Friday, October 1, 2010

My Quest for the 600k: DNF

The Willamette Headwaters 600k Brevet


DNF, for the uninitiated, means Did Not Finish, and it is the designation a randonneur earns, in place of a finish time, when one quits before finishing a brevet in the allotted time.

Before I go further I want to thank all the organizers, especially Michael Wolfe, for a super scenic route, outrageous organization and a spectacular spirit. A brevet depends on all three, but the spirit counts for much. This brevet really deserves pics, so I'll post some links to others' pics so you get a sense of how beautiful this route really is. Michael, I know the logistics involved were really, really intense. Thanks so much for your contribution to our sport and to all of us who participated!

For the sake of getting all that's in my head and heart down onto this page, I'm going to organize into categories of Facts, Feelings, and Shifts.

One last prefatory remark: it's easy to quickly get drawn into the drama of long rides, the elation, the disappointment, the deep lessons learned--and I'm confident I'll go there--but really this is only about riding a bike. It's not about the real hardships that ordinary people overcome in everyday life and certainly not about the unfathomable hardships that extraordinary people overcome in their everyday lives. It's just making wheels go around.


  • This was my first attempt at a 600k, the longest distance I'd yet attempted.

  • At over 20,000 feet of climbing, this was by far the most elevation I'd ever taken on.

  • I rode fast for the first 100k and 200k--my fastest ever 200k in fact--by hanging onto better riders and to help bank time for the climbs to come when I'd surely slow.

  • As I rode with the fast pack, it became known that several of us (four?) were attempting our first 600k. One veteran rider exclaimed, "Your doing your first 600k on this route (thinking of all the elevation gain)? That's ballsy!".

  • We rode on the Row River Trail which is built on an old railroad grade which was the location for Buster Keaton's The General. If you read the Wiki description closely, there is a scene in the movie where Buster's character chases The General, which is a train, while riding a boneshaker, an early bicycle.

  • I rode with one, then two, great new pals who helped me through some tough climbs and nightness.

  • I forsook my "success plan" by having dinner with my two pals at a table outside a restaurant at a wine and beer tasting festival after an intense and long forest service road descent. My "success plan" calls for no solid food stops, just powdered Perpetuem, but I decided that having companions for the upcoming nighttime climb was worth the change of plans.

  • I arrived at a secret controle with my pals and had soup and hot chocolate and great gladness in the middle of the night--all staffed by a hardy volunteer and his pickup truck of many wonders, Michael Rasmussen.

  • I arrived at the overnight controle with about an hour and forty-five minutes left before the time limit.

  • I got about 40 minutes of sleep at the overnight. Yes, it was hard to get up.

  • The overnight volunteers were angels. No brag, just fact. I'm sorry I don't recall their names, but it was like being at a high brow bed and breakfast! Thanks, volunteers!

  • Waiting for my companions to depart by indulging in breakfast and such (Keven decided then that due to knee pain and fear of injury that he was abandoning), I spied Peg Winczewski departing. Peg is as good an anchor as one could want and had arrived at the controle with us. I watched Peg depart with her customary earnestness. Watching her depart, it occurred to me that perhaps I should be getting a move on too, but I didn't exactly.

  • I left the overnight controle about an hour and twenty minutes after the time limit (maybe an hour after Peg?) with my one remaining pal, Ted.

  • On the big climb out of that valley, Ted encouraged me to ride on ahead. I declined at first, then I reluctantly did just that.

  • Our route had been modified due to forest fire smoke.

  • I arrived at the next controle thirty minutes past the time limit.

  • When I called to convey that I was going to DNF, Michael Wolfe told me he'd wave my missing the controle deadline because he'd intended it to be only an information controle anyway because the forest fire course change had pinched his own time to fully reorganize.

  • I told him that despite his generosity, I was spent. I was going to DNF. I also learned then that Ted had already DNF'd earlier.

  • It was 455 kilometers into the ride, and most of the climbing was past with just one major ascent remaining.

