Finishing an Ironman can be one of the most amazing experiences of your life. It can also set you up for one of the most dispiriting episodes of your life. The phenomenon of post-Ironman depression is real although it strikes people in different ways, and its causes are many and varied. Some of it is no doubt simply chemical. You spend the better part of a year working out not once a day (which would represent a considerable buzz for most people) but often twice a day. Sometimes you are working out for hours (and hours, and hours) on end. You are saturated in a heady mix of endorphins pretty much all the time. Then suddenly you are cut-off as abruptly as Lindsay Lohan sent to rehab. But it is more than a chemical-dependency problem. Especially when you get to the latter stages of an Ironman you spend a lot of time dreaming of/fantasizing about the time when the race is over and you will get your life back.
And then you do get your life back and suddenly you have vast swathes of time and no idea how to fill them. Or you allow them to fill up automatically with the usual inconsequential crap that characterizes the everyday aimless drift of our lives. Television. Celebitchy. It isn’t just that an Ironman provides your life with a powerful sense of direction for a year but that humans are creatures of habit, routine, and ritual and all of those things are powerfully present all the time when you are training for a big event. It isn’t just that you are suddenly missing a purpose but that your life is missing rhythm and pattern directed toward a purpose. I’m reminded of this when I haven’t been on a long ride for a while: the ritual of getting my gear together the night before, making up the drinks, assembling the right clothes, charging my Garmin, etc.
When you finish an Ironman you are powerfully exhausted both physically and mentally. In fact, your body is exhausted in ways that aren’t even perceptible to most people. I’ve found that many people massively under-estimate the time it takes to recover physically from an Ironman. Muscularly, you start feeling better pretty quick. After all, in order to do an Ironman in the first place you typically have to be in some of the best shape of your life. You’ll be tempted to enter another race. . .and the wonder why you are sucking wind halfway through, or why you feel like complete arse the day after a mere 10K.
Yet, to go the other way, to obey what seems the eminently sensible demand from both your body and your mind (after all, isn’t that the training mantra? Listen to your body?) that you “rest,” that you “take time off,” that you “relax and recover” is a recipe for disaster. Going cold turkey on anything is incredibly difficult. From my experience, that of my partner, and the experiences of many friends who have completed an Ironman, taking time off after an Ironman stages a hefty frontal attack on your motivation. Many people experience this as primarily a lack of motivation to exercise. They stop working out, they think the should maybe sorta oughta sign up for events but they never do. The worst case scenario is that this lack of motivation can start to bleed over into other realms of your life. After all, most people are trapped in jobs that seemed shallow and meaningless and inconsequential before they completed an Ironman. They are not going to look significantly better after such a major life-event.
Having experienced this after my first Ironman I’m trying to be a bit smarter and learn from that experience this time around. So I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last few weeks thinking not about the event coming up in September but about what will happen after that. What is my post-game plan?
Yes, you could say that I am, as the old saw has it, putting the cart before the horse. But I’ve been stuck behind this particular horse before and man, if it doesn’t generate a copious and almost continuous output of crap. So anything that puts me out in front of it can only be a good thing.
Things began to come together for me over the weekend when I took the new bike out for her second ride (the first was a 20 mile shakedown cruise through the rolling terrain of Barcroft the day before to make sure nothing obvious fell off either me or the bike), a 40 mile loop starting from Glen Echo. I rode neither smartly nor well, spending a lot more time out of zone than I would ordinarily have liked. But the lightness of the bike made charging up the hills too tempting. And I had fun. (BTW, the bike now officially has a name: Ginger. After Ginger Rogers because she dances across the road. Also because she is zippy and peppy. Also because ginger is one of the things on our list of “magic ingredients,” those items that when added to a dish automatically make it better.)
Maybe it was because I was having such fun that this idea began to form. Maybe it was the clarity-inducing near-death experience of narrowly missing being hit by a car (someone screaming down a side street and trying to turn onto a main road without looking; I was saved only by my friend Rich’s tree-shattering bellow which she heard inside the car and which also gave me just enough time to twitch the bike out of the way of the front bumper. Is the bike maneuverable? Check).
At any rate, I was thinking about how much I love cycling and about the post-Ironman problem. I wanted something that would provide me with a goal, would keep me active, wouldn’t completely take over my life but still push me and would still allow me to participate in the social element of training with the team that I’ve come to value.
So here’s my plan. I am going to ride one century every month for an entire year. And I’m going to do each one in a different State.
This is going to involve some interesting opportunities. It will undoubtedly take me to places I haven’t been before and force me to do things as a rider and a person I haven’t done before. There will be a plethora of new sights and sounds (as Mary pointed out, lots of good blogging material there!) and undoubtedly more than a few hellacious experiences in waiting. There will also be more than a few challenges apart from the obvious physical ones. It is going to be tough to find centuries during the winter months. They seem to be nonexistent locally (for mostly obvious reasons, although the bizarre stretch of warm weather we’ve been having can make you wonder) so I’m going to have to travel. In practice, this may mean that in some months I’ll be doing more than one century; I’ll try and support Mary on a couple of her Wanaka training rides, and there are also the by now traditional rides such as Mountains of Misery which I’ll need to decide whether or not to count as my “official” Virginia century or merely a supplement). I’d also like to do as many as possible of these rides with friends. So yes, I’ll be trying to suck other people into my madness although I don’t expect anyone else to try and go the whole nine yards.
So I’d like to hear from as many of you as possible. What centuries have you heard about that might make for a fitting addition to this list? In particular, I’d be interested in more obscure century efforts during the winter months so that I don’t face the soul-sapping prospect of visiting and riding around Florida. I’d be especially interested in hearing from anyone who might be interested in joining me on one or more of these endeavours.