The open desert, the raw landscape, the elements, the wind: there is something about the Silver State 508 that brings me back to my keyboard long after I’ve crossed the finish line, and I’m not quite sure I know what it is. I’ve raced this year more than I have ever raced before (a somewhat funny statement, given that the handful of crits, road races and TTs I’ve done is a relatively small number when compared to the “real” cyclists out there)— but I think it has to do with the line between the inner and the outer people we are. It’s an odd thing to say that those two versions of ourselves meet in the saddle of a bike (because, for me, that’s where my inner self tends to take the main stage) , but for an event like the Silver State 508 (at least, the version of it that involves a team and/or crew) this is the 48 hours when the inner and outer versions of ourselves collide upon the backdrop of the stark and terrifyingly beautiful Great Basin.
But, the race this year came at a time when I’m starting to feel the passage of the years in a different way than before: It is not just another season with another handful of races, but rather a time in my life when certain facts about who I am and what I stand for are inarguable. This realization came to light at another local relay race this year, the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey (a 178-mile race). It was the morning of the race’s finish and half of our team who had completed their legs of the course gathered for breakfast at a local cafe. One man, making conversation, asked me: “So, you’ve never been married?” And confirming that made me realize that I am a certain kind of a woman who, knowingly or not, has refused a more conventional way of life that, these days, fills my insta and facebook feeds.
The smoke that covered the Great Basin for nearly all of August added to the uncertainty with which I faced the end of this cycling season: have I really chosen one way of life over another? And, if so, is that necessarily a bad thing? The orange light and fireside smell lingered as my cycling miles dwindled to nearly nothing. What is a cyclist without a bike? I began to look into the past for clues as to what brought me here, and where I might be going.
So, enter the Silver State 508: it’s my fourth year racing in the event (fifth year participating— I crewed for a team the first year the event was moved to Nevada) but it is the only year when I’ve been keenly aware of home and the roads upon which I traveled, some of which I have intentionally forgotten. The event came at the precise moment when the smoke from the fires cleared, and the warmth of summer is replaced by a sharpness in the air that touched the tips of cottonwood leaves yellow. It is one thing sport has taught me, no matter what discipline in which I compete: time matters.
And, it is the time in my life when I’m reading writers from the American West, and Terry Tempest Williams, who tells me: “It’s strange to feel change coming. It’s easy to ignore. An underlying restlessness seems to accompany it like birds flocking before a storm. We go about our business with the usual alacrity, while in the pit of our stomach there is a sense of something tenuous. These moments of peripheral perceptions are short, sharp flashes of insight we tend to discount like seeing the movement of an animal from the corner of our eye. We turn and there is nothing there. They are the strong and subtle impressions we allow to slip away.”
The flicker of migrating birds or an antelope crouching in the alfalfa fields in the Reese River Valley. Rabbits, deer: flickering on the shoulder. These are the glimpses a cyclist sees.
7:00 am: Reno, Nevada.
The starting line is colder than I remember. This, I know, isn’t true because in previous years I wore a green Patagonia puffy jacket that, this year, has mysteriously gone missing. It was the jacket I bought when I first moved back to Nevada after graduate school, when I couldn’t afford much and wanted—more than a job or any other tangible thing— to cross the finish line of an Ironman to prove to myself that I was strong enough to endure most anything. Finish I did; and funny, now, how that accomplishment translates to the starting line of every race.
Team vans were not permitted to drive up Geiger Grade to accompany the riders, so we took a different route through Carson City and up highway 50 where Six Mile Canyon road meets the loneliest highway. Tillio was the ninth rider to complete the stage, including the solo riders (who had a two-hour head start.) He had a total ride time of 2 hours, 50 minutes— and a demeanor that was all business. So much so, that at the exchange point, he sprinted past our second rider, Rich, until our screams made him come to a screeching, rubber-burning halt, so that he could hand off the GPS tracker to the next rider.
9:50 am: Silver Springs.
The cold of the morning faded into a pleasant 70-degrees with a light tailwind that would be precipitous on the following day. Yet, for now, the morning was just about as perfect as a morning can be on a September in Nevada. Tillio’s other half, Renee, arrived at the start line before all of us, cheered on Tillio and followed our support vehicle to the first exchange point to support us. “This is so cool!” she said, again and again, and texted us pictures that she had taken of Tillio riding. The first leg **might** have convinced her to participate in next year’s event—or, at least, we hope so. Maybe we can get more than one or two local teams in this incredible race.
