Gail Brown on GBDuro
We thought there was no better time to hear about how Gail Brown got on at the GBDuro...
Before, during and after GBDURO this year I got asked ‘Why?’' A lot. It’s a fair question really.
Why would you decide to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats in the lull of a pandemic via an indirect and rather bumpy route, carrying everything you needed and leaving nothing, except buried excrement, behind? Not being allowed to buy anything from anywhere, with no assistance from others or entry into any buildings which means no mains electricity or man-made shelter. And the aim wasn’t just to ride it, it was to do it as fast as possible, or at least, fast enough to not run out of food. When you put it like that, I guess it doesn’t jump out as an enjoyable way to spend your holiday.
Unpicking ‘the why’ is an ongoing thing, motivation lies on many different levels and understanding changes with time. My ‘why’ will almost certainly be different to someone else’s.
Initially for me it was just about having an adventure in a year where it seemed unlikely that anything particularly exciting would be allowed. A big factor for getting behind the change in format was relief that the event could go ahead in a way that didn’t feel too socially irresponsible. Sure, it wasn’t as Covid proof as not running the race, but it minimised our impact as best it could. It also turned something that was already a challenge into something I wasn’t totally sure was possible, an intriguing adventure indeed.
Why do something that requires so much effort to plan?
It was a lot of effort, but I wouldn’t say unenjoyable. It’s quite rare for me to feel truly innovative and certainly with cycling I’ve tended to just follow what everyone else does. But here I was getting to experiment with ideas that made me feel like some kind of mad explorer. Filling icing piping bags with Nutella and peanut butter to squeeze straight into my mouth (which, by the way, was the best thing ever). Decanting my freeze dried meals into biodegradable refuse bags, to save space, weight and plastic waste. Making my own water system by combining a Katadyn gravity filter and a Platypus hose and doctoring an Aldi backpack to carry it in. Having new rules to adapt to gave me the permission to step away from the normal and get creative.
Balancing practicality with performance was also an interesting conundrum. It took me until July to commit to riding a hardtail, made possible by the fact that Hunt do 29’’ dynamo wheels. I was so concerned that I would look overdressed, that all the serious racers would be on speedy gravel bikes and I would be blobbing away at the back laden by my suspension. I need not have worried, I suffered no ulnar nerve palsy, the 10-50 cassette was very welcome, I could ride long hours with little discomfort and I’m pretty sure I had the most fun on the long bumpy descents. Other performance choices included taking a tent to be able to admin myself in the warm and dry and a stove for emergencies, which I did use once or twice but largely ate my food cold for efficiency. One of the many reasons I love ultra-races is that by prioritising looking after yourself, optimising sleep, nutrition, modifying your modifiable factors, you can find yourself in a strong position despite being nowhere near the strongest rider.
Self-sufficiency also appealed to me on a selfish level. Bikepacking racing is so glorious because life gets boiled down to the simplest things, mostly centred around basic human needs. Not worrying about anyone else and just focussing on the journey. So if that’s normal bike packing, self sufficient bike packing was like that, but better. Apart from finding water, which became easier the further North we got, I really didn’t need to think about anything else at all. There was no worrying about how far away the next civilisation was or whether places would be open, whether anyone would let me store my muddy bike. I had everything I needed, reliant on no one, it felt very free. Although I wouldn’t be in a hurry to do this again, the price you pay for self sufficiency is a heavy bike. And don’t get me wrong I’m all for seeking out farm shops and supporting local businesses but it was nice to realise that you can go for over a week without needing to touch civilisation. Reassuring that if we remain in perpetual lockdown there is still the possibility of a bikepacking epic.
It would be a disservice to the racing collective to not mention the environment. I should be honest and say that environmental reasons were not a big part of my ‘why’ on entering this event. However this year has changed me, as it has everyone else. I feel sorry for the kickback Miles and the gang received from both the left and the right of the environmental spectrum. Some people feeling excluded by the no fly rules and some people adamant that the rules were trivial and just for show. I can’t put words into their mouths but I guess they made the race that way because it’s better to do something than nothing. What they created was a race where people like me were forced to think how we would change our plans to adapt. Once committed it was surprising how non-constricting the rules felt and this opens into the rest of my life and the choices I make with events going forwards. I’m not committing to never flying in the future but a better appreciation of the impact I have when following my passion for cycling has been a great prospective to gain. A new part of my ‘why’ when entering events in the future.
Why race at all?
I’ve toured and done bike packing trips with extended stops, hidden discoveries and flexible plans, I think for the majority of the time that’s what I’d choose to do, but racing just gives the experience an intensity that can’t be matched. The chance to see secret times of the night and multiple days worth of summer sunrises and sunsets. The camaraderie you get with fellow racers is unique. Having dot watching strangers cheering from the roadside is incredible. The deepest lows and then moments of absolute euphoria are so sharply contrasted and it gives you these big ‘perspective’ moments. I think out of GBDURO I realised that I am my favourite self when I’m racing, where everything is stripped back and all the social expectations, life admin, work stress, maintaining relationships and social media etc etc are removed I suddenly have the capacity to be a total badass. I recommend trying it.
Lastly, why ride the length of the UK?
I can picture some of the beauty as I sit here writing. Seeing mist rising as I descended through thick dark forests in mid-Wales, catching glimpses of reservoirs and waterfalls. The brutal biting wind of a ridge in snowdonia where I was up in the cloud and the rocks were wet and held together by heather. Or the vibrant yellow green of a lichen swathed forest in the highlands, where even the mossy path was glowing with colour, it was twilight and everything was still. And finally the evening of the finish, it had been a hot day but as the evening came and the sun started to descend, a cold sea mist swept onto the land and the sun was sinking down. I sailed through patches of white grey mist and then out into this bright pink otherworld which just didn’t seem real. Into the night I went, everything was finally downhill and I felt so strong, so grateful to be there. Grateful for my health and for the start I’ve had in life. Grateful for the opportunity to see the length of my own country and spend 10 days immersed in nature. And so happy that in a year where any adventures seemed off the cards, I ended up having one of the biggest adventures of my life.
The question really was ‘Why would I want to be anywhere else?’