It starts way before day one but that is where the start line is, so I'll begin there too. Well, first, the ride to the start line at the Tilikum Bridge had my heart rate at its highest pace of the entire race. Nervous about something stupid happening or forgetting something, or, really, of starting something I might not finish.
So many amazing friends and boosters and racers gathered by the opera house that morning. It felt like a nice miniature of the spectacle I'd witnessed at the start of this year's Trans Am Bike Race in Astoria. I can't imagine doing what those racers or any of my competitors on the inaugural Steens Mazama 1000 do. Riding through the night. Spontaneous bivvy overnights in unexpected places. Going with very little sleep.
My plan to survive this thing involved just that, a plan. I scotch taped giant map pages on my bedroom wall and traced the route in black sharpie, crossing the already marked Oregon Outback route. Which reminds me, I couldn't've done this, no way, without having done the Outback. Although they're different in many ways, riding the Outback gave me valuable gear and terrain knowledge. Also critical was my experience as a randonneur, which I've been away from while training for this race. My rando brain would calculate "miles in the bank", which varies from some randos' "hours in the bank" strategy.
All spring, I tried hard not to take it as a bad omen if a map page wafted off the wall randomly. I marked my planned overnights with smiley face stickers. Then I stared at the map a lot, made grids and lists, and even came up with a post office drop scheme to ease my way. I am still somewhat stunned at how the rhythm of planned overnights and spontaneous ones worked out. The little cabin called Squirrelville and the hot springs camp in the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge were equally sublime even though one was reserved and the other totally unexpected.
What went wrong? Well, I got a flat tire. That was a mile from Riley and I filled with C02 til I got to the little store, I was so thirsty and hungry. My panniers and trunk bag off, tools out, bike upside down, eating chips and ice cream while fixing my dirty tire. Classy lady, c'est moi.
I always joke to kind motorists who offer flat help - "oh, do you have a floor pump?". So naturally that's what I said when a coupla cute guys asked me if I needed help. One said "well, actually..." and the big camper behind him pulled away to reveal his company sprint van wrapped with a popular mountain bike brand logo. He told me he knew the rules of trail magic and offered me not only the floor pump, but a tube and a sticker. A really cool sticker that I put on my chain stay. Tell me what it says and I'll give you a pair of painted valve caps.
Ok, onward. The main thing about riding bikes, the main thing I like anyway, is how important it is to stay in the moment. Yet, being consumed with planning and training in the months leading up to the race required the opposite of that staying present mindset. I recognize how there are deposits and withdrawals in life and all of that planning and training worked as a large credit that I could pull from during the challenge. It's kind of like being two people - one of you taking care of the other. My caretaker self treated my riding self like a coddled princess. Thank you, caretaker self.
Leaving town, I was just so high on life. Everyone riding with us, blowing horns and cheering. Nathan at the front, just like on other urban rides, directing the way. "Neutral roll out, people!", then, around Foster: "OK people, bike ride!".
Santiam Pass was a trial of overcoming fear and bracing oneself against a relentless onslaught of fast cars, semi trucks, double long semi trucks, huge campers and campers towing cars. I'm sure I missed a few types of vehicles. I ate a huge chocolate bar at the bottom of the hour long climb. That helped a lot.
Day five was by far the hardest. An early start to summit The Steens, then onto a terrible washboard gravel road, heading into a headwind, a hot afternoon sun and nowhere to hide. Sage brush desert as far as the eye can see in every direction, with the stern silhouette of The Steens and its now familiar "bite" shrinking behind us. Surreal to see it get so small after having just climbed it.
It just kept going. The washboard, the wind, the sun. Until the sun set, which it tends to do. I don't really dig night riding, especially as my approach to gravel is to train my eyes on it and pick the most supreme line possible at all times. Surprisingly, once the light faded, I stopped looking down and it didn't seem to matter.
The sage brush became a big monochrome in the fading daylight and animals started to awaken for their night duty. I saw several huge white owls that flapped away dramatically when they heard me coming. A few weasels, which I thought at first were meerkats. Cows. Wild cows! Lots of jackrabbits with cartoon-looking ears. No antelope.
I hallucinated just once. A big black shaped moved up ahead. A bear? Puma? What's my puma plan of attack?! I slowed down and rang my bell gently. The animal receded so I continued on. It turns out what I was seeing was the road itself. Losing daylight can really mess with the way you see things. I finally arrived at "headquarters", after watching their lights twinkle on the horizon for at least two hours. Headquarters is what they call the ranger station in the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge. I couldn't see a thing and dogs were barking. I unhooked a hose to access a spigot located just past a sign that literally said "do not pass this sign".
I was freaked out about the place and continued on. A mile or so up the road, I stopped to look at my phone map and realized a huge descent lay just ahead. No way did I want to try that with my tired, scared, not-seeing-straight self. So, I did what comes naturally, I cried. At just that moment, a pair of headlights appeared and a man stepped out of a white pick up truck to ask how I was. He may as well have been riding a big white horse. He drove me to the hot springs. He had heard about the race and assured me it's not cheating to accept a ride off course.
Locals in this area would say things like "now all you've got to do is get down this mountain!". If you saw someone in a car, you'd all stop and say hello and compare adventures. One couple pulled over to ask if I knew I was in the middle of nowhere. Another couple slowed briefly to tell me only five more miles until pavement.
I only cried twice. Well, three times if you count one for happy. That one was descending out of the refuge. It felt like being on top of the world. Knowing the tough climb and most of the gravel were over didn't hurt. I had been writing a little song during the ride and started to serenade the panorama around me. You could just see forever up there.
By the time we were crossing the Outback route (for the second time), I was a shell of my former self. Climbing took energy. Heat took energy. Moods plummeted. Performance fell into the crapper. Tears were expelled. I bought a bottle of beer with my hand down my pants the whole time. Yes, I'd fallen that far. Arriving at camp after the non-stop climbathon that was Crater Lake, each of my co-riders came up and hugged me. Good guys, those two.
Day four was a favorite too. I loved the pretty patchwork country leaving Burns, which even featured a water spigot stop at the Agricultural Research Center. The road to French Glenn, and the way through The Narrows, felt like we were leaving this world and going somewhere else. The land formations, which you watch change as you gained on them, added to the other-wordly feeling.
So, all that's left now is the ending. Day ten was our longest one, with a fair amount of climbing. I had anticipated the combination of being "trained up" from nine days of riding, the gear drop in Springfield, along with that phenomenal smell of the barn, would make us fast and strong that day. And we were. In great part due to the dot-watchers, our friends and families and fans from home, who started making themselves more and more known during that last stretch.
There was a great little crowd at the finish line, which included most of our fellow finishers. The three of us were tied for last place, and happy for it. People handed me beers, flowers, hugs and congratulations. I've never felt like such a real athlete, especially when all of the finishers lined up for a photo. What an honor to be counted among this group.
So, now I'm at home, eating corn on the cob, swimming in butter - just as I'd fantasized about during the ride. My achilles is swollen and I took a three hour bath today. I miss riding my bike, after only riding to work this week. The boring recovery time, along with the post-climactic mood of finishing something big like this, has me wondering what to plan next.