The near-frigid air cuts through my cycling shoes and across my face and I can only smell the sagebrush around me.
It’s around 2:00 am, and I’m riding my bike on Highway 50, somewhere between Eureka and Austin. The stars above me are bright, but I can hardly see them when I’m down in my aerobars, turning the pedals as hard as I’m able.
For the last twelve miles of this stage of the race (stage 5 of 8), I’ll climb unto Austin Summit and down to Austin itself. This is when I’m out of the aerobars and really wondering what I have done to upset the universe because this climb seems to go on forever. My legs burn, but not enough to keep me warm. The road continues up into the darkness, and shows no signs of stopping. The hoopla of the race had disappeared hours ago with riders approaching Eureka, lighting the road in front of me. Because my team has ridden so well, we are out in front. And the view is black—and, lonely.
There comes a moment when I really do think I’m done because I’m tired and even my lungs are frozen. I keep pedaling, though, and I look into the dazzling display of autumn/desert stars (which always seem brighter than any other type) and a shooting star streaks across the sky.
Because I’m not quite myself (a fancy way of saying that I’m exhausted) it takes me a minute to tell myself to make a wish. And I do: I wish to be free.
I don’t even understand it in the moment, and so I file the thought away. Even when I make it to the summit, I do a double-fist pump into the air because I am so happy that I survived that and descend the winding road into Austin at 3:45 am, I still don’t know what that means.
What words can describe the Silver State 508?
I’m not sure I could put the experience into a single word, or even a paragraph. What is it like to ride your bike from Reno to Eureka and back again (for a total of 510 miles if you do it solo, 254 miles for me, “Rider A” of a two mixed relay), trading legs along the way, going until your heart or legs explode? What is the morning like? The heat of the afternoon? The frigid cold of night? The thrill of doing such a crazy thing? The discomfort of it?
There are layers to understanding: the experience of it, of course, but our conception of ourselves and our place in the world, our memories and the things people have said that we are or are not and always will be.
I can’t write about this experience without writing about my conception about myself, and what it means that I was able to not only finish this prestigious, world-class and a RAAM (Race Across America) qualifier event, but that I was on a two-person relay who finished first in their division and we were the fifth team (out of all the riders—solo, team etc.) to cross the line. I can’t write without starting with myself, and the meaning attached to the miles, particularly this 508 of them.
It’s not quite warm and the sunlight has barely crested the Western horizon.
The sun is wan, lighting only the mountain tops and the shadowed areas are still frigid. I jockey into position among the (mostly) male riders as the lead car leads us to the foot of a Geiger Grade. The gears run smoothly on my bike, and I force myself to feel it in my bones that I am ready. My plan: to climb Geiger Grade as quickly as I'm able. I would like to think I could be among the first group of riders over the summit, but you never know who is going to show up at these things, and the years have taught me to focus on what I am capable of-- a personal best time, an efficient pedal stroke, etc-- rather than my place among competitors I do not know.
And yet, I don't feel "ready." Of all the feelings I have experienced (especially lately), feeling ready is not one of them. Instead, I feel insufficient somehow, and my one constant thought is that I am not good enough, not pretty enough, not fit enough, and not smart enough. If I actually wrote it all down on paper, the list of “not enough” would be a ticker-tape that would run farther than the distance of the 508. These are the lasting effects of an eating disorder which kept me from competing in any sort of sport my last two years of high school and all of college and of a general lack of self-esteem I thought competing would help me conquer.
Anyway, for this event, I really wanted to pretend I was ready and feeling spry, but inside, I was heartbroken (for reasons I will explain shortly) and not really wanting to toe another starting line.
STAGE 1: RENO TO SILVER SPRINGS
Up Geiger Grade: I take the lead until the first wide turn when three male competitors pass me. I reel in one of them, but the other two hold a pace that I cannot match. I throw up in my mouth a little bit with the effort of the climb (a feeling I would come to know well in the 508) but I do my best to talk myself out recognizing the discomfort as anything at all.
Of my competitors, I knew little-to-nothing. I didn’t even really know where I was, among them. I kept telling myself I was close to last, and I kept pushing myself harder. When I rode past the lookout, the Race Director (and my friend) Chris Kostman waved to me and snapped my picture. A group of cyclists from Reno— also friends— cheered me on when they recognized me.
Somewhere behind me was the other Reno team, Great Basin Ichthyosaur, led by “Rider A” Jami, a really great mutual friend of Rich and I and a strong cyclist. I expect her to overtake me at any minute. Every second of every ride will be spent waiting for her to pass me.
