The alarms were being set later each morning. Even with Jason so close, I couldn't fathom a 2 am alarm. I was deep into two weeks of constant aerobic exercise, and the last few days had added countless hours of extreme heat. I was losing weight rapidly, and some self preservation was in order to ensure a finish line arrival.
The morning was uneventful- I think I might have added mustard on my cold Subway club. You know, spice the routine up!
I was prepared for another day of rollers, and in the back of my mind I knew we hadn't experienced the most volatile sections of Missouri yet. The scenery still lent itself to the possibility of a roaming dog, keeping me constantly scanning the landscape for any movement in the brush surrounding the trailers that scattered the road sides. The route seemed to enter and exit pockets of national forest, which were welcome signs as it provided relief that dogs would likely not be present.
The fog was thick this morning as the sun rose, making visibility slim. Sweeping turns around steep descents were difficult to judge, my hands slick with humidity. I couldn't complain though, as the temps were mild and traffic was light at this hour of the morning. My first stop would be Eminence; I had scouted a restaurant that would open at 7 am, but as I looked at my clock I knew I'd be rolling through town before then. You really never wanted to wait for a restaurant to be open; it felt like wasted time, and in this moment with Jason on my heels I was looking for every minute of forward progression. Eminence was sleepy and quiet. Luckily, there was another small family restaurant open just across the street. I walked in and had an immediate choice- smoking or non-smoking? It had been some time since I'd been in a smoking restaurant, nothing really separated the smoking section from non-smoking. Everything smelled like smoke, like a run-down Las Vegas casino. I ate quickly, and got on my way. As I paid at the front counter, I asked if the waitress could fill up my water bladder before leaving, which still had traces of a diluted lemon-line Gatorade mix. She jokingly asked if it was urine, and I obliged her oh-so sharp wit by chuckling back with a muffled "no". In the moment, I wish I had a more serious answer to give her, such as "Well, yes... didn't you know? Drinking your own urine is a great way to recapture electrolytes and has been shown to lead to reduced chances of brain cancer" or something like that. I had no sharpness for that in the moment though; on from Eminence!
Cell signal was spotty in this entire area, so I couldn't tell where Jason was but I had to assume he was moving, and likely closing. I was also working to reset my spot tracker as it was starting to have constant issues with tracking. I knew Donncha wasn't far ahead, and wanted to keep a pulse on my mileage separation to him. With Jason's recapture imminent, it was nice to think of an opportunity of offset that with the a potential passing of Donncha. The goal at this point was to maintain position.
Between Eminence and Ellington, the rollers steepened. Quarter mile pitches of 15%, up and down. Over and over. Compounding this was the gravel mix scattered all over the roads. Apparently Missouri's approach to repaving a road is to apply a very thin layer of loose gravel over the top, and then just let it sit there, hoping that it absorbs in. Descending steep grades with road conditions like this was pretty treacherous, and no chances were taken. We were still deep within the forest, on a two lane highway with dense vegetation on either side. The views were amazing but they were being clouded by the concentration on the road. A great deal of horse trailers were also on the road, which constantly pushed me over into the shoulder. If you can't tell from this blog post and the last , I very much did not enjoy the riding in Missouri.
I remember passing a few touring cyclists on this stretch. They were from Europe and we chatted for a bit as we rode. It had become a bit of a fun conversation to have with tourers, always beginning with "where'd ya start?" and followed by "how long ya been riding?". You could see the shock wash over their faces as you answered. The typical follow up question would be "where is your support car with all your gear?" Another fun one to answer. We chatted for a few more miles and said our goodbyes.
I stopped in Ellington to top off supplies. I chatted with the store owner who informed me of some very dangerous sections of road ahead. He warned of the tight, blind turns on Highway N; no shoulders and fast drivers. Great. He was so adamant about the danger that he encouraged me to find another route. I informed him that I didn't really have that option, but that I would take great care in that section.
