Strathpuffer – Race Report by Lucy Grant
The Strathpuffer is an annual event. It is a gruelling 24 hour race and is famous for the fact that 17 of the 24 hours of racing is in darkness. Entries can be solo, pairs or quads. Near the end of last year I was asked if I was interested in doing the event as part of a quad with three very fast xc riders – Ben Frosyth, Mark McGuire and Harry Johnston. I have always wanted to try the Strathpuffer so I took this opportunity. I was extremely excited about it. People had warned me about how hard and horrible it would be but I think it’s something you really need to experience for yourself!
Scottish Youth XC Team…
After much debate we settled on the name for our quad as “Scottish Youth XC Team”. The boys are fast experienced riders and were keen for a good result. I was really hoping just to do my best but also did not want to let the team down. With only 2 weeks to go we got the bad news that Harry would not be able to ride due to an injury. We were gutted and did not know what we could do at such short notice. We asked a few people but as they had done it before they were not too keen to jump at the opportunity. Also they had not had a chance to prepare. Then we got the unexpected news that my brother Calum was willing to stand in for Harry. We were so glad he was willing to take his place.
Our team was now:
The event was from 10:00am on the Saturday until 10:00 am on the Sunday. On the Friday afternoon we set off. The snow was falling thick when we left Peebles and continued like this for much of the journey making the driving conditions really sketchy and we had at times doubted that we were going to get there. However the roads eventually became clearer and we arrived in Strathpeffer which is just slightly further North of Inverness. On arrival at the venue we had a quick set up of our camp which would be our base for the 24 hours of the event. After that we were off to a nearby hotel where we got our first interview for the Adventure Show! This is a programme on BBC 2 which features sporting events and they had said they wanted to make a feature of our team; we were really stoked about being involved (it will be on TV in March)Finally we drove back to Inverness where we got to go to Jimmy Chungs for tea to fuel up for the race!
24 hours… Are you joking?!
It wasn’t really until the Thursday night that it hit me. How do you prepare for a 24 hour race?!? What am I going to need? So I basically packed ALL my cycling clothes hoping this would be enough. I knew we were going to be up all night and getting very little sleep. This is when I decided I was crazy… I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.
Different kind of racing…
The atmosphere before the race start was really relaxed and there was lots of time to just chill out. We had decided we wouldn’t pre-ride because the race was going to be so long. From our team Mark was first off, (he had never done a 24hour race either; Ben was the only one who had). In order to split up all the riders at the start the first rider from each team had to run 200m to collect their bikes. By the time Mark got to his bike he was already in the top 10. The race had started. There was no turning back now.
Each team is given a dibber to wear round your neck when you are the one on the course, when you finish you have to pass it to the next person, if you are not wearing the dibber your lap isn’t timed and doesn’t count.Mark was back a mere 33 minutes later (much faster than we had expected) and Ben headed out. I was next. I felt so nervous I had no idea what the course was going to be like. There was also quite a bit of pressure; this was a team race so everything I did would affect not just me but everyone. These thoughts were soon forgotten though when Ben put the dipper round my neck and I set out for my first lap. When I finished and passed the dibber to Calum for his first lap I felt so much more relaxed. My lap went well and I loved the course. I sat in the easy-up afterwards talking to Ben and Mark, to us the race hadn’t started yet. It wasn’t going to properly start until it was dark because that’s when it was going to get hard, that’s when we would have to drag ourselves up and round the lap when we least wanted to. The puffer is famous for its ‘17 hours of darkness’ so this was going to be a huge test.
The daylight hours ticked past soooo slowly. We were doing lots of laps. Everyone was doing really well and we were all feeling really good, there was such a good atmosphere both in the set-up area and out on the course. During the race everyone was cheering you on and encouraging you. We were sitting top 5 in the overall quads. The time in between the laps (usually about 1 hr40) was unbearable. We couldn’t do anything except sit and wait and it was too hard to sleep during the day.
It was great when it was my turn to go out. The racing was a bit easier because it wasn’t a case of killing yourself every lap it was much more important to pace yourself so as not to “knock” too bad in the night. The sheer amount of riders constantly attacking the course meant it was constantly change every lap. As I rode the descents I was really aware that I was always scanning the trail looking for lines, roots and rocks because, every time it was different. I was really enjoying the course though, it wasn’t too technical it was just fun and there were lots of awesome descents. There were a couple of main marshal points and there were always supporters at different parts of the course cheering SO loudly for everyone and sometimes they had music playing too, it made the lap feel less lonely and it always cheered me up.
With the course being so muddy it was honestly a full time job to keep four bikes operational at all times, my dad honestly was up for the full 24 hours changing cables and brake pads and doing other stuff to the bikes to keep us going.
Just as it got dark Ben went to transition (the area where the riders swapped over the dibber) to wait for Mark, but Mark didn’t come back in. Another rider told us he had broken his rear mech somewhere around the course. Ben rode backwards round the track to try to meet him to get the important timing dibber, he found him and rode back down to transition to begin his lap but on the first corner he snapped his chain! He came running back over looking for a bike with lights; we both looked around soon realising there wasn’t one, he looked up at me. My bike had lights but didn’t fit him. I knew immediately I had to go out. I had to get ready really quickly taking off my lovely warm clothes and head out onto the lap. The atmosphere had become tense, even though it was going to be a long race it still felt like every second was counting. My body was in shock at having gone from rest to flat out in 2 minutes but I knew I had to ignore this as we had to make up for the time we had lost. My dad had to then work flat out fixing 2 bikes.
