LEL 2017: Part II

It was 11am and the first half of the ride had taken 30 hours, ridden at 220 Watts for 31kph. The riding time was little more than 22 hours which meant we’d spent almost 8 hours stopped. My pre-ride target of going sub-60 hours was now comfortably out of reach. Physically I was feeling good and mentally I’d adjusted myself to accept the new situation. The weather was fairly benign and I was in a happy place. Then a volunteer dropped my phone while taking a photo and the screen smashed. My mood dropped instantly and I wallowed into a massive sulk, all the while trying to outwardly shrug it off so as not to make the kind chap feel bad.

snapseed-41I’d taken advantage of a bag drop here and was grateful for the forward planning I’d done. In my stash I had some pre-cut K-tape for my knees and achilles, both of which I could tell were ready for them. I had my waterproof shorts, which seemed unlikely to see use in these temperatures, but I stashed them in my frame bag anyway because the weather looked pretty atrocious and I’d rather carry them and not need them than the other way around. A resupply of wet wipes, some spare electronic cables (typically the most fragile thing in my entire kit), fresh socks and a dry pair of long fingered gloves. I also had a fresh set of kit but chose not to swap into it as the fit isn’t quite good enough for ultra-distance and I find it chafes me up after 300-400km. It was there only in case of emergency. As was the spare saddle – slightly wider than the one I was currently using.

The chain was quickly degreased with a Crankalicious Kwipe. This genius little thing is a single-use individually-wrapped wipe that’s loaded with chain cleaner (they do these wipes with a selection of products), which makes it easy to keep my drivetrain efficient. You can lose up to 3W from a gunky chain so this tiny sachet earns a place in my bag on any ultra-distance ride and is a proper little performance booster.

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Quickly cleaning the chain with a Crankalicious Kwipe

Sleep wasn’t going to happen for me here. The morning sun and my stroppy sulk meant I was wide awake. Chris was catching Zs. I’m not sure if Jasmijn slept at this control too. I chatted with volunteers, spoke with Olga, updated Twitter and generally frittered away time.

My mouth was shredded with ulcers, which is not unusual when eating sugary foods for this long, but this was much more severe than anything in the past. I guess the constant road spray from all the wet weather was also contributing. I’d anticipated a bit of this and stashed a couple of Strepsils in my feed bag, which didn’t seem to have much effect. My non-stop strategy meant I’d packed almost 3kg of food into ‘dog poo bags’ which filled half of my frame bag and could be swapped into my top tube bag when the last one was finished. Almost all of it was sweet and at this half way point I’d only worked through one quarter of it. With my shredded mouth the rest was now impossible to eat but I was tired-dumb enough to continue carrying it anyway.

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As Jasmijn and I finished kitting up for the southbound leg Chris staggered out from the dorms looking bleary-eyed and half-dressed. A man in need of some caffeine. He was feeling much better so we waited for him to ready himself and the band was back together! The climbs out of Edinburgh were very steep in places and Chris was already smashing up them like a scalded cat (whose power meter needed another set of batteries). Jasmijn and I held a steady pace, with one eye on the power meter and watched Chris pull away on the hills. Days earlier he’d confessed he needs to ride hills at his own pace anyway and isn’t fun to be around if he’s sand-bagged up climbs. It was great to see him back to his old self though, even if he was edging out a gap over every summit.

Congested urban streets and steep ramps gradually gave way to wide rural landscapes and larger rolling hills. A storm hit, halfway up a long gentle climb I pulled over under a tree to throw on my jacket. Jasmijn did the same but Chris carried on and disappeared out of sight. We were going to stop at the first petrol station/convenience store as he needed fags and I needed ibuprofen, so we’d regroup soon anyway. The headwind was fierce and laying down big power gave only the smallest of speed boosts, so Jasmijn and I agreed to a slightly lower effort which we figured would allow us to just keep going indefinitely, with barebones stops. I suspected Chris was likely to blow himself up again and need more time at controls than we would so I sent him a message to suggest he crack on if he was feeling good.

