The Girl Who Cycled The North

An All Points North diary, and some reflections on how (ultra)cycling has changed my life.

Part 1: The Beginning

With hindsight, it actually all began with the Underpass. If you have ever been to Lancaster University, you will know exactly what I am talking about. But in case you haven’t: in the 1960s, when the architects were stood in the barren, rain-drenched field between the A6 and M6 that would eventually become campus, the wind was so strong that every time they tried to open a plan it blew away (or so the story goes). And so they decided the only way a campus could survive there would be to build it around a central “spine” walkway. This would be covered from the rain and shielded from the wind, so students could walk from one end of campus to the other without drowning and/or being blown away (a very real risk in Lancashire). In order for the bus depot to be connected to the spine, it was built as a tunnel underneath the centre of campus: hence, the Underpass. That was a great idea – in theory.

In practise, what they ended up creating was a damp, dark concrete passageway in the centre of an otherwise really nice rural campus. Half the time (half past to O’clock) it is so eerily empty that you stand under the flickering lights and wonder if you’re about to get stabbed. The other half the time (O’clock to half past) it is so busy that you stand braced against a tidal wave of students and wonder if you’re about to be crushed. I hated it. And I hated it so much that, by my final year, I decided I was going to learn to ride a bike, just to avoid it.1

Lancaster University Underpass

And so I headed up North for the start of my final year, armed with a suitcase of clothes and textbooks – and also a new companion, my hybrid. To say I was bad at riding this bike would be an understatement. I was far too wobbly to lift my hands off the handlebars to signal. I (quite literally) froze still in fear every time a car drove past me. But the calm, quiet headspace my commute carved out at the start and end of the day (and the freedom to explore wherever I liked) was unlike anything I’d known before. And I bloody loved it.

My hybrid, on a ride home from uni via the Forest of Bowland.

As first term went on, my commutes steadily became longer and longer. I’d tack on an extra loop to go explore some climbs in the Forest of Bowland, or I’d snake home via the coast to go see the sun set over Morecambe Bay. The journey to and from uni went from being something I’d dread to the thing I’d look forward to most. At the time, my good friend Emma was social captain of the Lancaster University Cycling Club – so I ended up joining the club’s Sunday social rides too. My favourite was one towards the end of term where we caught the train up to Windermere, and then cycled back to Lancaster. This was 60km (40km to the RSPB cafe in Silverdale, and then 20km home again) – and I remember that because the distance blew my mind. Sixty whole kilometres! Spurred on by that, when my bike and I came home from uni at Christmas, I decided I was going to try and ride 100km. So I set out with my dad on Christmas Eve, and we rode 50km up to Kenilworth Greggs (for a festive bake!) and another 50km back home again. (This has since become an annual tradition for us.)

LUCC 24hr turbo fundraising challenge (I rode for 4 hours, which was huge for me!). Emma is to the left of me as you look at the photo 🙂

But my cycling really took off when a £500 transfer landed in my bank account, just before the Easter holidays – a belated prize for my second year exam results. I asked my academic advisor: do I have to spend this on something physics-related? He told me: no, just spend it on something that will make you happy. With the annual Lancaster/York varsity coming up in a few weeks, and me unable to race because I didn’t own a road bike, I knew exactly what would make me happy.

And that is how Alex* and I came to be.

*(Trek Domane AL3, 2018, aluminium, 54cm, Shimano Sora, rim brake)

Alex, when he was much newer and shinier than he is now…!
Me in a two-up breakaway in the Lancaster/York varsity Roses race. Note the trainers, and the fact I didn’t know how to ride in the drops…! I ended up coming second.

Everything about that summer (2019) was golden. Against a backdrop of glorious weather, I sat my final exams, graduated top of my year, got a scholarship offer to study at Oxford, and then spent every waking moment exploring Lancashire and Cumbria on two wheels with my friends. I learnt to ride a mountain bike (very badly!), switched from trainers to clipless2 pedals, ticked off all of Lancashire’s 100 climbs of Britain, spent all of my food budget on Applestore and Wallings visits, rode my first imperial century, and generally felt the happiest, free-est, and most comfortable and confident that I had in my entire life. As my bike and I got to know each other, I (finally) grew into my own skin, too.

Oh – and Sam and I started dating (after I took him for his first 100k ride!), too. 🙂

1I did, in theory, learn to ride a bike as a child, but – apart from the very occasional outing to town on a rusty mountain bike as a teenager when I didn’t have a fiver spare for the bus – I basically hadn’t touched a bike since my dad took the stabilisers off.

2Cyclist terminology, I’m afraid; clipless pedals are pedals you clip into. It actually comes from the fact that originally, cyclists “clipped” themselves into pedals using this toe-strap mechanism. New pedal designs don’t have those straps – hence, clipless.

Part 2: “If it is good, it will get worse”

Unfortunately, summer 2019 had to eventually come to an end (although, with the help of a few internships and part-time jobs, I managed to drag it out until September…). I moved down to Oxford for a year that was, for a variety of non-sport-related reasons, not particularly fun. My cycling temporarily dropped off a bit over that winter too, through a combination of a half-year-long knee injury (picked up during a cross-country race), storms every weekend (do you remember that February?!), and a lack of commuting (my department was only two minute’s walk away from my college).

