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SMBO: Falkirk on Fire!

With our last swimrun race done for the year, my thoughts turned to mountain biking. Open 5s were coming up soon and my bike was almost gathering actual dust! It was a last minute decision, but I decided to enter the SMBO event in Falkirk. Scanning the entry list, I spotted Jon and hastily messaged him to see if he fancied pairing up. Affirmative. We were on!

The format was similar to one held earlier in the year: 90 minutes in the daylight, a rest for tea and homemade chocolate coconut brownies, then 90 minutes in the dark with the same map and controls but different values.

It was pretty chilly so we hid in the car to come up with two alternative plans, depending on the control values. The maps were 1:50k OS on one side and openstreetmap on the other. On the move, Jon read off the OS and me off the openstreet map. Sometimes one was easier to use and sometimes the other.

Jon started super fast and I was soon working hard to stay in contact. Some spot on Jon-nav helped us find a control in the woods without error. I was glad just to follow and to remember how to ride this bike!

90 minutes is not very long at all and before we knew it we had to start finalising our plans! Up a hill, looking down on the town before flying down and facing a sprint up another hill … Where did they all come from? The low sun shone through the trees, still golden in autumn colours as we crunched through the leaves.

At the last minute we decided to dive into the woods for an extra control or two on some single-track before racing back to the finish. Perfect timing, 2 minutes late. We finished this stage 3rd overall.

Suitably refilled and it was time for take 2. We now knew both the map and the control values, so were able to plan exactly what we wanted to do. Although there was some overlap, we did visit a different area. All around us fireworks were going off (it was Bonfire night), but I had to keep my eyes on where we were going! Jon started counting down; that’s only 45 minutes left. Whaaaat?! How was it even possible?

It all went to plan though, and we even had time to sail past the finish whooping and yelling whilst we did an optional extra little loop and finished … 2 minutes late again!

Final result and we had the highest score on the night stage and finished 2nd overall. I felt sorry for Davie who ripped his tyre on just about the furthest point on the map and had to run back. After admiring some more fireworks and the bonfire we trundled off (and I had the excitement of catching a tram with my bike for the first time).

Many thanks to Marc for organising an event with a bit of spice, Amelie for efficient sign on and Helen for the great soup and cake! A family affair 🙂

At the results ceremony, you can spot me hiding next to Jon in green!

At the results ceremony, you can spot me hiding next to Jon in green!

SMBO Fife Foray

After being involved in organising the last Scottish Mountain Bike Orienteering (SMBO) event, I was looking forward to getting back on the other side of things. Despite my best efforts to get along with Iain again, I was thwarted by a need ‘to revise’. What are the youth coming to?!

I was only going along to keep my legs spinning as my main races this year are swimrun again. I didn’t fancy the seriousness of racing solo. After a quick message to Jon (who I’ve raced with before, Itera teammate), I had found myself a friend to go round with instead 🙂

The weather turned out glorious and the promise of cloud never materialised. After a trip over the rail bridge and a short spin, I was in Fife and at the event centre by Lochore. We took our time getting ready and even did a bit of general planning from the master maps (without controls).

Then we were off! No debating to start with and we scooped up our first few controls and negotiated our first set of gates and clouds of flies in quick time before pausing to debate our route through the woods. We had planned to go there first as the nav looked tricky and we weren’t sure how long it would take. But we needed to agree the precise order before we set off again. It felt like it took too long, but we didn’t stop again for a while.

Alarmingly, I could feel myself riding in the ‘final push for the finish’ position after only about half an hour. And the hills were nipping my legs. It was fun to be chasing and have Jon metaphorically pushing me hard though! The woods were a blast. We would ride along a wide track, then suddenly dive off onto a little singletrack before popping back out somewhere else. I didn’t even regret the slow rooty option we took at one point instead of the faster but longer route.

After the tricky woodland section I managed to convince Jon to go for an out and back along the road for 10 points. ‘only be 3 minutes!’ I said, cheerfully. More like 6 he said … So I timed it and it was and a bit 🙂 We also got time to say hello to fellow teammate Paul going in the other direction.