And then, there is a man on another two-mixed relay team who has directly accused me of cheating because I drafted a man (Rich) in a draft-legal road race (the California Triple Crown Stage Race). And although this is only my speculation, I believe he is in this race to prove that I'm not an athlete. As I climb Geiger Grade, he is somewhere in the mass of bodies behind me (right behind me, I thought.) So, I kept climbing, kept gulping back down chunks of that morning’s breakfast and coffee until I settled into something like a pace 800 meters from Geiger Summit.
The descent to Virginia City and down Six-Mile Canyon to Dayton is something like a roller coaster crossed with a drag race where I do my best to pedal in my aerobars the entire way down leaning hard into the turns. I make it down in one piece and a male rider (a part of a four-man team) passes me on the turn from Six Mile Canyon Road to Highway 50. He asks me what kind of team I am riding for. When I say “two-man” he returns a shocked expression and tells me something along the lines that "I am an animal."
I tell him, that yes, in fact I am : A Sanguine Octopus (the team's totem for which I ride.) In the flats, settle in the aerobars again. The male rider holds a faster pace than I do, but no one passes me.
On the way to Silver Springs, I see many things: I see a porcupine sleeping beneath a parked Jeep Cherokee, I see glass on the pavement glitter like stars in the morning light, I see rumble strips embedded in the pavement (which I avoid because I like having teeth) and I see the desert spread out around me the way it did when I was growing up and I lived in every sort of small Nevada town of which you’ve never heard, out at the end of a long dirt road, where people go to be forgotten.
STAGE 2: SILVER SPRINGS TO FALLON
The handoff is quick and the stage, a quick 25-mile time trial to the far end of Fallon where I’ll take over again.
I met my teammate, Brandon, at the first double I rode this past year, the Solvang Double. He is friends with Ichthyosaur-Jam/Richi and joined our group from Reno in the early-morning fog of the start. We ended up riding quite a few (OK, maybe most) of those miles together as Rich, Jami and the rest of our group formed a pace line behind us. Somehow, weeks after the ride, the topic of the 508 surfaced and Brandon was looking for a partner for the race.
I had asked Rich if he thought I could do it— I was focusing on Ironman, so cycling 508 miles at race pace (even if done as a relay) wasn’t exactly what I was preparing for— but in Rich’s usual style, he said "yes," and so I was registered.
Brandon was a 308 veteran and his wife, Stacey had crewed for him for that long, solo race. She would also be our crew chief for the 508. She would be joined by Dave Machan, another endurance cyclist from Reno who had been on the Solvang Double Century, too, and who (like a great friend) volunteered to follow me in a car at about 2:00 in the morning as I ride something like 11 mph up a hill for hours.
If that isn’t friendship, I’m not sure what is.
Brandon rides those 25 miles as though his bike has wings and he, a jet engine. At Harmon Junction, I run to the bike like I'm in a triathlon transition, hop on, and start pedaling further East, out into the desert which has turned hot.
STAGE 3: FALLON TO AUSTIN
After I’m out of sight of the team van, it takes me another five miles to feel normal again and to settle into my rhythm on the bike. Since it’s starting to get hot out, and I make a game of drinking water, sipping at every 40th pedal stroke until I lose count and fall into the whiteness of the flat around me and I realize that drinking on a full bladder isn’t really the best idea. I will have time to stop in about an hour: I told my team to meet me every 20 or so miles of this leg of the race (which will be 106 miles). I chose that distance because it would closely mimic the way support is distributed in Ironman and also in (most) of the doubles I have ridden this past season. There's no sense in changing things now, I reasoned.
There’s nothing out here and my mind wanders, specifically, to the question of why I am here at all. These days, I’m a triathlete (mostly) but I was once a runner. Actually, I was a pretty good marathoner. I ran a 2:47 marathon, missing the Olympic Trials qualifying mark by a minute. At the time, I thought I could amend my mistakes in life by training harder— 18-mile track workouts, 25 mile tempo runs. My career ended one rainy night in February of 2011 when only men had shown up to the track workout and damned if I was going to let them beat me! When my Achilles snapped in the rain that night it was like a worn guitar string, but just as final. This year, I wanted to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona. I didn’t make it. Granted, I won the California Triple Crown Stage Race, I had a Half-Marathon title, and a strong Ironman finish— but I missed the qualifying slots because my body is still recovering from that injury and I am not fast enough, yet.
I remember all this history as I climb Sand Mountain Pass. I ride across Dixie Valley. A Semi, passing another car, nearly takes me out head-on and I wonder who, above, is watching out for me. I ride. And, I ride. I can’t eat the boiled potatoes Rich made for me. I can’t eat anything until I stop. Instead, I drink vanilla Ensure cut with water like an old person. I wonder if I will need Pedialite like a child and if I have become a representation of the bookends of our existence.
