Categoryhealth

Seattle to Portland double century bike ride: my experience from training to the big day

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.

STP 2017

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).

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.

知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆。

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.

Race day

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.

Taking Control of Your Sleep Routine

I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that we aren’t getting enough sleep.  We’re always worried about our next deadline and other things we have to do.  Sleep somehow always becomes a lower priority.  After a while of consistently sleeping less and less, we’ve forgotten what it felt like to be fully rested all the time, except on the odd day where we sleep-in for 12 hours.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

Personally, I simply got tired of sleeping so little.  I always sacrificed sleep for more work time in the past.  But now, I’ve come to realize how powerful being rested really is.  It feels so empowering when I wake up in the morning, fully refreshed.  I don’t have to struggle to get out of bed or set 5 alarm clocks to get me out of bed in the morning.  The reason that the struggle exists is because the body wants more sleep.  This is a clear sign of not sleeping enough.  I’m definitely no sleep expert and I don’t claim to be, but I thought I’d share some techniques in how to think differently about sleep.  But first, I think I should share my experience with sleep deprivation, which I felt heavily motivated me into adopting this way of life.  All of this below is just my view on sleep health.

My Battle with Sleep Deprivation

In high school, I pretty much got 8 hours of sleep a night.  It wasn’t that hard since at that time I didn’t really think about optimizing my sleep.  I just remember being nagged to go to sleep by my parents every night.  I never had to stay up doing any homework or anything like that.  Even my first year of university was like that.  Rarely found myself staying up to do work unless there was a exam the next day or something.

Second year of university is when it all changed.  A thought clicked in my head that I could sleep less and get more work done.  It’s not like I felt sleepy at night anyways.  For a while it was alright, but then as I slept less and less, my sleep debt accumulated.  I found myself napping in class.  I even micro-slept while I drove and almost got into not one, but a couple car accidents.  I didn’t try to do anything about it at the time.  I liked the extra time.  There was a while where I slept about 4.5 hours a night because I stayed up playing computer games.  I looked like a zombie.  I yawned all the time and everyone knew I was sleepy.

In my third year, I lived alone on campus.  No one told me when to wake up to go to class.  With all the sleep debt I had, I struggled to get up every morning.  Eventually, I stopped going to morning classes altogether and my grades suffered.  I started questioning myself, “why is it so hard to sleep early?”  I was easily annoyed all the time.  I was so tired at one point, that I caught myself hallucinating.  It was weird because I saw this strange bug crawling up the curtain and when I waved the curtain around, it was gone.  I couldn’t find it anywhere on the floor.  I wanted to change my sleeping habits, but I couldn’t do it.  Logic told me to do it, but I couldn’t act on it.

My sleeping habits didn’t change until I went to Germany for my co-op work term.  I guess because I was adjusting to this new environment, I actually felt sleepy at night.  This urge made me sleep a lot earlier than what I was used to doing.  I felt rested for the first time in a long time.  It felt so good.  My constant zombie look faded away.  I could tell that my skin complexion was improving.

I guess because I’ve seen how dangerous sleep deprivation could be, it finally compelled me to change my ways.  Ever since I’ve made sleep a priority, I feel a lot healthier.  I lose out on wake-time for working, but I am able to think better when I am rested.  My thoughts are a lot clearer.  That makes me a more efficient worker.

Getting into the Frame of Mind

You’ve got to be truly convinced that you want to get more sleep.  I know a lot of people who say things “yeah I know I don’t get enough sleep”, but they don’t do anything about it.  Nothing at all.  Everyday they keep their usual sleep routine and they’re struggling all the time.  They’re the ones who are always late to morning appointments, and some even for afternoon appointments.  Why does it have to be that way?  It doesn’t.  But before even trying to maintain a proper sleep routine, people really have to change the way they think about sleep.

