2021 Trans Am Bike Race Day 4 Report
Wednesday June 9, 2021: An early finish means an extra early start the following day. Or does it? Not on this occasion it doesn’t, although my alarm did play its part. It dutifully jolted me from a fitful slumber somewhere in the 4 bracket………Arrrrrrgggggghhhh……..and promptly got switched off. I awoke a couple of hours later and immediately knew. It was gonna be a tough day.
I felt like I had hit by a truck. Everything hurt and/or felt worn out. Mind, body and spirit. I had been off the bike for 14 hours but felt worse than when I had coughed my way into town the previous early evening. I looked at the left over pizza with disgust but forced down some of the congealing, stale abomination. Services would be few and far between today.
It took a while but I finally sorted myself out and pushed my bike out into the……..brisk morning. It was 8:45 am.
My phone immediately rang with an incoming video call. My mate Scotty, the wind beneath my wings during my 2017 tilt and already a regular supplier of support and humor thus far. I let it ring out. I knew he would be wanting to know why I was kicking off the day so late and I just couldn’t be bothered explaining why.
I pedaled off out of town, thought better of it and rang him back. I needed cheering up and cell phone coverage had been intermittent at best. Verizon coverage was proving a poor choice vs AT&T who I had used 4 years ago. Better to take the dose of good vibes now when I could get it.
“There she is……needed some beauty sleep this morning did we princess?”
“Fuck off mate. I’m feeling shithouse.”
The following conversation which did become a little more empathetic and supportive in nature, hit the spot. It made my laugh and took me out of my own head for a while before it was rudely interrupted by a crap Verizon signal.
About an hour later I rolled into Prairie City, a little town that had its origins in mid 19th century gold mining. It definitely still has a bit of a wild west aesthetic to it. Now it supports timber milling and cattle ranching. There was a cafe open to my left that probably offered a good sit down breakfast option, but given I had only banked 20ks and it was already after 10am I headed to the Mini Mart opposite for expediencies sake.
I stocked up and sat outside for a while consuming some of what I had purchased whilst reading through some messages of support, a few from people I hadn’t heard from in years. A couple brought a tear to my eye. This race certainly captures peoples imaginations. Crossing a continent via such humble means, watching someone you know step outside their comfort zone and push themselves hard, inspires and brings people together. It is a beautiful thing and very, very appreciated and motivating.
I’d need all the motivation I could get. There was over 100 kilometres and 3 sizeable lumps to traverse before the next services in Baker City.
Clarifying the Conestoga Conundrum
There is a lookout par way up the 1st lump, a 14 kilometre tough affair that pretty much starts on the outskirts of Prairie City. It offers incredible views, particularly west towards the Strawberry Mountains and south-west towards the John Day River Valley from whence I had come. There is also an oversized replica of a covered wagon which serves as a memorial of the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail was a 3,490 kilometre (2,170 mile) east-west, large-wheeled wagon route that brought over 400,000 emigrants from the Missouri River to the promised land of Oregon’s Valleys, particularly the Willamette Valley, from 1830 to around 1870.
I have since learned that the replica wagon is not historically accurate in the context of the Oregon Trail……..dun, dun, daaaaaa. It is actually a replica of a Conastoga-style covered wagon which were not often used in the westward expansion of the US as they were too heavy for the prairies. Rather ordinary farm wagons fitted with canvas covers were used.
The Conastoga wagon, named after Conestoga Township in Lancaster County west of Philly (my neck of the woods – I’ll have to go check out the history in person), were actually used in colonial times for migration southward through the Great Appalachian Valley and after the American Revolution to open up commerce to Pittsburgh and Ohio.
Glad I could clear that up.
Anyway, I wasn’t planning on stopping at the lookout as I’d been there, done that, taken the photos but I was already suffering and needed a break.
Saved by The Austin House
The next 6ks to the summit of Dixie Pass took almost an hour. I was really struggling, something was definitely not quite right. My appetite was non existent but despite this I stopped a couple of times to force feed myself, thinking an abundance of calories may well hold the answer to my woes. On one of these stops I also actually had a little lay down by the side of the road for 10 minutes. It was very early in the race for cat naps but I could have slept for the rest of the day.
35 kilometres from Prairie City in 3.25 hours!
