By Day 7, Shu Pillinger was seeing the goblins again. She’d seen them before, while cycling in a race round Ireland, stepping out through leaves on the roadside like something out of Lord of the Rings. “It was horrendous. Actually it ended the race for me because I couldn’t get over what was happening.”
Maybe some people, normal people, would have thought that’s that then. No more endurance, non-stop cycle races for me. No more little green faces with pointy ears leering from the undergrowth. But, in fact, Pillinger thought nothing of the sort. Already a national Double Ironman champion, she heard that no British woman had ever finished the spectacularly gruelling Race Across America – RAAM – and pounced on the idea as her next big challenge. “It became a bit of an obsession. I don’t talk about stuff and then don’t go for it.”
She first went for it last year. She invested tens of thousands of pounds, trained ferociously, took a team of nine as a support crew, plus two cars and an RV, and fell off after 2,150 miles on Day 9, breaking her collarbone. “I don’t remember a huge amount about it. I was rushed off to hospital and there was a lot of codeine involved.”
Once again, maybe some people, normal people, would have thought that’s definitely that then. Instead, she worked on various IT projects to raise the thousands of pounds she would need to go again. She cycled to work in London every morning from St Albans to save the train fare. “Each time I spared myself £20. I had all these little mechanisms to save up.” She amassed another crew of – this time – eight. And she set off for Oceanside, California, the starting point of the race that challenges competitors to cycle almost non-stop over 3,004 miles, through 12 states, with climbs totalling 175,000 miles (nine Everests) to arrive in Annapolis, Maryland, as fast as they can bear and still in one piece.
“We had a very good strategy this time. I wouldn’t cycle after 2am because that would just be too silly. I’d fall asleep. I had 70 minutes’ rest then and maybe another 70 minutes in the heat of the day, because it was much, much hotter than last year. We were travelling across the Arizona desert in 45 degrees (over 110 degrees F). There were quite bad storms in Illinois and the Appalachians. Lots of diversions, flooding and roadworks.”
On top of that were the hallucinations conjured by sleep deprivation. “There were thousands of goblins in the hedgerows. You’re seeing the leaves change and they emerge in front of your eyes. But it had happened before and this time it was possible for me to monitor and ignore them. Worse than that were the other hallucinations.
“I’d be riding along when I’d suddenly see a big supertanker with all its lights on at the top of the road. I’d shout to the crew about it. They’d say, ‘What supertanker?’ One of my really bad moments was cycling on a horrendously busy road with five lanes of trucks when suddenly I saw a car parked right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes. Looked up and there was nothing there. It was incredibly difficult for the crew travelling behind me. They were only 15 metres back. It’s not ideal if they run me over.
“But we made it. I fell off once but didn’t hurt myself this time. It took 12 days, nine hours and 14 minutes. Someone asked me if crossing the finish line was the greatest moment of my life. The answer I had to honestly give was ‘No’. It was a relief. But to me it doesn’t feel like such a big deal. I’ve surrounded myself with people who have done RAAM or Deca Ironmans or cycled 1,000 miles across Siberia. I’ve been quite taken aback by friends being overawed.
“My father led Britain’s first mission to land on Mars. So I’ve always been surrounded by very driven, ambitious people. When you sit at a dinner table and people are discussing how they’re going to land a robot on another planet – cycling across a continent is nothing.”
Her father, Colin Pillinger, who died last year aged 70 having suffered the effects of MS for nearly a decade, was a Professor of Interplanetary Science best known for leading the Beagle 2 Mars landing project. He enticed the rock band Blur and artist Damien Hirst to design music and artwork to go with the mission. One of his professorial roles had been held by Sir Christopher Wren. He had an asteroid named after him. He was that kind of dad. Her mum is a microbiologist. Her brother’s first triathlon was an Ironman. That kind of family.
‘When you sit at a dinner table and people are discussing how they’re going to land a robot on another planet – cycling across a continent is nothing’
Even so her mum, Judith, is baffled by her daughter. “She just thinks I’m nuts. She gets it, but she thinks I should be doing other things with my life like settling down and having children. Doing what everybody else does. But I’ve never been somebody to do what everybody else does. I’m not a sheep. I’m a leader not a follower. I can’t understand people who go home and sit in front of the TV every evening. I don’t get it.”
At 39 she is seriously considering a Deca Ironman next, which is, basically, ten Ironmans in ten days. She notes with intrigue that two British women have tried it before and both dropped out at nine. This would be a signal to most people; to Pillinger it is an escort to the start line.
“I’ve always been competitive and fairly ‘A’ type. I started out in women’s football. Played at university and then for a team in London – the Balham Panthers – for eight years. We were resigned to be being pretty rubbish. Then I took up triathlon and haven’t really looked back. In 2013 I became national Double Ironman champion – that’s two lots of swimming (4.8 miles), two lots of cycling (232 miles), two marathons. Most of it in the dark, round Hampshire woods, in a head torch.
“It’s being part of the Enduroman family – and I’m not even crazy compared to some.
“But I am a bit of a competitor when it comes to travel. I collect countries. I’ve been to 87 at the moment, including Moldova and Azerbaijan for the Eurovision Song Contest. I tend to do this on my own because when I ask friends if they want to go to Azerbaijan for the weekend they all seem to say, ‘Er … no!’
“But on the other hand, a lot of them have been telling me that my experience with RAAM is changing the way they talk to their daughters. ‘Look at Auntie Shu. If you really want to do something just go out and do it’. It never occurred to me that there would be such a positive spin-off. One of my friends has a daughter about ten. She’s suddenly announced she wants to cycle to netball practice. Her parents aren’t remotely sporty. They’re astounded.”
So are we. By her.
*@shupillinger is one of July’s BT Sport Action Woman contenders for being the first British woman to complete RAAM. Other contenders include @England #Lionesses @jordannejoyce92 @SharaProctor @TullyKearney. See @BTSportAW for details.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press.
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