Huracan 300: Bikepacking Hundreds of Miles with a Broken Chain through Florida Muck
2 days, 9 hours, 16 minutes (and little sleep).
I got an itch to ride the Huracan 300 again. It’s been two years since I was there last, riding swamps in the middle of the night. Both my inaugural year 2016 and the next, 2017, were not enough to kill my need for sweat and swamp water. This is probably because 2017 was picture perfect at 337.5 miles and 48 hours pretty much on the nose, with 5 hours each night sleeping, very little water swamping the trails, and a mere hop and skip through Devil’s Creek. This was much better than my first ride, in 2016 which brought road and trail closures due to high water.
I got talking with the gung-ho regulars, TNGA Braap, the stylish Chris, and strategy meister Chase, to plot a Florida “vacation” on Huracan 2019, which this year turned out to be 375 miles thanks to Karlos’ additions.
We got into training a little late, but still managed a few good rides, including a 70 mile gravel and singletrack combo out of Suches which took in a good part of the Southern Cross course with 7,000 feet of climbing. That proved to Chase and me that we were gonna make it through the Huracan, but we still needed a bit more. A rainy day, “short” 44-mile ride on the gritty Dirty Sheets gravel route was eerily prescient for what was to come on the US’s southernmost peninsula.
We capped off our training with another fine Southern Cross segment with Chris just to psyche ourselves up 6 days before race start, with the goal of keeping our legs moving without over-stressing.
A second Chris (Hale) entered the equation, and my partners were happy because he also had Huracan experience. But I figured that my sales job for doing a 2.5 day ride was in jeopardy since these guys, all faster than me, didn’t seem interested in starting early or riding through the night. As I guessed, my buddies got poached, deciding that more days riding equals more fun, so I had to flex.
We looked at the mileages and campgrounds, and the 3C’s (Chris B., Chris H., and Chase) figured 127 miles on the first day would be maxing it out, so I would ride with them for the first day at least (it’s great to have company on these big rides)! I needed to get to Clearwater Campground near Paisley by night two, mile 293 or so, in order to be in position to go the last 70 miles on Day 3 and finish in the early afternoon, whereupon I’d have to hightail it back to Atlanta for class on Tuesday (grind sections are perfect for lesson planning). That meant riding a few more hours into the night the first day, maybe to mile 155 before camping for me.
The 2019 race started at Shangrila Campground, and I reserved for four nights so our cars could sleep in style. Chase, Jacob, Jen, Joseph, and I spent Friday night before the race in this luxury locale. The two Chris’s got fancy and stayed at a hotel and pulled in to camp the next morning. We would’ve started riding at 7am, even though the official race start was 9am (why waste the daylight?), but we waited and waited for Karlos, the race organizer, who hadn’t received the spot tracker delivery yet. The devices were supposed to arrive at 7:00, then 7:30, but then pushed to 8:00, thereafter maybe at 8:30. We just waited and waited, and I’m thinking I need all the time I can get since I have to finish a day or two earlier than the rest of the crew in order to get back to Atlanta. I wish I was on their plan, which was four or five days, since it promised to be a lot of fun, but at least I was going to ride with them the first day before continuing on my own.
The 2019 Huracan 300 route is actually 375 miles long, and at 8:45 a.m. we finally decided to start, damn the trackers because we’re not really racing, just riding to finish. We figured the fast racers were going to pass us within an hour on the first 10 miles of singletrack because they were traveling really light, while we have tons of gear. To start, we would ride 10 miles of singletrack in Santos, then finish with another 21 miles of singletrack in the park at the end. This was really cool so we can both start and finish on the best of trails.
The trackers finally made it at 8:45am, just as we were about to leave, so Chris and Chase grabbed theirs and we got out of there. Sure enough, we’re cruising along and half an hour into it the fastest racers are passing us. So we kinda pull over for them, because we’re not pushing that super hard, but Joseph (a.k.a., Opie) sees the racers go by and bolts to chase them.
