My muscles are creaking, my calves are stiff and my head feels a liiiitttle bit fuzzy. 24 hours since I joined the masses and rode 54 miles (+5 +6 but who’s counting…) for British Heart Foundation’s flagship London to Brighton ride.
And my body knew about it! It’s Friday now, and I can walk again, which is helpful.
Since the mammoth London to Paris half marathon challenge of 2013 (I might have mentioned it) I have been, on the whole, keeping up the fitness routine while maintaining a bit more of a training life/social life balance. I learnt so so much about myself and what your body can do that I vowed to never throw away the feeling I had over that final finish line – having set my mind to achieve something quite massive (for me) and seen it through, and learnt a shit load about myself along the way. It was however, quite an isolating (through choice) and self-indulgent process, so after completing it I was happy to indulge a little more in other things I love – my dear friends, wine, fun times, and so maybe one or two less training sessions a week. The poor hybrid however, did get somewhat neglected. After work social times came along, a new flat came along, winter came along, a new job came along… y’know. Life.
But the love of cycling is unequivocally here to stay, of that I’m sure. So when my friends signed up for the London to Brighton en mass as a group I felt like I couldn’t not do it. It’s a big ol’ distance, but one I knew I could do with some training, this time with a big bunch of friends, and not dogging every friend (and stranger) for serious sponsorship. A challenge to keep the wheels turning. Hurrah.
I have been longing for a road bike for many months, and each month have just not got round to selling the faithful hybrid. So training didn’t quite happen as it should have. Then… I managed to injure myself trying to channel my inner Olympic ski jumper in Switzerland at the end of March. Foolish, yes. Fun, yes. But ultimately it meant six weeks of no exercise – doctors orders – which was actual hell for someone who has it engrained as such a big part of her week. AHHHHHHHH. I know we’re talking first world problems here but in terms of my state of mind, my diabetes control and my general focus and clarity… AHHHHHHHH.
It was mid-May before I attempted any kind of exercise, so only four weeks ago. My first gym session was like the devil came to train me – I’d lost a fair bit of muscle strength and felt like a soft mess. The four day ache that followed told me my body had got used to being sedentary pretty quickly, dammit. We *do* have a very comfy sofa, it has to be said. But my base cardio fitness was not completely forgotten, so there was hope, aided wonderfully by a few morning spinning raves courtesy of Psycle. Not one to ever do anything by half, I also chose this time to get myself my beautiful new road bike. I AM OBSESSED WITH THIS THING:
Ohhhh isn’t she beautiful!? No but, really, BEAUTIFUL?!?
If I needed any impetus to get my knee in full working order to complete the London to Brighton, she was IT!! I have barely been off the saddle since in all hours that will allow me to ride, and apart from the occasional initial twinge, the knee has been ok. The fella has now also decided to get his own bike and join in the fun. So we’re set to become one of those couples, all lycra-clad and endorphin-fuelled, sauntering around the depths of Kent at the weekend. Sickening.
The Day Before
I kept a low profile on the very sunny Saturday, just to make sure I was rested and ready. I did go to the gym which was slightly unnecessary but I thought a little bit of cardio and some arm work would get me ready for the next day, and I left my legs alone for the most part. Still. Wholly stupid.
That evening as I was getting my kit ready, laying out the lycra and filling my pathetically tiny bike bag to bursting I was taken right back to packing for Paris, and familiar nerves set in. Was my fitness up to it? How would I fare on a very different bike? Would I be able to keep up? Would my blood sugars behave? I did feel slightly less of a chancer than last time, when I was heading into the complete unknown with what was a bunch of pretty experienced riders. And I was among friends – it would be a laugh, despite the inevitable thigh burn and not insignificant front bum pain (just saying… it’s a real thing). So while everyone was getting all excitable watching the build up to the first England game of the World Cup, I sent myself to bed. Good job I didn’t miss much.
My waking blood sugar was 6.5. Perfect. I split my sweets, gels, test strips, insulin, race number, puncture repair kit… blah blah blah between my jersey pockets and saddle bag, and donned the padded shorts once more. These babies I have NOT missed. Walking like I was wearing a full nappy –an elegant look that many could but only hope to achieve beyond their infant years – I bid farewell to East London and thanks to weekend overground closures, cycled 5 miles from East London to Waterloo to get a train to Clapham. Cheers for that little warm up, TFL.
I fuelled myself at home with an oat/egg/coconut oil/cinnamon scramble (this is a PERFECTLY balanced breakfast full of so much goodness that will give you amazing slow release energy, if you care for that stuff), then at the start line with a banana. I had about half the insulin I would normally have for this, anticipating a spike then a very sudden drop in blood sugars later in the day. The ten of us finally assembled (including one tandem!) and off we went, some of the last of the 28,000 (!) cyclists to leave, at around 9.45. Like, to the point that they told us they were about to take down the start line. A leisurely approach to these things does fare you well. At that time the first riders were close to completing.
Annnnd GO! No wait, stop. GO!
Getting out of London was an utter nightmare. The traffic hated us, we were swarming the roads, dozens upon dozens of us, a weird lycra-clad takeover of the roads. All eager to get going, but all getting just a few metres along before we had to stop again. Bottlenecks, traffic lights and general Londonness meant it was a good couple of hours before we got to Sutton and stopped, less than 10 miles in. But once we were out of the city things were moving a lot better. There were a LOT of bikes. A LOT of lycra. Out of context it looked like a very strange cult with a penchant for stretchy material and helmets. Sure.
