Tuesday, 26 January 2016

I bailed from Strathpuffer (and I'm happy about it)

It was months in the making.  Everything had fallen into place.  I had all the kit I needed, and a perfect pit crew, in a perfect pit-van, for an seamless Strathpuffer.  Thursday night I slept, 10 hours. Friday night I slept solidly for 12.  I was rested, perfected and really looking forward to it.

The gaiters fitted (and worked)

The event was exceptionally well organised and the volunteers a pleasure to deal with, so helpful and kind.

The mass start and run had me chuckling no end, absolute chaos, in a good way!

So why, after three laps, was I hating it? 

I admit my heart had sank a little at the start of the week as the weather forecast showed not the extreme conditions of a deep Scottish winter. 6 months before Strathpuffer had been a 'bucket list' dream; to survive 24 hours in the toughest of endurance events.  A real challenge, to take my physical experiences to the next level.  I wasn't mentally prepared, at all, for ambient monotony.  It wasn't just me.  Several people, including marshals, made comment about how it wasn't 'proper puffer' and how everyone had it easy this year.  The weather had devalued the event in the eyes of some, and it certainly derailed my own personal reasons for being there.  The challenge, for me, had been to survive the cold.  

That is not saying that this years event wasn't tough.  It was tough, in a different way.  It was tough for me as the course was seriously lacking appeal.  That wonderful little trail that glistened, with interesting rocky sections, fast descents, line choices and beauty was gone.  It had been replaced by a slow, draggy muddy mess of miserable soulless swamps, descents that required pedaling and barely any smiles.  Warm mud at that. People were cutting corners, taking short cuts, riding straight down the hill, anything to avoid the mud and make up some fun.  

A spectator asked me to rate how I was feeling on a scale of 1 to 10 on about lap eight.  I say 'about' as I wasn't keeping score.  I don't keep track of time, lap or placings - what's the point, they'd have no impact on my ability to keep pedaling, the point is to just keep going, and that's that.  Anyway, I couldn't answer him, because it wasn't an easy question to answer.  Physically I was a 7, still feeling strong, tiring yes, but no soreness, no aches or worrying issues, no saddle sore, comfortable clothing, perfectly warm feet.  In fact some tightness I had in my knee at the start of the event had gone and I was probably in better physical shape than expected at that point in time.  But mentally I was barely scraping a 1.  Life had lost it's colour by then, and not because of the encroaching darkness.

Normally night riding is a favourite thing, seeing the lights weave in and out of trees, the colours of the tents and they are illuminated internally, the glow from fire pits.  None of that was warming my soul, I just didn't care.  I had a war inside my head that was taking over, and there were several factors at play.  

I was feeling guilty for being so reliant on Steve.  I couldn't tell if he was enjoying it or not, because I know he would do anything to keep me happy. But I was worried it was putting unfair pressure on him to keep me up and running.  My hatred of the course had me coming in and stopping on every lap for tea and food whilst he tried to fix everything that had got jammed with mud or broken on the lap before.  My shifter broke on a descent and I was praying it would be terminal, but Steve fixed it in a few minutes in perfect pit crew practice. He never once complained, but that didn't stop me worrying that I was expecting too much.  I hate depending on others and I hate people feeling like I take them for granted.

Mostly though, the issues ran far deeper.  What had originally been a personal challenge to survive the winter weather had become something much more.  Just like racing downhill, by the time race day arrived I was dealing with all sorts of expectations from other people.  Comments about which podium place I would come home with, how I would no doubt do well.  People were expecting me to race and perform at the top level.  

The truth and purity of endurance is lost for me when it becomes about being better than others.  It shouldn't be about placings, or results, it should be about meeting personal goals and finding yourself. I wasn't finding anything.  I was wasting annual leave not having fun on a slow mucky course in the most beautiful part of the UK when I could just be appreciating my time there, taking photos and spending quality time with Steve. I could have spent the weekend lost in the wilds having a true adventure, immersed in the scenery, not desperately trying to be mindful of it, whilst trying not to think about the expectations others had for my performance.  

I kept plodding for another lap.  I knew I could keep going physically, but I had no desire at all to keep going mentally.  I also knew, if I did talk myself back into continuing, the vicious cycle would continue.  Likes and kudos and positive feedback. More expectation.  Again I would be looking for a challenge to validate my worth to others, rather than fill the sense of adventure and longing I have for high places.  Money, time, and effort to be 'recorded' to have times put down, to race and be ranked to prove my worth to other people.  Stopping felt pure and it still does. It was pure, because there was no excuse to pull out.  Physically I was good, materially I was good, and I was well supported, but stopping was all too easy.

You have to be 100 percent focused to ride round in circles for 24 hours, with clear heartfelt reasons to do so.  I loved 24:12, it was a challenge to see how far I could take it and whether I could survive the night.  The course was brilliant and, even on the last laps, the descents were still making me smile.  I had reason to be there, and that's why I did so well.  My memories from the event aren't about the final results, they are the night sections, the flow when you know every root on a descent, the people, the feeling that I was indeed, finding new strength inside myself.  There was none of that at Strathpuffer.  No fun, no winter challenge, just a horrid desire to perform for other people.

As soon as I made the decision to stop, the colour returned to life. Fairy lights twinkled brightly, yet I had barely noticed them when I had ridden past 20 minutes before. The moon hazed brightly though the trees. It was stunningly beautiful as I sat with Steve by the fire pit, no longer caring that my lungs were filling up with smoke.

I read into the evening, a book called 'Into The Wild', envious of the true adventures within.  There is so much of this life to experience, and pushing my limits will still be part of that, but not in the context of competition.  I don't want my own achievements being devalued by their ranking against those of others, and I don't want others to use me as an inspiration to race, unless that is where their heart lies.

Postscript: The next day, after a good nights sleep, in the cold light of day, the decision to stop could be assessed with a clear head and no flight-or-fight response.  It was still very much the right one. We had a fantastic trip home, criss-crossing through some of the stunning Scottish scenery, plotting our adventures for the year and with no regrets.