Faces Behind the Dots – DOOM & Despair

Easter weekend, a brave group of bikepackers set out with the Grand Depart of DOOM, a notoriously hilly, challenging gravel route in the backcountry of Arkansas, created by Andrew Onermaa. As Hannah Simon puts it, “this route was very representative of the roller coaster that is ultra racing.” We asked the WTFNB participants 408-mile DOOM and 196-mile Despair routes about their high and low moments, how they approached water crossings and wet feet, and what advice they’d give to others who want to take on DOOM next year.


Laura Shields (she/her)

Home: Bella Vista, Arkansas

Bike:  Santa Cruz Chameleon

DOOM or Despair? Despair

Photo by Kai Caddy

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special?

On the second morning, I was riding alongside a creek with golden morning light filtering through the trees when a little brown bat started flying alongside me. I was surprised and delighted to see the little critter up close during the daytime, and reminded that you are never alone out there.

Did you experience any low moments? If so, how did you overcome it?

While I was climbing up the long and exposed Parker Ridge climb midday Saturday, the peak heat of the day felt particularly oppressive and it was hard to keep my heart rate down. I decided to allow myself as many quick breaks and hike-a-bikes as needed to reduce the intensity and continue moving forward. When I finally reached the top, there was little shade to be found, but I crouched in some shade at the edge of the road and snacked, letting my heart rate fully recover. Right as I decided it was time to move on again, the clouds covered the glaring sun for the first time and I felt a massive sense of relief! I felt extra motivated to reach the finish that night because the temperatures were so much more pleasant after sunset.

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet?

I rode through as many crossings as I could but walked many of the larger/deeper ones. Before walking, I changed out of my socks and shoes into slim lightweight water shoes. I was worried about getting trench foot based on some folks’ previous Doom experiences, even with the great weather this year. I felt validated when I saw some painful looking feet at the finish line.

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in Doom?

Do your homework on the route, heed the race organizer’s advice, and give yourself grace. It seemed like most folks who had a bad time or quit were underprepared or had different expectations of the experience. The course is rugged and remote and challenging but you are continually rewarded with incredible scenery and sick descents. It can be hard to imagine finishing such a thing, but you will never know until you try.


Kat Dale (she/her)

Home: Currently living in Greenville, NC

Bike:  

Onko Rinkus 29er hardtail (“Onko Rinkus” is a funny way of spelling the genus of Pacific salmon, Oncorhynchus — my friend and teammate Brendan is a fish biologist who builds bespoke custom steel bikes as his side hustle!)

DOOM or Despair? DOOM

Photo by Kai Caddy

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special? 

I smiled the most on the downhill singletrack sections! My favorite type of riding is gnarly technical steep stuff, and it was fun to rail the descents in Ponca, Buffalo Headwaters, and a few forest service connectors scattered throughout the route.

Did you experience any low moments how did you overcome it? 

At 11:30 pm on my 3rd day (with 60 miles left), I had just reached the top of a long climb, I was falling asleep on my bike, and was practically unable to pedal another inch — I needed to find a quiet place to sleep for a few hours, preferably near a water source. Just as I was getting discouraged about my bivvying options (on the side of the forest service road? Next to a bulldozer in a logging zone?) I heard a loud chorus of frogs and saw a rough trail heading off into the woods. I followed it and the sound of the frogs to a lovely little secret vernal pond! The frogs felt like my little (very loud) guardians for that final night.

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet? 

Speedy and splashy, including the deep ones that required dismounting — I just trudged on through and let things dry out throughout the day! I did bring enough socks to have a dry pair to put on each day.

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM? 

Unless you’re braving it on a singlespeed, bring your easiest gearing — some of the climbs out there are crazy steep! My best food advice? A block of hard cheese, an avocado, tortillas, and a little container of extra salt — this combo (or each on its own) have totally revived me on many a bikepacking trip when I can’t stomach another bar!


Jannine Fitzgerald (she/her)

Home: Bentonville, Arkansas & Teton Valley, ID

Bike:  Titanium Fargo with a suspension fork

DOOM or Despair? Despair

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special? 

My high moments were riding with two other badass women (Diana Gibson and Jen Swartout).  In addition the scenery and terrain was mind blowingly spectacular!

Did you experience any low moments? If so, how did you overcome it?

Honestly, I was pretty stoked the entire time.  Some of the steeper hike-a-bikes and single track sections got a bit annoying ….but my motto always is…”it’s easier than parenting”

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet?  

