hardest race ever

or at least that I’ve done, was undoubtedly the Strathpuffer 24 this weekend.

A full 24 hours of racing, in mountains in Scotland, in January. Riding relays in a pair. To add to the lovelyness of it, it was camping too.

Early on Friday morning, Joe McLean who I was riding with phoned me up to say that he was going to be a bit late, because he’d just been to the hospital and had a cast put on a suspected broken Scaphoid on his wrist from riding his mountain bike. At this point, scary visions of riding solo in Scotland came into my head and the fear set in. Fortunately, Joe had talked the doctor into giving him a cast that he could drive with, and had only promised him not to ride any bikes, the doctor hadn’t said anything about unicycles. So Joe turned up, with a massive cast on his arm, and much to Penny’s bemusement at his insaneness, we set off up to Scotland for the race.

Much driving later, and we finally got there, at about 11.00 Friday. We were greeted by a beatiful full moon over the mountains, so bright you could see without a torch, and a scattering of tents pitched among them, with a few very skinny looking riders milling around looking fit. We were pitched up in a glade on the edge of the woods, with views over the mountains in one direction, and a scarily steep slope going up into the woods where the course was in the other direction. We could see a line of singletrack on the course running along the side of the campsite. It being Scotland, there was a fine drizzle just threatening to start.

It was pretty cold, so we pitched up, ate some cake (home made lemon and chocolate - an odd combination but definately recommended), and some sensible food (if you think jam and cheese sandwiches are sensible anyway) and I got into my sleeping bag with everything I own on, only to get really hot and open up the toasty super-sleeping bag most of the way down. At 4 am, I woke up frozen and zipped up the sleeping bag again, as the temperature had really started to drop, and I took a quick look to see that the sky had completely cleared, making for fantastic racing weather.

The alarm went off at 7.30 and once we’d cleared a bit of ice off the tents we headed up to register. There were a few more tents now, and lots more people wandering around who looked like they did training. At this point it began to dawn on us that this was quite a hardcore event. We headed back and cooked up some breakfast and I got ready for the start. The temperature was below zero, as I discovered when I put my camelbak on and the tube was frozen, ooops.

At 9.30, we wandered off to the rider briefing, to be told to be nice to each other, and look out for other riders, check they’re okay etc., which was even more true given the conditions. I laid down my unicycle in the start area, then, it being Scotland after all, a bagpiper piped us along to the line where we would start running to the bikes.

Come 10 o’clock, a horn blew and we set off on the course. The course climbed up 326m (1069 ft) each lap, and you started feeling this right from the start, the finish and start lines being both at the bottom of a steep uphill fireroad. I rode up the hill, passing several bikers thanks to my rather lightweight unicycle, and into the first singletrack, heading steeply down into the woods. Part way down, there’s a small fallen tree, with a log pile setup to ride over it. This is followed by a tight corner, and then suddenly I’m heading towards a rocky watersplash at full speed. This is way more technical than any 24 hour race I’ve seen before. I bailed on the watersplash, ending up right on the other side, away from my unicycle, so I have to run back and get it and keep riding. This is followed by a long, long climb, which is all fine to ride, a combination of fireroads and tarmac tracks. At the top, there’s a singletrack entrance, followed by a small hop up onto a little wooden palette bridge, followed by a rock garden and a steep and very muddy climb. Needless to say, this involves a little bit of running.

Up on the top, it started to get a bit muddy. It was still rideable, but barely, not helped by the scattering of rock gardens, slabs and wooden palette sections. Then it went down into a tight drop into the woods, singletrack through the trees so tight that it was amazing a bike could fit down it, followed by another wooden pallet bridge, with a rock angled to step up onto iit, although I preferred the flying dismount option here. From this section, it got really super-muddy for the next couple of miles, and I had to walk a fair bit. Then as suddenly as it had began, I hit a nice section, descending at full speed on a loose rocky track over the moors, towards a big loch, with views for miles of the mountains and over the local village, Strathpeffer. This was followed by loads of fantastic fast descending through the woods, and then a massive sign ‘SLOW DOWN’ heralded a sharp right-angle turn followed by a couple of small steps, down to an easy fireroad. By this point I could hear the music playing at the start again, so I knew I was nearly home. But the course had more in store, off the fireroad, another sharp corner and the race headed steeply down through another tight singletrack, this time littered with little steps and roots, twisting down the side of the hill. This was fantastic fun, and I really got to use my newly fitted brake down it. At the end of this long section, we hit some relatively easy singletrack that headed past the campsite, and a small uphill and downhill later, I’d finished my lap, with a massive grin on my face from the fantastic xc riding that made up the last third of the lap.

