When Evan said he’d booked us on the 2 o’clock ferry from Heysham to the Isle of Man I thought, great, we can finish work on Friday, spend the night in Glasgow then drive our leisurely way to Lancaster the following day, rested and ready to race the End to End on Sunday. No. Instead we hoofed it down the A9 straight from work in Inverness and skidded sideways into the car park at the ferry terminal in order to catch the 2am crossing.
We arrived 4 hours later in the port of Douglas, sick with tiredness and hunched against the early morning drizzle that was driving its way into our bones. But this was a low moment that didn’t last long. Evan’s sister Catrin sat with her engine running in the ferry terminal car park and her halo glowing. She whisked us to their seaside family home and, following only murmured thanks, we collapsed into bed and slept until midday. Breakfast at 1pm didn’t stop us from eating lunch and then dinner and we even managed to squeeze in an ice cream too. I deviated from my traditional pre race pasta with some trepidation but enjoyed every minute of the deviation.
The Isle of Man is a great place to spend a race prep day. All down the coastline from Douglas lie sandy bays and handsome little towns, each punctuated by a lighthouse. The masts of boats litter these costal town inlets and buildings of historic importance nestle humbly on every high street. There is also subtle evidence of oddness everywhere. You almost have to use your peripheral vision to see it but it is there. A pair of child’s wellies hung from a sea wall, a bale of hay decorated to look like a minion, a card board cut out of a traffic cop brandishing a speed gun. You get the sense the Manx live with their tongues in their cheeks.
The following day Catrin drove us to the north of the island where more than 1100 people were assembling to start the 75km mountain bike marathon from Point of Ayre in the north to Port Erin in the south.
There are not many public places where the queue for the gents toilets is longer than that for the ladies but a mountain bike event on the Isle of Man is one of them. Mass participation edurance events are slowly attracting more and more women but there exists in mountain biking a disproportionate amount of male entires. Good if you’re desperate for the toilet (which I often am on race day). Bad if you are keen to see more women entering such events and surprising themselves with how good they are (which I also often am).
Evan and I rolled the last couple of miles down to the start on our bikes and found our gridded positions. The organisation required to herd more than 1000 people into starting waves is beyond my comprehension (quite clearly, as it happens, as I managed to find myself in the wrong group and was later given a 15 minute time penalty for my stupidity) but the race organisers did an amazing job despite people like me.
At 10am we set off. The first 15 km of the race proved all about holding wheels and staying upright while 100’s of mountain bikers fought to be near the front of the bunch on the fast road section. Occasionally the sickening sound of carbon on Tarmac could be heard and the buzz of nobbly tyres hitting off one another resulted in intermittent shouts of alarm and anger. You could smell the testosterone and the fear. I tried to stay alert and loose, reacting to the erratic movements around me while trying to stay in touch with the front of the field. Then quite suddenly the course swung off the road and onto a steep loose climb. I pressed on hard in an attempt to stay with the stronger riders and eventually topped out onto the windy moor still in touch with the tail end of them.
For the next 10km we fought our way through the swirling wind on shale covered land rover track before dropping down on fast, newly cut fields and back to the road. This pattern continued but each time we left the road again the climbs became sharper and looser and more painful. We wound our way down the island through tiny villages, plantation woodland, moor and fields. People lined the route upwards out of villages all shouting encouragement and, in many cases, holding up bottles and food for passing riders.
I remained in contact with a group of 5 riders as we chased the lead group of 4. We could see the leaders in the distance, Ben Thomas’s white British National Champs Jersey standing out vividly against the purple and green of the hill side. I slipped back a little after losing a bottle of essential energy drink on a particularly rough descent before our race angel Catrin passed up a new one to me in the town of St Johns. I rode on my own in 12th place with just my breathing for company until, over the brow of a recently conquered hill, I spotted the final headland sheltering the picturesque fishing village of Port Erin and the course end.
It was on this penultimate descent, having fought my way on renewed energy back into 8th place, that I tore my tyre sidewall. Schwalbe Thunder Burts are so fast riding with them feels like cheating but using them on a slate strewn course like this one was always a risky strategy. I spent 15 minutes fluffing about in the heather trying to put a tube into the tight fitting tubeless tyre while rider after rider overtook me. My hands were slippy with mud and latex solution from the tubeless set up and a one point, with forearms more pumped than at any other time that day from manipulating the tyre, I just sat and watched the race slip away. Then, a kindly marshal lent me a hand and together we somehow achieved the impossible. My gas canister filled the tube half full and I limped down to the road where a spectator lent me his pump. By now a good 20 minutes down, I emptied the energy bank in an attempt to claw back some places. I crossed the finish line after 3 hours and 31 minutes and was greeted by all the guys that had overtaken me high up on the hill, their chivalry (or just their humanity?) having returned now that they had finished the race.
My finish time recorded as 3 hours 46 which confused me until I learned about the afore mentioned time penalty. Luckily, despite incurring this, I had done enough to finish first woman.
Catrin and I waited around in the sunshine to greet the ashen faced Evan as he stumbled over the line a while later and promptly lay down in the gutter nursing a pint of milk in cramping hands. The post race euphoria would have to wait.
We showered and drove to Douglas to find pizza before the 8pm ferry back to the UK mainland. By now the euphoria was kicking in and the three of us sang loudly while driving along the town promenade lending encouragement (we hoped) to all the tired bikers having just arrived in Douglas on the tiny steam train from Port Erin.
We joined the hordes of other riders on the ferry and noticed their varying states of disarray. It was obvious some were still waiting for their post race euphoria while others were firmly installed in the bar making good use of theirs.
With the colour having returned to Evans cheeks I thought now might be the time to discuss our participation in the event again next year.
“Oh absolutely! Em…let’s get the 2pm ferry next time shall we?”