How do I do justice to a project that took up nearly three years ? How do I reflect on lessons learnt from it? And how do I let go, heal and move on? If you want to find out more about why my End to End record breaking dream ended the way it did, then grab a cup of tea or you may as well make it a pot. This is a long blog or perhaps the start of a short book depending on how you look at it. It is a glimpse of an intense chapter of my life that I want to share before I close it.
Rewind to 16 November 2013.
My friend, and fellow Kingston Wheeler, Emily invited me to an event at the All Saints Church in Isleworth to hear Eileen Sheridan speak about her time in the 1940s and 1950s breaking all the records of the Women’s Road Records Association, including the most challenging of them all: the End to End, the then 870-mile long ride from Land’s End in Cornwall to John o’Groats in the most north-easterly tip of Scotland.
That summer I had just won my first solo 24-hour race at the famous Bugatti race track in Le Mans, France. From my first charity ride in 2010, to joining a club in 2011 and lining up for my first crit race at the end of 2012, I had been well and truly bitten by the cycling bug and was keen to explore the limits of my endurance a little further. Going around and around on the 4.185 kilometre Bugatti circuit with full floodlights, music booming through the loudspeakers and the comfort of the pits within easy reach is clearly something quite different from riding from one end of the country to the other, through wind and rain, day and night. But there is something about this End to End record that intrigued me, that pulled me, that made me wonder ‘what if’ …
After parking and chaining up my old trusted Alan from 1982 outside, I enter the packed church. Emily and her partner Tim are already sat in the audience with a few other Kingston Wheelers. I wave and sit down on one of the few empty chairs. Together with around 100 other people I wait for Eileen to speak. I don’t know exactly what to expect, but I feel excited. The photos I had seen of Eileen all show her bent over her bike in a beautiful position, sporting a huge grin. She looks petite on the photos, but she looks even smaller in real life. No wonder really; there is no escaping the fact that we’ll all have shrunk a little by the time we reach 90!
When Eileen starts to speak she doesn’t sound like she is 90. She is sharp, witty and full of enthusiasm and tells us many stories not just from her record-breaking days but also from her early years riding and touring with her local club and entering her first time trial. The story of how the time keeper can’t quite believe her when she crosses the line and shouts out her number still makes me giggle, but then again how many of us go out and bloody win our first time trial ?! She was a small but very powerful rider who understood the importance of not just training her legs, but also working on upper body, neck and back strength to support a fast position for long periods of time. By the sound of it many a man would have lost to her in a push-up competition.
By the end of the night Eileen’s cheerful disposition and inspiring stories have rubbed off on every person in the church. Never before in my life have I had a hero I looked up to or inspired to be like, but I leave the church that night knowing I have found one. I am too shy to ask, but Emily has the courage to ask Eileen if she doesn’t mind posing for a quick picture with me. I remount my Alan and ride home daring to dream and think some more about ‘what if’…
December 2015. Off-season.
I am looking back at a phenomenal first season in time trialling that started with being too afraid to ride my TT bike and finished with winning the Best British All-Rounder title, followed by succeeding in a much wanted win in the National 12-hour TT championships in 2015. It was a win by the smallest of margins (just 193 meters, which is pretty damned close after 12 hours), but a win is a win.
“What is next?”, I am wondering. Wouldn’t it be nice to try and win the National 24 hour TT in 2016 and then dare to step it up to the End to End in 2017 …? Once I allow the thought in, I can’t get it out of my head. I give it some serious consideration and decide to take the plunge. Why not? Who dares nothing, need hope for nothing, and all that.
28 May 2016. Bank Holiday Saturday.
After starting route planning and taking the first steps in recruiting a support crew for this mad dream of mine, I set off from Land’s End for my first solo recce of my End to End route. Knowledge is power after all, so a better understanding of what I would be getting myself into seemed a good move.
