Last Saturday, me and my friends stayed up all night and watched the sun rise. We were out in the streets in the early hours, laughing and singing. In the selfies we took in the dark, arms round each others’ shoulders, you can see us smiling, teeth showing, eyes full of joy. Hours after dawn, we were still awake, eating bacon sandwiches, hugging others who’d been up all night and ended up in the same place, but beginning to feel grubby and achy, some of us getting grumpy, all of us having to concentrate very hard on not losing things. Get on the bus, fall asleep, hobble home, crawl into bed wondering if the whole thing was worth it. Wake up the next day knowing it was, but with fragmentary, impressionistic memories of the night before, not a coherent narrative.
I’m over 30. My days of serious partying are past. I’m increasingly aware of the extent to which endurance sport has become my substitute for it. Last weekend was the Dunwich Dynamo, a 120-mile bike ride overnight, from London Fields to Dunwich, a tiny village on the Suffolk coast. And without taking even an ibuprofin or a caffeine gel, I swear I felt as high as I ever have for most of it.
Some 2,500 people arrived at the starting point to hang around for an hour or two until they felt the inclination to get rolling. Most people set off between 8pm and 9pm. The first hour of the ride is clear in my mind. A continuous stream of cyclists jostled with the traffic to head up through Hackney and out into Essex. But as the sun set and we got out into the quiet B-roads of Epping, I stopped having to concentrate on direction or avoiding being hit by cars, and my memory is vaguer from then on.
I remember bolts of lightning on the horizon and drenched roads showed that we were following a huge storm, with another behind us, but by some miracle barely a drop of rain actually hit us. As night set in, the mist gathered, sometimes just wisps on the fields, other times dense enough to cut visibility. At the top of a slight rise in the land, a trail of red rear lights curving miles into the distance. Full moon hidden by clouds, the night not pitch black but the landscape virtually invisible.
For a few miles we followed a man on a tall bike blasting out the Beastie Boys and Gogol Bordello from a sound system and setting a swift pace. Other times we chatted. I explained the Doppler effect to Kate, my riding companion, and she described the challenges she faces in her work, trying to end female genital mutilation. But for most of the dark of the night, we were close to silence, the only sounds I could hear my tyres on the road and the wind passing my ears as I rode.
We hit a comfortable pace, not out of breath but not idling. The kind of pace which gently soaks your brain with endorphins, and which you can sustain indefinitely. The right amount of exertion to stay a comfortable temperature through a warm, humid, overcast night. The kind of effort it takes to dance.
We stopped every few hours to stretch, drink water, eat flapjacks and wait for our friends Saffron and Gabby to catch us up. Looking back, it feels as if the night was only dark for about an hour. I was in my body, not my brain, thinking about nothing, smiling almost constantly, calm and happy.
Towards dawn, though, we all began to come down. The string of cyclists had thinned out, as the gap between the faster and the slower grew. Kate’s front light and my back light ran out of battery power before the sun came up, and Gabby was tired, with an aching back. We stopped in a village to rest. When we were ready to go again, I found my front tyre was flat. I fixed it, and that was when we started singing to keep our spirits up, working our way through our shared repertoire from The Beatles via Oliver! to school hymns.
I was back in my brain for those last 20 miles, concentrating on keeping my legs pushing, choosing the right gear, finding the route with fewer fellow cyclists to follow, what to sing next, how many miles were left, whether or not I needed to eat, the effort of finishing stopping me from letting my brain freewheel.
But then we were nearly there. The four of us laughed like drains, on the right side of hysteria, but only just, when the distance marker to Dunwich said 71 miles at first glance, at second glance the extra ‘1’ added with electrical tape. We’d run out of songs we all knew by that point, but we were nearly at the beach. And then we swam, ate and queued for the buses home.
Chrissie Wellington, a three-time Ironman world champion, has been straightforward about her addictive relationship with sport, dependent on the chemical effects it has on her body and brain. I’ll never be a world champion, and I’m pretty sure I’m not an addict. But when a woman leaned out of her car window on the way out of London last Saturday to ask me what I was cycling for, the only answer was that these days is I don’t know any more reliable and efficient way to feel so happy.