The 2019 Manchester marathon training plan was a continuation of the key principals I have used in 2017 and 2018 with a few tweaks here and there based on what I thought worked well (and vice versa) in 2018 especially. These key components were:
• The marathon paced effort, in most instances run to a maximum HR (165) which is at the upper limit of my Zone 3. This has been at the core of my marathon training for well over ten years now. I build these up over the course of the weeks before the marathon, beginning with three miles (within a longer run) and building up a mile per session until I reach eight miles at marathon HR (MHR). After 2018 when I inadvertently ran around 13 miles at MHR on a twenty mile run when the Newton’s Fraction HM was cancelled, I used the Leicestershire Half Marathon in February to do much the same. This came when I was up to six miles at MHR, so in March I ran the seven and eight miles at MHR on March 5th and March 20th respectively.
Normally I would leave it there except run three miles at MHR a few days before the marathon. This time though I decided to do a reverse pyramid of sorts, running 7 miles at MHR on Saturday 23rd March then 6 miles on Tuesday 26th, 5 on Thursday 28th, 4 on Saturday 30th and the conventional 3 miles at MHR in a 10 mile run on Tuesday 2nd April. This was something of a high risk strategy as the MHR runs are quite demanding sessions. I think they were of some benefit, they certainly got me used to running at MHR and as they were diminishing in length certainly gave an impression of tapering.
As in previous years the majority of MHR runs were run a fair bit quicker than I anticipated running in the marathon itself – coming in anywhere between 5:45-6:10 minutes a mile. I usually see marathon pace on the day around 10 seconds a mile slower than I averaged during the build up, which tends to make the effort on race day seem less. I guess adrenaline accounts for the reduced pace at the same HR.
• The long run (with parkrun thrown in) and the back to back long run. The long run is a staple of any marathon training plan. Mine is no exception except for the past couple of years I’ve tried to incorporate a parkrun somewhere during the run. I kicked off on January 5 with a twenty miler, with the Belton House parkrun (17:35) coming after twelve miles. On January 19th I ran 22 miles with parkrun (18:16) at 14 miles. The other two Saturdays both had parkruns, one was shorter though at 10 miles due to the Oundle 10K on the Sunday, the other a mere 13.3 miles as I was feeling a bit rubbish.
February saw much of the same. The second saw a twist in that I ran just 2.5 miles before doing parkrun and then 13.5 miles to make it 19 in total. This wasn’t planned, it just happened that it snowed overnight and the paths were mostly too treacherous until it warmed up later in the morning. I then ran 17 miles the next day. The following weekend I was unwell so did nothing at all. The week was the Leicestershire Half so I didn’t run on the Saturday.
The following weekend (23rd-24th) I ran 21 miles (15 then parkrun (17:23) 3 to end) on the Saturday then ran a further 21 miles on the Sunday at 6:45 pace average. This back to back long run was something I inadvertently did once in 2018 due to bad weather preventing me from cycling and thought it offered significant training benefits so opted in 2019 to repeat the process with a little more regularity and intensity. This meant that the Reliability Rides with Witham Wheelers, which I’ve done for the past four years were sacrificed entirely.
Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd March saw the peak of long run mileage in the 14 week training plan. Saturday was the 24 miler which I’ve done since 2000 as my longest training run, except for the past two miles I’ve done a couple of extra to make it slightly over marathon distance. As in 2018 I ran the Newton’s Fraction HM course, running 21 miles before running Belton House parkrun in 17:51 then heading home to complete 26.4 miles in 2:55:46.
I’ve often used the time it’s taken to run 24 miles in this training run as a very good barometer of what I will clock at the marathon – it’s nearly always been accurate to a minute or two barring bad weather or a hitting of the dreaded wall. In 2018 I went through 24 miles in 2:39:10 (my quickest ever) this time around it was 2:40:10, which was a fair reflection of where I thought my fitness was – which was very good but not quite at 2018 levels, when I think I was in my best shape ever. The following day I ran a training half marathon in 1:29:58 or something like that, pleased that I could run such a distance in a reasonable lick a day after a 26 mile effort.
Thereafter the long run diminished quite rapidly. The following weekend was the Retford Half, the following weekend I opted out of running entirely as I was exhausted working crazy hours for the Australian GP. Two weeks out saw my last long run on the Sunday at 19 miles. That came the day after running seven miles at marathon pace and was so quite fatigued. It also saw some weird back spasm in the upper back in the final miles that didn’t materalise again. The following week, a week out, I ran my conventional final long run of eleven miles.
The stats state that for the ninety days preceding the marathon, I ran nine times over 15.72 miles totaling 182.74 miles in an overall total of 748.34 miles.
• The vast majority of the other runs were easy paced i.e. Zone 2, most of which ten or so miles in length, many of which on my familiar town loop – clockwise or anticlockwise. The average pace of these was around 7:10 a mile although the ones solo were more likely to be under 7 minutes a mile average and the runs with Grantham Running Club closer to eight minutes per mile, on average.
• I ran two intervals sessions, which is 200% more than 2018 and double what I ran in 2017. They were both 10×3 minutes with 90 seconds recovery, done on the road outside my house. I don’t really know if they had any benefit. It’s something I may look into doing more of over the summer as there must be some point in doing them?!
• As in previous years I cross-trained – cycling this time being used almost exclusively – the elliptical trainer saw just one outing when I had a sore calf after the Retford HM. This year was different from recent ones in that I didn’t venture outside once, doing all my cycling on Zwift. The main reason, other than wanting to do more back to back long runs over the weekend, being that I really did suffer far too much in the cold in 2018 especially and indoors on Zwift in the winter is so much more comfortable!
I spent a total of 65 hours 47 minutes on Zwift from January 1st through to the Manchester Marathon. I ran for 92 hours 38 minutes and spent just 2 hours on the elliptical trainer. The volume is similar to what I rode in 2018, the main difference being a lack of long Sunday rides. The majority of the rides were an hour or so in length, most of them relatively easy in effort, although I did push it on the Tour of Watopia and did ride 110 miles over the course of a very long day between F1 testing duties. As well as enjoying the cycling I think it compliments my running very well, especially the low effort rides which are the rough equivalent of recovery runs. Interestingly early indications suggest that the winter of Zwift has left my outdoor cycling legs in very similar, if not slightly better, shape to what they were at the same stage twelve months ago.
My weekly running mileage was similar to 2018. Coincidentally the biggest mileage of any week (82 miles) was the same, albeit in 2019 this was three weeks out from Manchester, in 2018, it came six weeks out from London. Interestingly though in 2018 there was only one other week where I ran over 70 miles (a 79 mile week). In 2019, I ran four other weeks over 70 miles and a further week where I ran 69. In January I ran 309 miles which is only five miles off my record, set in January 2014.
There was though one fallow week with very little mileage. This was due to to a spot of injury after Retford and opting to use Zwift rather than run during the Australian GP weekend. This was a conscious choice I made before the event looking back on previous years where I attempted to work through the Aussie GP weekend and have broken down at some point afterwards.
I don’t think this did me any harm at all.
All in all I think it was a very successful marathon training preparation, up there with the past couple of years as being the best ever. From an injury point of view it was very good, with just a couple of days lost after Retford with sciatica and an ongoing issue with a sore big left toe that hasn’t hindered my ability to run.
Is there anything I will do differently next time? In an ideal world I would probably want to add some more interval sessions in – something like some mile reps or two mile reps. But I seem to loathe interval sessions and as I run because I enjoy it I am reluctant to do them when I can be doing something that produces a similar benefit and I don’t mind doing (I’m reluctant to say like, as I dread the thought of marathon paced runs beforehand, but once I’m a mile or two in to them I really enjoy them!)
An important thing to note is that, aside from a minimum 24 mile run 4-5 weeks out and the marathon paced efforts over the course of the training, very little of what I do is planned weeks and months in advance. I have a rough idea of what I will do but take things very much on a week by week and day by day basis. I know some will question this but I’m comfortable with it. I much prefer to train according to how I feel right here right now rather than how I think I might or should feel months in advance then get frustrated when reality doesn’t quite pan out that way. Perhaps I may do better sticking to a plan, but things seem to have gone quite well for me in the years when I’ve been a bit more free form!
If you are wondering where I get all this data from. It comes from the very wonderful Fetcheveryone.com
I’ve been using this site since 2006 and all my exercise is recorded there. It has proven invaluable as a source of reference since then, I probably still use it more than Strava as the go to when I am looking back on my training history. Highly recommended!
