By Bryn Davies, Windover ambassador
Coming from a predominantly road racing background, 2020 was set to be like every other year to that point. Train hard until March then race here, there and everywhere until September before a short rest and repeat, over and over, year after year, or that’s how I’ d imagined it anyway. Lockdown began a shift in my source of motivation to go out and ride my bike. No longer racing every weekend my passion and love for riding my bike became far purer. Riding my bike for the hell of it became the main motivation and with this came longer and longer endeavours, fuelled by the discovering of the ever-cool Lachlan Morton and beginning to see there was more to life than the tunnel vision of road racing.
September brought my first big one. An invite on a Tuesday afternoon to meet up with one of my best mates dad on Sunday as he rode the length of Wales in a day. My response? Can I join for all of it? So that was it, I did the ride and discovered proper long rides.
New Year’s Day 2021 a full road racing season ahead of me with my team but, GBDURO entries for that year are open. I’m fresh full of enthusiasm so I put my name in the hat but, it wasn’t to be that year and a good job too. I was underprepared as it was in ’22 let alone ’21!
18th of June 2021
It’s the day of my first ever ‘ultra-race’. I've not done any prep and find myself in the final prep for some of my biggest road racing aims of the year…
TransWales, a race organised by The Racing Collective, is simple in its formality. Ride from the Menai Bridge in north Wales to the Cardiff barrage in south Wales. The only criteria for the race is to hit set checkpoints along the way, other than that the routes up to you! Me being the ever keen bean I am decided it would be a good idea to do the ride on a gravel bike using gravel tracks, immediate giving myself an unnecessary hard time. Anyway, I got into it, rode hard, managed myself relatively well and by the end I was in 7th place. A good place to start I thought.
Another year, another chance I thought. Let’s enter GBDURO again! With another year rammed full of road racing, I put my name down on the off chance I’d get in. With my previous years crack at TransWales I thought I’d have a better shot at getting in, and a few weeks later I’m in! Back after a long cold road ride I opened my emails to see an email from The Racing Collective, must be a rejection email I thought to myself in my slightly cold and demoralised state. But no! I was in, I punched the air, the truth was I’d been doing all this road racing for so long and the past few years I’d been starting to fall out of love with the sport. This new however, put me straight back on track.
It’s here, the month of GBDURO. I’m back riding my bike after being off with covid and I’ve got one last road race before GBDURO in a weeks’ time. I got stuck in, raced hard, however, the bigger picture had started to come over me. Does this road race matter? Ive got bigger fish to fry next week. And so, I finished the race, packed my last few things, and hopped on the train to Falmouth to spend the last few days before the start with my girlfriend, Mari. I was nervous, a new level of nervous. I’d told my parents I would finish no matter what, but really, I had no idea. Due to all the road racing this year my longest ride had been 10 hours. 10 hours I thought, well that won’t even touch the sides, what have I got myself into? That week I rode around, no idea what I should be doing but pretending I knew. Tootling round the Cornish roads before finally the day to leave came. Mari and I hopped on the train, and we were off to Penzance.
Saturday 12th of August 2022
Tomorrow is the day. We’re in Penzance now and not long until I leave to ride to Lands end. I’m bricking it, I’ve not done any training for it this year. How am I going to do this. Ill think about it later, now I’ve got to ride down to the beach to see the other crazy peeps who will be embarking on this journey too.
A bit of food and drink later and its back to the campsite, a fiver for a night, what a steal I thought. I rolled out my mat and sleeping bag, too hot for a bivvy I thought. I neatly hung my clothes on a gate and went off to sleep gazing at he sunset and tucking into my food.
Sunday 13th of August 2022 – Stage one, day one
I woke up, it’s 6:30 and the enormity of the task has hit me. 640km lies between me and the first checkpoint. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it but decided maybe that was for the best.
It’s hot, like really hot. We all line up on the cliffs of Lands End and exchange the last bit of nervous chatter. There’s a lot of us and lots of these people look like they are going to be damn good at this. I look at my set up, a borrowed bike from a friend (thanks Chad) and a cobbled together set up including a tiny front light. That would turn around to bite me later… Anyway 8am is here and we are about to start.
We’re off and damn people are riding quick, my inner road racer begins to come out as I weave my way towards the front at a pace far to quick for a ride that would end up taking 2 days. I’m here and full of nervous energy. I try to calm my breathing and relax. There’s a long old way ahead of me. The route is amazing though and between riding hard with others who may also of gone off too hard I realise I’m enjoying this a lot.
Cornwall you bugger. I’m about 5 or 6 hours in and I’ve seen Mari waving on the side of the road. Its hot as shit out here and the sun is baking my back. In my ever-intelligent ways I have just water in my bottles as salt begins to build up around my shorts and back. The route is savage. Cornwall is horrible yet beautiful. Unrelenting punchy climbs take their toll as I ride along the route, taking in paths and roads as we go. Every so often another rider appears, either alongside you or pulled up at the side of the road. Everyone with their own stories of how they’re getting on.
