Some rustling noises. I open my eyes, it’s still dark. Two more minutes.
Eventually I wake up. It’s still dark, 5:30a.m. That’s plenty of good sleep, time to go. I realise Chris has packed his stuff and his bed is empty – machine.
I got out of bed, brush my teeth, wash my face and grab all my hanging clothes and leave the room to pack outside so I don’t wake the other two hikers. First thing, my external battery is charged so I put the phone as well while I get ready.
I prepare everything and put my clothes on, then go down the stairs with what I can and settle in the dining area. I have three things to do – fix the spare inner tube in case I get another flat (and try to fix the annoying “da dum” on the wheel), eat, put rain gear on and go. Faffing begins!
Chris is actually on the staircase getting his overshoes on. He told me he bought them from a shop the day before. I’m envious! I was holding mine in my hand on Friday night thinking “Nah, won’t be that bad, they’re just extra weight”. Well, now it was being rubbed in my face.
Putting my shoes on I was trying to re-use my plastic bags and Chris saw me and smiled. “You’re better off putting them inside your shoes… here, I have two spare bags I don’t need.” and he handed me two sandwich bags – what a saviour!
Next I brought the wheel from the bike shed into the dining room to fix it and the spare tube. I also noticed that APN rider 5’s bike was still in the shed – well at least I woke up before someone I guess?
I fixed the tube, pumped up the one on the wheel to try and get the tyre to settle in better. A few popping sounds gave an indication of hope but no way to find out until I was on the road.
Finally I got to food – oatmeal drink, two peanut butter and honey croissants from Friday and some bars from the supermarket. It was delicious and I ate it all. Water bottles filled up. Chamois cream, time to go.
When I went to pick the bike up I head the rain drops on the tin roof of the shed. It sounded like there was a storm outside. My heart sinked, a voice in my head was asking me why I would leave this cozy, warm, dry place and spend the next twenty hours outside in the cold and wet.
I looked at Whatsapp, APNRider16, Richard Gate was at Dun Fell and Tan Hill and had passed me going South this morning 2:30a.m. in the biggest storm. It looked dreadful. More riders had posted photos in some horrific rain. That’s it, no excuses, get your ass out the door!
I rolled out the hostel locking the door behind me. It was raining, but not too bad. Next stop was Tan Hill Pub – CP5.
My route had been pretty great so far, I was really happy with it. Talking to Chris the night before he had confirmed from what I showed him that it looked like a sensible way of getting to the pub. Moreover, he said to give him a call whenever I reached Whitby to have a coffee.
The hills starter rolling, the rain pouring and my music playing to dull the grim of it.
Eventually the flat and rolling hills gave way. The climb began and the fog settled.
I relaxed into it. If the day before taught me something it was that I wasn’t fast, but I was stubborn, so I had to conserve my energy for the climbs ahead.
My knee was proper hurting now. I could feel a sharp pain going on the outside of the right one on every pedal stroke. I tried to get out of the saddle, to turn the foot, to unclip and shake it off. The pain was there and it was not going anywhere. I tried to ignore it – the views and the gusts of wind and rain kinda helped.
Once I got out to the exposed area, the wind was so strong, at times I had to lean into it to be able to continue. I thought eventually that would become tail wind, but somehow it always found its way in my face. That’s cycling rules for you.
A few steep hills and I was at the pub. The wind was incredible, you can see the sign in the photo below being pushed by it. I took the checkpoint photo and went inside.
There were three more APN riders in the pub. I greeted them. Pair 56 were there too. They told me that they had scratched just there and just couldn’t keep going. They were too much out of sync with each other’s rhythms of eating, sleeping, riding, etc.
Until that moment I always thought that riding in a pair was easier, because you have moral support, you can lift each other through the tough times, you can draft and share kit load. What I never consider is that one rider can feel like they slow the other one which is the opposite of moral boost. You might need to eat, sleep, loo at different times which can slow the overall progress. When stopping, everything needs to be doubled.
It was the first moment I saw face-to-face someone scratching. They were in good spirits, but I could see something was different. I felt for them, but understood their reasons.
