Day 14: Altnaharra – John O’groats
Tried was the operative word in the final sentence of yesterday’s blog. The tin tent was decidedly cold. I had forgotten, being in the beautiful South for so long just how cold the highlands of Scotland can get at night. I woke several times and wore my clothes over my Pyjamas, and several blankets and a sleeping bag, but was still cold. Two nights of poor sleep in a row was not conducive to me finishing strong! However, I was under no circumstances going to give up now.
Since the 20 mile drive between Altnaharra and Lairg was on single track roads, it took around 40 minutes last night and so we decided the best thing to do was pack up everything to go before we set off, save Dean and Kaitlin doing the journey 3 times and Kaitlin complaining about seeing more “grass and things” than was entirely necessary. So, I got up early, had breakfast and then did my Jenga thing to try and fit all the stuff in the car with the bike on top so it was easily accessible and I could just get it out and go when we got to Altnaharra. The unfortunate thing with this was that I was stressed and tired before I even placed bottom cheek to saddle. It was almost a relief when, at around 8am, I was able to get on the bike and set off, leaving them to their breakfast out of plastic bowls in the car.
I have said it before and I will say it again: Sutherland is beautiful. Even in the rain. Yes, virtually no rain for 13 days of cycling and the finale was completed with rain pretty much the entire way. This meant that a large part of my journey was spent hunched to keep warm, despite wearing my long sleeved cycle jersey, a waterproof and as many layers as I could. Once the rain seeps through your shoes and socks and soaks the padded part of your cycle shorts from splashing up off the road, it’s hard to stay warm. This was the countdown though; the final 75 miles. The first 25 or so were perfect cycling roads – I cycled for over an hour and only passed 3 cars. The roads were slightly undulating and the views awesome. I counted through the 66 miles – the length of the Loch Ness Etape and I arrived at Bettyhill on the coast and the two nights of poor sleep were forgotten. 50 miles and I would be there. That was little over some of my “short” rides in training. The route continued along the North coast 500. This was one of only 2 small sections I had not completed by car of the route and I had not missed much. Whilst it was fairly picturesque, it was in no way as stunning as the sections down the west coast of the Mainland. In the rain, in fact, it reminded me a lot of my training cycle in Northern Ireland. The weather was the same, with the wind against me, but this time with the added joy of rain in my face. The undulations here started to be more pronounced and there were a fair few climbs against the wind and the rain to tackle. The half way mark passed and it was literally a case of counting down the miles. I knew that the not-so-picturesque view of the Doune Reay Power station would herald the end of the hilly part of this section, so I was more than glad to see it in the distance and my gladness knew even greater bounds when it was past.
Up until this point, although I had been tired, and the cold and tension had caused my joints and muscles to cry out a little more than usual, I was fairly optimistic about finishing in good time and without much difficulty. Shortly after Doune Reay, passing through Lybster, however, I started to feel light headed and at one point felt like I was going to black out on the bike. I immediately stopped and took on more water, some food and sat on the cross bar of my bike to rest and take the strain off my now throbbing legs. I started to feel a little anxious. After all this; cycling 980(ish) miles, I was not going to be able to finish. All sorts of possible scenarios for how this was going to end other than cycling victoriously into John O’groats flew through my mind. I was either going to collapse into a ditch and be picked up and taken off to the nearest hospital in an ambulance, or I was going to swerve dangerously into the road and be hit by a car. The food did little to help my woozy head but I could not just sit on the cross bar of my bike all day, so I continued; but took my time and stopped regularly to let cars and vans past; and before long I was in the town of Thurso. By this point I had what I like to call a brain fog and navigating was difficult. Sometimes the tiredness and fatigue associated with Crohn’s can result in these spells where it’s almost as if your brain falls half asleep. It’s more than the usual walking up stairs and not remembering what you came up for; its often that you literally have to slow down because your physical movements and mental capacity cannot keep up with what is happening externally. You forget words and names and everything you want to say seems like it is on the tip of your tongue but does not want to be said. The world becomes a little hazy and when people talk to you, they appear to be making sense but your brain just can’t process it at the speed they are speaking, so there is a lot of, “Er, what?”s and long pauses as you try to remember where the hell you are, let alone what it was you were going to say. My blood pressure is naturally low, what with all the exercise I do, and when I was on my previous medication, I was prone to dizziness and near fainting. It has not been so bad on the new medication, but there has been several occasions when I have had my infusions and my anxiety levels have peaked due to the nurses not being able to get a canular in, etc, when my flight fight response has kicked in and I have felt faint and nauseous. It’s got to the point where we joke that the nurses all try to take a sickie on the day I am in because it invariably results in some kind of drama where I have to be given fluids, or intravenous anti-sickness medication, or am actually sick and a nurse has to come flying across the ward with a cardboard sick bowl for me. It’s worse at certain times of the month and I am pretty sure that the combination of the cold, the stress on my body and the anxiety was causing my blood pressure to tip over into the danger zone.
