I had been nervous about this ride from the moment I entered. It’s so far up north, has a reputation for bad weather, and is an environment that I have never ridden before. When I looked at the route, it was clear that during most of the ride I would be a long way from any escape routes, food stops, or 24 hour facilities…in fact ANY facilities for many hours at a time.
But, on the other hand, the scenery looked stunning, and it would be an adventure. So I overcame my fears, and set about preparing for the ride.
Preparation is king – unless you’re ill!
Let me be very clear before I start, regardless of any preparation, I knew that completing this ride was going to be a huge undertaking. You see, since the middle of December I started suffering from a significant IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) flare up. If you are not sure what this entails I’ll try to give you the basics without too much graphic detail. My particular variation of IBD is Ulcerative Colitis. I’m lucky in that I go for long periods of remission, many years in fact where I suffer zero symptoms. I can eat and behave exactly the same as everyone else. I have a few food intolerances, but they are not IBD related. But, when a flare comes on, and it comes on suddenly, I spend weeks barely able to leave the house. Everything I normally eat is basically like poison, and gives me immediate stomach cramps, and diarrhoea that is so urgent that I need to be near a toilet at all times. It wakes you up several times a night, so sleep becomes disturbed, and when you wake in the morning, you just hope you make it to the bathroom in time. It makes you permanently tired, iron levels can become low, and it generally has quite a detrimental affect to your mental health. To say it’s unpleasant is an understatement.
Eventually over time, I can start to control it by eating a small selection of very bland, very beige food. That reduces the stomach cramps, and some of the bathroom urgency. Of course, during this time exercise and training is really difficult. I could spend maybe 30 minutes on the turbo trainer, but not doing anything intense. And so, I managed to ride indoors 2 or 3 times a week, just to keep my legs turning. Eventually I could manage an hour or so outside, as long as I was fairly local, and knew where the public loos were. By mid March, I had more control over the flare during the day, and had started doing much longer rides, but wild camping was still not an option. Although by April, I finally felt ok to risk camping out away from facilities. And so, I decided I would still give the Dales Divide a shot. Had the event been just 3 weeks earlier, I know I wouldn’t have been able to risk it.
Clearly though, although I had been checking the route carefully and working on my kit and ride strategy, my body was much less prepared. I hadn’t been able to ride anywhere near enough in the run up to the event, but with years of endurance cycling in me, I figured my body might just work things out.
The ride & meeting your heroes
The plan for the night before was simple. Drive up to Arnside in the van, meet the other Turn Cycling riders at the pub, have a good meal, then sleep in the van until morning. The journey that should have taken 5-6 hours took 9!! When I got to the pub they had stopped serving food, but had some cake at the bar. Two slices of carrot cake and a glass of wine was my pre-ride meal. Nothing else was open, so there were no other options. I always keep food in the van, so the cake was supplemented by instant noodles – yum! Thankfully I managed around 750 calories for breakfast, so I felt ok by the start.
The pier at Arnside was crowded with eager cyclists, with a wide range of bike set ups. Some travelled very light with mountain bikes, and it was clear they were not planning on taking very long. Most of the rest of us carried more, assuming that we would be out for 3 or 4 days. After a few words from Mike Hall’s mum Sue, and then from Emily Chappell, we all set off, straight up a big hill, that I realised later on, was merely just a pimple of a climb.
It was great getting to chat to other riders as we all started off. I knew I wouldn’t see most of them again, so I made the most of the mass start and chatted to a few on the climb out of Arnside. That is where you realised how much your bike weighs with all its kit. It was quite a slog up the hill, even with fresh legs and less than a mile from the start.
