Coulee Challenge 1200K: Four Sunrises Postcard

A fourth sunrise signals the final day of the Coulee Challenge 1200K. Hazy light illuminates the morning rises. Despite being fully awake and alert – something I wasn’t sure would happen after this many hours and miles –  remembering where we are eludes me.

Day 1 into Wisconsin

We’re somewhere lush and lovely, but the rolling terrain doesn’t distinguish itself to me. It should be disorienting, but I feel just right momentarily not knowing our physical location. Instead, I’m engulfed in the sensations of movement and convergence.

Everything we’ve done from May to August blends to form one long uninterrupted course that brings us precisely to this place, and as it unfurls in my mind I gradually know where we are. We’re in Minnesota, along our summer ride continuum.

Lane on a swoopy Wisconsin descent, Day 1

We’ve pedaled from Washington, D.C., through the Shenandoah in Virginia, on into the steeps of the Appalachians in Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, until at last clipping in for these four big days of riding the rollers of Minnesota and the Driftless Region of Wisconsin.

Our current location matters in terms of the next turn on the cue sheet, but the physical space we occupy means little to me right now. The sunrises of spring and summer melt into each other, and the fluidity of our effort feels amazing.

Sunrise, Day 2

After our spring and summer teamwork, Felkerino and I have executed according to plan. The steady mileage buildup over the last months was ideal training (and fun – mostly!).

My quads are heavy this final day, but they are still willing to work. The hills of the Driftless area did not faze us, despite sloping steeper at times than we anticipated. The course has been sublime, the controls smartly spaced, and the volunteer support solid.

Day 2

For the Coulee Challenge, Felkerino and I set aside our normal rhythms, and without fanfare began pedaling each morning between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. If you regularly read this blog you know that I normally label activity at such hour uncivilized. But the trade-off of moseying into blissfully quiet and cool pre-dawn miles while we loosened up our bodies and the sun gradually floated into view each day proved well worth it.

Day 2, Top of Excelsior

And sun – so much sun! It made for warm midday spates, but how I savored the hours spent swallowed in the steaming mouth of this glorious star over the last four days.

The hairs on my arms glint and waft in the morning breeze. Incredulous about this wonderful present moment, I think of how upbringing and chance brought me here.

I see the ride’s continuum again, reaching back even further to my childhood in rural Iowa. Few distractions and loads of time for hours outside and bike rides on country roads. Parents who encouraged me to embrace physical movement, and modeled that themselves.

Day 3, Yuba

It’s surreal to be back in the Midwest lopping off giant miles on this terrain as a grown-up. While not exactly “my” part of the Midwest, it is familiar all the same.

And then the whole riding a tandem with this guy Felkerino. Who could ever have imagined that? Luck and circumstance, I suppose, and I’ll happily take it.

Day 3

While physically uncomfortable from well over 600 miles of pedaling, I have pushed through to a point where discomfort is dull and insignificant. I’m sure I could keep going, especially if I sustain this odd suspension along time and place.

Felkerino’s and my partnership has been solid (except for that one half hour where I regaled him with what I considered constructive feedback about maximizing efficiency at the controls). We’ve been resilient and synchronized throughout our training and into the 1200K.

My heart swells greedily and I wish I could always feel the way I do this moment.

Day 3, Greg signs control cards

Ideas about the inevitabilities of someday in the future intrude, and the keen awareness of where I am slips away. Someday our bodies will slow down. Someday we won’t be able to do events like this. Someday…

The sun takes a break, skies begin to cloud over, and nature reminds me not to put so much thought into somedays. I reengage with the final 30 miles.

Final day in Minnesota

Clouds darken and sink heavy in the sky, and the gentle breeze stiffens into a headwind. Felkerino and I react and pedal animatedly, beginning an unspoken race with the rain. I’m set on beating it. Fortunately our route is gradually weaving us away from the front, turn by turn, and we appear to be winning.

Day 4, time to step it up

We’re down to the last five miles and on our approach into town. I hear Felkerino happily shout, “I know where I am!” He wants to slow down and enjoy the final stretch. With this rain licking at our shoulders I’m having none of it. Time to dodge this incoming shower.

And it’s not just the rain I want to escape, I realize. I also want to end the lingering doubt of whether our summer continuum will culminate in our completion of this ride. Patience escapes me, and we scurry as quickly as we can, or at least as quickly as I can make us go.

Team photo, final day. Pic by Matt Roy

Minutes after we roll into the hotel – dry, I should note – I regret my impatience. It’s all over. After months of planning and work, and years of no brevets longer than 600K, we did it. We have proven our bodies still have what it takes for a 1200K. That is certainly satisfying.

But I should have heeded Felkerino’s suggestion to slow down and appreciate those moments near the end. What was the real rush, after all? It’s a rare feeling to recognize where you are, and to dedicate a moment to savoring it.

Four Days, Four Sunrises

My full set of photos is here.

So much gratitude to the Driftless Randonneurs and the Minnesota Randonneurs, and the organizers and volunteers for creating this incredible event. It was a beautiful four days on the Coulee Challenge 1200K, both in terms of terrain as well as fellowship and support. And special thanks to Seattle Randonneur Ian Shopland for helping diagnose our rear hub, and telling us to keep riding!


  1. It’s nice to hear how well you and your riding partner synched during this multiday endurance event. Thanks for recounting your feelings and showing us the Midwest landscape.


  2. Mary,

    No one has said it yet but we all know it – you are an unbelievable writer – such skill! Here’s a suggestion, write a novel. We could use another Hermann Hesse or Dostoyevsky. Just to make it clear, your writing ability is well received and respected by all of us. Oh yes, I am not afraid to speak for all of us, and thanks!

    My wife and I continue to do our metric centuries with an occasional English century. Our daughter (the one that does this type of stuff) finished her PhD and ran the Boston marathon. When I tell people that they think I am a big braggart but I don’t mind because I am one!

    Anyway, the bottom line is thanks for the great posts and thanks for being such an excellent writer!

    By the way, the star you mention when you write about the warm sun is 93 million miles away! Think about that a little.

    Have a good Autumn and thanks.


    • Dave, thanks so much for your comment, and of course you should be proud of of your daughter’s accomplishments. She sounds like quite a kid! I’m grateful to everybody who reads this blog, and that’s quite a compliment from you. Thank you again!


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