11. Phoenix Rising

“Phoenix Rising” may sound a little bit over dramatic, but if truth be told, I spent some time wondering if I would ever cycle long distances again.

London-Wales-London was a big ride for me, the biggest ever, and despite all of my earlier forays into the world of long distance cycling, I went into that particular event pretty blind in terms of how I should manage fatigue and adversity, and things just going wrong. The only thing that really got me through the ride was obstinance. I refused to stop, even when my body screamed “enough” at the top of its lungs. I’d put too much preparation into being ‘ready’ for that ride to cut it short. Obstinance, it turned out, was a bad idea.

To be honest, the ride broke me, or rather broke my feet. I limped on with a ride here and there but my heart was never in it. I always felt like I was being careful with myself, not giving it my all – in my heart I knew that I was still healing, and that the healing may never fully complete. I was pretty sure I’d blown it, I was pretty sure that the damage was done and that I’d never get back to riding at full health, I’d always be risking more damage. How could I ever enjoy riding again if I were to be too afraid to push the pedals the way I wanted? My feet were just too damaged.

I can sit here and write things up like I have never suffered a setback, but what would be the point of that? I have always found that the best motivator can be the failure of others. Who wants to read about perfect people; people that the reader falls short of? How will that make a story that can be identified with by people like you and I, or a story that will inspire others? That’s the main thing that I am here to do, to inspire others to push, to embrace the unknown, to experience adventure, however you want to do that: it could be a little bit out of your comfort zone, or a lot.

The truth is that we all fail and, although most long distance people are loathe to mention it (me included), we all suffer setbacks. Most longer rides have a low point, and the longer the ride, the higher the chances you’ll experience more than one low point and the deeper the low points may be, where you need to have a quiet word with yourself, where you need to find the strength from somewhere. But you won’t see that mentioned in blogs too much, and fair enough – nobody wants to read about that – we’ve all been there.

On the other hand, publishing failure, I mean real failure and not just a blip in a ride, is a gift to others. It says that this is okay, its okay to fail, other people do it and it’s not just you. It teaches us how to adapt, how to manage failure positively and how to become stronger. Most of all, perhaps, it teaches people like me that my heros and heroines are human, and that is something we have in common – we all need something in common with our heroes and heroines if they are to truly motivate us. Not that I am in any way trying to portray myself as a hero (or a heroine), I’m the one looking up at the heroes (and heroines), so let’s just be very clear about that!

So, I hope that this helps if you are in the same boat as me, just trying to achieve something to be proud of, trying to break new ground, looking for the adventure that our vacuum-packed lives are these days without. You’re only here the once.

London-Wales-London just went wrong on too may levels. There was the crushed cycle computer, with my directions, heart rate, and other important information, all lost. I had no way of navigating the route apart from relying on the route sheets alone, that would have been difficult, especially with my sense of direction. So I had the 50km diversion to buy a new computer, I had the distressed teenager, who, bless her, took up too much of my time as darkness drew in. Then numbness set in, and later, exhaustion. I rode alone, nobody to talk to, nobody to ask for advice. A long time after the ride, I found that I had wide feet and that wearing off-the-shelf-shoes that didn’t fit as well as they should, especially for above 400km non-stop bike rides, wasn’t a good idea. Feet that had been subjected to over 24 hours of riding. There was little rest, no sleep, it was too hot in the daytime, it was too cold at night, it was hard. Nearly 450km over 32 hours, on your own, with no sleep, isn’t easy. But, boy, if you can get through that, it will build resolve like you’ve never known.

I remember the relief washing over me as I pulled into the carpark where I’d started LWL18 and knew I’d finished. Despite everything, I’d accomplished something enormous in my world, at least. Nobody I knew understood what I’d been through in preparing myself for the event, or getting through the event – it took a staggering amount of mental effort and compartmentalisation to finish the ride. It took so much work and thought to get to the start line of that first 400 and even more to morph it into a 450 and somehow make it work. I’d like to say I was proud of myself, but I’ll save that for a 600km ride.

