“The tool is in your head, not your hands.” This is something I live by. That being said, the proper tool for the job at hand has never been a drawback.
If you delve deeply into your passion or trade, you’ll refine what that statement means to you, but it comes down to this: mind over matter.
Where does the mind go in an ultra effort?
A milestone moment for many in cycling is the century ride. 100 miles in a day, a bucket list achievement. No doubt this takes mental endurance, physical stamina, and training helps. What happens when you push further? My friends and I decided to find out.
We started planning a scenic route along the Southern California coast, traveling from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and back in one day. A hundred miles and change in either direction, with those extra few miles heavily dictated by our stomachs deciding what was for lunch. We’ve each done sections of this route repeatedly and are regulars on the local endurance group rides. In actuality, each of us had done the entirety of this double century route at least once. This time, however, we knew it by heart. We had been training together for three months in preparation. Centuries every Friday, pressuring each other with nutritional improvements. One guy got new tires and bags, another a new light and GoPro. We were ready!
Reality: you are never ready for a double century.
The route and some math commanded a total mileage of 214 miles, 12.5 hours of continuous pedaling and nearly six thousand feet of elevation gain.
We rolled out from our favorite bike shop at 4am. Strong winds from the ocean were an instant discouragement and one hour into the ride we were already talking about how difficult the day might turn out to be. Friends continuously test each other, and this was no different. After all, stating that none of us would be the first to quit it was apparent what had to be done. Collectively, our heads went down, and our cadence went up. When you’re in the saddle for hours at a time you end up in your own world, even while in a group. Some put a headphone in an ear and use music as a motivator, some snack to keep the brain fed, some are machines and seem to pedal on forever.
During an ultra effort of any sort, you don’t really get to enjoy it. There is very little time to stop and smell the roses, you just try and snap a few photos between the pain and relish when it’s done. Fifty-five miles in was our first break, “ water in, water out.” Five minutes of stretching and back on the bike. The wind was constant, the salt and sun stinging our faces; however, smiles remained. Over 200 miles the scenery is always changing. Of course, the blue Pacific was still next to us, but we were riding through cities and strawberry fields, parks and dirt paths; some children waving from their school bus and a few middle fingers from soccer moms trying to squeeze their SUV’s past us on single lane roads.
The first time I did this route was a two-man ride. I alone suffered 4 flats and a side wall tire failure. Thank heavens I was actually carrying a tire. My chain fell off past its catcher and scratched the bejesus out of my carbon frame. I bonked…twice, and all my devices died. This time I was more prepared, and lighter.
I had nutrition on lock. Twenty pieces of food, alternating between science gels and Mother Nature goods. IE- granola, PBJ, and almonds (read: brain food ). I was carrying two bidons which housed both water and a powered electrolyte formula and grabbed sour patch kids candies, and a Sprite from gas station stops to fill in any gaps or mental rewards.
Rolling north of Ventura County, holding a solid 19mph average speed, even despite the wind, we transferred to my least favorite part of this route. The 101 freeway. Though this section is only about 2 miles, its a busy highway with a 12% grade. The road condition being an absolute shit show. Pieces of vehicles, 4-inch screws from rigs, potholes the size of basketballs and cars, five lanes across, speeding by 30mph over the 65mph speed limit. We power through this section, not wanting to spend time here. No matter how bad it hurts, you go as fast as you can. Just to get it over with.
With that successfully behind us, it was a section of absolutely smooth sailing as we road inland, the winds moved at our back, and we hammered 25mph+ for 40 minutes gaining mileage and elevation bringing us ever closer to our halfway point. Lunch.
The coastal route is deceiving, most see it as flat, but it’s rolling throughout, with four or five notable sprint climbs. Big cities turn to tiny communities via old farm roads and major highways alike, eventually leading to Santa Barbara and a huge mental reward. Knowing that for the better part of an hour, I’d be off the bike and fueling up, was extra motivation. We stacked our bikes along a fence and strolled into a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant with the coldest Jarritos and tastiest burritos I’d had in some time. All the while, beeping Garmins and blinking lights took on electric food for the return trip.
The journey home is different than the journey out. Heading back, you realize every pedal stroke is a step closer to the finish, sections seem to go by quicker. It’s seemingly easier to smile. Beware, those sweeping descents with beautiful coastal views are now brutal climbs with crosswinds on the return. Easy coming smiles are short lived. Keeping a good flow is crucial for hour-long uninterrupted sections, a friendly group paceline cutting through wind, sweeping through corners, it feels fast because it is fast. Only to be broken up by those damn climbs. The group stretches out, 1000 yard gaps between us now as we struggle with whatever effort our legs might have left.
Passing time is spent trying to stay focused as your brain starts to reach exhaustion and your body has two feelings, totally numb, or sharp pain. 165 miles in and we stopped for our last water break. Scraping the bottom of our individual food supply, our brains and bodies were low on power. Lights, GoPros, and headphones all died hours ago. We were however in the home stretch, albeit through rush hour traffic. Back on the bikes, we kept a real tight group. Passing other cyclists and pedestrians, we let ourselves be known. The friendly “passing on your left” from our ride north was now a loud, brash, “BIKES!” Returning south. It was clear we all just wanted to be done. And so did the day, we watched the sunrise over our right shoulder hours ago, and now it sets over the same shoulder as our ride slowly comes to a close.
Coming to the tail end of the route rider spirits seem to rise from the ashes. The pace gets smoother, and it feels playful again. And finally, one last bathroom break at our local beach and we shake hands and split up. The last dozen or so miles we go alone, to our respective homes. We did it. Riding those last few moments solo, you have a real sense of happiness and accomplishment. “What did I just do?” Laughing out loud to myself, I did it. Another page in the book, arriving home with empty bags, an empty belly but a full heart and a mind overflowing with memories.