The Big Lonely 2021 Grand Depart – Race Report
It’s 10pm and I’m 186 miles into a 350 mile race. I just dropped 2,500 feet of elevation and my toes and hands are completely numb. I’m trying to self-talk my way into riding to Prineville – another 45 minutes away – resupplying on food and water, and then riding into the night. Let the mental gymnastics begins.
Pros for riding into the night:
- Chasing the course record – last year’s course was over 20 miles shorter and I’m already a bit behind the pace, so this is a long shot.
- Pushing my body’s limits – with a 3+ hour lead on the nearest rider, from a competitive standpoint, my biggest competition is myself, and these races are always a good testing ground for finding the body’s limits.
- Because there are no guarantees – even with a big lead, who knows what could happen out there. The safest bet is always to keep riding if the body is willing.
Cons for riding into the night:
- Scary-cold feet and hands – according to my Garmin it was in the 20s as I descended out of the Ochocos, and from Prineville, I ascend 5,000 feet to the highpoint. Things will only get colder.
- The ever-present sleep monster – he gets me in most ultra-races and this one is no exception. I’ve been drifting off throughout the last hour of riding, which means I’m putting hardly any power into the pedals and only contributing more to my frozen extremities debacle.
- Fear of a mishap – with the cold only getting colder, I’m worried that if I have a mechanical, crash, or encounter some other obstacle, I’ll be too cold to remedy whatever challenge lays ahead.
In the back of my mind I know that I’m only two Starbucks Doubleshots away from being wired for the rest of the night. My extremities are scary cold, but if I can become more alert, I’ll pedal harder and likely keep the body temperature pretty comfortable.
But once the feet reach a certain chill factor, I’ve found – unless the weather warms up – they can’t get any better on the bike but they can get a whole lot worse.
It’s 10pm, 16 miles to Prineville, and I am teetering on the mental gymnastics’ balance beam, struggling through my routine towards a clean dismount but close to slipping off the edge…
How it Began
But let’s backtrack a bit, first with a brief description of the route: The Big Lonely is a 350 mile mixed terrain course which, when broken down, consists of 30% singletrack, 50% gravel/doubletrack, and 20% pavement. With over 26,000 feet of climbing, it is no joy ride as you traverse the rugged backcountry of Central Oregon and, having ridden many sections of the route, I knew I was in for a real doozy of a course. The race is organized by the ultra-endurance club that I race for: Northwest Competitive Adventure, and I knew that my club’s founder – Jesse Blough – had put together an amazing route.
This was a great year for me with racing. I was able to ITT my own 350 mile race – Odyssey of the VOG – and earn the Fastest Known Time as of this posting, place 2nd in the 6 Hours of Mount Hood MTB race in June, place 1st in the inaugural Oregon Timber Trail race, and even complete a 213 mile road/gravel race on a tandem with my partner, Trish – The Swift Summit. The Big Lonely was my final opportunity to race an ultra before old-man winter shut down everything above a few thousand feet in the pacific northwest. I wanted to make it count.
Having backed off the serious training after my Oregon Timber Trail race in July, August prompted my two-a-day training regiment of 300+ mile weeks on the bike, with weights and running included as part of my cross-training. The training was dialed and I felt confident going into October with my conditioning and mindset. Anything can happen in a race that is 350 miles long, but I knew that I had done all I could to prepare.
The Big Lonely – Gear
The Night Before
As soon as I finished work at 4pm on Thursday, I headed out to Bend, the starting point of the race, and stayed with my friend – Tom Hainisch – and his son Logan. They were the best hosts I could have asked for, and with my wife out of town visiting friends, Tom had agreed to be my emergency bailout option if things went sour. Talk about a solid friend.
Tom, Logan, and I spent an hour or so hanging out, talking about Logan’s start to the school year and some of the logistics for the race tomorrow, before I excused myself for some final bike prep and an early bed time. I was in the middle of every bikepacker’s bane – the never-ending gear checklist in my head – as I drifted off to sleep.
Phils to the Hills
4am came quickly but I slept well and popped out of bed to eat my overnight oats and get the coffee started. I like to get up a couple hours before races to get the bowel system in working order, and mission accomplished on that front!