The Mablethorpe 155 about at some point on the Sunday during a particularly crazy day working on the French Grand Prix. Not overly enamoured with the prospect of working eight weekends in nine weeks and pretty annoyed at a morning’s bike ride I had planned but had failed to execute thanks to the early abundance of not particularly significant images, I decided that I had to do some kind of crazy bike ride during the week that would make up for the lack of opportunities in the coming weekends.
In a matter of literally 10 minutes the route for the Mablethorpe 155 was created, checked, and signed off. I’ve long fancied the idea of riding out to the beach on the east coast – Grantham > Skegness is quite a popular route. I faniced Mablethorpe as it’s a bit nicer than Scunthorpe and also invites you to ride through the Lincolnshire Wolds, which bring some lovely views and some welcome hills when much of the surrounding fens are pancake flat. I also wanted to ride further than I’ve ever ridden before in one day, which was around 125 miles. 155 miles would beat it comfortably, so the return from Mablethorpe would see me head northwest and then back via Market Rasen, a town I was familiar with having spent a few days there with the family in 2017. And as for which roads to choose, it was a mixture of acquired knowledge of suitable roads and a bit of guesswork helped with the friend that is Google Street View that can help advise whether the A Road is too busy to consider riding on or the quiet country lane is a viable road or a track only passable with a 4×4 or perhaps a mountain bike.
With no roadside breakdown assist (the wife) available on Monday and Tuesday and the work recommencing on Thursday, Wednesday was pencilled in as the go day. A look at the weather forecast was highly favourable, highs of around 24C with a gentle breeze coming in from the East Coast, which would mean a head wind on the way out and hopefully a tail wind for much of the way back. I had to be back by 7pm so reckoned that leaving at 7 am would hopefully see me back in time and would allow a coffee stop at Mablethorpe (60 or so miles into the ride) and a lunch break at Market Rasen (at 100 miles). I ran on Monday and Tuesday, and helped marshal the Witham Wheelers TT on the Tuesday evening, so was not entirely rested ahead of the ride, but taking it relatively easy by normal standards.
Up at 6 am, which is usually a tough affair, but not so hard at this time of year when it is bright so early outside, I had pretty much everything prepared and ready to go once I’d had the obligatory porridge and rocket fuel strength coffee. I left shortly after 7 am with little in the way of fanfare: the kids were getting ready for school and are well used to seeing me disappear in the morning for some form of exercise.
The weather early doors was pleasant enough – early morning cloudy waiting to be burnt off by the sun meant that temperatures were only around 12C at the start of the ride – cool enough to warrant arm warmers. I knew that pacing myself would be crucial. I had to ride within myself for the best part of the ride even if I felt like I could go much faster – much like most endurance events. Quite quickly around 170 watts average (around 2.6 w/kg) felt like the right level of effort that I could sustain all day long.
Hills of course demand more power – the first of which was Hough on the Hill at six miles , which I am well familiar with and it’s 7% average gradient and tackled with little difficulty. The second hill at 9.5 miles – Frieston Hill – I’d ridden once before but had not expected it on this ride. This shocked the body a little bit and numbed the legs despite it being a slightly less hard hill, averaging 6%. Thereafter though it was relatively plain sailing for the next 30 miles, with a generally downwards trajectory and nothing more than some gentle rollers that I’d normally tackle in the big ring, but today demanded a drop into the small chain ring to allow some spinning. The biggest issue was trying to navigate myself across the busy A15 at the height of rush hour. It was hard enough for the cars with all that horsepower at their disposal, to find a big enough gap to cross, one man, a bike and clip in pedals, made it really difficult.
Not far after Bardney I finally found somewhere to make my first pit stop for the day. I found I had some attention in the form of some inquisitive sheep! With the liquid load lightened and feeling all the more comfortable for it I began the food and liquid plan for the ride. I had two bidons with electrolyte drink and had electrolyte tablets in the back pocket to replenish the bottles when refilled with water at lunch. I bought an entire malt loaf to be consumed at 10 mile intervals from 30 miles, again up until lunch time. At lunch I would take stock of how I felt and buy whatever I could and what I felt like to see me through for the rest of the ride.
Back on the road, the sun had broken through the clouds and it was, aside from a little cloud on the coast, blue skies for the rest of the ride. With that came increasing temperatures. I stopped at around 36 miles to remove the arm warmers, which coincided with the road just beginning to climb upwards as I approached the Wolds. The roads were quiet, the skies were blue, the countryside could not look better and I was loving the ride!
Compared to many other parts of the country the Lincolnshire Wolds would be considered relatively flat. But in an area surrounded by near billiard flat fen land, which barely rises above sea level, the Wolds in comparison are a veritable Alps in comparison. Stage one through the Wolds was around 12 miles consisting of three climbs, Belchfield Hill which proved to be a bit of a challenge that made me thankful for a 32 on the rear cassette as the climb briefly touched around 14%. Normally this would not be an issue but I found my breathing a little on the wheezy side thanks to the very high pollen levels. The view from the top though was worth the stop for a quick photo (which doesn’t really do it justice) and a breather!
Not long after there was a long descent from around 420 ft back down to sea level and the six or seven miles to Mablethorpe, which was made harder by the head wind which was noticeably stronger here being closer to the coast and heading into the exact forecast direction of the wind (Coming from the North East).
I arrived in Mablethorpe around the back and through a car park, which I knew from having run here while on holiday at Sutton-on-Sea a couple of years ago would take me directly to the beach and some cafes. I originally thought fish and chips would be appropriate, but I looked at the time and thought that, at just after 11 am would be a little extravagant, as would an ice cream, which like me and alcohol, does not happen before midday (unless on a plane / boat or airport terminal….). I settled instead for a scone and butter and black coffee. I’ve had better, but it was pleasant enough and did the job of keeping me alert and fuelled for the next 40 mile stint.
After that brief trip to the sea side I was back on my way. With the head wind on the way out, plus the Wolds, and some crawling along a footpath to the cafe, my average speed for the ride had slipped from the 17 mph it had been up to the Wolds down to around 16.5 mph. This was not a competitive ride but I rarely do any ride without setting myself some kind of arbitrary challenge and so it was decreed at Mablethorpe I would try and average 17.0 mph or better for the Mablethorpe 155.
Once out of Mablethorpe I headed in a broadly northwesterly direction, skirting east of Louth, inching towards the Wolds and heading not too far from Grimbsby, a town I’ve never visited. I thoroughly enjoyed this 25 mile or so section. I made a point of stopping at near enough exactly 77.75 miles, the unofficial halfway point, to take a photo. This scene was typical of the roads in the area. The mostly deserted country lanes were in good condition and far more scenic than I imagined an area close to Grim-sby could be. There was also a taste of the tailwind I would enjoy for much of the final 60 miles of the ride, and even the periods of side wind were not unpleasant.
At 85 miles I crossed the A16 on the Grainsby Lane and there was a change of terrain and surrounds as I passed through what felt like a private road which was fenced off and surrounded by cows, climbing gradually upwards as the Wolds approached. Immediately after crossing the A18 I was officially in the Wolds and with Hawerby Hill one of the harder rides of the ride, although at 2/3s mile, 6% average and with a tailwind to assist, was not especially taxing.
This effort began 10 miles of undulating riding, most of it on the B1203 which was thankfully not especially busy and a pleasure to ride on with the scenic surrounds. It was here the only mapping error occurred on the ride, a path at the Church of St Martin that looked dubious when I approached and on quick inspection and the look of more dirt than road I chose to ride past and ignore. A quick check on the map showed that a right at the next junction would see me back on track and on a road I ran along when staying in Market Rasen – it passing the caravan site we stayed at, not before I enjoyed a nice long descent of Walesby Hill that brought up the 100 miles on the Garmin and a stop for lunch at Market Rasen.
Aside from fish and chips we failed on holiday to find somewhere decent to eat in Market Rasen and, unless I missed something, I again failed to find that idyllic cafe to enjoy a hearty lunch before heading home. Instead I settled for Tesco, buying lunch at the petrol station so I could keep an eye on my bike and eating it outside the store, where there was the welcome benefit of shade (it had got quite warm now – approaching 25C in the sun) and a bench. I passed up on the opportunity to join others having their lunch in the sun in the car park garden.
It was a simple lunch based around what I could get in the £3 meal deal, which meant a falafel and hummous wrap, a king sized Double Decker and a bottle of Lucozade (I would have had full fat Coke but the didn’t appear to stock that). Add to that I bought a 2 litre bottle of Evian to replenish the bidons and three packs of fizzy cola bottles. One pack would have sufficed but the 3 for £1 offer was just too tempting…. While it wasn’t the glamorous lunch stop I had in mind it harked back to the numerous petrol station and supermarket raids I pulled off during my Land’s End to John O’Groats trip 11 years ago. For that reason it felt somewhat appropriate that my longest ever ride to date would pay homage to those stops for Haribo and malt loaf.
