Lackenhagh – Derry (Finish), 1799 - 2110km
I enjoy a cooked breakfast and a helping of porridge. Catherine Shenk has more than enough porridge and generously offers me some of hers as well.
The sleep at the side of the road has refreshed me. I decide to continue without a sleep at the control. I leave with filled rolls and apple pie wrapped in foil. The apple pie pointed out by Eamon.
There is a moderate headwind but the day starts fine and dry. About a couple of hours out of the control I sense a burning on the back of my neck. Probably just a bit of sunburn between my cap and jersey. I apply my P20 then continue on.
The burning sensation begins to consume my thoughts. I’m finding it increasing difficult to keep a forward view. It’s sunny, and so I find a piece of grass, lean the bike on a wall and lie down looking at the sky for a while. I figure 30 or so minutes rest will do.
Within minutes the owner (of the house whose wall I’m lying by) and two car drivers have stopped to check I am alright. It’s impossible to just have a lie down in Ireland! I move a little up the road and find a place on the right to once more lie down.
John, whom I rode with for some of the previous night, stops and asks if I’m alright. I mention the neck issues and he mentions the word Shermer’s. We discuss my predicament, and at one point he says if I’m stopping can I take his knees? I’m not sure I heard him right but I’m keen to continue. Other than the neck everything else is great.
We talk about what other riders have done, strapping arrangements, how they hold their head up. A few minutes later we’ve got something rigged up with my spare inner tube zip tied to my saddlebag. I have to straddle the top tube, then pull the inner tube over my forehead. My hat goes in the saddlebag.
I tentatively sit on my saddle and start pedalling. I now have to hold the hoods. Even with the support of the inner tube; on the drops my vision falls down to my front wheel and maybe a few feet in front of it.
I catch him up, and he’s pleased to see it working. I cannot describe the joy in being able to continue. It is near impossible to get out of the saddle unless I want to become a nodding donkey. I remain seated. I’m unable to reach my water bottles thus set up, and so stop every time I need a drink.
The fixed position, and rain showers blowing in and out, begins to lead to moisture build up, rubbing, wrinkled skin, and thus saddle sores. About once an hour I need to stop to apply Aloe Vera Vaseline. I try and drink during these enforced stops.
I’m unable to turn my head to look at the view. My view forward perhaps 30 yards in front of my wheel. I start getting off the bike for uphill to give myself a break and have a chance to take in the scenery denied me.
After 6 hours making steady but hard progress I’m in need of a doze. I lie down on a grass verge. This is Ireland, every few mins I’m woken by a concerned driver asking if I’m alright. John and another Irish rider pass and ask if I’m alright, yes just trying to catnap.
Eventually I find the entrance to a golf club and lie on the grass propped against the sign. I am left undisturbed here and manage to grab my 30 mins at last.
The strain of the fixed position, and not being able to turn my head is taking its toll. I haven’t taken any photos at all today. I barely know where I am, not being able to focus on landmarks, other than following the pink line on the GPS. I get a sense of Deja Vu, like I’ve already cycled the Wild Atlantic Way, and that for some reason I can’t fathom I’m riding it again.
My neck is getting weaker and I’m putting a lot of pressure on my hands to now try and keep a forward view. I’ve lowered the seat, which strains my legs, though they and the rest of my body is still in good shape. I’m trying to ride as though on a sit up and beg bike. I’m pushing down with my finger tips on the nearest bit of bar, then changing that to my palms; to try and keep a forward view. I’m sat on the top tube, a leg braced to prevent a shimmy for the descents so I can see further ahead at speed.
The rises and falls and twists and turns of the road begin to blur. The villages I pass through I barely register so constrained is my vision. I lose all concept of where I am. I do not see the signs of Creeslough and pass without stopping for a control receipt. An hour later I stop and check my brevet card. I realise I have passed though.
A confusion falls upon me. I now think I’m out of time, the last rider on the road. The black tape holding my GPS on hides the average speed display of a screen and I can’t get it to show it in another field. John catches me up, I didn’t realise I’d passed him.
I ask him about our overall average speed, and he looks at his GPS and says 14-15 km/h. He confirms we are still in time. I mention I forgot to get a receipt at Creeslough. He says not to worry he saw me go past back there, another rider tells me the same. A fog occupies my head but I take comfort in their words.
I walk more uphills to give my neck a break. I’m still keeping pace with John and a couple of others and we overlap from time to time. That gives me further comfort.
I find myself alone again and the Déjà vu returns. I feel I’m going round in circles, though I am not. I take this to be symptom of my increasingly restricted vision. My lack of interaction with the landscape around.
My neck drops further in pain, my world shrinking to 20 feet in front of my wheel. I begin to cry, the tears splashing on my GPS then needing to be wiped away. The tears turn into sobs.