Another 100 odd kilometres to Baker City which included 2 more sizeable climbs and I was already running low on food and drink. Consumption was up, yeah and progress was very slow but it was becoming very obvious that I had bought nowhere near enough at Prairie City. At this rate I would run out well before the next services.
I was not thinking clearly and making mistakes. This could be a big one.
Incredibly lucky for me though, at the base of the descent was the Austin House Cafe and General Store. I had passed by without stopping in 2017 and had completely forgotten about this little oasis in the middle of nowhere. It was not in my route notes.
Owner, Christy came over to welcome me, phone in hand, taking photos. She had been keeping an eye on Trackleaders and was expecting me.
“You’ve got no idea how good it is to see you!” I said.
The cafe and general store was closed but Christy showed me to the 2 little rooms that were set up next door specifically for passing cyclists. They were incredibly well stocked with food and ice cold drinks. I helped myself to both and gazed longingly at one of the beds but given the days pitiful progress it just wasn’t an option.
The conversation flowed and Christy took me on a bit of a tour, opening up the general store to get me some ice-cream and then the restaurant to show me the highlight of the space, a beautiful two-piece mahogany bar which had been built in Chicago in 1864 and then moved to its current location in 1959 when the Austin House was the centre of a now non existent bustling lumber milling community.
It was a very necessary stop but a long one. We took another few photos, said our goodbyes and then it was back into it.
It was 1pm. 46 kilometres in the bank.
Do I Really Want This?
Back into it heading north east on State Highway 7 and surprise, surprise the 2nd climb of the day started hurting. I just couldn’t seem to shake this malaise I was in. All of Day 1, a lot of Day 2, pretty much all of Day 3 and all of Day 4 so far.
It was all getting a bit too much. I could see no light at the end of the tunnel.
Do I really want this?
My body had been totally depleted by Thursday night / Friday mornings food poisoning and was still a ways of being back on form. I was exhausted and I was letting it all become a reason to question my desire to finish the race. The mental strength, the grit, the stubbornness that I had been built up over 35+ days of ultra racing and all those long training days, was starting to crack.
Thoughts of quitting started to dominate the internal discussion.
Maybe this year is just not my year.
I am so far behind schedule now. What’s the point?
I am only doing the Trans Am again because I couldn’t get to Australia for the Indy Pac. Maybe a second attempt was never meant to be.
I have 2 ultra finishes to my name. I don’t have anything more to prove.
Score check: 70% quit, 30% undecided.
Fuck This, I’m Gonna Quit!
The first 50 kilometres of the day had taken me a gastropod’ish 4.5 hours, the second 50 just over 3 hours. Still slug-like but definitely trending in the right direction, unlike my mood which was tipping me further into the quitter camp.
The negative chat turned from convincing myself I should quit to convincing others of its merits.
These multi-week racers don’t operate in a vacuum. My actions directly affect others. From my wife whose sacrifice of time, treasure and peace of mind allows me to train for and participate in these events, to the friends and family who buy in and gain some enjoyment and escapism from dotwatching, to the schoolchildren and mountain biking team of AIM Academy in Philly who are relying on me for inspiration and to help raise money to commemorate their fallen teammate, via “Sam’s Place“. They all had a vested interest in me finishing. I would need to be pretty damn convincing.
Was quitting due to feeling run down after suffering a bad dose of food poisoning 2 nights before the race really a good enough reason? In my current headspace, it absolutely was and so I spent the next 1.5 hours on the approach to Baker City fine tuning an excuse laden diatribe in my mind that I would post on Facebook later in the day.
After battling a block headwind into Baker City I pulled into a gas station on the outskirts of town to buy a drink (I had run out of water earlier – when it rains it pours) and to book a hotel. As I sat in a booth, the late afternoon sun streaming through the window, the enormity of the decision I was about to make hit home and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a little tear or two.
But my resolve was still firm…….Fuck this, I’m gonna quit!
Score check: 95% quit, 5% undecided.
