So, here it is. The final route for the final day, from the Crask Inn all the way to John O'Groats. The sign outside the inn said 90 miles, a book about LEJOG routes at the inn reckoned 85, and the final total came out to be around 81 miles. Not quite the longest distance, and it didn't take as long as The Day from Hell, but John O'Groats wasn't going to give up the goods and the glory without a fight, that much soon became clear.
When I'd woken at 6am, it had been clear, sunny skies as far as the eye could see. By 7am and breakfast, it was totally overcast, and the cloud seemed to be building. Not what the forecasts had said, and I got a sinking feeling.
I opted for the waterproof flouro-coat again, the sealskin gloves, and somewhat reluctantly set off by about 7.40. It wasn't the energetic start I'd hoped for. My camelbak began leaking down my back within meters of starting, and when I tired to get the lid screwed on right it just wouldn't seal. Despite the upcoming distance and the obvious need for fluids, I emptied it out and decided to go with just my bottles. A short distance later, the view required a stop for a photo and, as I cleared the top of the hill, I left the cloud behind and was cycling in warm sunshine, as promised in the forecast. Another stop, then, to remove the waterproof, and I'd not even gone a mile. Once all this annoying stuff was sorted, however, the road disappeared down the valley, and continued more or less down hill for the next 32 miles, all the way to Bettyhill and the north coast. A few more photo stops were unavoidable but, apart from that, I didn't break again until I hit the north coast road and turned East. An impressive 32 miles in under 2 hours, and the early sinking feeling was gone - what a day this was going to be!
|Loch Naver. Nothing more to say, really.|
|An early view of the north coast. The strong wind spoiled the effect of the sunshine.|
Two other end-to-enders I'd met the night before at the Crask Inn and who had left about an hour after me, caught me up in Melvich, but I had to go at my pace so rather than wait for them to have their break and continue together, I left them to it and carried on. I won't deny there was an element of wanting to finish on my own, just as I had done the whole ride, but the truth was I knew I'd only be holding them up, so best to just do my own thing. Sure enough, though, about half an hour later they overtook me and left me behind, with a cheerful "see you in Thurso" - the next town about 16 miles away.
It took me so long to cover than 16 miles that by the time I got there and couldn't see their bikes parked anywhere, I figured they'd been and gone again, so I stopped long enough for a much needed, warming cup of tea, and carried on. It was getting really tough by now. the soreness was getting more, the energy and strength was getting less, and the wind was not relenting. I should have known that the wonderful, easy first part of the day wouldn't last, and that JOG had a trick or two up its sleeve.
I seemed to be getting slower and slower as I covered the last 20 miles from Thurso to JOG. That kind of distance had been taking no more than 90 minutes, if that, just lately, even at the end of a day, but today it seemed to go on and on. As I passed the turning for Dunnet Head, I gritted my teeth and ignored the fact that I might have been able to stop there if I'd stuck to Plan A. I was forced by discomfort to take a stretch-break just after the turning, still with 10 miles to go, and yet again about 5 miles after that. I really just wanted to get to the end, but it was just too painful to stay on the bike without these brief moments to straighten up and stretch some life back into my quads and calf muscles.
Finally, after what seemed like a ridiculously long 2 hours or more, I came to the final left turn of the ride, and coasted down the last 1/4 mile to the John O'Groats sign post. Steve and Dave, the two lads from the inn, had just finished taking their photos, and met me with warm smiles and pats on the back. They had both found the day tough as well, despite being far better cyclists than me, and being able to swap the lead between themselves regularly, thus each having a turn hiding behind the other and resting from the head wind. They seemed impressed that I'd done the whole thing on my own, and felt sure I'd cope with the Alps if I could cope with what today had thrown at us.
|Veni, Perseveravit, Vici! (That's third person, present indicative, isn't it, boy?)|
I have found, after other trips, that there is a feeling of "OK, so what now?" when these things end. This was no exception, but for once I had an answer. I changed in to my shorts and walked down to the harbour slipway, set up the camera on its tripod, started the timer, and jumped into the icy water, completing the final challenge set by my brother - a swim in the sea off the north coast. Not quite the Antarctic that he'd swum in, but certainly cold enough for me! A fitting way to end the ride, perhaps, and maybe even good for the body at the same time.
The trip did not quite end there - I had the 20 miles back to Thurso to ride in the morning, as well as an additional 10 mile detour to Dunnet Head - the most northerly point in the UK (JOG is just the most north-easterly, and therefore the furthest from Land's End). With that 30 miles (with a tailwind this time - what a difference!!) completed, I have now got until Monday before my train tickets take me back south, so I will jump on a boat to Orkney and spend a few days cycling round over there, seeing what bird life I can find.
Thank you so much for the words of encouragement and support I have received from so many people via Facebook and the comments section here. It really did help keep me going when things got tough. Thanks also, of course, to everyone who has donated money to the fund, some of you several times, and if anyone is still wanting to add some more, please don't hesitate, just go to www.justgiving.com/Steve-McMullen/ and add to the pot. The total as of this moment is £1,395 - a fantastic effort from everyone! It would be so good to get it up to the target of £1603, so if you know anyone who has yet to donate, please give them a nudge!
Its been a pleasure (mostly!), and stand by for the final route/navel gazing to come in a week or so.