Its early evening now and the heat has begun to subside. The goings been slow and very hot, and I’ve just about completed the first third of the stage. Time for some food I think, I pull up at a petrol station, refuel and I’m back on my way. Suddenly, I’m not feeling good. Like all my energy has just vanished. I pull to the side of the road to take a breather when suddenly my whole body cramps. I’m curled in a ball lying in the road. I have to pry my body back open to release me from the grips of the cramp. Bloody hell I thought, not had that before. then suddenly I’m being sick. Ah heatstroke my old friend, how lovely to see you. As soon as I’m done throwing up, I think, food. As horrible as it was, I knew eating was a must. And looking back now it saved me from a scratch.
It's dark now, it’s been slow progress over the Quantocks and I’m really struggling. I think to myself, I need salt. After pushing my bike up a mild road climb due to cramp I stumble across a pub, what a god send. I barrel in and demolish 2 bags of crisps and plenty of lime sodas. The old thinking of soda holding off cramp became a regular occurrence on this race, the taste became a soothing sensation. After what felt like a while I’m back out on the route. Riding over hills in the dark, squinting to see after realising the small light I thought was great in my prep was in fact useless. Rookie error! I found another rider, George, we rode together for a bit and then we didn’t, can’t remember why we stopped. Continuing, I began to feel better, the cool of night brought a refreshing frame of mind, one that could keep going. I wanted to sleep, but my mind kept telling me just 10 more minutes. Anyway, this went on for about 2 hours until a hill at around 3am just outside of the Mendips forced me to walk. Right, I thought, I’ll sleep next to that viewpoint. I set up my mat and bag, tucked in and set my alarm for 2 hours.
Stage one, day two
Beep, Beep, Beep. That’s my alarm, eagerly telling me that my two hours of sleep is up. Its about 5 am now and I’m remarkably alert for two hours sleep. I pull up my eye mask and jump a little as I see Steve, a fellow racer, pulling out his phone to film me! We chat briefly before Steve heads off while I pack up my stuff. I quickly shove my sleeping bag back into my bike bag. That would be the last time I saw it for the next 29 hours…
I’m on the bike now, a bit achy but can’t complain as the sun crests the hill painting the horizon a deep orange. I’m somewhere near the Mendips and my plan is to push all the way to the first checkpoint. I’m sitting in 7th place on the road and have reached what I call ultimate content-ness. Everything is all ok and I’m happy to plod on. Its hot again, even early in the morning, I quickly find somewhere to fill up my bottles before regaining touch with Steve. We exchange stories, talking about cycling, racing, life and beyond. We both are hungry so eventually we pull into a small village where a bakery awaits. Another genius move is soon made by me buying two huge sausage rolls. I devoured the first but the second now sits in my back pocket slightly oozing grease down my jersey. We carried on riding, it felt like a while, and it probably was but the route flowed amazingly. We followed on and stumbled across a lovely milk vending machine, a great thirst quencher before Steve pulled off to get more supplies leaving me back to riding solo.
Coming into Bristol was tough, this is the 400-kilometre mark. The rough and rocky trails of the Mendips caused slow, arduous going whist being baked by the sun. I continued on and found myself in the middle of Bristol around midday. I saw my grandparents there; a nice smile and chat resulted in a boost in moral. Not before my gran thinking id suddenly put on weight due to the very salty squares crisps stuffed down my jersey I’d bought earlier in desperation to regain some salts. I carried on, hunting down the Severn bridge. Just get there I thought, little goals are the key to these things and anything to break it down into small, more manageable chunks makes it so much easier. I cross the bridge, who knows the time now but maybe early afternoon. I am surprised by two close friends, Andy and Joe who join me for a while, not before I’ve bought more Indian tonic water though! Ah home roads I thought, however, knowing the roads and what’s to come can be as much a pain as it is benefit. I ride on working my way through south Wales, getting closer to home.
“Are we going over Pen Y Fan” I ask Mari over the phone. Her reply? No. Ok, that’s great nothing to worry about not like there will be an hour of walking up Pen Y Fan at 11pm tonight… Ah, yes now this is where looking at the route becomes a good idea. I hadn’t done this. My view has always been, well I’m going to have to do it whether I know about it or not. This was different. Its hard to prepare mentally for something like that. Well, I got myself into this may as well crack on. I’ve been on the go for about 38 hours and I’m starting to feel it. After a lovely evening watching the sun go down next to the Talybont reservoir I now face what I’ve been dreading. The Gap. A pass up the side of Pen Y Fan, hard to ride in the day, nearly impossible to ride at night and impossible with my front light. I think it took me an hour to do about 4 kilometres, using a mixture of scooting and walking. I shout and swear, and it makes me feel better. I just get to the top and shout out, “you bastard” before quickly realising someone is watching me with a head torch on… I still don’t know to this day who it was up there in the middle of the night, but I didn’t hang around to find out. I hopped back on again walking and scooting until I reached the bottom. My family were waiting to wave me by there and it was a welcome bit of normality. They asked if I was going to sleep tonight. I said no. they said that’s a bad idea. I said ah well. Another nosebleed, this is my 7th of today, A side effect of yesterday’s heat stroke. I roll up a tissue, with one end in each nostril. It now looks like one of those nose rings bulls have. Who cares, at least I’m not dripping blood everywhere. I’m back alone riding in the depths of the night. Its dark and colder tonight. I keep dropping asleep before quickly waking up. I decide its time for a nap. A 10-minute nap.
