If the thirteenth lands on a Friday, is luck a draw?
Or is lack of preparedness a bittersweet flaw?
It would seem Ozark gravel likes to munch on tires;
That water crossings may cause bearings to expire.
That exposed ridges can pull you closer to despair,
And golden rays may bake your soul without a care.
But what if all the doom is actually bright?
Allowing you to meet wild forms in the night?
Creatures of self, walking with you up steep hills;
Listening to wavering thoughts and absorbing chills.
With a route so tough, it opens your narrowed gaze,
And helps navigate this life; such a beautiful maze.
Part I: Foundations
Ozark Gravel Doom sounded very ‘me’ - lots of climbing and janky descents in the Ozark National Forest (over 12,000 m of elevation gain in 600 km to be exact). While my town was cloaked in snow, I began my preparation - fine-tuning my new hardtail, gathering additional gear, preparing a cheat sheet and taste-testing dehydrated meals. About six weeks out, I went on a ride that mimicked Doom terrain on my hardtail, partially loaded with bikepack gear. I watched my friend on her unloaded gravel bike climb the smooth hills with ease, as my tires forcefully resisted each revolution. It was mind-numbing. In that moment, I decided I needed to get my gravel bike race-ready instead; not having trained my body and mind on the hardtail enough yet.
If switching rigs last minute wasn’t enough cause for stress, I had a pinched nerve flare up one week before the race. I was worried. Except I couldn’t act worried. I needed to sit up straight with good posture, put heat on my neck and smile; tactics for tricking my body into opening up the nerve canal. Thankfully, my massage therapist worked wonders days before departure and softly flossed my nerve back to health.
Part II: Picking a Tombstone
I arrived in Bentonville, struck by the humidity and heat. Arkansas was debuting its first heat wave of the year, unseasonably early. This made me nervous. Still, I told myself I’d go slow in the heat and all would be okay. More issues popped up as the clock ticked on, however.
First, my front brake lever felt firm when I began building my bike that evening. Deciding sleep would do me better than continued troubleshooting, I went to bed and brought my bike into a local shop in the morning. Jeremiah and Jesse picked me up, and we raced around running errands while we waited for the shop to find the issue. No dice.
While we were frantically thinking of other options (local bike gurus, spare parts, etc.), it became apparent that the hydraulic hose was wedged at the internal routing junction of the fork. Freeing the hose provided that familiar brake feeling and adding a few rounds of electrical tape would help prevent it from wedging in place again. Phew.
We arrived at the Oark General Store several hours early, intending to go for a pre-ride before the formal race meeting. Since we had ample time, we started towards the cabin I had rented… only we took the most direct route, which coincided with the 'unpassable’ road the cabin owner had mentioned to me. Turns out roads can have multiple names… Thankfully, Jeremiah was confident in navigating the rocky terrain at a slow pace; makeshift rock ramps included. The bikes had to come off the rack though, and walking my bike through the rough terrain gave me a blister on the inside of my left foot - not what one wants before an endurance event, as Jesse made it very clear. I politely asked him to shut up. We arrived at the cabin just in time to turn around and take a more direct route back to the Oark General Store for the pre-race meeting.
P.C. Kai Caddy
Racers gathered under the pavilion furnished with outdoor fans. Foreshadowing, perhaps. It was nice meeting local racers and those who had travelled a fair amount to get to Arkansas. I had notably travelled the furthest and let this be known at the picnic table when I interrupted a conversation: “what’s that about a moose?”
Jeremiah, Jesse and I headed back to the cabin to get showered and ready for the morning chaos. Only my chaos continued well into the night. During the excitement of the day, I hadn’t had time to pack my bike or reconnect the dynamo hub. My dynamo connection was being finicky now and only worked after some fiddling. With mechanicals temporarily at bay, I went to bed thinking about what could hinder me from finishing the route: the new blister, botched brakes, faulty dynamo connection, heavy survivalist packing, or the intense heat and humidity. Throughout the night I awoke several times, with my mind pinging like a pinball machine. Finally, it was close enough to wake-up time, so I crept into the bathroom, put on my kit, braided my hair and quietly studied my cheat sheet.
Part III: Gremlin Bells
Twenty-four racers gathered the morning of Friday the 13th to collect unique gremlin bells and charge them up (ring them for five minutes). Andrew, the race director, had met some motorcyclists while developing the route that had these bells; supposedly, the ringing helped ward off bad luck. With my luck, mine would act as a bad luck vacuum. Still, I rang my bell continuously, tracing my bike’s outline. At 6:30 am, we attached our bells to our bikes and were off.
