Sometimes in life it’s essential to weigh up whether you are in fact heading in the right direction. The balance on my scales has been working overtime in the last few months. Let me explain…
Post Dales Divide rethink
After the disaster of the Dales Divide, I focussed my energy on taking things a little more slowly, and working out how to ride multiday ride in my current condition without suffering further GI issues. I did my research, I spoke to other ultra athletes who let me in on their own secrets, and some of their tips to reducing the risk of issues. I was very conscious that my next event, The Great British Escapade was only 6 weeks away. There was no point in trying to push the intensity of my training too hard, but at the same time, I needed to at least maintain the level of fitness that I had. So I kept on riding, and working on improving my fuelling. Although the huge challenge of GB Duro was hanging over my head, I needed to put that out of my mind, and focus simply on the next race.
Amongst all the physical health issues, it’s fair to say that my mental health has been causing me a few struggles as well. Having been ‘in training’ for most of the last 3 years, there were so many things in my life that were just being left unfinished. The goal of obtaining the GWR for LeJogle had been all encompassing, and now that was done I found myself struggling to justify putting the same effort of training into anything else. After all, it had been the ultimate goal for me, and had now been achieved. Changing discipline has also affected me. I totally love riding off road, and love all aspects of bike packing. But, when it comes to events, unless you know the route well, off road throws so many unknowns at you that are hard to plan for, especially when you come from being a roadie for the last 15 years or more. After the Dales Divide, I realised that mentally I was no where near as tough as I can be on a road ride where you can anticipate what to expect.
The Great British Escapade
Thankfully, with the Great British Escapade, I knew parts of the route quite well, and was relatively prepared for the first half. Even in the South Downs I thought I knew what to expect, although I had never ridden them on a loaded bike after 24 hours riding across the North Downs with very little sleep first.
And so, on the Queens Jubilee weekend, I headed to Canterbury once more, with a simple goal. To finish!
Since my Ulcerative Colitis flare earlier in the year, I have constantly struggled with my energy levels. It may be related, or it could be menopause, hormone issues or any other multitude of reasons. But the truth was that I was normally good until late afternoon, then a wave of mental and physical exhaustion would come over me, and doing nothing was about all I had the energy for.
But, I had a ride to finish, so the plan was just to keep moving when I wasn’t eating or sleeping. But also that when I was eating, I would take a proper break, fuel well, look after my hygiene, and then just keep moving. It didn’t really matter whether I was peddling, or pushing – if I was moving forwards then I was going in the right direction.
In a sign of our current difficult economic climate, the field was much smaller this year than last. I was one of only two women that started, many potentially slower riders had decided not to start, so I was near the back from the outset Yet somehow that didn’t bother me as I was looking forward to the ride. Riding through the first night, was wonderful. I love night riding at the best of times, and much of the first 100km or so follows along the Pilgrims way, which has a nice flow to it. Even in my low energy state, I was able to ride most of it. In the dark I still managed to miss a couple of turnings that I thought I knew, which led to some interesting reroutes to find the correct trails, but on the whole it went well. I had a couple of minor medical emergencies, but thanks to the advice I’d been given pre-event, I soon sorted those and was on my way.
As the sun came up around 4 am, the sunrise from the top of the North Downs was stunning. It couldn’t have been more different to last year, when it had rained so hard, that it was difficult to even know it was morning. I loved this first section though. It was a blistering hot day, but I managed to stay well hydrated. I bumped into other riders at cafes, and picnic spots, and couldn’t stop smiling. My low energy levels meant that I was resigned to walking more sections than I would have liked, but I knew this would happen – all I needed to do was to keep moving.
After grabbing supplies in Haslemere ready for the second night, I set off heading towards the South Downs with the hope that I would reach Graffham, and be able to sleep under the porch of the local shop and cafe. However, as it started to rain, I stopped a few miles short and set up camp in a brand new unused barn. I hadn’t really relished the idea of an outdoor bivy in the rain, so this suited me well. I slept well for around 4 hours and was back on the road again at 5am.
After Graffham, the route climbs up a (very) steep bridleway, full of fallen trees, to the top of the first down. I moaned a lot about this route at the time, but recognised at the top that it was a necessary evil to get to an awesome gravel road. I was now in the South Downs, and was looking forward to it.
The downpour of the last few hours had changed everything though. The gravel at the top of the hill became a sticky, claggy glue, that got into every part of my bike. By the time I arrived at the Cadence Cafe at the bottom of the hill, my wheels wouldn’t turn any more, and there was a lost of de-clogging to be done.
If you’ve managed to read this far, then well done. You’ll be relieved that I am not going to turn this into a minute by minute account of the whole ride.
