Tuesday 5 June 2012

The South Downs Triple – There and back again, and then there once more!

“You do realise that the best weather window starts tomorrow…”
Support Crew T Shirts

Tomorrow?!!!  We were due to start our 36 hour “journey” on Sunday and it was now Thursday morning. But I’m not ready, how can we possibly reorganise all the logistics and support crew at this short notice?  We had talked about needing to be flexible, but is it possible to bring it forward by 2 days at this late notice?

“Have a think about it and let me know” said the calm voice of Simon Usher, who was managing the support.  “We can sort out the logistics if you are mentally ready to ride”

I paused for a moment. This was going to be the ride of my life, where I only had one chance to do the South Downs Triple.  I noted all the important things that needed to be done in the next few hours before the ride, then made my decision.

He was right and I was ready - PANIC!

South Downs Way Route
Everything was a whir, there was so much to do and I had to scrounge an extra day and a half off work.  Getting home with my mind in a spin I ran about pulling everything together.  Looking at the weather forecast and the wind direction – strong easterlies expected on Saturday – we also made the decision to switch the start from Winchester to Eastbourne.  This added significantly to the logistical challenge.  The whole of my spreadsheet prep and the logistics had been planned based on a WEWE (Winchester-Eastbourne-Winchester-Eastbourne) and now we were going to need to re-plan for EWEW.

The Black Pig with all the gear
Kate Potter, from AQR Coaching, had been brilliant with my training and her final prep instructions included a complete rest and a good night sleep before the big day.  Sorry Kate, I got no rest and only about 4 hours sleep…

6am, Friday morning, heading down to Eastbourne in Simon’s van (the Black Pig) with Judy “Beer Babe”, who had dropped everything to help out with the Friday switch, we altered the comprehensive check point schedule with all my requirements for certain times.  I like to be organised well in advance - all these changes were not helping me to relax!


South Downs Way Start at Eastbourne
The new SDW start/finish at Eastbourne
We reached Eastbourne in good time.  I got myself ready while the minutes ticked forward to 8am - what was I was letting myself in for?  Then it happened. Judy counted down, the camera clicked and the pedals started turning – This was it – 15 months in the making - there was no going back now – “look forward and go for it”, I told myself.

The new bridleway start for the South Downs Way at Eastbourne is now aligned with the footpath route.  It extends the route by a mile, which was to be an extra 3 miles for me.  Added to this, the first half mile is a 300 foot climb. With 34,000 feet of climbing to complete it doesn’t sound much, but from a standing start it was hard.

Just as I reached the top of the climb I heard a fateful hiss from the rear tyre.  A puncture within the first mile, this wasn’t going well!  Particularly as this time while changing the tube, the tyre had one of those moments where you needed 6 hands to fit it back on to the rim.  Back on the bike I felt I had to try to make up the lost time.  My mind was all over the place and I couldn’t get my heart rate down.

Climbing up to Bury
Firle was the first check point where Simon and Judy gave me a new spare tube, checked I was OK and sent me on my way.  It was then that I started to enjoy myself – Why do the South Downs Way three times? Well actually I love the views from the South Downs Way, especially those overlooking Lewes, you can see for miles. In enduro races you spend all that time going round the same course – and mainly in trees.  Out here you can see for miles and miles.

It took a while for me to properly calm myself and it probably wasn’t until Bury, 58 miles in, where I really felt settled into the ride.  The trails were dry and fast – one of the reasons to pull the ride ahead of the storm - and with the bonus of very few people around I made good progress.  As I reached the QE2 Country Park, my average speed was steadily increasing.

Support Crew resting at QE2 Country Park
The support crew were amazing, Anne Dickins and Roy (Beer Biker) had now joined the team – so now I had both the AQR endurance team and the Dark Star Brewery endurance team supporting me!

On such a long ride I only monitor a few things. I set my Garmin to display my heart rate, the overall average speed and my average speed since the last checkpoint.  Most of the effort for completing such a challenge is mental and I really didn’t want to be reminded how far in I was.  Using this simple information I could pace myself without thinking about how many miles I had covered and how many were left to go.  I only focused ahead to the next checkpoint, taking each section at a time.  For the first leg to Winchester I needed an overall average speed of 9.2mph – so that’s what I focused on and that’s what kept me going.

