Monday, 2 May 2011

Monstered

And so the weekend of Maggies Monster Bike & Hike 2011 rolled around, and a great one it turned out to be.  Stand by for a long blog...

It started on Friday morning, leaving home at 845 for the 350 mile drive to Fort William.  Even that was fairly memorable too, as wifey sat in the passenger seat of the car searching for internet connections in the least likely places (Shap, Beattock) to be able to watch That Wedding.  She did connect from time-to-time, and I found myself, despite being wholly uninterested in the build up, snatching glances at the Archbish (thanks Boris) and the happy couple.  Though I didn't realise that John Peel had been reincarnated as the Bishop of London.  The most impressive bit for me overall were the onboard cameras in the planes involved in the fly-past; brilliant.

Complete coincidence of timing meant that the 3 parties travelling to FW (us, Bill & Kirsty, + support team of Gordon & Emma) met at the world-famous-in-Scotland Green Welly caff about 45 miles short of the destination, and we did the last bit in convoy.  A wild fire by the side of the road en route, and then another just outside the centre of FW, both being battled by fire crews, gave us an idea of how dry and dusty it was going to be out there.  At the end of April!

The pre-match routine followed the usual course: registration, pasta party, uplifting live music from a group with more enthusiasm than talent, and a briefing from David "Flasheart" Fox-Pitt, the lead organiser on behalf of Maggies (weather, bike, nutrition, course, emergency procedures, that sort of thing), followed by a couple of pints of strength-giving Guinness.  More Royal Wedding on telly, and then bed.  But no sleep.  Well, a couple of hours, but that was pretty restless.  I'm not sure why, but excitement and a head full of cold must have played their part.

Up at 5, covered every part of my body in either vaseline or suncream, or both in some cases, and out to the bike.  I'd elected this year to ride the couple of miles to the start and leave the good lady wife in her bed - it was going to be a long enough day for her as it was.  We left the start at Banavie at 6.32 for the 31 miles on mountain biking to Fort Augustus.  Those 31 miles break down something like this - 70% very straightforward, nice and flat, canal towpath, no stress.  15% long draggy climbs and dips, sapping if you overcook them, but not too stressful otherwise, and 15% quite technical single track.  For those with little MTB experience that latter 15% must be hard going.  It was a fairly straightforward run.  The wind was in our faces, and for a while was horribly reminscent of the day on the Lands End-John O'Groats ride a couple of years ago when we had a 20+ mph north-easterly coming at us for all the 106 miles between Connel and Inverness, one of the most draining days I've ever had on a bike.  Fortunately this time, the course zigged and zagged a bit, and we got 5 miles of shelter sucking the wheel of a big geezer.  I'm not sure he knew we were even there.

The fastest guys got the bike-walk transition in 2hrs 15; we were in 12 mins later in a very respectable 9th position.  We then had the first of 3 fabulous transitions in Fort Augustus (our support team of 4 - Gordon, Emma, Kirsty, Hazel - had been well briefed beforehand, but rose to the occasion magnificently; you know the Wallace & Gromit cartoons when Wallace gets of bed, and through a series of processes and contraptions is deposited at the breakfast tabled washed and dressed 20 seconds later - that was what it felt like), and were out walking 12 mins later.  I say walking, it wasn't long before we took to our run-walk approach, which had always been the plan to get to Bronze.  I guess we expected to start being overtaken at this point, as many others (we thought) ran a fair bit of the course, but to my astonishment we rolled into Bronze in Invermoriston at 11.07 (9 miles) a place higher up the overall, in 8th, out of 610 starters.

But then the really hard work began - the sun was high in the sky, the temp was 18-20c, and we were climbing hard for a couple of miles with no shelter at all.  The pace slackened a little, but not enough to stop us going past a few cyclists.  The first half of that section to Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit is pretty unforgiving, as the contour lines on the official map of the Great Glen Way map indicate.  What they don't show of course is the underfoot conditions, which are equally hard work in many places; small stones, big rocks, sharp-edged flinty things, all of which really test out your balance, footwear, and selection of where you're going to actually walk.  Anyway, we KBO'd (qv W. Churchill) till 15.07, when we hit the Silver finish (24 miles) at Drumnadrochit, accompanied on the run-in (literally in places) by Gordon, who'd come nearly 2 miles up the path to meet us, which gave Bill a nice break from my inane ramblings.

