Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cast of Characters - LEL 2013

Damon Peacock put together a video of the "cast of characters" from my ride report for the 2013 edition of London-Edinburgh-London.   Appearances by me, Lesli Larson, Vicki Tyer and Rob Walker.

So honored and grateful to Damon for helping to bring the adventure back to life!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

2013 London - Edinburgh - London 1418km Randonnee

[August 1st, 2013 @12:14pm via Facebook]:
“100 miles to go. 15:30 to do it in. Not sure I'm going to make it. Seriously. HUGE headwind, very hot and I'm completely exhausted. Took a 30 minute nap at last control.  Lesli is feeling much stronger, so she went on ahead.”

THIS was my “shoot me now” moment.   I always seem to have one, late in a long brevet.  And now, 780 miles and 101 hours after setting off on the 2013 edition of the London-Edinburgh-London randonee, I was having my moment.


[August 26th, 2011.  One day after completing PBP 2011.  Via the forums]:

“So, here I am 29 hours later. My body has taken quite a beating. My knees (which have never given me trouble) are very, very sore. My right shoulder (which I injured falling on railroad tracks in March) is really uncomfortable, 8-9 of my fingers have some degree of numbness, my butt is sore (though in remarkably good shape. Thanks to awesome shorts and Lantiseptic, I have no broken skin.), and obviously my quads are completely depleted. My lower back is definitely tweaked too. 

Will I do it again? Probably not. It's a checkmark on the bucket list, yes, but jeez louise, it was really really hard. Really hard. I'm not entirely sure doing it again would be worth the damage to my body.”

AND SO, you might ask, how was it that two short years later I should find myself having a shoot me now moment halfway around the world on a ride even longer than PBP?

Good question.  It would, of course, be easy to lay the blame at the feet of Narayan, a rando pal from Seattle who initially emailed a link to LEL (which I’d never heard of) to both Lesli and I sometime in the year after PBP.  By then, the physical ailments as well as the harsh memory of the pain and difficulty of PBP had faded into the mists of time, leaving mostly just the euphoria of having completed the ride and the thrill of having participated in the “Olympics”, if you will, of randonneuring events.

Yup, it would be easy to blame Narayan.  It would also be easy to blame Lesli, Enabler-In-Chief, who did nothing to discourage the idea, with her “I’ll do it if you’ll do it” reply to Narayan’s email.

But really, I’ve no one to blame but myself.  Like many (most?) randonneurs, I suffer from frequent and thorough bouts of randonesia, wherein the satisfaction of having completed an event completely obliterates the memory of the arduousness of the challenge.  And so, like a crack addict who needs her next fix, I look for the next challenge, the next big hill to climb, the next distance to conquer, the next country to visit.  LEL, at 1418km (881 mi) with 37000 feet of climbing, fit the bill perfectly.

[January 4th, 2013 via gmail from Danial Webb]:

“Hi Susan

Thank you for your entry to London Edinburgh London…”

And so, it began.

I am not a natural athlete.  Not even close.  In high school, I played trombone in the orchestra.  The only trophies I won were in thespian competitions.  In college I gained the typical Freshman Fifteen, studied economics, and smoked a pack a day.   In my 20s and 30s, I gained more weight, started a business, bought a house and “settled down”.   But as I approached my 40th birthday, I knew I needed to make some changes.   And my bicycle, which I’d always ridden for pleasure and exercise, became the vehicle for those changes.

Four years ago I found randonneuring, and it changed my life.  

But it’s never been easy for me.  There’s nary a fast twitch muscle fiber in my body.  I climb slowly.  I’m still 20 pounds too heavy.  I probably carry too much crap in my ride bag and I’m a lousy mechanic.  Yes, I have a small engine.  But, it turns out I have a VERY big gas tank.  Randonneuring has taught me that when I pace myself, I can ride pretty much forever.  I know how to fuel my body, manage my energy levels well, rarely have stomach trouble, and nearly never get sleepy on my bike.  In short, I am a tortoise worthy of an Aesop fable.

Going into my preparation for LEL, I knew it would be those skills that would have to carry me through the event.  I was prepared to make up for lack of speed with lack of rest.   Still, if I was going to do more than simply survive LEL, I’d have to train carefully.

With that in mind, I set out to get myself to the starting line with the best chance of success.  I rode 4,600 training miles between Jan 1 & LEL, including 14 200Ks, 2 300Ks, 1 400K, 2 600Ks and a fleche.  I rode several weekends of back to back brevets and permanents.  I tested my gear thoroughly, practiced control efficiency, and experimented with food.  I also spent 7 months working with a personal trainer to improve my core, back and upper body strength. 

Many of those miles were ridden with Lesli.  Early on, we decided we would go to LEL as a team.  Our riding styles are complimentary; she’s better on hills, I’m better on flats.  She helps me maintain a positive attitude at oh-dark-thirty and I help her stay awake when she gets dozey.   And despite a zillion hours spent riding together, we’ve not yet run out of topics to jabber on about, resulting in a non-stop commentary that seems to amuse most of our riding companions.  I couldn’t ask for a better riding buddy for an endeavor of this length.  

Me & Lesli, training in style.  Photo courtesy of Theo Roffe


[July 28th, 2013 (Ride Day 1).  5am.  Via Facebook]:

“Lesli and I start LEL in 2 hrs!! Riders F51 & F50. Wi-fi will be extremely limited, but we will try to post occasional updates. Many many thanks to our friends and families for all the support the last 6 months while we've spent crazy amounts of time training. Couldn't have done it without you!”

As Lesli & I rode the 7 miles from our hotel to the ride start in Loughton, a northwest London suburb, I was feeling remarkably calm.  I knew I’d put in the work.  I knew I belonged here.  I knew that there would be many ups and downs (literally and figuratively) to come.  And I knew that I would have to find my way past the inevitable low moments…the shoot me now moment…

At the start line of LEL.  Only 1418km to go!


53 million people live in England, a country roughly the size of, say, Louisiana (pop. 5MM) or Mississippi (pop. 3MM).    Google “urban sprawl in England” and you’ll find any number of articles lamenting the loss of the English countryside and the encroachment of business parks and retail shopping malls into the rural areas.

