#KATUP – Skull 120

With the one-year anniversary of my joining the Kona-crew approaching, it is only fitting that I have another grand adventure. After all, you have to weed out the duds before any contract renewals, and what better way than with another totally ridiculous ride plan that doesn’t really seem to make sense?

If you remember, last year we took a bike-packing trip that doubled in expected length and turned from camping to glamping.

This summer, Barry Wicks (Kona Team Manager) asked me to join him and some of his friends from Bend, Oregon on the Oregon Trail. Yes, that Oregon Trail.

There were threats of dysentery and lost oxen, broken axles and snake bites. So, the dysentery was just a shameful shuttle back home, the lost oxen just anything I needed to find, broken axles can be any bike parts, and snake bites are flat tires. We were embarking on the first edition of the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder; a 5-day 4-night point-to-point race of gravel roads and camping (June 18-23). Over that time, we would be expected to cover 350 miles and 28,000 feet of climbing.

So, that sounds like sufficient adventure, right? Nope. Barry, never satisfied with what normal people would consider a hard week, wanted to add the Skull 120 Gravel Grinder on Saturday the 15th; a 120(128)-mile circuit with 9,850 feet of climbing, exploring Harney County, Oregon. This event boasts 20% percentage pavement, 68% gravel roads, and 12% “natural surfaces”. Turns out, no woman had ever finished in 4 years it had been run.

  • Land Administration:
  • Forest Service = 79 miles / 63%
  • BLM = 22 miles/ 18%
  • Private = 23 miles / 18%
  • Burns Paiute Tribe = 1.5
    Landscape Features:
  • Forest = 60 miles / 48%
  • High Desert = 30 miles / 24%
  • Canyon = 33 miles / 26%
  • Urban = 3 miles / 2%
  • Min. Elevation = 4,150′
  • Max. Elevation = 7,164′
  • Avg. Grade = 2.8%
  • Cattle guards = 31
  • Water Crossing = 3
    Surface Types:
  • Natural = 14 mi / 12%
  • Gravel = 86 mi / 68%
  • Pavement = 26 mi / 20%

Dammit, Barry. Of course I had to say yes, even if it sounded a little daunting. This is the moment I decided to #KATup – Kona Adventure Team Up. Its like #HTFU but obviously far superior. Barry claimed it would be a great opener for the week ahead, and, he has had many great athletic successes so he must know what he is talking about.

After a full day of travel I arrived in Bend and immediately fell in love. But the place is a total shit-hole, you should never EVER go there, and for sure don’t tell your friends. It smells like an air freshener. The airport doesn’t even have a jet bridge. Huge mounds of rock and soil mar the horizon. The abundant trees litter pine cones and needles, it is quite unsightly. Rude people on bicycles clog the streets and the cars are frequently slamming on their brakes to give way. The locals show you their teeth with upturned mouths, likely as a sign of aggression.

View from the ride

The next day I went for a spin and I could feel the effects of travel and higher elevations. Luckily, we pedaled easy on some nice trails. We hit some local single track that again, would never be worth your scoping out. After an easy pedal up some winding trails, we hit a descent that was as smooth as butter with nice jumps that I TOTALLY aired out because I am a total badass. Too bad no one got any video. You’ll just have to use your imagination

The location of the Skull 120, Burns, is a 2ish hour drive East of Bend, so away from the Cascades and into Ranchlands and basins. We drove out on Friday night for a delicious dinner put on by a local ranch family that grazes cattle on some of the land we would be riding through the next day. We ate one of those cows, too. Kind of a full-circle effect.

The race start was at 6AM and it was a CHILLY one! Brrrrrr. And for some dumb reason Barry and I were sitting on the front of the group of 150 or so riders taking on the day. The tempo set was good for warmth, but not quite sustainable by me, so I tried to slip behind a wheel, but as often happens, if I am not front wheel I end up being 30th wheel – quite an unfortunate thing when you start to go down and turn on gravel, and some big gaps opened up. I had to chase on hard within the first hour of the race. I kept a high average power for the 1st 13 miles or so, trying to keep up with the lead men through fields and down eroded cattle paths until I finally lost them on a very chunky rutted section of trail. I was putting the power down but couldn’t quite seem to be able to stay on, and I was already feeling the effects of the early effort and the altitude.