Zoom, zoom, zoom he’s chasing them down, and my yell of “Joseph, get back here” is unheeded. Nope, he’s gone. This is his MO — he wants to race. The five of us keep going along and one guy has to pee, and then we get going again, but have to stop when another has to pee. Starting and stopping, I’m sweating just sitting there waiting even though it’s only 60 degrees. So I’m like, “oh man, I’m just going to soft pedal while you guys catch up after you get it together.” I ride a mile or two and I can hear them behind me, so I’m still soft pedaling, but I can feel myself going a little bit faster trying to gradually get up to a good pace. I cross a busy road by catching the perfect opening between cars just as I approach. I make it across quick and easy, continuing to the other side on singletrack.
I could hear the others back there, stopped by the cars. How long? I don’t know, but a long time, so I just keep on. It’s not even an hour in and I’m already riding alone despite my plan to be with them for the entire first day. I pedal along, but they’re not coming, and I keep looking back, and they’re still not coming. So, I decide to just go into my regular pace and finish up the singletrack, feeling great despite the heavily loaded bike. I get around Dunnellon over to the Withlacoochee Bike Trail, via the Florida Bike Trail, and see Joseph at the intersection, sitting there totally tuckered out.
“Man, I went out way too fast,” he says. Joseph is really fun to ride with; he kicks our butts, but this is a 375-mile ride, not a sprint. I ask him if he wants to ride with me, since nobody’s with me, but he says he’ll wait for the others. I continue down the bike path, then go through a zombie neighborhood where it’s all paved and only one or two houses -a construction project from 20 years ago never completed. “What the heck, I remember this from a couple years ago,” I thought. It has nice trees and stuff, but like the Walking Dead show, there’s nobody around. Now I’m just following the trace, looking at my maps and going along.
I finally come out and get to the Withlacoochee Bike Trail (Muskhogean for “crooked river”), and there’s this section where I have to turn off and I kinda miss it, just as somebody else shoots by.
I turn and I kinda catch up when I realize it’s Jen. All I know is she’s Jacob’s girlfriend, and her whole plan, since she’s a badass, is to go as light and as fast as she can so she can kill it. Jacob is just hoping to survive, but she’s competing to win. I recall Jacob saying she planned to finish two days ahead of them.
So I got on Jen’s wheel and just started riding along, riding along, thinking this is great getting a pull, though a bit faster than I’d anticipated. She seems to be mid- to late-twenties, a bicycle mechanic, and as fast and motivated as you can get.
We go along and I start thinking “oh, shoot, she’s carrying basically nothing, and I’m sitting here loaded down with all this crap.” It feels like we’re in two different races, but I’ve done this before and it’s nice to have somebody to move along with, kinda pace along and chat for a while, even though we’re going as fast as I want. I’m hoping she’s not planning to go any faster though, because if she does and I try to keep up, I would become Joseph. For a while, we just pace along. She’d slack a bit, then I’d pull, then we’d switch off again. It’s beautiful out.
We get off into some singletrack, and she’s on a cross bike where the light weight is really good for the road sections, but on the singletrack I have a bit more fun with my suspension fork. We continue cruising and we’re having a lot of fun, just talking and she’s telling me bit about her zen philosophy, which I take to mean that I should just shut up and ride. We just kind of zen out and go, go, go.
We cruise through all this singletrack and then path and then road, until we finally get to this place called Lake Lindsey Mall, the first actual control point, about 65 miles from the start. There’s no mall here, just basically a country store and gas station. We refuel, get our stuff together, and are ready to take off on the road toward Croom Forest, about ten miles away. This will be the next major singletrack section of about 30 miles. Before we leave the Mall others start coming in, including the 16-year-old kid Joe, and Graham who rides with my wife on her long brevet rides. They’re both as strong as all get out, and I’m not racing with them, but curious how we got to the Mall before them; a mechanical issue I guess.
I chat with Joe’s dad, who I’ve met on a Dirty Mustache (a local group) ride or two. Jen and I head out, figuring they’ll eventually catch us in Croom.
We get out and into the singletrack, riding and riding, boom, boom, boom, all this winding back and forth. We’re just cruising, and I’m telling Jen about the party pace camp where the 4 or 5 day riders typically stay, about five or ten miles into Croom. The last few years you had to do all 31 miles of singletrack at Santos right at the start, and that put the Lake Lindsey Mall control at about 85 miles. This made the timing work to hit the party pace camp at dusk.
I get a text from Chris B, asking if I’m missing a water bottle. Yup, musta flown out of my fork-mounted bottle holder on a bump. They’ve got it now, and it turns out that Chase had forgotten to fill his bottles at Lake Lindsey, so it’s just what he needed!
