Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Thirteen Minutes

I mentioned in an entry not long after I got back from France that I had finished PBP 13 minutes outside the time limit. I said I’d post about it later. That would be now. This really does not do the subject justice but it might give you some idea. I recently got a note from a friend who DNF’ed at Dreux, the last control on the event. His description of what he can remember of the situation is perfectly understandable to me. I suspect anyone else reading it might not get the same sense if they have not ridden one of these things. Really, this is one of those situations where ‘you had to be there’ to fully appreciate the details. So here goes:

How do you ride a bike 12oo plus kilometers, knowing you have to be back to the start/finish point in 90 hours or less and wind up checking in 13 minutes late? In an event so important that you have been planning it for four years, how in the world can you make a 13 minute goof that is the difference between qualifying for a medal and, well, finishing outside the time limit? How did I become the person who has to explain this? I was going to say how did this happen to me, but in fact it didn’t happen to me, I was in control.

This is not like Billy Buckers’ famous flubbed grounder between the wickets in the '86 World Series. In that instance a ball was hit, you never know if it will or won’t be hit, and if so, where it will go. It’s not like Buckner knew, 90 hours earlier that at that precise moment, at that exact location, a soft liner would be hit directly to him and he would be able to position himself perfectly for the play.

In my case, I knew, the moment that rocket soared into the air as the third wave of 90 hour riders was released for the start that I needed to be back there no later then 1610 on August 24th to qualify for my medal. Why then did I clock in to the finish at 1623? I can explain this but it probably won’t make a lot of sense to any one who has not ridden this event, or any 1200K Randonee for that matter.

First, let me say that by most accounts it was a pretty hard event. PBP is never easy, but this year (2007) the weather made it a bit more challenging. There was a lot of rain, and at times some pretty serious rain. And wind. There was wind almost constantly. Sometimes favorable but mostly cross winds or head winds. These conditions conspired to both slow riders and to make the riding harder. When you are slower the first thing to go is sleep time, and that makes you even more exhausted. The slower you go, the less sleep you get, and thus the more tired you are, and thus, the slower you go. It’s a vicious cycle, a compounding problem, a real pain in the ass. This all came about towards the end of the event. I was bleeding time through most of the ride but of course it only comes to account towards the end.

As it happened I was in pretty good shape time wise when I got into Mortagne au Perche (1082 K), the night before the finish. I arrived there at 5:40 AM. This gave me just less than 12 hours to ride the next two stages, a total of 145 kilometers (about 90 miles). OK, quick, do the math and you see that gee, all he has to do is get on the bike and roll along at about 8 miles an hour and he’s home free. So yeah, how does that happen?

I took a nap and left Mortagne a little after 6:00 am. I rode into Dreux about 11 am. This gave me about 5 hours to ride the remaining 71 K (about 44 miles). Still imminently doable.

Let me tell you a little of what happed between Mortagne, and Dreux, it might help provide some context for what follows. I’m not saying this will make it all understandable, but perhaps it will at least give you some idea.

Between Mortagne and Dreux there are some serious ups and downs. The descents are real monsters, and that section starts with a couple of these long steep descents. It’s really kind of nice because at that point you have over 1000 kilometers in your legs, you’ve bee riding for almost 80 hours and of that time you have only slept about 6 or 7 hours. Dog tired, really sleepy, and the legs just feel fried. Much better to start out going down than up.

But then the ups come, and they are pretty challenging. On this stretch one of my ride partners had a ride ending bicycle failure. It looked like his ride was over though he ultimately made it. You can seem my blog post about The Three Brothers for more detail. The net effect of this happenstance was a real emotional hand grenade for me. In this state of extreme exhaustion it is easy to have dramatic mood swings and those can have an enormous effect on your rational thought processes.

As I rode away from my friend I immediately had a huge emotional let down. I was aware that I personally was in no way impacted but it is sort of like seeing a good friend shot and then having to move on to catch your one and only flight off the penal colony. You know you only have one chance to catch that plane and if you don’t get going, you’ll miss it. Right away I was faced with a big climb. It was actually a good thing because it forced me to focus all my effort on making the bike go up the hill. Remember? 1000K in the legs, 6 hours of sleep, and still a hundred miles to go with the clock ticking. It was really a beautiful setting and if I had been in better mental shape I am sure I would have appreciated it more.

But as it was I had to blank almost every thing out of my mind except the notion that I just had to get over the next climb, knowing I would likely face another climb, and another. All the while the clock is ticking off the minutes. In this state I got separated from my riding partners. No problem, just climb, and on the descents I’ll figure how far how, fast etc.

