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Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Open Water Swimming & Freaking Out About Pike

Have you ever freaked yourself out for no reason? Just me then?




I planned a last swim ahead of Breca Loch Lomond swimrun. I was quite pleased with my organisation too. Didn’t forget any kit … goggles, hat, towfloat all present and I even managed to grab an early morning swim slot before we left for Scotland. Everything was falling into place like a damp version of Tetris.

Look at me being all organised! Like some kind of amazing swimrun pro. 

Rocked up to the lake to an almost empty car park and couldn’t see a single swimmer in the water. There are no safety boats or lifeguards at Stoney Cove. It’s beautiful but at over a kilometre around the edge and over 35 metres deep it can feel quite eerie. The cliffs around it are high and the water is dark and ominous when the sun isn’t shining.

I got myself sorted and climbed down the ladder from the side into the water. I bobbed for a couple of minutes, getting used to the temperature and the feeling of swimming with trainers on (swimrunners swim with trainers on) and I set off towards the far edge of the lake.

I was certainly entirely on my own in the lake – there were no other swimmers and it was quite a lonely feeling. As I swam I kept seeing something blurry out of the corner of my eye keeping pace with me, but when I turned my head it disappeared.

There are pike in the waters of Stoney Cove, reportedly up to 5 feet long. I have to admit I have never seen one here but have heard plenty of stories of swimmers being bitten when rinsing shiny goggles in the water. Was it a pike keeping pace with me? Something more sinister?

My brain then decided to freak me out by reminding me of all of the people who have died in Stoney Cove. LOTS.

Yeah. No.

I decided to swim back to the ladder but as I was already a third of the way around I realised I was swimming back across the deepest and eeriest part of the lake. My brain then did me the massive favour of visualising a hand grabbing my ankle and pulling me under the water. 

I had a WIBBLE. Went proper Blackadder.

Sometimes I despair of myself. I should start writing horror stories or something. Luckily another swimmer came along – appeared as though out of nowhere - and stopped for a chat so I followed him around the lake. And I was fine.

And the weird blurry thing following me? Turns out it was a scratch on my goggles.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Race Report: Breca Coniston SwimRun - Gerbils In The Walls & Drinking The Lakes

Tackling the first climb! (Photo by Route North)


I like to be organised before a race. I like to have my ducks in a line and to know exactly where and when I was going. And how far.

Turns out that instead of ducks-in-a-line. I had gerbils-in-my-walls. Turns out that Coniston Swimrun is in Lake Windermere. And Lake Rydal. And Lake Grasmere. There is no Lake Coniston whatsoever. This moment of epiphany, the evening before the race start made me begin to doubt quite how effective my prep had been, exactly.

I had HOWEVER been organised enough to write all of the swim and run distances on my hand. In biro. Before the race started. 

Organised ... with my biro and my writing ...


These lasted until precisely swim 3 when I tried to read the distance. Might be 0.9km. Or 0.5km. Or is that a 3? 

Biro! Thou Hast Failed Me! (Clutches breast) 


Luckily the organisation of the event was perfect. Registration was super-easy and very welcoming. I was checked in by the organised and enthusiastic Fred (who is the Managing Director and an endurance athlete!) who confirmed I had all of the mandatory kit; wetsuit, tow float, reusable cup, whistle and shoes. There’s always such a lovely welcome at the Breca events, you really know then that you’re part of something special. The shoes are also checked to ensure they’re clean and dry for biosecurity – we don’t want to accidentally introduce any invasive species!

Registration at Grasmere Village Hall


The atmosphere is amazing and even though every participant is very different, everyone is ready to chat and the enthusiasm for the Breca events is so infectious. You can’t help joining in with the excitement. You just KNOW you’re going to have an amazing adventure. 

The coaches picked us up from Grasmere village hall and took us to a village hall in Far Sawrey about a mile from Lake Windermere which was where the race was to start. Even the coach ride was buzzing, everyone was chatty and passing the high hills and still waters of the lakes, I couldn’t quite believe that I’d be climbing and swimming those within the hour.

There was the usual milling about and chatting before the race which was nice. It’s been SO long since an event that I’d forgotten how much I missed the social side. I met Jake, the Event Manager at Breca who was so enthusiastic and kept us all entertained with his microphone chat before the start of the event. Had a chat to Emily Walton — duathlete and cyclist extraordinaire and Kate Milsom — adventurer and bikepacker. Emily and Kate had teamed up and it was to be their first swimrun. They were chilled-out but focused and I had no doubt they’d do well. 

Photo taken by Jake (taken from the Breca instagram feed)


I’m not an amazing swimmer by any stretch of the imagination. I’m thoroughly confident though – a kick in the head doesn’t tend to faze me too much but I do have a big weakness when it comes to swimming. I drink the water. No, not on purpose. But I tend to ‘slosh’ after a long swim. This is particularly gross when I’ve been at a club swim session as I KNOW they pee in the pool. I just don’t know how to stop it. The peeing or the drinking. 

However, I thought I’d play to my strengths – or weakness in this case. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop myself drinking the lake water, but I may as well use this and not bother taking hydration with me. I’m going to ‘slosh’ anyway so why take extra?

It was a lovely chilled-out start. No pressure and it felt a bit like the start of an ultra when nobody wants to go across the line too fast! Rach and I started together but the trail was so busy for the first section as we had all set off together that you couldn’t really run side by side. The first kilometre or so was up a fairly steep track and I had to keep my eyes on the path as it was pretty stony. It was difficult to see too far ahead as there were so many feet in the way so I had to trust that I could jump over a hole or large stone with a moment’s notice! The trail wound up through sheep-nibbled fields and back down into a wood with a stream running by the path. It was a fun descent with the path twisting between the trees with sharp bends. We all leapt down the trails and the woods were buzzing with chat and people enjoying the trails.  

It was only about 2 and a half kilometres to the first swim but rather than keep the swim cap on, I’d stuck it down the neck of my wetsuit and put my googles around my neck so I couldn’t lose them. I’d gone with a very basic tow float which had a line around my middle which fastened with a clip and I just clipped this onto the float when I wasn’t swimming. About a tenner from PlanetX – bargain! There were a lot of people with pricey tow floats but this one was great and gave me no problems at all.

Hopping into the water, which was a pebbly beach with fairly large slippery stones, I popped the cap and goggles on, unclipped my tow float and span my pull buoy around so instead of being strapped to the outside of my leg, it was now between adding extra buoyancy. As you swim wearing trainers, it’s difficult to get an efficient kick so I use a pull buoy to give my legs some extra buoyancy.

Into the first swim! (Photo by Route North)


This was the longest swim at nearly a kilometre long and I found that it was difficult to sight. My face was warm from the run and the lake water and my goggles cold so they fogged up almost straight away. I couldn’t see the Breca quill flag on the shore – despite it being a bright yellow – so I followed the trail of colourful swim hats and pull buoys in front of me. This swim had been changed slightly. Originally we were swimming between the islands but it had been amended to between the shore and the islands. There were a few boats to swim around and I wasn’t sure when we had to cut in to the shore so I kept sighting on the hats and buoys in front through my steamy goggles.

Rach and I had become a bit separated by the single track trail but as I swam, I caught sight of some familiar star arm tattoos on my left – Rach! It was great to know that my swimrun buddy was shoulder-to-shoulder with me in this unfamiliar lake. 

A cluster of colours from the hats and pull buoys and the Breca quill flag showed on the shore and we cut in and came into the transition area. I started what was to become a familiar ritual over the next couple of hours; hat off, goggles down, spin the pull buoy and re-clip the tow flat behind me. 

