That Festive 500 Feeling

For the second year I jumped in ride the Festive 500: an annual event organized by Rapha and Strava for cyclists to ride 500 kilometers the eight days between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. It was conceived in 2010 by a Rapha employee in England who wanted some motivation to ride between the dreary weather and holidays. Since then it has grown from a few hundred participants to almost 100,000 worldwide in 2018. What is its great reward? Besides bragging rights you can opt for a small colorful patch commemorating the year’s event.

If you do the math, it averages to only 38.75 miles/day (62.5 km/day) so what’s the big whoop? Well for those of us experiencing a real winter, it’s just that…..winter. It’s freakin cold outside with a high chance of snow and ice, and the days are short and dark. The Winter Solstice was just a few days ago. Doesn’t a week of Netflix and chill by the fire with a bottle of wine and cookies sound right? Plus it’s the holidays and family tends to take precedence with visits and big meals and even flights across country. The odds are not in your favor.

Thousands sign up on Strava for the event, but only a fraction actually finish. The one rule they stick to is that all rides must be outdoors, no indoor trainers or Zwift allowed. Those at the top of the leaderboard are often from the southern hemisphere (Australia, Brazil, and Columbia always make an appearance) or warm northern hemisphere climes (lookin at you Florida). There are some really hardy folk (and women!) from England and Germany, which I greatly admire and enjoy seeing. Personally I think to truly get a badge you should be above a certain geographic latitude to honor the intended struggle of this event, but that’s me.

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for a cause

I had heard of the Festive 500 for years and vaguely blinked when Rapha disciples humble-bragged about completing it. I scoffed at the idea of riding so far in the middle of the off season. But then in November 2016 my beloved coworker took his life, which left all who knew him reeling. I found myself riding through the grief well into December. I leaned on the local suicide awareness and prevention chapter, combing through their resources to try and understand how someone so wonderful, intelligent, generous, such a super hero, could take his life. There is never a clear, logical answer and sometimes that’s just what I needed to hear.

I noticed that the chapter accepted donations at different levels to help others coping with the grief of suicide and to improve their programs and research. By the time Christmas rolled around I knew that I wanted to give back to what this chapter gave to me, and I decided to ride my bike 500 miles and donate $500. I had no idea what I was getting into with the Festive 500, and quickly I found my legs pedaling in squares and dreading each day’s ride. I even miscalculated how many days the event was held, thinking that it ended New Years DAY (not EVE), which put me in the saddle far too many miles at the end. But I did it, and every pedal stroke I thought of Greg and how at some point he did not think he could move forward. So I did it for him.

This year, I again wanted to donate to an organization that supported suicide prevention and awareness because it’s not something that will ever go away and will continually need our support. Many people in our local bike club donated to help me reach my goal. And again like in 2016, when I was in the freezing headwind miserable at the idea of many more hours to go, I channeled my strength for others who might not have any more. Some may do the Festive 500 for bragging rights or to spend hours with their buddies, but I find that the last week of the year is a perfect time to be reflective and thankful for everything you had this year, and to take a time out to give to something bigger than you.

Keys to Success

Based on my two Festives I’ve learned these strategies:

  1. Plan out the week’s routes ahead of time. Every single day and mile/kilometer. It will reduce any stress of figuring out where to ride during the week and if you follow your route plan then you will meet your goal. Know their distances and elevation then your only requirement is to leave the house and get the job done. Try to get the longer volumes done earlier in the week before you fatigue too hard or on days when you do not have family commitments. Particularly if this kind of volume is not a common occurrence, your brain will fatigue halfway through the week so the less calculating you have to do the better.

  2. Stalk the weather forecast and adjust your rides accordingly. This year I was lucky to have a “good” weather window in Pittsburgh. It never climbed above 35F degrees and the wind chill was often in the teens, but it was dry which is key. There was no accumulation of snow or ice that would have limited the number of days I could go out and probably would have prevented any success. Arrange your rides for the optimal weather days and accommodate potentially dismal days with off-road rides. Remember that indoor trainer rides do not count!

  3. Minimize the amount of climbing. If you are a skinny whippet climber maybe this doesn’t apply to you, but for us non-climbers part of my success is choosing flatter terrain so I wouldn’t tire so much from climbing. However, Pittsburgh is decidedly not flat so that required thoughtful planning per #1. I tried to keep my rides to 2,500 feet, but as you see in my summary below that didn’t happen each ride. In order to log the miles you need to get around, and that involves riding over a lot of hills to get to the flatter terrain.

  4. Along with the route plan, have your food and water bottle plan. Know what snacks you will bring along and even change it up later in the week. If you are a regular energy bar eater, you may find yourself unmotivated to eat the same food after 400 kilometers. Mix it up and live it up! Grab some cookies from Christmas and put them in your pockets. I finally bought two insulated water bottles and filled them with hot black tea. They never stayed hot, but they did not freeze solid either. This is also a time to celebrate the fun of cycling and eating as a well deserved reward. I become less interested in sweet snacks and move on to more satisfying fatty and salty foods, which brings us to….

  5. Map out well-timed rest stops to buy more snacks and drinks (esp coffee). I discovered new coffee shops and even a new gluten free bakery. But what really powered me? Good old American gas stations. By Day 4 nothing could keep me from my Red Bull and Pringles, plus it provided me a quirky diversion from the regular cycling routine. Yes that’s me sitting on the curb of a gas station stuffing Pringles in my face.

