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When Should You Cut an Adventure Short? A Coach Ponders When Enough is Enough

John Colver cut his big bike ride short—about 4,600 miles short. And that's OK, he says; after the first 4,000 miles, he figured the trip was already a success.

Have you ever taken on a huge physical challenge and not quite reached your intended finish line? How did you respond? Waves of self-doubt? Gut-churning despair? Logic-defying determination to force yourself to carry on?

KansasAll those options were available last fall to Colver, author of the book Fit by Nature, in which he advocates the use of outdoor spaces to pursue fitness goals.

He chose none of the above. Instead, Colver—a former member of the Scottish national cycling team, a past military paratrooper and a mountain guide who has summited Mount Rainier more than 80 times—applied a clear-eyed assessment to his own situation. It's an approach he has used on others to snap gassed but doggedly gung-ho climbers out of a can't-turn-back trance. 

"In climbing, getting back is nonnegotiable," Colver said. "On a cross-country bike ride, your life is not necessarily at risk as it is on a mountain, but at some point you have to introduce the element of self-care. Goals are valuable and honorable things, but in my case to continue on would have been putting myself in purgatory for a few more months."

The Goal: 8,600 Miles on a Bike

As reported here last summer after Fit by Nature was released, Colver, 46, undertook an unconventional book tour. He aimed to bike from Seattle, where he operates AdventX (coaching and group training for outdoor fitness), to the East Coast, then south to Florida, west to Southern California and north up the West Coast. Estimated round trip: 8,600 miles.

"Every 10 years I try to do something that is big and scary and outside my comfort zone," Colver said. "I figured that ought to do it."

Wyoming wreckA monkey wrench flew into Colver's plans less than 4 weeks into the trip. During a fast descent in some lonely spot in Wyoming east of the Wind River Range, a bolt sheared off his rear rack.

The rack slid, jammed between the rear tire and the bike frame and sent Colver into a slide. (Aftermath photo to the left.) No broken bones, but aches in his right shoulder and back forced a 3-day layover in Lander.

Colver resumed a stout riding regimen, routinely pedaling 100-mile days (tops was a 145-mile stretch between Limon, Colo., and Tribune, Kan.) and climbing over the country's highest continuous paved road—Trail Ridge Road, U.S. 34, in Rocky Mountain National Park, with a high point of 12,183 feet.

When the Mind is Willing But the Body Has Second Thoughts

But discomfort persisted. "I wasn't sleeping very well because my shoulder hurt," he said. "Whether I was in a sleeping bag or sleeping in a motel, I couldn't sleep more than 2 hours before I'd roll over and have this excruciating pain. It would wake me up. After a while, I became aware that I wasn't sleeping, and that made me feel more tired. The joy was getting sucked out of the trip. Mentally I was getting worked."

Midwest trestle bridgeColver continued east, but as he drew closer to the Atlantic Ocean, pain, mental fatigue and feelings of isolation were enough to nudge him into making the tough call. It was time to bring down the curtain on this adventure.

"Part of me was having a hard time letting it go," Colver said. "Eventually I realized it's valuable for me to feel the way I did. As a coach and a guide, this is what I have to deal with all the time—people's feelings about how they're doing, whether or not they can accomplish a goal they've set for themselves."

So after 69 days and 4,000 miles, in the second week of October, Colver reached a beach near Yorktown, Va. He stopped, dipped a finger the ocean and put it to his tongue. "I just wanted to make sure it was salty, so I knew it was the ocean," he said. He then took a friend's pebble, transported via 2 wheels all the way from the Pacific, and placed it in its new home, an Atlantic seashore. He hopped back on his bike, cruised to Yorktown, and called it quits.

Beached"Part of the wisdom of the experience was to feel the way I did," Colver said. "When you do something all the time like climbing, you become physiologically efficient, and it's difficult to remember how hard it can be for someone on their first major climb.

"As a coach or a mountain guide, it could be easy to lose one's patience if you're not able to understand how someone else is feeling.

Empathy and Adventure

"When I was learning to guide, I learned a lot from a famous guide, Vern Tejas," Colver said. "I got to guide with him on Mount McKinley (North America's tallest peak at 20,320 feet in Denali National Park), and at the time he had led 25 or so McKinley expeditions. I asked him, what makes a good guide? He said empathy.

"One way to do what he told me that is to make sure your pack is heavier than everyone else's," he said. "Once in a while, when someone is really tired, put their pack on top of your pack. I found that really helped me. When you add that extra weight, you can appreciate how another person feels. It's hard.

Capitol"When someone asks you how you're doing, you tell them you're doing really well," Colver said. "But at some point in their life everybody is going to be on the downside of the curve, relying purely on hope and luck. Everybody. But we're not trained to say, 'I'm struggling.'

