Well, its been a roller coaster of a few weeks. As I sit on my bed in my little beach hut, the waves of the Indian ocean gently crashing in the distance, I think back over my journey so far through east Africa. To say its been a challenge is an understatement, and looking back now im amazed ive made it this far. In the past two weeks I’ve raced 1,543 kilometres across many different landscapes and terrains. Its been beautiful. Its been brutal. I think for the first time in my cycling life the mental fatigue is grater than the physical. There were many hurdles out there, and somehow, they were all overcome.
It all started when I landed in Kenya two weeks ago. The Migration gravel race was first up, I won’t go into too much detail in this blog as I will save that for another blog however, for context I will give a brief summary. Migration is a 4-day supported gravel race through the Massai Mara, taking in plenty of mountains and animals along the way. The overall distance is 650 kilometres over the four stages and each night we would return to a moving race camp to refuel and recover. This race was incredible, hard but stunning taking in breathtaking scenery. Unfortunately, I was struck with the same sickness which has been burdening me for the past two months. Random sickness causing discomfort, vomiting, and obviously making racing challenging. Despite this I pulled through after being sick three out of four days to finish 30th overall. A result I wasn’t pleased with but given the circumstances I didn’t care much.
This takes us to where I’ll pick up from in time for Evolution gravel race. An 850-kilometre, semi supported ultra with a 12-hour mandatory rest point after the first 460-kilometre stage.
Ive reached the place we’re staying for the last night before Evolution gravel race begins. Since finishing Migration gravel I’ve had 3 days to rest the best I can. A long day travelling yesterday has made today feel even nicer. An entire day of rest. I’m still pretty depleted after all the vomiting but I’ve managed to re motivate myself to get going again and get excited to race. This morning I went for a short pre-race ride, checking the bike and riding off the pre-race nerves. This was followed by food and a dip in the pool. Its evening now, I’ve signed on, collected my tracker and am just heading to the restaurant for some food. It’s been hard to eat recently, constant feelings of sickness really have put me off my food and tonight is no different. I know I need to eat though so I force down what I can before chatting to the
others and heading back to my room that I’m sharing with a chap called Owen. The night before is always full of last minute faffs and what ifs but surprisingly, I was pretty relaxed. How I felt last week has taken the pressure off which id put on myself, to be honest I just want to get going and try and redeem myself. Now, I’m all packed and ready to go. Time to brush my teeth, relax, and hop into bed.
The alarm goes off at 5:30 AM. Something I’ve got used to after the past week or so. I slept
remarkably well but as ever, just not quite enough. I head to breakfast, although I’m not really hungry. This sickness has been playing havoc with my hunger and this morning every mouthful a try to swallow without throwing it back up. Breakfast none the less is important today and on the menu is a variety of fruit, pancakes, and other tasty options.
Before I know it the tranquillity of breakfast is over and its time to go. I line up on the start.
Expecting nothing, hoping for something. Another thing the vomiting has done is rid me of any self confidence in my ability. I tell myself its just two rides… two very long rides.
Well just like that we get the count down and we are off. I rode straight to the front, eager to get going. Turning onto the main road a kilometre from the start I’m surrounded with what will be my group for the next 60 kilometres.
The pace was hot to start. To be expected really. With the knowledge of a mostly downhill, paved first 60 kilometres everyone knew there was ground to be made. This led to some rather impressively sketchy descending towards on coming traffic before we began to ride through and off. We rode like this for a while, not many of us pulling turns, I think around 3 or 4 but either way I did my share. By this point I’d already let the negativity in. I think it was the road riding in a big group, it took me back to the road races I’ve been trying to escape. Either way the road did eventually end, not before a crash occurred on the main road though. Darting onto the gravel, still a group of 40 or so, we began to up the pace. Quickly there was only 10 of us and I distinctly remember losing the wheel while riding at 350 watts, 65 kilometres into a 460- kilometre stage.
