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Monday, September 27, 2010

Natchez Trace 1000K

It has taken me a couple of days to pack for this ride and even longer to prepare for it. I am unsure of the wisdom of riding as I am recovering from a summer cold that has gone through my office like the plague. I am better, but I remain listless and weak. I have had no desire to ride my bike for days. My husband urges me to cancel my plans for this ride as he worries that I will end up seriously ill. It is not the best way to leave home for a ride, and I know he is really worried or he would be laughing at my fears, calling me a candy ass, and hurrying me out the door.

I debate driving myself or riding down with Dave King and Steve Rice. They have asked me to ride with them, but I fear I will make them wait at the end. I despise being a bother to anyone, and I fear running up a debt that may require a payment I cannot afford, but slowly I have come to trust these men. Nobody really wants to wait around after such a long ride, but I decide to chance being able to keep up. After all, I have been riding strongly this summer and have adapted well to the heat. We meet at Dave's house on Wednesday morning and head for Tennessee in the "man van." It is strange to drive these roads and it not be cold outside, myself tingling with anticipation of Hell Week and seeing people I don't often get to see. I enjoy Steve and Dave's company, but I continue to question if I should have driven down myself, perhaps because not having my own car commits me. No turning around at this point.

We decide to visit Gran Fondo, the bike shop where I bought my Lynskey, on the way to the motel. I never dreamed I would own such a bike, though I have struggled with finding a comfortable saddle for it. I have not been in the shop since it was flooded earlier this year. The shop owners are hosting a dinner tonight, and while a part of me would like to go, the stress of meeting new people combined with our hope to be in bed and sleeping by the time the banquet ends means we decline. I am surprised to find that Lynn remembers me. His wife is at the shop and shows us a video of the start of the Trace as we will be passing that part of the road in the dark. It was kind of her and I enjoy the beauty of the scenery in the video. Following a bout of lusting after different bicycles that I would love to own and picking up a few odds and ends, we head to the motel.

At the motel, I feel a ghost of myself giggling inside at the look of the desk clerk when I tell him I want a 1:30 a.m. wake up call. I finally fall asleep about two hours before the wake up time. The ride starts at four and bike check in is even earlier, so following a wake up call I reluctantly drag myself out of bed wondering what in the hell I am doing here. I have mixed feelings about this ride: excitement and dread. The Lord works in mysterious ways because with the lack of sleep and the heat prediction, I probably would have rolled over and tried to go back to bed if I had a car to escape in. Instead I roll my lazy rear out of bed and get dressed.

We head over to the ride start and the excitement in the air is almost tangible. Grins light faces. The guys tease me about the other women looking fitter, prettier, and faster. They know that despite my best intentions I am competitive, at least at times. I know it is not a race, but to me everyone here looks more capable of completing this course than I do, particularly the other woman. Normally this type of teasing doesn't bother me: the wall of good things my husband and others helped me build to shut out the worst of my insecurities is fairly strong, but today it does. Sometimes I trot them out, one by one, examine them, then wrap them carefully and put them away for the next time, these good things people have said that justify my right to exist comfortably in this world as do other people. On this ride, I will find at least one thing to add to them.

We roll off into the moonlit night in our reflective gear, a sea of white and red lights and orange vests and straps. The full moon is beautiful and will watch over us each evening, sometimes orange and sometimes ivory white. Soon we hit the Natchez Trace. I have been excited about seeing the Trace since it was mentioned in a couple of novels by one of my favorite authors: Greg Iles. The route was described as gently rolling, and I am surprised to find myself struggling on climbs. Normally it is the steep climbs where I have trouble keeping up with people, not the long, gradual climbs. I blame it on my illness. I blame it on weakness. The group has not yet split much into smaller groups as it will. I follow red tail lights, some steady and some blinking. At times I see one of the riders I know, at times I ride by myself. I finally decide that with 267 miles to cover today, I need to decrease my effort and drop back.

I ride by myself for most of this day. I don't see Steve after the first few miles. I see Bill once or twice. Dave being Dave and one of the best people I know pulls me for a bit, but I just can't keep up on the hills. I am glad to see him finally ride off. The sun comes out and the heat intensifies. At one point, I find myself crying as one of my greatest fears is no longer being able to keep up with the people I ride with regularly and it appears it has come to pass. Thoughts of no longer going to Hell Week and having their friendly companionship haunt me. I ask myself if it is the added weight of a filled carradice as I always tend to over pack that is slowing me down or am I just giving in to age and weight. Finally I tell myself to suck it up and I pull myself together. I think of Greg S. saying riding is supposed to be fun. I think of Greg Z. telling me about when he quit ultra distance riding and decide that this might be my Swan Song. From what I remember is he was part way into the ride, knew he could finish, but found he didn't want to as he was no longer having fun. I know I can and will finish this ride barring a mechanical or anything unforeseen, and if they have to wait they have to wait, but I doubt I will ever do a ride of this length again.

