After missing my 3 hour target (again!) at the Brighton Marathon this year, I became a little disillusioned with running and took a prolonged break. I didn’t stop, I just gave myself no goals on purpose. If I fancied a run, I’d run. But I wanted to make sure I had no reason to do it but for the desire to go and move in a forwards direction. The trouble is, I still wanted to physically challenge myself – the gaping hole of lacking a goal was getting to me. This is the reason I contacted a few mates and suggested we ride the entire South Downs Way on our mountain bikes.
Now, I don’t want to sound big headed, but I’ve achieved some amazing things in my life. I’ve run from Paris to London, completed 52 marathons in a year and run until I vomited for a 1,21 half marathon. I’m not trying to be blasé, but riding 100 miles is a pretty straightforward thing for me. It’s less impact on the joints, less cardiovascular demand and periods of coasting. To make the day that extra bit pleasurable, the weather forecast was for glorious sunshine, too.
Also taking part in the pootle across The Downs were Terry Cooper (personal trainer and ‘I think I’ll give it a go’ ultra marathon runner), Howard Crompton (official Ironman and very keen cyclist), my brother in law Tom (keen cyclist, skinny as an anorexic rake) and his make Toby (didn’t really know him. When we met he said “I thought you’d be older”). We met on the Saturday afternoon for a train journey to Winchester and got on well from the start. We got on so well, in fact, that we forgot to get off the train at our stop. Oh well. Live and learn.
I’m a bit of a megalomaniac so organised most of the stuff, including the booking of a hotel. I was dead chuffed to find one that had triple rooms and was only £66 a night. I booked it straight away so not to let it slip away. Trouble is, when I came to sort out getting there, I encountered a slight problem. The hotel, whilst ‘in Winchester’ was a part of the Moto services just off the M3. My bad! We had to cycle up some dirt tracks and hop a fence. The man behind the reception desk was slightly surprised to see five men in helmets and holding bikes. Before that, though, we found a pub that served us food. We did what all blokes do – we looked at the menu for an age and each in turn ordered the burger. Standard.
(Oh, and as a side note, there were meant to be six of us, but Bez (Who is super enthusiastic runner Cathy Drew’s girlfriend) pulled out, citing some sort of apathy.)
I won the lottery of who got to sleep with Terry (he’s very gentle), and off to bed we went. At 4am (we were due to depart at 4.30), my alarm went off. At 4.20, I decided to do something proactive and turned the alarm off. At 4.30 we were running late but were at least out of bed. Terry had gone off to the service station for supplies (I felt smug that I booked us in to a 24 hour service station), Howard was having his constitutional and I was boiling the kettle. Why is it, by the way, that hotel kettles take a fucking age to boil? They each hold about a gob full of water and have a filament the size of TOWIE’s brain!
Anyway… Off we went. It was 6 miles to the start and we were already 45 minutes late. We met up with some sort of statue of some sort of king and then headed off into the dark. The first 20 miles flew by and were covered in under 2 hours.
A few tricky ascents and an early puncture were nothing when compared with our enthusiasm and guile. Five care free blokes having a laugh, taking in breathtaking scenery and getting down to business! I even fulfilled a lifetime ambition to take a shit in a bush just off the South Downs way. I felt like I was at one with nature. Apart from using bog roll instead of a leaf. Although truth be told, the bog roll wasn’t needed. If I were at home, that bad boy would have been a ghostie.
By mile 45, we were slowing a little but still knocking out mile after mile. Through to Arundel by now, we were taking in the breathtaking scenery and being greeted by walkers, runners and cyclists alike. After our fourth puncture of the day, Howard cracked out a giant pack of pick n mix and the first mutterings of ‘poorly gooch’ were being aired. Legs were fatigued and skin was burning, but the real issues were manifesting in the nether regions of this particular pack of wolves. We cracked on – in ten miles, we’d be met at Findon by our WAGs who, perhaps most importantly, would be carrying food. The trouble is, before we got to them, we had to get up Amberley Mount. If it were in the Tour de France, it would have no classification. Mainly because it’s off road and that’s a road race. But it was bleedin’ steep and fairly relentless. A theme was starting to set in with the group by this time – we found that I couldn’t actually ride a bike and fell off at every opportunity. Once by trying to a wheelie over a stick. The other was that whilst I had a hell of an engine, I had zero technical ability. Tom, on the other hand, had both. Boy could ride a bike – like seriously, he could ride a bike! He’s the only one of us who summited every climb whilst still riding his bike. He’s a shit runner, though.