So, it is to the great credit of the LEL organizers and route planners that we saw none of that.   Leaving Loughton, we rapidly left the suburban fringes of London behind and soon found ourselves in the countryside.  What we saw was an impossibly green, endlessly rolling landscape dotted with picturesque villages.  Narrow, unstriped country lanes lined with farms.  Pastures delineated with hand-constructed  rock walls that disappeared off into the horizon.  Thatch-roofed cottages.  It was easy to imagine that this bucolic scenery had hardly changed in centuries.

The countryside just north of London.

Soon we passed out of the rolling hills and into the Fens, a flat low-lying region originally consisting of marshy wetlands but long since drained and turned into an agricultural region supported by canals.  With a tailwind, we cruised through this wide open landscape rapidly, making great time as we worked our way north.  The easy riding facilitated conversations with the riders around us.  

Lesli in the Fens.

Day 1 selfie.  It was all downhill from here.

997 riders from 33 countries started LEL, and we were determined to chat with as many of them as possible.   Despite the huge distances to be covered, over the next 5 days we would run into the same people over and over again.   Only 60 or so of the riders were female, so while we were usually met by cheery cries of “Hi Susan!, Hi Lesli!” as riders passed us on the road or greeted us in controls,  Lesli and I often resorted to giving male riders nicknames to remember them by.  Such as “Viva Las Vegas” for the Derbyshire policeman who wed in Sin City.  Or “The Asym Swede” for the patriotically-clad rider with a heavily laden backpack rotated at a precarious angle off the side of his back.   While I tended to identify people by their apparel, Lesli fixated on their bikes.

ElliptoGO.  3 started, 2 finished.
Ah yes, the bikes.  Here in the Pacific NorthWet, steel is real, waxed cotton handlebar bags supported by porteur racks are de rigueur, and woe is the rider who turns up for a brevet without a pavement-skimming courtesy flap firmly affixed to his hammered Honjo fenders.    Not so at LEL!   If it rolled, someone was riding it.  Steel, carbon, titanium?  Check.  Little-wheeled Moultons & Bromptons?  Check. 3-wheeled upright tricycles ridden by cheeky English gents? Check. Two-wheeled recumbents, low-slung recumbent trikes, homebuilt recumbent rigs held together by duct tape and coroplast, rocket-fast velomobiles…. Check, check and check.   ELLIPTIGOS????  Yup, check that too.    As varied as the bikes were the varieties of luggage.  Backpacks, handlebar bags, bento boxes, panniers, frame bags...     If it could be slung on a bike (or body) and stuffed with gear, people used it.

[July 28th, 2013 (Ride Day 1).  9:45pm 180 miles]

Rob Walker
The Earth is nearly 25,000 miles in circumference.  More than 10,000 miles from Oregon - very nearly halfway around the globe - is Capetown.  Yet here, on a bridge in England, we found ourselves in the company of the delightful South African Rob Walker.  Although we’d never met before, it felt like meeting an old friend, thanks to frequent interactions on the LEL Facebook page.

The LEL facebook page was a treasure trove.  Say what you will about Facebook, but the sense of community and excitement it created around the event was unprecedented.  People from all over the world connected, shared stories of training adventures, swapped gear ideas and more.   By the time the ride started, it felt like a gathering of old friends, rather than strangers.

Night fell as we crossed the Humber Bridge, the 7th longest single-span suspension bridge in the world.  Originally planned in the 1930s, the bridge was not opened until 1981.  Clearly the English government is as efficient as ours.  The bridge was a delight, with a wide, fast and smooth pedestrian/bicyclist sidepath on both sides.   Rob confessed that he’d just passed his farthest distance ever ridden in one day.   There’s something very special about being present when someone celebrates a milestone.

The Humber Bridge at nightfall.

[July 28th, 2013 (Ride Day 1).  11:45pm 205 miles]

Pfft…pfft…pfft…pfft…  The unmistakable sound of air escaping my rear tire quickly deflated my excitement about being only three miles from Pocklington, our chosen overnight control.  Well, CRAP!  Rob, ever the gentleman, offered to stop and help me repair it, but I insisted that he go on.   Lesli and I pulled off the side of the road, and with a heavy sigh, I started to dig into my bag for my spare tire, a fresh tube and my tools.  

“How long is it going to take you to fix that?” came the inquiry from a rider paused under the same street light.   “Well, given that it’s dark and I’m tired, a good 30 minutes or so, start to finish” I replied.  “Oh, here, gimme that.  Let me fix it for you.  I used to be a professional mechanic and can do it far more quickly that that!”  he said.  

And so it was that I was introduced to Jonathan from Long Island, yet another rider I’d met “virtually”, but never in person.  After receiving repeated assurances that he really didn’t mind, I flipped the bike, pulled off the wheel and handed it over.  And sure enough, he had it fixed in no time ‘flat’.  Thank you, Jonathan!
This would not be the last time someone took time out of their own ride to help Lesli and I.   The generosity of randos never fails to impress.

[July 29th, 2013 (end of Ride Day 1).  12:38am 208 miles]

“I’m sorry, but there are no beds available right now.”

After 17.5 hours and 208 miles, there are few things you could say to me that would make my heart sink further.  The line of people queuing for a bed began to grow.  But not move at all.

Some controls had better food than others.  This one...
Lesli and I adopted a tag team approach.  She waited in line while I grabbed some food from the chow line, then I waited in line, food in hand, while she foraged for edibles.  The bed line still wasn’t moving.   Eventually, I asked another rider to hold my place, and approached the two volunteers who were huddled in conversation at the white board, which was completely filled with wake-up times for sleeping riders, most times being many hours from now.

“Excuse me”, I said.  “I just want to ask…  Is there any point in us standing here in line right now?  I mean, it is reasonable for us to expect that there’s going to be bed space for us, or should we just move on and find some other arrangements elsewhere?”

After being assured that they were (somewhat cryptically) working on “opening up another room”, I resumed my place in line.  Eventually, Lesli took my place in line, while I went back to the table where our gear was spread out, to start to organize my crap for the next day.

