Gears grinding under the weight of heavy bags, hearts pounding and breathing heavy, we slowly fought our way up a gradual hill towards the capital city, Helena. Our 36 mile ride from Townsend to Helena wasn’t nearly our longest or hardest in respect to distance or elevation gain, but this particular day was made much more difficult due to the unforgiving headwinds. For us, Helena meant the halfway point of our journey and the prospects of a much needed recess. To say that freedom and a few days of rest was fueling us would be an understatement. We pushed on in silence, the blustering wind making it nearly impossible to converse, our legs heavy from a grueling ride the day before. Yet, as we always do, we eventually prevailed, reaching Helena by the sheer knowledge of the downtime that lay ahead of us.
Once in Helena I was elated to collapse on my friend Sarah’s couch. My excitement led me to ignore the chills that were creeping up along my spine, a knowing warning that sickness might very well be around the corner. Determined to make the most of the time spent with old friends and new, I continued to push the nagging fatigue and discomfort aside, instead savoring live music in the park and the immeasurable feeling of being freshly showered. Unfortunately, as soon as I arrived back at Sarah’s apartment I knew I was about to go down. Hard.
While I’ll spare you the details that I didn’t spare my group, the next few days were spent curled up in a ball with a low grade fever and a dehydration inducing bacterial infection (hence the IV of fluids I required pictured above). I wasn’t the only one who came down with an illness, three of us in total were rendered useless and antibiotic induced. We had it bad enough that by the time we were to leave Helena, we still weren’t well enough to ride. The rest of the group pushed on without us, and we were given another night in Helena to wait for two generous souls to drive us to Augusta where we hoped to be well enough to continue on by bike.
In Augusta us who were sick seemed to be on the up and up, attending a meeting and continuing with coursework. I personally felt that I had recovered post antibiotics and felt that I was cautiously ready to ride. From Augusta, our next destination was Choteau, a non-daunting 27 miles away. It seemed like the perfect ride to wean ourselves back into riding. I felt confident the first few miles, leading the pack with a new fervency after multiple days spent dormant. It was a hot day, but my legs felt strong so I peddled hard. Our first hill approached quickly, seeming to become more and more daunting the closer we came. Mia pulled ahead of me to take GoPro footage and I switched into a lower gear as we started the steep ascent. While not a particularly long hill, the grade was unforgiving and each pedal accentuated the blazing heat being reflected off of the hot asphalt beneath my wheels. Eventually, the top was reached leading to a nice decent. Feeling especially exhausted, I pushed on slowly, my strength from earlier leaving me rapidly. I assumed that as I hit the downhill I would begin to feel better, as it generally does after a steep climb, but to my dismay it only led to lightheadedness and continued fatigue. Other riders began passing me and I felt that I was beginning to wobble unsafely. At this point, I yelled to Matt that I felt dizzy and needed to pull over. I unsteadily dismounted from the bike, feeling dehydrated and defeated. I looked ahead at another long ascent before us, feeling the will drain from me. I determined that I didn’t feel well enough to push on, the effects of the bacterial infection rapidly creeping back up, clearly never completely leaving my body. Luckily, Matt’s friend, Jacob Cowgill, was along for the ride with us that day and had his car back in Choteau.
An hour later, I found myself in the Choteau ER (unfortunately, their walk-in clinic was closed for the day), explaining to a nurse my previous and current situation. A second bacterial infection detected, I left with a new round of antibiotics and a heightened sense of defeat. I returned to the group, uncertainty for the future of the trip on my mind.
The rest of the day was spent trying to focus on coursework, but my mind was being flooded with thoughts of anxiety and fear that I wouldn’t be better for our 4 day push on to Glacier. That evening, after speaking with family and instructors, I made the incredibly difficult decision that it wasn’t in my best interest, or the group’s for that matter, to continue on. It was apparent that my body needed rest and nurturing that I wasn’t able to give it in my current situation. Not wanting to completely abandon the course, I decided to take a few days to go back home to Missoula and then hopefully be well enough to meet back up with the group in West Glacier.
The next day everyone else carried on and I was retrieved in Choteau, relieved in a sense but also extremely upset that I had worked so hard only to have to cut my time short by illness. Determined to return, I spent the next two days in Missoula resting, chugging water and stuffing my face with as many probiotic rich foods I could find. My persistence paid off and by the time the group was heading to West Glacier, I felt well enough to join them for the end of the course. As chance would have it, I was able to hitch a ride with Keri, the director of WRFI, and two TREK employees who would ride with us for a few days in Glacier.
I’m happy to report that I was able to complete our final two longer rides to Going to the Sun Road and Whitefish without any further health setbacks. While the decision to leave was incredibly difficult, I feel especially lucky that I had the opportunity to rejoin my classmates and be welcomed back with open arms. In reflection, this experience has been full of unexpected obstacles as well as opportunities that I would have never been allotted without the structure of this type of course. This has been an unforgettable experience, filled with physical and mental challenges that cannot be recreated in a classroom setting. I have been allowed the ability to not only further my knowledge and passions, but also get to know myself and my strengths on an entirely new level.