I messaged Dean to find out where they were, as they had been off on a walk in one of the forest areas along the coast whilst I was cycling. It was the only point during the cycle when I felt that I actually needed the support; I had been happy up until now just to check in at the end of the day so that everyone knew I was safe. Now, I was glad there was someone to make sure I got safely through the last bit. I managed to find my way through Thurso, pushing my bike, to the Tesco store where they had stopped to pick up some bits and pieces and where they were eating lunch in the car. I needed to sit down, I needed to get warm and I needed to get my blood pressure back up. I chained my bike up outside the shop but even this required a conscious mental effort and an onlooker would have thought I was ever so slightly odd as I struggled to remember how the hell to do this.
(I could have been anywhere)
I have been in some fantastic cafes during my ride. This was clearly not one of them but was all that was available and I was going to have to make do. I sat and had tea and a chocolate muffin and as I warmed up a little and the caffeine refocussed my brain, and the sugar from the muffin brought the glycogen stores in my legs up to speed, I started to feel better. I was far from normal but I was at a point where I felt like I could continue without being a danger to myself and other road users. It was only 20 miles; the distance for the Rhynd route and the Forteviot loop that I had cycled many many times in training. I could do this. There were two options on this stretch. There was the busier North Coast 500 route on the main roads closer to the coast, or the option to go further inland on quieter roads. Dean offered to follow behind me on either of these routes to keep an eye but I was happy enough now that they just follow the route I was doing and stop ahead every so often to make sure I was OK. I chose the quieter route, unsurprisingly. This has always been my preference on this journey and would be my preference were I cycling anywhere. The peace and quiet. No need for music. Just the happiness of my own thoughts and nature. I set off. I took it steady and continued to eat and drink as I went in the hope that it would improve my blood pressure and my blood sugar levels. The route was straight and ever so slightly hilly, but the hills were easier without cars behind me pestering me to speed up. 5 miles in, I was a little surprised that Dean and Kaitlin had not passed yet. Assuming Dean had got lost, I continued into Castletown, which was a town on both of the routes I had the option of cycling. It turns out that they had nipped along the faster coast route in the hope of catching me as I went though Castletown. Texting them to tell them I had reached Castletown, they thought they had missed me and headed off along the remainder of my route thinking they would pass me on the next stretch. It turns out they were about 200 yards ahead of where stopped to text and eat some more. I was feeling much more like my normal self now and began to cycle faster, which also helped with maintaining the warmth. I would not say I completed the final 15 miles in record time and I most certainly didn’t stride home to victory in the finale. But I finished. Safely and in good time. The sign promising, “John O’Groats ½ mile” was such a welcome sight. The rain was still pouring down and every part of my hurt, but I was so pleased when I turned left and could see the small group of buildings that marked the tourist zone that is at John O’groats. Kaitlin and Dean were standing at the side of the road waiting – worst cheerleaders ever – how was that making sure I was safe every so often? Kaitlin was clearly chuffed to see me but that probably had more to do with the fact this meant she didn’t have to stand out in the rain much longer! There was a proper crowd assembled at the John O’groats sign post when I arrived and I realised that I had arrived just minutes before a pipe band were due to play.
They obviously knew I was coming! It was a combined band of Scottish, American and Canadian pipers and drummers. They were great, but they were inconveniently blocking the sign for a good 30 minutes so my monumental moment and picture in front of the sign had to wait. Once I had stopped, the cold really set in and I was shivering but the time I finally got to touch the sign and have my photo taken. As with all adventures like this, it is not about the destination though, it is about the journey, and the 30 minutes listening to the tunes of the pipe band, a sound that gives me comforting feelings of home, now that Perth is where I consider my home to be, allowed me time to reflect on what I had achieved and the many things I had seen along the way. It still hadn’t really sunk in that I had done it; I had cycled the length of an entire country (or two countries, depending on your political persuasion on the matter – but that is another blog entirely).
