"What am I training for? I'm training for life."
Background to the Brevet
For years I've been drawn to epic events, particularly those involving bicycles. There's something viscerally compelling about cruising across the landscape under one's own power, conquering whatever terrain and weather the world throws one's way. It's no exaggeration to say that my love of cycling has been the factor driving my continued participation in triathlons; for me, swimming is something between "okay" and "a necessary evil," whereas running presents a satisfying challenge without quite engaging my psyche the way cycling does. Long rides carry one from city to city and state to state, allowing one to chart progress not by yards or neighborhoods, but on Google Maps. One has to earn every mile, and when the rides become sufficiently long, they become meditations on meaning and progress.
In years past, I've ridden several Ironman bike legs and 200ks, each of which has been in the 110-140 mile range. These qualify as endurance marathons in their own right, particularly Mountains of Misery (6 finishes) and the Diabolical Double at Garrett County Gran Fondo (finishes in the beta and first years of the event), each of which flings riders up some of the steepest paved roads in the region -- and in the case of the Diabolical Double, at least one of the steepest unpaved roads. Intermixed have been 200ks with various randonneuring groups, which are dedicated to ultracycling as a discipline. The conventional rando distances are 200k (125 mile), 300k (190 mile), 400k (250 mile), and 600k (375 mile) rides, known as "brevets" (bruh-VAYs). The brevets aren't races, although there are time limits. What they are is minimalist, unsupported rides through spectacular, and usually quite hilly, countryside. They are rides for the joy and challenge of riding. If one completes a 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k brevet in the course of a calendar year, one qualifies to attempt one of a handful of 1200k (750 mile) rides put on around the country each year. Like the shorter rides, the time limits are not onerous -- 90 hours for a 1200k ride -- but that nonetheless requires traveling about 200 miles a day for four days on end.
A critical fact about brevets that bears repeating is that they are unsupported. There is no car to pick you up if your bike breaks down, no ambulance following you around in case you get into trouble, and no aid stations. All that's offered is a cue sheet, a map, and a card that lists several "control points" along the route. Control points are often gas stations or restaurants, and there you must get someone to initial and time-stamp the card to prove that you covered the distance at an acceptable speed. Other times, the control points designate signs or landmarks about which you must answer a question. Everything else is up to you to figure out and handle as need dictates: nutrition, bike repair, and the fortitude simply to keep moving. There certainly are no cheering crowds at any point. Heck, sometimes there are only a handful of riders. Philosophically and atmospherically, brevets are to Ironman races what Montana is to Manhattan.
Heading into this year, I'd ridden several 200k brevets in addition to the Mountains of Misery and Diabolical Double rides of that same distance. This year, though, I've pushed the envelope a little bit, first with a 300k (190 mile) ride on May 12 in Maryland, and then this past weekend with a 400k (250 mile) ride in the Fingerlakes region of New York. My riding companion, who previously had finished rides of this length and longer, suggested to me that the 400k distance is arguably the hardest because the time cutoff of 27 hours doesn't easily allow one to get a solid night's rest at any point. Instead, one must start at daybreak, ride all day, and finish sometime between midnight and breakfast time the following day after riding for hours under a canopy of stars.
Braving the Brevet
Because none of the local randonneuring groups was hosting a 400k ride on a feasible weekend, we headed up to Ontario, New York, for a ride through the Fingerlakes with the Western New York Randonneurs. After a 7-hour drive on Friday, we awoke "Ironman early" -- 3:30, in our case -- for the ride, which started at 5:00. After a breakfast of rice cakes with peanut butter, banana, salt, and honey, along with a Clif Bar, we headed to the ride start, which was not exactly a bustling transition area with U2's "Beautiful Day" blaring over the loudspeakers. Instead, it was a guy's house that lay in the woods at the end of a 200-meter gravel driveway. We pulled in at 4:30 and were surprised to find the lights in the house were off, only to realize after some head-scratching that the ride began at 6:00, not 5:00. So off we went in search of coffee, which we did not find, because nothing in Ontario, NY is open at 5:00 on Saturday morning.
When we returned to the house at 5:30, things were in better order. It turned out that there were to be a total of six -- yes, six -- riders that day, including the host/organizer. Max and I paid our $20 fee, got our cue sheets and brevet cards, posed for the traditional group picture, and rolled out into the breaking dawn.
