Saturday, June 8, 2013

Study in Lights and Darks: My 300K DNF

I know, the title rather takes the suspense out of it. Last Saturday I attempted the New England Randonneurs 300K brevet. Having done all the major climbs and passed all the controls, I abandoned the ride on the last leg - with 45 miles to go. A week later, I am still not sure how I feel about what happened. It is as if I remember two entirely different rides - one wonderful beyond words and the other to an equal degree awful. The contrast is so great, that my mind cannot process it into a unified experience. So this will be my attempt to.

Earlier this Spring, I completed four RUSA-sanctioned events with the New England Randonneurs: two 100K Permanents, the official 100K Populaire, and the 200K brevet. Initially I had no plans to attempt the 300K. But in the weeks that followed a gradual change of heart began to take place. Largely this was because I found the route so attractive. It was a new route this year - a tour of Massachusetts via rural back roads, and it looked simply too good to miss. As time passed, something also changed in me physically and I began to feel - in a very literal sense - that I had it in me to do the distance. That I had the strength, the willingness, the potential at least. As the date of the 300K approached, this feeling solidified. It was in the car heading home from DROVES (a weekend retreat in Vermont that focused on dirt roads and climbing) that I made the firm decision.

After DROVES I felt well rested, and as well-trained as I was going to get. I did not ride much in the following days, saving my strength for the 300K. I also gave a lot of thought to the logistics of the event. Aside from the added milage, there were several new challenges to consider. One was the elevation gain. Everyone who knew the route warned me about the huge amount of climbing, describing it as even more difficult than the climbs on the 200K. With this in mind, I decided to take my Rawland instead of my lighter and racier Seven, because the former has considerably lower gears. In preparation, I did a couple of paved 100K+ rides on the Rawland and timed myself. Though a bit slower, I was still fast enough to get through a brevet on time. Conveniently, this bike was also equipped with dynamo lights.

But what had even experienced randonneurs concerned about the 300K this year, was the weather. We've had a cold spring, and the previous weekend in particular was downright wintry. On the day of the brevet, the forecast promised temperatures in the mid-90s. To ride all day in such heat is difficult enough, but to do so without having a chance to acclimatise is even more so. I do not do well in hot weather, so I tried to prepare. I stayed off alcohol and started drinking loads of water days before the ride. I procured an ultra-lightweight white mesh jersey with SPF protection and "sun sleeves." I stocked up on electrolyte mix to last the entire ride. And in the hot days before the 300K I went out for brief rides in the sun at high noon, so that the weather would not be a complete shock the day of.

Packing my bike the evening before, I felt calm and looked forward to the ride. Taking advantage of the handlebar bag on my Rawland, I packed: an extra water bottle, snack foods, a spare jersey (wool, in case the high-tech SPF mesh didn't agree with me), extra lights, sunscreen, chamois cream, pain medication, bandaids, and an external battery for topping up my GPS and phone charge. In my saddle wedge I packed tools and 2 spare tubes.

The actual distance of the event would be 193.4 miles. I was able to get a ride to the start from another rider, which meant I would not need to add any extra miles riding to and from home. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it all seemed manageable.

Even at 5:30 in the morning, filling out forms in the concrete parking lot of the Hanscom Airbase, it was obvious that the day would be scorchingly hot. The sun was out already, casting dramatic shadows. I applied sunscreen and wandered around. It looked like 35 or so riders with the usual variety of bicycles - from modern road race to traditional rando, to everything in between. Unlike on previous rides, everyone had a good sized handlebar or saddle bag, or both, attached to their bike this time. I was teased a little for showing up at the 300K after having said "no more" last time. Yeah yeah yeah, I grumbled.

Setting off just after 6am, there was some shuffling around for the first mile, but soon we were all strung out a comfortable distance from one another, with me somewhere in the middle.

On the cue sheet and GPS files, the ride was separated into 6 Legs, with a control at the end of each. The first three would take us west, across northern Massachusetts. The third would bring us down south a bit. And the final two would return us home. Thinking of the ride in terms of these distinct, self-contained segments made it feel very manageable. First we ride 20 miles. Now we ride 35. Now another 30 miles. And so on.

The first leg was easy, pleasant, and immediately scenic. It made for an excellent warm-up: starting out flat and rolling, building up to a 2-mile climb at the end. Briefly I rode with another Ride Studio Cafe cyclist, Henry. He is Dutch, very strong, with beautiful pedal strokes. We wished each other good luck, and soon he was off like a slingshot. Later I was caught by some other riders I knew from previous brevets. They passed me uphill, I passed them downhill, they passed me uphill again. After that I passed two riders on the side of the road, one of whom was having a mechanical issue. At the first control, I ate a hot breakfast quickly and moved on right away.

On paper, the second leg was all climbing. But in practice I did not experience it that way. Except for a short very steep stretch toward the end where I had to walk briefly, it all felt fine. I was making good time, with plenty of cushion room. The scenery was beautiful, with lots of shade to shield riders from the intensifying sun. I was going through my water at a rate of one bottle per 10-15 miles and feeling good. Part of the way, I rode with another rider and we arrived at the second control together: a country store at mile 52. Here I refilled my 3 bottles (two in the cages, one in the handlebar bag) and tried to force myself to eat. It was getting very hot now and I had no appetite. Others at the control seemed to feel the same, hanging out in the shade until they felt cooled down enough to eat. It was very comfortable at the little country store, with its picnic benches surrounded by pine trees. I tried not to stay too long and was soon on my way again.

Leg 3 took us to the westernmost point of the route and over beautiful stretches such as Tully Lake and Mt. Grace. I was feeling so good and elated at this point, that I did not realise I was climbing over an actual mountain until I saw it on the map later. At the 65 mile point I checked my time and saw I was just over 6 hours into the ride. I passed a few riders somewhere along the way, which I took as a sign I was doing okay. If I kept going at this rate, I would finish in 18 hours - with 2 hours to spare before the 20 hour cutoff. By the time I arrived at the next control at mile 85 I lost some of that cushion on the final climb, but was still doing well. I was also feeling hungry now, which was timely as this was the food stop: a BBQ place with outdoor seating. 

