What does it take to ride 200 miles solo?

It takes stubbornness and a huge amount of food, mostly.

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It was another boring Thursday evening, just like any other. I came home from work, made dinner, and was lying in bed scrolling through Instagram – you know, the usual. As I scrolled through pictures of mountains, bikes, podium pics, and sunsets, something caught my eye – a blurry snapshot of a bike computer from Chad Haga, a professional rider from Team Sunweb. A blurry snapshot isn’t worthy of Instagram, why would he post that? – It must be something really interesting.

This is what I saw:

Time: 11:41:51 Distance: 349 km Totl. Ascent: 6493 m

Woah.

Chad did this ride all by himself – no support, no team car, and no teammates for drafting, motivation, or emotional support. What intrigued me most was not the physical feat of riding over 200 miles in a day (although that is very impressive), but the mental and emotional impact of putting yourself out there, on the road, with no one to immediately help you, for almost an entire day.

I texted my Dad/coach that night: “I want to do a 200-mile ride this off-season.” He replied: “How about this weekend?”

Am I ready for this? I have to plan the route, clean my bike, gather up all of the spare tubes and tire levers I can find, pack a lot of food, and go to bed very early on a Friday night.

Twenty-four hours later, my bike was cleaned, lubed, and propped up next to the front door. My kit was laid out, and food was on the counter, packaged and ready to go. Expecting to burn 7,000 kilojoules or more, I filled my pockets with 900 calories of trail mix, 2 CLIF bars, 2 McDonald’s oatmeal raisin cookies, 1 protein bar, and my favorite ride food ever, a PB&J waffle sandwich (2 toasted blueberry Eggo waffles, 2 tbsp. of peanut butter, and 1.5 tbsp. of strawberry jelly – you’re welcome).

What does it take to ride 200 miles (321.8km) solo? I was about to find out.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BZUBzKIFMGa/

5:45AM. My alarm yanked me out of my deep sleep. With only 12 hours of sunlight and an unknown number of stops ahead, I had to get going early to avoid finishing in the dark. My giant bowl of oatmeal spun slowly in the microwave as I pulled on my kit. Normally, I eat a 700-calorie bowl of oatmeal every morning – 1 cup of oats, 1/2 cup of trail mix, and 1 scoop of vanilla protein powder – but today was different.

One of the keys to a 200-mile ride is eating more than you think (or want) to. Your body needs fuel, and when you’re on your bike for more than three, four, or five hours at a time, you need to beat it to the bonk. On this day, I upped my usual calorie intake by about 25%. This meant eating a 950-calorie bowl of oatmeal (which was hard to stomach, but it was worth it), and bringing two extra energy bars – it would take seven hours for me to realize that this still wasn’t enough.

At 6:30AM I rolled out of the driveway with fresh legs and a clear mind.

The first 100 miles was the easy part. My legs spun freely in the early morning hours. The air was cool and crisp, and a dense fog hung over the road. The red sun was beginning to make its way through the clouds. Fast food drive-thru’s were empty, stoplights flashed only a repetitive yellow, and all was quiet on the same roads that I have ridden through rush hour traffic so many times before.

As I made my way out of town and into the countryside, the morning mist formed a beautiful blanket over the Indiana cornfields. All is well in the world, I thought, my legs and heart pumping along with the energy of a thousand horses.

I knew that pacing was key, and I needed the first 100 miles to be easy. So I went out easy (or so I thought), pedaling a consistent 220 watts with nothing higher than 300W on the hills. But then I got to the steep hills, so steep that 300W means you’ll be crawling at 3 mph. I got excited, pushing 350-400W up four 1-2 minute climbs. It didn’t seem much at the time – I was only hitting a low Zone 4 heart rate as a maximum – but it would soon catch up to me. For ultra-endurance rides like these, discipline is key: eat more; pedal less. You’ll be thanking yourself later – probably around mile 150.

Stop #1 – the Wilbur gas station, a hidden jewel in the Indiana countryside, and an essential part of a long Marian University group ride. For years, riders from Marian have taken the “Wilbur route” down from Indianapolis, along the flat and winding Mann Road, and then up and over the steep climbs of Observatory Road and Robb Hill. At the top of the final climb is the Wilbur gas station, whose owners are kind enough to let us tired cyclists clomp around their store in bulky cleats, and take some ice-cold water from the soda dispenser, free of charge.

I am forever grateful to the kind people of Wilbur, Indiana, whose free water and occasional conversation always quenched my thirst and put a smile on my face, in that order.

Normally the turnaround point of a long ride, the Wilbur gas station was a mere 36 miles into today’s ride – I still had a long way to go. After topping off my water bottles, consuming a second energy bar, and stretching my still-fresh legs, I continued pedaling towards Martinsville. This is where things got interesting …

I had ridden to and around Wilbur and Martinsville, Indiana many times before, but only once had I ridden further south, into Hindustan, Treviac, Cornelius.

