Monday, 11 July 2016

Another 600 km Audax completed (and this time the last)

That's it with the longer-distance, multi-day, audaxing.

A finite statement, I know, and there will be people rolling their eyes with a 'never say never' and 'heard that before', but after last weekend, I have absolutely no desire to continue with the longer style audaxing.  However, it definitely feels very 'finished business', which is a real blessing. It's nice to be able to draw a line and say 'been there, done that'.

Why? Well, for a number of reasons. Which I will summarize at the end of this blog.

It had started OK Saturday. Business as usual, the miles ticking off on the relatively benign terrain. There was plenty of time to stop and drink coffee and eat cold cooked white pasta in the sun outside Waitrose.  Then quickly back on the bike, back pushing along tarmac, putting in the base miles between hedges.  A little excitement of off-road cycleroute ended far too quickly, returning me to kilometer-covering, but uneventful, tarmac.

Another scheduled stop at a motorway services (accessible from an A road roundabout) was chaos, bringing out the worst of tired travelers, screaming kids, pushing crowds and impersonal modern society. A bad choice for a stop, and the '2001 A Space Odyssey' feel of the sign doing little to control the feeling that human evolution was going rather backwards.  Still, the food was actually surprisingly good, with humus and salad, tortillas and carrot juice, sat outside on the floor.

The fact this blog details the food stops is of note itself, for the dullness of the tarmac all started to blend into one, and the twee villages with their small shop, playground, and middle class residents did little to excite proceedings. Not that I would have taken any more photos, even if it had been worth stopping, as by the time the boredom hit, I was already on the mission to finish, minimising faffage and 'getting on with it'.

You've got to ask, why did I even bother doing the 600 at all? It's a good question and there were a few reasons. 1) It would finish a short 'base mile building' training cycle off 2) It would complete the SR for the year 3) I would be able to see some of the beautiful Wiltshire plains.

In reality, only reason 3 was worthwhile, and I had a sit down in a grass verge at 250 km just before the climbing started. tired, hungry and just needing a stop. At that point I realised how much I felt like I was wasting a weekend, I could have just driven down and ridden the plains on the mountain bike, along the bridleways, seen the best of the views, arrived at Rafe and Penny's at a reasonable hour for a good catch-up as a human, not a glazed audaxer in need of a bed.

Still, the job was in hand so there was no use in moping about it.

Once back on my feet I continued with the 'get it done' autopilot, consistent, pointless miles churned out. Why the rush? It comes down to sleep, and sleep alone. The more time you spend faffing on a 600, the less sleep you get. Sleep is a lot more valuable than sitting in cafes or taking photos. I also, unfortunately, value it more than spending time chatting to a friendly cyclist who had done nothing more than stop me on a descent to ask about the Alpkit Koala saddlebag. Any other time I would have chatted 'til the cows came home, but being waved down when there was free speed available, to be asked if I was 'bikepacking', was not high on my list of ways to utilise the precious sleep time. So I cut the inquisition short with a 'I'm rather time-pressed', and whizzed off, knowing it was rather unacceptable behaviour really - not rude, but neither friendly, and rather too far removed from my 'best self'

You know though, even with the ride feeling 90% like purgatory, those Wiltshire Plains lifted my soul and were an absolute blessing, as the evening drew in on that first day. Military installations generating interest, agricultural land cheering the soul as the seas of wheat and barley went as far as the eye could see.  There was a few hours where I felt the sense of adventure I spend so much time chasing and it briefly reminded me why I fell in love with Audax.....until I remembered I could have just ridden Wiltshire anyway, without being sleep deprived, and with a rapidly deteriorating stomach lining, ulcerated mouth, and the beginnings of saddle sore.

The sun took quite some time to set, and the daylight clung on until near 10 pm, but eventually I was left in the dark lanes, plodding on relentlessly until the night stop. I tried to resist kilometer counting, but in the end the normal mind games of breaking down remaining mileage into fractions was enough distraction to keep me awake. 

