You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need
—Jagger and Richards
Prior to flying to Kansas, I displayed a bit of hubris. I announced that I wanted to beat the sun at the Dirty Kanza 200, which is a bit like saying that Batman would be a punk without all the gear and gizmos. It’s not a good plan, as future endeavors go. Generally, I think I’m smarter than that. That is, I’m smarter than setting some arbitrary goal. I’m not a goal setter. I’m reasonably Zen in the classic sense, in that I dig the journey and no amount of goal setting will make me enjoy boarding the Titanic.
For reasons that don’t require a lot of explanation, the idea of finishing near sunset in an event whose cutoff doesn’t come until 3:00 am is reasonably appeal-worthy. Who wouldn’t like to finish at last light?
It started so well
When we rolled north out of Emporia, I felt as good as I have in years. I’d tapered hard for Dirty Kanza, recording fewer miles in the final two weeks together than I did in the week prior to the taper. When I got on the bike that Saturday morning I couldn’t find the chain. Soft pedaling got me over the early hills. I was so giddy at my form that I barely slowed down to look at the rising sun, a tomato-soup blob the size of a beach ball sitting on the horizon. After an hour of gravel I was averaging 17.1 mph and I briefly wondered if I shouldn’t give myself permission to achieve more than the goal I set. I can’t even believe I just wrote that last sentence, let alone ever thought it. You’d think I was a Wharton MBA who’d just spent a week at Esalen Institute.
I rolled into our first checkpoint, at Alma, at 4:13, with an average speed of 15.2 mph. Despite the fact that the last 15 or so miles had been challenging, I still thought I was riding both within my abilities and well within my pace for beating the sun.
Reality caught up with me sometime in the next 30 miles, and while the more dramatic thing would be to say it clotheslined me, the effect was much more like a succession of visits between a high school guidance counselor and the A- student who wants to go to Princeton. I can just hear the voice of my counselor from all those years ago, “Hon, you’re good, but you’re not that good.”
There was a south-facing hill that could not have been more urgently illuminated in the noon-day sun. It was steep, easily as much as 12 percent, though I can’t be certain because I had eliminated grade from the suite of functions I could see on the GPS. I wasn’t in Sonoma County; how bad could things get? But I could see that my speed was mere ticks above 6 mph. The road surface was poor enough to qualify as neglected; it was loose and occasionally rutted, with occasional large chunks of rock to make the road less road-like. If there is one thing I’m aware will slow me down, it is a steep hill with a crap surface. Okay, that’s two things, but together, they comprise a thing that will slow me down.
I’m not great at math, but I knew it wouldn’t take all that many of these to crater my average speed. Going half the speed of desired average needs to be offset by equal amounts of time at 50 percent above your average, and the descents were straight and brief, giving me plenty of speed, but precious little time at that speed.
The cruelest thing I’ve done in months was to watch my average speed tick away, like watching a kid pick grapes off a bunch, one by one. Pretty soon I was down to 12 mph. Given my history and my challenges, it’s only natural that the meanest thing I’ve done would be to myself. The sad reality is learning that as much as I want to be kind to others, my ability to be compassionate is limited by just how empathetic I can be to myself. So if I’m tough on me, there’s a cancer in paradise.
The swirl of emotion and rhetorical questions that accompanied each downward step is the stuff of today’s horror films. I’m sure Jordan Peele could turn those hours into something that would keep me from sleeping for a week. Doubt, for me, for my fitness, for my judgment, for my need to set a goal, for my distrust of goals, for why I even wanted to ride a bike for at least 14 hours, whipped me around like the fly on the end of a fisherman’s pole. And for every redemptive, merciful thought, four came by and slapped it.
What I’d like to do is brag and say I got the darkness out of the way early, but the reality is that we don’t choose when the darkness comes, but the earlier it arrives, the longer you have to ride after it leaves. It pays to have the darkness arrive late. With 100 miles left to ride as it began to lift, the threat of a relapse around mile 160 or 170 frightened me heartily. And what does anyone need, but to be frightened?
I couldn’t see it at the time, but the rutted downhills were my moments of flow. They weren’t the giddy fun of a rollicking Sonoma County dirt road descent, but they were spans of 20 or 30 seconds where I had to completely tune in to the road surface and attempt to look far enough ahead to see potential problems, while still minding my front wheel closely enough to make sure I didn’t run afoul of the walls of the rut.
In working though my caloric needs as I planned for the event, I’d concluded that I needed to try to eat two of the Feedzone Portables per hour. If I could manage to down a gel in addition to that, so much the better. Allen Lim had previously told me that his athletes were rarely able to eat more than half the calories they were burning during a given race. With the size of portion we made, we estimated that each of the Portables was around 200 calories.
