Length: Probably a pot of tea…
Audience: Those tempted to give similar, multi day events a go.
Sentence Summary: Lessons I learnt from a 75 hour lap of the North
Warm, dry and with the post-ultra-distance brain fog cleared, I started to distill what I learnt from my first multi-day ~race~ ride – All Points North. A rainy day later I’ve finally finished it.
One of my biggest fears going into All Points North was the unknown unknowns. Irrational, as I knew nothing could be done about these, but maybe also a little rational as I knew I had no experience of what the event would be like and lacked a tried, tested or trusted approach. I was sure I’d make mistakes, and worried over how big they’d be. My hope for this blog is that it provides a little insight for anyone thinking about giving it a go, perhaps plants the seed of the idea in others, and maybe makes some of the newbie mistakes for you. For anyone who’s tempted, I would recommend All Points North without hesitation. The organisers aimed to create a taste of endurance racing, without some of the barriers which might stop you trying something bigger and they aced it. It felt like a real adventure, but I was also never that far from a 24 hour garage, a house I could knock on or some form of shelter, and only needed to take two days off work for it. It was excellent in 2019, and looks to be even better in 2020.
In numbers my ride was: 890kms, 12,400m of climbing, and 75 hours and 2 minutes. There’s a map showing what it looked like below – it was brutal, and absolutely beautiful.
Onto the lessons learnt:
#1 Check your route thoroughly, then know your route and trust it.
I had major concerns about routing errors. In all honesty, I knew I hadn’t put as much time into the route as I would have liked to. I plotted it on Strava, which kept trying to crash my laptop and didn’t check it against any other software. I got psyched out hearing hints of route plans on the group chat so muted it. I’m prone to adding Alice specials to routes anyway (bike paths, footpaths, dead ends) and this turned out to be no different. I had done some checking, and managed to spot a large section of mtb trail near Kielder – likely featuring due to Strava’s ‘use popularity’ algorithm. Despite that spot, I’d added a couple of others – two misunderstandings with bridges. One dead end which I pursued despite signs turned into some challenging hike a bike over a steep cobbled footbridge around a deep ford (which said not to drive through it), and along a section of footpath that had been largely washed away. Good. It woke me up a bit at 3am which was probably the only upside.* The major downside was after that I didn’t trust my routing at all, and fretted when lanes got a bit laney or when A roads started to get a little too big. My second major routing error was a misunderstanding with the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge. For those also unfamiliar, it’s not a permanent bridge, and it wasn’t open at 5.45am on a bank holiday Monday. I remembering swearing a bit, cheering myself up with a flapjack, and rerouting back round some of the industrial parts of Middlesbrough. Oops.
Moral of the story – invest the time in route planning. I think it also would have helped if I’d known the route a bit better and could have been reassured by seeing places I expected to see. I’d done this well for the first 24 hours – noting the garages and shops I’d pass which would be open and what I might need but had gotten a bit lazy after that…
#2 Train as close to the event as possible
I’ve worked to this before, and find that creating training which is as similar to the real-thing as possible is really handy. In hindsight, I definitely should have done some training with a fully loaded bike. I haven’t weighed my kit but I imagine my set up was double the weight of my usual bike – carrying ~1.5l of water, bivvy kit, food, lights, and extra layers. I also know that I’ve found this hard in the past and worry that as a lighter rider, I feel the extra weight more. This makes it harder work, and slows me down. As I’d not trained with my set-up I didn’t really know how much it would slow me down. I’d done long audaxes – having completed the Bryan Chapman the weekend beforehand, but I’d had friends to draft, and despite carrying water, food, and spare layers, the luxury of being on an audax with a bag-drop and sleep facilities had cut the weight significantly.
Solo, and carrying everything I’d need I was much slower. I’d guesstimated my timings based on an average speed of ~20kph, dipping below this with time for stops (minimal) and especially hilly sections. I was slower than this, averaging ~18.5kph moving speed for the first 330km/6000m section and less with the stops included. This contributed to the route knowledge issues, as I’d listed potential food and sleep stops based on my original pace estimations. It also made me feel like I was being sluggish and should be going faster which wasn’t ideal. Oops. Lesson learnt – whilst it probably won’t seem that fun to go for a hilly training ride with your luggage, it’s almost definitely worth doing if you’re new to these things.