Rich, our second rider (who would cover the 31 mile Stage 2), left in a blue flash, and our Crew Chief, Linda (who also crewed for my team last year) had quite a time herding us all back into the vehicle so that we didn’t let Rich finish without us. There was just too much to talk about: the newness of racing not only this distance, but this span of time; the challenge of balancing the demands of the body (“I had to pee for that whole stage,” Tillio admitted afterward) with the demand of not sacrificing the team’s goal of a good finish.
The second leg of the Silver State is relatively flat and is known as something of a TT. Many riders bust out the beautiful and streamlined (and UCI illegal) time trial bikes in order to get the best time. Rich, who is something of a local legend and TT animal, usually eats this stage alive. And, once we got on the road again with Tillio in the back of the subburban, Monica in the middle seat, and me riding shotgun, we sped over a slight rise and old Lake Lahontan appeared on our right. That was about when we caught Rich— a good ten miles in, and I was glad we had left when we did.
Low in the aerobars, and head down, Rich would later say that he was trying to maintain 300+ watts for the entire stage. This is really too bad because, about halfway through the stage (well before the Fallon city limits) Monica and I made good a pre-race promise that we would moon him. This, despite the fact that nudity is technically illegal in the 508 (although we weren’t really naked. Or, most of us wasn’t naked.)
Rich was so focused on his watts, however, he missed the rare astrological phenomenon of a double moon rising on a mid-morning September day.
The second our maroon-colored suburban pulled into dirt parking lot next to the Harmon Station (the last gas station before the vast expanse of salt flats to the East of Fallon), we received two SOS requests: one, from a race official who informed us that a solo rider’s Bianci bike had a serious issue with the seat post and another, from a two-woman team, whose back tire kept going flat.
I hadn’t been responsible for packing the race vehicle: I had packed the stuff that would be packed into the car, but I left the practical, engineering of forcing what amounted to ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag (to speak metaphorically) to someone like Rich who is better that kind of thing than I am. So, short story long, I had no idea (really) where anything was except for my race gear, which I packed into a single bag and placed behind the driver’s seat.
I quickly dashed into the convenience store (knowing I had very little time to waste) to manage my hydration (a quick pit stop followed by the purchase of a large bottle of water.) The leading team, Coconut Crab, was already gone.
11:12 am: Fallon.
I see the flash of a blue jersey and the motionless upper body in a TT position before anyone else does. Monica, our third rider, was doing something by our vehicle with Tillio, Renee and our Crew Chief, Linda. I shouted to her that it was time to ride, and the exchange happened quickly: Monica, in her red Audi jersey, was riding out into the salt flats for a 112 mile stage, and Rich was back with us (sweaty) and ready to repair a leaking tire and to part-crew for a solo rider whose team was in search of a missing part back in Reno.
The salt flats to the East of Fallon are desolately beautiful. Or, desolately scary, depending on how you look at them. Tilio, at some point during this section of the race, commented that: “I wouldn’t ever have actually looked at this part of the state. Usually, you drive through here on your way to somewhere at, like, 70mph. I’ve never actually looked at this as a place before.”
This is highway 50 writ large: human population: 0; sky: at least 70% of your view at any given point. The salt flats reflect the light, and are so white they can almost look like snow.
We stop to take pictures of Monica riding by Sand Mountain (a famous local landmark), and over Sand Pass, an old Mig Aircraft buzzes the old highway in the Dixie Valley, which also serves as the Navy’s practice bombing range. The highway, here, parallels the old Pony Express Route, and I make sure to capture evidence of that— for what reason, I’m not sure; maybe the juxtaposition of past and present, a reminder of how a place, even as desolate as this, can change.
Approximately 1:30 pm: Middlegate.
About three weeks before the Silver State 508, I had to replace my phone, which means I lost a lot of my contacts that had been saved on the older one. So, these days I receive a lot of text messages from phone numbers and I have no idea who is trying to communicate with me. In some ways, this has been an interesting experiment in “how well do we know our relationships with other people?” and at times, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that a particular turn of phrase alerts to the identity of the ten-digit number. Other times, the technological screen obscures the sender’s identity, and I really have no idea who is texting me about a book on raising chickens.
This was what happened during the third stage of the race. I received a text: “Hey Team Icky! What the ETA to Middlegate?” Someone in our Great Basin Bicycles community was following our progress, and, I would soon learn, was hoping to meet us at the iconic Middlegate (an old ranch that is now a bar/restaurant and (sort of) hotel. Thanks again to Rich, I learned that this was Moira Shea, a cyclist from Reno who has ridden on the CompuTrainers in our shop during the winter with not only Rich and I, but also Tillio and Monica.
Middlegate isn’t exactly the place you ever expect an unexpected encounter, but in 508 miles, anything can happen.
Approximately 1:49 pm: Carroll Summit climb.
The gentle tailwind changes to an all-around wind, swirling through the mouth of the canyon that once hosted Nevada’s largest alfalfa farm. That changed in the 1950s when an earthquake altered the water table and all but one farm dried up, and the region drained of water and population.
Monica has been on the road for nearly four hours, and we still haven’t refilled her bottles. I take her advice to be a little more forceful as she passes us, heading into the Carroll Summit climb: “Drink that water, bitch!” (Earlier that day, she told us that we should end every sentence with the word “bitch” so I was only following instructions. The other team, for solo female rider, Mighty Mouse, really looked at me as if I was crazy when I yelled that to Monica.)
Monica, however, laughed.
Approximately 2:46 pm: Carroll Summit climb.
The wind is everywhere. Monica, at some point, says “I feel like I am going so slow.” She is not, but that’s the trouble with this section: it doesn’t look uphill, but it is. The wind certainly isn’t helping. Rich passes off water, Coke and electrolytes. We leap frog her up to the top.
Monica, who is strong and brave, continues climbing.
Approximately 3:38 pm: Carrol Summit, Smith Creek side.
We let Monica gain speed down the opposite side of Carroll Summit. Although she was cramping, she seemed to enjoy the beautiful canyon lined with aspen trees that flickered in the wind like sequins.
Before the mouth of the canyon opens to Smith Creek, we pull off the side of the road, and re-organize the race vehicle. Tilio is an expert at this, and I let him re-arrange and organize. Geroge Vargas, ten-time Silver State 508 race finisher and former Race Director and always-legend Chris Kostman (in his blue Saturn) join us on the shoulder of the road, and we collectively toast with sparkling water, exchanging memories of this route, upon which all of us have trod (and ridden) many times.
We encounter a traffic jam on the Loneliest Highway in America.
After we leave Chris Kostman and George Vargas, we go in search of Monica. Around a blind corner, we encounter Monica, another rider and another crew/vehicle. People are spread out all across the road. Rich fears the worst (that a rider had crashed and had been injured) and hops out of our support suburban before we had even stopped.
We see a herd of longhorn cattle blocking the road. The other team informs us that the cattle are blocking the road and every time they try to herd them away, the bulls charge. Rich takes charge (literally) and starts running toward the herd. I, somewhat concerned, tell our crew to start driving because Rich really doesn’t need any more holes in him. Linda, our Crew Chief and driver, honks the horn and, eventually, Rich successfully herds the cattle of the road so the race can continue.
(PS: Check out the facebook page for Great Basin Bicycles HERE for video coverage of the biggest traffic jam on America’s Loneliest Highway.)
5:48 pm: Austin.
To say I’ve had my doubts about myself as an athlete this year would be putting it mildly; It’s hard to say what exactly happened, or if it was just a bunch of crap all at once and the sheer volume of it broke me down. This year, I started racing in the classic cycling scene, a.k.a.: the USAC-sanctioned road events which means, for the most part, [boring] crtieriums held in flat business parks with big, wide roads and one or two horrendous road races with basically zero support. I fared decently in the early season, earning a few points (but not enough to “upgrade”) and a reputation as the girl who is able and willing to pull an entire race but who can’t hang with the sprinters when it comes down to that kind of finish.
Then, you know, there’s the local guys who really don’t like racing with me every week, and I know it, but I race with them anyway because it’s great training. And then there was the week of four races, three of which were heavy on the climbing and the final one, a running race, for which I hadn’t trained— which made me worn down and sick enough that I actually worried I was developing chronic fatigue. And then the fires which covered Reno and the Carson Valley in a thick layer of smoke for a month, and I finally just found something else to do other than ride the bike since my body, my community and even the elements seemed to be plotting against me.
