The PA 400k: Digging Deep Into the Reserves

Despite a chafed butt, burning feet and aching legs, I usually finish brevets in an upbeat mood.  This did not happen yesterday on the PA 400k.

My problem was not a lack of good companionship.  I rode at various times and enjoyed conversation with familiar faces like Bill O. and Ed D. and newcomers to randonneuring like Michelle H.  It was not for lack of beautiful views of the Pennsylvania valleys and mountains.  There were plenty of those. No, I just did not feel good.  And part of that, make that most of that, was my fault.

On Thursday I woke up with a stomach ailment.  If I hadn’t had an important assignment at work, I would have stayed home.  Even Friday things weren’t staying down the way they usually did.

Like an army, a randonneur travels on his/her stomach.  When your body isn’t getting the food and liquid it needs, its performance starts to deteriorate.  That’s what happens when your healthy.  Throw in a malfunctioning stomach that isn’t metabolizing nutrients and you’ve got a real problem.

My wife Jill, as usual, saw the warning signs and expressed concern.  A stomach ailment and a 400k bike ride don’t mix very well. Why don’t you skip this event, she asked.  I assured her that I was getting better but, if I felt a recurrence was coming on, I wouldn’t go.  But I went, despite a little remaining discomfort in my digestive tract, which was Contributing Factor No. 1.  My fault.

Contributing factor No. 2, also my fault, was riding with the big dogs early in the ride.  I have missed a lot of riding time this year and wanted to gauge my fitness against the front riding group.  It should have been a warning when I was gasping for breath and my heartrate was skyrocketing at the top of hills, while better conditioned riders were carrying on normal conversations.

My goal was a sub-20 minute time.  My times in the three previous PA 400ks I had ridden had been in that range, 19:10 in 2007, 20:10 in 2009 and 21:25 in 2010..  I had finished the 300k this year in 14:57.  I just had to average 12.5 mph, including stops, to do it.

The 2010 PA 400k ride should have been a red flag.  I rode that year with Shane B. and, again, rode with the front group too much to start out.  The course lends itself to this, because it is primarily downhill for the first 30 miles or so.  That year temperatures rose into the 90s and, the combination of heat and riding beyond my capabilities resulted in our slowing down considerably later in the ride.

Heat, in fact, was Contributing Factor No. 3.  It got into the 80s, instead of the forecast mid-70s, and combined with the stomach bug and irresponsible pace, did my in.  And when I say did me in, I mean the letters DNF (Did Not Finish) were a frequent visitor to my thoughts.

This year’s strong finish in the 300k provided another clue, had I seen it.  On that day two weeks ago, my frame pump fell off my bike and the main pack sped away and I never caught most of them.  That was just as well.  I set my own comfortable pace and even eventually gained two compatible riding companions.

Tour de France Commentator Paul Sherwin often speaks of a rider having to “dig deeply into his reserves.”  His assumption, which I think is valid, is that an athlete can overextend his/herself during an event for a short-term gain, and therefore compromise his performance long-term.  I was overextending a body already compromised by a recent illness.

I rode a 16 mph pace for the first four hours, covering  62.5 miles, a quarter of the course.  I covered the last 187.5 miles in 18:50.  That’s about a 10 mph pace, including stops.  Take away the illness, take away the irresponsible riding approach and there was probably a 20-hour time in my legs.  In fact, I wobbled into the hostel finish at 22:50.

A man has got to know his limits but I seem to ignore mine all too often.  I hope to be healthier and wiser for the 600k in two weeks.


This was the first of three four weeks in the third and last base cycle of my training.

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