So, the day was finally here. I had done a reasonable amount of training- plenty of short 30-40km rides, 1 x 75km, 1 x 100km, so I had some mileage in my legs at least. I'd also lost about 5kg, which was very pleasing.
The week began with a bike fitting, as I had been getting a lot of lower back pain. This was a detailed process - nearly 3 hours assessing my position on the bike, changing around various bits & pieces, learning a new pedalling style, and the next day I rode to work and felt a bit faster! However the back pain was still lingering, and I couldn't decide whether it was the new fit causing it, or it was left over from the weekend, or it was because I was nervous about the ride!
On Friday I went up to the ExCel to collect my starting pack, and to meet the lovely JDRF team in person. There was also a massage area, so I decided to let them have a go at my back, and it helped. I avoided the sofa for the next 2 days, which probably also helped! On Saturday we pottered around - I ate plenty of protein at a barbie, but in the evening I didn't really feel like eating - the nerves were starting to kick in, though I forced some risotto down, searched the house top and bottom for one of my lucky training socks which had gone missing, and eventually packed it up, got some other perfectly acceptable socks out of the drawer, prepared the rest of my kit and went to bed.
The night before the Etape du Tour in 2011 (a stage of the Tour de France going over 2 alpine passes and finishing on Alpe De Huez,) had been terrible - I'd lain awake devising a foolproof plan to hide in the woods behind the chalet until they all went - and I started that ride on a bit of a hiding to nothing with shattered confidence, dehydrated, and nothing in my legs. I got over one alp then was caught by the broom wagon. This time I slept pretty well, apart from being woken at bladder o'clock a few times, although I did wonder at one point if I should accidentally leave the garage door open to facilitate the theft of my bike...
After my experience in 2011, only a few months after my daughter was diagnosed, I felt like I had a bit of unfinished business with long distance sportives, and to really tempt fate, I decided if I were going to beat the demons, I would wear my etape t-shirt under my kit to get that closure. The lucky socks would have really pressed home my advantage, as well as the very generous cut off times, so I felt like I had a good chance, if my creaking back could hold together.
I was wide awake by 4am, got up and had some porridge Gaby had prepared the night before. Mum was staying (so we didn't have to take the kids along), and she woke up too, read through the riders' instructions and worried whether I had everything (I did!).I stuffed my jersey pockets with dried fruit, jelly babies, homemade flapjacks, and got the bike in the car, and off we went.
There were a few other cars on the road with bikes, and there were knowing glances between the drivers. We were all heading for the O2 carpark, where the bikes were unloaded, checked for the last time, wives were kissed goodbye (the event was about 75% MAMIL), and off we cycled through the closed tunnel. This was fun in itself - I have ridden through a closed tunnel once before in Rio, when the roads were impassable due to mudslides, but on that occasion there were diggers in the opposite bore making a terrible racket.
This time, it was just the whirring of pedals, and it was quite tranquil. Out the other side and along the road down to Stratford. I ran into Steve, another JDRF rider I knew, and we arrived at Olympic Park way too early, about an hour and a quarter before our start time. Didn't do much - queued for the loo, met some other riders, got cold, went through to the start pen, queued for the loo again, chatted a bit, lost my buddy, found a broken pair of Oakley shades which I repaired by clicking the lens back in, waited around, ate flapjacks, tried not to think about what was ahead... The hilarious PA man wasn't quite as tiresome as the one in the Etape, but he didn't need to be waffling on quite as much as he did at that time of the morning. (I wonder if they ever think to play calming classical music instead of pumping hi-energy pop?!)
And then we were off, about 5 mins ahead of schedule. There were a couple of miles until we officially started, and I just rode off at my own pace. There were a few bunches of people together, but no one riding in a properly formed group. There were chain gangs of good club riders who came through from time to time, but they were too fast for me to get on a wheel. There were all sorts of different shapes & sizes- from Boris Johnson's chiselled whippet to some very large people, and on different kinds of bikes - mainly road, but some hybrids, a few tandems and some bloke on a Brompton - no idea how he got on! Once we were over the start mat, we had a lovely run down the A13 with great views of the Canary Wharf area in the early morning light. Then it was down into the Limehouse Link for a while, until we popped out, somewhere along from the Tower. This is also where we saw out first spectators on the road, and I was momentarily overwhelmed by this, stifling a couple of sobs, glad of the protective shades. I had anticipated pain & suffering, but not emotion. It was going to be a dusty day, by the look of it.