Turn point in Winchester
A quick leg massage
The descent into Winchester felt great.  I was riding fast and my legs were feeling strong.  I have blogged previously about the dynamic core work I had done with Anne Dickins and the coaching from Kate Potter.  I had ridden this faster, but never felt this strong.  Outside one house stood a family who asked my name then cheered me on.  They had been following my progress on the Endomondo live GPS trail and came out to greet me.  This was such a nice surprise!

I was carrying a Samsung Galaxy Ace phone running the Endomondo App where anyone could see my progress.  I had also fitted an external battery charging pack but I actually hadn’t intended it to go this public – it was mainly for my support crew and close friends – so I was initially unaware of the impact of my ride; people were apparently glued to the blue line slowly moving across their screen. With someone even checking up on me during a meeting at work.  My crew reported some of the comments on the Singletrack forum, which eventually ran into 8 pages as the word spread.  This virtual support was amazing and uplifting.

And back again

Turning around in Winchester at 18:08 was just 20 minutes slower than my personal best for the South Downs Way.  One leg down, let’s go back to Eastbourne!

Exposure Lights
As the daylight disappeared I flicked on my Exposure 6 PackUSE had kindly loaned me 6 Pack and JoyStick lights for the event – one of many kind gestures, but when the mist came down and the trail was indistinct, it became invaluable.  I have no idea how I would have coped without their brightest product - it was almost like riding in daylight.

Setting off from Bury around midnight, there were a couple of bike lights twinkling down the trail.  It was a pleasure to see Rory Hitchens and Frazer Clifford who had come out to find me.  We rode for a while then JP also joined us.  Long solo rides have their challenges and it was nice to have some company.  In true tradition, though, they left me to set the pace and open all the gates.

They peeled off around 2am and still feeling strong, I powered into the night, cresting more hills and clocking up miles.  That core stability training was clearly paying off.  I was starting to have a few pains – particularly in my hands – but my legs just kept going.

The batteries on my iPod packed up and my spare for some reason was not working.  The wildlife had to put up with my terrible singing as I sped past disturbing the tranquillity of their sleep.

It wasn’t long before the silhouettes of the trees could be seen and the dawn chorus filled the air.  Had I really been riding all night?

Finished the Double
Climbing the long ascent after the A27, thick fog appeared.  Visibility dropped to just 20 metres, flicking the 6 Pack onto full beam extended my vision to an essential 50 metres.  Navigation in these open areas is very difficult in thick fog.  During the last minute panic I had forgotten to load the SDW route into my GPS.  Resorting to memory and looking carefully at the grass, I stayed on the trail.  I discovered that the yellow buttercups don’t grow on the trial, therefore staying away from the buttercups kept me on track.

Time was ticking on and I needed to be in Eastbourne.  With a sub 23 hour South Downs Double in mind, I pushed on hard.  Remembering to go to the new start/end point, I raced down the hill to the SDW marker.

22:55 hours for a South Downs Double.  This was fantastic; it put me 3rd on the leader board for the fastest supported Double.  I was elated! And that could have been where it all ended… but I was going to get back on the bike and ride all the way back to Winchester.  I had no idea just how hard that was going to be…

And there once more

Setting off back to Winchester is where a new chapter of the history book starts.  No one had ever tried going beyond the Double.  For my safety, the support crew insisted someone was with me on this last leg back to Winchester.  Riding beyond 24 hours is a bit unknown, so extra precautions were taken.  Jerry Hill, an experienced sports doctor, also joined us at Eastbourne and gave me a medical check up before letting me back on the bike. 

I climbed the tough hill out of Eastbourne for the final time – it was torture.  My stomach was all over the place. I felt drained and my sanity fought with my determination.  Firle seemed a million miles away and I needed to see the support crew sooner.  Simon Usher, now in riding gear, was to be my first support rider and called ahead to made the necessary arrangements.

Finding a bench at Jevlington, I lay down for a rest.  I had pushed to get that sub 23 hour double and it was clearly taking its toll.  Turning back was already playing with my mind.  Jerry was brilliant and confirmation that I was medically OK was what I needed and soon I was back on the bike.

