As much as I anticipated cycling south from Kansas, flooding in Oklahoma compounded with exhaustion ( I rode my bike a 1000 miles last week), and the desire not to rush on my pedals to make it the 800 miles to Austin, I opted to snag a ride with my dear friends Vince and Mark. They switched driving roles on and off for the 10 hour drive south. We stopped for lunch, and shared great conversation and many laughs packed in that minivan. I can’t believe that I am as lucky as I am to have such rad friends.
On her way south, she wondered where the Indians were. She came across a gas station full of old men and joined in the conversation. One of the men was wearing a cowboy hat and made a harmless cowboy vs. Indian joke. He said she looked like an Indian with that brown skin and the long black braids. She informed him that she was, indeed, and Indian. Anishinaabe in fact. Huh, they said. Ojibwe… Chippewa, she finally says before they seemingly understand. “I’m from the Great Lakes.”
“Do you ride your horse bareback?” She doesn’t have a horse. A bike though, and I suppose you could say she’s bare back. Never rides with a chamois…
“Do you live in tents or what? One time, I saw that people lived in tents on a reservation. You know, someone died in their house, and they have to move into the yard, in a tent because the spirt haunts the house or something. You guys probably do that too, hey?” She said, No, we live in houses. I have a house on my reservation.
She left that part of Missouri, the part with the old men who marveled at a modern day Indian… destined for Kansas. Precisely, she was headed for Osage City. There are Indians all over this land, with different histories, and she was hungry to taste all of them. So many of these bike races traverse, infest at times, indigenous territories. She knew about the Osage. More displaced Indians. The Osage were traditionally Indians of the Missouri River Valley. They relocated, supposedly, after the Iroquois wars. Eventually chilling in Kansas, land she was now pedaling through. The Relocation Era came about, treaties were signed, and the Osage were relocated to Oklahoma. It was here, in Oklahoma, land that wasn’t “good” enough for the citizens of the United States, “Indian territory”, that the Osage were sent to live on. This “worthless” reservation was atop some of the largest oil reserves in the United States. The Osage ended up becoming the richest people, per capita, in the world as they began to lease their mineral rights. And then, they began to be murdered for that oil money, for their land, for mineral rights. The federal government mis-managed their funds, transferred ownership of rights to the “guardians” of murdered Indians (some 60 Osage were murdered and a big FBI case arose out of this) enrollment rules were manipulated, and previously “Indian” land was often opened up for white settlement after allotment quotas were filled (think Land Runs). Historically, Indians were thought to be “dumber”, “incompetent”, and “incapable” of managing their assets, so the higher degree of Indian blood a native had, the more incompetent they were thought to be. They were REQUIRED to have white guardians until they could demonstrate “competency”. She feels these truths when she bikes through lands. It’s a history she wasn’t told while she grew up. It was so similar to a critical part of her identity that was denied to her. The adoption era stole her mother from her people and she grew up wondering where she came from. Why was her mother so sad? Would she grow to be as sad when she turned into a woman?
She was on her way to a race called the “Dirty Kanza”. She felt mildly guilty about it; much like that year she dressed up as an “Indian” for halloween. It’s just a name. What’s in a name? It’s just a race, she thinks. But it’s micro-aggressions like this that magnify her feeling of imposter syndrome. She doesn’t belong at a race that, by it’s very name, says “dirty Indian”. Or does she? Maybe she needs to be there? She knows that’s not what they were thinking when they named it. But, it’s just the ignorance of the Indian narrative that makes her sick. There is a whole history before colonization, why don’t more people know about it? Colonial life isn’t the only way… How many times has she heard the phrase “dirty injun”?
The Kanza (or Kaw) are people of a federally recognized tribe in Oklahoma and Kansas, closely related to the Osage (often having had intermarried). The name Kansas comes from this, in fact. The Kanza are people of the “south wind”. She thought about those families, those histories and felt a responsibility to acknowledge it, then to let it go. She meant to offer tobacco, asema, before the race but forgot. The hubbub of the crowd and the commercialism of the race trapped her at the starting line. She needs privacy for prayer. She doesn’t want one of the million cameras present to capture her participating in such a sacred act, she needs to assure that she doesn’t allow any more appropriation of her people. She’ll pray later, she thinks.
And the race begins. She’s 1 of 5 single speeders attempting to finish the 350 miles ahead of her, she falls to the back pretty quickly. She rides with another fella on a Stella for a little while. They discuss gear ratios, he’s 34×17. She opted for 36×17. She toured here with 36×19. She hoped it wouldn’t be too hard to climb with. She pedaled hard into the sunset, hoping for a place to pull off and offer her asema. Every time she came around a corner, there was a photographer. This didn’t feel like the other ultras she’d been too. It’s the loneliness, the desolation that makes this harder. It’s missing your loved ones, and not knowing when you’ll see the next person. It’s finding the drive to move forward when exhaustion kicks in and you realize you can’t even picture what your husband/wife/boyfriend/ girlfriend/mom/dad/sister/ brother/son/daughter looks like when they smile. It’s the mental game. She hated that they were out there. The race course is sacred, and meant for the people racing , she thinks. It’s something like, a picture will never give you this experience. It’s not something you can see. It’s something that evolves inside of you. She doesn’t think you should get to know what this looks like unless you’re brave enough to demolish everything you think you know about yourself and set out on the course set before you. The sun sets, and the cameras disappear. She falls into a proper cadence, spin, spin, spin. She begins to pass people on the climbs. She climbs with that ravenous hunger she’d lost the day she’d adopted a derailleur.
