Race Report: Delta Epic 2018

[I’m dusting off this page to start recounting my races in the gravel and ultra-endurance cycling scene. It’s a sport too near and dear to me, one that I see more people showing interest in. I learned a lot by others’ race reports, and I hope that others can gain something from mine.]

Here’s my experience of the Delta Epic. I’d not done a midnight start, and I knew that I’d break my personal record for the amount of miles ridden in 24 hours no matter what. It was a massive challenge, physically and mentally, and often my recollection of these events is scattered. It’s especially the case this time with the late (early?) start, and my body had issues adapting to a near-nonexistent sleep schedule. It’s not a perfect recollection, but here’s some impressions I’ll pass on:

1. Midnight start, climbing up to the levee path along the delta. It's so humid and dark that you can't see the black cattle grazing on top of the levee until you're almost on top of them. They’re as indecisive with direction as squirrels, but a thousand times larger. I learn to listen for squealing wet disc rotors from the front two riders a hundred yards ahead of me to warn me to brake.

2. Water tastes like plastic hose for miles 50-10ish, filled from the hose in front of a fire station. It's 3:30am, too early for anything to be open. Pass the relay team vans at multiple points, they look way better rested

3. Hate hate hate out of tedium how flat (absolute [ancake flat) the delta farmland is and visually monotonous it is and why did I sign up for this. One layer up, I realize how calorie starved I must be to be locked into this mindset and I eat as much of one of the bars I brought as I can make myself.

4. Roll into Gunnison at mile 112. It's the largest town for the next 70 miles and that means the only food option is one tiny rural gas station market with no fresh food so I get a cheese sandwich with white bread and put Doritos on it. It's 9am. It's still early in the morning, technically. After that I drink a coke, make an 'espresso' with the last of a bottle of water and two packets of instant coffee, and then listen to a few songs from a shared playlist. I remind myself how hard this is and that I've already been riding 9 hours and to not take that for granted and my mood lifts for a few hours.

5. You get rained on again. It's the third or fourth time. There's no point in putting on a rain jacket most of the time in the Southeast because it's so warm and humid that a jacket would feel worse. It washes the salt off my skin and makes the roads tackier.

6. Miles 112 to 178 are rough red gravel through farmland. It's mostly grey, it all looks the same and I find myself blinking in and out of sleeping in the saddle, jerking back awake whenever I swerve to one side. I remember I didn’t end up sleeping during the day Friday, so I was running on almost no sleep for the past 36 hours.

7. Rolling into Indianola, my friends and I shared a hotel room to rest, order pizza, dry out, shower and wash kits. I find out my shoes are so bad at draining that the skin around my toes is already bright white and saturated, extremely close to trench foot. It erased any doubt in my mind that a stop was necessary. I sleep in a towel on the sofa and wake up two hours later, put on my damp kit (the hotel dryer was broken) so that my body heat can dry out the kit before I leave town or put on shoes again. The skin on my feet had returned mostly to normal. After packing up, kitting up, brushing teeth etc, putting back on our wet shoes is the last thing any of us does.

8. Two riders take over the hotel room as two of us leave, one to scratch and one to sleep through the night. We roll for a pleasant 30 miles of flat, paved darkness. It's so remote that only our direct surroundings are lit up and make it feel like we're in a desert or floating movie set removed from our surroundings.

9. Rolling washboard red gravel forever. Doesn't matter if we are riding at night because it's so rural. We eventually ask some farm workers at 1030pm if they know of a water source. They say “no” as the melted ice sloshes in the cooler one holds in his hands. We find a well spigot a few miles down the road that spits out slightly yellow but clean water.

10. Riding partner starts arguing with me, refuses to let me stop to sleep for ten minutes to restart my brain, which is shutting down. Delta mosquitos would have made it near impossible, anyway. My legs are stopping and jerking. Even though it's rough riding, I'm so tired I'm getting road hypnosis. He fights me on pausing to nap all night and after a hellish close to hundred miles more we finish the stretch on farmlands. To be fair, this is part of the reason I chose to ride with him all night. Once we reach pavement again I cry a little with relief as I stretch the smaller muscles that have been blasted by the last 29 hours of riding in the same position, due to the absolute lack of elevation.

11. The 3000 feet of elevation gain posted on the ride are all in the last 30 miles. We ride a flat paved road for a quarter mile and then turn to follow the course up, down, and up steep rolling gravel climbs. It's brutal, but the most enjoyable part of the whole ride. Our legs cooperate since we finally get to stand out of the saddle and climb, let alone coast back down the other side of the hills. The sky starts to glow through the trees dully and then brighter. As we peak the rolling hills the sun is up over the horizon. The last five miles is a rolling gravel straightaway where my riding companion and I play at sprinting our loaded bikes at sheer excitement from being near the finish. At the last turn even he admits the view is worth stopping for and we take pictures of the orange sunrise over the cotton fields, then follow a road paralleling the railroad line back to the start at Bentonia.