Note: For those looking for a race report on the AML_X, read no further. I DNF’d very early. For those interested in insights into endurance sports motivation, read on.
Having completed the Allegheny Mountain Loop 400 last year, I thought it would be a logical next step to attempt AML 400’s big brother, the AML eXtreme (AML_X or the X). These Virginia/West Virginia bikepacking races are the brainchild of Chris Tompkins. The AML 400 is a slight modification of the Adventure Cycling Association’s loop, leaving from Blacksburg and heading north along the Greenbrier River and then south through various national forests of the Allegheny Mountains. The X is an out and back format, heading north on the southern bound section of the 400 and extending the route to the Maryland state line and then back to Blacksburg, for a 512 mi round trip.
Though only a handful of people race the 400 or the X each year, many use this as a test or shakedown ride for a longer distance bikepacking race such as the Tour Divide Race. Much of the 400/X terrain mimics what one would find on the TDR: pavement, gravel roads, double track trails with significant climbs (the X has about 45k of climbing). For me, I’ve had aspirations of doing the TDR one day and thought the X would be a good intermediate step. My prep for this race was complicated by having an Ironman triathlon three weeks after the X. I tried to weave the two training objectives together by doing long rides on my fully loaded bikepacking bike to build endurance for both races.
My rig was similar to last year but with a little more sleep kit and a Fargo steel frame (full rigid) with Salsa Woodchipper drop bars and SRAM brifters. I also opted for 2 x 1 liter bottles instead of the frame bag/hydration bladder combo.
Four of us met at the Va. Tech War Memorial for the send off by organizer Chris Tompkins. At 6 am, we pushed off and wove our way out of Blacksburg along the rolling hills. The temperatures was perfect and the sky lightened as the sun rose above a low cloud cover. About an hour into the ride, I was settling into a decent pace, had some nice conversations with Chris Joice, riding a singlespeed (hat’s off!). My Garmin had decided to cooperate and I must have been going through a subconscious mental checklist. As I was cresting one of the rollers, I asked one of those important questions: “Where is my wallet”. I knew my normal wallet was back in the car but I thought I had packed my cycling wallet, a nylon tri-fold with a credit card and cash. I stop, looked in all the possible spots. After taking a deep breath, I turned my bike around and started pedaling back to B’burg. At this point, there was not much point in getting hugely pissed off. Instead, I accepted my fate. Each roller I took reminded me of the both the joy but the extreme pain I had been in a year ago finishing the 400 (foreshadowing).
I passed Larry and told him of my error. Next, Chris Tompkins passed me heading out of town by car to get pictures of the racers. He turned around and offered me a ride back. The rules of assistance in these races vary from being able to get a ride as long you come back to the original position (no net forward movement) to only able to get a ride in the event of mechanical problem. We decided it probably made sense to start over with an individual time trial (ITT) instead of being part of the group start (the “grand depart”). Got the credit card and some cash from my wallet (later came to find my cycling wallet in a pair of pants at home) and started again from VTech around 8 am. The ride out was getting familiar at this point. But I did notice my legs were a little tired on some of the short, punchy climbs. And riding by yourself is ok but I really enjoyed company of the other riders, if for no other reason than to help keep my pace up. The rolling hills were interspersed with flat river/creekside sections. Eventually, the route dumps out at the base of Mountain Lake Road, a 2000 climb up to Mountain Lake Lodge.
It took about 1.5h to make the climb. It got to the top, texted my wife I was dropping out, and flew back down the descent (mightily impressed with how well the Fargo handled in the switchbacks with the Woodchipper drop bars), and rode back to by car.
So what happened? Its complicated.
First, the physical:
- There were some small knee pains.
- My training had been on mostly the flat to rolling terrain around Chapel Hill. It was clear my lack of climbing was going to be a problem.
- I had been training hard for an Ironman (three weeks after the X) so even though my overall aerobic endurance was decent, my total bike endurance seemed to be lacking, especially on the climbs.
- I had been trying a bunch of different saddles and never found one I liked and at the last-minute went with a WTB Vigo that I had used for the 400. In addition to my training rides on the Fargo, I was riding my tri bike with a much different saddle configuration (noseless ISM saddle). Bottom line: I was getting saddle sores, even with cream, in very short order.
- My Spot tracker was not registering on Trackleaders. The Spot was working but because I had a lapse in my subscription. My renewal required a new shared page, the page Trackleaders uses for its data source. So there was that.
Now for the mental:
- The two-hour wallet mental lapse had put me in a sour mood.
- I was concerned about whether an injury or insufficient recovery time was going to negatively affect the triathlon.
- I was in a deep debate with myself about whether to scratch or not. When I stepped back, I wondered if having this debate at mile 30 was a good indication that maybe I wasn’t mentally prepared for this event.
All of this led me to think about motivation and dive into what motivates us to train hard and suffer deeply for endurance sports. Why does someone ride a bike 500 miles or even 2700 miles with little sleep, or run 26 miles or even 100 miles, or swim 2.4 miles and then bike 112 miles and then run a marathon? There are the simple answers: “Because I can” or “Because its fun” or “Because it’s what I do”. But deeper down, there must be more that drives us take on these sorts of epic events, time and time again.
