My phone alarm goes off. It’s 5 a.m. and 37-degrees outside. I feel like I never fell asleep. I sit up in the dark under a thin, itchy motel blanket. My motel-mates grumble, moan and stir under their sheets and sleeping bags. Two of us are in real beds, two are on a lumpy, slumping pull-out couch, and one is on what I’m certain is a pee-proof baby crib mattress on the floor. Resettling, no one gets up immediately to turn on the lights or make a claim for our single bathroom. The lull of a charged, nervous stillness fills the air. Silence. Then Max exclaims, “Let’s go home.” All five of us crack up, hard. It feels so good to laugh.
Job uncertainty, a sick family member, bouts of insomnia and anxiety; life stressors abound and surround me, and I worry that my undertrained body and overworked mind aren’t ready for this.
Back in August, a friend in New York mentioned an organized hilly gravel ride, “The unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley” with promises of beautiful gravel roads and leaf peeping. Enticed by a ride through fall foliage in my home state, I was immediately interested. My New York friend had signed up for “The Plenty,” the 90-miler. I saw online that there was an even longer distance option that my friends from Cadence Cycling in Philadelphia had signed up for, “The Full,” 120 miles. Race-fit or not, there was no doubt about which distance I’d attempt.
As the only girl between two brothers, I developed the “I can do anything you can do” mentality from an early age — always wanting to do anything my older brother did: wear “boys” hockey skates, not girls, wear pants to church, not dresses. I tried to run as far, climb the jungle gym as high, and take the zip-line in our backyard as fast. Though I often failed in my attempts to emulate my brother, it didn’t stop me from trying.
If the guys were doing “The Full,” so would I.
There are a million reasons why I should not be here: for starters, I don’t own a gravel bike. My body weathered three major injuries within the past two years — a separated collarbone and a badly fractured right thumb and wrist on a steep and slippery descent. I still can’t fully bend my thumb; it aches and loses circulation and mobility in the cold. And apart from a sand ride adventure through the Mojave, I lack any off-road riding experience. I rode the borrowed Specialized Cruz I’m on only three times before today. And yet, here I am; lined up next to some of the world’s best gravel riders: Alison Tetrick, Selene Yeager, and Vicky Barclay.
I’ve pinned on numbers before with specific goals: finish in the top five, go for the Sprinter’s Jersey, or attack off the front to help my team. But today, it’s all about finishing.
Knowing I’m not really racing takes some pressure off. The energy is on the heavy-hitting lady studs next to me, not on me. I’m in awe of these female pros and excited for them; they have the strength and potential to beat everyone in the entire 157-person field, men included.
My goal? Make the time cut-offs and finish “The Full” in one piece before dark. If I don’t make the cut-offs, I risk being rerouted to one of the shorter courses or shuttled to the finish. There are only 15 women starting “The Full,” and beyond testing myself and seeking fun and adventure, I feel a sense of honor and obligation to finish strong. Perhaps by facing my fear of riding off-road, I can prove that those of us new-to-dirt can handle the tough stuff.
7:15 a.m.: We’re off. Down a narrow, paved, leaf-covered rail trail. “Watch out, bollard!” Arms point out yellow 4-foot poles sticking up out of the middle of the trail. “Who came up with the name ‘bollard’?!?” asks the guy to my right. “Ha! I know, why not just call it a ‘pole’?” I reply. “I bet we’re saying it incorrectly,” I add. “I bet it’s a French word and we’re butchering it. Sounds more like the name of a bird or a duck.” We chuckle and I shiver. It’s 40-degrees, a real feel of 35 with the wind. I’m wishing I wore a long sleeve wool base layer instead of a tank under my jersey.
One guy squeezes past me despite the neutral, 5-mile start meant to be a double paceline on the narrow rail trail. I see a rider with a kit I recognize from NYC. “Hey, New York!” I say. He turns his head and offers a small, closed-lip half grin, but no reply. Not really the friendly vibe everyone told me to expect at this off-road gravel grinder, but ok.
We settle into a decent pace. A group of about 25 riders goes off the front with four or five fast females among them. My cheeks freeze in a nervous, rictus smile and my eyes water in the wind; I hope it warms up. I ride in a small pack of six guys and one other female, a cyclocross racer, Rebecca. Rebecca is tan, slim and looks fast, with a tattoo on her right calf and a shiny slate-blue Cannondale cross bike.