Around the tower a large group appeared on my shoulder and swept past - Laura Trott & her team mates, minders and hangers on. They weren't going hugely fast and I was close enough to see them drop out by The Ritz - even telling another rider that whatever else happened, we had beaten Laura.
The route took us along the A4 then over Chiswick Bridge, through Sheen & up into Richmond Park. I wasn't riding in a group as such, but seemed to be sticking with the same people. There was a bloke with cow horns on his helmet for some reason, and I was glad once I had dropped him because he was annoying me! Cow horns! After the park it was Kingston, past the JDRF support on the bridge, Hampton Court then out towards Surrey via Walton, Weybridge and other places. The pace was good - 30kmh average - but it was windy.
The 10 mile posts came & went, and I was telling myself 10% done, 20% done etc. The 20-30 seemed to take longer than expected, and I didn't see the 40 mile sign. I had decided not to stop until the 45 mile mark, which was at the top of Newlands Corner. The ride up is quite sharp, but not that bad, and I was a bit surprised to see some folk already walking up, pushing their bikes. There was food & water at the top (bananas, crisps, gels) but I didn't feel like anything. I phoned home (more dust, what was happening to me??), let them know where I was, and though Leith Hill & Box Hill were up next, I was going much faster than I thought I would be.
I was quite amused as we headed down from Newlands towards Leith Hill to hear people around me mistaking the straightforward hill we had just been up with the brute still to come. On the way we went past the 50 miles down - the halfway point. There was a sorry lack of festivities at this point, but I commented on it to the bloke next to me at the time, who just grunted and carried on. Once we reached the foot of Leith Hill, it was as bad as expected and seemed longer too. It was hard to get into a steady rhythm as the road was very narrow, and once it ramped up to 17%, that slow lane became the walker's lane as people got off / got in the wrong gear & fell off. I wasn't quick enough to go in the middle bit, so, (secretly not that disappointed), I got off too! It flattened out towards the top so I got back on, rode off the road into the wood, tried again & managed to get moving again!
Once over the top there was a fast descent back to the A25, and I later heard that I'd narrowly missed a pile up behind me. Given the way some folk were hitting the descent, I wasn't that surprised. Anyway, as it had all been going brilliantly so far, there had to be a spanner somewhere, and the first spanner was that I got stung on the shin by a bloody wasp! This was painful but not debilitating - however, the St John's ambulance people in Dorking had no antihistamines, so it started to swell a bit. As I went through Dorking I saw the JDRF supporters zone, who cheered me on, and we shared high fives, then my friends Kate & Pat who had caught a train down to see me. I was so far ahead of the anticipated schedule that they had cut out the first place they'd planned to go and gone straight to Dorking. It was so good to see some friendly, familiar faces - the roadside support was fantastic, but there's nothing like seeing friends & family to put a spring in your step. Now I know what a difference it makes, I am resolved to go and support the marathon runners next year.
And so to the "mythical Box Hill" - I'm not really sure why it is so mythical, as it is a very gradual climb, 3-4%, lovely surface, no problem going up. No walkers here, so no problems with rhythm, though the wag at the bottom who said there was free beer at the top was a lying dog! I was at the top by 1210, about 4 hours 20 after setting off, and with only about 35 miles to go, I was looking good for a great time...what could possibly go wrong now?!
Even to entertain such thoughts was to produce the other spanner, which was that my right knee packed up a few miles later, and it suddenly became very painful to put any pressure on it - so any bit of road which went uphill became a real struggle and I started going backwards. I got as far as the next hub at Leatherhead, and hobbled into the St John's Ambulance tent, where they initially advised me to stop riding. That was never going to happen, and as all they could do was provide an ice-pack, I just took a few minutes to sit in the shade & massage my knees (specifically the IT band, which was causing the pain) with tiger balm, which I had brought along for my back! After a while I pushed on, and, while going backwards on any slopes, I was ok on the flat.
