Sunday, July 19, 2015

These veins of mine are now some sort of fuse

I guzzled a liter of water during the night coughing, and still felt parched when I woke up in the morning.

"Why am I so thirsty?" I wondered as shook out my dew-covered bivy sack. My hands went numb as I collected another liter from the creek. The 6 a.m. sky was already bright, but the air was icy and damp, and I felt an odd pressure in my chest as I breathed.

The first seven miles of the day were spent obsessing about coffee. It had been more than four days since my last cup — that incredible sugar sludge I obtained in Elkford. Each morning I took a caffeine pill to stave off headaches, but it wasn't the same. It just wasn't the same.

I rode by a sign fixed to a fence that read, "Ovando is Open!"

"I sure hope that's true!" I yelled back, out loud.

Ovando, population 71, is a lonely town in the Blackfoot River valley, tucked away between the Mission and Swan Ranges. It's close to Missoula, the city in Montana where I lived for a short time in 2010-11. For this reason, I was excited to visit, and scanned the vaguely familiar highway for signs of old friends. It's ridiculous, I know, but this is one of the scenarios I fantasized about — that people I knew would be waiting for me on the side of the road, cheering. It funny, these dreams you conjure as your thoughts become more childlike.

In town, there were a half dozen bikes parked next to the museum, where a small cabin and teepee were available for campers. Jeff Wise was walking his bike toward the Stray Bullet Cafe as I rolled up beside him.

"You're just in time," he said. "Restaurant opens at 7."

I glanced at my GPS. It was 7:01.

"Ovando is open!" I yelled triumphantly, and Jeff regarded me with a squinty grin.

Jeff told me that the camping area was overflowing with cyclists the previous night, but most had left before the crack of dawn. I was glad I stopped short of town, because I had no interest in wedging myself into crowds amid all this open space. Jeff ordered the same combination of breakfast food as me, and when it came, he exclaimed, "I can't eat all this."

"Oh, I can," I said, and it was true, but I was mainly focused on guzzling cup after cup of coffee. So satisfying.

The owner of the fishing shop next door, a woman who goes by the name of Angler on the bikepacking forum (and I'm sorry that I've forgotten her real name), came inside and took pictures of all of us. Angler is the Divide's most dedicated journalist. She photographs every cyclist she comes across and posts a small anecdote about each one on the forum. She was extremely nice and upbeat for 7 a.m., and I visited her store to buy bug dope and a few energy bars. (Along with fishing supplies, Angler also offers an array of cycling-related items. The whole town of Ovando has come together to create a cycling-friendly destination, and it's wonderful.) Anyway, I hoped to find salt tabs, thinking that electrolytes might help balance this strange thirst I was experiencing. She dug into a box full of Hammer samples and found several packs of Endurolytes, and gave them to me for free.

Back at the cafe, I bought several of these dense, homemade-looking food discs called "Protein Pucks." (They were mostly almond butter and very tasty. I wish I could have purchased a dozen just to avoid terrible protein bars a little bit longer.) Someone had also recently brought in a whole pan of fresh cinnamon rolls, so I bought one for the road.

I pedaled 15 miles out of town before I was famished again, and decided to devour the cinnamon roll at the bottom of Huckleberry Pass. This was the second time that I would consume a massive pastry at the bottom of a huge climb, and it was the second time I'd regret it.

I rolled into Lincoln in the early afternoon, still thirsty, and the wheezing had returned. The weather had turned extremely hot, although my thermometer said it was only 26C (79F.) "Lies!" I thought. I went into the gas station for ice and the candy supply I'd been promising myself, and met a family of six — kids ranged from age 9 to 18 — touring the GDMBR. They'd also started their trip in Banff, about three weeks earlier. When they asked me how long I'd been on the road, I had to think about it.

"Maybe five days?" I replied. "I think this is day five." We talked for a while as I shopped, and I told them about the best parts of my race so far.

They left before I decided to sit down and devour a personal pizza (so hungry on this day. Why so hungry and thirsty?), but I caught up to them a few miles down the road. The 16-year-old daughter raced to catch me after I passed, and asked more questions. We rode together for about ten minutes, and I turned the questioning to her. She told me she'd been really into bikes since she was a kid, but just started mountain biking a year prior.

"I really like it," she said. "I feel so much faster when I'm going downhill."

"And you haven't had any problems with the more technical stuff, the rocks and mud?"

"Oh no," she shook her head. "I just hold on tight and go."

She turned around to return to her family, and I turned off Stemple Pass Road to battle this rocky doubletrack that shoots straight up a steep canyon, in the Death Valley-like heat of the day. (only 25C? Lies!) Piles of rotting tree trunks were stacked in clear-cut meadows along the road, and it looked like a battlefield. It felt like a battlefield. I was coughing up the afternoon crud and breathing swift and shallow at this higher altitude (only 6,000 feet? Lies!) The pass topped out at 7,000 feet, and the descent was similarly steep and dusty.

Below Stemple Pass, the region feels remote. You're surrounded by the tall, rounded peaks so characteristic of southwestern Montana. The valleys are home to abandoned mines, a handful of ranches, not much else. Just past the bridge over Marsh Creek, I passed a house where a man in the yard called out, "Do you need water?" Yes, I thought ... I'd guzzled most of my three liters of ice water in a matter of hours. "No!" I called back. "I'm good, thank you." In the intervening years since my first Divide ride, the ethics regarding trail magic have been more clearly defined by the bikepacking community, and the consensus is "Just say no." I respect that, and approve as well. This ethic urges us toward greater self-reliance. I stopped a few miles down the road to refill from a creek with my sluggish filter.

