The 500 Mile Loop

It was 4:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning.  The sky was clear, and it was a cool 55 degrees.   I was anxiously waiting around with 20 other riders for the grand depart of the GG500.  There were a lot of introductions, handshakes, and questions as everyone was gearing up for the journey ahead.  We were about to embark on a 500 mile self supported bicycle race that would travel through Texas.  The experience level of the participants spanned from first time rookies to 7 time Tour Divide vets.  Most of us seemed excited for the challenge ahead.  Races of this type tend to test an individual on their grit and mettle.  They can provide an opportunity for individuals to look deeper within themselves.

Myself, Billy Rice, Hal Russell

Typically a race of this style begins with a pep talk and then a casual roll out from the start line.  Having been in one of Billy Rice’s (race organizer and rider) events before, I knew the start would be anything but typical.  After Billy read some heartfelt and inspiring words from Anna, the late Mike Hall’s girlfriend, the clock countdown began.  When the count hit zero an emergency truck started blasting dub step out of its external speakers, and we hit the road.  We were going to roll through College Station at 5 a.m. like an all night dance party.  Even a helicopter flew over us.  Cool.

We had 20 miles of pedaling to reach the edge of the city where the gravel roads would begin.  During this time I talked with several of the other riders.  Most asked about the pink tutu I was wearing, and my experience on the American Trail Race.  Beau Troesch said he was bummed he hadn’t thought of the something fun to wear for the race.  Another racer said he proposed to his wife in a tutu after the Leadville 100.  I shared with them the story of my friend Amanda who passed from Lymphoma.  She was a brave woman who never gave up.  She is a constant source of strength for me.

Pink Streamers for Maximum Speed

When we hit the gravel roads our rolling party of an escort pulled off to the side.  I made sure to swing by, and extend my gratitude for their help in keeping us safe and well entertained.  Already I was getting too warm, so I decided to stop.  Being an inexperienced rider I constantly find myself getting caught up in my race against the clock.  So much that sometimes I’ll wait for up to an hour before I finally decide to stop, and remedy the current situation.  I really try to minimize any stopping at all.  After taking off my booties and rain jacket, I felt much better.  My goal for the race was simple.  I wanted to finish in 38 hours.  I planned on only stopping every 100 miles to resupply.  I also wanted to ride straight through the night.

Texas Roads. Photo Credit: Billy Rice

The early morning sun was fanning out, and I was starting to pass a few of the other riders.  Passing riders is always an interesting interaction because you never know when you’ll see them again.  Fortunately for this race, I would see most of my wonderful comrades again in a just a few days.  But, on a longer race like the Tour Divide, you may not see them again for the rest of the race.  At Bedias, 40 miles on route, I passed the roll out crew again.  They were just getting set up to take photos and videos of the racers.  I swung over to their side of the road, and thanked them again as they cheered on the Illinois native wearing a bright pink tutu, pink socks, and donning pink streamers from his handlebars.  I can only wonder what they thought of me.

Somewhere between Bedias and Huntsville I could see the figure of Kerry Snow up ahead.  She was riding strong.  Her cadence was good, and I had to remember that I was not out to race against her.  I was only here to do my personal best.  I had to keep my own rhythm.  Finding the rhythm of riding is easier said than done.  It can take riders 100 miles or longer to settle their nerves, and find that rhythm.  This is what I was experiencing.  I was pedaling too hard, and I wasn’t even aware of it.  Eventually I was pedaling side by side with her.  I introduced myself and we talked for a little while.  I wished her well as I started to pedal away.

Approaching Huntsville, which is 75 miles into the race, I was once again stalking a figure on the horizon.  They too were pedaling strong, and we seemed to be going about the same pace.  I passed a few gas stations, and then I was stopped by a traffic light.  It’s never seizes to amaze me how being stopped by a traffic light feels like eternity.  The world is catching up to you while you sit and wait.  Then Beau rode up alongside and scared the crap out of me.  I didn’t know he had stopped at the Shell station on the way into town.  We rode through the rest of the town, and got to hang out over the next 25 miles en route to Point Blank.  I think Beau is a great example of the type of people you find in this sport.  This was his first ever official bike packing race.  He was a strong rider, with a kind smile and a caring personality.  He was enjoying the experience to the fullest, and I could tell he was going to do well.  His gear was dialed in, and he looked well prepared for the next 400 miles.  He pulled away from me as just outside of Point Blank.  When I reached the gas station he was already loading his bike for the next expanse of gravel.  Nice wax job, rookie.  Truly impressive.

