This was my first ever National Championships, of any type, but with preparations going well for the 3 stage BeMC in Belgium in 2 weeks, I thought that I'd give it a bash this year. Seems odd with the demise of the National marathon series that there should still be a Championship, although the folks at Cycle-Tec are doing a top job with the MTB Marathon series throughout the year. It's a long way up to the Scottish borders, but it was worth the trip in more ways than one.
A brief leg loosening ride up into the hills behind our accommodation with the Southfork chaps, on the Friday evening revealed lingering snow on hill tops, and a sharp chill in the air! Saturday morning wasn't any warmer, leaving us pondering on the dilemma of clothing choice.
Not brave enough to expose the egs fully like some others, opting for the 'warmer' choice; full leg warmers and the GoreBikeWear Alp-X, panelled windstopper, jersey, ignoring the voices, 'you'll overheat on the first climb'. Feeling the cold in my later years! Anyway, the Alp-X jersey is perfect for not overheating. At the start I felt out of my depth, surrounded by many of the country's top marathon specialists, with the notable absence of Nick Craig and Sally Bigham, who had unfortunately fallen foul of illness and unable to race. The top spots across the categories was wide open and would be hard fought for.
Friendly chat on the start line turned to single minded focus once underway. A 4mile neutralized start brought the peloton to the Bowhill Estate and the race was on as the route went upwards along double track. Riders quickly found their positions, a small group soon forming at the front and I was keeping an eye on the Vets riders, with Rich Rothwell making an early charge. He was looking strong despite having been laid up ill in the week previous, as I had also been.
Lacking experience of racing with the likes of Rich, Ant White, Crispin Doyle and Marc Chamberlain in marathons, it was an auspicious start leaving myself in no man's land between Rich and the others, keeping it steady a few wheel lengths behind.
Woodland double track climbing soon turned to exposed moorland singletrack and a fast descent. Descending is always my achilles heal, a combination of lack of skill and confidence, but Rich wasn't far ahead. With Ant and Marc catching me up, we soon became a pack of 4 and I was, surprisingly, holding my own in the group. It was very, very early days, but pondering whether I did have it in me to place well.
The terrain and speed never let you lose focus. Ever changing gradients, sudden and super steep climbing, with off camber and rocky singletrack. Any slip ups meant wasted effort to get back on. The trails were rolling fast, being mostly dry. This would have been a tougher ride in the wet.
The climbing and descending was constant, no easy miles to give the body and mind a rest. Rich, Ant and Marc were relentless. There was no need to stop at he first feed 15km in, but I had planned a bottle pick at the 2nd, and 4th. The tree lined and open switchback singeltrack descents were superb, some of it steep and narrow, barely wider than a fat bike tyre. I was descending well beyond my comfort zone to stay with these 3, occasionally losing contact on the steepest sections. Marc was just on it, riding so smoothly. I was wasting effort to get back on.This was a suitably challenging course and far, far from boring. The full sus Niner Jet9 RDO certainly made the descents more fun too. We all stopped at the 2nd feed to pick up a bottle, but for food I was ever reliant on my MuleBar stash.
Rich knew the course well from previous years. Marc and Ant got ahead on a descent, dropping onto a brief road section. Wise words from Rich to work together along the rolling road section, doing 30s turns. Up till now I was surprised that I was feeling ok, then a switch went off, the legs started to struggle and the doubts started. Not a great place for that to happen before a long climb, reinforced by Rich's words 'this one seems to go on for ever.
Double track climbing turned to switchback singletrack climbing through the trees, which did indeed seemed to go on and on...We had caught Ant back up, but Marc had made his move and I was just hanging in there, the legs flagging, waiting for any opportunity to get another gel in.
Topping out, the fumble for a gel cost me. Rich and Ant sped off down the fast, down the winding, double track descent, tyres at the edge of grip around the stony, loose corners. It was back onto the road and they were now chain ganging. Kicking myself for the mistake, I churned hard to get back on. A bit of luck was on my side, as the route hung a sharp left back up a fire road. I had gained some ground and Ant had stopped to refuel at the 3rd feed at the bottom of the climb, but I had paid the price, leaving me lacking. Marc was still within view, but wouldn't be for much longer. We were all strung out, Marc ebbing ever further ahead.
Riding together again, we were all getting a bit edgy as there wasn't much to separate us out. Ant was ever strong as was Rich and they both knew the course. I was learning as we went along.
Into the trails of Innerleithen trail centre and winding singletrack along the tops of the hills and big swooping descents, I was totally on edge, not wanting to get dropped. These trails were a fun addition to the focus of racing, with a mini North Shore A sharp turn right of the track dumped us down, through the undergrowth into a steep, deep muddy track. Trying to finely control the bike's direction was of little use with a total lack of grip. Ant, tying to gain a gap, went down hard.
By this time Marc was well away, with none of us the legs to catch him. One of us was going to be off the podium. Fate would eventually decide who.
Feed 4 came just before the final 2 climbs. Rich didn't stop, but I needed a bottle. I couldn't see it for looking! Found it, but Ant and Rich were now ahead. The terrain was choppy and off camber, hard to ride smoothly to catch back up. Popping out onto fire road, we were again together, heads down, no one ready to claw ahead. We caught up to Rab Wardell who had been in the lead group.
Our heads were down, none of us giving an inch up that first of the 2 climbs. It wasn't steep, but the grass tugged at the tyres. Rich and Ant knew what was coming, a long rocky climb before the final, descent. Ant made his move, leaving Rich and I to fight it out. Rich was over he top first and I had to let go of my descending fear to keep tabs with him on the descent, fast and choppy. Coming alongside him by the bottom, he sprinted off (but I thought that route was 80km from the map at HQ and we had 5km to go, but that was not so) and I followed, passing a limping Ant, his Schwalbe back tyre completely flat. Totally unfair for him. The finish was merely 1000m away and I had no chance to catch Rich, getting 2nd place by 7 seconds. Marc had taken the win by 5minutes. Bravo Sir. Fate had granted me a 3rd spot.
What a championship worthy course though.
Full results here. Big thanks to Durty Events for organising the event.
Safety out on the mountain was taken care of by the Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue