I woke up and rode out of Christiansburg before it was light. 380 miles were between me and the finish line in Yorktown Virginia. I knew that those nearly 400 miles were going to be full of challenging riding, but at the same time they would be a kind of homecoming. This part of Virginia was home to familiar bike routes and scenery as well as friends and family who had been following my progress and had all been part of my journey in some small way.
I craved seeing those familiar faces. But I was also anxious. The previous three weeks had been the most epic test of my mind, body and emotions that I had ever experienced. As a result, I found myself now a raw, stripped down version of myself. My mental faculties were faulty and my social skills rusty. I was still myself, but in some important ways I knew that I also wasn’t. Would these people recognize me? I wondered. Would I be able to communicate? Would they understand my newfound Little Debbie habit?
And how would I possibly hide the stench?
As the sun rose, I rode through fields in the foothills of the beautiful Catawba Mountains. The terrain was a series of rollers, which ultimately traveled downhill. Still, my legs were so tired that I had to coax myself up any climb, even the smallest.
Sometime during the morning, I came upon a sign that indicated a bridge out several miles ahead. The detour sign pointed a left-hand turn, off route. I didn’t even hesitate, just carried on. There was no way I was going even one meter off the route. Luckily, the bridge was under construction, and the workers cheered for me and even carried my bike across. They said they had seen Sarah the day before.
In Troutville I stopped at the mini mart on the highway to eat breakfast. The woman who owned the shop had a Trans Am logbook. She showed me Evan’s and Kim’s entries from the year before. I bought a coffee in a Styrofoam cup and sat outside on the stoop. I was feeling reflective, and I sat there for about 15 minutes, just mulling over the previous three weeks. The prospect of the upcoming finish filled me with both incredible relief and also a deep sadness. I knew why I was feeling the former, but was less sure that I understood the latter. But for some reason, sitting there, it just seemed so important to capture this feeling, to make time stand still for a second.
While I was sitting there, I heard someone call my name. I looked up to see my brother in law Mark and my niece Addy getting out of his truck. Family! I hugged them both tightly. They asked me how I was feeling, whether I had talked to Jimmy, and told me I looked too skinny. When two delivery guys showed up, Mark insisted on telling them both about my race. He also told me that my sister in law, Lois, and my other niece Ella were waiting down the road.
Sure enough, Lois and Ella were waiting for me near the railroad tracks between Troutville and Buchanan. Seeing Ella’s curious eyes and round face gave me a shot of energy. A few minutes after saying goodbye, I stopped to pee behind a bush. As I emerged, a car came to a stop and a family got out, calling my name. They introduced themselves as the parents of my friend Rob, and his daughter and her friend. Rob was planning to meet me later in Lexington, but they said they had been following the race and had made a special trip to come out and find me. They had posters and treated me like they had known me my whole life. I rode off grinning, at the idea of a family who would hunt down a smelly stranger just to say good job.
The road to Lexington was a series of back roads with chip seal, and the going was slow. The last few days, I was so tired I felt like I was pedaling through mud. I had even taken to getting off my bike occasionally to check whether I had a flat tire or brakes that were rubbing against my wheel. Nope. Just slow.
It was a Saturday morning, and as I approached Lexington I started to encounter groups of riders out on their weekend rides. Despite how familiar it was – the vacuum of speed, gears clicking, intense faces and crowded bodies – they looked like such a different breed of athlete to me that day. No bags on their bikes, no donut powder on their handlebars, no mud-encrusted shoes. I tried to ride with one of the packs when it came by, just to see if I could, but to no avail. It was ok, I didn’t belong.
Coming into Lexington, I saw a train of three good looking male cyclists powering towards me on nice bikes wearing clean, brightly colored cycling clothes. They had almost reached me before I recognized them as Rob, Brad and Trey. Rob organizes an annual spring group riding weekend in the Virginia mountains that I have attended a couple of times. It is always full of hard, early season miles, barbecue, beer drinking and belly laughs.
I told the guys that I needed to eat, and Rob said he knew of a Subway/convenience store up the road. They watched with fascination, disbelief and perhaps a bit of alarm as I loaded up my arms with drinks and snacks, and then filled a giant self serve yogurt container with about 20 different toppings. Definitely an animal in the wild.
After my feeding, we headed out towards Vesuvius. Vesuvius is a tiny town at the base of a climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway that is one of the Trans Am route’s hardest. Vesuvius also holds an epic status among cyclists in Virginia for its severe grade over the course of three miles. By the time we reached the base of the climb, my friend Catherine had joined us. Seeing Catherine’s face made me feel like home. Cat and I have been friends for over twenty years, and she is also one of my most fun and reliable bike riding partners. We have solved many of the world’s problems together during rides or runs, and I was so happy to have her there next to me as we spun (slooooooowly) up that climb.