In late February 2020 I went on two bike trips with good friends from Lancaster: one with Jemma, who came down to Oxford and we cycled across to Gloucester, and one where I went up to Lancashire to ride round the Forest of Bowland with Anna and Tom. The memories of these two days would become exceptionally special to me, as it was the last time I would see these friends (and the last time I would see the North West) for well over a year.

Because, of course, in March 2020 all of my university lectures went online, I moved back to my childhood bedroom in rural Warwickshire – and all of my cycling went solo. Needless to say, sitting Masters level Theoretical Physics exams from your childhood bedroom in the middle of a pandemic is pretty tough. I did an awful lot of cycling that spring/summer, just to get out of the house and out of my head.

I don’t know if you remember much about that summer, but there was a brief period after I’d finished my exams where covid cases were falling, lockdown was easing, and you were allowed to go and stay with people – and everything felt full of hope. I went and stayed with Sam for a couple of weeks (the first time I’d seen him for four months) to celebrate surviving my MSc. Amongst some non-bike-related celebrations (there were some, I promise…!) we did our first 200k ride together, and I did a lot of long rides while Sam went on long runs, including my first solo 100 miler.

That hopeful period did not last long. Without going into too much detail, because it still makes me really sad to think about, the year that followed was the worst year of my life. Sam and I moved down to the South West in August 2020, when it looked like things might slowly be opening back up, only for my job to stay remote for over a year. Sam struggled to find work with the huge job crisis, and ended up flitting between temporary contracts, one of which was working night shifts. So we ended up stuck in the literal opposite end of the country to all of our friends, hundreds of miles from our families, essentially living in different time zones to each other, in a house that was in such poor condition that the council environmental health team ended up involved. My mental health was so poor that – apart from one Wednesday morning bike ride, and one Sunday long ride, which were the only things that stopped me completely falling apart – I did not have any motivation to leave the house (or my bedroom, or get dressed, or do anything). My new year’s resolution for 2021 was to leave the house once a day. Looking back at that is really scary. I’m normally someone who is full of energy, with goals and dreams much bigger than I am. I was not myself at all.

Part 3: “If it is bad, it will get better”

By summer 2021, things were gradually starting to improve. Sam had a year-long contract (with regular 9-5 hours!) which allowed us to relax a bit, we moved into a lovely house, and my office started slowly opening back up. (It would have been nice if my brain had magically got better too, but unfortunately that took much longer – it is actually only really in the past few months that I’ve felt properly like me again.) But the thing that really made a difference to my life was – again – cycling. With lockdown easing, Sam and I were able to meet up with the one person we knew in Devon – someone also called Sam, who’d been in my year studying Physics at Lancaster and had recently moved back into his parents’ home out Dartmoor way. Sam and I didn’t know each other that well when we were at uni, but we had a lot of close mutual friends from both our course and the cycling club, and the three of us started meeting up every Wednesday evening to mooch around on our bikes (sometimes road, sometimes mountain) and chat. The past year had been horrific for all three of us, and it was so nice to reminisce about our time in Lancaster, and chat about everything we’d do and everyone we’d visit once the pandemic was over. I cannot describe how much I looked forward to our Wednesday evenings.

And then things just kept getting better from there. British Cycling clubs were also able to restart rides, so I was able to join my local club (Cranbrook CC) and get to know more people. Belonging to this community actually finally made Devon start to feel like home. Races also started back up, and so I started going along to local TTs. Through these, I’d get to know other cyclists in the local area, and through a mutual friend, I ended up meeting Melissa – another female 2020 Theoretical Physics graduate turned Met Office scientist who enjoyed long distance cycling and trail running (honestly, what are the chances?!). While having a friend to go on long rides with was (and is!) awesome, knowing Melissa actually probably made the biggest difference at work. Because I knew Melissa, and Melissa knew a girl called Lizzie, we’d grab lunch and go on walks together, and we were able to gather other recent graduates to join us. The group of early career scientists that grew out of that is maybe the nicest group of people that I know.

Towards the end of summer, I volunteered myself as social captain for Cranbrook CC and started running weekly beginner-friendly Saturday social rides. These were a huge success, especially in growing the number of women in the club, and setting them up is one of my proudest achievements.

With my mental health improving, my motivation to go and explore on the bike was returning too. Over the June bank holiday I did my first solo 200km ride from Devon across to Cornwall to visit my Grandma, via Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, climbing literally half the height of Everest in the process (with panniers!).

By September, lockdown had eased enough for me to be able to go and visit my friends in the North West! For the sake of my head, it was important to me to prove to myself that they’d never been that far away, so I decided to travel up in half a week. I planned a bikepacking trip that would take me 3.5 days, covering 640km and climbing 7325m. With me I carried a tent, my clothes for a week away – and proceeded to have the absolute time of my life.

By coincidence, September was also when the 2021 edition of All Points North was taking place. All Points North had always seemed to me to be the most exciting race in the adventure/ultra calendar. With no set route, riders navigate between ten “checkpoints” spread out across the North of England. There’s nobody waiting for them at each checkpoint, and nowhere set aside for them to eat or sleep. Riders navigate over 1000km across some of the toughest climbs of the North, entirely self-supported. It seemed mental, and the riders tough as nails. I’d watched the inaugural race in awe via social media while I was in Lancaster. One day, I vowed, I will come back up to the North and travel round cheering the riders on.

