Red Bull Mountain Mayhem 2001

Before the race

Danny, Joe, Myra, Chris, Shane

The 2001 Red Bull race took place June 24th and 25th. Our team was orgainzed by Joe, who posted to the University of Cambridge Cycling Club mailing list with a post that essentially said "The first people to reply and sign the form get on the team". Those lucky people turned out to be Shane, Danny, Chris, and myself. There were 5 of us all together because we were a mixed (male & female) team; the single-sex teams get 4 people on a team. And then there were the nutters entered in the solo category. 24 hours on a mountain bike! Urgh, not for me.

Our training for this race was absolutely minimal. It consisted of two evening rides in Thetford Forest. These rides were mainly to get to know each other and to get some practice riding at night rather than for fitness training. Other than this, none of us did any training. That is, we didn't do any riding that we wouldn't have done if we weren't doing this race. However, all of us like riding and get out for a spin when we can, so we were all reasonably fit anyway (well, at least the guys were, I'm not fast by any means, but for my standards I was in pretty good shape).

On one of the Thetford rides Shane, who was trying to get by with just a Mini-Mag Lite taped to his helmet, crashed and hurt his shoulder. It was an injury to be concerned about, as his shoulder had come partway out of the socket and was hurting him a fair bit. He said he'd be riding in the race, but there was a question of whether his shoulder would hold out come race day.

campsite (me in Landy)

On Friday evening (the 23rd) we loaded up Chris's LandRover and Shane's car and headed to the venue, Sandwell Park Farm near Birmingham. We chose a patch of ground in the campsite as far away from generators as possible, in hopes of being able to get some sleep during the nights. We had three tents: mine, Shane's, and Joe's. Since mine was the smallest, and since I was the only girl, I got my tent to myself, and the guys doubled up. We parked the cars next to the tents, and that was our cozy but fairly primitive setup. Some people had some very elaborate tent and awning setups. An awning would have been very useful, as the sun was bright, and we ended up sitting in the back of the LandRover to find some shade. We got there at about 9pm, so after we set up camp and looked around the stands and the start area, we went to bed.


Saturday morning we got up around 7 or 8, had breakfast, and wandered down to the headquarters to register. We each got a race number for the front of our bikes, a race number to where elsewhere in a visible place, a timing chip, a fluorescent pink plastic wristband identifying us as competitors, and a black head-cover with Limar written on it (none of us had any idea when Limar is). In addition, we got a baton: a small painted wooden dowel, which the rider on the course had to carry. The timing chips came in a little plastic envelope along with a business card with our number on it. We had to carry them whenever we were racing. They didn't have to be in view, so some people carried them in jerset pockets or Camelbaks. When you finished your lap you went through the timing tent, where some electrical detectors read your chip and credited you with a lap. Each person had to do at least two laps, or else the team's score didn't count.

After registering we put our bikes together and did a practice lap of the course so we'd know what to expect. The course wiggled tremendously, so the 10 mile loop occupied surprisingly little surface area. The course had two main parts, on opposite sides of the M5, which we could hear in the background over much of the course. Lots of it was over fields that had simply had a strip mowed into them to make the course. These parts weren't so fun. One in particular was really bad. It was on the opposite side of the M5 from the headquarters, and it looked like an innocuous, smooth, straight, slightly upward stretch across a field. Except that the ground underneath it was an anstonishing consistency, and it just grabbed at your wheels and slowed you way down. My reaction to difficult situations is not to fight them, but simply to shift down. For the first few laps I'd use the middle ring and the largest cog on the back to get over this field of treacle, but later I gave in and went for the granny gear (with second-largest cog on back) to get over it. And despite going so slowly in my last two laps I overtook a couple people in this section.

Lots of the section on the other side of the M5 were twisty singletrack through the trees. I liked most of this. There was also a part that went along the edge of a pond. I liked this too, simply because I liked the scenery, also the fact that were some little steamlets to ford, which got muddier and more worn as the race went on. There were no long climbs on the course, but there were some very steep short ones. For two of them (one very near the beginning, and one very close to the end) I rode them the first time, but for me they were a struggle to get up even in my lowest gear, and then I'd go really slow afterwards to try to recover. So I decided to walk up them, and many others did too. There were plenty of short, sometimes steep descents, and many of them got very torn up and bouncy as successive riders dislodged more and more soil.