Having only done 10 miles of singletrack at the start, we’re way early at the party camp. This year you’d have to be going pretty slow to stop and camp here. We get cruising, doing every bit of singletrack in Croom, and hit a pump-track-ish trail called “Drunken Monkey.” This pump track stuff is fun but slow going, and I’m getting tired. We follow the race route on the Garmin and go into Drunken Monkey, riding about a mile and a half, cruising, though we get off the bike a couple of times to push the harder stuff. Finally, we exit.
Coming out of Drunken Monkey we see the fast group with Young Joe and the others, who had caught up with us.
“We were wondering who that was in there,” they said.
“Aren’t you going to do it?”
“No, we’re not doing that shit.”
I say, “What do you mean, you’ll get DQ’d for not doing it.”
“Naa, if you’re going counterclockwise it’s optional because it’s a one-way trail and they don’t want us to destroy the trail.”
I ask Jen, “are you listening to this?”
But she confirms, it was in the trail guide. Ouch. So we shouldn’t have done that. Now we’re riding with a group of eight or so, but at least we get bragging rights for having ridden Drunken Monkey!
I chat with Joe for a while about our Ranger trails in Suches, and eventually he and his crew want to go faster, so they ride off ahead. We finish up Croom and catch up to them again at a pavilion on a bike path just as a light rain starts falling. It’s dusk. Jen and I stop for a minute, but then just kept going. We come out to a gas station, and it’s getting dark and raining.
Young Joe catches up here, and we refuel with a Coke and a V8, and I get a liter of water to replace the lost bottle. Then one of the guys with Joe realizes he dropped his phone on the bike path five miles back. (He was wearing a North Face rain jacket where the interior pockets actually have holes in them – I dropped a phone that way too once). So he decides to go back and Joe is with us.
We also pick up a new guy named Charlie, who had just turned 50 a couple weeks before and is training for the Great Divide ride. He’s as strong as it gets. So now there’s four of us and we’re finally cruising along into the Green Swamp, where the “crooked river” Withlacoochee starts. Here we go through lots of puddles, and with and a “bit” of mud, and my chain starts sucking up (friggin crooked, I curse). I have to get off and fix it so I tell those three to go ahead. It’s already 9 pm or so, and off they go. I lube my chain, clean things off a bit and roll on.
About 15 minutes later I get to Meg’s Hole, one of the two major creek crossings, and there they are. What the heck, how am I catching them?
It turns out they’re trying to figure out the crossing, shinnying across a log they read about on Facebook, and passing bikes over. That’s what gave me time to catch up.
Jen shouts across, “Can you go grab my bottle? It’s floating down the creek.” So I wade out to my waist and grab it. She’s real happy since she has three big bottles, and losing one means you have to find a replacement. This save means one less complication. If you’re dumb enough to lose a bottle, you’d have to buy one or something. Of course I had done that myself already.
After I caught Jen’s water bottle, I waded with my bike over to the shinnying log, Joe stretched out a hand to get my bike, but I figured it was too tough passing the bike over, so damn heavy, and I didn’t see myself straddling that log, so I took a couple steps, up to my rib cage in the creek, and stepped out, easy as pie.
Now we’re riding and riding, farther into the Green Swamp on some new stuff that wasn’t on the route a couple years ago (this is a good portion of the extra 35 miles this year). We jumped a couple fences to stay on route, and then shoot, we’re again blasting through puddles, and once again, my drive train is getting mucked up, so I limp along.
Then, my chain breaks. Since the others are racing, I don’t want to slow them down, I say, “You guys just roll. I’ve got tools, I’ll fix this. No problem.” Eventually there will be others coming up from behind, so if push comes to shove someone will ride by the next morning.
It’s already midnight or so, and I sit down mid-trail and get out the tools to fix my chain, a broken power link. The bad news is that the chain is also bent and has a couple of seized-up links. So I get out my pliers and bend the links here and there, trying to straighten things out. Then I bend the chain with my hands, and try to work the link that’s still frozen up. I lube it and bend it, but it’s still stuck. Crap, I swore I had two power links, but I couldn’t find the second one.