Suddenly, I heard Lesli call my name, as she moved towards the exit with the entire rest of the line!   I jumped up, leaving all of our collective belongings at the table, and rushed out the door to follow her.   In stocking feet (since we’d been asked to take off shoes at the door and there was no time to retrieve them), we were led out into the parking lot, where it was now raining.   Following a volunteer, we were led on what felt, to my tired brain, like a circuitous route around a couple of buildings, past some caravans, into an alleyway, around a corner, and into another building.  Inside was a large room with a wooden floor and rows of single blankets laid out one beside the other.    

“I’m afraid we’ll have no system for wake-up calls in here”, said the volunteer.   No worries, I thought. 
While not the air mattress that had been advertised, it would sure beat sleeping under a table in the cafeteria.   Rando is such a classy endeavor.

Afraid of losing even these meager spots, Lesli and I tag-teamed heading for the shower.   The water was cold and they’d run out of towels.  Somewhere Lesli scrounged up a damp washcloth-sized scrap of fabric for us to use.   Here we also met Teresa from the San Francisco Randonneurs.  We shared with her the location of the sleeping space like spies trading national security secrets.

Beside me, Lesli was asleep and snoring as soon as her head hit the floor.  Me, not so much.   While I have the enviable ability to stay awake on my bike, it comes at the cost of not being able to shut down when I really need to. I lay there on the hard floor listening to the sounds of people moving about for a long time before I finally drifted off to sleep.

Day 1 stats:

Miles: 208
Elevation gain: 6,125 feet
Elapsed time: 17:38
Moving time: 14:42
Average speed: 14.1 mph


[July 29th, 2013 (Day 2) 4:52am, 208 miles]

4 hours after we arrived, with less than 2.5 hours sleep, we pushed off towards the next control at Thirsk.
Day 2 selfie.  Tired.

Day 2 sunrise

Between Pocklington & Thirsk lie the Howardian Hills and Castle Howard, so named for – surprise! - the Howard family.    What I remember most about this section is how relentlessly up and down it seemed, one hill after the next.  While there were no big climbs, there were many steep downhills followed quickly by steep uphills, requiring one to stand out of the saddle to maintain any momentum.  Nonetheless, I often found myself rapidly ratcheting down into my easiest gear.   I find this type of terrain to be exhausting, never allowing me to develop a rhythm.  The lanes were very narrow, and in many places criss-crossed with muddy, gravelly run-off from the previous night’s showers.  I was very grateful to be doing this section in daylight, and immediately thought of frequent riding buddy Norm, who had expressed an intention to ride all night and into the next day before having a sleep stop.  I hoped he had navigated this section safely in the dark and rainy night.

On the grounds of Castle Howard
We soon came upon a fast 17% down slope, which at the bottom, curved quickly into an unseen bend with mud across the road.  I scrubbed all my speed, rounded the corner cautiously, and was immediately faced by a wall.  A 19% wall.

There are only so many matches in my matchbook.  Not willing to burn one up here, I bailed off my bike and started pushing.

[July 29th, 2013 (Day 2), 1:29pm, 288 miles]

Vickie Tyer
Lesli & I left Barnard Castle with Vickie Tyer (Lone Star Randonneurs) ready to conquer the much-anticipated climbs through the Northern Pennines and the largest climb of the ride up and over Yad Moss, which we would cross again on the return trip.    Yad Moss is peat moorland, penetrated by old lead and coal mines.  Now it is covered in vast grazing lands, with one of England’s few ski resorts at it’s very top.

At an elevation of just 2000 feet, it barely registers to me as much more than a big hill, thanks to all the climbing we do here in Oregon & Washington.    This is the kind of climbing I love.   With a moderate grade, I can gear down, find a steady rhythm and climb forever.   

Impossibly green, isn't it?
Lesli pulls ahead on climbs, as always
Getting going again after a break.  This is not going to work.

The climbing was made all the more easy by the stunning views down to the rushing South Tyne River.  As we gained elevation, the trees dropped away, revealing a landscape so vast, green and empty of most signs of human habitation that it took my breath away.   Sheep pastures were splayed along the hillsides, with a ribbon of pavement cutting a path to the top, cyclists clad in bright vests against the chill wind marking the way.   As we neared the summit, Rob caught up to us again, and the four of us celebrated our summit with photos.

Near the summit of Yad Moss
Our reward was miles and miles of effortless descending to the village of Alston, with its charmingly cobble-stoned town square.  What a wonderful day to be alive.

[July 29th, 2013 (day 2), 8:30pm, 356 miles]

Scotland Welcomes You.
“Scotland Welcomes You”.  So said the sign.  But a change in our surroundings was noticeable almost immediately.   Whereas we would pass through small English villages with residents walking on the high street and lights cheerily lighting the windows of the houses, Scottish villages felt eerily empty.   There was virtually no one on the streets and most of the houses were dark.  Like people had just picked up and left. 

20 miles after crossing the border, we passed through Lockerbie.   On December 21st 1988, 243 passengers and 16 crew members boarded Pan Am Flight 103 at Heathrow Airport, bound for JFK.  Little more than 30 minutes after takeoff, a bomb planted by Libyan terrorists, exploded.   Everyone on the flight was killed as were 11 residents on the ground in the village of Lockerbie.    We expected to see a monument of sorts remembering that day.  And perhaps there was one, but all we found to mark our passage was a reflective street sign in the fading light.

Not too far from Lockerbie, as the last light of day was leaving the sky, an Air Force jet came screaming out of nowhere, shattering the relative silence around us.   It was so low and so sudden, that both of us instinctively ducked and cringed.   And then, just like that, it was gone.

[July 29th, 2013 (day 2), ~380 miles (~500 miles to go)]

Long-distance cycling makes me giddy-stupid sometimes.  I often find myself singing silly songs, making up words to fit as I go.

With apologies to Peter, Paul & Mary, and to anyone who was in the vicinity to hear us singing our milestone song…

Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three, Lord I'm four, 
Lord I'm 500 miles away from home. 
500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles 
Lord I'm five hundred miles away from home. 

Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name 
Lord I'm 500 miles from my home. 
500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles 
Lord I'm five hundred miles away from home. 

[July 29th, 2013 (day 2), 11:23pm 386 miles]

After the chaos that was our overnight control at Pocklington, the control at Moffat was like a well-oiled machine.    The food was hot and plentiful.   The showers had hot water and were well stocked with shampoo(!) and body wash(!).  There were clean towels.  And best of all, there were plenty of beds.  YES!   A volunteer carefully led us through a pitch black room to side-by-side air mattresses well supplied with 2 blankets.  Although we were running a little behind our planned schedule, we desperately needed sleep and requested a 3am wakeup.   Unlike the night before, I was asleep before my head hit the mattress.

