By Morven Bruce

For this week’s blog, I caught up with Christina Mackenzie, 44, who recently cycled the North Coast 500 (NC500) in a record 36 hours, 39 minutes and 7 seconds. She adds this record to the one she set last year for cycling from Lands’ End to John O’ Groats (LEJOG).

Both routes are iconic, and many cyclists have attempted the challenge, usually allowing themselves around 10 days to complete the 839 miles – quite an achievement even for your experienced cyclist. But Christina doesn’t work in days, she works in hours. Completing the journey in an incredible 51 hours, 5 minutes and 27 seconds.

Originally from Stornoway in the Western Isles, Christina relocated to Stirling in 2016 and is a member of Stirling Bike Club as well as a coach for Stirling Triathlon Club. In her day job, she works for Falkirk Council as a Swimming Development Officer.

She started cycling through triathlon, having first been a runner. After entering a 10km fun run in 2010, she enjoyed it so much she progressed to running half marathons and then the full 26 miles, eventually leading to her qualifying for both the London & Boston Marathons.

Although enjoying it, Christina found running to have a quite hard impact on her body, and was getting injured on and off. However, she had also been doing some cycling and swimming for cross training and so triathlon was the perfect challenge for her to take on next.

Trying a sprint triathlon (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run) in County Dublin where she was living at the time, Christina did this first event on a mountain bike, not owning a road bike at the time. Despite this, she placed second in her age group – not bad for a first timer.

She got her first road bike in 2012 on the Cycle to Work to scheme and the rest is history!

By then, Christina had realised her natural aptitude for endurance and started to work her way up the triathlon distances, eventually competing at a full Ironman distance (3.8km swim, 120 mile bike, marathon length run).

Throughout this time, Christina also took part in single discipline endurance racing including cycling the Donegal 555, a hilly 555km course. She was the only female in that event but still managed to place 6th overall. After moving to Stirling, she joined Stirling Bike Club and did her first 24 hour time trial event with alongside her club mates, achieving an incredible 397 miles. Having said ‘never again’, Christina then felt she had been too close to the magic 400 mark to not have another go, and so she went back the next year and completed 428 miles.

During that time, Christina became aware of Michael Broadwith, who held the men’s LEJOG record, and Jasmijn Muller, who attempted the women’s record.

“I remember thinking that’s crazy, you wouldn’t drive that let alone cycle it! But the more I thought about it, I felt I didn’t really want to do another 24 hour race again so maybe I should try something different.”

As these things can often start, a chat with friends over a glass of wine saw the wild idea became a reality, with a team of friends ready to support her. Christina first attempted the challenge in 2019 and just missed the mark, although she still finished.

Again, she thought she would never try it again but fast forward a year and she had a new coach and had planned a second attempt for 2020. Having had to postpone to 2021 due to the pandemic, this time Christina succeeded in her goal, knocking 1hr 40mins off the record in a time that was “beyond [her] wildest dreams”.

I asked Christina how you go about training for an endurancechallenge like LEJOG, where you will be going near enough non-stop for hours and days, as it is very difficult to replicate something like that in training.

She said: “That’s the most daunting thing, because you never know how your body is going to react. I was doing lots of back-to-back days, getting my body used to the fatigue and putting the stress on my body so it could be used to working while completely depleted.”

The training took her across Scotland and to some beautiful, scenic locations which she is grateful for, but still couldn’t help but feel at times that seeing it from a car might have been just as appealing.

Her biggest training weekend involved three back-to-back 200 mile days: “I remember cycling along Loch Tay into a headwind and thinking, I just want to throw this bike into the water, because it was relentless. My body was tired and I was grumpy, but I knew I had to do that preparation.”

With 10,000m of climbing required in the 839 mile route, she also had to get used to the hills and she recalls getting towards the end of the final 200 mile training day and realising that she still had to complete the Duke’s Pass and the Crow Road (notorious climbs) before finishing. Christina felt she easily could have given up that day and gone home – no one would have known, no one would have cared – but she persevered and completed her plan.

