I’ve been engrossed in a focused chase of the ever-changing skyline for more than two days, pedaling nearly continuously and only stopping for cat naps when my eyelids grew too heavy to stay open. I’m riding in absolute solitude on sinuous singletrack through an intimidatingly rugged landscape. My legs pulse with a peculiar but familiar mix of deep fatigue and yet-untapped strength. My heart pounds out a steady rhythm. I’m hundreds of miles into a self-supported adventure bike race and have hundreds of miles to go before the trail’s end, and nowhere in my thoughts is there any concern about the magnitude of the undertaking. It has become second-nature, serene, and thoroughly inspiring.
And yet I want to be the first to the finish. I want to be the fastest. Deep within, there’s an inherently competitive drive that stubbornly refuses to weaken with age. But in these races that require multiple days of nearly continuous riding, that competitive drive is overwhelmed by an even stronger source of energy – that of the landscapes traversed and the transitions experienced along the way. The more in tune I am with these, the faster I move, the more I enjoy the process, and the more effortless the frankly staggering endeavor becomes.
“Why do you keep putting yourself through these sorts of races? I can’t imagine how much of a glutton for suffering you must be.”
I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked some variant of that question over the past decade. I did my first bikepacking race in 2008 after I had tired of traveling around the country to race in as many elite-level cyclocross races as I could fit into my grad student schedule and budget. The idea of a long weekend of travel for two-hour-long all-out races had lost its allure. But 300-plus mile treks through wild country on rough trails with no outside support captured my imagination.
There were only a handful of these bikepacking races in the world at that time, but I decided I needed to try the one conveniently just a few hours west of where I lived in Colorado. I figured out how to carry enough gear on my bike for three days, did some all-day backcountry rides as training, and showed up at the start. Nervous, marginally prepared, and very excited, I managed to cover 360 miles in around 3 days with ample suffering, some legitimate enjoyment at times, and a decisive conclusion to never again try something like that.
But, the next year I raced the Arizona Trail 300, a singletrack race through the Sonoran Desert, and then Tour Divide, 2,700-plus miles from southern Canada to Mexico. I won the former with a new course record and took second in the latter. I was hooked. For the next few years, I rode my bike countless miles as training exercises, exceeding 1,000 hours of pedaling in two different years. Compared to my former cycling endeavors, I relished a new sense of freedom and was powerfully motivated by chasing records in long events and seeing just what my body was capable of doing. I had been racing on skis or bikes since age 14, and my competitive drive had found a new and incredibly challenging new outlet. And success was there for the taking, albeit not without utterly massive expenditures of energy.
Somehow through all those miles of training, amid the long days and nights of racing, and in summers of doing geologic research in remote Arctic regions, my outlook was evolving. I gradually developed a new relationship with and appreciation for big, wild landscapes and how their pieces all fit together. It was particularly fascinating to note the changes in land as I pedaled – transitions in topography, geology, light, emotions, climate, ecology, awareness, and so much more. These races were the first time I had felt immersed in these transitions so strongly – riding quickly and continuously through successive days and nights, over mountain ranges, through canyons, from one watershed to the next. The only thing that remains static in such races is the fact that I’m sitting on my saddle pedaling (or perhaps hiking with my bike). Conversely, everything both within and around me is changing and evolving with an inherently organic and natural flow.
My mood droops under the strain of all the hours I’ve already pedaled coupled with a steep ascent to a pass between two deeply-incised drainages. I struggle to lift my head higher to absorb the beauty of the cactus forest through which I’m riding. My attention is focused just on the few meters of trail ahead and on the aching fatigue in my legs. But I’ve learned that being so inwardly-focused only slows me down. It’s everything in my surroundings that will help me ride faster.
Gradually the bright afternoon sky morphs into one saturated in evening colors, and as I begin descending (and grinning as my mood rebounds) over the back of the range, night falls. The suddenly-damp air smells rich, insects begin a dissonant chorus, and my legs churn out a much steadier, stronger cadence. Constellations rise over an approaching jagged escarpment and arc overhead, and by the witching hours, the world becomes silent aside from the crunch of my tires on decomposed rock. By morning, the mountain range from early in the night will be a shrinking feature on the disappearing horizon. I’ll find myself in some lush valley countless transitions later, and as I pedal, I reflect on just how many times everything around (and within) me has changed since the prior morning and how I’ve been there, awake and alert, to watch it all in a way that is so very rare.
In the past few years, I’ve been doing only one or two ultra-distance events per year. With any more than that, I feel too acutely the weight of the race, the preparation, and the subsequent energy deficit. But I’ve been finding more and more enjoyment and flow in those events as I’ve both become stronger and more in tune with my surroundings. And there’s been a positive feedback within all that of which I’ve only recently recognized with any clarity.
In my early years of competing in ultras, I raced through some truly amazing places, but I was too focused on trying to move quickly to be able to offer those places the attention they deserved. It was almost as if I’d pay attention to my surroundings in fits and starts, absorbing some of the experience with particular attention to detail, but whenever my energy would wane, my awareness would turn nearly completely inward. Those were the periods that I would best describe as suffering under the weight of the undertaking.
But as I’ve become stronger, I’ve found it easier to remain more in tune with my surroundings. I struggle less during races, and it began to feel as if these wild places, the ever-changing ecological communities, the varying landforms, the complexly interwoven fabric of a place, it all had an energy that seemed to help me keep moving forward quickly. I began to look forward to experiencing that sensation and a connection to my surroundings more than the racing itself.
Last year, while preparing to race the full length of the 750-mile-long Arizona Trail, I found the prospect of traversing the entirety of the state and its incredible diversity even more inspiring than any racing per se. However, I was confident that if my body was strong and prepared for the rigors of such a technical, challenging singletrack route, I’d love the riding and where I was that much more. And the more I could harness that enjoyment, the faster I’d ride. I hadn’t quite recognized a remaining crucial component in this evolution quite yet, but I had caught a first glimpse.
In that event, I flew across the state, moving from the low, hot desert and into sprawling mountains, back into the desert and among deep canyons. A day later, I was following trickling streams beneath a canopy of pines in shockingly frigid air. Then there were volcanoes and grasslands and aspen groves farther north. I hardly slept as the days quickly passed by, stopping for just one or two hours each night. Pausing meant having to re-find my rhythm and flow upon waking. Hiking across the Grand Canyon nearly broke me as sleep deprivation finally caught up, but my momentum, a 5-minute nap, and visions of the limestone of the Kaibab Plateau giving way to red sandstone domes right at the Utah border were strong enough to pull me to the end. I finished in just over six days, faster than anyone had ever before ridden the Arizona Trail. And I had enjoyed the experience exponentially more than any other prior ultra.
Upon reflecting on that adventure over the months that followed, I had an epiphany. For me, the most powerful energy in these races comes from the meshing with the rhythm of the landscapes, the days, the nights, and the transitions through which I race. The more I’m able to experience those intricate transitions, feel the textures and details in my surroundings near and far, and absorb the magnitude of crossing yesterday’s skyline, the faster I’ll ride. And the stronger and calmer I am going into one of these events, the more I’ll be able to look around rather than inward.
As I recognized those connections, I realized that for me, being fast in these races is no longer inherently about speed. It’s about being sufficiently strong, confident, and outwardly focused to fall into rhythm with the landscape no matter the demands of the terrain and weather. Speed is simply a consequence of harnessing the power within that rhythm.