The top of Vesuvius marked the last major climb of the race, and the start of the downward trajectory towards the Atlantic Ocean and Yorktown Virginia. There was still 250 miles to ride, but mentally it was a marker of progress. On the Blue Ridge Parkway I said goodbye to Rob, Brad and Trey, and Catherine carried on with me. It was a beautiful afternoon and the sun was throwing gold light over the green of the Shenandoah Mountains in the distance.
Coming down off the Blue Ridge Parkway, I directed us right onto a highway. We had ridden several miles before I realized I had gone off course, again. As Catherine and I sat in the parking lot, two more familiar faces got out of a car: my friend Travis and my sister-in-law Nikki. Both of them had their bikes in their car and had wanted to be there to support me through my last day of the race.
Travis and I rode in the dark to Charlottesville, which is a college town and home to the University of Virginia. I was hungry, and we rode past bars and restaurants and an outdoor dance party while looking for fast food a bit after midnight. We finally found a sketchy convenience store on the outside of town and I bought a microwave burrito. As I was eating it in front of the store, watching a low rider in the parking lot with bass booming out of its windows, a woman got out of her car and came towards me. It was my mom’s friend Sharron, who lives in Charlottesville and had found me on the tracker. I couldn’t believe that she had hunted me down past midnight at that dodgy convenience store, but I was happy to see her face.
Riding out of Charlottesville, the fatigue was overwhelming. I stopped to sleep for an hour on the flagstone patio of an antiques store. Miraculously, when my alarm went off I was able to get up and back on my bike. Whether I was actually going to be able to pry myself off the ground and back onto my saddle after any given sleep stop was becoming more and more questionable.
In the early hours of the morning, I found Nikki and my friend Angela on the road, and they rode with me past sunrise. The mist rolled up into wisps below the treetops that morning as the sun came up. I remember feeling so grateful for the support of my friends, family and all of the well wishers that I had met during the past 22 days. I wasn’t sure why they cared so much about my little insignificant journey of self exploration (and torture) across the country, but it felt so significant to me that they did.
I knew that self supported bike racing, in its purest and most traditional sense, is all about solitary individualism. The point is that YOU make your own decisions. YOU figure things out by yourself. YOU ride your bike by yourself. YOU get from point A to B – on your own. That naturally means untethering from support, disavowing help, and exploring your capacities single-handedly.
This was the very thing that had captivated me about the idea of the Trans Am. And I had learned so much about myself by undertaking this journey alone. I was finishing this race believing that I was infinitely capable, that I had nothing to prove, that I was stronger alone than I ever knew I was. Those feelings were themselves a gift.
But if I am honest, there were also some days, like the last one, where the race served to remind me more than anything that we are nothing more than humans interconnected in a web with others. During all of those race days, alongside the solitude had also been the kindness of random strangers, the chance meetings with cyclists and other racers, the encounters with dot watchers, and – on this day – the massive amount of emotional support from those who, for some reason, cared about whether and how I completed this mission.
Around 9pm, I rode onto the Colonial Parkway, the rough cobblestone byway that passes through Williamsburg Virginia en route to Yorktown. The last time I was in Williamsburg was on my seventh grade field trip from Atlanta, Georgia. This evening, the same bizarre scene was playing out: women in bonnets and men with muskets, kids in the stocks. People were playing Pokémon GO, and I remember laughing at the absurdity of it all, and thinking, I guess it takes all kinds. After all, look at me. Who was I to judge?
There was a bridge out on the route just a handful of miles from the finish line at the Yorktown monument. So I went straight and hoped for the best. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I rounded a dark corner to see the outline of that lonely monument that I had been dreaming of reaching for weeks, maybe months.
And my friends were there, with champagne, cheering for me. My sister-in-law Ann had shown up from North Carolina. It was 10pm. I just took off my helmet and got off my bike and sat on the lower step of that monument and looked around in disbelief. It was over.
I had finished the 4,200 miles in 22 days and 11 hours. In the end, I was the 10th to arrive at the finish line, the 9th solo rider and the third female competitor. I wasn’t the fastest, or the slowest. I had made a handful of good decisions and lots of mistakes. I had faced some bad luck and some good luck. Some things had gone as expected – most hadn’t.
In the end, it was a lot like life. Just more: more good, more bad, more intense, more wonderful, more terrible, more confusing, more illuminating than most days of most weeks tend to be. It was an incredible journey that taught me – more than any other I have ever taken – that choosing to partake in big, messy adventures is how we vote for learning, not only about who we are, but what the big, messy world we are all fortunate enough to live in is all about.
Which is why I just couldn’t wait to do it again.
Thanks for reading, and for sharing this adventure with me.