So, last week I failed to finish the Highlands, West Coast and Glens 1200km Audax. And it really sucks. I have spent all year wanting to do this and preparing to do this and failing feels absolutely horrible.
I got to Ullapool late on Wednesday afternoon, 465 miles into the 750 mile route, really feeling the effects of a day of relentless wind and rain. Physically, I felt I could have gone on (as in, my legs were still able to turn) but I was scared about how cold I was getting. On the road into Ullapool my teeth were chattering even when I was climbing. Really, I needed to get warm and lie down for a couple of hours before continuing up and over a big climb to Gairloch and on to the bunkhouse I’d booked for a couple of hours’ kip, 90 miles away. But I quickly found that everywhere to stay in Ullapool was fully booked.
It was late afternoon and I knew in a few more hours I’d be in a much more remote area, cycling through the night. Physically, I wasn’t sure I could continue without risking hypothermia. I’d had 30 minutes sleep the night before, after 145 miles of hilly cycling. The day before that I’d cycled 180 miles and had 3 and a half hours sleep. I had already cycled 140 miles since setting out at a bit after 2am. In short, I was pretty tired. The biggest climb of the day was coming up, followed by, more worryingly, the biggest descent of the day. I knew it was exposed and remote and that I’d be riding it alone, probably in the dark.
These are all good reasons to not attempt to continue, and writing this now part of me still feels I made the right decision. Yet now I also realise that there were probably other options open to me which I didn’t or couldn’t consider at the time. That’s what being exhausted and under-prepared will do to you. Looking back, the biggest problem I had was lack of sleep. Although I didn’t feel exhausted, the lack of sleep, combined with the cold, was making it a lot harder for me to make positive decisions.
In an attempt to try to make myself somewhat OK with the fact I’ve failed, I’m trying to figure out the things I’ve learned from the experience. These are the things I need to ruminate on and remind myself of if I decide to try anything similar in the future:
- The line between carrying on and stopping is very, very fine: there’s no real logical reason to do something like a 1200km audax and there are lots of logical reasons not to do it. The minute you entertain them, all is lost. On the day I quit, I’d spent the first few hours trying to persuade my friend who was riding with me not to quit. She was struggling from lack of sleep and just wanted to stop. I spent six hours trying to persuade her to keep going, to eat something and really just not to stop. Partly, this was because I knew she wanted to do the ride (we’d both previously said we didn’t care too much about the time limits of the event but we wanted to complete the whole distance) but it was also partly selfish – I knew it would get much harder for me once I was alone. But not once during this conversation did I entertain stopping myself.After she left me in Lairg, 65 miles in, I then rode 45 miles on my own into a headwind, with driving rain. Conditions were appalling. I started to feel like I was going slowly mad but I still didn’t want to stop. I barely made it to the checkpoint in Lochinver in time. This still didn’t bother me – by that point I didn’t care about the time and just wanted to complete the event. Setting off from Lochinver, I still felt optimistic. The route was hilly again but the coastline was beautiful and the wind was finally behind me. I watched seals in the sea and thought about how lucky I was to be seeing this. I was enjoying being out on my bike.
But the minute I turned back onto the road towards Ullapool everything changed. The wind was in my face again and I was instantly freezing. Within minutes I was sheltering in a phonebox, shivering violently , trying to figure out how the hell I was going to continue. That was the first time I considered stopping and, although I then told myself I could find somewhere to rest and carry on, I know the seeds of failure were sown right away.
- The biggest challenge isn’t the distances you’re riding, it’s the lack of rest: although I did do a fair amount of training and preparation for this ride, I know I should have done more. One of the things I needed to practice more was riding with little or no sleep, day after day. I’ve done long rides where I’ve been super tired but I haven’t done back-to-back monster rides with little sleep in between. Audax isn’t a race but if, like me, you don’t/can’t ride particularly fast you can’t buy yourself enough time for sleep. A person who can average 14 or 15mph moving pace has so much more time for rest that a person like me averaging 11-12mph. I needed to do more to prepare myself for this.
- Sleep deprivation can do really weird things to you and this is worse when you’re alone: Over the first couple of days, I really didn’t feel the impact of not having much sleep. Partly this was probably because I was well rested before starting the ride, but I think a big part of it was having someone to ride with. I also think having a goal to focus on, even if it was just getting to the next control point in time, played a large role in keeping the weirdness at bay. Certainly, it wasn’t until I’d decided that I couldn’t go on that the weirdness really hit. After I couldn’t find anywhere to rest in Ullapool, I decided my only option was to cut out the loop to Gairloch (which was very exposed, with a large climb and descent) and head straight to the bunkhouse where I’d reserved a bed for the night, sixty miles away near Strathcarron. I set off from Ullapool and the wind dropped. The clouds cleared and it was a pretty evening. Suddenly I felt I’d made the wrong decision – surely I could have carried on towards Gairloch?Yet a couple of hours later it got dark, the wind picked back up and the rain started again. I was riding alone through the night on deserted roads and I got more and more filled with foreboding. At one point, the maps on my phone gave me directions and, as I couldn’t figure out where the disembodied radio voice was coming from, I became convinced that there was an undercover police officer hiding in the grass by the side of the road! There were lots of deer around and their eyes kept reflecting in my headlights, spookily making me feel like I was being watched. The ride seemed to go on and on and eventually I felt like I would never reach my destination, that something really bad was going to happen. I’ve ridden on my own through the night before so I know about the bad thoughts that come from being in that situation are like but this was worse than I’d ever experienced it before. I kept having to talk to myself, to remind myself that really everything was OK and that I needed to keep eating. It was a long ride. If I ever do something like this again, I need to figure out a way of keeping creepy thoughts at bay when I’m alone in the dark.