So I put the chain back together and figure I’ll just baby the thing along. Hopefully it will work out. But the chain won’t stay in any gear, it just skips. I finally get into the smallest cog on the cassette and this more or less keeps the derailleur from cranking up on the frozen links because it’s fully contracted. So now I’m just single-speeding along listening to it going click, click, click, skipping all over on the frozen links.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. About half a mile later I ran into the nastiest mucking stuff you’ve ever seen. It seems like recently some horses had gone through this section up to their mucking knees, and it’s impossible to get off to the sides to go around since the trail is surrounded by swamp. So I have step in and out of the horse holes, pushing and carrying the bike, occasionally on top, more often down under. There’s just no possibility of riding. Picture craters on the moon, except with heavy gravity. And man, it smelled nasty.
I pushed and pushed through a mile, a mile and a half — who can tell — and I’m like as worked as can be. But I do find another water bottle someone dropped. It turns out the trail takes a toll, but the swamp gives back sometimes, too.
Finally I come out to rideable two track, skipping that chain along, and get to a mud road that I can barely ride, all the while I’m thinking “When is my chain going to break?” A mile later I come out to a camp with some RVs. It’s already 1 a.m. by now. At this camp I can hear their generators running, and the route goes right through the camp, so I go past a hundred yards to a high spot, and continue following the Garmin trace down an improbable slope and look out at another dark swampy road leading to who knows what.
It’s another 15 miles to traverse the Green Swamp. Thinking over the situation, it’s 1:30am, there are people here, and I’m about to break my chain. If I break my chain in the next section I’ll have to walk/push 15 miles to get out at 3 or 4 am, depending how far I get before the snap. That would suck and not make sense.
I decide to camp right here. I can get directions out in the morning and catch an Uber. So I go back to the high spot and pitch my tent, set out my sleeping bag, and try to unlace my shoes. But the Boa lace system is frozen from mud-whacking knee-deep in horse piss swamp muck road. As much as I tried, I couldn’t get it unlocked.
I think about how my mountain bike fashion consultant Chris B. had assured me these Boa systems are guaranteed! Unfortunately, that’s no help now. I pry my wet, muddy socks out of the shoes and wipe the sand and mud from the bottom of the socks.
After three hours of sleep, I wake up, pry on my shoes, and get out of my tent into the dark to pack everything back up. It’s maybe fifteen minutes to first light. All of a sudden, trucks are coming into this camp. I’m like what the heck? Why are they coming into camp before dawn? Anyway, this is my chance to get directions outta here, so I ride over fully packed.
It turns out this is a group of Boy Scouts or something, and the dads are driving back into the camp after going out before dawn to set up hunting stands not far from our route. This is the “youth hunt” says Dad 1. They set the boys up right beside where we are riding,
“Y’all be careful” he says.
The dads are looking for coffee and breakfast, and I point into the swamp and ask them if they know where the road comes out, kinda in the direction of the trail/route. They reply, “Naa, don’t know, never been there.”
So I say, “You guys came in from the other way. So how far is it down this road until you get out of here?”
I ask how the road is, because I just went through the nastiest junk you’ve ever seen, and I’m about to break a chain. They say it’s good limerock road, a kind of gravel they have in Florida, with little mud.
Great, I’m going that way to get an Uber as soon as I break my chain.
So I ride out of there, finding it’s actually just three miles on this road to where we had come in to this section of the Green Swamp. I get out to the intersection and start looking on my phone thinking okay, my chain didn’t break yet, and I’m at 180 degrees away at the farthest point on this great circle from the start.
I text the Huracan Group and tell them about this nastiness: “Broke chain, marginally fixed with kink still. Camped 133. Jen and Joe continued. Heads up, a mile of nightmare slog through total shit in water and mud…” I suggest others go around to Van Fleet Bike Path.
I ride three miles out of the swamp and see a better way: “Real beta to skip the nasty mile: when you enter green swamp wilderness preserve, at immediate v take the road on right 3.0 miles to rejoin trace at a hunters camp with half dozen vehicles tents and RVs. More than obvious. It’s a left 90 degree turn here and you’ve been on trace for awhile by then.”
Unfortunately, this message was too complicated. I should’ve sent a picture because the rest of the group repeated my nightmare, for better or worse, sending this picture:
Later in the day I learned that a lot of folks were skipping this section because someone had posted to Facebook about its nastiness. Go figure. Crooked River crooks the riders too. Anything goes in the swamp.