img_0857It took until Peebles to find the first petrol station and grab some ibuprofen. Then we continued to Innerleithen, where I mis-read my GPS and overshot the the control by a kilometre. Heading back into town we passed Chris beginning the next stage. We were in and out of the control in eight minutes so Chris was now ten minutes up the road. The next stretch was absolutely stunning. This was new terrain for me as I’d only ever ridden the northbound route before and it was nice have that feeling of exploring somewhere new. The weather was very Scottish and we were frequently soaked by heavy downpours and always slowed by strong headwinds. We slogged up a steep climb against such a strong wind that my head unit kept auto-pausing, thinking we’d stopped. And when it came time to descend the other side I took the front and needed maximum power to reach a meagre 30kph! At this pace there was plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and I was constantly fighting the urge to take photos and set up some shots. If I couldn’t race LEL then maybe I should focus on this write-up and just share a great story?

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Steep climbs and ferocious headwinds. Freewheeling on the descent was not an option.

At Eskdalemuir we found the smallest of all the controls we visited. It was another that needed shoes off. After heavy rain it becomes quite a chore to peel off the overshoes, undo the shoes and then lift squelchy waterlogged feet out of the shoes. It’s pretty unpleasant doing it in reverse on your way out again. img_0884Once inside the setup was cosy, with huge glass panels at the rear facing out towards the weather that was heading our way. More heavy rain started within moments of our arrival. A big bowl of cheesy pasta hit the spot, while studying the clouds and trying (and failing) to play weatherman. “That looks like a clear spot. The rain will stop soon so lets give it a couple of minutes.” In the end it needed 60. Chris was now more than an hour up the road, but I’m sure his early pace will slow and we’ll find him again once night falls. We’d stopped long enough for my knees to stiffen and chill so I requisitioned a couple of plastic bags and made myself some windproof knee covers (patent pending). This would take the sting out of the restart until I’d worked the legs back up to temperature.

Back on the road and I asked Jasmijn if she’d mind taking time to get a photo. I’m forever taking photos but Chris and Jasmijn are much more disciplined and consequently I only featured in selfies. I quite fancied at least one good shot of myself that captured the LEL experience. For that we just needed to wait for the next biblical downpour, which was now proving elusive. Typical! I cursed the weather for the next hour and then finally got the savage soaking I’d been waiting for. Jasmijn was less pleased about this and instead of dashing for cover she was politely trying to follow the creative direction of a vain, sleep-deprived idiot, posing in the middle of road. Nice shot though.

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Rolling down out of the Borders we turned into Longtown, which had a familiar feel to it. Once the first riders had come past us in the opposite direction we realised we’d rejoined the two-way route. There were cheers and claps from riders as we crossed in the road. First there were a handful and then the stream kept on coming. Each and every one of them got a wave and a ‘hi’. Eight minutes were devoted to a savoury food raid on a convenience store, because I expected the next control – Brampton – to be a little busier than the first time we passed through there!

Wow, what a difference! 10pm on the second day and this is probably where the bulk of the 1,500 riders were at this time, 550km into their rides. The bustle was intense and there was a decent queue for food. My mouth was in a woeful state now and I made a beeline for the self-service soup, which was all I could get down. That was agony too. We caught up with Luke Allen who’d ridden a more sane rhythm, taking measured rest stops along the route. He was hoping to gather a couple of riders for the night climb over Yad Moss and was easily persuaded to wait for us while Jasmijn and I grabbed a 25 minute power nap. I got cheeky and asked Luke to queue and grab me some hot porridge for wake-up time. I think he was too polite/tired to tell me fuck off.

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Innerleithen to Brampton.