Nevertheless, I had to keep going, I ordered a coffee and a cake. Slurped and devoured both of these goodnesses and while doing so, I head the door behind me open and someone entered with the words “Who the hell thought this was a good idea!”. I laughed out loud because I knew, it really reflected the situation perfectly – it was another APN rider. I greeted him warmly.
It was time to go though, after a quick loo break I headed out, got on the bike and zoomed down the hill. In no way think it was an easy thing, the wind was now even more in my face and required much more concentration and control to get down safely. It was pushing me around the same way kids push a balloon up in the air trying to keep it from touching the ground, but in my case the game was reversed.
I pushed through the hills and eventually found myself at the bottom of the valley.
Great Dun Fell
The next checkpoint was the Great Dun Fell. It’s simply an intimidating climb, especially for a puppy like me that has only done puny little ones. Maybe this handy graph will help you see the picture:
As you can see the gradient is around 8.4 percent, but in fact a big part of it is between 10 and 20. The above graph was in my mind, exactly as you see it, imprinted.
The way leading to the climb was in no way flat though, even though I was in the valley. Rolling hills, some of them pretty steep, enough to squeeze some energy out of you. I had to reserve every bit and go carefully as my lack of experience in distance, elevation and multi-day events forced me on the side of caution.
Finally the rain subsided and I got warm from the climbing, so I stopped to take my jacket off. At this moment, just behind me an APN rider came up the hill and passed me. That made me smile. I strapped the jacket on the saddle bag and proceeded after her up the hill. Since I’ve looked at the profiles of all riders that updated their bio before the event I knew it was Alice Thomson (although I didn’t know her name at the time as I am that bad with names). I knew from her blog she recently had completed an everesting (climbing a hill repeatedly until you reach the elevation gain equal to that of mount Everest) which was incredibly impressive and somewhere there in future cycling dreams.
Eventually I caught up and said hi. She seemed in good spirit but also a bit tired. After a quick conversation I realised she was the APN rider 5 I saw back at the hostel. She had done Tan Hill last night as was my plan initially but had gotten a proper soaking. We cycled for a bit chatting, but soon split up weary of not braking the rules and also I wanted to have some food before the climb in Appleby-in-Westmoreland. I wish her good luck and stopped at a spar to get some food.
My stomach was not at 100%, but I had to eat as the next possible stop was nowhere near until way after the climb at Brampton. This is where I made a huge mistake by having a banana smoothie. Normally I love dairy products, but this event had been testing me and I think anything dairy related was causing havoc in my stomach. I am sure you wanted to know that. You’re welcome.
I left Appleby and the rain began again. It was a lovely scenery. I could see the dark clouds in the distance and the Great Dun Fell was hidden somewhere behind them. I was actually, purposefully going up there. What is wrong with people…
Eventually the road came to a T junction with a dead-end sign followed by a no cyclists sign. I wish I would obey to law some days, but it wasn’t today.
The weather cleared up, at least above me and it started.
It’s no joke, after the initial 5-8% climbs you are suddenly faced with an over 20% gradient (you can feel it). I was out of the saddle, slowly making my way when at that point two other APN riders zoomed passed me down hill with a smile.
I saw another rider in front of me and there was one a turn behind me.
Half way through you get a breather.
And then the 18-20-20+ gradients begin – relentless. First gear was my best friend. Switching between upright and sitting, all those sessions in the gym were paying off. I wasn’t fast, the rider in front of me was slipping away and the one behind me was extremely slowly catching up, but I wasn’t giving up any time soon. I wanted that hill!
Eventually the gradient eased up and we entered the clouds. My knee was in a lot of pain but thankfully at Tan Hill pair 56 suggested I should take painkillers and that was really helping. I’ve not considered them until that point.
In the clouds I couldn’t see five meters in front and it was windy. Two more riders came down and Alice as well. They all said to be careful at the top as it was windy. Out-of-breath “Thank you” and I kept going. It was getting close, the rider behind me caught up. I joked with him that this was the slowest race section in the whole event. One more rider came down and suggested we should be careful with the wind, I thanked him thinking “but what wind, we’re about 700m distance from the top?”. Oh, I soon found out:
I had to stop. The wind was so brutal, that I was pretty much at 70 degree angle leaning into it and it was simply pushing me like a toy. When I stopped, right in front of me, the rider that had been right in front was descending. He tried to slow down and in that moment the wind simply threw him off the road and off his bike. He flew like a kite into the grass. I wanted to help but barely managed to hold it together. He got back up and was ok.
