My First Ultra-Distance Race

My First Ultra-Distance Race

1st July – Guernsey to Sign-On

We’ve woken up under grey skies with fuzzier heads than we sensibly should have at this point of the race. This point being, before we have even started - there will be a pattern in this I’m sure.

As fuzzy headed as it was, this morning felt a little more exciting. Our ferry to the starting town of St Malo was at 2pm where we’d make our way to the sign-on tent to collect our trackers, brevet cards and well wishes from the organisers, friends and competitors. When the boat landed, everything sank in. We were in France, and we were here to begin a 1,000 mile race all the way to Llandudno. What? Why? Are we ready for this? Is the bike good? Am I okay?

2nd July – The Start of my first Ultra-Endurance Race

We made our way to the sign-on for our safety briefing before we rode to the start line to await the beginning of our quickest adventure yet. We were set off in waves of 30 riders and I was picked out in wave 2, leaving Nathan behind in wave 3 - I didn’t realise at the time, but this would be the last time I would see him for the entire race.

As we set off in the centre of St Malo, I knew the streets would be tight and busy so I decided to put the power down for the first 20-30 miles to fall in line with the faster riders once we hit the gravel cycle-path. For the first 60 miles I was riding alongside Josh Ibbett, Rodolphe Mannessier, Alex Boswell and a wonderful guy called Gareth Williams who was also doing his first ultra and I became really close with during the chaos of that first day.

As I approached the first town Fougères 60 miles in, I was accosted by Matt Ryan, the lead race organiser and he yelled at me “Alex! What are you on!? I want some!” I couldn’t understand what he was talking about and he said “You are leading the short race, we need to do a drugs test!” - It was the first time I realised the pace I was setting and knew it was time to slow it down now we were out of the tight bunches, I went a mile off route to get a McDonalds where I ordered a large meal, a salad and two double cheeseburgers to go in my Albion bib pockets to get me to the next stop of Rennes 100 miles in - this was potentially my last supply stop of the day as I knew of another McDonalds there that was open until 10pm and then everything after would be open to the french interpretation of opening hours.

I jetted on, originally to my faster pace before settling into an easier rhythm to flow through the beautiful Breton villages. There were so many farms, fields and windy roads connecting them together with the small settlements housing a boulangerie, fruit markets and the carefully decorated cemeteries which became my frequent pit-stop to fill my bottles. I got to Rennes and there was so much going on for a Sunday evening that I found it too chaotic to absorb the local culture.

It was soon after that I caught up with Rich Lambert & Dan Conaway where we kept each other entertained throughout the rolling hills and headwinds of rural Brittany. We arrived at a little village called Paimpont at 130 miles where there was a small pizza shop that was just closing up, I decided even though I didn’t feel hungry to make use of the unexpected refuel and enjoyed my trademark Guiness & Coke while the pizza was made, it felt like a new lease of life flowed into me and I was ready to get going again. I knew CP1 would be in spitting distance by the time I was tired but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to press on the whole way into the night or not. My energy levels were good, my legs felt fresh, the headwind was keeping things slow but it felt sustainable.

The rest of the evening became a blur, canal-paths, farmland, countryside hills, sleepy towns and just enjoying the calmness of the deserted roads. I reached the checkpoint at 3am, got my brevet stamped and ate as much toast with peanut butter as I could stomach before I had a hot shower and climbed into an available bed and set an alarm for 4 hours. I must have gone to sleep with a giant grin on my face because the elation of my first day had driven me so far and I was ready for what would be thrown at me next.

3rd July - Local Produce, Coastal Roads and a Sore Throat

I woke up to my alarm, got my cycling kit on and packed my bags before I headed downstairs for my second fight with the toaster. I drank some electrolytes while making my breakfast and refreshed the tracker to see if I would be seeing Nathan before I set off. He had been riding already for a few hours but still had the hills to come and so would be another hour before he’d reach the CP - I set off knowing that the next shop on route had already opened and I’d be able to pick up some supplies for my second day without much struggle.

