© Friction Collective
When Mel Nicholls suffered a series of strokes in her twenties, she ended up losing full use of her left side and her ability to walk. She didn’t lose her thirst for adventure or endurance sport, however, and followed her passion for both, becoming a two-time Paralympian and world record holder in track wheelchair racing before moving into marathon racing and handcycling for Great Britain.
Last June, Mel set off on her biggest challenge yet: Handcycle Britain, a world record attempt to break the 10-day female handcycle record for riding 874 miles from Lands End to John O’Groats. She smashed it in an incredible 6 days, 22 hours and 18 minutes, riding a monumental last day of more than 300km!
Mel’s LEJOG achievement is documented in the film “Dream Big” which follows her handcycle record attempt last year. I spoke with Mel ahead of the London Premiere of her film, taking place on Monday 16th March at The Charlotte Street Hotel as part of Four Seasons Film Festival– a boutique festival celebrating storytelling inspired by adventure.
You’ve enjoyed huge success as a world-class athlete and Paralympian, but what inspired your idea for a bigger LEJOG endurance adventure?
It started whilst I was in hospital after my stroke. I spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling and four walls, and I started planning. I was inspired by a story my father told me about a great ancestor of mine who was seen as a bit of an adventurer, and I began to plan my own adventure, on home soil. I didn’t at the time know what it would be, but it involved travelling by human power and endurance.
As [competing in] sport took over, adventures were for the off-season and not the bigger idea I first dreamt of, until 2018 when I had to stop racing whilst waiting for some heart surgery. I used the time out to take on my biggest and wildest unsupported challenge; to solo handcycle the Faroe Islands.
Following successful heart surgery on my return, and full circle from that idea planned in hospital, I decided to bring my performance side from sport into my ‘adventure self’ and take on an endurance challenge that would push limits in performance and adventure. I represent Great Britain in my sport, and as an ambassador for Ordnance Survey; I love Britain and want to share the Great, so to take on the iconic British LEJOG route made perfect sense, and there Handcycle Britain was born.
What did your training look like in the lead-up to LEJOG?
I was still in race training (wheelchair racing marathons) so I continued my usual training in both my racing chair and on my bike, plus doing my usual strength sessions. I continued to train six days a week with a mix of the above. Focusing on endurance in wheelchair racing is also more conducive to the challenge than when I was an 800m track racer, though 13/26 miles (the distance Mel covers in races) is still a way from 100+ miles, which I needed to cover each day during LEJOG.
What were the challenges of training for handcycling 100+ miles a day?
It was important to train for the distance, but logistically [it was] tricky. The miles were the easier bit. As a handcyclist, I need to have my crutches with me for when I have to get off during the 8 or so hours riding, meaning I either needed someone to train with me or I ride loaded up and work through things by myself. It’s not easy convincing friends to ride 100 miles in the cold and rain! Plus, when work, you can’t go cycling for 8-10 hours too often.
For those sessions, it was important to me to always ride over 100 miles; it was very much a mental game. It was also important for me to suffer in training. I guess a sort of resilience training. As well as the longer rides, it was important that I included interval and speed sessions on the turbo trainer to build power and strength to support the endurance required day after day.
On top of suffering in training did you do any other mental preparation?
In addition to the above, I worked with a sport psychologist to prepare. [This involved] Using mantras, knowing where to go in my head when I need to, and mindset work.
How did the LEJOG world record attempt affect your body?
I built the team to include a physio as I expected it would be my body (shoulders and elbows) that may stop me. However, I was really pleased to find that as I went on, my body actually got stronger and happier. I had fatigue build-up for sure, but my vulnerable areas stayed strong and actually improved without needing much treatment. I went straight into my race season within two weeks of finishing Handcycle Britain and medalled at the National Championships and on the international scene at Yorkshire 2019. It had set me up well.
What I did really suffer with was my skin. The weather was really bad during Handcycle Britain, with continual storms, so I was wet throughout for a lot of the days. The wet caused terrible chafing under my arms which caused blisters and open sores that became infected, and skin tears from the constant taping. I had to be smothered in Sudocrem and dressings every night. My face suffered a lot from the conditions; the roads were filthy and dirty water was often splashed into my mouth from vehicles. I developed sores in my mouth which really affected my eating and took a good few months after to recover from. My legs were very painful even though I didn’t use them, due to the prolonged time lying on my spine causing pressure. It was interesting to see it wasn’t the areas I expected.
Talk me through a typical LEJOG day?
The alarm went off at 3.45am every morning. Then I’d get the science testing done and have a cup of tea. The team would pack-up and load the van, then head to wherever we stopped en-route the night before. I’d start riding around 5-5.30am until my breakfast stop around rush hour – 8am-ish – when I’d have a big breakfast of porridge. Sometimes I’d have physio. We would break for approximately 1 hour to let traffic ease.
