Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The long road to Mille Cymru 1000km 2018

Some rides require more preparation than others, but this one was exceptional. It began in 2009 - over 8.5 years before we’d finally complete it. This blog post is not so much a ride report as a biography of our cycling over this time, and the defining event that bookends this period.

Along the way we did far more than simply prepare for this one ride to rule them all. We’d discover more about ourselves, our motivations, our loves and causes for laughter, pain and sufferfesting, meet many friends, travel to new continents and go so many new places take on challenges and achieve all sorts of things we never thought we’d attempt. I can trace it all back to a day in October  2009, Saturday the 17th.  I was visiting California on a 3 week work trip. I had rented a nice road bike (in lieu of a rental car to commute to the office) and wanted to get some fun rides in. For context, at the time I’d never owned a proper drop-bar road bike so this was quite novel. I decided on that Saturday to cycle up from Palo Alto to San Francisco to see the city. Google Maps said I should just follow HW82 / El Camino Real for the 40 mile ride, so that’s what I set out to do.
Anyone that knows the area will know El Camino as possibly the least inspiring and most frustrating way to get anywhere by bike along the peninsula. It drags through urban sprawl, endless charmless malls, and constantly punctuated by long waits at stop lights on giant intersections, the whole way. After 10 miles I was bored out of my mind and randomly took the next left turn to see where it led.
Long story short, it led me to the San Andreas fault, along Crystal springs reservoir, then up over the Santa Cruz mountains via Highway 92 all the way to Half Moon bay on the coast. I rode the coast rode for a while, failing to find a better route back, so eventually retraced my steps up the 92 to Skyline Boulevard and climbed that higher still along the mountain ridge line until eventually descending HW 84 into Stanford university campus, just as dusk fell, and quickly retreating to my hotel just north of there.
I was mesmerized. I was hooked. I couldn’t believe the quantity of climbing I’d done that day, nor how exhilarating the whole adventure had been.

I started planning my next bicycle purchase. My first road bike. I started researching exciting ride opportunities for the coming season that I could work towards, that would justify the purchase.

Rainbow over Llyn Brianne

It so happened right about that time that Mille Cymru had been recently announced and discussed at length on the yacf forum we follow. It was generating an awful lot of attention. Having got the ‘bug’ for climbing, and knowing Wales had some of the best mountain roads available in the UK, I started following this thread closely. Very closely. Within a month of that fateful day in California, entries were open for the ride and it was filling up quickly. I emailed Emma one afternoon from work:

2009/11/18 Jonathan Dixon
Oh deary me,

Mille Cymru is already past 75% of its 60 entrant limit.
Thanks to online entry, I'm one click away from being in it.


Knowing Emma to be resolutely anti-climbing, even before becoming a tandem rider, in a month of discussing my new obsession she’d only expressed doubt. I thought at best she might volunteer to support the ride should enter it. Instead, I very swiftly received this reply:

2009/11/18 Emma Dixon

I had a thought  - if you're going to enter. I might as well too.....
Love Em

And that was that. A few hours later we were both entered, and committed to a whole new world of focused “training”, something we’d never dared think about before.

Over the winter and leading into the new season we became reclusive to our friends as we pursued a tough regime of challenging and hilly rides. We knew we had our work cut out for us, as not only were we new to long distance cycling (having only completed our first 300km+ ride that summer, let alone never entered anything really hilly) but also were adding additional challenge by intending to ride it on a tandem. And as every cyclist knows, Tandems Can’t Climb.

If I have a single memory of that period, aside from the pain, it was total amazement, awe, inspiration and impressedness at how Emma was tackling this challenge. She Didn’t Like Hills, but there she was taking on mountainous courses in order to get fit and able to credibly reach the startline of Mille Cymru. And somewhere along the way, she started to get a love for the mountains too.

Roll forward to the event, we were fitter and stronger than we’d ever been, entering into our first ever 3+ day event, we didn’t know how it was going to play out but we took everything as it came and surprised ourselves with how capably we were progressing through it. Until day 2, 600km mark, where I developed a nosebleed that would never end, and ultimately forced us to abandon.
It’s interesting to look back now on the various reflections we made of the ride, of of that year. We clearly new we’d been part of something bigger than ourselves, and quietly proud of how far we’d come in it, even despite that massive setback of not finishing it. And I remember just how proud I was of Emma, being the only female to attempt it, and clearly capable of finishing it had my wellbeing not let her down, despite her not wanting to climb even one hill just 8 months prior.

