Riding hard and long (ha, phrasing…) requires a lot of fitness, and mental toughness. It’s not really a surprise to say this, and having a deficit in either category will leave you short of your goal.
Yes there are definitely other factors that play a part in determining the success or failure of a rider achieving their lofty goals, but of all points, these are the 2 most important. So it begs the question, which is more important?
I've been chatting a lot with my mate James Raison a lot about this lately, and we have some different conclusions, which ultimately are born from our different abilities and situations in life. But this is my website, so sucked in James, I get to write the article...
Words and images by Dave Edwards
I am a Dad. I love it. How could you not? Absolutely there are times when I would trade my 2 ratbags for a 6 pack of beer (sometimes it wouldn't even have to be good beer), but on balance, they are truly awesome little creatures, that make my life infinitely better. They do however occupy a CRAP-TONNE of my time, which severely impacts my capacity to ride and recover.
James is a DINK (Double Income, No Kids), which means he can ride pretty much whenever he wants, he can sleep to his heart's content, and in between any other tasks, he is free to sit on his skinny arse and do sweet, sweet F… ALL. In his words:
“When I'm done riding I recover like a boss. My diet is good. My sleep is long and regular. I drink a lot of water. You can scoff all you want but these fundamentals all add up. I live the life of a greyhound: extremely active, followed by extremely lazy. Let's be honest, I look like one of those pointy bonebags as well. “
So what does this mean? It means that in order to get in some good riding, I need to ‘manage’ my sleep. And by manage, I means have less of it. So I get up at 4am and ride some before getting the team ready for the day. Or I go for a ride in the evening after dinner. Even on a weekend, rides need to be timely, to ensure I am on deck with the family as needed. James on the other hand can sleep for 10 hours if he wants, and he can ride as far as he likes on a weekend. For the same riding volume and intensity, James has a significantly greater capacity for recovery, to allow for him to be fitter and faster.
Absolutely do I believe that there is a genetic capability that differentiates people, and that James in all likelihood is a more gifted rider than I. HOWEVER, I do not accept that that means that people in a situation like mine have to limit themselves, and the goals that they wish to reach on the bike.
Matter of fact, it's the reduced capacity for following 'the right way' of doing things, that means dads (and mums of course, really, any super-time poor people) have an advantage over their DINKy, time-free mates. It's because this group is forced to find a way that can make them stronger. They have to make things fit, and that get very good at working through tough situations, when things don't go to plan. This group starts to find ways around excuses, and becomes very resilient to situations that present high difficulty.
It's this mental resolve that plays a more significant part in ultra-distance riding than fitness does, and this is why:
THE BEST LAID PLANS...
We all lay plans to complete the challenges we undertake. Some intricate, some very simple, but there is always a road map of some form that we have in order to achieve our goal. Some days, and they are few and far between, that plan comes off perfectly, and we walk away like kings, proud of our gallant victory. But what of the days when the plan falls apart? You get a mechanical, you get lost, your nutrition doesn't 'sit right', or everyone else is just so much faster than you?
Having a solid mental resolve is what is needed to get through these times. Seeing your plan failing, and having to take option B, C or even worse is tough to deal with, and it's the riders with grit that pull through to finish.
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
Having grit is having the ability to endure great levels of suffering. It is looking adversity in the face, setting your jaw, and pushing on, regardless of the circumstances. This is what is needed to push through when your legs are failing, and all seems lost. Fitness will leave you at around this point. To a large extent, fitness becomes almost irrelevant, as your mind will start to play tricks, as it will ignore your physical capabilities. Only your mind is left in charge.
WHEN YOU GET OFF THE BIKE
You made it. Finished, good on you, legend. Sit back, and soak in the kudos, whilst knocking back several hops-based sports drinks. What is it that you are thinking about now? What are you most proud of? When you think back to the events or races that you enjoyed the most, which ones stand out? For me, it is always the ones that were the hardest. The ones that I thought that I was going to fail. Having come through the other side, when even I didn't believe I could, that's where the real reward lies. It's a case of I used my legs to challenge my mind as hard as I possibly could, and though my mind tried everything it could to defeat me, eventually I won.
Ultimately, it is awesome if you can be both very fit, and have the grit you need to get through. No denying that that is the holy Nirvana of endurance. But just like fitness, gritness (which is a word.... now) is something built over time, and something to be as heavily valued as the former. It is your ability to mentally persevere that will stick in your mind for a lot longer than how fit you felt at the start line.
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