The next run was about 3.5km and it was on gravelled trails. Nice to run on and a chance to dry off after the lake! Despite showing as virtually flat on the maps, the trails were constant small inclines and descents through woodlands. Lake Windermere was sparkling between the trees on our right  and it was the perfect temperature for a swimrun adventure. As it had been so warm at Gower Swimrun in 2019, we had to take our wetsuits down to waist height top cool down on the runs and that meant constantly taking the bibs on and off. As it was around 17*c (warm enough!), I kept the wetsuit on and the bib on the whole time and just unzipped a little if I was getting warm. It was a LOT less faffing!

The next swim was 200m across a bay. I licked the inside of my goggles before putting my face in the water and it made a HUGE difference – I could actually sight this time! My sighting point was the dip between 2 high hills and the yellow quill of the Breca transition flag was between these. With the advantage of being able to see, this swim was divine! The lake temperature was about 16*c which was perfect and the quick transitions between the swims and runs kept it interesting. There was no time to get bored of swimming or tired of running … you’d be splashing into a lake or splashing out of one before there was that chance! 

Into the depths! (Photo by Route North)


I waited for Rach out of the water and then headed out onto the next section together. The next run was very short, just over the headland before another dash into a lake and across a bay. The descent into the water was rocky and steep but I managed to get in without tripping, slipping or accidentally pushing someone else into the water.  The distance this time was 0.7km but the sighting was a little more awkward (the dip between the trees) so I set my face towards the yellow quill and set off. I was about halfway across but my sighting kept getting interrupted by a green kayak. Then an airhorn went off and one of the safety boats waved to show I needed to go around them to the right before re-sighting on the quill. I’m not sure why, maybe currents? But you can see on my Garmin map the loop to the right where I went around the safety boat before orienting myself back onto course. 

There were a few supporters on this transition which was lovely – always nice to get a cheer! I got out of the water and up onto the bank where I kept an eye out for Rach, She was number 5 and I was number 4 and she is very distinctive with her bright red hair but I couldn’t see her. I asked the marshal whether she’d been and gone but just then she popped out of the water! Perfect timing! This next run section was the longest 6.5km and it had the large hill of the course right in the middle – 210m of climbing. In a wetsuit! The run out was over trails which were single track and a bit marshy and then over a grassy field. It was lovely and reminded me a bit of one of my local races with the old oak trees and running through the lush tussocky grass. 

The trails so far had been a good mix. There had been stones, pebbles, slates, shale, sand, soil and rocks. And I had been perfectly sure-footed on these. I LOVE a bit of technical trail. However, what I’m not so good at is perfectly flat ground. Without anything to trip over. As I promptly demonstrated when landing flat on my face after tripping over precisely nothing. Absolutely nothing damaged, but now covered in mud, bits of sticks and random crap I carried on running with mucky badges of shame on my knees and both hands. 

Hiking the climb ... but the views! (Photo by Route North)


As we got closer to the ascent, the trail became rockier and single-file. As we ascended, the running became hiking. As I climbed up I started chatting to a chap who was doing his first swimrun. He’d wanted to drop out at the first swim but had pushed through and was glad he’d kept going. The trail narrowed even further and it was narrow single file and there was no opportunity to overtake so we were all caught at the speed of the person at the front of the line. A team running together took the wrong turn at a bend and were called back by the team in front of me. An example of how sociable and lovely this event is. They didn’t think of their placing, preferring to help another pair out.

I couldn’t see Rach now but knew she wasn’t far behind as I could hear her Brummie accent chatting away at a million miles an hour. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but I could hear the twang and the enthusiasm.


Is it another false peak?? (Photo by Route North)


The trail kept climbing and climbing. It was rocky and beautiful and I had a bit of ‘Sarah Moment’ almost falling over backwards … but grabbed some ferns growing at the side of the path to keep me upright! A bit close, that! Up at the top … and it was a false peak! A stony outcropping stretched upwards and a line of runners were moving to up it. I joined the line and at the top managed to scoot past a couple so I could enjoy the descent, rather than have to hike slowly down. I love a bit of downhill running! The path wound through the ferns and around rocky cliffs. It was beautiful and wild and green. Running down a steeper bit of of trail, a black line of mud stretched across the trail and I ended up with both feet in it – nice cool water on hot feet!

Getting to the top of the hill! (Photo by Route North)


The next part was a descent down to Rydal but I was caught up in a line of people picking their way down the steep, stony trail and I wasn’t able to take advantage of the lovely downhill. It was probably just as well as I’d probably have fallen down again at some point but it would have totally been worth it. I might even have bounced back upright with my tow float cushioning my fall and springing me back onto my feet as I was running with it behind me, clipped on, like some gigantic orange arse.

Fighting the Ferns! (Photo by Route North)


At the bottom of the descent, we came out onto a road at Rydal and lots of people walking, hiking and out for the day enjoying themselves. There was even an ice cream van. I didn’t stop but this may only because I didn’t have any cash on me ...! Just after the ice cream van was a Breca aid station and I stopped for a couple of cups of electrolytes. I’d carried a soft cup which squashes up on the inside of my wetsuit and filled it up before carrying on. As I was finishing my 2nd cup, I saw Rach running past. I called out to her but she was clearly In The Zone – I even saw her run up a hill! - and she didn’t respond. It’s so good when you’re that focused on an event! I caught her up after a couple of minutes and we plunged into the water together.

Into the next swim at Rydal Water, hat out of wetsuit neck, goggles up, pull buoy span and tow float unclipped and go! It was a short swim  - 04.km but a difficult sight as the sighting point for me was a dark tree above the Breca quill, however it was over before I knew it and I was out and running again. I was a little bit sad that there was only one more swim after this one. Who would have thought that I – the self-proclaimed flailer-in-the-water would be sad that the swims were nearly done?

The next run was just 2km and was mainly dirt trails under trees. My favourite sort of running – I LOVE woodland runs – everything just smells amazing. I’d got the course downloaded onto my run watch but I hadn’t needed to navigate with it as the course was so well marked with the red cardboard Breca arrows and little flags at the main junctions. Even I  - who is capable of getting lost on a staircase – didn’t lose my way. 

Leading the charge! (Photo by Route North)


I passed a team of girls and chatted to them briefly as I passed “Just 2 more miles including the swim!” We were all a bit sad that our lovely adventure was almost over. I ran through a few more trees and up and down a steep dirt incline and met a lovely marshal who informed me that I had only half a mile to swim, then a mile run and I’d be at the finish line. Hopefully with a medal around my neck, a snack in one hand and a pint of something lovely in the other hand. 

I ran down to the stony shore of Lake Grasmere and the transition marshal pointed out the yellow Breca quill on the far shoreline. It was almost hidden as the wind kept turning it. “Just aim for the red tree”. Red tree? I can see 2 purple ones. Maybe he means those? The treeline was quite flat – there was nothing distinct on the horizon to aim for. I went down into the water and struck out for the far shore. It felt as though there was a bit of a current helping me towards the far shore but I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to either of those purple trees. I kept going. The water was divine and I was a bit thirsty after all of that running – and talking – I took a mouthful of fresh lake water. Lovely. It seemed a bit weird to be drinking the lake water as I was swimming but I didn’t care. It tasted good.

I eventually got a bit closer to the shore but I was still a way along from the purple trees. I swam parallel to the shoreline and eventually spotted the yellow quill flag. I swam all the way into the shore, making the most of those last lovely seconds of swimming in Lake Grasmere and ran out, whipping the yellow cap off and setting the braids free. This was it. The final run. I hadn’t seen Rach for ages or heard the Brummie tones but I decided I’d see her at the finish line with a cold drink. Being a good friend and all. 

