Thursday, May 30, 2019

24 Hours Round the Clock Pt. II

The engine light comes on and my car signals to me: PULL OVER WHEN SAFE! The rain is heavy and I am still going faster than the semi-truck to my right. The engine ticks slowly like a lawn mower starting up, and my foot tenderly presses the gas as I drive it a quarter mile up the rest of Snoqualmie Pass to a gas station. What do I do what do I do what do I do? 

Logan's car is parked next to me. We've been friends since 2014, and he's seen me at my lowest and has been there for good times on and off the bike. "Okay... We're going to drive back to Kory's and get her mom's car, then come back here and keep on going to Spokane."

Kory and her family have done too much for me. Kory and I joined the Western Washington University Cycling Team back in Fall 2013, and have been friends ever since. Her family has fed me, housed me, and even taken care of me when I was sick on multiple occasions.

I pump my body full of hot cheetos in an attempt to drown out the anxiety. My brother Gus buys the guilty pleasure snacks. I wouldn't be in this mess if it weren't for him. I mean that in the best way possible. Ever since I was six I was chasing after him on his much cooler, shinier bike.

All three of them are here to support me before, during, and after. We wait patiently for the tow truck to arrive to bring us back west... Then finally we will be back on our way to Spokane.

I am on my way to Eastern Washington to participate in a 24 Hour Mountain Bike Race. In the months leading up to this, I've told myself that the goal was just to finish. But wouldn't it be nice to be competitive? Why am I doing this? Why not?

Just one day later after my car kicked the bucket, I proved my self-worth, my willingness to ask for help, my mental fortitude, my persistence, and my commitment to self-improvement.

I mean no insult to past family and friends when I say that this is the most important thing that I have accomplished.

"Procession"

"Jim-BOR-ee?" An older man scratches his head at the banner being held up behind me as I pedal at a walking pace towards the start line. Like jamboree

A sea of white faces surrounds me and I look for any shade of black or brown. I'm donning the black and orange Major Taylor Project jersey. It stands for strength and camaraderie amongst young people of color. Marshall "Major" Taylor rode 1732 miles in six days without stopping hardly at all. In 1899 he had the entire white cycling community rooting against him. If he could do that, then I can do this. 

I roll up with my hardtail. Most everyone else has full suspension bikes with fancier, lighter, more precise components. I'm ready for a good thrashing. There are eyes on me. I usually shy away from being in the spotlight. But this is my moment to represent my community. This is my moment to show exactly why my parents sacrificed so much in order to create a better life for me.

"Le Mans"

On your left
11:55 AM: I plug my ears with my fingers. Pap! A gun signals the five minute warning. I line up near the back where racers are standing an arms width apart instead of the sardine can up front. Remaining calm is the key. Getting shoulder checked wasn't exactly going to help me stay focused. Neither is rolling an ankle on loose terrain. I am dreading the running section even if it is only a one time 600 meter dash.1

I start to walk, then comfortably jog. I hold my GPS computer and phone in one hand to prevent it from flying out of the pockets on my lower back. There's a Lärabar in my back left pocket, and a mocha flavored energy gel hugging my skin underneath my jersey. The downhill section is so backed up that we have to walk. When I get back to the start, I start to walk again. "Making it look easy," someone says! I retrieve my bike and calmly pedal off to start the first lap of many around this 12.66 mile course.

"Calibration"

The course starts with a hill steep enough to cause me to strain. My heart rate elevates beyond what is sustainable -- 172 BPM. The gradient levels out. I try to ease up but a line of riders has formed and I am sandwiched in the middle. I hold their pace in fear of sacrificing my spot. 
Course map
The next section is labeled "New Rocky Uphill to Fast Single Track." Stones twice the size of a fist are planted across the trail, and the only way through is over them. Riders can power their way through without being methodical about their line choice and get lucky (especially with dual suspension). Obviously the intelligent thing to do is to think about your line long before it is necessary. The technicality slows the line to a crawl and I have to stop several times, attempting not to put my foot down. Unsuccessful.

The trail weaves between ponderosa pines. I'm granted a false sense of security by the beauty of this place. It's punctuated by the jagged rocks of "Troll Pavement." A left hook turn brings me to "5 Minute Hill," which I clean in 5:01 with a spirited pace. Finally the line of riders breaks and I am able to have some breathing room and flex my pace.

The "Fast and Fun Single Track" that follows means that Checkpoint #1 is ahead. I see the familiar face of Fiona, who raced in the same collegiate cycling conference as I did. What follows immediately afterwards is "Devil's Up," a short but steep kicker hill that increases in gradient as it goes along. Oh, and rocks. Lots of inconveniently placed ones. Two more hills follow.

Three red arrows pointed down signify "Devil's Down" to the left -- a rocky and uneven face that narrows to a loosely packed chute. A crash here would certainly end someone's race. "Angel's Down" is the easier option to the right, which I take for the first lap, not having pre-ridden the course at all.

"Bill and Ted's Adventure" soon becomes the bane of my wrists' existence. Rocks, roots, and rapidly changing surface textures make this trail a place for the faint of heart to throw in the towel.

Just when I think the difficulty is over, and I can enjoy a downhill to the finish line, the gradient kicks up again on "No Little Vietnam For You" and "Pre Spine Hill." Thankfully a water stop is in between with enthusiastic volunteers. 

"Gas Line Down" is an anticlimactic downhill not steep enough to carry speed with exhilaration. I wait patiently and coast, eager to pedal. But I should save every ounce of energy I have. The forest opens up to the "Old Shooting Range." I stare up at the sky. I'm sure it will be a magnificent scene during the night.

I reenter the forest and take a bend to the left. The sight of tents and RVs along the finishing straight  is comforting.

I press the lap button on my GPS computer as I duck under the gate to get into the finishing tent. My computer reads 1:06:33. The time has been set. "Number six!" The announcer reads the number plate on the front of my bike. "Jim --" I expect him to say my last name incorrectly. "La-BAY-an." There it is. No one ever gets it right. I nod towards him. "'Scuse me. It's La-bi-en with a long 'I' sound." He nods to me. "Sorry."

I continue to press the lap button every lap and my confidence grows. 1:02:38. Climb "5 Minute Hill." 1:07:19. Clean "Devil's Up." 1:05:57. Descend "Devil's Down." 1:05:42. Take a stretch break at the "Old Shooting Range." 1:08:27. My consistency fuels my ego.

"Go Solo"

I reach around to the back of my seat to check if it's still there. A tag with specks of mud flaps around. "SOLO," it reads. Lap after lap, riders politely pass and say, "Go solo!" Even the most winded racers mutter it politely. I feel like a celebrity.

"Keep it up solo! Are you Jim?"

"Thank you!" I smile. "Uh yeah. Who are you?"

"I'm Tara. Your brother told me all about you when I was sitting with my team. You're doing so great! Keep it up!"

Her positivity is contagious.

"Sensation"

"Yeaaaaaaah I'm gonna take my horse to the old town road. I'm gonna riiiiiide 'til I can't no more..."

Logan's speaker plays "Old Town Road" absurdly loud as he and Gus chase after me down the finishing straight. Logan spanks my right side and it stings. Giddy up. I had just told my team that I would stop in three laps to change into my warmer clothes for the night shift. I run my timing chip over the sensor and it registers the beginning of my 8th lap.
Climbing "First Hill"

Autopilot kicks in. I'm no longer trying hard to concentrate or to pedal or even to steer. I can't feel the fatigue in my legs or the numbness in the outside of my palms. Flow. The only thing that pulls me out of this state is the emptiness in my stomach. My nutrition cycle becomes something I am unfamiliar with. Eat even just one granola bar and my body rejects it. The margin between feeling bloated and bonking is becoming smaller. I chew methodically on a quarter of a PROBAR, which I consider to be the holy grail of cycling food. The taste is lost on me, and I feel like throwing up.

I push the button to activate my lights. There are isolated twinkles of water in the air. It can't be... I'm in denial and decide to push my luck right until the rain hits.

Logan stands at the corner before the finishing straight, signaling with a megaphone that Gus and Kory have my jersey and a water bottle further down on the right side. It could be an easy grab. I could do it without stopping. I see a familiar blue jersey waving in the air. I put my hand up to wave: "Next lap."

The only thing in my head is the desire to keep this sensation going. I come to the finishing straight again, but I make out Gus's purple jacket over by the tent. They must be expecting me to pull in. I don't.

I pull out my phone during at the bottom of "First Hill," and text the group, "one more lap." While my phone is out, I take the opportunity to look at the live results. All great except... One lap reads 1:56:00. That's wrong. That's impossible. I run the scenario of each break I took through my head. That can't be right.

The rain settles in, and I start to get soaked to the core. I look down at my thighs and they are glistening. My socks are soggy. I should be cold.

"Rest"

"I'm an idiot," I state as I turn left towards the team canopy.

"We have a nice clean jersey for you sitting in this chair." Kory makes a change of clothes sound enticing.

"I dunno. If I change into that now and it keeps on raining, I won't have anything else to change into if I want to." I've never had any more conviction than I do in that moment. "Okay, I'm actually going to take a nap now." I make the decision to sleep in my wet clothes, hoping that it will be dry when I wake up.

The rain picks up. The team guides me to Logan's car. I make it halfway onto my sleeping pad and close my eyes. I moan at how this pad has never felt this good. "Noooo Jiiimm," Logan's voice ascends with each word. "You have to get in the sleeping bag." I groan and climb in, transferring one body part at a time, leaving it unzipped. 

I'm afraid that my body will finally register that it's okay to ease up and that it's time to use the restroom. In that event, I wouldn't be able run to the porta-potty and peel off my clothes in time.2

I pull the blanket to cover my backside, and I fade. Thunk. The trunk shuts.

"Doubt"

"Jim... Nobody's even out there. The rain's stopped. And you're still in third place." Kory's voice is calm and convincing. She's lying, I think. There's no way. I listen carefully for the hollow sound of rain hitting Logan's rooftop. It's only a sprinkle. Regret tingles down my spine. I'm furious at the world right now. I unfold myself and kneel up. I have to

Gus helps me through the sleeves of his black Gortex jacket. Kory hands me a beanie and I pull it on. I put on wool gloves and a second pair of gel-padded gloves. I psych myself up and pedal away. 

3:04 AM: The beanie is long and I have it folded up. The excess fabric causes my helmet to shift which causes my headlight to shift which causes the beanie to droop and cover my eyes.

I walk through the finishing tent, officially finishing my 10th lap. I do a slow cyclocross remount at the exit of the tent but a man steps in front of me. He's holding a clipboard.

"Stop," he says sternly, but without raising his voice. "You can't ride in here." I stumble as I hit the brakes.

Are you serious? I wasn't even in the tent unless you count my back tire. He makes me wait 5 seconds. It seems like some kind of power trip. "Ok you can go."

I had been doing this every single lap, and no one had bothered to mention this to me.

I look back at him as I do another cyclocross remount (slower this time). We lock eyes. Lashing out in anger or arguing wasn't going to help my case. "Sorry..." I say. No response.

It's moments like these -- when I admit fault -- that my morale begins to die and I start to believe myself incapable.

The tightness in my legs between when I went to bed and now is night and day. I don't feel any fatigue. I climb "First Hill" and think to myself how much I don't want to do this. I want to be asleep. I feel water coming down my face, and I recognize that I am crying. I sob, but continue to ride.

A rider with a gruff voice pulls up alongside me. "How's you're night going," he asks?

"Awww, y'know... Just sorting out some personal problems. I just woke up."

"Yeah, me too. Frankly, I was hustling to catch you just so I could have someone to talk to..."

"I feel you," I almost start crying again. He can't hold my pace any longer and drops back.

I make another left hook turn and refuse to even try. I dismount my bike at the bottom of "5 Minute Hill." I hear easy breathing behind me. It's a younger woman this time. "You know you paid for this right?!" I don't take it personally, but I could have.

