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GBDuro Stage 4: Less than 400km to go!

Day 1: John O’Groats is in-range

The final leg. 386km split across the two last gpx files and I’d be slumped against the famous John O’Groats signpost. It felt like this stage should be processional, along the lines of the final day at Le Tour where the riders roll into Paris sipping champagne, I don’t think I was alone thinking this but that wasn’t exactly how the final 24 hours panned out.

Apparently this stages takes the riders along the “easy” section of the Highland Trail 550. It depends on your definition of easy, as all of us (bar Huw, the race winner, who could ride up or down anything and everything) were hiking up the first climb. However, upon reaching the top of the first climb we were greeted by an unbelievable section of singletrack descent. Incredible views back over Fort Augustus and Loch Lomond.

That was the first of 3 big climbs which eased us into the stage, it was pretty much all rideable from this point on but it was very slow and hard going. After the second descent I found myself chatting to Samuel when we came across a red light over a bridge. He stopped and well, I didn’t. I hopped onto the pavement and hold your horses, I was suddenly leading stage 4. This was the definition of insignificant, but it was fun pretending I could win the stage for about 10 minutes before him and Bryn caught me again!

After 90km I arrived at Contin Stores, the first and last resupply point of the stage. Just under 300km to go. I’d thought a lot pre-race about how much food I needed to survive through approximately 300km of tough Scottish terrain. The answer in my mind was an awful lot, with more added in for good measure. With every pocket and corner of my bag setup crammed with food, I rolled on in good spirits.

The final stage was split into two gpx files of roughly equal length. The first was almost entirely off road with a lot of climbing, it’s a corker of a route. Incredible tracks climbing over desolate passes and cutting through remote valleys. The second gpx file was flatter, dominated by roads, and promised to be a fast (ish) run in towards JOG.

Pre-race, I’d planned to complete the final stage by midday the following day, in a time of around 28 hours which would allow me 2-3 hours sleep mid-stage. I’d thought that I wouldn’t beast myself during this stage (provided I got this far!), but to try and enjoy the final stage. This all changed at CP3 when the organisers started dishing out time penalties to rides for various “infringements”… I was given a 3 hour time penalty for losing a Huel bottle on an earlier stage when the bungee straps on my saddlepack broke. I’m a big advocate of leave no trace, however in my opinion losing my breakfast-in-a-bottle was a penalty in itself.

Thankfully, Bas, found my Huel and drank it. He said he’d been looking for one in the shops without any luck when he later came across my untouched, banana Huel bottle illuminated roadside by his lights.

Anyway, my 3 hour time penalty had brought the gap between myself and Emily down from 4.5 hours to 1.5 hours. I knew Emily was planning the last stage in one big hit, and I was determined to not drop my 5th place. I was undecided on my sleep strategy as the stage started, and figured I would just press on and see where I ended up.

The kilometres slowly ticked by as I yo-yo’d with Mathieu and George towards the elusive final gpx file. Finally, the Achness hotel came into sight and it was time to load up the last 200km of the race. A quick can of coke and onwards.

I’d always heard about how bad the midges could be in Scotland, and this final 200km was a testament to this. The road from the hotel towards the final big climb of the race was like riding through a constant sea of midges, it was bleak. The final climb came and went quicker than anticipated, however it did bring more mechanical issues to my attention.

My shifting was still, to be blunt, shite. I now had a really unnerving creaking noise coming from either my bottom bracket or my rear hub, I couldn’t really tell where the noise was originating and I didn’t want to stop to find out. I was nursing the bike as much as possible at this point, well aware that a major mechanical in this remote part of Scotland would highly likely be my race over, but I’d also be near-stranded in remote Scotland miles from any real civilisation. Far from ideal.

From here the route picked up small lanes for hour after hour, it was gone midnight by this point and I was still undecided on if I’d sleep or not. I was refilling my bladders from a stream when George caught me, we rode on together for a short while before he decided to stop for a couple hours sleep.

I was still feeling pretty alert, it felt really cold which definitely helped and I had a couple of caffeine gels stashed away to help in this exact situation. Another gel popped and I pushed on deep into the night. The kilometres were ticking by nicely, I was tired but making good progress and the distance to go field on my Garmin was keeping me motivated.

I was aware I was running out of water and that I hadn’t seen any running water for a little while when I arrived in the village of Kinbrace. There’s a tiny train station here (just a bus stop on a platform in reality) and I was hoping to find a tap. It was almost 4am and I was snooping round the “train station” when I turned towards one of the houses approximately 30 metres away and was unnerved to see the silhouette of someone watching me from the window.

