I had been itching for a long ride for months, maybe even a year, and I decided it was time to test the systems and strive for a comeback ride.
April has been a great time of testing out my body and its limits. Calf surgery to remove a muscle and release an artery was in early March so I’m quickly moving away from that fiasco. My spine and core muscles have been feeling solid with all the extra physical therapy. A few early tests went very well, so I planned a series of rides to further push my body and figure out where the breaking points were. Can we call this a comeback? I don’t know yet.
My boyfriend and I were getting ready to head south on vacation, but he couldn’t leave town until later in the afternoon. I was whining like crazy about how I was itching to get in an all day ride, and at one point in the days leading up to our departure he asked — do you want to bike all day and I’ll find you somewhere along the route? My answer was an immediate YES.
I spent some quality time scouring satellite footage of the roads heading south out of the Twin Cities. My goal was to stay on pavement as much as possible. I wanted the distance to be a test, NOT the road surface. I use RidewithGPS.com and it hasn’t failed me yet. Ride with GPS allows me to design a route, then it generates a list of turns, and after uploading the file to my Garmin Edge 820 it will tell me where to turn. It’s blissful — I can zone out on rides and only “come to” when my Garmin chirps that something is coming up, whether it’s a turn, a busy highway crossing, or a food stop that I’ve programmed in.
Sunday evening I scrambled around the house trying to remember what I would all need for a “long ride”. It had been well over a year since I would be out on a bike this long by myself. I found water bottles, located a few older gels, consumed some electrolyte tablets, and made sure my bike and flat repair were ready to go.
Just before lunch on Monday I was dropped off south of town. To passersby it had to look like I was getting abandoned on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere. Nah, I picked the location. All the familiar sensations of embarking on a long ride were there – butterflies in my stomach, general indigestion and disdain for food, and a sense of trepidation and worry about whether I’d be able to achieve my goals. Maybe these feelings never go away when we plan to push our limits?
My rough goal was to “ride to Iowa” before the rescue wagon retrieved me that evening. I had a handful of hours to get the job done, and I calculated that I’d have to generally hoof it but not kill myself to make it. I knew my route was fairly solid, heading south and east in a series of steps along paved roads. A few of them would be BUSY with traffic based on my previous experience biking from the Twin Cities to Decorah, Iowa. I routed around as many as I could but knew there’d be a few treacherous sections.
In the early miles I couldn’t eat food due to a combination of heartburn and indigestion. I knew I needed to keep the calories and fluids coming or I’d bonk, so I managed to get down a few swigs of the gel flask but it was painful.
At mile 40 I hit my first rest stop around 1 PM, a Casey’s in a small town that was hopping with construction workers stopping by on their break. I forced myself to eat a gigantic lunch even though my body was protesting. In ultracycing, or “all day riding”, you need to consume high amounts of calories to keep your body fueled but also need to minimize stopping. I wolfed down a plate of chicken fingers and fries, swigged a massive Coke, shoved 2 packages of M&Ms in my jersey pocket, filled water bottles, and ran back out the door.
It’s important to teach your body to adapt and learn how to digest heavy meals on all day rides. The digestion diverts a lot of blood flow to your stomach, which makes your body sluggish and pedaling difficult. However, you CAN teach your body to motor through — it’s a learned skill. My body protested a bit more (thank goodness for gas station bathrooms) but in general it got it’s act together.
After lunch I felt rejuvenated. I sang to the cows as I passed, found some beautiful low traffic roads, and generally was loving life. The winds were dying down and the elevation profile was flattening out. I’m 20 lbs overweight right now but I’m still a little diesel engine on the flats. I worked on being more aero — it’s a struggle after lumbar spinal fusion — and focused on steadily increasing my average speed now that I was better fueled and in the zone.
My next scheduled stop was at mile 90, but I started to fade at mile 80. Turns out, if I’m not running a Camelbak, feed bags, bringing lots of snacks, or well trained, 50 miles is too damn far between scheduled stops even on a quick pavement ride. I paused to check voice mails, paused again to answer a phone call from my kiddo, checked social media, everything. I was looking for excuses to stall and was dreaming about taking a nap in the muddy ditch.
Climbing back on my bike, I reminded myself that pushing through suffering is key to training for long events. Mile 90 eventually arrived and the roads were getting busy as people finished work for the evening. I knew I needed to work on hydration and food, so I bought a fountain pop and a giant bag of potato chips. Other customers gave me the side eye as I slumped in a chair in the corner of the gas station, blowing backwards in my straw to de-aerate the pop faster and help prevent another stomach riot.
I checked my phone and realized that I had a little over two hours of pedaling left before the rescue wagon arrived. I gulped down the rest of my food and headed out. This had given me the mental push I needed to get moving. I REALLY wanted to say I had biked to Iowa!
The next set of miles were absolutely magical. I headed south, and finally the wind gods blessed me and I had a tailwind. I FLEW down the nearly empty stretch of pavement, continuing to focus on gradually nudging up my average speed. On rides where pace is important, I watch both my average speed and my current speed. I play mind games, pushing myself to ride faster than my current average. My average over the first slew of miles had been 14.5 mph with the climbs and the crosswinds. I had gradually pushed it above 15, then hit 15.5 and even briefly touched 16.0 mph. This was quite the feat, seeing as I’m overweight, under trained, and was on a pretty dang upright road bike.
I turned south on Highway 63, the highway that cuts through Spring Valley, MN south of Rochester. Semi traffic was picking up even more, and the shoulder was rough, narrow and bumpy. I crossed the Iowa border at 115 miles and called it quits early. My route was supposed to take me 120 miles and dump me at a remote Casey’s, but I decided between my fatigue and the semis, it wasn’t worth the risk of pedaling more.
The small town had a gas station where I ate a piece of pizza that had clearly been in the warmer for too many hours. I waited for rescue, watching my boyfriend’s location on my cell phone as he approached. When he got close, I ran towards the road and flagged him down.
All in all the ride was AMAZING. I had very slight low back pain during the final 20 miles of the ride and zero back pain in the days after. My left hip socket and hamstring didn’t have shooting pains, my left calf didn’t cramp, my left leg didn’t go numb. Holy shit, I did it!
I had a GREAT ride, with just a little low back pain the next few days and only a little back pain during. It was a VERY solid ride on my upright Felt road bike.
This comeback ride had gone so amazingly well, I was scheming a shorter scenic gravel ride for later in the week in the Ozarks in southern Missouri. Would we ride from southern Missouri across the Arkansas border? Ride a route given to us last minute after talking to a local bike shop owner? Let’s just say it was … an adventure. Subscribe below or follow my Facebook page to stay in the loop when I post about THAT debacle.