John O’Groats To Home (around 500 miles of bikes, trains and automobiles!)
No mistake, you read the date correctly – I’m writing this blog over three years on from the last LEJOG post, which was written about 4 hours after I finished my Lands End to John O’Groats solo ride. I’ll write more about why there’s been the delay in a future blog I’m sure, as that’s a topic in its own right(!), but I just thought you may be interested how it all panned out in terms of getting home.
If I’d been theming the titles of these LeJOG posts using film names rather than loose song references, I could have easily titled this “(no) Planes, (but) Trains & Automobiles”, but even that doesn’t tell the full story!
Once I’d crossed the finish line and done all the “photo’y things”, I checked into my hotel room and collected the big box I’d shipped up there in advance. The box contained a bike bag, duct tape, and some spacers to go between the front and rear forks, once the wheels were removed. Efficiency was always the key to this attempt, so even the cardboard box itself was going to make the protector for the bike whilst in the bag! In fact, writing that last sentence has made me think I should also think about a little prequel post, covering the planning and logistics of all of this, as looking back, that deserves some recognition, even if I do say so myself!
It was a wonderful surprise to find a parcel on my bed, with a Cheadle Hulme postmark. Jane & Charlie had very thoughtfully sent me a “congratulations” present – a well done card, a “LeJOG” teeshirt and a minature of Talisker (one of my very favourite Scotch Whiskys). It says a lot that the Talisker lasted about 10 minutes, and as much as I liked the Tee, the best bit about it was that it wasn’t the shirt I’d been wearing for the last two weeks!
A shower, then a long hot soak in the bath, followed by a cold and dark walk up to the local pub, where I had a big rare steak & chips, and a couple of pints. It was in the pub that I wrote the Day 13 blog, sitting there in my cargo shorts, lejog teeshirt and sockless, neoprene pumps. It was no wonder I kept getting strange looks from the locals!
A cold & dark walk back to my room was interspersed with stops to watch the opening evening party in full swing, with the new hotel building all lit up and old photos of the building being projected onto the newly refurbished hotel walls. It looked great but it didn’t take long for the mid-September chilly evening to push me inside.
I settled down & got in bed, expecting to just crash out, after the physical and mental release of completing my biggest challenge ever. No chance. Not even close to falling asleep, but not because my mind was buzzing with pride/elation/adrenaline but because it felt weird not having to be really organised and prepped for tomorrow.
When I planned the ride, I thought it would total around 900 miles, taking into account getting lost, detours, extra mileage etc. so I thought (in my pre-ride madness) that it would be good to give myself the opportunity to try and take my total over the 1000 mile mark, by getting the early morning ferry out across to Orkney, and rattle around there for the day on my bike.
As I mentioned in my Day 13 post, I’d been warned that there was a significant risk that my Sunday afternoon flight home was going to be cancelled because of an inbound storm with 70mph winds. I’d also been told in the pub that the chances of getting a pleasant trip across to Orkney to pootle about were slim to none, and I was advised to revise my thinking. So instead of having another day of cycling to organise, instead I was going to be weather watching and working out a “Plan B” to get home, if needed.
It was at this point, that I had a little emotional “turn”. Unexpectedly, I realised I was feeling so ‘low’ and so ‘flat’ that I was on the verge of crying. Apart from seeing friends and family briefly on Day 6, and a couple of hours on Day 7, I’d been on my own and spoken very little to anyone else at all. I had also had a total focus on “finishing today & prepping for tomorrow”. I’d suddenly realised I was very lonely & homesick.
But eventually my head switched off, and at some point, I fell asleep.
I woke early, immediately taking a look out of my window, that overlooked the small harbour from which the ferry to Orkney departs. The sea was rough, it was blowing a gale and it was pouring down. The predictions were right – no chance of making it up to 1000 miles, and a worrying chance that my non-refundable plane ticket was going to be worthless.
I went across to see Janette who checked with the airport. “Very unlikely” was the response, when asked about tomorrows flight home. Bugger. So, what do I do? As I saw it, I could either:
- hang around for the day, and pack up the bike in the hope that the flight would leave, but that came with the risk that if it didn’t, I would have to wait out the storm until the next days flight; or
- work out how to get home by other means, risking losing the £200 it cost to fly, the additional costs, a very lengthy journey home, and some awkward logistics
Still feeling a deep sense of homesickness, it was an easy decision to make. I asked the internet, which told me I could get myself to Edinburgh on the train, find some overnight accommodation and then get the Sunday train back to Manchester, putting me home for late Sunday afternoon. Guaranteed.
Decision made, I repacked my Axiom pannier with all my cycling gear, just like I had for the last 13, re-boxed my bike bag, and went to see Jannette. I explained my predicament, asked Jannette to arrange for my “bike bag” parcel to be sent back home, and checked out a night early. I then clipped into my bike, winced as my arse reminded me that I was pushing my luck, and then headed off on the 17-mile ride back to Wick Railway Station.
