Steve Abraham 2017 HAMR report

I set off at midnight on March 3rd, 2017 with Matt Seward, who had ridden a few training rides with me. On that first day I clocked 319 miles and it felt easy and was a good start to my year.

The next few days went well and I felt comfortable for the rest of the month averaging around 230 miles a day. I was riding for around 95-100 hours a week, not including stops and from my power meter, my fitness seemed to be improving.

On into April and I could see signs of improvements in my fitness and my speed was increasing slightly, but my mileage had dropped, which did puzzle me because I thought that I was spending the same number of hours on the road. Looking back at my rides on Strava, I probably was spending roughly the same time out on the road but was stopping for a bit longer so was riding a few hours less each week. The decrease in mileage didn’t concern me very much because I could see the increase in speed and the weather was improving. I had the whole of summer to catch up the lost miles and as I could see my speed increase I expected to get faster as the weather improved as well as my fitness hopefully improving. I was still riding around 95 hours each week.

I never really noticed any improvements in speed during May, nor did my speed increase noticeably but I was riding for slightly fewer hours. My mileage remained pretty steady at around 1550 each week, so with the good start it meant that my daily average was dropping.

I hoped that in June I would get a bit faster and maybe even ride for a few more hours each day. I didn’t try to force myself to ride extra hours and never used an alarm clock to get up earlier for an early start because getting too far behind on sleep would slow me down in the long run. However, I was starting to feel more tired. Well, I wasn’t expecting it to be easy and I still felt reasonably in control. Much more so than in 2015 and although my daily mileage wasn’t as much as I’d have liked, I still had 4 months of good weather to come. I wasn’t just feeling a bit more tired, I was feeling stronger as well, so I didn’t try to force a few extra hours each week, I just tried to keep it steady and thought that better weather and improvements in my fitness would give me extra speed.

Having noticed that my speed didn’t improve as much as I’d liked during June, I tried going easier and a bit slower for a few weeks. I was riding roughly the same hours as I was in April. I thought that I might have recovered, got some training effect and hopefully get my speed up some more. This did work, so for the last two weeks of July, I was around 1-2mph faster than I was in June. Instead of using the extra speed to try and do more miles, I used the extra time for more rest. I was starting to feel a bit tired and I thought that an hour or so extra sleep each day would improve my recovery and give me a further improvement in speed.

By August I was getting very tired. Physically, I felt much better. My speed hadn’t dropped since I’d eased off in early July and I was feeling stronger if anything. But I was feeling more tired.

At the end of July, I rode a 24 hour time trial and finished the event in the early afternoon, which meant that I got a longer than usual sleep before I set off the next day. I was surprised at how well I was going the day after the 24 hour.

Thinking back to that ride, I decided to try getting a good sleep of around 10-12 hours then doing 2 days with little sleep in-between to try and replicate what I did on the 24 hour and the following day. I thought that riding steady might not do so much damage and that the longer sleep would give me a much better recovery than my usual sleep of around 7 hours. Then, if that worked, maybe I could do 2–3 days with minimal sleep followed by a very good long sleep for recovery.

I only kept it up for about a week and soon fell back into my more regular sleeping pattern. I was now down to riding around 85 hours a week. I didn’t try to force myself to go back up to 95 hour weeks again. My speed was still OK and I thought that keeping my riding hours down to 85 hours would give me an extra 10 hours more sleep each week than my first few months. I thought that would hopefully mean an improvement in my fitness and speed. After all, I seemed to get fitter at the beginning of the year while riding 95 hours a week, so only riding for 85, in theory, should mean that I recover faster, I would have thought.

Amanda’s world record was starting to look like it was getting out of my reach but I still hadn’t given up on it entirely. If I could get my speed and number of riding hours up, I still might have had a chance. And if not, there was still the men’s record and my original aim to go for. Not exactly what I was after but giving up never made any sense.

By September I felt even more tired. I asked myself why I was still tired. I was riding fewer hours than I was in the first few months, so what was different? I was riding faster, so perhaps if I eased off the pace a bit, along with the extra sleep, I should recover and hopefully be able to ride faster more easily and for a few more hours. But, it didn’t work.

