Monday, March 31, 2014

K-Hounds On My Mind

Background on Randonneuring

If you don't know much about randonneuring, this section of the post is for you. If you do, skip ahead to the next section.

RUSA stands for Randonneurs of the United States of America. Randonneuring is a kind of recreational cycling focused on attempting the challenge of completing very long bicycle rides. Although the rides have to be completed within a fixed time, that time is fairly generous and the rides attempted by randonneurs are most definitely not races. Perhaps you have heard of a century ride, a 100 mile bicycle ride considered a rite of passage for some cyclists. The shortest brevet (what the rides of randonneuring are called) is 200 kilometers long or 124 miles and they go up from there. Regular readers of this blog know that I find it a challenge to complete one of these 200K brevets a year. Serious randonneurs do much more. There is no such thing as a standard season, but if there were, it would probably consist of at least one brevet a month with each year including at least one brevet of 200, 300, 400, 600, and 1200 kilometers in length. Besides the awards randonneurs receive for completing individual rides, there are additional awards for cumulative accomplishments. For example, completing a 200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K brevet in the same year earns the "Super Randonneur" award and a rider who rides at least one brevet in each of 12 consecutive calendar months earns the R12 award. This post is about a new award introduced for 2014 called the K-Hound award, given for completing 10,000 kilometers of brevets in a year. Remember how I said I find it difficult to complete one 200K brevet a year? To earn the K-Hound award means averaging one 200K brevet a week. Final point: each and very member of RUSA is identified by a number. I am RUSA #7759 for example. RUSA #7560 is one of my fellow randonneurs, and as to why (s)he is the focus of this post, read on...

The K-Hound Award

As a member of RUSA, I always look forward to a new issue of our magazine, "American Randonneur." The Spring 2014 issue just arrived, and in it is the announcement of a new award, the K-Hound, given for riding at least 10,000 kilometers in RUSA sanctioned events in one calendar year. Although new as an official RUSA award, the K-Hound award has been around for a while and was invented in my home state of Texas. As noted above, I am a particularly weak member of the randonneuring community, struggling to complete a single 200K brevet a year, so the announcement of yet another award well beyond my reach is not that big a deal. What made it a big deal was how this award was announced, with stories from people who had earned this award before it became official.

RUSA # 7560

One story in particular caught my eye. The author chose to be anonymous, identifying himself or herself only by his or her RUSA number, #7560. What attracted me to this story is the similarity between it and mine. To quote:

I [was] 50, overweight, with high blood pressure... Things were dire on July 4, 2011 when a Walmart bike ... changed my life. Day by day, five miles at a time, the pounds slowly melted.

Change July 2011 to August 2008 and 50 to 60 and this is my story. However, from there, the stories diverge drastically:

  • In February of 2012, #7560 completed his first 200K brevet.
  • In May of 2012, I completed my first 200K brevet.

  • After this first brevet, #7560 discovered the R12 award.
  • Even before my first brevet, I planned it to be the first of twelve leading to my R12 award.

  • #7560's first brevet was the first of twelve leading to his/her R12 award.
  • I was unable to complete a second brevet for a year.

  • In his second year, #7560 completed two 600K brevets one week apart, his first 1200K brevet followed by weekly 200K or 300K brevets to earn his first K-Hound award.
  • In my second year, I barely managed to complete one 200K brevet and actively failed in my attempt to prepare for another 6 months later.

A final quote from RUSA #7650:

[I] went from couch potato to K-Hound in twenty-eight months, and really, I'm nobody special. I firmly believe anyone can do it.

I am awestruck at #7650's accomplishments. However, say as (s)he might that "anyone can do it," that has not been my experience. But why not?

What Am I Doing Wrong?

My previous post entitled "Stories We Tell Ourselves" is about how any given set of facts can be explained many different ways. One strategy we scientists employ to root out the truth in this situation is to list as many of these explanations as we can and then devise experiments to distinguishing between them. With that in mind, let me list some obvious explanations for why #7650 might have succeeded while I failed:
  1. I am too lazy or too timid. I could do it if I tried.
  2. I am training incorrectly.
  3. I shouldn't be training at all. Just ride.
  4. #7650 is 10 years younger than I am.
  5. Genes matter. Some people can do many long rides, others can't.
Regular readers of this blog will stare suspiciously at the above list, growling "Haven't we seen this list before?" Yes you have, or something like it. I am repeating it here for two reasons. First, I couldn't think of any easy way to refer to it without repeating it. Second, although I previously addressed these questions from a theoretical point of view, in this post, I would like to address them more practically; what are the experiments I could do to distinguish between them? As a professional scientist, I would have to say there are none; professional science frowns on experiments of one. However as a person living their life as best they can, I have no choice but to try. Given that, testing Explanation 1 is fairly straightforward; I would just go out each month and attempt a 200K brevet, no matter how my training had gone, no matter how I felt. I confess I find that prospect daunting, but this doesn't have to be an all or nothing experiment. What this line of thought inspires me to consider is to be a little more aggressive about just trying a brevet and see how it goes even when everything is not perfect.