We'd dropped down to 13th by now, but we didn't care - we were ahead of our schedule and target, which was to get to Gold in 15 hours.  Hastily scoffed hot food, the inevitable sock and vest changes, and we were off again, going through plenty of tourists as we hiked the first couple of miles out of Drumnadrochit up the side of the A82.  Being at the front of the field this year completely changed the feel of the event - normally at this point all the tourists have retired to their campsites or hotels, and you're alone with fellow participants and the marshalls.  But on Saturday we barely saw any other participants, going for hours at a time without a sighting, the transitions were all but deserted, and the grockles were out in force, at least in the tourist honeytraps.

After those couple of miles along the A82, some gentle climbing was rapidly followed by some brutal climbing, or at least it feels that way when you've effectively got a marathon in your legs already.  A word here on Bill.  He started the day with his feet not in the greatest of shape (ie with plasters on in place to cover previous war wounds), and they got progressively worse.  We had to stop a couple of times outside of the transitions for him to tend further to his plates of raw meat, but not only did he a) keep going, but b) he kept going quickly, and most impressively c) he didn't moan.  I'd have been squealing like a cornered pig if I'd had to have contended with what he had to (and I mean his feet rather than my company, though God knows that can't have helped), so a special medal for British stoicism should be minted for BLW.  That said, he did pop enough painkillers to down a 2-ton bull, but I can't believe they're very effective at masking the pain of blisters.

The disappointment of missing out on a haggis-burger at the penultimate checkpoint was tempered by the knowledge we were still well ahead of schedule (note to Maggies organisers for next year: this wasn't the only ill-prepared waterstop - people at the front of the field need hot drinks and food just as much as the folk further down).  Texts exchanged with H saw our support team having to cut short their 5-course feast in Inverness, and hurry out to the finish to cheer us in.  I haven't really done the 18.5 miles between Silver and Gold justice here - it's hard, walking/running is just getting boring at this point having been out on the course for 12+ hours, and as you descend off the hills you can almost see the finish line in Inverness for a tantalising 45 minutes before you arrive at it.

But arrive at it we duly did, just after 20.30, to give us an official time of 14 hours and 1 minute, though by my timing it was 13 hours 59.  Either way, we did the course in 14 hours, an hour less than our target of 15 hours, 3 hours faster than last year, 5 hours faster than 3 years ago, and most surprisingly, of the 323 people who made it through to Gold, we finished 14th and 15th.  More stats - we were the 3rd fastest team that actually finished as a team (ie together), we were the fastest walking team, and the people that finished immediately behind us came in 1 hour 6 mins later.  I'm really proud of our performance.

I'm less proud of my performance after I finished however - it seems that I just haven't got enough blood in my system to cope with a combination of champagne, a deep tissue massage on lactic-laden legs, digesting hot food, AND keep me warm.  So for the second time in 3 years I ended up in the care of the Red Cross, this time with mild hypothermia.  My body temp was about 1.5-2c below normal, and it took nearly 90 minutes of being swaddled like a newborn to get it back to acceptable levels.  Oops.  How embarrassing.  And on a day when other folk were coming in with sunburn.

The better news however was that I completed the course totally blister-free and without losing a single toenail, both firsts for me.  There's not too much stiffness either, and I'm looking forward to resuming training tomorrow for the marathon that's 2 weeks on Saturday. 

Post-event reflections?  Well, if you want guaranteed good weather for a British-based holiday, go to the Highlands at the end of April - this was the 8th year of the Monster, and every year has been fine, and in most cases, glorious.  Second, it is a great event; you can make it as hard or as difficult as you wish, the scenery is fabulous, and the support is excellent.  Third, a good support crew is vital - not only is the good cheer and efficiency necessary, but being to look forward to those breaks gives you little intermediate rewards that are really important.  Fourth, you can always do more/go faster than you think you can!  Which leads me on to next year's event......hmmm, probably best to not take a decision for a few days.  I've got the date the Early Bird entry discount ends marked in my diary though! 

And finally...thanks again to our support crew, all named above - we obviously couldn't have done it without you, and I'd love you to give it a go - but mostly thanks to Bill, because this is a team event, and he was my team, both on the day and beforehand in the prep.  The event, the location, the weather, the team; all made it a fantastic weekend.   

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