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Anatomy of a failure

My 73-mile training ride on Saturday was a failure. But I finished the entire ride, I did so at a very respectable pace, and nothing truly bad happened along the way. So why do I say this? Because I yet again finished the ride in a most foul mood, disliking just about everything and everyone. This happens to me far more often than I'd like, so here's a self-centered attempt to look at what's happening and what can be done about it.

Because ALC is a challenge for both the body and the mind, your mental training is every bit as important as your physical training. And while everyone's situation and circumstances are different, perhaps my experience might be helpful to you.

Let's look at some of the things that led to my grumpy finish on Saturday:

I started the day grumpy. It just happens. I had been traveling for much of the previous week, and I was running a serious sleep deficit because of that. And I didn't get nearly enough sleep the night before the ride. (That can happen all too easily during the event in June.) On my 5-mile drive to the meeting point, I encountered just enough rude and stupid drivers that I could feel my stress level rising even before I got to the ride.

The event was running late. I waited around for an hour before I actually started riding. By then, I was antsy and too impatient ... I was the first rider out. It wasn't like I had to be anywhere else; I simply didn't want to stand around in the chilly breeze anymore and listen to the safety speech for the 793rd time. (Yes, I know that we have to.)

I didn't have a good breakfast. Another guaranteed way to start the day wrong. Sure, I had something (about 200 calories worth), mostly because I knew I'd been overeating while on vacation. But that's no excuse! By the first rest stop, I was already eating my "emergency" Sport Beans.

The route was, um, interesting. Different training groups often have different ways that they like to ride, and one isn't necessarily better or worse than another. But the scheduled route took us through parts of San Jose that I generally avoid, either by myself or in a group. The combination of very heavy traffic (many of whom seemed to share their particular bad taste in music very loudly at every stoplight) and a lack of safe places to stop for food contributed to a sense of frustration that mounted during the second half of the ride.

The route sheet was, um, interesting. Again, take five training groups, and you'll find at least five different approaches to route sheets. This particular route sheet had a few directions that were not spelled out very well for people who weren't familiar with the route. (And that was one of the reasons I did this ride: It actually went to some places I'd never seen before, which is increasingly rare.) But any failures related to the route sheet were entirely my fault. The route was published online days before the ride, and I should have taken more care to fully understand the route on my own. In fact, I'd even done so at one particularly confusing part of the route, where the directions were to take a "road" that was actually a gated path. Many riders missed this turn, but not me.

Not enough food during the ride. The scheduled route had no food stop for the last 34 miles. And because of the sketchy part of town (and because I was riding alone), I didn't feel safe stopping anywhere that I would need to leave my bike unattended. Around mile 60 I finally found a city park where, at least, I was able to stop and eat the last of my "emergency" food. This got me to the end of the day, but I wasn't very happy about it. Again, however, that this was entirely my fault. As soon as I saw the route sheet in the morning, I should have realized the food situation, and at midday I could have been certain to obtain extra food to bring along and eat later. I failed to do that.

I went faster than I should have. I maintained a fairly aggressive pace for the entire first half of the ride, helped in part by favorable winds. But I also allowed my inner competitive self to seize control, and that's one of the worst things you can do to yourself in ALC -- which is, as we're fond of reminding you, a ride and not a race. When I saw another rider come up behind me in the first few miles, I got even faster. Then I left the first rest stop on my own, and that was the last time I saw another rider until lunch ... and that was only because those other riders had missed a turn along the route. And I started having a most unhealthy thought: I "had" to stay in front, or else I wouldn't be "good enough" for me. That's exceedingly dangerous thinking, but it's the type of thinking that can take root when one's day is not going well and nutrition is somewhat lacking. My level of fitness suggests a certain riding pace, and I've been exceeding that pace far too much lately. That's fine for 15 or 20 miles, but not for more than 70 ... and certainly not for seven days in a row.

The headwinds got me down. At the halfway point, the helpful tailwinds of the morning became the annoying headwinds of the afternoon. For miles and miles. And there's not a damn thing I can do about them, in any situation. They're there, and they have to be accepted and dealt with. But I still let them get to me.

With all this other crap going on, my mind wandered into bad places. Why am I doing this? Can't I just get on a bus? Should I even bother with another ride tomorrow? Everyone knows I can do this, so why do I have to do it again? Can't I just go off-route and take a less scary way back? (I did go off-route at one point, although it was a subconscious choice at best. Turns out that doing so helped me miss one of the most sketchy parts of the route.) I was reminded yet again that these toxic thoughts lurk inside me, they're just waiting for the right moment to spew forth, and a bad day can do just that. That's why it's so important for me to keep the external factors as problem-free as possible.

As I rolled in to the finish, I knew I was grumpy, which at least was the beginning of dealing with it. Rather than just throw the bike into the vehicle and drive home to stew in solitude, I stayed at the finish for another two hours, eating, drinking, and welcoming back the next several riders. And I soon discovered that I'd made the right call: At one point while standing in the parking lot, I became unusually light-headed, so I sat in the vehicle for a couple of minutes and then promptly went into Starbucks for a bottle of orange juice.

The bottom line was that I didn't go home grumpy, which was a vast improvement over my condition just two hours prior. And while I've certainly been able to identify a whole boatload of ways in which the day went wrong for me, it's not the first time that it's happened. Fortunately for me, my rides during ALCs in June usually don't leave me grumpy; the adrenaline and goodwill of the event manage to keep me in mostly high spirits. (Well, except for those riders who passed me on the right on a freeway because I wasn't fast enough for you ... you know who you are.)

You probably could ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles without feeling happy about it, but that wouldn't be any fun at all ... and it might even be hazardous to the other riders around you, not to mention to your own health and safety. Even on the most challenging training rides, if you're finishing grumpy, take a few minutes to explore the reasons why. Doing so might offer some interesting insight into how you can make your seven days in June the best days possible.