It is during times of adversity that we often see the human spirit shine through and true heroes emerge. British expat John Julius “JJ” Bennett is one such example.
On June 26 John took on the monumental feat of replicating the famed Tour de France around Phuket, cycling a distance of 3,417km over a 21-day period to raise funds for the One Phuket food drive supporting those devastated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It was always going to be a huge ask, demanding incredible levels of resolve and determination to overcome the huge daily distances, the physical toil, the punishing weather, hazardous roads and mind-numbing solitude. But John completed the challenge and has thus far managed to raise over B250,000 for the cause. A sterling effort indeed.
After a well-earned rest period, The Phuket News caught up with John to get a first hand account of his endeavours.
“When I took on this crazy challenge, I always knew it was going to be tough,” John said on reflection.
“But I never envisaged how many demons I would have to ride through in 21 days and 133 hours. I had to draw on every kilometre of my 43 years cycling experience to get through the daily challenges,” he added.
Things didn’t get off to a great start. The first day, a 188km ride, involved several technical issues causing John’s stress levels to rise meaning he failed to hydrate correctly and then suffered severe cramps in the last stretch as a result. “I literally couldn’t get off my bike when I arrived home,” he winced.
Each day offered similar obstacles, namely the infamous Phuket traffic with reckless drivers aplenty. Losing the support car became a problem as did inevitable mechanical issues with the bike. However, it was Phuket’s extreme weather conditions that proved the most obstinate hurdle.
In a somewhat cruel twist of fate, the longest stage of 249km also coincided with the hottest day, with temperatures topping 39° Celsius at one point.
“At the half way point I pulled into a gas station and sat in an airconditioned coffee shop, wondering how I could do another 125km!” John said, reflecting on the day.
This is where the value of self-belief and sports psychology come into play, John said.
“At no point did I think ‘I can’t finish’, but many times I had to tell myself ‘how to finish’ by keeping in my ‘Focus Bubble’.
“Imagine you are wearing a weightless space helmet, that cuts out all external distractions. You are only left with your own battle in your head to get through each hour and each day. Getting into the Focus Bubble is relatively easy, but getting back into your bubble after something pushes you out is the hardest thing do for any athlete.
“The one thing that popped me back in the bubble was the reason I was doing this ride: to help poverty in Phuket. I kept seeing children in my head with empty stomachs, and remembered I was doing this for them, not for me. If it was only for me, I may have given up, but I had a goal and was determined to finish.”
Back to the coffee shop on the hottest day of the challenge with 125km still to go.
“I sat in the corner with an iced towel on my head desperately thinking how to get back into my Focus Bubble,” John recalled. He appeared to be stuck. Tired, worn down, helpless even.
“Suddenly I regained focus and I asked my wife Ching, who was part of my support crew, to go and buy ice bags from the local convenience store. We proceeded to stuff one bag down the back of my jersey every 20 minutes, to help cool my core down and it did the trick,” John said with a smile.
“We started at 6:30am that day and finished at 6:00pm as dusk was settling. It had been brutal and finished with an incredibly tired but satisfied JJ,” he added proudly.
Running on empty
For the second longest stage of 220km the weather reversed and the monsoon rains took hold, “the sort of rain where you can’t see beyond 100 meters because of the intensity and spray,” John commented.
Again, he turned to his tried and tested Focus Bubble to get him through something he found relatively easy on this occasion due to regular training in his formative years back in Cornwall in his native England where 5-6 hour sessions in cold, torrential rain was common.
“I had also prepared in the car for this,” John added. “I wore a peak cap under my helmet and a light undervest to whisk away the cold rain - yes ‘cold rain!’ - as the temperature dropped to 23 degrees at one point.”
When asked what the toughest part of the challenge was, John was quick to reply: “In the final week I contracted food poisoning and suffered badly for three days where I couldn’t keep anything inside me. These were my darkest days as I was running on empty.”
However, a combination of positive thinking, sound sports scienece reserach and techniques and staying in his Focus Bubble helped push him through.
“I knew that if I paced my effort at 180 watts I would be using 75% fat and only 25% carbohydrates. In theory we all have enough fat as fuel to keep going for weeks, but you need approximately 10 grammes of carbs per hour to act as the match to light the fat. Every 15 minutes I would pop some raisins into my mouth and let them dissolve through the membrane of my mouth, which actually gets the sugars into the muscles pretty quick, thus bypassing my dodgy stomach.”
‘Susu, coach JJ’
Support from the public was key too in helping him maintain his focus and drive. Be it the daily barrage of positive messages of encouragement via Facebook or direct support out on the road, it all contributed.
“On stage 18, with 40km of the daily 170km still to go, I was on my last legs,” John recalls. “A Thai guy on a motorbike rode next to me, looked at me and, once he knew who I was, shouted ‘Susu coach JJ, Susu’, Thai for keep going and don’t give up.
“Another day a car passed me and an expat lady stuck her head out of the window shouting ‘Go JJ, Go JJ!’ in encouragement. Such cases helped me immeasurably,” John said.
Seeing the donations rise each day was also a key means of motivation to maintain his levels and remind him why exactly he was doing what he was.
“It would help me start the day with a smile, knowing that we were on the way to our goal,” John commented proudly.
John allowed himself to enjoy the final day, riding the 112km with a few friends and letting the occasion sink in before demolishing a huge Sunday roast dinner and a much deserved pint once finished!
“We raised B250,000 at last count and are hoping we may get a few more donations yet,” John said.
“I couldn’t have done this without the amazing support of my wife Ching and my secretary Non. They drove every km in the support car, taking care of me, protecting me from crazy motorbikes. Since finishing, I have been sleeping 9-10 hours a day as my extreme fatigue starts to come out and my 57-year-old body recovers,” he added.
Asked whether he would consider taking on such an extreme challenge again in the future John replied steadfastly: “If it is going to help someone then yes, absolutely.”
All communities need heroes like John. Someone who selflessly puts others first and is willing to sacrifice so much in order to help those less fortunate in challenging times. The wind may not always have been at his back, the sun not always on his face but he should be extremely proud of his incredible efforts, as so many grateful recipients across Phuket certainly are.
The island is fortunate to call him a resident and The Phuket News salutes his phenomenal effort.
Anyone interested in donating can do so via the GoFundMe page, established to ensure maximum transparency and to monitor all contributions.