I accomplished another biking milestone! I completed my first Imperial half-century (50miles) on the Hardwood Creek/Sunrise Prairie Rail Trail. I started in Hugo, MN and turned around in North Branch, MN which is the half-way marker and the natural end of these rail trails.
I initially planned to do this feat today (Tuesday) because the newest The Dresden Files book released today. I’d have plenty of time to jump into the crazy action and high drama while biking for 4+ hours. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t looking good for Tuesday. The forecast called for scattered thunderstorms and rain throughout the day, so I’d either have to do it on Monday or try for Wednesday. I knew that pushing it towards mid-week would drive me nuts and make me feel guilty for procrastinating, so I begrudgingly loaded up my pack and went out to the trail on Monday.
I say “begrudgingly” because although Monday called for rather decent weather, the wind was suppose to be horrendous. There were 15 – 20mph wind gusts coming out of the south and a strong headwind is enough to break anyone’s spirits (it almost broke me!) But I stuffed the doubt down and faced the wind. Started the trek around 12:30pm and I sought some advice from my local bike shop on what nutrition I should try on long rides that wouldn’t give me a stomach ache. So far I’ve tried fresh fruits (bananas, strawberries, and apples), I’ve tried cliff bars (which are no good for my stomach), and I’ve tried fruit snacks and non-chocolate candy (e.g. twizzlers). Their recommendation naturally skewed towards the performance-based food stuffs like Gu and the like. So I picked up a couple things and packed so much water that I felt like a camel and started the trek.
I figured that if I eat a good breakfast and a light lunch beforehand, I wouldn’t have to pack as much food with me which will mitigate the work my stomach would have to do to digest things. I only ate two things on this trip which equated to about 290-300cal total. Articles that I read from Bicycling.com and other biking forums quote that you should consume 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour. Those carbs came in the form of Gatorade, Cliff Gel Energy Blocks and a Sports in Science (SIS) Energy Gel. Typically I’d prefer to get this from actual food, but I got terrible stomach cramps on my last 50k ride from the fruit that I packed so I wanted to try the “foodstuffs aka not real food” approach instead.
The Energy Blocks were enough to get me to the halfway mark. They have a slightly gummy vitamin texture which is meh…kinda weird, but they were light enough to not require a lot of work from my stomach. I was skeptical about the SIS Energy Gel. I despise Gu Energy Gels because of the texture. These were more liquidy but I still chased it with a lot of water. I took this at mile 33 and boy howdy did it help get me through 7 miles of hellish headwind. Thanks caffeine!
Next time, I’ll do a mix and match with SIS Energy Gel and real food. I think a peanut butter and jelly tortilla wrap might be a good thing to try next.
Miles 1 – 10
One thing I’ll say about a tailwind is that it makes you feel like you’re an olympic athlete. The first ten miles were a piece of cake. I stopped 5.5 miles in to use the bathroom and top off my water. I crested “the hump” and “the bump” pedestrian hills without a problem and I was feeling great. Act 2 of Hadestown was motivating me and I was biking near an older cyclist on a road bike. She’d stop and I’d pass her. Then I’d stop and she’d pass me. We followed each other for a good 20 miles.
Miles 11 – 20
Getting through Wyoming was a breeze (tailwind pun intended) but I did wonder how bad the headwind would be coming back. In places the trees were thick, the wind wasn’t terrible, but on the open highway areas or out in the back farm fields, I felt the gusts and I dreaded the return trip. I stopped in Stacy, MN at the park for a quick snack, a drink, and a stretch. The cyclist lady and I struck up conversation while we waited at the traffic crossing. She asked where I was going and I told her my goal. She seemed suitably impressed and I followed her until she turned around at the next HWY crossing and then I was on my own.
Biking with someone can be such a nice experience. You don’t have to strike up a conversation, but just biking with someone who is close to your pace gives you something to shoot for and helps with the motivation. When I hit the wall towards the end of this journey, I thanked my friend for being there to digitally cheer me on because endurance activities like skiing, biking, and running — especially long distances — can be so lonely. The inner grit that it takes to combat your demons and negative self-talk can require a herculean effort.
Miles 21 – 31
When I got into North Branch, I took the sidewalks and biked along the main HWY through the town to stop at Holiday Gas Station to refuel and use the bathroom. It was super surreal biking to a place that I routinely visit by car. I go to North Branch at least once per month because it’s a 25 minute drive from St. Croix Falls. Sometimes I’ll go there with my husband on a date night. Sometimes I’ll go to hit up Country Market (this is Pre-Covid mind you … now I rarely go anywhere). It was neat but it also reinforced just how far I had biked. So I stopped at the trail head for a good 20 minutes to refill my camelbak and stretch/lounge in the shade. It was about 3:30 by now and I had biked for almost 2 full hours.
Once I got on my way again, I quickly realized just how much of a slog I had ahead of me thanks to the 20 mph headwind. Saying it was bad was an understatement. I never want to do something like this again. But there are two things that my marathon running friend often says: “lean into the suck” and “think about the mile you are on, not the ones you have left.”
