FX Retreat

For those of you who don’t know, I belong to something called Fellowship X, which is a bunch of Gen Xers (we really do exist, no matter what you may have heard in the media) who belong to UUCA (Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington). FX does a retreat on Presidents’ Day weekend every year at Deep Creek Lake, MD. DCL is not close to my home.

I have something I’ve been toying with, but I don’t know if I can swing it. I’d like to bike most of the way to the retreat. We’re talking about 200 miles down the C&O Canal Towpath. This is not wise. There are a bunch of reasons for the stupidity of the thing.

  1. It would burn a full day. Like 16 hours.
  2. I would need someone to pick me up in Cumberland, MD or Frostburg, a potentially big inconvenience for them.
  3. I might need to have them pick me up even further away, depending on whether 200mi is even doable for me.
  4. There’s a good chance 200mi isn’t doable. Come on, I’ve never done anything close to that.
  5. It would be cold during that whole 16 hours.
  6. It would be on a dirt path.
  7. It would be with a relatively heavy bike.
  8. There would be limited exits if I needed to bale out early.
  9. It’s only 37 days away

But I really want to do it. At least I hope and I pray that I will, but today I am still just a….

It’s worth mentioning at this point that I’m not the only one who’s ever tried this. According to the C&O Canal Bicycling Guide, the unsuported record to traverse the whole route is 12 hours 36 minutes in September of ’91. Is that the actual record? Nobody has beaten it for a few decades? Who knows. But it does give me an idea of the approximate minimum time it should expect. Under ideal conditions. Just the C&O, not counting the time it takes to reach there from home. So for me it woudl be 16 hours plus.


Step 1 Accept failure. I love this step. Most people hate it, but I love it. Accepting the likelihood that I will not succeed helps me focus on the steps I need to succeed rather than waste time considering that I won’t. Does it mean I’ll be ok with failure? No, it does not. I might well not like failure at all. But I at least acknowledge the improbability of things all coming together, and that helps me focus. (FYI, I accepted failure with the Great Divide before I ever started training and getting gear together. It was an important part of my process.)

Step 2 Get the bike together. I’ve been making changes to Shirley to transform her into a light adventure/gravel bike (in addition to being a commuter). I want to do rides like this, and some other tough ones, and I think she’s the one to make it happen. I have a plan for her, but that’s for another post.

Step 3 Train. A little more than a month is a tight timeframe. I think it’s doable, but it’ll take a lot of work. Today I need to step it up. And tomorrow. And all but a very small number of days between now and then

Step 4 Go to Harpers Ferry and back in one day on the C&O. Harpers Ferry is about 73mi away, or 146mi there and back in one day. It would be the longest ride I’ve ever done. If I can do that as a training ride, then I’ve got a shot at doing 200 for the retreat. More to the point, if I can’t make HF, there’s no way in hell I’ll make it to the retreat, so it’ll be time to shelve this plan until next year.

Step 5 talk a friend or loved one into picking me up. To me, the hardest part of convincing them to do it is asking them to make an effort while also convincing them of Step 1, that I will likely fail. This is harder than it might seem. People don’t want to be bothered with stuff that’s not going to happen. They expect you to be disapointed if it doesn’t happen. They’ll often try to convince you to not do it, because why try if it is unlikely to happen? So you have to convince them both that it’s very possible, and that it’s unlikely. In my mind, there is no contradiction here, but most people feel that they must buy into one or the other.

T9 call this a “plan” is generous. More like a loose grouping of ideas. For my part, I’ll continue moving forward until I know that it’s no longer an option.


I’m officially signed up! The Storming of Thunder Ridge and the Garret County Gran Fondo two of the great centuries of 2019. I used them both as training rides for the Great Divide. Both have a ton of climbing, way more than a typical century, but while SOTR is a slow buildup, the GCGF has many very steep grades. The GCGF has something called the Diabolicle Double, which is a double metric with even more climbing. More than 16,000 feet. That would make it the toughest one-day ride I’ve yet attempted, even worse than any single day on the Divide. Wish me luck.

