Six weeks after I set out to cycle solo and self-supported from Land’s End to John O’ Groats via the three peaks, I can finally write a little blog about it.
It’s been 21 days since I rolled up to the John O’Groats sign, where I covered my sweaty, teary face with my hands in jubilation, before joining the queue of tourists to get a photo in the 40-mile-hour winds that forced me to to walk the home straight.
Ordinarily, I’d publish a blog while the post-event glow’s still in my cheeks, but not this time. Not because I haven’t been scribbling, oh no, but because there is just too much to say.
Where do I even begin on how it all started, what the build up was like, what happened during those three weeks on the road, and how I feel about it all? After several failed attempts at a blog, but somehow, 25,000 words instead, I’m going to take a stab at LEJOG via three peaks in a nutshell. A coconut though, not a peanut.
Legs vs. brain
Most LEJOGgers, as I understand it, take on the 1000-ish-mile challenge and expect the actual cycling to be the hardest bit – especially those who pay for a supported trip, where navigation, accommodation and luggage-carrying are taken care of.
For me, though, the fear that I held about doing it on my own was so epic, so fossilised by my lack of ever pushing the solo boundaries, that I barely noticed the cycling; less a testament to my fitness, and more a glimpse into the monumental mental challenge. Put it this way, if my head could have felt half as good as my legs, I’d have been on a nice cycling holiday. But it didn’t, and so, I wasn’t. Instead, I was on a big, scary trip – albeit one that I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity to be on, which didn’t escape me (most of the time).
I branded it ‘Just me & GB: One woman, 1000 miles, three mountains, three lakes.’ Which, as a professional copywriter, I will admit is not my best work – bit of a mouthful. But, hopefully I could be forgiven, for I had the entire length of England, Wales and Scotland via the Three Peaks to GPS-plot, 23 nights of accommodation to sort out, and the Tetris puzzle of squeezing all I required (once I’d worked that out, too) into the three tiny bags that my carbon racer would allow – one of them so small it would only fit my fell running shoes, but still big enough that it stopped my hands from resting in the drop handlebars while I rode.
I was alternating between quiet nerves and tearful nerves in the days before the off. When June finally swung around, I was relieved – as is often the case with lots of build up – and ready to begin. Saying bye to James at Land’s End was something I’d often imagined, but it felt no less monumental for all of the mental prep. When he drove off, I lied myself that it was only one day of cycling, breaking it down to the chunk of today’s goal – a manageable 60-mile slab.
Pleasingly, as soon as I begun to pedal along the misty, undulating coast road toward St Ives, my brain kicked into practical mode, and I settled into route-examining, diligently nibbling and drinking water at regular intervals, ticking off the miles and saying “good morning!” to those I passed; including a man on a bike who replied with “tough girlie” as I pedalled past.
Amazing, but amazingly hard
Summarising the three weeks that followed into 98 words, I rode through three countries and 25 counties, and fin-a-lly experienced what it was like to be completely alone in the countryside. Woo hoo! It felt incredibly freeing and, fleetingly, inexplicably calming – while all that I encountered seemed more colourful, scented and real somehow. I also discovered the extreme physical effects of not nibbling around the edges of a fear, but, instead, squaring Lycra-clad shoulders to it and saying “c’mon then, give me all you’ve got.” As a result, I did need support along the way and, thank you Sarah, El, James and all of those Adventure Queens – just for starters. I got a lot of it. A LOT of it.
Pre-departure, one piece of encouragement that I’d hear repeatedly was “enjoy all the kindness you’ll find along the way.” I hoped so. But I didn’t imagine just how much kindness I’d encounter from people I’d never met. Like Rachel, who decided to support me with her camper van for 40 miles during scary storm Hector. Polly, who showed up to meet me for lunch in a welsh town and then pedalled 50 miles with me. Jennifer, who phoned to help encourage me to not chuck it in. Jane and Andrew, who bought me lunch on top of Snowdon and checked in with me thereafter. Geoff, who had my back up a Scafell scramble and the amazing Richard and Chris, who let me tag along with them for almost three days.
