Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Looking back

A month has now passed and what stays with me most is how much I enjoyed the whole process – the planning, the training, the ride itself, even the difficult moments.  I feel lucky and privileged that I was able to step outside the messiness of everyday life and single-mindedly tackle a challenge as pure as the South Downs Double. And I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do this without the unerring support of my wife Helena who was frequently left dealing with domestic chaos whilst I disappeared on yet another training ride.
I also feel enormous satisfaction from a plan coming together. I’m chuffed that I looked in detail at every aspect of the challenge (overcoming my natural impatience), worked out what needed to be done and got on and did it.  An inevitable side-effect of this is that some of the magic disappears, those nutters weren’t actually super-human, they simply knew what it would take and had prepared accordingly.

I’d be absolutely delighted if any of this proves to be an inspiration to others although I do realise that the exploits of a 51 year old from Winchester may have a limited audience. My kids seemed momentarily impressed but quickly returned their attention to sibling warfare and losing stuff. Friends have been fantastically supportive throughout and very generous with their praise when I eventually go it done but, I suspect, also see me as slightly deranged.

I’m hoping that the memory of the ride itself will stay with me forever, there are bits that may already be fading but writing this is one way of preserving it. Perhaps I needn’t worry - the flying outward leg, the riders I met on the way, the sunset over Ditchling, the spookiness of Chanctonbury Ring at night, meeting friends and family at QECP, the final joyous descent into Winchester – these are all memories that will be with me for a while yet. 

A big day out

The time is 9am on Saturday June 29th 2013 and I’m rolling downhill towards the centre of Winchester from my home on the west side of the city. It’s a lovely day to be on a bike, warm but not hot. This feels very different from three weeks previously when I was waiting with a group of friends at the King Alfred statue, ready to set off on my first South Downs Double attempt.  Then I felt anxious and sleep deprived, now I feel excited and focused.

I ease to a stop beside the King Alfred statue once again, alone this time. I run one last check over the bike and the contents of my back pack, I look up at the City Hall clock, start my Garmin and pedal away from Winchester at 9.07am. This was the low key departure I wanted, no pressure or burden of expectation, just setting off on a long ride into the South Downs.

My wife Helena had left the house before me that morning to take the kids down to the local Park run. Before she’d left I’d asked her if it was ok if I went on a big ride, “How big?” she’d asked, “200 miles?” I ventured. “Good” she replied “Take care and call me when you can”. That was all the ceremony I needed.

I do have a basic plan even though it’s a last minute decision to go. This is essentially to get to Eastbourne in around 11 hours making the best use of a moderate westerly tail wind and then turn around and grind my way back home hoping that the breeze fades overnight.  I still have very little idea whether I can ride the 200 miles in under 24 hours but this time I’m determined to complete the challenge irrespective.

I come up behind a group of mountain bikers on the first small climb leaving Winchester. We exchange greetings and it turns out they are on an organised ride along the South Downs Way (http://www.trailbreak.co.uk/lemming/index.php). This is very much the pattern for the first part of my outbound journey, it’s a busy day on the South Downs Way but this gives me some social contact and targets to overtake.

I’m using a heart rate monitor but am mostly riding by feel. The HRM is really to make sure I don’t get over-excited in the early stages but I feel so strong that I push on and largely ignore the numbers. I realise that I’m using two gears bigger than normal up an early climb towards the Sustainability Centre a few miles out of Winchester but I’m not fighting the bike and it feels just fine.  

The conditions are perfect and the miles disappear under my wheels. I stop briefly at Cocking to refill my bottles and move on quickly. I’m deliberately not checking split times on the way out, I’ll just ride at the right tempo and see how things stand when I get to Eastbourne. My next stop is the water tap at Botolphs, again a short and efficient refill and I’m on my way up to Truleigh.