I wake up cold already to my alarm blaring through my headphones. I’m quickly back and riding. the night faded into one long motion. Until I reached the climb. It went on for hours, days or even a lifetime. It switched back and forth for what seemed like forever until I finally crested it in the early hours. Damn that was hard I thought. I rolled on down toward Llyn Brianne reservoir. I know it well and boy did it drag. The sun that day didn’t want to get out of bed, it was a grey, half dark, half light for about an hour. So long in fact I didn’t notice when it was finally day.
40 kilometres to go! I’m so close now, not long at all I’ve done it! Oh dear, nearly there in GBDURO terms equates to another 3 hours of slogging up and down climbs. The excitement soon wore off and those 3 hours were the longest of the entire race. Up down and around another corner. But I’m nearly there, just around this creepy house and then 5 kilometres to go. Off road of course. Out of no where there’s a downhill to two gates. Could this be it? It was. I’d made it. 640 kilometres and my longest ever ride. The relief as I took my checkpoint photo, blood still covering my face. Well, that was hard. The realisation kicks in we’re only a quarter of the way through…
Before moving on to stage two, I firstly want to dwell slightly on the checkpoint. Nestled in the heart of mid Wales the first checkpoint was a haven to replenish much needed stores of energy and rest. I got into the first checkpoint at 9am two mornings after starting. It feels like a lifetime ago. It hits me as wander round aimlessly that I have just 23 hours before the next stage begins. This will be my second ever longest ride. This is a harsh realisation.
I wander into camp before quickly realising I need to walk back about 300 metres to take my time stamped photo. I can’t ride there; my arse is in too much pain. I shuffle slowly and finally reach it. Upon my arrival back at camp I meet Daf, the checkpoint host. A lovely Welshman who I think was glad to see a fellow country man. That checkpoint was great, Daf seemingly always had food ready and just when you wanted it.
I remember the idea of breakfast being very strange. Ive just ridden for two days, surely its dinner time. Either way food is food and I need it right now. I wolf down some food before making it towards the showers. I turn it on and somehow it instantly breaks just as I cover myself in soap, great. No worries, Daf to the rescue. I shower and then straight to bed. I wake up. Its about 2pm time for food and socialising. The checkpoints are great for this. Exchanging storis and battle tales. Before I know it its 10pm and time for bed. I squeeze into my bivvy bag, pull on my eye mask and drift off.
Stage two, day one
Well, that’s a good start. In my classic rookie style, I spent too long eating breakfast and not enough time packing. I start 10 minutes late. No issue though, there’s 470 odd kilometres between me and the next checkpoint…
I start steady, I’m surprised my body has recovered as much as it has. I begin to wind my way up the first climb away from the sanctuary of the checkpoint. The views are amazing and I’m feeling good mentally. Ive broken it into a few sections in my mind and this morning I need to get brake pads from somewhere. I hit the first section of gravel. I remember it from TransWales where I rode it in the other direction. I also remember the river crossing that’s coming up. In my eager start-of-stage enthusiasm I walk through with no care. Bad idea. I keep going before descending into Machynlleth. I ride up to the bike shop, or what I though was the bike shop. “No, we don’t have any here, we just deal with online sales.” That’s not good, ah well. I’ll see if I can change out the spares I brought later on. I work my way through mid to north Wales. It all blends into one in my mind. I stopped a few times to refuel and there were a few nasty climbs but all in all it was ok.
I really need to put those emergency pads in now. Shit, I’ve just stopped to fit them and they’re slightly too big. I sit on the side of the road trying to file them down on the tarmac, to no success. There’s a shop quite far away but they will be shut soon. I begin to rush. This is where it started to go downhill. I was rushing, not concentrating down a steep rocky decent. I’d chosen a line up on the bank to avoid the rocks about 5 foot above the path. I fly down there way too fast and before I know my wheel starts to rub on the side of the rut. Oh dear. Down I fall to the side of the path. Falling the whole 5 foot to the rocks below. That hurt. I looks at my calf, its instantly bruised and swollen. Well, that’s something I’ll have to deal with later. Many beautiful trails and mountains later and after some very hard, arduous going across rugged terrain, I start to descend with Pim and George, two other racers. We descend through a bike park, I’ve it to the bike shop in time. Great, new pads here I come. I quickly fitted them. No more rubbing breaks or fear of not stopping. It’s just about to get dark now and I know I’m not too far from riding out of Wales and into England. This also means a long stretch of road. This is great news. Since leaving the checkpoint the first couple of hundred kilometres of the stage have been savage and some fast roads are much needed. I’m joined by a friend who’s come out to watch. We talk for a while whilst riding before he pulls off. I could do with some supplies now and luckily; we are back to civilisation. A Lidl reunites me with George and Pim and we discuss how Chester isn’t too far away. A great place to get a much-needed spot of dinner. We’re back to it now.