Two more riders appeared out of the fog from behind me. It was time to go, I got up and out of the saddle. This time it was not just the gradient, it was the wind as well. I had to be in the middle of the road to have space to swerve left and right because of the gusts. Eventually I made space to let the pair through. We were at the summit.
Quick selfy with what could be seen from the observatory and time to go down.
I saw two more riders going up and repeated the warnings of the ones before me regarding the wind.
I’ve just climbed the Great Dun Fell. Something I didn’t think I could do at the start. In fact, I had gone further and higher than ever before. Hope was there, I was really happy. The skies had also cleared above the valley as if to match my mood.
A very fast (and careful) descend brought me back to the flats.
Next stop was Kielder castle. The valley continued with undulating ups and downs. My stomach was killing me. I felt super weak. There were no legs, there was no strength. I simply let my legs fall and brought them back up, leaving the weight to drive the pedals. I wasn’t feeling great. The knee pain was back as well.
I had to make a few urgent stops. On one of them I hid behind a hedge. As I went down a massive bird just flapped its wings right behind me and flew out. Then the rain started again and a gust of wind just blew my bike that was standing next to me and pushed it on the ground. Great.
As I was riding this old lady passed me and I realised she was on an electric bike. After on the flats I caught up with her and over took her. On the next hill she caught up with me and over took me. We just smiled.
Eventually I rolled into a little village and saw a pub. That was my spot. I ordered a coffee and a meal, but tried to avoid the heavy stuff – just a vegetable pasta. I ate it as much as could, but I could finish it. It was the first time I couldn’t finish my meal. I was not feeling well, but the coffee uplifted me a bit.
After another hour I eventually made it to Brampton. That was so far North and I cycled there!
It was time for a food refuelling stop at the local spar – some bananas, some bars and water with a juice. I was going to ride through the night and there were no stops coming up soon. I managed to eat a sandwich and some sweets which gave me energy. On we go.
When leaving Brampton my eyes noticed this little structure on the side of the road. I immediately thought it would be perfect for a bivy, but it was way too early.
The road got steeper and the climbs began. I was heading towards Kielderhead National Nature Reserve. The weather was beautiful again and it eased my spirits. Sun was warming me up and the rain was in the distance. I felt good again, although my stomach was not alright. The painkillers had taken care of the knee.
Eventually, after a few good climbs the road flattened and ran parallel to the remains of Hadrian’s wall.
I realised that the wind was with me, what a joy!
Maybe twenty minutes later I entered the nature reserve on a military road. This was another world, a different planet altogether surely. Beautiful sunshine, strong tailwind, smooth tarmac all to myself, beautiful views as far as the eyes can see with the setting sun on the horizon. I was living a dream.
The road just kept going and going, and I was hungry for more. I didn’t want to stop. Ever since I planned my route I was excited about this section. I love the remoteness of it.
But all good things must come to an end. The sun hid behind the clouds and it got cold. My feet were still with the plastic bags, but my socks were not dry. My toes started to get cold.
The wind turned around, or the road, I am not sure, but it came from the side and at times from ahead. Out of nowhere after a fast descend there was a small wooden bridge crossing a stream which immediately entered a really rough gravel section. It threw me on the saddle like a yo-yo. I still have no clue how I didn’t get a flat or break something! My speed become a crawl. A painful one. Every little bump was entering my tired body. Progress was slow.
I thought this part will be flat, but I was mistaken. A few long, fairly steady climbs were testing my tired legs. However, I saw little baby deers jumping from here and there. I startled one and it ran on the road in front of me and then jumped back into the woods. What magnificent creatures!
I stopped. Took off my shoes, removed the plastic bags and just aired my legs. They had been damp for almost two days now. I took my clean pair of socks and put them on. But they were too thin, so I put the old ones on top and no plastic bags – hopefully they would air an dry a bit. It felt good.
I had two small bananas. This section felt much longer than I expected, but it was in fact not that short. Around 60km.
