Kielder Chiller 24 is a 24-hour mountain bike race, usually held in February, as if 24 hours of mountain biking isn’t hard enough. Due to Covid-19 it was moved to October this year. With the warmer than usual temperatures for the ‘Chiller’, Barry Kemp  of Cold Brew Events (evilly 👿 brilliant organiser) decided to stick in a tonne more climbing and descending to make it harder. This would make for a truly tough course.

Whilst I was looking forward to the 470 meters of climbing per lap, I wasn’t relishing the mix of black and red descents, as that’s where I’d have the biggest test. You see I’d broken my wrist in a mountain bike fall in July and been in a cast for 10 weeks. The cast finally came off five weeks out from the Kielder Chiller 24. Once removed, my upper body was diminished like a roadie 😉, especially on my dominant right-hand side. I tried to cram in hard, long mountain bike and strength sessions to recover some strength. Luckily, my legs were in good shape from a year of cycling climbs. After successful 4-, 6- and 8-hour sessions at Cwmcarn trail centre in the weeks leading up to Kielder, I decided to take the plunge and do my first 24-hour race. I began the weeks of planning, preparation and packing for every eventuality, which filled one room in my house.

Day before

The drive up from Bristol to the border of Scotland is a fair schlep, which I did the day before. An hour or so out from Kielder, the scenery became stunning. There was little to no phone signal. It felt remote. I’d booked to stay in a small B&B 30 minutes from the course. Before checking in, I wanted to recce the course and meet the team. It would be my first Team JMC event, although I’ve been a team member for a few years. I made my way to the unmissable line of Team JMC gazebos. It was great to see Budge and Sally again and to meet people I only knew virtually (on Zwift), like Carl, Lee, Chris, John, Keith and many more. The pit set up was like nothing I’d been involved in before. I was pitting with talented teammate Sofia Christiansen, who’d be gunning for the female win.

I quickly put on some cycling kit and joined Carl, Lee and Sofia who were doing a course recce. As I rode the lap and encountered the descents, my mountain bike mojo seemed a distant memory. I felt at odds with the bike. That night, I woke up having remembered that my bike had a new seat post fitted and I suspected it was too high.

On the morning of the event there was the usual faffing around with several small things, like changing my seat post, which was too high and too long, but I hadn’t packed a hacksaw (next time 😆). Luckily, I had an extra seat post to fit. There were also other important tasks to be done, like laying out my pit and running Sal and Budge through my hydration and nutrition plan. I’ve found that you need a plan, which is flexible but had a solid backbone of having 500ml of drink, 60 grams of carb and 250 calories per hour.

As a plant based coeliac, I’m careful with my nutrition. Whenever I’ve failed to finish ultra-events, it’s been down to stomach issues. Following the event, I was asked what fuel works for me. I’m no expert, but here’s what works for me:

  1. Eat only tried and tested on race day
  2. Stick to mealtimes in sync with your bodies patterns
  3. Have 20-25 grams of protein every 8 hours
  4. Keep stomach healthy with PH neutral energy drinks, like Mountain Fuel or Tailwind, for example
  5. Eat, especially when not feeling like it
  6. Mix food types, tastes, and textures on rotation to ensure you have what you fancy
  7. Nights are harder with a drop in blood sugar and core body temperature, so fuel to overcome this. I like hot ReadyBrek with banana and honey
  8. If stomach goes, try switching to water until it settles
  9. Avoid energy gels altogether or until the last third, when getting in complex carbs can be harder
  10. Eat natural food when possible – see my list below of 100% natural alternatives

Here’s some of my favourite natural, veggie and Gluten Free foods:

  • Fruit & nuts – bananas, dried mango, salty cashews for example
  • Smoothies – Pulsin plant based, pea protein Super Shake with peanut butter, banana, honey, chia seeds and almond milk
  • Spanish omelette with potato – Waitrose do a perfect, small one for £2.19
  • Boiled new potato with olive oil and salt
  • Bars – Mountain Fuel Feel Good Ginger
  • Natural gels – more and more of these on the market, my favourites are Spring Energy, which are 100% Real Food and Mountain Fuel Chai.

We’re off!

The morning of the event disappeared fast. Before I knew it, it was 11am and time to race. I was more nervous than usual. I’m not one of those riders who is super confident in new situations, especially this time so close to having a cast off. Luckily Team JMC head-man and part of my pit crew for the event, Budge (Andrew Burgess) put my mind at rest. He encouraged me to just think about it as another Everesting (cycling the equivalent height of Mt Everest in a single ride) – To complete an Everesting, I’d need to do 20 laps of the 5-mile course. This became my target, as I’d done many Everestings over the lockdowns culminating in a World record.

Master and the apprentice

The first 6 hours went to plan, and I was feeling good as dark drew in early in the wooded sections. At this stage I wasn’t worried about position. I was there to get a feeling for a 24-hour race, complete it, push myself out of my comfort zone and learn as much as possible. I was sticking to a power cap on the climbs, to make sure I didn’t go too hard too early. People had warned me against this, especially Matt Jones, who’d been a big help in the run in to the event

Embracing the night

Lights going on and a quick bite to eat between 5 and 6pm signalled the end of the opening spell. It was now time to embrace the night and settle in for the long haul. As the dark, cold, fog and rain increased, Budge encouraged me to focus on staying safe, mechanical free and completing laps, rather than fast laps. This was a relief with reports coming in of falls, mechanicals, and abandons. Keeping forward progress in an attrition event like this was enough in the dark hours.

At about hour 14, at 1am, I was passed by Kyle Beaty, who was leading and would go on to win. He was proper loving it! I came back to Kyle on the climbs and had good chats with him until we hit the descents and Kyle disappeared. It was frustrating but expected given his Enduro pedigree and my current poorer than usual descending. A dropper seat post was the one thing I missed off in my meticulous planning, which would have help with descending.

