We watched the rain turn from moderate to pissing hard as we milled around outside the local bar in Roosville, Montana. The Canadian border is a stone’s throw away. I think we were all anxious to start the race, but no one was anxious to hop out into the rain. I met Matt and Kent, two racers who rode their bikes to the start. Everyone talked about gear and checked out each other’s rigs. Layers were coming on and off by the minute as we tried to decide how to start.
At 12:03 pm we rolled out to ride… pavement. We rode as a group, but soon dropped Kent on his singlespeed. With all the rain it wasn’t easy to even chat, so things further broke up after we blasted through the small town of Eureka.
Pete took the pace up a notch and started breaking away. I decided to match since he wasn’t pedaling all that hard. We rode the first climb to Whitefish Divide (5200′) together. I tried picking his brain, but it seemed he wanted to ride solo and just listen to his mp3 player, which I could understand. I did ask about his player and he responded that it had 4 gig of capacity but that it was filled with “nothing but crappy music. Mostly 80’s butt-rock. You know, Whitesnake, Twisted sister, that kind of thing.” Looks like it’s ~15 days of crappy music for Pete.
We stopped to shed layers and Alan Tilling caught us. The three of us then crested the divide and Pete shot off like a bullet. About 5 minutes later he was on the side pulling his wheel off. Pinch flat. The rain in our faces made the descent hard.
Alan and I continued together, chatting so as not to spook bears. Sadly, the views of snow covered peaks in Glacier Nat. Park were obscured by all the clouds. We kept a fairly high pace and rejoiced when the rain lifted to just a slight drizzle. It was enough that we could pull our rain pants to begin the second ~3000 foot climb to Red Meadow lake.
We settled in to a nice pace. Matt Lee appeared behind us. At first he loomed just out of earshot. Every time I turned around I could see him there. Near the top he motored around us, going probably twice as hard, then disappeared around the next corner. We could hear him blowing his whistle (to alert bears) for the next few minutes.
The descent into Whitefish (about 100 miles) was brutally cold. The weather gods fooled us by giving a 5 minute break from the rain at the lake. Just long enough to tempt us to begin the descent without full rain gear. Minutes later we were getting pounded again but I was thinking “it will let up again and I really don’t want to stop to pull out clothes yet again.” Of course it never let up.
“Woooo, it’s brisk.” Alan responds, “I was never this cold, even in the Iditasport (350 mile race to McGrath, Alaska).”
The first pit stop on the race is just outside Whitefish at a Conoco Station. We missed the hot food, but I threw in the first microwave burrito that looked edible, then started thinking about how to dry off some of my clothes. I saw the word “Laundromat” and immediately headed over.
Within an hour most of the racers were sitting in the laundromat, watching gloves, arm warmers and all manner of cycling clothing twirl around. Matt had apparently rolled past the Conoco and was into Columbia Falls.
After about an hour of drying out and regaining ourselves, Alan and I pushed on into the darkness. Once again the weather gods played a cruel joke on us, making it appear that after 10 hours of nearly solid rain, it was finally letting up. By the time we made it to Columbia Falls (7 miles later) it was pounding stronger than we had yet seen.
For the next forty miles the route is a mix of rolling pavement and dirt. Many drivers would not dim their lights for us, and with the rain it was hard to see where we were going. There’s always a certain feeling of being ‘out of it’ when riding in the pouring rain. Add cover of darkness, high beam lights and 100 miles of mountain biking and things start to seem a little out of control.
Around midnight the clouds split and the moon lit our way. Traffic was minimal and I started to feel myself again. I had planned to stay in Big Fork at a motel in order to get some solid sleep, out of the rain, for the first night. It was 2 miles off the route, but worth the extra pedaling. About 7 miles before the turnoff for big fork I started noticing a pain down the back of my right leg. It hurt enough that I stopped to take an anti-inflammatory, but I was too focused on making it to Big Fork to really analyze what was going on.
Day 1 – 143 miles
We were asleep at around 2:30am, then up at 7:00 to roll again after eating a donut and bagel or two in the lobby. I noticed that it still hurt to lift my right leg, but brushed it off thinking that it would go away after I got rolling again. Soon Alan was riding away from me and I was wincing in pain.
