A Picture-less Report of a Horrible Day on the Bike

Writing about the “good” rides is fun and easy, but it seems important to share what happens on the ones where rainbows and unicorns become gremlins with teeth and fangs and nothing goes right. Nothing about long distance cycling is easy – every ride requires preparation and intense physical and mental focus, and some simply suck. That is the stark reality. This one was a bad ride day. Everything was off from my nutrition to my sleep to my attitude, and though I got through it I suffered mightily. I never pulled out my camera, never sent a text message, and a ride I expected to finish in 10.5 hours took more than 13. I try to make the “bad” rides a learning experience, so I learn what to avoid on future efforts…one way to make lemonade from a bushel of lemons. SO, without further ado, here goes…my story, sans photos, of the worst ride I’ve had in a very long time:

There are good days on the bike and there are not so good days on the bike. Every once in a while, the stars align for a completely perfect ride. And once in a while they align for a ride which is pure misery. My ride last Saturday was one for the record books, and not in a good way.

It began with returning from an 11 day road trip on Tuesday night, arriving home late enough that groceries weren’t purchased and the work week began in a sprint. Compounding that, my husband was attending a 4 day workshop beginning Thursday, AND we had a close friend staying at our house Thursday and Friday nights. I spent what was left of the week frantically catching up at work, planning meals, preparing the guest room, and trying to be a good host while setting up for a weekend of riding while my husband was tied up with his class. We had Thursday night dinner at a local pub, and our friend had made it clear that his Friday night plans were uncertain so I planned to come home from work, make a simple dinner, and prepare food for Saturday’s ride. On Friday, a last minute patient with a bad neck kept me at the office until 7:45, and a text from our friend suggested he would be interested in having dinner together after all. I sprinted home, threw together a sandwich for the next day’s lunch, did the critical bike maintenance, and waited for him to arrive. By 8:45 I was starving, exhausted, and there was a text from our friend saying he had decided to stay downtown for dinner. At this point, I was too hungry and cranky to think about cooking and take-out options in my neighborhood are limited at best after 9pm. Chipotle came to the rescue, but they were out of the carnitas I usually like so I opted for seasoned beef and beans instead. I fell into bed at 10:30 with a very full stomach, a horrible mood, and an impending 4:30am wake-up for a 6am start.

My friend Osvaldo had proposed doing a route along old Highway 395, but brevet week had left me terminally sick of this road so I counter proposed a loop ride with similar elevation. He emailed the route owner about getting a waiver signed for the ride (required to get RUSA credit for a permanent) and requested switching the start to a location which would not require us to drive to the ride. He got no response, but we went anyway taking our own council.

When the alarm went off I was grouchy and my belly was still full of my late dinner. I forced myself to eat my usual breakfast of 3 eggs and a slice of toast with jam – a good mix of protein, fat, and carbs. The eggs were already doing battle with the beans and beef still in my digestive system by the time I left the house.

I remembered doing this route with Elaine several years ago and had really liked it, but either the route had been changed or it was a different one altogether. With a start at Rose Canyon, we pedaled through Mission Valley to the SDSU Campus, stopped at a McDonalds, (really? A control at McDonald’s?) and retraced our steps. While Mission Valley can have insane traffic, at 6:30am it was blessedly empty. Which is how we learned that not a single stop light in the valley is capable of picking up a bike at an intersection. We’d pull up, wait for a cycle or two, never get the right-of-way, take the crosswalk, push the button, cross, and repeat. For every major intersection over 10 miles. There was just enough traffic that blowing through the stoplights wasn’t an option, but none of it moving in the right direction to give us right-of-way. Both of us were frustrated, bored, and relieved to be done with that part and heading north on the coast.

By mile 50 my stomach had mostly settled. I’d been drinking diluted orange juice all morning, munching on pecans, dried apricots, and some gummies. I felt like something wasn’t quite right in my nutrition, but couldn’t figure out what it was. I’d been fantasizing about Greek yogurt for 10 miles, so I grabbed one along with another juice. The yogurt tasted so good I went and got 2 more, eating one and putting the second into my bag for later.

We continued on, cruising inland through San Marcos to the dreaded Old 395 in Escondido, and on into Bonsall. As we came up the hill to Deer Springs Rd., I heard the tell-tale pssssssssshhhhhhh of air abruptly leaving a tire. I looked down and my front tire, now a tubeless, was enthusiastically emulating a porn star spewing sticky white stuff all over the bike and the road. I stopped for a moment, noting a bubble on the tire. The tire still had air and I couldn’t pinch flat without a tube so I figured I may as well keep riding. The tire continued to intermittently spit white goo for the next mile, but managed to hold enough air to keep pedaling.