P.C. Kai Caddy
Despite my lack of sleep the night prior, I was feeling excited and energetic. It didn’t take long before our first climb arrived and I took off, regrettably fuelled by adrenaline. This lasted a while as I weaved through the canopied trees and snapped a couple of photos with my film camera. I was doing well hydrating, having drank all 3.75 litres of water on me by the 55 km mark.
P.C. Kai Caddy
Ten more kilometres up, followed by ten more down, and I was at the first major bridge. I filled up on water as I chatted with Jeremiah and Eli. They biked off, and I intended to follow suit. I filled up my water bladder, thinking I’d skip the general store in Deer and make it to the next store, 25 kilometres further along the route (and closer to the route itself). Almost immediately, the canopies thinned on Parker Ridge, and the sun beamed down, cooking my soul. I had debated dumping water out of my water bladder, but the seal was stuck. As I sat on the ground trying to use sticks and rocks to leverage the seal, Carrie and Ryan biked past. I succumbed to the fact that I’d have to drink water to lighten the load. Randy came by shortly after, walking along the crests (he was single-speeding). I picked myself up and walked a little as well. My skin temperature rose, as did my anxiety about heat exhaustion. I am a heat monster on the best of days, let alone using lots of energy on an intense bikepack.
I made it down the ridge and celebrated with some water and snacks, and headed towards Mount Judea, another 25 kilometres from the junction, but mostly downhill. The bike gang caught up with me - Jeremiah, Eli, Carrie and Ryan. This renewed my spirits momentarily as I realized the competition was not over. We rowdily descended towards Mount Judea. I peeled off to the right and headed towards the Kent General Store. An unfamiliar noise entered my ears - the sound of soft rubber against hot pavement. I had a flat. Too tired to deal with it, I walked into the general store and bought several bottles of water and asked to sit on the floor. They had tables and chairs, but this seemed most relaxing. I had already entered bikepack mode where daily comforts become uncomfortable.
I bathed in the air conditioning, filled up my bottle and bladder (which magically opened now) and decided it was time to repair my flat. I rolled over to some shade across the street and dove in. A couple of passersby stopped and offered their help. I explained the nature of the race and thanked them for their kindness. The sidewall tear was incredibly thin, leading to a small hole at the edge of the tire where the sidewall meets the tread. I pulled out my Dynaplug and attempted to stab the hole. The bacon strip collapsed under pressure, like cooked spaghetti. Did it melt? The one other time I had to fill a puncture, the Dynaplug executed perfectly. I pulled out my cloth tape and lazily cut strips to put on the exterior of the tire. The puncture was so small and the tape so tacky that I thought there was a slight chance this could work. Obviously it didn’t, though. I was re-pumping my tire on route as Annie rolled by and offered help. Bless her heart; I was stubborn and not going to take it. She mentioned that a sizeable group of people scratched in Deer because of the heat. I told her to go on as I continued to drip sweat like a functioning air conditioner propped within a windowsill.
I rolled on for a little longer, carefully calculating how much air I was losing per kilometre - the answer was too much. I pulled off the route to some shade and slowly began the work. Somehow, my first *new* tube already had a puncture in it. I attempted to patch it but the sealant infiltrated pretty quick and dislodged the patch. I put in a second tube and re-seated my tire. This was all in slow motion. I could work much quicker, but what was the point? I didn’t want to ride in the heat anymore. A couple on a four-wheeler zipped up to offer help. Like a broken record, I thanked them for their offer and explained the rules of the race. Later, a white fluffy dog walked up the road for some pets. Maybe that’s considered outside assistance - he definitely perked me up.
Part IV: Walking Through Shadows
The sun was close to setting at this point so I hopped back on my bike, only to ride off route… I had pulled up the RideWithGPS app to check on how far the next water crossing was, and that’s when I noticed my blue dot hovering at a distance from the set route. I spent a fair amount of time sitting on the shoulder of the road, with cell service, trying to download the “proper” route, thinking I must have uploaded the incorrect RideWithGPS file. Super frustrated, I resigned to following the route outlined on the RideWithGPS app on my phone, paired with my Roam that was no longer providing cues.
Like clockwork, the sun set and my Roam died. The screen went blank, and the built-in light cues lit up along the top and left sides. The device was bricked. I pulled out my Bolt and loaded (what I thought was) the incorrect route for some security. How ironic. I had an amazing cheat sheet with points of interest detailed, climbs labelled, the works. But I failed to have confidence in my navigating device.
My water supplies were also dwindling at this point as I refused to filter water from creeks directly fed from farmland. As I plodded up the escarpment towards the Cliff Inn, Andrew called to check in. Surely, thoughts of keeping me safe outweighed any race etiquette at this point. “Oh, I’m not scratching.”