Just over a week into September Idai, from my support team, who rides an elliptigo bike suggested I use the A505 Leighton Buzzard by-pass. I looked at his rides on Strava and from his data it looked like it might help me go a bit faster for the same effort. Elliptigos are affected by headwinds more than bicycles because you have ride them in an upright position and can’t really get into a tuck like you can on a bike but Idai was getting some good speeds (for an elliptigo)

I tried the new route and it did seem to be faster for the same effort. It also had the advantage of being close to my home and being a 10 mile circuit riding up and down the same stretch of road. Roughly 1-2000ft less climbing than my regular routes and more sheltered from the wind. It was also near a town so it would be easy to get supplies. It also had a 24 hour McDonalds, which I could use for toilet and short sleep stops, as I had it in mind to do rides through the night. Being close to home meant that if I started getting sleepy I wasn’t committed to a long ride home while sleepy. If I got sleepy I could take a nap in McDonalds before riding home and going to bed for a better sleep. I could also leave food, drink and clothing just off the road so that I could travel lighter and not have to send so much time stopped buying food and drink as I did on my regular routes.

Mid September I fell ill and didn’t ride for two days. It wasn’t that I felt so ill I couldn’t ride. I was just very sleepy and didn’t think it wise to ride when I was so sleepy. I thought I might be at risk of falling asleep while riding and that if I did try and ride, I’d be very slow. I thought that my time would be better spent getting over my illness as well as maybe getting some recovery so that when I went out again, I’d be faster and better rested.

After my two days spent almost entirely asleep in bed, I felt awake enough to ride but had painful legs, especially my calf muscles. I had my suspicions that it was DVT. I’d been laying in bed for a very long time and seemed to have the symptoms. If I stood still it got very painful. Even riding was painful but not as bad as standing still. I couldn’t stand still for more than a few seconds and started walking on the spot whenever I had to stop, including when I stopped for a pee. It got so bad near the end of one day that I stopped for a meal so I could sit down and rest. I sat down for about 20 minutes before the pain subsided enough for me to stand at the bar to order my food.

I tried using compression stockings that I had left over from when I had the broken ankle in 2015 and they really helped relieve the pain so I bought some compression tights which made a big difference. I don’t know if it was DVT or not. I did hear from another in my team who was ill at about the same time, that he also had painful legs, so it could have just been what was going around at the time. Within about a week it was pretty much gone. In spite of riding fewer hours, I was getting more and more tired.

By late September I was often feeling very tired. Sometimes sleeping at the roadside because my concentration was going. I never took any chances with getting sleepy on the road.

The best way I can describe how it felt is that feeling of tiredness you feel in your legs. I was feeling that on the inside. I was struggling to keep food down and bringing it up about once an hour. At worst I was riding for about 2 hours where I was being sick every 2 miles. I found somewhere to sleep at the roadside and was back to my normal being sick about once an hour again.

I started taking caffeine. I was already drinking coffee, but I moved on to caffeine pills.

I didn’t intend it to be for the rest of my year. The idea was that the caffeine would keep me more awake so that I would ride faster. My legs didn’t feel bad, I was just tired and didn’t feel very good. Riding a bit faster would buy me more recovery so that I could hopefully, catch back up on sleep and be able to stop using the caffeine. The caffeine really did seem to help too. My speed increased and I felt a lot better.

Into October I was still struggling to ride around 85 hours a week but although the caffeine was helping, I knew it was a bad situation.

After giving it some thought, there was only one thing that made sense. I read up on sleep about 15 years ago and in spite of me waking up naturally every day without an alarm and getting as many hours sleep as I thought I needed, all the signs were there that I really wasn’t getting enough sleep. The only thing that made sense was that I had sleep apnea. I knew that I snored. So I bought some anti snoring throat spray from a chemist to see if it helped.

When I woke up the next morning I felt a whole lot better! After a few days and feeling much better but still exhausted, I bought a chin strap and nose vents to see if I could improve on the throat spray (which wasn’t really for apnea, but I knew it would probably help if I did have apnea) I felt better still. Then I had another look to see if I could go one up on the chin strap and came up with a tongue stabiliser, which is simply a device that you put your tongue into before bed. It basically looks like a todlers dummy (pacifier) and keeps your tongue pulled out while you sleep so that your airway stays unblocked. That made the world of difference. I also tried another MAD device but didn’t think it was working so well so went back to the tongue stabilser.

