“Hey Joe, can I borrow one of your athletes?…………For an extremely ridiculous challenge….?”
That was the text I received at the beginning of December from Erin Blevins (aka @shutup_eat – a friend, a key part of the NonProphet crew in SLC and an all around bad-ass)
My answer: “Only if you promise to put them back where you found them.”
To which Erin responded, “I can’t promise that.”
And that is how Emily Alexander ended up traveling to Salt Lake City to be a part of a three woman crew with Erin and Kate Drinkwater joining four other teams in Salt Lake, three in Denver, two in Australia and a handful in the United Kingdom. The goal? – see how “far” they could ride an assault bike in 24 hours. What is an assault bike? Well, it is also known in some circles as the “Devil’s Tricycle” and has become a fixture in gyms across the globe – some say as a result of an old Schwinn AirDyne that was left in the space that became the first location of Gym Jones (to get that backstory listen to Episode 136 of the NonProphet podcast).
Emily and I had a few strategizing conversations in the weeks before and I consulted Billy Innes for his input since he was part of a four person team that still holds the record for Race Across America (which we will never speak of again). But other than the basics of nutrition and hygiene this was an unknown. I have done some 24 hour pushes in the mountains but anything over about 5-6 hours of bike riding is a no-fly zone for me. After watching some of the live feed from the beginning and seeing a team doing one minute intervals my first thought on the pacing discussions that Emily and I had (or as she called it “Red String/ Beautiful Mind-ing) was “maybe Billy and I came at this from too much of bike riding perspective” as we both were thinking 15-20 minutes on / 30-40 minutes off – and this looked nothing like that.
Then there were the text messages I was receiving from participants and observers alike during the Challenge:
“At no point were you like, ‘Maybe this is a bad idea? Why Joe? WHY?'” – Erin at 6 hours in.
“We’re all appropriately on edge to not go hard, but also wanting to go hard so there is a lot of reassuring that we are “doing fine” and that “everything is fine” – Emily at 7 hours in.
“Emily made a PB&J with Dots Pretzels inside…..” – Mark Twight at 8.5 hours in (while still an observer)
And finally from Emily at the conclusion: “We absolutely crished it (and ourselves)…..In the last hour, I did 4×5 minute “pulls” at 23+mph/~300 watts….And that was everything that was left in the tank.”
Here is Emily’s account in two parts:
Part 1: Lying down on the couch (a.k.a. And how does that make you feel?)
I have been trying to write how I felt that night, or day… whatever. I’ll ask you to excuse my lack of detail later, but how do I describe realizing I committed to a 24-hour event utilizing a machine I have only used once in a workout over a year ago – that I won’t get to “practice” on until a day or two before the event? How do I describe trying to gauge if we’re “doing this right” when I have no concept of what “fast” or “far” is on this machine, and we’re 16 hours in and I can’t seem to do basic math to figure out when we’re supposed rotate every 8 minutes? And perhaps most importantly – and maybe the thing you really want to know – how do I describe how thoroughly I enjoyed this effort? Not just upon reflection, but throughout the entirety of the activity. How do I describe that, for over 24 hours, I had “Type 1 Fun”?
Maybe it was the youthful, eye-widening silliness of the “game” – a 24-hour effort with a team of three people to see how “far” we could go on an Assault Bike. Or maybe it was the blend of the individual expectation for the effort, the trust and vulnerability that would be required from the participants, and the strategy that would need to be managed. And yet, maybe it was because I was doing it with a group of people I consider friends – people that make me want to try hard, because they are willing to meet me where I am and then share their momentum to make me push further and grow. It’s probably an amalgamation of everything, and I’m still too tired from the physical effort – and too sensitive to the emotional effort – to be able to tease out the threads for you.
Normally this is where I would break down the day’s, or night’s, effort… But I can’t. When I think of all of the things I want to tell you, I can still feel them as if I’m back in the gym – waiting my turn to clumsily get on the machine, wondering if I’m eating too much and not enough all at the same time, having that awkward moment of catching someone vigorously applying chamois cream in their rest interval and wondering if anyone else is seeing this too, sharing knowing looks and sighs because we haven’t made it halfway and we’re all wondering if this wasn’t some massive miscalculation… And like that night, day, I catch myself smiling or laughing. Because it was all fun.
