“Uno mas,” my friend Brent “Yodel” Mathany said, and he raised his left hand off of the handlebar of his bike and extended his index finger. That meant we had one more mile. We had already ridden our bikes 109 miles that day, the longest rides of both of our lives, and this after having ridden them 40, 50 and 40 miles the three previous days.
We had started on the western side of Missouri. The Katy Trail—a 240-mile strip of gravel that follows a former railroad line—had led us across the Show Me State. Now we were entering St. Charles on the western edge of suburban St. Louis. We were eager to be done, covered in a fine sheen of gravel, and also, hurting. Really, really hurting. Our legs, backs and butts all begged us to take a break, slow down, for the love of Pete, STOP PEDALING.
I caught Yodel’s eye as he put his left hand back on his handlebar. “What are we waiting for?” I replied, a cocky way of saying, “Let’s sprint to the end.”
Yodel is not one to back down from a challenge, which is why I issued it. He cranked on his pedals and zoomed away. I cranked on mine and… how to put it… did NOT zoom away. I was not up for my own challenge. After four days of riding, I proved incapable of sprinting. But I did manage to go a little bit faster than I had been. My tank was dry but not empty.
I arrived at the finish near the banks of the Missouri River 30 seconds after Yodel. I gave him a high five and thought, that last mile summed up everything I know about pacing myself as a solopreneur.
I learned (and continue to learn) most of that the hard way. The solopreneur life is not a sprint through St. Charles, it’s a long ride across Missouri, and we have to treat it that way. If we try to go full speed all the time—a tendency I feel confident saying all SUCCESS.com readers struggle with—we’ll never make it to the finish line. We need to pace ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally, or we’ll burn out.
I wrestled with this mightily early on as a freelancer. I could not pace myself because anxiety warped my perspective. I thought I had to work as hard and as fast as I could so my wife and kids wouldn’t starve. The tension, all of it self-created, was overpowering.
I thought I had to say yes to everything, even if that meant overloading myself with work that wasn’t right for me or putting up with clients who drove me nuts. One day 15 months into my freelance life I was having lunch with a mentor who casually mentioned he had fired a client that morning. I almost choked on my sandwich. “You can do that?!?” I blurted out. He matter-of-factly said that the client was more trouble than they were worth, so he cut them loose.
I happened to be struggling that day with a client I wished I had never signed on with. It never entered my imagination that I could stop working with someone who still wanted to pay me. I must confess, it was a long time before I had the confidence to do that, and I’m still extremely reluctant. It’s possible, even likely, that sticking with a bad client who takes up too much of my time prevents me from finding a good one who will take up less. By making bad decisions like that, I’m setting myself up to run a bad pace.
Caroline Castrillon, the founder of Corporate Escape Artist, through which she coaches solopreneurs, says the wrong work is even worse when there’s too much of it. “Don’t be afraid to walk away when something doesn’t feel like a good fit,” she says. “The last thing you want is to take on a new client that will inevitably be unhappy in the end.”
An important part of pacing yourself is knowing what you’re capable of. There is a frequently quoted saying that goes something like this: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with somebody. You see it on coffee mugs and posters and what not. That stuff should be thrown in a dumpster because it’s baloney.
I ride faster when I’m with others, I run faster when I’m with others, I push myself harder when there are others pushing themselves alongside me. Applied to work, that means I need mentors to help me find a more aggressive pace than I would set on my own. The key, and it’s an elusive one, is landing on a pace that pushes me without burning me out.
During training for my Katy Trail trip, I went on a 50-mile ride with friends. The first 25 miles were fine. The second 25, not so much, as the group rode considerably faster. At the new pace, I kept up for a few miles, but soon couldn’t match their speed. They stopped to wait for me under an overpass. As I arrived, my coordination was shaky from exhaustion. I pulled on the brakes too hard, skidded across the gravel, couldn’t unclip my right cleat from my pedal and crashed.
I couldn’t make up a better illustration.
If you want to feel like a winner, crash your bike in front of friends who are waiting for you because you’re slow. I came out of that training with a bruised shoulder, bruised hip, bruised ego… and a valuable lesson about how fast I could ride and more important, how fast I couldn’t ride. “The key is to focus on consistency, not intensity,” Castrillon says.
I applied that on the actual Katy Trail trip. My friends Bryan “Crop Circle” Thomas and Fred “Honey Pot” Williams both pulled ahead of me. It was the training ride all over again. As I debated whether to try to catch up with them, I faced the ever-present tension between strategy and tactics. My strategy—finish the 240-mile ride—was in danger of falling prey to my tactics—riding so fast I would be too tired to finish. I let Crop Circle and Honey Pot go. Not to brag, but this time I did not crash when I caught up to them at a stopping point.
“Without the ability to stop and focus on the big picture, you won’t be able to have the clarity to know how best to move your business forward or pivot if needed,” Castrillon says.
On the final day—on which Yodel and I covered 110 miles—my strategy and tactics fit together perfectly. Yodel served as my pedaling mentor, pushing me to go faster than I would have without him… but not so fast that I burned myself out. At mile 75 or so, I wondered if maybe that, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with somebody” gibberish is actually accurate for Yodel because I slowed him down.
Ah, screw it.
Yodel can write his own essay about helping a weaker brother.
Anyway, as the sweat dripped down my back at the end of the ride, I straddled my bike and sucked in air. I hugged Yodel and said goodbye as he pedaled off to a restaurant to meet his wife and kids. My wife was going to pick me up a few blocks away.
I was so tired I walked my bike there.
Read next: The Truth About Grit
Photo by BublikHaus/Shutterstock.com