“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” TS Eliot
My first ultra endurance experience was a failure. I showed up to run the Rockin K 50 miler in Kanapolis, Kansas and was totally out of my league. I had only mediocre training and hours of internet research under my belt. I was quickly shown that wasn't going to be enough. It was 14 degrees and there was 6 inches of snow on the ground. The terrain was more difficult than anything I had ever run on. I made it 37 miles before my crew talked me into quitting with the looks of concern on their faces. I was looking for a reason to stop anyway and they seemed really worried so I gave in. The experience hurt physically and emotionally and stuck with me for a long time. I have used the memory of that race and how it feels to quit as motivation ever since. I think DNF's (did not finish) often change you more than success does. I have been able to avoid another DNF for the last 7 years until having 2 within the last month. I don't take failure quite as hard as I have gotten older because I realize now that failing is an integral part of growth. Failure is how you learn your limits and also how you learn to overcome them. I believe if you aren't occasionally failing, you probably aren't pushing yourself as hard as you could.
“I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Thomas Edison
Sara and Jake weren't able to go with me to the Dirty Kanza 200 this year so I rode to the race with Collin and his support person Nathan. We were able to get out of town and make it to Emporia, Kansas early enough to hangout in the cycling paradise downtown for a while. Each year it seems Emporia goes farther out of its way to welcome riders to the event. We went to the check-in but since the big rider meeting wasn’t mandatory I decided to skip it. My reclusiveness and dislike of large groups in tight spaces is getting much worse with age. Nathan skipped it with me and we hung out and people watched on the sidewalk in front of the Mexican restaurant until we saw the horde of riders pouring out of the meeting. We then went in and secured a table for everyone in our group before the restaurant went from empty to packed in a matter of minutes.
We stuffed ourselves and retired early to our hotels. I learned that two of my favorite gravel grinders, Super Kate and Bob Jenkins, as well as lots of other Team Virtus people, were at the hotel across the street so I rode over to talk with them for a little while. They are an outstanding group of people that are always uplifting and fun to be around. As a testament to their popularity there must have been at least 20 people in their hotel room and more kept arriving (see reference above about large groups in tight spaces and reclusiveness). I stayed for a little bit but it wasn't long before I was feeling the need for some space and retreated back to my quiet hotel room to prepare bottles and fret over the bike. I was in bed early and fell asleep watching the new Star Trek movie for the 47th time.
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” J. K. Rowling
We had discussed strategy in the weeks prior and had planned to ride together. There are lots of ways to attack a long course on a bike. One of the more conservative ways, and often successful in finishing, is to ride together with a group that has a similar goal. You roll together, stop together, and repair mechanicals together. Of course, there is a point where one member can't hang on and is holding everyone back, or someone's bike will take too long to repair for all to wait, but until that time, keeping the group together is the plan. The other way is to fire off the line like a brilliant shooting star and just try to hold it together as long as you can until you fall apart and then suffer on fumes to the finish. I am not going to pass judgment on which way is better as I think both have merits, and really, there is no "right" or "wrong" way to experience a ride or race. Both methods are fairly popular but in my opinion the solo domination is a more sexy and pure showing of determination and grit. For myself, though, I think I usually do much better with the more conservative and managed approach. Ultimately, regardless of which plan you use, when you are out there, you are responsible for yourself and your experience. If the group doesn't do what you planned or expected it to do, you must be ready to adapt to a new plan to save yourself.
|Photo by Emporia Gazette|
The moment the group began to move I knew we had dropped the plan and were now switching to the shooting star method. In these first moments, as the group hit the first of the gravel moving over 20 mph in a pace line 4 wide, I thought to myself I should probably back off a little, but I didn't. The pace we were riding would shatter the course record by several hours and I knew if that were possible, it likely wouldn't be me doing it. The cool temperature of the morning and the excitement of being in the mix with so many strong people had me ignoring the whisper of experience that was shouting in my ear that I should fall off the ridiculous pace. Not even when I looked back at the 25 mile mark to see 4 time winner Dan Hughes drafting off me did I ease up on the pedals. Turns out he had flatted and was working his way back to the front, but at that moment in time, I was in front of the King of Kanza! If I hadn't had a clue to slow down yet, I should have caught that one, but I again ignored it and chased on.
|Photo by Emporia Gazette|
Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, was rejected by over 30 publishers.