I pass through the Green Swamp gate, at a six-way intersection of paved roads and gravel, looking at maps on my phone. I know from the 2017 Huracan and this year’s map that Karlos took out the Van Fleet Bike Path section, inserting that Green Swamp horse piss swamp muck road. The Van Fleet Bike Path intersection is at the old 135-mile mark, which couldn’t be too far away since the Green Swamp exit at mile 155 crosses the path. I figured since my plan was to plot the shortest course to get back to the start, every mile I take off is a cheaper Uber fare once my chain breaks. Maybe I can make it the whole way.
The tiny town of Evan is near a major road and figured I could get an Uber anywhere that busy. Evan was about 11 miles away on paved road, so I started off.
On the way I’m still single-speeding, my chain skipping, so I just try to keep it from breaking by stepping lightly. It’s a misty morning fog, and I see a dark blur streak across the road. I hope that it’s the legendary Florida panther, since that would at least be some bragging rights on this mud-whacked DNF. It’s 7am and 60 degrees, fog all over.
About half a mile from Evan I run smack into the southern trailhead of the Van Fleet Bike Path, just where I camped at 2am two years ago with Mark and Aaron.
Since my chain hasn’t broken yet I figured, oh, this is great! It’s seven miles up to rejoin the race route at mile 155, where I had originally hoped to camp before the chain stuff. I’m also at a bathroom and water fountain, so I hose off my bike and talk with the ranger.
By the time I hit mile 155 of the original route my mileage is reading 156.5 miles. I’m back on trace thinking, okay, I’ll keep riding this course until I break this chain, then call an Uber.
More and more miles click by. Now I’m wondering why I haven’t broken my chain yet, but I still only have one gear, and am still riding single-speed. But at least it’s flat and the path is paved. I decide not to press the pedals too hard, and I know some of the good stuff is ahead. I’ll just keep on going until, well, let’s see.
All this time I’m calculating: on night two I wanted to be at Clearwater Campground, and that’s at mile 270 (I remember incorrectly). I’m at mile 155 now, which is a long way away. Okay, but it’s only 9am. Just keep on riding,
I don’t know if my chain will work, but whatever. I’ve got one gear, I’m just riding along and it’s flat, and paved. The route turns to sand for a few miles, but I can get one extra gear that doesn’t skip out.
Somehow as I’m riding along it’s not skipping with two gears anymore, so I try one more gear and it skips, so I still have to run the lowest gears. I’m thinking to myself that the place I really want to get to, the best part of this ride, is Lake Apopka. The lake is at mile 220 or something like that, and it’s my favorite part of this ride. So I’m thinking to myself, if I can get to Lake Apopka before my chain breaks it’ll be a treat. Before this is Clermont, another 10-20 miles away, and the brewery control point.
I really want a beer now, so I’m motivated to get to this control, but it’s not early, about 2:00 pm. Shoot, I gotta get a move on; there will be no beer for me (that’s for Chris and Chase, I lament).
A bigger bonus, however, is that a block away I see there is a bike shop, Epic Cycles. I stop to buy a chain. Unfortunately they don’t have a chain available, but they do have two 11 speed Powerlinks. For the first time today it occurs to me that I might just make this ride work – I can now repair my chain if it breaks! Cool.
I text Brad and the guys with some optimism. Now to Apopka.
First things first: between Cleremont and Apopka is a big road section about 17-miles long where all the road riders play on what they call the Florida Pyrenees. I climb Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point in Florida at about 273 feet.
I’m trying not to push hard on the uphill to keep the chain together. It’s quick going, but not all that interesting, perfect for writing chapters of a book in your mind as the pavement rolls by. Finally, the road leads into Apopka, and I can’t wait. I’ll get to ride gravel levees stretching about 15 miles around the lake, with a chance to see alligators and other wild beasts. If my chain makes it around Lake Apopka I’ll be that much closer and will also have seen the best stuff.
My chain still isn’t broken, and it’s actually skipping less and less, giving me a couple more gears. Now I’m up to three or four gears with hardly a skip.
I get into the Lake Apopka area and I see one racer going clockwise, ascending to exit Apopka in the other direction. Just when I get near the lake itself I see two bobcats right in front of me, together, before they fly off into the swamp side. Two together? It’s not spring yet, even here, well maybe…
I see some alligators out in the lake, and I see all kinds of waterfowl. This is exactly what the doctor ordered. Not what one might expect from what was once the most polluted lake in the US.
