Where to begin on this epic adventure? We both knew that the Race Across Europe was going to be tough, but wow, it really was. It was one of the toughest things we have ever done and at times, was by a long way the most unpleasant. Before that though, we should probably explain how we got ourselves in this position….
We had always wanted to do an endurance event of some sort, to really test ourselves both physically and mentally. Initially we had targeted the TALISKER Whisky Atlantic Challenge (“TWAC”) having known a couple of people who had done it already, and also having continuously watched the James Cracknell and Ben Fogle documentary on their crossing at university. However due to a number of reasons by the time we were ready to sign up, we were too close to the next race to make a really good go of it, so we decided to sign up for the next one. Given the next race was so far off (over three years), we thought it would be good idea to sign up to a couple of things, “to keep us busy”, so to speak…. We felt that given the magnitude of the TWAC, we would have to do equally stupid/awesome challenges. So that is how Saddle Sand Sea, the world’s toughest “triathlon” came about:
Saddle - The 2015 Race Across Europe (www.theraceacrosseurope.com) – The toughest non-stop cycle event in the world. A 2933 mile cycle race to be completed within 12 days, starting in Calais and finishing in Gibraltar.
Sand - The 2016 Marathon Des Sables (www.marathondessables.co.uk) – The toughest footrace in the world. Six day ultra-marathon covering 250km in the Sahara desert
Sea - The 2017 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge (www.taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com) – The world’s toughest row. 3000 nautical mile rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean from La Gomera to Antigua
But back to the Race Across Europe and where better to begin then……
One thing you realised very early on doing these sorts of crazy challenges, is there is an enormous amount of admin involved. After months of endless emails organising our support crew, support cars, motorhomes, food, team and crew kit etc.. we were finally heading across the Channel. It was an exceptionally miserable/damp day which didn’t help the mood. I think we can now admit to a few nerves, but we tried our best to project as much confidence as possible to our team. It was key we instilled some sort of confidence given this was the first time the whole support crew was together! The next 24 hours were a bit of a blur, sorting out the motorhome and follow car with all the right bits of kit, putting the organisers stickers on the cars and other exciting things such as that.
Following a short briefing that evening, we set off for a meal in Calais. Both of us said very little as the enormity of what we were about to undertake truly hit home. We got back to our room that night and had our last comfortable yet completely restless night sleep for a while.
We got up early the next day as we still had a number of things to cross off the to do list. To be honest we were somewhat surprised to have actually got to the start line, given the stress of the previous few months, so these last few tasks were relatively easy.
The suddenly “Paddy and Seamus are you ready?..........Go!!!!”
First few days.
The initial excitement of starting quickly disappeared. On Paddy’s second session he was not in a good way. Looking back, it must have been a combination of all the stress of getting people together, across the channel, prepping vehicles etc.. as well as probably not drinking enough water. So there we were, less than 200 miles in and already thinking we might struggle to just finish day 1! This was a rather scary realisation of the sheer scale of this challenge.
Luckily this feeling subsided and we genuinely enjoyed the next couple of days. It was a combination of amazing German scenery with a couple of hills thrown in the mix to stretch the legs and get the lungs blowing a bit. It was nice to have the feeling that the endless training we had done over the previous year, was being put to use. The only issue was knowing this could not continue. We made good progress in those early days and were ticking off border crossings which was keeping general morale up.
The Hills. Once we had made it across the (relatively) flat sections of France and Germany, we entered Austria and more importantly the Alps! You can train all you want in the UK, but there is only so far training on Box Hill can take you. Signs stating 15% incline for the next couple of miles are somewhat unnerving! It is exceptionally painful at times with your legs screaming at you to stop and you genuinely thinking you cannot go on, but it’s in those moments you have to dig deep and remember why you are doing these things. Ironically I think we both quite enjoyed the mountains. They were the best/worst bit, because some of the views are truly stunning and deep down we are both quite competitive human beings, so is always a good feeling when you are truly pushing yourself.
The Killer Session. We both went through some dark moments during the entire event, but I think we would both go back to a space of about 8-10 hours which were among the worst. Given the need for the motorhome to go ahead with the team so they could sleep, prep food and generally set up shop for the next change over, sometimes a bit of guess work was required on how far to go. During this 8-10 hour block we got this badly wrong, twice! At the start, we were in Austria and the aim was for Seamus to hit the Italian border at the end of his stint (supposedly 40 odd miles away). However what we had not quite anticipated was how far the border was and how tough the cycling would be. He had already done about 40 miles, and was then told we had got the sums wrong and there was at least another 10 miles to the border. Not one happy customer!! To top it all off there was a pretty tasty hill for the last 4/5 miles of the stretch. You are up against it all the time and something like that really hits you.