Tom drove me to the start around 5:30am, where riders were already bustling around with last minute straps, tire pressure checks, and gear second guessing – all staples of these races.
At 5:55am, the race organizer – Jesse – gave some last minute instructions and had a close friend and Oregon Timber Trail board member – Mike Wingertsahn – pilot us up the first few miles of singletrack along Ben’s Trail, the uphill trail that is part of the larger Phil’s Trail network. I rode behind him and had a chance to catch up a bit before he peeled off and let the racers begin the long, 3,000 foot climb up the Mrazek Trail towards Sisters. The race was on!
And Then There Were Three
A number of us started up the Mrazek trail together, with me leading the way. It was 6:30am and completely dark. This is such a fun way to ride!
I could hear others chatting behind me, and my friend and training partner Abdul chatted with me as we pushed the pace a bit to thin out the front group.
Within an hour, there were four of us. Then three. Abdul, me, and Jason – a rider who we quickly learned took 4th place at the TransAm this year, a self-supported race across the United States. Clearly we had a legitimate competitor!
After a couple hours of riding, the sun was up and we finally crested the last hill. I had ridden most of the gravel and trail that leads to Sisters and knew it would be flowy and fast. Time to see how these guys descend.
Ode to the Fallen
It was quickly apparent that I was the weak link on dirt descents. Abdul and Jason both were able to slowly leave me behind as I tried my best to pick smart lines through the frozen dirt and gravel. About 20 minutes into the descent, Abdul had rounded a corner and was out of sight, and Jason was a couple hundred feet ahead of me. We careened around a sharp corner and there was Abdul off to the side of the road, examining his bike.
Abdul would go on to have his own incredible adventure which included a ride with a stranger, help from friends, two brand new tires, bent handlebars, sleep in a haunted post office, and an unlikely bailout option. He made it 150 miles with countless roadblocks along the way and was definitely the unsung hero of the race. Well done, Abdul. You overcame way more adversity than I did, that’s for sure.
Cat and Mouse
After we both delayered in Sisters, Jason and I began an hours long game of cat and mouse. He would hop ahead of me, I would hop ahead of him, and so on for the next 50 miles to Madras.
Madras is right around the 100 mile mark for the course and has one final climb before a relatively laid back 20 miles into Madras. Jason had been riding pretty hard all along the beautiful Lake Billy Chinook pavement section of the route, but after passing him on the climb, I quickly lost sight of him and decided to give it a pretty good hammer into Madras to do a resupply at a gas station and move on.
But Jason is sneaky. He rode ahead of me to a small park where he filled up on water and hid behind the bathrooms at the park so I wouldn’t see him. I checked the tracker as I was leaving Madras and it looked like he was ahead of me (at the bathroom at the park), so I figured I would continue to gas it a bit through the beautiful Hay Creek farms section of the route, which eventually goes up and over a 1,500 foot climb before descending to Ashwood.
Around this time the race director – Jesse – rolled by with his friend Sam to take some photos. I yelled out to both of them, “Jason really took off from Madras. I don’t think he stopped at all! Is he a little ways ahead of me?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew that telling me would break the spirit of these self-supported races, and Jesse’s noncommittal answer to me was my reminder. Still, I felt like he had to be just around the corner, so I continued to push it a bit.
The Mind Games Continue (but just in my mind)
I’m generally a decent climber and this section of the route is climbing heavy, so I was convinced I would see Jason within 30 minutes.
30 minutes passed.
More gravel climbing, cows, some mud, and then the mongo climb towards Ashwood. Surely I’ll see Jason on the big climb before the descent to Ashwood.
An hour passes.
I roll straight through Ashwood and know that, while I only have about 70 miles to Prineville, there’s still 6,000 feet of climbing until I get there. Surely, I’ll see Jason in the next hour.
Another hour passes.
Looking for Clues
Throughout this long period of gravel and dirt climbing (mostly), I was watching the dirt for any signs of tire tracks. Every once in a while I would see something that faintly resembled bike tires but there was no clear evidence of a bike recently riding through. I began to question whether Jason was actually ahead of me. It just felt unlikely that he would have hammered hard enough to create such a big gap – I surely would have seen him along one of the climbs where I had clear visibility for a quarter mile+, right?