So, I didn’t exactly feel prepared for this. Like, I’m so scared at the start of the stage that the bathroom thing happens, and I gain a few watts per kilo before I even start the climb up Austin Summit— which, I have to say, is a hell of a way to warm up after sitting in a support vehicle taking artistic pictures with my phone, herding cattle and drinking water all day.
It’s still light out when I start—maybe a half hour before sunset— and the temperature is perfect. I don’t really have anyone to chase but how fast I think I was last year, and so the initial climb up Austin Summit and the second climb up Bob Scott Summit is a litany of self-abuse on how fat and slow I’ve gotten, now that I’m a “retired” old lady. But after the first two climbs, I realize I’m not doing myself any good— the wind is beating me up enough by itself, it doesn’t need my help to make the ride more difficult. So, I settle in a pace and refuse to look at my power meter, but instead I absorb the absolute beauty and silence of this place.
And it is: beautiful.
This, I think, is where the magic of this race began, and why I’m writing this blog. For an entire season, I had been focusing on the end of things: the finish line, my age, the fact that I am not a certain kind of athlete and never will be. However, as the desert painted itself under sunset’s palette, I started to wonder if this isn’t some sort of beginning—like a renaissance— in my life. When I can race the kinds of races I want to, and to do them for myself and not anyone else. When I can define a standard of beauty that is not a magazine cover or pinterest post of some generic one-size-fits-all, but that is an expression of who and what I am. When I can accept what the universe has given me: my strengths as well as my weaknesses. And then it occurs to me that beginnings and endings are really one and the same— they are distinct moments in time only recognizable after reflection and silence.
I remember watching the light slowly fade and the landscape around me was only detectable by the way it smelled like sage. My team told me I passed a handful of riders—this, however, I don’t remember. I remember seeing my team and support vehicle one last time before the climb into Eureka, a shining and flashing beacon on the shoulder of the road, and they asked if I needed anything. I usually hate that part of the stage (an uphill at the end of 70 miles? Really?!?) but this year, I accepted the landscape for what it was, and I waved them off to prep Tilio, our next rider.
I climbed the final ascent alone in the dark, not painlessly, but moving forward, pedal stroke after pedal stroke. The lights of Eureka turned the world light again, and the local bar, called "The Owl Club” flashed its brazen neon signs, lighting my way to the next time station. I stopped before my team: I couldn’t ask, but I wanted to know: how did I do?
But, there isn’t time for that in a race like this. My bike was racked as soon as I arrived and I, still sweaty and breathless, stuffed into the backseat, given a burrito and told to get some rest. I didn’t even get a chance to pee.
Just like that: we were back on the road, back toward Reno, back to where the race began.
9:07 pm- Eureka.
I don’t remember much from this stage. I remember how hard it was to change out of my cycling kit and into dry, warm clothes in the seat of a moving vehicle in the dark. I tried to drink water and eat, but my stomach was too excited from the ride for much of that. I ended up laying down across the bench seat, closing my eyes and trying to sleep. Monica and our Crew Chief, Linda, claim that I was successful and that I was murmuring nonsense as I slept. This is probably true.
I do remember snippets, though, of Tilio’s 70-mile stage back to Austin. I remember we stopped, and there was muffled conversation. At some point, I woke up to hear that there wasn’t enough water or supplies up front near the driver and passenger seats (everything was stored in the back of the suburban) and that everyone, like me, had to pee. Rich, because he had Stage 6 (the long, night leg) was still soundly asleep in the bench seat behind me.
Tilio rode steadily in the night. The flashing lights on his frame cast programmed lighted patterns across his bike, like a jellyfish. It was mesmerizing to watch, and made the typically-painful direct follow less painful. After the race, he will tell us all that he liked the experience of riding in the dark. The lack of data (not being able to see his bike computer) and the lack of reference points made it a surreal experience. “With the light— it looked like I was riding uphill the entire time,” he said. “And I was going over twenty miles an hour uphill, so I played this game with myself that I was totally badass!”
