I took part in the 4 yearly Audax ride – London Edinburgh London – in 2013.
Pictures can be found here.
I took part in the 4 yearly Audax ride – London Edinburgh London – in 2013.
Pictures can be found here.
A quiet Autumn Saturday pedalling around London… visiting the places on the Monopoly Board… in order!
I am attempting to cycle the length of each tube line. Done so far:
24h London to Paris – June 2012
A while ago, I decided that I wanted to cycle to Paris and set about researching the options available. Whilst a number of charities offer organised rides from London to Paris, I was put off by the cost and conditional fundraising targets – my friends would never sponsor me to “subsidise” a holiday. Many of the charity routes I’d encountered also spread out the ride over the course of 3 to 4 days, whereas I wanted to fit my trip into a weekend at most and was prepared to cycle many more miles per day. So, the idea of a self-organised, unsupported 24 hour challenge was born.
I found a great website, which markets itself as an independent guide for those looking to cycle from London to Paris and set about planning my adventure, drawing from others’ experience where possible. In this article I’ll outline some of the main areas of preparation, before recounting the ride itself and then provide some insight into how it could be improved should you be considering your own Parisian adventure.
Firstly, there are an infinite number of routes that can be taken to reach Paris from London. But these were my basic rules:
I’m used to starting events early morning and would have planned the same here, had I not come across a team who took a slightly different approach – one which I think worked perfectly. The concept being: leave London late in the evening, cycle to Dover to catch a 3am ferry, arriving in France at dawn to maximise the available daylight for the remaining cycle to Paris. The route would be split into 3 cycling sections with the Channel crossing between 1 and 2: London to Dover, Dover to Calais, Calais to Amiens and then Amiens to Paris.
Allowing for a generous average speed of 20km/h (12.5mph) led me to devise the following schedule:
|Clock Time||8:15 PM||2:30 AM||3:20 AM||5:50 AM||12:50 PM||7:20 PM|
|Time (h)||6.25||0.8||1.5 (+1h)||7||6.5||22.1|
I pulled routes for the three cycling stages directly from a website and painstakingly re-plotted them for my Garmin. More on this later!
Establishing that the best time to do this ride would be when there was most daylight, but recognising that I only had one free weekend in June – the date of Friday 30th June was put in the diary. A ferry for Saturday morning (£19) and a Eurostar train from Paris for Sunday afternoon (£75) were booked. Trevor (my Trek road bike) was allocated a place on an earlier Eurostar, which I pre-booked to avoid any hassle at Gard du Nord (£30). Numerous emails, complete with school level French, were sent to hotels around the Champs Élysées and one was found which was prepared to accept a cyclist who needed a room for the Saturday night and a safe place to store a bike. The game was on.
At this stage I was prepared to embark on the trip myself, having experienced initial enthusiasm from interested friends to be replaced by a familiar lethargy of those with a deep attachment to their sofas. With 2 weeks to go, I’d signed up Dave to join me! We were now a team and final preparations and kit allocation could be shared between us.
We came up with a master kit spreadsheet which we shared over Google Docs and refined as the 30th June neared. Most of the contents were drawn from my experience of long distance rides and Ironman triathlon, coupled with Dave’s experience of ultra-running. Dave would cycle with a lightweight rucksack and I would utilise a handlebar bag for items we couldn’t fit in pockets or under the saddles. Where we could make do with shared items we did. I’ve included it here out of interest.
|Category||Item||Shared or Individual||Dave to Carry||Shu to Carry||Comments|
|Repair kit||Tyre levers||Shared||Yes|
|Repair kit||CO2 gas pump||Shared||Yes|
|Repair kit||Tyre repair patches||Shared||Yes|
|Repair kit||Spare chain links||Shared||Yes|
|Repair kit||CO2 gas canisters||Individual||Yes – 3||Yes – 3|
|Repair kit||Inner tubes||Individual||Yes – 3||Yes – 3|
|Repair kit||Spare bit of tube/tyre to repair hole in tyre||Shared||Yes|
|Repair kit||Locks||Individual||Yes||Yes||Lightweight snowboard locks|
|On bike||Presta to Schwabe valve adapter||Shared||Yes||A magic device that converts valve fittings. Means we can pump up tyres at petrol station if needed|
|On bike||Front lights||Individual||Yes||Yes||With new/charged batteries|
|On bike||Rear lights||Individual||Yes||Yes||With new/charged batteries. Helmet lights too|
|On bike||LED key ring torch||Shared||Yes||To read route instructions and trip computer in dark|
|On bike||Trip computer||Individual||Yes||Yes||One bike computer being reset after each stage, one continuous|
|On bike||Garmin||Shared||Yes||Loaded with maps, fully charged. Off whilst in the UK, only used in France|
|On bike||Bento box||Individual||Yes||Yes||Stocked with food|
|On bike||Handlebar pannier||Shared||Yes||In the end this was a very small bag fastened with cable ties rather than a cumbersome box|
|On bike||Bottles||Individual||Yes – 2||Yes – 2||Make sure they fit bottle holders properly and don’t rattle|
|On bike||Under saddle bag||Individual||Yes||Yes||One each. Shu to predominantly carry repair kit, Dave to predominantly carry first aid kit|
|Food||Snacks||Shared||Yes||Yes||Pre-prepared mini bags of nuts, raisins, skittles, malt loaf, coffee sweets|
|Food||Energy drink tablets||Shared||Yes||Yes||Nuun tablets and High5 powder sachets|
|Food||Gels (other powders and potions)||Shared||Yes||Yes||Shu uses Qimmiq as the packaging is compact|
|First aid kit||Wash kit||Individual||Yes||Yes||Umm, just a toothbrush and some roll on deodorant|
|First aid kit||Suntan cream||Shared||Yes||Mini bottle of factor 30+. Ever hopeful|
|Other||Passport||Individual||Yes||Yes||Shu also carries blood and organ donor cards on the bike!|
|Other||Phone||Individual||Yes||Yes||One indestructible Nokia, one Smartphone|
|Other||Money||Individual||Yes||Yes||One card each, some pounds and some euros|
|Other||Ferry tickets||Individual||Yes||Yes||Printed out and on phone|
|Other||Train tickets||Individual||Yes||Yes||Printed out and on phone|
|Other||Bike transfer tickets||Individual||Yes||Yes||Printed out and on phone|
|Other||Hotel booking||Shared||Yes||Printed out and on phone|
|Other||Maps||Shared||Yes||Printed out, backed up on PDF on phone. Locations of supermarkets & bike repair shops plotted online|
|Other||Camera||Shared||Yes||Tiny Nikon to record arrival at key towns / cities / countries!|
|Other||Dry-bag||Individual||Yes||Yes||Dave to bring one for rucksack. Shu to bring small one for front pannier|
|Clothes||Upper body clothing layers for ride||Individual||Yes||Yes||Tops and arm warmers|
|Clothes||Lower body clothing layers for ride||Individual||Yes||Yes||Underwear, padded shorts, leg warmers, socks|
|Clothes||Cycle shoes||Individual||Yes||Yes||Check and replace cleats|
|Clothes||Something to keep feet dry||Individual||Yes||Yes||Not bothered with – just went for wet feet|
|Clothes||Footwear for Paris||Individual||Yes||Yes||Flip-flops|
|Clothes||Clothes for Paris||Individual||Yes||Yes||Underwear, lightweight outfit. Assume good weather. Anything else can be bought there.|
I booked the morning off work on the 30th, partly so I could have a lie-in and partly so I could take my bike into town on the train after rush hour. Dave crazily worked a full day on the Friday! We rendez-vous-ed at 6:30pm in The Victoria pub near Hyde Park for some dinner, and to while away the evening until our amended departure time of 8:30pm. Obligatory photos were taken at Marble Arch – I liked the red phone box installation with a giant pigeon!
Cycling out of London on a Friday evening we were able to latch onto the wheels of a couple of late-leaving commuters. Our first stage to Dover was expected to have 800m+ of ascent so all energy conservation was appreciated. Although I’d had reservations of tackling the A2, it proved relatively empty that late on a Friday night and our only hold-up involved navigating a pedestrianised one way system in Gillingham at pub throwing-out time. The big climb out of Canterbury was rewarded with an excellent, fast, well lit descent into Dover and we arrived an hour early for our ferry check-in. The ferry terminal caters for bikes well – we had a red line to follow as cycle passengers which I was particularly impressed by. As it happened P&O were running late and there wasn’t an earlier ferry, so some quick credit card action saw us transferred to a new 2:30am Seaways departure.
After a quick refuel in the café on-board, we caught 40 winks and arrived in Calais on time, but also ahead of our schedule.
Having self navigated from London to Dover, now was the turn of Garmin to help us through France. We’d figured that the 20h battery life should be reserved for the continent as we didn’t want to risk power failure as we neared Paris. I’ve used the triathlon specific Garmin watch on many previous rides, but for some reason my watch was not happy on this particular morning. Refreshing problems and random turning off stilted our escape from the docks into the open French countryside.
We had a breakfast stop at a little boulangerie in Fauquembergues – just time for a quick can of Coke and a chocolate éclair! The lady in the shop was kind enough to refill our water bottles.
As the morning went on, we encountered more problems with my route! “You are off course” alerted the Garmin – despite us not being able to make out where the route went and where we should turn. A couple of attempts to find the magic line to follow left us thoroughly annoyed with technology and we reverted to good old maps. It turns out that there were also some major flaws in the route I downloaded, perhaps lovely paths alongside rivers if you’re not in a hurry and riding a hybrid… but not exactly what we had in mind.
Our mid-checkpoint across France was Amiens – a projected 140km (88 miles) away with over 1000m of ascent. Easy, we thought. It turns out we’d wasted quite a lot of our hour-in-hand from the early ferry resolving route issues but the biggest shock was the average speed we were maintaining. As we crossed the rolling plains of Northern France we were battered by a continuous headwind. Perhaps we should have realised why all the wind turbines are located here, for mile after mile after mile. Our energy was being sapped rapidly and seemingly easy hills were turning into mountains.
Unfortunately, soon our route saw us riding through a forest track for 3 or 4 miles down what can only be described as a mountain biking course. Boulders, stone and flint – not fun on a full carbon road bike. Miraculously neither of us punctured. A further “detour” after a missed turn (with an awesome descent that neither of us wished to cycle back up to correct) resulted in unplanned mileage. By the time we were closing in on Amiens, we were both desperate to put stage 2 behind us. The long straight drag into the city dragged… In the end we covered 159km (99 miles) to Amiens. I also suspect it was a lot more than 1000m of ascent.