Goosebumps begin to cover my arms, my reaction to overheating. I decide to pull over and try to find a patch of shade and eat something from my handlebar bag as there is little to eat on this ride. It is hard to make myself drink because the water is hot and nasty tasting, but I continue to force myself. The Trace offers only the occasional warm water to drink and bathroom. There is no food, vending machine, or ice. Suddenly a truck pulls over and offers me a cold soft drink. I have a Sprite and I feel my core temperature lower as I drink. I hit the road again revived, at least for awhile. In my mind I thank Packman for his hint on the use of Sprite to settle a weary stomach and assuage thirst. I think of my brother, Chris, the dentist, and how he will hate the cavities that are probably eating up my teeth right this very moment. Despite the head wind, there is not a dry stitch of clothing on my body. At times the sweat escapes my headband and drips into my eyes burning. At some point before Tupelo, I run into Chris who has started suffering from leg cramps. We stop together for a short time, but my company is not good for him. I can't seem to pull myself out of the mental slump I have ridden myself into. I begin to think of getting a motel at Tupelo and renting a car and driving home. Normally I am encouraging to others even when I feel badly, but not today. Today I am a wet blanket.

Chris takes off and I head down the road. In not too long, I find him once again off the bike, cramping badly. I debate stopping, but I decide there is nothing I can do to help him physically and in my current mental state, I can barely help myself. I do ask and he assures me I can be of no assistance. I ride on toward Tupelo wondering if a hot meal will change my perspective. I am sick of gels and the stuff in my handlebar bag. I want food, real food. I pass one of the women who pulled me up to Chris and Dave one time earlier in the day. She is at a rest area looking tired and defeated. Her head is bowed. I call and ask if she is okay and she answers that she is. I ride onward hoping to make Tupelo before dark as I don't like busy roads in the day time and I like them even less at night.

On the way I do notice beautiful scenery. I don't believe I have ever seen cotton growing before. At first I think it is white flowers of some type. I cross the Tennessee River and photograph some Native American Mounds. But I am glad to reach Tupelo. The song "Tupelo Honey" runs through my mind as I pull into KFC to get a meal. Someone had suggested Pizza Hut, but I don't see it and I am not riding any farther to find it. Inside are two small children who are quite impressed with my arriving via bicycle. They are cute as buttons, and I find myself smiling in spite of my mood. As I eat, their father begins questioning me about my journey and tells me that what I am doing isn't very safe. He is obviously amazed at the challenge and somewhat unsure of my sanity. The children tell me another cyclist has arrived and I am happy to see it is my friend, Steve Royse. I think of the irony. Steve pulled my sorry rear during the last few miles of PBP and here he is again, my hero. He is always so positive and such a steady rider. We decide to ride the rest of the way in together.

When we leave KFC, Steve pulls me awhile blocking the head wind. I feel rather guilty sitting behind him and not taking a turn, but he says he doesn't mind. I think how he is one of the kindest and gentlest men that I know. Dusk is upon us when we head out, and soon the wind dies. The road, however, becomes increasingly rough and my behind begins to protest at each crack in the road. We talk for awhile which helps to pass the down, but I am longing for a shower and bed. Still it is nice to ride through the night with someone you like. Somewhere near the end of the days ride, my GPS bonks. We get a tad lost when we make our last turn, but we finally find our way into the overnight control at French Camp. Inside there are turkey and cheese sandwiches and drinks awaiting. We briefly refill our bellies, and head toward the showers and bed. Steve says he is leaving before breakfast. I know this would be a big mistake for me. I leave a note for Dave, Bill, and Steve Rice telling them not to wait. I figure I will sleep and decide if I will continue or head back to Tupelo and make my way home.

In the shower cabin, I meet some of the other women. Luckily, there are so few of us that we can all shower at the same time and nobody has to take a top bunk. Before I know it, I am asleep.

I awake to the sound of someone else's alarm and the sound of cleats on a wooden floor. I had meant to sleep a bit longer, but I decide to go on and get up. I still am congested from my cold and I hope I did not keep everyone up all night. Sleepily, I dress then head over to the main cabin to get some breakfast before taking off. After some coffee, bacon, egg casserole, and a biscuit, I am ready to head out. As I get ready to leave, I decide to look one more time for the scraping noise that I kept hearing the prior day. I had checked my front brakes and my rear brakes. I notice that my carradice has sagged between the bars of my carradice holder that keeps it off my rear wheel and has been dragging on my wheel. No wonder I felt so weak the prior day: I was riding with the bag rubbing my rear wheel. Luckily I have gorilla tape and there is enough to put tape over the holder to hold the bag up.

