Finding Strength Through Feeling: Insights from the 2022 Odyssey of the VOG

What’s your intention for the race?” Jaimie asked as we gathered with others the evening before lining up at the start line of this year’s Odyssey of the VOG, which is a 350-mile bikepacking event that takes riders through the rural farmland of the Willamette Valley, the rugged and vast Oregon coastal range, and the unrelenting gravel climbs found in the Willamette and Tillamook National Forests.

Excitement and nervousness-filled conversations about bike setups, weight, steep climbs, estimated times… are you going to sleep? Over an inch of rain was forecasted to fall the next day. Some wanted to win. Most were intrigued by the adventure. I told Jaimie, “I want to be present and enjoy while challenging myself. I want to feel it.”

My first bike tour was over 10 years ago. I was in grad school and had planned to attend a science conference on Long Island, New York. On a whim, I Googled how far it was to bike there from Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a little over 200 miles and included a ferry ride. That was all it took for me to pick up a couple of panniers.

I arrived at the conference an hour before it started. The check-in woman gave me quite the look when I asked if there was a shower I could use before the evening talks started. Later, as the speaker went on about behavioral genetics and neural pathways, I sat beaming as the effects of the ride set in. I felt alive. I had tasted something I didn’t know I needed. I was beginning to understand how powerful of a tool biking would be for feeling present in my body.

Ben counted down from 10 and we were off. Things started optimistically. The weather was cool and sunny, and there was a brief moment when I thought that the rain wouldn’t be that bad. After all the time spent packing and preparing, I was elated to finally be on my bike. I wanted nothing more than to ride solo for a couple of days.

The first 100ish miles are dotted with back-to-back 2,000+ foot climbs and mildly terrifying descents. Once I finished the first, the rain started and quickly grew heavy. The next three climbs were hard, but I knew there was no amount of complaining or frustration that would get me up faster. When things feel tough, often the best thing one can do is to take a deep breath and keep pedaling. And that I did. I breathed in through my nose, filled up my low back, breathed out through my mouth. I did this over and over for hours.

I leapfrogged with Miles and each time we passed each other, we gave knowing looks heavy with the added challenge the rain and cold brought to an otherwise difficult route. As I neared the top of the last major climb before descending towards the coast, I came upon him troubleshooting a mechanical on the side of the road. It’s these moments where it’s important to remember why we do these things – they’re all about connection and feeling. Of course, I stopped and waited until he fixed his chain. In a particularly tricky moment, I took off my gloves and flashed my glittery nails. I painted them for a time like this – a time when one needed a little laugh to help soften the weight of difficulty.

Eventually, I moved on and crested the peak. The rain returned with vengeance, and I couldn’t help but grin ear to ear as I descended down the smooth road. I was tired but felt so grateful for this time and the space that riding brings. When I got to the bottom, I took out my phone for the first time to take a photo of myself. I wanted to remember this feeling of joy in the midst of cold and tiredness. I felt alive.

As I neared the coast, I was transported back to when I rode solo from Fort Bragg, California to Astoria, Oregon. I was in a tough place at that time. I had just finished my PhD qualifying exam and was nearing two years of chronic headaches brought on by a negligent driver on a ride. I felt trapped and miserable. I needed a break to reconnect with myself and decide whether I would continue on with my PhD. I needed to ride.

I spent 10 days biking against the northern prevailing winds because I had this romantic idea of riding “home”, which, to me, meant going north to the PNW. It was this trip where I discovered what it really means to feel in my body. Riding for hours at a time simplifies things. Eat. Pedal. Drink. Sleep. Breathe. Repeat. How is my head feeling? Where is my mind going? Does this feel hard? Riding gives me the time and space to notice what I need. It removes the distractions of daily life and allows me to lean into difficulty and feel. Amazingly, the intensity of my headaches subsided and I felt nearly like myself by the end.

The rain in the Siuslaw Forest paled in comparison to that on the coast. At one point 30+ mph gusts took me off my bike as the trees swayed around me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it felt like I was standing in a shower. It was dumping and the cold was starting to set in. I had planned on sleeping a few hours, but, in these conditions, it didn’t feel safe to bivy and I didn’t want to get a hotel. I was 150 miles in and nearing Netarts when I saw my beacon of light. I tried to temper my hopes. It’s probably just a big vacation house. As I got closer, I realized it was a bar. It’s probably closed, don’t get your hopes up. My goodness, it’s open.

