Scratching from a race, especially a long race, can feel like the end of a relationship. At the time it feels like the end of the world; like everything you are and have worked towards is now nothing and that you may never come back from this.
However, it is also a relief to know that the struggle is over and you can stop fighting: there’s a strange satisfaction in knowing that you’ve given everything you had and that it wasn’t enough. Over time you might even discover that it wasn’t even really that important, that you’ve learned something, that you’re stronger because of it and maybe, just maybe, that you’re ready to give it another go.
This is what happened to me on the 2021 edition of the Pan Celtic Race: from honeymoon period, through the tough grind of trying to make it work to the eventual break-up in Wales.
Our relationship got off to a pretty stormy start in Cornwall: I arrived about as unrested as it’s possible to be, trying to juggle training after a knee injury and an intense workload on top of the emotional upheaval caused by the ending of my long-term relationship (due to the stresses of Covid and promptly falling for someone unavailable).
I went into the race looking forward to the simplicity of just turning my legs and eating food. Ever since becoming involved in long-distance cycling when my brother took me on my first overnight ride – the amazing Dunwich Dynamo – I’ve used riding as therapy and mental check-in time. However, this was to be the longest ride I’d ever undertaken and my inexperience was evident in the lofty goals I set myself.
The start was stormy – quite literally – with torrential rain making riders cold and very, very wet before the pedalling even began.
I’d been too nervous to socialise around the campfire the previous evening and opted for an early night only to be kept awake by a group of drunken non-racers camping next to me. It was less than ideal, but I was pleased to finally be moving. As always, the nerves dropped away and I was immediately having fun, revelling in the company of 100s of riders, the ridiculousness of the weather and the awesome distance in front of us.
I’d ridden a bunch in Devon and Cornwall, so I knew the climbing and gradients we were in for and even recognised some of the roads from the previous month’s TransKernow race.
I also knew I was fine riding through the night, even enjoying the twilight hours, the wildlife you’d never otherwise see and the feeling of solitude in your personal pool of light, so I continued to CP1 without stopping, arriving the next day at the YHA. This is where my inexperience – and the aforementioned “lofty” goals – started to undo my ride.
I only slept for an hour: I was feeling good, but didn’t have time to dry my soggy kit or rest properly. I wanted to carry on, excited at being closer to the front of the race than I’d anticipated and to be emulating the ultra-racers who I’d looked up to ever since I’d discovered that people race bikes over vast distances.
The second night contained some of my favourite moments of the race – and some of the toughest. As night started to fall, the torrential rain returned, turning the lanes into streams and chilling my body to the point that the only thing keeping me warm was the exertion of pedalling: something I knew I’d not be able to maintain with only an hour’s rest.
I wasted too much time trying to get a hotel room, only to find that all the other racers had had the same idea and booked that already.
I rode on lifted by admiring and supportive messages from friends and colleagues promising hugs on the finish line, offering advice, emotional support and saunas when it was all done.
In the rainy gloom I spotted a church and went to investigate: its porch was perfect. Its lightly-inclined wheelchair ramp provided a bed and its oak and iron gothic doors closed on the elements. Satisfied by my resourcefulness and vaguely wondering if someone would turf me out into the rain, I unrolled my bivvy and ate some chocolate remembering a passage from Emily Chappell’s book Where There’s a Will in which she sleeps in a similar spot during the Transatlantic Way Race and thought to myself, “I’m doing it, I’m doing it! I’m a proper ultra-racer!”
Sadly, my tactics left a lot to be desired. I was so cold that I couldn’t take off my wet bibshorts, a predicament which contributed to the worst saddle sore I’ve ever experienced either before or since.
The next night, I promised myself a B’n’B and I managed to find the chintziest place going: the shower was heaven and I inspected the bleeding crater in my buttock, salving it with a fistful of Sudocrem. I warned my chatty host that I was leaving at midnight and went to bed early.
The following night saw me talking to horses in fields and weeping at the pain in my knee as I pushed my bike up a hill I could no longer pedal on. It occurred to me that moving the saddle up might help, a major mental feat for my fatigue-addled brain. This seemed to help instantly and I ploughed on through the Mendips, descending Cheddar Gorge in the dark, whooping for joy, over the Clifton Suspension Bridge, through Bristol and over the Severn Bridge into Wales.
The morning of the fourth day was when the wheels started to come off though.
I’d been thinking about scratching on and off for a while and I wasn’t enjoying South Wales, it felt unfriendly and grimy along the coast where the roads were busier than they had been at the start of the race.
Eventually, however, the route started to leave the bigger towns behind and the hills in between the valleys became beautiful once again.
Hoping to push on to Check Point 2 by nightfall I decided not to stop for a real meal and instead just snacked on the bike, which turned out to be another big mistake. As I crawled up another pass over the hills I could feel myself starting to bonk and no amount of sugar could take the place of actual food (a lesson learned for next time). It was just then that a van descending the tight single lane swooshed past me from the opposite direction without slowing or deviating from its course, nearly knocking me off the road. Fully shaken, without the mental armour which tiredness and days of discomfort had stripped away, I sat in the bracken at the side of the road eating a maltloaf and trying to put myself back together. I couldn’t. It felt like an LSD trip gone bad: suddenly everything was threat and fear. I rode to the nearest station and bought a ticket home.
Immediately on the train I felt relief, followed by shame and disappointment. I was supposed to be good at this. I thought my main strength as a cyclist and maybe even a person was not giving up – and I’d given up! What did that mean for me? I’d told friends and family that I was doing this thing, trained for it for months and now what?
“Would you like to smell my cheese-grater?” It must have been just after school-kick-out-time and a group of young teenage girls with strong Welsh accents had noticed me and were being noisy and funny-obnoxious. They teased me and I teased them back, telling them that, funnily enough my name was in fact “Cheese Grater”.
Joining in their nonsense banter, I realised that outside of a very few people – who were at that moment riding through the West Country and Wales – absolutely no-one cared if I continued riding my bike or not.
Whether I did or not was totally my choice and it had only the exact amount of importance that I put on it.
So much had happened whilst on the face of it I’d just been riding my bike: I’d met some incredible people, seen amazing landscapes and totally revelled in ordering two of every foodstuff whenever I stopped. I’d also ridden my longest ride ever: 600 miles in 3 days and 5 hours.
Admittedly, trenchfoot wasn’t quite as sweet, but I knew I’d be back next year. I wasn’t beaten yet.
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