February 3, 2014

Mary Gersemalina, DC Cyclist, Part Two

This is Part Two of an interview with Washington DC resident Mary Gersemalina, whose blog is chasing mailboxes, dc. At the end of Part One, we had been talking about her being both a committed cyclist and committed runner.

Do you find that the two activities support each other, or are there challenges in pursuing both at such an intense level?
Sort of, and not really. Both help maintain my aerobic fitness at a certain level and I see that translate from one activity to the other. Also, riding brevets makes running a marathon easier in a couple of ways. The shortest brevet distance is 125 miles, and that usually takes my husband and me (riding a tandem) between 10-11 hours to complete. A marathon is 26.2 miles and generally takes me 4 and a half hours. Whenever I'm having a low moment in a marathon I think about how much shorter it is compared to a brevet. A marathon means more pounding on your body step for step, but even so, I know that I'll be finished by lunchtime; of course I can do this!

Do they fill the similar roles in your world?
Actually, the two activities bring different things to my life. I run to stay fit and to participate in the occasional event. I ride to explore and to spend time with my husband as well as other cycling friends. My running is something I do on my own and cycling is often something that Ed and I pursue as a team. For example, we tour and ride brevets on tandem. I also want to mention bike touring because I love bike touring, and brevets make bike touring all the sweeter.

Summer Colorado Tour with Felkerino

Oh! Let me interrupt you here, since touring is my absolute favorite thing to do. Somehow I haven't read touring reports on your site. How does that relate for you to randonneuring?
They are quite different, but I like how touring balances out the randonneuring. When you bike tour, you don't generally cover the same distances as you would on a brevet, but doing the big distances in the spring helps stoke the fires for summer touring. During our most recent summer bike tour in Colorado, we averaged 85 miles a day with our longest day being about 135 miles. When bike touring, you are completely unchained from a timetable and a specific route. Also, brevets make you feel like you can ride forever if you have to and they instill a confidence in my body's ability to keep moving forward that is really helpful when bike touring.

Besides Colorado, where else have you toured?
Our first tour together was from Rockville, Maryland to Niagara Falls, Canada, averaging 97 miles per day over 8 days of riding, which I now realize was too much riding and not enough touring! But it was exciting, nonetheless. We have also done a few weeklong tours in the Virginia Highlands, which are beautiful. I'm not sure if you would count it as a tour, but I've also ridden RAGBRAI (Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) a couple of times. As an Iowan, it was a must-do!

And, do you mostly camp?
We have not camped yet. So far, we have only done credit card touring. That offers both advantages and disadvantages, I know, in terms of routing and planning.

And you manage to work in strength training? I have no real problem staying motivated with bike training, but I sure do skip strength work ... any hints or tips on how you manage it all?
I make a lot of lists! I have an overall planning list for the year and figure out where to fit in running and riding events. I also make a weekly list with general workout plans for the week. It helps me stay focused and not wonder too much about whether I should work out or not. I just go do it. I used to not like doing strength training and overall, I do prefer to be outside on any given day. However, the combination of my day job, long bike rides, and a family history of osteoporosis propelled me to the gym. I started having neck and shoulder pain from all the sitting at my desk and then more sitting in the saddle when cycling. I worried about my bone density because I was doing so much cycling, an activity that is not weight-bearing.

Let me interrupt you again to say that I'm really glad you mentioned cyling and osteoporosis. That is exactly why I weight train. I was shocked when I learned how prevalent it is in the cycling community, even among younger people, including young men who race seriously. I never would have imagined fit, active, young cyclists developing osteopenia, stress fractures, even osteoporosis ... but it does happen sometimes. It feels scandalous to me, and I don't think the issues are well known. But, you were saying....
Then I started to see results from the strength training. My core became stronger. My neck and shoulders stopped hurting. I did not fatigue as quickly on the bike. I slept better after a good weight workout. I could add weight to the exercises I was doing, a sure indicator that my body was responding to my weight training routine. That kind of positive reinforcement kept me coming back to the gym. I generally do the bulk of my strength training from December through the Spring. Once the brevets start, I just head to the gym for maintenance workouts or to clear my head. The brevets are when I see how my training during the winter months translates into increased brevet fitness. In terms of managing it all, it's a huge help that both Ed and I like the same leisure activity. I think it would be much more challenging if Ed was a golfer and I was a cyclist or something like that. Because we share this interest, we plan weekend adventures on the bike together whenever we can.

High Country 1200K with Jeff and Dave (photo by Bill Beck.)

