Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Delta Epic 300(ish)

My Delta Epic story starts in July, when I found myself in a black hole. I eventually tried to claw my way out of said black hole by putting my name on the start list of another ultra. Fight darkness with fire. Or something like that. Here comes the first confession: I had it in my head for the longest time that this race was in Missouri. It's in Mississippi. One is further south and a lot hotter. Two and a half years in Oklahoma and I still can't do midwest geography.

Anyway. I wanted to see new things. I wanted to win the mental game. I wanted to meet up with one of my favorite people who now lives outside of Memphis and was abnormally excited about driving to random rural locations in Mississippi in case I needed to be rescued. I was out of July's mental black hole but a little more into a physical one, as has become the new normal. I may be counting down the 9 months until what will amount to 11 years of post-graduate training is over.

And so I came to find myself at a midnight start under a full moon at Arkabutla Lake, Mississippi, with a loaded down Cutthroat. Because all I remembered of the reading I'd done on this race a few months ago was that resupplies were very limited, there wasn't much elevation, there were levees, and it was probably going to be hot and buggy.

All of those things were true. And none of them sound like a terribly big deal, but Delta Epic is a deceptively hard race.

Things I Learned:

1. If it sounds like a dumb idea to come off a night shift, sleep 5 hours, drive 7 hours, and promptly start an ultra - it is. 

I may have developed a reputation as a person who tends to excel at dumb things, but honestly, the above pre-event strategy is not one I can recommend. Both from a performance standpoint and more importantly, a general health standpoint.

2. Flat does not equal easy.


Flat means that you're pedaling 100% of the time, which is hard if it's through sand and loose stuff. Also that you're in the exact same position, and that starts to hurt.

3. Cows on levees at 3:30am is a thing.

They galloped in front of me for a little while. I did not hit them. I may have hit one or two cow patties. Oops.

4. Mississippi cows are very large and sturdy-appearing. (see above)


5. I thought Oklahoma gravel was rural, then I met Mississippi.


6. You can sit on the floor of a Walmart drinking chicken broth while covered in dirt, and no one will bother you.

Heat exhaustion was getting me. Bad. This was the closest thing to out-of-hospital resuscitation that there was. Yes, I've been checking to make sure I did not end up on People of Walmart.

7. Hoisting a 30 lb bike up a ditch onto a closed bridge sixteen hours in when it's 103 degrees is unnecessarily hard.


8. Hitting a rut may save you from falling in a ditch.

There was a fun B road section that we did in the dark. Jason claims this is a road but it's really an overgrown field with shrubbery taller than me. So tall that I couldn't even tell I was riding in a rut and tried to make a lateral move, and then went kerthunk on the ground. However, I was appropriately suspicious hence forward of the terrain and thus actually noticed the large ditch that appeared shortly thereafter, stopped and carried through it. From several much larger thunks I heard behind me, many people fell in the ditch.

9. Never leave your gorilla tape at home.

Thank god for the above-mentioned Walmart. My dynamo headlight mount on my fork detached itself and then wouldn't screw back on (inopportune time to figure out something's stripped). I had to stop and re-tape it to my bike 3 times the second night BUT I could see. Gorilla tape fixes everything.

10. Mississippi bugs don't give a damn what bug spray you put on, or how many times you re-applied it, or if you have socks on.

Seriously. My worst bites are on my ankles, through my socks.

11. Give your chauffeur a change of clothes.

Or be prepared to get sprayed down by a fire hose outside the Bentonia police station before you're allowed to get in the car at 3:18am.

I wanted to quit outside of Indianola when I felt sick and was going into a headwind and it was 103 degrees with a heat index of who knows what. I almost quit in the Delta National Forest when caloric-deficiency-induced-crying paralleled 15 miles worth of downed trees and mud pits and general forest detritus. And then, for some reason, I just got mad. And you can make it surprisingly far fueled on rage alone. And by the time the random bout of anger at the world wore off, I was close enough to slog it in, and there were finally some hills. Who would've thought I'd find climbing and descending to be a nice break at mile 280ish.


I usually don't go into things with specific goals. It's not good for my mental state. I let myself have loose targets and then see what happens. I had a loose pre-race estimate of 24 hours, which was what my moving time ended up being. Accounting for resuscitation-by-chicken-broth time in Indianola, mechanical fixing time, and crying-bonking in the Delta National Forest time, I rolled into Bentonia at 3:18am on Sunday -  27 hours and 18 minutes total, 293 miles (well, 295 including my wrong turns.)


I set the new women's solo course record (previously 31 hours.) I'm working on being proud about this. Most people wouldn't guess that I have a smidge of impostor syndrome when it comes to cycling. I have a tendency to discount what I did. There's also a very tricky balance in this community between being too performance-oriented and...not. I may not have ridden as "fast" as I could've under ideal circumstances, but I did a hard thing on a very hard day.  Just because you couldn't ride balls-out straight through 293 miles (295 after a couple, um, detours) on an absurdly hot and exposed course doesn't mean that you get to discount your 27 hour record. 

Now that I'm much less grumpy than I was at the finish, I owe Jason & Wendi Shearer of Ordinary Epics a big thanks for all the effort they put into this event, and Jake Drevs a huge debt of gratitude for spraying me down with a fire hose and packing me into his car at the finish. 

What I Ate (because everyone always asks this question):

5 Honey Stinger GF Waffles
3 Honey Stinger Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars
2 Honey Stinger Vanilla Gels
3 pieces of caffeine gum
1 bottle of Untapped Maple Aid
A bunch of bottles of Nuun/a bunch of bottles of plain H2O
1 Quart of chicken broth
Cold cuts
1 bag of Lay's
1 bag of peanut M&M's
1 package of LifeSaver Gummies
2 Rx Bars
2 Maple Seat Salt Trail Butters
1 Lara Bar

Monday, September 9, 2019

Arrgh!! Gravel Worlds.

Cross-posted on gravelcyclist.com

Gravel Worlds traces its roots to 2008, back when it was known as the "Good Life Gravel Adventure." 2019 saw the 10th anniversary of it in its "Worlds" format. For those not in the know, the World Championship designation is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. After all, this event is presented by the 
Pirate Cycling League. Their very attractive and professional website is peppered with pirate language. There are pirate swords on the line. If you ask me, what better way to stage a World Championship? In addition to the full 150 mile/10,000 feet of climbing race, there is now a "Privateer" 75 mile option and a 50k "Buccaneer" distance p/b Chamois Butt'r. Gravel Worlds is strictly self-supported, but the 150 includes two stocked checkpoints and more oases than you can shake a stick at. It turns out that that becomes important in mid-August.

Like all things in gravel lately, Gravel Worlds has grown. I rolled into Lincoln, NE on Friday early evening just in time to catch the end of the Expo, which featured well-known vendors like Lauf, Chamois Butt'r, Mohn Standard, and Shimano, as well as local shop Cycle Works. Packet pickup was easy-peasy and full of neat things that I'll actually use, like a mug and a spork. The spork in particular has generated much excitement and conversation in my household, including important questions like, "Is it really a spork if the fork and spoon parts are at different ends? Oh, and there's a serrated edge knife on there too. Should we call it a sporkife? Knispork? How about multi-tool for my mouth?"


 Anyway, the interesting part starts on Saturday morning, after I drank too much hotel coffee and shoveled some food into my mouth with my new sporkife (we're going with that.) We lined up in the dark for a 6am start, and several people stopped to ask me if I was recovered from 24 Hours of Cumming, to which the answer was definitely no, because I decided that running in the mountains for a bunch of days would be a good way to recover from a 400k gravel bike race. I was, however, hoping that Gravel Worlds' 150 miles would feel quite short and comforting after 24 HoC. The catch being that I was riding single speed this time. Don't worry, I changed my gearing after Dirty Kanza. 42x18 seems to lead to fewer near-death experiences while still providing both simplicity and suffering.

Per my usual takes-forever-to-warm-up style, I let the super fast kids go, watched the sunrise, and found myself riding a nice steady 15mph pace to checkpoint 1, which is just what happens when you heave your bike uphill at 10mph and fly downhill at 20-some mph over and over again, because this course is all rollers. A pirate-y rollercoaster as far as the eye can see. And corn. Lots of corn. More corn than I've ever seen in my life. It's kinda green and pretty to look at though.
Photo credit: @jls.photo

Things that were said to me during the early miles of Gravel Worlds:
"I can't decide whether you're really strong or really crazy."
"I didn't know they made single speed Specialized Crux's"*
"Unnnngghhhhhfffff."**

*They don't, I have a White Industries Eno hub, and pulled all the shifty parts off it. 
**Ok, this last one was said by me, going uphill. 
Photo credit: Pirate Cycling League
The roads were almost entirely hardpack and in great shape (unlike in Oklahoma right now, where thanks to several rounds of flooding, it looks like small bombs went off in random patterns all over the place, and you still have to be careful not to fall into a sinkhole.) It was Type 1 Fun all the way into the first Checkpoint, where I collected pipe cleaner #1, peed in an actual bathroom, filled water and ate a pickle from the well-stocked snack table, because if an opportunity for a pickle presents itself, you should always take it. 

Shortly thereafter, the fiery rays of the sun started to beat down upon us with a fury, and I take back all the nice things I said about the corn earlier because it turns out that corn provides NO SHADE.



Apparently the blood was all being shunted to my body parts and not to my brain by mile 78-ish where this picture was taken, because I have NO MEMORY OF THIS CORN. It's not like it's subtle. It's significantly taller than me and possibly heavier. So now I'm concerned. What else happened during in the Nebraska cornfields that I'm entirely unaware of? A UFO could've landed in front of me around mile 90 for all we know. Is that an alien life form behind me? (OK that I know the answer to - no - it was a super cool dude also on a SS from Omaha that I suffered with for a looooong while before he drifted behind me and then suddenly WASN'T THERE ANYMORE when I looked back for him, and I probably talked to myself for at least a few miles before realizing there was no longer anyone there. I sincerely hope he was not abducted by the Children of the Corn. PM me, dude.)

Those 80-90-100ish miles were some of the hardest. The headwind, the rising heat. Fortunately there were an abundance of oases that at minimum had water and friendly volunteers, and occasionally had scout troops selling Gatorades and sodas and candy and all sorts of other things that it's only acceptable to consume in mass quantities during very very long hot bicycle rides or if you're a 12 year old with an annoyingly fast metabolism. These miles are where you start chunking things...ride to the next checkpoint, the next turn, that tree in the distance, that rock on the ground, oh wait there's a lot of rocks, and another rock...or wait, are those the marbles that I'm losing?

Anyway, the second checkpoint came at mile 132. Which is only 18 miles from the end. I collected my second pipe cleaner. This is my one piece of feedback for the Pirate Cycling League. Pipe cleaner colors. They make gold and silver sparkly ones, you know? I will ride to the near-collapse point to obtain a sparkly gold pipe cleaner, but tan and red... On a semi-related note, there's a growing pile of slightly crumpled pipe cleaners in my bike room (the room that normal people call the "guest bedroom") which I recently realized is an abnormally high number of pipe cleaners for an adult to have randomly laying on their bedroom floor, which led me to wonder if the gravel racing industry will end up single-handedly supporting the pipe cleaner industry. Discuss below, please.

Back on topic, a very nice volunteer at Checkpoint 2 invited me to sit down, which I decided was a bad idea, but I did sip some Coke and spray some sunscreen over the portions of me which weren't covered with dirt. Then I bumbled my way out of there before any sitting down could happen, because getting up is hard.  Leaving checkpoint 2 riders were treated to about 10 miles of hero gravel and some tailwind and just when you were so close you could taste it... it. got. ugly. 

You know the stretch I'm talking about. It was approximately miles 140-148. Turn the corner and nothing but one long gravel road of giant rollers. Back into the headwind. Now, this is not much different from the rest of the course, but it felt worse here for some reason. I passed a dude standing over his bike with his head on his handlebars. I yelled at that dude because we were literally three miles from the finish. But I get it, you may be 3 miles away but there's no civilization in sight and at least three more big hills that you can see right in front of you and you're baking in the sun. Souls were crushed on that road. 

The pavement did eventually materialize and I spent maybe half a mile trying to follow my Garmin when I should've just followed the helpful "FINISH THIS WAY" signs on the road. There was not a lot of fanfare pulling in, but there were chairs in shade and ice towels, which sure beat the complex plan of "lie on the ground immediately" that I had formulated in the past hour. I believe I told the nice people there that they could just wake me up in that lawn chair the next morning because I wasn't moving (mind you, this was only late afternoon on Saturday.) But after some interval of time that was probably longer than socially acceptable but shorter than the next morning, I did get up and find friends and then find food. It helps immensely that Schillingbridge Tap House is at the finish line. Pizzas and chips and salsa were ordered. Emphasis on the salsa. If you're a salty sweater and have ever eaten salsa with a spoon after a particularly long ride, raise your hand.

The awards ceremony was pretty well-attended, particularly since it can be viewed from the bar patio. The overall male and female get a sword which is possibly the coolest prize in gravel cycling. I do maintain that the individual category winners should maybe get scabbards or some other form of baby pirate sword. I feel like you can gracefully retire once you have a pirate sword displayed on your mantel. 
Women's Single Speed podium (Venny Jane photography)

Festivities continued with a raffle that went on for a very long time simply because there was literally a stage-sized pile of free stuff to give away, lots of drinking and eating of second pizzas on the patio (I definitely did not order a second pizza, take half home, wake up at 4am in a hotel room, eat it, and go back to sleep. Nope, that definitely did not happen.), and enthusiastic cheering-in of riders who continued to arrive well into the evening. Most of them looked remarkably fresh, so I can only assume that they knew something I didn't, like where to take an air-conditioned nap somewhere along the course. 

Thus concludes Gravel Worlds 2019. We're entering (have already entered, really) an era where there are too many choices when it comes to which event one goes to. Everyone will have to pick and choose, and I genuinely believe there are no "right" or "wrong" choices - just ones that are more "right" for you. I can tell you that Gravel Worlds still very much has a grassroots feel, if that's your thing. It will kick your a$$, if that's your thing. There are pirates and swords on everything, if that's your thing. And there's a whole lotta cornfields...if that's your thing?

Big thanks to the guys behind the Pirate Cycling League for a swashbucklingly good time!



Sunday, August 18, 2019

Best New Thing I Used This Summer: Prevail Botanicals Salvation Stick


A year ago, I was highly skeptical of CBD.

There's a longer post forthcoming on CBD, as I went down a rabbit hole looking at the actual science behind commercial CBD products and their effects on the endocannabinoid system. The short story is some things work better than others, and transdermal or sublingual is the route to go in terms of how much you'll actually absorb.

It's no secret that I fight more inflammation than the average human, and adding in ultra sports helps some things (spine, SI joints) but can also create acute joint and soft tissue damage (say, after a 400k.) You need these inflammatory signals to rebuild stronger (that's the point of training), but also want to feel better. Let's say you also don't want to put nasty chemicals into your body, or pop NSAIDs and damage your gut.

This is where topical CBD has a lot of potential. I stumbled across Prevail Botanicals and exchanged a few emails with company founder Brock Cannon, and gave their "Aid Station" stick a whirl. I went in with a mix of cautious optimism and skepticism, but came out impressed. I can't say it takes all my post-body-thrashing pain away, but it's certainly appeared to save a mid-24-hour-race angry knee, and post-pounding-down-a-mountain (literally) angry shins and ankles. Does correlation prove causation? No. But I didn't change anything else on either of those occasions.

I've partnered up with Prevail as an ambassador, because I like their product and believe in their mission. For years, I've winced every time I've seen an endurance athlete pop some ibuprofen, and I'm hopeful that this is an alternative that will catch on with the masses. Disclaimer: I get no financial kickbacks from working with them. I've just looked at the science and had personal success with what appears to be a healthier way.

So, here's what the aptly named "Trail Size" looks like. It goes on smooth and leaves a little residue. Ingredients are listed as: Organic Olive oil, Organic Coconut Oil, 167mg Full Spectrum Hemp Extract (CBD), Organic Comfrey Leaf, Organic Calendula Flowers, Organic Chamomile Flowers, Organic Lavender oil, Organic Shea Butter, Organic Arnica Oil, Lavender Essential Oil, Peppermint Essential Oil, Beeswax, Vitamin E.

And yes, I carried it to the top of a mountain. I hadn't scrambled in hiking boots in a loooong time, and my shins were complaining ;) 

I do have a discount code to share if you'd like to try it - just shoot me a message here or on the socials. Or if you'd like to talk endocannabinoid research in general. It's nuanced, fascinating stuff.

The self esteem-boosting packaging is an added plus.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Bikepacking the Arkansas High Country Route Northwest Loop: Setup and Do's/Don'ts

Last wrap-up post for the AR High Country Route! For the curious, packing-anxious, and bikepacking nerds: What I Packed, What I Used, & Bike Setup.

Bike: Salsa Cutthroat (2018) Custom Build (details here)

Tires: Panaracer GravelKing SK 38mm on Dynamo front wheel; Maxxis Rambler 38mm on back wheel

Bags: Custom Rogue Panda frame bag (water bladder, change of clothes, headlamp, note to self and other small items in map pocket), Oveja Negra Seat Bag (bivy, sleeping pad, Enlightened Equipment 30 degree quilt), Oveja Negra top tube bag (snacks, charging cables), Andrew the Maker Feed Bags (more snacks), Wanderlust Pinon Pocket front bag (cables, toiletries, sunscreen, tools)

Light: Sinewave Beacon front light, cheapo blinky back light

GPS: Garmin Edge 520 Plus


What I Packed, What I Used:

  • Nemo GoGo Bivy
  • Enlightened Equipment Quilt
  • Sleeping Pad
  • Camelbak Bladder
  • Bug Spray
  • Change of clothes: run shorts/tank top
  • Sunscreen stick
  • Spork
  • Food: assortment of Honey Stinger waffles and energy bars, Trail Butter, can of sardines, turkey jerky sticks, couple of Clif bars
  • Cables
  • Battery pack
  • iPhone
  • Toothbrush, contacts solution, etc.
  • Tools
  • Tube x1