"Ha, yeah. That's what I'm doing this for. In it for a bad time."

I see headlamps at Checkpoint #1. "six," I mutter. "Go six!" The two checkpoint volunteers cheer.3

As usual, Checkpoint #1 signals the impending doom of "Devil's Up." I muster all the fortitude I am capable of, and begin a steady yet urgent climb. But I see 1:56:00. I see the man at the tent. I see the fresh pair of clothes I refused to change into. I hear my last name being pronounced incorrectly. A poor and unfocused line choice causes my rear wheel to slip out and my right foot comes off the pedal. I roar with anger.

I'm fueled by my emotions to get up the next two rises. Finally I see the three red arrows pointed down on a white sign, and I steer to the right. "Angel's Down" seems like the more prudent choice.

"Daybreak"

6:07 A.M.: My mouth doesn't work properly anymore as I feed myself minestrone soup. I have to open wide. My stomach is ravenous but my brain and gag reflex tell me to slow down. It takes all my concentration not to throw up. Gus assures me that it will be okay. I'm 18 hours in.
Minestrone soup featuring textbook example of helmet hair

"It feels good to hear that number!" I brighten up. Three quarters of the way through. Now it's the home stretch. I'm greeted by the air getting warmer and the glow of the sun on my neck. 

I finally change into a fresh pair of clothes and take off my lights. The mud is wiped from my bike and the doubt is flushed from my mind. I victoriously swipe my timing chip over the sensor and begin lap number 12. 

My times become consistent again and I fall into the rhythm. 1:14:17. 1:24:20. 1:19:06.

"17"

I check the live results at one of my breaks and it reads 13 laps instead of 15. WHAT... You have to be kidding me. I scan my hazy memory again, furious at the results. They are indeed wrong. 13 laps puts me in 5th place behind two others who have 15 laps.

Some number crunching takes place and I realize that I can do 17 laps. Not that there is much significance in numbers, but I am 24, and this is a 24 hour race. I was born on December 17. My dad's birthday is January 17. It would only be appropriate to do 17 laps. If I make it back by 11:59:59 A.M. I will be allowed one last timed lap. But why would I do another one just to not have it count

11:59 A.M.: The announcements over the P.A. system get louder and I make the final bend. I stand up and sprint conservatively, leaving some energy left in the tank -- just in case.

"Let's hear it for number six! Solo rider Jim La-BAY-an."

I take a sharp left after exiting the finish line tent to head back towards my team. 16 laps. I still feel cautious letting this last lap escape me. I know I have at least one more left in me. Then I remember why I did this -- why I'll continue to do things like this. It's not for other people. Not for numbers. Not for podiums. It's for me. And that is enough.

We walk back towards our tent, and I'm congratulated every few steps.

Solo Men Age 19-39 podium accompanied by Kory, Gus, and Logan
Altogether, I rode for a total of 19 hours 32 minutes and 51 seconds. I rode over 200 miles and climbed over 11,000 feet. I got two hours of sleep, and the rest of the time was spent taking small breaks. I narrowly earned third place by finishing 9 minutes ahead of fourth place -- and extremely narrow margin for a 24 hour race. More data can be found here for all you cyclists, data nerds, or for those curious enough... 

That being said, I could have done better. If I had not slept and ridden through the rain, I might be sitting in second place. But that is not the point. I laid everything that I was willing to offer down on the line. And that is enough.

I chose cycling as my method of self-empowerment at a young age. I picked up cycling as a competitive sport in 2013. I traveled all across the Western United States. I trained for 15 hours a week since the end of February. I developed neurotic sleeping habits. I sacrificed my car, which will take $3600 or more to repair. My wrists and back were in extreme pain for a few days after the event. All to chase this dream.

As for my team: I cannot thank Gus, Kory, and Logan enough for their support, care, and love. I don't deserve the treatment they gave me.

This was just the beginning. Now that I know what I am capable of, I am hungry for more. Here are a few sparks:
  • Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route -- a rugged and self supported 683 mile race from Washington Coast to Idaho Border
  • Cascade Ultra -- a 452 mile mixed terrain race around Washington
  • Dirty Kanza XL -- a 350 mile race through the Flint Hills region of east-central Kansas
  • Tour Divide -- a 2745 mile self supported mountain bike race from Canada to Mexico along the U.S. Continental Divide
  • Paris Brest Paris -- one of the oldest and most prestigious ultra-endurance cycling events in the world

Whatever it is, it will be something dumb and only a little fun.

Again, thank you for reading. Thank you to the people who helped fund this experience. Thank you to the people who trained with me. Thank you to the people who supported me. And thank you for being a part of this. I couldn't have done this without you.



1Before their first lap only, all riders have to complete a running course.


2 It's common to wear bib shorts while cycling. The spandex shorts are held up by suspender straps. In order to use the bathroom, you have to take off your top layer, remove the suspender straps, then pull down the shorts. Clearly going to the bathroom or changing takes a long time.


3 Racer numbers are recorded at each of the three checkpoints to ensure that riders are staying on course. During the dark hours, racers had to call out their numbers to make sure checkpoint volunteers were recording the correct numbers.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

24 Hours Round The Clock

At noon on May 25th in Spokane, Washington, I will be riding my mountain bike for as long as I can alongside 850 people. These people will be riding a 13 mile looped dirt trail for 24 consecutive hours. 60 will be competing solo, and I will be one of them. Since January, I've been testing my mind and body to prepare for this. Though I think my life has been nudging me in this direction ever since I picked up bike riding. 

I first felt a strong pull to long distance cycling when I rode around the Washington Olympic Peninsula in 2013. Truthfully, it was awful in many ways. I was lonely, hungry, and green. But it also offered me so much escape from the pent up traumas of my cross-cultural and turbulent upbringing. I fell in love with the rhythm of climbing hills, the fatigue in my legs, the aching in my back, soreness in the arches of my feet... I fell in love with getting lost -- mentally and geographically.