I listen to music. Marvin Gaye tells me to just get it on. Taylor Swift advises to just shake it off. Becky G. tells me to break a sweat and then she admonishes me for not taking a shower (rightly so.) And then, I wonder about myself that I’m looking for wisdom in Motown hits and pop song lyrics.
It would be my Lady Taylor, though, whose songs accompanied me through the bulk of this race. Times when my legs can’t help but circle around those pedals because the music tells them to and I see some distant rider ahead of me. Their figure steadily grows and I know I am riding strong and so well. I feel weightless, as though I’m flying not riding. And when I go for the pass, the song reaches the point when the chorus swirls into the bridge as though this moment was meant to be.
You see me in hindsight, tangled up with you all night. I reach the rider when the words: Burn. It. Down. The lyrics punctuate my pedal strokes.
I’m burning it up as vans with other teams in them cheer me on.
At Middlegate, a race official watching the Radonneur riders nearly runs in front of me and I ride around him because I know I don’t have to stop at Middlegate. But as I ride to Highway 722, and I don’t see my team for 20, 22, 24 miles, I wonder if I did something wrong. Did I get us a time penalty? Are we disqualified? My mind takes this possibility and runs with it as I pass East Gate Ranch and into the canyon. I decide, as I pass a rider, they are mad at me. They want me to ride out into the desert and disappear. I turn off my music and consider the possibility in the utter silence of the desert.
Highway 722 is deceiving: as you ride into that rugged, desolate canyon it doesn’t look like you are climbing, but you are. As I plod on at 15 mph, I continue to worry. My feet have swollen from the heat and my pinky toes throb with sharp pangs. I know I have to take my socks off or it will just continue to get worse.
When I see the team van and Stacey, Dave and Brandon waiting for me, I half-cry. My team lets me sit in the shade and take off my smelly socks. I drink most of a Coke. The worst things in the world dissolve in the heat of the afternoon. They aren't mad at me at all: they'd missed the 722 turn and couldn't believe how far I'd ridden without them.
They tell me just to keep going, even if it's slow. I get back on the bike and smell the smell of recently-burned juniper. I sing a song to myself and I decide it is OK to listen to music. Two teams have ridden past us in the time it took me to calm down; I pass them both, humming to myself. I continue to ride and think about the fact that my parents rode this same route on motorcycles back in the 70's. I wonder about generational layers in the landscape as the beautiful violin of Lindsey Stirling carries me to the top.
Down into the valley: I rip. I fly. Totally aero until 6 miles from Austin. Then, I hold onto my pace as long as I can, but I am literally shaking and delirious by the last climb into Austin. I can’t hold anything in my stomach. Stacey: a mom and early child education specialist (a fact she’ll tell me later) offers me a juice box at the base of the climb. I wonder what about the expression on my face led her to do this, but I’m so happy for the sweet sugar, I could have cried.
I weave myself into Austin, somehow dismount the bike without falling and grab my bag of spare clothes. The exchange point is at a gas station, and I can hardly change my own clothes in the restroom because I am shaking so badly. I slide on the yoga pants and hoodie and then I think about asking for help for the rest of it I can't seem to get right. After several attempts, I give up on the reflective vest, deciding it looks much better as a neck wrap/scarf/avant guard accessory anyway. I throw myself into the van as quickly as I’m able and we’re on the road again.
Dave and Stacey talk about the beautiful sunset outside the window. But after I sip on chicken broth and water, I close my eyes, breathing deeply, and force myself to sleep.
STAGE 4: AUSTIN TO EUREKA
I remember very little of this stage, but I am told Brandon rode this one amazingly. I climbed into the van and we began the drive up Austin Summit. I sipped on chicken soup and water, while Dave handed me a french fry or two from the front seat. I closed my eyes when I'd finished all I could and I was asleep, or near-asleep, instantly.
The stage would be flickers of consciousness.
The smell of the desert at night. The slight humidity and grassy-smell from alfalfa fields.
I remember the slam of van doors, the smell of the desert at dusk, lights, and odd dreams where I am shaken awake by my body’s twitches.
STAGE 5: EUREKA TO AUSTIN
We arrive in Eureka, Nevada around 10:20 pm. I visit the restroom, lit fluorescent-white. I pull on another pair of cycling shorts even though I’d really rather not. A warm top. Knee warmers, new socks, full gloves, helmet, glasses and my reflective vest-scarf which I wear like a reflective vest. I am the most worried for this stage because I don’t race much at night.
I expect to ride 15 mph or less. When I clear Eureka, I pass two teams and I am feeling strong.