Everyone had slightly different experiences, but we shared in them – directly with teammates, or indirectly with the teams that were around us. At some time in the night, or day – beyond the first few hours – everyone’s eyes gleamed. Whether in excitement for the effort, realizing a new-found capability, or in holding the power of being the DJ (*cough, MARK, cough*) – everyone had their moments, and it was buoying to be able to bear witness to them.
In the end, our team – Erin, Kate, and myself – one of the few teams of all women, accumulated 506.2 miles over the 24-hour effort. Maybe we could go farther – and, eventually, I’d like to do this again just to test that theory – but our strategy of holding a consistent, steady pace allowed us all to ramp up our efforts in the last four hours.
I will, forever, remember this effort. I will, forever, remember this team. I will, forever, remember the feelings these people leave me with – feelings that make me want to be the best, truest, “Me” I can be.
I love you. Thank you.
Part 2: Upon further reflection (a.k.a. By popular [read: Joe’s] request)
Above, and a few days ago now, I wrote that I was still too close to the effort – physically and emotionally – to really break it down in a way that I feel would help it to make sense for anyone not there. Parts of me still, and will always, stand by that sentiment. If you weren’t there, or have never experienced an effort like this, there is nothing I can write that will make you fully understand our decisions – mainly the initial one, of wanting to attempt, let alone complete, and effort like this one. The next time this happens – and there will be a next time – approaches, pacing, and overall efforts will all be different. Perhaps that’s why I’m struggling pulling this next section out of my head. Part of me doesn’t want to shake it loose.
Each decision we made that night, or day, was correct for those moments. In the days leading up to the event, the decisions made beforehand led to the outcome on the other side. By no means was this a “high-risk” endeavor – we were inside the whole time, there was significant (I would go so far as to say ridiculous) amounts of nutritious or purpose-serving food available, we had running water and bathrooms, there was a pair of Normatec compression boots available, everyone seemed to arrive with at least one suitcase full of clothing and other personal extras. We may not have been comfortable the whole time, but we were definitely “comfortable”. The biggest risk anyone ran was bonking or inducing some GI distress through poor fueling choices – or falling asleep during their time off the machine.
You may have noticed I keep referring to the Assault Bike as a machine, instead of a bike, because that’s what it is. Because of that distinction, and as Kegan said when we were discussing interval timing beforehand, you can’t, “road bike the Assault Bike.” As I learned, and though you can use your arms to a degree, if I wanted to go a pace I could hold over the course of 24 hours I would have to find how long I could pedal at 55-60 RPM (220-280 watts), keep my heart rate solidly in my “endurance” range for as long as possible, and then really focus on how I rested between efforts.
For the nerdy cyclists who are keeping track of data at home, or the folks who might be wondering how their build compares to mine: 220 watts is my current FTP. I’m 5’7” and 155-ish pounds. I have more muscle in my shoulders, chest, and arms than I have had in a while, but in the company of these folks I still have the laughable definition of “cyclist arms”. My typical “endurance” heart rate is around 145 BPM, and I live in Seattle. This event took place in Salt Lake City which sits at ~4200′ elevation, and I stayed in a house at ~6500′ elevation (train high, sleep higher, amirite?!) I considered the elevation and climate – Salt Lake is dry AF compared to Seattle – as the biggest factors for which I needed to be prepared. Only planning to arrive a few days before the event, I really paid attention to how and when I used energy for anything other than just walking around and I really focused on drinking water (nothing insanely meticulous here, just small things like making myself a rule that whenever I went to the kitchen to come back with a glass or if Kegan yelled at me to drink more water).
