Now that I’ve had a few days to digest this race, I’m feeling much better about it than I did at its immediate finish. Right then I was a slumped, tired, sore and slightly broken figure. I was disappointed with myself and my race time, not through lack of effort, but lack of proper preparation. But most of all, through a lack of ability. That’s the bitterest pill to swallow. But now looking back, I realise I was being overly harsh on myself. I finished, after all, and beat 103 other riders in the process (plus, technically, I suppose another 35 that DNF’d). And at least I know that I CAN improve. As (Sir) Dave Brailsford is oft to point out, the improvement over the past few years in British cycling generally has been a series of marginal gains and I know where those small gains need to be, all over the race, to get myself into (next year at least) the realms of respectability and a second class (sub 5 hour) finish. As my clubmate, race stalwart (it was his 20th) and all-round good guy Bob Johnson told me when I phoned him on Monday, he’s been in the high 4 hours too (4:40 is his slowest time), and since then he’s been mightily close to an Elite finish (3:34 is his fastest time). So improvement is possible.
I guess I have another clubmate, Jon Ascroft, to thank (thank?!) for the seed of the idea in entering this race, when he discussed it at the Carnethy AGM last October as a race that hill runners might take to well. As I had also been competing in the Raleigh Scottish Cyclocross Series (a very different proposition to the 3 Peaks) around then, the interest in me entering was duly piqued. But before I could focus on any sort of training, kit (or even getting myself a bike!) I had to secure an entry. Easier said than done. Until relatively recently 1,000 riders were permitted in the race, but this has shrunk to 650, so places are at a premium. It is oversubscribed and, like the Jura Fell race, the organiser, Mark Richmond, wants to know why you should be let in and if you’re going to survive without killing yourself. Jon advised that he has a soft spot for hill/fell runners, and to big that up, so I did. Then it was a waiting game.
In the meantime, I needed a bike. To cut a long story short, I decided to have one built. I bought a frame on eBay (a Paul Milnes aluminium frame job, too big but it would do – or so I thought), sourced some parts from Bob and others, and bought and paid for the rest, and the build itself. Then I changed a few bits, and nearer the race (when I found out I was in, at the first time of trying!) I read the forums, changed a few bits and bobs and decided to go for Schwalbe Land Cruiser tyres. Land Cruisers are favoured by many riders in this race, probably the majority in fact, simply because they get you through the race with a low chance of puncturing, but what you gain on robustness you lose on weight. They are a heavyweight 900g. Given the total weight of my bike is around 11kg, that’s a high proportion.
There is a whole world out there of bike set-up for this race, from tubs (tubeless) versus clinchers, different tyre treads, pressures, carbon frames, blah, blah, but having done the race, and suffered for what felt like half of it with the bike on my shoulder, weight needs to be the most significant factor for future races. But more of that later.
So I was in. What I should have done at that point was geared myself to a 3 Peaks-specific training programme in the run-up to the event, but I thought that with the amount of activity I was doing, including hill running, biking, triathlons etc, I thought (wrongly) that a few longer hill sessions on the bike with some climbing, lifting and rough descending would be enough. Not enough for an Elite time, but enough for maybe around the 4 hour mark. I was wrong. The signs should have been there when I did a training ride with Jon. He spanked me on the descents and I was barely hanging in there on the climbs. What this ride did do for me however, was make me realise that the cassette on my bike was really not suitable for the 3 Peaks. I needed a mountain bike one put on, so that’s what I did.
Looking back, the key reason I took 5 hours was the amount of bike carrying I had to do. I thought bike carrying would play a much smaller part. I never thought it would be anything like the amount it turned out to be. In the run up to the event I’d had a pretty decent month – a couple of open-water triathlons with fairly testing mountain bike sections, a hill relay event, a mountain marathon in Ireland the week before. I thought I was in okay shape for this race. I was dead wrong.
