Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Graphic Scenes of Suffering - The Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultra

Feb 1st 2016 – The physio removed the needle from my calf and a flood of relief spread from the twitching muscle.  The dry needling was uncomfortable and left me feeling bruised and tender but I was happy to try any method that may get me running again.  He delivered the verdict pragmatically but it felt like the executioner taking a swing.  I should put thoughts of running a mountain Ultramarathon in eight weeks time firmly out of my head and just focus on recovery.

March 26th 2016 – I skip from foot to foot and look around at two hundred other athletes afflicted with the same masochistic tendencies as myself.  The driving rain and biting wind bring goosebumps to my forearms and I note that I’m the only person here not wearing a waterproof jacket.  In these conditions I figure it wouldn’t keep me any drier after ten minutes and I hope to warm up at some point on the mountain.  Race rules read, a short speech and we’re off.  How the hell did I end up here?

The Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultra would never have been on my radar a year ago.  As a short course mountain running specialist my races rarely touch ten miles, making up what they lack in distance with brutal gradients and technical underfoot conditions.  Late last season I discovered a certain aptitude for stretching my legs a bit further, culminating with a big win at the final round of the prestigious UK Skyrunner series in October.  Duly inspired by my enjoyment of initial forays into the longer stuff I set about planning a change in direction for the 2016 season.  A combination of seeking new challenges as well as a desire to represent Internationally led me towards the Irish trials for the World Long Distance Champs and the World Mountain Ultra Champs.  Ultimately, that led me to that freezing windblown mountainside in late March.

Back to November 2015 and a wholesale change in distance had required a corresponding adjustment in training technique, so I set about acclimatising my muscles and joints to longer term pounding as opposed to super steep and high intensity.  Initially my legs responded really well and importantly so did my mindset with an average training run comfortably doubling in length almost overnight to a quick 16 miler.  I figured that rather than trying to become a plodder I’d instead be better off maintaining my leg speed and trying to extend the distance I could hold that pace and hopefully push up towards the required 32 miles.  Pre-Christmas this saw me advancing to some very hilly sub 2hr 50 twenty four milers and my confidence was high that I’d be able to get my 32 mile time to somewhere around the 3hr 50 mark by March.  Then in the New Year disaster struck…

I felt no different as I ran on into the second lap of my standard eight mile loop.  Legs were going smoothly and pacing was steady.  As I hit the slope at mile nine, out of nowhere both calves locked simultaneously and painfully.  The sensible option would’ve been to stretch off, walk back and get some rest in, so naturally I carried on and finished the session with a deep and spreading tension tearing my calves apart.  Equally stupidly I did what most runners do and after a mere day of rest headed out to ‘test’ the injury with a tough tempo session.  Unsurprisingly the legs locked again, this time after only two gentle miles and for the first time in my short running career I was faced with an injury that I couldn’t just man-up and run through.

What followed was near two months of mixed frustration, enjoyment and farce.  The frustration largely emanated from the total lack of improvement despite nearly two months of non-running rest.  Living with an uninterrupted view of the mountains transformed from the usual joy to a simmering resentment.  The satisfaction of knowing that I could be up amongst those peaks at will replaced by a debilitating depression at the realisation I couldn’t even walk up them.  I felt that their presence was mocking me, exacerbated on the rare sunny days where not enjoying their views and freedom seemed like a crime.  This frustration was tempered by a refreshing shift back to constant bike riding, the time freed up by non-running allowing a mix of structured turbo training and thrashing round the woods in the rain.  Mentally this was fantastic, really refreshing with the added bonus of re-finding my bike speed and actually bringing some tangible improvements in top end anaerobic performance.  I’d have probably been happy to settle for continuing the run free existence were it not for a nagging feeling that part of my identity had been removed.  The mountain running scene is full of incredibly friendly, humble, talented individuals and being a part of that has brought me a real sense of belonging since I stumbled into it a few years back.  Whilst not being a runner doesn’t mean being instantly banished, it does rob you of those shared experiences upon which the camaraderie is based.  I wasn’t prepared to walk away from that yet.  Likewise, there’s a belligerence to my mindset and if I’ve decided to do something then by sheer force of will it generally happens.  If that means exhausting all avenues in order to achieve my aims then so be it.  And so it was that seven weeks, four physios, massages, stretches, needles, weights regimes, foam rolling and research later I finally found the farcical solution to the ailment myself.  To give due credit to all the physios, they had diagnosed the problem but been deflected by the assertion that I hadn’t changed my shoes recently, and I hadn’t.  What I previously failed to realise though was that the intensity of my new regime had internally collapsed the heels in a three month old pair of Inov8’s so whilst they looked visually perfect they were essentially wrecked.  The additional heel drop had put too much strain on my calves for them to cope.  Diagnosis made, shoes changed and remarkably within a week I completed my first three hour run, celebrating my return with a favourite route along all the peaks of the famous Mourne skyline.
The Culprits
Depending on viewpoint the timing couldn’t have been worse/better.  Four weeks is hardly textbook prep time for the longest race of your career, however it was theoretically long enough to squeeze in a mini-periodisation of three increasingly hard weeks followed by a one week taper.  That was enough incentive for me and so it was that I somehow went from unable to run a mile to a sub four hour trail 32 miler in less than twenty days.  I also managed to squeeze in a new PB on my eight mile testpiece route and even a fantastic but freezing bike recce of the Wicklow Way course itself.  I can’t say that confidence was high, I was painfully aware of how fragile my physical conditioning was, largely built on foundations of sand. Having seen the course I also realised how little it suited my attributes.  Despite containing 2,000 metres of climbing, unfortunately none of it was steep enough for my strengths to kick in.  I feel my body noticeably settle into a rhythm once hills get super steep, something clicks and I find the going easier, not harder.  The flipside of this is that until that gradient is reached I often suffer and despise gradual ups and downs.  I knew I’d be fighting for rhythm throughout the race, a thought that brought trepidation. 