Back on the road and homeward bound I soon left the main road for Cycle Route 1, At 105 miles I turned left, then immediately right onto a quiet road heading towards Buslingthorpe I was just thinking how idyllic this ride was when BANG! A huge jolt which nearly sent me flying over the handlebars! In the shade of some trees must have been a large pot hole which I missed and rode through. I feared the worst and, sure enough, 5 seconds or so after the hit I felt the deflating noise of the front tyre rapidly losing its air pressure.
I came to a halt by a couple of houses and a white fence which was above a small stream. For a couple of minutes I worked out where best to set base to assess the situation, settling on the fence. I messaged my wife something along the lines of ‘Disaster!’ having just let her know how well the ride was going. The issue was, even if it was just a puncture, I am quite happy to admit I am shockingly bad at being able to change a punctured tyre, usually resorting to taking it to a bike shop or handing it over to my wife, who is more adept at tackling these technical issues than I.
Running out of battery on my phone (schoolboy error leaving GPS set to high accuracy…) I made sure my wife knew where I was in case I had to be picked up, which she did thanks to the Garmin live connect thingy which we had set up working properly. Having little faith in my ability (A wise call), she even gave an eta for the rescue party to arrive given the kids had to be picked up from school. I told her I would attempt to fix the puncture, although not holding out much hope. The 155 mile ride had become a mere 105 gentle jaunt, losing nearly all of its satisfaction.
I gave the wheel a quick inspection: all looked well. Having survived a similar pot hole induced puncture on a chain gang ride last year I know they can take quite a whack. I attempted to get some air into the inner tube to see where the puncture was. After Googling to see if I had a Presta or Schrader valve (It’s Presta – must remember that), any attempt to get air in with the small pump proved futile, the valve eventually snapping off, ruling out the use of the Pit Stop Sealant I had brought with me.
Removing the solitary inner tube from the saddle bag, cursing my misinformed impression I had two spare inner tubes, I knew I only had one shot at getting this right – no pinching when fitting the spare, knowing that a previous attempt at fitting a tube saw me pinch flat no less than 4 tubes before giving up and taking it to the shop…. Removing the tyre using the levers proved unusually straight forward, I usually have them pinging off across the room or wherever I happen to be standing. I removed the tube and looked for any obvious signs of damage, of which there were none, before giving the wheel a cursory internal inspection for damage, of which there appeared none.
Knowing my stuff… I put a little air into the inner tube before attempting to place it in the wheel. Relieved that the pump did actually work, I tried that step again when it dawned on me I’d put basically no air into the tube. I slotted the valve through the hole (I’ve funked that up before) making sure it sat flush in the wheel. Then using tips read on the internet and left as a parting gift by Whattsapp message by my wife, I began working the tyre bead into the rim from the side opposite the valve. To my surprise within a minute or so I had got to the 95% on stage, with just that last difficult bit that requires a bit of brute force to snap into the rim. Given that to get to this stage usually takes 5-10 minutes, I was openly optimistic that I might just pull this off.
Attempt one. No good. Attempt two. No better. I stopped, composed myself, took a big deep breath and mustered all the power I had in my pathetically weak thumbs to prise the rubber tyre into the metal rim. POP! just like that in it went with a satisfying sound like a muffled click. It looked like a wheel with a tyre. Round with no bulges. I couldn’t quite believe it. I very carefully attached the pump to the valve, weary that the last valve snapped and I have a habit of snapping valves. I pumped, fearing that the tube would be pinched and the hard work would be in vain. Ten pumps, no bang. Twenty pumps, the tyre looked and felt quite firm. I stopped to take a picture to show the wife my efforts. I was quite proud of my work, I knew she would be too.
Fairly confident I’d done a good job. I began pumping the tyre. Anyone who has done this by the side of the road knows it’s not a quick affair – there’s a reason why man carry CO2 canisters to speed up the job. I must have given it 200 or so pumps before I was reasonably happy that it was nearly as hard as the rear tyre. I fitted the wheel back on the bike, tidied up, put my helmet back on, touched some wood and rode off, knowing that if something was to go wrong it would probably happen quite quickly.
The first rest came after less than 50 meters, a level crossing to negotiate. No drama! I rode another couple of miles before letting my wife know the good news that all seemed okay. She congratulated me on my surprisingly good and relatively swift repair job (Just under 30 minutes…). I put it down to the heat of the day warming the rubber and the rim of the wheel to make it just that little more malleable than in normal cooler conditions. Either that or I’d developed strength I didn’t know I possessed.
Another five or so miles later and I’d almost forgotten I’d changed the tyre. The only concession I made during the remainder of the ride was to pay more attention than ever to the ever present prevalence of pot holes, which are a national disgrace and particularly bad in Lincolnshire. My mind was back on riding home and preferably doing it as swiftly as possible and before the 6pm curfew I had set myself. No more stops for photos, just the one pit stop to relieve myself of the Lucozade and half litre of water I’d enjoyed at lunch, and a very brief stop to retrieve a Power Gel buried deep in a jersey pocket, which I consumed more for the caffeine kick than the energy it provided – thinking I needed the extra concentration powers to avoid pot holes.
The vast majority of the last 45 miles had either a tailwind or at worst a side wind. This meant that, although it was never a particularly strong breeze, it was easier to keep the speed above desired 17 mph average. Indeed with it being generally flat with just a very slight overall incline for the last 35 miles, the speed hovered nearer 20 mph. With the sight of the average speed creeping up from 17 mph to 17.5 mph, then 17.6 mph, the desire was to try and crack 18 mph. When you’ve ridden 140 odd miles any incremental increase (or decrease) takes a long time time. I found myself pushing more watts than I did when I was tackling the tail wind, my highest 20 minute average (miles 146 to 152) were 204. It was pleasing to be able to put more and more power into the pedals having been in the saddle in the heat for over eight hours. It crept up to 17.7 mph, then that proved hard to improve upon as a change of direction at Doddington meant a head wind for much of the final miles.
On familiar roads for the last hour or so of riding, and legs seemingly no worse than at the start of the ride, I eventually came home having completed 156.45 miles in 8:45:54 moving time, averaging 17.8 mph. A frustrating 0.2 mph short of 18 mph but comfortably better than the target I had set myself earlier in the ride. There was no euphoric welcome once home – one daughter wanted to show off her new shoes, the other blissfully unaware of what I’d just done. My wife was proud of me, not just for the very long ride but the successful changing of the puncture, which for most would be a trivial matter, but for me I finally broke a 25 year voodoo of not being able to fix a puncture out on the road!
Once showered to clear the grime and sun cream off the body, the body finally realised what it had done and I could do little more than slump myself on he sofa for three hours while watching the football and reflecting on the ride I’d just done and what I could do in the future. The dream is to do LEJOG with a similar daily mileage. It seems like a tough ask but not insurmountable. One for summer 2019 I think!
Compared to running races, where I have at least 136 recorded finishes to my name, I have a grand total of one cycle race and not many more sportives on my palmares. For those who are not aware of the difference between a cycle race and a sportive, whereas a race usually sees everyone departing at the same time with the goal to find a winner and losers, a sportive is basically a group ride on a course against the clock. For legal reasons to do with road closures (lack of, primarily) and the like, in the UK a sportive can award riders with things like gold medals or distinctions for completing a ride in a certain time. What it cannot do is give you a finishing position – although a lot of results are published in such a way to make it fairly easy to sort by time and then add a column with position if you are curious to see how your performed relative to others.
My first sportive was in November 2007 when I took part in the Exmoor Beast – a tough introduction to group rides, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite the severity of the climbs and suffering a heavy cold at the time. Six months or so later I took part in the Dragon Ride in Wales – a bigger, more famous event, but in my opinion quite an easy ride in comparison to the Beast at the time. Not long after my eldest daughter was born and with the sudden lack of time available to train given the demands of parenthood and my job requiring a lot of overseas travel, cycling pretty much went out of the window for a good number of years.
It was when I fractured my sacrum in 2014, now living in Grantham, when I rekindled my love of cycling that I’ve had, on and off, ever since I began cycling at three years of age. Unable to run, or walk, but strangely able to ride, I joined a cycling club, Witham Wheelers, my first since a very brief membership with Leamington Cycling and Athletics Club back in 1999, I began taking part in group Sunday rides for the first time ever. The following spring I began taking part in their time trials, did badly in my first and only TLI organised bike race, then took part in a small sportive in Yorkshire called the Bronte – where I snapped my chain on the first hill and somehow managed to finish using gears not designed for 20% climbs.
