A Marathon Summer
Words: Rachel Fenton
Before 2013 I had been to “the mountains" exactly twice in my life – once to climb Ben Nevis on foot in 2005 and last year when I raced the Grand Raid Cristalp. With hindsight 2013 seems like a year spent making up for this.
The warm up
My year started with my biggest adventure yet on a bike – the Cape Epic. This was supposed to be a warm weather training camp to kick-start my year and put me in mega form for my assault on World Championship qualification. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way. I flew back from South Africa and went straight into the classroom to study for my accountancy exams. The shock to my body after what had been a hard week of bike riding was too much and I got sick. My planned weekend trip to France for the Roc Laissagais World Series Race two weeks later was going to be a challenge.
When I got on the plane at 6am on the Saturday morning it suddenly occurred to me that you probably were not supposed to fly with an ear infection - later investigations proved this to be correct but luckily I am no deafer than I was in January. We landed in Toulouse and drove the 100 km to the Chateau which we were staying in, to meet our bleary-eyed friend who had spend the night in his car after a navigational error, or three, or four. The weather was pretty horrific - even for early April - and snow was forecast for the following day.
Race day dawned and the forecast snow thankfully didn’t arrive although there was plenty on the course. My body confirmed it was going to protest very strongly at any intense effort so I rode around the course, enjoyed the views and finished 13th – qualifying me for the Worlds for the second year.
I promised myself I would never fly to Europe for the weekend simply to race ever again.
National Marathon Championships
My next Marathon race and one of my big targets for the year was the National Marathon Championships in Selkirk, Scotland on the first weekend in June. This was again going to be a bit of a crazy weekend trip with my big exams of the summer on the following Monday and Tuesday. Arriving early in the morning before the Saturday race after leaving London after work on Friday night was in hindsight probably not the best race preparation.
I knew going into this race I was unlikely to match my silver medal of 2012 with Sally Bigham, Jane Nuessli and Cath Williamson, Great Britain’s super marathon team, all vying for the jersey. That said, mechanicals and crashes are always possible so I needed to be as close behind as I could. Unfortunately the misfortune ended up being mine when, having had the steady start I had planned, I crashed in the first bit of singletrack. It was a silly mistake but I was in agony after landing my hip on a big root. In true Peter Griffin style I gasped at the pain (Google “Peter Griffin hurts his knee"), hobbled down the hill, realised I could not ride my wonderful new bike and had to retire. I hated having to do this, feeling like I had let down everyone who had helped me to get there and the weekend was only resurrected by a fun ride at Glentress on the Sunday. Cath Williamson and I were so engrossed in catching up with one another that our male counterparts on the ride looked on incredulously as we emerged from descents still gassing away.
I promised myself I would never go to Scotland for the weekend simply to race ever again.
Marathon World Championships
So as it turned out my preparation for the World Championships was not ideal, but thanks to a great coach my form started to come back just in time for the end of June. It was going to be tough though, coming to race the blue ribbon event of the marathon season, with limited time to acclimatise and limited racing in my legs. The 3800 metres of climbing in the Kitzalpbike was definitely going to test me to the limit. The weather decided to play to my strengths though: eight degrees and drizzly – familiar marathon racing conditions!
In the UK I go uphill pretty well, in fact I would probably describe it as one of my strengths, but it turns out that to ride Alps you need to practice riding Alps. I had thought at the start of the race that I might, on a good day, equal my grid and position from last year’s Worlds, where I finished 33rd. But by the time I was half way up the first of the three large climbs I had downgraded my ambitions somewhat. However, as the race went on I realised that wearing national team kit has the performance enhancing effect usually associated with leader’s jerseys and other less-legal items. By the final climb I was actually overtaking other women in the race and there seemed less risk of them taking the course tape down around me.
Then there was the final descent.
Anyone who has cut their teeth winter MTB riding in the UK will understand riding in mud. I came into this descent just as it started to rain. It was rooty, messy and steep and everyone had told me I had to pre-ride, which I had not had time to do. I started off tentatively, but by the bottom I was flying over the roots. If I had had the energy to whoop, I probably would have whooped. I managed to gain a couple of spots and finished with a smile on my face. After eating a substantial amount of recovery cheese (the Euros know how to feed hungry racers), I was privileged enough to see Sally Bigham receive her silver medal. The first female mountain biker to win a senior World Champs medal in a non-gravity event since the sport’s inception.
I promised myself I would ride more mountains before big races in the future.
And to Italy...
I was able to fulfil this promise very quickly. A gang of us spent a week in the MTB heaven that is Livigno at 1800 metres in the Italian mountains, before we headed to Villabassa in the Sudtirol to race the Dolomiti Superbike.
This “small" event had around 4000 competitors across three race distances but only 25 were entered in the 80 km women’s marathon World Series event. As we headed off up the first road climb I realised I had probably overdone the mountain riding. My legs were not having a good day but as I raced along past stunning mountain lakes and the Tre Cime Lavaredo peaks I recalled why I do these marathon races. They take me on adventures in amazing places, through stunning scenery on my beloved bicycle, and as a bonus you rarely do the same trail twice.
It was the culmination of a season of marathon racing that has taken me all over the World. Not everything has gone to plan, but I have gained a lot of experience, friends and of course ticks on the list of mountains climbed under my own steam.
Although I did promise myself I wouldn’t spend 30 hours riding my bike at altitude in the week preceding a World Cup ever again. This may though turn out to be a promise to myself I just can’t keep.