My taper week was as hateful as ever, every little tweak over-analysed and a creeping sense of dread culminating in my calf symptoms returning at the last minute and me being unsure whether I’d complete the course, let alone be competitive.  I’ve learnt to largely ignore all these feelings, form is so often uncontrollable and it always amazes me that despite all the hard training, sensible diet and mental acclimatisation I still rarely know whether I’m going to cruise the course or die a death.

We rolled into the Wicklow mountains to be greeted by a constant sheet of rain.  Cloud hung low around the peaks with little indication of any rapid improvement.  I agonised over kit choice with waterproofs, gloves and buff all pulled out and then stuffed back in the bag.  Ultimately I stuck with wearing a short sleeve base layer with the obligatory jacket in my bum bag.  I’d rather suffer than overheat.  A chilly wait on the start line and a few friendly and knowing conversations and we were off.  I headed out alone, happy to try to find my pace along the road section unhindered by the distraction of others.  Dropping down across the river we turned onto the Wicklow Way trail that would be our companion for most of the following thirty miles.  The initial 3km climb went smoothly with easy effort punctuated with snippets of chat; it’s always nice to get to know the athletes who may be your companions for a few difficult hours.  A fight with a gel pack took me on to the Alpine style rocky descent that had been so much fun on the bike in glorious sunshine just a week previously.  I led the field on to the long forest road descent and that’s when the problems started.  I’d woken in the night with stomach pains but dismissed them as pre-race nerves and spent the early morning forcing down the requisite calories to undertake this epic.  Unfortunately they returned with a vengeance, a painful swirling and slopping feeling that was moving rapidly downwards.  I don’t want to be unnecessarily graphic about what followed but needless to say I lost the lead as I dived for cover in the bushes.  The last thing I wanted was to have to force a pace so early in the race but I felt the need to re-connect with the lead group and tuck in to recover.  Heading into Curtlestown Woods I re-joined them but looking around at their serene faces it was clear that I wasn’t as comfortable as my front-running mates.

We pressed on together towards Crone Woods with me listening but barely able to contribute to conversation, my stomach was already churning again and I was dreading forcing down more gels at my pre-decided point.  I was caught in a classic Catch 22, knowing I’d need the energy provided but very aware of the debilitating impact of further fuelling on my present condition.  Reasoning that the status quo was better than hitting the wall completely further down the line I literally sucked it up, the gooey gel hitting my stomach like a very unwelcome guest.

The fog denied us the breathtaking view over Powerscourt Waterfall and instead we were treated to the disappearing back of Tom Hogan’s Team Canada jacket (I presume a swappsie from a previous World Champs, when I started chatting to Tom on the first climb of the day I was expecting a Canadian accent!).  He made a strong move and gently opened a gap on myself, Eoin Lennon and Barry Hartnett, none of us wanting to commit to the chase at this still early stage.  Watching Tom slip and skate down the steep drop towards the base of Djouce mountain I was glad of my X-Talon’s heel grip as I actually held back to ensure I’d have someone to shield me from the powerful wind on the open mountain.  Just a week ago I’d ridden up this section on bone dry trails, giving cheery advice to some out-of-their-depth Americans who’d overstretched themselves in a doomed attempt to summit Djouce.  This time it was me feeling pushed as Eoin decided to force the pace over the ridge and on to the boardwalk.  The punishing sidewinds toyed with us, daring me to lean into them to stay upright before abruptly ceasing, removing their invisible crutch and leaving me swerving and staggering to stay on the wooden sleepers.  Eoin was really motoring and so skipping round Barry I stuck to his back, drafting along at an alarming pace.  We picked off Tom on the steep exit from the boardwalk, his road shoes grossly deficient on the saturated ground, and rapidly opened a hundred metre gap.  As we hit the Ballinastoe Woods track Eoin apologised for the effort, explaining that he wanted to reel in Tom before exiting the rough stuff.  I felt that he wanted to work together, extending our advantage and under normal circumstances I’d have definitely concurred.  Unfortunately my digestive system had other ideas and I had to agonisingly watch Eoin and then Tom disappear again whilst I hid in the dense trees.

Briefly re-joined at the half way feed station I unfortunately couldn’t quite liberate my feed bottles fast enough to leave with the lead pair and so the metaphorical elastic stretched and then snapped as I watched them gradually ease away on the extended climb back where we’d just come from.  As an out and back route, the following half hour should’ve been a spirit lifting series of exchanges with friends warming up for the 26km Trail race as well as the outgoing Ultra runners.  I certainly saw many friends and appreciated their encouragement but was barely able to respond beyond a slack-jawed thanks and a raised thumb.  My quads were struggling to acclimatise to climbing again and the forced speed of the descent had sapped me beyond expectation.  The mental anguish of feeling this rough at merely the half way point weighed heavy and I’m sure I cut a dejected figure as I sluggishly retraced my steps over Djouce.

