Whilst Olympians compete for glory in Tokyo, history has also been made in Britain, in the hands of Christina Mackenzie. Her story is an incredible one, finishing with a new women's end-to-end record of 51 hours, five minutes and 27 seconds and lowering Lynne Biddulph’s (née Taylor’s) record by an hour and 40 minutes.
The Land’s End to John O’Groats (LEJOG), or “end to end” record, is the longest place to place record in Britain. It is iconic and simple. A clear start and end point, the whole of a nation in between. Cyclists take on the challenge each year, touring the route, and usually taking a week or two to complete it. The record removes all the niceties, and asks only how fast can a rider get from Land’s End to John O’Groats under their own pedal-power. Featuring A-roads and sections of dual carriageway the 840-mile route is a test of grit.
The record has its origins in the 1880s, but it wasn’t until 1937 that the End to End was added as a standard distance for women. The following year, Lillian Dredge set the initial benchmark at 92 hours and 54 minutes. The list of names which follow hers on the record sheet are formidable, and relatively few. Until this week, just six women held the outright record.
On Friday, the latest name and a new time was added to the list: Mackenzie in 51:05:27.
Mackenzie is someone who’s always enjoyed sport, and said she grew up running and swimming, but only embraced competition as an adult. Her journey into the world of sporting events started with a charity 10 kilometre run, in memory of her father. A half marathon was next, and from there Mackenzie caught the bug and things snowballed. Then 2012 saw the arrival of her first road bike, with triathlons paving the way towards longer events.
Her achievements and ambitions escalated, racing a full Iron Man in 2013, competing for the Isle of Lewis in the International Island Games and deciding to concentrate on the bike as a single discipline after a running injury. She said it was “the next sensible thing to do”, not that everyone may accept her recent bike ride as sensible.
I ask Mackenzie if she remembers first hearing of the End to End record, and what inspired her to take it on. She said that on moving to Stirling she joined Stirling Bike Club, who have a strong history of competing in the Mersey Roads 24-Hour Time Trial Championship. She was persuaded to race in 2017 and through that started to meet some of the “End to End people” – Mike Broadwith, the current men’s record holder, and Jasmijn Muller – crowned 24-hour national champion in that year alongside Broadwith. They inspired her, she was in awe of the distances they rode at the 24, and then she found out that Muller had attempted End to End.
Her first reaction was “that’s ridiculous, I wouldn’t even drive that”. But she started following Muller on social media, and reading her blog. In 2018 she saw Mike’s record-breaking ride and said she was “blown away watching it”, seeing him troubled with neck pain and pushing on to break the record. She went back to race the 24-hour in 2018, finishing second and clocking 35 miles further than her previous attempt. She was invited to Champions Night – an award ceremony for the National Time Trial events. Broadwith and Paul Jones were there. The topic of End to End arose, and Mackenzie said she had a few wines and her friend Lynne Kelley asked if she would do it. The seed was sown. Mackenzie spoke to Broadwith for advice, gathered her support team from the 24-hour, and started training for an attempt in 2019.
Christina Mackenzie on the road to setting a new End to End record
Christina Mackenzie during her record breaking ride from Land's End to John O'Groats
Roadside assistance for Christina Mackenzie
Christina Mackenzie gives a double thumbs up
Christina Mackenzie during her record breaking ride from Land's End to John O'Groats
Last week was not the first time that Mackenzie had completed the End to End. Her attempt in 2019 saw her achieve the third fastest women’s time, and she’d been on record pace up until Helmsdale – with around 50 miles to go. She had stomach issues, and couldn’t fuel properly. This was detrimental to her riding, and fatigue was a challenge – she felt okay on the flat but the hills were another matter. In the end, she wasn’t able to hold the pace needed for the record. She tells me there were tears. She didn’t give up, riding on to the finish Mackenzie clocked 55:17. Lynne Biddulph’s record was safe. Mackenzie said she was “never again doing it”.
Then she went from never doing it again, to doing it again next year, which has something to do with Gary Hand - previous Scottish national road race champion. He invited Mackenzie for coffee and to chat about her ride. She said she went along naively, and left agreeing to him coaching her for a second attempt in 2020.
The 2020 attempt was not to be, but Mackenzie’s drive didn’t falter. She’s incredibly positive about it and said it gave her an extra year to train as well as a goal to stay focused on through the turbulence of the pandemic. Hand introduced structured blocks to Mackenzie’s training, building over three weeks, followed by a recovery week. He also introduced VO2 max interval sessions, hill sessions – what Mackenzie called “the high power hurty sessions”. Before she knew it, she was punching out the numbers, despite not considering herself a climber. She also experimented with her fuelling strategy, trialling wraps and savoury bars to reduce her bread intake and using carbohydrate caffeine gels alongside.
