I’m still a little nervous if I’m honest about embarking on an off-road ultra that is approx 8 times in distance further than anything I have done so far in training.
But, there is now less than a week to go, and there is very little more I can do other than be prepared.
As someone who have never done this kind of thing before, one way to help me sort out my nerves has been to understand what the route is going to throw at me. I’ve done this in two different ways.
1 – Ride the route
Over the last couple of months, I have travelled to various parts of the route and quite simply ridden sections. It helps that I live on the South Coast, so the North and South Downs are fairly local to me. I was keen particularly to understand the more challenging parts of the ride and know what I was up against. Whilst the main focus was to just ride it, it was also helpful to understand where resupply points might be found, as well as gauging what my average speed off road looked like. As someone who has ridden road for most of the last 20 years, it’s taken some getting used to, realising that I travel around half the distance in the time, and move very slowly sometimes.
As well as understanding the monster that is the South Downs, I was very keen to ride a good chunk of stage 1, as it’s a stage that will be ridden at night. Coach Niel had already warned me that he felt it was the most difficult section of the whole ride, and so tackling it for the first time at night was not something I wanted to leave to chance. Even at the time of writing I have still not ridden the mountain bike off road in the dark, and so the fear of it was entirely justified. I decided that I would spend a day riding it in daylight, so once again there were no surprises on the event.
At the same time I was keen to try out my overnight kit and see if I’d be able to find a safe spot and sleep in my Bivy. So I opted for a 2 day trip starting and finishing in Dorking, which is also close by to Check Point 1 on the Escapade route. The first day was to ride mostly on road, but with a few trails along the way, on a route created by Komoot. The ride started in Dorking, and followed most country roads and off road trails and bridleways towards Hollingbourne, when I planned on finding somewhere to Bivy before picking up the Escapade route on day 2 and riding it back to the beginning.
It didn’t all go according to plan and you can see how it went on this video.
It’s safe to say, that after this experience I have opted instead to get a hotel for the 2nd night. I haven’t given up on the idea of using a Bivy for future adventures, but it’s not going to work for me this time.
2 – Strategy
The only person I’m really racing on this ride is myself, and I have zero chance of being one of the first riders back, so I’m more than happy to share my strategy on this ride. I hope that maybe it helps inspire some of you to give this kind of thing a try.
The second part of my planning is to start to research facilities along the route, and also break the ride into bite sized chunks. My brain can cope with the idea of a long challenge being broken down into smaller individual rides better than seeing all the miles lying ahead of me and focussing on just how far I still have to go. In the case of this ride, I have broken it down into 8 stages, of between 20 & 50 miles. Most sections however are around 40-48 miles.
On this kind of ride, most of the riders fuelling will come from petrol stations, supermarkets and maybe if you are lucky the odd café. As I’m planning on riding through the first night, knowing where the 24 hour petrol stations are is key. There will be no open shops, and so I’ll need to carry all my own food for that first night. But just to be sure that no matter what time of day or night I get resupply points along the route, I have mapped out where all the 24 hour service stations are along the whole route. In addition, I know where I’m likely to come across cafes and supermarkets too. Some of these are just minutes off the route, but if you don’t know about them they will be easy to miss them as they are often not visible from the trail.
For anyone that has ridden ultra distance multiday events before on little to no sleep, you’ll know that your focus becomes very narrow after a while. As tiredness starts to sink in your ability to think straight and remember things becomes very hazy. So as I expect this, it’s the other reason why I’ve broken the route into the bite-sized chunks. Each section goes from and to a resupply point. It means that I cannot ride straight past it, as the route will have ended at that point. Having ridden straight past controls on other rides in the past, I’ve found that this has become a pretty fool proof method, regardless of how tired I am, or how clouded my judgement is. I have also noted other potential stops along the way, but these are for quick stops, or maybe if I need to use facilities or fancy an ice cream.
My notes also include timings and an anticipated speed for each each section. There are difference schools of thought as to whether this is a help or a hindrance. Some people find that having timings to keep to add either unnecessary pressure if you fall outside of them, or stop you pushing on if you are ahead of time. I can understand that point of view, but it doesn’t apply to me. Without some indications of my planned timings, I ride clueless. On a tour this is fine, but in an event where I am trying to complete in a set time, I need to have my planned guidelines to follow. To date I have rarely stuck with them, but they help me focus on not stopping for too long if I am behind schedule, or allowing myself a little more breathing space if I am ahead of schedule but tired. My plan for this ride is not to the wire, and allows me plenty of flexibility, and so I hope will see me to the end in a reasonable timescale.
