You can never get as good of selfies when you’re doing it at 3:30am. Front facing cameras are terrible.

When it comes to cycling, it seems that I am a glutton for punishment. It’s been almost exactly 9 years since the first time I decided to do a crazy-long bike ride, and unlike the Dead2Red’s long relay rides in 2009, 2010, and then winning first place in 2015, this would be the first time I’d attempt the “short” distance of 99km, all by myself. How hard could it be?

Christine’s boss, Rick, picked me up in an Uber at 4 in the morning yesterday on the 4th of March. I had been tiptoeing around the apartment so as to not wake up Christine – not that she would be awakened by anything less than a jet flying 15 meters overhead, but still trying to be polite – and hurriedly crammed a couple of tuna sandwiches into my mouth and some protein nut bars in Denis’s borrowed camelbak, and hurried outside.

We were the first to arrive at the USA embassy, the employer of not only Rick but most of the people in our group. I got to go through USA embassy security for the first time to get to the back lot, and helped Rick bring some of the stored embassy employee bicycles out to the front where the transport van would be arriving. The embassy had also provided us with free jerseys – extremely tight fit, but this time I got an XL, so it just barely got around my lanky frame. I felt like Spiderman. Paco, the unofficial leader of our group, was doling them out of a big plastic bag as other people started trickling in, checking tires, lights, helmets, and all the other important things you need for a ride.

We were a little worried about the status of our 25 or so bicycles being crammed, upright, into a single large van. I heard someone joke “it’s not like a bent derailleur will be a problem, right?” Since I was on a loaner bike, I solemnly hoped that nothing would happen to betray the owner’s generosity on our 45 minute trip up north to Colon.

“Uh, can we fit all our bikes in there? And even if we can…should we?”

Our trip up the Colon-Panama Expressway was quiet, with most of us napping or quietly chatting. The sun rose as we drove, around 6:15 or so, and now we could see the bike racks and mounts on almost every single  vehicle on the highway going in our direction. It was going to be a full race…I saw hundreds of lovingly packed bicycles in a half an hour.

Moments after disembarking near the Port of Colon and stretching our legs, we heard a cheer erupt from nearby, and dozens of bicyclists shot past us. There was a brief panic among some of us, me included, that we had somehow missed the start of the race and we were too late, but some of the more experienced riders assured us that this was the “Gran Fondo” group that would be going 125km, instead of our “Medio Fondo” group that would be doing 95. We still had an hour to go before our ride began at 7:30.

Paco on the left, and Barry Sif on the right. Weird towel-headed man in the middle

Rick and the others strapped on 4 digit numbers to their handlebars and clipped the same number onto the backs of their jerseys. I, on the other hand, had cheaped out and would not be “officially” competing, unlike my rides in the Dead 2 Red. It might “only” have been $100 (Official O2O jersey not included) but I had heard from multiple sources that in previous years the support stations ran out of fruit and water and the celebratory at the dinner also had supply problems. Coupled with my current lack of employment, I decided that I would make like a camel – with my camelbak! – and carry my own water with me; six liters to be exact, plus five of the aforementioned protein bars.

Most of the US Embassy group lined up about 3/4 of the way back from the starting line

Most of the embassy group had registered, except for a small team of Marines who had only arrived in the country a few days earlier. They were on rented bikes and like me, had no official numbers to pin on anything. We kind of bunched together, hoping to not be noticed as the 50 meter long line of cyclists edged towards the starting gate where the electronic RFID sensors would start tracking the official contestants, but of course, no one paid us any attention and the woman with the megaphone cheerfully announced us as “Bienvenido a Los Estados Unidos!” as we gave a roar of approval (my hope that we’d shout USA! USA! USA! together as we crossed the start line had been vetoed earlier, ha!)

Paco gave his phone to a helpful stranger, who was able to give us a nice pre-race photo

It was 7:44 in the morning, and the streets were lined with people cheering us all on and taking photos. There were a few drones flying overhead with cameras – how times have changed since 2009! – and police officers standing at attention at every intersection, preventing the local morning traffic from roaring out and flattening any unfortunate cyclists. I saw now what that $100 was going toward – as it turned out, every single intersection along the entire route was guarded by at least one, usually two police officers, keenly watching the growing lines of traffic in the oncoming lane who might want to turn left across our path. There must have been at least two hundred cops along the route, with support trucks and motorcycles to escort the occasional convoy of a half dozen cars that needed to go our way, safely past.

For the first 10-15km, I was able to keep up with Paco, Rick, and Barry on their fancy road bikes and unladen backs. Barry called back to me that “whatever time you finish with, add an extra two miles per hour to your average just for carrying that bag on your back!” and I cheerfully called out to Paco’s GoPro “hybrid bicycles foreveeeeeeeeer!” minutes before exhaustion struck me and they all disappeared up the road. The last I saw of Rick was his bright orange helmet and socks glinting in the sunlight.

