13. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 19 + 7 hours and 41 minutes: The End · Categories: Uncategorized

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

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12. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 19: Planning the Final Chapter · Categories: Uncategorized

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

 

11. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 18: So Close, Yet So Far Away. · Categories: Uncategorized

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.

 

 

10. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 17: Don’t Let the Same Dog Bite You Twice. Ooops. · Categories: Uncategorized

I woke up in a little hovel in my hostess-with-a-shotgun’s house. It felt like the most comfortable bed I had ever woken up in. I could hear it pouring rain outside. I went back to sleep for another hour.

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Bedroom in Booneville.

An hour later I woke up again and it was still raining hard. This wasn’t a resort, I told myself, so I forced myself to get up. I made coffee with the little four-cup pot she had left for me on a table.

I rolled my bike out into the yard, curious what I would see. In the yard there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of little figurines. I wish I could remember what they were – elves and gnomes and who knows what else, but it was a miniature fairytale land. I thought back to the night before, and it seemed like a dream.

Booneville was blowing my mind.

I rolled slowly to the first convenience store, raining pouring down. The guy who owned the place was a former truck driver who had driven all over the country; he asked me lots of questions and it turned out he had driven most of the places I told him I had been.

“God bless you,” he said in this thick Kentucky accent, looking at me standing there, dripping wet and holding a second cup of coffee, “But you’re CRAZY.” Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t argue.

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I set off into the Kentucky hills in the rain. On the descents I kept having to stop because so much water was spraying onto my sunglasses that I couldn’t see. There were some big climbs to be navigated between Booneville and Cow Creek and Buckhorn. Long, steep grinds shrouded by dripping trees shrouding the roads on either side, sometimes obscuring the sky.

Around mid-day, I rode the dangerous highway gauntlet near Hazard, coal trucks flying by spewing exhaust at high speeds and way too close for comfort. Then there’s this lovely winding flat road that travels through a set of tiny, middle-of-nowhere towns – Dwarf, Fisty, Emmalena, Carrie, Hindman – alongside a river called Troublesome Creek.

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Hindman, Kentucky

It’s hard to describe the remoteness of the Eastern Kentucky Appalachians. The mountains create a rugged blanket of green, and then little towns, or burgs, are just tucked down in whatever habitable spaces exist between them. Most of the towns are poor coal mining (or former mining) communities, and every one of them feels solitary, unconnected to any other place.  In 2016, in fact, I met a woman in Dwarf who had never been to Hindman, 15 miles down the road. Despite the scavenging of the earth for mining and rampant mountaintop removal, it feels to me like people went up against the earth here, and the earth won.

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Mountains of Eastern Kentucky

Dogs run wild in these parts, and even those that are pets run like they are wild. It was mid-day when I rolled through Pippa Passes. It was just on the far side of town that Evan said he had been bitten by the pit bull, and I was prepared. I had been sprinting away from barking dogs for a couple of hours already, and had my strategy down: When I saw the dog start to run out from a house, I would start shouting at the top of my lungs and sprinting. This often seemed to work, but if it didn’t, I also had a handful of rocks that I could throw, which so far had deterred the remainder.

Just north of Pippa Passes, I picked up a new tranche of rocks. There’s a series of about three steep climbs just past town, and on the approach to the first one I passed a set of trailer homes. There was a blue one on my right, and three people were standing outside. Suddenly, a streak shot out from somewhere just behind me. I heard one bark, and then a dog lunged and, when I looked down, its teeth were dug into my right calf and its body was just dangling there in the air.

The force against my body was so strong that I was lucky I didn’t crash, but I managed to clip out with my left foot, brake hard, and come to a stop. The dog released, and then snarled and sank his teeth into my calf again. The two bites happened within about ten seconds, but it was one of those slow-motion ten second moments, and I remember thinking, “Is this what it feels like to get bit by a dog?” Yes, it was what it felt like to get bitten by a dog, and then I started yelling (sprinkled with obscenities that I won’t repeat here) at the three people who were standing, motionless, outside the house. They were all frozen, their eyes wide.

It seemed like it took forever, but finally one of the guys walked out onto the street and called the dogs off. By this point, the attacker – which, sure enough was a pit bull matching Evan’s description – was surrounded by three or four other dogs that were all in a semi-circle, snarling at me. My leg was bleeding pretty well by then, and the dogs slunk off back to their houses.

So many things were going through my mind at that moment. Am I going to die? and Is this the end of my race? were banging around equally inside my head. The guy was saying “sorry about that,” and he did seem sorry (though maybe not sorry enough for my liking). I asked him about the dog. He said it was a stray they had found earlier in the week but he “hasn’t caused any problems until now.” I told him that, yes, he had bitten another racer two nights earlier (I found out later he had also bitten Jon Lester the night before). I said there were about 100 racers coming through in the next few days and he’d sure as hell better lock that dog up. He nodded and said he would.

I called my friend Sheree, my go-to medical consultant. She answered right away and first said shit, then told me to clean out the wound, get the guy’s personal details, and call our friend Sean, an infectious disease doc. I dumped alcohol into the wounds, which were open punctures, and wrapped my calf up tightly. I got the guy’s name and number and I put it in my phone. Then I rode off up the hill. I figured, like everything else these days, I would sort out next steps while riding.

I called Sean while I pedaled slowly up the big climb, past more barking dogs, trailers, and rickety homes. He told me in no uncertain terms that I had to go to a hospital and get a rabies shot. I said, I know that’s the quote-unquote recommendation, but you have to understand my situation. He said he understood my situation, and that I needed to understand that, if I got rabies, I would die. Can’t I risk it? He said no, and was very firm on this point. I hung up and called Evan, but his phone was off. Evan is a doctor too, and I thought he might have a different medical opinion. At this point, I was searching hard for another point of view.

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Evan calling me back from a downpour in Lexington. Photo: Christopher Thomas

I descended the hill to the next little depression in the earth where there was a stand of houses and the route takes a right hand turn. I took the turn, but then something told me to make a U-turn and I headed back. There was a man outside his house in the yard, and I rode up into his driveway. I asked him if I could come in to use his bathroom and wash out the wound with soap and water, and he said of course and told me to come inside. I laid my bike down in the yard.