I read, in your 2012 year-end review, that you intended to take a bit of a pause in randonneuring. (Randonneuring rides are long and unsupported; meant to be completed in a defined time period that includes riding, eating, sleeping.... Typically, I think they are 200-, 300-, 400-, 600-, 1000- and 1200k.) How much did you participate in 2013, how much of a change was it?
I did take a step back from the brevets in 2013. Both Ed and I decided a pause was in order. I don't want to speak for Ed, but I needed it to recharge my batteries. In 2010 we rode a full series and the Endless Mountains 1000K in Pennsylvania. A full series and Paris-Brest-Paris followed in 2011. Then, in 2012, we could not pass up the opportunity to ride the Colorado High Country 1200K. But after we completed that ride (which was probably my favorite 1200K in terms of scenery and terrain) we both agreed to take it easy in 2013. This past year, Ed and I rode a 200K, a 300K, and the fleche. We did not ride either the 400K or the 600K brevets, although we did organize the 400K for our club in 2013. I thought I would really miss doing the 400K and 600K this last year, but overall I was happy we took a year off from them. A 400K starts at 4 a.m. and generally we finish it around 11:30 or midnight. These long rides require commitment and a 400K is too long and too intense to spend energy wondering why you're doing it. The same goes for the 600K.The changes I noticed from not doing the longer rides was a steadier output of energy. In addition, our reduced brevet schedule freed us up to participate in our first ultra-cross event. That was awesome! It was a totally different cycling crowd from any I had experienced before and it was a fun crazy, blood-pumping 70-mile thrill.

Do you think you might get more involved in cyclocross? On the surface of it, it seems that with your riding, running, strengthwork, it might play to your multiple skills set.
I'm not sure. I'm not a fast rider and I'm not the best bike handler so the idea of doing cyclocross regularly is rather daunting. The community was really fun, though, and I loved seeing all the different types of bikes people rode for the ultra-cross event we did.

Left Hand Canyon, Colorado(Photo by Tim "Foon" Feldman.)

Why do you ride brevets?
I ride brevets for the challenge, but I also ride because I enjoy them. If I am not enjoying my leisure time, then it's time to switch it up. And that was what 2013 was about. That break has helped me look forward to a more ambitious schedule of brevets in 2014.

How did you get interested in long-distance cycling in the first place?
I rode RAGBRAI one year and met a woman from the D.C. area who had completed a 300K. Having never gone more than a century, the idea of doing almost twice that intrigued me. Later, she invited me to be part of her fleche team. A fleche is a 24-hour team randonneuring ride where riders must complete a minimum 360K distance. I said yes and I was on my way to randonneuring.

Because of the team element, is the fleche a particularly good way to get involved in randonneuring?
For me it was. It allowed me to train with and learn from more experienced riders. It's how I met my husband, too, through someone who was on my first fleche team. We both liked riding together, and soon I was stoking a tandem and completing my first brevet series (200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K) with him. I really like completing the brevets on tandem with Ed. I used to give myself a hard time about this because I thought I was lacking "hard core" points or something by not doing them on my single bike. Over time, though, I've decided to let that go. The truth is I do not want to do brevets on a single bike most days. I like my rides to have a social aspect and I really do not enjoy the prospect of riding in the dark by myself or having to deal with a mechanical alone. I have ridden fleche rides and 200K distances on a single bike, but generally I prefer riding tandem with Ed. We have a compatible riding style and approach to brevets that has made for some really great adventures together. I lam so lucky to be able to ride bikes with my best friend.

That resonates with me. Fascinated as I am (and I hope I will try a 200K) I think probably my major reason for not jumping in is being uncomfortable with riding such long distances alone: the notion of a mechanical, in the dark, on unfamiliar roads. Also just cycling alone on unfamiliar roads (and perhaps even familiar ones) at night, is intimidating to me, especially in a culture that does not generally support or embrace cycling. I've heard experienced female randonneurs say that is why they have given up solo riding on longer courses.
Those are valid concerns in my book, and something every rider should give thought to before heading out on a ride.

Winter century ride. (Photo by Lane.)

How do you prepare for these rides?
There are many formulas people use to prepare for brevets. This is what has tended to work for me. It's not overly scientific, but it works pretty well. I first built up my base mileage so that a century was "just another ride." D.C. Randonneurs brevets tend to be fairly hilly so your legs really need to be prepared to climb them. Next I threw in rides that have hills. I add strength training to the off-season. As the brevets get closer, Ed and I will head out for some back-to-back centuries and on another weekend maybe we'll plan a ride that's around 150 miles. Over time, I have also worked on my breathing so I can manage a hard climbing effort better. In the old days when I was first starting out, my breathing would get away from me and I'd start to pant and freak out. Not good!

