Tour Divide Day 4: “Get on your bike. Ride to the next place.”

Holland Lake Lodge to Barbara & John’s living-room couch, 120 miles

I wake up with my alarm at 3am. The moon is shining so bright. Nothing inside of me wants to get up and get on my bike. That’s ok, I’ll feel better after coffee.

I walk creakily down the equally creaky stairs. This lodge is charming, but old. There’s freshly brewed coffee on the bar where I ate steak with my hands last night. David is dressed to ride, and drinking a mug. I pour myself one.

“Look outside,” he says.

I go outside. The moon is sitting quietly over the lake. It’s so beautiful. For the second time in 24 hours, I have tears in my eyes. It’s not all because of the view.

I go back inside and sit on a stool next to David. I tell him that my heart isn’t in it, that I’m going to give myself some more time. He says he understands. He and two other guys are loading up. It’s a good time to start riding – they’ll be up Richmond Peak around sunrise. I give David a hug and say goodbye. That’s the last time I’ll see him.

I check Track Leaders to see where my husband Jimmy is. He’s about a day’s ride behind. I send him a text message.

“I’ve had a change of heart. I want to pull the plug on the racing thing. I’m not really having fun – and less interested in the abuse required. I want to see stuff and ride bikes with you. I’m going to wait for you at Holland Lake Lodge.”

As soon as I send it, I feel a sense of relief.

Jimmy’s response is quick, and not what I expect.

“’Try to regroup – and go on. I would love riding with you but give it a bit more time before you wait for me. I love you. You’re strong.”

Then a follow up that’s more directive:

“Get on your bike. Ride to the next place. Come on. You can. You’re trained to understand what you’re feeling.”

Damn it.

I was hoping I had found an easy enough solution to my internal struggles. But now our text conversation is just mirroring the two voices in my head.

“Keep doing the thing because you said you were doing it.”

“Do something different because you don’t want to do it anymore.”

I’m going to have to figure this out for myself.

“Get on your bike. Ride to the next place.” That message is easy enough to understand, even for a nimwit like me.

I reluctantly pack up and roll out of Holland Lodge, but not until 9:30am. It feels practically like afternoon, and I’m berating myself again. Wasted time, wasted time, wasted time.

The other part of my brain despises this way of thinking. I think about Mike Hall’s words in Inspired to Ride during his record-setting Trans Am Bike Race in 2014: “We’re not curing cancer. We’re just riding bikes.”

It’s just a bike ride. Stop being so serious.

I decide that “ride with joy” is my mantra for today. I am ironically stern all day with myself on this point, and for the most part, it helps.

I ride over the single-track on Richmond Peak, hooting out loud on the descent, only stopping to chat with a forest service worker out to clear trees on this remote pass. The trail swoops and loops down the mountain and I feel like I’m bombing down from on the top of the world.

Before Ovando, I stop to watch horses playing, their stomachs heaving and manes flowing as their hooves kick up small tornadoes of dust. They run with such ease and power, no thinking just doing. It looks like freedom.

I encounter Aaron again, and we ride forest service roads into Ovando. Scott and Davy are there, and I chat with famous dot-watcher Kathy from the Blackfoot Angler fly shop. It’s fun to meet the icons of the Tour Divide, people who go out of their way to be generous to riders, despite the fact that most are out in the wilderness in an effort to escape our nonstop day-to-day world of human-ness. These encounters make me remember that our whole world is an ecosystem: the mountains, the animals, the plants, and us – the humans – moving like tiny specks through a moment in time.

I go across the road to the convenience store where I am welcomed like a champion by the owners, even though they’ve seen at least twenty of us already. I buy homemade brownies and factory-made twinkies and Gatorade. They don’t even look at me funny when I come back in the third time for what I forgot the first and second time.

Photo Kathy in Ovando

The road out of Ovando is a dirt, washboard track that goes off straight into the horizon for several miles before heading into the trees and up and over the next pass. There’s a headwind. I’m playing around in my aerobars, riding hard and enjoying watching the next forested mountain get slowly closer. I pass Davy from Ireland and we chat for a minute before I crank on.

I roll into Lincoln, Montana around dinnertime. I’ve only ever heard of Lincoln because it was where the Unabomber was arrested. I remember the day I heard that news; it was my birthday, April 3 in 1996. I was living in Austin and writing my senior thesis, about to graduate from college the next month. I had just run my first marathon in February and was still on a high from doing something I never thought I could do. My best friend Kim was pregnant and about to give birth to a baby daughter.

Terrorism still seemed mostly like something that happened to other people, in other places. In my mind at the time, Ted Kazcynski was filed away into a special category, only joined perhaps by Timothy McVeigh. The file was labeled something like “one-off lunatics” – alienated loners whose actions raised terrible questions but were extremely rare.

Now more than 20 years later, how many more names are in that file, and how much things have changed. On the other hand, rolling slowly through Lincoln and looking at the old motel, the Restaurant-Lounge-Casino, the aging Coca-Cola signs, it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot that hasn’t, too. I think about that first marathon. How here I am, too, over 20 years later, still trying to push my mind and body to some imaginary horizon.

On my way out of town to head towards Stemple Pass, I stop and call Barbara Nye. I’ve got her phone number scribbled on a cue sheet, as a trail angel who hosts cyclists on the other side of this pass. She answers and greets me more like an old friend than a smelly stranger. She tells me that their cabins are full, but I am welcome to sleep on a couch on their porch. This sounds like luxury to me.

I’m racing the sunset as I ride up Stemple Pass Road and grind up the last handful of rough steep miles to the top, always thinking I’ll have to get off my bike, but never quite having to. I’m slowly learning that the sections of this route that I dread the most are often those that feel the most satisfying. I like the attention, and the focus, required by the steep, rocky and rooted sections. The riding is consuming, and rewarding in a strange way.

I coast the steep downhill towards Barbara’s that loses more than 2000 feet of elevation in seven miles. Parts of the road are rough but lit by a strong moon and a cloudless sky. I’m feeling more exhilarated than tired – partly due, I guess, to my late start to the day. Still, it’s been a solid day, full of good riding, beautiful scenery, and the kindness of humans.

It’s almost 11pm, but there’s more still to come. Barbara has given me the mileage from the top at seven miles, and I start wondering if I’ll be able to find her place in the dark. Suddenly, ahead of me, there’s a spotlight shining. As I roll up, a man with long white hair and a friendly smile calls out my name.

“I’ve been waiting up for you,” he says, and ushers me into the house.

John has Trackleaders up on the screen like a command center, next to the digital weather station, and he shows me how he’s tracking the riders one by one as they near. He apologizes that Barbara is already asleep and offers to make me dinner and points me to beer in the fridge. He shows me where the bathroom is and where I can plug in my electronics. I tell him I am happy to sleep outside, but he points to the couch in the living room and gives me a pillow. He and Barbara are hosting ten cyclists tonight.

I’m blown away by the whole thing – the welcome, the kindness, the generosity. John says they don’t want donations, or a review, just to “pay it forward.” It’s funny, I think as I fall asleep, that in this big quest for a solo, wilderness adventure, some of the most remarkable moments stand out because of the simple generosity of humans.

Tour Divide Day 3: Searching for “Why”

Tuchuck Campground to Holland Lake Lodge, 177 miles

I’m fast asleep on the floor of the pit toilet. It’s sometime after midnight.

I snap awake to a heavy banging on the door. It takes a second to remember where I am and what is happening.

“Please can I come in?” calls a voice on the other side. I think I hear a tinge of desperation in the tone.

It’s dark. I fumble around, flip on my headlight and reach over and turn the handle, unlocking the door.

Another rider barrels in, headlight on. Dueling headlights, neither one of us can see each other in the small, cramped space. We both turn our heads away, so not to blind each other. My stuff is all over the floor, so I start grabbing things, piling food, electronics, bike shorts, stuff sacks, water bottles all into one pile by the base of the toilet. It’s a roomy pit toilet for one person, but two is most certainly a crowd.

The rider says thanks. I can tell he’s relieved to be off his bike and what must have been a cold descent from the top of the pass. It’s clear he only wants one thing – sleep – and I can’t blame him. He lays out his sleeping bag next to me and is asleep within two minutes. Given the space constraints, his legs are draped over mine. As he sleeps, he tosses and turns, sighing heavily as he does.

I feel for him. This race is brutal on the body and the mind – for everyone. We are only two days in, and the toll is already becoming clear. I stretch my legs out, pushing his to the side, noticing my sore quads and hips. I am now wide awake.

So far for me, the weight of the race feels much more mental than physical. I am tired, of course – I have ridden for 28 hours and 300+ miles over the last two days. Still, I feel I am riding within my physical abilities. My power is respectable, and my riding speed is close to what I expected. I’m hitting my mileage targets so far.

That said, my mental game could use some help. Pushing myself to remain relentlessly focused – hour after hour, day after day – on the miles, time, logistics has already started feeling like a chore. But that focus is what is going to take for me to not only reach my race goals, but to reach the finish line period.

Day three hasn’t even begun, and it’s pretty clear that this is not a good sign for the days ahead. In the Trans America Bike Race, I remember, every day also brought some sort of a battle. There were deep struggles along the way, many dark moments and minutes and hours. But alongside those deep dark times, I also found so many periods of light and joy and transcendence – moments that made the challenges worth pushing through. Moments that hinted that the answer to that ultimate “Why?” was somehow quietly being answered within me.

I just needed to find my Why again.

My sleeping partner sighs deeply again, almost in pain. I’m not finding that shit while I’m laying here wasting time off the bike, I think. I fire up my headlight and gather my pile of everything, trying not to make too much noise as I leave.

It’s 3am and I step out into the Montana night. It takes me some time to re-organize my gear, but soon I am coasting back down the road. It’s not as cold as I expected, and the moon is big and bright. The rockier track soon turns into smoother forest service road. I reluctantly turn on my speaker to ward off bears; it doesn’t seem right to be blaring Pit Bull in the face of all this serenity but I do it anyway.

