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Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 13: Ozarks, Breaking My Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crossing paths with Doug in Missouri. Photo: Doug Haluza

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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



Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 12: Bring on the Hills – But First, the Pie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Me and Greg on the chip-seal roads of Kansas

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


Pittsburgh, Kansas Source

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

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

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

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

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

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







Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 11: Ups & Downs on the Flat Plains of Kansas

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

Toto, looks like we’re still in Kansas.

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

A south wind was blowing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trans Am Bike Race, Day 10: One Straight Road

I got out of the old house-turned-hotel in Orday before dawn, but just barely. I struggled to get my bike bags back on my frame. My brain didn’t seem to be working correctly. There was cell service and I checked the tracker before heading out. Michael and Sofiane were about 70 miles up the road, having taken advantage of the nighttime cool weather, flat roads and low winds. Bad luck, illness and injuries had taken out a few top riders in recent days. I think I was about sixth place at the time. The Trans Am is a true race of attrition.

I started riding and the fog was thick. Gone was the chilly, thin mountain air. Here was the early morning warmth of a hot day in a hot place. The quality and temperature made this feel like an entirely new country than the place I had been for the last nine days. I tried to remember all the new things that would have to be considered and planned for and managed across the plains of Eastern Colorado and Kansas. Heat, monotony, and yet more winds.

Poor planning yesterday meant that I didn’t have enough food for the morning, so I had to soft pedal for about 40 miles until I found a place to fuel up. Last year this scenario would have sent me into a panic. From experience I now understood that your body can go a long way without food – just not very fast. Once the fog lifted, the fields glinting in the low morning sun were beautiful and I tried to be content with rolling through slowly. There were still some curves in the road, a few hills left over like leave-behinds from the West, like Colorado still trying to hold onto itself in some small way. The mayhem and frantic pace of yesterday’s mountains felt far in the past.

I saw a touring cyclist on the other side of the road and stopped to ask him about the next services ahead. Then a few minutes later I saw two more riders, stopped to cheer and calling my name. I veered across the empty road to give high fives and carried on. I finally reached Sheridan Lake, Colorado (no lake in sight), which had a crummy selection of drinks and food in an automotive shop. I bought some chocolate milk, Gatorade, and apple pies, and heated up a breakfast sandwich in a rickety microwave that was dangerously teetering on an old shelf.

Mid-morning, I reached the Kansas border. I almost missed the sign but managed to stop for a photo. From here until the end of the day, I knew would be one long, hot straight road, dotted by towns that were visible ten miles away: Tribune, Leoti, Scott City, Dighton.IMG_0228

Despite the monotony, there is a kind of pleasure to Kansas riding. No thoughts, no distractions, no questions. Just get into your aerobars and crank. The day before, my Garmin had stopped reading all sensors, so I no longer had power or heart rate data, but I could tell that I was riding this section better than last year. All those winter trainer sessions had my body and mind resigned to hours on end at steady power, turning the pedals over, locked in the same relentless position. I rarely had to stop to coast, just tried to keep the rhythm steady and stay cool. Mentally, I told myself to find peace in the monotony instead of fighting it. I knew from experience that fight saps energy, and can leave you exhausted.


I stopped more often now, and every time I stopped, I filled up two water bottles with Gatorade and another with ice water. Every 10 minutes I would dump cold water on my head and arms. By mid-day I was putting ice in a plastic shopping bag and shoving it in my bra. It melt quickly, but was successful at keeping me from overheating.

In the afternoon in Scott City, I was packing up to leave a convenience store and a teenage kid came up to talk. I was in a hurry, but he had a lot of questions so I stayed to chat for a bit. He said he had always wanted to ride across the country, but didn’t know whether he ever could. I told him he could definitely do it and he seemed encouraged by me saying that. I wondered what it must it be like to grow up in Scott City, Kansas, and have dreams that felt so much bigger.Screenshot 2017-11-30 22.16.30

I pulled out of the gas station without noticing that I hadn’t properly closed my bike frame bag. About an hour down the road, I realized it was open when my battery pack flew out of the bag and smashed on the road, splitting it. Only when I stopped to retrieve it did I find that my precious plastic bag with my paltry selection of toiletries had also blown out previously; it included my contact lenses, my toothbrush, saline solution. I considered going back but had no idea where the escape had occurred. While I was contemplating, the wicked cross wind blew my sunglasses off my helmet into the road. Immediately they were smashed to smithereens by an approaching 18-wheeler.