Photo Credit: Mick Hanney
A sliding, windmilling sprint back down the river that used to be a trail off Djouce mountain brought possibly my only enjoyment of the whole race, the familiarity of uneven ground and soft bog allowing a mental relaxation and rare freedom in my movement.  This was reflected in speed as the gap closed to around 50 metres on the steep rise back to trail running above Powerscourt, the grinning faces of groups of kids sat on the wall at the top juxtaposing dramatically against my pain-etched features.  Initial tickly shots of pre-cramp in my calves were allayed by some fluids and a salt sachet but the stomach issues weren’t so easy to defeat and another frustrating minute lost put the final nail in the coffin to any aspirations of re-joining the lead pair.

From that point onwards it was a lonely exercise in pacing, passing only a couple of the 08:30 starters to reassure me that I was still moving sufficiently fast.  Inexperience may have hindered me in this instance as I treaded a conservative line, preferring to reserve energy rather than push on and risk blowing up.  Ultimately I lost a few minutes as Tom and Eoin fought eachother for the win but the legginess I felt on the final road section convinced me that I hadn’t held back too excessively.

Initial emotions on crossing the line were relief tinged with disappointment.  My time of 4:08:55 (don’t believe the official results) would usually have been fast enough for a win but in reality it was considerably slower than I’d hoped.  I set myself high standards and Jonny Steede’s 3:56:47 record was always the target.  Perhaps I was being unrealistic given my lack of experience at this distance combined with the unorthodox preparation.  Problems on the day definitely cost me a static few minutes and maybe a few more as a result of the energy sapping nature of my ailments.  The clock doesn’t lie though and who knows what issues Jonny may have faced whilst setting his blistering pace?  The other key fact is that Tom and Eoin battled the same elements and came out faster.  A race that long will definitely reveal the rightful winner and the better athletes showed me up on the day.  Fair play lads, I’ll be back!

A badly stuck van (MASSIVE thanks to my Newcastle AC team mates for dragging us out despite the untimely sleet storm), a two hour drive to dissect the race and by 7pm I was safely back in County Down.  The redemptive powers of smiley kid’s faces, home-made carbonara and a roaring fire soon overcame any disappointment.  Time to relax, have a beer, wait for the DOMS and plan for my next race.

Huge thanks to IMRA for a great event, to the marshals who always have the toughest job and massive respect to all my fellow competitors.  The unifying qualities of shared suffering can never be underestimated and spending some time on the finish line meeting runners as they came in was really life affirming.  If ever you needed to explain why so many people gladly pay to go through that experience, just ten minutes spent there wordlessly encapsulates it all!

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The worst job in running - Feetures socks long-term test

Being my running socks must be one of the most unenviable jobs in sport.  Unlike most courteous running sock owners who bash out the miles on trails and roads, I insist on dragging them through stinking peat bogs, gravelly granite and sodden moorland instead.  If the Buddhists are right then I sincerely hope that when George Osborne and David Cameron pop their clogs they get reincarnated as a pair.  Until then I'll definitely keep using Feetures.
They spend a LOT of time in here!
A couple of years ago I ran for Northern Ireland at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs at Pikes Peak in Colorado.  The fact that the race was 13.5 miles ALL uphill wasn't an issue, but with the finish line at 14,115ft in the crawl inducing, oxygen lacking air I knew that my chances were limited.  Knowing that there was no sensible way to acclimatise I instead focused on preparing all the controllable variables as professionally as possible.  I ran multiple ascents of Slieve Donard back to back, dropped my bodyweight to its lowest safe limit and then started to search for the marginal gains.

When it came to socks I'd always raced in my lucky pair with the orange stripes on.  They'd been with me for 100% of my race wins and so were clearly dripping with lucky charm (neatly ignoring all the defeats they also witnessed).  However, being black and made of heavy cotton I thought they may not be suitable for the thirty degree Colorado heat and so decided to get some 'proper' running socks.  A quick e-mail to 2Pure, the extremely generous Feetures distributors, and six shiny new pairs of Feetures Elites appeared in the post.

First impressions weren't that exciting, after all they're only socks and I tossed them in the garage with my hefty pile of running stuff.  When it came time to try them, closer inspection revealed they were more interesting than initially anticipated.  For a start the socks are left and right specific, and why not?  After all, shoes are totally different for individual feet and they aren't designed to mould to the skin like top quality socks are.  They also feature reinforcement where needed in the heel, sole and toe box whilst being at their thinnest on the top of the foot for some breathability.

Putting them on was a pleasure, silky to the touch they hugged my feet with just a hint of compression and no sign of blister inducing slack spots and once I started to run I became an instant convert to the concept of specific socks for specific tasks.  The inaugural test was a jaunt over the peaks with plenty of uneven, technical ground and a range of surfaces.  What immediately struck me was how much my shoes were slopping around on my feet where they'd never previously felt loose.  The fixed proximity of the sock to my skin highlighted my inadequate lacing, I just never noticed because my socks used to move with the shoes.  Re-lacing my Inov8's generated a whole new level of control that's virtually eliminated the ankle rolls that previously blighted me.

