Psychological Debris from an Anxiety-Ridden, Failed Attempt to Orbit a Big Lake

On any of my long-distance bike rides, the whirl I took around the Grand Illinois Trail (600 miles), the sweep up and down the Katy in Missouri (443 miles), or finally last week’s aborted attempt to circle Lake Michigan (250 miles), I had my share of fears and doubts. On this last one though, these anxieties crept more deeply into my thoughts and rattled my bones when I tried to sleep. Of these three adventures, I admit that these emotions ran absurdly high this time, feverish enough in intensity to think of it as dread (or, for fans of Kierkegaard and European existentialism, “angst”).

Clouds over Shabbonah Lake

Parts of it are easy to understand, age, conditioning, preparation, the sheer ambition implicit in the miles involved, present pretty thorough explanations as to why I might have had amped-up apprehension. The more interesting part of it though is the psychology that makes fear so often so insidious, where it becomes self-fulfilling. I knew, for example, it was a superb idea to ride out to Shabbonah Lake, a challenging 120-mile round trip when stretched over two days. I demurred. Why? Because it was too daunting. How comically absurd is that? I feared the prep ride but somehow felt okay attempting the big loop? And I avoided doctors. I didn’t want to risk hearing from them why I couldn’t do it or why it was a bad idea. A more rational soul might have conscripted them and looped them into a plan for success. I’ve known for a long time. We all know that fear makes you dumb. I didn’t know it could make you that dumb.

I did a lot of things to prepare. I didn’t do enough preparation of that kind known as confidence building. Incrementally testing myself in like circumstances to those I might expect to find on the journey to make sure “all systems were go”.

Bike For Healthy MindsBike to End Division
CauseMental health West side youth
Kind of EventSolo charity multi-day bicycle rideSolo charity multi-day bicycle ride
Age of Rider5164
Fitness of RiderExcellent Fair
Projected Miles570987
Completed Miles590240
Max Single Day Miles9053
Max Single Day Prep Miles10043
Funds Raised> $20,000$4,100 (so far)
Biggest MistakeNot carrying spare spokesNo medically sanctioned protocol for daily foot care
Difference between my last big charity ride (Bike for Healthy Minds) and Bike to end Division

Okay. I’m done beating myself up. I’m frustrated for sure. I felt like things were still possible when I had to give up. So much of it getting it right has a “head down” aspect to it. You focus on the things you need to get done on that day and little else. If you look ahead, you only look ahead to make sure you don’t get boxed out of lodging on a weekend. Otherwise, all you want to do is get from this day to the next.

That whole mindset filters into how you handle the hours and the minutes. How you coax yourself along, one town to the next, one sip of water to the next. It’s a constant negotiation, what distance you’re willing to cover for the next treat mapped onto the practical aspect of needed to get to a reserved room before nightfall.

As your mind sinks down into this head down approach, you don’t so much eliminate fear as you crowd it out. And that’s when a few things started to go more smoothly. I made my peace with the big trailer bag and its lack of compartments. I learned to unbuckle and unroll it to open the top and pull out what I wanted in a jiffy, efficiently enough that I stopped yearning for my Arkel panniers. I learned how to fit the bike with the attached trailer into a motel elevator. I developed the confidence that I could do this repeatedly. I figured out that by taking the bag up separately on a luggage caddy, the unfreighted bike and trailer was much easier to manipulate on and off the elevator and in and out of my room for the night.

Lo, it fits!

The trip was smoothing out. I was still plenty anxious but I wasn’t ready to quit. I was two days short of Escanaba, MI.

That last night in Oconto, WI when everything went kaflooey, after I found the sizable hole in the bottom of my foot and called my daughter to schedule my rescue, I flipped channels in a pre-acquiescent mood and came upon American Ninja Warrior, a popular prime-time obstacle course TV show, airing on NBC. The narrative constantly harps on the insane dedication of its contestants, who train every day of the year at great personal sacrifice and, one must assume, with great neglect to spouses, children and friends, to get a chance to appear on the show, make an attempt, and fail within a fraction of a minute. Their dedication is so fierce that they rebuild to-scale replicas of portions of the obstacle course in their backyards and empty warehouses just to improve their odds.

The funny thing about it is that the people watching the show, or at least, the ones who stray to the 7-11 briefly to purchase a pack of cigarettes and a lotto ticket, have far greater chances of winning money even though they don’t have to train, indeed have no instinct for it, and can scratch their bellies whimsically instead, as often as the urge strikes, in imitation of a caged gorilla.

In a funny way, as I watched this show, right there on the edge of my motel bed, I was morphing from Ninja Warrior to couch potato. Only I wasn’t in contention for the Ninja Warrior Contest, wasn’t going to win anything. I didn’t even have a lottery ticket. At least, there was a different brand of reward: the thought that West Town Bikes, despite my failed mission, was $4,100 to the good thanks to the goodwill of a great many.

My Frustrated Journey

Thanks for all the love, well-wishes, cheerleading, and support!



  1. Terrie

    Congrats on your journey for a very worthwhile cause . Quite an accomplishment ! I trained with Team in Training for several century rides , my longest distance was 62?miles . Fell into a stone lined ditch, got lost when street names change from one town to the next, had a blowout downhill at 17 mph , but had a great time for a worthy cause . Be proud of what you did accomplish ! Terrie ( I am a friend of Yvonne) recover well

    • john.poplett

      Hi, Terrie. That’s a right long distance! It’s such a layered experience isn’t it? The charity piece is just one piece. I was working through a lot of grief. That part was starting to work. The modest amount of focus required to keep the wheels spinning enough to keep the bike upright is perfect for meditation, and alpha states. Am I right?

  2. Rita dragonette

    Be proud of how far you got. It’s still an achievement. And you’ve learned a lot about yourself.

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