Although the rain had eased, the strong winds hadn’t, and thoughtlessly no one had bothered to smooth out the hills. it was a lot harder going that I’d expected, given it was such a short ride. My head wasn’t in it anymore, it felt like a chore and my legs had given up wanting to turn pedals. I then realised that I’d not had anything to eat or drink since my meal the night before, and nor did I have anything to hand that contained “energy”. All that I had left were “super-strength” caffeine tablets, aspirin and a few Haymine “hayfever” tablets and a bottle of water.
Stepping back in time for a mo’ and to add some context, prior to one of my previous multi-day ride challenges (I think it was Arnhem to Berlin), I had begun making up my own equivalent of a High5/Science In Sport/CNP maltodextrine mix. My room-mate Mike, got used to me messing with bags of white powder each morning & filling my drinks bottles, so it didn’t take long to get the nickname ‘Chemical Chris’.
However, that is and all it was, a nickname. I say that only because for those that may not know, my “breakfast” was basically “ECA”, the well known body builders “fat loss stack” of Ephedrine, Caffeine, and Aspirin. Taking these drugs together actually mimic the effects of amphetamines, suppresses the appetite, and increases aerobic capacity! Biochemistry lesson over.
Anyway, I’m still not dead, and it got me there! And it was after I’d completed the ride, so I can’t disqualify myself for Le Dopage…
What did nearly kill me however was arriving at Wick Railway Station at around midday to find that although I was in time to catch my 12:38 train, what I’d not fully appreciated before setting off, was that it as going to cost me around £65, two changes of train (at Dingwall & Inverness), and almost 10 hours to get to Edinburgh Waverley! Ten Hours! Makes you realise just how far north I was, when it takes 10 hours travelling south to get to somewhere most of us think is very far north.
Anyway, it made me realise that I just couldn’t bear having to try to sort accommodation in Edinburgh, when I only arrived at around 10pm, to then spend another £96 and 4 1/2 hours to get to Stockport. And I was homesick. Did I mention that? So I rang home. The long and the short of it, was that my lifelong best mate, Ian, was going to drive the 4 hours up to Edinburgh, pick me up and then drive home – a 450 mile, 8 hour round trip for him. I owed him big time.
My train duly arrived and I got on what turned out to be a little 2-coach “rattler”, that took me down the first part of Scotrails Far North Line.
Apart from feeling fleetingly guilty that Ian was going to have his own epic challenge getting up to Edinburgh, I otherwise felt a sense of relief that this was all going to be over soon. It was the first of many subsequent occasions where I had time to think about what I’d just done, but also what the ride had done to me.
A fair chunk of the first 3 hours were spent trying to work out why I didn’t feel any sense of achievement, and why it was already starting to feel more of a negative experience than a positive one, all the while passing through and stopping at these seemingly dreamt up places like Kildonan, Brora, Golspie and Ardgay before arriving at Dingwall.
From Dingwall, it was an uneventful and far less mythical run through to Inverness, where I changed trains for the final time and headed off to hopefully meet up with Ian at Waverley Station, just after 10pm.
For a short time, I was sat next to a really nice lady who was collecting for the Walking With The Wounded Charity. We got chatting and it turned out her brother had been badly injured serving his country in the Helmand Province, ending up having to go through a double amputation. Not only had he subsequently also completed LeJOG, he then went on to walk to the South Pole with Price Harry. I stopped feeling sorry for myself. For a while, anyway!
Once in at Edinburgh, I called Ian, to find out his timing was perfect. I’d just got out of the main station to the pickup point when Ian pulled up. To say I was relieved and grateful would be an understatement of the highest order. After a major man-hug, we threw the bike in the back of his car, and headed off south towards home.
A 4 hour, energy-drink-fuelled drive later, through pretty atrocious driving conditions, he dropped me off at home. It was around 2:30am, but Jane helped Ian get me and the bike into the house as quickly as possible so he could get off home for a well-deserved and well-needed sleep!
It was an odd feeling finally being home. But it was very welcome. The adventure was finally over. At this point, I had absolutely no idea how to sum it all up, nor how to really figure out if I’d “won or lost” my challenge. I just knew I’d completed the ride, that was all.
I woke up on Sunday in my own bed, still tired, but my legs felt “weird”. Jane and Charlie had gone out. I couldn’t work out what to do with myself other than get some breakfast, after which I knew what I wanted to do.
I got on my bike & rode around Cheshire for an hour in the rain & the cold.
Oh, I forgot to mention. The flight from Wick to Manchester? It took off on time. Ah, well.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my ramblings. If you have but you’ve not read about the preceding 13 days, it’s probably worth a go. It may make some of the above make more sense.
Until the next time,
12th November 2016