One way to look at this is through the lens of motivation. Intrinsic motivation (IM) is associated with the pursuit of activities for the pleasure and satisfaction derived from doing the activity. Extrinsic motivation (EM) is at the other end of the motivational spectrum and is associated with pursuing activities to achieve some type externally-oriented gratification.
IM and EM can be broken down into a number different motives (Toward a New Measure of Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation, and Amotivation in Sports: The Sport Motivation Scale (SMS), J. Sport & Exercise Psych, 1995, 17,35-53).
- Exploration, curiosity, and learning. Here, one pursues activities to learn new skills or explore new waters. I can relate to this big time. I took up mountain biking because of all the skills needed to become proficient (hopping logs, descending technical trails, etc). And at my age, learning new skills on a bike takes some practice, time and patience.
- Achieving accomplishments.Setting goals and achieving them provides some level of satisfaction. I have always set out to achieve certain goals. The first was riding my bike 100 miles, then doing a 100 mile ride every month for a year, and then doing a 100 mile ride in the mountains, and then doing that ride in under six hours.
- Experiencing sensations. Here one is doing the sport for sensory pleasure,
aesthetic experiences, as well as fun and excitement. I remember talking to someone who had competed the Tour Divide. When asking him about what was the motivation factor for him, he said there was spectacular scenery at every turn (aesthetics). We also see this with people generally feeling good from being fit or getting a runner’s high from a good workout or race.
- Praise. Receiving praise and feedback from people can be a powerful motivator. I used to take a jaundiced view of people on the sidelines of a race yelling “You can it” but now I’ve come to appreciate the motivation that provides, especially at mile 20 of an Ironman marathon. For people who are coached, praise can be a powerful motivator.
- Rewards, and Recognition. Let’s face it, getting that medal at the end of tough race can be motivational. It recognizes a certain accomplishment. I’ve got all my medals hanging on the wall and several bibs framed for those big achievements.
- Status. There are endurance sports achievements that convey a certain status. On a small-scale, a group of my buddies were always referring to who was in and who wasn’t in the sub-six hour club for Blood, Sweat, and Gears. On a larger scale, completing a marathon or an iron-distance triathlon conveys status as well (Interestingly, I wonder if the ultra races, 100 mile runs or 1000+ mile bike races convey the same status or are perceived as fringe and/or crazy to most people).
- Community. Not sure if this is intrinsic or extrinsic, but being part of a community can be a huge motivator. I knew a guy who would do 20 or 30 triathlons a year (sprint or olympic) and was all about hanging out the night before and chatting it up with the other triathletes on and off the course.
Now back to the X.
For backpacking ultra races, the extrinsic motivators are low. There may be a sense of community, mostly online, but once on the course, you are rarely riding with others. There’s no finisher medal, no crowds to cheer you on at the end, and no real bragging rights, except within this small community (Try telling people at the office that you just rode 100’s or 1000’s of miles on a bike. A look of bewilderment is the usual response). Finally, you can compare your time with others but there are so many variables (age, weather, bike setup) that it’s hard to use finishing time or place as a motivator, unless you are one of the elites in the sport.
So that leaves intrinsic motivation as the major driver. I had seen much of the AML_X course so there was no significant sense of adventure. I might have found it interesting to see how my body was going respond to this distance and the climbing but the early signs (no climbing legs, saddle sores, knees) weren’t good. My aesthetics meter was low, given the amount of suffering. Lastly, the sense of accomplishment. I just could not get this one on the radar. The main reason why was that I just had not established the X as a significant goal. Weaving triathlon training in with X training many times put the X as a goal on the back burner. So when the going got tough, the goal of achieving this just was not a strong motivator. (As an aside, it was interesting comparing this race to the AML 400. I suspect the big motivator there was extrinsic. Riding with someone the entire route, especially a veteran rock-star in the bikepacking community, provided ample (extrinsic) motivation to soldier on when the going got tough).
So here are the take-away lessons:
- Understand what motivates you. Extrinsic motivation can be important to get you into a sport but long-term it can fade or turn hollow. Are you all about achieving goals? Is learning new skills about the sport or yourself important? How important is competition in motivating you?
- Align those motivations with your activities. For me learning new skills, experiencing new challenges, and achieving goals can be huge motivators, if placed in the right context. I’m afraid bikepacking ultra racing doesn’t check many of those boxes for me (on the other hand, I am intrigued with bikepacking or bike touring. On the ride back to the car during the X, I found myself taking in the wonderful scenery of the Virginia countryside once the pressure of time and competition had been lifted).
- Understand that motivations change over time. Once a goal has been met or a skill learned, then what? We can ratchet the goals up or broaden the skills, but there is a limit. If your goal is to run a marathon and you achieve that, then the next goal might be to qualify for Boston or run four marathons in a season. Then what? Motivations might shift to where, for example, the sense of community is more important than the achievement. On top of that, as we get older, our priorities change. A podium finish might have once been the goal but just finishing or trying our best or plain having fun might be the goal.