As I wrote in my blog at the time, I started out on this journey with a mixture of optimism and foolishness. The optimist in me quickly learned that these busy A-roads were not for the faint-hearted. Riding on them with a massive yellow number on your back during an organised time trial, riding with the benefit of formal warning signs, marshals and car drivers already having been alerted by seeing other cyclists on the road, is one thing. Doing so on your own on A-roads that are, in part, treated like motorways is quite another. No wonder nobody tried to break these records after Lynne Biddulph’s successes in 2001 and 2002.
Despite suffering from food poisoning and severe dehydration on the recce I made it to John o’Groats in one piece. Briefly after I had found the time to write about my experiences and catch up with work deadlines the cramp behind my left knee started and intensified despite rest, ice, compression, elevation and pain killers. The National 24 hour TT was in July. So close, yet so far away. My plans for 2016 were brought to an abrupt halt when that cramp turned out to be a DVT.
On the plus side, I gave me time to continue planning for the record attempt and become even more dedicated to my goal. I did get a chance to ride the National 24 hour TT the year after as well as the World 24 hour TT. Winning them both was sweet.
It is important to look at my record attempts in the context of my realities. Like all of us, I do the best I can within the constraints of my personal circumstances. That isn’t meant as an excuse, nor as a comparison with others. The ideal situation doesn’t exist for anyone.
I work full-time as a management consultant. It is not a 9-5 job, where you leave the job behind the moment you close the door. As anyone who works from home will know, while it may give you some flexibility to drop off your bike at the local bike shop or to fit in a quick hair cut at lunch time, ultimately, you end up working more and longer hours than when you are office based. I do whatever is needed and from time to time that means working through the night. I travel a lot too for work, driving to all corners of the country.
It is a strategic job, that requires thinking time and sometimes those thinking processes follow me while in bed or on the bike. The job is about problem-solving and solution-thinking. It means finding and analysing large amounts of data quickly and, more importantly, drawing relevant implications and recommendations for the particular client/project and expressing these in a clear, concise and actionable manner. There is no template, no routine, no repetition. We invent the wheel afresh each time, providing a custom solution to a unique situation. There are deadlines, targets and budget pressures. Often several deadlines coincide. Planning projects so that you have a clear run ahead of important cycling races is neigh-on impossible. Projects run over, or you face the inconvenient luxury of winning more work than you had anticipated. Our work is closely scrutinised as it is often in support of applications for several millions of capital investment. I regularly work on at least 4 or 5 different projects at the same time, whilst simultaneously pitching for new projects.
I probably don’t help myself by always investing a little too much of myself in my projects and by trying to go the extra mile for clients. Sometimes I am not efficient enough, often I over-complicate things. Sometimes I should ask for help sooner or admit I am struggling to keep all my balls in the air. But we are only a small team and don’t have many resources to delegate things to. Perhaps it will all be easier once I have completed the Chartered Institute of Management Accounting (CIMA) professional qualifications that I am simultaneously studying for, but that is a 4-year trajectory I have only just commenced and is hard enough to combine with the day job, the cycling training, the preparations for the record attempt and all other demands on my time.
Occasionally it all becomes just a little too much for me. I find myself collapsing in my bed, feeling physically sick with exhaustion. Wondering if I am good enough for this job, if I will ever learn to be faster, more efficient, smarter or more organised. Wishing I had a job that is more repetitive and process-focused or that can you can just shut the door on at 5pm. And then I stand back and realise how far I have come in my consultancy career; how many clients have expressed their gratitude for the support and advice provided and how much I like the variety of clients, projects and destinations I work with. I wouldn’t want to swap my job for any other in the world, but it certainly is a demanding one.
My husband doesn’t cycle. He supports me for a maximum of 3 races per year. Fair enough. He has a life of his own too and this cycling malarkey is just a hobby out of control. Where possible, I like to spend quality time with him doing other things than cycling, be it long distance walks (a few years ago we did the whole of the North and South Downs Way), kayaking (we go on an annual kayaking trip with friends and have just joined the local canoe club) or seeing friends and family. The challenge with family is that they are scattered all over and trying to visit them alone can take up all of my annual leave. My dad and my grandma still live in the Netherlands, but my mum lives in France and my sister lives in Dubai. My in-laws are split between Birmingham and Spain. Every year we rotate who gets to see us for Christmas.
