(This is the second half of my Alexander 380 story, the 380 mile gravel race that is the “big brother” of Almanzo. Read the first part here.)
As we left the first gas station stop at mile 70-something, we soon crossed over highway 52. It was so tempting to cruise down the big hill to Decorah, to a hot shower, a warm bed, and excellent ice cream. Ugh. We pedaled on, and not long after leaving Kwik Trip the rain started to fall. First it was a few drops, and then the sky opened up with a vigorous rain. We were out in the middle of nowhere, and had no choice but to keep pedaling. I enviously eyed bars and outbuildings on the side of the road, pondering if we could seek shelter in there until the rain passed.
We made it to the next small town and spotted riders hanging out under awnings, hiding from the rain. I sarcastically shouted “welcome to hell!” as we rode by. Another rider was on the porch of a local bar and beckoned to us to come have a beer. We declined, crazily, as we were already soaked to the bone due to our slower pace and longer time in the rain than the boys. We kept moving and the rain never abated. We pedaled for FOUR solid hours in that rain. I felt fortunate that my body felt fairly warm as long as I kept moving and kept cranking out a decent effort level. Granted, my “rain jacket” was completely ineffective in keeping me dry but the extra layer was nice.
I stopped repeatedly on this climb, throwing my face up to the sky and feeling the rain wash down my face, wondering why the hell I was out here.
At one point I reached that happy, elated place despite the rain. I was beyond euphoric as I looked over at a verdant green field speckled with black cows. I smiled as I saw a mother cow walking along an actual cow path, with her calf in tow. The calf would stop and amble about the field, getting distracted, and the cow would swing her head around as if to say “hurry the heck up!”. I grinned from ear to ear at the sight. I debated taking a picture but decided that getting the phone out it’s waterproof enclosure (a Ziplock freezer bag!) was a bad idea.
Temperatures were in the upper 30s, the wind was howling, and I couldn’t tell if my face was being pelted with gravel bits or hail …I decided it was gravel because clearly riding in hail was just too absurd. (I think I was in denial because later a few riders confirmed that it WAS hail!) By now, descents were “special”. I am somewhat terrified of gravel descents but can typically hide this in the company of others. During the Alexander, when I took off my glasses my eyes were pelted with tiny hail. If I left them on, they were covered with road spray and impossible to see through. I decided to leave them on, bombing blindly down gravel descents. Grit was on my gloves, shoes, legs, face … everywhere. Occasionally I’d feel some grit in my eye but had no way to get it out. Things were quickly getting more and more miserable… Whenever I’d hit a false flat or even a slight uphill I was in my lowest gear, cranking away.
I was on another blind descent, cruising along. I was still without a Garmin, and still without the analog computer. I had the cue cards on my handlebars but now they were nearly impossible to read, flapping around in the wind. I just happened to glance up a road on my left during a descent and briefly saw a flash of Leah’s teal coat. I skidded to a stop, hopping off my bike to downshift and I turned to point my bike up the hill. The hill was steep and covered with water – it was cascading down the hill and forming tiny streams in the middle of the roadway. I tried to muscle my bike up the hill but couldn’t put out enough power with my tiny cassette. I grudgingly hopped off the bike and began to walk it up the hill. I could no longer see Leah but felt SO THANKFUL that her presence had kept me on course.
I stopped repeatedly on this climb, throwing my face up to the sky and feeling the cold rain wash down my face, wondering why the hell I was out here. The problem was that stopping caused the cold to creep in quickly, and I instinctively knew that I must keep moving if I were to stay warm. I had no choice but to keep pushing forward.
I eventually caught up to Leah and we rode together for a while. Then, a few of the guys who had been holed up in the small town behind us rode up and joined our pack. It was mesmerizing to watch the gritty water cascade down the seat tube of one of the guys’ white bike. That image still stands out clearly in my mind, and I’m surprised at how captivating it was.
We caught Pamela as we descended; she had been in front of us for quite a long time during the rain. We created a pack of five and rolled down the final hill into town. We stood at a stop sign in the cold rain debating what to do and where to go. I had been in Lansing before multiple times on bike rides through the driftless area, so I clued the group into a gas station right next door that also had booths and good hot food. As a group we were indecisive, so finally I declared that I was going there, with or without them, and as I pedaled that direction they followed.
We rolled down to the laundromat, shivering. We were the only ones there, and we looked around hesitantly for a bit before we began stripping off our layers. We debated just how naked we could get without getting in trouble…
We settled down inside and started taking off our gear. We made gritty puddles everywhere, offering to mop before we left to the gas station employees! Pamela was quite cold by this point, chilled to the bone. I felt fine for about 20 minutes and then the cold hit me too. I couldn’t control the shivering, couldn’t hold a cup of coffee up to my face without shaking, and was dreading getting back on the bike. I told Leah that I was going to stay in Lansing for the night, and each time I said this she’d say “no, you’re going with us. You aren’t stopping here.”