That was eighteen months ago and the six pairs have all had a thorough testing during that period.  From thirty degree heat in Italy to minus ten in Ireland my feet have never felt excessively uncomfortable from the conditions.  Their longevity has been pretty astounding and although the silky feeling is a distant memory they still feel good on my feet and remain very snug fitting.  They are showing no signs of wearing through in any areas despite having been used around sixty times each on average.  Put like that they'd have only cost me 25p per pair per run and are still going strong.  The equivalent would be like a pair of shoes lasting me for over 300 runs and that's definitely a pipe dream!  It's not just the running either, that's sixty washes each too and considering a pair of socks I won from another major running kit manufacturer shrank after just a few spin cycles it further demonstrates the quality of the materials.

Not much else to say really.  Since using the Feetures Elites I've suffered far fewer ankle injuries, no blisters (despite regularly running for up to four hours with wet feet) and feel I have better control in techy ground.  I never expected any of that, I was just looking for some cooler socks.  Spending 15 quid on a pair of socks seems a bit excessive but there are discounted bargains out there and the longevity has been remarkable.

In short, I totally recommend buying some for any running applications, I can't ever envisage running without a pair ever again.  They've been THAT good.

As for the lucky socks, I've taken to wearing them on Saturdays to make Wolves win the football.  A brief look at the Championship table clearly shows I must've used up all the luck already.

Feetures are at www.http://feeturesrunning.com/ and if you want to sell them then contact http://www.2pure.co.uk/.

I know I got them for free but I definitely wasn't asked to write this review and if I wasn't so impressed with the socks (and currently injured, and if the weather wasn't so awful) then I'd never have bothered my arse writing this!

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Natural Development - Are Trail Centres Killing Technique?

My earliest forays into the world of mountain biking primarily involved dragging and shoving my half tonne, mud caked six gear Emmelle through Exmoor's boggy murk to reach a mile of semi-rideable rockiness that led to the road home.  Over the following few years I hungrily discovered the sheer joys of rooty Devon woodland singletrack, slipping, sliding and crashing my way through my early teens until at seventeen myself and my best friend jumped on a train and blagged our way to Chamonix for an incredible introduction to Alpine riding.  With my eyes subsequently blown wide open I've continued to seek opportunities to experience a whole spectrum of different terrains and biking challenges throughout the world.

In addition to the obvious immediate pleasures and unforgettable memories that these experiences have provided I was recently also pondering their lasting impact on my abilities as a biker. Undeniably I've learned how to crash!  Seventeen broken bones (so far) are testament to that but what about my skills development? As a professional MTB coach I'm afflicted with a constant need to analyse whether I'm still getting better or has age instigated my gradual and inevitable decline?  And the conclusion?  I'm not sure yet, but one thing is certain, I've served a long and fruitful apprenticeship that's gradually and organically shaped my trail techniques.

Times have changed massively since my first rides in the late eighties.  Mountain biking has witnessed exponential growth in terms of both participation and general awareness. Mainstream money has floated in and the results are seen in the plethora of trail centres that have made quick-hit 21st century mountain biking what it is.  Whether this is a positive or not for the sport is a different debate.  My area of interest is whether the introduction of some of these groomed, sanitised and weather resistant strips has been detrimental to the skills development of the new breed of bikers?

More often than not these days beginners that I coach have their first experience of 'natural' trails in their initial session with me.  For many, the thought of riding anywhere other than a trail centre has never even occurred and increasingly I've noticed bikers displaying a noticeable trail centre style of riding that manifests itself in a few clear ways.
The only people who should ever sit down on descents are those without pedals!
The first is a tendency towards remaining seated on downhills.  I see this as being the fault of smooth, graded trail surfaces which, although punctuated by the odd rock gardens and drops, generally allow descending techniques that would've liquidised my internal organs if I'd attempted them on the rutted, washed out rock fests I originally learned on.  The availability of well priced, decent full suspension bikes has also made this approach possible and therefore many people remain blissfully unaware of the fundamental importance of weight shift. On my local trails here in Northern Ireland there have been a seemingly disproportionate number of broken bones for the amount of usage. Many have been caused by riders pitching over the bars because they don't fully understand where their weight should be distributed.

The next issue I've noticed is a lack of cornering ability. Whilst solid surfaced, banked corners can definitely be a lot of fun, among many beginners I think they can promote a lazy, passive approach to getting round bends. On loose, natural, flat and off-camber corners the fight for grip generates rapid improvements in terms of body positioning and pressure application with pretty immediate feedback from the slippery ground. After a couple of washouts and grazed knees riders tend to find the limitations of their tyres and realise how hard they can push into corners if they're active and aggressive on the bike.  Whilst the non-slip nature of most trail centre corners prevents crashes, it also negates the need to search hard for more grip and as a consequence seems to slow development.

Finally, I often witness an inability to react to unexpected terrain changes. Many riders I meet have an intimate knowledge of every last drop, corner, bump and berm of their local trail centres. They can cruise round half asleep, safe in the knowledge that come rain or shine the trail won't throw up any nasty surprises. All those innate, subtle weight shifts that are needed to keep rubber side down on the roots never get developed and so their first taste of riding on wet mud and greasy wood becomes a total disaster.  I've coached people who've ridden mountain bikes for years who have no idea that leaning a bike over on an angled root will almost certainly end badly and so they're transported back to the realm of total beginner whenever they first leave the gravel tracks.

