One wild ride
Spindly legs dangle from the frame of my glasses. A black body rappels down a silk filament, itsy-bitsy arachnid feet tickling my nose.
I throw down my bike, and rip off my glasses and helmet. My head convulses in a futile bid to jar the web loose.
The spider drops into my open collar. It’s only 3 inches long but might as well be a Humboldt squid.
“Truck!” I wail, or a word that rhymes with it.
In a frenzy, I slam my palms against my chest.
My spastic war dance ends with spider guts oozing into my shirt.
I’m shin deep in muck on a flooded trail somewhere east of Orlando, less than halfway through the 800-mile Florida Divide Race. It’s dark out, which adds to my anxiety. So does the snake that swims past my front wheel.
This butt-chafing bike race follows back roads and trails down the state’s spine. The clock starts in Georgia and doesn’t stop until the Everglades, not even for the occasional obstinate alligator. Riders haul their own gear, find their own food and sleep in the rain. The race has no prize money, no medals, not even a T-shirt.
That authenticity might be the appeal. Or maybe it’s leftover Neanderthal DNA itching for a physical challenge in an age of drones and driverless cars.
Or maybe it’s a depraved twist on the classic midlife crisis, substituting a pre-owned mountain bike for the new red Corvette.
On the soggy trail, I have no clear answer to that simple question:
Why am I doing this?
800 MILES TO GO
The swollen Suwannee River has spread into the visitor center parking lot south of Fargo, Ga., a small timber town where the Florida Divide Race begins. Light rain falls, low morning clouds hang in the trees.
“Water level’s come down a little,” says Kevin Hart, the friendly owner of the four-room Gator Motel. “Still, you’re in for a soaking.”
The race rules are simple: Follow the prescribed route using your own leg power. If your bike breaks, deal with it yourself. You can use what you find along the way — stores, motels, walk-in clinics — but your spouse, for instance, can’t show up with fresh socks and a syringe full of B vitamins. You can detour from the route, but you must return to where you turned off. There are no “comfort stations” or sponsors’ vans, and, in most cases, no one waiting at the finish line.
In other words, riders are on their own.
I had met race founder Karlos A. Rodriguez Bernart only twice before, but he greets me with a hug and bellows my name. He’s like that with everyone, intense but engaging. He will tease you, but in a way that makes you like him even more.
An accomplished rider, Bernart also created the 250-mile Cross Florida Individual Time Trial and the Huracan 300, a weekend-long suffer-fest endured by more than 50 riders earlier this year.
I’m one of only three “guinea pigs” who show up to try the largely untested Florida Divide route. One rider completed it a few months earlier, and a few more will race the clock later in 2015. But this is the race’s first official group start.
“This is the hardest, most awesome thing you will ever do … at least this week,” jokes Bernart, who won’t be riding this race. “You’re just 800 miles from finishing.”
‘SLOW TORTURE’ BEGINS
For the first 20 miles, the three of us stay within sight. The gaps widen on the road that cuts across John M. Bethea State Forest. By mile 40, I never see the other riders again.
Loneliness is just one weapon Bernart deploys to slow-torture his racers. Another favorite: sand. It’s kryptonite to riders, and Florida is built on the stuff. Too dry and bike tires sink deep. Rain turns the track tacky, like riding through chunky peanut butter.
South of Olustee, after passing over Interstate 10, the route seems to be all sand. My easy 14 mph pace slows to 10 mph, then 8 mph and then 6. My tender back and left knee balk when I stand up on the pedals to mash through the deepest sand. For the first time, that question — Why am I doing this? — creeps into my thoughts.
Finishing a tough section feels great, of course. But that satisfaction seems meager and short-lived, a fool’s bargain when measured against the hours of suffering. Still, like the guy who kept banging his head against a wall because it felt so good when he stopped, I ride on.