The wonderful gas station attendants heard our dilemma and saw how frozen we were. One of them clued us into a laundromat down the street, and I perked up at the thought but then my face fell in dismay. I said we couldn’t possibly go to a laundromat, our clothes are too gritty. She said, well, there’s a car wash next door if that would help?! And so our plan was hatched.
We went over to the car wash, spraying down our already soaked clothes and washing the grit down the drain. I also gently sprayed off my bike, removing the crunchy gravel bits from the drivetrain. We rolled down to the laundromat, shivering. We were the only ones there, and we looked around hesitantly for a bit before we began stripping off our layers. We debated just how naked we could get without getting in trouble… Let’s just say that stripping down involved braless but critical bits covered for one, a n ad hoc loin cloth assembly for another, and me ambling around in a bra and shorts. We lugged our bikes inside the laundromat and began taking assessment of the rigs. Leah was smart and brought chain lube so we were able to get the bikes back up and working decently well again. I dumped water out of my feed bags (I had forgotten to close them with the storms hit), dried out my food bags, and reloaded everything. At one point a gentleman came into the laundromat to start his load of laundry, warily looking at us out of the corner of his eye. We giggled to ourselves, and soon he was gone. A female passerby on the side of the road gave us a thumbs up and the “ok” sign, grinning at us. When the gentleman came back to transfer his laundry, he brought backup in the form of a friend. I can’t decide if he did it for personal protection from us hooligans or if he needed someone else to witness the spectacle of the half naked women covered in grit.
By the time we were ready to roll out of Lansing it was three hours later and the rain was done, and we were relatively dry. I had fashioned plastic bag vapor barriers around my feet as my shoes were drenched and there was no way to get them dry. As we left Lansing we rolled across the bridge into Wisconsin. The sun broke through the clouds, illuminating distant trees in shafts of light. We turned south onto the highway and for a brief moment, I was comfortable again.
The respite from discomfort was short; we soon turned up a gravel road and began ascending. Much to my relief, once the pitch steepened the road turned to pavement. I was grinding along in my 36-28, envious of those who could maintain even a slightly higher cadence as we went up, up, up. My relief was temporary as I watched my speed fall from 6 mph to 3 to something around 2. I began to tack the hill in an effort to keep moving upward, but eventually the pitch was too great and I began to walk my bike. One by on the other women did the same, and we plodded up the hills, exhausted and weary, pushing our bikes for what felt like forever. I felt a sharp pain growing in my left foot (the foot I’m currently calling my “surgery avoidance foot”), and my mood really plummeted. I enviously eyed the farmhouses on the side of the road, the soft yellow glow of their lights pouring out onto the countryside. I imagined myself plodding up to their doorstep and ridiculously requesting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
One of the things I find fascinating and so compelling about endurance athletic events is the spectrum of emotions I experience in such a short period of time. Other people may watch movies or read books to feel these things; I ride myself into oblivion on a bike. The lows are quite intense and I still am shocked by their pull. Remember my melancholia during the first few miles that almost pulled me off my bike? Yeah… It’s a wide wide range.
But I digress. We hit the top of the hill, breathless. We got back on our bikes and began our first paved descent of the night. We had been told that there were seven significant climbs on this section, and I thought to myself “one down, six to go…” We picked up speed in the night and just as quickly as I had entered the depths of despair, the fast descent pulled me back into euphoria. I was thrilled that the descent stayed on pavement the whole time, allowing me to descend in the dark at something higher than my usual 12 mph blind night descents on gravel! I began to think “holy shit, I’m going to finish this…! It won’t be pretty or painless, but I really think I can!” I knew more mental and physical lows were coming, but I was learning valuable things about how to deal with them. We were somewhere around mile 145 and things were looking up.
We rolled through a small town minutes after their gas station had closed for the night. I remember looking at the route in the days before and thinking there was no way I’d miss that gas station’s opening hours. Um, wrong. The wind and hail and rain and multi-hour stop to dry out had taken many hours out of our day. Luckily we hadn’t planned to stop between Lansing and Prairie (a 70-some mile haul), so it was no major calamity that we couldn’t refuel.
Just outside of this tiny town, we came to a sign that the bridge ahead was out.
I vaguely remembered the race official saying that we should ride toward the sign and follow the cue cards, and that the section was passable. As we rode forward I suddenly felt spooked by the night and a little hesitant. I wanted brighter headlights but I knew they wouldn’t last through the night if I turned them up, so I just had to deal. My feet were also getting cold as darkness fell and the temperatures dropped. I later learned that the seams of the plastic bags that were functioning as my vapor barriers had lined up near my toes, and my toes had poked through and were once again soaking with water from my drenched shoes. I had made the choice to wear my stiff carbon shoes that are highly ventilated for summer use. They give me the least foot pain of all my footwear options, so I make concessions in order to ride with less pain.
