“There I am”, I said to the lady handing out race number plates, having scanned the registration list for my name.
“Race number 40”.
“Er, no, that’s the age column”, she replied almost apologetically.
“But I’m not 40!” I exclaimed incredulously, before tailing off with a less emphatic “yet”.
I’m quite at peace with the fact that I turn forty later in the year, or at least, I thought I was, but seeing it in print next to my name, six months early, was a bit of a shock, particularly in a list of considerably lower figures. Turns out you’re classed as the age you’ll turn during the race season, and although, strictly speaking, my 40th birthday isn’t actually until the day after the last race of the series, I thought it best not to quibble.
To be fair, after five hours sleep, a two-hour drive, and nursing bruised ribs and a sprained hand/wrist, I certainly felt my age, which, just to be clear, is not forty.
Although I’d had to surrender what was left of my thirties for MTB race season, I was at least able to cling on to my perceived age with my race number, which, ironically enough, was 30.
Once I’d overcome my mid life crisis, I decided to focus on the job in hand: racing in round two of the PMBA Enduro Series at Grizedale in the Lake District.
Other than a few hints that had been dropped on the PMBA Facebook page, the route had been kept secret until that morning, so after registering, I joined the crowd huddled round the course map, to discover what the organisers, Mike and Kev had in store for us this time.
I already knew that it was going to be a tough course in terms of overall distance (23km times two), but with 750m of ascending per lap, and three out of the four stages being really long and technical, it was definitely going to be challenge, especially for a (not quite) forty-something like myself.
Having checked the previous year’s route and put out a few feelers, we’d actually managed to ride a few of the sections on our recce the previous week, so had a pretty good idea of what we were in for. The first two stages were over on the west of the forest, finishing down by Coniston Water.
From the start of Stage 1 we were thrown straight in at the deep end with some big, awkwardly positioned roots to negotiate before plunging down a steep muddy trail that wound through the thick forest. The mud was deep, and varied in consistency from the thick sticky stuff that’s like riding through setting cement, to the sloppy variety that sends you flying all over the place. Line choices therefore not only had to factor in an abundance of slippery roots, but also dodging the worst of the mud.
In my race run I got stuck in some of the cement-like variety just before reaching the big fallen tree that lay across the trail, and didn’t have the speed to drop off it properly. Instead my front wheel went down first, flipping me over the bars, and my bike over me.
It must have looked quite spectacular as the marshal came rushing over to check if I was alright, but with adrenaline rushing through my veins, and feeling like a bit of an idiot, I got back on my bike as quickly as I could, determined to make up some lost time.
As if holding on for dear life down the top section, powering through thick mud, and somersaulting over a log wasn’t energy sapping enough, next came an uphill fireroad sprint to really test my thirty-nine-and-a-half-year-old legs. Fortunately though, it was followed by a fast, rocky trail, which offered some reprieve. I say trail, but it was practically a stream, and having opted not to wear goggles, I just had to hang on and hope for the best while the spray blasted my face. When, eventually the trail turned back to mud, it was a bit of a relief, especially when Coniston Water came into view, which meant the end was in sight.
At the end of the stage I was absolutely burst, but had to make a quick recovery for the long slog of a climb up to the start of stage two. As I struggled up the steep, straight, rocky climb, which actually looked like it’d make an awesome descent, I started to accuse the organisers of being sadists, however, they did show some humility by putting on free water and flapjack at the top of the climb, which was a total godsend, particularly when it got to the third lap.
In an effort to save energy for the race (some of us are getting on a bit, y’know), we decided to skip Stage 2 in practice and just ride it blind in the race. Ironically enough, it actually turned out to be my best stage, and I didn’t have any issues at all – not even on the tricky little river crossing that I’d failed to master when we did our recce.
Stage 2 was pretty similar to Stage 1 in terms of length and terrain but it wasn’t nearly as challenging, and as it flowed a bit better, didn’t feel quite as long. There were still plenty of troublesome roots and lots of mud to contend with, but on the whole, it was an easier ride.
Both Stages 3 and 4 started from the top of Carron Crag, which involved a pretty taxing push up, especially for a soon-to-be forty-year-old short arse. Stage 3 was the infamous tyre, and body, shredding descent that was responsible for maiming me on my previous visit. Although relatively short, Puncture Alley, as it’s appropriately named, is a fairly steep descent over serrated slabs and jagged rocks.
With the injuries from my previous encounter with the trail still screaming at me on every bump and gear change, I felt a little anxious about this stage, but after successfully negotiating the section that had chewed me up and spat me out last time, I relaxed and focused on the rest of the stage, and it probably ended up being my favourite overall. It was so fast that there wasn’t much time for making line choices, so I basically just pointed myself down, gritted my teeth and went for it. Fortunately this strategy seemed to work, as I made it down in one piece, with only a slight tear to my tyre, which sealed when I pumped it back up. Not everyone came off as lightly though, and the end of the stage was a sea of upturned bikes, flat tyres and emergency inner tubes.
Stage 4 was widely considered to be the most challenging of all the stages, not only for technical difficulty, but also length. The top section – a steep, rutted funnel into the trees – was undoubtedly the hardest, and judging by the number of riders swarming around, assessing the best way to get down, whilst others demonstrated how not to, it wasn’t just this old girl who thought it was going to be tricky. To be honest, if you chose the right line, it wasn’t too bad, although I certainly didn’t ride it with much aplomb.
Although the worst was over, there were still plenty more steep, narrow, rooted and rocky sections to negotiate before popping out into the open to join the black trail centre route. This was a breeze, by comparison, although I didn’t hit some of the jumps as well as I’d have liked to, which no doubt cost me a bit of time. At the end of the black was another long fireroad sprint before another muddy natural trail with a couple of steep rocky drops. Then, just to really finish you off, the staged ended with a long pedally section of trail back to the car park, where it took me several minutes to get my breath back.
Having ridden a few of the PMBA enduros now, this was definitely the toughest to date, but it was also hugely enjoyable, and rewarding. I like to be pushed out of my comfort zone, and in a race, where you have to charge at stuff that you might normally find yourself approaching more tentatively, or bottling completely, there’s nothing more satisfying than realising that you can do it and nailing it.
Although not quite as hard as the Scottish Open Enduro that I raced in last summer, it was certainly up there, particularly for a one-day event.
Hats off to Mike and Kev for organising yet another fantastic event, and pulling out all the stops with free water, flapjack and a hot lunch, which were more welcome than you can possibly imagine.
I came sixth this time, just missing a place on the podium. I could either put it down to the trauma of being prematurely and publicly outed as a forty-year-old, or the fact that I was up against top riders Becky Cook, Roslynn Newman and Elena Melton (who took first, second and third place, respectively), and I think it was probably the latter. It’s just a shame there isn’t a Vet Women’s category, as I’d have come first in that!