The text of this story came into existence as perhaps the world’s longest Slack post. It is a message to my road cycling team in which my passion for recounting a grand adventure, in this case, the longest bike ride of my life, got the better of me. While I have edited it for readability and understanding, it largely remains the point-to-point, sometimes crude and irreverent, stream-of-consciousness post as received by my friends – So welcome to the team.
“I want to ride my bike from Bellingham to Spokane in a day. All the way across Washington, from my adopted home to my family home. And you know you are going to do it with me, Ryan.” “No, I’m not, Sam.”
Multiple years of Sam trying to convince me later.
“Ryan, I think we should do the Spokane ride next summer, and I need you to help plan it.”
“It’s a ridiculous idea Sam, you’re never persuading me.”
Later that Spring
Spokane, via my planned route, is 350 miles from Bellingham. There are three major climbs – One over Washington Pass through the Cascade Mountains, and two more out of the deep gorges of the Columbia River from Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams, for a total of 17,000 feet of climbing. It spans nearly every type of ecosystem – from the ocean shore within site of the Olympic rainforest, over the high alpine of the Cascade Mountains, through low plains, high prairies, and deep river valleys, and across the expansive high desert of eastern Washington. It is an ambitious route that a bikepacker’s guide might reasonably suggest sipping over a week of riding. Our goal is 24 hours.
We reach out to five old road racing friends – the five bulls-eyes on the Venn diagram of willing to start a 350-mile ride, capable of possibly surviving, or at least, pleasant enough to die next to.
I will introduce the riders by way of paraphrasing the nature of each person’s participation in Sam’s Commute.
Sam Waples. “This is going to be epic! My heart’s so full! I’m so happy!”
David Waples. “I start my career as a doctor in the toxic overwork culture of American medicine two days after this ride… But I wouldn’t miss it!”
Mark Meulman. “I’m completely overworked, undertrained, and in a constant sprint to revamp my company. Sounds great, looking forward to it.”
Joshua Simmons. “My favorite people are all riding out to die together‽ I’m in.”
Leif Olson. “Wait, this ridiculous thing is real? You know that I’ve quit road biking right? Is it already implied that I signed up?” Yup. “Shit…”
Allie Olson. “A big life affirming event‽ Great! See you in Bellingham!”
Me, Ryan Short, “Dammit Sam, not again.”
The Day Of
The espresso machine starts taking its pulls at 5am. Every demitasse I own is put to work waking up our legs and bowels. At 6:15am, the seven of us line up in my driveway to take the first pedal strokes of a 24-hour ride across Washington that we are not sure we can finish.
Pedaling through Bellingham, I am in a familiar place, which makes me feel like my familiar self, and that does not meet my expectation of who I need to be today. We stay reserved, reigning in eager legs over the rolling Chuckanut Hills that take us out of town along the seashore.
The wind is lightly at our faces as we pedal through the open flats of the Skagit Valley and as we make our big turn east towards Highway 20 and the hulking specter of Washington Pass. At a little over thirty miles in, normally if I was this far from home on my bike I would be at the distant end of a decently long ride –relative to this ride though, we are seemingly still close enough that I could say, “Hold on I need to roll back to the house real quick to pop in for some Chapstick.”
This is, more darkly, also the point that the day’s most unexpected and insidious misfortune manifests itself. Roscoe, my girlfriend Lacy’s handsome, loveable, 12-year-old dog, is becoming very sick. Lacy herself is, along with Sam’s mom Jenny, our day’s support crew. Roscoe is acting as her copilot for the journey. He does have a knack for eating anything and everything that might cause a dog to eject fluids from both ends, so we are not panicking quite yet, but it is a misfortune for Lacy and Roscoe, and a dark harbinger.
Washington Pass comes for us midday, with the base starting at mile 70 of our day and the summit finishing 55 miles later, after 9,000 feet of accumulated climbing. It is a beautiful, secluded climb, with grand waterfalls, massive cliff faces, and peaks that rival the Alps.
We start the climb strong, with only Joshua hanging back, minding the calculated truth spoken by his power meter. We called on our support vehicles to check on us at Lake Diablo. “That’ll be good a spot,” I said. “We can fill up and then be nice and close to the summit.” After climbing for another hour after that stop, Allie comments that we must be close to the top by now, and my heart sinks. I forgot that most of this crew has never done this climb before. I had been joking about Diablo being close to the summit, and I break the news that we are not even halfway up.
Joshua’s more conservative pace suddenly gathers more disciples.
