Sunday, January 12, 2020

Chad & Mouse Part 1

08:36:43 PM (PDT) 05/24/18:

10 miles outside of Ritzville with less than an hour of sunlight left. Up to this point I've never put forth a greater physical effort in my entire lifetime. I couldn't believe it, 597.5 miles into the race, 140 miles into the day. A day that included; zip-tying a burping defective tire, repairing a chain, fjording some heroically gross streams, and slamming around 6 pints of Ben & Jerrys. I shaved every minute I could off the last 14 hours and it was all culminating to this point. 

From east to west the scene transitioned from deep indigo to warm gold while stars slowly began to pepper themselves among the wide open sky. North Morengo Road parted the landscape with perfect symmetry before stretching into rolling hills on the horizon. Far off on the last visible hill I saw movement. I scanned harder and the gait was instantly recognizable, it was the cyclist I had been looking for. Whatever vapors I had left in the tank combusted at that moment, it was Chad!

01:33:37 PM (PDT) 05/22/18 - Bob and I a few days earlier

I could see sealant bubbling and the tire getting spongier in slow motion. A tire issue that plagued Bob since we woke up 78 miles ago was finally becoming too much. We stopped and the gravity of the situation started to set in. We were still within striking distance of a Podium finish, and with Bob having to give his tire serious attention I knew it was time to part ways. "For whatever reason this is the path the universe has put me on." Hearing Bob say that brought me some solace. We had just pedaled over 300 mountainous, single-track laden forests,  in less than 3 days. We were both proud of what we had done, and it was a really tough hinge moment for us. 

Nine months before this race, Steve K. from Mongoose sent me the frame to the bicycle I raced on. It took a long time to put it together as I was trying to toe the line between comfort and speed. The build did end up on the speedier side of things and there were a few comfort sacrifices that would become evident after the Colockum. The bike was completely rigid rolling on 29x2.25 racekings on decently wide 35mm rims. When building the bike I envisioned it shining on my favorite rail trail in existence and that was the glorious stretch that lay before me.

I had ridden the John Wayne with great frequency during the 3 years I lived in Ellensburg. There was a time when I was really out of shape so adding a few miles every time I rode gave me a tangible goal that helped tremendously with getting my cycling legs back underneath me. From memory I could draw you a map, show you my favorite swimming holes, where the gravel is soft, what birds to look for, and when to watch for rattlesnakes. That trail rekindled my love for nature, the outdoors, and in many ways my love of life. 

And now I was back on it! On a lighting fast bike by comparison to what I usually ride, chasing down a different kind of animal, some superman named "Chad." I knew if I timed it right I might end with some tailwinds, fly over or around the softer gravel, and resupply with sniper-like efficiency in Thorp then Ellensburg. Since I only had a flip phone I could not tell how far ahead Chad was, but the tracks from his Raceking/mountain King combo kept the chase very alive for me. This was my arena, on a bike I put together for this very purpose, it was my welcome back party to Kittitas County, my time to make Timothy hay while the sun shines.

I lived in my tallest gear, arms planted in the aerobars, as I feathered my water supply getting into South Cle Elum. Across the trail from the old Rail Yard building there's a spigot. I finished my last ~200ml looking forward to the pit stop to splash my face and fill a bottle before racing to Thorp. It was a spigot I knew well because it saved my ass a few years back when I ran out of water during a hot summer day. In the distance I see the spigot and get excited for this little oasis. As I approach closer I see what might be a pad lock, but I think little of it. Then as it came into focus my heart sinks... it's definitely a padlock. In denial I still gave it a jiggle, it's locked, and now all of a sudden I'm twice as thirsty and twice as hot. I circle the rail yard building for an unlocked spigot to no avail, I get back on the trail and start scanning. I remember a church just off the trail a little bit ahead so I try there. No one's in the parking lot and I see salvation. I turned on a spigot by the entrance and some incredibly rusty water shoots out, but after about 10 seconds it's running clear. I drink a bottle, splash my face, fill a bottle, and get right back on the trail.

