All Points North 2021
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
It’s taken a good while for me to unpack my thoughts after All Points North 2021. Such is the vastness of the event, it’s difficult to pull all those emotions / thoughts / memories out in one go. Flashbacks to dark times, memories of euphoric mini victories.
In May 2019, I watched a YouTube video of someone who’d entered the inaugural edition of APN that month. The person, who’d filmed herself doing it, did a really good job of showing how tough it was. 1,000km across nine (10 this year) checkpoints in some of the trickiest and hilliest areas of northern England. I’d always thought one day that I’d love to do the Transcontinental Race, but watching that video made me appreciate the harsh reality of ultra-endurance racing. But when I saw in November 2019 that applications were open for the 2020 edition, I applied because:
1. it would enable me to sample a mini TCR in my ‘backyard’, living as I do in the north of England; and
2. the addition of a rookie category gave me a bit of extra time to do it.
So, I filled in the forms and crossed my fingers for the magic email from Ang and Tori. That came and I was delighted to have been offered a place in the 2020 event; a rookie place too! Two months away from the start, the pandemic struck, which meant it ultimately had to be postponed until September 2021. New checkpoints were served up by Ang too. Into the race, I would later come to marvel at (read: curse) the evil genius of their interplay.
Using Komoot’s route planner (Komoot is one of the sponsors of APN, and you get free regional upgrades with your entry), I spent a lot of time plotting a route between each of the 10 checkpoints and then going over sections on Google Streetview to make sure there were no nasty surprises to scupper me on my 25mm road tyres (aka no gravel, trails etc, no bridges that only opened between 10am and 10.15am on the third Sunday in every other month or some such!). I also cut out as many bike paths as possible (Komoot doesn’t seem to let you omit those easily!), trying to keep the route as fast as possible, but also as flat as possible (impossible in northern England that is for sure!).
My route as done as it was going to be, about a week before 4 September’s go time, I looked at the long range weather forecast and decided my best bet of no rain was to do an anti-clockwise-ish loop of the checkpoints, so heading east first to Beverley, then west over to Rievaulx Abbey before heading over the North Yorkshire Moors to Runswick Bay, then to Grassholme Reservoir, up to Upper Coquetdale, over to Honister Pass (via Scotland, Carlisle and Keswick), then to Silverdale, Dent, Malham Tarn and then Leeds Pals Memorial, before the long push back south to Sheffield via Leeds and Wakefield. 593 miles and 41,000 feet of vert. Gulp.
As a ‘rookie’ I had the privilege of starting at midday on Saturday 4 September. I decided to book myself into a hotel in Sheffield the Friday night before. I’m glad I did that as it forced me to restrict the faffing with my bike and bags to the Friday afternoon. If I’d had to drive over to Sheffield on the Saturday morning, I would have missed the start!
I picked up my bike from a local bike shop at lunchtime on the Friday (brakes fixed – very important!), spent all afternoon faffing with kit, put everything in the car and drove over to Sheffield. Ate a meal at the hotel, had a shower, watched TV, had a restless night, woke at 08:00, showered, faffed, breakfasted, faffed. Set off down the road to Heeley at 10:00. Parked, got my bike out, faffed a lot. Rolled round the corner to A Different Gear. Realised I was one of the last people to arrive. Whoops. Registered. Spent ages trying to attach my number to my bike – went for aero-style wrap over handlebars. Was then asked to remove my saddle pack so the bike could be looked over by APN mechanic. Got bike given all clear. Reattached my saddle pack. Chatted with a few fellow APNers, scoffed rounds of honey on toast and snaffled Clif bars and bananas.
The briefing from Ang was as expected, apart from when she said: ‘and you all know about the firing times up at Coquetdale?’ Sh*t. Missed that somehow. Luckily, the army weren’t launching their mortars when I was due to roll through, so, panic over.
Start 12:00 Saturday 4 September – Beverley (CP1) –> Rievaulx Abbey (CP2)
–> Runswick Bay (CP3)
The sky was grey and cloudy. A few drops of rain fell, but it stayed away thankfully. Before I knew it, we were all pointing towards the main gate of the courtyard, a drone in the air and photographers snapping away.
Started my Garmin. This was it. Crikey. A loud countdown and we were all rolling off. Lots of GPS bleeps and pedal clicks. A couple of corners and before long I was heading east out of Sheffield towards my first checkpoint in Beverley with no APN rider in sight. I rode passed the Premier Inn I’d stayed in the night before and started up the Spotify playlist I’d prepped. I felt good. Tapping out a decent pace I came to and crossed the Boothferry Bridge. I saw a group of club riders out ahead on a straight, flat road and stupidly strained to catch and pass them. A few miles later I stopped when I saw a Greggs. Loaded myself up with a couple of pasties, drinks and crisps and carried on.