The only pass between me and Whitefish now is Red Meadow Pass, and it’s light by the time I start the climb. It’s a beautiful ascent, winding through thick forests with bear grass and other wildflowers lining the side of the road. The air is still cool, but I’m working hard enough to sweat a bit, so I’ve been able to shed my down jacket. Occasionally I can get glimpses of the rising sun between the clouds to the right. Once in a while there’s a small cluster of houses or cabins. My friend Kim from Whitefish is an interior painter, and I know she is painting one of these houses. I examine each one to see if I can tell which it is.

Soon, another rider pulls up to my left and says good morning. It’s David from Australia, who turns out to be the inhabitant of the second “Montana Hilton” available in the campground last night. After not riding with anyone for more than a few minutes over the last two days, it’s great to have company. David raced the Tour Divide in 2017 and has also toured on the route; this year, he’s looking to improve upon his time in 2017, which was just under 21 days. David generously shares insights about the route; I note to myself that this would be a good person to stick around with. (*Shout out to David, who ended up smashing his 2017 time, finishing in 13th place this year in just over 18 days.*)

David and I are talking as we round a bend, and suddenly there up ahead is a black bear in the road. He has his back to us. David quickly reaches for his camera, I immediately start yelling, and the black bear ambles into the woods before David can get a good shot. Ooops, sorry, I say. Ruined the shot.

Scared bear! Photo David Langley

We aren’t sure whether there is any snow on the road at the top of the pass, and around each corner we keep expecting it. It never comes. Red Meadow Lake is the reward at the top of the climb. It takes my breath away when it comes into sight, and I have to put my foot down to stare. In the morning light, the still water looks glassy green, almost the color as the mountains behind it. The mountains have little pockets of snow still, the remnants of winter, like cool whip dabs on the slopes. Fir trees line the shores. As far as I can see, a blanket of green.

It’s so beautiful that tears come to my eyes.

There’s plenty more to gawk at on the descent. We pass Upper Whitefish Lake and bomb downhill on miles of forest service roads. As we get closer to Whitefish, we see cyclists from town making the early morning ride up the road and we wave hello.

Photo David Langley

Coming into town, we spot Alexandera up ahead. She can only go so fast on the flat road on her single-speed, so David and I catch up pretty quickly. I say hi and try to fist-bump her as I go by, but we miss. There are so many dudes in these races, it’s so nice to see women.

David asks where I am going to stop for resupply and I pick a coffee shop I know in Whitefish, which is a few blocks off route. I get an espresso and two sandwiches for the road. My friend Kim finds us there and gives us hugs, and a small crowd gathers watching us pack up for the next stretch.

We’ve already ridden 50 miles this morning, and people are just now heading out on the roads to the lake or church or breakfast. David stops to get some drinks at a shop in Columbia Falls, a little past Whitefish, and I carry on, assuming he will catch me a bit later down the road.

It’s Father’s Day, and I check my phone for service. I decide I’ll call my dad at the next stop. This will be my third time calling my dad to wish him Happy Father’s Day during a cross-country bike race. I think about all the worry I have caused him over the decades – with my sometimes-risky travels, sports endeavors, and occasionally ill-fated adventures – and wonder if he hopes it will run its course at some point. Nah, I think, he’s probably got it figured out by now. Despite the fact that I know they worry about me, both my mom and dad are always supportive of these ventures, which I know not everyone can say. And I think they like the stories (most of them anyway) – at least once I’m done and safely home.

I ride the pavement with happiness, as usual. Traffic is low and the roads run through neighborhoods with the occasional small rolling hill. I pass Alexandera again; she smiles as I come by and we connect on the fist bump this time. I meet Stefano Romualdi and we head off route together before Huckleberry Pass to a small market to resupply for the afternoon. It’s getting warm and I drink two cokes.

On the pass, it’s social hour. Stefano soon passes me again. Stefano is Italian and has limited English. He keeps apologizing for it, but I’m amazed that he is brave enough to race across a country in a self-supported race where he may never encounter someone who speaks his native language. I wonder if I would do the same. He keeps telling me that I am “really fast,” and I finally realize that he thinks I am Lael, so I have to disabuse him of that notion.

Near the top of the climb I finally get to meet Kim Raeymaekers, who had some mechanical troubles on day one and is working his way back up the field. We have mutual friends but have never met in person, so he slows to chat for a bit before carrying on.

The relationships in this sport can be as ephemeral as the short moments it takes to make a catch and pass. Still, I realize, each one makes a lasting impression in my mind.

Photo David Langley

There are no views to bring me to tears at the top of Huckleberry Pass, and it’s hot there. After the descent, there are now dozens of miles of forest service roads to reckon with – none of them particularly tough, but none particularly remarkable either. Riding the somewhat confusing maze of roads, it finally hits me how tired I am from the 5 ½ hours of sleep in two nights. I think about taking a nap. Instead I put on a playlist from the 90s and rock out to angry-white-guy anthems. I sing Offspring and Green Day and Oasis out loud for what I realize, even at the time, is way too many hours.

Eventually the terrain changes a bit and we ride a stretch of faint double-track. I meet Aaron on his singlespeed. He is having some knee issues but is game to chat for a while, which makes time go by faster.

Soon we are on the paved road headed towards Holland Lake campground and lodge. I meet up with Alexandera once again. I remain impressed with both her strength and speed on the bike, and efficient use of time. We chat for a while and talk about sandwiches. I ask her for route advice, and she tells me just to make it out of Montana and I’ll be fine. I can tell from the way she talks when I ask her about her own race that she is focused and determined to reach the finish line knowing that she gave it everything she could.

Even though I am not feeling the same inspiration, the thought crosses my mind: maybe I can feed off of her motivation.

There’s a tourist lodge called Holland Lake Lodge up ahead, where I have decided to stop for the night, even though it’s not close to dark yet. Stopping there is expensive, and indulgent, and perhaps not the best decision from a racing perspective. But I’m tired and hungry and want to sort out my split thinking. Maybe a rest and some good food will help.

Stefano is there when I reach the lodge, and we eat dinner at the bar. David comes in just a bit later and it’s like seeing an old friend, even though we just met today and saw each other a few hours ago. There’s no cell service, so I still can’t talk to my dad, which makes me sad. I send him a text and hope he understands. Despite my dirty and smelly state, I eat a fancy steak. My right hand already has nerve damage, so I have trouble cutting the food, so after furtively looking around to make sure no one is watching I just eat with my hands.

When I’m done, I take a shower and look out my window at the lake. The moon is bright outside and the bed is soft. I set my alarm for 3am to hit the road again. Things will be better when I wake up again.

Tour Divide Day 2: Near-Death on the Wall to a Montana Hilton

Fernie to Tuchuck Campground, Montana, 151 miles

At 4:30am, I head next door to the 7-11 in Fernie. There are already three other bikes outside, leaning against the ice machine and the trash can. I need to ride over three passes, clear 100+ miles and reach the US border before another food stop. I stuff Twinkies and honey buns and cherry pies in every nook and cranny of my bike, and fill my water bottles with Gatorade.

I’m rolling my eyes at my day’s diet, even as I cram cupcakes into my mouth and chug a cup of coffee while I shop the familiar aisles.  Resupply on the Trans Am Bike Race, which is the only other bike race more than a handful of days I have done, was a lot easier. Hauling a day’s worth (or more) of food on my bike is a new experience.

But hey, I think as I roll out of Fernie, I’ve got a handlebar bag full of Hot Tamales, Junior Mints and yogurt covered pretzels. Who am I to complain?

Photo Brandi Blade

The first pass takes a while, but the grade is mostly pleasant. A couple of guys pass me and say hello, but no one wants to slow down to chat. It’s only day two, and energy for most is still high.

I feel just okay. Not great, but not bad either. It’s another beautiful morning. I watch the sun come up and wonder how today will unfold. I’m hoping to make it another 150-ish miles, which would put me somewhere in between Eureka, Montana and Whitefish. Just focus on today, I remind myself.

I’m eating a honey bun about a mile from the summit when a north-bound tourist comes bombing down the hill. I put my foot down, which cues him to stop. He’s European, and he’s pumping his fist. “The next woman is just ahead, just ahead,” he says excitedly. “She just went over the summit a few minutes ago. You can catch her.”

Oh really? I ask. I take another bite of my honey bun. We chat for another minute and then I continue up the pass.

I figure he means Alexandera on the single speed. I saw firsthand yesterday what a strong rider she is, and I figure she must have come through Fernie about the same time as me and camped somewhere up the pass last night.

Observing my reaction to his encouragement, I note how it cues an emotional response in me of…nothing. No excitement, no competitive fire, or even kindling. Kind of strange, but I tell myself this reaction is a good thing, since racing anybody at 200 miles of a 2700-mile race is pointless. Still, there is a motivational aspect of being part of a race that can stoke a helpful competitive fire, even early on. Knowing other riders are around – in front or behind – can push you to go a little faster, do a little more.

Anyway, feelings are just feelings, I tell myself. Things always change.

The riding is varied and rugged here, just like yesterday. Between passes, we ride a fun section of faint two-track through meadows with high grass on either side. I blast Ke$ha on my speaker, as this looks to me like a place I would want to roam around if I were a grizzly. (And everyone knows, bears run far from pop stars with punctuation in their names.) The world feels lush and green and wild.

We reach a small section of soggy, noodle-thin singletrack with some sharp drops and stream crossings. I’m off my bike, and on it again. Then off.

Then shortly, there’s the Wall – jutting straight up in front of me.

The Wall, like Koko Claims from yesterday, is another route feature with a notorious reputation. They say the grades reach 50 percent at the bottom. Unlike Koko, though, this one is only about 400 meters long, so I’m not too concerned.

How hard could it be?

As it turns out, hard. Hard, if you get your bike wedged upside down on a downed tree within the first 15 meters of ascent. Hard, if you’re trying to pry your 45-pound bike from upside down to right-side up on a 50-percent grade. Hard, if you’re precariously balanced on a trail the width of your pinky and a steep drop to your left down to the river.

I think about taking a photo, then remember an article I just read about how many people have lost their lives taking selfies on precarious ledges. Don’t be a statistic, Hayes. Just don’t do it. I tug at my handlebars, breathless, then the seat.