Now sufficiently hydrated the miles began to evaporate as I began to work in deep tandem with my environment. Cruising down the John Wayne with the sun setting behind me was such a warm and familiar task it hardly felt like effort. You could not peel the ear to ear grin off of my face. Randomly I would find myself blurting out stuff like "This is my house bitch!" and "You tell Chad I'm coming, and hell's coming with me!!"

By the time I had cruised through the tunnels I had the tailwind I hoped for and I knew exactly what I needed at Thorp. 2 Ice cream sandwiches, 2 bags of gummy bears, a fountain drink, a lot of caffeine, and a mentholated pack of newport 100's. My positive momentum was nearly sucked dry by the terrible service at the Thorp gas station. I was still able to execute my plan, but they definitely earned the "rudest service in the entire state of Washington" achievement. Anyway, part of my plan was acquiring enough caffeine to land in me in Wenatchee before bivvying. At the Thorp gas station they have a caffeine pump that's roughly 1.5 cups of coffee per squirt. It's a watermelon flavor, I've had experience with it before and it's much cheaper than red bull.

I drank one fountain fanta (pro-tip: fanta has 10% more calories than most sodas) before filling the rest up with powerade and 6 squirts from the pump. ~850 milligrams of caffeine, which I wouldn't touch till the sun went down. I dumped that rocket fuel into my green UPS bottle with the squeeze valve, and set out on my way. After passing over the Yakima River I took a half bottle swig of water. 

Well, I thought it was water, but it was my home-brew gas station red bull alternative, seeing that typed out I'm almost ashamed haha. Instantly I started to panic, this could be a serious issue that could derail the rhythm I worked so hard to gain. I regained enough composure to joust my tonsils with my middle finger while still staying upright on the bike. I evacuated most of what I had drank plus gummy bear ends and pieces, all while keeping cadence. Would have been a spectacle had anyone been there to see it. Still I had no idea just how much caffeine I consumed, and in my already sensitive state this was the most worried I had been.

I had no idea how well I would pedal. I was doing well beyond my expectations and the performance itself started to feel like a Faberge egg. Like being in the middle of a great solo, jamming effortlessly, but still knowing in the back of your mind you have to end strong or it will be for naught. Bikepacking can be a unique form of self-expression in that way and your motivation to do better increases with the success of the performance. I was worried that I had just completely gutted my hard earned pace and body rhythm because of that stupid bottle mishap. I cautiously pedaled into Ellensburg, really listening for new information my body could tell me.

I stopped at the first available park bench in Ellensburg to take stock of my situation. Checked my pulse, was elevated but acceptable, still had an appetite, all systems still appeared to be go. I was still very cautious, but I knew I needed to get enough food to get me to the Rock Island grade station, and enough fluids to get me over the Colockum. So after Thorp I continued with the plan and Dominos would be my next stop.

I must have looked like a frantic spandex clad pyscho as I ordered a large 3-cheese pizza, with double cheese, an order of cinnastix, and a 2 liter of fanta. A local cowboy chuckled as he saw me order. I wanted to punch him in his f!#king face because I did not have the time nor the attitude to explain my situation. This is sort of when I realized that the ride had morphed into a different sort of bloodsport I hadn't experienced since selling Mercedes-Benz years prior. I rode to a bench at the college and let the pizza/cinnastix cool before balling them up in some plastic and shoving them in my feed bags. I stopped at 7-11 on the way out, got more ice cream, 2 more liters of water, and a banana. I had a day and a half worth of calories, enough hydration to last till the streams near the Colockum exit, and the caffeine had me hellbent on chasing those tracks left by Chad.

Bags hanging off the bars as I make my way towards the Colockum

Since I don't have a smart phone, I still had no idea how far ahead of me he was. I could still see his tracks teasing me on the John Wayne. They also didn't look terribly old, so I figured I had a good chance to catch him. Before turning off the John Wayne I stopped to air out my bivy. My down bag and overclocked metabolism left me hot ever single night so there was moisture in the glorified plastic bag (bivvy). Lots of dry wind got rid of all the wetness fast and I set off on my way. This was roughly the same time of day Shawn and I had hit the Colockum last year, and the very first pass I've experienced in a race. 

