Friday, April 25, 2014

The Point of No Return

Plumbridge
A friend of mine is a glider pilot, whose specialty is cross country flights. While the comparison is not fitting in all aspects, cross countries to gliding are a little bit like what brevets permanents are to cycling. You declare a task involving a long distance route, pick a day when thermal activity is conducive, and take off - in a tiny unpowered plane. Because glider planes have no engines, the pilot must rely entirely on their aviation skills to stay up in the air over hundreds of kilometers, to cover the route they set out to do, and to land safely. It is an unsupported, challenging activity that, as the consequences of failure are high, would to most people seem insanely dangerous. To the pilot, however - who is typically the sort with nerves of steel and a pathologically high fear response threshold - it is a nice day out. "My favourite part," says my friend, "is when you pass that point where there is no longer an option to turn back early - when you've committed yourself to doing the entire distance…" 

Merely imagining experiencing this inside a glider sends a chill down my spine. But it is also deeply familiar. It is something I feel every time I cycle long distance, whether as part of a brevet or on my own. As the miles roll I can sense that point approaching, and a subtle, yet delicious excitement builds up within me. Mile 10, 20, 30 … mile n …if I'm not feeling up to this, I can turn back and cut the ride short, yet still get home on my own power. I'm in the safety zone. But then comes that mile n+x when I know that, if I continue, there is no turning back. Or rather, no sense in turning back, as doing so wouldn't diminish the distance left to travel compared to completing the route. I am in the deep end now. I am out at sea. This awareness, rather than making me anxious, fills me with an unexpected inner calm. 

For a glider pilot, to abandon a cross country flight once that point of no return is passed involves the skillful act of "landing out" in the nearest field where an emergency landing can be accomplished. Then comes the phone call to that lucky designated friend or family member, who will have to drive out to the site with a special trailer in tow to bring pilot and glider back. The riskiness of an unplanned landing, the inconvenience of the rescue, and the pervasive aura of failure accompanying it all, make this an experience pilots want to avoid like the plague. Abandoning a ride and requiring a rescue (while far less  fraught with danger) is similarly traumatic for cyclists - particularly on a brevet, with its stress on self sufficiency. A year after the fact, the one and only time I've had to be rescued remains an open sore. 

I do not make the decision to pass the point of no return frivolously. Do I have the legs? Do I have the energy? Is the amount of food and water I've brought proving sufficient? Is the weather shaping up to make for a safe return? Am I doing okay for time and are my lights adequate if I run out of daylight? These are all questions I run through my head, like a check list, before re-committing to the intended distance at that mile n+x marker, where I still could turn back and cut the ride short. But once I do decide to keep going, there is no second guessing. And a wonderful feeling of being untethered comes over me, bringing with it a fresh rush of energy. There is a sense of freedom in the awareness that there is nowhere to go but onward. 

28 comments:

  1. Nice analogy. One of the reasons I enjoy long brevets: There's that DNF sticker to turning back.

    I'm contemplating a cross USA ride at an age that's older than dirt and running water. It's the "getting started" that's fearful for some reason.

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  2. Strabane is a long way from where you are!

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    1. That picture was taken in Plumbridge actually. Distance-wise Strabane is only 45-50 miles along back roads. But you go over the Sperrins almost the entire time, so it takes a while!

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    2. I bet it does. If this is a route you do recreationally, my hat's off to you.

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    3. It is honest to goodness not that difficult a route, if you have low gears and are not doing it on the clock. The climbing is gradual and always at a reasonable grade, so you sort of get used to it, settle in and enjoy the scenery. I have a much more difficult time with the climbs over Binevenagh in my own back yard - Steep and brutal, with nerve-wrecking descents, even a 10 mile ride can leave me wrecked and whimpering.

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  3. I always had this feeling when distance running on long loops or trails, and this was before cell phones so if my body rebelled in anyway it was a long and lonely walk/limp home.

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  4. Nonsense - dnf happens. I had to be rescued once, wasn't pretty. It'd be different if you knew the risks, were undertrained and burdened someone. If you had support in place no worries. Even then tho you didn't know how far to push, having been green to the sport.

    You're lucky to get to go on glider rides.

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    1. Yeah, I live practically next door to the airfield. Slowly learning how flying these things works, but I doubt there is any danger of me excelling at it.

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    2. Those little planes are pretty special, aren't they. The more you're around them the more you might find you start thinking of the sky as part of the world where you live. It's a really fantastic perspective to feel like one has something in common with birds.

      The lack of an engine has to make it even better.

      Spindizzy

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    3. I've been up on a handful of glider flights now, and a couple of flights in a powered 2-seater adapted for aerial photography. The latter is not terribly exciting (apart from the views) and feels more or less like a bus, except in the air. But the gliders have been fascinating, a sort of hands-on crash course (no pun intended, and knock on wood) in the laws of physics and also meteorology. The aerobatic maneuvers in particular have been educational. That said, I don't feel a passion for it the way I do for cycling. I get a bigger thrill from a long winding descent on 2 wheels than from a loop or pushover in the air.

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    4. This woman is ready for the two wheel drift.

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  5. Glad to hear that when you reach the point of no return "rather than making me anxious, [it] fills me with an unexpected inner calm."
    I'm attempting my first series of brevets this summer in preparation for trying to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris next year. I'm confident I can do the 200K as I've ridden that distance before (altho' many years ago). The 300K and up will be the true test for me.

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    1. Barb just remember: Half of a brevet is 90% mental.