Finally, after a handful of minutes that feel like an hour, I somehow wrestle my bike to upright. I’m breathing harder than I have since the race started yesterday, but I’m relieved to still have a bike with me. The rest of the climb is steep but straightforward hike-a-bike. I’m relieved when I reach the rocky track that announces the beginning of Galton Pass, my last ascent before the US border.

Galton Pass is tough – lots of steep pitches and physical riding. In the saddle and out. It’s getting warm and I think about eating a sandwich in the shade. Then I remember I don’t have a sandwich, just Twinkies, and that I’ve just wasted time getting up the Wall, which are minutes I have effectively taken away from myself in sleep tonight. I also realize that nearly another day has gone by and I haven’t taken a photo.

The negative voices trickle in steadily. They subside a bit as I bomb down Galton Pass and hit the pavement. The border appears quickly, and I chat with the guard for a while about the race. He wishes me luck and waves me through. Twelve miles to resupply in Eureka, Montana.

I hold a dirty little secret from my fellow TD compadres: I love to ride on pavement. Among many of the racers, there’s a collective disdain for the trappings of civilization, with paved roads symbolic of that. For the most part, the route’s concessions to society are purely utilitarian – just points for resupply before heading back into the wilderness.

I get it. The wildness of this route is incredible. Still, the sealed road is a bit of luxury I embrace. I love how the tires roll smoothly. I love how the miles go by. I love letting my mind wander and watching the countryside drift on either side. I appreciate not having to concentrate on what I’m doing to keep from falling over.

I smile the entire ten miles from the border to Eureka. I wave at the few cars that go by and wonder if there will be a Slurpee machine in Eureka. It’s warm now, and I’m looking forward to a bit of blissful air conditioning.

If I’m a diva for it, then sue me.

I lean my bike outside of the Subway in Eureka. I order two 12-inch subs and eat one in a yellow booth with my helmet still on. I fill and refill my large cup from the soda machine. I won’t hit another resupply until after Whitefish tomorrow, so I need food for the next few hours of riding, before going to sleep (wherever that may be), breakfast when I wake up, and riding fuel for the morning.

As I pack my bags, a family gathers outside looking at my bike. The woman asks me what I am doing, and when I tell her she calls her son to come out of the convenience store. He’s 19. His eyes get bigger and bigger, and he asks me questions – about packing, training, food, sleep.

This is right up your alley, his mom says. You should totally do it.

You totally should, I say enthusiastically. There’s only a hint of doubt in my voice, and I hope neither of them hear it.

As I ride out of the parking lot, I notice several riders checking into the motel. On a normal bike tour, I think, this is the early-evening time that you would arrive in town, happy and thankful for a solid day of riding in a new place with beautiful views. You’d be hungry for a burger and a beer. You’d check into a room and crank the air conditioning. You’d scroll through photos on your phone, re-living the tough and beautiful sections. You’d lay down on a pillow and…

I cut that inner monologue short. This is racing, not touring, and that’s just an unhelpful line of thinking at this point.

It’s after 6pm, and it’s starting to get cooler as I ride out of Eureka. The road continues south on pavement for a good portion of the way up the next pass, Whitefish Divide. There are small waterfalls and streams gushing out of embankments, and I can see peaks with snow in the distance.

My mood lifts, and I’m thankful for the day, the effort and the beauty of the two countries I’ve been in today. I crest Whitefish Divide on a dirt road while there’s still plenty of light in the sky. Dusk begins to throw shadows as I head down the hill and start to think about a sleep spot.

Only about six miles down the rocky descent, Tuchuck Campground appears on the right. It’s not dark yet, but with close to 15 hours of riding in hand today, it seems a reasonable place to stop. There’s no one at the campsite, and there’s a beautiful stretch of grass next to the river.

Perfect. I set up my sleeping bag and bivvy quickly. Equally quickly, a swarm of mosquitoes forms a body halo around me.

Damn it. I scoop up everything and wander back towards the road.

I head towards a forest service pit toilet in the middle of the campground. Upon further inspection, it is clean, warm and well lit – perfect for a night’s sleep. I laugh at how giddy I feel to have discovered such luxurious accommodations. I can even air my shorts out while I sleep. It’s getting chilly and I spread all my gear and food out inside.

About 30 minutes later, I hear the sound of another bike wheel spinning into the campground, then a knock on the door. “Is anyone in here?’

“Yes, I’m here,” I answer.

“Is that Alexandera?” the rider asks.

“No, it’s Janie.”

“Ah, hello. Okay, let me look around for another Montana Hilton,” he says, then a few minutes later, “I found another one. Fantastic.”

I turn the light out and fall asleep laughing. We’re all in the same boat – or pit toilet, as it may be – out here on the Tour Divide.

Tour Divide Day 1: Embrace the Cuckoo

Banff to Fernie, 155 miles

Recap post here.

Because the race doesn’t start until 8, Brandi, Jimmy and I have time to eat breakfast at a coffee shop before we roll to the start line. Once we are full and caffeinated, we roll from town towards the YWCA in the still-early-morning light. We merge into a huge crowd of riders across the bridge.

Everyone is gathered in the parking lot of the YWCA. Such a huge crowd of people. I know the numbers – 150+ starters – but seeing the mass of riders and bikes is overwhelming. Loaded bikes strewn everywhere, across the pavement and the lawn. The nervousness is palpable.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Photo Cindy Hayes

Crazy Larry is already into his performance, warming up the crowd. My sister Cindy is there along with a crowd of other family and friends of many of the racers. We all pose for a photo, smiling and unsure where to look with the dozens of cameras. I see Lael and give her a hug. She looks calm, excited.

I feel nervous. I say to Jimmy and Brandi let’s ride to the trail start and wait for the big group there. The entrance to the Goat Trail is the legit starting point for the race, and I’m nervous about 150 excited riders funneling onto the narrow dirt track. They agree, we hug Cindy goodbye and we ride over.

A few minutes after we arrive, the group comes hurtling through the parking lot. I watch the sprinters pass, and there are a lot of them, then wait for a reasonable gap and slot in. Suddenly there’s the sound of hundreds of bike tires rolling on dirt. Snap, crackle, pop, good morning.

And just like that, “We’re racing the Tour Divide!” This thought is palpable. Everything feels fresh and clean, easy. I know it’s only fleeting, but I’m going to enjoy it.

I find myself by Lael for a minute. She is riding fast – certainly faster than me – and I watch her ride away. I know she wants this record, maybe the win, and I want it for her. Within only a few minutes, I notice that there are more women than I have ever seen in an ultra bikepacking race: Zoe, Hannah, Alexandera. Everyone says hello. We’re all fresh and happy to finally be racing.

My day one goal is to get to Fernie, 155 miles down the trail. There’s some tough riding ahead, and only one resupply point, so I’ve chosen to carry all the food I’ll need for the day. I have about 6,000 calories on my bike and I start eating right away. I’m pretty determined to take care of myself today. You’re eating for tomorrow, I tell myself.

Photo Brandi Blade

The day’s route is one of the most varied of any. We ride through meadows and past lakes and on bridges of over streams, on jeep track and wide gravel road and faint walking trails. Always in the backdrop the giant mountains loom – promising or threatening, depending on how you choose to see them.

To me, on this day, the promise feels like a good one.

We do a long stretch on swoopy singletrack. At first I’m alone, but then a line of guys line up behind me. I offer to let them by so they can go at their own pace. But because I am blasting a James Brown song on my grizzly-prevention loudspeaker and they are singing, they tell me don’t worry.

I am not a good singletrack rider, but the High Rockies trail makes me wish I was. It’s flowy, with lots of whoop-de-doos. I fail at keeping good momentum through corners, which has the effect of slowing us all down. Normally I would stress about this, but I just tell myself don’t worry – get through these sections that aren’t your strength and focus on what’s ahead. I finally do pull over, despite the protests, and let a few go by. Jimmy is there, which I am happy to see.

Around this time, I also find myself riding with Evan. I laugh. It’s a tradition, and a good one. Evan and I met each other in 2016 the very first day of my first Trans Am Bike Race. We made instant friends, chatting and laughing about our jobs and travels and racing. The next year, when we both raced it again, we found ourselves riding together, a mini reunion, on day one.

Evan went on to smash the Trans Am Bike Race record that year, and I know he’ll be gone from my sights soon this year too. Still, it’s nice to have this camaraderie. The friendships in this sport are often instantaneous, and they have a way of sticking. Shared hardships and shared joy make good glue.

At about mile 50, Evan and I hit Elk Pass and ride over together – or kind of. The first pitch is quite steep at the bottom, and we hike our bikes for a bit there. But then as we are back riding again and the grade begins to gradually follow the power line up to the summit, I watch Evan get a little further, then further into the distance.

On the top of the pass, the valley is spread out like a painting below, and I spend a few seconds at the top stunned at how far I can see. There’s a vague realization of how new and expansive everything seems right now, and how that in itself is a novelty. I wonder how things will feel in a few days. As I bomb down the rocky descent, I’m also subtly aware that I’m still cautious while descending as a result of the crash last year that broke my shoulder. I wonder whether my comfort level will change over the coming days.

So much to wonder about. And only one way to find out.

There’s a long fast dirt road stretch where I chat with a few guys – one from Australia, one from New Zealand. At 100 miles in, we make the famous turn onto Koko Claims. There are numerous spots on the Tour Divide that have already taken on legendary status in my mind – either because they are especially hard, or dangerous, or both. Koko Claims is one of them. I have many of these spots marked on my cue sheets, though I almost wish I didn’t, because just knowing they are there creates a deep anxiety of anticipation.

What I will come to realize over the coming days is that most of these obstacles themselves don’t justify the looming anticipation. My fears are really about the unknown, I’ll come to see, not the thing itself. The thing itself is manageable. It’s my mind that can create mountains out of…well, let’s be honest, they’re still mountains.

Koko Claims, however, does live up to the hype. Unfortunately, I have misunderstood the details of the hype.

