I’ve not had the inspiration to write any new blogs since finishing my #PACE140 challenge in March – so I figured I would share someone else’s incredible achievement. So, this is Dean’s story – enjoy!
Coast to Coast in a Day
The challenge was to get from Whitehaven to Roker, covering 130 miles across the North of the England, crossing the Lake District and North Pennines along the way.
I attempted the Coast to Coast from Whitehaven to Roker (known as the C2C) for the first time on the 5th July 2020. This was organised to raise money for the PKD charity and was done with a cycling club which I was then part of, four of us took on the challenge.
I was riding to work every day but hadn’t really done any ‘big’ rides. My kit choice wasn’t great either giving the weather we would face that day. Rain, hail and 60mph winds at the top of Hartside pass made for very difficult cycling conditions. A very long story and loads of excuses later, I failed. I only made it through 87.8 miles of the 130 we had planned.
This was a huge lesson for me in cycling and my own mental strength. I was already making excuses before my legs had given up. My knee hurt from an old injury, my kit wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t good enough. I could never do this!
From the moment I got picked up I instantly regretted not carrying on. I vowed to one day put it right. Every time I logged into Strava and saw that unfinished line, or had a joke mentioned about getting picked up, it brought back the sense of failure I felt on that day. It only got worse, I would sit and look at the plan and try to work out why I failed. I felt like I had let everyone down, the people that had sponsored me, the company I worked for and my family. It really niggled at me.
I was given some excellent advice and assistance from a very experienced cyclist shortly after the failed C2C. I was informed that it was my mind that gave in not my body. Just 6 weeks after failing the C2C I set off to conquer my first century ride. Having someone so experienced to ride with and support me, was excellent. Someone to push, motivate and encourage me along the way. This broke a huge mental barrier for me, along with the advice and how the day progressed, it brought my confidence back up and got me back believing that I could complete the C2C in just one day. I learnt that it was about pacing, planning and preparing myself properly. Most importantly is was about having a positive mind-set from the start.
With the events of COVID (lockdown 2) it meant the planned second attempt at the C2C was postponed with restrictions in the UK. This meant yet another 6 months to a year of feeling that sense of failure, looking at the plan for attempt two at least once a day and wondering when I would I do it again, if ever…
A change of mind-set
During winter I rode through all-weathers, I used the COVID restrictions to my advantage. I cycled solo for over 4 months working on my mental strength and pushing my limits. No headphones no distractions, just me and my thoughts, remaining focused on that end goal of putting the wrongs right.
I worked on my climbing, riding up bigger hills than I’d ever done before, pushing my legs harder and encouraging my mind to keep the legs going. I took new routes and roads I’d never rode to get out of my comfort zone and explore that sense of being remote. I planned and then I planned again. I read stories and took inspiration from others who were doing their own challenges. I ASKED for advice on things like nutrition and kit (I’m very grateful for those that took the time to answer).
I got more involved in social media and saw this as a big positive. It was a big lift talking to new people, seeing and learning from their challenges and experiences (especially given COVID). I dropped comparing myself to others and just tracked my own development. This felt like a huge weight was lifted, I wasn’t bothered about mph, who rode the most, how much elevation people had done. I worked against myself no one else, every ride gave me a positive. Sometimes it would be the fact that I’d rode my bike, sometimes it would be the mileage, sometimes the climbs, sometimes even a good photo I’d taken, and sometimes I would just feel good about what I was doing. I got some great messages from others that I had been able to help along the way too.
I felt in the best place mentally I ever had, I was confident in my abilities. I had pushed myself and felt the support of all of those around me. I felt like I really could do this!
I had more training rides planned (ideally another 6 weeks’ worth), Saturday was planned to be a very flat 100 miles, but talking it through with my wife and watching the weather we agreed that this weekend could be the one…
Let’s Do This!
The night before I looked back on the previous ride hoping to never have to see that half-finished line ever again. I re-read my plan (I don’t know how many times) ate well, checked my bike and got ready for the day ahead.