This race reminded me so many times about how undeserved kindness from strangers is a real thing, and this was perhaps the most notable example. The man’s wife showed me into the bathroom then told me that her sister was a nurse, and asked if I needed any medical attention. After several phone calls, she came back to tell me that there was a clinic within 30 minutes’ drive that had the rabies vaccine. She offered to drive me there.
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The emergency room at that particular clinic had just had an influx of patients from a car crash that had just happened nearby, but after several more calls, she managed to locate a second clinic and drove me there.  When we arrived, I rushed into the emergency room, barefoot, and started talking a mile a minute to the receptionist.

HimynameisJanieandI’m doing the TransAmBikeRace, it’sabikeraceacrossthecountry andIjustgotbitbyadoganditwasastraypitbullandIneedtogetarabiesshotbutcanyoupleasehurrybecauseIaminthirdplaceandneedtogetbackonmybikeasfastaspossible.

Despite my entreaties, the rabies vaccine was administered in Southern time, not Trans Am Bike Race time. First there was a consultation with a doctor and a clinician, and then there was cleaning and examining by two nurses. Then the nurses left to “prepare” the vaccine, and I was in the room for such a long time that the woman who had driven me there came in to check on me and berated the nurses for taking so long. “Do you know that she is in a bike race across the country?” I heard her asking at the nurses station outside.

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Emergency room selfie game: not so strong.

I talked to Evan, and then Lael called me. She told me to get back on my bike as fast as I could because she wanted me to break her record.

“I know you can do it!” she told me. “You’re riding so strong.”

I told her I was so tired and I just wanted ice cream. “Eat the ice cream on your bike!” she practically shouted into the phone.

Another doctor finally came in to administer the rabies shot. The “shot” was several huge syringes of liquid that had to be injected all around the wound. Before every injection, the nurse would hesitate and sort of cringe, and look at me with a sad face and say, “I’m so sorry.” I told her that this vaccine could just take a number in the long line of things that were causing me pain, and if she could just do it as quick as possible I’d appreciate it.

We were finally finished, and we drove back to the house. My bike was still laying in the yard where I left it, and I thanked the couple profusely and said I wished I could do something to show my gratitude, but they said don’t worry, it was nothing. The woman hugged me goodbye and said, a little bit sternly, “I guess you’d better just get a Red Bull and ride all night, then.” I laughed and said she should be in the Trans Am Bike Race. Maybe next time, she said.

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Aftermath. Salt, sunscreen, rabies shot. Photo: Fred Fletcher

I pedaled off to finish the hills before Elkhorn City. One of them was so steep that, even standing and cranking as hard as I could, I came very close to falling off my bike. The adrenaline from the whole dog-bite fiasco had long since worn off, and I was just left feeling exhausted. It was the longest stop I had taken off the bike without sleeping since the race had started 17 days before, and it had made me realize just how very tired I was in so many ways. My leg was wrapped tight, but throbbing underneath.

I laughed thinking about Lael’s enthusiasm, yelling into the phone, “Eat the ice cream on your bike!”

There’s a long descent into Elkhorn City after the last of the steep hills. Elkhorn City is the last town before the Virginia border, and the mountains of the race’s last state begin. Coming down the hill, I inexplicably heard my name being called from a car, and stopped pedaling.

I looked over and there were my friends Fred and Paige, who I knew from my days living in Austin but who now lived in Chattanooga. They had been following my dot, and had seen my post about the dog bite on Facebook. There they were, five hours drive away from home, to make sure I was okay.

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Descending to Elkhorn City. Photo: Fred Fletcher

Fred had his bike and he rode with me from Elkhorn City, across the Virginia state line, to the Breaks. I was getting so tired, and despite being worried that all the time off the bike was going to cause me to lose my place in the race, I knew I had to sleep. The Breaks Hotel was not open (I tried several of the doors after hearing from Jimmy that the previous years one of the riders had found a room randomly open), but there was a little covered balcony on the second floor with a rough carpet.

It was about 11pm by now. I had only made it 130 miles that day, but was glad not to worry about dying from rabies in my sleep. I rolled out my sleeping bag, ate a Subway sandwich, and set my alarm for 2am.

07. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 16: Eric · Categories: Uncategorized

I had weird dreams sleeping in the ditch. I dreamt that I was a dot, and anyone could see me at any time. (Wait, not a dream.) Someone was trying to catch me by finding out where I was sleeping.

I woke up to a motor idling just above my head at the intersection of the two streets. I was just below in the ditch, under the underbrush. I looked at my phone. It was about 4am. This was real life, not a dream.

I waited for the car to drive away, but it just sat there. Weird. Then I heard the engine get turned off, the door open, and footsteps crunch on dirt, walking around the car. I laid totally still. I didn’t see a light, or hear anything else. The footsteps stopped just above my head. Was I dreaming still, or was this really happening? I could hear my heart beating in my chest. This was real life.

I needed to pack up and be ready to sprint away on my bike, if I had to. The only packing I needed to do was my bivvy bag, but when I started to fold it up it began to crinkle loudly. I froze again. The footsteps started again, and the person got back into the car. The engine went on, and the car slowly drove away.

I was terrified, but tried to calm myself down. It was probably nothing, I thought. I was just having a bad dream and woke up at the wrong time. Nevertheless, my adrenaline was pumping as I shoved everything quickly back into my bag. I just wanted to get on the road again, where I felt safe.

I hauled my heavy bike up onto the road. My hands were shaking. As soon as I tried to get on my bike, I crashed over on the right side, pinning myself under my bike. Crap. Crash number one of Trans Am 2017.

I was unhurt, except for some minor road rash, but I had managed to bend my derailleur ever so slightly, which took my easiest gear out of commission. I was none too happy about this, because I knew the steepest hills were still to come.

I pedaled slowly into Bardstown, about 30 miles away. It was drizzling rain when I rode into town, quiet on a Sunday, the big whiskey storage buildings like grain elevators rising on the side of the road. You can smell Bardstown whiskey from the outskirts, and I tried to decide if this would be a good or a bad time to have my first drink of the race. I pulled into McDonald’s, where I planned a full-on reset for the day, fueled by coffee and about 12 Egg McMuffins with bacon.

