The race director told us at the beginning of Stage 5, “so like the Pioneers, the last obstacle you face on the trail are getting around the Cascades. Here you see Mt. Bachelor on the left and the 3 Sisters to the right. So let’s get this over with, the scenery was amazing and the riding weather perfect for my (shared with 400 other riders) Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder adventure. I’d be lying a bit if I actually didn’t call both spectacular. Over the course of 320 miles, the picture there was about as much clouds as we saw. Yet the temps were consistently in the high 60s to mid 70s, perfect riding weather. So from that perspective it was awesome. And we saw rivers, resevoirs and forests to go with the almost ever present mountains, traversing over 22,000 feet of vertical over the 5 days.

So before I get to some stories, suffering and lessons learned, here’s a taste of some more of the amazing scenery along the way.

Pretty cool. The five days were definitely the most challenging week I have ever had on a bike, at least in a long time (Maybe 1988 touring Illinois for 5 days in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity matched it, but that was a LONG time ago and I was a heck of a lot younger!)

So before I get to the lessons, three more pics… First me fresh at the starting line on day 1…

and putting a good but dirty face on it after day 4:

and then pretty much how I felt for a week after the race here back at home:

When I got home, Dr Scott Frey, who I have had the privilege to strike up an online connection with, and who I look forward to meeting soon in person at the Bovine Classic in October and I had a quick linked in chat that looked like this:

So now, with a week of reflection, here are my top learnings from a week of Sand and Suffering…

Lessond 1: Doing Hard Things SO WORTH IT. I won’t go so far as to say the week was life changing, but it probably was. It was HARD! I was challenged but physically and mentally, and even though I did the non-competitive “Settler” version of the ride, as I decided early on day two that my shoulder was hurt just enough that I should “settle” on 320 miles and 23K ft, vs. the Pioneer version 360 and 30K, days 4 and 5 were by far the two hardest single days I have ever done on a bike. It wasn’t the distance or the vertical, which were hard, but the technical nature of the terrain was beyond my experience, and the days were long, hard and demanding. But in the end, I finished with just a few scrapes and a sore shoulder, and with a huge sense of accomplishment and satisfaction of taking on a very hard challenge and succeeding at it, or in Oregon trail terms, I did not “Die of Dysentery”. Plus as a bonus, maybe next time it is the Pioneer length. SO WORTH IT!

Learning 2: Performance Has Many Dimensions, or at Least 3! First off, I want to recognize my other 400 riders as amazing and talented humans. From stage 1 winner and eventual 4th place pro Cam Jones and his racing partner Seamus, pictured with me here in camp after day 1, the level of overall level of fitness, skill and grit was off the charts.

And it wasn’t just the pros, but the almost 200 50+ riders, who woke up each day and battled the sand, the rocks and themselves. I was consistently around the middle of the pack of the “Settlers” and am in awe of the entire group of riders.

OK, so, here’s my lesson. I came into the event as fit as I think I possibly could have been. I also gutted out several hours on days 2 and 4 when my shoulder felt like it was on fire at time and was “popping” when I moved it, and the that my pure fear on some of the technical descents, and I think I managed my mental attitude well, so on the grit side, I give myself a job well done. Now, I mentioned the technical skills, yeah, mine need a lot of work. If performance = Fitness * Grit * Skills, and each were on a 1-10, I’d give myself a 10 on fitness, a 9 or so on grit, and honestly like a 3 on skill on day 1, improving to maybe a 5 on day 5, for an average of 4. So using my formula, I’d rate my performance as a 360/1000. Lots of room for improvement. I do realize with no mountain biking experience, and just 2 full years on my gravel bike, 4 aint so bad. And honestly, I think if I had tried this ride a year ago, I either have been on the Dysentery van to Bend by the end of day 2. So, I guess I need that skills coaching and work for sure before I take this on again.

Lesson 3 – To Make Your Enemy Your Friend, Just Change Directions! – We had quite a bit of sand on Day 2, or so I thought. I joked that they should have named the ride the Oregon Train Beach Grinder, not the Gravel Grinder. But on that day, the terrain where the sand was was mostly flat, and the sand, as learned on day 5, was pretty chill. At mile 5 of day 5 however, we hit a BRUTAL soul sucking 2 mile rolling uphill of at least 6 inch deep black cinder sand. Pretty much everyone, regardless of skill level was eventually bogging down and doing some hike-a-bike. The sand ended, and was quickly replaced by a rock garden bone jarring descent, followed by more of both. Eventually, at mile 38 we reached a 11.7 mile 2900 ft climb, and while the first 2/3 was mercifully paved, it was steep at 8% or so, and directly into the sun. It was the first time it felt very hot on the ride. At mile 8, we turned left onto a shallower climb. We crested at mile 12 at about 6700 feet, which only meant 1 thing, a 3000 ft gravel descent into our finish line at Bend. And the descent was quite sandy. And soon, I actually got the hang of it and realized the sand was my friend on this descent, and I did my best technical descending of the week ( I also took my only real fall, but that was on double track switching lanes and sliding out. So sand, my enemy, finished as my friend, at least when going downhill.

Overall the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder was an amazing experience. It was well run, great people, many other stories, and definitely the hard thing I had hoped for. Next up for me is the Steamboat Gravel blue course, my unfinished business from last season when I “DNF’d” due to heat and cramps. I will say, I am feeling more confident and more ready than ever to take SBT Grvl on successfully in 6 weeks and finally don the finisher’s hat that I have refused to put on (my friend “grabbed me one”) for the last year. Oh, and check it out, I did earn this t-shirt –

Happy trails, may all your hard things be as awesome as this one was for me!


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