Festive 500 Challenge – Day 1
There are hundreds of legitimate reasons not to do something. As we get older, we take on more responsibilities, we have new priorities, and the list grows and grows until there’s really only one reason left to do something: Because it would be a cool thing to do.
“Wouldn’t it be cool to do the Rapha 500 Festive in one day?” David Richter, my husband, casually asked me one night a few weeks ago after our 18-month-old son, Wolfie, finally fell asleep.
Every year, Rapha hosts a Festive 500 challenge, which invites riders globally to ride 500k outside in the eight days between December 24 and January 1.
“That would be cool,” I said, “but how can we do that with…” I started rattling off the list of excuses starting with pandemic restrictions, childcare, accommodations, etc. until I bored myself with my exasperating negativity. David waited until I finished and then responded, “Don’t you want to do it though? “Well, yeah,” I said.
And with that, we started planning how to ride 500k—310 miles—in 24 hours. It’s already a daunting physical challenge on its own, not to mention battling the cold, rainy weather in Seattle, adhering to government-mandated Covid-19 restrictions, and a slew of other complications of daily life. Despite everything though, the idea of taking on the challenge felt like a monumental send-off to 2020—or a cool thing to do.
David, the route master, created a 100k route, which we planned to ride five times in a 24-hour period. The course started at our house and snaked through some of the most beautiful areas in Seattle with views of the Olympic mountains and evergreen trees lining the quaint neighborhoods. It picked up 3000ft of climbing in the first 30 miles, and then progressed across Lake Washington into nearby suburbs, across a floating bridge, and back to our house in Seattle to total 62.2 miles and 4300 ft of climbing per lap.
David tuned up our 3T 1x Stradas with 28mm tubeless setups for the voyage—the perfect bike for the endless series of Pacific Northwest punchy hills, no cross chaining or endless contemplation of big ring or small ring.
The plan was for David to start at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday and finish by 5:00 a.m. on Sunday for attempt #1, and for me to repeat a similar schedule the next day for attempt #2. I would provide support on Saturday—and stay with the baby—and then attempt the challenge myself on Sunday with my teammate, Veronica, with David taking baby duties and providing support. Veronica and I had Everested (climbed 29,035 feet in one ride on one hill) earlier in the summer, and enough time had passed for us to forget the excruciating amount of mental and physical toughness needed for mere mortals to complete such all-day challenges.
Each 100k loop would leave every 4-5 hours on a schedule to allow time for coffee stops, snack breaks, a dry pair of socks, recharging lights, and for other individuals to join for a loop or two throughout the day in groups of five or less without having to commit to the entire 500k ride. We set up an open tent outside with a space heater as the meeting spot. David was adamant that the group stuck to the schedule, as there was little time to lose if we wanted to complete the challenge in a 24-hour period.
At the 5:00 a.m. start on Saturday, it was pouring rain and 45 degrees Fahrenheit— a typical Seattle winter. Five riders from our club, Fount Cycling Guild, gathered at the start tent. Three riders were taking on the entire 500k challenge, David, Michelle, and Meghan, and two had signed up for one loop for moral support, Branden and Todd.
During the first 30 miles, the group split on the initial 3000 ft of punchy hills, with each rider going the pace needed to finish their goal. David, Branden, and Todd rotated and took pulls in the dark, setting a sustainable but brisk pace through the winding wet roads along the Puget Sound. Michelle and Meghan, not far behind, followed their own instincts on what was needed to finish the long haul.
After 45 miles and two and a half hours, the rain let up and the sun rose while the riders were returning to Seattle across the floating bridge.
“I have ridden across this bridge countless times, but this is the first time at sunrise,” David said. “Everything looked so blue. I had a moment of clarity that I was going to be able to complete this.”
The lead group rolled in after three and a half hours for a quick coffee stop in the tent outside, and then reshuffled riders and rolled out at 9:30 a.m. for Lap 2.
I drove out to the course with baby in tow so he could see Daddy and I could cheer the group on as they steadily pedaled through the misty dreary day. Like paparazzi, I crouched along the side of the road getting a few cheers and waves from the group. The 30-minute drive to the route was worth the smiles of gratitude in the seconds they passed by.
Hours later, the group rolled in tired and hungry, anticipating lunch and the longer scheduled break of 90 minutes. They were 124 miles and 7 hours in, which broke the spirit of some and invigorated others.
Branden, who had signed up to do two loops, decided at this moment that he would attempt the entire 500k distance. “I felt good after the second lap,” he said. “I figured that it would be more fun (or less terrible) for David if he had someone to complete it with him.”
After lunch, the group prepared for the 2:00pm roll out, putting lights on their bikes for the upcoming sunset. By this time, there were two groups—David and Branden, and Michelle and Meghan, who were riding on their own to make it through each treacherous loop. A few members of the Fount Domestic Elite squad showed up for the 2:00pm rendezvous and Lap 3 became, the “hitters lap,” as David called it—and the turning point for the riders.
A few hours later, the sun had set and the cold rain was back. David and Branden rolled in to complete Lap 3 and 186 miles. Branden said nothing, but looked finished. David had spotted the fatigue in his teammate and reassured him that he could get through the next lap, but there was more to the story. Branden’s insulin pump had broken and he had not brought a back up or enough insulin for 24 hours of riding—only a few hours. It was a perfect chance to throw in the towel and go home. No judgments.
