As many of my readers and patients know, I am trying to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris, a 1,200-kilometer endurance ride held every 4 years. Although not a race, it is a timed event, and you have to reach all of the checkpoints by a specified time to avoid being disqualified.
Qualifications start this year, as I have to do a full series of endurance rides (called “brevets”): 200k, 300k, 400k and 600k. If I complete all of them successfully, I get to repeat the process next year; and if I complete all of those successfully, I will be able to ride in Paris-Brest-Paris.
So I’m thinking to myself that in a few weeks, I start the brevet series with a nice 200k, and maybe, just maybe, I ought to see if I can do a major chunk of that, like 100 miles. I have been training, though not as diligently as I should.
On Sunday, with no other obligations pending, I took off for a 101-mile loop leaving from Granby CT, going north to Northampton, then looping around through Amherst and Granby MA and eventually back to Granby, CT.
And a beautiful day it was. I passed more cows than you can count, went through beautiful, quaint, New Englandy towns, enjoyed the features of one of my all-time favorite college towns, Amherst, and in general just took pleasure in a fine ride on a beautiful day. The temperature was 72F by 11 a.m. and the few cirrus clouds called it quits by lunchtime.
One of the key tricks to any endurance exercise, whether it is a marathon, a triathlon, or brevet, is managing your fuel and water. You have to constantly plan ahead, because if you wait to drink until you are thirsty, or wait to eat until you are hungry, it is already too late. In addition, the gastrointestinal tract tends to shut down under the stress of endurance exercise, and you may never get hungry. The only way you’ll know that you are out of fuel is when your legs turn to lead and your mood plummets.
There are a lot of complex rules governing your body’s management of glucose, the basic energy molecule, and there are a lot of nuances to controlling blood sugar levels during exercise. But the general rule of thumb is to have some water every 15 minutes and something to eat every 45.
That’s a rule that I generally follow. On Sunday’s trip, I also took a longer stop at mile 63 where I had a “deli delight” lunch — a submarine sandwich, a bag of chips, and some Oreo cookies.
After that, I hopped back on the bike for the final leg of the trip. This was a fun part, because I had finally hit a few hills — more than rollers, but not what I call a hill around my house. I was gratified to see that, although the legs were paining me a bit, I still had the juice to attack the hills, albeit somewhat anemically.
I was taking the perimeter road around Bradley Airport when I realized, at mile 93, that I had the barest shot of breaking 7 hours for a century. For many cyclists, there’s nothing special about a 7-hour century. It’s a good pace, that’s all. But I’m a slow guy, always have been a slow guy and always will be a slow guy. And among the Berkshires and their foothills, I’ve never come close to breaking 7 hours.
So…I take a deep breath and put the hammer down. For the next 7 miles, I sprint absolutely as fast as I can. At parts, I know I’m running at my maximum heart rate, because I was getting the tunnel vision and the eyes-rolling-to-the-back-of your head symptoms that have always happened when I’m doing a maximum heart rate measurement.
As I hit the last half mile, I come to a bend. And I look at the clock, and think to myself, “If this is downhill, I’ve got it made. Uphill, I’m toast.”
I round the bend, and there it is: Uphill. So I let out a yell that would tell God Himself to get out of the way, and put absolutely everything I’ve ever owned into that last half mile. I mean, I ride like Cerebrus’ meaner brother was chasing me.
And through my ever-narrowing vision and feeling like I’m about to pass out, I see the clock tick over to 7 hours at the exact same time the odometer clicks to 100.00
It’s over. I didn’t break 7 hours, but if I realized my opportunity only one hundredth of a mile beforehand, I would have. Still, hitting 7 on the nose is good enough for me. It’s still a personal best, and I’m looking at setting a lot of records for myself this summer.
I slow from a gallop to a walk for the remaining 4 miles to the parking lot, and as I make the final turn the wrong way, I realize something might be wrong. I get back to the truck, park the bike, and take stock. My hands are shaking; I feel very dizzy; and I’m slurring my words like Sean O’Malley on St. Patrick’s Day.
The problem? My blood sugar had plummeted. I react as fast as I am able, by downing a sugary soda and a concentrated sugar paste. It took a good 15 minutes before I was in control of my faculties again.
In any endurance sport, after the first 60-90 minutes, you have used up all of the energy reserves stored as glycogen in your body. From that point on, as I mentioned earlier, you must constantly add fuel, otherwise you will get into trouble — as what nearly happened to me.
While I was balancing energy outflow with intake, my nutrition plan did not take into account that impromptu sprint for the last 7 miles. The massive increase in energy use forced my blood sugar levels to dangerously low levels. And, since the body’s most energy-consumptive organ is the brain, the symptoms are often neurological — thus the befuddled direction-finding, the shaking hands, the slurred speech, even while I was able to maintain muscle activity on the bike.
More and more, I am finding that I can help endurance athletes prepare their bodies for the onslaught of their competitive events by working with their diets beforehand so they can achieve their personal best. Just as any athlete needs a coach for their physical training, a nutrition coach is also a necessity.