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.
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.
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.
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.
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.