What I learned about myself from a 500-mile cycling challenge

Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash
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Life in the 21st century has become increasingly sedentary, and the pandemic, in my opinion, is exasperating this trend. We used to leave the house to go to the office and if you were like me, take a break at lunch to get some food at the food court. Now that many of us are working from home, we don’t even get the activity of the daily commute. At the beginning of the summer, my lack of activity was becoming more and more pronounced. Something needed to change.

At the end of June, I got an email from a local bike shop where I got my bike. It was an open invitation to a riding challenge sponsored by Trek. I struggled to convince myself to be more active and too much of my time was in front of a screen (I knew better, but it’s so much easier to lean on routine). It felt like I needed to give myself a proverbial kick in the pants. I hadn’t been riding my bike very often, but I enjoyed it; the serendipitous-ness of this is one of my friends reached out to me to see if there was any sport or activity that we could do. He, too, was having a challenge with physical activity. (the pandemic wasn’t helping our situations out at all). He reached out to me within 24-hours of my getting the email.

The challenge email had perfect timing; it was nothing more than a marketing piece, which I have no issues with. The companies involved don’t matter as it could have been any; it was merely the confluence of events and timing. Now for the details, because there are details and they are important:

In June, I rode a total of 18 km (11.2 miles), and in May, I think I rode maybe 30 km (18.5 miles) if I was lucky. I was not prepared for a big cycling challenge. I was not in shape at all, though generally not out of shape. I want to make sure that it is clear this was a challenge taken on a whim without really planning.  The idea behind the challenge was to ride either 100, 500, or 1000 miles in the month of July. I figured the 100 miles was too easy, so I went for the middle.

When July 1st came around, I strapped on my gear, and out the door, I went. It was a learning experience; I had never done anything of the sort.  Here are a few lessons that I learned along the way:

Resilience and Determination

I can be as stubborn as a mule at times. When I started this challenge, it was something fun to do, something to get myself moving and exercising. I had forgotten what determination and resilience to just push and push towards a goal were like; I was quickly reminded.

Having a very clear focus is a potent tool. I know that many people try to aim for goals, but they are often not clearly defined. When you have a clear focus, you can pour more of your energy into achieving it. You have to believe that what you are working towards is something you want.

The challenge was simple: ride 500 miles on a bike in the month of July. This simplicity forced me to focus on pouring my energy into it, no thinking. I committed to this activity, and I was reminded how a single focus could drive incredible results.

Small pieces are powerful

I’ve written about this in the past, a bigger challenge or project can be broken down into manageable pieces. The 500-mile challenge, when looked at on day one as one big hurdle to overcome, is daunting. I started the rides off with the vague idea of finishing, but as I got further and further in, my end goal actually became achievable, at least on paper. Knowing what you need to complete and working backwards so that you can accomplish the goal.

I’ve always understood this concept, but it was a very nice real-world reminder with a physical activity I was doing for fun. Taking it out of the context of the digital made the experience more tangible, more visceral.

Having a goal can be good

Goals can be both a good thing and a bad thing; they can motivate you to achieve something pretty impressive. Conversely, they can be so daunting that they, in the end, crush you. It was a bit of a two-edged sword for this challenge: it was nice to have a target I was working towards and striving to achieve. But at the same time, it became a bit of a hurdle when it became apparent that it would be hard to achieve the goal.

I started the 500-mile challenge on a bit of a whim; at the beginning, I didn’t know if I could complete it. It seemed like something I could do, but I didn’t have the proper context for it. While the goal started off as a “cool, that would be great to get it,” became more of an “I think I can, maybe.” In the end, if I admit it, it became both a driver and a hindrance, especially when I realized there was a good chance I wouldn’t finish the full challenge.

You can push yourself farther than you think

The reality is when I started the challenge off, I had no clue of the context. I went from riding once in a blue moon to trying to ride more than 20 miles a day. If you don’t ride regularly, it might not seem like a huge deal, but after a few days, your legs start just to hurt (all the time). When I look back, I accomplished a lot. I went from 0 miles a day to over 20 a day.

I also learned that while I can push myself a lot further than I think, there is also time needed for rest and recovery. This is something that we take for granted in our North American society, especially if you’re going up the corporate ladder. You push and push, skip your vacation for the sake of work, all at the expense of your body. When it comes to work, you might not realize the effects, so you just keep pushing without a break. When you ride daily, your body will tell you unequivocally that you need a break.

I learned that I could indeed push myself a lot farther than I thought was possible; with that lesson, I also learned that there needs to be a balance.

