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Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 7: Why oh Why?oming

I woke up encased in the wood-paneled room at Togwotee Mountain Lodge, part of the way up Togwotee Pass. The chilly mountain air was spilling in the open window. It made me think of home in Colorado.

I rolled out the gravel parking lot, rocks cracking under my tires, into the cold morning, the sun up but barely. I was about 35 miles behind schedule, but a lot of it was downhill. I finished the climb up to the summit of the pass, my legs feeling pretty good and thankful for the few hours of rest. I whooped and hollered down the fast and long descent into Dubois, arriving around breakfast time. I stopped into the convenience store, which was next to the grocery store where last year I had spent ages treating my saddle sores. I was thankful that this year my problems seemed more fleeting, although – in addition to the nagging knee pain I’d been dealing with – yesterday my right Achilles had started to ache when climbing. This worried me, as I had already seen reports of other riders dropping from severe ankle pain.

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Togwotee Pass  Source

There was a bit of a tailwind as I left Dubois. The 75 miles from Dubois to Lander and through the Wind River Reservation are spectacular, and a welcome net downhill. The Wind River Mountain Range sits to the right, and red rocks jut up to form canyon walls beside the road.

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Wind River Canyon Source

Coming into Lander, one of the employees of Gannett Peak Sports bike shop joined me, and it was great to have the company of a Trans Am fan for a few miles. We rolled into the bike shop on the main street through town. I used their pump to air up my tires, which were embarrassingly low, and I think they gave me an ice cream sandwich. I complained about my Achilles. One of the guys who worked there, who had raced the Tour Divide the year before and suffered from Achilles pain, told me to do downward dog occasionally. I told him I would plan on it. On the way out of town, I stopped in at McDonalds and loaded up for what I knew would be hot ride towards Rawlins.  Screenshot 2017-11-27 11.04.16

The next section was tough. What had been a strong tailwind all morning turned into a strong crosswind as I made the climb up to Sweetwater Station. The crosswind was so strong that a few times it blew me out of the shoulder and into the road. By the time I got to Sweetwater Station, which is little more than an excuse to stop for a break, I felt battered. I sat in the shade at the public rest stop and ate a hamburger.

I was dreading the next 90-mile section. From Sweetwater Station, the route heads about another 40 miles southwest, through the tiny town of Jeffrey City. At an intersection called Muddy Gap where there is an important convenience store, strategically placed, the road takes a decided turn due south for the remainder of the road to Rawlins. This section of road is characterized by truck traffic, a disintegrating shoulder, and a rumble strip that gives the rider only a couple of feet to ride on between slippery sand and the brain-jarring rumble strip surface.

It was late afternoon when I made my way towards Muddy Gap. I knew I was in danger of not making it to the convenience store before it closed, and there was no cell service so I couldn’t find out for sure how late they were open. I decided to stop at the bar in Jeffrey City. It was dark inside, and only one customer, a local friend of the bartender/cook. I ordered two club sandwiches with French fries and a coke. While the bartender was cooking my sandwiches, the other guy would go behind the bar and get me another coke every time I finished one. I must have had five.

The bartender finally brought me my sandwiches, wrapped nicely for transport. I took everything outside then went back inside to the bathroom. When I came back out, a dog was just eating the last of the second sandwich. She looked so guilty and happy that it was hard to be mad. I went back inside, ordered two more cokes and some chips. That would have to do.

When I got to Muddy Gap, the store was closed. I made the right-hand turn to Rawlins as it was getting dark. There was a beautiful moon rising to my left. I noted how beautiful it was and hoped it was a harbinger of pleasant things to come.Screenshot 2017-11-27 15.18.02

Last year, this stretch to Rawlins was almost my undoing. And as luck would have it, the moon was a mockery because this year would be even worse. Instead of dying down as it got dark, the wind seemed to pick up, becoming a ferocious head/cross wind from the southwest. It was getting dark and there were big trucks on the road. I was tired, and kept looking for places on the side of the road where I could sleep, but I knew if I did I’d have to get up and face the wind again anyway. I might as well make as much headway as I could before hurling myself on the side of the road.

At the time, it seemed like there would be so much to say about those miserable hours. How scary, how rotten, how unfair. The stories I was telling myself about my own persecution were absolutely legendary, believe me. But now that I think about it, there’s really not much to say. I ended up riding all the way to Rawlins that night. It was terrible. For about four hours I averaged less than 10 miles per hour, and most of that was on a flat road. Counting down the miles. Craning my neck to see whether the lights of oncoming cars might signal some small change in the road’s direction, something that might give me hope that I would soon get to turn.

There is a long climb before Rawlins and it never ended, I mean never, and of course there was a headwind on the descent so I couldn’t stop working even then. A bit chastened (by myself) for all the money I had wasted the night before at Togwotee Lodge, I called the cheapest hotel in town, but when I got to Rawlins, 2am and windblown and broken, I couldn’t find it. I rode towards the other side of town and pulled into the Hampton Inn. It was too expensive, too, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. The computer system was down and the check-in took forever. The hot water didn’t work in the room. My Achilles was too painful to put under the pressure of the sheet.

Certainly tomorrow would have to be better.

 

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 6: On Horology and Being “Good Enough”

Donncha and I left weird Virginia City just as it was getting light. I was anxious and eager to get past Ennis as quickly as possible, because I remembered the brutal headwinds between Ennis and West Yellowstone from 2016. My plan for the day had me making it to Dubois, Wyoming, which was almost 240 miles. The route included getting through Yellowstone, skirting the Grand Tetons, and then up and over Togwotee Pass. Each of these landmarks was an obstacle in its own right, even in good conditions, and I wondered what logic I had in mind when I devised that strategy. Oh right, I was sitting at my computer, with rested legs and probably a hot cup of coffee.

To get to Ennis, we first had to complete the ascent of a pass, then make a long drop down the other side. I warmed up quickly, so I rode on ahead and told Donncha I would meet him at the convenience store in Ennis. The ride to the top was fairly easy, and the descent nice as the sun rose. I was feeling strong and happy.

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At Ennis with Donncha.

At the Ennis store, I bought food – and caffeine – for the next five hours or so, as I was hoping not to stop until West Yellowstone, about 75 miles into the day. Donncha rolled in, not far behind. We left together, while I dropped pastry crumbs and skittles all over the ground trying to eat.

Do you always do this? he asked. Yep, I said. Pretty much.

The wind was light for the first several miles, and I tried not to get my hopes up. I talked to my friend Kim, who lives in Whitefish, Montana. As we turned to the south and the morning wore on, the winds picked up to a steady tempo and got louder and more intense. I got down in my aero bars and tried to remember to eat and drink. I dropped a few pieces of candy on the road as a greeting to Donncha.

Several miles into this long, monotonous stretch, I saw a rider on the other side of the road. I waved and he turned around to join me. Ken Simpson! Ken had ridden the Trans Am the previous year, from east coast to west, as part of a pair, and I had encountered his team in western Missouri. He lives in the area, and had come out to support the riders. It was great to have a companion for a few miles. Traffic was low, so we were able to ride side by side and talk – rather, yell over the wind – while we rode.  Ken left me at the parking lot of a rest station to head back to see some of the other racers, and I carried on towards West Yellowstone.