All of the above, leaves a finite amount of time to train and prepare for a big challenge like the End to End record.
Getting to the start line
As they say, sometimes getting to the start line is hard enough. You may wonder what it takes to get there for a record attempt like this. In addition to the physical training, there is the logistical, financial, mental and emotional preparations.
I may expand on all of these in a (or several) future blogs, but for now, let’s skip to the end. I bet few of you are up for reading a manuscript!
So why did I fail?
We will never know what I could have done if the weather would have allowed me to start in July 2018 when my preparation was optimal.
The main reason for my failure in September 2018 was not the pain of riding on an infected cyst in my groin for more than 650 miles (an issue which will hopefully be dealt with once and for all during an operation next week). Neither was it starting sleep deprived due to work deadlines. Ultimately it was for two reasons that had nothing to do with physical ability or comfort. It was my mind that let me down (or did me a favour depending on how you look at it).
The first mental issue was fear for my life. I have mixed feelings about the text that follows. I want to be positive and encourage others. I don’t want to put anyone off, but I also want to be honest about what I thought and felt.
I knew that there were risks attached to this record attempt. I knew you had to have big balls to even start. This record has stood for so long for a number of reasons, but one that cannot be ignored is the fact that no other woman has even tried since Lynne broke her own record in 2002. I have time trialled on a lot of busy A-roads. I have ridden the whole record attempt route twice, all on my own without a follow car. But each time I wasn’t sleep deprived or chasing this record. I had the luxury to pause in laybys to find back my courage when needed and I wasn’t under real time pressure.
I don’t know exactly why or how, but I caught a massive speed wobble on the busy A30 during my second attempt in September 2018 which gave me both great fear for my life and an epiphany. I had never had such a speed wobble before. If you don’t know what a speed wobble is, look up a few videos on YouTube and you will see how the bike starts to shake vigorously and uncontrollable from side to side. I found that I was going so fast that I couldn’t even pedal to keep traction. I was trying to stay ‘at one’ with the bike with my weight towards the front wheel . I was trying not to panic, but I am a whimp. I felt that all I could do to handle my fear was scream. Ahhhggggggg! Aaaahhhhhgggg! Aaaahhhhhgggg! The sort of scream that seems to come from deep down in your belly, nearly chokes you as it passes through your throat and then just vibrates forever against the roof of your mouth. It just went on and on. For what felt like a never ending period. How long was it really? Definitely longer than 1 minute. Maybe 2 minutes? Maybe more? And nobody could hear me.
After some ambiguity/uncertainty during my first record attempt about what was to be considered as too much use of radios, we decided to do away with them all together for my second record attempt. After all, Lynne didn’t have a radio so why should I? It was Mike Hall’s death in Australia and the realisation of the roads I would be on and the risk involved that made me adamant on using radios the first time. But why put in all this effort at the risk of retrospectively being disqualified if you broke the record but the observers deemed the use of the radios too often or not for the correct purposes? The Road Record Association (RRA) rules state that “Excessive use of either radio or mobile phone contact between the rider/s and any following vehicle will not be tolerated. The use of radio or phone contact should be restricted to emergency purposes only, and not for giving encouragement, or for general dialogue”. Fair. But what is excessive and when is something an emergency and when is using a radio valid to avoid an emergency?
In the Race Across America (RAAM) radios are permitted and riders have frequent contact with their crew. Following a few very unfortunate deaths in the past, cars now have to follow at no less than 15 meters at night. At night the rider may not proceed unescorted either. Circumstances change over time. Roads get busier. These days many A-roads and even some motorways in the UK are full of holes. Safety is important, but so is adhering to the rules of the organisation that administers the record and ensuring a level playing field with previous record holders. There is no easy answer and I am very grateful to the RRA for all the guidance and support I have received (involving official observers in each of the follow cars as well as an army of official checkers along the route) during both my record attempts.