Some of my family were going to meet me in Wimbledon, so I let them know where I was from Kingston and carried on. All the way from Leatherhead I was wondering how I was going to get up that last hill, whether I would have to walk, whether my nephew would run alongside etc. I hadn't forgotten the penultimate hill along Coombe Lane, but there was a lot of support out by now, and so I was spurred onwards & upwards.
As I was riding up from Raynes Park, I got chatting to a Scottish bloke whose legs had also gone, and we resolved to nurse each other through to the end - but then someone swerved in front of me, I lost a bit of rhythm, and the Scottish bloke was gone. I wasn't going to catch up with anyone at this point. I got to the corner, and there were the family cheering me on, "Come on Andrew, only 10 miles to go, you're nearly there!" shouted Anna. I wanted to stop, but knew that if I did, I'd struggle to get moving again, and would have probably burst into tears, so I gave them a wave and turned the corner & started up the hill. The surge of "you're nearly there now" emotion carried me up the hill somehow, as well as all the support, which was really encouraging, and after one last stop for water (they had just run out of new knees, the guy told me), it was off along familiar roads towards Putney.
Halfway along the common, there was an old boy with a sign reading "pain is just weakness leaving the body", which made me laugh. My knee was just about tolerating the position I had got myself into, but when I tried anything else, like sitting up, or standing up, or taking my hands off the handlebars, it made its feelings clear very quickly and I was back down again. I coasted along past Tibbet's corner (not worrying about oncoming traffic was a nice change!) and on down Putney Hill, where we had to stop to let an ambulance cross the course. This was annoying, as valuable downhill momentum was lost and we had to start up again. It may not seem much, but 95 miles in when you're knackered, it's a real effort!
I don't remember much of the next 4 miles, but suddenly I was back on the Thames & heading along towards Parliament Square, where Gaby, the kids, Mum, Giules, Kate & Pat were waiting. I wasn't sure whether they were expecting me to stop & chat, but I just carried on past them (partly because I couldn't have stopped at this point), high fives all round, and carried on up Whitehall to the final corner.
Somehow, I got round it & through Admiralty Arch, even getting a bit of a sprint on as I went onto the Mall, then coasting over the line as there was a big group finishing together denying me my moment of Cav, and the feeling that the sudden injection of pace meant all the crap in my pockets was going to fly out...however, finish I did, about 12000 down (which doesn't mean anything as people started at different times), but according to the announcer, well conditioned to be finishing in a decent time with decent fitness. He clearly had no idea about my knee!
7 hours 10 in the end, which included a lengthy injury stop and a very slow final third - if only I'd found that other lucky sock!
We were then asked to dismount, given a nice heavy medal, given a goody bag full of junk - a milk drink, a cranberry juice, a bottle of water, some gels, a tube of toothpaste, a sachet of salad cream...all really useful. A cheese roll would have been much better. I made my way through to the park, found a space on the grass, sat myself down, had a chat with my brother who had finished in 4.5 hours(!!!) then got mobbed as the support team arrived!
It was great to see them, and they were so pleased for me too - I don't think I had fully appreciated how others had looked on this whole venture - because I had done 100 miles the previous summer with a couple of neighbours, albeit in about 5 more hours, I never felt that I wouldn't finish. But 100 miles is a long way, and I had only been training since June. I had failed to finish the Etape, (you can read about that episode here), so definitely had some unfinished business. I also felt, as I rode along in a blur from Fulham, that I could cross the mid-life crisis off my list. And whenever it got tough, I tried to remember why I was doing it.
After a decent sit down, we went up to see Elizabeth & the JDRF team, then we walked gently back towards Charing Cross, fuelled by chips & hot-dogs, and looking forward to a milkshake from Maccy D's! The knee stiffened up in the evening, but an ice pack and some voltarol meant I could just about get upstairs at bedtime and slept the deep & dreamless sleep of the virtuous - what a day!
This morning, having sworn that was it yesterday, and now that the knees are working after a fashion again (if anyone has any tips for sorting out femoral tibial band issues, let me know!), I'm already thinking about the next one - Tour de Type 1 anyone?
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