Pete McNeil's Strathpuffer Life Lessons

By Pete McNeil

Discovering a scrunched up Snickers wrapper down the side of my van the other day caused me a moment of reflection… 

The mud has long since dried or been washed away, the bike is repaired and the legs have returned to normal but something about the 2020 Strathpuffer still lingers on…

It’s 9pm. I’m 100km into, (and about half way through), a very muddy year at the Strathpuffer. This somewhat ridiculous 24 hour Mountain Bike race is held north of Inverness every January, and is reportedly one of the ‘toughest’ MTB races out there. So far, and despite the conditions, it’s all been going reasonably well till now and I’m feeling pretty good. But within the hour I’ll be retching my guts up and having one of my worst ever experiences on a bike - and I can tell you there’s been one or two decent contenders…

It’s not my first time at the ‘Puffer’ but, as it’s my first ‘solo’ attempt, it may as well be. Previous years competing as a quad may have taught me one or two things about what to expect: the long, long 17hr night-shift; the bike-wrecking trail conditions that range from ‘mud-pit’ to ‘ice-rink’ (and often both); an ever decreasing level of attention given to balanced nutrition; and always, always top class banter, trackside antics and atmosphere generated by all the nutters who take part. But this year riding solo has created a whole heap of new challenges and lessons to be learned.

First off: preparation. In normal circumstances you might be just fine at preparing your own meals and fixing your own bike. But at 'silly o’clock' in the morning, and with frozen digits, this is likely to be a whole different story. Most sensible people have some sort of ‘pit crew’ to call on - ‘trail angels’ that will cater to your every desire through day and night. I didn’t… and although there were some friendly faces around who’d make me a brew or butty during the day, it’s when things get dark, cold and lonely that it really counts.

Secondly: have a plan! Naively, I thought it was as simple as just turning up and riding your bike as much as possible for 24hrs and, well, it sort of is. But without the right pacing, things can all go disastrously wrong (which I was to discover big time!). Knowledge can be a powerful ally and just knowing that you can ride for 24hrs is definitely an important factor. But all my experience of riding these distances has been on a point-to-point route, and usually alone rather than racing round and round a track against others. Having a plan and sticking to it saves you from getting carried away, setting off like a bull in a china shop, and paying for it later.

Lastly, and this is the big one: it ain’t over till it’s over... Lying there in my van, feeling like total sh*t, after a horrendously slow lap where my energy levels dropped so hard that I struggled just staying upright (even off the bike!), there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I’d be continuing... Brew in hand, I was done… or was I? When it came to the crucially significant moment of peeling off my mud-caked kit, instead of reaching for my thermals, I thought, “well why not just put on a clean set of riding kit instead? Just in case…” Then followed the mighty restorative powers of a hot meal, several brews and a lie down. Whilst chewing over a second Snickers, a revolutionary thought occurred to me: “I could just carry on…”

Eleven hours later, I crossed the line for the final time with 17 laps (220kms) on the scorecard, and in 19th place. It’s not necessarily the best performance I could have hoped for but as far as life lessons go: ‘prepare well, make a plan and never give up (on an empty stomach)’ aren’t half bad. 

Thanks Strathpuffer for enriching my life once again!

#neveragaintillnextyear

"One more lap!"

Photo credits: @joewilkinsphoto



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