When it was time to climb again, my legs balked tremendously. They were all emptied out again, and my lungs felt constricted, even when I managed a good, loogie-producing cough. At this point I'd convinced myself that my breathing difficulties were allergies, and this air was particularly aggressive. The empty legs were, well ... I actually couldn't quite convince myself that the hundred-mile-plus days were the culprit. The struggle was different from my first Tour Divide, my multi-day ultramarathons and the Freedom Challenge. In those events, my legs had pain, but they still had power. Here, my legs had no pain — not even mild knee soreness — and yet no power. And really, I wasn't doing too badly. I was still able to climb, and still staying near my daily mileage target. But it felt like such a huge battle. Like I was forcing my muscles through this effort, and they might give up on me suddenly, without warning, and then I might just collapse on the dirt, utterly broken.

The 6 p.m. slump sank in as I battled a rolling ridge along the Continental Divide, and I brooded over my physical state. I reflected back on recent endurance-related struggles: falling backward and collapsing onto the slope as I tried to carry my bike up a rocky scramble during the Freedom Challenge; gasping and wheezing on Two Top Divide during the Fat Pursuit; dragging a rigid leg up a talus field during the Tor des Geants; pushing my bike with all my might and still failing to move forward in knee-deep snow drifts and gale-force headwinds on the Iditarod Trail. All of these instances had legitimate extenuating circumstances, at least in my mind. But what if there was a pattern? What if I no longer had access to strength or vitality that I used to take for granted? What if I was developing this ... weakness? A weakness I could neither improve nor control?

Rather than continue to brood on unfounded theories about why I'd soon be joining the ranks of endurance athletes who no longer had the capacity to pursue their passion, I returned to my allergy theory. A stiff breeze blew along the ridge, and there was grass everywhere. Even though Helena was a little bit short for my day — just 110 miles from where I camped — I decided to stop in town so I could clean the potentially toxic layer of grime off my body, sleep in a climate-controlled room, and hopefully clear my lungs of pollen and dust.

I rode more than a mile off route before I finally found a hotel, which had a line at the front desk at 9 p.m. I walked to the back to use the bathroom, and when I returned to the lobby, the last guy in line was just leaving. So I went to the desk and inquired about a room. Before the clerk could answer, this woman who I didn't even notice earlier rose up from a lobby chair and berated me, loudly. She was the next in line, she screamed. She'd been waiting for a half hour and had to sit down because she was so sick, and people kept butting in front of her, and she wasn't going to put up with it any longer. She had driven all the way from Missoula for the Gordon Lightfoot concert, and now she had the flu, and why was I being such a selfish bitch? Then she started coughing, loudly, pounding her fist on the desk to the horrified expression of the clerk. I just gaped at her, mouth open, hair matted to my scalp, clothes and legs coated in dust, with my own illness crushing my lungs. "You know," I seethed, "all you had to do was say something. Use words. No one knows you're in line when you're not in line!"

I couldn't let it go. After I finally secured a spot, I stormed into my room and stomped around while swearing and throwing all the pillows against the wall. I hated being in the city so much, here with the crowds and sprawling streets and crazy bitches and stupid Gordon $%&! Lightfoot. All I wanted to do was escape on my bike, ride away from my rage and flee back into the mountains. But I had to get this breathing issue under control. The city might be mean, but the air outside was killing me.    


  1. Interesting about trail magic. It's not a race of course, but on the PCT we almost always pass it up, being section hikers and not thrus. That being said, I think the proliferation of it has made people less self reliant. It's a way different experience than it used to be.

    1. It makes sense from a racing viewpoint — keep resupply sources commercial to ensure everyone has equal access. For thru-hikers, the whole trail magic aspect of the culture seems fun, but the expectation and entitlement is an unfortunate side effect.

    2. As usual, Jill, your writing is fascinating and totally engrossing. This said, the "trail magic" rule strikes me as a bit nuts, and your comment doesn't change my view. The whole race is effectively run on the honor system. Are we seriously to believe that the racers can't distinguish between real trail magic (random dude in a yard offering water) and fake magic (someone setting up a rest stop in front of their house on a day when "it just so happens" that lots of riders are going to come through, or your significant other "happening" to be in town with a full resupply as you ride through)? And if it turns out to we well-disguised fake trail magic (dude sits in yard every day for a week to help everyone out who rides by), what harm? What am I missing?

  2. Great story. I was afflicted this spring with the worst flu ever. Hope you recovered.

  3. I'm sure what happened with that woman wasn't funny at the time, but the last paragraph made me laugh, laugh, laugh! :-)

    1. I do laugh about it. That lady managed to really hurt my feelings, and I was *so mad*, but the absurdity of raging around my hotel room and swearing about Gordon Lightfoot makes me smile now.

  4. I hated Helena as I had to get a room as well to rest my left achilles. That last paragraph summed it up very nicely. Thanks.

  5. She'd DRIVEN all the way from Missoula. Not that she cared about anyone else, but if she even had a clue how ridiculous that complaint was in comparison with your commute...

  6. Guess she wasn't one of the Rainy Day People!


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