To pair with my tone-deaf joke, I am also generally blind to the status of our group. We make it to the summit of Washington Pass on schedule, but some of us are suffering. With over 200 miles left to ride, Leif is covered in so much salt that I quip to him that I am expecting a deer to bound out of the forest and take him for a salt lick. His face compliments a body that had suffered out that much salt. Sam himself has serious doubts about his ability to finish. While Allie looks calm and strong, it is clear from her exasperation when I revealed my Lake Diablo joke that those still waters may not run infinitely deep.
It is now around 2pm, and we start the descent towards the beautiful village of Mazama, which will be our first civilized haven in nearly five hours. Joshua and I rip down the curves, well ahead of the group, tickling the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit. For two men in a Miata, this is not fast enough. One leans out from the car’s open-top and takes a whiffing swing at us, screaming, “Get off the road!”, or, “I enjoy recreational manslaughter!”, or, “My genitals match my stunted and backward world views!” Hard to say in this much wind, really.
After our Mazama stop, with all seven of us back in a tight pace-line, and with the gradient gently in our favor, we are clawing back the speed lost on the pass. Gently cruising down the grade of the remote and winding Mazama River, we pass the western-themed town of Winthrop, through the tiny town of Twisp and out into the hot, expansive, nameless nothingness. As we descend to the Columbia River we rise above 200 miles ridden. We have been moving for over twelve hours and while our numbers are looking very good by any normal standard, today we have just made it to the true start. In the next miles we start into unknown territory. We are all passing our longest ride marks, and as sunset approaches, we still have 150 miles left to Spokane.
It has become clear that whatever was wrong with Roscoe this morning is not going to pass quietly, and is not a simple case of munching on the wrong bit of roadkill. At our first stop along the Columbia River, I encounter Lacy struggling to hold it all together. The stress of her sick dog, and of supporting us, endlessly compounded by the entrapment of the two, is becoming too much.
My girlfriend, now needing my support, puts my day and how I am feeling into context. It reminds me of the self-inflicted nature of my suffering. It also shows me a new limit to my current physical and mental strength. I am finding it impossible to simultaneously internalize both what I need to do to continue riding, and to support my girlfriend and my dog.
I feel like a psychopath. I am standing outside myself debating whether to continue the ride, or to hang up my bike and free myself to feel what I need to in order to support them.
Losing myself in this internal conflict, I find perspective for the meaningfulness of this ride to me. Superficially it feels all too casual – that on a whim we decided to do something big and crazy, for vanity’s love of big and crazy. But as I consider giving it up, I feel the weight of the preparation for it: the months of planning, the massive hours of training. Even more so I feel how centrally my ego is holding this ride. I am attempting something that I am far from certain I can finish. My ego is taunting that part of my psyche that needs to know, “If I commit to it, can I finish it?”
I prepare to make either decision – stop and help, or ride on. Held at the periphery, felt but too dangerous to look at, is the knowledge that if I allow myself to feel too much, I will crack.
By urging me to continue, Lacy saves me. She shields me from my selfishness, and I ride on in the comfort of familiar pain.
A casualty to our count of seven comes at the next stop. The salt that was already visibly extruding from Leif over 100 miles ago has continued to accumulate. He is now an ashen white husk. When the pedaling stops he can barely stand. He is dehydrated and depleted of electrolytes to the point of having difficulty forming sentences. There is nothing left that willpower can accomplish for him, and Allie urges him to not get back on the bike.
Despite our earnest assurances that what he has done has taken more effort and strength than what it could possibly take for any of us to ride the rest of the way to Spokane, he is fighting a sense of failure. This is the cruelest aspect of this ride. Were this a more reasonably absurd day, Leif could have finished feeling like he had achieved something great and knowing he had suffered exceptionally. Instead, after 240 miles he joins Lacy and Roscoe in the support truck and takes what is probably the closest thing he will ever have to a lifesaving nap.
It is nearing 10PM. The sun is setting. There are 110 miles to go. Time for a roll call.
Sam is in good spirits, hitting the sauce hard (apple), and now recovered enough to talk about his earlier darkness on Washington Pass as something vanquished.
David, who should be exhausted simply by virtue of this day being, for him, a hiatus from medical school, is still riding, in my opinion, beyond himself.
I have seen Mark, a big, former bouncer that often keeps up with welter-weight climbers, so often reveal new levels of The-Right-Stuff that it does not phase me that he is doing so once again.
Joshua, in the lead up to this ride, put in a 1200-mile training block. In 12 days. He is fine. When the game is perseverance, Allie is not going to lose. She is having trouble putting down food, and during our stops she is an equal participant in our group’s 1000-yard staring contest. Yet, her finest moments are still to come.
Myself, I am well beyond the time and distance of the biggest days I have ever done, and I do not feel the worst that I have ever felt. That is good enough.
Darkness settles in quietly and unassumingly as we start our second to last significant climb out of the Chief Dam. We are all still smoothly exchanging pulls, and as we ascend the gradual but seemingly endless climb, we, for the first time all day, start putting a little reckless exuberance into our pace.