We decided that Paddy would do the Slovenia stint which was around 30 miles (or so we thought) including one big mountain pass, with the option of going a bit further into Italy depending on how he felt, which in total would be about 40-45 miles. Given the session Seamus had to push himself through, Paddy’s plan was always to do this extra bit. It would mean Seamus would get a bit more time to recover. So off we went for Slovenia! We had been told that this stretch was stunning, but unfortunately had timed it so we were doing the whole stage at night.
The route was fairly simple. Enter Slovenia, take one of the first right turns, then head up the hill. We knew the hill was coming, but had most definitely underestimated the severity of it. It was an absolute killer. What made it even more horrendous was the fact that each corner (a part of the hill you could try to catch your breath back) was cobbled. This meant that there was no place to rest, and you needed to be on your guard at all moments, as you could easily get a wheel caught in a cobble and do some damage to both the bike and yourself. This was an exceptionally testing time, being very tough, dark, cold and generally miserable. However, when we finally got to the top, there was a huge sense of relief knowing there were only a few more miles to go before crossing the border.
We then headed down the other side! Due to the steepness of the road, there were some serious hairpin bends, which were even more testing at night. Given the amount of kit, this meant the brakes in the follow car had to work overtime, so there was a fairly pungent smell coming from the car, which was somewhat disconcerting, given it was following Paddy. We did however eventually get to the bottom in one piece. This is when error number two came to light. Paddy pulled over to get some extra food/fluids on board and was told we had got the distances wrong again. There was still another 10+ miles to go, just to get to the border! Having already done about 35 miles in the freezing cold there was a slight sense of humour failure. Given you are pushing yourself constantly, it is key to remain in a positive mindframe, but news like this, really does get to you. One thing we learnt from this challenge is that you just need to put feelings like this to the back of your mind and get on with it. You can complain all you want, but it won’t get you there any quicker. We did eventually get to the Slovenia/Italy border, but was times like that were you really questioned why you were doing this.
Finally we made it to the Italian border! We had been looking forward to Italy for quite a long time for two reasons:
We would now be heading towards the finish
The roads were flat
Ironically, this was probably one of the tougher bits of the whole course. The Romans did know how to build a long boring straight road. Mentally this was torture, the long roads meant you could see where you were heading for the next 4+ miles, which caused a constant feeling that you were never really getting anywhere. We were also traversing the top of Italy on an equivalent road to the M4! Despite being a single track road, each way was overloaded with huge trucks/lorries. This part of the route seemed to go on forever; we had already been going for a number of days and our bodies were in a lot of pain. One thing that cheered us up was seeing the other team taking part. This was a team of four from the RAF who had set off a day after us. Given there were four of them they could each motor it and then have a decent rest, so they were really churning through the miles. We had a quick chat and traded stories of how tough it was then carried on.
The Hills (Part II)
So, by this stage we had already done some pretty decent mountain climbing, but to be honest that turned out to be the starter and we were just about to enjoy the main course! This included Colle dell'Agnello (2744m) and Mont Ventoux (1912m). These also presented a big milestone in the journey as these were the last two really big passes we were going to have to get over, and also signified about half way. Colle Dell’Agnello was a completely different beast to anything we had done before, not only is it seriously long (around 40-45km in total) but is consistently steep for large parts of it. That combined with the biting cold, made it an extremely testing period. We were also doing it at night, which brings its own challenges! After those sessions, the support crew said they could hear us coming from about a mile off, from the grunting/groaning that was required to get up the thing! Quite honestly there were moments on that hill where we thought this is it, but the feeling you get when you reach the top is priceless!!!
WE’RE BACK IN FRANCE!!! This provided a really good boost, as we only had one other border to cross before we got to the border at Gibralter and we were now over halfway! The only slight dampener was a small mountain called Mont Ventoux. When we signed up for this race we were not very clued up on cycling in general, but Ventoux was something we had both heard of. Everyone you speak to has a story about how hard/easy it is, providing different thoughts and tips etc. The weird thing was we genuinely enjoyed going up it. There were a couple things that helped, one was that we had been up the beast of Colle Dell’Agnello fairly recently, so our perception of steep roads had been altered. The second thing was our incredible support crew. They were vitally important as we did not have to worry about where the next water stop is, you could just keep chugging along and get a top up as and when required.
Mountains are a really good test of character and determination, and Ventoux did not disappoint. When you get about a third of the way up, you break the treeline and start properly going up the mountain, which is reminiscent of the landscape on Mars. This means you are exposed to the sun but also the wind. The other thing that happens as you break the trees is you catch a glimpse of the famous weather station which is at the top and despite your efforts, it never seems to get closer.