Loch Gow had a difficult bit of singletrack that I was pleased to ride a lot of before we were walking again, over a fence and pushing up soft stuff that would definitely be rideable down. Finally we flew down a hill on tarmac and paused again. We wondered whether this meant there was a massive hill back to the finish as we didn’t remember going up one. Looking at our profile later, we had been gradually climbing since the start! (you can see where we went here). Knowing that the forest nav turned out OK, it might have been better for speed to have gone the other way round.

I was feeling a bit stressed about how far from the finish we were, but we polished off a handful of road kilometres in no time at all. At ‘the steps’ we found a number of abandoned bikes at the bottom … But we were on our way somewhere else, so I hoisted the bike onto my shoulders in the way that Elizabeth had taught me and up we went. Before the top we could ride again and we soon flying down in ‘finishing stages’ mode.

Unfortunately,  leaving some urban streets we rode straight past an easy control. I was too busy looking out for a building that I had noted as a landmark … But it had didn’t exist any more. We were slow to correct our mistake, costing a few minutes. We would definitely be late now! The final descent had me squealing as it was steep and dusty (!) and there were walkers to negotiate.

We flew into the finish, 8 minutes late. Good enough to win the mixed pairs but missed out on 3rd overall by just 1 point. Darn that error!

I had a jolly time though, just the thing to blow away a few cobwebs, get out in the sun and enjoy the company of friends. I can also add another spot to my list of places I can easily go mountain biking car free within an hour of Edinburgh! Thanks to organiser Campbell for a great day out. Full results here.

SMBO Falkirk Day / Night

Falkirk Canal Tunnel

Falkirk Canal Tunnel

  © Copyright Rob Burke and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of weekends ago, it was the first SMBO (Scottish Mountain Bike Orienteering) event of the year. I wasn’t sure about entering because of my dodgy knee. It was complaining about cycling so racing didn’t seem too wise. However, I then persuaded Iain (14) and, more importantly his dad, that this would be an ideal event for him to come and do with me.

And so it was that I turned up at Iain’s house 5 minutes late, and we scuttled off to get the train to Falkirk. Pedalling to the venue from the station was more uphill than down, but we arrived in one piece. Lots of people I knew were there, including Jon, bearing a spare map board for us to borrow.

The twist in this event was that it was a day / night. Clue in the name. The total race time was 3 hours, but it was split into two. 1.5h to ride in the day time, then all the control values changed and we had 1.5h to ride again once it got dark!

Iain is great on a bike, but he doesn’t get much practice. He is also more than competent with a map, so we set off on the day stage with him navigating and setting the pace. There were two versions of the map – an OS one (which Iain had) and an openstreetmap one (which I had). This was handy as sometimes one had better information than the other. We wound round some fun singletrack and blasted down a hill to the canal. We were moving fast! A detour into some woods, where there were some grumbles about a ‘hill’, then back onto the canal and to the long tunnel that looked a bit dark and spooky!

We went another way, aiming for a ‘fast’ route on some tarmac, missing the turning, riding across some grass and getting tangled up in the Scottish Cross County Championships. That part might have been my fault. Iain did spot a bit of the Antonine Wall on the way though. Then off to a mausoleum. We were looking for the gate and were at the perimeter wall, when we realised we had gone the wrong way round. “Shall we backtrack on the path, or just go straight up through the woods?”, I mused. Up we went, and then down, which was a bit of a laugh, as when we got to the gate we’d gone round about two thirds instead of one third, which Iain was only too quick to point out to me.

1.5h doesn’t last very long and suddenly, when we were as far away as it was possible to be from the finish, we found we had only 24 minutes left. Unfortunately, this was also the point that the trail got really technical, then disappeared under a pile of felled trees and branches. We had to bash through to the main path then escape onto a road. Time to race to the finish! Hey, but maybe we can get that control on the other end of the canal tunnel? We started off to it, before realising it was in a deep cutaway and it was a long way round if weren’t prepared for a vertical jump.

We had already started off to it but turned around and pedalled like crazy for home. It was a good time to teach Iain the adventure racing art of being towed. His lesson took 5 seconds: ‘hold this with your hand, let go straight away if anything goes wrong, pay attention to what I’m doing!’ and off we went! Turns out he was a master at it.

We got back over 7 minutes late, which was disappointing as it meant we lost 20 points. Luckily, we still had 155 left! This is another thing I like to teach; you should always get best value for money by riding longer than you really should. ‘Oooo, my legs are all wobbly’ Iain said, as we queued to download!

