That smell. The smell of food stands and urbanization. It reminds me of a border town in south Texas that I visited as a child. Why am I pedaling my bike through a border town at night? What is this strange dream I’m experiencing. I can hear my labored breathing and the gears on my bike turning, all to the sound of dogs barking in the distance. I look up at the stars; Orion is flipped upside down in a handstand. I slow down to take a breath at a bus stop, and then I remember the hills. Hills that are steeper and more omnipresent than those in my home of Colorado. I see them through the darkness looming over the city. As if awaking from the dream, I know where I am. I’m outside of Santiago, Chile. I am racing my bike roughly nine hundred miles across the Norte Chico region of Chile, it’s 1:30 a.m., I only have about ten miles left.
Six months prior to the first ultra endurance cycling event in Chile, I began to have an itch to compete in a bike packing race. My first race, the Colorado Trail Race, was the highlight of my previous racing season, and it left me craving more. After a quick search on Bikepacking.com, I found the event, Across Andes, and immediately started planning.
The Norte Chico (near north) region of Chile is extremely mountainous. The Andean Cordillera rises quickly from the Pacific Ocean, creating narrow fertile valleys contrasting sharply with the arid desert hillsides. Descending into a lush valley from the dry mountains always left me with a fairytale feeling, as if the green plants came to be by some unknown magical force.
The morning of November 30th, I stand shivering at the start line of Across Andes as the only woman taking on the challenge. At 6:00 a.m. we take off at a conversational pace. I remain silent as my fellow competitors chat lively, Spanish words circle around me, words that I barely understand.
All racers are required to make six checkpoints during the race, and checkpoint one is the most crucial. Located in a small town called Petorca, about 130 miles from the start line, a participant’s race will be over if they cannot make it by the end of the day. My goal is to arrive in Petorca by 6:00, giving me plenty of time to consider my options for continuing or catching a few hours of sleep at the checkpoint’s hotel. I arrive in Petorca around 5:30 in third place, feeling the heat from the day’s ride. On the first day, it was the heat and the overwhelmingly strong sun that became my enemy, an enemy that I will continually battle as the race progresses.
I decide to stay at the hotel and catch a few hours of sleep since camping options are limited over the next fifty miles. Four other racers and myself split a hotel room. I am happy for the company, and even more happy that three of them speak excellent English. All the men keep saying to me, “Ashley, you’re the only woman! All you have to do is finish and you’ve won.” I smile sweetly at them, but my internal monologue is much more aggressive. I want to scream, “Don’t you know, I’m racing YOU.” Despite my competitive attitude towards these men, I cannot shake the feelings of admiration and friendship. They share my love for ultra endurance cycling, and despite our many differences, I have hope that they are my tribe of people.
I leave the next morning at 1:00 a.m. This will become my typical schedule. I ride to the checkpoint, eat a huge meal, sleep a few hours and get moving early the next morning, or in some cases late that evening. I want to put as much mileage in the cool hours of the night that as possible. The heat and sun continue to be my kryptonite, sucking my strength and vitality, consistently reminding me of my humanity. I tell myself that the sun cannot be as bad as I in the mountains of Colorado, but I am wrong. The sun in South America has the ability to cripple even the strongest of athletes, and when combined with the heat, it can bring anyone to a halt. This force of nature is my constant enemy, and I have the utmost respect for it. I move slower during the day, taking advantage of any shade I might find. My only consolation while battling this enemy is found in the faces of my fellow racers. I know we are racing against each other, but we are fighting the sun together.
I make it to checkpoint two the following day, still holding third place in the solo category. I spend a few hours eating, replenishing my supplies and resting my legs, but decide to continue riding since there was at least four more hours of daylight. I ride until sunset. It’s so amazing how quickly the air cools once the sun drops below he horizon in a desert ecosystem. As the air cools my desire for the warmth of my sleeping bag grows, and I stop to get a few hours of sleep behind a bus stop. My sleep is interrupted by a herd of donkeys who come to check me out. I try to go back to sleep, but the sound of a spinning hub soon wakes me. I quickly pull out my cell phone to check the track leaders site. I expect to see one of the guys who stopped at checkpoint two, but it was someone new! Until that point I was in second place. This new guy, just took second place by riding through the night. It takes me less than five minutes to pack up and begin chasing second place.
I pass him in about five minutes while he takes a break at a bus stop. I charge on, determined to stay towards the front. In about an hour, my body cries out for a break, so I take a few minutes at another bus stop to enjoy some dried fruit and walnuts. As soon as I sit down, the rider that I am battling with over second place zooms past me. I tell myself to stay calm, we were only a little over 200 miles in, giving me roughly 700 miles more to fight for my position. It was that moment I decide that I WILL finish in the top five.
While contemplating my strategy, a police vehicle pulls up to me. It’s 2:00 a.m., and I’m feeling a bit frazzled. Two officers step out of the car, I’m frantically pulling out my cell phone, opening Google Translate, and hoping we share the same idea of what constitutes good policing. They start the rapid fire Spanish that is so common among Chileans, and I give them my common “deer in the headlights “ look. I can understand a few words and realize they are asking me to get into their vehicle. I refuse, naturally, and use Google Translate to try and explain the race, what I’m doing and who I am. The older police officer is trying to explain how dangerous it is for a younger woman alone on the streets. Simultaneously, the younger officer is inquiring after my name. This back and forth continues for at least five minutes and I am anxious to get back to riding. When the younger officer ask me for a selfie and shows me my Instagram profile, a weight is lifted off my shoulders. It occurs to me that they are just concerned about my safety and they really want to help. After the selfie photo shoot, they give me an escort out of town to safety.
