How to prepare to break another world record.
Updated: Oct 26, 2018
Let me introduce myself. I'm a (very) amateur bike rider from Scotland with a passion for riding long distances. At least that’s true for the past few years anyway. In 2019 I want to break another Guinness World Record.
Since around 2014 I had a burning ambition to complete the Race Across America (RAAM) as a first-timer or “rookie” as they say in the States. It seemed like something I might be able to do given my success in riding the UK classic ride of Lands End to John O Groats a few times whilst on the Ride Across Britain multi day “sportive.” I thought I should try RAAM before I was too old and had considered it to probably be the ultimate cycling challenge that someone such as myself could achieve. It would be an amazing thing to look back on when I was older.
I started the ball rolling by going straight to the top. I asked Phil Smith, the UK CEO of Cisco, the American tech company that I work for whether we could potentially build a technology and teamwork story around the sporting challenge and incredibly he said "yes." The rest they say is history. With the help of lots of people the team finally gathered at Oceanside pier in California early in June 2016. It had taken 20 months of planning, fundraising and technology creation to get there and finally it was time to start and I pushed off surrounded by the cheers from the crowd and the noisy PA system announcing who I was. I had 3080 miles to ride and the clock wasn’t stopping until I reached the Atlantic ocean in Maryland and a time limit of 12 days for an official finish. I wrote a long blog about it here. It was epic, no I really mean that, it was truly epic. Californian desert with temperatures of 45 centigrade: check; Rocky Mountain passes over 3000 meters: check; central American plains with endless straight roads: check; crossing the Mississippi river: check; riding into 12 sunrises and sunsets: check; emotional ride over the finish line at Annapolis: check. Would I do it again? Absolutely, without hesitation, and so should you if you ever get the chance.
After the success of RAAM where basically more than half the starters don't complete it I thought that was me done, mission complete. But everyone kept asking “what’s next?” and honestly it had made me even more determined than ever to find my limits. I sat down with my coach Gary Hand for dinner a few weeks after we got home and he had all the performance figures ready to hand with a list of ideas. After a bit of discussion we decided what we could do together. “Let’s break a World Record James!” Gary said.
This set us on a path to tackling the coveted and often attempted Guinness World Record for riding solo between Lands End and John O Groats and importantly - BACK AGAIN to Lands End. It's the record that had put the then current record holder Ben Rockett in hospital with all sorts of "issues" after he set the record at 5 days 21 hours back in 2010 and in 7 years nobody had managed to beat it. I'd met Ben at a basecamp on RAB in 2011 and he really inspired me, the way he spoke about his monumental achievement was so matter of fact, it had a profound effect on me. Being based in Scotland we decided to do the record the reverse to everyone that had tried before and it was permitted to do so in the rules. Some additional restrictions were put in place by Guinness since Ben's ride mainly banning group riding and draughting of other riders so my attempt would be more like RAAM with no outside assistance. It would be just me out in front on my time trial bike with my amazing support team following close behind.
I've not written anything about JOGLEJOG (John O Groats to Lands End to John O Groats) as we called it (the reverse of LEJOGLE without the catchiness of the title) but perhaps I'll do that when I write about the whole adventure thats been my cycling life since 2014. Lets just say this. It was tough, really tough. I couldn't walk unaided to the car the morning after I finished in John O Groats. I couldn't even clean my teeth properly for a week such was the damage to the nerves in my hands. Opening bottles or tying shoe laces was completely beyond my capabilities for weeks. Lets just say that my wife Julie was very helpful during this time. I couldn't walk on bare feet for the first week at all because of the pain in my feet from the vibration damage during the ride mainly from the horrendous Scottish roads near my home and along most of the dreaded A9 through the Highlands. When I arrived in London on a work trip two weeks after the ride I was almost in tears from the pain when I finally arrived at my hotel having had to walk 15 minutes from the tube station. It took a long time to recover from JOGLEJOG but I don't regret doing it for one second. Although the ride itself was unbelievably difficult, I had less than an hour of sleep for the last 950 miles of the ride, (that was 2 1/2 days with 50 minutes of sleep after having had just 6 hours sleep over the previous 3 days.) I was a bit disoriented in the last night section but the ride was something I will remember fondly forever. I've never seen a team of people so focussed on the success of one person in my life, the team was simply THE BEST. Navigating the North West of England at night through the deserted streets was just like being on remote control. The calm sound of the crew in my ear giving me turn by turn instructions was poetic but the savageness of the rough roads and the UK weather did take its toll, the person who breaks this record next time REALLY deserves it!