That was a huge turning point, from there on, every day I felt better and less tired. After about a week I started to taper off the caffeine. Because I was sleeping so much better, I was feeling better, even though I was spending as many hours asleep as I was before.

When I got a little better, I even felt like I was catching up on sleep while sleeping for fewer hours than when I was falling behind on sleep. This meant that I could start to build up my riding hours again.

Coming off the caffeine did reduce my speed a bit but the extra few hours riding each week more than made up for that, so my mileage started to creep up a bit. Laying off the caffeine was only going to help me sleep better and give me a better recovery, so the short term loss would have hopefully given me a longer term gains and besides, I could always go back to caffeine at the end of the year to wring out a few extra miles.

Another reassuring sign was that in late October I became slightly ill and got a productive cough. When I normally get a productive cough, it usually gets very bad and lasts for weeks. When I started coughing I thought that having that on top of how tired I was, I might have ended up in a very bad way and been so ill that I’d have lost a lot of miles. This may have potentially ended my attempt. I do wonder if discovering my apnea when I did was just in time for me to not get beaten up by my illness. My cough never really got bad at all and was gone within a week.

Into late November and early December, I was feeling a lot better. I was still riding on the Leighton Buzzard by-pass and was getting very fed up with it. It wasn’t so much using the same road all day, it was just the amount of traffic. It had a lot of advantages and it was handy not having to plan a route to get best benefit from the wind. I just found it stressful and usually stopped to eat sometime during the rush hour just to have a break from all the traffic. I also noticed that my speed didn’t seem to be much better than my old routes and wanted to get back to riding the roads I used earlier in the year, just for something more interesting. Now that I was recovering from loss of sleep, I’d not want to spend as much time stopped if I could help it and my old routes did quite a good job at putting me on quieter roads when the traffic built up.

The trouble was, the weather. My routes work best with a SW wind that dies down in the evening but the wind just kept coming from the North or East so I stayed on the Leighton Buzzard by-pass, which had less climbing than my other routes. The other problem was ice. The Leighton Buzzard by-pass and my route to get there was all gritted roads which would be much safer when there’s a risk of ice. Pus you learn where all the hazards are when you ride up and down the same bit of road all day, so as much as I wanted to get off the by-pass, I was stuck with it until the temperature went up a little bit and the wind changed to it’s prevailing SWerly.

On 13th December, more bad luck. Someone drover their car into me at about 40-50mph from behind. No broken bones but my right leg was hit by their wing mirror, which came clean off and my right shin got tangled in my handlebars somehow. I also landed on my coccyx. The right hand drop of my handlebars was now like a 3rd tri-bar arm. I’d hate to think what my hand would have been like had I not been on my tri bars. If I’d been about a foot further into the road I’d most likely have been a lot worse off, possibly dead. So a relatively lucky escape, though it was a long wait at the roadside for an ambulance to take me to hospital for a checkup and because it was so cold my core temperature dropped down to 33 degrees. I was very close to hypothermia.

That was probably the nail in the coffin to my getting the men’s record. My injuries made me feel sleepy again and slowed me down. It was a different kind of sleepiness to what I was just getting over. I didn’t feel so run down or exhausted, but it came up quite quickly. It meant that not only was I riding slower, I had to stop for a nap now and then. I never tried to ride through it because I knew that sleeping would help me recover faster.

After I was hit, I stopped using the Leighton Buzzard by-pass. The wind did more or less change to being more SWerly. I didn’t rule out using it again if the conditions made it the best choice but I’d had enough of it and it wasn’t really giving me any advantage that I could see.

I still had it in mind that I had my 3 attempts for the month record and was thinking of entering them at 1 week intervals, concurrently, until the end of my HAMR. I had nothing to lose. Either I wouldn’t get back up to speed again but on the other hand, if I made a good recovery and if what I was doing to treat my sleep apnea worked well, I’d be kicking myself if I started going very well and never sent an entry in for the month record.

