The Vermont Super 8 bikepacking race is one of the most rugged routes in the northeast. The Grand Depart of the event, starting in Montpelier, Vermont, consists of three ride options: North Lobe, South Lobe, or both in one 640-mile push. This year, Tatianna Wawrzynski set out to race the full route, setting an FKT in the process. The former runner and mom of two young daughters used a combination of minimal sleep and endless determination to complete the race in 7 days, 26 minutes on her Trek 1120. She endured rain, cold temperatures, and hallucinations from the lack of sleep to complete the two loops, drawing inspiration from her family, friends, and everyone who has supported her over the years to keep going when things got dark.
We asked some questions and Tatianna put together some thoughts about her experience on the Super 8, sharing details of how she was able to train for and execute the ride. She set out with the goal of setting the route FKT and was able to overcome a variety of setbacks, including a broken nose, to make it happen.
Journey into Bikepacking
About two and a half years ago I had started a weight loss journey (I have since lost about 130 pounds). I used to be a runner in college and was working hard to get back into it. I started working with my coach as I was dealing with injuries and wanted to do it right. I started working with Kale Poland who is an incredible ultra-athlete and someone I look up to tremendously. He urged me repeatedly to get a bike. I brushed it off and tried to convince myself that I was a runner and didn’t want to ride bikes until one day I finally caved, and my mom bought me my first gravel bike, a Felt, which I absolutely loved.
My coach does this challenge every April called Real Gainz Riding where in New Hampshire (or wherever you may reside) you commit to riding ten miles a day outside every day in April. With work, kids, and life, that is a huge commitment. The weather in New England in April is also extremely temperamental. It could be snowing, raining, hailing, 25 degrees, or beach weather. I didn’t have any of the right gear, I had no idea what I was doing, and I went for it. Ever since, I have been all in and running has fallen to the wayside as bikes and ultra-racing are now what I live for.
About two years ago I was supposed to do an Ironman but due to Covid it was postponed. I was bummed. I had spent a lot of time training and decided instead to ride my bike for fun from Gilford, NH to Albany, NY and back. It was about 350 miles and my first real dive into ultra-distance riding. I remember how hard it was. I was sore, I was tired, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. But about 35 hours later I was home, delusional, and had no idea what the hell I had just gotten myself into. But I did know that I was in love. The experience, the scenery, the feeling of getting to ride my bike and to do something I love for days at a time. I was hooked.
I did the South Lobe of the Super 8 in September of 2021. It was brutal. I had so many issues from my cleat breaking off my shoe to a tendon in my ankle ripping to losing lights and having to go off course. It was 380 miles of me doubting myself and having to be stronger mentally than all of those doubts and excuses. Near the end, I was out of lights and ended up missing a section so that I could use street and house lights to get back to Montpellier safely, which was soul crushing, but I knew in my heart I had still won.
This year I wanted the FKT on the entire Super 8 course, but I knew it was going to be the hardest thing I have tackled to date. Until now I had never attempted 660 miles at once. I had done the South Lobe and a really great friend of mine and I had reconned some of the North Lobe earlier this summer, so I was familiar with the route and felt confident that if I could stay awake, stay positive, and not have any major medical or mechanical issues, maybe I had a chance. But at the end of the day my main goal was to finish. When you set out to do something this hard, finishing is not always in the cards, so when you do, nothing else really matters.
Drawing on Personal Strengths
I don’t know if I should thank my six- and seven-year-old daughters for this, but I don’t need a lot of sleep to function. I am not the fastest rider or climber, but I have the ability to sit in the saddle and pedal for days.
I also love riding at night and in the dark, which I consider one of my strengths. People ask me all the time if I get scared or worried and I always tell them that in the woods in the dark on my bike is where I feel most at peace. When you are a single mom, working in a different state and trying to be everything to everyone, being alone in the quiet and the dark is calming. It is where I can breathe and where I am able to take the time for me.
