72k of mud sweat and smiles
Read on to find out how our very own Captain America (Graphic Designer Stephen Cripps!) got on when he entered a gruelling 72k mountain bike marathon to raise money for Newbury Cancer Care fuelled by mud, sweat and bananas …..
To help raise money and awareness for Newbury Cancer Care I’ve challenged myself to ride a number of mountain bike marathons, this is my account of the first of these, the Vittoria 72k Monster Off-road Marathon.
After a hectic Friday getting all my mountain bike race kit and camping gear packed I departed from Captain America headquarters and started the journey down to Pippingford in Nutley, Sussex, arriving at 8:15pm. Following the Vittoria sponsor flags that greeted me as I drove through Piping Ford Park, I was excited to see rolling hills and ridges as a backdrop to this beautiful place. I followed the flags to the campsite passing cars, vans and tents in different states of camping mode. Happily, I found a spot next to some friends who have been regulars on the southern XC circuit since I started racing 7 years ago. I managed to get the “CAP” tent set up and supper all sorted before dusk and settled down to some race and marshall chat with my neighbours.
On Saturday I was on marshalling duty! That morning was a race in itself to get through the required routine before meeting down in the main race registration area to check-in and receive my marshalling duties for the Southern XC Vittoria Offroad Duathlon that day. As the weather was set to be mainly rain I rustled my way down in full waterproofs. I was happy to see many other familiar faces. With walkie-talkie and hi-vis bib, I was all ready to smash this marshalling thing! I was posted at the top at the end of a forest single track section where the riders crossed a gravel track road. The trail through the woods was extremely muddy and on an incline, which continued to become more churned up with every duathlete that passed on their mountain bike. The slippery mud and weaving incline looked to be energy-sapping for the competitors, so this was a very important post. I was determined to be a good marshall, but more importantly a “motivation station” for each competitor. With cowbells in hand, I sat in my camp chair under a nice broad tree with only an occasional drop of rain making it through! The first racer of the duathlon powered through the muddy ascent with a 1-minute lead ahead of the next racer. A ‘clang clang’ from my cowbell and shouting ‘up up up!!!’ and ‘push’ seemed to help the middle field that was struggling for grip through this challenging section and even those walking this section were happy for the encouraging noises I think! After a few hours at the motivation station, the walkie-talkie let me know the final racer had passed, so my marshalling duties were done and I was rewarded with some bush tucker from the food van!
After watching the award ceremonies for the different categories and exchanging stories of the day’s race conditions with friends and competitors, it was time to make some changes to the course for the main event, the Mountain Bike marathon! As with most off-road races of this nature we always try to do a scouting lap, this helps us understand the course, its condition and any features like jumps or optional A and B lines. So with the course now open for laps, it was time to get registered and collect my race board No 150! With this, my waterproof shorts and the long sleeve Captain America race jersey I was all set to head out. I was happy to start my recon lap with a few familiar faces, each travelling from far and wide to tackle this course, although not all were attempting the 72 monster as there were shorter options to race as well.
Guided by the course tapes we headed out for the 18K of mixed terrain. Pippingford Park has it all; heathland, boggy grass fields and a single track that had become almost unrideable! These sections were best attacked by finding the driest line, often at the edge of the trail. Long steep fire road climbs were often rewarded with fun and fast flowing descents, with large burns. These were treacherous on the flowing corners which when dry you could lean into to carry speed through. They were also peppered with some reasonably large jumps, which are also great fun. About halfway through the lap, the course crosses back through the main area where we ride up and over a temporary bridge! I was excited to try this as it was super steep up and down. I continued back into the woods at a responsible pace, fast enough to get a good idea of grip levels but not too fast to become fatigued! It was clear tomorrow’s race was going to take a lot longer than if it had been a dry course, by this point my mountain bike had become caked in mud which adds weight and thus more time. After 1hr 25 mins and 1,631ft of climbing, I had completed the lap! After washing my bike I headed back to Camp CAP to stretch and recover with some food, chatting and relaxing.
The morning of…
Waking bright and early at 7am I was ready for a day of MTB fun. Before a race, there is always a lot to do, so the morning soon vanished! Once I’d had breaky and set up my race nutrition for the pit area (a bucket with 6 drink bottles, carb jells attached with insulation tape, bars and other yummy energy-giving treats, bananas, water, a few tools, a raincoat and a bike pump, just in case), I then had to do a bike check (tyre air pressures, mini bike tools, air sealant can, etc…) and then get changed into my MTB kit, there wasn't much time left. I opted for a short sleeve Captain America top, standard, and rain resistant shorts as the forecast was dryish and was almost getting warm so full wets would have been far too hot.
Suddenly it was 9:45am, time to head down for the race briefing. As we congregated at the race pre-start area it was clear it was going to be a busy start with 200 fellow riders all pumped for the off! As we stood chatting with each other everyone seemed excited to be racing there. 10am came and we were told “race starts in the next 30 seconds… “ then the siren sounded and we’re off at a frustratingly slow speed as everyone jostled for position. This soon sorted itself out as we headed out on a tough field climb and the powerhouse riders fired to the front in a train of strong riders. But it was ok, I’m used to being passed by stronger riders, secretly hoping some of them won’t be doing the full monster marathon?!