There is an old family story that my great-grandfather was a prizefighter. His strength was his endurance in the ring. No matter how badly things got, he'd outlast the other guy indefinitely (but that's another story.) I wonder if there is some part of that tenacity in me as I ride into the dark out of Eureka.
Out under the stars, I ride. I catch another rider. Then, it becomes dark. I can feel the irrigation of the alfafa fields as a moist cold across my face.
Then, the final climb does not seem to end. It was so important for me to go the Olympics when I was a little girl and a gymnast. It was so important for me to win the State Pole Vaulting Championship in high school. It was so important for me to go to the Olympic Trials when I was a marathoner. It was so important for me to qualify for Kona, now that I am a triathlete.
No matter what sport I chose, it has always been so important to me to always be the fastest and the best. The man who accused me of cheating-- who had wanted to show me how much of an athlete I wasn't-- is nowhere around me. I haven't seen him since the starting line of this race. I wonder about that, and what it means that these markers of "achievement"-- these artificial measures (how fast can you run a mile? how high can you jump? how fast can you swim 100 meters? Ride 200 miles?)-- have formed the central core of not only who I am, but how I understand my place in the world.
I see a shooting star.
I say: I want to be free.
STAGE 6: AUSTIN TO FALLON
Dave, my crew member, asks me to stay awake to keep him company so he doesn't fall asleep behind the wheel, but I nod off. I dream of Austin Summit. I dream of nearly hitting a jack rabbit, but missing him by inches. I dream that I call out to the animals of the Great Basin, asking them not to meander in front of my wheel that morning. I dream of eating a meal like I used to do. I dream of… I can’t remember.
When I wake up, Brandon rides in front us in the dark. He has trained so hard for this and I want to help him, even if that means staying awake so that I can help the driver stay awake. So, I try, desperately, not to fall asleep again so that his wife, Stacey, can sleep just a little bit. I talk to Dave. Then, I am asleep. I talk, then I am asleep.
Stacey takes the wheel just before the dawn. She says that she is glad Brandon has this leg because riding as the sun comes up is his most favorite thing in the world. He rides strong, tracing back the route I’d ridden the day before. There’s hardly anyone around us and it’s as though our team is the last four people on earth, riding through the Great Basin at dawn.
What remains in my mind for the rest of this race begins to surface with the rising sun, as I watch the husband-and-wife team who form the backbone of this 508 experience work together to cover the miles.
After all, there is always something of a hero-narrative in these things, and I guess that’s the nature of it: the first-person narrative of the athlete triumphing against time, the elements and distance— and sometimes, other people. Or, maybe this is the nature of me. I have always been the hero of my own story, the “fastest person” who cannot be touched or hurt; if you’re way out in front, all you have are the elements who speak in every way other than words.
But, there is something new before me: the curious and beautiful way that Brandon and Stacey know each other better, perhaps, than they know themselves. Brandon rides into the warm morning and we arrive in Fallon. He looks strong on the bike, but Stacey worries that he is tired from the long leg (most of which he rode in the dark and cold of early morning) and that he won’t have enough time to rest before the final push up Six-Mile Canyon and back into Reno.
STAGE 7: FALLON TO SILVER SPRINGS
A four man team starts their rider on the 7th leg at about the same time I clip into my pedals. He’s got an Ironman jersey on, like me, I decide that I should do my best to try and hold pace with him, since we train for similar events.
I settle low in my aerobars (even though my body advises against this position) and give it all I am worth.
We remain equi-distant from each other until we leave the Fallon city limits and merge onto highway 50 (off Business 50 which would have taken us to Fernley.)
I reason with myself that there are only twenty miles or so— hardly a ride at all, right?— and so I make my heart explode and pass the Ironman. All I have ever hoped for myself and more is ignited in my chest cavity: I am the girl running in quarter-mile circles around a track at night as the rain falls and falls, I hear the crowd and I can see their hands clapping like flickering aspen leaves in the wind. I can feel the water across my face in every swim competition I have entered and the weight of the medal around my neck. I feel the freedom that this life of an athlete has afforded me: the mornings and nights I share with only a trail, road or lake.
Or is it this other thing I begin to feel— this human frailty which suggests I am tired? The way that my muscles are not made of iron (no matter what my jersey says) or the way that I will always be slightly fat. Maybe it is a both freedom from AND a freedom to.
The other Ironman is truly an Ironman: tall and muscular: his team supports him every mile of that time trial. My team supports me as well, but I decided from the beginning that, for this 25 miles at least, there is no stopping no matter how uncomfortable I am. I keep with the Ironman. I pass him twice and we cheer each other on. But, after a slight rise in the terrain, he passes me. I let him out in front so that I am not drafting. And, no matter how hard I push, I cannot reel him back in.