Another refuel – this time coffee and ibuprofen – the endurance cyclist’s friends:
A brief appearance of the sun at our coffee stop encouraged me to coat myself in suntan cream for the next section… but it was short-lived as we were soon cycling along long straight rolling hills in a monsoon which seemed to go on forever. And then more wind turbines appeared, so it was time to put the heads down and power through the weather, constantly picking at our fuel supplies for extra energy.
Once again we were instructed to take some interesting turns – I didn’t take a photo of this one, but a later snapshot from Google Streetview is below. We wisely chose to add some extra miles cycling around this short-cut.
With about 60k to go, I was starting to feel the effects of the distance in my knees. A sharp pain which shot through my left kneecap put at an end to the possibility of getting to Paris within the 24 hours but it was going to be close. Several ibuprofen stops later, I was having to cycle very carefully to avoid any unnecessary force through my left knee.
Finally a welcome sign! But this was just the start of a hard section dropping down into Paris. Our route was not the best and involved quite a lot of the N1. Riding as far to the right of the dual carriageway as possible, we were attracting a lot of unwanted attention from drivers (who up until now had been exceptionally kind to us cyclists).
I cycle in London a lot, but I can honestly say cycling in Paris takes nerves of steel. Signage is either non-existent or ambiguous. Straight-ons are often signed to the left rather than ahead which caused some confusion. At one point we were looking for a way out of St Denis and ended up heading up a motorway. We weren’t the only ones who went wrong – a car driver decided he didn’t want to go that way either and blocked the traffic to do a u-turn across a 3 lane carriageway to correct himself. This gave us a few seconds to leg it across the road with our bikes to get ourselves on the right road. Looking at the map later revealed where we’d gone wrong, but I’d be happy never to see this junction again!
It was tricky trying to find our way to the Arc de Triomphe and although the clock ticked over to 24h whilst we were on the outskirts of Paris it took a further 90 mins to finally reach our destination. I was surprised that cycling into Paris you can’t see any major landmarks in the way that you can in London. You certainly appreciate how good signs are in London! In the end we put in a 135km (84 miles) stage to complete the ride in an elapsed time of exactly 25.5 hours.
By the time we got to the Place de Charles de Gaulle, we were tiring of the tense cycling – holding our nerves in traffic and pedalling across wet cobbles – and were ready for showers and dinner, so we abandoned trying to work out how to get under the Arc for a photo! This one was taken on Sunday morning in much sunnier weather…
I cycled 950 miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 9 days.
The National Championships for double ironman distance triathlon. I became the Ladies’ British National Champion.
Great Britain Ultra Triathlon Championships – June 1st/2nd 2013 – Race Report
Up until a few days ago the weather in the UK had been miserable – a winter chill had settled, sending me on a frantic mission to Decathlon to purchase scuba diving gloves after suffering with curled up fingers swimming 5k at Datchet Lake. I’d been spending far too long recently researching homemade recipes for ingredients to coat my hands with, if the lake at Avon Tyrell, Hampshire, couldn’t warm up in time. I didn’t even know if I was allowed to wear neoprene gloves, but I knew that I didn’t want a repeat of the 15 minutes of numbness on my last (erm, only) long training swim.
This year I’ve endured flooded sportives, the biblical rain and wind at the South Downs Way 50 Mile Ultra, a washout in Mallorca and a DNF on Fred Whitton with hypothermia. My luck was about to change.
I had Friday off work, and headed down to the New Forest with Dave late morning, in a Landrover full of as much kit as you can imagine. Whilst stuck in stationary traffic on the M25 and every cross country route we tried, we boiled in the metal box – but thoughts were with how nicely the sun would be gently simmering the lake we had to swim in on Saturday morning.
Eventually arriving at the Avon Tyrell Outdoor Activity Centre, we set up camp and our gazebo in the “turning circle” (which we would later pass 74 times). We were joined by crew chief Nadya and Dave’s parents, all keen to help out with last minute prep and food acquiring. Rather than the planned relaxing in the sun, the rest of the day turned out to be quite busy. A recce of the run course (and sense of dread seeing the sheer number of exposed tree roots, branches and energy sapping slopes), a frightening race briefing (where I suddenly felt a little out of my depth), a blood test (not for drugs as I was led to believe but to make sure our haemoglobin levels were sufficient enough to compete, and I’m really not very good with needles), a recce of the bike course by car (after the warnings of locals deliberately vandalising the course in previous years) complete with wrong turning detours and last minute equipment panic meant we ended up in bed after 10:30. With an alarm planned for 4am (an hour later than I would normally for an Ironman) – this was not a good start.
At least I slept well. Not. Why is Southampton airport really busy between 10:30pm and 4am? The jumbos flew over so low, stirring me from my uneasy rest repeatedly and worrying me that the tent was about to explode in a plane crash. And to add to that, I could hear an owl. Was it the same owl, the infamous owl, that caused a competitor last year to crash out of the bike course on the last lap as the bird of prey targeted his front lights, hit his wheel and became impaled on his tri bars?
Enduroman is not like other triathlons I’ve done. The transitions are free form – set up where you want, rack as many bikes as you’d like, basically do your own thing. We’d set up T1 at the tent, given that I had to run past it on the 400m from the lake to the tennis courts where the bike was. Our kit was all laid out on a picnic blanket. For T2, I’d chosen to leave my run kit in a changing marquee not far from the bike racks. The gazebo was filled with our nutrition, extra clothes, spare parts and chairs for spectators.
The swim began at 6am. The sun was out and the water was glorious. 18 degrees allegedly. I began steadily as I hate getting involved in the washing machine mass start.
We had to do one anticlockwise lap before being funnelled down a buoyed off lane for lap counting (or to check we hadn’t drowned) each subsequent lap. My first mistake was to put my head straight back under water after shouting my race number to the counter and swim at full pelt into the wall. I hadn’t realised that the buoys turned the lane to the left. Ouch. After checking I still had all my front teeth, nose and eyes I headed for the next buoy. The course followed four sides of a square(ish) and I patiently counted my way around 26 laps. Halfway saw me with an Ironman distance swim time of 1:15, which dropped to 1:25 for the second half as my left rotator cuff gave up and I was as good as swimming right arm only for the good the left was doing. Felt good about the swim (it’s about my normal pace), helped along by the “tea cup stirring” effect of 50 people in such a small enclosure. Dave wasn’t having such a good time as I’d hear later from my supporters.
There’s a moment when you leave the water in a triathlon where all the horizontal blood suddenly rushes vertically. I had to steady myself before ambling up to T1 for my kit change. Nadya helped out and made sure I had everything to start out on the bike. I wasn’t cold at all (despite all the earlier weeks of worrying), but opted for a jacket to make sure I warmed up properly on the bike.
Grabbing my Trek Domane 5.2 (kindly supplied by Trek MK) from the tennis courts and putting my bike shoes on carefully, I set off on foot. Little point doing any clever time saving transitions here, as I had to carry the bike up a ramp, through an arch and up to the turning circle. It was going to be a long day. The bike route leaves through another gateway, up a drag called the Rat Run (newly tarmac-ed just for us, much to the annoyance of previous years’ competitors, eager to point out that we had it easy given the weather and road surface). The supporters were great in the turning circle – cheering on everyone coming and going. There were people camped out along the Rat Run, adding to the well-wishing.
I had 20 (11 mile / 18.6 km) laps ahead of me. I felt sick for the first 2. I couldn’t eat my trusted malt loaf, only managing a couple of bites but desperately tried to get some food and drink in. I couldn’t start under fed and watered. It was on the first lap that the dawning realisation of how difficult this was going to be hit me. Leaving the safety of the Outdoor Activity Centre via a cattle grid I was left to the mercy of unpredictable horses and cows – who choose to amble across the road as they please.
I enjoyed seeing the first long straight downhill on the recce on Friday, but what was this? A wall of headwind hit me on the turn and I struggled to get speed up. Coming into Burley, I had a couple of cheeky inclines to negotiate before weaving through the village centre (quiet first thing, but that was to change considerably on a hot summer Saturday), and then up the Burley Wiggle (using its Strava segment name) into Burley Street, spying the sharp right turn sign as I crested (where we’d first gone wrong in the car), turning left on the bend across the gravel and rapidly changing up gear for the descent down into Crow (I came to call this the Bike Lane descent, as it was the only place where a bike lane was intermittently marked and you could fly down the bendy hill at the end of it, keeping your speed up for a hump bridge). Not long after this there was a second cattle grid and another left turn (they were all left turns) signposted to Bransgore (not the second turn that we’d taken in the car for several miles).
The road to Bransgore became overly familiar – the section with the cross wind, the bend to the left that swept round to the right and brought you to a sudden junction (I only had to stop once in the night to give way), the sharp bend to the right (with plastic barrier to stop you falling into the trench alongside the eroded tarmac, later decorated with fluorescent orange paint and a big arrow), the forest with its huge potholes (I only hit one, and I soon worked out exactly where they were), the cottage with the porch that made it look like it had a moustache, the pretty house across the field that signalled my left turn was coming up (not very visible in the dark) and the pitiful sign (trying desperately not to attract the attention of those with malicious intent) indicating the turn to Braggers Lane for the last push before the lap. And it was a push, with bragging rights. Evil hill. It dragged and reached 6.5% (ordinarily not a problem, but boy did it start to be a problem come lap 12). It was so dark on the whole stage from Crow back to Avon Tyrell that I was grateful for my powerful Exposure lights (but also wary that they had a 3 hour battery life on full beam – more of that later).
I was worried at the end of lap 1. It had felt hard – I expected this from lap 15, not the first lap. I’d underestimated the bike course (casually saying it was a “bit rolling”, when I’d looked at the profile). Nadya was on hand to reassure me that I was proceeding as per the plan (and to remind me that this wasn’t an Ironman – I was doing Enduroman – I’d already swum for 2h 40mins).
I’d originally thought that I would get drink refills every 3 or 4 laps, but it was hot and I was trying to drink more, under the supervision of Nadya (telling me off, for not having finished my water on a lap). And so the turning circle became a haven from the outside world. Drinks and food were continuously supplied; whatever I’d asked for the previous lap was duly handed over at the next. I could mentally see the pile of food depleting in my head.
