Larry Oslund shares his epic Natchez Trace 444 race report below. Enjoy!
In December 2021 I decided I wanted to make the Natchez Trace 444 one of my main cycling events in 2022. But when I went to the website to register, it said the ride was already full. I emailed George (the race director) and asked to be put on the waitlist. As luck would have it there was a spot and I registered immediately. After that, I posted a thread on the Cruzbike forum asking for anyone who lived near Natchez that might be interested in crewing for me. As luck would have it Betsy and Robbie Robbins replied and offered to help. Wow - what great people!!! All I needed to do then was wait for 10 months and stay in good enough shape to ride it.
Quick recap of my 2022 cycling year:
- In February I entered the Bike Sebring 12 Hour race but only did 150 miles in 6 hours before I had to stop due to several issues.
- I managed and rode in the 2022 Cruzbike Century challenge that lasted 26 weeks ending September 4th. During this challenge, I tried to ride close to a 4-hour Century each week to keep my fitness level high.
- In early June, I rode the week-long BRAG (Big RIde Across Georgia) with a couple dozen other Cruzbike friends, and 1 day after (June 12) successfully attempted and completed a WUCA 100 mile road record in Savannah, GA. I rode 100 miles in 3:56:58 becoming the oldest male to ride a sub-4-hour Century on an unfaired bike at 62 years 211 days.
- One month later, on July 14 I also successfully completed another WUCA 100 mile outdoor track record attempt on a local 2-mile racetrack in 3:56:08 to extend the oldest sub4-hour to 62 years 243 days.
- In late August, I completed the Mid-Atlantic 12-hour with 258 miles even though I had a pretty bad accident and was out for about ½ hour.
- After that I mostly rode indoors for about 4 hours a day as I tried to stay in good enough shape and recover enough to still ride Natchez on September 30th, which I did.
Below is my account of that most recent adventure.
On Friday Sept 30, after nearly 2 weeks of bike tuning, planning and packing I was ready to go. Amazing how much stuff you need for a 24 hour effort: 2 bikes, lots of lights, batteries, chargers, replacement wheels, kits, tires, chains, fuel, etc. This list is almost endless and I know I spent more time planning and packing than I actually spent riding the Natchez! Here is what the van looked like packed up and ready to go! It did not look like this when I returned. It was a mess!
We went out to Cracker Barrel for “breakfast” at about 7 p.m. and I went over my initial plan for the next day. Back at the hotel, I did some final preparations and tried to get to bed about 10 p.m. I did fall asleep pretty quickly but unfortunately woke up at 3 a.m. and could not get back to sleep. As I lay there, my mind would not turn off. I finally got up at about 7a.m. and went down and had a nice breakfast of waffles, eggs, sausage, and orange juice. Betsy and Robbie turned in their rental car and got a shuttle back to the hotel. I rearranged the van so we could seat 3 people when needed. Then, I went over spare parts, the charging station, cold weather kits, fuel, food, and other important aspects of what was packed and what I might need during the ride
It was now about 10 a.m. and my start time was 11:40 a.m. I ran up to my room, got my kit on, slathered up with sunscreen, leggings, arm covers, etc. and we quickly left for the start of the Natchez Trace 444. It was about 30 minutes away from the hotel.
On the way we got stuck in a mini traffic jam due to a very bad accident involving two cars. We were close to the front of the accident and both lanes were blocked and I could see us getting boxed in. So I asked Robbie to turn around and find a different route.
Thank goodness we got out of there in time and finally made it to the start at about 11am. We had a few minutes to go out on the Parkway and practice handoffs, which went smoothly. I decided to head back the way we came and went down a very steep hill and had a little trouble getting up the 8-9% grade with my single 52-tooth chainring.
There were about 40 riders total this year and each started in reverse order of their estimated time of completion. I originally estimated that I might complete Natchez in about 24 hours so I was given a time near the end. The first riders started at 7:45 a.m. with about 10 minutes between each rider. I think the last rider (or team) left just after 12pm. I really did not want to leave so late in the day since I always wake up so early, but it was also kind of nice to have all that extra time in the morning to finish getting ready.
