Thursday, July 30, 2015

But ... be brave

Up at 9,000 feet, with frost coating my bivy sack, it was finally cool enough that I made it through the night without dousing myself in sweat ... or at least that's what I assumed. There were a few coughing bouts, but I'd become used to those. Night coughing was just part of the waste removal routine, like peeing. But the night sweats were disconcerting. They caused feverish, weird dreams and sucked all the moisture from my body, leaving me dehydrated, exhausted, and achy in the morning. If I could stay away from the night sweats, I actually woke up feeling okay. 

It helped that I woke up here, on the shoreline of Wind River Lake. It was a day-use picnic area, but I stashed my bike in the outhouse for bear safety and did a little stealth camping down the shoreline. I sat on a picnic table eating my morning bars and breathing frosty air that seemed to flow freely into my lungs. Today was going to be a good day. I could feel it.


Coasting along the Brooks Lake Road, it didn't take long before self-generated dust clouds were already aggravating my breathing. The last time I rode the Divide, this entire segment was covered in snow and mud, forcing a gooey slog that required more than three hours to travel six miles. I thought it was so terrible then, but right now, I missed it. I missed the snow. I missed the mud. The Divide had become this hot, dry, dusty, mosquitoey place that was tearing me apart.

"The only reason I got through this the first time was because 2009 was a wet and cold year," I thought. I'm fair-skinned, heat-sensitive, allergy-prone, and possibly (apparently) a little bit asthmatic. My body is just not well-designed for the summertime outdoors.


After a refreshingly frigid coast down Highway 26, I found the Lava Mountain Lodge opening up their small store at 7 a.m. I was just in time for morning coffee and a microwaved breakfast burrito. Heaven! Sarah Jansen was there and offered to let me take a shower in her room. It was tempting, as I hadn't had a shower since Helena. But I was already considering shooting for an early day in Pinedale and spending another full night indoors with lots of available fluids, in hopes of giving my ragged lungs some rest and relief. 

Once I was nicely saturated with caffeine, I started up Warm Springs Road with my new old secret weapon — cinnamon bears. Even though I'd already had protein bars and a burrito in the morning, I intended to keep a steady supply of sugar coming in throughout the day, to see if that helped with my energy levels. I'd spent the early days of the Divide really trying to make the nuts, cheese, and dried fruit diet work. Constantly needing to process complex calorie sources — and thus avoiding them when I was struggling — only seemed to deepen my physical malaise. No, candy it would have to be.

The route veered up a new segment above Union Pass, a steep and rocky climb on ATV doubletrack that emptied into a high-altitude basin with breathtaking views of the Wind River Mountains. It was one of my favorite segments of the route, and I relished the sensation of floating high above the world as I laid into the pedals with all of the cinnamon-bear-fueled energy I could muster. I just wanted to be a cyclist again, to breathe that fire again, to move freely through the world in the way I knew my body was capable. I just wanted a day that wasn't a struggle from the start ... that wasn't the same amount of struggle whether I was pushing up a hill or passed out on a picnic table ... that wasn't a struggle just to do the most basic task in a terrestrial animal's existence. I was tired of struggling to breathe.

Sarah passed shortly after the descent and complimented me on keeping up with my daily mileage goals, which I hadn't really calculated, but I was somewhere in the range of 1,300 miles on day ten. "I'm only going to get slower," I said with a resigned sigh. Sarah mentioned she was planning to stop in Boulder, which is about twelve miles past Pinedale, in hopes of getting the Great Divide Basin out of the way in one big effort the following day. I thought this might be possible for me as well, if I could clear out my congestion. I'd ride to Atlantic City during the day and tackle the Basin overnight, when the wind, dust, and heat likely wouldn't be as bad. Then I'd be in Colorado, home to high-elevation coolness and afternoon thunderstorms, and maybe, just maybe, I'd could conquer this crud, once and for all. 

Although these optimistic hopes flitted through my thoughts, my mind's wanderings increasingly slipped into the stagnant tailings pond of my frustration and malaise. I wanted to keep fighting, but why? My old mantra, "Be Brave, Be Strong," whispered from a far distance, but these words no longer had the tone of triumph and hope that they once did. "Be Strong" sounds mocking when when you're in the grips of progressively deepening physical weakness. "Be Brave" sounds sarcastic when the battle is clearly futile, and soon I only heard this phrase the way Modest Mouse sang it in what had become my favorite song to listen to on the Divide — "Be Brave" 

Well the Earth doesn't care, and we hardly even matter
We're just a bit more piss to push out its full bladder
And as our bodies break down into all their rocky little bits
Piled up under mountains of dirt, and silt,
And still the world, it don't give a shit,

But ... Be brave! Be brave! Be brave! Be brave! Be brave! (Be brave!)