At the food stop, there were many other riders, and some of them did not look good - suffering from the heat. Some sat in front of their food staring at it absently. Others were lying down on the grass with their eyes closed. I heard one rider making a phone call to announce he was abandoning. And I learned that at least two others had abandoned already as well.

But the biggest surprise was seeing Emily at this control. Emily is a much, much stronger rider than me, and at timed events I would not normally see her for the entire ride. To catch up to her on a control meant something was wrong. And it was: She couldn't eat; she didn't feel well in the heat. Leaving most of her food behind, she finally left shortly before I did. Even her dill pickle remained half-eaten.

As I set off to leave, I asked where the bathroom was and learned it was out of order. The owner tried to give me directions to the bathrooms in the town center, but I did not want to waste time on a detour and continued without a pee break.

The 4th Leg should have been comparatively easy, without much climbing. But it was made difficult by the almost complete lack of shade. For a stretch we cycled along an open country highway, with nowhere to hide from the 95F heat and the blazing sun. Later it was farmlands, with an equal lack of tree shade. It was mid-afternoon by now, but the sun and temperature were not waning. Wearing all-white and guzzling water, I did not get sick from the heat as some of the others did. But I could feel it slowing me down, sapping my energy as I neared mile 100.

Shortly after we passed Deerfield - the home of the famous D2R2 event - something uncanny happened. I remembered that Richard Sachs lived somewhere in the area. And no sooner did this thought cross my mind, that I saw a lone dark figure on a bicycle on the opposite side of the country highway. "No way," I thought. "No way." But as we neared each other, I could clearly make out the red bike and the all-black kit, and finally the face - across which a look of what seemed like surprised recognition flashed just as we crossed paths for that split second. The "was it or wasn't it?!" question plagued me for the rest of the ride. When Mr. Sachs himself confirmed it later that weekend, I was immensely relieved it was not a heatstroke-induced hallucination.

All throughout this leg I tried to ride faster, but the sun and heat felt like a harness holding me back. By the time I reached the next control, my cushion time had dwindled to 45 minutes. I ran to use the bathroom, then went to fill my water bottles at the rest stop. To my surprise some riders were hanging out here - in a seemingly leisurely fashion, some with their shoes off. Maybe I was needlessly worried about the time? I had some watermelon and stretched my upper body as we chatted briefly. One of the riders - an NEBC racer - had just passed me an hour earlier. She had started late, having cracked a chainstay on her main bike and switching to another at the last moment. Emily was also there, still not feeling great. When I set off she stayed behind, telling me she'd catch up and we could ride together the rest of the way.

The rest of the way was "only" 80 miles at this point. I felt in my legs and in my gut that I could do it. I just needed to be mindful of the time and make it to the next control with some cushion. After that, it would be just the final leg home.

Leg 5 was the last one with any major climbing. To be precise: an 11-mile climb, followed by a descent and a flat stretch, followed by a 5-mile climb. I knew it would be difficult, but on paper it did not look any worse than the stretches we'd done earlier. In practice, it felt much worse. The sun was waning already, but the heat of the day had done its work and I felt "cooked." With over 100 miles in my legs, I was slow climbing. I spun and ground and pushed myself and played songs in my head with a fast rhythm, and even tried to stand (successfully), but nothing helped. No matter how I tackled the 11-mile climb, I was slow. Slow-slow-slow. Some miles in, Emily caught up. She attempted to ride with me, but I was sincerely worried about my speed and did not want to drag her down with me - so I told her to go on without. Reluctantly she agreed and disappeared around the next bend. I tried standing and pedaling in a higher gear again. The fact that I could do it was not bringing me any joy now. It didn't seem to help. I sat back down and spun/ground as fast as I could. It was endless. I could feel the time slipping away.

When the descent came, I switched into the big ring and did not touch the brakes. Any cornering problems I had in the past did not even enter my mind; I just needed to make up all the time I'd lost. It worked, and on the flat I could finally take a breath of relief.

Until the dirt road. When I first saw what awaited me, I could not believe it. First came a section where the road was under construction, "Caution, turn back" signs, completely dug up and unridable, and finally blocked from traffic with tall piles of sand and debris. I had to carry my bike across this for what must have been just a short time but seemed eternal at this stage in the game. Then came the 2-mile stretch of "dirt," which was, frankly, loose sand all the way, strewn with alarmingly sharp rocks. Fishtailing slightly even with my 42mm tires, I could only imagine what this felt like on skinny road tires. It did not seem right to be on this godforsaken road, but both my GPS and cue sheet directions indicated I was riding where I was supposed to be. This was confirmed when a car passed me... a car belonging to one of the ride volunteers, with a bike hoisted upon the roof-rack and a dispirited-looking rider in the passenger's seat. Another abandon.

With the dirt finally over, I picked up the pace as much as I could, but soon came the final 5 mile climb. I gritted my teeth and pedaled with all my might, feeling no sensation what so ever. The sun was setting. The sky glowed gold, then pink over an endless stretch of creepy bog. The final control cutoff was fast approaching and my entire being filled with intense disbelief and feel of impeding tragedy. No-no-no-no-no. This can't be happening. No. Please no. I stopped checking the time and just pedaled, focusing on nothing but making the final control until the road dumped me at the grassy knoll.

Volunteer staff were waiting in a wooden pavilion. When I got off the bike, I was so out of breath that I could not speak. I attempted to ask whether I made it on time, but instead started hyperventilating and making wailing sounds. People stared with undisguised concern. I tried to shut my mouth and sit down, but it only got worse, until I finally let out all the wailing that was pent up inside. What that was, I still have no idea.

And then, just like that, I was fine. I checked the time and learned I'd arrived 10 minutes before the cutoff. I drank a cup of chocolate milk and ate a hard boiled egg. I put on a reflective vest, spare lights, and helmet light, preparing to set off again.

