The Gift of Failure

Failure is always an option. Of course, this depends on how you define success, but success is never guaranteed. Whether in sport or in business, people tend to look for ‘top tips’ for success or ‘best practice’ examples. Nobody deliberately strives for failure, but failure can also be a gift that ultimately helps you grow. And that, after all, is what I am seeking from pushing my boundaries in cycling. It is about the journey of self-discovery and development, more so than a hunt for fast times, records, titles or any other badges that may be the tangible results. This blog post has been lingering for a long time, but here it finally is: my blog about my failed LEJOG record attempt.

Let’s start with what success would look like. For a record attempt, the difference between success and failure is pretty clear-cut. You either break it or you don’t. In the case of the Land’s End to John o’ Groats (LEJOG) record that means 2 days, 4 hours, 45 minutes and 11 seconds, as set by Lynne Biddulph in 2002. If you are not at least 1 second faster than that, you have failed.

Success is great. It is what we all strive for and what everyone wants to hear about. Sometimes success happens because of sheer luck; more often it comes as a result of hard work and a lot of trial and error. But when you succeed, it is easy not to query enough why you were successful and what you can learn from it. Failure can be a bitter pill to swallow, but also a great opportunity for self-reflection, to evaluate why things went wrong and what you can do next time to make sure you don’t fall into the same trap again. Failure helps to build resilience, grit and determination to succeed at the next attempt. Failure is a gift we should perhaps all permit ourselves to at least consider as a plausible and valuable option.

Just like I don’t agree with bold claims like ‘failure is not an option’, I don’t believe in soothing words like ‘you only fail when you stop trying’. When success is so clear-cut as with this LEJOG record attempt, any other outcome than covering the distance in less than 52 hours, 45 minutes and 11 seconds, means the attempt wasn’t successful and therefore should be considered a ‘failure’.

So, what went wrong and why? And in Sir Alan Sugar’s words “Who is to blame for the failure of this task?” The first question is a complicated one to answer. The second question on the other hand is very easy to answer: I am. There are so many things that can go wrong during a record attempt like this; some that you simply have to accept you cannot control, but there are plenty of things that were fully within my control that I simply did not get right, and I have nobody to blame for those but me.

The acute reason why I abandoned the record attempt in Chorley was because I couldn’t stop puking and I didn’t feel confident I would be able to keep going at the speed required to still break the record if I couldn’t keep in energy and fluid. On hindsight, I sometimes wonder if I was too cautious. I had never been sick on the bike before, so didn’t know how to react. When I first started puking up in Warrington, I wasn’t too concerned and felt happy to continue again. But when I kept on puking and couldn’t control it, I got worried, which meant I was mentally going into a downwards spiral too. Perhaps I overreacted, but after my 2016 DVT and heat exhaustion scares, I have become more cautious, realising that health really is the greatest wealth. I had a paramedic on my crew and I could have continued riding. The problem was that in my head I no longer believed I could make up the time lost and ride fast enough to still break the record.

So, while the acute problem was physical, and much could be improved in terms of my nutritional strategy, ultimately the real problem was mental, which surprised me as I always thought that my mental toughness was my strength. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn, both about myself and this record-breaking business!

There are a thousand and one things that can go wrong, but the one thing you are fully in control of is your own mental state. So, to screw that up, is stupid. Pulling off a record attempt like this is tough, but I didn’t do myself any favours with the way I went about last year’s record attempt.

So where did it start to go wrong? Like most races and challenges, the hardest part is getting to the start line and it was well before setting off from Land’s End, that things went wrong. The long and short of it can be summarised in one word: STRESS. I had put myself under levels of stress I had never experienced before and made the whole scenario much more stressful than it needed to be. So, what made it so stressful?

To give you an idea of the level of stress I was experiencing:

Financial stress: Despite saving up for a long time, I was left just weeks before the start still being very worried about having enough money to finance it all. Funding and sponsorship are wonderful things if you can get it, but don’t underestimate how time-consuming it can be to obtain it in the first place, and don’t underestimate the responsibilities that may come with it. Sponsorship is about creating win-wins. There needs to be a match between the company’s values and what you do or represent. And sometimes it comes down to who you know. A number of companies had given me fantastic product support, but most of this record attempt was self-financed. Everything had to be booked and paid for at the last minute, given that the weather (or the wind rather) was a key factor in deciding when the record attempt would actually be on for. With the help of a few generous donors contributing towards ‘big ticket items’ such as car hire and petrol, I managed to get things sorted in the end, but for a little while money was looking so tight, that I had to ask the crew to please pay for their own expenses up front and that I would refund them as soon as I could afterwards (which at the time I feared wouldn’t be until January). When people already go over and beyond for you by giving their time and skills so generously, that really isn’t the way you want to treat them.

