Cyclist hospitalised as she abandons Cairo to Cape Town record attempt

Tegan Phillips was attempting to become the first woman to cycle across Africa unsupported, and says she will be back

Tegan Phillips
(Image credit: Tegan Phillips/YouTube)

Tegan Phillips, who was attempting to become the first solo woman to set a record riding from Cairo to Cape Town was forced to abandon the feat two days in, but has not given up on the adventure.

The South African ultra-cyclist and comic illustrator suffered from heat stroke, memory loss, loss of speech and unresponsiveness only 155km into the attempt, which happened earlier in November.

In a post on Instagram, the 30-year-old wrote: "This was *not* the plan." She said that she would be attempting the record again in February.

It was an attempt to set a record that doesn’t yet exist, as a woman has not yet officially cycled in an unbroken route from Cairo to Cape Town, across Africa. The world record is held by Mark Beaumont, who set it in 2015.

She set off on Tuesday 8 November, but by Wednesday evening she was in the intensive care unit of a hospital, suffering a seizure. 

Phillips wrote: "Naturally, I feel like a complete idiot."

In a more recent post for her 30th birthday on Instagram, Phillips said: "This past year has been a big one. Chronologically: fun races, stressful organising of a Very Big Trip, a painful breakup, a few months riding in the US, coordinating two support teams to travel into Africa with me, and setting off on a World Record Attempt.

"I thought that it had been a lot—and then these last two-ish weeks happened. After setting off, I went through that medical ordeal, had to pause the Very Big Trip after only two days of riding, returned to SA to start organising health tests and logistics and budget and confidence for attempting the record again in Feb. 

"Immediately followed by another romantic split, nightmares about the health scare, and all of the emotions that would come from not having nailed something that I very publicly set out to do... For the past few days, I have felt broken. Exhausted, devastated, and numb.

"That said, this is part of the adventure, and I love adventure, and I am here for all of it. And in some ways, this melodrama can be funny, which helps."

The collapse was apparently caused by a drop in salt levels, but it is unclear what caused this, especially as she and her team believed that she had consumed enough for the conditions.

In her original Instagram post the South African explained: "Last week Wednesday night, I was rushed to ICU after losing my speech and had a seizure at the hospital doors. The next 24hrs do not exist in my memory and were a super scary time for the team, who were unwaveringly practical and wonderful and brave.

"Since waking up on Friday morning, we have been consulting as many medical experts as possible to try and figure out how my sodium levels dropped to 113 mEq/L. My salt intake over the two days of riding compared with my blood sodium level on admission seems to point to an underlying condition that affects my body’s ability to retain salt.

"While my plan was initially to continue riding after a few days of rest here, the advice from the medical community has been to first perform a full battery of tests in some labs in SA to investigate possible underlying conditions such as adrenal insufficiency.

"Naturally, I feel like a complete idiot. Everybody has been so kind, but it would be weird if I wasn’t racking my brain trying to figure out how this didn’t come up in any of my training rides, including the long hot unsupported rides in the Arizona desert, as such a *big* red flag. It’s possible that I had a low-grade infection, or hadn’t eaten enough, or or or — obviously I wish I could go back and change whatever it was."

Despite the setback, Phillips stated that she had not given up on the idea of becoming the first woman to hold the record, and that she will be back in 2023.

"With the blessings of the Adventure Gods and medical professionals - we will be back in February to start again, and to face whatever more obstacles might be on our path, with big smiles," she wrote.

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Adam Becket
Senior news and features writer

Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over his professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.