Pushing the Limit: Day 7 of RAGBRAI

Pushing the eye mask off my eyes, I sat up in my sleeping bag to find myself in an unfamiliar tent. Whose tent was this? I found my head lamp and checked my watch. It was 3:26 AM.  Close enough, I thought, and began packing stuff up.

As my head cleared, I remembered it was Andrew and Janet’s tent, which was much easier to put up and take down than my tent. Juan and I had arranged this the day before since we would be making an early exit from our Iowa City camp at City Park.

Juan’s 3:30 AM alarm went off, and he sat up and began packing things up as well.

“This is what elite athletes do all the time,” Juan said.

“You’re right,” I said, and thought how there was a minuscule probability I was going to make a habit out of this.

I was already in my bike clothes for the day as I had put them on after my shower the night before. All we had to do was get everything packed up in the tent, and our Ducktail Lounge Cycling Club teammate Niles (with the help of a few others, I assume), would take charge of getting our stuff loaded and the tent taken down.

At 4:01 AM, we snapped this picture and took off from camp.

“That flash was bright”

Once out of Iowa City, we cycled into darkness for over an hour. West Liberty was the next pass through town, which was 20 miles away.  It was very cold. Juan’s headlight threw my shadow up on the fog in front of me. There was no easy way of anticipating a hill until you were going up or down it.

At around 5:30 AM, we arrived in West Liberty.  Dusk was approaching, and the town was busy with volunteers getting ready for the riders (featured photo of this post). I had some coffee, some chocolate milk, and a banana. We left West Liberty around 5:50 AM.

Biking again for another 14 miles, we arrived in the meeting town of Wilton around 6:35 AM. Each day of RAGBRAI has an official meeting town that is usually around the halfway point of the ride. On this day, it was almost exactly the halfway point.

In Wilton, we locked our bikes up next to the Wilton Candy Kitchen and prepped for the ride to Davenport in order to run the Bix7. Jessica Johnstone, a good friend of Juan’s, picked us up in Wilton and drove us to her office at Balanced Chiropractic in Davenport, which was only a few blocks from the race start.  Jessica was a key element to this crazy endeavor.  Not having to deal with huge lines for kybos, we leisurely stretched and used the bathroom at her office.

On our walk to the start, we passed a few people who had started even earlier and had ridden all the way to Davenport! They knew our bus driver, Al, who had told them a few Ducktails would be running Bix7.

In the crowd of 15000 other runners

Setting my phone to run mode, I stood waiting for the start. Wow, I thought, I’ve actually made it to the Bix7 and am going to run 7 miles in my five finger Vibrams, biking shorts, and jersey. This is crazy in the making.

Off we went. For the first mile, the pace was set for me in the massive crowd. I crossed mile 1 at around 11 minutes and thought to myself, “I can do this 6 more times…. easy.”

Around 2.5 miles I looked to my left to see the elite runners passing under the 5 mile mark. Yeah, yeah, I thought, they didn’t bike 35 miles before the race start. A little ways beyond the 3 mile marker, jello shots were being handed out. Since I was on a RAGBRAI experience, too, I thought it pertinent to down one of those. It was also fitting that I down another on the return trip when I saw them again.

At mile 5, I remember thinking about how I had thought 4 miles ago that I could do this 6 more times pretty easily, and how foolish that was. Yes, I was going to get those last 2 miles in, but they weren’t going to be easy.

Battling knee aches and pains beginning at mile 5 and then hip pains around mile 6, I struggled through. A little after passing mile 6, Juan was finishing the race with a 1:05:30 time. Going back down the hill and around the corner, I went through the finish line as they called my name at 1:13:56.

Stage 2 of this crazy adventure was complete!

Enjoying some post race snacks and beer, we walked slowly back to Balanced Chiropractic to chill out and come down from the race high. We left a little after 10 AM and arrived back in Wilton around 11 AM.

Finished with BIX7 and stage 2 of our day.

Iowa Craft Beer has been a popular vendor of RAGBRAI over the last several years. It finds two places to set up along the route each day with the exception of Wednesday’s three places, and the last day’s one stop.  Given 14 opportunities to stop and enjoy an Iowa Craft Beer, if you stop at 10 of them, buy a beer and have a wristband scanned, you are given a T-Shirt that can only be received by doing it this way. They are NOT sold to people. One must earn it!