This combination of a static position on the bike, a passive riding style and the non-development of the subconscious adjustments required to survive wet natural trails has, in my opinion stunted many new rider's development. It's not all bad news though; there are obvious upsides to trail centres. Without them I reckon many of today's bikers would've never initially taken up the sport and I'd always rather see lots of people riding not that well than just a couple totally owning the trails. The other big plus is the growth of pump tracks.  Few things give me more pleasure than seeing the local kids on chainless skip bikes with no grips or brakes doubling gaps and carving corners instead of hanging round bus shelters being bored or staring at their phones.  Our local pump track has become a really popular hang out for people who may otherwise never have bothered getting on a bike.  If they get the opportunity and the inclination to keep riding then we're going to witness a really talented next generation!

My message to anyone who may read this and recognise themselves, please don't take it as criticism! There's a whole world of ever evolving natural trails just waiting for you to take them on so get out there and get grinning, just don't forget the kneepads! 

Monday, 11 January 2016

Ragley bikes make epic sponsorship error!

Shortly before Christmas I received an unexpected e-mail.  It basically went along the lines of blah blah free bike blah etc blah.  Well obviously it didn't but essentially that's what I read!  The long and short of it was that Ragley bikes have offered me a deal for 2016. 

The obvious question is why the hell have they done that?!  There are faster, more stylish riders out there filling up the results sheets who are paying for their own equipment.  The simple answer is that they're not doing it on the right kind of bike!  I spent 2015 as a vocal advocate of the hardtail, dancing my much loved Ibis Tranny all round Europe on epic Alpine singletrack whilst also schooling a few bouncy boys in the Enduro races.  Although I'm no purist and I do own a tasty HD3 my preference has always been for the precise riding style needed without the talent boosting travel, picking lines rather than muscling them.

The funny thing is that I was intending to race enduro on my now sold Nomad last year but decided that the nature of Castlewellan's trails in the first round of the Vitus series would be quicker on a 21lb speed machine.  I enjoyed that hardtail category experience so much that I carried on the series to its conclusion and finished with one of my most fun days ever on a bike smashing through the tech of Donard Woods.

So Ragley were looking for an NI based hardtail enthusiast to promote their superb steel machines and luckily I fitted the bill.  You'd have expected me to leap at the offer and tear their arms off but actually I stopped and considered it for a while.  After all, I've already got bikes I absolutely love and less time to ride them than I'd want.  The deciding factors were pretty simple.  Firstly I was dying to try a Ragley as I've always loved steel frames and they look so totally aggro and secondly because my teenage self would've killed my 37 year old self if I turned down the deal!

The new steed in all her big wheeled, slack angled glory
Given a free choice from their range I went for the Bigwig, Ragley's slacked out 29er.  I've only had one experience of the wagon wheels before and it was extremely positive, tracking closely behind my ex-pro guide in Colorado despite him being on a $12k Pivot and me being on a cheap hire bike.  The big wheels just trundled over everything and felt so planted on some of the most technical trails I'd ever encountered.  However, the problem with most 29ers is that they're angled to suit the XC crowd.  Not the Bigwig!!  This frame looks almost comically slack with a low-slung top tube and super raked head angle.  From the moment I jumped on for the inaugural spin it was begging to be mistreated and I was loving my first outing, confidently hitting saturated gaps and drops in Tollymore until Mexican Brian's untimely collarbone break abruptly halted the session.  Since then I've been tweaking.  The forks needed more pressure to cope with the aggressive style this bike demands and I've been doing what I can with the WTB tyres to force some grip out of this long running mud-fest of a Winter.  My great first impressions are being further enhanced on both the ups and downs with the big wheels feeling rapid on the climbs despite the bike carrying a hefty amount of weight compared to my Ibis Tranny.  Once I point it downhill it flies with a style best described as a 160mm travel bike without the travel.  It actually feels almost identical to my HD3 when I sit on it which suits me perfectly.

Ragley only do hardtails, with the heart of their range being crafted from steel.  Although some see it as an outdated material in this age of plastic it only takes one ride to see why it's the first choice of most artisan frame builders.  It has a unique feel, whippy and forgiving, soaking up trail chatter whilst accelerating fast.  Good steel has character and having ridden on the pinnacle of tubing perfection back in the late 90's it feels great to re-kindle that feeling.

Probably the biggest compliment offered to the Ragley so far is the fact that everyone who I've lent the bike to for a quick spin has instantly understood the philosophy.  They look at it with an air of initial intrigue but as soon as they jump on they feel what a slacked out steel 29er may be capable of.  I can see me having to wrestle this bike back off a few folk over the next 12 months!

If you want to have a test ride on the bike don't be shy.  I'll be at the Vitus Enduro series again as well as usually being found somewhere on the trails in Tollymore.  Come on over and ask for a spin, just be prepared to get your credit card out when you get home!

I'll be reviewing the bike throughout the year and I'll keep it bias free.  Ragley aren't putting any pressure on me at all to race, ride or even be complimentary which I think shows a refreshing faith in their equipment.  Hopefully I can repay their investment by getting the brand out there and providing worthwhile feedback on their bike design.  Watch this space.

