Monday, September 5, 2011

Mind Games

Paris - Brest - Paris, August 21-25, 2011

It's a little stretch to apply the concept of "mind game" to what remains for the me the dominant impression from my PBP 2011 experience; but that's what it was - except for the "deliberate", "on another" and "competitive advantage" parts in the definition above. I played all the mind games on myself - unwittingly.

It started earlier this year, when I set up my big goals for the season and completed my qualifying brevet series for PBP. Somehow, this exceptional event got downgraded in my mind, to the point of having its historical weight, its challenges and unique characteristics repressed. I should have known better; but I brought myself to belittle it as a relatively easy 1200, sandwiched as a filler between my first Big Eight of Bavaria and a desperately sought-after successful finish at the Mille du Sud (coming up on September 15). I was only partially aware of the psychological mechanism that was going on, and did occasionally express concerns to my friends about "not taking it seriously." Even up to the last days and during the long hours waiting for the start, I couldn't bring myself to be as excited as expected. It took a couple of days on the roads of Brittany of being exposed to the enthusiasm and generosity of the population and of the countless volunteers, and of being surrounded day and night by 5000 randonneurs from all over the world, to normalize my attitude. Even then, in particular when the lack of sleep triggered some of the usual symptoms, I still had difficulties truly understanding what PBP precisely was: something different from a "usual" 1200k brevet; but what?

Physically, my preparation was adequate; I had been able to take advantage of rather favorable circumstances that minimized the risk of overtraining and maximized the opportunities to rest. Mentally, I could have done much better. At least, I had put together a list of controls, with km-totals and estimated arrival times, and kept it on my route sheet holder. Below Fabienne's copy where she applied in red the adjustments due to my late start at 19:40 instead of at 18:00.

Undeniably, one thing was very special about PBP for me again: In contrast to most of my other long rides, it was a "family event." Even though we couldn't repeat the big presence of 2007, Fabienne made a point of coming from California to keep Ghislaine company during the ride, and my niece Nathalie joined them again. The three enjoyed the special atmosphere and made it clear that they were looking forward to be there again in 2015, no matter what! From my side, I had made it clear that I wanted to ride alone this time, and without any personal support at controls. I didn't use a drop bag either and carried everything I needed for nearly four days on the bike.

Bisou. "And be careful!"

"The hardest part (the waiting) is done. From now on, it's pure pleasure!"

Despite showing up shortly after 3 p.m. in the hope of catching an early wave (and then seeking some sit-down opportunity in the shade, rather than standing for hours in the burning sun), I managed to leave with the next-to-last wave only - what a waste of well over four hours! I still have to learn a lot ...
On the other hand, I had opportunities to chat with friends, to make new friends, and to wave and shout across the lines to other randonneurs of various nationalities who recognized me before I recalled that we had met already somewhere some time in the past.

Paris - Brest

My plan (i.e. the estimated arrival times at the controls) was "agressively optimistic" as I put it in a pre-ride e-mail to friends, so they could follow my progression on my SPOT device and the official tracking of participants. I had announced that I was going after a sub-80 hour finishing time, which was pretty ambitious for me. I didn't seriously expect to succeed unless the atmospheric conditions remained favorable and I didn't encounter any snafu. The fact that I knew something about this event from my first attempt four years ago, and that I had accumulated some general randonneuring experience since then should give me confidence, however. Not to speak of some reluctantly admitted modest progress I had made over time in terms of speed and endurance (remember: it's all relative).

And so, more than a little upset about the wasted time at the start, I went out fast enough that I caressed hopes of absorbing my 1h40 delay before Brest and finishing by 2 a.m. as planned. This would make a big difference in perceived comfort (the last night would be shorter by 1h40), and I would be able to brag about a 78:20 finishing time ...

I had no trouble going through the first night and kept my stops at a minimum. Despite some headwind, I was 1h10 ahead of my schedule at the Loudéac control (km 451) - only 30 more minutes to gain and I was "even." I remembered many of the more characteristic climbs on the route from four years ago and found that they had become much easier, in the meantime; life was good! I only had to reach Carhaix (barely 80 km away) for a major sleep stop of about 3 hours, push on to Brest and then relax on the return trip with its tailwind!

Before I could leave the Loudéac control, I had to wait for the passage of the groupe de tête - they were racing the event (while still satisfying the control-stamp obligation) and about to set a new record of something like 44 hours, due to the above-mentioned tailwind back from Brest. Back on the road, I meditated for a little while about the conflicts between racing and randonneuring and the contradictions in the mission statement of PBP (as imagined by me), but decided to remain philosophical about it.