After a few laps I knew Dave was gaining time on me, and I asked after him each return to base. It was getting very busy out there, with touristy traffic (i.e. people towing caravans, thoughtless parking-space-spotters who don’t indicate and hoards of pedestrians stepping into the street in Burley). Each lap was fraught with danger and there were a few incidents with cars pulling out in front of me (no different from every day in London though). The horses were the best behaved of the lot – I only had to stop for one which parked itself in the middle of the road, inspecting the white line rather than the tasty grass on either side of the road. I even made friends with some horse riders (who I had warned that I was approaching from behind on a bicycle) – I’d told them I’d been riding horses the same time that I’d been riding bikes and knew what it was like. Actually I’m not sure this is true – but I do remember going on a horse ride with Rachel (our horse) and my brother on his bike when we were younger and Rachel dribbling grass filled saliva down his neck as we caught up with him. The horse riders in the New Forest seemed more polite.
The laps passed, and so was I. Several times by some of the lead men – but given that they included world Deca-Ironman champs and Kona qualifiers, I wasn’t worried. I was passing a few people myself – but never the lead woman. She was a machine. Having chicked every single guy in the swim – by a considerable margin – she was powering away at the bike course, like I would do a 10mile TT. She delivered an excellent (enviable) bike split – total respect.
The lowlight on lap 7 – I swallowed a non-vegetarian fly. At lap 10 I was rewarded with Skittles. My favourite training food – completely un-nutritious (but hey, this is a double ultra triathlon… I can eat anything).
As it started to get dark, I was asked by race officials to put my lights on the bike and wear a rather fetching fluorescent jacket – in pink, since you ask. Actually very wise and great for seeing other competitors in the distance. For, as night approached that was the only thing you could see. I only wish that the wildlife also wore fluorescent jackets. The owl was back – the hooting was unnerving (who/what/where was it going to strike?) A deer jumped out at me on lap 18, frightening the life out of me (as I was drifting off, in a sleep deprived stupor). It returned on lap 19, in exactly the same spot – but very sensibly chose not to cross the road this time. My lights were starting to fade during lap 19 and I was concerned that I was going to be stranded in the pitch black. Nadya kitted me out with borrowed front lights and I was ready to go again. I couldn’t wait to see the end of lap 20 (oh, and start a run…maybe not). As I went round the lap again, I audibly said goodbye to the passing landmarks and signs, wishing them well (as I hoped never to see them again). As I approached my favourite downhill (which I’d been getting increasingly confident on, even in the dark), I briefly thought about the owl incident and thought, “what are the chances of something appearing in the road now?” – I pedalled harder and must have been at about 45 km/h just as a suicidal badger scurried into my headlight beam. I slammed on the brakes (and swerved with a locked back wheel) around the startled creature. Thank goodness for the “staying upright” training from the Mallorca 312, on the wet roads of Palma. How I missed it, or stayed on, I don’t know, but I certainly didn’t cycle anywhere other than the middle of the road for the remaining 4 miles. I wasn’t going to become next year’s race statistic.
It was with great relief that I finished the bike course – all 232 miles (373 km). It had taken me 17h 48mins – considerably longer than I had anticipated, but I had no idea how the accumulative effects of racing ultra events back to back were starting to take hold. I naively thought, double my Ironman distance time and add a bit. I had miles in my legs – I could easily do the bike distance – but I saved energy on every hill in the hope I would have fresh legs at the end. Maybe I chatted too long in the turning circle – but I craved the catch-up and rest from the lap tedium. In some later laps I never saw another person, and was convinced I was the only person out there – a bit like when you play hide and seek as a kid and realise that everyone else has gone to tea ages ago, but you are still staying put.
I changed in the marquee, putting on quite few layers for the run. I normally run with music, so the iPod playlist was started, a second Garmin was adorned and head-torch was switched on. I’ve only ever run in the dark twice (for about 10 minutes max), so this was going to be interesting. I vaguely knew what the course looked like from the recce, but lucked out by encountering TC (Mr Deca Ironman himself) on his gazillionth lap as I entered the woods. He expertly guided me round, pointing out every detail with running commentary as I followed him. I felt fairly strong. The legs were moving OK – I wasn’t going to ever maintain his pace, but I was very grateful for the supervision for my first lap.
[The run course from 2012 is on youtube here – even watching this back now fills me with horror, as it’s imprinted on my brain already!]
As I entered the turning circle at the end of the lap, I saw Dave readying himself to start the run. He’d caught me up – I’d been expecting it for some time. We headed out on lap 2 and I tried to show him the ropes, as TC had done for me. He seemed to be running strongly too. I told him not to wait for me on lap 3 and carry on at his pace. I fully expected not to encounter him for the rest of the race, except when he lapped me. But something was going wrong – I was ticking laps away at the same speed as him. I was finding it difficult too. There weren’t any sections where you could get a rhythm going. You were either running downhill (tentatively in my case), clinging to an off-camber section awkwardly, tiptoeing over exposed roots (now glowing with orange chalk dust) or facing an uphill battle (which I walked, always). If the SDW50 had taught me one thing about my newly found ultra hobby, it was walk uphill – even if you could run it. Conserving energy for the distance was of upmost importance.
By now, I was starting to fall asleep on the run, as I had on the bike. I felt drunk and light headed, and I knew my eyelids were struggling to stay open (like when you’re in a really hot lecture room and someone is droning on about environment engineering – that was a course I didn’t enjoy at uni). At one point, I was on a section involving a steep root covered climb which winds through some trees and emerges out onto the descent back to the turning circle. Except that I wasn’t! I was staggering around in some bushes. I had slept walked off the course. I was disorientated and slightly delirious. This sleepiness happened a few times, and I couldn’t place my feet. I literally wobbled along some sections.
I didn’t have to run/walk with the head-torch or my many layers for very long. The sun appeared not long after 4am and so I started to dispense with kit, to be replaced with bags of food (nuts, coffee sweets, Skittles, Twiglets).
And so it went on… I fell over roots and landed in the soft-ish ground 3 times, but my luck was running out. I was running pretty well when I didn’t see the ridge of concrete slightly raised on the slipway into the lake, as the canoe crew and swim director were setting up for the start of the half Enduroman and single Enduroman races (maybe 5:30am?). My toe caught it and I flew about a metre and a half before crashing to the ground on my left kneecap. The girl manning the canoe rushed to my aid, having heard the thud. I sat on the ground as blood started to pour from my knee, visible through the huge hole gaping in my expensive soon-to-be-made-into-shorts Nike running leggings. My bag of Twiglets was crushed and full of dust – I was heartbroken. I limped back to the turning circle for some (new Twiglets and) first aid treatment from Dave’s mate Gaz (who had joined us during the night, to help crew). Having a nurse for a mum prepared him for cleaning up my knee and making me go to the medical tent for steri-strips. I know it was just your average “playground scuffed knee with grit embedded” incident but it really started to hurt after 65km!
Dave didn’t appear to be fairing any better and we started to do laps together after about lap 18. He was ahead by one. I was still falling asleep but thankfully Dave was watching out for me and making sure I didn’t come a cropper again. We made a good team, keeping each other pushing on with those damn, draining, never-ending laps. 48 doesn’t seem that big a number, until you are trying to reduce it slowly by 1, every 15 minutes or so. It went on and on. We had some good sections where we could jog, and religiously walked the sections where it would be stupid to run. By now of course the “little” races were in mid-flow and we were jealous of competitors sprinting past us and flying up the hills at full pelt – oh to have their legs (and to only have to do 12 laps)! There was a bond between the 100 milers and the doublers – we’d been here all night… and we were going to finish. Even if we had to walk every hill.
We decided to finish together. This of course meant that I needed to catch up a lap at some point – so duly went out for one solo around lap 30 whilst Dave had some food. We split up the remaining laps into intervals: 4 or 5 laps in a block where we would only take sips of drink between laps, but food between blocks. It started to work – we were counting down and the crew were getting buoyed by our progress – marking off the laps on our team blackboard. A borrowed knee brace from our neighbouring crew helped support my painful wincing injury for the last 5 laps.
One of the excellent features of Enduroman events is that everybody does their last lap in reverse so that they pass the remaining competitors on the course and receive well earned congratulations. I loved this – we got to see lots of people finishing half, single, double and 100 mile Enduromans. There was admiration all round. Soon enough, our last lap came. We got confirmation from the timers that indeed it was our turn to set off in reverse – we’d been waiting a long time. The course was completely different – no surprise – and we took our time. Finally we came back into the turning circle for the final time and crossed the finishing line together. Job done – 52.4 miles (84 km) – final overall time 35:54:22. Another silly challenge complete – until the next one 😉
I was the 2nd female finisher, behind the truly awesome Danish winner, Helle Soegaard. However, as the 1st British finisher in the Championship, I become the current GB National Ultra Triathlon Champion!
None of this was possible without the support of my crew chief Nadya, and support from Gareth, Sue and Mike. They were awesome all day and all night and well into the next day! And of course, Dave – he was brilliant as usual!
I competed in the 2200km Race Around Ireland in September 2013. Only one woman had ever finished RAI. I tried… I got to 1900km before succumbing to severe sleep deprivation.
Race Around Ireland 2013 – Race Report
Written by Phil Magnus (the Wattmeister) – Crew Mechanic
Photos available here.
The race starts at Trim Castle by the banks of the River Boyne, notable in our time for being used as the backdrop to the film Braveheart. In front of the riders lay 2190 kilometres anticlockwise around the coast of Ireland, to be completed within 132 hours, or expressed another way, exactly 5 and a half days. This equates to a daily ride of 398 km and 182 metres.
The field of contenders for solo honours was comprised of twelve intrepid ultracyclists, but barring accidents the result was a foregone conclusion as Christoph Strasser, the uberchampion of this niche sport was on the start roster. He has won RAAM twice and in June 2013 was the first man to ride the 4900 km race in under eight days, over 600 km per day. That’s Southend to Lands End on a daily basis.
Our girl Shu Pillinger, was the only female entrant, and indeed, only one woman has ever completed the event since its inauguration in 2009. Shu’s team of six included her boyfriend Dave, crew chief Nadya, Zoe, Ele, Geoff and me. We had been recruited via various methods for our different skills. A highly trained unit in the making, we had met each other on just the one occasion for a practice run.
Zoe was the nutritionist, Ele the physio, Geoff and I were responsible for all things mechanical and also seeing who could eat the most in competition with Dave. Nadya’s job as crew chief was to keep us well drilled and on the ball.
The event regulations decreed that all the riders had to be followed at a distance of approximately 15 metres by a follow vehicle, which, due to some of the narrow roads on route, was not allowed to be a camper van. Our vehicle of choice for this task was Shu’s much-loved Land Rover which had been suitably equipped with reflective tape and a yellow flashing light. It also only had two doors which was later to cause much mirth and some discomfort.