"From a coaching or training perspective, a period of struggle can become an important catalyst. Rather than keep pushing into the danger zone or going all the way back to the start, if a person can sit with that struggle, even if it's uncomfortable, reassess and then move ahead with a renewed effort, this can lead to powerful breakthroughs. As a coach, I feel privileged to witness this a lot in my work, and this time the mirror was turned on me. 

"On my ride, I didn't accomplish my goal necessarily, but instead it had an amazing positive impact on my outlook. It helped me understand myself, and I think it gave me an opportunity to learn more about what people are feeling when they're struggling."

Colver says the trip had other transformative effects following a rough personal patch he hit in early 2011—a 1-2 punch of a divorce and an Achilles tendon injury. The injury prevented him from guiding climbs on Rainier and curtailed his dynamism as an instructor at AdventX. Colver one day mulled his woes with his physician.

Divide"It was my doctor who pretty much caused this whole adventure," Colver said. "He said to me, 'From a physiological perspective I think you could ride your bike. Cycling doesn't cause the same eccentric contraction in the Achilles as running does, so I think the bike would be a good way to start recovering.

" 'On the other stuff, I want you to do something for yourself that's for you and you only, not guiding or teaching.'

"I said, that's funny, because I'd really like to go for a bike ride. We just laughed. He said, that's it; get on your bike and start riding. Two weeks later I told him I was going to ride my bike across the country. He just rolled his eyes. He says it's good when people follow his directions, but that's really following them."

Camp Colver

Why We Aim Big

Why take on something so huge? "My friend Jeff took a sabbatical to climb Everest and I swear it changed his life," Colver said. "He's never been the same since, in a positive way.

"So I didn't want a little jolt," he said. "I wanted a big jolt, and I got it. Any adventure can jolt us off course a little bit and have a positive impact. Sometimes it's good to have a big one."

(Footnote: Seeking a jolt of my own, Colver is the fellow who empathetically cattle-prodded me to the top of Mount Rainier in 2010 one week after I fell crushingly short in my first summit attempt. The experience deepened by own insights into the plight of the endurance/adventure athlete. Some days you carry on; some days logic dictates that you sit it out.)

Open road

Colver's Clues for Knowing When to Say When

When physically challenged, how does Colver gauge his readiness to push on?

"In an endurance situation, especially on a mountain, if I have a choice I don't want to be within 20 percent of my absolute limit," he said. I'll go 10 hours if I know I can go 12. I also want to know if someone on the team breaks a leg, can I carry them out? What would it take?"

Colver, who says he has been involved in more than a dozen emergency-related incidents, once transported a hiker with a broken ankle on his back from Hannegan Pass (near Washington's Mount Baker) 4 miles to the trailhead. Colver cut leg holes in a backpack to use as a hauling system for the injured. "It ruins a backpack, but it's a surprisingly efficient method for carrying a person," he said with a small laugh.

Colver adds: "I use a little acronym, HHEE.  I ask myself, how's my:

• Hydration
• Heat (too hot or cold?)
• Electrolytes
• Energy (i.e., maintaining sufficient glycogen levels for endurance activity; Colver says 6,000 calories are needed for a full day on a bike or a mountain. Warning signs of hypoglycemia include poor coordination, poor temperature regulation, slurred speech, confused thinking. "There is one solution, really: Get food in, especially carbohydrates," he said. "The body will convert protein to glycogen but it's hard on the kidneys.")

"If those 4 things are OK, I'll just keep going," he said. But if it's 100 degrees out, my electrolytes are low and I'm starting to cramp, it won't be very long before I can't do it anymore. If any of those things are off, it's probably a good time to think about stopping or turning back."

The distance
Colver, with a rehabbed shoulder, healthy Achilles and reinvigorated mental outlook, will make his first post-ride Fit by Nature personal appearance Thursday (March 15) at 7 p.m. at the REI Issaquah store, east of Seattle—free and open to all. Colver will discuss the benefit of outdoor training and the value of adventure in a well-lived life.

Can you bear it?Random highlights from a 4,000-mile ride:

• Beyond that 145-mile Wyoming-to-Kansas day, Colver's second-longest day in the saddle was a 140-mile ride from Columbia. Mo., to St. Charles, Mo., northeast of St. Louis.

• He rode the length of Missouri's Katy Trail, the nation's longest rail-to-trail route (roughly 265 miles), and he covered more than 300 miles between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail and the C&O Canal Path. (A leisurely approach to the 2 trails with photo gallery appears in today's Washington Post.) "I wanted to see what's available for bicycles away from standard roads," Colver said.

