You could spend your day with your feet up watching telly, or even if you are active, getting in a nice easy cycle to keep your fitness up … or you could survive fatigue, a crash, make friends with like-minded people and pain, as you ride 24 hours in and out of the saddle in one of the toughest MTB challenges there is

I am just 30 minutes into a 24-hour mountain bike race and I’ve crashed pretty damned hard. I’ve spilled out from an entertaining, narrow and twisting single-track descent, having been held up behind another rider for maybe three minutes. I’m fired up to take riders on wherever it’s easy, and when we both reach a left turn onto the stony forest road at the bottom, I move out immediately to overtake, put down the power, and smashhhh!

I’ve lost the rear end and I am scraping along, and then lying in some lumpy hard stuff with the sensation of stinging flesh and the bashing-of-bones immediately starting to hit me. This is not the plan. It never is, is it? But, being a master of optimism (I tell myself I’m OK), I jump back up, brush it off as a mere blip and share some humour with the marshals looking on. “Too much power!” I jokingly shout out, and throw a kind of beaming smile, beneath a grimace.

Did they know that riders were likely to crash there? Anyway, I’m going to specify this as my only crash in these joyous 24 hours of competitive freedom and I’m going to dig in and re-take that rider that I was so focussed on earlier. Predictably, I’m now experiencing the slow seizure of my knee, the oozing of blood, the soreness of grazing and the associated sticking of lycra to skin, not to mention a few other pains on my left side, all the way from shoulder to ankle.

My cogs of positive thought commence their drills: it’s OK, these can be my deferred pains for later, when something even more significant happens…. as it will. These can be my little friendly pains, and I’ll take them as good company, to the bitter end. I will complete. I will. A 24-hour mountain bike event requires a pretty stern commitment from the participant and I now find myself reminded of that rather starkly. I’ve done numerous adventurous races and self-penned challenges and have yet to DNF on anything.

Lucky me! Foolish me. It’s become almost a perversely reassuring albatross around my neck and it’s why generally at event startlines, I suffer no anxiety. There are other supporting approaches too – all designed to enable power, maintain hope and give enjoyment. I develop regimes for an endurance life that include: ‘comfort first’, ‘involving friends’ and to ‘exude cheerfulness’. What do I mean? What does it mean? And does it actually help?

Here’s what eventually happened …

By the first chill of dusk I’m feeling at rhythm and peace with everything that’s happening around me. Significantly, I’m enjoying and looking forward to the repeated segments on the course that involve regular laps. Six hours in, six laps in and I’ve settled into a routine that gives me – and hopefully most other riders – a charming brush with cheery marshals, campfires, amazing views, attention seeking, technical mini-rock gardens and muscle-bursting squirts up rocks and slopes.

Reassuringly, three times per lap (the organisers have cleverly clover-leafed the route) the event centre support pits add some sociable punch to this 24-hour solo endeavour. I pull in at my support gazebo and am greeted by an ever-wide-eyed crew, desperate to do even more for me! Rory is the consummate pit-pro and without querying anything just cleans a bit of bike, lubes my chain, clicks a bike light in and offers some polite commands such as: “Just get outta here now, you’re doing great!” Donald wants to help more and offers me a bespoke but limited selection of nutrition (as briefed). We swap my standard water bottle for a thermal bottle filled with warm coffee (as briefed) but then he asks whether he should determine my position in the race (not as briefed). No, I do not want to know my position until perhaps the last four hours.

Until dawn, I’m going to ride my own race, and take it easy in the knowledge that I am probably aware enough of my pace and the yo-yoing of other riders around me, to see that I am in touching podium position. As I ascend out of the pits and with darkness definitely taking hold, I turn my bike lights on and take a swig from the coffee bottle.

It feels like a gratuitous indulgence, almost like cheating, and I could not be happier. That last pit stop took just 60 seconds, and that was the longest yet. Fast-forward to midnight, exactly halfway through the event and there is a drop in temperature to about five degrees and I know that it’s reasonably likely that I’ll suffer a low-point soon. I have planned to have some hot food at the next pit stop and here I am stood with steaming chicken pasta being observed by my (what has grown to) four helpers.

They shout out variously: “Sit down.” “Eat slower.” “Make sure you chew it fully.” Ah, yes, a grown man being treated like a child by his support crew, which now also includes friends Kirsty and Elspeth. So the low-point is definitely here now. Blood has gone to my stomach to help digest this audacious half-plate of hot food, my extremities are chilling and I’m feeling a bit sickly. In fact, I’m pretty nauseous and I’ll be slowing for a bit, that’s for sure. “It’ll pass”, I tell myself.

Three laps later and I’m only just shaking off the slump. But I’m into good recovery now and am out of that second dip and starting to consolidate my position – which I glean from other riders (those who want to talk) as they pass, or are passed. I’m starting to hear of the troubles that others have suffered: sickness, tears, crash injuries, mechanical difficulties and interestingly, several riders who have suffered breathing difficulties in the cooling night air. One has even experienced partial loss of eyesight that the medics are calling ‘blinky eye’.

