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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Omaha JackRabbit - A Lesson in Sleep Deprivation

On a dark, rural highway, cold wind in my face.  Fresh smell of alfalfa, rising into my space.  Up ahead through the corn fields, I see a shimmering light.  My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim.  I had to stop for the night.

It's 10:00 pm on a pitch black, cold October night when I putter onto a gravel back road outside Blair, Nebraska, seeking a manicured acreage hosting the start/finish/campsite for this year's Omaha JackRabbit.  No street lights, no yard lights, no movement, no activity.  All I have is an address that looks like a foreign zip code chicken scratched onto a napkin.  With over 39 hours passing since I last slept, things are getting more than a little fuzzy.  I spot a solitary light.

A helpful night man explains where to drop off equipment, where to set up camp, where to park, where to get something to eat, where to go to the start in the morning, where to, WHAT?  I process none of it.  Confuzzled, I simply ask, "Where do you want my car parked in the morning?"  He says, "Follow me."  When he stops, I stop, turn off the engine and fall asleep.

Ere the sun rises over harvest season in middle America.  (photo by Rob Evans)
Bright lights and excited chatter jolt me awake.  Somehow, it's already 6:30 am and I'm parked in the middle of a grassy open space filled with vehicles, bikes and racers readying for the 7:00 am start.  So much for my well-oiled pre-race routine of bike, clothing, gear, water and food checks, let alone hot breakfast and coffee.  Oblivious to the conditions, I throw on a standard mid-summer clothing kit, grab my bike and make it to the start line, just as Grand Poo-Bah Scott Redd briefs the racers on the day ahead.  Turning to the registration table, I sign the waiver, pick up the first set of cue sheets and realize I must return to my car for my helmet, among other things.

I've already missed all the pre-race social activities that I enjoy so much at these grass roots gravel races:  the Friday afternoon pre-registration at a bike shop or restaurant, the Friday night gathering around a campfire at a campsite, and the Saturday morning pre-race meet-ups and re-connects.  Now, as the flock of blinking red lights disappear into the pre-dawn darkness, I miss the start.

Yes, that's the road we take and the bridge we cross.  Early signs of a creative course design.  (photo by Rob Evans)
Alright, so I start this race with a chase.  By the time I turn pedals, however, the last of the blinking red lights are only occasionally visible, as the racers ahead crest one of a multitude of undulating hills.  I power up the first little hill.  Boy, that hurts.  Worse, the drop down the other side feels like jumping into a mountain lake.  It is cold.  30-something degree cold.  I have gear for this, but it's back at the car, neglected in the dark scramble just to get to the start.  My mid-summer clothing kit will have to do, but I am cold.

One room school house, taking a well deserved rest.
Over a series of small hills, I aim to catch at least one straggling blinking red light.  But the cold slows my descents and fatigue slows my climbs.  Although just a few miles from the start, I feel like I've already ridden a hundred hard miles.  I simply have no power.  Lack of sleep turns my race into a ride.  I choose to enjoy my day for what it is, a mellow bike ride through rural Nebraska back roads during harvest.

Flushed from the corn field on my right, a rooster pheasant nearly takes me out here.
And what a nice ride.  The Omaha JackRabbit is a 125 mile bicycle race winding through the best gravel and dirt roads north and west out of Blair, Nebraska, which itself is about 30 miles north and west of Omaha.  A product of the creative minds of bike aficionado Scott Redd, his sidekick Pell Duvall and a bevy of cohorts, including Jayme Frye and Mike Wagster, the JackRabbit rolls up and down about 85 miles of rough rural roads, piling up a grain cart full of elevation gain, before plopping onto a Missouri River flood plain for 35 miles of pancake flat, but pretty beat up dirt roads, and finishing with some climbing back into the surrounding river bluffs.

