To Hell and Back

There is a proverb and a prayer withall, That we may not to three strange places fall;
From Hull, from Hell, from Halifax, 'tis this,
From all these three, Good Lord, deliver us.

John Taylor, 1639

Hades

I was hoping for deliverance from hell. Shermer's neck is a condition where the neck muscles become so fatigued they can no longer support the weight of the head. It's not that widely known outside of endurance cycling circles.

To get Shermer's neck you have to have been straining the neck muscles fairly continuously over an extended period. Long distance endurance riding does this. But not traditional touring, more extreme than that.

A name for the condition was first given on Race Across America (RAAM) in 1983. An extreme endurance cycling event where the aim is to cross the USA in as short an elapsed a time as possible on a bike. Michael Shermer encountering the condition, after which it is now named.

Riding a traditional drop bar bike means you are continually using your neck muscles to lift your head up to see the view ahead. How many of us think about this? Not too many I'd bet. Well you soon will if you ever get Shermer's neck. I sincerely hope you never do. It's hell.

For me the neck struck, at a distance 1850km in just over 6 days. It was the Wild Atlantic Way Audax, an event with a distance of 2100km in just over 7 days. It first manifested itself as an intense burning on the back of my neck where it meets the shoulders. Something I mistook for sunburn at the time. The burning spread and within hours I could no long hold my head up to see the view ahead on the bike. Some call it floppy head. Mine wasn't really floppy, I just couldn't lift my head up in a riding position.

Using first a spare inner tube, then zip ties and a helmet I managed to keep going for another 166km. But ultimately I had to stop on safety grounds as the neck weakened and my only view became my front wheel.

Inner tube boy

Long distance endurance events hold a lot of uncertainty about them. Even till the end. But we can all enter that phase, as the event proceeds, where we truly believe we are going to finish. I had entered that phase of belief, with everything going well, the neck was a cruel twist.

WAWA post event drinks, neck still crocked

Deliverance

After returning home, I read up on and spoke to a number of people who had first hand experience of Shermer's neck. What strikes you is how little it is truly understood. There are as many treatments and theories as there are cases. Some more successful than others. Three things stood out for me, rest and recovery, muscle imbalance, and muscle endurance.

Rest and Recovery

This one is easy to explain. Take plenty of rest and recovery where the neck is under minimal strain. Allow the neck muscles to recovery their mojo naturally.

Muscle Imbalance

This one is well understood in physiotherapy. If you've ever had physio you'll know that many exercises are targeted at achieving a balance in opposing as well as complementary muscle groups.

Imbalance is where one group of muscles is stronger than its opposing group. This can lead to bad posture or excessive strain being put on a set of muscles. For example your shoulders may be pulled forward if you spend a lot of time sat hunched in front of a computer, due to an imbalance in strength between the front and back of the body.

Muscle Endurance

Not to be confused with muscle strength. Endurance is about being able to perform a particular muscle action for a prolonged period of time. For example, hold your head up!

Exile

The Injury Count

The neck obviously.

The right hand had a little numbness in the palm and little finger. The left hand was more severe. On the way home from Ireland, on the train in England, the hand had swelled before returning to normal within 24 hours. However, I couldn't straighten the ring and little finger. They were curled like a hook. I could make them straight with my right hand, but they would return to a hook. The palm below numb, bruised and battered. Nerve and tendon damage. Nerve damage is common amongst cyclists after a long distance ride, tendon damage much rarer. The result of putting them under extended pressure in an attempt to give myself a forward view.

I needed to exile myself from the bike. Cycling is one of the loves of my life and gives me tremendous pleasure. A temporary exile whilst I recovered, compared to a permanent disablement. I know friends from the past who've made the other choice, now a permanent one for them. It was an easy decision for me, a natural one.

Recovery

The neck remained weak for about a week after I got home. That turned into stiffness in the neck and across the width of the back.

The hands I spent time curling and uncurling the fingers as best I could. I massaged the top of my left hand above the ring and little fingers, as well as the palm and wrist. I'd also pull the ring and little finger back a little beyond straight, hold them there and release. I'd do this whilst watching TV and my wife would catch me doing it, with a wry smile. I'm left handed and so had to use my right hand for carrying cups of tea or opening beer bottles. Hardships endured.

The neck and back I did specific exercises to target those muscle groups. Some were designed to strengthen, some designed to restore flexibility, some stretches, all designed to bring balance. I went swimming for the first time in ages, and that also helped tremendously.

The hands day by day, week by week began to recover. Sensation came back and I was finally able to straighten my ring and little finger. After about 4 weeks they were back to normal with only a residual tingling.

The neck and back recovered in leaps and bounds. The stiffness took a similar period to the hands to recover from. About 4 weeks. So the beginning of August now.