Soon, I enter the mountain bike trails at San Felasco Hammock Preserve near Alachua. The sun has set; the late winter air turns crisp. The forest crackles with its nocturnal menagerie. The pines sway in the breeze. The trails flow together in quick ups and downs and banked turns. My lights — one on my helmet, another mounted to the handlebar — illuminate silver raindrops. Fireflies add a splash of yellow.
As I zip through turn after turn, the pain in my knee and back melt away. For a while, I stop thinking about all the miles left to go.
THE PANCAKE DILEMMA
Each morning, I follow a routine: Wake up before dawn. Inventory the aches and pains. Pop enough Aleve to mask the damage. Gobble an energy bar. Repack the gear, including the tent, sleeping pad, inflatable pillow and extra clothes. Gobble another energy bar. Brush teeth. Clean and lube the bike chain. Turn on the GPS device that feeds a website so that Bernart can track my progress and my wife knows I’m still alive. Start pedalling.
Then begins an internal tete-a-tete.
Hey hotshot, how about a stop for breakfast?
Not a chance. This is a race.
Pancakes, man. We need pancakes.
Eddy Merckx never stopped mid-ride for a Grand Slam special.
Who? Whatever. You just passed another Waffle House. Ooh, an IHOP, too.
They do smell wonderf-. We’re not stopping!
If it isn’t the siren song of a sit-down restaurant, it’s an uncomfortable shoe or a squeaky brake that tempts racers. Every stop is another chance for doubt to sabotage confidence. Keep the psychological scale in balance or risk devolving into a quivering mass of spandex and sweat.
Racers employ an array of motivational techniques. Some carry iPods to blare their favorite tunes. Others visualize the finish line, or do the math: If I travel at 8 mph, how long will it take to get to the convenience store 37 miles away? What if it’s 12 mph and 23 miles? And so on.
I sing, but I’m not good, a condition aggravated by an abysmal recollection for lyrics. On Day 2, I’m butchering John Gorka’s Houses in the Fields as I pedal through a remote section of the Ocala National Forest. I halt my solo several times to yell, “No bears! No bears!” a self-deluded attempt to scare them away. I fail to notice two camouflaged hunters leaning against separate trees, both holding what look like shotguns.
“Seriously?” one calls out. “Shut up!”
Mortified, I can’t blather an apology, and I don’t dare stop. Instead, I pedal faster, quickly calculating the effective range of a shotgun.
CONTINGENCIES FOR CONTINGENCIES
I sleep five to seven hours a night, and take an hour to set up camp, and another hour to get ready each morning. That leaves about 15 hours a day to move as fast as I can.
On the bike, I’m always planning: Where can I find water? Am I on the right trail? Can I get a cellphone signal? How long until sunset? When will my light batteries fail?
My shoes are doused in pyrethrum so I don’t waste time with ticks. I wear clear-lensed glasses at night to keep kamikaze bugs out of my eyes. I wear the same red shirt every day. My biggest luxury may be three pairs of socks.
I visualize convenience store layouts before going in. The Kind bars are often next to the cookies, not the chocolate bars. Bottles of 5-hour Energy are always near the front, often next to the cash register. Never eat the pickled eggs. Go easy on the boiled peanuts.
I’ll munch an apple in the checkout line, but they are too bulky to take with me. Corn chips have a much better weight-to-calorie ratio. So do cashews and gummy bears. At day’s end, my guilty pleasures are chocolate milk, and a bag of beef jerky.
Occasionally, I can’t help but linger, like at the 88 Store & Pub, an oasis for hikers, hunters and hard-core regulars on the edge of the Ocala National Forest. I buy an ice cream as an excuse to eavesdrop on three Harley riders arguing about the legalities of converting a Winchester M2 carbine from automatic to semi-automatic.
I’m alone a lot, but I feel most vulnerable when I can’t find the trail. The red line on the GPS unit strapped to my bike helps point the way. Often it’s only accurate to about 20 yards, which can feel like 20 miles when lost in a palmetto thicket or an unfamiliar slough.
Or a controlled burn like the one I ride into on Night 2.
