31. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, The Aftermath · Categories: Uncategorized

I finished my story last week, and then I kind of felt like it wasn’t over yet. Several people have asked for posts on gear, training and lessons learned – and I will get to that. Some people also asked questions about the immediate aftermath of the race. And it’s true that, while arriving at the finish line was an important moment, it didn’t quite mark the end of my Trans Am experience.

So for those who like epilogues or post scripts, here’s what went down after it was all biked and done.

  1. I slept, for a second. When I hit the monument in Yorktown, my friends who had come to meet me at the finish headed home around 11pm – most of them having to be at work early the next day. I checked into a hotel near the monument and took a long, long shower. Then I fell into an amazing, delicious sleep. Until a couple of hours later, when I woke up in terror, jumped out of bed and dashed to my bike, thinking I had missed my rollout.
  2. I ate. And drank. All the food and all the drinks in Yorktown. I mean, ALL of it. Yorktown has three restaurants, and they were not enough to satisfy my appetite. One night I ordered sushi, went to the grill next door and ate a full meal (including a burger), went back to pick up the sushi, and took it back to my hotel and ate it in bed.

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Mixed drinks were not spared the assault.

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  1. I welcomed Jimmy at the finish line.

My plan was to stay in Yorktown until Jimmy arrived, a couple of days later. Suddenly I had the time and emotional energy to spend thinking about his race, his safety, his exhaustion and sleep deprivation. I became a full-time dot watcher for a couple of days, totally reveling in the addiction of those little dots moving across the screen.

Jimmy arrived in 25 days, 2 1/2 days after I had finished. Watching him riding up to the monument gave me chills. It felt so out of the realm of possibility to have had such a completely intense, singular, solitary experience – and yet to be able to share it with someone that I love. It made it that much bigger and more important. We have been telling each other stories ever since.

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My brother Danny, just off the plane from a work trip to Israel, and friend Karen were able to make it to the monument in Yorktown to welcome Jimmy too. Karen made coconut cake.

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  1. I got to welcome a lot of other riders too.

Several other riders finished between me and Jimmy, and I got the opportunity to welcome a number of them at the finish line too. I was excited about this – because even though the Trans Am is not a rah-rah experience, and no one does this race because they are looking for cheering crowds or accolades, still we are all humans who are accomplishing something pretty mighty by pushing ourselves to complete this race. I wanted to be there to celebrate that.

Plus, there was simply an element of curiosity. So many of the people I had thought about during the race were nothing more to me than pink or blue dots with initials moving across a screen. I wanted to see them as something more.

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Markku Leppala

Enrico Comunello was the next to arrive after Markku. I had met Enrico in Astoria, giving him a ride to his hotel from the post office, so I was excited to see him again. Walking to the monument in the dark, a tall rider, who I didn’t recognize, was heading the same place. When I told him my name, he smiled and said: “Massimiliano Fancoli.”

“MF!!” I cried. “I’ve been chasing you for days!”

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A blurry Enrico, Janie and MF

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A less blurry post-race celebration with Enrico, MF and Markku

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Andrew Stevens Cox and Markku

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With Jason Kulma and George Koefler

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Irena and Andrew at breakfast just after Irena’s finish

Sadly, I missed Brian McEntire, who finished in the middle of the night, and Andrej Zaman. Boo.

  1. I dealt with a range of post-race physical ailments:

The immediate aftermath of the Trans Am was, perhaps a bit like the race itself, a roller coaster. Physically, I did not fare very well, and for the sake of future riders, or anyone considering an event of this magnitude, it’s perhaps worth coming clean about the toll that a race like this can take on the body.

The night of the finish, after taking a shower, I noticed a severe itching and burning on the left side of my body. Looking in the mirror – which I had strategically not done for days – I saw that I had a well developed case of poison oak (or ivy) that had spread from just above my left knee all the way up to my lower back. It was already angry and swollen and close to blistering. Still, I had never noticed it during the race. The brain’s capacity for denial is pretty intense. I took steroids to calm the infection, but my sleep for the first week or so after the race was interrupted by the pain of this rash.

A few people noted that the saddle sores, which seemed to get a lot of attention early on, faded from view later in my story of the race. That pretty much reflects what happened in real life, luckily. All the treatments I was trying led to a slow healing, and by the time I hit the finish line those sores were no longer open wounds. Unfortunately, the heat and humidity after Colorado led to a range of other unspeakable rashes, infections and sores – some of which took weeks to subside. I know, I know, TMI. But a reality nonetheless.

About a week after the race was over, I woke up to a case of full-body hives. They covered my legs, arms, torso, and back. They itched and burned constantly and were hard to cover up when I had to attend work meetings in Washington DC. The cause remains unclear – this doesn’t seem to be a common post-ride ailment. In one way or another, though, my immune system was definitely crying Uncle.

For a month after the race I had constant nightmares. I would be somewhere riding my bike, going nowhere, with always “800 more miles to go.” It was the endurance racing version of that college dream where you forget to show up at your exam.

I had pretty severe nerve damage in both my hands, and to some extent my feet. My index to pinky fingers were numb on both hands, and I had lost most of the strength in my right hand. For almost six weeks after the race was over, I had to use both hands to turn the key in the car ignition, and take the lid off the toothpaste. Fortunately, the symptoms eventually subsided, and now that I have normal function in my hands and feet, it doesn’t seem so bad anymore at all. Funny how that works.

Brain chemistry changes from the experience were less specific, but just as real. It seems that many endurance athletes experience periods of depression /or mood changes after particularly long or grueling races. There are lots of theories about why and how this happens, but they are certainly related to chemicals in the brain that affect emotions. I had experienced some form of this in the past, for example a feeling of letdown or depression after Ironman triathlons or ultra running races.

My post-Trans Am experience was nearly the opposite. Once the hives and the pain and the nerve damage and the nightmares started to subside, I experienced several weeks of elation, before coming down into a semi-depression – which luckily didn’t last very long. That feeling of excitement almost had the symptoms of a mania – my brain raced, I was excitable about everything, and yet unusually irritable too. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, but definitely not “normal.” And certainly there was a chemical component that must have been stirred by the huge physical, mental and emotional requirements of a month of bike racing.

Since the race, I have seen many comments, questions and requests for help on forums and social media about post-race depression (not only post-Trans Am but other endurance races as well). This is a common issue, and I’d encourage anyone who experiences this to reach out for help. Talk to a good doctor, or a friend, or do seek guidance from others who have experienced it. You’re not crazy. The psychological impact of a race like this is real.

Gear and training up next – stay tuned.

26. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, The Finish · Categories: Uncategorized

I woke up and rode out of Christiansburg before it was light. 380 miles were between me and the finish line in Yorktown Virginia. I knew that those nearly 400 miles were going to be full of challenging riding, but at the same time they would be a kind of homecoming. This part of Virginia was home to familiar bike routes and scenery as well as friends and family who had been following my progress and had all been part of my journey in some small way.

I craved seeing those familiar faces. But I was also anxious. The previous three weeks had been the most epic test of my mind, body and emotions that I had ever experienced. As a result, I found myself now a raw, stripped down version of myself. My mental faculties were faulty and my social skills rusty. I was still myself, but in some important ways I knew that I also wasn’t. Would these people recognize me? I wondered. Would I be able to communicate? Would they understand my newfound Little Debbie habit?

And how would I possibly hide the stench?

As the sun rose, I rode through fields in the foothills of the beautiful Catawba Mountains. The terrain was a series of rollers, which ultimately traveled downhill. Still, my legs were so tired that I had to coax myself up any climb, even the smallest.

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Foothills of the Catawba Mountains

Sometime during the morning, I came upon a sign that indicated a bridge out several miles ahead. The detour sign pointed a left-hand turn, off route. I didn’t even hesitate, just carried on. There was no way I was going even one meter off the route. Luckily, the bridge was under construction, and the workers cheered for me and even carried my bike across. They said they had seen Sarah the day before.

