THE RIDE ACROSS BRITAIN – ELLIPTIGO WORLD DISTANCE RECORD ATTEMPT
July 18, 2011
June 11 – 19, 2011 | 960 MILES
When George Watkins lined up at the starting line with 600 other cyclists in John O’Groats, Scotland – ready to start the nine-stage Ride Across Britain challenge event, which would end 960 miles later at Land’s End in Cornwall – it was rather obvious that his journey to the starting line had been quite a different one to many of theirs. It was also rather evident that his would be quite a different journey to Land’s End because George was going to be riding the full event distance on an ElliptiGO.
The End-to-End (also ‘fondly’ called the End 2 End, E2E, JOGLE, LEJOG etc), encompasses the challenge of riding across Britain, from either of its furthest ends to the other – and it is viewed by many serious cyclists around the world as a revered ‘pilgrimage.’ If George was to succeed it would not only enter him into the ElliptiGO Century Club – an exclusive list of the first 100 people to cover 100 miles on an ElliptiGO elliptical bike in a sanctioned cycling event – but it would also become the new ElliptiGO distance World Record, as he would have travelled significantly farther than the existing distance World Record set by Dean Karnazes in March 2010, when he rode from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
The other thing about George’s journey to this event was not so obvious. Two years prior to this event George had been seriously injured in a skiing accident in the Swiss Alps (that incident had left George with multiple bone and internal injuries). After using a wheelchair for three months post-accident, it took even longer for George to be able to walk properly for more than a few steps. But he was intent on full rehabilitation and set himself the target of completing an Ironman Triathlon within two years of his accident.
Such was his determination and diligence with his rehabilitation activities that just a year after he first got out of the wheelchair and took his initial faltering steps George was able to complete a half marathon. Encouraged by his half marathon he entered the Bolton Ironman event in September 2010 and trained rigorously for it. Despite numerous mechanical failures with his road bike and serious joint pain (because of his accident and resultant injuries) George finished the triathlon triumphantly. All this running-related activity was contrary to his doctors’ orders and George knew such activity was not sustainable for the long term. However, he’d completed his major challenge a year ahead of schedule and needed to find ways of maintaining his fitness without damaging his now fragile joints. That’s when George came across the ElliptiGO and became one of the first people in Britain to start training on one – in September 2010 (immediately after completing the triathlon).
He had set himself the task of undertaking a massive physical challenge two years after his accident and had done the Ironman a year earlier than planned – so that triumph had actually left something of a void in his mind. What other challenge could he possibly find that was even ‘grander’ than an Ironman Triathlon to fulfill his 2 year target? The Ride Across Britain – on an ElliptiGO. Not only was each daily stage of the Ride Across Britain nearly as long as an Ironman Triathlon in itself, George would also be doing this on an ElliptiGO – a bike designed to give you a serious workout (much tougher than riding a road bike and a lot like running). The difference between this undertaking and George’s previous sporting exploits, which had largely involved running, was that using an ElliptiGO would not damage or harm his joints in the way that running does. Thus, it would not violate his doctors’ advice and yet it would still be the biggest physical undertaking he had ever faced.
Here’s what happened:
The first day was a big mental hurdle as George had never ridden close to the 100 mile distance, a single 70-miler two weeks before the event being his longest workout to date. But he had been training hard and training regularly. Getting through day-one was a huge confidence boost. It took 8 hours and 30 minutes to complete the leg, stops included. All went well until heavy rain set in from 80 miles onwards, leaving him soaked and frozen by the end of the 104 mile stage. At the end, he had not just completed the first stage and overcome a big psychological hurdle, but he had also qualified as the 20th person in the exclusive ElliptiGO Century Club.
George had a 5:30 am start on day two. He found his pace much slower than on day one, due to fatigue and because much of the stage was ridden alone. They passed through the scenic Lochs of Scotland but the effort levels were such that George barely took in any of it – with constant fatigue and the tension around the massive challenge which lay ahead weighing heavily on his mind. Early in this stage was a massive hill climb, but the rest of the ride was manageable. A professional sports massage at the end of the stage really made it worth finishing! Two stages down and the challenge was beginning to look like it could realistically be done – but 7 long days still lay ahead.