Since 2015 my cycling has slowly increased in volume but has continued to play second fiddle to running. My participation in Duathlons has meant I’ve had to practice the Time Trial more than any other discipline – an event I’m not particularly good at, but need to work on to improve my Duathlons. In 2016, in another busy summer, I took part in two sportives on consecutive days in mid-July: the Wiggle Stratford (Warwick really) Tempest Sportive (Epic) and the Tour of the Cotswolds Sportive (Epic).
The current cycling boom has seen sportives transform from a fairly limited number of events often low in numbers to the current situation where there are literally hundreds of rides to choose from all over the country, some of the largest requiring a ballot to enter and having thousands of riders taking part. One such event is the Fred Whitton Challenge. A 112 mile ride in the Lake District which features 12,000 feet of vertical ascent and traverses some of the park’s most difficult climbs including – Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott and Wrynose passes. The first Fred Whitton was in 1999 following the passing in 1998 of the Lakes Road Club Secretary whose name was given to the newly established event dedicated to his memory. It has now established itself as one of the largest sportives in the country, with over 2000 entrants, on the sportive calendar, and this year came under the indirect ownership of the ASO, organisers of the Tour de France no less.
I think I first became aware of the event back in 2007 when I was searching for my first sportive before settling on the Exmoor Beast. Back then the Fred was by the far the daddy of all British sportives, harder than any other and with a bigger reputation. Since then other sportives, such as the Prudential Ride London have become bigger in terms of participation and other sportives, such as the Tour of The Peak can rival the Fred Whitton in terms of the challenge on offer. But the Fred Whitton Challenge largely retains its position as one of the few must do sportives for any keen amateur cyclist.
I’d ducked out on entering in 2016 but entered the ballot in January 2017 for the ride taking place on May 7th. To my joy I was informed a few weeks into the year that my application was successful and I was taking part! One of the challenges of an early season event is that training for the event is not easy over the winter months. It’s more of an issue for myself in that the winter and spring months my training is heavily geared towards the London Marathon. So preparation for the Fred Whitton consisted of the Witham Wheelers Reliability Rides, spinning sessions at the gym and one specific training ride a month or so before the event – the 13 Hills of Belvoir Ride which took in the best of the local hills on a well know club route, done twice in one go. At 118 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation it wasn’t exactly the same as the Fred, but at least it was something.
Another issue was that Fred Whitton comes just two weeks after the London Marathon. I’d expect it will take around a month to fully recover from a marathon. I made the mistake of maybe over doing the running post marathon, acquiring a minor overuse injury, but more worryingly suffering deep fatigue over a week post marathon, which saw my watts drop noticeable on the bike and elliptical trainer, and saw me dropped literally very early on during a chain gang on the Thursday before Fred. I made do with an easy 30 mile ride instead and the reassurance I had two days where I could rest up and recover as best as possible.
Originally the plan had been for the family to head en masse after school on the Friday and spend the weekend in Kendal in the caravan before somehow getting the kids back to school on the Monday morning. Ten days out though the logistics of this through work for my wife in particular meant this idea had to be shelved. Instead I opted to stay in a B&B on the Saturday night and drive home directly after the event. Booking so close to the ride meant very little local availability, but I settled on a The Old School B&B in Tebay. This is around a 50 minute drive from Grasmere, the host town of the Fred Whitton, but I reckoned this would not be too much of an issue with a very early start on the Sunday morning.
I drove up to the B&B on the Saturday afternoon. It was a really easy journey up the A1 to Scotch Corner then along the A66 – roads pretty quiet, weather good. I arrived at the B&& at around 4:30pm. Being the last to book I had been assigned a small broom cupboard of a room, but it was fine – I had a shower, a kettle, a bed and supefast wifi to hook onto and literally catch the last five minutes of the Giro stage. There was no room for the bike, that would have to stay in the boot of the car, but it was well hidden from view on a very quiet road and I felt fairly confident it would still be there in the morning.
With that watched I thought I’d go and loosen the legs with a half hour walk or so. I’d hoped for something super scenic, alas I mostly followed the path of the neighbouring M6 as I walked along the surprisingly sandy footpath alongside the river below.
The walk duly loosened the legs a little stiff having spent the best part of three hours driving and worked up an appetite. Luckily I’d sourced a pub nearby which was serving food. The Cross Keys Inn has been around for 100s of years. It certainly has a lovely view which we were encouraged to enjoy from the beer garden.
Alas it was a little too cold to be sitting outside so I had to make do with a pew inside, complete with a glass of wine to help unwind and hopefully send me to an early sleep. I turned up not long after 6pm hence the rather empty appearance of the pub. It wasn’t long after that the pub filled up quite nicely.
Food ordered I reread the final ride instructions for the event, taking good note especially of where the hardest climbs and most dangerous descents were. Fortunately the weather forecast was looking dry and not too windy, even if it was set to be a bit chilly first thing in the morning. The food arrived – a pie, which if I was brutally honest, wasn’t the best I’d ever had, but it served a purpose. I treated myself to a sticky toffee pudding for desert, reckoning I’d be riding plenty long enough in the morning to justify the extra calorie intake.
With dinner done and dusted by before 8pm I took another short walk before heading back to my little room – the sun setting offered the opportunity for some nice light as I walked part way up a short, sharp hill. On another day I could have explored for longer, but being sensible I headed back to put my feet up for an hour or so before attempting to get to sleep at around 10pm.
I’m not the best at sleeping in a strange bed, not the best at nodding off at an early hour, and not the best when the mattress is a little on the soft side. It took longer than I would have liked to finally get to sleep as I saw my clock tick over past 11pm, but it was better than it could have been. Paranoid that I wasn’t going to wake I set two alarms for 5am, as is fairly typical for me I woke up two minutes before the alarm went off…
I didn’t have long to get my groove on. The instructions said you could start from any time after 6am, with the last riders being allowed to leave at 8am. I had no intention of being one of the first off, but had plans of wanting to leave at around 7am. Back when I rode a sportive in Yorkshire and had my chain snap on me, I ran perilously close to being eliminated by the broom wagon as I’d set off late. I didn’t want to risk that again.
It was too early for the B&B to offer me any breakfast. I’d come prepared with oats and skimmed milk powder in a newly acquired food thermos. I got the kettle boiled, made myself a proper strong coffee, filled my oats with water and went about getting changed into my cycling shorts. I tried to eat a little breakfast but it was too early, so I packed it in my bag to eat at the start. I did though drink all my coffee before having one last check to make sure I’d not forgotten anything and headed to my car.
To my surprise on an early May morning the windscreen was covered in frost. The temperature read 2C! I hadn’t anticipated it being this cold! Luckily as I set off and headed to Grasmere the temperature soon increased to around 7C. Nippy, but much more comfortable to ride in than barely above freezing. That drive to Grasmere was glorious as the sat-nav avoided the M6 and I had a wonderful former A road all to myself. Even the run in from Kendal to Grasmere wasn’t too busy, albeit probably busier than it would be normally at 6:15am with tell tale bike racks aplenty.
As we approached Grasmere we were confronted by swarms of cyclists who had started the Fred Whitton. The adrenaline began to hit! Inexplicably rather than take the normal A road on the final miles to Grasmere, my SatNav took me the wrong way around the lake, taking in some pretty narrow, steep country lanes. Definitely not the fastest way, I breathed a sigh of relief that the only traffic I faced coming towards me were a couple of runners.
I arrived at the start at around 6:50. The makeshift car park was pretty packed already. Being so late I thought I’d be miles away from the HQ. As luck would have it I was guided in to a spot pretty much right next to the finish line!
There was plenty to do in a short space of time. First off I went to collect my number and helmet tag at ride HQ. I passed the Bike Channel TV crew on the way who were preparing to put their first piece of the day to camera (The event was filmed to be shown at some point). Number collection done far faster than expected, I returned to the car.
Boot lid wedged with old trainer (The struts don’t work in cold conditions!) I got out the porridge and began to eat – a few spoons at a time while preparing the bike. Luckily there wasn’t much to do aside from putting the front wheel on the bike and pumping the tyres, turning on the bike computer and calibrating the power meter pedals. With that done I got changed into my cycling kit and headed to the portaloos where I had to take off my cycling kit to do what I had to do before putting it all back on again. One day I’ll remember that bib shorts are not as easy to deal with in such situations as running shorts…
With the load suitably lightened I had little more to do other than a final bike check, make sure I had everything I needed with me such as malt loaf, gels, compulsory rain jacket, money, phone, car key, inner tubes and so on. By fortune a small saddle bag I’d bought during the week had turned up earlier than expected on the Saturday so I was able to put my tubes and so on in there – otherwise I think I will have struggled to carry everything.
