On Sunday I cycled my first century in the Wiggle South Downs 100. It was HARD. Cycling 100 miles is, I think, the hardest physical thing I have ever done. It was also the first thing I’ve done this year where I didn’t know if I could do it. I knew I would get up Mont Ventoux, I just didn’t know how fast or if I would hate every moment. I knew I would finish my first Olympic distance triathlon, even if I ended up walking most of the 10k run. In the end I loved Mont Ventoux & was really proud of my triathlon times.
But since that triathlon, at the beginning of September, I’ve cut down quite a bit on my training. And especially on my bike training, as my old knee injury has been flaring up. When your knee is really painful at the end of a slow 15 minute cycle to work, you seriously question your ability to cycle for 100 miles.
Falling asleep the night before, my tired mind had envisaged me sat in tears on the side of the road, knee in agony, unable to cycle any further. I remembered a short 35 mile cycle James and I had done a few weeks back, and the utter misery on every hill because of the pain, and I worried. I slept badly, woken up by howling wind and torrential rain (another worry – did I even want to cycle 100 miles in torrential rain?!), and then by a horrible nightmare. I felt sick with nerves and I couldn’t really work out why – I couldn’t get my brain to understand that this was just a nice day out cycling with my family.
The morning seemed rushed and stressful, and we were very late out of the door. I had forgotten to take the ibruprofen and the paracetamol that was going to ward off the knee pain, and I was getting increasingly stressed. As we were late I was worried we were going to miss the cut-offs and actually be unable to cycle the full 100 miles. Luckily everything was very well-organised, registering and getting our timing chips took a matter of seconds.
We finally started and almost immediately stopped to raise my saddle. And then we were off. Immediately I started to relax in the gentle rhythm of turning my pedals, mind attuned to any potential twinge in the left knee, but also put at ease in the raising of the saddle. I imagine this was probably completely mental, but I had convinced myself the height of the saddle was the problem, and we’d just solved this.
We split up quickly, with my mum accompanying my aunt, while my uncle Nigel, cousin Jane, and my other cousin’s boyfriend Ben and I went ahead. I was the slowest of the group, which was no surprise to me! And I’m not ashamed to say I received quite a lot of help in sticking on either Nigel or Ben’s wheel! The route started by leaving Chichester towards Lavant, and then a climb up towards Goodwood – a climb I quite enjoyed on fresh legs especially as this was the hill I’d come down during my triathlon! It was just under 25 miles to the first aid station, along roads I’d never cycled or driven on before. Almost deserted – this was the “epic” route and we were some of the last “epic” riders to start so we didn’t see many other cyclists and very few cars. Although it had been drizzling when we woke up, the rain had stopped before we started and it was clearing up into a beautiful, if windy, day. The wind was so hot – like warm breath blown right into your face, incredible for the end of October. It was quickly drying the roads although also blowing leaves all over them which meant some of the descents were a lot slower than they could have been! This first section was the flattest of the route, with the biggest hills coming in the final 30 miles. “Flat” would be a slight exaggeration however… this was definitely undulating.
I felt pretty good at the first aid station – time for some flapjacks and a toilet stop before we were on our way again. It was a long drag to the second aid station at around 55 miles and by this point I was starting to feel a little tired, but still okay. We sped through tiny villages and miles and miles without a house in sight, cycling along some stunningly beautiful deserted roads, so narrow and covered in leaves that bikes had to go single file, stunning views of the South Downs spread out before us.
I had a gel between stops and then about two bananas at the second aid station. This was where things were starting to go slightly wrong with nutrition – it was lunch time and I was hungry, but all that was on offer were bananas, more flapjacks, fig rolls (which I don’t like) and jelly beans. I really wanted something savoury and realised I should have stuffed a sandwich into my jersey pocket.
We were soon out and off towards the next aid station – a mere 20-odd miles away at 76 miles. I knew by this point I would be able to finish. Both knees ached gently, but no more than you would expect after over 50 miles on the bike. The first portion of this next section was great, time and miles were speeding past, until we hit the 8% hill known on Strava as Turkey Island climb. The gears went down and I ground my way on. Jane and Ben sped off, both saying afterwards they thought it was the hardest climb of the day – but they had been trying to beat each other and the two men in front of us clad head to toe in Sky cycling gear… (They beat them). Nigel stayed back with me and basically talked me up the hill. It is hard enough on any ride, but when you’ve done 70 miles up to that point…. Breathe, breathe, grind, grind, stare at the road, you’ll get there eventually.
Eventually we made it to the third and final aid station at 76 miles. Everything was hurting. The front of my ankles, both knees, my arms, my shoulders, my back, my neck, my hands….. Everything. I’d taken another gel on the ride and was now tucking into a flapjack when an organiser came round telling us that if we were doing the epic course we had to leave NOW. This was slightly unfair as it was just past 3pm and they weren’t meant to be removing the last epic loop until 3.30pm so we had almost half an hour… But we jumped on our bikes and headed away, me still attempting to munch on my flapjack as I cycled. All the sweetness was making me feel slightly sick despite being very hungry. I had an internal sense-of-humour failure as we cycled away, feeling like crap and with Butser Hill looming up ahead of me.
This was the cruelest part of the event. The epic route involved a final loop away from the standard and short courses. This loop consisted solely of a steep climb up Teglease towards East Meon – an average gradient of 6% + which might have been challenging but okay normally but not with over 70 miles on the legs. By this time I was talking to myself – “it’s meant to be hard you twat, it’s meant to hurt. Just a few more hills to go. Just keep cycling just keep cycling.” The ‘positive’ (?!) talking seemed to work and I made it to the top, the smiles coming back as I cycled along a ridge with stunning views.
A fast descent took you straight back down again and ready to climb up Butser Hill. Two years ago I walked my bike up here on the 45 mile “short” route. Pleased to say I managed to get up it this time even if I did worry at one point I would tip off my bike backwards!! Wiggle had organised a closed road for this climb and had volunteers ringing cow bells and cheering the cyclists on which was quite good fun as I powered up alone. It’s a kilometre climb with an average grade of 9.4% and it did me in.
This was the last proper climb, but from that point onwards, even the tiniest inclines had me grinding away in my lowest gear as if I was going up Mont Ventoux. We stuck closely together in a peloton for the last 15 miles or so, Nigel pulling us along on the front, cranking up the pace gradually until we were going over 20mph – the fastest I’ve ever gone on an undulating road and at the end of 100 miles! As soon as the road tipped upwards I had to really, really push my legs to keep on his wheel, but by this point I knew we were almost home, and the faster we cycled, the soon it would be over. The wheels really came off for the last 5 minutes back in Chichester and I had no more energy to push down on the pedals.
We were finished! 101.5 miles, over 2200m of climbing (or 7270 feet) in 7 and a half hours. I am so happy and proud of myself, despite the fact that every part of my body hurts. Even my tummy and my chest hurt to touch afterwards and I have no idea why! It has really, really put into perspective what these incredible ironman athletes do. To cycle 16 extra miles, and then go on and run a marathon… I was barely in any position to hobble/walk let alone run any distance whatsoever! So much respect and admiration, especially to the back of the pack who spend so much longer on the bike than the pros.
This is a mud line… not just very hairy legs!
The next day I was in agony and still not feeling right due to lack of proper nutrition and not drinking enough water. But already how painful it was is starting to fade into the background in the memory of those beautiful deserted roads, the blue skies ahead, and the sheer exhilaration when we finally finished. I’ll be doing it again for sure.