I had decided to ride my Magic (Cruzbike prototype low-racer) on this ride because I could carry 4 large water bottles in the back Carbon Fiber (CF) case I built. This would allow me to ride about 4-5 hours without needing to replenish. I also prepped my Cruzbike Vendetta V20c recumbent road bike as my backup. My main concern was if I could do the entire ride on a single 52-tooth ring with 11x28 cassette. I talked to someone who did it several years ago and was told I would not need my small chain ring so I was hopeful that would be the case. At least I was smart enough to take my 62-tooth off. I stretched and did some final checking of the bike, said hi to a few people I knew and all of a sudden it was time to go. Here’s the “team” and the bike.
I rolled up close to the start (under the shade of a tree) thinking I had a couple minutes to collect myself and George said I had 20 seconds! Wow - it was all I could do to Flintstone down to the starting line as he was saying 5-4-3-2-1 - Go! And I was off!
It was a beautiful day - a little breezy but nice and sunny - while the east coast was struggling under Hurricane Ian. We were supposed to have an 8-10 mph tailwind, but the road was so twisty and curvy that there were lots of crosswinds and they were quite strong - more like 20-25mph gusts is what I was feeling. As I was riding the Magic down the hills I was barely able to control it and my pulse was in the upper 160’s just out of fear of crashing - not from effort. I didn't really have any trouble going up the hills, but it was white knuckle time on the downhills for sure. I have never prayed so much for safety!! I hit 45mph once, but after that I braked to make sure I did not go over 30. I felt the Lord answer my prayers to not wreck on each and every downhill!
Finally at about mile 22 I pulled over and told Betsy I wanted to switch over to the Cruzbike Vendetta V20c. My average speed for this first section was about 22 mph, but I felt grateful to have survived it without road rash! The switch took about 6 minutes but it was well worth it! The V20c felt infinitely more stable in those crosswinds. Such an amazing and safe feeling - like an old friend. Now I could let her run down the downhillls as fast as she wanted without fear of getting blown over and crashing - which I did. I could feel the crosswinds push me around a tad but it was controllable and not scary. My pulse rate went from the 160s to the 140s. Now it was fun! Here is the first 114 miles.
My Vendetta could only carry 2 bottles in the race case, but it was OK as Betsy was good with handling me bottles out of the van and mixing them up as I needed.
The first 90 miles were the hilliest (about 5000’ of climbing) and I thought the hardest from the effort perspective, but I was pretty fresh and was maintaining about a 22 mph average even with all the climbing. The climbing was also quite a bit more than I was expecting. I had hoped for more rollers that I could bomb down and get most of the way up with my faster speed and momentum - but there were few like that. I completed the first 90 miles in 4:15 and my average was about 21.7mph on about a Normalized Power (NP) of about 180W - which is 2.65 W/Kg for me. I kept riding until mile 114 where the Trace was closed for 33 miles for construction. Those last 24 miles were more downhill than uphill and I averaged almost 25 mph which had me come in the first 114 miles at around 5:14 with an average speed of 22.2 mph. Average NP still about 180. That last 24 miles was a blast!
At this time station (Colbert Ferry) everyone was required to get off their bike and be shuttled around the construction. It was about a 50 mile ride on bad backroads and we were not permitted to ride our bike as it was too dangerous. It was a welcome rest and it also allowed me to mix up the fuel and rest my legs before starting up again at mp # 292. I did ride harder this first 114 miles because I knew I would get at least an hour break. In the end it took us 66 mins to load up, drive the detour and get back on the bike. Wow - those 66 minutes seemed to evaporate!
On the left is me with the Cruzbike Vendetta V20c - what a beauty! On the right is me riding on Natchez “listing to the left” More on why that is happening below.
