Mark Clements Going Solo at the Strathpuffer 2017

Going Solo at the Strathpuffer 2017

I did the Strathpuffer 2 years ago as part of a quad team and for those who aren’t familiar with the event it is billed as the only Winter 24hr Mountain Bike Race. It is held in the Scottish Highlands north of Inverness and competitors can enter as a Solo, Pair, Quad or 10 man team.

Back in 2015 I remember watching our last rider finish the race and being relieved that I didn’t have to go out to do another lap. But time is a strange thing and maybe a few months later I was wishing I’d had done more laps, so I guess it was inevitable that I would go back for another try. I couldn’t make 2016 due to Amanda’s work and other things but 2017 was perfect as she was off from the Thursday before until the Monday after, so I just had to wait ‘til July to get my entry in. Come the 4th July I was sat at the PC, credit card in hand waiting for the entry to open at 10pm, but in my haste I didn’t read the entry instruction correctly and in bounced back straight away. A quick read and I realized I’d ticked the wrong box somewhere so resent, only to be told entry was now full. It was only ten past ten and 100 solo places had sold out. I was slightly gutted to say the least but was thrown a lifeline the next morning when I received an email from Si entriesMC asking if I wanted to be on the reserve list and a month or so later got another email asking if I was prepared to share a vehicle with another competitor or team. Seems the limit to their entries is NOT finding enough mad people to compete, but finding room for them to park up on the forest road where the event takes place. I knew some of the guys who competed 2 years previous were entered again so I contacted them to check I could get a lift and a few days later my entry was confirmed and I was in.

I’ve not much experience at long distance events, 2 middle distance triathlons and the previous Strathpuffer, so I wasn’t sure how I’d get on but I wanted to give it my best shot so sat down and made a list of everything I could think of. It looked a bit like this; Bikes to take, and what tyres I would need on them, food and drink for the race, clothing for Scottish winters, bike lights, batteries and chargers, what tools and spares in case of breakdowns, and also training for the race. The other thing that I didn’t consider initially was that I would need some assistance for the race to help with bike maintenance, bring me food and drink and also moral support when things get tough. The ideal person for this job had to be Pete Gossop. He had talked me into the race two years ago and did it last year as well so knew what was needed. Also John and Manwell who were the other half of that team the first year were going again with another work mate Jim Cooper. The other person going was Steve Kyte who also works at LKAB and he was entered as a Pair with a mate.

Training started steadily for me initially with early morning rides to work, which got gradually longer as the race approached. I did quite a few Lincs League CX races then in November I did the Sherwood Pines Off Road Duathlon. I’d entered this when I didn’t get into Strathpuffer on my first attempt as a consolation race, forgetting I was also entered for the Normanby Park Adventure Race, but two races in two days was good preparation. I managed to get some long road rides in too and in December entered a 6 hour MTB race run by Vuelta Sport at Kirton in Lindsey. This was a tough race on a technical little course but was perfect for honing my skills and working out fuelling for longer races and as a bonus managed to win the Solo race.

MC2As for sorting my gear for the race, my early morning rides were the perfect chance to sort and what clothing to take and to check out bike lights and batteries. I was going to run two lights, one on the bike and another on my helmet. Being an electronics engineers and serial tinkerer I built plenty of spare battery packs that were interchangeable between both lights. As for the bikes, I race on a Whyte 29er hardtail but also have an older Scott 26inch wheel bike for messing around on. I had a pair of mud tyres for the Scott so if conditions got really sloppy I could ride that. If it was icy or snowy I needed a winter tyre and got lucky on eBay with a Schwalbe Snow Stud tyre (with the metal spike inserts) which I got really cheap. This would go on the front of the Scott if it got icy or snowed.

So as the New Year approached everything was going well, I had a strategy sorted in my head for the race and all travel arrangements eventually got sorted. The 6 of us were travelling up in two vehicles. I was taking Pete, Jim and Steve Kyte who was now solo as his team mate couldn’t make it, and Manwell was taking John in his car. We travelled up early Friday morning and stayed at James Fowler’s house in Contin, right next to the Strathpuffer entrance road. James and his team, Team Dunb Ass met Pete and the LKAB team at the Relentless 24 race in2015 and again at last year’s Puffer . He had very kindly offered us the use of his kitchen and garage as a base and also his caravan to sleep in. We arrived Friday afternoon and un-loaded bikes and gear and in the evening went round neighbour, Stuart McKenzie for a bite to eat. Stuart was the fourth member of the Quad team, Team Whatever, and after eating and a natter we retreated to James’ for an early night.