And now, having turned 24 six months ago, nothing seems more appropriate than to challenge myself to this race. With a little over a week before this event, I'm fondly looking back on the moments that have made this endeavor possible. Enjoy this collection of formative experiences and [sometimes unrelated] pictures that made me feel strong, broke me down, or were just plain fun.

7.15.2018 Seattle to Portland with Major Taylor Project. Four high school students rode 210 miles in one day with me. Nearly 50 did that same distance in two days.
"For Sugar. For Freedom."

The first time I understood what freedom and strength meant, I was on my bike. 

My parents always suggested that six-year-old Jim should be spending all of his hard-earned cash wisely. Within that suggestion was also a refusal to drive me to the store to buy candy. Something I knew about myself then -- something I'll always know -- is that I if set a goal, or if I want something, I pursue it with unwavering tenacity. I just didn't know how to express it yet. Bike riding never awakened anything new in me. It allowed me a way to be authentic.

So I rode. And walked. And rode. Finally I was able to gawk at the rows of candy at the island market. 

I found the answer to all my problems when I was six. Self-empowerment only costs 99 cents and a two mile bike ride. And it tastes like chocolate wafers.

3.19.2017 Western Washington University Criterium. Who took the cookie from the cookie jar?
"Slow times on Madrona Drive"

My neighborhood is a series of poorly paved rolling hills, and I'm creeping up on five miles for the day. My legs ache and my shoulder hurts from my sling backpack. My momentum dies at the sudden rise in steepness, and I get off my bike. I try convince myself that it's okay to walk... But I've never walked this hill before. It's so short, and home is just around the corner. I knew I was better than this. I was 12 and clinging to my masculinity. A car full of teenagers rolls by. They point and laugh. I hang my head in anger. A small but powerful voice in my head sneers, "you're pathetic."

"Brothers"

He advises me to shift down a few gears and spin my legs faster. "Just stay on my wheel," he assures me. I can't hold the pace and my eyes bore into the road with fury. A semi-truck buzzes by violently, spraying me with mist. The shoulder of Highway 97 is not very hospitable.

My body is soggy in places that are uncomfortable. My brother is in absurdly good shape. My dad is waiting at a turnoff insisting that we stay for pictures. I want nothing more than to continue on and ride in anger until I can't feel anymore. 

Gus cracks a dumb joke and convinces me to play along. He makes a good cheerleader. Alright then

4.2011 Cle Elum to Leavenworth, WA -- the longest and hardest ride I had done to date
We reach the top of the mountain pass and I am still burning with intensity to match my brother's strength. The descent starts and I am able to outrun him. 

After that day I knew that I was done sizing myself up to my brother. We were drawing on the same piece of paper -- not big enough for the both of us. It was time for me to create my own vision.

"12.12.2015 Pacific Coast Bike Tour - Manzanita, Oregon"

I’m eager to crest this hill. The rhythm of my pedal strokes is fueled by the vivid memory of the upcoming view. My friend would nudge me awake and I would step out of his car and gawk at the sight. The beach arches slowly and endlessly, each summer home becoming smaller and smaller. The powerful waves crashing on the rocky arches appear only as gentle ripples. I was distanced from the harshness of nature then. I used to look forward to this quiet overlook on the Oregon Coast. To live among all the small people and all of their small concerns. Now I don’t know what to expect.

The grade eases and I can finally breathe. The tree line thins and I feel exposed. In an instant, the sky opens up and releases its payload. The fog obscures the road ahead. The wind here is choppy, unpredictable. It blows strong, and the moment I think I’ve caught a break, a stronger, more vengeful gust mercilessly berates me. I fight with every ounce of strength to pedal on flat ground. My bags act as sails, pointing me downwind and slamming me into the guardrail, or worse -- completely turning me around. Go Home, the wind howls. No.

I look to the road and the wind ripping through sheets of rain. My hands fade from cherry to pale blue. My lips curl at the taste of the salt that has run down my cheeks. I reach the overlook, but what I see tells me what’s left of those summer vacations: nothing. I crack a smile. At this point, glory is only worth one of my wet socks wrung out onto the floor. At this point, the past is only worth a picture that disappears into the void of the internet. There are no welcome home parties or bottomless margaritas to look forward to -- just a plane ticket home to a stack of textbooks and a gray winter. That is when I know: I’m here for the grit. I’m here for me.

I calmly sigh, accepting my charge. Through the sun and spray, pavement and painted lines, I ride on.

12.12.2015 After 9 hours of riding against the rain and wind, the sky starts to clear up over Tillamook county roads
"RF471"

My race is late to line up. The event directors call for everyone to make a circle. Just hours before, I drove by the sickening scene of a collegiate rider having collided with a guard rail during a high speed descent. A man in a blue USA cycling jacket calmly addressed the crowd. I sense what he's about to say, and I bury my eyes in my arm. I weep for his death. I weep because he lost the only thing I could not stand to lose.

Later that night, I drift off to sleep thinking of how everyone else in the conference was coping differently. Whatever would come tomorrow, I only expected to try my best.

~

Despite winning a category C criterium the previous year, it meant very little to me. Category B just seemed like the next big thing. It wasn't as much goofing off and chatting as it was aggressive competition.

The hill makes my quads feel heavy during the warm up lap. Criteriums are known for being relatively flat... I know I'm about to climb this 24 times. I ditch my jacket and the rain begins to pour. Go time.

I chase down all the accelerations, hungry for a chance at first place. The wheel spray kicks up road grime between my face and glasses. It hurts to blink.

Andrew from University of Washington makes a solo break attempt with three laps to go -- a bold move. He either sticks it, or gets passed before crossing the line. Nobody chases, and a lap goes by. And a second. And a third.

I lose confidence on the last lap. The first person to sprint or chase usually has the wind and fatigue working against them. Have I put in the hours in the saddle? Have I done the proper workouts? The pack crests the final hill, and a choir of gear shifts commences. I make my move. The only things I see are Andrew... and the line.

3.27.2016 Victory at Seward Park Criterium.
From that day on, I promised to never take cycling, my life, or my able body for granted. And I'll never expect anything less than the best of what I am capable of.

