After the adventure, misadventure and worsening of my lungs after Bristol to Paris I decided to get the train on my return from Paris to Dieppe on the 2nd of January.
The 2nd January was also the day that 850 adventurous cyclists from 52 countries all around the world were frantically refreshing their emails and jumping at every ‘ping’ of a new message appearing in their inbox. It was the day that applicants to the the Transcontinental Race No5 were finding out if they were successful in gaining a place on one of the most brutal bicycle races around.
The Transcontinental isn’t like any other race. There is no set route but a number of checkpoints and riders must navigate their own way between these. The race requires riders to be completely self supported, using only resources that are commercially available. No getting your mum to visit you half way with a fresh supply of inner tubes and some welshcakes! Riders pedal to cover an average of 250km a day (and more) to try and make it to the checkpoints before the cutoff. This year is pretty special as it will see the strongest and largest women’s field take to the race with around 50 female entrants and there are some real superstars in there!
So here I was waiting at train station for a connection in Northern France. Frantically refreshing my email. There is a facebook group for this race and I knew from the posts on there that unsuccessful applicants had been notified. Still I had no email. Does this mean I’ve got in? And then… ping!
Now Mike Hall the race organiser clearly has a sense of humour. The email read
“Once again we were very heavily oversubscribed, and this year more so than ever.
We had over 850 entries from 52 countries and even though I have increased the amount of offers again as much as I dare, there are still a lot of people that we’ve had to disappoint.”
Oh so maybe I haven’t got in….
“However, congratulations are in order:
Your application has been successful and we would like to offer you a place in Transcontinental No.5″
Now I wasn’t wearing a heart rate monitor but I could feel my pulse quicken and a surge of adrenaline accompanied with butterflies moshing in my stomach. I was happy, excited, terrified.
This isn’t straightforward (sorry if you expected it to be!).
I wasn’t sporty as a child. I was active and outdoorsy but loathed lycra and PE lessons. I discovered sport at uni and embraced it. I discovered these amazing communities of supportive, friendly and rock-solid friends for life sorts through rowing and rugby. I also learned that I liked pushing myself. I’d always pushed myself mentally but physical challenge added a whole new dimension. It also turned out that once I’d become active it was very bad for me to stop being active. When I let physical activity take a back seat (exams, heavy lab schedules, injury etc) I found that a mental health ‘wobble’ was never far around the corner. More recently tough times both in my academic and private lives alongside starting my first real job I’ve found it harder and harder to cope. Work life balance went out the window. I fell back into old self destructive habits of serial dating and binge drinking. Surprise surprise! That is not the answer.
Long solo trips on the bike and finding a new community of friends through cycling has been instrumental in helping me regain my feeling of self worth and get the upper hand over some of my anxieties.
Six pretty intense years at university had forced me to put adventure (mostly) on the back burner but I carried on reading. I read about a 600km audax through Wales (the Bryan Chapman Memorial which I will be riding this summer) and I discovered the Transcontinental race and inspiring women like Dervla Murphy, Emily Chappell, Juliana Burhing and Laura Scott. When I started riding my road bike more regularly and with increasing confidence I knew riding a race like the Transcontinental was a goal, I didn’t know if it was achievable and I never gave this goal a timeframe.
OK, the Transcontinental isn’t a team sport but there is this brilliantly supportive and welcoming community around the race to offer advice and encouragement. You might be racing solo but you’re not alone. You’re sharing the roads with 200 or so other nutters. In addition, friends, family and internet randoms will be watching your dot from the GPS tracker and sending encouraging messages as called upon.
Because if not now then when? JFDI and all that.
Do I say yes?
Applying to race the Transcon is one thing. I’m not sure what I thought my chances of getting a spot were. Now it was real. My friends (both cycling and non cycling) seemed to be split. Most were full of congratulations, encouragement, excited for me and eager to join me on training rides (bunch of nutters I love you all). I also got the impression that some think that this is something I’m not capable of, whether physically or mentally. This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done times a million, squared and then times a million again.
I have a lot of work ahead of me in terms of mental and physical preparation. If I tried to ride it tomorrow I’m not sure I’d get anywhere very far or fast! Luckily, I’m not riding it tomorrow! But no matter how prepared you are, the only thing to prepare you for riding the Transcontinental is…. riding the Transcontinental.
I’m going to give this everything I’ve got. Yes, I’m not an experienced ultra long distance cyclist. I’m not even that experienced when it comes to cycling. Or travelling. I’ve never even been backpacking or interrailing through Europe.
So can I do it?
Fundamentally no one knows the answer to this question until after the fact. There are some things that will not play to my advantage. I had surgery on my right knee 2.5 years ago and that will constantly be playing on my mind. Lots of pilates please! I am less experienced, there is no beating about the bush on this one. I need to be careful not to go out all guns blazing trying to prove myself, exhaust myself and have to scratch from the race.
There are some things that will play to my advantage. I’m optimistic and determined. In the first year of my PhD a friend asked if I wanted to join a team that was going to try and swim a relay of the English Channel. I’d never done long distance swimming before. Never done outdoor swimming besides swimming in the river on a hot day. Few days before the channel swim I fell off my bike and ended up swimming with a bin bag gaffa taped to my leg to cover up a reasonably sized gash. I was in hospital the next day for stitches! You can argue about whether or not that was the most sensible thing to do (sorry mum!) but I know that I don’t give up and that when called upon I can find this reserve of mental and physical strength to get a job done.