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Flying without a parachute

I lift my head from the sink and stare long and hard into the mirror in front of me. I look somewhat different; obviously tired, a little rough around the edges and somewhat dazed. I note that I’m a little more guant than I was two days ago and the blue of my eyes, is it paler than it was? Obviously not, so perhaps it’s just my imagination fuelled by the fresh memory of a day of deep suffering.

Sometimes you fly on a bike like nothing can stop you; beautiful days and nights when years of dedication and sacrifice return the investment. Other days though, you roll out of bed and for whatever reason if it can go wrong then it certainly will. Unfortunately for me that day was last weekend and coincided with my unsupported attempt at riding the Pennine Bridleway out-and-back. Unfortunate in as much as it hurt too much to be enjoyable but perhaps, upon reflection, the tale is much better to tell than it could have been. I can say for certain that suffering and overcoming the adversity has brought with it a much greater feeling of accomplishment.

It started well enough as I rolled into my chosen campsite from which to launch the ride, tent erected and post-ride supplies and clothing stashed by the foot of the mattress. Ready for the off a couple of hours ahead of schedule, with the sun in the sky I decided to get on with it. The sooner I go the sooner I’ll be back; I thought, and with any luck well before sunset tomorrow.

The starting point at Middleton top was all but deserted as I rolled into the car park. I set up the online tracker, phoned a couple of friends and then set out into the cool of evening at exactly ten minutes past nine. I zipped through the early miles of the disused railway of the High Peak trail and felt like my bike had no chain. Easy miles in a big gear flying along without a care in the world.

The miles continued to pass under my wheels with such little effort that it started to feel like a dream. I soon found myself descending into Hayfield, which I’d designated as my first stop for water. Nick Craig had very kindly offered to let me call in at his place to collect water had I wanted to do so. I contemplated the offer as I descended but realised that I’d actually be visiting because he was had always been a racer I’d looked up to rather than fulfilling the need for replenishment. Collecting water at the visitor centre tap felt like a much more appropriate option in the middle of the night so I text Nick my thanks and left the Craig family to enjoy their sleep uninterrupted by knocking at their door unnecessarily.

The next section, from Hayfield to Hollingworth Lake, contained a long stretch that I’d not checked out previously and therefore required quite a bit more navigation. Apprehension bristled up my spine at any unmarked turn but I followed my instinct and somehow managed to avoid even the slightest straying off route.

Approaching the Mary Towneley Loop and all was still going well. I was on schedule for a good time, the weather was looking ok as best I could tell in the dark (I could still see stars at least) and my feeding strategy was absolutely as I’d planned. Strangely though, despite all the good things, I felt slightly uneasy with myself. I decided it was probably just a low and joked with myself that I’d laugh about it afterwards.

The uneasiness grew and, as if taking its cue from my feelings, a cold wind started to pick up on the tops and for the first time I started to feel the cold and stopped for my jacket. The sun was just starting to push the first light onto the horizon and so I took the opportunity of the stop to take stock of everything. My pace was still good but I was feeling the cold more than usual. I also had a strange pain in my chest, which was naturally on the left-hand side, heart-attack anyone? But I’m fit, healthy, so probably just indigestion eh? My feeding was good and I had everything in check there, with enough provisions in the bag to support 24 hours riding, just indigestion for sure.

The weather was certainly changing and some sinister looking clouds were dotted around but nothing that would suggest any real issue. I had the choice between heading back now or doing the 47 miles of the loop before returning and heading back on the 77 mile stretch I’d come out on to complete the challenge. I say I had a choice but in reality my mind was made within a second. I headed out for the point of no return. Had someone been able to tell me the outcome of that decision then I would have turned back without hesitation.

The first half of the loop went OK; I slowed a little, it rained a little, I felt a tad cold but it wasn’t anything unusual. With 93 miles to go I started to feel a bit unwell but thought about the South Downs Double and reflected that I’d been completely hanging at the halfway point. This would pass. Several miles later, and for the first time in the last ten years, I had to stop to be physically sick. Riding a long way can play havoc on your guts and I’ve felt sick before but this was proper puking your guts up territory. I started to wonder if there was a problem with one of the taps I’d used.

I’ve got to be honest, from that point on I really wasn’t riding well and slowed substantially. I was strong on foot, and on the bike I could move, balance, descend well, but the pace was completely and utterly gone. Then it rained. Oh my god how it rained! I’m talking all your worst nightmares of cold and misery, loss of control, loss of vision, it was crazy. At one point I was using my GPS in broad daylight just to work out the turns.