Beau Troesch before Point Blank

I had reached Point Blank around 1:00 p.m.   The heat was rising, and so too was the humidity.  I became aware that I hadn’t been eating enough, and my stomach was feeling all rumbly bumbly.  I took my time at the gas station.  I tried to cover all the basic needs i.e. food, water, toilet, sunscreen.  I would later take note that every gas station had one thing in common.  They all had huge coolers full of ice cold beers right as you walked through the doors.  Damn your temptations Texas!

I was back on the bike for only 5 more miles when my stomach started acting up again.  I knew I needed to eat more food, but having an upset stomach made it more difficult to get in those much needed calories.  Everything I had packed for food made my stomach turn, but I managed to force down some almonds and a cliff bar.  I was trying to replace the fluids I had lost, and was starting to drink more water.  It was also becoming painfully obvious that I had worn the wrong cycling shoes.  I was wearing my lightweight road bike shoes which were a full size smaller than my mtb shoes.  The sides of my feet were pressing on the edge of the shoes.  My soles were going numb as my feet were starting to swell up.  It didn’t help that I was wearing a cheap pair of athletic socks, because I had to have pink.  High fashion!  I noticed my mood had changed.  I wasn’t exactly happy.  I wasn’t feeling great.  Something had to change, and soon.

I rode past some fine gentlemen whom I heard laughing hysterically at my attire.  At least I was bringing joy to someone in this world.  I started to focus on my mindset.  If anything was going to get me through this, it would be that.  I tore open a bag of shelled sunflower seeds, and poured them into my mouth like a savage.  Nom Nom Nom.  I pounded some water, and carried on.  My feet were going numb again.  A few miles down the road I landed in Trinity.  I pulled off to the nearest gas station, and scrambled inside.  More strange looks from strangers.  I couldn’t help but smile back.  I came out of the restroom, and bought some chocolate milk and coconut water.  I had peeked at Trackleaders, and knew Billy Rice was close to my location.  I hopped back on the bike, feeling a little better, and saw him about 50 yards to the left of me as I pulled back onto the route.  Billy caught up to me, and we begin to chat about the race.  I told him of my woes.  He looked fresh, and didn’t seem to have a care in the world.  Meanwhile, my mind and body were in turmoil.  He told me I wasn’t putting out much power.   I shot him look that said, “Yeah bro, I know.  I’m on the struggle bus”.

Riding through Trinity. Photo Credit: Billy Rice

I remember telling Billy to go ahead of me.  Mentally I felt like a wounded dog.  Just leave me be.  I can’t make it.  But Billy wasn’t in a hurry, and we rode side by side for about the next 20 miles.  This proved to be very helpful for me.  It kept my mind from focusing on the issues I was having.  At one point I let him push ahead of me, and I started to dry heave.  Eventually I spewed some chunks off to the side of the road.  I really didn’t want him to see how bad I was feeling.  I knew he was having his own issues which were actually much more serious than mine.  He kept telling me the real race didn’t start until after Palestine.  I could tell he was having fun too.   He was drinking tons of water because of the medication he was taking.  He stopped at a church to refill his water bottles.  I waved and said I’d see him soon.  I remember thinking he was going to start crushing after Palestine.

Near Elkhart I rejoined Beau.  He seemed to be going slower, or I was going faster.  The heat of the day was starting to waver with the sunshine.  I shared with him Billy’s words of wisdom, “The real race doesn’t start until Palestine.”  He and I both laughed.  I think we both felt like the race was already feeling pretty ‘real’.  We passed a Coke-a-Cola machine, and Beau pulled over.  I continued on.  Palestine was an hour and a half away, and I needed to start making a plan if I was going to pedal through the night.

I arrived in Palestine at around 10:30 p.m.  I pedaled through town until I found a Shell station.  I pulled up, and I saw a super southern looking guy with one of those bikes rigged up with a gasoline engine.  He looked my bike over and said “Dang, where’d you get them bags?  Check out ma bike!”  I have an innate skill for finding the crazies.   I took a deep breath, reminded myself I was living the dream, and to enjoy the moment.  I entertained him for about five minutes before walking into the station.   Inside I found cold beer, but no hot food.  All I wanted was a slice of pizza.  Was that too much to ask?  I grabbed multiple chocolate milks, an energy drink, sodas, little Debbie snacks, almonds, and water.  The woman at the counter eyed me suspiciously.  I wondered if it was the tutu, my battered Mohawk, or my pleasant smell that had her on edge.  I payed for my supplies, and went back outside to pack up.  My friend was on his motorized bicycle ripping donuts in the parking lot.  He came back over to hang out with me.  I had purchased too much food, and offered him a fudge round and an orange crush.  He was super stoked.  I bid him farewell as I head off into night.