Finally, I made it to the top of the hills and a long descend followed on a pretty smooth gravel. It was amazing, adrenaline fuelled me, and I pedalled downhill and through the flat sections. Out of the saddle, holding the bars and absorbing the shocks with my knees bent. So much fun. Maybe stupid, but it worked. In no time I was out of the forest and onto the main road. Aaaah, smoothness, butter… “da dum, da dum, da dum”. My wheel wasn’t fixed, I didn’t feel it earlier but now on the smooth tarmac it was as obvious as a sore spot. But the views made up in full!
Kielder castle wasn’t that near yet. It took me at least half an hour and a few long steady hills to get there, but I arrived.
Below you can see my face. Maybe you would say it looks tired and it does, but it’s mainly the eyes. Hay fever had been tormenting me. It gets worse with lack of sleep and also all the pollen and the fields. I was taking medication and eye drops, but it was only barely helping. Oh well, I couldn’t feel it while riding and that’s what mattered.
Just below the castle there was a pub and I stopped there. APN rider 5 was there. Alice had ordered a desert as the kitchen was closed. I followed in her stops and ordered as well.
A little playful doggy cheered me up. He was uber friendly and wanted love – he got plenty!
Nom nom nom.
Alice was feeling good but she said she wasn’t making the distance she had expected. I felt the same.
My bibs were killing me and I could feel the saddle sores forming now. Maybe it was the painkillers, but I didn’t feel it as much earlier. I went to the loo and changed in the my other pair which felt more comfortable. Fresh chamois cream, face wash – ready to go!
Again we rolled out again at the same time. The sky was getting dark. We both had a similar plan – make it back to the party tomorrow night and right all night and all day. It was doable.
After a bit of talk we split up again to keep with the rules and we both had different paces. I pushed on.
The road was smooth, perfect in fact. I felt good again. My legs was just moving as if I was starting this whole thing now. I can do it, most of the elevation was done, I can do it.
The views silenced any thoughts. I was just grateful for being there and seeing it all, for being alive and part of this amazing experience.
The road keep going, my speed was great, the wind was behind. In the aero bars it felt like I am cruising with 35-40km/h. Eventually the main road made a turn and my route took me off it through the small lanes. The residue light from the sun was gone and it got dark.
Oh no, my stomach again. It was bad. I had to make another stop. Back on the road.
I just wanted to keep going, I could feel it was all possible, just keep going.
Eventually I made it into Hexham. Rolling down the hill I was talking on the phone to Andra. It was around midnight and she was getting ready to sleep. We said good night as I saw a cyclist in front of me. It must be another APN rider. I pushed on and caught up, it was Alice again, as soon as I said hi my route diverged and I went left.
The road went further downhill and there was a petrol station on the side. I stopped for some coffee and something to give me energy.
It was getting cold again so I asked the guy at the counter if I could stay on the floor inside. No problem.
I was feeling a bit tired, but nothing major. Bought some water to have through the night and got back on the road. My dad was up and watching my dot and messaged me on Facebook.
What followed were a series of small hills, little roads, big roads, steep climbs, descends. It was all a blur. I started to feel really weak again. Another loo stop. This time I had my headlamp as well. And that’s when I saw a lot of blood. It shocked me. What was going on? I wasn’t sure, but I started to reduce what I eat and how much. A few Harribos and some water. I was so tired, I could feel myself losing focus especially on a long descend. It was time to get a little nap.
I started paying attention and looking for a bus stop to have a sleep. I would have gone into the field but the skies were dark behind me and I had been avoiding the rain for the past two hours.
In front I saw lights high up. For a moment I thought it must be a plane but it wasn’t. It was a traffic light. That high up? And then it began, a really really steep hill. I was in first gear, out of the saddle fighting with it but I had no energy. Stop. Unclip and then I did it, I started to push up the hill. It was hard even pushing up. I got to the lights and got back on, the hill kept going up and I kept fighting. At some point there was a pub on the side of the road with a little perch in front of the main entrance. That’s it, this is where I will sleep. A shelter from the wind and rain, just an hour, just to get some energy back.
I locked the bike, got the sleeping kit out and set it next to the door in the corner.