Return from Exile

Tentative Steps

I took my first tentative pedal strokes back to cycling in August. My exile had been about 6 weeks. Sooner than I could have hoped for. But I could only play it by how things were going. If those first strokes weren't successful I could just stop again for a while.

The first times out were on the Brompton and no more than 6-10 miles. The Brompton is more upright and puts less strain on the neck and hands. Bit by bit I upped the distances then had a successful outing on my Audax bike. End of August we went to Brittany, France for a holiday. We spent half the time cycling, me on my Brompton. It was a success.

Mental Recovery

The physical impacts of a condition can often be seen by others. As can recovery from that condition. What is not so obvious or can be easily be missed is that which lies beneath.

Mentally the neck had knocked me for six. I wondered if my long distance riding was over. Would I ever return? The short rides so far had proved I could return to cycling, but long distance? Would the neck condition repeat? Again that was unclear, I've read that some have made a complete recovery whilst others have suffered repeat after repeat till they stopped.

I had this deep need to know the answer. The UK Audax riding season runs from October till September. One award you can get is a Super Randonneur (SR) Series, for completing rides of 200,300,400,600km in one season. This year had been up and down and I was missing a 600km ride for the award. I saw my comeback test.

Hell Hull and Back

I was unable to make the last Audax calendar event 600 rides in September. I opted for a solo 600 (Mandatory Route) DIY on 24th September. From my house to Hessle (near Hull or Hell as you see fit) and back. I'd go north by joining the Easter Arrow 400 route designed by Tom Deakins. Joining it at the point of my failure last Easter. I'd cross the Humber Bridge. Here I had a Premier Inn booked. I'd do a short northern loop of 38km, sleep, before returning south on the LEL2017 route, then back home.

I left home shortly after 6am. Dark and quiet, apart from the dawn chorus warming up. I weaved my way through familiar lanes and villages. Weston, Rushden, Ashwell. It felt warm at first till I climbed a rise and the cold air touched my bare skin. I continued on.

My dynamo light flickered off briefly as I hit a bump. Diagnosed as a loose spade connector. Reattached the light returned to full brightness. More on this later.

As I entered Cambridgeshire a fine sunrise rose in the east. The fields were golden in the soft light. I weaved along the traffic free lanes, the landscape beginning to flatten. A Red Kite, a Fox, some Deer, Rabbits, two Badgers, a Heron. I love these early morning encounters when the rest of the world still sleeps.

First I headed north and east through Cambridgeshire services to Chatteris before returning west through Ramsey to Whittlesey. Necessary to ensure I covered the required 600km.

North, beyond Whittlesey you crest a small rise and then enter Lincolnshire and truly enter The Fens, otherwise known as the flatlands. Northern Cambridgeshire gives you a taste, and then you enter the long haul.

Typical fen land view

Being flat, those from hilly areas may think it is easy riding. Make no mistake, if the wind is against you, it'll be harder for longer than any hill you've climbed. It can be brutal. Fortunately the wind was blowing from the south. Whenever I turned off a northerly trajectory I noticed it; with a subsequent drop in speed.

Lincolnshire on a Saturday is like many other places in the UK on a Sunday. Many village shops are shut. Major towns became a focus for stocking up. Lincoln I had a special fried rice in a Thai takeaway.

Yummy!

On leaving Lincoln I noticed the spade connector was completely loose. Spying an RAC man I popped across and asked if I could borrow a pair of needle nose pliers. He duly obliged and shortly after the spade connector was back to normal width and there was a firm connection between the dynamo and the light.

For all your cycling needs

Lincoln is where the hills return after a good 100km of flat. I climbed up onto a ridge and recognised it as the ridge mentioned on the Calendar Flatlands 600. Sure enough I spied many of the 5 star bus shelters along this stretch. The land was flat to the left with power stations in the distance. It was a great stretch.

The neck was feeling good and the hands fine. Having ridden a recumbent recently it reminded how uncomfortable an upright is in comparison. On the upright there's a need to change position regularly to prevent pressure related injuries building up over a long distance. Recumbents don't have this problem. I was comfortable as I've ever been on the upright though.

As I closed on the lights of the Humber bridge darkness was falling. The road was mostly empty and I entered that meditative state I often do on long rides. The GPS awoke me from this with a warning the battery was low. No problem I'd charged another 4 pairs and I'd just put another set in. Well I would if I'd put them in my saddle bag and not left them on the radiator shelf. Doh!

The GPS batteries ran out of juice. I continued north on the road I was on towards Barton and the Humber bridge lights. Luckily at this point the navigation was trivial, and the GPS was only required to record the track log to validate the ride. A problem, but I'm sure it could be validated provided the vast majority of a track log could be produced.

More power!

