A Case for Suffering: When epic isn’t enough

When you reach the "epic" point of a ride and it's not enough, just keep pedaling

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After nine hours of pedaling, navigating, and aching, we were suddenly lost. Somewhere, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, the tracks we had been following were not to be found. County Road 82 and County Road 17 came to a “T;” I went left onto another anonymous road not unlike the previous 140 miles, riddled with washboarded ruts and covered in a fine powder of ochre dust. But there were no signs of previous treads.

My weary-eyed fellow competitor, Mark, had joined me not long ago; I caught him as he stood idly on the side of another dusty track, cursing ever so slightly. It turned out he was in the lead, then went off his cue sheet entirely and somehow found his way back on course — though he didn’t know it. “Yeah, you’re on the course. We’re going to go around this butte, then back onto CR 82 for a while,” I told him. He seemed rather reluctant to move. His off-route excursion cost him 11 miles, or so said our Garmins.

Mark trailed behind me on this current detour, too. He could sense it, perhaps. Eventually I did, came to a stop, and pulled out the map. A wrath of slightly more venomous cursing ensued. I quickly decided that wherever we were was the opposite of where we needed to be; I took off. Mark lingered a little longer, checking cue sheets and computers until he finally rolled my way.

It was easy to see that I had jumped ahead on the map, taken one turn too early, a mistake made easy by the complete agony I was in. When what you long for is to stop what you’re doing, knowing that you can’t stop for at least another hour — a sensation you’ve been experiencing for hours already — you lose any gentlemanly qualities.

Which begs the question that many have tried to answer: Why do we do this to ourselves? I have my reasons.

Call it a justification of masochistic tendencies, but I like to think of it as my DaVinci curse: I travel as part scientist, part artist, always curious, simultaneously pushing the experiment that is me to reveal something new, attempting to perfect the performance of pushing boundaries while remaining composed, enthralled, and inspired.

I don’t believe that it’s healthy to suffer for the sake of suffering. But it can be illuminating to inspect what suffering means to oneself, to get uncomfortable, then understand how to make that state comfortable once again. Then, you go beyond that to the unknown once more, slowly ascending the invisible staircase of self-understanding. You learn who you are and what it is to be human. You learn that we, humans, are capable of staggering things. What we think is our utmost is rather easily turned into another segment on the gran fondo of our evolution.

Yet, in the pursuit of harder, we often attempt to make things easier. When we do something that hurts or challenges us, we are naturally inclined to want to do it better (usually this means faster) the next time.

We train; we calculate; we furrow our brows and ponder the possibilities.

Of course, humans are also as dumb as they are smart. In the process of getting faster (i.e. better) we just go harder. And we never make anything easier. We might reduce the time we spend suffering, is all.

Yes, it’s like the Greg LeMond quote: “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” It’s like a hundred cliché maxims. How hard is Mont Ventoux versus Mount Baldy? Go as hard as you can and they are each as hard as they can be — pain levels reach a maximum. One painful ride will just be a bit shorter.

So, it all comes down to the clock — friend, enemy, instrument of torture, and impetus for self-directed exploration.

Back on the dirt roads of eastern Colorado, I was sliding from one butt cheek to the other, incapable of sitting on the saddle like a reasonable adult. I couldn’t stomach another ounce of food, and drinking wasn’t much better. My mind kept demanding to know why I was in the middle of this tortuous ordeal. I was mad at the world, so angry and exhausted I could only muster sporadic fits of short words that begin with “f.” This was the AntiEpic, a low-key “gravel grinder,” and it was turning into the hardest thing I had ever done.

Mark was slowly drifting back, farther and farther as we crested the innumerable rollers of eastern Colorado. Why was I looking back, I wondered? This isn’t a race against anyone but my own brain. I was in torment, honestly, and all I wanted was to fall asleep and wake up in a bathtub of milk and honey with a steak and beer next to me.

And then it was over. I checked in at a minivan, where the wife of the organizer waited for us to roll across the “finish line.”

“Good job. What’s your name? … OK, 5:24 p.m. You were fourth.”

It had been 10 hours, 52 minutes, and 27 seconds since our neutral roll out that morning under the watchful eye of Pikes Peak. I rode 159.3 miles on everything from glassy-smooth, polished dirt, to an undulating section of farm track B-road, and endless miles of sand, gravel, marbles, washboards, and solitude. I crawled over almost 10,000 feet of backroads, dosed in short, steep hills, hundreds of them, and an equal number of downhills that were just slightly uphill. Did I mention that I broke a spoke at mile 25 and was simply too incredulous to consider the consequences of having to walk 100 miles if I happened to break another, or three, in the next 135 miles of nowhere? So I rambled on without a rear brake, forever wary of the impending explosion of aluminum. It never came.

I sat in my car and hurt. And hurt. I just didn’t understand why I had done that, the pain was just that palpable. It took me a while to fully realize what I had done; it took me only slighter longer — remarkably, only another day or so — to stop questioning why I had done that and start daydreaming about when I could do it again.

That’s when I thoroughly considered the fact that I could be insane. Is it just me, or are some cyclists hard to comprehend, their interest in pushing beyond their limits at the core of their being, and radically different from the general population?

It’s not that I embrace pain, it’s that I don’t mind it that much, sometimes not at all.

There are different kinds of pain — the anaerobic violence of cyclocross versus the insatiable ache of the endurance gravel grinder — and, likewise, there are different forms of tolerance. We all have our tricks for setting it aside, and our reasons for going back for more.

Me? Many people don’t seem to understand me; most people don’t even ask. Maybe “crazy” is printed all over my kit, and they just shake their head and mutter, “Poor kid,” when I’m not looking.

Well, I do it to take my body to places that it has never been before. Because I can. I do it to use my mind to win out over my body. Because I can. I do it to evolve. Because I want to.

When epic isn’t enough, go farther. Because you can.

Editor’s note: Velo managing editor Chris Case has spent enough time racing parking lot criteriums to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time racing a bike. In his quest to find pain and pleasure in equal measure, he has sought out the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions to test his mind, body, and equipment. Follow along with his experiment to race the best and most difficult courses, the iconic and the emerging, the most punishing and most promising, on- and off-road. Live vicariously through him, poke fun at him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @leicacase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note at ccase@competitorgroup.com.