This ride was a different kind of grand randonnee than any I have ever done before. Sure it was a big distance, but in all honesty, LEL was 1450k when all the K got counted so that wasn't the real issue. This ride was an experiment in style where I tried some things I have never tried before. Those experiments led to some fundamental changes in the way I ride, but also reaffirmed some of the philosophies that I have held for a long time. It has take a long time to come up with a blog entry for this ride as a consequence - the ride was in September 2014. But perhaps one worth understanding.
This was also the ride that pushed my lifetime total of RUSA kilometers over 40,000 and with it I achieved the Mondial Award, a goal 6 years in the making. I don't usually discuss awards, but this one was unique. I've always wanted to ride around the world.
The one thing that was odd about the Natchez Trace 1500k was that the organizers were very clear about the challenges. Controls every 90 miles with mandatory bonus miles for additional food, no on route SAG or check in, no dinner on night number 1, and a route where my cell phone simply wasn't going to work at all. I had also found out that I could no longer eat beans or peanuts. I've been to that part of the country as a very young girl and grew up across the river from Kentucky. The southern part of the country is stunningly beautiful and in many ways can be a trip through time to a simpler age, but that comes at the price of the convenience and variety that some of us have come to expect from modern living. Things are NOT 24 hour on the Natchez Trace. I am not a super star fast rider; with 279 miles to the first overnight, I had to plan on at least 24 hours meaning a 4:00AM arrival. At least one other person I knew of dropped out of this ride due to concern about not being able to get the food they needed to complete. IronK looked at this ride and came as close as she ever has to using her veto powers. She pointed out that I had just had surgery and no matter how well I was feeling, this was to be the longest ride I had ever done.
So we compromised. I went to Pecos Lara, who has crewed RAAM, and explained the situation. Looking at the roster of riders (a star-studded rando cast if ever there was one), I thought it was highly likely, I'd be doing lots of this alone. I had a brand new body and no idea of my pace. I had dietary restrictions piled up like dominos. I also had a conversation with the RBA, I had no desire to saddle him with a peanut issue on an already challenging-to-organize brevet. In the end, Lara would basically meet me at every control with the food and fluids I needed to make the journey. That placated IronK who finally said yes.
An entire 1500k without junk food? Inconceivable!
So while I was at it, why not see what eating better food could do for me? There were only 2 cities of any size on 450 mile trek from Nashville to Natchez, Tupelo and Jackson. Lara and I drove to the start in my Prius and stopped in Cincinnati for a day to pick up supplies and make overnight meals with my mom (who is a great cook). We focused on pasta salads and incorporated ingredients that had less chance of spoiling. People did get along without refrigerators for thousands of years and still do in many parts of the world. Meals focused on cured meats, yogurts, hard cheeses and the tougher fruits and nuts. I also stocked up on the custom sports drink that I use - it doesn't have any artificial flavors or colors and has very little flavor - I've always had a tendency to hate sweet flavors after 3 days of riding.
|Typical breakfast, organic granola, bananas, and greek yogurt|
I will also say that I knew I would have to approach this ride with a really clear head about pace. I would simply have to ride my own pace whatever it was. I figured I would be dead last anyway so I had better at least have lots of fun and enjoy it.
I'd like to say that the start of this ride was a picture of serenity. But that just never happens. The night before the ride started, biopsy results came in for my step father, who was diagnosed with lung cancer and my sister had a fall off the proverbial wagon and was forced into the psyche ward after a suicide attempt. Lara was quite concerned that I couldn't focus on the ride; she was right too! Fortunately, we were so well prepared that the only thing the ruckus caused was me to not be able to find my camera for the first half of the ride.
This ride started and finished at the home of one of the organizers, which I think was part of a farm. The start was at 4:00AM in late September - there would be about 12 hours of darkness a night. The darkness and the somewhat closer quarters made it hard to locate people and the start had a huge downhill for a mile or so to get to the Trace proper.