The next day I noticed that my feet were still numb; I mean, really numb. I’d told myself this was temporary; to give it a few days. Well, those days passed, and turned into weeks, then months, then years. What had I done? I daydreamed out of the dining room window at dusk, just as the sun set and remembered all of the times I had seen a similar view when the sun rose as I welcomed a new day after riding through the night. I watched people on bikes, wondered where they were going, longed for the simplicity of it all.

I waited, I stayed positive – some days would be better than others, some days I even started writing the blog, to say that I thought I was on the mend, to say that I’d be back to tackle another 400, then the day after it would be back – the shifting numbness all over the soles of my feet and between my toes.

In the end it took over three years for me to feel ready to tackle another 400. I decided that updating the blog with my recovery would be tiresome and pointless for people to read, so I vowed to wait until I faced my nemesis (another 400), before I did. I was patient, I relished the moment that I would update the blog, I wondered if I would ever make another entry, much less ride TCR.

Many things have changed since LWL18, a house move, several job changes (and I like staying in the same job, but sometimes your hand is forced), our pet rabbits, Tommy and Tim died suddenly, and I blamed myself (and still do) for that. Work was a mess, I was miserable there. They were bad times mentally, I also got diagnosed with double pneumonia, I was off the bike more or less permanently in the last few months of 2018 and did just 37 rides in 2019, covering 1,347km compared to 226 rides in 2017, covering 9,530km.

2017 vastly outstripped 2019, following LWL18

Things were coming undone for me in lots of different ways at once and I had trouble dealing with all of it at the same time. I went to see the GP and it was all I could do not to just break down in front of her like some kind of sobbing wretch. She only looked about 17. I started going to bed super early, just so that I could get away from my own thoughts and have some peace for a few hours. It got really bad, really quickly. After a short time on anti-depressants (like about a week), a strange thing happened, I just decided that that was enough, that only I could pull myself up and out of feeling the way I did. This realisation came out-of-the-blue and I sincerely don’t know which switch was flicked or by whom, but I hung onto the notion with both hands, gritted my teeth and somehow pulled myself up out of wherever I had been. It was an unlikely way for things to change so drastically.

My young GP came up trumps, and she was rather surprised at the turn-around, but she had supported me on that first visit, she had listened, and that helped. I could see she was happy with my rather quick recovery and I made sure that she knew that she had been instrumental in helping me. We smiled at each other, the old face (not that old) and the young; it was genuinely nice.

2019 was, overall a bad year, but things changed for the better with a new job opportunity late in the same year, that I went for only to come second. “It was a tough decision“, the interview panel told me – “it was neck and neck.” I took it on the chin, stayed positive and told myself it wasn’t meant to be, despite being miserable in the current role and despite recently dragging myself back from feeling so low. A short time later, I received a call back from the manager – the guy that was offered the post decided not to take it, since he was moving back to Manchester, so a job in London was of little use – it was all mine. Things were on the up. 2020 started well, and something was changing with my injury – the numbness had changed, it seemed to be getting better.

2020 started seeing a return – darker colours are longer distance rides and each block represents a month. January at the left, December on the right.

By mid July, I’d been to get my feet measured properly and invested in a pair of Lake CX238, size 45, E width shoes. By August, I’d knocked out 170km (100 miles) in a single ride. In the same month, I had upped my Strava interactions and had been invited out by some other people that ride bikes near me during a chance online encounter and we set up a meet.

Bear in mind that this was mid-pandemic so it was a bit wierd. They were a welcoming bunch, largely from a local cycling club by the name of Audax Cub Mid-Essex (ACME) and we first met at The Compasses, a totally friendly place with excellent service, beer and food. Cycle friendly is an understatement – you’ll like it there. It was odd not knowing anybody and not being able to shake hands when introduced but enjoyable all the same. There were lots of long-distancers here taking part in MEMWNS and I couldn’t wait to get to know the ACME Crew. A year later and I still have so much to learn and talk about to these guys. MEMWNS is just a part of my schedule most weeks now, come rain or shine.