What I think I know about Koko Claims is that it is a 2-4-hour (depending on which reports you read) continuous, uphill hike-a-bike through essentially one large rock garden. In believing this, I plan to be very smart by bringing a pair of Nike Frees with me to wear for this section to avoid turning an ankle on the hike through boulders.

At the turn onto the Koko Claims road, I immediately reach a hike-a-bike section. Here we are, I think. I get off my bike and spend the time to put on my Nikes and securely fasten my bike shoes to my saddle bag. They’ll be hard to get out later, but I don’t want to lose them either.  However, just after clearing that section, there is a ride-able stretch. I get back on my bike and realize that Nike Frees are terrible choice of footwear to use for this rooted, rocky section. But still, I think I know what Koko Claims is, so I keep them on.

I keep riding. And still riding. This goes on for much longer than I expect. My feet are bouncing off the very small platform created by the SPD pedals, and my bike seat keeps jabbing me in the crotch as I get hustled around. I keep having to put my foot down and adjust my position. Around every corner I think I’ll need to hike, but I keep being able to ride. My feet continue to slip and bounce over the roots and rocks. I’ve never quite looked forward like this to a hike-a-bike before.

This mostly-riding stretch goes on for about 2.5 very tedious miles. We round a bend and – okay! – there it is, the hike-a-bike through the avalanche field. It is indeed incredibly steep. Take a handful of steps up, drag your bike beside you over boulders, wish you had done those gym workouts with a little more gusto, hold your brakes, stop for breath, repeat. This goes on for an hour and a half or so.

Lael pushing up Koko. Photo Dylan Morton – IG @made_of_salt

At the top, I am joined by Zoe and Alexandera. Another thing I didn’t understand about Cuckoo Claims, as it is now known in my mind, is that the initial descent is nearly just as gnarly as the uphill. Zoe and I drag our bikes down the sandy, rocky boulder fields – pumping the brakes, simply trying to keep the bikes and all our luggage from hurtling down the trail away from us. Alexandera rides most of the boulder sections, and we find her filling up water bottles at a stream at the bottom.

At the bottom, the track is faint, and Zoe and I make a wrong turn together. I realize within a half mile or so and call her back. We continue on another long dirt stretch, relieved to have that obstacle behind us.  I wonder whether that was really epic, relatively speaking, or if we will face many more obstacles like that.

Time to get your mind in the right place, girl. Embrace the Cuckoo.

There are still a lot of riders around, which I enjoy. I pass some. Some pass me. Probably most of us are bound for Fernie that night, though some will continue past to get miles into the night. The last pass before Fernie is magical. It’s 10pm and the light is just starting to wane as I go up. It feels like a celebration of summer, a welcome to the first day of the Tour Divide.

I suddenly realize that I haven’t taken a single photo all day. That’s embarrassing. Still, I don’t think I should stop unless I have several things to do. Still, beauty. I stop and snap one measly photo. I turn on my lights for the first time, partly to justify the stop.

I roll into Fernie at 11pm. I don’t feel particularly tired, at least not as tired as close to thirteen hours in the saddle would suggest, but I also don’t feel interested to carry on. I note this feeling. “Only” thirteen hours on the bike a day is not going to cut it if I want to meet my time goal, the sterner part of my brain says.

On the other hand, it was a good day of riding. I check TrackLeaders quickly and see that Evan has arrived an hour or so earlier. Traditional.

The couple who own the motel next to the 24-hour 7-11 are sitting outside at a rickety table, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the cool late-Friday evening. We chat and make the jokes about a ride around town being a long way, how they’re actually the smart ones, about all the dirty, tired riders they’ve already seen, myself included. I wish I could stay and talk longer. I take the key with a keychain from them and head to my room.

Day 1 of the Tour Divide is complete.

A Romance and a Heartbreak on the Tour Divide

Truth number one: The Tour Divide was one of the greatest romances of my life.

So many moments that give me shivers of pleasure: Watching the waning Canadian light at dusk turning a snowy peak from gold to pink and back to gold again. A breeze in the Idaho forest blowing gently across my muddy legs while I lay on my back, watching the clouds move across the sky. Stripping off my sweaty t-shirt and dunking it into a freezing, gushing spring in Montana. Wondering at snowflakes on the summer solstice in Wyoming. Laughing out loud next to a brand-new friend that I feel like I’ve known forever. Understanding the permanence of the Milky Way in a vast Great Basin sky.

Truth number two: The Tour Divide was a bad breakup, one that comes slowly and painfully.

I quit my race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, just a bit over halfway. Injury didn’t force me, and I didn’t have a race-ending mechanical. I wasn’t even sorry to stop. In trying to come to terms with what happened out there I watch a lot of emotions fighting for space: betrayal, confusion, relief, the helplessness of feeling at the mercy of something out of my control. The tug of war in the brain.

The thing I thought I wanted, out of reach and slipping away.

Before

I am a bike racer. While I hope my identity spans beyond being an athlete, it’s also true that since I discovered ultra-bike racing a few years ago, training and racing has become a growing  and ever-more-consuming passion. I’ve spent lots of money, and even more time,  on training, racing, bike parts and gear, planning.

Photo Anthony Dryer

Since 2016 I’ve raced more than 12,000 miles on my bike – road, gravel and mountain. Two Trans Am Bike Race finishes, the BC Epic 1000k and a lot of “shorter” races (usually 12 hours+). I love the preparation process, the planning and anticipation, the camaraderie of pushing myself alongside fellow competitors, the thrill of testing myself to reach a goal.

My favorite races go somewhere. Not in a circle, but on a journey. Bikepack racing always feels like the purest form of freedom. It’s like a fast road trip, a chance to see the world at quicker than a snail’s pace but slow enough to sense my place in the world. Ticking off distance while also living like a vagabond, sleeping in ditches and catching snatches of towns and quick conversations with locals. Solo and simple, just relying on myself. Unencumbered.

Photo Brandi Blade

In 2018, I decided that the Tour Divide was a next logical challenge for me. It seemed like a significant, but reasonable, step up. 2700 miles of rugged, off-road riding from Canada to the Mexican border across the US. Bears, mountains, thunderstorms, dirt. Perfect.

With most of my adult years spent road riding and doing triathlons, mountain biking is relatively new to me. But six years ago, when I moved to Colorado a whole new cycling world opened up. I have spent the last few years learning to ride rough terrain, gaining skills by taking instruction and watching riders much better than me (of which there are many).

Last summer while training for the Leadville 100, I had a downhill crash on the highest, most remote point of the course, going over my handlebars in a rock garden and breaking the top of my shoulder into several pieces. I had surgery and rehabbed the shoulder, and by this winter I was in full-commitment mode.

Because I love racing against the clock, I set a big time goal for the Tour Divide. I targeted Lael Wilcox’s race finish time in 2015, which was 17 days. I knew there would be many strong female riders this year, but I wasn’t competing against others. I wanted to compete against the route, against my own best effort. A 17-day finish means averaging ~160 miles per day, on varied surfaces and lots of elevation gain. In the Trans Am in 2017, I had averaged more than 215 miles per day. That said, the two courses are far from equivalent. I knew riding that many miles on this kind of course was going to be a tough ask, but I also felt ready to set an ambitious target.

For this race, I knew I needed to not only train fitness, but also wilderness prep and mental toughness. Pushed and guided by my excellent coach Greg Grandgeorge, I rode 5,500 miles and 220,000 feet of elevation gain this year before June, the majority of it on my mountain bike. I did some big efforts, including the notorious 340-mile Iowa Wind and Rock gravel race in April, but kept the racing to a minimum. I tested gear and often rode my bike fully loaded. I rode in Utah, Arizona, Colorado on sandy, rocky, mountainous routes. I made new friends. I rode with a lot of joy, even at hours that some weeks neared those of a full-time job.

While there are always improvements to be made in training, I arrived in Banff feeling I had done the best I could with the time that I had. It was a good feeling.

During

On June 14, the race began. The course was stunning at every turn, far beyond my expectations. Rushing water (so much water!), mountain vistas, bears and antelope in the road, no sounds for hours but sounds of my breathing and the the crush of wheels on gravel.

Photo Cindy Hayes

My fellow racers, when I encountered them, were from all over the world, with great perspectives and good stories. The route was rugged, but doable. Many parts were challenging, but none were overwhelming. My body was in good shape, and I felt positive about my fitness.

Photo Kathy in Ovando

But something was very wrong inside my head. Almost from day one, I didn’t want to race. I don’t know how to describe it very well beyond that. My legs were working, but my mind wouldn’t play along. I wasn’t interested in logging the big miles, in maximizing time, in being efficient – all things it takes to achieve the goal I was after.

For several days – through BC, Montana, into Idaho, Wyoming – I didn’t believe what I was feeling, and I continued to collect the miles anyway. I told myself to be more grateful, that I just needed time to get into a rhythm. I would force the sleep out of my eyes and start riding at 4am. I rushed through convenience store stops, politely cut short conversations with locals, kept a keen eye on my elapsed time to my riding time.

Contrary to previous experiences, it was a terrible feeling. I was logging the miles, but I didn’t want to. I rode in a headspace of shock and confusion. I love racing, and I had come there to race. But something in my brain continued to refuse to embrace it.

Eventually, after nine days, I gave in. I stopped and waited in Pinedale for my husband Jimmy, who was racing his own race. We rode together across the Great Basin of Wyoming and into Colorado. We chased a black-sky storm and slept under the stars. We stopped early one day and drank margaritas in the town of Wamsutter, hated by most Tour Divide racers but thoroughly enjoyed by us.

Finally, I was having fun. Still, though, I was mentally exhausted, and Jimmy was still setting a strong pace of 100+ miles per day. When I found myself curled up on the bathroom floor in Steamboat Springs for a night, suffering from food poisoning, it felt like an easy choice to pull the plug, despite knowing that I could have waited, recovered, and gotten back on the trail if I chose. As the wheels literally came off my bike, I felt nothing but relief. Then the follow up: guilt, for feeling glad.

After

In retrospect, and writing this, it seems a mental lapse to not have been either able to suck it up one way or the other: either to control my fickle mind well enough to focus on the initial goal, or to more quickly adapt and adjust to the signals my brain was sending me to do something different, like simply enjoy myself.