The morning was amazing, blue skies as far as the eye could see. I’d checked the weather every 10 minutes praying that the easterly wind would somehow magically change to a westerly, it never happened. I took on the advice I’d been given and lessons I’d learnt from previous rides, I had a good breakfast and enjoyed the journey the west coast. I was nervously excited but never fearful, this was for me. This was to a settle a score with myself and put those negative thoughts to bed once and for all. The fact I had taken donations on a challenge I didn’t personally succeed in, the half-finished route, the one who couldn’t do it and the regret of letting all those around me down.
I got out of the car at Whitehaven, set up the bike, saw the sea and felt the freezing cold for the first time, the temperature was a chilled 1 degree. I walked my bike (very carefully!) down the slip way towards the C2C sign. I dipped the rear wheel in the Irish Sea pointing the bike east. After a few issues with sorting the route it was time to ride. I’d been here before and knew at least half of what was ahead…
The last thing I heard before I hit the road was ‘You’ve got this!’ from my amazing wife who’d been up since 3am, helped me prepare and drove me to the other side of the country for my adventure and to wave me off. She’d also be around during the day should I need anything, should the worst happen.
This time I was doing the ride solo, as with my training rides there would be no headphones and no distractions. I felt free, just riding my bike enjoying the views of the mountains ahead (they were a little daunting if I’m honest). I had been told to always ride within yourself, that I focused on. I stayed settled and steady throughout the first part of the plan. The plan was key here! I wasn’t riding 130 miles; I hadn’t ridden 100 miles in over 7 months. I was riding 28 miles to Keswick and going to enjoy it!
That first climb up Whinlatter I could hear my heart beating in my ears, the sun was up and I was starting to get warm, this was it I was really doing it! I heard 2 cyclists behind me chatting away, they breezed past me saying hello (as you always should), as if I was on stationary rollers. They then slowed at the fist ‘steep bit’ and wished me luck on my challenge as we got closer together, this was the only company I’d have during this ride.
I stopped on the descent and took in the view over Bassenthwaite Lake. I was going to make the most of the amazing blue skies and soak it all in. That was the first ride and climb of the day done. I was feeling positive, I think there may even have been a very small wave of confidence.
My route showed the ride from Keswick to Langwathby (25 miles) as having no major climbs – that was a lie! The climb out of Keswick felt awful. This was when I had my first thought about how much today really was going to hurt. I again stopped for a minute took in the view and thought about what I was doing and why. I hadn’t stopped in Keswick as planned as it was so busy, plus I had already stopped for longer than planned on the descent and was conscious of sticking to plan.
I was back on the road and heading for Penrith, I took a wrong turn on the lanes and ended up following the C2C signs. I‘d looked on street view at nearly every turn on a couple of different routes so I had some idea of what I was looking at and where I was going. I focused on key junctions and things to spot. I’d punished myself into planning to make sure I didn’t fail again. My eyes were darting from sign to sign looking for something I’d seen before. I then saw a point, then a pub and a gate that I’d seen before. I was back on track! The route issue was finally sorted with my Wahoo and all was now good. I’d had issues syncing the route I had planned at Whitehaven.
Then I hit Penrith, the climb out was much worse than I remembered, maybe as I hadn’t stopped this time (this had been a stopping place on attempt 1). I could see people walking down the bank shaking their heads I as tried to pedal up. The climbs were constant. I see the left turn on to more backlanes and I remembered the descent ahead, once you climb for another 10 minutes that is. I think I was close to quitting at this point on the first attempt, I remember talking to one of my friends. As I was heading up this lane he’d asked how I was, and was everything all right as we had to up the pace due to earlier issues (punctures etc) and longer than planned stops. My knee was hurting, the bike felt double the weight and I was already weaving across the road. Today was different, I was bang on plan, the sun was shining and even though that climb had felt way worse, I now felt great. The confidence wave from Whinlatter was starting to swell, this was a big one, not the biggest I felt on the day but it was definitely up there.
I took a breath at the top and had a little snack and smiled to myself, I was really doing this and it was feeling good!
