From 28 December to 03 January 2023, John Walkley was a man on a mission. And, frankly, it was a mission only a madman would accept: ride 4025 virtual kilometres in 7 days to beat the current record on ZwiftPower. To put the sheer size of that task into perspective, at 40kph that would mean riding for around 14.5 hours… every day… for 7 days!
John received a huge amount of support from the Zwift community at large, and also from the Team Vegan Zwift Community, where he is now firmly established like some sort of plant-powered demi-god.
You may have already read or heard about John’s effort at the time here at Zwift Insider but recently I (virtually) sat down with John to follow up on his attempt and talk about the soaring highs and the deep deep lows of his incredible effort.
Hi John! It’s great to see you! We’re just over a month out from the challenge. I have to ask: how are you feeling now?
Hey Chris! Stronger than ever on the bike. In fact, I’ve just posted a 10-minute and 20-minute PB yesterday! My fingers and toes still tingle a little and my tendons feel the strain if I push too hard, but otherwise fully recovered.
There is literally no stopping you! So, the big question: how far did you manage to go in total?
I managed a single Zwift activity of 2,829km and a total distance of 3,334km over 7 days.
That is absolutely mind-boggling! Did you have a plan going in as to how you were going to tackle that?
I had initially planned to ride with Pace Partners, but once the ride started I had a strong sense of wanting to ride solo. I was hoping some friends may join in from time to time and I’m glad it happened that way: so many people joined in and the challenge became a community effort. I couldn’t succeed on my own, but I had faith it was possible with support from those around me.
Do I dare ask how many calories you burned?
For the ride itself, 65-70,000kcal. The afterburn was intense though, so I think it must have been a lot higher overall: more like 100,000. I finished the ride at 76kg (normal weight 77kg) but dropped to 73kg during the next 10 days of recovery.
Yikes, that’s quite the shift in weight! I hope you are making up for it now with plenty of vegan treats.
Did someone say vegan cake!?! Yes, I’m a big believer in training with numbers and eating to feel. I don’t count calories, but just ensure a varied and wholesome diet. I’m still eating three breakfasts each morning to help ensure a strong start to the day for training, work and family. I’ve acquired a new love for porridge and have been experimenting with recipes shared by friends. It’s bizarre, because I’ve always hated porridge. What is also strange is that I can no longer stand sugar in my coffee! I guess I’m just responding to what my body is asking for. Lots of fresh fruits and carbs like potatoes, rice and oats. For protein, I’ve been reaching for nut butters (peanut, almond and hazelnut) as well as plenty of beans, lentils, tempeh and tofu!
What is reassuring is that my blood results showed good levels of all nutrients after my challenge had ended, despite the demands on my body.
So that’s where vegans get their protein from…
One of the things that struck me, watching you on Twitch and in-game, was just how positive you were outwardly. Would it be fair to assume that there were some bumps behind the scenes?
Yes, many! I almost quit on the very first day. I’d had a great day of riding, a little too hot perhaps, but I felt good. I was taking a nap and got up to go to the bathroom. The next thing I remember is being brought around by my wife, Johanna, having passed out and fallen through the shower door. My back was badly scraped and bruised and I was pretty shaken up. After speaking with my coach, we put it down to low blood sugar and decided to carry on. I didn’t tell anyone else as I didn’t want people to worry!
The next big challenge came when both of my Achilles’ tendons flared up. Johanna and I taped my legs as best as we could (ahem, badly) and I carried on. The next day was even worse, I couldn’t stand and was having to crawl about the house. I’d planned to restart at 5am, but both legs swelled and bruised badly. This was the second time I thought it was all over. Johanna told me to stop. I cried. I felt that it had become bigger than me and I had to find a way to carry on. We spent the next 7 hours massaging, icing, elevating until the swelling came down. We also reached out to the local community and were saved by a physio who swung by to properly tape and massage my legs. She was our hero. I got back on at midday and rode until the early hours of the next morning to make up time and we were back on track.
From then on, every time I got on the bike, I had to fight through the pain to warm up, find my quiet space, and get into a rhythm. This was the hardest part of the challenge.
