Pain shot across my chest. What on earth was that? I looked at my heart rate monitor, it was reading zero, as it was broken.
Another shot. Spots in my vision. Loud whistling in my ears. I look around at where I am, and what I’m doing, the indescribable beauty of the location. I try to understand what’s happening, and every avenue I turn down leads to a dead end.
More. I can feel my chest tightening, and my breath rasping. I’m scared now. Properly scared. I want Faye. I want my girls. I want this to end. Is this it? I don’t want to leave everything here, on a windswept Lakeland pass, there’s still so much left to do. Could this be the end?
But let’s go back to the beginning. Not the end. It’s not a nice place to dwell. I’d travelled up with Sol to the Lake District early Saturday to have another crack at the Fred Whitton Challenge. This is, I’d guess, the most venerated of all UK cycle rides. 180kms, 4000m of climbing, and gradients exceeding 33% in places. But to distill it to bare numbers removes the beauty of the scenery, the companionship on the road of the shared pain, the sharing of food and stories at the end. It’s like trying to simplify the feeling of your first kiss into the chemical formula for adrenaline and endorphins. Sure, that’s what’s going on at a basic level, but there’s so much more to it than just the numbers and data. We got up to Kendal to meet up with Simon, who’s parents were to take us in for the weekend, and treat us like kings. I don’t suppose that Mr & Mrs Simon’s mum and dad will ever get to read this, but just in case, thank you for everything. You made the weekend so much more memorable for me with your kindness and hospitality.
Stage one of the weekend was to get signed in at the new start/finish location at Grasmere. The weather was, well, pretty normal for the Lakes really – wet, windy, and very changeable. This was due to last the whole of the duration of the event, but after last year, anything was to be an improvement. Signing in was quick and easy, and we returned to Kendal, where we were presented with our bodyweight in pasta to eat, and the entertainment was provided by Oscar the cockerpoo puppy chasing Bumble the kitten around like an out-take from a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Every five minutes the kitten would be cornered, at which point it would deliver a sharp paw to the nose of the dog, the dog would run away, and the whole process would start again. I’m getting slightly ahead of myself here, but I feel I must also apologise on Sol’s behalf for any trauma caused to Bumble in the course of the weekend – this morning, I was wasting some time just idly playing with the kitten, when Sol released a truly magnificent twelve-second three-octave fart. The cat froze for a split second, looked at me with terror in her eyes, and shot out of the door.
Back to the main plot. We set alarms for 04:45 Sunday, and crashed out for the night, full of expectation and a certain amount of apprehension. A sign of just how much apprehension is that both Sol and I were awake before the alarm went off next morning. We both climbed into our cycling kit in silence in the darkness, and crept downstairs. And although I knew I had to eat a hearty breakfast, my mouth was dry, and my nerves had killed my appetite. Still, I got stuck in, and forced down as much as I could, along with some coffee. We’d loaded the bikes into the car the evening before, so all that was left to do was make up the drinks for the day, and throw our bags with spare dry clothes in the boot, and hit the road. The journey was completed with animated discussion of what was to come. Sol and I offering advice to Simon, who had never ridden The Fred before, and Simon’s enthusiasm to get stuck in feeding back to us. By the time we reached Grasmere, we were all eager to get going. We’d arranged to meet up with Rich at the startline, and by a quirk of fate we ended up right next to each other in the queue to get in. We unloaded the bikes, attached the race numbers (even though this isn’t a race, they’re referred to as race numbers, and the fastest finisher is traditionally declared the winner, so I’m not about to break this tradition) and queued up at the start line. By 06:30 we were off. Spirits high, we pedalled lightly down through Ambleside. I was apprehensive of the day, as I remembered well the pain from the previous two years, but also incredibly optimistic about the day. Everything was right. The weather was OK. I was feeling good. The four of us were riding well together. Everything was perfect. Everything in it’s right place. I smiled, happily content with the situation, totally in control. We swung off the main road into the ascent to Troutbeck, and then on to Kirkstone Pass.
And this is where things started to go wrong. My legs felt good. And for the first part of the climb, everything felt fine. I could feel my breathing becoming laboured, but nothing to be alarmed about. I mean, it’s a 450m pass. It’s going to be hard, right? I should expect to have to work at it. The next thing I remember coherently was fighting for breath, wondering what the hell had just happened, and looking around to see where I was. I was still upright. Still pedalling, but completely empty. My chest hurt. My lungs were burning. I was, understandably, feeling rather disorganised. Just ahead I could hear the cowbells and cheering and clapping at the top of the pass. I remember thinking “just reach the top. That’s all you have to do now. Just reach the top”. I didn’t have a plan any further than that. I didn’t know if I’d need one. Totally spent, slumped over the bars, gagging for air, I got past the top, and thought about dismounting there and then. I thought about Louison Bobet, abandoning his final tour on the Col D’Iseran.