But now it was September 2021, and I’d just travelled 640km solo, over the same time period and the same terrain that riders were travelling 1000km over for All Points North, and I began to wonder… maybe, one day, I could actually take part…?

Part 4: All Points North

“The trouble is, it always seems inevitable once it is done.” – Mark Beaumont

I suspect if you are reading this, you know how it ends. This (as summed up nicely by Mark Beaumont) is the trouble with writing about ultra-endurance events after the fact. I’d like you, if you can, to pretend that you don’t. Because when I came home from my trip up to Lancaster and vowed I would apply for a place for 2022, I didn’t really believe I would follow through with it. And when I did end up filling in and submitting the application form, I didn’t really believe I would hear anything back. And when I did get that “Congratulations!” email, I didn’t completely believe that I would turn up to the start line. And when I did turn up to the start line, I definitely did not have confidence that I would be returning to Sheffield on two wheels, ten checkpoints later.

So let’s start on the evening of Tuesday 31st May. I’ve just spent two days of annual leave hanging round the house, trying to get everything sorted for All Points North, which – six months after receiving that “Congratulations!” email – is suddenly only a matter of days away. I’ve deep cleaned and serviced my bike, panic-bought a new front wheel off eBay (after spending a restless night worrying the rim on my old one was too worn to pass the pre-race safety check), and fitted new tyres, brake pads and chain. I am a bundle of anxious energy, with no way to burn it off since I’m supposed to be tapering. (I do go for a few secret short runs, leaving my watch at home so nobody will know, because I figure I might actually lose my mind if I do no sport).

But now it’s the evening, and four of my closest (/sportiest) friends from work are coming round to say goodbye. Along with a pasta dish each, they’ve also brought an envelope. I assume it is a card from the four of them, but when I open it pieces of paper flutter out. It turns out it is a good luck card they’ve passed round all of our “early career scientist” crew in the office – including gathering and printing messages from people who were working from home that day. This is probably the best gift I have ever been given (and, when my friends have gone home, I read each message three times over and then take a picture so I can carry them with me on my phone). We spend most of the evening laughing and it just feels oh so normal. It exactly what I need. I sleep well for the first time all week.

The next morning, I pack a rucksack of overnight clothes, roll my bike out the house, and get the train up to Sheffield. There will be one more night of sleeping in a bed, and then the greatest adventure of my life will begin.

Part 4.1: HQ to Hornsea Mere

I arrived at HQ (A Different Gear) early, mostly because I was still stressing about my bike not passing the safety check. Apart from some minor issues with my brake calipers not fully releasing (which was sorted with some GT85), my bike was described as something like “a bit beaten up, but safe”. Fair, and good enough for me.

It was clear that everyone was incredibly nervous at the start line, but the race organisers were incredibly understanding – even when I had to be told three times in a row how to turn my GPS tracker on (press and hold the one button on the box…) because I was struggling to take anything in. Some people dealt with the nerves by getting really chatty, some people just got really quiet. I oscillated between the two.

One of the rules of All Points North is that you’re not allowed help with route planning, and you’re also not allowed to share your route with anyone before the race starts. In the previous editions of the race that I’d followed, I knew that everyone’s routes were approximately 1000km. My route was well over 1100km. This had been bugging me for months. I couldn’t work out if I’d just visited the checkpoints in a stupid order, or routed very badly between them – but whatever I tried, the distance stayed roughly the same. With a couple of hours to go, the subject of route direction (“clockwise or anti-clockwise”?) and length was tentatively broached – and we all fell over ourselves agreeing that, yes, we couldn’t get it to be 1000km either! Immediately I felt a lot more confident. Maybe I wasn’t as under-prepared as I felt.

In answer to the first question, “clockwise or anti-clockwise?”, I’d decided to go anti-clockwise – up through the North East and back down through the North West. This turned out to be the least popular option. Most people had decided to take on the climbs of the West on fresh legs, before coming back down along the (comparatively flatter) East coast. But I decided that I would rather finish with the roads I knew, round Cumbria and Lancashire, where I’d first fallen in love with cycling. Ultra-endurance events are all mind games, and I know the things that make me happy.

There was also the matter of the weather. It might have technically been summer, but you wouldn’t have known it in the North West. Strong winds and torrential rain were forecast for the whole bank holiday weekend. If you’ve got to go through it, you might as well procrastinate it.

All of a sudden it was 11:59am, everyone was counting down and cheering – and we were off, with a hundred little “click!”s into pedals and “beep!”s of Garmins, rolling down the hill out of A Different Gear and into Sheffield. Within less than a minute we were out of earshot of the crowd, and it was just us. And then we all started splitting off down our own individual routes –

and it was just me.

From completely overwhelming, to completely underwhelming, over the course of a few minutes. It was just me, out on a bike ride, following the little breadcrumb trail on my Garmin, as I had done thousands of times before. It is so strange to have trained for something literally every day for half a year (and to have dreamed of it for so much longer), and then to arrive and realise that it is “just a bike ride”.

