For those who have never done an ultra bike marathon before, I'm a novice bike rider who took part in this one. I began biking 4-6 times a week a bit over a year ago, often for about an hour a day (now and then 100 km). This spring I did the Brevet series to train up for the 1400 km long LEL (London-Edinburgh-London). The Brevets are 200 km, 300 km, 400 km and 600 km long and have to be completed inside a given time frame. Some people ride them as races (and LEL too), but most just try to stay safely inside the time frame. People who do this refer to themselves as Randonneurs. So much to my biking background before the event.
I took my camper van to England. This is much more expensive than I thought, because the Eurotunnel and Ferries are very expensive to use (Ferries are a bit cheaper than the Eurotunnel). I got to Harlow late Thursday night; well in time for the Saturday 10:00 AM start. The next day I rested, ate, chatted with people, and built myself a set of detailed street maps for each of the ten sections between controls. I did this by buying two atlases (1:250 000 scale), marking the route with a fluorescent marker, cutting each section between controls out, pasting them together, and then covering the whole thing with tape to waterproof it. I already had a set of maps from Helmut from Austria, but they weren't detailed enough for my state of uncertainty (I expected to get lost a lot). It was quite an undertaking and took hours. I used the maps 3 or 4 times on the way, so it was (just) worth it.
The whole thing started off quickly. At first I kept up with the front group of riders, although I knew that I shouldn't have. I had heard that the first 300 km were flat, but I didn't see any of that until after the third control at Thurlby. It went uphill for 10 to 50 vertical meters, and then it went down again. Then up and then down, etc. After about 50 km I noticed my pulse up at 182 on one of the hills. That's when I decided that the fastest group wasn't for me, and I slowed down a bit. I also knew that this was just good to get rid of starting nervousness, and that I would pay the price for it later. When I got to the first checkpoint I was just a bit behind the first group, and they were all still there.
Here I am at the first control at Longstowe Village Hall.
Picture courtesy of Helmut Mittendrein.
When leaving this control I rode with Karl, Friedrich, Henner, Heino and Burkhard; this was referred to by many as the German group. I rode with them until the nights rest at the Thorne Rugby club. At first that was just fine, but then I began to have trouble with my knee. I should have gone my own pace after the Lincoln control, but I tried to keep the group together (the others were very keen on this) and towards the end I struggled along. During this "race" I learned that when you experience trouble with knees, cramps, etc you should set your own slow pace to give the body a chance to recover. By the Thorne control I was tired, had leg cramps, my left knee was hurting, and my right one beginning to hurt. If I kept this up I would fail to finish for sure.
At every control I ate one or two plates of food. Up until this point the idea of beans on toast seemed like a nice one. It reminded me of food I sometimes ate in Canada when I grew up. I'm not sure where I ate this while growing up, but it was familiar. Half way through the trip I had eaten enough beans on toast, but continued to eat it where no other food was available (many dishes in restaurants had beans along with them too). By the end of the trip I had evolved to be an ex-fan of beans on toast, happy to never see the things again in my life.
The night at Thornby was interesting. I Spent the night on the floor of the bar, under a couple of bar chairs. This is where people nonchalantly flick their cigarette ashes while talking, among other things. The rest of the room had been taken by other bikers - couches, tables, chairs and the rest of the floor. Although I was soaked in sweat and only had my thin raincoat as a blanket I was happy to sleep here for a couple of hours.
Helping Mark fix his flat tire.
Picture courtesy of Andy Moore.
After a couple of hours we all ate breakfast and set out as a group again. The ride in the group began where it left off the day before; too fast for my knees. After fifteen minutes I decided to bumble along at my own pace to let my body recover. After a while I met up with Mark and Andy, and we began to ride together. A new group. This time it was one who kept a pace more suited to my knee. We rode together a lot over the next 800 km. Here is also where we finally did experience a flat section. This was followed by a steep section around Castle Howard. I would estimate sections of these hills at about 18% incline, but maybe that was just a subjective feeling dictated by my knees. When we got to the Hovingham control my left knee was completely blue. People looked at it like looking at a corpse, while saying "ooohhhh" or "mmmmmm" with a deepened voice. Here was the bag drop as well. I had a "shower" here; a bucket of warm water and a towel. Unfortunately, I had mainly packed useless odds and ends in my bag, but at least I had a new bike shirt and some more Musclor massage cream (good against leg cramps).
Andy and I biking along (with me in the foreground).