Our other vehicle was my trusty compact Fiat camper van, which is very suitable for a couple, but was rather stretched on occasion to accommodate four or five adults at one time. It was also professionally adorned with Shu’s race number, 111, and various reflective signs.
The follow vehicle, equipped with a tracking device, and rider were required to phone in at each of the designated Time Stations on route, of which there were twenty in total. The Stations tended to be Topaz 24 hour fuel stops and their welcome presence grew on all of us as the event progressed.
Shu’s start time was 15.27 on Sunday September 15th, which meant that her finish time was 03.27 on Saturday 21st September. The magnificent race organisers, Alan and Emmet, had arranged for the main road to be closed and a start ramp was constructed to send the participants on their way. Each rider departed after a brief interview, and their follow car would speed around the ramp and take the required position.
The weather was bright but rather breezy and quite chilly, but was forecast to deteriorate over the following 48 hours.
TRIM to BALLYMASCANLAN TS1 82 km
Shu’s turn to be interviewed came and she answered her questions with great poise and mental agility…no sign of nerves, and was then sent on her way via mainly quiet roads to Navan, bypassing Drogheda and Dundalk before her first stop at Ballymascanlan
At this first Time Station, which was reached in daylight after approximately 80 km, there was a tangible air of excitement as other back up vehicles were awaiting their riders. When Shu hit the control, we swapped GPSs, fit fully charged Exposure Strada lights, fed, watered and sent her briskly on her way.
It was cold.
BALLYMASCANLON to MOIRA TS2 70 km
Soon after the TS, Shu encountered her first serious climb of 4 km near Carlingford, evocatively named ‘Long Woman’s Grave’, before crossing over into Northern Ireland at Warrenpoint.
By this time Ele, Zoe and I, in the secondary support vehicle, or the mobile distribution centre, were on our way to a point about 40 km in front of Shu, a town called Banbridge. We parked up and used the splendid communal park gym facilities to do press-ups, pull-ups, pull downs and other such malarkey.
By TS 2 it was dark, wet, blowing a hooley and very cold. The procedure began to evolve reasonably efficiently. Nadya would check that all the necessary stuff was taken care of, and keep a sharp eye on stoppage time. Ele and Zoe would massage and feed Shu in the camper van, Dave would offer his valuable moral support, and after any mechanical adjustments, Geoff and I would stand outside in the very fresh air.
MOIRA to LOCHGUILE TS3 85 km
By TS 3 at Lochguile at 155 km, most people would have been tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle, listening to the rain and wind tearing through the countryside. Not Shusanah, she was aquaplaning through narrow lanes, cold air ripping through her layered clothing system before reaching the sanctuary of the local Community Centre, where Niall, one of many wonderful volunteers, made us all a cup of tea whilst Shu changed from wet to dry kit.
By chance, Niall knew some of the Irish riders with whom I had shared the road on the GranFondo Stelvio Santini, but that is another story for another time.
Now we had a slight problem. As her gear became waterlogged, we had to store it and somehow get it dry in the confined space of the van. The Eberspacher heater was a big help, but if these conditions had continued, she would soon run out of suitable clothing.
LOCHGUILE to COLRAINE TS4 60 km
On and on she pedalled, through deserted narrow country lanes, within touching distance of the Giant’s Causeway, to a sleep destination at TS4 (unusually a Texaco) at Colraine, with a Macdonalds handily adjacent. The advance group had an uncomfortable kip in the van before Shu rocked up. Then we switched places, squeezing into the Land Rover while she nodded off in the camper van before a welcome Mcmuffin feast at 7am on the dot.
Still cold, damp and with a rising Northerly wind.
COLRAINE to MALIN HEAD TS5 101 km
The next stage was entitled ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Our team now had no illusion as to the magnitude of the task before us and Shusanah. We were well into it.
Londonderry’s situation on the banks of the River Foyle is a glorious sight to behold, why is there so much hatred there? However, Shu was now cycling into a ferocious headwind which increased in strength as she approached Malin Head. A brief stop at Quigley’s Point for five precious minutes of shuteye help our girl to mount up and tackle the remaining kilometres.
Choppy waves corrugated the water’s surface in the sheltered bays and inlets, and giant angry breakers pummeled the rocky shore on the seaward side. The last stretch saw Shu winch her way up some short but precipitous climbs before reaching TS 5 at Malin Head. The wind was so strong that it easily held me upright as I leaned into it. The camper van was a most welcome place of refuge, but we were all struck with wonder by the angry glory of Mother Nature.
MALIN HEAD to LIFFORD TS6 101KMS
After such an enormous and grueling effort, Shu was then confronted with an extremely rolling road back to Malin. The wind had exacted a cruel tithe on Shu’s strength, but she ploughed on relentlessly to face battle with one of Ireland’s toughest climbs at Mamore Gap. The approach to the climb is via a winding coastal road of rare beauty, before lurching up for 2 km at an average of 12%. Mere statistics do not paint a true picture. There were several steep ramps of up to 28% interspersed with some flatter sections. The wind at the summit nearly had the doors off the Land Rover. But the girl climbed every damned centimetre!
The terrain immediately after Mamore was not flat, but finally a forgiving stretch into Lifford allowed Shu to pick up a bit of speed. Amazingly, at this point she was only a couple of hours down on her schedule and with a slight tailwind she rallied in tremendous fashion.
LIFFORD to SLIGO TS7 119 km
Late afternoon tumbled into evening and then dark night. This was a long stage and our girl was suffering badly with a sore backside. She vainly asked for more shorts. I offered to go ‘commando’ and let her use my padded underpants over her outer tights. This suggestion caused much hilarity, and together with an Ibuprufen seemed to take her mind off the problem. Although only having three days use, the underpants were in pristine condition.
But this is an endurance event, a tough one in good conditions, and Shu marched on into the darkness , defying the squally showers and the pain in her backside. Boa Island, Belleek, Garrison, Manorhamilton and the 5 km climb of Saddle Hill had to be passed through during the night on the way to Sligo TS7, situated at a Topaz 24hour garage.
I imagine that this would have been a beautiful ride in daylight, but Shu was now entering a new phase of her ride, where the demons of pain, hunger, weariness and ambition had to be conquered so that she might find the strength and willpower to carry on.
SLIGO to CASTLEBAR TS8 118 km
The stage from Sligo to Castlebar TS8 is shrouded in mystery. Our delegation was directed to take some sleep and negotiate a direct route to the TS. Meanwhile, Shu and her minders had to deal with a couple of nasty climbs and the scenic route to Castlebar. We slept too long and nearly cocked up the rendezvous, but finally made it to the appointed grid directions with a few minutes to spare. It was raining, and had been for some hours.
A well-stocked Centra mini-supermarket formed part of the complex, and the staff were most helpful in allowing us to take hot water in order to make a quick porridge breakfast for Shusanah.
By this time, our girl had nearly exhausted all her dry clothing options, and the camper van stimulated one’s olfactory sensors in a unique way. A trip to the dry cleaners or laundrette was of vital importance, but of course there was a time consideration to be taken into account, and the small problem of locating a suitable business.
After hefting about 10kgs of sweaty, waterlogged cycling clothing up Thomson Hill, I came across Mr. Bee’s 100% Green Dry cleaners. I explained the cycling challenge, the logistical challenge and the challenge of life in general (although of course this was not ‘real life’). The lady in charge listened sympathetically to my outpouring and could not have been more helpful. Within two hours, most of Shu’s clobber was clean and dry, and we were able to continue on to TS 9 at Clifden, Co. Galway. Thank you so much for the assistance and for the kindness you showed us.
CASTLEBAR to CLIFDEN TS9 110 km
The route to Clifden, necessitated us following much of Shu’s prescribed path. The scenery was majestic, despite the incessant drizzle and gloomy canvas of a leaden sky. The ribbon of gunmetal tarmac (N59) which took us to the half-way point at Leenaun bucked and weaved all the while, and spat us out into a most charming fjord-like setting called Killary harbour. By this time both Zoe and Ele conceded that I had not been solely responsible for the hitherto unsavoury aroma of the van. The clean laundry had freshened things up a little, and we awaited the arrival of Shu and the Land Rover in pleasant harmony. This was a mid-stage stop designed to allow Shu a little break in another trek to the TS.
From wild and picturesque Leenaun, the N59 followed the devastatingly beautiful coastline road and windswept moors and valleys to the town of Clifden, TS9. The centre of town was choc-a bloc with bars, hotels, pubs and eateries. Loads of parking spaces and wide streets to accommodate the influx of hungry and thirsty people, I suppose. We had passed Shu and the rest of the team on the way in, and Zoe prepared a nutritious meal for all. Her speciality was tuna and cracked pepper wrap with a dash of lemon. Shu, being a veggie, had to have something different involving peanut butter and jam.
We needed to find a place for Shusanah to have a shower. Nothing personal, but cleanliness in the nether regions combined with warm water helps to rejuvenate the capillaries which had endured three days of unyielding pressure. Step up Foyles Hotel, Clifden. Once again, they embodied the spirit of Irish hospitality, and for a small charge they allowed Shu to use a room with a shower. Thus, having regained her mojo and flower-like aroma she was ready to conquer the moonlit road to Oranmore near Galway. The rest of us continued to wallow in a state of uncleanliness.
I liked Clifden.
CLIFDEN to ORANMORE TS10 97 km
I have never seen the view from the N59 which winds from Clifden to Galway during daylight hours, but I doubt that it surpasses the dreamy, milky light and silhouetted hills which were reflected on the surface of Ballynahinch Lake as we drifted by.
After ever so slightly losing the way on exiting Clifden, we in the campervan spied Shu and the Land Rover rejoining the route way ahead in the distance. Soon, after dodging roaming sheep, we passed our cyclist and yelled shouts of encouragement. Later on, she told us that she thought we were a bunch of drunkards hurling abuse!
To the south, the glittering lights of a distant town spread along the shore line suggested that we might be gazing across the Atlantic towards New York City. In our altered state of consciousness this seemed conceivable. It certainly was a most beautiful stretch of road, for once with little wind and no rain.
The Texaco 24hr TS 10 in Oranmore was a disappointment as only access to fuel was 24 hour. There was no café or mini-supermarket to which we had become accustomed. In our position as advance party, we had to find a quiet place for Shu to sleep when she arrived in the town. This was brilliantly achieved by Ele and Nadya whilst I was fast asleep in the back of the van.