So back to 2018 - the challenge to break the 24 hour indoor velodrome distance record set by the mighty Christoph Strasser. The fact that it is Christoph who holds this record should really put me off but thankfully numbers don't lie and Gary and I believe it is a breakable record, and more specifically breakable by me. All the testing, the history and the knowledge we have gathered over the last few years make us as confident as we can be that its something I and the team can achieve. The fact that it was not Christoph's focus last year when he set the new record says a lot about his natural abilities and the fact he can just turn his attention to it for a few months and still be successful. I don't have that luxury which is why Gary and I have been focussing on it for a year now. It was October 2017 when we set in motion the plans to tackle this record. The first main challenge was getting track accredited - gaining my license to ride on the velodrome. After a couple of months I had this in the bag along with an agreement with the management at The Sir Chris Hoy velodrome in Glasgow to let me book private sessions so I could train appropriately. Fast forward another few months and we are in negotiations with another venue that should see me on the track in spring time 2019 ready to challenge for the record.
With the help and incredible support from my sponsors things are looking good. I've been focussing on the pure strength work that will enable me to draw on deep down reserves that I will need towards the tail end of the 24 hours. There is no downhills or tailwinds in the velodrome to get any recovery so pacing and fuelling needs to be perfect. I've been trying to figure out how to entertain myself for that length of time with pretty much nothing to look at so one of the JOGLEJOG team members and all round incredible human being Toby Ellis and I have been testing a way we can communicate during the ride without having to press any "call" button (yes we know there are Bluetooth intercom systems available but they don't work in this environment.) I will even be able to listen to my choice of music mixed enthusiastically by DJ Toby when the going is good. We know from experience just how important the mental side of these challenges is, its the head that gives up, not the body so if I'm motivated, happy and confident its a lot easier for everyone.
A lot of people have asked me to share the experience of the preparation for this challenge, I realise its not normal to do the sort of rides I do in training and I am sure Gary hides this fact from me. Its not normal to sit down with a nutritionist and figure out how to consume 800 kCalories per hour for a whole day. Its also not normal to think a 4 hour training ride is a short ride. Its not normal to ask to use a velodrome exclusively for a whole day and its definitely not normal to have to ensure that medics will be on hand in case anything bad happens. There's just a lot of not normal things about ultra cycling that you need to get familiar with before you even start out.
The past 12 months have been really exciting putting this project together and the ground work is mainly in place. Its not every day you get to work with people who have also advised current hour record holders and Tour de France winners or get help from people who hold multiple world records themselves. Sometimes I wonder what on earth I'm doing, its just me exploring my boundaries and yet so many people have told me how inspiring watching the team and I complete RAAM and then break the LEJOGLE record was for them, its really nice to hear that others are getting the same sort of motivation from me as I did from Ben Rockett 7 years ago. Lets see what the next 6 months brings. It's certainly going to be exciting.
I hope you find this blog interesting. I remember Gary telling me last year heading over the Pennines in the rain that there was "thousands of people watching us on Facebook." I genuinely thought he talking bullshit just to motivate me but slowly I realised he wasn't lying. Loads of people came out in all weathers and all times of the night to cheer me on. Its was INCREDIBLE. So to all those people that said "good luck" "keep going" or came to see me and the crew pass by I say "thank you, you are the best." And if you want to know how I'm getting ready for this next challenge then stay tuned.
Many thanks to Tom Di Biase for the amazing digital painted portrait of me riding on my time trial bike.
All the best.