      From other randos, the 400k is the "tester" as it brings sleep management to the fore.

      You can do 'em.

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    2. Thanks, "Slo Joe," for the encouragement!

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  6. Right now a group of cyclists is riding "Crush the Commonwealth" -- an annual cross Pennsylvania race, this year from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. They left at 5 am this morning from the Liberty Bell. The first riders will reach Point State Park tomorrow afternoon.
    And yeah, it's a scary ride. Harder than a brevet, because it's a race. 400 miles / 615 k nonstop. Also, it crosses 2 mountain ranges, you have to deal with a rainy wheel-sucking limestone trail, etc.
    I did it last year, when it ran the other way, and I didn't find it scary so much after I started (I was definitely scared before. I was surprised how scared I was.) so much as "this is the most stupid idea I've ever had". We call it type 2 fun. Type 1 is actual fun. Type 2 is fun afterwards, when thinking back.
    BTW if you want to follow the race it is at #crushTheCommonwealth.

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    1. Hi Jon,
      Caught your post on the "other" blog! hahaha.
      Very cool. I was looking at some old Tour De France stuff and the stages of the early race were a few hundred miles long on single speeders.
      I am in NYC and have friends I'd like to visit in the Pocono area. Just unsure of routes, my ability with long hills, pre-dawn Newark, NJ, etc!

      Have definitely experienced the "Why the heck am I doing this" feeling. I don't know if it's blood sugar, stress and strain, but great when whatever it is, is done.

      vsk

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  7. That is a striking photo. And I like the idea of Strabane as the point of no return!

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  8. Paris-Brest-Paris is waiting for you. You have the Love for Cycling and that's the most important thing.
    Keep on cycling.

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  9. where exactly is this?

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    1. The descent into Plumbridge via Lisnaragh Road dumps you at a T-junction with Main Street, directly in front of this wall. It's a steep winding descent that ends very abruptly, so that after the last bend you're suddenly careening towards this wall and applying brakes - an interesting experience.

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  10. Really, this is a thing we all experience in any number of ways. Committing to an initial thought and then wondering if we should abandon or continue. Flights, rides, relationships, jobs....it's the continuing challenge of moving.

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  11. What's interesting (and maybe a bit sad) is how long we'll hang onto the idea that we can turn back or give up before we reach that freeing moment of full abandonment to commitment. 30 miles? 23 years of marriage? Half a lifetime in the "wrong" career?

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  12. I think you can have these moments on shorter rides when time limited. I had one last Saturday when I thought "I have energy for this" but turned a corner and there was a road closed sign. I pushed my time to the very limit as a result and had the extra energy to push hard, surprising myself. Not that I would have any problem with the ride and timing in the middle of the season but I have been very slow to start this year. Everything is relative.

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  13. You made me think about the feeling when you've decided it's time to turn back and have to watch over your shoulder as the others continue on.

    Some friends I ride with a little talked me into the Thursday Fast ride recently after not doing it for ALOT of years. It's a different crowd now, mostly much younger with some serious racers. Most of them, including all the women, are faster than I ever was, but they're just a great, joyful bunch to be around.

    About an hour in I realized the little noise and occasional "POP" and skip were getting worse fast, that I wasn't equipped to fix a stiff link and that I was going to fall off the back for real if I couldn't climb hard enough to be able to close up on the next couple of downhills. Then I would be 20 miles from home on the wrong side of the worst climbs on I bike I had to soft pedal, in the dark with the woods full of Tigers and hungry Sasquatch. So I told my friend Ben I was going back and they all called me a big Puss and told me to come back next week.

    Having to watch them roll away, so smooth and fast, like a flock of swallows skimming along with not so much as a tiny gap where I had been just a minute before was surprisingly emotional(even for me, and I'm a big Puss). It had been tougher to keep up than I expected but I was doing it and loving being there, realizing how long it had been since I rode that hard or had to ride that well. I guess turning around was the "wise" choice but it's going to be so nice the next time, slumming the last mile after sprinting for the city limit sign and getting back to the shop having done it all.

    Spindizzy

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    1. I just joined a new meetup.com group in the San Diego area that I expect to ride a lot like that. And almost everyone I ride with these days is a lot younger - my main roadie buddy is less than 1/2 my age (63 vs 31). I'll be sure to oil my chain first.

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    2. Carbon - the arms race is imbalanced. Maybe the legs race too, but...

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  14. Breathing effort, small regular drinking, good spinning with appropriate cog : these are basic behaviors for endurance cycling.
    In my front bag I have a small liquid maltodextrin pack for endurance: it can be useful if I doubt about a safe return, it can help fueling energy to the body.
    L.

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  15. Last time I was at the point of no return I fell off. Served me right, I was trying to skip a dropped kerb to bypass a red traffic light, I turned the front wheel enough but the back wheel was at too shallow an angle, the bicycle flipped and I landed on my knee. No backup so no rescue; I had to ride all the way home with a busted knee. I was "oot the gemme," as they say over here in Ershur (Ayrshire) for a few weeks. I could still cycle, but only sparingly, and I was losing heart by the day. I even stopped reading your blog, which for me means I was just about lost. I hadn't lost my nerve, just my spirit. I find life difficult, including cycling, so getting back to it was like "once more into the breach, dear friend, once more," although that's how I feel every time I wake up in the morning. When I did get back to it, though, I felt I was flying, I also had some reading to catch up on (of the highest quality, of course!), and I love cycling too much to ever give up on it.

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