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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  7/1/2001

Mental pacing

RAMM 2001
Andrea Clavadetscher of Liechtenstein

Andrea C. passed through Stillwater Oklahoma approx. 6:30a.m on 6/23/01 as the race leader.

Photo courtesy of
David Kincannon


More on 2001 RAMM

I've noticed an interesting phenomenon when riding, and maybe you've noticed the same thing. It's the feeling that, when you're done with a ride, you're DONE...period...kaput. Whatever the length of the ride you set out to do--be it 50 miles or 200--when you're nearing the finish, you feel as if you've used up everything you brought to the ride...your ticket's been punched...you're ready for the beer and nachos. Have you ever suggested to your buddies that you add another 15 or 20 miles onto the END of your Saturday club ride? Not too many takers, were there? Had you suggested doing the add-on miles early in the day, lots of people would have said, "Sure...what the heck!" But at the end...nope. The riding window has closed, at least in the minds of most riders.

We usually have training rides around here for our local double century where we do approximately one half of the course. This is a tough double century--very hilly--and even half of it is a substantial ride. When I do these trainers, I'm totally fried when I get to the end, and I think to myself, "If I'm this trashed after 100 miles, how on earth am I ever going to ride twice that distance over the same terrain?" It just doesn't seem possible. And yet, on the day of the big ride, somehow I manage to ride past that 100-mile barrier and make it to 200, and at the end, I feel about the same as I did at the end of the shorter ride.

Maybe for you it's the difference between 50 and 100 miles, or the difference between a 300-K brevet and a 600-K all-nighter. Whatever the distance, our minds find a way to accommodate the challenge at hand. Some of the adjustment we make is physical: moderating our pace and taking better care of our nutritional needs on a longer ride. But I'm convinced the really significant difference is our mindset...how we psyche ourselves up for the rides. Somehow or other, we con ourselves into parceling out our mental reserves to cover the allotted distance.

My own experience in this respect tails off pretty quickly on the high side of 200 miles. I wondered if the same mind-over-matter phenomena hold true for even longer distances, so I asked some of my friends who ride those longer distances if they've experienced that same feeling of the mental means expanding to meet the needs of the moment. I asked my regular riding pal Bill Ellis if he had noticed this. Bill is in his first season of doing a brevet series, prepping for the next Paris-Brest-Paris (750 miles). Prior to this year, his experience was much like mine: few rides beyond double-century length. His longest ride thus far has been a 600-K brevet (375 miles). Bill says he's noticed a general stretching of his expectations...a mental elasticity that grows along with the rides. "A few years ago, a double century would have been the ultimate for me. Now I'm surprised to find myself thinking of doubles as training rides!"

Then I asked Craig Robertson. Craig has done PBP, as well as Boston-Montreal-Boston. Here's what Craig had to say: "I've noticed that also. I'll be at mile 95 of a 100 mile ride thinking I've had enough. Sometimes, I wonder how I ride 200 or more miles at one time. I think a lot of it is what you're expecting. I know on a hard double that I'll have to keep pedaling after I get tired. On a century, I'll start at 8:30 or 9:00, whereas by then on a double I might already be 50-60 miles or more into the ride.

On longer rides I also do a better job (or at least I try to) of taking care of myself. I don't push the pace as high, I pay more attention to what and how much I eat and drink, I get through stops faster, etc. You also learn that the longer the ride, the longer and deeper the bad stretches. On a century you might have 10 miles where you struggle...not necessarily the last 10. On a double it might be 50 miles. On a 1200-K (750 miles) it might be 200. On RAAM I suspect it could be a bad day or two (500+ miles). You expect to suffer more on longer rides."

Finally--speaking of RAAM--I asked Steve Born the same question. Steve has done RAAM several times and has numerous other ultra-cycling highlights in his portfolio, including winning and setting the course record on the Furnace Creek 508. When it comes to really long rides, he has definitely been there and done that. His response:
"You bring up a point that seems to happen to every cyclist under any condition. It's as though if we've got a 60-mile ride scheduled, that's all our body is going to be able to handle.

"Perhaps this is a bit esoteric, but my reference point for maintaining mental focus comes from the saying, 'the heart controls the mind and the mind controls the body.' If my heart is into what I'm doing, it influences my thought patterns, which in turn, tell my body what it must do. I've never found this truer than when doing RAAM.
"Another thing I do to maintain focus is to not think about the race as a whole. If I'm thinking about Georgia when I'm still in California I'm going to have a meltdown! The thing my crew and I do is to create small goals along the way. I focus and concentrate on getting to the next town, check point, or time station. Once I get to that destination, I derive a lot of satisfaction from having reached a goal. If I have lots of small goals, I have lots of 'rewards,' which increases my confidence.