Murmers of tiredness hit us around Steyning when we realised that we were a) running late and b) entering into the hardest part of the ride both physically and mentally. A large number of short sharp climbs were only completed because I wanted to save face. It’s amazing what hanging around with other blokes does to you. The views were amazing but I was starting to get bored of glorious sunshine, lush fields and an unobstructed view of the coast on one side and the North Downs on the other. Seen one field, seen ‘em all!
As we headed towards Ditchling, Howard was the first to crack. Ironman was turning to Tin Man. His legs were mashed and if you ask me, his body hadn’t fully recovered from his epic Ironman 6 weeks before. We had planned to stop at Ditchling to get an ice cream but Tom made a one man decision to ride through. Either he forgot the plan or wanted to crack on. Either way, I was seething to start with because I was desperate for a Calippo. Mainly to rub on my undercarriage to calm the raging fire, but also to eat. Little did I know that Howard had intended to bail at that point. Tom didn’t give him the option. Tom won!
From Ditchling, we were in Terry’s neighbourhood. He knew this section inside out. We had earlier coined Terry ‘Dowser’ because he proudly exclaimed that he knew where every water tap was on the South Downs Way. Comedy ensued when he couldn’t locate a tap early on. A massive, shiny silver looking tap that was right next to him all the time.
Anyway, Terry gave the directions and we flowed, albeit very slowly, through into East Sussex. The last third of the journey would bring half of the ‘proper’ climbs.
It was around mile 80 that Howard really started to struggle. Whilst Terry and I had made tactical decisions to watch Tom’s peachy bum climbing hills whilst we walked them, Howard had to get off the bike. At one point, he FELL ASLEEP whilst riding his bike. I was getting a touch worried and stuck with him. The cynics amongst you might believe I stuck with him because he was slow and I could take it easy. You would be right – I was blowing out of my chuff by this point.
We got through Terry’s section in a record slow time and about 5 minutes after he declared ‘there are no more big climbs’, in fading light we entered a tree lined patch that bent round into an almighty climb. I looked on as Howard let out what was either a wimper or a wet fart. Either way, it made me feel uncomfortable. With darkness approaching quickly, I got to the top of the climb and took what was now a common lie down. I was seriously spent. I had no injuries but had zero energy inside me. I felt genuinely woozy and nauseous. As Toby had contracted a slow puncture, we rode on slowly so that he and Tom could sort it and catch up with us. As we waited about half a mile down the path, I took a rest on my hands and knees and did a little bit of a vomit – just enough to make my teeth taste acidic.
No matter – we were almost there. All five of us. As a team. We rode to the top of what we knew was a descent into Eastbourne and could celebrate. Or could we? Because it turns out we had fannied around so much that it was 8.50 and our train left at 9.02. Just what we wanted. A pitch black road ride for 3 miles, down a hill and towards a station that we didn’t know the location of.
We got there. We finished. We couldn’t celebrate because we had to run for the train. What started as an simple 100 mile bike ride had humbled me beyond belief. We initially thought it might take 10 hours. Then we did some reading and heard this was a common assumption and usually about 40% wrong. We took about 14.5 hours including our rest periods. Riding a bicycle isn’t out of the ordinary for me. Until I moved too far from work, I used to commute 38 miles per day, come rain or shine, on my lovely and faithful bike. I know I’ve got a heck of a willpower and I know that as general fitness goes, I’m pretty tasty. But I can honestly say I think I got too big for my boots. I thought that compared to other things I’ve done, this would be a piece of piss. That’s why I didn’t train – I didn’t need to. Or at least that’s what I thought. Three hours on a bike in six weeks does not set you up for this. I’m a personal trainer, I know this. But my pea brain decided to ignore it and just give it a go. The lesson I learned more than any other, though, is that a challenge shouldn’t be measured by the perceived magnitude when at maximum capacity, but as a ration of preparedness vs required output. Put simply, if you fail to prepare for something, it doesn’t matter how easy you ‘might’ find it – you WILL come undone. I came undone, that’s for sure. But every time I did, I zipped back up, sat on my eat and just kept moving. To add a bit of perspective to this analogy, I would still say that my biggest and most profound sporting achievement in my life so far is the first time I ever ran for 20 minutes without stopping. I remember that night so vividly and remember ringing Amy (who’s now my wife) to tell her. I was blown away by what I achieved.
Thanks go to the other guys for joining me. Once again, ‘normal’ people achieving something extra ordinary.