I thought back on that crazy night of XWA year one. Shawn and I had just split up with Bob and we were heading into the Colockum right at sunset. I don't know how we had anything left in the tank, but once we passed Shiggy and crew we exploded with excitement. Absolute joyful excitement, we chuckled, laughed, and I remember getting to the top of the Colockum was fun! After that was a hellish gauntlet of torture and tumult that could be a novel by itself, but that's a story for another day. I did however want to replicate the exciting energy of passing someone this time around, so the mission was clear on the Colockum: take 3rd place from this Chad guy. 

The Colockum is probably the most lively wilderness of the sections on XWA. Elk, Cougar, Bear, every type of game bird it's all up there, plus it is a fairly open expanse unlike the Olympics. I had even more motivation to clear it that night as I had a steaming bag of cheese and sugar on my bike... while heading into bear/cougar country... without cell phone service.

Once I had entered the Colockum the sun ducked down in a hurry and it became much cooler. Over-caffeinated and without any companionship it was much spookier than I remembered. I kept scanning the ground for Chad's tracks and any potential camp spots for a bivy or tent. I had just finished reading Eat and Run prior to XWA. In it, Scott Jurek talks of a strategy to employ at night time. Basically you sneak up on whoever is ahead of you (headlamp off) and right when they take a break, you turn on your light and explode with all your might to give the illusion that your legs are fresh and unfazed, mentally wounding your opponent in the process. I replayed this scenario in my head again and again as I continued the the hunt for Chad. 

As I soldiered on I heard an unnatural noise to my left so I flashed the headlamp towards a small clearing. Instantly I am thrilled, I do a double take and tear off like a bat out of hell. It was either a tent or a bivy, but at this point I knew it had to be Chad! 

130 miles since I started in Bothell and out of nowhere here comes an influx of spontaneous untethered raw energy! I went a few miles at a blistering pace before I slowed things down a bit. I had passed Chad, and I could feel my body starting to relax. I didn't need to make it to Wenatchee anymore, I was just going to hike up the Colockum till my eyes got heavy and hit it hard the next morning. I get just above 4,000 feet when the Colockum opens up and faintly in the distance I see a flash.

Could it be the Katos? Or Allan? No, there's no way, they're already off this beast by now. It can't be Chad, I just saw a bivy or tent not too long ago. Whoever it was, they see my headlamp and now I see theirs.

I don't remember the exact words, but I'll always remember the inquisitive tenor that cut through the darkness. "Are you Ian?" It was Chad, my heart sank, and I was pretty grumpy about it. There was no way I was going to put any serious distance between him and me now, plus I was totally beat from sprinting away from fake hallucination bivy creek Chad a few miles back. I do remember him asking me how far I planned to go, I replied with all the false bravado I could muster "Oh I'm going to Wenatchee." He congratulated me on catching him, and I made it a paltry few thousand feet ahead and sadly slumped into my bivy.

So much drama, I consumed 3 mayo packets and ~1.5 liters of fanta - 1000+ calories, under 30 seconds, a caloric sleeping pill. There was also a great relief reaching that plateau. That was it, that was my best effort, I earned the right to relax. Then I looked up and I remembered where I was parked, this place happened to have the lowest light pollution of nearly any place in Kittitas County. Satellites, galaxies, planets and shooting stars lit up the sky in tactile 3-Dimensional splendor. My mind started vacillating between the beauty, the absurdity of this adventure, and all the events I was thankful for. With my eyes glued to the stars I got lost on the bridge of exhaustion and extreme relief. Thoughts began to flow in rapid succession, and before I could grab a complete thought I'd latch on to another more beautiful and tender string of thought than the last. Eventually the stars blurred as a deluge of the most soul-cleansing tears poured out. It was one of the most magical experiences of my entire life, every thought was truth and I was overwhelmed in grateful bliss. I didn't even care that I had a bike loaded with bear bait in bear country, I fell asleep enveloped in a heavenly deafening cosmic heartbeat.