We rolled forward and stopped on the side of the road. My Garmin somehow chirped that we were off course, even though the cue cards didn’t mention a turn at this point. We analyzed the road around us and glanced backwards. Sure enough, back and to our left, was a muddy pit where a bridge should be. We watched as a car approached, weaving around the gravel road with music blaring. The car drove decisively toward the mud pit and rallied through it. Something about the car full of youngsters made the hair on the back of my neck raise. OMG, what if there are drunk drivers out here on these backroads tonight?! It was near midnight and I’m sure people were out partying on a Friday night. I had heard people in the past dismiss the risk of drunken driving when on backroads because “well, no one is out there”. But tonight, WE were out there — we’d have to be careful.
Leah pointed her bike towards the muck and rode through. I rode through, slid around excessively, and I decided that jumping off of my bike and walking it was better than risking falling and coating myself in the slick cold mud. I could hear the mud sucking at my shoes and trying to prevent forward motion. Pamela walked her bike through without issue as far as I could tell.
I hopped back on my bike, and three pedal strokes in I heard a cling, a pop, and then a crunching sound. My rear wheel seized and I jumped off the bike in horror. “Fuck, fuck fuck!” I yelled into the night. Pamela sounded panicked for me when she said “what happened?!” I couldn’t believe my eyes. My rear derailleur was totally warped and ripped off the bike. The chain was a misshapen mess, and the detached derailleur and chain had gotten sucked into the rear wheel and prevented it from moving. I could not believe my eyes. I was very confused at the time as to what had actually happened to my bike while I stared down at the twisted mini pile of metal.
The girls circled back to see if we could fix my bike using the menagerie of tools we were carrying, and no, we could not. I had the sickening realization that I was done, really done, and that’s when the big ugly cry started, clamoring out of my throat and into the night. Luckily I had cell phone signal and I called my boyfriend to come pick me up, that I was done and I had failed. We figured out where I was based on communicating the series of turns we had made in the past few minutes, and my directions were to move forward a little on course, and then wait on the side of a paved road for rescue. As luck would have it, I was maximally far away from him where he was dog sitting at a friend’s house in NE Iowa. My rescue vehicle would come in about an hour and a half, and the temperatures were in the high 30s and dropping. I was drenched with sweat from the climbs and knew I would have to keep moving to stay warm.
As I walked, the tears welled up again and I began to cry in the night. Some of it was quiet, and some it was loud wailing. Just when I thought I was done crying, another wave would hit.
I convinced Pamela and Leah to continue on without me and without waiting for my pick up. I had made contact with the outside world, my rescue vehicle knew where I was, and I felt certain I could stay warm and safe. Worse case, I had an emergency bivvy in my seat bag if things got really dire. I knew it was critical for them to keep moving on in the cold, windy night.
They left, and I began my walk to stay warm. I beat myself up for my stupidity of not just carrying my bike through the muck. I had experienced what sticky mud does to bikes but never in this magnitude before. In the past I vowed I would never try to bike through something like this again. In the dark and in my exhaustion, I made the wrong choice of trying to ride it. In the past I wondered how someone could ever break off their derailleur without feeling it coming, and here I was.. I had been grinding on the pedals all day, so when it took significant force to drive the pedals I didn’t think much of it.
As I walked, the tears welled up again and I began to cry in the night. Some of it was quiet, and some it was loud wailing. Just when I thought I was done crying, another wave would hit. I was despondent, having spent the last many months preparing and training for this and having it end like this was almost cruel.
My rescue vehicle arrived, peeling around a corner and screeching to a halt when my headlight was suddenly visible on the opposite side of the road. I’m sure I was a sad sight, a tiny dejected figure covered in dirt with a face full of exhaustion and sorrow. I was scooped up into the car and driven back to the safety of Decorah, a hot shower, and a warm bed. I was headed “home”.
… during the Alexander I was granted another gift, the gift of focusing on my body and mind as a tool and being grateful for what my body could do, regardless of how it looks. I respected my strong legs, my strong body, and my strong mind. And for that, I will be forever thankful.
I’ve had some time to reflect on the Alexander, and one of the shocking things was that it gave me a gift, a gift of 24 hours without the stress of the world. My preparation was done, my training was done, and my only task was to keep moving forward. Work didn’t need me, my child was safely in the care of others, and I was “off the clock”, so to speak. These days I stress a lot about body image and my current weight. I’m yo-yoing again and am riding an unmitigated upswing right now, and I fret a lot over not being anywhere near a respectable “climbing weight” for a cyclist. However, during the Alexander I was granted another gift, the gift of focusing on my body and mind as a tool and being grateful for what my body could do, regardless of how it looks. I respected my strong legs, my strong body, and my strong mind. And for that, I will be forever thankful.