Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Longest Day - figuratively speaking...

Garmin Connect - 29 Crask Inn to John O'Groats

So, here it is. The final route for the final day, from the Crask Inn all the way to John O'Groats. The sign outside the inn said 90 miles, a book about LEJOG routes at the inn reckoned 85, and the final total came out to be around 81 miles. Not quite the longest distance, and it didn't take as long as The Day from Hell, but John O'Groats wasn't going to give up the goods and the glory without a fight, that much soon became clear.

When I'd woken at 6am, it had been clear, sunny skies as far as the eye could see. By 7am and breakfast, it was totally overcast, and the cloud seemed to be building. Not what the forecasts had said, and I got a sinking feeling.

I opted for the waterproof flouro-coat again, the sealskin gloves, and somewhat reluctantly set off by about 7.40. It wasn't the energetic start I'd hoped for. My camelbak began leaking down my back within meters of starting, and when I tired to get the lid screwed on right it just wouldn't seal. Despite the upcoming distance and the obvious need for fluids, I emptied it out and decided to go with just my bottles. A short distance later, the view required a stop for a photo and, as I cleared the top of the hill, I left the cloud behind and was cycling in warm sunshine, as promised in the forecast. Another stop, then, to remove the waterproof, and I'd not even gone a mile. Once all this annoying stuff was sorted, however, the road disappeared down the valley, and continued more or less down hill for the next 32 miles, all the way to Bettyhill and the north coast. A few more photo stops were unavoidable but, apart from that, I didn't break again until I hit the north coast road and turned East. An impressive 32 miles in under 2 hours, and the early sinking feeling was gone - what a day this was going to be!
Loch Naver. Nothing more to say, really.
I stopped at a cafe only to find it didn't open until half 10, so I was far too early for that - and the next food stop just never came. All the small towns had nothing to offer, so I had to survive on my snack bars. Not ideal, and my energy levels were starting to flag. It wasn't helping that from the moment I turned East - the direction I would have to go for the 53 miles to the finish - I was faced with a persistent and gusty head wind, which was making every mile a running battle. Eventually, as things were beginning to look a bit desperate, I came to Melvich which had a pub serving food. Saved by a dodgy chicken burger and chips!
An early view of the north coast. The strong wind spoiled the effect of the sunshine.
I was in to the last 36 miles by now, and starting to run out of oomph. The food had helped, but every part of me had started to hurt. Perhaps it was knowing that the end was in sight, but every ache and pain I had ignored for 5 weeks was kicking in with a vengeance. My feet were sore in my shoes, my right knee had started doing a strange internal clicking thing, my backside was feeling every tiny jolt in the road, low back was just generally aching, left hand kept getting pins and needles, and my right shoulder was just a throbbing ache interspersed with sharp stabbing pains. In addition to all this, the wind was getting stronger and my strength was dwindling.

Two other end-to-enders I'd met the night before at the Crask Inn and who had left about an hour after me, caught me up in Melvich, but I had to go at my pace so rather than wait for them to have their break and continue together, I left them to it and carried on. I won't deny there was an element of wanting to finish on my own, just as I had done the whole ride, but the truth was I knew I'd only be holding them up, so best to just do my own thing. Sure enough, though, about half an hour later they overtook me and left me behind, with a cheerful "see you in Thurso" - the next town about 16 miles away.

It took me so long to cover than 16 miles that by the time I got there and couldn't see their bikes parked anywhere, I figured they'd been and gone again, so I stopped long enough for a much needed, warming cup of tea, and carried on. It was getting really tough by now. the soreness was getting more, the energy and strength was getting less, and the wind was not relenting. I should have known that the wonderful, easy first part of the day wouldn't last, and that JOG had a trick or two up its sleeve.

I seemed to be getting slower and slower as I covered the last 20 miles from Thurso to JOG. That kind of distance had been taking no more than 90 minutes, if that, just lately, even at the end of a day, but today it seemed to go on and on. As I passed the turning for Dunnet Head, I gritted my teeth and ignored the fact that I might have been able to stop there if I'd stuck to Plan A. I was forced by discomfort to take a stretch-break just after the turning, still with 10 miles to go, and yet again about 5 miles after that. I really just wanted to get to the end, but it was just too painful to stay on the bike without these brief moments to straighten up and stretch some life back into my quads and calf muscles.