I tend to get self-conscious of my body when I compare myself to other riders, especially women, as I am a bigger build and don’t look like the typical female cyclist. I want to help break the norms and stereotypes, but I would be lying if I said that I do not let it get to my head. I carry a little more body weight and it makes me slower on the climbs. It is a challenge for me to keep up, so I spend less time sleeping, and although I can stay awake longer, it still causes some challenges.
Magic of the North Lobe
I love mountain biking and there is a healthy dose of Kingdom Trails as part of the North Lobe. I was ecstatic getting to spend time on the trails there and would love to go back for a weekend in the fall and do more riding. The guys at the shop there were also so helpful when I was desperate for a third pair of wool socks, and they generously dug through their winter gear in boxes to find some.
The North Lobe is extremely remote, especially before getting onto the Canadian border. I did a lot of the logging roads in the middle of the night, and it just happened to be one of the times it was not raining. I don’t think I saw another human, a light, a house or a car for what felt like forever. I did have a close encounter with a very large, very beautiful moose. The stars that night were breathtaking. I remember stopping for a few minutes and just lying on the ground looking up and thinking that this is why I do this, to see things that other people would never get to see from their couch or their cars. I cannot explain how magical, and hard, that night was.
Fighting the Sleep Monster
I try to explain bikepacking to people by telling them to imagine doing the hardest thing of their life, then add in having to care for, feed, and keep themselves alive. Then add in three days of sleep deprivation, hallucinations and impaired judgment…sounds fun, right!
I have been trying to piece together the last three days of my ride for almost a month now and truthfully, it has been a challenge. No sleep when doing a race like this on top of terrible weather is in the top five hardest things I have ever done. But also the most rewarding. No sleep caused me to fall off my bike a lot more. It was harder for me to get on my bike and stay upright.
I remember calling one of my colleagues and good friends on the Canadian border and crying. At some point after being alone for days at a time it is just nice to hear a familiar voice. To talk to my mom, my kids, my friends, even if just for a second. Even if they don’t know what it is like, they are still supportive and understanding and that is what I needed. I remember telling them that I couldn’t stay awake, that I was falling asleep upright, that I couldn’t pedal in a straight line (thankfully at that point I was on a rail trail), that I felt sick and that I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I couldn’t stop to nap because I could see my breath and possibly a snowflake. It was too cold to stop, and I was not able to find any hotel or motel to take me in when most people are waking up to check out (trust me, I tried). So, I sucked it up and I kept going…I think at some point, the exhaustion just feels ordinary. You accept it as how you are going to feel, and you deal with it the best that you can. You are so used to how you feel that it becomes the normal, you are accustomed.
Mentally and physically the exhaustion takes a massive toll. I hallucinate a lot. Last year the trees were talking to me. They were my mom, and they were telling me not to stop…not a bad thing to hear as my mom is my biggest supporter. This year it was a bit darker. I continually saw the shadow of a man in the woods staring at me and following me. That is when you must just keep telling yourself that it isn’t real, you must be stronger than your imagination.
The last night I also fell off my bike extremely hard. I hit a rock descending on a technical trail and my body and face did not stop when my bike did. I smashed my nose into the ground, I am fairly certain I broke my septum, and I broke my helmet. I remember the phrase “rub some dirt on it” coming to mind so I started putting dirt up my nose to try and stop the bleeding because it felt like the logical thing to do. I sat there for a good 20 minutes just telling myself that I was alright. Thankfully I was fine and that was the hardest fall I would have all week.
Challenges in Keeping the Body Happy
My butt and I have had a hate-hate relationship with saddles for two years. I finally decided to get a legit fitting and get a new saddle recommendation (shout out to my two beloved bike shops, MC Cycle and Philbrick’s, without them I would have never even made it to the start). I now have a Specialized saddle on both of my bikes, and it has made the world of difference. I think that if you spend 660 miles in the saddle at one time that no matter what saddle you have, you are going to develop sores, but at least they were manageable this time around.