Leg 1 was 132.5km from Sheffield across to the checkpoint at Hornsea Mere. If I’m honest, it was actually really boring. Some of the roads towards the end were quite nice, but a lot of it was very industrial, and it was also very flat. It was short enough to just be a regular weekend ride, but I had way more energy than I normally would on a Sunday after a week of work and training, so I had to make a real effort to go super slowly. Because of this, my head was in a much worse place than it really should have been. I think I just expected it to feel more special.

My plan was to stop for fish and chips in Beverley, about 100km in. This was the one food/water stop I’d planned across the whole 1100km, because it was close enough to the start for me to actually have some idea of the time I’d arrive. But I got there, and (despite what it said on Google) the fish and chips shop was shut. I grabbed some takeaway pizza instead, and carried onto Hornsea. I got to the checkpoint (the gate on the road to the Mere) at 6:47pm, answered the question on my brevet card and posted my timestamp “proof” photo on Twitter. One down, nine to go.

Hornsea Mere.
Leg 1: 132.5km, 854m climbing.

Part 4.2: Hornsea Mere to Goathland Station

Only six hours in, and I was already in a pretty rubbish headspace. There was nothing actually wrong; I think it was just strange to experience so much build up, and then have everything feel so flat. Having napped through most of the morning I was still feeling really awake, so I knew it made sense to make the most of that and ride through the night – but I also distinctly remember not really wanting to. I locked my bike outside a Tesco superstore in Hornsea and went inside to stock up on food and water for the night. The shop was full of normal families buying normal food for their normal bank holiday weekends, and I stood in the middle of the bakery aisle and had my first (ever) “what am I doing with my life?” moment. There was nobody forcing me to ride bikes up hills in the dark. In fact, I thought, there are probably quite a few people (sorry, mum and dad) who would rather I didn’t do stuff like this. Why am I here again…?

It didn’t take long to remember. Out of Hornsea, I was back on the kinds of quiet lanes I love riding. The sky was a glistening peach and it was a beautiful evening. Flying along, I was now thinking “why doesn’t everyone do this?”. And then a barn owl flew down alongside me, and swooped around me for a good few minutes. It was incredible, one of the most magical moments of my life.

The next checkpoint was Goathland Station, which was up a massive climb into the North York Moors. By the time I got to the foot of the hill the sun had completely set. Being out alone somewhere remote like that (even when it’s somewhere that I know well, like Dartmoor) can be pretty spooky in the dark; especially so when you’re crawling slowly up a climb. I didn’t want to freak myself out, so I put my phone in the front pocket of my waterproof and started playing the “It’s a Sin” soundtrack out loud. It immediately went from being a bit spooky to great fun. I thought about everyone at home would be tucked up warm and safe in bed, and how we were all out on this adventure, climbing high into the cold night air. I knew where I’d rather be.

After a few hours of riding alone into the night, I saw a single light appear over the horizon. A bike – another APN rider! (I think this was Ruth). To the soundtrack of Erasure’s “Oh L’Amour”, we shouted encouragement at each other. We were doing it!!!

Shortly afterwards, I turned left off the main road towards Goathland. I’m sure the views here are stunning during the day – but all I could see in the beam of my front light were a lot of (very cute) very sleepy sheep and lambs dotted across the road. I chatted to them as I carefully weaved through, apologising for disturbing them and telling them about the adventure I was on. There was definitely at least a part of my brain that was aware of how insane this was, but I was also too happy to care. If a cyclist talks to sheep in the North York Moors and there’s no-one around to hear it…?

Passing through Goathland and out towards the station, I thought I heard someone call my name. I paused, but then decided I must have imagined it and carried on. I overshot the station in the dark, did a U-turn, and rode back down. This time it was unmistakable: “Alice?”.

It turned out to be Sarah, a GB AG-team duathlete who Tim (my coach) had recently started coaching. We’d never met, but she’d stayed up late to walk her dog when I’d be passing through because she thought I might appreciate the company. And oh my god did I. Having a normal conversation with someone I had a lot in common with made me feel at home, even if it was the middle of the night in an area of the country I’d never been to before. Thank you, Sarah. 🙂

Goathland Station.
Leg 2: 86.8km, 993m climbing.

Part 4.3: Goathland Station to Byland Abbey

Two checkpoints down, and one more to go before bed! Riding off the high of chatting to Sarah, and the magic of cycling through the night, as well as the knowledge that it was “only” 50k-or-so to go before bed, this was a breeze. I honestly don’t remember much about it – mostly because it was dark, so all I could see was the road in front of me. But I reached Byland Abbey at about 3:30am, just as the sun was starting to bleed through the clouds staining the sky pink. I shook out my bivvy bag and snuggled into my sleeping bag, in a patch of grass sheltered against the ruins. I lay there watching the sunrise for a few minutes, the grass dancing in the breeze, feeling the most at peace that I had for years. And then I passed out for three hours.

Byland Abbey
Leg 3: 54.9km, 710m climbing.

