The Importance of Failure

Over the years, I’ve come to relish the challenge of having to dig deep — really deep — to complete an endurance adventure. I’ve almost taken it for granted that despite often feeling like I’m incapable, somewhere buried down within is a little spark that will ignite — just when I need it. The sweat, the tears and the struggle are all part of the journey that makes the finish line worth celebrating. These challenges are precious to me — overcoming obstacles has given me confidence and pushing hard has taught me to appreciate the quiet moments during rest. These challenges have made me who I am today.

However, this blog isn’t about the hard-earned triumph of previous challenges, this blog is about a time I gave 110% — and it just wasn’t enough.

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” — J.K. Rowling

On August 23rd I set out to cycle the North Coast 500 route in Scotland.

24 hours before I found myself on the uniquely beautiful sleeper train to Scotland, I had found myself attending a family funeral in Ireland. As beginnings go, the start of the #LK500 was, to say the least, tough.

Waking up to magical views from the sleeper train!

I didn’t feel ready to cycle through the highlands of Scotland, but experience has taught me that feeling ready and being capable are two very different matters, so I began all the same.

The first day was to set the tone for the trip — setting off from Inverness, I was greeted with a fierce headwind, frequent down pours and often hilly but consistently beautiful scenery. It was brutal — but it was gorgeous.

I finished 10 miles short of my target, exhausted but ever optimistic that my body would adapt, as it always did.

In fact, Day 2 was a little easier. The terrain was still punishing my legs and the weather was still fickle but I was also still making progress.

Once again I finished the day feeling weary but full of hope that tomorrow would be better. That hope quickly vanished later that night — a dose of food poisoning courtesy of the local pub meant I spent 3 hours being violently sick.

I woke on Day 3 after 4 hours of sleep feeling horrendous. I had a tough 87 miles ahead of me with my fully loaded bike and it seemed impossible.

I focussed on the small things I could control — slowly but surely building my energy reserves back up by making sure to eat consistently throughout the day and replace fluids. Thankfully, I’d teamed up with Clif Bar for this challenge so I was well stocked with high quality fuel and it made all the difference.

The energy bloks especially were an absolute life-saver (incidentally, I also used these to fuel me through my swim around Sark!). I often struggle to consume gels so these Bloks are a great source of accessible energy, that don’t cause any stomach issues. Chewing regularly on these, by lunchtime, I’d started to feel human again.

All the same, Day 3 was a battle. It seemed like I was constantly climbing uphill and should I ever stop for a break, I was quickly swarmed by midges.

Insect repellant Buff helping to protect against the many, many midges…

By late afternoon, it had begun to rain — hard. Being in Scotland, I accepted the torrential rain as part of the deal, but by the time the 4th car had completely drenched me as part of their overtaking process, I’d had a complete sense of humour failure. At times, I wasn’t sure whether to scream out in rage or burst into tears.

In the end I didn’t have the extra energy needed to do either, so I just carried on. Onwards and, of course, upwards. For the last few hours of Day 3 I had the beneficial distraction of a painful niggle in my left leg. Although it felt tender, I assumed that this was just part of my legs adapting, as they always do. By the time Day 3 had finished, I felt broken. It was celebration enough that I managed to successfully digest my dinner — I passed out in a weary-proud stupor soon after.

And so I awoke on Day 4 — roughly halfway through the challenge. I had slightly less mileage to cover and I hadn’t spent the night before throwing up so by all counts, Day 4 should have been a much better day.

I hit my first hill. My left leg screamed. That persistent little niggle from the day before had now transformed into an overwhelming pain that was impossible to ignore. But, try to ignore it I did — figuring that maybe my legs were just a bit stiff and things would improve as I carried on. Things didn’t improve so I upgraded my strategy and took some Ibuprofen in the hope that this would help reduce any inflammation as well as help reduce the pain. I limped onwards incredibly slowly, waiting for things to get better — sobbing heavily with every painful pedal stroke.

Breaking point

I’d become so used to pushing myself through fatigue and discomfort, that I’d all but assumed my body was pretty unbreakable — I was wrong. My Suunto watch would later reveal I was travelling a woefully slow average of 8mph. After covering 10k, I made the decision to turn back. There was no way I was able to cover the remaining 60 miles like this — let alone the 200 miles that lay waiting after that.

Back in Lochinver, the priority became rest and advice. I reluctantly accepted that the next day would be written off for rest and I’d booked a massage, that I hoped would somehow solve things.

Sunset in Lochinver

Over the next day, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. My left quad was severely inflamed, the right side of my body now mal-adjusting to compensate. I limped around Lochinver, still quietly saying to myself that I’d be fine after a little rest. Or maybe I could get a friend to jump in a car with my gear so I could take the weight off the bike — surely that would fix it?

Some things aren’t fixed so quickly

Despite wrestling with it for the best part of 2 days, I finally accepted this attempt of the North Coast 500 was over. Continuing on, even if I could somehow ignore the pain, would mean risking long-term damage and even with all my stubbornness, I couldn’t justify it.

The tracker map showing my progress— stuck halfway, for now!

Getting home first meant a night with my friend Will Copestake and family, in nearby Ullapool. I’d then be getting the bus from Ullapool back to Inverness the next afternoon and then getting the sleeper train back to London that night. I arrived at the Copestake family household with a heavy heart and I’m forever grateful that after a warm welcome and 24 hours of near-constant laughter I left it feeling much lighter.

Paddling in Ullapool. When your legs don’t work, use your arms!

Officially ending the challenge was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made and I didn’t go down without a fight, but similarly — it’s important to know when to let go. The next few months are focused on rehabilitation and recovery — after pushing my body so very hard over the past few months, it’s time to rest and rebuild so I can come back stronger. If we learn from it, failure can be a powerful lesson.

In the words of Alexis Pappis:

“Good thing I didn’t accomplish all my goals yet because then what would I do tomorrow”?

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