Almost any track runner will tell you (and I’ve been told it is similar for rowing and other sports) that the third lap in a one mile race is the hardest. The first lap feeds off the adrenaline of the start; in the second lap there is still plenty of energy to “stick to plan”. The third lap is the grind. Maybe self-doubt kicks in; maybe self-pity. You start to assess the other runners — are they pulling away (stronger than me) or do they seem to be tiring? Then the fourth (bell lap) starts. You know the end is coming. Pain, if anything, is higher than the third lap, but it becomes more tolerable. You recommit to the original goal, or maybe set an objective based on another runner. You find a reserve of energy. You kick.
When I started the trip, I thought the hardest segment by far was going to be the Rocky Mountains. It turns out it was the easiest of the five segments we have done. I underestimated the first segment, which involved a climb over the Sierra Nevada mountains to Salt Lake City. I did not have the cardiovascular fitness for the Sierras (which were higher than I thought) and my bike was not geared for the five hour climbs. The long desert days into headwinds were real tests of stamina. The third segment, from Pueblo Colorado to St. Josephs Missouri, was moderately high heat and headwinds on several days. From St. Josephs Missouri to Indianapolis we tackled high heat and the rolling hills of Missouri. From Indianapolis to Buffalo NY (segment 5) we averaged close to 100 miles a day — sometimes on the bike 8-9 hours a day. If I go back to a phrase made famous by Donald Rumsfeld, there were known knowns (52 day trip, 3850 miles), known unknowns (could I handle the mountains; would there be rain?) and unknown unknowns. The obstacles were more varied then just distance, climbing and precipitation — the inverse of the “perfect ride” is all of the challenges that can crop up that physically and mentally you have to overcome — often without preparation.
Maybe this is a very obvious reflection, but as you set big goals — maybe achieving something important at work, getting to a single digit golf handicap, losing 20% of your body weight or even riding your bicycle across America, it is not just critical to break the achievement process into phases but to recognize the unique challenges of each phase. In addition, we often put our greatest mental energy into the first phase, when in fact the greatest obstacles are probably in the third lap — when commitment wavers, stamina is under threat, the pain is greatest and re-basing the goal might appear to be a desirable option.
Although it is a risk, I do draw a number of parallels between what I have learned undertaking what is primarily a physical challenge to my more traditional world of work challenges. There is no doubt I am fitter, but most of the time it does not feel that way — without significant rest periods, I feel my muscles are more “broken down” versus “built up.” I start out each day needing almost 10 miles to warm up (and this is after my 35 minutes of stretching). This is in sharp contrast to the training schedule my coach drew up, which alternated 1-2 days of intense workout with a day of measured exercise or rest. I felt I grew stronger, faster with these training periods of alternating intensity versus grinding towards near exhaustion. I have no doubt that even mentally demanding tasks require periods of rest and recovery to maintain concentration and an ability to be innovative.
Secondly, people like me who like to plan extensively are often very prepared for “known knowns” but get thrown off by “unknown unknowns.” The preparation is important, but the building of mental and physical reserves to deal with unexpected challenges is equally important.
A third overlap is with the importance of routines. I found the first few days were a bit more stressful because I was always afraid I would forget something — suntan lotion, energy bars, leaving something behind in the room. While we have the luxury of staying in hotels, every morning still involves stretching, prepping the bike, getting nutrition (food and liquids) for the day sorted, packing up all of the gear and gadgets and maintenance supplies and pills and lotions and dirty laundry. I learned that I had to wake up exactly 2 hours before the stated departure time; if I tried to cut it to 1:45 I felt rushed and might not have enough time to pump up my tires before leaving. Routines help us to get all of the critical activities done without using a lot of brainpower; I think they also give us the discipline to do the things “we know we should do but we sometimes really don’t want to.” For example, every person I know who exercises 5-6 days a week does so in the morning; it seems impossible to stick to routines if they involve exercising after work (unless you have a 9-5 job).
The fourth overlap I am having trouble describing, but it is that high performing groups that are either individually or collectively seeking to achieve an important mission form “bubbles” — behavioral norms, shared routines, decision-making processes — that both promote achievement but to a certain extent help maintain concentration and commitment by removing alternative or competing demands on your attention. In a led / supported ride like Bicycle Across America I don’t have to think about what city to get to every evening, where to stay, what I am going to eat during the ride (if the SAG wagons are frequent enough) or even whether a broken spoke is going to be a catastrophic event. There is safety in the group. On the other hand, it is easy to then insulate yourself from the broader world, with competing information, opportunities and threats.