One of my three stops to shift gear between bag, pockets, and reapply sunblock, around KM 35

I’d see them all again, of course. I’d ruefully pass the free banana and water stands and pedal grimly on, stuffing another chocolate-peanut-butter-bar messily into my mouth and washing it down with my amazingly still-cold water. Even as I watched the other cyclists hurl their trash into the bushes at the side of the road, I’d narrow my eyes and stuff the tiny bar wrapper into my pocket. I wouldn’t be the cause of a single piece of additional garbage to dot Panama’s landscape. As I flashed by, I’d pick out a few USA Embassy jerseys in the crowd of dozens of relaxing, paid participants. Then 15, 20, or 30 minutes later, they’d catch up and pass me again, calling out a friendly hello, to which I’d respond with “guh!”

The sun grew higher in the sky, and with my head bent down to watch for the constant potholes, I watched the shadows shorten down to almost nothing. As I passed over the Centenario Bridge around the 65th kilometer, I was able to look ahead into what, according to Google Maps, was supposed to be a forest. Not from what I was seeing! Thus began the fourth hour, “the hard hour” of cycling along a major highway with cars roaring past me (no intersections here meant almost no police, but plenty of knocked-over orange cones that were supposed to keep us cyclists safe), deceptively mild hills but extremely long hills, zero shade, and the sun high over ahead and reflecting back up at me off the white-gray concrete road, vs the black asphalt of earlier in the day. I’m pleased to say I never needed to get off my bike and walk up any of these hills, although I did stop at the top of one of them, finding a lone palm tree next to an auto junkyard, to rest, stretch my legs for a minute, and transfer the chocolate-smeared wrappers from my disgusting pockets into my slightly-less-disgusting backpack.

My camelbak had been emptied just before the bridge, and I dumped my other three liters of water into it there. Now as I took stock of my remaining supply, it seemed suspiciously light. Everyone had chuckled when I told them I was bringing that much water, but was it going to be enough? I hadn’t needed to relieve myself yet, so my body was clearly using the water….but six wasn’t going to be enough. What else could I do, though? I was only a dozen kilometers from the capitol as the crow flies, but I might as well have been in the deserts of Jordan between the Dead Sea and Aqaba. There’d be no water for sale here.

Suddenly, a police officer in front of me, standing in the crook of an offramp. He was shouting something and gesturing first to the offramp, then to the highway stretching on in front of me. I could see cyclists on both routes though. What to do? I heard him say “ruta corta” which I knew meant short route, but at this point I was exhausted, not sure I would be able to finish the ride anyway, and wanted to make absolutely sure I went on the 95km ride and not join the insane talented riders of the 125km loop. Now that I’d seen what the highway had to offer versus the beautiful shaded hills of the Gamboa region, I knew that all those 125km riders were going to see was 15 more km heading west, then turning around doing another 15km back to where I was standing this very minute. My overheated and water-worrying mind didn’t process this at the moment. I turned around on my bicycle and coasted back down the offramp and then burbled at the police officer in terrible spanish, “this way, the short route? That way, the long route?” He gestured indefinitively again and nodded. “But…which one? For sure, this way up, short route?” Finally, he pointed at the offramp specifically and said “This is the short route, sir!” And I haltingly pedaled up the ramp (never stop on a hill), crossed over the highway, and started pedaling back the way I’d come. This was the 81st kilometer.

Things were feeling a little better now; my pelvic bones that were in contact with the seat had gone numb, even through two layers of bike shorts. Also, now that I realized where I was, I knew I was pointed almost directly at the Bridge of the Americas, the final landmark before the end. But at 83km, the disaster I’d been fearing struck – the camelbak was sucked dry, and I had nothing to refill it with. I’d been coating my mouth every couple of minutes with a gulp or two until now, but as I pedaled along that blindingly white, heatstroke-inducing highway I settled for wetting my lips every five minutes. A hill appeared at 85km and although I tried my best…I couldn’t do it. I got off my bike, my legs almost buckling…and walked, head bowed.

Some people called out to me as they cycled past, in English and Spanish, “you can do it!” I patted my bag and said “no water” to which they shook their heads and continued on. However, I was now much closer to Panama City then I’d been when I first entered this hellish stretch of highway, and at the top of the hill… a laundrymat! Perhaps they’d sell me a bottle of water. No such luck, but the woman selling lottery tickets at the door called out to me as I began to stagger away, saying there was a supermarket around the corner. Blissfully, she was right, and I leaned my bike against the wall and shuffled through the door into the sweet air conditioning. “Agua” I croaked. “Donde?”

Don’t leave home without it, if you’re planning on being in direct sunlight for almost five straight hours

A minute later, I had paid my $1.60 for a two liter bottle of delicious, ice cold water. I knew I only had 10km left so I didn’t hesitate to drain a quarter of it right there on the steps of the store before dumping the remaining 1.5 into the camelbak. Newly invigorated, I leapt back onto the bike and rejoined the flow of cyclists.