It only takes a certain amount of adversity before we start to question our undertaking. There are plenty of talented solo riders on the scene who can’t even see a race to the end when they have the sanctuary of a pit to return to every 10 miles or so. This is a tough game and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort making myself tough enough to see it through when things go the wrong way for me. At this point in the ride though I really started to question myself. I’d checked into Doubt Central and things were really not looking good.

I’d set out on this ride completely unsupported. All my team mates were at races, my girlfriend well over 250 miles away, members of my family at least 200 miles away. If things went really belly-up I guess I could ring Nick Craig? I don’t know him that well but I’m sure he’d save me. God what am I doing? What if I crash? What if I was knocked-out? This is madness…

BANG! That’s the rock I didn’t notice, because I was panicking and not paying attention. My rear mech and my bike are no longer attached to each other, oh joy. Luckily I think about these things and prepare for them so I have two spare hangers in my saddlebag. Ten minutes later the bike is running again and I have calmed myself down. The ever-present danger, with trying to push your limits, is that at some point all the odds you’ve managed to stack up on top of each other may come tumbling down and fall against you in a big way. I decide that I’m not beat just yet and that only clear thought and concentrating on the task at hand are worth my attention.

By now the ride has almost reached a point where I’d say I’m thinking survival rather than completion. I seriously question my sanity. Is this a good thing to be doing? The answer is very clearly no and yet for some reason I don’t want to stop. To come this far and quit is almost becoming unthinkable. Mentally I was stripped away to a basic level and almost captivated; just how far could I explore this?

At 3.30pm on Sunday afternoon I decided that if I wanted to see this through to it’s conclusion that I had to make some provision for my safety and survival. I looked at the map and decided to head into a town as soon as possible to get some cash with the card I was carrying and to try and collect some food as I was sure to run out long before reaching the end.

The guys in the bakery were great and made me a few rolls and offered to get me a taxi. I probably looked a real state but they were so nice to me whilst I dripped muddy water all over their clean floor. I was a bit disorientated and probably not talking properly but they didn’t let that faze them. Bag refilled with supplies I set out to finish the task. Wonderful, only about 5 hours to go, oh, and I think the rain may have just got a little bit heavier, how the hell is that possible?

I just keep going. Eventually I approach Hayfield and realise that there is absolutely no chance whatsoever in making it to the end in Middleton before it gets dark for the second time on this ride. In fact I’ll be lucky if I don’t need my lights for at least two hours. I stopped at the visitor centre which I think is just minutes from Nick Craig’s house. It was miserable, cold, and guess what, it was raining!

I staggered around a bit and contemplated the options, of which I figured I had two: Fill up my bottles from the tap in front of me and see this through, or go to a safe, warm house and quit. I caught my reflection in the window of the visitor centre a remembered, for the second time in a very long ride, something Mike Cotty had said to me about looking in a mirror and facing yourself. I moved closer and looked into my own eyes “this pain is temporary, quitting is permanent.” Bottles, tap, water, go!

I’d like to say that the revelation changed the day, that I flew up the climbs and roared my way to Middleton, but I didn’t. I continued to suffer, I walked up the climbs, slithered down descents, felt the rain eat away at very existence so I no longer knew if I was awake or dreaming.My only respite was Steve Heading riding out to join me for an hour or so which was like a life saver. I was so broken and delirious by then that I can’t say for certain if he was there or I imagined it.

I stripped in the rain, threw my bike into the car, crawled into my tent, sent the “I’m safe” text to my mother, another my girlfriend, crawled into a sleeping bag, and then into another, forced myself to drink two bottles of ForGoodnessShakes, and the lights went out.

The Pennine Bridleway out-and-back: 26 Hours, 43 Minutes, and 7 seconds, plus another 57 minutes of riding to get from the tent to the start and then back again. I never, ever want to be out with my bike for that amount of time continuously again.

If you had seen me during the ride and asked me “why?” then I couldn’t have given you an answer. The very next morning however the euphoria and relief that swept over me was fantastic beyond words. My emotions poured out of me as I tried to relive the moments in my head and capture the intensity on paper; the tears of joy flowed over the pages of my note book. I felt alive, so alive, how could I do this? How could I keep going?

I can only think that I’m blessed, not with talent, or ability, or passion, although I undoubtedly possess a bit of each, but with a desire to find my own limits. Because reaching what you thought were your limits and then pushing beyond and surviving always rewards you in the same way. Nothing I know compares to that feeling; that one you get when you wake up the next day and realise that you could have quit but you didn’t.

Rob Lee

www.the7ds.com

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