There was no time to dwell. I got back on my bike, a little bit lighter (contact lenses weigh something, right?) and a lot more squinty into the sun. Fortunately, the sun was starting to set as I pulled into Dighton. I got my now familiar burrito and some Twinkies while I chatted with the locals.

Kansans may be the world’s nicest people. While it’s a stereotype, I still feel confident about saying that what the state lacks in variety of geography, it more than augments with friendliness. That evening, people in the store were asking me what I was doing and giving me high fives and thumbs up. The lady behind the counter told me about a big cycling event that came through last week and how much the town rallied around it. They complimented me on my tan and, as usual I told them there were easier ways, ha ha.

The wind all day had been a strong cross wind – but not gale-force, like Kansas wind can sometimes be. But as the sun went down it picked up and changed directions to become a much more massive cross/head wind. I remembered this stretch from last year, riding in the middle of the night with Ben to Ness City. I had hoped that this year conditions would be different, but it appeared I would meet no such good luck. At least the pavement was good and I had some good music cranking. I had enough perspective at the moment to feel thankful about where I was and what I was having the opportunity to do, random as it would probably seem to most people.

You can see the lights of Ness City for a long time before you actually get to them. I remembered this phenomenon, too, and told myself just to be patient and wait for it come to me. Eventually, after one of those many stretches that felt like an eternity, it did come. I rolled onto those cobbled streets of this former boom town, now dilapidated, around midnight. The same family owns the hotel as last year, and the son came out from the back room when I rang the bell. The bedspread felt like cardboard but I didn’t care. I had reached my 220-mile goal for the day, despite the heat and wind. I knew there was plenty more where that came from tomorrow.

Trans Am Bike Ride 2017, Day 9: Hammer Time

I got started from about 3:30am out of Kremmling. This stretch of road had been under construction and muddy last year, but this year we were rewarded with new, beautiful pavement. I rode around Green Mountain reservoir as the sun came up. In 2016, I did this ride at sunset, which made me realize that almost a day and a half in front of where I had been last year. Despite the travails (or what seemed such at the time) of the past two days, I was feeling much better this morning. I was determined to solve the phone problem, and turn things around.


Green Mountain Reservoir

I had the phone number of the Verizon store in Canon City written on a scrap of paper I’d gotten from the Motel 8 in Kremmling. Canon City was about 150 miles from Kremmling, and I had found out the store was open until 4pm. I had decided this was plenty of time to get to the store, pop in and pick up a new phone, and be on my way. My plan had Ordway as tonight’s stop. Getting there would require a 250+ mile day, but I was determined to get back on track.

Riding the bike paths around Frisco and Breckenridge was as meandering and frustrating as always because of all the twists and turns, but it also felt like home. It was a Sunday, and disconcerting to see so many athletes out getting their daily workout – mountain bikers, runners, walkers, road cyclists. I caught up to an older guy on a gravel bike who was visiting from Texas and out for a ride to the market in Vail. He was going to buy some vegetables. Carrying on to Breckenridge, I rode through town and recognized so many places I knew well (I only live about 60 miles from Breckenridge). Those places all seemed so familiar, but at the same time even more strange.

I remember having another conflicting sensation during this stretch. I was waffling between feeling increasingly confident in what I was doing, and how I was racing, while simultaneously teetering on the edge of something going disastrously wrong. Powerful, yet very, very vulnerable. As it turned out, this was a sentiment that would stick with me for the rest of the race. I never fully identified the source of this feeling, but it was both empowering and terrifying. Maybe that was what it felt like to truly push your limits?

Or maybe it’s just what it feels like to be exhausted.

In Breckenridge, I ordered a really strong espresso shot and the girl working there let me use her cell phone. I remember noticing how clean it was, and commenting on it. My Achilles hurt so I stopped before the climb up Hoosier Pass to get some ibuprofen, and took four.


Main Street Breckenridge Source

The wind was good and the climb up Hoosier was magic. Hoosier tops out at 11,000 feet and is the highest point on the Trans Am course. If you look at the profile, it appears that the route goes downhill from there. It doesn’t, but the top of the pass is nonetheless an important milestone that marks the end of the big mountains (and the beginning of an entire new set of tribulations). I wasn’t all that keen about getting out of these big, gentle giants; I was more worried about my shortcomings on the short, steep hills of the eastern US. In any case, the climb up Hoosier that day felt so easy that it made me giddy. A few dotwatchers called my name and took photos from their car.


