I remember discussing with my tri coach the training load that preparing for a century would generate, especially when combined with training for an olympic-length triathlon (to follow about six weeks after the century) and building the base for longer events the following year. Specifically, I remember the part where we talked about the long weekend rides that would extend into the 6+ hour range. At the time, I considered this information with my rational mind — the part that figures out how I’ll schedule the rides, how that time will affect my work schedule, and so on. What I didn’t consider then was how the rides would feel, both physically and emotionally.

I’ve come to really love the long rides on weekends. Yes, they take up a big chunk of the day. When the rides first appeared on my workout schedule, they involved getting up early, driving out to catch a 30-50 mile local group ride (either by myself or with a training partner), and rolling into the garage at home later that morning tired, happy, and ready for a late breakfast. It was one of those early group rides that actually broke through my fear of riding with others. Earlier this summer I’d intended to catch a relatively slow (16-17 mph average) “tempo” ride. But when I arrived at the start, it turned out the group leader hadn’t been able to make it. Asking around, we discovered that he’d fallen ill at the last minute and cancelled. Rather than go home, we all joined the other ride starting at the same time, which turned out to be a much faster group.

Waiting with my friend Robbie to start that fast-as-hell ride.

Taking in that day’s pre-ride briefing with my friend Robbie.

At the group’s first rest stop, we were virtually dead. I was soaked completely through with sweat. I even pulled my gloves off and wrung the sweat out of them. Hell, the whole ride was rough. They rode faster than 20+ average, and they operated a rotating pace line, which I didn’t understand. It would’ve been completely reasonable for the group to be annoyed with me, and maybe they were. It’s not like they were warm and welcoming, but they were patient. The first time I sort of botched my way through a pull at the front, the ride leader had to explain to me what to do. As I slid by him going backward in the slow line, I thanked him. “Gotta learn sometime,” he said.

Waiting for post-sunrise OAS group rollout. We later discovered OAS stands for "old and stupid."

Waiting for post-sunrise OAS group rollout. We later discovered OAS stands for “old and stupid.”

One time when I was shooting the bull with the (awesome) bike tech at my favorite shop, we lit upon the subject of parking at a run I planned to do the next day. His solution was the same I’ve heard from him regarding transportation to or from any event, athletic or otherwise: “Ride your bike.” This idea turns out to work great for weekend long rides, too. So as my calendar called for more weekend miles in the saddle, I discovered the fun of planning a ride around other rides. For example, I’d drive to a ride, leave my truck there, do a 50 mile ride with the group, then ride 15 miles home to get in a planned 65. Audra would take me back later to retrieve the truck.

The whole process has helped me to relax quite a bit about athletic group activities. Why sweat the possibilities of being dropped from a ride or finding out a ride isn’t right for you when such “failures” simply result in riding and navigating by yourself — which is exactly what you’d do if you didn’t try out the ride? Hopefully this sticks with me. I have enough anxiety in my life for any two people, and eliminating this portion of it is A Good Thing(tm).

Sunday’s long ride perfectly exemplifies what these rides have become for me.

I set my alarm for 5 a.m. to give myself time to eat some breakfast and digest a bit before heading out, but for some reason I woke up at 4:30. You’d think that after Saturday’s awesome run and a shoulder resistance workout later in the day, I wouldn’t have any problem sleeping in, but apparently that wasn’t the case. Instead, I made some oatmeal and a shot of espresso and leisurely read my favorite “active life” blogs in the dark at the kitchen table. I’d laid everything out the night before, so all I had to do was throw on my kit and pump up the tires.

A few years ago, this was inconceivably early.

A few years ago, this was inconceivably early. After February and March’s 4 a.m. wake ups for tri training, it’s not that bad.

I caught up with my friend Teri at 6:30, and from there we rode the short distance over to the start of the same “tempo” ride I mentioned above. She knew every shortcut on the way, so we rode sidewalks and cut-thrus all the way, arriving in plenty of time for the group’s’ 7 a.m. departure. From there, we put in approximately 45 miles with the group, looping out around the northeast edge of the metroplex, passing through some little towns including Murphy, Texas. Audra and I used to drive to Murphy for sessions with our friend and trainer Mitch when he worked at the 24 Hour Fitness there. The Murphy 24 Hour had a pool, and I remember first talking to Mitch about the possibility of learning to “swim for exercise” at one of our sessions there.

Stuck at a stop light not long before we departed the group ride.

Stuck at a stop light not long before we departed the group ride.

That's a big dog.

That’s a big dog.

At the far South end of the group ride, Teri and I split off and headed over to the University of Texas at Dallas campus to stop for water and bathrooms and to call Audra, who planned to join us for part of the ride. As we rode closer to UTD, my memories of driving to and from campus at all hours of the day and night kicked in, and I was acutely aware of our location. Since Teri has been riding around Dallas its suburbs for as long as I’ve lived in the area, she’s usually the one who knows where we are — and knows where to find every cold water fountain and clean bathroom. So it was a nice change of pace to get to share some from my experience.

After a quick call to Audra, we planned to meet up with her at the tennis center on the White Rock Lake Trail. We refilled our water bottles from a fountain across the hallway from my undergraduate advisor’s office, and headed out. We also took a brief detour through the campus itself at my request.

Back when I first arrived at UTD as a non-traditional, returning student, I felt very out of place. I soothed this by spending my breaks between classes — when I didn’t have to hunker down somewhere with WiFi and work — walking around the campus to get to know it. Over my first semester, I almost memorized all the twisting roads, weird hidden sidewalks, and oddly-named buildings. But for all the time I spent on campus, I never rode a bike there. So this time I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

It was fun. It felt odd to cross the campus in seconds instead of minutes (as it took walking). We rode straight through the middle of campus, by the misting sculpture, and down the reflecting pond, right by the new building which will house the department from which I just graduated. We exited campus via a running trail that I used to frequent between classes. I still remember sweating myself silly run/walking (because it’s all I knew to do at the time) on that trail, then toweling off, liberally applying deodorant, then walking into my last class of the day a tousled mess.