I came across a couple of the Marines I’d started the race with. They’d been the only USA Embassy team members I’d seen for at least an hour now, and the man was helping the woman refit her chain back on. I stopped and asked them if they were okay (they’d done the same for me while I was stopped and reapplying sunblock at the top of a hill way back at the 30th km) and they said they were. I asked where the rest of their team was, and they said they were pretty far back. “Do you want to finish the ride with us?” one asked. Sure, I could use the company…and people to draft with!

There were some beautiful downhills here, and the uphills were mild and ended quickly. If you pushed yourself hard on the downhills, sometimes you could even keep enough momentum to get you halfway up the next hill, which was blissful. I learned that my companions were named John and Karina, but of course, we were all quite tired and didn’t talk too much. Both of them were on mountain bikes, but John in particular was a machine and seemed to be hanging back to help out Karina – he gave her gentle helping hand on her back as we went up a few of the hills. We stopped together on the Bridge of the Americas, and took a few pictures as the metal and concrete creaked and swayed with awesome potential energy underneath us. I pointed out the Biomuseo below with its colorful roof, and told my “guests” what it was and that the end of our ride was somewhere very near that. Then I told the two of them to go on ahead; privately thinking that I wanted them to be able to finish at whatever speed they wanted and not feel like they had to hold back for exhausted, un-military me.

Thanks for taking the photo on the bridge, [insert rank here] John!

Another ten minutes and the ride was done, finishing with a beautifully shady tree-lined straightaway down Avenida Amador. I passed by a man waving a checkered flag and immediately dismounted, stopped my GPS, and started unbuckling my gear. I walked along the sidewalk next to the road, watching my fellow riders blur past and hearing the cheers of the spectators and riders who’d already completed, waiting and watching for their friends. Then, I heard people calling my name and I looked over towards a tree – there was the embassy group. “Get back on the bike, Zach! Keep on riding!” Feeling a little silly – what for? I went past the flag! – I did so and smiled beatifically for their cameras, then immediately dismounted again once I reached the “true” ending – the point where O2O staff were distributing participation medals and the rest of the cyclists seemed to be truly dismounting from their bikes.

“And you, ma’am, have won 17 medals because I’m tired of holding these things”

I walked over to the rest of my group and was about ready to collapse with some kind, any kind of drink in hand when I was asked, “Where’s your medal though?” I pointed out that I hadn’t registered and didn’t think I was eligible for one; wouldn’t they see I didn’t have a number on my bike or jersey? Give it a try anyway I was told…walk back up a few dozen meters with your bike, climb back on (oh sweet lord no, my rump interjected to my brain), and pedal up to the distributors again. Okay…why not? It’s not like they could kick me out of the race now. This time instead of dismounting when I reached the staff, I walk-pedaled up to them and was immediately rewarded with a medal in my hand. No one gave me a second glance. How about that, I thought to myself as I walked back to the embassy group for the second time.

Rick and I celebrating our completion – he beat me by 30 minutes and had already eaten lunch by the time I arrived!

Finally, it was time for a bottle of powerade and to relax under the thick, spreading green leaves of a tropical tree. Sweet shade…I had never appreciated it more. I had had enough time in the sun to last me a year, but thankfully, my hastily – but constantly – applied sunblock from a tube I kept in my pocket, every hour, seems to have completely spared me from any sunburn. That, plus the ridiculous yellow towel I had stuffed under my helmet to protect my neck. I figured it would double as a safety flag, too, and the fact I’m here writing this to you means it must have worked.

As always, here’s a Google Earth readable KML file of the entire route. It’s pretty easy to see all the places I stopped. According to the official ranking results, had I registered, I would have placed as 107th in my age and gender group. In the end, my total time was 4 hours and 57 minutes from start to finish, and according to Runkeeper, I spent 4 hours and 41 minutes of that in motion. Not bad.

Instead of giving you a nice publicly-viewable link to my stats, you’ll have to make do with this because Runkeeper sucks at sharing data

The ride was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’ve learned my lesson about being complacent regarding training – every time I’ve done the Dead2Red, I had been doing at least 40 miles, every weekend, for months leading up to it. Also, for a relay race, I didn’t have anything riding on my back, sinking teeth of tiredness into my spine with every pedal rotation. But seriously, O2O organizers…what’s up with the 7:30am start time in the middle of tropical summer? No one wants to be cycling at noon when it’s 31 degrees celcius, and while I know that my time wasn’t the greatest out there, finishing at almost 1pm, I know there were still hundreds left behind me in the hot, hot sun.

So, if like me you’re crazy enough to do the Ocean2Ocean on your own, sans support vehicle, skimping on the registration and the free water it entails…bring more than six liters in your heavy backpack. Your spine will rebel against you, but you’ll need it; 95 isn’t just the number of kilometers of the trip, it’s pretty close to the temperature in Fahrenheit too!