Mile 12ish and we hit our first hill. Ahhh, I remember those!! Braced my core, hit the lowest gear and just turned my legs until I was at the top. Ouch! Thoughts of the dreaded Ditchling Beacon were looming, but that bad boy was dozens of miles away on the home stretch – I had to make it that far first…
We stopped and regrouped at mile 19 – the tandem was storming ahead like an absolute beast. A third of the way through and I felt good; we’d covered a decent distance and I hadn’t felt horrible at any point. I couldn’t get over all the bikes – just thousands and thousands of them. I don’t think I’d taken the time to quantify what 28,000 people would be. It was just nuts, and we weren’t even in the ride’s ‘rush hour’. The next leg started with an insane downhill that as a non-nervous rider, I found quite crazy. The whole way people were pulling out without checking what was coming up behind them. I saw so many near misses, and when heading downhill at nearly 30 miles an hour, I had a fleeting moment of absolute vulnerability that I’d never felt before. Chucking myself down hills in rural Paris, only one of a dozen, had been indescribably exhilarating. Here, with people dodging and weaving around you, on a slightly damp road, covered with random bracken, it felt wonderful, but also a liiiiittle bit scary. I loved it because I got to the bottom, but seeing a guy (luckily) sprawled on a hay bale halfway down was a bit of a shock. The day is one of celebration, of joy, of achievement, but there’s a very vulnerable element to parts of it, when you’re out there bombing down a hill with your arms exposed. And I’m not a beginner. This wasn’t something I was expecting at all – a feeling compounded when we got to the bottom of the hill and the marshal warned us to slow down as there had been a nasty accident earlier that morning. Gulp.
The next hill was bottlenecked so every cyclist had to walk – slightly frustrating for the stubborn amongst us who wanted to say we’d cycled the whole way without getting off, but the break wasn’t entirely unwelcome, and of course the concerns were for the rider who today I believe remains in hospital. After the little pause we had a really good run, chatting at a steady, strong pace, so that when we stopped for lunch we suddenly found ourselves over mile 30. Oh HIYA. My bloods were up in the high teens but I was mostly ok with that; I knew what was coming after lunch. I had a generous-ish dose of insulin with my food but was careful not to go overboard. I’d been here before and didn’t want to end up being picked up off the floor an hour later and carried off in an ambulance. Brighton was waiting!
The need to stop for food plus the less than tropical climate meant that getting back on the bike after lunch felt like quite a task. My legs had seized and I’d had a little crash just before lunch thanks to a sudden stop in front of me when my hands weren’t near the brakes (still getting used to the road handlebars then!). I’d come away unscathed but my body was a little knocked. I’d learnt from Paris that the only way through seized legs was to keep on pedalling baby. So that we did, for nearly 20 miles. Passing the boys on a rest stop a few miles shy of the dreaded Ditching Beacon – an absolute beast of a climb that many people had warned us about – an eerie mood suddenly descended on the lycra swarm – like we all knew we were bracing ourselves for something pretty gruelling, and that talking now was merely a waste of energy. Me and my buddy Claire started being very stingy with anything lower than the highest gear; trying to savour the low gears for when we needed them the most. The clouds had darkened too – it was a pretty sinister approach. But we knew once we’d made it to the top the end was very much in sight.
DUN DUN DUNNNNNN…
And it came towards us. The height of the valley in front of us was both utterly breathtaking and wholly daunting. We knew Brighton was waiting on the other side, but to me it looked like I was about to scale a full mountain. People were already walking at the bottom. Endurance uphill is definitely something you have to learn – the inclination when you hit something tough is of course to stop; but channelling my inner London to Paris invincible superhero I came down to the lowest gear, gritted my teeth and just pedalled. My breathing got heavy and slow, people would suddenly stop and give up in front of you which was another task in itself. Cruelly this was also the first time we saw people who had finished cycling the OTHER way, medals round necks. GAHHHH!!! Swines.
At this point, being at the back of the day’s pack, most people were walking. There were only a few of us left trying not to topple over and just lay on the road in a heap until dark. It was tempting, but a particularly ‘grunty’ woman in front of me did me a favour – Venus Williams had nothing on this girl. It was the distraction I needed to take my mind of my screaming limbs – my arms were as tense as my legs as I dragged myself up the hill. When the marshal – a shining yellow ANGEL – shouted that we were 100m from the top I actually screeched ‘do you promise?!’ at him because I thought it was a sick joke. But there it was, flat land! And look, I wasn’t that pleased with myself/borderline mental about it at all…
As we’d had a head start on the hill, the rest of the group slowly appeared one by one, some on their legs, some on their wheels. And then it was all downhill – PRAISE BE to the law of gravity. We wheeled like lightening down the valley and into Brighton (again, ever so slightly intimidating!) and came to a crashing halt. Far from our visions of wheeling down the seafront and over the finish line in a blaze of glory, the last mile took us aaaaaaagggeeessss. 28,000 people + 28,000 bikes that are not allowed on trains = CHAOS. Cool.
BUT… when we did eventually wheel along the seafront together, tired and happy and unscathed, some EIGHT HOURS after we set off, it was jeffing wonderful. Residents were still there, clapping us in. It was genuinely lovely. High fives all round. Then… we remembered we had another five miles uphill to cycle to a friend’s garage to store our bikes for the night. That five miles felt tougher than the entire 54 that had preceded them. Blood sugar on arrival? 4.9.