So to the weekend itself. Nick Williamson and I decided to travel down in his van, and sleep in it, as per Whinlatter. It worked a treat last time and meant that we didn’t need to worry ourselves about finding accommodation. I was initially wanting to make the weekend a ‘classic’ one, by staying at the legendary Yorkshire Subterranean Society (YSS) Bunkhouse, but in the end we went for showers, tea and cake there afterwards anyway. Cavers of Yorkshire, we salute you. The weather was looking lovely as we drove down. It was clear that Nick was up for this, and likely to do well. He had borrowed a bike from a friend and I had given him my Clement Crusade PDX tyres which he had decided to use on the day. Like me, he hadn’t done enough race-specific stuff, but unlike me he had some impressive results this year on a bike, was comfortable on the tough descents and, well, is just much much better than me. We arrived in Helwith Bridge at a reasonable hour (we managed a prime spot, next to all the support wagon bling, and right across from the YSS), parked up, scoffed some pasta and met up with a couple of friends of Nick’s from London who were also riding in the race, to watch the rugby (I kept diplomatically silent when England lost). Then to bed and a fitful night’s sleep. We woke up to a cold but clear morning. The race conditions looked very promising.
We breakfasted, registered, and found plenty of time to fiddle with the bikes. It was mandatory to carry a survival bag and a whistle, and like most I used the bag as padding on my top tube. We tried out our lifting techniques for the race. It was all very light-hearted at this stage. There were 5 Carnethy riders competing: myself, Jon Ascroft, Bob Johnson, Nick Williamson and Craig O’Donnell. All were very likely to do better than me. Jon was getting support on the hills from his folks (spares, if needed, and water) but the rest of us were going unsupported, which called for a CamelBak for me, with a nuun tablet/water mix.
As I wondered over to the YSS to fill up, I saw Jebby riding down the hill looking relaxed. He didn’t win this year (maybe he got bored after 11 wins?). Maybe it’s because he only goes out on his bike twice a week. TWICE A FECKING WEEK??!! If he rode every day, he’d probably win the Tour de France. It was round about here that my green-around-the-gills bike geekery was savagely exposed by Nick. The night before, watching the rugby in a lovely cottage, I could afford to ignore the indecipherable banter regarding bike shit: “Yeah, I’m on a 24/11 ratio, on the back, with Francesco Moser’s lungs strapped to front” as well, you know, I was in the rugby-watching zone. But that morning when Nick asked me some probing questions, I couldn’t escape. Nick: Have you got a tube with you? Me: Yeah (holds up tube). Nick: That’s a road bike tube. Me: Is it? Nick (with pursed lips): Yes. Here are a couple of chain links. You have a tool, right? Me: Er, no. Nick (rolling eyes): FFS. Well you’ll have to pray you don’t break your chain then.
So, to the race. We lined up in predicted finish time order. It was all getting a bit crush-cramped and fractious. It was too noisy to hear the race briefing. The Elites were called to the front and the rest of sat on our frames waiting to go over the top. Things are better now that there is a reduced field of 650; when it was 1,000 crashes were frequent at the start of the race, even if the first 5.5km is be escorted behind the lead car in a rolling road closure.
And then we were off. As a reminder of the race route, see the graphic below. A graphic can only tell so much of the story though. For one thing, my Garmin at the end showed less than the advertised distance (36.7 miles), but more than the advertised climb (5,414 feet).
I’d read a blog (afterwards) from another rider about this first road section to Gill Garth Farm. He described as working as hard as possible here, until the foot of the climb to Simon Fell and then Ingleborough, and maintaining position on the climb. I had a different approach: ease my way in and keep out of crash-trouble until the field spread a bit, then use my superior hill climbing technique to overtake the cyclists in front of me. Er, so how did that pan out then? Not so well. It turns out the ascending leg muscles and technique are as strong for good cyclists and for runners, and they probably had lighter bikes than me, so if anything I went backwards slightly here, and reached the summit of Ingleborough in a not-so-lofty 388th position in 1 hour 10 minutes. This is the best I would do in the whole race.
Before the summit, we had Simon Fell to tackle. The steepest climb in ‘cycling‘ would be very tough for runners, but a real slog when you have a bike on your shoulder. By the time I had reached the second (or was it the third?) false summit, my hands were already raw from gripping grass, wall and fence in front of me to keep me from falling backwards. On the way up, I saw something I thought I would never see, a rider wearing Inov8 mudclaws with SPD cleats hammered into the soles. Genius when you think about it.
When it finally leveled off, and we could do some riding, I started to enjoy myself. There was lifting, falling and swearing here, but a fair bit of riding too, and by the time I reached the first checkpoint via Rawnsley’s Leap I was getting into the spirit of things.