At the start we were offered a banana which seemed to good to resist. A guy wanted me to wait with him so we could ride the first miles together, but he was taking too long so I decided to go it alone. Unlike a running race there is not a lot of fanfare with a sportive start as riders set off when they like, solo or in small groups. I set off solo but within a couple of minutes I was caught by a couple of riders and we then caught three or four more.
The first miles on the A591 to Ambleside are an easy introduction to the ride, being gently undulating at worst. I was trying to conserve energy but with the adrenaline pumping the HR crept a little high for those first miles as we averaged comfortably over 20mph. What wasn’t high was the power meter reading which, despite me feeling I wasn’t riding full gas yet, was showing very low figures, often less than half what I’d expect having ridden with them for several months now. I thought at the time maybe the calibration was wrong, indeed later in the ride during a stop I re-calibrated them to no avail. This lack of power information was a bit annoying as I’d been planning my ride around hitting certain power limits on the climbs especially. On the flip side it meant I had to do what I’ve done for most my life and ride the climbs based on how hard it feels rather than sticking to a prescribed limit. This may or may not have helped me.
(Post ride I was pretty annoyed by this and assumed the pedals to be faulty. The following day I did a Google search, as you do, and found the answer to my lack of power issue. My bike computer has two bike profiles for a Cervelo and a Trek. Normally I just choose the Trek no matter what I ride as the crucial bike measurements are the same. On the morning of the Fred I chose the Cervelo profile, which I assumed I’d checked thoroughly for discrepancies. Sadly there was one and it’s crucial for my pedal based power meter. The crank length, which is a standard 172.5mm, had for some unknown reason changed to 110mm, which is probably an eight year old bike’s crank size. They say a 2.5 mm difference can cause a 20% discrepancy in power readings, my 6.5 mm difference explains why I reckon my average watts was down by around 100 on what I’d expect.)
We swept through Ambleside – a town I’m familiar with on my numerous holidays around Lake Windermere and onto the road where I saw all the riders swoop past me earlier in the morning. The majority of the field had certainly left earlier than I had – it was 7:30 before I finally set off. I knew from driving in that we’d soon turn left off the main road and up the first hill of the day.
That first climb was Holbeck Lane – the Strava segment has it at 0.9 mile at an average gradient of 7%, I took it fairly easy up the climb using it as a good opportunity to try and wake the legs. They didn’t feel brilliant but they did feel as though they could come to life later in the ride. Feeling in my element on the hills I soon left all but one of the riders I had ridden the opening miles with. I left him not long after the steepest bit of the hill which we both remarked on being a good wake up for the legs. I soon began picking off more riders making their way up the hill. This was what I had hoped for by setting off quite late, working off passing up riders to give me more encouragement.
The first climb done there was a little respite before the first major climb of the day – Kirkstone Pass. This was actually the only climb of the day I’d ridden before, albeit on the previous occasion I think I started the climb from a different road perhaps lower down. Just like back then I didn’t find the climb that difficult at three miles long at an average gradient of 6%. Then again, I didn’t ride it that hard, taking time part way up the hill to consume the first of seven small slices of malt loaf I’d planned to take every ten miles. It was on this climb I hooked up with a rider I stuck almost like glue to for the best part of the next 40 miles. Of eastern Asian appearance with what looked like a German inspired cycling jersey I assumed that if he’d traveled from at least Germany to ride he must be pretty good to follow. I actually think he was from Yorkshire, but I liked the idea of having a continental peloton to ride with.
The only real reminder that we had been climbing for the best part of 30 minutes was when we passed the famous Kirkstone Pass Inn – the third highest pub in the UK – and continued climbing, temporarily losing the brilliant blue skies as we rode literally into the clouds. The high point of the ride at 1,489 feet, I was grateful that I was wearing a base layer under my cycling jersey and had opted to ride with full gloves, knee and arm warmers as I felt the chill when climbing, let alone when we started descending.
The first major climb done was followed by the first big descent. The first part was tricky with a 25% initial descent with some tight bends, but it soon leveled out, relatively speaking, and became less twisty, making for an enjoyable drop back down to around 500ft above sea level. The next ten miles were pretty flat. I rode with my German / Asian / White Rosed cycling buddy taking it in turns to keep the pace semi-decent before being caught by two quicker riders. We both sensed an opportunity for a quicker ride at a reduced effort by jumping on their wheels. This proved a success with the pace comfortably averaging over 20mph, despite being held up for a while by a slow moving horse box which allowed an large group of very swift riders to catch us. Staying on this train proved to be hard work, but the speed benefit was worth it as we approached the next climb, especially as we were heading north and into a slight headwind.
We hit the climb to Matterdale End at dead on 20 miles which was unfortunate timing to take on the malt loaf, struggling to swallow and breathe hard at the same time. This large group had some really good riders, some of whom proved to be a little too hot to keep up with. Me and my buddy stuck together on the climb with the two others we had ridden with, which was now proving pretty difficult as there were scores of riders scattered pretty much all over the road. At 1.3 miles and averaging 7.0% this was a challenging climb in that it was steeper in places that it looked making it mentally challenging. That said I rode up it fairly well, especially when we passed the small car park at Aria Force, which I had visited with our family last year – spurring me on to statistically my best climb of the day, as I currently sit 19th for the year on Strava for the hill segment (I assume that most of those times were set on the Fred).
Past Matterdale End came another climb steep at averaging 10%, but only half a mile long so not a big challenge. This took us to Troutbeck and a left hand turn on to the A66. This is a busy main road, one I’d driven on just the previous summer. We were encouraged to use the refuge inside the white line if possible, but I know that riding on this part of the road is an invitation to attract a puncture, so I, like nearly everyone else, rode close to, but just to the right of, the white line. Avoiding the raised cat’s eyes did prove something of a challenge at times as the train gently meandered left and right like a slithering snake. We were advised by the police apparently to ride single file and for the most part this was respected by the riders. I’m not totally sure but I think I was somewhere near the back of a long train of bikes (perhaps 30 long) which may have had some of the quick riders I’d tried to stay with on the Matterdale End Climb.
We rode on the A66 for ten miles and although not entirely effort free, it will be some of the easiest miles I’ve ridden while averaging close to 25mph. Mostly gently downhill and aided with a slight tailwind and the long train of bikes, it was a good opportunity to recover, take on another bit of malt loaf, drink some energy drink and prepare myself for the harder miles that lay ahead.
The A66 journey ended at a large roundabout 34 miles into the ride where my Garmin Edge 810 decided to turn itself off. Normally this leads to a corrupt post ride FIT file and the prospect of having no evidence of my efforts. I was calm though as I’d prepared for this eventuality and was riding with my Forerunner watch which was also recording the ride and has, touch wood, been infallible when recording long bike rides. I turned on the Edge and it slowly came to life, taking around a mile or so to find the satellites and remember what ride it was meant to be following. The only real annoyance was that I didn’t know the overall distance of the ride, nor my average speed without referring to my watch, which I find hard when riding. No major issue, but something to stew over as we continued meandering along some flat to gently undulating roads alongside Derwent Water.
The large group had split up braking for the roundabout and I now found myself in a small group of around six riders, still including my original group of two club mates and Asian / German / Yorkshire buddy, who I never actually talked to, but felt comfortable enough in his bike skills to follow his wheel like glue, unlike some others who were sometimes a little erratic in their braking. At this point we were slowed quite a bit for around five miles by a double decker sightseeing bus who was struggling to get past slower riders further up the road. A few decided to take some major risks passing the bus on the twisty, narrow, main road. I and most of the others in a swelling group opted to suck it and accept that these obstacles are part and parcel of a sportive held on open roads.
Thankfully we passed the bus when it stopped as we bid farewell to Derwent Water and we enjoyed our last few miles of easy terrain as we passed through Rosthwaite and Borrowdale. At 42 miles passing through Seatoller we had our third big climb of the day and by far the hardest so far in the ride – the Honister Pass. Like the Kirkstone Pass earlier in the ride we were riding up it in the opposite direction to what is recommended in my favourite cycling books 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs and Another 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs. Whereas Kirkstone Pass has a 7/10 for difficulty, Simon Warren rates Honister as 9/10 and the difference in difficulty was soon apparent (Incidentally for any Grantham based people reading this: for comparison, our most feared climb Terrace Hill, scrapes into the first 100 climbs, but is awarded a measly 1/10) . The Strava segments have the climb at 1.5 mile long averaging 10%, with the steepest 0.4 mile averaging a challenging 15%.