Picture courtesy of Mark Greenfield.
On the way to the Barton truck stop I began to be sick of the situation, which is a good sign with me. It means that something will change. I decided to stop off at a church in Yafforth and do a bit of site-seeing instead of monotonously plodding at the pedals. It was an interesting old stone church with old tombstones. The fact that it was a warm sunny day made it even more pleasant. I spent 15 minutes here and felt a lot better. Then I biked on to the Barton truck stop control, where Karl and the German group were still eating. Andy and Mark hadn't been there for long either. I looked at my knee again (this had become a hobby), but to my surprise it wasn't blue any longer. It looked fine and felt pretty good too. It had repaired itself! This made me feel even better.
I biked to the Langdon Beck Youth Hostel with Mark, Andy and for part of the way Barry and Andrey from Russia. Andrey is a nice, friendly person who liked calling "hi, I'm from Russia" to passers by at the side of the road. He was a fast biker, but having trouble with a titanium insert in his thigh, which was throbbing with pain. The last part was the climb to Yad Moss. On this climb I took my time to preserve my knee, and the other three rode ahead (Barry was a bit behind me). The food at Langdon Beck was good, and I would have liked to stay here for longer. Still, we wanted to get to the Carlisle Truck Stop to spend the night, and it was late afternoon. We set out again in similar style to how we arrived. I went my own pace and the others rode ahead. Here there were more sheep than anything else. It was a beautiful evening landscape over rolling barren hills, which I enjoyed. In Alstom there was a nice looking steep cobblestone road (on a 17% incline downwards with a 90° curve in the middle); here the other three were waiting for me. We rode off together again. After a while we all went our own pace again, wanting to meet at Carlisle. It was dusk, and I decided to bike a bit faster to get as much daylight as possible. Around Brampton I caught up with Andrey, and shortly after Mark and Andy joined us while were tried to figure out where we were and which road we should take. By the time we drove into the Carlisle truck stop, it had been dark for a hour or so. We rode using the strategy; drive quickly, and if you hit something hope you survive. Doing this long enough might even turn Andy to a daring downhill biker (a quick insider joke for this little group).
Andy heading towards Carlisle.
Picture courtesy of Mark Greenfield.
At Carlisle we ate and I got out my change of clothes; a thin shirt and thin pants (weighed very little). I was finally dry again! Here I talked to Hubertus from Germany, Paul from Ireland and Richard from France, who were just on their way back. They had gone without sleep up until this point, and were thinking about a couple of hours rest. I heard later that Hubertus and Richard had finished in 70 hours and 50 minutes (a new course record). I then made my way over to the TV room for the truckers; no windows to open, a floor which smelled like wet dog where I was, and totally covered in smelly randonneurs. I woke up after a couple of hours to go to the toilet and when I re-entered the room it was empty and smelly. It smelt too strongly to get used to, so I went and ate breakfast. I didn't know where Mark or Andy were, but assumed that they had gone to Eskdalemuir. This is where I headed off to as well. It was here that I began to notice a burning on my bottom, where the skin had worn off (!) and the concentrated sweat in the padded biking pants was burning away at the flesh. Not pleasant, but just the beginning.
The Eskdalemuir control is at a Tibetan Centre in the middle of nowhere in Scotland. Tired bikers sleeping on foam mattresses (I should have come here for the night) and above average food. The Centre was still being built, and we were in a partially finished hall of some sort. Other buildings were covered in with oriental ornaments and painting. The bald monks in gowns completed the picture. Just as one visions Scotland I thought. While I was eating Mark, Andy and Barry showed up, asking why I took off. I explained it to them as we ate. Here I also met up again with John from Friesland, an ethnic region in the Netherlands. Over the next stages we rode together now and then. During this stay someone explained the advantages of washing out your shorts - less stinging. I immediately washed them out, and was happy I did. The pain was lessened.
Here I am, approaching a monk in Scotland.
Picture courtesy of Ivo Miesen.
I set off to the Edinburgh Control at the Dalkeith Rugby Club. At first it was wooded, but after a while it was a pretty, barren landscape full of sheep. There were five gradual climbs to be taken; each over 5-10 km uphill and then downhill. There was a howling tailwind pushing one quickly along. At one point I was riding 55 km/hour downhill, and the shadows of clouds were overtaking me (I estimated them at about 65 km/hour). One of the highlights was a bakery in Innerleithen, who had good pies for cheap money. After a while I met up with Barry, who was also just finishing one of these pies. We rode into Dalkeith together. It was comfortable at Dalkeith. I took a shower, washed my clothes out again, ate a lot. While eating, a telephone call came in from someone who Andrey had turned to. He had lost his travel description and Brevet papers (which you need to officially finish), and had called on the door of someone who couldn't understand him well. They said something like "we have someone here who doesn't speak English and is trying to find the Dalkeith Rugby Club. Can you pick him up?" The next time I saw him he was at Harlow - he had gone back because without the Brevet papers one is disqualified.