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Quake Lake Source

There’s a westward turn and a climb up to Quake Lake that marks the end of this section. The view of the lake is spectacular, and I stopped to take photos. I was feeling very happy and at peace today. I felt like I had run the day’s first gauntlet and was still in control. Whatever I was doing felt good enough, which can be a fleeting feeling in this type of adventure. Lots of days, it’s easy to feel like you are falling short, not good enough – even while “good enough” remains an undefined mark on the horizon.

Luckily today, so far at least, was not one of those days.

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Riding towards West Yellowstone. Photo credit Ken Simpson

Of course, Yellowstone still lay ahead, and was a gauntlet of its own. I rolled into West Yellowstone mid-day. I bought a whistle, anticipating bear country ahead, and stopped at the bike shop, Freeheel and Wheel to get my bike checked. I spent what seemed like a lot of time looking for lithium batteries for my spot tracker, which was not working well.

Finally, I paid the fee and rolled into Yellowstone Park. The women at the gate had seen some of the other racers – they mentioned Jon and Evan – and knew about the race. They wished me luck.

The leg from the entrance gate to Old Faithful felt as slow as last year. It’s not really uphill, but dodging traffic made it hard to get into a rhythm. It was also hard to watch hordes of tourists meandering around spewing geysers and loitering with their cameras watching animals. All I saw was a bison, but I knew I was missing things with my relentless focus on time.

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West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Source

It took me the whole afternoon and until near sunset to get through Yellowstone. I had my earbud in my right ear and I was listening to the podcast S-Town. If you haven’t listened to S-Town, you should. The story is about an eccentric genius from small-town Alabama named John B. McLemore. Among other things, John B. McLemore is a clock-repair hobbyist, or a horologist – someone who studies the passage of time.

Descending from Yellowstone into the Grand Tetons, it was getting cold and the sun was beginning to set. I was listening to narrator Brian Reed describe the intricate, tedious process those of repairing old clocks:

“The few people left in the world who know how to do this kind of thing rely on what are often called ‘witness marks’ to guide their way. A witness mark could be a small dent, a hole that once held a screw: These are actual impressions and dent lines and discolorations left inside the clock of pieces that may have once been there. They are clues as to what was in the clockmaker’s mind when he first created the thing. I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening. You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere, and all you’ve got are these vague witness marks which might not even mean what you think they mean.”

Looking at the mountains jutting up from the lake around Colter Bay in the Grand Tetons, I wondered whether we’re all doing a similar thing in life – looking for those “witness marks” to show us what to do, to keep us from going down a path to nowhere. Maybe we’re always squinting hard, looking for clues from the world – or from what others learned before us – in the hopes they will tell us something to help guide our way.

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Colter Bay Source

In any case, a realization that the descending darkness was guiding me to was that there was no way I was going to make it to Dubois that night. I made a refueling stop at Colter Bay while it was still light, then carried on into the dark, where neon signs on the dark road read “Bears on Road” and “Be Bear Aware.”

I was starting to feel really tired, but also knew that I couldn’t stop here. I was blowing my whistle and singing out loud, yelling and talking loud until I was out of breath. Then I would start over again. I knew the stretch I was riding through was beautiful, but I couldn’t see anything.

The climb up Togwotee Pass is a long one, but I decided to try to get up as far as possible. I called for a room at Togwotee Lodge, which was ridiculously expensive – especially for a handful of hours of sleep – but my options were limited in this cold and remotely mountainous area.

Near midnight and on exhausted legs, I saw the lights of the lodge. My name was on an envelope with a key. The room was paneled with wood – shabby chic? – and way too warm. I opened the window and let the cold air in. There was a coffee maker. I put water in it and fell into a deep, deep sleep.

 

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 5: Things Are Going South, But Looking Up

I got on the road early, though not as early as I wanted. I think it was around 4:30am, definitely before sun up. Last year I slept in Lolo and rode the wrong way almost to Missoula before realizing my mistake. This year I felt almost smug just for knowing the correct way to go out of the hotel parking lot (right!).

Western Montana.

From Lolo, the Trans Am course follows a long valley, dotted with small towns, with a meandering bike lane beside the road. The biggest weight on me (in more ways than one) this morning was this constipation issue. I had lost sleep again the night before. To preserve my race, and my sanity, I needed to figure this sh*t out.

At the town of Hamilton, I knew where the grocery store was, because last year I stopped there to buy every product known to man that could possibly mitigate my saddle-sore pain. As I rolled into the familiar parking lot, it wasn’t lost on me that I was back at the same place to address another unspeakable ailment.

It was about 6:30am, and I stood dazed in the “gut health” aisle. There were no other customers in the fluorescent-lit store, and only one cashier. She smiled and said good morning. I bought a fast-acting laxative and took a double dose at the water fountain, and then roamed around for a few minutes waiting for it to work – hoping she wouldn’t notice my loitering and put #2 and #2 together. Despite having no customers, there seem to be hordes of employees. They were all friendly and noticing me too much, while I fake-looked at magazines, wearing my bike helmet and waiting for the laxatives to work.

After about 20 minutes, I conceded. The truth was looking me in the face; I only had one option left. I cringed as I considered it, walking slowly back to the “gut health” aisle. The enema box was huge. There was no way, I thought. No. Way. Yep, the other part of my brain told myself. It was the only way.

I sighed heavily and headed back to the checkout.

But not before being waylaid near the produce section by an older gentleman. He wanted to tell me about a mountain bike his friend was selling. Did I know anyone who wants to buy this bike, he asked. I said no, and that I wasn’t even really from around here. I held the giant box awkwardly behind my back. Well maybe you’ll think of someone when you see these photos, he said, blocking my path. I waited there while he pulled up Craigslist and spent a while searching for the ad on his old phone. I squinted at the photos as he scrolled through and thought, that’s a really crappy mountain bike. But I just said again – more firmly this time – no, sorry, I didn’t know anyone.

I paid for the enema and smiled at the cashier, intentionally making eye contact, like oh hey, I do this all the time. Inside, though, I was mortified. I’m not really sure why. I’m not squeamish, or one to particularly respect taboos. My grandfather was a rectal surgeon, and as my mom reminds me, used to publicly refer to himself as the “rear admiral.” I have a job with a global health nonprofit where I advocate for solutions to prevent diarrheal disease in children in developing countries. Still, this was out of my comfort zone – in more ways than one. Not to mention it was a pretty serious impediment to being out there in the race, banging out miles on the road.

I was sure the cashier was watching my back as I walked to the bathroom. The whole process took about ten minutes. It worked like magic – or so it seemed (I do realize that it’s science, not magic. But still). I was so excited that I yelled out loud in the echoing bathroom, “It worked! It worked!”

