Going the distance


Going the distance

It was back in April this year when I was asked if I fancied doing the Pedal for Scotland Sportive ride with my friends, Adrian, George and Paul. Envious of the good times they’d had on the several, sizeable cycling tours they’ve been on over the last few years I accepted the challenge straight away.

However, there were a couple of problems. Having given up on road biking for mountain biking back in the mid 90’s, I did not have a road bike. And, having been much slower to get on the bike in 2011, nor did I have the fitness for cycling the proposed 100 mile route from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

I felt I had the time to overcome both of those minor stumbling blocks, though, and made my mind up that after my trip to the Indy 500 I would throw myself into training.

Unfortunately I hurt my foot kicking Fliss in the ass the week before I went to Indianapolis and the injury essentially cost me all of June.

It wasn’t until first week in July that I tested the strength in my foot with a hour on the mountain bike, to find that although it ached a bit, it didn’t hamper my pedaling too much. I did come to the realisation that there was no way I’d be able to build up the necessary miles by mountain biking. It’s just a different type of muscle fitness entirely – for me, an afternoon on the mountain bike is littered with short bursts of exertion and more about technical bike handling than it is about grinding out the miles.

By the time I borrowed the affectionately–named Flying Banana bike from Alec at Helensburgh Cycles, I was quite far behind in terms of training. My first training ride on the Flying Banana did not unlock the dormant road biker in me as I had hoped, either. It was heavy, the gears just felt wrong to me, and in truth I just wasn’t enjoying the training at all.

I’d get back from a two hour ride on my mountain bike with a grin on my face, and return from an hour and a half on the road bike just glad it was all over. I reasoned that because I was giving up a summer of mountain biking, I’d only stick to the road bike challenge if it was fun. It was most certainly not fun and, from my recollections of when I’d been a dedicated road biker back in the early 90’s, I was getting highly frustarted at how little progress I was making.

My average heart rate was gradually coming down, sure, but I just wasn’t building the muscle density to haul the bike up the climbs that I thought should be manageable after a handfull of rides. Disheartened, I came pretty close to calling it quits and handing the Flying Banana back to the bike shop so I could salvage what was left of the summer for mountain biking.

Then the spark came. George is exceptionally passionate about professional cycling, and at his suggestion we took a Friday off work to do a training ride in the morning and then spend an afternoon in the pub watching the live action from the Alpe d’Huez stage of The Tour de France. Although I don’t follow pro’ cycling all year round, I do watch most of The Tour every year, so this seemed like a great idea.

During the “Alpe d’Huez prologue”  I struggled to keep up, but there was something about cycling with my mates that spurred me on and, for the first time on the Flying Banana, I actually enjoyed it. It was obvious I was just so far behind in terms of fitness, but if there’s one thing I know about my body is that it does improve if I push myself.

The afternoon spent watching Le Tour was the icing on the cake for me. Watching those super human riders either scale the climbs or crack under the strain rebuilt some of the passion I’d lost for road biking. I made up my mind that I’d buy myself a decent road bike and make good use of the remaining five weeks to try and put in a good showing on the day.

On my last mid-week training ride on the Flying Banana I managed the climb out of Glen Fruin that had had me off and walking every time I’d attempted it. On the Saturday that followed I picked up my new Giant Defy 2 from Helensburgh Cycles and went out for a “leg stretcher” with George. The bike felt superb – so much lighter, with better climbing gears, and a very responsive frame.

To quote Yogi Berra, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” He was talking about baseball, but, if I’m understanding his point, it’s as applicable to cycling as it is to any other sport. If your bike doesn’t feel right, or your gears or saddle just aren’t where you want them, it somehow makes the whole task seem that much more difficult, even though the handicap is likely imaginary. With a good bike underneath me I felt that all I had to do was work on myself, and set out on more ambitious training rides in the evenings after work.

What was working against me was that the weather was failing and darkness was coming earlier in the evenings. Although neither of those are a show stopper, I did feel uneasy riding on the roads in the dark. It’s difficult to put three hours of training in when there’s a maximum of two hours of light remaining when I got home from work.

The fading light was also a sign that I was running out of time, too. September was looming large and I still hadn’t done a ride of over 45 miles.

On the bank holiday Monday at the end of August I intended to raise my distance, but ended up just doing a couple of hours with Adrian on the route I’d done the week before. I was improving on the climbs, but lacking in endurance, and I still wasn’t keeping up with Adrian.

During that ride I tweaked my left knee trying to put the power down to catch up on a steep climb. Worried I’d done myself an injury only two weeks before the event, I put some deep heat gel on it when I got home. I obviously did some kind of damage, as it ached for the next two or three days, but thankfully it was nothing serious enough to bring a halt to the whole endeavour.