I sat down at a table and took a sip of burning hot coffee. I plugged my phone into the electrical outlet to charge while I ate, and checked Facebook. I saw this message right away.Screenshot 2017-12-07 17.54.30

I felt like I was going to pass out. My mind immediately began thumbing a mental file of all the racers that I knew. Were any of them in Kansas? I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t sure. I sat in the McDonald’s in stunned silence, trying to think about what to do. I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to do something. But there was nothing to do.

I thought about quitting – to the point where it seemed like the right thing for me to do. If I thought about it one way, I really had no business being out here doing something so dangerous, in the name of fun. It was irresponsible to Jimmy, to my parents, to the other people who cared about me. Why put them through that?

Plus, the sense of fear can take the joy from riding. After Mike Hall’s death in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in late March, I had ridden scared for several weeks following. Even though the rational part of my brain knew the facts – far too many cyclists do get killed by motorists, and Mike being an unlucky victim did not suddenly make cycling any more or less dangerous – I felt like every ride was tempting fate. That sensation, in and of itself, heightened the specter of danger and reduced th fun. It felt too close.

This accident felt even closer. Suddenly I didn’t want to ride at all. I started thinking about transportation options: I could maybe take a bus to a city, then fly home. I didn’t even really know where I was on a map, but I could figure out how to make it happen.

I called Jimmy. I told him the news and he was horrified. We sat there in silence for a minute. I said, “What do you think I should do? Should I come home?” He said, “I think you should hang up the phone, get on your bike, and keep riding. It’s the only thing you can do.”

He was right. I got on my bike and pedaled the hard hills to Harrodsburg. Periodically, I would be overcome by a flood of emotion and get off the bike, sit down on the side of the road, and just cry. At some point, I told myself, “You’re not helping anyone by stopping to cry, you’re just hurting yourself.” I think it was Lael that once had the good advice: If you’re going to cry, cry on your bike. I stayed on my bike through the rest of the tears.

I called Evan and broke the news to him. He was devastated too. It helped a bit to talk to another racer, just to hear someone echo all the thoughts in my head. He was close to the finish. Before we hung up he told me he had been bitten by a dog near Pippa Passes in Kentucky, which I would reach the next day. He said it was a vicious dog that had come from nowhere, and that he was glad he had gotten a rabies shot in Colombia a few months prior, so he didn’t have to worry.

In Harrodsburg, I stopped in the same convenience store I had stopped in the year before. I was sitting at a table with a plastic tablecloth when a dot watcher from Harrodsburg came in. “I’m so glad I caught you,” he said. He told me he had two young girls and they had been watching me. He said they hadn’t been able to come see me because of an event that they needed to be at, but they had made posterboard signs for me. He said they watched my dot every night as a family because “I want them to see what they can do someday too.”

That conversation just about broke me again, but gave me a renewed reason to ride. If I couldn’t find a reason for myself to keep going, I could at least do it not to disappoint the daughters of a stranger I was talking to in a gas station parking lot in Kentucky.

I rolled towards Berea that afternoon, the clouds in the distance getting more and more ominous. In my mind, the college town of Berea, south of Lexington, marks the boundary between the gentle, whiskey-scented hills of Western Kentucky and the lonely, hard, eerie mountains of Eastern Kentucky. From my memory of the year before, they might as well be two separate states, if not countries.

About 5 miles before I reached Berea, the sky opened up and rain began to pour out. It had been such a crying day that it almost felt right, like the sky was grieving too. It rained so hard that inches of water began to pool on the ground within minutes. It was a dangerous game to be in the road but there was nowhere to stop, so I just put my head down and mashed the pedals as hard as I could until I made it to the town square where I could stop under the shelter of the portico in front of the Boone Tavern Hotel.

I wanted to sleep so badly. I’m not sure whether I was that tired, or if I just wanted the sadness and the fear to go away. It was only about 6pm, and every hotel I called had a room, for $150 or more. The rain was still coming down in sheets, the hardest rain I’d seen so far, and I just stood outside this fancy hotel watching dry people with umbrellas come out and go into the warm, carpeted lobby.

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The Boone Tavern Hotel

Then as suddenly as it came, the rain stopped. The sky hinted light. I knew if I didn’t act fast, I could get stuck in a vortex of indecision, so I just got on my bike and started pedaling. In the town of Big Hill, at the bottom of its namesake climb, I stopped to figure out my plan for the night.

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Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

There was no town of any size for over 50 miles from Big Hill, but I did find on a message board the number of a woman who rented a room in her house in Booneville. Booneville, Kentucky, that sounded promising. I called her once, and no one answered, and for some reason I called back again and she answered. She had a sweet voice and said yes, she could rent me the room for $30. I told her I’d be there about 10pm, and she asked why are you arriving so late, honey. She gave me very long and detailed directions to her house, none of which I was able to take down. I asked her if she would text me and she said she had a land line, so I just hoped I would remember something of what she said.

I now knew that the rider who was killed was Eric Fishbein, who I had ridden with briefly early on day one. Among many other troubling emotions, the news had really spooked me about riding at night, and I wondered whether I should commit to stopping that behavior entirely. On the other hand, race director Nathan had communicated that the race would continue, which meant that I was also no less in a race than I had been the day before. I was in third place in the Trans Am Bike Race, I had worked hard for that, and I didn’t want to give it up. I told myself to just ride fast and hopefully I would make it to Booneville with light to spare.

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Riding side by side with Eric on Day 1

I did ride fast; nevertheless, it was pitch black by the time I got to Booneville. I remembered the first part of my host’s directions: “Go right off the main road down a hill, and you’ll see a blue car parked in front of a white house. That’s my ex-boyfriend’s house; he’s a cop.” I found the cop’s house and then I was supposed to see a flashing light, but not go all the way to it, and then turn left up a long, dirt driveway. I turned up the first dirt driveway I saw, and was immediately chased down by snarling dogs. I roamed up and down the dark road – the only light I could see the flashing one in the distance – but didn’t see any other driveways. Finally, I gave up and called the woman back. She sighed and said she would walk down to the road.

Five minutes later, I heard someone calling about 50 meters down the road. I rode towards a figure whose silhouette I could barely make out, backlit by the distant flashing light. As I got closer I realized it was a petite woman with white hair in a nightgown. She was holding a giant shotgun.