After an initial ramp of around 10% the climb soon got tough with a section of 25% to really test the legs. I was very thankful I’d invested in getting a 11-32 rear cassette on the bike – whereas in previous sportives I’ve been desperately trying to turn the pedals on a 25 sprocket, this larger cog at the back made it possible to keep the RPM at around 55 on the steepest sections as opposed to the 30 or less you can expect when trying to turn a bigger gear. It was here I said farewell to my continental / local friend as I pushed on, sticking to the wheel of the two club mates we had picked up way back at the descent of Kirkstone. With the sun shining for the first time I began to get a little warm in the kit I was wearing, but still not enough to justify stopping to strip off. The biggest issue now, aside from keeping going as the climb continued to alternate between stretches of anything from 8-25% was steering a path through the mass of riders all over the road trying to get up the hill with varying degrees of success. Add to that the odd car trying to creep down the hill to contend with and you had plenty on your plate trying to stay upright and in one piece.
I made it to the top, setting the 26th best time on the day for the steep bit on Strava, greeted by loads of spectators cheering us on. Plenty chose to stop and take a rest, I pushed on, albeit extremely carefully. The descent is described as the most beautiful of the lakes passes by Simon Warren when he was climbing it. It was frankly terrifying trying to tackle the 25% descents round hairpin bends on the opening section of the descent followed by technically an easier section made alarming by the huge slab boulders stuck randomly by the road side waiting to catch anyone who made the slightest error on the descent.
I followed the advice of the official instructions and began braking the moment I started to plummet and pretty much kept them on for the worst of the descent, briefly easing off to avoid too much heat build up on the rims. I was concerned by the number of bodies of fallen riders strewn by the side of the road, being tended to by concerned looking marshals and paramedics. I’m fairly sure I passed this poor chap who I believe, speaking to my car park neighbour after the ride, came to grief when his tyre exploded on the descent because of the brake rubbing tyre instead of rim (It may not have been the seriously injured man, but certainly someone crashed because of this on this descent).
My sense of mortality truly awakened by the descent I was relieved to finish the descent and have a fairly easy five miles as we passed through Gatesgarth and approached Buttermere. I heeded the advice of the instructions and took the opportunity to stop for a comfort break ahead of the first official feed station (although I used the trusted farmers’ gate rather than public toilets that I failed to see anywhere en route. My two club mates (Not my club mates but two riders who were probably mates who rode for the same club) had stopped for the same reason a little earlier on the road. I didn’t see them again. This break saw a two minute thirteen second pause as I also fiddled with my pedal calibration without joy, as noted previously above.
The first feed station was small in size, frantic with seemingly hundreds of riders milling around, but brilliantly organised by volunteers who had clearly manned at this point many times in the past. Unlike the Wiggle sportive last year where the first feed station saw a queue as long and as static as the M25 on any given Friday, we moved along the table packed with tempting morsels like an efficient factory conveyor belt. Acutely aware that we were less than half way into the ride and with much of the hardest miles yet to ride, I dived for the malt loaf, then took a piece covered with jam, took two pieces of flapjack, two jaffa cakes, a cheese and onion sandwich, two SIS energy bars, then one more piece of malt loaf and jam just for luck. I ate all of this except for the energy bars in the time it took me to walk back to my bike. I made the mistake of not bringing my empty bottle with me so had to return to have it filled with some electrolyte, costing me two or so more minutes. Removing my bike from the stone wall was a precision exercise as around 20 bikes were all relying one another to stay upright. Thankfully the rider next to me was leaving at the same time and we worked like a crack team to prise our bikes from the chain without mangling our or anybody else’s precious carbon. Six minutes seventeen seconds was the time taken at the first of two feed stations, which wasn’t too bad considering the business of the cramped venue.
As warned by the pre-race instructions, there was not a lot of time to keep down your food before the next big climb of the ride – Newlands Hause (#81 in the 100 Greatest Climbs). It was here that the organisers decided to stick in a KOM timed hill climb challenge. I didn’t get off to the best start when I was stuck behind some slower riders, but with them out of the way, i made really good progress, feeling like I made light work of the 8/10 ranked ride which Strava reckons averages 11% for the 1.2 mile ascent. The final results show I finished just outside the top 50 for the climb, which is pleasing in a field of over 2000. The organisers really went to town as we hit the steepest part at nearing the top of the climb with polka dot flags, music and enthusiastic supporters urging us on.
The five mile descent that followed was thankfully a lot less challenging and therefore pretty enjoyable once the steep opening section had been safely negotiated. By now I was largely riding solo, passing more riders than I was being passed by, although every now and then a small group of riders on another level ability wise would come shooting past me with no hope of me jumping on their wheel.
Immediately before the next climb there was a brief delay when another bus (Single decker this time) again struggled to thread its way through the oncoming traffic. Thankfully some highly efficient marshaling meant we our disruption was kept to a minimum and we could attack the next climb, #82 in the 100 Greatest Climbs – the Whinlatter Pass. This was probably my favourite climb of the ride. It only rates 5/10 in the good book which meant it was a challenging, but not overly taxing affair. I rode it well, feeling strong, buoyed on by the crowds of people who had been encouraged by the organisers to use this climb as a vantage point, and they did so, lining the road cheering us on like we were in the the Tour De Yorkshire or other less well spectated bike races, like the Tour De France.
With the descent that followed there was another five miles of fairly easy riding to the sixty mile point before the 20 mile section described amusingly on a Strava segment the shit bit. Whether this is a reference to the undulating terrain that begins to tax on a rapidly wearying body, or the relative lack of scenic surroundings compared to the majesty of the rest of the Lakes (we had a good view of Sellafield Nuclear Power Station by the Irish Sea at Calder Bridge) I’m not sure. Regardless I ploughed on, enjoying the challenges of such climbs as Fangs Brow at 65 miles and Burn Edge (#180 in Another 100 Greatest Climbs) at 75 miles. This one was a 6/10 and as Simon says, it’s a climb that cries wolf, appearing to end then going on again and again for what seems an eternity. It did end though, a gazebo with very loud music welcoming us with biscuits handed out on the fly if you were lucky enough to hold onto one (I managed, just).
That climb tackled there were a couple of tricky hairpins to contend with as we approached Calder Bridge and the second feed station at 82 miles. This was where my biggest mistakes of the day were made. I’d been feeding quite happily on the SIS Energy Bars, and still had a couple of bits of malt loaf and two Power Gels remaining. With 30 miles to go I should have just taken on more electrolyte, bagged another couple of energy bars, maybe a small piece of flapjack and been on my way. However I let the prospect of Hardknott Pass ten miles or so up the road interfere with rational thinking and so went on a ridiculous binge: a coffee while I returned to my bike to get the bottles I forgot again; I filled the bottles with electrolyte, then put the bottles back on the bike, to head back to the feed tables where I ate 3 or 4 bits of malt loaf with jam, three bits of flapjack, a couple of Jaffa Cakes, another cheese and onion sandwich, all stuffed down the gullet before I returned to my bike with another couple of energy bars stuffed into the back pocket. What with taking a minute to have some sun screen applied to the back of my neck (which I’d forgotten to do back at the B&B) and then removing the long fingered gloves and arm warmers, only to stop immediately after and put the arm warmers back on, I spent over eleven and a half minutes at the second feed station when I could have and should have spent a maximum of five, and could arguably have done without stopping at all.
Back on my way there was a brief section on the main coast road which wasn’t that pleasant before we headed onto a much more scenic road that would lead to Hardknott itself. Before then we had Irton Pike, which averaged 9% at it’s steepest part but wasn’t too troublesome. That tackled there was a section of four miles that was gently rising. It was here I began to feel the affects of taking on too much food. I felt distinctly queasy, nauseous, and at times quite dizzy. It was a little unsettling, the only thing I could be thankful for was that I was cycling and not running, so at least the stomach wasn’t being bounced around leading to inevitable, catastrophic, gastric distress.
We’d had warning signs a little way back that a road followed that should not be navigated by anything other than small, light vehicles, Then, in the distance I spotted a gap in the trees with a solitary red telephone box that I knew from The 100 Greatest Climbs meant the start of the hardest climb of the day – Hardknott Pass. Ranked as 10/10 for difficulty and described by Mr Warren as the king of climbs and arguably the hardest climb in the land. I’d seen the footage on Youtube and knew this was going to be tough – probably too tough with the way I felt right then, right now.
Past the telephone box and another set of severe warning signs there is a short steep climb through some woodland, over a cattle grid and out into the open where you are faced with the enormity of what awaits – a ribbon of narrow tarmac that just disappears off into the sky. Simon says the first switchbacks are 25% followed by a section of 30% before it levels off before it’s finale at the end where there is a section of some more 30% to battle up.