While second-guesses reigned supreme, I began to think that something happened to Jason that I wasn’t aware of. Maybe he had stopped in Ashwood at the little self-pay refrigerator? Or maybe he had pulled off the road to take care of some bowel-related business? Gastro-intestinal issues are common in these races so this was at least possible.
The hypotheticals kept my mind occupied as I climbed towards the top of the Ochocos and over 5,000 additional feet of climbing from Ashwood. After cresting one of the final hills before the descent towards Prineville, I stopped to layer up with all the clothes I had (minus the down jacket). From here I had a little over 30 miles to go and a screaming road descent, so I knew the cold I was already feeling would only get colder.
But after assuring them I was, they drove off and I soon followed in hot – er – cold pursuit.
It was around 7pm as I turned on the lights and started the descent. The three hours that followed included, colder and colder temps, heavier and heavier eyelids, and slower and slower speeds – the vicious cycle that led to the pros and cons list that started this post.
And the Winner is…
Sleep and the promise of warm toes and fingers ultimately conquered my desire to push through the cold temps of the night. My Garmin had recorded temps in the low 20s and I didn’t want to unnecessarily put myself at risk, knowing that I would be up thousands of feet higher than the Ochocos within a few more hours of riding after Prineville.
Plus, the course record was simply out of reach at this point. Trying to make up time for the 25-ish additional miles added to the 2021 course just wasn’t in the cards for me, so I pivoted my own goals for the race as I rode the final 16 miles towards Prineville:
New Race Goals
- Embrace my decision to stop without regret
- Resupply in Prineville and make zero stops for the last 147 miles of the race
- Warm up in the hotel, take a shower, clean the clothes a bit, and get 2 hours of sleep
- Use the rest I was about to receive as fuel for the fire – once back on the bike, HAMMER!
The Rest of the Story
As I entered Prineville, I stopped at a gas station and immediately checked the tracker. Jason was nowhere to be seen. I would later learn that, after hiding behind the bathrooms, Jason watched me pass by and then did what I thought I was doing the entire time: vigorously pursued.
However, his Achilles heels were starting to act up, a common problem for ultra-endurance athletes, and by the time he reached Ashwood, his race was over.
A New Competitor
There was one other rider somewhat close to me as I rolled into Prineville – about 30 miles away. I shook away any feelings of regret with my decision to stop. If this rider rode through the night, they would not feel fresh like I would. Plus, their average moving speed, according to the tracking information, was quite a bit slower than mine. Even if they passed me in the night, I felt confident I could make up that gap over the course of the following 147 miles.
At the gas station, I bought all the gummies, candy bars, and microwaveable breakfast burritos I could fit in a bag, and then headed for the Best Western, my 3 hour oasis.
Two ladies greeted me as I entered and, after looking me over, decided I deserved the Triple A discount. SCORE! I appreciated them taking pity on my disheveled appearance and bank account, thanked them profusely, and headed up the stairs to my luxury sweet so that I could pound a protein shake and a breakfast burrito before showering and passing out.
The Final Chase
At 2am, the alarm chimed and things quickly went from blurry confusion to task-oriented efficiency. Food in microwave. Change. Guzzle water. Pack electronics. In an hour, I was back on the road.
As I left the Best Western around 3am, I did a final check of the tracker and saw that Chris Wallace, the mystery man who had been behind me as I drifted off to sleep, now had an 11 mile lead on me – more than I expected.
Still, I knew taking a rest when I did would put me in a better situation physically and mentally than the other riders, and Chris was all the fuel I need to rekindle the fire of competition. I’m coming for you, Chris!
The Washboard Brigade
Leaving Prineville, the Big Lonely slowly climbs its way up the beautifully scenic Crooked River Highway (beautiful for those not riding in the pitch black) before eventually becoming gravel after Prineville Reservoir.