I rode out of Hamilton with a giant smile on my face – also mildly irritated with myself that it had taken me three days to solve this problem, but mostly happy. The whole world suddenly seemed different, and better. I crossed paths with Michael Wacker for the first time since our night one encounter, and surprised to see me, he told me that he had met Jimmy last year on that exact same stretch of road. Coincidence? No. Serendipity! It was a good day.

Michael and I both stopped at the store in Syringa before the climb up Chief Joseph Pass, and there were a couple of dot watchers there cheering for us. I talked with them and they took photos with me and Michael. I was in a great mood. Michael and I rode up the pass together. We talked about riding, about self supported racing, and the ubiquitous conflict between racing and absorbing the adventure as a personal experience. We talked about his need for redemption after starting the Trans Am twice and being unable to finish due to circumstances largely out of his control. I told him about the enema. We also talked about pizza.

At the top of the pass, which is one of the route’s many Continental Divide crossings, social hour was over as Michael dropped down over the other side into the Big Hole Valley like a stone. By the time I arrived in Wisdom he had already blown in and out of the store – but I found Luke there eating. It was getting hot, and the notorious mosquitos of the Big Hole were out in full force. I loaded up and started the long flat mosquito-infested ride across the valley and then the climb out from Jackson. Luke was in front of me most of the way to Jackson. This stretch is beautiful, but it can also feel eternal.

Starting the exposed climb out of the Big Hole Valley, Luke had disappeared. But what I could now see up ahead was a massive lightning storm rolling in – and fast. Suddenly I was in the middle of it: hail, driving rain, a massive headwind. I saw lightning strike into the field on my right, but there was nowhere to stop and hide.

At the top, I made a left hand turn and was relieved to have finished the climb, but as it turned out, the descent was even scarier. Water was pooling on the road, inches deep, and the tailwind now made it hard to slow down the bike enough to control it. The scenery from this vantage point was so vast that I could see where the storm would end. I focused on that point.

Finally, I made it out of the rain, waterlogged but relieved. It was suddenly so quiet on this lonely stretch. A pickup pulled up beside me with three guys in front. Where are you from, they asked. I said Colorado and then they said “oh, okay” and then drove on.

Manicured lawns of the university in Dillon. Source

Descending into the college town of Dillon, Montana, I stopped at the Pita Pit and asked which sandwiches were fastest to make. They said chicken, so I ordered three. It still took a while, and when she handed me the sandwiches they were huge and weighed about ten pounds apiece. I ate a whole one while I rearranged everything to make room to carry the other two.

It was getting to evening now, and Donncha had called to say he was up the road a bit. I told him to soft pedal if he felt like it and we could ride together. I was tempted to call the day short and stop in Twin Bridges, but the idea of having company made me pretty sure I could push on to Virginia City – which was where my plan had me stopping tonight. After three days of exceeding my daily mileage targets, it has been tough to meet them the last two days, but I was determined to stick with it as long as possible.

Donncha was spinning easy on the road to Twin Bridges, so I eventually caught him. We watched the sunset and chatted, and said how it looked like it was going to be a beautiful night to ride, with even a tailwind breeze if we were lucky. Unfortunately, just about the time we made the turn south at Twin Bridges and it started to get dark, a nasty crosswind picked up. The ride to Virginia City from Twin Bridges was only about 30 miles, but uphill and into a squall that kept spitting rain and pummeling us into the road, sometimes dramatically. Turns out that the crosswind was just a foreshadowing teaser for headwinds starting tomorrow that would not let up for days.

Heading south (finally).

It took us a long time to ride that 30 miles, but we made the most of it. We counted down the miles. We complained about our legs. We played the “ask me anything” game, which led to discussions of family and religion and food. When the wind or rain became particularly brutal, we said sarcastically to each other, “No matter what happens, at least we’ll always have this time together.” Donncha talked to his brother on the phone for a while, and I rode up ahead.

Around 1am we made it to a bizarre bed-and-breakfast inn in the equally bizarre ghost-town-turned-western-tourist-town Virginia City. There was no one at the front desk, but the lady had promised him two rooms, though only one had a shower. The building is cut up into many passageways and levels, and it took us a while to find the right rooms. Being the gentleman that he is, Donncha had promised me the shower first. But when I finally located my ornate room with a flowery bedspread and a sink but no bathroom, I heard the shower running next door. When he was done, I gave him a hard time, but he said he had done it “because I know I’m quick, like. You probably take longer.” I showered in about a nanosecond, and we decided to leave together at 5:30am.

I ate the third pita, careful of the flowery bedspread, and slept well.

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 4: So-lo, Lolo

About 4:30am, with the big moon still in the sky, I rode out of Riggins. I was surprised to discover that the ride down the river canyon from Riggins to White Bird was pleasant. It felt almost opposite from 2016, when I rode this stretch at the end of my long, hard fourth day on the road.

I thought about how my experience of this race at any given moment was directly tied to my physical, mental, and emotional state. What I can see around me is usually a direct reflection of how I feel. When I’m feeling good, a stretch of barren dirt can invoke euphoria. When I’m down in the dumps, I can criticize the universe’s most beautiful sunset.     Screenshot 2017-11-22 09.00.34

Despite its overall easterly course, the Trans Am Route was now headed north, where the route goes through northern Idaho before beginning to drop south into Montana. White Bird Hill, the climb out of the tiny town of White Bird, is a Trans Am icon, and for good reason. It’s not the steepest or the longest climb on route, but it’s one of the most atmospheric. Built in the early 1900s, miles of switchbacks on this old road wind up the side of a hill through undeveloped grazing land. Because an adjacent highway takes most of the traffic, it’s possible to climb White Bird and never see a car.

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Looking towards the new highway from White Bird Hill

Halfway up, I stopped for a coffee drink, are breakfast, and soaked in the sounds of the morning – which mostly consisted of mooing cows. Coming around a corner, headphones blasting to Eminem, I encountered a herd blocking the road. Hearing my singing, they thought I was a herder and traveled just in front of me for about a mile.

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Just beginning the descent down to the little town of Grangeville, I got my first flat and stopped to change it. I was making good time so far today, and in a hurry, so I rushed the change. I blew through Grangeville with just a convenience store stop, and headed out towards the miles of rollers that had to be navigated before reaching today’s major challenge: the 80+-mile climb up the Lochsa River and to the top of Lolo Pass.

It was just around breakfast time. I talked to my husband Jimmy and my coach Greg. About 40 miles from Grangeville, I rolled into Syringa, which is an important resupply point at the mouth of the Lochsa river/Lolo Pass climb. Syringa has a supermarket, which was a huge relief, so I bought laxatives and took a handful more than the recommended dosage. The package promised they would work in 4-6 hours, which would be highly inconvenient given the lack of services for the next 8 hours or so. But, circumstances meant that I didn’t have the luxury of planning for a porcelain throne.

I had lost my headphones by now, too, probably when I stopped to change the earlier flat. I began to wonder whether I was getting sloppy with my decisions. I bought new headphones at the supermarket, which made every song sound far, far away. Then I took a wrong turn out of town, and had to turn around. Getting back to town, I found out that it wasn’t a wrong turn after all, and headed back where I had been.