Food and drink was prepared for our athlete. The bed was folded out and we each assumed our roles in preparation for her arrival. After not too long a wait, Shu rolled up and was fed, watered, massaged and tucked up for a couple of hours sleep, snuggled up to sundry helpers. Geoff and I addressed our expertise to fettling the bike and then kipped in the Land Rover for a bit.
ORANMORE to SPANISH POINT TS11 102 km
All too soon the process was reversed and she was back on the bike headed for the next TS at Spanish Point, on the coast of County Clare some 101kms distant. I can no longer remember the team situation any more, but I think Dave, Zoe and I followed Shu in the Land Rover. As the darkness lifted and daylight once again spread over the landscape, we headed towards a couple of stiff climbs at the Cliffs of Moher just before dropping down to the traditional-looking seaside town of Lehinch.
I have a strong recollection of wanting to be at the next TS, which was situated in the Armada Hotel. It sounded promising. And so it was. We had been given a room to enjoy. This meant a shower after three of four days off from normal domestic routine. The campervan was parked in a sunny spot, and all Shu’s damp clothes were drying merrily in the breeze. The view down to the beach suggested great surfing conditions, and all these things helped to lift one’s spirits after a few days of confinement.
SPANISH POINT to LIMERICK CITY TS12 93 km
We swapped teams and vehicles. I seem to recall that Zoe, Dave and I drove directly to Limerick, while Geoff, Nadya and Ele followed Shu. My attentions were focused on replacing a blown front headlight bulb, and the Centra/Topaz Time Station had the necessary bulb in stock. It also provided us with a decent meal, and the chance to stock up with some vital shopping.
Unfortunately, my tools were in the Land Rover, so I could only get so far with the bulb replacement. However, Holger, one of the volunteer motor cycle marshals, appeared and lent me his tools and moral support which were enough to complete the job.
The motorcycle marshals are recruited from a European Motorcycle club whose members give their time and services to assist specifically on this type of event. Holger probably sensed that I was tired and disorganised, but he waited patiently while I got on with the repair.
Rider and crew arrived and we effected quite a snappy turnaround. I seem to remember that spirits were good all round.
The weather was pleasant, sunny and warm!
LIMERICK to KILLARNEY TS13 142 km
After the testing conditions up north, the organisers had allowed all the contestants an extra 12 hours in which to finish. Shusanah now needed to return to Navan by 3.30p.m on Saturday 21st September. This next stage was crucial. It was a very long ride with a tough climb placed about 25 km form the finish.
The demands of such an intense race are both physical and mental. There is no real substitute for sleep and lack of sleep increases these demands exponentially after a few days.
Shusanah was suffering, she needed more rest. The first half of this passage was OK for her, but as darkness fell and her senses dulled, she struggled to stay awake. The ride into Tralee became a crawl with lots of stops for minor problems which were lack of sleep induced. Her average speed dipped alarmingly and the final straw was not even the wickedly steep climb of Sliabh Mish, but the ensuing descent, where goblins and monsters jumped out of the hedgerows in her path, and her downhill speed was reduced to slower than walking pace.
Dave made a good decision to park the Land Rover in a quiet field and put Shu to bed. The campervan retraced from Killarney and we all huddled down for a welcome sleep followed by an early morning assessment of the state of play.
Shu was brutally honest about her prospects of finishing and also about how she was dealing with night time riding. An emotional hour passed discussing the pro and cons of the ride. Finally she made the brave decision to continue as far as possible.
Despite the twelve hour time extension, finishing in time was now in the balance. In fact I will go as far as to say she had little chance when we headed to Killarney.
KILLARNEY to SNEEM TS14 127 km
Dear reader, what happened next was quite inspiring. Faced with the toughest stage of the whole ride, incorporating six major climbs on the Ring of Kerry, our girl battled back with all the guts and courage that she could muster. After a little re-arranging of the kit in the vehicles, and for now backed by a team of four in the Land Rover, she rallied, and how! Dunloe Gap, Moll’s Gap to name just two of the climbs she put to bed.
By the time Zoe and I met up with them at the long drag out of Waterville, Shu had a better than mathematical chance of finishing in time. Messages were beginning to come in from Twitter and Facebook followers, and even people on the roadside began to come along and give their support.
Nevertheless, she was still very tired, but the weather conditions had improved, and we as a team were determined not to waste any of her precious minutes. She hit her deadline at the lovely Sneem Hotel with the Yamaha baby grand piano in the main bar area.
SNEEM to MIZEN HEAD TS15 120 km
It was about 5pm, the sun was shining, the wind had dropped to a whisper. We ate superb fish and chips on the lawn outside the Sneem Hotel. Probably a ‘no-no’ in England, but nobody bothered us in Western Ireland. Shu received some physio treatment from Ele and a nutritional boost from Zoe. She had to maintain an average of 18.75 km per hour on and off the bike to beat the cut off time. This equated to approximately 790 km in the 42.5 hours remaining.
One fair climb, the Caha Pass, 4 km long, plus a rolling road stood between her and Ireland’s most Southwesterly point at Mizen Head. She had received the kind offer of a refreshment/shower stop from the sister and sister-in-law of a RAAM contestant who lived in the village of Goleen on the Mizen Head peninsular. We headed in that direction. After the drama of early morning, Shusanah was back on track. We had to be strict with the amount of time allowed off the bike without compromising her safety. I seem to recall that as we passed through Bantry, she was doing well.
A long and undulating ride under another bright moonlit sky began to sap her energy, but she made the rendezvous in Goleen in good time. I can’t remember everybody’s names, but a woman connected to Meurig James, solo male Raam 2013 finisher, drove over to meet up and offer her support to Shu and the team. [Ed: thanks Kate and Sarah Jane!]. It was a fantastic gesture and galvanized the ‘Pillinger’ over the lumpy terrain to Mizen Head.
MIZEN HEAD to KINSALE TS16 118 km
Bathed in magical moonlight, the whole team were smitten by the ethereal atmosphere of the Point. But we had to stick to our new schedule. Rider and Land Rover set off, while the camper van was cleaned up a little. After fifteen minutes or so, Shu’s lights and those of the LR could be seen shimmering away to the South as she cracked on towards the town of Schull.
A sleep stop had been planned for Schull, and so we in the campervan located a garage forecourt to park up and await the others. Once again Shu was looked after and we all put our heads down for a couple of hours rest. The idea was for Shu to leave at around 4 a.m and press on to Actons Hotel TS16, Kinsale. This worked out very well indeed. She was quite refreshed and ready to go on time.
There still remained about 650 km in 35.5 hours, requiring 18.3 km per hour to finish. It was not an impossible task if she could safely stave off sleep and keep the legs turning. In any case, it was a remarkable effort to still be in the hunt considering the situation 24 hours ago.
The early morning ride and drive along the banks of the River Arigideen estuary was good for the soul. Calmed by the still river waters and aided by the flat terrain, progress was good. Shu made Kinsale at 8 a.m. 560 km to go in 31.5 hours, 17.77 km per hour.
It was my birthday.
The staff at Actons hotel were bewildered but very helpful. There was not enough time to make good use of the facilities, but the support was there for all of us.
KINSALE to YOUGHAL TS17 103 km
We believed and Shu believed that finishing was a possibility, where once upon a hundred years ago it seemed like she could not.
There was plenty of navigating and lots of poky climbs to negotiate in the next part on route to Cork City. I confess that tiredness caused me to misdirect Dave who was driving the campervan and we made an unnecessary detour before Cork, but we were still ahead of Shu at the Co-op Building Supplies depot at Curraheen where Shu was to receive a nutritional boost from Zoe.
While we were awaiting her approach, a few bystanders who had been following the Race’s progress on radio and internet came over to wish us well. It was a heart- warming experience. From Curraheen, our paths diverged. Dave, Zoe and myself went in search of medical supplies and Diesel, while Shu tackled the fearsome 25% Patrick’s Hill in Cork City. She smashed it by all accounts. Several people were applauding her at the top. Meanwhile, Dave bought me a birthday lunch, KFC Zinger. Thanks Dave, I loved it.
After Cork, the route levelled out and Shusanah made fairly good passage to Youghal. The grand Walter Raleigh Hotel were not really aware of the RACE, but willingly allowed us to use their facilities to clean up and charge necessary items from the electric points. I took advantage of the comfortable furniture in the foyer to have a really deep powernap.
On her arrival, Shu had about 25 hours in which 460 km, an average of 18.4 km per hour. It was still a feasible task, although the coming night would be crucial.
YOUGHAL to WATERFORD TS18 119 km
The road to Waterford leads to the beautiful Suir valley via a large climb over the Knockmealdown Mountains , reminiscent of the English Cotswolds. At times, Dave exited the LR to run alongside the tiring cyclist up the steepest slopes, offering his girlfriend unyielding support. The view from the top was exquisite and Shu must have been thankful for the long run downhill to Clonmel and then Sean Kelly’s home town of Carrick on Suir.
However, by this time, she was desperately fatigued. The muscles in her eyelids were tired, she needed frequent breaks. We tried a visualisation exercise to stimulate her, e.g she was catching Christoph Strasser, and was being caught by Valerio Zamboni. Overcome by emotion and exhaustion, she just could not respond. We whisked her into the Land Rover for a nap. Ten minutes and one Ibuprofen later later, she was smashing her way to Waterford in the gathering gloom at an average of 27 km/h. A reserve switch of deep resolve had been triggered in her mind. The change was phenomenal. She barnstormed her way into Waterford. Her face on dismounting the bike at the TS told another story. She had literally buried herself with the effort. I saw exhaustion and emptiness in her features. Although the next section seemed to be one of the most benign of the whole race, she needed to take advantage of it.
Could a brief rest and refuel bring her back to life?
WATERFORD to WEXFORD TS19 97 km
Once again, she climbed back onto her bike, Tamara. There was still about 340 km to go with 16.5 hours left in which to do it, around 20.6 km per hour. Only a high average speed on this leg could put the target back within reach.
Alas, it was not to be. She struggled to stay awake, averaging about 20 km/h when it needed to be around 26 km/h. It started to drizzle, the hallucinations returned to haunt her. The following vehicle contacted us in the camper van and we put the worn out Shu to sleep for a few hours. Race HQ was contacted and informed that Shu had been withdrawn for her own safety.
We drove back to the B&B in Navan. Shu slept, I slept, the rest of the team cleaned my van, bless them. We all visited race HQ and Shu was presented with an award for the best female performance.
We witnessed the Danish rider Christian Krause arrived just before the cut off time after writing off his bike in an accident and finishing the race on a borrowed steed.
