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Haglöfs Open 5 North Downs

The one we got away with.

The North Downs are a long way from where I live, but close to where my aunt and uncle live. I went down for the weekend with my mum and spent a happy couple of hours on Saturday riding around the trails near Epsom. This is a spot with many horses and many bridleways. I was hardly on a road for any of the route, though I got a taste of the conditions I might face a bit further west during the race.

Andy did his first ever trail race in the dark the night before and loved it. You can read his report here. I was teased for not doing both races, and though I was tempted, common sense won for once!

Lucy had put in a fantastic effort at the Marmot Dark Mountains event the week before this race. 68km non stop in the dark in the Peak District in 12.5 hours – respect! It was a last minute decision for her to come down. We want to win the female pairs category in the series, and for complicated reasons it turned out we’d have to do this one. Unfortunately, Lucy was racing tired and with a sore knee.

Planning to bike and bike ...

Planning to bike and bike …

We had a plan. To bike a lot and run a little. So we planned an insanely ambitious bike route. After a last minute mechanical panic we were the last to start and headed off into the sunshine for a bike ride. I have to admit we might have been enjoying it just a little bit too much. There was the ‘path’ which resembled a small stream, the mud baths, the hills, the huge puddles so deep my bottom bracket needed attention when I got home … and it even seemed quite warm. No Buffs necessary! We managed to keep up a good conversation and all was going well.

That is until we made a bad navigation error and didn’t realise until one muddy, hard going kilometre later. A road? There should be no road down here … after some circling in the forest on tracks marked and unmarked, we followed Lucy’s trusty nose and came out at a bunker. We were back on track but had lost a whopping 20 minutes of time.

Transition - muddy!

Transition – muddy and late!

Just after this, we got a bit crazy. We debated bike controls vs. run controls and just how well Lucy would actually be able to run. We decided on the madness of just a bit more biking, then overshot the turning twice. What a comedy of errors! On a road back to transition we time trialled it into transition with Ant Emmet, who was telling us he had over-cooked the bike. So had we, but sort of on purpose!

For the first time, we were arriving at transition as everyone else was heading back to the event centre. We had to be careful to dib the right box (‘transition in’ not ‘finish’) and had just half an hour left for the run. For optimal scoring in an Open 5, the consensus is usually to do roughly 3h of biking and 2h of running. But the race is also strategic and we had to have a strategy that would work for us on the day.

Transition action shot!

Transition action shot!

Unfortunately, we still managed to stretch ourselves too far on the run, collecting 3 controls but clocking in just over 10 minutes late. We got 25 penalty points, which was not great. I was more concerned though that we weren’t making Lucy’s knee worse as we picked up pace back to the finish.

Our score was very low and we sat anxiously at prize giving. Would it have been enough? It turned out most scores were lower than usual; the course had been a tough one. However, we only came 29th overall, when we would be aiming for the top 10 on our best days. Still, we just about got away with it, and won our class, giving us 3 wins to defend the series with two races to go.

Matching kit on the run

Matching kit on the run

Many thanks to my mum for doing a lot of driving and to my aunt and uncle for their hospitality. It is amazing how you can fit three people and a mountain bike with big wheels into a small Ford Ka. As we set off after the race I nipped into the nearest shop for some food – a bag of Flamin’ Hot Monster Munches, a can of Dr Pepper and a yoghurt; salt, sugar and protein – all essential post-race nutritional groups covered!

Despite the lack of racing ‘class’, I still had a fabulous day and we both agreed what a fun bike ride we’d had 😀

And finally, I was presented with my ‘10,000 points’ award. This means I have done enough Open 5s in my lifetime to amass this many points and join the club with 4 other women (for now). Hurrah!

10 THOUSAND points!!

10 THOUSAND points!!

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Haglöfs Open5 Series – North Downs

A test of nerve and mind over matter.

The sixth race in this series and we were back off the bottom of my maps! It wasn’t so bad though, as my aunt and uncle live just 20 minutes away from the venue so I could combine the race with a visit.

To set the scene, this could be make or break time for the series. Best three scores to count, and I was on the back foot with Lucy already having two wins in the bag to my one. There were also some other strong girls entered, so I knew it would be a good competition.

But there was one thing above all else I wanted to do in this race.

BIKE WELL!

I love mountain biking. In January (Quantocks) I was poorly and had mechanicals. In February (Warcop) I made a tactical mistake and had no excuse. But looking at the results the speed of my bike legs just didn’t live up to those in October (Staveley) and November (Church Stretton). So I did three things differently.