On one of the subsequent descents I calculated that I had somehow lost a ton of time and in order to finish within the time limit I was going to have to FLY! Somehow I had it in my mind that I needed to average 15 MPH to finish. On a normal day this is no big problem, but in my current state, it meant that I would have to be riding at my limits for 4 hours or so. Mathematically possible, physiologically, improbable. I did the math again; it came up the same. And again, and again.

I panicked. I could not see how I could pull this off. I knew that if I cranked it up I’d probably bonk or blow long before I got to Dreux. On the other hand, I knew that if I parsed out my energy, I would certainly finish outside the time limit.

I elected to go for broke. I figured this way I had a chance, poking along would only assure failure. Please note: in your current rational state, sitting at your dope scope reading this you are surely thinking, “why didn’t he just recheck his calculations and figure out that he was mixing kilometers and miles or whatever the problem was!” This is truly one of those situations where you had to be there to understand. I have heard other riders describe their addled states in this or similar situations, and I know that some of you are saying; “yeah, I know exactly what you mean!’ It’s no comfort by the way to know that others have been there and can relate.

At any rate, I pushed and pushed and pushed. It did not help that I got into a stretch of the ride where there were VERY FEW other riders around me. The few riders I saw were passing me, I wasn’t passing anyone. It gave me the impression that indeed I was close to the very last person in this 5,000 plus death march. CRAP! How had I let this happen?!

I got onto the flats and here, rolling across dead flat farm land you can see the little Bergs for miles. I was terribly frustrated in that, as I scanned the farmland (reminded me a lot of the Skagit flats) I could see no village. We made a couple sharp turns into what looked like villages but no, on we rode. Unfortunately my computer had rolled over to zeros so I had no odometer to guide me. I hooked on with a group that was motoring along pretty well, a little faster than I could maintain but I tried. I was really pushing to hang with them but I gradually slid off the back. I’d redline to get back on with them and then slowly drift back. If you’ve done this you know it is hopeless, but in this case I could see no other alternative. The one good thing is that when you ride fast you loose the sleepy feeling. I came upon a group of very young riders, kids who were in some sort of supervised group. They were good riders but the adult supes had them pull off to get out of my way. It was bittersweet, I appreciated the respect they were extending me but I would have gladly joined them to pace me in.

Anyway I stuck with the fast group of 6 or 8 riders. At some of the turns and intersections there were control workers out waving us through the traffic and pointing us on toward the control. Normally I would have appreciated this but in my semi-delirious state I felt that this was probably just a pathetic attempt to assure that the old American had no reason to bitch about not finishing the event. (see how these conditions warp your mind?)

I imagined what Dreux would look like: A control nearly devoid of riders, a few who had given up lying forlornly about perhaps, maybe a small group of skinny Italians slamming down their last doppios before they head out in double pace line for the 40 mile sprint to the finish. Someone would be sweeping up, not willing to look at the obviously out of time old American. At the time station they would swipe my card and wish me luck, knowing that I had something like 30 minutes to cover the next 40 miles.

Imagine my surprise and confusion as I rolled into Dreux and found it very much like a typical control. Jammed with riders, most looking like they were happy in the knowledge that this thing was in the bag. I was confused!

I decided that my strategy would be to race to the time station, get my card swiped, buy two cokes and a pastry and then race to the finish.

I got my card swiped and then went to the cafeteria. There I saw Ray and said “RAY!! What are you doing?!?” He immediately looked a little concerned and said “What? I’m eating breakfast?” My voice broke as I said “We gotta get outta here, we’re not going to make it!!” He looked confused and concerned. “Kevin” he called, “Come over here, Paul says we’re in trouble?” Kevin wandered over and told me to calm down; he said that we had plenty of time. “If we leave here in a few minutes all we have to do is ride about 40 miles at 9 or 10 miles an hour and we’re home free”. I was dazed and confused but did not bother to do the math. My mind told me one thing but the reality that surrounded me said something completely different. I was wearing my jacket, helmet, head happening, long fingered gloves, and booties. I was dripping sweat. I ‘m sure I must have looked questionable to finish. I decided to trust these guys and strip down before heading out, it was a pretty nice day for a change and I knew I would need to take some clothes off before the finish anyway.