The danger of course is that these bubbles insulate us from the broader world, and the vast range of new ideas, alternative points of view, etc. As we know, one major impact of social media and highly focused news media is that they allow individuals and communities to never venture outside their preferred way of thinking. As an aside, I have been one of the few riders to “leave the bubble” every few days — visiting with my sister, the Stringhams, the Stringers, my friend Mark Koulogeorge, my parents, my old cycling buddies in Indianapolis. I think they all felt I was a bit distracted when I met with them — I could not completely leave the bubble.
One of the biggest divides in the US is over gun safety. Some of you know that one reason I relocated to Singapore in 1993 was that in 1992 a very angry ex-serviceman came in and killed two human resources personnel in a client I was working with — they were administering the layoffs that the work I had led indicated were necessary http://articles.latimes.com/1992-01-25/news/mn-537_1_general-dynamics. I had received two death threats while working in this unionized facility — I had taken them seriously enough that I only went out on the plant floor under escort. But not seriously enough that I thought somebody would be killed.
Countless rational Americans have laid out the case for reducing gun violence (e.g. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/15/us/6-stories-and-charts-to-help-you-better-understand-gun-violence.html or https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/23/opinion/texas-shooting-guns.html). One major challenge is that the US constitution does protect a citizen’s right to own a gun. Yet we have gone to countless convenience stores or delis or small restaurants where posters/placards/bumper stickers etc. all shrilly declare not just the right but the necessity to own guns “to protect your family.”
Will Trump be reelected? I’ll say it here — he has a very strong chance. I didn’t want to think that before I started the trip. But it is clear that many Americans believe Trump is the first President in a long time to “fight for their interests.” Like any populist, he can point to real problems or inequities. EU tariffs on cars are 10%; US is 2.5% https://global.handelsblatt.com/politics/trump-may-point-eu-tariffs-ifo-says-899083 Americans who have seen major losses in jobs in their steel and automotive industry are livid that past American presidents have accepted this outcome. There are a lot of illegal immigrants into the US — Singapore and Japan would never accept this outcome; why should the US? Europe has relied on heavy US defense spending to protect them from threats from Russia, and meanwhile increased their dependence on Russia by buying more and more of their natural gas from this low cost source. Legitimate grievances, populist responses.
Don’t for a moment believe I would support Trump. But I’m trying to get outside of my bubble and understand why he has so much support. And I am starting to get it.
We have 7 riding days to go. One week. Hard to believe. I’m in the fourth lap.
Day 40 ride summary (Richmond, IN to Marysville, OH). 106 miles, 2269 feet of climbing. Long hard day. Steady headwinds, not too strong. Riding with a new group — Stacy, Dianne and John (Stacy and Diane joined us in Indianapolis; they had previously ridden from SF to Pueblo). We just ran out of gas at the end — I had my first “gel” — a mixture of calories, amino acids, caffeine and electrolytes. It gives you a lift for about 10 miles, and then you need another one. Road quality was excellent — best of the trip.
Day 41 ride summary (Marysville, OH to Wooster, OH). 103 miles, 4583 feet of climbing. Another tough day. Winds were a bit lower, but some of the climbing grades were very steep — 10-12%. We tried a new tactic of stopping for coffee after 24 miles and for some food / rest between the SAGs. No need for gels; finished with some energy in the tank. Very beautiful country.
Day 42 ride summary ( Wooster, OH to Youngstown, OH). 88.7 miles, 2968 feet of climbing. Road quality and affluence seems to decline as we go from the agricultural west to the beginnings of the “rust belt.”
Day 43 ride summary (Youngstown, OH to Erie, PA). 92.7 miles, 1912 feet of climbing. Starting to get a bit easier, although 92+ miles is never “easy.” Wind is neutral to slightly favorable; hot at 89-90 degrees, but not 100 degrees. Less climbing — we had one 40 mile stretch that was on a nice road, almost perfectly flat, and no towns.
Day 44 ride summary (Erie, PA to Buffalo NY). 94.7 miles, 1994 feet of climbing. Beautiful ride along Lake Erie and all of the grape vineyards that contribute to the Welch’s grape juice franchise. Wind was definitely “at our back” — probably the third day of serious tailwind the whole trip. Buffalo itself is a great example of a rust belt city — several massive grain elevators built to store grain brought by ship across the Great lakes which are now rusting, falling down, never to be used again. A huge integrated steel mill that had no smoke. Mile after mile of failed industrial sites. A downtown with excellent planning and attempts at rejuvenation that seems to have no people in it after 5 pm.
Day 45 rest day!