Finally, after what seemed like a ridiculously long 2 hours or more, I came to the final left turn of the ride, and coasted down the last 1/4 mile to the John O'Groats sign post. Steve and Dave, the two lads from the inn, had just finished taking their photos, and met me with warm smiles and pats on the back. They had both found the day tough as well, despite being far better cyclists than me, and being able to swap the lead between themselves regularly, thus each having a turn hiding behind the other and resting from the head wind. They seemed impressed that I'd done the whole thing on my own, and felt sure I'd cope with the Alps if I could cope with what today had thrown at us.
Veni, Perseveravit, Vici! (That's third person, present indicative, isn't it, boy?)
I duly took my photo at the sign, then joined the other two back up at the last junction for a celebratory pint. They were being collected and driven to Inverness for the night, so once they'd left at 5pm, I rolled back to JOG and booked in at the camp site, pitched my tent and reflected on my achievement.

I have found, after other trips, that there is a feeling of "OK, so what now?" when these things end. This was no exception, but for once I had an answer. I changed in to my shorts and walked down to the harbour slipway, set up the camera on its tripod, started the timer, and jumped into the icy water, completing the final challenge set by my brother - a swim in the sea off the north coast. Not quite the Antarctic that he'd swum in, but certainly cold enough for me! A fitting way to end the ride, perhaps, and maybe even good for the body at the same time.

The trip did not quite end there - I had the 20 miles back to Thurso to ride in the morning, as well as an additional 10 mile detour to Dunnet Head - the most northerly point in the UK (JOG is just the most north-easterly, and therefore the furthest from Land's End). With that 30 miles (with a tailwind this time - what a difference!!) completed, I have now got until Monday before my train tickets take me back south, so I will jump on a boat to Orkney and spend a few days cycling round over there, seeing what bird life I can find.

Thank you so much for the words of encouragement and support I have received from so many people via Facebook and the comments section here. It really did help keep me going when things got tough.  Thanks also, of course, to everyone who has donated money to the fund, some of you several times, and if anyone is still wanting to add some more, please don't hesitate, just go to and add to the pot. The total as of this moment is £1,395 - a fantastic effort from everyone! It would be so good to get it up to the target of £1603, so if you know anyone who has yet to donate, please give them a nudge!

Its been a pleasure (mostly!), and stand by for the final route/navel gazing to come in a week or so.

Closing in on the Finish

Garmin Connect - 28 Evanton to Crask Inn

So, folks, just a few more entries to make, I guess. I have decided that the final day deserves a post of its own and then, after I get home, I will throw together a definitive route and share that, along with a few post-ride thoughts, so that makes just 3 more to go, including this one. Once again, I have linked you through to the short day from Evanton to the Crask Inn.

So, a day off at Nethy Bridge, to relax in the sun after the mammoth 84 miler. I was sure nothing would come close to that distance, as I had my schedule well planned: 73 miles to Evanton, 55 miles to Altnahara, then 60 miles to Dunnet Head, and finally a short 10 mile hop to John O'Groats. Funny how the best laid plans, etc etc...

I phoned ahead to Altnahara Caravan park, hoping to book in, but was told they don't take tents at all as they don't have shower or toilet facilities. This meant I had to find a short-notice alternative, and the Crask Inn was it. I'd heard about this place, it was apparently quite well known to the End-to-enders, but it was about 15 miles closer to Evanton, and therefore 15 miles further from John O'Groats, changing all my carefully shared out mileage, and stacking things rather heavily on the day to Dunnet Head. I was now facing a 40 mile day followed by a 75 mile day. Still, needs must and all that.

The ride from Nethy to Evanton was pretty easy. Lots of places to stop for refreshments, no unpleasant climbs, and some more amazing scenery. The only dampener (literally), was the weather closing in a bit once I left the Cairngorms, and becoming both cold, breezy and a bit damp for a while, necessitating the use of my flourescent waterproof for the first time since entering Scotland. Disappointing, but also short-lived, as I was stripping off the layers an hour or two later as the sun won out in the end.

The Evanton Bunkhouse proved very luxurious and well placed, with a pub just up the road, so that was the creature comforts looked after. The 73 miles wasn't too bad despite the long day earlier, but I was glad in retrospect that the following day was to be only 40 miles - a distance that was now in the "easy day" category - and I knew it would allow me a restful afternoon at the Crask Inn.
From Evanton, I was cutting inland to the very centre of the the northern most part of the Highlands - apart of the country I'd had a taster of back in April when I'd visited Lochinver, and I was keen to see more of it. The weather continued to hold, and the ride up was easy, traffic free and thoroughly enjoyable.