A few logs glow orange. Everything else is black — the ground, the trees, the sky. I slow down, scanning with my lights for the charred trail. Several times, I ride the wrong way. Smoke fills my nostrils. I wonder whether my tires might melt.
I don’t have a contingency for that.
‘ABANDON ALL HOPE …’
The first alligator appears on Day 4 in the Bull Creek Wildlife Management Area west of Melbourne.
Swamp borders the trail on both sides, so there’s no easy way around the 5-foot long prehistoric leftover. And it won’t budge. I step forward; it hisses and rises onto four stubby legs. I step back; it settles onto its belly. This tango continues for several minutes before the gator slides off the trail and disappears under water. Over the next hour, I see a dozen more. Some big. Some small. All with that toothy smirk.
The ones I can’t see, the ones I only hear splash into the swamp, gnaw most on my psyche. It doesn’t help that every drop of the deluge that soaked Central Florida a few nights earlier seems to have flowed into the area. Water obliterates many parts of the trail. Time after time, I wade in on hope alone, rationalizing that there has to be another side.
At first, I scan each water crossing for those dead eyes and armored bodies. Soon, I tire and my guard falls.
In one pond the water level reaches my waist. I hoist the bike above my head, careful to tip it slightly forward to keep water bottles and other gear from falling out. I’m two-thirds across when I notice the gator on the bank 25 yards away slide into the water. It looks like it’s swimming away, but I don’t want to find out. I double my pace, gear be damned.
Eventually, the trail joins a tram line last used in the 1920s to haul out cypress trees. Fallen limbs and palmetto roots litter the strip of built-up dirt. I ride through several small, water-filled holes, but one is unexpectedly deep. It grabs my front wheel and launches me over the handlebars.
I haul myself out of the swamp, and pull the bike from the muck. Everything is wet — shirt, gloves, even my helmet. Blood oozes from a cut on my thigh. Something slimy and green hangs from my glasses. It’s 90 degrees, the sun is devouring me, and I’ve traveled a measly 10 miles in three hours.
I’m mentally shot, physically exhausted and ready to quit.
Why am I doing this?
Maybe it’s benign masochism, the catchy name for an emerging theory of human behavior. We are happy to be unhappy, goes the theory, as long as we feel safe. We not only chase the euphoria that follows completing something difficult, we also enjoy the simultaneous rush of positive and negative feelings during unpleasant or painful activities. The theory helps explain the popularity of horror movies and chili pepper eating contests.
The promise of that emotional smorgasbord may be why I end up splayed next to a rotted tree stump drenched in swamp goo ... and why I get up and pedal on.
NEXT STOP, CLEWISTON?
I often go hours without saying a word to anyone. My human interactions include handing a credit card to a convenience store clerk, or some yahoo yelling “Nice spandex!” out of his truck window.
For safety, I also mind my own business. So, on Day 5, when I see a man in a dress shirt and trousers filming me with his cellphone on a gravel road, my internal alarms go off. He’s yelling about something.
I’m 20 yards away when I recognize the guy. A year and a half earlier, during another race, I rode with Charlie Kemp through the Ocala National Forest. I had not met him before and have not seen him since. But there he is, standing next to his car in the middle of nowhere, cheering my arrival.
Late in 2014, Kemp became the first rider to officially complete the Florida Divide race. He holds the course record I am trying to beat. He knows that, but still this near-stranger found me using the GPS website and detoured from a South Florida business trip to give me a pep talk.
My legs feel heavy. My hands cramp from so many miles of bumpy, gravel roads. A painful saddle sore on my left sit bone forces me to stand up in the pedals every few minutes. I had planned to stop for the day in Buckhead Ridge, leaving the 50-mile grind into Clewiston for the next day.
“You can make it to Clewiston tonight,” he insists. “And then it’s just a couple days to the end.”
We part after only 15 minutes, but Kemp’s selfless gesture acts like a quadruple espresso.
