After not finishing last year, Kelsey Phelps describes the difficulties of the course and the changes he made to his diet to help him reach the Grand Canyon this year.
Every year in late spring I travel to St. George, UT to ride my bicycle to the Grand Canyon. This is my holiday season. I see more friends and family this weekend than I do at Christmas. I appreciate the after ride meal more than Thanksgiving dinner. Eating individually wrapped energy bars, gummies, and gels takes me back to Halloween as a kid and polishing off a large bag of free candy in a surprisingly short amount of time. This one weekend combines all the best elements of the holidays in a healthier form and is the highlight of my year.
It is also a really tough ride. For those that like numbers, the route we take is 104 miles long and has about 7200 feet of climbing. This year was a little more important than usual because I didn’t finish the ride last year. I was out of energy by mile 70 and overheating to dangerous levels. It was the first time I’ve ever quit a bike ride, but it was the right decision at the time.
Over the past year I’ve reflected on that experience and made two changes to my lifestyle, both relating to diet. Eating healthy has always been my Mt. Everest (see bag of candy above). I’ve tried numerous times to eat healthier and always talked myself out of it. Until this year. I knew I had to start small and keep it realistic if it was going to work. I eliminated soda during the week. It took me about a month, but I successfully switched to water. I know this sounds small, but it was a big first step for me, and now, while I do still enjoy a soda occasionally, I don’t need it.
The second thing I did in the few months leading up to the ride was to add a supplement. What got me into trouble on the ride last year were the long, flat miles of fast spinning. Those miles took away more energy than the climbing, so I wanted something for extended energy and decided on barley for its slow burn and extended energy. This was a much easier adjustment to make since I had previously conquered carbonation. And it worked.
The Ride: Part 2
We started pedaling at five in the morning in St. George and headed south. The bulk of the 7200 feet of climbing is done in two climbs: Quail Ridge at mile 30 and Mt. Trumbull at mile 74. For everyone else those are the biggest challenges, but the 44 miles of flat in between are the hardest miles for me. Sustaining a fast pace on the flats for hours pounds a slow, deep burn into my muscles and makes every pedal stroke a mental and physical battle. The sun has been up long enough to be oppressive (shade is not natural in this place), and the headwind kicks up hot dust. It is here I don’t know if I have what it takes to finish.
The top of Quail is where I take the first serious assessment of how I feel on the ride. By then I am awake and warmed up, and how I handled Quail is a good indicator of how the ride will go. At this point last year I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t able to correct it and 40 miles later I abandoned the ride. This year I reached the top of Quail at a slower pace and needed to drink more. I was 30 miles in and I didn’t know if I could finish. I drank as much as possible and kept going. And then it happened. I settled in to a pace I could maintain, I had found my rhythm. My muscles hurt but I never had the slow, deep burn that tries to talk me into quitting. By the time I pushed through the 44 miles I knew I would be able to finish the ride. I would erase all the negativity from not finishing the ride last year.
After successfully completing the ride, I sat on the rim of the Grand Canyon and enjoyed one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I soaked in the view and thought about what it took to get me there. My takeaway from this experience is a greater appreciation of the human capacity for improvement. With two changes to my diet that were small but discipline intensive I was able to greatly improve my experience year over year. With the momentum and enthusiasm of this experience I am ready to take another step in improving my diet. Next on the list is fine tuning my protein.