On August 3rd, I attempted to ride my bike 240 miles across the state of Minnesota in less than 24 hours, all on gravel roads. This race -the Day Across Minnesota (or the DAMn for short)- was in its third year, and after having crewed a good friend there previous year, I knew I wanted to be a part of it as a competitor. Unfortunately, my training didn’t go as planned, mostly due to some major self-reflection on balance and life priorities (a different, much longer post), and so I showed up to the start line with many goals for the day, only one of them being to finish (spoiler alert: I didn’t). But, along the course of the 155 miles and 16 hours of riding that I did do that day, I managed to accomplish many of the other goals and am choosing to celebrate those victories instead of the DNF that marks my official race result.
Overall, I can’t speak highly enough of the event itself, and would seriously encourage anyone who is curious to consider participating. There were 247 of us lucky cyclists who made it to the start line in Gary, South Dakota, and over the course of the next 24 hours, following the winds from west to east, 117 of us would end just west of the Mississippi river, in Hager City, WI. What an incredibly unique way to traverse across the whole state of Minnesota in a such a short amount of time and be part of such a supportive, inspiring, and caring community. From the race director’s uncle performing his own song literally written for this event at the pre-race meeting, to the people of Gary, SD coming out to cheer on racers at the start, to the fireworks that sent us into the night, I was reminded again and again why the energy at this race something else.
Mile 0 (Midnight)
As the clock struck midnight and fireworks painted the night sky, I couldn’t help but take a moment to acknowledge how lucky I was to even be on the start line. I had debated for weeks whether I was even going to race at all, but kind words from a good friend (and an incredible badass who ended up as the 2nd place female herself!) convinced me otherwise, and so here I was, riding a friend’s bike, in trail running shoes, and ready to take whatever was thrown at me. Leading up to the race, I was pretty worried about riding alone throughout the night, as darkness tends to multiply my already highly imaginative fears, but, with the course marked by taillights of riders for miles ahead of me, and the headlights of riders trailing behind me, I barely felt alone. The sound of crickets and gravel crunching beneath my tires accompanied me as I passed farmland after farmland and became a familiar friend as the miles ticked on. At the pre-race meeting, we had been warned that there was a water crossing at mile 25, but expecting it to be a small creek crossing, I was really quite surprised when we reached a flooded lake of standing water on the road and continued to walk through it for about 80 yards. Since I got there alone, I wasn’t quite sure if I was supposed to ride through it, so I decided to do something even worse- I got off my bike and dragged it through the water, moving slowly and drenching my bike (I later learned that carrying my bike above the water would have definitely been the way to go). Because of that #rookiemistake, I was blessed with a crunching sound coming from my bottom bracket as a reminder of my decision for the rest of the day. Finally, I made it to the mile 60 checkpoint by 5:15AM, and besides some slight shoulder pain (which I knew I would have to deal with all day), I felt pretty good. I spent a few moments there restocking and catching up with my crew, but as I knew I would be chasing cutoffs all day, didn’t linger long.
Mile 60-120 (5:15AM- 11:30AM)
Having competed in other endurance events, I knew that sunrises always bring me great energy, and therefore was really looking forward to the sunrise to boost my spirits. Maybe it was also the added bonus of getting to experience this sunrise only 6 hours into the race, instead of 20 hours in as I have in other events, but it did not disappoint.
As the world woke up and I wasn’t reduced to only the gravel three feet in front of me, I had the opportunity to take in the settings around me. Being from the suburbs of Chicago and having spent the majority of my life in fairly urban environments, I am always fascinated with the expanses of land that occupy the rural United States. I passed cornfields and horses, farmhouses and barns, and people up early to work on their land. I was also starting to leap frog with some of the same riders and began to strike up conversations as we passed each other. One of the things I love about endurance events is the sense of comradery among competitors, and this race was no different. I rode with a woman who had traveled all the way from New Jersey for this race, a man who had completed it twice before, many rookie riders from all over this great state, and was struck by the uniqueness and why of each person’s journey. As I biked along with the woman from New Jersey, we realized we had missed a turn. No bother, as we had only gone a mile and a half out of our way, but I could tell she was frustrated. Shortly after getting back on course, we hit one of our first minimum maintenance roads of the day, and I was surprised to find that I rode up it with much ease, which, not going to lie, felt pretty good. But by this point (around mile 90), I was already starting to slow down, and was losing my already small cushion of time.
