A Lone Mind
The Jay Petervary Story
At the end of the Iditarod Trail Invitational–a two-week, 1000-mile mountain ultraendurance mountain bike race that runs the same course of the famous sled dog race–Jay Petervary suddenly found himself desperately sad. How he could be so seems unfathomable; he’d just spent fifteen days alternating between pedaling and pushing his Salsa fat-tired mountain bike through snow drifts, howling winds, frozen marshes with no trail, and over the mountain passes of the Alaska Range in temps that started at a balmy -30° Fahrenheit and then, after two feet of snow dumped on the fifth day of the race, fell to -40°. They then fell again, this time to -50°.
While he’d pedaled past the brunt of the storms, other competitors had gotten caught in the storm, ultimately getting stuck for an entire week and forcing them to circle back to the previous food drop to scavenge for emergency provisions left behind by other racers.
Many times during his eight expeditions down the Iditarod course, pedaling had become so futile that he simply removed the pedal from the side of the bike he was pushing so it wouldn’t get in the way of his legs, which slowly willed his loaded bike forward. During these periods of walk-only suffering–one period had even lasted six days–he would push a trough through the fresh snow at a top speed of half a mile an hour.
Despite the negligible amounts of sleep, temperatures that would leave his hands and feet numb for literally weeks following, and a physical challenge that would be Sisyphean even if it took place on a paved bike path (Jay had set the Iditarod course record when conditions were easier) Jay’s face did not turn with the joy of relief at the end of the race in Nome, Alaska. Instead, it twisted into a frown. “I’m always sad when the race ends,” he said. “Life on the bike is way easier than regular life. I never want these big rides to end. It’s a violent shift back to reality, and it’s not smooth, and it’s not great.”
There’s lots of cheap speak about how time outdoors brings that sense of peace and clarity to an individual, but few minds are as driven by that dynamic as Jay’s is. It’s a powerful enough feeling that it brings him to tears daily while he’s on the trail. “I can be very emotional on the trail. I think about family or buddies that have passed. I start to get broken down mentally a bit over these long rides, and about every day, I’ll cry at some point, even if they’re tears of joy.”
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But despite the emotions, the high and lows, and the swings between athlete machine and vulnerable, emotive mess, life is simple on the trail. “For me, at the start of these long endurance rides, it’s like lifting a house off my back–I’m so at home, so comfortable, and so stoked. Because that’s all I need to do, and it’s something I really enjoy doing. It’s a huge relief. I feel like I rest when I head out and go race, because I only have to go out and worry about one thing.”
As an adult and professional cyclist, Jay sets out on an innumerable amount of multi-day, ultraendurance bike packing races. He goes from racing in the frozen throes of a deep Alaskan winter at the Iditarod to racing the Arizona Trail in scorching desert heat in the span of just two weeks. This past June, he finished his fifth successful race down the entire 2,700-mile Continental Divide trail, breaking his own course record by 28 hours while finishing second to Josh Kato by 20 mere minutes. But at first, he was just running from a broken home.
“Growing up in New Jersey, I had an addictive dad, and I had a mom that had a nervous breakdown,” Jay said. “So I went from a young dude with a family around me to a dad that wasn’t around to a mom that was super pressured and had incredible trouble.” His father, a compulsive gambler, drug addict, and alcoholic, spent time in jail while Jay was growing up, and his mom cracked under the pressure.
“My mom was a beautiful person that was turned around and beat down mentally by men and family.” Jay described his brother as a “crazy wild man,” and his sister moved out as early as she could. None of them are close, and Jay has only returned to New Jersey twice in the fifteen years since he moved to Jackson Hole.
He had no problem picking up friends–his natural athletic talent meant he was always getting recruited for pick-up games–but he found more solace alone, independent. “I wasn’t into high school sports,” he said. “I always worked, and having money was always a priority for me, and I always used to just go run for the hell of it. I’d get some good miles in as a kid.”
Jay was living at a friend’s house before he even left high school, and rented his own apartment as soon as he turned 18. He found his way into a free trade school, and found a woodshop teacher that really looked after him. “I was really passionate about building furniture, working with hand tools and making things with my hands.” In college, he worked paving crews in the summer and learned drywall and carpentry, and as soon as he graduated, opened his own drywalling business.
