MacKay’s Mafia prove age no barrier to the ultimate psychological test

Freezing temperatures, 17 hours of darkness, mile upon mile of gruelling terrain – ice, wind, hail, rain, mud and snow and maybe, just maybe, a glorious Scottish winter sunrise.
Hector traverses the rough terrain on his way round the course.Hector traverses the rough terrain on his way round the course.
Hector traverses the rough terrain on his way round the course.

Mountain-bike challenges don’t come much tougher or more rewarding than the ‘Strathpuffer’ – the legendary 24-hour mountain-bike endurance event held every year in the Highlands of Scotland in the middle of winter.

The marketing blurb from the website makes it clear this is not a race for the faint hearted but last weekend, two weeks after the traditional excesses of the festive period, three fifty-year-olds from Lewis spent 24 hours racing around a gruelling 8-mile mud track in the hills outside Strathpeffer.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Launched in 2005, the ‘Strathpuffer’ is counted amongst the ten toughest mountain-bike races on the planet. Little wonder.

“I often ask myself why I do it”, Hector MacKay from Stornoway, a veteran of five ‘Strathpuffers’, told me after he had reached his island home safely: “It’s a race of extreme limits. I have done it in six inches of snow and in temperatures of minus 14 but this year was the toughest yet because of the heavy rain which turned the track into inky, glutinous mud that gets into every crevice of bike and rider.”

This year, Hector teamed up with Joe Engebretson and Tony Duffy, both from Stornoway, and Colin MacLean, who lives close to Contin, to compete in the Quads event as MacKay’s Mafia.

“The race starts at 10am on Saturday and ends at 10am on Sunday. One time around the track and then the next guy takes over. This rotation goes on for hour after freezing hour, mostly in the dark, with only a head torch to guide cyclists between trees, over slippery rocks and boulders, and down sharp descents with your bike slithering and sliding all over the place.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“The circuit starts with a steady uphill climb of about three miles, you then shift to rough tracks with more climbing and the final section is almost all downhill. In daylight you can do a circuit in around 45 minutes but as darkness falls and the track slowly disappears under churned up mud, becoming increasingly treacherous, your time slows down to about 75 minutes.

“When you finish your circuit the first thing you must do is power-hose your mountain-bike to stop the mud choking all the moving parts. You then try and get the mud off yourself before eating a lot of food. You can burn up to 1000 calories per circuit, so nutrition is critical, or you face total burn out.”

The physical and mental torture of this annual race is a magnet for around 1000 endurance cyclists from all over the world. Many of them return year after year and age is no barrier. Hector’s team of four had a combined age of 207 years but, incredibly, it is not unknown for some cyclists to be competing in their 70s.

Hector told me: “It is a race for all categories. At the top end you have the professionals who arrive with a supporting team including physios and nutritionists. They do the race on their own. These guys are machines. Others do it as pairs, the rest in teams of four.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“The quads event is easier because we get some rest time, but it is a huge mental challenge to get back on the bike in the dark in sub-zero temperatures knowing you are going to strain every sinew cycling through pools of thick mud with limited visibility. But it’s a great feeling when you’ve done it.”

Hector’s team completed 23 laps in 24 hours finishing 18th out of 89 teams of four. Despite what he described as “several spills” they travelled home with no injuries.

Will MacKay’s Mafia do it again? Only days after the race Hector is non-committal: “Every year I say NO. Never again. But after a few weeks you forget about the pain and the bad bits. You only remember the highpoints.” I suspect he’s already beginning the mental preparation for next year.