The next segment was approximately 182 miles long. This was the distance to the next mandatory shuttle through Jackson. This is not a “road closure” shuttle like the first one, but is mandatory because many years ago one or more teams did not follow the “direct follow” directions (probably for not leap-frogging their riders to allow traffic to pass the rider). Regardless of the reason, everyone must now get off the Parkway at mp# 106 and ride in their vehicle through Jackson to mp #88 (this is another 18 miles we are not allowed to ride)
I decided to try and break this larger segment into 2 smaller segments. I would first tackle the next 100 miles, then the remaining 82 left until Jackson. As I was departing my van and getting ready to ride it was about 6pm - 30 minutes from the requirement of nighttime lighting. So I put my big light and battery on my Vendetta for it. Also put recharged rear lights on my helmet and bike too, then I took off. This next 100 mile section as shown below was not nearly as hilly as the first but I wasn’t as fresh as I was then either.
This 100 miles was pretty uneventful. I think I only stopped three times: Once to switch my headlight from flashing to solid, once for a chain drop, and once to try and adjust the headrest. They were all about 1 min each. The oddest thing about the riding now was that it was now pitch black and it started getting chilly. It was also a little frightening to be flying down hills so fast with only a small beam of light to show the way. Thank goodness the road was nice and there were not really any sharp turns to navigate at high speed (unlike the Blue Ridge). By the end of this segment it was 11pm and already in the upper 40’s. I ended up averaging a little over 20mph. I did remember to note that when I passed 200 miles (about 14 miles before the end of this 100 mile segment)- that my total ride time was about 9:28. After this segment, my total distance was about 214 miles and total time was 11h 20 minutes, which included about 75 mins time off the bike (66 from the shuttle). The break was a welcome stop as I was getting pretty cold now and needed to put on some warmer clothing, eat something and go to the bathroom.
I stopped for 35 minutes during this break - which was probably too long but I had a lot to do. My headrest padding was leaning to the left side which was causing my head to slowly slide to the left - which then caused me to swerve to the left. This was quite irritating to say the least. I worked on it some. I also could not pee during the last 30 min of riding even though I needed to quite badly. It may have been because of the cold. Not sure but I ended up removing my condom catheter because I thought it was useless (which I later regretted). I ate a PB&J sandwich, drank a caffeine energy shot and grabbed a couple more fuel bottles. I had been alternating a full 20oz of infinit solution, and a bottle of just electrolyte mix. Doing this so I would not start refusing the infinite which usually happens to me after about 12 hours.
I was 6 mins shy of 12 hours from the start when I took off on the final 82 miles of the middle segment before Jackson. This might be the easiest of the 4 segments that I divided the ride into.
About a min into the ride I noticed my light was pointed too far down so I tried to move it with my foot - ha! That was a mistake as I turned it off by accident = instant darkness as Robbie had not yet pulled up behind me - Wow - it was sure dark. I had to come to an immediate stop and move off the road to adjust it. I had 4 other stops during this ride (mile 238 for 7min, mile 259 for 14min, mile 266 for 4min, and mile 280 for 10min. I cannot really recall what they were for exactly, but I am pretty sure all were to adjust the headrest, a couple were to pee, one to get warmer clothes and gloves. But this had me stopping 5 times in this 82 mile segment for a total of 36 more minutes. Nothing like killing your average speed with a bunch of 0 mph time.
At the end of this segment I had now ridden 302 miles - with a total riding elapsed time of 16 hr:55min when I got to the Jackson shuttle area (mp #106). It was about 4:30am. I was totally empty at this point. I could barely walk and more like stumbled around. I wasn’t sleepy, or tired, - the tank was just empty and my legs felt trashed. It took about 30 minutes to load up and ride through to mp #88 where I would begin the final leg. During that time I ate a PB&J sandwich and took another caffeine energy shot along with drinking as much electrolyte mix as I could. Now it was about 5am and we were at mp #88. 88 more miles to go, I was not ready at all and needed more recovery time. I also needed to swap out lights, batteries, go to the bathroom, etc. I also was still having a major problem with my headrest padding. It was still letting my head slide off to the left so I worked on it some more. After about 30 more minutes I decided to hop back on the bike. It was now 5:30am and I knew it would be getting light in about an hour. I had 6 hours to complete the final 88 miles to get in under my 24 hours. That seemed like a long time to ride 88 miles so I thought I was pretty safe. The elevation gain per this Strava segment shows about 2500’ feet gain for the next 88 miles. I”ll have to say: it sure felt like more than that!