After Firle I was curious to see someone taking photos of me.  It turned out to be Simon Catmur – a local who had also been tracking my progress on Endomondo and the Singletrack forum.  The crew had invited friends to join in and keep an eye on me.  He kindly rode with us for a while, which helped from the safety point of view. Steve Golding also appeared from nowhere, taking photos.  There seemed to be a big interest in what I was doing… which I must admit baffled me… I still consider myself as a bit of a novice on the bike and had previously only ridden two 24 hour events. You will know if you have read my other blogs that only 5 years ago a long ride for me was 30 miles. I knew little about heart rates and training regimes. I set the South Downs Triple challenge not just to see if it was possible, but to see if an ordinary bloke can do it. 

Meeting Josh while Anne tapes up my knee
My hands were really suffering so extra padding was put in my gloves.  My left knee also started to twinge and Anne decided to tape it early, just to be on the safe side. Otherwise my legs were still strong and kept moving.

Roy “BeerBiker” was incredible.  Using his knowledge of the South Downs he guided the support crew to the check points and found time to pop up in odd places to meet me.  When passing him at Ditchling, he kindly handed me a 99 ice cream, it was just what I needed on the hot day.  Thanks Roy.

Reaching Saddlescombe, it was a real pleasure to meet Josh Ibbett, the South Downs Double record holder.  He kindly produced some much needed Torq Energy drink – I had discovered I no longer liked my normal favourite and decided that the only one I could stomach was vanilla Torq! 

More surprises came in the form of Mark Raffield from Redhill CC popping up to say hello, then Jo Burt and friends rode with me for a while.  Jim Russell also rode with me at some point.  It was so uplifting to see these people want to help me on my journey.

Descending down to Steyning, I felt completely knackered.  I had covered 240 miles with 60 more to go.  At this point it was clear the 36 hour target was more than unlikely.  My fuelling wasn’t going well and I was getting wobbly on the bike.  I decided to take a ten minute rest. Lying down at the checkpoint, my body temperature quickly dropped and dark thoughts were trying to enter my mind.  Jerry and Anne were superb.  I can’t remember what they did, but hot tea, cake, space blankets and the combined expertise of two professionals and I was soon back on the bike.

Dave, Ant & Rachel join in to help
Setting short goals, I made it to Bury where Dave Brothers was waiting to ride with me to the finish.  Also Ant Jordan and Rachel Sokal (the rest of the AQR endurance team) arrived to provide fresh energy for the support crew.

What happened next is a bit of a blur.  My legs kept going round, I followed the trail and I opened gates, but my mental capacity was dwindling. Somewhere along the way Lydia Gould joined us, which was another surprise, but it was only when I reached the QE2 Country Park I knew that a Winchester finish would be possible. 

Just before Winchester I received an amazing surprise.  My family had come down to see me at the last check point.  This was lovely as normally they are rather sceptical of my cycling adventures ;-)  It was also arranged that my son Dan would ride the last mile with me into Winchester, which was wonderful.

Cheers Alfred
It's official, I've finished
Downing a For Goodness Shake at the final checkpoint, my recovery process started early – it was so good to taste something normal! Then with emotions running high I set off.  The last 3 miles dragged on and on and on.  The heavy rain that had prompted the rushed start had finally arrived.  I wanted to push it, but I kept hearing Ant saying, “Be careful, don’t over do it!” I was so close, but I had to take his advice.

Reaching the King Alfred Statue in Winchester was fantastic. 300 miles, 34,700 feet of climbing and 37:04 hours from when I first left Eastbourne was an amazing experience.  The whole support crew and my family were there to welcome me in and the South Downs Triple had been conquered.  Yes - the Triple is possible.  Yes – even for an ordinary bloke.

The end

But that’s not quite true.  It is only possible for an ordinary bloke when he is blessed with an incredibly strong support crew.  They had a mighty challenge just to get to all the check points throughout the 37 hours, let alone to keep me going.  All the additional riders and supporters where also a real boost, and the huge interest from virtual onlookers was overwhelming.

It would be great for a couple of charities to benefit from my efforts;
The BritishHeart Foundation who inspired me to ride the SDW in a day, back in 2007.
St MarysChurch, who are building a new Community Centre in Reigate.

A massive thanks to everyone involved.  I am sure this won’t be the last South Downs Triple. The bar has been set at 37 hours and 4 minutes – go for it!

The Team

Thanks to Anne Dickins, Roy McNeill and Steve Golding for the photos.