Thursday, March 24, 2011

Exceeding limits

Brevets tend to have their way of making people humble - Laurent Chambard

This is not a ride report. In May 2010, I rode my second Randonneuring event - a 300 km brevet. If you really want to know about the course and terrain, you will have to read another account. If you are looking for direction as to how to prepare, or what to expect, I have nothing to offer, other than my mistakes. I cannot give you an objective report, even though I vividly remember the details of that day in my heart and in my mind's eye. This is more like a confession, or perhaps, an admission of loss and of hubris, even in the appearance of success. 

It's taken me a while to tell the story of that day, and the events that followed, because I am still reluctant to discuss, even in a semi-anonymous blog, the burden it placed on me for every event after. Telling this story means sharing the reality of what it meant to push beyond my limits. But this year would not have been the same without that ride so, perhaps, the story needs telling. Because if this blog is meant to be an account of my experiences, then this ride is an essential part of the accounting. But be warned - I may delete this post any day. Denial is a seductive temptress. 

Reflected light

The ride began at 4 am. Still unused to waking so early to go for a bike ride, I arrived in Princeton, NJ, slightly late. As I pulled into the parking lot that would serve as the start, my headlights illuminated the line of riders just beginning the route. In the pre-dawn darkness, the Randonneurs were mobiles of light. Reflected light glowed red and white from clothes, bike frames, wheel and bags. Bike headlights lanced into the darkness. Taillights left a red glowing streak in their wake. Never before had I seen anything quite like this. Advertisements for the early 1980's movie "Tron" came to mind. The small parade of riders seemed celebratory, happily defiant of normalcy, the darkness, the time, and the 186 miles ahead; and I was being left behind.

Park and load.

I overpacked for contingencies. I wore layers of wool under my rain jacket under my reflective vest. I wore a cap under my helmet. Loose wool tights over riding shorts. Trunk bag stuffed with stuff - dry clothes, dry shoes, tools, tubes, Gatorade mix and yet more stuff than I would ever need or use. The small handlebar bag had homemade energy bars. I dropped them on parking lot. Picked them up brushed them off and stuck them back in the bag. Time was passing and I still had not started. Put bags on bike; clip the cue sheet on top. Finally, check in. After getting my card signed, I went off in the dark, pursuing the light parade.


Just minutes into the course, I missed a turn. A street sign changed names and before me were a closed road and an open road. I chose the closed road, the wrong road, and then had to backtrack. Almost an hour behind the start time but barely on my way. Headlamp light bobbing from cue sheet to cycle computer to street, I rode faster into the night, racing headlong into the unknown, trying to erase the delay.

The second controle came after dawn. A breakfast place called Bagel Junction in the corner of a strip mall. Bagels and croissants under glass. Two volunteers manned a table. As I rolled in, some Randonneurs were leaving but some were still there. I had made up some time, but at a cost. I needed to eat and rest a bit before rejoining the 186-mile course. I kept the stop short to save time. I was still the last to leave.

The scenic route

Once back on the bike, the road turned toward the hills. My first brevet was flat, fast and forgiving. This time, the course entered a wooded area. The road heaved in steep and frequent rolling waves. I rode the red line of effort up each incline, convinced that I could catch up.

Pacing meant nothing. I drank from my water bottles as if they were bottomless until I ran out of water. I expected to see a 7-11, a Wa-Wa convenience store, a pizza place, a drug store, ANYTHING -  probably 10,000 people live within a five-mile radius of this spot - there must be someplace, somewhere to buy something to drink. But nothing, the one general store on the way to the third controle was closed. I did not want to leave the route, because I had no idea where I was, so I followed the cue sheet to the next controle, over more hills, through more woods and past the occasional house.

I bore the weight of my overpacking up and down the rollers; I sweated through layers of clothing until my sweat ran dry. Salt crusted my face. Wait - I have a caffeinated GU packet! I sucked the gel from the metallic package. Mucus phlegm thick, it coated my throat. I worked up a mouthful of spit to swallow just to have the sensation of liquid in my throat. My heart pounded even louder. Must be the caffeine. I. Need. Water. 

