Saturday, July 25, 2015

This heart of mine is just some broke machine

Beat finally asked me about the strange titles of my Tour Divide posts. They're lyrics from the most recent Modest Mouse album, "Strangers to Ourselves." I listened to this album rather incessantly during the ride, and it became the background score to many high and low moments along those dusty roads. The lyrics fit well with the stubborn optimism and strife of a slow decline, with just enough humor and nihilism to beat back despondency. Now I can't think back to the Tour Divide without hearing these songs in the background. After I wrote about "Of Course We Know" on day three, it just made sense to go with the theme. I suppose that's strange, but hey ... this is my blog. 

Now, where was I? Oh yes, Big Sheep Creek canyon in southern Montana. In the morning I woke up with a piercing headache and disorientation. I blinked through pounding confusion as the world came into focus — high cliffs loomed over the narrow canyon, but just enough sunlight swept over the rim to illuminate patches of sage near my camp. The outside of my bivy sack had the usual layer of dew, but the inside of my sleeping bag was soaked, as though I'd been sweating heavily through the night. I'd slept the sleep of the dead for six hours without waking up once to cough, and now my lungs felt like they were filled with sand. I tried to force a cough as I stood up, but this only made me dizzy. 

Pedaling down the road, my head continued to pound, and nausea discouraged me from eating anything. "Coffee," I thought. "I just need coffee and breakfast." But this dizzying headache surpassed typical morning malaise. I'd become accustomed to feeling my best first thing in the morning. And I'd slept for six solid hours! Maybe I needed those midnight coughing fits to clear my lungs. It had seemed like a crazy theory up until that point — this notion of slow suffocation because my lungs were too clogged to properly filter the air. I still doubted this theory had medical merit, but maybe I really wasn't getting enough oxygen?

I pedaled into Lima just in time for the morning rush, with at least eight bikes parked outside Jan's Cafe along the usual truckers and interstate travelers. It became clear as soon as I stepped inside that breakfast was going to happen at glacial pace, but I didn't really care. My health was declining and I'd already lost a fair amount of motivation for racing the Tour Divide. I just wanted to survive.

I sat down at a table with Eleanor, Brett Stepanik and Josh Daugherty. I'd met Brett and Josh the previous afternoon at Russ's lodge. We had lunch together and among the usual Tour Divide chatter, I learned that Brett was a dedicated photographer who was carrying a large film camera and dozens of rolls of film in his messenger bag, and Josh was a soon-to-be new father. They'd slept up in the canyon the previous night as well, and were taking advantage of cell reception to make calls and check news from the outside world. The conversation I'd interrupted was about the race standings. Josh informed us that the next person to leave would be in 28th position — then 29th, 30th, and so on.

I couldn't help but curl my lips in a little smirk, because I found it amusing that he'd taken the time to extrapolate this information. My last few days had been such a struggle that my mind had wandered far away race mentality. It was jarring to realize that this was still very much what we were all out here doing, out here on these lonely roads, battling with everything we had for weeks of our lives — we were just jostling for position in a race. But then my next thought was, "30th out of 150? That is not so terrible." I was somewhat surprised to learn that the entire field hadn't passed me, at least not yet.

Beyond Lima, the route travels east through the Centennial Valley. This is one of my favorite segments of the GDMBR, largely because it's the first time the route travels across a wider expanse of open space. Many cyclists dislike it for this same reason, but I love the sense of freedom and wonder that these empty spaces spark. I can look toward a strip of road or hillside that's three or six or ten miles away, realized I'm heading that way, and by the time I get there, enough time will have passed that it will be slightly different. Animals will skitter by, the wind will stir up dust, clouds will cast moving shadows, grass will flow like waves in the breeze, and all of these beautiful details will continue dancing on a stage that at first glance looks desolate and stagnant.

Of course, this is still the Continental Divide, where imposing mountains and their volatile weather are never far from view. There was a fierce south wind that slowed my speed to five miles an hour when I had to ride directly into it. Worse than that, the wind kicked up so much dust that my already congested lungs developed the alarming sensation that they were on the verge of closing up again. Whenever I felt my airways constricting, I stopped and turned around to cough and pull up the buff I'd started using as a face mask. But if I was honest with myself, all the fabric really did was block air flow, because my lungs were already filled with gunk. Still, it seemed I should prevent more dust from entering my airways, if I could.

Concentrated slow pedaling did at least keep me ahead of thunderstorms. Near the pass, Brett and Josh caught up. We rode together for a short distance, but they quickly outpaced me. Sarah Jansen and one of the Australian Daves passed earlier as well, riding seemingly twice the speed I could muster. "How are these people so fast?" I wondered. It occurred to me that at this point we were still on a 20- to 21-day pace, and actually, if I looked at it objectively, I was still having a good race. I was pain-free, managing my sleep well, still mostly sticking to my nutrition plan, being relatively efficient (the two-plus-hour stop in Lima notwithstanding), and damn it, I was still keeping up with fast people. But I was fading. I could feel myself fading. If I didn't kick this lung crud soon, my strength was going to run out.

Red Rock Pass — the iconic state line sign that everybody on the Tour Divide photographs. In the preceding miles, Josh and Brett used some colorful language to describe how excited they were to be leaving Montana. I was actually ahead of them again at this point, because they stopped to chat with some locals in a bike shop van. The locals said they knew Eleanor and were driving out to surprise her. They also offered beer, which I refused but found it amusing that their trail magic was actually terrible for exhausted bikers with nearly a thousand miles on their legs who were climbing up the Continental Divide. I'd probably pass out or vomit before I made my way through a beer. It was more sabotage than support.