I reached Barton, and found a garage. Pack of 8 AA batteries and GPS was back in business. I love crossing suspension bridges. This would be my 7th crossing of a suspension bridge this year. The last light of day was lingering in the sky. The woman at the garage had warned it was windy up there so I removed my hat. Up on the east side I found it wasn't so windy and I could have worn the hat. I took my time crossing before descending to the country park and Premier Inn just beyond.

Crossing just after 7pm

Don't look down

It was about 7:30pm and I'd had a gloriously wind assisted run north for a 13.5 hour first 300km. I'd intended to cover the northern loop before sleeping at the Premier Inn. I was somewhat tired, so I opted for food, sleep then I'd do the northern loop and return south in one hit. Service was fast, with a buffet and coke available with unlimited refills. I ate well.

Bike outside room, Premier Inn

In bed just after 8pm, I slept till 1am. The northern loop I'd planned seemed to visit every transmitter within range. Seems I didn't look at the terrain too closely. But, it made a welcome change after the flatlands, and the red lights on the masts gave me something to aim at. The lanes were silent in the dead of the night, just the odd owl making their presence known. A couple of hours later I was back at the Premier Inn.

Back on the Humber Bridge, eerily without the sound of the cars. Through Barton and on to the Lincolnshire Wolds. The first climb goes on for ever, a long long drag. Past Humberside airport and on to Caistor.

Heading back south, 3:20am The day before had been deceptive. Flat roads and a strong tail wind can fool you. Fool you into thinking you are fitter than you really are. The hills in the Wolds, and that strong tailwind now a headwind, found me wanting. The fitness wasn't there. Hardly surprising as I'd done very little aerobic exercise in the last 3 months, and minimal time on the bike, mainly concentrating on recovery.

The struggle had begun. I toiled up and down the hills, going ever slower. At Coxwold I found a bus shelter. Not 5* as the bench was a bit narrow for lying on to sleep. But it did alright for a 30 minute sleep. I also missed the heavy rain shower that blew in.

At Louth I found a Spar open and managed to stock up on calories as the street cleaners did their early morning job. Louth was a nice well provisioned town. As I left I saw the route did a funny navigational loop. All became clear, it was the LEL 2017 route and the loop took you to the grammar school which will be a control next year.

At Hemingby, 403km into my route I exited the Wolds. It's not a dramatic exit, the hills just generally flatten, the long drags remain long but shallow till they are just long. Welcome back to the Fens.

On through Horncastle, Mareham Le Fen, Gipsy Bridge. The roads headed south and west and directly into a headwind. If I thought I was slow in the Wolds, the Fens was showing me up even more. It wasn't helping that there was a parsity of open shops. It was like the UK back in the 70's. I was dying in the wind and unable to get fresh food and calories. My emergency rations came out, but I was really struggling. I stopped a few times to lie down on the grass, to a take a break and gaze at the big skies overhead.

The road must go on

As you approach Hubberts bridge on the B Road you'll notice the appearance of high speed traffic. They did fortunately make wide passes, and it's only for 5km. At the bridge you cross the railway then on the right is a carvery. I stopped here for much needed food and water.

Down through Kirton to Pinchbeck where I stopped to eat once more. Then onto Spalding. I was utterly depleted now. I rang my wife, explained I was creamed crackered. We agreed I'd get some pizza to replenish myself. Then I'd plod on with an ETA back home around 2-3am Monday at the earliest.

I spied a Domino's Pizza and they agreed I could eat inside. I only wanted a small but they said I could upgrade to a medium for free. I knew I couldn't finish it, but I tried my best. Hot and spicy, how I like it. After allowing time for it to go down, I headed out, back south.

The headwind continued to impede my progress. I was getting increasingly tired. Running on fumes. I had a couple of lie downs where I actually fell asleep. My average speed dropped well below that needed. The Pizza wasn't helping get energy back quick enough. My energy levels had dropped off a cliff. I calculated my new ETA for home and it was looking increasingly after 6am Monday, and that was without any sleep.

I decided to call the ride to a close. There's something to be said for the phycology of completing the 600km. But as I examined it, my main reason for the ride was to overcome any doubts I had about my neck. My neck passed with honours and I'm now confident about the future of my long distance cycling. The SR would have been a nice to have as well. But it wasn't important enough to suffer for another 12 hours at least or risk suffering a bonk late at night in a dark lane. A distance of 480km and no neck issues would do just fine.

I neglected my fitness over the Summer. So focused had I been on recovery. We sometimes take our fitness for granted, as though it comes naturally. The reality is we all need to work at our fitness and when you change or stop exercising your fitness changes. Looks like I've turned into the couch potato. So the hard graft of recovering my fitness through the Autumn and Winter. Then I'll be truly back.

As to future riding, I've pulled the trigger on a recumbent cycle. My long distance cycling it about to get a whole lot more comfortable.