Monday, August 03, 2015

The last good day

I wrote about day eleven of the Tour Divide a month ago in the post, "On not letting go."  I promised myself that vignette was going to be the only thing I publicly wrote about the experience, but I've never been able to stick with resolutions to cut back on blogging. Rehashing each day over the past month has been cathartic, as it usually is (catharsis is 85 percent of the reason I continue to update this blog after ten long years.)

Day twelve dawned hopeful, as I rose from a patch of sage about 28 miles north of Wamsutter, Wyoming, where I'd effectively passed out after sleepily crashing my bike the previous evening. I'd pedaled 162 miles the previous day without an asthma attack, and I put most of the Great Divide Basin behind me. Watching the Northern Lights shimmering above this vast desert was one of the more incredible experiences of my life — even though I wasn't yet convinced the display wasn't just a vivid hallucination. (It was real. A severe magnetic storm on June 22 brought the strongest Aurora Borealis displays in more than a decade. Just one day after the summer solstice, far-northern latitudes were too bright to witness them. But they were quite spectacular in southern Wyoming.) Also, I'd come up with a plan to cope with my wheezy, winded status quo. The plan revolved around even lower exertion — I'd soft-pedal into dusty headwinds and walk steeper climbs. I probably wouldn't be that much slower because, well, I hadn't been that much slower.

The ride into Wamsutter was uneventful, and I reached the I-80 exit town just before 9 a.m. There was a Love's truck stop that turned out to not be a great resupply place. (They didn't have sunscreen. Who doesn't have sunscreen? Also, faster Tour Dividers had cleaned them out of all their string cheese. Boo.) But they did have fresh melon and a Subway, and anywhere I could get cheap coffee in the morning was perfect by my standards. Mike and Marketa rolled in at about 9:30 and left first, while I was outside next to a gas pump cleaning my bike with the free paper towels. I purposely waited about five more minutes for a gap to form, because I was feeling especially self-conscious about my slow pace. Mike and Marketa might encourage me to ride with them, and trying to keep up would be a sure ticket to breathing attacks.

South of town, this Tour Divide alternative to the GDMBR cut through the heart of hydraulic fracking country, with huge trucks and semi-trailers streaming through a veritable tunnel of dust. I managed to get behind a truck that was traveling at eight miles an hour — slower even than me! — and dampening down one side of the road with a water spray. This would have been a good thing for me, but trucks on the other side of the wide gravel road were kicking up even more dust as they moved into the shoulder, and the spray itself had a weird chemical smell that burned in my sinuses and throat. There was no way around the water truck without spiking my heart rate, and I could already feel my lungs closing.

About six miles past town, I stopped, looked back and thought, "Well this is it. I'm going back to Wamsutter."

But then I thought, "No, I can't quit here. Not here. Not so close to Colorado." I was convinced Colorado would save me.

This is a new section of the Tour Divide route, so it was all unknown to me. Once you pass through Wamsutter, you think you've got the hard part of the Great Divide Basin over with, but that isn't the case at all. Although you're no longer in the geographical boundary of the Basin, the shadeless sage desert continues for sixty more miles, all of the creeks are little more than patches of stagnant muddle puddles with a thick oil sheen, and fracking traffic remains heavy on dusty dirt roads. We were given cues for this section but not warned that there were no viable water sources for sixty miles. I'd planned to get water out of one of those nonexistent creeks, but luckily I am a water hoarder and left Wamsutter with nearly four liters plus two bottles of juice. Marketa wasn't so lucky and ran out of fluid fairly early in the day. I managed to catch Mike and Marketa about fifteen miles south of Wamsutter, and she was struggling.

Mike and Marketa were an interesting duo. Mike was in his 50s, from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with this laid back attitude that would convince you nothing was ever hard for him. He was an Ironman triathlete who only recently took up long-distance cycling, and bikepacking was especially new to him. He was one of those guys who watched "Ride the Divide" and thought, "Hey, I could do that," and a year later he was riding the Tour Divide at a strong pace. Marketa was just 20 years old, from the Czech Republic, and quite chipper all the time even when she was hurting. Through the communication barrier I only learned a little about her, but Mike told me she was a semi-pro mountain biker who won races in the Czech Republic.

"How did you two hook up?" I asked Mike.

Mike told me they'd leap-frogged for several days before she finally latched onto him two days earlier. Their paces were well-matched, and she seemed very happy to have someone to talk with. I gathered that Mike also didn't understand everything Marketa said to him, but seemed to be a good sport about being on the receiving end when Marketa was feeling chatty.

"Sometimes, you know, you just need to let a woman talk," he said to me knowingly. I laughed.

I enjoyed Mike and Marketa's company, and I'd stop whenever they stopped, which became more frequent as Marketa struggled without fluid on this hot, dry afternoon. Both Mike and I offered her water, but she wouldn't take it. These days, Tour Divide rules explicitly forbid accepting support from anyone — even another racer — along the trail. I admired Marketa's integrity, but the experience led me to ponder why the bikepacking community has chosen to go down this road in competitive events. The sport was pioneered from a self-supported, Fastest Known Time / Individual Time Trail standpoint. These routes can be challenged any time, and those who don't decide to line up for the "race" don't have the advantage of other riders present on the course. From a fairness standpoint, it makes sense that competitors can't share something as simple as a swig of water or a candy bar. Still — these contrivances to pretend you're all alone out there are often confusing. I chatted with others who were frequently unsure what constituted "support" — one questioned whether taking advantage of a bike shop that stayed open after closing hours was unfair, and another believed that visiting a medical clinic was not allowed under the rules. I got the sense that many people felt like they were riding on egg shells, with the SPOTs tracking their every move, and everything they did was open to misinterpretation. There aren't easy solutions to keeping this kind of self-supported, self-policed race format fair without tightening rules to encourage solitude. But I still think it's unfortunate that in an aggressively competitive ultramarathon like UTMB I can offer aid to a fellow racer, but on a weeks-long adventure like the Tour Divide, I have to stand back while another person suffers, and do nothing.

