I’ve had this familiar feeling inside all week, I’ve only truly experienced it once before in my life like this. For a split second when I wake up everything is OK then I get the feeling and it’s like I’ve been punched in the stomach and I want to pull the duvet back over my head and go back to sleep.
After I completed London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) in August 2017 I felt lost without the goals or ambitions that previously motivated me. It’s widely published how good cycling is for your well-being and mental health but I didn’t feel proud of myself, I felt ashamed of what it took to finish that ride, the depths I had to go to and how long it took my body to recover. When my body finally felt well again my mind was floating in and out of the dark and I never celebrated my achievement. I wasn’t sure what sort of cyclist I’d become, I tried to ride for the enjoyment alone but I wasn’t putting in the same effort. I was the spark, igniting ideas of fun and adventure and encouraging others to come with me. My first school report said I was good at motivating others, it was recognised in me from an early age and cycling had highlighted this but I’d left that behind somewhere.
Photo reminders have been popping up on my Facebook this morning, it’s a year since I rolled up to the start line of London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) but to be honest that adventure is regularly in my thoughts.
I did an FTP test this weekend, I’ve gained 8W and a position in the 200W club. With these results I think it’s safe to say I’ve fully recovered from LEL.
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.
The weather was now really awful, torrential downpours and headwind but it didn’t seem to fracture our spirit, today we were an unstoppable machine. I hated myself for entering this ride yesterday but today I had found my love of cycling again, I was full of enthusiasm and we were on the way to Edinburgh. We were laughing, we were having a really good time, I was calling out to other riders “we’re on the way to Edinburgh” and we urged them on, some jumped on the back of our train but most didn’t stay there for very long. David and I were riding really well together taking turns on the front, charging past other riders and riding with renewed strength and vigor.
I arrived at Barnard Castle and I met the physio, he’d traveled from Italy to offer his services as a volunteer to the riders. He gave me a pot of cream, it was down to the last dregs, so many other riders had been before me. He told me to rub the cream all over my knee, it would bring down the swelling and he continued to treat another rider. After this, he would tape my knee and this was my best hope for getting back to Loughton. I was full of ambition, hope, happiness, and strong will. I had made it over Yad Moss in really bad weather to get to him and now I had a chance to keep moving further.
The wind direction had changed, it was now against us and gusting hard. We cycled past a sign that read The Lincolnshire Wolds, the signs you see along the way usually do a great job of injecting new energy, they show great progress but I felt heavy today and I’d lost the spirit I had yesterday. LEL today wasn’t about my legs, it was on my mind and I was on the road to a dark place. This section across Lincolnshire is hilly, I would usually enjoy riding through here, I like climbing hills but I didn’t appreciate those contours today. I was visualising the hills on the return leg to London in 2 days time, with 1000km in my legs, it just didn’t seem possible and I started to lose belief. We were riding down long descents and I could only see them on the way home. I tried to think of other things but the fog had set in and David was a few meters ahead of me. I received professional coaching during my training for Lands End to John O’Groats last year and I learned how to manage myself using a power meter. I was keen to stay with David but I was going to burn out at this pace so I stayed back and remained at my pace, I accepted that my journey from here may be on my own. I’d entered LEL on my own and I was always comfortable with that but yesterday I was in this safe place, riding with someone, we had become a little team, The Condor Crew, we were supporting each other and the company ticked away the kms. I stopped myself from suggesting to David he should ride away and leave me, I avoided the awkward conversation, we met on the road and there was no obligation to ride together.
I had no previous experience cycling unsupported for any great distance but this year I entered myself into London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), the UK’s longest Audax at 1400km. Some say it’s the toughest and the 2017 DNF (did not finish) rate of 34% would back that claim up. In previous years I’ve set myself big challenges compared to my experience, returning from post pregnancy to ride my first 100 miles, entering the very hot and hilly 2015 L’Etape du Tour with no previous mountain climbing experience and last year I completed Lejog in 9 days but with full ride support it felt like a holiday compared to LEL. I hoped my strong will and determination would get me through the parts where my lack of experience might otherwise let me down.
I was on my commute home from work, scrolling through Twitter and I noticed a Tweet from British Cycling. Without hesitation I found myself clicking through to the registration page and before I’d even had time to stop and think I was signed up for British Cycling’s South East women’s track skills session at Lee Valley Velodrome. I’d been told by cycling friends riding track was a great way to become more skillful on my bike but until now fear had got in the way of me trying this discipline.