About 10 days have passed now since that epic cycle ride from London to Edinburgh and back. Since then, many blogs and Facebook group posts have been written with riders’ and volunteers’ tales of London-Edinburgh-London. All contain great stories of camaraderie and ingenuity when faced with challenges. This left me with a warm feeling and appreciation for how much kindness there is in this wonderful Audax community. It also left me with an itching desire to experience it all over again in four years’ time. As time passes by, my memory of the ride fades along with any physical niggles I may have picked up along the way. I could add my account of what happened along the way to Chris Herbert’s and Darren Franks’ excellent blogs which cover 2/3rd of my story anyway. Instead, I prefer to tap into those lingering thoughts and feelings that make LEL so special, that make me want to do it again, and that make me want to encourage anyone reading this blog to join me in 2021. LEL: you’re under my skin.
Ultimately, for me, it is the insights and experiences gained during uncompetitive challenges like LEL that drive me to take part. Yes, it is a tough physical challenge, but I do these events primarily to feed my soul and train my brain.
Plus, this year, the later starters in particular, got to enjoy a lot of rain and a hell of a headwind on the return leg. But any cyclist with a strong drive can do it, as long as you look after your body and your mind, enjoy the fantastic support structure, replenish at the official controls, embrace the spirit of the event and don’t get too unlucky with mechanical issues.
Depending on your previous experience you can opt to complete the event in 100 or 116 hours for official recognition, but there is nothing to stop you from continuing if you fall outside these time limits. This event is first and foremost about participation and completion, not competition, although there are always some riders who are keen on striking up the satisfaction of being the first finisher. This year, the fastest finisher completed the event in 63 hours! Big respect, but I have equal respect for all other riders who took part in LEL, especially for those who redefined their limits by going way beyond anything they had previously done.
I could write about how fast I completed the event or the fact I was the first female finisher, but that isn’t what this event was about for me and by starting in the 5am group as the only woman, that was somewhat of a given.
My coach had rightly warned me that I shouldn’t ‘go deep’ for 3 events in a row as it would jeopardize that one big goal for this year, my LEJOG and 1000 mile record attempt in September.
The week before LEL I had gone pretty deep, but with the amazing result of becoming the 2017 women’s National 24hr TT Champion (and making history by becoming the first woman ever in a Nat24hr championship to end up on the overall podium). I still carried some fatigue from that event and my saddle sores, which had required an emergency visit to the health centre during a work trip to Pembroke straight after the Nat24hr, had only just healed. I still carried the remainder of the antibiotics course in my top tube bag for completion.
The National 12hr TT Championships were only a week to 10 days after LEL and my main goal for the year is now approaching scarily fast…
My coach questioned if I should ride LEL at all. But no way, was I going to bail on LEL! It is with regret that for a number of reasons I now need to bail on the National 12hr TT championships, but having already won that title in 2015, I’m still less sad about that than I would have been about losing out on the opportunity to ride the length of the country and actually have time to enjoy the scenery and the adventure. LEL was a chance to feed my soul, test a few last things in terms of nutrition, sleep and clothing and there was no way my coach was going to talk me out of this!
So that’s context and motivation. What about thoughts during the ride? People often ask me what goes through my head on long rides and races. The answer is, during races: absolutely nothing at all! All there is, is a focus on the race itself, my posture on the bike, the numbers on my Garmin/Wahoo, the road ahead and that precarious balance of not going into the red, yet being able to squeeze out the very best over the distance/time of the event. I find that where the mind goes, the body follows. If I let my mind wander, my body also takes a backseat and before I know it, I either end up in the ditch daydreaming or bumbling along with hardly any speed!
During a ride like LEL, it is a very different story. There are times the weirdest memories come back from years or sometimes decades ago. Often these memories go back as far as childhood, the time I first learned to ride a bike, the times the bike was simply a method of transport, providing freedom, independence and exploration, even if that was just to get to school, ballet, music lessons or to see friends. Occasionally my thoughts travel forward, dreaming of adventures still to be had and challenges I may embark on if I find the courage to do so. Most of the time, my mind is simply ‘in the now’, appreciating the scenery around me (or cursing it, depending on the gradient!).
There are periods where my mind is beautifully empty (how often do you get to enjoy that in your daily life with work, family stress etc?!). It is during these periods that I really enjoy riding solo. I don’t want to sound too airy fairy, but it is almost a spiritual experience, feeling at one with the bike, with nature, with myself. LEL can give you as much opportunity for this as you like. The beauty of Audax events is that while many people ride together for stretches (or even the whole ride), there is no onus to ‘stick to the group’ as there may be on a club run. After all, Audax is about being bold, about being self-sufficient.
I love how you can dip in and out of this group-solo continuum and meet different people along the route, with different stories, riding styles etc. Once Chris had made his magical come-back after a bit of sleep, I was somewhat grateful to see him speeding off into the distance back to London. He had been riding really strongly. Whilst I couldn’t grumble about free speed and was able to hold onto his wheel for the most part, there were also times where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have my legs ripped off. Once he was gone, I had the pleasure to enjoy periods of wonderful chat with Darren, just enjoying the late afternoon sun and pretty landscapes we passed through, as well as periods of comfortable silence, each left with our own thoughts (or lack thereof), slowly making our way in the dark, the rain or against the wind.