Finally, I began the shallow climb up the river. For most Trans Am racers going west to east, this stretch is one of the most anticipated (and usually dreaded) of the early parts of the race. It’s a little bit hard to explain why. The winding canyon road is indeed beautiful, and the uphill grade quite gentle until the climb up to the pass with about 8 miles to go. Still, most racers (including myself) are tired by this point, and the monotony can be absolutely relentless. Last year, I had hurled myself to sleep on the riverbank in exhaustion. I think Max Lippe captured the experience perfectly in his race report from this year.

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The first few hours were ok. Then it started to get hot. The laxatives did not seem to be living up to their promises, and I was intensely uncomfortable. I had lost sleep for the last two nights because of this, and knew this problem had to be sorted, and soon. I pulled off into the woods a couple of times, but to no avail. Things felt ok in the aero bars, but as soon as I sat up I was in true, actual pain. Nothing to do but keep riding.

I flatted again. In my hurry to make the change this morning, I had pinched the tube inside the rim, resulting in this second flat of the day. I went across the road into a car pullout, and made sure to take the time to do it right. I was wired on caffeine, but could tell my focus was slipping a little. I was repeating to myself out loud, “Don’t mess it up, don’t mess it up, don’t mess it up.”

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The lovely, horrifying Lochsa River. Source

As soon as I got rolling again, the battery on my electronic shifting died – signaling me by refusing to shift gears. Luckily, my Dynamo front wheel hub generates electricity while I am riding. Unluckily, I have to be riding at a good clip for it to provide a reasonable amount of charge. And I was not riding at a good clip. I single-speeded for quite a number of miles – counting them down painfully slowly according to the mile markers on the side of the road. This stretch went on for years, if not eons. I sang, I counted, I pondered on the meaning of life. Eventually I was able to switch gears again.

After the loneliest of afternoons, I reached the Lochsa Mountain Lodge, which is just before the climb steepens for the last handful of miles up to the pass at 5,000 feet. Meaning to make a quick stop only, I ended up doing the opposite. First, I went into the store and talked to the guy working there, who told me that Michael Wacker and Donncha had recently been in, talking about a bird that had pooped on Donncha. Given the tedium that I had just endured, this seemed like an incident of comedic proportions. Why did some people get all the fun?

I went into the restaurant to find internet and try to contact a bike shop in Hamilton where I might be able to buy tubes. The guy who worked there told me that the internet didn’t work. Even so, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to connect, of course to no avail. Then I spent an even longer time in the bathroom, also to no avail. By the time I finally completed this myriad of entirely unproductive activities, the guy at the convenience store came outside to tell me, you just got passed. I didn’t care, but was irritated anyway that he made the point of letting me know.

As I neared the top of Lolo Pass, I saw a figure pulling on a jacket. Luke Kocher! After this day of utter loneliness and tedium, I was thrilled to see another racer and it immediately changed my mood. Last year I had a similar encounter with Brian McEntire, so this felt like tradition. We took photos at the Montana state line (state number three!) and chatted for a while as we charged down the pass at about 40mph.

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Coming into Lolo, I got a message from Donncha that he was in the McDonalds in Lolo. My genius spreadsheet, which I had not followed yet, had me stopping in Lolo for the night, and I decided not to press on. It had been a long, hard day already. I needed rest. I stopped in McDonalds and found Donncha sleeping upright in a booth, empty fries container and burger wrappers on the table in front of him. When I woke him up, he was wild-eyed and chatty and told me he planned to ride into the night. I thought about joining him, then decided that sounded like a bad life decision.

I was exhausted falling into bed that night. My right knee was throbbing. I set my alarm for 4am. It could only get better, right?

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 3: Contemplation (& Constipation)

I slept for seven hours in Prairie City.

WHAT? Who sleeps for seven hours on night two of the Trans Am Bike Race?! That’s ridiculous. I heard later that Luke Kocher and Michael Wacker thought about being worried about me because I had stopped for so long. It’s always nice to know your fellow racers are watching out for you. Thanks, guys.

It’s probably obvious, but worth a mention, that I felt like a million bucks when I woke up. I was full of energy and could hardly wait to start riding. Sleep can have an amazing effect not just on your body, but on the brain chemicals that fuel mood and mental state. For the first time since the early part of day one, I was ready to roll!

I pulled out of Prairie City around 3:30am or so into a cold mountain air. There is a long climb out and the effort warmed me up. I was pedaling in a slow rhythm, looking up at a bright, almost full moon and a sky filled with stars. I remembered that in 2016 when I had met Michael Rushton on this pass, I was already struggling with painful saddle sores that would haunt me for the rest of the journey. So far this year, I was avoiding that curse.

As I crested the first climb and began to descend, the temperature started to drop. And drop. My Garmin said 26 degrees. A crystalline, icy fog began to form as I dropped into the valley, and I could not think of anything but wanting to start climbing again. The road snaked around corners, and even in the pre-dawn morning the lights of cars would come by occasionally. I remember wondering where those people were going. Who were they and what were their stories. What, I wondered, would they think of mine?

The shallow descent along the Powder River into Baker City is a beautiful stretch, and the rising sun was beginning to warm things up. Along this stretch I passed another rider who looked to be emerging from a stop, and he called and waved to me as I went by.

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Scene from the Powder River Source

I thought it might have been Jose Bermudez, but I wasn’t sure. Back in March, Jose and I had a close encounter of the bike-crashing kind during the early miles of a 400-mile RAAM qualifying race in Texas. We had crashed, together, in a low-water crossing at the bottom of a steep downhill in the pre-sunrise dark. It was certainly an awkward way to make an acquaintance – not to mention that the crash tore the zipper up the side leg of my bib shorts wide open, leaving me with no choice but to call for pants reinforcements. Jose had gone on to become the first rider ever to finish the race unsupported. I dropped out due to an (unrelated) mechanical, and went to a brewery. I knew he was doing the Trans Am, but this was the first time I had seen him.

I stopped at the convenience store just on the west side of Baker City, and went inside to use the bathroom and fuel up. When I came out, I saw three girls with cowbells in the parking lot, bouncing up and down and looking expectantly up the road. As I started to roll out of the parking lot, I heard my name. They had been waiting for me! I spent a few minutes chatting, mostly trying to convince them all to do the Trans Am Bike Race (I am always trying to convince women to do the Trans Am Bike Race, because it’s amazing, ladies!). They all shook their heads no way, but I think I saw a glint in one of their eyes.

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Baker City: small-town Oregon Source

I was in a great mood while riding out of Baker City. There was another rider in front of me, and as I got closer, I realized that he was nursing a full cup of coffee while riding. Impressive. His name was Ryszard Deneka and he was from Poland. Ryszard had a very nontraditional on-again, off-again pedaling style, where he would spin his legs up for a few seconds using great power, then coast. Then repeat, again and again. I remember that I thought it didn’t look like a very efficient way to ride, and I wondered how long he could keep it up. As it turned out: 4,300 miles.