After about 10 miles in I see another bobcat. This bobcat is on the lake side, and as he crosses in front of me over to the pond side I hear him going “mwaap, mwaap…. mwaap, mwaap.” Weird.
First of all, these bobcats are dark, something like brown or blackish, and I’m thinking this is unusual. Secondly, I’m totally close to him, and he’s still making that weird noise. So I turn around to go back to see him and that funny noise, since he didn’t seem to have gone deep into the swamp. Who the heck are you? He’s going “mwaap, mwaap.” I’m like what? What is this sound the bobcat’s making? What cat cries “mwaap?” It sounds more like a duck. Anyway, when I get back closer he shoots into the swamp and I turn around and proceed on route.
It’s beautiful out here and the sun is sinking lower. In fact, as I get near the tourist entrance people are watching the sunset. A car in front on the one lane gravel dyke nearly runs into me a 3mph so I yell “Hey!” They’re gonna run right into me at 3 mph.
“Sorry,” says the driver. I can’t blame them for watching that sight I guess.
I exit the lake and head for the town of Apopka another 5 miles under the highways. Here I stop at Hungry Herman’s and eat a cheese pizza, fill up my water bottles, and plug in my helmet light for a little bit, as it was already dark and had I spent a lot of battery the night before fixing my bike. Fed and wired, I get on the road.
Now it’s a seemingly endless section of upscale neighborhoods I don’t remember from before. I weave through this sorta country club area trying to guess what Karlos could have been smoking to route us this way. Trying to show us the high-end of swamp town? Eventually I exit the Stepford Wives sub-division onto the singletrack toward Big Buck Canoe Camp, which will be the last major creek crossing.
Now it’s about midnight. I run into a couple riders going the other way who tell me the creek’s nipple deep, with a sandbar to trip on, and there’s a big group camping on the other side. I approach the camp and creek, and there’s a tent there in the dark, no sound. I look through the branches into the dark water and start wading right across without thinking too much.
I remember to head to the bank about 30 feet to the right, and with my bike balanced on my helmet I get deeper. No matter what, I’m not going to let any water touch my nicely-lubed and now marginally working drivetrain. A couple steps into the sandbar and water up to my chest, then out of the deep and about 30 more feet to shore. From here you gotta turn about 75 feet left along the bank to get on trail. I push into a camp of about 7 or 8 riders, some in hammocks, one listening to the Super Bowl. I ask them how’s it going, remembering that at Hungry Herman’s I actually saw the kickoff as I waited for my pizza (3-3 in the fourth quarter).
I can’t stop here with this group if I want to finish in time, so I go on along the trail and get into a few deep sand double track sections that require pushing. But this will lead right into the invisible “palmetto singletrack.”
Two years ago this was clearcut of palmetto, so it was easy to ride, unlike in 2016, when riders had to guess which of the surrounding shoulder-high palmettos hides the trail. In 2016 I guessed each hidden trail perfectly as I led four other guys through this eerie section at midnight. This year I’m on my own doing what Chris B. would later call the “ghost trail.”
Since I keep running into puddles, I have to constantly jump on and off the bike like a cyclocross racer, as I refuse to ride through all the sand and the muck. I’ve gotta protect my drivetrain, after all. After about 2 miles of this I emerge onto a two track that I remembered from before, and I’m thinking this will be great, a mile or two on doubletrack and I’m out of here. But crap, there’s so much water again I now find myself carrying the bike through 75-100 foot long puddles, no telling how deep. I pick up the bike and carry knee deep at spots, dodging snakes here and there.
Still, I focus on the good: I don’t want anything to touch the drivetrain since it’s “working,” and I gotta keep it that way. Why is it working? I don’t know, but the sand and mud from the day before got cleared out, and maybe the chain link freed up with all the lube I put on it. Plus, maybe the long road sections where I was really cranking acted as a “straightener?” It’s a good thing this was a new chain to start with.
Finally, I exit onto a road, stopping at the gate of an RV campground to recharge my helmet light for a quick 10 minutes. According to my Garmin I should be about 5 miles from Clearwater Campground, but it’s taking forever, so maybe it’s 10 miles. Its 1am now, and I’m hallucinating from fatigue. My bike feels like it’s wandering.