The new-this-year eat/sleep stop (not a control) in Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem, about 30 km before Carhaix, was pleasant and inviting. While I chewed in the restaurant tent and listened to the invitations to take advantage of the available cots in the sleeping tent, I heard some thunders in the not-too-far distance - hmm? For a split second, I considered changing my plans and staying right there for my sleep stop. But only a split second. Carhaix was only about 90 minutes away, and I could get quickly closer to my new intermediate goal of recovering the 1h40 of my late start if I pushed through and kept the sleep stop in Carhaix.

Big mistake!

Less than five km later, it started to rain, and then to pour, and then to thunder, spiced up with some lightning. In hindsight, it would have been better to turn around to Saint-Nicolas and to stay there, after all. The wet ride to Carhaix was miserable and slow (I wasn't alone - misery likes company). By the time we arrived, I had already lost a good portion of my advance; but the real loss (and snafu!) was still to come. The way from the control to the sleeping quarters in Carhaix was long across a field - and the sleeping quarters were full. We learned that only after being held standing in line for at least ten minutes outside in the rain. I then figured out that I could enjoy some quiet minutes in a dry place if I asked for the rest rooms (they are called rest rooms for a reason). Also, I could change into dry clothes there. But still no sleeping opportunity, and it was past midnight on the second night. I walked back to the cafeteria (getting wet again across the field) and looked for an emergency napping opportunity. This was not very successful; but I could at least close my eyes for half an hour and get stiff. When I realized that the rain had stopped, I decided to leave and sleep in Brest instead. Despite the lack of sleeping comfort at the Carhaix control, I now believe it was the wrong decision regardless. I advanced very slowly, stopped many, many times to keep myself going with micro-sleep stops on half-way safe ground and generally was rather angry with myself. At some point, I realized that my SPOT didn't blink at all. This was odd; it should blink either green or red, depending on whether the satellite transmission of the coordinates had succeeded or not. It would have indicated  low batteries for several hours before failing - and I had changed the batteries in the afternoon. But it was so dark, I couldn't see anything without stopping, and I had stopped too often already. Later, when I had street lights, I saw that there was no SPOT any more: I had lost it, probably on some rattling descent. I must have missed to fix it properly after changing the batteries in the afternoon!

This was a major blow. For one, on these long rides, I always enjoy thinking of family and friends who are following my progression on the map based on the SPOT messages with my position every ten minutes. Now, I felt disconnected and lost and alone and discouraged. But, there was also another disturbing sensation. I know that I have to expect an onset of mild hallucinations if I am in the second night essentially without sleep. I learned to deal with them in a scientific way and to be entertained by their mystic absurdities. By the way, they have never been threatening or troublesome, and mostly even esthetically pleasing (like floating carriages without horses on the side walks which dissolve into nothing as soon as I approach them). This time, no hallucinations. Instead (or does this count as a hallucination, too?) - I feel the presence of Ghislaine, my spouse, on my side. It is as if we are traveling in a car, me driving and she in the passenger seat. And she is talking to me, blaming me for having lost the SPOT device which is, after all, last year's Mother's Day gift for her! She keeps going about reminding me how bad this is for all our friends and family members who are worried about my well-being, now that they don't know what happened. As if I didn't know it already, all by myself. I find it annoying enough (nothing against my spouse!) that I squint my eyes, look at my handlebar, down to my slowly grinding cranks, and to the side where there is nothing but a fog line: I am alone on the road to Brest! Five minutes later, Ghislaine is at my side again, and the nagging about the lost SPOT continues. - Doesn't it feel like Ghislaine was playing a mind game on me?

It went on and on in complete darkness, up and down, with small groups of other riders passing me every so often. I didn't attempt to hang on to them; it was just between me and the night. I could guess when we passed the highest eleveation, Roc Trévezel, and felt much better on the long downhill. Day broke when we arrived in Sizun, and with relief I joined a group of other randonneurs in an early open bar for a grand café and a huge croissant. The night was over - not too soon!

Now in daylight (although subdued by dense low clouds), I made the effort to join some faster groups to get to my sleep stop in Brest as soon as possible. The more or less touristic detours built into the route this time were a test of patience and stoicism; they played a mind game of making me believe we rode repeatedly around loops. But all was well as soon as I got my card stamped and a cot assigned - it was Tuesday, 8:34 a.m. (less than 37 hours for 618 km - not too bad, after all!), and I slept like a stone for over two hours.