The last run was up a dusty sandy incline, through a kissing gate and then downhill on nice trails. We popped out onto a quiet country lane and suddenly were faced with a horde of ultrarunners coming the other way. I’m assuming they were ultrarunners. The kit, the numbers and the ‘I will loot your body for snacks if you die nearby’ look said it all. I have the same expression in long events. 

Braids a-flying, tow float a-bobbing! (Photo by Route North)


The lane wound around corners with the occasional car and ultrarunner coming the opposite direction. I began to spot houses and I knew I must be close to the race finish line. Suddenly I heard cowbells being loudly rung and people were clapping. A marshal pointed into a garden of a hotel and it was sprint finish time. Sprinting, with pullbuoy and towfloat bobbing, I made it across the line to the dulcet tones of Breca Jake the Magic MC saying my name. 

Even the medal is made from sustainable materials!


I can’t recommend these events enough – I’m lucky enough to be an ambassador this year – but read anyone’s race reports and you’ll see they’re all saying the same thing. They’re an amazing adventure through some of the most beautiful parts of Britain … and they have races in New Zealand and Canada if you want to treat yourself to one of these! What I do love about them too is that the participation field is so spread out. There’s no pressure to be an amazing swimmer, an amazing runner or an amazing swimrunner! The finishers times were from 2 and a half to around 5 and a bit hours and everyone had the same support and cheers and the same engagement in the event. I really loved this. At some events you can tell who is racing at the sharp end … in swimrun events … not so much. I thought this was brilliant 




Why Breca?
Why not help the environment while you race? Breca’s mission is to become a fully sustainable brand while hosting races in some of the most exciting and beautiful places. Their races have been cup free since 2017 (you have to bring a reusable cup which is checked at kit check!) and you can also do what I dod and instead of have a race tee, you can have a tree planted instead with Trees Not Tees! All medals are created from sustainable sources and unused medals are recycle with Zero Race Medals!

Result: 3hrs 23 and 9th female solo!


Run 1
2.6km
Swim 1
0.9km
Run 2
3.55km
Swim 2
0.2km
Run 3
1.5km
Swim 3
0.7km
Run 4
6.57km
Swim 4
0.4km
Run 5
2.1km
Swim 5
0.8km
Run 6
1.65km 

Monday, 12 July 2021

ASICS GEL-FujiTrabuco SKY: The Next Big Thing for Trails & Swimrun!

As I stood on the edge of Lake Windermere, dripping wet, I realised that I had chosen the perfect shoes to swim in. 

The arrival of these gifted shoes from ASICS FrontRunner was timed perfectly with the start of my swimrun season. I hadn’t planned it and had expected to wear the shoes I’d worn for my last swimrun (ASICS Dynamis 2) but these had performed so perfectly on the trails and drained so well in the wet, I hadn’t been able to resist wearing them in the lakes as part of my training. After the first couple of swims in them, I’d made my mind up … these were to be my 2021 season swimrun shoes! 




FIRST IMPRESSIONS 

The new versions were lighter than the versions 5 and 7 of the FujiTrabuco by quite some way …  although I have to admit there was quite a bit of mud on these previous versions … what can I say? I like to be thorough with my shoe trials!

The FujiTrabuco SKY is a lot more streamlined and even looks lighter than the FujiTrabuco versions 5 & 7. In fact, it’s a pretty good looking shoe. The colour I’ve got is the uniquely named ‘Digital Grape/Baltic Jewel’ which is a black and purple shoe with an orange sole and turquoise highlights. It looks good and it looks fast. 




There are drainage holes in the shoe sides and a holed sole to allow drainage of water. The sides of shoe are made of netted fabric so this looks lightweight and looks like it would drain water quickly. 




The FujiTrabuco SKY has similar lugs to the FujiTrabuco 5 - not too aggressive but looks a good sole for mud with the option of running on some road or harder surfaces if required.




The fastener system is similar to the Salamon Speedcross shoes rather than the laces of the FujiTrabuco SKY  5 & 7 which is a bonus for me. The fasteners don’t come undone unlike laces and no-one wants to stop to sort out laces halfway through an event or training run. Plus if laces come unfastened during a swimrun I might end up losing the shoe! Another thing which gave a good first impression is that the fasteners are looped through the tongue of the shoe to avoid any movement here which is good. I had issues with the early Speedcross shoes where the tongues would slide sideways and the thin fasteners would chafe the foot. This won’t be a problem in this shoe due to the looping. There’s also a pocket in the shoe tongue to tuck the fasteners into to avoid these getting clogged with dirt or bumping against the shoe.




I think I’d use them for trail parkruns, ultras and trail events and I’d definitely trial them for swimruns.




ACTUAL IMPRESSIONS AFTER USING THEM

What have I used the FujiTrabuco SKY for?:
Trails runs of all distances from short 5km trails to 10 mile+ runs and swimruns of varying distances from 1km to 21km! 

What I liked:
Easy draining if I step in a puddle or swim in a lake, they drain almost straight away and I don’t have any of the squishing noises! 
The shoe is incredibly comfortable. I don’t have to think about it at all while I’m running. It’s divine.

Great grip
 In my last swimrun there were slates, pebbles, gravel, rocks, mud, loose soil and shale and it was absolutely brilliant on all of these! No grip concerns whatsoever. 

Fit
My foot didn’t shift around in the shoe at all. I used my usual trainer size so good sizing too. Heel gripped well and toe box fairly roomy but nothing too much space. 

Lacing system
Brilliant for swimrun as it meant I could adjust the tightness and fit really easily. Laces didn’t come loose. 

Water
No appreciable difference in for or grip as the shoe was wet as to when it was dry. 

What I didn’t like
The insole. It came loose and also shifted around when I ran. I removed it from my shoes as I didn’t want it to ruck up and cause blisters mid race. 

Blisters
Got a blister on my right little toe after the 13 mile swimrun but I didn’t wear socks and had taken the insoles out of the shoes so this pretty much par for the course. Probably could have avoided a blister if I’d worn socks this time. However will definitely be wearing these for my next event … but with socks!

I’m definitely going to buy another pair as I found these shoes so versatile. Not only comfortable and high performing for trail running on a variety of surfaces, they were absolutely brilliant for my swimruns. Very versatile, very comfortable. 

NOTE: please be aware that these shoes were sent to me to trial as part of the ASICS FrontRunner program but I have been totally honest and transparent in this review ... if I didn't like them, I would have said so ... and certainly wouldn't be wearing them racing!

If you'd like a closer look there's a full description on the ASICS website here: ASICS.com

Friday, 9 July 2021

SwimRun Training: What Has Prep Looked Like?

So the countdown to Breca is on! What has my prep looked like so far?




A typical training week for me is around 8-14hrs … but a lot of this is geared towards triathlon so there’s a lot of irrelevant stuff in there too … unless Breca suddenly decide to add a bike element!

My week is typically 3 bike sessions, 3 run sessions and 2 swims and I like to drop a few strength sessions in there as well as I HATE having to take time off for injuries. I am the most impatient patient. 

Getting ready for Breca, I’ve switched out my pool sessions for lake or sea swims where possible and I’ve made sure that I’ve done these in the wetsuit I’ll be wearing for Breca to check for any chafing, any tightness or any issues that might pop up during a race over a couple of hours. I’ve also  either done the entire swim in trainers (the looks I’ve had from the swimmers!) or I’ve done a swim first without and then done the final part of the session in trainers. When I’ve worn shoes, I’ve used a pullbuoy. I’m using a pullbuoy with straps, then if I don’t hold it tightly enough it won’t disappear off with the currents plus I can move it to the outside of my leg during the swim!

