A Long Way from Home

Accounts of two ultra-endurance events, the Great Divide Race and Crush the Commonwealth, from one specialist in the genre and several regular folks with day jobs.

Editor’s note:

This story originally appeared in our sister magazine, Dirt Rag, Issue #130. You can purchase a copy of this issue in our online store.

By Karen Brooks and Eric McKeegan

What’s the longest ride you’ve ever done? For most of us, the answer is somewhere this side of one day and one hundred miles; but there are folks among us who strive to go beyond those marks, sometimes well beyond, and who measure their rides in whole days and multiple hundreds of miles. Many times these thresholds are crossed in the pursuit of completing a challenge, in the form of a race or other group event, since our fellow riders can push us to keep going and find out how far we can go.

In the past, Dirt Rag has featured such rides as oddities, distances that a few brave souls showed were possible, but that most of us wouldn’t have attempted. But ultra-endurance races (as they have become known) are gaining popularity as regular folks look for new challenges and a deeper sense of fulfillment. Perhaps this is the next stage of evolution of our relatively young sport. Here are some accounts of riders who have tested their limits and have been enriched by the experience.

The Great Divide Race

The Great Divide Race (GDR) is perhaps the granddaddy of ultra-endurance mountain bike races in this country. It follows the Great Divide Route, a mostly off-road route along the Continental Divide from the Port of Roosville, Montana, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. The Route was created by Adventure Cycling in 1998 as a completely bikeable alternative to the Continental Divide Trail, which has many sections closed to bikes (and more threatened with closure).

The Race is completely self-supported: no support crew allowed, no cell phone use unless it’s an emergency (and racers are immediately disqualified if they do need to use one), certainly no feed zones. As the race website says, "The overriding principle is simply to do it all yourself." The only official link of any kind is that racers must check in via payphone from a list of towns along the way (go to greatdividerace/blogspot.com to read transcripts of these phone calls).

We last featured this race in 2005 in Dirt Rag Issue #117, after its second running, when Kent Peterson wrote about his race experiences on a singlespeed in "The Way of the Mountain Turtle." That year Kent was one of seven riders to line up, and one of four finishers. The fact that this year Jay Petervary set a new GDR record of 15 days, 4 hours, and 18 minutes is perhaps not as significant as the fact that the field of 25 participants was more than three times that of any other year, and more than all four previous years combined. Only one person, Matthew Lee (who finished second place this year), completed the course under the time cutoff in ’06; ten people came in before the cutoff this year.

Mike Curiak

Mike Curiak is the founder and co-organizer of the GDR (along with Pete Basinger); he also held the previous record time of 16 days and 57 minutes for its first three years.

What motivated you to organize this event?

Frustration, mostly, is what motivated it. It was such a great thing that Laird [Knight of Granny Gear Productions] and others did in the mid-’90s, but doing 24-hour events solo loses its excitement really fast. 24-hour races opened people’s eyes to the fact that it’s not a big deal to ride for 24 hours at a stretch, but going around and around on the same track, particularly for solo riders, can get monotonous. I wanted something with more adventure, more self-reliance, without using a support crew.

Why do you think this race has gained popularity?

It has reached a critical mass… There’s been an explosion of 150-300 mile events, like the Kokopelli Race or the Grand Loop or the Iditabike, and people who complete these look to the GDR as the next step. Last year’s race had more audio and text coverage [available on the GDR website] and so it was on people’s radar.

With the races I’ve organized, the goal has never been to get coverage and promotion, the goal has been to make it fun. It started off strictly selfishly, with what would be fun for me.

What advice would you give to people looking to make the jump from 24-hour racing?

You need commitment. Physical attributes don’t matter as much. I sometimes hear people say, "If a pro like so-and-so showed up, they’d school the field." They might on the first day, and maybe the second, but definitely not on day 5, especially when there’s 10 days left. It’s most important to have determination and drive, and mental flexibility; you need to be able to roll with the punches and let go of any preconceived notions of what might happen. You never know what’s going to happen.