"Masochism and Perserverence (Mostly Masochism)"

The darkness of winter and a bad breakup weighs down my morale. I feel like I've lost my motivation and passion for most things -- including the thing that gives me the most liberation. I'm merely performing to meet expectations. Wake up. Go to class. Ride home. Turn on Netflix. Ride inside for an hour and a half. Change shows. Ride more. Fall asleep studying.

Midway through the spring season, I've already recognized how meaningless bike riding has become. The team travels to Walla Walla. I've won there twice. I know that I'm not in winning condition, but deep down I am unable to admit that.

4.7.2019 View from inside of a construction flagger's vehicle, Dufur, Oregon. I withdrew from this race after not being able to see correctly or feel anything past my knees or elbows.
The winds in Walla Walla are unforgiving. The pace surges into a tailwind and the pack leaves me behind. That much was humiliating. I've been dropped before, but not like this. The staging area is only a few miles ahead. I consider withdrawing, which I've never done before.

The four laps to follow were just for self-punishment... and eventually accomplishment. Just 60 more miles. I feel lost and alone, drowning amongst the swells of farmland hills. I don't want rescue. I don't want to show my face at the finish line until I could perform at the level that I did only a year ago.

I recognize my friend Lillian riding towards me. She rides alongside me, clearly having an easier time than me. She takes a shortcut. I stay the course. She offers to let me draft off of her to block the wind and I refuse. "I need to finish by myself," I say.

Another friend cheers me on as I cross the line in last place. The weight of my expectations and the last several months makes my body cave. I collapse against a car and cry. Minutes go by, and I sit perched in the countryside, surrounded by people who I've raced with for four years. And I want nothing more than to be riding inside, only accompanied by apathy and self-doubt.

"Payday"

"What's your favorite candy bar?" He asks out of the blue. 

We pass a lot of time just by talking about food. I had just chugged an Orange Crush soda and eaten half of his PopTart. I stare methodically beyond expansive dry fields of Goldendale, Washington. Mount Hood and Rainier tower at the opposite ends of my periphery. It's been a long day of riding a desolate Highway 97. All I want is more sugar. I proceed to explain my favorite candy and we discuss the nuances of chocolate, nuts, and sweeteners. Our conversation is cut short by an exhilarating descent into the Columbia River Basin.

8.21.2017 Jonathan Lee climbs up to Stonehenge in Maryhill, WA to watch the solar eclipse
He smirks as he pulls out two Pay Days, perfectly intact despite the heat of the day. I shake my head with guilty pleasure, knowing he carried them for 75 miles.

Between bites of peanutty goodness, we marvel at the explosion of twinkles and dust in the night sky.

"Not too sweet for a candy bar... a very underrated thing."

"Dude, yeah!" His eyes widen. Jon energizes the conversation with the intonation of his voice. 

"It's like the type of candy old people would like!"

"Old people candy," I chuckle to myself, sharply exhaling through my nose.

"5.5.2019 Lafeen's Donut Run (Bellingham and back -- 230 miles)"

5:00 P.M. I gulp down water with a melatonin pill at work. It's concerning how neurotic my sleep schedule has become. I force my body to sleep so that I can leave early in the morning.

6:30 P.M. Sleep.

12:55 A.M. Alarm 1.

1:00 A.M. Alarm 2.

1:05 A.M. Alarm 3. "Okay, I'm up..." I can't decide whether or not to eat something. My stomach is still full from a late lunch.

2:00 A.M. For once, Seattle is calm... quiet. I pedal out from my driveway confidently. No bailouts. No whining

3:00 A.M. My workout playlist keeps me company in the dark. "Pas De Deux" starts playing. It's a song from a horror movie. Poorly timed, I think. Irrational fears flood my thoughts. Fluid shapes shift across the Burke Gilman Trail. I make out what I think is a traffic cone. I get closer, and see straps (it's a tote bag), and a woman holding it. She's perfectly still, facing diagonally towards me. My stomach seizes. Her eyes flash demonically greenish-white as my light shines on her. Still no movement. I stand up and pick up the pace, unable to process if I'm seeing things.

5:45 A.M. Doubt. Regret. Just a few more hours. Just fast forward to the middle of the day. You'll be hot. I ride with my hands shoved into my armpits, which does almost nothing to warm them. My digits have ceased to function, and I can't shift or brake properly, let alone open the packaging of ride snacks. Miraculously, I see the open sign in the window of an espresso stand. On a Sunday? This early in the morning? I hop the curb to the opposite side of the road, but don't see anyone inside. I peek around... Inside, a teenage woman hides in the back, staring at her phone. *knock knock*

I order a decaf. After all, it's to warm my hands; not to wake me up.

9:15 A.M. I climb up the short hill from the roundabout on Forest St. I've done it over a hundred times. My bike computer reads 115 miles. Halfway. I plop down in the Bellingham Food Co-op, thrown off by the time of day and frustrated that I don't have enough time to go to my favorite donut shop before meeting up with my former racing team.

8.18.2016 I rode around Mt. Rainier from Tacoma with my boss. 186 miles / 11,000 feet of climbing
12:00 P.M. The Western Washington University Cycling Team bids me farewell as I turn to go south.

4:30 P.M. I gradually overtake an older gentleman, who is clearly taking his time, whistling. I smile at him, not quite able to muster words. He smiles back, missing one of his front teeth.

The weight in my legs grows and I ease up. I hear a gear shift and a voice from behind me.

"Running out of steam there?" It's him -- just as cheery as when I saw him several minutes ago. He overtakes me.

"Ha, yeah," I exhale humility.

"Keep on chuggin' along, brother!" The gap between his wheel and mine steadily grows.

6:30 P.M. The roads become familiar and my mind is at ease. I gently urge the pedals over along Lake Washington Boulevard, just one "small" hill away from my house. 

7:00 P.M. I hang my head and arch my back. 17 hours. How about another 7? I kid. Sometimes I worry how far I'll push myself next time.

