Wednesday, 1 October 2014

ElliptiGO - Audax Flatlands 600km

Just 6 days after my exploits at Thruxton 100 I was back on the ElliptiGO to arguably take on a far bigger and scarier challenge! Myself and fellow ElliptiGOers Idai, Alan and Carl were taking on the Audax Flatlands 600. A continuous 600km ride from Great Dunmow in Essex to Goole in Lincolnshire (possibly Yorkshire!!) and back. It was so far North I didn't even know where we were heading. And with so little planning and preparation for this ride (the others included) it literally was a case of turn up at the start, point ourselves in the right direction and GO!

And that's pretty much what happened. We all stayed nearby the start location at St Mary's Church the previous night for the 6am start. Breakfast was served at 5am which consisted of pain au chocolate, grain bars, flapjack, muffins and bananas so not very Paleo!! I think I may have ODed on pain au chocolate!

At 6am on the dot Alan and I were on the start line but there was no sign of Idai or Carl! 100 or so cyclists had set off and there was Alan and I left waiting there! They were still fuelling up but this allowed me time to set up my garmin etrex with the maps for the rides. That didn't go well! It seemed the GPX map files I had got from one of the other riders exchanged online weren't compatible with my garmin. Damn. This was a bit of a blow as it now meant we had to resort to navigating 600km of English country roads following a turn by turn route description. Not the best start to the ride but you deal with these things and just get on with it. The 9 stages of the route were as follows. The longest stage being 90km and shortest 49km. But to be honest the stages distances were pretty irrelevant as the Controls were all unmanned so we just had to pass through the relevant town and get evidence as proof of passage such as an ATM or shop receipt.

Stage                                          Stage Distance Cumulative      
1]   Great Dunmow – Red Lodge     61km                 61km                   
2]   Red Lodge – Whittlesey           69km                130km            
3]   Whittlesey – Boston                57km                 187km
4]   Boston – Kirton-in-Lindsey       90km                 277km                 
5]   Kirton – Goole                         51km                 328km                   
6]   Goole – Gainsborough             49km                 377km                 
7]   Gainsborough – Sleaford          57km                 434km                 
8]   Sleaford – Chatteris                 90km                 524km                 
9]   Chatteris – Great Dunmow        82km                 606km  
Carl and Idai finally emerged stomachs full at 6:15am. We took the opportunity for a start line photo before we set off into the morning mist and the start of our Adventure! 

On the start line of The Flatlands 600
The plan was to stay together as a group for the entire ride so the first section (61km) to Red Lodge for second breakfast was all about finding a sustainable pace that suited everyone. We had no plan regarding who would lead out so we just took it in turns in these early stages to establish who was most comfortable at the front and didn't kill those behind with an unsustainable pace. Idai voiced some concern that we were going too fast and I guess I may have still been in Thruxton mode!! :-) hehe. However slowly but surely we got into our groove and before long we had arrived at Control 1 - Red Lodge for 'proper' breakfast. Fry ups all round for the crew and we were fuelled and ready for the day ahead and the real work to begin.

Now we've talking!! Proper Paleo food :-) with Idai to busy eating to get in shot :-D
I think because we all spent so little time thinking, preparing or planning for this ride this actually helped in that we were all very relaxed and just GOing with the flow. The route north would cut right through the Fens crossing the Rivers Cam, Ouse and Nene. It was unbelievably flat but because of this there was also the inevitable wind factor. So on the one hand you benefitted but when there was no shelter from the elements it could get pretty tough. For me the 'real' work started earlier than the others and came as a bit of a shock. Of course I wasn't sure how much the Thruxton100 had taken out of me but I soon found out. Between 50 - 100 miles I was really out of sorts and finding it rough. It wasn't the pace or wind or any other external factor that caused this but the simple fact that I was spent and already felt like I was 'running on empty'. And we hadn't even reached 100 miles of a near as damn it 400 mile ride!! The thought that I felt like this already and had the best part of 300 miles still to ride was not one that filled me with glee. 

