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Heading Home to Glory! Tom Bates meets Andy Heading.

Posted Friday, June 8, 2007

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Heading Home to Glory! (Reflections Magazine 2004)

“Andy Heading was pulled from the overturned, burning wreckage of his South African hire car with his entire skull catastrophically collapsed, his face practically torn off, and his long time friend and riding partner Andy Baldwin dead beside him. Less than two years later he won the Iditabike Impossible across over 1,100 miles of frozen Alaskan wilderness. It doesn’t get more inspirational than this…”*

*What Mountain Bike magazine Nov/Dec 2001

`a professionally trained journalist who not only writes the news and captures it in pictures, but also makes the headlines himself....'

Andy Heading is a professionally-trained freelance journalist who not only writes the news and captures it in pictures, but also makes the headlines himself by his awe-inspiring exploits in pursuit of his `hobby’ of mountain biking!

Andy is the official photographer to the European Athletics Association, and has covered events including Olympic Games and World Athletics Championships . He has travelled the world photographing sports action ranging from Champions League Soccer to dragon-boat racing in Hong Kong, and for more than a decade his pictures have captured the atmosphere and essence of numerous famous sporting occasions and have graced the sports pages of our national newspapers.

But to describe him simply as a `photo-journalist’ is akin to calling Michael Schumacher a mere `car driver’…….. for Andy is an extreme sports enthusiast - a sort of adventure junkie, who, to the global mountain biking fraternity is a well-known figure.

His epic adventures on two wheels made news across the world in 2001 when, in a remarkable feat of courage and human endurance, he literally achieved the `Impossible’ by winning the Iditasport Impossible – a race over 1,100 miles of frozen Alaskan wilderness in temperatures as low as minus 58 degrees Centigrade!

Incredibly, aside from winning the race (in which 125 competitors started and only four finished), he also became the first European in history to complete a gruelling course which runs from coast to coast along the old Iditarod Dog-Sled Trail from Knik, near Anchorage, to the Bering Sea port of Nome – a total distance of one thousand and ninety seven miles!

But that’s only half of Andy’s awe inspiring odyssey - and the rest is equally compelling!

Andy Heading was born in Bath, Somerset, in October 1964, and was seven years old when the family moved to Ashover after his father, a computer programmer, took up employment at Matlock’s County Hall in 1971.

His love of cycling was immediately apparent from an early age and was actively encouraged by his parents:

“When they were young, my mum and dad cycled everywhere”, he says. “They would cycle a hundred miles a day on two old bicycles with sit-up-and-beg handlebars - what we used to call `bone-shakers’.”

It was no surprise to learn that Andy was riding before he started school!

He was educated at Tupton Hall School, gaining both O and A Level GCE’s, before taking career advice and opting for a career in journalism.

At the age of eighteen he attended Richmond College, Sheffield, before serving a two-year apprenticeship as a Junior Reporter on the staff of the Ripley & Heanor News.

But the call of the wild and the lure of adventure was too strong, and in 1986 at the age of twenty one Andy decided to cycle to Africa with a former school friend. He was to learn a lesson that would be invaluable in the years ahead –that any overseas adventure needs meticulous planning!

“It was pure adventure”, he says. “We rode all the way down through France and Spain, through northern Algeria and across the Sahara”.

Chuckling at the memory he recalls, “It was great fun. In just over seven months we rode across mountains and deserts, visited Timbuctoo, and spent seven days on a river boat on the Niger, but we cycled into a dead-end, our visas would take us no further, and we ran out of money”.

They were stranded in Ougadougou, capital of Burkina Faso in West Africa and, says Andy, “We had to sell clothing and bits of bike to survive, and eventually got enough to buy flights to Marseilles and then cycled home”.

Andy then spent two years as a reporter on the Ilkeston Advertiser, before moving to Liverpool and joining the Mercury Press Agency where, amongst other things, he covered news events ranging from the Ken Dodd fraud trial for Sky TV to the traumatic aftermath of the Hillsborough stadium disaster.

But the adventure bug could not be denied, and in 1990 he went off on a cycling tour across the Pyrenees with younger brother Steve. Upon his return, some of his pictures taken on the trip so impressed his boss that they were used to illustrate a prestigious sports calendar, and Andy swapped pen for camera at Empics Photo Agency in West Bridgford, Nottingham.

For his first job he was put on a plane and sent to Lazio in Italy to cover a European Cup soccer game!

