An alarm pierces my eardrums. I have only one thought. Why? Why do I keep signing up for these crazy bikepacking events? I roll out of bed and walk to the bathroom. I put on my cycling kit and make my way out to the van to get some food and to start packing up the bikes.
As Tom Hughes and I drive to The Stella Hotel for the start of the 4th Gran Gravel 500 I seem to be in a daze. I’m lost in my thoughts. I’m thinking of warmer days, sleeping in, hammocks, and oceans. It’s a far cry from my reality. I’m really in Texas. It’s 42 degrees outside and there is a light mist in the air. I’m trying to prepare myself for another edition of the self supported 500 mile race.
My set up is different this year. I learned from last year’s mistakes, or so I thought. This year I have the correct size shoes. This year I have wider tires. This year I won’t bring shoe covers. This year I will ride my own ride.
As the riders are getting prepared for the start I begin to warm up mentally. I see all my friends and this makes me happy. I am giving out hugs left and right. I soon realize I only have 15 minutes to get my shit together. By the time we are lining up at the start I feel as if I’ve left something behind.
We have a moment of silence for the local rider from College Station who was hit and killed by a vehicle just one month ago. Dare I say vehicular homicide? The police wouldn’t. They gave the person a ticket for improper lane usage. This moment of silence for our lost brothers and sisters has become all too common. Every race I’ve done over the last few years has started out this way.
The music starts to blast from the escort truck. The race has officially begun. Kerry Snow-Alley and I won last year and were given the opportunity to pick out the first songs to be played. I chose Eye of the Tiger by Survivor and she chose Good Morning by Mike Frost. After our songs played the music turned into a predominantly 80’s hair band playlist. My friend Brian looked over at me and said “Indy, I think they stole my playlist”. We both laughed. We continued our police escort through town for the next 20 miles.
We soon hit the gravel and we had our first glimpse of what was to come the next 470 miles. Mud and puddles and gravel, oh my! I was spinning easy with Mike Kinney and Tom Hughes when Chip Constantine passed us. He introduced himself. This was his first ever bikepacking event. He had three goals. He wanted to be happy. He wanted to finish. He wanted to finish in one piece. Very good goals indeed. As he sped off he stated “I need to warm up my legs”. Little did we know that Chip is a very fast gravel rider. I looked at Mike and Tom and said “Every year someone wants to be a hero”. And every year I feel obligated to chase them down like the idiot I am.
All of sudden an extremely happy dog bound from a nearby field with his tail wagging uncontrollably. He decided he wanted to sprint with us for the next 4 miles. I hope the little puppers found his way back home. Soon after I stopped to pee. I remounted my bike and passed Mike and Tom as they were doing the same. I prefer to ride alone so I hit the gas pedal to put some distance on them. I passed through Richards at mile 65 and took a long look at the convenience store. Memories of the previous year flooded my brain. I had been in sorry shape last year when I limped into Richards. I could only hope this year would be different.
The Gran Gravel 500 alternates route directions every year, and I was happy to see the course from a different perspective. I was coming up on Sam Houston National Forest. I hit the paved section and settled into the aero bars while focusing on my cadence. My knees and Achilles were aching. I didn’t know why, and I wouldn’t know why, until I reached mile 355. I was grinding up a rolling hill and heard the sound of high revving diesel engine in the background. There was a car approaching in the other lane and I studied my side mirror to see if the diesel was going to slow down. It became apparent that they had no intention of slowing down. We were all going to be passing each other at the same moment. I waited for a second longer. I bailed off the road and into the muddy grass. I raised my middle finger and shouted to the heavens as the diesel truck passed with less than a foot between me and their cargo. They were carrying a swimming pool of sorts on a flatbed. If I hadn’t bailed off to the side of the road I would have been clipped and sent to the hospital. They didn’t have a wide load sign, or a lead car. I guess I was in the wrong for exercising my right to be on the road. Stupid cyclist.
I brushed myself off mentally and carried on. No need to get frazzled by near misses. I checked Trackleaders only to find my alias for this year, Jerry Smith, had died around mile 30. Hmmm. As I approached New Waverly (Mile 100) I decided to stop and investigate further. My tracker was lit up and showing GPS. I tried to power it down, but it was frozen. Oh well. I would take a look at it when I got to Groveton, around mile 150 in the race.