There were other smaller issues that cropped up too. Arm friction burns from the pads. A sore mouth from constant eating and drinking (resolved with pears, cucumber and zucchini). At one point, I had to wrap both wrists with boxing bandages because I couldn’t hold myself up!
I’m sure there’s a joke there about being ‘fighting fit’! How did you deal with all that pain? You say you went to your quiet place?
Yes, meditation was key to blocking out the pain and clearing the mind. That was something I’d never done before, but learned as the week progressed. Once my mind was clear, and the pain put to one side, I was able to enjoy being in the moment: the cheeky in-game message that made me laugh; the ‘package dropped’ search for me by the team when we’re all wearing the same kit; trying to eat noodles whilst noodling; people messing about firing up their socks! The joy of the small moments and feeling the big sense of togetherness with the team kept me going. Most of my time I spent not thinking at all, but just feeling and being present.
When you don’t think and just feel the small moments of joy, it is hard not to be positive.
I think a lot of people would have thrown in the towel pretty quickly, especially given the issues you faced on day 1. What was it that got you up again each day to carry on?
The thing that got me started was the idea that I wanted to show my son, Edison, that no matter how big the challenge or how long the odds, you need to keep going. We never know how deep we can dig unless we try.
Edison has been extremely ill since February 2022 and for him, he doesn’t have a choice: he has to battle every day. I chose an almost impossible challenge of endurance to show that we can keep going against the odds. I felt it was important to show him he was not alone, that he wasn’t the only one who had to push.
Once I started hearing from other people who could relate to our struggle (with loved ones lost or facing their own battles), I was doing it for them, also.
I also had a constant influx of messages from people saying they were inspired to attempt their own challenges, whether it was their first 50k or 500k. Every message was like a turbo boost for the soul.
That’s incredibly powerful stuff, and I know it had a big impact on everyone that heard about your challenge and the reasons behind it.
Coming back to the challenge itself, your aim was to ride 575km per day. That doesn’t sound like it leaves a lot of time for sleep or, well, much of anything else! Can you tell us about your schedule for those days?
Sleeping was a real issue. I wanted to sleep but found it almost impossible. Most of my off-bike time was spent on self-care and injury treatment. During the night, I struggled to get more than a few hours of broken sleep.
For most of the week, I was riding in blocks of 3-5 hours, stopping for self-care and bib changes and sometimes a power nap. I’d spend anything from 20 minutes to 1 hour to rest, then just jump back on. As the week progressed and my injury threw me off-plan, I just rode by feel and stopped for small breaks here and there. I had no sense of time; I was either on the bike or getting ready to get back on for another session, continually.
Once on the bike, the ritual became:
- Overcoming the pain and getting into zone
- Warming up
- Having fun and being on fire with friends
Step 1 was the hardest part, and as the week progressed, could take anything from 10 minutes to an hour or two. By the end of the week, I had no idea what was going on and was hallucinating and in a world of my own. Unbeknownst to me, Johanna and my coach, Ashley, planned to stop my ride on the final day, while I was on a high, as they could see I was at breaking point. They communicated with the team and invited everyone for that final ride. We ended up with a sea of green Vegan jerseys. To me it was like one big rock concert, I was on stage riding my bike and all of my friends and the Zwifting community were jumping up and down screaming in the mosh pit. It was surreal!
Sounds almost like a religious experience! I have to say, when I was riding with you for the few hours I could during the challenge (just about hanging on!), I felt that the ride turned into something more than just breaking a record. Did you get a similar feeling?
Absolutely! In my mind, it became everyone’s challenge.
The number of individuals who came out to support and were clearly pushing and giving so much of themselves, in effort, in time, in words, it created a sense of palpable humanity to a degree that I had never witnessed before. Zwift was alive with a sense of community, togetherness, where we all suddenly believed anything was possible. If I could try the impossible, with no fear of failure, well then anyone could attempt their own version of the impossible.
One person’s hill is another person’s mountain; we should celebrate all efforts in equal measure. I feel like this challenge rekindled people’s innate sense of wanting to help each other to believe in themselves and be there for one another.
