Tuesday, 2 June 2009

British Marathon Championships, Margam Park, Wales

I always get nervous before a race but this time I was REALLY nervous. I won the race last year so this year I needed to try and defend my title…blimey! The elite line up was looking pretty impressive with some great girls ready to fight it out, including Jenny Copnall (5 times National XC Champ and Marathon Champ in 2006), Elizabeth Scalia (an incredibly strong climber and winner in 2007), plus some other fast girls from the XC circuit and a few unfamiliar names. I always see everyone as a contender…in the case of marathons anything can happen and anyone has the potential to win.

Mental prep before the start!

I had a great race in Italy three weeks ago and I wanted to stand on the start line knowing that I was strong, but the few weeks leading up to the race were less than perfect, as coach Matt Hart admitted to me after the race! I had been ill twice and my training was yo-yoing up and down. This didn’t help me psychologically, though not much will ;0)

We travelled up to Margam the day before the race to catch some of the XC action that was taking place. It was a really hot day so I drank lots of Elete water to make sure that I stayed hydrated, I also tried to eat loads of carbs but pre-race nerves manage to make my normal ox-like appetite somewhat mouse-like. We were able to test ride about 30% of the marathon course that evening and from what we saw it looked very dry and had some fast rocky fire road descents. Punctures were going to be the main worry. I decided to run Continental Race Kings (the supersonic with black chilli compound tubed version) tubeless with lots and lots of stans. It was still very hot at 6.30pm so hydration was going to absolutely essential, there would be no room for mistakes. I made up all of my carb drinks and added Elete to them to be extra sure that I didn’t dehydrate.

We headed off back to the MTB friendly B and B where there was a kitchen for me to cook dinner. I have a bit of an odd diet because of a gluten intolerance so whenever possible I prefer to cook the night before a race to make sure that I get plenty of gluten-free carbs. James Towlson from Ergon, my psychological support, travelled all the way down from Edinburgh to help. He arrived later that evening after a monster of a journey. That night I couldn’t sleep; I woke up every couple of hours thinking about the race. It’s odd how nervous I get but I know that as soon as the gun goes off I switch straight into race mode and become a different person.

Dave made some final checks before the start

10am arrived really quickly and before I knew it I was on the start line trying to look relaxed. For some reason I had been gridded at the back, but Mel Alexander and one of the other girls kindly moved over to make room for me on the front line, thank you! The elite men went off first and we set off 1 minute later, closely followed by all of the other categories. The course followed a short start loop before it headed straight up a steep rocky ascent where we soon started to catch some of the elite men. I could hear that another girl was close behind and when I managed to lose traction on the back wheel momentarily she overtook me. It was Jane Nuessli riding for Credo Bikes. She was unfamiliar to me and I remember thinking that she could be the dark horse of the race! She had climbed the first ascent well and I rode on her back wheel up the next climb. She took the first rocky fire road descent well too so I knew she was going to be one to watch. I decided that I needed to enter the first bit of single track first which led down through a river crossing before heading straight back up a steep rocky single/double track section. So I put in a little burst and passed her. She was still with me when I emerged on the fire road at the top.

The course wound around a few bits of single track and fire road for a while before some nice descents. As I went round a switchback into the first descent I could see that she was still with me. For some stupid reason I decided that I would try and lose her on the descent….BIG MISTAKE! It was all going really well at first; I was descending well and following some guys. I commended myself on how fast and confident I felt – something knew to me but I liked it! With my new found confidence I decided to overtake them before entering the next fast descent. I remembered this one from the practice lap and I knew I could take it pretty fast, so I decided to try and not use the brakes…. oh what a bad decision! I can’t quite remember exactly what happened next I just remember swerving around for a while, momentarily thinking ‘phew that was close’ before hitting the ground hard. I remember taking the impact first with my leg, flying through the air some more, and then landing on my head. I jumped up as quickly as I had fallen while two or three of the startled guys that were following asked me if I was OK. I was stunned and didn’t know if I was OK but I repeatedly said I was…because I find that denial is always the best thing in these circumstances! My glasses had broken so I picked them up off the floor and stuffed them in my pocket. I hobbled back over to my bike while thinking that it might be in a bad way but to my surprise it was fine apart from a twisted bar end. I jumped back on and then looked down at my leg, which was pretty painful. YIKES! I panicked – it looked like someone had stuffed two half-tennis balls under the skin of my thigh. It had swelled instantly and looked weird. I instinctively pulled my shorts down over it and thought to myself, ‘OK just don’t look at it!’ I have a tendency to faint in these circumstances, so I focussed all of my efforts on staying conscious and on the bike. I took the rest of the descent to the second river crossing slowly because the bumps exacerbated the pain in my leg and also because I felt pretty nauseous.