Brest - Paris

Just when I left the breakfast cafeteria, a man stepped in my way, introduced himself as Jackie Krebs, and I said "OK. What did I do?" He was a little dismayed that I didn't recognize him, and showed me the family letter with pictures we had sent him for Christmas. As documented on page 4 of this, four years ago, my daughters had met two cheerful, helpful and generous gentlemen at the control in Brest; but maintaining the contact had proven to be precarious. Now, one of them had looked for my control times on the PBP website, come to the control and waited (possibly for hours, while I slept) to meet with me! He had his hands full of gifts and souvenirs for me and my family (good thing I had big enough bags on my bike). And then I took off. - That's what PBP is all about!

The two hours of very deep sleep had done miracles. I smiled when I recognized the spot where I had slept on a bench, four years ago. I enjoyed the scenery, enjoyed the moderate climb up to Roc Trévezel, enjoyed the descent and the rolling hills where I was "fast" already four years ago towards Carhaix. I tried to identify the hill where I must have lost my SPOT and scanned the left road side, but without success. At 15:48, I checked in at the Carhaix control and didn't even realize that I was still on target for my originally hoped-for 80-hour finish. I only enjoyed the ride and intended to keep it that way.

I was only worried that my planned sleep stop in Tinténiac (where I should arrive before 2 a.m.)  might get marred by the same mishap as in Carhaix on the way out. That's why I didn't hesitate this time (I had learned my lesson!) to immediately lay down on an empty soft mat at the secret control in Illifaut, somewhere between Loudéac and Tinténiac, shortly after 11 p.m.  I texted home where I was and what I was about to do, that I did well, and that I didn't care about my 80-hour finish any more! I just slept ...

When I woke up and decided to continue, I didn't even look at the watch. I arrived in Tinténiac without any trouble at 5:40 a.m., didn't stay longer than necessary and continued cheerfully towards Fougères, because I had kept good memories from this relatively short and easy leg between controls since 2007. My card got stamped at the control in Fougères at 9:18 instead of a planned 8:10 a.m.; but, as I said, I didn't care. I might as well have made a mistake in my spreadsheet calculations when I estimated the control passage times!

Next goal : Villaines-la-Juhel, km 1009. This control town is special in many ways; but most importantly for me, this is where Dr. Fressier expected to see me. Four years ago, Fabienne offered her services as French - English - German translator there, and we stayed in touch. This time, I arrived alone, still 40 minutes behind my original schedule, but reducing my delay (thanks to some growing tailwind) and visibly in great shape. I got an exceptional VIP treatment, an excellent free lunch (carried to the table by a charming little girl), many pictures taken, and took off for the remaining 230 km in high spirits.

With Dr. Fressier

Fresh like a flower!

As soon as I was on the road, I couldn't believe how fast I went: the tailwind was absolutely fabulous! I enjoyed recognizing much of the scenery and basked in the contrast between my current experience (middle of the afternoon, blue sky with some white clouds, terrific tailwind, great shape) and the one from four years ago (around 3 a.m., total darkness, rain, headwind, exhaustion). This all didn't last, of course; and in the end I arrived in Mortagne-au-Perche half an hour later than projected (shortly before 7 p.m.) but again well before my original 80-hour plan timeline!

I had learned earlier via some text messages from Ghislaine, Fabienne and Nathalie that in the end, they decided after all to come and see me at the control in Mortagne. This was of course a nice surprise, and I was happy that I was still able to let it all appear as "easy."

"Hotel de la Bouteille" - checking in at the Mortagne control

Still easy!

The future of PBP is assured ...

... according to the drawing photographed by Ghislaine.

Meanwhile, Fabienne made friends with our guardian angels

So, all this was nice and good. But, as you can tell from the difference in lighting and sky color between the first and last photos above, I stayed much longer than planned and adviseable. Also, the long break somehow affected my performance on the bike negatively, and I slowed down, down and even more down when night fell. The fact that I didn't know the roads to Dreux and to the finish (and that much of those roads had a rough surface) didn't make it easier. Many other small groups of riders caught up to me and passed me. I tried sometimes to stay with them, but they were nearly always too fast for me. And when I finally found a group with which I could cover the last 20 km to Dreux, the group riding at night didn't make an allowance for grabbing food in the handlbar bag and eating on the bike, and even less to stop and put on another layer - it did get a little too cool for me as we approached Dreux. As a result, when I finally arrived at the control and had the surprise to see Ghislaine, Fabienne and Nathalie again (they had made the decision to come to Dreux on a whim, after I left Mortagne), I had no desire or even ability to pretend it was still "easy."

