It sounded good at the time. Fueled by the liquid courage a few IPA’s brings during the cold winter month’s planning of the summer’s upcoming events. I received the invitation to enter a new ride, called The Long Voyage.
The courage lasted until this arrived in my inbox:
“Congratulations! You have been selected as one of the 100 riders for the inaugural Gravel Worlds: The Long Voyage sponsored by Komoot! This event will challenge your mind, body, and spirit and we can’t wait to hear and see your adventures!”
Oh, crap. 300 miles across some of the most godforsaken roads in the Midwest. Set to take place in late August, long before the summer heat has subsided.
My last Gravel Worlds was in ’19. Finished the 150 mile gravel event in just over 13 hours. Crossed the line and had to sit down for a few minutes (first time ever). Walked to my truck, drove 1000 meters, pulled over and lost my cookies. That was my finish line experience.
The Long Voyage is 2X that distance. 30 hours to complete, start at 5pm, ride all night and the next day. What have I gotten myself into?
Knew I had to step up my game. The last couple of years has been a struggle on the longer events, which have been described in painful detail here. The problem’s called ‘rot gut’. Get halfway into an all day event and stomach stops working leading to all sorts of difficulties.
So, I hired a coach, Frank Pike, and started working on a structured training plan. I also worked on my hydration strategy, experimenting with various mixes.
Things were going pretty good. I was getting stronger and headed for the first big challenge of 2021: Unbound’s 200 miler in the Flint Hills of Kansas, the week after memorial day (June 2).
Unbound Gravel a.k.a Dirty Kanza
Being a 4x finisher, my confidence was high. That lasted for all of about 70 miles, until the heat kicked up and I found myself struggling to keep a proper pace. Things came to a head at mile 125 at the 2nd neutral water stop in Alta Vista.
“Good job, you made it just under the cutoff!”, the volunteer stated as I arrived. Oh, crap. Just Under The Cutoff. Barely able to maintain 10 mph and facing a stiff headwind home. I pulled the plug. My first-ever DNF at DK.
I was bummed, but remained resolute in fixing the problems and not giving up. Frank introduced me to an expert in sports nutrition, Nicole Rubenstein, who helped me determine my sweat rate and calculate a proper level of intake of electrolytes.
The problem is called hyponatremia and occurs when the sodium level in the blood is too low. I was taking in proper amounts of fluids, but not adding enough electrolytes. I started taking 340mg salt capsules in addition to what’s in my drink mixes.
Another area that I needed work on being calorie intake. It was tough to find something that’s tolerated over the course of a race, say 12, 16, 20 and with my upcoming ride, 30 hours. Under Nicole’s direction I started rolling plain white bread into little balls, and carrying in ziplock bags. One slice is 120 calories, easy to carry and well tolerated.
In the weeks leading up to The Long Voyage the training miles increased. 300, 400 miles per week. Back-to-back centuries, double centuries, all night rides, midday rides (in the heat) were part of the plan. Also continued with the structured intervals on the trainer.
A couple of weeks before The Long Voyage I felt good. I tapered my training under Frank’s direction. Rest was a priority as was eating right and avoiding things like beer.
At 5pm the weather was hot. But, a front passing through would bring some rain and cooler temps before nighttime. Frank provided last minute instructions. My buddies, Dawn, Jerry and Mike, were riding Saturday and there to provide encouragement. I lined up with the 70 or so other riders and we’re off.
Most of the others, say 50, were much faster and sped off into the distance. That was fine by me. It’s a long ride. No need to hurry. My goal was to maintain a leisurely pace, between 12 and 14 miles an hour. There were about 20 others that remained in the back. We had pleasant conversations and played leapfrog until the storm hit.
I’m pretty comfortable in the rain, and so didn’t have any problems when it hit. Fortunately, no lightning and most of the roads were fine.
When night fell the rains had stopped. I rolled into the first stop, Weeping Water (no pun intended), around 9:30 pm (mile 54). Because The Long Voyage is unsupported, the stops were convenience stores in small towns. I refueled and hit the road again, feeling pretty good.
The first minimal maintenance road (MMR) was just before the second stop, outside Syracuse. MMR’s are lightly maintained. Graded occasionally, but gravel is not laid. This means they get muddy. The consistency of the mud can be described as peanut butter. Very sticky, it will quickly build and make riding impossible. Try to ride it, and a derailleur or the chain will break.