It was in the early ‘90s when, with some spare change on his hands after years of working his ass off, he found mountain biking. “Back East, all the riding is more technical, and I loved that–the true grit of mountain biking in the tech back East. And then it was always the cross country riding that really got me.” With his natural talent and the mental toughness he gained from fending for himself from such an early age, he took to it right away.
Soon after, he began seeking out races of all kinds that involved longer and longer distances. At 22, he was already doing ambitious multi-sport endurance races, which fed him with challenges that combined pure endurance with the need to master multiple skillsets and prepare logistically and mentally. He began training for them, and started getting stronger and stronger. At first, he’d do one a year, and his body would be wasted for months afterwards. Then it’d be two or three. After moving to Jackson, he was doing a 100-mile race nearly every weekend.
During a month-long trip to Jackson Hole, he got in a bad accident snowmobiling–pushed in his teeth, cut a hole in his lip and another through his tongue–and sat there recovering enough to return to Jersey, where his business was humming and he planned to start a second gig as a landlord. But then Tracey, who was just about to close on a house back East, threw in the wrench. “You want to just drop everything and move to Jackson?”
Jay told his clients back East he’d be back in a few months, packed up all his tools into his work truck, and drove to Wyoming. That was 15 years ago. He took the time to feel out the local construction industry, but never felt as compelled to take it as seriously as he had when he’d had his head down in Jersey. “Here,” he said, “the mountains were calling.”
Now engrossed with the open landscapes of the West, Jay’s motivations sighted on underground, overnight bike packing adventure races, hunting for anything that let him races for hundreds or even thousands of miles at a time. The giant and more complex chess game these races presented were the sell.
“With the multi-day races, you need to know the strategy,” Jay said. “You need to know how to survive in the woods, how to maintain your body, how to keep you bike from breaking. It’s a lot more logistical planning and mental preparations.”
Each new race put up vastly different obstacles, and he became addicted to the trial. The first Arizona Trail Race he did crushed him mentally because of how technical it was, and how much slower he was moving throughout because of it. The million nuances of every distance race became like candy.
He started steadily figuring it out, cutting down his clothes to the absolute minimum, wearing the same chamois for an entire two-week race, not bringing doubles of anything. He would count out food into 3,000-calorie bags, eventually getting to a point where he could eyeball the calorie count just looking at a pile of food. He started bringing a lighter-weight sleeping bag, using his clothes to compensate for the lack of warmth. He cut out the sleeping pad, bringing instead a piece of foam that runs just the length from his hip to his shoulders. And without a doubt, no tent or bivy sack. “If it’s raining at night, I don’t even bother sleeping, because you’re not going to be able to sleep anyways, so why bother?”
He figured out where and how to get rest, camping out in Forest Service bathrooms, sleeping on people’s front porches for a few hours in a rain storm without them knowing, getting caught by the cops sleeping naked behind a convenience store so he could dry his chamois out. A hunter even mistakenly walked right over him as he slept off the side of the road, her bow and arrow passing over his face as she headed into the pre-dawn light to hunt a buck.
And he figured out how not to sleep, and is one of the few adults not in the military who might brag about their sleep deprivation skills. “Over the years, I’ve learned how much sleep I need to get a certain benefit. At home, I sleep a full eight hours. At five hours, I’m performing at a normal level. And I can still perform at a pretty good level with just three hours of sleep. On three hours of sleep, I can get up and be on my bike in a couple of minutes, literally.”
In the battle against what he calls The Sleep Monster, it comes down to cold scientific efficiency. As a younger competitor, Jay found himself getting to the point in his sleep deprivation–of, say, a couple of hours of sleep in a week, or three nights consecutively without a minute of slumber–where he’d start to hallucinate, seeing shadows pop out and show things that were really not there. Nonetheless, he knew the exhaustion would pass, maybe in fifteen minutes, or maybe in a couple hours. But pass it would, and he would keep on pedaling.
