My oldest daughter let me know she wouldn’t be at the start of the Pirate Cycling League’s first Long Voyage 300. (She had cross country practice after school.) But she said she knew what she’d be missing.
“That’s a lot of mental illness in one place,” she said.
I refused to agree with her, but I couldn’t exactly disagree, either. Choosing to ride a bike over 300 miles of hilly gravel for fun might not automatically qualify us as unwell, but it is abnormal. Healthy or not, I reassured myself, at least we’re highly functional.
Mia asked me to be safe out there, because, she said, “I’m not cut out for orphanhood.”
Others offered warmer expressions of similar concern.
My brother texted from Minneapolis, “I don’t need to tell you to try hard because you try harder than anybody I know. But just quit if you’re facing like renal failure or something.” Then later: “Anyway, I’ll light a spirit candle for you like woo-woo gals do when their friend is in labor.”
Friends with less vested interest in my well-being let their curiosity step in front of their concern. As in: Why do you want to do this, exactly?
I don’t have a great answer. I guess I just wanted to see what would happen if I tried.
Gravel racing has always been kind of a science experiment for me. You fiddle around with the limits of your strength on the bike, then step back and watch for changes in the other pools of your life.
The Long Voyage was a chance for me to experiment on a grander scale. How much gravel is too much gravel? After you pour out your strength––like all of it––where do you find what’s left to pull you the rest of the way home?
My lab partners for this experiment were the mad Drs. Addison and Marty Killeen––brothers, fellow Abrahams and Lincoln dentists with strong stubborn streaks and relentlessly positive dispositions.
Their own decisions to tackle this race involved similar courage running in opposite directions.
Addison has seen the ugly end of a few races unravel thanks to some frustrating gastrointestinal issues and even a scary heart arrhythmia. (Whatever your maximum heart rate is, Addison has probably beaten it standing still.) He’s been doing great on both fronts for more than a year now. But this voyage would put us in uncharted territory.
Meanwhile, Marty was risking one of the weirder streaks in gravel. After many years of races, Marty has never––not once in his life––not ever––failed to finish a bike race. He’s five for five at Unbound. He’s got more than half a dozen Gravel Worlds finishes. A few Solstice 100s. A Cornhusker State Games 100 title, a Lutzen 99er, a few Dakota Five-Ohs and who knows how many local cyclocross, MTB and enduro finishes. And his DNF count incomprehensibly remains … zero.
I’m not sure I’d risk a streak like that in a race that could crack half the field. Nor am I sure Marty even bothered to think about it. His attitude: What good is that streak if you’re too scared to stretch it?
So we stretched it.
I’d never started a gravel race at 5 p.m. before. Always previously, I’d ride my way through early-morning starts and arrive at this summery temperature, this humidity, pre-depleted. This time, we got to enter these conditions with the benefits of full rest, full fuel, full hydration. I liked it.
Cruising through these early miles, we knew the heat had a deadline. The sun was already dipping, and a cold front angled for us––its progress marked by rain clouds to our south and west.
Maybe 30 miles in, we came upon Abus’s Christie Tracy of Austin, Texas. Her late-season legs had told her today wasn’t going to be her day. So she downshifted to party mode, which got a fat thumbs-up from me.
I asked about her teammate, 2016 Gravel Worlds champion, Kae Takeshita. I’d heard her win at Iowa Wind and Rock had done a number on her spine, and had assumed she’d needed season-ending surgery. Not true, Tracy said. Kae was healing well. In fact, she was all set for the 75 on Saturday!
The lightning cranked up toward dusk and we resigned ourselves to the possibility of storms and mud.
In Weeping Water, lines at the bathroom and cash register made for a longer stop. Before we set back out, Tracy arrived in a literal twist. Her saddlebag had torn, and she’d ridden the last several miles with one hand behind her back holding it shut. This was not sustainable, and her race was done.
Tracy took it in stride. “It happens to everybody sooner or later,” she said. I looked around in alarm, relieved that Marty wasn’t close enough to hear.
We crossed Weeping Water Creek (pronounced, “crick,” damn it) just outside town and found ourselves at the first climb that hurt for real. Then night stood up tall (Why do we say it fell?) and we powered on our lights.
Marty and Addison had ordered for this occasion a pair of soup-can-sized nuclear reactors from the U.K. These things didn’t so much give off light as slay darkness.