Once out of the road climb, you are straight onto gravel climbs and a bit of single track through the woods. Me and my bike are normally quite nimble down through these kind of trails, but being kitted up for a long, slow ride as I was, changes the way the bike handles. It wasn’t bad, it was just different. You become more conscious of hitting tree roots as speed as the bike just doesn’t bounce over them in quite the same way. It’s one of the advantages that the mountain bike riders had over the gravel bike riders. I was one of the latter. It was in this section that I managed to catch a few words with my cycling heroine Emily Chappell. She was very polite as I waffled away about how I felt a connection to her after reading that we had both been ‘saved’ on the road by an Audax rider known as Wobbly, who seems to be on the road at the right time every time a woman has lighting issues. She wondered whether he just drove around the countryside with a boot full of lights, waiting for a distress call. It was quite some time before I encountered Emily again, but our paths would cross a couple more times yet.
Alone so soon
It really didn’t take long before I was riding on my own, but I didn’t mind. I’ve come to learn that unless you are a pack rider, once the first hill is done, everyone starts to settle into their own pace. I knew that lots had passed me early on, but that there were also most likely slower riders behind me, that I would only see again, if I stopped at some point and they didn’t. You start to play leapfrog over the day, which helps to avoid the feeling of being completely on your own. Also, having trackers helped, as I could see where I was compared to others. Not everyone was using trackers though, so there were more on the route than I could see. I was very surprised however, just a couple of hours into the ride to come across Emily sitting on a grass triangle eating a picnic. I waved as I rode on past, assuming that she was simply feeling peckish, and determined to just enjoy the ride at her own pace. I didn’t discover until the next day that the actual situation was considerably different.
The first section is a ‘gentle’ mix of trails and country lanes, and at around 20 miles is the village of Burton in Lonsdale. I knew it had a village shop, so opted for a quick stop to grab some food & water, drink my flask of tea, and then top up for flask for later. From here the ride would start to move away from roads, and so resupply options would be limited for a while. I was roughly on pace at this point, averaging around 9-10 mph – which is an acceptable pace for someone like me on this kind of ride.
I was really enjoying the ride, and felt pretty chuffed that I was managing to actually ride most of it, and hadn’t pushed anywhere near as much as I expected. The real climbing however didn’t really start until around 23 miles, and then it was a rock strewn vertical bit of hike a bike until you get up onto a stunning section of high plain. I was pretty tired after the pushing up to the top, but loving the wildness of the place. The trail here is a mix of grass with a smattering of limestone rocks as obstacles thrown in for good measure. It was perfectly rideable, even if not at speed, but at this point I just wanted to enjoy it. I was only 30 miles into the ride, and the day was passing me by pretty quickly. I had a quick stop to drink the tea I had with me, and eat my remaining ‘real’ food that I had bought earlier. Then I knew I needed to crack on.
Eventually the trail became busier with afternoon walkers, and the imposing yet amazing Victorian engineering feat that is the Ribblehead Viaduct got closer and closer. The route turns so that you can ride right underneath, and it really is quite something to behold. I did it justice, took some photos, and allowed myself a moment to just look at it.
On reflection, I made my first real error here. I had been eating consistently up until now, food that consisted of the usual kind of on the bike fare. I eat Tribe bars, drink electrolytes, which supplements the water in my camel back, my usual carb drink was available – which has served me very well on previous rides, and also fruit pastilles and my favourite snickers bars. But, I knew that I was desperate for some real food, as it was likely to be quite some time before I came across more supply options, and any cafes and shops wouldn’t remain open for much longer. But, my focus was on finding a toilet….all my on the bike ride food had started to play havoc with my guts, one of the significant side effects of IBD. I saw a pub by the viaduct, and found what I was looking for. Emerging from the portaloo a lot happier, I then looked to see what else was about. But on a sunny bank holiday weekend at a local tourist destination, there wasn’t going to be any chance of a quick meal in the pub. So I pushed on. There was an ice cream van a little further along, but I was flying down hill, and didn’t stop. I didn’t stop even after I noticed a burger van. This was a very unwise decision.