I finally linked up with a woman from Florida around mile 95, and we quickly realized we had more in common that we thought, as she went to the Naval Academy with my cousin! We were also both gingers, which means we were able to commiserate about the glaring sun that had come out in full force. We chatted about bikes and racing and jobs and life in the way that you can really only do when you know you have many more hours ahead of you with nothing to distract you but conversation with a stranger turned friend. We continued to push each other through some seriously soft gravel and rolled into Checkpoint 2 at Mile 120 with 25 minutes to spare. I have never had to chase cutoffs before and it was really weird to roll into an essentially deserted aid station where most crews had already moved on. My crew of Henry, Brian, and Mitch were spectacular though, making sure I had what I needed (FOOD WATER SUNSCREEN) and encouraging me to continue on. It was five minutes to noon by the time Tracy and I left this checkpoint, and we were last two people on the course to leave. We had just 6 hours to go another 65 miles, and it was going to be very close, especially as the heat was beginning to take its toll. By this point I was doing a lot of riding with just one arm on the bars while I tried to stretch out my very cranky shoulder, and if it weren’t for Tracy, I think I would have dropped at this checkpoint. However, I felt a sense of accountability to her (its funny how not wanting to let someone down who was recently a complete stranger can motivate you), as we promised to ride together and do our best to make it to the next checkpoint in time.
Mile 120-155 (12PM – 4:30PM)
We instantly rolled out of the checkpoint and into the softest and loosest gravel I have ever experienced. Not only was it challenging to find a line (we were constantly zig zagging across the road), but it felt like every pedal stroke got absorbed into the ground instead of propelling us forward. We had been moving for 12 hours by this point, and the exhaustion and frustration was really beginning to settle in. Trying to stay positive, we focused on all we had accomplished that day. My first ride through the night! My first ride longer than a century! Our new friendship! We slogged on. As we continued, we came across a few other riders along the road who were resting in the shade and convinced them to tag onto our tires. The riders we picked up had already decided to drop at the next major town, but Tracy and I believed we might be able to make it to Checkpoint 3 at Mile 185 just in time. By this point however, we were rolling just around 10mph, and having to put sunscreen on every hour didn’t help our cause. After three hours of heat and sand, it was pretty clear that this would not be possible. At each turn we’d cross our fingers for better road conditions, only to see the squiggle of tires painted across the road, and sigh with disappointment. We even took to riding the grass alongside the road, as it was often the hardest packed line. And although my legs felt great, the pain in my shoulder was making turning my head more and more difficult. I have definitely pushed through much worse pain before (and for many many many more hours), but I tried to also remind myself of the other goals I had set for the day.
We finally made it to the gas station in the town of Henderson at mile 155 at 4pm, out of water and essentially out of time. Officially, we had two hours to travel 30 miles. On a good day, I could do this. On a day with 155 miles and 16 hours of continuous movement on my body, I could not. Tracy started to experience some pretty serious cramping here as well, and as she curled in a ball outside the gas station, we made an executive decision to call it a day. It was really really really hard to make that call. This would be my first DNF. My first Did Not Finish, something I don’t think I could have come to terms with just a year ago. At first, this decision provided relief. While my legs still felt fresh, the thought of having to hold my handlebars and bear the searing pain I was experiencing in my shoulder made me content with the decision not to remount.
And so, after eating many snacks and a delicious jar of pickles (juice included), our crews arrived to pick us up and take us home. I think the sleep deprivation helped ease my decision, as I could hardly stay awake for the drive to dinner and the drive home, and then promptly slept for 14 hours when I got home, but upon waking up on Sunday morning, a sense of disappointment waved over me. I began to analyze the day prior… Could we have ridden faster? Taken less time at the two checkpoints? Applied less sunscreen? Peed less? These long races are complex and full of small decisions that add up to large outcomes, which unfortunately leaves a lot of details to obsess over. It was hard not to feel like a failure, and that I had let people down.
But was it really a failure? In the past, I certainly would have seen it that way. In my black and white brain, not finishing a race was indeed an F. But as I have been working on getting comfortable in the grey, I choose not to look at it that way. I had a blast that day, met incredible human beings and was supported by fantastic friends and community, biked the longest distance of my life, and learned that you really shouldn’t drag your bike through water if you don’t have to. Yes, there were a few things that went wrong (and that one really big thing), but there were a lot of things that went right. Maybe someday I’ll be back to go it another go, but I’m choosing not to let this DNF haunt me. I’m not saying no to doing hard things, I’m saying no agonizing over what happens when hard things get, well, hard.
So, my parting advice to you (and to myself) is this: If you can- thank your legs, thank your people, thank your heart, and go ride your damn bike.
A HUGE THANK YOU to my crew, volunteers, teammates, race organizers and our sponsors who made this day possible for me!!!