For those that do not know the area, central-western Tennessee is very rolling, but without major climbs. The approximate route itself is thousands of years old, first forged by animals, then by toughened trappers, pioneers and 19th century entrepreneurs. It basically avoids all the major climbing from the Gulf of Mexico to Nashville. It is the longest National Park in the country but though it is very long, it is not very wide so the natural setting is sometimes a little deceiving. No commercial truck traffic is allowed and there are very few cars. The fact that there is no shoulder is thus not a problem. There are no stop signs or traffic lights.
|Yup, bikes get the full lane if they want it.|
Collinwood to French Camp
The hilliest section of the trace is the 90 or so miles between Nashville and Collinwood. In the darkness, it was hard to pace on the rollers with so many people bunched up and no clue where I actually was. After an hour or two of ups and downs, I found myself riding alongside one man with the sun emerging in effulgent splendor and a nascent tailwind. I would actually wind up riding with Pete Dussel, one of the New York RBAs for about 300k. Rising temperatures from just above freezing led to views of valleys with hills poking up from a sea of fog as the sun ascended. And me without my camera... The two of us enjoyed a friendly chat and a not-so-pokey pace; we stopped for about 5 minutes at Jack's Branch (all water stops on the Trace have cool names) and we pulled into Collinwood (90 miles) at about 10AM - nearly a 6 hour century. Here, a large number of riders were congregated waiting at the grill at the Exxon Station. Lara was waiting with lunch already spread out. As I hurriedly stuffed my face, she filled my bottles, added more snacks to my front bag and chatted up friends. Lara is one of those people who is a natural talker - she knew half the people on the ride and met the rest at some point. She had also upgraded from being my support to being a roving support driver. The organizers had added roving support on the more remote parts of the Trace at the last minute. That really helped out in making this ride a once-in-a-lifetime kind of ride - I would have never gotten to meet the many volunteers otherwise. In true southern fashion, they were all kinds of friendly.
Sitting eating grapes at Collinwood, I was feeling great. The tailwind was now picking up and I stayed but 20 minutes at this stop. Pete's wife, Marcia, was doing a similar form of support for him (we were the only two on the ride with personal support) so I find it odd that we would wind up together. But coincidences do happen. I did some quick math and realized that at this rate, we'd arrive at French Camp, the overnight, at around 1:00AM. That really didn't seem possible.
We pulled out together and began the flatter section of the route. Collinwood was just north of the Alabama border and we paused for a photo op at the state line, chatting with other riders as the miles rolled by. I was to see many of these folks on and off over the next 4 days. The descent to cross the Tennessee River was particularly fun with a huge barge passing underneath and a full sun in the sky. We stopped at the rest area just past for water and pressed on, the wind at our backs. The rolling continued, though not nearly as steep as the previous miles. These were the Freedom Hills of Northern Alabama. The temperatures started ascending to a-bit-hot stage and we stopped at least once to get water from a ride water station. The tailwind just kept going...the hills were incredibly green and the forest was the color of late summer, but not burned out the way I often think of it. This was late September after all.
By 5:00 PM, we rolled into Tupelo, and the only traffic of Day 1.
Pete needed a bit more rest and I was anxious to get going so I took off with Mike into the now gathering dusk. We picked up Vickie Tyer along the way - I've known Vickie for years. Previous to this ride, our relationship was mainly forged having conversations late in rides that we can't actually remember (I at least have photo evidence that we were together for a time at LEL). The three of us sped down the Trace and traffic disappeared as we left the vicinity of Tupelo. It was 25 miles to Witch Dance, where we would be able to refill on water. This was probably the longest stretch without a rest area. Apparently, sequestration had led to a cut back in some of the water alongside the trace. But the services that were there were immaculately clean. The three of us stuck together for about 10 miles as the sun went down, but Vickie was on a recumbent and this was a flat section, I was digesting and our pace was just not similarly, we yo-yo'd our way around for a while still in sight of each other, but not really together. The stars emerged and I was blown away at how stunning they were. The moon had not yet risen, the Milky Way would shortly make its appearance in grand style. You don't get to see something like that frequently and I had never expected it so far south.
We arrived at Witch Dance to the sight of a UHAUL crowded with riders. One of the volunteers was making sandwiches. I'd intended to use the facilities here but there were so many people and I was just not mentally prepared for the crowd. Lara was there helping out with the UHAUL, though she couldn't provide me any assistance. Another rider, SpinBob who was also on the ride, filled a bottle for me and I took off with some real vigor. Certain situations can do that to me and perhaps thoughts of my family situation(s) were still boiling the blood a bit. I still had to use facilities and it was now miles to the next opportunity. We had been warned against using the side of the road. In the dark, I pedaled for all I was worth to get to relief at Jeff Busby, about 40 miles away.