The elevation profile of the day was going to be progressively lumpier than the shift I’d put in already, with this in mind - I started off at a chilled pace to keep the effort consistent. The shop I’d scouted out had a whole section dedicated to local produce, cheeses, meats, chutneys and these huge pots of set honey from the local farm - I decided to get one of those and a fresh baguette for dipping as my high calorie snack of the day along with a couple of pan-au-chocolates, one for now and one for later - a treat I’d deserve once I reached the coastal town of Morlaix.

Rolling roads and gravel paths lead us to what felt like a neverending descent to the sea. I found my third McDonalds in the town of Lannion, 320 miles into the route - it was here I noticed my throat was quite sore and I enjoyed the soothing effect of an ice-cold milkshake before ordering an ice-cream sundae to relive the effect as soon as it ended.

As I rode away from the coast and started feeling the effects of a tailwind, I got a text from Nathan saying that he thought he might have tonsillitis and had gotten a hotel for the night. Oh shit. I texted back “Me too”. We chatted through it and it definitely felt like the same thing, I had just left civilisation and was heading into farmland so I decided I would just keep riding it out until I felt sleepy which unsurprisingly came much sooner than the night before.

4th July – Gravel, Mont St Michele, The Storm and a TT to the Port.

Better rests have been had than that night. My short sleep was extremely interrupted as I spent the night coughing, gasping for water, sweating out my bivy and generally having a less than ideal time.

Due to the amount of water I went through over-night, I was quite desperate for a refill from the start of the day - I pin-pointed a couple of cemeteries in the first 20 miles of the route so I wasn’t worried, just incredibly thirsty so it felt like a lifetime. The first place I found was a small bakery in Daouët, 400 miles into the route. They’d just opened and the smell of freshly baked goods pulled me by my nose like a cartoon.

At this point there was 180 miles between me and the ferry port and it had just turned 8am, would I be able to push hard enough to reach the 11pm crossing that evening? Probably not, but why not give it a good try? If I miss it, I can just get a hotel in the port and get a headstart on my recovery before spending the 6 hour crossing eating and napping before a big push through the UK. Yeah, I’ll see what I can get done.

I was feeling quick and consistent while watching the miles ticking down while I pushed through the flat-lands, feeling a sense of familiarity rejoining the route past St Malo that I’d flown through less than 2 days prior. That was until the roads beneath me disappeared and I was now shaking across a hard-packed walking trail polka-dotted with rabbit holes and reasons to let my mind wonder what the hell I was doing.

I could see Mont San Michel in the foreground of the landscape I was taking in, but it was so far, and I couldn’t see any roads. Matt has absolutely battered us here. I got off and let some pressure out of my tyres in the hope it would offer some mercy to my aching hands and arse. This seemed to make the bike quicker but the ground was far too lumpy to counteract with a fluctuation in my PSI. 10 miles later, the route broke back onto a surface I would consider suitable for a road tyres.

I’d lost a lot of time on the off-road section and things were looking much more unrealistic. It was at this point I feel like I was taken over by a feeling of wanting to prove myself wrong. I had 106 miles and 6,000ft of elevation to go and it had just past 2pm. Could I do that in less than 7-8 hours with my current level of fatigue? That’s an average of 14mph if I don’t stop. Will there be anymore surprise off-road? Stop thinking, let’s go.

The effort ramped up, the speed ramped up and Christ, so did the rain. At this point, my fingers looked like I’d been laying in the bath all day and my phone was completely waterlogged. Somehow in my faffing my phone had reconnected with my Wahoo and I was receiving text messages on screen, this was my downfall. Family and friends were sending messages like “OMG are you getting that ferry!” “He’s going for it!” “Go on Alex, only 60 miles to go!” and I’d never felt adrenaline like it.

I flew into Bayeux and a dotwatcher was stood in the storm clapping me on the side of the road screaming “Come on Alex you can make it! Go and get it!” I screamed back an ode to Ian Beale “I’ve got nothing left!” and continued on through the busy streets and through the other side reaching the coast. Oh look, more off-road. Nowhere near as bad as near Mont San Michel, but still so much slower than the roads I’ve been hammering.

