To Be Human
Don't give in. Don't stop. Don't give in. Don't stop. I repeatedly say these words to myself while climbing one of the last big hills on the Across Andes course in the Araucania region of Chile. The exhaustion, fatigue and fear cloak my mind like a sinister cloud, constantly reminding me of my injured state. My race is compromised. My mind and body are weak. Don't give in. Don't stop. I am angry, and for a brief moment, I am strong again. Don't give in. Don't stop. For a brief moment, I am invincible; but this strength is fleeting and once again my posture slouches. The desire to take a break overwhelms me, reminding me that I am human. Grinding my teeth, I keep pedaling.
It has been a full two years since I found myself in Chile. My previous experience was positive. With a successful race and a new community of friends, my desire to return grows with each passing month. So, when the Chilean boarder, previously closed from Covid restrictions opens, I jump on the opportunity to return. Access to the country is not easy in these pandemic days, and with less than a month before the race, I am still unsure if my trip will even happen. Two weeks before I need to fly south, I get confirmation and find myself, happily, scrambling to put together an international trip. When my plane touches down in Santiago after fifteen plus hours of travel, gratitude and excitement wash over me.
This edition of Across Andes takes place about eight hours south of the previous 2019 race. I am excited to finally see the beautiful landscapes of the Araucania region, with it's volcanos and famous Monkey Puzzle Trees; a sacred tree that, to the local indigenous Mapuche people, is known as the Pehuen. I am also excited to have the opportunity to race with other women, as I was the only woman who raced the first Across Andes. I am encouraged by my fellow female athletes. We are a small group, but together we represent the strength and tenacity of the female ultra cyclist.
Starting from Melipeuco, a small town near Conguillio National Park, just over one hundred racers set out. We have 640 miles, 47 thousand feet of climbing and three checkpoints to pass before we find ourselves back where we started. My goal was to cover about 200 miles within the first twenty four hours, a goal I proudly reached. The first day was one of the most beautiful. The landscapes inspire and move me in a way I did not expect. There are brief moments where I feel like I am back home in Colorado, other moments I am in the Pacific Northwest and still others where I am riding through a state in the Northeastern United States. This is nothing like I have experienced before. The landscapes are magical.
I make it to checkpoint one just before sunset. My mind is clear, and I am strong. Seeing all my fellow racers brings me a peaceful joy. Everyone wears a look of satisfaction, a look of accomplishment as we all eat a substantial meal; the first and last for many hours and miles ahead. I sleep a few hours on a couch in the lobby of the hotel and, with a strong desire to obtain my goal, I set out in the early morning hours. Checkpoint two, over 170 miles away, is my goal for the end of the day.
With over thirty hours into the race, I am about 250 miles in. I hold a steady pace, aware of the long road ahead, a road with rough gravel and big climbs. I consider the gravel on this course. It is rougher than I expected, considerably so compared to the previous race two years ago. This gravel is anything but hard packed. It is loose underneath with large volcanic stones on top. Washboards are a constant and I find myself thankful for the Redshift suspension stem I installed on my Rodeo Labs, Traildonkey. It is a lifesaver in this difficult gravel. The recommended tire size was 40c, but I opted to go a little larger, knowing that my hands and back would appreciate me more. The 42c Challenge, Gravel Grinders prove up to the task, but in this extremely rough terrain, I find myself wishing I opted for 50c tires. Pavement is always a welcome friend, and I use it to rehydrate and refuel.
I spend hours riding alone, until, in the late afternoon and only a few miles from checkpoint two, another racer catches me. A Frenchman and extremely strong rider, I enjoy his company immensely. Before I know it, and before sunset, I am happily arriving at checkpoint two. Dinner is my next priority, I am in desperate need of another solid meal. I decide to move down the road a bit after dinner until I find a bus stop. In my previous Across Andes experience, bus stops served me well as a place to catch a little shut eye. Finding one less than ten miles down the road from checkpoint two, I happily add some layers of clothing for warmth and attempt sleep. I only get a few hours, not the quality I was hopeful for. Constant barking dogs, lights flickering on and off and the occasional car awaken me almost every hour.
I set out, once again in the darkness of the early morning. This day is important to me. My plan is to take my pace down a little, saving a few matches for the last push to the finish line. The gravel on this stretch of the course begins to wear on me with its soft underbelly and washboards, but I am still strong, my pace is still steady. In the mid afternoon, my nose begins to send me an exciting alert. The ocean. I can sense its brackish smell before I see it. My pace quickens a little, checkpoint three is upon me.
I will never forget seeing the Pacific Ocean on this course. Cresting a hill, the suns rays reflect off the waves and shoot out at me like a beacon of hope. I hear the waves crashing. Yellow flowers blanket the coast line. The contrast of color is awe inspiring. It is mid afternoon and I have made it to checkpoint three. My mind first turns, once again, to food. I get my favorite meal in town, french fries, eggs, rice and tomato and ponder what my next move should be. I know I need some quality sleep, at least three hours should suffice, before I can hammer to the finish. I decide to get an Airbnb in a town about five miles north of checkpoint three.
I am thankful for a quick shower and a little shut eye. It is 11:00 p.m. as I roll my bike out of the Airbnb. I am excited because I feel strong. I will push harder than I have, burn every match and arrive at the finish in the mid to late afternoon. I am contemplating my path ahead when I hear the barking of dogs. Normally, I am not too scared of the dogs that chase me on course. They are usually friendly and not malicious in any way. However, this pack is different. I am not even one half a mile away before about four, possibly five dogs are chasing me. One catches hold of my right leg. I feel the teeth puncture my skin and I scream. I begin to reach for my water bottle to spray them; my hope is that this will scare them and give me time to charge away, but the dog on my right catches me again. I feel his teeth, once again, as they dig into the flesh of my lower leg. I scream.
