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Tour Divide Day 1: Embrace the Cuckoo

Banff to Fernie, 155 miles

Recap post here.

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

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

Or maybe that’s just me.

Photo Cindy Hayes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Brandi Blade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1 of the Tour Divide is complete.

A Romance and a Heartbreak on the Tour Divide

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo Anthony Dryer

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

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

Photo Brandi Blade

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo Cindy Hayes

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

Photo Kathy in Ovando

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Photo Jackson Lester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Jackson Lester

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

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


Dirt makes me happy.

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

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

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

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


Covered bridges on the course

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final totals (full results)

Mileage: 240.9 (drafting miles ~30)

Time: 11:53

MPH: 20.3

Cumulative elevation gain: 9,300 feet

Average heart rate: 139bpm

Power: Unknown (power meter kaput)

Cokes: 6

5-hour energy: 1

Best song: Ke$ha, Blah blah blah


Former Trans Am Bike Racers represented well.


2018 ‘Til Now: A Bike Riding Update

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

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


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

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


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

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

Pace Bend Ultra 24-hour


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


Photo: Robert Jan Martinez

Bikepacking Colombia

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

Pre Colombia

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

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

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


Sometimes the riding is really hard, too.

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


Austin Rattler 100k Mountain Bike

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

Austin Rattler

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

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

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

Austin Rattler

Encierro Gravel 100k

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

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

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

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

Anti-Epic Short Course (71 miles) Gravel Race

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


Photo: Mark Lowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo: Mark Lowe

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

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


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



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

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

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

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


Photo: Nathan Jones/Anthony Dryer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Race miles: ~4,200

Finish time: 19 days, 7 hours, 41 minutes

Average miles per day:  ~218

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

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

Screenshot 2017-12-10 15.54.29


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

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

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


Sunrise in the Catawba Valley

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


Day 19, near Buchanan, VA Photo: Lois Bisese

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

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


Catawba Valley Source

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



Family photo fail

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

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

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


Warmup miles before Vesuvius. Photo: David Elliott

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

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

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


Downhill on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo: David Elliott

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


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


With Tom and Sharron in Charlottesville.

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


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

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


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

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


Caffeine-fueled sunrise climb

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

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


Damascus Virginia

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

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

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

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


Riding through Newbern. Photo: Katrina Yost Cometa

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

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

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


Like last year, I rolled about ten miles past Radford to Christiansburg to sleep in a cheap motel there. I thought about going further, but I remembered that past Christiansburg are the deceptively tough Catawba mountains. Plus, Evan was finishing his Trans Am race that night, smashing the previous record. Surely, that called for a celebration. In the convenience store, I bought a stale chicken sandwich (it was on sale??), which ended up being inedible, and a beer. Looking in the mirror at the hotel (a practice I generally avoided), I discovered I had contracted a massive rash all across my torso and back – perhaps a side effect from the rabies vaccine. Well, at least it wasn’t rabies.
Screenshot 2017-12-11 17.59.45

I drank the beer in the hotel room and let myself the luxury of reading Facebook posts for ten minutes. There were a lot of photos and videos of Evan – including the whole of Jon Lester’s family cheering Evan’s finish, after a long race between the two for the top two places in the race. Seeing this made me smile (or maybe it was the taste of beer). I tried not to let myself think about what it would feel like to be there myself. It still seemed like a long way to go.



Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 17: Don’t Let the Same Dog Bite You Twice. Ooops.

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


Bedroom in Booneville.

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

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

Booneville was blowing my mind.

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

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


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

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


Hindman, Kentucky

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


Mountains of Eastern Kentucky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

This race reminded me so many times about how undeserved kindness from strangers is a real thing, and this was perhaps the most notable example. The man’s wife showed me into the bathroom then told me that her sister was a nurse, and asked if I needed any medical attention. After several phone calls, she came back to tell me that there was a clinic within 30 minutes’ drive that had the rabies vaccine. She offered to drive me there.
Screenshot 2017-12-10 15.51.01
The emergency room at that particular clinic had just had an influx of patients from a car crash that had just happened nearby, but after several more calls, she managed to locate a second clinic and drove me there.  When we arrived, I rushed into the emergency room, barefoot, and started talking a mile a minute to the receptionist.

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

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


Emergency room selfie game: not so strong.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Descending to Elkhorn City. Photo: Fred Fletcher

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

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

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 16: Eric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boone Tavern Hotel

The Boone Tavern Hotel

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


Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

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

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


Riding side by side with Eric on Day 1

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

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

“Welcome, Jane,” she said.

Welcome to Booneville.















Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 15: A Two-States-To-Go State of Mind

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

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

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


Ohio River ferry

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


Upright photo with Michele

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2017-12-06 19.10.14

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.