Category Archives: Racing

Cross Florida ITT – the Spanish All Saints 2020 edition

Elated to have survived the adventure and made it to the finish, I asked one of the park rangers to take my pic before dashing off to a warm hotel room a few miles away. Note my barefeet! It was so warm at Cody’s Corner that I decided to go barefoot the rest of the way (60 miles) after having been cold for so long, it felt great to have the sun on my feet. It got quite cold as the sun set, so I put on my long sleeves near the end as I made my way through St. Augustine. Another thing to note: the orange hoodie falling out of my rear saddle bag. It was wedged in tight so I wasn’t too worried about it or anything else falling out, but this was one of my purchases at Dollar General to fight the unexpectedly cold, wet temps throughout the race.

Quick summary

Distance:546 mi (including 15 mi ride to start), 1007 mi (including 451 mi ride back to start)
Climbing:8967 ft
Time:2 days, 11 hours, 46 minutes (Mon, 12/7/20 5:24am to Wed, 12/9/20 5:10pm)
Speed:Overall average (9.1mph), Moving speed (11.0mph), Total stoppage time (10 hours)
Sleep:ZERO – I stopped at several gas stations to warm up but didn’t sleep.
Temperature:Overall average: 47.5 degF, Minimum: 28 degF, Maximum: 73 degF
Counties:24
Deer:Hundreds
Snakes:1, sunning itself right on the trail in front of me
Gators:0, sadly, although I’m pretty sure I saw one sink out of sight. It was way too cold.
Clothing
purchased:
Orange hoodie, polyester workout pants, two sets of gloves and lots of hand/foot warmers. The workout pants dried well as they got soaked during one of my swamp crossings and dried significantly faster than the knee warmers I also had on at the same time.
Summary stats for the race. I believe this is the fastest known time as this was the first time the route has been used. The other two racers who have completed it so far did it in 4 days and 5 days, respectively.

Map

Here is a high res version of the race (red), plus my ride back to the start (yellow), plus an additional shake-down county ride I did on my drive down from Alabama (green).

Green – warm-up 50 mile ride in North Florida. Red – the Cross Florida ITT Spanish Eastbound edition. Yellow – my abbreviated route back home (I had intended to ride all the way down near Miami, but needed to cut it short due to how long the ITT took!). Click the map above to see a larger version … or click this link to see an ultra high resolution version.

The adventure (summary)

It was very cold with a frost advisory during the race, but it was also very fun — too cold for snakes and gators, but not too cold for deer as they were everywhere. I had brought mostly warm enough clothes but not quite enough layers and not enough hand/feet warmers.

I ended up buying a nice bright orange hoodie, polyester workout pants, cotton work gloves, and hand warmers at a Dollar General 377 miles into the race. I put all of that on and then hit a hard-to-ride levee trail (b/c of the thick grass) and had to strip/unzip most of it back off after a few miles. Then I proceeded to turn off the levee too early (b/c I was having issues with my GPS) and fall and roll down the steep embankment into (thankfully) very tall grass stopping just short of the water. Awesome. I couldn’t stop laughing. More on that later.

This was my first time riding in all 24 counties that the race covered, and my understanding is that it was a fairly large spectrum of all the riding you can do in Florida. It certainly felt like it had everything in it.

Paved bike paths – the race hit the Pinellas Trail, a combination of levee/canal, city streets, and rails-to-trails through Pinellas County which includes St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and the smaller towns northwest of the Tampa Bay area on the way up to Homosassa Springs.

Purpose built mountain bike trails – there were a BUNCH of these. I don’t know the exact amount, but I’d guesstimate 50-75 miles total of mountain bike singletrack. Throw in additional isolated extremely rural sections of the Florida Trail (similar to the Pinhotti) and that probably took the total amount of singletrack up over 100 miles. The creativity in using even the smallest of hills to produce flowy jumps and short, steep climbs was quite impressive. I kept thinking how much I wanted to bring my family down to ride these trails.

Highways – we were on US Highway 41 and US Highway 301 as well as a number of state highways and even county roads that all had huge bike lanes. They needed them, though, because there aren’t a lot of roads in central Florida b/c of all the swamps and therefore all the roads were very busy with regular car traffic as well as truck traffic. The only road that felt dangerous to me was on my way back to the start where I ended up on a county highway that alternated between a small shoulder completely filled with a deep rumble strip and no shoulder at all. This was a busy road with lots of traffic, but thankfully I was only that road for a few miles. There was not a single road like this at all on the actual race course.

Dirt roads – almost all the other roads were dirt … and by dirt, I mean sand. Most of the time, the sand was hard packed and fast, but sometimes it was loose and challenging to ride. I loved it though b/c it helped warm you up quite a bit pushing a big gear through the loose sand. Also, it tested your balance, and your faith that the bike would keep moving forward as long as you kept pedaling. One of the racers in front of me had a hard time with it, as I saw numerous slide outs in the sand which I was puzzled by as I just rode straight over top of them. I was wondering if maybe they were running too narrow tires? I had my Sparwood 2.2″ tires on and they worked really well.

The Details, Part 1: Pre-race

I left Birmingham 1am Sunday morning to start the long drive down to St. Petersburg. I knew that I wanted to stop in North Florida to do a good warm-up ride there to calm my nerves and make sure I had everything I needed. It went well … albeit quite cold! I made sure that I picked a route that was at the edge of counties that would be new to me.

I finished the drive down to Tampa in sunny warm weather as I made it below whatever front passed through North Florida. It was in the 70s by the time I arrived at my hotel – the Holiday Inn, St. Petersburg West. This was one of the closest hotels to the state park where the race officially started. I thought about staying in the campground there, but then felt awkward asking if I could leave my car there all week. I didn’t feel as awkward about that at the hotel and they didn’t mind at all.

Even though, the hotel was one of the closer ones, it still meant I had a 15 mile ride to get to the start. I pretty much had everything together before I even finished checking into the hotel, but I also realized I had forgotten my water filter. That meant I would need to do a detailed study of the course before going to sleep to make sure I noted where all the stores are as well as their hours as well as working out the time that I would likely be there to see where I would need to overstock on food and water.