There’s a big difference between racing and just touring the Great Divide Route. The level of sacrifice and suffering is more than most people realize. A lot of participants say they’ll "see how it goes," just go out to survive, and end up doing 70 to 80 miles a day, which is 20 to 30 miles a day off the pace to finish by the cutoff. To do that you need to ride just over 100 miles a day. (My record time averaged out to about 158 miles a day.) One guy this year missed the cutoff by just eight hours, and will not be listed as a finisher.

Were there any factors like weather that contributed to the record being broken this year?

It was a combination of things… In ’04 [the first year] there was no concrete goal, but now racers know what they have to do and roughly what it takes to do it competitively. And this year there definitely was good luck with the weather. For instance Jay Petervary was only in one hailstorm, and it lasted only an hour, that was it. Mostly it was high pressure and blue skies.

It seems like in an event such as this, any small injury or illness can get worse until it stops you, since there is so little rest time.

Yes, that’s definitely true. Pete Basinger got sick with what we suspect is giardia, fought through it for days, but eventually had to drop out. Rick Hunter had some knee swelling, made it almost to New Mexico and dropped out. Small things build up over so many miles. There are so many critical minutiae involved: things like cleat position, hand position, etc. have to be absolutely perfect.

Is there a typical amount of gear that racers use?

There is a wide range of gear. Jay Petervary’s whole setup with his bike is around 35lbs. Pete Basinger and Matt Lee [who finished second this year] probably use a similar amount. There are others who go out with about 60lbs., and they probably won’t finish with it all. Sometimes people do get rid of cold weather gear as it gets hotter, but generally you’re covering miles so fast, you’re only in a snowstorm up on a pass for a short while before you drop down and start sweating. So you just kinda deal with it, knowing it’s a temporary inconvenience.

David Nice

You may remember David Nice from a Readings article in Dirt Rag #123, which told his heartbreaking (and maddening) tale of getting his bike stolen after his third day on the Great Divide Race. David is also noteworthy for trying the race on a fixed gear bike, last year and for this year’s attempt. This time he was sidelined not by no-good thieves but by a rock, which pinched his ankle between it and a hard place, namely his pedal, and the resulting pain made it impossible for David to continue putting pressure on the pedals. He traveled 837 miles in his attempt.

What’s the appeal of an event like this for you?

The difficulty—it’s something not a lot of people even think about. There is so much time to meditate on things happening in life, and it’s wonderful to get away from the normal routine for an extended period. I’m reduced to simple concerns: riding, eating, and sleeping. It’s just me. That fulfillment is hard to find in other aspects of life.

How was it being alone for so long?

The loneliness got to me more than I thought it would…I had no radio or MP3 player, and went for long stretches without seeing another human. Twenty hours was the longest stretch. Next time I’ll think about bringing something to listen to music with. I was amazed though, how many people I did see at times, as the course is mostly very remote.

Did you take the time to enjoy the scenery, or were you just pedaling?

I did see a lot of God’s wonderful creation. I used a gear low enough to spin, and stopped to take some photos.

How was it doing the race fixed? Would you consider doing it again?

I’ve been riding fixed off-road pretty much exclusively for the last four years (and singlespeed for a while before that), so I’m used to it, and I wasn’t concerned about the attempt. Now, I’m questioning whether I can do it, and considering trying it on a freewheel singlespeed or even a geared bike…but it’s still a huge carrot to be able to complete the race fixed.

So do you think you’ll try again next year?

I will keep riding and training to prepare, but I haven’t decided yet if I will actually do it.

Any advice for someone thinking of doing the GDR?

I would give yourself a year to prepare, and do the route once ahead of time to check it out, make sure you can follow the map, take pictures—know what to expect.

This has been a super cool experience, and I still consider it fun. 24-hour racing is like environmental NASCAR, going around and around on the same trail. The GDR is as grassroots as it gets with no entry fee and no waiver (and no prizes). But it’s immensely satisfying to ride all day, and look back and see the distant mountain peak I climbed earlier.