- Company plays a big part in success: I really enjoy riding with the friend I entered this with – we don’t seem to run out of things to talk about and she annoys me much less than most people (though quite possibly I really annoy her). This is no mean feat when you’re riding for 20 hours a day! Plus, she is one of the people I most look up to on a bike.However, I don’t think she enjoys the challenge of the really long rides in the same way I do. We have twice done long rides in which she has decided to stop before me, but which I have also decided to bail on later on. Both times I had good reasons for stopping, but there are always good reasons for stopping! I wonder if subliminally I am allowing myself to give up because the person I was with has already done so.
Psychologically, I find it tough to imagine doing a really long ride alone (I have done a couple of 400km rides and those were tough enough) but I also wonder whether having someone with you who packs it in makes it more likely that you will do the same. For me, part of the enjoyment of a challenge is sharing that challenge with someone else, but what do you do if you can’t find anyone stupid enough to want to share the challenge?
- The things that will hurt the most are likely to be the things you don’t expect or that haven’t really bothered you that much before: On a couple of recent rides I’ve had real trouble with knee pain. On one 400km ride it got absolutely agonising. So I half expected knee pain to become a real problem.Sure enough, forty miles into the first day my left knee started to hurt. But then…it just stopped, or at least didn’t get beyond a dull ache. What did really start to both me was the palms of my hands. The pressure of the handlebars really took its toll, with intense pain in the palms of my hands and pins and needles up my fingers. This hurt more than any other part of my body.
- After a while it gets really difficult to eat, but you nonetheless have to keep eating: Despite the fact that I was switching between sweet and savoury and trying to mix snacks up between energy bars, sausages, nuts, sweets, etc, I quickly got to the point where it was difficult to eat. My mouth was dry and it felt like there was a permanent undigested lump of food in my throat. Continuing to eat was a challenge. At times I could feel my energy levels dropping and I had to tell myself to eat something out loud. However, I do think that keeping myself fuelled was one thing I succeeded with on this event. At no point did I bonk, or feel that I was dangerously close to bonking. So that’s one positive.
- The human body is remarkably resilient, and if you give it time it will keep on going: on the morning of the fourth day I had already bailed but I needed to get back to Mull, where we were all staying. My partner very kindly offered to collect me from the Isle of Skye ferry, as otherwise it would be nigh on impossible for me to get back to Mull in time for the last ferry.As I’d bailed I wasn’t hurrying to get going and when I did get going my legs weren’t turning very fast. By the time I was on the road it was after 10am. It wasn’t until I was cycling that I realised I needed to get the ferry at 2.40pm. I tried to cycle faster but my legs weren’t having it, in fact, when I hit a hill I had to get off and walk. I was despairing – not only had a bailed on the event, I now wasn’t even going to be able to cycle 50 miles in time for a ferry. Almost in tears, I texted my partner to say I wasn’t going to make the ferry.
Then something else happened. I ate a snack, my legs warmed up, the road flattened…I’m not sure exactly what it was but suddenly I saw a sign telling me I was 15 miles from the ferry. It was 1.25pm and I just thought: I can make that. Somehow my battered legs allowed me to cycle a laden bike 15 miles across Skye in a little under an hour. It’s amazing what the body can do.
- Doing something like this is actually really selfish: no-one cares if you finish, apart from you. You spend lots of time out on your bike training when you could be doing other things, like spending time with family or friends. When it all goes pear-shaped you may well freak your loved ones out by phoning them when you’re at a really low point and you also may need them to come and rescue you. I am very lucky that I have a very understanding and supportive partner.
- The people who organise and volunteer at these sort of events are amazing: when we got to Trantlebeg on the second night the lovely guy there made us baked beans on toast and tea and wouldn’t even let us wash our crockery. These people are awake for hours on end, helping exhausted cyclists who are barely capable of communicating beyond grunts.
- Scotland is beautiful, and you can appreciate that beauty even if you’re knackered and it’s been raining for hours
Overall, I’d say I enjoyed the event at least 80% of the time. Unfortunately most of the other 20% was pretty miserable! I am now looking forward to some nice short rides with long café and pub stops whilst I contemplate if I ever want to try anything as extreme again. Huge thanks to my companion in insanity, Sarah, and our support crew, Emily and Helen, as well as all the family, friends and cycling buddies who sent encouragement along the way.