The big one!
So this was the big one! The 12 hour off-road mountain bike marathon “Exposure Twentyfour12” at Newnham Park Plymouth. How many laps can you do in 12 hours? Well, hopefully more than everyone else!
With my car filled to the brim with all the required camping and race paraphernalia, enough food to feed a family of bears and both of my trusty steeds on top, I started the long drive down to Newnham Park, located on the edge of Dartmoor. For me, this was probably the most challenging part of the weekend as I find the thought of driving to these events on my own quite tough. It was often these journeys that Abi and I enjoyed together on race weekends, as we would turn them into extended breaks and time to spend together. As I drove through where the M5 carriageway cuts through the Gordano Valley, around the top of the gorge and revealing the beautiful flowing landscape, the memories came flooding into my head of the last time we drove this route. It was at that time that the amazing team at Newbury Cancer Care had been arranging for Abi to see specialists that would help deal with the reality of life with terminal cancer. Planning Abi's memorial together was one of the ways to come to terms with this and we used these long car journeys to plan and listen to songs for the memorial together. Although I’m feeling sad, I’m also proud and strengthened by these thoughts because we also had a great time creating fun memories and exploring new places.
Driving into the Newnham Park estate, I was straight into camping mode and trying to find the optimal spot to set up camp - hopefully somewhere trackside, so I could set up my own pitstop area. Managing not to get my fully-laden car stuck in the muddy ruts, I found a reasonable spot in-between two teams that were pretty much already set up, although I was keen to find my race buddy Rob who I knew was also racing. Luckily before I started unpacking he called and invited me to set up with him, his dad and his son, whom Abi and I had met and hung out with at previous events. Rob’s family had a great setup right on the edge of the track tape, about 5 minutes of trails before the Start/Finish line in the main arena. It was a homely caravan with an awning and a race-ready gazebo with lighting! This was great, as the latter part of the race would be at night. It wasn’t long before my tent was up and my race boxes unpacked. I could finally chill for a bit with Rob’s dad, Les, whilst Rob was watching his son race.
At 5 pm an announcement was made by the MC on the tannoy - registration was open! This was my first chance to get a look at the main arena, essentially a few vendors and main registration tent, the Start/ Finish line and transition area for the team competitors, as it was possible to race in 2 or 4 person teams and either 12 or 24 hrs. At the registration tent, I saw lots of familiar faces. I collected my racing chip and my two number plates, for my main bike and one for the spare (just in case my bike gave up before I did). With thoughts of impending sore muscles, I decided to get a massage, which although a tad public and a bit breezy, was definitely a good idea. That evening after some more fettling and double checking things like the bike’s race lights were fully charged, we started supper and had the rest of the evening to chill and watch some of the night’s 10k athletes run past our camp.
On your marks, get set, go...
With an 11am start I had plenty of time on the Saturday morning to have breaky and start setting up for the race. The gazebo was primed with trackside tables, various pots of high carb foods, snacks and dozens of sports drink-filled bottles with jells tapped to the side. So we could stop...reach in...and grab a fresh bottle or a Jell without getting off the bike, as every second would count...kinda!
At 10:30 it was time to head to the main arena for the pre race briefing. My main aim was to find out what time we would have to put our lights on for the last few hours in the dark. We made our way to the start area on the edge of the campsite where I joined the grid a few hundred people back. As we stood nervously waiting for the impending start, we were entertained by the music from one of the team’s camps. Then the horn sounded for the start of the race! But as happens with these long marathons, it takes a few minutes before all the competitors actually cross the start line.
'Slowly does it’ was the name of the game for the first few laps as I hadn’t ridden the course yet and the amount of traffic meant it just wasn’t practical to start at full race speed. Although the inclination to overtake and start attacking was always there, there just wasn’t any point trying that tactic in a twelve-hour race. As we passed through this section of the campsite, the spectators, mostly families and teams, were happy and loud, with lots of encouraging banter and clapping. The track took us up past our pits into some single track that weaved through the wood and then back into the main area where we were greeted by more spectators and the race MC; passing the main Start/Finish line and the transition area for the teams, then back in the woody single track. At this slow pace, it was easy to chat with the riders around me, get to grips with the terrain and start mapping out the course in my head - the fun bits and killer climbs! This course had three main descents which had some great technical features, like drops and jumps which, as the trail was grippy and dry (despite the overcast weather), I could really let loose and make good ground on my competitors. Each lap was roughly 45mins with one pit stop so the encouraging spectators soon started to recognise me, shouting “Go on Captain America, keep going!”. My favourite part of the course was the last of the descents called ‘the cottage return’, a super, long, single-track descent that dipped and flowed up and down. I could go flat out, taking care to avoid the large rock that could catch a rider out and put them out of the race. After bombing down the trail at full speed, at the end it was a hard left onto a steep grassy hill and all strength had gone before starting the longest climb up the sheep drive field. With no desire to ‘cook’ my legs I stayed in the seat and found a steady rhythm to make progress, but not use too much energy.