I’ve also added a post-swim run, so out of the water dripping wet and out onto the roads or trails depending on what’s nearby! I’ve had some funny looks from dog walkers recently as I dash past in a wetsuit leaving a trail of lake water in my wake!

It’s been brilliant fun! Thoroughly enjoyed it so far … just to put this training to the test!

Thursday, 25 March 2021

BEING A WOMAN: How Running Boosted My Self Confidence

How did running boost my self confidence? 

It made me realise that I can do almost anything.




I ran my first 10k in a cotton t-shirt, some old baggy trousers and some trainers my Mum had given me because they didn’t fit her. Running HURT. I was about 5 stone over the weight I should be, a heavy smoker and I hadn’t really put enough training into this. I realised that running HURT. And that I would probably be last in this event. But it didn’t matter, because I was going to keep going until I finished this. Even if it did take me almost as long to complete the event as it did to drive to London from the Midlands.

I realised that running hurts, but that giving up would have hurt more.




My first marathon entry was a Christmas present from my husband’s parents. I hadn’t quite got the courage up to enter a marathon distance event. So they took the pressure off, by putting the pressure on. It was just what I needed. But I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it. 26.2 miles is a LONG way. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to do it, so I booked the day off work and went out to run. Long. I got lost and ran 29 miles by mistake.

I realised that it I want something, I gotta train for it. And that sometimes things don’t go quite to plan but so long as I can find my way home again things usually work out.




My second marathon was as part of a group of six, trained by ASICS and Runners World for Paris Marathon. I was in the right place at the right time and clearly didn’t come across quite as incompetent as I often feel … particularly when I’m falling into ditches or wearing 2 similar but not identical trainers. (Actual things I’ve done). I managed to come away with a 20 minute PB, a Boston Qualifying time and a negative split. And some really ace friends.

I realised that even the scariest goals can be achieved with decent preparation, solid training and some belief in myself.




I entered a 100 mile race. It’s amazing what sounds a good idea after a glass of wine. Or two. And I arranged to run it with someone I had met once in the middle of the night. In a field. Running 100 miles hurts quite a lot and your tummy does all sorts of strange things after eating jellytots and sandwiches for 50 miles. Turns out strangers met in the middle of the night turn into lifelong friends when you run together for 100 miles.

I realised that sometimes it doesn’t matter how well you plan your training and fuelling ... what really matters is having someone you trust guard the bush you’re in and pass the loo roll over.




I have entered and completed plenty more races since then. More than one or two have involved marathons and wine, several have involved fancy dress and a few races in GB kit after qualifying to represent Great Britain.

I realised that the memorable races haven’t necessarily been the ones where I’ve had personal best times, podium places or medals but the ones that have been memorable because of the people I’ve met. Whether that’s running a marathon in Surrey as a Ghostbuster, falling across the finishing line on the Cotswolds Way because I was looking for the cakes rather than at the kerb or losing my voice cheering a 10k race in Munich because I was shouting so loud.




I realised that I can do almost anything. With the right people and a bit of belief, I can run the world. 


NOTE: This blog was first posted on ASICS FrontRunner here

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Cycle to Wales: Sheep Up Trees, Faerie Mountains & the Knockin Shop





Day 1

BEEP BEEP:
Text from Rach at 04:53:
“Mate if you see the weather and think f that let me know as it’s really windy and really heavy rain here already … even the cat refused to go out.”

My reply: “Yes it looks biblical already. Your call. I’m ok to go with it.”

Then I got in the car and set off. It ‘s too easy to crawl back into bed at 5am … not the best time to make decisions. We could decide when I got there. I’d seen the weather forecast and knew there was a weather warning in place. Storm Francis was sweeping across the country bringing floods, torrential rain and 80mph winds. Bloody hell. 

Not ideal for a 260 mile bike trip.




It had been a bit of a year already. 2020 … pandemic panic, races all cancelled and lockdown. We’d planned this ride for as soon as we were all out of lockdown for something to look forward to and now we were going to be doing it with rainwater up to our eyeballs.
 
The phone bleeped while I was driving. But I didn’t pick up the texts until 0630 when I arrived at Rach’s house. She had asked to cancel the ride. 

Bother. I could see why, though. It was definitely a bit damp out.

Rach and I discussed our options over an delicious breakfast cooked by her talented husband. One option was to drive to Wales, ride about and then drive back. I didn’t want to. That’s not a tour, that’s a sportive. Besides, I’d been looking forward to a nice gentle ride there and back. However, I also didn’t want to pressure Rach into cycling in conditions she wasn’t comfortable with and offered to meet her there. I wanted to go by bike and was quite happy to go alone. I had snacks, GPS and a butt made out of asbestos. Besides I was fairly sure my skin was waterproof. If not windproof. 




Rach had a think and decided to cycle with me. She had spent days planning the route and wanted to cycle what she’d planned. She had drawn a 110 mile day for day 1 – Kidderminster to Colwyn Bay, 30 mile trip for day 2 – Colwyn Bay to Caernarfon and 125 mile trip for day 3 – Caernarfon to Kidderminster. 

Unconventional distances but I was happy to go with the plan and head for the mountains. 




Despite arriving at Rach’s at 0630 – we wanted an early start to miss the worst of the weather – we eventually left at 0830 hours. Faffing is part of the fun, right? Faces to the wind, we set off into the puddles and lanes of Kidderminster. 

We were cycling through flooded roads almost immediately. We tried to skirt around the worst of the puddles, worried there were potholes underneath that might swallow our wheels but some of them were road width and we had to get momentum up to go through the middle. Besides, who DOESN’T like cycling through puddles? There’s a ‘ziiiiip’ noise that tyres make through water that is pleasing to the soul.




Nevertheless, we both had wet feet and wet bottoms within 5 miles of leaving Rach’s house and Storm Francis came down properly, treating us to rain like stair rods and puddles that were a duck’s wet dream.

However, we were on an adventure! It was exciting! New roads, new places and MOUNTAINS later on!

Also CAKE. I had definitely been promised cake. 

And then at 18 miles as the storm notched it up a bit, Rach’s bike got a puncture. She had gone for a full set just before this trip – new bike, wheels, new tyres and new tubes on her bike. And now had a new puncture to match.




Rach hadn’t changed a tyre using gas before and in torrential rain with cold fingers is a tough place to learn. The valve sheared off on the first tube with the coldness of the gas and we had to fight to remove the tyre again. The second tube inflated and was sealed – after one of my tyre tools was sacrificed – but the tyre wouldn't seat properly. I also managed to lose half my fingerprint on the cold ice of the valve making sure this one didn’t shear off too. I didn’t want us to be 3 tubes down after just 18 miles.




But tyre was on, it was up and we were on the road! Woo! What’s a little bit of rain? There is fun to have, cake to eat and mountains to climb! 




Back on the roads and following the Garmin, we found the Mercian Way. Then realised we SHOULDN’T have found the Mercian Way … and backtracked. Maps? Who needs to be able to navigate? Just keep going west and we’ll reach Wales eventually, right?

Isn’t that how navigation works?




Going through Ironbridge and I noticed a bicycle in the window of a building on the left. Bike shop! We did a quick left turn and dropped in. Rach’s tyre not sitting properly was worrying her and we had a long way to go if there was a problem. The bike shop was called Bicycles By Design and made the most amazing bespoke tandems! They agreed to take a look at Rach’s wheel and shooed us off to the cake shop next door.