I have a definite and immediate mood improvement after this discovery. As I head toward the turn around at Red Dog Road, I find I am smiling again. Not too far down the road, I am passed by a group and I grab their rear wheel. I will end up riding with these two men for the first part of the day and find they are both named Tom. While both are much stronger cyclists than I am, they are tired from a quick pace the previous day. We stop at the first available store on the way back and eat sandwiches. The woman in the store gives me some duct tape to ensure that my carradice does not drag. I tell them to go ahead while I make this repair, but they are kind enough to wait. We stay together until we once again reach French Camp where one of the Toms decides to stop. We had already discussed our intentions to ride at our own paces today, so I head onward. The other Tom also continues, but he is riding faster than I am. About six miles out from the water stop, however, he decides to rest in the shade. It is tempting, but I want to move on while I am feeling half way decent. I head onward to the water stop there encountering Steve Rice. I tell him I intend to stop and get a sandwich at Subway. He says that is where Bill went and maybe he should change his mind and eat as well. We head to Subway and meet Bill and Joe. At least I think Joe was there. Maybe it was Tim Carrol. I find I tend to become confused during long rides and everything begins to blur together.

During this time I begin to worry about Chris. I know he came in last night and I saw him getting ready to head out this morning, but I did not pass him on my return trip to French Camp. Bill and Steve say Dave is behind as well. There is nothing I can do for either of them, but I hope they are okay. I know it bothers Steve as well, but there just is no way to check on everyone. We ride together picking up the pace about 20 miles outside of Tupelo. By the time we reach there, my lungs are burning and I am about to throw in the towel and ride by myself. I question whether hanging on was a wise decision on my part.

While we are in Tupelo, we pick up LeRoy. We again eat at KFC. LeRoy, Steve, and I will finish out this day together while the others surge ahead, though we do meet again at a water stop. If I remember correctly, this is where Tim Carrol joined the group. At one point, Steve is feeling very badly from the heat and we pull over to rest. A ranger sees our lights and pulls over to check on us. He is truly interested and concerned and talks about how visible the riders are due to their lights and reflective gear. He will follow us through the rest of the evening pulling over cars that are driving dangerously or too fast. It is refreshing to find a law enforcement person who believes we have a right to be on the road and who wants to be sure we are safe.

At one point, it begins to rain gently. I notice how you can smell the rain mixed with the road, and I point out to Steve the steam that is swirling about one to two feet off the ground. We enjoy the rain as it cools us, and it is too brief, almost like a dream. It is so warm that there is no concern about rain gear.

Finally we reach the last control. The ride through the state park takes what seems like forever. It is dark and at one point I check to make sure my light isn't broken, but it is just the moon hiding behind clouds. After quickly grabbing a ham and cheese sandwich, I am taken to a cabin. I am the first woman in (other than the two that were riding straight through), so I make up my bed on the bottom of a corner bunk, shower, and hit the sack. I can smell the mold in the air and before long I can't breath through my nose, but I do go to sleep. In what seems like a few minutes, I awaken to the sound of a male voice. I wonder but decide it must be one of the other women's boyfriends seeing her to bed. Then I hear lots of men's voices, even in the bathroom.

This leaves me wondering what to do. Obviously there has been a mistake. I don't want to get up and move. I was here first and it was supposed to be a woman's cabin. I don't really want to make them move because they are tired as well. I debate just going back to sleep and not saying anything, but I decide that might not turn out so well either. Finally I announce that I am there and they can stay if they want but please remain covered in the common area. I giggle inside as I hear the shock in one man's voice in the bathroom when someone says, "There's a chick in here." Long time since this old woman has been called a chick;-) Eventually I fall back to sleep, but in what seems like moments I awaken to the sound of a hard rain. I hurry to the bathroom before the guys get up, get dressed, and head through the rain to breakfast.

The next day is spent mostly with Bill, Dave, Steve, Joe, LeRoy, and Tim. We ride with a few others on and off, but mostly stayed together. Joe and Dave take off near the end. Tim drops back and then catches us. I am able to keep up on the climbs, though at one point I do get very tired and wonder if I need to drop back. This is the day I see wildlife: turkeys and deer. It is the short day, but I still am glad to climb off my bike at the end. The volunteers at the end are warm and welcoming, but I want to get to the hotel and shower. Steve and Dave are kind enough to agree to let me go ahead with Bill and check in and say they will load my bike. Dave later teases me about being my "bike boy." We all go out to eat at a steak house afterward. I could sleep, but it is probably good for me to eat though my stomach is sour. It is so nice to be clean and smell like a girl, to rub lotion on my skin, to sleep in a real bed that doesn't smell of must and mold.

The next morning we are off to the Loveless Cafe for a wonderful dining experience. I don't think I have ever had fried chicken for breakfast before. I am glad we stayed for this experience. But I am glad to hit the road for home, and even gladder to get home.


  1. It does make you feel better when you find out what the problem was. I did my last 1/2 Ironman with my rear brake pad rubbing.
    Congratulations on another 1000k
    - Bird Dog

  2. Love your blog title! I just heard about Lynskey on a recent trip to TN... Congratulations on your ride!!! Such a great accomplishment.

  3. Good job Melissa! I've ridden the trace a few times, but never past Tupelo. Were the drivers there any better than when I last rode there? I miss riding with you guys, and hope to struggle thru a century with you all in the early part of '11.

    Steve G.