We pulled into a garage where I told the others that my legs felt trashed already. Idai was genuinely concerned but at the same time there was nothing that anyone or I could do about it. This was a continuous point to point and back ride with no Plan B or escape route We were all here for the long-haul no matter what happened and I just had to suck it up, quit feeling sorry for myself and get on with it. 
Stopping for just 20 minutes can make all the difference to mind and body. And there was only one answer - ice cream!! It worked a treat on Mille Cymru when I was at my lowest ebb and it worked here too. We chilled out in the garage forecourt ate, drunk and reset for the next section. And that's exactly how we would roll through this ride for the next day and a half. It was simple really. We rode from stop to stop refuelling and recharging ourselves like we were on a conveyor belt that would stop until we reached the end. And even the landscape and the long flat straight roads resembled exactly this. There was no getting off, checking out or throwing in the towel. 
The others didn't appear to be unduly effected by the distance and soon I was back in the groove too as if my earlier melt down had never happened. Isn't it strange that the body can feel like that... Like it couldn't GO on for another mile let alone 300 and now I'm 'normal'. We arrived at Control 2 (130km) in Whittlesey in time for lunch. We found a nice pub and a place to park the ElliptiGOs. Once again time off your feet makes all the difference. We gorged ourselves on pub grub (burgers and chips) and I even had a cheeky pint of Ale. Why not I thought to myself and it really helps to break up the enormity of the challenge by doing 'normal' things like enjoying a pint.

The George Pub, Whittlesey
Stomachs once again full and we were headed for Boston which was a shorter 57km stage. We rode through the afternoon sunshine with the winds still battling against us. At times the whole group would just ride in comfortable silence as we went about our business and at other times we would chat, laugh and bond with our shared goal to reach the end. As far as our pacing was concerned this was now taking care of itself with whoever felt like leading the bunch taking up the front spot and pushing on as we carved a path through the endless Fens.
By Boston (Control 3 - 187km) there was just one thing on our minds - Coffee!! But it was getting on for 5:30pm and the town centre seemed to be closing for business. We bumped into two other cyclists who had spent the last 3hrs at the bike shop get a broken gear shifter replaced. Ouch! They joined us for coffee at a nearby Cafe Nero (Result!!) and it was once again feet up, relax, and refuel. I'm sure you are getting the picture by now on the routine. And this is how we rolled deep into the night and through to the next day.

A few miles after leaving Boston Control Idai got a puncture from a huge thorn!
The night section was tough. And I can't understate just how much so. Clearly fatigue is starting to set in by now and tiredness is inevitable. As a group we hadn't really discussed the subject of sleep. We didn't have anywhere booked so if we did have time to sleep it would be outside or in a late night services. I think we all knew in reality that we wouldn't be sleeping but no one was really prepared to say it. It was 1am when we rolled into the delightful Scarborough and saw the Golden Arches in the distance. This was the only thing open at this hour but it presented the opportunity to take an extended period of time to rest and eat. I'm not fussy when it comes to fuelling on long rides and I polished off a McTasty meal. The others weren't so thrilled with the food on offer but it's calories that count and at 800+ it's a no-brainer with a long night of riding ahead.

Idai never stops smiling - as we ride through the night
As we all sat in the restaurant we were definitely all at our lowest ebb. This was crunch time. We were all tired but with a complete lack of real alternatives we faced only two options. Carry on through the night or waste time here (which we didn't have). We agreed we'd spend 1 hour here and then head on to Goole (327km) and the turn around point.

I love this photo as it captures exactly how we were all feeling! blurred vision and exhausted...

The stage to the half way Control at Goole was the toughest in the whole ride. It wasn't tough physically (the legs were still working well) .... this was purely mental and it was changing my perspective on the ride. The three others would pull away and I would try to catch them but mentally didn't have the motivation to try, which resulted in a gap that grew and grew. I could always see them but the red tail lights grew smaller and fainter, and as the roads wound through the countryside I lost sight of them. I expected them to slow and allow me to catch and perhaps they did but I wasn't pushing by this point. The gap was only a minute in reality but because of the general fatigue and my mental awareness dipping it may as well have been an hour. 

Outside of Goole the guys stopped and I caught up. Apparently we had come into Goole on a different route which I was completely unaware of. Audax rules require you to visit each of the official Controls (and collect evidence such as an ATM or till receipt as proof of passage) but the route you take in between is somewhat flexible. We had no plan to go off route but it seems that our desire to visit McDs in Scarborough brought us into Goole from a different direction. 
We didn't stay long (gratefully!) and we would have been even quicker if it wasn't for the interest being shown by the local late night (early morning!) revellers in the ElliptiGOs. We left Goole after 3am and headed back South. It felt great to be heading home and despite only being half way into the ride it felt like we had reached a real turning point in the ride. I was once again feeling a lot more positive about things.
Alan lead out and we filed in formation and pushed on through to dawn. We were now thinking about the next fuel stop and breakfast! For me this is where all the remaining towns, garage forecourts, causeways and scenery is a bit of a blur. I was in the moment but clearly after having ridden for over 24 hours you don't tend to hang onto every memory. For the reader this probably comes as a relief! Haha.