I should mention that the final control was a sight of a mass unraveling. Quite a few riders were there, in various states of not feeling well. A handful had abandoned and were waiting for rescue rides. One man was lying down, trying to recover sufficiently to continue. The racer who had passed me earlier was resting in a recliner: done. Emily was there, telling me she would catch up again if I set off before her. I hoped so, as this way we could ride together in the dark. But I could not risk waiting any longer, in case she decided not to continue. I had calculated there were maybe 5 riders still behind me. None of them would finish at this point.

I set off on the last leg at 8:45pm. This was a long one - 55 miles, but it would soon have us on familiar territory. I had over 5 hours to cover the remaining distance, with not much climbing to speak of except in the very beginning. It was growing cool. I was not in any pain. I was tired, but not so tired I could not crank out the miles without stopping. This was doable, very doable. I just had to keep going.

It was dark, but not pitch black yet when I set off. I started at a good pace and was looking forward to Emily catching up, then us finishing together. I would be sure to hang on to her for dear life this time. I imagined us arriving at the finish dramatically, 5 - or maybe 3 - minutes before the cutoff, collapsing from exhaustion, but making it. This image kept me going as the sky turned from gray to navy to black.

And then, I began to notice with growing alarm, that I could not see where I was going. This was so unexpected that it took some time to even sink in. I consider(ed) myself to be an experienced night rider, and, based on previous experiences, genuinely thought that I was prepared for the night stretch of the route. I had a powerful dynamo headlight on my front rack, and a battery powered headlight on my handlebars, and a helmet mounted headlight. But even all this was not sufficient for the area I found myself in, especially riding alone. The sky was black - moonless and starless; there was no illumination of any kind. There was not even a yellow lane divider or a white fog line to focus on. With my 3 headlights I could see the potholes at various distances in front of me illuminated brilliantly, but I could not see the curvature of the road further ahead. And this meant I could not safely pick up speed, especially on descents, without the risk of going off the side of the road. Several times I stopped and tried to adjust my lights to point further out. This did not help much - they were not diffuse enough to do what I wanted them to do. I kept riding at the maximum speed I felt was safe, which was pitiful considering the twists and turns of the back road. My last hope was Emily catching up with me, and us combining our light power.

The road seemed to only grow darker and more twisty. This was truly in the middle of nowhere. I could barely make out the shapes of trees, and I seemed to be riding through some dense forested area. I heard disconcerting sounds all around me - howling, rustling in the woods, and at some point what sounded like a chainsaw. I am not generally scared of the dark, but I was by now so exhausted and frustrated that my mind must have started to mess with me. Around this time, I really began to worry where Emily was, and at length became convinced that she must have been murdered - what other explanation was there for her still not catching up to me? Surely that was related to the sound of the chainsaw I'd heard. After 15 hours on the bike, this made a great deal of sense, and I started to sob. I should have waited for her. I should have waited! Shaking, I had to stop to regain my composure. Eventually I snapped out of it, ate some food and kept going.

But increasingly, I was losing time on the climbs and unable to make it up on the descents, since I could not see where I was going. With a sense of dread I checked the time: It was approaching 10pm and I had barely advanced 10 miles. With 45 miles left to go and 4 hours to do it in, I was not going to finish if I kept riding at this pace. My mind went into emergency-analytical mode, putting aside all emotion to determine the logical course of action.

Fact: I would not make the cutoff, unless I started to ride drastically faster. Fact: The pitch black road conditions were unlikely to change, which meant I was unlikely to ride faster. Fact: Since Emily has not caught up to me by now, she had most likely abandoned herself, which meant I was the last rider remaining on the course. Fact: If I continued riding anyway, I would not only be putting myself at risk in the dark for nothing, but inconveniencing the organisers - who would wait for me as long as I was still out there. The logical course of action was to abandon.

According to the map, I would soon pass a gas station. I could end my ride there and arrange for a pick-up. After weighing my options, I made the decision. Making the call felt like tearing off a bandaid - if I was going to do it, I needed to do it quickly.

At the gas station parking lot ten minutes later, I saw two sets of headlights. It was Emily, along with another rider - the one who'd been lying down at the last control. I expected them to keep going, but they pulled in to the gas station. Emily wanted to buy a coke, and there was something off, I thought, about how important this seemed to her, with so little time left. The clerk who was closing up got her one and she sat down with it on the pavement. The other rider lied down on the porch. They seemed quite settled in. I tell them they need to keep going immediately, if they want to make the cutoff. I am not sure they understand or even hear me. I offer my bananas, water, Shot Blocks. "Look, you shouldn't sit here, you need to get going. I am only here because I'm done." Emily looks at her coke long and hard. "Well... maybe I'm done too." She looks at her watch. "Yeah..."

I know that Emily has been randonneuring for over 10 years and she has never DNFed an event. Damn it, I think. She was not planning to quit until she saw me sitting here. I contemplate continuing with them, but it makes no sense. I try to encourage them, waving my banana and extra water fetchingly. But they really are done now, sprawled on the porch, talking politics and sci-fi books. Now that more time has passed and the decision is irreversible, they relax and become more animated. Each has made the call and they are waiting for a ride.

I feel too numb to joint the conversation. I put myself on autopilot and start disassembling my bike. My husband arrives in a tiny ZipCar and we wrangle the pieces inside. He will never trust me to be "okay on my own" again, is all I can think of as we drive home. Well, maybe he never did.

At home, I went straight to sleep and didn't dream about anything. The next day I felt strange, weepy. After that I thought I was fine, but I ran into Emily in town two days later and had an almost PTSD-type experience when we started talking about the ride. She did not seem too happy either.

Many riders abandoned this particular brevet. It was a tough one. But somehow that fails to console me. It wasn't the miles or the climbing or the heat that broke me in the end, but inadequate preparation for the dark. An overconfidence in myself over a factor that turned out to be critical. A mistake.

All through the following week I would recall fragments of the brevet, sending my emotions into wild extremes of highs and lows. I would remember pedaling over Mt. Grace, elated, hot breeze in my face, smelling pine trees in the sun and looking down at miles of farmlands. What ecstasy, to have made it out this far on my own, and to feel as if I could keep on going forever.