As if being hit by a car wasn’t enough, just as I was starting to recover from being hit by the car a little bit, I came off on ice very hard.

I landed quite heavily on my left side. The next day I could hardly walk and leaned on my bike. To get on and off the bike I had to rest my leg on the top tube and slide it over. My new injury only made me slower and more sleepy. And while that was going on my tracker decided to give up on me and my GPSs were old and tired after so much use and abuse. So that all needed to be sorted out.

My speed never recovered. It took me about two weeks before I could walk reasonably comfortably again and get on and off my bike by swinging my leg over the top tube instead of sliding it over. Because of my injuries, I had to keep stopping for sleep now and then. I was never sleepy all the time, I just had to have a good nap when I did get sleepy and felt much better afterwards. In fact, I enjoyed the last two or three months as much as enjoyed the first few. I wasn’t feeling as run down as I was a few months ago now that I was sleeping much better and caught up on sleep.

I did try riding a bit faster, but that meant that I stopped for sleep and rest more often, so I resigned to riding steady and taking a nap when I needed to. I also went back to taking caffeine to try and reduce hours spent not riding but had a watershed of 3pm so that my caffeine wouldn’t intefere with my sleep at night so much.

With all the distractions from injuries, tiredness from injuries, sorting out trackers and GPSs, I only just got one entry in on time for the month record attempt. I was still hoping that I would recover from my injuries so that I could get back up to speed and riding more hours in the last month or even few weeks. But it never happened. My injuries never really healed properly and were always in the background. I did recover enough to get my riding hours back up to around 95 a week but doing that while having to take a nap during the day now and then caught up with me and I couldn’t keep it up. I ended up tired again, though I think it was more physical tiredness from recovering from injuries than lack of sleep in general. Mentally I still felt good and although my speed was way down, I was enjoying the riding a lot more. I simply ran myself down until one night I was trying to get home and had to keep stopping for sleep. It was then that I knew that the game was up for me taking the men’s record so resigned myself to aiming for 73,000 for the year, an average of 200 miles a day. It also meant I wouldn’t beat my month record.

I eased right off once I decided to aim for the 73,000 miles. I didn’t worry too much if I fell behind by a few miles now and then because I thought that I could do a bit extra at the end. The other thing was that the weather forecast was looking bad for the last week with snow and strong winds. I didn’t want to tire myself out too much before having to ride in bad weather. Also, the weather would either be not too bad, so I’d still be able to do a bit extra at the end, or it will be very bad and even if I’m in a good position to get the 73,000, very bad weather would probably spoil it so I wasn’t going to batter myself just yet. Instead I just rode steady and tried to recover. I did get a bit behind what I needed for the 73,000.

In spite of riding fewer hours, I was still getting sleepy and my speed wasn’t increasing. I was sleeping much more than I was in July and I was sleeping better as well. I can only guess that I was still recovering from my injuries and it was that what was making me so sleepy and slowing me down. I could certainly still feel that I had my injuries. They never really hurt, but they were definitely still there. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me as to why I was feeling so much better, but was so slow and still getting sleepy.

Finally, the snow started to come. I set out to ride on local roads in case it got bad. After about 65 miles I got back home with the intention of eating, having a sleep while the roads got busy, then going out again after seeing what the road conditions were like. But I overslept and didn’t go out again and as I slept the snow came down.

The next day, the roads were very hazardous with the snow and I was very tired. I certainly could have gone out and done a bit. But I doubt that I could have done much and didn’t see any point in battering myself and taking risks in bad weather. If I wasn’t so tired I’d have probably been more adventurous, but getting exhausted in the cold weather in very hazardous roads didn’t seem wise. So for the last 3 days I didn’t do anything more than push my bike in the snow for a few miles. On the last day I walked with my bike to a pub and spent the day there drinking tea and eating.

Not the result I wanted but with my sleeping disorder and injuries, I think I can say I gave it a good go and it could be argued that I might have at least done what I set out to do when I set off in 2015, to try and exceed 75,065 miles in a year. I was never expecting it to be easy and I would never have taken it easy. On the other hand, I probably didn’t even realise how hard I was trying and I think that my biggest enemy was sleep apnea.