I love gravel racing. Riding gravel usually means remote roads with little access to civilization. Barely any cars but also limited access to food, shelter or water. In the Midwest, gravel roads are often surrounded by cornfields so there is complete exposure to the weather – wind, rain and sun.

Gravel racing reminds me very much of life in a nutshell. The participants go through very strong emotional and physical stages that teach them so many things about life.

I was once again reminded how much gravel racing reflects life when I had the opportunity to race the 240mi (400km) Day Across Minnesota (The DAMn) last weekend. This gravel race started at midnight in Gary, South Dakota and finished East in Hager City, Wisconsin. Between laid 240mi of gravel. All 300 participants had 24 hours to complete it although the winning time lies somewhere around 12 hours.

As you can imagine, this is a tough race. Starting at midnight means already starting short on sleep. The length of the race itself means fatigue and the accumulating heat will take its victims. Out of 300 people who have signed up, 237 took on the challenge of which only 117 finished. But exactly because of this massive challenge important life lessons can be drawn from. I found three of them especially in this race:

1 Embrace the unknown

There are so many variables in gravel racing. The weather, the conditions of the gravel, the temperature, the farm dogs chasing after you, water and food limitations, the wind direction, the mechanical problems. Especially in gravel racing, you are vulnerable to everything around you as you are in very remote areas. So many things can happen. Some people are so worried about all the things that could happen that they don’t even dare to get to the start line. It is like in any other part of life, that often the fear of failure or the unknown keep people away from taking risks and missing out on living to their fullest.  But what is life worth if we don’t live it? Growth only comes from taking risks and making ourselves vulnerable to whatever comes ahead.

  1. You can achieve more than you think

There were a lot of dark moments in this race, especially nearing the half way point (120mi). I was tired from the deep gravel. No pedal stroke came for free. No coasting. You had to work for every advancement. It was tough. While stopping at the second check point the last thing I wanted was to ride another 120mi.

I was exhausted, sleep deprived and my legs were not exactly in the best shape. I looked at my options, I could just sit here and call it a day. But by the time I would get home a huge amount of regret would come over which I wouldn’t be able to get rid of until next year. Or I could just stick it out. At the end of the day, it was only pushing pedals. It was not like solving math where I had to come up with an answer.

No, I only had to make my legs go into rotations for a few more hours. I had to jump over my own shadow and get out of my comfort zone and push my own mental and physical limitations. I could do it. There was nothing that would actually keep me away. I was just overly drained. But I had no valid excuse to stop. So, Monika, keep going!

It is like in real life when we are facing adversity. Things seem to go against us and it is just so easy to give up, whatever that goal might be. But often, this point is the most crucial point in our lives because by continuing we are enhancing our tolerance for discomfort. And next time, at this point we are not experiencing the same discomfort. It is like a muscle, we have to train discomfort. If we are going out of our comfort zone on a consistent basis, we actually expand our comfort zone.

After 240mi of gravel racing, 120 mi don’t sound that harsh anymore. So go out and increase your comfort by going outside your comfort zone.

Me at the halfway stop:

  1. Create a support system

By the halfway point during this 240mi challenge, I felt like shit. I was super tired and the last thing I wanted is to keep going. I knew there was no option. The last miles I have been riding alone and it was tough to stay mentally alert and keep myself enthusiastic, especially considering the harsh terrain and gravel conditions. But things changed when I left the halfway point. I caught up to two friends and we shared stories from the old times. All of a sudden, instead of looking at the kilometers I was heavily engaged in conversation. My enthusiasm started to come back. I realized how important it was to have people around who did the same as me, who understood what I am going through and who wanted us all to succeed. And success for us, we clearly stated it at one point, was to finish together. And we stuck for 8 out of the 16 hours together. Although the second half by design was supposed to be harder, for me it was the easier part. It is the same in life. Being surrounded by like-minded people with similar goals or with people who genuinely support you will get you even through the toughest times in life.

It is interesting how a gravel race relates so much to real life. It condenses the best and the worst moments into one day. That is why people talk about their gravel race experiences even after years. It has a real effect on us! (Of course, this is not exclusive to gravel racing)

Give gravel racing a try. It is a fantastic experience. It makes you feel alive and shows you in a very short amount of time what is important in life.

And there is something to be said about going outside your comfort zone…

It is addicting. Once, you realize that you can achieve more than you thought you could, you are willing to test even bigger challenges.

So, yes, 240mi sound like a hell a lot and don’t get me wrong it is a lot of kilometers but it is just the result of constantly testing myself how far I can go. And my conclusion is that you can go further than you think. And that applies to anything you do in life. Just get out of your comfort zone and push your perceived limitations. You will be surprised how much you are capable of doing!