The quality and composition of his pictures was exactly what sports editors wanted, and Andy’s `eye for a picture’ quickly enhanced his burgeoning reputation and gave him a taste for more of the same

He says, “The lure of International sporting events really appealed to me, I saw it and said to myself, I fancy having a go at that” – and over the next six years`have a go’ he certainly did!

He became official photographer to the European Athletics Association and travelled the world, covering major sporting events up to and including the World Athletics Championships of 1995 - where he met wife-to-be Amanda, an event organiser and sports marketing consultant who shares his passion for adventure and extreme sports.

They married in November 1996 and Andy left Empics armed with a first-class reputation and an excellent portfolio, and launched himself as a freelance photo-journalist.

His insatiable appetite and enthusiasm for adventure was shared with a close group of five riding friends affectionately known by rivals as the Matlock Mafia, one of whom, long-time friend Andy Baldwin, talked him into entering the Iditasport Extreme in 1998.

The Iditasport slogan is “Cowards won’t show and the weak will die”!

Andy explains, “The Iditasport Challenge is run annually over the Iditarod Dog Sled Trail, one of the most challenging, dangerous and physically demanding courses in the world, and there are three ‘human-powered’ races; the 130 mile, the 360 mile `Extreme’ and the 1,097 mile `Impossible’.

“Late in 1997 a group of us spent three weeks training in the mountains of Ethiopia in preparation for the ’98 Idita Extreme. We were determined to finish, and became the first Brits ever to complete the course. We vowed we’d be back again the following year to have a go at ‘the big one’ – the Iditasport Impossible - but then came that road accident while we were on a cycling holiday in South Africa in March 1999, which changed everything.”

The horrendous crash happened at night on the outskirts of Pretoria when a mini-bus driving without lights overtook oncoming traffic and smashed straight into the hire-car in which they were travelling. The car overturned and burst into flames, with Andy unconscious and hanging upside down suspended by his seatbelt, and his friend dead beside him.

“As I hung there I remember hearing the grass on fire around the car, then the wail of the sirens as I drifted in and out of consciousness” says Andy.

Luckily the paramedics got to the scene within half an hour, but everything, including cameras and bikes worth thousands of pounds worth, had been stolen, and Andy was only identified from the passport in his bumbag.

Surgeons raced to rebuild his smashed eye-sockets, nose and cheekbones before too much cerebral fluid had poured from the credit-card sized hole in his skull. His multiple injuries included three skull fractures, broken ribs, a punctured lung and numerous burns. Titanium plates were used in a ten-hour operation to rebuild his face, and he was flown home immobile to a hospital in England.

He lost two and a half stones during this period and he recalls,

“It got to the stage where it was painful to sit in the bath because I could feel my bones sticking through. All my cycling muscles just wasted away and I had legs like a young girl. I saw my medical files in hospital – to be honest, I often feel lucky just to have kept my sight, never mind my life.”

With memories still quite vivid he adds,

“I remember lying there full of drips and tubes, thinking `I either sink or swim here, and there’s no way I’m going to sink”.

Astonishingly just three months later, and whilst his treatment was continuing, Andy was back in the saddle - albeit minus the forty staples which had been holding his head together.

“Once I started riding again I was amazed at how quickly the muscles came back - you could almost watch them grow back into cycling legs again”, he recalls.

“I think it’s an overstatement to say that your priorities totally alter, but it certainly puts things into perspective when you’ve been that low. You just bank the experiences and pain you’ve come through, and even if it gets that bad again you think `I made it through last time, and I’ll make it through again”.

Incredibly, he did make it through – even more incredibly, as a tribute to his friend Andy Baldwin, he teamed up with another `Matlock Mafia’ man, Alan Sheldon, and went back to Alaska in 2001 to attempt the Iditasport Impossible - and actually achieved the impossible by winning it!

“Alaska was massively important to me”, he says. “It makes you realise that if you can go from being almost pegged out to doing something as extreme as that, you really do realise that anything is possible”.

Andy Heading proved his point again in 2002 when he and Alan Sheldon, (who had pulled out injured after 400 miles the previous year when Andy had gone on to win) returned to Alaska and again did the `Impossible’ - this time finishing in joint second place. Thus Andy became the first person in history to complete the northern and southern routes of the Iditarod under human power!

When he’s not rewriting the record books in far-away frozen lands, Andy turns his attention to more local challenges, like the Kinder Scout Beer Barrel Race. This involves teams of eight runners, each carrying a 98lb barrel of beer from the Snake Inn, over the top of Kinder Scout, and down to the Nag’s Head in Edale.