Fully caked-up and we dropped back into Bicycles By Design – not only had they found the issue (a piece of metal sticking up on the wheel itself which they’d ground down), they’d put a new tube on, reseated the tyre. They even sorted out additional gas cylinders and tubes. I did however grovel for a tour of their custom tandems … oh my goodness. If you’ve ever had dreams of a bicycle made for two I can recommend these guys. These bikes are BEAUT!





However our next obstacle was that the road to Ironbridge was closed – due to a murder! (In a Taggart voice) so we were given some very complex instructions involving a canal path, a train lift, a footbridge and a textile museum. It all sounded a bit complicated for us, who could get lost on a staircase … but we popped out at the right place surprising ourselves and feeling rather smug at our previously unfound ability to navigate. 




We’d planned a lunch at Shrewsbury in about 40 miles, but as we had already stopped due to the wheel issues and it was lunchtime, we decided to grab it while we were in Ironbridge and made a pitstop at The Swan Hotel.  There wasn’t room indoors so we decided to brave the beer garden. The rain had stopped and the sun even came out so we divulged ourselves of our damp kit, hanging it off the picnic benches and bikes where it blew around merrily like a mini washing line. 




We had a lovely pub lunch and much as we would have liked to have stayed and chilled out, we were already behind schedule so we saddled up, put our damp kit back on and put our faces to the wind. 

Rach announced that despite doing 100 miles on an indoor trainer, she’d never done 100 miles on the road on a bike. She was brave plotting a 3-day route with 2 x 100+ mile days without having done 100 on the road before. I was impressed and a little bit horrified.

The lanes were pretty and it was lovely cycling away, only having ourselves to please and chatting away a mile a minute. The rain wasn’t as bad as it had been earlier and our kit really was drying out quite well in the wind … which really was a bit blowy. While we were between high farm hedges, it wasn’t too bad but as soon as we passed a gateway, the gusts would push us almost across the road. And we had to keep an eye out on vehicles coming the other way being caught unawares by the wind too. 




There were a fair amount of branches down across from the trees which seemed almost comical and made it feel like we really were on a bit of a crazy adventure. We just needed a hobbit and a ring to complete it. We’d already had the Tyre of Terror and Cake of Deliciousness. 




On our road was a small town called Knockin. And to my delight, a small shop in the centre called ‘The Knockin Shop’. I clearly had to stop for a photo with the sign. Ok. About 10 photos.


 

The roads were certainly feeling a bit more undulating and they really hadn’t been particularly flat to begin with. We passed a sign welcoming us to Oswestry and which stated it was a border town. It certainly made it feel like we were heading into uncharted territory … as though we were going to pass through elvish woods or into the Wild West. 




As the border had been passed, the terrain certainly started to become more vertical. And the climbs really started. We were definitely in Wales now. Beautiful views and green sweeping hills filled our eyes. And sheep. Sheep everywhere. It was nice that things had changed so much in just a few miles. It made it really feel like our adventure had started. We may be slightly damp from the rain and heavily laden, but we were on an adventure! Even if it was wet and a bit windy. It was a bit odd being pushed UP some of the hills by the wind. Not complaining about it though!

Our watches were navigating us … it really was stress-free navigation. We’d get a beep when a turning was coming up and we could see how many miles until the next turning … until a particularly indignant beep told us we’d missed a turn. Missed a turn? We were on a straight road? We did a u-turn … maybe the watches expected us to go up this road … but it ended in a dead end! We turned around and went back onto the straight road … BEEEP! We looked at each other … then like some sort of horror film our heads turned to the left and up the vertical hillside – ok, mountain on our left. No. Surely not?




And then we spotted the tiny path that snaked it’s way up the side of the mountain. Noooo … surely not.




Apparently so.

Maybe it would get better after this first vertical, broken, trail section?



Spoiler. It did not.

It was as if a ploughed field had met a pebbled beach which had decided to have vertical babies. It was ridiculous. It was the sort of trail that if you’d have the option you would go around. That you would look at and go “Nah. I like my legs unbroken, thanks.” However, when we checked the maps, there was no way around … unless we wanted an additional 15 miles. We did not.

So we started it … telling ourselves that it was bound to get better after the next 20ft section, that the garmins wouldn’t have sent us this way unless it was an actual trail despite it looking like some kind of solid waterfall. 

It did not get better.

I would have carried the bike as it was THAT bad except it was also so steep that I was bent double just  trying to climb it. I had one leg in the trench, the other was 2 foot higher on the stones and the bike was like a 2-wheeled crutch. The trees twisted closely around he sides of the path and bent over the top enclosing it, like an eldritch, gloomy tunnel. 


Rach was behind me somewhere … I couldn’t look back and check on her, but I could hear the swearing and reasoned that if she had breath enough to swear that loudly then she must be ok.

It MUST get better soon.

After about a mile. AN ACTUAL MILE of this. I got to a crossroads of a sort. Well. A kind of muddy, stoney intersection. I propped my bike up and waited for Rach.


Rach got to the top and realised she’d dropped her glasses. She was going to give them up as a sacrifice to the trail of doom. She was THAT broken by this path but decided that as they were her very favourites she would at least go back a little way … and she found them sitting on the trail about 10ft down. 

That cheered us up … and as we were at a crossroads, we expected that the trail would very soon improve. Reader, it did not. If anything, it was was even bloody worse. I was crawling up this mountain side, branches were down, blocking it at places. I’d stop, put the bike down, chuck the branch to one side, pick up the bike and carry on pushing it up this hill. Tripping and knocking down stones after me, the wind throwing the weird elder trees around beside and over me, shaking them from side to side and this crazy, crazy path winding upwards. No sign of habituation or houses, just twisted trees beside me and this trail. Surely something had made it. Surely it went somewhere? I had lost sight of Rach. She was behind me somewhere down the trail, I’d glance below me every now and then but she was out of sight. I couldn’t even hear her swearing. 


The branches opened above briefly, letting some dim sunlight through. The wind was so strong, the clouds were moving in front of the dim sun making the light flicker like a strobe. It was very eerie and disconcerting and like nothing I’d ever experienced before. The roar of the wind in the background made it feel queer and strange as though I was in a completely different place. Alone on the trail (Rach was some way back) it felt very faerie and not quite our world. 



I put my head down and moved onwards as fast as I could. This wasn’t somewhere I wanted to stay for long. If there was ever a place where faeries stole children, this was it. I pushed the bike onwards and as I went I moved branches of the track for Rach to clear the path as much as possible for her. I couldn’t see her, but knew she was behind me somewhere. Gradually, I saw signs of habitation. First, there were a few strands of barbed wire fence, rusted and left behind. Then a can under a hedge, then finally, the old stone wall of a barn in the distance and a fence.

The trees opened up and there was a stoney track ahead, but clearly a track that was used, not the lumpen monstrosity we’d crawled up. And a sign (clearly hammered in by a farmer sick of having to tow idiots off the top section of the track as anything further down than 50m was to be left to rot) saying ‘Sense not satnav, it’s a track’. 




The next section was tarmac (TARMAC!!) and we passed a barn ... then a tree. An actual massive oak stretched across the entire road. Covering it with branches. There was no crossing to either side of it and no going over it as it was a fully grown oak. Rach and I looked at each other. We were NOT going back down that trail. Not only would we had to crawl down it – probably more dangerous than coming up – we’d have to take the 15 mile detour which would put us even further behind schedule. 




We were on top of a mountain, stuck on a narrow lane with a tree blocking the road. We couldn’t go around it, we couldn’t go over it … in the words of Bear Hunt, we were going to have to go through it.

It was NOT fun. The ripped trunk of the tree was angled up in the air and I was terrified that it would come down on us. There was no getting between the branches at all, the only option was to cross between the ripped trunk and the tilted remains. 