In Troutville I stopped at the mini mart on the highway to eat breakfast. The woman who owned the shop had a Trans Am logbook. She showed me Evan’s and Kim’s entries from the year before. I bought a coffee in a Styrofoam cup and sat outside on the stoop. I was feeling reflective, and I sat there for about 15 minutes, just mulling over the previous three weeks. The prospect of the upcoming finish filled me with both incredible relief and also a deep sadness. I knew why I was feeling the former, but was less sure that I understood the latter. But for some reason, sitting there, it just seemed so important to capture this feeling, to make time stand still for a second.IMG_0290

While I was sitting there, I heard someone call my name. I looked up to see my brother in law Mark and my niece Addy getting out of his truck. Family! I hugged them both tightly. They asked me how I was feeling, whether I had talked to Jimmy, and told me I looked too skinny. When two delivery guys showed up, Mark insisted on telling them both about my race. He also told me that my sister in law, Lois, and my other niece Ella were waiting down the road.

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Mark and Adaline

Sure enough, Lois and Ella were waiting for me near the railroad tracks between Troutville and Buchanan. Seeing Ella’s curious eyes and round face gave me a shot of energy. A few minutes after saying goodbye, I stopped to pee behind a bush. As I emerged, a car came to a stop and a family got out, calling my name. They introduced themselves as the parents of my friend Rob, and his daughter and her friend. Rob was planning to meet me later in Lexington, but they said they had been following the race and had made a special trip to come out and find me. They had posters and treated me like they had known me my whole life. I rode off grinning, at the idea of a family who would hunt down a smelly stranger just to say good job.

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With Ella. Photo credit: Lois Bisese

The road to Lexington was a series of back roads with chip seal, and the going was slow. The last few days, I was so tired I felt like I was pedaling through mud. I had even taken to getting off my bike occasionally to check whether I had a flat tire or brakes that were rubbing against my wheel. Nope. Just slow.

It was a Saturday morning, and as I approached Lexington I started to encounter groups of riders out on their weekend rides. Despite how familiar it was – the vacuum of speed, gears clicking, intense faces and crowded bodies – they looked like such a different breed of athlete to me that day. No bags on their bikes, no donut powder on their handlebars, no mud-encrusted shoes.  I tried to ride with one of the packs when it came by, just to see if I could, but to no avail. It was ok, I didn’t belong.

Coming into Lexington, I saw a train of three good looking male cyclists powering towards me on nice bikes wearing clean, brightly colored cycling clothes. They had almost reached me before I recognized them as Rob, Brad and Trey. Rob organizes an annual spring group riding weekend in the Virginia mountains that I have attended a couple of times. It is always full of hard, early season miles, barbecue, beer drinking and belly laughs.

I told the guys that I needed to eat, and Rob said he knew of a Subway/convenience store up the road. They watched with fascination, disbelief and perhaps a bit of alarm as I loaded up my arms with drinks and snacks, and then filled a giant self serve yogurt container with about 20 different toppings. Definitely an animal in the wild.Blog_Day_22H

After my feeding, we headed out towards Vesuvius. Vesuvius is a tiny town at the base of a climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway that is one of the Trans Am route’s hardest. Vesuvius also holds an epic status among cyclists in Virginia for its severe grade over the course of three miles. By the time we reached the base of the climb, my friend Catherine had joined us. Seeing Catherine’s face made me feel like home. Cat and I have been friends for over twenty years, and she is also one of my most fun and reliable bike riding partners. We have solved many of the world’s problems together during rides or runs, and I was so happy to have her there next to me as we spun (slooooooowly) up that climb.

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The top of Vesuvius marked the last major climb of the race, and the start of the downward trajectory towards the Atlantic Ocean and Yorktown Virginia. There was still 250 miles to ride, but mentally it was a marker of progress. On the Blue Ridge Parkway I said goodbye to Rob, Brad and Trey, and Catherine carried on with me. It was a beautiful afternoon and the sun was throwing gold light over the green of the Shenandoah Mountains in the distance.IMG_0283

Coming down off the Blue Ridge Parkway, I directed us right onto a highway. We had ridden several miles before I realized I had gone off course, again. As Catherine and I sat in the parking lot, two more familiar faces got out of a car: my friend Travis and my sister-in-law Nikki. Both of them had their bikes in their car and had wanted to be there to support me through my last day of the race.

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With Travis. Photo credit: Nikki Raspa

Travis and I rode in the dark to Charlottesville, which is a college town and home to the University of Virginia. I was hungry, and we rode past bars and restaurants and an outdoor dance party while looking for fast food a bit after midnight. We finally found a sketchy convenience store on the outside of town and I bought a microwave burrito. As I was eating it in front of the store, watching a low rider in the parking lot with bass booming out of its windows, a woman got out of her car and came towards me. It was my mom’s friend Sharron, who lives in Charlottesville and had found me on the tracker. I couldn’t believe that she had hunted me down past midnight at that dodgy convenience store, but I was happy to see her face.

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Midnight visit from my mom’s friend Sharron

Riding out of Charlottesville, the fatigue was overwhelming. I stopped to sleep for an hour on the flagstone patio of an antiques store. Miraculously, when my alarm went off I was able to get up and back on my bike. Whether I was actually going to be able to pry myself off the ground and back onto my saddle after any given sleep stop was becoming more and more questionable.

In the early hours of the morning, I found Nikki and my friend Angela on the road, and they rode with me past sunrise. The mist rolled up into wisps below the treetops that morning as the sun came up. I remember feeling so grateful for the support of my friends, family and all of the well wishers that I had met during the past 22 days. I wasn’t sure why they cared so much about my little insignificant journey of self exploration (and torture) across the country, but it felt so significant to me that they did.Blog_Day_22C

I knew that self supported bike racing, in its purest and most traditional sense, is all about solitary individualism. The point is that YOU make your own decisions. YOU figure things out by yourself. YOU ride your bike by yourself. YOU get from point A to B – on your own. That naturally means untethering from support, disavowing help, and exploring your capacities single-handedly.

This was the very thing that had captivated me about the idea of the Trans Am. And I had learned so much about myself by undertaking this journey alone. I was finishing this race believing that I was infinitely capable, that I had nothing to prove, that I was stronger alone than I ever knew I was. Those feelings were themselves a gift.

But if I am honest, there were also some days, like the last one, where the race served to remind me more than anything that we are nothing more than humans interconnected in a web with others. During all of those race days, alongside the solitude had also been the kindness of random strangers, the chance meetings with cyclists and other racers, the encounters with dot watchers, and – on this day – the massive amount of emotional support from those who, for some reason, cared about whether and how I completed this mission.

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With my friend Jen. Photo credit: Nikki Raspa

Around 9pm, I rode onto the Colonial Parkway, the rough cobblestone byway that passes through Williamsburg Virginia en route to Yorktown. The last time I was in Williamsburg was on my seventh grade field trip from Atlanta, Georgia. This evening, the same bizarre scene was playing out: women in bonnets and men with muskets, kids in the stocks. People were playing Pokémon GO, and I remember laughing at the absurdity of it all, and thinking, I guess it takes all kinds. After all, look at me. Who was I to judge?

There was a bridge out on the route just a handful of miles from the finish line at the Yorktown monument. So I went straight and hoped for the best. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I rounded a dark corner to see the outline of that lonely monument that I had been dreaming of reaching for weeks, maybe months.

And my friends were there, with champagne, cheering for me. My sister-in-law Ann had shown up from North Carolina. It was 10pm. I just took off my helmet and got off my bike and sat on the lower step of that monument and looked around in disbelief. It was over.

I had finished the 4,200 miles in 22 days and 11 hours. In the end, I was the 10th to arrive at the finish line, the 9th solo rider and the third female competitor. I wasn’t the fastest, or the slowest. I had made a handful of good decisions and lots of mistakes. I had faced some bad luck and some good luck. Some things had gone as expected – most hadn’t.

