There is an element of cruelty in the way the MCC Land End Trial works. You either pass or fail each hill or test as it comes. There are no points for getting closer to the top, just a straight forward yes or no. You might fail an inch or half a mile from the top. It counts the same.
If you get all the way through the event, from Friday evening to Saturday evening, and don’t fail once along the entire 300 mile route, and arrive at the various time checks without being late, and complete the timed observed tests without error (our track record there is not great), you gain a gold medal. It’s a tough task.
You start in darkness, progress through early morning Exmoor mist and emerge on Bodmin moor in Cornwall as the afternoon heat builds up, just as you are really getting tired. You’ve been on the road for maybe 18 hours, had a couple of ‘cat naps’ at the rest halts, eaten most of your food and probably had to change a punctured tyre or two . But it’s all good. No failed hills yet. No rolling past the stop line on the timed tests… a gold medal is there for the taking. And on it goes, with the hills seeming to get tougher and rougher as your capacity to deal with them ebbs a little from fatigue. That self imposed pressure to make no errors this late in the day really cranks up. It becomes a head-game. Stay focussed, stay calm, don’t screw up now….
Charlotte, my 15 year old daughter, is navigating as usual. I’m driving. We’ve had one of those “Battle of Waterloo” events (Wellington : “A damn close run thing!” ) in which we almost ground to a halt twice on the stop-restart elements found on many hill to make them more testing. The first occasion was on only the second hill, the historic BEGGAR’S ROOST high above picturesque Lynton & Lynmouth . This year marked a century since it first featured on the event. It’s the one you see with the massive crowds on all the old newsreels reports on Youtube. But unlike the early days it now runs in the dark – or should do. To make it more interesting the organisers had added a restart just at the top of a 1-in-3 climb and it was causing a lot of trouble and that meant delays. We arrived in the nearby village of Barbrook in the early hours to find a queue that wasn’t moving . Eventually stranded cars & fallen motorcyclists were retrieved , the queue moved and we got our turn.
By now it was broad daylight and if anything the hill looked rather steeper than it does by headlights. And we didn’t get away from that restart very quickly. In fact I thought we’d wouldn’t at all! The wheels were spinning, the tyres scrabbling and no forward motion was evident. Charlotte and I started our synchronized-swaying routine.
There is no room inside our Suzuki X-90 to bounce up and down in the seat in traditional fashion so it’s more a case of wriggling LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT-RIGHT in unison and hope the momentum builds up enough to make the wheels grip one after the other. After what seemed like minutes (but on the in-car film is only a few seconds) progress started to be made and with a lot of nervous whoops and giggles we did eventually make the top successfully. After that scare we did OK for the rest of the morning and even blowing a tyre towards the top of one section didn’t stop us ‘cleaning’ it.
Charlotte , bizarrely, says she feels ’empowered’ when we have to change a tyre. She really enjoys getting stuck in with the jack and the wheel brace. The pressure on time and the physical effort charges her up and once the new wheel is in place and we are back on our way she’s wide awake and raring to go. Luckily we only had to do that once, some people were not so lucky and we heard on one car suffering five punctures with a good 100 miles still left to run.
The next hill after the tyre issue, Darracott, is a long winding climb through a wood that goes on and on. But low down , just a few yards in, it has a restart and we almost did it again! The engine bogged down at just the wrong moment and it took a lot of LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT-RIGHT to get us moving again.
Several hours later and with two hills left to climb we passed Perrenporth airfield and rolled down a narrow little road into Blue Hills Mine. Both these two hills were visible across the valley as we waited our turn and the gradient (1 in 3) looks pretty scary from that angle! The sea was a vivid Mediterranean blue between the headlands to our right and the setting sun picked out the old mine chimneys down in the cleft of the rocks to our left. A VW Beetle could be see and heard failing to climb “Blue Hills Mine 1″amid a cloud of burning Firestone rubber and a cacophony of engine revs. The nerves started to jangle. We took our place and trundled down into the penultimate ‘observed section’ . It’s the shortest one on the event, probably less than 100yards from start to stop and from here you can just make out the top of the next and final hill, the effective end of the event. And just these two sections between us and gold.
The last right hand hairpin of this penultimate section loomed. We did this easily back on the previous running of the event, pre-covid, in 2019. But not this time! NO NO NO! The revs rose, the tyres smoked, we started to the LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT-RIGHT synchro swaying and whatever we did the top of this small hill with it’s sheer rock slab well polished by 300 or more previous runners all spinning their tyres across it’s surface , remained just out of reach. Failure. No gold for us this year. The fact we easily got up the perishing little slope at the second attempt only made matters worse and the successful climb of the last hill just up the road still didn’t make up for missing out on a gold by a scant three feet after 22 hours and 300 miles.
I got over it. I stopped kicking myself sometime during the following day and the bruises will heal I’m sure…in time.
Two weeks later it still pains me to think how close we got but in reality it was our best performance on one of these traditional long distance night-and-day trials . We claimed a silver medal and we are proud of that… although….No! Stop it Simon….let it go…silver is good repeat after me…”silver is good!”
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