Race morning, I woke up in my hotel at 5am, the sun rising and glinting off the Astoria bridge just outside my window. Despite having been in Astoria for three days, with plenty of time for race preparation, my stuff was still strewn around the room. I jammed my life possessions for the next few weeks hurriedly into my bike bags.
When I was done, I found some bag space for two giant blueberry pancakes from my visit the day before to the Pig ‘N Pancake diner (definitely my favorite spot in Astoria).
I opened the door to leave and stood there for just a minute in the crack, leaning the heavy door against me and cognizant of what it would mean to hear that latch echo shut behind me. I wheeled my bike into the lobby and said hello to a couple of other riders hurrying to get to the start. I took the path along the train tracks to the Maritime Museum, riding tentatively, pretty sure that I would crash before I even got the chance to start. I was riding behind a guy on an aero race bike. He looked fast.
I always dread the hours just before a race begins. It feels like a purgatory, where you’re stuck in the no-man’s land between everything you’ve already done and everything you’re about to do. There’s nothing more you can do to improve or prepare; still, a thousand things can still go wrong.
Nathan was just finishing his exhortations when I arrived about five minutes before the start. (“Take care of each other out there!”) I saw Mike Maurer and his wife, and gave Evan a hug as he rolled up. I saw Ken from DC and his girlfriend Ellen, there to send him off before going to do a gravel race. Donncha wasn’t there so, feeling somehow responsible for him, I called to make sure he was awake. I was happy to see JJ Simon and his wife Jacqueline. I had met JJ in 2001 on the island of Cyprus where we were both serving diplomatic missions. He had been a good friend and adventure partner for me and Jimmy there – always up for anything – and I was excited to see him take on the Trans Am.
I showed Jacqueline my manicure, which I had rushed to get the evening prior. In 2016, I had a leftover manicure from my brother’s wedding a couple of weeks before the race start. During the race I had watched in amazement as my nails grew out, day by day, from my cuticles. It was like watching rings grow in a tree trunk, and it was a powerful physical reminder of the time that was passing as I rode. I had wanted to see the same process again this year; maybe, if I was faster, there would be less nail to see at the end. While talking with Jacqueline, I realized I didn’t have an extra hair band, and she pulled out her ponytail and gave me hers. I wore that hair band through the race and it served as a memento for many weeks after it was over.
The rollout happened unceremoniously, as it had last year. Once we got out of Astoria, I was simply relieved to be riding.
Before the race, I had laid out a pretty exacting plan for each day, and was determined to stick to it as closely as my body, and circumstances, would allow. Last year, I had been warned so many times about the unpredictability of this type of multi-day self supported racing that I had only made a plan for four days; after that I was winging it, day to day, hour to hour. Upon reflection after the race, I had decided that some of that on-the-fly decision making had caused me to make mistakes, and waste time I couldn’t afford to waste this year.
This year, with more goals and more on the line, I had been determined to plan better. Still, I was prepared to throw it all out the window if I needed. I had laid out three goals for myself in this year’s race:
- Learn something new about myself. This was a holdover from 2016, and the only entirely unquantifiable goal I held. But it was also the most important to me. To reach this goal, I felt I needed to pay attention to what was happening to me, and around me, for the entire journey. I also needed a strong rein on my emotions – finding a balance between fighting hard, when the time was right, and acceptance of things that were out of my control.
- Reach Yorktown in 20 days. Last year, it had taken me 22 days and 11 hours to reach the Yorktown monument. This year I was better trained and prepared in almost every way, but luck, weather, fatigue, and other circumstances are a big part of this type of racing and always need to be considered. Looking at the numbers, I had decided that 20 days (or about 210-215 miles/day) was an ambitious, yet achievable, goal.
- Finish in the top 10–15 racers. I was reticent about including this in my list of goals, because who shows up to race, how strong those racers are, and how their races go compared to yours is always something completely out of your control. Still, a race is a race. This year my online stalking of other riders had made it clear that, not only was the field twice as big as 2016, it also included more experienced, strong starters who were aiming to get to Yorktown fast. In 2016, I finished in 9th place, so I thought that winding up in a similar position this year would be pretty satisfying.
So, executing my plan was front and center in my mind as we rode the first 110 miles or so down the Oregon coastline before the route turns inland. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a lot of weird energy during the first couple days of this race – everyone knows it’s a long haul, but all the competitors are also rested, amped up, and excited. There’s a lot of jockeying for position, and this makes it quite difficult to not obsess about what other riders are doing. I imagine that for some riders that contagious energy is invigorating. For me it feels exhausting, like I’m in a constant battle to keep my mind (and ego) purely focused on what I need to do.
To help manage that, I had a wattage target to keep me from going out too hard, and mileage targets that I planned to stick to religiously. Today I was aiming for Walterville, which was 230 miles into the race. Walterville is not really a town, but I figured that I would bivvy there, or perhaps find a post office or campground if needed. I didn’t want to go further, because the road climbs after that to an eventual summit of McKenzie Pass at about 300 miles in, and I didn’t want to get stuck in the cold in the middle of the night (an early-season snowstorm meant that the summit had only been plowed just before the race). While getting over McKenzie Pass on Day 1 is seen by some as a Trans Am badge of sorts, and a strategy that can potentially provide tactical advantages over other racers, I knew it wasn’t a good idea for me.