We don’t talk much as the road turns into the first of many long, unending climbs. But still, our pace is steady.
I hope there aren’t hunters out here. I keep thinking we’ll see bear, deer, or fox, but none present themselves. What we do see before we ride far into the Bald Eagle State Forest and away from civilization is a white sign with blue and red lettering and an American flag in the front yard of one of the few houses we pass; it reads: “TRUMP” “Keep America great!”
Then, to our right are ten jovial, bearded guys who resemble Santa Claus sitting and standing around in flannel shirts and jeans, drinking beers on the small porch of a one-story house. Hollering and cheering loudly, they offer us beers. It’s 8:30 a.m. I wonder if they’re out here in support of our ride or if that’s their usual Sunday morning routine.
Not sure if it’s nerves, the cold, or the constant, uneven terrain bouncing me about, but I have never had to pee this badly. I really don’t want to stop so soon. My mantra becomes, “Don’t pee your kit. Don’t pee your kit.” I hope it’ll subside. I went three times this morning — once in our motel and twice at the athletic center near the start line — but the urge overtakes me. I have got to go.
Mile 50. Must stop.
I peel off over to the left side of the dirt road, lean my bike on a big tree and hunker down on the other side of it. I’ve never been more grateful to have bibs with a rear zipper fly. This means that my upper body can stay warm and only my derriere freezes. I pee continuously for what must be a full five minutes, and wonder, “How do I have so much liquid in me?” It’s freezing and I haven’t been drinking much. I’m in a low crouch. I thought the tree was big enough to hide me and my bare bum, but before I have time to pull my bibs back up I see some of the guys I’d just passed come whizzing down the hill. They see me too. “Sorry!” I wave and yell.
I feel like I just lost 15 pounds. I’m a new and improved human: lighter, faster, liberated, exuberant, and exhilarated. “Ok, now, I’m in this,” I think as I zip along for the next few miles.
Mile 53. Aid Station 2. Cut-off time made.
A volunteer hands me my drop bag. I grab an extra Clif bar for my pocket while eating a sliced orange from the aid table and pour a new packet of electrolyte hydration powder into a bidon. I had put a short sleeve jersey in my drop bag to change into, anticipating warming up with the climbs and the rising sun, but it feels colder, not warmer. Another volunteer, “Bob,” pats me on the back on my way out and says, “It’s going to be a tough next 30 miles.” I grossly underestimate what he means by “tough.”
While riding this unfamiliar and uneven terrain, I don’t want to take my eyes off the ever-changing trail. I’m so glad that I thought to unwrap my Clif bars before putting them in my jersey pockets. Crumbs in my pockets be damned. I wish I’d done the same with the UnTapped Waffles. I can’t bend my right thumb and my other numb and shaky fingers are barely cooperating. Even while stopped briefly at the aid station, it takes me three tries and my teeth to tear open the waffles.
Mile 55: The Gnarly-Rocky-Pitchy-Mud-Puddle Section: The GRPMP
Soon after the aid station, we hit a hill of rocks.
I hear someone say, “Oh my God, it’s a rock garden.” This is no garden. “Garden” is much too gentle a word. This is an endless minefield of sharp, pointy, edgy, uneven rocks, boulders, steep climbs, and steep descents into puddles. Or as I dub it: the ‘gnarly-rocky-pitchy-mud puddle section.’
A mountain biker’s dream lies ahead of me. I lose Rebecca.
A few pedal strokes up one of the rockiest, steepest pitches, I feel an awkward sensation. My butt feels lower and lower. I try to sit and I feel like either I’ve grown or my bike has suddenly shrunk. Something is very wrong. My quads ache from trying to climb in this lower position. I glance down and I see the nose of my saddle pointing up toward the clouds. “What the…?” The friend who helped me change out the men’s saddle on this borrowed bike must not have tightened the bolt enough. But I should have double checked.
We’re on a climb. I can’t stop; if I do it will be too hard to gain traction again. I mash my pedals until I’m on more even ground. I feel in my back jersey pockets: no tool. I feel in my saddle bag: no tool. “Shit.” I keep riding. Scanning the riders in front of me, I spot a fellow travel mate who works as a bike mechanic. What luck! I call his name. No reply. I call it again. Nothing. A third time. This time I add, “I…NEED…HELP!”