We have made it to England! Finally, it feels like a big achievement and the roads rewarded all the hard work with a flat fast run to Chester. A few of us arrived at the same time, trundling along the street. One thought in mind… McDonalds! There it was, like the gates to heaven. I took my bike inside and made my way to order. I can’t remember what I got but it was a lot. And it was good. There were maybe 5 or 6 other racers who all happened to be here at the same time. We enjoyed exchanging stories and chat.
With the tank full it was time to hit the road, with the hope of Manchester before sleeping. Its dark now, very dark. I made my way along an eery cycle path and away from the haven of Chester. I was in good spirits and confident of making it to the city. Time passed, a lot of time. It felt like the night went on forever. I slowly working my way to Manchester riding round what felt like endless corners. Around and around each time hoping for a glimpse of the city. But nothing. I was starting to lose a bit of hope. And the creepy woods at night weren’t helping. Finally in the middle of nowhere I saw George and Pim again. We briefly chatted about are hopes of getting through Manchester before sleeping. Finally, we are there. Well at least I thought that’s what the start of the canal meant. What it really meant was a good half an hour more riding on the now soaking wet and lethally slippery surface. Yes, that’s right, its raining now. Suddenly there’s a flash of hi-vis. Surely not. It is. A dot watcher appears and cheers as I ride past. My first thought was wow, I feel sorry for her stood in the pouring rain at 1 am, but it was a moral boost. The canal at night was strange. Full of drunks staggering home, some a little too closely, provided some entertainment for a while. Suddenly there’s a bridge and a stadium. Must be there now. I was. It was so quiet, barely a car in sight as I rode through the streets. Weaving back and forth down the soaking streets until I met George again. As we rode together, we began to look for places to sleep. A perfect woodland appeared. Right on route and nicely tucked out the way. The trees provided a slight bit of shelter from the rain, and I was very glad to tuck into my bivvy, even if it was only for 3 hours. But first, I needed the toilet, and a fallen tree was perfect. Oh, the glamour of ultra-racing.
Stage Two, Day two
I see why most people sleep more than 3 hours… I pack my bivvy and stuff away at record snail pace. My body is stiff, and everything is damp. Great. I swing my leg over the bike and start riding. Instantly my knee has a sharp stabbing pain. Shit. That crash yesterday did more damage than I thought. I struggled on out of the woods. The pain is bad. I try riding in different positions nothing is working. I very slowly limp away from Manchester and into the surrounding hills. These roads are super tough. I turn a corner and am suddenly hit with one of the strongest headwinds I’ve ever ridden in. I’m broken.
Fighting the conditions, I make it into the first off road bit of the route for today. its instantly unrideable with this wind, I slowly get off and see a fellow racer, Tom just behind me. We chat for a bit before I remounted and carry on. It took us up onto the top of a hill before a strange decent through shingle and finally onto a road. Tom re-joins me and we see George just ahead in a small café/ shop having left camp earlier than I had. We chatted and grabbed supplies before heading off again. Oh no, my knee had got worse at this stop. I desperately massage my now crunching knee. The kind of pain that would normally stop me on any other ride. I could feel it grinding a crunching. A steep road climb forced me to walk under the pain of my knee. What do I do?
I sat on the side of the road and rang my mum, she told me to get some pain killers. Why didn’t I think of that. As I sat there, I thought of something. What if I move my cleats the whole way forward? Sure, it’ll feel weird but it might take the pressure of the particular part of my knee. A passer by in a car asked me if I was ok as I sat twiddling with my shoe. “Fine thanks” I said. Done. Let’s see if this works. It did. I was amazed. It did feel very odd like driving a car with the seat too far forward, but it worked. I found a local shop and got some pain killers. Somehow with this combination my previously agonising knee was ok to keep riding.
Then it came, one of the hardest parts. The Pennine bridleway. A long stretch of the route that involved steep climbing and thousands of gates to open every time you got up some speed. It took hours, and the constant stop start began to take its toll on my knee again. This was one of the hardest parts of this race. It was relentless.
After what felt like an eternity, I finally turned off the bridleway, admittedly into a huge climb but it was better than nothing. As I crested the hill, I saw Rob Scott coming the other way. A cyclist for Wiv Sungod who id been racing (admittedly not very well) against all year in the national series. Why aren’t I doing that I thought, out for a nice 4 hour ride enjoying the Yorkshire hills. I soon came round and descended a little hill onto a rolling road. The new cleat position had begun to make my legs very sore. Using slightly different muscles had fatigued me and I was in desperate need for a resupply and sit down, I was shivering in the 25 plus degree heat. About half an hour on a co op appeared. I quickly went in to resupply with food and sat down for about half an hour outside. I didn’t care how long I sat there, I was so tried from the past 5 hours or so. I sat eating my food in the sun in a jersey, gilet, raincoat and puffa jacket still shivering.