An hour of this surprisingly spirited pedaling goes by when this ride provides us with a sign “SPOKANE 87 MILES”. We let out small woops, and while we do not talk about it now, we later find out we all have the same conflicted reaction. “Yes! We’re under 100 miles to go! We’re so close! Shit, five more hours. We’re still so far…”
It is now the heart of darkness – the middle of the night on Highway 2, our final highway. Our world is headlamps and quiet. We are coming up on 3am, which marks 24hrs of wakefulness. While our legs are demonstrating unfamiliar levels of endurance, churning forward with no immediate signs of stopping, our minds are on a different track.
Fighting sleep becomes the most mentally strenuous aspect of the journey. Every few seconds requires a big psychic push against the fading of my mind, and even then, the soporific waves splash over my mental effort at consciousness, then fully rush back in as I relent, bringing the fade into sleep dangerously close.
To bring more strain, the forecast called for high 60-degree temperatures all night, and at the tops of the hills that is probably true, but frozen pools of air have settled into the basins of the rolling hills of the Palouse. There are 30–40-degree temperature swings between the troughs and the peaks. We have all brought gear for it to be colder than expected, but not this much colder.
This brings a real element of torture into the ride—first, the sleep deprivation, and now the continuous hot to freezing cycles we experience every few minutes. At least the cold shock helped keep us awake.
We are within range of the finish now, and with Roscoe still deep in his own hardship, Lacy breaks off to get him to an emergency vet. He will spend the weekend there and will be diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis – the final and potentially deadly stages of what turns out to be medication induced diabetes. It has been an unexpectedly harrowing trip across Washington for Roscoe, but he will go on to recover and happily wag his way back into his retired trail dog status.
For the six of us riding through the dark, the past hour since 3am has had us staring at what must be the ambient light of Spokane – but as we ride, the sun rises further, revealing that, during the solstice, only four hours of true darkness exist between sunset and sunrise.
Even in the pain and delirium of my half-life state, an old habit turns up at a surprising time. Nearing the outskirts of Spokane, presented with an imposing hill, I churn over the pedals in the big ring, finding, as I often do while tired, that greater physical effort is easier than the increased mental effort required to change gears. My “lazy watts” briefly distance me from everyone – everyone but Allie, who having been in physical despair at our progress up Washington Pass over fifteen hours ago, is now sprinting alongside me to crest level with Spokane.
This was only a brief flirt with speed. For our final 20 miles each pedal stroke is a conscious and painful request to our bodies that are urging us to quit. These requests are themselves hard fought extrusions through hunger, pains, and invading sleep, and are pressed from deep inside dark and fading minds.
In the full light of morning, we take our final few turns, and I have the surreal experience of arriving in familiar territory in an unfamiliar way. We pedal through an empty Spokane. We wait at red lights for no cars to cross. We are mostly silent ourselves, except for occasionally wondering aloud if we have actually done this. We work our way up the final climb to Sam’s neighborhood.
As Sam’s house comes into view and we pull up to his driveway, the surrealness intensifies. I am thinking of pedaling out of Bellingham, during its own quiet morning over twenty-three hours ago. I have just put so much of myself into pedaling from there to here, and yet that feat somehow seems less plausible now than when we set out.
We did ride across the state. We even did it with 30 minutes to spare before our 24-hour goal. We smile. We hug. We do only what we need to in whatever order we need to do it – most commonly: sit, cry, sleep.
Sam dreamed of connecting his two homes with one great and absurd ride. For little more reason than camaraderie, we joined him, and we achieved this linking of his past and present. It took a full day and a full night of pedaling, and more endurance than we were sure we had.
And yet, it is the experiences of those that did not make it to the finish that give the day substance.
Leif did not pedal every mile, but he provided the ride with its greatest showing of strength, being dealt a difficult hand early and pressing on for what must have been absurdly difficult hours to arrive, not at our planned destination, but at a true hard limit for the day. Without seeing a capable man I respect falter, I might have nothing to keep me from slipping into the assumption that finishing was the likely result, or that what we did was not truly as arduous as it was.
Roscoe did not pedal any of the miles, but he and Lacy suffered nonetheless. The trials they experienced as they supported us brought together life’s unchosen difficulties with its chosen ones. The pairing of the two nearly broke us. It was the strength of my desire to continue, pulling against the needs of loved ones, which revealed to me the full extent of how much a goal can matter for its own sake.
We may never attempt something of this scale on a bike ever again, but all of us – Sam, David, Mark, Leif, Allie, Joshua, and me – have all gotten to tip at an implausible goal and find what was waiting for us beyond where our minds and bodies had ever been.