I lined up for the start of the Stagecoach 400 Bikepacking Race on Thursday, March 24. After 53 hours and 27 minutes, Jesse Reeves and I reached the finish, taking a joint win. After the race, I wrote up a total of 9 short race recaps that I posted to Instagram and Facebook. The following recap is essentially those 9 posts copied and pasted below.

Part 0

This is an appreciation/thank you post for all things @stagecoach400. Thanks to my family for always having my back, supporting my silly endeavors, and being patient with all the time I spent away while training. Unconditional love is amazing. I know my family would love me just the same, regardless of whether I was first or last. Thanks to @79jenjo for dropping me off and picking me up in Idyllwild. Thanks to @speedmeow for all the things you do to organize and run Stagecoach 400. This is a special event. Thanks to @theseasonedbikepacker for allowing me to crash in your hotel room the night before the race and for sharing training miles together. Thanks to George and Jalene at @binarybicycles for your constant support. My Binary SSP was perfect for this event. Thanks to the entire crew at @flagbikerev for keeping my rig dialed and for being patient with my last minute requests. Thanks to Wes Gregg at @hypo2chiro for playing a huge roll in making sure my body, especially my hip, was healthy enough to successfully complete this adventure. Thanks to my therapist Craig Davis for helping me develop additional skills for managing my mental game. I started seeing a therapist a couple months ago and I highly recommend it! After struggling emotionally with my son’s health on the heals of my father passing away, I decided to do everything I could to optimize my potential to be the best father and husband I can be. Thanks to @lwcoaching for putting together awesome training plans and to @spokenerd for helping me dial in my training the last few weeks before the race. I have a love-hate relationship with training plans, but there’s no denying that they work. Thanks to @dispersed.bikepacking and @roguepandadesigns for the awesome bags on my bike. Thanks to @jessedreno for bringing out the best in me (well most of the time) and for sharing in the experience. The relationships that develop in such a short period of time during these events will never cease to amaze me. Finally thanks to Travis Richardson for lifting my bike onto the car at the finish. I might have just left it on the ground otherwise;)

Part 1

I’ve been wanting to do @stagecoach400 for a few years, but unfortunately my academic position does not allow me to take personal days during the semester, so I wasn’t sure if I’d ever make it work. However, I happen to be on sabbatical this semester, so my time is a lot more flexible. I had originally hoped to do an ITT of AZT, but that seemed a bit ambitious given my current condition of my hip. So I signed up for SC400 a few months ago and started training. I mostly followed a pre-baked plan from @lwcoaching, but often had to modify it due to work/family constraints. Due to weather in Flagstaff, the majority of my riding was on trainer in garage. I backed way off on training the last few weeks as I was feeling a bit overcooked. In the past two years, my racing has consisted of one DNF due to a crash, so I really couldn’t gauge what would be reasonable expectations for race. My goal was to push myself hard, learn something new, and finish. Check x3. @79jenjo dropped me off in Idyllwild the night before the race and then she headed to Disneyland to watch my kids perform in a jazz gig. I’ve never missed one of my kid’s events that I could have attended and I’m not sure I’ll do that again.

I crashed on floor of @theseasonedbikepacker’s hotel room but barely slept due to an annoying and loud drip. Not a great way to start a bikepacking race. We awoke to icy conditions! It was great to chat with lots of folks before the start and before I knew it, we were off and riding/walking in snow. My feet were wet within minutes and this would be a constant theme throughout the race. I found myself in the lead group early on. I got to ride with 13-year old(!) @edynteitge for a bit. By roughly mile 40 I was alone off the front. I was surprised by this and tried not to get to excited about it. It’s a long race! I think I did an excellent job of riding within myself. I hit the first resupply at Warner Springs at mile 52. Shortly before heading back out, I met @jessedreno for the first time and close on his heels was @whatswrongwithpaez_ and a couple others. So far so good. My head was rock solid and my body felt pretty ok.

Part 2

I think @jessedreno caught up to me around mile 72 while descending one of the most beautiful sections of the course. We rode together off and on for a few hours, each of us putting little digs in to assess the other. Jesse and I were on fairly different bike set ups and were rarely going exactly the same speed. Despite his rigid dropbar setup, Jesse would often ride the mellow single track faster than me and he would always get ahead when he could get in his aero bars. I’d catch up and maybe get ahead on the climbs.