About mid-day, I reached the general store at the route’s entrance to Hells Canyon along the Snake River. I remembered this stop well from 2016. The owner (who becomes an avid dot watcher during the race) had wanted to complain to me about one of the other riders who had parked his bike on the front porch, and refused to remove it when asked. Talking to other riders and reading their reports later, I found out that he had the exact same conversation with nearly every other rider.

Now it was a year later, and the guy was still there behind the counter, with his iPad. Not even kidding, as soon as I walked in he started telling me about the racer last year who parked his bike on the porch and wouldn’t move it.

As I was leaving, the delivery guy rolling in a pallet of drinks complimented my manicure. Hey thanks, guy.

The next part of the course, which follows a remote stretch of the Snake River, is one of the most beautiful early parts of the race. The river slices the Oregon and Idaho borders. The route meanders alongside the river banks for a while before climbing steeply up to a dam, and then taking a long climb out of the river valley.

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Snake River Canyon Source

By the time I got to the climb, my brain was in full problem-solving mode. The mental rhythm of these races is a mashup of contrasts. On the one hand, there is nothing to do but ride – and the freedom in that is enormous. At the same time, the number of issues that inevitably arise (based on the fact that there is nothing to do but ride) means your brain is constantly busy – sorting food, water, medical treatment, navigation, equipment, and rest. New problems seem to emerge every hour, and figuring out which ones to address and which ones to ignore is all part of the challenge. One benefit of experience is knowing that little things can become big things over time.

At the moment, I had two nagging little things. My right knee was bothering me today – quite a lot. It was an unfamiliar pain and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I had stopped a couple of times to adjust my saddle, which helped, but didn’t seem to solve the issue. The other, more pressing problem – quite literally – was that I was definitely constipated. Halfway up the long climb out of Hell’s Canyon, I stopped at the store to look for laxatives. No dice. Maybe find some in Council, said the three women sitting at the table.

I finished the climb and tried to poop in a big stand of bushes on the side of the road. Fail.

The descent was fun and fast, and full of swarms of bugs that got in my teeth. I rode through Council, where a dirt detour through town threw me off my laxative-finding game, then started the climb up to New Meadows while I talked to my friend Jill in San Francisco. It was getting late in the afternoon, and the sun was filtering through the trees as I climbed.

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Like last year, I reached the top during the golden hour – but a full one day ahead of my 2016 pace. New Meadows was my scheduled stop for the night, according to my plan, but it wasn’t dark yet. So I set my sight on Riggins.

I stopped in the convenience store in New Meadows, where a couple of guys asked me how I got so tan. I told them there were easier ways. Outside in the parking lot, a couple of kids rode up to tell me that they like to ride bikes, and ask where I came from. They were amazed by how far I had come. I said I was amazed by how far I had to go.

It was about 40 miles to Riggins, and I rode down the long canyon road along the Salmon River in the dark. The canyon road takes a slight downhill grade for about 25 miles, with rock walls jutting straight up on either side. I have read that this road can fill with logging trucks during the day, but at night there were only a handful of cars. The Milky Way was at its milkiest, and a full moon was throwing incredible shadows onto the canyon walls. Occasionally, if the light was just right, I would catch a glimpse of a giant shadow of myself on my bike looming over the river magnified onto the rock. It was so bright that I could see the whitewater foaming in the moonlight.

I had ridden over 250 miles since I left Prairie City, and needed to sleep. Still, this was a beautiful moment – one of those that tells the whole story of why we take on adventures like the Trans Am Bike Race. You can’t plan for these moments, but you have to soak them in when they come. I tried to steady my mind not to reach for Riggins, but instead to absorb the beauty of what I was seeing and feeling.

Nevertheless, the sense of relief upon reaching Riggins was intense. There was a little cabin I had called for in New Meadows for $35, and it was open for me when I got there. I ate the burrito I had bought in New Meadows, showered and fell asleep.

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 2: Regroup & Reset

After getting myself pointed in the right direction toward McKenzie Pass, instead of away from it, I was back to enjoying the nighttime riding. It was that in-between temperature where when you stop, you think it’s cold, but once you start moving, the air feels perfect. It was about 3:30 or 4am now, and I laughed to myself thinking that being on my bike in the middle of the night after 30 minutes of sleep, and awakened by a brawl, was my new normal.

I liked it.

McKenzie Pass is a long (~20 miles or so) climb – not too steep, but steep enough towards the top to remind you what’s happening, especially hauling full bike bags, which I wasn’t used to yet, and felt like dead weight. Despite riding 280 miles the day before, though, my legs didn’t feel too bad and once I passed the gate that closes the road to cars, I put in my headphones and was rocking out to Ke$ha.

Around 5am or so the light began to flick light across the sky, and as it got lighter I could see that the ground on either side of the road was covered in several feet of snow. What a difference a year makes, I thought. Last year when I rode this pass, it was in the middle of Day 2 and the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees F. This year, the trees looked softer, the colors more muted, in the morning light.

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Snowdrifts on McKenzie Pass Highway Source

Near the top, I stopped to put on my down jacket and gloves. While I was stopped, Evan and Bo Dudley came up from behind. I was happy to see them, and we rode the last few miles together. It was below freezing, and neither one of them was interested in stopping to take my picture at the sign. I didn’t really blame them.

The descent off McKenzie Pass is a bomber, and probably normally a ton of fun. This year, though, I was shivering noticeably on the way down. I had to stop a few times and blow on my hands inside my gloves so I could feel my fingers. Being already maxed out on my warm clothes less than 24 hours into the race was a little unnerving, but I tried to push that thought out of my mind.

The little town of Sisters sits at the bottom of the long descent, and as I rolled through I didn’t see either Bo or Evan. I also didn’t see much of anything open on this Sunday morning. On the far side of town I stopped at a drive-up coffee shack, and waited in line with the cars for coffee and a muffin. I shivered in the parking lot while I drank my coffee and got warm enough to ride again.

Leaving Sisters, I realized I had completely forgotten to stock up on food. Anyone who wants to go fast in the TransAm knows that minimizing stopped time is one of the most important strategies for making that happen. A punitive, but accurate, way to see it is that every 15 minutes you’re stopped during the race is as many as 5 miles lost, and these miles add up frighteningly quickly over days, and especially weeks.

Reflecting on 2016, I felt that stopping too often had cost me time and I was determined to improve on that this year. It sounds pretty easy, but probably most people who have tried it would attest that minimizing your time off the bike is a lot harder than it sounds. Doing it well requires several things: the fitness to keep riding without stopping, and forward-looking decision making at many points every day.

I wasn’t there yet.

Twenty miles down the road in Redmond, I stopped again at a Mexican place to get tacos. My food storage situation was another element that I had bemoaned last year and had resolved to improve so that I could carry more food and eat more on the bike, instead of off it. However, I hadn’t really considered exactly how I was going to improve this situation. Immediately after rolling out of the Mexican place, one of my three tacos flew off into traffic. RIP taco. Then a couple who had been in the taco joint chased me down with my credit card, which I had dropped on the floor while ordering.

The shit show was continuing.