It may sound like I had already given up hope, but I really hadn't. I clung to the theory that dust and allergies were the root cause of my malady, that I just needed to get out of Wyoming to find relief, and that I'd be healthy again by the time I reached the hard sections in New Mexico. When the nihilistic thoughts crept in and questioned why I needed to keep pedaling, I'd argue back. "I want to be brave. I want to be strong. I want to feel alive. Isn't that enough?"

Often, people who participate in these endurance events compare the experience to living a whole life in a day. In the case of the Tour Divide, it's a few weeks, but the sentiment in the same. When I look back on my first Divide ride, I remember it as distinct periods of wide-eyed childhood, angsty adolescence, strong young adulthood, and wizened but weary older adulthood. This time around I jumped very quickly into the elderly years, and in retrospect, believe the experience served as a window into old age. My mind swirled with a barrage of hopes and dreams, and often utter awe: Look where you are! Look! But when the dullness set in, I'd stare off into the distance with a gray pall over my thoughts and emotions, and I'd begin to understand how someone could wile away the last years of their lives staring at a television. Even more than my weakened body, my mind craved a deep and dreamless sleep that wouldn't come.

I understood the desire, too, to rage, rage against the dying of the light. I devoured cinnamon bears and demanded more from my legs on the rolling descent from Union Pass. But in the Green River Valley, I ran up against a wall of wind fortified by relentless dust. A steady stream of vehicles kept the dust in motion on that bumpy road, and my breathing became alarmingly raspy. I started coughing, and then I was gasping, and then I was sprawled in the sage next to the road, clutching my chest and panicking.

I couldn't do this anymore, I couldn't do this anymore, I couldn't do this anymore ... but, breathe, breathe, breath, breath. Be brave, be brave, be brave. (Be brave!)

I managed to calm my breathing, but after that I was terrified of hard efforts, and even more scared of the clouds of dust, which I couldn't do anything about. The asthma attack had frightened me, but even more than that, it left me utterly exhausted, in a way that even cinnamon bears couldn't cure. I didn't feel sleepy, even, just empty. After the attack, there were 35 more miles into Pinedale that I remember almost nothing about.

Yet optimism stayed with me. I do remember walking into a hotel lobby, pulling down my face mask, and taking a deep breath. My lungs were so congested that it stopped short and caused me to cough violently, but I let myself believe this was my first healing breath of dust-free indoor air, which I planned to spend the next ten hours breathing. I didn't even care about a shower, or access to real food, or even sleep. Oxygen is and always will be the top priority.

Monday, July 27, 2015

At home with the ghosts in the national park

Night sweats woke me up before my dawn alarm, so I stripped off my soaked clothing and draped it over my bike before crawling back into the bivy on top of my sleeping bag. Sometime later I awoke in a fit of coughing, burst out of the bivy and stumbled barefoot through prickly bushes to vomit. It was just the coughing that made me throw up, but the result left me feeling weak and feverish. I laid down on the dirt in my underwear, feeling the cool Earth on my clammy skin, and took quick and shallow breaths as I stared up at the tree canopy, framed by stars. A minute or two passed before I stood up, shivering heavily, and crawled back into my sleeping bag, which was wet.

Before these little emergencies, I'd been so deeply asleep that I floated through them with a kind of disoriented detachment. When dawn came, I wasn't sure if any of it had happened. But my clothes were still draped over my bike, and my head was pounding. Early mornings had turned from being the best part of the day to the worst. But nights weren't so great either.

My Tour Divide has been a difficult experience to recap, because it reads as though I was miserable and sick nearly all of the time. There were lots of pleasant and enjoyable stretches that don't necessarily make the trip highlights reel when illness factored so heavily into the experience as a whole. I suffered through some difficult bouts, but the simple act of waking up to sunlight, eating terrible protein bars, and getting back on my bike would improve my outlook — and my physical state — immensely.

I enjoyed quite a few good miles in the morning, with smoother pedaling down the remainder of the rail trail (surface conditions improve considerably as it descends along the Warm River) and a nice spin through Idaho farm country with the Grand Tetons looming over the horizon. I collected water from a sprinkler that tasted like ginger ale, and found a smashed brownie from Whitefish in my frame bag, which made me immensely happy.

Still, the miles of easy breathing were now entirely in the past. Even on short climbs, I often had to stop before the top of the hill to catch my breath. I was doing just that on a pullout above the Fall River when a cyclist approached. It was Josh Daugherty. He had this intense look on his face that I can only describe as crazy eyes, but he did stop to say hello.