The beds system was hilarious. Jasmijn and I both use the same sleep strategy of 25 minute power naps. Any longer than that and the body releases chemicals to softly paralyse the muscles into relaxation and a deeper sleep. The effect is to wake up feeling really groggy. I’ve learned that 25 is actually too long for me and I’m closer to 20 minutes. None of this mattered though: the volunteers only woke riders at four times per hour, which meant we were offered 35 minutes (too long) or 20 minutes. This included the time it took to be given a bed and get to sleep. The staff had absolutely zero appetite for bending the system (Audax, baby!) so we opted for the 20 minutes and tried to hurry the process of getting our heads down.

“If somebody snored like that in a comedy movie you’d say it was too over the top.”

2 minutes later a volunteer told Jasmijn it was time to wake up. I tried to hold it in but I laughed out loud. This was not going well. “Focus! Calm the mind. Breathe.” One guy who was definitely breathing was the chap one row behind us and one bed along, snoring like a jackhammer. If somebody snored like that in a comedy movie you’d say it was too over the top. I tried not to dwell on how little time I had left. “Relax”. Then I discovered that the airbed I was lying on was much shorter than previously thought. This eureka moment happened when a fellow rider plonked himself down on the bed one row behind mine and my feet catapulted into the air. I threw in the towel and got up just as a volunteer entered on what would’ve been our wake up call. They had forgotten Jasmijn, which was ideal. I sat outside for another five minutes and then told a volunteer they’d forgotten Jasmijn, meaning she’d managed to get the full 25 minutes we’d originally wanted. “She’s very disoriented”, I was told on his return. Yeah, 1,000km in two days will do that to you.
Heading back into the canteen I found Luke at the front of the food queue – what a gent. I rewarded him by grumbling about the lack of sleep and whinging about the state of my mouth. It was taking a while for Jasmijn to appear and I ran back to the dorms a couple of times to check that she’d definitely been roused. After a 2 hour stop, shortly before midnight, our new band clipped in and rolled out into the damp night to tackle Yad Moss once more. This time with a fruity headwind and the best part of 1,000km in our legs.

“Ride harder to stay warm? The legs are saying ‘pace yourself’ and they are very convincing.”

It wasn’t long before I was feeling the cold. The 14°C displayed on my Wahoo was clearly a lie. It had to be. The rain and the windchill must account for the difference because I was starting to feel it, despite the climbing. The was no real benefit to drafting on these roads so we took the opportunity to fan out across the road and banter away. Again, I’m half-conscious that I’m mostly talking drivel and am probably being really annoying, but for some reason I can’t stop myself. Hopefully it repeated the effect of keeping people awake. It’s keeping me awake, at least, and as I’ve had no sleep for 48 hours that’s just fine.

I’m torn between pacing myself over the climb and riding hard to generate more heat. The stiff and cranky legs say ‘pace yourself’ and they are very convincing. I tell Jasmijn and Luke not to wait for me if they drop me on the climb. It’s a long descent and I’ll catch up to them if necessary. In the end I’m able to maintain pace except for the steepest sections and we reach the top of Yad Moss together. “Bugger it’s cold”. Have I mentioned the cold? Passing Alston we find two Asian riders by the side of the road, looking somewhat lost. They were trying to find their friend, who I was sure we’d passed just a few minutes earlier. We guided them towards the control 500m down the road and then continued, barking warnings to oncoming riders about the damp cobbles ahead.

Feeling self-conscious that I’m not contributing much to the team at this stage, I am very keen to lead us down any descents. Lights on full and we’re away. The wind is fierce and this time it’s a crosswind and gusty with it. I sink my weight into the bike and keep a few Watts going through the pedals to maintain stability, without accelerating. Jasmijn is cautious on descents and being that much lighter is also feeling the crosswinds, so I’m feathering the brakes to hold a speed that is comfortable. This time around we also have riders coming the other way, so I must leave bigger margins as I straighten the curves. Their lights provide extra information about where the road might go, but I take nothing as gospel because there are often sneaky hidden turns and chicanes between us. Descending quickly doesn’t usually give you back much time but at night it’s different. In the dark it’s possible to make much larger savings if you can read the road well and carry much more speed through corners. It’s not the balls-out descending that I really love but I’m taking pride in temporarily being strong and leading our group down as fast as we could manage.

