We’ve been waiting a long time for the National Marathon Series, it must be almost 10 years since we’ve had a series like this. After hearing rumours last summer it’s great to see race organisers and the national federation put everything together to make this happen. This year there's three rounds of the national series with this first one being hosted by the Vittoria MTB Marathon, round 2 is the Deadwater 100 and round 3 is the Manx 100. Hopefully this is just the start and the series can expand in future years. The series seemed well received with a healthy but moderate turn out. Events like this are the heart of cycling so I don't quite understand why there weren't more people attending, perhaps the seriousness of it being a national level event actually put people off compared to a sportive type event which is perhaps less official and intimidating? Perhaps whilst there’s more people on bikes these days cycling those competing are being dispersed around an increasing number of disciplines and events.
The Pippingford venue has hosted national cross country races and national championships for cross country and marathon in the past. I won silver here as an under 23 many years ago back in 2010! Maybe I'm getting too old for this now!? This weekend’s 17 kilometres with 500 meters of climbing per lap was good enough to test the very best but fun enough for everyone to enjoy. It's a really difficult circuit with not many easy miles, the climbs are the only place where its faster rolling but some of the gradients are pretty steep, then on top of the moors and through a lot of the singletrack it's really rough so there's lots of low cadence high force pedalling which puts a lot of strain on the muscles. It's a very different circuit to somewhere where there's more gravel road or smooth singletrack.
For me today was an opportunity to put a marker down and say to the world I'm still here. I still feel like I'm expected to achieve a big result, there are a lot of eyes watching and anything less than a win would be a disappointment. It's a strange way to head into any race. All you can do is train your hardest, prepare the best possible, then finish the race knowing you've given 100%. It's not easy to put all the pieces together and even when you feel like everything is falling into place it can very easily fall apart in a flash, I've seen that in far too many races. Cycling is a tough sport and the lows usually far outnumber the highs but the highs are so great they are worth fighting for. Before even getting on the start line I’d had the challenge of dealing with a sick toddler the past couple of weeks which started with chickenpox and then quickly following with a sickness bug. Who needs sleep the two days before a national level bike race!
I always avoid looking at the start sheet, do so and you start figuring out who can beat you, by the time you're on the start line you're already defeated. A few clients dropped some hints though that the start sheet was looking competitive so that the adrenaline going. A lot of the really fast riders who rocked up at national marathon champs last year are away racing the Tour de France so no need to worry about them till August. On the line there was no more hiding, this race was competitive and was going to be hard challenge.
Full focus now, energy gel in, one last swig of drink and then wait for the instructions. One minute to go! 30 seconds, 15 seconds, the whistle blows and we fly up the start straight. After wheel spinning for the first few pedal strokes on the slippery surface I find traction and the speed builds. We take a right and descend along the top of the arena towards the left hander which takes us into the first proper climb of the lap. The original plan was to follow wheels, figure out the competition and save some energy for later in the race when I can make my move. We head into that left hander and I push my way to the front and set the pace up the climb, near the top my chain jumps and my foot flies out the pedal, a few people come past but fortunately no damage to the bike. Heading into the first descent I get the elbows out and force my way back into the lead. I'm not the best technically but would rather be on the front setting the pace down here. The climb and that first descent split the field, I continue to push a sustainable pace up the second climb, by the top there's just a small group on my wheel. The idea of following wheels has gone out the window, I'm feeling good and want to push the other riders, test their limits.
Through the arena after the first half lap and there's three of us in the lead. I keep the momentum going to break up the race. I feel strong and cannot help myself. Soon I'm out in the lead and begin focusing on the numbers from my Rotor power meter, aiming to ride each of the long-sustained climbs at threshold. My momentum creates a 40 second lead by the end of the first lap and then by the end of the second lap i'm 90 seconds ahead! The challenge now is getting through that mid race lull where your mind begins to wonder and mistakes happen. This happens up and down the field, whether you are leading or whether you are mid pack and chasing. It's an odd situation though being out in front, especially when you have no idea of the time gaps. All you can do is race your own race, try to stay focused and try to keep the same momentum lap after lap. This is what I was doing until a third of the way through lap three. Entering a drainage channel, I wasn't fully focused, took more speed that previous laps and a different line, it was one of those moments where you know disaster is about to happen but it's too late. Before I felt the spray of sealant I knew it would be a puncture. The sealant starts flowing, I ease up on the speed to see if the Orange Seal would do it's job but the hole is too big. I roll round the corner and there's another four people stopped having punctured in the same place.
In that short moment where my focus was elsewhere the race began to unravel. I pull to one side and set to work fitting a tubeless plug, you just hope at that point it seals because to fit a tube is basically a get you home rather than a way to continue challenging for a race win. The second-place rider Joe Griffiths sails past as I reinflate the tyre. All that work creating a lead for nothing. The tyre seals and I'm back on the bike, there's no way I'm giving up on this, I left my poorly screaming boy at home with my wife so I cannot go home having wasted the day! I also have a lot of coaching clients out on track who I hope find it inspiring to see their coach do well. Back up to speed, I'm asking marshals how far ahead the leader is ahead, there's no real answer but it was around 40 seconds! Some work to do but somehow I close the gap until I can see Joe in front. About three quarters of the way through the lap I'm on his wheel and opt to take a breather and take stock of the situation. Is Joe feeling good, has he burnt his matches, can I still win this race? I also don't know the gap to the others behind us, are we at risk of being caught?
Through the start line and onto the first climb I don't attack but as Joe slows to grab a bottle I settle into the same pace I rode the previous laps, again climbing at threshold. On the wheel I'd been thinking I can go quicker but the reality is when you up the pace on the final part of a tough race the body is going to be tired, it might be possible but the body is going to fight it. The gap opens slowly, second by second. At different points on the track I could look back and see my opponents, the mind plays tricks with you, on one hand you think that must be minutes since I past through that bit of the track, but then with your foggy fatigued brain you start to question yourself.
Safely through the fast bermed descent with jumps, no risks. Onto the next climb and back into the rhythm. The legs feel strong but cramp is close, it's not a really hot day but it is warm so you are sweating and the course is really taxing, you work for every pedal stroke. I count down the sections one by one and try to hit the same lines on the technical singletrack which I've ridden every lap, this helps keep me focused all the way to the line. The arena comes into site, last bit of trail, last climb, last meters, under the arch and arms in the air!! I hear my name over the speaker system. I've won the first national race of the year!!
Over that last lap I somehow opened a 2-minute 49 gap, durability and fatigue resistance helping me hold a strong pace to the line where others began to fade. Second place went to Joe Griffiths and third to Tom Stephenson. Pippingford hosted a fantastic first round of this new national marathon series, a series which we’ll hopefully see flourish and expand in future months and years. For someone who usually has to travel overseas for events it’s great to finally have a series of this standard here at home, long may it continue.