"Where's Brett?" I asked.

"Oh, back there," Josh said, gesturing down the road.

"Did you guys stay at the campground?"

Josh shook his head. He told me they stayed back on the rail trail, probably very near the spot where I camped, after both of them crashed several times in the dark. After being turned away from Subway, both of them were frustrated and had some sort of tense exchange. Brett was the veteran, Josh explained, and he respected Brett's wisdom, but he was unhappy with how the race was going so far. Their sleep had been poor, and their stops weren't efficient. So he was riding ahead this morning. He didn't have a plan, he said. He just needed some space to think.

"People keep telling me not to worry about guys passing you, that it's just about finishing. But that's not what I want." Josh paused for several seconds as he turned his crazy-eyed expression toward the mountains. "I want to chase dots."

The emotion resonated with me. I don't consider myself an overtly competitive person, but I admire that drive in others. It's a fire that can fuel great things, or spectacular meltdowns, but either way, it makes for a compelling narrative.

"You seem strong," I said. "You should go for it."

Josh thanked me and headed down the road. I didn't expect to see him again. A week and a half later, he posted this update:

"On day 9, I woke up frustrated and rode away from my company, sort of by accident, just wanting to work out the angst. Then a switch inside me flipped and I realized I was going solo and there was no turning back. I was done racing with fear. I would rather fail riding my heart out than ride safely to the finish. I wanted to find the very bottom of me, and to answer questions about myself that I didn't believe I would get another chance to again. Those guys that had been passing me were riding their hearts out. They looked shelled and exhausted in their battle for some place in the mid 20's or 30's or wherever. There's a mocking title for those guys, the "mid-pack heroes", and it's not a flattering title, but it's probably fair. And I wanted to be one of them. So I joined the battle and the true meaning of the event revealed itself to me. If I raced without fear and gave the very best of myself then I would be happy. If I fought bravely and opened myself to whatever experience the journey had in store for me then I could be satisfied with myself."

Josh was the twelfth person to finish the Tour Divide in 18 days, 12 hours and 19 minutes. The fact that he didn't really start racing until nearly halfway through the ride, and turned what I considered a "clinging to 21 days if everything else goes well" pace to an 18.5-day finish, is impressive. In my opinion, Josh's late-race push was one of the more incredible, if quieter, performances of this year. No doubt it was a meaningful journey for him.

When I read Josh's post, it made my heart shudder a little. "I wanted to find the very bottom of me." This is what I had wanted, too. Not to race without fear, as fear is one of the emotions I seek and embrace in these endeavors. But I did want to race with an open heart, without expectation, free from self-doubt, fixed perceptions, and the limitations of my body. "Those limitations are in my mind," I'd tell myself. "I can choose something more."

But I was growing weary of the battle, a deepening struggle just to do what I thought should come easily to me. How can I explore my own inner depths when I can barely stay afloat in the shallow end? I wasn't fighting to be great. I was fighting to be a vaguely adequate version of myself, and that in itself was very discouraging. Weakness was winning. In these endeavors, who do we have to blame but ourselves?

The Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road cut me to shreds. Wrapping around the northern edge of the Tetons, this wide gravel road was extremely dusty and constantly under siege by Saturday traffic. I descended into Flagg Ranch in a state of distress, took a long break at the resort while sucking down slushy drinks in the lobby, and still felt no better as I climbed toward Grand Teton National Park. There was a tiny, 500-foot climb on pavement past the resort. Refusal to allow myself a break on such an easy ascent resulted in my second breathing attack of the trip. Similar to when the bull charged me, my airways tightened and I began gasping. But here I wasn't frightened, and I wasn't doing anything difficult. I was just weak.

I coasted down to Jackson Lake almost in tears, although this wouldn't yet qualify as my cry for the day. I still didn't feel confident that my lungs wouldn't seize up again, so I pulled over at a picnic area and laid down on a table. Weekend traffic streamed past, but the picnic area was empty. One of the most gorgeous and popular views of the Tour Divide — the snow-capped Tetons towering behind a sparkling Jackson Lake — was in view as I tapped an update into my satellite messenger: "Really sucking wind. So much dust I can barely breathe." It seemed like a good idea to alert others of my condition in case I lost consciousness and couldn't be roused.