“Welcome, Jane,” she said.

Welcome to Booneville.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

06. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 15: A Two-States-To-Go State of Mind · Categories: Uncategorized

I woke up at 5am to try to make the first ferry across the Ohio River at 6am. Then I turned over and went back to sleep for another 30 minutes.

It was a good decision, because when I woke up I was feeling much better. I rode the handful of rollers to the ferry and caught the boat about 6:30. I was the only one on the ferry at that hour, and the operator asked me if I was riding across the country and if I wanted him to take my photo. I said sure, and he took a blurry picture of me with my helmet askew, which I later accidentally deleted with a bunch of other pictures from the race.IMG_0264

The sign for the Kentucky border is just on the other side of the river, and I did a little woo-hoo and a fist pump as I passed it. Only two states to go! As I rode the ten miles uphill to Marion, I could hear birds, and I remembered last year how the fireflies had been out in little gangs when I rode this stretch at sunset.

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Ohio River ferry 

In Marion, there she was: dot-watcher extraordinaire, Michele Lanham Hodge. Because she is a brave woman, she hugged me, and it felt like meeting an old friend. Last year I had immediately rolled up to her and her husband, shaken hands, made an attempt to clip out, and immediately ended up on the ground (she says it is ok to blame her husband), so I was careful to stay upright this time. I hadn’t had any crashes so far, and I wanted to keep my streak going, even at zero miles per hour.

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Upright photo with Michele 

I ate some breakfast biscuits in the convenience store and rode out of Marion singing. Sleep had done a lot for my mental and physical health, and I was once again focused on covering some big miles. I was a little bummed that, for the first time since pretty early in the race, I was now behind Lael’s record-setting women’s ride from 2016. Trackleaders had put a dot on the race screen for both the men’s (Mike Hall’s) and women’s (Lael Wilcox’s) current Trans Am records, so for the entire race I had been able to see my position relative to hers the year before. For most of the race I had been slightly ahead.

I knew that, in 2016, Lael and Evan had taken the first ferry that very day, so I was at least 30 minutes behind where they had been at this point. This was a piddling distance, of course, at this point in the race. But I also knew that they had absolutely hauled to Yorktown from that point forward – attacking the mountains with focus and sleeping hardly at all over the next three days. It was an awesome testament to the strength of their riding in 2016 (or my weakness – but let’s think of it as their strength, please) that my position equaled theirs on the morning of the fifteenth day, and yet they both finished a full day ahead of me. Inspiring.

And also, it was what it was. I could only do what I could do, which at this point was to keep moving forward across the map.

Western Kentucky is a relatively gentle prelude to its more savage, remote Eastern sibling – and this day was mostly pleasant. The route made a series of excursions into almost suburban-feeling small towns, with white clapboard houses and well-kempt lawns. The riding was hilly but not brutal, and the weather was summer but not Hades hot. Coming up a rise into one of these towns, I saw a group of cyclists up ahead on the side of the road. As I approached, they rang a cowbell and were shouting my name.

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This encounter got me pumped, and I rode the rest of the afternoon feeling sharp and excited, like I was nearing something that I wanted. After the previous few days of radical up and down emotional swings, which had included plenty of existential despair, I was learning to savor this feeling – fleeting as it might be.

Riding near Elizabethtown, Kentucky near dark, a guy on a road bike was waiting for me on the side of the road. He introduced himself as a local firefighter, whose station was on the Trans Am route. He offered me to stay there, and then when I said I was riding on, he asked if he could ride with me. I said sure, I’d be happy for the company. He was interested in the race and asked me all kinds of questions, but I think he was most fascinated by my eating habits. When I told him I wanted to stop at a convenience store for food, I watched his eyes get bigger and bigger as I bought armfuls of junk food outside and tried to cram pizza into my frame bag, while eating an ice cream sandwich.

To race the Trans Am, there is a way in which survival dictates that you trick your brain into believing that that what you are doing – the choices you are making – throughout the day are not all that abnormal. Competition or sleep driven, perhaps. But not totally insane. But then, there would be these occasional moments where you get a glimpse of yourself through the eyes of a normal human being – putting ice down your pants in a parking lot, say, or stuffing your face full of twinkies, or buying an enema and then using it in the store, or walking into a Walmart and promptly plugging in seven electronic devices behind the shopping carts.

Those glimpses, when they happen, are truly terrifying. And better not to mull on them at all.

When my new firefighter friend peeled off to head for home, I carried on. My intent had been to make it another 30 miles down the road to the whiskey-burb of Bardstown. But I began to get sleepier, and sleepier, and it became harder and harder to turn the pedals.

I decided to cut my losses and find a place to sleep. In a dark area with few houses, I selected a leafy depression (ok, it was a ditch) at the intersection of the route and another dirt road. It was technically in someone’s yard, but the house was far away and I didn’t hear sign of any curious animals. There was enough foliage that I was able to both have a soft place to sleep and be somewhat camouflaged and out of sight. I pulled out my emergency bivvy, which crackled loudly when I unrolled it, drank some chocolate milk for dessert, and fell immediately asleep.

 

 

05. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 14: No-Man’s Land · Categories: Uncategorized

I had been on the road two weeks, fourteen long days. I felt every minute of it as I rolled out of Ellington around 4am, in my legs but also in my head. The steepest of the Ozarks were over, but the trip into the heartland of rural America was just beginning. I was almost ¾ of the way done, but there was still so much hard, hot distance to cover. Even though I now knew that I was well ahead of my sub-20-day goal, I was still stuck on that spreadsheet, and considered myself as having 60 miles to make up.

The roads felt spooky that morning. I don’t know whether it was all the pickups in rural Missouri that are keen to gun their engines as they pass, or if it was my emotional state, or the moonless darkness, or something else. Just as it started to get light, a truck idled behind me for far, far longer than it should have, and I had a few moments of fear.

A lot of people ask me about riding the Trans Am, “Weren’t you scared?” I always say no, and I mean it. When they ask, I don’t think they are thinking about car accidents, or constipation, or saddle sores (all things that do scare me). I think that what they have in their minds is some vague, yet still intimidating, idea that going “out there” into the world alone – especially as a female – invites an increased risk of physical harm.  IMG_0247

Perceived danger is relative, of course. But my perspective has always been that the Trans Am route is a rural one, and rural America – in general – is a very nice, kind place to be. Of course, wackos can show up anywhere; but simply looking at the odds, the chances that I would be attacked or kidnapped or raped or murdered while in these parts of the country was very, very low.