C&O and GAP

There is a lot I can say about this route, but today I’d just like to talk about it’s benefit as a training tool. In short, I’d like to start using it to build up distance.

I like using the W&OD to do personal centuries. I can hop on the trail right from my front door, and a there and back to Purcellville is about 90 miles. They’re not very interesting miles, but there is a kick-ass bakery at the end of the line, and sometimes you don’t need anything exciting, you just need to put on some miles. Nice math. But what if I want to go longer?

The C&O/GAP trail is long, about 325 miles and it has small towns and frequent camping spots all along the route. It’s gravel, but it’s easy gravel. Probably the biggest downside is mud. The thing is, if I want to do a certain distance greater than 100 miles, it’s pretty easy to set up. Harper’s Ferry is 60 miles out, for a 120 mile round trip. Shepherdstown is 73 miles away. And I can keep going basically as long as I need to go that day.

What’s Next?

Yeah, this blog is about the GDMBR, but I have some things planned to get me in better shape than ever over the next year and a half. It’s not a stretch to say I’ll be preparing for the Divide in 2021. So I’m going to put some of those things up here, both ideas and actual events.

Heart Fixed (f*** yeah!)

When we last left our heroes, Greg Smith was going to Texas to to live his awesome retired life. I was going back to Virginia to work for a cool company that does cool stuff. And I was going to see a heart doctor.

As many of you know, I’ve been seeing doctors for decades for my arrhythmias, and finally in 2018 I had a cryoablation to fix my AFib. But that ablation apparently did not fix (and was not designed to fix) a separate, hidden arrhythmia, Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT). From previous conversations with my heart doctor, I was unsure if we’d ever have a chance to tackle it. Lots of unknowns. So I was surprised to hear my doctors say he had the information he needed to go for a fix now. He said, “Take your time and let me know if you’d like to pursue another ablation.” I took exactly zero seconds before telling him to sign me up.

From here, things moved very rapidly. My previous AFib cryoablation took months to set up. This one took just a few weeks. This was another ablation, but a different kind that was actually easier. Heck, they even woke me up during the procedure and I was able to feel an ablation in progress. It was interesting feeling having someone speed up, slow down, and eventually microwave (actually more like AM Radio, but they did burn that sucker) part of your heart. It was especially nice to have Emily, one of the nurses, be the voice in my head while I was awake, soothingly telling me what was going on and answering my questions. Textbook. Out of the hospital that same day.

So fast forward a week after the operation. Back on the bike. Three weeks. 80+ mile rides. Today. In my appointment today, my doctor says to do whatever the hell I want. Intervals, super long rides, he’s good with it. He even used a word that doctors basically never use. He said I’m “cured”. Let me break that down for you. AFib? I’m a whole lot better, but not cured. AFib gets more common as we age, and someone who went through cryoablation is apparently no exception. He said he doesn’t expect to see me back until at least some time in my 70s, maybe much longer, but there is a chance I’ll be eventually be back. But SVT, the condition I just had ablated? Apparently, when they fix that, they fix it good. If I end up coming back, it won’t be because the condition popped up again, it’ll be because someone screwed something up. If nobody screwed anything up, I won’t be back (except routine follow ups).

What does this mean for me and my cycling and the Great Divide (this is that kind of blog after all). Today, it means I lose a little more weight, I do more weightlifting, I do more intervals, and I take long rides. I basically do off-season building up to my strongest self ever. In the late winter and spring, I start riding some of the hardest events I’ve ever ridden, but they’re short. A day or three at most. I do these all year. Next winter, I once again go through a build phase and make myself even stronger. 2021, I attack the Divide again. How will that work? I’m not sure. Greg McFarland has some ideas that sound promising. It’s possible there might be some interest from Greg Smith, Dean and/or Chris. But I’m not done with this route. However it happens, I do intend to conquer this thing.