So small it doesn't even have ONE horse!
I got to the Crask Inn - which has to have become one of my favourite stops of the whole trip - at about noon, got shown around the bunkhouse by Mike, the hill-farming owner, grabbed a shower and went over to the only other building in the village - the Inn itself. I quickly realised that modern technology had not yet reached Crask, so my debit card would prove useless. I explained to Mike that I only had £30 cash, so he should let me know how much of bed, dinner and breakfast that could cover. He somewhat gloomily thought it might just be enough (I realised at this point I'd not be able to buy a beer in that case), thought for a moment and then asked if I'd every worked with sheep.

I admitted I hadn't a lot of experience, but knew which end the milk came from, and that seemed good enough to get me a job helping him tag and release the ewes and lambs from his holding pens. One pair of overalls, a container of drench and a drench gun, and a tin of bright green Dulux gloss paint and we were ready to go. We shepherded the sheep from crofters holding pens in batches into a narrow channel, blocked them in, and my job was to grab the lambs, lift them up on to the gate so Mike could identify their role in life, before stamping them on the hip (ewes) or ribs (rams) with a big painty 'T'. Most of the boys already had a castration ring in place, but one or two needed that fashionable accessory added, and then the ewes needed to be drenched and released, or moved to another pen if they didn't have a lamb. He was keeping these back to use as a training aid for his younger dog.

In all, I grabbed and hoisted 87 lambs, pushed and shoved about the same number of eves, and earned myself the admiration of a hardened hill farmer (OK, this might only be my imagination), a couple of pints and a discount on my stay all at the same time. Mike was funny bloke in a totally unintentional way - he seemed kind of shy and not that keen on people, so running a hostel/inn was an awkward choice for him, but he'd come from farms in Yorkshire via Evanton over the years, and enjoyed the remote life that Crask had to offer. The food at the inn was fantastic home made roasts, and very plentiful, and I met my first other end-to-enders that evening, who were finishing off the next day. On chatting to them, I realised it would be better to finish with a roar than a wimper, so I resolved not to stop at Dunnet Head, but carry on right to John O'Groats, and changed my route again. Now, the next day was to be the last, and was to be an extra 10 miles in to the bargain - another 85 miler, right at the end!

With an early breakfast under my belt, or at least my lycra waist band, I shook Mike's hand, and bid him an emotional farewell and thanked him for the enjoyable afternoon the day before. "No, no, thank you for your help. I'd have never got it done without you, Andy," he replied. Classic Mike.

Friday, June 7, 2013

I'll Take the High Road...and then I'll Take the Higher Road.

No photos or Links this time I'm afraid, although I'll try and add a picture or two in later on. Felt I should throw a offering out there though, as this could be the last chance I get before finishing the whole trip! I also feel an apology is in order for what I feel is slightly thin content. I wish there was more to write about in detail, but the sad truth is that 8 hours spent on a bike are not that interesting, and hours of head down, lung busting pedaling does not leave room for the kind of misadventures that might have cropped up if I'd been in control of a motorised vehicle! Still, it is, as ever, as much for me as for you, so I will continue to chunter on.
Inchcailloch Island - stunning!
So, after a day resting the old legs at Drymen, where Clare took me out to Inchcailloch Island in Loch Lomond, I was ready for the next few days. The 65 mile run out to Fearnan on Loch Tay was yet another lovely ride. Most of the roads,even the smaller ones in Scotland seem to run up the valleys rather than over the hills, so there was yet more rolling roads, Loch side splendour and fine weather to be had. I was finding it hard to believe that, after the shoddy cold and rain and wind I'd been struggling through for most of England, once I arrived in the Lake District and then Scotland - a place with a notorious reputation for having a poor climate - I was basking in the best weather of the trip. And I was certainly not  complaining.