The rollers settled down after Ellington, changing to some long gradual climbs on well paved roads as I headed north towards Centerville. Centerville stands out in my memory for the gracious country store owner that pampered me. Apparently she had just purchased this old single pump gas station, and was in her 2nd day of doing business, still working out the kinks for sure. Her shelves were stocked with various snacks and treats, and was eager to accommodate anything I was looking for. We chatted a little as I perused the shelves, and ice cream came up in the conversation. Well, let me tell you! She was planning on selling ice cream but hadn't yet opened up that section of the store. She escorted me to the back of the store, through a roped off area to freezers full of ice cream and told me to pick a flavor. I obliged and she proceeded to scoop me a cone of butter pecan deliciousness. I set all my items on the counter, holding the cone in one hand and fumbling through a ziplock bag of random cash and coins with the other. Unexpectedly, she looks at me and asks "what's a fair price for that ice cream?" I was floored, and didn't know what to say. If she knew how much I would have paid for ice cream in that moment, she would probably be retired on a beach somewhere. I stumbled for an answer, and she quickly interjected with "how about 75 cents?" Sure. Yes. Give me 3.
Right then another cyclist entered the shop. He looked to be in a hurry to keep moving, but we quickly coaxed him into a cone as well. The two of us sat in rockers in the front of the store and had our cones, chatting about riding.
He was exploring a section of the Trans American trail, having just started and going on to Illinois (I think). We ate our ice cream and got on our way. His setup was much lighter than mine, and with fresher legs. We played yo-yo for a brief second, and then he was gone into the distance.
Highway N was just as the store owner in Ellington had described- winding with blind corners and heavy traffic. Several times I pulled over to let traffic go through. It was only for a few miles, and then the traffic seemed to die down. Better safe than sorry.
The day was trending to be uneventful, the legs were feeling reasonable and the past issues with my left quad seemed well behind me at the moment. The rollers were providing a consistent variation in body position, which was nice. Traffic picked p as I hit the outskirts of Farmington. Fast food and strip malls lined the road as far as the eye could see. I had gone 15 days without McDonalds- it was time to break that streak.
As I sat in McDonalds and consumed several Big Macs and a large McFlurry, I had a chance to check on Trackleaders and confirmed that my gap on Jason was still consistent- somewhere in that 30 to 40 mile range. As I sat there eating, I noticed a gentlemen outside trying to figure out my bicycle. He also looked like he might be trying to trade up from his jalopy, so I kept a close eye on him.
Continuing on from Farmington, we headed back out in country roads, still with some sections of construction. The temps were creeping up, and I remember mixed feelings in these parts- the scenery was beautiful but my concern about the next stop for water and food was constant. It was country roads, with a small winery here or there and the heat was in high oppression. It appeared an off route detour was necessary to hit a gas stop right off I-55. There I sat on a bench, under the gas station awning, with a chilled dill pickle in one hand and a chocolate milk in the other. Quite a vile combination of tastes, but I didn't care. I needed sodium, sugars and a little fat. Just enough to cool me down, keep cramps at bay and encourage me to get back on the bike.
With calories in my belly and a safety net of water, my perspective for the afternoon improved and the scenery similarly felt more warm and inviting. The miles towards the Illinois border were flattening out and I could faintly see the river in the distance. The shoulders were wide, and even with a few semi trucks it still felt comfortable compared to what I had experienced over the past 24 hours. I crossed the bridge and stopped in Chester for dinner. I figured this was my last chance for a robust meal as it was approaching 7 pm. It was Saturday evening in small town Illinois- families were out to dinner, and here I was, solo in a heap of my own dirty filth- staring at crumpled paper maps and chugging Cokes. The stares alone encouraged me to get up and go. Outside the temps were cooling off, giving an continued positive outlook for the miles to come. My gap on Jason was increasing as it appeared he had stopped for the day. This was my time to try and tack a few more on. I knew he'd be closing it in a few hours when I turned in and he resumed.
The country farm roads in this section are absolutely amazing! Gentle rollers, light traffic and beautiful views of farms for miles. The sun was beginning to set as I approached Ava. I contemplated finding a park to crash in, but forced myself to push a little further up to Murphysboro. The stretch from Ava to Murphysboro was pitch black, only lit by my head light and a few passing cars.
Murphysboro was a quaint little town, with a few bars going strong as I rolled in around 10 pm. As I rode through downtown, I scanned for restaurants that could provide a solid dinner, but that wouldn't take 45 mins. Nothing seemed to fit the bill, so I continued on through downtown and towards my hotel. Luckily, adjacent to the hotel was a late night Mexican restaurant with burritos the size of your face! Score! As I sat there waiting for my burrito, I received a text from a good friend Eric asking how many burritos I was getting. I suppose my spot tracker was working again!
I carefully rode through a grassy field, with a bag full of Mexican looped around one bar hood, towards my filthy motel for the night. Jason was moving again and I knew my gap would be very small by morning. Time to eat and get to bed!