Then I saw the disco-flashing lights of a cyclist waiting at the side of the road. I knew from a distance it must be Rafe. Rafe is a fabulous friend. What an absolute star, he'd come out to meet me late in the evening to ride the last few miles back to his where he had offered me a bed for the overnight stop. It was such a kind gesture, and, in fact, a real blessing for my mis-calculated distance which thought I had just a couple kms to go when in fact it was nearer 12. Rafe is a very good talker, which was great as I was not particularly able to hold decent conversation, but was more than happy to listen as we slowly finished the day.

The highlight of the weekend was arriving at Rafe and Penny's house and being welcomed in, without judgement or expectation. No matter that it was late, or that I was dishelved, there was a clean warm bed to sleep in.

I got a decent night's sleep for a 600, waking up just before the alarm went off and having an hour to eat breakfast and get back on the road for the last 200 or so kilometers. Rafe joined me again for the first section of the ride to Burford and we hit the tarmac at 7, on a relatively quiet Sunday, and made good time whilst appreciating the sunshine and increasing warmth.

Once Rafe split off, the ride started to climb again, with a number of hills through the Cotswolds. Average speed was falling, but there was no struggle for time, with over 16 hours to do just 209 km, even at 'second day' speed, that would be easy. I had no plans to go full value though, getting in at 11:30 pm on Sunday to get up early for work on Monday is not ideal, so I pencilled in a teatime finish.

However, two significant issues started to hit before Stow. Firstly, the normal 'long audax' digestive issues were ramping up, with worsening mouth ulcers, a rock hard and painful stomach refusing to digest anything, and involuntary throwing up all over my top tube bag. It was like a scene from 'The Fly'.  I'm kind of used to that, not that it makes it ok, but I am used to it. Long distance audax-style road riding does absolutely nothing good to my digestion.

But this time there was an even worse issue, an impending bladder infection (cystitis). All the signs were there, bladder pain, constant urge to wee, burning. Urrrrgghhh. I am only too aware of the need to stay hydrated to prevent this, but I wasn't hydrating. It was hot, my stomach was just refusing to digest anything, including water, and I was struggling to force fluids in.

I didn't really want to have an extended stop, as it would just mean it would be longer until I got home and I had, quite frankly, already well surpassed the point of tarmac-tedium. However, I also knew I might not make it home at all if the cystitis progressed quickly, and that I had to take drastic measures. Sitting for a good while might like my stomach un-cramp and help get fluids in too. So I headed into a cafe at Stow and drank not just water, but two large teapots of tea. It was a lot of liquid, but it worked a treat. Not instantly, but within an hour my bladder was flushing and I was hydrated.

Then I grumped and moaned into (what felt like) a constant headwind for the 120 km home. Of course I could have bailed, I mean, why bother if I wasn't enjoying it? There is a very good reason. If I had bailed there was a danger I may have been left with 'unfinished business', wondering whether I hadn't completed it because I wasn't fit enough/capable any more. Then there would be the danger of having to do it again to prove to myself I could. Sod that. I'd rather just get it done and dusted. Line drawn.

So why draw that line?

1) The challenge has gone. I know I can do the distance in the time limit, even on much harder routes than this one.
2) It totally messes up my body, especially my digestion, and does nothing in training terms. In fact I'd say anything over 300 km is more damaging than 'training'. What exactly is the point of riding until sleep deprived once you have done it a few times to prove you can? So many studies show that sleep deprivation is significantly harmful to the body systems and life expectancy.  For me, I can't see how the risks of physiological damage are outweighed by the audaxing.  It's not a race, it's not competitive, I am only audaxing for myself.  So, for me personally, I could do 3 x 200 km audaxes over three days and really enjoy every one of them, have a damn good night's sleep every night and not put myself under sleep deprivation stress.
3) I have better things to do than ride a bike on tarmac until I am too tired to appreciate either the riding or the scenery.
4) I love my road bike, and road riding, but only in epic locations. Chore like trundling on Midlands tarmac is really not my thing, I'd rather be finding urban trails on the mountain bike.

This is not a criticism of others who do get something out of the long distance audaxing at all. I think it is great that people are inspired to push themselves if that is what they chose to do, especially if they really enjoy it and benefit.

And...of course, by never, I mean never until something comes along that inspires me beyond the norm. It would have to be a very special reason though, and currently I am struggling to imagine one that would make it worthwhile.