~

In my childhood, bike riding was escapism, respite, and my greatest method of empowerment. My last years of high school were spent modeling my life after my older brother, who went on to travel globally by bicycle. 2013 and 2014 were years of liminality. I discovered who I was and who I wanted to become. In 2015, I put my identity to the test when I rode down the U.S. Pacific Coast during intense winter storms. In 2016 I raced beyond the level that I expected, then succumbed to my new expectation of victory no matter the cost. I lost nearly every ounce of motivation to ride, to feel the wind in my face, to explore new roads and trails... I spent a year frustrated at my progress and did nothing but continue to do what I hated. In 2017, I quit racing and went on a life changing bike tour along the Cascade Mountain Range. In the process I started to value the work that I was putting in as a youth educator, bike shop employee, and recreational cyclist. In 2018 I re-discovered my self-worth, and approached racing again with a more realistic and healthy attitude. Now it's time to see how much that amounts to.

This race is for the times that I fell short of expectations. This one is for the people who told me I wasn't enough. This one is for the times I was doubted because of my age, my ethnicity, or my introversion, or my awkwardness. Whether it is 15 hours or 24 hours or the top step of the podium, I know I will have implemented every lesson; relived every emotion that I've experienced through a lifetime of bike riding. And that is enough.

Thank you for reading. And thank you to my supporters who have encouraged me, trained with me, fed me, funded this experience, and loved me.

Friday, September 22, 2017

2400


Trabajo 

"Do you smell that?" I grin as I look at Jon and point my nose up into the air. Enticing fragrance fills our nostrils. The wind billows over each row of strawberry plants. I'm eager to reach the fruit market in Moss Landing that I went to on my last tour. Some of the most fresh and tastiest fruit lives there. It was so good that it was a highlight of that trip!

The miles between us and the market seem to go on forever. I recognize the Moss Landing smoke stacks and they don't seem to be getting any closer. We crest a hill and see dozens of people -- all Latinos and Latinas -- working the strawberry fields frantically. The expression on the workers' faces was not one of ease. Jon and I ride by in silence, making no mention of what we had mutually witnessed. The fruit market was ahead.

We gaze in admiration at the rows of colorful produce as we circle the market. Jon always jokes that grocery stores are dangerous. Our metabolism curses us with a ferocious appetite. We always do a couple laps of the aisles to make sure we didn't miss out on any opportunities. We calorie count and weigh packages in our hands in order to find the foods with the most density. If it passes "the test," we scan for price tags for the final stamp of approval. We spend far too long doing all of this.

We feast on plums, pears, strawberries, mangos, and kiwi. Even more satisfying to know we only paid three dollars. I swallow a bite of strawberry and pause.

"That's so messed up."
"Wha-- Oh..." Jon pauses and remembers."
"Did you see those workers? They were running. I wonder if they're told to do that or --" 
"Yeah, fruit's not as innocent as you think it is."

I recall the scene from an hour ago. The rapid fire of a staple gun puts together cardboard crates. A man aboard a truck yells urgent directives in Español. One woman runs with a shouldered basket of harvest. I have this cultural instinct to look at the scene the same way that I look at roadkill. Ignore. Look away. The almond farms near Modesto, the orchards of Watsonville, the rows of artichoke and lettuce in Monterey County. The land tilled, planted, and picked by brown hands. This is America, the land I choose to travel.

'Za

"I think I'm gonna go dumpster diving," I chuckle to Jon. I shake my head at my bill as I settle up for a pint, cocktail, and fries. 

My head feels airy and the handlebars especially wobbly. We sometimes joke about how easily our adventure could be ended by injuries and/or poor judgment. 
Biking drunk? Broken collar bone. Tour over.
Sprinting for the California State sign and failing to see a curb? Eating cement. Tour over.
Balance thrown off from the case of beer we're carrying? Broken parts. Tour over.

I see a Papa John's across the street and get a lucky feeling. The gate to the dumpster easily unlatches and we peer in. Pizza boxes lay on top of leftover dough the size of a human body. I open one... two... and --

"ZA!" Jon exclaims. Artichoke pizzas and barbecue pizzas. We laugh giddily as we precariously carry a box of assorted slices up the switchback climb into camp.

40 Dates and 40 Nights

"So do you guys have girlfriends?" Patrick asks out of the blue. We've ridden with him for a few days since Monterey. He's good company and offers a refreshing change up to our chemistry.

McWay Waterfall, Cabrillo Highway
Jon and I look at each other. I can tell we are both hesitating and waiting for each other to start. We've told the story a few times. My ex is probably somewhere within 50 miles of us, touring the coast, and Jon just broke up with his girlfriend. I open my mouth, about to say something --

"Well, uh, are you guys dating?" Patrick raises an eyebrow. We hesitated too long.

I grin from ear to ear. Yes. Yes we are. I'm tempted to play along just to screw with him. This isn't the first time someone has made this assumption. Jon's mom read my blog and asked him if we're having a bromance. I think it's hilarious. If anything, it speaks to our friendship and compatibility as traveling partners.

"I mean, basically. We're on a forty day date," I chuckle.

Our ticket out of Big Sur -- Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which climbs from sea level to 2800 feet in less than seven miles
Figueroa

Sunset, Refugio State Beach
We are "sleeping" on the patio of a coffee shop in Ventura, California. A semi-truck charges through Highway 101 less than a block away. I know that if I looked up at the sky, the stars would be extinguished by all of the light pollution. Several sets of bicycle tires skid on the sidewalk just as soon as pairs of eyes fondly look at our bikes.

"What?!" Jon yells.

I roll over in my sleep. He repeats himself. The inkling of consciousness in me freezes. I hear Jon talking to someone. It's three in the morning. I hear a gruff voice mumbling. Concern and defensiveness arise in my gut, but sleep beckons me back.

"I'm glad I was awake and our bikes were locked up." Jon says in the morning. Apparently many people were eyeing our bikes, then left in a hurry once they realized Jon and I were in our sleeping bags nearby. The sounds of the city made for a poor night's sleep. Thankfully we only have one more day to go. Jon has a quad shot of coffee and we are off.