I usually go slow as to avoid wet ass and squeaky breaks.  When the weather is warm, like this past year I just walked in my shoes through deeper crossings.   If the weather was wet and I could not pedal through o would have stumbled through barefoot to save my feet from cold.

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM?

If you are trying to race it lightweight and without much gear then you better be sure you “can” do that.  Otherwise be prepared to scratch and save it for another year.   On the other hand, if you are ok having some extra weight, being prepared with all the gear, and get some sleep, you might not win, but you will finish and have a great adventure!

Diana and Jannine

Diana Gibson

Home: I live in Bentonville, AR now

Bike:  Salsa Ti Fargo fully rigid with drop bars

DOOM or Despair? Despair! the gateway drug to DOOM

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special? 

Best moments were riding into the pink sunset with friends, Jen Swartout and Jannine Fitzgerald, during “frog o’clock”

Did you experience any low moments and how did you overcome it? 

The first day which included 20 miles of singletrack was super challenging for me on a fully loaded rigid bike and was the point at which many folks scratched from Despair. I decided to eat dinner, sleep, and see how I felt it in the am – which was better!

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet? 

I was totally cavalier about getting my feet wet and then ended up with skin infections on my toes by the end – I am not the best person to ask!

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM? 

This is an incredible way to see some of the most spectacular wilderness and roads in Arkansas. When Andrew (the race organizer/Father Doom) warns you to ride a hardtail, take his advice!


Meaghan Hackinen (she/her)

Home: Kelowna, BC

Bike:  Salsa Cutthroat Force

DOOM or Despair? DOOM

Photo by Kai Caddy

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special?

Stealing the overall lead as we went into the first night of the race. After falling behind on the first single track section, I felt like I spent the rest of the day playing catch up. Just before sunset, I skipped an off-route resupply and slingshot ahead of everyone who’d stopped for supper. It was a bold move, and though I would eventually get overtaken by Dexter Kopas—who went on to win in a spectacular fashion—I still had a blast leading the field that first night.

Did you experience any low moments and how did you overcome it?

Reaching Oark late in the day I hit a low. I arrived later than expected and my intended resupply, the general store, was closed. All the exhaustion from not sleeping, struggling through the singletrack sections, and trying to stay ahead of the pack finally caught up with me, and I just felt overwhelmed. I collapsed into a chair at the cafe, ordered up some food, and called my mom telling her I wanted to scratch.

“Well, go ahead and quit then,” she said. “Nobody cares about this race as much as you do, Meaghan. If you’re so miserable, then just pull the plug.”

At which point I realized that I definitely cared way too much about the event to scratch, especially when I was leading the female race and second overall. I’m still not sure if my mom was calling me out on my BS or just giving it to me straight, but in that instant, my mindset pivoted: I stopped wallowing in self-pity and began strategizing about how I’d tackle the remaining 120 miles to the finish.

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet?

Slow and cautious! I generally stop to remove my shoes and socks, and avoid wet feet as much as possible. I brought a small towel to dry off with as well as a warmer pair of socks to change into for the night shift. It wasn’t until the final few hours that I rode through a few deeper crossings, and arrived at the finish with my feet sufficiently pruned.

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM?

Do it—you’re in for a treat! But don’t underestimate the challenging course: incorporate some climbing, trail riding, and big days in the saddle into your training, ensure your bike is geared for the steep gradients, and don’t forget to look around and enjoy the scenery—which is not hard to do when you’re crawling uphill at 5 miles/hour.

Photo by Kai Caddy
Meaghan reaching the finish of Doom as the first woman and third overall finisher!

Stephanie Hall (she/her)

Home: Vermont!

Bike:  Otso Waheela C, with Rudy fork

DOOM or Despair? DOOM

What was a high moment during your ride?

The first sunrise/sunsets were SO beautiful I just about cried. I enjoyed the double track of Pilot, and Victor Rd. So many incredible climbs and descents!! Best (and most active) night ride of my life, with sightings of hogs, deer, armadillos, bunnies, skunks! Sharing the last 50ish miles with Eli and out pedaling the storm.

What made that moment special? Many, many, highs on such a hard route just proves it doesn’t have to “be fun to be fun” but I’d argue different! Challenging myself is exactly what I came to Arkansas for! 

Did you experience any low moments? If so, how did you overcome it?

I got hot (temperature wise) up pilot & never cooled down into the second night. Controlling heart rate & my blood sugar (type 1 diabetic) was difficult. Phoned my sister & good pal Ezra!!! Always helps. Really grateful for those picking up the phone at odd hours.

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet?