Then later I would recall riding through that damned forest in the dark, alone, nearly going off the side of the road, ominous rustlings behind the trees. That feeling of doom seeping in, like a cold thick liquid against my skin. The decision to abandon after nearly 150 miles, after all that climbing, after having ridden clear across the state and back...

Well, what else is there to say. So much drama about a little brevet. Better luck next time and all that. It is good for the character to fail on occasion. I will try to learn what I can from it. And I will always remember the many beautiful moments of this ride, the kindness of the volunteers, the support of the other riders. Thank you to all who were there, and congratulations to the finishers. Happy trails to all for future brevets and other adventures.

91 comments:

  1. Velouria, you performed remarkably well in this situation including your DNF decision excellently navigated under most trying and distressing physical and mental conditions. You rightly determined it would be imprudent to push on given the lighting and other circumstances. Live to ride another day is the takeaway and not the retrospective self reproach of dismissive "drama about a little brevet." You absolutely gave respect to daunting circumstances and overcame them. Admirable! Jim Duncan

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  2. Brutal. That was painful just to read. It made me feel nauseated.

    The heat is something you can't overcome by will. Especially when you have been training in cool weather, the first hot days are killers.

    "It is good for the character to fail on occasion."

    Yes it is, and it is also good to cut your losses and survive without any permanent damage.

    Congratulations to you and your friends including those who didn't finish, really, good effort and good ride!


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  3. Under those conditions I can't believe anyone finished!

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  4. Frankly, I don't understand.

    Points, time, points, time...

    - it looks like that's what you were after. But you wrote that you really wanted to ride in this event "because [you] found the route so attractive".
    In such case, are all those points really worth it? You could have picked simply antoher weekend - with better weather - and make it easier for you. Or if you really had to ride on that weekend, you could have started much, much earlier - very early in the morning and ride at night through the familiar territory the first miles. You would have avoided the scorching sun early on.

    If the route was the main motivation, why not give yourself more time? Just enjoy it. Go slower, take pictures, looks around, have fun.

    Unless the route didn't matter as much as you wrote. And the real motivation was to push yourself, finish within the time limit. In such case the route doesn't really matter. You don't have time to look around. You hardly have time to eat and rest. Always in rush, always stressed. Am I going to make it? Will I be there on time?

    You just were looking at your front wheel the entire ride...

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    1. You are right, it does not make much sense... until you start doing it.

      It is both about the attractive route and about finishing (there are no points - you just need to make the controls before a certain time cut-off). Again, hard to explain how the two can be combined, until you try it yourself. Not that you should... unless you want to.

      And believe it or not, I had FUN. Yes, all caps kind of fun.

      I will do a tour through the same area. It will be wonderful, but different.

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    2. Well, if you put it that way, I will never understand it. I see no point in being timed when I ride. If the route is scenic I want to decide myself how much time I take to enjoy it.

      I am glad you had FUN, though.

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    3. It is also about the camaraderie -- knowing that 20-40 other people have prioritized this ride in their schedule so you know you will have a variety of company. I've done some of the shorter brevets with a group of 2-3 and while beautiful and fun, it also misses some of the weight of a "bigger" ride. There's more stories and more people to talk to.

      That said, I'm also not a fan of the timing/points aspect of randonneuring, but put up with it for being able to ride with many of my friends.

      Well done V!

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  5. This is a riveting ride report and a great story.

    I was out that day with 60 miles in by 9am, both to avoid the heat and help with family projects. It was dreadful doing yard work that afternoon and riding 4 miles for an errand, let alone riding quite a long distance in the sun. What is surprising is tha people did finish this ride, not that you and other strong riders like Emily did not. Great for you for trying.

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  6. So sorry you did not finish, but it sounded like a gruelling ride, do not feel badly, and you had sworn not to go beyond 200, so good for you to try further!
    Lights would be an issue for me. You have the edelux right? How bright is it really? When I get a dynamo light, I want the brightest one possible. It is hard to tell as some measure in lux, some lumens, some go by distance. I've seen youtube videos showing the beam patterns and they do not look bright, yet Peter White's photos show some very bright lights. Some say that the supernova E3 triple is too bright for riding in traffic, but that is nonsense. I live in the country and I have a 600 lumen battery powered light, and it still is not enough. It's abysmal. Even when I get my dynamo hub built onto a wheel and get a light, I think I will still need additional lighting. So, yeah, the difficulty seeing in the dark would have pushed me to tears too.
    Perhaps there will be another 300k in the fall and you will try again?

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    1. Night riding is a matter of getting used to what you have, and to night riding in general. When I lived in western WI, much of my ride home was along an unlit trail. I used a home-made light (2 3W LEDs with lenses) that didn't put out as much as an Edelux) and it worked well once I got used to it, but riding down a cone of light in an otherwise dark forest can be a positively unnerving experience...

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  7. Yeah, DNFs happen. I blew up on my first 300k, too, with about 50k to go. It sucks, but you're right about the "better luck next time" part; riding the loop again and finishing it makes up for a lot of the stress of bailing out when common sense overrules rando tunnel vision.

    150 miles isn't anything to laugh at, either, particularly on a loop with long stretches in the sun. (In the past 4 years I've DNFed two 200s, one 300, and one 600. Oh well, so it goes. I've ridden plenty of other loops to make up for it.)

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  8. Honestly, there are times when rides SHOULD be abandoned or an event cancelled due to weather that would put folks at real risk. The Furnace Creek 508 swears it will run regardless of weather but 60 mph winds down the Panamint Valley would stop all riders, not just the weaker ones.

    Heat can be a real killer, especially if folks aren't used to it. You did a fine ride and really pushed yourself - be proud, most of us couldn't come close to what you did.

    As a former sailor / Navy pilot and meteorologist I have great respect for the weather.

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  9. Inspirational! Thank you so much for this wonderful report.