Riding out the main entrance on my favorite between-classes running trail.

Riding out the main entrance on my favorite between-classes running trail.

We met up with Audra shortly thereafter and proceeded to lap White Rock Lake twice. Audra and Teri had a lot of catching up to do, so I ended up happily following them from about 20 yards back, just enjoying the day. I should probably mention that it did get a bit hot by this point. It was 72 degrees F when we set out at 6:30 a.m., but by noon-ish it was over 100. It’s certainly more comfortable when it’s 75 out, but with the Hotter ‘n Hell coming up, a long ride ending up over 100 represents a great race-day simulation.

The ride's temperature profile, courtesy of my Garmin 800.

The ride’s temperature profile, courtesy of my Garmin 800.

Teri sees Audra parking to join the ride.

Teri sees Audra parking to join the ride.

In the middle of our last WRL loop, we stopped at the lake’s outlook point to refill our bottles. This spot is popular with cyclists, and we certainly weren’t the only ones there. Teri, as she often does, struck up a conversation with the people there, and noticed some Ironman participation stickers on one of the bikes. Closer examination showed that the bike’s owner (a cool-looking young lady in yellow kit) had competed at Kona twice. She’d recently turned pro and was in the area temporarily with her husband, the both of them having graduated recently and obtained post-doc work locally. Yes, triathletes are overachievers.

Pro triathletes, casual riders, and us, all enjoying the lake's trails.

Pro triathletes, casual riders, and us, all enjoying the lake’s trails.

Audra and Teri as we cross the WRL dam. At the end we descend a tight staircase. Bike handling FTW!

Audra and Teri as we cross the WRL dam. At the end we descend a tight staircase. Bike handling FTW!

Audra split back off at the tennis center, and we re-traced our path back north along many of the same roads I’ve ridden before, arriving at about 2:30 p.m. back at the point where we started. In all, the ride accounted for approximately 97 miles spanning just under eight hours, about two hours of which we spent at various rest stops and meetup points.

Checking out the data quickly in the truck before heading home.

Checking out the data quickly in the truck before heading home.

I won’t lie: long rides hurt. At first, my legs burned and I felt like my ass was one big bruise. That improved over time, the burning becoming a deep, dull pain, then eventually a feeling of strong fatigue. My ass doesn’t ache now, either, though yesterday’s ride marks the first time I’ve felt what might be the beginning of saddle sores. (There aren’t any actual sores, but my skin hurt during and after the ride.)

But wow — what a great way to spend the day! As I write this, I realize that I’ve come to really love these long rides. They represent four to eight hours of the week that I don’t need to worry about life and work stress. They represent opportunities to explore the city the same way Audra and I first explored our neighborhood when we started running last year. And they represent time spent alternately alone in thought or chatting with good friends. When these rides disappear from my calendar after the HHH, replaced with race-specific workouts to get me ready for the US Open in October, I’m not sure what I’ll do on weekends. One thing’s certain, though: riding long the last few months has helped me realize a couple of new facets of myself.

Despite rationally understanding that my body will adapt to accommodate additional endurance when properly trained, I remain utterly fascinated watching the process actually happen. In the 1990s, I tried to ride the Hotter ‘n Hell with some friends. We signed up for the 50-mile ride, but with virtually no training — and virtually no fitness work of any kind — and surviving even the first 25 miles was rough. We ended up shortcutting the ride, stopping around the 30 mile point. And when I rode with Kerry in 2010, I got the job done, but it was pretty damn miserable at times, at least physically. (Kerry remains great company on rides!) In 2012, we just suffered out the last 15-20 miles of the 100k. In both 2010 and 2012, I all but passed out after the rides, sleeping for hours and hours. Yet yesterday I rode 97 miles in 100+ degree heat… and had a pretty decent day afterward.

I’m finally starting to believe that I’ll eventually — one day, with the proper training! — be able to handle the long events in which I dream of participating. A half-iron or full Ironman triathlon seems impossibly distant. But then again, a hundred mile ride seemed impossibly distant just a year ago. Now it sounds like the-thing-you-normally-do-on-Sunday. I’m starting to believe.

I’m also surprised to find in myself a love for the outdoors. I’m sure most of the people I grew up with would laugh out loud if they read this, because I’ve spent the vast majority of my life loathing anything outside the air conditioning and disconnected from the computer. Seriously, within 15 minutes of walking out the door on a hot day, I was a whining, annoying pain in the ass. I’ve made fun of (and bashed) camping for as long as I can remember. Through running and riding, especially, but also swimming to some extent, I feel like I’ve established a connection to the world, finally recognizing nature as an integral part of the things that make me happy. The idea of hiking sounds, well, awesome. Camping even sounds fun. I seriously wish I’d taken any of the many opportunities that presented themselves along the way in my life to learn about these things. Kerry, for example, became an Eagle scout. He always seemed to understand this while I poked fun.

I keep telling myself that it’s never too late. My mantra for now is this:

Be bold. Take charge of life. If you want to do it, do it. But do it smartly. Find people who know what they’re doing, introduce yourself, and learn. Just don’t let fear get in the way of growing and experiencing.

Onward into a new week of training, with an opportunity to extend my completed-on-time swim workout streak to eight and another great long ride next weekend. Audra and I are both registered for the Red River Rally, which means my long ride will be supported, too. It’s gonna be a fun week.