All of that is to say, I didn’t get to bed until almost 8pm, which meant I definitely wasn’t going to get up at midnight or 1am. Initially I set my alarm for 2am, but when I woke up it was pouring down rain. I looked at the radar and saw that the system was getting close to being done with the exception of one smaller wave still off the coast. So I went back to sleep and woke up again at 4am. This time, I was committed to leaving and was out the door by about 430am.

Part 2: from St. Petersburg to the manatees (Homosassa Springs)

I had routed myself down US Hwy 19 (the same highway that cuts rights through Sandy Springs, Georgia!) to make it as easy and as quick as possible to get to the start. At 4:30am on a Monday, there was very little traffic. I made it to the state park, but the gate to the park was closed since it wasn’t open yet. It wasn’t a very tall gate, though, so I hefted my bike over and then squeezed through the middle of the gate. This would be the first of many fences and gates that you had to cross during the race.

By this point it had started to rain pretty good as the next wave of the system reached the shore. It was mostly south of St. Petersburg so I was hoping I could ride out of it quickly … and indeed that was the case. It had stopped raining by the time I made it back up into St. Petersburg. But before that, I needed to get a selfie and it was VERY dark – no lighting at all at the fort. So I messed around trying to get the selfie flash to work and manage to get two mosquito bites … in the rain!!! These would end up being the only mosquitoes that bit me the entire race b/c it was far too cold for mosquitoes the rest of the race.

It wasn’t a particularly cold rain, so I didn’t even put on my long sleeves. I just took off north in shorts and short sleeves and rode out of the rain within a few miles. Everything was very wet, though, as it had been pouring down rain pretty much the whole night. Most of the early race was following the Pinellas Trail, which was an intricate paved trail system with many bridges over the busy highways.

My first navigation puzzle was after Ridgecrest Park south of Clearwater. I was following the GPS track and it sorta dumped out straight across a busy highway into what I initially mistook as a drop down into scrubs/bushes/swamp. But there was actually a small path beside the guardrail along the highway that led you down to a grassy path that continued alongside a canal. I figured this was prime place to see gators, but they weren’t coming out in the rainy weather.

I followed this until eventually it hopped back onto the official Pinellas Trail again. This time, the route stayed true to the trail for many, many miles all the way to Tarpon Springs where the abandoned railroad trail went right down the middle of the city streets. It was so fascinating to me, that I didn’t see the turn off the trail until I happened to notice “Off Course” a few blocks past where I was supposed to turn. So I turned around and doubled back and followed the course to Craig Park with the route going by a cool mermaid statue right beside the bay. It was starting to rain again by this point.

And it would continue to rain off and on (mostly off) with the sun never making an appearance. It was getting colder, too, and after almost 80 miles I finally broke down and put my knee warmers and long sleeves on because I noticed when I stopped to pee that my hands were really numb. A few miles later, it was on to “fence hopping” number two as the course exited out the back of a park onto a powerline trail connecting up to the first purpose-built mountain bike trail system in the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park.

Kristine called me through here while I was negotiating the singletrack, and I was remarking to her the irony of me finally putting on warm clothes and then only a few miles later overheating on the singletrack having slowed down from 18-20mph on the paved trails to just 10-12mph and working harder in the dirt. The singletrack didn’t last long though and I exited out the back of that onto a long powerline trail. It was crazy to see the powerlines stretching so far ahead in the distance. The trail was hard packed sand and gravel, though, so it rode almost as fast as a paved trail.

At this point almost 100 miles into the race, I started doing some calculations, which were laughably wrong. I was averaging just under 18mph before entering the singletrack and powerlines and still over 17.5mph afterwards. So I figured 400 more miles of that, I could probably average close to 15mph for the whole race even getting tired. How laughably wrong was that! My overall average speed (including stops) ended up being 9.1mph. So you can imagine that all my calculations were a bit off … how far off … nearly 24 hours off!!!

I was moving pretty good through the powerline trails and the rain had stopped, but then I got a “get out your umbrella” message from my rain app, and sure enough it started to rain again … even though it didn’t even show up on the radar! This was a cold rain straight into a very strong headwind coming out of the north, northwest.

Part 3: riding a tailwind into the wilderness

After the right turn in Homosassa Springs, the wind became a tail-crosswind and eventually a strong tailwind as our route dove southeastward. This was getting late in the day, and the route got quite hilly. Combined without a lot of air movement (due to the tailwind), I got hot again even though the temps stayed in the 50s.

The next 85 mile loop would go through a lot of park and wildlife managements areas. The largest one labeled on the map is Withlacoochee State Forest. This was probably the most rural part of the race, and I did it overnight in the cold. There was a mix of singletrack and included one deep, long swamp road crossing. I initially tried to go around hopping on logs but ended up in deeper swamp water than just trudging right down the middle of the road would have been. That’s what I ended up doing. And my whole plan of taking off socks and doing it barefoot in the sandals to keep my socks dry was foiled when I fell off the first log I was on. So I just trudged the rest of the way with water coming up to my knees and temps down into the lower 40s by this point.

WILD BOAR AND RED BULL

Shortly afterwards, I had my first trailside encounter with a wild boar. I startled it from some bushes immediately beside the trail and it started trotting/bounding away from me in the same direction I was going. Once I realized this, I stopped b/c I didn’t want to keep following it in case it turned around charged. It kept going and turned to the side so I could continue on.

Even after trudging through the swamp, I was all pumped up on adrenaline and working hard and didn’t get cold immediately. I stopped and put on dry socks that I still had. Once I got started again and left the singletrack, I started to get cold. Very cold. By 4am the temp was well down in the 30s with it bottoming out at 34 degF. I was frozen and had no piece of clothing left I could put on. Still thinking I had nearly 30 miles to make it to a 24 hour Circle K, I was seriously thinking about post offices, churches, or anything I could try to get into to lay down for a few minutes and try to warm up somehow. But there was nothing like that. Then I thought of one last thing I could try … I still had an emergency red bull in case I got sleepy (which I was not at all) and a twix candy bar I hadn’t eaten yet. So I stopped in the middle of the dirt road, downed the red bull, and ate the twix … and then took off like a bandit.

