An exploration of deep exhaustion

This month I plan to push my endurance to the outer limits. I rode my bicycle 142 miles in just under 12 hours a week ago.

A week from now, I will do it again, but with twice the vertical climb. It will be my second year in a row doing the Belgian Waffle Ride, a day-long ride on road, gravel, and sandy dirt trails in the hills above San Marcos, California. It’s a silly 135 miles and 11,000 feet of climb. That’s the equivalent of riding around the base of Mt. Diablo twice and hitting the summit three times.

Who does a ride like that? Me, apparently. It’s becoming clearer to me why I like doing it.

The term “deep exhaustion” comes to mind when I think about why I do this. I googled it. Deep exhaustion has mostly negative connotations, like when you hit a wall of fatigue and can’t break through it.

That’s not the deep exhaustion I’m referring to. This type of exhaustion sits in your bones but drives you forward. You somersault through the fatigue and come around to the other side of it. You find energy in the heavy cloak. Somehow, incomprehensibly, the deep exhaustion actually feels good. It’s comforting because it’s supposed to be there, and the thrill lies in seeing how long and how far you can carry it with you.

From the start of my 142-mile loop, it took about 40 miles and a bit over two hours for me to ride from my house in Lafayette to the estuary on the eastern side of the Dumbarton Bridge. That’s when I got my first taste of tiredness. I stopped there and stretched. I filled my water bottles at a little trailhead visitor center structure. I took this picture there.

I was still feeling good. I stretched my legs, felt a twinge of cramp coming on but shook it off. I hopped back on and kept going. At 50 miles, I took a picture at the peak of the bridge span. I took my last picture as I entered Martinez from the north ninety miles later.

I planned to circle the bay and cross five of the seven bridges (I couldn’t fit San Mateo in and the Bay Bridge has no bike lane on the western span.) From the Dumbarton Bridge, I headed north up the western shore, through San Mateo, Redwood City, Belmont, and into SFO. The stretch along the airport is a drain. It’s long and windy. Eventually, I crossed the freeway and hit another windy stretch opposite Candlestick Point, near the Cow Palace. This is the threshold between South San Francisco and SF proper. The Bayview / Hunter’s Point district is not my favorite part of the city. I push up and then down the hills and onto the Chase Center and Oracle Park. I followed the Embarcadero around to the Golden Gate Bridge. This is about 85 miles from home. I cross into Sausalito, and a quick twenty miles later, I’m on the Richmond Bridge span. This is my third bridge with a wide, protected bicycle lane. I got a little lost (Garmin fail) between the Richmond Bridge and the Carquinez Bridge (the fourth), but I finally found it about 125 miles into the ride. Fifteen miles later, I hit the fifth bridge. Mission accomplished!

Deep exhaustion hit me right around mile 60. I carried it for another 80 miles. I’m proud that I lasted that long. It took work and preparation to do this. I trained by exercising regularly. I run, I swim, and I bike. I generally do one of them every other day. So my base fitness was good going into this monster ride. I stopped, stretched, and ate every 20 miles. I mentally rode in 5-mile increments, each one a step closer to my next break. At the sixty-mile mark, I was somewhere in Belmont and stopped at a Roam burger restaurant. I ate like a champion. Feeling better but still quite tired, I kept going.

Twenty miles later, I was on the Embarcadero, tourists everywhere. I pulled to the side and forced a few handfuls of trail mix down my throat. I was tired, but I wasn’t any more tired than I was at mile 60. That awareness gave me strength. I crossed the century mark in Larkspur. Again I wasn’t any more tired than before, and I was excited to head back to the east bay. More energy. At mile 120, I was just north of Rodeo. I stopped on a bikeway right along the bayfront. I could feel my energy waning with the afternoon. I was about ten hours into the ride at this point, and I was concerned I wouldn’t make it home before dark.

Mile 140 was a short stop in Benicia. I fed myself, but I wasn’t feeling great. The deep exhaustion was starting to wear me out. I crossed the Martinez Bridge and was already in the evening shadows. The sun was still up, but the hills to the west hid it. The temperature never broke 60F the whole ride, but I felt cold for the first time here. I rode a quiet street through a refinery to get to the main road connecting Martinez and Concord. I was uncomfortable, jittery, and hungry, but I couldn’t eat any more of the food in my little backpack.

I peddled forward, finally reaching the commercial stretch of Pleasant Hill. I saw a McDonald’s and decided to stop. I ordered my food and sat haggardly, my helmet and gloves still on. I filled a cup with Dr. Pepper and ate my Big Mac. The evening turned to dusk, and I wasn’t going to leave that McDonald’s on my bike.

I took the last seven miles home in an Uber.

I survived. No close calls, no near collisions. I didn’t let foolish pride get in my way of a safe ride home. At that point, I was in no condition to ride in the dark. I was able to push my limits without breaking them.

I think that’s what deep exhaustion is to me. It’s the point where I push my endurance outward. I’m not a weightlifter, but I understand that muscle gets built on slow, consistent reps with heavier and heavier weights. Perhaps endurance works the same way. You grind your way to the outer limits, and you carry its heavy load in order to extend your stamina runway. Parts of the process are painful, but for the most part, it’s fine. It’s just a steady exertion for a long period of time. At some point, you can’t go any further, but until then, you’re just tired. Being tired, in the right context, can feel really good.

I’m looking forward to the Belgian Waffle Ride next weekend. I know it will be hard. I know I’ll bump up against the limits of my exhaustion. I’ll do a better job with nutrition and fluids. I’ll stop at every checkpoint, relax my body, eat, drink, and stretch. I’ll take as much time as I need and try to enjoy the process for what it is: an exploration of deep exhaustion.

And boy oh boy, I’ll look forward to eating dinner afterwards.

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