From this point on, the ride became a battle of both my body and my brain. I knew that I would be pushing up every steep climb, and possibly down one or two of the descents, but I hadn’t taken account of just how much more effort it would all be after just 4 hours sleep in the previous 48 hour, and with 150 km in my legs already. And then, when I got up to the rideable bits, there was a strong wind at times. As the day went on, the wind got stronger, and became very gusty, pushing me and my bike all over the place – the eastern end of the South Downs is very exposed and high. My plan – I do like a plan – was to simply clear the South Downs in however much time it took me, and attempt to get to or very close to Alfriston before getting some sleep. Thanks to my very slow pace, I took longer than expected. I really hadn’t thought I was going to be pushing as much as I did. My legs were working, but my energy levels were tanking.
After clearing Devils Dyke I was starting to hear tales of big thunder and lightening storms to hit the area in the late evening. It had been hot again, so it was not a surprise. At this point, if my head had been properly in the game, I would have made a different decision. I tried to be practical, and I reviewed what was between me and a suitable shelter point. The reality was, there was nothing. I checked to see if there was a hostel on the route, or a camp site, but I saw nothing (it didn’t mean that there WAS nothing, I just didn’t notice). I didn’t relish the idea of being trapped on a high, exposed part of the South Downs in a lightning storm, and knew that I couldn’t make it across the Downs before it hit. So, my decision was made. I would make my way to Lewes and get a hotel room for the night, before resuming in the morning. Even at the time, I was torn by the decision. If I had been able to keep riding until midnight, I’d have had no issue with completing the event in the time limit. But, a shower, the chance to wash my clothes and sleep in a comfy bed was most welcome, But I had now lost 3 or 4 hours at least, and I couldn’t claw that back.
It turns out there was a youth hostel over the next hill, and I could have made it before the storm, but I have no idea whether they had any space or not. But during the next section between Lewes and Alfriston, I made a decision about what came next, once this event was finished
After the storm, I continued to get back to the start. I had timed out (arriving back around midnight), and the end was a different route, as I went to the van rather than the route start. But, as far as I was concerned I had finished the event. It was actually the first ride I had completed since LeJogle, and that was really important to me to do so.
The battle of my brain
My brain is a confused place at times. I love order and logic, and yet my life inhabits a place of relative chaos. I am one of those annoying people who has a lot of optimism about what can be achieved but not a great grasp of what is actually achievable in a time frame. This means I am frequently late or run out of time. This is not because I don’t care, but because I always think I can get through my to do list before hand. Experience however has shown me time and again that I rarely, if ever get through my mental list, and pretty much everything in my life is unfinished. Even in races, I create a ‘foolproof’ plan, and to date I have never hit the targets, no matter how relaxed I make the timescales. At the point on the Escapade when I slept in the barn, I still had a huge margin for unforeseen circumstances, and yet, I finished out of time.
So this is my life, and now, not only is everything unfinished, but I have these issues with my energy levels too, which means my motivation has also hit an all time low. It’s really not a great place to be.
On that final morning on the Escapade, after the storm, I knew that something had to give. I weighed up what were the most important unfinished things currently causing me anxiety and stress, and decided that I needed to focus on those. My motivation to continue pushing myself to my limits had disappeared. It was clear that all the while I had really hard events still in the calendar – such as GB Duro – my stress levels would continue to rise, and it would continue to affect my health. The only way I can commit and focus on training is to let everything else go, and I had done that for too long now.
It was time to step back for a while.
Hitting the pause button
I contacted the Racing Collective to withdraw my 2022 GB Duro entry, and didn’t expect to hear any more about it. But was surprised when they offered to keep my place open to 2023. I never expected that, but it’s great to still have that opportunity. At the time I felt sure that I might not take it up, but as time has gone on, I’m very much liking the idea. I have until entries open in January to decide.
I have been able to reschedule my whole summer, which means more time just riding my bike with friends, getting to spend a few days holiday with my grandchildren, and being able to focus more time on resetting my life and getting things completed. Although I haven’t blogged for a while, I am spending more time writing, which I love to do, and have given myself until December to finally complete my book. Along the way, maybe I’ll actually get to finish off the inside of my van, so it isn’t just functional, but looks nice too, and my office…well it would be good to have proper decorated walls since I spend so much time in here. I have created a quiet corner away from distractions for writing, so that’s a good start.
I do believe that now I am slowly heading in the right direction. I wish it would be quicker, but whilst hitting the pause button, I am now getting a little better at time management, and so, just like riding the Escapade, as long as I’m moving forwards, then I’ll get there in the end..
The road to GB Duro is not yet over, it’s just on pause.