The shared misery of Delta Epic
A 293-mile race through the small towns and farms of the Mississippi Delta tests more than just fitness.
If you start the Delta Epic gravel race you have some sort of goal in mind, even if it’s only to finish. And you will make a sacrifice, but you won’t always know what it will be until it happens. At a minimum you’ll sacrifice some sleep and comfort. There’s a better than 50% chance you’ll have to sacrifice achieving your goal.
Delta Epic is an almost 300-mile race down the Mississippi Delta, more than half on gravel roads. It starts at midnight and is self-supported – there’s no follow car to pick you up if you can’t make it; there are no rest stops stocked with candy and snacks. The course is set but it isn’t marked; you either need it loaded on your phone or on your bike computer. If you need food or water – and you will – you have to find a store. One that’s open. Or failing that, a church with an outside water spigot.
As Jason, the race organizer, said at the start (borrowing a comment about another tough race) “if you need a juice box and a hug every 20 miles, this isn’t the race for you.”
And then there are the logistics of starting a race about 20 miles from the Tennessee border and finishing it at the Blue Front Café in Bentonia, about three hours south by car.
My friends Greg, Merrill, Roxanne, and I, have been talking about the race for months. They finished it last year after more than 24 hours on the road and thought they could beat their time this year. I’d never done the race so I only wanted to finish. We trained together and Greg persuaded his daughter, Lydia, to take us to the start, spend the night there, and then wind her way south through Mississippi to pick us up at the finish. Or along the course if necessary.
About three weeks before the race, Greg’s father passed away, and understandably he was off the bike for a week. He wasn’t sure if he was up to attempting it this year. Merrill, Roxanne and I agreed that if Greg wasn’t riding, we’d pass on the race, too. But knowing that his dad would want him to finish what he started, Greg decided to dedicate the race to his dad.
So at 11:59 on a Friday night, under a clear sky and full moon, about 20 solo riders, a duo team riding together, and five relay teams rolled out. We headed west toward Tunica and then up onto the gravel road that runs on top of the levee along the Mississippi River. We could see the flashing tail lights of riders ahead, slowly closing distance and then losing it through the night.
At about 4:30 a.m., 80 miles later, we rolled into Clarksdale, but the gas stations had not opened yet. The cashier at the Double Quick opened the door a crack and told us that there was a store open about half a mile away. As we were about to head out, she opened the door again and asked if we just wanted to buy things from the store. We did so she opened the store early for us and we were able to resupply. It wasn’t the last time we’d get help from a stranger.
We made it to Rosedale for breakfast, about 125 miles in, and then headed to Indianola where we would have a sandwich with Lydia and resupply for the last 110 miles, the most difficult of the route.
After lunch, we zigzagged through the Delta between farms and cotton fields, and the temperature rose into the 90s. The gravel on the levee was mainly smooth, but as we wound through the fields we had loose rocky gravel, stretches of pavement, and roads that had been paved once but now just had a thin layer of loose gravel over scattered patches of black top.
Our last water stop before entering the Delta National Forest was the Sharkey Country Club, a golf course set in the farmland where we could buy Cokes and water. We were about 220 miles in, and Merrill was shaking and having trouble with his balance. He and Roxanne decided to have Lydia come pick them up. I had started to flag, but I was feeling better after a little rest, some water, and a Coke. We had been riding for 18 hours and had intricate salt stains traced on our kits.
Greg looked at me and said, “I’ll go as slow as you want, and we’ll stop as often as you need to.”
I felt pretty good, so we headed out, just 70 miles to go. Greg seemed as strong as when we started.
In the context of a 293-mile race, 70 miles doesn’t seem like much. But the last 40 miles of Delta Epic have very rough gravel. The only real climbs on the route are in the last 17 miles. If a day of near constant pedaling hasn’t done you in, the final climbs could be the coup de grace.
As we made our way through the Delta National Forest in the dark, watching as frogs hopped through the beams of our headlights, I found myself veering toward the right side of the road. Something was off with my balance. Greg and I stopped and I told him I was having trouble. He didn’t hesitate. He recognized that if I was having trouble now, there’s no way I’d make it through the rougher gravel ahead. He got out his phone to call Lydia to pick us up and to check a map for a paved road she could find. No cell service.
We rode on a little further, stopping as the dirt road gradually rose to check for service. The tall pines hid the moon. It was almost completely dark. Up ahead, we saw the headlights of a truck coming toward us.
As we moved to the edge of the road, the driver slowed and rolled down his window. We talked for a minute and learned that he was a Crimson Tide fan and a former rodeo clown. When we told him we had started riding near Tunica it just about blew his mind. “Are y’all getting paid to do this?” Greg told him we weren’t but that it was sort of like being a rodeo clown: it’s something you do just because you love it.
We explained that we were looking for a paved road, and he gave us directions and said after the next turn we’d hit the paved road in about four or five miles. Greg called Lydia and told her to meet us at the Holly Bluff post office. She had just gotten back from picking up Merrill and Rox and had to set out again on a 70-mile drive.
Once we were on the paved road, a truck came up behind us and slowed. The window rolled down. It was the rodeo clown, just checking on us. “Y’all were out in the middle of a 60,000-acre national forest and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t make sure you got where you were going.”
We thanked him and he slowly drove off, but even in the distance we could see he was driving slowly, probably trying to figure out what exactly he’d seen that night. Just as we were.
Up ahead we had one more turn to Holly Bluff. But we turned too soon and found ourselves in a gravel parking lot with silos. I stopped and put both feet down to wait as Greg turned around. Without warning I toppled onto my right side, knocking the breath out of me. I never realized I was falling until I was on the ground.
Greg helped me up and we made our way to the Holly Bluff post office, which was already decorated for Halloween. Imagine the sight of two guys sprawled on the floor of the tiny post office, both covered with 260 miles of various colors of dirt and grime, one bleeding from the elbow and leg. Lydia, a real trouper, arrived with Roxanne to take us home.
That I couldn’t stay upright at a full stop confirmed for me that there’s no way I could have managed the tricky loose gravel in the last 40 miles. I didn’t achieve my goal, but I did ride 261 miles, 74 miles farther than I’d ever ridden at one time before.
And Greg didn’t finish the race he dedicated to his dad. But he said he thought of him as we passed the swamps, creeks, and oxbow lakes his dad loved. I didn’t know his father, but sacrificing your own goal for the safety of someone else seems like a tribute he would have appreciated.
Will I try it again? I don’t know. There’s a lot to be said for watching the sun come up from the top of the levee and watching it go down behind the cotton fields. I guess it depends on what I’m willing to sacrifice.
The ride: Delta Epic DNF ride file