I was also having issues with my mountain bike shoes and decided at the last minute to go with a completely different style and brand. I ended up wearing them to work and hiking in them for the two weeks leading up to the race and they were the best decision I could have made as my feet were so much happier this year (minus the trench foot).
I ended up with a skin infection on my stomach and thighs. I believe that it was due to the constant water and moisture on my skin on top of my shorts rubbing. I had some wipes, so I used those repeatedly to try and keep my skin clean. And my chamois of choice just happens to be bag balm, so I used that to put over the sores.
I also had my period the whole week. It is not something I have talked about but think that it is worth mentioning. It adds a whole other level that some may not ever think about or consider when doing something like this. Women in ultra-sports need to talk about this more. The cramps and hygiene concerns just added to the list of things that I had to make sure that I thought about.
The Bikepacking Mental Game
Without a doubt, bikepacking is more mental than it is physical, which is why I love it so much. You have to dig deep; you have to be willing to face yourself at your weakest and most vulnerable moments.
Bikepacking is not about who can go the fastest. It is about mental strength and fortitude. It is about coping mechanisms and taking care of your body and mind. It is hard enough to race a long distance. It is something completely different to race 660 miles and take care of your mind and body. To have to make sure that you sleep enough, feed yourself, take care of wounds or any mechanical issues on your own is something that I have a hard time explaining. You cannot rely on anyone but you, and for a lot of us, that is not an easy feat.
Mental preparation is huge for me. Leading up to the Super 8, I had some huge and difficult training rides that aided me in achieving my goal of an FKT. I decided to do an overnight mountain bike ride where I started at 6 p.m. and rode straight through until 6 a.m. I ended up with about 80 miles and close to 10,000 feet of climbing. I never stopped except to eat. By 2 a.m., I was begging for my best friend to be there, and I celebrated with a beer at sunrise when I finished. I also did a hellacious ride during my biggest training week that was 155 miles 12,000 feet of elevation gain from Gilmanton, NH to Lowell, MA and back. Curveball, we had flash flood warnings the entire day. I rode for 155 miles in eye-burning, clothing-soaking, freezing cold rain and holiday traffic. It never stopped. I credit being able to ride for seven days in terrible weather in Vermont to that training ride.
I think that as ultra-athletes we tend to gravitate towards the challenges and hard stuff. It is what we remember and what sticks out in our brains after we are done. The hallucinations, the crashes, the tears and the struggles. But there are so many amazing and beautiful parts too. The scenery is incredible, the people that I met give me my faith back in humanity. The generosity and compassion of complete strangers fills my heart with happiness. I have made so many incredible new friends. I have grown as a cyclist and there is something to be said about being able to just get away. The training is the hard part. You must fit it in with work, kids, life and all of your obligations. But when you are racing, that is all you are doing. I feel so free being away from everything and everyone. We all need that in our busy lives.
The Aftermath: Lessons Learned
I learned a lot about my body and that I need to take a little extra time to take care of it. My feet, my skin. Self-care is so important when you are putting your body through something like this. It is amazing what our bodies can do, but we still need to take the time to care for ourselves and make sure that we have the ability to keep going.
I also just have to say how in awe I am of all the riders who attempt this course and race and how much I admire everyone. This ride is so incredibly hard and anyone who gets up and says they are going to attempt it is an inspiration. The Vermont bikepacking community has begun to feel like home to me and I am so appreciative of the friends I have made and the relationships I have gained. If someone doesn’t get into bikepacking for any other reason, do it for the community and the friends. You will not be sorry.
I also could never do these crazy things without the love and support from my family, friends and coach. I owe a lot of my success to them. Seeing the messages and texts when I was struggling was so powerful, even if they don’t know it, they all helped to keep me going and I love them all for that.
You can follow more of Tatianna’s bike adventures on Instagram: @je.suis.tatianna
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