After a little under four hours of sleep I got up right as the horizon was transitioning to a paler blue. I looked over my bike and everything was where it belonged. I took a huge bite of the coagulated glob of cinnamon, bread, and cheese that was once food, and choked it down with the last half-liter of Fanta. My jaw, tastebuds and mind were all equally tired of these rations but I soldiered on and had a spectacularly weird morning. The first animals that were up were a few herds of cows with an accompanying bull here and there. I gave the troops a wide birth because in my foggy fatigued morning state it would not have taken much to topple me over. I remember as I walked around a group I heard a weird almost screaming noise coming from the bushes near a herd of cows. I couldn't ascertain what it was at all, it did not sound like a bugling elk, nor did it sound like a cow, but it was loud, shrill, and at the time pretty terrifying. Sometimes you don't need caffeine to wake up, just the sound of an animal being eaten to death? Have never heard anything like it to this day, but holy crap did it re-ignite the afterburners.

Ouch! Ouccchhyy ow ow ow! This was the first day I knew my saddle sores would begin to soar, and the blisters on my feet would blast off. The Colockum is also the crunchiest part terrain wise of XWA, and all the hiking the night before wrecked my feet, and the gnarly terrain was taking it's toll down south as well. Then there's the added mental bonus of knowing some super-human rider is on a full-suspension bike and he'll definitely be closing the gap. I once again lost my self in reckless race-mode and pushed on ignoring most of what my body was telling me.

Riding over the powerlines the Sun was beginning to bloom. The warmth felt nice and I loved seeing the familiar silhouettes of Elk cresting the hill. I finished all of my water except one bottle knowing that I'd be crossing some good streams soon. The Fanta at Dominos was also a strategic choice simply because of the 2 liter container. Sawyer Mini is my favorite filter, but it can be hard to get water out of them. The fanta bottle works great because you can crush, twist it, and the high volume helps with the flow rate. Getting off the Colockum was rough, tons of dead fall, not a lot of it was ridable but I knew I would be off it soon.

After crossing the last couple streams I knew the final descent was close. I was excited to gain some speed and get back on the smoother terrain where my bike really shines. On the way down I saw the bravest guy in all of XWA. It wasn't another rider, but somebody driving a Honda Accord up into the Colockum where no 2-wheel drive vehicle should venture. As I got closer the guy stopped and said, "You must be Ian!" In my head I thought, ooh, I'm getting famous, look at this random fan! "I'm a friend of Chads!" - F!@#ing damnit!  I could really use some encouragement right now, even my own ass hates me at the moment. I casually asked how far behind me he was, and judging from his hesitation to answer, I knew Chad was close. 

I let off the brakes and bounced down the dirt. It was a good thing too, because right as I exited on to the pavement, an unleashed German Shepard was coming in hot off my 3-o-clock. I slammed the friction shifter down, stood up, and mashed my pedals all in one muscle memory driven split-second. This dog definitely wanted some Filipino food for breakfast and he was also being vivaciously vocal about it. Fortunately for me, the grade off the Colockum was steep enough to propel me past escape velocity. And finally I was back on smooth ground, with a wide open road, and an exhilarating downhill stretch ahead of me. Colockum was in the bag, elevation wise it was pretty much Rock Island grade left and then maybe smooth sailing to the finish. . . (Pro-tip: anytime you think it's smooth sailing, it probably wont be).

The section off the Colockum is the fastest I've ever descended on a fully loaded bike. The wide roads and great visibility enable you to pick a line far in advance to keep up speed. Figuring Chad was right behind me I capitalized on this section the best I could. Once I exited and started making my way west towards Wenatchee there was a decent headwind and unfortunately construction. Earlier the guy in the accord passed me and I noticed he had a Western States 100 license plate. This license plate continued to bolster Chad's unlimited power in my head. "Great, Chad's friends with a guy who has ran one of the first and most famous ultra-marathons in existence. Who knows how strong he is." Once I got up to the construction I had a long wait and chatted with him for a bit. 

As we chatted I could already tell it was going to be the hottest day of the race so far. I really didn't enjoy waiting there for what seemed like an eternity because I knew Chad had to be right behind me. They were laying down new pavement so the smell of tar and dust was everywhere. Come on come on, lets go already! Finally we were waved on and I began to contemplate my strategy.

