“Yes, well, you can have too much of a good thing!” came the tart reply to my “I don’t really mind riding in mud” comment. I was looking down on the main arena of the 2012 Mountain Mayhem 24-hour MTB event which lay like a giant, glistening brown horseshoe in the valley below. I’d just arrived, full of optimism after a largely dry drive south, but my optimism had been ill-founded.
With hindsight, my flip remark was always going to come back to bite me. The 2012 edition of Mayhem (an event which has always had a reputation for testing the resolve of participants with cloying mud) took the concept of liquid soil to a completely new level. A week of heavy rain immediately preceding the race turned the venue - a beautiful pastoral valley just north of Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury in Herefordshire - into a quagmire.
Never before have the car parks, trade arena and camping areas been waterlogged before anyone had even arrived and inevitably the whole site was churned into a sea of mud before a wheel had been turned in anger. Mud oozed from the ground in an amazing range of consistencies – thin and fine like a chocolate smoothie; gloopy and globular, like emulsion paint; and thick and cloying like butter icing.
Warm sunshine and a brisk wind began to dry things up during the first afternoon, but as parts of the course eased, others grew tougher and stickier. Then, as darkness fell, rain began to fall and most of the short mid-summer night was lashed with heavy driving rain, falling from clouds which seemed to have grounded on the low hills on either side of the main arena. A final morning of drying winds and warm sunshine brought back the stickiness to drag at tired legs as the timer counted down to the magical 24 hour point.
Amid all the mud and guts, everyone had a story. “Epic” was probably the most over-used word of the weekend. And, in truth, with marshals all round the course, and the mud reducing progress to walking pace for most, there was little actual peril. There was plenty of scope for suffering, though, and cyclists are usually keen to indulge in a bit of that if it earns them bragging rights.
For those who don’t know about Mayhem, the aim for teams is to have someone lapping the ten mile course throughout the 24 hours of the race, which starts at 12 noon on the Saturday. You hand over to your next nominated rider in a transition area. Riders usually only ride only one lap at a time. It’s a great formula which, with most teams consisting of four or five riders, means you usually end up riding at least one night lap each. Team-work and mutual support are essential. However, some super-heroes and heroines do it solo. “Respect”, as they say!
So, here are a few of my personal observations and experiences from a”memorable” weekend which I shared with my chosen team-mates, Liz, Rich, Baz and John.
Time to Race
8pm Friday (16 hours to race start) – I’m sitting in a marquee sipping hot chocolate and watching a woman trying to extricate her small white dog from the mud outside. The dog has a muddy tide mark around its legs and lower belly and looks exhausted and fed-up. With hindsight, it’s a “look” that was to become very popular over the weekend.
8am Saturday (4 hours to race start) I’m fitting my 1.5 inch continental “mud” tyres. “Bloody hell, they’re thin” someone comments. My team sends just one rider to the pre-race briefing. We’re trying to keep movement and cycling in particular to a minimum with mud ankle deep all around the arena. I have Porridge for breakfast and a slight sickness in the pit of my stomach signals pre-race nerves.
12 noon Saturday – I watch the start of the race with John, but we fail to spot our first man, Baz, in the melee of riders setting off. I cruise to the top of the Kenda sponsored first climb to see the riders making their way up the first serious upgrade of the race. Many already have a thick coat of mud on tyres and shoes less than a mile from the start.
5pm Saturday – I receive the wrist band (Mayhem’s answer to the runner’s baton) from our second rider, Liz, who has just returned after two and a half hours, and head out on my first lap. As I mount my bike, a rider alongside me slings a leg over his machine and wipes a long streak of mud down my leg. Nice! The course is like a morass. I squeeze up to the tapes and try to stay on fresh grass and keep my heart-rate down!
6.30pm Saturday – I finish my first lap. It’s been tough and at times I’ve had to adopt Cyclo-Cross tactics, running where it’s more efficient and avoids clogging the bike with mud. But, on the whole, it’s not been too bad. Now, if only it would stay dry, but I can feel the first drops of rain even as that thought enters my head! As I leave the transition area a friend who is making her Mayhem debut collars me and gives me an earful, blaming me for getting her involved! I’m not entirely sure she’s serious, but she’s had a tough lap and clearly isn’t pleased. As I wander back to the camp I’m at a loss as to work out why it’s my fault she’s riding – her boyfriend persuaded her to have a go. Several years ago I helped him get into the sport: I suppose, then, that if you trace it back far enough technically it’s my fault she riding. I think!
8.30pm Saturday – the rain has now well and truly set in and driven by a brisk wind it’s lashing against the side of the tent. We’re sitting with friends from our sister team and comparing notes. I’ve dined on lamb curry. Liz and John once had two pet sheep, Rogan and Josh, but they didn’t remain pets forever. Their loss is, in this instance, my gain. Despite everyone being in good spirits, the consensus is that things can only get worse: the weather forecast is for rain throughout the hours of darkness.