It was fun to greet late starters on their way up as we were heading down south. Depending on start wave and sleeping strategy people’s LEL experiences will vary widely. On the way up we hardly saw more than 2 to 4 other riders at a control and wondered why at some places the volunteers insisted on bags to put your shoes in, particularly when we were the only ones passing through the control. On the return leg much of that organisation became clear. Wow – what a difference. Everywhere you looked at Brampton you could see people and kit. The volunteers who had leisurely chatted with us when heading north were just as cheery in the thick of it, but all the systems and directions started to make sense. As we progressed further south we started to hit empty controls again, with volunteers waiting out the lull between the earlier chaos and the steady streams of riders that would soon be heading their way again.
I am glad I got to see at least a glimpse of what the full-on LEL experience was like for the majority of riders, but also grateful for having enjoyed the lulls at controls and being seriously spoilt by some volunteers going over and beyond. Absolute highlights remain the amazing lady at the Thirsk (?) control – if only I knew her name – who dried all my soaked kit under the hand driers in the women’s toilets whilst I was eating and Lesley letting me and Darren sleep in her camper van at Barnard Castle. That 90-minute quality sleep got me all the way back to London. I will be forever grateful and never forget to bring earplugs again on an event like this. The irony of it is that the damage visible to my car in the photo gallery below, was caused by me when quickly wanting to dash out to the shops to buy some wax earplugs (others don’t work for me), but causing thousands of pounds of carnage when reversing into a bollard and writing off two more cars and a neighbour’s garage door … I best stick to bikes!
With thanks to Darren Franks, Phil Thornton, June Haswell and Tim Jarvis for the photos.
After I sadly abandoned Darren at a 24hr petrol station in the night somewhere between Louth and Spalding, as he was struggling with a number of issues (which I am sure he will expand upon in his own blog soon), I enjoyed my solo ride into Spalding. But I also got really disappointed. This was my 3rd night riding. Despite having only slept for 22 minutes on the first night and 90 minutes on the second night (after a scary sleep wobble while descending Yad Moss…), I felt strong and decided to forego sleep until finishing back at Loughton. So far, I had never experienced those hallucinations other riders had spoken about. I was told that most likely these only happen from the 3rd night onward. I was so looking forward to having some hallucinations, but each time I thought that I saw people moving along the side of the road, my mind quickly snapped at me ‘don’t be silly, that’s just trees moving in the wind’. And each time a sign in the distance could be mistaken for some sort of creature, my logical mind would take over and make me realise it was just a sign. So…. it looks like I will need to keep going for a bit longer still before I get to see Shu Pillinger’s goblins…
For the final two stages back into Loughton, I had the pleasure of riding with Pat Wright, a former club mate who had started an hour after me. Riding with Pat was fun and fast. I wasn’t sure at first if he wanted company or ride alone as he was doing this ride in part to raise funds for the Brain Tumour Charity, having sadly lost his dad not long ago to this. It made me realise once more that life is finite, how important it is to make the most of it and continue to seek opportunities to bring about positive change for others while setting out on big personal challenges.
Upon finishing the overwhelming feeling was a mix of happiness and fatigue.
You know that feeling when you look into a mirror after a big ride and what you should see is a knackered person, with funny helmet hair, covered in sweat and dirt? But all I see, is a glow of satisfaction, pride and happiness. Rather than thinking ‘oh my god – I look like shit’ (which I probably do), these are the moments I like my own reflection the best. These are the moments I feel happy in my skin and dare I say prettiest. Beauty isn’t about the layers of make-up, clothing or attitude you put on the outside, it is about what you let come through from the inside out.
And a ride like LEL will bring about a whole host of fantastic and confusing feelings in your sleep-deprived state. The Hard Riders series of photographs made by the very talented Charlotte Barnes of early finishers at LEL, illustrates this perfectly. People say a picture can paint a thousand words, well, Charlotte’s pictures can paint a thousand miles. As a keen long-distance cyclist, she knows extremely well how to show this mixture of feelings brought about by the amazing experience LEL is.
For those who sadly had to DNF it may be a feeling of ‘unfinished business’, but I find that is one of the strongest motivators. Equally those who finished the ride will, perhaps after a few days of letting their body heal, find their mind wandering about what could be achieved and experienced next time.
Endorphins released through sports and shared adventure are life’s best drug, leaving you wanting to come back for more!
I definitely want to enter LEL2021, but having been on the receiving end of the endless kindness and energy of Danial and his army of LEL volunteers, I very much want to give back next time. So, you may see me at a Scottish control – after having cycled there of course – or perhaps I will help out at registration and start with one of the later groups.
I hope that reading this blog and various other stories from LEL riders and volunteers will stir something in you and inspire you to be part of LEL2021. See you there!
Please check out the London-Edinburgh-London 2017 Facebook group. There are so many amazing stories there. This is one of my favourites:
PS: a cheeky edit, but production of a 2nd batch of #BeTheEgg caps (as worn by me during LEL) has just started. The mantra is derived from the quote that “the same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. It’s what you’re made of, not the circumstances”. If you want to support my record attempt and get a cap to spur you on during your own cycling adventures, please follow the link below: