“…Just to face the shiny dawn.” Why is it that I can barely keep my eyes open while driving the five miles between my home and Costco, but sleep is a rare and fleeting commodity when I most need it? The excitement of the impending adventure compounded by a reunion with a few former running teammates at the mandatory racer’s meeting on Tuesday evening, had my mind spinning perfect pedal strokes nearly all night long. Nothing brings the reality of what you are about to subject yourself to like sitting 2-feet away from multi-time world champion cyclist Rebecca Rusch; or, looking across to the next table and seeing Josh Kato, the surprise winner of the 2015 Tour Divide (TD), the World Series/Superbowl/US Open of bikepacking competitions, and next to him, Dylan Taylor 2015 TD fourth-place finisher. What other sport allows rank amateurs, too dumb to know better, to place their front wheel on the same starting line as the top competitors in the world? Beats me, but it certainly doesn’t make for a long and deep night of sleep–the one night that it might actually make a difference. At 6 AM sharp, the huddled and unruly masses milling around Hyde Park in Boise’s North End, congealed into a semi-coherent mass and with the click of nearly 150 pedals, we took one last look around at the peaceful buildings and quiet streets we were forsaking for God only knows what, and made our way through the thoroughfares of Downtown Boise, heading towards the Greenbelt and from there to Lucky Peak Dam and points beyond; headlights and taillights adding a stunning visual element to the moving circus that was the field of Smoke ‘n’ Fire 2015. As we approached the park at Lucky Peak, the sun was rising over the hill above the dam revealing a cloudless and peaceful sky. Even Nature has a way of making danger look inviting. Once up the face of the dam on a stout little climb disguised as a smooth gravel road, a quick glance rearward revealed the serpentine form the race was already adopting. The first real challenge of the day for me was Lyttle Gulch, an innocent-sounding modest little draw that points generally south-east towards the wide-open Snake River Plain, but whose surface consists of softball-sized rocks that resemble 18th Century cannon balls as much as they do surface rocks in these parts of southern Idaho. In this case, however, the cannon balls rest, not on a firm deck surface, but on 4-6 inches of soft, loose, mostly sandy soil and are generally contained within a ‘trail’ that is never wider than 5-6 feet. The lead pack had done their best to leave the back-markers with a nearly un-ridable surface, upon which some of us spent way too much energy trying to boost our egos and keep our pride in tact by heroically attempting to keep our feet engaged with the pedals instead of where a sensible person would have placed them: on the ground.

16 minute and 42 second Rush to Glory Allowing common sense to deliver a dope-slap to my pride, I dutifully dismounted my bike at what was an especially nasty bit of trail. As I struggled to maintain my balance while pushing my laden bike across the unstable and unpredictable surface, I glanced at the hapless rider I was overtaking on my left, and was surprised to notice that it was none other than Rebecca Rusch. I wasn’t merely stunned to see her back with us pedestrian riders, but moreover, I was shocked that my brain had enough oxygen at its disposal to even retrieve a name, a face, anything committed to memory in more peaceful and serene times. I glanced down at my watch and noted the time, you know, so I could tell my grandchildren how long I had been ahead of Rebecca Rusch in a bike race.

The trail topped out on a basalt bench that once formed the foundation for the Oregon Trail, and as though we ourselves were travelers on the famed path, but having decided the West wasn’t for us, we struck a generally backwards, or easterly, direction on some the remaining scars from this historic byway. On the plateau, I was joined by my friend David Thomas, and we rode together, I in the left wagon track and he in the right, discussing the virtues of various lighting systems and dynahubs. It was truly stimulating conversation and I am sure every rider around us was mentally taking notes on our shared brilliance on the subject of bicycle illumination; all but one, that is. As we spoke there was a flash of light clothing and a gust of wind that split our bikes with surgical precision and left us in a cloud of dust. I could just make out the helmet of the rider who was choosing to miss out on our enlightening discussion: it was, of course, Rebecca Rusch. I looked down at my watch: 16:42 had passed since I had left Ms Rusch like a bad habit on the lower trail. Yes, it was only 16 minutes and 42 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime to me—I am sure it did to her as well.
Rebecca Rusch
Rebecca taking 2nd place.
Prairie-Style My plan was to stop at the Y-Store in Prairie and eat a can of chicken noodle soup and a chocolate milk, grabbing two more moo-juices to go, so I was feeling pretty smug when exactly 5 minutes after pulling onto the porch of said business I was once again on the road, chocolate milk safely tucked into my jersey pockets. The sun was beating down now and there was no shade to be found, but I was on target, fed and ready for the grade which marks the eastern end of the Prairie valley. About halfway up the grade I was starting to fade as each pedal stroke became harder than the one before. Initially, I chalked this up to the heat and gradually rising elevation, but a glance at my rear tire revealed a more practical reason. Apparently, back on the greenbelt, I had picked up an old acquaintance: a goathead thorn. For some unexplained reason, it had decided to make its presence known some 4.5 hours after it had hitched a ride in my back tire. The good news was, I now had earned a brief rest while I patched the–thankfully–one puncture that was this piece of nature’s gift to me. Back on the road after suffering the indignities of being asked by every passing rider and every driver, including an Elmore County Sheriff, if I needed help, I soon found myself cruising into the micro town of Pine, Idaho. After the brief rest during the flat repair, I had felt good and was riding strong, but once I dismounted my bike at the Pine restaurant/bar, I felt a bit light-headed and disoriented. My plan had been to purchase more soup, chocolate milk and some other food as well as fill up with water for our unknown re-route that would keep us away from water or services for nearly 40 miles, but for some reason, I never made it to the store, instead I found myself in the restaurant with 5-6 other racers, ordering the daily special chicken wrap and potato salad from a very friendly and persuasive waitress–or should I say ‘temptress’–as it was her hospitality and enthusiasm for the race that pulled me in like a siren’s call onto the rocks of Charybdis. My stupidity would be my undoing… Re-route from the ‘pits of despair’ Unable to finish the second half of my ill-advised chicken wrap, I allowed the still unfailingly kind waitress to fill my Platypus bladder and my two bottles while I drank my fill from the pitcher of ice water on the table. I knew that the only water I would have access to the for next 3-4 hours would be what I could carry on my bike and I wasn’t going to waste any of it as long as there was a fresh supply on the four-top in front of me.
Smoke and fire
‘Smoke and Fire 400’ race director, Norb Dekerchove
Looking back, I never really felt the healing and strengthening effects of that meal in Pine, nor of the water. As I climbed the long, exposed expanse of pavement up and out of Anderson Ranch Reservoir, I began to feel more and more nauseated. Normally, nausea is an unpleasant, unwanted distraction from life’s routine, but at this point in a 440 mile race, it could prove fatal–as least to any ambitions of keeping one’s body moving in a generally productive direction. I continued to grind out the miles and gain elevation inspired by the music of Idaho songstress, Eilen Jewel and her tight 3-piece band playing on my iPod, but my bike and the temperature were not the only things rising, so was my nausea. There are few things that can truly add fuel to an already moving nausea train, but one sure thing is the physical manifestation of someone else’s nausea, and just when I was beginning to lose my battle against my rising lunch, I pedaled past a recent gastric deposit occupying the narrow strip of road between the white line and the shoulder of dirt and guardrail. My fate was now sealed. There are few things that can truly add comfort to deep-seated nausea, but ironically, giving in to it and letting nature take its course is often one of them. I would like to say that is what occurred in this situation. I would like to say that after I left my own deposit on the soils of Elmore County I felt fresh as a flower, but I didn’t. I felt no real relief at all, actually, despite the fact that nausea had exerted its dominance over my quivering will-power and intestinal fortitude. In the end, there was nothing to do, but keep turning pedals, so I did. Once the climb finally topped out (an entire double-live CD performance later), the same cycling gods that had inserted that nasty goathead into my rear tire, those same gods who saw fit to deny my body of the nutrients it had dutifully hunted down and devoured, yes, those same gods, found it in their hearts to smile upon me and my fellow racers: for two miles we were blessed by a glorious tailwind that briskly whisked us along at 17 miles an hour under only the lightest of pedaling–in my case just for show as I was not going to spend one red cent of energy where it could be had for free. A short navigation error and a correction, followed by another navigation error and correction, and I was back on the re-route, this time, however, our path was the Idaho Centennial Trail, or at least a rarely used bit of two-track that had been deemed as such by race director Norb Dekerchove. It felt like the middle of nowhere. At one point, I found myself riding with another racer who, waving his arm across the endless horizon in front of us like the king in a Monty Python sketch, exclaimed, apparently to me, “This is exactly what Patagonia looks like. Exactly like this!” Yippee, I replied, mentally removing Argentina and Chile from my bucket list.
'This is exactly what Patagonia looks like. Exactly like this!
This is exactly what Patagonia looks like. Exactly like this!
It is a funny thing to be bikepacking on the movie set of “30 Nights in Patagonia”; brief alliances are formed as you find yourself riding with stranger after stranger, none for more that a few minutes in my case, however. It may not be correct to call them ‘strangers’, either. How can anyone who shares your passion for idiotic self-endangerment and limitless folly and happens to be on the exact road as you at the exact same time as you, be anything but a soulmate? These are the questions that distract your mind hopefully long enough to keep your heart beating while one pursues a pointless task, but there I was, left with little option but to contemplate the connectedness of all mankind, or wait for Verizon to extend cell coverage to Patagonia so I could call my wife and tell her I was sorry for leaving and begging her to put her own life at risk to come rescue me before I ran out of water, or sanity, or both. It would have been a short trip in either case. As I rode the monotonous ups and downs of this lonely track across remote southern Idaho, my eye was caught by a flash of color to the side of the trail. At first I thought my mind was throwing red-hot quarters to me from a passing car while I lay in the gutter holding a beat-up cardboard sign begging for some sign of humanity, but no, these colors were real and they were really attached to a human form–a human form curled into a contorted ball roughly fetal in nature, lying in the only postage-stamp sized shade visible for miles; shade provided by the loneliest willow scrub this side of Reno, Nevada. The strict ethics of self-support in bikepacking events, are what separate the competitors from the wannabes, the men from the boys, the jerks from the humanitarians; being a stickler for rules of any kind, I showed a modicum of humanity and decency with a quick glance in the direction of this poor soul surely breathing his last, and just as quickly put my eyes back to the trail so as to avoid riding through one of the ubiquitous cowpies. Priorities. Soon, up ahead on the trail, it was possible to imagine to think that you could maybe see something that looked like it could be, might be, had to be the farms on the outskirts of Fairfield, Idaho, our next re-supply along the route. I was just sensing my spirits rising from their knees to bump their heads on the bottoms of my shoes, when I heard a voice approach from behind. It wasn’t a voice like those of other anonymous approaching riders I had heard for the past 6 hours. No, this one had a familiar tone that jolted my brain out of its torpor. “Hey, Mike D, how’s it goin’?” It was Travis Armstrong, a friend and former running teammate, a steeplechase All-American in college and one of the toughest athletes I have ever known. Without sounding in the least bit winded or at all affected by the heat or lack of water, Travis informed me that it had been he who was lying in the desert under the lone willow tree, and that he had taken a little nap and was feeling “100% better.” “You should try it,” he opined. “No, I’m good,” I lied, suddenly overcome with guilt for passing my friend and leaving him for dead in the desert. What would I have told his wife and daughter? I wondered–but not aloud. Travis also informed me that it was he who had left his stomach contents on the hill out of Anderson Ranch Reservoir. “I ate a sandwich in Pine. It turned out not to be a good decision,” he observed dryly. Upon our approach to Fairfield, Travis had moved up the road as I was in the unenviable position of having to choose between breathing, blinking, steering the bike, looking ahead, thinking and remaining upright. At any moment I could perform 2, maybe three of these tasks, but never all 6 at the same time. It made for slow going. I could see that Travis had stopped and was talking to another rider, but then I had to breathe and lost focus and even Travis and the other rider out of my field of vision. It turned out to be our friend and former teammate Mike Kaufman, from Helena, Montana. He was fresh off the sharp end of the race, now suffering with some chest and breathing issues. He had eaten in town and was off to race the setting sun over Couch Summit north of town, after which our re-route would re-join the original route. As I soft pedaled semi-aimlessly through the main drag of Fairfield, I turned towards the grocery store, vaguely guided by a sense of need to wander its aisles, but not really clear as to why. Coming around a corner of a faux Western storefront that served as an ice cream parlor by day, I saw something that nearly shocked me back into semi-coherence: my friend and training partner, Grant Beebe. Showing no signs of battle, or even effort, Grant looked like a model from an REI catalogue in his bright orange Novara jersey that, I swear, didn’t have any dirt on it, much less the sweat, mud, cow crap and blood that adorned my own formerly stylish kit. Grant was carrying on an animated phone conversation with his wife Mary, in a voice that was so normal as to seem practically alien. I nearly looked for the car that had brought him to Fairfield. Mary was filling Grant in on the goings on of the race, as she had been glued to Trackleaders all day long. The only words I could muster were a faint, “How did you get ahead of me?” To which Grant replied, “Apparently, I have been ahead of you the entire time, according to Mary.” I would have cried, but I couldn’t spare the tears, and besides, it was all I could do to remember to breathe. IMG_3850 Gotta Get Outta This Place After a half-hearted attempt at eating a pizza I had ordered in Fairfield, I admitted defeat, packing up four pieces of the pie and leaving the remainder for another racer, who appeared on death’s door entering the ‘out’ door at the same time as I was using it for its intended purpose. Finally, someone who looks worse than me, I thought, but as soon as this thought entered my brain, I heard him say to me, “Man, you don’t look so good.” I would have punched him but I needed to take a breath, so I just smiled. Priorities. I gathered my energies and as the sun was slowly heading for morning in Asia, and started north towards Couch Summit. We had been told in the racer’s meeting that there was a trail to the top of the summit that we had to take and it was easy to miss; or was it that the trail was easy to find, and the summit was hard to take? I couldn’t remember, but by shear stroke of luck I found myself on the trail, at least I think it was a trail, There was no smooth path to recommend it, only more softball sized rocks (“baby heads” in racer shorthand) and sand, and impossibly steep terrain. The only real way to know I was on the right route was the relative lack of trees in my path and the drops of bright red blood that appeared to be left for us stragglers in some sick Hansel and Gretel scheme. No matter; popcorn, gold coins, blood droplets, I would gladly follow any marker that promised the assurance of navigational correctness. Now, I lay me down to sleep…. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally reached the summit of the blood-laden trail and struck off blindly down the backside of Couch Summit. I say, ‘blindly’, because for some reason, my fancy, German-made light that I had been so proud of 14 hours earlier, was not performing any better than a Mini-Maglite with dying batteries clutched between my teeth. My desperation was such, however, that I hurtled myself wantonly and nearly blindly, down the winding road leading me closer to where I hoped to finally get some sleep. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally pulled into the campground that had been indicated on our course guide and immediately noted that I was not alone, not by a long shot. There were 10 to 15 other riders in various states of sleep or preparedness for sleep revealed as my feeble light bounced up the road leading to what I hoped would be an empty campsite. I found one in the back, near a stream, unpacked my sleep kit, brushed my teeth and then attempted to hang my food in a nearby tree so as to not tempt a bear into a life of crime–and wrapper-laden diarrhea–to the amusement of my new neighbors. After three throws I gave up, pulled on my sleeping hat and promptly fell into a sleep coma: 17 hours after I had started the day, not 10 blocks from my home back in Boise. The bear could have eaten me and I would not have cared.

Check out day two through four on Michael’s Blog

IMG_1138 (1)


One Comment

  1. Pingback: 2015 Bikepackers Top Stories - Bikepackers Magazine

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *