Fear and louthing (LEL 2017)

8 hours to start

My sleep had been broken all week. I was both wanting to get on with it and hoping it would forever stay a week away so I wouldn’t have to actually start. Two weeks to go and I was about as ready as I was going to get physically and mentally, but there were still a lots of small things to do: make sure I had a paper backup for route sheet, transfers GPS files, finalise dropbag contents, have another nervous pee.

On my final final bike check on the morning of the ride I managed to snap my ‘bagman’ holder for my voluminous carridice saddlebag. Being a man of many bikes and many parts I was able to go into the attic and select a touring rack to replace it. Worse, as I had got up that morning I had pulled a muscle in the middle of my back and was in some small pain – not enough to stop me, but enough to be thinking about how much it might hurt during the week.

Then it was hours of foot tapping and eating before I jumped on my bike and rode the 5 miles from home up to Loughton. Steph and Baxter would meet me up there. I wanted to get up there for 2 to wave off a couple of the earlier AMCE riders, Karl and Raymond.

The bike feels heavy. In my mind I am wondering what I can cast off, but I’ve been through this dozens of times. The only things I could potentially loose are wet weather gear and, given the forecast, it’s not a great idea to be throwing safety and piece of mind away just yet.

In the last few days I have settled on build and spec for the bike. I had been trying to switch out to road shoes and pedals for the bigger contact area and hopefully less ‘hot foot’ but the experiment hadn’t worked. I have my cleats quite a way back towards my midsole and the road shoes didn’t have that level of fore-aft adjustability. As a consequence I was getting weird knee issues, so had switched back to my thrashed Specialized MTB boots and SPDs, both coming up to five years old. I hoped I would get another 1500km out of them!

I’ll write another post on kit and training, so let’s glide past all that and back up to Loughton.

I was in the very last start group of the slowest (116 hour) group. Riders had been going off since 5am, the faster the earlier. By the time I got up there there weren’t that many riders left to go. In marked contrast to PBP it was quiet, a lot less bother than a big UK event. Slowly the riders for the AMCE group started coming in, then Ian and Johnathan, my ride buddies, turned up and we all sat around folding tables in the school hall drinking tea and making nervous jokes.

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(L-R) Ian, Jonathan and I doing weird things with my tongue.

At the last minute I handed Steph and Baxter my voice recorder and asked them to record something for me, something for the dark times.

Soon enough our letters, ‘MM’, were called and it was time to scan the brevet card and line up at the start fro some photos and last minute WTFing.

I felt a bit sick. I knew something of what was coming, but I had never gone beyond 600km (38hrs) before and this ride was just about two and a half times that. The day before, at registration, Dave Minter made a bit of time for a chat with me. He knew about my slow deflation on PBP and the food issues, told me I’d be fine and reminded me that day three was always better than day two.

Four days and a half days of riding. 10,000 metres of climbing. A time limit. I still hadn’t got my head around it.

All you can do is one bit at a time. The next control, the top of the next hill, sometimes I was going to be happy to make the next pedal stroke. If you think about it all at once you just feel… overwhelmed.

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No, one of these men is me. This is Audax Clud Mid Essex who I usually ride with: (L-R) Kiwi Nik, Jason, Tom and Andrew. (Photo Josie Cordwell)

Suddenly I am waving at Steph and Baxter and clipping in.

Day one and a bit – Loughton to Scotch Corner – 448km

While I am riding with Ian and Jon there is a whole swag of mates from ACME on this start time too; Tom, Nik (the other kiwi), Andrew and Jason. So the first couple of hours are like a regular ACME ride. With the strong tailwind and the easy company it’s good progress; up and over the Epping ridge, over to Pukeridge then over the A505, where the road flattens totally for a good 100km. The weather is cool, we dodge and then intercept some rain and the light is already low. It’s not cold though and the heavy cloud means the night will be relatively warm.

The first stop is St Ives, just above Cambridge. We make an average speed of just over 26kph for just on four hours. Easy peasy. Best thing is we are in it now, nothing to do but make the first day plan happen.

At St Ives there are not that many people there – the ‘bulge’ has passed through here hours before. The ‘slow’ group of 116hr riders has been setting off since 9am, so as some slow and others go quicker a middle wave of peak riders forms. Good for pacing and getting a free ride up country, but this can place a lot of stress on controls and particularly food.

Our thinking is that it’s better to be in front or behind the bulge and since we are duffers there’s no point trying to be in front, so we might as well be as far behind as we can. It will make the event seem smaller than it really is.

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North through the Fens (Photo Ian)

After a reasonable stop everyone gets their night clothes on and then it’s back off towards Spalding just over 60km north, again the tailwind giving us a gentle shove along. This is Fenland proper now. This is very much home ground for many of us, and the route is similar to The Flatlands, a 600 out and back up to the Humber. The main factor on the Flatlands is wind and, given the prevailing wind in the UK is South East, the usual issue is a headwind on the home leg across the fens. The trick is to take the boost of the tailwind without burning yourself out.

From Spalding it’s business as usual to the base of the Lincolnshire Wolds, another 60km on. It’s the end of the easy riding now, we’re late into the night about to pass 200km.

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Somewhere night one. Still smiling. Photo Ian.

There are two meaningful climbs now, one with a sharp 10% ramp in it and we are all reaching for our smaller gears. This is ‘not a hill’ in the grand scheme of things, but every vertical metre has to be fought for, speed and effort balanced. Then we are zooming down an unaccountably well-surfaced lane into the Louth control.

Up to this point it has felt like a smaller ride than it is. Our posse riding together, the familiar terrain, the empty controls and familiar faces have made it seem like a normal ride.

But Louth. Oh my.

Riders from earlier in the day have singled it out as a stopping point and it is rammed. There is an upstairs floor that looks a collision between a sportive and WWI field hospital. Riders stand around hoping for some food. There is none. There is a tea urn and a five minute queue to reach it. The tea is luke warm. There are no volunteers to be seen. A bowl of cranberries appears. For several hundred riders. It’s a total washout. From my food research I knew that there was nothing in town open and the nearest on-route food was up by the humber and wouldn’t open until seven am, a good few hours away yet.

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Madness at Louth (Photo Jason Burns)

The plan had been to have a ‘table-nap’ here. That’s where you put your head down on the table for ten minutes. It’s a bit of a trick to convince your body you’ve had some sleep. But without food or drink it all seems like a loss. Tom tells us about a 24hr SPAR just off route – no one needs prompting and we are on our bikes quickly, taking a detour along an A road and into a forecourt.