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Travis, Nikki, Ethan, Cat, me (with helmet still on), Champagne

In the end, it was a lot like life. Just more: more good, more bad, more intense, more wonderful, more terrible, more confusing, more illuminating than most days of most weeks tend to be. It was an incredible journey that taught me – more than any other I have ever taken – that choosing to partake in big, messy adventures is how we vote for learning, not only about who we are, but what the big, messy world we are all fortunate enough to live in is all about.

Which is why I just couldn’t wait to do it again.

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Thanks for reading, and for sharing this adventure with me.

25. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, Day 21 · Categories: Uncategorized

When I woke up at Crazy Larry’s hostel an hour or so later, I felt like death. I still had 500 miles to the finish line and I truly had no idea how I was going to get there. I dragged myself out of bed and thanked Larry for his hospitality. He asked me to do a wheelie, and I made my best effort. It wasn’t a very good one.IMG_0267

It was around 10am, and I set my modest sights on Christiansburg, about 100 miles away. It should have been an easy enough journey – a shallow 15 mile climb, then a descent, peppered with a few climbs, for the next 85 miles or so. I pedaled slowly up the climb, which runs along a lovely river. Outfitters in vans passed me with rafts and bicycles, and I watched them wistfully, wishing I was on vacation rafting a river or riding my bike.

Wait, I was on vacation riding my bike. Something was wrong with this picture.

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Vacation meals. 

I made it up and over the climb and down towards Rural Retreat, where I stopped in a small gas station staffed by two women who asked me where I was going to, and where I was coming from. When I told them, both of their pairs of eyes widened like saucers.

“By yourself? Aren’t you afraid?” they asked. I said no, and that I felt perfectly safe and had never felt threatened during the whole trip. One of the women said she still thought it was irresponsible for me to be putting myself in “that kind of a situation.” The other one smiled at me and said, “I would give anything to have that kind of adventure.”

Just as I was leaving, I encountered Nathan and Anthony. They had been at the finish line and were now backtracking to find remaining racers.

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I don’t particularly remember either a tailwind or loving life, but I am taking his word for it.

The rest of the day’s route passed largely along the access road for highway 81. I was so tired that I forgot to stop and get food for several hours. About an hour from Radford, Virginia, I bonked – and hard. I could barely keep my legs turning over, and at one point I remember getting off my bike and just laying in the grass next to the light rail tracks. Somehow, after what seemed like an eternity, I crossed the bridge into Radford. I headed to the Sonic and ordered two bacon cheeseburgers.

As I was eating at Sonic, I heard my name and saw two smiling, clean, familiar faces approaching. Katrina and Jim live in Radford, and a few years earlier Jimmy and I had been on a group bike trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway with them and some of their friends and family. They are avid cyclists, and both infinitely positive spirits, and it was like a glimmer of hope to see their faces. My Garmin had died, once again, so they helped point me in the direction of Christiansburg. One of their friends and his daughter was also out along the way to cheer me on.

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Seeing Katrina and Jim’s faces reminded me that I was getting close to the finish – and into comfortable, familiar territory of family and friends. For four years, Jimmy and I had lived in Washington DC. We have a lot of friends and family in the area, a number of whom had promised to come out in the final miles to cheer us on and even ride stretches with us. As I pedaled the last ten miles onto Christiansburg from Radford, through suburban neighborhoods with low ranch houses, I felt both excited and anxious about that prospect. I was certainly excited to see familiar faces, but also anxious about interacting with others in the precarious physical and emotional state I found myself in. At the moment I was certainly more a shell of a human being than my normal self. Would I still be able to communicate? What would they think of me? Is this sort of what an animal in the wild feels like, I wondered.

Just before Christiansburg, a woman cutting her lawn on a driving lawnmower called to me as I passed by. “Hey, you! Hey, you! Turn around!” Dutifully, I turned around, and she jumped off her mower to come down to the fence that bordered her yard. Her face registered disappointment when she saw me.

“Oh. I thought you were a maaaan,” she said in a Virginia drawl. She pointed to the lawnmower. “Do you know how to work this thing?” When I said I had no idea, she shrugged and said she wasn’t surprised. Her husband had recently died, she said, and now she was in charge of the lawn and what did I think about that. I thought about telling her that my husband was a couple of days behind and if she would just wait right there he might be able to help her out. Instead, I said something lame, like maybe she could look on the internet? She raised her eyebrows at me like I was from Mars.

Christiansburg was a real town, as it turned out, and when I stopped at the convenience store on the outskirts of town and asked the clerk where the motel was, he didn’t know. I almost cried. I was absolutely desperate for sleep. I found my way into town and to the grungy motel there. I knew this would likely be my last sleep in a bed before I reached the column in Astoria, and I wanted to make the most of it. When I woke up, I would have just under 400 miles to travel.

So close, yet still so far away.

24. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, Day 20 · Categories: Uncategorized

I woke up to a humid morning in Buckhorn. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be, after the previous day’s travails, to get on the road again. In fact, that morning, with 800 miles to go, I was feeling that the end of the race was actually in sight. I had started to get text messages from friends and family – “Almost there!” and “Only a few  more days to go!”

Riding my bike through Western Kentucky opened my eyes to a sliver of the country I had never experienced before. On the one hand, this part of the US is a hidden wonderland of lush, green mountainous roads, running rivers and pockets of nature untouched by development. At the same time, it is also an area of deep poverty that seems to have been forgotten in our rush to urbanism and suburbia. Everywhere I looked there were cars up on blocks, families living in small manufactured storage sheds, men with the black faces of mine work, and mangy dogs running pell mell.

In a little grill inside Chavies Food Mart, I happened upon a delicious diner breakfast – one of my few square meals of the trip. It was staffed by a father and son duo, while the mother cooked up meals from a tiny kitchen behind the counter. I ate a hearty breakfast of eggs and pancakes, and she wrapped me a second order of pancakes to go. When I was ready to go, I went to the counter, where the father was sitting in a chair. He was too heavy to stand up to take my payment, so I waited while he called his son to come around. They smiled and wished me luck as I left.

Blog_Day_20BAs the day progressed, the heat and the humidity picked up. So did my anxiety. The remainder of the day was a frustrating mix of highway riding – with mining trucks and semis thundering by – and steep, winding mountain roads with cracked pavement and dogs forever darting out and chasing from behind chain linked fences. The route was a bit confusing in this area, and I found myself slightly off course a couple of times. By the late afternoon, the heat, humidity, dogs, terrain and hills were truly threatening my unruffled mental state of earlier that morning.

Actually, by that afternoon I was totally pissed off. The optimism that I had felt in the morning about being “close” to the finish had taken a strong turn towards doubt and outright anger. I was taking everything personally. The cracks in the pavement were against me. The 15% grades had most probably been constructed to break my spirit. My Garmin’s habit of switching to “auto pause” while I was climbing because I was going so slowly that it thought I was stopped was another way to rub salt in the gaping wounds of my ego. The only saving grace was that the dogs sprinting out constantly to give chase were a deserving target for my most creative expletives. I spent most of the afternoon screaming epithets at canines as loud as I could.

My friend Jill called me as I was traversing one of these particularly hilly segments. Jill is not only a good friend, but also a fierce competitor and one of my favorite cycling partners. She had been an important confidant during the previous three weeks. Jill is also a super tough person, and not one to coddle or sugar coat a hard situation. So when I told her how angry I was, I was surprised by her advice.

“Try to be a little patient and kind,” she suggested.

I think I laughed. This kind of thinking seemed so out of bounds at the time, not to mention far beyond my abilities. Patient and kind? What the hell did that even mean? How about intolerant and enraged? Now that was more like it.

After we hung up, I pondered her advice. Being at the end of my rope – and having the time to kill –  I decided to give it a go. Every time I would come to a steep, cracked pavement, 15% grade kind-of-a-hill I would ask myself, “Janie, how would a patient and kind person climb this hill?” At first, I did it in a mocking tone of voice inside my head. But eventually, the exercise calmed me down.

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Strange sights of Kentucky.