My first surprise comes after the sharp right turn in front of Blackcap, just beyond Ditchling. This is one of the few sections of narrow singletrack and I pull over for a group of riders coming in the opposite direction. As they pass me there’s a “Hey Jonny, what are you doing here?” It’s my regular mountain biking buddy Chris with his sons and a friend, they’re doing a two day ride from Eastbourne back to Winchester.  “Hell of a training ride!” he says, then looks at me again and adds “It’s not a training ride, is it”.

He asks me what time I left and mentions something about being pretty fast and tells me to get on my way. This is a big lift for me, I know that messages will be exchanged and that the word is out, I already feel the support and encouragement of a network of good friends.

I stop briefly at the water tap beside the A27 and then get back on my bike and keep tapping out the rhythm as I move closer to Eastbourne.  I’m lost in the riding but I do notice the wind on very ridge, it’s definitely not dying, in fact it feels stronger than ever. It comes from different directions as the SDW zigzags but is predominantly from behind, I’m not looking forward to turning round.

Before long I’m riding up the final climb from Jevington, past the golf course and hammering down towards the turn at Paradise Drive (I believe the official SDW start/end point might have been changed recently but this is the one used by previous “Doublers” so it’s good enough for me).

I stop, fish my phone out of my backpack and check the time. 6.45pm. Some very quick mental maths and I calculate that it has taken me 10 hours and 40 minutes to get to Eastbourne. That’s ok, just inside my target schedule.

Then I take another look, redo my maths and come up with a different answer – 9 hours and 40 minutes. Hang on, that can’t be right, I think I need a second opinion. I call Helena who sounds surprised and totally delighted that I’m at Eastbourne. She must think that I’m a blathering idiot as I check the time with her “What time do you have? How long has it taken me?” 9 hours 40 minutes is confirmed and I feel a huge mental lift. I have over 14 hours to get home within the magic 24 hour mark.

Something else happens at Paradise Drive whilst I’m stuffing a sandwich down my neck. A mountain biker comes down the hill and stops beside me. He’s friendly and we chat, he’s ridden from Southease and is getting a lift back from his other half who is waiting in a car nearby. He asks me about my ride and I tell him I left Winchester this morning. “Bloody hell, good effort” he says “How are you getting back?” I tell him I’m turning around and riding back, he looks at me in bewilderment, shakes his head and wishes me good luck.

As he’s loading his bike onto the car, I overhear him say to his partner “That bloke has ridden from Winchester this morning and now he’s riding back” and then he says three words that take me back to my encounter with Mike Cotty in 2008. “What a nutter”.

Those words ring in my ears as I crest the hill out of Eastbourne into a stiff headwind. My pace feels pedestrian and I sense that the return leg is going to be a very different animal, rather more tortoise than hare. I stop at the water tap outside the church in Jevington, down a bottle of Rego followed by a gel and set off feeling a touch queasy.

I get into a rhythm again, albeit a slower one, and keep telling myself to go steady, look after my legs, look after the bike, don’t take any unnecessary risks. It’s getting dusky and, after a near miss with a solid looking badger on my previous attempt, I’m very aware of the dangers of hyperactive wildlife at this time of day.  

I stop again at the A27 water tap to refill and switch into night mode. Arm warmers on, knee warmers on, lights clipped on. It is a stunning evening, the last remnants of the day captured in the red sky ahead of me to the west whilst darkness rolls over me from behind. Bats accompany me on the slow grind up to Ditchling Beacon, a group of night time hikers with head torches give me the spooks on the way down to Pyecombe – it’s a busy night on the South Downs Way.

Botolphs water tap is my next scheduled stop and I’m surprised to see that it has been turned into a temporary campsite, tents and bikes littered on the small grass space. Judging by the snoring, this is a group of riders getting some well-earned rest so I go about my business as quietly as I can. I replenish my bottles and check the time – 11.40pm. It’s taken almost 5 hours to do the 40 miles from Eastbourne but I’m on track, I have nearly 9.5 hours to complete the 60 miles to Winchester.