After battling a series of steep rolling hills that the road just shot straight up and down, the three of us stopped together in Savery, Wyoming, where someone from the local museum left a cooler of water out on a picnic table. Mike and I debated whether this constituted illegal support, but I argued that this was here for everyone, and even if it wasn't, we could just walk into the museum bathroom and get water there. Once we got the ethics debate out of the way, we all enjoyed the water thoroughly. I remembered that I had camped at this museum before, during my bike tour from Salt Lake City to Syracuse, New York, in 2003. Back then we set up our tents on the lawn and played with a stray cat, who I ended up giving the tuna I planned to eat for lunch the following day, because she looked hungrier than I'd ever be. "2003, huh? You really are an old-timer," Mike said to me, and I smiled. I've been a bike tourist for nearly 14 years now, and it's a major part of my personal history. There's really nothing better than traveling by bike.

I sure was excited to see this sign. Wyoming was done! My suffering was over! Of course it's ridiculous to believe that an end can be drawn by something as arbitrary as a state line, but this is the kind of mentality we foster in efforts like the Tour Divide. It's too huge to conceptualize the big picture, so we compartmentalize it into what are ultimately arbitrary pieces. "I you can make it to Butte, you can finish." "Once you leave Montana, the hardest days of climbing are behind you." "Once I escape Wyoming, all the dust is going to magically settle, my lungs are going to clear up, and I will fly!"

For tonight, I had the Brush Mountain Lodge to anticipate. Brush Mountain was my only real carrot on the route. In 2009, the proprietor of the lodge, Kirsten, walked outside and flagged me down at 10:30 at night when I was in a particularly dark emotional space. She invited me inside, fed me fresh fruit, offered a warm bed, and more than anything else, was a kind and understanding voice when I needed a friend. Of all the "support" I enjoyed in 2009, the Brush Mountain Lodge was one that truly made all the difference. I couldn't wait to go back. "I just need to make it to Brush Mountain," I had decided before the start, "and I'm as good as there."

The 23-mile climb from Savery was a grinder, and although the scenery was beautiful and I was stoked to be in Colorado, the struggles mounted early. Soon my lungs were constricting and I stopped in a cloud of mosquitoes to try to take in more water. Gasping led to panic, and this ignited another good session of bawling. I actually cried for the better part of twenty minutes, mashing pedals and gasping between sobs because this really wasn't helping with my breathing difficulties, but the mosquitoes were too thick for me to stop. I couldn't even tell you why I was so upset. Maybe I was crying because it was hard. It was just too hard. I was finally coming around to the truth that my weakened body and lungs wouldn't be able to sustain this effort, not for a thousand miles or a hundred. No amount of patience or persistence could save my race. I understood, but not out loud. Only in sobs.

I arrived at Brush Mountain just after sunset, to the customary warm reception. Mike and Marketa were there, and Kirsten was cooking up cheeseburgers for everyone. She asked about my ride and I raved about the beautiful sunset, the northern lights I'd witnessed the previous night, and all of my memories of this scenic valley and our first meeting six years ago. When coughing erupted, I tried to tamp it down with the big jug of ice water on the table. I was so incredibly happy. Even though I'd been so sad just minutes earlier, I'd gotten that emotional gunk out of my system and swung around to renewed optimism. It was going to be all right. It was all going to be all right.

That night, I posted my daily report to Facebook: "Sunburn. Dozens of mosquito bites. Lungs filled with dust. The physical challenges of the divide have been quite different this time around, and I'm not even quite sure how to battle what seems to be a worsening allergic reaction. But I made it to Brush Mountain Lodge, and it feels like coming home."


  1. Great reading as usual. What an incredible gift you have to be able paint with words and pictures. I am sure you will agree that it doesn't matter how far you went, it is the experience what matters.

  2. I swear Jill that you make me want to do this race! (and then I wake up and realize that I would truly HATE it...I'm just not that kind of biker). Your ability to put to words the highs and lows you are feeling days and weeks (and months?) after the fact are quite impressive..El_Animal nailed it about your gift. I'm glad you discussed the mosquitoes...I don't really recall you talking about them from your 09 ride...I HATE those little bloodsuckers with a passion (but they LOVE me!). I think I'd die out there in a cloud of mosquitoes from blood-loss. I'm pretty sure when one of the scout mosquitoes sees me outside he quickly gets on their little mosquito telegraph and sends out the word to all the mosquitoes throughout the world, and then they start to gather knowing one of their favorite tasty morsels is fair game once again. I get shivers just thinking about your riding along a dusty road in a cloud of mosquitoes...not being able to stop...yep...I'd HATE this race! But I'm SURE glad you did it and are bringing us along for the good and bad.

  3. Forget the dotstalkers who are going to pick apart every little thing you do. A swing of water, a candy bar, or a spare set of brake pads is not an egregious break of the rules, it's having someone ahead of you leaving constant drops or someone paying a store to stay open late.

    The people who moan and complain about breaking the rules the most don't do the race or think they in some way "own" the race, which is BS. What's great about Tour Divide is that no one owns it.


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