At some point during that hot afternoon I had to stop to recharge my Garmin. After the navigation debacle past Harrodsburg the day before, I was unwilling to rely on my brain to read maps, so I stopped at a pizza place, seemingly in the middle of nowhere to see if I could use their electricity. The woman who worked there didn’t seem to have seen a customer in days, and she chatted with me for a while as I plugged my electronics in and sat on the front porch.

While I was there, Jay Petervary rode up.  I had known Jay was going to catch me, but I wasn’t sure when. He had started in a pairs team but lost his partner to an injury in Newton, Kansas. An accomplished, experience ultra-endurance rider, Jay had decided to finish alone and had slowly been working his way up the field. Jay went inside to get a coke and then sat down on the porch to chat for a while. It was nice to talk with another rider, especially in the middle of a hard, hot day in the middle of seeming nowhere. That cheered me up some. Jay left about 15 minutes before my Garmin was charged, and I figured I wouldn’t encounter him again.

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Jay tries to give me a little mechanical assistance.

I pulled into Elkhorn City, Kentucky as it was getting dark. Elkhorn City is the last town – “city” seems a bit of a stretch for a population of 1,000 – before the border with Virginia. Some massive storm clouds were settling just to the west of the town, and I stopped at a Subway and figure out my plan. I checked the radar, which was calling for massive thunderstorms in the area. As I sat there, big drops started falling and lightning started to rip across the sky.

The Subway was closing in a few minutes at 9pm, so I asked another customer whether there was a church nearby where I could find some shelter. After a spirited discussion between the man and the Subway employee about which church would be welcoming to a tired cyclist, they finally decided that the Baptist church, not the Church of Christ, was a better option. The man told me he would give me a ride, which I then refused. It seemed so rude to reject his offer, so I tried to explain. But then it felt even more awkward to be standing in a Subway in rural Kentucky trying to explain the rules of self supported ultra endurance bike racing. Finally, he told me to suit myself but that at least I should let him show me the way. So I followed behind his white pick up truck in the driving rain to the Baptist Church.

The Baptist church, blessedly, had both a portico and an electrical outlet on the front porch. So I plugged in my devices and laid out my bivvy. The radar showed the rain moving through town from west to east, and then a break in the storms. It appeared that after that lull, the storms would gain strength again. I decided to wait for this squall to pass. Then hopefully I could follow behind the storm as it headed towards Virginia.

I had just set up my temporary quarters on the porch of the Baptist church and laid down when a woman appeared on the front steps. She said she lived across the street, had seen me there out her window, and offered me a bed in her house. I knew that if I got in a bed, I might not get out for a long, long time. So I politely declined and tried to explain that I planned to get moving again in just a very little bit. She seemed truly befuddled, and I couldn’t disagree with her sentiment. I really wanted to try to explain to her that I was a normal person, too, who just happened to be doing a very, very abnormal thing – but suspected I lacked credibility to make that claim in my current state. Finally, she shrugged, pointed out her house, and said that when I changed my mind the door would be open.IMG_0277

I slept for about 90 minutes. When I woke up, the driving rain had turned to drizzle. I got on my bike in the dark and started riding again. It was about 11pm. The rain had brought in some cooler air and I was still encountering pockets of rain, but for the most part my plan to follow the storm as it headed east seemed to be working. Little did I know at the time that this same storm system would head over the next day into West Virginia, where it would flood parts of the state and kill several people.

Despite my intentions, I rode all night. Around midnight, I entered Virginia – the final state of the race – which got a hoot and holler from me into the silent darkness. At the Breaks Interstate park shortly thereafter, I couldn’t find anywhere to sleep that didn’t require a traverse down a long hill. I figured I would ride for a while longer and camp somewhere along the way once I got tired and found a flat spot. A few miles after the park, I came across a 24-hour convenience store at an intersection and stopped to get food. Jay Petervary’s bike was sitting outside the convenience store, but he was nowhere to be found.

The ride that night was creepy – and hard. The streets were dark, and the rural roads twisted and turned, incessantly up or down, requiring full concentration of my sleep addled brain. I didn’t know it at the time, but this particular section was one of the more challenging of the Trans Am route. During the night, I climbed 8,000 feet in 80 miles.

This section of Virginia near the border with Kentucky and Tennessee is also remarkably beautiful – but of course I didn’t realize that until the sun came up around 5:30am. When it did, I was gobsmacked by the green hills and the lush scenery I was surrounded by. I was focused on reaching Damascus, Virginia before I stopped. My friend Michele from elementary and high school, who I hadn’t seen in decades, lived there. She had an exam for a class she was taking that morning and I was hoping to get there before she left.IMG_0275

Coming into Damascus, I still hadn’t seen Jay Petervary. Sometime in the night I had discovered that he was about 10 miles behind me, having emerged from whatever hole or dark space he had been when I spotted his bike outside the convenience store near the Breaks Interstate Park. I kept expecting him to catch me, and would have certainly welcomed a riding companion during that spooky, twisting night, but I hadn’t seen him yet. I stopped at a diner and ordered a giant breakfast. I planned to eat and then try to find a park to nap in before carrying on the big climb out of Damascus. I had missed Michele so there was no reason to stick around for longer than I needed. But I was tired.

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Green HIlls of Damascus

Just as I was about to leave the diner, I heard my name. A friendly man with a beard introduced himself as Crazy Larry, the owner of Crazy Larry’s Hostel. He said he was just a couple of doors down and had a bed for me to nap in if I wanted to stop. Did I? Of course! I pedaled over to the hostel, where Larry had a number of guests milling around inside. He pointed me to his own bedroom and told me to sleep as long as I wanted. I laid down on top of the sheets and blankets. There was a Bible on the bedstand. I posted this photo and then fell asleep.Blog_Day_20A

 

22. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, Day 19 · Categories: Uncategorized

As I sat next to the droning of the sofa machine at 4am, waiting for my di2 to charge, MF’s dot started to move. I was still 15 miles from Harrodsburg, and I didn’t want to risk another gear failure before I could either get another battery or make it to a place where I could charge it fully. I waited for the shortest amount of time I possibly could and then packed up to head out. As I was packing, I realized that during the black-of-night electronics debacle, I had lost my Garmin charger. I must have dropped it and left it on the road.

My Garmin was about to die, but I had the ACA maps that I could rely on for the time being. Minor obstacles, I thought. I was still hot on MF’s heels, and I knew I could catch him if I rode hard. I was sure I could ride hard because I was motivated to catch him. Despite not having slept more than an hour in the last day, I was amped up and ready to chase. I had been working on this for three days – today was certainly the day!

I headed into Harrodsburg and stopped at a gas station to eat. The sun was coming up, and I knew I needed food. No need to do something stupid now, I remember telling myself. You might not be thinking clearly, so this is the time to be careful. Exercising this abundance of caution, I slammed down two pieces of pizza, sausage, two donuts and a large coffee.

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Note that I didn’t even know what day I was on.

Back on my bike, I was in my aero bars and focused, although I was facing some problems with using the paper map. Because I didn’t have a mount for it on my handlebars, I was keeping it in my jersey pocket. This meant that at any turn, I had to stop, look at the map and remember the next cue. Something like, “Turn right, then go a few miles, then left on highway 82.” Then I would stop, and memorize the next cue. Normally, this might not have be a problem, but with my foggy mental state the cues were harder to hold onto.

Also, the hills were getting steeper, and because I was riding hard I was really feeling their effects. After a particularly grueling several mile climb I coasted downhill to find myself at a T-junction. I pulled out my map. Nothing on the map looked familiar. Confused, I banged on the window of a pickup truck and a young blond kid rolled down his window. “Yes, ma’am?” I asked him to show me where I was, and realized I had missed a turn about 7 miles back, up and over that grueling climb I had just come down. Dammit.

“Oh, you can just go this way,” the kid said cheerfully, pointing down the highway. “It’s much shorter.”