Day 3 was tough. They climbed up Glen Coe in very bad weather, with driving rain and powerful headwinds. There were numerous hill climbs which sapped George’s energy as he burned what he felt must have been about double the calories his fellow cyclists were expending, in order to cover the same distance. With a diversion in the route they covered a solid 120 miles in this stage. Many participants dropped out on day 3, which really affected group morale and caused the doubts to start creeping into George’s mind. Could he cover this massive challenge on a bike which pushed his body as hard as if he were running? They were told at the overnight camp that the next day would be “really easy” and that had lifted the atmosphere in the camp, with all the ‘survivors’ really feeling a sense of camaraderie and achievement.
Day 4 was 103 miles long. It should have been easy but the road surfaces were awful, which really impacts on thin-wheeled and small-wheeled bikes. A constant headwind made the pace really slow. George was struggling physically and mentally. The event had teams of ‘chaperones’ from local area cycling clubs, trained to identify flagging riders in need of help. They spotted George and realised he was struggling under the effort of riding an elliptical bike in such tough conditions, alongside riders on much lighter and more streamlined machines.
He had fallen to the rear of the group and was mentally and physically spent. The chaperones lifted his pace from a 10 mph crawl to about 13 mph average and saw him to the end of the stage. The fact that it should have been an easy day, but wasn’t, really hit him hard, mentally. At this stage it was obvious George could ride a hundred miles on an ElliptiGO and the nature of the challenge was becoming more and more mental, despite the continued physical toil. His success in this challenge would now come down to how much he actually wanted to succeed, rather than just his physical fitness.
On the fifth stage George found himself riding well again for about 70 to 80 miles. But at the pitstop, around the 80 mile mark, he suddenly and unexpectedly began to break down mentally. In tears, he simply couldn’t get back onto the bike to continue riding after his food and water break. As the marshalls gathered around him to check if he was okay, his only instinct was to jump back onto the ElliptiGO and ride away – to hide his ‘shame.’ Riding away salvaged his expedition, however, because, once moving again he’d realised that he was actually physically able to continue GOing…
However, sunscreen was trickling into his eyes as he sweated and every little irritation was magnified to ridiculous proportions in his own mind. The effort and fatigue made him feel like he was “losing his mind.” He was fatigued mentally and physically and again rode very slowly from that pitstop until the end of the stage. He was demotivated and his mindset had become negative – the glass was ‘half-empty’ rather than half-full. He now fully realised the magnitude of the mental and physical task which lay ahead – but there is probably no way to prepare for the sort of emotional turmoil one experiences in an ultra-endurance event of this measure until one has actually done one. George was in “no-man’s land” now and had no idea if he would be able to go on the next day.
Again the chaperones were with George and the other stricken riders – motivating, supporting and pacing them. On day 6 the chaperones were from a cycling club in the idyllic town of Bath. Their motivation and support had helped George change his mindset and his riding was getting stronger again. This stage represented a psyschological turning point for George and he realised now that the World Record was within his reach and that completion of the 960 mile journey was realistically possible. New motivation had been found and would stay with him for the rest of the journey.
On day 7 George’s Mum arrived from Hertfordshire to help support his final few days. The stage was relatively short, at ‘only’ 91 miles long. There was a massive hill climb leading to the stage base camp and George’s renewed motivation saw him flying past struggling cyclists on the hills. A weird change overcame him on stage 7 and he started actually relishing hills and looking forward to them in a strange and masochistic way. He felt like he was transforming into a sort of “hardcore cyclist” mindset, which relished the suffering. A new mantra formed in his mind that kept playing over and over: “No hill will beat me.” The hills transformed from looming objects surrounded by fear to measurable challenges.