Eventually, once I felt normal again it was time to leave the co-op and continue. After a brief stint it was back off road. There was just over 100 kilometres to go of this stage which meant we had reached the halfway point of the GBDURO, 1000 kilometres. Back to the off road however much more manageable now I could see straight. I was enjoying this the route slid its way past farmyards and along bridle ways and I was enjoying it until… ah of course. An entire heard of cows blocked the style to get off this section and onto the next. Not fancying my chances of moving 60 cows out the way I somehow decided in my rather tired mind that climbing the 6 foot wall with bared wire on top of it was a better idea. I hauled myself on top, reached down and grabbed the bike, swung it over and hopped down. Smooth if I say so myself. Its late in the afternoon now and I’m content again. I keep getting glimpses of Tom just ahead of me and the gravel is lovely. After stopping for another toilet break in the corner of a field I road over a lovely old bridge and up a climb to see the low sun hovering just above a stunning old railway bridge with big arches. Onto a road briefly before hopping back off it and catching up with Tom again. Together we hiked up the very steep hill which upon summiting we realised how high up we were. The sun treated up to an amazing traverse across the top of the hill and onto a road decent, with the sky painted orange. We flew down the hill with the though of another shop in the next village spurring us on. It’s about 9pm and only then did I realise we weren’t that far away. However, some tough sectioned lay between us and the finish which ended coming around 4 hours later.
We arrived at the next shop eager to stock up. Its not here. Shit. I need food. Panic over I wasn’t looking very hard. Having found the shop we both went in and restocked for the last time that stage. I’m pretty cold now, so on go the gloves and jacket. I left first to keep warm but about 15 minutes later Tom caught me back up. We spoke about what was to come. The dreaded long walk to the finish. I can’t remember exactly how long it is but it’s a good 7km of pretty unrideable stuff. Certainly, in the dark which it is now. We spoke lots and the time passed quickly. Before I knew it was 11pm and I was beginning to embark on the final climb. An absolute brute. About 5 plus kilometres long and super steep. I’m riding on my own again now after Tom slowed down to nurse a mechanical. About half way up the climb I began to loose my mind. I kept seeing shadows in the dark that spooked me. The gradient was unrelenting. I weave my way up hoping its over soon. Its so dark that my pathetic light barely cuts into the night. I resort to walking the last 500 metres or so. My feet were slipping beneath me, but I didn’t care. I was so close to finishing the hardest ride of my life. I summited. Ive done it I thought before quickly remembering the 7km of rough stuff ahead. How bad can It be? Pretty damn bad.
It’s wet under foot and there’s a lot of hidden rocks as I cut across what seems to be a random patch of grassy field. Gone is the lovely surface of the climb up here. The route is ok so far, slow but ridable at the pace. I notice a small river to my left. The route drops down and cuts across it. I hop across and get back to it. The path begins to thin and then disappear at the same time the river looks more and more rough. I resorted to the scooting method again, weaving past rocks while clinging to the side of the river. I get to a big drop off to the river, about 12 foot top to bottom, I can go down to the river or up to the top. The top looks better, I begin along the top. Clinging to it, until I wasn’t. I tumbled down the 12-foot drop to the river, swearing all the way. In desperation to grab my bike I broke off a bit of home made handlebar where id been mounting my light. Aghhh. I shout in frustration. I grab the bike and haul it along, clambering back out of the ditch. I made It back to the safely of the grass which slowly began to show signs of a path again. I’m nearly there! The path became a gravel road, which in turn became a road. I’m there. The relief! Two lovely checkpoint helpers were outside waiting for me to arrive, despite the fact it was 2 minutes to 1 in the morning. I quickly go inside to some warm soup and shower. Thank God. The hardest ride of my life is over, and if the hype is true, the next two stages will be amazing.
I spent two nights and one day at this checkpoint. I slept and ate plenty and enjoyed catching up with everyone. After my second night of sleep, it was time to go and I wasn’t going to miss the start this time.
Stage three, Day one
After some well-deserved (in my opinion) rest at the checkpoint its time to get going. I remember thinking, halfway baby, before quickly realising that still left around 900 kilometres to complete, gulp. After confronting this realisation, it was time to stuff my face with food, pack up and roll out. The start was amazing. A group of maybe 6 or 8 of us quickly formed as we flowed up down and around the swooping roads. We chat and smile as the roads pass by. About 45 minutes in we are still together after tackling a hike-a-bike section under and then up the side of an old railway bridge. Pretty cool. Until a wrong turn set us all off at random times and I found myself in 3rd on the road. This stage was already stunning, following on what was once a railway before re-joining a road and catching up with the two riders up ahead, Huw and Charles.