Night riding is always a challenge.  The light plays tricks on your eyes.  You hear strange and wild noises.  I saw three deer run in front of me.  Wait, those aren’t deer.  Were they wild boar?   Another sighting of those four beasts confirmed my suspicion.  I kept pedaling.  As the miles continued to go by, so did the arms of the clock.  It was around 3:30 a.m.  I was 95% sure I had seen the two churches I just passed only a few hours ago.  I saw a familiar looking lawn ornament and I was convinced I was going the wrong direction.  I stop to check my map.  My phone wouldn’t load, and the Garmin was confusing my feeble brain.  There was no alternative but to keep pedaling.  I began to feel as if I was moving at a snail’s pace.  I was trying everything I could do to keep myself from falling asleep.  My Achilles tendon was now screaming at me.  My butt was chaffed.  My feet were numb.  Occasionally I would laugh at an event from my past.  I quoted movies.  I sang all my favorite songs (mostly Hannah Montana).  In spite of my best efforts, I kept nodding off.  It was 4:15 a.m. when I spotted a wooden bridge with two wide runners for the tires of vehicles to cross over.  I made a split second decision to sleep there.  30 minutes tops.  I set my helmet, which has a ton of reflective stickers on it, at the front of the bridge.  I laid my bike down near the back of the bridge.  I took some Advil, drank some water, gave myself a wet nap shower, and set a timer.  I had no sleeping bag, bivy sack, or pillow, but as soon as my tired body hit the bridge, I was asleep.  20 minutes later my body bolted right up as I heard a pack coyotes.  They didn’t sound too close, but I instantly knew I wouldn’t fall back asleep.  I was cold and achy.  Flashbacks of the ATR flooded my mind.  I got up, and walked to the woods to find a tree to hold on to while I did my business.  My legs were too sore and shaky to support a full squat right then.  Miraculously I felt better and more alert.  I was living the dream.

The sunrise over the Davy Crockett National forest that morning was particularly beautiful.  I found myself pedaling through a corridor of tall pines, the full moon directly in front of me, the sun rising at my back.  I stopped to take it all in.  I felt grateful for all I was experiencing.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  Everything was somehow more beautiful because of the struggle it took to get there.  I had also survived the night without any major mishaps.  My phone had service again, so I checked Trackleaders.  Kerry Snow had also ridden through the night and was holding strong just a few miles behind me.  It was now, or never.  With 175 miles left in the race it looked like it would be a “sprint” to the finish line.  Time to suck it up, buttercup.

Sunrise Davy Crocket National Forest

I put the hammer down, and covered the next 24 miles fairly quickly.  I reached Groveton, and entered the gas station.  I asked if they had any hot food, pizza specifically.  No hot food at all.  What about cheese sticks?  Nope.  I silently yelled “KKAAAHHNNN!!” in my mind.  I bought 3 chocolate milks and a Gatorade.  I chugged all but 1 of the chocolate milks.  I departed Onalaska, and headed for Point Break.  The view opened up to the beauty of the Trinity River.  The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was going to be another hot day in Texas.  I was halfway across the bridge, and smiling like a happy idiot.  My stomach turned.  I crept to the side of the bridge.  I hurled just as a gust of wind magically swept up from the river gods to carry the expelled liquid onto my long sleeve shirt.  Yum.  I continued to pedal.  I crossed the bridge, but before I made it to Point Break I had to cross the road for another emergency rest room stop.  I took a few extra minutes to rinse off my shirt sleeve.

The magical bridge crossing

I left Point Blank, and headed towards the Sam Houston National Forest.  I had music jamming in my ears, and I tried to focus on keeping a steady pace.  My energy was low, but if I could hold up for the next 150 miles, I’d be able to sleep indoors that evening.  Heck, I might even be able to shower.  There is a break in the Sam Houston National Forester before you enter New Waverly.  It was the middle of the day, so I decided to treat myself with a strawberry shortcake ice cream bar.  As I was stuffing my face, Lina and Randy Rice pulled up.  They asked how I was doing.  I told them of my troubles.  I can imagine that I sounded like a drowning cat to them.  They told me Billy had gone to the E.R. the night before.  I continued on, and I immediately felt like the worse person on Earth.  I hadn’t taken the time to properly thank them both for being such a huge part of the race.

Beautiful Texas back roads.

