“I literally couldn’t sit”: the visually impaired runner who broke the British coastline record

“When I was running I missed a turn or made a weird mistake. I remember racing in France and having eight punctures – clearly, looking back, I just couldn’t see anything. Gavin Towers relives his late teens as a highly competitive triathlete, usually late in the race but too often derailed by inexplicable mistakes. The realization he describes – mistakes of the past suddenly make sense – is all too familiar to me: Towers and I have the same eye problem, retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

Caused by an inherited genetic problem, RP slowly kills specialized cells in the retina, the part of the eye responsible for transforming light into visual signals that the brain can convert into pictures. Early symptoms include the inability to spot objects (eg road debris) in peripheral vision during the day and Chaplin-esque clumsiness anywhere it is dark or dimly lit. I was diagnosed about 15 years ago, at the age of 24, after knocking over one too many bar stools; For Towers, the time came 10 years ago when, at age 34, he underwent laser treatment to correct his myopia. “They did the first tests and came back with a look of horror on their faces,” he laughs.

Towers is now 44 years old and is married with two children. Last year he cycled with his 10 year old daughter Evangeline from Land’s End to John o ‘Groats in just 22 days. Father-daughter training had seemed important for reasons that Towers did not recognize at the time. “If I’m being completely honest, I lacked the confidence to ride on my own, so I asked him to come ride with me – and together, little by little, we built the distances. Witnessing her young daughter’s tenacity to complete the 900 mile adventure was a humbling experience for Towers. “I realized that I was in danger of doing the thing that too many parents do: asking my children to accomplish what, deep down, I needed to accomplish myself. There was only one thing for it.

Mind and body

With his triathlon background and later reaching the international level in visually impaired judo, Towers knew he had the strength in body and mind to aim for a major endurance record. One that has captured his imagination is the Guinness World Record for the fastest lap of the British coast: 4,800 miles in 22 days, set by Nick Sanders in 1984 (see box). “To beat him, I knew I had to go an average of 230 miles a day,” says Towers.

Over the next six months, he recruited a support team, consulted with a coach, and developed a plan. From the middle of winter 2020, his training began in earnest, weaving through rides around his job as general manager of a family business developing tourist accommodation. “I cycled 17 to 24 hours a week, including a four to six hour long commute – as much as I could realistically.” He was fully aware that it would be impossible to duplicate the demands of the record, but jumping into the unknown was, in a way, the goal. “As you know,” Towers said, “as soon as a person with RP like you or me leaves a familiar space, it’s a step, or a pedal stroke, into the unknown. You have to accept, it’s going to be OK or it’s not, so there you go. ”

By midsummer he was in the best cycling shape of his adult life. With the route mapped out, the bike prepared, and the van loaded, Towers and his team set out from their home in Millom, Cumbria on August 8 to begin their clockwise loop around the perimeter of the Great – Continental Brittany. In the first two days he hit his target mileage despite wet and windy weather. By the end of the fourth day, however, he was in severe discomfort. “I don’t think we took the risk of saddle ulcers seriously enough,” he mused, speaking to me via video call a week after returning home. “I literally couldn’t sit down.”

Gavin Towers cycling on the UK coast

(Image credit: Shaun Waldie)

He spent an entire day, 180 miles along the west coast of Scotland, standing, pedaling or rolling alongside a perched Amazon. “The next day I still couldn’t sit down, so we went to A&E.” The continuous hours of rubbing the rain-soaked tissues had led to open wounds requiring treatment and dressing. “From that point on, I was taking pain relief and wearing two pairs of shorts all the time. The visit to the hospital meant that an entire day was wasted; the record slipped and by day seven, Towers was 300 miles behind. It was around this time that I remember being shocked by a video he posted on Instagram, his face so swollen his eyes were sticking out of tiny peepholes. [Towers’s wife] said she couldn’t bear to watch because it seemed like I had a fight. I had fought – with myself, and neither of us had won!

At night, when he desperately needed to sleep, he was drenched in sweat and continually needed to pee – other signs that his body was in a panicked state of imbalance. Another issue hampering progress was that night driving was proving to be more difficult than Towers had anticipated. Knowing how bad my own night vision is, I’m puzzled: how come he didn’t realize it? “It’s just my mental approach: believing that I can do anything, even if I’m quickly refuted,” he said, smiling his own stubbornness. “At first I thought that with the right amount of lighting everything would be fine.” Extreme fatigue, combined with unfamiliar roads, quickly limited driving to daylight hours only. It was time to give up the record ambitions.

“You need a degree of romance and naivety and dreaming to even consider doing something like this,” says Towers. “Likewise, there are times when you have to be realistic and accept that it just isn’t possible anymore.” From this practical point of view, the objective remains the same: to ride as far as possible every day within the limits of safety. From week two, he reduced driving time to around 10 hours per day, allowing for more sleep and recovery. “We picked up a pace,” Towers recalls. “The intensity has eased and that has removed some of the danger.”

Gavin Towers cycles the UK coast

(Image credit: Shaun Waldie)

He returned to Millom – safe and sound and still smiling despite the saddle sores and scrapes – on September 7th. The 4,811 mile coastal epic had lasted a full month, but time hardly mattered. “I’m really glad I managed to do it,” Towers says clearly, and I detect a hint of sadness. “Since being back, I really miss being outside and living in the moment.” It’s a feeling I know well: coming back from a liberating experience to the everyday frustrations of sight loss. “I don’t think I accepted anything, I have to be honest; I’m still angry with my eyes, ”he adds.

The record holder: “The devil is in the detail”

The UK 22 day hill climb record has been around for 37 years. It was defined in 1984 by Nick Sanders, 63, who still pursues long-distance motorcycle adventures.

“Before doing long-distance hiking, I was a semi-professional cyclist: I had won national championships in my youth and then I rode with Paul Sherwen for the La Redoute-Motobécane team. When I got tired of running, at 23, I decided to turn to cycling adventure.

“In 1984, I decided to cycle around the world in 80 days to set a new Guinness World Record, which meant I had to cover 170 miles a day. To prepare for it, I chose to tour the British coasts. The first time, I rode it for a few weeks; the second time I did it in 22 days.

“When I hear about people trying it out, I smile because I remember I was a semi-professional cyclist who trained like crazy for six months around the coast before trying it. . Guy Martin tried it [in 2016] but had Achilles tendonitis after four days and had to give up. The devil is in the details – I got to know the course and what it was about. Records are there to be broken, but you almost have to be a professional cyclist to beat this one.

This is not a “triumph over adversity” story, as Towers has no interest in wrapping the ride or its loss of sight. When I follow up via email, it’s even more candid. “This is the parenting aspect that I struggle with the most: I hope to be a good father and do all I can, but I still sometimes feel frustrated or sad that I can’t do everything with them.” What more can a child ask for than his father to do his best? “I will continue to try to walk in the dark, to jump on the trampoline and to cycle in the unknown, to carve pumpkins, to make tea that they will not eat, to clean up after them”, continues Towers, “and I will continue to be that person for as long as possible. The challenge for those of us with RP is to learn to accept our constricted field of vision in order to live fully within its limits and make the most of it. that’s left to us. “My approach to life has to change and evolve as my eyesight deteriorates,” Towers agrees. “I’m struggling with this, but my personality is to carry on. If I took anything away from the ride, it ‘is that it is necessary to take things a little easier and, in the end, better too. “

Gavin Towers rode to support Save the Children and RNIB.

This article originally appeared in the October 28, 2021 print edition of Cycling Weekly magazine. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered to you every week.

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