Wenatchee is the last substantial resupply till Ephrata and I planned on the abundance of options being a serious time suck for Chad. My plan was to bypass Wenatchee completely and resupply at the Rock Island Grade gas station and push on. I had 2 serious issues I needed to take care of, my feet and ass. From my memory of XWA 2017 the gas station at Rock Island grade was huge! I figured they'd have 2 things I desperately needed, an adult diaper (for the cushion) and new socks. What I did not factor in was the oppressive heat once you get on highway 28. I was about to encounter some brand new complications that I wasn't prepared for.

You should always be racing your own race. I remember back in middle school track (the last organized sport I did. Poorly, by the way) my coach used to say, "if you're looking behind you, you're not running fast enough." Which was not the way I was thinking at all. This was the first time in a long time I was in a competitive state of mind and much to my detriment I was blindly absorbed. My first sign that I should have slowed down was coming into Wenatchee before the bridge. There's this decreasing radius turn and I raced into it way too hot. For the first time the entire race I felt my rear tire lose lateral traction almost sending me sliding into a concrete barrier. I corrected just in time but was nearly thrown off the bike when it got upright. I should have taken more notice of why I did that, and should have slowed my roll. I didn't and I tunnel-visioned on my goal, get to the gas station!

After exiting Wenatchee proper you roll through Wenatchee Riverfront Park. Seemed like half of it was underwater so following the GPS track was a no-go, fortunately Allan and the Katos tracks through the grass were easy to follow. In retrospect I should have dipped into the river to cool off but I really wanted to make it to the gas station before the sun got any hotter. It was a minor slog getting out of there, but the highway would be the real beast. 

I think your body is in a constant state of mild shock when you bikepack. There's adrenaline flowing through you, your metabolism is a bonfire, and there's so much input it's hard to gauge your output. I did not feel hot, I didn't feel thirsty, I didn't feel much at all other than a sense of urgency to get to Rock Island grade. Then all of a sudden I had a sensation I've never experienced while riding: intense hyper strange Confusion.

This wasn't a forgot your keys type of confusion, this was almost like being drunk without loss of motor function or accompanying pleasant feelings. I was just...out of it. That's when I started slowly adding up the factors and my current environment. I was on searing concrete with 100% sun exposure, I wasn't thirsty, I was pedaling really hard, and now I was confused. That's when I knew the heat was making me physically and now mentally sick.

I started pedaling slower and pulled under a tree outside of a storage place. I called Alexis and she could tell I was out of it. I didn't think I was very out of it though, but hearing the undertone of concern in her voice brought me to realize that whatever was happening was probably something more serious than I could contemplate. I remember things started becoming irrationally funny and I wasn't as focused on racing anymore. I was just confused, and now a little scared, but also laughing. Whatever I was, I definitely wasn't myself. I drank my remaining 500ml of water and got back on the highway.

All that irrational laughter quickly started to turn into irrational fear. I hadn't really been truly scared the whole trip, but I was started to get stuck in a terrible panic feedback loop of sorts. Rock Island grade, which earlier I remembered as a warm hill climb, had now morphed into an erupting volcano filled with dragons and despair. I needed to get to that gas station, I needed new socks, I wanted an adult diaper, and I needed to center myself. 

After slogging out the last few terrible highway miles I finally made it to the gas station. At this point I was definitely down with some sickness. I parked my bike in the back to hide from Chad because I had formulated a new plan. Once Chad stops here or gets close, I'll sprint up Rock Island Grade and hold firmly on to this lead. I zombied my way into the gas station looking first for new socks and an adult diaper. I must have circled the interior of the store enough times to lay a track, then I finally asked, and my heart sank with the answer, they had nothing I that I was hoping for.

This sent my mind into a tailspin because the next stop was Ephrata. My saddle sores and blisters on my feet weren't getting any smaller, and this just compounded the looming cloud of fear in my head. For the first time the whole race the words "scratch" started whispering to me. That sent me into an even greater panic. On top of all that I still had to get over my heat sickness. The mental pain of the situation far outweighed the physical, and both were beyond measure.

I got an iced gatorade and walked by outside to suffer in the shade. What was I going to do? What in the hell was I going to do? What should I do? How can I get up Rock Island Grade? While suffering there I got a few encouraging texts from my brother Dana, my future wife/best friend Alexis, and my buddy Shawn Pedersen and those texts began to turn the tide. I went back inside and to start accumulating more liquids and some salty foods. I then searched the building for a spigot, found one in the back, sat directly underneath and turned that puppy to full-blast.

