Roger Phillips: Fifty for 50 ride stretched my limits

rphillips@idahostatesman.comJune 26, 2014 

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I learned endurance riding becomes a mental challenge as much as a physical one.

With the big 5-0 looming in August, I felt like doing something special. I spent my 30th birthday kayaking the North Fork of the Payette through the 15-mile Class V whitewater section.

The challenge of topping that was too great for the big 4-0, so I just threw a party. But it seemed redundant and underachieving to throw another party to mark a half-century in this wonderful, confusing world.

I've tried to build my fitness and endurance in recent years, so mountain biking was a good option. Trail riding is much more forgiving than Class V whitewater.

I admire people who train to run a marathon in midlife. I'm not much of a runner, but I wanted something on par with that.

My longest ride was 37 miles, and it didn't seem like too much of a stretch to do 50. The symmetry worked, and it would be a challenge, but hopefully not an insurmountable one.

Is 50 miles on a mountain bike the equivalent of marathon? I don't know, but it's close enough. I also wanted it to be a legitimate mountain bike ride with as much trail riding as feasible, not just cranking out miles on flat pavement.


"You can do it, no problem," my friend Dan Kouba said.

He's an endurance rider who often starts his mountain bike rides from his home in Star to the Foothills and goes 10 to 15 miles on the trails before riding back home.

I appreciated his confidence, even if I didn't necessarily share it. We decided to do the 50-miler on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend because trying it in the August heat would probably be an epic failure.

I hadn't trained as much as I would have liked, but no surprise there. I am a notorious procrastinator. But I had been riding throughout winter and spring with several people who helped and challenged me, so I wasn't starting from scratch.

Kouba was my coach because I respected not only his physical conditioning, but his knowledge of endurance riding.

"Ride at 80 percent of your max heart rate," he said. "Eat for what you're about to ride, not what you already rode."

He dispensed these bits of advice like trail snacks, and I inhaled them.

But I also needed to get my head straight and mentally prepare for the ride. I heard someone say, "Inch-by-inch, life's a cinch."

It became my mantra. Don't obsess about 50 miles. Focus on the moment and what lies directly in front of you, not what lies beyond.


We started on the Polecat trails because it's my "home court." We headed up an intense climb we've named "Heartbreak Hill."

We rode about 12 miles on the Polecat trails before dropping onto Cartwright Road and heading toward Hidden Springs.

My typical evening workout ride is about 12 miles at Polecat, which often leaves me panting and tired, and we had just done it as a warmup.

We climbed Cartwright Road and then coasted down to Hidden Springs.

"Bonus miles," I yelled to Dan as we sailed downhill.

It was short-lived. The next leg continued up Cartwright to the top of Redtail Trail. We pedaled up the steep section of road and I kept repeating "80 percent" under my breath.


I wasn't sure how to quantify 80 percent because I've never worn a heart monitor, but we agreed if I could ride and speak in complete sentences without gasping for air, I was pretty close.

The climb up Redtail included a steep and rough section that pushes my heart into my tonsils and is definitely beyond 80-percent territory. Walk it and keep my heart rate down, or ride and redline it?

Dumb pride kept me in the saddle and pedaling. If I paid for it later, so be it.

We topped out and headed downhill. It's a fun trail because there are long sight lines, so I can ride fast. But as I sped up, doubt crept in. What if I crashed? I don't crash often, but what if I did? It could ruin the whole ride. I applied the 80-percent rule for the downhills, too. Eighty percent of normal speed and stay in control.

We cranked more miles on the Hidden Springs trails and headed over to Avimor for more dirt.

There we reached the halfway point, I think. We had three devices: Kouba's GPS, the Strava app on my iPhone, and my bike computer. All three showed different mileage, but we decided the GPS was the most accurate.

Kouba's strategy was working, and I felt pretty good at the midway point. I ate a Bonk Breaker Bar and hoped it lived up to its name.

There was a race in progress, so we rerouted around it. The Avimor trails have a different feel, a little more technical riding that keeps you focused, and they're a great addition to the other Northwest Boise trails.

We finished at Avimor and headed back to Hidden Springs. We planned to take a lunch break there, only to discover the Hidden Springs Merc didn't serve lunch.



We earlier agreed we would eat real food at some point, not subsist on trail snacks. But now we were forced to make a tactical decision. We could grind out the remaining miles, or head over to Beacon Light Chevron for some gas-station dining.

I decided to eat more trail snacks, head over Seamans Gulch and hope for the best. Part of the reason was directional. If we went to Beacon Light and returned to the trails at Eagle Bike Park, then rode the final 12-mile loop, it would put me in Eagle when I was done and about 6 miles to get home.

If we started at Seamans Gulch and did the same loop, it would leave me a few miles from home.

We aimed for the Seamans trails, and they were in perfect condition. Even the uphills felt fast as we quickly rode several miles of trails and ended at corner of Hill Road and Seamans.

We continued up Hill Road to Veterans Trail and Big Springs. We could see the flags flying at Veterans Cemetery for Memorial Day.

Kouba and I both served in the Navy, and we understood the meaning of those flags. We used them for motivation. Carry on, because others can't.


We stopped at Eagle Bike Park to get water. In all the years I've been riding there, I never knew there was a snack bar next to the skateboard park.

"Want a hot dog?" I asked.

Not sure if he knew I was joking.

The radio played "Check My Brain," by Alice in Chains. Sounded like good advice.

We were starting the final leg. The temperature had been mild, but the day was heating up, and I could feel myself getting hotter and fatigued.

I checked my iPhone and got a low battery warning. I knew it would soon shut down, which would also end its tracking of my route on Strava. It was a bittersweet, John Henry moment. Would my legs outlast a battery, or would we both fizzle?

I caught myself thinking too far ahead, and repeated, "Inch by inch."

We left the bike park and backtracked on the trails. I knew it was about 3 miles from Seamans Gulch to my house. I also knew I didn't want the ride to end a mile short.

If the GPS showed less than 47 miles when we hit Seamans, we would head back up the hill and onto the trails.

I felt looming dread. I was hot, sweaty, tired and ready for this ride to end.

I checked my brain: "You knew this wouldn't be easy. You knew it would include some discomfort, and here it is. Deal with it."

We arrived at Seamans with less than 47 miles on the GPS. Damn. Up the hill we went.


My legs were sapped, and my head was fuzzy from fatigue and heat. Of all things in the world that would pop into my head, I thought about Navy Seals.

No way would I compare what I was doing to what they do, but I've read the key to enduring their training is the mental discipline. You have to keep moving even when you don't want to.

I didn't have to ride 3 more miles; I just had to keep the pedals turning. Surely I could do that.

We climbed to the water tank on Seamans Gulch, then down the trail that parallels the road. I didn't know the mileage, but I knew it would be enough.

As if to taunt me, my bike computer rolled 50 miles when we returned to Hill Road.

We pedaled in silence. Hill Road never seemed so steep. Even flat stretches felt like riding in sand with a head wind.

"Fifty." Dan said. "Good work, you made it."

"Thanks," I said.

"And we climbed over 6,000 vertical feet," he added.

There was no finish line or cheers at the 50-mile mark. I didn't magically feel re-energized. I felt relieved as much as elated, but it felt good to reach my goal.

We'd ridden for more than 5 hours, and I still wasn't home yet.

We rounded the corner toward my house, and I considered dropping into my granny gear and casually spinning up the steep hill.

But instead, I stayed in the big gear and grunted up the final climb - inch by inch.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

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