I was cautious when I could avoid, but single track embraced & last 50 just embraced wet feet and mild trench foot. I had two pairs of socks but only changed after the first BIG crossing. If I was out longer it would’ve caused pain but it was okay.

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM?

Going your own pace and not paying attention to dots too much. The varied bikes & technical ability, means folks will push and rest at different points & unless you’re really racing it’s not an advantage ultimately to over extend yourself. I’d love to comeback & race more & sleep less, but finishing was the goal!


Emily Miller (she/her)

Home: Originally the Philadelphia area, currently living life on the road and playing bikes.

Bike:  A Why El Jefe with South City Stichworks custom bags and a smattering of other accessory bags

DOOM or Despair? Despair

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special? 

The first section of singletrack on the route, the Ponca downhill. After a few years of being a relatively unconfident singletrack mountain biker, I’ve been riding quite a bit more of it and specifically set up the bike so that it would ride singletrack well: no saddle bag so the dropper was available, all of the bulky items in a large front dry bag that was easy to drop for the singletrack sections (both times you have the opportunity to drop a bag as the route loops back on itself). These two things made the singletrack fun and let me catch some much stronger riders on gravel bikes, which was a really fun moment.

Did you experience any low moments? If so, how did you overcome it? 

I always struggle with heat and spent a fair bit of Saturday riding in the hot weather alone. That coupled with some texts from family observing my very slow progress (how rude!) put me in a pretty negative headspace. The usual cure of a cold drink (V8 this time) and finding someone to share some miles with brought me back to a more positive place.

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet? 

Generally slow and cautious, as I’m not a big fan of wet feet! Turns out it doesn’t much matter how much you slow down though, a lot of these crossings resulted in wet feet either way; fortunately this year it was warm enough for it not to be a big deal. I’m a 3 sock person – 1 to wear, 1 to switch it with, and camp socks which are sacred and never allowed to get wet!

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM? 

My advice would be to run the granniest gear ratio you can (there’s probably a better technical term for that). Being able to pedal on the downhills isn’t all that important, and the climbs are NO JOKE. That being said, basically no matter what gear ratio you run you’ll still end up walking, so wear shoes that you can walk comfortably in and do not let yourself get frustrated when you end up off the bike. I found it actually helped with fatigue as the hiking uses different muscles and gets you off your saddle.


Jamie Nicole  (she/her)

Home: St. Louis, MO

Bike:  Niner Air9

DOOM or Despair? DOOM

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special? 

Finishing! My friends and husband were waiting to hug me, and it made me cry. I am also proud of how I handled the aloneness and the overnights. Most of the people at my pace scratched, so I was completely alone for the last few days of the race. I don’t have a lot of experience camping by myself in places other than established campgrounds, so that was cool to learn how to do that and trust myself. I did have a dog walk up and nudge me with his nose in the middle of the night, which was definitely startling, but no other scary encounters.

Did you experience any low moments and how did you overcome it? 

Oh so many. 🙂 I kept telling myself that if I quit, I’d have to come back and do it again. I didn’t want to redo the miles I’d already done, so I just kept going. When I got done, I told everyone that it was the least amount of fun that I’ve ever had on a bike, but even a few days later, I’ve already forgotten the pain and only remember the accomplishment. Plus Arkansas absolutely gorgeous which helps.

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet? 

I worked hard to keep my shoes and socks dry and took them off for most water crossings. Having wet feet is so bad for morale. Though one frog pond was softer mud than I expected and I got bogged down and had to put a foot down. I swapped to dry socks for the next day. Finally, with only 15 miles remaining, I splashed through the final water crossing. At that point, wet feet don’t really matter!

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM? 

The more preparation you do, the better the race will go. I don’t mean just physical training (though that’s definitely key!), but also looking at the map, knowing the distances to resupplies and what their hours are, knowing how to complete small bike repairs, thinking about how to pack your gear, etc. And then just give it a try. You’ll never be able to prepare for everything, so a sense of adventure is useful. I got up late on the morning of the start, so you’ll see that my hair isn’t even completely braided in the photo; the race started before I was completely ready!


Kendall Park 

Home: St. Louis, MO

Bike:  Specialized Diverge Evo

DOOM or Despair? DOOM

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special? 

