Unsuccessful Gravel Worlds Long Voyage

I have never written about a failure before. 


 I mean, I have written about a failure that became a different odyssey or a series of failures that was embedded in a greater win, but never just a failure. I was never able to write up my experience at Dirty Kanza 200 (now Gravel Unbound). But since a month ago when I DNF'd at Gravel Worlds, I figured this write up would be part of the healing process. 

I signed up for Gravel Worlds Long Voyage (300 miles on dirt roads out of Lincoln, Nebraska), the first one (!), in January when Claire Law was on the fence and asked my thoughts were. My response was "oh that sounds exactly what I need to stay focused this year, I'm going to sign up!". 

Cue training montage. But honestly, it was just my normal riding at volume, living for experiences. Exploring ATV trails around Sedona. Biking under the stars in Borrego. Finding hills in Bisbee. Adventures in desert training in Santa Fe. Big rides in Steamboat Springs over mountain passes. Rescue by ATV in Helena. Lovely evenings in Lincoln. 

Of the many things that went wrong for me in this race, the single greatest contributor was the overwhelming fear that I was not ready for this event, mentally or physically, that started to sprinkle my thoughts in June. Riding in Helena, I knew something was wrong - I never finished a single big ride I set out to do in Helena. Instead of building on a base I had been working on for years, I found my foundation had massive cracks and I was getting seemingly weaker every ride, fighting my decline with rampant denial and trying to double the intensity of my rides with an energy I simple did not possess. 

By the time I arrived in Lincoln, I knew that it wouldn't be a race for me, it would be a survival at best with my current fitness. I couldn't talk about the event because it caused so much anxiety for me, I would start crying. I wanted so badly to be myself, to be this person who could take on any challenge with a smile and overcome even the worst of days, but where that Lo had gone and how I could get her back was a mystery to me.

It's so easy to think everything is great for someone based on an ever-present smile and beautiful pictures, but I've never been one to wear depression on my sleeves or admit to weakness... it's chicken and egg - the minute I start thinking I will fail, I will, especially at these long races. I suppressed these thoughts and visualize the finish... but it was utterly terrifying for me that I couldn't visualize the finish of this event at all. 

But I showed up to the start, and I think that was mistake #2 - it's funny how many people offered "well at least you showed up!" as a consolation prize and something to be applauded, but as more time passes, I am increasingly convinced I should have never showed up with the level of mental and physical exhaustion I was experiencing at that time. I cried that morning -- I was so far from excited or hopeful, and that should have been my second warning that I should have scratched there rather than have to be extracted from the race later. 

Now, the positive bit - it's a great event. The organizers are enthusiastic, genuine, and, well, organized. The roads and experience was beautiful. One of my all time favorite memories on the bike came from this event - climbing dirt farm country hills in the dark with heat spider lightning on all sides around us on the open prairie. I met some fantastic people while out there, heard their stories, and it was amazing to be able to start a race with the two Claires. I think if you enjoy ultra-distance events, this is a great one to consider and well worth the journey. It's hard without being stupid hard, and it's as is advertised - a long voyage. 

The reason I do these type of events is because at some point during the event, I get to see who I am at my core. There comes a "low" or a moment where I have to make a decision to press on or quit and it's in those moments, I'm just really proud of who I've become over the years. It would be nice if I didn't have to bike 200 miles to get to that point, but it's always a very powerful experience for me, and something that sustains me in the darker moments that may happen over the rest of the year. I like who I am

So, I fought. 

I can definitely say I fought 100% with the cards I was dealt and could not have done better. In the first 50 miles, the weather changed from oppressive heat and humidity to a full torrential downpour, and (for those of you who know me well) you'll know this triggers migraines for me, so I had a brain-splitting migraine (obstacle #1: oof). At the first gas station, I took 3 ibuprofen (lol moment: random unlabeled white pills from a stranger) and then found excedrin extra strength at the other gas station in town (took another 3 of those...). My migraine curbed to 50% in the next hour, and I pressed on. 

Then, from the rain storm and mud, my phone would no longer charge. So no music for me. Obstacle #2, which sounds minor, but after reading some ultra cycling blogs later, I realize this had it's own mental tax and is demoralizing / induces fear ('what if I run out of battery?'). Turned off phone, very disappointed I couldn't listen to the playlist I had made for this event (and was the one thing I was really looking forward to, I kid not), but... pressed on. 

At some point before 1 AM, after having a delightful conversation for over an hour with a nice man from Tennessee,  I called Yee and Daniel. I was falling asleep on the bike (obstacle #3 - exhaustion coming into the race), was alone, and I had no idea how I would finish -- it was only like midnight! I still had to ride through the night. They buoyed me, and I kept going... I soon encountered a couple who I had met before. They asked how I was doing, and I confessed not well - I was falling asleep. They stopped and offered me some more unlabeled white pills ("caffeine pills") which they promised would make me feel better "almost immediately". Ho boy, they were right! So I pressed on, getting to mile 110ish and stop #3. 

There, obstacle #4, people around me dropped out of the race left and right. There's really nothing that questions your hope and sanity like trying to find a friend to ride with and everyone is saying "sorry, I'm done". I felt great from the caffeine pills (migraine at 20%) and was still eating and drinking well. I figured I could make it and should try. So... I pressed on. 

