Threshold

Threshold

We appear to live in a linear world. Roads go from here to there. Tomorrow comes after today and 1 + 1 = 2. And while you can add 1 + 1 a thousand times and wind up with 1000 apples, oranges—or miles—it doesn’t work that way in nature. We were shown the evidence the first time we went hard on a bicycle. At a certain point you just can’t go faster. And most of us thought the reason why was that we just weren’t strong enough. We thought that with a little more muscle we’d go an extra two or three miles per hour faster.

It took me years to understand that the burn I felt in my legs, and occasionally even in my arms, was the result of my muscles producing lactic acid faster than my bloodstream could flush it out of my muscles. To conjure an image that could help me connect the dots I thought of beer drinking games in college when guys would pour as much beer down their shirts as they were drinking. Who wants beer all over their shirt?

More and more we are being confronted by the notion that there come tipping points where just one more or one less isn’t a tiny difference, but a watershed event. We’ve had the language for it for decades: the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I’m beginning to see how there’s a similar break point in distance where all the things I can get away with for three, four or five hours don’t work when I’m out longer than seven hours.

Ride for an hour and a bottle of water is a good idea, but truly, pretty optional. Ride for two hours and it becomes a very good idea. At three hours, hydration becomes a real necessity, and from there, hydration only becomes more imperative. At a two percent loss of body mass through perspiration athletic performance will noticeably degrade. The muscles simply don’t want to fire. What’s hard to see until seven or eight hours have passed is that a tiny mistake made in the first hour, and perhaps repeated each hour after—such as needing to drink two bottles of water per hour on a hot day, rather than one—will magnify until the muscles thicken like butter.

Two percent. It isn’t much. At my weight, it’s about 48 ounces, a number small enough to hit by just being six ounces off on my hydration per hour. And that’s why seven isn’t such a lucky number.

Apparently, seven hours is also the point beyond which my stomach my stomach refuses to operate without real food. A threshold of a different sort. Nausea, the universal signal that something is rotten in Denmark, and probably elsewhere, is to diet what a contract is to clear communication.

I’m fond of saying that I don’t have anything left to prove as a cyclist. It’s why I don’t race crits, haven’t in more than 15 years. I’ve wrestled with the attraction of doing a truly long event, something that takes me beyond 12 hours. I’ve done something that long only once before. I can’t say I came away with any great epiphanies. And now I face what will arguably be the toughest undertaking of my cycling career.

Is there a proof to be had? Perhaps. Because this involves me pushing past thresholds I’d begun to take as givens, I must concede that there’s a kind of proof. But that’s not what is driving me. Why, the question I ask so often, doesn’t seem to apply here. I actually know the why. I want to find out. I want to find out what’s out there, beyond the beyond. I’m often at my happiest when I’m most vulnerable. So the question is what. What will I learn? What is there to discover—about me, about the world—at the end of an undertaking in which the central challenge isn’t how well I can ride a bike, but how well I can fuel while on it. It’s a challenge unlike any I’ve encountered before. And if life has taught me anything, it is that taking on a new challenge is a chance to learn something new.

 

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11 comments

  1. Steffani Ellis

    Great post. I’ll be with you out there in the Flint Hills. I’ve never done anything even remotely close to that distance. I impulsively signed up to win an entry…and I did. At this point, the doubts are starting to creep in, but I’m excited. I can say that I have never pushed myself to my limit on the bike. Close. But not quite. But I have a feeling that it is going to happen, and I’m really interested to see what that is like.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Good for you! If you’re doing the training, the rest will fall into place.

  2. P Poppenjay

    Padraig, You encountered the threshold, and ‘pushed past it’, indeed! Interesting that you are happy when feeling most vulnerable. I would love to read your explanation of this.

  3. Dan

    Having just moved from Kansas City to Emporia, the biggest adjustment for me has been the wind. It is regularly between 15 and 20 mph and there is nothing to block it. The only thing to do is slow down and battle it until you change direction. Get used to how the rural roads are named. The north/south roads are letters, starting on the west edge of the county. Road B is one mile east of Road A and so on. The east/west roads are numbers, starting on the southern edge of the county. Road 130 is one mile north of Road 120, etc. Good luck, it’s brutal but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

    1. Neil Winkelmann

      The 6-odd hours of pedaling straight into that wind last year was one hell-of-a-thing.

  4. Neil Winkelmann

    Weird thing is that once you’re finished, it will seem like it took no time at all. See you in Emporia.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I have experienced that phenomenon. I have no way to explain it other than with neurotransmitters.

  5. Mike

    What am I capable of? What can this sack of meat, bone, connective tissue, nerves and innards do? Can I keep going when the body pleads, “No More!”
    I can still remember a ride from when I first got back in to cycling 10 years ago. It was 45 minutes and it seemed like such an accomplishment. A few months later and 38 miles made my appetite so voracious I ate almost a whole pizza. Within a year, I had done my first century. How could anyone go farther than that? I know people who don’t like to drive 100 miles.
    But then thoughts of a double metric century started churning through my head. The thought ate at me until I had done it. It wouldn’t leave me alone.
    Last year was the first double century. Now I am coming up on an even longer ride. Why? I need to see if I can do it. Not “I want” but “I need”. I wish I could say where this will stop but I just don’t know. When will the voice in my head quiet?

  6. Maxwell

    I’ve done a fair number of 8-12 hour race/rides the past few years. Always intaking the bare minimum to save weight and stoppage. Finishing in a dehydrated state has been so typical it seems like the only possible outcome. Then one time I intook double my normal and finished feeling *good*. So that’s my advice – overeat and overdrink.

  7. Trey H

    This will be my 6th DK200 (and too many to count midwest gravel races).Living and training in the Flint Hills, I concur with Dan regarding wind. It is our interminable mountain range. I dig it. It seems that many people struggle with the long headwind sections. Accepting that the wind sections will suck (I guess blow would be more accurate), embracing the challenge, and plugging away a mile at a time seems to work for me. Too, I almost always train so that the second half of my training rides are into the wind. Maybe that helps. I do fine on gels/liquid calories for the first crazy frantic half of the race, but definitely need real food for the second half. Some people are just the opposite. Weird. I keep coming back for yet another DK 200 because it launches me into a mental place that no other event/training ride can replicate. I go in full well knowing that at some point (usually mile 120-140) I’m going to slouch into a dark mental trough (spirit ditch), at which point a combination of will, patience, and faith (that this too will pass) ushers me back out of the spirit ditch. You’re going to love it, I promise. I’ll have a nice beer for you at the finish. Look me up. See you in a few weeks!

  8. Andrew L.

    Reading what you folks have to say about DK, listening to the Paceline, and hearing others talk about these difficult endurance rides is so damn intriguing. It has me thinking there must be something over them thar proverbial hills. I’ve been cycling for over 5 years now and the longest ride I’ve done was a recent 88 miler in the mountains in about 6 hours. I thought that was sufficient, but the way everyone whistfully talks about these tough rides just gets the imagination running. I guess there is only one way to find out what all the fuss is about…

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