  • I hitchhiked back to the start by the kindness of two strangers, each a gem in their own respect.

  • As I got back to the start I saw the faster riders finishing up their rides.

  • I got into my truck, drove to the Interstate, took a nap before getting on the Interstate, then drove back to Seattle.


It was a rush to hang on to the faster riders' wheels for a while. I knew I was burning my candle quickly, but this was offset by the time cushion I was building up. There really wasn't an alternative, so I rushed forward probably using up some energy stores but also making it possible to stay in the hunt. This felt right, and exhilarating.

The climbs were tough, and long. We walked up some, which I'd recently discovered has a quickly restorative effect when your legs are tired. Looking back, I may have walked a little overly much. Then again, I was tired. I didn't ingest caffeine as night wore on because I was afraid--now this seems silly--that I wouldn't be able to sleep at the overnight if I were caffeined up.

Walking is a quick restorative; don't let your pride deny your legs a helpful treat!

Hooking up with Ted was a relief. I knew I was at the back, and I don't mind the solitude, but I was glad to feel like I was in with at least one other who was still in the hunt. We talked of many things, and you really can get to know someone pretty well on a bike in the wilderness, in the dark, when you're hurting and going through your respective phases, and it's just you and him. Ted's a really good person.

 Later, we hooked up with a rider I had nicknamed "Stripey" from afar. This was because his striped stockings were distinctive, and it was a moniker that Ted recognized. Our touchstone for that other guy who was also hanging onto the back was thus: Stripey. And then as Ted and I were wrestling with a navigational decision (Ted had a day-old Garmin that he barely knew how to utilize it was so new, and I wasn't much use), along comes Stripey. Well it turned out Stripey had a name. He was Keven from Vancouver, BC, and he too was a great companion though I didn't get to know him quite as well since we didn't hang together as much. Now we fairly constituted a pack.

One thing that Ted and Keven had in common was that they were fearless descenders compared to me. I was amazed at how they'd whip around blind corners while I had to make certain nobody was coming the other way. This was despite the fact that we saw exactly one car over the hours that comprised the whole ascent and descent. I really felt compromised by my poor descending and while they waited for me when necessary, I realized I have much to learn and practice in this regard.

It was on one of these long descents that I convinced myself that when I hit a bump that my phone had popped out of my bag. I heard something, but didn't give it much notice. Later, not finding my phone, I assumed it was the casualty. Turns out all that was just my foggy brain not finding my phone and leaping to conclusions.
After the descent we rolled into the Oakridge Keg and Cask Festival. Oakridge, it seems is literally surrounded by forest service land. We were quite the spectacle for that crowd and everyone wanted to chat about our endeavor, our route, our bicycles. This is where I made that choice to stay and have dinner with Keven and Ted. It seemed to make sense to stay with them then, but now I can see that it wasn't necessarily such a good idea. It was really both a good idea for keeping company, but at the same time a great risk. Still hard to decide what I'd do in the same situation again.

One thing is certain: I relaxed. I ate at a table like a human being, with a napkin and silverware. While it felt good to rest and I'm certain that was a restorative, I now see that I also altered my sense of urgency here. As long as I was with others I reasoned, I was OK. Looking back, I'd backed myself into a fog of unexamined assuredness. Of course, we did eat at a restaurant called The Brewers Union Local 180, so I further rationalized my stopping due to the labor reference, my being a labor guy and all.

After the next big climb through several hours of nighttime, the overnight controle became our next benchmark, I began to dig in again. I wanted to get there, and two other riders who it turned out were indeed behind us, Peg and Jeff, joined our troupe and I led us in to the controle with determination.

The controle was an oasis. People cooking us spaghetti, being ushered to luxury cabins for a little sleep, a warm shower. Ahhhh. This is where I made some further poor decisions. I ate spaghetti--Yum and thanks volunteers!--and after my 40 minutes (40 winks?), I ate Raisin Bran like it was breakfast time even though it was only an hour after I ate my Spaghetti. I lingered. I soaked in the warmth. I organized my bike bag. Put on new shorts and a clean jersey. I watched Peg leave with her earnestness. I reflected, but most of all, I didn't depart like a man on a mission.

