At Louth I spoke to one of the staff and she told me about Shermer’s Neck, something that many long distance cyclists have suffered. Shermer’s Neck is a condition where the neck muscles fail from fatigue and can no longer support the head. She told me another rider had already been through with an inner tube threaded through his helmet and under his arms to support his neck. I kind of laughed, in a nervous way, my neck didn’t seem as bad as this. I had done one descent and not been able to lift my head but after this, I was able to ride and support myself, I couldn’t imagine my condition deteriorating this way, to need to do something this drastic but I was completely niave. It is not a gradual ailment, after first feeling the symptoms, the neck will usually give out within two hours. I googled Shermer’s Neck, it was probably the worst thing I could’ve done at the time. Images flashed up on my phone of some very strange, homemade head braces, they freaked me out. I was still 250km from the finish line, a very long ride by itself but given what I’d already achieved it felt like nothing and I wanted to keep moving. We had a break at Louth and David and I discussed the options, the next goal would be Spalding. We knew we had some climbing out of Louth but the roads would start to flatten out and this could help my condition. The woman I spoke to was very well informed and also suggested we tip up my handlebars so I could ride in a more upright position, it would offer my neck some relief but for now, this seemed unnecessary.
Soon after we left Louth we started to climb, it was a beautiful road and the type of climb I would usually appreciate but the neck pain came on quickly, it was as soon as we started our journey again. I called out to David and suggested we try to tip up my handlebars as recommended at Louth, we pulled over to the roadside and he made the adjustment for me. We carried on for a few kms and I discovered this new riding style woke up a whole new set of muscles in my back and with it came more pain. I was also aware that we had climbed a steep 10% hill going North days earlier and it was nearby, we would have to descend it. I started to feel very anxious, riding down in this new position, with my bars up and my brakes at a peculiar angle made me feel very uncomfortable. Eventually, as the descent got closer I pulled over to the side of the road and asked David to move my bars back, to the original position, I was starting to panic.
The next section to Spalding is mostly a blur in my mind, the pain became unbearable. When I was suffering from my knee David would ask me “if childbirth is a 10, how does the pain compare” and I would always reply with an 8. I was now pushing very close to a 10 so we’d make regular stops every 10 km so I could get off my bike and stretch, I’d always take my helmet off and this would give me relief. Sometimes I’d have a massive cry but I was trying so hard to keep the tears at bay. Being an engineer David had already come up with a solution for my neck, to help me continue riding, he passed a lanyard over my head, tied it under my arms, he attached a cable tie to this at the back and gaffa taped my ponytail to the lanyard band. It provided the support my neck needed to keep it up and we eventually made it to Spalding.
The next control after Spalding was St Ives, my family had planned to meet me there and knowing this gave me the extra determination to try and make it, there was 60kms between Spalding and St Ives, under normal circumstances it was an easy ride with only 150m of elevation gain but the wind was blowing hard against us, 50mph gusts were reported. I knew this section of road well, I ride out on the Fens all the time, all year around, I took strength from the training rides I have done here, on my own. I’ve had many battles out there, I’ve wanted to throw my bike away, give up and go home many times but I’ve always persevered and come home stronger.
I had a 30-minute lie down at Spalding, I didn’t sleep but it was a good chance to rest my neck and take the weight off the muscles. My head had become a huge burden, the pain became so unbearable at times I wanted to remove my own head. Someone did suggest I should try riding without my helmet, the reduction in weight would make a difference but this seemed like a step too far. I was finding my limits and pushing myself but I wasn’t prepared to go this far with my own safety.
