Despite “a lot of mudâ€ and a badly injured foot, Naomi Freireich became the Strathpuffer solo female champion 2016.
The weather was â€œextraordinarilyâ€ mild for the 11th edition of the notoriously tough Strathpuffer 24 mountain biking endurance race.
But a bigÂ thaw the day before the 24-hour event meant the course was reportedly muddier than it has ever been before.
Yet, the 800Â competitors rose to the occasion creating the famously friendly and fun-loving atmosphere yet again.
For Naomi Freireich, of Edinburgh, Januaryâ€™s Puffer was the first time she had ridden the event solo and came after a year of injury and major operations.
She went into the race with no expectations, yet managed to triumph in the solo female category. Naomi, 41, rode a total of 21 laps of the 11km-ish off-road course on trails close to the Highlands village of Strathpeffer, to come eleventh overall.
In second placed was Sally Buckworth, with 20 laps, and third placed was Gillian Pratt with 18 laps. Gillian was last yearâ€™s Puffer winner with 19 laps.
The highest number of laps ridden by a solo female in the Strathpuffer was in 2013 when Lisa Kamphausen completed 24 laps.
One of the Strathpuffer founders and organiser, AlasdairÂ Lawton, believes Naomi has scored the second best ever tally of laps for a solo woman. He says: â€œNaomi did very well. Each year the event is very different, depending on the weather and the people racing, but 21 laps is a great achievement.â€
In the menâ€™s solo category, Keith Forsyth won for a second year in a row with 28 laps. The pairs male champs were Angus Bike Chain with 30 laps. Pedal Power RT female pairs completed 28 laps in the allotted 24 hours.
The male quads, Shibden CC, rodeÂ 33 laps, while the female Birds of Prey completed 23 laps. The 10-strong teams was won by Fortrose AcademyÂ with 29 laps.
Another notable score was 15-year-old local lad, Fin Graham, a pupil at Dingwall Academy, who rode 20 laps over the 24 hours of daylight and darkness and came an impressive 14th overall.
Many people described the Puffer course this year as the â€œmuddiest everâ€. Alasdair says: â€œTwo days before the event a lot of the course was covered in ice but then a big thaw came and this turned the trails into mud. Much of the lap was covered in a soft layer of mud and the last 200 metres, which had beenÂ newly created, were very muddy indeed.
â€œMud causes lots of bike problems and people became muddier and muddier as the race went on until you could hardly work out who they were.
â€œWhatever the weather this is a tough event. It was much milder than usual, with temperatures around 11 or 12C at the start, but the mud made it hard work.â€
Naomiâ€™s first solo Puffer
The single mum had chosen the Strathpuffer as her comeback event for 2016 after badly damaging her foot last year. She suffered a rare dislocation fracture in her right foot, which required two major operations and many weeks of recovery on crutches.
She says: â€œI had done the Strathpuffer as part of a mixed pair a few times several years ago. I needed a goal after recovering from my foot injury and I chose this event again, but this time I entered as aÂ solo.
â€œI had a ‘practice’ run at Relentless in Fort William, which is also the UK 24-hour championship, and came third female vet and I also learned some valuable lessons from that. However, I knew I would be starting as the under-dog in the PufferÂ because there were two very strong women taking part and so I had a few personal challenges in mind but no expectations of a win.â€
Gillian Pratt was the last year’s female winner of the Puffer, while Sally Buckworth is the UK and world veteran women’s champ. â€œI knew I would be racing some tough competitors,â€ says Naomi.
She describes her race: â€œFor the first eight laps I didn’t even know I was winning. My support team kept it from me. When I knew, it made me even more determined to dig deep.
â€œThen I had a terrible mechanical on lap 13 â€“ thankfully I not superstitious â€“ and I lost at least half an hour at which point Sally overtook me. That was probably the hardest part as I knew she was strong and experienced and I didn’t think I would catch her again.
â€œAt this point I decided I needed to ride my own race and try not to push myself too hard to catch her as I would burn myself out.
â€œSo I rode steadily and eventually regained the lead over Sally on lap 16 when she had a mechanical. I then then took five minutes a lap back by pushing myself on with the mantra ‘you want this more’.
â€œI’d spent almost a year recovering from my foot injury and had been so focused on this iconic race as a challenge for my recovery that it spurred me on.â€
The Puffer highs
Naomi says the crowds that cheer on the riders were also a big part of her triumph. She adds: â€œThe supporters are always amazing and motivational.
“One good example is early on, lap four I think, there was a big group of school-age kids lining a part of the trail and they all gave me high-fives as I cycled past. That felt amazing.â€
Although the race became tougher and tougher for a tiring Naomi she describes a highlight moment in lap 18. She says: â€œIt was my last night-time lap, my amazing Exposure and AyUp lights had held out, I’d managed to put 10 minutes between Sally and me and I knew that, all going well, I only had three daytime laps left to do after it.
â€œRiding up to the highest point on the trail and seeing the sky get lighter was so energising it really pushed me on. I remembered something one of the spinning instructors at the studio I go to said: â€˜Push yourself on the second last effort, the last lap will take care of itself.â€™ OK, so it was the second and third last efforts but I was on the home stretch and it felt good.â€
The Puffer lows
The hardest parts of the Puffer were the dark early morning stint and energy.Â Naomi says: â€œI learned from the Relentless event. I’d had a serious crash in energy around 2am and slept for 45 minutes. I didn’t want to do this again, and really focused everything I could on eating and drinking enough to keep me going.
â€œI’d remember my reasons for doing the race, how far I’d come since my injury, including the people who had put themselves out to help me get here, including my support and friend Craig Sinclair and my partner Charlie, being a strong female role model for my kids and the other amazing girls I’ve met through cycling who inspire me to push myself.
â€œI kept telling myself that I was a machine: Fuel in, energy out, rest tomorrow, today be epic.â€
Naomi, who rode a 2015 Specialized Epic Expert Carbon World Cup 29-er bike, did not have a grand race plan and is delighted to have won. She says: â€œI honestly just put my head down and kept riding. I didn’t really have any tactics. All the advice suggested was to try to keep an even pace.
â€œI knew I had to keep going and not stop to sleep and I knew I had to do more laps than the other girls. The rest was just trusting that my body was capable.â€
More about Naomi
The IT project manager is also a single mum to Zac, 13, and 10-year-old Amelia. She rides her mountain bike in the Pentland Hills, close to her home, and at the trail centres of Glentress and Innerleithen.
Naomi started cycling when Amelia was four as a way to escape from a difficult periodÂ in her life. She says: â€œIt gave me time to escape and helped me grow strong as a woman and gave me courage to move on.
â€œIt’s so important to me that my children have strong female role models in their life and when they tell me how proud they are of me it makes me so happy that I have done this for me and for them.â€