The final climb— which is actually two climbs (up Bob Scott Summit and then up Austin Summit) can seem ridiculously long in the dark. It is also mentally challenging for a rider: Bob Scott is a long enough climb that a person can’t help but feel some sense of accomplishment when the climbing stops. You think you’ve reached the top and that the stage is nearly over. However, as the downhill turns upward and the pedal strokes don’t come so easily anymore, you realize “this isn’t over yet.”
I felt doubly bad for Tilio who, two-thirds of the way up Bob Scott Summit, stopped and admitted that he could use a pit stop. He decided to power through, though, which made the “false summit” (I imagine) equally demoralizing. However, he completed the ride—even missing a doe, and keeping the rubber-side-up on his final descent into Austin where Rich would take over for the 116-mile stage to Fallon.
1:42 am- Austin.
Our team’s exchange in Austin was not fast. Everyone had to pee, and Rich wasn’t exactly excited about getting out on the bike at 2:00 in the morning. However, it wasn’t as cold as it has been in recent years: I didn’t have my puffy jacket with me, but I really didn’t need it. I was tired, though—my “sleeping sickness” was starting to kick in.
I wandered aimlessly with a bag of garbage in my hand before I found the well-marked garbage can under the bright fluorescent lights of the gas station to which it belonged that was, you know, right next to our support vehicle. I was grateful for the light-up bra I had on over my reflective vest, however: it made the Porta-Potty less scary in the dark with its flashing pink, green and blue hues.
When I got back to the suburban, I realized I was delegated to the co-pilot’s seat next to crew chief Linda who would not let any of us drive for THE ENTIRE 508 MILES. (FYI: LINDA IS AMAZING.) I knew we were in trouble though; even on the descent out of Austin, I was already falling asleep.
There are many things I can do in life: write grant proposals, raise chickens, ride my bike and make the most amazing roasted corn salsa; I can’t, however, stay up all night no matter what is going on. I have no idea why— so whatever aspirations I’ve had of raving or whatever in the middle of the night are totally out of the window. I honestly don’t even think drugs could help me. I’m wired like a chicken (which is funny, because I’m totally a chicken lady! But that’s another blog post.)
Luckily (or unluckily) Rich got a flat on the downhill, and we pulled over to support him. I woke up and jumped out of the car, holding a mag light and the light on my cell phone above the wheel so that he could work. “Awake,” I told myself, “awake, awake, awake.”
It didn’t work, though. Rich started riding through the Reese River Valley and I basically fell asleep right away. However, (and to my credit) I had already prepped his Ensure bottles and water, so I was ready to hand whatever he needed out the window. My performance as a crew member is best described by crew chief, Linda: “I have never seen anyone wake up, roll a window down, and hand off seamlessly. That was amazing in and of itself. [You] never missed a beat. I should have videoed that—crewing while sleeping!”
Rich, though, faced his challenges. Dodging bunnies, he also battled fatigue and nearly rode himself off the road, only to shake himself awake in time before hitting gravel. When the sun began to rise, Monica, Tilio and I started to stir and witnessed a cloud-covered sky that kept the temperatures well above the 19-degrees they were last year at this point in the race. The Dixie Valley slowly grew brighter and brighter, and as Rich climbed Sand Pass, we witnessed a beautiful sunrise.
Arguably, though, the toughest part of Stage 6 isn’t the climb up Carroll Summit, but instead what waited for Rich: the wide expanse after Sand Pass. Imagine this: you’ve already ridden four or five or even six hours. Then you get to the top of this climb and you can’t even see ALL THE MILES you still have to complete in order to reach the next exchange point. The road, from the vantage of Sand Pass, is a long and steady straight line of blacktop that vanishes into the horizon point.
It isn’t all that easy for teams or crews, either. Official rules dictate that direct follow doesn’t end until 7:00 am. Rich didn’t stop for his entire ride, so we were all crossing our legs waiting for the final minutes to change the hour.
Then, let’s just say that the salt flats received an unexpected increase in the water table.
Rich later told us that the last miles of this stage were demoralizing; nothing in this vast landscape seemed to change. Once we left Rich at the Fallon City Limits, we charged ahead to the exchange station where bathrooms with plumbing and a cute little coffeehouse offered us comforts like lattes and cinnamon rolls—all that the desert simply cannot.