Everything becomes a blur from here, I reach the 10 miles to go counter and I’m still not looking at the time, I am just pushing as hard as I possibly can. I’m running out of time, it’s 10pm - last boarding is at 10:15pm. That’s fine I will talk my way onto the ferry, I’ll convince them that I need to get on. I’ve completely kidded myself and have lost all reasonable logic because I have emptied the tank to get to this point. If I keep up 22mph I’ll get there in less than half an hour, that’s only 15 mins after final boarding. But then the fast roads become a cycle path that is more under-water than not, full of sand, twisting around pedestrian crossings, going over roads, between bollards. I get to a long straight and ramp back up to 20mph and suddenly there is a gate in the way, but there’s a gap for pedestrians and cyclists.

I’m now laying on the floor on my back. The bike is on it’s side in the deep sandy puddle hiding the pot-hole that has stopped my front wheel dead in it’s tracks to the ferry I’ve already missed the boat for. It’s now 10:45pm and all of my positive mental attitude is drained as the reality kicks in that I’ve definitely missed the ferry.

I manage to unlock it and call my girlfriend “I fucked it, I’ve missed the ferry, I’ve crashed, I think my bike is fucked, I don’t know if I hurt because everything already hurts, and now I get to watch the ferry set off without me like I’m in a shitty rom-com.” I don’t know how, but I’ve never calmed down so fast than when I heard her voice. She knocked some sense into me and told me I need to go and find some shelter to gather my thoughts and work out my next plan of action. I went to the ferry port, changed my booking for the next sailing at 2pm and then booked a hotel. I asked if there was anything open for food anywhere and was told that everything is shut at 11pm, even takeaways. I was now stuck in the port town of Caen until 2pm tomorrow, and then on a boat until 8pm. It felt like I’d lost an entire day.

5th July – Big Sleeps, Big Eats, Leaders Boat Party, Cut Short.

Once I boarded the ferry, I was straight to the canteen to swerve the queues and get my first big feed in. I was promptly joined by Stephen Haines and Dan Jones and we shared stories while eating before we went our separate ways, Stephen and Dan to sleep and me to have a nap in my booked seat.

As we got off the boat and went through passport control, I jetted off with Neil Lauder to the first petrol station on the route to pick up my supplies for the night and then got back on the saddle ready for a long night.

As I crested the first hill on on UK soil, I felt like the flood gates opened to my chest. That sore throat I’ve been keeping at bay had taken its opportunity to materialise as a chest infection during my long rest and I quickly began to feel really ill. Maybe it’ll fade, I’ll keep going.

The pattern became more and more aggressive to the point of shivering on the top of a climb at 20 miles in while coughing my guts up, a racer stopped to check if I was okay and when I spoke back my voice was several octaves lower, I realised I really wasn’t well and it wasn’t a good idea to go through the night. I found a Travelodge in Winchester and a 24 hour Tesco not too far from it so I could replenish my medicine bag and pick up some lemons, honey and ginger to take advantage of a night with a kettle. I checked the tracker and the wave of riders I wanted to catch were now completely out of reach, the riders I disembarked with had moved efficiently into the night and the next wave of racers had just boarded their ferry due to arrive in the morning. I knew my top 10 spot had left the chat, it was now a goal of trying to finish with health first.

6th July – Lay-In, Clear the Chest, CP2 and a Further Push.

I woke up at 8am, checked the tracker and Nathan was 10 miles away at the last blip, the faster riders from the ferry had already passed me, time to pack up and go.

My chest felt lighter but still full, I immediately pushed the pace to both try and catch the riders that had passed me but also to attempt opening the gap back up between me and Nathan. I had over a hundred miles between us only the day before and it had all been chipped away during my stillness.

The contents of my chest revealed itself at every climb, I tried to keep hydrated and clear things as much as I could while I was on the move and before I knew it, I was pushing my bike up Gold Hill to the cheer of dotwatchers letting me know that the checkpoint was only a couple of miles away. When I arrived, I got my brevet stamped and ordered two bowls of chips, a Guinness, a coke and a lemon and honey tea - this would be my pitstop until Bristol in 60 miles.