"During RAAM, I also reconcile with myself that it's a long race, that's a fact. But it does have an ending point and it won't be any longer than is advertised. That too is an absolute fact; it's a definite and when I am extremely tired during RAAM, I'll remind myself of those things. It'll end when it ends and I just have to stick to the job at hand. Once I reconcile myself to these facts, doing what I need to do becomes clearer. I find this especially helpful after Day One. I'll always ride straight through the night and into the next day. (I usually go for 40 hours before I stop for my first sleep break.) Once I get through that first night, usually the most exciting one of the race, I'll tell myself, 'OK, you've made it through the first night. You've still got a long way to go, so sit down, shut up, and ride your bike.' I've just made my goals clear and have taken all the facts into account, so my focus is also clear. This is the last time in the entire event I'll ever make any reference to the full length of the race.

"Another thing I found helpful is to not deny what my body is going through. Instead, I'll embrace it and make it part of the experience. That headwind may not go away for awhile; that climb may take a long time to summit; it may take a long time for the sun to come up... But things will get better. They always do, so instead of fighting it, I'll take it at face value and embrace it. This way I don't expend any energy, mental or otherwise, that keeps me from doing what my heart tells me I must.

"The last thing I sincerely believe is that the only limitations we have are the ones we impose on ourselves. Mental training requires practice just like any other form of training. Keeping optimal nutrient levels in the body definitely helps maintain proper mental function as well. But it's the elimination of negative self-talk--the 'I can't make it' type of talk--that I've found helps me stay focused. When you get to the crux of the matter you have two choices: keep moving or stop. I refuse to give in to the temptation to stop when I know I'll feel so much better if I keep going and finish. And the best part of this is that the effects are cumulative. The more positive things I do, the more positive reinforcement I give myself and the better my performance gets."

Well, there you have it: three sets of observations from three of the long-haul truckers of the bike world. Interesting how the length of the comments is proportional to the length of the rides done by the riders/writers. I guess the longer you're out there, the longer you have to think this stuff through.

There does appear to be one contradiction in Steve's arsenal of mental self-help tools: if one avoids thinking about the ride (or race) as a whole and only projects images of smaller, more manageable distances--as he advises--wouldn't that mean you'd be all tired out at the end of each, supposedly finite section? Wouldn't there be a mental letdown at that point? It seems to contradict my original premise that the mind can adjust to accommodate the notion of even the longest of rides. But somehow, I know the two notions are not mutually exclusive. In the first place, we do adjust our thinking to the scale of the challenge...then, having done that, we bring to bear all the little tricks and disciplines we know that will help us get to the finish. And if that means conning ourselves to just get to the next rest stop, 30 miles away, then great...whatever works!

And while one part of our mind is faking us out with that little ruse, another part is calmly taking in the big picture, metering out our reserves, sorting through our options, and generally riding herd on all the little demons that assail us on long rides.
We all bring different phyical skills to our cycling challenges. Some of us are young and fit and fast. Some of us are not, and no amount of physical training will make us so. But anyone, regardless of physical abilities and genetic advantage, can be mentally fit. Obviously, there are some limits to what we can do, based on what shape we're in at any given time. I couldn't suddenly decide to do RAAM and see the project through on mental toughness alone. Hell, I have enough trouble finishing a double! And Steve Born, in another recent e-mail, was bemoaning the fact that he's in such lousy shape now, he'd have trouble finishing a double too. (Somehow I doubt that, but it's what he claims.) But within realistic limits, we can stretch our expectations of the possible, mostly with the right mindset.

I'm not at all sure why or how the mind can be such a powerful manager of our physical assets. You'd think that any given body would be capable of cranking out just so much energy on a given day and not one bit more. But we've all read stories of heroism, where some otherwise weak or timid person has done some superhuman feat...a mother lifting a car singlehandedly off her child, or a soldier carrying an injured comrade several miles to help, when under normal circumstances he could barely have lifted the person up. We call it mind over matter, and while we don't really understand how it works, we can certainly marvel at it, and with a little clever planning, we can put it to good use in extending our own physical capabilities far beyond what we ever thought possible.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net



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