“We hear a shriek and turn to see Jasmijn slowly but very persistently drifting off the road.”

I didn’t realise until we’d finished the main descent just how cold I’d become. Jasmijn was now also complaining – uncharacteristically – of just how tired she felt. We didn’t give that quite enough attention until all of a sudden we hear her shriek. We look back as she continues shrieking while very slowly but very persistently drifting towards the right edge of the road. “WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!” we shout. She saves herself at the final moment and we pull over to assess things. I’m pretty sure she’s wide awake now but I’m keen to shadow her like outriders and subject her to some of my special ‘no-sleep’ drivel. It’s 2am and we still have 40km of shallow but barren descending to do before the refuge of the Barnard Castle control. None of us were carrying bivvy kit. There was no other option but to get this done, however long it might take. In the end it took us an hour and a half to cover a 40km descent. “Fucking hell, I’m cold.”At this point my thoughts get darker. I’m suffering, having a private pity party and looking for others to blame. I’m resentful of the concessions made for Chris earlier in the ride and his spectacular recovery. I knew without doubt that it was completely unintentional but I was annoyed about how it played out. I resented easing off for Jasmijn on the long, exposed descent into Barnard Castle; blaming this for my freezing condition. Then I resented the resentment and hated the arsehole that I was becoming.

The reality was that sleep deprivation had caught up with me and this was the root cause of my struggles. It was my own doing. A week earlier I had made the disciplined decision to shift my body clock to an early routine. I would be up at 5am every day be in bed by 10pm. I managed the 5am rises but failed miserably to get to bed before midnight. I told myself it’s OK and I’d catch up with naps during the afternoons, but that didn’t happen either. The result of my brilliant strategy was a week of sleeping five hours per night and then just four hours on the final night, to be up at 3am. Sleep-Banking Level: Dickhead.

“I played a 90 minute game of Twister by myself. I still managed to lose.”

With Jasmijn safely into the control I could be more open about the state I’d got myself into. I was chilled to the bone and deeper still. This was colder than I had ever been before. I could literally feel a lack of life in all of my joints and deep inside my torso. Volunteers brought us both blankets from the dorms. I peeled off my soggy socks and found numb toes all shades of green, blue and purple.

As luck would have it, Lesley was back on duty (it was 4am) and I tried to exploit her fondness for @darrensarse in pursuit of a quiet corner of the school where we could sleep without being disturbed. That wasn’t possible but instead she offered her camper van! “It’s very warm” she said. Music to my ears. I coaxed down some warm soup, trying to get some heat into my body and then we shuffled our way to the car park and into the camper. It really was warm – this was brilliant. Less ideal was my lanky incompatibility with camper vans and my inability to sleep in any position other than fully stretched out. Jasmijn was out like a light. I played a 90 minute game of Twister by myself and still managed to lose. I tried threading my legs through the gap by the driver’s seat; propping them up against the back of the driver’s seat; face down with my knees bent and thighs angled upwards like a scorpion; and a dozen other variants, none of which brought success and some of which were hyperextending joints and genuinely painful. I was warm though and that almost certainly saved me.

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We’d spent four and half hours at Barnard Castle and it was now just after 8am on the third day. Sleep had again eluded me but the warmth of the camper and the bright new day had a renewing effect. The rush hour traffic was slightly less welcome. At the first corner store we stopped to buy mouthwash and a pair of toothbrushes. There was not a single area of my mouth that had not been overtaken by ulcers, sores and lacerations. I swigged a capful of mouthwash and have never known pain quite like it. I spewed it out into the bin and the act of drawing air across my ulcers and wounds only intensified the pain. It was not a pretty sight. Once that calmed down I was keen to reapply some Sudocrem and used the shelter of a tiny nook in the shopfront for privacy, just as a lady emerged from the shop.

“Please don’t look down on me. I’m not peeing! I’m just smothering my balls with nappy cream.”

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One of those dumb falls.