It’s a long old climb up to Chanctonbury Ring but it somehow seems easier at night, I simply focus on the 50 yards I can see and before long I’m at the top riding past the trees that make up the Ring. Local legend has it that Chanctonbury Ring was created by the Devil and that he can be summoned by running around the clump of trees seven times anti-clockwise. When he appears he will offer you a bowl of soup in exchange for your soul. The hairs on my neck prickle as I ride past the Ring, I don’t hang around.

The headwind is still there but I’ve got used to it now and I feel comfortable on the bike as the miles and minutes go by. My heart rate does spike sharply at one point just before Bignor Hill, I’m at a gate grabbing a breather when a loud “Hello” comes out of the darkness. I nearly jump out of my skin and my head torch lights up a small tent with a bike beside it. There’s a head sticking out of the tent, “So, are you doing the Double?” it asks. “What? Er, yes” is the best I can do. “Thought so” the head continues, “Better be on your way then”.

Before long I’m hammering down the farm track to the Cocking water tap. I stop at the tap and get my phone out to check the time, it’s 2.45am. This is good, very good. I have over 6 hours to ride the 35 miles back to Winchester and this is the quickest section of the South Downs Way.

I text Helena to let her know where I am, not expecting a reply at this time of night. Thirty seconds later my phone beeps, a text, “We’ll meet you at QECP”. This is wonderful news although I’m not sure how she’s going to get the kids out of bed.

Bottles full, I make the long climb out of Cocking, past the large and rather ghostly chalk ball http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/southdowns/site.asp?PageId=26&SiteId=111&c= and up onto Didling Hill.  I look briefly over my shoulder and see that the sky is already getting lighter. I feel good, I’m nearly on home turf and I have a welcome waiting for me at QECP. My only concern now is that the bike will break, the gears have been misfiring for most of the return leg and, in my paranoia, I imagine the whole drive chain suddenly exploding into hundreds of metal fragments.

I negotiate the short, sharp hills around Harting Down and pick up the pace over the undulating trail that follows. Then just short of QECP the inevitable happens, not the drive chain, but a sudden hissing sound of air escaping quickly from my back tyre. It sounds like a mighty big hole but I spin on fast hoping that the sealant in the tubeless tyre will do its job.

I arrive at the centre at QECP at 4.15am to be greeted by Helena and my very good friends Chris and Kirstie Green (the kids have clearly been taken care of...). This is lovely but I’m not good company as I’m properly stressed out for the first time on the ride.   The tyre is flat and after a quick look, I can see that no amount of sealant is going to fill the hole. I take the wheel off, remove the tubeless valve and grab an inner tube out of my saddle bag.

I try to put some air into the tube, it won’t hold it. I get the other tube out (I have 2 tubes only) and my stomach tightens as I get the same result. On closer inspection it seems that the tubes have rubbed against the inside of the saddle bag and have multiple splits in them. After much panicky patching, one of the tubes decides to stay up and I’m off again up Butser Hill.

Butser is a cruel climb and I fully expect the 180 miles already done will mean I’m walking before the top. But there’s a lot of adrenaline in my legs now and I grind my way to the gate on board the bike. My problems start shortly after that, the back tyre is losing air and I have no more patches or tubes. I dismount, pump it up and ride on as fast as I can.

I reach the Sustainability Centre a couple of miles further on and the tyre is flat again. I can’t see myself stopping to pump it up every mile the whole way to Winchester so I call Helena and arrange to meet her with a new tube at the top of Old Winchester Hill. At this point, the South Downs Double purist might say that my ride is now supported but I’m not troubled by the distinction, I’ve ridden 185 miles alone and now I just want to finish.

I stop at the top of Old Winchester Hill (having re-inflated the tyre a couple of times in between), take the wheel off, rip out the tube and wait. Five minutes later Helena arrives and throws me a tube, I grab it thankfully, shove it in the tyre and inflate it. A hurried goodbye and I’m hammering down Old Winchester Hill on the final leg home. 