I had packed two multi-tools for this ride: the one I thought was in my jersey isn’t. The other that I thought was in my saddle bag might have fallen out when we hit the rocks. Either way, I’m in trouble. I take pride in being able to fix my own flats and handle minor mechanicals. I hate that I need to ask anyone for help or slow someone else down, but I must.
He finally stops, glares, “Where’s your tool?”
No one around me is in contention to win this thing, but I understand the desire to place well and maybe beat a friend or foe. Whatever the case, he makes it clear through his repeatedly questioning me on the location of my multi-tool that he’s unhappy about stopping to help me. His reluctance is palpable. My heart sinks. I feel so bad; I wish I’d asked a stranger for help instead.
He agrees there’s no way I could keep riding with my saddle so askew.
“I owe you many beers,” I thank him profusely. He scowls in silence. Not even the promise of beer or homemade Greek treats puts a smile on his face. I stand and wait as he puts his tools away.
I wait another moment, hoping he’ll say something like, “no sweat,” or “don’t worry about it,” but he doesn’t. So, I go. A minute later he whizzes downhill past me. He’s an accomplished mountain biker and clearly fear-free on descents. I don’t see him the rest of the ride. I feel like a berated kid.
Here’s the thing: at some point, every one of us will need help in a race or on a ride. The more you ride, the higher the chances are that you will make a mistake, you will fall, or your bike will break. It sucks to be the one in need, the one asking. As a fellow cyclist, you could welcome the opportunity to help. You could make it a pleasant experience and put some good bike juju in the bank. Or not. Who knows? One day it could be you burning out your quads mid-race with a broken spoke, bent derailleur, or a saddle suddenly pointing up toward the North Star.
I try to employ what I learned on the adventure ride through the Mojave Desert about keeping my weight over my rear wheel on descents and in the middle of the bike on climbs so that I don’t lose traction and skid out.
My thighs and forearms burn as I’m out of the saddle pushing down on the pedals and trying to steer and maneuver my handlebars around the sharp rocks covering every inch of the steep climb in front of me. We descend into puddles. “I so wish I had taken a mountain biking clinic before this,” I think.
Breathe and keep going. I’m reminded of the Albert Einstein saying, “Life is like riding a bicycle, to keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
My feet get soaked. They turn into big ice cubes at the bottom of my legs. Once wet there’s no way to get warm. There are people behind me. I feel bad; they must be trying to get around me. I must be ruining their lines. I apologize several times. “Sorry guys, I’m not a mountain biker.” One replies: “You’re doing great, keep it up!” And another, “It’s ok, I’m a triathlete.”
Fear of flying over the handlebars makes me death grip the brakes. I’m bouncing over the rocks, like human popcorn. I’m up in the air at a faster rate than I’m descending the hill. I wonder if I put too much air pressure in my tires — 60 psi in the back and 55 in the front. I inch up the rocky climbs and kerplunk down the descents.
Though I’m no mountain biker, I know enough to know that my equipment is lacking. Added to my growing wish-list are tubeless tires, which can be run at a lower psi for a cushier, grippier ride and better rolling resistance, and a bigger cassette with more gearing options than my current 11-28t.
The term ‘send it’ enters my mind. I know it’s associated with mountain biking, but I never knew what it meant. Now, I think I get it. Release the brakes, swallow your fear, and send it.
Only, I don’t know this bike; I don’t know its limits, and I don’t trust its abilities. I’m terrified of losing control.
But I try: I let go of the brakes, say a prayer, and fly. Exhilarated, a rush of adrenaline and a thousand thoughts flood my brain: “This is it; I’m going to die!” “Well, I’ll die doing what I love!” “I don’t love this, I hate this!” Muddy water hides the depth of the puddles and the jaggedness of the rocks in them. I blaze through the next puddle without pedaling. Milk chocolate looking mud water sprays up over my feet and calves.
Thankfully, I’m still on the course and I haven’t yet flown off into the middle of the woods. Within what feels like seconds, I’m down the hill. My heart is beating in my ears. And then I see it: another steep hill of rocks to climb.
Mile 83. Aid Station 3. Cut-off time made.