But dawn wasn't the only thing breaking that morning. Weather.com's prediction algorithm was also busted beyond repair. It had called for a 50% chance of showers during the day, mainly in the afternoon, but as soon as we hit the road, the rain began to pound us steadily. The temperatures were in the high 50s, but with rain, wind, and the constant motion inherent to cycling, we got very cold very quickly. Neither one of us had really prepared correctly for this; instead, we'd both shown up decked-out in heat-repellant gear. Thankfully I'd brought a windbreaker vest, but it was a distinctly miserable and exhausting morning, as the rain did not relent for nearly six hours, and at times it was truly a downpour. On at least one occasion, we stopped for hot coffee and huddled inside, just trying to keep from shivering. In a race situation, these conditions would have been less problematic, simply due to the fact that it's possible to stay warm by sheer effort. In a 250-mile ride, however, the name of the game is conservation of energy, so it simply won't do to sprint up climbs in an effort to warm up. In all, it was a truly inauspicious beginning to what already looked to be a long day.
The saving grace was that the first 70 miles of the ride or so were pretty flat, as they headed east right along the shore of Lake Ontario before turning south toward the Fingerlakes. As noon approached, the rain finally stopped, but it turned out to be a case of one difficulty replacing another, as the flat ground gave way to fairly challenging rolling hills for about 40 miles as we rode along the western edge of Lake Owasco. I recall looking at my bike computer at about mile 80 and thinking, "Ok, only 170 miles to go. Wait, 170 miles? Crap."
As we kept rolling onward, I focused heavily on nutrition. I've found that in endurance rides it's crucial never to get in a hole; achieve that goal, and it's just a matter of time until you finish, not a question of whether you'll do so. I set my watch to beep every 30 minutes, at which time I'd alternate between taking a gel (Chocolate Number 9 or Gu Roctane) and munching a bar (Dr. Will, Bonk Breaker, Clif, or Lara, depending on my mood). At rest stops I'd frequently have a packet of trail mix that included M&M's, and I also brought along some random treats like licorice. Finally, I had a sandwich bag full of raw pitted dates, the only food with a higher glycemic index than glucose itself, and another bag full of Cashew Pumpkinseed Clusters, which I think are just about the perfect endurance food -- and they're available in bulk at Costco! All of this was stashed in a moderately sized pannier bag behind my saddle, and it was delicious. As has become my practice, I drank nothing but water, and I also took it easy on the caffeine. The name of the game was eating "real" food and staying ahead of the calorie curve.
Feet Hurt? Maybe You Don't Have A Sole.
As much as I enjoy ultracycling, I've had one perennial problem that has caused excruciating amounts of pain over the years. The issue is colloquially known as "hot foot," and it involves a numbness, tingling, and ultimately debilitating pain in one's forefeet during cycling. There are many causes for this common cycling malady, but in my case, the issue is the shape of my feet, which have arches higher than most bike fitters have ever seen. At least one extremely well-known fitter has actually taken pictures of my arches for his records. The problem is that cycling shoes simply aren't built for people like me. Soles are made to accommodate the widest selection of riders possible, which means that they tend to be almost flat. I've had custom shoes and custom soles made -- high-end, in each case -- but the impact has always been to slightly reduce and postpone the pain. Usually, after about 80 miles, it gets to the point where I'm pulling up on the pedals in an effort simply to take any pressure off of my aching forefeet, and at rest stops, I'll frequently take my shoes off entirely and rub my feet vigorously. It has been a constant source of agony and frustration, and after the 300k ride I completed in May, I knew that I simply had to try to find a solution.
E-Soles, which have been worn by the likes of George Hincapie. I got the "Supportive" model, which is designed for cycling. They cost $50 or so, which is not bargain-basement, but it's far less than custom shoes or orthotics, and the genius is that the soles are modular. You buy a size appropriate for your shoe, and it comes with four different "arch" inserts and two different "metatarsal buttons." Each attaches to the sole by velcro, meaning that you can easily switch them out to find the right solution. I went with the "high" arches (there's one higher still), and the larger metatarsal button. The metatarsal button is a slightly raised area that sits just behind the ball of your foot, under the metatarsals, and spreads the metatarsals slightly while dissipating the pressure on them.
These things are simply amazing. At no point on the 255-mile ride, which included 16 hours in the saddle, did I experience any foot discomfort at all. Zero, zilch, nada. The arch insert rested snugly against the arch of my foot, and when combined with the metatarsal button, it felt like my entire foot was a platform, rather than just a small strip along the bottom of my forefoot. I'll never ride long distances again without a product like this. They're just that good.
There's only one problem: the Supportive Esoles are being redesigned, and won't be available again until about September. I bought mine new off of eBay. But if you can find them in your size, beg, borrow, or steal them. Otherwise, keep your eyes peeled, or maybe try a pair of the Specialized BG footbeds, which also have different arch and metatarsal button features. It is incredible what a world of difference they can make.
Rollin' On, But Off the Record
It wouldn't be a brevet if everything went quite according to plan. In my case, misfortune struck twice in quick succession. First, five miles after the control around mile 90, I noticed that my helmet was even more comfortable than usual. In fact, it felt like I wasn't wearing one at all. And I wasn't. So, while Max got a coffee, I turned around and plowed back to the control point, adding unwelcome miles to the day. I'm just glad I noticed before we got too much further down the road.