It got cold quickly as darkness fell. We ate soup and cake. And a bit more cake. And maybe another piece. With our lights all set up I asked Iain if he had ever ridden at night before. No. Well, a race is as good a time as any to learn! We still had the map from earlier, but no control values. We had a guess at where the good scoring ones might be as we knew they would swap around from the day stage. We also planned two possible loops that were a bit more conservative than our first attempt! I measured them, counting as I moved my finger along the route. ‘What distance is each thing?’ ‘A thingy’ ‘What’s a thingy?’ ‘It doesn’t matter! This afternoon we rode 25 thingies, and this loop is only 22 of them!’ 🙂

Off we went, pedalling hard to warm up. Back down to the canal again the direct way, and we moved as fast as we had in the day on the first part, which was a repeat. Iain remarked that this time, his legs didn’t feel like they had only just started, and his bum was sore! The ‘hill’ in the woods put in another appearance, to more groans.

Then we approached the tunnel again. Now, at night, the inside looked less spooky than the outside! We rode along it, admiring how it is hewn out of the rock, dodging the big drips of water and trying to concentrate enough not to fall in.

We were now on unfamiliar territory but were following Iain’s dad’s signs for the John Muir Way. Round an estate and across a pond, up a hill with views out to the lights of Falkirk. The ground was getting frosty and we rode through a few Slush Puppy puddles. I was doing more navigation this time, with Iain keeping an eye on things. Once I told him to go ahead and get the control so I wasn’t ‘taking over’ all the fun bits, and he rode straight past it!

We used the tow a little bit, but Iain was feeling good again. We got back near the start and were on a road when I heard a clatter behind me, then silence! Alarmed, I stopped, expecting to see Iain in a heap, but in fact he was still riding along. ‘What happened?!’ I asked. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘I was just looking at Orion, swerved to the side a bit and hit this plastic thing in the road!’ … panic over.

We actually had a few minutes left, so although we were almost back, we popped into the woods to get two more controls we had saved up. They were tricky to get in and out of, as there was a little maze of forest tracks and mountain bike trails. We debated a bit which way to go to get out, but ultimately the answer was ‘towards all those lights!’.

We got back just 38 secs late, which was much better than stage one. In fact, our night performance was better all round, as we scored 224 points!

We were cheered by the tales from other people – who had got back as late as we had in the day, or gone the wrong way, or got lost. It just goes to show it can happen to the best, even my Itera team mates! 😀

Points tallied, and we finished 3rd generation pair (adult with an under 18). Excellent work. This category was the second biggest on the day, with 10 entrants! Great to see so many families out. We missed out on the lights prize for being back closest to time on the night stage by 37 seconds … Never mind. Results are all here.

Time to cruise back down the hill and catch a train. At that time on a Saturday the passengers tend to be quite merry, and it turns out there were already bikes in both bike carriages. We comically ran along the platform twice before choosing our spot, jumping on, and wriggling into two spare seats.

By the time we got back to Edinburgh it was 21:30 and we were pretty peckish. Luckily Papa John’s was perfect as we could wheel our bikes right inside and sit in the warm to wait for our order. The only deficiency was that their pizza sizes were measured in slices (‘since when has a slice between a unit of measurement?’). We ran up the hill giggling, with hot smells wafting out of our boxes. Before long, we were camped in the living room, telling our tales, eating pizza and swigging coke (despite parental disapproval)!

I can’t ride the next event in April, because I’m organising it.  But Iain already wants to come, so his dad will have to do the honours instead!

Many thanks to Marc and his team of helpers (young and old-er!) for putting on such a fun and accessible event.

Singletrack Stramash

One week after the Brutal Half I had a 5h mountain bike orienteering event pencilled into my calendar. It was nattily titled ‘Singletrack Stramash’. One day after my ‘little tumble’ though, I was having trouble getting dressed, standing up and walking around. I was sore all over and my knee was especially painful. Taking the dressings off was something I would not like to repeat in a hurry! As the holes scabbed over I spent a whole week wearing a skirt to work, catching the bus / tram everywhere and generally hobbling around.

