Lying there at five o’clock in the morning, it was hard to know if what was going on above me was really happening. Two types of exhaustion made sure of that. An emotional evening’s riding had left me empty and having spent the night not entirely sure if I had slept at all meant that the shapes in the sky took on a surreal edge. It was as though someone had stirred the clouds and they were just now settling into a more familiar form.
The added challenge of exhaustion is that it leaves you emotional, and sadly, more likely to make bad decisions. I’d already decided the night before that I was going to catch the train home the next day, but I hadn’t told anyone yet. I hadn’t really told myself. In hindsight, the torrential rain that came a few hours after I stepped back through the front door – a day or two earlier than planned – did nothing to assuage the guilt I felt. The truth was that I made my decision long before the first drop fell from the sky, and it would be dishonest of me to claim otherwise.
Three weeks down the line, the trip has taken on a misty haze in my memories. The feelings of frustration and despair have subsided, and while they dominated my mind on the day, I can barely grasp them now. I’m amazed – and appalled – at myself for having given up so easily. While at the time it was almost impossible to see how much I was enjoying myself, I now struggle to remember how low I was feeling.
This was supposed to be a post about how I made it to the end of the South Downs Way – about the elation I felt cresting the final climb outside Eastbourne, about struggling over the climbs I already knew, and encountering new hills on the terrain I’d not ridden before. A humorous story about my first night wild camping perhaps, followed by a heartfelt missive about how I’d grown and changed as a person on this journey and how it had been hard at times, but worth it in the end. I’d even already prepared the Charles Bukowski quote for the opening paragraph.
In the end, I wasn’t ready. It’s a hard thing to admit to yourself though, when you know so many people who made it sound like a breeze – South Downs Way in a day? No problem. The Double? Tough, but totally doable. Winchester to Butser Hill? Surely that’s the kind of thing I should be knocking out in my sleep?
Which is why I’m now finding it hard to bring this sorry story to an end. Those 100 miles are still out there, and I still want to ride them – now more than ever.
We have unfinished business. I have a Bukowski quote to use.
Words and Photos by James Oaten