Bike and bags
I am riding a 10 year old Specialized Rockhopper Expert, which I have brought out of hibernation, repaired and brought up to spec for the ride. I’m running Continental Race Kind 2.2 tyres. I have changed the handlebar grips to a more ergonomic design for comfort. I’ve been having so much fun on it, and it’s helped allay my fears about the nature of the ride.
My main bike bag is a Tailfin Aeropack. I have been riding with this now for a couple of years, and it’s my favourite piece of bike luggage EVER. It’s so flexible. I also have cargo cages fitted, and although I won’t have anything attached to them at the start of the event, they add flexibility should I need to carry more water temporarily. The forecast is hot, so it’s a distinct possibility.
I have an Altura Vortex Top Tube Bag for instant access to food I can snack on whilst moving, and a Rock Bros handlebar bag, for more easy access food, but also for battery pack/cables, my Go Pro and other things that it’s useful to have to hand.
Lights – Main light is an Exposure Diablo, but I have a back up unbranded light that have a very good output and battery life too. It might be that at times I use the Diablo as a head torch and the other light on my handlebars
Power – I have a Omars 10,000 mAh power bank that takes USB Micro, USB C and 2 x USB A. It will charge itself at the same time as charging my devices, which could be useful if I’m sitting at a cafe. And I have a MINX plug which allows for very fast charging too. I will also be carrying a smaller Anker Power bank exclusively for recharging my phone.
Clothing – I plan to take 2 pairs of Rapha Cargo Bib shorts with me. As a female I find that changing into clean dry shorts after a night on the bike is just heaven, and helps to avoid unnecessary chafing. It’s minimal weight and bulk but worth it.
I’ll also be taking a light base layer, Rapha Merino Jersey, and a Castelli Jacket for the cooler evenings and night (this might change to my Rapha Merino long sleeved jersey if it looks like being hot nights). I will also take some merino arm warmers again for the evening and early morning,
I shall take 1 pair socks, 2 pairs of mitts, and a small micro towel.
Toiletries will be basic. A tooth brush and travel toothpaste, a pack of wet wipes (essential to freshen up especially if sweaty), some eye drops to sooth sweaty and red eyes, a small pot of chammy cream, and a small hairbrush to tame the haystack. I will also take a very basic first aid kit with plasters, antiseptic wipes and paracetamol. Suncream will remain handy in my handlebar bag, and used often.
I will be taking the usual bike maintenance bits and bobs to enable roadside maintenance, but this will be basic.
Food – I will be using bottle nutrition from 32Gi who I am supported by. In one bottle will be Race Pro Carb Protein drink and in the other will be Endure sports drink. I used both of these products on my LEJOGLE record, and I continue to find that they enable me to continue to fuel on ultra rides, and avoid any digestive issues. All 32Gi products are vegan. I will also take with me a few energy gels just for emergency use, and also take Cramp Assalt periodically to help maintain my electrolyte levels.
I will be carrying plain water in a hydration pack on my back.
In addition I have decided that I will most likely take my cooking equipment of a Vango Atom ultralight stove, and titanium mug. This means I can boil up a coffee at any point that I choose to sit and eat rather than having to wait at a petrol station each time. It adds flexibility and gives me a chance to stop for a rest where I want – hopefully somewhere with a view, rather that in a busy fume filled petrol station.
I also have a couple of high calorie Expedition meals that I shall be carrying. If I get the opportunity at a check point, I might be able to eat one of these, or alternatively they guarantee that I can eat at my hotel regardless of what time of night I arrive, and also guarantee that I eat breakfast before departing.
How to follow me
You will be able to follow the riders on the Map My Tracks link below.
I will also be posting updates & photos on my Facebook Group Marcia’s challenges for MIND, so why not sign up for the group and you can see how I’m doing.
Finally, don’t forget that I’m fundraising again this year for Solent Mind, so if you are inspired by me riding this challenge, or just want to help the cause and can spare even a small amount, then please consider donating via my fundraising link below.