We left the field, then had another little climb before we were back to the first line of trackside tents, now littered with riders, relaxing after doing their first stint in the teams’ relay. Also here were the ever-enthusiastic spectators; my favourite was a lady who changed her costume every lap, cheering us on from her camp area dressed as a fairy, then a dinosaur and then Super Mario to name a few. Stopping at the pit, Les told me I was now in 9th position which he had heard over the live timing stream. We were about 6 hours in and Rob was in 2nd place - amazing! So with this in my mind I was excited to see if I could keep this pace and position. I had a few laps where I was riding with another Stephen! We seemed to be around the same pace but little did I know he was currently 10th! I felt strong and my plan of attacking the descents and coasting the longer climbs seemed to be working for me. Although I was definitely looking forward to a break, as the thought of stretching and some clean kit was at the front of my mind so at 7 pm I decided to have my break. I washed army style, ate and changed my kit...it smelt amazing! After the massage of the day before, my legs and muscles felt good, but I still stretched and did some foam rolling just to loosen them up!
After 25 mins, I went back out. Wearing fresh kit and fully rested, I felt pretty good for the first five minutes then suddenly not so much...my legs felt heavy and I had nothing...no energy, everything seemed to hurt. I continued on but I was hitting a wall. I made it to the first descent and used it to recover as much as possible but even this seemed exhausting. Riding the drop-off burn at the bottom and onto the fire road, I had to stop. This was the first time I’d stopped on the course. I grabbed another jell from my shorts pocket and tried to get some focus. Pushing on through the rest of the lap I seemed to break through and find some energy before the last big climb out the sheep field and back to our pit. I think it was the foam rolling that did for me - releasing all the lactic acid and toxins from my muscles had made me feel really bad!
I was through the hardest part, I just had to get set for the night ride. With dusk approaching I put my helmet light on and attached my main light to the handlebar. Riding in the dark is great fun, especially on a course that you’ve been riding for hours as you know it so well, but this also made it even more exhilarating, especially as there was a mini peloton streaming through the forest single track like a train, weaving in and out of the trees. The lights were so powerful that I could still attack the descents and start pushing more and more as I got closer to the 12 hour cut off. Throughout the course the marshalls and motivation stations kept us going with their music and tasty treats. But it really felt like an event when I broke out of the forest and back into the floodlit arena, passing the race MC who announced my race category and position - 10th in the 12-hour solo category. Awesome! If I could keep this position I’d be so happy, so with the remaining 2 hours before the 12 hour cut off, I kept going with extra incentive.
On my final lap, although feeling strong, I started to make mistakes so I had to ease off on the descents as I had left the track by missing a turn and barrelled off piste through the woods! With brakes on full I managed to come to a stop with only my ego damaged! The rider behind me who witnessed the event shouted “are you OK?” I responded, “I think so!!! Thanks”. Riding through the last motivation station before the trail turned back into the arena for the last time I pushed as hard as I could, as I knew I wouldn’t get another lap in before the cut-off, but my total time and laps would all count towards my end position. Crossing the brightly lit finish line at full speed, at 23:40ish, I had done it! I was 10th! I rode for 11 hours and 23 minutes and completed 17 laps!I was so happy. I was stopped by the race MC, he said “we enjoyed watching you race Captain America, you were great fun! How was your race?” I replied that it was awesome and that I had loved every minute, even the hills. I told him “I’m actually racing today to raise money for a charity local to me called Newbury Cancer Care!” with which he said “Oh great...how can people donate?” I told him that people can go to justgiving.com//fundraising/captainamerica4ncc. That was awesome and a perfect way to finish this epic race with a mini-interview giving me the chance to plug such a great charity. Rob also had an epic race, smashing it and coming 1st, yes 1st in the UK national 12 hr marathon! Amazing effort Rob! My namesake Stephen and new nemesis from a few laps ago had taken a well-deserved 9th - well done mate!
A massive thank you to everyone for your generous support and donations, everyone at MAXX and of course, Rob and his family, for their continued kind support and advice.
With only a few days until my next race on the 12th September, the Fourth Lights Brass Monkey 6 hour Mountain Bike Marathon, please help me raise awareness and donations for Newbury Cancer Care. Go to justgiving.com//fundraising/captainamerica4ncc
And why not follow my journey on Instagram @cap4ncc