Day 2 stats:

Miles: 181 miles (386 cumulative)
Elevation gain:  9,429 feet (15,554 cumulative)
Elapsed time: 18:31 (40:23 cumulative)
Moving time: 15:01
Average speed: 12.0 mph


[July 30th, 2013 (day 3), 3:54am, 386 miles]

Breakfast of oatmeal, sausage sandwiches and plenty of coffee.  Body moving slowly.  After two nights I’d managed to accumulate a grand total of less than 4.5 hours sleep.  Time to push off.
Sausages and coffee; breakfast of champions.

Straight out of Moffat, we started climbing the Devils Beeftub. I don't know what a beeftub is, nor why the Devil needs one, nor why this climb is so named. But it was a beautiful sunrise, with the mists hanging over the hillsides. And it wasn't a difficult climb either. Actually, a rather nice way to start the day!.   

Day 3 selfie, climbing towards Devil's Beeftub.   Working on less than 4.5 hrs sleep.

Other cyclists were up and passing us occasionally, their red taillights showing the way in the dim light.    For reasons lost to the mists of the beeftub, Lesli and I started belting out Helen Reddy as we climbed.  But of course, we couldn’t remember most of the words…

I am woman hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
Da dah da  dada, da dah da da da daa-ah…


At the top of the climb, the hillsides came together.  We popped over the top of the ridge and began the long descent.  For the first time, I pulled on my Goretex jacket against the chill morning air.    As we passed some really desolate houses off on the hillsides, I wondered if they were occupied or abandoned.  Hard to tell.

Misty morning in Scotland

We progressed north; one thing that really struck us was how crummy the roads were.  Time, erosion, bad weather and heavy vehicles had really taken their toll on some of the surfaces.  Imagine the worst chipseal you’ve ever been on, then quadruple the decrepit-ness factor.   Sucked any momemtum right out from under us.

[July 30th, 2013 (day 3), 9:34am, 436 miles]

EDINBURGH!   Festivals, castles, bagpipes…

OK, well, not really Edinburgh proper, but rather a middle school somewhere south of the city.  Apparently, if you knew what direction to look in, you could spot the city off in the distance.   Slightly anti-climactic in that regard.   But, hey, so what, we’re here!!

Halfway done in 50:34.   66 hours to make it back to London.  How hard can it be, right? 

Pretty sure this would not be recommended in your typical bike mag.
The atmosphere at the control was, not surprisingly, pretty festive.  Folks were in a chipper mood, as were we!  I went off is search of food.

Bicycling magazines, fitness websites and bookstore shelves are replete with articles on proper sports nutrition.   The Interwebs overflow with recipes for foodstuffs containing the proper balance of nutrients to ingest for maximal performance.  Fortunes are made on businesses that do nothing but make science diet products for endurance athletes.

But in real life, hundred of miles into a ride with hundreds of miles left to go, you can just throw all that shit right out the window.

I have this belief that our bodies know what we need.   And that out on rando rides, one should not try to question too much what appeals at any given time.   Given how finicky stomachs get on long rides, if it looks and smells appetizing, just go with it.   So, despite the early hour, what appealed to me at that moment was the fish pie.  Now, I wouldn’t normally eat fish on a bike ride, but the smell wafting from the food service line was heavenly.   The volunteer put a steaming pile of whiteness on my plate and I was a happy camper.   Looking it up online later, I’m guessing it was haddock, potatoes, flour, butter, milk, some spices and maybe some cheese.  But who cares, really.  It was yummy!

This is the Good Stuff.
As we departed Edinburgh, we made a quick stop for some, um, lotions and potions. Better living through chemistry.


Not long after leaving Edinburgh, Lesli mentioned a sudden clicking sound she was hearing with every pedal stroke  I thought it sounded like a chain ring bolt needed some attention.   We dismounted to investigate.  As soon as she touched her tool to a bolt, it fell right out of the chain ring, sheered in half.

This was Not Good.

At the heart of randonneuring is the ethos of self-sufficiency.   Take care of yourself and your mates.  Take care of your body.  Take care of your machine.   Carry what you need to do all of the above, as rescue will not be forthcoming.   The challenge, of course, is finding the “balance point” between carrying enough to be self sufficient but not so much that you are being overly paranoid.  How many failure points are there on a bike?  What can you realistically fix? 

While both of us carry a pretty good variety of miscellaneous bits and pieces, chain ring bolts are not one of them.   So, we assessed the situation...   We could go back to Edinburgh, but we didn’t have tons of time in the bank.   But going forward seemed dubious, as we had over 80 miles to go until the next big control at Brampton.  There were two small interim controls deep into the hills of Scotland, but those had been specifically called out as minor controls, with food, drink and not much more available.   

We decided to go forward.  To minimize stress on the remaining 4 bolts, we determined that Lesli should try to just sit and spin, rather than stand and climb out of the saddle.  For Lesli, being a strong climber who likes to stand and pedal, and facing a TON of climbing between here and Brampton, this was excruciating.   We set off into the hills, into a quickening wind, with Lesli being uncharacteristically quiet.   I knew she was seriously stressing, worried about breaking a chain ring, which would be a ride-ending mechanical.  I soooo wanted to be able to make things all better, to fix things, to make her feel better… but there was nothing I could do.  When it became clear that she wanted to be alone with her thoughts for a while, I pedaled on ahead to give her some space.

Between Edinburgh & Traquair

I think I am a terrible friend.   Really.   After pulling ahead of Lesli, I stuffed my earbuds into my ears, turned on my music and started pedaling.  The terrain was generally up, the wind was generally in our faces, the sky was starting to cloud over and there was a chill in the air.  All this, plus Lesli’s troubles, should have left me feeling blue.  But as the calories from the fish pie kicked in, and the music throbbed in my ears, I felt *good*.  My legs felt strong, my energy was high, and I found a rhythm.  I stood on my pedals, and the miles seemed to disappear beneath my wheels.  It was exhilarating.  The guilt would have to wait.