By now, I was two episodes into The Adventure Zone: Graduation which is a live play Dungeons and Dragons podcast. It served as a suitable distraction from the wind for a time. The ride from Stacy to North Branch is through 8 miles of scenic farmland and country side. Similar to the rail trail I biked earlier in July in Amery, the land is so vast and full of rolling farmland. It’s picturesque but its so lonely … and hot. The only other life I saw were a gaggle … flock (?) of turkeys and their chicks and a heckin’ HUGE field snake that was sunning itself on the trail. I’m not afraid of snakes but I wasn’t expecting the “stick” in the middle of the road to up and move!
Anyway, the ride from North Branch back Stacy was rough. I stopped back at the park feeling like I was about to “bonk” and so I choked down the SIS Gel. Holy crap did I need that. It was enough to get me into Forest Lake before the next rough patch really started.
Miles 32 – 44
By now I was stopping more and more. The wind gusts from Wyoming to Forest Lake were brutal. I thought about quitting but I knew that by the time my husband actually drove to Forest Lake, I could’ve been at my car by then, so I literally had to keep the Little Engine That Could mentality. “I will do this. I will finish. Even if it takes me forever, I will finish. I will not quit.”
The “hump” and the “bump” coming back in through Forest Lake were rough. I didn’t make it to the top of either one of them. My quads and hamstrings were burning. I didn’t have enough gas in the tank to get all the way up them and I had to walk up the last 10 or 20%. There’s nothing more demoralizing than struggling at something that you’ve done at least two dozen times because you are just so dang tired.
By now, I kept using the Hardwood Creek trail signs as check points before I could stop. The signs are probably a half-mile to a full mile apart and I was clawing tooth and nail to get through these miles. Once I got back to the Washington County Transit Station, I knew that I had less than 6 miles to go. I stopped just to stretch once more and to sit in someplace that had air conditioning. There was another cyclist there eating a full bag of nacho cheese Doritos and drinking a can of Four Loco (seriously…). Like whatever floats your boat guy, but the last thing I wanted at that point was alcohol of any kind.
So I set out on the last leg of my journey and it was the most transformative part and the worst part of the journey.
Miles 45 – 50
When I typically leave the transit station, the rest of the journey back to my car is like my “cool down.” The trail is a gradual downhill grade until the final two miles and it’s mostly in the shade and sheltered by trees. Well nothing could stop the wind and I was running on my last bit of energy. I probably should’ve tried to choke down a little more food, but the last thing I wanted to do was eat something. I think I stopped every mile at least so I could get off my bike and let the blood flow back into my pelvic area. My butt hurt so badly by this point (partially because I nearly doubled my time in the saddle and I didn’t work up to it).
I replayed part of Hadesdown on this last chunk because I needed something to distract me from the pain that had a narrative I could mentally latch onto. The Greeks know a thing or two about writing tragedies (and thankfully my journey didn’t end in tragedy) but the entire thing felt like a literal odyssey. I faced trials and tribulations. I met allies and triumphed, but I also fell down and fell into doubt. I was the hero in this journey facing the final boss. I could turn around and let the doubt come in and take me, or I could grit my teeth and endure. I could push through. Well…in true hero’s journey fashion, I needed help from my allies and sidekicks.
So I called my husband. Our talk was short and it mostly consisted of me half-sobbing that I was so damn tired and I had 3 miles left. I just needed to vent to someone about how sucky this felt. My husband listened to me, encouraged me, and promised that a hero’s feast would wait for me at home (read: Papa Murphy’s Garlic Chicken thin crust pizza and Mango White Claw).
But I needed just a little more pep, so I Snapchatted my marathon running friend who is a math teacher. Her exuberant support and excitement injected the last bit of positivity that I needed into my brain. She said I had less than 5% left to bike and that I could do it. So for every time my brain said “why are you doing this,” I countered with “because I only have 5% to go.”
I was biking at half the speed I started out at. I really just held on and pedaled like I was sitting in purgatory. The finish line loomed on the horizon. Three miles melted to two which gave way to the last mile. It was 6:00pm by now. I had been outside for 5 1/2 hours and on my bike for 4 1/2 hours. The negative self talk tried to get in. I thought things like “You are so slow” but I also leaned into that fact. I probably was slow, but I wasn’t stopping.
By the time I made it back to my car, the Monday night little league games were happening at the community park. The parking lot was full of families and their young children who were probably wondering why this wide-eyed, sweaty, and sunburnt biker was crying in her car.
The tears were more happy than sad. I was exhausted, sore, and in pain, but I was done and I was damn proud. I told myself that I’m never biking 50 miles ever again, but I know that’s a lie. Next time, I’ll try to bike on a day when the wind isn’t so intense. Still, I learned two things. First, I’m stronger than I know. Second, I much prefer the 50k half-century distance.
All in all, it’s strange and neat to think that I was sucking wind on a distance of 6 miles on the Gandy Dancer trail a mere 14 months ago. That I now consider distances of 10 miles to be “leisurely” and 15-20 miles to be “easy days.” It just shows you how perspectives can change as you push yourself past your own limits.
Now to try for that 100k full metric century. (Oh God…)