Cooling off

I figured that I would continue to deny and ignore until I got back to the feed zone, by which time the girls behind would be sure to have caught me. I was gutted. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I didn’t want this to be the end of the race for me but it seemed unlikely I could manage to knock out three more laps in this state. Some of the guys that I knew I should be as fast as, or faster than, started to overtake me and I felt rubbish. ‘Oh well…just make it back without fainting’. When I saw Dave at a section before the feed zone I shouted to him about the crash and said my leg really hurt. As I got back round to him he told me how well I was doing, stuffed some new bottles on my bike, patted me on the back and said keep going. Huh?? I thought he’d be shocked when he saw my leg and I thought my Mum would have kittens. I must just be being a big wimp. The other girls were nowhere to be seen, so off I went. I was still shaken and I still panicked when my eyes wondered to my leg but I reasoned that it must be OK if I had still been riding for the last 20 minutes, ‘right?’

I couldn’t put anywhere near full power through my leg but I managed to reach the top of the first climb and in doing so I caught up with the guys who saw my crash. They seemed pleased to see that I was still riding and encouraged me to go on. One of them said that my crash had shocked him and he told me to take the next lap steady and to build my confidence again.

When I got to the second feed zone where James and my Dad were stationed, I could see my dad looking at my leg. Thankfully he said nothing and this helped me to carry on with the denial thing. I shouted that I needed Ibuprofen and some more glasses on the next lap. I was getting dirt in my eyes, which can be a big problem because I wear contact lenses. If I lost one then there would be no way I could ride. Somehow I managed to finish the second lap without being caught. Dave stuffed some banana containing ibuprofen tablets into my mouth while my mum put new bottles on my bike. Off I went back up the climb to see if I could hold the girls off for another lap. The race is all a bit of blur to be honest, I remember trying to fire myself back up and make myself race but I just seemed not to have my usual urge to chase the men. When I got back to the second feed zone James told me that I had 5 minutes on second place and 6 minutes on 3rd. I wondered how that could be possible but I figured that I just needed to keep doing what I was doing: take the descents easy and not bounce my leg around too much and spin up the climbs. As I was entering the start/finish area to begin my final lap a couple of young male spectators were encouraging the riders on. One of them shouted “You’re fit you are…I’d date you if I were older!” Ha-ha that made me smile :0)

Climbing from the river crossing

I wound round the trees and through the feed zone for a final time. I started to believe that it was possible to not only finish the race, but to win! My spirits lifted and I gave thumbs up to the commentators. Thanks for the encouragement guys! In my head I knew that if I could make it to the second feed zone for the final time then I was almost done because it was pretty much down hill from there on and although the descents hurt my leg they weren’t as painful as the climbs! I passed James and my Dad, and they told me that I had increased my lead…blimey. James told me to relax, stay on the bike, and enjoy it. I tried to do all three.

I would like to apologise to the person who asked me for an air canister near the end of my last lap. I wanted to give him one but I didn’t want to get off the bike. I figured that the minute I did there could be a chance I wouldn’t be able to get back on again because I might not be able to ignore the pain any more. I had just spent three hours blocking it out and I didn’t want to stop when I was so close to finishing. Sorry! I hope you made it back OK.