A classic Audax UK half hour ensues. We all circulate the aisles looking for things to eat, grab a coffee from a Costa Machine and then sit around for twenty minutes stuffing our faces. Outside its light already and we set off to rejoin the route rejoining the party again on top of the ridge.

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That’s better – at an off-route 24hr SPAR

And now we are riding with a lot more people. This is worrying. Not for us, for them. We are back markers going a pretty average rate so if we are catching people up then they are probably going too slowly. Most people look like they know what they are doing but there are people from Asia who are wearing padded jackets and balaclavas (I am wearing a baselayer and windproof shell and fingerless gloves) and there are people who are clearly not going to make it. Sandshoes? No, sorry. I say hello to everyone I pass – I remember this from PBP, being overtaken by people started behind you, how dispiriting it can be.

My basic mental mark is to try and make Edinburgh in 48 hours. If you double that to get 96 hours back that gives an extra 10 hours for fatigue and misadventures to play with. Taking a few hours sleep on night one is not going to help anyone achieve that.

For reasons known only to themselves Jason and Jonathan start a game that they will be playing all day – racing up the road together. I sit on a steady speed and shake my head. Riders are very different in pacing, some people really need to surge every now and then. The trick is to leave them to it – they will wait, or get tired. I’ve ridden with Jonathan enough to know that he does this and I don’t try and keep up anymore. I am consciously holding back 10% all the time, changing down earlier on the hills, rarely straying into anything like a power band. I am being Mr Steady, keeping level with Nik B and Andy, chatting about houses and jobs and things that pass the day.

Over the Wolds there are some short steep ‘down and up’ climbs before a final, long 20km gradual descent to the Humber River. We regroup down here just before 8, so 16 hours after setting off. We contemplate a Tesco stop but Jason has a secret breakfast option up his sleeve so we push on over the bridge.

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Humber Bridge (Photo Barry Covington)

I hate that bridge. The handrail is just not high enough. The drop to the river is way too high. The traffic is too close.

I lead, if only to get it over with as quickly as possible. I do not look anywhere but down at the path in front of me.

On the other side Jason leads us to a cafe nestled into a business estate just a little off route and here we tuck into proper coffees, omelettes, bacon rolls – the breakfasts of hungry middle aged dudes. We’ve just ticked through 300km and it’s still feeling ‘normal’. We’ve all done plenty of rides like this; 300 or 400 km through the night with no sleep. But there’s more in front of us; The Howardian Hills.

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Trying to look tough before the Howardian Hills, about 28 hours in.

We get to the hills around Howard Castle and the rollers begin – a series of short sharp climbs that take you up to momuments, or through gateways. It’s all very charming, if somewhat tiring. Jason powers off in front, Jonathan chases and the rest of us do what we can.

One thing that becomes clear is that Ian is not climbing at the same rate as everyone else. He has no problem on the flat, but hasn’t got the vertical miles in his legs this year. He is, however, our LEL vet, having managed it in 2013 after not much Audaxing at all so I figure he must know what pace he needs to get to the end.

By the time we get into the next control at Pocklington he is fifteen minutes behind Jonathan and I. We wait while the ACME train heads north. Their plan is to make a control around 9pm for a ‘decent’ sleep. Our plan is a bit different. Jonathan has trouble sleeping in dorms (actually just sleeping) and so has booked a couple of hotel stops. The first is at Scotch Corner, a lovely services off the A1. We get there at around 7pm and decide to be back out on the road by 1am.

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Pocklington, just before the ACME crew leave us behind.

I was thinking the hotel stop might be a serving suggestion and that we might skip it, but I don’t resist at all when we turn to get there. I am dog tired by now. 450km is about my limit (so far!) of riding without a sleep, but I would have liked to stay inside the ‘bubble’ of the event. The bubble is good, it keeps you focused and no one looks at you weirdly. Inside the bubble it’s perfectly ok to be a sunburnt middle aged guy with hair legs in Lycra who looks like a wind-slammed cyclo-tramp sitting on the floor going through an old canvas bag sorting out bits of plastic and lycra. Doing the same outside an M&S food makes you feel a little, errr, odd.

Never mind. I get a nice picnic dinner from M&S, go back to my room and had a shower. I was reluctant to go to sleep and it took me a while to figure out why – if I went to sleep then I would have to wake up and that would mean that ‘day two’ would have begun. I knew what was coming was difficult and that we had had an easy day in many ways.

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#travelodgefinedining

Tomorrow would be a big day physically, but there was more going on here. There was the social and organisational aspect – the whole setup was making me nervous. The three of us had ridden a few rides together and had some fun, but on the last ride together I had got extremely impatient with how much stopping we were doing and eventually just rode off ahead. Ian is relentlessly optimistic and out to have a good time. I am about the opposite and specialise in pessimistic forecasts so I just want to get on with it, with Jonathan somewhere in the middle. But I have been reading about performance quite a lot lately in an effort to understand my own mental state in these long rides and while optimism is a useful trait that makes you think that you can keep going pessimism is a lot more accurate in assessing chances and performance. My pessimistic view was that we were sleeping too long and would be travelling too slow the next day.

I had to really calm myself to sleep. I was anxious about the time. Ian had completed this before, he didn’t have the need that I did. I was not missing this one.

An instant later and I was awake again, getting ready for the 1am off.

Day 2 – Scotch Corner to Innerleithen – 306km

We set off into the night, towards Barnard Castle. The Thirsk to Barnard Castle leg is relatively benign, taking an easy middle route up through the Vale of York and it was short, flat hop to complete it.

The Barnard Castle control was lovely – a private school no less, the dining room festooned with wooded panelling overwritten with the names of the would-be-posh witless wonders who had gone there to become establishment and empire-building drones, and plenty who had ‘given their lives’ in two stupid wars. Never mind the attitude, they had good caterers and excellent food and we arrived just on the change from dinner to breakfast, so had both.