  6. Slow and steady spinning wins the week. I don’t race any more and I know that my strength lies in slow and steady pacing. I would not go on our local group rides because the testosterone river flows too high and I need to ride at my own pace. I focused on spinning at a steady Zone 2 and maintaining that as much as possible on climbs, easing up so that my legs and heart were not over taxed. Spinning the legs is important because it improves the efficiency of blood flow and does not require more effort from muscle groups that might tire them too quickly. Not enough riders understand the performance advantage - the art - of spinning so this is a great time to put it into practice and reap the rewards. A few weeks after the Festive on a group ride, the guys were blown away by my smooth cadence, speed, and power. All those miles of spinning definitely did something to improve my performance.

  7. Take your bike to your LBS for a good tuneup and give it a thorough wash beforehand. This should be obvious, but it’s not and you don’t want this to be the week that your chain fails or you can’t shift into that granny gear and turns out the shop is closed for the holidays. You’ll be asking a lot of yourself and your bike. Make sure it’s in as good shape as possible to avoid any issues. Put on new tires and tubes (or fresh sealant), and give it a good scrubdown to ensure there is no extra grease or grime to slow you down. Every watt counts at this point.

highlights and lessons learned

  1. The first time I did the Festive 500 I woke up the last few days wondering how I would ever turn the pedals over again. My mind couldn’t compute how I could put out these miles day after day. But that’s the thing - you can. This year was the same, I turned over my biggest volume ever: 606 kilometers. It wasn’t always pretty, but I did more than my mind ever thought I could.

  2. I got so so so slow by the end of the week I almost fell over on some small climbs. I struggled to keep up with my 71 year old (very fit) friend who tagged along one day, feeling like I was pulling a 200# sled, but that’s the lesson: keep turning the pedals over. When your bike computer is only registering 10 mph, be kind to yourself because you’re still moving and doing something great.

  3. A few days the hardest part was leaving the house and knowing I had 5 hours of dreary freezing weather ahead. My dad and a few others led me out for the first 10 miles a few times, which was enough to get me moving and a little more motivated knowing that others had my back.

  4. Food glorious food. It takes about 200 miles for my metabolism to kick in and after that I was hungry all…the….time. I loved it because it’s a rare window of performance when everything comes together with my body and I treasure it. Especially when foraging through the refrigerator at 10 o’clock at night.

  5. I was stubborn and stupid and did not schedule a sports massage, which I know would have helped my legs midway through. I’m the first to tell others of the recovery advantages of sports massage, but the last to follow my own advice. I took some hot epsom salt baths, which felt great after a long cold ride, but they just don’t get into the muscle tissue to aid in recovery like trained hands do. Guess I’m a glutton for added suffering. That last long day I was kicking myself. Just do it, your legs will thank you.

  6. Doing this as a fundraiser for something more important than me is the real motivation. When the cold wind was blowing straight into my face and the skies were leaden gray, I hunkered down knowing that it would be over, while those who suffer from depression and the devil of suicide do not get an opportunity to know it will get better. Plus, this opened up conversations with other riders who would otherwise not feel comfortable talking about their own experiences. That’s the thing with depression and mental illness, it deserves to be part of every day conversations.

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Daily Log

Monday, December 24: 64.12 miles, 3,681 feet, 4:40 hours, 13.7 mph.

Solo Settlers Cabin to Panhandle to Bulger to Canonsburg. Cold, dreary, bit of sun and tailwind home.

Tuesday, December 25: 50 miles, 2,854 feet, 3:34 hours, 14.0 mph.

Solo Settlers Cabin to Panhandle Trail to Bulger to Hickory to Canonsburg to Christmas brunch. Cold, dreary, bit of sun, never want to see Canonsburg again.

Wednesday, December 26: 63.11 miles, 1,677 feet, 4:30 hours, 14.1 mph.

Panhandle Trail to WV Line and back. Finally a bluebird day and not freezing, lifts the spirits.

Thursday, December 27: 50.18 miles, 2,454 feet, 3:37 hours, 13.8 mph.

Start with Matt on Millers Run to Cherry Valley, then solo to Bulger to Panhandle then seeing Rocky/Tony in McDonald who tempt me with a ride home, but I know better. Cold and dreary.

Friday, December 28: Rest day!

Saturday, December 29: 63.65, 4,252 feet, 5 hours, 12.7 mph.

MtLCCC City Ride then solo Settlers Cabin to McDonald and Panhandle home. Super cold and dreary, motivation low, that gas station in McDonald better be open because I need my Pringles.

Sunday, December 30: 67.28 miles, 3,061 feet, 4:42 hours, 14.3 mph.

Dragged around by Rocky, Millers Run to Panhandle to WV Line and back. Skies turned blue but didn’t make me any faster, so slow I almost fell over, couldn’t pass people on the trail.

Monday, December 31: 18.35 miles, 213 feet, 1:23 hours, 13.2 mph.

Easy solo Panhandle Trail on new Lynskey to make it 610km. Cold and dreary but I don’t care I’m finished!

final summary Stats

Total Distance: 376.7 miles, 606 kilometers

Total Elevation: 18,192 feet, 5,545 meters

Total Hours: 27:25 hours

Average Speed: 13.6 mph, 21.8 kph

Women’s Leaderboard: 265 of 6,852

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Jill Greco Bodnar