At the Thirsk control I managed another cup of soup but the state of my mouth prevented me from eating anything else. Leaving the control I turned my head to speak to Jasmijn and when I looked forward again I was riding into the kerb. Before I could correct myself my weight was already past the point of no return and I hit the ground with my left side. It was the dumbest of crashes but fortunately it was little more than walking speed. The bike was unscathed as it landed on me. My hand, shoulder, hip and ankle took the impact but nothing felt serious at the time.

Aside from the constant headwind and the pain of my shredded mouth, the stretch back to the Humber Bridge was actually quite a pleasant ride. It was warm and bright, with the sun hanging low in the sky and we’d settled into a relaxed cruise. We rode two-abreast along Yorkshire lanes, nattering away, subjecting Jasmijn to my life story. I was relentlessly chatty and couldn’t seem to stop myself. Reliving all those misadventures helped the time fly by as we threaded our way between storms. After the bridge we dropped down into Barton and raided the Tesco, looking for food that I might be able to force through. Sugar-free yoghurts were the best I could find. It wasn’t enough.

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The unending battle agains the wind.
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Back across the Humber and the finish line feels close, even if it’s still 200 miles away.

The strength of the headwind made for very slow progress and I’d slipped far behind with fuelling. I’d bonked shortly after Thirsk and was now running on empty. For those who’ve never ‘bonked’ before, it’s when the body can no longer supply enough energy for what you’re asking it to do. You get jelly-legged and you get dumb. Everything becomes a slog. Jasmijn took the front and sat bolt upright to try and offer as much of a draft as possible. Even then she’s still much more aero. My neck was now fading (damn that whiplash!) so time on the aero bars had to be carefully rationed. Retracing our steps over the Lincoln Wolds, the scenery passed by much more slowly in this direction. Our plan was to reach Louth and be back on the road before the sun fully set, conscious that it would be that much harder to get going in darkness.

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All aboard the Duracell Bunny Express. Next stop Louth.

I’d tried to ignore struggles I’d had the previous night and push through but my body had gradually started to fail. Neck, achilles, mouth, hands, feet. 65 hours without sleep has halved my IQ and I’m now lacking confidence in my decision making. Sleep deprivation typically brings hallucinations and this time it was constant drizzle. I saw the whole day through a blurry filter of rain drops, perhaps convinced so by my clammy kit. Once I’d finally accepted the hallucinations Jasmijn told me “no, it actually is raining this time”. As the temperature chased the sun downwards I could feel myself losing heat again. “I should stop at Louth and grab 90 minutes. But then Spalding is only 80km away and it’s fairly flat after the Wolds.” I copped out of the decision-making and deferred it to Jasmijn, conscious that she’s not the sort to throw the towel in too soon but equally isn’t afraid to do so when it’s necessary. Her clarity was reassuring so I tried to HTFU and steel myself for the next stage. Jasmijn refused all efforts to set her free and so she waited patiently as I fumbled my way around the Louth control, trying to find something I could consume and generally regain some warmth. My ride data tells me we were stopped for two hours. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must’ve been for her.

“The noises I was making were embarrassing. Like a fat Darth Vader climbing his first hill.”

Straight out of the control we’re instantly climbing. The Wolds aren’t that tall but in the dark, at a snail’s pace, we may as well be in the Alps. They dragged on for an eternity. My chest was tight. My jersey had become a corset and my heart rate monitor a boa constrictor. I struggled to breathe and struggled even harder to push the pedals. The melodramatic noises I was making were so embarrassing – like a fat Darth Vader climbing his first hill – but they felt absolutely necessary. My belly was bloated and nauseous. A little fart bought 30 seconds relief and I continued to climb, with one hand on the bars and the other pulling my shorts away from my waistband to relieve the pressure. I was very quickly regretting my decision not to sleep at Louth and I’m sure Jasmijn was very quickly regretting her decision not to escape when she could. Yet again, she did an amazing job hiding it.