It is difficult to articulate the intensity of emotions generated by such a profoundly testing undertaking. I can only say that Shusanah did not fail. We bonded as a team. The good energy that sprang from the whole enterprise eclipsed the detail of whether she completed the course or not.
My thanks go to the whole team and also the organisers and volunteers who have the courage and vision to stage an event of this order with such friendly grace and charm.
400 miles – Pune to Goa, India – 22 Feb 2014.
Two weeks ago I was commuting to work in London in the driving rain and wind when a woman pulled out of the traffic into my cycle lane without signalling and then forced her way back into the jam after I’d taken evasive action to go around her. Annoyed, I tapped on her window and we exchanged a few words: “You should look in your wing mirror before you do that, you could kill a cyclist”. Stunned driver: “I’ve never killed a cyclist”. An unbelievable interaction between 2 wheeler and 4 wheeler in our capital city.
I have a rule in London. If I have 3 near misses on the road on my commute home – I cut my 25 mile commute short and head to the nearest train station for a safer (if not just as frustrating) ride home. The last time was during the tube strike when it appeared that the majority of angry underground commuters had taken to their cars, some who clearly had never driven in rush hour.
Fast forward to Thursday 20th Feb, around 11:30am, to me sat in the passenger seat of an air-conditioned SUV, gripping my seat belt with clenched fingers as my driver weaved his way through the chaos of downtown Mumbai without any regard for red signals, turning traffic or suicidal pedestrians… all whilst taking 3 phone calls in the space of 5 minutes.
One of those calls was for me. I spoke to Divya – the organiser of the Deccan Cliffhanger race – and told her I was “experiencing the roads”. Her spot-on retort: “so, you’re wondering… where do I fit into this?”. Indeed I was. Amongst the Brownian motion of trucks, buses, cars, carts and mopeds – I couldn’t for one minute see how I would last more than a few pressure moments before an untimely squishing.
I made it to Pune in one piece and met up with the crew at Divya’s parents’ house. When I decided to take part, Divya had rallied the troops and found 3 awesome guys to assist me – Shilpa (owner of sports nutrition company On The Run), Hrushikesh (bike dealer and entrepreneur running Uberactive Ventures) and Ashok (“AC”, one of India’s first pro racers and snake expert!). These guys pulled together to organise a support vehicle and help find all the kit I couldn’t bring from the UK – all having never met me! Ashok reassembled my bike Trevor and Shilpa, Hrushi and I talked kit and tactics. I can’t express how indebted I am for their kindness – my first experience of the fantastic cycling community in India!
Keen to allay my traffic fears, Divya and Anil (both experienced Randonneurs) took me out the next morning for a “cycling on Indian roads 101” session. 20km of expert direction around Pune began, with warnings of what to look out for and the “rules”. My guidebook had already told me that there were NO rules, which certainly appeared to be true, aside from a general understanding to keep to the left except when a journey could be shortened and petrol saved by sticking to the right along the shoulder (or actually on the carriageway as it happens). This leads to the most important rule – if someone is coming towards you on the wrong side do not move to the outside… you must move into the faster moving traffic on the inside. Otherwise, the louder you honk your horn, the higher priority you have.
The day before the race meant registration, vehicle document inspection and shopping for 70 litres of water and copious supplies of food for both me and the crew. We intended to race without having to stop for any refuelling. I had an early night, keenly aware that the guys were up late organising the car and preparing food and the first 10 bottles of fluid nutrition for the road trip.
The start, at the new Giant showroom in Pune, was pumping with loud music when we rocked up at 5am. The temperature was cool, (but fine enough for me to have bare arms and legs unlike the 15 layers I’ve been cycling in back home in the UK). I was first off at 5:40, winding my way out of the city on reasonably empty roads in the dark. The first bit is twisty with a few junctions where we were able to start the testing of the radios. Although I had the whole route on my Garmin, the team in the car were giving me plenty of warning of all turns which helped immensely on unfamiliar roads. It didn’t take long to leave the suburbs and to welcome the sun rising.
The route soon joined the Asian Highway – 47. All in, I cycled on this busy highway for about 350km. I didn’t realise until afterwards, it actually runs for over 2000km from Gwalior to Bangalore. And there was me looking for training opportunities (to mimic US roads) on the longest straight road I could find in the UK (a pitiful 150km). I knew I was going to struggle mentally on this seemingly endless highway, spoilt by twisty-turny country roads in England… but I drew on immense admiration for cyclists in India. There are few opportunities for riding on routes other than highways. Indeed brevets and other long distance rides are covered purely on these highways.
At 85km I turned off the highway for my favourite section of the ride – a 40km rural road and stunning climb up to the Mahabaleshwar hill station. It was getting hot (up to 38C), but I was keeping hydrated and was actually blessed with a gentle breeze. One of my hopes for this race was to examine how I felt in the heat – this wasn’t as bad as I had thought. I was able to pedal steadily and unaffected by the temperature. The rewards at the top (altitude just over the height of the UK’s highest point – Ben Nevis) were the amazing views and the many roadside vendors of plump strawberries. I insisted that the crew should stop to stock-up, which they duly did and later passed me waving strawberries out of the car window. I sampled some at our next bottle changeover. How many rides are like this?
The descent off the plateau was awesome – I was reminded of the hairpins of Mallorca except with the added thrill of trying to guess which side of the road oncoming traffic would be on. I surprised a few drivers – who probably only saw a blur of pink and blue as I swept down the mountain tucking in as close to the side as possible. I lost the follow vehicle for a while, so stopped to take some photos – I wasn’t sure how far behind me they were – but they were out of range of the radios. They caught me at the bottom – apparently the car was harder to turn down the bends than my carbon steed. What an amazing 20km… I was almost tempted to go back up again!
We passed through a few villages, causing some interest, before rejoining the highway. Now the ride was going to get serious. I knew I’d already done the climbing and was making good time – but I was having a love/hate experience with the highway. I also knew I was going to be on this hectic, unpredictable scary road until well into the night. I hit 200km in 7.5 hours, very pleasing given the climbs… but was it sustainable? Only mental toughness could carry me through this.
I was on this road so long. I want to share some of the experiences… the kind of stuff you can’t believe until you see it for real. I’d always dreamed of travelling to India – it seemed incongruous that I’ve been to every continent and almost 80 countries, but not yet the world’s 2nd most populous (at 1.2bn people, 4 times more people than in the USA). I never thought I’d be cycling in India – but I’m not known for turning down an opportunity when it arises. This was me experiencing India at its closest.
You cannot avoid to notice how many people there are. Personal space is limited. We fought for our claim to the tarmac. The hierarchy is obvious. Truck wins… then bus… then car… then motorcycle/moped. Then the lowest; pedestrians and crazy people on bikes. I saw maybe 4 other cyclists on the highway.
Bullocks trump all. I can only imagine the headlines of a farmer in the UK taking their livestock on the motorway, but in India this is the most natural occurrence. The bullocks, with their brightly painted long horns, pulled immense carts of sugar cane, or sticks?, in teams of 4 or 6. Herders would walk along behind or cling to the top of the cart. I thought I’d got used to seeing this, having passed dozens of carts… until I saw a cart coming towards me – not on the shoulder but in the FAST lane, the WRONG way. I know the animals are sacred, but this seriously seemed to be testing drivers’ convictions.
Actually seeing vehicles on the wrong side of the road was becoming normal. Cars and mopeds in particular. In the UK, this is the preserve of a confused elderly or drunk driver – but in India it’s accepted. I can honestly say I did not feel remotely sleepy on this highway – such was the constant state of alertness. The guys in the car behind me would often come over the radio to check I’d seen something untoward, for which I am grateful. It was difficult to relax.
My ears were becoming immune to the horns of vehicles. Essentially I took the noise to mean that I shouldn’t look behind me for fear of what I might see. Whether it was a bus squeezing through a non-existent gap to gain a few metres over a fast moving truck or someone upset about another driver sitting in the fast lane. I say upset, because that’s what UK drivers would be – but actually there was no menace – just an audible warning of change to the equilibrium. It worked. Nobody crashed despite the lane changing chaos. I saw close shaves, but it just worked.
One of the most amusing parts of the ride was over-taking mopeds, often loaded down by two or three riders. They would be dithering on the shoulder, with no hurry to get anywhere, and I would need to pass – this was a race right? The look of utter bewilderment as a woman on the drops of a road bicycle passed at 35-40kmph will stay with me for a while. Some caught me up again for a chat. Some just stared. Mopeds that passed me, often had a rider perched dangerously on the back who would turn 180 degrees to gawp at the cyclist they were passing, before returning to their world as if nothing was amiss.
The most incredulous thing I saw was a woman balanced sideways on the back of a moped, not holding on, speeding along the highway, with a tiny baby cradled in her arms! You couldn’t fall asleep on this highway – such was the astonishing people-watching.
Another unexpected feature of this highway was the numerous toll booths. We always had a 1km warning and just as we neared I would have to go to the left, through a barrier, whilst the support car queued up to pay. In the dark I had to wait for them to get through the traffic, but in daylight I could carry on going. I never found out what the tolls were for, but I don’t think it was road improvements.
I hit 300km in just over 11 hours, near Kolhapur. Somewhere near here my feet really started to hurt. This was not good – hot foot after 300km is less than ideal and something which has now moved to the top of my “needs attention” list. The crew were awesome – when I stopped for some food AC held ice packs to my feet, which although hilariously ticklish, held off the pain in my feet for a couple of hours at the time.
As the route darkened, and I was clad in my fluorescent gilet, I found myself STILL on this highway. The traffic lessened in the night, for which I was grateful. We were ploughing away at quite a speed when I heard a dog in the darkness. It was howling like an injured pet. As soon as I saw it, I slammed on my brakes, practically threw my bike at AC who had jumped out of the car and ran back to the dog. It was the cutest puppy, sat by the side of the road. The traffic was fast moving within about a metre of it. I ran at it with my arms wide and tried to shoo it off the road. Stupidly the animal ran the other direction. A second attempt managed to get it off the road and into the side ditch where another puppy had appeared. This always happens to me – I get distracted by animals whilst cycling (whether it was snails on LEL or the sheep that was caught in its feeder) and have to stop. AC claimed the puppies had a system – one would try and get human attention and then his mates would jump out when a sucker was drawn in. That’s me.
I reached 400km in just over 15 hours. This statistic has got me thinking. A successful RAAM requires at least 375km per day. Covering 400km so quickly has made me wonder about the amount of sleep I could have if I sustained this performance. Just another thing to think about. RAAM is not about cycling, but what happens off the bike.
