When you ask me if I've cycled Land's End to John O'Groats I can now say yes. I have seen so much of the country and some of the incredible beauty and ruggedness that it has to offer. There certainly could have been easier and probably more enjoyable ways to have achieved this though, but I will never forget the adventure that was #GBDURO20. I signed up for GBDuro (Land’s End to John O’Groats on a fixed route with a mix of on and off road) out of curiosity, out of wanting to do something slightly different. I had cycled much of the country apart from the two ends, on the road, so adding off-road would be an interesting challenge I’d thought at one point. It would take me to new places. Then with the pandemic, we were presented with a choice as the rules changed – ‘self-sufficiency ‘- carry everything! Food, waste, all of it, and don't use any bricks/mortar on the way. Was that even possible? Presented with such a challenge (I knew it would likely be a once in a lifetime) - curiosity again took over. I had one month to prepare when I made the final decision.
It would be tough if at all possible, I knew that from the start. In parallel I would adapt my bike as best as I could, prepare my food and diet, and organise how to fit that on the bike, as well as all the other logistics. I had a great plan to do King Alfred's Way (an on and off-road hilly route taking in the South Downs, Ridgeway and much in between). It was a tubeless disaster - One week after another. The plan was to complete this 3 times, once to check the route, once to check the bike, and once with the full load. Well I only managed the first time. It was a challenge just to decide what preparations to focus on. I didn’t yet know what my final diet would be but trained with around 27kg. I had decided early on that I would take only food in my bags to keep the weight down. No tent, no stove, nothing that I could survive without. I had accepted I would be sleeping out in the elements on a diet of cold food. Unsure how long it would take me I had planned for a range of 4000-6000 kcals for 10-12 days but in the end decided on just dividing the food into 3 packs, so that I would have an idea of consumption proportionate to distance covered of the route. I had to get extra packs to maximize capacity, and needed to make lots of tweaks, including how the bar bag fit with the aero bars. Each tweak though needed to be tested and if necessary reinforced to make sure that it would survive the duration.
I took the train down to Penzance, this was the first time I explained to a stranger what I was embarking on - end to end of the country, without outside assistance, sleeping outside, carrying everything I might need, except water, which I can get from outdoor sources (streams or taps). I would get good at this ‘pitch’ and not surprised by their disbelief or questioning of my soundness of mind. I also got experienced in waving assistance off with ‘no thank you I’m in a competition and I can’t have you help me, ….I can’t do that, ….accept that.’
On the train down I looked at the route a little - most of the time though I wouldn't know where I was, I would just be following the line on my Garmin. As I rode from the station to the start, to bivi the night before (really this was when my event started, already feeding myself with the food I was carrying). I felt the true weight of the bike at just around 38kg, with minimal water. I would be well into Wales before I could put the bike down on the ground for fear of not being able to pick it up again. I knew it would get lighter as time passed and I consumed more, but would my fatigue outweigh that benefit?
I met the other riders at the start, and at 8am-ish on a blowy Saturday morning before we set off there were a few words along the lines of ‘…hopefully at least one of us makes it to the end so we can prove that it is possible’. It would be a race to see what broke first! Faced with so much uncertainty the only thing we could do was go as far as we could until we either got there or couldn't go on. Simple really.
I knew one of my weaknesses was my sleep system. I did in the end take a bivi, thermarest (that only worked properly for the first half of the event) with a silk liner and space blanket (which I managed to rip a piece off on the first night). I knew I would likely be cold, so had planned to sleep early and then ride on in the early hours of the morning when it was coldest, but I also had to take into account the visibility and surfaces and where I was at times when it was getting dark. A couple of the nights the moon was just stunning, and you almost didn’t need lights. I didn't remember this rule for myself. Just after what would have been the first check point, I headed out onto a long stretch of nothingness, exposed and faced with a river - that needed crossing, now or in the morning? I deliberated sheltering, but I wanted a tree or something less exposed, and there was nothing this side. With just wet feet, shoes and socks I managed to partly lift partly drag the bike to the other side. I was then walking just to stay warm, and then eventually found shelter under some trees to eat, sleep and try again when it was light.
It was very isolating, and aside from the few dot watchers (most greatly appreciated) who were out to see us and others out enjoying nature, my human interactions were few. If you told me in advance that by the time I got to Manchester my hands would hurt almost too much to hold onto the handle bars, that I would struggle with wet feet almost every day, or that I would be moving so slowly that I would be unable to generate enough charge to keep my phone on for more than five minutes a day - I might have changed my mind. Knowing that when I got to the point that I would have to choose between giving the charge I had to the Garmin (for the route) and the gears, that I would need to single speed for the best part of 2 days while I built up a store of charge, it might have made me think twice. But competition changes everything.
It would be a crash course in everything off road. I would get better, or I would not make it, and with that getting better and stronger there would be struggling, falling, lots of bruises and scrapes and when I thought I could take no more there would be midges with so little breeze that even the lakes were mirror still. I would get close to the end and have to wonder, like everyone else, would I still have enough food to make it?
When times were really tough, I would think of a time that was tougher (either since the start or at a separate event), I would think of when it hurt more, was harder, and be glad to be in that moment. I would think of the people I know who would have loved an afternoon out in just that place - I would try to enjoy it for them. I would think of those who would be encouraging me on, of the children. Times were still tough, there were tears way more than once a day, I was still exhausted, but I tried to be grateful for the opportunity and privilege to be where I was doing what I was doing.
Since volunteering at a children’s home in Malawi several years ago – I was moved by so many incredible children and all my rides raise money to send disadvantaged youths (who have lost both their parents) to secondary school. My goal is to support at least 20 youths through secondary school (4 years) https://www.give.net/Dreamriders. I could not stop without a good reason because the thought that my ride might make a difference in some child’s life can often keep me going.
I'm somehow drawn by the unknown, about tackling something that hasn't been done before (at least not by me). I left myself a voice recording 15miles before the finish, the point where I thought even if the bike broke, I could still walk/crawl to somehow make it. I hoped that my curiosity would be satisfied, that I would not want to do this again. Yet as I sit here recovering and not yet able to ride again, typing this up with numb fingers, why do I still have thoughts about how to improve and what to change? I’ve been dissecting the event and can see many beautiful places, places that I didn't have the energy to really appreciate at the time. The pain is starting to fade away leaving the breathtaking moments and views. I do know that if I were to take on the route again, I would be better, stronger, things would be different and there would be different decisions to make. We’ll see what the future holds.