When I did leave it was well over an hour AFTER the controle officially closed putting me well over an hour in the hole timewise. And on the climb up McKenzie Pass when I finally left Ted behind, I was alone with my thoughts, my suffering, my feeling sorry for myself.

Lava Fields atop the McKenzie Pass climb.

And then it dawned me during the ensuing descent that I wasn't going to make the next, and penultimate, controle on time no matter how hard I pedaled into the wind. By the time I wheeled into that controle and the store clerk wrote my time on my brevet card, I was a full 30 minutes in the hole. Even though I thought that maybe Michael the Brevet Organizer might forgive this, I made up my mind--my hungry, overheated, unrested, kind of pissy mind--that since I was late...I was done. I have DNF'd.

Dead Vulture: Good omen cause it's dead, or...
 But instead of calling Michael immediately to talk it over, check out my options or eat a little, rest a little, think things through a little, I impetuously called DartreDame, my wife, and told her I was spent, I was done. We talked it over, I rationalized, and then I felt a mixture of relief and collapse settle in. I was done. Dartre, for her part, did everything as a partner ought to. She checked in and offered up what staying in meant. Didn't encourage me to quit. But it can be a tough spot, right? You don't want them to encourage you to quit but you want them to be there for you. Perhaps because she too has DNF'd (on a Permanent) and finished strong as well, she understands very well.

So then, by the time I called Michael, my soul had said "No mas", and Michael's noble attempts to re-engage me were of no use; I had shut down.

Now this was followed by a bit of a high. Suddenly, I was no longer experiencing the tension of time stress or the worry of can I make it up this "one more climb?". I hitchhiked back to the start, maybe 50 miles or more with my bike, and did so by virtue of two angels. And now I had entered into a realm of adventure I've been accustomed to for years: hitchhiking, adventuring, but without time constraints, a poor man's touring. This was familiar terrain from long ago.

The first driver that stopped was a fabulous woman driving a van. The van was for her husband whose disability confined him to a wheelchair. My bike rode next to his chair in the back as I sat in front with her, and they regaled me of some of their life's stories. Her daughter and friend followed in a car behind us. Wonderful folks, our little caravan, and oh how they admired my riding all that distance. And I relaxed and soaked it in, but with a niggling in the back of my head that said: "quitter!".

The next driver was a really unique guy who I stereotyped quickly as a redneck as I slung my bike onto the bed of his pickup. And he was. He was a cowboy for real. He tended cattle up by the coast. But he was plenty else. Former army long distance runner, now a newbie mountain biker. He was a dad. An entrepreneur. He was a character. He was a real appreciator of what I was doing, this randonneuring. He ended up taking me about 20 - 30 miles out of his way and dismissed it as easily as that. He was happy to, he said, and that was right: he was happy to. I don't know what it is but there are times you just connect with total strangers in ways that feel more real than many of the relationships you have with folks you know and have worked with for years. Kind of like striking up a conversation with a seatmate on a plane, and instantly finding common ground in a suddenly deep way as both of you know you'll never see one another again. There is that intimacy of the temporarily corralled strangers.

So, there I am then, relaxed, sleepy, starting to regret a little, but now back outside the motel where we started the morning before. I grabbed my drop bag and bumped into Ted. We shared our DNF camaraderie, a few words of "next time", and I skulked off to my truck.

When I got home at last, I drove straight to meet my family at our good friends' house; they had visiting family from India and I broke another vow: I ate several bowlsful of ice cream and several Indian sweets (no sweets better than Indian milk sweets!) whilst being congratulated and cheered for going farther and higher than ever before. For them, DNF was a mere detail lost in a tale of unimaginable proportions. So what, you rode so far and so high!