From this point forward the race became increasingly challenging. The mud was going nowhere, the temps were not rising, and my feet and hands were already wet and cold. One benefit of the cooler weather was to have to only carry a few liters of water at a time. I had started the race with 3 liters and felt I would make it to Groveton without issue. The ‘roads’ became increasingly slick. The Texas mud was deep. I needed to choose my lines wisely. When the road looked like it would firm up a bit you would turn a corner only to find another 15 foot mini swamp begging to swallow you whole. Most of these proved somewhat ride able, albeit butt cheeks clinched and with a firm grip on the handle bars. Surprisingly the infamous Groveton road had received some much needed maintenance from the county. They had installed water drainage and dumped truck loads of gravel to combat what is usually a 3 mile slog of hike a bike.
I finally saw what I was looking for in Groveton (Mile 155). Chip’s bike was parked outside. He was human after all. I rolled up and he looked surprised, but smiling and happy. I felt bad because I knew my tracker wasn’t working. I showed him my tracker and told him I was taking the batteries out in hopes of having it reboot. He was in really good spirits as he cleaned his drive train of mud. He said the burgers were awesome and he had read great reviews online about them. As he took off I told him to keep it up, and that he was doing great. I went inside. The sincerely nice lady working the small grill was cooking an order of 6 burgers. I asked her how long for one and she said 10 minutes. I laughed in my brain, and said to myself “Nice try Chip”. I don’t know if these impulsive decisions of mine work for, or against me. On one hand I could have eaten a delicious burger and rested my legs for a bit. On the other hand I could be in and out of there in ten minutes. I tend to choose the fastest resupply option because I know how minutes add up to miles. In the end this probably helped me later in the race, as Chip and I would be pushing each other during the last 150 miles.
Heavens be praised as my Spot started working again. I guess Billy had no idea who the hell Jerry Smith was, and thought they had left Indiana out of the race. My bad. I felt better none the less. In these conditions it would not be unlikely that someone may need their Spot to be located in a rescue situation. Besides my cold feet, cold hands, achy knees and Achilles, I felt good. I had previously injured my wrist and was aware that it could go south at any minute. Around mile 180 things did go south. I was riding a ridge in the middle of the road when it turned soft. I hopped off and as my tire struck the hard mud I tweaked my wrist. Shooting pain shot through my right wrist. I made an audible gasp and I grimaced. I had no choice but to push on. After that moment every time I reached for my brake levers, shifted gears, or hit a small bump it sent sparks of pain through my wrist.
The daylight was fading and I was still around 50 miles outside of Palestine (Mile 250), which is the halfway point of the race. The middle section of the GG500 is the most technically challenging. It is full of loose gravel, mud, and short valleys that require your full attention. At the bottom of these valleys were mud pits. If you tried to cross them with too much speed you were probably going to lose traction and eat shit. How do I know this? Well, I ate shit a few times. I tried to laugh each time. And if I’m being honest the challenging riding conditions were helping to keep me distracted from my wrist and body aches.
I came across a truck that stopped to talk to me. He said the road up ahead was closed but I might be able to hike around it. I thanked him and pedaled on. I came to the 30 foot mini swamp and dismounted my bike so that I could hike around it. Although sticker bushes tore at bright pink tutu it held strong. On the other side was a woman in a lifted diesel truck. She asked if I thought she could make it across. I told her the guy I just saw had turned around, but his truck was pretty lame compared to hers. She asked me again for advice. I told her to back up and get some speed. I smiled and went on my.
During this stretch I was considering giving up in Palestine (Mile 250), or at least getting a hotel. The previous year I had injured myself to the point that I couldn’t train for 4 weeks after the GG500. As I am planning to ride across the US one last time, this option was weighing heavily on my mind.
Eventually I arrived in Palestine (Mile 250) and saw the holy grail of resupply points. Whataburger. I missed this stop last year so I was stoked to finally give it a try. I felt like the tin man from Wizard of Oz as I dismounted my bike. Once again I wondered why? What is it all for? I walked inside to order food. Although I had spent tons of money on gas station food I opted not to pay the extra 46 cents for cheese on my burgers. This was a sure sign of sleep deprivation. I sat in a booth and waited for my hot food. I changed out my socks. I felt my feet. They were blocks of ice. Good thing I didn’t bring my booties this year, right. My nether region was getting pretty sore and chaffed too.
I checked my phone to discover an interesting story developing on Trackleaders. Chip was still in Palestine. Was he in a hotel? Had he thrown in the towel? There was no way for me to tell. As I ferociously ate my burgers I told myself that comfort kills. I had to get out of this safe haven, and soon. I filled my water bottles, greased my chain, and headed over to the 24 hour CVS. It was inconceivable to quit now that I was in first place. That would be silly. I told myself I could go further. I picked up some more food and went on my merry way. I took some Advil for my wrist pain.
I left Palestine with a new found strength. I was halfway done. My strength lasted all of 30 miles. At 4:00 A.M. I found myself curled in the fetal position and shivering on a cement slab outside of a church. I lay there for 20 minutes, maybe sleeping 10 of those minutes. I heard coyotes, and woke up. I felt miserable. I hopped on the bike and turned the pedals. The roads were still incredibly sketchy, and I was taking my sweet time. I was having surges of power, then no power at all. As the night faded I felt nothing. The sun didn’t really come out because it was cloudy, just like my mood. I was going slowly like molasses, and time was dragging on. I hadn’t bought enough food and I was starting to ration my water. I was certainly expecting this 100 mile stretch to go faster. At 9:00 I saw a bench outside of a church and decided I needed another rest. I hadn’t felt this low in a very long time. I had forgotten how much more energy your body consumes to keep you warm. I had forgotten how tough this stretch of the route was. I couldn’t see the road clearly any more with my blurred vision. I took a photo of my bike and posted on FB. I wanted people to know I was okay, and that I was determined to finish the race. At my current pace it would take me another 30 hours slogging through the mud.
My feet were so cold that I decided to try an experiment. I put on one of my wet socks on my right foot. Maybe two layers of wet socks would keep them toes toasty. I decided when I woke up I would determine which foot was warmer, and go that route. Of course when I woke up I had completely forgotten this tactic, and I rode with double socks on my right foot for the rest of the race. I did manage 20 minutes of shut eye.
I forced myself back onto my bicycle. After a few miles I looked up and saw Billy Rice approaching. He was with Brian Steele and my spirits were immediately lifted. They said people were dropping out of the race. I told them I had never DNF’d, but I was sure close to it right then. Brian said there was no shame in stopping, and I knew he was correct. Something inside me said I had to continue onward though. As they left I thought I had made the biggest mistake ever. I just left the opportunity to hop in a warm car, with friends, and to be done with all of this misery. I had to remind myself that I had voluntarily signed up for this suffer fest. I was also thinking of the great Hal Russel who says he only knows two things about a race. One is that he will start the race, and the other is that he will finish the race. I started to channel my inner Hal. I had around 25 hard miles left to Trinity (Mile 355) and I was now out of food. Typical Indy. I expected to be passed by Chip at any minute.
I slogged the last 25 miles into Trinity (Mile 355). Each minute felt like an hour. Each hour felt like a century. I saw the dollar general store and made a bee line for it. Once inside I found my spinach, my super power, my secret weapon. I found baby powder. While I was looking for it I heard giggling behind me. I turned around and saw 3 little kids pointing and laughing at my tutu. I smiled wide, and waved to them. Their mother instinctively acted like a momma bear with her cubs, placing herself between me and them. I would to lady, I would to.
I headed across the road to a full service gas station. While on the crapper I had a moment of epiphany. My seat post was too high. It was too high because I had been wearing my winter cycling boots for training, and they are a full centimeter taller than my summer shoes. Good lord. Is this why my Achilles and knee caps had been on fire for the last 300 miles? I hoped so. Before I left the bathroom stall I emptied about half the bottle of baby powder into my cycling shorts. Poof Poof Poof. It was sweet heavenly relief from the burning down below. I thoroughly washed my hands and got ready to go shopping.
I saw another two kids. They also smiled and waved. The tutu was definitely a big hit in Trinity. My spirits were slowly rising from the cold depths where they had hibernated the last 15 hours. I ate hot food slowly. I enjoyed my sitting time. I drank a Mexican coca cola. It burned my chapped lips. Ahh, this is the life. I had to sit for about 10 minutes for the food to kick in. Anyone that has gone into a calorie depletive state knows that if you eat too fast your liable to puke everything right back up. Once my nauseousness left I trotted outside. I took out my tools and lowered my seat a full centimeter. I loaded up, and once again, took off very slowly.
