The Joy of Suffering
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
Heat exhaustion, dehydration, knee and Achilles inflammation, neck weakness, abrasions, blisters, pressure sores and chronic sleep deprivation. Any one of these ailments might see you sofa-bound or even bed-bound. Rather improbably, I found myself amongst sufferers who were London-bound, racing against a five-day ticking clock in a crushing heatwave to complete a 1,500km bike ride up and down the length of the UK.
Who embarks on this sort of caper? How on earth do you prepare to push yourse
lf to your limits? How does it feel to dance with those limits? And what could I learn from immersing myself in the event?
Having completed my own (much shorter) endurance ride in June 2022, I wanted to explore these questions whilst also making positive difference to someone else’s endurance journey. So I signed up to the Great Easton control as a volunteer to support the 1,500 riders embarking on the 2022 edition of the London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) bike ride. I would work 18 hours through the night helping riders as they came through our checkpoint, near the end of their 1500km journey.
Waving the riders off from Great Easton control at sunrise. Picture courtesy of Stubbmeister
LEL riders are obliged to check in at 13 controls on the route to validate their participation in the event. Each control is manned by an army of volunteers (totalling over 700 across the country). Validation done, the role of the volunteer is to smooth the pain of the onward journey. This could be by delivering a hot meal, replenishing water bottles, offering a shower, hunting down a spare sleeping space, administering first aid or a bike repair, or simply providing a bit of human contact – a smiling welcome, a reflection on progress made, a commiseration over the appalling heat, a shared cycling anecdote, a sympathetic listening ear.
With a few of the volunteers at Great Easton control. Note the time is 3.30am
As the faster riders trickled in after almost four days and nights on the road, the Great Easton volunteers were numerous enough to provide personalised care – waiter service in the dining room, ice for sore muscles, a cold sponge over the head. Initially, we were in the service of riders who were strong and suffering least. At the peak, though, the control was processing a rider every minute. These were the most in need and the ones who we could spare the least amount of time for. They shuffled painfully through, backs bent and heads bowed, on legs that could barely move their weight, seeking water, food, a couple of hours shelter in any order of urgency.
A space to rest for a couple of hours. All these riders would be gone long before sunrise
Suffering is inevitable but to manage it, it first needs to be quantified. If suffering is such that it prohibits success, these riders – the bravest souls of all – must stop and make peace with failure. If suffering merely hinders progress, then it must be mentally reclassified as discomfort, boxed up and embraced. With intervention, such discomfort can perhaps be reduced but ultimately it has to be endured and it seems the capacity to endure in this way is endless.
A small number of riders arrived with chins pressed to their chests, unable to lift their heads. Shermer’s neck is a condition occasionally found in ultra cyclists where the neck muscles, fatigued from holding the head up to watch the road ahead, weaken to the extent they can no longer support the head. Not being able to see the road might for one rider signal a sensible point to make peace with a DNF (Did Not Finish) result. To another, Shermer’s neck is packaged up as discomfort and, with intervention – strapping an inner tube around the forehead and lashing it tightly under the saddle to force the head into an upright position – it can be managed and the ride can go on.
Suffering from Shermer’s neck at Great Easton control, this rider fashions a head support with an inner tube lashed to the saddle. Note also the rocks tied to the handlebars to raise the hands and shoulders a centimetre to further reduce the discomfort ahead of the last 50km stretch. Picture courtesy of Andy Allsopp
Suffering, however, is not a linear experience – it doesn’t grow with each passing mile, rather it ebbs and flows to an unpredictable beat. A beautiful sunrise can be enough to make the spirits soar, or a cup of tea, or a short ‘how’s-it-going’ with a fellow cyclist. Along the way motivation can come from the most unexpected, innocuous sources and it can fortify the most ailing spirit.
Just as enduring knows no bounds, so there are no bounds to the capers people willingly put themselves through. However extreme a challenge seems, it is only a small step away from a community who normalise the next descent into seeming madness. My own endurance ride, a 330km dash across the country between sunrise and sunset, felt enormous. But against the backdrop of LEL it was a gentle day in the saddle. Beyond LEL, I have started engaging with a community who is passionate about the Trans Continental Race (TCR) – a 4,000km unsupported dash across Europe. Beyond TCR? Well, I met Cat Dixon, the world record holder for circumnavigating the globe on a tandem. I also met riders completing LEL on fixed-gear bikes, and on fold-up Brompton bikes; each part of a community who share and normalise their particular passion.
Privileged to take a selfie with Cat Dixon, one half of the world record holder for circumnavigating the globe on a tandem
So, to answer my questions …
Who embarks on this sort of caper? Easy. Normal people. Well, a certain subset of normal people. The average LEL participant is overwhelmingly male (more on that another time), in their mid-fifties and visibly leaner than the average middle-aged man walking around your local town.
Richard, a typical LEL participant – male, in his fifties and lean – looking strong ahead of the final 50km leg
How do you prepare to push yourself to your limits? Physical training yes, but beyond that you need to train your mind, first to differentiate between suffering and discomfort, and second to endure the latter. You do that by deliberately building discomfort into your training regime – climb lots of hills, ride all day into the wind, ride on no sleep.
How does it feel to dance with those limits? You adopt a tunnel vision and shut out the fripperies and trappings of modern life. The only thing that matters is meeting your needs to survive the upcoming hour – food, water, shelter. Oh, and headwinds matter. So does air temperature. And elevation. But nothing else.
What could I learn from immersing myself in the event? For me, the appeal of endurance is the clarity it brings to your life. Your only job on LEL is to turn the pedals. Everything else is unimportant. When your task is simple, then pleasure springs forth from the simplicity around you. The smallest joy, one that would likely be missed in the complexity of every-day life – a hawk hovering over its prey, a patch of shade from a roadside tree - can make your heart soar with sheer unbridled delight. You experience what it is to be a toddler again enthralled by the absolute pleasure of splashing in a puddle. And who wouldn’t want a piece of that?
London Edinburgh London is a 1500km self-supported cycle ride across the United Kingdom, between the iconic capital cities of England and Scotland. It is not a race, but you have only 125 hours to make your way around to Edinburgh and back to London.