I use a smartphone app called Endomondo to track my bike rides and, less often these days, my runs and walks. It’s a neat little service that uses your GPS position to record and publish your workouts, storing data to build up a record of your rides. You can see what I’ve been up to here.
When I first started using the app in 2010, I’d been riding my bike quite a lot and was interested to know to some degree of accuracy how far I was going, how much climbing I was doing (Endomondo’s not too good at this, as it happens), how fast I was travelling and to be able to see whether I was improving as I hoped.
Then I was invited to join a group of people, some of whom I knew, most of whom I didn’t, in a couple of ‘challenges’, wherein we would see who could complete the most miles each month, and also as a grand total for the year. I started the 2010 challenge in August, already some weeks and a few hundred miles behind the pack.
I am, in certain circumstances, quite a competitive person. If you’ve only met me at work or socially, this may come as news to you. If, however, you’ve ever disappointed me on the Ultimate field, or gainsaid me in a game of Scattergories, perhaps it won’t.
I found trailing behind the other riders unbearable even though, by and large, I didn’t know them other than through the app and it’s website, and any slight disgrace at not winning could be borne quietly and anonymously. I found myself riding more, and pushing on deeper into the Winter.
I also found myself beginning to spend my rides wondering what the others were doing. Were they riding right now? When I next logged on would their totals look the same as the too-many times I’d logged on to check and double-check my deficit before I set out? Was the gap closing or opening? I began to read their psychologies via their workout routines and associated comments, to develop a sense for when those around me on the list might go out riding and when they were likely to be dormant.
I won the 2010 challenge by a margin of 34 miles. To do this, I cycled 210 miles that December, including riding every day between Christmas and New Year. The chap who finished second hadn’t ridden for two months. I spent the whole period checking the site over and over knowing that one or two rides from him would put him beyond reach. I couldn’t believe he didn’t just hop on and knock off a few miles on New Year’s Eve to deliver his coup de grace. I certainly would have done. Wouldn’t everyone else? The sly satisfaction I took from working hard and winning from what had seemed an unlikely position was only slightly tempered by concern that it really shouldn’t have felt so important to me.
2011’s cycling had a different rhythm. Training for the Land’s End to John O’Groats ride meant I had to do the miles, but still, the ongoing monthly Endomondo challenges preoccupied me and kept me going. By May I decided not to enter for a couple of months, but still found myself unable to ignore how the other challengers were progressing and determined to ensure that I rode more miles than them.
Can too much motivation be a bad thing? Maybe, maybe not. I’ve certainly come to the conclusion that the wrong type of motivation can be damaging. When I started riding my road bike three or four years ago I quickly grew to love the freedom it gave me. Typically I’d head out early on a winter’s Sunday morning and pedal over the hills, through nearby villages that had previously existed only on signposts. The goofy kick I got from successfully picking my way between nearby places until I ended up at a far away place was what kept me riding and that, plus the surging endorphins, was what put the smile on my face when I finally made it home.
My friend Sandy, Iron Man contestant and British Military Fitness instructor, told me he knew exactly what I meant and said that a friend of his expressed the thrill of cycling with no particular place to go through the phrase “only a dog knows the feeling”. Thrashing up and down the beautiful Devon countryside was enough. Then I got challenged and that changed.
Without the ongoing string of challenges over the last 18 months, I would never have worked as hard as I have, would never have covered the miles I have, would never have been in the shape I am and, arguably, would never have had the strength and stamina to finish the End To End trip this Summer. But, with the exception of those 12 days in July and August, the words occupying my mind as I’ve ridden, have changed slowly from “wonder where this goes?” and “wow, well I never!” to “gotta get those miles” and “how will those rankings look?”. When I wasn’t riding I was anxious that I should be or, more accurately, that others might be.
I’ve got a huge amount from the Endomondo challenges. I’ve been on great rides, racked up loads of miles, kept my desire to win at least partly sated and got some genuine delight from the simple competition. But it’s changed cycling for me and, if I want to change it back, I need to stop.
I may look back in 12 months time and reflect on a slack year with half the miles, with a swelling middle-age spread to show for my lack of effort. I hope not. I’ll keep pushing myself to go farther and faster, but the intrinsic pleasure of exploring the countryside under my own power has to be enough to keep me going.
Time to ride away.
Finally, big thanks to all those Endomondo friends who joined the challenges, including Pete who I pipped in 2010 and especially Nick who did all the organising and who I found myself head-to-head with more than anyone else. Enjoy the year folks, and may the best rider win.
If you’re thinking of getting involved with Endomondo challenges, I’d recommend you give it a go. You’ll go farther and faster than you’ve ever gone before. Just make sure you keep your eyes on the road and look out for the right time to stop.