Getting Through The Night
We had a huge fire pit next to our easy-ups which was burning constantly so it was great to sit by it in-between laps and dry off. As we sat there our clothes would steam off as the mud and rain water dried. At midnight we split our team and did doubles, so Calum and I went to sleep while Ben and Mark did laps. So the lap order became Ben-Mark-Ben-Mark, this gave Calum and I a solid 2 hours to try to sleep and after they did this Calum and I did the same.
I fell into my sleeping bag to try to sleep, it was freezing cold and so hard to sleep. I dozed off and on I kept abruptly waking up shivering and confused, thinking I had missed a lap or that I was meant to be out on a lap. At 2 o’clock my dad came in to wake me up. It was Calum and I’s turn to take over the laps while the boys slept. I SOOOOOOOOO did not want to get up and do any more racing, I have never felt so bad in all my life, I was feeling sick, dizzy, light-head and confused. My dad had to talk me round, but I knew that I had to do it or I would be letting everyone down. We were all feeling rubbish at this point. I reluctantly got up and changed to go out. I so didn’t want to. I stood shivering, eyes out of focused in the transition area waiting for Mark to come in. When he did I set out. The landrover track climb which was about a 1.5 miles had turned into sheet ice. It was SO scary, there was no snow in the middle anymore and there was only a tiny bit of traction on the edges. Every muscle in my body tensed up and it was almost impossible to ride, I was convinced I was going to crash. Once I got to the top, the first section of single track was ok but there were parts where you would come round a corner and hit onto the ice. Because it was dark you couldn’t see as far ahead so it was hard to judge what was ice was and what wasn’t.
At the back of my mind I was also worried I was letting the boys’ down- knowing my lap was going to be slower. The course just felt like a huge death trap. However I finished my lap only a minute or 2 slower than our average laps but I told myself I couldn’t go out again. I was so upset, annoyed, scared and tired. I couldn’t face another lap like that. It was horrendous, it was late, I was tired I felt like I wanted to just give up. I knew the next lap was only going to be icier. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew deep down that I was going to have to go out again. The next 40 minutes (laps were slower in the dark) were torture while I waited for Calum to come back, I knew what was coming. With 15 minutes to go though Marks Dad came over, he had Ben’s bike fitted with ICE TYRES and I was allowed to ride it!!!!! This changed EVERYTHING. I was now SO excited!!! I had never ridden with them but I knew they were good. I was now all set for the next lap. Riding up the climb was no problem as I tore through the ice, with loads of traction. I was riding much faster than before and I had my confidence back. On the descents the tyres were slightly sketchy as the metal studs slipped a bit on the granite rock but this problem was tiny compared to the advantage I now had. I flew over the sections of ice even the off camber corner sections feeling so much happier. After Calum and I did our doubles Ben and Mark got up and we went back to a quad doing a lap each. I went for a quick sleep in-between as it was now about 4:30 in the morning. I knew when I woke up I would have to do at least 2 more laps. But the finish was insight now. We had all cheered up knowing we were so close!
A short while later my dad came into the van and woke me up, I had had less than an hours sleep, I felt awful again but he told me I only had one more lap to go! Woooooo! I was SOOO happy!!! One more lap of pain and it would be all over! I got ready this time I rode on Marks bike because Ben’s gears weren’t working, he too had proper ice studs so it was all good. It was a nice lap, it was good to be able to see all the lines again and see the track, it had changed so much again from the daylight hours. Towards the middle of the lap Marks’s gears stopped working so I was stuck in the middle of the block, when it came to the final hill I couldn’t change them so I had
to get off and run. I didn’t even care though because I knew we were almost done! I went into transition feeling absolutely amazing, we were in third and we only had 2 more laps to go. I had completed my part of the race, I hadn’t given up in the night and I was now at last FINISHED!!!!
Chips for breakfast?
After my last lap I was properly hungry for the first time. There was a burger van on site I didn’t care if it was only 8 in the morning or anything I was having chips for breakfast. They were amazing, the best chips I have ever eaten. Calum came back from his lap and we were still in 3rd and as Mark headed out he was beginning to close the gap on second. We were so close. The rule for these races is that if you finish (at the latest) 1 minute to 10 you are allowed to go out for another lap, this was the case for us. Mark came in at 10 to 10 and we were 4 seconds behind second (in the overall quads) and first in mixed quads. So Ben headed out for the final lap. Ben did great and managed to pass the other team putting us in second in the overall quads and 1st in the mixed quads!!!!! It was AMAZING!!!
Combined we had completed 36 laps. The quickest lap of the event was done by Mark in 32:27 minutes. He received a prize for that. We also picked up the Under 19’s trophy as well as some sweet prizes for winning the mixed quads.
The Adventure Show…
Throughout the race The Adventure Show were filming us as well as interviewing our team. They are going to be doing a TV show on the event in March on BBC2! Look out for us being featured “Scotland Youth XC Team”.
This was an absolutely amazing experience and I am so glad that the boys thought me worthy of being part of their team. We all had many ups and downs throughout the 24 hours but we all enjoyed the overall experience and kept each other motivated. My wee brother Calum was awesome, he stepped in at the last minute and did so well that he more than contributed to our overall placing’s – Well done JB. Ben and Mark worked really, really hard and pulled out some excellent times. My dad was dead for about a week after the event so thanks dad also a huge thanks Mark’s dad and Ben’s uncle for keeping us going, changing break pads, fixing bikes and feeding us!