Back to Pendine Beach in Wales to meet up with some friends and try my luck at some landspeed records. As you do.
But I clearly did for a little while. Then, when I definitely decided to race once more on the sands in Pendine, south Wales, to try and better my May run of 128 mph (which was only my third ever), I shut those thoughts from my mind. Where you look is where you go, right? Same goes for the imagination. So don't use it to go places you really don't want to, not when you've made up your mind at least and you've decided you're happy with the odds.
And odds are important. I always do a mental calculation of the odds of anything bad happening to me before I do something a little more dangerous than crossing the road. The odds at Pendine were a little higher on the negative side than I wanted because I didn't have enough time to really be confident with the bike.
Me - I was fine with, my mind is much stronger since Bonneville, I faced fear and I found a way to overcome it and that I hope will always be with me. The sand conditions will be checked by Straightliners and I could do a final visual inspection, at least at the start line. The bike - well I hadn't really ridden it since May and even then I had only had it for a week or two. I hadn't even changed the spark plugs…
So I decided that the journey to South Wales would be the decider. The 240 miles there travelling west on the motorway I would listen, feel, really give my full attention to the sounds of the bike and I would know by the time I reached the sands if I was comfortable. Plus my pals in the Demon Designs Racing Team would check the bike over for me once I arrived, there would be spanners at the ready.
Riding into the sunset
I misjudged the distance a little. Having family in South Wales I thought it'd be a three hour journey. But it's nearly double that because Pendine Sands is quite a bit West of Cardiff and the M4 only goes so deep so eventually you hit 'A' roads which are slower, particularly on a Friday afternoon. I still only had a daytime running MOT which means I needed to get there by sundown. I left after lunch and knew I had to make up time if I was to get there by 7 pm. Fortunately my filtering skills have come a long way since being a super nervous rider only two years ago and I was able to save an hour on the journey and get there well before sunset.
I turned a few heads on the journey, with my cobbled together luggage solution attached to the back. My waterproof bag on the sports faring, somehow strapped in under the seat. Wearing full race gear like I had just come off Silverstone race track. I don't have a van, trailer or backup car/people to help me get anywhere so what I ride there in, I race in. I have to make do with roc straps and bungees to keep the essentials on and the toothbrush from flying out. I did get a few weird looks and stares, but I just smile. It's amazing how many smile back when you give them your biggest grin. In that moment, we're saying - 'hey! I don't know who you are but I feel your joy and right back at you!' Or perhaps they're just thinking, 'She's totally bonkers, best humour her in case she has a knife.'.
Saturday's line up
A quiet night down the pub and an early-ish to bed so that we could get to registration the next morning bright and ready for the day. There were a few familiar faces as we went through scrutineering, Kevin Nicks, The World's Fastest Shed was there and as bright and bouncy as ever. He's an inspiring man to chat to, there's wisdom under that creosoted crusty exterior, and we find we always have much to talk about along the lines of existentialism. I know it's a word that many still struggle with, to find the exact meaning, but it doesn't have to mean complicated philosophy. It just means we're free to live a life, to make choices. It puts existence above all else. The appreciation of that fact - you have a choice to live whatever life you lead - is the message I'm trying to spread.
After the riders briefing where we heard this was a 1 mile standing start event we went down to the sands. Thing is, when your track is sand, you take what nature gives you. If the sand isn't good for three miles - that means clear of debris, big shells, jellyfish, holes etc., then we can't race. End of story.
Every day is a new track and every day we race it needs to be inspected. Today it was decided that just two miles were clear so one mile to race to the checkerboard, one mile to slow and stop. At around a mile and a half was a holding pen where riders and drivers meet after their run to wait to go back to the start for another try.
Running - not scared
We get off to an earlier start than last time and the first runs began just after 10.30 am. I was one of the first few to line up because I'm raring to go. All suited and booted and the weather is fine. Also I figure that the sand isn't so churned up early doors and the tracks can lead to a bit of wiggle on the bike which no-one really likes the feel of as well as it compromising on acceleration. My first run and I was ready. I aimed to go all out after a careful and fairly slow off the line acceleration. I was gunning for anything over 137 mph, the current fastest recorded speed by a woman on sands.