I napped for maybe fifteen minutes and woke up feeling a little better. My breathing had improved and I no longer felt as though I might suffocate. As I pedaled toward the park exit, a man on a road bike caught up to me and slowed to chat for a while. Mark was a retired law enforcement officer from Florida who worked summers at a Wyoming ranch. We talked about cycling, horseback riding, self-defense techniques and grizzly bears as I grew more winded. Mark had slowed down quite a bit to keep my pace, which was hovering between 12 and 13 miles per hour, but it was killing me. Slowing to something less than 12 mph seemed pretty embarrassing, given I was a bike racer and all that, so I worked to keep it up as he spun easy. I told him about my breathing struggles. "Must be the elevation," he said. "Gets me too."

"Yeah," I said. "It probably is just the elevation."

Mark turned off my route after a few miles, but it was nice to have his company while it lasted. It helped me ride better, I decided, because I wasn't so fixated on feeling bad. Just before sunset I had my big cry for the day, though, over mosquito bites. I'd accumulated dozens of bites over the past week, and the Buffalo Valley bugs were the worst yet. I was not hesitating to drench myself in DEET, and they still found unprotected patches of skin to ravage. I'm allergic to mosquitoes. Usually the bites just swell to quarter-sized, dark red welts. But as they accumulate, the reactions sometimes extend to more extreme swelling, watery eyes and sneezing. Once, after picking up about thirty bites during a hike, I came down with a fever. I wondered if mosquitoes were to blame for my respiratory distress. This wondering turned to bawling, and once I had the daily meltdown out of my system, I felt better.

I still had to race the mosquitoes though, and lack of breaks caused my lungs to start constricting again. It was another dizzy battle to schlep myself up Togwotee Pass, where I planned to camp on Brooks Lake. At one point I decided, "This day hasn't been all that bad. It probably won't get much worse." But of course I didn't know.

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. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

We're lucky that we slept


During the Tour Divide I always felt best in the morning, which is the opposite of my usual modus operandi. Regardless of the total hours of sleep I managed the night before, mornings always brought cool air and clear lungs. I indulged in deep gulps of sweet-tasting air and gazed up at the pink sky with renewed optimism. This would be the day the sun wouldn't scorch my skin, dust wouldn't fill my airways, and gunk wouldn't clog my lungs. This day, I'd be free.

A number of riders had trickled into the campground during the night, and it seemed I was the first to leave. Without realizing it, I'd ascended about half of the climb up Fleecer the previous evening, and was surprised when I reached the wall only a half hour into my day. I pushed my bike up an eroded track, skirted around a saddle, and dismounted again to hike downhill. Brave or reckless cyclists will ride their loaded bikes down Fleecer, but it looks like this:

It only gets steeper as you descend. Once you go over the horizon line, you've entered the no-brake zone and just have to hang on and hope for the best. No thank you. I prefer to have my bicycle endeavors kill me slowly, through gradual suffocation.

Even pushing downhill is more of a shoe-ski than a hike. Clumsiness caught me and I ended up on my butt, after which I inched downhill at an embarrassingly glacial pace. The reward following the downhill hike-a-bike is a screaming descent through Jerry Creek canyon, and I was grateful that morning lucidity let me enjoy every spark of exhilaration and joy.

I reached Wise River just before 9. Eleanor was sitting in front of the tiny town's general store, eating a breakfast sandwich.

"Did you stay in town last night?" I asked.

"No, I camped in the canyon," she answered.

"So you went over Fleecer in the dark?"

She nodded. "I crashed, pretty bad."

"That sucks; are you okay?"

She shrugged and looked the other way. "Yeah, I'm okay." She sounded dejected.

Whenever I meet someone clearly having a low point during these types of efforts, I'm always at a loss about what to say. I'm not a pep talker, and hate to be pep-talked — few conversations are more grating than those served with a heavy dose of artificial cheeriness. But shallow sympathies and small talk aren't exactly helpful either.

"Do you need anything?" I asked. She shook her head, and I wouldn't have been able to offer anything, anyway. Race rules stipulate that nothing can be shared among competitors, just to make everything fair. I purchased my own breakfast and sat down in the sunlight.

Brett Stepanik and Russ Kipp at the Montana High Country Lodge
The scenic byway over the Pioneer Mountains was steeper than I remembered, but I made relatively strong progress to Polaris, home of the Montana High Country Lodge. The proprietor, Russ Kipp, first entered the Tour Divide micro-community back in 2010, when cold and wet racers came stumbling up to his doorstep to inquire about rooms. The hunting and fishing lodge is more of a reservation-only establishment, but he welcomed them inside and has actively promoted his services to Tour Divide cyclists ever since.