High roads & limestone pavements
The 36 mile mark signifies a return to gravel roads, with the start of the Cam High Road. Its a rocky gravelly byway, and part of the famous Pennine Bridleway. I was actually looking forward to this section, despite the long straight climb to where the trail joins the Cam Road (also a gravel byway). The gates come thick and fast along here though, so it’s hard to get into any kind of cycling rhythm. As I joined the road after crossing the Ribble River, another cyclist came along the road shouting ‘not far now’! He got my best Paddington Bear stare that said ‘if only you knew’. I was just 42 miles in! These had been the longest 42 miles of my life, and the going was only going to get slower.
From here I found myself taking the bike for a walk more and more. I rode where I could, but sometimes the trail was full of rocks, and at others, gates were only a few feet apart, and hardly worth mounting the bike for. I was starting to get really hungry now, and regretted sailing past the burger van. I forced down another tribe bar, and a snickers, and once again used the magnificent scenery, this time the limestone pavements, to cheer me up. My stomach knew it was mealtime, and although that I had my emergency instant mash I could fall back on, I wanted to get as far as I could before it got dark. After descending off of the moor, I spotted a village (Austwick), just off the route, and headed for it in search of supplies…of any kind. I knew that I needed a loo again, and at the very least I hoped to find water and maybe a pub. I struck gold as a lively pub came into view, which had an open bakery attached to it. Once again, the pub was full for meals, but I was happy with the bakery. They topped up my water, and I bought 2 calorific tarts which I scoffed on the spot. They were bigger than they look in this photo. After a short stop I was soon on my way, once again trying to stay ahead of darkness.
As I rejoined the route, another rider that I hadn’t seen before caught up with me. But I wasn’t about to exchange pleasantries, I was a long way from where I wanted to be and just cracked on. There was more climbing, more pushing, more gates, and starting to be more boggy terrain on the top sections Where I had hoped to pick up the pace on. My pace though was now slowing to a shockingly poor 4.5 mph, but as I headed towards sunset, nothing would distract me from my goal of getting as far as I could before dark. My plan had been to ride until 10pm, then sleep for around 5 hours, before riding again. I had already decided that I needed to ride until around midnight, and thought that maybe I could reach the village of Bolton Abbey. Riding through the woods past Malham Tarn in the last remnants of day, was just magical. On the other side I could see lights further up the trail, but then spotted them again off the track. Were the riders ahead starting to bed down for the night? This could be my chance to catch up with a few people. First night strategies always change the order of things quite considerably. I knew that there was quite a group of people only a short distance in front of me, including team mate Kevin, who I knew might also be struggling as he hadn’t been able to get the best pre ride prep either.
Once it was clear that I had run out of daylight, a nice flat trail through some National Trust land and some trailside logs gave me the perfect opportunity to get some more food inside me and make up a flask so that I would have a hot drink through the night. The food was more of the same stuff that I had been affecting me earlier, and once again, I began to feel dreadful. I was in the middle of nowhere and feeling like this was not a great place to be. There was no chance now of any real food options, but the full moon helped to keep my spirits up as it lit my way. I had resigned myself at this point to only doing the shorter route, and briefly considered scratching, but thought better of it. My prep of the route suggested that if I could get to the 75 mile mark, the whole thing would get easier. Bolton Priory was at 75 miles, and that gave me hope. No matter where I was by midnight though, I would look for a spot to bivy and work things out in the morning.
Bogs, bogs and more bogs
By now I was walking my bike up every climb, and then also along quite a few of the flatter area at the top too. Now the limestone pavements were behind us, the moors were much more peaty. Everything away from the gravel was squishy under foot/tyre, and as a lot of the path wasn’t in fact gravel at all, finding a rideable way through the bogs in the dark became it bit like Russian Roulette. In the end I just found myself pushing. I didn’t want to risk an injury up here in the dark. But I was struggling to find solid ground, and getting wet feet now. Even though I was thoroughly disheartened by now, I couldn’t find anywhere I was prepared to set up camp. It was either too boggy, or there were too many sheep – and I didn’t want to get pounced on in the night by a spooked woolly jumper. I was still a few miles from Bolton Abbey, so it made sense to just aim for it in the morning. Around midnight, just as the route was due to descend off another boggy moor, I found a bench. Even the ground around the bench was damp, but the bench itself was dry. It was a warm moonlit night, so I blew up my mattress, and set out my sleeping bag on the bench ready to attempt some sleep. There were some learning experiences from here….