Later in the day I hooked up with Evan. Evan and I had met on Day 1 of the 2016 race, and become good friends in the intervening year. I have a ton of respect for Evan as a rider (and person), and while I was happy to get to spend some time together, I also knew he was the stronger rider. I cautioned myself mentally not to let his energy (and speed) cause me to reach outside of myself. While I think that reaching beyond your boundaries is generally a good thing in life, I also am sure that it’s generally a bad thing on Day 1 of the Trans Am Bike Race.
In the 2016 race, I had rolled into Corvallis at dusk on day one, and found Evan in the aisles of the Natural Grocers, where I marveled at the amount of food he bought and stuffed into his bags. This year, like a tradition, Evan and I rolled into Corvallis once again and stopped at the Natural Grocer. This year, though, I was able to pack a lot more food, and it was well before dusk when we rode out the other side of town. I had about 50 miles left to my planned stop in Walterville. Evan was talking about going over McKenzie Pass that night.
Then, suddenly out of nowhere, I was talking about going over McKenzie Pass too. I mean, why not? This was an adventure, right? I was here to push myself. I stopped for a second to pee on the side of the road, and the house across the street was having a barbecue and blasting Bryan Adams’ ‘Summer of ’69.’ Back on my bike, the sun was going down, and the sky was streaked with these amazing oranges and purples and yellows. I felt in love with riding and in love with life. My energy was good and my legs felt awesome.
Of course I should go over McKenzie Pass tonight, I decided. At the moment, it seemed like the only logical decision.
It got dark slowly that night, and both Evan and I turned on our lights. We were on a well paved, low traffic road, but couldn’t ride side by side anymore for safety reasons. Things got quiet, and the ambiance of night riding began to take over. I have a love-hate relationship with night riding. When the weather is nice and when I am feeling good, as was the case that night, riding in the dark feels like getting away with something deliciously forbidden. Being out in the quiet air, with the stars above and the noises of the day gone away, feels transgressive, like a lovely secret. On the other hand, night riding can take my emotionally and physically to depths of misery.
But that comes later. This night, conditions were perfect for riding. We blew through Walterville and I didn’t even notice we had. I was amped up and ready for McKenzie Pass. Around 10pm, Evan made a change of plans and decided to stop to sleep for a few hours before tackling the pass. I decided not to stop (???) and continued on my own. Coming into McKenzie Bridge, I saw lights in front of me and pulled up next to Michael Wacker, wearing his Captain America jersey. Even though Michael had been in the race the year before, I had never gotten the chance to meet him. He mentioned that he was going to head towards McKenzie as well, but mentioned he was concerned about the potential for icy roads, given recent storms – something I had not considered.
I rolled into McKenzie Bridge alone. McKenzie Bridge is a very small town that sits at the base of the ~20-mile road up McKenzie Pass. There is a general store there that I remembered from the year before, with a water spigot in front. The guy who owns the store was still there and cleaning up, but he said he was closed for the night.
Suddenly, I was really tired. Like, really tired. I decided that my McKenzie Pass plans were misguided, and I would bivvy here for the night. I had already ridden 30 miles further than I had planned, and I couldn’t help but think that had been a mistake I might pay for later. (Spoiler: I did.) There was an apartment complex next to the general store, and I found a spot next to the dumpster where I was out of sight in the dark, or so I thought. I sat on the ground and ate some food. Then I pulled out my sleeping bag and my bivvy, using my helmet light, and curled up to sleep.
It was cold on the ground, and I couldn’t get comfortable. I had done exactly what I had told myself not to do, and gone too far and high, where it was now cold. Some other racers came up to use the spigot, talking loudly. I said hi, then closed my eyes again.
Then the yelling started from the apartment complex next door. It began inside an apartment, but a drunken fight soon spilled outside into the parking lot, just next to where I was sleeping. I wondered whether anyone would see me, and just tried to act small and invisible. It didn’t work. Suddenly, the yelling stopped and three big guys were looming over me, wondering what I was doing.
I learned in 2016 that trying to explain why you are sleeping in a random place on the ground during the Trans Am to a normal human being is harder than it seems. Something just always gets lost in translation. In this case, the guys were drunk and it was about 2am, which just made things more difficult. Eventually they told me that I couldn’t sleep there, that this was private property.
I said sorry and packed up to leave. Just as I was getting everything back in my bike bags, the owner stormed out towards me – apparently he was angered by the fact that the other guys had kicked me out – and ordered me, in no uncertain terms, to stay. Strangely, I felt more threatened by this guy than the others, so I dutifully unrolled my sleeping bag and got back into it. When he was satisfied that I was indeed staying, and not listening to those other guys, he wished me good night and headed back in.
It was quiet again, but there was no sleeping for me. I had been stopped for over three hours, and slept for 30 minutes. Things were not going according to plan. At about 3:30am, I sighed, packed up to start riding, and immediately turned the wrong way out of the parking lot.
Things were definitely not going according to plan.