One of many garage forecourts visited on our travels....
The memories I do have of the second day is one of a very enjoyable day riding with friends, interspersed with some hellish sections with wicked head winds. But we were getting nearer and nearer to our destination so it felt ok under the circumstances. There was just the small challenge of navigating our way in and out of Cambridge. The highlight of Cambridge was getting on to the Guided Bus Way which had a dedicated 8 mile footpath and cycle way that carved out a traffic free path. Once in Cambridge however we still had to negotiate the Ring Road and get off that and take the correct road south. No Garmin assistance and the route notes were very vague. We eventually got out but it did feel like a very long time and far more than we had anticipated. By this point we were all doing the maths on our required pace to finish under the 40 hour cut off. In fact we had been doing the maths most of the night and into the day. There was never a moment where I didn't think we would compete it in under the 40 hour cut off, but I had hoped we'd be a good few hours under it. As we exited Cambridge however this didn't look like being the case. 

We pressed on and reached the final Control at Chatteris (525km covered). From here we had 80km to go and 6 hours to do it. Judging by our pace it looked like we would in fact push into the final hour and finish after 9pm.

Enjoying a cuppa at the final control in Chatteris (80km to GO!)
The final section was the hilliest section of the entire ride. I'm not complaining and the change in terrain kept it interesting but it also slowed us down further. The worst part however was in the final few hours riding in the dark along a twisty country road where we witnessed some insane driving. Why drivers take such extreme and dangerous risks when overtaking defies belief. I was pacing at this point when a car came over the brow of the hill and at the same time a car behind me started to over us. There was room but the overtaking car was completely on the opposite side of the road and cause the oncoming car to swerve. I was fully expecting a collision (not with us!) but the two cars. Somehow and I don't know how but they missed each other by what must have been fractions of an inch. The guys behind saw more than me and knew it was a close shave.

After this we were just counting down the miles back to Great Dunmow. The entire ride was meant to be 606k but we had already done 615k and were still GOing! It can't be far now surely.... In fact all of the 9 stages were like this as we would approach the destination town. You would spot a sign with the distance and miles later you saw another sign and you were no closer!! Finally though after over 39 hours of riding we were back in Great Dunmow. All that remained was to find the actual Control. Erm.... Does anyone know where we are going!? Nope it appeared not. We overshot the turn we were suppose to take and rode into town only to have to retrace back and finally make it to the Control - the Pub!! Haha the best Control of the race. It was a mix of relief that the ride was over, understated celebration that we'd made it under the cut off and quiet satisfaction at a job well done. We all worked so well as a team which isn't as easy as it sounds on an ElliptiGO. To all ride together for that length of time and distance and find that our pace matched one another and that everyone contributed to the effort was the most pleasing aspect of the whole ride. Hats off to Idai, Alan and especially Carl who for him was taking on his first multi day event and whom hadn't ridden further than 180 miles before! In total we had covered 386 continuous miles. It was my longest ride also by a considerable margin.
Toasting our success!
We toasted success with a drink, and took some time to reflect. However it was late and we all had homes to get back to. The challenge in fact hadn't ended as getting home raised some questions with the lack of sleep. I decided I would drive but had a good slap up mixed kebab first (the only place open on the high street) but boy was it good!!! I made it home safely but on reflection would allow myself a sleep next time.

To view a video of our ride captured by Idai click here ( that was that. One week apart and two very different rides. You can't even start to compare the Thruxton 100 and Flatlands 600. Both were very enjoyable and challenging rides but for very different reasons. One was a heart pumping thrill seeking solo record breaker whilst the other pushed ElliptiGO endurance riding to another level and was shared with great company. Both have given me immense satisfaction which is a great way to effectively wind down the season. Nothing much planned ElliptiGO wise for the rest of the year. I've just joined Audax UK so I expect one or two 200k rides will be on the cards to keep me ticking over. And who knows what 2015 holds.... But if you want a clue Google 'PBP' and see what you find. The B doesn't stand for a Baguette, however that is a clue ;-)