I reached the Subway at Mack's Inn with just twenty minutes to spare — it closed at 7 p.m., which I didn't realize until they turned Josh and Brett away a half hour later. I was not feeling well but forced down a chicken footlong just the same. The sun was still up and I hoped to get some rail trail miles out of the way before I collapsed for the night. My lungs were bad; breathing was difficult, but at least the rail trail was flat.

The rail trail is another infamous segment of the Divide — 30 miles along an old rail bed that cuts a thin, straight line through the forest atop a thick bed of volcanic sand. In 2009, I rode the rail trail in a rainstorm. While the trail was badly washboarded then, the rain did tamp down the sand, and I had *no* idea just how slow and sandy this thing was. Even after letting as much air out of my tires as I dared, I still swerved and sank and barely gained enough traction to grind out five miles per hour. Adding insult to indignity, it was a Friday evening and several dune buggies were crawling the trail. About two miles in, I got stuck behind an older couple in a one of these vehicles, inching forward at an unfathomably slow pace. I mean, I caught up to them while pedaling a jerky 5 mph, and they might as well have been standing still. The trail was only as wide as their vehicle, so all I could do was inch behind them. Their speed was too slow for me to keep traction, so eventually I had to walk, and still I was shadowing them without losing ground. How could this be fun? How could this possibly be an enjoyable Friday night activity, to drive a dune buggy at two miles per hour on a flat bumpy trail through a forest with no views?

Finally I found a place to get around them, which I did by jogging through brush. For good measure I walked a fair bit farther so they could see how slow they were actually going, then remounted my bike and commenced grinding the pedals. The route passed through several residential areas, and each intersection had a sign for the "National Recreation Trail."

"Recreation? How could this be fun for anyone?" I wondered. "It's crap to bike, it's bumpy and slow to drive, it would be awful to run or hike. They should designate this a national torture trail."

Clearly, I was becoming very grumpy, and it only went downhill from there. The sun set and the trail emerged in these pretty wetlands, where the ruts and washboards were much worse. Even at the blistering pace of five miles per hour, I swerved enough to get bucked off my bike. I negotiated the crash landing badly and ended up with my face in the sand.

This ignited what would become a nightly incident for me — a solid ten minutes, at least, of shameless sloppy bawling. Being charged by a bull the previous evening is what set off my first emotional outburst. But every night thereafter I'd find something to cry about, and then I'd really indulge in the cry. Looking back to those nights, when thoughts and emotions were muted behind a thick, dull haze, I think on some level I was clinging to anything I could still feel. Even if that feeling was despair, over something quite minor, I embraced it with as much vigor as I could muster. Until there was nothing left.

I hated the rail trail so much. I wanted to get it all out of the way before morning, but then I crashed a second time, and then a third, before finally conceding that I was riding quite badly. I followed a faint deer trail to a hidden cove above the Warm River, then dislodged the contents of my bike bags. On this night I still had some lucidity, so I went through the ritual of wet-wiping the dust away from my skin, slathering Neosporin on my butt, and opening my sleeping bag all the way, so hopefully I wouldn't wake up soaked.

Within seconds of laying down I was out — which is not like me at all. I'm a terrible sleeper, more so in unfamiliar camping situations, and especially so in endurance racing situations. But it had been a long time since I'd truly exhausted myself. 


  1. Wow...just wow. I can't fathom doing this. And your pictures are FANTASTIC! I can't believe that during all this hell you think to stop and take pictures! Those wetland shots are unbelievable! It's very hard to imagine how you are able to SO hate the race that you have a bawling fit every night, yet every morning get back on your bike...I'd have kicked my bike "to the curb" on day 2, or at most day 3 and walked to a bus and gone home (I'm SUCH a wuss!) It takes a quite special mentality to be able to do these types of races...the physical aspect is only a small part...I think the mental part is you don't quit is beyond me.

    LOVING this story, I'm only sad as we all know the ending and can see it coming as your health declines. Thanks SO MUCH for bringing us along for the sufferfest!

  2. Oh...and the dune-buggy couple...why didn't they let you pass? What kind of A$#%les are they? I'm from Montana and I'm embarrassed....(but one fact of life: there are jerks EVERYWHERE! And you get in front of one, there are 2 more just up the road to further annoy you).

    1. I doubt they heard me. I didn't say anything, as there wasn't anywhere for them to get over, and were moving so slowly that I knew I could pass them as soon as there was space. So they weren't being jerks. Just unbelievably slow. Which I suppose is better than rude and fast.

      I don't want to give the impression that I was hating the race (although I do strongly dislike the rail trail, even when healthy.) These nightly low points became my way of venting a lot of frustration, because I actually love the race/route and wanted badly for it to work out. One of the main reasons I participate in these types of endeavors is the experiment with and test mental strength. And what TD 2015 taught me is that the physical aspect still draws a hard line.

  3. Love hearing your story. I hit the rail trail on 4th of July. Every ATV in Idaho was on the trail, and it took a while for my lungs to cough up all of that stuff -- yuck !

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  5. Your comment about how despite how you felt you were actually having a pretty good true! I had a couple of FB acquaintances at this year's Tour Divide as well, guys who I know to be strong cyclists who'd put in serious training, and I believe you were ahead of both of them until you had to drop. It was almost disorienting to know how terrible you were feeling and then track you all on the leaderboard and see the kind of progress you were making, proof that no matter the modest game you talk (which I'd guess is basically a testament to the people you're comparing yourself to) you're a tough, strong athlete.

    And I had to laugh at your grumpiness because that's SO familiar.Towards the end of two tough (for me) races this spring I'd get so angry, scripting what I'd say to the race director who plotted out this ridiculous route or the friend who'd talked me into racing it.

  6. I would've been crying, too. But every night you picked yourself up and went on and took care of yourself. What you accomplished, as sick as you were, is just impressive as hell.


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