Part 4.4: Byland Abbey to Bamburgh Castle

This would be the longest stretch of my trip, at 225km. Technically/physically it was not a difficult route (aside from a few steep climbs near Durham), but I knew it would be a long drag with no checkpoints to break it up. It was also pretty sunny3, and I’ve never really enjoyed the heat. To make matters worse – and I still don’t know if this was lack of sleep or just too much sport or what – I started really struggling to keep food down. Anything that was not extremely bland was making me wretch. For context, I burnt more than 8000 calories each day, so not being able to eat was legitimately concerning. I knew if I didn’t get food in I would very quickly burn out – and I could already see myself slowly down, and down, and down…

About 120km in, in Prudhoe, I came across a shopping complex with a McDonalds and an Aldi. Visiting the McDonalds first, I ordered three large portions of chips and two McFlurrys and forced myself to eat them. It took an hour. I also went and washed my face and cleaned my teeth in the bathroom sink, which made me feel marginally more human. Then across to the Aldi, to fill up on water and food for the night. Everything I looked at was making me wretch, so I grabbed the least offensive thing I could find – plain tortilla wraps. I was feeling rubbish; fed up of being sick, I just wanted a hug from Sam, a shower, clean clothes and a bed. But I hadn’t spent half a year of my life preparing for something just to give it up over a few rough hours. I eventually dragged myself off the floor of the car park, back onto the bike, and kept heading North. It was a bit easier now I had some food in me, anyway.

By the time I was about an hour out from Bamburgh, the sun was already setting. This is not where I’d hoped I’d be. I’d wanted to at least reach the Scottish border for the night. I’d ridden all day and barely covered 200km. It wasn’t even that hilly. And now it was getting dark, and I’d made a mistake with my route (I’d assumed you could get from one road to another, when one was in fact a bridge that you couldn’t reach from below), so I was having to free navigate. I was growing more and more despondent. I decided I just had to reach Bamburgh (I wasn’t sure my head could cope with reaching no checkpoints all day), and then I would go to bed and see how I felt in the morning.

I got to Bamburgh at just gone 10pm – a thoroughly rubbish day of cycling – and looked for somewhere to bivvy. I saw an APN rider out the front of some public toilets on the edge of the castle green, so decided to head round the back of the block. It was objectively pretty grim, but I was so far beyond caring. I knew I just needed to sleep. I unpacked my bivvy bag and sleeping bag and passed out without setting an alarm, figuring my body probably needed as much rest as it could get.

Bamburgh castle.
Leg 4: 225.5km, 2487m.

3Hilariously, because I was going in the same direction all day, this means that one of my arms is now noticeably more tanned than the other (three people at work independently pointed this out last week).

Part 4.5: Bamburgh Castle to Bewcastle

I woke up four hours later. There was a slug a few centimetres from my face, which eventually persuaded me to sit up. I was freezing cold, although I was also aware that the air wasn’t that cold, so I decided I was probably still a bit ill. But, while I wouldn’t say I felt enthusiastic or full of energy, I definitely felt so much better than I had the night before. I got dressed as quickly as I could, bundling myself up in all my layers: vest, merino top, jersey, fleece, waterproof. I clipped my foot in, and pushed off up the path: onwards to Scotland.

This is a strange leg to describe, because I wouldn’t say it felt “good” or “bad”. I was still suffering from lack of food, and feeling pretty low on energy, but the views along the England/Scotland border were absolutely incredible, and I was also just pretty happy that I wasn’t being sick. I was about halfway round the total route, so I passed three or four APN riders heading in the opposite direction to me, each one with a very enthusiastic greeting. I liked to imagine our little colourful dots coalescing and then departing again on the tracking map. I also saw a road weather observation station (I work in road weather forecasting at the Met Office), which distracted me for a good while, and a hedgehog. Life was (comparatively) good.

By the time I reached Bewcastle church (this is completely in the middle of nowhere, by the way) it had turned into another pretty warm day. I’d stopped at a Spar half an hour before (because I knew it would be one of the only shops I’d pass all day!) and stocked up on plain cheese sandwiches, yoghurt and full fat milk – pretty grim, but better than plain wraps at least. After taking my timestamped photo and answering my brevet card question, I flopped down in the shade and started picking my way through the sandwich. A few minutes later, rider #48 (Stuart – we’d met before, briefly, at Byland Abbey) rolled up and flopped down next to me and pulled a similarly sad Spar meal deal out of his pack. I made some comment about it being all I could stomach – he felt the same. We chatted about how crap we felt, and it made me feel so much less alone. At one point, a regular weekend cyclist on a fancy deep-wheeled Pinarello came over to us. “How far are you going?” “Mate, you don’t wanna know.” This amused me a lot. In a way, it felt like it was us against the world. Nobody else had a hope of understanding how we felt.

I was on my fifth checkpoint and about to head down to Cow Green Reservoir, but Stuart was on his eighth and about to across to the Lakes via Carlisle. He said: I think I’m going to finish in the early hours of Sunday morning. I said: I think I’m going to finish. It was the first time I’d dared to think that, let alone say it out loud. It felt huge. At every checkpoint from then on, I’d have a quick check at where Stuart had got to. He ended up finishing in the top three, which I was extremely happy to see.

Bewcastle Church.
Leg 5: 132.8km, 1968m climbing.

Part 4.6: Bewcastle to Cow Green Reservoir

Stuart left, and a couple of minutes later I finished my sandwich and dragged myself up and off the ground too. As I was wheeling down the driveway to the church, I bumped into another APN rookie, Sheila, who’d chatted to me at the start when she thought I looked nervous and alone. Sheila is absolutely the kind of woman I dream of growing up into one day. After a lifetime of ultracycling she remains endlessly enthusiastic. She’d gone round the other direction to me, and I asked her how she was, having heard about the horrific weather over in the North West. She positively beamed as she told me about bivvying in the storm, and hearing other riders’ wheels “whoosh” past in the rain. I asked her about the climbs I had coming up – I was worried about making it up them on my tired legs. She shrugged, and said I’d be fine. Her enthusiasm was infectious. She was glowing about the views and the weather, and how lucky we were to be out here. She reminded me that the most important thing was to have fun. She was absolutely right.