Juan and I had earned our shirt, but we had a little hiccup. We had passed the Iowa Craft Beer stop at around 6:15 AM that morning on the way to Wilton, and they were far from open yet.  So, we hopped on our bikes and rode the 7 mile round trip to have a beer and get our T-shirt.

We met up with some Ducktails at the Junction Bar & Grill in Wilton, before walking our bikes over with beers in hand to the team bus in order to regroup and have drinks.  The team was divided on whether to focus on finishing the ride and getting done, or taking it nice and easy to have fun along the way. I was in the former camp, ready to be done and at the bus.

Nevertheless, we all took off together.

Stopped by a Trooper!

Eventually, we made it the rest of the 35 miles to the dip site in Davenport after a few breaks between. Juan found a spot down the trail from the official dip site that we had all to ourselves (it is good to be with someone who knows the Quad Cities area). Deanna took a selfie of Shane, myself, Amelia, and Juan sitting on the Mississippi.

Put RAGBRAI 2018 in the books

The ride to the bus was not a short and easy ride. We tacked on another monster hill climb and 6 miles of riding before reaching the bus at NorthPark Mall.  Stage 3, instead of 35 miles, turned into nearly 50 miles of riding before we got off the saddle for good.

With the additional miles we put in traveling to the border and back and the gravel loop on the first day, adding the century loop on Thursday’s ride, and not cutting corners in between, Juan and I finished the week at around 550 miles.

New bonds were formed. Old bonds were strengthened. By pushing each other, we find out there are no limits. They can be pushed even further.

Choose Your Suffering

A pretty view during a recent bike ride around Shawnee Lake

A Subtle Art

In Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, he presents a counter intuitive approach of looking at life.  For some it may work.  It worked for me last weekend. Here is how it works.
We all suffer on some level. In fact, life can be alternatively viewed as just a long time of unavoidable suffering.  With each decision you make, you choose some level of suffering. 
Earlier last week, I was informed of the Buffalo Bill Century Ride in Leavenworth, KS.  The ride had 25, 60, and 100 mile road options, along with a 50 mile gravel ride. The 60 and 100 mile rides grabbed my interest.  
When the weekend came, I was under no obligation to choose to get up at 5:45am to get ready and travel to Leavenworth to begin riding 60 or 100 miles at 8:00am.  I could have chosen a lesser form of suffering.  Sitting on the couch, reading, studying, or maybe watching some TV could have been my choices.  I only would have suffered my own feeling of guilt for not having taken advantage of such an adventure. 
I chose a higher level of suffering, because that was easier in my mind. I would suffer the open roads of eastern Kansas.  
Along the route, there was a fork in the road. To choose right would mean only 60 miles, and to be done with the ride in a more reasonable time frame. To choose left would mean a commitment to 100 miles, and more suffering.  I chose left.  
The pains that one goes through in a 100 mile ride are really not all that bad when compared to other forms of discomfort. I’ll take the swollen underside over a guilty conscience. I will take the sore quads and aching back over the simple discomfort of more decisions that would need to be made in a normal day (like, what beer I should have next? Or, should I leisure read longer or take a break and do some push-ups? Perhaps I should go to the library and rent some movies.) 

For me, framing it in terms of suffering helped me get out there and on my bicycle.  I like to have a full calendar, and to schedule each moment of my day.  This requires a lot of decisions, and as such, a small amount of suffering. I didn’t want that suffering.  I wanted the decision free kind of suffering of an increasingly stiffening neck and shoulders as the day wore on.

The next time you need to make a decision on doing something difficult, you might give this method of framing your decision in terms of suffering a try. 

Bee Aye Kay

Sunset at the High School in Tribune, KS

After experiencing Ragbrai from 2009-2014, and then 2 days of 2016, it was inevitable that I would compare Biking Across Kansas (BAK, pronounced “Bee-Aye-Kay” rather than “back”) to Rabrai during my experience. However, I promised myself to enjoy BAK for what it was, and not hold it to any preconceived standards I may have developed from Ragbrai. 