Now, though, he tends to just hit the sack as soon as he gets sleepy, even if it’s nine at night. You don’t want to waste your energy pedaling inefficiently in the throes of exhaustion. Plus, “I’m older now, and I don’t like feeling like shit anymore.” Three hours, regardless of the time of day, and he’s off again.
“I’m fortunate that my wife has a lot of experience of these events; she and I have done a lot of these events together.” That is, because over the course of a two-week race, Jay will almost never call her, and maybe only occasionally to let her know he’s well and safe. “It’s not the time to have any important conversations or talk about missing each other, because it’s just going to make us sad,” Jay said. “We both miss each other. But now we’ve even done more texting, because honestly, I’m really focused.” Focused, and thriving, completely solo. “I’m really fortunate that she understands me.”
While Jay is not your classic introvert, the extent to which he feels the need to be alone to conquer the challenges he places in front of himself would shock many people. “I can’t even handle racing with other people,” he said. “I’m doing this for a reason, and to do it by myself. I have a strong drive to always be in the front, but I’m not trying to compete against the other racers. For me, it’s about the clock, and the time, and trying to be the most efficient I can be on the trail.”
Finishing is always the first goal. Above all else, he can’t ever allow himself to quit. “I know people that do that, that are so focused on a single goal for so long that they can’t go on if they don’t reach that goal. But I can’t represent myself that way, because I know I can’t be setting records my whole life.” Despite a blown ACL, and, on a separate occasion, a broken ankle, he’s still managed to finish.
After that comes winning the race–it’d be cool to be the first guy. Then, if things are going well, maybe the course record–which is often his own–is in play. But whatever happens, there’s no quit. He’s even compulsive about getting merely negative thoughts out of his head and negative words out of his vocabulary.
The twenty plus hours a day on the bike, which would seem to be filled with nothing but exhaustion, tedium, and boredom, are instead filled by the mechanisms of a mind constantly cycling through a mental workflow that calculates for every potential nuance in the race and which begins over with a fresh recalculation every time something inevitably changes. “I have a huge mental checklist that I’m always thinking about. It’s awareness of how your bike is running, how your body is running, when the last time you ate was, when you last drank, how your feet are feeling, everything.”
“I’m constantly rehearsing this stuff and double checking. I’m checking where I’m going because if I get a flat, it’s my fault. I’m trying to be bear aware, I’m trying to find interest in the terrain, to look at the map. I’m thinking about where I’m going to be in an hour, that night, the next day, doing math all the time, checking my pace.” Music only gets employed “when I’m batty, or mentally fried, or really bored.” He thinks a lot about how to get outside of the box to better his race strategy, like taking a different stretch of road or skipping an obvious rest point. The risks bring him happiness, since he’s so entirely accountable to himself alone.
But, naturally, the mind wanders. “I think a lot about the past. I think about everything that’s going on in my life. I try to solve world problems in my head. And then I stop myself to ask when the last time I ate was. And then something usually changes in my plan, and then I need to rethink everything. A lot of people ignore that stuff, but you have to have the discipline to fix that chain when it’s making noise or change your socks, or eat, or whatever. You should be mentally busy, because you have a goal.” Most people who fall off, Jay says, fall off because they lose their focus, they stop making the calculations, and a blister pops up, or they run out of water, or their bike breaks, or they lose track of the goal and lose the resolve to finish.
And then, at a specific and inevitable point, it’s all over. All Jay’s experience, strength, grit, and focus exactingly toil towards a juncture at which the bike no longer needs to be rolled, where the legs no longer need to suffer in their endless pumping, when the body and mind have completed the task, achieved the goal. It always, always comes to a finish line. And on the other side, the rest of the world rushes in like an open hydrant, robbing Jay of the singularity of purpose where he so happily finds and loses himself.
The sadness returns, along with the frown, and Jay’s mind rears, grasping back towards that beautiful time when all he had to do was ride forward.
Author: Ryan Dunfee
Illustrator: Petra Zeiler
Photographers: Linda Guerrette and Mark Fisher
Art Director: Olaus Linn
Video Support: Dan Olsen
Web Support: Andrew Wells
Footage courtesy of Salsa Cycles
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