- Never assume that just because rain isn’t forecast, that your sleeping bag will remain dry.
- Always assume that when you are up north in early spring, that a fog will descend overnight.
- Know where you have put your bivy bag so you can reach for it quickly when you discover that the fog is making your sleeping bag wet
- It is possible to have a couple of hours sleep on a bench in the middle of nowhere without falling off.
New day, new challenge
When I woke up it was still dark, and now foggy too, but I was awake so opted to boil up some water for another flask, eat a Tribe bar and get on my way. I checked the tracker to find that I was now ahead of more riders, they must have set up camp somewhere on the boggy moors and I passed them. Interestingly too, team mate Kevin wasn’t as far ahead any more. In fact somehow I had closed the gap. It gave me the dose of enthusiasm I needed. With a pre dawn start I might get further ahead, and so my new target was to get to York and then make a decision over what I would do. The route would get easier from there for a bit, and if I decided to take the short route, then so be it. At least I might get to see more of the long route riders on the return leg. My stomach for a while settled down, but then I hadn’t really eaten much.
It started ok, but the gates got harder to negotiate. I walked (note, not rode), through muddy farms, with broken gates, sometimes I even managed to ride my bike. But every time things started to look better, the bogs got deeper, or more rutted thanks to grazing animals. I picked my way through, all the while climbing ever higher. Morning came, and I was moving….slowly…..forwards. As the route turned at a road, it eventually took a downward turn. I rode where I could, but there were still bogs everywhere. The area became known by all who passed through as the bogs of doom (there were more bogs of doom later on too so I am informed). Walking up the hill I spotted another rider who seemed strangely familiar. “Why are you going that way?” I announced to Kevin, who looked really fed up, and was walking up the hill that I had just come down. “I didn’t think I would catch you up, you’ve been a just ahead of me the whole way'”
“I’m following the route” he said. I pointed out the error of his ways, but he carried on up the hill anyway, until a couple of minutes later he changed his mind and appeared behind me again. He wasn’t sure quite what had happened, but he had woken up, couldn’t quite find the navigation line, and then followed the line he found. Whilst he was busy being angry at himself, I was overjoyed to be with another rider for a bit. Although we can laugh about it now, he was not impressed with it at all at the time. All the way down, he said that he didn’t recognise that he had ridden it already, later when he looked at his route on Strava, he found he had gone wrong the night before in the fog, and then in the morning picked up the correct route, but going the wrong way..
I wasn’t expecting to find anything open at Bolton Abbey, but a fresh water point and toilets would be a good start, and so I headed into the village, whilst Kevin opted to give himself a good talking to, and carried on.
I was surprised to find the visitor centre toilets open, heated, and clean. This was like paradise. I put my damp clothes on the radiator to warm up/dry off, gave myself a bit of a wash down and did my teeth. I made good used of the facilities, and also made myself a fresh flask of tea for later (notice the theme, I do like my tea). It was such a good feeling and woke me up nicely, all before 7am. Now that I knew I was ahead of more riders, and only close behind Kevin, it gave me a new lease of life. The next target was Summerbridge, where I knew everything would start to improve. There would be a shop, maybe a cafe, and certainly more toilets. I know it’s a bike ride, but when IBD is a big thing in your life, knowing where these kind of facilities are is pretty important.