Chaperoned to drug control and the medics

I crossed the line a little fuzzy headed and in disbelief. It was only at this point that Dave and my Mum saw my leg. They were pretty shocked and I couldn’t put my weight on it. Drug control informed me that I needed to go off and give a urine sample. From this point onwards I had to be chaperoned until I had given the sample. Luckily the medics and drug control were in the same tent. When the medics saw my leg the swelling concerned them. As the adrenaline started to wear off the pain and shock started to dawn on me. I lay down and my leg was elevated. I was in the tent for what seemed like hours. There was talk of deep vein thrombosis and possible cracked femur….surely not! I told them that a fracture couldn’t be possible as I had ridden for the last 3hours, but they said that adrenaline is an amazing thing and stranger things have happened. They took the decision to call an ambulance.

Meanwhile the British Cycling drug control people were still negotiating whether I need to give the sample. I didn’t want to risk disqualification so I said that I would try. The tent was cleared leaving the chaperone, Dave, and me alone. It was all pretty undignified but I managed to pee in the little pot while Dave held it and me! All that was left to do was to split the sample. The chaperone asked me to sit at the table and as Dave helped me over I started to feel faint. The next thing I remember was the paramedic trying to bring me round. I was laying in the corner of the tent on the floor, trying to figure out where I was. My blood pressure had dropped and I was unable to stand. Déjà vu…off to hospital by ambulance again. This brought back all of the memories of Sleepless in the Saddle in 2007 when I collapsed of dehydration and was taken to hospital. At the hospital I was told that I had a bad haematoma and that rest, ice, elevation, and ibuprofen should do the trick. I have to be careful for the next few days because of the risk of infection and circulation problems but it is already looking so much better and not as gremlin-like as it did!

Wahoo! Another Jersey :0)

I was really disappointed not to have made the podium, but Dave stood in for me and he thoroughly enjoyed himself as he stood between Jenny and Jane!

Dave enjoying the top spot

I'd like to say a BIG thanks to the medics at the race site who were just brilliant and also to the paramedics who I later found out are also passionate MTB’ers. Thanks also go to the great spectator support. It always lifts me up to hear people cheer me on. I particularly enjoyed seeing Ryan Sherlock sharing the race with us as he sweated it out on his turbo trainer at the side of the track. Ryan was out of action after breaking his collarbone at Dalby. I wish you a fast recovery! Thanks also to Jenn O’Connor who shouted words of encouragement, picked up my broken glasses, and kindly poured some lovely cold water down my back. Cheers Jenn!

As always a massive thanks to my team Topeak-Ergon and sponsors, Dave my number one supporter, James Towlson, my parents, and the guys at Ride Bike.


Elite Women

1st Sally Bigham 4 hours 33 mins
2nd Jenny Copnall 4hours 43 mins
3rd Jane Nuessli 4 hours 50 mins

Elite Men

1st Oli Beckingsale 3 hours 38mins
2nd Paul Oldham 3 hours 53 mins
3rd Ian Bibby 3 hours 58 mins

Full results and report can be found at British Cycling.

Sal :0)


  1. That was a very impressive ride Sal, well done. You're a worthy champion and you can wear that stripey jersey with pride!

  2. Awesome report and congrats on the 2nd jersey!!!!

  3. CONGRATS!!!!!!!!!!!! You rock. :)

  4. Impressive to ride that long with an injury. Congrats.

  5. Welldone! you looked like such a pro on the start line!

    After my attempt i just dont no how you do it, i crashed bad on 3rd lap landed on my neck and dnf. but im determind to try more :)

  6. Another great report and fantastic result!

    Fat Lad

  7. Wow! Thanks for all of your nice comments

    Sal :0)

  8. Hi Sally, how did you enjoy the freezing rain & snow on the Salzkammergut? I was stopped at the halfway point too when I was just getting warmed up. Actually, that's exactly what I wasnt able to do, warm up!
    Neil Wragg - High Wycombe CC/Cycle Care