A week later and I’d attempt my first 100 mile ride on a route that George said was more difficult than the one Pedal for Scotland had in store for us. It was a perfect day for a bike ride – broken cloud with a gentle breeze that never seemed to be aiding nor against us. I struggled on the return leg, with the last 30 miles being a torturous affair. My left knee began seizing up and it felt like I was doing damage to it with every turn of the pedals.

I made it home in the end, and although I struggled physically I think that mentally it was an important waypoint in my training. On the bike, when you’re struggling, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s just you and the bike, and it’s being able to push through the miles that feel insurmountable that strengthen the character as much as they do the physical side.

The day of the event came upon me much sooner than I wanted. I said to the boys a couple of nights before the event that I wished I’d had another month to prepare, because although I believed I could probably do the 95 mile route, I knew I wouldn’t be particularly fast.

Our friend Stewart had offered to collect us in his van early on the Sunday morning and drop us off at Paul’s house, from which we’d make our way to Glasgow Green on the bikes. On the way, George and Paul seemed to be playing mind games with each other, but I stayed at the back just content to pace myself to the start line.

It was quite a good warm up, as it turned out, and after some confusion as to whether we needed to register, we were bunched together waiting for starters orders. For some reason Paul got pulled aside to secure the timing chip to his frame. I thought we should all wait for him, but George and Adrian had moved to the start line and within no time we we’re waved off. I felt a bit bad at leaving Paul behind, but knowing how strong he’d be I thought I’d look out for him going past.

Adrian and George were off into the distance after a few traffic lights, so I let them go rather than try to keep up. I knew I wasn’t going to break any records, so there was no point in killing myself early on in the event. Paul passed me at some point within those first few miles, too. I didn’t see him go by at the time, but spotted him up ahead. I didn’t get the break of the lights I needed to catch up, and by the time I stopped to put my water proof jacket on he was long gone.

Riders in the storm

After that I realised it’d be a bit of a solo affair and just got on with it. I’d set the countdown timer on my watch to go off every 30 minutes to remind me to eat and drink. I’m not used to endurance events and I think this turned out to be a smart move on the day. When my watch beeped I took a couple of bites of an energy bar or an “amish energy bar” (a banana) and washed it down with a gulp of energy drink, before starting the timer again.

I had my Camel Bak filled with electrolyte rich fluid that I sipped from every few minutes, too, to ensure that I wouldn’t get dehydrated.

Despite what it said in the programme, I thought there were remarkably few distance markers. In fact, the first food stop at around the 20 mile mark came upon me by surprize. I hadn’t intended to stop at that one – thinking that if I pushed through to the 50 mile food station I’d make better time.

However, the conditions had deteriorated quite quickly once we were out of Glasgow. Strong winds and lashing rain had made it more difficult than I had anticipated, so I decided to pull in when I saw the first feed station.

This cost me a lot more time than I thought it would, due to there being only two toilets for the hundred or so riders stopped at any given time. It seemed like ages before I was back on the bike, and I set off with a sense of urgency to try and make up lost time.

In reality I was racing against myself, though, so I didn’t push too hard in fear of burning myself out trying to combat the strengthening head wind. Over the next 30 miles the weather really did hinder progress. Most of the course was so exposed that at one point I actually had to pedal to keep going down a hill. In fact, it had become so treacherously wet and windy by the time I reached the second food station at the 50 mile mark that I considered calling it quits.

The place was called Douglas and I heard someone say “If Douglas had a train station it would be full of people and bikes right now.” I sat in the meagre shelter of the feed station tent listening to people call friends and family asking for a pick-up because they were giving up. One lady said that it was so cold and wet that she feared she’d get hypothermia if she continued.

Despite the fact I was sitting there shivering, for some reason this kind of talked spurred me on again, and I got back on the bike to see if I could make it to the feed station at the 70 mile mark. The conditions were awful, though, with side winds that almost knocked me off the bike several times.

A climb at around the 60 mile mark, apparently thrown in by the ogranisers quite late in the day, proved too diffucult for a lot of folk and I felt no shame in dismounting to walk with the rest after seeing a man fall just ahead of me. The descent from that climb was crazy fast – I think I passed a dozen people in that mile or so, taking a lot of risks to make the most of it.

Shortly after that the head wind became a tail wind, and I just got into a rhythm, hoping to count down the miles to the finish line. The lack of distance markers made this difficult, though – there wasn’t one at the 60 mile mark, so the feed station at the 70 mile mark was a welcome surprize. I didn’t waste too much time there, though. After topping up my Camel Bak and wolfing down another amish energy bar, I got on my way.

Knowing I had less than 25 miles to go made me keen to get the last leg over with, and I set off at a higher pace than I’d been maintaining before the stop. That was until I encountered another guy on an older model of my bike. We got talking as I passed and I ended up sticking with him for a bit too long, as although he kept up a good pace on the flats, he was content to freewheel on descents and take it really easy on the climbs.