Finally clear of the Wolds we’d merely swapped hills for exposure to the wind. Our pace barely lifted, hovering around 20kph. My body had shut down and I was done. I needed some fuel but there was absolutely nothing. “Surely there’ll be a petrol station somewhere”, I thought, but Lincolnshire was utterly devoid of civilisation. In three hours we’d covered just 50km when we eventually came across a garage at Swineshead.

“I had been clinging on by my fingertips but now that we’d stopped my body surrendered and I was done.”

The door was locked for the night but I could see a hot chocolate machine and asked the attendant for one of those, but the machine was out of order. I could also see porridge pots and a microwave so, between serving an inexplicably constant stream of customers (at 2:30am on a Tuesday morning), he tried to make instant porridge. The first attempt failed so I bought a second pint of milk and another pot which he passed through the hatch. This whole episode somehow took over an hour and I still can’t fathom how that happens. Jasmijn had meanwhile taken refuge from the cold in the reception of a roadside hotel opposite. I plumped down in a chair in the reception and tried to eat my porridge. By now Jasmijn no longer needed persuading to leave me. I was clearly done. I promised her (with my fingers crossed) that I would get a room and not continue on, but it took me an extra hour to genuinely accept this fate. Spalding was barely 20km away but it wasn’t going to happen. I was clinging on with fingertips while we were moving but now that I’d stopped for 2 hours my body had fully surrendered.

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In a bad way.

I didn’t appreciate how soggy my kit was until I peeled it off and hung it up to air. My skin, my glasses and my helmet all had a sheen of moisture over them from the damp night air. Hands and feet, still deathly pale and lifeless from the lack of circulation. I couldn’t help but think back to the time in Cortina d’Ampezzo when I’d hit a similar physical floor on the Transcontinental Race. “Never scratch at night”, a wise man once said. I sulked on Twitter about stopping due to hypothermia but I was almost certain I’d still be finishing this thing, albeit in survival mode.

Laying my head down I was finally able to shrug off the weight of fighting sleep. I was instantly consumed. My alarm was set for one and a half hours, which I’d calculated was all I could afford if I wanted to be sure of finishing before another cold night fell. It was enough. Waking was hard but I knew things would improve quickly once I was on the bike, so I tried to rush the process without thinking. The faff level was still immense though. 9 hours after arriving at the petrol station I’d managed 90 minutes sleep before setting off again. No, I don’t get it either.

I force down a gel and then immediately chase it with mouthwash and pain. The traffic is heavy with trucks and the headwind has grown in strength now that it’s daytime. Soon I’ll be passing close to my parents’ house and it would be easy – sensible – to stop there. But I’ve chosen LEL as my biggest target for the year and I can’t let that end with a DNF. Yesterday Jasmijn and I chatted about the freedom of not caring what other people thought. Sadly I’m not that free. I do care and I was embarrassed at having failed. Maybe I can salvage some kind of respect from this if I can endure to the finish.

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The invisible hills of the Fens. ‘Hors Categorie!’

The pity party was in full swing at Spalding as I watched other riders come through. Nobody looked fresh but none were (visibly) suffering like I was. Damn them. 40 minutes was again too long to stop and my cranky legs complained when I got rolling. I couldn’t be sure if I was looking forward to or dreading the next section. With a little soup in my belly I was able to take some ibuprofen, which took the edge off the pain.

Nothing could be done about that wind though and riding down the Welland Bank was a real slog. Force 5 gales we were told. Watching the wind rip across the water I didn’t doubt it. Now I’m thinking back to Croatia and the unrideable day battling the Bora, which was several times more powerful. Remember those lessons: just keep moving, it won’t last forever. All too briefly I turned to pick up a cross-tail wind and it was heavenly. I started to think stupid thoughts about turning around and sailing north instead. Back to Edinburgh or maybe just Hull and then catch the train to London.

“I started thinking stupid thoughts about turning around and sailing back to Edinburgh with a tailwind.”

