Fuelled by Goodness: Matt Mearn's North Coast 500


Back in May 2019, after only 5 months of training, I set off on what was to become the most physically and mentally challenging feat of endurance I have ever undertaken and possibly ever will.
What was the challenge?
Solo cycling the North Coast 500 - a 516 mile loop around the northern coastal roads of Scotland - in just 7 days, starting and finishing in Inverness.
Bearing in mind that this route is considered one of the toughest in the U.K to cycle, involves the U.K’s hardest ascent on a bike up the Bealach Na Ba, covers the equivalent of 20 marathons and that I hadn’t been on a bike for 2 years prior to the 5 months of training, which was a combination of long distance cycling, sprint cycles and weight training, I certainly had bitten off more than I could probably chew. Recently I switched to an all plant-based diet to make things just that little more complicated. Thankfully, I had supply of FGS Plant Protein shakes to keep my protein intake topped up throughout.
Despite how hard the challenge was setting up to be, it was all worthwhile by fundraising for a great cause - SAMH. A Scottish mental health charity that does great work supporting those with mental health issues and working to remove the stigma & discrimination around mental health.
After 5 months of training, which was a whole challenge in its own right, thanks to countless setbacks, punctures and self-doubt, it was time to get rolling.
DAY 1 - 64 miles
Understandably, the first day was filled with nerves and anticipation but once I got out of the city of Inverness and onto the open roads, I soon got into the zone and was making great time. Until mile 30 when I cycled over the top of rail tracks and had my first (and thankfully last) fall. My ego was bruised along with my leg and elbow but after a short patch up I was back on the bike and managed to complete the next 34 miles with little trouble and reached my day one destination in around 6 hours.
DAY 2 - 78 miles
I woke up sore and aching, but that was the least of my worries. Today I had to cycle the Bealach Na Ba, notorious for being the hardest ascent in the UK and to make things even better, it was forecast to be torrential downpour all day. It’s hard to put into words how tough this part of the challenge was. I don't know what was worse, the lactic acid soaring through my legs, the severe burning in my lungs as I got into high altitude territory or the fact that I was soaked through to the bone and carrying an extra kilo or two of water in my clothes. Regardless of which was worse, all three combined made for a miserable six-mile climb. But I made it to the top, only to be rewarded with a further 66 miles to cycle...
DAY 3- 90 miles
The longest day cycling of the week, thankfully though, not the worst. The sun had come out in full force for today which helped the endorphins kick in. By this point my body seemed to be more accustomed to being on a bike constantly. My back miraculously stopped hurting and my quads stopped cramping, unlike the first two days. The hardest part of day 3 was the mental challenge. Cycling from 7:15 am until 6:30 pm requires a lot of mental strength and stamina. The effort, concentration and motivation needed to cycle this amount of time certainly required a strong will.
DAY 4- 60 miles
An early start and an early finish.  A surprisingly simple and comfortable day of cycling after 90 miles the day before. Exactly what was needed. Lots of food and FGS Plant Protein were consumed that night in order to fuel up for the final 3 days.
DAY 5- 78 miles
A day of two halves. The first 38 miles went by in a blink of an eye, after an early finish the day before, with plenty of food and sleep, I was up and on the bike by 7 am and without too many hills to climb and the sun shining bright once again, I managed to clock up the miles somewhat easily.
The second half of the day was slightly different. Going up one hill, my right knee gave way and sent a shooting pain through my quad and I had to cycle 15 miles essentially pedaling with just my left leg (which was already strapped up at this point). My right knee did eventually numb up enough to be of some use and I managed to complete the day by 4 pm. A night of ice packs, painkillers and rest awaited me.
DAY 6 - 74 miles
If day 5 was a day of two halves, then day 6 was just a day of one whole. A whole lot of pain. Nowhere on my body was safe. I was now at the point where even wearing three pairs of cycling shorts at once was of no benefit. Whenever I stopped I would collapse over my handle bars, unable to stand up straight due to the pain searing through my lower back and up into my neck. My hamstrings and quads were being assaulted by cramps and I no longer had feeling in any of my fingertips. The thought of another day and a half of cycling made me want to cry.
Then I remembered what my brother had said to me before starting - “as long as you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, eventually you’ll get all the way around”
It was the day I fell furthest behind schedule, but with those words ringing in my ear, I made it to the end of day 6.
DAY 7- 72 miles
The final day and a fairly straight forward cycle that was made a little more “exciting” by having lorries speeding past me at 70 mph just feet away, as I made my way down the treacherous A9. By this point my body was broken from the constant battering of uneven tarmac through my body, every single muscle ached, and every joint was flared up. I was functioning on nothing more than pure adrenaline as I made my way through the final miles, arriving at Inverness castle around 4 pm.
At this point all the pain in my body disappeared and all the tough moments of the last 7 days were suddenly made worthwhile.
Although I cycled this route by myself, I wasn't alone. Alongside me the whole way (in our trusty camper van) was my dedicated girlfriend, who motivated and pushed me to keep going when I least wanted to. Without her support, none of this would have been possible.
£1,816 raised. 516 miles cycled. 7 days endured. Once in a lifetime adventure.
For more information please visit: https://www.samh.org.uk/

Matt Mearns