Here's a fun idea for a drinking game: pour yourself a glass and take a drink every time you read "last year" or "2019". If my wordiness doesn't put you to sleep, the alcohol poisoning certainly will. But there's no way for me to talk about this year's "race" except in the context of...last year. (Drink)
Four of us -- Dirk, Tracy, Cliff, and I -- were starting together. We would each ride our own ride but follow the same general plan, which called for mostly 100-mile days. While I'd only managed that distance three times during the 2019 event, I'd ended up averaging about 90 miles a day...not so far off from this new goal.
Logistics had been a huge weak spot for me last year, so I hoped that piggybacking on Tracy's vast touring knowledge would help smooth out some of the self-inflicted bumps I'd experienced. He'd shared a plan with proposed mileage, stopping points, and available resupplies for each day. Not knowing where I was going to stay each night had been particularly stressful last year; I thought that having a set destination might help me push on when I might otherwise stop sooner. Of course I was also happy at the prospect of more company than the largely solo experience 2019 had afforded.
|Thursday afternoon prep in the Witts Spring Community Center|
Photo credit: Tracy Wilkins
Though the official race start was in Fayetteville, our DIY version started at the Witts Spring Community Center near where Dirk lives. We all met there on Thursday evening, and Dirk's wonderful wife Chris cooked us dinner and their cousin/my friend Tammy came by to visit while we tended to last-minute packing. I'd met them on my tenth day last year as I rode into Witts Spring to a welcoming party that immediately felt like family. It was great to see my friends though our greeting was tinged with the no-hugs/social distancing weirdness of these times.Day 1: Witts Springs to Fifty-Six
|Cliff, Tracy, Dirk, and me just ahead of our 6 a.m. start|
Friday began with a beautiful sunrise, which we rode into with new friend Tim, a local cyclist riding some of the first day with us. The first few hours were wonderful (and, "completely
unrelated", largely downhill). It was fun to experience some of the same places I'd ridden last year at such a different point in the race. Last year I'd barely dragged myself out of Witts Springs on my 11th day. Leaving there on fresh legs felt much different.
|One of my new favorite cycling pictures, riding into the sunrise on day 1.|
Photo credit: Tracy Wilkins
Recent heavy rain had left the first creek crossing dangerously high, so we stuck together in a loose group through an impromptu detour. The reroute cut off a beautifully scenic section above the Buffalo River but also saved us 10 miles. I can't say I was entirely heartbroken at the trade, but after all the nerves on my drive, finally riding was a huge relief. I felt great. I felt strong. It was fun having someone new to talk to. Few things make me as happy as chatting away while riding, so Tim almost certainly set a new listening PR during our shared miles.
|Morning mountain views|
Just outside of Marshall (mile 28), we found my friend Dana, a local photographer who took some of my favorite pictures from last year's race and was once again out on the course. There we regrouped It felt like we'd gotten there in what seemed like no time, though my red face in her photos revealed hints of woes to come.
|Photo credit: Dana Treat|
We picked up another guest rider a few miles later. As a member of the Searcy County Chamber of Commerce, Darryl has worked hard to promote cycling opportunities like ARHC and the Ozark Grinder Trail in the area. He rode with us through town to the overlook, though his local knowledge kept him from following the same wrong turn Tracy and I made when our Garmins misdirected us to a non-existent road.
Even on my singlespeed I was able to grind up the climb to the overlook without walking. So much winning, and it wasn't even 9 am. Though not unpleasant yet, the day was getting warm, so after stopping to say goodbye to Dana I made a quick stop at the coffee shop to refill my water even though it was only another 10 miles to Leslie.
|Making my way to the overlook|
Photo credit: Dana Treat
Of course, my triumph over that initial climb was short-lived. It was followed by a longer, steeper one that I'd had to walk last year with gears, and the only difference this year was that I started my hike sooner. Dirk passed me soon afterwards and cruised his way to the top. We all briefly regrouped at the top of the hill where I excitedly spied a sign advertising "Mexican margaritas" only to be disappointed that it actually said "medical marijuana".
I reached Leslie still feeling strong and happy. Focused on not wasting time, I tried to be quick in the C-store, meeting Tim's wife Reneta and then exchanging goodbyes with my new friends before helping Dirk with a small Garmin issue and taking off. Only 4.5 hours for the first half of the day's ride...I was starting to feel really good about my ability to stick to Tracy's ambitious (for me) plan.
|10:30 a.m. / mile ~39|
Chocolate roll I bought at the convenience store. A Searcy County specialty.
About 30 miles separated Leslie from the next opportunity for resupply, the town of Fifty-Six. I set off with high spirits and full water. While this stretch wasn't flat it lacked the bigger climbs of the first half, and if you look at the elevation it doesn't seem like it would be that bad. This next section had taken me just under 5 hours last year. I left Leslie at 10:30, expecting to make similar time to my restock at Fifty-Six and then knock off the final 20 miles to Mountain View.
Things went figuratively downhill pretty much from the moment I rolled out of Leslie. The next 4 miles were a grind up a slight uphill, and now with only my own company these miles passed slowly. I made steady progress for the first 16 miles of this stretch, but it took me nearly 2.5 hours. After a spring where only one ride had surpassed 80 degrees, I was withering as the Arkansas heat hit 90 and continued to climb.
|3:00 / mile ~63|
Temporary haven from the heat
The next eight took me another two hours. I did a lot of walking up hills, gasping for breath even as I pushed my bike, then coasting down and stopping at any creek crossing to soak my hair and clothes in the cool water. Those life-saving stops came at a cost, though. Momentarily reborn, I'd then face the subsequent climb from a dead stop, mourning my lost momentum and the geographical reality that creeks are almost never at the top of a hill.
|What a "not bad" section of the Arkansas High Country Route looks like. The blue dot on the Garmin is the above creek crossing, and I guarantee I was looking at the hill in front of me saying something like, "This is some bullshit."|
In the heat I'd nearly drained the 100 oz of water in my frame bag within 24 miles of Leslie. I was on the lookout for a good spot to filter water when I passed a house with people in the front yard. I asked if they had a hose outside I could use to refill my water. Instead, they brought out several bottles of water for me and asked if I needed anything else. Other than an air-conditioned ride home, there was nothing else I needed, so I thanked them and rode away. With seven miles left before Fifty-Six I still had thoughts of continuing along as planned. 27 miles...it's just like a medium Trailnet route. Anybody could ride that.
That Trailnet reference is such a common one for me that my friends will often throw it at me, but it didn't help. Even on flat sections I could barely pedal my bike, and in the two hours it took me to cover seven miles I had plenty of time to think. This is stupid. It's too hot. It's not safe. If this is what it takes to finish this route I don't want to do it. I've already done this once. I don't have anything to prove to anyone.
|"I chose this. I chose this?"|
I turned onto the paved climb I remembered from last year, when after eleven days and nearly 900 miles I'd ridden the whole thing in the dark. This year I did my best Walking Dead impression under the merciless sun. I'd stagger forward, then drag my bike off the road and shelter in whatever speck of shade I could find.
|4:06 / ~68 (I wouldn't hit mile 71 for another hour.)|
I've now abandoned my helmet, which one doesn't need for walking.
My progress up the hill was dotted with these stops. Even with the final turn showing on my Garmin's screen, knowing my next goal was literally just around the corner, I couldn't keep going. Lying there on the gravelly edge of the road as car after car drove past without stopping to see if I was ok, I decided two things. First, I was stopping in Fifty-Six for the night if I could get a room, and second, I was calling Chris and asking her to pick me up the next day. This race was over.
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