But there were still moments – like the one that morning in Johnson’s Shut-In State Park, just before Pilot Knob, Missouri – that would leave me uneasy. Being on your bike in a strange location does leave you physically vulnerable, and sometimes you have to reckon with that. In this case, the car stalker eventually came up with another plan, or got bored, or decided I looked far too much like a vagrant to bother.

Coming into Farmington was a change of pace, with traffic and sidewalks and a quaint downtown. Just before getting to town, I heard my name and there was Brian McEntire on the side of the road. I was so happy to see him! I knew Brian lived in Farmington, but hadn’t wanted to get my hopes up that he would be able to come out. Brian is a two-time Trans Am Bike Race vet and we had spent some memorable, philosophical hours together in Idaho and Montana in 2016. Once again, there’s something about this kind of event that accelerates the cement of friendship.

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A welcome meetup with Brian McEntire

I rolled out of Farmington and into the rolling hills to Chester, Illinois. (Side note: I thought about using quotation marks around the word “rolling,” but I think they probably truly are rolling hills; it was my perception that was the problem.) Every. Single. Little. Hill. Hurt. It felt like it was taking every bit of energy to even turn the pedals around – so much so that it was almost comical. I started playing mind games with myself, just trying to get to the tree at the top of a hill, or reach a stick laying in the road. Then I would think about incremental goals, and wonder how many zillions of incremental goals I would have to set to reach Yorktown in this manner. I remember calling Jimmy and asking him, “Was this part actually hard last year?” I now think he might have heard the desperation in my voice and been lying, but he confirmed that that yes, definitely it was very hard.

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Between Farmington and Chester, an appearance by local rider Wayne Linnenbringer was a welcome respite from counting sticks on the road.

I crossed into Chester (home of Popeye!), which also meant crossing the Mississippi River and into Illinois over a big clanking bridge with trucks lined up right behind me and honking and spewing smoke. Once I escaped off that bridge and the trucks flew by, I climbed a giant hill, which seemed to take forever, and then promptly got lost. (Chester is not a big place, by the way.) I ate something that masqueraded as lunch in the convenience store, then wandered the aisles, and then told myself sternly I could not start finding excuses to hang around in the air conditioning.

The afternoon’s riding was a bit tamer. That, or my blood sugar rose, or my mind changed direction, or it got a bit cooler. I rolled through Carbondale, Illinois and took a small detour for a bridge out at the far edge of town. I knew how to navigate this detour based on a Facebook post from Evan a day or so before explaining how, and I remember feeling quite smug about automatically knowing how to do it. I don’t know exactly why I felt so proud. Maybe I thought of it as evidence to myself that, despite my deteriorating state, I was still a human being who could gather and process information – not just an automaton following a line on a Garmin.

Grasping at straws, clearly.

I rolled into Goreville, Illinois at 8:05pm. I had determined to make it to the tiny town of Elizabethtown that night, which was another 50 miles down the road. Sleeping in Elizabethtown would put me just ten miles from the ferry across the Ohio River into Kentucky. I could catch the first ferry at 6am the next morning.

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I knew the ride to Elizabethtown through the Shawnee National Forest was do-able that night, and the best option if I was trying to cover ground, but the idea of it was just so depressing. I had been on my bike since 4am, and all I wanted to do was stop. I had sunk into another bad head space since Carbondale and was struggling to get out of it. My mental discourse had turned to berating again: Who was I to think this whole crackpot race was a good idea? What was wrong with me? Of all the things I could be doing with my summer, and I wanted to be out here in the middle of Illinois, hungry and with aching legs? It made no sense! I was, in fact, a hateful, stupid person. The only obvious choice was to quit and go home.

It was truly a pity party on a bike, and I was the only one invited.

I was hungry, and needed food for the rest of the day’s ride. The grocery store in Goreville had closed at 8pm, but I banged on the window with a sad look on my face (I didn’t have to fake it), hoping the two girls inside would take pity. One cracked the door half an inch and put her eye to it, like I was a hardened criminal, and enunciated overly clearly in case I didn’t understand, “Sorry, we are closed.”

Standing on the road dejected, and trying to figure out my next hopeless move, a couple pulled up in a car and called my name. I looked up, surprised. They both jumped out of the car and ran over, excited and with big smiles on their faces. They hugged me. They told me they had been following my dot for the last two years and had driven two hours to cheer me on in person. They were so excited to meet me, they couldn’t believe it! They called me a professional athlete (??) and told me I was an amazing bike rider and asked me to sign their cycling jerseys. They wanted to take pictures with me.

The contrast between my internal sad-sack narrative about myself, and who this couple thought I was, was so stark that I couldn’t help laughing. I used the bike pump they had in their car and thanked them profusely. I don’t think they could have known, nor could I have explained, how fortuitous their appearance was.

As I rode away, I tried to harness that jolt of energy. Yes! Perhaps I was a special person! Maybe I was meant to do the Trans Am Bike Race! Maybe I was a champion!

Then it got dark, and my demon mood returned. How could anyone know how terrible this was? Why did people make movies that made this whole experience look fun and inspiring and heroic and beautiful, anyway? This, this right here – riding on curvy highways in the dark, being battered and dirty and exhausted and just turning my legs over to keep from falling off my bike – was a certifiably BAD idea. And I was the only one responsible for getting myself into it.

I thought Elizabethtown would never come. But it finally did. I had ridden 230 miles that day, and was now only 10 miles from the ferry, and 20 miles behind my plan. Kentucky was next. And, lucky for me at the time, I had no idea how much adventure that state would have to offer.

04. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 13: Ozarks, Breaking My Heart · Categories: Uncategorized

I rolled off the couch around 4am and tried to pack my sleeping bag up quietly. The other cyclists were sleeping in the next room, and it was hard to contain my envy for their leisurely sleep schedule. I closed the door behind me and immediately heard thunder.