Luckily we were not doing it at peak time, but there were still a steady stream of MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) showing off their new kit/bikes zooming past us. We really wanted to shout at them that we had been cycling solidly for the previous 5/6 days and come from Calais (via Slovenia), hence why we were so slow, but couldn’t quite muster up the energy.
The feeling when we got to the top was great! We got some really nice team photos, and felt we had really turned a corner given the rest of the route is mainly downhill (or so we thought).
France (Part II)
Having done Ventoux, the next mission was to get to Spain for the final push home. One thing that had helped us get so far without the whole crew wanting to kill each other was our change overs had been relatively slow, so there was around 20-30 mins where people could chat to one another, before we set off again. After a couple of sessions of us trying to work out the time we would finish, we realised that if we kept these slow change overs we would not get there in time. For both of us, this was NOT an option. We had told all our family, friends and supporters we would get there in 12 days, so the idea of not achieving this was not worth thinking about. We decided we would change our sessions slightly. Instead of guessing how fair each rider would go, we made sure each person was on the bike for at least 3 hours 45mins and have change overs of between 5-10 mins. This would mean we could churn out the miles needed to get there in time.
Having looked at the topography maps, the rest of the route looked relatively flat, however when you have Colle Dell’Agnello taking up some much of the graph, everything looks flat. In our exhausted state we had somewhat forgotten about the Pyrenees! When we got to the base of the mountains the sun was just going in, so was another session of limited visibility whilst we trudged up the mountain in the rain. The mountains really are horrible places to be when cold/wet/tired and only exacerbated when at night. It is all about survival at that stage and was a case of just gritting your teeth to making sure you get to the top. After about 3 hours of climbing we hit the top and were in Spain! What a relief!
Spain also threw up a few surprises that we had not fully appreciated. Every road seemed to be a slow incline - the worst kind of road. You feel like you should be speeding along, but just can’t. We had been given some advice that the toughest bit of the whole challenge would be the stretch where you are nearly home, but still have a long way to go, and this was VERY true! When you only have three days to go, it sounds like nothing, but that was still at least nine sessions each.
The route we took cut through the middle of Spain, so there were vast stretches of open land to contend with. These roads were not used frequently, lending itself to an unforgiving road surface. This was another exceptionally testing time given how long we had been going for, and how close we were.
After a couple of days, we could smell the sea and started to motor along with thoughts of a shower, a nice bed and a cold beer really pushing us along. As before, we just kept plodding away and finally we could see signs for Gibraltar, then we could see the rock, then the border- WE MADE IT TO THE BORDER!
There we were, crossing a border for one last time! We decided to cycle the last 3-4 miles across the Rock to the finish together, which was really nice given we hadn’t really done it on the trip so far. We told the support crew to head up to the finish as well, so we could just do our own things for the last stretch. We just couldn’t believe we were there, as we cycled we recalled what the best/worst moments were and tried to comprehend what was actually happening. Then just for a bit of fun, there was one final hill through the Rock in a tunnel which was somewhat unnecessary, but made us both laugh (once we got to the top and caught our breath).
From there we went down the other side, turned left to Europa point (the far point of Gibraltar) and saw the flags for the finish and everyone there. We crossed the line and had finished the Race Across Europe!!! We have actually finished this thing!!! YES!!!!
Having really pushed the last few days we managed to complete the race in 11 days, 12 hours, 21 minutes and 4 seconds, winning the pairs category and setting the course record for pairs.
The next few hours were a complete whirlwind of taking photos and hugging everyone and anyone in sight. A cold beer has never tasted so good! We finished just as the sun was setting and as we looked across the straits of Gibraltar, you could see the tip of Africa, the host of our next challenge!
It didn’t really sink in what we had done and not sure if it still has. When you are doing something like that, you have to split things up in your brain into achievable chunks, otherwise it would be too much to handle. It’s only when you look back and see a map that you fully realise how far you have come.
So what next? Soon we will be putting on our trainers to prepare for the Marathon des Sables! Before we start thinking about crossing at ocean in the TWAC.
The main challenge now is ensuring we can get to the start line of each event and raise as much money as we can for charity. So we will be continuously sending out letter to potential sponsors and speaking to people about donating to the amazing causes we are supporting. The support so far has been great, and we truly believe we will get there!
I hope you find our story of interest, if you want to keep updated please check out of various social media pages and website (www.SaddleSandSea.com).
Do you want to support Saddle Sand Sea? Do you know someone who might be able to help (either through financial or gift in kind)? Please do get in touch with the team at SaddleSandSea@gmail.com