Second, at precisely the halfway mark (mile 125), we had a turn-around at the control at Jamestown, just south of Syracuse. I went to pull my brevet card out of the cue sheet holder, but found that it was gone. Somehow, amidst the rain and riding, it had slid out without my noticing, and the result was that I couldn't get it initialed and stamped at the controls. The rules of randonneuring are pretty clear on what happens in this instance: you don't get credit for officially completing the ride, meaning that it can't count toward end-of-season awards or serve to qualify you for a 1200k. Sigh. Well, I had no one to blame but myself, and this was a relatively painless way to learn an important lesson. It's something about which I'll be paranoid in the future, and rightly so, I suspect.
Perhaps sensing my annoyance, the cycling gods decided to comfort me with a series of morale-crushing climbs and steep rollers, all on an exceedingly rough chip-seal road. This continued from miles 125 through about 150, and it was by far the toughest part of the day. Milers will tell you that the third lap is the hardest: you're exhausted and in pain, but you're not yet in the final stage of the event, when the gravitational pull of the finish line carries you onward. In our case, we had ridden the length of Mountains of Misery over the course of 9 hours, weathering cold, rain, and hills, but we still had 130 miles to go. It's pretty ridiculous when you think about it, and you'll drive yourself nuts if you do it too often. So we just concentrated on "next control, next control, next control."
Finally, as dusk approached, we found ourselves cruising back north along the eastern shore of Skaneateles Lake, and it was simply awe-inspiring. The day remained cloudy, but the clouds were breaking up to the west, and a flood of sunbeams illuminated the lake in a way that put postcards to shame. It was the sort of sight that makes you forget you've been riding for 175 miles, and just revel in the splendor of nature. It's why one rides a bicycle, and why these adventures are worth undertaking. You can never tell when you'll encounter something that just takes your breath away.
Unfortunately, toward the end of this section, Max encountered his fourth flat tire of the day, all on the same wheel. He'd used the three tubes that he brought with him, and he'd inspected the tire and rim tape repeatedly, all to no avail. There was just something in the tire or wheel that was causing slow leaks in whatever tube was installed, and the two of us were faced with a problem. I had one tube left, and he had none. I could give him my tube, but the evidence suggested that it would likely flat again before too long, because the underlying problem hadn't been fixed. What's more, his hand pump broke, which meant that he couldn't use his patch kit. Fortunately, Max had come overly prepared, and had brought with him an entire spare tire. I therefore gave him my remaining tube and Co2 cartridge, and he carefully installed the tube into it, and it held. If it hadn't, I'm not sure what we would have done -- we were approaching dark on Saturday night in a very rural area, and there was no mechanical support to call. It just emphasizes that the difference between success and failure is sometimes overpreparation. Who'd have thought to bring three spare tubes and a spare tire? I will, from now on, for one. (Although I've yet to flat on my tubeless tires, with which I'm rapidly falling in love.)
After the last control point, we had only 40 miles left to go (having ridden 215!), and the evening turned spectacular. We turned onto a quiet road that lead back along the edge of Lake Ontario, and as we passed the 240-mile marker, we noticed that the clouds had finally given way, and the stars above were dazzling and brilliant. In fact, both of our primary headlights gave out about this point, leaving us to cover the last hour on lower-powered backups, but the glass-like tarmac, lack of any cars, and starlight made it pretty magical. We were so close to lake Ontario, just off to our right, that I was constantly entranced by the bits of waves catching the moonlight for brief instants; the overall effect was one of a vast sea of fireflies amidst the darkness. It's an image I'll carry with me for a very long time.
Triumph and No Fanfare Whatever
Finally, just before 1:00 a.m., our odometers ticked over to 255.1 miles, and we turned back onto the long gravel driveway through the woods. I remarked to Max that I'd never ridden a road bike down a gravel road at night before, and he had nothing reassuring to say. Still, we made it, and rolled up to the host's house, where we were told that his wife would greet us. But the lights were off. She did not respond to the bell. Indeed, it looked like no one was home. So Max signed his brevet card, slid it under the door, and we packed up our things and rode back to the hotel, pausing only to order some delivery dinner to meet us there.
That's the thing about randonneuring: it is resolutely anti-glory. There is no finish line and there are no crowds. There's no t-shirt to buy, and even if there were, no one would be impressed or even understand what you're talking about. In fact, the last thing you'd want to do is explain it because that would simply cement your status as a weirdo. But precisely because it's so anti-corporatist and anti-glory, randonneuring manages to be purely about the journey in a way that too few things are. It's about covering the distance through any means necessary, and hopefully along the way you learn something about yourself. It's a wonderful thing.