We rolled out about 10 minutes later. I was convinced that all was not lost though I still had my guard up: I knew I was not home, I knew I had to ride this thing to the finish. As we rolled out the adrenaline rush subsided and I was coming back to something like a normal, exhausted mind set. For a few miles I was fine, but I was not able to hang with Kevin and his posse. I was caught in a bit of head wind, but I told myself “don’t freak out, you’ve been in this situation before, just ride your pace and you’ll make it. “

I did this for an hour or so and it seemed to be working. I rode a bit with John E which was great for me, He talked to me and that helped wake me up a lot. He was also an 80 hour rider so he was coveing the course a lot faster than I but I was keeping up pretty well while we talked. I’m sure he had slowed considerably to ride with me but I definitely was going fast …for me. After a bit he motored off. I found myself plodding again. I’d periodically rev up and then loose my sense of the situation and find myself again plugging along. It rained; I stopped to put on my coat. It stopped; I stopped to take it off. Any excuse to stop. Leaving the farmland and entering the Rambouillet Forest, exhaustion overtook me and I began to fall asleep on the bike. I would find myself jerking into wakefulness as I started to ride off the road. I was exhausted and in hind sight, I can see that I was bonking as well as falling asleep.

At some point I looked at my watch and realized that 2 and a half hours had elapsed and if I didn’t find some way to kick it into gear it would be 6:00pm before I finished! I elected to take a caffeine pill. Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier? Within 10 minutes I was waking up, a little jittery but alert enough to crank it up. I went by control workers who were waving us through a roundabout handing out food. I grabbed a banana and a couple Madeleines. This helped a lot. Now I was into familiar urban streets ……with lots of street lights! Shit! I hooked up with a young Frenchman who also seemed to be in a hurry. We rode together and leap frogged as we made or missed the lights. At one point I sped ahead and made a light he missed. I just kept on going hard and fast, I couldn’t be bothered to wait for him and anyway I figured he’d probably catch me. Three lights later he did. He was shouting hoarsely at me from half a block back. He knew my name from the name tag on my seat rack. I stopped and it took a moment for me to realize that he was telling me I had missed a turn! The guy had actually chased me down, jeopardizing his own ride in an attempt to save mine! That’s how PBP is. I was trembling now with the exhaustion and caffeine but even so, when I caught back up to him I thanked him profusely as best I could in French as we rode back to the last roundabout where I had missed a left turn. We rode in together and both cursed the absurd re-routing to the finish.

When I came in I immediately raced into the gymnase only to find……… a long line! Actually a number of long lines. I waited in the line for perhaps 25 minutes before I got my time: 4:23. I thought I had until 4:30 so figured I came in with a about 7 minutes to spare. At last, Friday afternoon, I was in, the ride was over, what a relief.

It was not until Monday morning, back home at my computer that I realized that in fact my finish time was not really 4:30 but 4:10. Instead of finishing with 7 minutes in hand I had actually finished 13 minutes outside the time limit! I was at once crushed and disoriented. Finishing this thing is big. As you ride it you use yourself up, as you become more exhausted and more disoriented, it actually takes on bigger proportions. It’s not really a life altering event, but it sort of takes on that cachet. You just get totally wrapped up in the moment. After all, for some it is the culmination of four years of planning, preparation, the expenditure of lots of time, money, energy, you name it. It becomes Mt Everest, and you become obsessed with getting to the top, and back, alive.

But really, it’s a bicycle event. Not even a race, just a bike event. After considerable sole searching, a good cry and a fair amount of recovery napping I am at peace with my ride.

I wrote a letter to ACP explaining that there were several circumstances that might be justification for additional time:

  • My card was stamped with a start time of 10:10, our wave actually did not roll out until 10:20.
  • On Thursday I stopped and helped a rider who crashed in front of me. He was taken away in an ambulance but I stayed with him till the ambulance came which cost me about another half hour, and
  • There was the wait in the finish line.

I got a nice response from ACP saying my case would be considered in September. I can’t ask for more than that. I’d love to have the medal, it is important to me, I already have a shadow box frame set up with my other medals for this four year period (they change the design of the medals every 4 years) and there’s a place in the middle for that big 'ole PBP medal.

But as I said, if I don’t get it I am still at peace with my ride. I had it there in my grasp but then I let it slip through my fingers, just like that 25 pound fall Chinook I caught and landed on the Calawah years ago: it wriggled free of my grasp when I unhooked it and flipped back into the river.

Well there you have it, that’s how such a thing comes to pass. No tales of selfless sacrifice or heroism. More like Don Quixote rides PBP.


  1. Amazing account. And I for one as a rookie randonneur (1 200k, 5 centuries) have had my moments where the mind is goofy, and I stop making logical decisions.

    2008: a 300k!

    Jim Rudnicki
    Layton, UT.
    Very much enjoy your blog

  2. Ouch Paul, what a heartbreaker. Sending good vibes your way that the powers that be will grant you an official finish. In any case - well done and thanks for sharing your story. Amy Pieper