Mille Cymru

1000km, 16000m ascent, 75 hour time limit

June 2014

Back in May when I submitted an article on the Green and Yellow Fields audax; Tim Wainwright asked if I’d write an article for Mille Cymru.  I said I would.  At the time, I was expecting to write about the experience of riding it, but instead this is my story of what happened after I stopped.

Eating with Andrew Preston at the Tintern Abbey Control
Eating at Tintern Control with Andrew Preston

The ride did not go as planned.  The sheer relentless nature of the hills, long climbs that kicked and kicked; descents that were tricky and required concentration took their toll on me.  It led to a fatigue that was in my bones, in my core.  At one point I’d found myself off the edge of a mountain road, floating on grass and gravel between disaster and saviour. Exhaustion, the sort that leads to physical illness was waiting to pounce. Rest and food made no difference.  After a final sleep rest, and no change in my overwhelming fatigue; I made the heart wrenching decision to stop.

In Black Mountains, Wales

Before the event I said Mille Cymru was an adventure. An adventure is an undertaking where the outcome is uncertain. That means that sometime the outcome is that you do not complete the undertaking. Sadly in this case for me. But I'm not one to agonize over the decisions I make. It was the right one for me; I could see the trajectory, a dangerous and serious one had I tried to continue.

The question is what do you do next after you've made that decision? Well for me the obvious one was to help those still continuing to finish their ride. I still wanted to be involved in the event. I didn't want to abandon it, as though it was a nightmare I wanted to wake from.

First I had to be useful, and that meant rest, plenty of it.  I slept a full 12 hours, without pause, back at the hall at Upton Magna; I needed it.  I awoke to sunshine filtering through the windows, birds were singing, and on getting up I saw rabbits nibbling the grass. As I stood I could still feel the fatigue, lingering in the shadows. However, it was no longer my master; shutting me down, squeezing relentlessly, until all my life force was but a dirty puddle evaporating under a hot merciless sun.

Tim, another rider who had stopped, stayed at the hall that night.  He was also going to stay around, but had no plans beyond that. I asked if he fancied joining me, helping out at Betwsy-Coed control that night.  I’d spoken with Danial and he’d said the control would be opening from around tea time on the Sunday.  Tim readily agreed, and after putting our bikes in his van, we headed off in my car.

I didn’t drive far. We stopped at the Little Chef on the A5, no more than 6 miles down the road.  They had an Olympic Breakfast and we both had Olympic appetites.  Nothing remained on those plates, every last ounce of energy consumed.

We headed down the A5 to Capel Curig, at a slow comfortable pace.  Here we went for a gentle leg stretch through the woodland on either side of the village. We wandered through meadows, alongside a placid stream. We found Curig’s Chapel , after which Capel Curig is named, which, despite passing this way for over 40 years, I’d never spotted before. Unfortunately it was locked but we had a wander round the outside, and looked through the windows.

We had super large wood smoked pizza’s at a café, outside in the sun. We then headed down to Little Tyfan slabs and did an easy scramble of 150ft or so.

We watched a Sea King Helicopter rescue a couple of climbers from the east face of Tyfan. We watched students being students on the slabs. It was rejuvenation day; my phoenix was arising from the ashes of Mille Cymru. I was being reborn; cast back into Mille Cymru under another guise, as a volunteer.

Looking back to Snowdon from Capel Curig
Looking back to Snowdon from Capel Curig

The time arrived to head down to Betwsy-Coed. We knew the pub for the turning and had my bike GPS to give indication to CONTROL16.  I spotted the pub but no Mille Cymru arrows.  So we parked further down the village and walked back to the pub from where we found the control.

The control was in a state of organized chaos. It was 6.30pm on Sunday; three German riders had arrived almost as soon as it opened.   The hot food was not yet ready, so it was multiple helpings of rice pudding and peaches for now. Hot tea and coffee came not long after. We waved the German riders off not long after 7pm.

I mentioned that we hadn’t seen any arrows when we’d driven in, and Danial said the 15 year old had put them out. So Tim and I headed out to check.  Sure enough an arrow was on the wall and the left turn from the Pont-Y-Pain pub.  Only problem was you would have to have a head like an owl with a 360 swivel in your neck to spot it.  It was facing the wrong way.

We moved the arrow to the lamppost facing the direction the riders were coming from.  The arrow was designed to point right, not left. This caused the Welsh Dragon on it to be upside down, I was worried we’d get lynched by the locals. An old boy was sat on a bench watching what we were up to with interest. We survived the upside down dragon but it did cause some Chinese tourists to stop a while and take a photo of it.