By this stage I had almost stopped listening to Ian. He is a self-confessed chatter box and would stop and chat to people on the way in and out of controls, profusely thanking the volunteers, which is wonderful and generous – except when it is impacting my time on the bike. I found myself getting shorter and shorter with him and realising that it actually made no difference, he was on his own timetable and agenda and nothing I said seemed to make any impact to it. There was a division coming, that was for sure. It became clear to me that we hadn’t talked about this – what were the conditions for the group disbanding? We’re we always waiting for each other even if that meant running the clock low? I think I was at fault here and I didn’t really buy fully into the ‘no one left behind’ ethos that Ian and Jonathan were more committed to. I was very much prepared to leave anyone behind to finish in time and would be expecting – like for like – to be left behind if needed too.

So now for the hills… The top half of the ride is decidedly bumpy. Not epic alps, but constantly up and down. The first challenge is the ascent of Yad Moss, a long, sustained climb from 200 to 600 metres. This is nothing by European standards, but nevertheless represented a good hours toil. It got lighter and lighter as we went upwards, still the tailwind helping us up, Ian dropping behind. It’s a nice climb, a steady effort only, nothing excruciating. Worryingly we are overtaken by an ambulance on the way up and an hour later see a couple of bikes without riders being loaded into vans.

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Middle of… (Photo Olaf Storbeck)

It’s about 5am as we come down the other side and it takes me a while to realise I am having an attack of the dozies as I am descending at 40mph. The clarity of my peripheral vision drops, things become smoky around the edges, a little dream like. It’s not too serious and I can shake it my talking to myself and singing – no one to hear me but the hills as I belt out something I sing in my choir – ‘Shine’ by Take That. No time for judging taste, its just what comes into my head so it will do!

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The lounge at Brampton.

We wait at Brampton, and wait some more. I am about ready to go when Ian turns up and we wait for him again. It’s a dropbag stop though, so at least I can have two bowls of gluten free muesli and I get my first change of clothes. I only own three pairs of riding shorts so I get my first fresh set here and I gladly put on my merino cycling top from NZ (which is so good I keep it on for the rest of the ride). I change socks, but realise that I don’t have enough pairs. Somewhere I took out two pairs that would have been nice to have, as it turns out.

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So where are the drop bags?

Then there’s the tedious B road leg to Moffat. As soon as you cross into Scotland the roads turn to custard. They seem to be chipped with boulders. The houses get more solid. Frontages are more determinedly protestant. This is a road that shadows the M1 and you can hear it all the time. Trucks come off it, hunting for sleeping spots, and seem to take great delight in passing close. After the Pennines it feels almost gritty-urban. The road is often dead straight, the surface claggy, and it climbs almost imperceptibly making you feel like you are riding too slow. There’s a reason for the slowness, other than being stuffed.

It’s on this section, where I have time to think again, that I realise that the many hours of cycling behind me are still not equal to the many more that are in front. I could let that spook me but instead I remind myself that I’ve been training for six months for this; I remind myself what it’s like to DNF a ride like this; I remind myself this is a thing that I have put my hand up for, something I want to finish. And I accept the depth of the task.

I had this back on the Bryan Chapman, a moment where you come face to face with the size of the ride and you have to decide that it’s going to be done. Back then it was accepting that I was only going to get an hours sleep and that would be enough. This moment comes on the road, not in the planning, and for me its a moment that makes or breaks it. It was exactly this moment and its decision that I turned away from on PBP back in 2015.

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Repacking (again) at Moffat.

Thankfully this leg isn’t too long and we turn off the B road into the control at Moffat after a few hours.

Where we wait for Ian.

It’s a great control, plenty for me to eat, perhaps my fear of being a misunderstood Coleiac in Scotland is for naught? Moffat is another high-school control and they know how to turn the food around, they’re used to 1000 servings inside an hour. By this stage I am having double servings of dessert where I can, rice pudding, tinned fruit too, sprinkled with extra sugar, school food.

At this control we pick up Andrew. He was one of the earlier ACME crew that is not quite on their pace and has drifted behind – to our position. So the ACME crew are at least two hours further up the road than we are, which makes me nervous. I know Tom, he knows exactly how to play these kinds of rides. Andrew is convinced that he is not going to ride past Edinburgh, but Jonathan (I think) convinces him to head out with us and see what happens.

There’s a steady 200m climb out of Moffat, followed by a glorious downhill. A group of three woman who, I find out later, are from Romania, let off the brakes and fly past me screaming out with delight. As we start to make the run in to Edinburgh we pull up and wait for Ian.

I make a total idiot of myself as I pull in beside the road. I can see a head bobbing in the bushes, someone guy taking a comfort stop. They see me and I put my hands over my eyes in mock modesty – surely we’ve all gone past that level of modesty now? And then she comes out of the bushes. Whoops. I decide not to make it worse by telling her I thought she looked like a man from a distance. I just shut up and eat a piece of my precious GF bread I’ve been carrying since Barnard Castle.

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We wait for fifteen minutes before Ian comes up the road, chatting happily to someone. It occurs to me that I am totally wasting my effort – I might as well be going the same speed as Ian, which is too slow for my liking.

Slightly tight-mouthed I set off again and soon enough we are nearing Edinburgh.

And the heavens open. It’s properly biblical, water pooling on the road almost instantly, everything soaked through before I have time to find somewhere to stop to don the over trousers that would save my getting wet feet. That’s the problem with winter boots, they are like buckets, once water is in it stays in. Worse it’s rush hour, the traffic is heavy and we are suddenly careering down steep busy roads. The bottom of one gully is awash with six inches of water, drains overflowing, roadworks, cars… it’s all a bit manic and with a continual line of tired riders in front and behind traffic is taking sketchy chances to overtake.

A surreal moment where someone over takes us all on an ebike.

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Great selfie by Jason, caught up in the same rain.

I am sure the railpath into Edinburgh is a delight in the sun, but overloaded with wet cyclists and impatient comuters coming out of the city it’s a bit demanding. Finally we get to the control and the rain eases just as we put our bikes against the wall. Sodden and cold, I go into the high school hall and look at the food. Nothing for me beyond potatoes and baked beans and fruit salad. This is the GF unfriendly control it seems. I try not to let it get me down, though I am really craving some grains again now. I do manage to score a blanket and, wrapped up in that and my one luxury item of clothing (a primaloft gilet) I get the chill out of my bones.

I was aiming for 48 hours and we made it in around 50 and a half, so not too bad all in all. However I was acutely aware that we had had a fair to good tailwind for 700km and that some of the ride back was going to be a battle into it.

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Looking forward we agree we would like to get to Eskdalemuir but realised that it will be crammed and we will have no chance of a bed, so we settle for the control before at Innerleithen. Andrew has decided that he can go one better than Edinburgh so sets out with us, and we have caught Jason again so he joins us too.