In total, I rode around 300 miles in the company of others across an otherwise solo 1009-mile trip, and I discovered a more thrilling sense of adventure when I was alone. On the days when it was just me out there, I was always sure to encounter a drama or two. There was the moment I scared a horse, and ended up face to face with it on a tiny country lane, the is-it-a-bull? moment, where I ducked behind a bush until it forgot I existed, the parking my bike in a beehive moment, and shale-gate – seven isolated miles of unrideable rocks and gravel, resulting in repeat punctures, to name a few, alongside treading in someone’s wee in my only pair of socks in the YHA loo. But I will definitely need a bigger nutshell to going into those stories.
Perhaps the biggest unforeseen annoyance, was that of running out of safe roads and facing the choice of risking death or catching a train back to safety which meant missing some miles, which made me feel like a fraud and injected unwanted disappointment that took the shine off my achievement.
Best and worst outcomes
Facing a pesky fear had distinct ups and downs. The ups aren’t hard to guess – I felt empowered, free and proud of myself. I learned new skills and proved to myself that it’s ok to just get out there and do stuff. I learned that I was pretty good at changing punctures, and that it is possible to cry and cycle at the same time and still feel like a badass.
The downsides? The amount of adrenaline floating about when fear-facing becomes flipping exhausting when experienced cumulatively, day after day. Sometimes I felt so afraid while I was pedalling that I started to get really, really cross with myself for putting myself through it, and on the flip-side of empowerment was weakness and vulnerability when I felt I could not do it on my own. It was all too easy to beat myself up about these things and forget that what I was doing was positive.
A nice surprise
I met two guys, the aforementioned Richard and Chris, on the way, who were also cycling LEJOG. They took me under their wing when I needed it, and disappeared into their own schedule when I didn’t. I only rode with them for two-and-a-half days, but meeting them at the Welcome To Scotland sign was a true road angel moment. They were already at John O’ Groats when I arrived, clapping me in as I rolled up to the sign. Yet, perhaps one of the best moments, aside from the relief of finding them, was when I chose to ride alone when I felt I had the option not to. And that was the biggest surprise, that, despite the anxiety – who’d have thought it, I grew to miss the excitement and challenge of cycling by myself when I was in the relaxed pedalling company of others.
What happens next?
I have about 200 nuts-worth of stories to tell about my trip. But, for now, I’ll just squeeze a tiny bit more in before I wrap up.
What about afterwards? How often do people talk about this bit? The post-adventure blues weren’t / aren’t (delete as momentarily applicable) nice. It’s fun living out a dream, but when the party’s over, there’s a comedown. Adventurer Dave Cornthwaite says he has been frequently blighted by post-adventure depression: “How could this be that in adventure I’d found the one thing that brought me fully to live, but it came with the compromise of sadness,” he says. Tricky. I hadn’t been away for months, but when I arrived home again just a few short weeks later, something was definitely missing – after years of pondering, months of planning and 23 days of huge ups and downs.
Of course, the clouds went on their merry way, and what I am left with is amazing memories of new people and places, more confidence to ride alone, and a sense of empowerment that’ll last long after the Caledonian sleeper left Scotland. In other words, positives that far outweigh the post adventure downs.
A common question is “what next?” and starting a new plan is, I understand, often the way that people deal with the bleak feelings that can come after doing something brilliant. But, while I have some other things I’d like to achieve, a direct-route LEJOG, sub-13 Ironman, 300k Audax, for example, the real challenge now is normalising riding alone and gaining more of the joy that I found in doing it, on an ongoing, slightly smaller, basis. I’d also like to encourage other women to do the same.
Riding 1000 miles was a nice round number to bag, and those three peaks that I climbed were pretty cool, too. But it’s not the mountains I’m most proud of, nor the mileage, but the fact that I did something that really scared me. Just the fact that I proper JDFI-ingly went and did it. And, someone please pass me some cheese, if I can, then you can too.