The phrase “I couldn’t have done it without” is clinically over-used. Most of the time people actually mean “I could’ve have done it without X, but it would’ve been more difficult”. But in this case, I’m really not sure I could have done it without Stuart’s Spar sandwich camaraderie and Sheila’s contagious spirit. These would be the last APN riders I would see until Sheffield – I was near the front of the bunch passing anti-clockwise, and those passing clockwise had already ticked off all my remaining checkpoints – but what a pair to end with.

It was a long drag uphill and into the wind through the Pennines to Cow Green Reservoir. My body was properly breaking down at this point, almost every joint sore and swollen. I put on an audiobook, and just kept the pedals turning, climbing up and up and up. Eventually, I arrived at the reservoir at just gone 7pm. I stopped to eat a couple more Spar meal deals I’d picked up along the way, and then donned all my layers and reflectors and lights, ready to ride into the night.

Cow Green Reservoir.
Leg 6: 69.2km, 1215m climbing.

Part 4.7: Cow Green Reservoir to Ulpha

(This is the bit that’s going to sound like I lost my mind. I think I maybe did. Please remember just how long I’d been awake, and also just how long I’d been alone…)

There had been a huge headwind all day, and I wanted to make the most of it and actually get it in a helpful direction before it died down. So I decided to ride into the night – but I didn’t really have any plans for when or where I was going to stop. There was a bit of a climb East out of the Pennines towards Banard Castle (of lockdown fame), but then I turned round West over the Yorkshire Dales to head towards the Lakes. And that’s when I realised I was back on roads I recognised. I’d come this way with Melissa in March this year, when we’d bikepacked from Durham back to Exeter in the snow. I excitedly snapped a photo to show her.

And from then on, it was almost as I’d been awake so long I’d gone past the point of tiredness…? I’d gone from being in a fairly extreme amount of pain, to none at all. I was flying along over the Dales, having the absolute time of my life. I dropped down into the Lakes through one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. I started thinking – maybe I don’t actually need to sleep. Maybe I never need to sleep again.

At some point, as the sun was disappearing over the hills, I noticed four lumps on the road ahead. I’d seen loads of rabbits and hares, so just assumed it was more of those. But as I got closer, I realised they were much more cat-sized. As my front light lit up their eyes, I worked it out – badgers!

I’d only ever seen one badger before, on a camping trip near Glasgow when I was a student. It was amazing. But there was also someone at work who’d once told a story about being attacked by badgers on the bike path to Warwick uni. Three of the badgers were meandering away from me, but one was marching purposefully towards me. I thought: I don’t want to drop out because I’ve been attacked by badgers! I quickly flicked my front light off and ran back up the road, and waited until I thought they’d disappeared into the bushes. Then I pedalled past with a surprisingly impressive (at least to me) burst of speed for someone 500 miles into a ride.

Eventually, I reached Windermere. I’d been up to Windermere lots as a student, both by bike with LUCC and by bus/train for hiking trips with friends from Physics, as well as once for a week for a “training”4 camp with the running club. So I knew the town well, and passing through it (even in the dark) felt really comforting. The one thing concerning me was that I was very low on food and water at this point. The remote-ness of the checkpoints, as well as the reduced supermarket opening hours for the bank holiday, actually made it really difficult to stay stocked up. Thankfully, I passed a shut supermarket with an outdoor tap, and filled up both bottles.

Through Ambleside, Coniston, Broughton-in-Furness, and then it was time to start climbing up to Ulpha. And oh my god, even on fresh legs, this would be an incredibly difficult climb. Out the saddle, I was just concentrating on transferring my weight from pedal to pedal: left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. It was completely gruelling. The higher I climbed, the more animals I’d see in the bushes. Whenever I reached them, they would disintegrate in front of my eyes. Eventually, it dawned on me: they were not real. I was hallucinating. I got off the bike, in a daze, and took myself to bed in the nearest bush.

When I woke up, four hours later, I felt terrible. Everything was so stiff and sore, and I felt so nauseous that I couldn’t sit up. I rolled up in a ball in pain for fifteen minutes. Eventually I dragged myself up and got going again. With hindsight, I have absolutely no idea how. I think I just thought I was too far in to give up. There was about one kilometre more of gruelling climb up to the checkpoint, but somehow I made it.

Ulpha Old Post Office.
Leg 7: 136.9km, 2112m climbing.

4I say training, but we did much more kayaking, swimming, hiking, and generally just messing about than actual running. One of my favourite uni memories.

Part 4.8: Ulpha to Semer Water

From Ulpha I then went out East towards Semer Water. This is where my memories get a bit blurry. I know I was feeling incredibly sick, in huge amounts of pain, and very low on food and water. Escaping the Lakes was even slower than you might imagine, because the first half had a gates every 500m, and the second half had Sunday bank holiday traffic. And the rain! It started, and just never stopped again. I’d packed well, and had good waterproofs, but I was just so tired that my body could not keep itself warm. There was one hell of a headwind too. I was so, so tired.