Joe was waiting at the start, so I told him that it was ‘a bit muddy and a bit technical’, and he set off, to return later raving about the final section, although a bit annoyed that he had to take it carefully what with having the cast on his arm. Fortunately the cast was shaped okay for his muni handle.

My second lap was a little bit slower, not helped by my frame breaking part way through, leaving me with a twisty seatpost for much of the final descents, so I ditched gears and brake and got out the muni while Joe did his lap and got ready to go. As I was waiting, darkness fell, it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Joe came in, looking rather uncomfortable, his leg was cramping up and it was not happy making for him. We decided to do double laps in the night, to get some sleep in, and he headed off to get a massage. These night laps were fantastic, the entire climb was rideable by the light of the moon, a few of the muddy sections froze and got more rideable, and there’s nothing better than descending singletrack in the dark. It felt super-stupid getting to the timing point at the finish, ‘dibbing’ in the timing chip and heading straight out again for a second lap, which was even better than the first night lap. I managed to run the light just enough and the light started to fade just as I got in off the second lap, to see a rejuvenated Joe, who’d been made better by the massage.

By this point I was well up for some sleep, so I set the alarm for four hours, and got into the sleeping bag, with an extra fleece liner and all my clothes on, as it had gone down to -5 by now and was really cold.

Four hours later, I headed out to the start, and asked a few incoming riders about Joe. It turned out he was hitting the wall a bit and taking it slow. Fortunately there was a lovely bonfire in an oil drum to keep me warm while I waited. Joe came in, looking knackered, but pleased to have completed the lap and headed for sleep, l fitted the second battery and headed out to do another lap. It wasn’t so clear, so I needed to run the lights more on this lap, but I was feeling really good. By the time I hit the downhill third of the lap, I was really bombing it. I was ffeling fantastic and considering another double lap. I was just coming up to the best bits of singletrack, when my light faded out. I grabbed my backup maglight out of the pack, only to find that the batteries in it hadn’t got much left in them, leaving me only a tiny patch of light, that was fine for wide or slow sections, but just wasn’t up to riding fast downhill singletracks. I picked my way down the steep bits, to get down to the final few single tracks, which were relatively flat. At this point it was galling not to ride, so I got on and went for it. Just in the nick of time a woman who was riding solo turned out of the descent, riding at almost about the limit of my flat speed, with massive HID lights. I mounted quickly and rode flat out through the final singletrack to the finish, using the bike’s light to ride by and just managed to keep up until the final fire-road descent, when I got into the floodlit area.

At this point I had no lights, Joe had no energy left and was asleep, so I figured our race was over at 9 laps between us. I headed back to the tents and put the timing chip on Joe’s shoes so he’d find it in case he had the urge to do more riding. I changed into some clean clothes, wolfed down some cake (Soreen plum loaf - yummy* ), and went to sleep. I woke up at 8.30, still in darkness, and I hadn’t heard a thing, so I figured Joe hadn’t headed out again. I grabbed more yummy food and went out to go to the loo. As I left the tent, I noticed that Joe’s unicycle was missing, and I said something that to keep the bad language nazis happy I shall paraphrase as ‘golly gosh, what’s a friendly nutter that young chap is’. It turned out Joe had been feeling better for some sleep and food, and had headed out for a final lap at 8 o’clock, meaning he got to ride the dawn lap, and see the sun rise over the mountains from the top of the hills. At 10 o’clock the horn blew at the finish, shortly after that Joe turned up, to massive applause from everyone there, making 10 laps for us.

The first thing Penny said when I got home was ‘so, you riding it solo next year?’, you can never please some people!

Some statistics,

Min temperature 5C at the campsite, probably -7 on the tops
Maximum temperature, about 0C
Hours of darkness 17
distance ridden 110k
climbing done 3260m (10695 feet)
15th out of 18 in male Pairs category
bicyclists beaten - 1 team of four, 11 soloists, 3 pairs

Pictures at


Results at



  • Soreen gave us a case of yummy stuff in exchange for pictures of us wearing their t-shirts at the event.