Climbing Hoosier Pass

I bombed down the other side of the pass to the tiny town of Alma and stopped to call the Verizon store in Canon City. After what seemed to take forever, they agreed to have a new phone waiting for me at the store that afternoon. They reminded me the store closed at 4pm, and I said no problem. I had 80 miles to ride and it was only 10am.

Turning onto highway 9 from Fairplay at the bottom of Hoosier Pass felt like home. The traffic was terrible but the wind was favorable, and everything felt so familiar. Jimmy had told me the previous day that he would try to come out to see me (it was a busy week!), and sure enough, almost to Hartsel I saw him waiting on the side of the road in his bike kit. He was on the phone when I got there, and waved me on, so I carried on and he caught me about eight miles from Hartsel. He drafted my wheel all the way to Hartsel and we yelled back and forth to each other over the noise of traffic.

In Hartsel, for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, Jimmy made me stop at our car and put on a life vest and hold a rafting paddle. He took photos. Then I went in the store for my last stop before Canon City. While I was there, a dotwatching couple from Colorado Springs pulled up on their bikes. When I came out, they introduced themselves and asked me if they could ride with me towards Canon City, and I said sure, no problem.

I gave Jimmy a hug goodbye – it had only been a handful of minutes and he was gone again. But there was no time to dwell on that; I was riding away from Hartsel and chatting with my new friends. They were from Colorado Springs and asked about training and the race. They told me they had ridden the same stretch with Jesse Carlson in 2015. I was having a great time; it felt like a casual weekend ride.

At some point I asked the time and it was already 2pm. We were still more than 40 miles from Canon City, and the Verizon store that closed at 4pm. I started to panic, and decided that I had no choice except to do everything I could to try to make it. That meant riding 20+ mph for the next two hours – and it was day nine of the TransAm Bike Race. A lot of those 40 miles were downhill, but I knew that there were also plenty of hills thrown in, and that to try for it was going to hurt.

But once I decided to go for it, my brain went into race mode. I got down in my drops and started to hammer.  I was riding harder than I had during the entire race. Focus, focus, focus. Push, push. Would it be possible to bonk, I remember wondering briefly, at this point in the race? If my legs were toast after this, I decided, it was all Verizon’s fault.

The next two hours of riding hurt – a lot. But at the same time, I was surprised how hard I could ride. It took incredible concentration, but I could still muster a heavy effort with extreme focus. And that with 1,800 miles on my legs in the previous eight days. Just 10 miles from Canon City, I came around a corner and there was a giant sign blowing in the wind with my name. Then, as I got closer, a confetti canon went off! A confetti cannon – was I dreaming?! I couldn’t believe it. Several of my friends from Salida were there cheering. My life was now complete.


Plus confetti cannon!

I stopped for hugs, then remembered what I was doing. They told me to carry on, and hurry, and they would come to cheer me on at the Verizon store. I got back on my bike and ate some chocolate cupcakes that I had in my bag since Kremmling. Eat, ride, hammer. Eat, ride, hammer. Hammer, hammer, hammer, 4 o’clock. Hammer, hammer, hammer, 4 o’clock.

I pulled into the Verizon store at 3:59pm. Improbable, but true. I stopped to hug my friends – including my godsons – in the parking lot. They asked me if I my mouth was bleeding, but it was just residue from the chocolate cupcakes in my teeth.  There was so much I wanted to say to them, but there was so much to do. I had to stay focused. I went into the store and the employees asked me a series of bizarre, confusing questions: phone, case, adapters, packaging, insurance. I just shook my head and nodded at random. After about 45 minutes, I was out of Canon City.

It took me about 30 minutes to realize I hated my new phone – it was huge and didn’t fit in any of my bike bags. But I was finally able to call my mom on the way to Florence and talk to her about her foot, her surgery.

Out of Canon City and on to Pueblo, things were no longer fast, I was no longer hammering, the adrenaline had subsided. My legs were killing me. But it was quiet, and hot, and felt like the Trans Am Bike Race again. I thought about my brain and how plastic it was, while at the same time so rigid. On the one hand, it is amazing what my brain could handle at one time. On the other hand, I felt so easily overwhelmed by circumstance.

In Pueblo I rode through to the other side before I stopped – I was still fixated on making it to Ordway. The traffic was bad and the drivers were rude – one yelled at me to “get on the fucking sidewalk motherfucker!” No thank you, I said out loud.