There is a long descent into Silver Springs and from that height, I can see for miles. The distance doesn't seem as great to me as it did before this race. Or, I no longer have the fear that I won't make it to the end. I feel the warm desert air across my face and I feel the sweat dripping from my helmet and no matter what this life means, I know I will finish these things I start no matter how uncomfortable they might become.
In Silver Springs, I hand Brandon our tracking device and wish him well. It’s hot out and the air is still, which tells me that Six-Mile Canyon is not going to be an easy or fun climb.
STAGE 8: SILVER SPRINGS TO RENO
It is one of those strange things about Nevada: it doesn't feel like there is a headwind until you're on a bike. I watch Brandon leave the time station, I already wish there was some talisman, some extra-boost of team camaraderie or nutrition-- voodoo magic, even-- that I could give him for this leg to make it more bearable. But my work, good or bad, is done.
Brandon will ride along highway 50 for about twenty miles until Six Mile Canyon Road. Stacey watches Brandon closely, leap-frogging the van every few miles. She made me the world's best peanut-butter and jelly sandwich before we had to get on the road again, and I tell her so (but I'm not sure sure she believes me.) I try to disappear and to be as little trouble as possible, helping to fetch ice or water when I can. I worry, too, about Brandon if only because my last leg, though short, wasn’t exactly the most comfortable thing in the world. The time in the van— and the time on the road— has worn on all of us.
I worry about my friends, too. Where are the Ichthyosaurs, Rich and Jami? And, the man who dislikes me (whose totem, appropriately, is a crab)? His partner was the second-place female in the stage race (and very strong as well) but I have not seen anyone for miles. I miss Rich terribly-- especially his laugh--and even though I know I would have heard about it for months if he had passed me, he would have pushed me to train harder in the off-season so that I would get stronger. And-- maybe make it to Kona. Maybe. Or, what I miss the most is a relationship not defined by a start or a finish line, but something much more mundane and precious, something you don't find in the desert unless you bring it along with you.
Stacey, again, pulls the van to the shoulder of the highway and her eyes focus on the horizon-spot where Brandon's figure will emerge. I ask to help, but she is in full-support mode. After basically zero hours of sleep, I have no idea how she does it. Of everyone on this team, I had the easy job: get out early and ride the bike. Eat food. Ride the bike. Sleep, then ride the bike. Then sleep for a long time and ride the bike. How I got so lucky, in so many respects, I have no idea.
We guide Brandon to the easy-bake oven of Six-Mile Canyon. It is so hot that none of us want to stand in the sun while we wait for Brandon. When he approaches us, I see something of what I felt back on Carroll Summit (but he kept his socks on. :-) ) . His body is also incredibly over-heated which Stacey cues into immediately: she sits him in the van and directs Dave and I to help her with ice.
I let them converse because she has done this before, I know, in more than just endurance events (in life). I admire these two who let me spend 508 miles with them, to share something that, by its very nature, is intimate and close. Dave and I, we cheer Brandon on from the periphery and I am happy to do what I can from that vantage point.
Brandon, simply, rocks it. After we cool him down, he returns to the bike and rides up the remaining--and, very steep-- Six Mile Canyon as if it's nothing. Then, he continues to Geiger Summit holding strong pace the entire way. none of us can help but cheer. This is finally the moment I allow myself to realize we're winning, and I am giddy, I just want to hug everyone, but (to quote Robert Frost) "there's miles to go before I sleep."
Down Geiger, through Reno's streets: we cheer, we laugh, we wait for Brandon in anticipation. Dave drives, we pull over often until we see him behind us, and we start to drive again. As we near the finish line, text messages from Rich's family, my mom, our mutual friends: they are watching us win this race as a team.
I don't cry, but I could have when Brandon rides across the finish line.
We pose for photographs under the harsh, afternoon sun. It occurs to me that we rode 510 miles in 29 hours and 47 minutes. To do the race in under thirty hours is something of an accomplishment, I'm told. I didn't beat the man on the crab-team (he rode his legs a total of three minutes faster than I) but their total race time will be something like 40-hours (due to a medical emergency, I was told.)
Brandon and Stacey pose for a photograph together and it's lovingly fitting. Although wishes made on stars in delirium are not always understandable or even relevant, I can report that I waited in anticipation at the finish line to watch Rich and Jami cross the line, to take their pictures, to hug them and see them again. They are my athlete-family and perhaps I was wishing for things to stay exactly as they are. Or, to have the freedom to be a writer and an athlete no matter what the nay-sayers of the world may tell me.