Goal stretch: I hadn’t made this public knowledge, but anyone who would have taken a closer look at the schedule I had submitted to the RRA (Road Records Association) could see that instead of taking the conventional approach of topping up the LEJOG with laps in the north east of Scotland to continue for the 1000-mile record, I planned to turn back on myself, back over the Cairngorms. Obviously, that would make breaking the 1000-mile record less likely, but my ultimate goal was to not just go for LEJOG, but also try to become the first woman to set a Guinness World Record for the LEJOGLE. In my mind, all I had to do was make it back, no matter how slow that would be on the return leg. But that goal stretch, silly as it was anyway in terms of pacing strategy, severely compromised my main goal of LEJOG with which it had all started. It meant that the budget had suddenly ballooned to more than £10k and the logistical and organisational challenge had become a much bigger puzzle which required more crew members, more swapping, more planning and more things that could go wrong.

Work stress: Despite having the most wonderful boss, I was still finishing work deadlines just a day before setting off for Land’s End. That was far from ideal, but my job as a management consultant is project-based and deadline-driven and the ebbs and flows of the workload are not always that easy to foresee and manage.

Weather watching: There is no point going when there is a headwind blowing and really one shouldn’t even consider going unless there is a nice tailwind blowing at least for a good chunk of the route. But anyone who could get the weather forecast for the whole country right with more than a week notice, would be a millionaire. I had set September as my window of opportunity, partly so that crew members could focus on their own events earlier in the year and the school holidays would be over. Unless your crew members are all retired, unemployed or in another fortunate situation that gives them full flexibility, at some point people need to be able to tell their bosses and their families when they may or may not be about for and what other events they can or can’t commit to. In August, I made the tough call to narrow the window to just 2 weeks and opted for the first 2 weeks of September. With 1 week to go I then picked the date of the 5th of September. The weekend just before that would have been better (but closure of the Forth Bridge put an end to that) and on hindsight a later date in September would have been better too, but I called it for the 5th when it looked at least to be a reasonable opportunity. A week really is the longest time in advance you can call it for, even during periods of stable weather. Calling it with 3 days to go would be much better, but also trickier for booking trains, vans, accommodation, annual leave, child cover etc at the last minute. In an ideal world you could just hang out in your second home in Cornwall waiting for the weather, with your own fleet of vans and a merry band of fully flexible helpers. That ideal world exists for nobody. Of course, the forecast changed, but the weather was so iffy and unpredictable in this period that I wasn’t sure when the next opportunity might arise and whether I would still have enough crew members by then.  In the end I post-phoned the record attempt to the 6th of September. The conditions were slightly better on the 6th than they had been on the 5th, but they were far from ideal for a record attempt, and my chances of success were reduced from the start. Modern technology can be a great aid, but it can also be a hinder. Ben Norbury from MyWindSock had helped me to upload my whole route and schedule, so I could anticipate where the wind would come from during all parts of the ride and what overall time might be achievable. Sometimes knowledge is power; sometimes too much knowledge can screw with your head. Knowing you are up against it can be worse than being oblivious and just doing what you can. Plus, there is nothing as variable as the weather. MyWindSock is a fantastic tool, but it is only as reliable as the weather forecast data it is based on.

Planning stress: Planning and executing a record attempt the length of the country is a massive and daunting task. People can tell you things, but sometimes you don’t fully understand what they mean until you have experienced it for yourself. And even though there were many people offering their help, sometimes it is hard to define exactly how they can help you and the time spent on coordinating those offers can in itself be stressful. Although I had a full crew of people to help me with the record attempt, I couldn’t let go enough last year to relief myself from unnecessary planning stress. All of my crew work full-time and most have families. It is not like they are sitting around with nothing to do, so I felt bad asking too much of them. When August approached and much still wasn’t in place, I got stressed and started to muddle in tasks (like car hire, accommodation bookings, crew schedules etc) I should just have left others to get on with, but I got anxious and impatient. In the end, the crew managed to pull off the logistical challenge very well, but my interference was nothing but stress to me and probably nuisance to them.

Fatigue: I didn’t realise it at the time, but last year I did too many events that took a lot out of me (both physically and mentally) and took a lot of time to recover from. First of all, there was the made 3-day long Zwift record attempt. Then there was a full Audax series of 200, 300, 400 and 600km rides (followed by the even larger challenge of driving myself home afterwards). I did one 12-hour and as many as four 24-hour races and rode London-Edinburgh-London, a 1441km long event, just 4 weeks before the record attempt. At least a few of these events had resulted in issues with badly infected saddle sores that would take time to heal and more time away from the bike than anticipated. On balance, when you factor in the recovery time from these events and the lack of training in the month before the record attempt due to the logistical, work and financial stress, I had lost more than I had gained in fitness last year. There was no consistency in my training or sleeping patterns. I was all over the place.