Check out the range at www.ragleybikes.com

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A Ride To Remember

The rhythm’s gone completely.  I hack away at the pedals, legs like misfiring pistons using any combination of remaining power and bodyweight to keep them moving, the fluid circles of the lower slopes a distant memory.  I daren’t glance across the valley to known reference points that will end my psychological resistance and force me into my lowest gear, if the 36t doesn’t stay clean then I’m finished, doomed to admit the failure in this session.  My tongue feels fattened, an awkward sticky slug blocking the airflow my lungs crave and the thirst is overwhelming but I’m not dehydrated, the nauseating slop of unprocessed water in my gut tracking my body movements, daring me to sip from my Camelbak again.

I lurch over the road as it steepens again, Tom Simpson without the drugs.  I’d take them all right now if they’d get me to the top of this destructive road.  The heat is overwhelming, drilling down into my back, reflecting off the surface that my head is getting ever closer to, licking the front wheel.  I feel like I’m being boiled alive, my brain shrinking, fluid escaping.  Visions of the electrolytes sat on top of my fridge taunt me, the fridge, cool air, I want to be in that fridge…

A distant rumble of thunder.  Come lovely rain, my salvation from the skies.  No such luck.  The atmosphere like porridge, I’m riding through porridge, am I still moving?  Flies buzz my face, my tormenters victorious, can’t outrun them, can’t swat them, hope they’re not biters, injury to insult.

My head comes up, the circles return.  Where did this come from?  My subconscious knows more than my brain.  I’m nearing the top and defiance drives the body.  You did me on the mid section but I owned the bottom and the top, two-one to Bailey, I’m bigger than this mountain.  Satisfaction tempered by reality, that was close, too close, and I know it.  The training log won’t lie, OK legs, nothing more.

I stare down the start straight, the Skull DH.  A thousand vertical metres of sculpted corners and jagged bedrock, beauty and the beast.  Glasses off as dense foliage and a blackening sky dull the vision.  Pads on, gear selected and snap on the pedals.  Treat this like a race, attack, attack, attack.  This track has no respect for the tentative.  I’m totally under-biked and I know it, 140mm out front and the crafted compliance of carbon hardtail out back but the Ibis Tranny never ceases to amaze, no box can hold this bike, uncategorisable.  A flash and a crack, the storm is closing in fast.  No longer an ally against the heat, a warning shot.  My focus is absolute, totally in the groove and marvelling at the new found flow this holiday has uncovered, bossing lines that should be unattainable, tyres skimming the surface of armageddon.  The first bombs start to fall, initially deflected by the shield of leaves but then breaking through fast, huge droplets, instant impact.  The sky explodes with light again and the deafening rumble is right on its tail, I need to get down NOW.  Fear of crashing, mangling on the rocks seems childish, this is much more primeval, go, go, go, survival instincts honed by evolution driving thirty years of biking skills.
Staring down the start straight and the weather armageddon is about to hit 
Lactic is flooding through me, arms screaming and hands like claws death gripping the bars, right quad in agony, alternate the lead foot, a transfer of skills, practice what I preach.  I never intended to do this in a one-er but priorities have been dictated by a higher force and I’ve no choice, must… get… down.  The bedrock lower section is like ice, limestone slickrock and brakes are no option.  Light on the front end, let it drift and slide, in the air is safest.  The deep clunk of the back rim smashing hard, thirty psi and a cup of Stans, choose your equipment wisely, you never know when it may save your life.  Straight line, full bore off a few small drops and under the finish barrier.  I crack a smile but the danger is far from over.  I’ve done my bit technically but now need lady luck to see my passage back to the safe haven of the valley.

The deluge is indescribable as I hit the road, blinded by the droplets, eyelids like windscreen wipers on the highest setting, a lost battle.  Inches of rain on a flat road and I veer to avoid a car out of nowhere, lights on, horn blaring.  Praying that my route choice is still taking me down.  Out of the saddle and fighting hard, drawing energy from empty reserves, I’ll be glad to pay for this if it means I get to see tomorrow.  Redemption comes in the form of a bridge, huddled figures and a raised hand from a biker as I skid to a halt.  Cars are seeking refuge here too, nobody dares head out into this abomination. 
Glad to be under the bridge when these started smashing down!
The hailstones begin to smash down, jagged marbles bouncing off every surface but the danger has passed and I’m a mesmerised observer, the sanctity of the bridge distancing the threat, like watching the storm in a zoo.  I let out a whoop and an uncontrollable grin spreads over my face.  The other cyclists under here are bone dry, I know they’ve missed out as I squeeze my saturated gloves, water flooding out, I wonder if they feel the same way.  Twenty minutes pass and the oppressive blackness begins to lift as I start to shiver.  The storm remains but it’s said its piece and we all know who maintains the real power, mother nature has to let off steam sometimes too.

The road is still a river as I hammer down the last section, two foot deep puddles on the cambered inside of corners stop the traffic but I plough in laughing manically.  The pain subsides as I sweep through the last corners towards home, the familiar whirr of freehub finally drowning out the drumming of rain.  This one will last in the memory for years to come, I feel very alive.

The Costs of Learning...