The reality is that I was eating two portables and a gel about every two hours. Until early afternoon the big limiter was that I’d eaten such a large breakfast that I still felt full three hours into the race. I was eating, but I could only add to my stomach so fast. Once the sun achieved its apogee, small-scale gut rot made most food as appealing as drinking straight Coke syrup unleavened by carbonated water.
What I was finally able to do, in time for Checkpoint Two, was to clarify that I had two problems. My first problem was that I wasn’t eating quickly enough for the pace I was trying to go, and that was contributing to my second problem, which was I couldn’t go quickly enough to achieve my goal, and without solving problem one, there was no chance of solving problem two. But I had to disabuse myself of believing that solving problem one could solve problem two. There was no solving problem two. I needed to solve problem one for the simple reason that it stood between me … and finishing at all.
My ability to resolve that is what helped me let go of my goal. Or, rather, it helped me let go of my original goal, and refocus on my larger goal. I didn’t fly all the way to Kansas to fail. The last time I quit a road-trip event, it was the Son of the Death Ride, outside Lake Isabella in the Southern Sierra. There came a point when I realized that there was more distance between me and the checkpoint atop Sherman Pass than I could cover in the time that remained. I sat down on a milk crate and relaxed, even as the station volunteer exhorted me to get back on my bike and hurry. I knew what was possible; he didn’t. When I did get back on the bike, I soft-pedaled, just waiting for the gallows, I mean sag van, to arrive. Years passed before I could redeem myself.
Quitting, I began to appreciate, if only for the first time in my life, becomes a reasonable response as a result of an ever-widening delta between goal and performance. Quitting is announcing that what you’ve bumped up against is futility. And it is in typing that word, futility, that I realize it’s really not a part of my vocabulary. I don’t see my world with that as a threat. It’s not that I don’t see futility as a real phenomenon, but I don’t think I put myself in situations where that will be the result. I’d like to think that I know how to look at my world and to pick endeavors that I can accomplish, that my grasp of reality is such that I can’t be surprised by a challenge so outsized that when I go finally grok the situation my conclusion is that the pursuit is pointless and destined for failure.
I’d like to think that, but to swear that’s the case may be more hubris.
The miles between Checkpoint Two and Checkpoint Three, roughly 30 of them, were a good deal more relaxing than the 30 prior. I was at peace, but reasonably intimidated by what lay ahead. And the challenge was every bit as much about eating and hydrating as it was just getting up and over each of the 10,000 hills. It was in remounting my bike after Checkpoint Two that I really felt fatigue in my legs for the first time. My legs had that singe of a number of burned matches. There have been any number of times where my legs felt like that after a long day and never before with 80 miles to go.
Of all the portions of the day where I operated on sheer autopilot, attempting to eat and drink as often as possible, while riding at a sustainable pace, it was that stretch between Two and Three. It is the one most devoid of memory. What I recall clearly is rolling into the stadium at Council Grove, where the Crew for Hire was set up, with a feeling not unlike relief.
Well, the feeling was relief alright. But I was manually tempering it with the reality that 150 miles is not the same as finishing. It’s an odd juxtaposition to feel relieved at what I’ve accomplished while simultaneously acknowledging that I still have 50 miles remaining to ride. How many times in my life has my entire ride been less than 50 miles? I don’t need to look at Strava to know the answer is the majority of them.
With any sort of pacing goal out of the way, and a whopping seven hours to cover 50 miles, I was able to leave Council Grove feeling relaxed, and refreshed, thanks to several small Cokes, a sandwich and a pickle.
Even now, thinking back on that southern path, with the sun setting to the right of the road, I find it difficult to parse my emotions. Difficult, because the way I felt is not how I recall most bike rides registering in me. There was a slight giddiness—I’m gonna do this!—as well as relief at the cooler temperature and a happiness that my body, after declining four hours before, had taken an upswing and the feedback was good. There was something else swishing through my brain stem, like a flinty note in wine, something hidden by fruit and oak, but strong enough to still register. It may well be the secret sauce that anyone riding Dirty Kanza after dark taps into, an investment that matures on Commerce Street, giving anyone who reaches that point a grin that raises their ears.
My night riding has been exclusively on mountain bikes in the last 20 years. I’ve often joked that I allow pro road racing to be my guide: if the sun is not yet up, they are not yet on their bikes—for training or racing. And if the sun is going down, then the race is over and they are back to their refuge. It was a way to characterize why I didn’t do double centuries, without having to turn it into a medical case study, with a dash of humor.
