The Seattle to Portland bike ride is a ~320 km bike ride that people do in either one or two days. The annual event attracts almost 10000 people every year. As a novice in cycling, I thought that this would be a great way to get involved in actual cycling events, and so I signed up, not knowing if I could even complete it, but at least it would give me a strong incentive to train. This post is about my experience in preparing for the ride and doing the actual ride itself in a single day.
In the summer of 2017, two friends and I rode STP over the course of two days (this was my first cycling event ever). At the time, I didn’t really know how to train other than just riding a lot of miles and I never really gave any conscious thought to hydration or nutrition. I clocked in about 1500 km over 70 hours of training from March till July (which was totally below what the official training plan called for).
On the event day, I ate whatever there was at the rest stops and drank the electrolyte drinks. I also ate this supplement called SportLegs that people were giving out. They supposedly improve muscle performance (however, sports dietitian thinks they’re more placebo than anything). I didn’t know anything at the time, and I just ate them anyway.
We were worried that our legs would be too sore to continue on the second day, but on the morning of the second day, we didn’t feel fresh, but nonetheless we made it through both days (with both legs still working!) and we were super happy with ourselves for having accomplished this. We joked that maybe it was the SportLegs (to this day we still don’t know). As we crossed the finish line, I said to my friends, “OK so we’re going to do STP in one day next year right?”. They thought I was joking, but I wasn’t.
The problems begin
The next event that summer was Obliteride 2017, a century ride to raise awareness and fundraise to fight cancer. I figured that since I had done STP, I’d be able to do this ride no problem. This is where problems for me started.
Around the 50 km mark, I started cramping up a little bit, and I still had 110 km to go. I started drinking much much more of the electrolyte drinks and eating, but the cramping just got worse and worse. It’s not that I didn’t have the strength – but each stroke I took, I felt the cramps. But the cramps weren’t SO bad that I couldn’t continue – I just had a terrible finish.
I went to see a physiotherapist to see what was happening, and she took a look, and she could only identify a slight pelvic rotation (my hips were leaning to one side of the bike), but she didn’t think that was the root cause. She couldn’t see anything wrong with the bike fit either, but thought it could have been a lack of training since Obliteride was much hillier than STP. I did the exercises she asked me to do and that was about it. I had also signed up for the Whistler GranFondo and Chilly Hilly as well, but I couldn’t even finish either of them. At one point, my entire right leg locked up on me and I couldn’t bend it for a couple of minutes. I began to worry if I could even continue cycling anymore.
Tackling the problem
I was so fed up with this problem, that I scheduled appointments with different doctors in sports medicine to get their advice. They all suspected that it was a nutrition problem and referred me to a sports dietitian. At my first appointment with the dietitian, she asked me about my lifestyle, how much I ate, exercised, etc. and immediately said, “you’re not eating enough for the exercise you’re doing” (I estimated that I was eating about 2200 calories/day). She wrote out on the whiteboard a high level guideline as to how I should eat.
I saw her for about a month and a half and after following her advice, my problems were solved! In a way, I got the OK from the nutritionist to eat as much as I want, even massive amounts of sodium and sugar, provided that I keep up my level of exercise. Knowing that eating more was the fix, I had no problem with that.
She also got me to measure my sweat rate, so I’d know how much water to replenish during big rides.
Training for STP 2018
I rode sporatically in the winter (I should have followed Rule #5 of the Velominati) and didn’t really start training seriously until June. From January to May, I clocked in only 848 km over 38 hours, which was only a bit less than year before at the same time, but I had started earlier in the year this time.
I made a plan for myself where I would do intervals twice a week with a big ride on the weekend (in June alone I clocked in 577 km over 25 hours). Two of the big training rides I had were century rides, where I got to work out the specifics in my nutrition and hydration plan. In total, I rode about 1600 km over 73 hours, not counting the intervals.
Three weeks before the event date, I started sleeping earlier and earlier (by about 15-30 minutes each day) to get myself used to waking up early since I would have to be on the road by 5:30am on event day.
Two days before the ride, I started carb loading (as per instructions from the dietitian).
My emotional state
I didn’t like the fact that training took so much time out of my week. I was already spending 10+ hours on the saddle, and I was beginning to feel mentally tired from all willpower required. The intervals drained me mentally even more because of the mental focus I needed to force myself to spin as hard as I could. It’s so easy to just stop when things get tough, and interval training was more mentally draining than any training ride I did.
As the event date drew closer, thoughts of my possible failure creeped into my mind, getting stronger day by day. I couldn’t think of anything else. I thought back to the wise words of Sun Tzu:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
I even started meditating to calm my mind. My coworkers could tell that I was more distracted than usual and provided me with good encouragement.
My friend and I started the ride around 5:30 am, and because there were so many cyclists on the road, drafting propelled us quickly and we made it to the halfway point around 2:30 pm. I still felt pretty fresh at that time which was good.
I knew that most riders do the ride in 2 days, so I expected not to be able to draft behind other riders. By about 200 km, I started feeling tired, but I knew I had to keep going. There was still 120 km to go.
I wasn’t having fun anymore. At this point, it was just a grueling grind to the finish, where the finish line was hours away. I wanted the day to be over. and thought to myself, “this too shall pass”. Looking at my bike computer frequently to see how far we’ve gone made it worse – slowly watching the distance ticking upward while thinking “when will this end?”
The temperature that day went up to a max of around 38 degrees Celsius. We rode in the burning heat, slowly becoming more and more dehydrated. I wanted the sun to set faster, so that it’d be cooler.
Judging by the dozens of people we saw at rest areas, we figured our pace was pretty good. But as we went further along, there were less and less people at the rest stops. Either they bailed, or they were much faster than us.
The finish line would close at 9 pm, and there was no way I’d get to the finish line in time. I wish I had trained harder.
For most of the last third, we rode mainly on our own, occasionally seeing another rider, whom we’d ride behind just to get an extra bit of a boost.
At the last rest area, there was almost nobody, maybe like a dozen people at most, but we were only some 25 km away. We could do this.
My friend and I would swap taking the lead every five minutes so that we could balance out the wind load between the two of us. The fact that the two of us rode together allowed us to talk to each other and help lift each other up. I think that helped a greal deal mentally and emotionally.
At dusk, we finally entered Portland. We were now just 30 minutes away from the finish line. We joined a group of other riders and rode together till the end.
I called out to the other riders with encouraging words like, “yeah! We’re almost there wooo”, but looking back I think I sounded too happy (despite my true feelings of misery) and the people around me probably thought I was a jerk for being so happy while they felt miserable.
Finally we reached the finish line at 10:30 pm. People were still there and cheering us on as we arrived. I almost shed a tear. I was overjoyed having finally achieving this goal.
Other friends who drove to Portland met us at the finish line and could see our happiness despite how filthy we were. We weren’t even hungry nor thirsty. We were in no mood to do anything. We just wanted to sleep. My friend was told that he sounded brain dead because he replied with one word answers and lacked the concentrated gaze that he normally had, whereas I was still considered having a sound mind.
The next morning, I woke up with quite the hangover even though I drank no alcohol. I was just REALLY REALLY dehydrated from the bike ride in the blazing heat.
After this entire ordeal, I told myself, “I’m not going to do this again next year”. I didn’t get back on the bike until late August – I think STP scarred me a little bit. I definitely don’t regret having done this at all, and I’m still very proud of what I did.