My first DNF (Ft Bragg 600k)

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It's been six years since my first ride with The San Francisco Randonneurs and four years since my first 200k. I've ridden 18 rides that are at least that distance since then (3x 300k, 2x 400k, 1x 600x), completing my first Super Randonneur Series (2-, 3-, 4-, and 600k in one year) last year after not riding much the year before that. And this weekend I had my first DNF result on the Fort Bragg 600k. I Did Not Finish.

The best response to my choice of abandoning the ride to enjoy the campground came from Peter Curley, who said "That was a very mature decision." A clear departure from typical randonneuring stubbornness and refusal to give up, I celebrated my decision to quit as a victory when I arrived at the campground and made my announcement to the volunteers. I think I was so energetic about it that they did not believe me. I was being kind to myself, to my body, and at peace with the decision by the time I rolled in.

I ride for myself. I ride because it feels good. I ride to challenge my body, to be alone: just my thoughts, my legs, and the road. This weekend, my legs felt strong. Stronger than they did a year ago when I finished the ride. But my objective was different. Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1200 kilometer ride across France which must be completed in under 90 hours that runs once every four years. I have been telling anyone who would listen once they found out about my cycling proclivity about how it is my intent to ride PBP this year for the last two years. That was still my intent this year, and it was my intent during much of the 600k.

But I was not willing to do so at any cost. Thoughts have been lingering about whether these distances are worth it for me since the 2018 Hopland 400k, where I threw up at the last control and struggled to the finish. Nausea again caught me just outside of this same campground in the outbound direction on the Fort Bragg 600k ride last year. This year on Hopland, though riding stronger overall and conserving my strength, I joined a fantastically energetic group and rode too hard before that last control and threw up there again. Though getting much more sleep and feeling fresher at the end, I finished within minutes of my time the previous year (24 hours).

I rode mostly alone on this ride. After letting go of the lead pack on the Camino Alto climb, only a pair of Santa Cruz Randonneurs' jerseys passed me between there and Point Reyes Station. I rolled out of Point Reyes on my own, gaining the only company I had for this ride by catching up to and following a pair of riders on the climbs on Point Reyes-Petaluma road. My legs felt good, I was not pushing too hard, just a sustained and seemingly sustainable effort. I made it to Healdsburg at half past noon. Six and a half hours to cover 88 miles. Perhaps I ate too much here, opting for both a small chicken noodle soup, and some sushi, whereas I usually eat just the soup. Still making progress to Cloverdale, I briefly chatted with a Texan who was visiting and exploring the local routes, crossed and then rode along the cycling leg of an Iron Man event that was going in the opposite direction.

I was starting to be affected by the heat. It wasn't that warm, but I needed to stop at a brand name coffee place in Cloverdale, and had a fizzy water with just a tad bit of juice to regain composure for the climb up 128. The climb rolled along nicely, I shifted down and just kept pedaling at a steady pace and easy effort. But I wasn't eating anymore. By the time I got to Yorkville, I needed another break, and luckily Michael had just stopped at the Yorkville Market, so I decided to stop, too. I got another carbonated beverage, a cherry cola this time, and in what might have been another mistake - honey-mustard flavored pretzel pieces. When I first started riding brevets, salted peanut-butter-filled pretzel pieces were a staple go-to in my basket - I'd just reach down to grab a few every couple of minutes. I thought about reaching for the simpler salted pretzel sticks this time, because I never have trouble consuming simple salted unflavored bread products, but the lizard brain sabotaged the rational sensibilities and swayed the scales in favor of the honey-mustard, which also had some sugar. As a little glimpse into my somewhat delirious state, I thought I had seen four to six cats in the shop. When I asked the proprietor, it turns out there were only two. She wished me a good ride, to be careful on highway 1, and asked if I thought I could make it to the camp before dark. I expressed serious doubts about that, but it turns out I was wrong.

I got to Boonville, another dozen miles out, and took another break, the nausea kicking in again. The next five miles I started to get cold, the sun not yet setting but the cold ocean headwind was starting to take its toll. I stopped to get dressed, and deliberately cycled past the campground without stopping there for another rest though I probably could have used it. And then something clicked in my head. A had been trying to fit a great deal many things in life but cycling had begun dwarfing all my other joys and pursuits this year. My reward for finishing the 600k would have been to train more, probably ride the NorCal Brevet week in June, to get ready for PBP and ride that in August. Instead of PBP, I'll be taking a break.

