Thursday, 4 August 2016

Returning to XPD - Raid Aran

So, there's been a bit of a break from blogging this year, mainly due to retraining as a teacher whilst working full time as a teacher.....Doesn't make for that interesting a read ;-). I've kind of made up for it in one so sorry for so many is an XPD though...

Don't fear, me and Rosemary still raced the open 5's and even with these being my main exercise for the month, managed to find some form towards the end of the series, wrapping up our 4th series win (PlanetByde did not skimp on blogs and documented the lot!).

Generally this year has been a bit stop and start, no consistant running/biking or paddling but plenty of fun. As the lakeland classics started I decided these would be a good set of races to get me fit, even if I did have to ignore some of the times I was going to run. Starting with Duddon,  things didn't go so badly for about 13 miles! Shame it's 18 miles long, the heat killed me off from Dow and I lost a whole chunk of time! At the end we went to the pub and I got persuaded to give up on doing all of the lakeland classics in favour of a British Champs fell race in Wales the following weekend. Ras Pedol Cym Penant was a bit of a boost, even not running anywhere near my fastest, my climbing legs were coming back (still regaining strength from the BG!) and the rough terrain allowed me a 15th place which was nice for a champs race considering this was my second long run of the year. Onto week 3 and I got tempted by the Great Lakes race. Now I was gaining a bit of fitness. I felt strong up Bowfell, tailing the eventual winning lady. I love the Scafell ridge when it is dry and had a brilliant time rock hopping my way along. Again, a brilliant race for around 8-10miles...then a massive stagger back to pike o blisco, but somehow holding onto 2nd (I don't think anyone loves that final slog).

Snow Running in Chamonix
Downhill in Le Tour
By this time I was fit enough for my holiday in Chamonix :-). A brilliant week in a luxary chalet (at heavily discounted summer off season prices), biking and running on amazing trails. I was ready to move there for good!

At this point I recieved a message from Team Dutch Adventure. They were looking for a girl to race with them in the AR European Championships which were being held in Vielha in the Spannish Pyranees. Well, what more could they say to persuade me, more biking and running in big mountains, yes please! I was now finding the perks of being a teacher ;-).

I met Wout at Toulouse airport two days before the race and we headed to Spain! My kit was packed and after a day of kit faff I was done with it. You can move kit around for days if you try hard enough, I trusted I had everything and was ready to eat some ice cream in preparation. One small problem though, the break hose for my rear break was damaged on the flight over so I only had a front break.......

 It turns out, if you are in Vielha and needing a bike part, go to France. It took a day to work this out which was getting close to race time, but eventually, thanks to Team Ellis Bringham and friends, I made it to Luchon in France where the cable was fixed....and me and Bill ate ice cream :-). Preparation complete!

Banana Split in Luchon to celebrate two working breaks!

I didn't pay too much attention to the route planning, this was Wodi, Wout and Patrick's race and my aim was to play the role of keeping up. I made a mental note of the first few stages so I knew roughly what was coming though. Off the start line, as is always the case, the pace was faster than anyone will keep going, after a blast on foot round the town we spun round the first MTB stage, a token 1hr45 loop back to Vielha.

Back into transition and it was like I'd never been away, wheels off, bike in box, camelback in bag, food packed, poles, ready and GO! I'd been promised that if I slouched in transition I'd have Wodi hovering and pushing to leave. My memories of my transitioning skills are pretty poor, when my breathing was particularly bad in the Itera I remember sitting on the floor unable to concentrate and getting the guys to name items for me to put in my bag, so I really did have a bad impression of my abilities to be fast. Turns out it is all relative and with a clear head I am actually well practiced :-). That was a nice surprise and set the scene for the fairly frequent transitions over the next 24hrs, where I was on water filling and bag/box moving duties.

First Trek - as the gradient eased

 Now the race actually started, although this was more of a taster, a trek up, up, up to some stunning views. The pace was hot up the hill (and this is my best discipline, I'm not too shabby on foot), but as I said, this was not my race so I dug in (on tow) as we raced past teams up the steap 1300m ascent. What can I say, this is the approach I was used to with Haglofs Silva as this is where we gained most time so I went with it. 3.5hrs into the race, we hit a col and the tow came off. I was in my element, lovely trails followed by a techy descent off the beaten track. We hit the town for a short individual orienteering section and rolled into transition in around 5-7th place (which pleased the guys, their aim was to finish in the top 5).

Joosep and Andris (Team 23) showing off their descending skills
Next up, back onto the bikes for another 1400m ascent. There was a change in the team dynamic at this point. 6hrs in and I was not the one on tow.....Wout was struggling a bit so Patrick got him on tow and the four of us moved on up the hill. We were still covering ground well, maybe dropping the pace slightly on the final steap ascent to the ski station where our control was waiting, but in the mix with lots of teams going back and forth. It's amazing the difference 1400m can make, at the bottom, so so hot, at the top wet and windy, making it cold enough that I almost hit the point of stopping to put a jacket on! As noone else did I (wo)manned up and carried on hoping we dropped height to warmth quickly. Of course we did, this is the pyranees :-).