I leaned my bike up on the deck of The Schooner Restaurant and Lounge, and, as I walked in, the waitress looked up at me and said, “Well, isn’t that an entrance!” She seated me by the fireplace (!) and brought me hot tea and french fries. I was in heaven. I turned on my phone and saw that it was flooded with encouraging messages including a few from my teammates, Jesse and James. I seemed to be doing alright for my first bikepacking race. Slowly, folks from the bar came up to ask questions and learn what the heck this gal was doing biking on a day like today. They offered me rides, places to stay, rain gear, and an immense amount of kindness. Of course, I could not accept these things, but I was warmed by their care.

By that point, I had been riding for over 16 hours and it was 11:30pm. I decided the best thing I could do was to keep moving. I rigged some pants out of trash bags that resembled assless chaps, and I figured they would be just the ticket to keep me warm. I aimed to get to the top of the first big climb in the Tillamook Forest by daybreak to keep the most heat I could during the cold of the night. I said goodbye to my sweet, new friends and started out.

There’s no doubt it was cold. Every time I started to feel worried about the temperature or the mysterious sounds in the dark forest, I returned to my breath and calmed myself. I felt my legs moving one after another. As I neared the top and saw the early glimmer of sunrise, I thought of how special Jesse said this light would be and indeed it was. I was wearing almost everything I brought to keep warm, but I was doing it.

I carefully descended down the sketchy road, stopping periodically to shake out my hands and bring some warmth back into them. The climbing up to this point was hard but I felt strong. That was until I came upon the second big climb in the Tillamook Forest complete with its 20% grades and golf ball sized gravel. What is this? Does anyone actually ride this? I took a deep breath and, instead of pedaling, took step after step pushing my bike up the impossibly steep climb. Like all the climbs before, I made it to the top albeit slowly.

I think deep down we all want to be present and feel, and to really feel we have to be willing to face the hard things. There’s something that happens when we lean into difficulty and let it pass through us. We have so many defense mechanisms and ways of avoiding feeling that it’s easy to go numb, but that numbness not only closes us off to the dark moments but also those of light. When we embrace challenges and allow ourselves to acknowledge worry, the difficulty lessens and the bright things get brighter. We’re still pedaling, still moving, and we realize that all the things our mind feared have lost their power as we came into our strength.

I continued on until there was about 100 miles to go. I started getting really tired. I was 31 hours in and this was the longest I had ever gone without sleep. I pulled over and layed down. I just needed to close my eyes for a few minutes. I quickly grew restless and checked Trackleaders for the first time. To my surprise, I saw that I was in third place overall and Zak was just 5 miles behind me. I quickly packed up and headed to Gaston for my last resupply. I shoved some Doritos into my mouth and chugged a Coke. I’m pretty sensitive to caffeine, and holy cannoli did I feel fresh after that Coke. Caffeine is magical.

I tapped into my breath once again and hammered up the next big climb. At times I felt worried that Zak would catch me, but I knew I had to ride my ride. Instead of wasting energy thinking about where he was, I steadied myself and focused on my breath and moving forward.

Once I got to the top, the brief reprieve from the rain subsided. It started dumping again and continued for the entire 15 mile descent. I was freezing and beginning to hallucinate. I started to get pretty disoriented from the lack of sleep. I knew I needed to focus and once again recenter. “Keep it together, Hannah,” I said out loud to myself. I started making up songs about my saddle sores and called out names of things that were warm – tea, baths, burritos, embraces with friends… I was doing everything I could to keep warm and sane. I looked around and absorbed the lush green and wildflowers that filled my surroundings. I took in the smells of the wet forest. If I have one superpower, it’s to notice and find solace in small details.

I made it to the bottom and, when my Garmin beeped to notify me that a 1700+ ft climb was coming up, I could not have been more excited. Warmth. I charged up that technical climb as fast as I could and finally built back up my heat. When I made it to the top I called out in relief. All the major climbing was done! I sped down the long descent as the most gorgeous sunset lit up the sky. I was so close.

By the time I made it down, it was dark. My body started to release knowing that the end was near, but I still had 20 miles to go and those were arguably the hardest. I traveled through flat farmlands with only my small tunnel of light. Everything hurt, and every mile felt like it lasted for forever. As my morale dropped, I realized that soon this incredible journey would be over and I’d move on to the next thing. For the last time, I reconnected with my breath and I did everything I could to cherish and enjoy the remaining miles. This was a reminder to be present. A reminder that even the struggles and low points are beautiful and worth feeling.

As I neared the finish, I could see the lights of The Grange. My eyes welled with tears at how hard and incredible the last 40 hours were. I thought of the relief I felt in finishing my PhD and moving through so many other difficult things. What a gift to have these experiences. I was greeted by friends equipped with the most incredible burritos. It meant so much that they were there, because, after all, these races are about connection – connection with ourselves and our communities. These races are a celebration of the strength of our bodies and minds now and for all the moments before that have given rise to the resiliency we have today.