#3 Ride your own ride
I sought the advice and wisdom of many friends who’ve done more of this than me before the event, and this really helped when things got tougher. Rational Alice was keen to set realistic goals, and be open to seeing how it went and just try to get round given absolute novice status and significant unknowns. Competitive Alice had other ideas. Rational Alice won out in the end, but there were points where it got in my head wondering how other riders were getting on, worrying when I didn’t see any others and fretting that I’d done a silly route, or worrying when I did see other riders and they were going the other way. This happened at the start, when a good portion of the bunch were starting by heading East to Flamborough to capitalise on a tailwind, and again when I was 15kms from Brimham Rocks (my first checkpoint) and heard the first rider had already reached it. It made no difference in the end.
Knowing where other riders were or weren’t was not the biggest driver or obstacle I had to tackle, and the Brimham Rocks rider turned out to be Pawel Pulawski – the overall first finisher. I didn’t need to compare my progress to his, and it wasn’t helpful. I also panicked talking to a rider who I caught up with who told me he’d had 5 hours sleep the first night where I’d ridden straight through. I felt like a snail until he mentioned he was saving Brimham Rocks, a checkpoint I’d already visited, for last. I really took this advice and started riding for me after my fifth checkpoint at Tan Hill. The bad weather which was forecast arrived early and despite my waterproof jacket and layers I got soaked descending, with low temperatures and high winds. I felt verging hypothermic and knew the route to Great Dun Fell would bring me into the worst of it, and decided to stop in Kirkby Stephen for the night despite it being early.* I stopped for much longer than I would have liked but desperately wanted to avoid a re-run of the situation the night before and continued to remind myself that my number one goal was to get round. Anything beyond that was a bonus.
#4 Be sceptical of the forecast and be prepared
One of the reasons for my pickle on Tan Hill was that I’d packed to the forecast. Keen to limit the weight I was carrying I minimised spare kit. The bad weather had been initially forecast to arrive on Sunday. That, combined with my overly ambitious timings would have seen me largely out of harm’s way, en route to Durham and the East Coast checkpoints by the time it came in. Forecasts and The North didn’t match. As it happened, things turned mid Saturday afternoon with high winds, heavy rains and low temperatures – especially high up at the checkpoints. It had been cooler than I’d expected already and I’d worn most of my layers pretty consistently since setting off – taking my raincoat on and off when it was chilly and saving my down jacket for worse conditions. Still, my computer reported a low of ~2 degrees in a chilly dip just outside of Haworth at around 5am so it wasn’t feeling summery. At Tan Hill, it claimed 7 degrees. I’d planned a meal in the pub and know that I feel the cold especially when I’m hungry and or tired and I was both. However, the pub was rammed with bank holiday visitors and I couldn’t face stopping too long so high up with the descent waiting.
Back on the bike, the rain was biblical. I’d put my lightweight down on under my raincoat but started to feel wet half way back down. I’m not sure if it was the pressure of the down against the goretex, the lashing rain running down my neck, or splash from the road – I didn’t want to stop and investigate. By the bottom, despite being under my raincoat, my down jacket was wet. I could have ploughed on and perhaps warmed up but I was running on empty, and the down coat had been my insurance against the elements. I felt safe thinking I couldn’t be too cold wearing it, and that had been proven wrong. It was time for a rethink, but my brain could only think of warm, dry, and dinner. It feels impossible to know what to pack for these events. However, next time I’ll certainly pack some waterproof trousers, perhaps a proper, longer, raincoat with a hood and maybe an extra base layer. I’m sure if I do, we’ll have the sunniest bank holiday weekend on record.
Average temperature for the whole ride: 10-11 degrees, low 2 degrees (outside Haworth, 5 am Saturday), high 16 degrees (Flamborough, Monday afternoon)
Hours of rain: too many to count
Lesson: be prepared, the North is full of weather.