I continued up the escarpment, taking several breaks, sitting on the gravel to cool off. I was listening to music during my initial push, but turned this off when I noticed three sets of glowing eyes watching me in the woods to the right. Then, to the left, I heard some howls. I kindly asked the coyotes to leave me alone, as I had no energy to deal with them. After rounding the pavement, a cheer squad was on the side of the road - Andrew and a few scratchers - Jesse, Zach and Jen. I suppose this moral support was against the race rules, but me finishing with any sort of record pace was far out of the question, so I sat and chatted, while drooling, thinking about water that was sitting in the scratch-mobile that I could not drink.
I zipped down the pavement, cognizant that a sharp turn was approaching. I stopped at the exact junction where I should have made the turn but looked at Trackleaders instead of RideWithGPS - which is not live. So, in my exhausted haze, had decided that I was on route and somehow made the turn already… I’m still uncertain why my Bolt didn’t beep cues at me.
Jasper was quaint and far from awake at the hour I arrived (some time after 10 pm; maybe closer to 11 pm.) Staff were still inside the Ozark Cafe, so I peered in with my begging eyes. The staff ignored me. My emotions flowed. Fortunately, I spotted a Sherrif’s vehicle shortly after and beelined in the direction it went. I rolled into the Sheriff’s Office parking lot as the officer was heading towards the building. With eyes welling up, I explained I needed water. Without hesitation, he unlocked the door for me to fill up. I sat outside for some time, determined to get the proper route on my Bolt, with certainty. I ended up exporting the file (via desktop mode on my phone) and emailing the route to myself for upload directly to the Elemnt app. What a nightmare.
The officer asked if I needed anything else. I needed to find a place to lay my head, but I couldn’t possibly say that. He drove off, and I rode in the opposite direction. I thought about sleeping by the church, but the field was too open, in the heart of downtown. So I followed the route up the street and around the corner to the cemetery. It seemed fitting; very Doom-esque.
I pulled out my bivvy behind a tree, blew up my air mattress and pillow, removed my soaking wet clothes and shimmied in, hoping no one would approach me as I shivered in my cold sweat (I had ditched my sleeping clothes and silk liner the night before to lighten my load). I set an alarm for 5 am and fell asleep, awaking just over an hour later, feeling like I was ready to chase. “Have some food and catch up to the group”, I told myself. I turned my stove on and made several meals (for in the moment and on the go), thinking I had the energy to eat… to get more energy. False. I ate half of one dehydrated meal and that’s all I could stomach. While eating, I realized I had skipped the sharp turnoff on my way into Jasper.
Part V: Creatures of Self
It’s 3 am and I am walking up a winding, paved road with a narrow shoulder in the dark. The reason I am walking is two-fold: I am too weak to pedal hard, but also want to listen for approaching vehicles, ready to hop into the ditch to avoid being hit. Why am I up and moving at this absurd hour? Well, I have just awoken from a stealth nap in a cemetery, thinking I have re-cooped from heat exhaustion and am determined to backtrack to where I missed a turnoff hours prior so that if I complete the Doom route, I complete it in its entirety. I’m not walking up a small hill. I’m walking up 365 metres over 6.5 kilometres (or as my new friends would say, 1,200 feet over 4 miles). As I’m walking, I realize I am far from recovered and decide to scratch. I don’t take this decision lightly as tears stream down my face.
The town is still asleep, so after I descend the old gravel highway, I use every bit of energy left to get to the group before they set off for their second day of pedalling. I barely make it, having to walk up a big paved hill, but I approach the church. I desperately want to join the group and continue on with the adventure, but don’t have it in me. While I wait for Andrew, I curl up on an outdoor pew and fall asleep.
Part VI: Reincarnation
I’ve had to bow out of a bikepack route before (due to raging stomach issues) but it was especially difficult to scratch on my first bikepack race; when I’d come such a long way and put so much effort into the race. I sit here writing this, proud for listening to my body in the moment, but also acknowledging that I wish I was more stubborn and could have rallied through, however, that looked. After scratching, the cogs were immediately turning, thinking about what I could have done differently. But there’s no sense in that. It’s all about what I will do differently in the future when I come back; because I will be back. I do feel happy with having knocked out 175 km and 3,800 m of climbing in 24 hours, considering most of that was spent sitting in the cool gravel, petting dogs, and lolligagging with repairs. It tells me that there is more to come.
I am ever so grateful that Andrew brought his idea to life and that I that I got a snapshot of race director life while hanging out with him after I scratched. The cycling community is so loving and rad. I may have had “bad luck” regarding the route, but consider myself very lucky to have expanded my community with this trip and hear their Doom and life stories.
P.C. Kai Caddy