Front of mind as I sat waiting were my emotions at this very same spot last May, at the last Pendine landspeed event. The fear I had to overcome, every moment by moment, long second by long second. But this time it was different. Having been to Bonneville and had such an incredible, almost transcendent experience, after the highs and lows of that trip I have changed dramatically, I feel like a different person. Fear doesn't grip me on the throat with its bony hand anymore. Sure, I'm aware of the dangers all too well but I'm able to accept those and override instinct to get my mind and body focused. Fear is banished in favour of determination and clear vision.
Up through the clunky old gears, not hugely smoothly but effectively, till I went as fast as the bike would go. I got that old ebay Kawasaki Zx6r to a decent 134 mph - 6 mph than in May. I was really happy because I felt there was more to come. Next time I was going to totally nail it I decided. I was getting well into the zone. The bike felt good, the engine buzzing just right and the new sprocket and chain put on by my pal Stephen Baker gave me some extra confidence.
So after a short wait in the holding bay at the end of the beach we all came trundling back up the beach, seaward side. I personally loathe this return as it's done slower and you feel much more wobbly than when you're trying to top 140 mph! But once back I went straight back in line for another run. The Demons went back to the pits to check their bikes over but I couldn't wait. This time I was going to go full pelt, nothing was going to slow me or stop me, I was going to go all out. And I did. I pinned the throttle down full - it wouldn't go back any more and I just felt like I was flying. Surely over 140 mph? It was in the bag. Only it wasn't.
I slowly rode back after the run to where the smiling face of Claire greeted me. Claire's part of the Straightliners crew and is the most lovely lady you could ever wish to meet after putting your life on the line in a crazy dash to beat the grim reaper. You park up and wait for her to come to you, radio in hand, to give you your result. That few seconds it takes for her to walk over you're searching her face. Searching for clues - did I do it? Is she smiling broadly because she knows I'll be happy? Or is she just happy naturally? Then she tells me. 133 mph. WHATT? How could this be? I was so utterly sure I was over 140 mph. I'm crestfallen inside but realise this is just part of the pain and the pleasure. Perhaps my acceleration was out - too much wheelspin? Perhaps I missed the top gear? Perhaps the bike just can't do any more.
It turns out that the other riders are also gloomy. No-one is reaching speeds they want to. Everyone feels they're around ten miles an hour down on what they were expecting. There's only one solution - the sand. It has to be the only factor we're all subject to. We decide it's just not right today. I'm still not sure if it's too dry or too wet - but something was making that surface reduce our speeds.
I figure it's not worth risking my life for no improvement in speed so I look at the odds and the risk/benefit scenario and decide to either quit the day or… if other people's speeds go up… maybe I'll race again. The Demon team are still gunning for it but they're not happy either. Particularly Stew, who was running the same size engine as me but whose runs were going down after his very decent first pass of 142 mph. That was drilled down to a faulty cylinder, so he was running on just three which obviously compromised his performance. He kept at it, but that with the sand meant he wasn't going to be doing the speeds he really wanted to or was capable of.
To run or not? That is the question
Lunch was courtesy of Bab's diner. The most awesome burger bar on the sands, possibly in Wales, or the world. They still had my Existential Biker sticker up from May, proudly displayed in and outside the small catering van serving burgers and buns. Unbelievably, Gareth remembered my name too.
After some deliberation I decided I probably wouldn't run. Speeds were going up slowly but I had my doubts I would get anywhere over 135 mph again. So I wandered around instead. It was good to chat to people, there was surprise visit from Kev who was on my guided tour of Romania with Magellan Motorcycle Tours just before Bonneville. Then Richard the pirate and other characters came up to chat. I still had one eye on the sand though and questioned my decision every single second.
I'd mooched for a while when all of a sudden Ketsey from the Demons came over with a message. 'You should run,' he said. 'The sand is much faster.'. I was up in a shot. I realised how much I wanted to do this and how really I just needed a little sign that all things considered a faster run was possible. It was afternoon and the tide would soon be coming in.
Mostly a male dominated sport, there are some women around and I'm hoping there will be more soon. So it was good to see Imogene Toft take part. Imogene was driving an Audi and it was her first time. She was nervous of course, we all are first. But what she would have discovered quickly is the thrill of riding on sand at an event like this. Of competing with yourself and of the power of the group to lift you up to be the best you can be. I know because I felt that just months before. She had the biggest smile after and it warmed my heart to recognise that feeling.