The ride to St Ives was much the same as the previous section to Spalding only this time we were riding in the dark, there was fewer cyclist on the road. The tension between myself and David was definitely there now, I felt like my condition was putting his success in jeopardy but he stayed with me and always stopped when I needed too, we were having to make regular stops and I was getting concerned about the cut off time for him. I was trying so hard to make it every 10km but sometimes the pain would only allow me to go to 5km and I had to stop. I wasn’t able to eat or drink on the move so the stops were not only essential for giving my muscles a rest but vital for refueling too. The one time I did try to eat on the move I thought my jaw was going to lock up. Each time I stopped I let my family know how far we’d come and how I was doing. They didn’t know the full picture of my health, I didn’t want everyone to know about my neck, they would worry too much. They were so full of excitement and enjoying the moment, they were all on this journey too, pushing me along with their messages of hope, support and encouragement. They had all stayed up following my tracker, most of the week, they were completely emotional too, I thought this news would’ve been too much. They thought I was suffering general fatigue from riding 1200km, they kept wishing me well and suggesting I could sleep at St Ives and recover there. As we got closer to St Ives I spoke to David and raised my concern, it was about time I shared the truth. I sent a quick text, I felt awful doing it this way but I wasn’t sure if I would make it much further now. As ever they were supportive and still believed in me to keep going, bit by bit.
We arrived at St Ives shortly after midnight and despite my neck injury, the regular stops and the almighty headwind we had gained time and we now had 30 minutes in hand. It gave us a huge amount of confidence and allowed me a much-needed lie-down. We walked into a very quiet and calm control, I had expected to see and hear my family, thinking they would be there had urged me on so I felt a bit low when they were nowhere to be seen. It was very late so I assumed they’d given up and gone home to bed. David and I got food and I sat at the table in total disbelief that I was even there, we were both quite quiet. I had previously ridden the next section on a training ride, from St Ives to Great Easton 71km and Great Easton to Loughton 48km, I knew the roads ahead and the journey all now seemed really possible. I knew there were a few lumps in the road too but my legs were feeling strong. I had been very careful throughout the ride, I had always watched my power output, I knew I had something left in the tank now when I really needed it.
We finished up our food, I had my eye on an airbed for a 30 minute rest then I heard some familiar voices behind me. My family and my boyfriend, they’d seen my check in show up on the LEL rider tracking and they made their way over to the control. My sister covered my neck in voltarol gel and gave me a massage, my niece told me I should be going to A&E and not back out into the dark to carry on the ride. My daughter had stayed up way past her bedtime and we had a lovely cuddle. Time was now a very precious commodity, we had both been very fortunate despite the awful weather to ride puncture free but a visit from the puncture fairy would be a massive set back in time so we were being careful and checking tyres and pressures at each stop. We started to prepare ourselves for the next leg and as I was saying my goodbyes my boyfriend gave me a Luchos Dilitos guava energy bar, if you’ve never tried one I recommend looking them up.
I had now adopted this strange riding style, my bars were tipped up again to give my neck relief from the same position I’d been in for the past 4.5 days. I was riding with one hand on the bars and one hand on my hip to lift my body and neck and sometimes with my hand underneath my neck. I could feel these lumps which I can only assume were a buildup of lactic acid and if I pressed them it gave me some relief from the pain. We pushed on across the Busway from St Ives to Cambridge, I know this section of the route very well but I’d never ridden here at night, the cycle path has LED lights in the path, they appeared to twinkle, maybe it was my tired eyes but it was very beautiful.
The massage my sister had given me and the likely overdose of Voltarol gel gave me at least 30 minutes of relief, my legs were riding as if they were fresh (thank you Luchos Dilitos) and we made great progress along that busway. David was beaming, he was counting the extra time we were gaining with each km we rode through. I didn’t take any notice of Cambridge and the beautiful sights we passed by, it was 02:00am, the city was very quiet and we were very fortunate to pick up lots of green lights. David was feeling very tired, I was quite the opposite, I had pulled away from him, I was conscious of the distance between us but something inside me was urging me onwards, I had this feeling that as soon as I got off my bike the pain would stop and that was now driving me forwards. David couldn’t manage much further, I told him there was a garage ahead and we could stop for a coffee.