So I rode alone. For the next 115 miles. Because that’s right, the 120 mile race was 128 miles. (Going in to this event Barry said he just didn’t want to end up alone. So I made him feel guilty for my eventual loneliness even though I secretly love racing/riding alone). Along the route I saw 2 sets of people tent camping, 2 vehicles going the other way, 2 photographers, 1 building (a ranger station), and passed one other rider who had flatted. And of course, the saving grace that was the 7 aid stations along the route. Truly, without these aid stations this would have been a nearly impossible day for me to accomplish. I stopped at each station to fill my bottles, eat snacks, and stuff my pockets. At one aid station I rode off with TWO maple bacon donuts, one in each hand. Many thanks to the promoters for planning these spots and the volunteers who worked them!!


The ground we covered was incredible. Through the cattle fields and onto some access roads we encountered 2 water crossings, though one had a bridge labeled “for wussies”, but I had been warned the water was well over 2-feet deep and I was no hero. After the ranch-lands, we entered a lush, wet forest. The trail started as a jeep road, then turned into something marked as “no motor vehicles”. There were some downed trees to avoid, erosion ditches, and some VERY steep pitches. At one, I simply got off and walked in order to keep my heart rate in check.

The view from the top of Snow Mountain

Up to this point we were only 50 miles in but it had been 3:45 hours – we were averaging 13 miles per hour. The course had only been climbing. By the time we (I keep saying we but I was alone) hit the second aid station I was a little skeptical of my ability to finish given the current rate, but, after chatting with the station workers I learned we had already reached the peak elevation for the day so the majority of the climbing was behind us – thank you gods of orogeny. The highest point was the top of Snow Mountain, where we did indeed encounter snow. Apparently people had started clearing the snow of off the course and the event said “nono, it’s a feature!!” Also, fun fact, I think I read somewhere that Snow Mountain is the 380th highest peak in the US. I can count to 380 so that means it is pretty tall.

The descent from the top of the mountain went from rocky to nice flowy dirt double track. It was fast and fun, but I kept my speed in check because there were random water bars and sticks and rocks ever threatening to crash me out or wreck my tires (40C Maxxis Ramblers – which never got wrecked I might add).

This was a nicer stretch of road during the whole ride

For the first half of the race I was holding steady at 15-20 minutes behind the leaders, but, at some point I slipped to 40 minutes back. I think it was a long section of loose, false-flat uphill dust and dirt where the motivation to keep pressure on the pedals was very fleeting.

Red Dirt Road

We rode through a dense forest and a wonderful National Park, along a beautiful lake and fields of lavender, next to a glorious meandering river with lush flood zones, and up a rich red road that climbed to what felt like the moon. It was flat with no real bushes and only a few random trees, most of which were dead and fallen. During this section I hit the 100 mile mark – my first century since my last Kona Adventure Team trip, yay! The course kept spiraling through, and right when I thought I would be popping out into civilization, I see the illusion of the “road” wrapping around a barren hillside, ever climbing upward. It was the most remote I had felt the entire race, even though I knew I had to be within 20 miles of the finish. But between the fatigue, the crushing loneliness of the past 7 hours or so combined with being able to see nothing but dry, high desert stretching to the horizon, I felt so alone. I was so happy when I climbed out of that place and found the final aid stop. I didn’t need anything but water, but I took a moment to chat with the volunteers. I needed some pep for those last few miles.

Middle of Nowhere, though crooked

I rolled across the finish in 8 hours and 40 minutes, about 40 minutes after Barry. I was the 7th overall finisher and 1st ever female.

And I wasn’t a bit hungry! Mmmm… donuts…..

Here is the Strava of my ride!

With sore butts and aching legs, we piled back in the van for the drive back to Bend in order to start the recovery before the next stage in the Tour de Oregon. And what an adventure it had already been…

The chilly start, Barry and I with Smokey the Bear

This blog is part 1 of 2, I will cover the rest of the dusty trail in the next blog entry, so stay tuned!!

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