About halfway, I found a village shop that was open. I was too sick really for solid food, but I filled up my water bottles and drank a litre of milkshake, reasoning that would at least get some calories in. I was sat on a step outside the shop, definitely feeling awful, and probably looking as bad as I felt, when a hiker came over to chat to me. “You’ve got a lot of kit, where are you heading?”. I was way too tired to remember the next checkpoint. I fumbled for a bit trying to remember, which must have looked completely insane. Eventually, I managed to come out with an almost-coherent sentence about it being a race with lots of checkpoints. “Oh! All Points North?”. I was shocked – “yeah!”. It turned out the hiker was also an ultra-endurance cyclist, and had completed the HT550 the week before, a race I’d been semi-following. I wasn’t with it enough to have a proper conversation, but I really appreciated bumping into someone who would understand what I was going through. I remember asking, as she left, “it does get better, right?”. “Of course, stick with it”.

Unfortunately, it got worse before it got better. I misjudged a gravelly corner in the rain, and thought “I’m going to crash”, before hitting the ground. I’m 100% sure that if I’d have been more awake I wouldn’t have come close to crashing. It was one of those things that you would normally just correct for, and then never think about again. But my reflexes were just so slow. Luckily I came down on my left side, so my mech was fine. My shifter was bent in and my front brake caliper was knocked, but I was able to fix both. But I’d landed on my elbow hard and couldn’t bend it. I’m not sure if it was the shock, or the pain, but I found myself bursting into tears for the first time all trip. In an exact mirror of my normal, everyday life, where I am very good at ignoring things until suddenly everything is too much and I fall apart, I found myself absolutely losing it. I was crying so hard I could barely breathe. Everything was so painful, and I was so tired, and I was way too far in to give up, but there was no way I could carry on. There were only three people I wanted to talk to, because while everyone else was being incredibly encouraging, I just kept thinking: they don’t get it. One was Sam, who is an ultrarunner, but I didn’t want to worry him. I figured it would not fill him with much confidence about my chances of surviving the rest of the trip if he heard I’d already come off because I was tired. The other was Luke, a friend from work who is also an (insanely talented) ultrarunner. I knew Luke would be busy; I didn’t want to bother him during the bank holiday (although I did message him on WhatsApp, and he sent me some incredibly helpful reminders). The other was Matt, a friend from Cranbrook CC who had once done a solo everesting. I ended up calling Matt, and just completely falling apart. He was absolutely brilliant. He told me that I would finish it, but that I needed to sleep. Conscious of that fact I was extremely low on food and water, I kept going for a few kilometres to the nearest Spar – where I locked up my bike and fell asleep on the spot in the car park. This was one of the lowest moments of my life.

Somehow, after one hour’s sleep, and a trip to stock up on food and water, I managed to carry on. Again, I really can’t explain how. Many hours later I made it to Hawes, where there was a kebab shop in (what felt like) the middle of nowhere. Extremely tired and sore, and with night drawing in, I decided to stop and get some hot food and see if that would lift my energy levels enough to make it to Semer Water. I ordered some chips and onion rings, and then flopped down on a wooden bench to wait for food. The tiredness hit me like a tidal wave. Everything was sore. I sat there in silence and focused on each body part individually: my lips, my tongue, my toes, my fingers, my elbow, my eyes, my knees. Everything hurt.

When the girl working the counter brought across my food, she asked me if I was taking part in some sort of event. I repeated the line I’d come up with earlier in the day, about visiting different checkpoints. She asked me: was this on yesterday too? I was curious: yes? It turned out someone had passed by on a bike fully-laden like mine yesterday evening, after the shop was shut. He’d knocked on the door, and she’d pointed at the “closed” sign. But he kept knocking, so she eventually went to see what he wanted. He explained that he’d been without water for three hours, and asked her if she could please fill up his bottles. “Wow”, I thought. “At least I haven’t messed up that badly”.

I drew out the chips for as long as I could, enjoying being out of the rain, but it was eventually time to go. After the hardest ride (day?) of my life, I made it to Semerwater at about 9pm. There were hundreds of geese and baby geese (goslings?) across the road from the checkpoint, which I sat and watched for a few minutes. But night was drawing in, and the weather was definitely getting worse, and it was time to head down to some safer ground.

Leg 8: 112.2km, 2127m.

Part 4.9: Semer Water to Skyreholme

(This is maybe the sketchiest bit of cycling I’ve ever done. If you’re my parents reading this, genuinely please skip this section – thanks.)

At this point, it is really difficult to describe just how much my knees hurt. I was having to sit on the saddle at a really weird angle just to be able to keep pedalling. And I “only” had 50km to go until Skyreholme, but it would be the most painful 50km of my life (and also include an incredible 860m of climbing, over Fleet Moss). I didn’t have much choice but to keep going though, because the rain and wind were torrential, and I didn’t think it would be safe to stop and bivvy. At least if I was cycling I was (almost) warm. And so I crawled up Fleet Moss, into the mist and rain.

