The 2022 Big Lonely Race Report – and Some Thoughts on Training
But First, Why?
Spoiler alert: I got 2nd place in this race. It was a little disappointing in some regards, but the guy that beat me was a speedy early 20s fella who definitely has a lot of promise in the sport of ultra-endurance racing. Even if I’d had a perfect race he likely would have still bested me by an hour or so – as it was he beat my by over 2 hours.
Fortunately for me, racing alone isn’t what draws me to to events like The Big Lonely.
‘The race’ often just feels like the celebration or victory lap in a long and arduous leadup that includes training peaks and valleys, mini-goals (and races), nutrition plans, injury mitigation, and general experimentation. Throughout a training block there is so much to learn about your body and brain’s capabilities and limits, not to mention the variability that comes with training as you age. When I look back at past running and cycling training blocks, things that worked in my 20s (read all threshold workouts all the time) would get me injured in a hurry in my 30s, but it doesn’t mean my fitness has lessened. In fact, as a cyclist my FTP was higher than ever last summer and I ran my fastest ever marathon last winter.
I’ve learned a lot as an athlete over the years, but it’s the constant push and pull of finding the limit that brings so much excitement to each new training block. I love it.
In essence, training – not racing – is what brings me the most joy. Making plans. Pushing limits. Testing mental toughness. It’s a personal battle each day and no one outside yourself truly understands the grit and grind of the endeavor. Just you, the athlete.
So. Long story short: I got 2nd place this year in The Big Lonely and I’m ok with it. But let’s jump into the long version.
It’s 4 O’Clock Somewhere
4am is heralded by the cacophony of two separate alarms and an immediate alertness raises me out of bed and towards the teapot already filled and ready to be boiled. It’s two hours until the start of The Big Lonely – my second time participating in the 350 mile race – and the forecast is calling for not just sunny skies, but good competition and subsequently a very fast race this year.
But first, coffee.
Trish and I stay with our friend Hannah the night before The Big Lonely but choose to sleep in the familiar space of our van vs. her beautiful home in Bend, and when the alarm goes off we both get to work on breakfast, final bike tweaks, last minute clothing swaps, and impatiently wait until a little past 5am to leave for the start line at Phil’s Trailhead in Bend. We’re the first to arrive. While the morning air feels deceptively cool, I try to live by the mantra ‘Be Bold – Start Cold,’ which should help me from overheating on the 3,000+ foot singletrack climb up the Mrazek trail that begins the race. I throw on some heavy non-race layers with all my skimpy race clothes underneath to stay warm as I unload the bike and do some final checks.
Other racers start rolling in with 30 minutes until the start and it’s officially time to check our trackers, test our lights in the darkness, and turn on our GPS units to make sure they’re connecting to the route. People’s nervous laughter and excitement are heard and felt throughout the 50+ riders. My friend Seth snaps a pic of my last minute dental hygiene routine before I hop from the van onto the bike, roll to the start, and get ready. With a short preamble, the race director starts the race.
A Speedy Start
For the first hour, we’re in the dark. After leading another one of the frontrunners down a few wrong turns, we eventually are back on track and find ourselves ahead of everyone else. Our crew of two swells to a crew of four as we finish the rest of the 3,000+ feet of singletrack climbing and begin the dirt, gravel, and eventually singletrack descent into Sisters. A bit of separation leading into the singletrack leaves me with fellow rider, friend, and Bend local – Mateo – who I appreciatively follow through the singletrack all the way to sisters. Mateo is the better singletrack rider and knows the Sisters trail system much better than I do, and I am so happy I grabbed his wheel leading into this section as I’m sure the other two riders will struggle to seamlessly navigate the many turns through Peterson’s Ridge trail system.
Mateo needs to use the Sisters Park as a water resupply around mile 40, but I have enough water to make it all the way to Madras at mile 90 so I carry on solo, stripping clothing layers on the bike as fast as I can on a short strip of pavement, before the gravel and singletrack starts up again. The gravel begins as I frantically strip the sleeve of my rain jacket off. It is unceremoniously stuffed into my framebag along with my thicker gloves just as the gravel turns to singletrack and full focus is once again needed. The timing is perfect.
… … … …
One More Thing About Sport…
For me, ultra-endurance cycling events like The Big Lonely are characterized by
- A constant awareness of the running clock,
- A calculated and sometimes frantic anticipation of upcoming resupplies and terrain changes, and
- An attempt to control all of the variables and adapt when things inevitably take a turn.
