Survival Mode

You are moving, but not without pain. Where is this pain coming from? Your back? Your legs? Your mind? You are ashen, gray. This would be apparent if there was a mirror handy, but there is actually nothing handy. You are upright and moving forward and that is all. This is survival mode.

There are many ways to enter survival mode, most of them a result of your own naivete, poor planning or naked hubris. How far is 100 miles? How many is 10,000 climbing feet? How many bottles do I need for this ride? Where will we get food? Did anyone check the weather? These are all questions that presage survival mode.

Sometimes circumstances contrive to take you there. The weather man has a jour sans. Mechanical forces array against you. Road construction disturbs your route.

Uttering the phrase, “I’ll probably be fine,” is what passes for an express ticket to survival mode. You can get there via bonking or crashing, or by simply failing to train up to the level of your aspirations. Here a foolish pride bleeds you dry as your friends chat amiably and you die inside.

In the Spring, on an unseasonably hot day, I showed up for a 70-mile cross “race” on a borrowed bike with one water bottle. Quite what I was thinking, I could not explain to you. It was laughable.

There was nowhere on the course to refill my one bottle. To add to the mirth, I crashed in the first twenty miles, and though it wasn’t a serious spill, the ensuing 50 miles of pounding turned my spine into a length of barbed wire. There was no comfortable position, no possibility of relief out of the saddle, no power to be derived from the muscles of my lower back. As the rest of my team settled into their groove and hammered through the final climbs and trails of the day, I dehydrated, too.

Fortunately, I had been in survival mode before, so when, suddenly, I became enraged about being dropped on an unremarkable hill in the last 15 miles, I knew where I was. Because you get used to pain on the bike, because you become inured to suffering, you sometimes don’t know how badly off you are until you lose control of your emotions.

The best rule for surviving survival mode, if indeed you feel compelled to finish whatever ride you’ve started rather than packing it in as a sane person might, is only to speak when spoken to, and to limit your answers to the barest minimum. In this way, you can keep your pain to yourself and not get it all over your companions.

A few weeks back, a friend of mine found himself in this particular spot of bother at D2R2. An early crash shook him up. Then he had double leg cramps. With over 10,000 feet of vertical gain, this is not a ride you want to cramp on. We spent probably the last 25 miles with him just doing the best we could, hanging back, taking our time. I was impressed with the way he continued to push on each climb. He dug down into some deep reserve, the reserve we all have but seldom are brave enough to access, and he finished.

We often say, here at RKP, that “to suffer is to learn,” but if you’re not careful you can turn that into a pseudo-tough-guy cliche. It’s all well and good to push at your limits, but you’ve also got to pay attention. You have to take the time to learn.

In the most practical sense, you can learn not to make so many stupid mistakes. You can learn to show up on the right bike with the right supplies. You can also learn not to overestimate your abilities. In this way, the more you suffer now, the less you suffer later.

But then, there are other lessons available. I believe there is value in learning to sit with pain, both physical and emotional. Low-blood sugar and dehydration will put you off emotional kilter. They will introduce you to chemically-inspired, irrational rage. The bonk is sometimes called “going to meet the man with the hammer,” but you can also become the man with the hammer, hammering yourself, hammering friends.

There are also the ego-crumpling effects of being the weak link. You feel you’ve let your friends down. Disappointment mingles with shame and anger. It’s a party you’d rather not be on the guest-list for.

A bike ride, though, is logistically insignificant compared to everyday life. Naivete, poor planning and naked hubris don’t confine themselves to in-saddle time. You get stuck in traffic. You pay attention to politics. Someone says something to you that rubs you the wrong way. You get ill. Your kids get ill. Your parents age. Your parents die. You lose friends. So much of it is beyond your control, and so little of it goes to plan. Big events and small distractions. Life on life’s terms. Just like on the bike, you find yourself, occasionally and unforeseeably, in survival mode.

And hopefully, just hopefully, something triggers in your animal brain. You have been here before. You know how to do this. This is practical reality, where riding and life merge and become the same. What you do is no longer an activity, a hobby. It’s a tool for living a better, calmer, more peaceful life. It is a proxy and a simulator, and all you have to do, in survival mode, is just keep rolling.


Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot

Image: © Matt O’Keefe



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  1. tinytim

    Great point. Being in the cycling hurt box over and over again was THE way I learned to cope with life’s BS. I’ve done rides that start warm ( mid-60’s) and several passes and 80 miles later place me in temps in the low 20’s, flat tires, broken/frozen cables and still 40 miles from home (think the front range here). One could easily curl up into a ball and pile leaves over one’s self and hope for the best. Or look around, check one’s resources and one by one address each problem and set incremental goals until your home warm and sound. Only have a short sleeve jersey on? Looks like you gotta find a loose news paper or tree bark to stuff under that jersey. 3rd flat tire? Tie that tube and seal that hole. Cables frozen? Piss on that cable stop until its free. No food, shut down and spin that lowest gear and death march it while setting 100 yard goals over and over again. The next time you are in a tough spot in life, divorce, sick parents, unemployment, just remember that all you gotta is keep making circles and that it takes days without water and food before you die.

  2. I R Biker

    “But to say that the race is the metaphor for the life is to miss the point. The race is everything. It obliterates whatever isn’t racing. Life is the metaphor for the race.” — Donald Antrim

  3. Travis

    Thanks for this post. I just recently lost an old friend to suicide. A super great guy who never said a bad word about anyone. The fittest 50 something guy that I’ve had the pleasure to climb and train with. An amazing basics prof and a good surfer. Most importantly a good dad to his son. I am preparing for the onslaught of emotions coming and preparing for Friday’s service. Your post reminded me that sometimes we really need that survival mode, and that sometimes even the best of us forget how to keep surviving.

  4. David Rae

    Ah, I know that feeling – I did a sportive ride recently which featured about 8000ft of climbing spread over about 25 separate climbs. That hurt. Especially when it was the hottest day of the year, and when I only had one bottle, and not enough food… On and on and on.

    Happily – ahem – the buddy I was rolling with snapped a saddle rail about 90 miles in, meaning I wobbled and sweated and cursed my sorry arse to the finish without the indignity of a constant spectator…

    It sounds to me, by the way, that it’s the direct opposite of The Sweet Spot (you guys even get cited in this article)

  5. Mike

    “…as your friends chat amiably and you die inside.”

    Whenever I’m in this spot I almost feel like I’ve found an old, lost friend. The first few times you get angry when it’s like this. But, once you know it happens to everyone and that your friends will support you when it’s your turn there and you can get calm inside, it turns into a simple battle of will.

    Very nice post, Robot.

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