Fair to say that there hasn’t been a lot of bouncing recently. There has been some (with the aid of glow sticks, YMCA and a lot of caffeine) but generally there has been an absence of bounce; a Tigger without springs.
I said in my last post that the adventure would continue and it did. The team and I spent the night after DNF in the most bizarre hotel ever (swimming pool in the lobby…) and got accosted by the owner of the restaurant who was clearly high and out for a fight. Luckily for him the boys are well trained in the “speak softly and carry a big stick” method of dealing with idiots.
The morning after the decision to DNF was possibly one of the worst of my life. Everything hurt, my head and neck were throbbing and my horribly chapped lips had bled everywhere (along with the oedema and the dodgy tan I looked really attractive – not). Here I was in some random motel with 3 years of hard work and what felt like nothing to show for it. I felt I’d let the crew down and all my supporters back home, all you guys who had followed that little flag and believed that I might just make it bounce on the end in Annapolis. I was asked at that point for a plan…. and I didn’t have one. My plan had been to make it to Annapolis and there was no in between.
If I’m honest, for a long time I didn’t believe that I could actually finish RAAM, or that I had any right to stand alongside the people that we consider to be the heroes in our sport on that start line. Somehow during my week in Borrego that changed and standing on that start line I knew I was ready. The image of that night in Annapolis kindled a fire and I dared to believe that it was possible as I rode well during the first couple of days, the words “don’t be shit” taped to my handlebars.
I will share more on the race itself over the coming weeks – lots of photos and memories and some thoughts about what did and didn’t work about all the stuff I get asked – nutrition, sleep, dealing with the heat. For now, we’ll go with the neck.
Shermer Neck has been my downfall before and it was always at the back of my mind for RAAM. We had made contingency plans (not including a Pringles tube!) and I had hoped that we would at least make it on to the flat lands of Kansas or Missouri before it arrived to sap my speed. Alas, I suspect that the ever-present headwind we faced from the off was just enough to tip it over the edge. Shermer presents differently for different people. For some it’s just a floppy head, for others that classic “vulture” like position before it goes completely. At its worst it causes all the muscles at the front of the head, neck and chest to spasm. It gives you a searing headache and acts like a vice around your chest, neck and head. It was this that I first recognised in the penultimate stage before Durango and I confess I wanted to cry. “Not yet!” I thought. I did cry a bit later as Zoe laid into me, trying to get things to ease up. We’d got on top of it far earlier than Ireland but treatment isn’t fun. It’s not often I wave the white flag and ask her to stop as I know it helps but there is only so much of a battering one can take mentally and physically sometimes! She dishes it out so well…..
On the road to Wolf Creek it became obvious that I couldn’t support my own head and Operation Pringle came into action. There was all sorts of bodging and fettling and the boys were in their element. After that I had a choice of 2 positions – resting on the pringles tube or sitting bolt upright. The latter was more comfortable but hard to sustain for hours on end. The former shredded my butt (lots of haemorrohoid cream applied very liberally helped to numb the general area – nobody said this was glamorous!) Luckily the legs were good and we made it over the Rockies but there was nothing aero about either of my positions and facing the constant headwind in Kansas sapped my average speed. Zoe kept up work on the neck so we held the worst at bay but it became obvious that something was going to have to give. My butt was becoming increasingly painful and the Pringles tube meant I couldn’t get out of the saddle to relieve any pressure which was adding slowly to the torment. The decline in speed meant that it was getting closer and closer to the cut off and I was getting slower and slower; frustrating when I knew the legs felt so strong. My biggest fear was falling asleep and veering into traffic. I had a couple of moments when I had nodded off on the bike – we all do it and it’s horrible but you can’t stop yourself. One such moment had been on a busy road in Kansas and had freaked me out so badly that I’d arrived at the RV, burst into tears and told Kyle that I didn’t want to fall under a truck…. So there, I’d found my limit. I was prepared to ride but not at any cost. RAAM strips you bare and shows you what you are afraid of. For me there were two things – not being tough enough mentally and not falling under a truck. An interesting perspective on what life on the road boils down to.
We tried swappping my saddles over again but this only amplified the butt issue (I should say I’d been wearing 2 pairs of shorts for about 700miles by now – definitely works!). At that point I decided there was a sort of “shit or bust” thing going on so with Daryl’s help (and some impromptu armadillo spotting) we removed the Pringles tube and I set off for TS 30, all guns blazing and mostly standing up. The neck screamed but it felt good to ride properly. In the vain hope that a decent sleep might help, I took 3 hours in the car at TS30 – it would kill my average speed but might help the neck survive a bit longer. It didn’t feel any better as I rode to the Missouri border and promptly fell down a hole, surrounded by a crew all wearing high vis. We cheered the Help for Heroes guys through and I made the decision then and there to DNF, but under our terms. I had hoped to make it to the 2000mile mark and set off under good steam but despite managing an on the road average of 14.5mph for the stage the head quite literally couldn’t keep up. Everything got tighter and tighter and I ended up literally staring at the tarmac like a baby again. In a town that I still can’t pronounce I decided to make the sensible decision and call it in. I could continue to ride but not safely and I didn;’t want to put myself or my crew in danger. The longer you are out there tired, statistically the odds of something going wrong increase and the Missouri drivers were all in a hurry to go somewhere.
I spent the next few days trying to come to terms with a dream not quite realised but with an experience still to be had. I was humbled to watch Sarah, the Help for Heroes guys and other soloists and teams fight their own inspiring battles to the finish line and to be there to cheer home both the female finishers, the first Indian finisher (whose crew we had bonded with on the Flagstaff stage) and to watch and cheer countless other dots. I got to see much of the rest of the course and to meet some amazing people.
A lot of tears have been shed but the bounce is returning. RAAM was the most incredible experience, bigger and brighter and more technicolor than I could ever have imagined. I did worry at one point that I’d forgotten why I wanted it but the rawness of the emotion put paid to any doubts. The adventure will continue, although where the journey will lead I don’t know. There are other dreams that need fulfilling but the RAAM fire has truly been lit. Sarah and I talked about keeping the nightlight burning; her flame burned strong and was an inspiration to me and an image to make me smile at night as I pedalled in the darkness. My flame is still there, like a little pilot light with a slightly dodgy wick. It will continue to burn and hopefully one day find its way to Annapolis.