Time and Space to think

One of the things that I think I have enjoyed the most is getting that quiet, that stillness. I know it’s a bit of a catch-22 being that I am saying I got this biking. But riding a bike early in the morning before most of the world is up has some benefits. I started off riding and listening to audiobooks, then about halfway through the month, I left the headphones at home.

I have read a few times about authors using exercise to give themselves time to think, so I tried it, and I enjoyed the time to dive into a mental problem I was trying to think through. I enjoyed it so much so that I will be continuing the silent riding.

Injuries and setbacks occur

Life is full of challenges; you know your plans aren’t going to go perfectly. I was reminded of that a few times during this challenge. I ended up with a few dings and bruises, which weren’t much of a concern. I also felt I was wearing myself pretty thin at times.

The biggest set back for me came not as a result of the cycling but from an unexpected visitor. In the past, I have gotten gout (a pretty painful ailment); for me, I had been able to manage it with diet alone and didn’t get impacted. For the first time in almost four years, it came back towards the end of the challenge. While cycling definitely did not cause it, how I was pushing myself and the changes in my body composition, I’m sure contributed it.

In the end, that episode of gout ended my challenge about 4 days early. If you think that there won’t be any setbacks, you might end up for a shock.

You can celebrate failures

During this challenge, I kept a regular update on my twitter account with my results and what I saw. In the end, here are the final tallies:

  • -344.3 miles / 554.3 km
  • -25 rabbits on the trail, 1 mink
  • -1 coyote
  • -1 flat tire
  • -1 broken pedal
  • -1 dude riding a bike with a harmonica mount (he wasn’t playing it)

I did not actually hit my 500-mile challenge, but considering I wasn’t riding at all the month before, I was blown away. I live in a large metro area with millions of people around me, and I live near the city’s core, so seeing the wildlife and beauty was incredible.

I can see the positives and not just the fact I didn’t hit my numbers.

You have to leave room for adjustments in your plans

Making plans is great, but if you don’t leave room for adjustment and flexibility, you will encounter some challenges.  

How does this apply to the PF world?

The really surprising thing is that most of the lessons that I learned along the way have very strong correlations in the world of Personal Finance, which is why it is relevant for this site:

  • Resilience and Determination – having a single focus from a financial perspective like, say, FIRE can be a real game-changer. Having the resilience and determination to stay with it can yield amazing results.
  • Having a goal can be useful – similar to the first point, knowing where you’re going and how you’re getting there in PF can change your world.
  • You can push yourself farther than you think – This one is, in my opinion, key; most people don’t realize how far they can push themselves. If you’re not saving a penny per month, having a savings rate of 50% might seem crazy… but it might also be achievable. The flipside to this one is knowing your limits, knowing when to rest and recharge. If you don’t push, you might not know.
  • Time and Space to think – The older I get, the more I am convinced that we need to slow down. Pause. When it comes to your financial lives, if you slow down and take notice, you might find that the direction you are going needs to change.
  • Injuries and setbacks occur – Life is full of setbacks; knowing how to react to them is crucial. For example, if you have an emergency fund set up (set aside) and say the car breaks down, you can get around the situation without much challenge.
  • You have to leave room for adjustments in your plans – The best-laid plans all have one thing in common. They change. When you are planning your budget, you need to be able to make changes to the realities.
  • You can celebrate failures – This one isn’t as intuitive as the others, but if you shoot for the stars, say you want to achieve FIRE by the age of 35, but you’re only 70% of the way there by that age, you have accomplished something pretty spectacular.

Conclusion

Was the challenge worth it? Absolutely! Stepping up to the proverbial plate and playing ball is always better than merely being a spectator in life. I didn’t know if I would succeed when I started, and it was actually a real challenge for me to achieve what I did, but I will likely remember it a lot more because of it. I am grateful for that confluence of events that got me to take the challenge because I’ve rediscovered my love of the sport.

Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “What I learned about myself from a 500-mile cycling challenge

  1. Great post! I have also gotten into biking more during the pandemic, which I think has been the case for a lot of people judging by the back orders at the bike shop! For city dwellers, it really is an easy way to get a couple miles away and feel like you’re in an entirely different universe. Having a goal and falling short is still going a lot farther than if you never set the goal!

    1. Thanks! Our bike shops were slammed this summer, and bikes were sold out pretty well everywhere. Most places had month-long wait times for tune-ups. I agree setting a goal gives you that direction and drive to achieve something; if you don’t meet the goal you are at least part of the way there, which is, pardon the pun, miles further ahead.

      What do you ride?

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