There is a screaming descent into Prineville, which I hit around mid-morning and thoroughly enjoyed. As I rolled through Prineville, some dot watchers called my name and rang a cowbell, and I waved and whooped. Last year I had spent my second night in Prineville – and it was weird to already be a third of a day ahead of last year.
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I felt good starting the next long climb up to Ochoco Pass out of Prineville. It was a beautiful day, if still a bit chilly, and the road passed small lakes and cows in fields. I could see two riders in front of me but didn’t know who they were and wasn’t gaining on either of them.

About halfway up the climb, Evan pulled up next to me. He had stopped to chat with some friends in Prineville. We talked for a minute, and then he pulled away. I watch him pass the first rider in front of me within minutes. The way Evan was riding was impressive – so steady, focused, and smooth. He is going to win this race, I remember thinking. That was the last time I would see him until Yorktown.

On the other side of the pass I crossed paths with Randall Rice. We chatted a bit and he told me about his military background. He was wearing a backpack. Arriving in Mitchell, I stopped in at Spoke’n Hostel and chatted with the guys there for a minute. I wanted to keep moving but knew I needed to eat a real meal, so I went into the diner next door and ordered two burgers: one to eat with fries, and one to go. I drank a coke. I felt like I shouldn’t need coke already, but I was undeniably sleepy. I listened to the waitress and the owner argue about something for a few minutes, and tried to psyche myself up to get back on my bike.

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At the Spoke’n Hostel. Photo: Olaf Sorenson

The afternoon ahead should be one of my favorite sections: A long climb out of Mitchell, then a 20-mile descent followed by dozens of miles of flat. Aerobar party, my favorite! I remembered the red rocks in this section were prehistoric and fantastic, and tried to look forward to the rest of the day. My original plan had been to make it to John Day on Day 2, which is about 75 miles from Mitchell.

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View from above Mitchell. Source Wikimedia

Over the climb, I enjoyed the descent, but not as much as I wanted to. I called my mom. I passed through John Day, which is where I had planned to spend the night. It was still early, though, so I rolled through, mulling my options. I ran across Randall again, who was standing at an intersection looking a bit dazed. He told me he was planning to ride to Baker City, one of the last towns in Oregon, that night. It was about 7pm.

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Oregon aero party. Photo: Anthony Dryer

I figured that most of the guys in front of me would be hitting Baker City tonight. But I also knew the route to Baker City was 80 miles, and over three passes, with few to no services. I had already blown my plan the day before, and I was paying the price. I needed to regroup.

It was a long uphill, windy drag from John Day to Prairie City, and I felt spent. I wasn’t all that happy with how I was doing so far, physically and emotionally, but I also knew that I needed sleep. I was ahead of my plan by just a bit. That should have made me feel good, but I wasn’t sure whether that was a good or foolish thing at this point. I decided to stop in Prairie City and get a grip (and a good rest). I knew I was letting the front of the race get away from me, but that was just a risk I had to take.

I stopped into the convenience store, where two touring cyclists outside stopped me to ask about the race. I stocked up for what would be an early-morning ride over the passes. It was probably only 7pm, but I checked into the motel there, and the woman said she had a little restaurant next door. I took a shower, which was pure bliss, and went into the restaurant in my bare feet. She had made me a giant salad and a burger. I ate as quickly as I could without being totally weird and disgusting, paid hurriedly and fell into bed. As I fell asleep, I listened to the sound of kids playing on a summer evening outside my window.

 

Trans Am Bike Race 2017 Day 1: Best-Laid Plans

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.

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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).

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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.

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Tree-ring nails post-race 2016

The rollout happened unceremoniously, as it had last year. Once we got out of Astoria, I was simply relieved to be riding.

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On the bridge leaving Astoria. Photo: Nathan Jones

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Finish in the top 1015 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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Riding with Evan.

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.

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McKenzie River

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take 2: Trans Am Bike Race 2017 Prologue

Last year after my first attempt at the Trans Am Bike Race – that beautiful, exhausting 4,300 mile self-supported race across the country that is forever seared into my soul – it took me six months to write about it.

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Before Rawlins, Wyoming. Photo: Nathan Jones/Anthony Dryer

The procrastination wasn’t because the race hadn’t been important. In fact, quite the opposite. That 22 days, 11 hours on the bike in the middle of a hot, sticky 2016 summer was so profound that I found it hard to describe what had happened, much less articulate its impact on me. I was afraid that I wouldn’t do it justice. I still don’t think I did, but as many have said, the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good-enough.

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In the bank parking lot, 100 miles to the finish in 2016. Photo: Travis Siehndel

This year it’s only been five months since my finish in Astoria. So perhaps self-improvement is afoot.

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The finish 2017. Evan Deutsch: “It was so great how terrible you looked.” Photo: Liza Kirwin

This summer on June 4 when I rolled up to the start in Astoria, Oregon for my second go at the Trans Am, I felt both more, and less, confident than I had the year before.

In 2016, I had been an endurance-cycling newbie, a triathlete-on-hiatus looking for a rad new adventure. I hadn’t turned up to race per se, but to test my limits, see the country in a new way, and learn something about myself.

Check, check, and check.

After the 2016 race, though, I still couldn’t rid myself of this restless sense that I needed to dig deeper, to take another, better shot at ultra racing. I felt like I had only scratched the surface of what I could discover about the world and myself on those open roads – battling through heat and rain and wind, and sleeping in toilets and ditches – and what my potential was for going further, faster. I had found that I truly loved the racing, and I was inspired by watching what others – especially my female competitors – could do. I  fell in love with this sport that rewards self sufficiency, that offers no prizes, that proves that strong women can compete equally with strong men, and that requires an equal amount of fitness, wisdom, mistake making, and brutal testing of limits.

2016 had unveiled an itch. And I needed to scratch it.

So last fall, I pondered my plan. In order to satisfy myself, I knew I’d need to work much harder than I had in 2016. That was okay, I was ready. But I also needed to be thoughtful and strategic – to set clear goals, and to work towards them methodically and consistently. While the physical training would be an important part, I didn’t want my goals to be only about how fast I could get, or physically how strong I could be. I also wanted my mind to be blown open wide by the journey.

To do this, I thought I needed a new racing adventure. The Trans Am had been amazing, but I was hungry for something new. I explored the options – everything from Race Across America to the Tour Divide to the Trans-Siberian Red Bull Extreme. I finally settled on Mike Hall’s already iconic Transcontinental Race – a choose-your-own-adventure type of bike race across Europe. I applied in December, and was stoked to be awarded a space in January. The race would start on July 28, 2017.

Transcon

With almost a year stretching out in front of me, I now needed a coach to guide me (which included saving me from the worst parts of myself). After reaching out to several coaches that had experience with this form of bike racing, I hired coach Greg Grandgeorge of Tri2Max Coaching. Greg coaches superstar ultra racer Sarah Cooper, and I had read his name on her blog. When we connected, I told him that I wanted to work hard, but I also needed to balance my enthusiasm with the potential for mental burnout. He agreed.