Ok, let's try again then. Up to the start, focus on the best part of the track to aim for.. not too churned up but just right. I chose the right hand side, let's see how that is. Go. Down the track, easy acceleration, bum back, head down, arms tucked in and throttle right back, all the way again. Surely this time Claire? She still smiled that beautiful smile but no. I got to 135 mph. It was better, but still 3 mph short of my target. Was it worth trying again? Of course it was! More advice from Stew. 'Really tuck down, check every part of you is under the windscreen. Arms in, legs in. Don't use the clutch, just go up through the gears quickly.' This way he assured me I could nudge up that number.
Final sprint to the line
I knew this was the last run of the day, so I was determined to try and do everything I knew would work. Right over to the left of the track this time, as far as I dared. It was virgin sand here because it would be going quite close to the timing equipment on the left. I felt ok though, I've a decent instinct for a straight line and although the sand can shimmy you around I was confident that micro adjustments, even at over 100mph, would keep me on the safe side of the timing gear. It went well until I tried to change from 2nd to 3rd. It wouldn't go without the clutch so I abandoned my new rapid gear change skill and went back to the clutch. But I went quicker up the gears and felt I had maxed out the throttle a good quarter mile before the line.
I got pretty perilously close to the timing gear box and light set up as it happened, just a few feet to the right. I thought I'd be ok but I still exhaled a sigh of relief afterwards. This was to be the last run of the weekend for me because I hadn't considered running on the Sunday as an option so it had to be good. I believe I did everything I was told to, apart from the quick gear shifts which didn't work out for me, the gears refusing to budge, so I abandoned that. I tucked in super super low. My pelvis thrust down into the seat, looking through the visor and the windscreen at the world going by. It felt good, but was it good enough?
Slowing down after the run has to be done super carefully, no brakes and no sudden deceleration. To me, the most dangerous part of the run is the initial slow down because the temptation is to shut off speed too quick. There's a danger of dismount when that happens. I always take what feels like a hugely long time to slow, just carefully twisting the throttle back off, but there's plenty of beach to run out on so what does it matter if I use a bit more than most?
Riding back to the group of riders in the holding bay all chatting to one another I wondered if I'd done it. I hoped so, but I really had no idea. There she was. The girl with the smile. Was it THAT smile? The winner's smile that Claire greeted me with? Turns out it was! 138.233 mph!!!! My best at the beach and that was also the best of any lady motorbike rider on the beach. Ever. What a wonderful way to end the year's racing. I could not be happier and I lifted my head and my heart to the heavens and I said thank you to the God of Speed and thank you to the Universe just for being out there and magnificent.
A quiet evening ended with a DVD of Wolverine in the caravan, unbelievably early. We were all pretty pooped from being on the sand all day and the tension and adrenaline that was pumped into us from an early start. Next day we'd be leaving, the lads earlier than me as they had a longer drive. The BBC's One Show were set to interview a few of the racers and asked me to introduce myself Sunday morning. I'd already done an interview with a talented young film-maker called Bhodi Keen on the Saturday, which was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. He clearly knew what he wanted and I think he did a great job - you can see it here.
Sunday drivers yeah!
We had sausages for breakfast and I started packing up and putting the wingmirrors and phone holder back on my bike around 8am. Technically I didn't need them to ride - nor lights nor indicators - but I felt that these weren't really a luxury but an essential and took my chances of survival up probably by a few hundred percent. Worth £19.99 any day. Meeting by the sands I took the opportunity to chat to friends and the motorsport rescue ambulance who are bloody amazing and fortunately were not needed on the Saturday at all. The sign on the back amused me 'No bodies are left in this van overnight.' Clearly they have a sense of humour. Probably a necessity for their line of work.
I rode on down the sands to see if I could do my interview with the BBC early and get home. When I got there, racing was just about to start and I felt a tinge of sadness that I wasn't in the line-up. But I walked along the line, in leathers and race gear, as that was what I would ride home in, watching everyone get ready to go. At Pendine you can mix easily with the riders and it's a relaxed, but safe, atmosphere. Occasionally a dog will wander on or a passer by will not notice that there's a race track a mile down the beach but they're always spotted in good time and no-one runs till they're gone. It's really an inclusive, people-oriented sport. Everyone wants everyone to do well. How often do you find that in life?
