Weather: High 31degrees. Wind E / NE 15- 20kmh
“You are going too fast, you are going to crash and it will hurt”. The front wheel washed out from in front of me, shoulder and thigh thumped into the ground. “Told you it would hurt”. Sometimes that voice in your head is not so helpful. Yes it did hurt and yes I was going too fast.
It was a training ride and a useful lesson in humility and self-preservation. This was 2 weeks before my attempt at the South Downs Way (SDW) double. I am looking at my experience from a coach’s perspective to identify what went right, what went wrong and what I would advise other riders to do next time. I am a cycling and triathlon coach at www.TheEndurancehabit.com helping people achieve their goals. It is far easier to be objective with others than listening to your own advice!
The South Downs way (SDW) is a long distance path using drovers’ tracks that have been in existence for 1,000’s of years. It runs from Winchester to Eastbourne for 100miles (155km). For cyclists it is an exciting challenge to complete in one go, for the bold the double, and the endurance specialist, do that with the time pressure in under 24 hours. There is a great source of information maintained by Julian Paphitis that neatly states “cycle 200miles, climb 22,000ft and open 200 gates in under 24 hours”. Simple. Website https://www.southdownsdouble.co.uk/ has the route, location of taps, hall of fame and plenty of other useful information.
I contacted Rob Carter and Ed Gurney both local Winchester cycling and running legends who had completed the SDW double in 2015, Robs cheery note that it should be fine to get to Eastbourne in about 10 hours as the tracks are dry not realising that I was also planning on coming back.
#1 Believe in yourself, look at where you have come from, what you have done when things were hard. A positive mindset will take you a long way. With races and events cancelled in 2020, the idea of riding for 24 hours, off road, alpine style appealed, if I don’t do it now I never will. You are only ever as fit as you are at that point in time, no one gets to the start line and thinks “yep I am fit enough”.
#2 Preparation, it is not just the physical side but the technical, psychological, nutritional, emotional and logistical sides that are equally important for an adventure. Timing, start early, be fresh and fast, start at dusk and do the night shift on fresh legs, it all depends on your point of view.. What, where, when, why, how, who. Answer these questions and you are on the right track. I decided to start at 7am assuming that I would be faster on the downhill sections while fresh compared to the downhill in the dark when I would be slow anyway. I would also benefit from a good night’s sleep rather than worrying all day.
#3 Have a plan and be prepared to adapt. Kindly, Rob and Ed joined me at the start, obligatory photos by the King Alfred statue and then we rolled out. Rob directed us onto the correct SDW route rather than the one on the SDW double website, minor problem was my mileage chart with distances to water stops was now 1.3km out. I had removed the time part of my plan, whilst a 24 hour target was on the cards, I did not want extra pressure at every water stop. Just focus on breaking the ride into small chunks, 4 sections with 3 stops for water in each quarter, 12 in total.
#4 Acceptance, things will go wrong, accept it, diagnose the problem, create an action and deal with it. Having extolled the virtues of my new Race King tyres with their shield wall tyre protection system to Ed, it was a shock to have a puncture in the first 10kms and then Ed pointed to a 6” screw sticking out of my rear tyre. Sidewall puncture plugged and screw removed, 2 punctures already! In the end I had 8 punctures and “lost” 2 ½ hours sitting fixing them. By the last one at 4am I had fully accepted them as part of the journey.
Rolling to QECP, I felt good and past 2 riders on loaded bikes, Karl and James. They were heading to Eastbourne and back but stopping overnight so hopefully I would cross paths on my return. It was comforting to know I was not alone in case of more mechanical problems. I am not a big fan of carrying additional kit, keep things simple, but no simpler. With hindsight even more inner tubes may have been an idea!
Pushing on to Amberley, 4 hours 75kms done, I smiled as I rolled past the spot I had crashed 2 weeks ago and thought how important bike skills are when riding, even more so when off road and pushing hard. I believe in order to know where your limit is, you occasionally have to step beyond it.
#5 Look after your legs and they will look after you. This was one of the mantras replaying in my head. Back off on the steep climbs, (I walk at 4km/h and cycle at 6km/h). Push on the flats and the downhills and if you have protected your legs by not burning all the muscle glycogen, they will continue to work.