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Setting out from Edinburgh. That thing on my head is the most stupid and yet most effective piece of wet weather cycling kit I own. You may laugh, but the last laugh will be mine!

As we exit Edinburgh we pass a Co-op and I run in to buy something, anything, gluten free and made of grains. A packet of GF chocolate digestives will do. Then it’s up onto the climb out of Edinburgh, which is just lovely. The sun had broken back through and the rain abated. We can see right back down to the Firth of Forth and Arthur’s Seat in the distance. And we’re off the B roads and onto lovely country lanes, heading off to the quiet back valley that parallels our way up, riding in good company and chatting our way up the hill.

With the gathering darkness I realise I have a problem. My exposure Strada, which has never been happy in the rain, has turned into a expensive paperweight and my backup light, a Hope One, also hasn’t responded well to a soaking. I get out my third backup, a tiny flasher, strap it as best I can to the aero-bars and make sure I am riding close to Jonathan for the final run down the valley to the control at Innerleithen.

And it’s a great valley – close and sepulchral in the gathering dark, deeply folder and bruised with heathers and moss, a dark stream rushing alongside us, daring us faster.

Getting into the control I feel like I could stretch myself to do one more, but there’s no need. We are 52% of the way. I am tired, of course, but not exhausted. It feels a million miles away from the hotel at Scotch Corner some 20 hours previously, both in distance and mood. It’s been a big day with a ton of climbing in it but I am sane and my body is ok and we got to the magic 300km mark for the day. All those hills in training paid off. I know now that I could make this ride now. I am still not sure that I would yet.

One thing we needed to do to make the ride was, unfortunately, leave Ian to his own pace. I reckon we’d ‘lost’ 90-120 minutes in the day waiting. Not a great problem if this was a lark around, but I was getting bloody minded now; bloody minded, selfish and a bit steely. I’d flunked out of PBP and only then realised how much I wanted to finish it, so I knew that I would do what it took, on the bike and off, to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. I was prepared to be a bit ruthless to make it to the end.

Still, the conversation with Ian could wait for the morning.

I checked in for three hours sleep. As for all the controls the bed was an air mattress and a couple of blankets made from recycled something. You are lined up in rows and are surrounded by snoring, farting, sweaty men. It’s not pretty but it is effective. My main problem was wet socks, so I took them off and put them on top of chest and put my feet inside my gilet and then fell to sleep quickly with no anxiety at all.

Day 3 – Innerleithen to Pocklington – 275km

Jonathan was looking a bit grumpy with Ian and I as we got up. He hadn’t had a lot of sleep and had had to come and make sure we were both woken up again as we had promptly fallen back asleep after our wake up call. I suspect the young woman in charge of waking duties was being too polite!

I was glad of my chocolate biscuits as there was nothing for me for breakfast. It turned out later that they had a ton GF food if you asked – arrrghhhh! I decided I would leave behind my stuffed Strada and that I could do without my cheap lock, I hadn’t used it and was unlikely too. Maybe just a psychological thing but every gram helps.

Over breakfast Jonathan, who rides a lot more with Ian than I do, bought up the ‘we have to keep moving’ conversation to which Ian, to his credit, promptly told us to leave him behind if needed. Looking back on it I think Ian was out for a good time and was loving the social aspect of it. I was much more focused on finishing. Perhaps we really hadn’t ridden enough together this year to really work that out. One conclusion from this ride is that you need to choose your partners carefully and people who are good for you (and you for them) on shorter rides may not be as good for on the longer. It’s also as likely that Ian was thinking of me as tight-lipped pace monster who needed to enjoy himself more, and to be fair he’d be right! Sorry mate!

It’s also worth noting that the difference in pace was not great, none of us were threatening with our high speeds. Ian would only be losing time uphill and even then only seconds to the kilometre, but it goes to show how these small differences can seem large indeed, specially when you are tired.

That settled Jonathan kindly loaned me his backup light, a commuting cheapie with a thin weak beam. Better than nothing and just enough light to ride in. If anyone remembers back to those plastic d-cell lights of the 80s, it was like that. Old school.

Soon enough we had left Ian behind and I was riding with Jonathan up and over more hills, seeking the next valley into Eskdalemuir. We got into the control there in enough early morning light to see the temple and the buddah in the pond, both of which Jonathan completely missed! Sitting at the table was another ACME rider Rob (redlight) who confessed to having had to sleep – he made me promise not to tell anyone.

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Everyone looking a bit shagged at Eskdalemuir around 4am.

Luckily the GF gods liked this control and I was showered with options by the enthusiastic staff there including actual GF bread. Apparently Judith, who also has a gluten issue, even got cake. It was a great relief and I soaked up as many grains as I could before we got back out on the road again, getting out just as Ian pulled in.

There was a last section of valley with some short climbs and it was going up one of these that I really entered the twilight zone for the first time. I’d never ridden over two days and nights before so I had always been able to get away with one short nights sleep – or none – before a long sleep at the event end. But now I got a good close look at the mega-dozzies.

The mind/body is an interesting thing. It wants to look after you. It wants you to sleep and recover. It’s conservative. But if you ignore it it will start to send you increasingly strange messages to get you to sleep – it will try to scare you with hallucinations or voices. My body was very much telling me to get some more sleep, but it was also looking after me in that it was only sending me those signals when I was riding slowly, uphill. It’s much safer falling off going uphill!

I didn’t fall off, but there were long moments where I realised my eyes weren’t blinking, they were closed. I found myself wondering how long I could ride up a hill with my eyes closed. Quite a while it turned out, maybe five metres. Ten? Too long.

Luckily it passed soon enough and as daylight proper kicked in I was able to shake them.

Jonathan and I continued down the valley, rejoined the main roads outside of Langholm and played cat and mouse with Jason, who was often stopping to take pictures. I didn’t have a camera and my phone was safely inside my barbag – that’s why the photos in this article are from other people.

By early morning we had completed ‘the loop’ and were back in Brampton where I fell upon my GF muesli. I also had a sock change into my favourite pair of merino socks – bliss – dry and comfy.

As we had a cup of tea, catching up with various people’s progress, reports started coming in from riders about Ian. Jason had found him ‘feeling a bit ill’ and then Andrew had seen him throwing up over a barrier with about 30km left to go to the control.