I didn’t have to go far, though, before seeing a sight that nearly brought tears to my eyes: a Circle K I had missed on the map! And it was open before 5am! Crowded even… Unfortunately they didn’t have any hand warmers to buy or any clothing at all, but the clerk did have a great idea – she gave me two of the huge trash bags they use as liners for the outside trash cans and told me to poke holes them and wear them like a poncho. It was so perfect.

Who needs a $135 showers pass clear rain jacket when you can get a free homemade one at your nearest Circle K??? Or at least you could get one at the Circle K at the edge of swamp wilderness I stumbled into at 4:45 in the morning.

It worked great to keep me warm as soon as I finally left the Circle K … 1 hour and 30 oz of coffee later! But I did have to take it off within a couple hours as it was a little bit too hot as the temp climbed back up into the 40s. I stopped at the next Circle K (only 30 miles later) to get some more coffee and food this time.

Part 4: Fence puzzle solving, Garmin woes, and swamp swimming below freezing

Let’s start with a nice fence puzzle. There was a nearly 8 foot tall fence at a lock crossing that we had to get across. There was no way (at least for me) to get my bike up and over the main fence (which was relatively easy to climb) but I was able to figure out how to get the bike wedged in place halfway up the fence, climb over myself and then pull it up and over from the other side.

I was so happy to have solved the puzzle, and then I laughed as I realized there was an IDENTICAL 8 foot tall fence on the other side. So I reversed the process, realized my phone was still on my bike, so I climbed back up to get the phone so I could get the pic below to document how the puzzle was solved.

After the 20 minute crossing (that’ll hurt your average speed, no?). I decided it was a perfect time to strip off all my warm clothes … after all, it was a blazing 50 degF … and reset my Garmin. The Garmin had been acting strange and been real slow to update the map page which had led me to miss a couple turns as well as turn too early in a couple other places. It was frustrating, so I figured I would start a new ride and power off the Garmin.

Unfortunately, the Garmin locked up and I had to hard power it off. Then I looked in the ride history and the ride wasn’t listed so I thought for sure I had lost the ride (turns out I hadn’t, but I wouldn’t find that out for another 30 hours). I immediately called Kristine and told her that this was going to make the rest of the ride hard mentally. In fact, if it had been my only GPS I may have considered abandoning. But I knew my Garmin Inreach was also recording the route albeit at a 10 second resolution (instead of 1 second).

8 foot tall fence crossing puzzle solved! Immediately before thinking I had lost the Garmin ride file for the ride.

This crossing was near the end of Potts Preserve and afterwards was a few miles of chip/seal roads before hitting 35 miles of the Santos trail system. Many, many miles of singletrack mixed in with a few short sections of rails-to-trail. This was some of the most creative singletrack I’ve ever ridden diving down into these tiny hollows and then climbing back out again.

I discovered at the end that apparently there was high bear activity in the area. I didn’t see any … especially since I traversed this whole section during the middle of the day.

The next section afterwards was the Marshall Swamp trail, and it was nowhere near as long as the Santos Trail system, but the Marshall Swamp felt like you were riding on a mountain bike trail built in the middle of a swamp … but this was a rideable trail and the muddy sections weren’t sticky mud. And most of them even had some sort of dead vegetation over top of the mud. It was awesome. It felt like Jurassic park.

After the Marshall Swamp was a required selfie photo on the Okalawaha River bridge crossing. After that was Dollar General. Unfortunately I missed the Dollar General because it wasn’t directly on the route. I had made a note about it and knew it was coming up but as I rode on a levee trail and scoured the route ahead on my GPS, it looked like there was nothing for many miles. So THANKFULLY I double checked and realized I had missed it. I had to backtrack a couple miles, but this was a must-stop-at Dollar General with it about to be night and nothing to be open for many, many miles.

Also, I needed to buy clothes!

I talked to a sometimes homeless hitchhiking man outside the Dollar General and also a young kid tried to get me to buy him cigarettes. Also, I went in and stood through the line three separate times buying clothes or food or hand warmers which I had forgotten. I also spent a lot of time in the bathroom getting ready for a very cold night with a Frost Advisory in effect over night with temps bottoming out in the 20s.

All-in-all I spent an hour and a half at the Dollar General. Plus the 2 mile backtracking meant 4 extra miles total of riding. I got all them warm clothes on, but as soon as I climbed back up on the levee I had to strip a lot of it off – because the levee trail was deep grass and it took a lot of effort to pedal through it.

FALLING OFF A LEVEE

I was on the levee for about 5 miles when I noticed that I was making a hard left to get off the levee. It was an hour past sunset so it was mostly dark but there was still a little bit of light left, too. And as I approached the turn I thought I saw an opening in the woods to the left.

Since it was such an abrupt 90 degree turn off the levee, I assumed we were supposed to ride straight off. I turned too early though and as I went down the steep embankment straight towards a creek, I tried to stop and ended up falling and rolling part of the way down into the tall grass at the edge of the water.

I laughed and saw that I had not only turned too early, there was a freaking exit off the levee that went over top of the creek. So I hike-a-biked back up to the top of the levee rode about a football field farther down and then took the exit off the levee onto a dirt road which turned into a different dirt road that was quite hilly.

The next section was a nice hilly one with a bit of Florida Trail singletrack and a surprise store that was closing in 5 minutes. I stopped here and put on dry socks … my last pair since I had been double socking and so stepping into swamp water meant two pairs of socks (I had six pairs of socks) were getting wet at a time.

It was quite cold and getting colder, but it was dry and hard work in the single track and hills so I was having a great time … until I approached the Ocala Trail. This was one of the few sections that had a bunch of trees down. It was still easier to hop over trees than fences, so not really a big deal, but what followed after the trees completely stumped me. The trail/road I was following headed straight into a large open area that I imagined and looked like a huge, huge lake/swamp. But this was just a trick because of how little I could see with the steam coming off my body and obscuring my head lamp. It was actually just a large pond, but as far as I could tell it extended for quite a while and my only path forward according to the GPS seemed to be straight through it.