Sometimes, there is no option. So we climbed through between branches and just hoped that it wouldn’t move while we were there. 

But we were through. And at the top of a mountain. The only way was down, now. The descent was fast but steep and due to the amount of branches across the roads - which we had to swerve to avoid -  we couldn’t go too fast for fear hitting one or getting branches tangled in the wheels and going over handlebars. 

We made it to the valley at the bottom and breathed a sigh of relief. The roads were damp but there were no trees blocking them. We crossed into Llangollen which was very picturesque town and as we crossed over a bridge, we passed a railway station that looked like it should have been on a model railway. 





Due to the high wind, rain and gusts we had earlier decided to cut out Horseshoe Pass. This is a famous high winding mountain pass which has some steep climbs. We followed our watches to navigate, while looking for a right hand turn which would cut this section out. The roads were still incredibly steep though and the winds felt like they were working against us, we had to fight against the elevation and the headwinds. 

I got my head down and worked at it. Can’t go around the hills, just have to get them done. Rach shouted something to me. What? 

Apparently we had just ridden up Horseshoe Pass. Ah ok. I had just just thought it was Wales being lumpy. I’d seen the sign 20% for half a mile a while ago but the headwind had felt worse than the elevation. Apparently we had completely missed the turning to avoid the pass.




We missed the pass photo so took a photo by the cafe at the top instead. Meh. You have to work with what you have, right? I wasn’t cycling back just for a photo. 

The descent was fast and sweeping and fabulous. I didn’t see the cattle grid until I was already on it. There was one on the way up which I had spent AGES opening and closing the gate properly. Oh well. 

Were were now onto small roads and the light was fading. I thought it was getting really dark until I realised I was still wearing my sunglasses. Took them off and it was as though I’d put the clock back 2 hours …

However the rear light of my bike was fading. It was fully charged but I hadn’t been expecting multiple punctures, insane vertical mountain roads and having to climb trees with my bike so it had taken a bit longer than planned. 

The roads were undulating but nice undulating. Nothing too taxing. Then as the evening got darker, the roads got smaller and the surfaces got worse. Nice to cycle in the daytime but not so much fun in the dark. As the roads got worse and the dark deepened, our speed also slowed. In the darkness, we couldn’t see the potholes or downed branches so easily so needed to slow our pace. The hours stretched out and the night got wetter and colder. The hotel seemed a long way away.

We had a miserable petrol station dinner of sandwiches while standing in the rain. The wind blew the filling out of sandwiches and the darkness was deep around the lights of the petrol station. The shop clerk wouldn’t let us stand inside to eat so we shovelled as much food in as we could before we got too cold or the wind blew it away or it got rain-sodden.

Cold and miserable, we climbed onto our bikes. The last 20 miles took forever. We had small dark roads, then about 7 miles on a coast path which is a cycle route. We’d not have to worry about traffic and hopefully the surface wouldn’t be too bad. We just had to get there and then our hotel would be a mile away. Just focus on the hotel. Warmth. And I’d be able to get dry. It had been a long old day out. 

The roads got smaller and smaller and we crossed a bridge and turned onto the cycle path and into the wind. To put into context how strong this wind was, Rach and I tend to cycle at around 20mph in a race.  The headwind was so fierce on the cyclepath that we averaged 7mph! And that was tough going. Like being in the big ring and pushing up at 20% hill.  I have never known anything like it. It was 7 miles of awful cycling. And stones stuck up as sea breaks between the path and the sea like tombstones. And to make it worse, we passed some signs warning of steep drops. Ok that’s fine, but after the drops were 10% sections. On a cyclepath. With that headwind. It was FAR worse than Horseshoe Pass.

With a final beep, Rach’s garmin battery died and mine had 10%. Don’t conk out now, garmin. We’re using you to navigate ... 

7 miles of hellish cycling and then we turned left off the coastal path. We were NOT sorry.  As we turned onto the main road Rach spotted a glowing sign, lit up like the gates of heaven. The Travelodge sign. 




Checked in and into the room at 00.01. 

109.94 miles
2620 metres of climb


DAY 2

I’d set a late alarm. We’d not made it into the room until past midnight and after a much needed shower, it was gone 0100hours before I’d crawled into bed with a sigh of relief. 

I woke at 0600 hours, but turned over, grateful for a short day of only 30 miles today and slept in for another 2 hours.

When I crawled out of bed, I found Rach had left me a cake from a shop she’d found. It was divine. Good cycling days are built on cake. The cake was date, jam and deliciousness. 

Even better, there was bright sunshine streaming through the window.

We went for breakfast at the cake shop; Kitchen Cafe in Colwyn Bay. It was divine. Avocado and tomato and spinach and mushrooms on toast. It was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. I scoffed every scrap. Had two cups of coffee and a glass of orange juice. Perfect.




As we walked out of the cafe, with full stomachs, we passed a man outside a charity shop. He was merrily pedalling away in the sunshine on a stationary bike to raise money for charity. I gave him a side eye because he just looked too happy. 

Today was a short hop from Colwyn Bay to Caernarfon and mainly on cycle paths. Stress-free and happy. When we spotted a puddle on the road, we actually got off our bikes to avoid it. After yesterday we were NOT getting wet again unless we absolutely had to. I had a dry bum and I wanted it to stay that way. 




The sun was shining, the scenery was beautiful and just as I was getting into the ride, I heard a ping and noticed that the bungee from my drypac on the front of my bike was wrapping around my front wheel …! Crap! I did an emergency stop before it pinged and catapulted me all the way to Caernarfon. 


I did NOT need a catapulting accident as well as tree climbing, insane lanes and storms. Besides, how on earth would I explain to the insurance company how I broke both my legs without them laughing me off the phone?


We were cycling happily through pretty lanes and over small hills and chatting away. It is surprising how much easier everything is in the sunshine. The woes and misery of last night and salad sandwiches at a petrol station in the dark was quickly forgotten. 




We had a brief stop at Conwy. It’s so beautiful and how could I pass up the opportunity to see the (outside) of the smallest house in Britain and the pretty harbour and castle? It was so beautiful there. But a lot of people. 





We moved on quickly and hopped onto the onto the cycle path. The sea was on my right and the mountains on my left. It was so, so beautiful. The sun was out, I had short and easy miles on the bike … life was good! It was insanely picturesque and it felt as though we were cycling through Nepal with the mountains towering above us. It really didn’t feel like an afternoon in Wales.




The cycle path ran parallel to the main road for a while with cliffs on the left and then it crossed over by bridge with a series of zig zags to become the steepest cycle path I’ve ever done! Great view from the top though.




We cycled on the main road for a few miles and through a few towns. The roads were busy but smooth and then we hopped into the lanes. These were a bit more undulating and with a few juicy climbs which were made up for by the descents. Coming down one of the steeper descents, the brakes went on VERY hard. A ford, probably usually small and trickling, was - after the onslaught of rain yesterday - a raging tea coloured torrent. We took the foot bridge. A car came down, saw the deluge of water and reversed back up the hill. 


The other side of the bridge was a very steep uphill. I hadn’t expected the ford so I was in COMPLETELY the wrong gear after the fast descent. I jumped back on the bike after the bridge and finally got going by going back and forth across the single track road to get into the right gear. It was a proper hill and towards the top of road, despite being in a granny gear, it was so steep I couldn’t turn my legs and fell sideways in a heap. No one saw! I dusted myself off and pretended it never happened. What – this graze on my knee? No idea. 

I stood around looking nonchalant until Rach appeared behind me with her bike. 