No I can’t, kid, I thought. But I didn’t have the energy to explain why. I just turned around and pedaled slowly back up the hill.

I tried hard during the Trans Am not to take small misfortunes personally. It was something I had worked on mentally before the race and for the most part I think I did a good job of detaching – if not immediately, then quickly – from problems I faced or circumstances I found myself in. There are a lot of things that happen during a race this epic, I knew, that were simply out of my control. This is the same for everyone; I was not special. Getting angry or staying despondent sucks energy, and for me dwelling on the things that sucked was not an effective or efficient way to execute my best race.

However, what was bugging me was that what was happening during the last few hours – the di2 fail, losing the Garmin charger, going off route — were not out of my control. Quite the opposite, they were exactly of my own making. They were not things that had simply happened to me, rather pretty clearly a consequence of my deteriorating mental state. There are a lot of gray areas in the ether of the Trans Am experience, and one I struggled with was this: How did I know when to simply push past challenges, and when did I know I needed to acknowledge that I was in fact creating a slippery slope of problems for myself that I needed to crawl out of?

In any case, by the time I found the route again, I was deflated. I had wasted another hour or so with the navigation error, and MF was now about 30 miles ahead of me again. Plus, I knew he had slept and I had not – another problem of my own creation. Rolling through the rural Kentucky hills north of Berea, I came across a small white clapboard church surrounded by grass. It was about 9am by now, and the grass looked so soft that it might have been actually begging me to take a nap. I wheeled my bike around d the side of the church, lay right down on the grass and feel immediately asleep.IMG_0154

I woke up 20 minutes later to voices just above me. A woman’s voice, calling, “Honey, are you okay?” When I opened my eyes, disoriented, a woman and man’s face were peering over me. The woman held out a bottle of water.

I tried to smile. “Oh, I’m fine, just catching a small nap. I hope I’m not disturbing anyone,” I said.

“There’s a storm coming,” she said. “You’d best get up.” There was a sense of urgency in her voice. I looked up and sure enough dark storm clouds were gathering in the sky above.

The man opened his mouth. He was missing a few teeth. “There’s two hundred strikes of lightning gonna be coming down!!” he bellowed.

Suddenly, at the sound of this emphatic (and specific) pronouncement, I panicked. I grabbed the bottle of water the woman was still holding out to me, shoved it in my jersey pocket, did a cyclocross mount onto my bike, and started pedaling as hard as I could. 200 strikes of lightning! 200 strikes of lightning!  200 strikes of lightning! 200 strikes of lightning! kept echoing in my head between raspy breaths. I had to escape!

About five minutes down the road I stopped pedaling to take a breath. Wait. 200 strikes of lightning? What did that even MEAN? And how would he know? Now I was more perplexed than alarmed – both at his statement and my flustered reaction.

Still, the storm was coming, and as I headed down a curvy, foliage-flanked road to Berea, the sky opened up. I pulled over into a ditch to put on my rain clothes and huddled under a giant leafy bush. I had intended to start riding again, but instead I sat there for about 30 minutes, reflecting on my situation. I had to admit that I was a wreck. I was sleep deprived, wet, bedraggled, making terrible decisions and had just been spooked by a fake-weather amateur meteorologist. Something needed to give.

I pedaled slowly into Berea in the pouring rain and stopped into a Subway. As I was standing in line I saw a Red Roof Inn across the street. I should go there, I thought. And then no, as I noticed a 100 meter hill I would have to ride up to get to the front door. Then thought yes, the fact that the slight incline was provoking horror probably was all the more reason I definitely should go there.

I went there. The clerk took a look at me, asked me what I was doing, and offered to drop the room price from $90 to $35. She and the manager also offered to arrange to get me a new Garmin charger while I was sleeping. I went in that room and cranked the air conditioning up. I felt worse than I had since I had started the race. In fact, I wondered whether I would ever get up. Before I fell asleep, the thought actually crossed my mind that I might not be able to get on my bike again. This might be the race for me.

I woke up three hours later, without an alarm. The storm had passed and the sky was clear. I put on my wet clothes again and wheeled my bike out of the room. The woman at the front desk had in fact gone to Wal-Mart to buy me a new charger for my Garmin. I paid her and thanked her profusely.

I got on my bike with a sigh and slowly started pedaling again. MF was now 80 miles ahead again. I knew there was no way I could pull another stunt to try to catch him. But as I pedaled up Big Hill outside of Berea (a good name, incidentally, to introduce the remainder of Kentucky that lies east of Berea),  I felt okay with it. My strongest emotion was of relief – I felt like Lazarus that had risen from the dead.

The rest of that afternoon and into the evening I rode calmly. The competitive drive had been sucked out of me, but I was still committed. I was going to finish this race, and finish it well. This whole journey had always been about much more than performing or winning. It had been – and still was – about learning about myself and testing my limits, and this I had surely done by acknowledging and responding to my instincts to be the best that I could be. I had put it all out there the last three days, and reached the edge of something that had seemed a little scary. But now, I seemed to have stepped back from that edge. I was still in ninth place, but perhaps I was a tiny bit of a different person now.

I stopped that night in the tiny town of Booneville. There was no hotel, but someone told me that a church down the street had built a pavilion where cyclists could sleep as they came through on the Trans Am. When I got there, the evening air was warm and there were mosquitoes out in swarms. I ate a sandwich and then pulled out my sleeping bag and bivvy and wrapped myself up to my neck so I didn’t get bitten. I listened to the sound of the birds doing their post-sunset talk. I called Jimmy and he was still riding, in western Kentucky. I told him about my day and that I was still alive. I talked to Donncha and we didn’t speak about the race at all. Instead we talked about friends and family and striking the right balance in life – kind of like a normal conversation you would have with a normal friend. Weird.

I fell asleep still feeling spent, but also peaceful. There had been so many adventures already – and with 800 miles still to ride, there was probably time for several more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, Day 18 · Categories: Uncategorized

When my alarm went off at 3am I didn’t press snooze, so as not to wake my fellow church couch-surfer. I rolled out of my sleeping bag, sweating. I was already wearing my smelly cycling clothes so it didn’t take me long to find my bike next to the sanctuary, pack up and roll out into the Kentucky morning air.

I fueled up at the gas station in town, taking the time to drink a large cup of black coffee from a paper cup. The clerk was restocking pickles and she gave me a few quizzical looks as I chugged and shoved apple pie into my face. Some teenagers were making trouble in the parking lot, and as I rolled out they screeched out of the parking lot in their cars the opposite way.

Despite the coffee, as I rode through the dark I was strugging to keep my eyes opened. The toll of the 17 previous days was now undeniable. Still, I was on my bike, moving forward. I sang to myself, talked out loud, did math problems – anything to occupy my brain that craved only to be still, quiet and asleep.

That morning’s sunrise was one of the most fantastic I saw on the entire journey – or at least I remember feeling euphoric to see it. After over two weeks on the ride, I was becoming more comfortable with the emotional equivalent of Newton’s third law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I was now gaining the ability to notice the feelings of despair and exhaustion and identify them as precursors to elation and joy. And vice versa. The reality was that when there was a down, an up would follow shortly thereafter. Likewise, every feeling of progress or accomplishment would at some point, likely in short order, be accompanied by an equal feeling of failure or loss.Blog_Day_18A

This day is a bit of a blur in my memory, fueled as it was by adrenaline and exhaustion. The terrain had settled a bit for the time being, and the route meandered through multiple towns that populated the western and eastern sides of Interstate 65. There were a number of communities of similar small, clapboard homes clustered together, and I remember having the odd sensation all day that I had ridden earlier through the very place where I was now.

Despite the sleep deprivation, I had made good time during the day. By the late afternoon, when I checked TrackLeaders, MF was only about 40 miles ahead of me. My all-nighter to Chester had definitely cut the distance between us, and it had now been holding steady for about two days. In Howardstown, 175 miles into my day, I made a bold decision: I would ride all night to try to catch him. If he stopped to sleep in a town, I would try to ride past him. If I couldn’t do it, so be it. But there weren’t many days left to make a bold move, and this was a race after all. I had to try.