I would like to consider Explanations 2 and 3 together because, to my eye, no training (Explanation 3) is just one extreme example of a training plan (Explanation 2.) No training is not as silly a plan as it sounds. In this same issue of "American Randonneur" is an article by Bill Olsen who rode every 1200K brevet offered in the Americas in 2013. He very deliberately did no training other than the 1200Ks themselves, even abandoning his daily bicycle commute to provide extra recovery time. (This makes the point that what "no training" really means that your training consists of the brevets themselves; no additional training might be a better way of saying it.)

Testing Explanations 2 and 3 is not so straightforward; there are too many possible training plans. I have been advised by various of my readers to train faster, to train slower, to train less, to train more, or to not train at all. I have previously reviewed various published training plans. There are many different training plans described on various web sites. Finally, based on my cycling as a teenager (a century ride most weekends, racing against members of the U.S. Olympic Team, a summer riding up and down the mountain passes of the Alps) I have my own ideas about training. Unfortunately, this results in way to many training ideas to try; I have no choice but to use my intuition to pick the ones that seem most plausible to try first. As regular readers know, I am already doing that. This experiment will continue, but I feel like I have already learned some things. Unsurprisingly, nothing I have learned has been a game changer. I feel like it is important for me to train regularly and sensibly, but the details of that training seem not to be all that significant.

I would also like to consider Explanations 4 and 5 together. They are very different in their causes and their implications for my past, but come to the same thing for my present and future. If I am too old to become a K-Hound or if I simply lack the genes for it, either way there is nothing I can do.

In my experience, being too old is more of an issue than it might seem to younger riders. In 1996, I went on a week long backpacking trip with the Boy Scouts at Philmont High Adventure Camp. I was 47 years old and arguably the strongest of the 6 scouts and 4 adults in our group. In 2003, I went on a week long backpacking trip with the Boy Scouts at Whitsett Sierra High Adventure Camp. I was 54 years old and arguably the weakest of the similarly-sized group. Age matters.

I also believe that genes matter. This is well documented in the training literature, but I would like to focus instead on some anecdotal evidence.  I began reading about randonneuring at least a year before my first brevet. I assumed I would, with reasonable preparation, be able to ride any brevet, including a 1200K (750 mile) grand randonnĂ©e. We cyclists like to document our cycling and so I avidly read as many ride reports by randonneurs I could find. The first chill wind to affect my confidence was one such report. This report by Jennifer Chang described her failed attempt to complete the Cascades 1200K in 2010; failed because to count as an official finish she would have had to complete it in 90 hours and took her, after many trials and tribulations, 90 hours and 25 minutes. This is a beautifully tragic piece of writing and I recommend it to everyone, but the one simple line in all this magnificent prose that chilled me to the bone was this one: "I don’t think I have the randonneur’s body."She didn't have a randonneur's body? There is such a thing? You mean, you can't do whatever you set your mind to? What if I don't have a randonneur's body?

Both explanations 4 and 5 are difficult to test experimentally except by process of elimination. If I try everything and nothing works, then that suggests that either due to age or genes, being a K-Hound is not in my future. In theory, this experiment will never finish because there is always something else to try. In practice, I'm afraid I already have the answer; I don't think I have the randonneur's body. However, the experiment will continue. Why not?

1 comment:

    Welcome to BF!

    I like riding long distances, but I'm very slow. I'm an Uber Clyde, mostly by nature, but the last 50 by choice. I'm 48, 6', 265lb and recreational lifter. I lift rather heavy. When I was born, the doctor said I wouldn't "a runner that's for sure"... I'm built to pull a plow...

    I tried a 200k 2 weeks ago. I knew from average speed I wouldn't make the time. So my goal was finish the course regardless of how long it takes. I did use indoor intervals to help me prepare for the climbs. Being heavy, climbing is a challenge to say the least. I made the course only an hour over. I met marvelous people. The ride was fun. The climbs were a challenge. All in all I'm extremely glad I did it.

    I fully agree with your 3 factors. Age, and genetics are not in my favor...

    Next objective, actually finish same course and distance when the event is held in August.

    rusa #9648