Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Epic Goals and Courage to Fail

First, I want to express sincere thanks to everyone for all the well wishes and positive energy. The comments and emails mean so much and really contribute to my recovery.

A few well-intentioned folks seem worried that I may set some epic goals for this year.

I don't really know whether folks are worried that the never-say-die spirit of randonneuring will cause me to push myself too hard or if they are worried about my psyche should I fail to achieve some goal.

One of the first lessons a randonneur learns is to suppress the imagined voice coming from within (or the actual utterance of some well-meaning observer) that suggests the option of quitting. It's too hot, or too cold, or too wet or too windy. The hills are too steep. The legs are too tired. The saddle is too hard. The eyelids are too heavy. The belly is too empty. The mind is overwhelmed.

Randonneuring is often defined as non-competitive. I'll dispute that characterization, while clarifying that for me the competition isn't between riders, but rather between the inner voice that says Quit and the contrasting one that says Never DNF. While some folks on a brevet may still try to go faster than others, or faster than some previous time; for me the real challenge in randonneuring is actually to push beyond the boundaries of what you think you cannot do.

Even the most hard-core veteran of multiple 1200kms didn't start out thinking, "Hey that sounds easy. I'll just go knock one off next week." In fact, I suspect that most folks who have completed one or more of these super long events, initially found the concept of riding a bicycle 750 miles in 90 hours, including all stops for food and rest and sleep, rather daunting. Yet somehow, this type of ride appealed and soon the goal was set and plans were made to accomplish it.

Now, as I said, one doesn't just decide to do a 1200km bike ride one day and then go from couch potato to PBP ancienne the next day. There is a long buildup to that distance, including getting more fit, and learning about equipment and flat tire repair and chain wear and lights and raingear and digesting food in hot weather and following a cue sheet. There's a process of getting saddle tough and finding comfortable shoes and learning how to cram 8 hours of sleep into 3.

And there's just learning to HTFU.

The randonneur who's been doing this for years may have forgotten those early rides - the pain, the doubts, the amazement, and the thrill of accomplishing something not just outside one's comfort zone, but beyond what was ever thought possible. If this is you and it's been a while, think back to the first 200km medal and how it felt like standing on the podium at the Olympics. Well maybe it took a 400km medal or the SR medal to get that rush. But the day the postman brought your PBP medal, I bet you showed it off to family or co-workers, who probably looked at you with a blank stare, but faked a smile anyway. I bet you even thought about a frame or shadow box or some suitable showcase for the symbol of accomplishing what you once thought you could not do.

Seasoned randonneurs may now have a box full of these trinkets, these medals for each brevet. They long ago stopped framing them, and now there are likely new bigger challenges and awards to chase. But that's the point. What was once something they thought they could not do may now even be routine, and they need a bigger goal, a new goal outside the comfort zone - one that is not assured.

Wow, have I just described a junkie? Oh that's really not where I meant to go with this post. What I meant to say, is that I started small and built on it, and with time and effort,  I accomplished what I once thought I could not do. And while this may have parallels with addiction and needing a fix, this thing that I do where I set a big goal outside my comfort zone and then work long and hard to accomplish it, is a fundamental part of who I am.

And for the true and sweet sense of accomplishment, the goal has to involve some doubt. It has to be a proper challenge. It has to be something that involves dedication, both mental and physical.

Now comes the courage to fail. The tradition in randonneuring and in many sports, for that matter, is to keep going and tough it out. The conventional wisdom is that if the pain will go away in a week, don't quit.

Still, there are times when continuing is just not an option.

Jennifer Wise, one of RUSA's founders and long time organizer of Boston-Montreal-Boston, the second 1200km (after PBP) coined the phrase Randonnée Abandonnée, a club for the folks who despite their best efforts had to quit a brevet.

Over the years, I've overcome some serious obstacles to finish events. I'll try not to sprain my shoulder patting myself on the back listing the times when I found a creative way to fix a busted wheel, or worked through a muscle cramp, or found a way to stay awake to cross the proverbial finish line. Many of those are well documented on this blog and the old website :-)

I've also earned a few RA badges in my life, some due to broken bones, some to an irreparably broken bike, and some to camaraderie where I stayed with a sick or injured riding partner. I can but won't list these here. For good or bad, I remember all my DNFs, partly because I still have fingers to spare when counting them. I also suspect they are also well documented on the blog and website, since rides where everything goes right don't make very interesting stories and also aren't the ones seared in my memory.

I will admit that this year, my RA/DNF count may consume a few more fingers, because while I still plan to take things one day at a time and build slowly and steadily, I also plan to set some proper goals that will require hard work and determination. I know that I can't get stronger if I don't push harder.

No fear, I'm not going to set impossible goals - there is no 1200km on the list - but there will be challenges. And even if I don't successfully achieve every goal, I will know that I worked hard and got stronger and next time...


  1. Pam we only now each from a few passing encounters on GRR a couple of times. I appreciate your friendliness enough to say, "Good luck, and I hope to see you out there". But be prepared to stop for a hug when I do.

  2. Your resiliency and capacity for growth really shine through as you meet this new challenge. Be good to yourself! Jim Duncan

  3. I like your square pictures, especially landscapes.