Race day dawned fine but cold and the organisers were predicting record fast times. I had breakfast then Pete and I sorted an area outside under a gazebo for all my stuff. I had initially planned to do 4 laps stints then come back to the base for a longer break to eat but on seeing how far we were from the course decided to increase that to 6 laps. I had a small bag on each bikes top tube for snacks and had a camelback for drinks, and I would make a quick stop at the start/finish area every 2 laps to re-stock food and drink. Also Pete would be there with my spare bike just in case of any mechanical issues.

The race starts at around 10am with a bagpiper leading you back down the road for a running le mans start. At the signal 300 plus mountain bikers are set off to grab their bikes and head off up the hill. I stayed well back, took my time and collected my bike from Pete to join the procession up the fire road. The start of the lap goes steadily uphill past all the competitors vans and camps, and is very congested on the first lap.

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MC3Soon though you are on open forest road and the riders are spreading out and after 2.5 miles and 450ft of climbing you come to the start of a rocky technical section after crossing a narrow wooden bridge over a stream. This section is tight and twisty with off camber rocky slabs and one short steep slab to descend. The end of this section is marked by a descent down to the Bridge of Thighs, a 30ft long bridge above a river. It’s quite intimidating as the supporting arches are very low and it’s a long drop to the river below. From here though things start to speed up a little with short climbs followed by fast descents and an awesome rollercoaster section through the trees. After this is one final long steep climb before the rocky loose Dog Dodgers downhill section. Soon the sound of petrol generators means you’re nearly back and the final section of berms fires you out onto the fire road at the start. Lap 1 down, into the marquee dip in to record the time, quick thumbs up to Pete and back out again.

Second lap and riders are spreading out more, it was easier to pick your line through the techy bits and I was relaxing more and starting to enjoy the course, especially the latter half with the fast downhill sections. Quick top up of food and drink before lap 3 and 4, and again before 5 and 6. Everything going well apart from the front wheel axle coming slightly loose on lap 5, which was quickly tightened and also I noticed my front fork air pressure was a bit low as it was clattering a bit on the rough sections. The views from the top of the course were amazing when you were in bright sunshine looking down on the clouds in the valleys. I was very tempted to stop for a photo but knew I had to press on and get the laps in while I felt strong. Physically I felt ok but had a bit of a stiff neck and my hands were aching from gripping the brakes, so on the boring fire road climb I tried to relax and get the circulation back in my fingers. Six laps done in 5hrs 16mins so I headed back the base for food, pump up the front forks and fit the lights ready for 17hrs of darkness.