In the Howardstown gas station, I packed my things and chugged a Rock Star energy drink. Then I got in my aero bars, cranked up Sia and rode as hard as I could. The sun was setting as I rose past fields and up and over small hills. The excitement of deciding to try to catch MF had energized me and given me a newfound focus.

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When the sun set, my energy and excitement started to wane. I called my friend Sandy, and I was talking to her when I saw the looming lights of the bourbon distilleries just outside Bardstown. Bardstown was my last chance to refuel until the next morning, so it was critical that I load up food and water for the night. I pulled off at McDonalds on the right side of the route, but got irritable when I saw the wait was long, and rode down the road, sure I would find another place to stop. Unfortunately, the only other food stops were miles off the route and down a busy highway. Instead of going backwards to McDonalds, I ended up riding down this dark, four-lane highway to a grocery store, and wasting about 45 minutes in the process.

Standing in the grocery store, I remember a sense of being deeply overwhelmed. I didn’t know what I was looking for – much less, what I was doing. How was it that I had found myself, disheveled, smelly, exhausted and out of sorts in a grocery store at midnight in the middle of Kentucky, chasing an Italian dot? Was this really my life? In the end, I dispensed with the existential angst and bought Oreos and cokes. Then I repeated every meaningless pedal stroke to take me back down the busy highway to the route.

I could see on TrackLeaders that MF had stopped to sleep in Harrodsburg, almost exactly 50 miles from Bardstown. Doable, I thought. I could reach Harrodsburg around 3-4am. Then, if I was feeling good, I could ride right through the town. By the time MF got riding, I would be past him, and into eighth place in the race. Pondering this idea, I had to admit that I wasn’t sure what would happen after that. But I would cross that bridge when I came to it, I decided.

The ride from Bardstown to Harrodsburg that night will be forever imprinted in my brain. The terrain was a series of steep hills, roller coaster up and down, and the roads wound up and down and around like a thread. I called my friend Connell, who told me funny stories and gave me some words of encouragement. I went back to singing to myself, and trying to do math. 45 miles to go, 40, 30, 20.TL

About 2am with only 20 miles to Harrodsburg, I got off my bike. I was so tired that it was becoming dangerous to ride. Sleep seemed so delicious that it was actually unfair to deny it a chance to take over my body. I spread out my bivvy on someone’s grassy front yard, not 20 feet from the street, laid on top of it and fell asleep.

An hour later, I woke up with that desperate feeling of having just missed a college exam. I checked TrackLeaders and MF was still in Harrodsburg. There was still time! I jumped on my bike and started pedaling ferociously.

My gears wouldn’t shift. It slowly dawned on me that my di2 had died again. I stopped and ripped all my electronics out of my bag looking for a portable battery, in the process spilling everything on the dark road. My battery pack was dead, which meant that I had no choice but to find wall power to plug in my di2. Until then, while I could spin up hills, I didn’t have any gears to wind up speed on the downhill. It was only 20 miles to Harrodsburg, but it was going to take an eternity to get there.

Spinning slowly, exhausted and frustrated, I scanned every building I passed, searching it like an electricity bandit. Was that an outlet on the front of that church? Could I sneak into that person’s garage? Suddenly, 10 miles from Harrodsburg, I spotted the glowing lights of a soda machine outside a convenience store. Sure enough, there was an unused outlet just next to the machine. I plugged my di2 into the wall and bought two cokes. Then I sat down in the dark to wait.

The Trans Am facebook page was abuzz at 4am that night. Lael was overtaking Steffen in the last 200 miles of the race, and dot-watchers were glued to their screens. As they rode through some tree cover in Virginia, the LW and SS tracker signals disappeared. The late-night dot watchers were aghast – who could they watch?

Sitting there next to the soda machine in Kentucky at 4am, this post popped up on my feed.IMG_0271

 

 

 

19. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, Day 17 · Categories: Uncategorized

I slept until 6am, so it was light before I got out of the hotel. MF had been gone for several hours, so my big push into the night had only gotten me a gain of about 10-20 miles on him. Still, it was something. At this point, the only time I could gain was by riding longer – there was no option to ride harder.

My main goal of the day was to reach the ferry at Cave in Rock, Illinois, which crosses the Illinois River and serves as the border between Illinois into Kentucky. I had to reach Cave in Rock by 9pm for the last ferry; otherwise there were no more until the next morning. Because of my big ride the day before, I only had about 140 miles to ride to Cave in Rock from Chester.

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Illinois scene. 

Setting out, that seemed like a simple task. Maybe I would hit the ferry in the mid-afternoon, I thought, and get a good ways into Kentucky before I slept. But as the day wore on, the temperature went up and so did the hills. Mid-afternoon came and went. Pedaling through the Shawnee National Forest, the trees and thick foliage looked so enticing that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for shade. I pulled my bike into the forest, laid my bivvy out carefully – scouting the area for poison oak, even though I wasn’t really sure what it looked like – and fell asleep for an hour.

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Foliage of Shawnee National Forest. 

Waking up, I checked the time and realized I no longer had a comfortable cushion to reach the ferry. Gah. I gathered up my things, wiped the drool off my face and wheeled my bike back onto the road. For the next few hours, the road made me work for the ferry. The grades were steep, the roads narrow, the cars impatient, the pavement rough. Basically, the last 10 miles went on forever.

I arrived at the ferry about 7:30pm and got behind 3 cars. A girl and three guys in the car next to me were smoking cigarettes and asked me where I was going. I told them Virginia and asked them to take my picture.

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Waiting for the ferry across the Illinois River.

On the other side, I rolled off the ferry and passed the Kentucky state sign. Two more states to go. It felt like an accomplishment, but a sobering one, since some of the race’s hardest riding was still to come. It was an uphill ten miles to the town of Marion, Kentucky. As I spun slowly up the hill, it was getting dark and the fireflys began shooting off staccato bursts of yellow on either side of the road.

Rolling into Marion, I heard my name being called by avid dot-watcher Michele Hodge. I was happy she was there to greet me, and as I pulled over and extended my hand to shake hers, I immediately toppled over. From the ground, all I could think to say was, “I’m a really good bike rider, I promise.” That, and “You should really take a picture.” Michele obliged.

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There amount of blood was minor, and no damage I could see to my bike, so after she checked on my well being and introduced me to her husband, she asked me my plans for the night. I was still toying with the idea of carrying on – MF was still riding – but she told me that I could sleep inside the church on the corner for free. So after I stopped at McDonalds, I headed over to the church, riding one handed and slurping on a large chocolate milkshake.

The sign on the door said to call the pastor, so I called the pastor. He was babysitting and couldn’t leave the house, but he told me to knock on the door of “the white house down the street” (he didn’t know the address) and the church custodian would let me in. After wandering around the neighborhood for a bit, I chose a white house and knocked tentatively at the door. A woman answered. Hi, I said, raising my milkshake in greeting. I am looking for the custodian so that I can get into the church to sleep. She looked at me quizzically. The pastor sent me? I said.

Who is that? I heard a male voice call. A man in overalls and a baseball hat appeared at the door. I explained my situation and he agreed to meet me at the church in a few minutes. I finished my milkshake on the front steps, and he appeared shortly with a ring of keys. I followed him inside and he showed me a Sunday school room on the first floor where I could leave my bike on the carpeted floor. Then we walked upstairs to another set of meeting rooms.

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The church custodian inside a Sunday school room. 

He showed me into a large room with sofas and a few tables and chairs. The heat was on full blast. There was another cyclist there, a young guy from Minnesota, who was laying out his sleeping bag on one of the couches. The custodian continued a protracted tour of the facilities – showing me the light switches, the bathrooms, drinking fountains, other rooms where I could sleep if I wanted, backup light switches for other parts of the church.