I'd already indulged in a long breakfast stop in Wise River and considered passing by, but realized it would be a mistake not to visit a friendly place that's become so deeply embedded in Divide culture. I'm glad I did. I had a chance to chat with a few riders who I hadn't yet met. Russ's wife served a hot lunch of chicken marsala, and Russ prepared brown-bag dinners with a turkey sandwich, brownie, and an apple. The Montana High Country Lodge offered an experience similar to the daily support stations in the Freedom Challenge, where families set you up in their homes, stuff you with homemade meals, and generally dote on you to your heart's content. It was a bit of harsh reminder about how quiet and lonely of a place the Divide can be, but it is wonderful that these islands of kindness exist at all.

As I was leaving the lodge, Eleanor rolled in, looking much more upbeat. I was happy to see her, as her demeanor in Wise River left me wondering whether she was going to go on. She seemed so shattered then, but of course I should have realized that was only temporary. Out here, we get so caught up in our own struggles that it's easy to forget that everyone else is fighting a battle, everyone else is getting knocked down, and everyone else has to find the strength to keep going, every day. We all have to carry our own weight, but nobody is alone. This is what I value most about racing. Sharing difficult objectives with others lends depth and perspective to my own experiences.

I pedaled toward Ye Old Bannack Road — home to miles and miles of much-maligned death mud, — as dark clouds gathered overhead. Bile filed my stomach, because getting caught in thunderstorms on Bannack Road ranks near the top of my list of things on the Divide that scare me. Bannack Road was established in 1862 as a freight route between Corrine, Utah, and Bannack, Montana — two towns that don't really exist any more. As such, it's a dirt road from nowhere, to nowhere, through the middle of nowhere, and nobody uses it. The maps warn of fifty miles of nothing, and if you get caught in unrideable mud anywhere along that stretch, you could be in for a very long wallow.

Luckily the clouds continued rolling south, but they brought with them a gusting wind that renewed my lungs' daily battle with dust. My pace slowed considerably, and I could only nod and exhale a wheezy "hello" as others passed me like I was standing still. The road climbed gradually but persistently through the Carver Creek valley, which was populated by free-roaming cattle. As I neared the Medicine Lodge/Sheep Creek Divide, a young black bull looked up from a herd and charged toward me.

"Hey! Hey!" I screamed as the bull wheeled around, galloped up the road, and turned to charge me again. "Hey! Hey! Hey!" I screamed louder, with a high-pitched animal voice that I didn't recognize as my own. The bull came within six feet of me and reared up on his hind legs repeatedly in a taunting dance. He was just a bully bull, but I was extremely frightened, as I think anyone would be if a thousand-pound animal was messing with them. "Go away go away go away go away!" I yowled in a piercing scream that tore through my throat and ripped my lungs to frayed shreds. The bull continued to shadow my bike as I sprinted up the road, gasping and screaming "go away" until my lungs seemed to close up entirely. I gasped again and again, but it felt as though no air was getting through. I launched into a full panic of hyperventilating and crying, still awkwardly attempting to sprint away from the bull. A dark screen flickered across my field of vision, and I screeched to a stop. I couldn't breathe. I was on the verge of passing out. This was probably how I was going to die.

There's a gap in my memory at that point. I don't think I lost consciousness, but my mind flipped some kind of survival switch, and the next image I remember is walking my bike toward the final steep pitch of the divide and feeling a deep trepidation.

"The bull charged me and I panicked," I remember thinking. "That was all. I just panicked."

I pushed my bike up the pass in a daze — a thick and chilling mental fog that permeated not just my thoughts, but my emotions as well. My legs were Styrofoam that leaked out the last fumes of energy, and only hollowness and exhaustion remained. The adrenaline surge had drained me, and the mental fog obscured any perspective on what had happened. Some deep, primitive synapses in my brain understood that what I'd been doing before the whole debacle was turning pedals along this dirt road, so that's what I should continue doing.

Looking back on this experience of being sick on the Tour Divide — the worst part about it wasn't the physical weakness. No, it was the mental dullness. Each evening, as the congestion in my lungs deepened and my breathing became more rough, my oxygen-depleted brain conceded to lassitude. It robbed me of the awe and intensity of the experience, leaving me out here on this quiet nowhere road, beneath the vividly lit Big Sky of Montana, gazing at snow-capped peaks, including the mountain where I mourned for my grandfather when he died five years ago ... and all of my emotions were muted. I descended through the valley, amid this sweeping expanse of space, on a clear and gorgeous evening, lost in a fog.