Crush the Commonwealth 

Crush the Commonwealth is another new, yet classically grassroots event: a few friends got together last year and decided to see who could ride the 400 miles from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in the shortest time. Enough fun was had by all to warrant doing it again this year, with the starting city and race direction switched. The route includes most of Pennsylvania’s Bicycle Route S, rail-trail connectors to the start and finish cities, and even an abandoned tunnel that was once part of the PA Turnpike. 2007 was the race’s second year, and of course, there was no entry fee nor support.

Chris Latterman

Bleary eyed, in the rain, after midnight, I roll into Sheetz looking for sustenance. Max and Eric seem better off than me; mentally, I’m slipping. Sheetz is empty but the guys working there are interested in our story, the others stopping in look at us skeptically. It sounds too damn weird as I’m recounting the day to the third shifters. One talkative employee seems really stoked on the idea. Coffee’d up and with food, we roll on.

Eighteen hours ago I woke up from a decent night of sleep on an abandoned highway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike to be exact. Slept on the eastbound lane where the asphalt held up to the passage of time better, the westbound was potholed and crumbly, more likely to puncture my air mattress. Slept under the stars after riding 180 miles that day, most of it in the rain too. This is what I save my vacation for.

Crushing the Commonwealth. 400 miles across the Keystone State as quick as you can follow PA Bike Route ‘S’ from the ‘Burgh to Philly. No help, no support, just a shit load of pedaling. This was my second year. Last year I learned a lot about touring, packing, eating, navigating, and what my body can handle. Rode my fixed Surly Crosscheck both years. Made the wise decision this year to put the load on the bike rather than on my back in my messenger bag like last year: small front Rivendell rack with a basket and a rear rack with stuff sack. Little stuff went in my frame bag and food in jersey pockets. Still seemed like a lot of stuff, probably about 20lbs. without buying stupid-light equipment. Even had my Esbit stove for a.m. coffee while still in my sleeping bag.

Last year it took three full days to cover the route, this year I was hoping for two long days, i.e. sub-48 hours. Ambitious—yes; doable—maybe; enjoyable—maybe. Wasn’t dead set about the sub-48, would see how I felt and adjust as needed. I did a lot more riding leading up to this year’s race/ride, even started mountain biking again after a few years of fixed road hiatus. I knew I could handle the distance, it was just a matter of how fast. Not being able to stretch out and relax is the worst thing about riding fixed so long. Rising out of the saddle to stretch out is awkward at best and spinning down the hills smoothly takes its toll as well. Get your RPMs up too high and you bounce around and are more likely to hurt yourself as your smooth form heads south. Basically you never get a break while on the bike. There are no free miles riding fixed.

Time and distance are funny things when your mileage totals can be counted in centuries. You stop worrying about distance a bit since you know your time in the saddle and amount of calories burned will take their toll before you get to your destination. You can set distance goals but it might really hurt to meet them. The first day we rode until 1 a.m. to make the Turnpike. That’s where we wanted to camp and we burned the daylight and a good bit of batteries to get there. Up early the next day, still feeling last night’s miles, we pressed on. That’s what we were here for so we might as well do it.

The next day went fairly well. The hills stung more but as the miles clicked off we knew we were closer to the finish. It’s a funny thing to want to hurry along a ride that you’ve been looking forward to for months. As the day grew long our pace slowed. Once night came we had a few camping options along the route, but the rain sealed the deal that we would push on rather than spend a wet night in the woods. Once at the Sheetz we had 50 miles to go to Philly. As I said my mind was slipping, not sleeping on the bike but not awake either. Pre-dawn roads were a nice quiet way to finish out the ride before taking the bike path into the city. Oncoming cars were confused by what we were with our lights blazing and reflectors sending back their headlights. With the worst of the hills behind us, my body relaxed into easier spinning and keeping myself awake became my biggest struggle. Conversation helped a great deal but even short lulls had my mind slipping off. Long blinks let my muscles relax and let gravity have its way, pulling the bike towards one side before I’d snap back to life and straighten things out.