I didn’t even inflate my pillow, I couldn’t care less. My head just went onto the dry bag. But wait, what’s that smell… I realised that I was next to the drain where all the rainwater falls through. It wasn’t too bad and I couldn’t be bothered to move, so I fell asleep blissfully.
I must have slept through everything because the alarm woke me up. I was so tired, so I added another 30 minutes and went back to sleep. Alarm again. Was that even 30 minutes? Never mind, there’s no time to waste, even this sleep felt like too much.
Before getting out of bed I knew I would be cold, so I got up, put my shoes as quickly as possible, deflated the matt and got everything simply stuffed into the dry bag and onto the saddle harness. I won’t be using these again tonight.
The hill continued up and up. Finally, I was at the top and the sunlight started to show from behind the horizon. It was beautiful.
I was really tired and I knew something was wrong. I could keep going but not without eating and I was afraid to eat. My first idea was to make it to Whitby and Flamborough, then I would know that at least I’ve done all the major checkpoints and maybe it would be ok to scratch? Or at least I could accept that.
Then as the kilometres dragged on I thought about Middlesborough. But that started to stretch on the map further and further rather than closer. I was so tired, I needed food.
Eventually I dragged myself to the outskirts of Durham and sat down fence on the side of the sidewalk.
Could I keep going? I could. Should I keep going? I am not sure.
Why was there so much blood. I was afraid to think. I made it to the train station and called the organiser. It was around 5a.m. but she picked up. I explained. She understood. It was time to go home. I was devastated.
I still struggle to describe the feelings in that moment, while tired and hungry, going through all the ups and downs to end up with what – scratching. I resented it and couldn’t even write it to let people know. What was it all about, all this time and effort, comes down to me just stopping? But it felt like it was within my grasp just a few hours earlier. I felt like I could do it. What happened!? It wasn’t safe anymore, I couldn’t risk my health. Was I just being whiny little spoil? Maybe. Maybe not. In reality, no one cared but me.
I arrived in Sheffield and headed to the Heeley institute to see the organisers and hand-back the tracker.
When I arrived a few people congratulated me. “I scratched” I said. Silence. I felt so miserable, like an imposter. What was I doing here with the finishers. I couldn’t sit there and get all the words that I didn’t deserve. I left for home.
At some point it came time for the dinner, so reluctantly, still in a sour mood I headed back to the institute. It was now full of people.
I talked a bit to Tori, the organiser about the website and how impressed I was with it and the whole organisation of the event.
At some point the guy that had arrived late at the Kirkby hostel came to me and apologised for not making much conversation. I told him I totally understood and also didn’t want to get in his way. It was nice having a chance to re-visit the moments.
Richard Gate, the rider that finished second came to talk to me. I had visited Richard earlier in the ear to ask for his experience from the TCR last year. He had done amazing at APN and totally crushed it. We discussed some of the moments, the weather, his distance and what I’ve been through.
As the evening progressed I had the chance to sit next to Ian Walker, who will be attempting a world-record across Europe in two weeks. Also to a lot of other incredibly powerful and experienced riders. It was amazing, I was soaking up the knowledge, the atmosphere.
We all got a beer and some food. It was incredible to sit among all these people, sharing similar experiences and having a bond only possible in that context. I felt like I belong and the bitterness of not finishing was replaced with just gratitude for being part of it all.
More riders arrived and we cheered them and applauded them as they entered. I was interested to track dot number 5 as I had met Alice so many times on the way. It felt as if that would have been similar to my speed, similar to my experience, similar to my arrival time. Or so I thought at the time. Of course it wasn’t, but it was nice to think it could have.
The evening ended and I realised that by arriving at the dinner I had gotten a lot out of the experience. In fact, I had done more than every before, I had learned a ton and met some truly amazing people. I had also gained an even greater passion for cycling on these events.
Ride time: 15:24:47
Kilometres: 281.93 km
Elevation: 4,373 m
On Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/2403834093
Never give up?
My redemption plan is to use the return ticket I bought at Durham and get back to the same point where I scratched – the train station. Then I want to continue from there and visit the last 2 checkpoints and cycle back to Sheffield, to close the APN chapter. I am still recovering having been to the doctors, but as soon as I feel it’s safe to do so, that’s the plan.