Gastro. End of ride. Well at least I didn’t need to feel guilty any longer! That was a terrible way of looking at it and of course I hoped he would be alright, but it was also a little weight off my mind.

We got back on the bikes in under an hour, in concert with Jason, and readied ourselves for the ‘return match’ of Yad Moss.

I’d mostly been ignoring the forecast but I did know there was meant to be something like a gale coming in for the last day and a half. From the south. For an even juicer headwind.

As we left Brampton it all seemed pretty normal. The ride to Alston was tough, up a series of short and sharp climbs with steep ramps that would be giving tired knees a proper kicking. At one intersection we stopped behind a couple; she was stretching her knee and had tape on it and he was saying ‘Only 650k to go and we’ve almost done all the hills’. I don’t think she was taking his optimism that well.

I lost both Jason and Jonathan on the run into Alston. I went to the popup control, which had popped down, then back to the SPAR where I bought some supplies and had  a warm coffee. Waiting outside for Jonathan there was a rider there who sounded a like Macbeth with his prognostications of doom; ‘It’s going to be three hours of hell up there…’

I listened to him, put on all my wet weather gear and then started up the hill, lasting five minutes before overheating. I stopped and stripped off the leggings, went back to merino top and goretex shell and got back to work thinking the doom and gloom prophecy was somewhat over done.

But I was wrong. It was raining steadily as I passed the ‘Drew Mobile’…

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Me passing Drew’s ‘magic oat bar cafe’ half way up Yad Moss – the weather beginning to close in. (Photo Ivo Miesen)

And then by the time I reached the top of the road works it was awful. Strong headwinds, driving rain, no visibility.

Somewhere in my distant past I grew up in a town that has its toe in the Southern Ocean. The storms are famous and frequent. I was taken back there, to the days when, crazy with cabin fever in winter, we would jump on our mountain bikes and ‘do an epic’ a few brazen hours of insanity plucked out of the storm’s jaws, being thrown about like washing on a line in the wind, taking full broadsides of horizontal rain like they were challenges from a foreign navy.

It was like that. It really was three hours of hell. The rain drove sweat deep into my eyes so I was riding with my eyes screwed up. I couldn’t stop to put on more clothes (and what was the point?) and I was desperately hoping that the fairy of pneumatic ill would stay a long way away. There were fences but barely any shelter. It was not a good time for anything to go wrong, it would have been very difficult to keep warm enough had anyone had to stop.

Even worse was having to pedal downhill. I kept looking disbelievingly at my Garmin. I felt like I was going up, and yet I was going descending.

And my lovely merino socks and finally dry feet were now soaking again.

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Up amongst the snow poles on Yad Moss (Photo Ivo Miesen)

It was an intense few hours that’s for sure and arriving back at Barnard Castle people were shaking their heads and muttering phases like ‘worst weather ever’. I found Jonathan, found a blanket, wrapped up warm and traded war stories. Andrew joined us as some stage here – still not retired – and we took a decent rest after our battering. That 80k from Brampton had taken a very long time indeed, over five hours with the stop at Alston.

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Recovering at Barnard Castle – starting to look like sh*t.

And then, just like after our soaking in Edinburgh, the weather cleared almost instantly and we were able to do the benign leg back to Thirsk in the fading sunlight. The contrast was extreme – we’d gone from a screaming argument with a manic uncle in his unheated sitting room to a pleasant chat in the warm back garden of a kindly aunt.

That really was the blessing of this years event, the rains were heavy but brief and the wind made sure the weather was moving quickly.

So we drifted along, me chatting to Andrew about his job and family, fairly sure I had had exactly the same conversation a few days before. It didn’t matter, it felt like ‘audax normal’ and Andrew is great company and had a bike I could look at all day without getting bored (unlike my own collection of parts which functions as a bike but doesn’t really have any particular aesthetic appeal).

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One worrying development was that Jonathan’s shifters were playing up. Again. This had plagued him (and by association, me) all the way through Bryan Chapman and now, despite new levers and a rebuild, it was happening again. I didn’t want to get too involved but I did put my finger against the cable as it came out around the bottom bracket and it was under a terrific amount of strain. We loosened off what we could by releasing some of the outer from under the handlebar tape and moved on, both of us really hoping this was not going to turn into a thing. Luckily it didn’t. Maybe SRAM Jonathan?

As we came back into Thirsk a train went by and, given the headwind, it seemed expedient to grab onto it, though it was a touch fast. Jonathan gave me a line about trains not being in the spirit of Audax or something like that and I took issue with him. My view is that Audax has a series of rules which you abide by and that how you do the rest is up to you. If you want to pretend that slaving away by yourself on a dawes super galaxy is somehow less artificial than riding a carbon racer in a disciplined train, then fine, but to me that view lacks perspective!

We ended up having a tit-fot-tat discussion about it but it wasn’t until the day after that I realised what was going on here – Jonathan was getting very tired, he’d had maybe half the sleep I had. Again it was something that I’d seen before on Bryan Chapman (and something he knows happens) where the lack of sleep makes him more edgy than normal. I get even more silent and substantially less patient. What fun!

We hadn’t done our 300 day when we rolled into Thirsk so we would need to make up some time in sleep (e.g. have less of it). It had been a big day and we might have pressed on had we needed to but with a short sleep here and then pushing through to St Ives tomorrow we would still be in with a good chance of finishing in time. The three of us agreed a start time of 2:30am and went to the dorm for a couple of hours sleep.

Day 4 – Thirsk to St Ives

Well Andrew and I slept – Jonathan did not. By my reckoning he had less than two hours over the last three nights. Not enough for me. Not enough for him either as it turns out.

Andrew joined us for the run out to the Howardian Hills and the first part of the ride was pleasant enough. I was still using the weak light but both the others had whackingly bright dynamo lights so there was no problem with visibility. We stopped at an intersection once and I looked up – the stars were amazing, more a lattice or mesh of light than individual stars… I am pretty sure the lack of sleep and fatigue was beginning to affect my perceptions, here in a good way, it was a little like a gentle mushroom trip (apparently).

Up and over the Howardian Speed Bumps was surreal too, with Jonathan’s light casting long flat shadows which I seemed to dive head first into as I crested a wave and freewheeled into the next dip, the sensation more like sailing down breakers than cycling.