Why, we've got both kinds, country and western.
The challenging, scenic course reflects the passion and care that Scott, Pell and crew pour into this event.  To select interesting roads and then patch them together for us to enjoy takes countless hours that only a servant's heart could bear.  They charge no entry fee, but just ask racers to respect the land, the folks living and working here, and each other.  They say there is no support, but the friendly faces at the start, check points and finish say otherwise.  They also provide food, drinks, campfires and camping at the start/finish.  These are folks to support.  Thank you, gentlemen.

V Road, one of 25 miles of Minimum Maintenance Roads.  When dry like this, they are great.  (photo by Rob Evans)
So, I am blessed to be here, to ride to honor their service and to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  As I ride, much slower than expected, the day gradually warms.  I soft pedal into Check Point 1 at the City Park in Uehling to find kindred spirits Jayme Frye and Mike Wagster, handing out the second set of cue sheets.  After an engaging chat that is far too brief, I reluctantly bid farewell, but don't go far.  At the edge of town, I spy a convenience store.  Time for that hot breakfast and morning coffee.

Harvest season in the Great Plains.  (photo by Rob Evans)
It's only about 91 miles to go, but I am moving slow and am in full tourist mode.  With cue sheets to the finish, lights for the night and provisions for however long it takes, I'm in for the long haul.  The hills seem to get bigger and steeper, but the farmland scenes and activities are nothing less than a living, breathing modern Norman Rockwell painting.

Corn.  To infinity and beyond.
I stop for pictures, for critters, for views.  I even stop to talk with a truck driver waiting for his semi-truck trailer to fill with corn.  He says that he can haul 1,000 bushels, which is the capacity of the grain cart unloading into his trailer and which the combine can harvest in about an hour.  Considering the army of farm equipment swarming the land, that's a staggering amount of corn coming in.

I'll let this little guy pass.  Many, many combines, tractors and trucks all over the back roads today.
Eventually I coast into Check Point 2 in Decatur, about 41 miles to go.  Volunteer Kerrie tells me that a group of three riders left just moments ago and I could probably catch up to them.  As much as I enjoy riding with others, I know that nightfall looms and temperatures will plummet.  So, I choose a nice, long, warm convenience store break, complete with GodFather's pizza, hot chocolate and more clothing layers.  Not my typical race fare, but then again I stopped racing before sunrise.

The next 35 miles are flat, but not always fast.  The gravel roads are in pretty good shape, but most of the dirt roads are rough, a few miles sporting washboards created by large tread farm equipment.  These hardened washboards are 2-3 inch wide, and about that deep, making it tough pedaling to ride even 5-10 mph.  But those sections are relatively short and soon I'm climbing out of the flood plain back into the river bluffs.

Those last 6 miles were not without drama.  Cruising a rare downhill at maybe 25 mph, I round a corner to go eye-to-eye with an enormous raccoon loitering in the middle of my line.  With no instincts to swerve or brake, I unload my best attempt at a bunny hop over the snarling beast, fully expecting at least a rear wheel collision.  He must have moved fast enough, though, as he scampered off.  The few downhills after that I took much slower.

2015 Omaha JackRabbit Finish Line, marked by Pell Duvall and captured by Scott Redd.  Thanks, guys.
Popping over one last hill, I finish cold in the dark, just like the start.  Scott and Pell enthusiastically greet me and invite me inside to warm up, recover and hang out.  It's a good day on the bike, with a good night ahead.

My take-away from a sleep deprived gravel ride:  you can ride a long way without much sleep and have a lot of fun, but it's going to be low energy and slow.  Enjoy it for what it is.

Scott Redd and Pell Duvall:  the indomitable force behind the Omaha JackRabbit.


  1. Really enjoyed that Craig. I want to come up and ride that one!

    1. Thanks, Robert. I certainly highly recommend the Omaha JackRabbit. You will have fun.

  2. I'm pleased you came to ride with us Craig! I hope to join you for your Black Hills BackBone ride.

    1. Great to see you again, Mike. Thanks for your work in making the Omaha JackRabbit a special event. You're welcome up here anytime.