Reflection 1

I finally did the count. 
– 1,400 miles traveled
– 77,000 feet total elevation climbed
– 9,500 feet highest elevation achieved.
– 49.2 mph max speed. 
– 4 excellent riding companions
– 6-10 recurring riders making the same trip
– 4 good Samaritans/trail angels
– 4 states visited

I wanted to go all the way to Mexico, but I can’t help but think this was still a win.

Day 25 – tl;dr

This is a long one. I’d be very happy if you read it, but I understand if you don’t. No summary on this one, but I think it’s important.

Never say Heart

As many of you know, I’ve had a recurring heart arrhythmia that first presented itself in my early/mid 20s. Atrial fibrillation (AFib), and it’s not super rare. In fact, it’s the most common arrhythmia, and many of you probably already know someone else who has it. For me, it’s not “on” most of the time. I have episodes. I’ll go for months at a time with no problems and then, whamo, I’m in AFib and have to deal with it’s symptoms, which consist mostly of a dramatically reduced ability to exert myself. Think getting out of breath while walking to the bathroom. Not an exaggeration. The episodes of AFib might last anywhere from a few moments to a few days, but by using a variety of methods ranging from pathetically simple (wait a moment) to more complex (they zap me at the hospital), it always went away.

There are a lot of yada, yadas at this point, but let’s just fast forward to the part where nearly 30 years later, my doc says I’m a good candidate for something called cryoablation, which might well cure it completely. They put me under, threaded a catheter from my groin to my heart, and literally froze a part of my heart they believed was responsible for sending the bad signals that caused AFib

YES! I’m cured! I never have to deal with this shit again!!!!! As you’re probably guessing at this point, that’s not how the story ends. However, thinking, hoping, crossing my fingers that this problem is gone for good, I started training my fat ass off for the Great Divide. I lost 60 lbs. I was doing a century most weekends of the summer. I bought much more gear than Laury figured I could logically justify. I was all in, as the saying goes. ATo help prep, we did a shakedown cruise, as my brother put it, or a milk run, as my boss put it. It was a great ride with most of the participants of the tour (Greg S., Greg M, Dean, and me). We rode to Harper’s Ferry, used much of our tour gear, had a great time, and came back to the start point strong and happy. We were feeling very ready to start our big trip.

But then, at the very end of the milk run, as I was driving Dean back to his start point, Greg M’s house, it hit me. It hit me hard. Not AFib, but an absolute blasting case of tachycardia, a very fast, very strong heart rhythm that left me feeling like my heart was beating out of my chest. Though there are many similarities to AFib, I had never before experienced this particular arrhythmia. Something was very, very wrong, but it was a new kind of wrong. . What the hell. I was working so hard. I was ready. Why this, now. I immediately made an appointment with my heart doctor.

Laury went to the appointment with me. Lots of things were discussed, but ultimately the doc said that since it had been more than 6 months since my cryoablation, and nearly a year since my last AFib episode, he felt it was a reasonable risk for me to go on the tour. No, he never said, “you’re fine, don’t worry about it,” by as any truly smart person might do, he couched it in terms of risk, and my ability to accept it. He thought the risk was not overwhelming. I agreed. I went on the MF tour.

Day 25 started out strong. I felt great. I zoomed through the rollers, pushed up the hills with confidence, and the few bad roads we encountered didn’t even faze me. I’d seen worse. I ate ’em up at this point. I had a few load issues issues ( I do not recommend the Ortlieb Bikepacking Seat Bag), but I fixed them up and continued. I stopped for water a number of times, and after this one particular stop, something happened. I started riding again, but I felt something wasn’t right. I should mention at this point, that every time in the past I felt AFib coming on. I felt it as it was beginning. The feeling is hard to describe, but to me, it feels like a “whomp”. I know that doesn’t really make sense, but I feel the world and my perception contracting just a bit, then expanding back to normal, then I’m in the AFib or Tach. I’ve never blacked out. But this time I did. I felt the whomp starting, in my mind I thought a shortened version of “oh shit”, I waited for the whomp to finish, but instead I found myself waking up moments later in a ditch.