SpinBob and a couple from New Jersey eventually caught up to me and kept up for a bit. I might not have been the most pleasant person to ride with since my bladder was doing most of the talking at this point. I made some comment about riding my own ride instead of saying something more graphic like, "my bladder will explode at any moment if I slow down". Needless to say, I rocketed into Jeff Busby like no one's business for final relief. It was just on midnight and I didn't linger here either. SpinBob and I wound up doing the last 15 miles to French Camp together, pausing only once for me to put arm warmers on. We arrived a bit past 1 AM. Astonishing! 279 miles in only 21 hours? It hardly seemed to be me. Of course, I was probably also the last randonneuse to arrive as well since I wound up being the only one on a top bunk bed. I had an excellent dinner of more pasta salad, some deli meat, tortilla chips and coconut water. Then off to sleep. With lots of time in the bank, I figured starting at 7 would be fine.
French Camp to Natchez
I dropped off at about 2 and slept restlessly; it was quite cold and my top bunk was under a fan. I woke at about 5:15 and quietly did some sitting yoga poses in my bed to wake up. I did manage to nearly kill myself climbing down too. A shower and my standard breakfast of fruit, greek yogurt and organic granola later, I was ready to go right on schedule at 7:00 am. It was still quite cold but it was past dawn and I rolled out of French Camp alone continuing the trek south. My legs felt stellar and my front bag was loaded with pannellettes (a homemade spanish almond cookie), grapes, bananas, nuts and some organic fruit chews.
Not more than half of mile from the turn onto the Trace, I saw a rider in front of me. Catching up, I saw his jersey and realized he was from Cincinnati.
|Jim from Cincinnati|
We would wind up stopping a couple of times to chat with volunteers and for water along the trace. I ran into the riders from New Jersey again, another set of people to leap frog with. It was a cloudless day and a perfect cycling day. The trees had begun subtly changing. Now magnolias dotted the landscape and we passed a cypress swamp, the bulbous trunks rising from the water reminded me of stories I read as a child about life in the south.
So we pulled off the Trace into the control at Clinton to a choice of stops. I missed seeing Lara and we went to a deli instead. She had seen me go by from the gas station and met us a few minutes later. I bought some potato chips to get a receipt and to sign my card. Again, I had a lovely lunch of one of my pasta salads and I supplemented with the salty potato chips and drank some Pelligrino carbonated juice that I like when it is hot. We changed out food on the bike and I was off once more. Next stop, Natchez!
The next few miles were fascinating. Alternately, they looked like Iowa, Minnesota, France, all manner of places. Rather than boring, we both agreed the ride was like a chameleon, we saw different aspects of every other ride we had ever been on in every mile. There were large tracts of farmland close to the trace, small streams, forests, magnolias and even spanish moss started appearing, languidly clinging to the trees.
We made it to the hotel at just past 10PM with an astonishing 9 hours in the bank - double the previous night. As promised, there was a very interesting cajun spiced potato and catfish dinner. I have no idea where Lara got it, but it was delicious. I have to confess to developing a new skill of bathing and eating at the same time.
|Michelle - RBA Mississippi at Natchez|
Natchez Back to French Camp
The next morning, I got up and reloaded the bike. Surprise! I found my camera - it had been in my rack bag all the time with my spare tubes. I slipped it into my pocket determined to make amends for having no pictures at all for the first half of the ride.
Leaving at 5:30 for the 300k back to French Camp had been in the name of keeping a couple hours in the bank. We could have left a little later and been fine in hindsight. But leaving now allowed us to experience the entire cycle of dawn. If you have never done it, you should try to do this at least once in your life.
|Dawn on the Trace outside Natchez|
|Field of webs, hard to see, but they are there|
Just at the bottom of the big hill we ran into Cathy, who I knew from LEL. We would wind up leap frogging and riding off and on until she eventually decided to not finish. But in the meantime, all of us marveled at the roadkill that had also appeared overnight. I hadn't seen any one the way down. Now it looked like a small army of armadillos had met their fate in some untold battle. Must have been something in the air but having never seen an armadillo in the wild, I felt it necessary to take pictures. I won't post them here. Cathy said I missed the best one with the big tongue anyway.