Knowing that the temperature was now BELOW FREEZING (30 degF on my Garmin) and that I was out of extra dry socks, I knew that I needed to find a way around the swamp instead of straight through it. The GPS track in actuality veered around the swamp on the left side, but as I tried to do that I couldn’t find my way through the very thick foilage (see pic below). Karlos would later tell me that there was indeed a path around that would have been easy to find in the daytime, but with my GPS probably reading slightly off to the “pond side” it looked like I was supposed to go through the swamp. After 45 minutes of trying somewhat desperately at this point to find my way around, I committed to just going straight through and hoped that the water wouldn’t be above my knees.

Knowing that I was out of dry extra socks and knowing that the temp was below freezing, I took off my socks and put my sandals back on barefoot thinking that if I could just endure the cold for a bit (it didn’t even feel cold at all as the water itself was steaming and well above freezing) that I could put dry socks back on and survive the much, much colder cold to follow after hiking through a swamp. I also rolled up my long workout pants I had bought at Dollar General and my knee warmers up above my knees and set off straight through the water. It wasn’t too bad … above my calves but still below my knees … when I tripped and fell face forward into the water!!! Thankfully my bike was still upright in the weeds and I used it as a prop and only got soaked up to mid-thigh as I fell into a kneeling position in the foot deep water …. in freezing weather with many miles left in the swampy wilderness until shelter. Crap.

I have learned that when I am truly in trouble, I thankfully switch immediately into activator mode. I only panic a bit sometimes on the edge of trouble and make dumb decisions trying to head off trouble. But once trouble hits, there is no panic. There is only what has to be done. This was the case when I fell into a swamp with 30 degF temperature that would bottom out at 28 degF a couple hours later. I immediately got on my bike and started riding … not just riding but riding hard. I was still barefoot. Did I mention it was 30 degF? At the next trees I had to stop and dismount and climb over, I figured my feet were dry enough I could put socks back on. Also, I had unrolled my now soaking wet pants hoping that they would start to dry while I kept up this intense “heat from the inside” mentality.

This is the only thing that really saved me. Immediately after the Ocala trail system, the course hit the St Francis trail system, which is a slow, tricky, cool, fascinating (but flooded) singletrack system. Keep in mind my socks were still dry so I was doing everything I could to keep those socks dry. Also by the time I hit this, my polyester Dollar General pants had dried out considerably. I initially tried to bypass some of the singletrack on logs but soon discovered that even though it looked deep, there was only an inch or two of water over the trail and it made navigation a bit easier … just follow the deepest looking water and that’s where the trail was. I made it all the way through many miles of this with my socks still (mostly) dry by the end!

After taking the required checkpoint selfie at the St Francis trailhead, I knew that warmth awaited at the Deland Circle K. But what I didn’t realize is how cold one can get in just a few miles on tired legs unable to really push the pace that hard but b/c it was pavement still going about 15mph. Needless to say I had to stop at the Circle K to warm up. My plan was to buy hand warmers/feet warmers there but they didn’t have any and nothing was going to be open until at least 7am. I decided by 6am that with the sun coming up soon I could go ahead and head out… especially since I would be hitting trail fairly early.

Part 5: the last 100 miles, a frosty morning, a beautiful afternoon, and the end

Some dirt road and trail riding to start out, followed by a lot of paved roads. In between we crossed some railroad tracks at a secret entrance to a mountain bike trail system. I mistakenly thought this was the section of railroad we needed to follow so I turned right and started riding right down the tracks since it was too steep/rocky/vegetated (all of the above) on either side of the tracks. Then I got an off course message and realized we were just supposed to go straight across the tracks. This was good, because these were busy tracks as several trains passed while I was wandering around in the mountain bike trail system.

Yes, that’s frost … what a chilly night “swimming” in a swamp, enduring and enjoying a Florida adventure.

The trails at Chuck Lennon Park in De Leon Springs are packed tightly together with many of them one-way trails. I wouldn’t have had a problem making it through except towards the middle I realized that the creaking of my chain was so loud and had gone on for so long that I imagined the chain braking before the end of the race … and here I was in a mountain bike park that might have a bike wash area!

So midway through the trail system, I backtracked to a side exit into the parking lot and followed it back to the bathroom area … no bike wash … but I did find a low mounted faucet with the water still turned on by the tennis courts. I spent the next 30 minutes hunched over cleaning everything taking my wheel off so I could get the cassette under the water. This was tricky with my One-Up multitool b/c it is so small and I had gotten some dirt/water in the axle which made the wheel bolt pretty well locked in place. I ended up freeing it by putting some lube around the side and then standing on the multi-tool to get enough force to loosen the wheel. Thankfully nothing broke, and I was able to get the bike decently cleaned, re-lubed, and most importantly QUIET and smooth again.

Then I had to re-enter the trail system and find the trail I was on … this is exactly what I couldn’t do and ended up re-riding almost the entire first half again until I found the far trail that I needed to be on to complete the singletrack part of the course. From the end of the trail system up to Cody’s Corner, there was quite a bit more traffic but otherwise uneventful.

CODY’S CORNER: HEAVEN ON EARTH

I knew that Cody’s Corner was coming up and I was out of food and quite hungry. Leading up to Cody’s Corner, however, was the longest straightest road you could imagine. When I finally saw it up in the distance, I let out a little sign of relief. And then when I got close enough to see the store itself and the bright sun shining down on a whole row of rocking chairs at the front of the store, I knew this was going to be a good stop.