The road from Ash Grove to Walnut Grove to Fair Grove (so many groves!) was more rolling hills and light traffic – fortunately, as there wasn’t yet any light in the sky. The thunder, however, was grumbling increasingly frequently and the wind was whipping from one direction to another. Just past Walnut Grove, the skies opened up and the rain started pouring in buckets. I pulled under the eaves in front of a still-closed convenience store to check the radar. The woman inside was prepping to open, and she generously opened the door and ushered me in. She already had the coffee going in the pot and told me to grab a cup.

I checked the radar while I sipped hot coffee, which appeared to indicate that the rain had settled across Missouri and was not interested in exiting quickly. I sent a message to Jon Lester, who was about 100 miles ahead of me, and got this reply.

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Then I checked Facebook and saw a post that made my heart drop.

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One of the amazing things about ultra-racing is the complex nature of the competition on the road. I’m sure that others feel variously about their competitors, but to me the difficulty and demanding nature of this racing style breeds a camaraderie between racers that generally supersedes rivalry. No matter your background, experience, relative strength or speed, everyone is in the thing together. The thing is grueling, and confusing, and very susceptible to the whims of luck. And that shared experience creates a bond, whether spoken or not, that is hard to replicate and impossible to deny.

So when I saw this message, my first instinct was that I needed to get to the hospital. I didn’t really know Michael well, in the real-life way, but in another very important way he felt like a brother. I was only about 30 miles north of Springfield, so I started working out ways to get there. I could ride, though faster might be to stash my bike somewhere and get an Uber. I didn’t know the extent of Michael’s injuries, and I kept thinking about him being in a foreign country, experiencing this nightmare scenario all over again that had happened two years earlier. It was before 6am, and I tried calling him, but no answer. I didn’t know whether that was a good or bad sign.

I kept on riding, and eventually made it to Marshfield, where the rain had let up and the McDonalds was willing to sell me five Egg McMuffins, three of which I greedily ate in the vestibule. Michael’s girlfriend had by then posted that Michael was going to be okay, without broken bones or any major damage. I was relieved to hear it, but also shaken in the way that you are when you are reminded that, like everyone else, you are flirting with danger each time you get on your bike. That said, we all evaluate risk in our own way, and my choice had been made long ago.

I had worried about today’s route through the Ozarks for a while, now, but some good sleep meant that my mood was positive, and the approach to the hills of the Ozarks Parkway was masked enough to keep me in denial for most of the morning. Also, there were some helpful distractions. Along the way, a touring cyclist waved me over to the other side of the road. His name was Eric and he told me that he and his friends had been following the race. His female friend behind me, Taylor, was so intrigued that she was considering doing the race herself. When I saw Taylor, I stopped to chat with her too. Beaten and battered as I was by then, I probably wasn’t the best billboard for the joys of the race, but I tried to fake it anyway.

A few miles later, I crossed paths with Doug Haluza, who was racing the Trans Am Bike Race from east to west. Doug had ridden west to east the year before, but I hadn’t gotten a chance to meet him then. We didn’t chat long, but he said he had seen Jon, and reaffirmed my memory that the hardest riding was still to come.

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Crossing paths with Doug in Missouri. Photo: Doug Haluza

It was mid-day by this time, and hot. I was getting really sleepy, and caffeine was no longer working. I decided to take my first daytime nap of the race, and found a small shaded spot just off the road. Despite the traffic thundering by less than 20 feet from my head, I fell asleep immediately after lying down. I kept my helmet on, to remind myself this wasn’t a break – just a nap – and jumped up when my alarm went off 20 minutes later.

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Post-nap in Houston, Missouri – just before the big climbs begin. Photo: Dennis Patterson

There’s a sense that I got both times doing the Trans Am at the doorway to the Missouri Ozarks that I was truly entering the deep heart of rural America. The pickup trucks were getting louder, and gun sightings more frequent. At the same time, the scenery was becoming more beautiful – lush, green, and more untamed. To me, there is a weird spookiness to this area, so isolated and wild. After the 2016 race, Jimmy said that every “National Scenic Riverways” sign on the course began to strike fear into his heart, because it meant a road that would plunge down to a river, then buck immediately back up over a mountain.

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Green wildness of the Ozarks near Alley Mill, MO. Source 

Highway 106 from Alley Spring to Ellington is only about 30 miles – but includes some of the most steep, hot, relentless up-and-down riding of the entire route. This is a stretch of road that would be a blast to ride with fresh legs on an unloaded bike. But after nearly 3,000 miles in just over 12 days, on a bike laden with water and bike bags, it could reduce you to tears and walking. This happened to me in 2016; this year, I was determined that I would fall off my bike before voluntarily getting off.

It was getting late in the evening, but it was still light, so I set my sights on Ellington – where I hoped I could sleep – before dark. I took each climb as it came, not thinking about the one before or after. I stood and cranked as I needed to, gasping for breath on the descents to try to recover before the next 15 percent grade.

I rolled into Ellington exhausted. I was nearly 75% of the way across the country, and I had mixed feelings about my riding thus far. I had tackled the worst of the Ozark hills with strength and focus, and I was now in third place in the race. But I was worried about my overall plan. I was falling further behind my spreadsheet for my sub-20-day finish. Today my goal had been to make it to Farmington, and I was now 60 miles behind. I had mentioned my concerns to Greg the day before. When I reached Ellington, I saw this message.

GGG

It took a minute for the import of this message to sink in. What this meant was that, for the last 12 days, I had been religiously following a plan that had me finishing a full day faster than I thought. While it was certainly mathematical incompetence and bad planning that allowed this to happen (basically, on my spreadsheet I had counted the first day as 1, instead of 0), I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Here was a pretty good example of how I could trick my brain – even inadvertently — into doing something I didn’t know I could do. I had made it this far on a lie, I figured; I might as well keep going for it.

 

 

03. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 12: Bring on the Hills – But First, the Pie. · Categories: Uncategorized

I didn’t get up and moving from Eureka until the sun was well up in the sky. I think it was around 6:30. This might have been the latest start I had gotten the entire race, and not seeing the sun rise made me feel like a failure (I know, but that’s the mindset you get into). The air was already thick and warm; it was going to be a scorcher today.

