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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Man of Porage

In the real-life web of meeting people, I met Andy Heading, a successful and famous endurance mountain biker a few months ago. "Fame" is clearly a relative term: if you're an endurance MTBer yourself, you've probably heard of him. If not, you'll be in the dark. We got on, and a few weeks later I met up with him and his brother Steve (another 'celebrity') for a ride in the Peaks. During that ride, Andy dropped the name of an event he was organising. "It's the Man of Porage, Andy. It's a long day of foot and bike orienteering, invite-only, and you should come along."

That was enough for me. I'm a snob, so the exclusivity was a draw, as was the lure of something I knew nothing about...

Fast forward to 6.00pm on Saturday evening: I had been running and biking and navigating for 11 hours, and was attempting to pedal up a 300m climb, knowing that there was another thirty minute run when I got to the top. My legs had blown a long time ago, and my head completely lost it on this climb.

"When I get to the end, I'm giving up biking. Why do I do this, what am I proving? I've given up a perfectly good weekend to drive up to the Peak District and utterly destroy myself and for what? I'm not winning; I'm just groveling around this bloody course. I don't think I'll bother with Mountain Mayhem later this year; it's too much damned effort. Bikes are stupid."

I had to stop three times on the climb. Those who know my riding will know that this something I JUST DON'T DO. At each stop, I had to sit down to stop fainting. When I finally reached the checkpoint and put on my running shoes, I managed about 500m running before very nearly fainting for real. At this point, I retired.

Body and brain gone, I returned to base, and sat with a shell-shocked stare for 5 minutes. A hunk of bread, some warming soup and a cup of sweet tea were handed to me, but I couldn't even bring myself to say thanks to the organisers, let alone eat anything. My stomach cried out for food, but the rest of my body over-ruled and declared a state of emergency, shutting down everything for ten minutes.

Like a reversed hangover, by the morning, I was all chipper, feeling good, and ready for the next big one.

It was a cracking event. Apparently something of a cult classic amongst the country’s top adventure racers, and mountain bike orienteerers, it’s been happening for seven years, in a different region and with a different organizer each time. I didn’t know it, but most of the other 25 competitors were winners of plenty of big races. There were sponsored riders, professionals, and legends. And me.

The event format was pretty simple. Get given a map, get told whether to bike or run, and navigate round the map until you get to the end point, when you will be given another map. You don’t know how many maps you’ll get, or what’s coming next. It’s pretty relentless, and with a 7am start had a delightful air of insanity to it.

One kick I get out of endurance events is clock-watching. At 11am, I smugly looked at my watch thinking “I’ve been riding for four hours. Most people are just getting themselves sorted for the day.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a slow start, but I do like early starts. By 5pm, however, this thought changed from smug satisfaction to a realization of my own stupidity. “I’ve been up for 12hours, racing for 10. Most people have just managed to get out of the house and down to the pub. Who’s the sensible one? Not me…”

I’ve also come out of it with my summer image as a self-harmer. As the weather warms up, our trails get narrower as the bracken and nettles encroach on the ribbons we ride. The short-sleeves are worn to ride in, and by the end of every ride, I look like I have taken a knife to myself in frustration. Lower and upper arms scars are my badges of summers gone by.

Things obviously weren’t all doom and gloom at the Man of Porage. Long events are great, and they force you to dig deep into your own reserves, even if, like me, there’s nothing in those reserves when you really need them. Plus, we were in the White Peak around Matlock and Bakewell, a gorgeous part of the country scribbled with excellent biking trails.

Hardest thing I’ve ever done? You bet. Mountain Mayhem last year was a breeze in comparison. Even though it was double the length, my fitness, mental and physical, was much greater. Will I do it again? The jury’s out, but I dare say I will go back for more punishment.

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