I remember going to an information controle - a telephone pole with a small sign that has the answer to a question on the brevet card - to prove that you climbed the hill to get the information. I climbed the hill and got the information. 

Well water

As I ride on, I scan for people doing yard work. They might have water. A garden hose would do. I see a man in his garage and brake to a squealing stop. His wife joins him. I ask if I can have some water to refill my water bottles. The wife says sure and goes inside. I talk with the husband. He mentions seeing other riders pass by a while earlier. In a dry, dusty voice, I tell him a little about the ride. The wife comes out of the house with juice and water and ice, screen door clanging shut behind her. I thank her profusely as she mentions the high quality of their well water. To me, the taste is slightly bitter but I thankfully gulp it down. I add juice to the water and drink some more as she refills my water bottles. After the first cup of water, I start sweating again, and realize, again, that I had been riding on empty - too dehydrated to sweat. After thanking them again, I restart the ride. The clock was ticking.

After my first brevet, I rode with abandon in the name of training: sprinkled fast intervals into daily bike commutes. Added evening rides to bike commuting. Weekend hilly long rides. More was better. Faster was better. If it did not kill me, it would only make me stronger. During the 300k, I took the same approach, hauling ass to the next controle. 

I caught up with some riders at the next controle- the Gourmet Gallery. I thought that I had made up some time because they all weren't immediately on their way out. In fact, some were still ordering or eating lunch. Hungry and thirsty, I ordered food and drank water from the Rando volunteer’s cooler and called home to check in. Again, I was the last to leave the air conditioning but not by much. We were almost at the halfway point.

In the week before the brevet, I lost my voice. Work colleagues asked if I was sick. I said no, I felt fine, I'm just hoarse. By the end of the week, my morning showers ended with lung clearing coughs that produced thick green phlegm, but my voice was back and I still felt fine. That was Friday.

Jenny Jump

After the controle, the course headed toward Hope, New Jersey, and entered Jenny Jump State Forest. The road into Jenny Jump is a long climb. I began to climb the long climb. My left thigh cramped - a sartorius muscle cramp - that is muscle that runs along the length of the inner thigh from the knee to the groin. If you've ever had this cramp, you know what it is, it’s that cramp that makes you want to stick your cramping leg out behind you and arch your back to stretch out of the cramping pain and prevent something from snapping inside you like it feels it wants to. I stretched that stretch and rode again, feeling the warning twitchiness threaten in my thigh.

At the entrance to the park headquarters, my heart rate monitor went crazy, showing numbers that seemed far too high. I looked for power lines that could be causing interference. I stopped and sat on a boulder at the entrance and waited for the numbers to settle down. They did not. The numbers should steadily go down. They did not. Instead, they jumped around without rhyme or reason, fluctuating between high and very high. It didn't make sense, I didn't understand. Two park rangers drove past in a golf cart. I briefly thought of asking for help, but help with what? What would I say was wrong? They drove into the station. I said nothing. I turned off the beeping heart rate monitor and remounted to continue to climb the long climb.

Oh. My. God. What is wrong with me? Crawling to the top of the hill, I feel weak, drained of energy and confused. I see a man standing behind a stopped car. He has a map, or something, on the trunk. He waved both hands at me. He called out to me. Thinking he needed directions, I called out something like; I'm not from around here. He said "secret controle!" I said, "What?" He said "SECRET CONTROLE" It dawned on me that he was with the event. I went over. He enthusiastically told me that I had, like five hours to ride some insane distance to make the next controle. I think I responded, "That’s impossible, there’s no way I can do that!" He said, "All you have to do is manage 9.5 miles per hour and you can make it." The math made no sense to my confused brain. However, I think I can ride 9.5 miles an hour- that is not fast. He may have said there was only one big climb left. I started out. 