As soon as I had had my photos, I was desperate to change out of my cold wet cycle gear and into something warm. This I did, and then went to get a hot drink (chocolate, this time) and another cake… for the road. As I emerged from the café, I noticed that another cyclist was being photographed at the sign. It was none other than Dave, the American that I had cycled with in Monmouth and chatted to at the Crask Inn.
I congratulated him and Kaitlin took some photos for him. It was great to see him and I was glad that he had finished safely too. I really wanted to wait for the Chester crew to finish too. Dean had passed their support crew a few times and they were some way behind, so we checked into the accommodation for the night – a couple of glamping pods on the road to tourist central.
It was there that I saw the remainder of the American crew and gave them a cheery wave and a “Well done!” Thankfully, the glamping pods had far better heating than the tin tent from last night, otherwise I would probably have thrown my toys out of the pram and demanded I was taken to a 5* hotel instead, what with being a (in)famous cross country cyclist and all now. We then headed back to the sign to see the Chester crew finish. Al and Cathy were there waiting with the van. They were a matter of a few miles away. It was great to see them finish. I felt like they were a big part of the journey even though we didn’t cycle together. Their friendly faces and Al and Cathy waving from the van always gave me a bit of a boost to keep going, and when I didn’t see them during the day, I spent a while wondering how they were getting on and hoping I would see them again.
The last of our LEJOGer family cheered in and tacky souvenirs in the gift shop bought, we headed to the Hotel next to the glamping pods for a celebratory meal. It was a typical hotel restaurant; and the food was fairly decent. I ate hot smoked salmon and chocolate fudge cake. The meal of a champion! Kaitlin had opted to sleep in with me tonight, and not needing to be up at the crack of dawn and have the energy to cycle 70 odd miles, I was prepared to put up with her snoring for the night, so we snuggled down so she could write her diary which she has been writing since the start of the holidays. Bless her, for getting her priorities right in life; who could want more – cycling and cake.
The day after the fortnight before:
(Looking less worn out and cold, the next day)
Cycling over, it felt odd not to be up early and packing my bike up to head off. We had a leisurely breakfast and packed up the car but there were two final things to do before we headed down the long, long A9 back to Perth. The final day had passed without me plogging, and I still had the travel bug (or trackable) that I had been dipping into every geocache I visited since May, including all the way from Land’s end to John O’groats, so I wanted to find one last cache at John O’groats and drop it off there to continue its adventures with another intrepid explorer. There was one about a mile or so away, walking along the coastal path, so it was beside the point that Kaitlin was dressed up in some flowery bridesmaid dress style monstrosity my mum bought her, we headed off with black sack and litter picker; Kaitlin first asking to do the litter picking then giving up after 20 steps, then asking to hold the bag, which she gave up after another 20 steps, then just deciding her role would be better as supervisor, telling me where the litter was to pick up. There was all sorts of rubbish washed up on the beach and it was not long before the bag was bulging. The geocache (luckily) was in a likely spot and Kaitlin found it quickly for me. It almost seemed fitting that the last cache I found was stuffed full of little folded up rubbish bags encouraging geocachers to take one and collect rubbish on their way back.
Now that it has finished, there is always tendency towards an emptiness (which as always is left after something that requires so many months of planning is over) but that doesn’t mean I am sad. I have so many good memories and moments to look back on and little snippets of my adventures come to me every so often and make me smile. And anyone who knows me, knows that that hole won’s stay empty for long. The day after I arrived home, I was already thinking ahead to my next missions; Monday saw me travelling into Edinburgh to meet with other Key Volunteers I will be working alongside this Christmas when I volunteer with Crisis, and Tuesday saw me collecting my uniform for the European Championships at Gleneagles, where I will be volunteering. Wednesday and Thursday, I was in my new classroom, sorting out for the new adventures I will be having with my P1 class, so my mind is already buzzing with the future, less than a week later. Oh, and did I mention, the last weekend in July I have earmarked to attempt to walk 100,000 steps in one day. Bonkers? I think you are right!
This last entry is dedicated to you, the reader. Thanks for reading and I hope you have enjoyed my ramblings.
This blog will self-destruct in 30 seconds.