On August 3rd, for the second time, I rode the Day Across Minnesota gravel race. A 240-mile, unsupported gravel race from Gary, South Dakota to Hager City, Wisconsin, which starts at midnight. Pedal it in 24 hours or less, and you are a finisher! In 2018, I completed my first DAMn in 21 hours and 43 minutes. Thus, I finished riding in the dark. Unlike at the start, where you pedal through bright, starry, moonlit fields, I was concluding my ride in a wooded area – alone. When only able to see roughly 30 feet in front of you in this type of environment, your mind can conjure up some weird scenarios (at least mine can.) That didn’t stop me, but it did inspire this year’s goal – I needed to finish before dark.
There’s something beautiful about a first attempt at any cycling race versus your second. The first affords blissful ignorance of what is in store for you. The second, you are well-informed of what lies ahead and self-inflicted pressure mounts. Nervousness about achieving my goal had set in along with pondering the crushing sensation of finishing my first attempt and not my second. There’s no shame in a no-finish or not reaching a cut-off time. Look at my Filthy50 this year compared to two years ago. Every day our body is different, conditions vary widely, and you never know how you will perform. But still…
This year, my companions Ya Boi Greg (who I met at the DAMn 2018), and Tim (who was bravely attempting single speed), would be joining. My faithful friend Annie would be our “support.” As an unsupported race, throughout the route, you cannot get assistance from outside sources. If you have a mechanical problem on the road, you have to fix it yourself, or another cyclist can help. Last year, I was able to assist a fellow rider whose sidewall had ripped, and I had a spare tire. I was happy to hand it off (it’s pertinent to build good cycling karma). You may visit gas stations or other places off course for food or other aid, but you must re-enter at the same spot. There are three checkpoints where you get cue cards for the next leg. If you have support, you can only get it there. Annie helped me refill my hydration pack, and I would re-supply with food before heading out. Annie was a heaven-send when the heat hit! But more about that in a minute.
At midnight, with the bursting of brilliant fireworks in a jet black sky, we headed off. The dust from hundreds of wheels lacquered a fresh coat of grime on our bodies – our constant companion for the next 240 miles. The first leg of this race is very enjoyable. Surrounded by other adventurers in the deep, dark night, as you or they pass, you’re sometimes allowed a brief exchange. When in luck, you acquire an impromptu riding partner. Mainly, I enjoy meeting my fellow ‘kind of crazy.’ Last year, we were blanketed with a dense fog all night, which provided little visibility till after sunrise. This year brought a sky of thousands of stars, comfortable temperatures, and as it turns out, water – a crossing, courtesy of this summer’s heavy rainfall. I carried my bike through, not wanting to get my cranks and gears all wet only to be coated in sand after. Some brave souls rode through. I wondered if there would be a pit and we’d get to watch a swimming hole demonstration. *wink* I had a snafu in this first leg – one I’m convinced was caused by YaBoi’s voodoo curse. A flat tire. Feel free to view the video below for more details. My thoughts summed up: Never tell your friend you hope they, “don’t get a flat due to xyz.”
Arriving later than I desired to the first checkpoint, I switched out my shoes, peed, and rolled. Despite my flat toying with my mental game, I made decent time on this leg. I paused various times to pump more air in my tire because I kept thinking it was low. Eventually, I had to force my brain to shake it off. This section is, by far, my favorite on the DAMn. Biking through the Minnesota River Valley at sunrise is a sight every Minnesotan should see. (Of course, if you bike faster or slower than me, you’ll land there at a different time.) Water, trees, valleys, hills – this area is gorgeous. As the sun was rising, I reached into my back pocket for my sunglasses. My shades were missing. Thankfully, there was cloud cover during the early morning hours. Annie lent me a pair of hers at the next checkpoint.
With my next set of cue cards and Annie’s glasses, I set off for the third leg. Partway in, I remembered this is my least favorite leg. The difficulty in this section, for me, holds several factors: First: Even though it’s flat, it’s monotonous. Monotony can hardcore mess with your head. I saved my podcasts and external charger for this section. Mind distraction is my chief source of ammunition for these scenarios. Second: Even though it’s flat, there has always been new gravel poured – and it’s deep. Convinced this was an evil entrapment plot that race organizer, Trenton, had arranged every year, I was cursing his name. I finally had the gumption to inquire if it’s part of the organized torture. Turns out, it’s not. Later, I saw a photo my friend had posted on Facebook, and sure enough, a farmer was out dropping gravel. Fine, Trenton, I’m going to take your word, but I am still skeptical. Third: Monotony? Yes. New gravel? Yes. What more could there possibly be? Absolutely. No. Shade. This year’s afternoon heat cranked up the dial. Sans roadside trees and the sun directly above, there’s no escape. Near the end of this leg, there’s a series of hills. Knowing a third leg checkpoint would be on the other side of one, I couldn’t have been happier to encounter them.
It was a relief to arrive at the third checkpoint. I needed food, water, and shade. After filling my hydration pack and grabbing supplements, I went to the support tent sponsored by The Hub Bike Co-op. Forever grateful for their goodies, I slammed a Coke and scarfed a grill cheese sandwich. After stopping for a bit, I felt slightly dizzy – and thought it could be heat exhaustion. I sat in the shade and best support friend to the rescue! Annie had a car shammy in her vehicle, which she soaked in ice-cold water, and we put it on my neck. It cooled down my body. I felt better shortly after. Knowing I had a goal to reach, and recognizing I had survived the hottest part of the day, I set off again. Ahead of me, plenty of hills were awaiting. I will embrace the rollers over monotony any day!
I took off for the fourth and final stretch. I’m unaware as to how, but I hustled this year. I would surmise due to lack of injury. Last year, I raced with a swollen knee. The weekend prior, I crashed with another cyclist and pancaked onto the asphalt on my right side. I wore a knee compression brace during the race and held back on hills. I couldn’t risk falling on my knee, given it was in a state of jello. This year, I got to let loose and attack full speed. Another bonus? I procured an impromptu riding partner. For many miles, I biked alongside a new bike friend, John Jarvis. We had pleasant conversation, and both constantly shifted in our saddles, commiserating on the annihilated state of our asses. Eventually, I rode off ahead of John. No bragging here, I was likely a little more fresh. John had taken it upon himself to Everest the weekend before this race. *bows down*
After finishing the hill section, and knowing sunset was approaching, I was thrilled to be hitting the Minimum Maintenance Road that takes you into the city of Red Wing, MN. Yes, I had done it! (At least this part.) I was in the wooded area, and there was STILL light! It looked much different than my mind-crafted fantasies when in the dark. At the end of this street, there’s a hill and last year I walked it. I was tired, couldn’t see the top, and had no idea what I was biking up or how much further I had to go. Once I reached pavement, I blasted into full-speed city cruising. Mainly, I
wanted needed to get off my saddle.
I rolled through the finish at 20 hours and 58 minutes. And guess what? Goal accomplished – it was still light. In his usual spot, Trenton was waiting at the finish line to provide all the hugs. And so were my friends – which is the best way to end any endurance race.