“It’s only five miles, he says, “and there are some practically bottomless bogs up there, but it’s worth it for the first prize of a hundred pints!”

Unsurprisingly Andy has led the winning team for three years in a row.

But the most significant and satisfying race he’s ever won?

“Without a doubt it was winning the Mappleton Bridge Jump the year after my accident” said Andy.

“It’s a completely mad local race where you raft down a river to a thirty-five foot high bridge, climb it, jump off the parapet into the river at the other side, swim to the bank and then run to the pub. It happens every New Year’s Day and it’s absolutely freezing, - but you’re only allowed to wear a T-shirt and shorts”.

And the prize?

“The winner gets the Brass Monkey Trophy”, he reveals.

“I’d won it twice in a team of three with Andy (Baldwin) and Al (Alan Sheldon) in 1998 and 1999. Then came the accident, and I just knew I had to win it a third time. My brother Steve stepped into the team, and Andy’s mum and dad and brother were there in the crowd. I’ve never been so nervous before any race, ever. It was a very, very emotional day – and very satisfying to win”.

Andy has written a detailed account of his `Impossible’ experience and gives illustrated talks, in fact when I caught up with him recently at the home he shares with wife Amanda and their two dogs, Murphy and Dillon at Farley Hill, Matlock, he had just returned from giving an illustrated lecture at the Everyman Club in Newcastle.

The dramatic account of his Iditarod Impossible experience makes an exciting and riveting read, with such extracts as…………

“Groggily, I tug the cord on my sleeping-bag hood, splutter away the mouthful of ice which falls inward, and surface for air. The full moon, slanting through holes in the ramshackle cabin, casts an ethereal glow – briefly illuminating a dark figure moving outside. Seconds later, there’s a chilling, mournful howl, and the sight of more grey fugures padding past the missing door…

Of course, wolves hadn’t featured on my pre-race worry list, but now, with a hungry wolf- pack circling our sleeping quarters, the tales I’d heard of half-eaten lumberjacks and babies dragged from unattended prams swam back into clear focus….”

Andy captures the very essence of his experiences of the conditions with…

By Day two it’s just DIY survival in deep, soft snow and near whiteout conditions. The race web-site, devoid of anything but the bare facts, tells the story. Alongside dozens of names, the words ‘Quit’, ‘Airlifted’, ‘Evacuated’ – all the way to Finger Lake, the casualties add up. Mike Curiak, the previous year’s winner of the race to Nome, falls through ice into the river. Whole teams of runners, each of whom paid a minimum entry fee of $500, drop off the list - meanwhile we march on through thickening snow...”

“At Sullivan Creek Bridge – a spindly collection pf planks over a fast-moving stream – severe lack of sleep is playing catch-up. Trees start shimmering, disco lights appear ahead, and then the Pope turns up. I spot him 20 metres ahead, perched on a snow-bank, splendidly attired in his purple pontiff outfit. As I approach, he smiles and holds out a plate of chocolate biscuits, and for the next seven hours we hallucinate our way towards Nikolai. It’s minus 40 degrees, and we finally crash into the checkpoint at 5am. We’re a mess, but after snatching an hour’s sleep, we refuel before hitting the trail again………On the Yukon, over a mile wide in places, the wind railroads downriver and hits us head-on, reducing progress to a painfully slow grind….We head out onto the sea ice, where deep cracks in the ice zig-zag out in all direction, but we’re too tired to be afraid….

And finally, “At 8-07pm, on the 26th day of the Iditasport Impossible, I cross the finish line….That night, sprawled in a warm, king-size bed at the local hotel, euphoria keeps me awake for hours……”

I asked Andy why he did what he did, what motivated him - and what his plans were for the future.

“If I’m being honest, it’s just the ultimate escapism – while you’re struggling through a blizzard in 30 degrees below, you don’t even think about gas bills, taxing the car, hanging out the washing….it’s an escape, and it’s definitely addictive.”

Andy had his 40th birthday recently, and friends have finally persuaded him to use his photographic expertise in the more leisurely, and (hopefully) less dangerous pursuit of childrens’ photography!

Andy calls his new venture`Shoot the Kids!’ and he explains:

“It’s just relaxed, natural photos of kids in their own environment rather than a studio – and because of my background in sports photography, I can offer something a bit different from the usual stage-managed photos”.

He added, “It’s great fun….. and the kids seem to enjoy it too!”

Andy Heading’s photographs are both impressive and inspiring, - just like the man himself.

He has his own gallery at or can be contacted by telephone at 01629 –580780.

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