The joys of inflatable kayaks
Early evening and we were inflating kayaks for a short paddle to a ropes and canyoning section. There was a small queue at the ropes course (timed out) and I kicked myself for not putting in a tin of food to eat during this time. Then again, until we got there it wasn't clear what could be left where or how much waiting time we would have, and I didn't want to carry a tin up a hill. Abseiling into the night, we then paddled our way back to transition for around midnight. Time for some hot food as this was the only place in the race hot water was available.

I was not impressed when we were told that in the few hours we'd been away, the hot water had been turned into tea......well, nothing for it, vegetable hot pot made with tea! I'm sure it will catch on as a new delicacy....
 At this point, the race turned into the part of an XPD that will make or break teams. Next up, 55km of mountain biking with 1200m and 1400m back to back climbs. After that, the 'High Mountains' section, 25km trekking with 2700m of ascent, potentially requiring ice axe and crampons. Third up, 115km 'mountain bike marathon'.
Canyoning section 1

We set off up the first ascent on the bikes, lights on! Around an hour in and unusually I was finding it hard to stay awake. Usually the first night is ok, but clearly the altitude was having a bit of an effect on that (the last time I suffered the first night was when racing in Canada up high). I felt slow but must have been making progress as Wout was having a hard time behind somewhere.

It was here that I worked out why I had a nagging doubt about carrying a camelback on my bike, I damaged my right SI joint in 2010, but it has not been a problem since 2012. Now it was. I had a pain over the joint which occassionally radiated down my right leg, making pedaling rather uncomforatble. In my head I resolved this was one of those things I just had to keep pedalling through, I was moving better than Wout and knew the fix for the next ride, no more camelback! Bottles to the side of the bag are fine and have been in every race since 2012, I'd just have to do with less water. The next tactic was how to intersperse sections of fast walking to relieve my SI (in which I was moving fast enough not to drop ground on the others) without resulting  in everyone walking and thus making us slower.... I snuck to the back....

Another few switchbacks and it was called. Wout needed rest so we found a lovely bit of forest to stop in. He said 15-20minutes should do  (I was happy with anything from 10mins onwards), but Wodi suggested as we were stopping and having to put clothes on, we stop for an hour. This is a first for me! It was amazing, an hour later, freezing to the bone I might add, we set off again and once warm, I was right back on it.

Sliding in the mud
We weren't far from the summit, then there was an 800m descent. Unfortunately it was not intended for bikes, so the majority of it was hike a bike. We emerged at the bottom in daylight and I was ready for the next 1400m of ascent! I was in the racing flow now, my brain and body had remembererd what an XPD was, I knew exactly what gradient to walk jog the bike up to avoid SI pain and stuck the chiru in the lowest gear, twiddling my way up the rest. After a few switch backs I looked back and realised there was a problem. I was taking out a lot of time on the guys.

So, here's the problem to solve. I feel brilliant! I don't have a bike tow (there was some certainty I wouldn't need it so it was in my bike box which we wouldn't see for another 2 sections - my plan was to take one off somebody else on the offchance I needed one). I can't carry extra weight on my back as my SI joint will go wrong.

I suggest I take Wout's tow on my bike. Then we hit a problem. The team have gaffa tape as an emergency strapping solution instead of zip ties. That is not going to hold it. I suggest swapping bikes. We measure up and it doesn't look promising that my saddle will go high enough for Wout (or his low enough for me).

The High Mountains - Aparently a rope might have been nice.
 So that's the end of that one. All that is left is to steadily progress up, up, up....again. Another 10 switch backs and Patrick is really concerned about Wout's progress. I asked when he last ate, it doesn't sound like recently. Time to open the top pocket of my bag where I keep my 'emergency supplies'. Out comes a gel and the shot blocks (I didn't think we'd need these until day 3 or 4). I hand one after the other to Wout as he passes and dig out some crisps and a bar to follow up. I don't tend to hand out my race food that often as I can't just eat anything my team mates have in their bags (unless they all agree to race gluten free.....anyone? No? You mean you don't want the super expensive option?). Have you ever tried to work out if a food contains gluten after 2 days of racing? It's not very efficient or accurate.

This gives Wout a small boost to get us to the top, then, you guessed it, its down for a very long way. This time its rideable (mostly) and good fun. I'm glad I've been practicing my steep switchbacks in Chamonix, it makes it a good, challenging, fun descent.

