We were 16 miles outside of town, rolling a flat, paved road as a stiff tailwind rushed us along, when I started to bonk.
"I thought you said this was going to be a short ride," I said to my co-worker, John, who had promised me one of those infamous "three-hour tours." We were more than an hour into it and we hadn't even hit the climb yet.
"Do you want to turn around?" he asked.
"Maybe," I said, sounding more irritable than I probably needed to. "I feel crappy."
"I didn't think you were such a wuss," he replied with a smile.
"That' a common misconception people have about me," I said. "I'm actually a huge wuss. Anyway, I need at least one easy day in Hell Week."
Still in heavy whine mode, I began to rattle off the symptoms I was feeling, all common signs of overtraining. "You know," John said, "what you're doing is probably not actually helping you much. In a way, it's probably hurting you. Now, if you were train a little more scientifically ..."
"I know, I know," I interrupted. "But this is how I like to do things. Some people are physical riders, but I'm more of a mental rider. I like to train because I like to go out and have adventures, and push my limits, and learn more about life and myself in a process. Some people ride for performance; others ride for experience. I think they're both valid reasons. Riding a lot of strung-together, long, hard days is how I trained for Tour Divide, and I don't regret it.
"Anyway, you're not going to see me doing regular hill repeats up Pattee Canyon any time soon," I continued with a laugh. "I'm too much of a wuss for interval training."
We turned off the I-90 frontage road onto a rough dirt doubletrack that looked more like somebody's driveway than a road, and started up the long ascent. I choked down a granola bar and drank a lot of water, and began to feel better. Long climbs are my favorite kind of riding, and even when I'm just a little overtrained and fighting off a bonk, long climbs are where I'm happiest. My good mood was short-lived, though, because just before we reached saddle, I slurped up the last bit of water from my bladder. I had brought my two-liter bladder to the office because I had believed John when he said we were headed out for a "mellow" three-hour ride after work. But already nearly three hours had already gone by, and we were a long way from anywhere, and I knew it.
"Crap, I'm out of water," I announced.
"It's OK," John said. "It's mostly downhill from here. There's a bar on the highway not far from where this road comes out."
"I have iodine," I said. "Are there any streams?"
"I don't know," John said. "But we'll reach the road before long."
The bonk began to creep up again so I ate a Power Bar and told John my story of the time I ran out of water on the White Rim in Utah and experienced my closest brush with dangerous dehydration. We began the descent into an entirely different drainage. The sun set to the west as we moved north into a large swath of mountains and forest. I saw no sign of a valley, or civilization, and I started to feel a little bit stressed.
A few miles down the rough, rocky road, John got a flat. He stuck in his spare tube and we continued down the road, but not more than two miles later, he flatted again, this time on both tires. He was riding a cross-bike with relatively skinny tires, and had snake-bite pinch flats in both of his tubes; one tube had snake bites in two spots. We dug through our kits and both discovered that neither of us had a functioning patch kit. I especially was cursing this stroke of bad luck, because I always carry a patch kit, but lately have been shifting my stuff between two mountain bikes on a regular basis, and sometimes things get inadvertently left behind.
We spent 45 minutes dealing with the problem. We wrestled my 2.1-inch mountain bike tube into John's tiny tire, working together to lever in the large chunks of rubber that repeatedly tried to burst free. John tied a big knot into the tube with the smallest snake-bite holes, and wrested the now substantially shorter tube into the rim. He pumped up the tire and the tube burst. He tied another knot into the second tube. This one seemed to hold air for a short time, but still had a fairly swift leak. Meanwhile, the sun set and darkness started to fall. I had lights, but only my tiny commuter headlight and a helmet-mounted headlamp whose batteries were nearly dead. John had no lights at all. A chill started to seep in. I put on my only extra layer, a rain jacket.
"How far is it to the highway?" I asked.
"Pretty far," John said sternly.
I looked out into the blackness. I could forge on ahead and seek vehicular help, but I had no idea where we were or where we were headed. We were in the middle of a veritable maze of logging roads - gated ones at that - and my chances of finding the way out on my first try, alone, were slim to none. I was dependent on John for directions, which meant we were both going to have to walk out. My throat was parched and dry. John gave me a sip of his gatorade, but he was nearly out himself. We had no water. We were down to a Gu packet and a crumbled up Odwalla Bar for food. My emotional reaction at this particular moment struck me as significant. A few years back, before I embarked on my non-scientific, experience-driven endurance training, I would have panicked, and probably started to cry and made the situation even worse. I know this, because I have reacted that way before in less daunting situations. But now, just a few years later, I felt like laughing out loud. It was the perfect storm, and the universe had smacked us hard for being complacent, because the universe does that sometimes, and we were just going to have to deal with it.
