Dad has never managed.
Ok I wasn’t actually racing myself, so I could absorb the Puffer jamboree instead of being dialled in and focussed, but those that were watching the clock, from Keith Forsyth nailing his third consecutive solo win (with local terminator Wayne Blair picking up a superb third spot, to compliment his pairs win last year), to Anna Bannana Blair and Amanda Tweedie winning the female pairs category at a canter, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves (even Wayne after his disastrous start)!
But ah, perhaps that was down to the benign conditions? No wind, sunny days, dry trails, high spirits. Easy right? Yeah. First lap with Barbara was a breeze. However, on lap 2, Katie’s legs hurt, really hurt and she had to stop on the first bend in tears with muscle fatigue. Chris from the “Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery World Drinkers” spotted her in distress and made her a cup of tea, gave her a flapjack and a warm seat. Brilliant and it summed up the atmosphere this year (we later got Haribo from another generous soul on the final fire-road climb). She perked up until lap 4, when general fatigue crept in and then had another wobble, but it was good timing as Gillian Pratt (solo female winner in 2015) stopped and reassured Katie that she too cries at some point in the Puffer and reminded her that she’s a grown woman! That helped spur Katie on as she was tired mentally and we decided an early night was required after her day’s endeavours and set the alarm for 3am.
It was just as well Katie was making her debut at the “easiest” Puffer in history because her first 4 laps were tough for her.
However, as darkness and temperatures fell, not even by half-way stage the course changed dramatically as it tends to do, and on a sixpence. This year it was to be…
ice, ice, baby!
The top section turned into a undulating skating rink. All of a sudden riders coming into our happy heat tent (complete with wood burner) started to appear concerned. This was going to be no doddle. Ice spiker tyres became the conversation along with how many riders were wiping out with each lap and increasing frequency as energy levels lowered and physical and mental fatigue started to take over.
At this point I wasn’t too concerned for Katie. She was asleep in the van and she was up on her schedule and I was relaxing. Kirsty was having a glass of Prosecco, whilst I was on the whisky with Dave and Ellie (trying to tempt pairs duo Steve and Kev from the Torphins Typhoons into a wee snifter), so perhaps my demeanour was somewhat tapered? But having helped Dave Tweedie mount a troublesome spiker tyre for Amanda as midnight loomed, perhaps I should have been more circumspect?
And so it proved, at 4am the youngest female to ever race the Puffer turned the cranks for the our graveyard shift. We arranged to meet Barbara (Velodees founder) who had timed her feeds with her 3 month of old Lucy to perfection en route and set off for a date with foreseeable treachery.
We managed to get through nearly all of the icy sections, but black ice gives no warning and when all seemed to be going swimmingly, Katie ended up pole-axed and doing back stroke down a benign looking section.
Thankfully, she made enough noise to convince me nothing was broken, just her pride, a little bit of confidence and inevitable bruising. It also helped having Barbara with us as she provided the maternal reassurance Dad’s like me struggle to find. Within minutes she was back on her bike and cracking on with the task in hand, albeit very tentatively. Barbara took her mind off the fall by simply chatting away.
And so we ended up walking sections of ice. This was new territory for me, I’ll ride over anything. But not Katie. Fair enough. And then I started to appreciate how hard this race must be for her. Yes she has a relatively expensive (Isla Beinn) bike and yes, it does the job. But there’s no suspension, the wheels are 26” and the tyres are bog standard trail/CX tyres – narrow and a bit nobbly. Ok, I had locked out my suspension and was running CX wheels and tyres on my Lurcher, but I have the luxury of decent upper body strength, 29” wheels and 25 years of MTB riding in the tank. And I’ve done this race three times, not one.
So after the next lap and a wee “breakfast” break I decided to take my 26” wheeled Kona Munimula, my 18 year old pride and joy (and Katie’s next bike) out for a what would be the penultimate lap.
And despite the grippy tyres and suspension fork, it didn’t feel great, which is strange as the Kona has been raced every Puffer since 2014 (though not always with me riding it). Double Kudos to Katie, she really has a tough gig on her hands. The worst of all worlds in a bike setup sense.
The gig got tougher for her. She was content to finish the race after her seventh lap. Her racing friend and fellow Team JMC teammate Tom Seipp managed 6 laps three years ago and that was her target – to better it on her first Puffer. Tom is two months younger than Katie (still just about 11 years old) and was destroying the course on his way to an astonishing 16 laps in total. Incredible.
But I had other ideas. I wasn’t going to push her, merely give her the opportunity and choice to do eight laps. So on what Katie thought was her last lap as dawn eventually turned into day, she sensed my air of urgency. She’s nae daft. So I brokered the possibility of another lap at the point where she took her spectacular tumble on lap 5 and her world fell apart. It was deliberate, get all the bad news out once and for all and then let her make the decision. Tears were now flowing, but she continued to ride whimpering away. Keith Forsyth passed us for the umpteenth time and even though he had his own personal hell to deal with, he gave Katie the same encouragement as he did during the previous 23 hours. A massive fillip, thanks Keith!
And as we approached the dibbing station, she was flying again. Dougie Vipond, commentating for the Adventure Show gave her an even bigger “big up” and that was decision made, eight laps it is, come on Dad, stop dawdling will ya?
It was at this point, I can confirm that grown men also cry during the Puffer. A spectator seeing Katie smash the fire-road climb for the last time shouted “You’re awesome”. I looked across at the determined re-energised 12 year old and said “Yes you are” and burst into tears! My turn to whimper. Proud Dad and the realisation that what Katie had achieved trumps anything I’ve ever done on a bike by a country mile.
The last lap feels like the penultimate lap, you finish it wishing you could do one more. Out of the ether comes renewed motivation, perhaps it’s the brain letting go? Or maybe relief? The brain knows you are done, so perhaps there are no problems to deal with anymore? And that’s exactly what my wee one said as we descended for one last time to a rapturous and cheering crowd which continued up to the presentation ceremony with all the fuss and paraphernalia for the lassie that had completed 80km of riding and nearly 8000ft of climbing. All on a rigid 26” wheeled bike with narrow trail tyres, rim brakes and an occasional seized/frozen rear derailleur.
But as I said every time Katie had a moment over the 25 hours of racing, if it were easy, we simply wouldn’t do it! And the Puffer isn’t easy, it never is. Yes this was may have been the Puffer with the most laps completed, but there’s always something lurking in the shadows to test your mind and/or body.
Thanks to Aidan and everyone who supported and cheered us on. Also thanks to the organising committee (in particular Alasdair Lawton and Sophie Nicholson) and also to Anne Seipp for making the best hot chocolate in a bowl late on Friday night (and Rich for the red wine).