#6 How bad do you want it? The section from Washington to Eastbourne had a strong head wind, energy sapping heat (my garmin showed 36 degrees at one point) and I was not even half way yet. Keep moving, keep rolling when everything else is telling you to stop. Not finishing a race and having DNF on my race list made me realise the importance of being ready to work hard when things get uncomfortable.
About 9 hours into the ride I came to Southease church. Not just an idyllic location but a large tap of cold water to completely soak myself in. Heaven. Only a couple of hours to Eastbourne which is when the nutrition plan fell apart. The nutrition plan is so hard to get right and is even more bespoke than a power training plan. I suspect by now mild (or severe) heat exhaustion was kicking in.
Finally I fly down past the golf course to Eastbourne, stop the mental clock at 10:02:00 hours and take the obligatory photo. With hordes of people around a trip to the promenade was cancelled. A short stop and chat to a rider who had just come from Winchester to Eastbourne in 14 hours. We swapped heat horror stories and then it was time to head back up the hill. Mentally I was heading home and from now on every pedal stroke was taking me home.
#7 It’s ok to stop and lie down. The advice is to keep going and don’t stop, however with both caffeine and halfway joy wearing off I needed a “reset”. Falling off my bike and lying in corpse pose flat on the grass for a few minutes helped completely reset my “system”. I think my wife Louise would have been very impressed with my savasana pose.
Back to Southease Church my favourite water stop and a welcome soak under the tap. 180km completed 120km to go. On the positive side the heat had abated, the wind was on my back and I was nearing my furthest distance ever. I was reminded by some good advice from Angus who had completed it a few weeks previously. “Just focus on your knitting”. When the hills get hard, don’t look up just turn the pedals and remain in the present, don’t think about the next hill. The light continued to fade and I finally felt on a roll, easy on the ups, steady on the flats and pushing hard on the downhills. The walkers had dispersed, the silence draws in and I realised how beautiful the SDW is and how lucky I am to be doing this.
#8 Support crew. I was doing this Alpine style with no outside help. A close ultra running friend Richard Whittle had agreed to be on standby just in case I had a problem in the early hours. “Don’t worry I wont need you, it is just a precaution!”. At 12:30am I was defeated and 75km from home, the prospect of giving up was very tempting.
Massive thank you to Richard for driving out at 1am to Amberley with 2 spare inner tubes, more spare patches and a pump. Tubeless tyres are great till they stop sealing and inner tubes are great until they split and won’t hold.
Louise and my brother (in Australia) talked to me on the phone and with my spirits raised, I walked 5km to meet Richard and we would start again. I now had 5 hours to get back to Winchester. It had taken me 4 hours on the way out when I was fresh.
Riding at night is special, sounds, shapes and all manner of wildlife come out into your torch light. I ticked off the Hampshire big 6 (Barn Owl, Badger, Fox, Deer, Bats, and Rabbits). Despite crashing into the only large area of mud on the whole route, I kept pushing on. A very good sense of humour helps at this point.
#9 Listen to your body. I had planned on 50g carbs/hour and had managed about half that in the last 3 hours, as long as I keep some fluid coming in, I know that I can “run on empty” for quite a while. At the end of the ride I had 37g carbs/hour, so for a 69kg rider I was well under the target. Having done a number of Endurance events, Ironman, ultra runs I have become adapted to what I can do with minimal carb intake as long as I keep some fluid intake and keep it “easy”.
Jamie Collins kindly agreed to meet me at QECP at 4:30am to ride the last part home, a mix up and my decision not to stop for water meant I was walking half way up Butser hill when he was at the top of QECP. He is a very quick rider and so a little game of chase ensued with the next uphill being catch up time. It was great to see a friendly face in the dawn and the sub 24hr target was still on despite everything that had happened so far, just no more punctures please!
We rolled through the last 35km, a little slower on the climbs but still moving, a quick photo at the top of Cheesefoot head and it was all downhill from here.
I completed the ride in 23hours 21 minutes, 310km, 6,643m elevation gain, average speed 13.3kmh, stopped time 3hours 21 minutes, moving speed 15.3kmh, 1,078 hr Training stress score.
My definition of success was to complete 310km, enjoy the adventure, and lastly try to do it in 24hours. I managed all three of those and might be tempted to do it again but with different tyres next time!
If you are interested in discussing your race plan or have a review of your training prior to an event then get in touch by email firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call on 07739560590.
Here’s till next time!
www.theendurancehabit.com Footnote: Those Race King tyres are now in the bin!