Around mile 102, we bumped into @ezra.ward.packard who was out taking photos. Around mile 110(?), I got ahead of Jesse and didn’t see him until the next morning. My next planned supply was mile 120, where there is a McD’s and gas station pretty much right on route. I had asked @gregg_sees_the_world about this resupply a few days earlier and he told me it was easy to get to. It might be easy to get to but in the dark, I could not figure out how to get from the trail I was on to the parking lot that was only 100 feet away. After many false starts, lots of cursing, a ridiculous amount of bushwhacking through a homeless encampment, I made it. It probably took me 30 minutes. I wasn’t keen on leaving my bike outside McDs at this particular location, so brought it inside until I got yelled at. My return to the route wasn’t without drama but eventually I was back on track. At this point I checked the tracker for the first time and was bummed to see that Jesse was now several miles in front of me. I took it in stride and set off towards San Diego.

The next 50 miles ticked by quickly but was frustrating as I struggled to figure out which way to go several times and took a few wrong turns. I also got stopped by a train that was leaving the docks for about 20 minutes. It was also a little disheartening as I passed likely a hundred homeless people, a few of which appeared to be teenagers. The juxtaposition of the giant Tony Stark-looking homes just a short distance later was unnerving. I got a small puncture in my front tire around mile 175 but was able to plug it quickly.

Part 3

My next planned resupply was at a Cirlce K shortly off route around mile 182. Unfortunately, I had to ride through a waist deep pond just a couple miles before getting there. I was soaked and cold when I rolled into the resupply around 3am. I was really looking forward to getting warm and dry, but the gas station attendant had no interest in having me hangout. I talked him into letting me stay until I finished my coffee and then headed back out into the cold.

The next 20 miles are a bit of blur as I pedaled towards the town of Alpine. Once the sun came up, I felt like a new person. I was thrilled when the golden arches of McDs came into view at mile 204 in the town of Alpine. I lingered here for a long time, getting warm and drying off. The tracker indicated that Jesse was also nearby, but I was skeptical that he was really still around. Eventually I mustered the momentum to head back out.

About 30 minutes out of town, I was surprised to see @jessedreno on the side of the road changing layers. I had assumed I wouldn’t see him again. We chatted about our adventures during the night and started the incredibly long climb to Lake Cuyamaca. This portion of the course was by far my favorite. So much climbing, but absolutely stunning.

After Jesse and I resupplied at Lake Cuyamaca, we entered the Anza-Borrego desert. I had heard of the descent down Oriflamme, but I had absolutely no idea what it really entailed. Wow. Just wow. My descent went relatively smoothly, but I knew Jesse wasn’t going to enjoy it very much. The bottom of Oriflamme was a literal river and I rode in the water when possible. I bumped into Rich Wolf, who was out dot stalking, near the bottom. We chatted for a few minutes and then I was on my way to Agua Caliente. The pavement was a welcome repreive. I stopped at the Agua Caliente General Store to restock on water and grab some ice cream. Jesse Salisbury(?) and his partner happened to be there, as well as another bikepacker that flew by me when I was descending Oriflamme (these 3 not affiliated with race). I think Jesse arrived at Agua Caliente about 25 minutes after me.

Part 4

When we left Agua Caliente, it was evident that @jessedreno and I would be riding together for a while. However, we both made it clear that the other should feel free to ride away whenever the need/desire should arise. At this point, I was content to ride the whole rest of the way with Jesse, but also open to the fact that he may feel otherwise. It also seemed unlikely we’d be able to maintain the same pace for another 113 miles. My plan was to embrace the good company for as long as it lasted.

A few miles of pavement led us onto the left turn onto one of the infamous sand sections of the course. Neither of us really had any idea how long this section was or how long it would take. My impression from things I had read was that I might need to lower my tire pressure in order to ride the sand or perhaps walk for long stretches. I was prepared to deal with whatever the route threw at me. Or so I thought, anyway. The first few miles weren’t so bad, which raised my confidence. The sand was very rideable, but certainly not fast. However, the washboards were horrible and starting to wear on us. As the miles of washboards piled on, my hands and ass were taking serious punishment. We stopped having fun about halfway through this section. Jesse and I tried to make light of the situation to improve our moods, but our bodies were hurting more and more with each mile. After what felt like an eternity, we bumped into @speedmeow and two of her friends. This provided a temporary boost; enough to make it to the end of the “wrist and ass pulverizer zone”. As we turned onto the chunky pavement that headed towards Ocotillo Wells, the sun was just beginning to set and the wind was starting to increase. Jesse took off like a rocket! It was all I had in me to keep him in sight. We rolled into the porch of the Iron Door Bar (mile 300) around 8pm.