Randonneuring can be addictive. You keep putting goals out and keep accomplishing them, so you set higher, more challenging goals. Rinse and repeat. This year, cycling has started to become a kind of rat race for me. Yes, I still enjoy cycling, very much, but it has started to grind me down. I lost sight of why I enjoy this sport so much to begin with.

I decided to stop. I decided to exert and reaffirm control over what I value in life. The campground was by far the biggest highlight of my 2018 finish on this ride. I was the very last rider into the overnight control, rolling in half-past 3am or so. I sat myself down on one of the folding chairs in front of the fire pit, was fed without having to get up, and drifted off in that same spot around 4am. Two hours later, before I could open my eyes, my olfactory system was cannonballed into a perfect aroma pool of fresh coffee and bacon. "This is AMAZING!" That campground served as my magical site of rejuvenation after just two hours of sleep. My spirits lifted, though I did hang out longer than most at breakfast that year, in no rush to head out, taking in the gurgling creek, the majestic towering redwoods all around, inhaling and ingesting the sights and sounds and smells all around.

So less than 12 hours and 145 miles into the ride, and a few miles past the Indian Creek Campground that was the planned overnight, I decided to turn around and go directly there. It was about 40 miles to the Safeway in Fort Bragg, 42 miles back. I could have done it. I could have taken a break, even after I got to the campground. There was plenty of time left on the clock.

I could have finished the ride. The weather was great, and I had plenty of clothes to keep me warm, something I learned to appreciate on this ride the year before, confusing being cold with being exhausted, and quickly regaining my legs after finally throwing a jacket on. I could have finished the ride, but I also needed to get off the treadmill, the hamster wheel that was starting to grind away at a sense of balance in life. I've been spending more and more time on the bike recently, and not because I was so thoroughly enjoying it. It had become almost a job. Not a particularly unpleasant one, I like riding bikes, but the compulsory nature of it did not sit well with me. I rode in the rain to work. I rode in the hotel gym morning before and again at night after while traveling for a conference the week before. I was just biking too much. Too many other parts of my life were getting squeezed out to make room for the PBP effort. I still want to ride PBP, but letting go of this year's attempt is what I need to focus on other important aspects of life.

So after I had a beer and regained composure, I switched modes. Chatting with the volunteers during much of the night. Then as the riders started to come in, we'd offer them food, refilling plates when they were done and still hungry, insisting they can stay seated. Reed, a fellow campground DNFer, and I kept mentioning how we were earning our keep. Conversation flowed, lots of chuckling, story telling, sharing of experiences. I'll treasure these hours I spent in camp instead of on the bike. Chuck graciously offered me a tent and a sleeping bag and I was in bed a quarter to 11pm, fed and off the bike for 5 hours by then. It would probably have taken me again until 3am had I continued to Fort Bragg. I got 7 hours of sleep, instead of 2. It was a DNF, but it was also a DHF - I Did Have Fun. :)

The campground volunteers were rock solid! Eric and Arthur the big goofball dog, Grace and Rick, the two co-owners of Bo the smaller goofball dog, Aaron, Sourav, Chuck, Robert, Reed. Thank you all for such an memorable experience. It was a privilege to spend several hours with you. Thank you.

We cleaned up and packed up in the morning after the riders left. Chuck has an amazing van set up to carry up to 8 (!!) bikes, offered a ride for our bikes. Sourav offered to deliver our bodies. On the way back, Reed, Sourav and I discussed just how special and unique the San Francisco Randonneurs community is. The level of and attention to detail, the shared sense of purpose, the volunteer involvement. Thank you Rob Hawks. Thank you to everyone who volunteers to support SFR rides. Thank you to everyone who rides, you give us plausible deniability: we can't all be crazy :)

Carrying my bike as I climbed up the long sets of stairs from the BART station platform this morning, I had a liberating realization. It was the first time in a long while that I was not internally justifying the effort as "this will help me on PBP". I was once again doing it for the sole simple reason that this is just what I do.

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