Sadly today I failed on the first 25% section. Feeling rubbish and swayed a little too easily by the pre-race instructions that suggested it’s almost more worthwhile walking than trying to cycle up, I unclipped at the first section of 25% and walked rather than risk grinding to a halt and falling off. At that moment the prospect of trying to ride up that hill seemed like the most ridiculously hard thing I’d ever been expected to do. So ridiculous, there was little point.
Detemined to minimise time lost I wasted no time in trying to walk up as quickly as you can up 1:4 and 1:3 roads in cycling shoes with their cleats pushing a bike and all that goes with it. It turned out that was almost as quick as trying to ride as many inched past me still in their saddles before I inched back past them feeling the strain in my calf muscles and hamstrings.
Once the road leveled a bit I was back on my bike, arm warmers down, jersey partially unzipped, working hard. Leveling though is a relative term with the gradient regularly in excess of 15%. The benefit of walking up the steepest bits was that, a bit fresher, I was able to re-pass a lot of the riders who had managed to ride past me and were now out of gas.
There was just the matter of the final kick of 30% to tackle. On another day with a happier digestive system and body that wasn’t having a blood sugar overload emergency on its hands, I would have given this climb a bloody good stab at riding the whole damned lot. With a compact crank on the front (that’s smaller chain rings attached to the cranks and the pedals) I would have definitely got up there. That’s why if you watch the video above some appear to be getting up with relatively little difficulty, whereas others are pedalling as though the cranks have been super glued, and others, like myself, have resorted to walking. The really sassy ones also fit mountain bike cassettes to their back wheel which means you can spin up 30% climbs with relative ease, not relatively quickly, but you look cool still on your bike as opposed to the failures who have resorted to walking.
So with those excuses put on the table – I walked the final section, along with around half those around me. I did though mount the bike before reaching the very top. The brutal part of a climb like this is that, unless, you stop and have a moment to compose yourself, you have to concentrate hard on the very dangerous descent that follows immediately after. There was no time to recover, it was full on pulling the brake levers as hard as I could just to keep the speed under check, let alone consider coming to a halt. There were moments I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop, like two guys just a few moments before me, who had just gone done and literally gone off the mountain, falling hard apparently onto some form of ravine.
There were cries from spectators for help, for medical assistance. It didn’t sound good. Other riders offered up to stop and assist but we were informed that there were already people down there trying to assist. Just like in London I felt I was in no position to help, so the best course was to try and get down avoiding the distinct possibility of joining them on the casualty list. (As far as I know those riders were not badly injured in the accident).
Thankfully just when I thought my upper body could not hold onto the brakes much longer, the steepness of the descent subsided and I was able to recover somewhat. In another moment of questionable tactics I stopped at Cockley Beck where someone was handing out bottles of water. I had a full 750ml bottle of electrolyte remaining which would have easily lasted the 15 or so remaining miles, but the preservation instinct kicked in and I spent the best part of two minutes slowly filling my bottle. When I got home and lifted my bike with and without the two nearly full water bottles (I didn’t take on much more liquid after Hardknott), I realised how much extra weight I was unnecessarily taking with me on the final hard climb of the day that immediately followed.
Wrynose is #85in the book, ranked 10/10 and described as the queen to it’s neighbouring king (Hardknott). This coming at nigh on 100 miles into the ride and so quickly after Hardknott meant it was a real beast. I knew it was coming and was warned, but much less is made of it than Hardknott. Mentally that made it easier, for although some of the gradients were in excess of 25% the climb, apart from the last little section (which I may or may not have walked – I genuinely cannot remember, although my cadence data suggests I walked 🙁 ) it wasn’t as taxing and I made it up with minimal distress, starting to feel a little less nauseous.
The final major challenge of the day was getting safely down Wrynose. Although not as steep as Hardknott, the section where near permanent braking is required is longer. My arms were by now killing me and I had to shout to myself to summon the energy to keep on braking. It’s a ridiculous situation where you are working nearly as hard downhill as you are uphill. The rather uncomfortable situation was amplified by some alarming squeals coming from the front brakes as I kept on plummeting down the hill while braking fully. Luckily just as I thought that something catastrophic was going to happen we had a long stretch of straight descent and I could release the brakes and allow them to recover. On inspection at the end of the ride I noticed they had worn significantly over the ride, but I think the squeal was more to do with heat build up than impending brake failure.
With 100 miles in the bag I knew from the instructions that the final 12 miles to the finish were relatively easy. On quite a technical descent I got on the back of two riders who encouraged me to join their train. This was quite beneficial as the lead rider seemed to have good knowedge of the roads and I could follow his quite fast lines fairly safely. I thought I would be able to hitch onto their train for the remainder of the ride but on the last little drag on the ride they slowed and then eased up to wait for a friend they had dropped.
Feeling quite fresh after the strains of the two previous passes I pushed on as best I could with a rider stuck firmly to my rear wheel (He thanked me at the end for the free ride, which was kind of him). Like many others arriving back into Grasmere at that time of day I lost a couple of minutes with slow moving traffic that had to be safely navigated. This made it impossible to give it full gas, thankfully any hopes of a super-sub-7 hour ride had long since passed and i was just riding to the finish.
That I did safely and relatively fresh after my uncomfortable section at 95 miles. My official time was 7:16. There are no finishing positions in a sportive, but a re-sorting of the results suggests I was around the 120th fastest rider on the day and I was awarded a First Class Distinction, a gold medal, so to speak, based on my finishing time. My Garmin time which takes out the stops, was 6:42:43, but I think that misses out a fair chunk of Hardknott when I walked and the computer auto paused. Still it means that the cherished sub 7 hour ride was within grasp, as it was for two guys who finished just behind me, almost in tears and hugging each other having cracked 7-hours on their tenth attempt. With knowledge of the course, more nouse at the feed stations and probably a compact crank, I think I can do it too. For the record only 10 riders broke the magic 6 hour barrier, the fastest Nick Williamson in 5:45.
There was a bit of a queue at the finish as riders stopped to collect their print out of the results and their commemorative pint glass – filled with Erdinger alcohol free beer if you so wished (I politely declined). I phoned my wife as soon as I returned to my car to let her know I had finished safely. Originally I planned to hang around and recover for an hour or two before driving home. However, after packing the bike and having a quick wander around (Where I picked up my finishing certificate), I realised that I was probably best off trying to leave the still pretty full car park before the majority of the field attempted to do so. There was little to stay for as the the queue for the free post race meal was horrendous and I felt like I would never have to eat again after the second feed station (It took until 10pm that evening before I felt like doing so).
I left shortly before 4pm. For reasons best known to my satnav, rather than take me on the easy, mostly dual carriageway route I took getting to the Lakes, it would take me on a tortuous run through to Bradford. before finally hitting the via the M62. It took over an hour to cover the first 12 miles, it would be four and a half long hours before I got home, almost more painful than the ride itself thanks to some sciatic pain.
To conclude…. An amazing ride, as hard and as brilliant as I thought it would be – Hardknott perhaps harder. The organisation is quite informal but quietly slick, the marshaling and signposting exemplary. I can see why it is still arguably considered the daddy of all the tough sportives we now have in this country. I will definitely want to do it again – an official sub-7 as enticing as a sub 2:45 marathon. Whether I’d do it in heavy rain or wind is another matter. It’s a hard and at times dangerous ride without those elements bringing more dangers. We were blessed with near perfect conditions, it was nearly a perfect ride. Damn you Hardknott and too much food!!!
I also would love to do the ride in a more informal manner, taking in the majesty of one of the my most favourite places in the world (Except when it is full of tourists, which is most of the time…), fully enjoying the breathtaking views and treating the feed stations more like relaxed coffee stops than the raids they turned into.
Thoroughly recommended, not for the novice cyclist, but a ride that any cyclist who likes their hills should be looking to complete.
The week began much as exhausted and tired as it ended on the Sunday following a monster week of work covering the Australian GP. I headed out on Monday for an easy paced run. The pace was okay, unspectacular. Around two and a half miles into the run I began to feel little cramp in the right quad, similar to what I experienced on the Saturday previous. I stopped at a bike shop for a couple of minutes to discuss a little business before recommencing the run. At around four miles the cramp feelings dispersed and I felt okay to try and commit to my normal ten mile loop rather than cutting it short.
At around six and a half miles, from out of the blue, severe cramp hit both legs in the upper quads. I hadn’t experienced cramp like this since I won the Maverick trail race back in the Summer – where again an inexplicable bout of early cramp hindered me severely. Several miles away from home I battled on but the cramp got worse, not better, and around a mile away from home, coming down a hill, I had to stop and admit defeat. I did under a tunnel arch for a couple of minutes to recompose myself before hobbling slowly home.