Back in her fixie days, she’d climbed the same way. It has been too long, and she started to feel like she found that old punk she used to be. As she ages, the punk within grows stronger, but her facade gets tamer. It felt like home. Commitment to the gear, commitment to the climb, commitment to the self. It’s just her and her bike, no handicap, no easy way out. She’s on it, or, she’s off. There’s a lot of energy and time that goes into choosing gearing. It reveals quite a lot about a person, in fact. They all get the same data about the course, and gear according to how they know themselves. None of us had the same gear as we discussed cogs at the starting line. Just numbers of teeth, she thinks. But teeth, well, teeth have been her calling.
The first hundred miles serve as a warm up. She loosens up, and starts to pass people. She flutters up the climbs. They pass her on the flats, they pass her on the descents. She knows she’ll get em’ again though. There’s more climbing on the menu. Climbing is her secret weapon now. Those damn thighs she used to curse have power unparalleled. Flat pedals require climbing of a different caliber. It’s power from the hips, the core, it’s dancing on the platform pedal. She loves her body when she bike races. She’s amazed at what it can, and has done for her. Honestly, if she can do it. ANYONE can. She used to weigh 300+ pounds. And now, she can ride her bike nearly two days straight. She catches people at the c-stores. She fills up fast, and gets on the trail as promptly as possible. Mile 260 comes soon enough, and she’s revitalized when she starts passing the 200 mile racers. She blasts her boombox with some Lizzo; she climbs and descends with a ferocity unmatched. She’s going to catch those single speeders in front of her. There’s only two of them if they haven’t scratched.
The sun is high in the sky. She was 265 miles in, and the time on her watch read 1:00 p.m. Only 65 miles to go. She climbs a hill she should have walked, but all those 200 riders inspired her to ride as hard as she could. After all, that was the promise she made to herself. Ride as hard as she can until she can’t. Soft pedaling at the summit, her ankle gave out- or so she thought. She cranked down for another pedal forward, SNAP, there goes her pedal.
Her heart sunk. Her race was over. She’d forgotten to offer asema. She regrouped and got out her phone to call her team for advice. No cell service. She proceeded to scooter bike to shade to diagnose the problem. She tried everything. She used a tree branch she’d found on the ground. Snap. She got a wet tree branch and wrapped it around the crank. She used an allen key, and her bar end. She’d taped this or that and everything fell off. She taped a rock to the crank arm thinking she’d having something to put her foot on for descending. That didn’t work. She called the boy back home for advice; he’s the master of making shit work. He gave her a few ideas. She tried them, they didn’t work. She’d see Jill and confess her defeat and show her the tape/rock/pedal. They’d laugh and she’d tell Jill to carry on. She’d see Austin, her CHUMBA teammate, and they’d discuss the course. He’d joke that she should take his pedal. He’s not feeling well. She’d scooter on, asking some 150 people if they, by chance, had an extra a pedal (not common practice to carry extra pedals). Person after person, No. Several hours later, she saw a man laying in the shade. “Hey friend, how’s it going” she asks. He said he just called for a ride out; he couldn’t finish. He was single speed, and geared wrong. “Can I snag your pedal!?” she asked. He said sure and she went to go take it off.
They torqued and cranked and tried with all their might to get the pedal off. Unfortunately, he’d cranked it on with a pedal wrench and for the life of her, she couldn’t get the pedal loose. She stood on it, kicked it, hit the multitool with a rock even. To no avail, the pedal remained on that kind gentleman’s bike. She said her thanks, but had to turn away quick. The tears were coming, and she didn’t want to explain. The lack of sleep made it worse. Her attitude was nasty, she just wanted people to stop talking to her. She’d ridden nearly 600 miles to get to this race. And now, she had no choice but quit. She had given up. She texted for her team to come get her, they said they’d be a couple hours. She fell to the grass. She let the tears fall and finished the rest of her water. As she lay in the shade, in the grass, the race scrolled through her mind. DKXL rider after rider that she passed in the hours of the night passed her again. “I’m fine” she’d say.
She pouted, but still asked people if they had a pedal when they offered help. No, no. NO. The lactic acid was building up in her legs, and having been taking a “break” for so many hours made her bones feel stiff. Finally, Ben, a familiar face from the Marji Gesick race last year, pulled up. He was riding in the DKXL with her. “How are ya” he asks. “Fine.” She’d almost given up asking even. “What’s wrong, ya need anything?” he asks. She laughed, and said, “yeah, a pedal, mine broke off.”