To extend battery life, the Killeens set their death rays to stun. But even at low power, I could pedal along in their glowing wake like a kid copying answers off his brighter classmates. My light, a borrowed affair from teammate Mike, was plenty good––even great. It just paled next to theirs. These uber lights could sense the rattle of rough terrain and automatically brighten to see them through sketchy stuff. They likewise responded to changes in speed, brightening on descents when you needed to see farther down the road. Just brilliant.
We rolled into the Syracuse refill around 11, a little wet but happy. A volunteer at the gas station called out to us, announcing an unpainted curb hiding in a trick of florescent light. Sure enough, the eight-inch curb lifted its spine, and I avoided hitting it thanks only to his heads-up. “Appreciate you!” I said.
Our Abes kits were a source of bemusement for the clerks inside. “So are you guys teammates or something?” a woman asked us as I made a mess trying to guide ice from the fountain machine into my Camelbak. “Nah,” I said. “We just shop at the same stores.”
Back outside, the curb’s spokesperson announced us as his picks for “best dressed,” and I sincerely felt like we’d won something.
Syracuse brought us into my family’s neck of the woods, and we passed a stretch of road I knew very well. I waved at my sleeping Aunt Gerri’s condo off I Road, otherwise known as the Old Highway to Unadilla. Next to it stood a nursing home, and beyond that, a cemetery where my grandparents are buried. When my uncle gave up the farmhouse and moved into this condo, he joked that his plan from there involved catapulting himself overtop the nursing home and landing square in that cemetery on the other side. He made it, too.
Then we turned south. And everything turned south.
The rainfall here had taken a serious toll on every B road, rendering most of them impassable. I ignored this reality as long as I could, taking faith in my bike’s whale shark mud clearance. And the Niner did a lot better than most. I rode past an elite amateur from Seattle-based Audi who’d already shouldered her bike.
“How is this not sticking to you?” she yelled. “Fat clearance!” I yelled back.
But there’s a difference between “more clearance” and “infinite clearance.” The devil just kept feeding frosted cupcakes up into my fork and seat stays. And soon enough, even the hungriest bikes ate their fill. I was foolish to think it might be otherwise. I slid to the ditch and dismounted as my wheels seized.
Thanks to a conversation Marty had had weeks earlier with the indefatigable Robb Finegan, we were wildly more prepared for this scenario. Like bees carrying our own personal hives of honeycomb, we were running frame bags full of the sugar we needed to survive. These bags filled our bikes’ front triangles, making it impossible to shoulder them in the traditional cyclocross style.
It was Robb who taught us to equip our frames for shoulder straps, essentially turning our bikes into giant NPR tote bags from hell.
I uncoiled the detachable shoulder strap I’d borrowed from my mom’s luggage. I looped one end over my saddle and connected the other end to an aerobar with a carabiner. And in a hot handful of seconds, I could shoulder my bike in (relative) comfort and begin my trudge. As brutal as these hikes were (and they sucked), they would’ve been so much worse without that strap. (Cheers, Robb!)
We had another bit of luck going for us during our overnight misfortune. The bulk of these impassable north-to-south stretches came on a B road with recently mowed ditches. Maybe this was our dumb luck. Or maybe the landowner knew about our event. And maybe he or she had tidied up for us.
Chuckle if you want. But every farmer I’ve grown up knowing is keenly proud of the land they tend. And if you’d have told my uncle that his farmland was about to play host to a hundred-something visitors from across the country, I’m guessing he’d have taken a couple passes along the route with the mower attachment.
So while several of the mud roads couldn’t be ridden, the ditches sometimes could. Winding little singletracks began presenting themselves within them, braiding in and out of one another like sandy river channels. Here was our way forward in the dark. Sure, it was wet, taxing and discouragingly slow. But we did our best to just keep moving and focus on the fact that it still could have been so much worse.
Still, I stink at dry singletrack in full daylight. I discovered I don’t get any better at it in muddy darkness. And by the time we reached the Chief Standing Bear Trail along the Big Blue River just south of Beatrice, both the night and our hope of finishing by the time cut were about spent.
The gas station there was smeared with despair and imported mud. Enough soggy riders had already passed through by then that the people inside paid us no mind. A woman poked away at the touchscreen of a video gambling machine, and I vurped hope. (I don’t know why gas station gambling would depress me more just before dawn than at any other hour, but it did.)