I’m not entirely sure what caused the cramp but I reckon it is a combination of tiredness, dehydration, and possibly the consumption of an Indian takeaway the night before. I may be wrong, but I reckon that is now the third or fourth occasion I’ve had this attack of severe cramp following a takeaway the night before. It may be totally coincidental, but there has to be a reason for these early onset cramps.
Anyway, initially I thought that was it for the day, but at around 6pm I remembered I had booked onto a spinning class which I couldn’t cancel, so I hobbled there and sat myself on the stationary bike. I was expecting to be barely able to turn a pedal, such had been the discomfort earlier in the day, but actually the spinning wasn’t too bad. Indeed I reckon it did a good job of helping to shift the excess lactate in the quads.
Tuesday morning saw an early hour on the elliptical trainer, which was a tired affair, especially with the after effects of the cramp still felt in the legs. A few hours later I ventured out on a crap clearing run to try and help loosen the legs. I think it worked, the miles getting progressively quicker to the quicker side of my easy run zone. I was still very tired though – at one point I nearly got lost and disorientated running a route I’ve done near constantly for the past three months!
Wednesday was a busy day outside of training, which meant I had an early wake up and depart for my ten mile run with eight miles at marathon pace. The body and legs didn’t really want to know for the two mile warm up; the first mile at MP was a real struggle, 6:16. Thereafter things got significantly better, averaging around 5:58 for the final seven miles, but I never felt that fantastic, and indeed tired a lot in the final mile or two. The cramp had more or less gone from the quads, the right calf though ached a bit, as did the hip.
Thursday morning saw a routine hour on the elliptical trainer – no issues other than feeling tired. That evening was a ten mile run with Grantham Running Club, with the unexpected guest runner in the form of my brother, who had come over with his family from Germany. He has just begun his training for an autumn marathon and this was comfortably his longest run in several years, but he ran well – as did the entire group, to average comfortably under 7:30 for the eight miles at the marathon pace. I felt fairly comfortable and all in all it was a most pleasing run.
Friday was a day of rest and a day with my brother and his family at a very busy day as we celebrated Food Friday. I felt distinctly sub-par for the most part, feeling like I was fighting a cold – so much so I took a couple of flu and cold capsules mid-way through the day.
Saturday morning and I had to push aside any thoughts of feeling unwell as I had my last realistic opportunity of putting in the long one before London. The 24 mile run is a staple of pretty much all my marathon campaigns, the time spent on feet usually the same or a little bit longer than the actual time spent running in the marathon. I could have done loops of town, but with the calf pain feeling much diminished since the work done on the hip (with more done during another massage on the Thursday) I decided to map out a run which took me out of town and up and down some hills – which I’ve been a little lacking of during training in late.
I was out at 8 am – the weather was cloudy and the wind strong. The first few miles were lethargic and not that quick – over seven minutes per mile as I felt the effects of cold fighting on the body. I had a pit stop at five miles and thereafter felt a bit better, especially once I’d tackled the big climb of the day on the A52 pass the barracks. A spanner in the route plan came as the road I’d intended to run down was closed due to the initial Grantham bypass construction. This meant I had to run a section down the slightly dodgy High Dyke before taking a right hand turning which took me back on to my intended tracks. I had to then make some calculations as to how much extra I had run and how best to revise the route so as to get back to 24 miles.
The following three or four miles through to fifteen were tough as they were mostly slightly uphill and into a head / cross wind which, at times had me near dead stopping in my tracks. However once I came to the peak of the hill and turned direction I had the wind at my back and the pace picked up significantly to around 6:30 per mile. I made it down a steep hill without the feared bout of cramp in my quads. My calf felt good and I worked on clicking down the miles as efficiently as possible as I took to the canal path and back towards Grantham.
The heavens opened a few miles before home but that didn’t disturb me as I reveled in feeling fresh at 23 miles despite having taken on the run with no water, no gels, no breakfast and just a cup of coffee to see me through. I ended up running a bit over 24 miles – 25 and a quarter to be precise – in 2:54. I felt pretty good, certainly no worse than when I was doing the long 20 mile runs with a parkrun in the middle. With that in mind I headed to the Belvoir Sportive website to enter for the following day’s ride. Alas, they closed the entries at 10am!
Undeterred I headed out on Sunday morning to see if I could fit in a 160km ride that may have had similarities to the Belvoir Sportive without actually taking part in that event itself. As it happened I chanced upon meeting up with several members of Witham Wheelers, who were taking part in the shorter 100 km ride. I rode with them for around thirty miles before going my own way and riding the vast majority of the remainder of the ride solo. It was hard going with plenty of tough hills around Rutland and the Vale of Belvoir and a nasty headwind to contend with for the opening half of the ride and for all of the final hills. Despite this I felt relatively strong, taking it fairly easy on the flat stuff and pushing as best I could on the hills.
I rode a few extra miles at the end to confirm that I had ridden over 100 miles and came home tired, but content that another week’s training was in the bag – 67 miles of running, 105 miles of proper riding, around 25 miles of spinning, and a couple of hours on the elliptical trainer. This will likely be the biggest training week of the marathon campaign – hopefully it will see me in good stead come race day.
The week began, Monday morning, with an hour on the elliptical trainer. The right calf was still quite sore after Saturday’s Duathlon, but not enough to slow me any. In the evening I headed to the gym for the Monday night gym session. Thinking I was still probably fatigued from the weekend’s efforts I reduced the FTW from 265 to 250. To my surprise I felt really strong throughout the session, able to push hard during the reps and recover at quite a high intensity. To my surprise I averaged 260 watts which worked out at a PB of 4.1 w/kg. It seems I peaked a couple of days too late on the bike – if only I’d felt that strong on Saturday during the Duathlon.
Talking of Duathlon, I spent Tuesday lunchtime securing the purchase of a time trial bike. Having discussed matters with the boss it was decided that life is too short to wonder what I could do if only I had decent equipment so I dug a little into the savings to give myself less excuses than I currently have.
Before that sale I went about potentially destroying any chance I have of running or racing properly in the near future. I set out for an easy paced run which I set at 8 miles as I was running a little short on time. The right calf was okay for the first mile or so then began to ache a touch, not enough to slow, but enough to remind me there was an issue. This continued for much of the run and I thought I had gotten away with it. Then in literally the last few hundred meters I first felt the arch of the foot tighten then a searing pain deep in the middle of the calf, which had me stop dead in my tracks before resuming again, albeit with a pronounced limp.
I wouldn’t have been able to run much further, fortunately it was literally only a few yards before I was home. The calf was really painful to touch, as was the hamstring, and walking anywhere wasn’t easy. That said, I was able to go on the elliptical trainer in the evening, where the calf was sore but it wasn’t bad enough to stop me pushing quite hard.
Wednesday and Thursday saw a pair of two hour efforts on the elliptical trainer. Thursday’s I pushed pretty hard, keen to break ’60km’ for the effort, which I managed with a little to spare. There was little difficulty cross training but the calf felt far too sore to consider running on. Fortunately that evening a slot for a massage came available and I jumped at the opportunity. David worked his magic, inducing tears as he worked deep into the right hip and glutes before working to loosen the calf and hamstring. His conclusion was that the source of the problem is coming from the hip which is incredibly tight. I’ve thought this to be the case for some time now. There was no miracle cure – the calf still felt tender, but at least I had something to work on in terms of finding a cure.
The dilemma of the week was that on Sunday I was entered for the Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon, Grantham’s only road race. I was really keen to take part, having not done so since I became a Grantham resident, but Thursday night I was already confiding with friends that my participation looked very unlikely and that I’d likely go cycling with Witham Wheelers instead.
That mindset didn’t alter going into Friday. Normally with a race on Sunday I’d do a very easy session or none at all, but I headed to the gym where I put in firstly an hour on their elliptical trainer, where I worked at really high RPM, and then a slightly odd spin session which was attended by just one other person and had us for the most part out of the saddle putting in long efforts in the red zone. This really worked the quads hard, walking up and down stairs was an effort for much of Friday and Saturday…
The only concession I made to entertaining the possibility of racing was Saturday would be a rest day from exercise. I’d volunteered my services to help marshal the local parkrun at Belton House. I was on finish token duties, which was fun as I congratulated each and every finisher, but, on a really cold morning, left my fingers red and numb and wishing I’d opted for a different role.
Saturday afternoon and the decision on whether to run or ride appeared to be swinging towards the latter. Normally before a big race my meal the night before will be strictly regulated – usually a pizza and certainly not the full roast dinner I knocked up and served to the family that evening, complete with sherry, a few glasses of white wine and a crusted port to take myself to bed with. That’s the kind of preparation for a long relaxes bike ride, not an intense half marathon race. Once in bed I set the alarm for 7am, fully intending to cycle in the morning.