[July 30th, 2013 (day 3), 12:35pm, 464 miles]

The Traquair control was bustling when we arrived.   The mischievous organizers had ordered numerous cakes decorated with witty LEL banter.  (Only 653km to go!)   (LEL?  LOL!)   They had also set out wee drams of scotch.   Lots of riders declined, but given the stress of the morning, I was like Hell Yeah, I’ll have some Scotch.   I grabbed some cake for Lesli & I and went out to find Lesli in conference with a volunteer.

Photo by Lesli Larson

Hell yes!

He was an absolute doll, desperately attempting to assist at least 5 riders all at once, and despite noble intentions, failing to resolve anything for anyone as he bounced from crisis to crisis.   I found my anxiety levels rising as he consulted maps, made some phone calls, and paced hither and yon.  Eventually, we determined that the nearest bike shop was in Longtown, over the border in England.   Lesli was understandably anxious to get there before its closing time, but I was skeptical we’d make it in time.  Nonetheless, we set off, up into the hills once more. 

Rob Walker caught us not long after Traquair, and we hashed over the situation.  Lesli’s bike was still making the disturbing clicking sound.  While we didn’t have a bolt, I did have plenty of zip ties, and eventually we hatched a scheme to zip tie through the bolt hole with the idea that it might help lessen the strain on the remaining 4 bolts.  Did it work?  I dunno, but it did lessen the strain on our nerves.

That's rando!

[July 30th, 2013 (day 3), 4:36pm,  493 miles]

On the bank of the river Esk, in the hamlet of Eskdalemuir, sits the Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Center.   In addition to some of the BEST food the entire ride (thick slices of homemade bread, steaming bowls of nourishing soup), this tiny control had one other key element.  A mechanic.  With a tool box.   A toolbox that contained a TA Cyclotourist chain ring bolt.  

How does one convey how incredibly grateful she is to find just the right person in just the right place with just the right part?  I didn’t know whether to cry tears of joy or to give the mechanic a huge sweaty stinky hug.  I settled on the hug.  He would probably have preferred the tears…

[July 30th, 2013 (day 3), 8:43pm,  528 miles]

We're back!   Photo courtesy of Lesli Larson.

We arrived in Brampton with Vickie Tyer.  We were cold and wet, having just weathered a HUGE rainstorm, followed by some spectacular rainbows, on the way in to the control.   We’d only covered 142 miles, but we needed to sleep before tackling the return trip back over Yad Moss.
Double double

Take THAT, Mother Nature!
Unfortunately we had no drop bags here (they were at the next control in Barnard Castle).  We ate, cleaned up, found the sleeping quarters, and asked for a 12:30a wakeup.  I put on the only dry top I had, then proceeded to squander a RIDICULOUS amount of time trying to organize my wet gear in the near darkness of the sleeping room.  My gear bag just seemed to explode into chaos.  Really, I don’t know what the hell I was doing, and my foggy, exhaustion-addled brain was not functioning.  I arranged and rearranged then rearranged again all the wet gear in a huge semi-circle at the foot of the mattress.  I vaguely remember stuffing my shoes with paper towels to try to absorb some moisture, but otherwise I think I just floundered about until I finally gave up at 10:30pm and fell back onto the mattress.  What an utter waste of time, time I that I didn’t have to waste.

Day 3 stats:

Miles: 142 miles (528 cumulative)
Elevation gain:  7,963 feet (23,517 cumulative)
Elapsed time: 16:38 (61:43 cumulative)
Moving time: 12:39
Average speed: 11.2 mph


[July 31th, 2013 (day 4), 12:30am,  528 miles]

Two hours of sleep.  Two miserable hours repeatedly broken by vast waves of chills coursing though my body, which was clammy, still clad in the rain-dampened clothing from the night before.  Huge, full body shivers that woke me out of sleep, after which I’d curl into a ball, hands tucked under my armpits, knees drawn up to my chest, and drift back off. 

The volunteer woke us and I sat up immediately, head in hands, afraid I would fall asleep again if I didn’t sit up.  Lesli popped up and managed to head off to the breakfast room quickly, while I had to contend with the gear explosion left from the night before.  Finally I pulled myself together and hauled myself off to find Lesli.

I truly don’t know how time evaporates so quickly, but by the time we ate, assembled our crap on our bikes, found water and ride snacks, and collected Vickie, it was 1:30am.   We set off – and up - towards Yad Moss.

Not a lot to see at 1:30am

We reached Alston, where the real climbing starts, around 3:30am.   We pushed our bikes up the crazy steep, rain-dampened, cobbled-stoned street, then began the climb.  Even this early, there was a faint lightening in the sky on the eastern horizon, and we could see that heavy clouds hung over most of the area.  It was cold, and we hoped we would not have to climb in the rain.
Day 4 selfie.  2:00am  6 hours of accumulated sleep over 3 nights.

As we climbed, Lesli pulled ahead, as she always does on climbs.  I spun slowly, feeling tired but surprisingly not bad.  I looked ahead, across the mostly treeless landscape and could pick out the tail lights of riders high up the road, as they moved up the mountain side.

Worth it.

The sky gradually lightened, turning phenomenal shades of purple, orange, red and yellow, punctuated by mist and dramatic clouds.   We summited with the sunrise, and stopped to take it all in.   We both cried a few tears, tears of joy.   Yes, we had many many miles yet to go, but somehow, making that second summit of Yad Moss, we felt like we’d accomplished a huge milestone, and that maybe, finally, we could start to believe we just might finish this thing.


[July 31th, 2013 (day 4), 12:25pm,  620 miles]

On the outbound leg, the Thirsk control had been so jammed with riders that we had done little more than get our cards stamped and use the restrooms before moving on.  The food lines had been so long that we left and opted for the supermarket instead.

On this return leg, however, the control was half empty.  We still had several hours in the bank, but it was becoming evident that we were in the back quarter of the group, well into the “full value” category of riders.

Nonetheless, we took a good long break here, fueling our bodies well.  We knew that between here and the next control lie the toughest remaining section of the course, our return trip through the relentless and steep rollers of the Howardian Hills.

And indeed, we began climbing within a few kilometers of leaving the control.   

