Surviving the Festive 500 in the Pacific Northwest

Words by Lynnly Kunz. Photos by Nick Strohmeyer.

I consider myself a casual rider, who likes to go hard, take risks and have a lot of fun. Perhaps I downsize my experience level due to the amount of time I’ve dedicated to riding seriously since recovering from a truck vs bicycle accident in the summer of 2016 (me being the cyclist). I took a whole year off, another year experimenting with longer distances (20-30 miles) and the last two years riding in groups and participating in events - like the Rapha Festive 500 brevet. A brevet, aka randonneuring, is a noncompetitive long distance ride that is self-paced and -timed. Brevets are unsupported and prioritize camaraderie. A note to whomever might be reading this: to complete the Festive 500 brevet does not require you to be a champion, winner, cat-1,2,3 or to be adorned in medals.  Yes, it does take a fair bit of physical training but also knowing that you’re already a winner and being equipped with basic survival skills.

Ritchey Outback and Rapha's Festive 500Ritchey Outback and Rapha's Festive 500

The Rapha Festive 500 is a worldwide, annual eight-day event. Challenging cyclists to ride 500 kilometers at the end of December - a fair weather rider's nightmare. Take that challenge to the folks in Seattle, Washington, who have been making this beast a brevet for several years, condensing the 8 day challenge into a 40-hour time limit. I participated and completed it in 2018 but honestly had no clue what I was getting myself into. There were many take-aways and as I contemplated riding it again in 2019, the choice was finalized by the spirit of my friend and teammate, Lydia Tanner. We got amped up from discussing gear choices over coffee one day, knowing that if we chose the essentials wisely, we could maintain comfort for more miles.

We both live in Colorado and our training days had been ambushed by snow. Like most riders, I enjoy having a shoulder to safely ride in or empty gravel roads. When the shoulders and 'groads' were ice- and snow-free, I was back on the bike, braving the cold. Personally, my rides are one of the two; all mental or all physical. Within the Festive 500 brevet, I experienced both in one single ride, a yo-yo experience of highs and lows, good and bad.

Ritchey Outback and Rapha's Festive 500Ritchey Outback and Rapha's Festive 500

Where we were: The Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The route started on Bainbridge Island and traveled counterclockwise around the peninsula, ending in Bremerton. Totaling 340 miles with 16 kilometers of elevation gain, the roads navigated along bike trails, highways, logging roads and a bit of singletrack - very multidimensional riding. For Rapha Seattle’s brevet, we were given 40 hours to complete the route. At 6:10 a.m. on Saturday, December 28, 2019, 30 riders went off into the dark. Those first 30 minutes were surreal; the temperature was mild, no rain, everyone was staying together with nervous excitement and bodies felt good. Lydia and I set a solid pace and the teams started to divide. We joined up with the only other team of women, four strong riders with strong, positive attitudes to match. The six of us stayed together on the first day.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we crushed the first 100 miles. We lucked out, the rain held off and I rode comfortably in my kit. No mechanicals but one crash on a snaky descent where the moss took over the road.

Once the rain did start, it didn’t really phase me. Gear was holding up, bike was running smoothly, and I simply experienced nostalgia for the area I grew up camping in as a kid. Lydia and I broke from the group when we arrived at Lake Crescent. The 12 miles of gravel with a bit of singletrack was too fun to ride casually. Regrouping at the west end of the lake, hunger pains had started for some riders. With 35 miles until our next stopping point, the group had become too quiet than what was comfortable. Light conversation aids a rider as a distraction, and without it, I began to notice my seat and frequently adjusted it due to the inevitable soreness. Plus, night had fallen and riding in the dark is something no one gets used to.

We made it to a grocery store in Forks to fuel up, at around 153 miles. I had packed a down jacket and changed into it while we were there. Changing jackets for that short amount of time was luxury for my senses. Sitting on a store floor was oddly satisfying, part of the adventure, and way better than keeping my bum on the saddle. I imagined the next 67 miles to Lake Quinault where we were planning to “sleep” were going to be brutal. But I consciously decided to not overthink it. At this point, in Forks, I was feeling my best. My body was hormonally high and I did not realize I was two days away from starting my period. PMS would arrive in full effect and at the worst time.

Ritchey Outback and Rapha's Festive 500Ritchey Outback and Rapha's Festive 500

Riding again, we turned onto the Hoh Mainline. Everyone’s bike lights created tunnel vision down these roads. Tree height was out of sight and heavy rain clouds blocked all light from the moon. Pitch after pitch slowed our pace tremendously. A couple riders needed to stop and all the stopping began to trash my body. During stops, I would hydrate, snack, check the charge on my lights, check in on other riders and make some jokes. All in all, staying nourished and prepared couldn’t save me from fatigue. We rode through the Hoh Rainforest with the rain never letting up and 1:00 a.m. getting closer. The road was imperfect - descents that lead us down and around corners were marked with major cracks in the middle of the road. Everyone was calling out these hazards, keeping one another safe. Once we reached highway 101, we could form a paceline and keep moving more efficiently. I moved to the back to get pulled but seriously had a rough time hanging on. At that point, all I wanted to do was sleep. Nothing else.