At the first checkpoint I looked at my watch to see where I was – about 1 hour 10 in – which meant nothing really, apart from reminding me that I needed to eat. I had a change of heart in the morning on my bike set-up and decided to ditch the saddle bag in favour of stuffing some energy bars and gels in one back shirt pouch, and my, ahem, road inner inner tube, toolkit and CO2 pump in the other. The descent was how I imagined: rough, unforgiving and shit, if you have no technique or appetite for it like me. But strangely I enjoyed it more than I imagined, and had it in my head that I didn’t lose too many places to the next checkpoint at Cold Cotes. I was wrong. I was the 466th fastest (slowest?) rider down here in 23:37 and I’d dropped to 415th overall.
It was then time for the first of the road sections. It’s easy to forget, that with all the pictures of the rough terrain and bike-on-the-shoulder stuff, this race still has a significant proportion on roads (about 25km). Did this fill me with joy? No. It was nice to get some freedom to ride, but if anything, my performance relative to the rest would suffer here. This is a bike race and most competitors do plenty more road miles than I do. Having said that, the section here through Ingleton and Chapel-le-Dale was nice enough, and I didn’t feel that I slipped back too badly. Before I knew it the water station at the foot of Whernside was upon us. I dismounted here, glugged a couple of cups of water that were on offer and decided to do something about the pain in my left shoe that had been bothering me for the past few miles. I removed the shoes and shook out a couple of coins that had been hiding in there from the night before. Better out than in. FFS.
Any thoughts that Ingleborough had been the worst of the climbs was soon smashed when I looked up at Whernside. The sun was beating at this point and all I could see was a seemingly endless line of bodies slumped over, carrying their bikes, going on and on into the clouds. Like a hellish vision of a Brazilian copper mine. Think the ascent up Ben Nevis during the race (with similar terrain!) and you’ll know what I mean. The rocky steps made for slow going and I don’t recall overtaking anyone during this part of the race. I tried switching shoulders with the bike, to ease the load, and suddenly wished I was carrying more padding on my collarbones.
Finally, finally! we got to a rideable flatish section on the way up to Whernside summit before eventually reaching the checkpoint there. It had felt like a long time since the drinks station and, sure enough, I had slipped down the order again (but only by 2 places – Mr Consistency!), taking 1:07 from Cold Cotes to here, to lie in 417th position.
If I was hoping for a more manageable and enjoyable descent from this summit, then I was to be disappointed. Whernside was my first encounter of the multiple drainage ditches on the way down (think of the steps descending Ben Lomond, on a bike), along with stone steps, rocky ground and mud, meaning smooth riding was almost impossible for the likes of me. Just about here (with over 2 hours of racing still to come) a spectator shouted “Well done lads, nearly half way now!”. WTF? Must be Yorkshire humour, right? IT CAN’T ONLY BE NEARLY HALF WAY!
I had a few tumbles here, a small cry to myself, took on some fluids and a gel and had a friendly marshal re-pin my number, which was in danger of flying off my arm. Towards the bottom there was a small rideable section and I could see the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct coming into view.
There were plenty of folk watching here, some ringing cow bells, and they were as generous as you’d expect from Yorkshire folk, as they doled out water, sweets and even tubes and spare wheels! Nick Williamson was looking for a spare CO2 bullet at this point as was given two (his were threaded so my unthreaded ones didn’t work for him). The checkpoint here saw me having lost another 2 places to lie in 419th (whoa there Mr Consistency!).
There then followed a long road section to Horton. This was pretty miserable and I seemed to be cruising, rather than attacking it. I couldn’t tell if I’d gone wrong here (I always have my doubts) as I couldn’t see anyone in front of me. A cluster of emergency vehicles suddenly appeared on the brow of a hill (there had been an accident) and I had wishful thoughts of being pulled over, and having an excuse for my tardy race time, but no such luck. They waved me through to more misery. I caught a few riders here and we tucked in together to Horton. At Horton the crowds were large again and we swept sharply left and into the path climbing up to Pen-y-ghent.