Riding back through Castle Howard
I hate rollers.  I’ve never done well on them.  But something funny happened to me in this section.  Something that almost *never* happens to me on rollers.    I felt good.  I mean, *really* good.   By any objective measure, I was a wreck.   620+ miles in, my legs should have been total shit.   After 3 and half days of riding, I’d accumulated barely more than 6 hours of broken sleep.  I should have been crawling up those hills in my teeniest chain ring, agonizing each pedal stroke.  But I wasn’t.  I was climbing well.   AND, I was climbing better than a lot of people around me.

I blasted down one particularly steep roller, called out to some folks to hold their lines (which were distinctly wobbly) and powered my way to the top of the next hill.   Seeing a familiar rider who looked to be struggling, I slowed down to chat with him, hoping to help him pass the time a bit.   Two of the riders I’d passed (both male) caught up to us.   I turned to look and one of the riders looked at me, looked at my legs, slapped his thigh and said, in heavily accented English “Very niiice”.   I couldn’t help myself; I bust out laughing!    I’ve always been somewhat conflicted by my big butt and thighs.  On an intellectual level, I know they are strong and healthy. My power house. My Wattage Cottage.   I know I should love them.   But when I can’t find blue jeans that fit them, when I look in the mirror and think they are monstrous, it’s often hard to love them.   But at that moment, those two men paid me one of the biggest compliments of my life.  I vow to never think disparagingly of my thighs ever again!

[July 31th, 2013 (day 4), 5:36pm,  661 miles via Facebook]

“1065 km. 661mi. Pocklington again. 83 hours elapsed, 33:40 left to cover the remaining 220 miles. Sounds like a long time but trust me, it's not. Very little rest in our future. It's 6pm, we've been riding since 1:30am and have 52 miles to go before we sleep. And its raining... Long day. Cumulative sleep so far only 6hr 10 min.--  Lesli and I feel pretty good.  Legs are strong.  More rest would be nice, but we are holding up.  Undercarriages are suffering the most.  If I could stand the remaining 220 miles to London, I would…:

Pocklington, Take 2.

Despite liberal applications of Lantiseptic, my chamois had been irritating the heck out of the inner part of my thighs.  The chamois was fairly substantial, and I think a lower profile one would have been a better choice for that day.  But with 52 miles to go, there was nothing left to do but push on.

Just as we were about to mount our bikes, Norm Carr rolled in.  Ecstatic, I dropped my stuff, ran over and gave him a huge hug.   Norm, Lesli and I had shared many training miles this season.   Norm earned his first SR this spring, riding the 2nd day of a VERY hard 600K with us in the process.  I’d been so impressed with his progress this season, and was doubly impressed that he’d taken on training for LEL having never ridden farther than a 400K prior to signing up.  I thought that was very brave!   And so now, seeing him here, so close to the end of the ride, was fantastic.  Norm had started 3.5 hours behind us.  I’d been tracking his progress throughout, and he had been slowly closing that gap the entire ride.   I was so thrilled to see him. He planned to sleep while we pushed on.

Photo courtesy of Lesli Larson

As we retraced our route to the Humber Bridge, we found ourselves riding again with Mr. Wobbly, a recumbent rider that we’d shared quite a few miles with off and on during the day.  His stories were entertaining, and he and Lesli bantered on quite a bit.  I was really starting to flag as we reached the bridge, the last light of day having left sky, seemingly taking with it all of my energy.  Whereas earlier I’d seemed to have boundless energy, I now found myself struggling to keep up.

25 miles out from Market Rasen, the ride took on a nightmarish quality for me.  It started to rain in earnest.  The terrain was climbing gently, but it felt like a mountain.   The shrubbery was tall on both sides of the road, and I had the strange impression of being in a tunnel, the scenery every-unchanging.   All of the exhaustion of the 4 days of hard effort began to weigh heavily on me.  We found ourselves riding with a group and it was absolutely FREAKING ME OUT.  Riders all around me were unsteady, not holding their lines (I’m sure I was the same way), the red of their taillights seemed overly bright and I began to feel the panic welling up inside of me, sure that I was bound to touch wheels with someone and go down.   I backed off and started to cry stupid tears of exhaustion and frustration.  I soooooooooo wanted to be done, to be out of the rain, to sleep, to be off my saddle and out of my shorts, to close my eyes, to eat some food, to be absolutely *anywhere* but where I was, which unfortunately was nowhere near Market Rasen. 

Late late on the last night of PBP, the very same thing happened to me.  Exhausted, alone, and miles from my overnight destination, I sat on a curb in the middle of some French village and had myself a good long cry, my own personal pity party.   That time, Corey Thompson & Joe Platzner, two of my SIR friends, materialized out of the darkness and saved me from myself.     But there would be no Joe and Corey to save me this time around.

Feeling utterly hopeless and needing to get off my bike, I stopped on the side of the road, and watched the taillights of Lesli & Mr. Wobbly recede into the darkness.  I ate some food and tried to calm down.  I don’t know how long I stayed there, but eventually I pulled it together and pedaled on.  Soon I saw an oncoming headlight.   Mr Wobbly, incredibly, had volunteered for bonus miles to come back and find me, to make sure I was OK.   I doubt I ever gave him a proper thank you for that selfless act of kindness.

I’m really not sure how I made it the remaining miles to Market Rasen.  Every pedal stroke hurt, and I seemed unable to stop moaning from pain and exhaustion every few strokes.  It was agonizing. Truly, Lesli & Mr. Wobbly must have thought me to be a complete basket case.  And they were right.

When we finally made Market Rasen, I wanted to kiss the pavement.

It was 12:30 am.  The journey from Brampton had taken us 23 hours.  On our *fourth* riding day.  Unreal.  WHERE does that come from?  How does a body/brain find what it needs to do such a thing?  Hell, it’s my body, and damned if I know.

Market Rasen was like a refugee camp.   Riders were exhausted, and the strain was showing on the volunteers as well.   Two of the cooks were having a huge row, something about mushy peas, I think.  Why is it that colorful language is so much more entertaining with an English accent?

I plopped my stuff on an empty table and found some food, though there wasn’t much choice left, the hot trays being mostly empty.  I got my drop bag, went off and had a dreadful cold shower, put on some clothes and came back to find Lesli still at the table. 

