Strathpuffer 2017 – Race Day
The 12th edition of the Strathpuffer, Strathpuffer 2017, was set to be different from previous years with mild temperatures and no type of precipitation forecast for the entire weekend. Only time would tell with respect to the weather but I still packed all of my cold weather kit as this is still the Scottish Highlands in winter.
Six of us – Mitch, Simon, Paul, Andy, Nathan (who was supporting us) and me – travelled up on the Thursday to try and keep ourselves as fresh as possible for the race. We stayed the night in a local hotel.
The race track starts with a long, winding fire road climb which is also used to set up your pit area. Space fills up quickly so getting a parking pass and driving onto the course as quickly as you can (safely) is essential. We found a flat and picturesque spot next to a pond about ⅓ of the way up the fire road climb. After getting the vans parked, the pit area was set up ready for racing.
An afternoon track walk proved that the course was mostly dry – so I opted for my plus sized dry tyres for racing. After giving the bike a final once over and filling up at the organised pasta party, I got an early night ready for the morning.
Racing gets underway
Racing started at 10:00 on Saturday morning with a Le Mans style start. Competitors sprint (or walk) about 200 metres to the bottom of the track to find their bike. The running crowd quickly becomes a cycling mass but the transition between the two is chaotic with eager riders and bikes in close proximity to each other. I managed to get a clean start and began making my way up the fire road. I constantly reminded myself about how long I was going to be in the saddle and not to rush off. I got into a comfortable rhythm and managed to get three laps under my belt, only stopping to refill water bottles and pick up more energy gels. The Puffer track has technical, rocky sections so in the these laps I perfected my line as it would be one less thing to worry about as I grew tired.
After a brief sit down and bite to eat, I got straight back out to complete another couple of laps with the company of Simon and Paul on the second of the two. The sun began to close in on the horizon, so I went out for a final lap in the daylight. This was followed by another stop to refuel and put on an extra layer. With darkness now well and truly set in, I fitted my lights and set out accompanying Mitch – who set a rapid pace. After that lap I really started to notice the ache in my muscles and thoughts of an extended break by the warm fire appeared in the back of my mind.
Racing at night
With the temperature dropping as the night went on, the track conditions changed significantly. The damp sections started drying out letting tyres roll quicker. However, exposed rocks (from pebble size right up to entire slabs) froze and became very slippery. Nearly spilling over the bars down the biggest slab on the track startled me up and drew my attention to the fact that the track was getting treacherous.
I kept on riding steadily with each lap taking a bit longer and when I finished my tenth lap I sat down next to the fire seriously considering if it was worth any more. Finishing ten laps was my target for the weekend. Simon and Paul both rolled back around and after they had a break we all set back out again. The track had become very icy by this point and I ended up slipping over on the stream crossing and bashing my knee on a rock.
I finished the lap without thinking about it and started spinning up the fire road. Every pedal stroke was extremely uncomfortable for my right knee and the climb up to the pit area took over half an hour. With the discomfort in my knee and the general aching from being on the bike for so long, I decided to stop before I did myself any further damage.
My final result was 69th out of 99 in solo with a total time of 13:03:40. Mitch finished 39th with 15 laps in just under 15 hours – unfortunately he had to retire as he was having difficulty with his vision. Andy finished 15 laps over the 24 hour period and came in 44th place. Paul achieved his target of 10 laps over the weekend and Simon matched his previous best of 8 laps. Nathan kept the pits inviting – the fire was warm and there was always a cup of tea ready to drink.
Reflecting on Strathpuffer 2017
The whole Strathpuffer experience is unique and I found it thoroughly enjoyable (although maybe not at the time). I have not raced an endurance or long distance event before so Strathpuffer was really jumping in at the deep end. I feel a bit disappointed with myself for stopping 13 hours in – perhaps I gave up a bit too easily and should have stayed out longer. This is much easier said than done though with temperatures at minus three and a treacherous, icy track to ride. Seeing others staying out means I know it’s possible though so maybe next time.
My Trek Stache performed really well over the weekend and there is only one thing I would change if I did it again – I would install a suspension fork. After my knees, the part that suffered the most was my hands. They were battered and bruised and my grip strength grew lower throughout the event. A front fork would increase my comfort for being in the saddle for so long. I also thought about ice tyres – but I am not convinced they would have helped on the icy rocks.
If anyone is considering having a go at the Strathpuffer, I highly recommend it – whether as a solo, pair, quad or more. Being fit and having a strong mental resolve will help you succeed but you don’t need to be a professional athlete to have a memorable time.