I wanted to get food as quickly as possible so I could get back out, take off my socks and sandals and just sit there in the sun in a rocking chair and eat. The clerk inside saw me looking around at the food and said they had a $5 lunch special … chicken sandwich, cup of chili, bag of chips and a drink. I said “sold” and also bought some cookies and extra bag of chips to both eat and have enough to make it the last 60 miles from Cody’s Corner to the end. The clerk was very friendly and I thanked her profusely for the food and the rocking chairs and she commented how those chairs were a daily gathering place for the local community (this was really rural in the “middle of nowhere” –her words).

I was only stopped for 51 minutes, but it was plenty long enough to get warm and bask in the sun so I stripped down to just my summer clothing (shorts and jersey) taking off my long pants I had over top of my shorts as well as the sweatshirt I had bought at dollar general. And then as I left I realized that as soon as you left the sun it was still a bit chilly, but I stubbornly finished out the race in that setup … only putting on my long sleeves as I waited at a traffic light on the outskirts of St Augustine.

A good chunk of my Dollar General purposes stripped down in the wonderfully warm sun at Cody’s Corner.

As I got closer into town I saw what I thought was a pretty tall hill, but I believe it was only a smaller hill combined with tall trees in Matanzas State Forest made to look like a blue ridge by smoky haze from a controlled burn.

As I got closer, I could see the sirens up ahead from the forest service and feel the flames from the burn. Some of the burning had extended onto the road I was riding but as it was a pretty wide dirt road, I wasn’t worried.

It was amazing the difference in how it felt immediately after the burn. Thankfully, though, our route ended up following a deep sand powerline trail up an endless hill which may have also been the ridge I was seeing. It was tricky to ride and it looked like the rider in front of me had struggled a bit with it. And I struggled, too, for sure b/c not only was the sand deep but also it was uphill. So you had to use a lot of energy to make it across.

This warmed me right up to the railroad tracks which we followed across the Mantanzas River estuary for about 3 miles. Having gotten cut tires on the rocks from railroad tracks before, I was a little bit nervous, but I made it through no problem popping out onto very busy streets given that it was now rush hour and made my way through all the brick roads through the city to the official finish line at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.

Part 6: The abbreviated 500 mile journey back to the start

Originally I was going to ride as far south as the outskirts of Miami so that I could hit all of the counties in the main part of Florida in a single 1250 mile ride … but the race took about 24 hours longer than anticipated so I need to cut out one of the days of my return trip. This meant that my 267 mile foray dipping down towards Miami before coming back up got scrapped. Not the least bit disappointed though as it just means there is another Florida adventure sometime in my future!

SUPPLIES

  • One-up frame pump and multi-tool
  • Two 29er spare tubes
  • One medium sized bottle of chain lube
  • One small insect repellant sunscreen
  • One Sawyers bottle of insect repellant
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Clothing
    • One jersey
    • Two bib shorts
    • One lightweight wind vest
    • Long reflective sleeves from a rain jacket
    • Six pairs of socks (three purchased during the race)
    • Bright orange hoodie (purchased during the race)
    • Long polyester workout pants (purchased during the race)
    • Knee warmers
    • Neck gaiter
    • Short finger and two pairs long finger gloves (one pair purchased during race)
  • Electronics
    • Raspberry Pi 400 computer … yes I took a computer with me during the race!
    • Four port wall charger
    • Garmin Inreach
    • Garmin Edge 1030
    • 4,500 mAh Garmin battery extender
    • 15,000 mAh battery pack
    • Dynamo hub lighting and charging system
    • Niterider 550 lumen small helmet mounted light
    • One 5-in-1 charging cable, plus two iphone cables, plus two micro usb cables

LAST SET OF MAPS

The 2020 Cross-Florida ITT Spanish Eastbound edition tracing some of the route traveled by original Spanish explorers. I haven’t downloaded elevation data for Florida in over 10 years and this was the most accurate they had at the time. The map would look better with 10m resolution but who has time for that when you are riding your bike all the time!
225,000-ish miles of riding in the Southeast. My current goal is to ride in all the counties in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. This trip was supposed to include all the counties at the southern tip of Florida, but I had to cut it short … so now instead of being next on the list of states I will complete, it will probably be one of the last. Up next most likely will be Mississippi in 2021 followed by Georgia in 2022 or 2023. South Carolina doesn’t have a lot of counties, but it is really far away from home so that one is going to be tricky. Tennessee and Georgia both have a gazillion counties.

PHOTOS

We ride at midnight, Delta Epic, part “un” and “deux”

County-based elevation map of the counties I covered in this 505 mile, 37 hour, no-sleep ride. Nobody panic, I had already ridden in the “missing” county before. In fact, it’s the county with Midnight and Holly Bluff, where Delta Epic race organizer Jason Shearer had rescued me by bringing a floor pump and spare tubes earlier in the year when I double flatted with 750 miles left to ride on a loop to the Rouge Roubaix course in January.

Part 1 – There

I love a good ride starting at midnight. Guess what time the Delta Epic starts … midnight! Here’s my not-so-quick-ish recap of the race before getting ready for class this morning…

I drove over to the start from Birmingham on Friday after teaching in the morning. Quick, easy drive, and I made it to the Outlet Channel public use area below the Arkabutla Lake dam. Absolutely beautiful place. So quiet, so peaceful. I backed into a parking space in the corner of the parking lot there and after riding around taking a few pics, I started last minute packing of my bike so I could pretty much just wake up and ride to the start a couple miles away before midnight.

So, that’s what I did, and it was so cold that I put on my knee warmers, arm warmers, gaiter, and a vest underneath my jersey. Interestingly, I had not planned on bringing knee warmers because I thought the low was only going to be in the mid to upper 50s … well, right before leaving the house I had typed “indianola weather” (the largest city on our route) into google and without looking too close saw that the predicted high was now only in the mid 50s with a low of 41 and a chance of rain. So I scrambled, grabbed the knee warmers, grocery bags to stuff a second set of clothes into for the race knowing that I would want to change if wet and very cold and also wondering how they could have goofed up the weather forecast so badly … as it turns out, I was looking at the weather for Indianola, Iowa!

It wasn’t quite this cold, but it was pretty cold. Rightmost picture is 22 degF below zero after riding 7.5 hours in 2013.

