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Pan Celtic Folly | Part 10: The Final Word

Chris Davis 24th July 2019 

Photo credit @arrieredupeloton

Day 3. Having woken in a wet bus shelter in the highlands of Scotland in lashing wind and rain, I extract myself from my bivvy and will myself to remount my Enigma Endeavour despite feeling intensely cold, exhausted and sore. It takes over 4 hours to cover the following 30 miles to Applecross: the hills are relentless and the driving wind and rain seemingly impenetrable. I can’t feel my hands to control the bike on the terrifying descents. This morning’s effort has taken me to mile 331 of the 1476-mile course. Mentally and physically I feel overwhelmed.

But in a pattern that is to be repeated throughout, the support, help and encouragement of strangers picks you up and keeps you going. Applecross has a walled garden café, and as I stagger in the owners quickly clear a path to the wood burning stove. For the next hour and a half, they keep a steady stream of food and coffee coming my way, accompanied by kind words of encouragement. Mind and body refreshed; I feel ready to tackle the 4-mile climb with 700 meters of ascent that will take me out of Applecross.

Is this enjoyable? No one is forcing any of the competitors to put themselves through this. Front runners and backmarkers alike, we are all suffering, all putting in maximum effort. Just as you need cold to really appreciate warmth, so it is that the crushing lows of a race like this make the highs almost euphoric. It’s hard, but I am happy. On my bike, taking on a personal challenge in stunning surroundings that will take me to the limits of my physical and mental capacity. My motivation is strong: I have chosen to seek my physical boundaries and test my mental fortitude and that is exactly what I am experiencing. Others in the race will have their own reasons and goals, but for each it will be intrinsic: any egotistical incentive would almost certainly disintegrate under the intense scrutiny we are all under.

For the 10 days it takes me to complete the course, this cycle is repeated. Keep moving. Whatever happens, just keep moving and resist the temptation to stand still for any prolonged period of time. Progress is at times laughably slow, sometimes averaging under 10 miles an hour over a 15-hour period of riding. But, incrementally, progress is being made.

When this remorseless forward momentum is interrupted, it can be very hard to cope with. Through sheer exhaustion on day 7, I failed to properly secure my high vis layer, and on a fast descent it came loose and lodged itself into the rear drive train, completely shearing the rear derailleur. In a fog of tiredness, I could not think clearly and for a doomed few moments thought I was going to have to abandon after over 800 miles. Regrouping, again with the assistance of a group of complete strangers, we were able to get the bike repaired at a bike shop some miles back from where I had come from. The experience was stressful, as an event like this puts just as much strain on your mind as your body, but reflecting afterwards I would not have changed it: my encounter with those wonderful people who helped me added to the experience and further tested me, which is after all what I entered for. 

On an epic voyage like this, mishaps are an almost certainty, and like others I suffered a fair few. A broken chain in the middle of nowhere, failed lights in the early hours in a mountainous area, and vital lost kit just as the weather was again turning cold are three of the most memorable. But in hindsight, each added to my experience. The latter brought me into contact with the person who made Ranulph Fiennes’ and the Gurkhas’ arctic exploration equipment. I had a fascinating hour or so in his workshop as he showed me Fiennes’ arctic sledge and other memorabilia. When my lights failed, I had no option other than to knock on the door of a remote cottage, and the wonderful elderly gentleman inside ended up not only providing me with tea and toast late at night, but a floor to sleep on too until it was light enough to continue. These apparent mishaps made me connect with the people I was passing by, and my experience was certainly richer for it.

Photo credit @arrieredupeloton

Photo credit @arrieredupeloton

Finally, on day 10, I was within striking distance of the finish line: 205 miles to go with 4600 meters of ascent. It was a bright sunny day and mid Wales was at its very best. The roads were mind-blowingly amazing to cycle and I had the best cycling day of my life. The body and mind are amazing in how it adapts, and it was so inspiring riding in such exquisite conditions. I did not quite make it to the finish in Llandudno in time for the farewell party that night, but I did finally limp in at 2.30am. The organisers and few fellow riders who were still there enthusiastically welcomed me home, and thrust a much-needed Guinness and malt whiskey into my hands. Can I begin to describe how good they tasted?!

Having experienced vivid and conflicting emotions during the race, particularly nearing the finish, the sensation at the very end was not the crescendo I expected. It felt matter of fact. Perhaps there was not the physical or emotional space left to feel otherwise. The overwhelming feeling is a deeper, more lasting sense of personal satisfaction. Would I do it again? Never say never, but I think not. The inner well of desire to prepare for and complete something this extreme needs to run deep, and having tested my personal boundaries to their absolute limits, I’m not sure I can conjure that will again. My preference would be to revisit some of the incredible areas we passed by, touring more slowly with a companion.

I so appreciate the support and efforts of my colleagues at Enigma who put together an amazing bike to compete on and sent words of encouragement throughout. As did my family and friends: what a boost when you are experiencing such a range of emotions and physical highs and lows. A final word of thanks to Matt, Pete, Toby, Rebecca, Emma and their team of volunteers. They all have day jobs: the time and effort to organise and execute an event of this scale is beyond imagination. Their love of cycling and passion for bringing people together to experience this amazing sport shone through. They are incredible people. The Pan Celtic Race Series is here to stay and I am sure that over the coming years it will being a lot of joy, and heartache, to a lot of people. Vive le Pan Celtic.