Due to riding by myself a lot of time for the first couple of hours, I’d made my mind up earlier in the day that as I wasn’t fit enough to be going for a good time I’d just make the most of the experience and talk to folk when the opportunity arose. I’d spoken to a 68 year old man who was determined to keep on cycling ’til he couldn’t get on the bike, and another man about my own age who’d ran a half marathon the week before.

I’d spoken to some interesting folk during the day, but this younger lad was a bit of a know-it-all. For example, he told me that I should pump my tyres up to over 110 PSI so I could freewheel faster. When I told him that I’d used my track pump to put them at 115 PSI the night before, he responded by saying that his were up at 120 PSI and that was better.

I could firgive him the enthusiasm, but sticking with him was just making me impatient. I didn’t want to be rude, though, so when I had to move in front of him to let some traffic past I just knocked it up a gear and pulled away. When I looked back a couple of miles later he as nowhere to be seen.

It was my eagerness to get on which led to a bit of a mistake with my food intake. My watch alarm had gone off at the start of a long, sweeping climb, but I chose to ignore the reminder and just sip from my Camel bak to keep up the good rhythm I had going. Unfortunately this came back to haunt me about ten minutes later, as I could feel myself fading before the climb was over.

Stopping at the side of the road I ate half a power bar and took a couple of the energy bean things that Adrian had recommended to me. I’d taken one or two before each of the bigger climbs on the ride and they seemed to do the trick at providing an quick performance boost.

I was actually finding the ride an interesting experiment in seeing how my body responded to the different fuel I’d been suppling it. During the day I’d had a combination of bananas, power bars, Kellogs Nutrigrain bars that came free at the feed stations, a ham and cheese sandwich at the 50 mile feed station, a couple of energy gels, and the beans. I don’t think any of them, aside from the bananas, were particularly healthy in the long run, but my energy levels had remained pretty good during the day.

Passing the 80 miles to go sign only served to increase my impatience to get to the finish line, and I maybe pushed myself a bit hard for the five or six miles that followed it. I passed several people along the undulating roads on the outskirts of Edinburgh, only to be re-passed by most of them as I ran out of steam again.

When my reminder alarm next went off I didn’t re-start it, figuring I’d be done within half an hour anyway. Paul would later point out that you continue to burn calories for hours after an endurance ride, which was good advice to note for the future.

Finishing what was left of the energy drink in the bottle on my bike and slurping down another energy gel, I put my mind to chasing down a guy in a Dennis the Menace cycling jersey that I’d been dicing with for a good half an hour. I’d passed him twice and he’d done the same to me, so hunting him down through the streets of Edinburgh was a good motivator to keep up the pace until it was all over.

Despite getting caught at every set of traffic lights on the way to Murrayfield, I ended up leaving him behind as I sprinted away from a set of lights about a mile and a half from the end. Stitch that, Dennis!

Due to lack of signage, the last mile or so was pretty confusing and a couple of times I wasn’t sure where to go – it was only seeing other riders up ahead that helped me work it out. The bit where you crossed the timing line was really stupid, funneling us up a narrow ramp that led over a rise, then down the other side where there was still 500 yards to ride to the stadium.

I paused when I saw Paul and he told me I had to loop through the stadium and out the other side, where he’d meet me on the grass bank with the boys. Cycling through a completely empty Murrayfield was a bit bonkers, but the crowd cheering at the other side was pretty cool.

When I climbed off my bike to collect my goodie bag at the end, I knew I’d given it most of what I had!

It was good to see the boys waiting for me, even though I felt a bit bad about keeping them waiting for so long after they’d finished. George had taken just over five hours, with Adrian about twenty minutes behind him, and Paul coming in just after the six hour mark.

Letting the team down somewhat, it had taken me seven and a half hours to complete the ride. I could probably have shaved half an hour off my time by missing out the first food stop, but given the conditions and my lack of fitness I felt it was better to be safe than very sorry. I ached all over, with my nether regions and my back being the worst, but at least I’d crossed the finish line.

As Lance Armstrong once said; “Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever.”

With that in mind, I didn’t want to rashly pass judgement on whether or not I’d ever do a similar event in future. After such a gruelling day in the saddle it would have been easy to dismiss any notion of going through it again. However, taking a step back it was clear that that both my lack of fitness and the fact we were riding into a storm had combined to make it the ordeal it had been.

I could take some pride in the fact I went the distance – mostly alone and never in the shelter of a group – when many people gave up on it. But, for me, merely showing up and being one of the finishers isn’t enough. I want to put in a good performance and I’m not satisfied with my 7 hours and 31 minute finishing time. I also fancy doing it again in better weather!