Back in the mists of 2014, when I was dreaming up goals for this year, Jason (concocter of super training plans and 24 hour soloist extraordinaire) said "let's do the Bristol 12 as pairs". A couple of weeks later, after I had (with some trepidation) said yes, he added "we'll win". Oh. OK. No pressure then.
So I applied myself to the matter of getting faster with urgency and fervour. And with some success. Second at the Glentress 12 told me that the training plan was working. But I'm not one to stop there - we were going to Bristol and I didn't want to be the one to let down the team (aka world-record-holder-Jason-Miles-champion-solo-24-hour-racer). There were two more weeks of hard work and a week of tapering to get through before THE RACE.
At that point, by some sleight of hand, THE RACE got upgraded. The combination of a little date vagueness and a wedding Jason had to attend meant we were no longer doing Bristol. Instead, he cheerily informed me, we could do Mountain Mayhem the week after. And, hey presto, the twelve hour race I'd been training for became 24. Oh, and our mate Daz would stand in at Bristol so I wouldn't miss out... Sometimes people can be a bit too kind.
I stuck to the plan. Intervals on Tuesday - or I could go circuit racing locally. There's no substitute for racing to make you go fast, I muttered to myself as I left the turbo alone and set off in the rain. Sadly, the turbo might have been a better idea. Within a lap I was taken out by a side swipe, knocked unconscious and bundled into my car for a trip to A&E. It had happened so quickly I'd not even let go of the bars and landed - fast and hard - on my cheek and elbow, scuffing both as well as my knuckles. It was not pretty.
As I sat in A&E waiting for my X-Ray and took one of those honest selfies that I didn't want - but had - to take. Just to make sure I properly grasped the reality of the situation.
They checked on me regularly but, whilst it looked bad, I knew I'd felt worse. My perfect blood pressure reading cheered me up. The X-ray didn't. The fancy full skull scanner showed a cheekbone fracture. It didn't hurt too much, I told myself. It would mend. One of the race organisers kindly brought Chipps - both for moral support and to drive me and our van home. By 2am I was allowed to eat and a kind nurse made me a plate of toast. Shortly after, a doctor released me with a packet of industrial strength ibuprofen and head injury instructions. No contact sports for three days. Good, I thought, cycling isn't a contact sport.
Chipps wasn't so convinced.
"Promise me", he asked, "you won't go racing on Friday".
I looked down at my feet. Friday was stage one of the Holme Valley Two Day Stage Race. It was going to be as good as a road race gets for me, even though it would be insanely tough. Plus I'd already cased the course and it would be my friend Hannah's first road race - I couldn't miss that! He raised his eyebrow and added,
"Without talking to a doctor. Ask Jim."
Jim is an anaesthetist who's worked in A&E. I'm sure he's seen far worse, so I nodded.
Luckily I wasn't working the following day so I trundled to Hebden Bridge and got my bike fixed and the fantastic Blazing Saddles. The wheel needed trueing, the Di2 resetting and the bars needed new tape. Meanwhile, I started treating my facial road rash with medical grade honey - it's antiseptic and keeps the scabs moist which helps healing and prevents scarring.
The swelling seemed worse on Thursday so I caved in and took an ibuprofen before setting off for work. My colleagues were sympathetic. Poor you. I didn't feel too poor though, I felt I just had to fix myself and get going again.
By Friday I was beginning to feel myself. I even spoke to Jim, who was suitably vague. His advice went along the lines of "if you feel ok and you haven't been sick or seen double, you probably are".
I told Hannah I'd pick her up in the van and if I felt up to it I'd start on the line. Once there, of course I felt up to it. After all, there was a proper sense of occasion. All the Women's Tour of Britain pro team riders were lining up, ready to test their legs for their big race in a couple of weeks time. I didn't care whether I rode along at the back, I just wanted to be there, bobbing in the wake of road cycling's elite.
In fact, I didn't just ride at the back. I applied myself very hard to riding well in the bunch. Although I seemed to have a hard time on the flat I was reeling people in on the last climb of the first lap when the race was pulled up. A car had had an accident - nothing to do with the race - in the finishing straight and the road was closed. That'll be the only time that I get given the same time as Laura Trott then.
On Saturday I felt pretty chirpy. We did a time trial followed by a road race and although coming 30th overall is no great shakes, both Hannah (her first road race and 28th) and I finished. There were girls crying on the verge in the last stage so crossing the line was good enough for me. Scabby but unbowed, I began to feel a bit better. Helped a lot by the infectious enthusiasm of my Racing Chance Foundation team mates who seemed to be really proud of my endeavour. Thanks!
The following week was tapering ready for Bristol and I took extra care because healing is tiring work. I took daily photos of the process, which was kind of fascinating. The swelling kept reducing and the scabs receded. The honey had worked and they left just a smooth red mark in their wake.
The Bristol 12 race was hard. We lapped one on, one off, relentlessly. The weather was grim and I spent most of it feeling sick. And we still didn't win.