Rather, I stayed in a strange purgatory space of emotional doughboy for a while. We spend so much time and effort practicing mental toughness, forcing the brain to think positively, to not identify with hard times or with weakness. This too shall pass. Finish what you start. Push through to the end. Grit, resilience. These are our highest values.

Photo Jackson Lester

Until they’re not. Now having quit the race and being a week removed, the whole thing remains confusing and a little sad. It’s hard to explain what happened without sounding like I think I was a victim to something out of my control. Or to sound ungrateful and like a maniacal overthinker; after all, in the end we’re simply out there to have a good time and ride our bikes across this beautiful country.

But this is my journey and this is my adult lesson: Contradictory (even opposite) things are often true at once. And feeling betrayed by our own minds probably always means an opportunity to take a lesson, to reflect on what we think we want, and what we believe it takes to get there. At the heart of it I believe I was gifted an opportunity – albeit a confusing, painful one – to reflect on something more complicated than racing, maybe something at odds with getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible.

I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think in time it will become clear.

My husband, Jimmy (who is completing his awesome race as I am writing this), said to me when we met up during the race, “I have to admit that I have kind of wanted you to have an epiphany. I just wanted it to happen after the race.”

But I guess that’s what an epiphany is. A moment of truth that occurs where we least expect it. The only question is whether we stop to pay attention. And what a blessing to be able to learn these lessons on the road – harsh, beautiful, rutted, and full of wrong turns as they are.

Following this post I plan to reflect on each of my 15 days on the Tour Divide. I hope that sharing these hold lessons for someone. If nothing else, look at the photos. The route is magical, and every day was an adventure.

Maybe at the end of the day, just a good, old-fashioned love story.

Photo Jackson Lester

2018 National 12-Hour Road Race Championship: Seeing It Through

After a 15 years of bike time trialing during triathlons, and the past two years dedicated to bike time trialing without the hassle of a swim or a run – including two Trans Am Bike Races – I was ready in 2018 to expand my bike racing repertoire. I already knew I loved gravel road riding, and was coming around to mountain biking, so I wanted to prioritize dirt-riding formats in my training and racing.

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Dirt makes me happy.

But when I went temporarily blind at the Pace Bend 24-hour road race and had to drop out after 14 hours, I sensed that I still had a few hours in the ultra road racing bank that I wanted to spend. So I decided to cram in the Maryland Endurance Challenge, which was held on May 20, two weeks prior to the Dirty Kanza 200. The Maryland Endurance race was serving as the National 12-hour road race championships for 2018, so I knew the competition would be strong. I also knew from riding in the area when I lived in DC that it would be a beautiful – and undoubtedly challenging – course. After talking with my coach Greg, we decided I could recover adequately from this race and still go into DK, which had been designated a major priority, still feeling strong.

One drawback of the race, in my mind, was that it was draft legal. Draft legal means that during the race you are permitted to ride closely behind other riders to get a speed advantage, a tactic that is common in road-bike racing but not so common in ultra racing. In fact, in most ultra racing and long-distance triathlon, drafting is expressly prohibited. As much as it provides a speed benefit, drafting often requires higher intensity efforts than non-drafting races because of the surging that happens as riders rest and recover, then pull ahead to the front of the group. It creates much more of a scenario for group tactics, and favors those who can put out big power surges (at least in the first few hours of a race when legs are fresh).

This kind of racing is neither my strength nor my happy place, but I had committed to practicing in training and racing this year. Plus, even though the race was draft legal, I knew that group riding was unlikely to happen for 12 hours, so I’d spend plenty of time alone in that place I prefer – alone on the aerobars with just my own breathing and thoughts (and burning legs) to keep me company.

As I suspected, the course was both beautiful and challenging. It consisted of 3 x 34-mile loops past Maryland farmland, through small towns with clapboard buildings and under covered bridges in the foothills of the Catoctin Mountains. There was about 1,100 feet of elevation per loop, gained through no sustained climbs but plenty of punchy hills (also not my favorite, but another area in which I am trying to improve). After that first 100+ miles, we were put on a 6.5-mile loop for the remainder of the race. Still rolling and never flat, with a couple of good climbs on the backside.

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Covered bridges on the course

Jimmy and I flew out to DC a couple of days beforehand and got to visit with my brother and sister-in-law, as well as catch up with friends. I had envisioned a relaxing pre-race week, but as it happened a myriad of bike travel malfunctions befell. A proprietary bolt from my aerobars went missing during transit, so one thunderstorming afternoon found me rushing around Virginia, wet and bedraggled and desperate – to various Home Depot hardware aisles and bike shops, trying to find a replacement. The day before the race my rear derailleur seized up climbing a hill, forcing an unplanned long trip to a bike shop in a neighboring town.

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Visiting with these friends, and their newest addition, in between bike mishaps.

The morning of the race I woke up feeling pretty awful. Physically okay, but mentally unmotivated and uninspired. This was unusual. Race morning usually brings me a bit of trepidation, but usually with a nice counterbalance of anticipation and adrenaline. This day, the excitement and nerves had not gotten the memo. It was muggy and warm outside, compounding my bitter feelings. I resolved to put it aside. Jimmy and I ate a southern Virginia diner breakfast, complete with bad coffee and vinyl seats held together by duct tape. Photos of Donald Trump lined the walls, and plastic flowers on the tables. The waitress moved slowly, with a limp, but was friendly and called me darling.

Arriving at the start, the checklist of things to do provided a relief from the nagging feeling of dread, if stressful in its own way. No matter how much you’ve prepared for it, on race morning the sum all of the details – bike parts, nutrition, clothing, electronics – feels like one giant Jenga tower held together with scotch tape. Immediately, and predictably, my front derailleur began making some strange sort of clicking noise. The mechanic made small adjustments, but the clicking remained.

Nothing to do but shrug, as it was time to go. Someone said go and we rolled out across the start line. The pace was fast from the first half mile, as I knew it would be. Luckily, I was watching and ready. I jumped onto the wheel of Ken Ray, who I knew from the Trans Am in 2017 (Ken, as a rookie, crushed his way to a top 10, sub-20-day finish). After a handful of miles, looking back I realized that I was with a group of about 8-10 guys, and I couldn’t see any other groups on the road.IMG_0615

As the group whittled down to about six over the first 20 miles or so, I continued taking pulls at the front when it was my turn and trying to stay in contact on the short, steeper hills. I heard in a geeky bike podcast somewhere that a good tactic for less proficient climbers in groups is to edge up towards the front of the group as the climb begins, and then allow yourself to drift back as it progresses – basically with the hopes of remaining barely in touch by the time the top of the hill comes. I am not a bad climber – but compared to this group of guys I was probably one of the least capable of surging – so I tried this method and, for a while, it seemed to work.

Less than an hour into the race, I realized that I was already overheating – probably as a result of working at an effort a bit too hard for 50 minutes into a twelve-hour race. Paceline riding always requires a lot of concentration, and doling out mental energy can be as critical as physical pacing in a race this long. Not sure whether I was making the right decision, but not wanting to risk too much, I chose to drop off the back of the group as they surged up a small hill. Watching them ride away and eventually disappear, I sighed as I questioned that irreversible decision. Oh well. Nothing to do but put my head down and find my own rhythm.

A few miles later, I caught Marc Poland, who had also been with the group, and we began to ride together. Riding with one person seemed ideal, as it was easier to collaborate and nice to have someone to chat with. Unfortunately, not three more miles down the road, I crossed a dilapidated train track at a wrong angle and heard my front tire blow. Marc checked to make sure I had what I needed, then continued on. Oh well again. If I wanted to ride alone, it looked like I was going to get the opportunity.

I changed the flat and finished the first loop. No other riders had passed me while I was fixing the flat, but I didn’t have any idea how far back they were. The next two loops continued on without incident. Still, by the time I finished the third loop and ~112 miles, I was tired already. The race clock was only just past 5 hours, and as I headed out on the first of the short loops, I said sarcastically and out loud, “Well, that’s just great. Only 7 hours to go.”Nat_Champ_2018

There’s always some crucial point during a long time-trial where my mind and emotions edge close to a breaking point. The whole thing is a mental game, of course, but usually there is a moment, oftentimes unexpected, where the whole task just feels completely overwhelming and inconceivable, and my mental and emotional resolve simply threatens to break.

Today it was only five hours into the race: not ideal. No matter. I let all the negative thoughts – ALL of them – run through my brain for a moment: heat, hills, can’t hang with the group, it hurts already, mechanicals, no one else cares if you finish, you should have taken up sewing, they didn’t want you on the cheerleading squad in ninth grade anyway. And then I just decided. I decided that I needed to make this day, this course, this race work for me. Not anyone else, just me.

I slowed a bit – but not a lot – drank a coke, put on my music, and focused on the road ahead.

I rode for a long time this way – and as I did, I got happier and happier. The miles, and the hours, counted down. Every time I finished a loop, I was ever more certain that I was not going to quit. More racers were on the course, which provided helpful distractions. I was able to chat a bit and cheer on other riders, which always selfishly makes me feel better. My friend Angela and her husband Eric came out to support me. Ken’s girlfriend Ellen was always there with a smile and cheer. I saw my friends John, Catherine and Joe, who were riding together as a time trial. The six-hour race got underway, and Jimmy had jumped in for fun on his gravel bike. Just about the time I saw him on the small loop, Ken Ray lapped me, and we rode together for about a lap and a half. We talked about the Trans Am, and joked around, and traded a few pulls. It was nice, even if I had to drop off his pace eventually. At the end of one of the loops about nine or ten hours in, James McNaughton – who would win the race in dominating fashion – blew by me. I had nothing to lose, so I stood up, jumped on his back wheel and we hammered for a couple of miles into the pit area.