This was the flattest part of the route – I’d planned to do it this way to give me a bit of a psychological boost; make me feel like I was getting further and into it. And it worked really. At 16:10, I reached CP1 – Beverley’s North Bar, took my time stamped photo, answered the question on my brevet card and sat on a step eating the second of my pasties. Felt awesome to have reached my first CP. I set off a few moments later out of Beverley to CP2 (Rievaulx Abbey).
Before long I was in the countryside. It was getting darker. I cycled through quiet country lanes, the air was still and warm. I rode through a small, picturesque village where a wedding was going on. About 30 young people smartly dressed waited to cross the road as a middle-aged man in lycra and a loaded bike rolled through on a Saturday night. They seemed perplexed to see the sight. A few moments later, I stopped at a Tesco Express in Norton near Malton, grabbed a sandwich and drinks
ready for the assault of Rievaulx Abbey (CP2), which I reached at 20:15 with the light fading fast. Found the phone box for the question in my brevet card.
Then OMG. The climb out of Rievaulx back to the main road near Helmsley was steeeeep and tough with a heavy bike. Managed it, then enjoyed the descent down to Helmsley, ready for my night-time assault of Rosedale Chimney and the North Yorks Moors over to CP3, Runswick Bay.
I was feeling in good spirits. It was a super nice feeling to have bagged two checkpoints already. I summitted Rosedale Chimney at 22:40 in pitch black, with clear starry skies. Magical. It seemed to take ages to get down off the moors to the coast. My brakes were screeching loudly through the dead quiet villages as I descended. By the time I reached Runswick Bay it was midnight. I managed to locate the CP for the brevet card down the steep dead-end road. When taking my photo, a taxi pulled up with two men and a woman who’d just been ‘out out’. One of them was pretty drunk and was wondering what a cyclist was doing there at midnight. She didn’t believe me when I explained what I was doing. ‘F******* nuts he is!’ To be fair, she was spot on I thought to myself. They offered me a cup of tea, but I declined and headed off up the savage climb back up to civilisation.
I didn’t book accommodation for this first night, as I wanted at least one night of either sleeping ‘ultra-race style’ or just pushing on through the night. I was pretty tired so decided to get a couple of hours’ ‘rest’. It was dry and relatively warm. I rode half a mile out of the bay, found a field with an open gate, pushed my bike into the field and locked it to the gate with a Hiplock. I then brushed my teeth, took out the emergency space blanket I’d been given by APN at the start. Put on my down jacket, my cap, arm warmers and my rain jacket underneath and set my alarm to wake me up at 03:15. I could hear the waves nearby crashing and could see the stars overhead. About 15 mins later a couple walked by and were alarmed to see some guy lying in a field at 01:15 in cycling kit and a silver space blanket. They asked if I was ok. I said I was ok, just doing a crazy bike ride. They laughed and walked off.
Two hours passed in what seemed like five mins. I’d hardly slept when the iPhone alarm went off at 03:15. I’d been going round and round in my head, thinking about whether I’d get to Carlisle at a reasonable time later that day, still with 200 miles and a shed load of climbing to get there. The average speed calculations whirred round for two hours. I jumped up, packed up and set off in my down jacket as it was cold. Got too hot a mile up the road and so stopped to put that away. Felt groggy and rough when I saw a random McDonald’s on roads leading to Middlesbrough. Used their toilets, was too early for breakfast, so I had two veggie sandwiches, fries and lemonade. The sun now up, I rode through the deserted streets of early Sunday morning Middlesbrough feeling fairly tired and rough. It wasn’t until I stopped at an Esso garage between Middlesbrough and Darlington and ate again that I felt ok.
Onwards to CP4: Grassholme Reservoir.
SUNDAY 5 SEPTEMBER – Grassholme Reservoir (CP4) –> Upper Coquetdale (CP5) –> Carlisle
The sun was well and truly up, and the temperature was high as I rode through the rolling countryside towards CP4. It was at this point that the eventual winner, Cap 77 Bradley Woodruffe, sidled up beside me from behind me and clocked my race number, realising we were doing the same thing. It was the first time since leaving Sheffield the day before I’d come across anyone else doing APN, so it was really nice to have someone to chat to in the event, even if it was only for 10 minutes. I was impressed that he’d started eight hours after me and was doing the same order of checkpoints and had already caught me. He was riding a Ribble too and turns out he may well have built mine! Before long, nature called, and I stopped and bid Bradley good luck. The next time I saw him was as I was entering the road leading to CP4; he was on his way back and looked to be flying.