Now, he said, leading me back to the room with sofas. We need to do headshots for the book. He pulled out a TransAm logbook with photos and notes from hundreds of riders who had visited the church during their rides. He brought a large digital camera out of a cabinet and asked me and the other rider to stand in front of a wall while he took our photos. Then he seemed flummoxed. He couldn’t remember how to connect the camera to the computer and print out the photos. This was apparently a task that could not wait until tomorrow. Did we know how to work this thing? he asked us. Fortunately, the other rider offered to help him. after about 30 more minutes, the photos were printed and glued into the book.

The custodian eventually told us good night, about 11pm. I apologized in advance to the other rider for my alarm that was set to go off at 3am. I got in my sleeping bag on the couch in all my smelly clothes, posted this photo and went to sleep.

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18. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, Day 16 · Categories: Uncategorized

I packed up and carried my bike down the carpeted staircase of the Holiday Inn Express to the quizzical looks of the early-morning desk clerk. I rolled across the giant parking lot off the interstate in Marshfield and back onto the route.

Something different needed to happen. After what I considered three lackluster riding days, I needed to regain the determination that would allow me to ride this race successfully. For me, that meant both pushing my limits and being in control of my own race – not letting external circumstances dictate either my actions or my perceptions of myself. Two weeks into the race, I now understood that the ability for mental focus – hour after hour, day after day – was the elemental skill that this race demanded. This is not to downplay the physical requirements that racing the Trans Am requires – like being strong and fit, having the endurance to make the distance, knowing how to prevent injuries, managing physical maintenance like eating and sleep. Those things are all critical too. But above and beyond those more measurable skills, it was becoming clear to me that mental fortitude – while not as quantifiable – would be the difference for me between “finishing” and “finishing satisfied.”IMG_0254

I knew I would have to start right then to draw on those mental reserves for the upcoming section of Missouri. The Ozarks were coming. As I moved farther away from Kansas, the green lushness of the Ozarks was a welcome sight. But it came with its own nuisances; in particular, the increasing grade of the hills. At first, I could handle the rises simply by concentrating on using momentum from the downhills and then standing and powering over the top of the next rise. This part was fun, kind of a terrain roller coaster. As the morning wore on, though, the rollers became steeper, and momentum was only marginally helpful. First, it could get me 75% of the way up a hill. Then 50%. Then 25%.

It was also another brutally hot summer day. In Eminence, Missouri, I stopped at a gas station that had a small sandwich shop. I got a coke and sat down at a table by the window. Another cyclist was sitting just in front of me, but he didn’t stop to look when I sat down. A few minutes later, though, I felt a tap on my table, and he motioned me over, wordlessly. He pulled out his Trans Am maps, pointed and smiled. I nodded, confused. It took me a minute to realize he was deaf.

I pulled out of Eminence into the heart of the Ozarks parkway, a bit more inspired. But the hills soon became a chore again. I had to take one at a time, working up and over each with intense concentration. At one point, my heart rate was soaring and my pace was so low that my Garmin was switching to auto pause – and I wondered, as humiliating as it was, whether it might not be more efficient to walk. On the next hill I rolled up as far as I could, then swallowed my pride and got off my bike. Unfortunately, the air was so hot that it was melting on the pavement and as I walked, black sticky sludge filled my cleats. At the top of the hill, I stepped off the road into the grass, exasperated, to dig the tar out of my cleats – and immediately was stung by a swarm of bees.

Okay, no more walking then.

The afternoon went on, through the hills and green remoteness of the Ozarks. In the early evening, I made a long climb out of Johnson’s Shut In’s State Park and gradually back into civilization, rolling through the small burgs outside of Farmington. As I rode towards Farmington, traffic picked up, with an inordinate number of pickup trucks gunning their engines and laying on their horns as they passed.

It was 10pm when I hit the outskirts of town – and I was surprised to hear my name called from the side of the road. When I stopped, the woman who had called my name introduced herself as Jeneen McEntire, Brian’s wife. I was so touched by her thoughtfulness in coming out to greet me that I gave her a big hug. She was so encouraging and said she would be cheering for me. Just up the road, another one of Brian’s cyclist friends was out to greet me. He advised me to hit the McDonald’s, since not much would be open in town. He asked if I was staying in town, and without thinking I said no, that I would keep riding on. He seemed as surprised as I was to hear my answer.

In McDonald’s, I settled on my plan. I would ride to Chester, which was about 40 miles east of Farmington. Checking TrackLeaders, Massimiliano Fancoli had stopped there for the night. If I rode straight through, I could make it to Chester about 2am. I could check into the hotel there, get a few hours of sleep, and then hopefully be hot on the tail of Massimiliano – who I came to think of as his dot’s acronym, “MF” – in the morning.

Leaving McDonald’s, I felt energized. Pedaling through downtown Farmington, with all the shops and restaurants shut down for the night, I felt like I was getting away with something. Some sense of freedom was opening for me – the realization that I was out in the world, alone, exploring the unknown – and that was exciting. I don’t know why the feeling was so strong in that moment, but I wanted to be open to it. And ride it for as long as I could.

The road to Chester was undulating – and very, very dark. I talked to Jill, who was still up and willing to keep me company at midnight, and Donncha, who was already headed to work in the Netherlands. They both acknowledged what a massive day I had just had – with 240 miles and over 12,000 feet of climbing – and encouraged me to continue to push myself as much as I could.IMG_0253

I rolled across the Mississippi on the long, eerie truss bridge and into Chester, Illinois. The Chester “Home of Popeye” sign and the Illinois state sign sat side-by-side on the far side of the Mississippi at the entrance to town and I stopped to take photos and take in the view. It was 2am and I had been riding since 4am the previous morning, but I was energized. It had been my biggest riding day yet, MF was within reach, and most importantly, my mindset had changed from uncertain to confident in my abilities.IMG_0255

I took a right just past the bridge, cruised down a long, steep hill to the river – and immediately realized I had made a wrong turn. I climbed slowly back up to the bridge and headed the right way to the hotel, which turned to be another several miles down the road. It was a little early for celebrations, I thought.

Still, I had made it. A bed had rarely looked that good – and beds had been looking pretty good recently. I set my alarm for three hours of sleep, posted this photo and went to bed.Blog_Day_16B

 

17. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, Day 15 · Categories: Uncategorized

I woke up and rolled out of bed at 4am, while it was still dark. Before I left my motel room, I checked Track Leaders. Bo Dudley was only about 10 miles from Chanute, just on my tail.

Out on the road, it was warm but not too humid or windy. I was happy that I would be exiting Kansas early in the day. Kansas had been hard for me. I wasn’t sure whether it had been Kansas’ terrain or weather that had made the last 2 days feel so hard — or whether the cumulative fatigue of two weeks of all-day riding with very little sleep was simply catching up with me. Despite averaging about 200 miles per day for the first 12 days of the race, I had not been able to crack 200 miles either of the last two days. Was this a downward slide that I was powerless to resist?IMG_0247

I didn’t know. And while I was happy to leave Kansas, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in Missouri. During mid-morning, I saw two riders coming towards me. They waved and I went across the road to meet east-west pairs riders Ken Simpson and Terry Roe. They were in good spirits, though they had faced their own challenges traversing the mountains of the eastern US. We chatted for a few minutes, wished each other luck and carried on in our own directions.

I rode on through the gently rolling landscape, through Pittsburgh and across the Missouri border during the mid-morning. Almost immediately after crossing the Missouri border, the landscape began to change. The hills were a bit steeper and the fields more green.IMG_0250

Also, my di2 battery – which charges the electronic gearing system on my bike— was almost out of juice. This meant that not all of my gears were working; in fact, I could only use the hill climbing gears, which was a problem on flattish terrain. Di2 batteries have variable running times before they need to be charged, and I could generally expect to ride about 2,000 miles before needing to recharge. The last time I had fully charged the battery was in a hotel room back in Twin Bridges, Montana, so it wasn’t unusual that I was due for a charge.