It soon became clear that the sand was much better than the day before. Much better. Runs were faster, people were beating their personal bests. Terry Smith, one of the most amazingly unassuming heroes you'll ever meet and consistently the fastest man on the beach was beaming. It was a completely different course - which naturally it always is after the tide has done it's sweeping magic. I felt a bigger tinge of regret that I wasn't running but there you have it. The luggage was on the bike and I was ready to roll home. A fabulous young lady who had been following me on social came by with her dad to say Hi. I knew she was coming and it was a treat to be able to pose with her, I think she's probably my youngest fan! If she's anything like her dad she'll take up racing and it'll be a joy to one day follow her exploits.
I don't know what turned my decision around. I just suddenly realised I wanted to race again. Maybe it was because Josie had come along specially to see me. Maybe it was the atmosphere. Maybe it was just instinct but before I knew it I had taken off the luggage, the phone holder, the wing mirrors and they were dumped unceremoniously on the ground. I asked Trevor if I could run, he didn't see why I couldn't. I wasn't down to but he could see the look in my eye, the eagerness coupled with mad stare. And before I knew what the hell got me there I was back, looking down the sandy track, the salty sea air whistling around my face, wondering what line to take and hoping that this one run would improve my 138 mph of yesterday. I took a deep breath. I was ready and I was told I could start my run.
It was a clean getaway, gently up through the gears but not too softly this time. I was a bit more aggressive, I wanted to get up to top speed at least a quarter mile before the end of the mile finish marker. Today Straightliners had decided to run two timed distances - a flying quarter and a mile so on a single run you could take two records. Because two bodies are recognised, the ACU (Auto Cycle Union) and the UKTA (UK Timing Association) if you did very well you could have those two records recognised by both bodies, making four records in total. I wasn't really aware of all this at the time, I just had my eye on one run and getting better than 138 mph. I was told to just ride like the day before, no changes, get to the one mile marker as fast as you like. Off you go.
The starters are always so relaxed and put you at ease. I don't know if like doctors they're trained to have a comforting manner, but they certainly do have that effect on me. With the standing start competitions, you go when you want to. There's no gun, no loud clap of thunder or fireworks and no shouting. You roll off whenever you want. As soon as I move off, I get a buzz of excitement, there's no fear just determination, it's the most powerful force and it takes over me completely the moment I move off. Very few things apart from getting into a good position, moving up the gears smoothly and staying upright actually cross my mind. Maybe half way through I think … how much bloody further is it???
I was probably maxing out the throttle a good third of a mile before the finish so then I focussed on my body positioning. I was so far down I don't think I could have got lower, but I did try. Elbows in, bum back as far as possible. Then, just like that, it was over. Slowly rev down, nothing too hasty, you're still going at over 100 mph for some distance so coming off would be pretty painful. I make it back to the holding pen where everyone else is sitting, watching others come in. Claire is there again and she comes over. Difficult to read this time but then she tells me. 142 mph! Wow! I did it! A full 4 mph faster than the day before! I was really happy an smiling to the sky. A few minutes later, I realised that I hadn't heard the flying quarter speed. This was important, the flying quarter speed is taken in the quarter mile before the mile marker so you can see if you're still building speed at the mile or if you've maxed out.
It was then I found out. The 142 mph was actually the speed for the flying quarter! The final mile terminal speed was 145 mph! That was just music to my ears and the feelings flooded over me like warm maple syrup. Just feelings of pure, sticky joy. Terry Smith, the King of Pendine and much loved and respected veteran of the sands told me that the 3 mph difference showed that the Kawasaki was probably reaching its maximum velocity, I might get another 5 mph if I lighten the load, streamline it and do some tweaks but I knew that wasn't going to happen today. So I called it quits and felt incredibly proud and pleased that I made it through and that no-one was hurt on the sands this weekend. That really was the icing on the cake.
Riding home I was struck by how much the speed bug had grabbed me since May, my first ever outing on a sportsbike at a competition and probably only the second ever time I'd ridden anything remotely sporty. In just five months I'd ridden at three major, internationally recognised landspeed events, established four uk records and managed to become the fastest lady on sand. Even Stew with just three cylinders managed a record with his first run so all in all a brilliant weekend.
I have ridden at Bonneville, on the salt flats - the stuff of dreams. I feel like I'm living a charmed life and I can't quite believe it sometimes. But something is helping me, something is driving me and every step of the way I feel like I'm being lifted up and carried. What was a target to just ride on the flats feels like now just a milestone in another journey. I'm still letting the river of life guide me, only this time the river seems to have just hit the rapids….
“If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough.”