Talk about a microcosm for life. The Ultra event characteristics above are a huge part of my daily grind as I micromanage each day and each week, aware of the running clock and how much [limited] time I have to train effectively while still maintaining at least a modicum of balance with relationships, social events, and things other than athletic pursuits.
But it’s hard.
As an amateur athlete, I’ve gotten to know so many amazing people in the sports I love, and when your social circles also happen to share your athletic passions, the hamster wheel conversations around training, gear, goals, nutrition, times, and events feels new and exciting no matter how cyclical and repetitive it may sound to a stranger looking in. And perhaps, paradoxically, despite the seeming repetition it truly is always new and exciting.
A friend recently completed the very challenging Silk-Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan and I could hardly contain my excitement to see him and hear about the adventure – because we live and breathe these experiences. The event is a culmination of so many hours of training and preparation that when the day finally comes and you line up to start, the hard part is over. Now you get to soak in the experience and let it take you on a journey unique to you.
Am I just repeating the tangent that started this blog post? Maybe. But not really. The joy of the journey towards a big event – physical prep, mental prep, logistical prep, etc. – cannot be overstated. But the victory lap of the event is where stories are born, and boy did Seth have some incredible stories about his Silk Road Mountain Race experience.
Back to The Big Lonely
… … … …
Lake Billy Chinook to Madras
Rolling out of Sisters the route takes you on some easy riding singletrack, some rough but short-lived doubletrack, and finally some farm-roads gravel until you get to a 12-mile section of road along the lowest point of the entire route – Lake Billy Chinook. This road section is beautiful and it was just as the gravel transitioned to pavement around mile 75 that I got passed by Tom, the eventual winner, and JohnHenry, a bit of a dark horse who was riding his first ultra race. We all met up in the small town of Madras at a gas station for a quick resupply and left at the same time. It appeared the race was going to be between the three of us.
Appearances can be deceiving.
The Super Secret Ashwood Fridge Oasis
From Madras, the route has a 110 mile push that is no joke. It’s the most climbing-dense 100 miles of the route and feels like you’re always climbing or descending. I knew this slog was coming so I settled into a rhythm and got comfortable.
As we started the push, Tom had asked about water on this portion. I disclosed that the very first water crossing enroute about 40-ish miles in was the only available water the entire way. I did NOT disclose that Ashwood had a super secret but not actually that secret fridge where you could pay in a cash box and purchase Gatorade, cold water, ice cream sandwiches, and coke.
When I stopped in Ashwood, refilled my waters and threw down an ice cream bar I felt a bit bad about not sharing all the secrets of the route. Then again, part of these races includes personal research and recon and I had already shared a LOT about the route with Tom and others as we rode so… I don’t know. He clearly did just fine without knowing about the secret Ashwood Fridge Oasis, so no need to dwell on it.
Prineville Pit Stop
Darkness set in a little after 7pm and after a few hours more of 1,000 foot climbs and descents, the gravel turned to pavement and it was time for a 15 mile drag strip of relatively flat tarmac into Prineville. It was along this section where sleepiness began to take hold and, fortunately, my secret weapon – Run Gum – kept me rubber side down all the way to a Prineville gas station. It wasn’t that cold yet but I decided it was as good a time as any to throw on the majority of my layers and get them nice and toasty in the gas station while I resupplied.
I learned later from Tom that if I would have stopped at the 7/11 instead of a gas station, there was pizza to be had. That would have been nice. Instead, I rode into the night eating half of a microwaved breakfast sandwich while the other half crumbled away on the pavement. It was a dry piece of garbage anyway.
Up until Prineville I had been eating really consistently because I know that fueling in these events basically makes or breaks your race. At least I thought I knew that. But as night fully enveloped the race, my pace slightly slowed and maybe I unconsciously decided that since I wasn’t working as hard I didn’t need as much food.
Night rolled on with a full moon was so bright and air so still that I turned off my headlight for much of the paved section after Prineville and navigated the empty Crooked River Highway by moonlight alone.
A Bonk in the Night
This year’s route featured a kindly water resupply 60-ish miles after Prineville and it was shortly after this stop somewhere deep in the night or early in the morning that the rails started to fall off the Ben train. It started with fatigue. A lot of fatigue. I told myself, ‘Ben, fatigue is just an emotion. Get over it.’
Then I looked at the watts on my Garmin.