However, there was another related logistical problem: The USB attached to my Dynamo hub – a battery built into the hub of my front wheel that generates electricity while the bike is being pedaled – was also no longer working. For the first 10 days of the trip, I had been able to use that USB port to charge electronics while riding – my phone, light, Garmin and di2. However, a problem with the connection had made the USB inoperable.

I pulled over to the side of the road to see if I could come up with a plan. As I was standing in the grass, Adi and Niel Coventry-Brown, another east-west team from New Zealand, pulled up. They were sympathetic and offered help, but I told them I would figure it out. They were both thrilled to be out of the mountains, and they told me horror stories of how steep the hills were in Missouri, Kentucky and Virginia. I was happy for them – but still tried not to hear what they were saying. I was tired enough as it was.

It was only about 10 more miles to Golden City, where I found Cooky’s Café, a popular Trans Am route. It was Saturday of Father’s Day weekend, and the café was packed with families having lunch. But the owner let me bring my bike inside and plug it into an electrical outlet behind a bench in the waiting area. I ate a piece of pie while I waited, and ordered a second one to go. I had to crunch the Styrofoam to fit the pie in my jersey pocket as I left – I hoped I hadn’t ruined the whipped cream.

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Straight lines to squiggly lines

Just north of Springfield Missouri, the road began to change even more, becoming less straight and more winding. I would encounter the Ozarks soon, I know, and this must be the warmup. During the later afternoon, I stopped in Walnut Grove to refuel. I asked the clerk if there was a city park, and she pointed me just down the street. There was a pavilion in the park with electrical outlets, so I plugged in all my devices, then lay down in the cool grass and slept for an hour.

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Western Missouri moonrise

When I woke up, I was groggy and confused. I got back on my bike and hit the road. A few hours later I came into the interstate town of Marshfield, Missouri. There was a Holiday Inn Express there, which was expensive. At the time I was too tired to even care.

I hit the McDonald’s next door and then checked into the motel. I sat on the floor and took stock. For the third day in a row, I had failed to make 200 miles on the day – and this all in the flattest part of the entire Trans Am route. Tomorrow I would face the Ozarks, and I knew that was just the beginning of the onslaught of mountain climbing that would continue until the last day of the race. In fact, the four easternmost states of the Trans Am route (Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Virginia) have more combined elevation gain than Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado combined.

I was still in ninth place, but Bo Dudley was quickly still approaching behind me. Several other riders were still not far behind. I was going to need to find something deep inside myself – and quick – to finish this race in the top ten.

I set my alarm for 4am, posted this photo and went to sleep.Blog_Day_15A

 

16. January 2017 · Comments Off on Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, Day 14 · Categories: Uncategorized

The stop at Newton was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because of the nice people, good food, air conditioning, cold beer, and warm bed. And a curse for all the same reasons. Truly racing the Trans Am is all about time management, and getting too comfortable can be a dangerous thing. I was aware that I had been wooed by the abundance of riches Newton had offered. Ben had come in and gone while I was sleeping, putting him several hours ahead of me. And as I left, Bo Dudley was not too far behind. I needed to get my head back in the game.

It was light by the time I got on the road, and – despite wearing a clean jersey and being well fed – I was bummed because of it. Over the last two weeks I had found that I was only able to begin the day satisfied when I got on the bike in the pre-dawn darkness. Only then did I feel like I had “enough” time to do what I needed to do that day. On those days, I could often knock out 100 miles before mid-day, which gave me a sense of efficiency. It sounds odd, but the feeling was similar to the satisfaction of crossing off items on a to-do list during a focused, productive day in real life. “Miles ridden before noon” was an odd metric, but it was the one I happened to be measuring myself by these days.

In Cassoday, I stopped to refuel at a gas station. There was an antique car rally coming the other way, and the drivers were congregating at the gas station. I stopped to watch them for a while and got chatting to Karl, a Trans Am tourist who was headed east to west. He asked if he could take my picture. In the photo I look as clean and fresh as I was, but that smile also belied the anxiety I was feeling that morning.IMG_0246

I tried to brush those feelings aside as I headed into eastern Kansas. The wind today was not ripping like the day before, but the heat promised to be a real issue. Also, another thing I hadn’t predicted about Eastern Kansas: hills. As if a subtle warning to Missouri, still a couple hundred miles ahead, the landscape begins to undulate – gently at first, and then increasingly requiring attention.

About 60 miles from Newton, on a hilly four-lane highway, my back tire flatted again. This was the fifth flat on that back tire. And despite the fact that neither James nor myself had been able to locate any defect in the tire, I decided enough was enough. I needed a new tire. A quick search told me that the next bike shop was in Pittsburgh, about 200 miles east. The closest was the one I had just left, 60 miles behind me.

I called James. He was willing to send me a new tire, but wasn’t sure how long it would take. He offered that I could wait for Bo Dudley, who was at the shop at that time, to bring it to me. “No!” I screeched into the phone. For the past few days I had been struggling to keep a measurable distance between me and Bo. The last thing I wanted was to wait for him to catch me. I was doing my best to compete, but I was in no condition for a race.

Eventually, James found someone who was willing to drive the tire to me. I made it to Eureka and waited under a shaded umbrella at the Sonic on the corner. This day was demoralizing me, but I tried to believe there was some redeeming quality to the forced rest. I was having, after all, a “Eureka moment.” I ate a bacon cheeseburger and drank a large cherry-lime slushee. I laid down on the concrete bench and tried to sleep.

In less time than I expected, two friends of James showed up with my new tire. It was a bulletproof Continental Gatorskin, and with it securely on my back wheel and the offending tire gone, I felt a great sense of relief. I hoped my tire issues were now behind me for good.

IMG_0245By now it was mid-day and the sun was blazing down as I made my way east. My Garmin registered 114 degrees this afternoon. I spent the afternoon searching for shaded structures – a tree, a rest stop bathroom, a signpost – to stop and cool off. An hour or two after leaving Eureka, I stopped at a bait and tackle shop before making the turn to Lake Ontario. An elderly man and woman sat playing cards In the dark, low-ceilinged shop. The owner got up slowly, showed me his Trans Am log book filled with notes from years of Trans Am riders, and asked me to sign it.IMG_0241

I payed for my food and extra water with my debit card, then stepped outside, squinting into the afternoon sun. In stark contrast to the busy highway miles I had been covering for most of the day since Newton, the road suddenly became hilly, rural and lonely. About 10 miles after leaving the store, an old white pickup truck pulled up beside me. In it was the shop owner, grinning and holding my debit card. I was touched by his kindness and thanked him profusely, slipping it in my jersey pocket.

Only a few miles later, I came across a river crossing shaded by trees. I pulled over next to the river to enjoy the cooler temperature for a moment – and took the opportunity to pull my phone out of my jersey pocket and change the music selection.

I realized my carelessness just a few minutes later, when I reached back to see where my debit card was. The card was gone. I went back to the river and looked around, but no luck. The card must have fallen into the river and was already making its way downstream.

The rest of that day was marked by a distinct, but involuntary, pattern: “ride, rest, ride, rest.” Unlike in days before, I didn’t feel like I had any control over when my rest periods came. Instead, they overcame me. One moment I would be riding my bike, and the next, find myself sitting just off the road in the tall grass – unaware of any conscious decision I had made to stop and take a break.

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A fitting rest stop that afternoon.

I called my friend Jill as the sun went down. She could hear the exhaustion in my voice and she urged me to stop and sleep. Eat, sleep, she said. And because I had apparently become a robot that day, I obeyed. Just after dark I rolled into Chanute, where, right away, another of the many big-hearted characters of Kansas offered to buy my food at a gas station. I waited on my bike in the drive-thru at Sonic and ordered my second and third bacon cheeseburgers for the day. Then I went across the street to the fleabag motel and got a room.

The day’s heat, my late start, and the tire delay had meant I had covered less than 140 miles on the day, the fewest miles of my race yet. Still, Kansas was almost finished and tomorrow another chapter in the race would begin – in Missouri. I set my alarm for early, posted this photo then went to sleep.IMG_0244