It was cold, No. It was fucking freezing. 3:30 AM in the morning, late April, Mother Nature affords no certainties for Western Pennsylvania weather. We got up, put on almost every layer packed, packed way too much food, and made to the Point five minutes late. It wasn't the best start to a race, it was my fault, but we made it, and it was fine. I really wasn't totally awake at the start and was completely overwhelmed by the sea of blinking lights around me, I don't know the official number, but it seemed like there were almost 50 people at the point on loaded bicycles. Compared the 19 I experienced last year, this shit was banannas.
My ride partner, Anna-Lena, took off to the front at the start of the neutral rollout, stuck in the mass and unable to make the move up to her, I kept her in eyesight and sat in the veritable peleton. Sitting in the blinking mass, shivering, I focused on getting comfortable with my bike, worked out the eating /storing situation, and pumped a very righteous Stones Throw podcast into my brain, waiting for the sun. It is worth nothing that the first 50 miles of this race is a route that I have traversed by bike more times than I can recount; I stayed on auto-pilot and watched people peel off one by one as the miles went by.
Anna-Lena and I had made a plan prior to the race that we would try not to stop for the first 100 miles, only breaking for water and pee, in order to maintain a good average speed to get us to Philadelphia in our goal time of under 30 hours. We really lucked out that the GAP Trail was pretty dried out and were able to hold 15-16 miles per hour. As things started to open up, we found ourselves sitting at the back of a paceline with a kit-matched team from Baltimore, leading the charge at almost 20 miles per hour. That was starting to hurt, and they really didn't want us hanging on, and we were dumped off the back. Sixty some miles in, almost to Ohiopyle and we hitched a free ride for last twenty miles. Cool.
We took turns pulling for each other, getting back to the much more sustainable 15-16 mph pace, and pressed on. At one totally unsuspecting point, a stick popped up into Anna-Lena's front fender and she went OTB right in front of me. I locked up the Hayes brakes on my King and skidded to a halt less than a foot behind her. I knew she was okay because immediately she calmly looked up at me from the ground from under her loaded Space Horse and said," Can you unclip my right foot, please?" I checked out her bike, although it was a drive-side fall, the hanger was straight and nothing else appeared bent or wasted, other than her front fender.
I did some quick trailside bolt turning and popped her fender off. I told her bike now just got lighter, she didn't think it was funny, we rolled. It was smooth sailing the rest of the trail except for getting chased by a couple of dogs and made it to Rockwood around One PM. We hit the pavement and my spirits lifted, I didn't care if I ever rode on that trail ever again, I was ready to be off of it. The GAP was my biggest concern, and it was now behind us. Out of the saddle, ten miles to our first Sheetz stop, all of the hammers.
Egg, bacon, cheese, on a croissant, with a hashbrown tucked in the middle and a giant cup of coffee, and how. We took about twenty minutes to stretch and reorganize, noting the riders arriving and leaving around us. It warmed up to the low 50's and the sun was out, we got back to it, and stepped on it for the next 40 miles. Weird pains coming and going, this kind of racing is a thing all unto itself. It's a strange game of attrition that requires careful internal communication to keep the body from completely shutting down. Her shoulder, my saddle sore, something else, we kept pressing, even if at times a snail's pace.
At around 6PM, we arrived in Everett and stopped at the Sheetz. A crew of BMX kids looked at us amazedly, "where are you going?"
They checked out our bikes and asked another five or six predictable quesitons before taking off to come back later. Small town kidstuff. They were alright.
My body was starting that warm fuzzy exhausted feeling that I am no stranger to and with the sun going down, the temperature started to drop again. We checked the weather, it was going down to 29 degrees with a good chance of snow somewhere in the night. Since we didn't feel like this race was worth giving death a bone, we made a plan to get a hotel at the limit of what we thought we could push by midnight, and existed for us to stay. There was a cheap Hotel in Fort Littleton, 40 miles out, only a half mile off of course. We had miles through some big hills and the Abandoned TurnPike at night to go through. Oh boy.
The Abandoned Turnpike was used in the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" . It's a bit rough. Cops do bomb testing on the road, and in the dark, it is very hard to navigate comfortably. There are also two very long tunnels, filled with appropriate backwards swastikas and penis graffiti. As we were driving through the second tunnel, a couple of riders entered the tunnel and made ghost noises. Not knowing who they were at the time, being cold and tired, in the dark, I got scared and told Anna-Lena to step on it. Didn't matter, they caught up to us, fresher, and passed us into the night. We made it to the end of the Turnpike a little shaken and totally beat. That said, it was nice to know that they we were within ten miles of the hotel, or were we? I went to check my Garmin and SHIT. No Garmin. It jumped off out of the top of my bar bag. It is amazing how upset one can get over the loss of an inanimate object; I wanted to get off of my bike. It was getting really cold and I was in a great mood to throw a fit.
We made it to the hotel room with the cracked main window and huddled around the provided radiant heater eating gummy fruit and jerky since there wasn't a delivering pizza place within ten miles. We also brushed our teeth with towels since we couldnt find a toothbrush at any Sheetz throughout the day. It was a cold night and we were starting to feel that creeping inevitable feeling, the urge to quit that happens to everyone, at least once, somewhere along this race. A little over 200 miles in with a little less than that to go. Sleep.