I couldn’t believe I was eventually turning off this highway at about 485km. Now I was already thinking a finish within 24 hours was possible. I knew the last 100 miles were effectively downhill to the coast. Oh – how wrong I was.
The team were excited when I went through 500km in 19.5 hours. We’d lost a bit more time seeing to my painful feet again. Plus some route issues following a time station.
The first part of the westbound route to Goa passes through the forested Anshi Tiger Reserve. Now, I don’t know about you, but there is one word which terrifies me about that route description. That’s right – “forested”. My experience of the goblins in trees in Race Around Ireland still haunts me. But in all seriousness, I was worried about stripy orange cats too. I started to imagine that they were watching me. These weren’t hallucinations – I was far too awake. I didn’t experience anything like the strangeness of 4 days into RAI. The forest was dark and twisty.
Shortly, we knew we were going to encounter what had been described in the race documentation as “a few bad patches” of road. When the road disappeared in my headlight I simply thought this was a “bad patch”. I actually unclipped and carried my bike for 50m, across stony rubble, wobbling in my cleated shoes. I got back on when it seemed to improve, only to cycle for about 5 pedal turns before the same surface appeared. The crew behind me, were apologetic and also mildly concerned that this was slightly worse than they had also expected. The second time, I decided to stay on my bike. I was literally mountain biking. We had a spare hybrid on the back of the car – but we also knew it had picked up a random puncture whilst on the bike rack, so swapping out wasn’t an option unless we took the decision to lose time. I carried on…
… for FORTY kilometres….
This is the distance of my commute to work. My sense of humour was beginning to fail. We’d stopped numerous times to assess the situation (wasting over 2 hours over our average speed predictions). Hrushi was starting to feel really car-sick on the uneven surface. We’d all had some caffeine to gain some alertness – but actually the “road” was so tricky there was no danger of falling asleep. I was getting pain in my undercarriage, feet and hands – in fact anything that was touching the bike. The blisters on my hands are just mending now.
As the road improved, in the early morning, we’d promised each other “breakfast in Goa!”. We were on a mission now to get out of this potholed hell and get to the beach. The air was cool, and I’d had to change into long tights and a wind jacket. There was a thick fog as we descended. The road may have been better but it was completely untrustworthy – I never got my speed up, fearing more holes in my path. The car had already hit a huge gaping trench and I was following trucks which were weaving all over the road. “Drive on the left of the road….” or “drive on what’s left of the road” resonated in my head. I could only see bends coming up by looking at my Garmin screen (dutifully recording the whole ride, and being powered by an external battery pack by this stage).
As the fog lifted we had a twisty road down for the last 50km. The road surface had a light coating of sand, which terrified me. I’m a cautious descender and the idea of wiping out on a corner this late into the race, kept my speed steady and me alert until the end.
We knew the finish of the official timed section of the race was in Old Goa, at the Ghandi Circle. But we couldn’t find it – we were a few kms out on our estimations, so that last part was a constant desperate hope that the finish was around the corner. And it’s not flat at the end – there were a few tricky climbs to negotiate and about 30 speed bumps which were playing havoc with my feet and bottom!. Eventually we found our way to the finish and pulled into a busy side street to a reception from a few race officials.
After a brief stop for some tea, toilet facilities and more ice on my feet, we dawdled the last 10km to Panjim (the capital city of Goa), safe in the knowledge that we were going to have breakfast in Goa! I never saw any of the other racers after about 75km, but we had no idea how far ahead we were. There was no welcome at the proper race finish, but unperturbed we headed straight for food and coffee in the glorious morning sunshine. A little while later, we were met by one of the sponsors who apologised profusely for not being at the finish line – he hadn’t expected anyone for another 3 hours. Ooops.
With the time adjusted for the un-timed section and earlier route diversions I finished with an official time of 26 hours 46 minutes – almost 3.5 hours ahead of the second place rider. My Garmin showed a moving time of 24 hours and 17 minutes. I recorded not just the fastest female time, but the fastest time overall, beating the solo men and relay teams.
This result is a testament to the brilliant crew I was lucky enough to be put in contact with. Shilpa, Hrushi and AC were novices, but what an asset! We worked really well together with our common strategy of minimising lost time. Every planned stop was slick and unplanned stops were handled superbly. I’m indebted to these guys for, not just a good result, but for an amazing experience cycling across India. THIS is what ultracycling is about.
Tomorrow I’ll be cycling in central London again. Will I view it differently? Who knows. But one thing is certain – I want to go back to India. There is so much more I want to see, that I couldn’t possibly have seen in my short trip. I think I’ve found a place I can relate to – the love of my favourite animal, the cow, and incredible vegetarian food. Not to mention the hospitality of the people and the chance meeting of new friends. When’s my next holiday??
More photos can be found here.
Circumnavigation of London outside of the M25 Motorway
A Lap of London – April 2014
The M25 is London’s orbital motorway, and the second largest in Europe after that around Berlin. It is made up of 188 km (117 miles) of road which is forbidden to ride bicycles on! The M25 isn’t quite motorway all of the way around London, there is a small stretch of A road across the Thames river at the Dartford Crossing (the A282) but this too is illegal to ride a bike on (either on the QE2 Bridge southbound, or in the Dartford Tunnel northbound).
Starting from St Albans in Hertfordshire (to the North West of London) and travelling clockwise, the M25 crosses the following motorways: A1(M), M11, M2, M20, M23, M3, M4, M40 and M1, all of which need to be carefully negotiated. It passes through the counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.
I decided back in September 2012 that I would try to cycle around London, entirely outside of the M25. The attempt was plagued by route issues, namely because Google sent my boyfriend and I down some lanes that weren’t rights-of-way and because we both accidentally left our phones at home so we couldn’t navigate our way out of dead-ends to avoid crossing the M25! The main problem area was around Epping where seemingly every signpost points to Nazeing, yet it is impassable without quite a deviation away from the motorway itself. Having asked lots of locals how to get through without going under the M25, with no luck, we eventually stopped in a shop to buy a map which pointed us in the right direction, much further away. This wasted quite a bit of time to our planned day.
On this attempt we were however able to reccie the crossing of the river at Dartford. As mentioned it cannot be cycled across. When the QE2 Bridge was built, somebody decided in their wisdom not to have a cycle lane, nor a pedestrian route across the bridge, meaning that from then until eternity it is necessary to provide a service to ferry cyclists and walkers across the river. There are collection points on both the north side of the river in Essex and the south side in Kent, from which it is necessary to call an official to take you across the river by car. When we first attempted this, the service was completely on-demand for 24 hours. Since then they have introduced a timetable of availability, which makes sense really so that the poor souls who have to drop everything to accompany people across the river don’t have to keep leaving their dinner to go cold. The time taken to cross the river will depend on this availability and how many other people are being transported across. In 2012 it took us about 90 mins.
After crossing, we continued our planned route but eventually decided that we had eaten away at too much of the day to be able to get round successfully in one go. The challenge was abandoned and sidelined for another day.
2 further attempts were curtailed for bad weather. I knew that sitting at the Dartford Crossing for a while would be sure to make me very cold, so twice I cut short the route before the journey south of the river.
Fast forward to April 2014, when one Saturday I found myself looking for a route for my RAAM training. I thought I’d give it another go, taking on board the route issues I’d found in Essex and after examining Google streetmap at some awkward places to ensure the roads were really passable. The route came out at 258 km (160 miles) and I figured I could probably do this in 12 hours with some food stops and waiting for the transportation at Dartford.
I set off from St Albans at just after 6am on the Saturday morning. [As an aside, I wouldn’t recommend doing this on a Sunday as food and drink options were scarce until south of the river and opening times will be a problem].
There are some miserable roads around Cheshunt, so I was pleased to be hitting those before the Saturday shopper traffic. I successfully navigated the Nazeing Triangle and passed Epping. Soon after there are two places where the route almost touches the M25, but doesn’t cross it. The lanes around here were pretty and quiet. When I’d originally plotted the route, I’d proposed a coffee stop in Brentwood (a short deviation from the route), but this time I pressed on, since I didn’t want to run out of time again. I did pass a small Londis shop if any food or drink was required.
Around Thurrock it is necessary to navigate the back streets of the commercial estates to get to the Dartford Crossing northside meeting point. The trick is to head westbound on London Road and head up a cordoned off slip road to the right, just before passing under the A282 (the non-motorway part of the M25). It looks like you are heading up to the motorway, but opens out onto a parking area, where the motorway service vehicles are kept.
There is a small building and what looks like a bus stop. Here you will also find a phone! Don’t be confused by the fact it says for Emergencies Only – it has a plaque above it with a number to call for transportation across the river.
I gave it a call, and waited whilst tucking into a snack. Not knowing that the service was no longer 24 hour, I had a slightly longer wait as it was also a break time for the officials. I’ve attached the timetable here, with the caveat that it may change.
Still, it wasn’t too long before a guy drove up with a truck and bike rack for 2 bikes [bear this in mind if there is a big group of you attempting this challenge – you may be some time crossing the river!]. He helped me put the bike on the back and was kind enough to suggest finding a rag to protect my bike from the clamp (himself a cyclist). He then drove me across the QE2 Bridge.
Once on the other side, we were greeted by the sight of the police booking a BMW driver for either speeding or non-payment of the Crossing toll. We had a chuckle. I was dropped at another building on the south side (which would be the collection point had I been travelling northbound – the system is the same whichever way you are travelling).
I carried on my cycle ride, mainly on the A25. This road was getting busier and also bumpier as I was on the edge of the North Downs. Westerham has plenty of nice pubs for lunch and a plethora of shops for snacks. I think I stopped in a garage a bit before to stock up.
I was congratulating myself on skirting Dorking and the infamous Box Hill, when I turned up Pebble Hill – a far harder climb, which I crawled up! It’s the highest point of the M25 orbital circumnavigation. After that I had a nice downhill, a couple of little lumps and then a pretty much flat 40 km (25 miles) to the lakes outside Slough. Looking at my route again, I’m not sure why I went around Pyrford and missed the B367 – there must have been a reason, but it is entirely possible that a few kms could be saved by going up Newark Lane and Coldharbour Road.
The run-in home from Staines is one I know well, as I often open-water swim at Wraysbury and Datchet. Save a bit of energy for the evil New Road Hill in Sarratt which sadly falls just on the right (wrong?) side of the M25. Beautiful views though in the fading sun.
The whole route took me 10h47 of ride time, over 12h19. Distance 257.5 km (160 miles) with ascent of 2669 m (8756 ft). Maybe I should try circumnavigating Berlin next!