Once again riding in the dark of the wee small hours was fine but when the dawn light started to trickle in my worldview started to go a bit wonky. Riding a quiet, flat lane around the outside of a large estate studded with manicured trees and sheep so white they looked like they had just been painted and placed there by a designer, I suddenly had the impression that the road was bending and warping, like a huge rubber band.

If you can imagine a friendly blue alien that took the form of an undulating ribbon that kind of hummed through different dimensions, and if you can imagine surfing on that, flicking from right side up to upside down, all the while looking into the judgmental faces of perfect sheep, well it was something like that only in Yorkshire, on a bike, at dawn.

It wasn’t worrying, in fact it was quite pleasant, but when Jonathan had a puncture soon after I realised I might need a quick nap. This was an opportunity to break another Audax duck – the ‘dead sleeper’.

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A ‘dead sleeper’ on Paris Brest Paris (Photo Rapha blog: http://pages.rapha.cc/stories/pbp-2011-four-journeys)

That’s what I call those cyclists who have just stopped somewhere, anywhere, and are taking a nap despite the cold and discomfort of where they are. These are the riders sleeping on driveways, propped up against hedges, sitting in phoneboxes. Anywhere will do no matter how improbable or uncomfortable. I lay down on a patch of long, wet, cold grass and fell into a black hole for as long as it took for Jonathan to fix his puncture. But it did the trick; the aliens moved on and the sheep had to try their passive-aggressive tricks on other riders.

Pocklington was another bag drop, more GF muesli and no more socks. Why didn’t I put more socks in? I took the chance to have a shower (my first since night one) and then we set off again.

By this time I was struggling to name the control we’d just come from or the one we would be reaching next. I was in a routine but one that was so unvarying that I seemed to be stuck in a five-hour loop – ride for four, muck about for one, rinse repeat until brain is scrambled.

Now we began the slog ‘down’ to the Humber, lots of small climbs but the main challenge was the wind, which was steadily building into the morning. By this point my comfort issues had started to emerge. I’d done really well to avoid anything significant so far. The seat was good, my back was good, I had no hot-foot at all. I was getting some friction burns on top of my thighs and, as expected, my hands were beginning to hurt. I had ummed and ahhhed a long time about aerobars. Mine aren’t very good ergonomically but I did keep them on and I think the ability to rest my hand by spending occasional periods on then had significantly delayed the onset of hand numbness.

We got to the Humber and I crossed the bridge with as much enthusiasm and joy as I had previously, and then we all swung into the Tesco for a breakfast. GF grains! Jonathan was tired enough to buy some hoisin duck sushi – he’s a vegetarian.

From here we began the most surprising leg – the stomp back up to Louth. This felt more challenging than Yad Moss – a long 20km gradual climb through monotonous fields and into a headwind. The sun was out and had me lathering on sun cream to protect my face, as much against wind abrasion as UV.

After that there were four short and vicious first-gear climbs on the back roads to Louth. Had we come this way on the way out? I couldn’t remember these hills, but then that meant little as I was beginning to struggle to remember the names of controls we had just left or were going towards.

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Pretty / painful. Photo Jason Burns.

Looking at one of these climbs them from a distance was like looking at a tapestry so vertical was its aspect. The riders climbing it had been sewn into the hill, delightful splodges of vivid color against the dark grey of the road. Of course such lofty aesthetic concerns are immediately followed by the physical reality of climbing it. First gear now, and I thought I wouldn’t use it after the climbs into Alston…

By this point I was fairly certain that I was going to make the ride, but the unexpected brutality of these little monsters was a reminder that there was plenty of hard riding to get through. And they would have been easily avoided, like the Howardian Hills at night, with some re-routing. But I didn’t want to play that game, I wanted to ride the route as our many foreign friends would. No shortcuts.

Louth by daylight was a lot more pleasant than the zombie killing field it had been on night one. It was nice to see the volunteers smiling in the sun and a bit of food out. A quickish stop and back out as soon as we could.

Climbing out out of town up a wonderful lane in the sun, and still with that headwind, we overtook a truly miserable couple of riders, one encouraging the other onwards as you might try to get a small child to walk up a flight of steps. It was pitiful. We really were the sword of Damocles now – anyone we overtook who had started before 2pm was out of time on the road and was going to have a tough job fighting back. To get 1100 km in and then not finish, that would be hell. It turns out that many people knew that wouldn’t finish in time by this point but had decided to press on regardless – which is exactly what I would have done at this point. There’s no dishonour in Audax in finishing a tough ride out of time.

The wind was getting worse. As we rode inside a small glade before descending to the Fens there was a very strange moment where the wind seemed to suddenly triple in speed and leap out at us. Momentarily confused I looked around for a thunder cloud, but then a jet fighter slid into view, flying low and banking away. The jet stream had seemed like an intensification of the wind rather than a break with it.

I was feeling confident now. Basically we had just under 300km to do in 24 hours. We only had a couple of hours up our sleeves, so it wouldn’t be easy, but the ride was basically flat for the next 250k. The major thing to deal with was the wind – ‘East Anglian Hills’.

I have a lot of experience of riding in wind as I grew up in Wellington which has an average 17.7 mph wind speed and the highest wind recorded there is a staggering 154mph! As a youth I was blown off my bike once, and when I unclipped my bike started to blow down the street. I know what it’s like to have to use climbing gears to ride into the wind. But these experiences are a long time ago now, back when I was a strong rider, under 30. Now I am ‘south-soft’ and the wrong side of 50 – and I have just done 1150km of riding on nine hours sleep. It’s going to be hard.

The key thing is not too waste yourself on the wind. There is a point where working really hard to go one kph faster is just pointless and you are better off slowing down and saving yourself. As we started our zig-zag on the flat towards Spalding it seemed that 18-20kph would be our lot for the day. Without hills that would still mean a relatively high average speed but it wasn’t going to be a fast run in.

And so the slog began. Hours of it. Just pushing through. Trying to take a wheel when you could, but by this stage of the ride you are only catching people, not being overtaken. Soon enough we had a little posse of people behind us. I was trying to be patient but with 20km to go I got fed up with it, went to the front of the group and hammered out 10km at a good pace. Pulling over to let someone else do some work… nothing happened. I looked back and there were six or so people taking shelter behind. For a moment I got a bit cross – why wouldn’t anyone do any work? But then remembered this was not a club ride, people didn’t have the knowledge of what to do and when. I sighed, put my head down, and slogged the final 10k to the control with my trail of ducks behind me.