For nutrition I was carrying 4 bottles and had pockets full of gels and other sports food. I knew I hadn't been keeping up with my plan of 24 ounces and 250 calories an hour but I didn't think I had fallen off that badly. I was sweating profusely and I still needed to stop for nature breaks so I thought I was on top of it. I had the first ever trouble I have had yet with my rear of the seat bottle holder. I have used it successfully for 3 years without any problems but for some reason it decided to fall apart on this day. First it ejected a bottle on one of the many rough spots along the course and then it developed an annoying rattle before the entire thing finally fell off at 75 miles. For the rest of the ride I ended up carrying two bottles in my jersey pockets which I did not enjoy. I wasn’t the only one having trouble hanging onto my water bottles, though, there were enough bottles on the ground to hydrate 10 people for the entire race. I think it would be interesting to show up one year without any nutrition and just eat and drink what I find on the course as I’m sure there would be plenty.
|Photo by Emporia Gazette|
“Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure.” Soichiro Honda
Somewhere in the middle of this second section, miles 50 to 100, I was hit square in the face with the absurdity of the pace we had left at combined with an obvious deficit in hydration. It got hard in a hurry and my pace was falling off quickly. I again missed the opportunity to reign it all in to a manageable effort that I could maintain and just kept trying too hard. I managed to hang on to Jamie's wheel until the 90 mile mark. I was overheating badly and since my mind wasn't going to back off the effort to a sustainable level my body decided to force its hand and my energy levels dropped to nothing. We had a brief discussion about the separation. Jamie solemnly stated, "It's time to make a choice." Just go I told him, "I'm cooked." He slowly pulled away into the horizon and I eventually lost sight of him in the rolling hills.
By the time I rolled into the checkpoint at 100 miles I was suffering pretty badly. It's no wonder I was hurting as I had just set a 100 mile gravel PR. The only problem being that I was only halfway to the end and I was already shot. While I didn't have my normal crew of Sara and Jake, I did have the amazing support of Yvette, Cynthia, and Cassie. All three women have strong endurance experience themselves and have supported people in long races before so I was expertly cared for. They had me ready to roll out, to include replacing my hydration and nutritional supplies, replacing my flat tire kit, and even cleaning the sweat and mud off my sunglasses within a couple minutes. What they couldn't do was refill the book of matches that I had set a blaze 30 seconds into the race. I should have sat here for an hour if necessary and gotten back on top of hydration, but I was still feeling a little cocky, like I could still come back around, so I rushed back onto the road and probably missed the last chance I had to salvage the day. I could tell by the feeling in my legs and stomach it was about to get nasty.
The next section was 13 miles of rolling hills into a wind that seemed harder than it should have. It was also getting really hot. Temps were to be in the mid 80's but I could have sworn on that road they were closer to 120 and I felt like I had a hair dryer blowing on my face. I ended up stopping several times to sit on the side of the road and sip on water bottles that were already getting hot and unappealing. I noticed that after being drenched with sweat for the first part of the day, my skin was now totally dry and crusty with salt. These aren't good signs. I shotgunned a gel and half a bottle of water and hoped they would help soon. Minutes later I was stopped by a churning stomach and I puked everything I had just taken in onto the dusty ground. I was 7 hours in, completely dehydrated, and working my way into full blown heat exhaustion. Fortunately, I only had 90 miles to cover still. I thought it seemed doable.
“When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.” George Bernard Shaw
I was getting passed on a regular basis by this point. Friends were rolling by showing concern for my state of being. I must have looked pretty rough. I felt like they were flying by so fast while I was struggling to keep the bike rolling. I had to keep stopping to dry heave but nothing more was coming out. Every time I took a sip of water I would get sick again and lose it immediately. I went through a cycle of riding for a couple miles and then stopping to puke and lay down over and over. As I covered the next 25 miles I must have done it at least 10 times. Each time I laid down to rest someone I know would roll up and ask if I was doing okay. I tried to keep it positive so they wouldn't worry but I think I got less enthusiastic as time went on.
I came upon a low water stream crossing that a guy was sitting at with his feet in the water. I thought that looked amazing and collapsed on the bank next to him to do the same. We talked for a bit and he was ready to bail on the race. He offered to ride with me on the highway we had just passed to shortcut to the next checkpoint and drop out. It would have been an easy way out of the misery and I was so genuinely tempted. I still had a little fight left in me, however, and was able to decline the offer. I was still sitting in the water dry heaving when Collin rode up. Collin hadn't had the training time this year and was tackling the course with a conservative heart rate monitor approach. It was working well. Despite many fewer training miles than normal, he seemed pretty fresh and still had his trademark giant smile on. It was so very familiar to 2 years ago when he found me laying on the side of the road puking at the 2012 Dirty Kanza.
|Photo by Emporia Gazette|
I saw another side of Collin's country living skills when we had to cross through a line of cattle that were standing in the road. There was one cow standing directly in the middle blocking us. I said something to it but apparently not loud or mean enough as it just turned slowly to look at me. I heard Collin rolling up behind me fast yelling, "MOOOOOOOOOOVVVVVVVEEEE!" Sure enough, the cow sprang to life and sprinted off the road for us to roll by. This is a scene you see numerous times throughout the day, herds of cattle running through fields and sometimes across a road. It's a miracle to me that no cyclist has ever been trampled but apparently cows aren't very vicious like antelope are.
At the 138 mile mark we came upon another example of how great the people who play this crazy game are. We crossed a highway to see this oasis that could have been exactly what you might hallucinate had it not actually been real. There was a cemetery and a little church. In front of the church were big shade trees with some chairs sitting under them that had riders resting and Jim Davis was in the parking lot with ice cold water and beer. As we pulled up to Jim he was ready to assist in any way possible. The thought of beer had my stomach turning over and I took a bottle of cold water and then rolled over to the shade and collapsed on the ground. The cold water felt good on my throat which was raw from all the recent activity.