We had a few steady miles in the lanes, undulating and interesting following cycle route 5. As we were climbing upwards, we had grassy fields stretching upwards and the occasional tree by the road with wire fences separating the livestock from the roads. I glanced to my left and said “RACH!” To make her look. “RACH! There’s a sheep in that tree!” And there was. I mean, I know we’re in Wales and the sheep probably do get in places they shouldn’t but I certainly didn’t expect to see one in a tree.

And no I didn’t have concussion from falling off my bike.

The lanes wound on, but I didn’t spot any more livestock in the trees. During a steady but long climb Rach announced that she’d had enough of cycling and was calling it a day and was getting the train home. This seemed to be out of nowhere. I tried to persuade her to get to the hotel to have a sleep as we were only 12 miles away from Caernarfon but she was adamant. Fair enough. When your motivation goes there’s no point continuing and hating it. 

Sometimes things just don’t go to plan.




We carried on through the lanes and down a long steep hill, lined with cottages. As we got towards the T-junction, Rach announced that Bangor station was 0.1 miles away and she was going. I offered to see her to the train but it was an hour’s wait so we decided we’d split there and she’d be on the train and I’d be in the hotel at about the same time. 

And then there was one. 

The next section was a steep climb through a street lined with houses. Ouch! But fun! Had some fun with a bus trying not to overtake at bus stops when he stopped and doing some very slow pedalling behind him at junctions but managed to a. not fall off b. piss off the driver of a very large object. 

There were rolling roads for a few miles which were very, very busy and not terribly cyclist friendly. I hopped on the cycle path for a bit when it was available and got some lovely speed up down a hill before taking around 15 minutes to cross a major roundabout with busy traffic. Not even joking about the wait. It was 2 lanes and there just wasn't a let-up in the traffic and as it was down the bottom of a very steep hill, the cars weren’t even coming to a stop before going. I eventually got a gap and pegged it across without being flattened.

A couple more miles on this road and the cycle lane came to an abrupt stop. A man passing stopped for a chat as I was checking routes and he said that a cycle route continued a little way up the hill on a minor road which bypassed this busy road. Apparently there had been some nasty accidents on this stretch of road involving bikes. I took his advice and cycled up the hill a little way until I came to a small path covered with leaves and shaded by trees hanging over on either side. On the map it looked as though this path intersected my route on the busy road, so I took a chance and set off under the trees.  




Gloriously leaf covered trails under trees. Lovely. I stayed on this trail on and off for the next 5 or 6 miles passing runner, walkers and other cyclists, I didn’t need to rejoin the busy road at all. It was calming and peaceful and there was no route-checking, no worrying abut traffic and about 30 minutes later, the route popped me out on Victoria Docks in Caernarfon. About 200m from my hotel. 

It was just what I needed. 

I went into the Travelodge and the receptionist was a cyclist. Stopped for a chat about cycling for about 20 minutes and went to check in.

I took the lift up and opened the door to the best hotel room ever. After a miserable few hours in the last hotel room, wet, cold and squeezed into what felt like a cupboard decorated with wet kit, I was now in an open airy space like a penthouse suite. I had windows on two sides with a view of the church and cliffs above Caernarfon and a glimpse of he sea the other side. Divine! Room 230. Clearly the best hotel room in the place. I was a little sad that I was here on my own, but sometimes things just happen. 




I carefully propped up Evie and dropped Rach a text so she knew I’d got to the hotel. First job … shower and rinse out the kit for tomorrow.




Smelling a bit better, I had a walk around the town with the intention of booking a table for food later on. The Eat Out to Help Out thing was on and absolutely everywhere booked up without spaces. I literally went into every single pub, cafe and restaurant I could find. No luck.

I’d blame it on the windswept hair and dents on my nose from the cycling glasses, but it seemed like a lot of other people had missed out so it wasn’t just strange cyclists with English accents.  




I popped into a newsagent and had a sandwich and a takeaway coffee by Caernarfon Castle. It was sunny and peaceful and the harbour was calm. I got cold quickly as the sun starting lowering, so I finished my coffee and took the long way back to the hotel along the side of the sea. 




Rather than heading out again, I walked to the supermarket by the hotel, and treated myself to a Morrison’s dinner of sushi and mango. Washed down with a bottle of cider. 

I believe it’s what all ultra cyclists eat in the evenings. 




I reflected on the next day. It was a 125 mile ride back and I’d be doing it on my own. No toothpaste and no shampoo as Rach had taken those with her but l could manage without for one day. Rach also had the tyre tools. One of mine had been broken changing her tyre so I’d have to rely on fingernails and patience if I got a flat. No problem. Swearing and plastic cutlery it would be then. 

I adore Rach and she’s brilliant company, but I was a bit peeved about being dropped in the middle of Wales, on a route that she’d planned and with a 125 mile last day. It was going to be one of my longest ever rides. And I’d be doing it solo and unsupported. 

Meh. So long as the coffee shops were open. 

And she’s still an ace cycling buddy. (Love ya, chick)

30.1 miles
552 metres of climbed



Day 3

Woke up 15 minutes before the alarm because isn’t that usually the case? Can’t even get a lie in after 150 miles on the bike … but there are adventures to have, lanes to explore, hills to climb … and no doubt roads to get lost on, punctures to have and coffee to be drunk. So better be at it. 

The damp bike kit had dried out nicely and Evie was looking sparkly after her wipe down yesterday. I’d dried the socks on the windowsill as quite frankly even a couple of soap washes weren’t enough to take out 150 miles of feet. Damp feet. The shoe covers had dried out. It was shaping up to be a good day.

I’d decided that 125 solo miles was too far to think of in one chunk. So after looking at the map, it looked like I’d be at the top of the biggest mountain at around 50 miles. So that’s section one. It would be undulating after that but nothing compared to the Welsh mountains and at around the 100 mile mark I’d be round about Shrewsbury. So that would be the 2nd 50 mile section. And then? I just had to find my way back through the lanes to get to Rach’s house. 

And then into the car, back down the M6 and home. Where the food and the shower was.

And where I could sit down without having to pedal.




After my dismal dinner of the evening before, I managed to get a full English breakfast for £2.75 at Morrisons. Coffee and apple juice included. 

It was a good start to a long day. 

Bike loaded up and with dry kit on, I was in good spirits. I managed to take a wrong turn within half a mile of the hotel, but managed to rectify it and coming off of a major roundabout, just leaving Caernarfon, I came past a dog walker who’d just crossed the road. As I zipped past, his small white dog lunged off the pavement to try and bite me, taking about 6ft of extendable lead with it. Luckily it’s aim was poor otherwise it would have ended up under the wheels and I would have ended up in a heap. On top of the bike. And the dog. And nobody would have been happy.




Luckily the rest of the way out of Caernarfon was uneventful and the route took me into the Snowdonia National Park. As the scenery grew more beautiful, the sky grew darker. I passed by the picturesque railway, the damp stone buildings of the youth hostels and some extremely inviting looking pubs as I wound my way through the lanes around the bottom of the mountains. It was overcast and drizzling now and I was cycling through puddles, but I was smiling as just couldn’t get over how beautiful it was.

Sheep were hanging onto crazy places on the mountainsides although I didn’t see any more in the trees. Or even in a hedge.  




The scenery was magnificent and awe inspiring and despite the weather, I was glad to be cycling here where it was so beautiful. I passed a couple of cyclists but not many and it seemed that the (now torrential) rain had put people off. I’d put my waterproof jacket on very early but the sheer amount of rain meant that it didn’t stop me getting soaked through. I’d gone without gloves today as I’d worn them on the first day and they got wetter and wetter and didn’t dry out so I felt that my hands were colder than if I hadn’t worn them at all. Without gloves, my hands were cold on the flats and downhills when I wasn’t staying warm by pedalling hard but were ok on the climbs. Although I did notice that without gloves I was getting a blister between thumb and forefinger of right hand. At least I’d have a good excuse for it. 