For all of my mental inertia, I still had my plan. My plan said to keep going until I could eke out 135 miles from the day, which I did near the confluence of two creeks in a narrow gorge, about 18 miles from Lima. I set up my bivy near a fence and walked down to the creek to collect water. As I crossed the road, a strange wobbliness rippled through my Styrofoam legs, and I had to sit down.

"I am really weak right now," I thought, believing that the scare with the bull was what emptied me out. And then later, after I'd already crawled into my sleeping bag, the thought continued. "I came to the Divide to search for strength. I'm going to keep searching." 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I guess I'll ride this winter out

For reasons unknown, it was more difficult for me to sleep indoors than outdoors. After my coughing fits, I tended to toss and turn rather than passing back out, as I had in the bivy sack. It was the air, I suppose — drier and warmer — along with the stimulation of city lights and sounds. Around 2 a.m. I scrolled through Facebook for a half hour, and learned that the woman leading the Tour Divide, Lael Wilcox, sought medical attention for respiratory distress and was diagnosed with bronchitis. She received treatment in Helena and continued down the trail that evening, about four hours before I arrived.

Lael and I spent two nights in the same house in Banff, so it wasn't implausible to speculate that we'd caught the same bug. Her symptoms sounded similar to mine — night coughing, congestion that got worse through the day, tight breathing and wheezing. But they also sounded much more severe. I wasn't having asthma attacks, and my tight breathing didn't force me to stop. I've had bronchitis once before, while I was living in Idaho Falls in 2005. During that bout, my symptoms were so severe that I nearly called 911, because I couldn't pull myself up from the floor without blacking out, and I had to lay on the floor because it was the only way I could breathe at all. There was no way a person could ride a bike a hundred miles a day with that kind of illness, unless they were super-human like Lael. No, my Divide crud was uncomfortable, but it wasn't bronchitis.


In the morning, I added Benadryl to my daily dose of caffeine and Claritin — another antihistamine that I'd been taking as a preventative measure since day one. As I rifled through my drug baggie for the pink pills, I realized I hadn't taken a single painkiller on the Divide. So far, I was riding pain-free. Knees, toes, butt, shoulders — all of the issues that I expected hadn't cropped up once. My bike hadn't had so much as a flat tire. But the worst allergies I've yet experienced? I never expected that.

At least the indoor stay seemed to have the effect I hoped, and my lungs felt clear when I wheeled my bike into the warm morning air. For arriving in town reasonably early, I left my room late — after 6 a.m. I felt guilty about that, so I made only a quick stop at a convenience store and devoured two bananas and a green smoothie for breakfast. But I did get a coffee, and pedaled away from Helena feeling like an indestructible super hero.

The first 1,500-foot climb was a breeze, and I started up Lava Mountain with an abundance of energy. I attacked the root-clogged doubletrack with zeal, clearing steep pitches that I normally wouldn't have attempted with an unloaded bike on a day ride. Topping out at 7,500 feet, my lungs were still clear and I could breathe the fire I hadn't felt since the first day. Helena may have forced me to endure the wrath of the Gordon Lightfoot fan and a crappy night of sleep, but in exchange she had cured me! Hallelujah!

After descending into Basin, the route turned straight into a fierce headwind along the Boulder River. I felt the familiar squeeze of my airways beginning to constrict, again, and pulled a buff around my mouth to temper the barrage of dust and allergens. The old GDMBR used to skirt along frontage roads of I-15 before joining the freeway for a screaming descent into Butte, but it's since been re-routed to continue following the Boulder River to Lowland Creek. The gravel road gradually ascends (into fierce wind) seemingly forever to a Continental Divide crossing where the CDT also cuts through, then continues through steep, rolling hills until you're convinced the climbing will never end, and then you're in Butte. What happened to the screaming descent? How do you keep climbing for thirty miles and somehow end at the same elevation where you started? Mysteries. It's also twelve miles longer than the old route, and for me it was at least three hours slower. I expected to arrive at 2 p.m., and it was well after 5 by the time I rolled into town.

Afternoon thunderstorms rumbled overhead, and I raced past the brick buildings and run-down shops of downtown Butte. The route made a wide arc around the outskirts of the city — a scenic tour of open pit mines and other industrial areas. The maps indicated I'd have to ride at least a mile off route to find services, and it wasn't wrong — somehow the GDMBR managed to wrap around city of 30,000 without passing a single viable business beyond downtown. Finally there was a gas station, and I stopped for a large resupply while mulling how excited I felt about a dinner of beef jerky and cheese eaten on the bike. I'd been promising myself Subway since Basin, but the sensory overload of streets, traffic and people left me anxious to flee the city.