1)      I listened to my coach! I have only had a coach for a couple of months, in a bid to get fit for the Celtman in June. But he was telling me all week to ease off and rest up.

2)      I went and rode on Saturday. I missed doing a recce for the last two races due to logistics. I can’t possibly predict or cover all the trails we will use, but in an unfamiliar area having a few reference points is useful. I find it also really helps get my brain in gear and my head into the map. Andy told me off for going too far and for too long – but it was really sunny and warm and I was having a good time! 😉

3)      I used my bike computer more. I don’t know why I’ve had to learn this twice. I learnt it last year. Keeping an eye on my average speed makes me ride faster. Every time I start drifting, my speed drops and I remember to pick it back up again! Magic.

There was one more different thing, but it was a last minute decision. Chatting to Ruth an hour before the start, we were commenting on how difficult it would be to escape back to the finish on the bike if it was all taking too long. I always run first, when I’m fresh, and bike second. But this made me think – maybe I should bike first, get a really good round in and then construct a run route to fit the time available. So:

4)      I biked first!

Wise words from Ruth

I was anxious before the start. I couldn’t focus on potential routes or see any sensible ways to go. My mum had come to support me and was trying to calm me down, but I was too worked up! Having ‘series leader’ in yellow pinned to my front and zip tied to my bike only added to the pressure. Regardless of what happened with the results, I wanted to give a performance that did the label justice.

Do I look nervous?


 
 
 
 

The start was a gentle spin up the road. It was already raining, but we were down south, so it was mild (or so I thought). I faffed around in transition and put off the moment of starting. Then I got the values and information on ‘no controls’ (i.e. controls worth zero) and fretted a bit more before I set off.

 
 
 

From that moment though, my head was in the zone.

Marking control values on the map

I pedalled as hard as I could nearly all of the time. The exception near the start was the singletrack called ‘summer lightning’. The control was in a mystery location somewhere along the route, which always makes me slow down as I’m paranoid about riding straight past it! Once that was out of the way there was no stopping me. Looking at the results I seem to have made an ‘unusual’ route choice – but it made sense to me at the time! The area had more minor roads than usual, and I made the most of them to cover distance quickly.

Riding the singletrack in search of a control!

As I headed back to transition I realised it might be a little cold, as I was having trouble changing gear properly (my fingers weren’t working). I was a bit slower than usual as I had to fiddle with double knotting laces on running shoes instead of doing buckles on biking shoes.

The cold didn’t register properly until about 10 minutes into the run when I was really shivering! I worked out why when it started snowing. Not just a bit, but full on wet snow, coming down sideways in the wind. Even though I had my waterproof on, the thin tops I had on underneath weren’t enough, and my spare top was in my bike bag – back at transition. Doh! Whilst trying to keep moving and navigate I decided my only two options were to run faster or get my silver cape out and put it on under my coat. One would speed me up and the other slow me down – so I went with option one!

Things almost went wrong right at the end. I lost the path in the woods amongst a load of informal little trails and ended up bashing through the forest to get to the main track I could see below. This was allowed in the rules, but wasn’t very fast! Then there was a long haul back up the road with aching legs. Just one last control to collect and time was tight. I missed the first footpath turning, found the second one, got disorientated, almost panicked, then … regained composure, found the control and sprinted up the last bit of hill. I haven’t had to run so hard in a long time and thought I might pass out at the end. I certainly wasn’t cold any more and best of all, I was back in time! 37 seconds to spare – wonders never cease.

Sprint finish. I think I'm going to collapse!


 

I knew I had raced hard and hadn’t made any major mistakes. It was a good feeling, as I felt whatever the outcome; I had done what I could.

As it turned out, I got my second win of the winter. This means the series will go right to the last race and be decided in April, when I will have to go through it all again! 🙂

 
 

The weather conditions were worse than a lot of us had anticipated and caused a few people to pull out or cut short their races. It took me about an hour to warm up afterwards! However, I scored 520, my highest score of the series so far. I was also joint 5th overall (my best ever Open Adventure result); beaten by Sabrina and Ben in the mixed pairs (who got an excellent 530 even though they came back freezing 20 minutes early), a male pair and two male solos. I think I should hope for bad weather every race! Here are the full results.

I was also helped by my aunt who pampered me and cooked awesome race food, my uncle who gave me a lift out for my ride on Saturday and my mum, who took me to and from the race, cheered me on and was official photographer. She’s been my lucky charm so far!

I had a great weekend and never knew what fun you could have riding up the Downs. I finished it off on Monday with home-made cheesecake for breakfast before heading for the train back home. I wish every race weekend could end like that!

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