The last few miles are a blur, I cross paths with a mountain biker who also asks me whether I’m doing the Double (is it that obvious?) and then I’m at Cheesefoot Head looking down on Winchester. I’m smiling now and speed joyfully down to Chilcomb like a kid on a new bike. Another rider approaches from the other direction, it’s Dom, one of my regular mountain biking mates. “Don’t stop!” he shouts so I wave and ride on.
Home! 7.28am on town hall clock
And then I’m there, I’m home. There’s a lovely reception party for me as I skid to an over-dramatic halt under the King Alfred statue. Helena, Louis and Ruby (my two older children), Chris, Kirstie, Sam, Dom and Nigel. I check the time – 22 hours and 23 minutes, comfortably inside the magic 24 hours.

Someone thrusts a cup of tea into my hand, there are photos and congratulations. I feel two emotions, one is relief at getting the job done; the other is a great sense of satisfaction, all the planning, training and worrying coming together in one unforgettable ride. I also feel the overwhelming desire for a bacon sandwich and a lie down. 

Attempt one

King Alfred statue with friends and family
I was ready but the conditions also needed to be right. I tracked the weather forecast with forensic attention and two weeks after my 120 mile ride it was looking ideal – the trails had been dried out by a warm sun and strong easterly wind which was due to die on the evening of Sunday 9th June. I decided to leave at 8pm on that Sunday and the conditions were, indeed, close to perfect.

Which is more than could be said for me; as I waited at the King Alfred statue I felt anxious, sleep deprived and heavy legged. The build-up over the previous couple of days had been rather intense and I’d had no sleep the night before. I’d been up for 36 hours when I set off and now I was planning on riding through the night.

I rode off into the evening waving goodbye to my family and a small group of friends, accompanied for the first few miles by my old mountain biking buddy, Aidan. I got to Cocking without incident and continued into the night. It was at Chanctonbury Ring that the rot started to set in, I went the wrong way and had to back track about three miles uphill. This was a blow and I’m sure was a result of tiredness leading to poor decision making.

Now, I was paranoid. I stopped to check every junction, back tracked a couple of time when I was convinced I’d gone the wrong way but hadn’t.  To make things worse, I got a puncture as I headed down to Botolphs and it took me ages to sort it out. I regrouped at the water tap and set off up to Truleigh and beyond.

The night turned out to be much colder than forecast and I had every last bit of clothing on as I passed Devils Dyke and descended to Saddlescombe. I had a comedy fall off the bike on the next climb and just lay on the grass with my eyes closed. I eventually forced myself back onto the bike and plodded my way on towards Eastbourne hoping for the first light of dawn and a warming sun.

Dawn came but it wasn’t sunny, instead it remained chilly and cloudy. I knew now that I wasn’t going to get any further than Eastbourne, I had zero energy and I was cold. My journey was now a mixture of ridiculously slow pedalling, pushing the bike up steeper hills and lying down for five minute snoozes every so often. 

Thirteen hours after leaving Winchester, I arrived at Paradise Drive in Eastbourne. I was cooked and I just sat for a long while not really thinking about anything. I had a fantastically uplifting call with Helena and then made my way slowly to the train station. Everything was difficult now - working out which train to catch, buying a cup of tea – it was all rather a challenge.

Somehow, I managed to get me and my bike on the right train, found a seat and fell asleep instantly. The world seemed a different place when I woke up, I was mildly irritated that the ride hadn’t worked out but I was mostly thinking about what I had learnt and what I would change for my next attempt.

Leave fresher and ride lighter, this was the main result of my post attempt analysis. I decided to leave in the morning instead of the evening, hopefully after a good night’s sleep. I would depart quietly and try to look at it as just another long ride.