I was miserable.  Utterly exhausted, body stiff and sore all over, and in a terrible frame of mind.   We had little time in the bank and it looked like we wouldn’t be getting much more than 1.5 hours sleep or so by the time we lay down.    I expressed my skepticism at my ability to get going again in the morning.  Lesli suggested I get some rest and not make any decisions at that moment.  Good advice.

I went off to the bed check-in table, only to be told for the 2nd time in 4 days that there were no beds available.   Are you kidding me?   I tried desperately to swallow the exhausted tears welling up inside.  God, I hate being one of those women who cry in situations like that.  I took my waiting list number from the overwhelmed bed attendant, returned to the table where I’d abandoned my gear, and put my head in my hands.

Eventually my number was called and I stumbled off to bed.

Day 4 stats:

Miles: 188 miles (716 cumulative)
Elevation gain:  8,799 feet (32,316 cum)
Elapsed time: 23:06  (89:30 cum)
Moving time: 17:17(where did 6 hours go??)
Average speed: 10.9 mph (good grief!)


[August 1st, 2013 (day 5), ~4:00am, 716 miles]

You would think, as tired as I was, that I would have slept the sleep of the dead.   But no, not so much.   Like the night before, waves of chills periodically ran through my body.  Everything was stiff, and the soreness woke me whenever I moved.   Plus, the air mattress I’d been given had mostly given up the ghost, being fairly well deflated by the time I was awoken by the volunteer.

I lay there for a few moments, weighing my options.  I was so tired.  It would have been so easy to just lay there and DNF.   But my pride ultimately won out.  The idea of having to go home with regrets, without a finisher’s medal, was what ultimately got me moving.  I’d trained all year for this dammit.  Time to get up.

I met Lesli at the table and told her I was ready to finish this thing.  Ok then.  First food.   Um, yeah, there’s no food.   I was shocked to see so little on offer, when so many people remained in the control.   I managed to find some cereal off on a side table.   There was no milk or anything else to put on it.   I found half a pot of coffee, but there were no cups.   Ah well, nothing to be done but to dump the coffee over the cereal and call it good.

Back at the table we started ditching everything we could possibly stuff into our drop bag.  It was predicted to be VERY HOT all day, so anything resembling cold weather gear got dropped.  Jacket, long sleeve jersey, toe warmers, long fingered gloves…buh bye.  Lighten the load.

We finally departed at 5:15am.   We had less than 20 minutes in the bank.

Lesli & I left together, but it soon became apparent that she had more left in the tank than I did.  The terrain was flat, but I kept falling off the back.  I didn’t really feel *bad* exactly, but I just had so little left.   Eventually, I simply stopped trying to keep up and let her go.

Day 5 selfie, early a.m.  Can we get this over with please?

The road was flat, the sun came out, and it warmed up quickly.   We were now retracing our way across the Fens.  Day 1’s tailwinds were now Day 5’s headwinds.  It was slow going.  Very slow.


Flash back to July 14th, 2 weeks earlier.  Lesli & I got together to pack our drop bags and talk about ride strategy.  I’m a big believer in ride strategy.   For every major ride, I build a planning spreadsheet, then distill it all down into a post-card sized slip of paper that I keep with my brevet card.   After Lesli posted a photo of me and my spreadsheet on Facebook, a photo about which my friends ribbed me, calling it “overthinking”, I made the following remark:

“I *am* a planner, and I really DO have a spreadsheet made for the ride. I'm not a "wing it" kind of girl. I used the same planning tool for PBP, and it kept me on track when I was too tired to think straight any more. It also helped me choose my drop bag locations based on where I expect to be when tired, etc. Rather than focus on how far there is yet to go, I find it very calming to know where I plan to rest, how I'm pacing myself relative to getting to the rest location, and staying on target for finishing. Those of you with more natural abilities may be able to wing it, since you are not ever really in danger of missing time cuts and are fast enough to get plenty of rest within the time limits. Me, not so much.”


Feeling slow, but knowing I wasn’t too much behind schedule, I soldiered on.

[August 1st, 2013 (day 5), ~9:12am, 757 miles]

I arrived at Kirton alone.  Not so many bikes in the corrals anymore.  Concerned about time, I pulled out the schedule I’d made myself weeks before, using the spreadsheet I had taken so much ribbing over.  And guess what:  I was within FIVE MINUTES of the arrival time I’d estimated for myself.  FIVE MINUTES! 

I don’t care; say what you will about me “overthinking”, but that spreadsheet is probably what saved my bacon at that moment.  I’d “planned” an hour-long break at Kirton, and now was the time to take it.   I grabbed a roll from the chow line and immediately checked in with the bed folks.   The sleeping room was 100% EMPTY (surprise!) and I asked for a 30 minute wake-up call.   It wouldn’t be much, but I hoped it would help rejuvenate me.

I don’t know if I slept, but when the attendant came to get me, he handed me a note from Lesli!!   She’d seen me lying there and asked that it be given to me when I woke.  She let me know she was going to go on, and encouraged me to stay strong and hang in there.

That note freed me.  I’d spent the morning feeling guilty, like I was holding her back.  Now I was free to move at whatever pace I could, not worrying that she was waiting for me somewhere.  I silently thanked her, and wished her well. 

Some angel had bought peanut butter and jelly, the first I’d seen the entire ride.   PBJs are one of my favorite ride foods.  I made myself 2 sandwiches to go and headed out into the building heat.  It was going to get brutal.

Progress was very slow.   The headwinds were terrible.  I spent a lot of time in my aerobars doing 11 miles an hour.  I listened to my music.  I tried to eat.   Traffic was heavy.  At some point, my right arm slipped off my aerobar while I was eating a sandwich and I swerved into traffic, to the blaring of horns.   Time to take a break.

I lay down under a shady tree to rest.  Once again I was overwhelmed with exhaustion, with fear, with doubt.  Worried about time again.  And feeling desperately alone. 

And so there, on the side of the road, I sent my Shoot Me Now update to Facebook:

 [August 1st @ 12:14pm via Facebook]:

“100 miles to go. 15:30 to do it in. Not sure I'm going to make it. Seriously. HUGE headwind, very hot and I'm completely exhausted. Took a 30 minute nap at last control.  Lesli is feeling much stronger, so she went on ahead.”

