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

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

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Bedroom in Booneville.

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

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

Booneville was blowing my mind.

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

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

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

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

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Hindman, Kentucky

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

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Mountains of Eastern Kentucky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emergency room selfie game: not so strong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Descending to Elkhorn City. Photo: Fred Fletcher

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

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

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 16: Eric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Boone Tavern Hotel

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

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Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

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

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

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Riding side by side with Eric on Day 1

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

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

“Welcome, Jane,” she said.

Welcome to Booneville.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Ohio River ferry

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

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Upright photo with Michele

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

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

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

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

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This encounter got me pumped, and I rode the rest of the afternoon feeling sharp and excited, like I was nearing something that I wanted. After the previous few days of radical up and down emotional swings, which had included plenty of existential despair, I was learning to savor this feeling – fleeting as it might be.

Riding near Elizabethtown, Kentucky near dark, a guy on a road bike was waiting for me on the side of the road. He introduced himself as a local firefighter, whose station was on the Trans Am route. He offered me to stay there, and then when I said I was riding on, he asked if he could ride with me. I said sure, I’d be happy for the company. He was interested in the race and asked me all kinds of questions, but I think he was most fascinated by my eating habits. When I told him I wanted to stop at a convenience store for food, I watched his eyes get bigger and bigger as I bought armfuls of junk food outside and tried to cram pizza into my frame bag, while eating an ice cream sandwich.

To race the Trans Am, there is a way in which survival dictates that you trick your brain into believing that that what you are doing – the choices you are making – throughout the day are not all that abnormal. Competition or sleep driven, perhaps. But not totally insane. But then, there would be these occasional moments where you get a glimpse of yourself through the eyes of a normal human being – putting ice down your pants in a parking lot, say, or stuffing your face full of twinkies, or buying an enema and then using it in the store, or walking into a Walmart and promptly plugging in seven electronic devices behind the shopping carts.

Those glimpses, when they happen, are truly terrifying. And better not to mull on them at all.

When my new firefighter friend peeled off to head for home, I carried on. My intent had been to make it another 30 miles down the road to the whiskey-burb of Bardstown. But I began to get sleepier, and sleepier, and it became harder and harder to turn the pedals.

I decided to cut my losses and find a place to sleep. In a dark area with few houses, I selected a leafy depression (ok, it was a ditch) at the intersection of the route and another dirt road. It was technically in someone’s yard, but the house was far away and I didn’t hear sign of any curious animals. There was enough foliage that I was able to both have a soft place to sleep and be somewhat camouflaged and out of sight. I pulled out my emergency bivvy, which crackled loudly when I unrolled it, drank some chocolate milk for dessert, and fell immediately asleep.

 

 

Trans Am Bike Race 2017, Day 14: No-Man’s Land

I had been on the road two weeks, fourteen long days. I felt every minute of it as I rolled out of Ellington around 4am, in my legs but also in my head. The steepest of the Ozarks were over, but the trip into the heartland of rural America was just beginning. I was almost ¾ of the way done, but there was still so much hard, hot distance to cover. Even though I now knew that I was well ahead of my sub-20-day goal, I was still stuck on that spreadsheet, and considered myself as having 60 miles to make up.

The roads felt spooky that morning. I don’t know whether it was all the pickups in rural Missouri that are keen to gun their engines as they pass, or if it was my emotional state, or the moonless darkness, or something else. Just as it started to get light, a truck idled behind me for far, far longer than it should have, and I had a few moments of fear.

A lot of people ask me about riding the Trans Am, “Weren’t you scared?” I always say no, and I mean it. When they ask, I don’t think they are thinking about car accidents, or constipation, or saddle sores (all things that do scare me). I think that what they have in their minds is some vague, yet still intimidating, idea that going “out there” into the world alone – especially as a female – invites an increased risk of physical harm.  IMG_0247

Perceived danger is relative, of course. But my perspective has always been that the Trans Am route is a rural one, and rural America – in general – is a very nice, kind place to be. Of course, wackos can show up anywhere; but simply looking at the odds, the chances that I would be attacked or kidnapped or raped or murdered while in these parts of the country was very, very low.

But there were still moments – like the one that morning in Johnson’s Shut-In State Park, just before Pilot Knob, Missouri – that would leave me uneasy. Being on your bike in a strange location does leave you physically vulnerable, and sometimes you have to reckon with that. In this case, the car stalker eventually came up with another plan, or got bored, or decided I looked far too much like a vagrant to bother.

Coming into Farmington was a change of pace, with traffic and sidewalks and a quaint downtown. Just before getting to town, I heard my name and there was Brian McEntire on the side of the road. I was so happy to see him! I knew Brian lived in Farmington, but hadn’t wanted to get my hopes up that he would be able to come out. Brian is a two-time Trans Am Bike Race vet and we had spent some memorable, philosophical hours together in Idaho and Montana in 2016. Once again, there’s something about this kind of event that accelerates the cement of friendship.