In October Greg sent me an Excel spreadsheet that laid out the plan for my entire year. All numbers. I remember squinting at this spreadsheet over a beer in a dimly lit bar with my friend Jill during a bike tour in Vermont, and laughing out loud trying to decipher what those columns of numbers meant. At the time, it was hard for me to see how those numbers and formulas were going to translate to the dirty face, nose-running, pastry-eating racing of the next summer.

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The translation would turn out to be flawless.

I spent November to April building my fitness day by day, week by week, month by month. I did easy rides and hard rides and lots of everything in between. I did beer-drinking rides with friends. I spent hours on my trainer indoors during times of cold and snow. I did some icy rides on my time trial bike and some fat bike riding in the snow. I took warm weather trips to Tucson and Austin. Most weeks, I was riding around 20 hours per week, and upwards of 200 miles, which was entirely new territory for me.

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Brewery ride with friends in DC.

By February, I was starting to see results. My power was good – and perhaps more important, measures of stamina, which is critical for this type of racing. The graphs and charts that we used to measure my fitness were sending the right messages, I raced my first 12-hour time trial in Sebring on February 11 and managed to set a new women’s record (and place second overall).

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Sebring finish. Photo: Jimmy Bisese

In March, I started a 400-mile race in the Texas Hill Country, but had to drop out after 100 miles due to an irreparable mechanical and a crash where I, quite literally, lost my pants (that’s a whole other post).

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Texas 400, post crash wearing new pants, pre-mechanical. Photo: David Michael

I ended up in a brewery for the afternoon, so that was ok.

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In addition to the physical training, which began to eat up more and more of my time as the months progressed, during winter and early spring I spent hours in front of the computer planning my race route for the Transcontinental. I bought paper maps and downloaded mapping apps. I memorized coordinates and joined FB groups. I had language dictionaries and researched visa requirements.

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Months in advance, I had also arranged my work schedule for the summer carefully to ensure that I had enough time before and after to not let too many balls drop.

As summer neared, though, life began to take unexpected turns. My work schedules shifted, and the costs and logistics of racing in Europe started to feel overwhelming. Without experience with much riding whatsoever in Europe, I was nervous about how to choose safe, but also fast, roads through the many countries the race passed through. Then in late March, Transcontinental race director Mike Hall was killed during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. This tragic accident shook the ultra cycling community, and put the Transcontinental into question until mid-May.

In April, I started thinking about the Trans Am start line.

My life situation wasn’t ideal for it. The TransAm started almost two months earlier, so I would be racing without that planned two months of training under my belt (and many of my planned super-long test rides). Complicating matters, I had a two-week work trip to Uganda planned just a month before the race, during which time my only real training option would be an old-school fitness bike in a non-air-conditioned hotel. I also would need to rejigger my work schedule, which threatened to inconvenience a lot of colleagues.

Still, the more I thought about the Trans Am the more I wanted to do it. The idea of testing myself on a course that I already had experience on was appealing. I had friends doing the race who I had met and shared experiences with the year before. Doing a June race might allow me to enjoy most of my Colorado summer at home, tooling around on trails and drinking beer by the river.creede

Most important: more and more, it seemed like a hell of a lot of fun. I’ve always loved Josh Kato’s perspective after his record breaking run down the Tour Divide in 2015:

“If you are racing…that means you’ve been able to somehow sneak away from societal obligations for about three weeks. What’s not fun about playing hooky from life? It’s like being a kid on a really sweet set of wheels with a credit card and carte blanche in the junk food aisle. Yeah, it hurts a lot, but you’re out there doing something awesome, and you get to eat a lot of donuts while doing it… If I wasn’t having fun out there, it was my own fault.”      

So, a month before the TransAm, I sent the email to Nathan and signed up. I would be buying donuts with my credit card while cruising across America, just as hard and fast as I possibly could!

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As it turned out, with this adventure I’d get even more than I bargained for – but well worth the horrifying winds, slate of injuries, deep despair, unexplained rashes, ruined iphone in the toilet, heartache, the hospital visit and, yes, the pitbull bite.

Stay tuned.

 

Round and Round: Sebring 12-Hour Race Report

Two weeks ago, Jimmy and I parked our car at the cold Denver airport and headed to Sebring Florida for the Sebring 12-hour bike race on February 11.

The annual Sebring races are an early-season racing opportunity for the cycling ultra-endurance set. Four races happen concurrently – a century (100 mile) race, a 12-hour draft-legal race, a 24 hour draft-legal race, and a 24-hour non-drafting race. (“Drafting” means that you can ride behind another rider in their draft, which makes riding faster easier.) Multiple categories exist within those races, depending on type of bike ridden. “Upright” bikes – regular bikes – were the most common, but there were also quite a number of recumbent bikes, tandems, a few “human-powered vehicles” and even an Elliptigo.

This format of bike racing was an all new adventure for me. The rules are simple: ride as far as possible in twelve hours, and whoever ends up with the most miles wins. You do this by riding in a series of circles – first in a very small loop on the Sebring Formula One race track, then in an 89-mile road loop, then in a series of 11-mile road loops, and then eventually on more race track circles at the end.

In the 12-hour race, you could choose to ride alone – as in a traditional time trial – or with a group – as in a traditional bike race. “Support” – which means someone to hand you food and water – was also allowed, and Jimmy had agreed to be my race day sherpa.

The race started at 6:30am, which meant I would ride all day and finish at 6:30pm. The first three laps of the race were in the dark on the race track. In discussions with my coach Greg, we had decided that I should go out hard, in the hopes of finding a group to ride with that would allow me to ride fast while also conserving energy in the early hours of the race. Riding hard at the beginning of a twelve-hour effort scared me, because it seemed to increase the risk exponentially of blowing up early. Still I knew that finding a group of fast riders was the only way that I would be able to ride as fast as possible.

Also in my awareness was the knowledge that the women’s 12-hour course record was 244 miles, which had been set the previous year by Amanda Coker. I know who Amanda is, and that she is an amazing cyclist – in fact, she is currently in the process of setting cycling’s highest-ever-mileage-in-a-year record. So I was not at all confident that the record was within my reach, especially given my lack of experience with this type of racing. But the number did give me something to aim at, and be inspired by.

So I went out hard. So hard, in fact, that within 10 minutes I was struggling to stay with the front group of riders. The 3.7 mile track has 17 turns and several sharp corners, and I realized quickly that braking at all would allow a gap to form between me and the next rider, which I would have to push as hard as possible to close once we came out of the corner. So, I concluded within ten minutes, no braking – just lean to the outside and hope real hard.

Off the track and onto the road, I was surprised to find myself still with the front pack. We rode together through Sebring and north on mostly farm roads towards the turnaround in a small town called Frostproof. I had never visited central Florida before, and I was surprised to see horses, trees and even a few series of rolling hills. The group I was riding with was made up of recumbents and regular bikes, probably about 12 people in total.

About halfway to Frostproof, I started to get nervous about staying with this group – my legs were already starting to hurt, my heart rate seemed high, and I couldn’t stop looking at my odometer thinking that the miles were passing by excruciatingly slowly. These did not seem to be positive signs, given another 200+ miles to ride. I made the decision to drop off the back of that pack, despite knowing that it meant my pace would slow. At the time, I was not at all confident in this decision – especially as I watched the group move quickly away and out of sight.