Speaking of climbing mountains, sometimes I find the climb down can be just as daunting as the ascent. Did you have a plan for how you were going to recover after such a monster ride?
Oh no, I didn’t. I just did as I was told. Johanna took care of me! She was in touch with my coach, Ashley, and between them they made sure I was on the right track. I also made sure to check in with my GP for blood tests and health screenings to be certain all was ok.
The primary focus during the first two days was about mental recovery and complete rest.
Digging deep for so long (mostly meditating through the pain of injury) took its toll. I spent many hours chatting with Team Vegan friends as a support network to help with this part of the recovery process. They’ve been super supportive.
My physical recovery mostly centred on eating healthily and frequently to minimise weight loss. I managed to maintain most of my muscle, but did drop 3kg in weight, to 73kg, during the 10 days of afterburn post-event! I’m now at a new steady state of 74kg and feeling good.
Training resumed on day 3 of recovery. It was important to maintain a level of fatigue to ease back to a normal training load, rather than having a complete stop. My tendons were still very sore, so I just took things steady and eased up the pace gradually. I also introduced exercises to rebuild tendon strength and post-ride ankle rotations and tendon massage to improve mobility.
Now, one thing we haven’t touched on is that this was an indoor virtual challenge on Zwift. I think it’s fair to say things didn’t quite go to plan with the technology?
Yes, I experienced a dropout in my Zwift game midweek, which thankfully recovered to the same ride. However, a second drop at 2,829km was a real gut-wrencher. When I loaded back up, it was a new ride at 0kms. I remember just staring at the screen in disbelief. It was the first ride of that day and I knew that the record attempt was over. But, as I mentioned before, this had become more than just the record attempt. It wasn’t about me anymore. I turned to the camera and just said that it was over, but let’s keep going. Let’s see what we can do.
It was always going to be a risk for such a long ride, especially since I was keeping the system running 24 hours a day for 7 days. Zwift have been supportive in looking for a way to recover a FIT file for the ride, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to upload to Strava soon. (Because if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen, right?)
Looking back on those 7 days, what are the things that you are going to take onwards with you?
- I now know what pain feels like. I now realise that I’d never actually pushed myself anywhere near my limits before. My body is capable of more, and I will now strive for higher performance.
- I have found my voice. It may seem cliché, but I went on a journey that week, laying myself open and vulnerable so publicly, yet feeling so supported, that it has given me a new sense of confidence to just be myself. And if it helps others in doing so, then all the better.
- Results don’t matter as much as the journey. I may not have gotten the big record, but I ended up with so much more than I could have imagined.
I already felt like I was a part of Team Vegan, but now I feel like I truly belong and have built some really valuable friendships. I will never forget the support I have been given. It was truly amazing!
So far, you’ve raised £7,105 for Royal Stoke Children’s Hospital. That in itself is a truly incredible achievement. Can people still donate?
Yes, it’s amazing what the community has managed to raise! You can still donate at www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/john-Walkley as I’ve not yet closed the page down. I’m liaising with the hospital to purchase the equipment for the play team and will post some photos as soon as it’s all secured.
To anyone thinking of a similar challenge, do you have any words of wisdom?
- Training to eat is as important as training your legs. I spent three months learning to eat hourly in readiness for this event. Food will get you through it!
- Make a plan, but be prepared to wing it. At the start of this challenge, I made a list for my coach and family of the important things to check and look out for, such as food and hydration. More importantly, though, I was honest with them beforehand about what lies I would tell once I got past my breaking point, what to ignore, and what to actually listen to.
- Support is key. Everything is easier with friends. Don’t be afraid to ask. This exercise has taught me that most people’s starting point is that they want others to succeed and will go out of their way to support.
Finally, do you have a next challenge in mind?
Yes. I am now focussed on three challenges:
- Achieve a 5W/kg FTP (current PB is 4.6)
- See how close I can get to 400 FTP (PB is 341)
- 4,000km in 7 days. I will try again – watch this space!
Thanks, John! We’ll see you on the (virtual) road. Ride on!
Thank you! Ride On 😊