It was so wet it was kind of funny. There was water running down the roads, dripping off my nose and chin and soaking into my feet. As I passed yet another tiny railway station, it vaguely crossed my mind about getting a train part of the way back but it was no more than a fleeting thought. I was already wet on the bike, I’d be wet on the train.   




I knew that my first 50 miles of the day were the hilliest and I would be at the highest point of the day almost exactly at the 50 mile point. It was quite nice having a marker like this. I don’t know whether I thought it would be all downhill after this point … I wasn't thinking about it at all, lest I just get on the damn train. Just keep pedalling.

I also now only had 3 gears for some reason. My bike is a few years old now and there had been some issues with water and muck getting into the cable sheathing. Well. I’d managed with a 3 gear bike when I was a kid. What’s 3 gears and a few mountains between friends?




I had previously planned to stop at Bala for lunch but I still had the largest climb of the day to do so decided to power on through that before stopping. It seemed silly to stop before that and get cold before starting the largest climb. 




I climbed a few sizeable hills and on the biggest one, upon seeing a lovely view across a valley, I stopped for a photo. I had decided I wasn’t going for any speed records (unless downhill would count? With the amount of kit I’d packed, I was getting a fair speed up!) but to enjoy the journey so if I saw some spectacular views I would be stopping for photos. I smugly checked the elevation to see how far I had to go before I finished all the mountains and realised I was only partway up the first hill... the others – despite their size! - hadn’t even registered on the days’ elevation chart. Oh. 






Back on the bike and carried on climbing. After all what choice did I have? I wasn’t going to stop for lunch until I got to at least 50 miles so every minute I dawdled, lunch was getting further away. And I LIKE lunch. Particularly after I’ve built up an appetite from a damp, hilly bike ride.

The mountain kept on going … and I kept climbing. This big hunk of stone and dirt was standing between me and my pub lunch. As I got further up, the road twisted into alpine style bends. I love cycling these, makes me realise I’m on a proper climb and far from home. All OUR roads just go straight up. And then back down again. None of our climbs are big enough for proper alpine bends. 




There were quite a were lot of cattle grids intersecting the roads which were slippery in the rain. Coming up to these, I kept the bike as straight as possible and didn’t brake as I didn't want to slide or put a wheel between the bars as that would have led to a very nasty accident. And I’d STILL have to cycle home afterwards. 

The first hill terminated in a rocky outcrop with sheep nibbled grass. It felt very remote and bare. The road wound around some rocky spires before descending and on the wind-blown hill, I felt a long way from anywhere. 




I stopped on a long straight road edged with pines and had a drink, then climbed back onto the bike to tackle a steep climb which wound out of the trees and up, twisting up a bare hillside. The wind was in my face and it was tough going. Every pedal stroke took me a little further forward, while the wind tried to push me back. Just keep pedalling. Head down, I pushed on to the top, while a lorry loaded with cut tree trunks on a flat bed roared past me. Every time I looked up, I’d see another bend in the road. Was this the last section? Or did I have another mile of climbing to go? Head down, wind blowing and the rain dripping inside the collar of my jacket, I could see a sign. That was the top, the ‘Welcome to Powys’ sign. 




I propped Evie up against the sign for a photo and treated myself to some pick n mix sweets. It was the BEST pick n mix I had ever tasted. I might have casually picked it up in the Spar the evening before in Caernarfon while I got my coffee but it was a definite highlight of today. Thanks Yesterday Sarah. Good planning.

After the long climb, the downhill was steep and fun. Couldn’t get much speed up due to the sheep on the road and the odd branches and debris from the storm. It did mean I got quite cold though. 

Stopped at the first pub I came to and tucked the bike outside. I had to stay in the conservatory though as I wanted to keep an eye on the bike and it was cold. I changed my jersey for my hoody that I’d slept in (the bliss of a warm, dry top!) and put my waterproof over my legs to try and keep some heat in. I ordered 2 courses and scoffed the entire lot. I also ordered 3 cans of Coca Cola. One for the meal and 2 for my drinks bottle. 




2 sheep tried to get into the pub as I was sitting there. Sheep. They get bloody everywhere.



The few miles afterwards were like I was turbo powered. The meal was the perfect choice and even my legs felt fresh. I soon passed a sign saying welcome to Shropshire and the ‘ARAF’ s disappeared off the road as I was back in England, replaced by ‘SLOW’. Perfect description of my pace by now.




Shrewsbury came quickly and the cycle lanes slowed me down as I had to stop at every junction. I carefully opened my last vestiges of pick n mix and promptly dropped them. I could have cried. I’d carried them up mountains in Wales, past numerous sheep, kept them dry in  a storm … just to drop them in Shrewsbury.

I gave my bike lights a quick charge up while I was on the cycle paths, before darkness fell. I didn’t want to be caught out on the dark lanes by Ironbridge without decent lights.




I passed the Ironbridge and past the road closure and managed to retrace my route from 2 days ago through the dim twilight. I picked up the bike to carry it up the steps of the small iron footbridge and was back on the canal before popping out past the bike shop. 




A very steep hill out of Ironbridge meant I was out of the saddle for almost the first time in the whole 3 days. It didn’t matter if I blew my quads out now. The tough part was done. Nose towards home now. The light was lost and I had all my bike lights on – circles in the darkness.

The daylight was entirely gone after Ironbridge and I had 20 miles of unfamiliar dark lanes to navigate. I don’t like being alone in the dark. Things live in the dark. There were weird noises. I tried not to think about ALL THE HORROR FILMS I HAD EVER SEEN. 

Which of course meant I promptly thought about all the horror films I had ever seen.

I was just regaining my nerve when something hissed at me from a hedge. Just by my left ear. My legs took over before my brain engaged and whisked me out of there. I swear I would have dropped Lance Armstrong on that section.  


Just as my heart rate was slowing down and nearing it’s previous max (pre-hissing-monster-in-hedge-max), a dog chased along with me from the other side of a fence. I really hoped that the owner hadn’t left a gate open. Because quite frankly I was in no mood to be messed with.

Right. Game plan. Sing. 

I have a voice which can ruin even the easiest songs and tarnish silver. Happy birthday? Ruined it. Twinkle twinkle little star? Made small children cry.

So I sang. I was singing (incredibly badly) very loudly so I didn’t think about how spooky it was. The moon was shining through the clouds in classic werewolf style but it didn’t seem to illuminate anything. However, with my truly dreadful singing, the locals would no doubt be locking their windows and barring the doors thinking monsters were abroad.

Not just hissing ones tonight, cycling ones too.  

Finally, a village. And not one which looked like it would have locals with flames and pitchforks. Kinver. It was so pretty and the lit up pubs looked very appealing. But I couldn’t stop. Nearly done. Songs to be sung (badly) and miles to be ridden. But that climb to the church in Kinver – ouch.

Finally ... a sign for Cookley. The last few miles - dark, appalling singing -  and then my car. 

Done.

123 miles
2731m climbed
 
Wales, you were AMAZING.
Sheep, you were weird. (Trees, FFS?)
Cake, awesome.
Mountains, mountainous.
Storm Francis, bitch.
Rach, love you but leave me in Wales again and I’ll eat all your snacks and loot your kit.
Weird vertical mountain path – NOT A CYCLE PATH.
Wales, thank you. 




TOTALS: 
263 miles
5,903m climbed

NOTE: This cycle ride was August 2020