We’re near the border of Scotland now and begin to tackle some gravel. Not like that gravel from yesterday however, this stuff is nice! Its fast flowing and gently rolling. I settle into my pace, put on my music and relax as we ride through the woods. I pass Charles as he’s putting on his rain jacket, the rain starts slightly but quickly ends. Christophe comes past me towards the end of the woods. Its still early on but my legs feel amazing today. But they would get even better as the day went on. Out of the woods and back onto the tarmac. Great some easy kilometres! Nope, round a corner and back off road, still nice gravel though. I look behind as I begin to climb. I was sure I could see the fourth rider on the road behind me, must of imagined it. I look at my Garmin, a sharp right turn shows on the map but there’s no path. I look around for a while before seeing a tiny path which looked more like a path a fox would take. Off I get, it’s walking time. A steep path takes me between the rows of trees, out of the light. I keep pushing before emerging onto another fire road. I hop back on. Down I go. It’s a long decent, a nice way to break up the ride. I reach the bottom, Christophe is stood to the side. “What’s up?” I ask. His rear mech had gone wrong and it was a long old way to a bike shop. I cracked on. I’m back on road but starting to get hungry. I’ll keep going I think to myself. I put my head down and pushed on. There was nothing for a long time so I’m desperately on the look out for a shop. I ride past a sign before turning round for a closer look. A shop! I rolled into the yard of the little shack and popped in. I was met with a huge range of sweets and chocolates as well as the option of a bacon bap. Well two of those I thought, I stuffed one up my jersey and had the other in had and began riding again having bought a few chocolate bars too. Three racers had passed me while I was in there and I quickly caught up with Charles who was having a rough patch. I stuffed in my second bacon bap before pushing on up the climb and onwards into the afternoon.
I caught up two more who had passed me. Just as we began a long climb up a gravel section. The top was very exposed so I stop to put on a jacket. I’m still feeling good now so quicky get going on the decent which is pretty bumpy. I notice my feet feel a bit sore, I ignore it for now. The route continued to climb and wind through the gravel tracks and up the hill. A few hours past and I was just about to descend a hill in the hope there would be a village to re stock from at the bottom. I got going, a simple grassy descent. However these things are never as simple when you’re a good few days into an ultra-race. I hit a slight lip on the grass, I immediately knew I was going down, I fought it for a bit before loosing the front wheel and sliding along the floor, luckily all ok just a bit of a knock to my knee which began to hurt a little more again.
I made it to the little village I’d been hoping for. Only after encountering the heaviest rain, I’ve ever seen in the run up to it. I now stood shivering in the corner of a spar eating a pie of some sort. This luxury soon ended and, fully dressed for winter, I climb back on the bike and into second place on the stage. It must have been late afternoon by this point, I checked in with Mari on the phone before getting stuck into some muddy tracks and trails working towards dusk. The next few hours until dusk were pretty uneventful, other riding through what seemed to be some sort of rubbish dump with the track being made up of broken bricks and random waste which led to some kind of aggregate yard. Putting that behind me I wove through little towns and villages and into the dark. I was still surprised as to how good I felt. I kept on plugging away and after riding through a few trees I reached the Falkirk wheel. Pretty cool. I’d been here with my grandparents when I was younger but not in the middle of the night. The nostalgia quickly vanished when I realised the bridge across the canal was only open in the day. Detour complete and back on course. It was around this point when I realised at some point id passed Huw and was now leading the stage. I only discovered this when a dot watcher asked to ride with me. I replied with “of course, that would be great.” He told me no one else had been through. How weird. I’m now in the lead of the race I’ve been dreaming of doing for the past two years, that made me smile. Me and my dot watcher buddy who I think was called Rob (I’m terrible with names) rode together for about half an hour. The perfect length of time.
I call Mari, I’m telling her how my legs have never felt this good. I’m fifteen odd hours into today and feel as fresh as anything. There’s some motivation sprayed on the road that reads ‘Go GBDURO’. I’m heading towards Stirling. Feeling amazing, I suddenly see Miles, the race organiser, who’s filming some stuff. I tell him how my knee feels great. He follows me through Stirling capturing an encounter with two drunk people under a tunnel. Just as quickly as I got to Stirling I’m out the other side of it and things are about to get a bit more tough. Proper Scotland is incoming.