The race was on Saturday. My friends were divided between advising me to sit it out and suggesting it would be the perfect route to recovery. So on Friday night I took my mountain bike for a spin round the park. When I say ‘park’ I mean a square of grass and trees. I was out for less than 5 minutes. My knee was now bending enough to cause mere discomfort rather than pain. Good news! I texted Ewan to say I would like that 06:30 pickup please, and went to bed with a hot sore knee.

Next morning I was still uncertain, but by now I had committed. So off we went in the chill morning air to Innerleithen. One of the big persuading factors in doing this race was that lots of people I knew would be there. This meant plenty of chat was required before starting and despite my best intentions, I still left at the last possible moment.

I started off gently, as each pedal stroke was pulling gently at my scabs. After the first couple of controls I peered down and was reassured that everything still seemed intact. Ascending the first big climb Paul (Itera teammate) rode away from me, which was slightly unexpected! 😉 . As we contoured round the hill on a narrow track bordered by heather, my fear of falling was much more acute than normal. Unfortunately, this was making me ride timidly, which on a mountain bike normally means you’re only more likely to fall. The big views from the top were amazing though.

As well as my heightened anxieties, on the descent I realised my other slight issue. It turns out that running up and down Snowdon after a nice long bike ride can wear your legs out. They had stopped aching on Friday, but my quads were burning as I held my position on the downhill.

At a short technical section I was ‘riding’ very badly. In fact, I had given up riding and was running down. Shame I hadn’t spotted the fast, easy alternative. Anyway, at the next slightly tricky section I gave myself a stern talking to and rode, which felt much better!

I had polished off the biggest hill first (Cardrona Forest / Gypsy Glen), then a small but distant one (Cademuir plantation). I was now heading for Glentress. I felt a bit lightheaded and unwell, I wasn’t sure why. So I implemented my usual first cure in these cases, which is to drink and eat some more! After collecting a couple of controls, I had three choices to get back down: direct red route, fast fire road, indirect blue. Somehow I ended up on blue before remembering it wasn’t the shortest or fastest – but at least it was fun!

By this point I had been riding for over 3h. I think this was just about long enough for my legs to have warmed up and I started to feel like I could actually ride hard 🙂 . I came back along the valley happy, collecting a checkpoint at the top of an old quarry via some careful forest navigation up from the road. Then it was off to climb another hill at the Innerleithen trail area. A cunning shortcut along a track through a field turned out to be slower than I had hoped as there was a herd of cows sitting all over the path! We didn’t go all the way to the top of Minch Moor this time, but still went quite high.

I had been running through mental calculations about how long I needed for various options and how long I had left. Eventually I decided one more control in the valley was out of reach. In retrospect it was debatable whether it might have been quicker to exit fast along the fire road, collect it and blast back along the road, but who knows! Instead I chose the descent of Cadon Bank, a technical red graded trail, twisting and turning its way down the steep hill.

Luckily by now I was actually riding my bike more like my usual self and tackled the rock features without mishap. The descent seemed to take an age as my time was running out and I still had to bag a 30 pointer on top of a little hill by a radio mast! Really, I should have got this on the way out, but had the idea about 3 minutes too late, right at the start of the race. So as I went through town with 5 minutes to spare, I turned left instead of right and was on my way up.

A lung busting effort saw me top the league table for an obscure Strava segment before my time ran out just before I made it to the control. After that it was a blast back to the finish to minimise my losses as much as possible! 7 minutes and 23 seconds late meant 11 penalty points, which wasn’t too bad. Although there was quite a small field, it was still nice to finish 1st lady and 4th overall … Paul pipped me to third by collecting an extra control and coming back on time! Here are the results.

If I did it again I’d only change one thing about my strategy and a few small refinements to exact track choices, but I made no navigational errors. Although the soup was all gone when I got in (disadvantage of going last) I still got a nice piece of cake. After a quick (free) calf massage there was time to wander into town to get an ice cream before heading home. Even better, my knee seemed no worse, so the risk paid off as I had a lovely time with friends, riding my bike, looking at a map and enjoying the sunshine 🙂 .

Thanks to the organisers for all their hard work in putting on a successful event.

Until next time!

Celtman – The Aftermath!

The very fact that it’s been 3.5 weeks of silence since my Celtman race report tells you something about the aftermath of this race!