Beyond Thorney I knew it was direct headwind the whole way home. The Fens are brutal when it’s windy. As tough as any climb. Two riders passed me as I dealt with the call of nature. Both of them in full aero positions pedalling hard for very little speed. At Whittlesey I caught up with one (mahogany-legged Haneef) and we agreed to work together for as long as it was practical. I was struggling to hold his wheel for the first section so it was a relief when he confessed he’d gone out a bit stronger than he could sustain. We rotated for the next couple of hours, barely managing 20kph, until arriving at St Ives. As I rode up to the school I saw Hoppo with his support car, picking up a bag for the control and swapping to a TT bike for the final stretch. Our two bikes side-by-side made for an interesting image.

Having my bidon filled with soup didn’t work out quite as planned (it was a chunky soup) so I sat and drank that rather than making a quick getaway. It was raining on and off again and the wind was still fierce. I didn’t want to stop too long. Volunteers looked on in horror as I swigged mouthwash, spewed it into the bin and then performed my melodramatic pain dance. Given the time Hoppo clearly not had a good ride and was unlikely to still be racing LEL, but I invented some competition to help with motivation. Finishing ahead of the former world champ who was riding unladen, and with a support crew, would be a small victory. I set off while he was grabbing some food.

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Hoping the hot chocolate would numb the mouth enough to drink the shake.

The hedgerows of the busway between St Ives and Cambridge offered moments of shelter from the wind. Being traffic free I could also afford to hang my head a little and use the aero bars without punishing my neck. There was no escaping the bonk though. I was woefully under-fuelled and was paying a price for every pedal stroke. This section always feels like halfway on my London-Peterborough rides so the finish line felt close. Of course under these conditions it wasn’t. I took the long way around Cambridge rather than riding through it. Two hours later and the bonk is extreme. My head is fuzzy and my whole body is jellied and light. There’s a service station with a McDonalds and I order a shake, an ice cream and a hot chocolate. It’s the shake I need but I’m hoping the hot chocolate will numb my mouth enough to let me drink some. It didn’t. I couldn’t manage any of the ice cream either. In an exercise of futility I used the hand dryer on my clammy kit and then retired back to my bench to wallow. Then I saw Hoppo whizz by on his TT bike and leapt into action. I say leapt; it still took me almost five minutes to put all my damp clothes back on and clip in to give chase.

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As night fell – along with the rain – I could feel any warmth leaving me again. Drastic measures.

That stop now meant I was definitely going into another night before finishing. It was another two hours riding to the final control at Great Easton and I arrived after dark. The volunteers on the desk asked how I was doing and I casually mentioned hypothermia, joking it off. Then I went to the bathroom and liberated a couple of towels. Other staff had heard the conversation over the radios and two had run out to stop me as I was heading back to my bike. They were almost insistent that I sleep here until morning but I explained that I knew I’d shut down if I stopped for any length of time. They took some persuading but I told them I’d been here before and was experienced enough to be sure of myself. It was right for them to stop me but I just wanted to get this thing done. I was stopped again at the exit and repeated the process once more.

Little more than 40km separated me from the finish at Loughton but it would take almost two and a half hours to cover. The final hills into that wind were an enormous drag. With my front light fading I was very grateful to bump into Haneef again. He was struggling with navigation so we pooled resources and nursed each other in, arriving just before midnight.

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Stamp collecting.

The aftermath

Despite being around the 30th rider in the staff still cheered enthusiastically. I must’ve seemed ungrateful but my sole priority was to strip out of as much of my soggy kit as decency permitted and find some warmth. 

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My new passport photo. A crime against double-dipping.

I climbed back into that soggy kit for Charlotte Barnes’ brilliant Hard Riders portrait series. It’s a fascinating idea that captures the first finishers, fresh off the bike. Look left… up a bit… smile. With my mouth in agony and my body rapidly shutting down this sneer was genuinely my best attempt at a smile. Fortunately her series is black and white, which helped to mask the white Sudocrem I’d smothered my nose and lips in to help with wind chafing.

img_1071The chef at Loughton was another superstar of the volunteering crew. A ‘can-do’ guy if ever there was one. He’d pulled an endurance shift to rival any of the riders and was still beaming with positivity. He knocked up some really thin porridge for me and a plate of creamy tuna to try and get some protein in. Another volunteer recognised the poor state of me and chaperoned me for the next hour or so while I fumbled my way through immediate recovery procedures, eventually shepherding me to the dorms for a sleep.