Friendly Faces in Baker City
Main Street, Baker City is a really impressive main street. A wide, dead straight road flanked either side by wild west-like facades of a wide variety of business premises, big mountains off in the distance in every direction. Riding down it was actually making me feel a bit sad though. I couldn’t believe that this was going to be the last port of call in my adventure. I hadn’t even made it out of Oregon, damn it. I thought back to the last time I was in town, mid afternoon on Day 4 of the 2017 race. I had stopped for lunch and a few other racers had pulled up to join me, ultra-running legend David Horton, Kenny Cherry from Texas and Aaron Ehlers from Minnesota who has since become a good mate, amongst them. The difference in mind set was stark. Here I was, on the brink of quitting whereas 4 years ago my body was tired but my mind was still fresh and bursting with excitement at the adventure of a lifetime that lay ahead.
A cheer from further down Main Street broke my reminiscing.
There was a hatchback car with trunk wide open displaying a wide range of food and drink, 3 people waving and cheering.
“Yeh Mark………welcome to Baker City!”
I was quite overwhelmed and it took me a few seconds to work out what was going on. It was local artists, dotwatchers and owners of a local bike hostel Brian and Corrine Vegter who had set up a little spot welcoming us racers into town, complete with refreshments and broad, friendly smiles. Such a lovely surprise.
I had a great chat with these guys. They told me all about the almost 100 year old unused Elementary School, the Churchill School that they had purchased a few years ago and were in the process of restoring and converting into a multi purpose complex that could be used to host events and concerts as well as house artists studios and a bike/ski hostel. In fact there were 2 Trans Am racers currently at the hostel, both of whom had scratched. I was sad to hear that one of them was Simone Bailey who had succumbed to knee problems. Such a strong racer, one of the youngest on the “circuit”. She’ll big back!!
Brian and Corrine said there was plenty of room at the hostel but I declined, given I had already booked a hotel. I did say that I may well be in contact the next day though as I was also probably going to scratch and would need some tips on how to get from Baker City to Portland.
That was the first time that I had said the q word out loud. Now that I had had a good laugh, a bit of human interaction and got outside my head for a while, quitting all of a sudden seemed a little less like the right course of action. But it was still very much on the cards.
Score check: 80% quit, 20% undecided.
“No Decisions If You Are Tired, Cold or Hungry”
I said my goodbyes and maybe see you tomorrows to Brian and Corrine and pedaled off down Main Street before chucking a right and cutting through the back streets to my hotel on the far side of town, where I added an extra night to my booking. If I was going to quit I would need at least 2 nights accommodation in Baker City to sort the logistics of getting to Portland.
I unpacked my bags, rather emptied the contents all over the floor, disrobed, turned on the TV and lay down on the bed.
Ahhhhhh, thats better!
I rang my wife and explained to her that I was thinking of quitting.
I had had a similar chat on Day 4 of the 2019 Trans Atlantic Way (a theme developing here per chance) and her reaction of sheer incredulity had shocked / shamed me out of the quitting mindset. This time she was equally as incredulous but I stood my ground, still believing that I was doing the right thing.
“I’m just so bloody empty…..I just…..I just don’t think I can go on.”
The conversation ended with me agreeing to sleep on it. To a certain extent she had talked me off the ledge but I was still very much teetering.
Score check: 50% quit, 50% undecided.
I then flicked through my phone to check the socials. Earlier in this post I mentioned that I was raising money for Sam’s Place, a new space (a converted shipping container) at a school (AIM Academy) for kids with learning differences near where I live in Philadelphia where students of the school and the greater local cycling community can gather to learn about bikes and how to fix them. It will also serve as a place to honor the memory of Samuel Ozer, a recent graduate of the school and member of the mountain biking team who was hit by a car and killed riding home from his summer dream job at his local bike shop, on fathers day 2020. The mountain biking team who had been out on a training ride had tagged me in an Instagram story which included a message of support.
It hit me like a slap to the face. I knew in that instant that I just couldn’t quit. They were relying on me!
All of a sudden I was confronted with other possible solutions to my woes. I went from being buried in my problems to problem solver. Ok, I’m feeling shit, tired and depleted, no need to quit, how about I take a rest day instead?
A new plan started to percolate. I felt better for it, relaxed and kicked back to watch some TV whilst flicking through some more messages of support. Two messages in particular hit home and helped………a lot! One from Mike Benigni and the other from Andrew Shand (ref below) …………..love you boys!
Score check: 70% take a rest day, 30% see how I feel in the morning, 0% quit.