The ride to Langwathby (a place I planned to stop on the village green) was amazing, 4 miles of flowing lanes and descents. I was feeling good and optimistic if not a little nervous of Hartside and those killer climbs to come. I basked in the sun and lay on the village green, I could smell the coffee from the nearby coffee stall which was set up outside the village green. I tucked in to my Greggs sausage rolls and stretched my legs out. I didn’t question myself, I genuinely felt relaxed, I ‘made’ it up Hartside last time and I was feeling better this time. There was no fear, it’s a long climb but I said to myself ‘you’ve just got to keep turning those pedals’. I was happy and set off smiling, I passed a couple of scarecrows if you’ve been this way before you’ll know what I mean. Just as I left Renwick and passed the red sign of doom stating ‘A686 To Alston via Hartside summit altitude 1900ft’. This was a point I remembered from last year, I was in bits back then. I had attempted to stop here and re-charge, I tipped over when trying to get clipped in, I bashed the knee that I had hurt some weeks before. Today I had a plan and stopping there definitely wasn’t a part of it.
The beginning is lots of shorter steeper bits until you round the bend, past the gated house with the barking dogs, is when you see Hartside properly. The memories came flooding back as I seen the house, just after there is a small right bend. I remembered watching my friends ease out the saddle and disappear round the bend whilst I felt like my legs were like lead and the agony as the thudding pain going through my knee with each push of the pedals fired it up my leg. This was one of my lowest points in cycling, I knew I had to push myself but my confidence was shot, I wasn’t good enough I was going to let everyone down. I also knew the weather would be awful up there and they couldn’t wait for me. I was alone and not in a good place. I spun my way round the bends and I eventually made it to the main road. As I hit the main road I could just see in the distance someone on a bike, so small but I knew I was so far behind. When I hit the top of Hartside I collapsed in joy, flat out on my back on the wet grass and felt amazing. Then the problems hit, as I had took so long the others I was riding with were already very cold and wanting to ride on. The weather was worse than ever and I never got to that savour moment. No time to re charge, a quick drink and it was back on the bike, after a blurry photo with the summit sign it was time to push on. I thought about this a lot this time round (you may have noticed!). Why go back to this? As I said, it’s one of the worst moments I’ve felt on a bike but also one of the best, it held a profound place in my mind.
This time was different, I can do this and would do this! I didn’t feel pressured, the sky was a perfectly blue and it made it much more enjoyable. I took in the view eased back on the pedals and relaxed. I concentrated on my breathing and keeping things steady. I hit the top and god it felt it good! I had planned to stop here for a little bit, taking plenty of snaps of course. That is exactly what I did, I was half way done now with 65 miles in the bag (It had taken 6 hours). There’s a lovely descent into Alston but as I found out the first time and learnt even more this time, it wasn’t all downhill to the finish just yet.
I left on a real high feeling strong and saying to myself this time it’s on. I passed the garage in Alston and again the memories came back, this is when attempt 1 really ended for me. Although I rode for another 20 miles or so I’d given up here. The group split and we agreed an easier route to Stanhope. I made ‘the call’ just after the last climb I was done!
This time round I hit the cobbles and started the climb out of Alston towards Black Hill (the highest part of the C2C) this was something I never thought I’d get up. From the high of Hartside to the low was so dramatic. My right hamstring went tight, the constant spinning was starting to hit. I reached for another honey sachet, this gave me a little perk before I hit the second climb to Nenthead seeing the sign for 17% and my heart sank, my legs felt like jelly but I had to make the top. I was staring at the wahoo waiting to see the left turn for Black Hill, it seemed to take an eternity but I was beginning to settle into a rhythm and my legs were coming back. I see the turn and this time I was taking it! Someone had said this was the hardest part of C2C and this time I was going to find out!!
I stopped at the Welcome to Northumberland sign and felt another wave of confidence although this time I felt a hint of nerves about what was ahead. I’d done it, I’d got further than the last time. I zoomed out on the wahoo and checked the climbs ahead, stupidly I said to myself that they didn’t look too bad. Oh how wrong I was… The rolling hills and hairpins out of Allenheads had my legs burning. I got a text off my wife saying she was waiting at Crawleyside, and not to rush…. I actually laughed out loud, don’t bloody rush! Around the next climb I was finally in County Durham the third of the four Counties I’d pass through today. I knew I only had that one tough climb left to do. I was again wrong, the little bump on the wahoo turned out to be an awful climb out of Rookhope!