My planning had been optimistic, on-a-whim, and adventurous; searching for a longer route, I came across a group ride on Strava from 2013, a 107-mile route with 10,000 feet of climbing. It zig-zagged across an area of Southern Indiana that I had never seen before. But the timing and location of the loop was perfect. I could connect to this loop via the traditional Martinsville loop (which is approximately 90 miles), to make a total of 200 miles for the day.

So after quietly drifting through a sleepy Martinsville, I began the 107-mile loop that I knew nothing about, other than its distance and the names of the roads I’d be riding on. I soon began the first big climb, keeping my power well-below threshold knowing I had at least seven more hours of riding ahead. Discipline.

After cresting the first climb, I enjoyed a fast, twisting descent down smooth roads with no cars in sight. My mind and body felt free. As I flew down the hill, the wind whipped through my helmet and made my jersey flutter, the morning sun illuminated the road as if it was guiding me along, and the sounds of chirping birds and crunching leaves filled the air. I smiled.

I was riding on a high, until I got to the next climb. This one was much more brutal than the first – twice as steep, with gradients topping 18%, a slick road which made my rear wheel spin and struggle for traction, and a chunky section of gravel as it steepened near the top. After a few minutes of heavy breathing and too many watts, I crested the climb with a sigh of relief.

I started down the other side, but noticed that the road did not change back to pavement — it was still gravel. And now, I found myself flying down a bumpy gravel road at over 30 mph with a blind corner coming up ahead. I squeezed the brakes and my back wheels began to slide – not the kind of cool power-sliding of a pro bike handler, but more like the panicked chaos of someone who has lost control. Like a deer running out onto a frozen lake thinking it’s snow, not realising their mistake until their feet are flailing around like a drunk ballet dancer.

All of a sudden my back wheel locked up and I was headed towards the edge of the road. The gravel smoothed out and I managed to regain control. I let out a sigh of relief, much different from the sigh I let out a few minutes ago. With my heart in my mouth, I took a deep breath, put it back where it belonged, and tried to regain my composure – I had a long way to go; no point in crashing now.

90 miles in, 110 miles to go.

Stop #2. I found a gas station in Morgantown and purchased a half gallon of water and two bottles of Powerade. My legs were still feeling good, but I had to keep eating – I downed the PB&J waffle sandwich, having consumed two energy bars, a protein bar, and a third of the trail mix in the first few hours. This is more than I would usually eat for this duration of ride, but I this what I need to do to beat the bonk.

On a normal training ride of more than 90 minutes, I consume about 250 calories an hour (or one CLIF bar). But on this day, I upped it to 350-450 calories an hour – eat that CLIF bar, but add in a big handful of trail mix, or a few bites of the PB&J, too.

Shortly after leaving the gas station, I looked down at my Garmin and realized that I was already 100 miles in. Wow, that was 100 miles already?? That was the easiest century I’ve ever done! – Now I just have to do another to get home …

I reached the southern-most portion of the ride and began making my way back, towards Martinsville. At this point, I was over seven hours in, and I was beginning to really feel it. Every climb hurt more than it should, my neck and shoulders were in just as much pain as my legs, and I no longer had any spring in my step (or pedal stroke, if that makes more sense.)

The funny thing is (and it wasn’t so funny at the time), my power was pretty much the same. I was holding 200-220W on the flats, and trying to stay below 300W on the climbs – some of them were so steep that 350W was a necessity, and those were the efforts that nearly killed me. My heart rate was rising (read: cardiac drift), and each hill was slowly chipping away at my motivation. There’s was a gas station coming up soon. I just had to focus on getting to the gas station.

‘You can make it,’ I started chanting silently.

Stop #3. I bought two King-size candy bars (Reese’s Fastbreak and Snickers – ~450 calories each) and ate them in the parking lot in 30 seconds flat. My pockets were almost empty of food by that point – at least I’ll be lighter on the climbs, I thought. This was the longest stop I’d had so far; 10 minutes of sitting, eating, contemplating, and trying to build up the motivation to get back on my bike. This was the moment I realized I had gone out too hard. 220W had seemed easy, normal even, but it was simply too much. I had never been alone on a bike for more than seven hours – I was beginning to crack.

When I finished eating, I filled my water bottles, and I was ready to go. But this time, I just stood there. I looked around at the other people in the parking lot, wondering what they’re thinking about me.

I didn’t bring any headphones on this ride – no music, no podcasts, no talking, just me and my own thoughts.

It took a few minutes, but when 900 calories of sugar began coursing through my veins, I felt alive again. 140 miles in, 60 miles to go.

I emerged from the hilly, gravel loop and was back on paved and familiar roads. I headed back up to Martinsville, where there is one more gas station stop before I head home. Only a few miles away, I saw a “Road Closed” sign up ahead – I had already gone around a different sign earlier in the ride, and with great success (I only had to hop over a small pipe in the road and that was it), so I thought I would chance it – I kept on riding.

A mile later I slammed on the brakes and came to a stop – the road was gone, and there was no bridge, only a sandy embankment and a small river – maybe three feet wide – in- between the ends of pavement. At this point, I was over 155 miles in, and I did not want to turn around and ‘just add on a couple miles’ to take the detour. So I shouldered my bike, pumped myself up with some words of encouragement, and jumped over the water, my bike slamming against my hip as I landed. I felt alive. Again.