“Too strong!” He says. Yeah, yeah, she thinks. Everyone keeps saying that. “But, yeah, I have an extra pedal, you want it.” She almost threw up. She couldn’t actually believe it. He pulls out a Crank Brother’s egg beater. “It’s a clip pedal, need the cleat?” he asks.
“OH MY GOD.” She laughs. She thinks, shit, now I have to get back on the bike. She looks at her watch. 65 ish miles to go. She’s still got 9 hours to finish before the cut off. She can make it she thinks. She cranks on the pedal, and gets back in the saddle. She texts her team “found pedal, gonna finish”. They don’t come to bail her out. She passes 5 of the XL riders early on. She’s gonna catch the single speeder in front of her. Adam, her dear friend, only passed her an hour before. She’d catch him if it took everything she had. He was the reason she signed up, they rode for hours together through the night. He’s be proud to see her, proud she didn’t quit. They’d embarked on this journey together, they’d finish together. The egg beater hurt her foot to pedal on though. She couldn’t climb hills with it set up like that.
She wears a Surly Junk strap as a belt and removed it. She found her broken platform pedal and ratcheted it to the egg beater. It was solid enough she could crank a climb. She popped a caffeine pill and set off like lightening. 40 miles to go. She saw a headlight headed south. That’s gotta be Adam. She cranks up the cadence. By her calculations, he was just 15 minutes ahead of her. If she rode hard another hour, she’d catch him. Finally, she crested a hill, and there he was! She shouted out “YYYYEEEEEEHAWWWWW brother!!!!!” and they hi-fived. They rode side by side until he lit a fire under his butt and cranked to attempt a pre midnight finish. She kept on his tail, but her pedal kept shifting when she’d get too aggressive. She lost 8 minutes to him tending to pedal issues and he finished before her. She’s pass a few 200 milers to pull in a 12:15 a.m. ish finish. She’d wasted more than 5 hours tending to that broken pedal.
5 hours wiping tears, of proverbially tripping and falling down, but getting back up to keep seeking what she needed even through the countless rejections. All it takes is one yes.
150 no’s and 1 yes. That one yes got me across the finish line. It wasn’t the race I wanted it to be, but it was a reminder that giving up feels much worse than a 36th place finish.
Sometimes we win and sometimes, well most of the time in my case, I learn many lessons in not winning. It’s these lessons that keep me coming back to bike races. Winning feels so good, but the lessons I’ve learned through “losing” ultras have permeated into my daily life. It’s these lessons that propelled me into academia. It’s these lessons that have kept me from giving up at school. It’s these lessons that keep me on the path to becoming a dentist. It’s racing in ultras that remind me that finding a healthy regular weight for my body is a long term commitment. It’s the long game, it’s the life game. Life is long, arduous, much like an ultra. But you have to remember why you showed up in the first place. What is my greater purpose?
I race alongside some of the greatest athletes in the world. It’s rather surreal, because I could tell it to you the way others have told it to me. Like the way my doctor told me, “You’re an obese” young woman and need to lose 30 more pounds. Or I’m just a number, like the string of numbers and letters on my certificate of Indian blood. Or I’m that girl who drank and partied away her early 20’s. I think a more appropriate way to spin it, though, goes something like this…
I’m a punk who is committed to the journey. Who tries her absolute best, which could often be better compared to other people, but it’s the best I’ve got. And I fail, and fall time, after time, after time. But I get back up and try again. I am always trying to be a me I’m proud of. I’m better today than I was yesterday. I’m no longer afraid of rejection because I’ve learned that it only takes one yes to change it all.
I think back to those years of trying to be a Blackburn Ranger but not having enough of a social media presence to get noticed, of trying to win scholarships for women’s bike opportunities, of hoping bike company A or B would respond to my plea for help and being rejected by all of them. I didn’t look like a cyclist.
I wouldn’t change for any of them, and I stuck to my guns. I like, love, who I am as a person, and I am not willing to change that for anyone or anything.
I finally found a company that believed enough in me to help me out last year helping me build a solid bicycle that I could chase a dream of racing in 8 races with. And it’s a small company, right here in Austin, Texas. It’s Mark and Vince, two magical men with hearts of gold. They drove all the way to Kansas to support their 3 team riders who showed up for this race. Lisa, Austin, and myself. Lisa took first in her age category (she’s a boss). And Austin, at 50-something set out on the 200 on one speed. I’ve found family in team CHUMBA, and I never had to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. They believe in me as much as I believe in their product. Mark has got to be, hands down, one of the best frame builders in the United States. He’s everything I dreamed to be when I was pursuing a career in metal work. I can’t believe the world brought us together, and now we work together to build my adventure bike that can withstand my riding style. Reckless, ruthless, and unforgiving, I ride my bike with everything I’ve got. Time after time, trail after trail, my bike is solid, it’s the pesky poor person within me that rides things until I destroy them. So, my Race Face Chester pedals, with some 20k miles on them failed in the middle of a brutal race. Not surprising. Fortunately, I have Vince, who knows his shit, and actually asked me about my pedals before the race, the only part of the bike they didn’t build for me, and I said “oh, yeah, they’re great”.
Whoops, good thing I’m keeping these guys around. I need them.
It’s good to need people.