We crumpled onto the bench outside the bar, shaking our hands out, and contemplated our future. Could we make it to the burrito shop in Borrego Springs by 10pm?

Part 5

As @jessedreno and I sat on the porch outside the Iron Door, we had several entertaining conversations with the patrons that wandered outside. It was nice to sit on something besides our bicycle seats for a moment. After faffing about, we commit to trying to make it to the infamous Borrego Springs burrito shop by closing time (10pm). It’s only 19 miles on pavement and we have about two hours to make it. How bad could it be? Shortly after leaving the bar, @speedmeow drove past us and moments later, I watched Jesse zip up the road on his aerobars. The headwind was absolutely brutal. I settled into my own pace and hoped I wouldn’t arrive in Borrego Springs too far behind. The efforts of the past 36 hours with no sleep were starting to catch up to me. The wind was crushing my soul. This was by far the hardest part of the race for me. About halfway to Borrego Springs, I caught up to Jesse as he was putting in some headphones. I pedaled past knowing he’d catch me. The elevation profile indicates that we weren’t climbing that much, but I felt like we were going up and up and up forever. We had some reprieve from the wind when the road turned northwest, but I almost got blown off the road a couple times. Jesse caught up to me with a couple miles to go. I was pretty convinced we would make it to burritos. But then the road turned uphill a little and our speed dropped. It was going to be close. I could see the lights of the center of town. Two minutes until they close. It’s further than it looks. We roll up to the door of the burrito shop at 10:01pm. They are already counting the drawer.

We end up resupplying at a liquor store, which had everything we needed. As our food and gear is spewed across the sidewalk, we decide to risk having a nap. We are at mile 318 and it’s been 38 hours with no sleep. After wandering aimlessly around town for several minutes looking for a place to hide out of the wind, we settle on sleeping behind a wall in the middle of the giant traffic circle in the center of town. We agree to rest for an hour and 15 minutes. It feels great to lay down, but I only sleep for 10 mins. Enough?

Part 6

After a less than speedy repacking of the bikes, @jessedreno and I rolled out of Borrego Springs around 12:30am. Somehow we spent 2.5 hours there! I certainly wasn’t setting any speed records, but I was feeling pretty alright. By this time, I had fully embraced the idea of finishing with Jesse, but I also knew that anything could happen. My priority became embracing the shared experience.

Soon enough, we were climbing up Coyote Canyon. This is another of the notorious sand sections, but it was smooth sailing. As the road approached the infamous Willows section, it become much less enjoyable. We were getting tired, the wind was hollowing in our faces, the temperature was dropping, and the road turned from sand to chunky rock. After what seemed like an eternity, we had reached the Willows. The Willows is essentially a creek filled with thickets of willows. We knew there was some pink ribbons helping mark the way, and both of us had seen recent videos of the “entrance” into the Willows. We easily navigated past the first few pink ribbons, but then we could not figure out where to go. We attempted to follow foot prints and tire tracks, but each seemed to lead to nowhere. To be honest, I was really happy I was not there alone in the dark! After much zigzagging around, Jesse suggested we head up high on the opposite side of the creek. I responded with, “That can’t be the way. If the route crossed over the creek and entered from the opposite side, I’m sure someone would have told us.” I was wrong. Once in the Willows proper, it resembles a scene out of Indiana Jones. We pushed our bikes up the creek, ducking and weaving under tree branches. Forever. I’ll admit that I didn’t enjoy this part very much.

After exiting the Willows, I was looking forward to getting back on my bike. But it wasn’t to be. We pushed our bikes for the next several miles. This is an excellent example of why people say that bikepacking races are mostly mental. We were freezing our asses off, working hard, and feeling like we weren’t making progress. Just as the sun was starting to rear its head, we reached a landmark called Bailey’s cabin.