Barrelhouse 101, Ventura CA -- 101 beers on tap!!
Arrival

The In-N-Out fries and shake don't sit well in my stomach. After all, I am lactose intolerant. It's a "treat" that I've been waiting for in order to reward myself at journey's end. Quite evidently I have poor self control.

We arrive at the Santa Monica Pier. End. A flock of tourists flies through the theme park, gawking at the street performers.

"What now?" He asks. "It looks like everyone just comes here to take a selfie."

"Yeah..." My eyes glaze over. Somehow this seems anticlimactic. Somehow this seems like it hasn't been hard. Should it have been? I internalize all of the obstacles we took to get here. The roaring winds in the canyons. The failing equipment. The dried up riverbeds of the Oregon high desert. The hunger and knee pain and back aches. The blistering heat of Nevada. The fight against gravity in the Sierras. The lungfuls of smoke at altitude.

I feel these things in my past and I know they made even the most mundane experiences blissful and exhilarating. Some people shook their heads at us when they learned what we were doing. I would have doubted myself too if I hadn't known that nobody got anywhere in life by taking the well-travelled road. It takes a little oomph, a little grit, a little crazy.

I get a few ideas stirring in my head. "I think I know what's next," I grin at Jon.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Ascension

The Brighter Side

Jon and I double check that we have everything as we load up our bikes. Heather and Marco's garage is chock full of outdoor equipment that could easily be mistaken for ours or vice versa. I carefully set my belongings in a separate pile. Jon finishes to pack his bags.

Heather bids us goodbye. Marco pokes his head around the corner.
"Do you guys want a cookie on the way out?" He says with eager eyes.  Jon and quickly looks up and sets his last belonging down on a workbench, and not in his bag.
We were still full from the night before.
Jon's Blue Steel and Mount Shasta
"Oh, I think I'm okay..." Jon smiles politely.
"It's a ganja cookie..." Marco cocks an eyebrow.
"Oh..." Jon and I look at each other, surprised.

We settle in along a cool and roaring creek after a long day of rolling hills. Jon swears and stomps his foot. 
"My headlamp..."
"What?!"
"I left it at Marco's!"
I play with a ginger snap cookie in my hand and laugh at the irony. Thankfully the stars were magnificent that night.

Boiling Point

The day before, I checked the weather and saw an unexpected warning: "the valley will reach temperatures upwards of 108 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit." Not being locals, and everything seeming a little extra mountainous in the last week, Jon and I concluded we were not in any "valley." A long descent along a river proved us wrong. 

Not even 20 minutes into the day, we both unzip our jerseys for ventilation. By noon, it is already over 90 degrees. The hot air penetrates the shade as it climbs well into 100 degrees. A much needed stop for an indoor lunch only makes going back outside much worse.

"You know that feeling when you go to take cookies out of the oven and you just feel hot air in your face?"
We both laugh, but in nervous misery.

Sapphire blue water near Lassen Peak, Volcanic Scenic Highway
We begin moving again out of obligation. I ask Jon to stop pedaling so I can diagnose something on his bike. His wheel wobbles violently, which is symptomatic of a broken spoke. I feel nervous to tell Jon about anything that is wrong with his bike. He's had a lot of misfortune when it comes to his bike holding up, mechanics doing wrong by him, or salesman up-selling him.

Thankfully in a tourist town, we stop at a bike shop to buy a spoke. The one staff member seems ill-prepared and -equipped for Labor Day Weekend business. I explain our situation and it soon becomes clear that he doesn't know how to help us solve our problem (to which he doesn't admit). He offers to let us behind the counter to do the work ourselves. I am hesitant because I know it is a liability issue. However the urgency of our situation takes precedence over formalities in my mind.

I sequence the procedure in my head. The heat gets to me and I wipe sweat from my forehead, taking care not to get grease all over my face. My hands tremble in anxiety. Perfect timing, I scoff.

We were treated to a gorgeous sunset in the Sierras that evening
By the time I finish, we see the first signs of golden hour, and we still have 25 miles to go with lots of climbing. It is still above 95 degrees. Jon and I both worry about how the day will end and how the next day will start. Biking, setting up camp, and eating in the dark are less than favorable conditions, not to mention starting again after little downtime.

My temper is simmering and I know it will carry on into the day if I don't do something about it. Jon buys an Italian soda float and pays for my "stress cone" next door.

To date, that is the most frustrated I have ever been while eating an ice cream cone.


The "I" in Team

Golden hour in Lake Tahoe
A green sign reads "Lee Summit." Jon makes a hard acceleration for a good while. He taps into his matchbox of energy and burns one or two just to claim the mountain pass that coincides with his last name. I follow but I have no rebuttal in the gas tank. I grit my teeth not in defeat, but because I am suffering. He pulls away from me. It is the small rewards that matter. 

The entire tour has been an informal race. Each city, county, and state limit is a finish line. The toughest days are when we surf the highways all day. It is not uncommon to see nearly a dozen signs on these days.

There is an art to racing. How many matches can I make him burn? When do I GO? Can I get away with a cheap shot? Can I feign tiredness or a cramp in order to get the jump? Has he had more caffeine and sugar than I have today? When will that Coca Cola and jelly beans kick in?


The "We" in Suffer

You are only as fast as your slowest teammate. 
- WWU Cycling Team



It is difficult to tell whether or not we are climbing. The canyon narrows and towers higher but the road seems to point down. The wind howls in our faces and I am taking big pulls (a turn at the front blocking the wind) for Jon and slowing down to his pace. I know he is hurting by the way he clutches his back and hangs his head. He laments that he would rather ride Lassen Peak (elev 8511 ft) twice than go south on this dreary stretch of 395. Miles later, the hum of our tires on pavement ceases. I turn to him.

"I'm glad you're here, man. Thank you."