The night before, Nick’s two friends had recce’d this section up to the gate (where the route was closed, pre-race) and had ridden it all the way. I was keen to see if I could manage that. Shortly after starting the climb I saw Ben Bardsley descending, with his massive beard and even more massive thighs, and then caught sight of Jon, to whom I gave a shout out. Hang on, I thought, I’m really close to these guys, I must be doing okay. In my cretinous lack of wisdom, I hadn’t comprehended the scale of what was still to come before I reached the point that they were now at. If I thought the line of bodies up to Whernside was demoralising, then this just took the biscuit. Even before getting to the bike-shoulder state, there was a bit of riding and it was a bumpy ride. Eventually I got off my bike and started the long trudge upwards. I was pretty knackered at this point and kept sipping on the CamelBak and eating a bit to keep going. Time was slipping away badly, and I knew that under 5 hours was now going to be a challenge. I examined the soon-to-come infamous descent from Pen-y-ghent and reckoned it wasn’t as bad as I’d heard. I was wrong.
After a seemingly endless climb, I reached the checkpoint on Pen-y-ghent. Not that I knew it, but I slipped down the placings again, to 430th with the descent (not my forte) still to come. This could get nasty.
The initial descent was a case of scrambling and running with the bike until the bend in the path where we could finally start riding again. I reckoned that this could be a real area for improvement, and where good riders could really work their way through the field.
As I started to ride, the sheer effort of constantly sitting on the brakes and trying to bunnyhop over drainage ditches was making my thumbs bleed. Remarkably, I didn’t seem to be losing many places (I only lost four from the summit to the finish) so it seemed that everyone around me was equally as uncomfortable.
At the exit from Pen-y-ghent lane a marshal shouted that there was just a short section of road to the finish. I knew I wasn’t going to break 5 hours and I was disappointed, but still happy to know that I would be finishing. I put the hammer down here as much as I could and after a couple of miles I saw the finish at Helwith Bridge and heard the commentator. As I swept round into the finish I got a name check (which was nice) and a few back pats from marshals, which was nice too. I had my dibber removed and downloaded it to find out my final position: 434th in 5:02:39. Oh dear. Subsequent analysis of each section revealed that my worst performance was from Ingleborough summit to Cold Cotes (which surprised me, I have to say) and best was from the start to Ingleborough. My second worst was the descent to the finish from Pen-y-ghent, which certainly didn’t surprise me.
So I ended up with a Merit time, not a 2nd Class time which was my aim. Albeit there was only 2 and a bit minutes in it. For those not in the know, an Elite time (sub 3:30) was earned by 48 riders, a 1st Class time (sub 4 hours) by another 156 riders (including Nick, Jon and Bob), a 2nd Class time (4 to 5 hours) by 266 riders (including Craig) and the rest of us on a Merit time (115 riders). 35 riders failed to finish. To put this performance, alongside my hill racing, in perspective, Dan Whitehead, a fellow runner on the hill running scene in Scotland, finished 6th in a time of 3:11:03. My time as a percentage of that was 158%. Recently at the Aboyne Highland Games hill race, Dan won in 42:33. I was 13th in 49:32, a percentage of 116%. Not much science there but it just shows you.
The race was won in the barely comprehensible time of 2:59:33 by Paul Oldham of Hope Factory Racing, who overhauled clubmate Rob Jebb on the final summit. That sort of time is laughable (not in a good way) after what I managed, but I do have genuine hopes of carving some decent chunks of time from this race on future occasions. As I sipped tea afterwards, nursing my wounds and feeling sorry for myself, I worked out how I might do it:
Lighten my bike. Not sure if this is possible much with this bike. Perhaps with tyre choice, but more than likely I’ll look at getting a new bike, with smaller frame, as light as possible. A significant chunk of this race is carrying that bloody thing, so this is KEY.
Spend more time training for this race. As opposed to just training. A lot more carrying the bike, even for as much as half of a training session. Do some upper body work/resistance training. It’s not something I ever do, but that might change.
Get more used to rough descents at speed. Find some suitable local paths that are covered in rubble, and descend them at speed, getting used to controlling the braking, or even better, not braking at all!
Ride the miles. My longest road bike ride this year has been about 30 odd miles, on a couple of occasions. It’s just not been enough.
It’s not always about carrying. Sometimes pushing up and running down using the bike wheels is more effective. I was never quite sure when to do what.
Attack the first hill. Although I lost 40 odd places from Ingleborough to the finish, the damage was done by then. Next year I need to attack the initial road section and the climb up Simon Fell as if my life depends on it, then hang in as much as possible for the rest of the race.
Most of all though, I need to enjoy the fact that I have one 3 Peaks under my belt and look forward to a few more. As Bob J keeps telling me, you’re never too old to keep learning.