We got back on the route then started a solid climb to Crane Mountain. I discovered that my leg didn’t hurt if I rode in my aero bars, but I tried desperately to pedal normally despite the pain. I guessed it was sciatica, a pinched nerve in my back, since it wasn’t muscular or a tendon, it was just sharp pain emanating down my leg when I lifted it. I stopped to stretch it and massage my back, hoping to relieve the pressure.
I made it through the Crane Mountain climb with Alan, barely hanging on. Then we began descending to the tune of two grizzly bear sightings. Actually it was the same cub that we saw twice. He cut a switchback and by the time we rolled around it he was running down the road again. Luckily, Mom was no where to be seen.
The descent, flats and bumps really killed my nerve, enough so that Alan got far ahead of me. I knew I was slowing him down, so I pedaled as furiously as I could to catch up and tell him to move on. But each pedal stroke was absolute agony. I didn’t have to worry about making noise for bears — the wincing and groaning was more than enough. I was in my aero bars, in granny gear, swerving left and right, just trying to keep moving on a slight incline. I think this was about the point where I lost control.
I got off and found that I couldn’t stand up with my right leg. I crashed to the ground for a minute, but was determined not to hold Alan back, so I got back on to limp to the next intersection where I was sure he’d be waiting. He wasn’t. I couldn’t go any further. I thought my day was done — at 11 am.
I sat in the dirt, stretched, massaged and caught up on food and water. I tried to relax, lay back, etc, but it was difficult because my mind was set on making it to Lincoln or Ovando, and I felt great otherwise. It was frustrating, but I thought I might be able to relax the nerve somehow.
After about 2 hours Matt Lee rode up. He offered encouragement and waited while I remounted to ride with him. I held on for about 2 minutes before he whistled away. He was concerned that he wouldn’t make it to Seely Lake by nightfall. Fear is a strong factor in this race, especially the beginning–Grizzly country. Matt wasn’t the only one worried about sleeping (or riding) alone through bear country.
Still, I spent the afternoon alone, cruising and limping along beautiful and quiet Montana dirt roads. Some were grassed over, near singletrack. I noticed that my right pinky was completely numb, but I had dislocated it in a crash a few months ago, so wasn’t too concerned about it at the moment.
Near Holland Lake, about 70 miles into the day, I had planned to stop and rest big at the lodge. It was my only chance to get back in the race. One low day could be compensated for later, but I stood no chance of pushing through this kind of pain for days on end. The lodge was full due to a private party. Frustrated, I went back to the route to wait for the next GDR rider to come up. I’d save them the trouble of checking for food at the lodge, and then might be able to keep up with them enough to camp. I figured if I’m not able to ride at the pace I wanted to, I might as well get to know some of the cool people in the race.
After about a hour Kent Peterson rolled up, somewhat to my surprise. I had rested and stretched some more, enough that riding was somewhat reasonable. We climbed Richmond hill together, chatting about bike commuting, software development and other random topics. Great conversation, really. It took my mind off my slowly dying leg.
As we neared the top of Richmond Hill Kent wanted to camp. The sun was setting, which is my favorite time to ride, so I insisted we ride a bit more. Then, reason took over as I realized my leg needed some rest if I was going to be able to continue the next day.
Day 2 – 80 miles
Richmond Hill is the heart of bear country on the route. So we rolled out together, both afraid of bears in the early morning. The trail here is incredible — narrow singletrack with booming views of the Bob Marshall wilderness. There were some trees down, trees growing in the trail and a few spots that were washed out. I waited a bit for Kent, mainly due to his lack of a rear brake more than anything else.
When we hit improved road conditions I kicked it into high gear to blast out the 26 miles to Ovando. I had one cliff bar for breakfast and was now running near empty–out of food (remember I had planned on making it much further). The road rolled around just perfectly. I got into a nice rhythm, and by adjusting my pedal stroke and riding position was able to keep the nerve pain at bay.
In Ovando at 9am I cooked up a microwave pizza while chatting with the store owner who helped fix my Bob trailer’s rear wheel last year. Super guy. They laughed at me for eating pizza for breakfast, but I had been up since 4:30, so it was really lunch.
I talked to some roadies doing the Lewis and Clark route as I ate my pizza and continued stretching out. During one stretch I set my pizza down and when I turned back around it had disappeared. I walked around the back side of the store to find the dog chowing down on it. That’s my pizza!