And once the road turns to gravel, things get… bumpy. Very bumpy. As in loose, washboard bumpy for the next 50 miles until you hit singletrack up near Paulina Peak.
It was also shortly after the transition to gravel that I saw Chris as I rounded a corner, taking a snack break. I didn’t really want to stop so as I rode by I yelled, ‘Great work, Chris!’ and kept soldiering on.
The sun was just beginning to climb towards the top of the nearby peaks, and darkness was yielding to light as Chris slowly dropped away into the distance. Still wearing all the clothes I brought with me, I turned my lights off and hoped that with the sun would come warmer temps and smoother roads.
Paulina Peak – the High Point of the Route AND my Race
It wasn’t long until Chris was out of sight and out of mind. After a few more hours of frigid temperatures and bumpy roads, the gradual climbing I had been doing for hours decided to get serious. I was close to Paulina Peak, the highest point of the route. The sun was up and temps had warmed enough for me to finally shed some layers, and the focus became less about avoiding potholes and more about finding a line where my tires could keep traction. Loose rock and steep pitches is a tough combination, and after an hour of this, it was with great relief that I saw the route turned off the road and onto singletrack.
As a general rule, singletrack is slower than road, gravel, and dirt riding. Much slower. But my hope with this transition to singletrack was that my tires would grip the packed singletrack better than the loose gravel/dirt road, and fortunately, this was mostly the case. While there were a few slips up the Crater Rim Trail, for the most part, it was completely ridable, perhaps more ridable than the road I had been climbing for the last hour.
More important, the singletrack brought joy back to the ride. As I bobbed and weaved my way up the trail, the miles began to feel less laborious and more exciting. My Garmin had warned me at the start of this section that I had a 3,000 foot climb ahead of me. No joke.
But well before I expected it, the singletrack leveled out and soon I was riding along the rim of the crater with just as many downs as there were ups, and when I left the singletrack for the final little 300 foot push up to the top of Paulina Peak, I was in one of the best mental spaces of the entire race.
Once at Paulina Lake campground, there is one more 1,500 foot singletrack climb and about 45 more miles to the finish. I found a trash can just before the campground itself, dumped my snacks-trash and checked my water. Over the course of the last 100 miles from Prineville, I had only consumed 1.5 liters of water. Yikes.
The good news was that my stop only lasted about 30 seconds since I didn’t need to refill water. With 45 miles to go and 1.5 liters of water left, I was good to go all the way to the finish line.
Swamp Wells – the Final Push
After climbing the final hill, I transferred from the Crater Rim Trail to the Swamp Wells Trail and, for the most part, everything pointed down. Not to say it was all downhill from here. The Swamp Wells Trail is notorious for lulling riders into a false sense of security in the first half with its fast and flowy riding, only to break their spirit with rock gardens and short, pitchy hike-a-bikes in the second half. At least I knew it was coming.
After some fun-filled hours of singletrack, though, the trail ended and the road began. I stopped one more time to check the route. It turned east and I was sure I should be going west but, once confirmed, I put my head down and hammered out the last 10 miles before the final climb of the entire route where the finish line awaited: Pilot Butte. This is a GREAT way to finish up the route, as it is a short, one mile climb that leaves you with a 360 degree view of the entire area.
In just under 36 hours, I climbed mountains, traversed trails, overcame frozen digits, and even enjoyed the [triple A discounted] luxuries of hotel life. A lot of lived experiences occurred in a very condensed period of time, and now, at the top of Pilot Butte, I got to enjoy retelling a few snapshots of this experience to friends, photographers, and the race director, all of whom were waiting at the top.
Even my friend, Abdul, and major competitor Jason – both forced to scratch before Prineville – were waiting at the top to share their own stories and put the missing pieces of this experiential puzzle together in my head. It was the perfect end to an amazing ride.
While I think that, even without a 3+ hour stop in Prineville like I did, the old record will be VERY hard to beat on this new course, I would love to come back and give this race another try in the coming years. There’s definitely someone out there who can ride it in 33 hours, and maybe someone who can do it faster than that, and I hope I get to compete with them when they do.
Thanks, Jesse, for organizing a great event and route. I’m already looking forward to racing it again!