The day after the inaugural MEMWNS – many to follow!
September came and ACME gave me my first bikepacking experience with 120km out to meet them as I started a day late!

By September, I’d ridden my first 200km since 2018, the Double Dutch, starting from Huntingdon. Controls were at March, Kings Lynn, Spalding and Huntingdon. It was typical Fenland headwind stuff and I’d dressed badly, wearing shorts – so I was cold for most of it. I didn’t care, my feet were on the mend and at last there was a light at the end of what had been a long and dark tunnel for me.

Early March 2021, I started using TrainerRoad again, after a long time paying for it and not using it. I started off with a ramp test and set myself a training plan. 17 weeks later, I’d face a 400 again.

By late March 2021, I entered an overnight 300km audax, with some of my new found friends from ACME, wrapping it up in under 18 hours, that’s 13.5 hours moving time, the rest eating, going to the loo, taking photos or bagging control points.

I felt good – tired but good and I remember telling one of the guys, Andrew, who I’d been riding with that I had more in the tank. Surely a 400 had to be next, but I’d had bad form with my one and only 400. Should I?

So, after a chat with Jason from ACME on a subsequent MEMWNS night, I decided on The Kingdom of The East Saxons as my next 400km. I organised this as a DIY, something I had wanted to try out for a while. I’d be doing this on my own, but I’m good at riding alone, since that’s what I’ve done for most of my life.

The day dawned and I drove to the start point at Dunmow, feeling that I really should have cycled it since its not that far from where I live, but I was being cautious – a 400 is a 400, after all, and that very distance had become synonomous with failure for me.

A similar setup to LWL18, this time with a little more liquid, a little less luggage, shoes that fitted and a whole load more experience, I’d hoped! No worries about failing batteries this time as I had treated myself to a dynohub and lights. I also packed an enormous powerbank to deal with charging my ELEMNT and two phones (one used solely as a home made tracker for family and friends).

Shortly before 0800, I threw my leg over the bike and started the cranks turning on another big adventure. It was quiet and I had my own thoughts only to keep me company for the next 24 hours or so. I decided to keep open-minded, with a side of determination. Let’s see if I really can do a 400.

First off was Great Dunmow to the Silver Ball Cafe, Reed, a nice 40km (under a tenth of the overall ride), that at a very easy 20km/h average, was done in just over two hours.

The Silver Ball Cafe

Next it was off to the Stour Valley, Reed to Clare: 50km, taking in some beautiful lanes, majestic animals, that I always make a point of speaking to, and the birthplace of Dick Turpin! Hello, horses.

Next was Clare to Harwich, via Lamarsh, where I had been once before with the MEMWNS crew, for a spot of wild camping preceeded with beers and delicious food at The Lamarsh Lion. but I can’t say where we spent the night! 66km

Next, I was off to Clacton, a 37km hop from Harwich and taking the coastal roads through Walton-on-the-Naze, Frinton-on-Sea and Holland-on-Sea. There was a wedding somewhere along this part of the route and I caught the Father of the Bride with his girl, giving her a hug. It was just the two of them, grabbing some time outside on their own. I shouted out “Congratulations” to them, and got a big laugh and a thumbs up back. I hope the future brings bright things for the newlyweds on their journey ahead.

Forwards to Clacton-on-Sea and I had just about reached the halfway point. Next was the 75km back to Dunmow, where it all began, hours before – but that would by no means be the end of the ride. I stopped on the way as I was starting to feel a bit tired and thought it was probably time for a hot meal since it was now around 9.00pm, so 13 hours since I started. Chips, no? Just over the road from the chippy was a bus shelter, which made a good place to stop and eat, despite it smelling faintly of wee. You get used to these things though.