During that speed wobble, I honestly didn’t see a way out. I didn’t think it would ever end and the only end I could see was me coming off my bike and splashing onto the tarmac of the dual carriage way. I calculated that I probably would land in my own lane and hoped that the follow car had at least seen how my bike was out of control and had started to slow down its pace and that of the cars behind. If I landed in my own lane, I could still land badly but may just get away with it by hurting myself. If I landed in the next lane with traffic descending at speeds far greater than 70 miles an hour, I may not be so lucky. I was bashing myself for setting off on a day without paramedic cover. I had put quite a lot of effort into recruiting as many as three paramedics to my pool of crew, but on the day that the winds seemed to be somewhat favourable, none of them were able to join. A few of the crew members were at least medically first aid trained and emergency services aren’t that hard to reach in the UK, but in a bad situation having a paramedic in the follow car can make the difference between being dead or alive.
Eventually the speed wobble ended, my bike stopped shaking and I could regain control over my breathing again. But the fear had taken hold of me. I was worried about the much longer and steeper descend into Inverness on the busy A9, in the dark, wet and wind that I had seen on the forecast.
I kept asking myself: “Is it worth it?”… and “Can I handle this?” As time went on and fatigue gnawed at my confidence and courage, the answer became increasingly louder: “No way!”. As all of this internal battle went on in my head, my legs still went through the motions, but no longer with the same power or intensity.
The second mental issue was a change in my motivation.
I never intended for this to be a 2.5 nearly 3-year project. Professional athletes may prepare for the Olympics or other events in 2- to 4-year cycles. They know that they are on a long trajectory and can adapt their physical and mental preparation to that. They make an emotional pledge to it from the outset. If I would have succeeded upon my first attempt in September 2017 or even if I would have had a chance to start in July this year, when all my preparations were perfect but the weather didn’t play ball, it may have felt differently. But in the last few months what started out as a dream, a passion and ambition started to feel like ‘something to get done’, and more like a pressure and burden hanging over me than a wonderful opportunity to do something remarkable. It is hard to explain without risking sounding ungrateful, …but there it is….
I have invested so much of myself in this record attempt over the last 3 years: time, money, energy and emotion. I had started to lose my enjoyment of cycling and started to lose myself. Some people enjoy living a super-focused life. They enjoy doing the same things over and over again and perfecting their craft. Riding the same courses each year and seeing impressive progress by shaving off seconds or minutes from their PBs. They may be driven by numbers and data and doing that what is needed to succeed may in fact fully align with what they enjoy. That is not me. I thrive on variety. I am guided by my passions. I am motivated by going fast and going far, but I also yearn for scenery and adventure. I realise that may all sound a little odd coming from the girl who spent nearly 3 days on a turbo on Zwift going absolutely nowhere, but I know that some of you will understand exactly what I mean.
As time went on during my second attempt at breaking the record in September 2018, I kept asking myself two questions: “Is it worth it?”. Hell no! And “How bad do you want this?”. The honest answer was “not bad enough, in fact I no longer want it”.
Until July 2018 I had been super focused, wedded to my goals and ambitions and original motivations. Why oh why did I allow myself to start planning for new adventures in 2019, to start setting new goals before having ticked off this one? I had even started to look at a new bike for these adventures. I knew I shouldn’t have done it. That is also why I didn’t ask my coach for his opinion about these new goals. I knew he would tell me off. “Jas what are you doing? That can wait. Stay focused”. In 2017 I had done way too many long races and rides, but this super focused approach started to make me increasingly unhappy. I wanted to dream about what was next. My soul needed it.
I feel embarrassed that the full realisation of no longer wanting to break the End to End record badly enough only came on the road. I feel sorry to have dragged so many people along in this mad dream of mine and then to let them down. I know that some crew members were wondering if there was anything they could have done differently. But, nothing any of them could have said would have made me change my mind. They could have hit me with a stick or dangled a dirty great bunch of carrots in front of me. It wouldn’t have made a difference.