Well done Joe :slight_smile:

Hope the Schlumpf frame isn’t too badly damaged.

Definitely the toughest ever. Not much to add to Joe’s comprehensive write up, as typing is a bit slow(!) As Joe said, I really blew up as I’ve never done before on the second night lap, I was reduced to a cycle of walk a bit, try to ride a bit, UPD, sit/ lie down a bit, repeat. I was expecting to give up at the next marshall point, after some riders had stopped me from falling alseep at the track side; luckily a very nice lady slowed down and rode along with me for a few minutes, and having company really picked me up.
I couldn’t let it finish after that lap, and the morning one was a real treat, back in the light I ‘cleaned’ the stream crossing, most of the rock gardens and the bridges.
Absolutely amazing setting, and everything about it was a bit epic, the 1130 miles of driving, every lap being either fully or partly dark, the kettle being frozen to the floor of my tent when I woke up and loads more.

I will need to train much harder for next year…

It’s going to be a hard event to top, It really pushed me to, and beyond, my absolute limits.


This is fantastic. Great write-up and subsequent co-cometitor write-up!

Great race and well done!

by the way, it’s being televised on BBC Scotland, does anyone have that so they can tape / dvd record it for me?


Let me know when it’s on and I’ll see what I can do…


Reading about camping in temperatures below zero and riding muni all night in a dark forrest makes me feel like a coward.

that’s one of the biggest understatements I’ve heard for a very long time!

Well done Joe’s.

I’ve been waiting to hear how you mad pair got on – very well by the sounds of it. I do like how the Strathpuffer site calls you “…those crazy unicyclists.” - they sussed you out quickly. It also seems their photographer was impressed as they took photos from the front and behind, a sort of double take as if they could believe what they saw :slight_smile:

Joe M, how are your energy levels now? Will you be at hockey tonight? :astonished:

Well done again.

Edit: BTW if you know when it’s on TV I’ll record it for you (I’d also like to see it).

An excellent effort, and an epic challenge, congratulations to both of you for even attempting this insane ride. Doing so with an arm in a cast is even more incredible, so kudos to Joe Mclean especially.

I looked on the website and decided to trace the route out in Memory Map, so here’s the route you took, and the elevation profile. The course is 6.56miles, as closely traced from the route on the website as I could make it. Knowing my luck the direction is reversed but to do that kind of climbing every lap would probably be far beyond me!


Stunning write-up. Thanx for taking the time.


And of course the now mandatory 3D representation. Vertical Exaggeration is set to 2x.


Strathpuffer 3d.jpg

I’m alive again and coming to hockey. See ya tonight. I suspect I shall be riding a little slower than usual though, I’ll have to make up for that by trying to get a high score on the Sub chart.

It’s not that scary riding in the woods when there’s another 100 people out there too! Although it’s a little bit scary when your lights fail. Ooops.

I’ve discovered that camping in cold weather is easy too, you just buy a warmer sleeping bag and as long as you’ve got a good tent you’re fine.


Re: hardest race ever

On Tue, 17 Jan 2006 08:57:03 -0600, Loosemoose wrote:

>and the elevation profile.

Joe wrote that the climb went up to 326 m, but ‘your’ profile stays
below 200 m. What’s with that?

Joe M and Joe M: you are awesome! Way to go. Looks like it was quite a great time. <high volume>AAAAACH!</high volume> That is so cool you did it. Man, you got to go to Scotland and ride all night and all I get is a trip to Laos. Well, either is ok I guess.


It felt like all the climbing was at the start, but thinking about it, and looking at the profile there were lots of ups and downs in the rest of the race, which make up the rest of the 326m of climbing per lap.


The website states that the total Ascent/Descent = 326m, Which just so happens to equal approx 2x the change in height over the course (by my profile, approx 160m from lowest to highest point), So the total height change will be from the start, to the highest point (160m above) and back again = 320m.


That’s what I thought, but according to the guy who did the course, it is 326m of climbing per lap, all the little ups and downs in between each bit add up to quite a lot extra. Still not sure if he’s right though.


Re: hardest race ever

On Wed, 18 Jan 2006 07:09:03 -0600, joemarshall wrote:

>That’s what I thought, but according to the guy who did the course, it
>is 326m of climbing per lap, all the little ups and downs in between
>each bit add up to quite a lot extra. Still not sure if he’s right

Can Memory Map do the math on its profile?