My new job hasn't really helped my training. I should have been on the nightshift on the Saturday and Sunday of the event and because I've just started, I had no holidays to take. I had to work two extra 12 hour shifts in the last fortnight to give me the hours "in the book" to take both shifts off. No complaints or excuses but it was days I lost when I could have trained.
I got bad news 3 days out from the event. Chris had to back out because of a bout of flu. He was sorely disappointed but undoubtedly made the correct decision.
On the Saturday before the actual event I came off nightshift, had 4 hours sleep then drove up to Pitlochry to pick up my pack. I drove home and had an early(ish) night. I was then up at 0400 to set off with my wife Christine who was supporting me, for the trip back up to Pitlochry. I was excited and slightly anxious. I was really looking forward to it though. This was my first attempt at anything as challenging as this on a bike.
Pitlochry was absolutely buzzing; even at 0645 on a Sunday morning. Before I knew it we were off. I was determined not to get dragged along at a pace too fast and burn out. I'd made my mind up that finishing the course was my only goal: the time I took was irrelevant.
The people who took the time to line the route and cheer us on and shout support were incredible. I really felt that I was involved in something very, very special. And I was.
I'd broken up the route in my head as targets rather than have the mental picture of 81 miles ahead of me. My targets were Queens View, Tummel Valley Holiday Park, Kinloch Rannoch, the foot of Shiehallion, the top of Shiehallion, Weem, Logierait and (hopefully) the finishing line.
Before I knew it, we had reached the top of the short climb to the Queens View, then Tummel Valley. Things were going well and I felt really good. I was happy with my times. The first feed station at Kinloch Rannoch was a welcome stop and a chance to stock up on gels and re-fill my water bottles. Then back in the saddle. I'm really glad that I spent the money on a Brooks saddle. And chamois butter cream!
By now there were fewer and fewer cyclists in view. I'd left a fair crowd at the feed station and only one or two overtook me so I'm not sure what happened to the rest! Anyway, a bit of a headwind hit me about 8 miles from the next feed station near Schiehallion.
Inexperienced cyclist or not, you certainly know when the wind is against you and the extra effort that's needed. I was well fuelled and hydrated when I tackled the Schiehallion climb. I'm not embarrassed to say that I had to stop a couple of times during the climb to take a breather. At the top, I felt a slight cramping tightness in my right thigh. I've never had cramp in my thighs before. That disappeared and was replaced by a huge sense of achievement at the summit. I was looking forward the easy part: the steep descent. At the summit feed station, a few people were taking the offer of quitting and getting transported back to Pitlochry with the support vehicles. I was given the offer but was determined to continue and finish the course. By now, I knew my time wasn't great and my original goal of under 7 hours wasn't achievable. I wasn't that fussed. Finishing the course was my only aim.
Around about the 50 mile mark I cramped again. This time in my right calf. It wasn't a good sign and I had several more cramps of varying severity over the next few miles. Although my time wasn't great, I knew it would get worse as I had to back off in my peddling power. As soon as I tried to cycle at what I'd class as my normal speed and effort, I got cramp. The support vehicle stopped and asked me if I wanted to quit but I was determined (and in hindsight very foolish) to continue. I'd seen a good few people passing me in the support vehicles with trailered bikes so I knew there was no shame in retiring. But I was still determined to carry on. Obviously I didn't tell the support that I was cramping as I knew what their advice would be.
I passed the 60 mile mark. I told myself that the remaining 21 miles were do-able as it was fairly level terrain and only the climb at Logierait might be a problem. 3 miles later, my right calf seized up in a bad cramp and I almost fell of the bike dismounting. A vehicle following me turned out to be an ambulance. When I told the medic, who it turned out was a cyclist who'd done the Etape before, that I'd cramped and had been having problems for 10 miles or so, he basically told me I'd be an idiot to continue. I reluctantly admitted defeat and threw the towel in. I was absolutely gutted.
At that point, I felt I'd let myself down, let all the generous people who'd donated an amazing amount to my Just Giving page for Marie Curie down and, (as ridiculous as it now seems nearly 24 hours later), I felt I'd let Mary down. After all, it was for Mary I was doing this. I knew I'd done my absolute best but it wasn't good enough on the day. Passing people still on the route then seeing all the people in Pitlochry who had finished didn't help my feeling of failure and disappointment.
I was glad to see Christine and my 2 dogs back in Pitlochry but even my wife's encouragement and many friends’ messages of support didn't ease my mood. I told Christine that I'd done my best but it wasn't good enough and that my first Etape Caledonia would also be my last…
What a difference a day makes. I'm thinking much more clearly this morning and realise that raising over £2,200 for those wonderful nurses is all that matters. Cycling 63 miles and raising that amount is far more of an achievement than finishing the course but only raising £400 (which was my original target when I signed up). I've also had a complete change of mind and I'm determined to enter the event next year. And finish it!
This experience has taught me a lot. I now know that I wasn't prepared properly. I only gave myself 6 months or so to prepare after "signing up" for the Etape Caledonia. Then I was unable to do any training whatsoever due to my tendonitis problem in my knees. By the way, my knees were OK yesterday. Pity about the rest of my legs though!
I've also learned that determination, stubbornness and stupidity are no substitute for fitness and proper preparation. I've now got a whole year to get ready. A guy who was in the support vehicle with me and who had been picked up prior to me told me that he had completed the event last year in a time of 5 hours 20 minutes, having prepared correctly. That just confirmed to me the difference between being properly prepped and where we both found ourselves yesterday.
Taking part in the Marie Curie Etape Caledonia was a brilliant experience. I'm proud to have taken part and proud of what I achieved, especially the amount that I raised. I'm also honoured to have been invited to contribute this blog.
My training for 2017 begins now… Or realistically, next week. I think a few days out of the saddle (comfy as it was) is just what the doctor ordered. I’ve already registered my interest to make sure I’m the first to hear about next year’s event and booked my accommodation in Aberfeldy, so 0400 alarm calls are a thing of the past for me. See you all (at the finish line) next year!