2:45 a.m. at the trailhead had me wanting to sleep under the picnic table. Determination and encouragement got me back on the bike for the last 25. Max had the home field advantage and Eric and I tried to keep his taillight in sight. Seventeen miles per hour doesn’t sound like much, but holding that pace was all we could handle. Hanging on Max’s wheel was my goal. He pulled us into Philly but not before meeting up with Nick who was in his own world of hurt too. Now four of us, we pedaled the last miles into the city. Coming up on City Hall, Nick proposed the idea of a sprint to the finish at the Liberty Bell. Sure, why not? With ten blocks to go I made my attack, hoping no one would follow me blindly through the red lights. Max took off with me and we kept close until the last two blocks when I ran out off gas. No more, done. He freewheeled to the finish as I came in spinning down. Damn coasties. Eric and Nick followed soon after surprised we actually made a sprint finish.

Right around 5 a.m. Sunday was our official end. 400 miles in sub-48 hours. That’s gonna be hard to top.

Max Steinbrenner

What where your motivations to attempt this ride?

For some reason, even though it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, I liked this ride a lot after doing it last year. Doing it as fast as possible, however, presents some additional challenges to a pretty easy course. If you had four days I think this would be a really nice ride. Doing it in under two days it does get a little hectic…maybe next year I’ll bring my girlfriend and try to do it more slowly? In 4-5 days? Could be nice to not have numb hands for weeks afterward or experience mild hallucinations after riding for 20+ hours straight. I dunno, maybe I’ll try that next year.

What training did you do for the ride?

This year I trained a little harder than last year but I’d hardly call it "training" in the official sense. Chris (Latterman) and I rode a couple centuries over the winter. I ride or race singlespeed mountain bikes one day of most of my weekends. Finally, I commute 12-15 miles each way to work every day—that is definitely the bulk of my miles and seems to be surprisingly good training.

What was you longest ride before this race?

This same race last year. I’ve done a few road centuries and a couple MTB rides of 60-70 miles. This summer I hope to complete my first Shenandoah Mountain 100.

Quick rundown of bike and gear set-up.

The bike: Surly Crosscheck singlespeed with a rack, full fenders and V-brakes. It is set up that way because it is also my rainy day commuter bike. The bike is certainly nothing fancy but gets plenty of testing in the nastiest of conditions, so I know the parts are solid.

Gear: this year I put on a rear rack for my clothes, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. I also used an Ortlieb front bag (my "man basket") for all my other stuff I’d need easier access to; wallet, food, phone, etc.

Did you think about quitting?

Not this year…but definitely last year! After a sleepless night and a hard first day I called my girlfriend to come pick me up in Breezewood the morning of the second day. Luckily she didn’t get the message immediately, because by the time I got to Breezewood I felt better and called her back to tell her I was going to finish. This year I was in a little better shape (physically) and did pretty well. I definitely did feel pretty bad for a bit after finishing though (sprinting after riding over a double century is not something I’d recommend if you don’t have to do it).

Would you do this or other long rides again? What would you do differently?

Definitely! I really like this stuff. I did a lot of things differently this year than I did last year. This long distance stuff is really a learning experience in how you can effectively ride long miles with minimal effort. You learn how to ride, you learn how to eat, how to pack, how to listen to your body—it is incredible! The craziest thing is everyone finds a different way of doing things. You really have to figure out what works for you by going out there and doing it. Sure, you can read about it all day on the internet, but you’ll never know what works for you unless you go out and try it.

Did you just hammer out the miles or take time to enjoy the scenery?

This year definitely more hammering! Lots of riding at night so no real scenery for those parts. Riding at night is nice though! Riding all day you see lots of really nice stuff, especially way out in the country. The dirt path through Ohiopyle [State Park, part of the Bicycle Route S] is really pretty. One of the coolest parts was chasing a turkey for a quarter-mile down the path.


Read Eric’s account of the 2011 Crush the Commonwealth here, here, here and here.



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