Figuring Out the 400K Brevet

DC Randonneurs 400K-Matt

After rolling into the finish of the D.C. Randonneurs Northern Exposure 400K, I heard myself enthusiastically discuss our ride and revel in the adventure shared by Felkerino, Matt, and me over the last 20 hours and change of riding.

Incredible valley vistas and invigorating climbs! The cutest dog chasing us! A sublime night ride! Clouds clearing and a glowing crescent moon guiding us home! Roads so quiet you could hear peepers sing to you and creek waters whisper encouragement! A giant shooting star! The best mocha I ever had… at mile 230… from McDonald’s!

This fluffy dog wanted to join us.
This fluffy dog wanted to join us.

Who was this person, another part of my brain wondered. What’s with all the exclamations about this great ride? Doesn’t she know that much of her day was spent with an undercurrent of worry and an almost obsessive urge to press forward?

How quickly I had forgotten the 4 a.m. start. Curbside convenience store dining. The extended climbs fatiguing my legs. Fretting over a lurking mechanical that ended up being a loose pedal. The annoying rain showers that passed through (but fortunately didn’t stick around). My longing look into one of the country houses we passed during our night ride as I wished I could be watching television on the sofa with whoever lived there.

I spent more miles of our brevet than I want to confess feeling like I was in the middle of nowhere getting nowhere slowly, and contemplating what I had concluded was the purposeless journey of the randonneur– ride 248 miles from X spot just to return to X spot.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To get away from the randonneurs and get to the other side!
A: To get away from the randonneurs and get to the other side!

As we rolled along I wondered what the story of this ride was. What was the thread holding these 248 miles together? After the halfway point, I realized you can’t make a story happen and often there is no one thread, especially on a ride of that length. Better to relax, engage, and pedal.

While we do eventually end up in the same place we started, the journey of the randonneur is not a purposeless one. It’s a personal challenge where all the nerves, the infrequent sublime moments, goofy convenience store stops, the physical discomforts, and unchained dog encounters sew together to form a patchwork. That patchwork is the story.

The story of a ride can be vignettes of ride happenings or moments that are primarily sensory and make little sense to anyone but the people with whom you experienced them. It’s each of these patchwork pieces that makes a ride worth doing.

Taking pictures of people taking pictures on the 400K.
Taking pictures of people taking pictures on the 400K.

The me who finished the ride thought this year’s 400K was one of the best adventures she’d had in a while. It wasn’t just because of the delicious McDonald’s mocha, either. The company was easy, my fitness solid, weather was close to ideal for riding, and (with the exception of our loose pedal) the bike rode seamlessly.

Photos I took reveal a vivid patchwork of a day spent spinning and clawing our way through big vista country in Maryland and Pennsylvania. If only I could have put my apprehensions to rest earlier in the ride.

Don't stress about this ride, Mary. See how awesome life is?
Don’t stress about this ride, Mary. See how awesome life is?

I’ve said before that one of the appealing aspects of long rides is they can be like living two days in one. That is frequently the case on rides of 400K and longer.

But living two days in one is also slightly overwhelming because not only is it a big physical effort, but its sheer duration is hard for my mind to capture and process.

There’s a mental trick to the 400K brevet that I have not quite figured out, even though this was my eighth time riding one. I’m still finding a way to deconstruct the 400K into manageable pieces and embrace it as it happens without looking too far ahead and still urging myself along.

I’m still learning to be patient as the ride’s story unfolds, and to respect the distance without letting my fear of it overwhelm me.

20 thoughts on “Figuring Out the 400K Brevet”

  1. Your thoughts remind me of my bike tour to Indiana. The first day all I did was worry about all the bad things that could happen. It was making me miserable. I had to tell myself to let it go and just ride. I had prepared my body, my bike,and my load of stuff, the rest was up to the fates. From that point on, even with two serious mechanical problems, I had a blast. Like the song says, “Let it roll.”

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  2. The mental aspect hits me ALWAYS at 80-100 miles. It wrecks my spirit. I’ve found concentrating a little on my pace opposed to “just enjoying the ride” helps ME. Also, finishing under 20 hours helps tremendously as I don’t have to fight the sleepies while pedaling – which leaves me with a negative experience at the end of the ride.

    No dog chasing a bike is cute.

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    1. Yes, I told Ed that I like to arrive at the finish at an hour I consider somewhat “normal” in my everyday life, which is why I also find it difficult to just pedal along. Sometimes that isn’t possible, but it’s such a good goal.

      Interesting that the mental wall hits you at 80-100. For me, it varies, and is generally later in the ride on a 400K.

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  3. I’m not sure if riding a 400k would be harder because finding the time would be near impossible or because the sheer number of miles and time spent riding. I think the latter, by far. It’s pretty impressive to keep your mind going for that long and to get up from all of the stops. I took a break at 20 miles yesterday, mostly to enjoy the morning, and it took a few minutes to get my legs back. I couldn’t imagine getting my legs back the 7 or 8th (or more) time in a day.

    BTW it’s great that you are getting generator power for your tandem.

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    1. Yes, it’s sort of in two parts: figuring out you can do the ride and prepping for that; and the actual execution of the ride. I did tell Ed at various points in the last 80 miles or so that my legs had lost their pop. The only popping going on was when I could pop off the bike and stretch!

      We’re excited about the generator hub. It’s remarkable how far these lights have come in recent years, especially in terms of brightness.

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  4. Great story – I struggled mentally on this ride even though physically I was ready. Last month’s Fleche, and last weekend’s 400 were both firsts for me. I think that I may have underestimated the importance of mental preps. Interestingly, the “slump” happened on both rides and coincided with Sunset. By the time it was completely dark, I was fine again. I thought it might be attributable to my inexperience at these distances but it seems that even you vets struggle occasionally. Thanks for sharing your story.

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    1. Thanks for reading and congratulations on both of your recent rides! I wondered how those who did both the fleche and the 400K would be feeling. That is a tight turnaround!

      I expected to struggle when sunset arrived, as I usually do, but on Saturday it came earlier and I actually found myself welcoming sunset. That is another reason I keep coming back to these long rides… it’s not always known how the body will respond at various points in the ride, no matter how many times you’ve done them.

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  5. “Better to relax, engage, and pedal.”

    I love this! I haven’t come close to even the 200K distance yet but I love following your adventures. I don’t think you’ll regret the dyno lighting option… not that battery light doesn’t work perfectly well but I love the instant ‘on’ and ‘off’ to rolling out with my dyno hub and B&M light.

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  6. “The best mocha I ever had… at mile 230… from McDonald’s!”
    ha ha ha…good one!
    you and ed really are bad ass…

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  7. You’ve captured perfectly that bizarre state of mind that it seems that only randonneuring brings to its fullest expression: “that ride sucked/it was awesome!” As this was my first 400 I had no idea what to expect, and now I think my brain and body are both desperately trying to forget. Maybe the secret to going long in randonneuring is to treat it like childbirth? Anyway, great post.

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    1. Yes, it is strange to feel that duality about a ride. And I find that the 400K is on a different than a 300K, even though it’s “only” 100K longer.

      Hope to see you on the 600K!

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