It was a mostly uneventful ride from Drymen, apart from a slight kitchen-table miscalculation on the route during the first hour. When plotting my routes from my large scale AA road map, I had looked for opportunities to get off the A-roads as early as possible, taking small lanes as short cuts if they looked viable. unfortunately, and as I'd discovered on the first day in Cornwall, these small lanes are often just farm tracks. On this occasion, it began well enough with nice smooth tarmac,but once I got round the corner, it lost its seal, then became rutted and stoney and, just as I had decided to wheel the bike over the rough terrain, I got a puncture. Thirty seconds sooner on the dismount and I might have avoided it, but them's the breaks. Or holes, even. Rather than fixing the puncture and then having more rough track to risk another one, I wheeled the flat back wheel on up the track, which became more rustic the further it went. It was, I thought to myself, the kind of track that is likely to have a gate at the end of it. Aaaaannndddd Bingo! A gate. And two deer, mind you, but I was in no mood to be admiring wildlife with a locked gate in the way. Unload, life over, re-load, wheel on to the end just so I could unload it again to change the tyre. A big, unnecessary chunk of time wasted, but in the end, I reckon I caught up the time well enough. Just a bloody nuisance, that's all.
The bridge at Killin
The bunkhouse at Fearnan was called Culdees, and was a strange sort of place. Very well kitted out, comfy rooms etc, but lots of rules about where to leave shoes, what to do with this and that, it left me feeling a little uncomfortable about relaxing. There was lots of info about what the owners were tying to achieve - basically a self sufficient commune - and the bunkhouse was its only regular source of income to date, until other things were up and running properly. Fair play to them, though, and good luck too.

It was just a short hop to Pitlochry the next day - only 26 miles, in fact.This kind of distance has become barely a blip on my radar now, which I find amusing. Even a day of 50 miles is now just a day, whereas at the start of the trip it was something of a daunting prospect. With the longest day of the tour (84.1 miles, as it turned out) arriving in the morning, however, I was glad to take an early day and get the gears on the bike seen to - they had been slipping and not changing properly for a few days now, and I guessed that maybe the new cable put in at Hebden Bridge had stretched a bit as it bedded in. As it happens,there was a more sinister problem (a thingummy that attached to the doohickey had broken, so the whatdoyoucallit wasn't moving the doodad properly), but the blokes at the bike shop had me sorted out no problem by the end of the day. Peace of mind is a wonderful thing.

And so, to the Big Day. I had been both excited and nervous about this one, both for the distance and the terrain. 84 miles was going to be tough, and the Cairngorms is not the flattest part of Scotland by a long shot. Luckily, the weather was still holding - a large part of the nerves had been having to do the day in pouring rain or strong winds - and I was treated to a glorious day of sunshine and calm that left little for me to do but pedal and enjoy the scenery. After a bit of a steep climb out of Pitlochry, there was  a decent fast stretch, before the long ascent up Glenshee. I was determined not to give up and push, especially as the incline was never too great (until right at the end), merely continuous, and I was very pleased with myself to make it to the top. I had a long respite downhill after that, and then more  of the rolling hills that are not much bother any more.
The Caringorms - not as easy as they look!
It was later in the day, though, that I faced a series of tough climbs. I nailed the first three, nearly busting a lung in doing them, and it was just after the second one that I stopped for a photo, turning off the timer on my GPS while I found the camera, and forgot to start the timer when I set off again. I think I lost about 20 minutes before I realised, which was annoying to me, but didn't really change much in the big scheme of things.

The final climb was in a league of its own, however. A stupidly steep climb out of a village called Cock Bridge (some joke about not getting up it might fit in here...) had me pushing for 100m or so, then again a bit further on, and then just as I thought it was all over as I crested the rise, I could see a huge, long, steep climb that I knew would be too much. Earlier in the day I might have managed it, maybe, but with 70 miles behind be and some big climbs too, I was never going to do it. So push it was, but for as little of the hill as I could, and I was back on the bike for the last section at least.

That was the final big challenge of the day, and apart from more relentless pedaling along valleys, it was pretty straight forward to the Lazy Duck hostel at Nethy Bridge. A very pleasing 9 hours to ride 84 miles,and that included stoppage time. I think the riding itself only took about 6 and a bit hours. I'll have to check the GPS and remember to add 20 minutes...

I'm having a day off today because my next ride is 73 miles and two giant days in a row is just silly. I think this will be the last rest before the end though, as I have just 3 big days to go until I reach Dunnet Head, and then its just a short hop to John O'Groats before carrying on back to Thurso on the 4th day. So, all things being equal, I should make it to the finish line on Tuesday morning, 5 weeks and 1 day after leaving Land's End. Keep an eye on Facebook until then, as I'll have more chance of posting there than here before I finish. Hopefully I will have both photos and route maps by then as well.