Post roadkill, Vickie and some of her friends from Florida caught up to use and we were together for a few miles before they made tracks - riders from Florida are destined to be experts in the flats and this was the flattest section of the route.
|Riders from Florida Approaching|
I was quite hungry hitting Clinton and availed myself of more pasta salad. Lara had also managed to come up with a treat of a shake from somewhere which I downed like water. Vickie was around at the same time along with several others. I found myself in the middle of the pack for once. About 5 of us left together and just as we left Clinton, we lost someone as a hub exploded out of nowhere. I wound up dropping off and spending the rest of the afternoon riding along through Jackson and back to the Cypress Swamp.
|Vickie, note BBQ Sandwich mounted above her rear lights|
The two of us had a nice pedal to the overnight with the stars emerging. We got in around 9pm with only a couple hours of darkness. One of the men from the pace line came up and apologized for unceremoniously dropping all the randonneuses in the group. At least he was nice about it. No harm done. I realized at this point that I had 12 hours in the bank. I had just returned to French Camp in the same 15 hours as it took to do the previous section. And I felt great. I had time to chat with Michelle, Lara, and another woman for a few minutes before heading to bed. Since I had the time, why not get a full night's sleep? This time, I took extra blankets to my top bunk and turned the fan off. That and the increase in the nighttime temperature made for a much better sleep. I slept in until 6AM - 7 full hours of sleep. With a bit more yoga, a shower and another fine breakfast, I was off again at around 7. This day would be shorter, 150 miles.
French Camp to Tishomingo State Park
The next morning I got up, got ready and left with Vickie. We quickly met up with Jerry Phelps who may be the most well-groomed rider I have ever seen on the 4th day of a grand randonnee. The three of us stayed together until Witch Dance (about 100k). There we stopped to another UHAUL and volunteers who had picked up an abandoned puppy along the way. He was exhausted and some of the riders had watched him being left behind by a car.
|Volunteers at Witch Dance|
|Please find me a better home!|
|These are not recyclable!|
The next point of interest was the detour for the few extra miles we needed to make 1500k to Okonogon. Strangely, the riders from Florida passed us getting back onto the trace as we exited. Odd, this wasn't an out and back; I realized after looking at the cue sheet that miles without paying attention do take a toll, many people did bonus miles here thinking that the stop in Okonagon was an out and back when it was a triangle. This was the only time on the entire ride that I wound up fearing for my life. Vickie got ahead of me since there was a furious headwind that direction and a recumbent rules in the wind. The road had a limited shoulder and many logging trucks. It was only 8 miles off the Trace to the control (a gas station), but about halfway, I felt a sudden surge and a roar next to me. I realized too late the the logging truck next to me must not see me because IT WAS RIGHT THERE! I swerved to the right into a sand pit and unceremoniously ground to a halt nearly falling to the ground. It happened so quickly I couldn't believe it. I'm pretty sure the driver never knew I was there. The event definitely woke me up. Jim passed me in the opposite direction and I tried to warn him he was off course, but he also was frazzled by the traffic and simply continued on.
At the control, I met Lara, Andy Sorenson and Vickie. We had quick eats and griped somewhat about the miserable traffic. We also checked the cue sheet again and were relieved that we didn't have to take the same road back. The actual route was far nicer with few cars. It also saved about 7 miles. I was hooked on grapes at this point but the ham and croissant sandwich tasted amazing. So did the pellegrino.
The next few miles to Tupelo were uneventful and we were so happy to be back on the Trace. I hadn't realized how spoiled I had become riding without stop signs or cars. It wasn't yet as hot or as sunny as the previous day, but it was quickly clearing. The ride back to Tupelo was fun.
|The tandem takes a break - traditional rando nap|
|Vickie and Andy at Pharr Mounds|
Michelle and Lara were busy putting together a camp fire to make smores. I sat with them eating my customized pasta salad and other food. I still felt great and enjoyed sitting with them far more than in a crowded cafeteria full of men. The night was getting chill again and I finally cleaned my plate and took a shower in the bunk house. Vickie and I made plans for the last day. We only had 150 miles to the finish. The real debate was when to leave. There would be a detour off the Trace as a bridge had been closed for repairs. Though several might not have followed the detour, the Trace is a federal road and a ticket on it is a major deal. Neither of us was in the mood to risk such a thing. A family emergency for Lara had also come up and a coincidental bombing of the Chicago air traffic control antenna had left us with a change of plans: she would go with Vickie back to Dallas to get a plane to Arizona instead of returning to Minnesota with me. The various factors and our huge time buffer led to a decision to leave at about 3:30 AM. It was only 8:00 PM at this point. If we went to sleep, we'd still have a full 6 hours even with the early start.