The road to checkpoint three is one of the most difficult days I have ever experienced on a bike, but it is also one of the most beautiful. Early in the morning, I find myself riding through one of the magical, lush valleys. Pisco grape vineyards dot the road, bougainvillea drape the walls of homes and buildings, parrots sing in the trees, and I am smiling. The magical feeling of the landscape takes me as I pedal through the cobbled streets.
The magic soon dissipates as the day’s heat climbs. And, as the heat climbs, so do I. I realize that my water supplies are running dangerously low, and I need to restock before heading into the wild. Nearing the end of town, I ask an elderly gentleman if he knows of a place to purchase water. His face is weathered, but his smile is so genuine, wrinkles on this gentleman can only be described as laughing lines. With a vivacity I would not have foreseen, he runs to the back of his home returning with two large water bottles. He is happy to give me this water, a precious resource in Chile. His generosity is emblematic of the hospitality I so frequently encountered.
The steepness of the gravel road to the city of Vicuña is unprecedented. For the first time in over 300 miles, I push my bike. The sun beats down on me and shade is nonexistent. I feel like I am in a time warp, on a road that will never end, on a mission that I will never finish.
Hours later, I reach the last climb, seeing the town of Vicuña below. I have less than half a liter of water remaining. Washboards greet me as I make the descent. I arrive at checkpoint three in second place, tired and anxious for some real food. I decide to grab a hotel room and rest for a few hours, determined to wake up early and get moving. I know third and fourth place are right on my heels.
At 11:00 p.m., I quietly leave Vicuña. Checking the track leader website, I confirm that during my few hours of sleep, I dropped down to sixth place. The disappointment of losing second is soon overtaken by the beauty of the night sky. I have never experienced a night sky so clear, so brilliantly beautiful with more stars than I know exist. As the sun begins to rise, I pass one of my competitors sleeping at a bus stop. I smile as I move past him, as quietly as possible. With this, I take fifth place.
The road to checkpoint four is long. I almost drown in the oppressive heat, but arrive right before dark, holding steady in fifth place. I eat a huge meal of French fries and roasted vegetables, restock my supplies and sleep about three hours. At 3:00 a.m. the next morning, I am back on the bike, determined to catch fourth place.
I know I will not make it to checkpoint five in one day. The distance from checkpoint four to five was over 200 miles. I arrive in the town of Cabildo, in need of rest and food. It’s about this time that an unforeseen complication arises. I purchased a Chilean SIM card for my phone which which worked beautifully in terms of coverage, but I failed to monitor my data usage. I arrived in Cabildo without the ability to use Google Maps. I try my best to ask directions to a local hostel, but my poor grasp on the language is a barrier. Almost an hour later, I am wandering the streets in near tears, dirt on my face, people looking at me with pity in their eyes. I start to consider my camping options, but I know it will not be safe to camp so close to a big urban city. I need to press on, but I also need food and rest. I stand on the street corner, paralyzed by exhaustion and hunger. And then, someone behind me says “Ashley!” I turn around to see a nice young couple smiling broadly at me. They are crossing the street towards me and all I can do is wonder how they know my name. I tell them I need help. It quickly dawns on me that they know I need help, and they have come to show me the way to the hostel. I’m fighting desperately to hold back the tears that are about to burst from my eyes, when a voice catches my attention. I turn around to see a group of teenagers and children, all holding cellphones, cellphones with my dot visible on the track leaders website. Words cannot give my feelings justice, and I continue to hold back tears as this enthusiastic entourage guides me to a hostel.
I rest a few hours at the hostel before heading to checkpoint five. My goal is to make checkpoints five and six in one day. I make my goal, crossing through checkpoint six in fourth place. The race organizers saved the most beautiful and brutal climb for the end, and I am happy to take in the scenery at checkpoint six. While admiring the epic mountains, I quickly realize that I can’t stop to rest if I want to finish in the top five. I settle into task mode, diligently moving forward, finishing at 2:00 am, in fourth place. I ride 215 miles on the last day. It took me five days and twenty hours to complete Chile’s first ultra cycling race.
In the end, it is not just the expansive, beautiful views that bring me so much joy during this event. It is the people. My fellow competitors, the race organizers and volunteers, the people of Chile, they are the reason I excelled, and they are the reason I might go back next year.
* For a shorter version, check out my article in Bikepacking.com ! :0)
Special, SPECIAL thanks to:
1. The race directors and volunteers of Across Andes. The event was well planned and fun!
2. To the folks at the Amy D Foundation. I would not be the cyclist I am without your support and encouragement.
3. To the AMAZING folks at Pearl Izumi. Your clothes and shoes kept me comfortable and your kindness towards me kept me wanting to work harder out there.
4. To my parents for always being there for me, and always encouraging me — even in my crazy goals!
5. To my best friend and husband Ben. You always believe in me more than I believe in myself, thanks.
6. To ALL the folks who donated to Little Bellas. With your help, I raised about $5000!! It was enough to start a Little Bellas chapter, which will continually give little girls the opportunity to ride bikes.