The last mile or so went along the edge of the campground, so people would shout out encouragement from thier campsites, and you felt invigorated as you appraoched the end of your lap.

After the practice ride, I made up a rota for the race. This proved to be very useful, so below I decribe the system we came up with.

me (far right) holding Joe's bike

There was a pre-race briefing at 1pm, and the race started at 2pm. Joe, our captain, was doing the start, which involved a half-mile run (none of the rest of us wanted to do it!). At the end of this run, there was a long field with all 350 or so teams lined up, each team represented by another team member holding the first rider's bike. I volunteered to hold Joe's bike for him. The start horn sounded precisely at 2pm, and the riders (runnars at this point) were off! Us holders stood and waited. And waited. Eventually, the riders started appearing from one end of the field. It was chaos for awhile. Some of the more forward thinking teams had large banners so their rider could find his bike more easily. We didn't have one, but I kept a careful eye out for Joe. When I saw him I shouted his name several times, and he heard and ran over to collect his bike. He whipped on his rucksack, grabbed the bike, and said "Where do I go?". I pointed in the direction I'd seen everyone else go, and he shot off, running with his bike out of the field.

45 minutes later I was back at the race headquarters area to start my first lap. The riders had to dismount as they approached the timing tent, and they walked through the detectors that read their chips. Immediately after this was the changeover area. This was a corral surrounded by a low fence. Riders waiting for their next laps came into this area, parked their bikes on racks towards the back of the area, and stood at the front looking for their teammates. At the end of the first lap, all the teams were there at more or less the same time. There was no space available on the racks for my bike, so I leaned it up against the fence at the back. I couldn't get to the fence at the front (too many people) so I kept an eye out for Joe best I could, looking over others' shoulders.

Suddenly Joe was on the other side of the barriers, calling my name. I squeezed to the front, grabbed the baton, fought back, grabbed my bike, ran headed out of the corral, and started riding. I went around the course as fast as I could, given that I'm not a very strong or fast rider. I found myself taking many of the curves too fast and overshooting them, thus losing some time getting myself back on track. I thought that I'd better take the curves more slowly.

on my first lap

It seemed that I was one of the slowest riders on the course (not surprising, since Joe had put in a very fast first lap). Many many people overtook me. Almost always they'd say "on your left" or "on your right" as they came by, and if space was tight I'd edge over a bit to give them more room. Sometimes it was too narrow for them to pass unless I moved over quite a bit, so they'd say "On your right, when you get the chance", and I'd move over and let them by when I saw an area where I could pull over without hitting a tree or going into long grass.

Less than an hour later, I was back at the changeover point, and handed the baton over to Shane. Then back to the campsite to write down my time. After this I took a shower, as I was fairly dusty from two laps (one practice, and my first race lap), then had a snack of a couple of cereal bars. I hear that it's important to eat after you ride to replentish your glycogen (the stuff in your muscles that provides immediate energy to your legs) supplies. I wasn't scheduled to ride again until 10pm, and I finished my lap at 3:46, so I had plenty of time to rest. At about 8pm I had some dinner and got ready for my night laps. This involved attaching my lights to my helmet and bike, putting energy drink into my Camelbak, pumping some grease into my forks (routine maintenence for Pace forks) and cleaning and oiling the chain.

I arranged to be at the changeover point when Danny would have been on the course 40 minutes: he certainly wouldn't be going faster than that. By this time the riders had gotten spread over the course, so I found a place to hang my bike on the racks, and I went to the rails to look at the incoming riders. I spotted Danny easily enough and called to him after he came through the timing tent, and he gave me the baton. I walked to my bike, pushed it out of the corral, hopped on and started riding. I was going to do two laps so I really didn't feel like hurrying.

I started my first night lap at 9:20. The official time for sunset was 9:34pm. There was still plenty of light in the sky so I didn't need lights in the open bits of the course, but in the trees I would turn on my bar light to help me see any obstacles. Near the start of the lap I was passed by a rider dressed all in black with plastic horns attached to his helmet. They would light up, left horn, right horn, left horn... I found it really funny, and it cheered me up.