We thought we had time for a pint before the next riders, so Tim and I popped into the Pont-Y-Pain and sampled the beer. We sat outside, in the sunshine, opposite the junction.  Mid pint, the Viva Las Vegas boys turned up and we pointed enthusiastically left to the control. Whether they thought it was drunks on the terrace, I’m not quite sure.  Not long after whilst I was opposite taking a picture of Tim outside the pub, Steve Abraham turned up, and I pointed him left.

We finished our pints and returned to the control. A hot vegetarian soup broth was now available. We served this up, as often as required.  Lashings of hot tea or coffee also provided as often as needed. Not too long after the beans became available and then a corn beef hash.  Tim had gone into the kitchen to help whilst I stayed front of house with Damon and the dog.

Early arrivals enjoy a beer
Early arrivals enjoy a beer

The early boys fancied some beer, before leaving or bed. So it was that a few headed out to the Spar to get some Welsh beers.  I went out to get some more before the Spar closed at 9.55pm.  The beers were going down well, so I went out a second time, to clear the Spar shelves of Welsh beer.  The checkout girl did a double take, had I really drunk 6 bottles of beer in 15 minutes?

The Viva Las Vegas boys headed back out without sleep but Steve wanted to sleep. I took him up to a spot by one of the balcony doors around 9.30pm.  We only had 9 spots with inflated mattresses at this point, how inadequate that would be much later. Everyone coming in wanted to rest, even if only for a few minutes or an hour.

The hot tea, corn beef hash, and hot soup were going down well.  Most riders wanted seconds when asked, most didn’t need prompting.  A few had beans also, but they were lasting much longer.  We brought out fresh soup, tea, hash; ensuring we didn’t run out of food.  Coffee was not as popular with riders as they came in.

The tables were filling up with tired riders in need of TLC. Rice pudding originally cold, was now requested hot, and so I took it to the kitchen to be heated by the fabulous volunteers producing the food out of sight.

It was now clear that we needed to create more sleeping spots.  So Danial brought more mattresses and blankets from the van out back. We had an electric inflator for the mattresses. It sounded like an industrial vacuum cleaner. I worried about waking the sleeping riders.

Bodies everywhere
Bodies everywhere

Daniel’s dog was frightened by the noise; watching the inflating mattresses, ready to pounce.  He’d try and bite the mattresses (the dog not Daniel) when I was putting the valve in, after turning off the inflator.  I had to rapidly put the mattress above my head till we could distract him.  I’d then find a spot and put a mattress down with a blanket. Damon’s paper map and stick it notes of the mattresses and wake up times was under onslaught.

As the night moved towards midnight it became clear that it was getting increasingly cold outside.  Riders were arriving tired, cold, and slightly disorientated at the hall.  They’d had a long descent from Pen-Y-Pass with little chance of warming up. It was also near 0c, at the end of June! Many were shivering and their hands were too cold to undo their jacket zips.

The routine changed for these later riders. I’d taken a batch of blankets and placed them near the entrance. I’d take their bike, sometimes before they got through the front door. Park the bike for them.  Help them with jacket zips or gloves if necessary. Then I’d wrap a blanket round them, and direct them over to Damon for Brevet card stamping.  Then we’d offer them simple choices, as their brains were fried from 3 days of riding with little rest. Many were in a daze and didn’t know what to do, so we gently but firmly got them through it.

Tea or coffee was the next simple choice after the blanket and brevet card.  We didn’t let many of them hold the cups for fear they’d drop them in their tired and cold states. So we’d direct them over to a table to sit at with other riders.  Then I’d bring the hot tea or coffee over and then present the hot food options as well as the warm rice pudding and fruit. We also had a strawberry flan available at this point. I’d then bring the food over.  I’d then return at regular intervals to get seconds, thirds, or fourths of everything for the riders. What was needed was done.

Later arrivals, note bodies on stage

By this point we’d found an extension lead and so inflated mattresses outside the back door of the hall.  Then I’d re-arrange chairs and tables to find a mattress shaped space on the floor, stage, or balcony.  Almost as soon as a mattress was down we had a rider ready to wearily lay their head upon it.

Some riders were too tired to ask for a wake up calls. We’d prompt them with a suggested wake up time. Simple choices. Simple decisions. By now every rider got two blankets for their bed, so cold was it outside.

Despite being tired, cold, and hungry; only a couple of riders were grumpy. One recognized they were grumpy, and was constantly apologizing. The other was too tired to realize. I thought I know exactly where they are coming from; it was water off a ducks back to me.

