Shu Pillinger was the first British Woman to complete the RAAM. We got the chance to find just what motivated her to do it.
What do you do in real life? (work, family and hobbies?)
This is real life! You only get one shot at life, so it’s best to spend your time doing what you most want to do. I do freelance work, currently testing commodity trading systems. I get to keep my mind busy interacting with sharp, talented people to deliver mini projects without the constraints of being tied into a specific company. I can plan my work around time off to travel and take part in challenges. My fitness and adventures are not hobbies, they are my way of life. I don’t really believe in following convention and haven’t gone down the route of a steady job, marriage, have children and then grow old gracefully.
How long did you train for the RAAM, and what did your training involve? Was it tough?
I played women’s football for over 10 years, before taking up triathlon in 2006. By steadily increasing the distances I was competing over, up to double ironman distance (4.8 mile swim, 224 mile cycle and 52 mile run) I’d been physically and mentally training for RAAM, before I even knew about it! RAAM requires qualification to take part, so once I’d achieved that (once in a 24 hour time trial in 2012 and a second time in a 400 mile race across India in 2014), I was able to focus my training on the specific challenge of cycling long distances for many days in a row.
I’ve learned a lot about structuring training over the years to build up during the winter, work on particular weaknesses in the spring and challenge myself in the summer, without forgetting the appropriate rest, recovery and tapering for events. I have a very consistent approach to training, due partly to the fact that I use my commute to work (St Albans to London) as base miles (in all weather conditions). Then training at weekends is more freeform depending on what else I’m fitting in to the precious time – I like to devise themed routes for long rides, cycle to see friends and family… any excuse not to use the car or train really.
Here’s my local heatmap!
The tough part of RAAM training is the solo element. Whilst it’s fun to ride fast in groups, a RAAM rider really needs to be able to cope with long stretches of road disappearing over the horizon, pedalling for long periods of time when tired, pacing themselves and staying motivated when there isn’t another rider’s wheel to tuck in behind. I spent many hours (20-30 a week) riding on my own. I find it very peaceful and meditative, even in busy traffic or terrible weather. Despite physically cycling alone, I compete virtually on Strava with myself and other cyclists. The thrill of collecting unexpected QOMs and kudos at the end of a hard ride made the darker moments brighter. Towards the end of my training I was starting to get fed up of my own company, but with the race in sight, I dug deep to make it to the start line.
What inspired you to do the RAAM? Have you always done long distance races, or was this a first?
I didn’t set out to do RAAM initially. I accidentally found myself in the position to go for it. I’ve never been afraid to have a go at something (except shark diving!) but I do like to make sure I’m prepared before I take on a challenge. Doing triathlons, starting from my first Sprint distance and progressing naturally to longer events made me realise that we are capable of more than we think we are. Each step up was a new challenge and I relished seeing if I could make the next level. I completed my first Ironman in 2009. But I really discovered long distance cycling after taking part in the Deloitte Ride Across Britain in 2011, booked as a holiday to see the country! I trained to get up and ride again after a previous day’s long ride, and was surprised at how comfortable I found the 9 day event. I was the 3rd fastest woman over the course – Dame Sarah Storey was first. After that I sought out other long cycle rides, and ended up doing my first 24h time trial. I’d ticked a box on the entry form to do it as a RAAM qualifier without really understanding what that was. It meant I couldn’t draft other riders (not a problem to a triathlete where drafting in races is forbidden). To my surprise I placed 3rd overall, not just 1st woman. I qualified for RAAM, by which time I’d done some research (mainly by watching the film Bicycle Dreams) and realised that no British woman had ever completed it. Then I was hooked. In my training I’ve cycled from London to Paris, London to Edinburgh to London, around Ireland, across India, even around the outside of the M25!
What’s next? Now that you’ve completed this incredible journey, do you have something else lined up?
Lots of people have asked what’s next, as if I have to try to “beat” RAAM. Whilst I got to this position by gradually challenging myself over longer and longer distances, a whole world of other adventures has opened up to me during the journey. I’ve discovered places I would like to visit, heard of trails I would like to run, seen pictures of routes I would like to cycle and now know a whole load of other things I would like to experience. My biggest worry is making the time to do everything.
However, first up is Paris-Brest-Paris in August – the oldest long distance cycling event (started in 1891) and then another Ironman in October.