DartreDame laughingly chided me for the fact that I had one sock on/one sock off, but they gave me much love and encouragement. In my mind, I was a quitter. In their minds, I had achieved more than I ever had previously, which was true too. Obviously, I was back in the arms of my homefolk.


Gradually, as I told folks of my latest adventure and explained why I'd quit, I couldn't quite conjure up the real reason. Was I completely physically exhausted? If I answered really and truly In fact, once I started hitchhiking home I felt physically pretty good.

I started to shift into regret. I could have kept going. Even if I didn't finish on time, at least I should have kept going. What was it that made it feel impossible to go back on the bike for that last big climb? I had done much more than that already. There's even a term for finishing a brevet, but past the time limits: hors delai. It is a respected status because it shows one didn't quit even though the clock had run out. I'd never even given that option a second thought. I dismissed it before it had a chance to alight onto my brain, because I'd shut down. A handy excuse was that I had an important work meeting Monday morning so as long as I had quit, why not just get home ASAP? And so I did.

Shift #1

Then I read Dr. Codfish's column in the Fall, 2010 American Randonneur, the official publication of Randonneurs USA. Dr. Codfish, or Paul Johnson, writes the blog, The Dr. Codfish Chronicles, and it is filled with sage rando advice. This particular column, titled Reaching the finish line...the endurance mind, is about finishing. He writes about the obvious: visualization, preparation, having a contingency plan. But he also writes about the not-so-obvious: feeding your head, making your own rules, the power of having experienced looking into the void. But, most of all, Dr. Codfish explicitly advises never to decide to quit until AFTER you've eaten a little, drunk a little, napped or rested a little, and made a bargain to continue on just a little longer. Then decide.

Reading those words just hours after my decision to DNF, I felt small. Why hadn't I just tried...a little?

Well, I eventually decided three things about this when to quit idea. First, being honest with myself, I quit too soon. Ouch! Second, so I did, that's good to admit, but it doesn't define me as a quitter or anything else. It was one decision among many. I wish now I hadn't done it, but it couldn't be undone. Just let it be the reality, but not my defining reality. Third, I realized that once again in this damn fool business that is our randonneuring, I had learned another lesson. Good for me!

If you haven't read Dr. Codfish's column, read it. If you have read it, reread it. If you aren't a RUSA member, you could go online, but I don't think it's up yet. So join RUSA. That article is more than worth the cost of admission.

Shift #2

I still don't know why it took me so long to make this second shift--could it be I was too busy wallowing in my quitterdom?--but it took almost two weeks. Finally though, I just did the math. If I left the overnight controle between 75 and 90 minutes after the controle closed and I was 30 minutes late coming into that last controle, then I had actually made up between 45 and 60 minutes on what was one serious climb and a descent into a nasty headwind. I was improving my time even though I'd departed the overnight later than I should have. At that rate and with what I knew to be just one more longish but not so steep climb, I really had a pretty promising, not doomsday, trajectory. Huh.

Shift #3

Three years ago almost to the day, I set some wheels in motion, the full consequences of which I hadn't really seriously considered. It began when I read online about the just completed Paris Brest Paris event in 2007. I surfed wildly from website to website soaking in all I could absorb: camaraderie, testing one's limits, self-supported, suffering, Paris, cycling, tradition, fanfare, French food, and festival. I announced to Dartre (who acquired her nickname DartreDame on an earlier trip to Paris, the very one in which our budding romance blossomed beyond my imagination!) that I hoped to ride in the next Paris Brest Paris, and if she was supportive then I would commence my journey that I knew would take me to soaring heights as well as the accompanying lows. I had enough life experience to appreciate that there would be unforeseen lows, I just didn't have the foresight to imagine exactly how they'd manifest themselves.