Upon checking my phone I discovered Chip had just arrived in Trinity. This is it. This is where I get passed. I knew he was moving much faster than I was. He had made up the 50 mile lead I had put on him while riding through the night. But with my nether regions bathed in baby powder, and my saddle at the correct height, I was feeling better than I had the entire race. A thought crossed my mind. It was impulsive, stupid, and very typical of me. Let’s give this guy a run for his money. More importantly, let’s see if I can sprint the last 140 miles to close this thing out.
And so began my blacked out sprint to the finish line. I periodically checked my phone. I think Chip was onto my tactics, and he was game for the chase. For the next 50 miles him and I would get as close as 4 miles apart, and then shoot back to 10 miles apart. This is understandable as we would hit road sections. His light gravel bike with thin tires stacked up well on the pavement. But when we hit the bumpy muddy gravel my wide low pressure tires helped me float with ease. We went back and forth like this for the next 100 miles, neither one of us willing to give into our aching bodies and tiresome minds. I made a judgment call to skip the resupply point in Huntsville (Mile 415). If he stopped it would be the final nail in the coffin, and I would have this thing wrapped up barring any major issues. He did stop, and my lead grew to about 15 miles. This was the biggest lead I’d had since I’d past him at Palestine. There was only one problem. I was damn near out of food and low on water. You’d think I’d learn my lesson by now, but I’m gluten for punishment. I’m also not the brightest crayon in the box.
I slowed my pace ever so slightly and put on the cruise control. I came to a town called Bedias (Mile 455). I rolled to a halt at the main intersection in town. Beaming from the heavens was a 24 hour gas station. Fortune favors the idiot sometimes. I walked in and purchased 2 frappacinos, jerky, pistachios, gummy bears, and refilled my water. I chatted with the clerk. She was highly entertained with my delirious state of mind and mud splattered attire.
The last 50 miles was long, but filled with happiness. I had persevered. I had reached some all time lows but I managed to carry forward when there was little hope left in my heart. I had worked my ass off and was proud of myself for doing so well. My knees were hurting again, but not enough to make me stop and rest them.
When I arrived back at the Stella hotel there was a small welcoming party for me. Kerry Snow-Alley, Christopher Alley, Mike Kinney, Brian Steele, Patrick Farnsworth, and Billy Rice were all there. Patrick and Mike had beers for me. Kerry and Christopher had pizza for me. Everyone gave me hugs and high fives. I had cried from exhaustion just a few miles down the road, and I was thankful that I didn’t burst into a full shower of tears in front of my friends. It was good to see that neither Kerry nor Mike had to pull out of the race because of a crash or injury. I got off my bike and started to eat the best damn cold pizza of my entire life.
We waited around to welcome Chip in for his first finish ever in a bikepacking event. He did awesome and I was impressed to see how little he carried on his bike. He and I were definitely on opposite sides with our bike kits for this race. He was all smiles, and glad to be finished.
The next morning we came back to welcome in Beau Troesch and Tom Hughes as well.
By the end of the event I had an answer to my why. I continue to do these events for the people. Not just the riders, but the spectators, the gas station folk, and the people out on the open road. I do these events because they make me a better person. These events remind me of how fortunate I am to live the life I am living. I do these events because I want to know my limits. When I go beyond my limits I’m able to see deeper into myself as an individual. I am able peel back my layers, and truly look deep within. I’m not always happy with what I see, but to see myself at this deeper level allows me to start fixing those things I am not happy with. There is so much beauty to be found in struggle. And If I remember correctly not all of these events are straight up struggle fest. Sometimes we get that awe inspiring sunset or sunrise. Sometimes we get that perfect weather. Either way, I’m proud to be a part of the magnificent bikepacking community.
The Gran Gravel 500 is an event that raises money for cancer research equipment for the St. Joseph Hospital in Bryan, Texas. Each year I have participated has been an incredible journey for me. I look forward to what it may bring me next year.
One last big shout out to Billy Rice for organizing and directing this great event. He puts in many hours of his own free time to keep this event going as smoothly as possible. Thank you Billy.