Eleanor walked in as I was filling a basket with all of the store's remaining string cheese, along with my new favorite power fuel that propelled me up Lava Mountain — cinnamon bears. She asked if I was aiming for Wise River that night. "Oh no," I replied. "Not with Fleecer Ridge in the way. No, it's far." I scanned her expression for hints of whether she planned to take on Fleecer that night. I wanted to warn her the approach is faint and difficult to locate in the dark, the descent drops off the face of the Earth, and the area has a reputation as a haven for mountain lions. But I felt I shouldn't try to influence the decisions of a competitor. As it was, it seemed she may have stopped into the store specifically to ask about my plans, because when I turned around again, she'd already left.

Evening was always my favorite time to ride, and this evening was the best one yet, with cool temperatures, open hillsides and incredible views of the Highland Mountains. Steeper climbs did ignite shallow breathing, leading to dizziness and muscle failures that forced me off the bike. Congestion was deepening as well, but I could formulate a reason for that — I hadn't taken allergy meds since Helena. Still, I couldn't deny that even though the morning had started out so well, each passing hour added increments of struggle, until twilight brought the dizzy, dull-headed, fatigued symptoms of oxygen starvation. As darkness settled I slipped into a daze, still pedaling forward but oblivious to everything else.

I was aiming for the Beaver Dam Campground, just 116 miles from Helena, but it was about as close as I was willing to get to the mountain lions on Fleecer. When I caught glimpse of the campground sign, consciousness came flooding back in a tsunami of fatigue. It was a strange sensation, as I don't recall feeling terrible on my bike. But as soon as I stopped, I felt utterly shattered. The audible wheezing had returned, and I looked up at the stars as I gulped air through the narrow straw of my lungs.

After taking a Benadryl, I settled into my bivy feeling inexplicably depressed. In hindsight, this was perhaps another symptom of low oxygen levels. My mental energy was just fumes, and I wondered if I should try to eat something, but I'd already slung my food bag over a branch.

"Tomorrow," I mumbled, and then found myself humming, "the sun will come out, tomorrow," and then I was asleep. 

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.    

Friday, July 17, 2015

Troubles on the headwinds, troubles on the tailwinds

The coughing returned for another round of midnight fits, and all I could do was prop open the bivy sack so I could dislodge whatever piece of lung was trying to escape this time. I drank all of my water trying to soothe the coughs, and fell back asleep with the bladder valve between my teeth.

Despite the coughing fits, I slept fairly well, and rose to beautiful light on the edge of my grassy clearing. While rifling through my backpack, I rediscovered the piece of chocolate cake I'd purchased at the market in Whitefish. It was another one of those items grabbed on a whim (as all Divide food is), and I'd completely forgotten about it. It held it in both hands for several moments, admiring the five layers of cake slathered in dark chocolate frosting with floral designs. It wasn't even smashed. I wanted to eat it badly, but no — this cake was too special, and mornings were too easy. I needed to have my cake for hard times. I gently placed it back in the pack after pulling out two protein bars. Then I sat in the sun gnawing miserably on the bars, without any water to help me choke them down. 

I pedaled up Yew Creek Road, scanning the hillside for signs of tributaries. In Canada and Northern Montana, there seemed to be creeks every few hundred meters, but here the drainages were bone dry. As I crested the 1,500-foot climb, my map indicated Yew Creek and that too was dry. Even though I understand on an intellectual level that a short dry spell won't kill me, I really dislike running out of water. Thirst ignites all these fear responses, and I felt sick to my stomach.

"You're probably the biggest water hoarder on the Divide. Why didn't you fill up in Ferndale?" I scolded myself.

Elliot passed with another rider and told me that he, too, was hunting for water. I understood on an intellectual level that we were directly above Swan Lake, and eventually we'd descend to a low enough elevation that one of these creeks would be running. But I was letting my phobias get the better of me, and raced after Elliot just in case he had a sharper eye. We did have to descend to the bottom of the hill to find water in Yew Creek, but it was there, running clear and cold.

Imaginary disaster abated, Elliot and I continued along a series of lower-elevation logging roads paralleling the Swan River. This 60-mile segment is fairly tedious, following short but frequently steep rollers through secondary forests with few views. There are some intriguing larch groves, and a whole lot of black bear scat to capture attention. But if you're here when the sun is bearing down, you've developed drinking water anxiety that heat doesn't help, and there's this piece of chocolate cake taunting you from your backpack ... it's not the most fun section of the Divide. (This photo is from the Holland Lake area, later in the day.)

