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The Hell of the North West. Hell-ish.

A little bike ride that @RandomAdventureDan dreamt up and our friend Jaimi Wilson rode.

A fair few others tried too this year, but Jaimi was the only woman to finish (and one of only 5 finishers overall!). Here's her account of a long weekend in the North West of England! (Over 800km and 15km of vertical ascent. Proper.)

Turning up to the start line at the Palace theatre in Longridge just before 9am already soaked to the skin was a good indicator of how my first ultra event was going to go – wet!

After a year of cancelled events the Hell of the North West seemed like the best bet for my first event. A brutal 520 miles with over 50,000 feet of climbing around the (best part) North West of England taking on the most iconic climbs we have to offer sounded like something I could get excited for!

That should be plenty...

Feeling a little anxious as I joined the queue to register, I looked around at all the men who I was sure would be faster and more prepared than I was. I decided to leave all my excuses, along with my inferiority complex at the Palace Theatre depart and focus on my very simple plan: keep pedaling, minimize time off the bike and take in the surroundings.

The climb out of Longridge set the standard that any flat roads would be few and far between and I settled into a rhythm quite quickly (albeit slightly paranoid that swathes of cyclists were going to fly past me imminently). Although my focus was to be on myself and riding my own race, I couldn’t help feel a confidence boost when one by one I started catching and passing other entrants. Having been paranoid for the past month that I was going to finish a lifetime behind everyone else.

We climbed out of the Forest of Bowland with the highlight of the beautiful Cross of Greet, I pedaled on to the first checkpoint at Gunnerside. Here I quickly refilled my water bottles, wrung out my sodden gloves and hopped back on the bike.

© Ellen Isherwood

The section between checkpoint 1 (Gunnerside) and checkpoint 2 (Nenthead) was really enjoyable despite the rain and wind as a few of us bunched up and I got the chance to chat with other riders. I know the Pennines pretty well as it's not far from home. It definitely delivered harsh conditions as we made our way over the open moorlands. Checkpoint 2 was a welcome reprieve as North Pennine Cycles had very kindly kept the shop open all night and welcomed us in out of the rain with a stint by the heater and a hot coffee.

With talks of finding a bed for the night to escape the weather and mumbles of scratching, I was determined to keep going and push on through the night. I wanted to get at least to Keswick, but hopefully further.

Stocking up on snacks for the night ride ahead I was now accompanied by another rider, Bradley. He was having a GPS issue and wanted to use me as a map, at least until the morning. The company made the riding much more pleasant, the rain halted and time seemed to tick away reaching the next checkpoint (Honister Pass) still in darkness. We were treated to the sun rising as we climbed over Newlands Hause with the promise of beans and hash browns on toast at Gosforth seeming very appealing!

Closing in on Hardknott Pass I was determined to get up and over without having to push. I must say with 250 miles in the legs and weight on the bike I was probably at my limit and only just managed to keep the pedals turning on the 30% segments winding upwards towards the top. Once we reached Ambleside my mapping skills were surplus to requirement and Bradley pressed on up over The Struggle leaving the most difficult section (the Lake District) behind.

Leaving the Lakes and heading back towards the Pennines I settled into a nice rhythm and finally felt like I was picking up some speed after the slow going through the steep passes, winding roads and rough surfaces the Lakes has to offer.

© Ellen Isherwood

Closing in on Tan Hill Pub, I noticed the silhouette of another cyclist ahead and couldn’t believe it. I'd managed to catch up to the young, cock-sure Bradley who was in disbelief how someone so ‘slow’ could possibly catch him up.

As the sun set on the Pennines and we entered the Yorkshire Dales, news from Random Adventure Dan that we were at the front of the pack lifted our spirits. But temperatures plummeted during the night as we made our way through the Yorkshire Dales and at 1 degree, I was feeling cold and tired. I took the decision to take refuge in a public toilet.

I had stupidly forgotten my down jacket and consequently spent the next three and a half hours huddled in my bivvy bag under the hand dryer in the corner with my hand in the air to keep it blowing warm air! Swapping every few minutes as the blood drained from each arm.

The Glamour of the Ultra Rider

Bradley was sat opposite me in his bivvy bag trying to sleep on the toilet as the floor was too cold. Only long-distance cyclists could truly appreciate this story… to the rest of the world it’s a very undesirable situation. (True! - Ed.)

We left the toilet block together around 4 hours later and learned that two cyclists had snuck passed us in the night. It took me a long time to get going and progress was very slow. After grabbing some food in Keighley for breakfast, Bradley took off again and I knew I had no chance of catching him this time. Feeling very saddle sore, my objective now was just to get to the finish line and that meant not getting back off the saddle again. Or in other words, I would have to ride the last hundred miles without anymore food or water stops.

The rain set in again around 4pm and then started coming down hard. But knowing I was fewer than 40 miles from the finish line, I really didn’t care. Led by the smell of weed around the Rivington area I started to feel a little better again and despite the rain really enjoyed the final 40 miles even with the nasty addition of all 20% of Birdy Brow just to finish me off!

I was delighted to get back to the Palace theatre in Longridge before sunset, coming in 4th place. 50 people signed up for the event, 24 turned up to the start line and there were only 5 finishers. The low success rate is testimony to a brutal route put together by Dan and the harsh weather we can get here in the North even in the ‘summer’ months (Third Winter, actually, Jaimi - Ed).

Next year Dan’s mission is to get 80 riders to the start line and for half of them to be women, so I hope to look around me at 39 other female riders 😊

Jaimi Wilson at the Finish of the Hell of the North West © Dan Jones

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