Truthfully, I was a bit of wreck in many ways. Four hours of sleep had not healed my emotional wounds from the night before. My legs were absolutely trashed. I was completely filthy. I had so many broken, bleeding fever blisters on my mouth so far that it hurt to eat. Caffeine was not working. As I rode away from town, pedaling slowly, I thought bitterly that if this was a Eureka moment, I could do without another one ever.

Nonetheless, today’s job was to get to Marshfield, Missouri – about 230 miles ahead and into the rolling roads of Missouri. Given my late start and general feeling of self-destruction, this seemed unlikely. But I put it out of my mind for the moment and focused on pedaling. Thankfully, as sometimes happens, things began to turn around after a couple of hours. In fact, as some point I realized that I was feeling less miserable, almost…happy.  IMG_0241

I stopped at the fish and tackle store just before Toronto where I had lost my debit card the year before, and the same lady was working. I signed their Trans Am book and chatted for a few minutes, then carried on. The terrain was beginning to get a bit hiller in western Kansas, and the rolling hills and turns of the rural roads provided some relief from the straight-as-a-board grades of the last couple of days.

I was listening to my music and jamming out when I took a right hard turn near Chanute. This was a town where I nearly had a nervous breakdown of exhaustion in 2016, and it was nice to be nearby and feeling more confident. On the corner was a cyclist with a camera – funny to see a dot watcher in such a rural part of the course! – and I smiled and waved. A handful of minutes later, the cyclist pulled up beside me on his bike. As I turned to look at him, I realized it was my coach: Greg Grandgeorge! I think I yelled the only thing that came to my mind, “Greg Grandgeorge! You’re my coach!” He confirmed my exclamation.

I had been working with Greg for nine months, but we had never met, as he lives in Iowa and I live in Colorado. Before the race, he had mentioned that he might come to check in on me and Evan, but he hadn’t known exact details. It’s hundreds of miles from Iowa to Kansas, so I didn’t count on it.

But sure enough, there he was. It was a strange way to meet your coach in person, but it was fantastic. Greg rode with me for an hour or so before he turned to head back. He said he had seen Evan the day before, and he looked good. We talked about the race, my terrible diet, watts, and Garmins. I asked about how Sarah Cooper (another one of his athletes) was faring in RAAM, which had started a few days before. He said she was dealing with Shermer’s neck and some other issues but still winning the women’s race. (She won!) After he saw me, he was headed from Kansas to meet up with her somewhere in the Midwest. What a coach.

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Me and Greg on the chip-seal roads of Kansas

Near Girard, I stopped at a gas station and saw the giant red bike of Captain America, Michael Wacker, sitting outside. It felt like running into an old friend in the middle of nowhere. I was dehydrated and needed about 12 drinks, and Michael laughed at my attempts to organize all my food and liquids. We rode into Pittsburgh together, me commenting that it was strange that I had absolutely no recollection of seeing this town in 2016. We laughed at how we had been leapfrogging each other since Colorado and wondered how long it would last. Outside of Pittsburgh, we stopped together for more cold drinks, and I left before he did. I didn’t say goodbye, just “see you down the road!”

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Pittsburgh, Kansas Source

Several miles later, I crossed into Missouri. This border crossing brought with it equal parts satisfaction and doom. On the one hand, I had run the gauntlet of the great plains and, despite being nearly destroyed the previous day, had come out the other side still alive. I had ridden Kansas in a little more than two days, which was better than the year before, and I had reached my seventh state and the final stage of the race.19399056_10212634824600580_6708064700036966461_n

But oh, what a doozy that last stage would be, and I had been anticipating it for the previous 12 days. Unlike the long, gentle grades of the west, the country’s terrain from Missouri eastward comes in a nonstop series of rugged, jagged hills that are marked by the Ozarks in Missouri, the Shawnee National forest in Illinois, the Daniel Boone National Forest of Kentucky, and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In fact, the total vertical gain of the Trans Am course from Missouri to Virginia is greater than Oregon to Colorado. It can kill you, with a million tiny paper cuts to your legs.

But in the meantime, pie! Even though I was behind schedule and in a hurry, I couldn’t resist stopping at the iconic Cooky’s Café in Golden City. I ordered two pieces of pie to go: one cherry and one chocolate. I shoved the cherry one in my mouth as I started riding, which didn’t really seem a worthy eating style for the culinary respect this pie deserved. I tucked the other one in my frame bag for later.golden-city-downtown

About five miles after Cooky’s, the route takes a left hand turn eastward, and the hills of Missouri begin. Gentle at first, with swooping steep downhills and short, steep climbs that you can power over with a few seconds of high power on the pedals. I called my brother Danny and talked to him and his wife Nikki as the sun started to set. That conversation left a smile on my face as I navigated the winding roads through Everton. Marshfield was out of the question and I was already starting to get tired. I figured I would stop in Ash Grove and reassess. I was hoping there might be a store there where I could at least get a snack and finish off that pie for dinner.

As soon as I put my foot down in Ash Grove, I heard my name being called. “Janie! Janie!” I squinted into the night and Wendy and Mike Davis emerged from the darkness. They told me that Ash Grove had a city-sponsored cyclist hostel, which they manage beautifully, just around the corner, and there was a grocery store just across the street. I couldn’t believe me luck; it was too good to be true. Stopping here would make it a short day, but guarantee me some quality sleep and a good meal. I told them Michael should be rolling in at any moment too.

I followed their car to the hostel, which is an old building with couches and cots and a giant kitchen. I ate a full meal and chatted with a couple of other cyclists who were touring the route the opposite way. Wendy checked on me to see if there was anything I needed. Short of a new body, I couldn’t have asked for anything else. I pulled out my sleeping bag, set my alarm for 4am, and fell into a deep sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

01. December 2017 · Comments Off on Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 11: Ups & Downs on the Flat Plains of Kansas · Categories: Uncategorized

When I rolled my bike by the empty indoor swimming pool and pushed open the doors of the Ness City Hotel, the sound of the wind was all I could hear. I sighed. I had known it was going to be happen, but some part of me had hoped that the air would be miraculously calm.

Toto, looks like we’re still in Kansas.

The sun rose as I rode to Rush Center, an intersection that has to be named ironically because it is truly central to absolutely nothing. At Rush Center, the route makes a right turn. If a south wind is blowing, the next 20 miles can feel horrifically endless.

A south wind was blowing.