On the way back the nice tailwind was a howling headwind. There were five climbs again, but this time it was difficult going. Uphill with 50 to 100 km headwinds followed by downhills that had to be pedalled, not much coasting here. It was about here that I really began to notice the road surface; gravel thrown onto tar. This makes a surface which is cheap and very "frictionous". A high degree of friction on the road is good for motorcycles trying to set speed records around corners, but you have to pedal, even 3-4% downhill, on a bike to keep your speed up. Most of the roads we biked on were of this type during the whole ride. Until now the tailwind had compensated for the road, but now both the road and the headwind came together. To keep my perspiration down I stopped at the base of each hill and took off my winter jacket (the only jacket I had along) and again at the top of each hill to put it back on again. In this way I didn't heat up too much going up hills or get cold going down the hills (it was about 15°C, and the wind made it feel even cooler). It did slow me down though, and I was passed by several people. I enjoyed the scenery again, though, and kept thinking about the clean Scottish Highlands air (I'm not sure if this area is really the highlands, but the illusion made it more pleasant).
Biking back from Edinburgh.
Picture courtesy of Ivo Miesen.
We all met up again when I finally got to Eskdalemuir. Here we set out together while there was still a bit of daylight. At first I went off on my own at a higher pace, thinking the group would catch up when it got dark (where I have to go slowly because of my poor lighting). At dusk rabbits kept running at my wheels, which I had to swerve to avoid twice. They seemed to be hypnotised by my headlights, which I already had on (it was wooded here, and thus a bit darker on the road). While riding downhill into Langholm I hit a rough patch of road and was bounced around so much that my souvenir LEL water bottle bounced out of the bottle holder and disappeared into the dark woods (when I got back to Harlow, Rocco was generous enough to replace it with two new souvenir bottles!). After a while two English bikers, whose name I never did catch, John and Ivo, who lives in the Netherlands, caught up. We biked at a fair pace and talked about this and that. I was impressed by Ivo's lighting system. Even though we have the same hub dynamo (Schmitt) he gets a lot more light onto the road using two lights - the best I saw on the whole trip. In this group we had no lighting problems, and could bike quickly through the darkness.
We got to the Carlisle truck stop again and I went off to sleep. Ivo and John wanted to bike through part of the night. There was a case to be made in staying at the Langdon Beck youth hostel, but I was tired and we were on schedule to complete the ride inside the time. After eating, we went to sleep for 5 hours. This was a welcome rest, and I felt good after that. Then came breakfast, and Andy, Mark and I were off. On the way we talked and it began to rain. I decided to walk my bike up the cobblestone road with the 17% uphill incline, and Mark and Andy rode ahead. Just before we got to the Langdon Beck youth hostel Mark was riding behind someone who had an accident. One of the countless numbers of sheep jumped in front of his wheel, and he slid down the coarsely paved road on this elbow and knee. They patched it up at the youth hostel, but it kept bleeding for at least another 8 hours (every time I saw him).
I enjoyed the food at Langdon Beck again. Here we met up for the second time with Andy's parents, who were giving him moral support. He could use the support; he had done an iron-man triathlon the weekend before, and was planning to do the same a week after the LEL. When we left the sun came out and it warmed up a bit. We talked on the drive to the Barton truck stop again, and were feeling good again with the warm and sunny day after more sleep than usual. At the Barton truck stop John showed up again and ordered a beer with his food. Apparently he does this more often on the ride, which was a good topic of conversation. He also showed us his "100 Cols" pass. To complete it you bike 4500 km through France and go up 100 mountain passes (the most difficult ones were all there, as far as I could see). That was one of his projects last summer, and he did it in 32 days, if I remember correctly.
Andy biking over the "highly dangerous" wooden bridge at Whorlton.
Picture courtesy of Mark Greenfield.