I had crashed, but it was very low speed. Nothing was hurt. Even most of my gear was unscathed. But I was momentarily disoriented. Why did I crash? I had to think hard about what happened. I checked my heart, and that very heart sank into my knees. My rhythm was wrong. My heart rate was way high. An arrhythmia had happened, but it happened wrong. It happened bad. What was I going to do?

I won’t lie to you, I thought about lying to you. To everyone. To my brother, to my wife, to the world. If I told the truth, my tour was over. Nearly every day on the tour I’d end up bombing down rock and dirt strewn hills at 30mph. It was super fun, a little dangerous, but totally within the realm of “adventure” reasonableness. But it would be completely fatal if I blacked out in the middle of it. You all would make me stop if I told you the truth. I don’t want to stop. I couldn’t go out like this. I wasn’t ready.

Once more with the honesty, I cried. Not just once. I knew what I had to do, but I so desperately didn’t want to do it. I was stuck. Buying new gear wouldn’t get me out of it. Better pacing or food or route choices wouldn’t get me out of it. If I was to be honest with myself, I had to stop.

I shut down. I slowed to a snails pace. I finally stopped and cooked lunch. We never cook lunch. It’s ludicrous. We get some cold food and move on. When my brother showed up and saw me cooking ramen, he knew something was wrong.

Yes, I told him the truth. I knew it had to be done. My fantasy of continuing or die trying was just that, a fantasy, like that brief thought I had of that pretty girl on TV (sorry Laury, you know I’d never). We rode slowly and eventually found an extremely nice man with a truck who took us to the nearest town. That’s it, it was official, I was done.

As I had conversations of the next 24 hours, things started to hit even harder. If I could black out at any time, my days of riding at all were over. Not just the Great Divide, but what would happen if I blacked out at 30mph on my road bike in traffic back home? Hell, what If I blacked out while driving a car near a busy crosswalk? My life was over. Subsequent to that time, I realized I had blacked out at 8500 feet elevation, where oxygen is about 25% lower than back home. And I had been exerting myself like never before for nearly a month. And I remembered that I had never blacked out before. at home. Maybe things aren’t so bad after all. I’ll talk to my heart doc.

It’s worth pointing out that though I faced a serious medical condition, mine was not even close to the most serious condition represented on the trail. Some members of our party rolled out at a serious medical disadvantage. I’ve told you my story, but I can’t tell you their’s due to their expressed desire for privacy. I know that in many ways I am very fortunate to only need to deal with the things I do. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it 🙂

I’ll post some more

There are a few more stories and pictures to share. Though my trip is over, the blog has just a bit more life in it. Stay tuned.

Greg S. – Day 8

Day 8 (54 miles)

We thought today would include bout 5500 feet of climbing, but in reality it turned out to be more like 3000 feet on mostly nice roads.  We arrived at our destination (Steamboat Springs) much earlier than anticipated and made use of that time by completing some much needed bike maintenance.  I changed out both brake pads, one brake rotor, the chain, dropper post wire and top tube bag.  Steamboat Springs is nice and bicycle friendly.  They have a bike path that goes the distance through town along the river so riding through town was nice. 

Greg S. – Day 7

Day 7 (75 miles)

Today started on paved roads with regular inclines.  We climbed about 5500 feet and I struggled at the end.  Some interesting highlights included going from the desert in Wyoming to the tree covered mountains near the Colorado boarder.  During the day, our GPS navigation devices kept directing us to random private dirt side roads that would have never brought us to our objective.  The main route was newly paved road and perhaps Garmin didn’t recognize it as a passable route (not sure) We stayed at Ladder Ranch in one of their cabins.  The folks at Ladder Ranch were really nice.  They have sheep, cattle and cattle protection dogs.  The dogs, even though they protect the cattle, were very friendly.