Camel in Kansas• A coyote in Kansas trotted alongside with Colver for a lengthy stretch; range horses did the same in the same state. Even camels popped up near Hutchinson, Kan., when Colver rode past an exotic animal farm. "Before I left I was joking with some friends and they asked me what's my animal spirit? I told them it's a camel, the animal with the most endurance," he said. "So now I meet my animal spirit in the middle of Kansas. I about fell off my bike."

• In Pennsylvania, a pair of deer ran with him until one of them made an abrupt turn, collided with his bike and knocked him flat. Colver: "To be almost in sight of the ocean after riding from one coast to another and then get taken down by Bambi—that was just embarrassing."

• Parting thought: "The sheer beauty of crossing the United States is quite powerful. I feel like I really got the feel of the country, and it's different than what I see on the news every night. That was a very beautiful experience. Riding over the Rockies is a huge thing for someone who grew up in Great Britain. To ride over the Continental Divide is a huge thing; it's bigger than anything we have over there. It was all deeply moving. I found myself filled with gratitude, to think that I actually live here."

Photos courtesy of John Colver.

Posted on at 1:52 AM

Tagged: AdventX, Climbing, Cycling, John Colver and adventure

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The Uncaged Life

This is really great!

Sometimes you learn more about who you are by choosing to take care of yourself and honoring your true limits, than by pushing through just for the sake of doing what you said you'd do. It takes a lot of self-truth, guts, and humility to go back and tell everyone you didn't finish something you started. And this should be celebrated!

Congrats on honoring what was true for you.

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John D Colver

Thank you for your kind comments on the article. It sounds like you've found that balance too along the way.

My best,

John

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adventurefoot

Great article. I think it's super tough for elite athletes to make the call to stop, even when it's what has to be done. A friend and Ultra Runner wrote an article about an event where he was forced to stop after 20+ hours and 91 miles of running. Super tough. http://runhappens.com/badgerland-24-hour-track-ultra-2011/

Also smiled when you mentioned the Katy Trail (or KT) That's a really fun ride! I blogged about my first time on that trail last summer... Missouri Rails to Trails projects are the best! http://adventurefoot.com/2011/12/12/archive-ride-the-train-katy-trail/

Wishing you continued success and lots of good times on your bike!

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John D Colver

Thanks. The KT trail is a wonderful experience. One of the best parts of that ride.

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Xcountry 'bent rider

Great article with great advice that I could have used last summer on my cross country bicycle trip. I wound up with kidney stones half way through my trip and was faced with the tough decision of letting my mind or my body win the battle of whether or not to continue. I was back and forth all week making my decision, but ultimately, after 10 days off the bike and surgery to remove the stone and insert a stent, I felt just OK enough to decide to push on. And I'm glad I did. I finished the second half of my trip with the stent in place and a moderate amount of pain and ibuprofen, but I have no regrets about pushing to finish my goal. In fact, it made completing the coast to coast journey that much sweeter, to see that my mind was strong enough to know that my body could handle it and not just quit and go home. It took very careful weighing of the medical advice I received and a lot -- A LOT -- of determination to finish. Situations like these are always difficult, and thankfully in this case I was able to prevail and finish.

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Beachbum25

Great story, but you might want to check your facts before you post. Yorktown VA is not a coastal town, it is nowhere near the Atlantic Ocean. It is where the York River empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

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John D Colver

:) Thanks for the post.

Rather than follow the Trans America route - I preferred to make up my own route betweem St Louis and Yorktown and yet I selected Yorktown as for the past 25 years or so, it's been used as the eastern end of the famous USA TransAmerica Trail http://www.adventurecycling.org/store/index.cfm/category/4/transamerica-bicycle-trail.cfm

I ended up going on to Atlantic Beach afterwards but chose the terminus of this trip for it's historical context as the end of the TransAmerica trail.
Of great interest too was Jamestown where of course the first British Settlers sailed into. It was my first time there and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire area.

I never considered it at the time but now you mention it - Yorktown is a clear 30/35 miles to where Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic! (Fisherman's Island or First Landing State Park? I suppose a kayak would have been an appropriate human-powered vehicle to finish off!

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Sue Moessinger

I was working at a bike store that sits at the end of the Great Allegany Passage Way and the beginning of the C & O Canal. John stopped in and we chatted. He hung around just long enough for me to learn that he didn't have any cash!! He didn't leave empty handed. Makes me smile!

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Shannegans

Love this. Once you start something, it can be so hard to call it "quits", before you fall over dead. :) Also, 4,000 miles makes the wimpy duathlon that I'm considering seem like a cake walk. o.O

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