A few years back I had my personality neatly pigeonholed by an unerringly accurate multiple statement test.  All I had to do was read a series of sentences and decide which ones sounded most like me and it came out with a pretty clear and extremely detailed portrayal of my likes and dislikes.
One of my key discoveries was the fact that I'm really bad at being a beginner.  In fact I actively hate it to such an extent that I've little interest in ever seeking new spheres in which to learn.  A good example of this is that unlike my friends who practically ran to start driving lessons on their 17th birthdays I waited until the government were threatening to bring in the theory test (yep I was driving that long ago!) before I pulled my finger out.  It wasn't only the crazy expense of the lessons or the fact that my mates were stood at the college gates baying for me to stall the motor, it was more a reticence to have to be crap at something new.

Whilst this moderately common personality trait does mean that I have limited interests, therefore making me the worst person to get sat next to at a wedding, it does manifest itself in a huge depth of knowledge and attention to detail in the subjects I am interested in.  Coaching and bikes obviously being the best example of this!  I wonder how many other people watch all the edits from EWS and DH World Cup races and ignore the soundtrack and seeing who won in order to focus in slow motion on each rider's techniques?

So all of this rubbish so far has been a long winded way of saying that some types of people really need ways to progress rapidly if they're trying something new otherwise they'll lose interest and give up.  The first time I ever went snowboarding I was equally non-plussed about the idea of being the biggest kook on the slopes.  I could've skied, something I was already fairly proficient at but this was around the time when boarding was the new, anti-authoritarian alternative to skiing's posh uppityness. Baggys, beanies and beers versus all in one tight dayglo suits and glasses of fine wine.  I was young, punk loving and a capable drinker at the time so I opted to strap one plank to my feet instead of two. Whilst my look in the bar was all 'boarder dude', unfortunately on the slopes it was more 'boarder gimp'.  If I was to save my image and develop a love for the sport then I'd need some lessons.  At the same time, Tom, a mate who was with us (who's name hasn't been changed to protect the innocent) was also in the same boat.  A natural high achiever in business and sport he was an even more extreme version of my personality.  Deciding to eschew the lessons he headed straight to the top of the steepest slopes.  On that first evening he boasted of having boarded the blacks whilst we were being taught to link turns on the baby slopes.  I have slightly guilty fond memories of seeing the roles reversed on the final day as we jumped on the lift and looked down on Tom, his confidence as shattered as the arse cheek he'd continuously landed on that was now protected by a load of pipe lagging stuffed down his trousers!  It was such a pitiful sight that we didn't even take the piss... much.

Given the lack of pistes in the UK and Ireland, getting away to the slopes is generally a once in a while pleasure.  As a result of that I never got the opportunity to practice and become really good on the snowboard.  However, by committing to lessons I was able to get good enough to be enjoying the blacks and attempting to hit some drops and even the halfpipe by the end of the week.  And herein lies the point to this rambling.

Mountain biking is different.  One of its many strengths is that there's no specific time of year, conditions or even terrain that is best to enjoy it.  I've had as much pleasure sliding over greasy roots in the lashing rain in Ireland as I have tearing down the dusty slopes of the Alps (it's just the cleaning that sucks).  As a result of this, we can do it anytime that we aren't weighed down by other commitments. For some lucky people this means every day, for others a cheeky evening or weekend every now and again.  The point I'm making is that even the busiest or least committed bikers will manage more than a week per year!  So why is it that it's the norm to get ski lessons but rare for people to seek bike coaching?
Coaching in action!
Yeh, yeh, yeh.  This is a blatant advert for my services (other coaches are available!) but I'm really just trying to ascertain why more people don't seek lessons despite virtually everyone wishing to be more skilled?  Like snowboarding I believe mountain biking to be a really easy sport to learn.  Once people are comfortable with the concepts of weight shift and braking they can learn to corner, hit drops and ride the steeps with confidence and yet so many riders shy away from the interesting terrain through fear and lack of technique.  I'm fortunate enough to get to coach many people from total beginners to experienced (in terms of years biking) riders and in many instances there is very little to tell between them after just half a day of coaching.  So many people seem to take up mountain biking and treat it like the daily commute with knobbly tyres, permanently sat down, clipping pedals and getting rattled to bits until they're forced to get off by a step or drop.  I'm afraid trail centres have to take a large proportion of the blame.  The gentrified, all weather with no variation facet of your average man made trail has spawned a generation of people who can 'just about get round the red in one piece'.  Back when I were a lad natural trails were all we had so when it rained we crashed lots and improved the hard way via smashes, snapped bones and A+E departments.

I dearly wish that back in 1988 someone had taken me aside and taught me how to ride.  It could've been me pulling a front flip off Edinburgh Castle and getting fifty million YouTube hits!  As it was, the first time I was ever coached was during my Trail Cycle Leader training course and it was a total revelation!  I learned that SPD's had robbed me of the opportunity to do a proper rear wheel lift and as a consequence a decent bunny hop.  I loved being observed and personally fed back to, even if it was accompanied by a mild embarrassment that my skills were so rudimentary for someone with so much supposed experience.  I lose count of the amount of riders who have since said the same to me following the coaching day of their own TCL training.  I love the fact that I've had so many potentially really good riders who I've been able to help with just the slightest tweaks to take their biking to a whole new level.  Just the other day I got an e-mail from a fella who is now manualling a hundred metres instead of two from just a couple of pointers.  Likewise, seeing the face of a sixty year old man who has just popped his first wheelie or a nervous beginner who has nailed a drop that has been taunting them makes my job eternally satisfying.