We shared an order of fries in Bonsall (another McDonald’s attached to an AM/PM whose rest room was closed for construction), and headed for the bike path back to Oceanside. Travelling west brought a soul sucking headwind which I fought without motivation. My legs didn’t have their usual strength, and I was starting a headache which had potential to get ugly. We stopped for the bathroom at the start of the bike trail and I ate the final yogurt, some electrolytes, salt, and an ounce of pure maple syrup. Something was still nutritionally wrong, and I threw everything at it. One of those things should be the key.

7 more miles of miserable headwind and if anything I felt worse. Now, not only did my head hurt, my guts were beginning to rumble ominously. With 40 miles to go, I was fantasizing about making a phone call and ending my misery, but my husband was in the north end of Orange County in his class. Rescue would be a long time coming, so I kept pedaling. Every time Osvaldo and I caught each other’s eyes, misery was reflected. Both of us fall into the category of “silent sufferers”, and while it was clear that he was not having a great day he didn’t share what was happening with him and I was too caught up in my own discomfort to ask. I didn’t share the full extent of how I was feeling – it wouldn’t change a thing so there was no point. He is a slightly faster rider and stronger climber, and I was feeling painfully slow on the hills. He waited for me at the top of every climb, but he never got so far ahead that I couldn’t see him so his waits weren’t too long. I don’t know if he was slowing down to be kind, or if he was suffering as much as I in his own way.

We separated at Rose Canyon – his home is more easily reached from Genesee and mine from the south end. Once I was alone on the road, the headache and stomach ache got worse and I was feeling sleepy. I half-heartedly sipped on still more watered down juice and munched a few gummy bears, but everything made my stomach uncomfortable. My final hill for the day was Moraga Rd., and I sat down for a few minutes at the bottom wishing I could teleport the last 4 miles to my house. It wasn’t pretty, but I did manage to get up that hill without having to use the “walking gear”. I made it home just over 13 hours from when I left, feeling completely wasted, to an email from Osvaldo that he’d gotten a response from the route owner and there would be no credit for this day’s misadventures.

The migraine lasted all day Sunday and into Monday, finally fading in the middle of the day, so Sunday was spent moping around the sofa instead of out on another ride. I sent a panicked email to my friend Michele detailing my experience, threatening to sell my bike and find another sport. She calmly reflected that “there’s no such thing as JUST a 200k”, and some rides simply suck. She, by the way, was less than a week out from a horrible staph infection caused by a tick bite, still on antibiotics, and riding a 600k anyway. Her question to me was “what did you learn?”

So…what DID I learn?

First, she’s right – I get so accustomed to thinking in terms of 200-300 miles that a 135 mile ride seems like it should, by definition, be easy and go smoothly. The reality is it’s still a damn long way to pedal a bike and still requires a tremendous amount of energy and calories.

Second, I was so intent on being a good host and wanting to spend time with our guest that I ignored what I really needed for myself – a quiet evening with home cooked food and time to gather my bike stuff consciously. I should have told him my plans and invited him to join me if he chose rather than waiting for him to show up so I could eat.

Third, I’m still learning how to avoid the dreaded silent bonk. More sugar on this ride certainly didn’t help me, and I think I ended up substituting sugar for other things while keeping my calorie count mostly the same as usual.  I’m now learning about osmolality and how isotonic vs hypertonic vs hypotonic solutions affect absorption of nutrients from the intestines.  It turns out that the orange juice should have been diluted by 2:1 instead of 1:1 or 1:1.5 so the osmolality was all wrong for digestion, leaving me with a belly full of juice and little glucose in my muscles which is an altogether unpleasant state of affairs.

I have two more long rides before leaving for Paris, so there’s not much time to get this figured out. Next ride I’ll be back to eating chicken and potatoes, a few rice bars, and supplementing with gummy bears for extra carbs. I’ll also be eating a home cooked meal the night before and getting a good night of sleep! Meanwhile, I’ve set up a nutrition consultation with Infinite Nutrition to see if I can fast track the education about osmolality and digestibility of various types of sugar and protein, plus work on customizing a sports drink which will (hopefully!) stabilize my blood sugar, digest easily so my legs get the glucose they need, keep my liver full of glycogen, and still allow me to enjoy all the real food I love to eat on my rides!

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