That first MMR was rideable because the rain over this section was not heavy, but it was an indication of what’s coming.
The next stop was a Loves truck stop (mile 80) just outside of Syracuse, Nebraska. We first saw its giant sign 10 miles away but it would disappear and reappear again as we descended and climbed the hills.
I rolled in about midnight and so far things were according to plan. Refueled and enjoyed a treat of fresh pineapple and was on my way again in about 15 minutes.
Leaving the truck stop I flubbed hopping a curve, hit it head-on and did an endo (back wheel raises up and over) and dropped it hard on the concrete. It was embarrassing as there were maybe a dozen riders who were sitting outside and witnessed it. One helped me get up. I thanked him as I assessed the damage. Besides my pride, I noticed one of my aerobars got knocked loose. After readjusting and tightening I rode off again.
Back on the road is when I realized the bike’s derailleur was damaged and returned to the truckstop. As I fiddled with the derailleur the chain came off and got twisted in the spokes of the rear wheel.
When it hit that this ride might be over. A long way back to Lincoln (60 miles) and I had no way to get there. I was bummed. How could things get so bad after being good just minutes before?
Eventually, my mind eased and I worked the problem getting the chain back on again and reassessed the situation. I don’t have gears 4 – 9, but I do have 1-3 and 10-12. I can make this work.
Now 1:00 am and in dead last place I took off again. It was a tough decision, leaving the relative comfort of Syracuse into the darkness, knowing my bike could break down at any time leaving me stranded.
During the first half hour, I beat myself up. The skies had cleared and a nearly full moon had emerged. We had a candid discussion about competency, i.e. the lack of. Eventually, I got over it and found a rhythm. Not having the middle gears was a setback. It meant either standing up in tall gears or spinning in short ones.
My chances to finish were slim, average speed had dropped to around 10 mph and I lost an hour at the truckstop. Oh well, shit happens. Find something to like about it.
About 4:30 am (mile 115) a truck approached me with their bright lights on. “Turn your f***ing brights off”, I muttered to myself. The truck slowed as it passed and a man stuck his head out the window.
“Hey!”, he greeted, before this…
“YOU’RE WAKING UP THE DOGS, WHAT THE F*** ARE YOU DOING OUT HERE YOU STUPID MOTHERF***ER”, he shouted.
I could tell there were others inside the cab with him. These hicks must have been up all night drinking and who knows what else. I wasn’t in the mood to discuss, on friendly terms or otherwise, lowered my head and kept riding. Fortunately, they drove off.
Soon, I rolled into Adams (mile 120). Blink, and you miss it (even on a bike). I passed the closed convenience store and heard shouting from a block down a side street. I looked and saw two riders in a dark parking lot. This was our refueling station. I would have missed it if they hadn’t called out. There were cases of bottled water stacked up, a water hose, paper towels, an air pump and some misc tools.
I got reacquainted with Molly and Steve. We met over the first 50 miles of the course. Molly was upset and told us about being harassed by the rednecks. They stalked her and tried to run her off the road. She called 911 and a deputy showed up. He told her boys will be boys. I would have been pissed too. She didn’t know what to do next.
“You can ride with us”, Steve said.
“Yeah, you can ride with us”, was my reply.
Before we left, we spent time getting our bikes cleaned up, mud out of the chains, gears and brakes.
“Thanks for letting me ride with you guys”, she said.
I had already figured out that she was a badass and so it’s not like we were doing her any favors. Everyone pulls their own weight.
Now three strong we worked together and rode on through the night. About an hour later, as the eastern sky brightened so did our spirits. In 30 minutes, a beautiful sunrise greeted us and I began to entertain thoughts of finishing once again.
That’s when the next MMR hit. Backing up, earlier in the night, before the mishap in Syracuse, there was a nice lightning show down south. Not worried about having to ride through it, I didn’t think about how it was soaking the roads in our path.
It means either trying to ride the ditch or carrying. One cannot even push the bike on the road because the mud builds up and freezes the wheels. Missing my middle gears, there was no way I was going to pretend I had a mountain bike. Steve actually was riding a mountain bike and so he had some success riding to the side. Molly and I carried.
For four miles we carried. Built on a grid, each segment of road is exactly one mile. Each mile carried felt like an eternity. Over each hill we hoped to see a stop sign marking the end.