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I knew that Michael and Sofiane were in front of me, but not exactly where or how far. About halfway down this stretch, I glimpsed a cocoon-like shape in the ditch on the side of the road. As I got closer I realized it was a human cocoon, but no way of knowing who it was. I thought how funny it was that seeing a human shrouded in a bag on the side of the road in Kansas didn’t seem like an unusual situation.

I reached Larned and went to a grocery store. With the vast majority of my food coming from convenience store aisles and hot cases, a grocery store had become sort of an elegant alternative. Food options were much more plentiful, but the process was usually more efficient than a restaurant. The main problem was finding right-sized items for transport. In Larned – despite the variety of options –  my eyes were still drawn to the donuts, packaged in boxes of one dozen.

I bought a box. I ate two there in the vestibule of the grocery store, shoppers coming in and out past me, and crammed six more into my seat bag as snacks for the next long, hot straight stretch to Nickerson. Despite my best efforts, I failed to find placement for the remaining four.

I had managed to get started early enough that the worst of the day’s wind hadn’t set in yet, but the heat had made its appearance early. The ride from Larned to Nickerson was hot, with some sections of rough, cracked pavement and an increasing crosswind. By the time I got to Nickerson I was dreaming of air conditioning and had been rationing water for an hour or so. I stopped in at the convenience store and drank slurpees until I made myself sick at my stomach and had to sit down in one of the booths.

It was mid-day and I had 50 miles to Newton. Even though I had only been in Kansas for just over a day, the monotony, heat and relentlessness of the state was getting to me mentally. I needed distraction. I called my friend Sandy and we talked through a training plan for an upcoming 50-mile running race. I hung up and heard my name being called, and there was my friend Travis’ uncle, who had come out to meet me last year. This year he had brought his wife. It was a relief to be able to stop and talk to them at an intersection flanked by cornfields and farm equipment.

I carried on towards Newton, and then, coming up behind me was Michael Wacker, in his Captain America jersey. I hadn’t seen Michael since Chief Joseph Pass in Montana, though we had been lurking around each other since that time. It was good to see him, and we chatted for a few minutes. He was riding faster than I thought I wanted to, so I told him to go ahead. But as I watched him pull away, I had second thoughts. If Michael was riding harder, then maybe I should be riding harder too. At this point in the race, with physical stores largely already tapped out, the idea of “saving” energy for later is no longer really a valid strategy. Once everyone has ridden 2,000 miles, the race becomes primarily a mental exercise. From my perspective, the better racers from this point on are those who can care for their basic needs most efficiently while harnessing that elusive mental focus to relentlessly scrape the bottom of the energy barrel. Because the connection between brain and legs is no longer a given, I was now finding that sometimes I could only ride faster by literally ordering my legs around. Pedal hard. Pedal hard. Pedal hard. Pedal hard. Pedal hard. Pedal hard.

Fortunately, being passed by Michael Wacker had the same effect.

Michael and I both love to time trial, and he looked so strong and steady that I was inspired. What was this wimpy cruising that I was doing, whining about the heat and the wind and the blah blah blah? This was a race, and I should be riding! We were about 20 miles from Newton, and hammering – me about 10 seconds behind Michael. A photographer was at a corner and caught us both; I had a big smile on my face, which makes me laugh to look at now.with_mw

I had to stop to get a drink, but hurried to catch Michael again. I was really grateful to him, just for providing that inspiration – to dig a little deeper, try a little harder, set my expectations a little higher for myself, even if just for that short period of time. People ask a lot why I like to race – why does it have to be a competition, they say, why can’t you just ride? And this is the answer: Because measuring myself against others makes me a better rider and, somehow over time (at least I like to think), a better version of myself.

Michael and I rolled into Newton side by side. Approaching Newton Bike Shop, I said, “Let’s sprint for the door!” and he edged me as we pulled up. Inside, we ate chicken and pasta and basked in the cool air conditioning. James discovered the donuts in my seat bag and did not deem them appetizing. We talked to friends and family on the web cam and people sent funny comments about our antics. Heather had bought me a new pair of sunglasses and saline solution and a toothbrush, and I rolled out feeling just as dirty and disgusting as before, but at least more able to maintain some semblance of oral hygiene.newton

I forced myself out of Newton after about an hour. If you’re a Trans Am racer focused on covering ground, Newton Bike Shop can be a siren’s call. There are so many creature comforts (and so much fried chicken) that it can be a real struggle to get back to the “real world” of racing your bike across the country. But it has to be done.

It was late evening, and another beautiful sunset in the west behind me was throwing light on the sky, changing colors as I rode. As it got dark, my mind went dark with the night. My ebullient mood from earlier in the day began to sink. What was I doing, I wondered? And why, why was I doing it? I had no good answers for myself. The road was trending up, and I was exhausted, and the wind was blowing in my face.    Screenshot 2017-12-01 18.38.55

The next 75 miles to Eureka were some of the worst of my entire race. Every five minutes seemed to take an hour. I couldn’t stop staring at my Garmin, and the line on it was not moving. At all. My brain was completely drained, and I couldn’t even think of anything to think about. And then in the absence of thought, I just started feeling mad, mostly at myself.

This race was stupid. I was stupid. There was no point anyway. I was a shitty bike rider, and – come to think of it – a pretty lame person generally. I had done a lot of things in my life that I wasn’t proud of, and now seemed the right time to catalogue those disappointments. It was disconcerting to watch my emotions deteriorate and feel helpless to stop them. I know full well that dramatic mood swings are pretty much a given in ultra-racing. Still, I had been hoping I would avoid them, at least until Missouri or Kentucky.

I put my foot down in the parking lot of a 24-hour gas station in Eureka and laid my head on my handlebars. Pulling two giant pieces of pizza out of the greasy, rotating glass carousel inside felt like a luxury compared to the mental darkness I had just experienced. You have no idea what I have been through, I wanted to tell the night clerk.

As I walked out of the door, here rolled Michael Wacker into the parking lot. He was smiling and seemed to have taken a different mental route from Newton than I had. Maybe he ate more fried chicken. Michael was going to the park to sleep, and I went to a run-down motel and rummaged around under a potted plant trying to find a key the night manager had left for me. Eventually I found it under a heavy, dirty mat.