The water was equally refreshing as it was shockingly cold. I remember gasping for air and mentally forcing myself to relax. I closed my eyes and tried to blank my mind to get down my temperature and heart rate. It began to work and my confusion went away as I approached closer to a sniff of normalcy. After all, how normal can you feel after 400 miles, dirty as sin, 8 total hours of sleep, heat-stroked, with a talented superhuman chasing you down.

My stomach was not yet ready for solid food but I knew I needed to get some salt in me. Even with all that was going on around me my base sense of frugality was still shining. I had some soy sauce packets, some pickles, and some ice cream.

After taking care of my situation as best as I could I still had an irrational amount of baseline fear. My plan changed to one of "I'll just wait for it too cool off and tackle Rock Island Grade when the sun was going down." This was not reasonable, and was definitely brought on by irrational fears and doubts. When Chad arrived at the gas station I tried to sell him on the idea, but he was definitely intent on pushing forward, "Later hoser!" I bet he thought. I pointlessly twiddled my thumbs a bit before I gained enough courage to push ahead. I told myself, my bike was lighter, I'm in better shape than when I tried this the year prior, I am perfectly capable of slaying this dragon. Let's make it to Ephrata.

I got back on the highway nervously and proceeded to to Rock Island. When it finally came into view I got scared shitless again. My saddle sores were at their peak, and I swear I could feel my blisters grow with every pedal stroke. Far off in the distance I saw a small white dot slow-motion climbing like an ant up a hill. It was Chad, and he was already putting some serious distance between us. I coaxed as much motivation as I could to catch up to him and when I finally got to the start of the climb I felt very defeated.

My saddle sores disabling me from spinning up the hill in my granny, and my foot blisters preventing me from standing out of the saddle. I had this 100% sun exposed mountain to climb, on foot, pushing a fully-loaded bike with 20lbs of food/water/supplies, after barely recovering from heatstroke. I prepared my spirit for a cuddlefest with the grim reaper as I millimetered up the mountain.

Every now and then I could hear a disc brake squeal a few hundred feet above me, and at the time that was so freaking irritating. "ERRrrrrrr! I'm ahead of you Ian! ERRRrrr, take that Ian!" Then to compound the madness even further, distant thunder started to growl. It was as if a Satanic Bob Ross was painting this charlie foxtrot in the most tortuous of ways, "And here's an angry storm to go with that bone dry mountain, ohhh but no shade for the little brown cyclist, lets make him suffer just a little bit more, now for some titanium white to highlight his parched lips." I tried retreating inside myself and was pulling all kinds of personal mindf@#ery to keep marching up the hill.

John Philip Sousa's Marches are at the glorious rhythm of 120 beats per minute, 1 beat per second (and one off beat per second, so 120 beats, but 1 beat per second, you musicians know what I mean). Sometimes I hum stars and stripes forever to make sure my cadence doesn't dip below 60 rpms per minute by using that tune. And for this moment in time I mentally put this tune on repeat and made a concerted effort to not look more than 3 feet ahead of me. I was going to eat this s!^t sandwich one bite at a time without caring to know how much was left. Facedown, 1 foot in front of the other, trying to march to the cadence of John Philip Sousa. Music is still my first love and primary passion, and at that moment it really helped me eat the frog.

At the final section of the climb the distant growl of thunder had crescendoed into very pronounced booms and flashes. Satanic Bob Ross was at it again "Oooh, now lets make these clouds sinisterly dark, use your Prussian blue to darken the tears from that little cyclist, now lets paint a pretty little rattlesnake right in his path." I was thinking if I was struck down by lightning people who knew me best would be sad but not surprised. I was finally reaching the crest of the hill and that's when I could test how bad my situation was.

I could not sit down and pedaling was a painful affair. On the first descent onto the plateau I gripped the top tube with my thighs and crunched over the aerobars off my saddle just to move forward. I was in exceptionally rough shape, and what I knew of the challenges ahead was making me more discouraged by the minute. Once again, that terrifying word "scratch" began slowly bouncing around my mind. I kept burying the thought by moving forward however I could, walking, crawling, slouched on my top tube, whatever, the only real option was moving forward. At this point I gave up on a podium finish I turned my thoughts to survival.

