The Training Ride from Hell | Grit & Gravel

“Racing is easy, anyone can do it. True grit is found in the training” -Unknown

There are some training rides that you don’t even have words for. Maybe that’s because you are too exhausted to form complete sentences. At the end of my final big training schedule before a major endurance event: I collapsed on my front porch covered in grit, completely soaked and unable to walk. My only coherent thought was: WTF? I was at a complete loss for words.

Fortunately, (to my husband’s frequent dismay) I rarely stay at a loss for words long.

True Grit

Racing is easy. Theoretically, anyone can sign up, pin a number on and race. However, if you want to race to improve your time or maybe get a chance at the podium: you need to train. Behind the victory smiles found on podiums around the world, there are echoes of past pain.

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Up until quite recently, I have been a person that rode for fun and if I made a podium: goody for me. My idea of ‘fun’ might be considered insane to most fast-food scarfing couch-surfers, but I enjoy riding my bike for hours. Thanks to the fact that I found a new level of insanity called Gravel Grinding, fun also now includes a new level of pain.

Proving Ground

Training is where athletes are made. I quickly realized that, up until recently, I was mostly a tourist. I rode for fun. I rode when I felt like it and I went as hard as I wanted to (or not). I got too complacent in my comfort zone and now I was paying the price.

I train, not because I have podium expectations, but because I don’t want to embarrass myself. After a few flops earlier in 2018, it became obvious that I wasn’t going to get better without some help. Quite frankly: I thought I sucked. So, I hired an endurance coach and got my free bus pass to Hell.

The Training Ride from Hell | Grit & Gravel

I remember thinking, “Why is this so damn hard?” I looked down at my Garmin to see that I’d only ridden for 15 miles. My next thought isn’t appropriate for public consumption. I felt like I was riding uphill into a 12 mph wind in a sauna carrying a 20lb sack. Oh, wait – I WAS.

The storms were brewing to the south and kicked up the wind early. We had started off late at 6:20 am. Yes, that’s late for the south Texas summer. That heat will cook me like a microwaved marshmallow. We had our bikes packed with water to make to the halfway point and fuel for the ride. This is also known as weight training.

My husband and I had our goals: 7.5 hours of gravel grinding. He was deep into a double-header weekend and aiming for 90 miles. I was looking forward to a mere 80 miles. I knew I wouldn’t be going fast after the hard rides leading up to that morning. For my sanity and his – we would also not be training together.

“Remember. Every day, some ordinary person does something extraordinary. Today, it’s your turn.” -Lou Holtz

I was feeling extraordinary all right. I felt like I was a beat-down victim and I was mentally cursing my coach. Then, a miracle happened around mile 25 – I got a tailwind! Oh, joy! Unfortunately, that didn’t make the gravel any easier. The gravel you find in the ‘cheap & cheerful’ counties in Texas is some of the toughest Gravel Grinding you will ever experience.

I’ve ridden up 4×4 Jeep trails in Colorado that weren’t much more challenging. Summertime is the worst. You’ve got washboard, deep loose dry chunky gravel that bounces you everywhere and you can’t get traction on the hill climbs. Oh, and there’s a lot of hills. Between the elevation and plowing through gravel, you wish you had Fat Tires and a motor.

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

The tailwind is awesome! Except the sun had come out and I was sweating so hard that my pores literally hurt. I looked like a large mobile soaker hose set on ‘high’. That 10lbs of water I was carrying to make it to the half-way stop was getting lighter by the minute. Never fear: Mother Nature had a solution.

I saw the dark clouds approaching and the wind got eerily still. That calm before the storm is both awe-inspiring a little unnerving. Our lizard brains start screaming “run for your life!” Heck, I’m slogging through Hell’s gravel pit right now so I’m not going anywhere fast. I was looking forward to that hard-packed fast rolling limestone gravel that was just a few miles away… Maybe I can make it to the halfway point before the floodgates open up.


Thirty-five minutes later I couldn’t see where I was going and my brakes were howling from the grit thrown into them by the pounding rain. On the bright side: I’m not hot anymore. Be careful what you ask for. I had thought: “Maybe a few sprinkles would feel good”.  I was now praying not too fall into any holes or get swept away on the low water crossing.

Riding mostly blind is interesting. For some reason, my panicked brain reminded me of Star Wars … “Let the force guide you.”

The deluge lets up just as I pulled into our halfway point. I dismounted and saw about a pound of mud and grit on my bike saddle. “Uh-oh” … I stepped back to get the full picture. Sure enough, I must have been carrying half of Fayette County with me over the past few sodden miles. I’m a blessed soul because there was an operational hose that was soon shooting cool clear water all over my poor bike (and me).

I looked like I had been mud-wrestling and lost. I’m happy to report that most of the grit stayed on the outside of my kit.

“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” -Michael Jordan

My husband pulled up a few minutes later looking miserable but determined – and a lot cleaner than me. I have this sneaking suspicion that he’s got a force field that protects him from life. As he ran around doing bizarre stuff (why was he stripping?) – I decided to set off. After pondering the clouds, the gravel, my soaked body, the rest of the course and the meaning of life, I decided … ‘F’ IT.

It seems the harder I try and farther away the goal gets. When I don’t care, things are great! At that point in the ride, I decided I didn’t give a brass-plated rat’s arse about the training plan. I was just going to ride my bike and enjoy the rest of my day.

“When the going gets tough … the tough go get an espresso and a pastry.” –Erin Urban

From that point on, I felt immensely better. Maybe it was the protein shake I had or maybe it was the break my muscles needed. More likely, it was my attitude. I was stronger and happier. I tackled the headwind and appreciated the frequent periodic rain bursts. The clouds kept the temperature down (thank God) and I didn’t care if I was riding on gravel or pavement. I was riding my bike. That’s all that mattered.

Then, I met Sam. I’d seen this older yellow Lab before but usually, he lost interest after a few leisurely strides after my bike. About a mile or so later I look back to see his goofy face smiling as he loped along behind me. His tongue was about to drag the ground as he panted heavily. I stopped.

Luckily, the neighbor about a half-mile away (this is the country) was out working on his gate. We chatted for a while and he offered to hold Sam so I could leave. Poor Sam just wanted a friend (and water). After a few scratches behind the ear, I had a feeling that he would follow me all the way back to Fayetteville if I let him.

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Predictably, after deciding to ignore my training plan I proceeded to not only enjoy my ride but ride farther than I thought I could. If you had asked me at mile 15 or mile 30 if I could actually ride close to 80 miles that day I would have said: “$#%%!! NO!” Ironically this is how our minds work. I love riding my bike. When I let go of my expectations, I was mentally free to perform at my best.

I tell people that cycling is 75% mental. They think I’m nuts but it’s about right. Your attitude is what defines your life. Your mental focus determines what you get out of that experience. I was enjoying the scenery again and treasuring the views at the top the climbs. It may take me a while to walk normally again but that’s what it takes to become stronger.

Play or Pain

No true growth is found in your comfort zone. You have to set aside your pride, your ego, and your expectations. Ride with your faster friends. Get dropped and try again. Do those rides you know are going to hurt every now and then. My coach is right when she said: “Training can be mentally taxing, much more than the physical”.

Decide when to play and decide when to bring the pain. It takes both to get stronger, fitter, faster and healthier. I had forgotten that I needed to pay the price to enjoy the returns of exertion. Everyone has a training ride from hell occasionally. If you do it right, you’ll learn a lot and the training will be the hardest part of your journey.

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You are a product of your inputs. Your experience is determined by your attitude. Set your mind free of worry to enjoy the moment.
-Erin Urban