Recovery would take a long time. LEL had taken me 90 hours where I’d hoped to be finished in 60, but expected to be at least a day quicker than this. After 5 hours sleep I headed home and dived immediately into all the life admin that had built up. I was a complete mess for almost two weeks, in many ways worse than after the much longer TCR. As a race attempt it had been a disaster but I had learned so much through the hardship and this is what I take away from it. A fast time would’ve been nice but what I got was probably of more value and will make me a faster rider in future events.

It’s clear I’m a delicate sleeper. LEL proved that I really don’t need much, but when I do sleep it needs to be in very good conditions. Managing moisture is probably what led to hypothermia, made more likely by my general state of fatigue and later under-fuelling. I’m still figuring out why that would be the case as Luke Allen also wore a Bioracer speed suit and didn’t seem to suffer the same effects. The hypothermia comes with lots of side effects, including the nausea I suffered.

I’ve since discovered that I have lazy saliva glands (xerostomia) which is a terrible thing to combine with a sugary diet and 1,400km of mouth-drying winds and was very likely going to lead to the awful ulcers and sores. The mouthwash I was using would have actually been making things worse too by drying the mouth out even further. I’m looking into ways of stimulating saliva, either with chewing gum, citrus or Haribo Tangfastics.

Seeing the aerodynamic efficiency of Chris and Jasmijn – both experienced time trialists – has spurred me into action on improving my aero. They were able to match my speed for far fewer watts and there’s no greater gains to be made than these. It’s a long process though and it will take time to gradually change my position and train the body to be strong in it.

While I’m disappointed by the failures – and often embarrassed by the fuss I made during/about them – I’m happy to have gone to the dark place once more and persevered. My goal now is to be able to apply that grit to race progress instead of making things hard for myself and wasting it on coping with avoidable suffering.

I’m hugely grateful to Chris and Jasmijn for being able to ride with them. As always, you learn the most by surrounding yourself with people who are better than you. If I can absorb some of their best qualities I will be doing well. I have to give special thanks to Jasmijn, who stuck with me and my whinging long after I’d have pushed me into a hedge and left me. Special thanks must also go to the team at Rat Race Cycles who worked into the night to prepare the bike for me; and to J.Laverack who loaned me a set of wheels when I found mine had cracked at the last minute.

For the full Rashomon experience I’d encourage you to also read Chris’s and Jasmijn’s write-ups. I’ve recorded this as I remember it, aided by the data, notes, photos and social media posts I collected along the way. There are almost certainly inaccuracies in there somewhere.

7 thoughts on “LEL 2017: Part II

  1. Very well done. I scratched at Innerliethan – too wet, too cold, too beat up and an ego that found it could cope with failure. Oh, and didn’t you find the road surfaces shook you to bits?

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    1. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to the post-apocalyptic road surfaces of London but I didn’t notice the surfaces except for those around Carlisle and Edinburgh.

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  2. I get the odd ulcer if I accidentally bite my mouth or tongue and hate it until healed, simply cannot imagine not being able to eat but continuing to ride hard, an impossibility!
    Hope you manage to solve it and prevent it for future

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    1. I’ve done some research since then and, unfortunately, learned that there’s no way to speed up the recovery of mouth ulcers. Prevention is where it’s at. I’ve switched my fuelling strategy towards more savoury foods and committed to generally looking after myself better during big races. I still suffer with ulcers from time to time – even off the bike – and they’re usually a result of a depressed immune system, through illness or fatigue and exacerbated by a few trigger foods. The plan now is to use them as an early warning that I’m not taking enough care of myself.

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