Diary of a forty-five-hour ride: How it feels to ride an endurance event in northern England

Over the last weekend in May, komoot ambassador and type 2 fun-addict, Jenny Tough, completed the All Points North cycling event.  Roughly a 620-mile (900 to 1000 kilometer) unsupported bicycle journey through the north of England, riders have to check in to ten control points scattered across the route in order to qualify as a finisher.

The distances are long, the weather conditions can be grueling, and as each competitor plots his or her own route, it can be a lonely experience. Plus there is no prize at the end, no party. Instead, the reward is the satisfying feeling of a weekend of big miles in your legs, and the memories of the adventure along the way.

This is Jenny’s diary of her time out on the route:

A cyclist’s warning

“04:10. I hold my hand over my headlight to check it’s not my imagination, the sky is already getting lighter. The makeshift headlight mount rattles on my aero bars. After I snapped my helmet mount somewhere around 1 am I had to strap my light to the bike by some other means. It’s been a slightly dodgy night, navigating by a light that won’t stay in place, but it’s almost over.

I pull my headphones out of my ears, raising my awareness of my surroundings. I entered the North York Moors recently, and after some breathless climbing, seem to be high above the rolling hills around me. To my right, I can see the ocean, where the sun is making its first attempts at waking. Without my headphones – a crutch I have often depended on to get me through dark overnight rides – I can hear the first waking birds. Within minutes, the dawn chorus is in full swing, and the bird life of the national park sing in the new day and celebrate my success in riding through the night.

A deer bounds across and then alongside the road, unperturbed and possibly unimpressed by my presence. A pink sky fires up the clouds ahead of me. I stop to take a photo and somehow miss the obvious: pink sky at morning, cyclists take warning.

A glorious downhill into the sunrise takes me to Whitby Abbey, the second control point in my self-navigated route of the All Points North race. Inspired and motivated by the unknown, and having not spent much time in northern england, I made the decision to plot my route in Komoot using only the coordinates provided. Not ever looking at the actual checkpoints,  each of the nine controls came as a wonderful surprise to me.

Whitby Abbey, with the first light of the day shining on it, was no disappointment. After validating my arrival, I turned my back on the glowing sun and set my pedals towards whatever the next checkpoint was, directly west and across some of the most brutal and beautiful climbs of the North York Moors.

When suffering becomes fun

16:40. I cinch my hood over my helmet, pulling the zipper up to meet my nose and leave as little skin exposed as I can safely get away with. It’s miserable, with rain lashing sideways, a crosswind playing with my bike handling, cars splashing me with water off the saturated road surface, and relentless rollercoaster hills.

A disturbing sensation washes over me, and I can’t suppress the grin – I’m having fun. I’ve hit the deepest end of type 2 fun. There is nothing enjoyable about my present state, but here I am, pressing the pedals, gasping for air between waves of rain, shaking my hands to stay warm, and having a great time.

I would never choose to go out in this weather, but this is a race. I know that 69 other riders are out there – somewhere – battling the storm. It wouldn’t be fair to them if I didn’t give this everything I had. I giggle out loud as I coast down another steep grade, wiping my glasses constantly to have any hope of seeing the road, which is now foaming with the onslaught of so much rain.

After so many hours of not seeing another rider and beginning to drop my pace, I’m finally closing in on my fourth control: Tan Hill.

My route turns west and directly into the wind. I battle against the driving wind and rain for what feels like days to reach the inn at the summit. I believe I averaged a solid 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour into the weather, and arrived at the top in a thick fog with two other riders.

Saying no to a hot meal…and warmth

The fire is lit and the pub is lively, the temptation to stay for a meal is very strong. A waitress informs us that food is a 40-minute wait, and I know I have to decline. Still shaking with cold, I pull on all of my layers to begin the frigid descent, the wind now happily at my back.

I take the ‘adventure route’ down a gravel track heading directly in my direction of travel. Normally, I wouldn’t risk any unnecessary off-road in a race (not with those tyres), but this one I simply couldn’t resist.

Ultra distance racing can be as miserable or as pleasurable as you choose to make it, and plotting a few ‘rewards’ into your route can lift your spirits at the coldest, wettest, hungriest of times. Thankfully I didn’t get a puncture, and bounced down that trail with a stupid, childish grin the whole way (except for the moments of sheer terror avoiding the lambs that would run in front of my speeding wheels!).

Getting adopted by a gaggle of small-town mothers

04:00. Alarm. I fumble for my phone, and my first thought is to change the charging cables immediately to ensure that all of my devices are at 100% before I start another day. About four hours ago, I was adopted/kidnapped by a gaggle of mothers in a small town who pointed me towards the local pub to find a room for the night. Here I have been most graciously provided with a heated room and shelter from the cold, wet night. I feel guilty for stopping earlier than planned, and sleeping longer than any of the faster racers will have, but the kindness of strangers and the positive encounters are too valuable to pass up. When I make my way down to my bike, I find a packed lunch hanging from my handlebars and a handwritten note of good luck.

11:22. Far, far behind my ambitions, I arrive at Kielder Castle, my fourth control. My buddy Paul, whom I raced with on the TAW last year, is already in the cafe in a group of pairs riders. A good hug and brief banter are all I need to lift my spirits and get my head back in the game.

I had worried that my route might be wrong or missing something, as I hadn’t seen anyone for so long, but the guys confirm that the multitude of route options for this race simply meant many long hours of solitude, but that I was in fact still in it, after all.

Feeling refreshed, I pedal north to cross the border into Scotland, enjoying a brief but genuinely pleasant visit ‘home’ before finally turning south and beginning my 300 kilometers return to base, with four checkpoints still to hit.

Hail the humble train station wind shelter

02:09. I blink hard to bring my eyes into focus enough to read the letters on the checkpoint and write the answer to the question in my brevet card. After dangerous winds on top of Great Dun Fell and a fair amount of time wasted faffing, I’m quite late getting here. I had ambitions to push on through the night to catch up, but I decide that a nap would probably pay for itself by making me a little faster (although ‘fast’ is not a word I can associate with this ride). I double-back on myself to the Ambleside train station, where I had noticed the wind shelters are not locked. Another competitor is in the first shelter, so I shoulder my bike and cross the tracks to the other one. I make quick work of laying out my bivvy, set my alarm for two hours, and with my shoes as a pillow, am asleep in seconds. What feels like minutes later, my alarm goes off and I’m packing up for the final push.

Heavy rains punish me throughout the day, and I can’t help annoying myself with reviewing all the time I had wasted so far. Had I been more disciplined, I would be nearer the finish line and out of this weather by now.

Hurrah for headphones!

I put my headphones back in to drown out the negative thoughts with some cheery music (cheap headphones, so I’m still aware of the traffic and not worried about the rain destroying them, which it did). I resolve to be more disciplined to the end and try to make it without stopping too much. My pace has noticeably fallen off a bit, the relentless climbing and my long hiatus from long-distance cycling (the Silk Road Mountain Race was my last big ride, yikes) has taken its toll.

17:03. The finish line, at last. I roll in with another rider, Michal, who caught up with me just when I was beginning to doubt my ability to make it to the end. His company spurred me on in the last sunny hour.

The event HQ is buzzing with the first 18 riders, and in no time I’ve parked my bike, had a warm shower, found some decent food (ie not another Spar sandwich), and caught up with old friends. The memories of the difficult moments have vanished and magically been replaced by only positive ones.

I slept incredibly well that night.”

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