Before the event Jim Fitzpatrick had talked about when it gets hard, to visualise yourself at the finish. This is my hard moment. As I sob, I visualise myself on the Peace Bridge in Derry. I’m sobbing there as well, bent over my bike. The lyrics from Mad World enter my head “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had…”
My emotions rise and fall carried on the Atlantic waves I can hear but not see. I continue forward but the neck is getting worse and the inner tube strapping is ceasing to give enough support. The saddle sores are getting worse and Vaseline needs applying more regularly. My hands and wrists are hurting from the effort to keep some forward vision. The tears come and go, I have no control over when or where.
Terry another Irish rider catches me up when my emotions are somewhere in the middle. He asks if he can help in any way. We stop and he provides me with a fresh roll and some ham that he’s just bought. In my confused state I’m forgetting to eat. He takes pictures of my setup whilst I eat and promises to send them privately not publish on FB. I thank him and he carries on, as I drink some water. I have no more tears left to give, and my emotions settle.
Later, after the event, he emails me the photos and tells me he was running at 1% at that time. Seeing me struggling on, and being able to help me, lifted him and allowed him to keep going. I didn’t feel I was inspiring anyone at that time but his kind words give me a warm glow.
I roll into Letterkenny, at 8:45pm on Thursday 23rd June. The inner tube is no longer working that well. My vision is restricted and on the busy roads of Letterkenny, with rain falling again, I walk the last bit and find a pizza place I can eat in.
I order a large hot and spicy meat feast pizza and a couple of cokes. I ring Eamon and we discuss the neck issues. He tells me not to worry I’ve got plenty of time to finish. I explain where in Letterkenny I am and he says he’ll come out with David with a helmet and sort out some strapping so I can keep going. I text my wife where I am and mention the neck issues. She rings, just after 9:30pm, and we talk whilst I eat the hot pizza.
I finish the pizza, and explain to the guy behind the counter I’m waiting for a couple of friends to help sort me out with a problem. I order another coke whilst I wait.
About 10:30pm Eamon and David come in. A helmet, rope, and industrial strength zip ties. They practice the setup on Eamon before I stand up ready to be strapped up.
I’ve put on my warm gear ready for the night. The helmet is being scraped against my forehead, and needs adjusting a couple of times before the fit is good. Zip ties are put in the front of the helmet, I think Eamon is trying to embed them in my forehead, to better hold the helmet and my head in place. David pulls the strapping at the back and my head is pulled backwards and up. My phone battery is now dead. David takes my phone. They’ll get it charged and come find me later via my tracker.
It’s the most surreal moment of the whole ride despite the hallucinations and Déjà vu experienced before. God knows what the pizza guy thinks is going on? I’m smiling again, amused at the setup, happy that I have a chance to finish the ride.
Water bottles refilled. Outside David films me putting my bike lock in and then doing up my saddlebag. As he films he comes round the front, and asks how I am. You can but laugh, trussed up like a Mummy and moving like Frankenstein. I come out with something like
I am the Mummy, and I am coming to Malin Head, then Derry.
Lights and GPS switched on and I roll off into the wet night. It is now just after 11:00pm on the Thursday. That leaves 166km left and 14 hours to complete it in. My mental faculties are back after the break and large pizza. I’m feeling positive.
Soon enough I’m out of Letterkenny and rolling down the N14. It’s a busy main road but it has a wide shoulder clear of debris. The rain continues to fall.
Further down the road, Eamon and David catch up with me, surprised at my progress and hand my phone back with 60% charge. Progress is swift as the surface is good, the gradients slightly uphill, flat or down, and I have forward vision back. It is now easy to keep my speed up.
I take a left and join the N13 which carries traffic to Londonderry. In the night, rain falling. The glow of the GPS and the white lines passing before my eyes has a soporific effect.
I’m too hot in my night gear, the night much warmer than previous, but I can’t change due to the strapping. I slow down to stop myself overheating. I can’t reach down and retrieve my water bottles safely with the strapping. I stop every 10 mins or so to take on some water.
Despite the strapping my neck eventually begins to drop further, the pain increasing. I have a near miss on a downhill, as the shoulder disappears where a junction comes on. I swerve just missing the barrier at speed. My heart rate soars as the adrenaline pumps through me. I continue on, stopping to drink water, eventually leaving at the exit for Burnfoot. At the bottom of the exit ramp, I make a right turn and almost ride off the edge of the road.
I convince myself it’s just tiredness not my vision. Maybe a catnap will sharpen my reflexes. I look for places to kip at the side of the road but it’s just fields waterlogged with rain.
I try my trick from day one, dozing on the bike, arms on bars. But as I fall asleep properly my left leg gives way and I wake falling to the left and only just catching myself. I catch one shin on the chain rings the other on the crank, ouch.
Continuing on I enter Burnfoot industrial estate and find a curved wall that casts a dark shadow from the factory lights behind. I place myself and bike in the curve of the shadow, hidden from the view of passing cars. I wrap myself in my foil blanket, sheltered from the rain, and sleep for 20 minutes.
I set off again but the neck seems worse. A few hundred metres up the road I attempt to turn at a junction and crash up a pavement, narrowly avoiding a wall. I swerve back out across the road before coming to a halt on the opposite side breathing heavily, heart pumping away.
