At noon on Friday, Aug. 13th, my friend Scott Cunningham and I departed from the Wyoming/South Dakota border and headed east. We were planning to travel 412 miles in the next two days. We’d been planning this trip for months and it was finally time. We were both excited, nervous and a little scared.
Why the fear and apprehension? Well, we were planning to complete this trek by bicycle. 412 miles purely on human power. This is the Gut Check 212. A 48 hour, 412 mile bike race across the state of South Dakota on U.S. Highway 212.
I’m guessing you just said to yourself, “That’s crazy…why in the world would you want to do that?”
I can’t count the number of times someone said that to me or gave me that look in the months leading up to the event. I kept getting asked why I was doing it. I didn’t really have a good answer.
The race is organized by Josh Ellis in an effort to raise funds and awareness for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). That is a great cause and a wonderful thing to support and I’m proud to do so, but I’d be lying if I said that was the reason I was doing it. Past that explanation, the only response I could think of was “because I want to see if I can do it.”
If you’re an endurance athlete you’re probably thinking, “Yep, that’s a totally valid reason.” If you’re not, you’re thinking, “still crazy.” It was good enough for us. I signed up and soon after Scott followed (I may have called him a pansy if he didn’t follow suit in that friendly, persuasive way only a friend would).
People asked if we were ready. We had no idea. Who rides their bike that far? I guess there are some people. We really didn’t know. As the summer and training rolled on I began to simply answer in levels of pain. The better shape we were in the less painful it would be. That was the basic equation. I already established I would be finishing (I’m stuborn like that). It was just a matter of how painful it was going to be. We didn’t get nearly as many training miles in before hand we had hoped. I’ll leave it at that.
We pedaled off with 15 other “crazy” cyclists. A beautiful tail wind at our backs on that Friday afternoon. We’d been watching the weather patterns for two weeks crossing our fingers we’d have a wind like this. Or at least not one from the opposite direction. It looked promising, but we all know how South Dakota weather has a way of surprising us.
The first 50 miles went really fast and outside of dealing with a little traffic (it was the last weekend of Sturgis Rally Week), it was really quite easy. We were off to a great start. Both feeling good mentally and physically.
If you’ve been on Highway 212 in western South Dakota you know the terrain is barren, very undulated and actually quite beautiful. I’ve always thought it looked like a fun road to bike. It is fun, but let me tell you, it really loses its luster after about the 25th hill you have to climb.
We hit Faith early Friday evening after a half-day of riding hills in the heat. We were a little tired, but overall feeling good. We had 114 miles down and had been making solid time.
We took a break there for a couple hours to rest and refuel, hang out with Sue and listen a cowboy announcing the rodeo (Faith was celebrating its Centennial).
This turned out to be a fairly common place for a rest by other riders. There were a few of us relaxing in temporary parking lot camp sites. We really hardly ever saw any of the other riders. There were a few occasions, but for the most part we felt like we were out there on our own.
There wasn’t any plan to start, but after some discussion we decided to try to make it to Gettysburg by sunrise Sunday morning.
Riding at night is an odd experience. Especially out in “God’s country”, as we South Dakotans call it. This is a different kind of darkness. We used lights on our bikes and the lights of our support vehicle to light the way. It actually worked quite well. There temperature dropped to a very comfortable level.
There’s a raised level of concentration needed that wears on you mentally. It would probably go unnoticed on a normal ride, but after riding more than 200 miles in about 16 hours (100 miles in complete darkness) it really starts to become taxing. Some freshly resurfaced portions of the road were completely black and seemed to suck up just about all of our light. It was almost claustrophobic.
We cruised into Gettysburg as the sun was rising. We were both spent both physically and mentally and in need of a rest. Our support crew (Scott’s dad Vern and another biking buddy, Bruce Johnson) found a place to park the van so we could get a little sleep. Wonderfully enough the van seemed to be built to handle someone about 6’ tall quite well (I’m 6’3”). I didn’t get much sleep, but the time off the bike was welcomed.
After a little downtime after 200-plus miles of riding and looking at 200-plus more miles to ride, it’s easy to let your attitude slide. We were both having a bit of trouble telling our bodies and minds to get going and then it started to rain. Think of what sunshine can to for you. Rain at this point did the complete opposite. We were surveying the weather via our phones and it looked like it would be just a short shower. So after a little more rest we headed out again.
Now we had a straight tailwind. The next 80 miles would cruise by. Before we knew it we were having a bite to eat in Faulkton. Things were looking up. The distance to the border on the atlas was starting to actually look attainable.
A detour just outside of Faulkton took us on a fairly rough road. It lasted for 40 miles and seemed to wrap in every direction. The combination of the surface and being forced to do some stretches directly into a strong wind beat us up pretty good.
We fought our way into Redfield. I swear a road I’ve driven hundreds of times was all of a sudden tilted uphill. Once in Redfield we were able to head straight east again and take advantage of that nice breeze out of the west once again. We flew to Doland.
The stretch from Doland to Clark is uphill. Not very much mind you. Probably unnoticeable by car, but I can assure you it is without a doubt uphill. This was about a 20-mile stretch and it definitely got the best of both of us. Our support crew was parked right outside of an ice cream shop in Clark (that we’d frequented earlier in the year on the Tour de Kota) assuming we’d be up for a cone. The ice cream is homemade and it is amazing, but we were not in the mood.
We ate and drank and began to have some doubts. We decided to just get back on the road and keep moving. We soon forgot and just kept pedaling. The pace slowed and we had to take more breaks off the bike.
I got a flat about five miles outside of Watertown. To put it nicely, I was not very excited about this turn of events. Bruce was great and right on top of it and had a new wheel on within a few minutes. We made it to Watertown just as the sun was setting.
It had looked like we had a chance to avoid another night ride earlier in the day, but we didn’t make it. We strapped all the lights back on and kept pedaling. We continued along at the same pace.
We were starting to count mile markers (we tried to avoid this up until this point), 14…12…8. We took one last break to stretch out for a few minutes. The finish was so close. We both tried to concentrate a little more than we had been. This was not time for a wreck. I was flat out tired and I’ll say it took substantial effort just to focus on keeping the handlebars straight. Four…two…where’s that one-mile marker…it has to be coming up…there it is…one.
Before long we saw the huge “Welcome to Minnesota” sign. What a sight. I like Minnesota, but I’ve never been so excited to get there before. With huge smiles we snapped some pictures and reminisced about the last 35 hours, trying to take it all in.
We didn’t break any records, but we made it. Without really knowing what we were getting into, that was the goal and we were completely satisfied with the result.
When people hear about the ride, they still ask why I would want to do something like that. I just smile and say, “why not?”