Mercifully, after leaving the secret controle, the road went downhill. At least before Schooley's Mountain. I do not have a good memory of Schooley's Mountain. I recall disbelief that anyone would include crossing a mountain, much less two, in a ride this long, and shock at my weakness trying to climb it. And I had to pee. Desperately. I remember that.

A general store marked the end of the Schooley's Mountain pass. A Randonneur was there. He had called in his DNF and was waiting for his ride back to the world of sanity. We talked about the wind and the hills. I thought of calling for help too, but I did not, because I did not think I was hurt, my bike was not broken and most importantly, I did not know where I was or how else to get home.

The wind picked up in the afternoon. Really, really picked up. Gale force winds. At one point, it flipped my cue sheet and I stopped to fix it; the wind  then broke off a tree limb that was as thick around as my thigh. The limb fell about twenty feet to crash and splinter onto the road just ahead. I picked my way around the debris and thanked my guardian angel for stopping me when it did.

There was a second secret controle. I learned that several riders had DNF’d. I refilled water and rode on.

As I made my way to the controle in Hacklebarney State Park, I don't remember the sun setting.  I remember a harsh steady wind blowing in gray dark clouds and the daylight succumbing to the wind and the dark, as if it too were exhausted. 

In the park, friendly volunteers had hot food. I made a plate and sat at a picnic table to wolf down calories and salt in the brisk chilling wind. As I ate, another rider that had called it a day came through in a volunteer’s vehicle. The volunteer may have been the guy from the first secret controle, the one I thought was lost. Someone told me the hardest part was over and described a course that grew flatter as it approached the end. Then the park controle was closing and the volunteers were packing up. With all the bravery a full stomach can bring, I left, riding into the growing darkness. I could still make it in time.

Night riding

Behind the meager circle of light cast by my commuter headlight, I picked my way through the night and shadows of the park. Eventually, the route returned to trafficked roads.The temperature dropped. My hands were cold. I remember stopping at a Wa-Wa convenience store and having hot coffee. The Hacklebarney food inspired confidence was long gone. I still felt unusually weak and lethargic. I was more than ready to be done. I continued on to get it over with, get back to my car and then get home.

The night before the 300k, I stayed up late, making my list, checking it twice. Finally to bed around 11:00 p.m., only to get up at 2:00 a.m. It’s only a bike ride and the first 200k I had done hadn't been too bad.  

When I finally pulled into the parking lot at the end of the 300, it felt like winter. A volunteer came out of his car to take my card. He greeted me with “I bet you are as glad to see me as I am to see you!” It took me 19 hours and 30 minutes to complete the ride. I was the “Lanterne Rouge” - the last rider on the course - and over two hours had passed since the prior rider finished. I reached the car, cold and completely, utterly, exhausted.


Turns out there was something wrong with me, really wrong. Potentially life threatening. It took me a week to find out. The doctor told me I had created a perfect storm of stressors, the hard riding on little training, the lack of rest, the upper respiratory infection, the dehydration. There was more, it was a long list. I am not going to give you the diagnosis. I am not ready to go that far yet. The symptoms are in the story. Suffice to say, it took a hospital admission to fix it. Days hooked up to an IV. Visits from specialists. Corrective procedures under anesthesia. Nevertheless, they fixed it.

It is lonely and scary to be in a hospital when you thought you were strong and fit but your body has failed you in a profound and fundamental way. It changes you. When I was young, I was immortal. Now, in my mid-forties, I have limits and exceeding them has consequences.

In June 2010, I rode my third brevet.


  1. Nigel, I'm grateful that you're able to share this accounting. It took big heart. Well done.

  2. There's more than one thing to admire here. I'm glad you're still around.

  3. I worked the finish on that event. We were very glad to see you.

    there are very many Laurentisms, trust me when i say that if you listen to them you will learn from them. my personal favorite; a good brevet is like a good life, lots of ups.

  4. Just don't believe anything he says about how many hills you have left.

  5. Thanks for the feedback. As for Laurent, his unique phrasing, or perhaps the accent, makes his comments quite memorable.