I got to CP4, answered the question on my brevet card, took the photo, devoured a cold veggie burger I’d bought in the early hours, and headed off to complete an extremely hilly and hot ride through the North Pennines to CP5 on the Scottish border.
I climbed a never-ending brute before descending forever into Stanhope. I was low on food and needed some but there was nothing open. I realised that my route took me up yet another savage and long climb and I was really struggling for energy. I slowly eked my way out of Stanhope and then down into Blanchland where I found the post office open and ordered coffee, sandwiches and other food. I got chatting to a nice couple from Warrington who were in the area on a cycling holiday.
I spent too long there but was in need of it. I left about 13:30 and climbed the 20% out of the village, rode up and down hills in the heat for ages, through Bellingham and stopped near Otterburn. I quickly had some more food before pushing on to the A68 and CP5.
When I turned off to the path to CP5, I was happy I’d got there, but this small road went on and on and on and up. It took me a good hour probably to get along that path, work out the answer to the question for the brevet card, take my time-stamped photo and trundle (and walk) up and back to the main A68 for the climb into Scotland. It was about 19:30, I was very low on water and it was getting dusky. The climb to the Scottish border on the A68 was one of those wide, grippy roads that climbed forever, with fast traffic. I was tired and the thought of my first proper bed and shower in Carlisle beckoned. I’d been going for 31 hours and had had about 30 minutes of sleep. I eventually reached the summit of the climb and crossed into Scotland, nearly missed a turn, but then had the most spectacular descent into Wauchope Forest. It was dark now and I had run out of water, but I was in the middle of nowhere. I came up past a house and did wonder whether I should knock on to ask them to fill my bottles but resisted the temptation. The hills came back with a vengeance, one after another. I walked up some. My thirst was so bad that I stopped a few times to squeeze a bit of toothpaste into my mouth. It may have helped a bit but probably more psychologically than anything.
To add to the peril, my front light was indicating it needed charging and so I couldn’t switch it to full power; I needed to save power, so I was descending in the pitch black and rain with low light and no water. I passed about three APNers coming up in the opposite direction and remember thinking that I was glad I was going the way I was at that point in the rain and dark.
I eventually reached Newcastleton, a little village in the borders of south Scotland at about 22:30. Luckily, the pub was open. Yes! Get in! I dumped my bike outside, stumbled in looking like a drowned rat in lycra, the 10 locals stopped their chat and looked up, I traipsed to the bar and ordered two pints of lemonade. Downed them one after the other. The landlady said, ‘you looked like you needed those’. I couldn’t speak. I nodded. Stumbled back out, picked up my bike and trundled in the rain the next 20 miles to a Premier Inn in Carlisle that seemed never to arrive. Got there at about 00:45, booked in. Bought a fresh orange juice from the vending machine. Downed that in one. Got in my room. Took my stinking kit off and had the best shower of my life. Plugged in my lights and Garmin, got fresh kit out for the next day, got into bed and fell into a comatose sleep.
MONDAY 6 SEPTEMBER – Carlisle –> Honister Pass (CP6) –> Silverdale (CP7)
I’d planned to get to Carlisle (340 miles in) with no or minimal sleep and had somehow managed that. So, today was my ‘easy’ day. A ‘mere’ 100 miles via Honister Pass to Silverdale.
By the time I’d woken, faffed and set off from Carlisle, it was cracking on for 09:30. I scoffed what I had left food-wise and set off. Got to Keswick about 12:30, had a quick lunch in Kat’s Kitchen (highly recommend), stopped to buy some supplies and rolled to the foot of Honister Pass.
I know this pass very well having done it as part of the Fred Whitton a few times. This time was going to be a climb to the top and then coming back down the way I’d climbed it. With a loaded bike and tired legs, I struggled to get up this without walking. I’d made the mistake of wearing road SPD shoes so had to find any bit of grass verge I could to avoid sliding back down the tarmac as I walked up the 25% section. The mid-afternoon heat was unbelievable. I was soaked with sweat by the time I got to the slate mine at the summit and took my photo. I didn’t hang around.
Descended with my brakes making the most disgracefully loud screeching all the way down. I got back to Keswick, climbed out of the town and headed on the fast, mainly down hill sections all the way to Ambleside with some banging tunes to carry me there. At this point, I felt euphoric. The light was beautiful and there was no wind. I had some chips and curry in Ambleside, before cycling along Windermere, into Windermere town and out over the lowlands towards Silverdale with the sun setting. I felt alive.