Slowly the light faded away and I'd leave my bar light on full time. Soon after I turned my helmet light on full time. I had a 12W spot light on my bars, and a 5W spot light on my helmet. This doesn't sound like very much, but in fact it was plenty. The helmet light is the key to it all. You soon get used to moving your head so that the light points exactly where you want it, so whatever part of the trail you're looking at is well illuminated. The bar light is useful to provide some extra illumination in front of the bike, and to help provide information about the relief of the terrain by casting shadows, but if I had to ride with only the bar light or only the helmet light, I would definitely choose the helmet light.

My first night lap proceeded fairly uneventfully for most of the lap. Quite often I'd be overtaken by other riders, so I noticed the different lights that people had. Most had had setups similar to mine (halogen bar lights plus halogen helmet light), or just bar lights. Some of them had lightswith a very blue-white light, I guess those are metal halide lights; I've never seen one in person so I'm not really sure what they look like. Some people had lights that bounced crazily as they rode. It was disturbing enough for me to be passed by them; it must have been nervewracking to ride with them constantly! I noticed that all the riders with the jiggly lights has shorts that said "Sigma Sport" on them. Then I remembered reading reports on newsgroups mentioning that Sigma lighting systems have very flexible brackets. I figured that these people had their lights provided by their sponsors. Hmmmm, not very useful sponsorship there!

I crashed near the end of my first night lap by being completely stupid. I'm slow, but experienced at night riding, so I wasn't riding much slower at night than during the day. I came across a guy who must have been new to night riding, as he was going very slowly through a section of singletrack. In a rush of overconfidence, I tried to overtake him along this twisty rooty bit, and didn't even bother to say "On your right". Well, I crashed, and I'm only glad that I didn't take anyone else down with me... The people around me were really nice, and instead of insulting me for trying such a dumb overtaking maneuver, helped me up and asked me if I was all right. Actually, I was, mostly. I landed on my left knee, and the bike fell on top of my knee, but it wasn't really hurt, just painful and bruised. I stood for a minute, then got out my Allen keys to realign my bar end which had twisted round, then got back on, vowing not to be such an idiot. But this meant that I was riding my second night lap (all of us were doing double shifts at night) with a painful knee. Arrggghhhh. Anyway, I survived, and passed the baton over to Shane.

Back at the campsite I wrote my time down, took a shower (not wanting to crawl into my sleeping bag covered with dirt), ate a couple of cereal bars (I wasn't very hungry, but I was aware of the need to keep up my glycogen levels), brushed my teeth, set my alarm for 5:30 (to give myself plenty of time to get up and eat before my estimated 6:30 next lap) and went to sleep.


Unfortunately I didn't sleep very long. I lay in my tent, resting, feeling my somewhat painful knee, thinking about the race. I think I was just too excited to sleep much. Shortly after 5am I gave up, turned off my alarm, and got up. Joe, who'd finished his double lap shortly before, was eating porridge (oatmeal). I dug out some canned baked beans and rice pudding. Joe, horrified that I would each cold tinned stuff for breakfast, offered me some porridge and was amazed when I turned it down. I guess I'm not much of a porridge eater (although I had plenty of it on my Ireland trip last year, I guess my taste for porridge comes and goes).

The morning was warmer than Saturday morning had been. Joe and I were sitting around with fleeces on, but any warmer and we'd have taken them off. Joe warned me that the dew had went the course and turned some of the surface dust into mud, so I should take extra care while out on the course.

I really wasn't looking forward to my 6:30am lap. I wasn't even sure my knee would work: it was painful and stiff, and I was walking with a limp around the campsite. I took my bike to the toilets to make sure that I could ride. Happily, riding was less painful than walking, so I figured I could do my lap. I took over from Danny and started riding, and my knee loosened up, and then slowly I began to feel good. I noticed that the course had pretty much dried out while Danny was riding, so there wasn't any mud to contend with (except for the bit by the pond). The sunshine was bright yellow and cheerful, and the temperature was perfect for riding. Birds were singing, and I actually found myself overtaking a few tired people. Not many, mind you, but more than on my previous laps. I still ached, and I was too tired to go very fast, but I went at the speed I could do and enjoyed the ride around. I didn't even let the field of treacle let me down, and I joked about it with another rider who was going at about my pace over it. I handed over to shane with a smile at the end of my lap.

