In 1992 I was a runner, training for a marathon. I had done a 16 mile run, and was moving up to 18 when I experienced knee pain. I decided to give it up for the day and head home. Something popped in the knee when I put weight on the first step. The pain and stiffness that followed had me limping for days. Once I healed I rehabilitated the knee with yoga, and made a decision that I would ride my bike, which up to that point had been transportation only, just till I was ready to run again. I never really went back to running. Some how the speed, the distances that you could cover, the scenery, the mountains showed me a different and more appealing path.
Early in my new cycling career several things happened that solidified my desire to be a cyclist. First, I saw a replay of a Greg Lemond descent off one of the Tour de France mountains, just flying, curve after curve at a speed that the motorbikes could not keep up with. At that time I was 45 so riding the Tour was out, but then the second thing happened. I saw a picture in a cycling book of a Race Across American rider in Arizona, a tiny speck on road that was straight to the horizon. It was like I was a kid all over again. That became my cycling goal, a goal that I would never achieve though it fueled 22 years of riding. The third thing was less inspiring. I was hit by a car-just a minor knick to my shin. But it brought me some insurance money which I spent to buy a helmet, and cycling shorts. It would not be long before I at least looked like a cyclist.
It wasn't long before I began to train for my first century. It was twenty-five times around a four mile square in Manteca California. I suffered. I hadn't learned how to fuel on the bike yet, and it probably took me ten hours though it was pan flat.
Over the years I continued to do century after century, though never with any great understanding of why. I have since realized that it is a metaphor for life, the joy and wonder, the pain and suffering. I have also gone on to longer distances completing a 400 kilometer ride, and doing many 12/24 time trials. And while I never, for a variety of reasons, was able to qualify for RAAM, the experiences have been rich in knowledge and understanding of the body/mind in motion. On one 400 kilometer ride I found myself riding with another cyclist toward the end of the ride well after dark. I knew that I was in an altered state, having spent many hours staring at the little bubble of light in front of me from my headlight; but I trusted this other rider to know where he was-he told me that he was "from around here." We passed a Pearl Street that I knew was a turn on our route sheet, but he said that we should stay straight that there was another Pearl Street ahead. I should have known then that we were in trouble. We soon realized that we were lost, and stopped at a crossroads in the country with a gas station on the right. As soon as I stopped I realized that there was loud classical music playing, a string quartet. We looked at each other, both afraid to ask if the other heard it for fear that we might be hallucinating. I never did know for sure, and somehow we were able to find our way to the end. There is a picture of me at the finish. I was wasted, eyes crossed literally.
I never developed into a great cyclist. I simply have never had the speed or power. While I realize that there have been years I probably could have qualified for RAAM, it has also become clear that I would not be able stay with the field in RAAM-there is a cutoff at the Mississippi River. There is a book on mastery that suggests that it takes 10,000 hours doing anything to master it. I am well past that, and have learned a great deal from that experience, combined with the years of experience as a Counselor, brings a rich blend of physical and mental approach.
One thing I know is that everybody slows down. It starts somewhere after 150 miles, for some longer, but it is a law of human physiology. We only store enough glycogen for an hour or two. You can consume somewhere around 400 calories per hour based upon how much you can put into your stomach. At any speed over aerobic you are at a caloric deficit. Eventually you have to slow down.
Now the interesting thing is that once you slow down, as long as you are able to continue to eat, you can keep going, some at a still brisk pace. Each year 10-15 riders complete RAAM which is a 3000 mile time trial. The clock does not stop. And while some don't finish, succumbing to a variety of physical and mental woes, most do. Add to this a more astonishing feat, the double trans-continental crossing by Lon Haldeman and it is clear that a man on a bicycle can cover distances that would be difficult in a car.
So cycling basically breaks down into training, equipment, nutrition and the intangible mental/spiritual aspect. How do you keep going when it all seems to have gone wrong, and the idea of going on is unbearable?
The equipment that you use should be the very best that you can afford. This means the lightest, stable bike, one that climbs easily and is fast on the flats-this may mean two bikes; tires that roll easily and do not flat; shoes that are comfortable enough even after 200 miles; clothing that is comfortable and able to deal with temperature and perspiration; a bike saddle that you can survive on-there is no saddle that is comfortable after 150 miles to my knowledge, either that or I have a pansy ass.
Obviously training has become a very advanced science, but there is no training for when you have to slow down beyond training to increase cruising speed. Basically it boils down to training your body to go as fast as possible without going into the red when calories are prescious.
Nutrition also has become very scientific but also very personal. For every ten riders who ride on a strictly fluid diet, ten others use solid food. I have tried both. Over the years I have found one very popular drink mix to be irritable to my stomach. I also experience some of the same difficulties with gels. I have recently returned to a "light" drink mix and solid food. The bottom line is that you have to eat something that gets the most calories into your stomach, and keep it down. It will always be an experiment.
And finally the intangible.
I have been on rides where it became necessary to quit. I am reminded of the Knoxville Double. When I left Oregon it was 49 degrees. On Knoxville Road during the ride it was 107. Everytime I would look down the road my head would swim. I think my wife would not have forgiven me if I had gone on. I stopped, and was given my one opportunity to ride with Fuzzy Mitchell, famous ultra rider and support person. There have been other times when I felt that continuing would create injury that would end the season.
And yet, I regret quitting. It's been a long time. I have learned to put into perspective what I can do. I have also adopted a mantra of "if you're not sure you want to do it, don't go." But if you do want to finish, and there you are, all is going sideways-then what?
One thing to keep in mind, the body has built in mechanisms for shutting down far in advance of serious injury or illness. If you're just tired, weak, dehydrated or short on motivation; dig deep, hydrate, eat and do what you need to do to keep going. Ask yourself how much you want it, and what is the cost of quitting.
And what does this cliche "dig deep" mean? It is much the same as "taking a step back" in mindfulness. It is observing within and without, and taking action. It is really about courage. I realize as I get older, with the miles adding up to something beyond my own belief that it is still just a bike ride. I have heard Lance refer to the Tour as "just a bike ride." Did he mean it? Apparently. But this is maybe where we need to get to answer the question of how much we want it. If it is just a bike ride why do we do it? A good question. If all is illusion as the Buddhists would suggest why do anything. Well, even if it is an illusion, I've still got a lot of time left to kill. I believe that illusion or not, it's worth making the most of it.
There are many tricks that you can find to keep going. Breaking it down into smaller sections is one. Another that I have found is to focus on breathing. It's funny but any situation where I am in some kind of discomfort I have discovered that my breathing is off, too slow, too fast, irregular, something. Often if I can just watch my breath, notice the in and the out, I can get past the discomfort. Perhaps it's just distraction, or maybe getting a grip on life giving breath really does change it all.