I was also pretty sure that I’d carried a lot of unnecessary weight so I went through absolutely every piece of equipment aiming to shave off a few grams wherever I could. This included:
  •  a new lighter wheelset - American Classic All Mountain wheels fitted with Bontrager 29-1 tubeless tyres, very fast rolling
  • only two light weight tubes, in case of tubeless crisis (I’d taken four normal ones on my previous attempt)
  • a new rucksack, about ¾ kilo lighter than the old one
  • single cell Exposure piggyback battery for my lights rather than triple cell – the nights are very short in June 
  • less food – I’d had last minute anxiety about running out and shoved additional food in my rucksack just before my previous attempt, totally ignoring what I’d learnt from my training rides
  • a new, lighter pump
  • no GPS tracking device – people couldn’t follow my progress online (as they did on my first attempt) but this was a chunky piece of gear that wasn’t essential
In total, I took over 3 kilos off the total weight of bike and gear. I went for a short trial ride - the bike felt fast and I felt ready. 

I had everything prepared to leave at a moment’s notice so when I woke on the morning of 29th June I simply stuffed down a big breakfast, made some sandwiches, got on my bike and rolled down the hill to the King Alfred statue.

Other preparation

The on-bike training was only a part of my overall preparation, I had an awful lot to learn about other aspects that could make or break the ride.

I had always assumed that the only way you could get enough calories down your neck during extended exercise was to rely heavily on specialist energy products such as bars, gels and carb drinks. The current South Downs Double record holder consumed only gels and energy drink during his 18 hours of riding and it seemed that this was the norm amongst other endurance racers. This wasn't good news for me as I really struggled with this approach - on longer rides my stomach would rebel and I’d end up feeling very nauseous. I think this is fairly common but I had real concerns about how I’d feel after 20 hours of consuming this stuff.

And then I had chance conversation with Lou Walker, my sports massage therapist. She is an endurance athlete herself and had a strong interest in the whole area of sports nutrition. Her eyes had been opened when she attended a seminar run by a top coach who spoke of reducing the reliance on carbohydrate intake alone and aiming for a more even balance across carbs, protein and “good” fats. 

This was what I wanted to hear, if this approach worked it should mean that I could include plenty of real food in my fuelling strategy, using the sweet gels and bars only when I really needed them. I did further research which seemed to support this idea, including stories of people doing 12 hour rides chewing a piece of biltong! I didn't believe all that I read but I did experiment by progressively reduced the carbs I consumed on longer training rides, using electrolyte drink (no sugar) and munching on nuts and the odd protein rich sandwich. I also carried this over into my everyday diet, trying to reduce my pasta, rice, bread etc intake and aiming for a more even balance across carbs and protein and fat rich foods.

I couldn’t ride with the same intensity the first few times I went out but it wasn’t long before I was doing fast 3-4 hour rides on nothing but electrolyte drink and a handful of nuts with a gel in my bag in case I got into trouble. I took a mix of sandwiches and gels on my 120 mile training ride and this balanced approach worked a treat – no nausea and good energy levels throughout.

I tracked everything I ate on every ride, took all this information and put the numbers into a calorie planning spreadsheet. I calculated that I needed to take about 6000 calories in solid or liquid form and I ended up with this in my rucksack for the Double itself:
  • 6 rounds of sandwiches (mix of chicken, cheese and peanut butter)
  • 1 bag of almonds and raisins
  • 4 Clif bloks, 2 caffeinated
  • 8 gels – 3 caffeinated
  • 8 ziploc bags with 1 litre Torq carb drink powder mix in each
  • 3 ziploc bags with ½ litre serving of Rego in each
  • Nunn electrolyte tablets
I carried a litre bottle of Torq and ½ litre bottle of Nunn electrolyte drink in cages on the bike and this was enough to get me from one water tap to the next.

I knew from experience how easy it was to take a wrong turn. The route is signposted for much of the way but there are still many points where signs are absent or where the trail makes a counter-intuitive left or right turn. I also knew that navigation became a lot more challenging at night and when fatigue set in.