Admittedly, I must have been an odd sight, but this was creepy as hell. I gave them a little wave which wasn’t reciprocated, and had a final look round a couple of small outbuildings for an elusive tap. I looked back to the house and the figure was gone. I’m not sure if this was more or less creepy. Back on the bike I glanced back towards the house to see the figure was back again, watching from the darkness. Well and truly freaked out, without finding a tap, I sprinted away from the village.

4am comes and goes and I’m only 80km from JOG now, I can’t stop to sleep when I’m in touching distance of JOG. I’m still making good time, my legs feel ok and I’m feeling pretty alert after a couple of strategically timed gels. I’m never sure if the gels actually wake me up or if it’s a placebo but I very rarely use them, so placebo or not they were doing me a world of good.

I hit the final gravel section and shortly after the sun started to rise. Many people have said before that riding through the night isn’t too bad, as when the sun comes up it’s daylight so you don’t feel so sleepy. I was about to find out how untrue this can be!

It was light now and I was a few kilometres from the end of this gravel section when I started to feel really sleepy. I couldn’t concentrate so opted to lie down in the grass for 5 minutes to reset. I lie down and within 30 seconds was surrounded by what must have been thousands and thousands of midges. Plan aborted, I was back on the bike fleeing the midge clouds as quickly as I could.

I came off the last gravel section with 40km to go. At this point I knew I could make it. I was going to finish the race. Even if my rear hub or bottom bracket broke into a million pieces, I could roll along the downhills and push the rest of the way, I had plenty of time in the bank to make the stage cut off.

I picked up a cracking tailwind with 30km to go and pressed on the pedals as hard as I could. I still felt sleepy but knew if I could hold myself together for another 90 minutes I would make it. Tucked up on my aero bars, I was motoring along.

What happened next definitely helped bring me back to life a little! I was on the aero bars pressing along a small lane when I must have blinked, for a split second too long, and I drifted off on the bike. I woke up maybe 1 or 2 seconds later as my front wheel hit the grass verge on the far side of the road. Probably the closest I’d been all race to binning myself into a ditch. Imagine if I’d raced 1970km to crash with 30km to go and not make the finish. Focus, Tom.

I opted for another quick roadside lie down here, hoping I was away from the midges. Thankfully, I was. 5 minutes later I hopped back on the bike feeling semi-rejuvenated and pushed on again.

25km to go. 20km to go. I know I’m close, but also not that close. I’ve still got to ride for an hour to finish and I can’t escape how tired I am after going nearly non-stop for the last 23.5 hours, having already raced 1600km.

My music’s turned up to near full blast and I’m singing along like a lunatic, anything to keep myself out a Scottish ditch. I get a text from Lil and call almost instantly knowing she’s just woken up, I instantly feel more with it and continue pushing towards JOG. I’m pushing as hard as I can now, no need to save the legs. Christ I can’t wait to get off my bike, I’m so done with pedalling.

Suddenly I can see the sea and the Garmin’s telling me 5km to go. I say bye to Lil and sprint on, kicking over every small rise and burying myself towards the finish. All of a sudden I feel amazing, the fatigues gone and I’m starting to process that the finish really is round the corner.

I can’t believe it. I’m about to finish GBDuro. I’m about to finish 5th at GBDuro.

1km to go. 800m. 500m. I swing round to the left and the road drops away. I’ve seen this road many times on Google Streetview and visualised it in more mind even more times. It’s quite literally all downhill from here. At the bottom of the road is John O’Groats, the actual end of Scotland. I roll down the hill as the signpost comes into sight, what a journey it’s been.

What a route. What a race. In reality, it’s hardly a race, it’s a war of attrition. You just survive everything the route throws at you, and whatever you’ve got left to give is just a bonus.

Ed, the race organiser, is waiting at the finish and he takes my final timestamped photo. It’s officially over. I lie down in the grass, partially in disbelief that it’s actually done, and partially feeling almost underwhelmed. I played the finishing moment over in my mind a lot during the race, and now it’s here and I’m slumped on the floor it hasn’t quite sunk in.

I sit in the grass for a while on Facetime before heading up to the hotel. My legs, and most of my body, were totally seized up by this point, so the 200m “climb” to the hotel was pretty tough.

Time for a few hours sleep (inside, at last!) before getting some beers and dinner with the other riders.

I can’t wait to see and celebrate with everyone I’ve met along the way but for now I sit in the shower exhausted, dump all my kit in the corner of the bathroom, and pass out on the bed – done.

Stage 4 Statistics
Distance: 386km
Elevation: 5,061m
Calories: 13,867
TSS: 802
Time: 24 hrs 39 minutes
Position: 5th

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