It would be so easy to just lie here and go to sleep.   An oasis-like shady spot.  Yes, lie here and let someone come sweep me up.  Eventually the neighbors will be concerned, yes?  And who really cares about this stupid ride anyway? 781 miles is just as good as 881 miles, right?  Whose dumb idea was this????

And indeed, there I might have sat, wallowing in my self-pity, if not for the bugs.  Tiny biting bugs that wouldn’t let me rest.  Crawling on my skin, making me itch.   Best get moving before I get eaten alive.  Back on the bike again.

More pedaling, more headwinds.  The heat radiated from the road.  Aerobars, traffic, headwinds, heat, it all blurred together, endlessly.  

I stopped in the shade of a SPAR convenience store, bought some snacks and cold drinks. It was air conditioned!   The parking lot was deserted when I got there, but within 15 minutes it was crawling with riders, taking refuge in the shade and eating popsicles.

 Desperate for some encouragement, I logged back in to facebook, hoping to see some notes from friends.   What I found there nearly brought me to tears. But this time, happy tears.

Katherine:  HUGS! Come on I know you can do it!

My Dad: I am feeling your pain. love dad

Karen:  You got it in you, Sista!

Sylvia: Be strong!!

Michael: 15:30? Hell, you could walk it. You got this.

Their words gave me new found strength, and their confidence in me gave me hope.  I pedaled on, slowly, slowly on.

[August 1st, 2013 (day 5), ~4:05pm, 807 miles]

I eventually rolled into St. Ives as the heat of the day was peaking.   Once again, there wasn’t much food left, but the kitchen staff had cleverly taken all the leftover pasta and refrigerated it into individually sized packets.   Landing with a plop on the plate, the presentation wasn’t much, but the cold, pure carbs were certainly welcome. 

I was out of on-bike food and needed something to take along.   I ended up with three slices of white bread, smeared with butter, and packed into an old bread bag.  This wouldn’t last long but it would have to do.

50 miles since the last control, and it had taken me 6:45 between check-ins.  No so zippy.  I chatted with Michele, another American rider, who offered me company, but she was going to have an hour’s nap first, to sleep away some of the day’s heat.   I wanted company for sure, but didn’t feel I had that much time in the bank.

As I was preparing to leave, I saw Theresa, the same rider with whom we’d share the “secret sleeping space” location oh so long ago on that first night.  We’d seen each other on and off in the interim, but had not ridden together.  Seeing she was preparing to leave as well, I asked if I might ride along with her and her French companions for a bit.  They welcomed me in to the group, and I was grateful.

Part of my new posse. So grateful.

Riding with this group was very interesting.  They had logged all their miles together since the start, and had very good discipline going.   They rode steadily, but not quickly.   Staying together on the hills, never punching it, staying together on the descents, never getting strung out.   At times, it seemed too slow for me, but I realized that the discipline in pacing was actually a good thing at this late hour, and settled in.   The riders chatted quietly in French, which I don’t speak, but I was ok just to ride.  One of the riders spoke some English, and we spoke off and on, about this and that, none of which I remember clearly.   Mostly, I remember feeling a sense of calm and relief wash over me, as we rode our way slowly into our very last sunset.

I'll be done before I see that sun again

Climbing a hill, one of our group fell over sideways, completed exhausted.    We all stopped to help him.  I had extra drink powder in my bag, and mixed him up a bottle, hoping the calories would revive his energy.  We set off again, one of his buddies helping him up the hills with a gentle hand on his lower back, using some of his own power to help his friend in need.    

[August 1st, 2013 (day 5), ~9:45pm, 853  miles]

Great Easton.   The penultimate control.  We arrived as the last bit of light faded from the sky.   This control had TONS of food spread out on the tables.   Cookies, crackers, chips, snacks.   They were serving the most phenomenal rice pudding at the counter, and fruit cocktail.   How it is that I never realized how awesome rice pudding is on a brevet?  No chewing, pleasant taste, fast carbs.   Yes, please.  And coffee, so so welcome as we prepared to make the final push.

As we rolled out, the sense of excitement was palpable.  With the setting of the sun, the hot hot hot day turned into a wonderfully mild evening.   I donned my vest for reflectivity but left it unzipped.  We were all exhausted, but with just 28 miles to go, we were starting to smell the barn. 

The LEL route designer, of course, didn’t want to make it *that* easy.  This would be no simple 28 mile cruise.  We were going to have to work for it.   If there was a hill between Great Easton and Loughton, the course designer found it.  And took us up and down each and every one of them.   In the dark, on twisty narrow roads, I often felt like I was going round and round in circles.   Lots of turns and I rarely saw a street sign.  Truly, I don’t know how those without GPS were navigating through the maze of zigzaggy lanes.

Yet, somehow, we made it.   As we pedalled down the final hill towards the finish, the gentlemen in the group pulled back and said “Ladies first”. 

[August 2nd, 2014 (ride day5), 1:00am, 881 miles]

Exactly 114 hours after I left Loughton, I crossed the finish line.

Done.  In so many ways.

Day 5 and final stats:

Miles: 167 miles (881 cumulative)
Elevation gain:  4,728 feet (37,044 cumulative)
Elapsed time: 19:42  (114:00 cumulative)
Moving time: 14:44 (74:23 cumulative)
Average speed: 11.3 mph (11.8 overall)

Epilogue:   This ride was the culmination of a year's worth of training and preparation. It's no exaggeration to say its the hardest thing I've ever done, requiring me to dig deep into reserves I didn't even know I had. I am so grateful to so many of YOU, who shared training miles and/or words of encouragement over the past year, and during the ride when I was feeling pretty hopeless in those final miles. I'm especially indebted to Asta, Lynne, Theo, Michal, and Norm with whom many hours were shared turning over the pedals this past year. And Lesli, well what can I say about Lesli? The woman is a saint. Beyond all the training miles, she saw me through some pretty dark hours on this event, literally and figuratively. So lucky to have her as a friend and partner in rando-crime. Forever in her debt. And finally, there's Jeff. It would be harder to find someone more tolerant of all this rando nonsense. I've neglected all sorts of things this past year in pursuit of this goal, and he's been remarkably understanding, picking up an awful lot of slack. "thank you" is a wholly insufficient phrase, Jeff, but it's all I've got.