||[Aug. 31st, 2007|05:08 pm]
2:30am on the 30th August 2007. Under the light of a full moon, I'm rolling around in the middle of Winchester High St, wearing a dressing gown and whimpering in pain. My choice.|
24 hours earlier, I'm screaming at the guy driving, he's going the wrong way up the A31.
Enough of that tale; we lived. I recall cathedral bells striking 4, and unshipping my bike from the roofrack. No fanfare, just a handshake and a firm push into the darkness. In the wrong direction. Oops. An auspicious start to my attempt to do the entire South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne and back inside 24 hours. The mistake hardly seems to matter with 200+ miles to go.
The first mile of the South Downs Way is grotty, in no way in keeping with the next 100. Motorways, bridges, A-roads, shopping trolleys, artificial lighting, fade fast behind, soon I'm rolling through fields lit by moonlight, under clouds turned silver.
There's a lot of fun in the first 5 miles. A stag jumps out, peek-a-boo, and gone. Plenty of rats (well, I'm still near a town), a few rabbits, lots of unidentified rustling in the hedgerows.
Cheesefoot Head and damn, Jim is exactly in position, on time and ready. Good thing too, the front tyre's gone soft despite pre-start checks and it's down to a gummed valve, fiddle, faff, pump and I'm rolling again.
Next place where the SDW meets a road, and the police got there first. Apparently they accepted Jim's explanation of why he was sitting by the side of the road with a car stuffed full of high-energy food and little bags of white powder at 5 in the morning, and went on their way.
20 miles in, 180 to go. The sky starts to lighten, and atop Butser Hill the sun rises. A band of cloud on the horizon plays tricks with the light and it looks like a huge red mushroom heaving itself into the sky. Instinctively, I look around to check the moon is going to set on schedule; see you in 14 hours, I'm counting on it.
Still early enough in the ride to take chances, and the descent off Butser Hill is a screamer. Dew-soaked grass licked by the tyres, spray, pray, roll out shedding speed for a support rendezvous. Jim's already got the workstand set up, bike swung up onto it, lights removed, food and drink added, chain lubed and I'm on my way out (turned out we hadn't actually forgotten the maps, I'd just put the laptop on top of them).
30 miles down, 170 to go. Noises from the rear wheel, not good. Check it out, and yes, the news is bad - lots of very loose spokes. Lucky there's a tool in the pack to tighten them, 5 miles further on and it still seems a problem. Normally that means a wheel collapse is imminent, and the rougher stuff lies ahead. A more thorough tightening of the nipples ensues, I make it to the next checkpoint. Quick discussion, and Jim heads off to collect a spare wheel and repair tools. Going to be at least 2 hours, but there's pessimism my side that the wheel is going to hang together that long.
Press on anyway. But it's not the rear wheel that causes the next problem, it's the front as the tyre blows out at speed down a flint-studded track and (help mummy!) this really really wouldn't be a good place to crash. Lady Luck plays her card, she decides to let me get away with it this time.
Fixed and rolling again. Two schools of thought are chasing each other inside my head, A is going "this is really fucking dangerous" and B is going "well, you're committed now".
Mile 60, and rocketing down the descent towards the Adur. There's someone there with a camera taking picture; it's Chris, the news is the GPS uplink is working and people are watching progress. It's a very brief conversation, he understands, I'm skittering my way down the rest of the hill in seconds.
But there's a lot of time lost to the earlier problems, so no choice but to press on hard as I can. Well past the quarter-distance mark, and being on local turf is a help. The big hills loom, and maybe there's some trying too hard up them. Whatever, it's only mile 80 and I'm feeling crap, co-ordination starting to go and for a while self-doubt has me thinking it's going to be my body that'll put me out, not the bike.
Rendezvous with Jim where the SDW crosses the A27; he pours coffee and has stuffed the car with every flavour of sandwich I could ever hope for. No idea if it's the coffee or the Wiltshire ham, but suddenly I'm feeling a hell of a lot better, the wheel is holding together and it's only 20 miles to the halfway point.
Eastbourne hoves into sight; never seen it look pretty before. Sunlight on the town and the sea alongside looking blue for once. Scream the descent into Paradise, another rendezvous and the bike's up on the workstand, laptop is downloading the GPS track data, quick lube, we both know time is of the essence and although it's against my nature I'm just dropping stuff that's no longer needed, everything from empty wrappers through tyre strips and half-eaten energy bars (a plan discussed beforehand, Jim would clean up behind me - he got all the good jobs!).
It's been 11 hours and 100 miles, now an hour behind schedule. Keeping the pedals turning, keeping in the zone, doing calculations about rendezvous times, trying to factor in the unknown, when exactly is the body going to cry enough?
Jevington, Alfriston, Lewes; those climbs seem less hard going the other way, like a good halfway bounce and a decent backswing. There's a short section of Iford Hill that riding would burn the candle too bright so it gets walked. Firle, Ditchling Beacon, Saddlescombe, Devils Dyke and then screaming down Truleigh Hill at 30+. GPS tracker must still doing its thing, as Chris L and camera are pointing my way again; for his pains he gets the briefest of nods as the Adur is beckoning below, sun getting low, and Jim's down there with the lights, ready for the second night in the saddle.