I didn’t want to wait to cook another one so the owner told me to grab some twinkies or something instead. I loaded the bike with junk food and headed out, full of energy and enthusiasm.
That lasted about 10 miles before I was limping up Huckleberry pass, which is one of the easiest and most mellow of the whole route. Paula and I flew up it last year, laughing at how the adventure cycling profiles show it as being twice as steep and 1000 feet higher than it actually is.
This time I had to stop every 10 minutes to calm the nerve down. I started shouting and screaming at nothing, just releasing tension. I couldn’t believe how hard this race was shaping out to be. In addition, my IT band and achilles tendon had started up on the same leg, presumably due to compensating for the dead leg and lower cadence I had been riding with. It is a bugger in that ITB hurts on the down stroke, whereas the nerve hurts on the up, so now I was totally screwed — riding primarily with my left leg.
I made it into Lincoln, still determined to recover from the injuries and push through a couple more days. I figured my body might ease into it if I just stayed smart, rested, stretched, etc.
So I ate and ate at the cafe, made calls, stretched and rested from the warm sun. By this time my pinky and ring finger on my left hand were now completely numb. I was getting very worried and tried adjusting the angle of my Jones H-bars to relieve the obvious pressure point on my ulnar nerve.
I rolled out to begin some super climbing to the city of Helena. This is a superb stretch with steep granny gear sections. This helped my leg, believe it or not. Something about having to control my pedal stroke more firmly in order to keep rolling, but the nerve sort of stayed in control. My left knee, on the other hand, started to scream from the low cadence cranking. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
I saw almost no one out there that evening. The weather was perfect. The sun lowered and the shadows reached out to touch my tires. Cloud pyrotechnics. Fresh air. Flowing green valleys. Steep climbs. It didn’t matter how bad my legs felt, they were immaterial. Only the aim and the flow mattered. The contrast between pain and suffering, beauty and flow was profound. Through it my identity and consciousness seemed to melt away. I crested Priest Pass before I knew what happened and was soon hammering away in my aero bars to make it into town before the restaurants closed. I pulled up to Pizza hut just as they closed, but they let me stay in and order a huge bowl of alfredo pasta and breadsticks.
Day 3 – 138 miles and a boat load of climbing
In the morning I was able to find a chiropractor who would see me before her regular hours. She seemed excited about the race and was eager to help correct my problem. Her business, Blue Feather Chiropractic, was just off the route — in fact it was across the street from Great Divide Cyclery. She seemed convinced she could fix my problem. It was my first visit to a chiropractor ever. She used an ‘activator’ which is just a little device that hits you softly. This was good because I was fairly sure it wouldn’t make anything worse or create new problems. She said my right hip was rotated out of place, making my leg a half inch shorter than my left. She rotated it back and also hit a few places on my wrists in attempt to get some feeling back into my fingers.
Things definitely felt different as I walked out the door to resume the fight. Unfortunately it was hard to tell because both of my knees were so tight and sore that they were all I could focus on. This kind of pain I can deal with, though. I knew they’d loosen up and that with some anti-inflammatory I’d probably be back in business later in the day. It was some of the scariest cycling I’ve ever done though. If I felt like this at home I’d be back in bed, icing and resting. But I was very interested to see what would happen.
On the divide there’s a saying, “If you don’t like how you’re feeling, just wait an hour.” It might not be better, it might not even be worse, but it will be different.
I was confident that if I could just get rid of the nerve pain I could push through anything else. In fact, despite the big day and mental exhaustion through all the suffering, I felt energetic and had hopes of making it well beyond Butte, camping near Fleecer ridge. I wanted to ride late into the night and get up early to roll out more miles.
But first I had something else to get excited about: the Lava Mountain trail. It’s s rarity on the GDMBR in that it’s a rooty, rocky, technical trail. It’s hard and I was determined to clean it. By the time I reached it my knees had indeed loosened up, so I was good to go. The constrained climbing seemed to help the nerve problem anyway. There was really only one right-hand turn that really challenged me. I was on the edge of my seat, scrambling for any available traction, scanning the terrain for a line to direct my tires to. I emerged cleanly and raised a strong arm.