I paused at Dunmow, to take stock. Overall, I felt good; no numbness, didn’t feel the need to collapse or start weeping, so I started off on the 130km that would finish things up for this very-important-to-me-400km-ride. 30km out of Dunmow, 300km in and about 17 hours done and dusted, heading south to Billericay, it was up North Hill, Little Baddow and referred to on the route sheet, thusly:

Climb The Mighty North Hill [87 metres of ascent: 1/12 Alpe d’Huez!]

I rewarded myself with a 7Days Croissant, and checked in on Twitter, where there was some encouragement to be had:

@the_roadie_ is on his way around the #ACME Kingdom of the East Saxons route as a @AudaxUK diy ride, about 300km in and going well @Northhillessex is next on his route then it’s off to Burnham via #Billericay before heading back to the start . #KOTES

Originally tweeted by jiberjaber (@jiberjaber) on 10th July 2021.

I had put together a DIY tracker, made from a old mobile, Bubbler GPS and the fabulous Spotwalla service. It’s a great way for family and friends to track you on longer rides. Set it off when you start and stop it when you finish, you can more or less forget about it otherwise, unless it needs charging. It’ll give you something like this.

So, the last 100k was less than comfortable but night and day compared to the last 100k on LWL18. So, I pushed on to Billericay (where my brother lives) and smiled as I passed his house at about 0300 and with about 19 hours and 320km done. “Hi, Chris and girls”, I said, as I whistled past his sleepy home through the cool, still night air, in the small hours, as most were dreaming their dreams.

Also I need to thank the thoroughly nice guy serving in the BP garage, near the station in Billericay, who remained cheerful and helpful, even at that hour of the night. He’ll never read this, but then again, neither will my brother, I shouldn’t think.

Another 40km saw me at Burnham-On-Crouch at about 0500, looking out over the river which was dead calm, as was the nearby pub!

The sun was on its way up and there was about 40km to go. “Two hours”, I told myself, and I pushed on north to Maldon and, as the sun strengthened, headed up to where I’d started, so many hours and pedal strokes before.

Rolling back into the churchyard, I gingerly got off the bike to assess the damage. Arse, check; feet, check; no numbness to speak of. I packed the bike back into the car and lay the seat back, relaxing into the only sort of bliss that 24 hours on a bike and hundreds of miles in your legs affords you. The nemesis that was 400km had finally been faced down.

Looking back

It was a great ride for many reasons; the ride itself, the places seen and the people met, the glory of finishing a 400 in the time given, and with no complications. The last 100km seemed to drag on a bit, but I still enjoyed it.

A few days after the ride, I had a bit of numbness return in my feet, but I knew it wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. A week or so after and it had gone. I don’t think my feet are back to full health, but, hey, a 400 isn’t bad, right? A 600km ride beckons!

Numbness is silent. It will creep up on you, as it did me, and you’ll ride for hours without noticing it. If you’re pushing extra distance, pull up now and then, evaluate things.

As for TCR, I’ve learned a lot since I started this blog, about myself and about what you really need to be to even consider TCR, and this has made me realise how far there is for me to go. Am I still aiming for it? Yes. Will it be soon? No. I will keep building the distances though, so feel free stay along for the ride!

4 thoughts on “11. Phoenix Rising

  1. Great to have you back Nick! I had no earthly clue you had the numbness problem. I had noticed the cycling updates were fewer and nothing on the blog (which is a fantastic read every single time), so maybe there was a clue had I been more on the ball.

    We live and learn. It’s what we do with the knowledge that counts.

    Well done mate.

    1. Thank you, Will – always good to have your support and you’re the only person that I actually know in real life that reads my blog! Really good to be back and I hope I can entertain you with bigger rides in the future. Take good care 🙂

  2. Hi Nick just read your blog and journey so open and honest glad you are back in the saddle and enjoying cycling again. x

    1. Well now, shame on me for saying there’s only one person that I know in real life that reads my blog. Thanks for your support, Ann and I hope you enjoyed reading this one; it was a long time coming!

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