By the time I reached the top, 600m above sea level, it was 1) well and truly dark and 2) I was well and truly in the clouds. I had to have my front beam on the lowest setting, and pointing straight down towards the road, because otherwise the glare from the cloud was far too bright to see anything. If a car came along, it would definitely not see me. I could also barely see the road in front of me. The only thing I could do was to descend down through the cloud, extremely slowly (because I could not see the bends of the road, or the sheep that occasionally darted out into it), listening out for cars. If I heard an engine, my plan was to jump off into the verge as quickly as I could. Luckily, I only had to do this once. Given how unsafe it was, I was surprised at how well I kept my head. I suppose I didn’t have much choice.

After the slowest ride of my life, I made it to the checkpoint at Skyreholme around one in the morning. It was still raining, but not quite as heavily, and I was far too exhausted to carry on cycling. I got changed in a telephone box next to the checkpoint, and then just slept in the middle of a grass verge. I was way too tired to find somewhere good.

Leg 9: 49.6km, 850m climbing.

Part 4.10: Skyreholme to Nick O’Pendle

I woke up three hours later. It was still raining, but I had managed to stay surprisingly warm and dry, and I realised there were only one hundred miles to go. “One hundred miles is, like, normal people cycling” I mused, getting dressed in the telephone box. It was damp and I was sore and I was tired but I was going to make it. And I’d saved the best checkpoint until last. I’d be riding over into Lancashire and my absolute favourite place in the world, the Forest of Bowland. I don’t remember much about getting there, but I do remember the feeling as I crossed into Lancashire through Clitheroe and saw the “Forest of Bowland” sign and saw the familiar shape of the Trough of Bowland line the skyline. It was magical. I climbed up Nick O’Pendle – and there I was! Checkpoint 10! You know what? I was actually going to make it.

Leg 10: 50.8km, 795m climbing.

Part 4.11: Nick O’Pendle to HQ!

I did not feel good. I still felt tired, and extremely sore, but I was able to ignore it because I knew I only had 6 hours to go, and then I would be home. Perhaps not home in Devon, but home in the sense that I would’ve returned to the same world everyone else was living in. Sam would be there, I would shower, I would wear clean clothes, I would know what the time was and stop getting sunset and sunrise mixed up. There were some monster hills in this leg – at the crest of one I had to get off and push my bike round some roadworks for half a kilometre – but I just did not care. It was the biggest second wind of my life, and it lasted for the whole six hours. I just kept speeding up and up and up. And suddenly, I could see Sheffield over the horizon. And I was dropping down into the city centre, and my watch was showing single digits remaining – 9km, 8km, 7km, 6km, 5km (that’s my commute to work!), 4km, 3km (that’s the distance to Aldi!), 2km (six minutes!), 1km – and there it was, the finish line, with Sam and Angela and Rob outside cheering me in. And I’d done it: 99 hours and 26 minutes, 1189km, 15193m (1.7x the height of Everest) and I was back.

I had actually done it.

Leg 11: 110.9km, 2010m climbing.

Part 5: In conclusion?

I think everyone who does ultra-endurance sport has some sort of mantra to keep them going. Mine is one I adopted from Mark Beaumont’s “The Man Who Cycled the World”5, long before I started on multi-day adventures (the first ride I can remember using it for was my first solo 100k). And that is this:

“If it is good, it will get worse. If it is bad, it will get better.”

The biggest thing the past couple of years have taught me, though, is that this is true on every time scale, both on and off the bike. Whether it is 200 miles of headwind, or 20 hours of vomiting in Northumberland, or a 2 year mental health crisis, it will eventually pass. Sometimes life just is shit, and there is nothing you can do about it. It is easy to believe that you only have two options – to wear yourself down fighting against it, or to give up – but there is always a third. And that is to just accept that it is what it is, and sit with it, and trust that – sometime, even if you do not know when – there will be a time when everything is okay again. Life comes in waves. If it is bad, it will get better. This is always true.

I feel too self-conscious to go around openly declaring that All Points North was a life-changing experience, because I honestly think if you’ve never done something like it – something that pushes your mind and your body so far beyond the limits of everyday life – you just won’t get it, and I’ll probably come across as really pretentious. Perhaps you’re reading this and already thinking I am. But the truth is, it was life-changing. You cannot spend 99 hours (including some of the best and the worst hours of your life) in your own company and come away the same person you were before. The way I view myself has been completely altered. I know that I am incredibly resilient and determined, and nothing/nobody will ever be able to take that knowledge away from me. I have confidence that nothing can break me. And the way I view my life has been completely altered, too. The only way I can describe it is that it feels like, before APN, my view was incredibly zoomed in. Suddenly it is zoomed out and I can see the whole field. Things that would have previously made me upset, or anxious, just don’t. You get one life, and I have gained the sense of perspective to know what – and who – is important in mine.

(And if you think all of this sounds insane, go and ride a bike – or walk, or run, or row, or swim – by yourself for 99 hours, and then come back to me and tell me how you feel. 😉)

5My favourite book (and hence the blog post title). If you haven’t yet read it, please do. You do not have to like bikes to enjoy it; it’s more about the travelling than the bike.

One response to “The Girl Who Cycled The North”

  1. Wow! What a fantastic read for a start! But the journey you have been on- I have no words! Beautifully written account of an amazing, (and absolutely, bloody brilliant!) journey, mentally and physically!
    You go girl!


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