Mennonite trail angels! The term “trail magic” seems a bit hyperbolic until it happens to you. A family was headed back home from church and very curious about all the cyclists coming through the area recently. They invited me to their farmhouse right on the route and I ended up enjoying a home cooked meal on their porch. It was a total reversal of fortune at the end of a hard Easter Sunday–like Jesus Christ himself was looking out. Being at the back of the race had created some additional circumstances to navigate–resupply closures due to Easter and severe weather in the forecast. The other four members of the red lantern squad had decided to scratch that day; I was behind schedule and had a lot of logistics to figure out in terms of finishing. The father of the family worked for the local SAR and offered some tips as I researched tornado shelter options and which areas were prone to flooding. Had I been riding through that area a few minutes earlier or later we would’ve never encountered each other.

Did you experience any low moments and how did you overcome it?

During the race I got a text message informing me that a friend of mine had passed away. It was totally unexpected. I don’t think this is a sort of thing to “overcome”; I used the solitude of the remaining days to start processing the loss.

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet?

It depends on the situation and whether I expect that wet feet will cause issues in the near future. I have mesh cycling shoes that dry fairly quickly. I try to air out my feet during breaks and have a rotation of socks. On Tuesday wet feet were unavoidable and the weather had gotten seriously cold. I had to VBL my feet with some grocery bags I had held onto for that purpose.

There was only one serious river crossing on the route, about knee/thigh deep, which ended up being its own solo nighttime ordeal due to some (presumably drunk) dudes with guns. I did not bother to take off my shoes for that crossing.

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in Doom? 

Just go for it. There were only 17 of us, but the finish rate for the Doom/Despair women was higher than that of the men. I heard several stories from Despair women who were nervous about their first bikepacking trip (let alone race) and they ended up over-prepared. It’s a hard course, don’t get me wrong, but Andrew has created an event that can accommodate a wide range of racers and goals. I signed up knowing I would DFL; I’m pretty terrible at climbing and figured it would be nice to tackle an event that targeted my weaknesses. Determination and tempered expectations go a long way.


Hannah Simon  (she/her)

Home: Austin, TX

Bike:  Ti Chumba Sendero

DOOM or Despair? DOOOOOOM

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special?

On the last morning I stopped at one of the bridges over Little Mulberry creek and drank the Starbucks Doubleshot that I had packed from the day before. I took my shoes off, filtered some water from the creek and just enjoyed a few moments of stillness by myself. It was such a restorative moment for me along the route and reinforced the importance of soaking it all in whilst racing.

Did you experience any low moments and how did you overcome it?

This route was very representative of the roller coaster that is ultra racing: if you weren’t climbing, then you were descending. My experience definitely fluctuated the way it usually does: I’m content and trotting along merrily or I haven’t eaten enough food, drank enough water or gotten enough sleep and my little tired brain is struggling to keep me upright. On the second morning I had taken a two hour nap from about 1AM to 3AM and in those early hours of the morning before the sun came up I was dragging along. I tried eating, taking a caffeine pill, chugging some water, but nothing kept my eyes open. Eventually, after several power naps and pep talks, the sun came up and I got myself to move more efficiently. Sometimes the only things that can save you are the sun or some sleep!

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet?

I was SO slow and cautious going through water for the majority of the race. Even if it was just a little puddle at the bottom of the descent, I still slowed down and stayed picky with my line. After countless creek crossings, I think I can officially claim expertise in hitting that ideal speed to stay upright without soaking my feet through a water crossing. I maintained this meticulous approach until about 15 miles to go, when I decided to pedal a long, overflowed road crossing that ended up absolutely soaking my feet halfway through. At that point I just booked it back to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch to relieve my feet from the drenched dungeon of my shoes.

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM?

Climb lots of hills and then after you climb them go ahead and descend them just to climb them again. Imagine doing that on remote gravel roads for hours at a time and then you may just be prepared to race Doom!! Take your time and be gentle with yourself when you’re feeling the most tender. Dig in and push yourself when you’re feeling strong and capable. Find beauty in both of those states! The scenery will almost always take your breath away, so stop yourself for a few deep breaths and a real thorough look around every once in a while. Getting to ride your bike is such a freeing and privileged thing! Remind yourself of such in every situation, good or bad, high or low.


Jennifer Swartout (she/her)

Home: Bentonville, AR

Bike:  Specialized Fuse

DOOM or Despair? Despair

Photo by Kai Caddy

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special? 

I had many! One was realizing mid-event (probably Saturday) that my body really was prepared to do this kind of riding – all that work had paid off! I was worried I hadn’t done “enough.” Literally sent me on a high! 

I really had many moments where I realized I was in a total flow state for stretches of time – like, I remember my Garmin beeping that I’d finished a climb…that was 58 minutes long. I’d been pedaling up a pretty steep grade for an hour. And it didn’t feel like it had been an hour at all. 

