When Rides Go Wrong: My Tragedy Trilogy

Bad Trip #2

The Venue:  Maah Daah Hey Trail, North Dakota
Experience Level: 3 Years Riding
The Plan:  Explore about 20 miles of the Maah Daah Trail (40 miles round trip–hmm, there’s that number again)
The Difficulty:  HEAT!

How it Went Down:

While living in Minot, North Dakota, I didn’t have much (anything, really) in the way of singletrack in the local area.  To get a legit ride required a nearly three-hour drive (hmmm–sounds a lot like before) to get to the northern half of the IMBA epic Maah Daah Hey trail.  In totality, the trail is over 100 miles.  Not being able to ride that distance all at once, especially on day trips, I was piecing it together over a few rides.

The Badlands of North Dakota, a great place for solitude in a wide open expanse (photo: stumpyfsr)
The Badlands of North Dakota, a great place for solitude in a wide open expanse (photo: stumpyfsr)

Of course, none of my colleagues in North Dakota were keen on riding, so I was once again headed out to take on an epic ride by myself.  This was really okay with me.  I was in better shape, not going to high altitude, and of course, older and wiser than two years before.  My plan had been to once again arise at oh-dark-thirty, but I ended up doing the snooze thing and getting a late start.

Where Things Went Wrong:

First off, by the time I hit the trailhead, the temperature had hit 90 degrees.  That internal furnace which saved me in Steamboat would prove to be problematic in these conditions.  But I was desperate to ride.  Hellbent, really.  I didn’t like living on the prairie, and my epic ride was my rebellion against my situation.  I would do it come hell or high water.

High water didn’t come.  Hell most certainly did.

Even knowing the heat, and my personal difficulty with it, I still forged on.  I had a 100oz hydration pack filled to the brim, and two 24oz water battles  topped off sitting in the cages on my bike frame.  148oz has got to be enough water for anything, right?

It's just going to get hotter and drier, the deeper you go (photo: mtbark)
It’s just going to get hotter and drier, the deeper you go (photo: mtbark)

At about 20 miles out, once again without difficulty, I hit my turnaround point.  I was quite pleased with myself for not folding under the heat despite my proclivity to do so.  I turned around, once again full of confidence and pride, and after a short distance, went to grab a sip from my hydration pack.


And I had long since emptied my water bottles.

The temperature had climbed to 98 degrees and here I was, some 18 or 19 miles from the safety of my car, and I was riding in badlands with no shade or shelter.   Dangerous heat in the coldest state in the Union; whooda’ thunk it?   And once again, there was absolutely nobody out there.  Not a soul.

I knew enough to take it easy and not try to hammer home.  But by the time I was still about eight miles from safety, I could tell the heat and exertion had taken their toll.  I was weak… very weak.  Then I noticed my heart rate accelerating rapidly, a classic symptom of heat exhaustion.  With my heart racing, I could ride only about a quarter mile at a time before I had to stop and sit.

At one point I saw a small bush.  Shade!  Well, not much shade; the bush was scarcely two feet tall and anything but leafy.  Bit I did try to get as much of my body under the bush as possible.  But to get any more of my body under the bush, I had to curl up, which of course conserves body heat; not what I was looking for.  So back on the bike, ride to the next bush, lie down and try to get a little shade, all the while my heart racing at an increasingly unsafe rate.

Upon my next bike mounting, I wobbled uncontrollably.  Dizziness had set in and my balance was utterly, completely gone.  I could not ride.  The best I could manage was to walk slowly… more like a foot-dragging shuffle really… alongside the bike, hunched over with my hands or elbows resting on the handlebars, and hope for a better bush sometime in the near future.

Then came the headache.  An absolutely monster, splitting headache, as though someone had driven a cleaver right through my skull, just right of center.  Vision blurred.  Nausea ensued, followed by dry heaves so hard I thought I would crack a rib.  As convulsions abated, I lay flat on the prairie grass, looking up into a searing sun, wondering what I could do to change my predicament, but my brain had stopped working rationally.  If there was an answer, there’s no way I could have found it.  I couldn’t comprehend my map and had no idea how far I had to go.  All I could do was press on and hope I hit the trailhead or encountered another human before I lay down for the last time.

Did I say it was lonely out here? (photo: stumpyfsr)
Did I mention it was lonely out here? (photo: stumpyfsr)

As I was sure I was still at least two miles from the car, I looked out across the prairie and saw what looked like a sparkly bit of teal-colored metal.   The roof of my Subaru!  Or was it?  A mirage?  A hallucination originated from warped, wishful thinking?  Well, I would know soon enough.  I joyously threw my leg over my top tube ready to sprint to the finish… and promptly crashed into a pile of prickly pear cactus.  At least I was still coherent enough to holler in pain, and formulate the most appropriate four letter words with which to express my anger at not only that immediate incident, but at how the day had gone as a whole.

Within five minutes, I was indeed at the car, clumsily attempting to insert a very uncooperative key into the door.   Vision blurry, dexterity shot, it was an amazingly difficult task.  Had I the strength, I might have just punched through the window.  Once finally in, I lunged for the extra water bottle I had left behind and grabbed a big swig.  Ouch!  Mind you, this water bottle had been sitting in a car that had spent the entire day in nearly 100 degree heat with the windows rolled up.  I could have used it to make Swiss Miss Instant Cocoa, and it would have no doubt melted all the mini marshmallows!

Apparently, I had graduated from "heat exhaustion" and had started earning credits toward "heat storke" (graphic: hotdotalert.com)
Apparently, I had graduated from “heat exhaustion” and had started earning credits toward “heat storke” (graphic: hotdotalert.com)

I drank slowly, not knowing if I was making things better or worse and, upon finally emptying the bottle, got up the courage to put the key in the ignition and begin a rather less than safe 20-mile drive to Watford City, the nearest town with a convenience store.  I actually wished a state trooper was there to pull me over for unsafe driving; at least he might have some water.  But no luck (where’s a cop when you need one, right?).  Somehow I made it to Watford City, where I promptly drained two large Gatorades in about 30 seconds, and the most massive Pepsi they had in another 30.

Lessons Learned:

  • Water is life.  Take more than you think you need.  Then add more.  Track your quantity available constantly.  Halfway there doesn’t mean half gone…. always save more than half for the return trip… the later in the day, the hotter it gets, the more tired you are, and the more water you need.
  • Don’t be too stubborn to cancel a ride.
  • Don’t be too stubborn to cut an existing ride short.  Turn around before you think you need to.
  • Oh yeah, there’s that buddy thing again.

Click to page 3 for the final bad trip.

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