I got back on the bike and felt like a new person, my chest felt lighter still and my legs felt like I’d not yet started this race. I amped up the pace with the idea that the further I could get today, the more likely I could finish the next day - top 10 was definitely out of the question at this point but I could maybe go for top 20 depending on how strong the other riders are feeling at this point.

As I approached Bristol, I had so many dotwatchers come out to see me and it gave me a new lease of life. My new goal was in sight, I’d noticed the ruins of a castle half-way up the first big climb in Wales on the other side of Abergavenny and thought it would be a really cool bivvy spot if the timing worked well. I came to the castle and it was just as perfect as I hoped it would be. I got my sleeping kit out, cleaned my kit and climbed into bed - one more day.

7th July – Early Rise, Welsh Hospitality and Savage Climbs

I woke up after my 4 hour sleep, ate the flapjacks and milkshake I’d bought the night before and packed up ready to continue the climb I’d partly completed the night before.

Today was all about ups and downs, and not just elevation. I felt incredibly motivated to push through to make it my last day on the bike but my energy levels felt low even though my body felt good and I was constantly eating. I decided that when the climbs reached 20% that it was time to walk as I was just sapping myself of my resources and going the same speed as pushing my bike up. This felt very sacrificial for someone who will always push to their absolute limits to reach the top of a steep climb but it felt like the smarter thing to do.

The miles after this felt like a blur and I don’t remember any of them until Chirk where I was back onto a canal path and came across a dotwatcher that lived nearby. He said he’d been excited to meet me and wanted a photo before we’d climb the next big climb that went past his house. I asked if it was a big one and he asked if not any climb felt big at this point of the race - good point. I was pleasantly surprised and think this was my favourite climb of the trip as it opened out to the most incredible view over Llangollen, it was this moment I realised I was only 60 miles away from the finish line and it was 17:45. Home stretch.

I went up and over horseshoe pass before I resumed my position in the aerobars for a long quick descent and flowing road towards the coast. I began climbing up to Gwaenysgor when I noticed a rear-light. I ramped my speed up to get beside my newest competitor just in time for him to take a look at the view and reach out to take a photo on his phone - I accidentally scared him as I’d lost my voice and couldn’t bring a “hey” out. I took my chance and put an effort in to drop him on the climb before getting confused about the route and stopping to work it out. He arrived behind me and asked what was wrong and explained that I was trying to decipher the junction and where we needed to go and he confidently said “down the road!” and pushed off to create a gap. He went a bit too quickly for me to let him know that the elevation graph says we still have a way to climb, so I went the other way and got back on track.

I refreshed the tracker as I approached the Little Orme and I had created 12 miles between us. I was relieved, no sprint finish. It was at that moment that a van started beeping me and I heard whistling, it was my wonderful friends Gideon and Tor who had come down from Leeds to see me finish. It filled me with so much happiness to see a familiar face so close to the end and I got straight back into the zone. While pushing along the promenade of Llandudno I then heard my girlfriend screaming “Alex, GO GO GO” filling me with even more excitement and elation.

I began climbing the Great Orme and it really set in what was happening. The sunset was beautiful, the Orme was quiet and I was about to finish my first Ultra-Distance Race. Nothing could stop me at this moment and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alive than those final moments to crossing the finish line to see my friends, fellow finishers and my love. I felt like crying but nothing came out, I was just handed a beer and sat down filled with the sense of accomplishment. While battling a chest infection, I finished 15th out of 108 amazing riders and could not be more proud. Now I just needed to eat and sleep before cheering on my best friend who would finish later the next day.

Thank you Matt, Toby, Rebecca and everyone involved in the Pan Celtic Race, thank you clan and thank you everyone who supported my effort. Special mention to Annie, Nathan, Gideon, Tor, Mum, Dad, Judy, Dave + All the Restrap Family, Albion and Styrkr.

Words by Alex Dyson photos by Alex, Styrkr and Gideon Jones