There is a race that is a myth to many , one that most are never likely to see , it’s a mystery held deep within the European mountain bike community. A race where invitation is the only means of entry, a race purely for fun yet there is a winner, one who is elevated to god like status yet is openly mocked for winning . It is a race of endurance, hard trail and brutal climbing. Add to that tricky navigation , remote night stages and a sprinkling of crazy challenges ….. It is everything yet it is nothing !! it is “Men of Porage”
My friend and adventure racer extra-ordinaire Kenny Short rang me up last week , the conversation went like this …
Kenny: Hey Mark fancy a mountain bike race on Saturday”
Mark: ah Kenny I’m no racer on the bike mate.
Kenny: Dont worry Mark its an endurance event you wont need to go fast .
Mark: Fuck it then Kenny I’ll come along ….. what is it ?
Kenny: it’s the Men of Porage and this time its set near Innerleithen.
Mark: THE Men of Porage race Kenny ?
Kenny: yes !! THE Men of Porage
Mark: fuck !!
Originating in the Czech Republic , home of some real hardcore nutters when it comes to sport so you just know it is going to be tough. I’m not sure of the UK history but to quote Lawrence Tring : “About 8 year’s ago a British Porage event was launched with élite riders from mountain bike endurance and orienteering/trail-quest events invited” , obviously 8 years later they were scraping the bottom of the barrel if I was getting an invite . 😉 it’s a race that travels to a different venue every outing and is a slightly different incarnation every time. This year it was set close to me in Innerleithen, so not to far to for me to travel either. Gary Tompsett of Rat Race fame was in charge of this Porage so it was sure to be a good one.
Kenny picked me up at 11am Saturday morning. Andrew Tullie would also be accompanying us , good news as Andrew is part of the greatest Orienteering / hill running family EVER !! he would be the man to count on when things got tough. We were to be at the Corner House Hotel Innerleithen and be ready to race for 12 noon , here we would be escorted as a peloton to the starting point which was unknown to all. About 50 riders from all over the UK were in the hotel car park excited and nervous in equal doses. Suddenly a rider appeared and after a short briefing we were off , a 50 strong mountain bike peloton heading for Traquair house. As we arrived we were told to position our bikes against a long wall as if preparing for a mass start. We were then ushered to the top of the garden by the old Gates and given a briefing on what to expect , 50 miles at least , 20 checkpoints to reach , probably 3000m of climbing all in …. WOW !! I knew I was screwed right here 😉 We would be given 4 maps , but only 1 at a time , once we had hit the CPs we would be “rewarded” with our next section of challenges before moving on to the next area of the the Peeblesshire hills. Gary then told us there was a twist to the starting of the race. We had to race the 400 metres to the huge maze situated at the back of the house , find the centre to get our first CP then head back to the bikes before disappearing into the Forests and hills of Traquair , amazing !! but before all this the Porage oath had to be taken ….
It was now tiem to go , all of a sudden we were running down the length of the Traquair gardens to the maze at the back of this grand old house. In we went, 50 adventure racers fleeting like mice in a laboratory puzzle, all trying to find the centre of this ancient maze . After 5 minutes we realised that it was harder than we thought , hmm let’s think … here! shouted Kenny seeing a hole in the maze leading to the centre , as we squeezed through the short-cut the event photographer caught Kenny with his camera .. ha-ha red-handed !!!
We noted the CP number and found our way out , running quickly to the bikes and trying at the same time to decide the best route to CP2 …. for this checkpoint we headed into the forest trails and used a logging road to gain height before heading out and over the moors to come round onto the next hill, man !! what a slog !! My legs were on fire after nearly one hour of solid energy sapping climbing !! eventually we left the forest and headed over the high ground , the inclement weather had left the paths soft , muddy and very wet , hard going indeed. At times I wished I had been running , it would definitely have been easier .. yet I was enjoying being out there so much , really buzzing that after my injury , I was finally back racing in the hills , albeit on wheels.
Eventually we made our way up and over the amazingly beautiful Gypsy Glen and down over the hills to Peebles where we had to find a checkpoint deep in the countryside to the North . It was dark now and we were relying on good judgement and luck, actually just luck 😉 We made it back to Peebles and I looked at my watch , 4 hours on the bike already and we still had to find a railway tunnel before we could head on to the next map. A stroke of genius happened , the organiser had made one of the CPs next to a good old SPAR !!! yassssssss !! in we went and grabbed the goodies , stuffed ourself full of Bounty bars and wine gums .. Next we headed North east to a trail that took us to a point above the railway tunnel , or so we thought. We found a sweet descent trail and dropped height , and more height until we ended up on the banks of the Tweed !! aaaaarrghhh SHIT !! we had over shot the tunnel and dropped way more height than we had meant to. 30 minutes of hauling bikes around a steep and over grown banking ensued and eventually we had found the tunnel , 200 metres long and pitch black we scanned its walls looking for a CP number , eventually finding it in a small bay full of nasty nasty things ,the unmentionable. We sent the bold Kenny in first 😉
Finally we shot out the tunnel and headed for the final checkpoint to receive our next map , this took us to Cardrona Village and a pump track where we had to complete the challenge of pumping our way round with out a pedal stoke , easy and we were off heading down the country lanes towards Traquair house again for another crazy checkpoint , every hill now felt like a serious mission to my very tired legs .
We arrived to a moon lit Traquair house and a checkpoint full of Beer !! we gave our names to the official so he could check us in, at night things get a little more serious and a cold night like we were having takes no prisoners to anyone stuck in the hills . Kenny gave his name and all of a sudden the official picked up a tin of cat food , eat he said to Kenny. Kenny looked up , why ? you must eat or you forfeit your race due to cheating in the maze …. hahah Andrew and I laughed , Kenny picked up the cat food and ate it .. eeuurgh ! Kenny turned round and said “Tuna and jelly isn’t my favourite , I much prefer chicken and gravy” 😛 this cheered me up no end. We headed out of traquair and the back roads to the final CP at Innerleithen downhill car-park We met Gary who offered us an extra loop to spice up our adventure … we accepted it and headed down to Walkerburn to climb to the the reservoir high above , the trail is reputed to be a tasty local secret , this would be fun at night. Unfortunately our powerful bike lights were now dropping like flys and we were down to Zipka head torches . No good for technical trails , Tullie was also on a promise !! you can’t keep these young lads from their Shnazzzms 😉 so we bit the bullet and headed back to Innerleithen to call it a night … 8 hours in the saddle , thousands of metres of tough technical ascents and descents … lost many times , cold and exhausted !! and lets not mention my arse !!! Never had such a good time for ages 😛 😛