Extra Energy for the Elderly: Endurance Lessons from the Long Road
By Greg Conderacci
There’s an old story about a young newlywed talking with her grandmother about the joys of marriage.
“Oh, Granny,” the young woman asks, “it’s soooo wonderful. When does it all end?”
“My dear, you’ll have to ask an older woman,” replies the grandmother, with a twinkle in her eye.
If you had asked me, when I was a much younger rider, when my love affair with the bicycle would end, I certainly would have picked an age lower than my current one. Based on the “experience” of some graying Randonneurs who ride with me, I’d guess a few others on the road may share my thinking.
Eleven years ago, at the ripe old age of 55, I fulfilled a life’s dream by riding across the country. Back then, I would never have guessed I’d be doing it again at 66 -- faster. In June, I became the oldest rider ever to complete Elite PAC Tour -- an 18-day, 2700-mile-plus dash from San Diego to Savannah.
Life Imitates Distance Riding
I’m not a cycling coach, but I do teach courses to non-riders about energy and endurance because (in case you hadn’t noticed), life imitates long distance riding:
- Each day brings its own challenges;
- The external obstacles are immovable and uncaring (mountains and headwinds are like traffic; getting upset does you no good);
- The internal obstacles are tougher: pain, boredom, anxiety, confusion, discouragement, irritation, distraction;
- Sometimes, you ride with friends; sometimes, you must you ride alone;
- You must decide how to spend your energy; how to save it; how to recover it.
- Tomorrow, you ride again.
So this article isn’t about the ride...it’s about how I survived it. Perhaps some of the lessons learned will help you -- on the bike and off.
Strictly speaking, Elite PAC not a Randonneuring event, but there were plenty of Randos on the ride, including former RUSA President Mark Thomas, tuning up for his super performance later in the year at Paris-Brest-Paris. The event is the brainchild of Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo, RAAM pioneers, coast-to-coast record holders, and ultra-distance icons.
Susan, Lon and their cadre of wonderful volunteers provide amazing support along the ride, which means you never have to stagger bleary-eyed into a Seven-11 searching for Coke and potato chips. You also never ride in the dark and you get to sleep all night every night. What’s not to like?
So, here are my Seven Secrets of Success:
Lesson #1: It’s (Almost) All Mental
“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical,” Yogi Berra said. Riding across country is 90% mental and 10% fuel economy. For me, it meant not being afraid to fail. I’ve known success (two PBPs) and failures (a couple of 1200k DNFs) and neither killed me. It gave me the confidence to take on a ride an averaging 150 miles a day...even with a Medicare card in my wallet.
Lesson #2: Ration Your Energy
You can go much further than you think you can, but you have to be careful not to burn too much energy on any one mountain or in any one day. I ignored my speedometer. I focused on my cadence and my heart rate. Over the course of a multi-day strenuous event, my average heart rate steadily drops. After the first week, I knew that, if I kept both my heart rate and my pedal revolutions in the 80s, I could go on forever. That meant flying downhill, cruising the flats in the high teens and crawling up the mountains.
Lesson #3: Know Buddies; No Vampires
I was very fortunate to ride frequently with a super-strong rider from Missouri, Dru Dixon. A physician who has delivered 5,000 babies, he helped melt away the miles with his stories -- including how he replaced both of his hips. He was a tremendous “energy buddy,” always positive and upbeat. In life and on the road, I try to avoid the negative “energy vampires” who can suck the energy out of a paceline -- or a career.
Lesson #4: Humility is Huge
Long fast tours are a source of humility. There are four things you can count on:
- You WILL do something really, really stupid (being tired does that...);
- Testosterone kills (racing to be the first rider to the top of a hill is like being the first kid to turn in his homework; it might feed the ego, but it means nothing);
- You must sweat the small stuff (not bringing enough water into the desert can have dire consequences);
- It’s all about your vulnerabilities.
Lesson #5: Value Your Vulnerabilities
In my case, the vulnerabilities are knees. The last time I rode across the country, eleven years ago, my knees were killing me. Not this time: I added lower gears, shortened my cranks, lost 20 pounds, got a professional bike fit, wrapped the knees with KT tape, did yoga to strengthen them, and took it easy on the climbs.
Lesson #6: Have a Purpose to the Pedaling
Part of the reason for my trip was raising money for Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen I helped start more than three decades ago. When the going got tough, I just remembered that every mile I logged earned money to feed Baltimore’s hungry. Their challenges are a lot bigger than mine.
Lesson #7: It’s Never Too Late
If you’ve thought about a cross-country ride, keep thinking. It can be a life- changing experience at any age. My hero is Robert Marchand, who in early 2014 set a new world age-group record of 16.7 miles for an hour ride on a bicycle. If that doesn’t sound too impressive, consider that Mr. Marchand’s “age group” is “over 100.” He was 102 and he broke his old record set when he was 100.
Still think you’re too old?
Written for American Randonneur Magazine, January 2016 By Greg Conderacci