Tishomingo to Nashville
We met at the car at 3:15 and had breakfast. The bikes were already ready. We pulled out of Tishmingo at a bit before 4:00 AM. Very few people were in sight.
I think one rider passed us on the Trace before dawn. As we took the detour, we were concerned about getting lost. We stopped at a gas station for additional directions. A very nice man gave us complete directions and details including landmarks for the entire thing. He then made me repeat everything back in its entirety - fortunately, I'd had enough coffee to accomplish said feat of memory.
The last 90 miles were fun for both of us; this was a hilly section. It isn't often that recumbents and uprights ride together, recumbents are fast on downhills and tend slower on uphills through simple physics. I had to immediately kick into my highest gear and pedal downhill very hard to keep up with Vickie. That said, my climbing was ever so slightly faster except on the one hill that needed by lowest gear - Vickie had a minimum speed to stay upright that was faster than mine. We passed waterfalls, overlooks and the many views that had been hidden by darkness during the start. It also got a bit hot too. We tried chatting up another rider but eventually realized that he wasn't actually on our ride. There were many bikes out having fun on this day. The odd thing was that in the 4 days we had been gone, it was suddenly fall. Colors were starting everywhere as though we had ridden summer out of gas.
Our last stop was at Garrison, about 25 miles from the end. I drank a bunch of water and stretched. After over 900 miles of riding, I might have finally gotten enough riding for a week.
At the entrance of the Trace, we stopped to take pictures for a few minutes at the big sign. Then we took the exit ramp and turned onto last road for the final climb to the finish. Sure it was kind of sadistic to put a big, stiff climb in traffic at mile 930, but the finish was sweet! Vickie and I rode to the finish side by side with someone taking a movie of it. It was just before 4:30 PM, we had over 11 1/2 hours in the bank. There was much shaking of hands and rejoicing. We'd managed to stick together, despite our differences in bikes all day And what a hoot too! I got to hear all about riding in Texas - now I want to do the Stampede next time it comes around.
|Two Randonneuse Teams: Lara, Me, Vickie and Dottie. |
Behind every great woman - there is an even better one
This was an incredible ride. Not once did I have any kind of stomach or digestive issue of any sort. That is an absolute first. I felt like I could have gone on another 300k (I'm glad I didn't since the next day it started raining). I know that the diet was a big part of that. Having only gourmet food for 5 days of riding was something I will probably never have again. And I still firmly believe that in order to finish these kinds of rides you have to be willing and abel to "eat the Twinkie" if that is what it takes to finish. But those foods wear on your system too; they take a toll as time goes on. And without someone like Lara to drive around with a cooler, it just isn't going to be practical for the long haul on most 1200k rides. But at least now I know what I can focus on to make my life better if I want to continue this stuff. It was so nice to ride without bleeding in my GI tract for the first time in lord knows how many years.
This ride saw the lowest DNF rate of any grand randonnee that I have ever been on; only a few could not complete. Perfect weather coupled with a beautiful, low traffic route and so many volunteers made this a really special ride. It wasn't anything like the initial description and the participation of at least 2 RBAs and two clubs made it an epic experience for everyone. The sheer distances - 3 states (we were only a mile from adding a 4th) made this ride a logistical challenge. Jeff Sammons probably slept a week after this. I saw him at least 4 times on this ride. More than I have ever seen any RBA on a ride. Many of the volunteers drove and served people for those 930 miles. Kudos to all of you.
So many thanks to Lara for sharing this adventure with me. I couldn't have don't it without her. My thanks also to Pete, Jim, Vickie, and everyone else that I had the pleasure of riding with. Though many friends had to bow out, this did help me ride with others that I would not have otherwise met.
I am not a fan of the term "ride your own ride". Though I do believe in the spirit of it, I think it is used to frequently to justify egotistical behavior (such as accelerating a pace line to 28 miles an hour without concern for the others participating in it). I think I prefer the term, "ride the ride that brings you joy". I have my own rules for the road, most of which are deeply personal and rooted in my own experience. This ride was one where I followed them to their logical end. But I might as well say that despite it all, I like riding with friends too. This ride had a certain anonymous nature for me so if I am writing this blog to anyone, it is for those friends who were not on the ride. Perhaps that is why it has taken so many months to complete.
|My favorite selfie|