It was hot here, and I felt like I was being prepped for a new reality, the next phase of the race. I stopped in at Walgreens and met Mike Grace, a Surly-riding dotwatcher who let me complain to him about my new phone and goof around for a while. I called the hotel in Ordway and negotiated with them that someone would stay up to wait for me.


Loopy in Pueblo. Photo: Mike Grace

In Pueblo, I checked the race tracker and saw that Michael Wacker was not too far behind. I knew he was enthusiastic about reaching the flats and imagined he was likely motivated to start eating up the miles. For my part, I wanted to ride better in Kansas than last year, where I felt like I fell apart. At the moment, though, I didn’t know if I had it in me or not.

The 50 miles from Pueblo to Ordway seemed to take forever. The mood of the race environment had changed. It was quiet and dark. The lights of large prisons began appearing out of nowhere. The weight of the day began to pull on my eyelids. As I pulled into Ordway, I felt an immense sense of satisfaction. An Aussie dotwatcher who lives in town was out waiting for me, and I stopped to chat with her for a while – probably a bit too long but I was feeling chatty.


Rolling into Ordway at night.

Then I headed to the hotel where I slept last year. Like last year, the eccentric owner made me leave my bike outside and take my bags off before showing me my room upstairs. It was irritating, but somehow I felt an allegiance to tradition. Last year he had made me a porkchop. This year I asked again if he had any food and he slowly shuffled to the kitchen and emerged with a chicken breast and asparagus. The shower didn’t work, but I ate the food in bed and fell asleep.


Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 8: As My Phone and I Both Take a Downward Spiral

I woke up in the Hampton Inn feeling like death. It was still dark as I rolled out and the night manager who had checked me in was still there and gave a double-take when he saw me.

I know, I know.

I called Jimmy as I rode out of town, before the hectic stretch on the highway shoulder before the climb up to Saratoga Springs. He was getting ready to ride 100 miles to pick up a friend’s car in Alamosa. I told him he should go further.

Last year I had a spate of flats on this stretch to Saratoga Springs, but this year I made the descent into the little hot springs tourist town without major incident. My Achilles was still hurting today, but didn’t seem to be getting worse. The south wind was picking up, though, and I was still a bit shell-shocked from the night before. In Riverside, a small town past Saratoga, I stopped at a convenience store and ate a breakfast sandwiches while I watched a broken-down car in the middle of the road with its horn stuck on.

It was about 9am and I was already sleepy, so I downed a 5 Hour Energy shot, and took two for the road. I hadn’t been heavily relying on caffeine so far, and for some reason had been resisting the 5 Hour Energy (I think I thought it seemed somehow trashy, which now seems hilarious that I thought anything was beneath me, given my state). But it seemed that time might have arrived.Screenshot 2017-11-28 21.58.45

The rest of the morning was an eternal, windy slog to Walden. The ride was very tough – especially after last night’s travail into Rawlins, but at least the scenery was looking more like Colorado (home!). My saving grace on this stretch turned out to be the heavy shot of caffeine straight to the brain. My body was tired, but my brain was wired – keeping my sufficiently focused and preventing me from seeing every ditch as a potential nap spot. When I finally spotted the wooden sign at the Colorado border, I stopped and a nice couple took my photo. (Unfortunately I can’t share that photo with you, and I’ll tell you why soon.)

Carrying on towards Walden, the wind just kept picking up. Just when I would think it couldn’t blow harder, it turned out I was wrong. Like the previous night coming into Lander, I felt persecuted by the conditions. It was just so personal. Why would the world do that to me, after all that I was going through? It never occurred to me that others might be suffering as much, or even more, than I was. It was pretty much just all about me.


Wind-swept Walden Source

I pull into the grocery store on the outskirts of Walden after what seemed like an endless straight stretch. In the checkout line, all the locals were griping about the wind. That made me feel a little bit better; at least I had confirmation by experts that the wind was making an unfair play today. I decided to give myself a bit of time in the grocery store to regroup. My plan had been to make it to Silverthorne tonight, but I needed to accept that the conditions might change that.

I walked slowly to the bathroom. I had my phone tucked in the waistband of my shorts. The moment I pulled down my shorts, I heard the dreaded “plop” of the phone into the toilet bowl. I reacted quickly and rescued it in two fast seconds before it was sucked down. Luckily, it powered back on and I breathed a sigh of relief. Crisis averted. I called Jimmy. He had ridden to Alamosa and was just getting ready to get a ride back to Salida for a beer. I was jealous.