Smoke rolling in through Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park
Sun beaming down through storm clouds, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park
Oyster

Jon uses my draft to slingshot past me. I accelerate hard to get into his slipstream. The gap between us and the cars tailing us grows larger. A steady speed of 40 miles per hour propels us down into Yosemite Valley. The landscape commands our attention with unfathomable scale and depth. I signal to stop and we both know why. Bliss overcomes us and we laugh and cry.

I feel birthed into a new world of wonders. The air anoints me with smoke in my lungs, salt on my skin, and rays of intense sun on my back. A resounding call echoes off of the gargantuan domes. It tells me: I am alive.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park

Monday, August 28, 2017

Nomad

Alone

Jon and I shake hands and wish each other luck. Immediately, a steep canyon climb transitions into a gravel ridge that falls and rises rapidly. There are no visible cars or towns in the distance; merely a graveyard of wind turbines amongst various dead grass fields. This is where the wind goes to die and be birthed again.

The descent into Antelope, OR from Shan
My back starts to ache from the pack I am carrying, this time with a full pouch of water. Before long, I become conscious of my ration of water. 5 sips per hour. 15 ounces per hour. Channel your inner camel, Jim. The day peaks at 93 degrees.

63 miles in, I arrive at my planned destination -- Shaniko, Oregon. Nearly deserted, were it not for the curious travelers marveling at the ol' Western town. I filter water from a hose and press on, risking isolation. Never have I ever treated water so valuable.

Two hours before sunset is the magic number. Just enough time to settle in comfortably, wherever that may be. This time it is at a county road intersection with deep gravel. 

I notice the irrigation next to my three buddies (some cows) for the night. Jon joked about filtering poop water in case we get desperate. The route I am taking is known for extremely limited services and water, not to mention that over two thirds of it is unpaved. Maybe not today... 60 ounces left. 

Water Boy

40 ounces left. I took sips throughout the night, and apparently my protein bar breakfast took a lot of water to wash down. I use a slow-to-load Google Maps to identify any sources of water. The terrain is carved out from glaciers and rivers from ages ago. Bingo. A creek 16 miles down my route, next to a small town called Ashwood.

My legs struggle to overcome the morning lull. The smoke from the Western Oregon fires makes the air heavy in my lungs. I pause at the bridge into Ashwood and peer over the side... Nothing. Dried up, save for the thick algae substance bubbling with flies and water skimmers. I knock on doors of the nearly abandoned town... Nothing. I silently hope for a roadside savior, and unwillingly move on. 

Miles and miles of barbed wire separate me from scattered puddles of water in the creek bed. I sip at my Camelbak but only get air. It starts to drizzle. I open my mouth  to catch a few drops and take a moment to distract myself with the sight of something I haven't seen in a while -- my skin glistening in the rain. It is 45 miles (plus a mountain pass climb) to the next town that I know has services. I am losing hope. 

I spot my last chance -- irrigation water. I laugh to myself about the previous night's thoughts and Jon's words. I spend a good time filtering and re-filtering everything. Here we go.

Flesh

His tank top reveals his well-built stature -- and absurd tan lines.
"I got into an accident and ended up with someone else's arms," joking about the remarkable difference between the color of his forearm and his bicep. Josh brandishes his tan fingers, which all have a sharp transition pale knuckles and pale palms (otherwise known as the glove tan). I try to contain my laughter but the beer in my belly removes my hand from my mouth and throws my head back into an uproar of a laugh. He takes a moment to generously sip from his third beer, then oddly takes a spoonful of oatmeal for dessert.

Connor slyly makes a move to claim the bed between the three of us. 
"Oh, you would!" Josh teases.
"Go on then!" Connor retaliates in a heavy New Zealand accent.

"Do you two bike through the night often?" June asks them.
"Well, ah, we like to take our time in the mornings," Josh giggles.
"Well with your 110 mile ride to Eugene tomorrow, I'm sure you'd like to check out the Deschutes Brewery in the morning first? They open at 8." Neil's sarcasm first came to me as a surprise. Perhaps it was the soft features and warm voice that made me think he was incapable of teasing. He still manages to be playful and loving.

Michelle steps through the front door.
"Awwhh, you guys are having a little family dinner!" She takes a seat at the table.
She nods towards June and Neil. "Maybe ya'll should stop hosting bicycle tourists," she laughs. She shifts her focus to Connor, Josh, and I. "I always seem to be injured the day before one of you guys rolls through!" 
Michelle smirks as she tells us about the time she danced with a guy who was so uncoordinated that he elbowed her in the forehead and caused a good-sized welt.
"Buuuuut, he was kind of cute!" June admits.

Neil teases June throughout the night. I see his hand move to her thigh every now and then. Yawns are passed around the table and we all say goodnight to each other. I hear giggles from behind the bedroom door as my eyelids become heavy. 

Peanut Butta

I talk myself through how hysterically awful the road conditions are. "Yaaaaaay, bikes are so fun!.." The washouts and brake bumps pump my arms to the point of irritation as I sink into every crevice. I feel the weight of my bike shift and slow in the red and grey sand. 10 miles of descent is normally something a cyclist looks forward to, especially after a 2400 foot climb. I can't make up my mind whether or not I made the right decision to press on.

I spent a few hours at Newberry Crater gaping at the ancient obsidian, lanky pines, and fish leaping through the air above Paulina Lake. The mass of tourists and lack of available camping spots made it hard for me to breathe in my own space.

I spend the night in an abandoned US Forest Service station. I check all the corroded faucets and the knobs let out a dry and eerie squeak. When I wake, it is below 40 degrees. I had forgotten what it felt like to be cold. 

The next parts of the route are said to be the hardest. The Red Sauce Forest and the OC & E Trail have a fine mix of gravel, rocks, and deep sand, not travelled heavily enough by cars or bikes to make a firm packed line of travel. I glide over every stretch of Red Sauce, having earned some extra grit from the Paulina descent. But it is the heat of the day that breaks me on the OC&E. 96 degrees even seems to make the rocks melt.

"Like riding through peanut butta," I recall Jon saying. Yes. And how I wish I could just lie down and make peanut butter angels and eat peanut brittle and peanut butter ice cream.