140 miles done and past the local playground of Chanctonbury Ring. I can almost see home from up here, but there's no call to be there. It's a resolve test, think of a hot bath and a warm bed but no, quite a surprise, not even a flicker of desire to change my course.
The descent towards Washington is thick with bats, black wings whirring against the white chalk of the trail. Soon dark enough it's back to running with lights on, and the bone-shaking descent off Rackham Banks into Amberley and across the Arun River. Starting to feel some unusual pains in the legs, and somewhere a mistake at the bottom of a descent means my calf hits the rear disk. Puff of smoke like branding cattle and now there's a neat semi-circular burn on the back of my leg to add to the damage total - turns out that's going to come in useful later though.
Back up and over Bignor Hill, now it's time to count down and watch the clock. Calculate this, calculate that; looks like I'm going to complete in well under 24 hours but it all depends how long my body can carry on. Jim's a star; it's getting late and everywhere the SDW crosses a main road he's there, ready and waiting, even if I just do a flyby.
165 miles down, 35 to go and body in trouble. Those leg pains are getting serious, and the GPS crashes big time on the descent into Cocking. Again, Jim is there and we get the GPS sorted but I can hardly walk - still, why walk when you can ride? So it's off into the darkness...
It's the second night on the go, and a clear one. The whole run was planned for the full moon, and for a while it's time to ride without lights, taking ever more chances, loving the night and the countryside. Mind and body, spirit and mechanics are now well separated - surprisingly the head is still alert, but the body's a machine that's getting hard to control. Every gate becomes a stiff-legged exercise of damage limitation and pain, just getting the feet back on the pedals is a challenge.
20 hours in the saddle, the plan called for a change of shorts long ago but every other pain has become tiny compared to my legs so I haven't bothered. And I can't now anyway, body too fucked. Mind games, discover that by focusing on one pain, the others are diminished. So play games with the non-structural pain of the burn blister, it helps blank the more serious pains around the knees. And when the blister decides to stop hurting, play with the pain in my hands and bum instead - anything but the legs, look guys, just listen to the instructions to keep turning while I ignore your reports of "they cannae take it any more, Captain!".
180 miles, 20 to go. Haven't been able to eat for 50 miles, even drinking is hard work. Manage to finish the coffee at the last major rendezvous but I ask Jim to wait and watch because here's the showstopper that's been eating me for the past couple of hours - I've got to get back over Butser Hill and it's a biggie. If I can't ride it, I certainly won't be able to walk it and that'll be game over. DNF after 180 miles. What a loser. I am so not going there. Mind games again, think of the bullshit I've spouted about doing the double, about the people watching my progress via the GPS tracker, about anything that's going to help me make this.
The Butser Hill climb rears up getting steeper and steeper before slowly levelling off. Inching up at 3mph, I make it halfway but then, at the steepest bit, there's some tussocky, bumpy grass and I just can't make it, topple over. Fuck. Double fuck. Fuckety-fuck-fuck. What now? Crawl? Yeah, that seems to work. Drag the bike. Zigzag side to side, gain a little height. Ground smoother now, remount? Push bike sideways to the hill, pull myself up. Brace for the inevitable pain hit and just GO. Wobble wobble but I make it, everything's relative and it makes the rest of the hill easy in comparison.
The next bit of the SDW is on-road; suddenly like running on silk. Lovely to coast, killer to pedal but pedal it has to be because the pain of getting the legs moving again after a coast, is, well, interesting. So pedal. Only a couple of hard bits left, and I start clock-watching again; GPS says 4 miles at 01:52, can it be I'm going to be back by 02:30? Fuck, I could take the record! Downside is that means no shortcuts, I'm going to have to go the long way around the field in front. Just about everything is broken now, can't stand up in the saddle over the bumpy bits, can't coast 'cos starting pedalling again is too painful. Short rutted section up to the final road crossing and every 100 yards there's a tumble, handy wire fence to drag the body back onto the saddle though.
Although my last mutter to Jim was "See you in Winchester", he's parked up beside the final road crossing. But once I'm through the gate we know that's it, the game is damn near over. Rack my mind, fearful there's a forgotten hill between me and the statue of King Alfred. Then finally, just a mile to go and I hit something; been dodging deer, fox, badgers, bunnies, all kinds of furry things small and large for 2 nights and a day, it's a damn bird that does it. Some kind of owl maybe, hard to tell, both of us more surprised than hurt.
Chilcomb. Past the firing range notice, and it's all downhill. 02:21. Could care less about the final bramble rips to the arms, I'm on a mission, the raceface is stone-set at 11. Flick on all the lights, screw the battery drain, and seems like moments later there's the roundabout in view, I know what's around the corner. Statue of King Alfred, Jim's there with a camera, think of doing the arms-in-the-air thing but I'm way too fucked for that, would crash before the finish line. So I roll it instead, with a final time of 22h 20m 25s (just enough to take the record for the SDW double, by 5 minutes).
Winchester town centre is dead quiet this time of night. The car park down the middle of the street deserted except for Jim. Slowly circling the car, explaining he's going to have to catch my fall. Soon enough I'm lying on the tarmac, got the shakes, legs locked straight as rulers but hey...I made it.
And faster than any other boy has gone before.