My two big out and back training rides meant that I had covered the whole of the South Downs Way twice in daylight. By the time I set off for the real thing, I’d also ridden from Winchester to Eastbourne overnight during my first, failed attempt. This helped a lot but I was still worried about getting lost – the last thing I needed was to add more miles to the 200 I already had to ride.

So I set about memorising the whole route, focusing in detail on the section I expected to ride in the dark. I spent an inordinate amount of time on www.bikedowns.co.uk (a fantastic resource), combining this with Google maps and the Harvey Map of the South Downs Way. I made detailed notes of all the tricky sections and went over the route again and again until I could visualise it every turn of the way.

I also studied profile maps of the ride so that I knew the sequence and severity of every climb. This level of preparation made a huge difference on the ride itself. I could focus entirely on the riding without worrying about route decisions and I was mentally prepared for every climb, I knew what was coming and could simply get on with it.

Other stuff
My night time illumination was provided by Exposure lights http://www.exposurelights.com/ who very kindly loaned me two Diablos (one for the bike and one on my crash hat) and a single cell piggy back battery, a configuration that worked perfectly. My local bike shop (Peter Hansford http://www.peterhansford.co.uk/) arranged this for me and were fantastic in sorting out all my last minute panicky needs.

Garmin tracking before battery dies
I used a Garmin Forerunner (mainly because I already had one) to track my outbound leg and to keep an eye on my heart rate in the earlier stages of the ride. The battery died just before Eastbourne but by then it had done its job, I was launched!

I set off wearing bib shorts, a light base layer and a short sleeve jersey, adding knee and arm warmers for the night section. I also carried a very lightweight gilet and waterproof and an additional base layer in case it got colder than forecast.

I used a Deuter Speed Lite 15 litre backpack which was just big enough to carry my food, spare clothes and other bits and pieces. I also had a Topeak tri bag attached to the top tube to make food easily accessible. Accessories stuffed into my backpack included: a Topeak Race Rocket mini pump; Lezyne V-10 Multi Tool; 2 spare chain quick links; 2 spare tubes; tube repair patches; 2 mini tubes of chain oil; plenty of chamois cream; iPod nano; reading glasses (can’t see anything close up without them); Harveys map; plasters; mobile phone and a credit card plus £20 in case I ran into trouble.

Making the impossible possible

The South Downs Double is an ultra-endurance challenge. 200 miles, 22000 feet of climbing, 90% off road – these are the bare statistics. And yet they don’t really capture the severity of it: there are very few “free” miles of smooth flat riding; climbs come at you regularly, each one “granny ring severe”; there are sections that are bone jarringly rough; there are approximately 95 gates to negotiate each way; and it’s easy to get lost, especially at night.

How do you prepare for this sort of challenge? I can only say what worked for me, a 50 year old with a young family and all the time constraints that brings, but with the advantage of working from home and living next door to the South Downs.

This was a tip from a good friend – make your goal public, tell family and friends what you intend to do. This has two effects: it makes the whole thing more real and it makes it much more difficult to back out! This is exactly what I did in October 2012, I told people that I was going for the South Downs Double in 2013 and that my preparation was about to start.

I also used the ride to raise money for a charity, Parkinson’s UK. My father has lived with the disease for many years and this was an ideal opportunity to support an organisation that has done so much good work for so many Parkinson’s sufferers.

Training plan
I’m no expert, I’ve never raced mountain bikes and I had very little training experience to fall back on. I couldn’t afford a personal coach or anything like that so I simply did piles of research to try and uncover the most effective training plan for me.

I found loads of advice saying that you needed hours and hours of long steady rides to build up the necessary endurance. This worried me, I don’t have the time to do long rides regularly (my weekends are stuffed full with family activities) and I also find too much of this sort of riding a little bit dull.

I kept on looking, hoping that I’d find a different approach. Eventually, I came across an article that talked about the effectiveness of high intensity training, even for ultra-endurance events. Short, sharp intervals that focused on raising VO2 max and lactic threshold levels – I didn’t really understand the words but this certainly looked like the right approach for me.

