Updated: Jun 12, 2019
When I was invited to set the FKT (fastest known time) on the freshly-minted Arkansas High Country Route (#ArHC), I had no idea how much I was about to be tested. Physically, of course, but also mentally. The epic, 1,041-mile part-gravel, part-paved loop brought me through some of Arkansas most incredible sights while pushing my limits over the eight days, three hours, and 33 minutes (which is now the route's fastest known time!) it took me to complete the journey.
I'll be honest, I was a little taken off guard by how hilly Arkansas was and the relentless torrential rain I encountered for about the first six days out there, but the people I met over the week showed me how extra special a project becomes when it is beyond your own agenda. Their hospitality kept me going when I really needed it, and I am beyond thankful for that.
This adventure also unveiled a lot about myself. This was the longest consecutive-day ride I had ever ridden. By the time I crossed the finish line, I was ready to be done, but I felt strong...perhaps even stronger than I did on day 2 or 3. I've come to learn in my extensive career, that it is in the space where you push yourself to your absolute limits, when you're not sure how much of it you can take, that you learn the most about yourself. People always ask me what draws me to doing this long stuff. It's for the clarity that comes with hours of cycling where I can strip away the layers and get to my thoughts. The physical work is a process to dig to my soul that I can't otherwise do without long hours of work and alone in my head.
And that is exactly what I did out there.
Over those eight days, I gained 84,373 feet in elevation (fun fact! that's about the equivalent to climbing Mount Everest x 3), burned 37,024 calories, and slept just 38.5 hours (4.8 hours/night average). I met two incredible Vietnam Veterans, visited one fire station, and drank 16 Red Bulls to keep me moving through it all and that's just a small taste of what unfolded.
So now I invite you to come along with me and experience what it was like out on the Arkansas High Country Route with the rest of this blog below.
Comprised of three large loops (South, Central, and Northwest), varying in gradient and surface, it was super important to choose my gear wisely. Doing a long ride like the #ArHC is a pretty big undertaking not only because of the massive distance, but also the unsupported nature of the ride. Success depends on planning, controlling the controllables, and dialing in your gear. Just like putting in the training time for your legs and lungs, careful, selective gear planning will pay dividends on ride day. It's not always the burliest quads that prevail in ultra endurance events. Efficiency, smarts, and equipment management are part of the equation too.
Stoked to have my new @Ninerbikes RLT 9 RDO just in time with @SRAM's new eTap AXS, modified to a "mullet" set up with Eagle 1x to conquer this mixed terrain. And the power team including @envecomposites SES AR 3.4 wheels with the tough @maxxisbikes Rambler 38cc tires that kept me rolling smoothly along this rugged adventure.
My other essential gear selections included:
@wildernesstrailbikes Koda saddle (this saddle was incredible and kept me comfortable the entire time).
@garmin Edge 1030 with inReach tracking.
@revelatedesigns frame bags.
I wore my @assosofswitzerland H.laalalai S_7 half shorts (Not one saddle sore the entire ride! Amazing!)
Custom jersey and mille wind jacket.
To top it all off, my eyes and head were protected by @smithoptics attack max sunglasses and network helmet.
Now, let's get rolling.....
Day 1, 2 & 3: Torrential Rain and Relentless Hills I started pedaling 10 minutes after sunrise. There was a big storm due to roll in so it was imperative that I get underway on the 100 mile day at sun up to get as many miles under my belt before the rain caught me. I'm glad I did because it was a much bigger day than anticipated.
I thought I would make it to Hatfield by lunch, but I didn't reach town until later afternoon. The hills were relentless, the weather was challenging, and an earlier flat had me behind schedule.
When I reached the town of Hatfield, I was still having tire issues. I discovered that there was a small tear in the sidewall that must have been from the trail's incredibly sharp slate rocks. Hatfield is a small town with limited services. I figured there wouldn't be a bike shop, so I started to think about how I would be able to fix the tire. Lucky for me, like a mirage Jordan Tire (auto tire repair shop) appeared at the intersection as I entered town. A kind man at the shop named Aaron stepped right up to help me. He patched the tire and pointed me in the direction of the best chicken tenders and potato wedges in town at the neighboring gas station. After refueling, warming up, and getting as dry as possible, I knew it was time to head back out into the cold, pounding rain. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had to keep pushing forward.
Day 4: Racing to Bentonville + Shelter from the Storm
Today's goal - get as many miles under me to get to Bentonville the next day in time for a special showing of Blood Road at the Bentonville Film Festival where friends were waiting for me. I had to be there, but after three days of punishing weather, intense terrain, and lack of sleep, the bike was pretty beat up and so was my body.
Day 4 required a lot more self-care, a few trail-side pep talks, and a bike shop.
That morning got underway just shortly after 7 a.m. After a quick breakfast, I peddled over an hour to Russellville where Chain Reaction Bike shop gave my bike the tune-up it so desperately needed. My bike had taken a beating in the first 300 miles and needed fresh brake pads, a brake bleed, and fresh Orange Seal sealant in the tires. Though it may had seemed like it at first, time spent getting my bike back into performing condition wasn't time wasted. I wanted to keep riding at the pace I had set in mind to make it to Bentonville, but in order to do that, I needed to make sure my gear was up for the challenge. It was a hard pill to swallow at first, but now I know I made the right decision.
The day continued on with difficulty cranked to 10. The route's pitches were super steep--like 25% grade steep--not to mention the muddy and deep red clay mud pits that grabbed my tires. Mother Nature wasn't letting up so I added baggies on my feet and surgical gloves on my hands to provide an extra layer of protection from the tough elements. To top it all off? I had a few surprise encounters with a some local dogs that kept me on my toes.