What I Didn't Use:

  • Bike lock (but it gave me peace of mind)
  • Headlamp (same)
  • Pepper Spray (same)
  • Water filter (lots of streams that could've used it on - and came close - but generally ran into churches or schools with spigots)

What I Wish I Did/Had:


  • Bigger Tires (at least a 2.1")
  • The Rambler did ok in the back - the GravelKing flatted and then tore a sidewall, and ended up with a tube and boot in it. I think this terrain would be better suited to a Mezcal or Sparwood (disclaimer: rode after significant flooding the month before, so experience may vary). Even a hardtail MTB would do well here, especially if you're not in a huge hurry. 
  • Spare brake pads. Mine held up, but I was legitimately concerned I'd wear them out feathering the steep, loose downhills as frequently as I needed to over 3 days. 
  • Consider bear spray - you are in bear territory. I saw one, and ran into a dude who'd seen 5!
  • More time to hang out in Bentonville/Fayetteville afterwards! Give yourself an extra day or two, these towns are super cool.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Bikepacking the Arkansas High Country Route Northwest Loop Day 3: Mulberry River Valley to Bentonville

Day 3: Mulberry River Valley to Bentonville: 99 miles

I woke up at 5am to the sound of rain pattering on the awning I was under (good decision #1.) I laid there staring at the green nylon "ceiling" of my bivy for another 20 minutes and peeled myself out of my sarcophagus shelter as the thunder died down. Shoving my sleep system into my seat pack for the last time and donning my Goretex rain jacket, I pedaled out of the campground and back onto the Byway and saw...another cyclist.

After 2 days and 150 miles, I'd yet to encounter another person riding. I'd settled into a comfortable headspace of being alone. I'd quieted my mind for the first time in a long time.

So I said hi. Exchanged brief stories, pleasantries. He was a rider in the full Arkansas High Country race, which had started about 5 days ago. I'd wondered if I'd encounter any of those handful of riders along the way, but it hadn't happened yet, since they'd departed from Little Rock and were scattered across the southern and northwest portions by now. After a couple minutes I let him pedal away from me, content to warm up at my own pace and have another day of solitude.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Bikepacking the Arkansas High Country Route Northwest Loop Day 2: WMA to Mulberry River Valley

Day 2: WMA to Mulberry River Valley: 75 miles

So, the downside to sleeping on the other side of a creek is if you wake up and it's freezing cold, the first thing you have to do is put your still wet (and now cold) kit on and walk through that creek. Which felt really good when it was in the 80s yesterday early evening, but real cold when it's in the 40s in the early morning. So I pulled a Jay P and wore my Enlightened Equipment Quilt like a cape-dress until I was pedaling and warmed up, which happens pretty quickly when you have a mile-long climb half a mile into your ride.

I soon found myself in the small town of Marble and pulled into the King's Country General Store for resupply/second breakfast. I got a lot of funny looks walking in, but it was a great fully stocked convenience store, and some of the funny looks struck up a conversation. A group of older gentleman having their breakfast mostly wanted to know what the heck a neon-colored young lady in a helmet

Monday, July 8, 2019

Bikepacking the Arkansas High Country Northwest Loop: Day 1, Bentonville to WMA

Route Notes: You can find full details on the Arkansas High Country Route here from the excellent Adventure Cycling Association. The full shebang is 1171.8 miles, but can be broken up into three smaller loops (Northwest, Central, South), with options for singletrack on the south loop. This short series covers my trip out on the Northwest loop, which took two days and some change. 

Additional important notes:

  • 50% gravel, 50% pavement
  • Climbs and descents with grades frequently in the 17-21% range
  • ~19,000 feet total climbing in 250 miles
  • "A minimum of 37mm tires with some tread is highly recommended." - Thoughts on this later.

Day 1: Bentonville to the edge of the Wildlife Management Area, plus some bonus riding - 76 miles

I rolled into Bentonville around noon on a Monday, unloaded my bike, and popped into Phat Tire to say hi to the cool people and confirm that I really could leave my car in one of the city public lots. Say what you will about Walmart, but Bentonville looks to have become a pristine little town with tons of restaurants, bars, outdoorsy things, and people on bikes. I had zero issues with cars rolling out of town on my loaded down Salsa Cutthroat, passing Crystal Bridges art museum en route to the gravel. The loop starts with lots of gently rolling hills, on and off the pavement, past farmhouses in the countryside until hitting a Dollar General and gas station just 28 miles in. I skipped this stop as I was still loaded up with water and snacks, but it would make a great first resupply if needed.