Back at the campsite I ate a can of macaroni and cheese and read my book for a bit, but then, feeling tired, I crawled into my tent for some more sleep. Joe had decided to do a double lap at his morning shift which meant that wasn't going to be riding again nearly noon, so I had plenty of time to rest. I woke up feeling much refreshed. I got the bike ready, ate some cereal bars, and headed down to take over from Danny.

I was tired, and it was much warmer than on the morning lap, but I was cheered up by the fact that I was less tired than I thought I could be, and this was my last lap. I wouldn't have to go out again. I overtook even more people on this noon lap than the morning lap. I may be slow, but at least I have a reasonable amount of endurance.

Finally I was going along the back of the campsite. Near the end. One annoying uphill (I pushed up the very steepest bit) then it was downhill to the timing tent. I handed over the baton to Shane, and I was done. DONE! NO MORE RIDING! I took a few piccies, then headed back to the campsite, then took a shower, then back to the campsite where I crawled into the back of the LandRover to get out of the sun. I tried reading, but kept nodding off. I crawled into my tent and slept some more.

Chris did the final lap. I really felt that I should go down to cheer him when he came in, but I didn't have the energy. After Chris's shower we packed up to head out. I barely had the energy to pack away my tent and scattered equipment. As soon as we set out (I was in Shane's car) I fell asleep again. We stopped at a service center for food about 30 miles after getting on the motorway towards Cambridge, but I just stayed in the car and slept. Eventually I woke up, and I read my book until they came back. When we got back to Cambridge, Danny's brother was there to take him and his stuff home, and Chris dropped Joe and I off at our houses. I had recovered enough that I was actually able to help shift baggage around when people extracted their stuff. And then finally I was at home. I did a bit of unpacking, a bit of laundty, ate some more, and then finally went to bed about 11pm. Despite all the sleeping I'd done during the day, I slept solidly through the night.

And how did we do? Not too badly, really. Of the 101 teams in our category (mixed, ie both men & women), we came in 34th.

The Rota

After our practice run, before the race started, I made up a rota of riders. I tend to feel a bit unsettled unless things are planned out in advance, so I wanted to have a plan for who would do what when for the entire race. I knew that it was highly likely that the plan would have to be highly revised due to any number of reasons (in particular I was worried that Shane's shoulder might give out under the strain), but I felt it was better to have a schedule to alter rather than making everything up as we went along. We each gave an estimate as to how long it would take us to get around the course. Joe and Danny estimated 50 minutes, Chris and Shane 55 minutes, and I a hour or a bit over.

The main constraints were that Joe was starting, and Danny didn't want to ride when it was truly dark, since he didn't have any experience riding off-road at night. In addition, I wanted to do a double lap early in the night (starting at say 10pm) and then only go again after everyone else had gone twice, so I'd have a chance of getting a full night's rest. Shane, Chris, and Joe also decided to do double laps at night, so they'd have lots of time to rest before going off again. So I put Danny riding at about 9pm, before sunset, and doing a double lap at dawn. With the assistance of the guys, I filled in names between these fixed points so that we'd each get to ride about the same number of laps, and we'd have enough of a gap between our rides to have time to recover. I also put next to the rider an estimated start time, based on the race start time and the estimated lap times of the riders. (I gave everyone a lap time of one hour for night laps, which turned out to be a decent estimate.)

Then I realized that in order to know when to head to the corral for changeover, we'd need to have accurate knowledge of when the rider out on the course actually left. So I drew two columns to the right of the rota for Actual Start and Actual Finish times, and I told the guys that it was really important that when they finished a lap, that they needed to remember when they finished and come back to the camp site and write it down. This time would also be the start time for the next rider, so we always knew at what time the rider on the course had left. Noting the time you finished turned out to be pretty easy as there was a huge digital clock as you walked into the timing tent.