I was not worried about pedaling, even while on a squishy Assault Bike seat and on flat pedals as I am pretty good at pedaling circles. I was a little worried about managing my effort though, especially doing so around other people and even among the members of my team. Like any competitor, it’s easy for me to want to race and to push the pace. I like racing, it’s fun… and while the hare in me thumped its feet – our goal was to be the women’s team that went the farthest – the tortoise stretched its legs and took a deep breath.
In the days leading up to the event I “practiced” on the Assault Bike once, two days beforehand, and only for an hour. I spent 10 minutes warming up and playing around with seat height, and then did two “efforts”, one at low endurance heart rate and a second at slightly-higher-but-still-endurance heart rate mainly because I also used my arms in the second set. I tracked that session with a heart rate monitor, but because I know that it tends to crap-out after a few hours I figured out my rhythm for taking my own pulse and noticing how quickly it could change. Normally I don’t pay close attention to my heart rate in the moment of efforts because I know I’ll have time to rest somewhere during the activity. While I knew I would have ample time to rest during this activity as well I also knew this rest was going to be different and it was likely going to change throughout the course of the day, or night.
As Joe would say, I am a control enthusiast. I often feel like a duck on a pond – calm to the eye while churning away underneath the surface. Those close to me might say I tend to overthink situations, and I would agree with them. Like many, I like knowing the potential outcomes of events I’m about to undertake. Though, while I like the perceived certainty of planning, strategy, and clear communication – I absolutely love clear, honest communication – I know the way I’m thinking of doing something may not be the best way or get the best outcome and that is where I’m flexible. And for this event, while I knew I had good endurance strategies for bike racing I knew I didn’t know how they would work applied to the Assault Bike.
Our team’s strategy centered around being steady. We knew if we went out too hard, we wouldn’t be able to sustain it, and if we let a dip happen in the middle of the event – even if we were able to go faster at the end – we likely wouldn’t get as far. It would be easier to be a bit more conservative at the outset, and know we had a solid “cruising speed” and then be able to open up a few efforts in the last hours. Our approach was to start with longer turns, and then adjust based on how we were feeling, physically and mentally. With this event the monotony was also a factor to be aware of – get too mindless with long efforts and our speed would drop, get too cozy during time off and we might not want to push it as much when we got back on the machine. As we moved through the night, we found a couple of “sweet spot” rotations with both 10 minute on/20 minute off, and then with 8 minute on/15 minute off. These paired with a few 5 minute on/10 minute off cycles kept our brains fresh while allowing for enough time to change, eat and begin to digest some food, and maybe even get in the Normatecs for a few squeezes.
It was managing that time off the machine that proved to be the most critical, especially as the event wore on. Thinking became difficult around hour 10 for me. We were far enough in to know that we felt good, but we were all starting to ride that edge of trying to keep ourselves feeling that way. MY general system when I transitioned off was to take a sip of whatever I had in my bottle at that moment (electrolytes, water, or a protein mix), do a clothing check and change if needed (I brought eight kits with me and ended up using six of them), take care of whatever other personal business needed taking care of (bathroom or getting some time in the Normatecs), and then to eat a small bit of something (an apple fritter the size of my whole hand, PB&J and pretzel sandwiches, bananas with peanut butter, an occasional cookie, some Sour Patch Kids, a cupcake). When it came to food, there were things I knew I wanted that had what I needed in it, and then there were the times where – when it became hard to think of anything besides “I need to eat something” – I just had what looked appealing and I knew wouldn’t sit heavy.
When it was all over, my brain was full of a fuzzy excitement – that I still can’t quite explain – until I laid down on the couch and closed my eyes not thinking I would be able to truly sleep. Waking up five hours later I noticed the first aches and creaks of my sore muscles and joints. Those aches dissipated after a full night’s sleep, which I was surprised by – though as I write this, over a week removed from the event and hours after thinking I was recovered enough to do a 70 mile with some friends, I know there are still lingering effects from the efforts.
Knowing that this event would take all the energy and thought that it did and then over a week to recover, I would do it again. Just to play around with everything I talk about above. The group needs to be right, but if I care about the people I’m participating with – like I did with this team – I don’t think I could have a bad experience doing something like this again.