Aussie Brett Bellchambers, a tour-de-beard on a rigid single-speed bike, tells me: “The track is perfect and tough and will have people crying at three am – just the way a 24-hour race should be. I love the race, I love the people, I love the racers and the pit crews. The atmosphere is fantastic and laid back – almost Australian”. He went on to win his class.

The overall winner was nearly always going to be Jason English, also from Australia, and although I never got much chat from him, whenever he lapped me, he would always ask, nonchalantly but genuinely, “How you doing?” Snap back to self! I give myself a status check and decide that I’m good-to-go-go-go, to make a charge to the end. This will be soon and when I want to know my position in the race, it’ll be then that I’ll hit the gas! I get the news that I’m fourth in my age group and I now have to consider whether I can reach third place. This will require making up 20 minutes, over perhaps three laps.

I’m told that the guy in fifth is unlikely to catch me, as he has been slowed by a crash and has minor concussion. There’s no hurry to make the decision, but I’ll make it simple and I’ll make it now, so that the support team know my mind-set and can align. I think of what brought me here, what I owe the event and what I owe myself. I’ve had the great support of Rory of Upgrade Bikes, who has helped me with this faultless Pivot fullsuspension bike, by friends helping over these odd hours and by my family – all of whom have enabled me to escape for some rather long rides during the year. (One was a single continuous ride of the West Highland Way and Great Glen Way from Glasgow to Inverness. The other was a five-day, 550-mile Highland MTB race!) I decide that fourth place is a robust banker and that I’ll jolly-well enjoy the special environment that the organisers have provided, chill-out, tick-over and finish in fine shape for a meal and travel home back to the family.

24 hour MTB racing tips

Nutrition is key

You need to develop the belief that staying power primarily comes from nutrition, not fitness. Sure, you’ll have to do some long rides in training and behave like a racer during the event, but any range of standard MTB riding will put you on the start grid of a solo 24-hour race. Not least as generally, there are no pre-entry requirements for these races.

So your nutrition needs to be proven for your tastes and should include a good mix of sugary, savoury, fast burn, slow burn foods and hydration fluids. Over the course of 24 hours it’s also possible to in a way emulate your standard meals i.e. include an evening meal and breakfast, with similar timing and food types.

Munch some stimulants if you already know that they suit you: ProPlus, caffeine tablets, coffee and Red Bull are the clear favourites. Consider also, amino acids for muscle recovery, but whilst riding.

Mental strength

Mind control is key: you need to develop the philosophy that no problem is insurmountable, and that finishing your challenge is imperative for fulfilment. If you think you are weak or marginal in this regard, then counter this by listing all of the reasons not to bail Tell yourself to be a strong rider and you will be.

Kit reliability 

Bike and bike light reliability are essential, but as an accomplished MTBer you’ll have this sorted, won’t you? The bike needs to be proven and ready. The bike lights, in combination with the bike and helmet, need to be proven. (I used one handlebar light and two bike helmets each with their own light rig, so that recharging was not crucial and no time would be lost swapping light sets over).

If you are not competent at bike maintenance, then make bike preparation a priority, even if you believe a pit crew will save you.

Think tortoise not hare

Pacing: You should aim to ride at the pace at which you would normally ride and take rests and back stretches whilst descending the easier trails. Try not to sprint, especially in the first hours – going anaerobic is not clever and your body will punish you for such exuberance later.

It’s a race!

Downtime: Let’s be clear – this is a race. If you are not riding, then this is generally time that you will not be able to haul back. So unless there is an essential fix going on to your body or bike, you need to be riding 95% of the time. This is also why most riders have a second bike, so that maintenance can take place while you are out riding the spare.

Pre-event sleep

Get some good sleep before the event. It’s about your pre-race lifestyle, the week before, and two nights before, the night before is least important – there will be adrenalin at play by then. If travelling to the event make sure that you find a good accommodation solution that can virtually guarantee good rest.

Prepare and prepare some more

Comfort-centric preparation is my approach: trial the clothing, saddle, handlebar grips and handlebar type. The bike is fundamental obviously, but there is a vast range of choice. As a pure (and totally credible) test, perhaps you can handle a rigid single-speed? Some people know they can, some know they cannot and some won’t know. Make sure that you are not in this latter group.

Focus but have the ‘right’ support

A frugal-centric support environment is my choice: I want to reduce distraction in the pit area. Anything that might encourage you to stay in the pits for more than five minutes is not good. This includes not having an immediate facility to lie down on, to sit in a (heated) vehicle, or to have long conversations or attenuated decision-making moments. Make your decisions whilst out riding a lap.

Allow some luxuries 

So, I had coffee in a thermal water bottle. Other luxuries probably relate to food choices. Everything else is maintenance-serving: bike, lights, chamois cream, clothing (in good stable weather conditions you should not need to change any items of clothing). For many events, in-ear media systems are banned, so there’s one luxury that you need not concern yourself with!

Stay alert!

Keep an active mind by focussing on the minutiae of what is around you and squeeze some pleasure out of that – the riders, marshals, flora and fauna, climatic effects, conversation, singing, humming, mental quizzes, and ace-ing all the technicalities in the trail. One massive asset to the No Fuss Events/Nevis Range course was that it was very stimulating by default. Though some would say, ‘tough and continually demanding!’

Words Gary Tompsett  Pictures Anthony Pease