In the mindless dullness of a week of constant physical exertion, these hill climbs now stood out as memorable events that he could focus and concentrate on – small achievements and re-affirmations of the fact that he was still strong. Also, because of his upright stance on the ElliptiGO, George struggled in the headwinds and could not match the pace of the high-level cyclists on flat or downhill roads. But on the hills he was their equal and could challenge the pace of any of the bicycle riders. That became a source of ‘self-worth’ for him. George could not have planned for the mood swings he was now experiencing after days of pushing himself at the max, but he made it through stage 7.
In terms of terrain, the last two days were really tough. But George had friends and family around him now and was actually starting to enjoy himself. He no longer needed the chaperones and was actually playing chaperone himself to other riders who needed motivation. Day 8 had the most climbing of all the stages, unfortunately, and at 113 miles long was the second-longest stage in the event. George ‘dismissed’ his chaperone after 10 miles, suggesting she spend time with some of the other riders who were apparently in a really bad way and at higher risk of quitting than he was. He rode the first 67 miles alone, until he was joined by friends as planned at the second pitstop. Having close friends riding with him really lifted George’s spirits but his vulnerable knee, damaged in his accident, was beginning to ache after days of ceaseless exertion and forced him to turn to anti-inflammatory painkillers.
Luckily for George, despite his knee flare-up, he did not need the services of the extremely busy ‘backside doctor’ – an expert travelling with the event and treating the bike-seat pain that hundreds of ‘survivors’ on their bicycles were now all stricken by! On this stage, George asked his friends to drop back and chaperone the scores of struggling riders they were passing, because he realised those riders needed the help more than he did. He rode the stage alone but felt proud that he was able to do so while helping others in the same way he had been helped earlier in the event. He found a faster cyclist who quickly taught him how to draft in his slipstream. Focusing on that single wheel, just an inch or two in front of him, really had a meditative effect on George and helped the stage to pass quickly. Day 8 took over 11 hours to complete!
Day 9 had the toughest forecast, with a headwind expected for most of the way. George set out really early – at 5:45 am – and rode alone for many hours, until some of the faster riders began to catch up. They all offered each other encouragement whenever they met or passed each other. George wanted to finish early so he could see all his event ‘comrades’ riding in at the finish line. But leaving that early had meant a good breakfast was unavailable and he started feeling extremely hungry during the ride. He fueled himself at the pitstops with junk food because he was so ravenous and a group of riders from a well-known chocolate company didn’t help matters with their offers of chocolate bars all through the ride! The first 38 miles were littered with challenging hill climbs.
George’s friends were supposed to meet him at the first pitstop at mile 38 but because he was so early they weren’t there and he pressed on alone. They did eventually catch up with him, but his pace was so ferocious by that time – confident now that he was going to finish the event – that they couldn’t keep up with him despite the fact that they were on road bikes and he was on an ElliptiGO. George scaled the toughest hill on the stage, “as if it was a flat road,” and none of the witnesses to this could believe what they saw. At the finish line, George was awarded one of only two awards given to selected participants who “exemplified what the organisers felt was the spirit of the event – digging deeper and never quitting” – a philosophy they now called ‘Gambatte.’ The finish line was an unending sea of tears as riders made it home.
“Until one has suffered in this way, for so long, it is impossible to understand the cameraderie that develops in a group of hundreds of people all toiling and struggling together to achieve the same goal. The support and selflessness amongst the competitors and marshalls was unbelievable. This was a massive event which will stay with me for the rest of my life. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and I had no understanding of what it would take to set an ultra-endurance world record. But after it was done I realised just how important it had been for me to do this…” George Watkins.
George Watkins’ rehabilitation from his near-death experience is now complete. He left the Ride Across Britain to start a new teaching career in London, helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds to reach their true potential. Many think his learnings over the previous two years will stand him in good stead to do this. He will also be entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for his 960-mile World Record endeavour and will now occupy a place not just in the history of endurance World Records, but also in the history of elliptical cycling…