The Black Forest marathon is competed over a choice of two distances - either the 80km and 2100m elevation 'marathon' or the 116 km and 3300m 'ultra marathon'. We competed in this race last year, which you can read about here. Jens, yet to compete in a long marathon, had persuaded Andy to join him in the ultra distance, and Simon, always the masochist, lined up with them. In the wisdom of increasing age, I have learned that 8 hours of slow torture was a foolish way to spend your Sundays, so I opted for the shorter, 4-hours-of-more-intense-pain version.
We drove down to Kirchzarten on Saturday, to be greeted by torrents of rain which poured down unabated for the entire period of our registration, evening meal and the whole night. It was therefore with some trepidation and jangled nerves that we woke up on Sunday morning to overcast but otherwise welcoming skies. It looked like it could piss it down any minute though, so there were a few comments of 'lets go to the start and see what happens', voiced mainly by Andy. It must be said that Andy had eaten none of his evening meal (Simon did manage to finish Andy's bolognese after his pizza starter and penne all' arrabiate main course), which we all know is out of character. Whilst we put this down to pre-match nerves (especially with his parents watching), Andy called in sick in the morning and declared he wouldn't start. Poof.
Simon and Jens did get dressed up, though, and rode off for the ultra marathon from pen 4 just after 7:30. Meanwhile, Andy escorted me to my starting pen for moral support. It was only after the gun had sounded that I realised my front brake was 'playing up'. Andy reassured me it was fine to start a wet and muddy marathon without real stopping power - he was suffering from a fever, after all - and as the other riders were taking off, there wasn't much I could do anyway.
The marathon course sets off for the usual 4 or 5 clicks of flat before the first hill, a 12 km grind accounting for a large chunk of the total climbing. It worked wonders for the early morning cobwebs and after an hour or so, I crested the summit at 1200m. I thought it might be a good idea to check my brakes once more before starting the downhill, but as I eased on the front brake, the damned thing jammed. I could only separate the callipers with brute force, and a closer inspection revealed that the gore lining had been pulled thorough the brake's 'U-bend', effectively acting as a one-way valve. Hence the world's first digital brakes - either off, or fully locked on. I realised that a repair job would probably not get the liner removed without tools and I would therefore be left without a brake at all. So, I rode the first 12 kms of downhill using a rear brake, which, although nerve-raking, was feasible. Until the plonker who decided to retrieve his lost water bottle stopped sideways on the racing line at the steepest offroad part. I just hope he spoke English.
At the repair tent in the first refuelling stop (exceptional German organisation once again), I was surprised to meet Simon. Apparently, eating Andy's pasta had buggered him too, so he was also pulling out. Poof 2. We rode the next 5 clicks or so together, at which point Simon left me at an opportune wimping-out point.
This was the split for the two races, which meant that the terrain was all new to me. Another long but steady climb was followed by another forest road downhill, but with the benefit of brakes this was a cakewalk. Once again this year, 3300 riders going down the same trail meant that the gravel was cleared across a 12" racing line. This makes for great, speedy downhilling until you have to overtake someone, where your only option is to dive into the 3" thick layer of fresh gravel. I had never before realised that you can aquaplane on surfaces other than water. Another factor was the fog which set in about this time, closing the visibility right down. Floating down the narrow racing line watching ghostly figures appearing in the gloom ahead might make for great video footage, but it is a little intimidating when you can't see the next gravel-laden turn. It was also cold, and for the first time in my biking existence, I was looking forward to going back uphill again to get warm.
This anticipation lasted about two minutes into the third hill, which turned out to be a bit of a bitch. I needed a refill of power gels before the top, but pushed on knowing this was the last of the serious climbs. This was a great tactical decision - it meant my pockets were empty at the top, so I could recover most of my registration fee by stuffing them full of power gels at the last refuelling point.
The girls who rode the short course last year had complained of deadly downhills, and, with the tame stuff we'd had so far, I was beginning to think that Andy and Simon weren't the only wimps in our posse of bikers. I didn't realise that the organisers had left all the fun stuff for the end, though, and the last two downhills were magic. Especially as they had arranged for it to rain in sheets for 24 hours before the race. The usual muddy tracks had been worn into muddy little V-shaped gullies, so you really had to surf down rather than ride, sliding both front and back wheels. It was here that I developed Gavin's first theory of biking: ability to downhill is inversely proportional to the value of your kit. Although instigated by the number of SID race fullies I was blowing off, the clincher for me was the bloke who swung by me on a treacherous hairpin - his bike was equipped with toe straps and a pannier, carrying what appeared to be a small hamper of food prepared and wrapped by his wife/girlfriend and tied on with elasticated straps.
After the last hill, I raced along the 3 or 4 kilometres to the finish, which snakes around the camping site/football fields of Kirchzarten. I was grateful for the drunken sprints Andy, Jens and I had had after celebratory beers in Garda, as this provided the fitness necessary to catch and drop the 15 or so riders in front of me. The great finishing touch to the Black Forest marathon is the end sprint around the sports arena, which I darted around ahead of the small bunch I had just caught. I finished in 4 hours 34' in 464th spot, just a minute ahead of Jens' time from the previous year (I didn't even have to pull Andy's 13-minutes-for-a-repair excuse). The winner had finished 1 1/2 hours earlier, and the first woman in 3 hours 42. I was 306th from 1198 in my old-bloke age group.
Jens, meanwhile, heroically rode the entire 116kms, finishing in just under seven hours (in 656th position) and bettering Simon's run from last year. He was 185th from 277 in his age group. We'll have to watch out for this youngster, although post-match analysis suggested that Jens may stick with smaller marathons (he especially didn't enjoy the last hill through the field known as 'Andy's Cramps' - see last year's report). The winner of the long run had finished in 4 hours 36, the first woman in 5 hours 30.
I realised during the race that sneering at people in trainers, bikes with wheel reflectors, 'comfort' handlebars, etc., is the first step towards bike-snobbery. I also realise that this is an inevitable slide if you ride bikes and live in Germany, so I have decided I may as well give into it now. Watch this space for reports of a new SID-equipped race fully soon.