Unfortunately, whilst I am having a brilliant time, Wout and Patrick are not. We arrive at the bottom and both need to eat and rest before contemplating the next stage.
After half an hour, the decision is made to miss the next trekking section and try and continue on the 115km mountain bike marathon. Darn, I was really looking forward to the high mountains, I don't really relish getting straight back on the saddle or putting my feet back in my bike shoes straight away....somehow, during transition, me and Wodi persuade the others the high trek is the better option. We're still well within cut off for it!
The stage I was gutted to miss - High Mountains with scrambling ridges.

Ice axe and crampons out, we set off on bikes to reach the start of the trek, 11km up the road in very hot temperatures. We still don't have a solution to the bike tow issue, Patrick is not feeling up to towing, so it's all in the balance as to what Wout's legs have left for the bike. I drop to the back for the mental boost it will hopefully give...

~6km in and that's it. Wout sits down, he can't carry on. Ellis Bringham come past and Barbara suggests we all need gelato at this stage (little does she know that is exactly what I plan to eat next ;-)).

We freewheel back down to transtition and discuss the options. The race is a score based system and being used to Open Adventure races, I am definitely aware that this means we are very much still in the race (and that we are probably not the only team suffering in the heat/mountains). We have 17hours before the 115km mountain marathon stage closes. That's loads! Anyone can recover in that time! I break the good news to Wout and Patrick that we have time to rest, eat and continue. It is not met with the enthusiasm I had hoped for. Give it a few hours and I'm sure they will change their mind....

Explaining the technical features of the Chiru's rear break - mechanically engineered to extend the life of the frame...
A few hours and some food including lovely local melon later, Thule arrive in transition in the lead. All is not well, Simone's freehub has broken, a local boy leant her his bike to do the short out and back ride to the trek hoping to fix it in the time they were's definitely not fixed. They ask where they can rent a bike, I don't think there is anywhere very close (read 50km+ downhill in the wrong direction?). Time for Wout to decide for sure if he is going to carry on. The ultimatum, if we are definitely not carrying on, then I'm giving my bike to Thule. Even with that prospect, the resounding answer is still no, so I 'rent' my bike to Simone and off they go, the Chiru on it's way to winning the European championships without me.

Canyoning in some stunning rock formations

So, we spent the night at transition, I then rode Wout's bike down the short cut (65km) to the next transition in the morning with Wodi and Patrick and picked up the race route for some spectacular canyoning and trekking. It was awesome fun to be able to do this anyway and as we arrived at the end of the trekking section at 4pm, I figured that was a good day out and time to call it until tomorrow. Patrick didn't want to do any more so joined Wout as event staff. Wodi was super keen so carried on into the night (riding a slightly too big bike all night didn't appeal to me for some reason) and I stayed at transition. Here I met Emily and Klaus (Team 23), Emily kicking herself for having been to hospital, putting an end to the headline 'Team of random racers from all over the world who met 24hrs before the race come 3rd in European Champs' (from Klaus' description of their adventures, it was definitely the right call...). Emily has diabetes and I was impressed with her string of racing achievements. I know how hard it is to get food/glucose right with a working pancreas, I can't imagine XPD racing without! A few hours and a hail storm (in 30 degrees?) later, the rest of team 23 arrived having a wail of a time. These guys were out for a good time, the jokes just kept coming and I think herein lies the key to XPD success. Yes you need to be fit, prepared to suffer and push yourself hard. But a team that goes out to have fun and enjoy the race (whilst racing as hard as THEY can race) will always do well.
Terrain changing as we trek out of the Pyranees
 The organisation transported us to the last transition at 2am where there was a bouldering wall!!! Yes! After a night on a hard floor with only my XPD kit to use, the bouldering mat was amazing.

At around 7:30am I awoke to Thule arriving. A few hours of team watching and I had itchy feet. It's not normally the paddling sections I want to do that much, especially in an inflatable. But in the heat I was keen. So was Emily (Klaus had made it very clear the night before that his feelings for paddling rivalled Tim Higginbottom's and he would not be joining me or Emily). We set off and had a fun 6hrs of paddling, stand up paddle boarding and orienteering to finish at the castle in Lleida, a fine finishing location. It was sad not to be finishing with the team, but I had a great few days and made some friends I would never otherwise have met. I feel a trip to Switzerland, Canada and NZ are on the cards!
Me and Emily cross the finish line - not as either of us planned, but I think we should get the award for most chatting during an XPD. I think we could even take on Helen Jackson ;-)

On the plus side, two weeks on I've been out on the bikes and running, recceid half of Borrowdale, had an 8hr day out recceing Lakes in a Day with my dad and finally am feeling fit again. It's great training to not kill yourself in an XPD ;-). It's been almost two years in the making, but with no more silly researching hours, no more teacher ed and 4 days of work a week from the end of August,  I think it's time for some proper racing fun again (with the unfortunate caveat of the school holidays, World Champs in Australia not looking too promising at the moment) this space!