Re-invigorated by this discovery, I created a training plan that was wrapped around high intensity interval work right from the start. I should add that, in adopting this approach, I made the assumption that I was already reasonably fit and wasn’t going to keel over with a heart attack half way through my first training session.

In practice, this meant that I did an average of 8 hours training per week over the 9 months, just over 300 hours in total. Over the winter, I focused almost entirely on interval work with much of this done on the road on my mountain bike. The weather was awful most of the time and I could train much more effectively on predictable roads rather than deep Hampshire mud. 

Every ride had a purpose. I relied entirely on heart rate as a means of measuring effort during intervals, I used a Garmin Forerunner and recorded every session adding notes about the weather, what I ate, what I wore, how I felt, how the bike felt and so on. This proved immensely valuable both as a means of assessing my improving fitness and also as a reference point when planning longer rides.

The super high intensity VO2 max sessions were the ones that I looked forward to least, they hurt and it took a lot of motivation to complete them. I mixed it up by doing some sessions on the flat and others up steep technical climbs; I found that this helped to distract me from the pain.

All work and no play..?
It wasn’t all heads down training; every so often I’d take off the HRM and just go for a ride, blast through the woods, session some jumps. This would refresh me and remind me what I love most about mountain biking. I also ran regularly over the winter months, this fitted in with my high intensity approach and provided some variety. I came to enjoy the running a lot but stopped entirely in March to focus on bike work only.

I was also lucky that I remained, for the most part, injury and illness free. I included one or two sessions of core strength work every week (about 30 minutes each session), did plenty of stretching and worked with a really good sports massage therapist http://louwalker.com/. This all helped but I still regard myself as fortunate not to have the back/knee/neck problems that a lot of my biking friends suffer.

I knew I was getting fitter over the winter even if I didn’t have a particularly scientific way of measuring the change. I felt increasingly strong on my regular Monday night ride with mates, I was able to do intervals at higher intensities for longer and I was maintaining higher average speeds at lower heart rates on the road.

But I was still anxious about whether this training approach would help me when the rides got bigger. My plan was to start including progressively longer out and back rides along the South Downs Way every 2 to 3 weeks from March onwards (my longest training ride over the winter was 3.5 hours). I managed a 60 miler from Winchester to just beyond South Harting and back at the start of March, this went well but then the weather closed in again.

I continued to focus on shorter, interval based rides as the rain came down for the next few weeks. It wasn’t until the end of April that I had the opportunity to do another long ride on the SDW. This time I drove over to Botolphs near Shoreham and rode the 80 mile return trip to Eastbourne. It was a lovely day but the ride was tough. This is a part of the South Downs Way that I know least well, I’d forgotten how many big climbs there were and I felt fairly beaten up at the end of it.
In retrospect, it was an immensely valuable experience. It taught me a lot about pacing, feeding and navigation; it also became clear from this ride that I needed to change my bike! I’d done all the training so far on my Whyte 905, a bike that I love and that is perfect for 95% of the riding I normally do. However, it was a little too harsh for my ageing bones after more than 4-5 hours on board; I needed something that would be a bit easier on my body.

It didn’t take long for me to work out that a 29er was probably the best option. I ruled out full suspension because of budget constraints; I tested various bikes but eventually bought a Canyon Yellowstone AL6.9 online as it seemed such ridiculously good value for a well-specced and relatively light bike. It was a bit of a risk but I knew it was a good decision the first time I rode it, the fit felt just right.

Armed with the new bike, I was ready for my next big training ride. It was nearly the end of May before I got the opportunity to go and, with the June window for my double attempt looming, this also turned out to be my last long ride. I decided to ride out to Botolphs and back from Winchester, this would mean that I’d effectively covered the Double in two long training rides, one of 80 miles and the other 120 miles.