Once we passed Cambridge it felt like we were on this gentle and gradual climb that continued all the way to Great Easton excluding a few sharper lumps. David was surprised and questioned where this renewed lease of life had come from, my legs were powering through km after km. I was riding with no style, one hand on the bar, one hand on my hip or supporting my neck but it was working and getting me through it. We were still having to make the regular stops, around every 10km sometimes it was less sometimes I managed to go on for a bit longer.
Ahead I noticed a familiar road, it narrowed to a single lane and passed through a field. On my training ride it had been a really hot day of 32’ and the sun was blazing as we passed through here. I don’t know why but it made me think of the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz but today the road looked unfamiliar, it was being resurfaced and had a top layer of gravel. Further along we met a steep incline and I mentioned to David I might not make it, I might have to walk. As we approached another rider was walking. The hills were proving to be a greater challenge for my neck than my legs, being able to keep my head up and see was now my biggest problem. I just trusted myself enough to keep turning the pedals, hoping a car wouldn’t come in the opposite direction as I had veered to the right side of this narrow road. I kept going until we had crested the climb and I was up and over. I knew the control at Great Easton was only moments away now. A member of my cycling club was working at Great Easton as a volunteer and it’s incredible how this kept pulling me along, I knew he would be waiting there and that friendly face would give me some renewed energy.
Sure enough, Will was there, waiting at the gate. We learned we had gained even more time through that section, we had more than enough now in hand and we were feeling confident despite my state. We went through our usual routine, texting loved ones, eating, recharging batteries for our various devices and I went to a quiet room for a 30-minute lie down. I set an alarm and put my jacket over my face, it felt quite refreshing, this would be the last time I had to do this and I just had to keep my neck up for another 48km, the finish line really was so close now. I remember feeling an unusual vibe at Great Easton, it was the penultimate control, only 48km to go but there were very few smiles and no fanfares here. There were a lot of very tired people, riders stuck to their seats, struggling to muster the energy to move on.
I was receiving a lot of messages of support now as people learned of my neck condition. I was getting lots of advice, some were saying there’s no shame in stopping, some said just ride at your own pace, there’s no shame completing it out of time, lots said keep going, you’ve got this. David had boldly said to me we win together or we fail together but as the finish line got close winning seemed to become more important. I’d lost my cool a few times, i started to question myself why I was putting myself through all this pain and suffering. Getting back on time became less important, getting back safe was the most important of all.
The sun was now coming up over the London skyline and with it came a new lease of life and optimism. We stopped at a field of purple thistles to watch the sun for a few short moments, it looked so beautiful. I was in pain but I was also enjoying the ride and moments like this and I wanted to take a photo to remind me of the beauty. I knew this section into Loughton was very hilly and it felt like we were on a merry-go-round, it felt like we were riding up the same road over and over, they all looked the same and it was starting to play tricks with my mind. The constant change in gradient going up and down became very challenging for my neck, I was having to stop more often and David was starting to get stressed about our cut off time. I told him I didn’t care about the time now, getting back safe was my only wish. In the final kms the pain became so unbelievably bad and I’d lost all my ability to lift my head. As we closed the gap on Loughton the roads became busier, it was Friday morning and I was navigating through traffic, riding with 1 hand on my bars to free the other to keep my head up.
I could feel my phone buzzing in my back pocket, the whatsapp group was in a frenzy, they knew I was about 3km from Loughton and they thought I was running out of time. At 1400km LEL must be completed within 116hrs 40 minutes but a late diversion to the route added 10 km and an additional 25 minutes to ride times. I failed to inform every one of the updates and they understood my cut off to be 10:10:00. When I checked in to Loughton at 10:09:48 getting off my bike was immediate relief for me but a huge relief for everyone following me, they thought I’d checked in with 12 seconds to spare.
The end (for now)…..
I’ve taken on a number of cycling challenges this year to help raise money for Ambitious About Autism if you’d like to make a donation you can here thank you