This mistake served me very, very well though as I brought more clothes than I thought I would need and ended up putting on all of it at the same time later in the night 400 miles into a 500 mile ride unable to regulate body temperature shivering in a gas station where the very nice worker unplugged and brought a space heater over to the coffee machine where I stood for about 15 minutes sipping on a coffee to get me warmed up and going again…keep in mind I’ve ridden in temps that freeze your beard nearly instantly when walking outside (22 degF below zero). But this felt more unbearable because with temps that ridiculously cold, you are so well layered up that you feel empowered to battle the cold. But with barely anything beyond normal summer clothing you feel helpless to fight the cold … and I’m sure that factors into how cold it “feels” – the mental side of it.

But back to the race. Jason and Wendi Shearer created this grassroots race with the goal of showcasing the Delta area, and it delivers. Honestly, it wasn’t until I was looking at the topo maps that it becomes clear why this area is called the Delta … table top flat as the Mississippi River has changed its course many times over the eons and washed out the entire area. This entire area was new to me as most of my riding in Mississippi has been much farther south where the Mississippi River itself separates the flat delta (in Louisiana) and the hilly Mississippi side. I never realized that there was a huge chunk of Mississippi (nearly a quarter of the state) that is table top flat. Mississippi has always in mind been a very hilly state.

And now, for real, back to the race. I was bundled up with everything I had brought and made my way over to the start, where a large crowd of solo racers and relay racers and relay race supporters were getting ready for the start along the lake at Bayou Point. I made it there with less than 10 minutes to spare, so I didn’t get a chance to talk to very many people, but I did get a chance to say hi to Jason and my good friend (and eventual winner!) Justin Lowe, and Michael Rasch whose report and tracking I was following on the race either last year or the year before is one of the reasons I was doing this race. The other main reason was Jason himself who had come to my rescue outside the delta national forest earlier this year when I double flatted in the pouring rain on a ride from Birmingham to Vicksburg. Jason mentioned that we were close to the Delta Epic course where he met me in Holly Bluff after I called him from Midnight … the town names in the Delta are epic. So I told him that I would think about coming over and doing the Delta this year as it sounded really interesting.

Fast forward almost 10 months, and I find myself rolling out in the middle of a large group at the start of the race. Jack White and one other person (Peter Reed?) were killing it off the front even before we made it out of Bayou Point. Thankfully, there were a lot of people who weren’t getting left behind so quickly so we all eventually caught back up to Jack. The front of the group missed a few turns in the dark with the high speeds so there was a number of slam on your brakes and turn around to double back to the missed turn. It was really difficult to look down at the course map while negotiating the road and a large pack in the dark.

We settled down into a rhythm and rolled fast all the way to the levee trail. It was a fast, hard pace on pavement as well as the rougher chip seal roads. I quickly had to unzip my vest and push down my arm warmers and gaiter. I was thinking I was way overdressed, despite the temps hovering in the mid to lower 40s and even dropping down to 39 for a stretch. I was also thinking that this race was going to fly by … but then we did a short climb up onto the gravel levee trail and immediately hit deep gravel. Keep in mind that our group was still probably 20-30 people at this point, although I’m sure people started falling off the group immediately, because we barely slowed down at all on the levee in the deep gravel. This pushed me to near the breaking point after spending several minutes with a zone 5 heart rate and so many miles left to ride. What kept me going was that everyone else was willing to go so hard. Also, I was holding onto the hope that the gravel would get better (less deep), which it did after about what seemed like an eternity but was less than an hour (16.75 miles in 53 minutes for average speed of 19mph). My average heart rate for that hour was 160.

We had sections that were hard, but for the most part we settled into a fast zone 3/4 pace with several breaks/regroupings down into zone 2. The first big obstacle after the photo checkpoint at the Shackup Inn in Clarksdale was a section of the route with the annotation “frequently overgrown, must dismount to cross a ditch”. There was a tall cellphone tower at the turn into this section that Jason had told us about when he went over the course during a fun Zoom video call with riders earlier in the week. When I saw the cellphone tower and made a hard turn from chip/seal immediately to double track gravel, I figured this was it. And it was … the ditch wasn’t actually the hard part of this section. Before the ditch, I was wanting to slow down but the people in front weren’t slowing down and I didn’t want a gap to open up either. And then simultaneously three people just fell immediately in front of me with no warning. Thankfully the pace had slowed enough and I had indeed opened a little bit of a gap, just barely enough to keep from running over the third person. Also, my wheel slid out from under me as I reached the spot where he fell but I had already unclipped and was almost stopped so I sorta fell into a standing position while still straddling the bike. At first I tried to remount and ride again, but it was clear that you couldn’t ride this section with the mud as slick as ice.

So people, myself included, started running with their bikes through the grassy middle part of the double track until we made it to the ditch. I was worried about getting my feet wet but in the dark the ditch looked almost completely grass covered. As it turns out there was probably about 6 inches of water at the very bottom that you could easily have stepped over but I managed to step right into it with one foot, completely soaking it and my shoe … not good. Thankfully this ditch and the overgrown icy double track before it had destroyed our group and caused large gaps to open and I was the last person… so I had to chase hard through sections of deep gravel/sand and uncertain terrain still pretty overgrown. But I gave it everything I had knowing that falling off the front group of 6 at this point would be the end of the race … even with 200 miles left to go. I say “thankfully” because the long chase I had to give (3-5 minutes again at near max effort) to latch onto the back of the group kept me from focusing on the growing cold in my feet. It also gave the wind a chance to dry out my shoes a bit and thankfully with wool socks it kept my feet just warm enough until daylight as we continued to work really hard in this smaller group of six all the way to the next photo checkpoint in Rosedale at the White Front Cafe.

I thought for sure this would be the end of my time at the front of the race as I absolutely had to stop to get food at the gas station 125 miles into the race. But I figured other people had brought enough food to keep going so I would be the only one stopping. But eventual winner Justin Lowe and Peter Reed had stopped too and we took off together after a very quick 5 minute stop that included the White Front Cafe selfie and running into the gas station to grab food and gatorade.