As the two rolled out at 7:00 p.m. for Lap 4, Michelle and Meghan were still not back from Lap 3. Soon after, I got a call from Michelle’s husband, Alex, who told me that their lights had burned out and they were stuck on the darkest part of the route. He told me he was riding down to meet them, but wouldn’t be there for an hour.
In the meantime, they had called another teammate who lived close by to where they were stranded, and she came to the rescue. “When I saw them, they looked rough,” Angela, a member of Fount Cycling Guild, said. “I brought them three lights and a bunch of fudge, hoping that would get them through.”
Michelle and Meghan rolled in over an hour later. While warm and rested inside, I had prepared snacks and my pump-up speech for how to get them through the next lap. But one look at Meghan’s pale face said it all, and there was nothing to say. She was done. “I’m calling it,” she said. “I feel proud of my 186 miles. I just don’t have it in me to do another one.”
As a spectator, you think “What?! You’re over halfway. How can you stop now?” But as an athlete who has endured over and over, you know when you have it and when you don’t—and a voluntary suffer fest in the middle of the night with no winners, no medals, no crowds, sometimes isn’t enough to motivate you to slay the tiger.
But for some, it is.
Michelle had decided to continue. “I wanted to see how far I could go before my body failed me,” she said. Her husband, Alex showed up soon after to ride the last two laps with his wife. It should be noted that Alex is a former bobsledder, close to 200 pounds, and has a strong dislike for any elevation gain.
“It was raining, and I knew Michelle would risk serious harm and do stupid things to finish something like that,” he said. “Like ride in the dark, get hypothermia—I didn’t want her to be alone.” The two bundled up and headed out the door close to 9:00 p.m. for Lap 4, two hours behind schedule.
A few hours later, I finished preparing the last round of snacks and went to bed, hoping it would be like Christmas when I awoke the next morning—with the grand present of everyone being finished with their ride and celebrating their victory.
I woke up just after 5:00 a.m. and found David and Branden downstairs, dazed and quiet. “We finished,” David said. Their eyes were sunken, and they looked exhausted. I asked how the last lap was. David said in disbelief, “Hitch showed up at 1:00 a.m. for the final lap. He was just sitting outside in the dark. No text, nothing. Just waiting. He said, ‘I am here to perform a service,’ and pulled with us the entire way.”
I saw a text from Alex at 2:00 a.m., over three hours ago, asking if we had a spare bike. Michelle’s bike had needed some maintenance, and her cable broke suddenly. She only had two gears. David and Branden hadn’t seen them since Lap 3. I began making coffee, sent David to bed, and waited.
Then Michelle and Alex finally rolled in. They finished it despite all odds against them. Michelle rode the last 70 miles in two gears, and Alex was bent over in exhaustion. The 124-miles, 8600 ft elevation gain, and cold, wet conditions of the last two laps had taken their toll, and he had nothing left. Michelle quietly packed her stuff and thanked us for the support, and Alex proceeded to eat an entire of bag of cookies, staring blankly at the ground in front of him.
It was now close to 7:00 a.m. and time for me to roll out and start my challenge with my teammate, Veronica, and a few additional teammates for Lap 1. Although the group was caffeinated and ready to go, it felt strangely like my second attempt at the challenge. I was so emotionally invested in the riders’ efforts from the day before, as I had been a voyeur into each lap of their challenge. I could anticipate the emotions that each lap would stir up, where the struggles would be, and what I needed to do to get through. This preview had dulled the excitement of taking on the unknown, but I dutifully rolled out with the group to take on the challenge.
We continued lap after lap from the morning into the evening until we had three laps and 186 miles done. It was dark. The temperature had dropped into the 30s. I looked longingly at the empty space next to David on the couch, as he cuddled our baby son and watched football in front the fire.
Veronica and I had two more laps to ride alone—over seven hours of riding left through the night. A feeling of dread came over me as I peered outside into the cold night and I let my emotions take the reins. I looked at Veronica who was putting on layers for the next lap and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” She looked at me, surprised, as I was the notorious queen of concocting crazy events, and then said, “Me neither.”
At that moment, it would be great if we just shook hands, confident about our decision, and parted ways, but, of course, instead we went through 10 minutes of debating quitting, confessing our insecurities, stating our lifelong accolades, and ultimately teetered back and forth until deciding that staying warm and going to bed trumped the dread of quitting. We had ridden 186 miles.
I spent the rest of the evening on the couch with David and Wolfie, which made it easy to forgive my decision to ride only 3 of the 5 laps. I had a deep sleep, and then woke the next morning to a text from Hitch at 2:00 a.m.—“Hey, I’m outside. Did you two leave already?”
Looking back days later with a fresh mind and rested legs, part of me wishes I could have been finished with Lap 4 and texted back, “We’ll be right out.” It’s always easy to look back on moments of struggle and think you had more than you gave, but experience tells me I made the right choice in the moment. Regardless, I know we’ll all be back next year—some to relive the journey and others ready to finish what we started.
Learn more about the Fount Cycling Guild.