I warmed up with a hot tea, added a layer, and exhorted my female family fans not to hold me back and let me leave as soon as possible for the last 65 km. Every five minutes would make a difference by the time I approached the finish - not because of the overall finishing time, but because of the time it would take until I could go to bed! And so I left in company of some anonymous and rather silent other riders, finding our way out of Dreux by looking collectively for the infamous reflective arrows, and - as far as I am concerned - reflecting on the mysterious geographical configuration of the route. Before getting there, I imagined a no-brainer easy run into the finish and was much more optimistic than my state of exhaustion allowed. But this optimism was about to change, and I was to experience the most outrageous mind game of my life (so far).

I am still puzzled today by this experience, and I still have no real explanation. If I had the opportunity, I would want to go back to that 65 km stretch from Dreux to the finish in daylight and reconstruct - or, rather, deconstruct! -  my impressions from that night.

Something slightly similar has happened before. When riding in darkness, there is not enough visual information for the cerebral cortex to build a complete spatial structure of the surroundings. My mind, however, desperately wants to get hold of such a structure (the more interesting the better), just for intellectual satisfaction, if I dare say so. For example, I have been riding many hours in Death Valley at night, and nearly always (even without being sleep deprived or particularly tired) I developed the conviction that the road I was riding on lead through a forest of high, dense trees.

This time, a specific sequence of turns, short and steep uphills, turns, junctions, turns, tunnels, short downhills, turns seemed to repeat itself all over again and again with only slight variations in the length of the individual segments or the characteristics of the turns. It was absolutely incredible, and I could nearly predict the next element of the sequence. It was not easy either, and the repeated climbs were often steep. We must have repeated the sequence at least seven times, each time getting a little higher. Or that's what my mind told me. I kept thinking about the genius who designed that sequence of turns, uphills, downhills, tunnels, such that it could be repeated on that half-urban geography with only slight variations; and the city planning committees who approved such an Escheresque design and managed to raise the money to build it. This could be a rival to the Seven Wonders of the World! - I really need to look this up on the maps, tomorrow! (But first, I need to get to the finish and sleep ...)

At that moment, I was grateful that I was not alone. I was riding in a group of seven, mostly French riders, with Kevin M. from Cayucos thrown in. I had the impression that he was more upset than me about the unexpected difficulties and the apparent artificial lengthening of the route so close to the finish. He has completed PBP several times before, but said that he never encountered that particular routing artifact. From my side, despite a thorough conviction of discovering something exceptional, I didn't insist on sharing my bewildering experience. Who knows; maybe not every cyclist is as sensitive to world wonders as myself? And then, I had to sprint again to catch up to the group - that preceding climb was a little longer and steeper than the others in the series! - and I certainly didn't want to be alone in this situation.

And so we arrived in Guyancourt and found our way to the finish control. I knew Fabienne and Nathalie would make a point of staying up and be there for me; and so I attempted to arrive before the bunch of the group. Fabienne recognized me from across the oval:

Ghost rider

I don't want to include any other pictures from the finish - I didn't look good. Fabienne and Nathalie are telling exaggerated stories about how I had forgotten my frame number even though I could see it on the helmet in my hands, or how I turned around when I couldn't see right away the table where I was to check in. But, eventually, I checked in and got my stamp. It was 3:33 a.m. on Thursday morning - I had finished in under 80 hours.


For the first time after a long ride, I ended up with catching a cold. The immune system didn't appreciate the late hours of the last night.
We left Guyancourt for a long drive to Bavaria on Friday, to arrive in time for the wedding of my niece Barbara (during PBP, I explained to friends who were surprised by my short stops at controls that I needed to finish early, or the wedding of my niece would have to be postponed). 

Since then, I am trying to recover in Lower Bavaria with the help of considerable quantities of locally brewed beer and other specialties. It seems to work - I gained over six pounds in a week.


  1. Nice! I too have had the illusion of a tree-lined road in Death Valley. I had some illusions myself on PBP between Villaines and Mortagne in the dark.

  2. Always good to read your reports Joseph. Congratulations on your fantastic finish. Well done. Like you I had 2007 as a reminder of so many things and in the end it was a help to me.

  3. Well done Joseph! I'm sorry to have missed you during the ride. Best wishes for the Mille du Sud.

  4. Very cool write up. Congratulations. Redemption ride.

  5. I stumbled on this account as I was looking for something else, and I am glad I did. What a vivid and elegant account you have written!