Losing my mind: In the build-up to the record attempt, these combined stresses made me act as if I had lost my mind. I did some really stupid things, I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I remember just wanting to pop out to the shops to pick up some ear plugs ahead of London Edinburgh London. When reversing the car from where it was parked in front of our house, I somehow got stuck on the curb, then gave too much gas to free myself, hit a bollard, then hit the car behind me (despite trying to steer away from it), then confusing the gas and the brake pedal and hitting yet another car, which unfortunately was parked very close to the garage door that also got smashed in the process. In the space of 5 or 10 seconds I caused several tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage, gave a number of neighbours reason to hate me and significantly increased our insurance premium. So stupid. To make matters worse, at the end of a 200km Audax 2 weeks later, I then accidentally closed the boot of the replacement car shut with the car keys inside. As it was an older car, that meant having to call the rescue services to break open the car. I was lucky that it was an easy car to break into, otherwise that could have been a much more expensive day being towed home from Essex.

So, all in all, my preparations weren’t great. There are plenty of things I could improve and change during the record attempt (nutrition, pacing, equipment, you name it), but if you put yourself under so much stress before you even start, the odds are already against you. Some people learn by hearing or seeing, I learn best by doing. I have to experience things for myself and make my own mistakes. They say that failure is a precursor to success. I may not have succeeded upon my first attempt, but I certainly won’t give up trying.

This year in July (or September if the weather doesn’t play ball earlier), I will set out for the LEJOG record again. But this time, a little wiser, a little better prepared and even more motivated and determined. Failure always remains an option, as there are no guarantees in record-breaking. There may be other issues, but I won’t fall into last year’s trap again.

So how will this year be different?

There won’t be the same financial stress. I will have had another year to save up, plus I will not make the same mistake of goal stretch anymore.

It is all about LEJOG; no distractions of planning to race back. The record attempt still includes an attempt at the 24-hour record, but that will be secondary to the main challenge of LEJOG and to be achieved by luck (being ahead of the schedule due to a good tailwind) rather than by plan.

At work I will have to handle this record attempt like maternity leave. When you know if will be roughly around a certain time but may just have to drop everything at the last minute and your colleagues and employers are prepared for that. Easier said than done I know …

The weather will remain as much of a challenge as it was last year and no matter how many historical weather patterns you study, you will never be able to pinpoint the perfect month, week or day all this time in advance. So, although there is little more I can do than continue to work with gliders and pilots with access to advanced weather data and hope for the best, the one thing that is within my control is not calling ‘GO’ unless I have a forecast that is a lot more favourable than last year. Having two windows of opportunity and a wider pool of crew members gives a bit more flexibility, but there is no point wasting money and time setting out on a record attempt when the conditions are not good. That much I have learned.

There are 2 things that will remain my responsibility. That is calling when to go (based on the weather) and arriving at that start line 100% fit, mentally and physically. But pretty much everything else I will need to let go off. Letting go can be hard, but it is a process I am slowly getting used to. Already with my physical training I have made a big change. I have a new coach, who is also part of my crew, which has increased my accountability and compliance to execute his training plan for me (based on his professional knowledge of getting me ready for this challenge in the best possible way), rather than my random mad plans my previous coach often would give in to. I may still do a few audaxes and TTs, but nothing that will compromise the record attempt with too much fatigue. Consistency of training will be more important than mad long hours in the saddle.

It is not just me who has learned from last year’s failed record attempt, but so has the crew. They know better what they are getting themselves into and how they can help to prepare for it. I will need to let them get on with that planning and trust all will be in place in time. That process started a few weeks ago. We had a crew meeting with pizzas and ping pong. It was fun but also an opportunity for all to reflect on last year’s attempt now the immediate disappointment has gone, and to start identifying areas for improvement. The next meeting was one just between Shu (my crew chief) and Rob (my coach), with them planning the way ahead without my interference. With all the work Shu put in last year a lot of the backbone for this year is already there and just needs tweaking. Trusting in others can both be scary and liberating. It remains a big task, but I feel much more confident that together we can pull it off this year.

Finally, I will continue working with Josie on my mental preparation and my resilience both in the lead up to and during the record attempt. Unlike last year, it won’t be up to me to decide if I want to keep going or not. As long as Erica (the paramedic) thinks it is safe to continue, Shu (the crew chief) can ensure the logistical support and Rob (my coach) reckons it should physically still be possible for me to get to John o’ Groats in less than 2 days, 4 hours, 45 minutes and 11 seconds, I will need to keep going. That’s a promise to myself, to my crew, to anyone reading this. Failure remains an option, but self-sabotage before even getting started or quitting when there is still all to play for, won’t be an option again.

Money, time and goodwill all have their limits. I am grateful for another opportunity.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. benjuthula says:

    Thank you for such a positive, interesting and helpful post. Best wishes for your future endeavours.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. davep7 says:

    Great post, good luck with the next attempt. If you or your team needs anything when you are in the Worcester area I’d be more than happy to help out if I can.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Frank says:

    Really interesting post, in many ways much more interesting than ‘i broke the record’ would have been! lots of self analysis in there that we can all learn something from, and very brave of you to write it all down. I look forward to the next attempt!

    Liked by 2 people

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