I suddenly realized how wet I was, and how cold. I felt weak for trembling uncontrollably, then saw Marty was shaking, too. We were in a bad way.
I wondered, given the state of the course, whether the directors might extend the time cut. That’s when I realized the true depth of my desperation. My biggest hope rested then on the understanding natures of a band of damn pirates.
There’d be no negotiating. We’d either make the cut or we’d be cut. We gulped a stupid amount of caffeine and headed back out, three fools on an errand.
I’ve heard the great ultra racer Lael Wilcox talk about the surge of optimism that comes with the sun’s reappearance. You haven’t slept, but here it is anyway: a new day. With its own color. And you get to ride into it.
There’s truth to this. The sky purpled as the course turned us north toward home. The gravel here felt less stodgy, and a cool wind kicked up, promising to blow-dry the B roads and keep the day’s heat down.
I also felt the uplift that came with riding into my childhood’s home turf. I’d played football games at Wilber-Clatonia; swam at the Milford pool; dozed through church in Seward. These places, nearer my heart, all felt closer somehow on the map. And the remaining rungs on the race’s ladder seemed more achievable, if only for their familiarity.
Then we rode our way into another asset in the form of one Alexander Sanchez of Omaha. We discovered him equally willing to work and to chat. His voice was about as bright as his lime green jersey. And he told us cheerful stories––about singing in a salsa band and becoming a grandpa. I ate these stories like medicine. And they helped.
At a stoplight in Crete, the Venezuelan had energy enough to stop mid-conversation, raise his fist and holler encouragement to a driver with a Puerto Rican flag dangling from his rear view mirror. (Now I can count on one finger the times I’ve heard a cyclist yell encouragement to a driver at a light.) More medicine.
We turned east on Old Cheney and rolled toward my personal milestone. At mile 213 just outside Milford, we hit the point where our ride became my life’s longest. In a cosmic coincidence, that point happened to fall exactly at the acreage where I grew up. It was one of those strange alignments that felt full of meaning to me, while not mattering a whit to anybody else. Still, I pointed it out to Alex, and he was kind enough to agree it was pretty cool.
So as my energy wore down, moments like that kept me positive. The B roads after Beatrice had all been ridable. Alex had helped rally our pace, and our prospects of beating the time cut looked not just reasonable now, but maybe even likely.
At the Milford Mini-Mart, we met a roundish clerk in a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt. He was jazzed for us and inordinately interested in this wild event animating his workday by sending dozens of worn-out athletes briefly into his care. He warmed up our gas station burritos and slid us free slices of pizza. The guy was completely sincere, and I could not have liked him more. He all but heaved us toward Seward.
Along the way, I got to tip my helmet to the abandoned church overlooking the country cemetery where my dad’s buried. If he’d had a cowbell, he’d have rattled the shit out of it for us. And that made me happy. I miss him every day.
As soon as the course was released, I’d circled the leg from Seward (mile 233) to Valparaiso (mile 267) as the most worrisome. PCL’s Jason Strohbehn confirmed as much, warning us that the course’s last 50 miles would be the most difficult.
The north wind that had kept us cool all morning gave way to a typical August afternoon. And we rolled out of Seward underneath a diving crop duster, into weather I could no longer call pleasant, and toward hills with bad intent. Once we crossed Oak Creek (crick!) at mile 250, we entered those hills in earnest. And I hit utter emptiness.
I wasn’t at all surprised to find after 250 miles that I could no longer climb with Alex and the Killeens–humans toting 40ish fewer pounds of humanity than me. So I downshifted, let them ride ahead and focused instead on each hill as its own individualized threat.
The positive nostalgia that carried me from Wilber to Seward soured into something closer to disgust in the Bohemian Alps. And I rode grimly determined to deny each hill the geological satisfaction of being the one that killed me.
I weakened and weakened and weakened further still. But did not die. Just get to Valparaiso, I told myself. Two sixty-seven. Eat as much as you physically can there. And then you cannot be stopped.
Alex and the Killeens tried to keep me in eyeshot. And when I fell out of sight, they pulled over into the shade for a medical check-in. Dr. Addison looked me over and prescribed his last bag-warmed can of double espresso. God, it tasted good.