Eventually, about 20 minutes down the line I accepted my reality and settled into my own pace. The route was vague, meandering through spiky bushes, trees, and down elephant tracks, eventually linking out to some wider more open gravel tracks. Shortly after this I had my first spell of sickness. Determined to stop it defining my ride however I pushed on. I had other things to define my ride with later on…
The hundred-kilometre mark brought the only feed of the day. As I rolled up, I got my bottles ready and topped them up with the water provided. If I’m feeling it already, how am I going to get to the end? No time to worry, there’s riding to do. I began to enjoy the next section. It followed and climbed some tracks, not quite fire road width but nearly there. Very rocky, and pretty remote. Just as I began to get into it the track merged to a long, straight road. Hard packed gravel, but insanely bumpy. The years of cars bumping along has made these road very bouncy and rather uncomfortable. No problem to, ill just ride on the side where the
motorbikes do. This worked on the most part, occasionally I had to brave the rattling of the road but mostly I was off weaving along the tracks.
Finally tarmac. A brief stint of paved road brought me into the first village in a long time. I had one aim now. Fill up my water. I rode through keeping an eye out and saw Geoff, a very strong Kenyan rider for team Amani. Wow, I thought, if he is here, I can’t be as far down as, I think. I wasn’t. somehow despite my slow feeling start I was sat in 6 th place. I roll over and ask the shop keepers for some water. Geoff helpfully told me how much it cost so there was no scope for any cheeky price changes. They nip down the road to get some more bottles, I top up and I’m back on my way. I spot another rider then who I yoyo with for a long time. He rides for the Rwanda Beyond team and was pretty damn strong. We hovered around one another for a long time. The route in between this point was straight forward. Wide, relatively easy-going gravel with the odd bit of concrete thrown in. About two hours later we roll into another village where I see Geoff again, stopped at another shop. I decide from now when he stops ill stop too. He had a good eye for resupplies. Another few bottles of water and a Fanta for the road stuffed in my back pocket and we’re off. We discuss how damn hot
it is and ride together, with the Rwanda rider for a while longer. Eventually we enter a sandy section, with amazingly wide trees. It snakes around and through the undergrowth and is great fun to ride. We bump into multiple herds of cows, with Geoff acting as the Shepard, navigating us through the animals with some whistles.
Me and Geoff rode together for quite a long time, eventually picking up another rider. This would be the crew for a long old time. We kept on along the respite of the flat roads and upon rounding a corner a Land Cruiser appears. With a table of food. And water. For us?! A secret feed zone, and damn it was good. We ate so much fruit, topped up all our water and eventually had to carry on. A few metres down the road a local on a bike appeared and began racing us! He had a pickaxe over the handlebars and was actually insanely fast considering he was in wellies. We were pushing to keep up with him! Eventually he started to drop back but I told him to come back. As he drew parallel, we exchanged a fist bump and a gave him a bar to try. He suddenly locked up the back wheel and drifted round a corner. To be honest, that made my evening.
Its dark now, the roads are pretty similar to one another apart from the occasional muddy field scattered with hidden wire and sharp branches to catch you out. It was after one such field where I decided to drop back. I wanted to ride my own pace, settle into a rhythm for the night. I did so and had around half an hour relaxing, listening to the Lord of The Rings audio book. Quite difficult to do so when you’re trying to ride in the dark after 15 hours…
Nevertheless, I eventually ended up catching up with the other two, despite riding very slowly. It didn’t last for long though as it was time for the first big climb of the route. An hour or so of steep off and on road climbing lay ahead. The other two, far better climbers than me shot off. I walked most of it. I wasn’t in the right mood for battling traction, so I gave in early and took to foot. It was okay however, a little tough but manageable. A few ups and downs, twists, and turns later and it was done and dusted. A brief stint of road was incredible. I stopped to put my jacket on. Tanzania at night is strange, cold yet so humid you’re dripping in sweat no matter what you wear. I looked forward to the big descent that was up ahead, by the look of it a good few kilometres, however it turned out to be a very steep single track, which clung to the side of a hillside, rocks littering the path. At the bottom there was Geoff, seemingly always nearby and always drinking. This time from a stream that flowed across the road. We began a long slog up a bump road, eventually leading to a huge highway which we were soon routed off and into what would be some of the toughest hours of my life (so far, tomorrows another day…). The route, with only 50 or so kilometres to go split into many different animal tracks, all intertwined with one another. This made following the route challenging and somewhat frustrating. Every time I took a turn I had to try and find my way back to the line of the GPS. Its never going to end, I thought. Relentless was the next hour or so but I felt id finally cracked it when I heard a strange trumpeting sound. Like the noise those horns make they blow at football games. In my tired state I would have never thought it would be… elephants. Yep. A heard of about 15 elephants came barrelling across the path just 50 metres or so ahead. In my dreariness I didn’t think much of it, but I’ve since realised just how sketchy that situation could have got. Amaing none the less. This is where shit began to get real.