I think that the other reason that people shy away from formal coaching is because 'it's like riding a bike innit!'.  The belief that mountain biking is no different to general pootling on a bike means that because people can perform the function of pedalling and balancing they don't realise that they're lacking other fundamental skills.  Many of the people I do get to coach are under the impression that hitting techy trails, drops and gaps will always be beyond them and they're blown away when they realise there's no voodoo tricks, just a bit of teaching which breeds the necessary confidence and ability.

Times are changing, I'm getting much busier be it through word of mouth or sheer numbers of bikers now in the sport. Perversely I've actually had a fair bit of work because of the amount of serious injuries to out of depth newbies on the trail centres.  Many people have realised the potential dangers of MTB when they hear of other's misfortunes and so they seek professional assistance to prevent them having the same mishaps.

The message is clear, I need to eat and so do my kids so come and pay me to make you ride a bike better!  If that's the message you take from this then so be it but my real message is this.  You spend a a small fortune on a bike, kit, fuel to get to trails and maybe occasional accommodation.  You may take your bike away on holiday necessitating bike bags, excess baggage and bolstered holiday insurance.  You enviously watch others who are more talented than you and secretly wish you could emulate them.  If any of these statements are anywhere near to you then do think about getting some coaching, you'll never regret it.

Advert over, see you on the trails and you'd better be stood up on the downhills!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Burning Soles - The Snowdon International Mountain Race

I was recently fortunate enough to have the honour of captaining the Northern Ireland International mountain running team at the World famous Snowdon race, here's a report I knocked up for various publications.

Team Northern Ireland were as always invited to the annual Snowdon International mountain race on July 18th.  The event, celebrating its 40th anniversary forms the highlight of a week long festival in Llanberis, the 'outdoor capital of Wales' and is attended by the cream of European mountain runners as well as a fair few 'ordinary' folk.  Team NI were in confident mood, boasting strong squads in both the male and female races.  The men's team consisted of NIMRA and Hill and Dale champ Seamus Lynch, Slieve Donard winner Ian Bailey, UK based Gavin Mulholland (currently third in the British series) and Mourne Runner's Sam Herron fresh back from success in the Mont Blanc marathon.  The women's squad were also looking powerful with NIMRA champ Shileen O'Kane, Slieve Donard champion Diane Wilson and long distance expert BARF's Jackie Toal.

The course itself was reverted back to the original 1976 route, adding an extra kilometre of road running to the usual tortuous ten miles which climbs to 1,085 metres, the highest point in Britain outside the Scottish Highlands, before plummeting back down to the centre of Llanberis.  This event truly feels unique for several reasons, the huge and vocal crowds, the brutality of the man made track surface and the buckets of water on hand at the finish line to cool the runner's blistered soles.  It's definitely one for the bucket list of any runner and for us NI Internationals it's a chance to compare ourselves to the legendary local hardman Robbie Bryson whose 1985 ascent record still stands.

Conditions didn't help in the search for fast times with a strong and blustery wind battering the competitors with increasing force as they gained elevation.  Nevertheless, the pace was predictably brisk through the town and up the 25% gradient road to the Llanberis trail that forms the majority of the route.  Rhythm is everything in this race and so our team members tucked in and ground out the ascent in their own styles, mindful of the need to keep plenty in reserve for one of the toughest descents in British mountain racing.  For the NI men, Gavin turned at the summit first followed by Seamus, Sam and Ian.  In the ladies race Shileen again showed her climbing prowess, topping out before Diane and Jackie.  The top half of the descent allowed our mountain expertise to shine against others in the field who were a bit more selective about their foot placements.  Split times for the descents show near four minute mile averages down the steeper sections giving an idea of the technical abilities as well as steely mindsets of our Mournes honed athletes!  After a quad pounding five miles and in front of a vociferous and already half cut crowd the NI runners made their ways home.  Gavin (11th), Seamus (22nd), Ian (31st) and Sam (36th) finished well in a men's field of nearly 500.  Diane (10th), Shileen (13th) and Jackie (17th) showed very well amongst 125 female athletes.  Not quite enough to secure team medals but a very creditable effort in such high quality fields.
Post race smiles!
As is traditional, team NI then went on to show their prowess in the bars of Llanberis with a couple of medicinal drinks to soothe the rapidly stiffening joints.  Massive credit to the ladies who managed to get out for a loosening run the following morning.  The men were more set on enjoying a rare fried breakfast as a reward for their efforts, especially Sam 'double sausage' Herron.  Other weekend highlights included Seamy losing his boarding card in the terminal and nearly not making the boat, the ladies 'accidentally' ordering double portions in Pete's Eats, a cafe already notorious for its large portions and Team Ireland's Ian Conroy being whisked off by customs never to reappear!

The next International fixture is the Home International on August 22nd in Betwys-y-Coed.

So that was that!  As a postscript to the article, three days later I'm still hobbling around with stiff quads, blistered feet and heavily bruised toenails which will no doubt fall off again.  I've also been to the doctors to see about a chest problem that has hindered me for the last few weeks and it's a relief to know there's a reason why I couldn't get going on the climb accounting for my disappointing finishing position.  I'm looking forward to getting fixed up and back into the Mournes and a possible Seven Sevens debut.