As ever, thanks for the donations that have kept coming in - they really do help to spur me on and keep my spirits up. The current total is £1240, which is fantastic, but I should point out that this is the first time on the trip that my mileage (1400-ish) has exceeded the money I spy a challenge? Why, I think I do! :-)


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

Day 19 Burnopfield to Kielder by SteveMcM at Garmin Connect - Details

So once again, this trip has delivered - and not just with the riding. I spent Wednesday and Thursday catching up with an old friend from Writtle, Mel Hills, nee Bowden, and her family Kev and Niamh (or is that Naimh? either way, its pronounced Neeve!), and Josh. It was great to be able to catch up after 13(!) years, and hopefully now I'm back in the UK we will not leave it so long til next time :-)

Leaving Burnopfield, just outside Gateshead in County Durham, I headed north-westish, towards the Roman Road that runs alongside Hadrian's Wall. I had hoped to at least see the wall from where I was cycling, but never could make it out. I guess it was just a bit too well hidden from non-paying eyes...or is that cynical? What I did get was lots of hills (the Roman's may have known how to build 'em straight, but the lazy blighters couldn't even be bothered to dig a gully to put 'em in!), and ultimately a puncture at high speed, courtesy of a pot hole. I couldn't find a thorn or anything else, so suspect it was an impact puncture caused by too much weight over the wheel as it crashed through yet another hole in the road (damn lazy Romans again!), which had been hidden in the dappled light. Still, with my shiny new pump, I had it fixed in no time and was feeling pretty smug about the shrewd purchase.

From the east-west run of the Roman road, I headed further north to slice the bottom off of the Northumberland National Park (the 8th NP of the trip), and cruised my way a river valley to Kielder Water and the Youth Hostel there. Since leaving the Lake District, I have been lulled by a series of rolling landscapes, crammed with hills that are long and regular rather than short and abrupt, and I was loving it! Long, steady hills I can cope with, it seems. Just head down and find a rhythm, and try not to stop more often that necessary (its the starting again that really hurts the knees, you see!). Add to this the patriotic colours of the British hedgerows (Red Campion, white Wild Garlic and Bluebells) complementing the patriotic colours of myself (red face from exertion, whites of eyes bulging and teeth bared in effort, and blue of language), and I was feeling pretty good. I think having a mileage count up and realising I was well over half way, and seeing that my fundraising target was over a £1000 too, well things were looking pretty positive.
The end is in sight. You have my skin tight trousers to thank.
Leaving Kielder nice and early got me to the Scottish border 3 and a bit miles later, and I was really feeling that the end was in sight - even though there were still a good 600 miles of Scotland to go. Its all psychological, see? I was also pleased to see that the Scottish Borders were as pleasantly rolling as the previous few days, making progress relatively straight forward. I was looking out for a few more photo ops, feeling that I had been rather slack to date, but even though the countryside was consistently lovely, there was nothing that warranted an interruption to the zen place I was managing to put myself for the constant peddling. While rolling countryside is good for progress, it does require constant effort, as there are fewer descents to coast down.

From Peebles, I had my longest day to date ahead of me - 76.3 miles to Drymen and my brother-in-law's sister's house, near Loch Lomond. I was slightly apprehensive, as my last day of this sort of length was the now famous "Day from Hell", but with a hill profile that suggested nothing untoward I was relatively positive about the whole thing. Once again, barring another impact puncture (tyres too hard? Potholes too deep? not sure), I made it to Drymen after only 6 hours of cycling (plus a couple of hours for rests/maintenance). Very satisfying. I had stopped for lunch near Airdrie at a franchise pub, and felt a moment of pride as a local lad joined me in the beer garden with a friendly "Alright, Big Yin?". I soon realised (and he admitted to the bar maid) that he was "steamin'", which made his Glaswegian even harder to follow than my brother-in-law's, but he was friendly enough, and when his mate joined us, they were suitable impressed with my Bradley Wiggins get-up, and the ride I was doing. I got to shake hands 4 times, they were so impressed!

How to Recognise Different National Parks from Quite a Long Way Away: No 9 - Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
Now, I'm resting up for a day, to catch up with Clare, Jim, Jamie and Lilly for the first time since my sister's wedding, and to ease my thighs ready for 3 more big days. I'm heading closer to the Highlands now, and I suspect there is a clue in the name as to what the roads may be like when I get there. I have a 65 miler to get me back on the road tomorrow, then a cheeky 26-er, followed by a mighty 83 miles round behind the Cairngorms, which will be the longest day of the trip. That will be followed by 72 miles, and then it all gets a bit more sensible for the final push. I will try and get some photos for all that lot, and find a computer to tell you all about it, so all that is left or me to say for now is Thank you once again for all your donations, the total is over £1100 now, and keep spreading the word.  1113 miles done, not so many left to do :-)