As it turns out, though, getting started again I was pretty cooked and came off nearly immediately in the next gravel section. I rallied myself to catch back up, though, in the gravel thinking that I had been gifted this opportunity to ride at the front a bit longer. I caught back up to Justin and Peter’s wheels and then promptly decided to call it when riding in their draft for a few seconds didn’t really provide any relief at all in the 15mph gravel … I just could not maintain that pace so I backed off and started riding closer to 13mph for the rest of that gravel section. I tried to hit it hard again on the next paved section, but they were just too far away at this point. Thankfully, it was sunrise right over a beautiful cotton field and since I wasn’t focusing on trying to hold a wheel, I could take a picture to remember that moment.

Sunrise over epic horizon-covering cotton field at about 130 miles into the race after getting dropped by Justin and Peter.

As it turns out, I would get this picture of the sunrise over a cotton field and then nearly 200 miles later get a picture of the sunset over a different cotton field and then after riding all the way through the night (again), I would get a picture of the sunrise the next morning … a midnight-sunrise-sunset-sunrise ride.

I rode slowly for a while into an increasingly stronger headwind. During this section, I had caught back up to Peter and rode with him for a while until eventual third place rider caught up to us at our slower pace. Peter still had a bit left in his legs whereas I knew I could not ride any faster so Peter took off with the rider whose name I can’t remember right now (Matthew?). They quickly left me far behind and I kept wondering who would catch me next. So I kept riding into a headwind, and then I rode into the headwind some more, and then for another length of time I rode into a headwind, and then it was still more headwind. After many hours of headwind, two relay transitions, and the BB King museum photo checkpoint, maybe 100+ miles, Brandon caught up to me on the heels of a relay rider shortly before the relay transition at the entrance to Delta National Forest. I hopped on and followed them into the transition about 5mph faster and significantly easier than I had been riding on my own into the headwind.

But both the relay rider and Brandon pulled off here. I was looking for the neutral water cache which I thought was just past the relay transition area but never found it. So I never stopped, didn’t get any water, and was thankful to be on my own again and putting distance into Brandon trying to hold onto fifth place.

This section of the Delta National Forest was fast and shaded and fun (other than having to ration my water at this point). But after the long opening mostly dirt road, you made a left onto Spanish Fort Road which is basically a levee road with thick gravel in wide open sun. So you got this double whammy with it all of a sudden getting very hot and very slow. I kept wondering if Brandon would catch up to me through here because I was going really slowly.

But before that happened, I could see Peter up ahead and realized I was catching back up to him. I caught him shortly after I saw a family of skunks or porcupines cross the levee right behind him after he went by. We rode together for a bit and talked about needing to stop at the Satartia grocery store, when all of a sudden Brandon comes flying up again with a relay rider. I was already starting to think about my ride home and needing to get done as soon as possible so I hopped onto the two of them and we left Peter behind.

If it had stayed paved the rest of the way, all of us may have stayed together. But the relay rider was fresh, and it went back to some pretty deep gravel roads before (and after) Satartia. Long before Satartia, Brandon and I came off the back of the relay rider and continued on our own as the relay rider continued the hard pace straight onto the deep gravel … and nearly 275 miles had taken its toll on us.

During this stretch, I completely drained the last of my camelbak after having rationed it for many miles during the Delta National Forest. I was getting a bit worried that the Satartia self service grocery store might be closed or empty … but thankfully it was not! We rolled into the small town and immediately found the grocery store. What a really cool setup. They had a few fridges and even a freezer with stuff. I got a couple small gatorades, a water, and a coke since all I had was a $10 bill to put into the payment jar. I still had lots of food left so didn’t get any food.

My thinking was that we were going to roll into Bentonia on pavement or chip/seal … but nope, as we were leaving town, you could see the road turn back into gravel and get quite steep. I commented to Brandon that we were heading towards Blockhouse Hill (from the Rouge Roubaix course). And it was pretty steep and loose (more like the Tunica Hills climb than Blockhouse Hill – for those of you that know the Rouge Roubaix course well). But nevertheless, this had the deeply recessed dirt road with trees towering above us and their roots sticking out of the ground above us and hanging out onto the road. It is something to be experienced, and we definitely don’t get roads like that in very many places in Alabama. I’ve only seen it like this in Mississippi and Louisiana and a few parts of south Alabama.

Except for where new gravel had been laid down in places, it was a really fun dirt road that rolled its way all the way into Bentonia. As we got closer, I told Brandon that he could have fourth as I definitely didn’t want to sprint for it with painful, tired legs and a long ways to go yet to get back to the start, but it would be a different story if we were fighting it out for third place or for fifth place as I would have sprinted for either of those places to try to avoid a dreaded “even number” placing … those are the worst with the exception of 10th place… which is alright.

So fifth place it was… I will take it! Super happy to have finished … even with the sun setting at this moment with 200 miles north still left to ride in what would turn out to be quite an adventure all unto itself … more on that in the next section.

Selfie checkpoint at the finish – the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia – birthplace of the Bentonia Blues style of music.

Part 2 … and back again.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Frodo in The Lord of the Rings

So, yeah, I had plotted out a route to get me back to my car and hit as many of the counties in this part of Mississippi as I could as nearly all of them were completely new to me. But I had zero knowledge of the route I had chosen, other than what I could glean from satellite imagery and streetview in the few sections it was available. And, also, it had been a couple months since I had created the route so I couldn’t remember if I had been avoiding dirt roads but vaguely had the sense that I was trying to minimize distance while still hitting the new counties … which basically means “lots-of-dirt”.

Also, I was aiming for tri-county areas and would be coming very close to the border of counties in several places and only briefly entering those counties … which means since there isn’t a county line painted on the gravel roads and surprisingly very few county line signs on the route I took, I would risk missing a county deviating from the path I had charted. See the map below.

500 mile route (black) with the Delta Epic race heading south along the river and then my county-line route heading back north. New counties are lightly shaded red, whereas counties I’ve already ridden in are darker red.