My BAK Experience

BAK was a fantastic ride, and a wonderful experience. 
Although I have lived in Kansas for over two years before BAK, I had yet to be introduced to Kansas. During the first five days of BAK, Kansas finally introduced itself to me. The wind did not cease for that amount of time. It just kept blowing. 
And for five straight days, I saw infinite prairies like the one pictured below. 
The infinite prairie of Kansas
There was useful information in these prairies. Those tall blades informed us of how strong a cross wind we were dealing with. And we were most definitely dealing with lots of wind. 

BAK involves 9 days of riding. On day 1 (which some call day 0, but who are they kidding), you get yourself to the starting point and bike to the border of Colorado and back. A few hitch rides to the border so that they can simply bike to camp from the border. A few more simply skip this ride and don’t worry about it; they probably think 8 days of riding is good enough. 
After riding the first two days by myself, I rode the rest of the week with Wichita friends Neil McDaniel and Lauren Hirsh. Erin and I rode with them during the Cottonwood 200. 
Neil and Lauren using a downhill to their advantage

Me with Lauren and Neil at a MOST welcomed oasis: Tallgrass Tap House in Manhattan

My ride ended on Thursday in Rossville, less than 20 miles from Topeka. Erin brought a meal for four from Globe Indian Cafe. We had a small picnic on the high school parking lot while a tornado warning was issued. I felt somewhat bad about leaving Lauren and Neil to their tents while I drove home to an air conditioned night in my own bed for the first time in 7 days. 

That wouldn’t last long, however, as the next three days were spent camping with Erin on our PAC it Northwest trip. More on that later. 

The Inevitable Comparison

Since I am a Ragbrai rider, I’ll give my comparison of the two rides, by listing pros and cons from the perspective of BAK. 


  • BAK is more intimate.
  • There are four SAGs each day in which you don’t have to spend a dime.
  • There are four sponsored meals during the week on which you save money.
  • If you do something barely interesting from a Ragbrai perspective (like carrying a speaker on my bike for music), it is extremely interesting to a BAK rider and will generate several comments and conversations.
  • The only logistics you have to work out are how to get there and how to get home. Sites for tents and showers at the end of the day are taken care of for you. Your gear is hauled from town to town.
  • Not as hilly as Ragbrai can be.
  • There are never any lines.
  • There are fewer inexperienced bicyclists around you to cause an accident.

Neutral Comparisons 

Although these are neutral comparisons for me, they may fall in pros or cons for someone else. 
  • Sleeping in until 7am guarantees you will be at the back of the pack. 
  • Longer average daily ride. 


  • It is one day longer than Ragbrai. 
  • There are no vendors (you rely on SAGs and pass through towns only).
  • Getting a beer can be VERY difficult at times. Getting a GOOD beer can be EXTREMELY difficult at times. 
  • BAK does not close roads, so you sometimes ride on very busy ones.
To be fair, it is difficult for me to compare the two objectively. Both experiences were fantastic and I look forward to experiencing them both again. 

The Numbers of BAK

The total mileage over the 9 days is 522 miles, which averages out to 58 miles per day. This does not seem accurate to anyone who experiences BAK. A closer look at daily mileage shows that the first day of 16 miles and the last day of 21 miles are extreme outliers. Throwing those out provides us with an average of about 69.3 miles per day over seven days, which is much more like it!
The 2017 entrant list posted on the BAK website had 761 participants listed. Several of these don’t make it the whole way across Kansas (including myself for having missed the last two days of riding) and some ride only a select few days. 
From this data, I was able to find that 30 states were represented along with the country of Denmark. Kansas had the most participants at 566. The breakdown of the other states and country can be seen in this bar chart that I created using Excel. 
State by State participation rate in the BAK 2017

From this chart and the data, the top states participating in the BAK were 

  1. Missouri
  2. Colorado
  3. Texas
  4. California
  5. Nebraska-Oklahoma (Tie) 
The breakdown of participants of top 12 highest populated cities in Kansas:
  1. Wichita: 72
  2. Overland Park: 20
  3. Kansas City: 16
  4. Topeka: 28
  5. Olathe: 27
  6. Lawrence: 24
  7. Shawnee: 12
  8. Manhattan: 30
  9. Lenexa: 7
  10. Salina: 19
  11. Hutchinson: 34
  12. Leavenworth: 10
It was interesting to see more participants from Manhattan than Lawrence, as well as see that the 11th most populated town of Hutchinson had the 2nd most participants in the state after Wichita. Way to go, Hutchinson!  