Elliot was gracious enough to ride with me for a while and told great stories about the Arizona Trail Race — hiking his bike into the Grand Canyon, being offered a free steak dinner from tourists at Phantom Ranch after he'd already eaten a full meal, and then struggling to hike out in the dark with 700 miles of tough biking on his legs, 40 pounds of bike and gear on his back, and an extremely full stomach, plopping down for naps while trying not to appear asleep just in case a ranger caught him "illegal camping." I laughed and laughed.

Soon Elliot outpaced me and I settled into my late afternoon slump, which was happening far too early on this day. My breathing became rougher and the phlegmy cough came back with the afternoon wind.

My symptoms didn't entirely line up with past experiences with cold viruses. The mucus in my lungs, for starters, and the ragged breaths. I was starting to move away from my theory that this was a cold. "It's pollen," I thought. "It's allergies."

And then there were my legs, which seemed to be emptying themselves out by the pedal stroke. It wasn't normal leg fatigue — at least it wasn't like any fatigue I'd experienced before. They only similar experience I had to compare it with was last year's Freedom Challenge, when excessive lifting of my bike with weak little arms resulted in muscle failure in my triceps and forearms, as though I'd done one too many reps with a heavy barbel and could manage no more. On the Tour Divide, my legs were exhibiting this similar shuddering weakness. When I held two fingers against my quads, I could feel them quaking. I didn't know why.

I fought leg wobbliness on the gradual climb to Holland Lake, with the day's next huge objective — Richmond Peak — looming like a monster in front of me. At Holland Creek I stopped next to the river and pulled the chocolate cake out of my pack. I held the now-fairly-smashed confection in my hands, cradling it with smiling appreciation, but admittedly not the same affection I held in the morning. Now, this was just sorely needed fuel. I devoured the entire thing with my hands, ending up with frosting smeared on my nose and cheeks like a toddler, and a stomach ache to match. Despite the massiveness of the cake, I didn't feel the sugar rush I expected to feel. I filtered water out of the creek, acquiring about 12 mosquito bites in the process, and turned to face my monster with a churning stomach and no energy. Elliot's story of the Grand Canyon crossed my mind.

"I guess if worst comes to worst, I'll take a nap."

It was such a long way up. "It's just 2,700 feet," I told myself. "It's like Black Mountain at home. It's just one Black Mountain." But the legs didn't care. The muscles had turned to styrofoam, and pushing them only left me winded without any increase in power. "You love climbing," I reminded myself. The legs still didn't care.

With great difficulty and some whimpering, I managed to schlep myself to the trail intersection where the route begins to contour around the mountain. From here I half-hoped to see snow, because I just needed to walk for a while. Richmond Peak is well-known in Divide lore for being buried in snow at terrifyingly steep angles, where slipping in the wrong spot could actually prove fatal.


When it's not buried beneath a 60-degree snow slope, Richmond Peak is just a smooth, flowy trail cut into the mountainside on the eroded remnants of an old road bed. Not scary at all. I made an effort to enjoy myself but I was in a low place, struggling with efforts that should have been easy, wondering what was going on with my legs, my lungs, the coughing. All of these are fairly normal occurrences during an endurance effort, when I'm spending entire days and nights out in the weather, taking in the oxygen I need to keep my heart rate in zone two and three for 16-hour spans. But something just didn't feel right, beyond what I've come to expect from endurance-related fatigue. It was as though the air was attacking my body, gouging tiny holes into my lungs and legs and draining me from the inside.

I stopped several times during the descent to shake off dizziness, and ate handfuls of trail mix. I'd already resolved at my next resupply to just buy a bunch of candy, because this protein-focused diet wasn't working and if I had to cannibalize muscle to get through this, so be it.

I soft-pedaled up the next small climb and contoured around Cottonwood Lake as the sun was setting. The tips of larch trees reflected a neon shade of orange, and pink light filled the sky. I felt a surge of gratitude that I had the legs to reach this place at all. The ability to travel five hundred miles along the remote backroads of the Rocky Mountains is a beautiful privilege.

About seven miles from Ovando, I rolled across a bridge over Monture Creek, sparkling under intense starlight and a coal-black sky on the night of the new moon. I'd been aiming for town, which I heard had cyclist-friendly camping. But I realized then that I didn't want to go to Ovando tonight. This was where I wanted to be.

I rolled out my bivy on the bank, and then crawled over boulders to sit next to the creek, filling my Sawyer Squeeze filter with cold water, drinking an entire liter, then filling it again. The water tumbled down my throat and filled all the porous emptiness in my body with new life. I leaned back and gazed at the sky, splattered with the orange and purple light of the Milky Way. This was everything I needed.