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  10. May I offer another perspective:

    I think it is progress that you tried this ride and failed. Reading about the previous brevets, I got the feeling that you were only willing to do one if you were abso-frigging-lutely sure you would succeed. Where is the fun in that? Go out on a limb, give up some control. Failure happens and this is what it feels like. Cry about it. Admit you are competitive. This is good.

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    1. You have a point...

      But you know what would be even better?
      Finishing the brevet : )

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    2. It was still your longest ride, right?

      Like Jimmy Connors used to say, you didn't lose, you just ran out of time. And lights.

      How did you feel the next day, physically?

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    3. nope...not better, just different.

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    4. Anon 10:42 - In terms of miles alone, it was my longest ride but not by much. For the 200K, my total milage for the day was 145, considering I'd cycled to the start from home. However, there was more climbing per mile this time, so the feel of the miles was very different. This was a much more effortful day than the 200K.

      I felt okay the next day, nothing dramatic. But then I felt a bit tired all of this week. I still rode, but took it easier than usual. Friday was the first day I felt back to my pre-300K self.

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  11. I am truly impressed that you attempted a 300K! I do think that if it were 10 degrees cooler, you would have completed it on time. Where I am, they don't hold brevets in the summer because the heat and humidity are just too much to handle. Given last year's record number of days hitting the hundreds here, I know heat exhaustion is no joke.

    From your accounts, I think you're a strong rider. I want to do a 300K eventually, but I don't have the time cushion between controls even for a 200K, so I feel like I need to accomplish that first before I can tackle a longer distance.

    I really love these black and white photographs, by the way. The visual and metaphorical study of lights and darks.

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  12. I will come out and say I have never yet had a riding day with as many miles as this. Still, the feeling is familiar; having had to abandon a multi-pitch climb due to light issues or hypothermia (one of the other climbers; yea she survived, thank the powers that be) feels eerily similar to what you describe here.
    The mind plays tricks. We ignore them at our peril. And even a little heat can take you out just as easily as cold. 95 F is not a little heat.

    You're still here to go at it again and give Ol' Scratch a kick in the pants.
    Go, V!.

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  13. Wow, I know the term "epic" is greatly overused these days, but the two weekends back to back with diametrically opposed weather and great writeups, I think qualifies. I have only been reading your blog for less than a year, but what strikes me as a fait accompli is your growth as a cyclist over a short number of years. Only someone who truly loves bikes and riding bikes would come so far. Well done!

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  14. Cool you saw RS out there.

    How did your SPF perform? And which do you use?

    For the past couple of years I have been using Patagonia spf shirts in the summer. These are designed for water sports, so no back pockets (which I would never use anyway). They are comfortable and keep me pale and pasty looking all year round.

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    1. I use Obagi Nuderm Physical UV Block SPF 32 (zinc oxide) and it works wonderfully.

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  15. Honestly, I can't understand the need for such a grueling, hot, long ride. I would never want to do it, even if I was younger. More power to those who do, however.

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  16. Your preparation for this ride was amazing right down the line. I also enjoyed your storytelling, which is blossoming along with your cycling skills. Based on all the candlepower you did have, how do you think you will address the next night ride? Is it simply a matter of a headlight with a different beam pattern? Is it possible the heat and stress of the day affected your night vision?

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    1. After talking it over with a bunch of experienced randonneurs, I think it's actually a matter of angle. But I will play around with it and report back.

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  17. Really great description of feelings and impressions of bringing up the rear on a brevet. As noted, you must decide yourself about safety. But some of the other thoughts concerning abandonment need to be pushed away in order to complete a long ride. Some have a theory that you have not missed the control time until you actually arrive. And the volunteers that you are keeping out there would likely rather you finish than they get home earlier. It IS a strangely attractive activity...

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  18. Your more seasoned than me regarding randonneuring, but you accomplished a lot. Lessons learned are probably more valuable than crossing the finish line.
    DummyDiva

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  19. Velouria,

    I have been following Lovely Bicycle since I came across it a few years ago via a reference in a bike magazine. Anyway, at the time you still had your mixtes, Sam Hillborne, and step through city bikes. I recall when you became aware of brevets and how difficult they were. I also recall that, while interesting, not really on your radar at the time. Well guess what? In a relatively short period of time you have become a brevet rider, not to mention a frame builder and tourer. That is quite an evolution in 4 years or so if you think about it.

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  20. So close, but next time you will get it!
    Riding in hot conditions is the worst for me. It's just exhausting and I know riding long distances on days like that would be unfun.
    Good luck for your next attempt x

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  21. Congratulation for your attempt and your report.
    Was too hot and I guess you did a too long distance alone. Next time you will get it for sure. KEEP ON CYCLING and
    All the best

    (before my PBP 2011 I needed two attempt, too, to finish the 600 Brevet. Sometimes the conditions are against the riders.)

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  22. Good point Andy A. "you have not missed the control time until you actually arrive"
    Many things can happen. I've done adventure races where cutoffs have been changed due to outside factors and the team arrived after the original published cutoff but was allowed to continue on. Things can change.
    The mindset that you need to keep pushing on until you reach the control can keep you motivated. You won't know you missed it until you get there.

    That being said, there are times when discretion is the better part of valour. The only race we had to abandon (as opposed to not making a time cut-off) was a gut-wrenching experience and the decision was revisisted many times over the next couple of months. But in the dark at the bottom of a canyon, after 20 hours of racing, the only way to move forward was to climb in the cold river carrying our bikes and wade downstream into the unknown. We managed to radio the race officials to let them know of our abandoning and spent 4 hours huddled in the rain around a fire. With the daylight, the wade in the river was much less dangerous and it turned out we only had another 500m to go before we reached a short cliff where we could climb out of the canyon.

    You have to make your own decisions based on external factors and your own mental and physical state. You're also making these decisions against a backdrop of mental fatigue. It's easy to second guess yourself after the fact (and you will), but you need to focus on the lessons learned.

    Hoping to do my first randonneuring ride later this year.