I roll into Clearwater at about 2:30 a.m. with my GPS reading 293 miles. (I screwed up that calculation earlier in the day I guess). Ouch.
But now I’m just a quarter mile off the Paisley Woods Trail singletrack, right where I want to be. I find an empty campsite, throw up my tent, and put all my food into the bear box. Once again I pry my shoes off, hoping I’ll be able to get them on in the “morning.”
Three hours later I’m up, squeezing into my shoes and packing gear to start the 11-mile Paisley Trail singletrack. It’s going to be nice a trail ride, but the problem is my rear tire is low. My weaving around the night before was actually due to my tire being low, not delirium. So I pump it up and ride over to start the singletrack. It’s still dark as I leave the campground, and I’m thinking I’ll ride until light to fix the tire if necessary.
Unfortunately, the tire is still going down, and the sun is coming up at around 6 or 6:30. It’s only the first mile of singletrack and the tire isn’t holding, so I stop and change out the valve core, and pump it up. The tire still doesn’t hold air. I put in a tube, pump it up, and get on trail.
This singletrack is fun and straightforward, but my Garmin isn’t working, saying I’m “off course.” No way. I look at my cue sheet and see a note saying to just follow the yellow blazes. I eventually exit the singletrack right at the entrance to Alexandria Springs State Park and my tire is low again. I head to a picnic table next to the entrance, fill my water bottles, and talk to the ranger at the gate. I have to change to my second tube, but it’s looking good.
As I talk to the ranger I mention I’m going into Ocala around the bombing range. The ranger says, “you know it’s closed for bombing, right?” Right.
Bombing through the Huracan
The day before the race Karlos posted a reroute because of the closure, so I told her I had a way around. She pulls out some map she says has “new” numbers of the dirt roads and we figure out the reroute. I ask for a copy, to put into my cue sheet holder. The ranger is dubious about this reroute, figuring a lot of the roads I’m pointing to are closed. (The locals all know about these things it turns out).
I reset my Garmin, get a satellite connection finally, and get on track on a chip seal road. Thirty seconds later, a couple of people on bikes turn out in front of me. Who could it be? I speed up, and they slow down. It’s Jen and Charlie. It turns out I had ridden through their camp at the Big Buck Canoe Camp crossing.
Jen tells me Young Joe is out, due to a painful rear end. I totally understand, especially since I had used two ziplock snack bags of Lantiseptic myself to ensure I’d be able to sit down all the way to the end. I learned my lesson back in 2017 when I stood up for the last 16 hours because of butt pain.
Jen is nursing her knee. We ride together for about 10 miles to a country store checkpoint. I get some food and drink, but Charlie and Jen are not quite ready to head out yet. It’s Monday, 10:30 a.m. and I have 60 miles to the finish, including 20 miles of singletrack. I’m driven by the knowledge that I have to get in the car and drive home that evening. Unknown territory lies ahead too, since I still have to go through sand roads around the bombing area. I apologize for abandoning them and get on my way.
I’m perfectly on track with Karlos’ last minute reroute. I hit Forest Road 30, go a few miles, and see a gate up ahead saying “road closed.” A voice off to the right says “sorry, guy.”
I turn around, ride up to the truck and say hi to the bored DOD contractor, who tells me they’re bombing today. I give him my spiel about knowing the immediate roads around the bombing range are closed, but our slightly larger reroute loop is supposed to be open.
He says, yeah, but they’re bombing today and the DOD changes its mind about what to close. I tell him I don’t hear any bombs, but he says, “they’re flying off a carrier in the gulf, don’t know when they’ll arrive.” Signs also indicate this is an “electronic warfare area,” so the DOD probably isn’t going to exactly advertise their training schedule — today it’s closed until 4pm, he says. It’s not even 1pm yet and I gotta go. So I pull out the map and show it to him, asking about the other roads. He points to road 19, and says it’s nasty with fast traffic and semis, but I’d only be on it for a couple miles. Then, if I go west on 40, which is also fast with semis, it should be better because it’s got a shoulder and passing lanes. That’ll do. Dang pavement again.
