Stage 3 - enter the sleepmonsters

This was the stage where it all started to get a bit tough. We knew to expect 'ups and downs' during the race and that there could be a few 'out of character' episodes. Thankfully, we never experienced these all at the same time and I know it is true that none of us could have done the race on our own. I'd worried before the race that, under pressure and sleep deprivation, we might struggle to get along. But the way it worked out whenever anyone said or did anything weird it was so plainly obvious that they were doing it out of sheer exhaustion and struggle that there was no question you could get annoyed with them or upset by anything they did.

The stage was supposed to start with downhill mountain biking but we chose to skirt round this section by road as it looked pretty steep and we thought we'd be quicker riding downhill than nervously pushing our bikes and trying not to fall over, especially since it was night time. Next we had a trekking section where I realised that the tarmac road we were walking along wasn't even on the map. And animals stared waving at me.

I'd heard of sleepmonsters and adventure racing before - how the sleep deprived mind can make you see stuff that isn't there. This was my first experience of it. At least these monsters were friendly and they kept me entertained during the wee hours. I even got a new team mate at one point though she melted away into the night when I looked hard at her. My knee had started hurting and walking towards towards the next transition was a real struggle. At one point I just sat down on a fence. It wasn't voluntary, I just did it.

Getting closer to transition (after one false transition, where I'd mistaken some road signs for people) I was overjoyed to see comfy chairs, a warm room and lots of racers sitting around with their feet up. Sadly this was another mirage and we quickly swapped to cycling shoes in a freezing car park and were off on our way again.

Thank goodness the sun eventually came up. 'always better in the morning'

This was the ride of a 100 hills, 1000 windmills and many splendid suns. Others referred to it as the World bike pushing championships :) We attached our bikes together using our tows so we were all in one long line and our very own champion Philip put his muscles to good use pulling all of our bikes up those hills. What a shame that we couldn't manage to ride down them again. I suspect they were wasted on our tired bodies and brains.

It felt like many days later but eventually we decided it would be a great idea to stop at a village and get some 'real' food rather than just the sweet stuff we'd been eating for days. We walked into a bar with eyes as big as saucers, dreaming of pizza or pasta or just anything savoury. Except they didn't serve food.

Instead, the owner drew us a map on a napkin to indicate where the nearest restaurant was - a mountainous 7km away!! Sorely disappointed, we decided that at least some coffees, cokes and crisps would tide us over and we carried these outside feeling decidedly sorry for ourselves. 10 min later, the owner (who I'm covinced must be my fairy Godmother) turned up with homemade bread from her own house, cheese, ham, butter and fruit. Absolute heaven!!! I've never torn into a sandwich so quickly or enjoyed one so much. We had a bit of trouble communicating with the owner but we'd found that a high number of Portugese speak french so I did my best at explaining to her what on earth we were doing. As we pointed to the hills we had just ridden over she started looking increasingly horrified and began pulling out friends, neighbours and her son to exclaim over the map. I'm still not sure she totally understood what we were doing but I'm very grateful she took pity on us starving waifs. A box of shortbread will be winging its way to her shortly!

Our late arrival at the next transition point had sparked some consternation from the race organisers. So much so that they came rushing up to us to ask whether we needed an ambulance and if we were going to pull out. Not exactly words of encouragement when we were already tired. I decided a definite no would be a good answer to both of these - we hadn't actually realised we were all that late but, thinking back, we hadn't seen any other racers all day, except once, while having a brief 5min snooze at the roadside.

This stage was another rollerblade. It started off on cobbles again and I really didn't think my knee was going to let me complete the stage. Luckily the smoother pavements weren't so bad. Possibly they were too smooth as we were quickly picking up speed on the downhills. At one point I saw Philip hare off ahead and I wondered why he was leaving us. Then remembered that when we were practicing at Bellahouston he was the one who experienced the greatest difficulty stopping...

I've never seen a longer or steeper downhill in my life. Teams had been told they should take skates off towards the bottom as it would be too dangerous to skate the whole way. We took ours off near the top. Except Philip of course. He hadn't realised his brake was wearing out and he took off at the speed of light only to find he had no way of stopping. Heeding Don's advice he did nothing but get in a tuck (and pray) and got faster and faster until finally, and thankfully, the gradient started to go uphill again. Still at the top of the hill, the rest of us had thought he was a goner!

By this point we'd adopted two new team members - Russ and Gill from Team Innovate and also from the UK. Their other team mates had dropped out so we thought we'd join forces during the night.

our adoptees

As we walked down the hill together I called everyone over to see a beautifully engraved wall, covered in statues and umm... i'm not sure. Everyone had a good look at the wall, exchanged looks with each other, then continued walking, murmuring things about sleepmonsters and 'away with the fairies'.

Heeding the pre-race words of wisdom from Russ and Iona about kayaking sending people to sleep, we opted to have a quick 20min sleep on a hall floor before starting the kayak stage. They were dead right about the rythmical nature of kayaking in the darkness being perfect for lulling you to sleep - until your paddle hits the water with a crash that is. That must have been the hardest section for Philip as his body was obviously desperate to grab some sleep. I tried really hard to keep him awake by talking to him (we were sharing a kayak) but I think my conversation left a lot to be desired and at some stage I resorted to interrogating him just to keep in contact: 'what was the name of your high school? what was the name of your primary school? how many years were you at high school?' Lizzie and Dan had already done the same with me earlier that day and been regailed with my million and one facts about viagra, as gleaned from PhD.

When conversation and word games (what vegetable begins with z?) had been more than exhausted we moved on to singing. Pyro had written the words of 'eye of the tiger' onto Philip's mapboard so we tried singing that, several times and just about every other song imaginable from Frere Jacques to the Sound of Music. It may have been pretty dire for everyone else but it kept me awake!

Gill and Russ were great about just paddling a bit behind and letting us get on with our team thing in our own way. They understood from their own racing experience (possibly better than we did) that after us having put so much thought into how we worked together, new people could really change the whole dynamic. So they accompanied us and chatted to us when we chatted to them but otherwise didn't interfere.

And we paddled down the river, weaving in between the buoys that marked the Portugal / Spain border and dreamed of the end of the paddle! The next section had a fairly complicated set of cut-offs attached to it. We were pretty clear that we didn't want to be there between 9pm and 3am as this would mean that we would have to do an extra 8hr of kayaking. Clearly not an option for us!

Eventually daylight came and we dragged our boats onto the shore to get to the next assistance area- desperate to sleep. There, one of the organisers informed us that we'd missed the 6am cut off (what cut off??) and would not be able to continue onto the next stage. Flabbergasted, we thought this meant we were out of the race entirely but he reassured us that it just meant they would drive us to the next assisstance area where we could get some sleep (a whopping 4hr as it turned out) and carry on the race with everyone else. And we'd miss out a long bike leg - something we could all live with. I even got to have a quick shower -luxury!


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