I got back on the bike and rode through Walden and out the other side. The conditions hadn’t changed; the wind was still whipping, and my left Achilles was still throbbing. But mentally I felt better; I settled into my aerobars and told myself to simply accept – not fight –  the next long stretch of pummeling. It was a lonely, low-traffic stretch so I mounted my phone on my handlebars and turned on some disco. I was happy to have gotten through a mental low point, and congratulated myself.

Next – in a moment that won’t soon escape my memory – three things happened at the exact same time. First, my left calf seized in a massive Charley Horse. At the same time, just as I was clipping out of my pedal, I read the words of an incoming text from my mom saying that she had broken her foot and needed surgery. Shit. I put my cramping foot down on the ground, and as I hit the screen to read the message, the music in my ears started slurring and scrambling in a weird cacophony. Then the screen went blank. Shit. I tried to turn my phone on and nothing happened. As I was standing there, dumbfounded, poking my phone and hopping on one foot, a tourist stopped on the other side of the road, yelling a greeting into the wind. I tried to act like nothing was happening – it was all just too hard to explain – and he kept yelling, telling me there was a water cache outside at the shop ahead a few miles and that the wind might change directions in the canyon. I just nodded and kept thinking that my calf was killing me and my mom had broken her foot and my phone might have just been destroyed. After I waved goodbye, there was really nothing else to do, so I got back on the bike and kept riding.

Shit. I couldn’t call my mom. Then I started thinking about all the other implications of a broken phone. No talking, no music, no podcasts, no photos! No photos? I couldn’t bear the thought. The more I thought about it, the worse it seemed. Then, that feeling alone made me feel like a loser. Was I not, after all, a strong, independent adventurer in the wild – capable of sustaining myself by my own mental strength? Was I perhaps, simply, nothing but a human being who craved connection and entertainment?

But I couldn’t stop my brain from screaming: “I JUST WANT MY PHONE!!” At the store with the water cache at the base of Willow Pass, I called Jimmy from the owner’s landline, told him what had happened, and asked him to let my mom know I would call as soon as I could.Willow_Creek_Pass_(Colorado)

The ride up Willow Pass was lovely, but my brain was troubled. I was irritated with myself for dropping my phone in the toilet, I was worried about my mom, and I was made at myself for not even enjoying my first Colorado mountain pass. On the way down the other side of the pass, I heard my name out of a passing vehicle and my friends Danny and Ann jumped out. They had driven several hours from Denver to see me, and it was amazing that they would make a trek just to see a smelly, dirty shell of a human. They had become avid dot watchers, so they briefed me on the race. I told them about what had happened, and somehow it just felt good to tell someone about my trials, insignificant as they might be in the big scheme of things.


With Danny and Ann

The morning’s hopes of getting to Silverthorne had completely dissipated. I was just too deflated by the last few hours to envision pushing that last planned 40 miles after dark. Stopping early made me feel mentally weak, but hey, just add it to the list, I thought. I was pretty sure that all the time I had lost today – to the conditions and other unexpected events – had caused permanent damage to my race. As I would find out later, I actually had fared well – and other racers had suffered much, much harder fates in that stretch. But in my state of self-loathing I never even considered that possibility.

Strangely, it was a beautiful evening – too beautiful for even my dejected brain to ignore. I grudgingly appreciated the canyon ride from Hot Sulphur Springs, and the last 10 miles into Kremmling past wide open fields as I watched the sun set in a golden sky. It was dark by the time I got to Kremmling, and I went to the Super 8. I was planning to make some calls from the hotel to sort the phone situation, but the land lines were down.

Tomorrow, I determined I would stop this spiral and get back on track. Tomorrow had to be better. Right?


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

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

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


Togwotee Pass  Source

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


Wind River Canyon Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certainly tomorrow would have to be better.


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

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

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


At Ennis with Donncha.

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

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

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

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


Quake Lake Source

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

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


Riding towards West Yellowstone. Photo credit Ken Simpson

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

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

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


West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Source

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

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

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

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


Colter Bay Source

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

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

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

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


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

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

Western Montana.

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

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

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

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

I sighed heavily and headed back to the checkout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manicured lawns of the university in Dillon. Source

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

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

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

Heading south (finally).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Looking towards the new highway from White Bird Hill

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

Screenshot 2017-11-22 09.08.31

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

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

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

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


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

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


The lovely, horrifying Lochsa River. Source

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2017-11-22 09.03.21

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

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