John filled the front tire again and decided we could probably roll one to two minutes at a time before he flatted, so that's what we did. We crept gingerly around the big rocks strewn all over the road, through the overgrown grass and flowers, making our painfully slow descent one minute at a time. I rode the brakes and stayed beside him, craning my neck to shine my dim helmet-lamp beam over to his side of the road so he could see at least a little. We ducked beneath deadfall. We swerved around obstacles spotted at the very last minute. A herd of elk startled and raced down the road beside us. An elk fawn darted in front of me and we nearly collided. John and I passed a stream. I announced I wanted to collect water, but John promised we were at that point less than a half hour from the highway, so I'd get water sooner if I waited (because iodine takes a half hour to kill all the bacteria in water, it can't be consumed for at least that long.) I didn't necessarily believe him, but I knew every minute we wasted not rolling would burn valuable time in which John's tube was still slightly working - time we may not be able to get back.
About an hour and many tube refills later, we reached the highway. It was 11 p.m. The bar John spoke of was closed, but there was a pump outside where we could refill our water. I drank what felt like an entire two-liter bladder worth, choked a bit, and then refilled my bladder again. I felt a sudden rush of new optimism. The bleak darkness of the evening seemed to fade into warmth and light, because I had water in my body, and all was going to be OK.
"I'm sorry I couldn't buy you a drink at the bar," John said. He was already accepting a lot of the guilt for our misadventure, although I attributed it to bad luck that just happened to hit him harder than it hit me. We were both guilty of being underprepared.
"I got exactly what I wanted from that bar. Water." I let the beautiful word linger on my tongue. Life is really so simple. Food, shelter, water. After a few years of experienced-based endurance training, it doesn't take much to make me happy.
A few miles down the highway, John's front tire stopped holding air. He tried to retie the knot in the tube, and it exploded. He tied a couple of knots in his final, double-flatted tube, and ripped it in two pieces in the process. "Well," he said, "I'm f%$@^&."
We agreed that he would continue walking down the highway and I would ride ahead until I obtained cell phone reception, where I could call John's brother, Chris, who was visiting from out of town. If I didn't get ahold of Chris, I would simply ride all the way back to Missoula, still some 16 miles away, grab my car, and return.
About six miles down the road, my phone finally caught reception. It was after midnight. I called John's home number, and Chris answered on the tenth ring. He sounded sleepy. I told him our story. "Where are you?" he asked.
I paused. "Um, that's a really good question that I'm not sure I can answer," I said. "Shoot. I'm really new to town myself. I don't even know exactly where we are. But I think John said this was Highway 200. I've seen freeway signs for Highway 200 before. I think you head east on I-90, and near the town of Bonner - that's about seven miles east on the freeway - you'll see an exit for Highway 200. Then head up the highway; I'm pretty sure the direction is east, northeast or so. Hopefully you'll see me riding down the road with my lights on. John's a few more miles back and doesn't have any lights."
Not more than five minutes after I hung up my cell phone, I heard a horrible ker-chunk, followed by a hissing noise. I stopped and watched in disbelief as all of the air quickly left my rear tire. I ran my hand along the flat tire and pulled out a four-inch-long nail, embedded all the way to the rim. Finally, I was ready to laugh out loud. My semi-delirious cackling rang out in the still air.
"No way! No %*$%&@^ way I just got a flat!" John had my only spare tube in his rear tire. I had no patch kit. I just kept laughing, because it was so perfectly hilarious, like a comedy of errors, right there, on day five of my hardest span of physical effort in more than a year. And then I did the only thing I could do. I started jogging. I decided I would jog until either Chris - this man I had never met - somehow found me, or until I reached Bonner, where I could call a cab. Bonner could have been as little as two miles away, or as many as ten. I had no idea. As I jogged, the fatigue and delirium set in hard. It's often called the "sleep monster," that overwhelming urge to crawl into a bush off to the side of the road and pass out. I fished out my iPod and turned it on full-volume, hoping a blast of raw noise would keep me from falling asleep on my feet. And I ran.
I came to an opening in the canyon and could see the lights of Bonner in the distance when Chris found me. As we loaded my bike on John's car, the flashing lights of a police car and ambulance raced by. My stress-level, long subdued, hit full-tilt, because I knew John was back there walking down the shoulder of the highway with no lights. Only a couple cars had passed me since we parted and I knew traffic was quite light, but I worried something bad had happened. Happily, we found John several miles up the road, unscathed except for a lot of scuffs on the bottom of his bike shoes. I could barely keep my eyes open during the ride home, and repeatedly nodded off for a couple seconds at a time. Chris dropped me off at home and I collapsed in bed without even bothering to eat anything, even though my stomach was so empty it seemed to gnaw at my sides.
"Wow," I thought as my eyes drooped for a final time. "Now that was a good training ride."