“I’m beyond happy to see you guys.”
“Are there any more technical sections?”
“Oh, thank God!”
I see other riders huddled around tables of sliced bananas, oranges, and GUs, Stroopwafels, and large orange jugs of water and a Rocktane mix, all alongside smiling, bundled volunteers in neon yellow reflective vests. I hear, “Good job! Good job!” I didn’t realize how hungry I am. I’m mentally fatigued. I lose a sense of just how much I’m eating but am overcome by an urge to devour anything I can get my hands on. I become a human vacuum, a gorging Cookie Monster; a cup full of M&Ms are the best tasting candy I’ve ever had, “When did they get so good?” A quick pee in the privy, a downed vanilla GU, and a devoured UnTapped Raspberry Waffle and I’m off for the final 40 miles.
We ride by horse-pulled buggies full of Mennonite families staring wide-eyed and silent. They must think we’re lunatics. Wait, we are lunatics; we paid money to ride this grueling, mountainous 120 miles on dirt.
I see few signs of civilization and fewer fellow riders. For miles, the only sounds I hear are the wind, the gravel crunching under my tires, and the birds. The air feels cooler and cooler against my hatless ears and in my lungs.
I welcome the quiet solitude; I feel an overwhelming sense of calm and gratitude simply to be riding here surrounded by this huge, lush forest with diverse, tall trees, every shade of green, and views of a flowing river. I feel alone — like I’m not a part of an organized ride at all, but rather just a passerby, a witness to the beauty of the Susquehanna woods.
At this solo time — when there’s no one in front of me to catch or to stay with — the pain in my legs sets in and I have to dig the deepest within to not give up.
I’m tiring. I haven’t seen any other riders for a while. An excruciating, massive tight knot develops in my left glute and resonates up into my lower back. Stopping to stretch could help. “You can’t stop,” I think, “if you do, you won’t be able to start again.”
I give myself little mileage equations: “Just 30 more miles, like a ride to Piermont and back, only much hillier.” “Twenty miles – like three laps of Central Park.” “Just get to mile 112; it’s all downhill from there.”
Mile 111: So close, but so off-course
I anticipate arriving to whoops and hollers from course marshals and volunteers at the final aid station at mile 112. To my surprise, I don’t see anything but a school — no course signs marking “wrong way X,” and none of the blue and orange arrows that have directed us thus far. I slow, roll over several speed bumps, look around, and then I arrive at an intersection.
Still, no markings. I come to a complete stop and look back. I don’t see anyone. I make a hail-Mary guess to turn left. I have absolutely no idea where I’m going. I turn my head again and see a cyclist with a bright neon yellow jacket about 200 feet behind me. I ride a little farther and find a rail trail that looks like the one we rode out on at the start, but no course arrows. I stop and ride toward the cyclist behind me, happy to see that he too has a number on his handlebars. “I lost the arrows,” I exclaim. “I didn’t see an aid station or any course marshals or volunteers.” We’re both tired and frustrated to have made it this far only to go off course just 10 miles from the finish line.
My Garmin is old, water-logged, and only shows distance, speed and time, not location. Brian lacks a fancy GPS device as well. He tries to open Google maps on his phone. I age a year by the time we can get enough cell service to learn that we’ve been heading in the wrong direction. We wait another eternity for his Google maps to load the most direct, bike-friendly route back to the elusive finish line. Though we initially gripe about the route we had found to be so well marked and supported until now, we use the final miles to get to know each other.
Mile 120: 5:00 p.m.
Even if we hadn’t gone off course, and even if I hadn’t had a single mechanical issue with my saddle, I know I’m not remotely close to placing among the top finishers. But that wasn’t my goal, not today. Today, for ten hours out there, I wasn’t thinking about any of the life stressors I have, or anything other than what was right in front of or around me. Today, I just kept pedaling.
Some races, I’ve been out there to podium; today I was there to finish, to survive.
Maybe it’s about getting out of my head, trusting the bike and my body, releasing the death grip on the brakes, and letting go: full send.
Deep thanks: to Dave Wilson for your genius edits, Naomi Jarvis, Karen Brooks, Nick Goode, Abe Landes, and Pete Bakken for contributing your photos, to the organizers and volunteers of The UnPAved, and to PrettyDamnedFast.com for sharing my story.