Daz was doing a great job of lapping between 32 and 36 minutes, and I went from a pretty nifty 35 up to a stomach churned 48. We missed the podium by a minute - if we'd been even a tiny bit strategic and swapped a lap we would have been on it. The whole thing was a blur - twelve hours seemed to go so quickly. And I was suddenly, very, very worried about Mayhem.
I spent an afternoon stalking the previous years' lap times - they wouldn't be much longer than Bristol. So I pleaded with Jason for us to do double laps from the start to create a bit more recovery time. During the week, my final scabs dropped off, leaving only a red mark on my skin. Even if I felt worried, at least I looked ok!
Once the race started, I should have stopped worrying. Jase did the run, grabbed his bike and was off.
Two laps and just over an hour later, he was back and it was my turn. I enjoyed the course, enough fun to keep me entertained thoroughly. I put in a decent time - even though I snapped my chain on my first lap and had to ask for help from passing - and kindly - Jo Burt.
We double lapped with steady efficiency, opening up a lead with the first set of laps. Jason is a machine. An ace, cheery, enthusiastic teammate but a machine nevertheless. I just had to keep going (and not listen to my self doubts) and between us we'd rack up a decent total. The baking sun gave way to a blissful shower. He came in from his laps.
"It's a bit greasy so be careful out there". He paused, and smiled. "But not too careful, right?".
I tried to keep it steady but I caught up with one of the VCUK Ph MAS team girls near the beginning of that lap. I wasn't really racing her but I'm always being beaten by them on the road so it was a matter of pride to make sure I came in first on my home turf. Even if I'd done double the laps she had.
The only real glitch was the quiche incident. Back in the pits, cyclist brain pattern kicked in: nom, nom, hungry... aha quiche... nom nom, quiche gone. I thought that would be ok an hour before I set off on my laps. By halfway round the first one I was feeling sick. I saw Jase as I passed through the pits and asked if he could do a three lap stint to give me a break. By the end of my second lap the sickness had eased off a bit, but when I came into the handover I received stern instructions.
"Don't eat quiche. Go to Debbie, she will tell you what to do". Debbie, Jason's wife, queen of the lap times, team strategy and the food stores, told me not to worry, to get some pasta down and have a rest.
Once I'd done as I was told, it was my first night laps. The sickness was gone and I was lit up with the power of several suns courtesy of Exposure so I positively zoomed round the first of my laps. Sadly, a couple of the suns went out (full beam on the head torch only lasts for a single lap, something I'd failed to think of before setting out with it on max) so the second lap was a little less radiant and consequently slower. But I was back racing and there was no more sickness. Our lead kept increasing steadily.
"Don't over do it", Jason said, "keep it steady", as he handed over. "Tidy job this".
That's good then, I thought.
Two more dark laps and I was fine, a little tired, but fine. I nearly ran into a chap whose lights had gone out at one point - so I lit the way for him for the rest of the lap and got him back to the pits safely. Then it was light again. Laps 11 and 12. I was beginning to crack slightly and wondered out loud whether Jason might like to to an extra lap again. "Not really", he said. And to be honest, I didn't really mind, if he trusted me to keep trucking that was fine, I just didn't want to slow the job down as I could see my lap times creeping up.
Between us we had 25 laps done - and a 4 lap lead with about 3 hours to go. As I was thinking about getting ready for my next set, I heard a surprise voice outside the tent.
"Let's have a brew".
Debs had done the maths and told Jason we'd won as he passed the pits, the last straight of lap 26. He'd got off the bike at the handover (a lap before I was expecting him) and come to tell me. Our nearest rivals were flagging and calling it a day - and even if they hadn't, their lap times meant they couldn't overtake us in the time left. It didn't quite sink in properly but I definitely enjoyed that coffee.
A couple of hours later I changed into my favourite cycling dress and did a valedictory lap with Chipps for company. We reminisced about the insanely fast 'how late can you brake' grass stretch, the evil ever-increasing-in-steepness penultimate climb (which somehow I rode lap after lap, even after I'd stopped believing I could) and the weird trail litter shaken loose from bikes. We found Daz near the end, broken by soloing on an empty stomach and shepherded him back safely to the bar (what could possibly go wrong with that?).
In some ways it was easy. A nice clean, systematic accumulation of laps - 27 in all (which would have put us as 4th in men's pairs). In other ways it had been hard. The night is strangely quiet and plays tricks with your head. Worrying that I wasn't going fast enough was probably sub-optimal. I'd never done anything as long and intense before - but now I know that I can, those thoughts need to be laid to rest.
So really, overall, Mountain Mayhem was awesome. Less than three weeks before, I'd crashed my brains out and everything looked bleak. But I held my nerve (and whatever he thought, Jason didn't ever suggest I shouldn't do it) shook myself down, kept going and we got to stand at the top of the podium, grinning from ear to ear.
Thanks to Chipps, Debbie Miles, Singletrack Magazine and Team JMC for sorting so much out, Exposure lights for illumination, mechanical assistance from Fibrax (and Jo Burt) and Ibis for making the fantastic light and fun Ibis Tranny I rode. Thanks too to Jason Miles for his crazy idea. And being an ace teamie. Nice one.