For all the calamity that was going on I tried to lift my spirits by soaking in the chaotic beauty. Such an open landscape, so many vivid colors unique to nature, but even with all that I was getting truly depressed. I missed Alexis, I missed my cats, I missed my home, I missed Bob. Gone was the excitement of racing and every fiery footstep was a reminder that I was an increasingly dire situation. Then far off behind me in the distance I saw a car with an accompanying dust cloud. "Great, another cager to give me a free dust bath, wahoo! I get it universe, you want you to pile on the punishment." 

I started walking closer to the side of the road waiting for the impending dust cloud as I marched forward. "I'll probably look really bizarre to whoever passes me," I thought. I was wearing my high viz long sleeve jersey, my white tights, and my bib turned inside out to air out. I felt like a neon baboon lost in the sahara marching towards death and probably looked just as bad if not worse. I didn't bother to turn around as the vehicle approached because I didn't feel the need to make pleasantries. The gravelly crunch of tires audibly slowed their spin so I turned around.

It was Jeanie B! A civilized blonde gal who was all smiles with iced water no less! A literal trail angel and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. Instantly I was pulled out of my funk as we struck up conversation, "You're doing really well!" - Hearing that from somebody else really cranked up my morale, "You know what, I guess I am!" As we began to talk she spoke of a friend who encountered a beat up rider in Ephrata who had tried XWA last year. Guess who that was? Me. What are the infinitesimal odds of that? So many bizarrely wonderful coincidences have followed me all throughout XWA, from meeting my now neighbor Bob, to getting to know Shawn (who I first saw with Randy on youtube years prior) and now this. The conversation really gave me faith that my canoe was still pointed in the right direction of the cosmic river and as Jeanie left I was renewed. 

(insert photo XWA 1 sun going down over farmland)

I didn't got struck by lightning up there and after a hike/coast cycle I was ready to descend off the high plateau and into the farmland before Douglass Creek. My feet were still very much toast at this point so even the slightest elevation gain would have me dismount and walk. Soon I knew I'd be approaching a creek that Shawn and I had camped at the year prior and began to think of how I would tackle that obstacle in my condition. I could not risk my shoes getting wet, but that would mean I would have to walk with my raw blistered feet across a rocky creek bed, dry them off and continue on.

(picture of where we camped XWA year 1)

Here I was. I gathered myself and cautiously removed my shoes and socks. I did not want to look at my feet because that would force me to acknowledge how bad things were, yet at the same time I knew I had to. Half-dollar sized blisters on both were punctuated by numerous smaller and equally painful blisters. In the civilized world you couldn't pay me to walk on these battered clubs and somehow I had to cross 50 feet of creek with a loaded bike. 

"The only way out is through" - Robert Frost

I set my bike upright and used it like a walker as I put pressure on my left foot. Each blister ignited with a searing pain. I clenched my jaw and winced while setting forth into the creek. Who knew an ice cold creek could feel like hot coals, such a contrasting variety of sensations as I moved. One foot in front of the other. Finally when I got to the other side I nearly collapsed as I finish fjording that first creek.

Eventually I began the windy (whine-dee) descent into Douglas Creek. I knew there would be more stream crossings so I repeated the motions I did with the first one. This was a very slow affair as the pain remained at a constant 11/10 with every foot step. I crossed 3 more streams before encountering a 4th. In the dark this stream looked short and I let my impatience best me this time. "Screw it, I'm riding this one!" While the distance of the creek may have been short, the depth was substantial. I made the terrible mistake of getting my feet wet, and now after all I endured, this was the absolute worst.

All the moisture highlighted every blister with a new level of pain. My suffering was cranked up to a certified 20 as I collapsed on the side of the gravel road. I made it 10 feet further, practically threw my bike into the bushes and just lied face up staring at the stars. "I'm totally f!@#ed, you screwed the pooch and now the pooch is balls-deep screwing you." Scratching was no longer a distant echo, it was a blaring countdown to self-destruction. All hands abandon ship. "No no no no no no! I did not train my ass off for all year, spend all that time building this bike for this very purpose, to scratch 50 miles from where I scratched last year, this can't be it, this can't be it, please please please this can't be it." Even though I had still had some stamina left, my injuries preventing me from moving any further. With no options left I starting putting together my sleep kit as I fought back tears of raw pain.