The ride out of Bolton Abbey was beautiful. It didn’t go offroad for a while, so I could just enjoy the morning for a while, before the road began to properly climb again. Just after the tarmac ended I stopped again to drink my tea. I was tired, physically. The lack of food was taking it’s toll. More snickers, a piece of cake I found lurking in my bag, more carb drink, and more fruit pastilles were consumed, but they didn’t make a dent into my lack of energy. Even the possibility of raiding a local shop in Summerbridge couldn’t keep me peddling. My average was now down to just 3 mph. Even when I was moving, I was hardly moving. I wasn’t taking many photos, so I really don’t know why I spent so long not actually moving. Certainly my Garmin kept autopausing even when I was moving, and I have it set to only autopause when stopped!! I checked the tracker, and couldn’t work out how all the people that had been behind me, were now in front of me. No one had passed me, and they were all still behind me when I left Bolton Abbey. Despair hit pretty rapidly, I needed good news, not this. A lack of energy, and a concern about what would happen anyway once I ate more food again, played on my mind. I had learned so much already, but was concerned that if I pushed too hard, I might reverse the good progress that had been made in bringing my IBD under some kind of control in the last couple of months. There was too much at stake to go backwards. I made the decision that no matter what, York would be my last stop. I would scratch there and catch the train back.
The next section I’m sure I would have enjoyed had I not felt so rough. There were no more bogs, and the trails were proper rough gravel once more. I heard tyres coming up behind only to find it was Emily once again. How had it taken her so long to catch me? She had a huge smile on her face, and asked me how it was going. “Hell” was my one word response. So she waved and rode on. Clearly my kind of negativity was not what she needed in her life. I don’t blame her, I’d have probably done the same. I found out later, that the reason she had been having an early picnic the day before was that she had lost the route from her Wahoo, and spent a couple of hours trying to sort it out. As a result she stopped racing, opted for the shorter route, and to just enjoy the ride. No wonder she had a smile on her face, the pressure was off and she was doing her own thing.
Finally the route hit tarmac again, and in my mind that meant tarmac all the way to Summerbridge. My pace didn’t really get any quicker, and when 3 miles from Pateley Bridge it turned onto a track again, I just wanted to cry. My will was broken. I checked the train timetables to see where I needed to aim for to catch a train back to the start. It was just 11am on day 2, I had taken me almost 7 1/2 hours to get just 22 miles, of which almost 3 of those were stopped. My average speed for the day was 4.8 mph.
The Dotwatchers scratch report did make me smile. They see something in me that I struggle to see myself. But I was very flattered.
The right decision
Whilst I was disappointed that I hadn’t coped with this better, I was not totally surprised. I headed towards Harrogate to jump on a train, and the thought of getting proper food, or at least fish and chips kept me going. I let the team know what I was doing, and just focused on getting there.
I didn’t check my phone after that, but when I went to turn off my tracker, I noticed that it had actually stopped at Bolton Abbey. That meant that it was probable that the riders that had been behind me hadn’t actually overtaken me at all. I don’t think that would have changed my decision though. Maybe I would have found Kevin in Summerbridge, and we would have scratched together. That was where he got to before getting picked up by another unfortunately team mate John who had broken bike issues. They opted to come and find me and were waiting at Harrogate station when I arrived.
It was so lovely to share the journey back with friends, rather than strangers on a train. We all got our fish and chips, and made it back to Arnside mid afternoon.
I resisted the urge to go straight to sleep in the van, instead walking into Arnside to eat dinner in the pub, and plan the next few days. I wasn’t due home until Tuesday so decided to make the most of a rare trip up north to explore. Also, everyone else was still riding the course, so I decided that I would wait for some of my other team mates to make it back, and hoped it would be sometime on Sunday morning.
Walking back from the pub, I managed to see the race leader Angus Young flying down the road to finish with the fastest known time for the route.
I slept so well in the van that night, over 10 hours, checked the trackers and knew I could have a lazy morning watching the fast riders returning back.
Sunday was really relaxed. I felt so much better after lots of food and sleep, and rode down to the pier to watch the next batch of riders come back. For such fast riders that had minimum sleep, they were remarkably cheerful, and not in a hurry to collapse in a heap. It was such a privilege to chat to Meg Pugh, the first woman back, and she was happy to share advice and generally chat about ultra cycling. Around lunchtime Niel and Nicky arrived back together, so we hit the pub for some well earned food, before they headed off for some sleep, and I opted to ride to Lancaster….like you do.