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A welcome meetup with Brian McEntire

I rolled out of Farmington and into the rolling hills to Chester, Illinois. (Side note: I thought about using quotation marks around the word “rolling,” but I think they probably truly are rolling hills; it was my perception that was the problem.) Every. Single. Little. Hill. Hurt. It felt like it was taking every bit of energy to even turn the pedals around – so much so that it was almost comical. I started playing mind games with myself, just trying to get to the tree at the top of a hill, or reach a stick laying in the road. Then I would think about incremental goals, and wonder how many zillions of incremental goals I would have to set to reach Yorktown in this manner. I remember calling Jimmy and asking him, “Was this part actually hard last year?” I now think he might have heard the desperation in my voice and been lying, but he confirmed that that yes, definitely it was very hard.

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Between Farmington and Chester, an appearance by local rider Wayne Linnenbringer was a welcome respite from counting sticks on the road.

I crossed into Chester (home of Popeye!), which also meant crossing the Mississippi River and into Illinois over a big clanking bridge with trucks lined up right behind me and honking and spewing smoke. Once I escaped off that bridge and the trucks flew by, I climbed a giant hill, which seemed to take forever, and then promptly got lost. (Chester is not a big place, by the way.) I ate something that masqueraded as lunch in the convenience store, then wandered the aisles, and then told myself sternly I could not start finding excuses to hang around in the air conditioning.

The afternoon’s riding was a bit tamer. That, or my blood sugar rose, or my mind changed direction, or it got a bit cooler. I rolled through Carbondale, Illinois and took a small detour for a bridge out at the far edge of town. I knew how to navigate this detour based on a Facebook post from Evan a day or so before explaining how, and I remember feeling quite smug about automatically knowing how to do it. I don’t know exactly why I felt so proud. Maybe I thought of it as evidence to myself that, despite my deteriorating state, I was still a human being who could gather and process information – not just an automaton following a line on a Garmin.

Grasping at straws, clearly.

I rolled into Goreville, Illinois at 8:05pm. I had determined to make it to the tiny town of Elizabethtown that night, which was another 50 miles down the road. Sleeping in Elizabethtown would put me just ten miles from the ferry across the Ohio River into Kentucky. I could catch the first ferry at 6am the next morning.

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I knew the ride to Elizabethtown through the Shawnee National Forest was do-able that night, and the best option if I was trying to cover ground, but the idea of it was just so depressing. I had been on my bike since 4am, and all I wanted to do was stop. I had sunk into another bad head space since Carbondale and was struggling to get out of it. My mental discourse had turned to berating again: Who was I to think this whole crackpot race was a good idea? What was wrong with me? Of all the things I could be doing with my summer, and I wanted to be out here in the middle of Illinois, hungry and with aching legs? It made no sense! I was, in fact, a hateful, stupid person. The only obvious choice was to quit and go home.

It was truly a pity party on a bike, and I was the only one invited.

I was hungry, and needed food for the rest of the day’s ride. The grocery store in Goreville had closed at 8pm, but I banged on the window with a sad look on my face (I didn’t have to fake it), hoping the two girls inside would take pity. One cracked the door half an inch and put her eye to it, like I was a hardened criminal, and enunciated overly clearly in case I didn’t understand, “Sorry, we are closed.”

Standing on the road dejected, and trying to figure out my next hopeless move, a couple pulled up in a car and called my name. I looked up, surprised. They both jumped out of the car and ran over, excited and with big smiles on their faces. They hugged me. They told me they had been following my dot for the last two years and had driven two hours to cheer me on in person. They were so excited to meet me, they couldn’t believe it! They called me a professional athlete (??) and told me I was an amazing bike rider and asked me to sign their cycling jerseys. They wanted to take pictures with me.

The contrast between my internal sad-sack narrative about myself, and who this couple thought I was, was so stark that I couldn’t help laughing. I used the bike pump they had in their car and thanked them profusely. I don’t think they could have known, nor could I have explained, how fortuitous their appearance was.

As I rode away, I tried to harness that jolt of energy. Yes! Perhaps I was a special person! Maybe I was meant to do the Trans Am Bike Race! Maybe I was a champion!

Then it got dark, and my demon mood returned. How could anyone know how terrible this was? Why did people make movies that made this whole experience look fun and inspiring and heroic and beautiful, anyway? This, this right here – riding on curvy highways in the dark, being battered and dirty and exhausted and just turning my legs over to keep from falling off my bike – was a certifiably BAD idea. And I was the only one responsible for getting myself into it.

I thought Elizabethtown would never come. But it finally did. I had ridden 230 miles that day, and was now only 10 miles from the ferry, and 20 miles behind my plan. Kentucky was next. And, lucky for me at the time, I had no idea how much adventure that state would have to offer.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?