On 10th June 2014 – I was one of 6 women on the start line of Race Across America – a 3000 mile non-stop trans continental cycle.
Oceanside, CA, 10 Jun 2014 to Effingham, IL, 19 Jun 2014. Solo (DNF) – 2150 miles out of 3020
For this instalment, rather than write about the route and things that happened, I thought you might be interested in the surreal and paranormal goings on in my mind during 9 days of continuous racing.
I’ve never taken mind altering drugs but my experience of RAAM has been the biggest trip of my life.
I’d been traumatised by goblins in Race Around Ireland, and the idea of seeing them again was my biggest fear of RAAM. In the dark country lanes these creatures had materialised in the branches. You can tell yourself all you like that they aren’t real, and on occasion I told them the same thing, but they were as realistic as anything I’d seen in films. I could not have described or drawn these creatures previously but they were firmly fixed in my mind after cycling around the Emerald Isle.
From reading around the subject of hallucinations I’d come to the conclusion that they must be formed from something that is already inside your head. In my case in Ireland, the swaying trees had possibly triggered memories of creatures from Tolkien’s Middle Earth… in the howling wind, the moving boughs turned into limbs holding weapons (axes and those spiky clubs) being launched at me by the distinctly unfriendly goblins.
Last winter, I spent hours of training out in the dark around my house – I found the perfect unlit road covered with overhanging trees – trying to make the goblins reappear, so I could figure out how to deal with them. However much I tried to contort the branches of the trees, they never did. But it gave me an idea that if I could try to pre-empt what my brain might see in unfamiliar shapes, I could choose passive or docile beings that wouldn’t give me nightmares long after RAAM.
I’d read many stories about apparitions in RAAM and was already thinking ahead about lines on the road looking like live snakes, or grain elevators taking the form of alien machinery. Of course I didn’t really know what to expect before reaching the US, but I made it my mission early on to identify visions that might become troublesome as sleep deprivation set in, and teach my brain that they were OK.
Initially I was preoccupied with getting through the desert without overheating and then the incredible sight of Monument Valley. Neither would yield views that would trouble me for hallucinations but not long after I started to notice the same recurring tufts of grass on the side of the road. My first thought was how they looked like cute little porcupines, all lined up with their toes on the roadside and their elongated spines blowing in the breeze. Big ones; small ones; ones that looked like they were about to cross; ones that were nibbling away at the ground. And so, I thought about porcupines for many, many miles. I talked to my crew about them – who knows what they were thinking? – but I was completely lucid and pleased with myself that I had got one up on RAAM with my mind games. I could steer my thoughts back to the animals by the side of the road each time they drifted. They never did turn into hallucinations, just innocent shapes – just like when you see people or countries in cloud formations.
My background reading had enlightened me about auditory hallucinations. I hadn’t realised how common they were, not just associated with schizophrenia or mania. And I certainly hadn’t really given much thought to imagining noises in RAAM. But there is something very strange about pedalling into the darkness in total silence and hearing thumping dance music approaching steadily from nowhere. It’s probably something quite unique to racing in the USA with its vast open spaces that riders can have their own personal outdoor stereo systems attached to the front of follow vehicles with music selected appropriately to keep the rider awake.
Tales of travelling through Kansas are infamous. This is where you expect to experience problems – for me, days 5 to 7 (oh to be as fast as Christoph Strasser, almost back to creature comforts at this stage!). Here the road stretched for over 400 miles from Colorado to Missouri with what seems like less than 10 turns. It was so windy (as in blustery, not winding) that I didn’t get a chance to feel too drowsy. It was just a battle to keep going in a straight line (which actually I didn’t, I tacked my way back and forth across the endless arrow-like roads in order to get some kind of propulsion in the cross wind).
But at times, I felt like someone was riding with me. I’d glanced several times to my left after I thought something caught my eye and even moved a couple of times to let someone pass. Who was it? I wondered, could it be Dad – my father died suddenly just 4 weeks before the start of RAAM and whilst he hadn’t been on a bicycle in years, I was reminded of a story he told me about cycling to the newsagents to pick up the paper with the family cat on his shoulders. Perhaps he and the cat were there in spirit.
The most delusional incident occurred somewhere on the approach to the Mississippi. I cannot for the life of me fathom out where, and am hoping my crew can tell me. I was cycling in the dark through what struck me as a very busy city. I remember lots of signs overhead and huge trucks. The route had 3 or 4 lanes and we had to keep moving across to avoid slip roads and turn-offs. I distinctly remember Beth on the radio and I got the impression she was also driving. With each manoeuvre, she’d calmly tell me where she wanted me to go followed by “I’m right behind you”. There seemed to be many of these instructions and I always seemed to be drifting into the wrong lane and Beth would correct me. It was warm and there was a horrendous stench of squashed armadillo [my nose has been fine tuned to which road-kill is coming up next… and this wasn’t skunk]. This leads me to think I was in Missouri but I can’t track down which city bypass we were on.
After an age the strangest thing happened. It seemed like I lost a huge chunk of time and I found myself looking down on myself cycling along the same busy carriageway. This out of body experience was truly alarming but what was more sinister was the way in which I found myself being brought back into the moment. Erica was on the radio. She seemed to be saying something about how we needed to get off this road and the RV wasn’t far away, but I hadn’t really understood and in my head I thought they were keeping the location of the RV from me, and making me stay on the road. And it was the SAME road I’d been going round and round for hours. I kept asking why was I doing the same section again and they were denying it. I asked to speak to Beth to get someone on my side – she’d been driving before when we last did this bit. The radio was passed over to Beth and she flatly denied that we’d been here. “It’s similar Shu, but it’s not the same road”. I was overcome by fear and paranoia. Why were they lying to me? – it was quite obviously exactly the same road. I was nervous of everything; the trucks thundering past (in reality, probably only one or two, but I thought I was in some sort of computer game where you have to cross between), the animals I saw on the side of the road and worse my psychopathic crew.
Erica was back on the radio. “Shu, your mind is playing tricks on you, you have to trust us”. And with that statement, I was suddenly back in control of my mind. I could feel it was mine, but it couldn’t process what was going on around me. Nothing made sense and that made me angry. I couldn’t understand why I had been stopped waiting for the RV to get near (I doubt I had been stopped, but it was the only way I could rationalise the missing time I couldn’t account for). I was pulled off my bike pretty rapidly after this and put to sleep in the support car – I don’t think I made it as far as the RV.
I awoke very confused. Ele was there and she was telling me that I had to cycle again. I panicked and burst into tears. I couldn’t understand why she wanted me to cycle the SAME section again. She said something like, “everyone has to cycle it Shu”, and in my insane state I interpreted this as everyone in the crew. I was overcome with emotion that I was making everyone do the section again – it was like some penalty for not doing it properly the first time. I remember being told we have to get to the Mississippi and I cycled off into the unknown with these irrational thoughts that everyone had to swim across the Mississippi. It took a while for me to wake up, and that’s when all the events of the night came flooding back.
One thing I had not expected at all from RAAM was déjà vu. I’d been fixated about hallucinations and the distress they’d caused me previously. But actually I didn’t really suffer from any (bar a funny story I’ll reveal in a moment). But déjà vu was something else. It was overpowering. I had 10 miles of a road which repeated itself over each rise. The same road-kill on the right, the same sign on the left, the same sign on the right, then over a hill. The same road-kill on the right, the same sign on the left, the same sign on the right, then over a hill. The same road-kill…. End-less roads that I’d seen before. On numerous occasions I saw the same cross roads I’d already been over. I strained to find differences and couldn’t, but yet the crew seemed oblivious and happy that we were on the right route. Whereas, I was slowly going mad.
More frightening is that I look at Google Streetmap now, cross referencing my route from Strava, and I don’t recognise any of the towns I passed through. How can this be? There are whole stretches I’ve clicked my little yellow marker along and I can’t find reminders.
So, my little hallucination! Ironically, not long before I crashed just outside Effingham. A sign that I should have been alerted to perhaps, had I not been obsessed with déjà vu taking control of my brain. The follow vehicle was in leap frog mode and I’d watched it pass me several times on this long straight road (weren’t they all?) and several times already I’d mistakenly tried to turn off the road at various sidings and driveways, even though I could plainly see the vehicle ahead of me and my Garmin tracing a perfectly straight line. Who knows why. But on this one occasion, I saw Erica and Phil ahead of me on the verge some way off. They both jumped down and hid in the long grass, I presumed to jump out at me, perhaps in fancy dress. As I approached – nothing. As I passed where I thought they’d hidden – nothing. I unclipped and stopped dead. I turned around and was really surprised that they hadn’t jumped out by now. Very confused, I turned back and saw the follow vehicle ahead. Erica was just climbing out. Phil was several miles away with the RV!
You’ll know by now that I crashed out of RAAM and broke my collarbone. It was a momentary lapse in eyelid function. Whilst it was warm, I wasn’t tired. It was just like when your eyes close on the train, just before your stop (or worse at the wheel whilst driving). I’d left the road edge a few times on this stretch as I fought to keep my eyelids from closing on me. Unfortunately on this occasion, the road had been resurfaced with the most exquisite new tarmac (that normally I would be pleased to see), but unbeknown to me, on jolting awake to find myself veering into the verge, surprised me with its precipitous unfinished edge, and as I tried to automatically remount the road I flipped the bike and landed heavily on my left elbow – the force of which instantaneously snapped my left clavicle (and cracked a second helmet of the race).
I said this was a road trip. In fact the mind alteration continued several weeks past the end of the race with a combination of strong medication and the loss of cognitive function. There is emerging evidence in scientific studies that sleep deprivation not only causes a slowing of response times (as we were measuring during the race) but that some higher cognitive functions (such as memory and perception) remain degraded after alertness is restored. Any racer taking part in RAAM should expect some problems with sleep/wake cycles after the race – waking up thinking they are still racing for instance, or taking time to adjust to normal daily routine. But don’t underestimate the effects on the brain – I’ve struggled to process simple information and make decisions. I usually have great memory function but that has been affected, particularly my short term memory. I came off my medication as soon as I could, since that was making me very spaced out too. I’d rather be sore with a broken collarbone than be absent minded!
Could I attempt RAAM again? That’s the question. Primarily I need to work out how to cope with déjà vu knowing that I will have definitely seen it before! And I need to investigate solutions to prevent the involuntary shutting of my eyes. I don’t think it’s as simple as a revised sleep strategy as this worked just fine for my muscles, but something more complex to refresh a tired brain. Perhaps being faster and sleeping more is the only answer, but it’s going to take some time and experimentation to prove and ultimately improve.