A couple of friends and I decided to go mountain biking yesterday. There’s nothing unusual in that. But the day didn’t turn out quite like we planned. We should have paid attention to the warning signs.
The first was that the guide book for the route we were doing described the route as “very hard”, 5 hours in duration and 3000ft of altitude gain. In past experience, routes that supposedly take that long normally take about 3 hours for fit young bikers like ourselves and 3000ft of gain didn’t seem too bad over a 20 mile route (which didn’t seem very far anyway). So we ignored those warning and carried on.
The weather wasn’t exactly perfect. It was quite windy and it looked as though it might rain a bit. However, we’d not been biking for a while and weren’t going to let a bit of traditional Yorkshire weather put us off. We drove to our starting point (at a place called Starbotton) and set off. We took a few snacks for the trip and were glad to be out on the trail again. Basically, it all went down hill from there on (not literally, sadly).
We started with a rocky climb that we had to get off and push a good portion of (it was completely unrideable). The terrain changed to boggy moor and continued to climb for another few miles and it just kept on going up and up and up. A good portion of it was rideable but a fair portion of it was not, especially the extremely steep, boggy climb on to the top of the moor. After an hour or so of hard slog (did I mention that it had started raining heavily here?) we got onto the main moor only to find a very hard wind blowing into our faces. And that was it. We spent the rest of the day pedalling into a seriously strong head wind over some terrible, boggy terrain with little or no downhills to cheer us up.
I’ll cut to about 4 and a half hours into the supposedly 3 hour ride. Myself and one of the other guys were utterly wasted. We had no energy and could barely keep going. I was pushing my bike up the steepest road in Yorkshire (note: if there is a steeper one I’d like to see it) and I was fit to drop. When I eventually managed to drag myself to the top of the hill I was able to ride the next couple of miles to where our route left the road. It was murder. As soon as I met up with the other two (both of whom were clearly just as knackered as me) I collapsed on to the ground and lay there in a heap, exhausted. I had nothing left to give. I had hit the wall.
We had no more food (remember, this was supposed to be a 3 hour ride) and couldn’t just stay put as we had to get back to the car. We decided to carry on and that’s when it happened. A switch just flicked in my head and I could carry on, I was blocking out the pain and the urge to lie down and burst into tears (it had been there, believe me). My emotions were gone and all that was left was the will to carry on. I was lucky. I’ve been there before. Back when I used to run marathons I’d hit the wall and I’d forgotten just how bloody hard it was. It doesn’t matter if you can run a marathon in 2 hours 5 minutes or 5 hours 2 minutes, everybody hits it. The only way you can go on is with sheer will power.
One guy had also hit the wall (for the first time) and he wasn’t enjoying it, but the other one is from New Zealand and is therefore as hard as nails and seems impervious to pretty much everything that life can throw at him! So he shot off ahead and we pushed on as best we could. It was comforting to realise that he had the same symptoms as me: pins and needles in the fingers, unable to focus, coordination not as good as before and the overwhelming desire to lie down and go to sleep. Not terribly helpful when you’re on the back of a mountain bike. However, the rocky descent at the end was quite an experience. I didn’t have the energy to hit the brakes hard and I could only see a blur ahead. I probably went faster than I normally would (being a bit of a wuss).
One thing is that my sense of humour remained intact, although I’m not sure whether that made my companions want to kill me more or less than usual. So after nearly six hours of hard slog we finally managed to make it back to the car. And then the pub.
I certainly learned a few lessons from the whole experience, most of which I should have learned before but I guess I got complacent. Firstly, always assume the route is going to be much harder than you think it is and take twice as long. So bring loads of food along. Secondly, watch the weather a bit more closely. Thirdly, special forces soldiers (and infantry soldiers in general for that matter) have to operate in that state of total exhaustion all the time, that’s why being a software engineer is such a great job. Fourthly (and I knew this already, it probably helped to flick that switch in my head), the human body can take a hell of a lot more punishment than you would ever believe possible. When you think you can’t give any more you can, it just takes pure will power to keep it going. And finally, I’m not that little blonde haired boy who used to cry when the wind blew in his hair anymore. I haven’t been for a long time!