As I rolled through Beetham, a fellow APNer, Jake, rode alongside me and we had a nice chat, hitting CP7, Silverdale, together.
We got our brevet card questions done and I waved him good-bye as I had booked into a Travelodge at Burton-in-Kendal services, just outside of Yealand Redmayne. I entered the motorway service station via the service road, saw the hotel across the car park, was oblivious to the kerb right outside the door of the hotel and banged my front wheel on it hard, falling into a bush. Luckily, and surprisingly, my bike was fine, and no one had witnessed my stupidity. The guy on reception had had another APNer stay the night before so wasn’t too surprised when I said I would be leaving at 02:00 (it was now 21:00). Got up to my room, showered, got my day three kit out and then tried to sleep. I couldn’t. The knowledge of having to get up and carry on inflicting this abuse on my body must have prevented it from shutting down enough to sleep. I eventually decided to get up early and set off at 01:00. I had 175 miles and a heck of a lot of climbing to do so it made sense if I was going to stand any chance of getting to the finishers’ meal back in Sheffield for 20:00 later that day.
TUESDAY 7 SEPTEMBER – Final assault – Dent Station (CP8) –> Malham Tarn (CP9) –> Leeds Pals Memorial (CP10) –> Sheffield
It was cold and obviously pitch black as I left the motorway services and started my ascent up towards Kirkby Lonsdale at 01:30. I was conscious of my front light running out of battery even though it had a decent amount of charge on it. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was keeping it on its lowest setting when I needn’t do, but I couldn’t think properly at the time.
On the run to Dent village, I was riding under a star-filled sky and, although I couldn’t see the mountainous valley walls either side of me, I could feel them and hear them echo back the hum of my wheels. It was cold and I was low on food and about to enter the most desolate part of the race. The climb up to the railway station at Dent was 20%. I had to walk some of it. When I got to the station at 04:38, I was spent. I rammed a chocolate bar into my mush, got my brevet question and photo done, screeched back down to the Dent road and climbed out and then down and past the Ribblehead Viaduct, just as the sun was coming up. It was cold, but my goodness me, it was magical in that light. I didn’t have the energy though to stop and take a photo of the viaduct, but I will never forget that sight.
By the time I reached Stainforth for the climb out and over to Malham Tarn, I had run out of food. I was climbing and I was warming up already and I could feel my body running out of energy by the second. I had bonked. I was dizzy and had to get off and sit down. I had nothing left. I felt delirious. I managed to pick myself up and walked with my bike for what seemed like ages. I was pretty low emotionally at this point. I was thinking to myself, wondering what I was going to do. I didn’t think I would scratch, but I really didn’t know how I was going to resupply given the time of day and the fact I was in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales. I was getting angry with myself for not planning this section better. I carried on walking in my stupid shoes, my cleats scraping on the tarmac.
I then walked over some random words that had been painted on the road. I stopped and pulled back to read them: ‘Be More Mike’. I couldn’t believe it. Mike Hall was one of the reasons I got into ultra-distance cycling. He had tragically been killed whilst racing the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia in 2017. When I saw his name on the road, because of the state I was in, I welled up. But seeing that really galvanised me.
I forced myself back onto my bike and just tried to meditate, focussing on turning the cranks, one turn at a time. I managed to tick off Malham Tarn at 07:54 and then, by a mixture of climbing by bike and on foot, I managed to get over the ridge and down into Kettlewell and to its village shop by 09:15. I asked if they did sandwiches. They only had cheese. I am vegan, but I didn’t care at this point – beggars can’t be choosers and cyclists with nothing in the tank need to eat. I wolfed that sandwich down and with it some coffee and various snacks. I refilled my bottles and then set off for what I knew would be a really tough ascent of Park Rash. I had done this climb on the Yorkshire Struggle in 2016 and found it hard then, but with a loaded bike and 450 hilly miles in my legs I don’t mind admitting that I walked up it. As I was doing so, Jake, who I’d ridden into Silverdale with the night before, came hurtling passed me the other way. I couldn’t work out which order he was doing the checkpoints in, but it was a welcome break from the scramble up that climb, as was the fighter jet that screamed over me a few minutes later.
The sun was beating down on me and I was a heated mess by the time I got over to near Masham and turned to the ascent of the final checkpoint, Leeds Pals Memorial. I lay down for 10 minutes’ rest. A Royal Mail van stopped and the driver asked if I was ok. He thought I’d crashed or something. I said I was just resting, but in my head, I thought, yeah, I have crashed. I was running on fumes again. I crawled up to the memorial monument. Got chatting to an older cyclist from the area. He kindly offered to take a photo of me in front of the memorial. I answered the question on ye olde brevet card for the final time.