My brother Danny had showed up to ride the three-hour race, which started at 3pm. At about 11:30 on my race clock, I was riding through the pit area and saw him a few hundred meters in front of me. I worked hard to catch him, and when I did he told me he was trying to catch a racer in front of him for second place. It was a good excuse to make one last effort, so I told him to get on my wheel and I focused on catching the rider in green.         IMG_0616

There’s little fanfare at the end of an ultra race. You just cross the finish line and declare yourself done. I was so happy to have finished that race. I was proud to win the women’s race, and especially the national championship title. But what really made me prouder – and a little wiser, too – was that I had seen the entire process of the day through. It was a day that had started hard, and gotten harder, but become a little more like magic as the hours went by. I was reminded that feelings are temporary, they don’t have to rule my outcomes, and that sometimes all I need is to slow down and do what comes naturally, and things just fall into place.

Final totals (full results)

Mileage: 240.9 (drafting miles ~30)

Time: 11:53

MPH: 20.3

Cumulative elevation gain: 9,300 feet

Average heart rate: 139bpm

Power: Unknown (power meter kaput)

Cokes: 6

5-hour energy: 1

Best song: Ke$ha, Blah blah blah

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Former Trans Am Bike Racers represented well.

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2018 ‘Til Now: A Bike Riding Update

Racing the Trans Am Bike Race two years in a row was tiring.

Delicious, indeed. (So many Twinkies.) But very very tiring.

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After spending June of 2016 and 2017 racing across the country, then the rest of both summers more or less sprawled out on my back deck trying to recover, I decided that this year I would do things a little differently.SAMSUNG CSC

I started late last year thinking about how I could build on the fitness and learnings of the last few years, but also stretch myself in new ways – mentally, physically, emotionally. For me, cycling is the best method I have for continuing to evolve and test myself in a way that combines the body, heart and mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every single workout, every ride that I do I learn something new, about myself or the world around me. Having that daily practice feels necessary and rewarding for me.

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In addition to that critical daily process, it’s good to have markers – like races – along the way that help you know in what ways you actually are evolving and growing, and equally where you are weak. As I thought about this year, I kept coming back to racing off-road, and shorter distances (of course, “shorter” to me still means 50+ miles). At the same time, I didn’t want to let go of the long racing entirely; that is what brings me the most joy and where I feel most in my element.

In the end, I set up a 2018 race schedule that I thought would give me the variety, and challenge, I was searching for (because if one race makes you really tired, why not do ten?):

Pace Bend Ultra 24-hour

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First up was my first go at a 24-hour race in Texas on February 2. This race was held on a hilly 6.2-mile circuit and started at 6pm. Things went really well for a while (14 hours and 6 minutes, to be exact), but about 6am I began contracting a mysterious corneal edema that by 8am left me with no vision in my left eye and only a pinhole of sight in my right. Sadly, I had to pull the plug just as the sun was coming up, after 14 hours and about 260 miles. It was disappointing for sure, but I learned a lot of good lessons for what I hope is another attempt at that distance someday.

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Photo: Robert Jan Martinez

Bikepacking Colombia

Two days after that failed attempt, Jimmy and I traveled to Colombia, where we had an absolutely amazing three-week bikepacking trip through the mountains of Boyaca state.

Pre Colombia

Our friends Sandy, Jill and Catherine joined us for the second half of the trip, which upped the fun factor further. Colombia3

Turns out that Colombia is a bikepackers’ paradise, full of beautiful colonial villages, jaw-dropping scenery, and pastry-filled panaderias. Contrary to popular belief, the coffee in Colombia is generally terrible. That said, this country is highly recommended for anyone interested in cycle touring or bikepacking.

We met a 75-year-old couple who had done 12 bike tours in Colombia already – and every one in a different area!

Colombia

Sometimes the riding is really hard, too.

When I got back from this magical vacation, I was stoked to get back to some harder riding and more structured training. My coach, Greg Grandgeorge, was more than willing to indulge me. Since March he has challenged me with more Vo2 max and ‘sweet-spot’ type workouts (for non-cyclists: this is just code for “really hard”) – alongside the regular, consistent endurance riding that is required for long-distance racing.

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Austin Rattler 100k Mountain Bike

My first mountain bike race was a muddy, humbling learning experience. I initially signed up for this race because it is a Leadville 100 qualifier – and also an opportunity for those who are already entered in Leadville to advance their start corral placing for that race in August. Normally I wouldn’t be bothered about a start-line position, but I am hoping to try to chase the Big Belt Buckle at Leadville, which requires a finish under 9 hours. In most years, only about 10 women clock a time this fast, so it is an extremely ambitious goal for me. With Leadville being such a huge race now, the further back you start, the more riders you have to navigate with and around on the early parts of the course. I am pretty sure that I am going to need all the help I can get for a shot at that sub-9 – so Austin was a potential chance to move up in the race, before it even starts!

Austin Rattler

Only problem? I’m a pretty terrible mountain biker. Added to that, I had just gotten my new mountain bike the week before (thanks Lora Glasel at Recyclist Bike Company for making this happen, and the Lester family for in-person delivery from Wisconsin).

But. Not to worry! This was a course deemed “a mountain bike race for road cyclists,” with about 50% singletrack and 50% double track or dirt roads. I’m good with the double track and dirt roads, so I figured I would be at least 50% fine.

Weather had other thoughts on this one. Austin got about 6 inches of rain the week before the race, turning the double track and dirt roads into mud bogs. This turned into a clinic in mud-riding, and a chance to get a crash course (quite literally – I think I took four crashes during this race) in trying to ride singletrack fast. I did end up getting advanced by a couple of corrals for Leadville, and my friend Jill and I had some good laughs about the race in the end, but certainly can’t put it in the category of stellar performances. In the end, we can add that one to the “learning experience” category.

Austin Rattler

Encierro Gravel 100k

My first gravel race was the Encierro Gravel 100k just north and east of Colorado Springs. There were about 150 starters, and I was ready for it – or so I thought. Gravel racing, at least at the start, is much more like road racing in a peloton – and in Colorado, most gravel racers are also road racers. This style of racing, which entails holding onto a group of other racers with sometimes-ferocious surges up steep hills early on in the race, is pretty antithetical to my natural bent as a time-trial rider – which is to say starting out rather lacksidaisical and eating Ding-Dongs, and then try to hold on longer than everybody else.

It’s also to say that it hurts, it really hurts – and in a way that I don’t (yet) particularly enjoy. Still, this is what I have committed to for now, and I do think that building this skill is something that is benefiting me mentally and physically. In any case, I didn’t do a particularly good job of holding on and gaining this advantage during this race. In fact, I got dropped within the first 20 minutes, couldn’t find anyone else going my speed, and rode the remainder of the race on my own. Instead of finding a positive mantra I could use to encourage myself, I spent most of the race with a mental feedback loop of “This is my idea of hell. This is my idea of hell.” on repeat. Try as I might, and despite knowing that things could turn around, I could not get my brain into a positive headspace for the remainder of that race.

Jimmy, on the other hand, rode a great race – riding with a fast group for the entirety of the race, and finishing about 13 minutes in front of me. I crossed the line as second female overall, which was a good outcome. Still, I was irritated with myself after seeing how much I had to learn, and how I had let myself sink and stay mired into an unhelpful, unfun, negative brain space.   Encierro

Another “learning experience.” Learning schmearning. 2018 has seemed to have these in spades.

Anti-Epic Short Course (71 miles) Gravel Race

The next weekend was the Anti-Epic Gravel Race put on by the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club, which started in Monument – same area as the race the week before, with short punchy climbs that are far outside my happy place. Instructed by Greg to “take some risks,” I decided to go back with the attitude of working as hard as I needed to at the beginning, then letting the chips fall as they might.

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Photo: Mark Lowe

But when Mark Lowe said “go” and we headed out onto the course, nothing happened. Everyone was just tooling along. After a week of trying to positively visualize going out hard, I was completely confused about what to do. So I just decided to ride hard at the front, which did do the trick of picking up the pace. Within the first ten miles or so, we had a group of about 15-17. The pace stayed high, other guys went to the front and started pulling, and the group got down to about 10. I fell off the back on some of the punchier climbs – I am not that powerful of a rider and have a hard time hanging on with those who can hammer uphill better. Still, I would manage to work back to the group on the flatter or more gradual uphill sections.

About mile 30, I ended up pretty far off the back during a climb that had a gradual pitch, then went up steeply at the end. At that point, I watched the group get further away, and realized I might just be riding my own ride after that.

Instead of chanting demoralizing slogans to myself, though, I was able to do the opposite. I continued to push the climbs, recover, then push again. I was working hard, but happy. When I passed two of the guys from the front pack on the longest climb of the race, one of them called after me, “Who ARE you? Are you related to Rebecca Rusch?” I was currently in the middle of reading Rebecca Rusch’s book, Rush To Victory, and was pretty impressed by the trajectory of her life and athletic career. So this was one of the most encouraging random compliments (if completely overstated) that I could have received during a race. (I found out after the race that this guy was the one who was yelling at me, so that was pretty cool too.)

Shortly after, I spotted a group of three just about a minute ahead. They were the second group on the course, now, and I knew that I was riding well and had regained time. We were in the last 20 miles by this point, and I was riding as hard as I felt was sustainable. Timing their group of three intermittently as a carrot for myself, I continued to dangle about 1:15 behind them, and the time gap was not changing much. On the other hand, I knew that they were working together – rotating pulls and pace-setting for each other – while I was riding solo at the same speed. So maybe I was actually feeling stronger?

In this kind of situation in a race, I find that it’s very easy for me to just be content with where I am. Especially if I feel that I have ridden a solid race, the logical extension of the positive self-talk sometimes evolves into a cop out: You’ve done a strong race, and you have nothing to prove; therefore, just be content to stay in your lane, finish where you are. This is just how my brain works, and it’s probably lost me a few races in my life. But the effort (and sometimes pain) required to try to work even harder, especially at that point, often feels like it would take a level of energy I am unable to summon at that time. And maybe there’s a part of me that’s afraid to ruin the mojo – if I try, and fail, will I lose that sense of accomplishment?

But this attitude also doesn’t do justice to all the long days of training. It doesn’t honor all the work that goes into the process, and it doesn’t push me to face my fears.

