About one year ago, I crossed paths with Becky Jergenson. She was fresh off completing her very first Smoke ‘n’ Fire Race (SnF). I had made the decision to move to Indiana but had promised both her and our friend Cassidy that I would return to participate in the SnF bikepacking race. I had absolutely no clue what I was getting into, or how I would accomplish this. I had never gone on a single bikepacking trip and had only started mountain biking that year. Somehow, Becky (and probably a few beers) made it seem attainable. She mentioned someone might be putting together a group for novice women that could help with preparation. So… I was in.
After the move to Indiana, I looked for ways to train but was having a tough time. There are a few small mountain bike trails near my house, so I rode them occasionally but did not do much beyond that. I returned for a March visit and went on a ride with Cassidy up in the foothills. I was horrified to find out how much fitness I had lost in the previous few months and knew I had to do something different if I was really going to be able to ride the SnF. Cassidy mentioned Ben’s training plans, so I snagged and tried to follow them. Let me tell you–training in northern Indiana corn country is no fun. My routine mainly consisted of interval workouts on the gym bike (as there were no long sections of the bike trail to ride), doing four to six laps on the local mountain bike trail, or riding the one steep hill up and down 10 times while the folks waiting at the bus stop staring at me.
Regarding gear, I closely followed the videos and comments on the Idaho Women’s Bikepacking group’s Facebook page. I asked a billion questions (thank you, Laura, for all your patient answers!!!) I tested my setup by riding up and down Main Street to ensure everything held to my bike. Ah, the confused looks I got… I don’t think anyone in Lafayette, IN had ever seen a bikepacker before.
As the race day came closer, I packed up everything and drove two days back to Idaho. I listened to bikepacking podcasts the whole way and tried to remind myself that this was a competition against the course. If it took me eight days to complete it, that would be okay.
Lining up at 4 a.m. was surreal. After almost a year of training and planning, I was excited to see what I’d really gotten myself into finally. After the first two hours, I thought I had made a huge mistake. I was walking so much. I was tired almost immediately. Lines and lines of people were passing me. Once I got away from the crowd and was cruising on my own in Dry Creek, it began to feel like an adventure. I was able to escape the negative thoughts that arose when I was comparing my performance to others. By the end of the first day, I was illuminated with joy and excitement. I remember grinning from ear to ear as I left the Garden Valley Chevron, just thinking about all that lay ahead of me.
The second day was the most physically difficult. I camped early the day prior due to storm warnings, so I woke up at 4 a.m. to start marching up Scott Mountain. The sunrise cruise down Scott was pure bliss. I was ahead of schedule and feeling great. But the washboard, oh the washboard. The road to hell is not paved. It is a long, flat, gravel washboard.
By the time I got to Elk Mountain, I was two hours behind my schedule. I was so tired and hungry. I had been riding for the last 13 hours, only stopping for 15 minutes around 2 p.m. to stuff down a lunch. Every turn revealed another climb, and I would exhale and groan in anguish. I almost sat down to cry. I’ve done many challenging things in the backcountry. But I have never, until that moment, thought a physical experience could make me cry. I took a bite of a granola bar and said aloud “I can walk at 1 mile an hour” and so proceeded to do that. Alternating between slow riding and slow walking, I eventually rolled into Stanley.
To my amazement, Cassidy was at the restaurant in Stanley having only arrived 5 minutes before me. It’s such an incredible thing–what a perfect manifestation of something that I think is pervasive through everything in life. I thought I was alone in those woods. I thought I was the only one struggling and so slow. But here we all were, in our own little bubbles only a few hundred yards apart, carrying our own analogous burdens. Somehow that makes the burden more bearable–less shameful.
So, the rest of the days passed. Still not easy, but better. I developed a groove and rode hard into the third night. On the fourth day, I woke up feeling strong and certain I’d finish Sunday afternoon. After pushing up Scott Mountain, I blasted some rock ‘n’ roll for the 10-mile bomb to the highway. About two miles from the bottom, a bee flew into my half-zipped raincoat and right down my sports bra. I grabbed a fistful of brakes and skidded in the gravel, screaming “No! No! No!”–ripping my shirt off trying to get it out. But it was too late and I had been stung. I have a severe bee allergy, so this was just about my worst-case scenario.
I sprinted on my bike the 12 miles to Garden Valley; a few miles from the turn off I could hear the wheezing in my breath and feel my throat swelling. And then I could not help it. I cried. I pedaled and cried. I stopped to use my Epipen; I knew it was over. Once you start having an anaphylactic reaction you have to stay near emergency services for the next 48 hours or so. The epinephrine shot can counter the effects of the histamine dump in your body temporarily, but does not stop your body from continuing to overproduce histamine. So once the artificial adrenaline has worn off you may continue to have a severe allergic reaction.
So, there I was, at the Garden Valley Chevron again, but this time with a very different disposition. A bag of Twizzlers, a lift home, and my SnF ride was done.
What a crazy, and strange, and beautiful, and frustrating, and joyful venture. After a long, deep sleep, aided by four Benadryl tablets, I headed down to cheer for the last riders on Sunday and Monday. What a wonderful thing to see, women living an empowered and adventurous life; unafraid to try big things.
I can’t wait to race again next year.
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