The downhill was not as kind to me. My ITB started flaring up, enough so that I was afraid even to adjust my pedal position to corner. Just rotating my legs without any pressure hurt like hell. When I started pedaling again on the I-15 frontage road I felt my heart drop as my right leg once again felt the twinge of the inflamed nerve.
After fighting it for about an hour I jumped off my bike and laid on my back under some trees. I couldn’t feel 4 of my 10 fingers now. They were getting worse every day. My hands didn’t really hurt, but I stared at them and realized they were becoming detached from my body. When I say my fingers are numb I mean I can not feel them at all. I don’t mean that the ends of them are numb or that they are tingly. I was eating trail mix from my hand, biting for the last few nuts, and I bit a callous on my hand, trying to pull it off. I couldn’t even feel it.
To even be interested in a race like this I think you need to be a student of pain and suffering. I suppose I can only speak for myself. It seems, on surface, to be an odd thing to be interested in and to be voluntarily inflicting on oneself. I can refer the reader to the great philosophers for better quotes and amorphisms on the topic of suffering. Anything I can offer would only pale by comparison. But it suffices to say that I have actively been searching to suffer. And, of course, I am not completely sure why (and this is certainly not the only reason I ride bikes). I’ve tried long single day mountain bike races and found them lacking. I rode and carried my bike across the state of Arizona, and the suffering was of quality, but before I began I knew it would not be enough. So I embarked on the GDR to experience true suffering.
I thought I might have found it after struggling for days with a dead leg, numb hands and screaming knees. And indeed, the three hour, headwind infested, flat pavement into Butte was off the charts for physical suffering. But it still wasn’t enough.
I rolled into Butte a broken man, certain that this was the end of the GDR for me. I met Alan at the Outdoorsman bike shop. I admitted to be hurting badly, but trying to feign positivity to keep Alan going. His ITB was bothering him as well, but not only has he not seen the GDMBR before, he’s also here from the UK. I didn’t want my negativity to infect him. The guys at the Outdoorsman were great too, bringing their own positivity to us. They wrapped Alan’s bars, set me up with new gloves, a new tire, and new derailer cable/housing. Rob went way beyond what I would expect of any shop. He even arranged for his mother-in-law to give Alan an in-room massage at the Day’s Inn behind the shop. I signed myself up for a massage as well, but I had lost hope that anything could fix me enough to be riding as strong and fast as I know I am capable of.
Linda was the masseuse, and she had Alan yelling and yowling in pain. I was a bit scared, but he said he was feeling better afterwards, so I hopped on and explained my laundry list of problems. She started on my legs but then moved to focusing on my shoulders and arms, saying she thought the problem was originating from higher up on my right shoulder. The muscles are all connected she says. My right hip was already back to being rotated out and up, which she tried to fix. She also worked quite a bit on my arms and numb hands.
Day 4 – 70 miles
It was very relaxing and I slept like a rock, fairly numb to the situation I was in. I woke up with hands no better and ITB still sore. The rest had settled my sciatic nerve down, though. Alan was up early to roll out, and was surprised when I told him I was not coming. I told him that my hands were still numb despite 12 hours of no riding and a massage. I could no longer ride with my H-bars–in minimum I needed to switch to a flat bar. But really I knew that my race was over.
He wished me well and left me to the darkness of the motel room and the darkness of my thoughts. I reached for my mp3 player and after a distracting song or two the silicon chip’s random number generator chose Fish’s “Plague of Ghosts”:
“I found a home in the darkness, found a home in the darkness, found a home in the darkness,
Empty stomach, empty head, a body fills a vacant bed,
And the thunder rolls by, and the rains come, and the days gone and I wonder where I am.
Found a place in the darkness, found a home in the darkness, in the darkness, home, in the darkness.
A crowded room of passers by and in the shadows strangers cry, and the ghosts try to hide,
When the rains come, when the storms form, when I wonder who I am in the darkness,
I was consumed by failure, by frustration and by hopelessness. I thought about all the sacrifices, determination and hard work that had gotten me here only to be held at bay by something that was seemingly out of my control and unfair. At long, horrible last, I was truly suffering.
It’s never the way you plan it. I thought it would come at 2am on some lonely road in Wyoming. But instead I was lying lame in a motel room in Butte Montana with my head on fire.