Lap 7 was memorable for the red sunset and all too soon on lap 8 the lights were on and the temperature started to drop. Lap 9 came and went but back ache was starting to make life uncomfortable but the legs felt strong. Then half way through lap 10 I started to get stomach cramps and by the end of the lap I was struggling quite a lot. It was only just over 10 hours in so I had plenty of time so I headed back for a rest to let my stomach settle. This took longer than I hoped but I drank plenty and ate a bit of food and eventually forced myself back out into the cold. Out on the course the rocky section was becoming very slippery in places with icy patches lurking around every corner. Concentration at maximum my stomach felt ok, maybe because I had more important things on my mind, like staying rubber side down; which I failed to do on a couple of occasions. MC4There was a sense of relief once I’d crossed the Bridge of Thighs as the course smoothed out and the surface was more predictable, although there was another stream crossing further round that was starting to freeze. The other thing freezing was the water in my camelbak bite valve and by the time I’d reached the last long uphill section I was getting seriously dehydrated. At the top I had to have another long sit down at the side of the trail to sort myself out. Relief came when another rider stopped and offered me a drink of her icy water. A quick drink and a handful of jelly babies later I was off again but headed straight back to the house again to get sorted. Another rest for a proper feed and to put a water bottle on my bike as well,. Fresh batteries and away again for lap 12. Another crash on the icy rocks and I went into survival mode by walking the worst sections but when I tried to ride the uphill after the bridge the gears jammed. A quick look at the bike and I freed the gears only for it to happen again on the next ascent. Must have bent the derailleur hanger on one of my tumbles so had to complete the lap avoiding bottom gear, then swapped to the Scott for lap 13. The climbs were easier now as the Scott has a lower bottom gear so I decided I’d finish the race on it. Another problem with the low temperatures was that my batteries were losing charge at an alarming rate. Batteries that I’d tested for 2 to 3 hrs were barely lasting a lap. After lap 13 Pete and I sat in the marquee and had a coffee and loaded up with snacks. In spite of the cold I was feeling strong again and managed to set my second fastest time of the race from the top to the bottom. Still managed a minor off though as I hit a pedal on a rock before the first bridge and launched myself into an icy cold stream. Lap 14 and the ice was so bad I was walking most of the rocky section and the little stream crossing later in the lap was now a long section of black ice. Going down to the bridge, chatting with another competitor as we pushed our bikes both my lights failed and I was left in the darkness. Luckily he came to my aid and with his lights I found a spare battery for the bike light, which gave me enough light to complete the lap. If limited light wasn’t enough of a problem on the fast Dog Dodger downhill then the lack of grip from my from tyre certainly was. A week before the race I’d taken the snow/ice tyre off the bike and fitted a spiky mud tyre because the organizers were predicting mild weather. But on hard icy ground and rock this tyre gave very little grip. I managed to stay aboard on the downhill but was all over the place, running off course through gorse bushes on one occasion and generally sliding about uncontrollably. Because of this I had to retreat to the house yet again to restock on batteries and change the tyre for the good of my mental health. A change of bike shorts was also needed too

MC5With the tyre swapped I went into the house to warm up and once there it was very hard to get back out. Before the race I had set a target of 16 laps minimum and I still had 4 hours to go so plenty of time to achieve my goal. My aim now was just to do 16, so two more steady careful laps and I would be done. So, off again at 6:20 for a plod up the fire road. What had been long and boring earlier was now not as bad as it was relatively easy going and safe. Stopped for a chat with a couple of young lads marshalling on the rocky bit and had a few haribos off them, then rode/walked to the bridge. The latter sections were still mega fun though as they were still ice free apart from one really fast corner through the trees which had a small patch of black ice on it. Not sure how long it had been there, but it caused a heart in the mouth moment when I went over it. Pushed up the last steep hill and James came past and kept me company for a while before racing off. The last downhill, that was terrifying the lap before, was now great fun with the ice tyre on although now the rear tyre was deflating slightly. Lap 15 in the bag, back to base and wait for the sun to come up for my last lap. I removed all my lights and anything I didn’t need to make life easier so I could enjoy the final circuit. I set off at around 8:30, after putting some air in the back tyre and tried to soak up the atmosphere as much as possible. The daylight seemed to lift everyone’s spirit and people were out again cheering you on. I thanked the marshals and stopped for haribos again on the hill. Another stop for a selfie with Billy Bones and then I had to stop again to pump up the tyre again. I pumped it up pretty hard with my CO2 inflator then stopped a final time at the blue seat on the hill for another photo. Then the last blast down Dog Dodgers and finally the berms and finish chute to dib in a final time.

MC6At the end it was an incredible experience and great to take part in such a mad event. The organizers do a remarkable job and the spectators keep you motivated right through the night. Massive thanks to James and his family who let have the run of his kitchen and garage for the event and especially for the fried breakfast when we’d all finished. James and all his friends are an amazing bunch and the most welcoming people you could ever meet. Massive thanks too to Pete Gossop who got out of his sick bed to help me out. He was there after every lap in freezing temperatures with food, drink, and spare bike, making me countless cups of coffee, changing brake pads and keeping me going through the whole event, cheers mate.


And finally here’s a few numbers from the whole weekend.

Miles Driven 999

Laps completed 16

Miles Raced 105

Height ascended 13248ft

Calories Burned 5968kCal

Lowest Temp -8 Deg C

* No of times I’ll race a Solo Puffer again 0

* Figure correct at time of writing but may be subject to change