I didn’t see it in the dark and rain with my vision now being a few feet in front of my wheel. It’s now 12:30am. How I stayed upright I’m not quite sure. It wasn’t tiredness this time, it was my restricted vision. I can’t continue like this, it’s not safe. I ring Eamon explain the strapping is no longer working. I mention my near misses. I explain where I am. Once more the silver foil comes out and I sit against the wall and wait.
A car stops. Am I alright. I answer yes from inside the foil, keeping me warm against the falling rain and cooling night.
Eamon turns up. He remarks that my neck is at a much sharper angle than Letterkenny. He attempts to tighten the strapping but all it does is cause me to call out in pain, and doesn’t help with the forward vision or my neck.
Accounts have come out, of riders thinking of stopping. One call to Eamon and the answer would be a flat refusal to accept their withdrawal, keep riding was his strong message throughout. There were many heroic efforts in this regard, some riders getting to the end a day or more after the official time limit. There are no such messages or words at this time.
We both know my ride is at an end, despite the generous time left. Eamon quietly says he knows that it would have to be something like this to stop me. I should be proud of what I’ve managed. Not many can cycle 2000km. He is trying to make me feel good about stopping. We both know it isn’t safe to continue, and long term damage to the neck isn’t worth risking. A serious crash seems likely in my condition.
I stand at the side of road, my ride ended. There are no tears as earlier, no regret, just calm acceptance that I’ve done what I can. There is no more. The same is true of Eamon and the volunteers in their assistance. I am content.
At this point Birgit Zimmerman comes round the corner and we cheer her on as she passes. She is riding just fine and will complete the ride in time. I am pleased for her, as I am for all riders both finished and still going. These long rides bind us, we will everyone to succeed.
We load the bike into the car. I climb in, and hold onto one wheel to stop it falling out the back. The hatch could not be shut. We try to operate Seamus’ car satnav to get us to the Peace Bridge in Derry. Despite navigating the length of Ireland using my bike GPS; the car touch screen one defeats me. Much to Eamon’s amusement. This causes some good hearted banter (once a call to Seamus’ has sorted us out).
Back in Derry I await transport to the Iona Inn where Tonya’s hospitality awaits us. At the Inn I am finally cut free from the zip ties, rope and helmet. A bit of food, a beer, sat with Seamus, Paul and a few of the other riders; shower, then bed sometime after 3am.
I sleep the sleep of the dead not waking till after 11am. Clean casual clothes but my fingers struggle with the buttons on my shorts. The battered fingers of an old man from trying to keep my head up on the bike.
Some more food, cakes and tea. I ask for directions and then walk from the Iona Inn to the Peace Bridge. I am in casual shorts, t-shirt and footwear. It begins to rain. I don’t care and carry on walking. My jacket is too smelly to wear now I have fresh clothes. I meet Stuart at the finish and we sit down for a coffee. Not a drink I normally have but I welcome it. His trophy with an Elliptigo rider inside is magnificent.
He finished the last 300km on a carbon road bike provided like magic by a bike shop with his Elliptigo as insurance. He was 4 minutes inside the time limit, what a heroic effort.
I wander on to the Peace Bridge to see other riders finishing. Bloody well done. Eamon, seeing me, grabs a WAWA trophy and presents it to me with a speech.
He explains the trophy was for any rider who’d managed to get past 1000km, but to have got past 2000km was doubly special. I should be proud of what I’d managed, and but for the neck he knows I would have finished in good style. George Hanna offers me more kind words. It’s a nice moment.
The trophy is bubble wrapped and my old man fingers struggle to release it as I return to the Iona Inn with David and Stuart. I’m sharing a room with Stuart and so take him to the room so he can shower, then sleep as I have done. Phone on charge. I go down stairs to catch up with those about.
More food and chat. Friday evening we go next door to the pub for Guinness. Stuart organises pizza and garlic bread from across the road. A gathering of riders and volunteers, the stories beginning to unfold. A ride with as many stories and challenges as riders and volunteers.
Late, after a few Guinness are in me, Paul Sexton comes in having just finished, long out of time. We fall silent as he’s presented with his trophy. Paul begins hesitantly as first, but his voice grows stronger filled with raw emotion. The pub falls silent transfixed as he finds his voice. His embrace of the wild pours out, raw and elemental. Everything from what drove him to enter the wild, his mother, what he’s experienced, the meaning of it all. It’s a beautiful speech from the heart.
Early next morning Stuart and I head to the railway station for our first leg to Belfast on the way home. John Sabine comes in at this time, having finished out of time, but finished. Well done John. He asks when I finished, I tell him I didn’t, the neck. Oh no, more words of kindness, then we need to leave John and catch our train.
One nagging doubt. Could I have taken a 3-4 hour rest the night before, then finished the ride in the remaining hours? It was a 7km ride across Dublin to the ferry from Connolly station. Within a km my head drops and forward vision became restricted. The doubt is answered, no not even after 36 hours is it truly safe. Brief glances, and a fortunately empty bus lane and quiet roads get me to the ferry terminal.