The other thing that was so amazing for me was riding with my friends Diana and Jannine. All those miles, mostly silent, pedaling – but it was total teamwork. Checking in with one another; making decisions together (when and where will we camp? What’s our strategy for getting to the next milestone?). Knowing that we were doing this together- this incredibly hard thing, but we were doing it! – was really motivating for me. We had each others’ backs. 

Obviously the finish was incredible. I may have cried happy tears a little, I was so danged excited and proud. 🙂 

Did you experience any low moments and how did you overcome it? 

I definitely did. I am new to this type of racing: unsupported, remote area, multi-day. So there was definitely a level of anxiety: what if I get lost? what if I get a mechanical and I can’t fix it? Will I be able to get help out here if I need it? In part, I addressed the “scaries” by focusing on my breathing, and by thinking just keep pedaling. I did a checklist in my head about all of the things that were going just fine: my body is ok, my bike is in great shape, I have all the food and water I need. And I rode the last two-thirds or more with my friends Diana and Jannine. So I just tried to focus on the “facts” to remember that everything was going really well. Once, I made some noise about bailing (low moment) and basically they were like, “no, you’re not. Get back on that bike, we’re doing this!” It broke through my anxiety in that moment because I could tell they were saying this from a place of support and with confidence in me: that I could do it, keep going, finish. My hardest moment was towards the end of the race, probably the last 15-20 miles. I’d managed nutrition and hydration so well on the first two days, but at that point was probably on the way to Bonktown. Diana was riding with me (we were pushing our way up the infamous Murray Hill after having just pushed our bikes out of the Arkansas Little Grand Canyon) and I told her I wasn’t feeling great. She made me stop and eat. Twice, I think. She’d had a similar experience in the morning and we’d made her do the same. Jannine was up ahead of us and greeted us with enthusiasm when we finally reached the end of that endless, steep climb. Great teamwork all around helped us all finish that race.  

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet? 

I was super nervous about wet feet! I have Reynaud’s syndrome, so cold feet are extra un-fun for me. Fortunately the weather was pretty easy on us – it was not very cold that weekend. It would have been too inefficient to stop for each crossing and remove socks and shoes, etc. and put them back on again – there were a LOT of water crossings. We just mostly barreled through them, on-bike when possible, but also wading across when it wasn’t safe or ridable.  At night when we camped I just took my shoes and socks off (I had a pair of very warm socks for sleeping) and crossed my fingers that the shoes would be drier in the morning (they were). I also had brought fresh, dry socks for each day. No regrets on the many-socks choice. 

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM? 

If you can, try to pre-ride some of the single track and also some of the other terrain. I was intellectually prepared for the elevation – I could see the math – but still pretty blown away by the rugged and remote course. It is incredibly beautiful, and also very difficult (I just saw someone describe Doom as “really hard/kinda dumb, but possible”).  Ongoing weight training and lots of long Zone 2 rides on the weekend really helped me. I lifted twice a week and usually had 3-4 on-bike (or trainer) rides per week, with some interval and sprint workouts during the week. This being my first race of this type, I needed all of that preparation because I was really scaling up in terms of time in saddle and type of course. I rode a hardtail mountain bike and I am really glad I had that front suspension fork and flat bars. Obviously this comes down to personal preference, but if I did it again I’d ride the same setup. I’d mentioned having multiple pairs of socks, and I also brought a fresh chamois for each day. I wasn’t traveling light at all, but it worked for me for this event. 

Jennifer, Diana, and Jannine at the finish!

Katherine Anderson (she/her)

Home: I live in Tulsa, OK originally from Nanaimo BC Canada

Bike:  Canyon Grizl

DOOM or Despair? Despair

What was a high moment during your ride? What made that moment special? 

Getting to the top of those monumental “hike a bike climbs” to witness such beautiful views.

Did you experience any low moments and how did you overcome it?

Yes.  Freezing at night.  The realization my gravel bike gearing and Sidi shoes were not the best set up.  Forward is a pace.  In the future I will look back and gain perspective from this suffering.

How do you approach water crossings – slow and cautious or speedy and splashy? How did you manage wet feet?  

Just walk or ride on through with wet foot.  No blisters mom.  New day, new wool socks.

What advice do you have for others interested in participating in DOOM?

1. Train the terrain and distance  
2. Plan for no or minimal resupply
3. Understand how you’ll manage your breaking point- you’ll hit it
4.  Have fun with all the great doomers you’ll meet!! 


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