“And when it came their was no cover, no place to hide,
Vision blurred, hard to breathe, trying hard to hold onto something that’s real.
Nothing left, nowhere to go, no open road, it’s washed away by swollen streams,
Carried off downriver with all my broken dreams.
Digging deep in the darkness, digging it deep, down deep down deep, deep, digging it”
The phone rang. It was Paula returning my desperate call. In her voice I found wisdom. She told me to junk the handlebars, rest as long as necessary and just go out and enjoy it. She reminded me how much I like the upcoming sections of trail.
I pulled myself together to go back to the Outdoorsman. I expected to buy a flat bar and grips then struggle with setting everything up in my motel room. But Rob and Mike swung into action again, getting everything rolling and offering genuine words of encouragement. Without them I would have never left Butte. Same goes for Paula. I owe them.
I mailed my Jones bars home, ate a big meal and shopped for food. Then I headed out after almost 24 hours in Butte, riding in last place. The first hour was torture. My knees were stiff again, IT still tight and sciatic nerve itching to fire off. The headwind coming down the canyon was unbelievable. But I had suffered greater and this was nothing. I climbed away, burning dust and rubber around the turns. I saw three walls of dust blasting down the road towards me. Bring it on, bastard. You can’t hurt me. Another wall of wind and dirt hit me like an earthquake, but my legs moved on, unaffected.
“I can make it happen, if I want to, Make it happen, if I try.”
I crested the continental divide then rolled through high alpine meadows. I was happy just to be alive and to have the privilege on experiencing this–to be out on my bike. I passed a truck on the descent, feeling invincible. The music on my player sent me soaring. I cheered each choice of the random number generator.
I stormed over Fleecer ridge, still having not even unclipped since Butte. Behind my seat I slid down the trail and mountain that had nearly destroyed us last summer (going the other direction). Last year I calculated the grade of this trail to be about 43%. I had to stop a few times to rest my hands and feet, but rode it since the other option (walking and straining my ITB) was none to attractive. Finally, a section of the route seemed easier than last year, when I pulled a 50 pound BOB trailer on the Great Divide. Until now it had always seemed harder, higher and much more painful. The sad part is that I wasn’t going much faster this year.
I had ridden 55 miles of tough terrain in under 5 hours. At the general store in Wise River I met Trish and Brad. After refueling a bit we all pedaled away to fight headwinds up into the Pioneer Mountains. I thought I might jump ahead of them, but they both were riding strong. I was impressed.
It’s a 30 mile climb. About 15 miles in we began witnessing a lightning show ahead of us. It was also getting dark. I could sense the fear and hesitation, but watched as Trish pedaled firmly into the storm. It rained, the thunder cracked, we switched on our lights. My IT tightened and my left knee prevented me from pedaling standing. Trish and Brad were determined to make it to Elkhorn Hot Springs, I secretly wanted to continue further. We waited the lightning out a bit before heading up to the top/crest of the climb. The lightning moved on, but the strong rain remained. I pulled out all of my rain gear.
The descent to Elkhorn seemed to last forever. We rode together, sharing my flood LED light, trying to look for the least muddy line on the road. At Elkhorn the rain had stopped, and my thoughts turned to continuing. I was fairly soaked and cold, it was midnight, but the mind was still willing. I looked south and saw 5 bolts of lighting in the space of a couple minutes. Unwilling to weather another big storm I walked up the road to join Trish and Brad at the hot spring. The warm water was exquisite. None of us wanted to get out.
Day 5 – 95 miles
We camped out by the spring. I woke up at about 4:30 and was rolling some time after 5. I still hadn’t really felt my sciatic nerve, and though my knees burned, ITB was worse than ever, I knew there was a chance I was still in the race. I needed a big day, bad. The storms had just been yet another setback. Also, my hands were benefiting from the straight bar. I couldn’t feel the pressure point anymore, and while they were still numb, they clearly were no longer getting worse. I didn’t feel like I was doing permanent damage anymore. Perhaps the biggest question on my mind in that motel room in Butte was, “how badly was everyone hurting?” “How much pain did Mike and Pete endure last year?” Was I just being a wimp — had they fought through the same or worse problems?