Sleep is NOT a waste of time. I’ve heard people say, “sleep is a waste of time” or “sleep is for the weak”.  It definitely is not.  Somehow I think there is a competition between who gets the least amount of sleep and still gets the most work done.  I’ve heard people people saying (sometimes bragging) stuff like how they got only 3 hours of sleep and then pulled an all-nighter to study for an exam.  Sure, they definitely were up for a while, but should we question the efficiency of that work?  Of course.  Anybody who has pulled an all-nighter has experiences how “out of it” they were by the end if not half way through.  Nobody wants to do an all-nighter.  That is an extreme case though.  A more common theme is to stay up for 18 hours or so.  That leaves 6 hours to sleep.  The average for most people lies somewhere around 7.5-8 hours.  According to the statistics, more than half of us need more than 6.  By not getting our required amount of sleep, this so-called “sleep debt” will accumulate over time.  Like I mentioned before, I once slept on average 4.5 to 5 hours a night for about 3 months straight.  People around me could tell I looked like a zombie.  I’ve definitely experienced sleep debt first hand.  In retrospect, doing this was so stupid, but that experience definitely helped me reshape what I thought about sleep.  It is a necessity.

Getting into the right frame of mind takes time.  I definitely did not just one day choose to make sleep a priority.  It happened over time.  For me it took a few years in order for me to drill it into my head.  After sleeping late and waking up early, I’d ask myself why I did that.  Why did I sleep so little the night before when the consequence was me feeling sleep deprived the day after?  As I’m in my early 20’s, sleeping late is easy.  It’s not difficult to just stay up late doing nothing in particular.  In fact, it seems to be natural tendency for most people in my age group to be night owls.

Going to bed early is not a chore.  Chores are something we’d rather not do, but we’re only doing it because we have to.  This attitude will not work.  Eventually, you’ll give up and revert to your old ways.  You have to change your attitude toward sleep.  You know how some people feel passionate about their work and will always feel motivated to do it?  That’s their motivation.  There is a similar motivation for sleeping early.  I want to go to sleep early today, so I feel rested and ready to go tomorrow.

Ask yourself why your sleep habits are the way they are right now.  Why do I have to wake up feeling terrible every morning?  Why do I have to set so many alarms just to get out of bed?  Why am I pressing the snooze button so much?  Shouldn’t I be getting up super early? Doesn’t this struggle to wake up give me less time to get ready?  If I don’t have enough time to get ready, won’t I look like a mess when I go to work/school?  Am I sleeping late all the time because I have so much work to do?  Could I be improving on my time management to make me more efficient? Is sleeping late worth it?  I’m sure there are way more questions to be asked, but asking yourself these questions will tell you how you really feel about it.  Everyone’s going to have different answers.  Some might want to change, but others might feel that what they’re doing is the best solution right now.

The Bottom Line

Sleep is absolutely essential for good health and its benefits are far reaching.  Ever since I’ve slept better, I’ve been able to accomplish more.  No longer am I the sleep deprived zombie.  My grades in school are better despite harder courses and more commitments. Better sleep health is something that anybody can do, but they have to want it.  You have to convince yourself that sleep deprivation is a terrible thing and it is something to avoid.  You’ve got to get into the frame of mind that sleep health is good and the will to change.  If you truly want to improve your sleep habits for the better, the improvements will happen.

The Anatomy of an All-Nighter

Swamped with work, somehow people still persevere and finish the job.  But how?  Probably through all nighters.  We’ve all done them at some point and it’s obvious that they aren’t good for our health.  Kindly sent to me by one of my blog readers, here’s an infographic on just what an all nighter really means to our health.

The Anatomy of an All-Nighter

Maybe after this, we will all think twice about pulling all nighters!

Sleep Debt and Optimal Sleeping Time

Sleep Debt

I’ve been tracking my sleeping and over the past little while and I’ve accumulated 12.7 hours of sleep debt (as of 5 Oct measured by the Sleep as an Droid app).  I got this value by taking the difference of my actual time slept and the actual amount of time I need for each day and added up all those numbers over two weeks.  I noticed that this sleep debt over several days stacks up more and more.  I ended up feeling less and less rested everyday.  It seems obvious, but I never really paid attention to it until now.

What I’ve been doing now is try to sleep earlier to “pay back” this debt (probably the right thing to do).  I did a quick search on Wiki about sleep debt and as it turns out, the article basically told me the same thing that I noticed myself.  Sleep debt indeed does accumulate and catches up.  For me, one or two days, it’s probably okay, but anymore than that, then I start feeling less rested everyday.