As night settled in, I turned on my headlamp first, so I could see my GPS, and a bit later on my handlebar when I could tell I was beginning to run by dark spots I couldn’t fully read. No matter how many trips I’ve made on my cargo bike with my way lit by its light, the sensation of riding gravel roads lit only by the lights I brought and with no outside help from streetlights was novel. To call the experience of seeing a parade of red taillights in the distance, some unblinking, the blinking ones barking asynchronously into the night, was surreal, a real-life paint-by-numbers, but with nothing colored in. Each rider was yet another number in the progression and with my nose to the page, I could discern little of the picture we were drawing. A kind of faith suffused my riding; watching the lights up ahead was a way to tell myself that there was nothing bad in the road to take me down as I sometimes outran my lights.
They got through this stretch; I will too.
It would be dishonest for me to suggest that I rode all of those final miles with the relaxed air of a recovery ride, or even a Zone 2 base-building ride. Yes, my heart rate mostly hovered in the low 130s, but I continued to oscillate between a willingness to cruise to the finish, and a desire to arrive before midnight. As the evening passed 10 pm, the math became clearer, the pace necessary rose, and my need to either relinquish every goal other than finishing or to bury myself to achieve that one remaining objective became more unavoidable. I had to make a choice and the longer I waited to make that choice, the more likely the choice would be made for me.
A couch to sit on
When 11:00 arrived and with it me to Salsa’s Chase the Chaise, I did one final piece of math as I was getting back on the bike. It’s difficult to say if I’m just that bad at math or if I was just so fatigued I needed to keep the math simple, but I was reduced to updating my situation on the hour and half hour. Complicating matters was that as the course trended to gentle, my pace seemed to be picking up, though after 180 miles, it takes a mighty effort to lift one’s average speed even a tenth of a mile per hour. I wondered if I might be able to average 15 miles per hour even if I’d spent the last hour averaging 13 miles per hour.
When I tell you I stopped caring, that will sound wrong. I wasn’t cavalier or careless. But I let go of everything but the finish. Was I surprised that I wouldn’t finish before midnight when I originally thought I’d finish before sundown. Yeah. Totes. But I have to grant that the day was probably 25 percent harder than I really anticipated. The heat, the steep and rugged roads and the challenge of eating changed the complexion of the day. But once I knew that unless I had a major mechanical I’d be able to finish without torturing myself, I decided just to settle in and enjoy the ride.
I decided just to settle in and enjoy the ride. It seems so weird to write that, as if I don’t usually do that. But it was different in this circumstance. With my pace dialed back to the 120s, I was able to look around a bit. I began to see the glow of Emporia, and then the searchlight beams piercing the sky. But our route into town wasn’t direct; we kept turning onto new roads that seemed destined to keep us skirting the town itself. I know that I was at peace because I was able to enjoy each of the turns and take in what little the night offered.
When I finally rolled onto the university grounds at the edge of town, I could hardly believe the adventure was coming to an end. As I rolled up Commerce Street, people honked their horns, leaned out car windows and cheered and everyone on the sidewalks (this was not your typical midnight in downtown Emporia, I gather), cheered like I was the star quarterback for the high school.
What I remember of the finishing chute is how big my grin was. I don’t remember how my legs felt or how fast I was going. I just couldn’t stop grinning. Swirling through my brain was a sense of wonder at what I’d just completed. It’s still there. I got off my bike, leaned it against the railing and went over to give Jim Cummins a big bear hug. My headlamp was still on, so all he could see was me staggering. He gave me a hug and congratulated me, but it was nothing special. Only once I stopped blinding him did he realize I was someone he actually knew and tapped me on the shoulder to give me a second welcome. In that tick, a truly vulnerable moment passed, and I was able to accept his hug without completely breaking down. A moment later my friend Andrea was at the railing, congratulating me on a great ride; we had an awkward hug over the railing.
I looked up only to finally appreciate that most of the lighting, the big PA system and all the food trucks were shutting down. It was after midnight, after all, and the city had to end the party at some point, right? I spent a moment thinking about whether or not getting food was really the next thing I needed. It wasn’t. After all that, what I most wanted was a shower. In it, I struggled to comprehend how so much could be contained within a single day. I have told friends that if you cut the day in half, either half would rank as one of the top-20 longest rides I’ve done. What I keep returning to, though, is the night, and how riding into it with no certainty of when I’d be finished, all while being in a stunningly fatigued state, did for me the very thing I rely on cycling to do:
It got my ego out of the way and let me let the world in.