On the way to the next control at Hovingham Mark's knee started to hurt, despite his regular doses of Ibuprofen. As we got closer to the control the hills began to get steeper; short 16-18% climbs coming regularly. Mark slowly pushed up the hills under some pain. On the way we saw John's bike leaned up outside a pub. No wonder why he gets lost at night we joked. At Hovingham we all took our time (especially me) eating and washing. John set out a while before Barry, Mark, Andy and I did. After a while we found him at another pub getting directions (listening to them, they sounded like typical pub directions) of how to get to the next control point. He drove with us instead and we slowly biked through the night, with Mark's hurting knee keeping the pace at 15-20 km/hour. At this pace I cooled down (despite wearing a winter jacket) and began to really notice the burning on my bottom. By the time we got to the Thorne Rugby club I didn't feel too good about sitting on my bike seat. Getting off my bike I noticed I could hardly walk (legs stiff like boards), but at least biking was OK! I decided to bike on my own the next day in the hope of keeping my metabolism going enough to have my bottom go numb. John gave me the tip of pouring cold water down the pants as often as possible (keeps you awake too!).
Biking day and night.
Picture courtesy of Mark Greenfield.
At Thorne I met up with Karl and Friedrich again. They had also decided against keeping the German group together at all costs and were about to set out for the last leg of the journey. Karl mentioned they had wondered if I would make it or not, and they were happy to see that I would. After a couple of hours of sleep I ate a bit of breakfast and set off on my own. It was now my goal to get there quickly and be finished with the pain on my bottom. I also wanted to stay alone today, because I knew that I wouldn't be pleasant company. On the way to Lincoln I averaged about 26 km/hour, which wasn't bad for me after so many days. On the way I saw several people who had started at Thorne and were about to finish. I rested at Lincoln for about one and a half hours, eating in the restaurant there. Here I had some more beans on toast with my meal (it came with everything they had left). I biked as quickly as I could to the Thurlby youth hostel. Every time I got tired I slowed down a bit and thought: "Are you finished being tired now? Yes? Then let's get on with it." An interesting way to spend a day.
This day I passed 20-25 people, who were setting up their day more pleasantly than I was. Still, I was happy that my bottom numbed a bit through the strain and cold water being poured down the pants.
One of the people I passed was Old Jack; a 75 year old doing the LEL. I had talked to him shortly a couple of times on the way, and he was always happy and friendly. He seemed to be in his element, and enjoying the ride. One of the people told me he stops now and then to puff a pipe, and gets lost quite a bit because he doesn't like spending his time reading the routing directions. Probably to prevent his getting lost, he had a little "fan club" escorting him back to Harlow. When he came in to Harlow he was preceded by someone who announced: "Yes, the moment has finally come. Here comes the randonneur of the millennium; Old Jack."
Helmut and Old Jack.
Picture courtesy of Helmut Mittendrein.
I spent half an hour at Thurlby, eating beans on toast again. It was either that or some desert. At Longstowe I spent 10 minutes getting a few bananas and filling up my water. I was pretty exasperated here, talking only of finishing to the unfortunates who conversed with me. After leaving this control I felt better again; a bit over 60 km to Harlow. It was going to get dark soon, so I continued to bike more quickly during daylight. As it got dark I had to slow down, because the last stretch was up and down curvy hills. My lighting was even worse, since my weak light had fallen off, and I had taped it onto my frame. It was pointed slightly to the left, and I had to swerve back and forth to see the road properly. Downhill was as slow as uphill, because of this lighting problem. Here I thought a lot about Ivo's nice lighting system. I spent about two hours on the last 25 km. When I finally got to Harlow, I couldn't find the youth hostel check point. Again, I spent 20 further minutes biking back and forth looking for the thing. At midnight I finally made it - after 110 hours of biking and well inside the 118 hour time limit. There were about 20-30 people there, including people I had passed at a good speed 2-3 hours earlier. Karl and Friedrich were there too, having finished an hour earlier, and we congratulated each other. Andrey was there too, and shared some Whiskey with us, which he had got as a present from an American biker he knew. We all toasted to friendship and talked about doing a Brevet in Russia next year (which would be interesting). I was feeling quite fit and happy again, although I could hardly walk. After talking, eating and showering I went to bed in my van and had a seven hour sleep. During that time Mark, Andy, Barry and John had arrived, at about 5 AM. I was especially happy for Mark, who made it despite somewhat major knee problems.
That is how I found the LEL 1400 km! Strenuous, outdoorsy fun, one gets to know nice people, and one learns more about oneself. I'm planning my next ultra-marathon already!
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