The estimated start times proved to be useful as well. During our rests it was important to know roughly when we'd be riding again. So we'd look to the start time for the rider out on the course to find out how far off the schedule we were (we were a half hour ahead of schedule for a good deal of the race), then adjust our estimated start times by that amount.

I don't know if other teams had this kind of system, but it worked very well for us. The only change we made to the plan, once it was worked out, was that Joe took a double lap during his morning shift, as he was our fastest rider, and he calculated that we'd get an extra lap in if he took did two at that point. Here's a table version of what our final rota looked like, with actual start and finish times filled in.


I have a hybrid lighting system. The bar light is a 12W Lumicycle spot bulb, powered by the stock Lumicycle battery. The Lumicycle system is a very good one. They use good 12V bulbs available in a wide range of powers (5W to 35W), most powers available in spot (7-10 degrees) and flood (30-38 degrees) versions. The battery consists of 11 4Ah NiMH cells, supplying 13.2V to the bulbs. This overvolting makes the lights much brighter for only a modest increase in power consumption, so it's a real winner. The battery has the nice combination of being small and light and storing lots of energy (it will power the 12W bulb for 3.8 hours).

My helmet light is based around a VistaLite lighting head. This lighting head is the same one that's used with the current Nightstick system, although the helmet mount I use (made by VistaLite) is different from the one they currently make. The bulb is a 5W spot bulb to allow for a long run time with a reasonably lightweight battery. The bulb is actually meant to be run at something like 5.5V volts, so applying 6V to it overvolts it, giving a brighter light (as with the Lumicycle system). The battery is a homemade job. It is 5 2.8Ah NiCad C cells side by side, making a reasonably compact, light package that will power the light for at least 2.8 hours.

Both batteries are charged with smart chargers. For the Lumicycle battery, I have the Lumicycle fast charger, which I highly recommend for anyone thinking of buying a Lumicycle system. It prevents you from damaging the battery by overcharging it. The C-cell battery I use for the helmet light is charged by a Black & Decker power tool charger, modified to charge bike light batteries.

The only improvement I would like to make to this system is to swap the VistaLite-based helmet system for a Lumicycle-based system, with a 12W spot bulb and stock Lumicycle battery. That way I'd get a brighter helmet light with a longer run time, and be able to use the same charger to charge both helmet and bar light batteries.

Food & Drink

In a 24 hour race, you need to eat. Lots. And since you'll be tired, you'll want food that requires little to no effort to eat. You can just eat food from the food stands: they have decent stuff like pasta & noodles. Danny did this, as he was travelling very light. But if you want to save some money, you'll cook your own. Here was what we ate.

You need to drink. Lots. We drank liter after liter of water, both on the course and at the campsite. We'd occasionally make it into tea (normal or herbal) but usuaully just drank it neat. The race organizers gave each team two packs (each 6 x 1.5l bottles) of still mineral water, which was much appreciated. All of us except Shane carried Camelbaks (or other brand of backpack hydration system). The main advantage of Camelbaks are that you can very easily drink even on fairly difficult terrain: grab the hose (you know where it hangs so you can do this without looking), shove into your mouth, drink, spit it out. Done, you're hydrated. Also, Camelbaks stay with you, while water bottles can jump out of their cages. Towards the end of the race, the downhills were littered with collections of lost wter bottles.

We didn't use energy drink very much. Chris did mix up a water bottle that he carried around in addition to his Camelbak so he could have both at hand. I used water in my 'bak most of the time. I normally don't put energy drink into my Camelbak, as it promotes the growth of mold, and I don't like messing with trying to get rid of it. But during my double night lap I was going to be making a pretty hard (for me) effort for two hours. I knew I wouldn't want to try to eat cereal bars while riding, and I certainly didn't want to stop to eat, so I'd have to get my calories in my water. I don't like drinking very sweet stuff, so usually when I use energy drink (in water bottles) I use it much more diluted than the mixing directions suggest. However, to make sure I got enough calories I mixed it up almost full strength, 120g in 3 liters of water to make a 4% carbohydrate solution. It was really too sweet for my tastes, but I put up with it.

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