Up to this point, I had been averaging somewhere around 160 watts and closer to 190 watts for Normalized Power. My Garmin was reporting 100 watts as I pedaled, around half of what I had been averaging up to this point.
I tried getting back to my average and waves of nausea pulsed into my head, chest, and stomach. I stopped completely and took a little break on the bike. Things didn’t feel any better so I pedaled on.
At this point I was starting the slow uphill slog towards Paulina Peak – the highpoint of the race. The climb begins gradually before ramping up significantly for a total gain of over 3,000 feet.
But every mile I rode was bookended with an on the bike break as I decided whether I needed to throw up.
I soon graduated from on the bike breaks to off the bike breaks, which included me laying on the ground, belly up, looking at the stars. My final belly-up break was particularly violent. I never ended up puking but the last one, which happened right as the sun came up, brought me right to the brink. It was so bad and my fatigue was so significant that, 40 miles from the finish line, I wasn’t actually sure that I could finish the race.
I army crawled over to my bike to snag my phone and – would you believe it – I had service! I text my partner Trish and told her that the last 3 hours had been total hell and I wasn’t sure… I left things pretty vague. I also happened to check the tracker at this time and saw, to my amazement, that there was a third place rider coming in strong – Canadian ultra-endurance superstar Meaghan Hackinen! She had passed all the other contenders in the night and was now only 8 miles away from catching me!
Trish gave me a pep talk via text and I knew that I needed to confront my nausea and fatigue head on, so I did. My eating had dropped way off in the last 3 hours because of how horrible I felt, but I decided to go into robot mode and threw down two packs of Fig Newtons and a huge handful of gummy worms. Breakfast of champions! Initially I thought it was all going to come right back up, but I gave it a few minutes to settle and nothing happened, so I hopped back on the bike and carried on towards Paulina Peak.
Paulina Peak, Swamp Wells, and a Friend
My energy slowly came back to baseline, and just in time as the climb to Paulina Peak includes some relatively steep and, at times, exciting singletrack. I was now stuffing my face with as many gummy worms as I could eat (pretty much all I had left) any time I was able to take a hand off the bars.
After hitting the high point of Paulina Peak and bombing down some washboard gravel, I arrived at the final major climb of the day, delayered clothing, and got to work. This was another 1,500 foot singletrack climb with some step ups that require a decent amount of concentration. I was just starting the push uphill when I heard someone behind me say, “How are you feeling?” I turned around and couldn’t quite recognize the face so I did what any half-asleep, 300 miles-in ultra rider would do and inquired, “Who wants to know?!”
I had a sneaking suspicion it was a friend and sure enough, my friend Jaimie got a shuttle ride up to Paulina Peak so she could bomb down Swamp Wells and potentially run into some racers – SCORE!
It was great sharing the climb with her to the top of Swamp Wells before she literally left me in the dust within seconds of the start of the descent. Meanwhile, I patiently navigated the steep drops, rock gardens, and moondust with an extra level of caution, knowing I was now hours away from the finish line.
The Finish Line
Swamp Wells Trail is a 30 mile stretch of mostly downhill, techy trail that drops from Paulina Peak all the way down to Bend proper. I knew that 1st place was well out of reach at this point and had a sneaking suspicion that the more road-oriented Canadian superstar behind me would have trouble catching me now that I was back on track with fueling and rolling on trails that she would be a little less comfortable on, so I settled into the idea of finishing 2nd.
Friend and race photographer – Seth – was at the bottom of Swamp Wells snapping photos and once I zoomed past him I knew I was an hour or less from finishing the race, with only tarmac and a small climb to the top of Pilot Butte to go. I put my head down and pushed for the finish line and, once at the top of Pilot Butte, gratitude for friends at the finish line, for the route and race director, and for the physical and mental capacity to accomplish such an endeavor came flooding in.
Coming into 2023 I (of course) already have big goals. Endurance pursuits are a lifestyle rather than one-and-done goals for me. Without the goal-oriented life I think I would struggle to maintain health, fitness, and some level of work/life balance. I’m so thankful that my biggest passion in life is one with a routine and structure that makes me a healthier and happier person.
It’s not all about that finish line for me. It’s about a process of goal-setting, hard work, and a pursuit of my best. A famous local athlete once said that ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,’ and as long as I have health and fitness, that’s what I plan to give – in races and training alike.
Categories: Oregon Bikepacking