That is when we would stop and clean the mud off shoes, cleats, and the bikes, if we were dumb enough to try to ride any part of it. The cleanup took about 20 minutes. Walking a one mile segment at about a two mile per hour pace followed by the cleanup meant each MMR cost about 50 minutes of time.
Do you remember those old cartoons where the characters are moving but the same terrain gets recycled? That’s what this felt like. Haven’t I passed that tree before? Are We Even Moving?
After the third mile of carrying our hearts sank. Ahead was yet another MMR and another mile of carrying. Up to this point Molly had endured without complaint. Now her determination began to flag, as did mine. How much more of this can we take?
“What do you have to say about this predicament?”, she asked, somewhat rhetorically.
I repeated a line that Frank told me back at the starting line. “You have to embrace the suck”.
Satisfied with this response we accepted our fate and trudged on, not knowing this was to be the last time.
The halfway point was Beatrice (150 miles). I was supposed to be here by 6:00 am and it was now almost lunchtime. This is where Steve tossed in the towel and called someone to pick him up. I couldn’t blame him.
“Do you need a ride to Lincoln?”, he asked me. I politely declined but congratulated him on sticking it out thus far thanked him for being a good guy.
This was probably my lowest point, other than the truckstop. I was very hungry but the store’s fresh food options were dismal. I gambled on a sausage and egg biscuit, but it didn’t pan out. Tossed into the garbage after one bite. I settled on a giant payday candy bar and a coke but my stomach wasn’t happy and tossed them also.
“I’m not stopping”, I told Molly somewhat defiantly, popping another bread ball into my mouth. It was seasoned with some good ole Nebraska dirt, from the MMR’s. (Note to self: make sure you seal those ziplog bags containing foodstuff) She was inside the store talking to her husband on the phone.
“Me neither!”, she exclaimed.
And then there were two
Leaving Beatrice we turned north headed back to Lincoln. For the first time since the starting line, we’re now getting closer to the finish instead of further.
We were wearing down and saddle sore but worked together and did alright despite now headed into a stiff headwind. As expected, our pace slowed considerably. I was missing those middle gears more than ever as they are most needed when riding into the wind, over rolling hills.
After the MMR’s any chance we had of finishing on time was over. If I had had a working derailleur I might have tried anyway. It would have meant crossing the finish line at say 2:00 am Sunday morning. Another night of riding. The last 50 miles being the hilliest of the course, I knew it would be a struggle, literally uphill.
Without saying anything to Molly, who was still talking about finishing, I began to calculate where to pull out. 200 miles sounded like a good number. That’s the number of miles I should have rode at Unbound back in June. It felt a bit like a consolation prize, but I was ok with it.
Rolled into the Casey’s General Store in Wilbur (mile 176) at 1:30 pm. Here was a first class watering hole, complete with fresh pizza and icey’s. I hadn’t eaten solid food in almost 24 hours.
We got some looks from the nice townsfolk of Wilbur and we must’ve smelled bad. They were polite about it, but kept a respectful distance. Not that I could blame them. I doubt it helped matters that one of the items on my shopping list was a bar of soap, but we sure thought it funny.
“Try to look serious”, she told me before taking this shot.
This is when I told Molly about my plan for stopping at 200. By this time she was getting tired, suffering from saddle sores and readily agreed. Our next stop was Crete at mile 190. The next one after that, mile 225.
We decided Crete was the place and called our respective rides so they could meet us there.
It was anti-climatic pulling out at 190. Definitely felt like there should have been more to this story. I had another 100 miles left in the tank. But, was satisfied with getting this far, after the earlier mishap. It could have been worse. This is why we never take a finish for granted. Shit happens. It’s all about the execution. The course has the final say. Find something to like about it.
Molly and I said our goodbyes, exchanged contact info and called it a day. A Very Long Day.
Getting back to Lincoln, had a nice beer and burger and soaked in the atmosphere of Gravel Worlds’ finish line. This Is A Great Event. Its gotten bigger over the years but has retained an Indie vibe. The organizers are very nice and cool people. I’m very glad to see their success.
Went back to the hotel around 7:00 pm, showered (of course) and slept for 12 hours. Woke a little sore and very hungry. I had the first of two breakfasts, followed by a couple of lunches. Later, I met my sister in KC and we enjoyed a nice dinner.
All-in-all a pretty good ride.
Will I do it again, who the hell knows?