I text Jacob with the map and tell him how to get around this new re-reroute, and ask him to forward the info to Jen. I also mention the DOD contractor says that Karlos’ reroute is supposed to be open the next day when the rest of the group comes through, but they better check then. Fortunately they had no problem.
I ride back on sand, and head over to pavement on road 53, connecting with 19. It looks like 20 miles around and out on the pavement. Fortunately there’s a 3-foot shoulder, so things could have been worse.
Forty five minutes later I get a call from Jen. She lets it ring 2x and hangs up, which is the signal we worked out the day before because I’m not digging the phone out for every call.
I call her back as she’s talking to the DOD guy at the closed gate. Electronic warfare has kept the text from getting from Jacob to Jen. I confirm the road reroute and tell her I’ll figure out how to get back on course and then text her and Charlie the details.
I restart the Garmin to get the off route road names and it’s working well, but since I forgot to turn it on for about 5 miles, I get no mileage credit. I finally hit the outskirts of town, and stop to check my phone. It’s only a few miles to FL 314a, where I can head south a couple miles and then run back into the Huracan course. I text info to Jen. A half an hour later I’m back on route, with about six or seven miles on pavement that turns to gravel heading toward the Marshall Swamp singletrack.
A few miles of singletrack erase the road boredom, and I am standing up just in case since I don’t want to risk a pinch flat on the rear. There’s a little mud here and there, unlike the Green Swamp midnight drudgery. The sun is out when I hit the paved bike path, and I’m again cruising onto four or five miles of road to get to Santos. The nice thing about Santos is the bike shop across from the entrance. It’s somewhere before 4pm, which is tight timing, so I run in to buy a chain and tube for insurance.
The owner jokes, “we can close early tonight” because it’s pretty expensive. He asks if I want a beer. I say yes, but no, since I have 21 miles Santos singletrack to the finish. I do say I need to pump up my rear tire with just a little more air to avoid a pinch flat. I take off the valve cap and the core top falls/breaks off. Ouch. What can I do? There’s still air in it, but it’s going to get dark around 6:15 or 6:30, and with 21 miles of fabulous singletrack, it’s going to take some time. I don’t have any helmet light power left, which makes tight turns in the dark problematic. But my dyno bar light is fine. I figure I gotta finish before dark or it’ll take a lot longer to navigate those tight twists and turns without a headlamp.
I get on trail, but now my butt hurts enough that I ride standing up in my highest gear with my small chain ring. The bike feels like my singlespeed. Cool. I have a chain and a tube so I can fix problems if necessary, but I gotta try to get back before dark. Standing up is good for my butt and also to keep my rear tire happy (I don’t want to spend even 15 minutes changing a pinch-flat).
Now I’m cruising along in meditation, standing up singlespeed fast, transcendentally winding through late winter leafless trees as the gradually sinking sun obscures my vision of the trail. I have to just guess where to turn. A visor would be nice.
I do about 15 miles but it feels like it’s 20 (I must be near the finish, right?), and pop out at the start of the 5-6 miles of Nyal’s Trail. I’m tired so I pound a couple more espresso gels, but the fatigue continues, making it seem like I’m going in circles. I start to doubt myself as it seems like I’ve seen every turn, every tree, every rock before. Am I off course? Nope, my Garmin trace looks good, but the hallucinating feels like I’m going in circles again. Just follow the Garmin, up and down, in and out of little pumptrack sections.
Finally I finish Nyal’s Trail and it’s 1.4 miles singletrack to the campground race finish. I pull in to the finish just at dusk. Nobody is around. I’m not surprised since that’s the way it always goes on these big long rides where the racers are spread all over the map. I have to keep my momentum going, so I quickly break down camp, throwing my bike and everything else in the car. A hop in the shower feels great. Then I’m outta there.
Driving the first two and a half hours I’m solid, talking to my wife, psyched to have finished. Flashes of highlights from the last three days surface to tease me. But it’s dark and I’m fading fast, so now I fuel up and get into a new rhythm: sleep 10 minutes, drive 45 minutes, sleep 20 minutes, drive, sleep, drive, repeat. At 3am I hit home and the Crooked River waters of the Green Swamp finally subside.
Inspired by Jacob’s lyrical ruminations on horse piss swamp muck road, what he calls “swamp of sadness,” I spin from epic to poetry.
The Swamp Taketh The Swamp Giveth Keep Riding Feeding