For a bit, I tried sleeping at 11pm and waking up at 7am to pay back this debt, but I soon came to realize that I still didn’t feel better even though I was in fact paying back this debt (albeit slowly).  I came to realize the problem was in my sleeping pattern.  I didn’t actually know how much sleep I needed or when I needed to sleep (i.e. circadian rhythms).  I had completely forgotten about it (I wrote something similar on the subject awhile ago).  I always knew it existed, but I guess I lost track of what it was after I came back from Germany.  As of right now, my sleep debt for the last two weeks –7.9 hours, which is a lot better than before.

Circadian Rhythms

After I bit of trial and error, I found my optimal duration and time to sleep.  Apparently, I feel best if I sleep for 7.5 hours at 2:30am and wake up at 10am.  When I woke up after doing that, I felt great.  Kind of a night owl’s sleeping pattern.  Apparently some people can in fact sleep for 6 hours a day and sustain this daily without the need for naps, but that is a small minority of the population.  I on the other hand, fall within the average.

This doesn’t really work for me since I need to be up at 7am to go to sleep.  So now, my solution is to shift my circadian rhythms forward.  I’ve read a method for people with DSPS (delayed sleep-phase syndrome) that involved pushing back my sleeping time later and later until I reached the time I wanted.  If I slept at 2:30am usually, I’d sleep at maybe 5:30am the next day, then 7:30am the next etc. until I reached my goal of 11pm.  It would mess up an entire weeks schedule but apparently it works.  I’m not saying that I have this syndrome (I’m not about to self diagnose here), but this kind of treatment seems kind easy to do at home without great risk.  I don’t really have a week to spare for this right now so that is automatically out of the question.

Another method involved bright lights.  The Harvard Medical School Guide to A Good Night’s Sleep (really good book on sleep by the way!) states the following:

This treatment grew out of the discovery that exposure to bright light within a few hours of the body’s low point in body temperature—which occurs during the overnight hours—shifts the circadian rhythm. A dose of bright light after the temperature minimum advances the circadian rhythm, while a dose before it delays the rhythm.

Knowing this, I can shine a bright light in my face every morning when I wake up at 7.  Hopefully, my circadian rhythm will slowly shift to this new time.  Once I do that, maybe I can wake up at 7am feeling well rested.

Although I try to sleep and wake up at the same time everyday, school work always tries to disrupt my schedule, and as a result, I haven’t paid off my sleep debt and my sleeping time is kind of inconsistent at times.  Life always finds a way to break it.

Random Analysis on My Sleep Cycle

As an aside, I tried to find out how long one of my sleep cycles were.  On average, they are 90 minutes long, but differ from person to person.  The app that I use for measuring sleep graphs out how deep/light my sleep is throughout the night.  Since the human goes through cycles of light and deep sleep overnight, I thought I could measure the time duration between.  I looked at some of my sleep graphs (similar to this one):

SleepGraph21Oct-21Oct

In this graph (from 9 September – there is a typo in the picture because I mixed up the dates initially), the blue graph shows how deeply I sleep through the night. The sampling rate for that measurement wasn’t very good with the trial version that I used at the time.  Three regions are shown where values of the blue curve above the blue line mean I’m awake, values between the green and the red line mean I’m in a period of light sleep, and any value below the red line means I’m in deep sleep.  As it is shown in the plot above, it seems that a huge chunk of my sleep is in deep sleep, which is really strange since I’m supposed to be going through cycles of light and deep sleep.  Here, I only see one instance of light sleep.  Not really sure what to make of it other than the fact that the app is not a robust way of doing such measurements.

Fighting the Food Coma

Lately, I ran into a little problem where I had the ultimate urge to sleep whenever I eat a meal.  Whether it was breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I’d feel like sleeping afterward.  Even though I sleep plenty every night, I couldn’t seem to fight this urge to sleep.  Luckily I found a sure-win method.  I don’t know how good it is for my health though.  I figure that if I get sleepy after I eat, it’s because my blood goes to my stomach to aid digestion, hence a blood shortage in the brain and thus giving me the urge to sleep.  By holding my head in a position tilted such that the elevation of my head is below the elevation of my heart, I can get the blood flowing to my brain.  I hold this position for about 15 to 20 seconds and I sit up straight again, feeling refreshed and awake.  Works every time for me.

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