This was key to helping her believe she could do the main challenge, because while a great physical test, there is of course a huge mental aspect to competing a challenge like this.

Training alone for all those hours requires a certain mindset and is a skill in itself to be able to keep going with only your own thoughts and your own body: “I’m a great believer that your mind will give up before your legs. It really is a mental battle a lot of the time.”

For the actual event, Christina had scheduled 10 minute stops roughly every 100 miles as well as an hour stop around half way to include a 25 minute sleep. A good start with a strong tailwind created a good buffer and when this stop came round, Christina felt strong and didn’t feel she needed the break.

Christina explains: “As a team we had decided any decisions that would be made would be made by them, because I knew I wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to make my own decisions. I trust them 100 per cent to be able to make those decisions.”

The team agreed and allowed her to crack on, knowing they could build in a later sleep stop if required, still unsure of how she would cope with no sleep for 30, 40, 50 hours. In the end, Christina managed the whole 51 hours with no sleep.

She still doesn’t quite know how: “I was a bit delirious by the end.”

Christina had six team members supporting her on her challenge, mostly from Stirling Bike Club: “They’re all friends first and foremost. The bond and trust that we have, I trust them with my life. I knew that nothing was going to happen, from looking after my bike to looking after my own welfare,

“They were all there for me and all played their own role not just on the actual day but all the preparation too and logistics beforehand.”

The team did ‘hand ups’ of water and food every hour from the side of the road, so there was no opportunity to rest for them either.

“It is a team effort. Although I am the one on the bike, I couldn’t do it on my own. They too got little or no sleep”

On a complete high after LEJOG and having had the training been such a big part of her life for so long (3 years), Christina was left thinking, ‘what now’: “I didn’t feel ready to stop. I had my fitness, I was the fittest I’ve ever been, and I had my health.”

Through her LEJOG challenge, Christina was able to raise over £13,000 for Alzheimer Scotland. She wanted to do the same again for another charity, not taking her fitness and health for granted and using it for something good. The North Coast 500 challenge provided a more local challenge, and was an area Christina new much of well. It was also a new route for the Road Records Association.

Whilst completing her training for LEJOG, Christina had been getting support herself from Cruse Scotland, a voluntary bereavement support charity, and this was who she chose to support on this second challenge, having raised over £3000 and counting.

While shorter in distance than LEJOG, the NC500 route has the same elevation within its 516 miles, making it a very different challenge: “The whole experience was completely different, there was nothing the same. With it being so remote, I didn’t have any cars to get a draft off. While LEJOG was mostly A and B roads this felt like C and D roads,

“There wasn’t the opportunity for people to come out and support until I got close to Inverness towards the end of the challenge. The pure ruggedness and the challenge of the course meant you couldn’t get an opportunity to get into a rhythm or pace and put your foot down at all.”

The weather created its own challenge. It was horrible with heavy rain and strong winds and cross winds. There was low visibility and she was getting pushed from side to side, making it feel pretty scary at times. 

She recalls: “At that point I could have cried and put my bike in the back of the van but knowing that people had given up their time to support me, as well as the sponsors, and all the training I had done as well I knew I just couldn’t give up, I had to endure everything that was going to be thrown at me.”

Christina had to take confidence in training she had done over winter. She knew she was prepared for it but was unsure of how her body would cope with the 34+ hours, particularly when the weather made it feel such a struggle.

“Finishing felt amazing. The last hour was great and I was able to pick up the pace. I knew that I was comfortably within my 38 hour target and it was a huge sense of relief. Coming up to Inverness Castle at the end there were lots of people who had come to meet me which was really nice. As was getting off the bike!”

To finish up our chat, I asked Christina what was next for her: “Feet up and enjoy some happy rides and new found freedom!I am going to enjoy some downtime and reassess later. I can’t wait to cycle with other people again as all the training has been on my own. I’m looking forward to social rides and café stops!”

If you’re looking for information on road cycling you can look at the sportScotland website for more details.

Christina’s Just Giving page is still open for donations. If you would like to donate to Cruse Scotland in recognition of Christina’s achievement, you can do so here

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