But things got bad after this stop. Mud. Mud. Mud. An endless slog through mud. I walked probably 1.5 miles, and that was a GIFT from my enormous 3 inch tire clearance, most people had to walk closer to 4 miles. More people dropped out. I was starting to have trouble eating, my pocket burrito tasting like sand. The sun started to rise as I pulled into a gas station with several others at 5 am-ish. 

This is when I knew I was totally, irrevocably screwed. I went to eat at this gas station in Beatrice, desperate for real food, and every thing I tried tasted like sand. I ate potato chips, my typical staple, with  forced mechanism, agonizingly swallowing it down every time they started to come back up (obstacle #5, 'when I can't keep things down anymore'). I sat on the curb feeling dead and totally lost as to what I should do. I was only at mile 140, how pathetic am I that this is the end of my race that I've been "training for" for 8 months. This guilt propelled me back on the bike, to find strength that I had no idea where it was going to come from in my current state. 

"Yee I really don't know how I am going to do this" 
I made it maybe 5 miles out of town before everything started feeling like a death march. I would get light headed, pull to the side of the road and just sit down. At one point, I called Yee again (5 am his time) and I cried tearless-tears (very dehydrated at this point, hadn't peed since like 3 pm the day before) as I told him I had no idea how I was going to get through this. Yee did his best to comfort me without just sending me on to my doom. I don't remember how, but I got back on the bike and kept pedaling. 

And I kept pedaling and pedaling and pedaling. Hoping for some miracle. Around mile 160 mile, I gave up. I knew I was done, but I didn't know how to get out of this mess. There was no nearby town. Well, there was Wilber. I'll make it to Wilber, mile 175. I acquired a friend at this point -- he kept me company between 160 and 170, knowing I was in bad shape and unwilling abandon this dead weight he just acquired (he said he was "enjoying the conversation", thank you kind friend...). At 170 when it was getting hot, I convinced him if he wanted to actually finish, he needed to leave me. "I always find a way home". 

After he left me, I called the race organizer with my now very limited battery and, blessedly, he answered and found someone to come get me from Wilber. I was stopping every 10 minutes now to catch my breath / not pass out, and I focused every part of me on getting to Wilber. Maybe I could have "believed" my whole way through to the end of the race, but honestly, it was herculean from my viewpoint to have inched my way to Wilber. 

Upon arriving at the gas station in Wilber and having not been able to eat for hours, all I wanted and could envision eating was pizza. So I go in and I see that they only have bacon pizza available. I stop and stare at it for several minutes. I can only imagine how I looked - this mud covered, salt stained, exhausted cyclist who clearly has been through something staring at this slowly spinning pizza display that has only bacon pizza. My little mind was spinning slowly too - "I am vegetarian..." "how badly do I want this?" "will this make me sick?" 

--> fuck it, I'm getting the bacon pizza. 

And so, after 7 years of being vegetarian, for the first time, I deliberately broke my ethical and moral code sitting on a curb in Wilber, Nebraska, eating a slice of pizza that didn't even taste good, it just didn't taste like sand as several very nice locals offered both me and my bike a shower if we wanted it. 

I was rescued, driven home, and there's a bit of a montage of getting back to the apartment, changing clothes, and laying in bed to sleep for the first time in a long time. However, after a two hour nap, I woke up to find myself in worse shape than I had been upon arriving home. I was still unable to eat and now having trouble drinking water, I hadn't peed in over 24 hours, and my head felt like it would explode. When I tried to stand, my heart did bad things and vision started to blur. After a consultation with Yee and Daniel, I called 911. It was absolutely the right choice - I was able to close my eyes and rehydrate and after a several hours, they set me free. I ordered pizza on the way home, this time bacon free. 

That was my race in all it's glory, but the story's still not done. I still haven't gotten to that part where I find out who I am and what I like about myself, and mainly because I don't think that part has happened yet. These failures trigger all kinds of existential crises for me, and this experience has been no exception - contrary to popular belief, I don't really enjoy crying on the side of roads in Nebraska or having to go to the ER. 

I've been asking myself uncomfortable questions. Who I am without biking? Am I interesting or is my self description going to be "works in tech, loves cats and books" ? Do I even care if I am interesting to other people? What is most important to me? When did I lose this optimistic, undeterable version of myself? I might disappoint every person who ever cheered me on during a bike race or looked forward to "seeing what you'll do next". 

One thing I have realized is that one of my challenges with this year is that I have totally normalized biking 100+ mile distances to the point where I just expect it of myself. There was a point where this was an unbelievable goal for me to achieve, when I was becoming bike girl. Now, every weekend I don't do a century I ask myself "did you even try? What is wrong with you?". I have to figure out how to re-normalize and stop beating myself up for not always pushing my own boundaries constantly, or at least find a way to be happy when I can't.

The rest I'm still working on, one day at a time. To be continued.

PS I don't think I would have made it anywhere, before or after, without the love and support from Claire, Claire, Yee, and Daniel. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and recesses of my soul for being there every step of the journey, even when it was in spirit <3 

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