At 3am I woke to the unmistakable sounds of voices nearby. I shot up out of my sleeping bag as the voices grew louder and listened intently. Almost immediately, the voices faded into the distance again. Thankfully, that meant it was just some people passing along the trail. Relieved that I hadn’t been discovered, I drifted off to sleep once more only to be woken ten minutes later by more voices. Again they faded off into distance and I fell back asleep.
This cycle would continue for the next four and a half hours as it seemed like a continuous stream of people were passing along the trail in the middle of the night. I could not understand what was going on, and just attempted to grab short bursts of sleep before I was inevitably awoken again each time, dazed and confused.
When I did emerge from the cocoon of my sleeping bag, and ventured out of my tent, it all made sense. On 364 nights of the year, I would have had a very peaceful night’s sleep camping where I did on this rather remote ridgeline. Yet, I had happened to wild camp along the side of the trail during the middle of The Ridgeway Challenge, a 138 kilometre ultra marathon where hundreds of runners traverse the entire length of the Ridgeway! What I had been hearing all night were the front-runners of the race passing my tent, many of them running together while deep in conversation. And as I packed away my gear and deconstructed my tent, a steady stream of red-faced, steely-eyed trail runners were continuing to make their way past me.
I had originally planned to cook up some breakfast on my stove before I got moving, but a mist and a cold wind had descended upon the ridge, with the temperature having dropped to 8°C. Considering I had packed a 15°C sleeping bag to save on weight and the fact I had a poor night’s sleep, I just decided to get on the bike so I could warm up and start making some progress towards the hotel in Reading which I had booked a month previously. The plan being that the comfortable bed and a hot shower would be a welcome reward for hopefully having made it halfway around the King Alfred’s Way with a dodgy back!
Back on the bike again, I started the day by flying down a sweeping, grassy descent, flowing along the narrow trail as it traversed the rolling green hills. As the morning drew on, the sun burned off the remaining mist and soon warmed me up after my chilly night on the ridge.
After eighteen kilometres of off-road cycling along the Ridgeway, I reached The Flying Pig, a food truck that parks up in a field right by the trail, offering some classic English fare. Here I met another group of bikepackers tackling the King Alfred’s Way in the opposite direction. They had managed 240 kilometres the previous day, which I was blown away by. It was a humble reminder of just how unfit I am when compared to these kinds of long-distance speedsters.
After wolfing down a tasty burger as my belated breakfast, I hit the Ridgeway again and continued traversing my way eastwards along the rough track. As the day progressed, the more my fatigue grew, the exertion of the previous day starting to catch up with me.
So, when a couple who were hiking the Ridgeway asked me if I had some painkillers, I was happy to take a break so I could help them out and have a nice conversation to break up the cycle.
It turned out that this nice young couple were attempting to walk the length of the Ridgeway to raise money for Bowel Cancer UK. The guy had managed to hurt his leg and had been struggling to walk for two days. In those two days, due to the surprising remoteness of the Ridgeway, they had not passed a single chemists. I admired his perseverance and was happy to give him some ibuprofen, although I had to keep the majority for myself as my back was already starting to give me some trouble.
Before leaving, I took down what I thought was their Facebook page so I could donate some money to their cause, but I must have taken it down wrong as I could not find it for love nor money. I ended up donating the money directly to Bowel Cancer UK in the end, but the couple are probably cursing the lying Irishman who said he would donate to their cause and then disappeared into the distance never to be seen again!
The next thirty kilometres proved to be a real struggle as I climbed and descended along the rugged, serpent’s back of the Ridgeway. My lack of bike fitness meant that I was out of breath on the smallest of inclines and the lack of saddle time over the previous eight months meant that I was already facing some rather extreme chafing and saddle sores. Although the scenery was gorgeous, and I really appreciated the remoteness of this section of trail, it is sad to say that, due to the pain I was in, I endured, rather than enjoyed this last section of the Ridgeway.
Nonetheless I did my best to ignore the arse-full of nerve endings that were sending pain signals to my brain and fought my way along the last sections of the Ridgeway, arriving in the picturesque village of Goring on Thames.
From this point on I put the camera away and just focused on nursing myself the last twenty kilometres into Reading. Thankfully, the route followed a gorgeous river side track from Goring on Thames to Reading, cut into the steep slopes of a forest above the river. I still enjoyed this section immensely despite the pain I was in, cruising over roots and rocks as the trail took sweeping turns up and down the steep slope.
As I closed in on Reading, the route started following canals through town, taking me right by the Reading Festival. My earlier obstacles of roots and rocks on the river-side track were now replaced with stumbling revellers who I had to weave my careful way around without knocking either them or me into the nearby canal.
Before I knew it I was already in the middle of Reading and only needed to cycle fifty metres off the cycle lane of the official King Alfred’s Way route to get to my hotel. It was only fifty metres of a city road I had to navigate, with just one junction, yet I was still nearly taken out by a taxi!
As I rolled up to the junction, a taxi came flying through it from the opposite side and then turned sharply, cutting straight across me. Thankfully, I saw him coming and braked immediately, my wheels skidding as I came to a halt just in time to see him speed by my front wheel. If I hadn’t noticed him, I would have been taken clean out.
I screamed and raised my hands and saw him give a dismissive wave of apology through the rear windscreen as he continued to speed away, such a casual wave to dismiss a serious life and death situation. I was a bit shaken by how close of a call this was. I’m used to reasonably close calls through how much of my life I have spent cycling, but this was one of the closest I had experienced, and it wasn’t until later that evening that the shock had worn off.
When I did make it the remaining metres to my hotel (without any further incidents), I found it locked. The doorbell didn’t work and my Irish sim card didn’t seem to like the English number of the pub; it staunchly refused to ring it. After circling around, I managed to find a deliveries entrance and rang that bell. I’m not sure what delivery they were expecting, but a knackered Irish cyclist in mud-spattered clothes probably wasn’t it.
I quickly gave them my details while blocking out the Formula 1 race that was on the TV in the background. I had been avoiding the results of Saturday’s Qualifying all day, and hoped to avoid the results of the Sunday race (that was ongoing) so that I could rewatch it that night without knowing the result. Any mainstream sports fans who also love to spend their weekends in the outdoors will know this battle all too well.
Once in my room, I grabbed a much needed hot shower to wash off the last two days’ worth of sweat and mud. I also used this opportunity to wash my clothes, putting them at the bottom of the shower after I was clean and then lathering them in soap; this was then followed by rolling them up in a towel and stamping on it repeatedly to dry them out. This washing technique is one of those sneaky tricks that saves some vital time in the evenings after a hard day of cycling, proving to be much faster than hunching over a sink.
Afterwards, I headed to both Tesco and McDonalds, to get some much needed fuel. As part of my space saving, I had only taken SPD shoes with me, meaning that I had no choice but to wear these out. I gathered some strange looks as I clip-clopped down the aisles of Tesco, looking like a lost, dishevelled tap dancer.
After a great feed, I relaxed for the evening, putting my feet up and hoping that this time off would give my back and my saddle sores a chance to recover. Yet, by midnight I was still in a lot of pain and knew that the next day would be even more of a struggle.
My original plan had been to wild camp again the next night, but with how sore my back was and how painful these saddle sores were, I knew that I needed both a proper bed and a shower if I wanted any chance of completing the King Alfred’s Way in the four days that I had available to me. So, I admitted defeat and booked a room at the Devil’s Punchbowl hotel for the next night, aiming for another 80-ish kilometre day.