The first 80 miles were with no services-- that meant no food, water, or bike shops. I thought there was a lodge at the top of White Mountain and I had images of fresh, hot coffee, and a much-needed hearty meal.
However, when I got to the top of the mountain, I didn’t see any such place. When was I going to finally catch a break? I asked myself.
Though I had tried hard to push on in order to make it to Bentonville for the screening the next day, it became clear that it just wasn't going to happen. There were still approximately 108 miles for the day's target and quite a bit of climbing...and the inevitable rain.
As I moved along as fast as I could through the fowl weather and muck, I realized that my determination wasn't going to be enough. With the day coming to a close, and running out of fuel, I knew I would have to accept reality and stop soon to eat and get some rest. when I rolled into the next town of Oark all the food options were closed and places to stay sold-out. I was crushed. I had no other option but to find shelter in a barn or some other type of cover and food, well that would be another story. That is, until I met Mary (who I later went on to call "Mary the Trail Angel") in Oark. She saw I was in need of a place to stay and some food and welcomed me into her home. It was a saving grace and an act of kindness I will never forget.
Day 5: Arriving to Bentonville
The next morning I left Mary the Trail Angel's house at 4:30 a.m. in the, you guessed it, pounding rain. It was so nice staying with her, but I still wanted to get to the screening in Bentonville even if it meant I would arrive shortly after it was over.
Well, I didn't make it close to the screening, but fortunately I was able to connect with my friends, share a nice dinner, and then get six full hours of sleep.
My bike also received some TLC from Phat Tire Bike Shop in town. Another essential tuneup including two new Maxxis tires was exactly what the doctor ordered, and so when I woke up the next morning on day 6 I was refreshed and ready to go.
Day 6: Cautiously Optimistic I rolled out at 6 a.m. and went straight to my Bentonville fav, Onyx for coffee and some breakfast. When I arrived at 6:55 a.m. the sign on the door read “Opens at 7 a.m.” On these journeys, every minute saved during the day might mean extra precious minutes for sleep at night, which I was reminded of the night before. Anxious to get going I also knew it was important to fuel up properly so I ended up waiting and glad I did.
My Achilles tendon was bothering me a bit the night before and it really flared up today at around mile 30. I had to stop and find some way to get relief. Fortunately, there was a Dollar General store at this point where I was able to buy some tape to wrap my Achilles and a few other get-me-on-my-way items including a yellow Red Bull (my favorite) and some snacks.
The terrain had more rollers on day 6 with some short steep climbs. I was surprised at how much elevation gain I actually had. It all added up to about 10k of climbing (of my entire ride's total of over 84,000k). The sun was out and it was great to see the beauty of Arkansas out from under the clouds. Highlights on this day included riding over the historic Beaver Bridge, eating potato logs, and riding through a heard of cattle. Overall my muscles felt good, but it was my joints that were feeling the days in the saddle.
Day 7: A Shift of Mindset
At 6:40 a.m. I was staring down the road looking at a 15+ hour day on my @WTB saddle. I was having a little case of the Monday's thinking about the long hours and all the climbing ahead of me when I decided to be present and in the moment.
That's when my mind and perspective shifted.
On this day, the ride stopped feeling like all about me and my own self-care, and more about connecting with the wonderful people of Arkansas. I rolled out into a cool fog, and right away the climbing began--up and out of the Buffalo National River and into the sunshine and beautiful white clouds. The day was filled with long climbs, steep and technical descents, and rich, red Arkansas mud remaining from the days of soaking.
As I rolled into Mt. Judea, I saw a sign for water at the Ozark Outdoor Sport & Farm supplies store. I can't explain it, but something pulled me inside.
Behind the front counter were two older gentlemen who greeted me kindly. We engaged in a great conversation where I learned that one was an Army helicopter pilot who flew out of Da Nang, Vietnam, and the other a firefighter--a common denominator between the two of us. I told them about my work, and also about my losing my dad in the Vietnam War. Even though I never met them before, there was an immediate connection that was felt among the three of us.
The next stop was Witts Springs in Searcy County, and what stands out in my mind was the energy! As I rode into town I was greeted with a sign that read “Searcy County Has A Crush On Rusch!” and amazing local people came out to greet me including an Air Force General who knows of my sister, local firefighters, and a cute dog. It was a great day meeting all kinds of folks.
Day 8: The Final Day
As I arrived under the welcoming Red Bull arch, I felt a mix of emotions. The return to civilization after being so remote for so long was a bit overwhelming. Re-entry can be motivating, of course, but also sometimes a little shocking. Regardless, I was ready to be finished and proud of myself for taking on what is now the longest consecutive days of cycling that I’ve ever done. I met so many amazing people along the way. The folks in each town that not only welcomed me but helped me when I needed it the most like Aaron in Hatfield with the sidewall patch for my tire and Mary the trail angel in Oark.
A project becomes extra special when it goes beyond your own agenda, that is what Chuck Campbell did by championing for the #ArHC. Seeing his face at the finish line beaming at what he brought to life is a memory I will never forget. It was an honor to be able to help him put the #ArHC and Arkansas on the cycling map.
Arkansas is a beautiful place to ride your bike, and I highly suggest you plan a bike trip out this way. There is an adventure waiting out there for you. I'm already thinking about my next exploration out there. #BeGood
Want to #JoinTheRusch for your own adventure? My team and I have planned ways for riders and adventurers of all levels to stretch your limits, challenge yourself, and see parts of the world that will amaze and inspire you. Celebrate my hometown with a Labor Day Weekend ride of 20, 62.5, or 100 miles at Rebecca's Private Idaho, or travel with us this December to experience the epic trails, impactful history, and beautiful people of Laos on the MTB-LAO trip.