8:14 am- Fallon
Monica and Rich make the exchange while Tilio and I are walking back from the coffeehouse across the street. I half-think I should spring across main street and take a picture but then the sane part of me tells me I’ll get run over by a semi, and that that would not be great for our team result. So, I keep walking with all the coffee drinks, and I’m sad I missed it, but it’s get real here: I’m worn out and dirty and tired, and I just tried to “clean up” in a public restroom in a coffeehouse which is only mildly better than the baby-wipe shower that happened sometime last night in my sleep-sickness delirium.
And, I’m racing in about an hour— and at this point, I’m not hungry at all. Crew Chief Linda asks me when I’m going to eat my pre-race sandwich (a ritual of mine) and I reply I won’t (mostly because I don’t know where the ingredients are anymore) and then Rich begrudgingly gives me a piece of KFC that is literally the smallest piece of chicken known to man (it’s the size of a quarter. Literally). after I ask him for one, and I’m like “OK, fine, I won’t eat before this stage,” and he falls asleep because he just rode 116 miles in the middle of the night.
I think about having to argue with a homeless man for the KFC bucket of chicken the day before, and I wonder why Rich won’t give me more chicken. And then I realize that I’m half-crazy from the miles and this life of constant motion. I say hardly anything to anyone as the miles draw closer and the headwind picks up, and I realize I’m going to have a difficult final stage of this race.
9:44 am- Silver Springs.
It’s not a breeze. This is WIND.
WIND in my face, wind that Monica says “sucks” as I stuff the GPS transmitter into my back pocket. I don’t even know how to explain the thoughts in my head: “why can’t I ever have a tailwind?” was probably one of them as I set off the wide shoulder of highway 50. But, I settled in and became optimistic: maybe my short (petite) stature would give me an advantage in this stage of the race? (There is less of me to blow against?)
I pass the first female solo female finisher (Mighty Mouse) at the roundabout and feel simultaneously inspired (holy crap: that girl has ridden nearly 500 miles already and is still standing) and grateful (the wind, for me, is more of an annoyance than an obstacle. If I had ridden 500 miles and encountered this headwind, I would be seriously pissed.)
I continue into the headwind, averaging 3.8-4.1 watts per kilo put movingly only 12-13 mph. When I make the turn to Six-Mile Canyon, I hope the wind will die down. But, in true Nevada fashion, it doesn’t. The headwind follows me to the climb and my heart starts to feel like it will explode. A part of me panics: Rich isn’t out cheering for me, and I start to think any of our riders would be faster than me right now.
When Rich emerges from the vehicle, I try to get him to make me stop. He doesn’t take the bait (he knows me too well) and I just keep climbing. I’m so slow, though. It’s painful the way I just have nothing left—I’m not tired, I’m just breathless and I think of how antelope have a wider windpipe that allows them to supply oxygen to their blood and I wish I was an antelope on a bike.
Jeni Root, who donated our support vehicle, runs next to me up the steeps before the final turn in V-City.
The descent off Geiger is terrifying. I mean, really. My bike jumps across the road and I move my hands from the aerobars to the drops to keep myself upright. My internal dialogue tells me that Rich will be upset I’m not aero for this, but I am so scared from the strong gusts of wind that nearly push me into oncoming traffic, that I almost start crying.
I try to make up time on the flats through Veteran’s Parkway (using the tailwind I finally get) but I constantly worry that I cost my team the record from my not-so-great performance up Six-Mile and the slow descent. But, at a certain point you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself and what you’ve done (or not done)— and you have to own it and deal with it in the present moment with what resources you have inside yourself.
I’ve promised myself that I will finish the races I start; that I am dedicated to whatever guts I have, I lay down in the race. I may not be the best, I’m going to be the best version of me—the one who gets to the finish line, no matter what.
I ride my best to the finish line, and I let myself smile when I can see it. I’m so grateful for my team, and all I can do is smile and pedal, and hope it’s enough. That, though is the crux: that is what athletes do.
We finish our Silver State 508 journey at 12:33 pm, PST, which means we completed the 508 miles in 29 hours and 33 minutes. We capture a course record by over an hour and my stomach can untie itself.
Even though the race has ended, there is something about those miles, that landscape…as soon as I cross the line we start talking about next year.