With a 100 miles in my legs it was time for Crawleyside, just what you want at this point. A 2 mile climb with a 21% gradient in the middle. I’d climbed this one before so approached it with a smile, it was going to be tough but god I couldn’t wait to hit the top. I settled into a nice pedal stroke and again concentrated on my breathing. I rounded the steepest part and the confidence wave at this point became a tsunami, it came over me that quickly It felt amazing. No pressure just pure joy, legs what legs? I couldn’t feel a thing I was so happy. I somehow even bettered the time up this climb, hitting the famous cattlegrid at the top and feeling like Rocky Balboa running up them steps in Philly.
There waiting in the car park was my wife, I don’t know whose smile was bigger. I couldn’t eat at the point; I just couldn’t take in solid food, was it nerves, adrenaline or had I had my fill? I downed a can of Coke, filled my bottles and checked what gels and snacks I left in my bag for the last slog to the beach. I crawled up the last small climb and onto Waskerly Way. I’d left a sticker here some months before on the very weathered C2C sign, I had rode to Parkhead Station that day and placed that sticker thinking, knowing the next time I see that I’d be doing the Coast to Coast. I’d be on the home stretch, it simply said #behappyfornoreason.
The roll to the coast was on, I was now racing the light as the sunset was looming. I had originally planned to undertake this ride in June so light wouldn’t have been an issue. I cut out some of the tracks and used the roads in places to speed things up. I re-joined the tracks just outside of Stanley. I had to ride past the JCB cows at Beamish. This was the first place I had ridden a bike when I got on one in July 2019, a massive 21 miles and I couldn’t walk for 2 days after, but that day the dream of the C2C was born.
There were two diversions well marked by Sustrans, I rounded a bend, went under the motorway bridge and there it was; my first sight of the River Wear and the Spire Bridge. I’d never been so happy to see Sunderland and don’t think I ever will be again. From this point on it’s a bit of blur, the thoughts of failure and disappoint disappearing faster than the light. I raced along the river under the Stadium of Light and saw The Glass Centre. I could smell the sea, I got a text that simply said ‘I’m on the beach x’. My legs all of a sudden went heavy, I freewheeled through the Marina. I hit the beach front seeing the lighthouse. I was here! My wife was waiting by the marked finishing point. I almost crashed as I forgot to unclip, I was so happy to see the finish line all other thoughts left my mind.
What a day!! There was still one last thing to do, keeping with tradition I walked my bike over the beach and dipped the front wheel in the North Sea. If I could bottle what I felt at the moment I’d be a billionaire. There wasn’t one negative thought remaining, I’d done it! Wrongs had been re-written and demons put firmly to bed.
I totally underestimated the power of my mind to push the body further than I ever thought it could. My longest ride in preparation for this ride had only been 80 miles (I’d done 4 weeks of preparation rides, I can’t really call it training), but my approach was so positive that I felt ready. Reality is from the moment I quit last year, my preparation to go again was there. I knew there would be times on the day that I may want to quit, I had been warned about these moments, I’d even had some on previous rides (mainly when climbing for some reason?) and developed my ways of getting over them. I would focus on my breathing, simply smile to myself, thinking of the feeling at the top, focusing on the numbers like heart rate or cadence as a distraction to the pain in the legs and to distract the mind from wanting to give up. Distraction of the mind and remaining positive was the biggest challenge of the day given the length of some of the climbs and the rolling nature of the route.
My adventure was now over. I felt proud not only of the achievement of completing the ride itself, all 130 miles with over 10,000ft of climbing and a riding time of just over 10 hours. The sense of how far I’d come as a person and as a cyclist, the positive mind-set I had developed and challenges I had overcome along the way left me emotional. I drank a beer and raised a silent toast to myself.
That feeling at the end, the indescribable mixture of pride, passion, love, and relief, is now burnt to the forefront of my mind. It will stand as a constant reminder that I can, and I will achieve my goals.
The only question I have left is, what’s next?
Thanks for sharing this Dean and I hope you (the readers) enjoyed the blog, you can find Dean on Instagram @the.smiling.cyclist – go check him out and find out what he’s got planned next after this epic ride!