Part 7

Coyote Canyon was a taker of souls, but now the sun was up. @jessedreno and I were ready to lay this beast to rest. 35 miles to go! Shortly after a steep hike-a-bike section, I decided to turn my phone on to let my wife know roughly when I would finish. My phone exploded with notifications. Most of them were congratulatory messages, but one notification caught my eye. “Don’t look now, but I think you are being followed” was the message from my buddy Courtney. The accompanying screenshot made it clear that Adam Haughey and Sarah Didier (@labelibula) were hot on our heels. My heart sank. I had not given any thought whatsoever to anyone catching us. The last time I glanced at the tracker, we had a considerable lead. And we certainly weren’t lollygagging! I relayed the information to Jesse and he looked stunned. If Adam and Sarah maintained their relative pace, it seemed they would easily overtake us. I looked at Jesse and said, “I don’t have it in me to hold them off. Get after it. I’ll see you at the finish.” He had the eye of the tiger and took off like a rocket.

As I watched Jesse power away, I spent a few minutes feeling sorry for myself. I thought, “Being in the front this long and then finishing in the top 4 isn’t so bad.” But then, I thought, “Fuck that. You wanted a challenge. Let’s go to battle.” Maybe Adam and Sarah would catch me, but I was going to make them earn it. I thought about my dad that passed away in August. I thought about my mom currently battling back from a hip replacement. I thought about my son that has been battling chronic pain. I thought about my brother that passed away when he was 11.

It didn’t take me long to catch Jesse. He gave me the “fuck yeah dude, let’s do this” look. I hammered up every climb. Jesse would get ahead on the flats. Before we knew it, we only had a few miles left. The finale consisted of hike-a-bike in the snow. My AXS derailleur stopped working with 3 miles to go. I didn’t care. Jesse and I rolled into the finish together after 53 hours and 27 minutes. Finishing with Jesse was perfect and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Competitors now friends.

Part 8

I’m psyched with how the race went and I’m over the moon that my hip allowed me to pull this off. Most of my body has recovered well, but I still have numbness and tingling in both hands and my left foot. I’ve spent so much time working on mitigating these issues, but I’ll keep trying to find ways to minimize the damage. Reflecting on the race, there are a few things I would do differently.

I lathered up my face and neck with zinc sunscreen, but neglected to put any on the white stripe on my wrist where my watch usually goes. Moreover, I foolishly opted not to pack my sunscreen. That white stripe on my wrist was bright red when I finished. Doh! I also opted not to bring chap stick, thinking I could use my SNB saddle butter if necessary. However, the peppermint(?) in the saddle butter was not friendly to my wind and sun scorched lips. I packed my thyroid meds, but completely forgot to take them. Thankfully this didn’t seem to catch up with me. Next time, I’ll put an alarm on my phone to remind me. When I stopped to lay down in Borrego Springs, I should have elevated my feet. This might have helped a little with the ridiculous swelling in my feet and lower legs. I’ve been avoiding aero bars due to the position they put my hip in, but I think they would be advantageous on this course and would certainly help alleviate some of my hand issues. I had a whopping extra 9 miles. Part of this might be GPS inconsistencies, but most of it is due to riding off route for resupply. I thought I did an excellent job planning out my resupply options, but now that I’ve ridden the route, I know most of those extra miles were avoidable. In addition, a couple of my resupplies were horribly inefficient.

If there was no snow at the beginning/end and I optimized my resupplies, increased efficiency in a couple places, and rode a little faster in a couple spots, then I could see taking 4-6 hours off my time. Don’t be too impressed. Tom Schwemberger (@tschwemberger) completed his ITT of the route a few days after the grand depart in roughly 38 hours, roughly 15 hours faster than my time. Whoa.

Dana C. Ernst

Mathematics & Teaching

  Northern Arizona University
  Flagstaff, AZ
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  Flagstaff and NAU sit at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, on homelands sacred to Native Americans throughout the region. The Peaks, which includes Humphreys Peak (12,633 feet), the highest point in Arizona, have religious significance to several Native American tribes. In particular, the Peaks form the Diné (Navajo) sacred mountain of the west, called Dook'o'oosłííd, which means "the summit that never melts". The Hopi name for the Peaks is Nuva'tukya'ovi, which translates to "place-of-snow-on-the-very-top". The land in the area surrounding Flagstaff is the ancestral homeland of the Hopi, Ndee/Nnēē (Western Apache), Yavapai, A:shiwi (Zuni Pueblo), and Diné (Navajo). We honor their past, present, and future generations, who have lived here for millennia and will forever call this place home.