Graveyard shift

The funny thing about the graveyard shift, in my limited experience, is it’s a time warp. Perhaps it’s the darkness, tiredness, rhythmic nature of pedalling and lapping or all of these, but time goes differently, where whole chunks can just disappear. I was eating and drinking to plan with steady lap times. While it was not easy, I was in control, and it was an unusual kind of comfortable with all the elements. Matt Jones described it as being ‘comfortably uncomfortable’, which made sense to me now. I knew there was more I could give, but as this was my first 24, I played it a little safe. I was doing everything right, like when I experienced pain, which I did in right knee, I was acknowledging it but didn’t panic. I’d learned that pain comes and goes, as do the highs and lows, all that matters is forward progress.

I was enjoying the process of ticking off the laps moving towards an Everesting and sunrise. Mentally I’d broken the lap down into hard climbs at the beginning, a black descent with a tricky line that was getting increasingly slippery and a lovely finishing section. I was also going through my 5 controllables list adapted from Damian Browne’s 4, where I’d check:

  1. Position & technique – am I well positioned, how’s my technique?
  2. Effort – what’s my effort across my body
  3. Breathing – what’s my breathing like? Is it controlled, consistent and calm?
  4. Self-talk – how’s my self-talk, is it positive or negative?
  5. Fuelling – Am I drinking before I’m thirsty and eating before I’m hungry?

This process carried me through the graveyard in a very positive frame of mind. This was only interrupted by a kit change, food, and a caffeine boost at 3am. Along the way, I was enlivened by the appearance of foxes by the side of the course, who’s eyes wonderfully reflected the lights back. I was loving saying hello to people, visiting the pits and hearing support around the course. I’ve found in extreme events like this, connecting with people is a great way to keep spirits high and stop yourself from retreating into your own head, which can be a bad place if self-talk is negative. Most people were chatty, and I could sense when people were struggling, but still tried to give some encouragement without being too chipper.

Divine intervention

When I changed my kit, as I was getting cold in wet gear, I swapped the front wheel to a grippier Maxxis front tyre. This was noticeably better on the increasingly wetter, wooded sections that had been added, but were not part of the hard packed trails. 4 hours out, on the infamous black grade descent, I went over the big rock drop on the wrong line, burping the front tyre sending tyre sealant everywhere. I picked the bike up, spun the front wheel and to my delight, the sealant left in the wheel resealed. I was off again quickly. Later, I’d learn that Budge had lifted this spare wheel, figured out there wasn’t enough sealant and added more. Divine intervention and a life saver!

As I hit 20 hours, I was still on my hydration and nutrition schedule with my stomach, legs and mind strong. I felt like I could just keep doing this, which was a testament to meticulous planning, advice, application, amazing pit crew and support. I was proper loving it! I thought to myself that I might just have a taste for this 😜!!

Final push

With sunrise not far off, I was trying to work out how many laps I could do, but the tiredness meant my maths was shocking. Luckily, Budge had worked out that, although 2nd place was already well in the bag, if I pushed on, I could get another 3 laps in to make 20 laps. Although the idea of doing 2 was better in that moment, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if Kyle had put 2 laps into me. There was also the Everesting to complete, which drove me to dig in, have another fall, pick myself up and push on with improved lap times. I’d finish with 17 minutes to spare. This was what’s known as a ‘short’ 24 hour, where only laps that are finished inside the 24 hours count, not started. Whilst I’d not completely emptied the tank, I’d gone just deep enough to know that I can go more next time. The perfect first test all in all!

Home straight

As I crossed the line, I made a beeline to high-five Budge. This is a moment I’ll never forget. There are so many ways to do an ultra-endurance event but going to the last makes it even more special. It also avoids any regrets and what if’s that can take the shine off a performance.

I’m pure thrilled with completing my first 24 hour on my first attempt. In 23 hours and 43 minutes, over black and red trails, 5 weeks out of a cast helped every pedal stroke by Team JMC’s @Sally and @Budge, we’d clocked up 268km off-road and you guessed it, another Everesting with 8,964 metres of elevation gain 👍 😀.

Finish line bliss!

Later, the ride would be certified as a Soil Everesting by Andy at Hells 500. Although it looks like I have 4 badges left to complete the full set (one is part of a subset), so actually there’s just three left, which is unimaginable as there are only two people in the world who have all badges.

Everesting badges from single, double, triple, virtual and more

As if all that wasn’t enough, taking 2nd overall and 1st in category has me buzzing weeks later. Sofia, who along with Kyle were the two hardest riders to pull back on the climbs, blitzed it with 1st female, fastest female lap and 4th overall! I felt this was just reward for all the effort and time Budge, Sal and others had put into making this happen. Go Team JMC!

Old fella mixing it up with the youth

Lessons learned

I’ve learned so much from my first 24-hour. I’d seen where time was leaked and lost. I’d identified weaknesses to train on. Most of all, I’d learned that in ultra-events, my preparation, performance management, fuelling and mental approach go the distance. I’m looking forward to my next 24-hour, where with increased confidence, I can hopefully challenge for the win!

Thank you

I can’t thank Team JMC enough and Budge and Sal in particular. The pit, people and pride in racing for this team is second to none! To Jane (my rock), Amy and Esme (my inspiration) for their patience, love, and support every day. 

Thanks also to Haiko Cycling, who literally keep the wheels turning for me as one of their supported riders. Also, to Exposure lights who saw me through 14 hours of darkness. And finally, to Rupert at Mountain Fuel for keeping me fuelled and my stomach strong.