Every rider was asked if they needed GPS charged, and whilst they slept the electricity flowed. Mostly those GPS with internal batteries were charged. The Etrex with AA batteries were fine. Early on I’d got my iPhone charger from the car and that got used through the night as well. It was a production line of re-charging, riders and device both.

With everyone sleeping, and the bikes being inside, space was tight.  I realized I’d have to get the bikes back out. Riders were too tired to carry bikes past other sleeping riders. They’d either tread on sleeping forms, or bash heads with wheels, or drop frames on unsuspecting bodies.

Jo came in, the only female rider. She’s vegan and so the kitchen had to prepare her food especially. She remained remarkably relaxed as she had a much longer wait to eat than the others coming in. Her lips looked swollen and sore, and she hurt all over, but she was still riding, still smiling.  She was keen to head back out, but her riding companions wanted to wait, to get some warmth. They said it was too cold to go back out too soon. Jo listened and so they stopped and slept a while for some respite.

At 2am the first of the riders were being woken up. I’d ask them where their bike was, and whilst they had their hot tea, coffee or food; I’d get their bike out and line it up at the entrance ready to go. It was 90% coffee to wake up now, where as it was mostly tea for incoming riders. Later riders were still coming in, all through the night.

Increasingly cold, tired, and dis-orientated.  We were still wrapping blankets around them (sometimes two), and space found at a table. Hot food and drinks to follow.  Fresh tea, coffee, corn beef hash and soup being produced at increasingly frequent intervals from the kitchen.

I ought to talk about the bikes.  Some were at the back of the hall, some were stacked 4 deep. Some riders didn’t know where their bike was. It was like a ballet to get some back out.  I’d twist and weave amongst the mattresses, bike above my head. My feet turned this way and that, my body twisted, the bikes swirling above my head through 180 or more degrees to avoid hitting anything or anyone.  I was solving a giant game of Tetris with the bikes, tables, sleeping arrangements and incoming and outgoing riders. Steve Abrahams bike chain, marked me with an oil tattoo, the mark of Teethgrinder; I was more successful with the bikes after that. Some bikes were stacked 4 or 5 deep and I needed to re-arrange like the Towers of Babylon to get them out.

Some riders leaving looked suspiciously light. We checked on them, and found they didn’t have their panniers, bags, or jackets.  We checked and made sure they left with what they’d arrived with. Tim had gone outside in the early hours. Some riders had turned back towards Capel Curig by mistake and he had to chase a few riders down to get them going in the right direction from the control. He stayed out to ensure riders went off in the right direction. He started to look as cold as the riders when he came back in for a hot drink.

Minute by minute, hour by hour we took care of rider needs. Whatever that need was. We anticipated many needs before the rider knew themselves.  Sometimes that need was just someone to talk too about normal things. Sometimes for someone who could think clearly to answer a seemingly difficult choice or question for them. When you’ve done these events, done these long rides, you instinctively know what state they are in, what’s needed, in what order.

Mike Lane asked if there was any spare clothing to keep him warm as he headed back out in the night. I had a Primaloft gilet in my car.  I lent him that. It is size XL and swamped him. He couldn’t do up the zip, so I did that. More layers and long johns and he were on his way. It kept him warm till the warmth giving rays of the sun arrived much later.

Despite the organized chaos we woke riders at the right time, we got their bikes back out, we got them hot drinks and food again before they left. We ensured no one lost anything. We didn’t lose anybody.  No one dropped out. One by one they departed as the tail end still came in. The tail end had less than an hour to sleep, then less than 30 mins, with lanterne rouge having only 10 mins cat nap before heading out once more.

Finally after 5am we’d got everyone back out on the road, after the TLC through the night.  We then proceeded to deflate all the mattresses, fold blankets, tidy up. We sorted out the rubbish, cleaned up in the kitchen.  We’d worked solidly 12 hours without stop, all through the night.

Between 6 and 6:30am I headed out with Tim back to the start at Upton Magna. It only took 1 hour 15 minutes along the A5.  I noted the thermometer in the car read 5c at that time, much colder on the high mountain roads the riders would be on.

For me, making the decision to stop was heart-wrenching, and not an easy one to make. But the decision to help at the control was not a hard one to make. If you ride these long events, then you instinctively know what a rider is going to need, when they arrive at the control.

I feel that I've learnt more about the spirit of audax, in this one event, the first I have not finished, than all the events I've successfully finished. I also appreciate, much more, how hard volunteers work to keep riders going. For a night I was one of those volunteers, when I didn't expect to be. I found it immensely satisfying.