During the second and biggest block, I tended to ride until about 2pm, when I’d stop for lunch in the support van – often scrambled eggs on toast. We’d break for 45 minutes – 1 hour. Sometimes I’d have no real lunch break and eat on the road. If I hadn’t slept the night before, I might have a 10-minute power nap.
In the third and final block of the day, my outrider (support cyclist who rode behind Mel) would have ride snacks for me and fluids to keep me going. I’d ride until 7pm, then get the sports science testing done, load up the van and head to a campsite for a shower, food, treatment if needed and dressings changed. The bike would be cleaned and checked, Garmins and lights charged, team meeting/debrief, route prepped and discussed for next day. Bed around 11pm!
You didn’t actually sleep that much – was this mind over matter or did you not need it?
I’m used to not sleeping. I developed serious insomnia after my last stroke as a result of the brain injury so I’m used to it and, as an athlete travelling the world for racing, I’m very used to different time zones and travelling through nights etc, so I think, although not ideal, this set me up well. I don’t tend to sleep when I’m racing and switched ‘on’. I probably got a max of 3 hours’ sleep the odd night; many days were on zero real sleep. I know I can get through a week without sleep.
What were the high points of your Handcycle Britain experience?
The highs were riding my bike all day every day. Seeing the country change at my speed. Being outside – whatever the weather! The beauty in wild places in the most unexpected places. The support on the road from drivers, strangers, roadside cheering and banners – there was a real feel-good factor from the public that felt like it did back at London 2012 [Paralympics] that I never expected. Sport and personal endeavour bring people together and no-one does that like Britain.
Were there many lows?
The lows were time off the bike – I just wanted to be riding. The really bad storms and my body reacting to so many stresses. Weeping sores! Not being able to eat and enjoy salty chips on the final night… and finishing.
Did you have any tricks to keep you going during the low points?
I had a Spotify playlist that anyone could add to; songs that reminded me of them or vice versa, or songs they thought would help me. I never knew what was coming next, it was brilliant and very random. I still listen to it now and it reminds me of my time on the road. Singing, dancing [helped]. Also, mantras that I had worked through with my sports psychologist. Thinking of my family, my friends, and people who would be proud of what I was doing but sadly weren’t here anymore, and the people they have left behind. And my surroundings. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.
You burned 6000 calories a day. What did you eat and how often?
In addition to the food I mentioned earlier, I also had ride snacks including bananas, fruit bread, pancakes, high energy bars, carbohydrate-based drinks and protein recovery shakes. [I had some] Firepot expedition meals of an evening, usually in bed! I lost a lot of weight on the challenge. Partly due to not wanting to eat enough – I found I couldn’t eat first thing as it would make me sick. And as I’m cycling with my hands, it’s very difficult to eat while on the bike!
How did it feel to watch your Dream Big documentary and relive the experience?
I cried. I still cry watching it. My friends cry. In the race, I’m so focussed I don’t see much, so it was amazing seeing it from a different perspective; to see so much more and look what I achieved in the bigger picture. Jack and Friction Collective did a fantastic job of capturing what this was about and my ‘why’. Plus, it was beautifully done.
Tell us about the charities you were riding for?
Adaptive Grand Slam Foundation – they helped me climb my first mountain after my stroke, Gran Paradiso, in 2018, three weeks after my heart surgery. You can read about them on my website blog.
Arctic One Foundation – they support people through disability sport with grants towards equipment, training costs, etc.
What were your must-have items of kit?
Waterproof socks! Waterproof trousers. Duct tape for taping me into my waterproof trousers. My Dryrobe for when I’m soaked, again. And for the team. My bike. My playlist. My Compex unit and GameReady to support recovery. Our team Marquis Motorhomes van.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Yes, I’m sponsored by Hartpury University, Ordnance Survey, Alpkit, The Camping & Caravan Club, RedSixty, Gym & Tonic, Tewkesbury Leisure Centre, Cheltenham Cycles, Dryrobe
Firepot, and PinkSky.
What’s on the horizon for you in 2020?
Marathon racing to start the year, with a number of smaller adventure cycling challenges leading up to a bigger challenge later in the year, currently under wraps. Handcycle Britain was never a sole goal, just the next chapter of the journey.
You can follow Mel via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/teamdolly, www.facebook.com/melnicholls.co.uk and www.twitter.com/Dolly2racer, and by visiting www.melnicholls.co.uk.
Book your tickets to see the London Premiere of “Dream Big” at Four Seasons Film Festival on Monday 16th March, screening alongside the UK Premiere of “It’s Just Like Riding A Bike” and “Return to Earth” in a special triple bill screening.
Watch the Dream Big trailer here.
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