You have to ride your own race, not anyone else’s! So at the start of lap one of four, it was time for my legs and lungs to start working together, as it often feels like your legs are heavy and fall behind the pace of your breathing! Focusing on the busy flowing trails, avoiding hidden tree roots as we wove like a snake of bikes through the woods, I soon found a nice rhythm. As we got deeper into the lap past the different highlight sections I started to build a mental picture of the various fun bits, the tough parts and the mud traps! With one lap under my belt I passed under the bridge at the start/finish line and the race MC shouted my name as I passed the timing hut ‘Captain America!’ Yay!
Enthusiastic spectators made for a great atmosphere in the arena, encouraging us all on. I stopped at the pits in an F1 style (not) to change my water bottle, have some banana and grabbed an oat bar as the lap had been completed in just 1hr 15 mins and I needed some fuel! Hopping back on and rejoining the race, I rode through the rest of the busy pit area. Feeling good and up for lap two I was soon at the first tricky water feature that required each competitor to jump off a bundle of rocks, clear the stream and land square on the bank. This is the kind thing I love to ride! Luckily there is always a photographer to snap the skills - or the crash! Next was the big flowing descent, like a bike park with berms and jumps. I took it easy so as to stay right side up, as it was still super muddy and there was still a long way to go, but as with many of these sections they are marshalled! Andy was in this area and greeted me with a ‘Yay, Cap!’ as I cruised past him over a jump. Getting into the wood sections, the trails were still a mix of wet rooty trails and muddy climbs and occasionally my tyres would slip sending me sideways and kicking me over! Lucky these were all slow crashes and it was more annoying that I got muddy than anything else.
After another 1hr 18 mins or so of riding, I weaved through the woods and hearing the arena music and race MC I knew I was almost at lap three. Stopping at the pits it was clear that it would be a battle of attrition due to the mud, rather than a race where every second or mistake and stop mattered. Lap three was probably the toughest for me. My legs seemed super heavy by this point but I pushed on with encouragement from all the marshalls and other riders as they passed me on the testing climbs. It soon became apparent to the other riders that climbing wasn’t my strong suit as few riders would say ‘I’ll see you in a minute on the descent!’. It was on the flowing technical sections and downhill descents where I could make up the time lost on the climbs. We become familiar with our fellow competitors as some are stronger in certain areas, so it is a constant shuffle of places with some passing not to be seen again while others become familiar figures.
“Passing on your left!” is one of Captain America’s catchphrases so I always try and pass on the left just for the comedy value in my own head, but being courteous helps with the camaraderie and also makes passing safe. So when someone is expecting you to pass them on a downhill it’s even better as some people will even pull over to let me enjoy the descent at maximum velocity, thanking them with a shout of “cheeerrrrssss!”. As I tackled the big fire road climb up to the ridgeline that opens out to a flowing valley with brush and scrubland. Horses were grazing and the sun was really beginning to break out, my thoughts turned to Abbi, and how much she loved to visit these great venues and parks in the countryside and how much I loved to see Abbi each lap, stood at the pit, supporting and encouraging me with calls of “Go Captain America!”. Mountain biking has long been a passion, but the ability to get out and ride in the countryside has really helped me through a tough few years.
So I made it to the final lap after over four and a half hours in the saddle. I could really start to push on this lap as the course was starting to dry up; almost becoming tacky and more grippy so that the muddy section seemed to have a rideable line through the middle! Passing each marshall point I seemed to get extra motivation to keep going to complete this challenge and make all the CAP4NCC sponsors proud! Only a few riders were left in my range as we passed each other saying things like “this hill sucks! If only it had been dry all week!” I approached the last awkward wood section and I could hear the venue music, I took the last corner out of the dark wood into the sunlight-drenched field, following the race tapes to the finish line…last push as I sprinted towards the line...and I’d done it…72k in 5 hrs 46mins and 15 secs: 6,400 ft of climbing, five oat bars, two bananas, four Snickers bars, about a million jells and a whole lot of water!
As I crossed the finish line a race official congratulated me and handed me a Vittoria MTB Marathon Finisher Medal which I accepted with immense pride. I asked him if he could kindly take a snap of me and my medal with his phone and send it to me explaining I’d like one to go on my Just Giving page as I’m raising money for Newbury Cancer Care. As it turns out, unfortunately, he himself had lost a parent to cancer some years ago and was excited to help me capture the moment. For me, this really sums up how much everyone is affected by this disease and how important everyone’s donations are in helping to support Newbury Cancer Care.
The race was truly a monster in the conditions we had. I managed to finish 84th of 187 riders, which I’m extremely proud of. Many didn’t finish the race at all in the tough conditions, but I loved it! This was a new event in the race marathon circuit and the southern XC team, Eventrax and Vittoria really did put together a great weekend which I was happy to be a part of! The day marshalling gave me a little insight into how much hard work and preparation goes into a weekend like this at a great venue. This is what made it possible to raise the huge amount around this race. So thank you to everyone that supported and sponsored me, Captain America, but it’s not over yet…
If you can, please support me as I take on the Exposure Twentyfour12, a 12hr MTB marathon this Saturday 31st July at Newham Park. Yes, that’s racing for 12hrs from 11am till 11pm.
Thanks for reading my story.
Stephen aka Captain America