    TrailRunnerMark

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  23. I'm impressed that you made it as far as you did on June 1. That heat was brutal, especially since, as you pointed out, those of us in Massachusetts hadn't been able to acclimate to it. I was going to do the 100 Miles of Nowhere that day, but I put it off until June 5. I did a short 20-mile loop on the morning of the 1st, and that was plenty.

    You rode some of my favorite stretches out in this neck of the woods--Warwick to Northfield, River Road in Deerfield, and North Leverett Road. I hope you were able to enjoy them, at least to some extent!

    It sounds like you learned a lot on this brevet even though you didn't finish. I hope it didn't sour you on randonneuring, and best of luck on your next 300K!

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    1. That area was my favourite part of the ride. I am planning to ride there again, freestyle, on a little multi-day tour and just hang around.

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    2. Let me know if you want tips on where to eat, or other local knowledge. I live in Hadley, but I ride anywhere within 60 miles of my home.

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    3. Thank you. I do have a specific question actually; will email you via your contact info.

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  24. Holy Moly Girl! Cut yourself some slack! I'm totally and completely impressed. And I love the chainsaw massacre visual! I'll have to remember this the next time I'm feeling wimpy on a "long" ride (which, for me is anything over 40 miles!)

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    1. Indeed! Reminds me of a line in a song...'successful men get what they want, happy men want just what they got' ... really, i don't know what this means about life :) but you certainly did all you could....be happy!

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  25. Sorry to hear you did not finish the ride. With all the literal and figurative ups and downs, it definitely sounds like a brevet to me. It sounds like you have been doing a lot of processing of the experience, which I can certainly understand. I also think sometimes it's rides like these that bring us back to try again.

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  26. This was great to read, especially as I've been considering a foray into the world of randonneuring myself. My daughter and I rode to Royalston Center that morning (18 miles with a good bit of climbing for a 7 year-old on a trail-a-bike!) and ran into some of your fellow riders there!

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  27. Terrific account! I started to read your blog a several years ago for all the information it contained. Now I keep reading for the beauty of your prose. Do you realize how wonderfully you write?

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  28. I do take slight offense at your "quiet delirium" comment. It was severe muscle cramping, not a mental disorder, that did me in.

    Glad you got home safely.

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    1. Hey there, I am so sorry. Everyone looked a little out of it by that point, myself included, is really what I meant by that comment. Reworded.

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  29. Velouria, can I take this account to mean that you did not experience nausea, cramping, headache or any other adverse effects of the heat on this ride?

    Robert

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    1. I did not experience any of that. But I do think the heat slowed me down and made me less clear-headed than I could have been. It was also difficult to eat. I was forcing myself, but probably not enough, which meant less energy.

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  30. I have experienced the oddness of the tiny cocoon of insufficient light in the blackness effect, which is often extremely creepy after hours in the woods. Mine were mountain bike rides with friends and I cannot imagine the tricks your mind would play after so long on the bike.....and alone at that point. Lights! The kind the mountain bikers use for the 24 hour events. Bright! As for your ride......you rock!

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  31. I had a rough time a few weeks ago on a hot 300K. I was drinking a liquid diet, and at the time I thought that may have been part of the cause of the diarrhea (I was leaving little presents in vacant lots etc. along the way) but now I think it may have been the reason I was able to complete the ride in time despite the heat. The sun really takes it out of you, adding a whole extra layer of difficulty. It's a lot easier to keep up with at least a base layer of nutrition with a liquid diet, I think.
    The event organizer could have given you some extra time on the ride, because of the detour, if I read the rules right.

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  32. Hypothesis about the lighting issues: Did you maybe have too many lights? Between three lights, two of them probably producing round blobs of light, you might have impeded your night vision with two much, creating a huge differential between lit and unlit areas. I've done night rides with only a IQ Cyo dynamo headlight on pitch black country roads and found that to be quite sufficient (yeah, sure, you do have to slow down a bit on the downhills).

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    1. I am pretty sure the issue was how my main light was pointed - and I was too frazzled to effectively adjust it on the fly at that stage. I will follow up once I figure it out.

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    2. I've noticed that my generator light provides a great beam, if not all that bright(60 lux). That works well for me on dark streets. Adding in a 600 lumen (mixing my measures here) battery powered high beam makes it harder to see - mostly because it is too bright. I wonder if you were seeing the same effect, especially if your main light needed adjustment.

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  33. Does your experience change your view on the trade-offs between the Rawland and the Seven for this kind of distance?

    Admittedly the heat was the killer, just curious if you think bike choice matters at all.

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    1. Given how my Seven is set up, riding it on that particular event would have resulted in a similar overall speed. I would have been faster rolling, but I would have also had to walk a lot more. Similar with fatigue: I get less tired on the Seven - except when I have to grind/mash more, which would certainly have been the case on this ride.

      As I write this, my Seven is being operated upon to give it gearing similar to the Rawland's; will see what that does to the feel of the bike.

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    2. Makes sense.
      I'll be interested to see what you do to achieve that gearing on the Seven.

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    3. I'm interested in seeing this too as I am getting my bike ready for a very hilly ride and will need Campy compatible parts. I currently have a compact crank - 34/50 - with a 12-25 chainrings. Jeff (RSC) suggest a 28 chainring in the rear, max for my short cage derailleur, but I'm also wondering about choices for a smaller chainring in front.

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    4. The max Campy cassette is actually 29t; that is what I currently have on my Seven (ie pre-op), with standard Chorus short cage derailleur.

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    5. Jeez it's the same bike and will feel exactly the same. You'll get different spacing btwn gears.

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    6. Yeah. I like the tight spacing though. Will see.

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    7. You'll get stronger and won't care.

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    8. Rolhoff, baby!! Nice, even, spacing. All the gears one would need to climb anything. No busted derailleurs or chains. Man, put a belt drive on it and think of the silent pedaling during the black of night out in those woods....so cool! An since you're affiliated with Seven, I can see your next prototype now...Red Rolhoff in the back, red King in the front, geometry for the endurance rides you enjoy and no hassles with the drivetrain! Yup!