Training for MC1K set us up to train more intently for longer rides, such as Paris-Brest in 2011 and California Gold Rush in 2013. Training for and succeeding in longer rides set us up for being invited to, and being able to rise to the challenge of, our greatest achievement -- racing RAAM in 2015. RAAM opened the door to so many wonderful friendships and new confidence. And through the whole process we racked up a dozen or more 1000km+ rides in various continents, as well as going touring in some amazing places such as Patagonia and the Andes, that we’d never have dared think of doing just a couple years before.

But despite it all, there remained one “monkey on our shoulders”. Unfinished business. An appointment with a dragon.
Having relocated back to UK early 2018, when Mille Cymru 2018 was announced we were all ready to enter as soon as entries opened. This was going to be the year to finish unfinished business. But first, we’d need to get back fit enough to attempt it.
This was no small task, as moving countries and jobs and a bunch of other events made the training difficult, but with our improved experience we didn’t panic so much as 8 years ago, and just worked to get as fit as we could manage for the start line. As I’d summarized from our previous DNF - being 10% less fit really wouldn’t matter so long as I was 90% less unwell with a cold this time.

The saying goes that half the challenge of long distance riding is mental. While physical strength and fortitude requires continuous effort to maintain, mental strength follows a different decay curve. Having been so overwhelmed with worry about attempting MC1K in 2010, we’d gone to unheard of lengths to prepare. Training! Entering Alpine sportives! Riding the hilliest brevets on the calendar, with extra days of our own riding added on for good measure! Pre-riding and even driving parts of the MC1K course to demystify the horrors of the route. While we’d arrived at the start line quietly terrified, we took a long time to understand how well this prep had worked for us. On the second day, early in the grey misty and somewhat dreary morning, we’d passed numerous solo riders that had set out then soon turned back to the HQ control realizing their heads were not in the right place for 3 days of this. We’d silently passed them, not even wanting to acknowledge their passing to each other, for fear it would unleash our own thoughts of following suit. For years after this became an unspoken rule of ours: when feeling low don’t mention it! In audax a mental problem shared can quickly become a problem doubled! Nevertheless, we pulled through this tough start, and pulled through perhaps the most physically challenging section - along the Pembrokeshire coast - and as the day wore on we felt stronger and happier, knowing that we could do this! That was our lasting memory as we were forced to abandon and for the years after. Incredibly tough, but we could do it!

Approaching Snowdonia  - photo by Max

So roll on to 2018 we were far less nervous hitting the start line. We didn’t push so very hard on the first day, and didn’t cut short our sleep quite as ruthlessly on the first night, having a quiet confidence that yes, this was tough, but we could do it. And day 2 was much the same: unrelentingly tough, but as the day wore on we found there was nothing we couldn’t do. Slowly, again, we got to the point of enjoying the riding more and had a cracking last couple hours along the River Tywi valley.
So on day 3, when we caught up with our friend Max, the San Francisco Randonneur power house, we were a bit shocked and surprised. We’d really not expected to see him again after the start. He had suffered quite hard, especially on day 2, due to steep hills bringing on knee pain he’d never known before, and also finding it difficult to find food he was familiar and comfortable with in the British controls. But also, and no doubt in no small part because of those setbacks, he was evidently struggling quite a bit with the mental aspect of the ride. He said it had been a quite lonely ride for him so far -- which for us was most notable due to the fact we knew Max had successfully completed longer and tougher rides solo, but riding on your own is when mental challenges are the toughest. It was no difficulty for us to hook up and ride with him: riding with solo bikes can be very tough on the tandem, and not something we’d actively looked to do on this already challenging ride, but we knew Max is a solid strong and above all steady rider that makes a superb compliment to our tandem speed. Our climbing rate could get frustrating slow for him but it was always his call whether to stay with us and for the next day and a bit he always chose to, as a good way to keep the knee pain in check, and to keep the company. Riding with him through to the end made an rewarding ride even more special, as it slowly dawned that we had extra mental strength banked up in reserve specifically for this one ride, and we could do some good in sharing it.

Having spent 8.5 years preparing, our minds remained strong to the end. It surprises me to this day that at no point did I consider the idea of giving up. On these multi-day challenges it’s normally a thought that bounces through the mind and then I push it back. But on MC1K it was never a flickering of a thought. We knew it was tough, but we knew we could do it.

At the arrivée - Things, and with Max

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