Adam Wheelwright – 19h 20m 21s on the 24th of June 2021. Despite bad cramps Adam still put in a sub 20h time!
In Adams words
Having ridden the South Downs Way (SDW) from Winchester to Eastbourne in the summer of 2019 and then stepping up to do the North Downs Way last year, the next step in my endurance mountain biking journey was to take on the challenge of the SDW Double this year – initially with the target of simply completing it within the 24 hour time limit.
Training started in earnest at the beginning of September using largely TrainerRoad medium volume plans and the plan builder feature to (hopefully) peak for 25th June which was the date I’d picked for the attempt on the double. To compliment the bike based workouts I also did 3 gym sessions per week to build up the general strength, conditioning, mobility and flexibility that as a 50 year old rider is essential. As I was in the fortunate position of having a career break I was able to focus pretty much exclusively on the training and had plenty of recovery time. All of this meant that my bike fitness started to ramp up really nicely and I started to reset my expectations that a sub-20 hour target was looking more than doable.
Over winter I did very little riding outdoors and it was only by around March time that I started adding off-road rides into the training mix – starting out with 2 hour endurance rides and building up to 5 hour non-stop efforts at a faster pace than I’d need to be riding at to go under my target time. As part of this I included some reconnaissance rides on the SDW – something I’d highly recommend to make sure you’ve got a mental picture of the climbs, the route and the location of the various water points. Most of these rides were 80-90km in length and the longest ride I did prior to my double attempt was a couple of weeks before with the Rough Ride Guide London to Brighton Off Road at Night Event that I added to by riding to the event start to take me just over 160k.
Pleasingly, I remained fairly injury and illness free throughout the training apart from a bit of noticeable knee discomfort at the end of May that my physio put down to overuse due to the volume and intensity of training I was doing so was feeling good about my fitness as I had all time best FtP and weight numbers giving me a power to weight ratio of nearly 4.4 w/kg which led me to a slight change in my plan for the double attempt. On the assumption that I’d be going well to beat 20 hours and therefore would have to do a decent stint at night with lights I had planned to set off from Amberley at 19.00 on Friday 25th June 2021 and do a good chunk of the Eastern part at night before being able to dump the lights on Saturday morning and complete the second half in daylight. However, with the fitness I had gained with the consistency of my training a sub 18 hour target starts to feel realistic, so at that point I changed my plan and decided to go for a 04.00 start and hopefully complete the ride before full darkness fell at around 22.00.
In the days building up to my planned ride the weather was the usual mixed bag but looked as though it could be particularly wet and a fair bit windier on the Friday when I was planning to ride. The day before though looked good so I took the executive decision on the Wednesday morning to bring everything forward by 24 hours! This led to a fairly busy couple of hours trying to get everything squared away with work (I’d started a new role at the beginning of May) and making sure everything was all prepped and ready to go bur eventually I was on my way down to stay with my friend who lives in Westbourne for the night and managed to fall asleep by around 22.00 with the alarm set for 02.30.
When the alarm went off it was a bit of a shock but I seemed to go into auto pilot mode and went through the mental checklist I’d reheated a few times before some of my long er training and prep rides which meant I arrived at Amberley by around 03.30. It was still pretty dark but could already see the morning light starting to introduce itself.
At bang on 4am I was off – starting from the western side of the footbridge and heading for the first climb Eastward from Amberley. The trails were pretty dry but there was an awful lot of dew and moisture on the ground which made for a few lively moments on some of the descents but I seemed to settle into a decent rhythm and was feeling pretty good as a started to tick off my mental checkpoints along the route and follow my nutrition plan of a gel on the hour and a bar every half hour.
Coming into Alfriston I was ahead of schedule and feeling really good and strong so was somewhat surprised that on the climb out of the village when I started to push a bit harder that I was hit by the most painful double leg cramps which forced me off the bike for a period to stretch. Getting back on the bike felt ok but as soon as a I started to push a little bit harder the cramping would return and I’d have to ease up. Not quite what I had in mind and not something I’d experienced during any of my training. At that stage, the scale of the riding and climbing ahead started to feel really daunting but I was able to gather my thoughts together and resolved to twiddle a slightly lower gear, make it to Eastbourne and then see how I felt.
That strategy seemed to work as when I arrived in Eastbourne I was feeling ok albeit frustrated that I couldn’t press on as much as I wanted. Turning around everything was fine unless I did try to put the power down – at which point the cramping would return – and another cramp trigger point would be leaning over the front of the bike to open the gates on the trail. Somehow I made it back to my starting point at Amberley and was glad to have a break off the bike to have some solid food, some extended stretching and to use my mini-massage gun. It was only at that point that a had there thought that maybe the cramping was caused by my seat height somehow being wrong – which led to something of a Homer Simpson ‘doh’ movement when having checked it I realised that in race prepping my bike I’d somehow set my saddle a fair bit lower than normal and had somehow failed to spot this for 160km!
With that corrected and the ‘easier’ western leg left to do I set off again with renewed confidence but was a fair bit behind my planned schedule so knew I’d now need to do at least some of the last kilometres with lights on. With my saddle now at the correct height, I was able to ride more normally although would still get a twinge of cramp if I pushed a bit too hard and made good progress to Winchester before turning around and starting the last leg with a bit of a tail wind.
I met my wife and Dad at the Sustainability Centre on Butser Hill to pick up lights and an extra layer at around 21.00 and then headed off for the last couple of hours. I didn’t need the lights until about 22.00 and arrived back at Amberley at just after 23.00. Physically I felt pretty good but mentally quite tired so was glad it was over and I’d completed the challenge but was also a bit disappointed that I hadn’t been able to go at the pace that my training should have allowed! Guess there’s always next year!