I tried calling Mike from the motel, knowing that he couldn’t answer the question any better than I could. But by continuing and trying the straight bar, I had answered part of that question. Pete told me before the race that both of their hands were killing them by the end of the race, and that he still didn’t have full feeling in the ends of a few of his fingers. But after trying the straight bar I knew that riding with the H-bar had been a mistake. No, their hands had not been this bad, and certainly not after 4 days.
It was a perfect morning for cycling. The air was clear and fresh from the night’s thunderstorms. No wind. I pedaled along flat pavement without effort. Ahead I saw two cyclists. I caught and passed both Alan and Kent, who had stayed last night at a motel, completely missing the storm. I told them I was feeling better, but it was still too early to say I was “back in business.” I knew I was still riding the high of a long rest in Butte.
But as long as it would last, I would enjoy it. So I cruised along at a nice pace, enjoying the views and solitude. Later in the morning the dirt road got bumpy and it was at a slight incline. The dreaded nerve started to flare up. Right around then the headwind started, turned on like a flick of a switch. Alan caught up and passed me. I was shambilized again.
I reached a spot I recognized from last year. There’s a little cow worn singletrack that leads to a red rock outcropping. Paula and I ate lunch there out of the wind. I started thinking about that trip and how easy it seemed. I did the math in my head and realized that we had taken 8 days to ride what I had just ridden in 6. This time I had a better bike, 40 pounds less gear, no Paula to wait for, and an unbelievable amount of willpower, focus and determination. But it had been utter agony. It seemed about ten times harder. I realized I was only averaging about 100 miles a day and it was killing me. That would put me at about 25 days. It wasn’t worth it to me to suffer (and risk permanent damage) for that kind of time. 15-18 days, maybe. But this was ridiculous.
It was a rational decision and I never second guessed it. Those who know me might be surprised by this, but I was confident in my decision.
So I had 40 miles to ride with a brutal headwind. I decided I’d try to enjoy it as best I could. I still wanted to be outside all the time, to be on my bike, to see the country fly by. I didn’t want that to end. But I knew that it must.
I ate lunch at the rock outcropping, then went to explore the singletrack a bit more. It was bumpy but fun. I rolled back out on the route to suffer the wind and nerve killing washboards.
I felt good on the steep climb over Medicine Bow divide. Otherwise my leg continued to bother me. I stopped about every 20 minutes to rest it. The wind was fierce enough to frustrate the strongest of riders, but I had a grin on my face. It was an acceptance. Besides, I was prepared to deal with this. This is part of riding the Great Divide.
The canyon ride down to Lima is full of incredible scenery. I tried to make it last as long as possible, but I also wanted to be done.
The 6 miles of frontage road into town were the final trial of tears. Cross winds like you have never seen. Riding at a 45 degree angle is always interesting. With strong gusts I’d watch my speed drop below 5 mph. Then I’d belt out a big laugh. I was too tired to get frustrated. Dark storm clouds loomed ahead.
In town I ate a burger in the cafe and got the last motel room available. I kept an eye out for Brad and Trish to roll in. I invited them to stay in my room. They were exhausted from the wind, tired of fighting.
We slept hard in the motel. I saw them off in the morning, telling them that I was done and explaining my reasoning while trying not to sound too negative. Their knees hurt and tendons hurt too. I tried to think of a way I could help them out since I want to see them continue to ride strong and finish. I remembered that they were jealous of my mp3 player earlier, so I offered it to them, even though I knew I might need it when I was left alone in Lima. We’ll see how they like my taste in music…
I had some cool GDMBR riders from Florida to talk to for most of the day. They ride 29″ fixed gears at home, but not on the divide. One of them was thinking of dropping out, and though he should have no reason to accept advice from me, I tried to convince him to continue on.
Even after they left I was OK. Though I was severely disappointed, I had no regrets. I had learned quite a bit in these 630 miles, and felt lucky just to be able to experience what I had. It had been a journey in itself.
My best friend from high school, Phong Nguyen, was in his car right after work to come rescue me. I couldn’t ask for a better friend than in Phong. He bailed me out and brought me back to Salt Lake where I sit now, typing furiously away with numb fingers. I’ve been off my bike for 72 hours and I still can’t feel my four fingers. Even with switching to the flat bar I am very glad that I stopped.
For now I’m resting, eating and dreaming of the next ride…