The 41st Cottonwood 200

Cottonwood 200 Riders conquering one of the Flint Hills on Day 1

What’s Happening 

Erin and I just finished the Cottonwood 200. It was tough and rewarding. Fighting through the aches and pains, we were able to observe the beautiful Flint Hills of Kansas. We’ll be heading up to the Des Moines area on Friday to run in the 38th Dam to Dam: Iowa’s Distance Classic.  Since I’m going to stay a little longer and hang out with Dad, we’ll be driving separately.

On Friday of the following week, I’ll be getting on a charter bus that will take me to Tribune, KS.  That is where I will begin the Bike Across Kansas.

Number of the Day: 17

This is how old Stephanie Mui is as she graduates with a master’s degree in mathematics from George Mason University. She isn’t even done with high school yet!

Just Do Without

This has become a mantra of mine in the last several weeks. During the packing for Cottonwood 200, Erin would sometimes ask me why I wasn’t bringing something or another. “I’ll just do without,” was how I responded.  
Granted, there are several pleasantries that I indulge myself into bringing along. For simplicity’s sake, I also rough it a little and “do without” several things on these kind of trips. When you are well traveled, you can easily simplify packing by asking yourself a few questions that measure the reward of different items. 
  • How large is the benefit from bringing such an item or items?
  • How big a hassle is it to bring such an item or items?
When the first heavily outweighs the second (basic toiletries such as toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) we obviously bring those items.  When space is limited, the second can heavily outweigh the first on several items (an extra pair of shoes, that other book you are also reading that is 5 inches thick, the extra shirt, etc.).  
As a seasoned traveler, I place a high level of enjoyment from traveling as light as a I can. More stuff means more hassle. If we can’t walk a mile carrying everything we’re traveling with comfortably, then it is time to go back to the original two questions. 

Cottonwood 200

There was thunder, lightning, and heavy rain when we woke on Day 1. I rode over and loaded the truck in the rain wondering if/when we would begin this ride. Since the ride started at the Washburn campus, we lounged around at our house and waited for the storm to pass before biking over.

The Topeka Police escorted the 160 riders out of Topeka stopping traffic at several of the intersections and leap frogging their way to the south side.

Erin fought through some horrible pains in her knee (the ibuprofen at the SAG 1 really helped), and made it through the entire first day. We biked through some rain and winds, and a few threatening clouds. 

Looking out at the Flint Hills at SAG 3

Between SAG 3 and SAG 4 on Day 1.

We set up camp under the shade of a Sycamore tree on the grounds of Council Grove High School. Our tent was a huge dome in a sea of tinier tents. They of course made fun of our vast accommodations. They sounded very envious, so we just ignored them.

Our new Base Camp 6 tent (which replaced our old Base Camp 4 tent)

 On Day 2, we biked about 20 miles south to Cottonwood Falls along one of the Flint Hills Scenic Byways. Here were some photos of the Flint Hills, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, and of Cottonwood Falls. 

With a magnifying glass, you may be able to pick out the bike riders disappearing in the horizon.

The Ranch House on the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch

Lower Fox Creek School ran from 1884 to 1930

Hiking along Southwind Nature Trail at the Second Overlook

In Cottonwood Falls, KS

The Keller Feed & Wine Co. opened from 11-1 for Cottonwood 200 riders only. We flooded the place, ate lunch, drank some beers and bloody Mary’s and then rode the same route back to Council Grove. The route back was into the wind however, so it was much slower. The good news was that our campsite was already up in Council Grove.  

We packed up camp on Day 3 to head back to Topeka. After some breakfast with some new Wichita friends, Lauren and Neal, we started toward Topeka. It was again a long day with four SAG stops. Since Erin and I were simply biking home, we offered up our house for some showers and a quick rest before they had the long drive back home to Wichita.  Sadly, we didn’t get any good pictures all together. 

Left: Erin at SAG 4, Lauren in Pink Helmet. Right Bottom: Figures on hilltops are common in the Flint Hills. Right Top: A unsuccessful selfie which was supposed to capture Neal and Lauren riding behind. 

It was a great way to spend Memorial Day weekend. This will probably not be our last Cottonwood 200. I’m sure we will return again.