Once again, I tried focusing on whatever serenity I could find in my surroundings. It was a truly wild setting. In the middle of a canyon, far away from any hints of civilization. The thunderstorm that taunted me on the high plateau was now distant but still putting on a visible light show to the east. Wind was ripping down the canyon making the bivy occasionally flap like a sail in rough seas. The moon lit up the adjacent hillside and between feathery strands of cloud the milky-way was once again 3 dimensional in vibrancy. Once I relaxed a wave of endorphins flushed over me yet again. Still freshly tattooed in my brain are visions of the clouds tearing apart like bright ivory cotton candy backlit by the moon. So much beautiful chaos beating to the same metronome my soul was singing to. Amidst all of that, I thought of what Troy Hopwood said to Bob and I at the beginning: "If you think you're going to scratch, sleep on it and decide the next day." And that's what I decided to do.

I tried sleeping anyway, a few hours later a gust of wind so powerful blew off my bivy sending it into a sage brush and ripping it completely in half. I grumpily grabbed it and burrito'd myself back to sleep. Still one of the most beautiful, bittersweet, amazing "rests" I've ever had. 

As the horizon turned a paler shade of blue I contemplated getting up, instead I slept for another hour or so. When I did get up I stood up on my sleeping pad and with all the hope in the world set my foot on the bareground. I collapsed and was sent into a state of instant tumult. "F!@K!" I screamed and the canyon screamed the echoes right back at me. This was it, I was done. All that positive momentum, the greatest ride of my life, was ending right here. The physical pain was a mere shadow compared to monothilic sense of defeat that began to overwhelm me. I rolled back on to my pad petrified of the very near future.

My pad... my sleeping pad, I was able to stand on that just fine before setting a foot off it. Quickly my mind raced as I began ripping off strips. I thought, maybe, just maybe if I stuff this foam into my shoes, I might be able to walk. I just might be able to continue. Using my teeth and hands I managed to create two soles out of my knockoff chinese thermarest pad. With all the hope in the world I slipped my sockless raw feet onto my new soles. It worked, not only did it work, it worked damn near perfectly!!!

All that negative energy polarized itself the other direction. I became excited, elated, and enthralled with the idea of getting back in the race. I broke down camp, wrapped the seat in more ripped apart mattress, zip tied the whole shebang together and for the first time since I got heat stroke, really began to pedal! 

This wasn't my second wind, this was like, the 10th or 12th wind on this grand course, and it was, by far, the most re-energizing thing I've experienced. I started ripping through the canyon like my seatpost was a cattleprod and was I hauling! Yeeeeee-haw, bitch! I'm back in this! Once the sun cleared the canyon I felt the sunshine on my shoulders and I knew it was time for a costume change. My last clean set of clothes, a fresh bib, and my favorite cycling jersey of all time, the replica 7-Eleven! Putting that outfit on felt like someone handed me excalibur and I've never been so eager to slay a dragon.

The miles quickly began to disappear and the minute I left Douglas Creek some familiar tracks highlighted the way. Chad, all I could think of was Chad, would I catch him? Maybe. Would I truly give it everything I had in my being to find out? Without a doubt, yes. If I was ever going to answer the question "What am I made of?" this could be my best possible chance. Potentially I could uncover the truth I was looking for from all of my adventures past. All of the stops will be pulled. 


Part two sometime next week. Biking is easy, photos are easy, writing is hard. - I don't know who still reads this, so if you liked the story so far please leave a comment. I honestly need some encouragement, it's still a raw story and hard to process, even harder to express. Real apologies for the wait, I made the mistake of trying to make this perfect instead of focusing on just making this happen. Thank you for reading.

1 comment:

Chad the Dragon said...

Love the story so far and can't wait for part 2. You definitely fueled me to push on. Anyone pushing at race pace has to have struggles. My big struggle being my bad knee which plagued me from day 2 and on. Other issues would come and go.

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