On the next stretch of gravel there was a local rider waiting for me.  We talked as we rode together for about 5 miles.  I tried my best to explain how exhausted I was.  He looked as if he wanted to ride with me for another 5 miles.  I kindly asked if he would let me ride by myself.  It’s hard to explain, but I have a hard time conversing while riding.  It takes a lot of mental energy to carry on a meaningful conversation, especially when your batteries are at zero.  I think his name was Jason.  Jason, if you are reading this, I truly appreciate your support.  I am grateful you came out to meet me, and we got to ride together for a while.  I hope I did not offend you in any way.

The second half of the Sam Houston was full of smoke from a controlled burn the park rangers were performing.  A little added degree of difficulty never hurt anyone, right?  I pedaled the rolling hills, and tried to smile.  I was on my way to Richards.  There was a convenience store there, but I didn’t know if it was open or not.  If it was not open, that stretch of 36 miles without supplies would turn into a ghastly 120 miles without supplies.  I pedaled a little harder, chocolate and cheese on my mind, knowing there was little else I could do.

I reached Richards.  I met the weird looks from the locals with my goofy eyes and wide smile.  I knew how I felt.  Exactly how I looked.  I was beat up, but determined to finish what I had started.  The store had these awesome little croissant and sausage rolls.  I took all 4 of them.  Sorry, Kerry.  This was it.  85 miles left to the finish.

I set off on the homestretch.  The sun was starting to set, and I was happy to be riding into it.  I found myself getting lost in the distant landscapes, painting them into my daydream.   Outside the town of Navasota there was a place called Cow Talk Steakhouse.  I wanted nothing more in the world but to go inside and eat a full hot meal.  I’m 90% sure Billy Rice strategically places these traps along the route on purpose.   I stopped at a nearby bridge to take some photos, and drink some water.  I loosened the laces on my shoes before I slowly took off onto the next gravel road.  As the sun faded, and the night approached, I was greeted by a huge blood orange moon.  It was insanely gorgeous.  Shortly after, I was passed by a construction crew of 20 full size trucks.  Gravel dust went in my eyes and down my throat.  Yee-haw.

Sunset on Day 2 of the race.

The night grew dark.  The temperature dropped.  I only had 25 more miles to go.  What little energy I had left was getting zapped.  I crossed the intersection at highway 30, and saw someone filming me.  What the?  I turned around to meet Kevin Bard.  He was a local rider who had been watching the race.  We chatted, and grabbed a selfie.  I went in to the gas station.  I stuck a sandwich in the microwave, and I chugged a cold coffee.  I reached town, and went through a few intersections.  A huge diesel truck slowly pulled up next to me with its tinted windows, huge tires, and 6 inch tailpipe.  Oh crap.  I braced myself to get hit by a soda can, or some verbal abuse.  As the driver hit the accelerator the truck left me in a cloud of diesel exhaust.  I laughed out loud.  Life is good.  Fortunately the route turned off the main road, and I followed the Garmin to the finish line.

I saw Billy first.  He was alive.  I was glad to see a familiar face.  At the race finish there was small crowd.  They gave me a friendly cheer.  As we talked about my journey they mentioned they had saved some tacos for me.  Is this heaven?  I couldn’t be any happier.  The hotel had one more room available.  I put the bike away in my van.  Then I staggered to the hotel with great anticipation of a hot shower, and a warm bed.

At the finish line with Billy Rice

At the end of the day, I got worked.  I completely underestimated the GG500.  I made some horrible gear choices as well.  My stomach was a wreck.  In spite of this, I simply refused to give up.  Even though I failed to reach all three of my goals, I am okay with it.  The journey was the only part that mattered.  I had told my friend Nathan (he writes my training program for me) a week before I left for the race that I was going down there to break myself.  I wanted to know my weaknesses so I could work on them for the Trans AM Race.  In this regard, I thoroughly succeeded.  The whole race was an amazing experience filled with new friends, new sights, and new lessons.  I am grateful to have been a part of such a wonderful event.

It is worth noting that I am not the only person that struggled out there.  Every single rider had to deal their own unique set of problems.  Whether it was dogs, rain, gear issues, stomach illness, mechanical failures, whatever you can think of, the riders dealt with it all.  I’m proud to be a member of the bike packing community.  Within it I have found some of the most heartfelt, and resilient people I have ever met.  A huge congratulations is deserved for everyone who took part in the GG500.  I hope they all had as a rewarding and memorable experience that I did.

Kerry Snow at the finish. She set the new women’s record!

Hal Russel and Billy Rice at the finish

The Sheilas

A group of 5-6 riders at the finish

Patrick Farnswarth on route

Alan Gustin and I just after he finished the race

Hal Russel on route