Just after the elephants I noticed my tyre was flat. A pain in the arse but fixable, nevertheless. Oh. Not fixable. In my weaving of trails id ridden over what can only be described as a bastard bush. There must have been 50 half inch long thorns impaled in my tyre. I got my plugs out before realising there was no chance I had enough. I thought id be able to ride on the insert long enough of them try and chuck a tube in. after about 5 kilometres on the insert, my rear went flat too. Same reason, same quantity of thorns. I tried tubes and, unsurprising, they punctured. I resolved to walking. 10 kilometres of walking later and I’m done. I can’t fix this with what I have. I’m so gutted, it feels like one thing after another, and I just can’t get a break. The organiser comes and drives me the remaining 30 kilometres to the checkpoint. I’m so mentally done and accept it for what it is.
But its not what it is. I’m back at the checkpoint and now there’s the option of fixing the tyres with the mechanic here, then riding back to where I left off, turning round, riding back and then starting stage 2 after my 12 hours. Wow. Its hard to know what to do. Ive only just come to terms with having to scratch and accepted it and now I need to get motivated again. I text my coach and ask him what to do. He puts me straight and he is right. I’m here, I’m not going to get the opportunity again so get back out there. After 60 dollars and a repair I’m fairly sure wont work, as a mechanic I’m pretty clued up, I’m back descending the final climb to the finish to ride back to where I was. Its 2PM now. About 7 hours after Geoff got here and roughly where I think I would have been. Its tough knowing what could have been, but I don’t dwell. I get to where I left off and turn round. It’s a pretty simple last 30 kilometres,
until the final 10, which are all up hill. Despite this I crack on, and to be honest it wasn’t that bad. 3 hours after I left, I’m back, having completed stage one, albeit 10 hours later than I would of. Now its time to rest, eat and get ready to go again in 12 hours’ time. Ive dropped from 6 th to about 15 th . Me and Paddy, one of the organisers and an all-round legend, sit down and look at the timings. We recon I can get back into the top 10 with a good stage two and I get ready to go, hungry for a new target.
Checkpoint life is decent. I shower, find a tent, eat some food, and chat a bit, before heading to bed. The beauty of Tanzania and its location on the equator makes sleeping a pretty easy affair. Total darkness by 7pm. I woke up at 4am ready to get going by 5ish. Breakfast was a similar affair to last night, partially because it was from last night and had been kept warm overnight… I like warm food, so does bacteria. We will find that out a bit later on.
I roll out of the checkpoint in a surprisingly good mood, let’s get it done. The start of the stage was stunning, predominantly downhill for the 40km or so. I rolled off slowly, downhill and darkness when you’re half asleep isn’t a match made in heaven. I saw one of the best sunrises of my life, sun burning through the clouds as they clung to the mountains below. Scenery at 2000 metres is pretty stunning. The start was uneventful, rolling but pretty smooth helped time tick past and bring on daylight, and with it the heat. I started the first big descent. 15km at least of all downhill. Flowing hairpins and rocks kept the entertainment high. Bumps in the roads became jumps and I was loving it. Suddenly I get hit with a strong urge to go into a bush and crack on with some business if you can catch my drift… Yep. Good old bit of food poisoning. Luckily it wasn’t to plague me much after that, the only
damage was to my pride as a group of people walked past.