Woke up to snow flakes falling. Everything in my body screaming. So many miles to ride. I was happy that I had clean socks and a fresh set of bibs to put on. Eleven hours too long of being stopped, we got on our bikes when it reached above freezing and with slowly pushed onward down Great Cove Road. Cowan's Gap is a beautiful state park and in the direction we were riding it would be a very fast, nice lolling roller feel with a mountain view. It brought the second wind and somewhere in those rollers I regained my confidence and knew I would finish this race, albeit not with any specific goal left to achieve. Continuing, found our way to Chambersburg where we made another Sheetz stop for breakfast. A man tried to get us to talk to his dog and other locals told us that it would be a bad idea. We tried not to. Perfect timing, we met another racer, Suz, who seemed very excited to see us .She had been riding solo for a good clip and alone all morning. She asked if she could ride and the three of us departed breakfast with the sun starting to swallow the grey of the morning.
Feeling extraordinary from the caffeine and breakfast sandwich intake, I tried to take more turns on the front and rode at a strong pace into the Michaux State Forest. Somewhere in coming out of the forest roads we lost Suz off of the back and stopped to drop layers and see if she was close. Being able to see a half mile of rolling hills and no fluorescent pink jacket, I peed and continued on. There were lots of interesting things to note in this 20-30 mile stretch of road: I saw a ton of dead robins, plastic water bottles filled with pee and managed to get chased by two more dogs. Also, there was a burnt trailer on the side of the road coming into Arendtsville that had a burned bmx bike with melted tires in the middle of the floor. I thought that it was fitting. The sound of wind. Pedal. York.
York can drown in a fire. That sounds harsh. It should. The meanest drivers in the state of Pennsylvania all live here and breed. Even the motorcycles swerved at us. What's more, the road is in terrible shape and I knew all of this from last year, going the other direction. We put on our city skills on and rode hard through that horrible place, getting close passes and buzzed by seemingly every other car.The landmark to getting out of York totally is a very long bridge over the Susquehanna River that is often very windy, fortunately not today. Ichabod Crane and Friend over and out.
Getting out of York was very exciting because it meant that we were close to Lancaster, where we had a planned stop. We ate cold pizza with Coca-Cola and it was the most wonderful thing in the world. More food, some coffee, and off we went. It was about 7PM and we were prepared to finish this. As we were exiting Lancaster proper, Suz and a few other riders were at a red light. High fives and well wishes, Anna-Lena and I put on a strong pace into the dusk out into Lancaster farm country. It was like riding on the cover of Land-O-Lakes butter package for anyone who has never been. Beautiful, rolling hills under a big purple sky, everything felt good and what didn't felt reasonable. Pedaling on into the night, we took it easy on descents, kept a strong eye on traffic and onto Philadelphia we rolled.
The last 10 miles getting to the trailhead are really pretty in the day time, but as we could not see, we pushed hard looking for the trailhead and working hard to not make any wrong turns. We had done a training ride two weeks prior that covered from Lancaster to Philadelphia, everything felt familiar and controlled. Just keep eating and drinking. It is easy for me to forget to do those things at night, when I am exahausted. Last year, my body nearly shut down in the final mile getting to the Point from not eating or drinking in the last 10 miles. I learned my lesson and this year stayed up on that game. We rode the trail until it ran into Manayunk and switched onto Schyulkill. Manayunk was drunk. Taxis. Bees around a big hive, Philadelphia was close.
We made it to the Liberty Bell at 1:40 AM Sunday Morning, finishing the ride in 44 hours 40 minutes not in our under 30 hour original goal but it still felt amazing. Our friend Heather greeted us with hugs and a warm car that took us to a hotel room with a showers. There was also a diner, and although I wanted to eat everything, I very simply ordered hot chocolate and hamburgers with chicken fingers on the side. I drank all of the hot chocolate and ate one bite of the burger. Big eyes.
Sitting at the diner, still feeling the wind on our faces, quiet smiles all around, our race was over. Heather's boyfriend Dave, our teammate, was still out there trying to get a room for the night after some bad luck in the day with wrong turns and a flat tire. We would go on to greet him around one in the afternoon at his arrival at the Liberty Bell. He set his bike down,"Never Again." We all hugged. I caught a bus back to Pittsburgh three hours later so I could make it to work at the bike shop the next day. I refused to let anyone sit next to me and watched Jurassic Park on my phone one and half times by the time I made to Pittsburgh. My bike would follow me home the next day with my people.
This race takes much and gives little. There are no prizes, no spectators, no support car picking up wasted riders. The glory had often is even only to oneself, and after doing this for a second time, I understand what this race asks. I know what it is willing to give back in the end. The pain stops, life moves on when it's over, but while it's happening, it is the most real thing in the whole world. Time feels different. For me, it's that intense feeling of being out there without a choice but to pedal, to rely on strength and instinct, that inspires the want to compete in this event and others like it. That said, it was wonderful to have such an awesome partner out there, Anna-Lena. I don't know if I will do it again in the immediate year, I want to try some new big things both on and off of my bicycles, but CTC is certainly something that I will always take pride in having done and will hold both experiences near and dear to my heart for always.