Its pretty late now, must be past midnight and I’m riding along an endless footpath. I must have been on it for forty minutes now and I’m just getting out of it. I’m following the edge of a lake or loch as it is this far north. Still content and still feeling good, a little tired but it is one in the morning in my defence. On and off a road again through a woodland I look back and see what I thought was a moped. No, it’s just Huw! It was nice to see a familiar face and we chatted for a long time. Huw is very speedy and so we were making good progress. We both thought a little break would be a good idea at some point tonight and Huw, who knows the area well suggested somewhere. For now though we keep going up and down and begin to climb a big old hill. We both stop mid-way up for some fresh water and I am boiling. Its pretty humid but as soon as we stop its cold once more. We descend down the other side of this mountain and at some point later we both saw a ditch with a wall and some beach trees. A perfect spot. It was 4 am and we set the alarm for half an hours’ time…
Thirty minutes later
To say I woke up would be an overstatement. Using my expertly practiced stupidity I decided before the rest that I didn’t need a sleeping bag and my coat would do. I was very wrong. I lay there in the ditch shivering waiting for the alarm to tell me what I didn’t want to here. The inevitable is here and its time to get going. In the half an hour I have developed what appears to be a five-minute chest infection. As we rode down the road I coughed, wheezed, and shivered. All the way until the bottom of the next climb.
We open the gate, taking the time to take off the extra clothes put on for the ‘sleep’. I can barely keep my eyes open and quickly Huw begins to become a dot in the distance. That’s ok, I’ll just keep tapping along. I summited the climb hot and a bit bothered but keen for a snack, I reached round to grab my food bag and. It’s gone, no, no, no. There’s no real place to find food now until the end of the stage and that’s at least seven or eight hours away. I frantically search, making some kind of whimpering sound I hobble up and down the path to see if I can see it. Nothing. I’ve accepted my fate. Well, I got myself into this, time to get out too. What proceeded was a very tough battle to the stage end.
I started descending this tough mountain in the rain and mist. It’s going ok until I’m hit with nerve pain in my arm. Its been there for a day or two but now there’s shooting pain in my arm constantly. It’s unbearable. I make it out of that section and into the headwind along the side of a loch and onto another trail. Part of General Wade’s trails or roads. They must have been great when he built them but they’re pretty rocky and hard going now. I try not to stop. I start to think the worse as I ride at snail’s pace, I try to focus on just keeping moving forward and I do. It was hard to be frustrated for too long as the scenery soon picked my mood up a bit, and it was time for more loch and gravel action. Lots and lots and this part all fades to one in my mind. Still desperate for food I decided to take out all of my wrappers and lick them clean. That didn’t help greatly. Despite my pace I’m now making my way towards the finish. I find some wild raspberries which helped for a total of five seconds. Not too far at least, only about forty kilometres now.
My feet are really starting to hurt now, I just want to finish but the road towards the last big climb is pretty unrelenting. I finally made it. The Corrieyairack pass, another one of General Wade’s doings. Huw had mentioned it but I had thought nothing of it. For those who don’t know it’s a 770-metre-high pass which has at least ten switchbacks and if you’re in the state I was its unrideable. I’d already climbed for a while to get here, now it was time to walk. I had started to hallucinate by this point. I kept seeing white and grey rocks as zebras, it was surprisingly real and pretty enjoyable. I think the pass took me about half an hour, maybe more, of walking. My feet were in agony now as grit rubbed against my shoes and socks. My knee was also playing up so it was a challenge to say the least.
I've made it to the top. Thank God. Time to whiz downhill to the finish. Nope. The route rolled on for another ten kilometres at least. It was savage. My feet were in agony. The grit had rubbed them so much that when it came to descending out of the saddle I just couldn’t, it was just too painful. I sat down in the saddle as I descended the last bits of the route, my entire body being rattled and my feet throbbing.
I’ve made it to Fort Augustus. Just a fifteen-minute climb with some views of Loch Ness to go. The climb was the final sting, but I made it, I rolled into the checkpoint in second, a couple of hours after Huw and having not eaten for 8 hours.
Upon arrival I was pretty much broken, really hungry and that feet pain from earlier? Trench foot. I spent the whole checkpoint hobbling round, my new swollen feet too sore and swollen to fit into my sliders. This checkpoint was a new one for 2022 and was slightly rough around the edges. Chilli and wraps was on the cards for the first day and went down a treat after a long time without food. The showers however were not rough around the edges they were the best showers of the race. I spent a lot of time washing kit and having showers in a desperate attempt to keep my feet clean under void any sores. Having arrived at the checkpoint quite early I spent nearly two days here and on the second day a few of us decided to roll into town and get Chinese. That five kilometre ride to Fort Augustus was absolutely brutal I could barely sit on the saddle and my feet were ruined, how the hell am I going to do this tomorrow I thought.
Stage four, the final push
Here we are then, about an hour before we set off for the final stage. Just 380 kilometres lay between me and the finish, the finish of my first ultra-endurance race. it's weird to think that 380 kilometres feels like nothing but given the past five days it was. having been told that this stage was by far the most scenic of all I was ready to take on the final push.