The breathing business is an issue for me. I've realized that not only do I breathe shallowly, someimes I just don't breathe. And breathing is really not optional. Can you share any of your techniques?
Sure. Essentially, I worked on my breathing through regular attendance at spin class over a year or so. I used a heart rate monitor to gauge my effort throughout a 45-50 minute class so I could see what a hard effort looked like as it related to heart rate. I got a good sense of my limits and, from there, I began to work on doing hard efforts without going into the red zone (i.e., I'm going to pass out zone). On weekends I would apply what I'd learned in the safe space of a spin class on the road. I'm telling you, using a heart rate monitor was key to understanding and managing my level of effort.Now when I'm on the bike not only do I try to manage my effort on the uphills, I try to do active recovery on downhill sections which allows me to use my body's energy more efficiently. We will push to the pedals up to a certain acceleration, but beyond that I use my time to relax and recover the next section.

And other considerations when prepping for a long ride?
Nutrition. What will I eat in the week leading up to a ride. During the week before the ride I eat a little more mindfully than normal.

What about during the ride?
For brevets that are 300K or shorter, I like to carry hummus or almond butter sandwiches. They digest easily and provide good fuel for my rides. Nutrition after the ride is important, too. I used to eat whatever sounded good or whatever impulse moved me, but that generally led me to making poor eating choices. I'm trying to prepare better for the nutritional part of rides. It's always a work in progress, though, because I find that some things that used to work in years past stop working so I have to adapt to my body's changing needs.

Also, fitting your bike and making sure that it is outfitted for all-day (and at least part of the night) rides is critical. What bags will you carry? What lights will you use? What gear will you bring to deal with the temperature swings that are typical of a long ride? What about rain? How will you make sure you can see the cue sheet in the dark? All of that has to be figured out.
Night Riding in the 400K (Photo c. Bill Beck)

Finally, I prepare myself mentally, especially during the week before a brevet. I try to get plenty of sleep. I try to relax and focus on the ride ahead. I lay out my clothes and think about how the ride will go and how I'm going to approach it. I commit mentally to finishing the ride before I even sit on the saddle.

Do you have a favorite distance, or type of event, and if so,why?
I don't know that I do. If you had asked me that question, four or five years ago I would have said the 300K is my favorite. Most, if not all, of a 300K can be completed in daylight hours and you still feel like you really went somewhere. You can really impress your coworkers at your informal Monday conversations by the water cooler and hopefully (maybe?) not incur too much of the "you're crazy!" rhetoric.

I hear a fair amount of that, too. Some variation on "you're so brave." The subtext is you're crazy, or just the straight out you're crazy. I usually tell people something slightly hostile, like that I could choose to kill myself by sitting on a couch eating chips....Anyway, back to randonneuring...
Ha! That's pretty good, Suze! I also love the fleche, which as I noted previously, is a 24-hour team event where riders must cover at least 360K. You have to ride through the night no matter how fast your pace is so it is essentially a mandatory all-day and all-night team affair. With the right group of people and fair weather, the fleche can be a ridiculously fun journey. It's also interesting to see how different people fare at different hours of the day. When are the cranky moments? When do people start to get loopy? When does the first team member start dancing at the gas station? That kind of thing.

What is the most compelling part of these long rides?
The most absorbing of randonneuring experiences are the 1000K and 1200K distances. When you ride that far you become part of a small group (with the exception of Paris-Brest-Paris, which is a large cycling event with thousands of participants) where you are largely separated from everything else going on in the world. Your whole life is consumed by your bike ride-- where you will controle and eat next, the fellow riders in your proximity who become part of your ride experience, what the next leg of the route looks like, and when you will be able to stop and sleep for a few hours. The few rides I have done at the 1000K or 1200K distance have been the most physically demanding and intense escape I've ever had from my day-to-day existence. Touring can be physically demanding and intense as well, but it does not have the same set of pressures associated with it as a long randonneuring event like a 1200K, where you have to reach certain places by a certain time and you have to complete the full route within a specific timeframe.

Paris-Brest-Paris 1200K with San Francisco RBA Rob Hawks. (Photo by Antoinette Galon.)

Is there any distance in that progression at which the experience qualitatively changes in nature?
Typically I have viewed the 400K as the most difficult ride distance because it is the first ride that starts at what I consider a completely uncivilized hour of the day. and will not be started or finished in daylight. A few years ago I did a series of interviews called the Rando Q&A on my husband's blog, The Daily Randonneur, and asked people what they felt the most difficult brevet distance was and why. Several people responded by noting the 400K.

What are your randonneuring plans for 2014?
Ed and I plan to complete a full Super Randonneur series this year... and more! We're also planning a rocking summer bike tour, which I'm totally thrilled about. You'll have to stay tuned as our plans unfold!


  1. I an sorry to leave such a hackneyed comment but "Awesome" does seem to be appropriate.

    1. I don't think it is hackneyed ... I think it makes you sound like a teenager! And she is awesome ...

  2. Thank you SO MUCH for featuring me. It was so much fun to write and reflect with you, although I sure did expound on many things :)!


Please leave a comment, it's great to hear from you and makes the site more fun and informative for other readers!