Nearing the turnaround, I was able to gauge where I was relative to the other riders in front of and behind me. The front pack was already more than 5 minutes ahead of me, and I mentally kicked myself for giving up my ride on that freight train. The incredible Sarah Cooper was only about 2 minutes behind me at the time – despite the fact that she was racing in the 24-hour, non-drafting race. I simultaneously smiled, waved, and shook my head in amazement when I saw her.

On the way back from Frostproof. Photo credit: Eddy Rayford

I rode the rest of the 89-mile road loop on my own, save a few miles with a group of three recumbent riders who caught me after the turnaround from Frostproof. At one point, we were riding in a paceline and a crew of supporters were on the side of the road holding bottles. Mistaking them for a neutral support crew, I tried to take a bottle from one of them. It turned out that they were the crew for the guys I was riding with, and that in my attempt to take one of their bottles I had caused one of the riders to miss his planned drink exchange. After apologizing, I found out that the rider I had inadvertently tried to sabotage was Allan Duhm, a cyclist who I had been hoping to meet and who is riding the Trans Am this year. (Their crew was able to leapfrog a few minutes later and get Allan’s bottle to him. Still, sorry we had to meet that way, Allan.)

Coming back into the racetrack for a pit stop to pick up food and drink from Jimmy, I was hot, tired and dehydrated. I was less than five hours into this race, and already hurting. What was I doing? I wondered. Why did I think this was a good idea? In an attempt to make myself feel better, I grabbed a donut from Jimmy and slammed it as I headed back onto the road for the first of the 11-mile loops.

Immediately, I was hit with a wave of nausea. While the 11-mile loop is a rather pleasant route of good pavement, a couple of rollers, and even some change of scenery, I rode the first three loops feeling sick and hateful. Hate, hate, hate. My brain was stuck in that loop, and even trying to chase it out with an earworm from the band Chicago didn’t work. At the end of the third loop, I put my foot down (literally) when I saw Jimmy. “I don’t think I can do this anymore,” I said. He looked at me and handed me a bag of ice. “I know,” he said, “you’re having a hard day.” I think he patted me on the shoulder.

“Now get back out there and ride.”

Low moment: Can I stop, please? This outfit is weird.

Miraculously, on the fourth loop, my fate – and mood – made a significant rebound. About halfway through, a pack that was remnants of the front group I had been riding with earlier in the race lapped me. Pushing hard, I was able to ride into their draft and hold on to their wheels for the rest of that loop. I rode loops 5-7 with them, which had the effect of increasing my speed significantly, diminishing the tedium I was focused on, breaking the cycle of “hate,” and even giving me the opportunity to chat with a few of the guys.

It appears the chatter may have been enjoying the chatting more than the chattee. Photo credit: Eddy Rayford

I lost the group after a few loops, but by then my mindset had shifted and I was feeling much more strong and confident. Strangely, despite several hours of feeling low, I was still on track for my goal times to hit 244 miles in twelve hours. To do that, I would need to finish 13 of the 11-mile loops plus one lap on the racetrack. I rode the last three loops with a mantra, “Don’t crash, don’t bonk, don’t crash, don’t bonk.”

On my last turn of the 11-miler, I heard the sound of a gear change behind me, as Marko Baloh came powering by me. Marko is a Slovenian ultra-cycling legend – among other accomplishments he has finished the Race Across America six times and set the 24 hour World Record – and someone had told me he was out to break the Sebring 12-hour record today. This was his second time to lap me, meaning that he was 22 miles ahead, but I saw an opportunity, stood up on my pedals and cranked to catch his rear wheel.

The increase in speed was immediate. Suddenly, I was riding so fast – and having fun! Unable to contain my excitement, I yelled out “You’re an angel!” Then I was a little embarrassed, and also couldn’t breathe, so I just concentrated on staying as close as possible to his wheel.

Coming onto the track, hanging onto Marko’s wheel. Photo credit: Eddy Rayford

When we arrived back at the pit, race volunteers directed us back onto the track. As we entered the track, I was still on Marko’s wheel, holding on tight. As we flew through the crowd of spectactors, I got a glimpse of the race clock: just under 30 minutes left to ride.

I knew I had to make it one lap of the track to hit the 244 mile record, and I was bound and determined to do it as fast as possible. The sun was setting, and I was hanging onto Marko’s wheel, gasping, as we flew by all the other cyclists already on the track.

About 2/3 of the way around the track, I decided that I would try to return the favor and pull Marko. As I pulled out of his draft I had to work even harder to ride by him. I rode in front for about 45 seconds, and he politely sat on my wheel, until my heart threatened to leap out of my chest. As I sat up and he passed me again on the left, I gasped, “Sorry, that’s all I could do.”

He smiled, and in his nice Slovenian accent, he said very calmly, “No, no. Very helpful.”

I was laughing as I regained my position and tried to hang on again, but I had gassed myself and couldn’t keep up the effort required to stay with Marko any longer. I was able to get in two more laps on the track alone, and as I finished my last lap the clock read 11 hours and 54 minutes. At Sebring, only completed laps count, and I didn’t have time to finish another one. So my race was over.

In the end, I completed 253 miles in just under twelve hours. I didn’t know until later that I had actually come in second overall, 23 miles behind Marko, among all men and women on regular bikes. (A human-powered vehicle and four recumbent bikes were faster.) Jimmy was waiting for me at the finish line, and I laid on the ground for a while, both relieved to be finished and confused about what the day had meant.

Two weeks later, I am still not entirely sure. I am happy to have finished, and I surprised myself with the result. This format of racing was not my favorite – I’d still definitely rather be hauling frame packs of clothes and food up and down mountains in the middle of nowhere – but I think it taught me something important about mental focus and the value of forging on despite the hard times. I was so lucky to have Jimmy there to support me – and to push me on when I wanted to stop. And there’s absolutely no way that I could have prepared for this race without my coach Greg Grandgeorge to guide me. He believed in my ability to reach an ambitious goal, even though I was entirely skeptical. I think that channeling his belief – even though it wasn’t mine to begin with – allowed me to be better than I otherwise might have been. And eventually, I think it came to be my own.

Missed the awards ceremony because I was busy. Or maybe drunk.

For now, the work continues. I’ll do the Texas RAAM Challenge 400 on March 25 – a 400-mile unsupported race in the Texas Hill Country. My eyes are mostly on the 2,500-mile Transcontinental Race across Europe from Belgium to Greece that begins on July 28. Adventure lies ahead!

 

Janie’s Trans Am Bike Race, The Aftermath

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

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

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

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Mixed drinks were not spared the assault.

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  1. I welcomed Jimmy at the finish line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Markku Leppala

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

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

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A blurry Enrico, Janie and MF

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

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Andrew Stevens Cox and Markku

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With Jason Kulma and George Koefler

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Irena and Andrew at breakfast just after Irena’s finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gear and training up next – stay tuned.