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The Fens – brutally exposed, relentlessly straight and flat. (Photo Barry Covington)

We couldn’t muck about at Spalding and were on the road pretty quickly, by now nearing sunset. The ride along the Welland Bank was really beautiful – with my attenuated perceptions I was seeing all many of lovely shapes and the softening of the colours as the light leeched out of the fields was genuinely awe inspiring. By the time we reached Crowland it was dark and we still had a good distance to go. After Whittlesey there is a Strava Segment that is 10k long called ‘My Kingdom for a Corner’ which I managed at an average speed of 18kph. That’s slow going and it was obvious that we wouldn’t be getting much sleep.

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Welland Bank (Photo Ivo Miesen)

The last 20k were terrible, the hardest of the ride. On account of my piddly light Jonathan was riding behind me to show the way. Actually there was no real need but I was really tired and the thought of telling him not to bother seemed so exhausting and difficult that I didn’t quite get there. Consequently I was out the front doing all the work, which I didn’t resent at all as Jonathan is more than generous in this regard. Worse than the effort were the hallucinations. It was now twenty hours since my last two hour sleep and I was right on the edge, for Jonathan the numbers were even worse – he’d had a few fitful hours in the last three days.

An PBP I had managed to turn a collection of white reflective road signs into a twelve foot high white rabbit (very Alice) but this time things were much more abstract and very strange. With Jonathan’s light behind me I seemed to start to be riding along, zig-zagging between large sheets of glass. It was like I couldn’t take it any detail at all, all my body could do was present really large images to me. Great walls of light swept over me like breakers. I would have been hard put to explain where I was or what I was doing. The occasional car that come past seemed to be tearing the silence with huge aggression, a tsunami of light and sound that seemed wincingly close. I was properly out of it and there is no way I could have coped with anything other than riding in a straight line at ten miles an hour.

It was all beginning to feel a little like this…

At St Ives I fell on some food. I was incapable of doing the mental arithmetic to figure out how much sleep we could get so we asked Brian (an old Essex campaigner and fine gentleman who knew Ian and Jonathan) to work it out for us. Two hours would be safe.

Two hours. I practically ran to the dorm and was under before my head hit the mattress.

Day five – St Ives to Loughton

I knew every inch of the ride now, so really it’s just a case of cruising along, spending as little energy as possible while still maintaining a tenable average speed. I could, if need be, ride this right through without stopping at the required 12kph and have an hour to spare. I was wrung out but now totally confident we would do it. Even if Jonathan’s gears went and we had a couple of punctures we’d still be fine.

2 am and we’ve got ourselves out the door and are tackling getting onto the Guided Busway (an old railway route converted to use buses that run inside concrete tracks). Jonathan is struggling to navigate the way onto the bikepath. I tell him to mind out for the large hole in front of him – a shin eater if ever I’ve seen one – and perhaps take a different way. He is silent, ignores me.

Something’s different. He hasn’t directly spoken to me since before last night, and not really since yesterday early evening.

A few km further on and I realise I have lost him. I wait and then ride back. He is struggling with his light and muttering to himself. I ask him if he is allright.

What he says makes it clear he is not alright – that he is a long long way from alright. Jonathan is a friend so I am going to be circumspect here and draw a veil over most of this. All I knew was that in 2015 PBP Jonathan had also struggled to sleep and had ended up suffering from very deep hallucinations. As I spoke to him it became clear that he had been assembling a series of incidents and things said over the last 18 or so hours into a narrative than cast me as the bad guy wanting to stop him achieve the ride. An example – I had let some air out of my tyres at St Ives and Jonathan had transposed that to me letting air out of his tyres. And I had created the problem with his lights deliberately and had been making sure that he didn’t get any sleep.

This was not good. There was an aggressive edge to his behaviour and, me being the bad guy in all this, I was not sure that I was going to be able to influence him to do the right thing. Having figured out what was going on there was only one thing to do – take him back to the control at St Ives where he could try and have a decent sleep.

Even with the adrenaline shot of realising this was a serious rider health risk I was dealing with I was still pretty string-out myself. Using my best ‘in command but friendly’ voice I guided him back to the control as best I could. I got a bit lost myself and these diversions made him angry – I was deliberately trying to confuse him.

At the control I went to Brian and the controller, apologised and told them our problem and then basically said that I was going to dump the problem on them! Brian, a very kind and calm presence who knows Jonathan, took over and guided Jonathan back to the dorm. I tried to say goodbye and give Jonathan a hug but he wasn’t having any of it and physically recoiled when I moved towards him. It was unpleasant for me and no doubt a lot more unpleasant for him, but as he had made me the bad guy I figured there was not a lot I was going to be able to do for him beyond get him back to bed.

The controller noted my number and time and said if I was out of time because of this he would write it up. In Audax you don’t get extra time for a mechanical but you can apply for extra time if you help a distressed rider – someone who has had an accident, or is hypothermic. I told him I thought I would be fine.

So an hour after setting off with Jonathan I set off again by myself. Was it right to leave him behind? It was clear that he needed sleep and it was clear to me that taking that extra sleep would put him out of time even if he did recover a mental state that would let him continue. There was nothing to be gained by staying with him – he’d sleep and I’d get resentful. It was clear to me at the time that moving on was fine.

It was, of course, also a shame. Jonathan is good rider, stronger than me if anything. I am steadier though and I temper his urge to shoot off the front all the time – or at least that’s what I like to think. Together we ride really well. We’d ridden 1300km together and had Bryan Chapman together as well, so it was not great to lose him with so much of this done.

So then there was one.

Actually it was fine now. I had my piddly light but I knew the roads and soon enough I’d be riding into Cambridge in the small hours and after that it would be dawn. And I got to go my own speed, pretty slow, but steady enough. It was great to be able to look around more. One of the things about riding with others is that all you see is bottoms and back tyres. Riding by yourself you can look around more, take in the first fan of light in the east, freewheel past the beauty of the Cambridge colleges at your own speed.

Soon enough I was at Great Easton where I had as much pudding as I could find in lieu of breakfast. There weren’t many riders around now. Everyone was looking shattered but there was a sense that it was close to done.

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Looking great with 50km to go.

I now listened with pleasure to the message that Steph and Baxter had made for me days ago. I was pleased that I hadn’t needed to use it – a good sign that my mental ‘health and hygiene’ had been good. I had had a few hard moments, of course you would expect that on a ride like this, but had easily talked my way out of them. There had been no repeat of the slow mental collapse of PBP. I am more proud of this that the physical achievement of the ride.