So, this time I took a different tack. I was able to recognize that pattern of thinking, and decided to just work with my brain, instead of explode it. I told myself I didn’t have to do everything all at once, just try “a little harder” than I already was on each climb. On the second to last climb, I noticed the gap was now under 1 minute. And as we took the screaming downhill to approach the final long ascent, I knew it was my last chance.

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Photo: Mark Lowe

On the lower slope, one of the guys came unhitched from the back of the group, and I decided to go for it. With more effort, I was clearly advancing as the climb got harder. I was also dying inside, but as I passed one guy and then a second, I still tried to say hello (“Hi, guys! How’s it going?”) in a way that made it seem like I was hardly trying. I finally caught the other guy at the top of the last climb, and that was lucky because I was in a world of hurt by then. Adam and I rode downhill to the finish and crossed the line together, tying for third place (two guys had tied for an equal first just in front of us).

Here’s race organizer Mark Lowe’s race recap and some nice photos.

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Next up: My race report on this past weekend’s National Championship 12 Hour Road Race at the Maryland Endurance Challenge.

 

 

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 19 + 7 hours and 41 minutes: The End

I slept in all my clothes in the motel Charlottesville, which meant I had nothing to do when I rolled out of bed other than get on my bike. I rode out of town in the early morning dark, something I had done nearly every day for the past almost three weeks.

Rolling through the darkness, my light illuminating the lines on the road in front of me and shadows flickering in and out of that orb, felt familiar, yet different. It was the last day. My emotions felt heavy with the significance of the end. I had kept my mind from thinking about the finish for so long – and now suddenly, here it was almost in front of me.

With the end in sight, there was so much to reflect on: all that had happened (both planned and unplanned) and how far I had come (both physically and mentally). It was easy to rehearse the events themselves, and see how one thing had led to another. What was less easy was to see the impact those events had on me. My top goal from the outset had been to learn something new about myself. And while it seemed almost ridiculous that goal wouldn’t have been met with all that had transpired, it was – and still is – difficult to articulate exactly what it all meant.

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Photo: Nathan Jones/Anthony Dryer

Who was I at the beginning? And how will I be different at the finish? I guess these are the existential questions that surround any life-changing adventure, and maybe clear answers don’t exist in words. The sun finally came up and I stopped at a convenience store and ate breakfast sandwiches in the parking lot near Lake Ana. My legs felt great, and I rode hard all the way to Ashland, where I stopped at the truck stop and a lady wanted to ask me “Where did you get such a great tan?” Like always, my response: Trust me, there are easier ways.

Evan and Donncha texted and said they were on the beach in Yorktown drinking beer. Jimmy was on his way from DC with my brother Danny and friend Catherine. Jon had finished the previous night, and all of this made me feel like I was missing a party that I really needed to be at.

There’s still 100 miles from Ashland to Yorktown, and it’s mostly flat and boring. I had done all of my contemplation and existential pondering by that point and, in the heat of the afternoon, I just wanted to get off of my bike already. I had been riding fast all day (quite a pedestrian pace, truly, but “fast” is a relative term on the 20th day of the Trans Am Bike Race). Getting to Jamestown, though, I was hungry and stopped into a small restaurant and bar.

This was maybe only the second restaurant (not counting Subway and McDonalds) I had been to in nearly 20 days on the road. I sat at the bar and ordered French fries and a giant piece of coconut cake. I thought about ordering a beer, then decided not to, and wondered hopefully whether someone would have one for me at the finish.    25346548_10155922454708670_1312560854_o

If you’re riding west to east, the grand-sounding Colonial Parkway hosts the last 20 miles of the route. If you’re unprepared, the bumpy, speed-sucking road surface can be an unexpected soul-crusher. When I read about this stretch of road after it shell-shocked me last year, I learned it was built as a “limited access highway with broad sweeping curves, set in a meticulously landscaped right-of-way devoid of commercial development,” which was “derived from 19th century romantic landscape theories.” Apparently, the theory of a romantic landscape was large pebbles in a bumpy surface that can smash a cyclist’s hands and other body parts to smithereens.

On the other hand, you also feel like you can do anything in the last 20 miles of the frickin’ Trans Am Bike Race. Halfway down the parkway and standing by his car, was my coach Greg Grandgeorge – once again making a heroic and unexpected appearance. Jimmy called when I was ten miles away to say there were people with coolers and lawn chairs waiting for me at the monument, which struck me as really funny that after all this time alone in the middle of nowhere, the finish might be a spectator sport.

I wasn’t sure what would happen to me at the finish, but I was pretty sure I was going to break down into tears. In fact, exiting the parkway and onto the boardwalk area I started to well up. Just as that happened, though, a movement to my right caught my eye. Three Segways pulled into the street next to me. It took me a moment to process the riders: Evan, Donncha (who had cut his race short in Kentucky and flown to the finish), along with a guide. (Apparently no one was trusting those two on Segways without supervision.) Having been on the edge of a full release of tears the moment before, I suddenly couldn’t stop laughing.

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Segway escort to the finish. Photo: One of the amazing Lesters

There is a short steep hill up to the finish at the monument, and I had to race to keep Donncha and Evan from beating me up it. No way I was letting a pair of Segways nip me at the end! I made the turn, and there was my brother Danny, Catherine, Jimmy, Jon and the entire Lester clan, Greg, my brother in law Eddie and his wife Liza, my sister in law Anne – and indeed, some well wishers with coolers and lawn chairs.

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The finish at the monument felt both colossal and, at the same time, just like the end to a really long bike ride. I had a beer in one hand and some bubbly champagne drink in the other. There were stories, and laughter, and dog bite photos. Surrounded by friends and fellow racers, all of those dark moments that had taken me so deep and low over the last 19 days – the lonely stretches at night, the exhaustion and helplessness, the feelings of despair and fear, the dog bite – were simply funny stories in the light of day, anecdotes that would be stitched together in a story of one person’s bike ride across the country. A tribute to Eric had been set up on the steps, with a photo and candles. Having his presence there felt important, a reminder of the gravity of the decisions we make about how best to live our lives.

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The memorial to Eric, and a gift from the Lesters that now sits in my bedroom.

There’s no prize at the end of the Trans Am Bike Race. No podium, no t-shirt. Even me saying that I was third place and the first female is really just sort of making things up that don’t exist. The Trans Am Bike Race is unsupported and individual. It is a personal experience in freedom, and in learning – about yourself, and about the world. And if that counts just as much to you as any prize, the Trans Am might be for you.

It’s also a little bit about bike riding. And while for me the racing was secondary to the overall experience, I was proud to have demonstrated that I could work hard, ride smart, and compete with riders that I admire. Pushing ourselves beyond our preconceived limits of what we can do is how we honor the short lives we have been given, and one way of doing that is to test ourselves against others who can set a higher bar than we would otherwise set for ourselves. In the Trans Am Bike Race, this means going faster, harder, smarter (and sometimes being a little bit luckier). But each of us has our own way of pushing the limits of who we are, of learning something new about ourselves, and in the end becoming someone different at the finish than we were at the start. Cyclist or not, each one of us has our own Trans Am Bike Race.

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And while I have gone on about what an individual experience the whole thing was, standing there in that small crowd of people at the finish, the ironic reality hit me that I owed much of my personal experience to other people who had supported me, encouraged me, and guided me along the way. My story would have been much, much different, and certainly less rich, without all of them.

I know this isn’t the Oscars, but it is my blog. And since I have already gone and made quite the Ken Burns-ish autobiopic out of this, I hope you’ll indulge me with this list of thank-you’s to:

  • My husband Jimmy, for being unwavering in his support of my individuality and need for adventure and freedom. Thank you for answering the phone every time, even when you knew what you would hear on the other side. ❤
  • My family, for creating an environment where it is okay to dream big, think hard, laugh a lot, fall down and get up and try all over again.
  • My friends, whether cyclists or not, for believing in me and for being heartbroken that they weren’t allowed to do anything to help me. Special shout out to Jill M. for coining some of the best advice for the race (and life) during a particularly down time in the state of Illinois: “Janie, just move the fuck forward.”
  • My coach, Greg Grandgeorge, who has made me better at being an athlete, a critical thinker, and also someone who thinks of themselves as a science experiment. Cheers to science and data, especially when it’s all in the service of good fun.
  • My fellow competitors, especially those who have become my friends. Thank you for making me work harder and ride faster.
  • Race director Nathan Jones, for coming up with such a zany idea, and then making it happen.
  • Absolute Bikes in Salida, especially Shawn Gillis and Scot Banks, who spent so much time on my bikes and making sure everything was just right. I know it’s weird what I like to do; thanks for not always saying it to my face.
  • Coeur Sports – maker of amazing women’s cycling and triathlon clothes. I’ve never had any sponsors, and I’ve never wanted any. But if I changed my mind, I’d be knocking on their door for sure.
  • All the strangers, supporters and dot-watchers along the way who took the time to share a hug, a high five or a word of encouragement (especially about my tan).

Thanks to everyone for reading. Even though there aren’t any prizes in the Trans Am Bike Race, if you read this far you deserve one.

Stats

Race miles: ~4,200

Finish time: 19 days, 7 hours, 41 minutes

Average miles per day:  ~218

Race result: Third place (first female) – #fakenews, but also true
Full results here

Number of racers at monument on June 22 bit by the same pit bull: 3

Screenshot 2017-12-10 15.54.29

 

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 19: Planning the Final Chapter

I got out of the Christiansburg motel around 4am. There were still just under 400 miles left to ride. Virginia is a pretty long state and there were a couple of mountain ranges to get up and over before heading down to the flat coastal communities east of Richmond and then to the nondescript, yet absolutely monumental, Yorktown itself.

In 2016, I had also left Christiansburg early in the morning, and ridden those last 400 miles pretty much straight, with just a couple of quick naps in unsuitable locations on the side of the road. By the last 100 miles, I was absolutely toast, in tears, and hardly able to move the pedals.

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Sunrise in the Catawba Valley

This year I wanted to finish differently. I don’t know why, but I felt that finishing this race mentally and emotionally strong (physically was not really an option) was critical for me to feel that my race had been successful. A lifetime of experiences had happened in the previous 19 days, so many of which felt completely out of my control. I wanted to be able to write the last chapter of the book.

