You’ve heard it before. You learn more from your mistakes than your successes blah blah. Right? You got it. But who WANTS to fail? No one. You don’t set out to fail. You don’t clip into your bike for a workout, hoping you won’t be able to finish it. You don’t set your alarm clock with plans to not be able to drag yourself out of bed for that early ride. And you definitely aren’t pinning on that number with the intentions of racing poorly. But yeah, I guess lessons are learned from not achieving what you set out for. Sort of. Maybe. Possibly.
That’s my typical attitude. I say the right thing, but don’t practice it. With that perspective, thinking that “yeah, yeah, failure makes us ‘stronger,’” I’ll never benefit fully from the beauty of those shortfalls. If I’m not intentionally investing time in analyzing my failures, then yes, they are a total, annoying, waste. It’s about your attitude and approach.
I failed big time last weekend, and had an epic bonk on a ride. If you’re not sure what bonking is, think of it like running out of gas in your car, but your body is the vehicle. I was out doing a 70ish mile ride. I’m in base training mode, so I wasn’t crushing climbs or going all that fast really. I had about 700 calories with me (300 in Infinit Go Far, and a couple mini snickers bars was all I could scrounge together) for what I thought would be about a four hour ride; so a bit more than 200 calories an hour (spoiler: it was a lot longer than I thought). That should’ve been great. I usually shoot for 300/hr while racing, but that’s a higher effort level so this should be good. So I thought.
The route was perfect. Gorgeous and new roads were distracting me and keeping my smile big. I was riding steady, fighting a bit of wind, but otherwise I felt great. I was solo, so stopping for pictures, nature breaks and just scenery was on the agenda (but was also innocently adding time to the ride).
I got to the midway point in the ride and the one big climb on the whole route. Feeling a little frisky I upped the pace to do some tempo/threshold for about 30 minutes up the climb. I got to the upper and steeper part of the climb and it started to hurt. I was suffering. Keeping my heart rate even at threshold was becoming a chore.
I explained it away in my head as fatigue, and pushed on, not wanting to “be lazy” and back off. I got to the top and was absolutely gassed. My legs were totally dead. I crushed the rest of my calories and rode on. At this point, I was on the Blue Ridge Parkway about 30 miles from my finishing point.
Now, the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) is fantastic. It’s a massively long road that runs from Virginia to Georgia along the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge mountains. It’s scenic, quiet and a cyclists paradise. But it is NOT flat. And absolutely not where you want to be when feeling a bit tired.
I realized something was wrong when I was counting the miles, ok actually the tenths of miles I was riding. Even the slightest hill felt like a huge mountain, and I could barely keep the bike going straight. I stopped, stretched, took a break, shed some layers; nothing helped. I was just out of gas. And really far from any source of food. “If I can just make it back in close, I’ll be fine” I thought, as much of the final 10 miles was downhill. I pedaled on, head down, legs screaming, I was pedaling squares.
Then I realized I wasn’t going to make it. I could literally walk faster than I was going up the hills. I stopped, resting my head on my bars trying to figure out what to do. My pride was dying a slow death as my denial of being totally bonked was quickly washing away. I pulled out my phone and looked for a solution. I found a gas station a few miles away off of the BRP, but there was no quick (or more importantly, flat) way to get there. About that same time I saw a woman walking on the BRP (pretty unusual) and she saved me. She let me cut through her private property which lopped off a few miles to the gas station. One look at my face and she understood immediately that I was in need of all the help I could get.
Gas Station Glory
That was the longest 3 miles of my life. Every hill felt like a mountain. That Marathon gas station couldn’t have come soon enough. When it came into view, I felt like I had summited Everest. Never has someone been so happy to see that gas station as I was! I walked in, and bought carbs, caffeine, protein and got to work inhaling it all.
1,200 calories later, I was a new man. Upon recounting this story, a good friend Gordon Wadsworth, kindly pointed out I basically ate all calories I had burned on that ride during my gas station feast. Truth. But wow, nothing tastes better than food when you’re starving! I could’ve gotten away with less calories, but that train is a hard one to stop!
I got back on the bike and slowly plodded my way back to town. About 15 minutes later I was back on my game, hammering along the roads, now just desperate to finish the ride. I was low, I was in the drops, I was standing on the climbs, crushing it. I felt like I could go for two more hours.
Afterwards I reflected on what happened out there. I had plenty of calories, so why the bonk? And why did I feel SO bad? Like, worse than the end of a 100 mile race, bad! It all came down to the night before. I hadn’t eaten much, and I left before I could get breakfast. With a deficit like that, I was probably already 800 calories in the hole. Riding two hours then doing some threshold just drained everything I had taken in and left me at the absolute bottom.
Training is tricky. Caloric intake is a bit of an art within the science of it all. Everyone’s body responds slightly differently, and learning what yours does takes lots of practice. I never would have imagined my worst bonk ever was going to be in 2015, on one of a million long rides I've done, yet here I am.
The big takeaway is that calories taken while riding must must must be planned in consideration with what has been eaten over the past 12 hours. They are 100% linked! And I never would have gotten that message so loud and clear if it hadn't been for this epic failure of a training ride. So cheers to failing, failing hard, and learning great lessons you couldn't learn any other way.