I set back out into the morning – still more wind, but up here in the Essex rollers the effect was less extreme. It was around eight thirty in the morning and I had until 12:14 to ride the 50km. There was the ‘local knowledge’ option to erase a lot of the lumps in the final section by taking the main Epping Road, but there was plenty of time so I stuck with the route. It was busy on the roads now, rush hour, and the traffic around these parts is never particularly cyclist friendly.

As I came around a corner on the road down to Hatfield Broad Oak a rider pushed off from his waiting position and joined me. In slightly broken english (he had come all the way from Brazil!) he told me his garmin had died and would it be ok if he followed me in? Of course that was fine I said and waved him on my back wheel.

Then I asked him what time he had to finish by. Ten o’clock. It was just past nine. Going at our current speed we wouldn’t make it. I could have told him that he would have to miss his time but I didn’t have the heart to do it. Feeling the responsibility of being a local I decided that I would up the speed and that he could get a free ride in. Even with me going as fast as I could it would be touch and go. I told him I was going to try to get us back inside the hour – he thanked me and then I got to work.

These are roads I use year in, year out so I could move fairly quickly even as tired as I was, putting the energy into the bits of the road that would pay back the most in ride time. It’s quite a choppy run in and on a normal training ride of 60 miles I would have taken around 45 minutes to do this ride. Giving it everything I had left, which wasn;t much by this point, I was about 15% slower than that. It really was touch and go.

We got in with three minutes to spare. I was really happy for him. It was a funny ending to the ride – I’d been able to help someone very directly where I hadn’t been able to really help the two people I’d set off with.

I stopped just up the road from the finish and changed my stinking merino jersey for my third jersey, a bright new one and put on my cleanest cycling cap, then rolled in. Because of the fast last hour I had messed up Steph’s time to be there and she wasn’t there. Still it was lovely to see the ACME crew on the barriers clapping me in – thanks guys!

All that remained then was to scan in. I had a moment of separation anxiety when the controller took my Brevet card off me, I’d got really attached to the monopolyesque character of it.

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Steph turned up, I had a cup of tea, compared war stories, looked at bikes and generally felt really really good about life and my place in it. I was – and remain – ecstatic that I’d finished this ride. A proper adventure, a real big ride, plenty of challenges. In terms of ‘the engine’ I felt absolutely fine. Sore knees and I was beginning to lose feeling in my left finger but aside from that just fatigue. A deep, satisfying fatigue.

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With the Brazillian rider I’d helped in.

This ride was epic, probably the longest single ride I will ever do. And it felt like a single ride – it might have happened over a number of days with sleeps in between but those sleeps were very short and it really felt like one continuous, if ever-changing, span of time and space.

I will do another post about lessons learned and about the more Audaxy things (bike, kit, training, prep etc) after I have time to reflect more, we are done for now.

No, not quite. As I am gathering my bike and getting ready to say goodbye to the ACME crew a rider right on the edge of the time limit flies into the Control. It’s ten past twelve – the entire event closes for successful completions in four minutes. It’s Jonathan.

Somehow he had gotten enough sleep to shake his demons and then ridden like a man possessed to get here on time. I am amazed, I thought he would have needed at least six hours sleep to recover. It’s an extraordinary act of will power and recovery – Chapeau!

Aftermath

Knees. Hurt. Little finger of left hand – pretty much useless. Aside from that fine.

Mentally I am smashed. My system is shot, but overall I am very happy. Why should riding an event like that make you happy? I’d had a full range of good-fun, fun-in-retrospect and not-fun-at-all but the cumulative effect was of great achievement.

I know the appeal of Audax is in setting and beating ‘stretch targets’. I guess that with so much of our lives that are ‘real’ and not able to be bounded or summarised or ticked off having one part of your life that can be is important. Collecting badges. Graduating to the next level in a game. The benefits of having small winnable worlds even as youth and strength seem like long ago qualities of self.

The mental game of Audax is important to me too. Having had plenty of mental health issues in the past the positive mindset is often elusive. I am continually learning to get over myself and continually learning how to use the mindset I actually have to best advantage. There’s no chance of pretending or gaming anything when you are on a ride like this – you really have to deal directly with who you are and what you are doing. There is no faking it.

That’s what makes me happy with having done this ride, I was real and I was good enough for all the challenges that came my way – mind and body.

 

 

 

 

 

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17 comments

  1. Wow, epic!
    You should have asked for gluten free food at Innerleithen, we had plenty of “certified” soup, rolls, porridge & cake, but couldn’t leave them lying around as non-GF riders just saw them as other tempting options to try. There was sign saying “please ask”, you must have not spotted it… glad you made it despite the limited food you had!

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    • Hi Ulli – Arrrgh! I didn’t see the sign – not sure I was able to read by this point! There needs to a secret code or something to unlock the special food! Great control despite that 🙂

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      • Next time you know 😉
        Looks like bigger signs might be needed for all these tired riders, and possible in multiple languages…

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  2. Fantastic ride report. You have a real gift for mapping the curious interior decor of headspace; the mental wallpaper and unexpected noise that bleeds from neighbouring apartments when circumstance and mind break holes in walls worn thin by distance.

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  3. Epic ride, epic ride report – I really appreciate your willingness to be honest about your emotions during the ride.

    Fantastic effort, almost makes me want to do the ride myself – though I do wonder about the safety concerns of sleep-deprived riding. That and the small matter of building up my fitness to the level where I could cycle such large distances day after day.

    Chapeau to you Sir!

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  4. Lovely account of it all Allen. The altered states of mind and tough choices about who you can help are reminiscent of stories of high altitude mountaineering but without the fatalities. So glad for you that you made it after PBP. Glad I could feel part of it through you without having to ride from London to Edinburgh & back!

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  5. Fascinating, wonderful write up and some coincidences to share. Like you l started at 4pm, and I also slept at the Scotch Corner travel lodge! But I must have been behind you the whole way because I “slept” at Spalding heading north. Finished about 12.20 which was 20 minutes inside the original cut-off but 45 minutes inside after the time allowance was extended due to the detour caused by the closed road.

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  6. Thank you Allen for the time/effort/detail that went into your report. It helped me greatly to relive the experience of the ride and an appreciation for the differing/additional hardships that others experience along the way. Well done on putting the welfare of your friend first when it mattered most.

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