None of us are defined by what we do, the titles or records we hold, or other badges people may pin on us. It is our character that defines us. Even though I have changed its application to different outlets over time (ballet, scuba diving and a PhD all have come and gone), it is my drive that defines me. When I really want something there is no stopping me. But equally, when the answers to the questions: “Is it worth it?” and “How bad do you want it” are “No” and “Not bad enough”, I have enough perspective to call it quits. This isn’t my job. It isn’t life or death. It is a passion. A hobby out of control.
I admire all End to End record holders, but one I have particular admiration for is Dominic Irvine. He had the incredible strength to try 3 times. He failed the first two times, but succeeded together with Charlie Mitchell in breaking the long-standing tandem record by a whopping 5 hours upon his third try. That is phenomenal and there is a lot more behind that story than luck or a dirty great tailwind. I have total respect for him for staying focused and motivated for that long and for giving it so much time, energy, money and passion.
I know some people would like to see me try for a third time. Arrogant as it may sound, I know that physically the record is within me, but mentally I am no longer in the right place. I need to move on. I can think of a few women, including Lynne herself, who could improve this record by many hours still. Give me a shout if you are seriously contemplating it and I will support you in any way I can.
There are a lot of lessons I learnt through this process.
Some are of a very practical nature, such as the convenience of having a second bottle hand-up man/woman, reduced stress levels when you throw all your record attempt ‘stuff’ in storage or how to adapt my nutrition to be able to ride without gut issues. The list of practical lessons is long. I would happily pass that all on to any other rider, male or female, who wants to have a go at the End to End record, or any other place-to-place record for that matter, in future. I may even write a separate blog about it.
Mental lessons, by and large, are very personal, but there are some universal tips that are relevant to all, such as identifying mental areas to strengthen, looking at the challenge in chunks, staying focused on the process, only worrying about the now and identifying (either alone or with the help of a sports psychologist) which techniques may help you with motivation, anxiety, pressure or staying focused.
But for me the key lessons, and the main reason why I do what I do, are about personal development and growth. It is about the perspective you gain.
With the time, money and emotional pressure of this record attempt gone, the prospect of my rather demanding job suddenly doesn’t feel so daunting anymore. My boss, former team mate and close friend reminded me of a lovely children’s story the other day, called a Squash and a Squeeze. It is about an old lady who thinks her house is too small. The priest listens to her complaints then starts bringing more animals round to live with her, one at a time, each bigger than the last. The animals start chasing each other round her little house, shitting on her floor and she gets more and more stressed. Then the priest comes and takes all the animals away. And suddenly her little house feels really spacious and calm. Maybe we all need to try a bit of Squash and Squeeze to come to appreciate what we have.
Josie, my sports psychologist, asked me about one lesson I had learnt through my racing that could help others to push themselves more. My answer was that
“Being strong is about having a go, letting go of fear of failure or judgement, and being true to yourself. Keep asking yourself how badly you want it and you will know when to keep pushing and when to let go. Either way you will have learned a lot about yourself”.
So, here I am: two failed record attempts, no name in the record books, no glory, empty bank account and a gaping wound in my groin after the #flapmash operation. But none of that matters.
This record attempt always was about so much more than me. It was as much about renewing interest in a great part of British cycling history among a wider and younger audience; it was about inspiring others to embark on challenges of their own; it was about raising money for charity. I am proud to have played my little part in all that. What matters is young girls like 4-year old Rhoda riding from Land’s End to John o’Groats with her family and learning from a young age the beauty of the countryside, the pleasure of cycling and the great many things she can achieve. What matters is my friend Cat being inspired to ride further and now embarking on all sorts of long distance Audax adventures. What matters is the little contribution I have been able to make for people fighting cancer (and scarily 1 in 2 of us will now develop cancer at some point in our lives) to have a better chance of new cures being developed in time. All of that matters.
Rob, my coach, also asked me a question the other day:
“What’s the difference between a legend and a statistic?
The legend got away with some of the risks they took. They might even become a living legend, but only if they stop taking risks before one caught them out”.