I was made up that I had done all 10 CPs now. It was about 13:30 and hot. I hopped on my bike, music on and descended 100 metres from the CP and promptly got a flat in my rear tyre.
It took me some time with my numb fingers to get that Conti off my wheel and get it back on. About 25 minutes later, I was off again. Slap bang into the wall of a climb that is Trapping Hill. Somehow managed to get over that, all the while worrying that my rear tyre was going to puncture again.
I was mentally fried at this point. The puncture had scuppered my realistic chances of getting to the finishers’ meal at 20:00 so I resigned myself to not making the 20:00 time and decided just to do my best; I would still try and race, but I would get there when I got there. I got some more food supplies at a garage in Pateley Bridge, tried to follow my route out of that town which would have taken me over Two Stoops hill and decided to reroute via the A roads. It was still a good amount of climbing, but less steep. I eventually crested the top of the hills on the outskirts of north Leeds and then recovered on the beautifully long descent down into Leeds, stopping at an M & S garage in Adel for some drinks and Percy Pigs. It was early evening now and it was still hot. I didn’t want to start messing around with my route in the centre of Leeds, so just went with it even when it sent me on the tow paths of the canal in the dark.
I eventually escaped Leeds about 19:00 and allowed myself to believe I was going to complete this thing. I let out a few shouts of ‘yes!’, but quickly thought I’d better not tempt fate and realised that I was still a long way from Sheffield even now. The dark and deserted streets of Wakefield and other towns came and went. There were some climbs but nothing as savage as what I’d already done. I put on Sheffield’s finest, the Arctic Monkeys, for the final run to Sheffield as a fitting soundtrack to my arrival.
The irony of me heading south on All Points North to a city that seemed never to arrive wasn’t lost on me. I reached the centre of the city at about 23:45. I’d wanted to get to Heeley before the day was out. It wasn’t to be. I arrived at the Institute to a welcome from Ang and Tori and others just after midnight. As I unclipped both feet and straddled my bike amongst some fellow racers in the street, I could not quite believe I had done what I had just done. I was done in but happy.
Inside HQ, I hung up my bike and was treated to the curry of my life plus a beer. I could see the map on the big screen where the remaining racers’ dots were slowly moving towards HQ. After I had uploaded the mother of all Strava files and finished what I could of my food, I had a shower and slept in the marquee outside until 06:00, before waking and having breakfast with Ang, Tori and the winner of the whole race, Bradley Woodruffe. What better way to end such an awesome race!
Areas for my improvement
Route: in terms of my route, I think I’d done a decent job, but next time will certainly go for more miles if that means less climbing. More direct is not always the best policy on these things!
Shoes: I have one pair of cycling shoes, which are road specific, so walking is difficult. Two solutions: a. don’t walk; b. invest in some MTB style shoes and pedals.
Lights: if you have a lower powered older front light, take two, or buy a better light. In the pitch black of the wilderness of northern England and Scotland, you will need it to be reliable. The red light of doom played with my mind.
Stop less: it’s very easy for me to look back now and think I could’ve got round faster if I’d stopped less. At the time, I did what I did because I had to. This was my first ultra-race, and I was probably overawed by the distance and wanted so much to complete it, so tempered my speed – the phrase, pace yourself was ringing in my head. Next time, I will know I can do it and will be faster as a result; less cautious with resting. Time goes so fast when you’re racing at these distances. The cumulative effect of faff and stops mounts up to lots of hours at the end of the race.
Things I did well
Not comparing myself to others: I didn’t look at the dot map once and this was a conscious decision. I could not control what anyone else was doing, but I could control what I was doing, and I focussed on my own race.
Notifications: I turned off certain Whatsapp chat notifications as it was distracting at times.
Training: I kept my training consistent. I made sure as a minimum I did 100 miles per week from January and then added in some longer 100 mile plus rides in the spring and summer before September. I used Zwift a lot more as there is constant power on those rides which improved my fitness massively.
Bike: Ribble SL R disc, Mavic Pro Carbon UST wheelset (25mm Continental GP 5000 clincher tyres), SRAM Red eTap (no recharge necessary on entire race), 2 x 750ml SIS water bottles
Bags: Topeak top tube bag, Topeak frame bag, Topeak saddle pack
Lights – rear: Bontrager Fire RT and Knog strip
Lights – front: Cateye Volt 40
GPS: Garmin Edge 530
Charging: portable Powerbank