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Day 19, near Buchanan, VA Photo: Lois Bisese

Up until that morning, I had kept my brain on a pretty tight leash, not allowing it to contemplate the finish. But in the early morning dark entering the up and downs of the Catawba Valley, it seemed like now was the time to make a finishing plan. Math was hard to do at that point, but I was pretty sure that the dog bite fiasco had sabotaged any hope of a finish under 19 days. That was a bit disappointing, but time and space was so arbitrary by that point that I didn’t dwell too much.

The sun rose over the beautiful farmhouses and green valleys of the Catawba hills. In Troutville I stopped at the same little grocery store I had last year, and just like last year, Jimmy’s brother Mark pulled up in his truck to give me a hug and say hello. He said I was too skinny and I said I was eating all the food and promised to get fat once the thing was over.

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Catawba Valley Source

A few miles down the road, I found my sister in law Lois and two nieces, Adaline and Ella, in their car on the road coming the other way. They pulled over and we did a quick round of hugs. The girls were not in the mood for photos, and there was a funny couple of minutes of Lois fruitlessly trying to coax everyone into looking like they were. At some point I think we all realized that maybe it wasn’t really an Olan-Mills-kind-of-day. I gave high fives and carried on towards Lexington.

 

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Family photo fail

It was mid-day summer hot when I got to Lexington. I was about 100 miles into the day, and tired, and needed badly to refuel water and food. The Trans Am route through Lexington brings you through some suburban outskirts, then suddenly you’re in the middle of the tourist downtown (which feels far too busy and confusing for a cyclist 3,900 miles deep), and then you’re on a busy highway looking for the turnoff. When it comes, you take a right and – boom – you’re popped out of other side of town. No more shops, no stores, no gas stations.

So I suddenly found myself on the other side of Lexington without food or drinks. The temperature was around 100, and it was not the time to be making that type of mistake. Perpetual forward motion, though, was the greatest priority, so I just kept riding – hoping that something would appear to save me.

It did. At a left-hand turn towards the fabled Vesuvius climb, which takes riders onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, there was an old crowded convenience store with a deli inside. I had to make two trips up to the counter to carry all of my drinks and food, and the guy at the cash register raised his eyebrows – looking at the pile of food, then looking up at me – but didn’t say anything. I sat outside at a picnic table with two guys who were taking a shaded lunch break from all day at a construction site in the sun. They asked me a million questions about the ride and were stoked when I gave them half a package of Nutter Butters before I left.

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Warmup miles before Vesuvius. Photo: David Elliott

There are a few nice, flat warmup miles before the route’s final set of mountain climbs. I enjoyed this section along the river, though I knew what lay ahead. Just before the base to the climb, David Elliott pulled up beside me. Part of the area’s avid dot watching crew, David and a couple of other friends were watching dots and checking on riders. He accompanied me to Gertie’s Country Store, where I got ice in plastic bags and put them down my jersey.

Vesuvius is only about 3-4 miles long, but its relentless grade at 10-12%, and placement at 4,000 miles into the race, gives it a legendary status. I have ridden this climb on fresh legs and truthfully, it is harder then – when you have something to give, and can push yourself to exhaustion. During the Trans Am, there was little I could do but just grind up slowly, and wait for the top to come. Just before the summit and the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway, my di2 electronic gearing died, and so I plugged the charger into the connection for my front Dynamo hub.

The Blue Ridge parkway undulates up and down for about 40 miles from this point. The views are spectacular, and this part of the route brought back a lot of good memories of riding with friends when Jimmy and I lived in Washington DC. It also brought extreme technical frustrations. My front hub can only produce electrical energy when I am going fast enough, and my speeds on the uphills were rarely fast enough to create that kind of power. I was bombing the downhills, but they didn’t last long, so the charge generated would be used by the time I crested the next climb. Still, I was able to keep barely enough charge to shift gears when I really needed to.

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Downhill on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo: David Elliott

At one point I stopped to pee, and just as I was getting back on my bike, David Elliott reappeared with his friend Christopher Thomas. They said hello, then drove off and said they would see me a bit later. Sure enough, at the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, there they were with fellow dot watcher Isabella Jones. I stopped to chat for a few minutes, got a coke at the snack trailer at the top of the Blue Ridge, then rolled down through afternoon commuter traffic towards Charlottesville.

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With its population of nearly 50,000, Charlottesville is one of the biggest towns on the Trans Am route. It was only about 8pm when I came into town, but I had decided to get a few hours of good sleep before making the final push to Yorktown. I went to an upscale convenience store that Evan had told me about, and while I was in the parking lot, some old family friends Sharron and Tom Leland pulled up. My mom had been planning to come to see me at the finish, but since she had broken her foot and had surgery she couldn’t travel. Sharron had promised her to find me and get a photo.

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With Tom and Sharron in Charlottesville.

Jon Lester was getting close to the finish now. Only 200 miles left for me. I would finish it up after a last four hours of sleep.Screenshot 2017-12-12 18.13.37

 

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 18: So Close, Yet So Far Away.

My alarm woke me up at 2am on the outside balcony of the Breaks Hotel, but I couldn’t make myself get up and on the road until 2:30. I remained conflicted about riding at night, especially since Eric’s death, but I told myself that if it was a risk I was going to take, I just had to suck it up and take ownership for that decision. There was the occasional truck on the road that wound through the hills of the far western part of Virginia, but for the most part the roads were quiet that early in the morning.

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One state to go, hospital bracelet glowing in the light.

I stopped for breakfast at a convenience store, I think in Honaker, and took two 5-hour-energy shots in quick succession. I did the climb out as the sun was rising. My brain was buzzing and I was singing out loud. People were driving to their places of work, wherever their commutes were to, and I was waving at them from the shoulder on the side of the road. Caffeine no longer worked for very long, but with steadily increasing doses, it still worked. And I had begun to crave those short bursts of energy.

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Caffeine-fueled sunrise climb

I don’t know whether other racers had this experience, but one odd thing that this race did to me was completely skew my concept of time and distance. In the first few days of the race, I was completely focused on those metrics, but as time passed and I got more tired, those concepts became more and more fuzzy. Of course I knew I was in Virginia and somewhere “close” to the end, but “close” seemed like such a relative concept. On the map, there was very little distance left to cover. But in any given moment, considering what had still to be done – physically and mentally – to reach Yorktown seemed unfathomable. My spreadsheet plan, which had somehow ordered my sense of time and space, was of no real use to me anymore – except as a depressant. As of the previous night, I was 120 miles behind my plan.

Fred found me after sun-up and rode with me again into Damascus, a beautiful mountain town near the Tennessee border that is a resupply point for Appalachian Trail hikers. There I ate breakfast sandwich biscuits from the convenience-store-with-grill and talked to a motorcyclist who was riding across the country. He was impressed by me, and I wanted nothing more than to be him.

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Damascus Virginia

Last year I had also arrived in Damascus in the morning after riding all night – though it was three days later – and slept at Crazy Larry’s Hostel for a few hours. This year I didn’t want to give myself that luxury, so I got on the road quickly and headed out of town up the long, steady climb along the river. Vans and trucks loaded with bikes rolled by; it seemed they were shuttling clients up to a high point where they would ride the Virginia Creeper Trail back down to Damascus. As the road kept climbing and climbing, I couldn’t help but thinking that they were the ones doing it right.

There’s a big descent down into Troutdale. I remembered the convenience store there well, because the previous year the two women there had been terrified for my safety, and then I had seen Nathan and Anthony shortly after leaving. This year I was hot, and I threw away my bike shorts in the trash can in the parking lot while I ate ice cream. I’m not sure why I thought those extra ounces were causing me a problem, but it made me feel a little more free to see them disappear into the trash.

The next 70 miles of the route wind their way through rural southern Virginia in a weird combination of meandering back roads through charming rural towns and stretches of feeder road alongside the busy Highway 81, which is a major north-south thoroughfare across the state. At one point you are paralleling the highway on the left, then have to jog to the right over a bridge across it. I missed the turn and rode some steep hills until the road dead-ended unceremoniously. I put my head on my handlebars and just waited the emotion out, a few tears in my eye but too tired to actually cry, before turning around.

It was late afternoon when I rolled through Newbern, a quaint old town of clapboard and farm houses. As I was riding, a car pulled up and someone called my name. I looked over and there was Katrina! I had met Katrina and her boyfriend Jim several years before during a Blue Ridge Parkway bike tour that Jimmy and I had done with several other friends. They live in Radford, a few miles from Newbern, are great supporters of the local cycling community, and had become avid Trans Am dot watchers the previous year. I had expected to see them at some point but wasn’t sure why Katrina was here and not in Radford.

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Riding through Newbern. Photo: Katrina Yost Cometa

As I crested a small hill I saw Katrina again, standing in front of a church. On the marquee outside of the church, there was a sign that brought tears to my eyes (again). I’m not sure how this happened, but it was an incredible boost in a very difficult day.ride_janie_ride

As I rolled through Radford I found more messages of support. These small gestures took me out of my own loneliness and made me feel connected again to the world. radford5

Jim and Katrina were there to greet me again, just as I made the last climb out of Radford.

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Like last year, I rolled about ten miles past Radford to Christiansburg to sleep in a cheap motel there. I thought about going further, but I remembered that past Christiansburg are the deceptively tough Catawba mountains. Plus, Evan was finishing his Trans Am race that night, smashing the previous record. Surely, that called for a celebration. In the convenience store, I bought a stale chicken sandwich (it was on sale??), which ended up being inedible, and a beer. Looking in the mirror at the hotel (a practice I generally avoided), I discovered I had contracted a massive rash all across my torso and back – perhaps a side effect from the rabies vaccine. Well, at least it wasn’t rabies.
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I drank the beer in the hotel room and let myself the luxury of reading Facebook posts for ten minutes. There were a lot of photos and videos of Evan – including the whole of Jon Lester’s family cheering Evan’s finish, after a long race between the two for the top two places in the race. Seeing this made me smile (or maybe it was the taste of beer). I tried not to let myself think about what it would feel like to be there myself. It still seemed like a long way to go.