Thursday, July 16, 2015

Of course we just do not know

Approaching Red Meadow Lake. Photo by Dan Hafferman.
Several times in the night, I woke up coughing violently. "Well, here comes the hacking part of the cold," I thought. I blamed the air inside my hotel room, which was too dry and too hot even though I'd cracked a window. Coughing brought up some mucus, and I worried I might be developing mild altitude-related edema. But no, that couldn't be it. Eureka is way down at 2,600 feet. It's the lowest elevation on the entire Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. 

The morning of day three started out warm and calm. I went for a lovely spin through the hills along the Tobacco River, then launched into my favorite kind of riding — a winding, well-graded, 2,500-foot climb up a mountain. When I tell other cyclists that this is my favorite type of riding terrain, they look at me like I need a professional intervention. Nobody likes the fireroad climb, they tell me. Tedious, boring ... fireroads are what you endure to get to the good stuff. I can only shrug — "I don't know why, but, baby, I was born this way." Climbing gravel roads is simple and meditative, allowing me to explore the landscape of my mind while my body cycles through a wonderful elixir of blood oxygen and mood-boosting biochemicals. Of course I need a generous helping of glycogen and paucity of pain to continue enjoying these climbs, but when they're good, they're really good.

This is why I love the Tour Divide. 

I believe that's Alice on top of Whitefish Divide. Honestly ... I missed the snow.
Despite the love, I was having a difficult time finding my rhythm. The sore throat was gone, but my breathing still felt raw, and my legs just didn't have any power. It would seem logical to blame fatigue from the 270 miles that came before. But usually, even when I'm tired, I don't experience this same sort of ... weakness. Muscle pain, sure, but leg emptiness? That's usually reserved for times when I'm sorely out of shape — like when I had a knee injury last fall and got back on my bike for the first time in eight weeks. Those were some empty legs. And this ... well, I just didn't know what this was.

I think most Tour Dividers would agree that after working through initial pains and other kinks, they feel themselves getting stronger every day. It's a sentiment that thru-hikers share as well. Sure, there are inevitable body breakdowns, and if you lose a bunch of weight, you're not going to feel strong. But if you take care of yourself and don't develop any acute issues, bodies are remarkably adaptable to this kind of effort. I experienced this in 2009 — by the time I reached Colorado, there was a kind of effortlessness to the big climbs, and a normalcy to the 120-mile days. I did experience big meltdowns in New Mexico, but I'd also lost 15 pounds and gotten quite sick outside Cuba. So this was my strategy for 2015: take care of nagging pains early, eat protein, be efficient but relatively generous with sleep, and wait for the strength to come to me.

For most of the day, I wrestled with this dynamic — loving the long, meditative spins, and fretting about this weird hollow feeling in my legs. Although I felt like I was crawling along, I probably wasn't doing too badly. I shadowed Alice for a long while, faltered some on the climb to Red Meadow Lake, and then was passed by several groups on the rolling hills into Whitefish. Red Meadow Lake was another section where I felt wistful tinges of 2009 nostalgia. Back then, there were five miles of snow to negotiate, and I remember stomping around downed trees with John Nobile while he complained that his little roadie booties did nothing to keep his feet warm in the shin-deep slush. Good times! This year, the road was dusty and campers surrounded the completely non-frozen lake, and I admit I missed the mystique of those snow-shrouded peaks. And the hiking. All biking all day is really quite taxing on empty legs. 

I didn't plan to stay long in Whitefish, but I did need to buy more chain lube, as I'd nearly used up the useless bottle of dry lube that I started with. The bike shop in town was kind enough to open up for Tour Divide riders on a Sunday afternoon, and had become this vortex of frenetic energy and time-sucking distractions. Somehow this simple stop for lube turned into two hours as I got sucked in, talking with at least a dozen others who were gathered around the shop, stealing glances at my phone to try to figure out where Beat was in the Freedom Challenge, hosing down my bike (it did need it), looking for spots to recharge my electronics, and eating pizza with Sarah Jansen. It was nice, but extremely draining for me to navigate all these chores and social interactions, and I left town feeling a bit of that deer-in-the-headlights, just-want-to-flee-back-into-the-woods reaction. 

It was in Whitefish that I resolved to avoid towns, to just do my resupplies and get out. I believed this would help me maintain a rhythm, be more efficient with my time, and hopefully gain strength. 

As I pedaled through Columbia Falls, I lapsed into much nostalgia about the day I met Beat. Our paths first crossed here at the finish line of the Swan Crest 100, where I was a volunteer and he was a runner. Beat's sweeping grin, the energy he exuded after 34 hours when even the volunteers were shattered, his confidently proclaiming that I, too, could run a hundred miles if I wanted to ... as the daylight grew long and saturated the Swan Range in golden light, I lapsed into these memories as though it were July 2010 all over again. I became so lost, in fact, that as I pedaled by the road to Strawberry Lake, I nearly turned off the GDMBR to go to the aid station where I doled out canned ravioli to shell-shocked runners all those years ago. The realization hit me as a surprise — that's not where I'm going. It's 2015. I'm on the Tour Divide. 

So instead, I continued pedaling south through the Flathead Valley, battling a headwind that only seemed to pick up strength in the evening. Tedium sank in, and I found myself listening to "Of Course We Know" from the new Modest Mouse album on repeat, singing the lyrics out loud:

"The streets are just blankets and we sleep on their silky course.
Covered up by them, why would we ever want to wake up? Oh no."

Eleanor passed me shortly after I'd really belted out the refrain: "Lord, lay down your own damn soul." After that, I felt too self-conscious to sing — but I sure did eat up a lot of miles with the ghosts of the Swan Crest 100 and Modest Mouse. 

Darkness had settled by the time I pedaled sleepily along the streets of Ferndale. I found some Wi-fi near the fire station and ate all the fruit I bought in Whitefish (because I hadn't planned to stop for dinner) while I checked my phone to track Beat's progress across South Africa. This is usually all I checked on my phone: e-mail, text messages, weather, Freedom Challenge updates, and then I'd post an update to Facebook. My browser wouldn't upload Trackleaders, and I found that I didn't really care. I knew where I was in proximity to my goal, and I understood what I needed to do. 

I pulled into a nice spot in the hills above Swan Lake with 140 miles on the day. I'd ridden 150 miles the first day and 120 the second, which means I was holding onto the average I needed for a 20-day finish, but only just. I'd hoped to feel stronger than I did, especially since I wasn't logging any extra mileage, but I felt optimistic that my best days were yet to come. 


  1. amazing! keep up the good riden'!
    many would cry and give up. You didnt!

  2. I've been following the posts about your Tour Divide experience, and had to tell you the title of this one just stopped me in my tracks. I've had that song haunt me, too (on a long bike ride, as fate would have it!), and it seems so appropriate here. Kind of an omen of what was to come for you. :(


Feedback is always appreciated!