In 1954, Jimmy Denny, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, fired Elvis Presley after just one performance telling him, "You ain't goin' nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin' a truck."
Collin was patient but firm. He tried to keep me motivated and kept telling me if we could just make it to the next checkpoint the crew could bring me back to life enough to limp to the finish line. It sounded like a solid plan but I just didn't have the energy to get up and on the bike to do it. I laid there on the grass for close to an hour alternating between the fetal position and sitting up to puke some more nothing out. When it became obvious that Collin wasn't going to let me quit here I begrudgingly got up and slung a leg over my bike. As we were leaving I noticed the caregiver parked in the lot had changed from Jim Davis to a woman who I think had a foreign accent but I might have dreamt that part. She asked if I needed anything and I said, "Yeah I'm trying to quit and this asshole won't let me." She and Collin both laughed at me and I realized I was going to have to keep riding.
|Actual picture of the Surprise Oasis from Google Street View|
|My final resting place before being picked up.|
I had covered the first 100 miles in just over 6 hours and then the next 44 miles in almost the same amount of time. It all seems so clear in hindsight, as it always does. I should have backed off the pace and let the others just go. I should have stayed on the nutrition plan. I should have stayed more hydrated. There are no new lessons here, just the same stupid mistakes that have always plagued me. Self confidence and cockiness serve me well in some situations in life but they often punish me in others.
Albert Einstein did not speak until he was 4 and did not read until he was 7, causing his teachers and parents to think he was mentally handicapped, slow and anti-social. He was expelled from school but that didn't stop him from winning the Nobel Prize and changing the face of modern physics.
Nathan took me to the 150 mile checkpoint to wait for Collin to arrive. I laid on the sidewalk and poured cold water over my head for a long time. Eventually I was able to sip and hold down some fluids. After Collin had came through and left on his way to the finish we drove back to Emporia where we got cleaned up and headed to the finish line to watch people come in. I really just wanted to head to my hotel room to sulk. I didn’t want to explain to everyone I saw how it had gone over and over again, but I really wanted to see Collin finish as well as all the others who had stopped their own races to check on me. Everyone else from the local crew made it to the end in good time. Collin rolled through close to midnight but would have probably been a couple hours quicker had he not sat with me for so long. I do feel fortunate to have such great friends to ride with.
So why exactly did I fail? It was a combination of many small mistakes. In skydiving they discuss all fatal "incidents" in a very cold and methodical manner. Doing so helps everyone else learn from the event and hopefully prevents another death from the same mistakes. They refer to the factors leading up to the death as a chain of events. Each small issue that contributes to the problem is a link in the chain. If you were to change any one of the links in the chain the outcome could be completely different and might even prevent the death all together. I think the analogy applies to endurance sports as well. I see lots of "links" in the execution of a perfect race. Training beforehand would be a link, rest the week before is a link, pace on the day of the race is a link, nutrition, bike maintenance, and so on. There are lots of links in the chain that would support the best performance you are capable of. If one of your links is bad, it doesn't matter how strong the rest of the chain is, the whole thing may come apart. The race itself could be seen as a chasm you are trying to swing across on your chain. If any one link in your chain snaps, you plummet and crash on the rocks below of suffering and regret. Usually we have some good links and some bad links. Sometimes it holds and sometimes it snaps. It is a truly beautiful experience when all your links are strong and you have a really great day. Unfortunately, this year I chose some links on race day that had no chance of holding.
"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Michael Jordan
I have finished enough ultra events now that I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what it takes to just survive a long distance. If I chose an easy steady pace and slowly worked my way through it I’m sure I could overcome just about any distance. The trick I’m now working on is moving from the back of the pack towards the front. This is turning out to be a much more difficult task than just finishing. When I used to ride at the back I dreamed the people at the front were just so fit and strong that they were flying along with a smile on their face enjoying the speed and the wind in their hair. I wish I had it so easy! As it turns out, there seems to be way more smiling at the back of the pack. Closer to the front there are many more faces contorted by the pain and suffering they are inflicting on themselves to go deeper. I’m not sure which end of the field I prefer most yet. My abnormally large ego still has this dream of the heroic launch off the front where I lay waste to the entire field behind me. It may never happen but in the end it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is just to be out there pushing yourself towards new goals. If you fail, get back up and sign up for another round. You may never make it but you will be stronger just for trying.
I have about 8 weeks before the next event. The race will be 24 Hours of Cumming, Iowa on August 9. The challenge is 400k (248 miles) with over 15,000 feet of climbing in less than 24 hours. My plan is to train and then race a steady sustainable pace for the entire event, conservative in the beginning and then throwing it all out there in the end with whatever is left, if anything, instead of the other way around. Tune in to see if I stick to my plan and make things work or subject myself to another character building failure.