Ben and my dad had entered Lotoja twice in the past, and twice, Ben had to finish the race by himself. Last time, the race ended in knee surgery and a year of recuperation for my dad. This year, free of injury, the three of us entered as a group, swearing that this would be the last ride from Logan to Jackson Hole that any of us would complete. We only had one goal- we were going to finish together and be done with Lotoja once and for all.
After we found out we had gotten into the race clear back in April, I knew I was in trouble. The ride climbs more than 9000 feet and I’m a terrible climber. Even after a summer of climbing hills at every opportunity, I was terribly nervous, knowing that if I didn’t do well my whole team might not finish. The burden of keeping up with my team weighed on me all summer long. For the week prior to the race, I mentally coached myself into pedaling no matter how much I suffered. If nothing else, I had determination!
We started in the pitch dark, right around 6:00 AM. I was wearing enough clothing to go riding in the dead of a Utah January, but at least I wasn’t cold. The three of us synced up with my dad’s new friend Sid who would ride with us the rest of the race, and we hit the road aiming to stay together and simply finish before it got dark in Jackson.
All was well until mile 10 when literally 200 cyclists littered the side of the road to deal with flat tires. Those of use who escaped unscathed actually had to get off and walk our bikes around the mayhem. Unfortunately, Ben and Sid both eventually became casualties. With two flats in the early hours of the race, we were already behind our desired pace.
Flats repaired, the rest of the ride to Preston went fast and soon we were climbing up Strawberry pass in the ever warming morning. The climb was long and slow and before long, I was suffering. Slowly I inched up the hill with the competitive riders blowing by me like I was standing still. My legs screamed with exertion and then switched to the low ache of muscle cramps. I had to stop twice before we reached the top to shake out my legs. In hindsight, my nutrition plan was already failing at that point. We were hours into the race, and I hadn’t eaten a thing.
Mentally, I was sure I was doomed to hitch a ride of the support vehicle at Montpelier. I’d lost sight of my dad and Sid long ago and Ben was slowly cranking by my side trying to keep me from giving up. Fifty miles in and I could already smell failure. I was moving way too slow for us to finish before dark and I knew that it would be better for me to drop out of the race than to keep my team from their hard earned finish.
Gratefully, as we hit the rest stop in Montpelier, I caught a bit of a break. We caught up to Sid and my Dad and I managed to choke down a sandwich. My leg cramps had subdued and I felt good enough to carry on. Unfortunately, my shoes were having some mechanical problems, with one of two screws having fallen out, leaving me stuck to my bike. Sid’s support crew came to the rescue, and with a screw that was too long poking into the bottom of my foot, we made a hasty start toward Geneva summit. Guilt for slowing my team down was weighing heavy in my already bloated stomach, but I hopped on the back of our little pace line and pedaled for all I was worth up Geneva pass.
Just as the road took another steep pitch, I fell off the back of Ben’s wheel and then I felt a hand of my back. Sid pulled up behind me and generously gave me a huge push to boost my lagging speed. With a little momentum, I sped up a bit and rejoined the group. Man was I grateful. At the top of the hill, the bike mechanics swapped out my misfit screw, and within minutes we were sailing downhill toward Salt River Pass.
Ben took the next pass at a dead sprint while the rest of us slogged our way up the steep hill. I thought of every training ride we had tackled at a 14% grade and felt intensely grateful that Salt River never gets steeper than 7%. As we neared the top, I felt triumph that the steepest climb turned out to be perfectly manageable. Hungry and oddly sleepy, we made the highest summit, realizing that if we were to finish before dark we were going to have to make an all out sprint for the next 80 miles, and sprint we did.
I was still pondering dropping out by Afton, still worried about holding my team back, but I’d been riding strong and decided to give it one last push to Alpine. My mom promised to bring the support car to pick me up if I couldn’t keep up, so I decided to give it go.
Ben led us at a nearly frantic pace out of Afton and eventually we caught another train headed toward Alpine. By some blessed miracle, we had a bit of a tailwind that followed us the rest of the day. We had achieved cycling nirvana. Joined up with 20 or so riders, we dodged the rumble strips clear into Alpine, boosting our already good pace. I was now 50 miles further than I’d ever gone before and all things considered I felt pretty awesome.
With just less than 50 miles to go and nearly three hours of daylight left, I let myself believe for the first time that we might really make it. I imagined myself making a single, easy trip around Bear Lake and tucked in behind my dad for the final push into Jackson. With the finish line seemly a reality, we all got into gear and pedaled hard. The Snake River Valley was stunning, the company was lovely, and the temperature was perfect. If we hadn’t already spent ten hours in the saddle, it might have been the perfect ride.
Once we hit Jackson, we could see the Tetons backing the finish line, and yet we still had ten miles to go. Staying on the bike for another forty minutes seemed crazy. I had saddle sores, blistered hands, and my neck muscles were aching, but my legs didn’t feel too bad. With nothing left to lose, I rallied my last bit of determination and did my best to pull our group the rest of the way to Teton Village. We weren’t going very fast and the daylight was all but gone, but we finished!
I couldn’t have been more thrilled to have finished such a long day among some of my favorite people and with our amazing support crew there to meet us.