A little voice at the back of my head was telling me to carry on. Where to? Where was I going? Why was I going there? What would I find when I got there? I didn’t know. But there was only one way to find out. I clicked into the tallest gear, kicked once to get over the crest, and hung on. It’s probably fair to say that I may not have been totally in control in some places on the way down. 75km/h on wet roads, with cold brakes, wearing lycra, and only a slightly fuzzy grip on reality really isn’t recommended. In fact, it’s bloody stupid. It did the trick though. Adrenaline coursed through me, re-awakening my senses. At the bottom I joined up with Sol.
“Bloody hell mate, you look rough. You OK?”
“Um, I may not be up for this…”
We talked about what just happened. Sol is a great motivator, and will always get the best out of a situation. In this case, he agreed that things didn’t sound good, and that I needed to have a think about things. I made the decision that getting home in one piece was more important than anything else. It wasn’t a tough decision. It wasn’t really a decision at all really. The first thought when things were going badly was for Faye and the girls. I needed them now more than ever. I was going to bail out at Keswick, and ride gently back to Grasmere. I was going to abandon. To fail. Of course, like all good plans, it didn’t quite work out like that… I wanted to make sure that we caught Simon and Rich, by now a minute or so ahead of us, so Sol didn’t have to complete the course on his own. We finally caught them just past Keswick, and I slipped gently away. A spent force. I rode some way down Borrowdale until I could no longer see them ahead, then stopped, sat by the side of the road in the rain, and cried.
The ride back to Grasmere was something I’ll never forget. As I’d already gone past the turning from the A66 I had to ride back the wrong way along the course for a few miles. Hundreds of Fred Whittoneers rode the other way. Some waved. Some asked if I was OK. I couldn’t answer. And I’m sorry for that. Really, if you were one of the good people who asked me if I was OK, and I ignored you, I’m truly sorry. You deserve better than that. Truth was, I wasn’t OK. But I couldn’t get the words out. By the time I got back to Grasmere I’d composed myself somewhat. I rode back over the startline, reported my number to the startline marshal so he could record my finish rather than send out a search party when I didn’t arrive at the first checkpoint, and tried to apologise to Lofty, the organiser of the event.
“Don’t be so bloody daft lad (it always makes me laugh when I’m referred to as “lad”. I’m nearly 50). I’m just bloody glad we didn’t need to send out a rescue for you”
As I didn’t have the car keys I had to sit in the tent for a few (well, five and a half actually) hours to wait for the arrival of the other three. And slowly, the tent began to fill up with finishers, and as I spoke with many of them, I started to realise that of course, I’d done the right thing, and of course, the event will be there next year. There was also a steady stream of walking wounded coming back in, victims of the brutal descents, particularly Hardknott and Wrynose. And then something more worrying. An air ambulance was required to lift someone off of Wrynose, a faller on the descent, with head injuries. This was about the time that I was expecting the other three through. It’s fair to say that Simon probably wasn’t expecting the big hug he got when I saw him cross the finish line. As I write this, I’ve not heard anything on the condition of the fallen rider. Fingers crossed.
It’s easy for me to get overly analytical about my performance. I thought I was ready for The Fred, but I guess I’m lacking fitness. First port of call for me will be to see a doctor before I take on any more strenuous rides. I don’t know what happened on the way up Kirkstone Pass, but obviously it wasn’t good. More profoundly, it was the first time that my body has let me down, and prevented me from doing something I want to do. This is a big moment, psychologically, for me. And I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle it. I’m OK at the moment, but remember what I said earlier about plans? I still have them. Lots of them. And I don’t want to lose them yet.
Oscar, the dog, had a far more succinct view of my performance on the day however, and decided to show me this by leaving me a little present on my cycling jersey after I had got changed:
I’m just glad he chose the jersey rather than the helmet next to it.
Postscript. As of 14-May, we’ve reached our £1000 target for MacMillan Cancer Support. http://www.justgiving.com/fredwhittontake3 – thank you all, you’re all lovely lovely people.