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    9. I love riding up hills, but it used to be hard to keep up with the stronger riders once the ascent began. I'd get out of the saddle and manage for a bit but could never last. Then I started to ride my bike in it's highest gear and do my commute completely out of the saddle--about eight miles--and found that the burn was less and less. Also, I found the rhythm of breathing, pulling, swaying, and it was fun. Soon I was able to climb with the best of them and even left a few surprised riders behind -- well, until the descents, which scared the crap out of me -- so learning to ride out of the saddle made a huge difference in speed and enjoyment and meant I could keep the gearing a little tighter. In Oregon some of the climbs were both brutal and long!

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    10. Anon 444 - yup
      Anon 404 - sprained a wrist picking up a rohloff with my spindly arms.

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    11. Ah, well the good news is you don't have to throw it in order to enjoy what it offers. I, too, was concerned about the weight -- being spindly myself, oh, and old, too -- but when I'm off road and in dust and dirt, I'm grateful. So far, so good. Anon 404

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    12. No worries, great hub. Check our Neil at Cycle Monkey if you need service ever.

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    13. Thanks, man. I hear they are the best.

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    14. I'm still stuck on derailleurs. And curious about of how small a compact crank can work with Campy derailleurs. Whatever it is, I want one.

      I'm sure the fitting of the Seven with proper gearing for steep hills would be comfortable for a very long haul like a 300k but isn't the fit of your Rawland pretty close to optimal for you? Would the weight of the Seven with better gearing make it a better choice for the next long haul ride you try?

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  34. Randonneurs rode all night back when the best available lights were pathetic compared to an edelux plus this plus that. The conclusion is not inadequate prep for the dark. The problem was your brain could not process visual information. Heat. Heat impairs brain function. The wailing incident makes it about as clear as could be something was going astray upstairs ."And then, just like that, I was fine". Not. Had I been on medical I would have DQ'ed you right there. Which is why I will never be asked to assist at these events anymore. That RAAM riders can cross the continent hallucinating and seldom get hurt is not any justification for others to emulate foolishness.

    Endurance and stamina and grit and meticulous never-ending technical prep are fine. Slogging along and slogging along some more appeals to some. If you want to do prep strength and speed come to mind. Strength is not the ability to produce small amounts of power ad infinitum.

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    1. I think what you describe was a part of it for sure, though it wasn't as bad as all that. The wailing was in large part just hyperventilation from having pushed myself fast up that last hill.

      Having taking part and volunteered in a few brevets now, I have seen riders "snap out" of what could seem like pretty bad states, certainly worse than anything I displayed or felt. I have a vivid imagination and perhaps describe things more dramatically than need be, but for the most part I was fine, even in the woods. My husband is medically trained and he thought I looked fine when he picked me up - no heat symptoms, nothing wrong with me.

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    2. You look at the rider's eyes and ask some questions.

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    3. Next time you're at a meeting with a photography client try emitting an uncontrollable wail for 10, 20. 30, 60 seconds and see how easy it is to snap out of that one, call it insignificant. How is it any different if it "only" happens in front of a group of randonneurs.

      Jim, I've been at enough checkpoints listening to the officials ask the riders what their name is, what day it is, have you had a drink of water, do you know where you are, etc., and send the riders back out on the road after getting bad responses to each and every question that I take a dim view of the proceedings. What you say is exactly correct and has no effect whatever when the group mentality says continue at all costs. The guys who finish in good order are impressive, those with the good sense to pull themselves are very impressive, and those who play the game to the end are living dangerously.

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    4. Exactly. As I've been saying it's a competition. What doesn't kill you make you stronger. The guys asking the questions are riders after all.

      That said V is pushing her boundaries and hadn't had a bad crash yet. This experience, and her riding in general, has given her a reality check. It is what it is.

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    5. Anonymous 11:57 - Then how do explain that Randonneuring is, statistically, a very safe sport, despite what some scaremongers might suggest? And what is this group mentality? In my experience there are as many different approaches to participation as there are randonneurs. I've DNFed a couple of times and been there when others have done so and never witnessed any pressure or criticism from the organization or other riders. On the contrary, as we've seen in this thread, the attitude is overwhelmingly supportive and positive. How many RUSA sanctioned randonnees have you volunteered at or ridden?

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    6. The appropriateness of a behaviour is heavily context dependent, so I don't think it works to compare heaving at an intense sporting event to doing so at a professional meeting. But I get your point.

      Considering the tone of further comments that have been submitted, I am bringing this particular thread of comments to a close. Thank you everyone.

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  35. I did this ride and looking at the times I was the absolute last person to finish at 19 hours. It was the first time I've ridden that distance and I have to say that the heat made it incredibly brutal. It was also super dark at night - my lights worked fine for me, but now that you mention it, it was very dark. But the route was very well designed and for the most part car free. The final leg I said to myself "never again" but now I am kind of thinking well maybe I can do the 400. I had arranged for an emergency ride if need be as I thought I might not finish but in the ended somehow managed to. Your write-up is great and I shared it with my family so they can read about these rides. After I finished I felt a mild euphoria and was felt great about it, but was absolutely useless the next day, and my legs were pretty dead for a few more. The ride also left me with a tremendous respect for those able to do the longer distances, which presently seem incomprehensible to me. And like you said, a huge part of these rides is that they are fun and full of nice people who help you get through it.

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    1. Very cool. Congratulations on your finish and good luck with the 400K if you choose to pursue it.

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  36. "He will never trust me to be "okay on my own" again, is all I can think of as we drive home. Well, maybe he never did."

    Please tell me this isn't so..., or hyperbole, or something! But the way it is written it sounds dreadful. As we tell our young ones - if you aren't falling, crashing, making mistakes, or breaking stuff - you aren't really learning.


    Valiant effort, and the heat can be a killer (literally) and a key component to DNFs.

    Have you tried the ice in the stocking over the neck trick? Works great.

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    1. Well, I only mean that I don't want him to worry or feel that he is "on call" every time I go out to do one of these events.

