Arkansas High Country, day 10: Ponca to Witts Spring

Previous: Day 9, Marble to Ponca

Ponca to Witts Spring - June 17, 2019
74.3 miles, 9,295 feet of climbing / 10:26 moving time, 13:15 elapsed time

I woke with an early alarm and was out the door by sunrise. There was just enough light to make my headlight unnecessary, though I ran two taillights to increase my visibility in the mist. After a good night's sleep, my head was in a better place, and while I was intimidated by the day's elevation profile I felt calm and positive. This looked like the last really hard day.

If I could make it to Witts Springs I could make it to the end, and I was newly determined to reach the finish line. Ally had finished the previous night. At that point only three women to date had attempted the route: Ally, pro cyclist Rebecca Rusch, and me. I was most certainly not going to be the only girl to quit.

6:47 a.m.

The Ponca climb reinforced my decision to stop early the night before. Much better to slowly grind up the pavement in the cool morning mist than to drag my depleted self up in the afternoon heat and Sunday traffic. The wet road was evidence of Mother Nature's kindness towards me; once again the rain had fallen once I was done for the day.

I celebrated the summit with coffee and a breakfast sandwich (and one to go) at the convenience store in Compton. An older gentleman stopped to chat as I was loaded my new food onto the bike, first curious where I'd come from and what roads I'd taken (once again I had no idea what roads I'd taken), he then asked, "Where you headed?"

I told him, indicating the direction, and he replied, "That's the wrong way!"

"It's the scenic route," I responded, riding away in happy anticipation of the downhill payoff from my morning climb. My friend Tracy, who'd previously ridden in the area, had warned me that the descent could be a little harrowing, but I wasn't worried. I've got lots of experience on shitty roads; I'd ridden Moondance Road earlier in the race without problems.

This in no way depicts how bad the road was.
8:20 a.m.

The trip back down could best be described as Shawnee-esque, a comparison that, as anyone who's spend much time on those national forest roads knows, is not a compliment. Imagine my dismay when I found myself at times walking my bike downhill through steep, rutted, loose rock rather than coasting easily to the bottom.

Also 8:20. I think the point of this was how pretty it was or maybe just how high up I still was.

Still, amid my frustration and irritation with the road, I marveled at the ways my adventure racing background and earlier bikepacking overnights had prepared me for this race. I might not be good at riding roads like these, especially ten days into a race when my mental fortitude had been strained to breaking, but I was familiar with them. Those Shawnee hike-a-bikes with Chuck hadn't been fool's errands; they were ARHC training gold.


I'd ride until I lost my nerve, then walk until my feet hurt, repeating the pattern until my irritation with my wimpiness finally shamed me into staying on the bike. Easing my way down a muddy, chunky downhill, I slid out on a wet rock and toppled over, my first fall in nearly 800 miles.

Sporting nothing worse than some new bruises, I reassured myself out loud, "You're're ok," I sat on the ground crying for a minute, then thought of 14 year old Kate crashing on pavement and jumping right back up. I remembered my friend David's line: "Winners cry on the bike." Well, I wasn't winning anything, but I could at least keep moving.

Finally at the bottom. Though terminally afraid of wet low water crossings, I think this is the first one I'd walked in the race.
8:45 a.m.

View from the crossing
8:47 a.m.

Things leveled out after finally reaching the bottom of the downhill, with only a few moderate climbs between me and Jasper's many services. Once there, I stopped first at a grocery store before again quickly retreating from the overwhelming options. Further down the road I found a Subway, which had become my official ARHC food stop. I devoured a pizza and and bought a sandwich and cookies for the road.

I had to climb out of Jasper on a paved highway, shrinking into myself as cars and the occasional logging truck passed me. While climbing 300 feet over a mile was only a quarter of my first climb of the day (though that one was over 4 miles), it had a much better payoff. Swooping down the paved backside, I felt a confidence I rarely experience on a bike and laughed knowing that I'd be afraid to drive those curves at the speed I was riding. No cars were passing me here.

Of course, at the bottom of the descent the road turned right back up. I quickly slowed to a crawl as I earned back all the elevation I'd just lost, and two state troopers shot past. Eventually I made it to the top and enjoyed another (less memorable) descent to the small town of Mt. Judea.

All I really needed was water, so rather than look for the restaurant that was supposed to be in town, I poked my head into a little store on the corner and asked if I could fill up my water. I did so, then bought a coke. Two state troopers were talking to the guys in the store, and while I drank my soda they all asked about the race. One of the troopers talked about driving the follow car for the lead bike in a road race and remarked on how fast those guys went. I told them, "I definitely bike downhill faster than I drive."

"Oh, we know!" he replied. "We followed you out of Jasper. We were going 45 and couldn't keep up!"

The man behind the counter joked that they should have given me a speeding ticket. "No way," said the trooper, "Any girl who'd ride that fast would probably kick my ass if I tried giving her a ticket."

That conversation buoyed my spirits over the big climb was waiting for me outside of Mt. Judea, followed by another long descent and then nearly two miles of virtually flat road.

Hey, look! I'm not riding uphill!
3:14 p.m.
An then the road began to climb again, an uphill nearly the size of the one leaving Ponca. One I reached the top of that one, though, there was a reprieve. Instead of immediately plummeting back down, the road had a more gentle downhill trend.

Trail magic! Water and Red Bull meant I didn't need to worry about filtering before Witts Spring.
4:50 p.m.

My spirit animal!
5:05 p.m.
After five miles of ridgetop rambling, the road turned into a blisteringly fun downhill -- long enough to be fast, gradual enough to feel safe -- that made up for a few of the tears I'd shed during the race to date.

I stopped for a mandatory selfie at Richland Creek, daydreamed about a return trip with my family as I passed the campground, then spent the next hour trudging up a five-mile climb. Once at the top, though, the road leveled out and I charged towards Witts Springs (well, it felt like I was riding hard and fast, but Strava tells me I was moving about 10 mph for that section), a stop I'd been looking forward to since the race started. Volunteers there have created a cyclists' haven at the community center and, since the only store in town was closed for its owner's vacation, stocked the center with food as well.

Arriving in Witts Springs
Photo credit: Dirk Merle

Even better, after being alone since Eureka Springs two days before, I had a welcoming party awaiting me and cheering my arrival. There was a hot shower, a big pot of mostaccioli on the stove, so many snacks, and COMPANIONSHIP. Names I only knew from Facebook became friends.

The elevation profile might have looked like a roller coaster, but for once my mental game was calm and steady.  It was a good day.

This day had the second-most climbing of the race for me.


  1. Arkansas misses you! You'll always be Super Kate in our eyes! Hope to see you in June. Dirk wants to ride with you I'm sure. And me and Chris hope to sprinkle trail magic where we can. And as usual I Love your posts, especially this one


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