I love racing at Thetford, it is my most favourite of racing places and Dusk til Dawn the one event I look forward to over any other. Partly this stems from the fact that it's the last hurrah of the season, but also the fact that the atmosphere never falls short of brilliant thanks to skilled and attentive organisers and the way that they use their trails, which is rarely short of sublime. The weather forecast was none too promising but that's what we have waterproof shorts for, isn't it...
So, after a practise lap and lots of hellos, fifteen minutes standing on the start line in strong winds and sideways rain, we embarked on an amusing start loop behind a pace quad, holding position at the front of the pack with pointy elbows and a little give and take. Three fast laps of a swoopy, entertaining, singletracky course, swapping third and fourth with Fi, wind and rain less of a problem than they could have been thanks to the trees, some particularly unpleasant sucky mud but plenty of friends around to banter with, all ready to do battle with the night. It was shaping up so well...
And then when the normal lap four demons popped up (god i'm tired, this really hurts, have i got a puncture, i feel sick, is that a blister on my hand, i can't ride that, WHY?), there was nothing to answer them with. Completing The Thing, which sucked up my life and my energy for two years, battling that monster and sending it packing has turned me inside out in many ways and completely changed the way I feel about certain things. Apparently including racing.
There is an emptiness where the reserves of stubborness and determination used to be. It's not an unpleasant one, but it is unsettling, and as equally endless a bottomless pit as they were an unclimbable hill. The usual doubts and fears went clanging straight to the bottom of it with nothing to intercept them on the way.
And so when I got to the end of the lap I stopped, and sat down, and my wise and lovely pit crew Adam tried coaxing me out with new bottles and food and batteries for a few minutes whilst I tried to make sense of weird emotions, until he quietly reminded me that I really don't have anything to prove anymore. And, as usual, he was right.
I passed the rest of the night enjoying the rare and novel experience of wandering round a race site in the middle of the action, chatting and sharing quiet moments and coffee with friends old and new between laps, using the pointy stick of encouragement on pet soloists Phil, Gareth, Nigel (finishing his first ever 12 hour in fine fashion) and Fi (who took a frighteningly steely podium place as well as two large bacon sandwiches, both of which made us proud), practising my heckling on a very muddy One Speed Revolution who were thankfully going too fast to hear and generally lounging around watching the mud turn a different shade of grey. All to the familiar soundtrack of soggy grass and scorched disc rotors. Lovely.
After four laps at a fair old clip I still feel satisfyingly battered today and there's just as much wet, gritty kit mouldering in kit bags as there would have been had I rode the full twelve hours. There isn't a shred of regret, just the calmness that I still can't fathom and the reminder that sometimes it's harder to make the right decision that it is to carry on regardless of it.
And of course a strong intent to spend the next few months doing fun things on a bike that don't require the demon-beating mechanisms to be pressed into action, in the hope of coaxing them back out of retirement before I get fat and slow... ;o)
* "soften the f*** up". er, thanks, jo.