Video of what it looked like here…
#5 You must be able to eat whatever you want
Other people have a habit of saying things like ‘you must be able to eat whatever you want’ to me when I tell them about these endeavours. My problem was that there were points where I didn’t want to eat anything, and where I certainly didn’t fancy another mini-maltloaf or pack of breakfast biscuits. I think this was another case where training closer to the event may have benefitted me. I did my first through-the-night ride on the Friday of all points North, and my second on the Sunday. I’ve never cycled as sleep-deprived or ingesting so much caffeine and I think the combination impacted my appetite. I was also barely stepping off the bike, keeping stop time to an absolute minimum and at the same time knew that I must be burning a huge number of calories not only due to the distance but also the low temperatures, luggage and hills. Due to a combination of trying to minimise stop time, and limited opening hours on Sundays/bank holidays I ate a large number of garage picnics and ready-made sandwiches. Even the thought of it now makes me feel a bit queasy.
At 10.00am on Monday I stopped just outside Whitby after a painful couple of hours on the busy bank holiday A-roads getting there. I was struggling and felt wobbly. My last meal had been an egg and cress sandwich and a flapjack outside a 24hour Londis garage near Durham around 3am – I was overdue. I ordered a full veggie breakfast which I usually love but could barely face it. On reflection, I think it was the not sleeping that put me out. I slept in Kirkby Stephen on the Saturday night and woke up absolutely ravenous and ate a large saucepan of porridge with two bananas in it. Moral of the story: plan ahead and make time to stop and eat if you need to, learn how your body responds to no sleep and obtain the food items you know you can manage in that state. Being able to eat ‘whatever you want’* is not so much fun when you can’t face anything.
For those interested, here are some of the weird things I ate. I’m not sure it was an athlete’s diet…: 5 pre made packets of sandwiches: 3x cheese ploughmans, 2x egg and cress, 1x tuna and cucumber (rained on for at least an hour for good measure), 4 veggie sausage sandwiches (I set off with these), one hot egg sandwich, 3 plain granary rolls (I dropped the 4th at some point in the night on a descent), 1 banana sandwich. My Sunday evening dinner was 4 packets of peanuts and a coffee followed by sticky toffee pudding because the pub (1) had stopped serving mains and (2) had a card limit.
#6 Accessibility is everything
Did I mention I was a bit sleep deprived? Accessibility is everything. At the beginning of 2019, I discovered the humble snack-pod. What an invention. And what a ridiculous difference it makes having your snacks by your hands instead of in your jersey pockets. I’m a complete convert and had two pods for all points north – one for savoury and one for sweet. I’ve recently learnt they’ll even hold a coffee cup. In all seriousness, on a ride where you’re trying to avoid stopping, having everything essential to hand is key. I’m much more likely to top up my suncream if I can do it with one hand, or to add a layer if it’s waiting in my pocket. You can be so sleepy that if it’s not within reaching distance it feels like it’s miles away.
#7 Have a Contingency Plan
Contingency plans are a good idea. I didn’t exactly have one. Again linked to the ‘don’t trust the forecast’ lesson – I’d planned to bivvy for my sleep stops, and planned to be fast enough to only have one proper sleep. The weather compromised the first part of that plan, and a combination of the weather, the terrain and my legs compromised the second part. Some other riders booked rooms at travel lodges in the early stages of the ride – pre-planning that I was envious of. Stopping on the Saturday, I didn’t want to risk a night outdoors, already soaking wet and cold and with the potential for everything to get wetter and colder. I also knew towns on the route ahead were pretty sparse and that my next couple of hours would see me going up and down Great Dun Fell. This led me to stop early, in Kirkby Stephen where I found a hostel with a bed and a drying room. However, if I’d been a bit more organised and had a travellodge waiting up the road I think I could have pushed on. Hindsight is a lovely thing, and by the time I was looking the potential options were all fully booked.
#8 Break it Down
One thing I found really helpful approaching this as my longest ride to date was to break it down. I planned to treat it as three 300km rides. I broke each one down further, and the nine control points helped with this. I’d also often reward myself at a control with a snack and a stretch – it’s the little things that keep you going. The route also lent itself to this approach and had a wealth of scenery to look forward to.
#9 Give it a go
I suppose my final lesson is that it is so worth giving it a go. I was really quite nervous before All Points North, but it’s the perfect environment to push yourself in – never too far from an escape route or a refuge without too much to lose if you don’t complete it. In fact, I know several people who didn’t finish this year and they too got a huge amount out of it. Sometime it’s worth it to find your limit and learn what holds you back from going further. Equally, it could be the turning point which gives you the distance riding bug.
Finally: A huge shout out to the organisers – Angela and Tori and their team for an absolutely wonderful event. I can’t wait to see how 2020 pans out.