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Spring Polaris 2008
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It is spring but it feels like winter and the clocks are set to go forward an hour. It is that time of year again. The Spring Polaris awaits all those mad enough.

A couple of hundred mountain bikers descend on Llanwrtyd Wells (home of the world bog-snorkelling championships and the smallest town in the UK). All are planning to spend a whole weekend searching for checkpoints hidden in the Welsh Wilderness across mountains, valleys and forests. To top it all of we are totally self-sufficient.

Everything I (Mark McPhillips) need for the weekend is in my rucksack that includes bivvi bag, sleeping bag, cooking equipment, spare clothes, tools/spares and all my food. Amazingly, I have got all this into in a rucksack that probably weighs less than my normal camelback. How? Quite simple really. All my water comes the ‘old’ fashioned way from a stream into a water bottle (Bear McPhillips-Born Survivor). Although I do have to admit that, I spent a couple of weeks weighing and re-weighing various kit options for the weekend. I even recorded the weights in a spreadsheet!

As the Polaris fell in my Easter school holiday, I drove down early Friday afternoon leaving plenty of time to get my tent up. Gary Tompsett the man behind organising the Polaris kindly showed me where the camping field was. One hour later, I and another competitor were still trying to push Gary’s car out of the boggy field that everyone was to be camping on. The omens were not good. Gary quickly got on the phone trying to sort out another camping venue. I quickly drove back to town and got myself a room in the Neuadd Arms.

A few hours later armed with the essential map, a drink and a roaring fire the possible route scenarios for the weekend were mulled over on a comfy leather sofa. Other competitors offered their opinions. I cleverly picked the brains of John Lloyd (organiser of the Merida Marathon events) who obviously knows this area better than most. After looking at the map for a couple of hours, I had a complete sensory overload and mental exhaustion kicked in. A roof and comfy bed were on offer tonight. Tomorrow night it would be a waterproof bivvi and a balloon bed (yes, I slept on 5 balloons).

The forecast for Saturday included the kind of weather where the phrase ‘just going for a bike ride’ would get you sectioned. There was however, a window of good weather predicted first thing in the morning. Therefore, an early start would be an advantage; much better to get out riding when it is dry. Two hours into my route the weather changed from a mild dull day to HELL being unleashed at 80mph and occasionally freezing over and spewing out venomous hail. At this point, I felt great! The route I picked was a relatively safe one, a lot of it was in thick pine forest that offered some protection from the weather. The more obvious high scoring routes swept up the west side of the map this area was much more exposed. In the meantime I was picking up lots and lots of low scoring checkpoints while bizarrely getting the phrase ‘I’m made of girders’ stuck in my head.

Since the weather turned, it was gradually getting colder and colder despite the obvious physical effort I was putting in. I eventually stopped ate a couple of bags of sports beans and put on my waterproof trousers. I instantly started laughing as I felt sooooo much warmer and wondered why I had not thought of doing this earlier!

Once past the 6-hour mark I started to suffer a bit. I do not often ride my bike for 7 hours. After picking up some more checkpoints, I rolled into the overnight camp with 9 minutes to spare and a grand total of 250 points enough to put me in 8th position.

I immediately got stuck into setting up my camp for the night and unbelievably it stopped raining. I had just managed to cook and eat my first meal when the rain returned with a vengeance. I quickly climbed into my bivvi and zipped myself in. Once in the bivvi the rain did not stop until 5am! No more dinner for me, I had to make do with emergency flapjacks and jelly babies.

After the rain stopped at 5am clear skies prevailed. I woke up after a reasonably comfortable night to find that my bivvi bag was covered in a thin sheet of ice! The dry weather once again spurred me into action quickly scoffing a couple of energy bars and packing up camp very carefully into my minimalist rucksack.

I had a high scoring route planned for today in an attempt to gain a few positions. At the first high scoring check point I had originally planned doing it as an out and back. However, the lure of the Doethie valley round the corner was too much too resist. In the Doethie valley lays the best piece of natural singletrack I have ridden in the UK. I had done it once before in the TransWales and now that I was here again there was no way I was not doing it again. 45 mins later, I left the valley with a big grin on my face and a renewed thirst for more points.

My legs were now struggling to produce enough power due to the lack of food at the overnight camp. Luckily, my route had a few options and I missed out a few checkpoints. In the end, my route proved to be an efficient one as despite not having great legs all day I moved up from 8th to 6th. I was pleased with this result, as I have always done pretty badly on the Spring Polaris in the past (struggle with those long hours in the saddle so early in the year).

Reflecting on this event what was most enjoyable was the hardship. Not so much at the time but afterwards, it heightens your whole sense of achievement. Cannot believe I have to wait a whole year to the next spring event.

For anyone interested, there are two slightly easier Polaris events coming up. The Summer Polaris (in Scotland up near Glentress) and the Autumn Polaris (Lake District) neither of these require you to carry your overnight gear as both start and finish at same venue each day. The autumn one even includes a night navigation element that is great fun. No risk of getting lost, there are lights everywhere!