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ACTIVE OUTDOORS: Emotions run high as Strathpuffer 24 targets more than met


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Crossing the Bridge of Thighs is a key moment in the course. Picture: Digital Downhill
Crossing the Bridge of Thighs is a key moment in the course. Picture: Digital Downhill

I called it “unfinished business” when I entered Strathpuffer 2024. I wanted to return to see if I was capable of more.

Last year I had been lured away to my in-laws nearby for a shower and five hours’ sleep in a proper bed, returning in the early morning to complete eight laps in total. I was pleased with what I managed - I had no idea how it would go and to make it through un-injured and enjoying myself was great.

But with many of these challenges when the buzz wears off you look for your next hit! Fast forward to Friday, January 12, 2024, sitting in the van queuing for registration, I was feeling very nervous that I was going to let myself down and had extremely conflicting thoughts and emotions.

I wanted to be excited and confident but I have created a protective thought process of “the pessimist is never disappointed”. So anytime I started to imagine doing well, riding through the night, getting to double figures, I chastised myself for setting myself up for failure.

Many people set themselves goals, they are motivated by them and enjoy working towards them. I fear them. I fear failure. I fear not achieving those goals.

But in entering for another year I had already set a goal, do better. And sitting in the van last Friday afternoon, this simple goal was worrying me.

Full focus on the slab descent. Picture: F-stop Media
Full focus on the slab descent. Picture: F-stop Media

My preparation for the ‘Puffer wasn’t “training”. I tried training for things in the past and I don’t enjoy it. I just enjoy doing things - riding my bikes, getting out into the hills, swimming in the wild, orienteering, running, playing netball, basketball, and occasional yoga.

I had done a sum total of three rides longer than 40km all year but two of them had been epics - a Loch Ness 360 (118km) and a Deeside Trail attempt (170km).

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However, I had also spent the year learning to bunny hop, and could manual and wheelie off a drop, I’d been on coaching sessions with inspiring ladies and I just loved being on my bike, testing my skills on the technical descents.

So on Friday night as I attached race number 24 to my bike I had no idea how the weekend would pan out. Would it be a success or a disaster? Would it give me the positive start to 2024 I was really needing or would there be tears and regret?

I arrived back at Contin on Saturday morning having had a terrible night’s sleep. But the walk up the track to my van in the crisp, fresh air with the beautiful colours of the sunrise around me helped and by 10am I was feeling happier and healthier, ready for the off.

Putting those technical descent skills into practice. Picture: F-stop Media
Putting those technical descent skills into practice. Picture: F-stop Media

Once the pedals were turning I was in my element. I was in no rush, I was hoping to stay in this happy place for a large majority of the time and going out hard would risk this before the sun had even set.

The level of concentration needed for much of the course means it’s hard to think about anything other than the riding line, the pedal strokes and your balance. It’s a kind of meditation, the repetitive motion and the select focus of attention is, for me, relaxing.

Being on the trails and escaping on my own to my haven in nature meant I felt my most content in the saddle.

As it gets dark and you are riding on lights, all you can focus on is the narrow portion of trail illuminated ahead of you.

I was making good progress, the laps were clocking up, I was looking after the bike and myself well. I had some blips - a problematic seat bolt needed attention, the rear derailleur was a bit stiff and the helmet light mount didn’t fit my helmet - but these were all surmountable and didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for getting out on more laps.

So as it got dark I headed out, with my road helmet mounted with the light and warmer gloves, to start the night shift.

A snowy section of the course. Picture: F-stop Media
A snowy section of the course. Picture: F-stop Media

Dinner time coincided perfectly with a visit from my good friend and Strathpuffer alumni, Claire, who kept me company while I scoffed pasta and hot chocolate. She rinsed down my bike for me and brought me lovely hot juice with a nice ginger kick.

After an hour of down time I headed out again into snow showers and starlight. I was still on good form - I was still powering through the technical sections and up the sharp climbs. My legs felt good, only my back and shoulders were starting to fatigue with the hammering I was giving them riding a hardtail with hardly any travel in the front suspension!

The lack of cushioning eventually went for my hands and forearms too and when I had completed eight laps I decided to try and get some rest and hopefully sleep.

After a few hours, I was keen to get out riding again and by 5am, after a check-in from the BBC’s Adventure Show crew, I was rolling along in the snow again. I was now in “better than last year” territory.

The early hours are much quieter on the trails, there were long sections on my own but that is how I do much of my riding. I am comfortable with my own company - however I am terrible at getting songs stuck in my head and 20 hours in I had already sung Just Keep Pedaling - to the vibe of Dory in Finding Nemo - quite a few times…

Fortunately there was better, more lyrical alternatives being blasted out from the hero marshals and pit crews around the course to supplement my repertoire.

Cornering like a pro on the downhill. Picture: F-stop Media
Cornering like a pro on the downhill. Picture: F-stop Media

Having now visited the loop multiple times I had almost every stone and turn clear in my head, I knew where I had to brake and where I could go for it. And my favourite section for pushing on was the long descent before the last climb up near View Rock.

If you really went for it along the pine needles you could hold enough momentum to get up the short climb in the middle before sweeping down again on a sharp right-hand bend. In the middle of the night I was flying along, followed by a rider whooping with delight!

Sunrise. Probably the coolest time of day. And I was at the Swivel Seat looking out to the south seeing the first light of the day. I was still enjoying myself, still had riding in my legs and was fuelling myself on almost pure sugar. It was an amazing feeling.

And then, just like that, it was my last lap. Most of the route was beautiful and snowy, the views were back and so were a lot of other riders.

My chain kept dropping but at least the derailleur had defrosted and I could just about change gears again. I still couldn’t believe that my legs were able to push on up the hills and through the berms to the finish line.

I dibbed my 11th and final lap at 9.52am with a huge grin on my face along with quite a few mud freckles.

Jane concentrates on the narrow trail during one of her 11 laps. Picture: Digital Downhill
Jane concentrates on the narrow trail during one of her 11 laps. Picture: Digital Downhill

I had completely outdone myself. I was astonished and proud. I was elated and buckled. My result put me among athletes I admired and looked up to. It put me well beyond “do better”.

And I was relieved. I was relieved that I hadn’t disappointed myself, that I hadn’t failed.

2023 had been a difficult year for me. Most significantly there had been the grief and pain of our final unsuccessful rounds of IVF. There was the physical burden of hormones, weight gain, crash dieting and the accompanying side effects.

And there was the emotional toil of hope and heartbreak. When that all came to an end in September, riding my bike was a large part of the still on-going healing process. Being on the trails and escaping on my own to my haven in nature meant I felt my most content in the saddle.

I think this relationship with my bike and riding is perhaps why I was still smiling at 10am on Sunday. I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed almost every pedal stroke. I enjoyed conquering my extreme dislike of riding slipping wooden bridges. I enjoyed the mental peace of such an intense experience.

The Strathpuffer is a special event. It has history and kudos. It has a “family”, heck it even had a wedding this year! People return year after year. And I can see why. The amazing sense of accomplishment and, let’s be honest, smugness, of being able to wear the t-shirt, is hard to come by.

But I hope that this story lets people see the thoughts behind the smiles and how it can be much more than “just a bike race”.

Jane in the zone during the ’Puffer. Picture: Digital Downhill
Jane in the zone during the ’Puffer. Picture: Digital Downhill

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