Well, the wheels I'd set in motion when Dartre proclaimed her support for my quest were big wheels on a steep descent. Dartre and her sister were thinking about how to celebrate their parents' 50th wedding anniversary coming up in 2011. Since their parents live in India and celebrants live around the globe, why not France in August of 2011. Since Curio will be riding there anyway for Paris Brest Paris, let's just all meet in France and we can have one big party/PBP. Manufique!

Almost exactly after this DNF, Dartre's sister and Dartre decided it was time to seriously plan. So as I was experiencing Shifts 1 and 2, they were deciding where to go (Provence), which house with which amenities (cheaper one), when to depart Provence for Paris and PBP (later than Curio), when Dartre and I would cyclo-tour for a week (first week in August), where we'd cyclo-tour (Dordogne), etc.

Suddenly, my DNF was now also a ticket to nowhere. Without a 600k, let alone a 1000k, I was seriously risking being unable to register for Paris Brest Paris 2011. The result was that while it was now set that we were going to France, the impetus for going there in the first place--Paris Brest Paris--was slipping through my fingers.

This sent me back to surfing the Internet. I had to find an alternative 600k, hopefully flatter, so that I could improve my chances or I could see 2011 and France and family trip all adding up to one word for me: Bittersweet.

And so I shifted again. This time from pondering my bellybutton and the meaning of my DNF to the practicalities of finding a 600k and getting myself there. I had shifted into a next step. I found another 600k to try: Surf City 600k put on by the Santa Cruz Randonneurs!! DNF, what DNF? I was on a move toward a new success plan.

To find out how I did on the Surf City 600k, please go here.


If you've read this far, there is little need to apologize for the length of this post. It's just long. But if you've read this post, you'll also know that it was pretty self-revealing. I thought more than twice before putting all this down for any and all to see, but I chose yes in the hope that it is fodder for other newbies. If you find it maudlin, please be kind. If you find it useful, then I am pleased.

For more pics and ride reports from other riders:

 Keep it in perspective,



  1. I did the same thing on my first 600k attempt three years ago. Called my wife the next morning when I just didn't think that I could make it, then call the organizer, then wait, then feel better, then wonder; wonder for a long time. I'm so glad you are going to Santa Cruz and making up for it. We'll all be rooting for you!

    Bon Chance!


  2. Thanks for sharing and being so honest about it too. While you didn't quite get the result you were hoping for, it was a learning experience. And not just for you, but your readers as well.

    I have become very interested in randonneuring and have read many blogs. I am seriously considering making a commitment to start next year. I have been training for a couple years now to get back into shape and I think I am ready. Reading blog posts likes yours is invaluable with the lessons learned.

    Here's to your success in the Surf City 600k! I will be watching for your report.

  3. Steve, I think it was very courageous of you to try this as your first 600k attempt. Good luck in Santa Cruz. I know of some who are hoping that a 400k will be good enough to qualify for Paris. :)


  4. Wow. Great post! I have experienced pretty much all of what you write...three times, having abandoned 3 600k's this year. Trying #4 next weekend. I wish us both luck and the will to finish.


  5. Thanks for the friendly comments. I did finish the Surf City 600k, and you can read all about it. For those of you still trying or thinking about trying the rando thing, keep at it, you'll get there!

    A couple of things that are crucial to my success are a really good physical therapist, a really good bike fit, and a really supportive family.

    And remember, as in the rest of life, there is no one way to rando. Choose yours, and go with it.

  6. Great to read your report! It brought back some great memories. I don't regret a thing about the ride, it was amazingly beautiful. I think it was a good decision to DNF at the overnight--I was in significant pain the next week. Sometimes the hardest thing for me is not to keep pushing when I know I shouldn't. Case in point: that probably would have been before I started this particular adventure with a lingering case of tendonitis! It's also how I injured myself back in the spring. Oh well--I'm very much looking forward to this ride the next time it's offered, or as a tour.

    The only thing I might regret is if only having a 400 under my belt gets in the way of PBP next year... Hope to see you there.

    Congratulations on your 600!

    Kevin (at forwardmovement point net)