Stop #4 – I am drenched in sweat from head to toe.

Despite being late-September, the temperature climbed above 90 degrees (30C) on this afternoon, and the humidity didn’t help either. I bought two gallons of water (yes, you read that right), drank one in the parking lot, and used the other to refill my bottles. ‘Only 40 more miles to go. You can do this.’

But at this point, I was done. I was on the edge of collapse. Or at least, that’s what it felt like. I still had one energy bar and 400 calories of trail mix left in my pockets, so I could save myself if I felt a bonk coming on. My power was slowly beginning to dip. 200W now felt like threshold, 220W like VO2max. When I threw myself up a 15% hill at 45 miles to go, I thought my legs were going to give out. My heart rate was high, but surprisingly stable. I knew that if I could keep it steady – no more than 250W the rest of the ride – I could make it home. Discipline.

I could not think anymore. After nine hours alone, I ran out of thoughts (or maybe I was just too tired to think). All I had in my head was the number of miles left. I tried not to look at my Garmin – 157.8 miles, 160.9 miles, 162.3 miles – there was still a long time to go and I was going to go insane if I kept staring at it. Instead, I tried to focus on the present moment.

‘This climb is 3 minutes long. You’ll be at the top in 3 minutes. Here’s a steep section – try to get out of the saddle. Okay that hurt, never mind. Sit down, breathe. Focus, breathe. You’re already halfway to the top. Almost there.’

Stop #5. This was unplanned.

I had finished all of the major climbs and had just 30 miles to go. But it was getting late now, and I was beginning to bonk. I knew there were no gas stations nearby, but there was a local park coming up soon. ‘Please have water fountains. Please have water fountains. Please have water fountains. YES! – They have water fountains!’

With 25 miles to go, I ate my last energy bar, downed two more bottles of water, and swung my leg over the bike one last time.

Pedaling has never been so hard. Everything hurt. Did you know that your spine can hurt from riding? Oh it can, right in between your shoulder blades. Did you know that your feet can hurt from riding? Oh yes, they definitely can – not just any pain, but the kind of pain that you experience after spending a full night out on the town in high-heels (I’ve never experienced this myself, but I imagine it is quite painful).

When I tried looking down at my Garmin, it felt like someone was holding a blowtorch to the back of my neck and pinning needles into my muscles all at the same time. When people do “cardio”, they hold their heart rate at 130-150 bpm for 20-30 minutes, maybe even an hour. My heart rate has been 140+ bpm for over 10 hours now – is that bad?

With less than 20 miles to go, I found a new source of motivation – ice cream. I had a pint of Ben & Jerry’s waiting in the freezer at home. This is what I thought about for the last hour of the ride.

Stop #6 – Home

I pulled in to the driveway, and nearly fell over as I struggled off of my bike.

– 200.0 miles (321km) ridden
– 10,577 feet (3227m) of climbing
– Ten hours, 28 minutes, 17 seconds.
– 7,807 kJs
– Average speed: 19.1 mph
– Average power: 207 W
– Normalized power: 229 W
– TSS: 431

I ordered an extra large pizza before I even got in the shower. They told me it would be 30-40 minutes – just enough time for me to eat dinner #1. Eggs, ham, cereal, cornbread, salmon, and watermelon. It was all in my stomach before the pizza arrives.

I couldn’t eat the whole pizza, but I did finish the ice cream.

Here’s the whole ride on Strava.

So what did it take to ride 200 miles? Stubborness, mostly. But also a lot of food. Here’s what I ate:

Breakfast: Muscle Milk – 100% Whey Protein – Vanilla, 1 scoop, 0.75 cups Power Up Trail Mix, 1.25 cups Quaker Oats (880 calories)
“Lunch” (on the bike): Mountain Trail Mix 1.5 cups, 2 McDonald’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, 1 CLIF Nut Butter Filled bar, 1 CLIF Bar Crunchy Peanut Butter Bar, 2 Blueberry Eggo Waffles, 1 Robert Irvine’s Fit
Crunch Protein Bar, Jif Smooth Peanut Butter 3 tbsps., Smuckers Strawberry Jelly 2 tbsps., 2 Bottles PowerAde Blue, Reese’s Fast Break King Size, Snickers Hazelnut King Size (3,375 calories!)
Dinner #1: 1 Tilapia filet, 4 tbsps. Salsa, 2 Eggs, 3 cups of Watermelon, 6 slices of Honey Ham, 2 pieces of Cornbread, 1.75 cups of Raisin Bran With Granola, 1?2 cup of Almond Milk Unsweetened (1,298 calories)
Dinner #2: 5 slices Extra Large Buffalo Chicken Pizza, 2 cups of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, 1?2 cup of Almond Milk Unsweetened, 2 tbsps. Peanut Butter (2,550 calories)
Dessert: 1 cup Ben & Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream, 2 tbsps. Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup (830 calories)
Totals: 8,933 calories, 1102 g of carbohydrates, 333 g of fat, 296 g of protein

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