With a wealth of preparation behind her, Mackenzie made the call to go for the record. The team had agonised over the weather, downloading every wind mapping app available. She said it was a relief to make the decision. The favourable winds at the start would come at a cost of heavy downpours and potential headwind later but she had faith in her training. Wednesday July 28 was the day, and after little sleep, Mackenzie took the first pedal stroke north at eight in the morning.
The record attempt
I struggle to find words for Mackenzie’s ride itself. The relentless progress of it is astounding, her stops are short and few and disciplined. She did everything she could whilst pedalling, receiving hourly food hand-ups from her stellar support crew. Requesting her next feed whilst receiving one gave her something to look forward to and she mainly stopped to change kit, relieving her of squelchy shoes and wet socks. She even chose to forgo her longest stop – planned for an hour in Perth around halfway. Feeling good up the Shap climb just before, she raised the suggestion with her team. They agreed she could press on without sleep, in favour of preserving the time buffer she’d manage to accrue. She tells me no matter how slowly she pushed on, it was better than stopping.
I ask her how it felt being ahead of schedule. She’s calm, and I think this is partly what makes Mackenzie so exceptional. She knew exactly what she needed to do to break the record and stayed focused throughout. She didn’t ride to power, instead aiming to keep her heart rate low, and maintain an average pace above the 15.9mph that Lynne Biddulph had ridden. This appreciation of the focus and control is echoed by Paul Jones, author of End to End, when I ask him about Mackenzie’s ride.
“The thing about this record is it was always on, right from the start," Jones said. "I could see it, watching, but you can’t and dare not voice it. She was always up on time, and when things did get a bit grippy – from Gretna for several hours into a headwind – the gap held. It’s unusual and really impressive to see such control over such a long time. The End to End is famous for epic suffering, but Christina Mackenzie seemed to just tap this out, bending the effort to her cadence. If ever an End to End ride had souplesse, it’s this one, it was a beautiful and worthy record.”
Supporters appeared all along the route, and this meant a lot to Mackenzie. Pictures popped up on Twitter as she tracked north. She’s beaming in all of them. She was overwhelmed by the support; people of all ages were appearing on the road to cheer her on. Previous record holders came out – Janet Tebbutt, and Lynne Biddulph. The roadside support built as she progressed into Scotland and Mackenzie said she only felt bad that she couldn’t stop and chat – the least she could do was smile and wave.
Smiles belied the effort underneath. From the border at Gretna Green, into a strong headwind for the 50 miles to Abington, Mackenzie dug deep. The road surface was bumpy, preventing her from riding on the TT bars, and the wind sapped at her energy. I ask her how she coped. She said she wanted to stop, but told herself that if she stopped once, there was nothing to stop her doing it again, and that would quickly add up. She kept spinning, kept her head down, and kept going. She said nothing to her support crew. She said she didn’t want to moan; they knew she would be feeling it.
She said she felt she had the record when she had 100 miles to go and needed to average 12-13mph to achieve the “Plan A”. Even then, her head was telling her to get into the van, curl up into a ball and cry. The last 45 hours had been on the road, with no sleep. It must have taken serious mental strength to press on, and she said three things kept her going: The work she’d put in already to get there, the support crew who’d put their faith in her, and her mum.
She was raising money for Alzheimer’s Scotland after losing her mum seven years previously to vascular dementia. The ride was especially poignant for Mackenzie, setting off the day after the anniversary. Entering the last 100 miles, her support crew told her she’d raised over £8,000 for the charity, and she felt like her mum was there, an invisible hand at her back for the final stretch. Her elder brother was in the support vehicle, watching Mackenzie give everything on the road.
She did it. Arriving in John O’Groats to the sound of cheers and cowbells at 11:05 on July 30, writing herself into the record books. Hot food and a champagne shower awaited, and she stayed up into the evening celebrating despite the lack of sleep. She was buzzing.
Clàr #LEJOG ùr do @christina_mack!A new Land’s End to John ‘o Groats record for Christina MacKenzie and the @Lejogmack crew! pic.twitter.com/qCXHtBV5rdJuly 30, 2021
Her advice to those taking on big challenges is that anything is possible if you commit to it. Goals like these take sacrifices, time and commitment but her reward has been achieving something she never would have anticipated a few years ago. For End to End specifically, she said go for it, but give it the respect that it deserves.
It’s an elite clan of riders that she joins, and only they know what it takes to ride an End to End record, but what they share is tenacity, grit, and determination.
Mackenzie says she’s a hobby cyclist and can’t fathom being associated with the iconic women of the End to End record. I would say she has ridden her way into the history books, and will be remembered as one of the great distance cyclists of our time. She paves the way for the next to take up the baton.
Click here for Christina's fund raising page.
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