That evening, on the Okeechobee levee, a confused snake briefly races next to my bike. It turns into my spokes, red-lining my heart rate. But I don’t stop. I’m too focused, too in the zone.
At 10 p.m., after a 155-mile day, I roll into Clewiston.
On my final morning, I break camp in the dark, feeling energized — less achy, more confident. I pedal onto the 24-mile Loop Road, a narrow gravel artery that cuts south from the Tamiami Trail near Monument Lake. Large-leafed Coco plums and Brazilian peppers press in on the road from both sides. Cypress limbs, crooked with age, reach down from the blackness like massive witches’ hands.
Splosh ... splosh ... splosh. Startled gators dart for the swamp. I hear them — a lot of them.
I pass Al Capone’s reputed winter home and pop onto U.S. 41 in time to catch the sunrise over the sawgrass prairies. My legs respond when I push for extra speed on the smooth pavement.
Zooming east, I feel so good that I ride by one of the most obvious turns on the entire 800-mile route. I’m 45 minutes down the highway when I discover my mistake.
Seething, I howl a torrent of unprintable words before laboring back to the turn. I cross a short bridge that spans a canal and ride up onto a gravel berm, where I find the arresting memorial for ValuJet Flight 592. The 110 concrete pillars, one for each person killed in the 1996 crash, provide a humbling antidote for my mini-tantrum.
A few hours later, I turn onto the final 38 miles of pavement that runs through Everglades National Park. I’m not much of a worrier, but during those final hours, my mind hums with potential disasters: What if my bike frame breaks (a virtual impossibility)? What if my knee locks up (which has never happened before)? Could I carry my bike 10 miles in the afternoon heat? What about 5? Surely, I could make it 5 miles, right?
I roll into Flamingo, body and bike intact, and dab my front wheel into Florida Bay. After nearly a week, my race is over.
“Hell yeah!” I blurt out — to no one.
After a shower, I buy an ice cream at the marina store and sit down on a picnic table overlooking a canal. I let my mind wander back to the last few days: The vicious head winds that blew through Devil’s Garden. The vultures that followed me into Big Cypress National Preserve. The ruptured saddle sore. The ornery cow. The way-too curious whooping crane. The thorny vine that tore into my knee. The back brake that stopped working for three days.
Sitting there, my mind is already rewriting those miseries into something more benign, scrubbing the danger, the fear, the pain, and leaving a more upbeat storyline. Even Bull Creek, once my nominee for Dante’s 10th circle of hell, takes on a brighter feel.
Maybe that’s why I did it: Not for the quick high that comes at the finish line, impossibly fleeting, like a puff of smoke on a windy day. But for the slow-drip of happy memories, however flawed they may be.
Graham Brink, 45, finished the Florida Divide Race in March in a time of 6 days, 6 hours and 48 minutes, the course record, for now. Contact him at [email protected] or (727) 893-8406. Follow @grahambrink.
BY THE NUMBERS
0 – Flat tires
1 – Shirt worn for nearly seven days
2 – Times a driver yelled something like “Nice spandex!”
3 – Falls, one into a swamp
5.75 – Average hours of sleep each night
10 – Length in feet of alligator resting on a dirt road in Big Cypress National Preserve
12 – Pints of chocolate milk consumed
13 – Dead snakes counted on road between Moore Haven and west Clewiston
15 mph – Headwinds while riding south out of Clewiston
$27.47 – Most money spent at a convenience store at one time
32 mph – Top speed (reached coming off bridge in Moore Haven)
42 – Approximate weight in pounds of bike and gear, not including water
155 – Miles ridden on longest day
848 – Total miles, including detours and navigational errors
37,563 – Calories burned (estimate)
302,400 – Pedal strokes (estimate)
Want to challenge the Florida Divide?
The official 2016 Florida Divide group start is scheduled for Feb. 29, but you can attempt the route as an individual time trial at any time. For details, go to singletracksamurai.com or check out Singletrack Samurai Productions on Facebook.