Land's End To John O'Groats

The Lands End To John O’Groats (LEJOG) cycle trip had been on my back burner for a very long time. It started 21 years ago when I was planning my Queen’s Scout Award. The Award was similar to the Duke Of Edinburgh Award and required a big expedition. I chose to do a cycling trip and needed to find a route greater than the 200 mile minimum requirement. Andrew, my expedition partner, and I briefly considered LEJOG but the distance was way more than required and, at the time, seemed like a bit too much effort. Maidenhead, our hometown, to Lands End at 350 miles was more like it.

1993: Maidenhead to Land's End

That summer was amazing. The years have probably erased all memories of the tough spots and any bad weather, so all I remember now is endless sunny days and pleasant glides through the South-West countryside. We cycled 60 miles a day, stayed in Youth Hostels and survived on Diet Coke and White Chocolate Magnum ice-creams. The 6 day trip to Land’s End was my first big adventure and it definitely wasn't going to be the last. Ever since then the full Land’s End To John O’Groats trip was something I had to do ... just not right now.

Right after that trip I started working for Mars and the next few years was all about work and socialising. 4 years living abroad was a whole different adventure in itself and the LEJOG idea sunk into the very back of my mind. It was only in my mid-30s that I started to get back into the outdoors in a big way. After the Kilimanjaro trek in 2013 I started planning my next big trip and the LEJOG idea started to bubble up again. Two more things then happened to bring it right to the front. The first was turning 40 and thoughts around finishing off things that I wanted to do. The second was planning the Growlerthon, my fundraising year in memory of my dad who was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after Kili. Back burner no more .... I had to do LEJOG.

Putting the team together was relatively easy. Slobby did the trip 2 years before and was up for doing it again. Brian, my Kili buddy, was also an easy “yes”. Brian recruited the rest of the team: Martyn and Ray, both from our office and both with different personal charity and fitness goals, and Reggie, Brian's brother. By early January we had the team together and the next few months was all about training and route planning.

We had all heard of different routes, from the 41 hours record to a very sedate month-long LEJOG pub crawl. 2 weeks seemed the most obvious duration as it was about as much time as we could get off work and the 75 mile average day was very manageable. This plan meant we could stay off the busy A roads as much as possible and get as much scenery in as possible. By the time we all met up in Penzance the evening before the start, we had reached a peak of excitement. We had done all we could to prepare, train and fundraise. Now all we had to do was cycle.

Mile 0

We took Day 1 easy, just 35 miles to Falmouth. A little hilly, but nothing to complain about and a good dose of coastal route scenery. It was the next 2 days, Falmouth to Exford, that were the real test. Most people assume that Scotland is the toughest section for hills, but its actually Devon and Cornwall. This is part of the reason to start at Lands-End so that you can knock off the coastal hills while your legs are fresh. This would have been fine, except that I was still getting used to my new road-bike and I still wasn’t used to the gears. There were several points on the first few days when I thought I’d broken my bike by changing to the wrong gear at the wrong time up a hill.

By Day 4 we’d got into a flow, having got used to being together as a team and perfecting the routine of every day on the road. Each day we would get up at around 7:30, have breakfast, kit-up and tackle the first 15 to 20 miles. Then would come morning break, usually coffee and carrot cake, followed by another 20 miles before lunch. The afternoons were similar: 20 miles, then coffee and cake and the final push through to wherever we were staying that evening. We even got the evenings down to a fine art with some of us sorting out payment for the hostel, some sorting out clothes washing whilst the others showered.

Whilst a lot of the process of doing the trip became routine, the adventure was in the route itself. England, Wales and Scotland unfolded before us, showing us some of the best parts of the countryside. Towards the end of the trip we about our favourite parts but there were too many to bring it down to a short-list. Often we would post on Facebook about that day having been the best of the trip, only for the next day to be just a enjoyable or even better. My video of the highlights is probably the best way to explain how amazing the trip was.

Cross the border

One special moment for me was the evening in Wick, our final overnight stop after our longest day at 105 miles. We were less than 2 cycling hours from John O’Groats so there was already a feeling of celebration. We’d already been spared punctures or major injuries so getting to the end was inevitable, even if we had to walk. Wick really has a sense of being at the end of the country. It was fairly bleak, even in summer, and we wondered what people did there. Over a few pints a a curry we talked about the hilly South-West from 2 weeks ago, the exhilarating downhill rides into Exford, the Strawberry Line to Bristol, crossing the Severn Bridge, The Wye Valley, the ferry across the Mersey, the Lake District, Gretna, Arran, the Great Glenn and the Scottish coast. All very different experiences and even more special to have been able to join them up in one self-powered adventure.

After all of that, the final was a bit of an anti-climax. From Wick, we only had 17 miles to go, normally the distance till our first carrot cake stop. This 17 miles contained the most rain we'd had apart from the Lake District. John O’Groats quickly came and we were greeted by Martyn's family and friends who had followed us since Arran. The next part was ultra efficient, disassembling and boxing up the bikes, driving to Inverness airport and boarding the plane to Gatwick. After 2 weeks of being very present and fully focused on the trip, suddenly it was all over. I’d had a nice sense of completion for the adventure that I'd had in my mind for 21 years, but it didn't feel like an end, more the inspiration for something new. From John O’Groats, there's 2 ways to go, North by boat to Orkney or carry on West to Dunnet Head, the mainland’s most northerly point, then the wild Scottish coast. I'm sure I'll be back for both, but a lot sooner than 21 years.

Click here for more details and photos of LEJOG 2015

Richard gowerComment