9.30pm Saturday – I phone my family to have a grumble about the mud only to learn that they have been caught up in the flash floods in Yorkshire and have as much mud in their house as I have around my tent. I cut the call short, allowing them to get back to bailing....... and giving TV interviews. Typical, I’m embroiled in the wettest, muddiest Mayhem ever and I’m not even the muddiest member of my family!
12 midnight – I prepare to go out on my night lap. A tip I’ve been giving everyone is to have a hot drink before going out at night – it helps get the body ready for exercise at ungodly hours. I boil a kettle and prepare an instant hot-chocolate. But I can’t find a spoon in the darkness and find myself drinking the water and then choking on the powder.
1am Sunday – mid lap and I’m drenched to the skin, covered in a thin paste of mud and already feeling exhausted. Suddenly I hear shouts of my name coming out of the darkness. “What”, I shout back. “How long have you taken over your first half lap?” comes the disembodied reply. “****ing ages” I answer, puzzled and slightly irritable. Later I learn that friends on another team are looking for a lost rider and are attempting to work out where he might be on the course. Apparently they didn’t hear my reply, which is probably for the best.
2.30am Sunday – lap finally completed, I’m frozen, soaked and standing almost naked outside my tent trying to take off my waterproof cycling shoes, which have filled up with water and have swollen onto my feet. I’ve stupidly rolled down my tights and shorts, so sitting down would bring my bare posterior into contact with the mud. As a result, I’m trying to struggle out of tights and boots with feet bound together, producing penguin-like levels of immobility. The rain is stinging and cold. I’m at the end of my tether and almost crying, hysterically balanced between despair and hilarity. Finally I lever off the boots, swill my legs in the stream which runs by the tent and then towel myself dry and retire to my sleeping bad. I’m convinced my team-mates will see sense and pull out of the race in the next couple of hours. Thankfully I won’t have to ride again!
5am Sunday – I’m woken from a merciful slumber by team-mate John informing me I’m due out again at 7am. I lie stunned. A pale light filters into the tent and I know dawn has passed. The wind has gone and the rain has stopped. But surely we can’t still be in the race. Idly, almost disconnectedly, I realise I’ve slept in my contact lenses. I’ve never done that before.
5.30am – John returns from the showers and cheerfully confirms that “yes, Baz is out on his third lap.” I do a quick circuit of the camp and despite my best efforts the consensus seems to be to carry on. I’m amazed and alarmed in equal amounts. I offer to canvas Baz’s opinion and am duly despatched to catch him mid-lap and enquire as to his fitness and motivational levels. To my further dismay, Baz is keen to carry on and departs with a cheerful “see you at eight!” Team-mate Liz then delivers a fine motivational speech: “I remember speaking to someone who pulled out because they were feeling crap and fed-up. But they said they felt far worse in the car on the way home in the knowledge that they had quit!” She’s right and her words make a remarkable difference to my morale. We might be suffering, but we’re probably through the worst and no-one actually seems too exhausted. We’re going to make it! Grinning, Liz confirms that her lap the previous evening would be her only one of the race. No wonder she’s feeling so chipper!
8am Sunday – fortified with porridge from a dirty pan, which tastes only slightly of Rogan and Josh, plus three big mugs of coffee, I head out on my last lap. The sun is shining and after a few minutes I realise that my body has recovered somewhat. I relax and although it’s not an entirely enjoyable experience the subsequent lap unfolds steadily and satisfactorily in front of me. I clean the nasty, narrow off-camber section near the end for the first time and stop briefly for a second breakfast of cereal bars and water on the final climb.
10am Sunday – I hand over to John who will bring us home with our 12th and final lap. Richard is on hand to accompany me back to the camp and I am able to head off for a shower. The showers are filthy and squirt intermittent bursts of hot and cold water. But it’s still heaven to be cleaner than I have been for 24 hours and I enjoy third breakfast in warm sunshine.
2pm Sunday – the team gets together for the final goodbyes. It’s been a memorable weekend for lots of reasons. I shake hands with everyone and warn that we might just have slipped into the top thirty in the results. Privately I think it might be top twenty. The course had been very quiet on my second and third laps and it’s clear many teams have at the very least taken lengthy breaks during the night. We have had someone on the course throughout – our average lap time has been about 2 hours (almost double that of the year before). A final struggle sees just everything packed back into the car and I’m on the road by 3pm.
Monday Evening – the results are out and we’re 14th. Not bad for a team with two only two regular cyclists to its name. Liz was right – to have given up would have been such a disappointment. Instead we’re looking back through increasingly rose-tinted spectacles at a great weekend.