Feeling refreshed I hopped back on the bike and kept on trundling downhill. I made it to a
reasonable sized town and with it some tarmac. That flowed nicely along a valley floor. Aware of what was to come I settled in. Plenty of climbing was on the menu. At this time, I got my first puncture of the stage, a recurring theme. It came after some fun sandy singletrack which I was getting really into. This puncture was more of an annoyance. I knew the fix we had done at the checkpoint wouldn’t hold and this was just a pain in the arse. It took about 35
minutes, maybe more, to fix. My mini pump had started to play up and was only letting out little bits of pressure at a time hence the delay. Finally, it was up, and I saw Elijus, a fellow rider who had already scratched after being plagued with punctures on stage 1. He was now making his own way to the end. I rolled on and onto another bumpy, and pretty straight road. A local on a motorbike told me elephants were in the area, something I was now experienced with. The road went on for a while, pleasant gravel but just a little slower than would have been nice. A left turn led to a multitude of trails, more chaos to sift through. I ended up walking for about 500 metres until I rejoined a bigger path that maybe was where I was meant to be all along… oops. This track led to the first big climb of the day. 16 kilometres of climbing with many twists and about 1200 metres of education gain. I looked up to the trail weaving into the clouds. I could now see a rider up ahead; I must be making
good time I thought. With a few riders choosing to stay at the checkpoint longer I’d already made up a couple of spots. I cracked on and about 10 minutes later I’d caught Ruairi. By this time, I’d also caught my second puncture today and fifth of the race. After a brief chat with Ruairi, I decided to stop and fix the puncture. Here began my rapid deterioration into insanity…
Pulling over and popping the tyre off I got to solving the problem. Out with the punctured tube and in with the new. Pretty simple and all sorted I thought, until it came to pumping… My pump wasn’t working. All out of C02 I desperately tried to get it to pump but the chamber was damaged, and nothing was coming out. I dragged the bike up the hill a little where I stopped to try and fix it again, to no avail. At this point along came a young boy with a little mattock. He stood by my side, eagerly watching what I was doing. It was nice to have a bit of company. At this point I was done, again I was gutted but I came to terms with the fact there was no way of me fixing this. With the broken pump and being stuck a quarter of the way up the climb I had no way of continuing. Accepting this point, I decided the huge bag of sweets I had would be worth sharing with my new friend. He sampled many different kind of sweets, and by the look of it his favourite were the fizzy snakes. A few minutes later, along came two others who along with friend one pretty much finished off all my sweets.
I continued on now up the climb, walking and pushing my bike. Not much thought of what to do but nonetheless it was progress. A few bends later I had acquired 30 children all around me walking along side me. They were soon turned beck by an older man, and it wasn’t for another kilometre or so until I saw another guy. Despite neither of us understanding each other he managed to convey that there may be a pump in the next village. Interesting, but it’s a long way away. I had already messaged the sweeper vehicle who was some way away. I now had a lift to the end. I began looking for a place to sit and rest, I needed the toilet too, when I motorbike with a passenger on the back pulled over. He could see I was in a bit of bother and again communicated that there was a pump in the next village. We had a bit of back and forth in broken English until I realised, he was offering me a lift. “50, 50 shillings” he said. I only had 5000, (£1.65). I handed it over and the girl on the back hopped off and began walking. We tried tying the bike to the back but quickly realised
that id have to sit on the back of the motorbike with my bike on my lap…
A few corners later, and many missed gears, and we were flying up the climb. Switch back after switch back allowed me to really see the beauty of this place. The valley below was lit by the sun as we ascended into the clouds. Finally, after one dropped hat, we made it to the village. Damn, that’s going to be a long ride back… After I arrived plenty of locals were eager to walk to the bike shop with me where I was able to find a pump. As I turned round to get my tyre lever out, I heard a crunching noise. It was a car tyre lever being rammed under my tyre instantly ruining the rim. I tried to stay chill but began to think if I would ever catch a break. The tyre didn’t seat and was very wobbly but after I took over fitting the tyre again, I was able to get air into it and somehow, despite shards of carbon sticking out, I was able
to ride. Back I went, following the road first uphill for about 5 kilometres before heading back down the 5 kilometres of downhill to where I left of riding. a quick turnaround and I’m back heading up the climb for the second time, this time under my own steam. Its mixed emotions getting going again, on the one hand I get to continue on this amazing journey,
but, on the other my brain is fried from the constant ups and downs. Ive also just spent the best part of four hours moving a total of five kilometres. The reality of the 50 odd kilometres still to go begin to sink in. Another night, another big push.