It was a good ride despite getting two punctures in the first 30 miles. I covered the 120 miles in just under 13 hours, this included a leisurely stop at Botolphs and a fair bit of bike adjusting along the way.  I even had enough left in my legs to push hard for the 20 miles from the top of Butser Hill back to Winchester. This ride had a mood altering effect, all of a sudden I felt ready; after all, how hard could it be to cover the extra 80 miles? 

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Inspiration

It’s September 2008 and I’m pedalling slowly up the trail from Warnford towards Winchester. I’m coming to the end of long day in the saddle, exhausted but also quite pleased with myself. I left Eastbourne nearly 14 hours previously and I’m on the point of completing the South Downs Way in a day.

I stop at the gate at the top of the hill, take a breather and turn on my lights. I glance back down the trail and allow myself a moment of self-congratulation, the last climb of any note is done and it’s easy riding all the way to Winchester. As I look back something catches my eye, a light coming up the trail behind me. A local out for an evening blast; excellent news, just the motivation I need to keep my legs turning.

At the next gate I look back again, the light is bigger, brighter and much closer. That’s alright, clearly a local with fresh legs, no point trying to keep ahead. A mile after that the bike cruises past me with a friendly “Hello, lovely evening” from the rider. And then he’s gone, quickly gone.

I eventually get my aching body to Winchester and crawl up the hill to my home, my family and a hot bath. Over the next few days I tell anyone who will listen to me (and many who won’t) about the endless climbs and the sheer physical challenge of my big day out. I also want to find out who else has been tough enough to complete the South Downs in a day so I spend a lot of time searching mountain bike forums to find other members of this (I imagine) select band of endurance athletes.

It’s then that I stumble across a news item on the BikeMagic website – Mike Cotty breaks South Downs Double record. This gives me pause for thought. I read the article: Winchester to Eastbourne back to Winchester, no support, 19 hours 52 minutes. That’s not possible, is it? Apparently it is, he has ridden 200 miles, climbed 22,000 feet and carried all his own stuff and done it in under 20 hours – what a nutter! I suddenly feel quite humble.

And then it clicks – it was him, he was wearing fancy Cannondale team lycra. He was the friendly chap who made me look like I was standing still, he was 190 miles into his ride when I saw him! That is beyond impressive, how do you do that?

This question continued to hang in my mind as I slipped back into everyday family life. Periodically I’d visit the South Downs Double website www.southdownsdouble.net to see if anybody else had completed the challenge unsupported in under 24 hours. And a few did – 2009 saw Iain Leitch break the record, completing the ride in 18 hours 3 minutes and 2011 saw Josh Ibbett set the current record of 17 hours and 47 minutes.

I found these times very hard to relate to but there was a handful of others too, less exalted bike riders, who had done it, had got in under the magic 24 hour marker. These people interested me, they seemed more like me. But when I read their stories I was struck by the extraordinary commitment they had made to their preparations. Many, many hours of training. This level of dedication was simply not possible for someone with four young kids and a life hovering between chaos and outright panic.

So I lived my life and rode my bike whenever I had time. There were regular Monday night rides and trips with friends to Afan and other centres. I had the pleasure of riding with all of my children, watching them push themselves on our local trails and on trips to the Forest of Dean and elsewhere. I have always enjoyed the challenge of trying to become a more skilled bike rider so I went to see Tony Doyle www.ukbikeskills.com and spent an inspirational day with him.

And then I turned 50. A big party, a big hangover and a bit of a mid-life crisis. Along with the rest of the world, I was mesmerized and moved by the achievements of young athletes at the 2012 Olympics. I was also, I have to admit, somewhat mournful. I wasn’t finding it easy to be really quite old and found myself uncharacteristically reflecting on the past, not looking to the future.

It was in the pub (where else?) that I shook off all that introspective nonsense. A good friend had just done the South Downs Way in a day, he had worked hard to get fit enough and had come back from one failed attempt to finally conquer it. We were toasting his achievement when he turned to me and said “So Jonny, what about the Double?” “Don’t be ridiculous” I said, draining my pint. But, as I left the pub it was already too late, the seed had been planted.