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    2. i think there are times when i had to finish a ride simply because it was the only way home... surely the 400k i did a few years ago here in VT was that way. and the 300k i did in boston when i did my first series was like that.

      managing the fact that you can call for rescue is a skill, too, just like riding in the dark.

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  37. your bits in the end about the trauma and the wondering about the "what if's" remind me of my first DNF, when I had to quit a fleche somewhere between the NH and VT border due to cold weather and a resurgent illness. DNF's haunt us and linger in our memories differently from the successful finishes. They leave us with a longer list of things to improve, mistakes to avoid and lessons to remember. I have good memories of many rides, but the sweetest ones are of events where I may have failed or had trouble with in the past, and then gone into a rematch that left me feeling stronger and more capable.

    I agree that it's good to fail sometimes. If we do these events to test our limits, it's really useful to find where that limit may be and then figure out how to exceed it when next we face it. It reminds me an adage that I had heard over a skiing weekend: "if you didn't fall once today, then you weren't pushing yourself hard enough."

    Also, per your comment about continuing on would "inconvenience the organisers" ... I can't speak for every organiser, but from my experience both as a volunteer and as an organiser for an NER brevet, I always make myself ready to be available for the event throughout the entire time of the event. The rider who finishes with one minute left is just as worthy of attention and support as the ones who finish in half the allotted time. So, I tell every rider: "Take as much time as you need. Be safe. Finish. Don't worry about us."

    If someone calls us to DNF, I'll usually try to talk them into going on and give them until the close of their next checkpoint to rally or change their mind, but if they miss the cutoff or if they finally decide to DNF at the checkpoint, I'll usually try to make sure that they have a feasible plan for getting home -- even if that means routing them to a nearby motel where they can sleep safely and warmly before figuring out their next step. Then we cross them off the roster and refocus on everyone else who's still on the ride.

    Everyone's an adult, can make their own choices, and can usually fend for themselves (after all, it's not like we're running brevets in the midst of the Gobi Desert)

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    1. Your last part is the point -- at the fine edge of incoherence one can not make good decisions. And a official making a bad decision is bad... decision making.

      That said now and again there are casualties in endurance racing. Part of the sport.

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    2. Randonnees are not endurance races. There is a big difference in culture between them.

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    3. You sure about the first? My experience says you get a bunch of strong guys together it's a race at the front. In the middle and back it's about doing your best.

      Charity rides, mup, commuting - makes no difference. Its just nomenclature.

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  38. Probably your most powerful entry. Incredibly revealing, all the more so because of its modesty. Puts a face on "the tale is in the telling."

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    1. Mmm I don't know bout that. I think in part it was arrogance, or at least overconfidence - combined with inexperience - that got me where I ended up at the end. I didn't think I needed to test my lighting setup, or strategise to stick with other riders in the dark. Hopefully next time I'll know better :)

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  39. Too bad you had to abandon, but it was a good read!

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  40. Anyone anywhere anytime doing anything while alone in the dark is going to imagine things that aren't there. And have trouble focussing on the important things that are there. If anywhere is a lonely country road and there are genuinely possible bad outcomes and the person alone in the dark is also heat stressed and fatigued/exhausted lots of ominous rustlings and worse will be imagined. Imagining all of that is stress and more stress. And makes it less and less possible to do the things you need to do. All of this is absolutely normal and predictable for the given circumstance.

    Hygiene for this circumstance is simple. Do not be alone in the dark. Be with people. No other choices.

    Some of what I read on this blog is so unlikely I can't be sure I read it. From what you say about going downhill without brakes beginning on Leg 5 can it be concluded that before then you were consistently riding the brakes down every hill? What a handicap. No wonder you were riding alone. Who would wait for you at the bottom of every hill? (The "descent" verbiage is misleading. If it can be done no brakes by an exhausted rider of limited/newfound skill it's only a hill.) Spending twice the time on every downhill crushes average speed. The constant braking loads the hands arms shoulders. But it makes no sense that anyone riding a 300K can't even ride down a hill so what did I read here? If it's real that you've been braking every hill you must be making darn good speed uphill and on the flat. Next time you could start with a good group and finish 300 in daylight.

    Start with the group. Stay with the group. Finish with the group.

    Riding with the group is infinitely easier than this solo routine. Paceline training is supposed to teach that. Take that lesson over again until you learn it.

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    1. I pretty much agree with the points you make, so no argument here.

      Re downhill: No I wasn't riding the brakes. But I'm not great at cornering, so a cautious descender where the road is twisty. Getting better at it with time though.

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  41. GORGEOUS photos. I love the way the reflective tape photographed!

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  42. First comment ever on your site. First, I really enjoyed this tale. Second, never forget how lucky you are to be able to brevets and long rides like this. As much as I love cycling, my body simply would never allow it, so you are truly blessed. It's great you take advantage of your gift. Keep on pedaling!

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  43. Check out the Fenix BT 20 dual beam light.

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  44. Really late to this post, but I had to add a comment. The narrative, the photos, the mood of the whole thing... it's sublime.

    It may have felt like a failure at the time, but I came away from this post with the feeling that you, actually we, gained a lot more from your DNF than we would have from your finishing (not that I'm glad you suffered, mind you). Thank you for this.

    On a more mundane note: if one must absolutely ride in hot 95+ degree weather, a Camelback-style hydration pack is a godsend. A sweaty back is but a small price to pay to avoid dehydration.

    I fill mine all the way ice and water (stays cold for a surprisingly long time) then I also fill two water bottles on the bike. I drink from the camelback and douse myself with the water bottles. This works pretty well.

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  45. Excellent article. Those who have been there can relate to every word. Dont beat yourself up. As for the comments about 'never ride on your own in the dark' what a load of rubbish. If I had to ride with the bunch all the time, I would never have stuck with Audax.It is the strange mix of companionable solitude which is it's whole attraction for me. And if I didn't set out at midnight I would have missed two of my best DIY 200k events ( and probably suffered heat exhaustion like yourself) . Wonderful article; please take away the positives from your experience.

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