This is important to keep in mind when I found myself lost on an abandoned road that had pretty much turned into a kudzu forest/jungle/farm. I committed to just plowing straight through the kudzu with my bike over my head. But some of it was impassable even trying to ram into it, crawl under it, or detour around it. That last bit is what led me to getting lost. I ended up doing the classic “you know you are lost” circle and stumbling upon the same log, not once, but two separate times from two different directions after coming across it for the first time while still not lost … so I tripped over the same log three times. And both the second and third time, I laughed when I realized it was the same log. And a little bit panicky too at one point as the time dragged on and I hadn’t made it any closer to home base (my car at the base of the Arkabutla Dam).

We will come back to that farm/road/kudzu jungle in a minute, but first … I took the selfie above, talked to a few people, put chain lube on my chain, and took off. I was only stopped in Bentonia for six minutes before heading east on my roundabout way back up to the start. The temperature was dropping fast, and only a few miles later, I found a gated off church I could prop my bike up against and put on all my warm clothes again. I didn’t put on my gaiter yet as I wanted to be able to regulate temp in case I got hot from any climbing and also so I would have one weapon left in my arsenal against the cold when it got really cold later.

I continued on beautiful pavement for a while with fairly minimal traffic. It was a state highway, though, and people were driving fast because it was a wide, well-paved road. I didn’t have any close calls, but it was night and day difference compared to the Delta Epic route itself (in terms of traffic). Eventually, I started my zigzagging to cross over into various counties, and the vast majority of this was on dirt and gravel roads with tons of short punchy hills. This helped keep me warm, but it also slowed my progress north quite a bit.

I stopped at a dollar general shortly before it closed and got a bag of chips and a couple “emergency” red bulls that I would carry with me to the end of the ride as I never got terribly sleepy due to the cold and constant uncertainty of the path forward. I sat down outside the dollar general to eat the chips and rest for a minute and the cement was quite unexpectedly warm from having been in the sun all day. I called Kristine to talk for a minute and told her how nice it would be to just fall asleep right there on that warm pavement for a 15 minute nap…. But at that point I wasn’t sleepy at all, so I ate a few more chips and continued on.

My next stop would be at a gas station in Holcomb, MS at 3am where a very nice worker unplugged a space heater and brought it over to the coffee machine so I could warm up while sipping on coffee. I also almost bought one of their decorative t-shirts so I could have another layer, but it was short sleeved and I felt like I had enough core layers … just needed something else on my legs and arms so I punched holes in four plastic bags and wore them like a second set of arm warmers and leg warmers. I think it helped some, but the primary benefit was the 30 minute stop itself, which had a couple of benefits – warmth and daylight! This pushed me half an hour closer to sunrise which meant half an hour less of the cold.

As it turns out, my encounter with the abandoned road/kudzu jungle/farm was only a few miles after this stop and I would end up sweating quite a bit struggling with the kudzu. Some context … much earlier in the night not too long after sunset I ran into another dead end where my route went through some clearly private land. Decisions, decisions, trespass or detour. For this one, there was a large house right there behind a gate. I was going to holler out nicely if I saw anyone to see if I could pass through, but I didn’t see anyone and it was after dark so I decided to figure out a detour … which ended up being a couple miles out of the way.

This second encounter was a bit different, because this land was not entirely clear that it was private land. There were no “no trespassing” signs. There were no signs saying “private property”. The only clue that there might be trouble ahead was an official department of transportation reflective sign that said “road closed, no thru traffic” and a gate with an opening to the side for riding/walking around. So I didn’t hesitate at all or even get off my bike, I just rode right around the sign thinking that there would be a bridge out or nasty washed out section of road.

Instead, immediately past the gate, the gravel road I was on disappeared and turned into double track with grass down the middle. No problem, fast, good dirt. But then it started to get a bit muddier and more overgrown and then it flat out disappeared into a sea of kudzu on the edge of a forest. It was clear that I was still following some sort of beat in path though that hadn’t been used in a while and whatever had beat it in wasn’t very tall because the lower you were the more cleared out was and then up higher at waste level everything was just overhanging and blocking the path ahead. I say “everything” because it was a little bit of everything – kudzu, thorns, other tall weeds or grasses, even a few smaller trees, and all of this was next to a larger forest with tall trees that sometimes had branches overhanging. My thoughts immediately went to wild boars because it just made sense that that would be what would beat in this path. The vegetation kept getting thicker and thicker and I tripped several times falling one time down into everything submerged in kudzu. My bike kept getting hung up on stuff so I tried to hold it above my head above the weeds but I would lose my balance and stumble or get my feet caught up in vines down low. So that didn’t work very well. I tried detouring wide on both sides, and unexpectedly circled back to the same exact spot instead of around it. When this happened a second time from a completely different direction, I decided to cut my losses (approaching an hour at this point) and head back the way I came which wasn’t too bad as I had cleared out stuff in all my stumbling around so I made it back to the gate a bit quicker but still spent just over an hour trying to avoid a 4 mile detour that ended up only taking about 20 minutes with part of it actually being chip-seal road instead of gravel. Here’s what an hour of blundering around in kudzu looks like:

Zoomed in screenshot trying to find where Whitten Rd had disappeared to in a sea of kudzu.

Rejuvenated and wide awake at this point and quite hot, I continued on a four mile-ish detour eventually rejoining where my route would have been if I had made it through the kudzu. It didn’t take too long though for my internal temp to drop off as the adrenaline faded away and fatigue set in. Thankfully by this point it was starting to get light and I was back on paved roads.

One final gas station stop, and I knew I had enough to make it the remaining 5 hours back to the car … but it ended up being closer to 6.5 hours but still made it anyway with what the gatorade/food I had picked up at the gas station. Plus by this point I was going slow enough with cold temps that I wasn’t really drinking or eating anything. Summit fever hit me good when I saw the sign for the turn towards Arkabutla Dam. I “flew” those last 6.5 miles wide awake by the end… just in time to drive four hours back to Birmingham and make it back home long before sunset.