Here we go then, Miles counts us down and its back into the woods from yesterday. The route is challenging from the word go as we hit a very rooty and muddy section. We enter the woods. Onto the wide fire tracks and off we go. There were quite a few of us all riding together and it was nice to roll out on the last stage as a group. My feet are in a lot of pain, but I ignore it, push it out of my mind. My knee has also started to hurt again. We take on a long walking section which crests with a view of Loch Ness. The trails up here flow beautifully. Ive been told there’s only one place to refuel on the whole of this stage. I keep it in mind, planning a big stop there. The route rose and fell with the mountains. We hit a big climb and I naturally drift back in a bit of pain. I hop off to push my bike and see my knee at a very strange angle, I try to ignore it, the scenery helps with that. The gravel is beautiful, and I’ve just caught the others up over the top of the climb. The next chunk was pretty uneventful, mostly on road. I worked my way right up to the front as we hit my favourite section. It began with a big dear fence, we went through the gate and it was like riding into Jurassic Park. Ferns and plants grew in amazing colour and the trail snaked its way through before turning uphill.
I’m feeling good now, I’m in second or third. We begin to ride along this amazing gravel track. I think its called the trial of a thousand puddles. It clung to the side of the hill and worked its way downhill and around to a reservoir. Following this there was a road decent and then we were at the only shop. There are a few of us here and we all head in. I chat with the others before buying about ten kilos of food, sandwiches, a variety of pies and chocolate. I stuff them all down my jersey as Charles rides past not stopping. Pretty quickly I’m back riding along and being the first to leave the shop means I’m now in second. The route quickly turned to gravel and continued to be amazing. A track took me and now Pim along a pretty flat section for a while, before turning into another forest briefly before we entered a rockier section of trail. Back on my own now I ride along at my own pace, feeling good and enjoying myself. The route begins to climb as I see Charles just ahead. I work my way up to him. Before I catch him however, we enter a huge valley with towering mountains either side. The trail rises steadily climbing through the valley. I catch Charles, it must have been a good few hours since I’ve seen anyone now and it’s nice to talk. We are miles from anywhere here and the trail we are on goes on for about 20 kilometres. Its enjoyable however with rocky sections and ruts to keep the mind occupied.
We finally reach the end of the section, and it turns into slightly finer gravel before more of the same. Suddenly out of no where Huw joins us. We all share our ambition to ride nonstop now until the finish. A distance of just 200 kilometres from where we are now.
I can’t quite remember how long that section lasted but it took in some amazing riding and some muddy sections. Oh, and plenty of deer fences. We finally come off this section and onto a road. It leads into a handful of houses before quickly leaving again. I cant remember where Huw and Charles went but I was then riding on my own as the sun started to set. Along a newly surfaced road and eventually onto a gravel climb that seemed to take me out of the valley and onto the top.
Suddenly Huw appears out of nowhere, we both fill up our bottles from the run off from the peat as Charles rounds the corner two. The three of us were now back riding together and with only just over 100 miles to go. We talk about how the last section is predominantly on fast gravel and roads. I shove some macaroni pie into my mouth. I don’t want to eat it, but I know I need to. We’re back on a road now briefly before turning off onto a very bumpy section of gravel. I hadn’t realised but my tyre pressure was way too high as I rattled my way down the track in the now dusk of the day. I got to the bottom now in pitch black to see Huw and Charles had stopped, I catch up and we start riding again but not before being swarmed by thousands of midges, everywhere I looked was midges.
Back on the road now and it must be about 11 or 12 in the night. I’m suddenly hit with an overwhelming tiredness, I force myself to concentrate as I feel myself dropping asleep on the bike. It’s a weird thing to fight while riding but luckily it wore off eventually. The roads felt like they went on forever. It felt like we had been on it for hours, and at times we were, long sections of straight road with nothing to look at made it very hard to stay aware and awake. We are making good progress though.
It's time for another section of gravel, we have been going for a while now and its probably 3 am. We realise that this is the last section of gravel of the whole route. My spirits are raised. I smile knowing that there isn’t that long to go. The gravel is pretty smooth and going well until right towards the end of the section. I hit a huge hole, one that upon reflection I was lucky not to puncture on. However, hitting this hole was so painful, my already sore and throbbing feet began to burn after the impact and my arse was very painful too. As we re join the road I’m now riding with one foot at 45 degrees to the crank in a desperate attempt to avoid pain and the other foot rotated in my shoe sideways so I’m pedalling with the outside of my foot. Its sore but we now only have 30 kilometres to go, so close and its road the whole way. By this point we had decided we would ride to the finish as a three. It was really nice to share the final kilometres with others. Before we go there however, it was Huw’s turn to take on the sleep demons, he rode off the road and into a hedge.
He quickly got back on, unhurt, and we carried on. We looked on the map to see that shortly we had a 12-kilometre section of dead straight road. A nightmare when you are desperately trying to stay awake. Its now time to take it on, Huw drifts side to side and me and Charles shout to try and keep him awake. It’s just beginning to show the first signs of day light and a thick fog rolls in. I check my Garmin, only 10 more kilometres to go. We complete the straight road and take a few corners before making our way towards John O’Groats. We are close now, we swing left and roll down. We can see the sign now and I’m overcome with happiness and relief, I did it. We all raise are arms as we roll in and ride down to the sign. Thank the lord, it’s done.