Over the next few hours, I struggled big time. My loss of time not only was annoying but also meant I was now very dehydrated having had no place to get water for well over 8 hours, and my last sip was taken at least 3 hours ago. I bustle into a village, asking as many people as I could for some water. It turned out there was a village tap, a little muddy but very refreshing. I glugged it down and carried on. The route merged into one big blur until night really took over once more. The night was long, and many obstacles would come my way but first, a road with thousands of frogs littering it. Passing through frogs, minimising my victims, I trundled onward to the next big obstacle. A very long, very steep5 kilometre or so climb. It began through a corn plantation, quickly becoming both too rough and too steep to ride, I quickly resorted to walking. Time has never passed so slowly. It felt like hours I was there. I knew the rider in front wasn’t far, and I held him at 500 metres or so for the whole thing. I rang my parents who cheered me up slightly, at this point spirits were low. Suddenly I hear a noise, can’t be surely? It is. A motorbike with two people and two barrels is somehow
navigating a tiny singletrack walking path. A big tree loomed up ahead. A rest was needed. I sat down on seemingly a perfectly placed ledge, just for 5 minutes, I just need 5 minutes.
A bit of normality and recovery, albeit short, helped massively. I cracked on, walking for another hour or so. In the distance, music and parties went on, I guess I’m not alone.
I crest the climb, over an hour after I began it, tea fields line the rows and another part booms. This part dragged. I knew I was due a descent, but the route teased with constant ups before finally relenting. I began a descent, finally, with switchback after switchback. I entered a trace, barely able to concentrate to judge when to slow down to make the next corner. Back and forth, back, and forth. Suddenly a gate, I slowed and looked around. Out of no where there’s a man chasing me. I shout and try to ride off. He’s there to open the gate. Suddenly I realised how tired I was. I need to sleep. The route twisted and weaved through fields and forest. I entered a big forest and found a spot to rest; 15 minutes will do.
The noise of the forest was incredible and deafening. Crickets, toads, and other creatures that I didn’t want to think of called out in the night. I just shut my eyes when I get a text from my mum. “There was a leopard spotted there earlier.” I’m on the bike, sprinting. No longer tired with this new realisation I gun it into the darkness. I didn’t ease until the first sign of light. Before that however, a river crossing, more fields, and very loud morning prayers booming around villages. I’m low on fluid so I entered a sort of limp mode, pushing through an overgrown corn field I once again question what I’m doing. Like someone turning on the lights its suddenly day and I see a cyclist coming out of a house, amazing ill ask them for some water. It turns out it was a fellow racer, Ruairi, sheltering from the now heavy rain. Company is sweet. We share the excitement for the finish and our struggles we both faced until now. We ride together, with about 80 kilometres to go, along the now sloppy, claggy trails. It brightens up and I feel great, everything begins to click, and I look back to find my riding buddy is now gone. Sometimes, solo is best.
I’m pushing now, eager to get this done. Theres some people up ahead, military people? They stop me, briefly and a little unsure, before letting me go, onwards through the base. Its close now, I’m only 30 or 40 kilometres away, but this route isn’t done yet. A ‘newly resurfaced road’ looms ahead. Meaning tonnes of soil, dumped on top, hardened into lumps. I bounced my way along and onto the last long section of sandy, lumpy singletracks. By this time, I’m in control of my mind, this route isn’t breaking me. On again I push, onto a long ‘road’. I’m in my head, in a good way. I’m getting this done, and soon!
I see the coast on my Garmin, a glimpse of the hope Ive been dreaming of for the past few days, the hardest few days. Its not often Ive gone this far into my head, dug this mentally deep. I’m proud. Don’t let that make you think that this section is easy, I’m still riding uphill and ill soon be in a block headwind heading along the coast. A right turn, the last right turn. I’m here, I’ve done it. Jersey off, bike down, and I’m floating in the sea. The toughest mental challenge is over. I get out, eat some breakfast, and throw up in a bush. Oh yeah, had to keep my daily streak of sickness, it would be too easy otherwise…