At the time it didn’t make sense. I had hardcore PMS symptoms and couldn’t connect nor accept the obvious fact of where my body was at in my cycle. I managed to ride on, discovering whichever second wind I was on. Around 3:00 a.m. we rolled into Lake Quinault (220 miles). Lydia and I said goodbye to the other four women and found the inn where we would rest. Another team was there, warming up, blow-drying everything, eating, sharing whiskey, napping, etc. Seeing these friends after hours and miles in the darkened elements was medicine. One of their teammates dropped out due to a painful knee injury. Another rider, Miles, was falling asleep on his bike and decided it was best for him to stay at the inn and sleep. His team continued riding, due to finish riding six or so hours before us.

Reserving a room to rest in is one of those basic, genius ideas to make. It serves as one of those basic survival skills, i.e. shelter. I peeled my wet kit from my chilled body. Tried to take a shower, but the warm water was out. I drank some water supplemented with magnesium. Ate a couple chips and a Christmas cookie. Crawled into bed and immediately fell asleep. Three hours later it was time to get up and my first thought was, “I shouldn’t do this, I don’t think my body can handle it.” I had developed a cough, one of those chest coughs where I could almost feel the mucus clogged in my lungs - a gift from riding in the winter. The reality is yes, my body was feeling a lot and that bed was my best friend. Without over thinking, I dressed, fed, and checked over my bike. Miles asked if he could join Lydia and I to the finish. I was thrilled and the three of us formed a new team.

On Sunday we started with the daylight, a little after 8:00 a.m. One hundred and twenty miles to go. Our bodies felt mangled. The first segment was a logging road, pure gravel goodness. The Pacific Northwest was looking its finest. Climbs were climbs and the descents were a party. At one point the three of us shared a “sports” beer. Our minds were weird and our jokes were great. Twenty miles later we were back on the tarmac and I had a flat tire. “Failure,” said my self-doubt prompted by my unrelenting PMS. I had a massive slash in my back tire. Riding tubeless, the sealant wasn’t going to plug it. We got a boot plus a tube set up and started riding again. The mechanical had gotten the best of me so I let Miles and Lydia ride further ahead for a moment as I self-soothed.

Since Forks we had been riding through very remote zones. As we kept heading back East, signs of human life made some of the crazy go away. We formed a paceline and kept at it. We had our first warm meal of the day at around 300 miles. There we sat in another grocery store, in Shelton - slightly off route, eating warmed food from a Starbucks.

“Try not to count down the miles,” I reminded myself. I left the GPS in my frame bag to continue charging as we rolled out. My feet felt like bricks since my shoes were weighted with water. I was lukewarm and utterly uncomfortable.

We picked up the pace up as we hit State Route 106. It was dusk and we all indulged in the views of The Narrows. We stopped to check the time and have a quick snack. Our goal was to make the Bremerton to Seattle Ferry shortly after 6:00 p.m. At this point, I'm hungry for the finish with zero appetite for food. Lydia handed me an energy gel. Both she and Miles motivated me to just put it down followed by a lot of water.

Ritchey Outback and Rapha's Festive 500Ritchey Outback and Rapha's Festive 500

The nighttime returns like some old children’s movie, carrying with it metaphorical weight. We are ten miles from the finish and the fatigue hit hard. I fell off the back and slowed my pace tremendously. I wanted to sleep as I watched Lydia and Miles push further into the dark. Miles slowed to check on me. He said something funny and encouraging. I wish I could remember. Whatever he said, it brought me back. The group is back together! And then...I was tired again. We were so damn close. My body couldn’t pedal any faster. Four miles from the terminal and we could see the ferry. Miles took off, thinking maybe he could hold the ferry for a couple minutes. But he forgot, as we all did, about the final two, steep pitches immediately when you get into Bremerton.

We rolled down to the terminal, just missing the ferry. A couple friends who had been out photographing all the riders the entire weekend were there to cheer us on. Finishing the Festive left me in a mentally quiet state. Almost a bit numb, completely ready for bed. I still had some jokes to throw out, like smelling like a lamb because of my sweaty wool base layers.

There’s only so much preparation and training you can do before going into the Festive. Keep your eyes on weather reports. Overthinking all the “what-ifs” will do you no good. A degree of breakdown or collapse is inevitable for most and you will question your capability. A ride of this magnitude really rips it out of you and leaves you blank - in a good way, in that open-minded, ready for the New Year way. What pulled me out of those moments of confusion and dire fatigue were: (1) My internal dialogue, reminding myself simply that I love to ride bikes. Bikes are the “OG best friend.” And that when I’m riding I’m doing something right. (2) The friendships, our team, the people along the way. Internal dialogue with myself and camaraderie with my team is how I survived the Festive. Physical defeat was an abandoned measure before the ride even began, even though my PMS tried to ambush that idea. Maintaining a positive mental attitude is where all my effort went. After all, it is the number one survival skill.

Bike riding anchors me. It helps me maintain good mental health in this world. All in all, aren’t we all?