Think about it. It all comes down to your appetite for risk. Rob is a living legend and a great coach.
I know that metaphorically my race mantra is to ‘ be the egg’, but underneath that all I fully agree with some of the messages left to me in recent weeks: it is important to continue being you. Don’t strive to be more like someone else. Be you. Be you as fully as you can be and if you don’t know the answer yet, that is fine. In the words of the French novelist Andre Gide (but brought to my attention by the amazing Adventure Capitalist): “it is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves”. And that advice is precisely what I will be following to help me heal, to help me regain a balanced sense of self, to help me regain my love for cycling for the pure joy of it all and to help me continue my long distance cycling dreams. As much as there remains a nagging doubt about ‘what if’, I am 100% certain I will not be trying to break the LEJOG record again. It has taken up enough of me and it is time for me to move on. However, changing the goal posts is not the same as giving up. I will continue to stretch the limits of my physical and mental endurance. I will continue to pursue long distance cycling goals. I still want to ride far and fast. I am still competitive. I may even try to win a race or set out on some other record attempt one day. But I also want scenery and adventure. My motivations have changed.
For the moment (once I can sit on a saddle again), I want to ride with others again. I want to eat cake. I want to chat and not look at the numbers for a while. I want to ride nice Audax routes along the small B-roads. I want to ride for sheer joy, freedom and relaxation.
Grateful as I am for all the support I have received over the last few years, I also feel guilty for taking up valuable time from people (mostly my poor husband) and asking them to stand by the side of some uninspiring busy A-road with a bottle in their hand. I want to be independent and find out how strong or weak I am when really left to my own devices. It is in unsupported adventure racing that I hope to achieve my next goals. 2019 will be about combining seeing my family abroad with unsupported bike packing races. I will be taking some baby steps first, followed by perhaps a bigger race in 2020…
I just submitted my solo entry for the Race Around the Netherlands, a 1,670 km long unsupported lap of my own country in May 2019. It made my heart beat loud and fast with excitement. What better way to start a new chapter than by doing a lap of the country where I first learned to ride a bike? Back to memories of arriving at school with wet jeans, as cycling in rain trousers wasn’t cool. Back to memories of riding to ballet and music lessons with my younger sister and always challenging her to go faster. Back to the wonderful cycling infrastructure I had always just taken for granted. Back to the start.
My blog has always been multi-faceted. In part it is a diary, something for me to look back on when I am old and grey (ha-ha that suddenly doesn’t seem so far away anymore !). But it was always meant to be about more than ‘I did xyz, I won this race in this time’, etc. It was meant as a way to share my journey, including both successes and failures, and to share the story behind the results. I hoped others would be able to take away something useful for themselves from it, be it some inspiration or lessons learnt along the way. Ironically it is those ‘don’t screw things up the way I did’ lessons that can be so powerful, that most people are scared to share.
“And in the end …the love you take, is equal to the love you make”
It is by sharing my dream and my journey that I have found myself surrounded by amazing people and sponsors. Some who came with me all the way in the follow cars; some who helped via social media to tell my story and raise awareness of the achievements of all those amazing women who set out on the same journey in the past; some who cheered me along the side of the road and many who followed my journey through blogs, updates and the blue dot moving along the map.
video credit @ William Daffyd Gibby
Talking about love and going back to the start, I was delighted to receive a call from Eileen Sheridan both before and after my record attempt. She only lives 6 miles away from me so I took the opportunity to close this chapter where it all started: with my hero. We are both a little older now and she is still much wiser and stronger than I will ever be. Chatting to Eileen in her garden while enjoying some tea and cake was just what I needed to start healing and let go. Thank you Eileen.
with thanks to Sonja Whatson
with thanks to Darren Franks for the compilation and various contributors for the images
By now, you are probably all sick and tired of me asking for donations but the Just Giving page for Cancer Research UK is still open and donations are still very welcome:
It feels a little hollow right now, but Be The Egg caps are also still available with 100% of profit going to CRUK.