There's a Greek word for what I did on Sunday
Here's what happens when you have a plan and don't follow it.
I had a goal Sunday: Race the Cheaha Challenge and qualify for the Gran Fondo World Championships in Sarajevo. I prepared with a near-compulsive fervor. I had a race plan for how I would have the best shot at achieving that goal. I had qualified for worlds at Cheaha in 2017, so it wasn’t unrealistic; but the race has become even more popular and the competition is tougher.
It’s about a 100 mile race through the highest point in Alabama (twice) with almost 10,000 feet of climbing. There were about 80 guys in my 55-59 age group so qualifying would require finishing in the top 20 percent, or 16 spots.
I worked out a pacing plan, knowing what level of effort I could spend over the six-hour race. Then the gun went off. I was in one of the lead groups with Merrill and we were working together. He races for another team in Birmingham but neither of us had teammates in this race so we raced together.
In the first 20 miles it was clear that I was spending way more energy than I could afford. But staying with the group was seductive. I was going faster than I could go alone. And I still felt good —or maybe that was just adrenaline. And I started to rationalize: “Once we start climbing, the group will break up and I can dial the effort back.”
But really, when you start to calculate how far off your plan you are and what you need to do to get back on track, there is no plan any more. And it turns out that, of course, there’s a Greek word for this: akrasia, the state of acting against one’s better judgment.
So when we began climbing, the group did split up. And I did dial the effort back, but not necessarily by choice. I limited the number of stops and the time I spent at them, but by the time I caught up to Merrill and a couple other guys at mile 76 I had started to cramp.
I stayed with them as long as I could. And then I was alone in no man’s land, a 12-mile relatively flat, straight run to the final climb. When you’re on it with a group, it’s a joy. When you’re alone, well, you’re alone.
And then another example of akrasia: I saw the rest stop at 86 miles and just had to get off the bike. I was stopped for less than 4 minutes but as I was getting ready to leave I saw a group of riders pass by, several of them in my age group. I hope the nice ladies working at the rest stop didn’t hear what I said.
I knew then that my chance of making the cut likely just passed me standing still. If I had not stopped, could I have hung on to the back of that group after they inevitably caught me? Seems unlikely. I’d written almost all the checks in that book much earlier in the day.
I finished 19th in my age group, in 6 hours and 28 minutes; six minutes faster and I would have made the cut. Merrill was 14th. I needed help getting off the bike and both legs locked up with cramps. I leaned against a truck bumper, trying to take weight off my legs while a helpful young woman at the finish line found me a chair.
Later that day, in an unrelated conversation, I challenged a friend who races professionally very successfully to define failure. “To have an outcome lesser than your goal,” he said. I trotted out the cliched quote that success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm (broadly, but incorrectly it turns out, attributed to Churchill.)
But the more I think about it, the more I think that’s not right either. An enthusiastic victim of repeated failures is not a success. They’re a deluded failure. Ultimately success requires that you adapt after each failure, continue, and improve. It’s really no different than training for a race: you stress your body, it adapts, and improves. And sure, enthusiasm probably helps.
The race stats: Strava
A note about the Cheaha Challenge: This was the 28th edition, and race director Brooke Nelson and her team do a world-class effort in orchestrating the race. It’s one of only two qualifiers in the US for the Gran Fondo World Championships and it showcases Alabama to riders from across the country in an unforgettable way.
The full gallery of The Anniston Star’s photos from the event are here.