I took off knowing this would be the hardest part with how drained I was. I rode the next hour at about 20mph and had to stop. I needed to change my light to flashing now and also go to the bathroom really badly. Also just rested a tad - Total stopped time about 12 minutes. That of course dropped my average for the last hour from 20 to 16 mph!
I took off again but stopped again in about 35mins. Not sure why. It was only a 3 min stop - probably headrest adjustment would be my guess. I also seemed to have to go to the bathroom every time I stopped. Now wishing I had not taken off the condom catheter. :)
I rode about another 35 minutes and had to stop again. I was at 350 miles now. Still 40+ miles to go. This time for 7 minutes. I pulled around behind the van, as I had to go to the bathroom really bad again. While pulling behind it I lost my balance in the slow turn and fell over and got pinned under the Vendetta. The RD was pushing hard into my ankle and I could not get up. I had to yell “HELP”! Robbie and Betsy jumped out and extracted me from my tangled mess. I went to the bathroom again, and stocked back up on fuel and took off.
I rode another 45 minutes to 363 miles. I stopped for another 12 minutes - at this point I cannot even remember why. All I remember now are the endless little hills to climb that “looked” totally flat, and having to pee, and having my head slip off my headrest! Total time 21:37.
I managed to ride another hour and knocked off 18 more miles! Time for another potty stop, and lose some warmer clothing since it was warming up a little more now. I had now covered 381 miles in 22:36. The end was very near. I took another 8 min break before I took off for the final leg (hopefully!) - 32 minutes later I arrived at the end (really the beginning mp #0). My total time to this point was 23:17 and mileage was 391.5 miles.
Now the odd part. It was about 2.5 miles to the Natchez Grand Hotel which is apparently the “official finish” - and everyone has 20 minutes added to their time for this regardless of how long it takes you to get there. I took about 3 minutes to map a route on my phone and took off. The road was really rough with lots of stop signs and lights. I was stopped several times by stop lights, but just kept pedaling.
I finally arrived at the Natchez Grand Hotel at 23:32 with a total distance of 394 miles.
My “official” arrival time per Betsy on the log sheet was 10:55am, which was 23:15 min - so add 20 min to that and my “official” time was 23:35. (The finish time per the “tracker” timing was 23:36, so pretty close.
Odd how no data ever perfectly matches up. Stava shows total time as 23:32:48, with moving time of 19:39:27. This adds up to non-riding time of 3:53:20. Wow - nearly 4 hours not moving. Of that about 90 minutes were on the mandatory shuttle. Therefore 2:32 of “other” stopped time on the course - so lots of room for improvement. Follow me if you want to see all the data.
As you can see my Garmin showed these stats below. Low temp of 41 (F) - no wonder my fingers were numb even with my gloves on! Also interesting that Garmin had my NP at 156W and Strava had it at 150W. Strava is always lower - but I trust Garmin more on that fact.
The Cruzbike Vendetta V20c was an incredible bike for this ride. Everything was tight, true and reliable! The 32mm tubeless tires at 60 psi made the ride super comfy too! The only real problem I had was with the headrest which is really a setup issue on my part and not a reflection of the bike itself..
Super thanks to Betsy and Robbie for being my crew. They were wonderful and I could not have done it without them. Thanks so much guys for all the help and prayers and God Bless you both! Got a chance to run by my alma mater on my way home!
Thanks also for all the support and encouragement to undertake and complete this ride from my Ultracycling and Recumbent friends, my wife who is always supportive of my passion, and of course my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - He created this wonderful world and us to enjoy it, and also gave up His life as a ransom for ours. All Glory and Honor to Him!
What’s Next? I would love to give Natchez a try as a 2 person team next. Cliff F - If you’re reading this - this is your invitation! I think we could smash the current 20 hour time! I have an automatic entry into this event since I completed it this year - Would love to chat with you about doing it together in 2023.
- Larry Oslund