We limped from there into Valparaiso, with its ice and food and air conditioning. And I was utterly convinced I’d won the day. Refuel, then just 35 more miles.
Except … I discovered I could not eat. Marty put food in front of me. But I couldn’t swallow it. I waited for my stomach to settle enough to tolerate the calories I knew I needed to keep going. But I couldn’t shake the nausea. It felt like my stomach was folded inside a gutted fish.
I went outside and laid down to barf in the parking lot. I couldn’t quite do that, either. It might, I thought, be time to call your wife. I chewed on that idea for a while. Then Alex came, reached down and shook my hand. The delay was doing him no good. He needed to get going before his legs stiffened up. He wished me well and headed out. (Gosh, I like him.)
And somehow, in liking him, my stomach wriggled loose of its dead fish. And I felt good enough to not call Beth for a ride home. Good enough to ask my friends to stuff an ice sock for me. Good enough to go get my bike.
I couldn’t get the calories I wanted down, but we were only 10 miles from the checkpoint. If my stomach behaved, we could cover that in 45ish minutes. And I could eat something, anything, there. I could do that. That was in the realm of the possible.
Marty and Addison tugged me along, and we got to the checkpoint just fine. There, a smiling Josh Shear bludgeoned me with encouragement and poured two Cokes down my grateful gullet. He handed me a hotdog, which I could have swallowed sideways, I was so hungry. It tasted like gasoline must taste to a dirt bike. It tasted like a future. I thanked him so much.
We knew a few things rolling out from there. We wouldn’t make it back to Fallbrook before dark. I’d held us up too long for that. But we were definitely, absolutely, without a doubt going to beat the time cut.
And I discovered the answer to that question that drove this whole experiment from the beginning: Where inside yourself will you find the strength to finish once your strength is all gone?
We watched the sun set a second time, and this time around, I knew that the strength wasn’t really inside me at all. Gravel cycling makes a big deal about self-support, personal resilience, grit and all that. It’s that whole rugged American individualist thing writ large. We’re taught to look inside ourselves for that strength we didn’t know we had. But when I dumped it all out then really looked at what kept me going from there, I didn’t find any special, untapped core deep inside. I just found the scads of folks who went out of their way to help me.
It was my mom lending me a luggage strap that helped me shoulder my bike in the mud overnight. It was my little brother lighting a dumb candle.
I could carry everything I needed thanks to a frame bag Becca Vacek lent me.
I could see through the entirety of a night thanks to the light I borrowed from Mike Suing.
You’ve seen what Marty and Addison were willing to do to help me. But trust me; you haven’t seen an eighth of what they’ve done.
There are so many others. I didn’t taco my front wheel in Syracuse because a guy standing all night in a gas station parking lot told me to look out.
An hour or two later, there was another rider several hundred yards in front of us who crossed a plank bridge with bike eating gaps, then thought to point his bike back toward us and signal the danger by waving his hand across his light.
There was free pizza thanks to the Red Hot Chili Peppers fan in my hometown.
There was Alex’s daylong kindness.
And, God, there was my wife. She remained my fan through a hundred 4:30 morning alarms and just as many exhausted early evenings. She kept approving of a sport that was to her nine inconveniences for each short burst of fun, just because it was so clear I loved it. Even after her accident this spring and surgery this summer, she’s made bike racing about us–about our family. She’s lifted its burdens and made them just another part of our family’s unusually strong and eclectic identity. This, thanks to her, is what we do.
My kids have grown up in this silliness and have embraced it, reveled in it, even joined in it themselves. They know its mixtures and contradictions. Their dad is fit, sure, and also perpetually sore, perpetually recovering. And they’re there for it. Because we’re kind of fanatics for one another.
That fanaticism is infectious. And Beth’s Aunt Aileen joined in from Omaha to see what it was all about. She was there for Marcus’s finish in the 75, and even mine (much) later on.
We hit that finish line a little after 9 on Saturday night, not so much because I “found the strength inside me” as because so many others saw fit to put that strength there. It’s silly that I had to ride through a day and a night and a day and a night to realize my accomplishments are rooted in what others have been willing to do for me.
It shouldn’t take a vision quest to come to see one’s privileges. But what else can I do? I learn like I bike: Slowly. Stubbornly. Relentlessly. And with love.