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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.