Further Perseverance

Words by Rich Rothwell. Pictures by Rupert Hartley.

Many years ago, I started competing in mountain bike endurance events. My long distance races were 24hr solos. They felt pretty extreme.

Then I blinked. Several years of cycling exploration had passed, and here I was at 3am, dragging my bike across Transit van size boulders, somewhere on the Andorran border, on the final 5hr hike-a-bike stretch of Further Perseverance. I finished my three day race with a straight 24hr shift.

If off-road endurance cycling has a rabbit hole to fall down, Further Perseverance is surely the bottom of that hole.

Prior to the event, the completion of this ‘short’ ultra was a conclusion I had assumed. Perhaps naively, as three months earlier I was knocked off by another rider in the very opening stages of the Highland Trail 550. I suffered broken ribs, bad bruising, and crucially, a fibula fracture. Twelve weeks were spent, rolling around on the floor with physio bands, doing yoga, and gradually reintroducing strength and loading to my leg.

Three weeks before Perseverance, it was still painful to walk across the road, (and that is pretty much as far as I got). Still, I was hypnotised by Camille McMillan’s beautiful routes and the mystique of this event lured me to the start line.

This in itself was no small task. The day before the start, a small group of us span up the two hour road climb to a dead end, before carrying and pushing our bikes a further hour and a half to the spectacular Refuge de Ruhl. It is hard to imagine a more stunning start line for a race. Towering rock faces rose around us, and the terrain was as beautiful as it was intimidating.

Outrunning a thunderstorm was a relief, and we were soon enjoying a cosy and sociable meal in the now packed refuge. The storm raged through the night and as we huddled in our blankets, we wished it to pass.

Awaking to calm, cool, and clear air, we hung around on an imagined start line before Camille randomly announced we had better go.

On and off the bikes, through boulders and down steep grass slopes, the field spread and the nerves melted away. Placing feet carefully, very wary of my weak leg, I got through the initial hike-a-bike sections unscathed.

Climbing, climbing, on and off the bike, it felt wonderful to be on an adventure and the cool morning felt good.  The temperature soon rose though; heat and dehydration were an ongoing concern over the following three days. With widespread drought conditions, finding clean water became an obsession. Public taps were often turned off, and streams were low or non-existent.

Already very thirsty, the hot and dry hike-a-bike ascent of Mont Fourcat almost finished my race on day one.  Legs seized up, cramp shot through my limbs. I cursed myself for my stupidity; you haven’t even walked to the shops in three months and now you can’t move! What are you doing!

Riders passed me, and not for the last time, I gazed with jealousy and admiration as they slung their bikes across their backs and walked away from me, off into the mist. I inched forward.

Body management, rehydration, and several ice-creams were the theme for the rest of the day. The climbing was eternal and the descents were fast and fun. I’m sure glad I was on a mountain bike.

Like pretty much everyone else, I reached the start of the first night time curfew section late in the evening. A half built house had a pile of wooden planks inside. I reasoned this would be softer than concrete. It was marginal.

Setting off again after a few hours sleep, I climbed roads made famous in the Tour de France. These roads are tight, often slippery, and consequential, with drops and gullies all around. It renewed my respect for those racers descending this treacherous tarmac at fifty and sixty miles an hour.

Dawn broke and after a big off-road climb, the hike-a-bike hit hard. A completely unrideable traverse through angular boulders and dense vegetation. I envied a fellow rider who carried a pair of trainers for these ankle twisting mazes. The reward, as ever, was a high speed rough descent, surrounded by towering peaks poking out above the tree line.

Then the relief of any easy road col; Froome and Poulidor sprayed on the road raised the hairs on my neck. This was magic.

Climbing off road once more, I wondered where we were going… The valley ended with rock faces seemingly blocking every exit. Then I saw the ants, bikes on backs, clinging to the impossibly steep slopes. Surely not!

It was sketchy. I nearly fell off the slope on a couple of scary moments. Mountain biking, meets road riding, meets mountaineering. Definitely a multi-sports event.

Sketching down the other steep and rock strewn side, there was a distinct feeling of ‘getting away with it’.

More ice creams and cans of Coke.

My creative route planning almost got the better of me. Riders had to plot between the sectors. Note to self; don’t draw straight lines through the Pyrenees! Or maybe do… my route was an absolute highlight; singletrack through woodland and derelict farmland in late afternoon warmth. Unfortunately, it ended with a 300m hike-a-bike which lost me places in the field and further smashed my walking legs. It was worth it though.

Evening drew in and with it came the next storm. The wind whipped up, lightning smashed into the peaks, and I descended as quickly as I dared into a sheltered village. Here I found Philippa Battye sitting outside a bar with a beer. Perfect! We both agreed that some light relief from the mental overload was a good idea. An ice cold beer later, the storm felt a million miles away and we descended into the valley to hunt a bivvy spot. The next curfew section was approaching, and further progress was futile.

And did we strike gold! A derelict shed was piled high with…. MATTRESSES! Some still in their wrappers! We literally laughed out loud with grins that stayed on our faces as we  drifted off into a warm and VERY comfortable sleep.

Five minutes after setting off in the morning, a Spanish 24hr gas station served hot coffee. We had basically nailed night two.

The final sector (not the finish I might add) was both The Thorn in my Side and the Jewel in the Crown. Creative route finding had me jumping into a storm gulley and bushwhacking up an impossibly steep bank. I stuck to The GPS Line. It’s all I had.

Hours of hiking. False summits. Legs seizing. Altitude kicking in.

The reward; one of the best descents of my life. Rocky, rough, and stepped. High speed rock spitting and sliding fun for a very, very, long time. Well, it would have been very fast but I was stopped in my tracks several times, simply to take in the majesty of the surroundings.

Adrenalin bursting out my ears, I dropped in to Salardu for lunch and a few moments to calm down after the intensity of the last few hours.

The heat of the afternoon gave way to beautiful cool air, fading light, and some welcome light rain as I headed into another highlight: the off road climb on to Port de Cabus. Crossing into Andorra, the tarmac became marble smooth and some easier progress was welcome on pristine roads. Almost there I thought.

Technically, yes. That final seven kilometres took me five and a half hours. The boulders got progressively bigger and harder to overcome. It was the middle of the night. My headlight lit ghost like grey slabs all around me. Breath deep. Don’t shout at the rocks. Don’t fall. Be stoic. Persevere. There is no alternative.

Dawn broke just as I crawled out of the maze in a state of shock. Like many finishers when greeted by Camille, emotions were very push pull; hug him or punch him?

I gave him a pathetically weak hug and burst out laughing.

We make our own choices. We wanted to be thrilled and stretched physically and mentally. We all got what we came for and found the meaning of Perseverance.

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