Since I was on a rare trip up north, and was content in using Dora the van as my accommodation, I decided that I would make the most of the time away, and have a mini adventure, exploring canal paths and easier trails, on a beautifully unloaded bike. It gave me the opportunity to be away from training or challenge, and just take things easy, take photos and enjoy the ride. It was also the chance to tick off riding in a few northern counties. Over the whole weekend I ticked off Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Staffordshire (I couldn’t resist a blast around Cannock Chase on the way home).
It all helped confirm that scratching was the right thing for me, as I hadn’t done any lasting damage to my body, and recovered really quickly. It’s all left me with a renewed lust for sorting things out and kicking my GB Duro training up a few notches. I continue to be going the right way in controlling my IBD, and I’m hopeful that I’ll go into remission soon, which will really help me on my rides and training.
When you do anything like this, especially when it doesn’t go to plan, it’s really helpful to reflect on what you’ve learned, and what you still need to improve. So here are some of my thoughts
- Nothing is ever a failure, just a learning opportunity. We can never truly perform at our best until we have learned from when things go wrong.
- I should never assume that just because a map suggested an ‘easy’ bit, when you are offroad, even these bits might be difficult/impossible to ride due to the environment. That means I need to be less optimistic about what my average pace will actually be when I’m planning.
- My bike (Ribble Gravel Ti) and kit was amazing. I’m pretty sure that they are almost where I need them to be for GB Duro, although I will be borrowing a friends tent rather than bivying out on the event itself. My kit was contained mostly in Tailfin bags and I had an Altura Vortex handlebar bag for my sleeping bag. My Bivy is the Outdoor Reasearch Helium Bivy. It’s great, although takes a bit of getting used to. I used a Sea to Summit Etherlite XT sleep mat (yes, even on the bench), which I tucked in the flap of my Big Agnes Anvil Horn 30 Down sleeping bag. This was such brilliant invention for someone who always rolls off their sleep mattress at night. I was very glad that I recently discovered Faction.cc Chamois Cream, as I had no chaffing issues at all. For my electrolyte and carb drinks, I borrowed some flexible running bottles from the Hubster, and got all my remaining hydration needs from my Camelback. I don’t think I will be changing any of this set up, other than using a tent for GB Duro rather than a bivy.
- I have a lot of work to do on my ‘on the bike’ nutrition, because what has worked in the past won’t work for me now, unless I get my IBD into full remission. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will have to carry and use hydrated meals a lot more than I would like, due to the limited ability to get ‘real’ food on these kinds of endurance rides. This will add to weight, which I think will be unavoidable. Thankfully my aim for GB Duro is to finish, rather than race.
- I’ve been neglecting off the bike strength work and that needs to change. There are limits to what I’ll be able to ride on some of the GB Duro offroad sections, and that means pushing my bike. That takes strength. Also, when controlling your bike on bumpy offroad sections, you need a lot of upper body strength. I’ve let this slide, so this needs to change.
- Hill work needs to feature more prominently in my training going forwards. I was happy about how much I could ride, but over the distance of GB Duro I really need to be riding more. Living close to the South Downs and the Isle of Wight, there are no excuses for not finding suitable climbs to get practicing on.
The next event in my year of challenges is the Great British Escapade at the beginning of June, and I’m really looking forward to it. Training Peaks tells me it’s just 5 weeks away, so that will give me the chance to check that everything is heading in the right direction. I have my planning from last year, which is still relevant, so all I need to focus on is the training.
If you’ve read this far, then thank you. Please remember that I am raising money to support mental health charity Solent Mind. If you’d like to donate, please click the link below.
You can also follow my progress on my social media channels
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/mawonavelo/
You are way to hard on yourself Marcia. What an amazing achievement to have even got to the start line given your recent health problems. I can’t imagine how hard it is to ride with IBS. Fantastic write up and brilliant description of how tough that route is. Well done and great reflections at the end. Thanks for continuing to be a source of inspiration for us older women who are in the middle of yet another life transition 👍