Of course, to start with I was a bit tired, but also very happy! Then came the post-race ‘down’ feeling. Both coach and Andy had warned me about this, but I still didn’t like it. After months of having just one main focus, suddenly it was gone from my life! And it almost didn’t feel real that it was me that had gone all that way and done all that racing.

I had a couple of days off all exercise, but getting back onto the bike to ride to work the Wednesday after the race actually felt fantastic.

To beat the blues I was told to “do summat different”. To start with I entered the SMBO (Scottish Mountain Bike Orienteering) Leadhills event. This local-ish series has a low-key friendly feel, and as I’ve only made it to the first one so far this year (when I raced with wee Iain) it was good to go and support them again.

I’m good to Andy again!

I scrambled a last minute lift from a very kind man from Fife – thanks Craig! This was my first time on the mountain bike in TWO WHOLE MONTHS! That’s what triathlon training does to you. Luckily almost everything still worked, apart from a near disaster with a lost cleat bolt at registration – again kind people came to my rescue to help me fix it (Gary, Andy and Andy’s wife :D).

I didn’t take the race too seriously, which meant I was relatively calm as I made some map blunders (soooo out of practice) and pootled around in the drizzle. It was a 3h race and about 1h from the end I sort of woke up as I whizzed up the hill at Wanlockhead to the radar station, caught some fantastic views and raced back down again! This event had a twist – certain controls had bits of grid reference and clues on and when they were all put together we had the location of the ‘golden control’. There was just time to get that before a little race back to the finish. I won a bottle of beer (for Andy) and an Alpine Bikes gift voucher.


Wet, foggy, windy, on a hill. Have I given anything away?!

After a week of feeling very average and quite tired, I headed up onto the Pentlands for a day of “running” (I use the term very loosely) on what was possibly the wettest day in a set of very wet days. The hills are normally popular and busy at the weekend, but I only saw two other people all day. I covered 19km in 5h whilst doing a bit of course planning for the Open 5 in November. I nearly lost a shoe in a knee deep bog, missed two of my own planned control locations (it was foggy, OK?!), got so cold I had to put a thermal top on and dripped all the way home on the bus :D. It felt like quite a crazy wild adventure given I was on my doorstep in June!

Coldingham Bay. A fun day out with The Wild Ones.

Still more pottering followed, when I also managed to lose a bike, which the police recovered 3 days later (amazing), twist my dodgy ankle on a 30 min run in the woods (now armed with many physio exercises) and swim outdoors in 3 different places (Coldingham – fantastic fun waves, Threipmuir – damp and midgy, Salford Quays – really warm, flat and rectangular). By last weekend I was feeling much perkier and did two fantastic fun technical rides on the bridleways near Andy’s house in the Peak District.


Finally, a first. Sunday was the SkyRide Manchester event. On impulse I agreed that Andy could sign me up for a ‘track taster’ session at the velodrome. The thought of being on the track has always scared me a bit, and when I was finally in the arena, next to the banking, it was even worse. Honestly, it’s much steeper than it looks on TV. And because the bikes have only one gear, no brakes and you can’t free-wheel, I had serious concerns about ever stopping. I had visions of being stuck there going round and round and round until Andy could catch me :-D.

Before I’d started. This is my ‘apprehensive’ look!

The people already riding were making it look easy, but my first couple of tentative laps were so frightening! I pulled many faces and was a bit wibbly wobbly from nerves. We were clearly instructed that the faster we went, the safer it was and that we must also accelerate into the bends. I took this seriously and got progressively quicker and quicker – to the extent that I was too scared to go any slower! The first time I had to overtake I nearly had kittens. Then everyone else stopped for a rest and I took off on my own. I got braver and braver and was soon pedalling round as fast as I possibly could right at the top of the banking!! How awesome is that? I even started trying a bit of swooping down from high to low for extra speed.

Proof that I was up at the top!

When our time was up, my legs were burning but I was on a real high from the exhilaration of it. It was so simple and the track so predictable – all you had to think about was pedalling smoothly and going fast. Andy said I didn’t look too bad, but even so, I couldn’t imagine being out there in a jostling bunch. Not yet, anyway :-).

Now I’m feeling back to normal and ready to take on new challenges ….

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