It is 12:30. I have not made it even a mile down the road. I am frantic. How did I escape? Where did the hour and a half go? These are questions I still do not know the answer too. What I do know is this, I went into a state of shock. I text the race director, alerting them of the attack, but I say my plan is to keep riding. My desire to win is a stubborn one, I will not give in easily. I clean the wounds as best I can, and apply hand sanitizer, knowing I must be vigilant and consider the high risk of infection from dog bites. My body temperature keeps fluctuating. I am hot, and then freezing. I know I must go on.
I ride on, but not very fast. I keep stopping to look at the wounds. There is one that scares me. It keeps oozing. I stop to add clothes. I ride on 200 meters, and stop to take the clothes off. I ride on another 200 meters and stop to look at the bite marks. I keep spinning. On and on, and on and on, this scenario continues. "Ashley! You have to stop stopping, you must continue!" I scream this to myself in a tearful, angry state. I keep riding. The nausea is overwhelming and I do not eat even a small morsel of food. Five hours have passed and my pace, my mind, my body are weak. Why did I let the attack affect me so negatively? Why am I not stronger? I ask myself these questions as I continue to push. I know the answer. I am not invincible. I am human and currently, I am angry, scared and upset.
And then, there is a moment. A moment where I push past the fear and pain. A moment where I use my mind to succeed. I no longer stop to check my wound or change my clothes. I push on with a fury of determination. Don't give in. Don't stop. Don't give in. Don't stop. But, like a feather blown away so quickly by a wind, my strength dissipates. My mind wanders, my pace slows and the fear creeps back in.
Eight hours have passed and I have moved forward about seventy miles since the attack. My leg is oscillating between a throbbing pain and a tingling numbness. I check the biggest wound which is still oozing. I know the truth. Tears fill my eyes as I consider my options. After all this hard work, after a cycling season of little glory and major disappointments, this is to be the end? I know what I need to do and I hate myself for it. I finally answer the race directors pleas to have a media car take me to the hospital. It is time to end this.
I receive a rabies shot, tetanus shot and antibiotics at the hospital. I am not myself, with little food and a broken heart I require a watchful eye and close care, which thankfully, two gentlemen from the media crew, Pablo and Matthew provide. I will never forget, and will always be grateful for their kindness and care.
There is a large part of me that does not want to attend the awards ceremony, but I go. I feel embarrassed, I feel ashamed that I did not get to finish my race, but I still want to congratulate the riders who did see success, especially my fellow female cyclists. I am asked to present the award to the woman who won, which I agree to. Walking up on that stage I am bombarded with all those human emotions that I wish I did not have. I am angry that I receive no congratulations. I am jealous that these three women, especially the one on the top step of the podium, bask in the glory of the accomplishment. I rode strong, I tried so hard! But, so did these women. Each and every one of these athletes worked just as hard, rode just as strong, and gave all they could to reach their goal. I thought my most difficult moment in Across Andes this year would be found on my bike, pushing my body to the limit, but I was wrong. My most difficult moment was walking up on stage, hating my own petty feelings, presenting the first place award to another woman.
What does it mean to be human? To be human is to have limits. To be human is to be bound by feelings and emotions. To be human means to sometimes acknowledge your own immaturity. But, being human is also so much more. Each of us is a bundle of contradictions and complexities, capable of experiencing the joys of living and navigating our planet like no other creature. These human emotions that I want to fight so hard to ignore and push deep down are the parts of me that make my life worth living. I do not have to be defined by my achievements only, I am defined by what I overcome. In times of tribulation, it is my humanity that allows me to learn. It is my humanity that allows me to change and grow. It is my humanity that allows me to connect with other people, and in the end, it is this connection that I value more than almost anything else in our world.
Rodeo Adventure Labs Traildonkey 3.1
Knight Composites All Road/Gravel wheels
Challenge Gravel Grinders, 42c
SRAM AXS Drivetrain
Xpedo CXR Pro pedals
Selle Repente, Quasar seat
Lazer G1 Mips helmet
Oveja Negra: Gearjammer large seat bag, Bolt-on large snack pack, Chuckbucket handlebar snack bag, Bodega full frame bag.
Profile Designs Airstryke V2 Aerobars
Dawn to Dusk side loader water bottle cages - mounted on Rodeo Labs Spork
Sportful bibs, jersey, vest, arm warmers, glove, hot pocket rain jacket and wool socks.
100 % Sunglasses
Bontrager Ion Pro Rt front and rear lights
Anker battery packs - 3
Sierra Designs Bivvy
Extra tubes, patch kit, tire plugs, multitool, quick links - 2, sewing kit and hand pump
Minimum first aid kit
Spot Gen 4
Special thanks to:
1. The awesome folks at Rodeo Adventure Labs - I value your company and your bikes, and am proud to represent Rodeo anywhere in our world.
2. Mariano Lopez and Paulina Pinto - Two of the best race organizers, and two amazing people, thank you for your hard work and dedication to Across Andes.
3. My fellow women competitors - Thank you all for showing our cycling community so much strength and beauty.
4. Emma, Mai, Paublo and Tito - Thank you for making this trip about so much more than just a bike race.
5. Jackie Baker - Thank you for all the travel tips and encouragement! I could not have made it down to Chile without your help.
6. Ben Carelock - Thank you for loving me enough to let me go on such wild adventures.
Photos by : Matt Maynard and Pablo Ramirez Arias