Kenai 250 — Finding Grace in the Alaska Wilderness

The feeling in my legs has almost entirely returned, my cough has subsided, my bike is finally clean, my bum has totally recovered and the Kenai 250 is starting to feel like a distant memory where the details are still fuzzy and you’re not entirely sure what was real or what wasn’t– that’s probably mostly due to the lack of sleep over 47 hours. A lot happens during an endurance race/ride/survive and long endurance event = long write up (#sorrynotsorry). Not sure what took longer riding or writing the Kenai 250. And to that point, a lot happened, some graphic information will be shared and not sure who this is entirely suitable for. But you’ve at least been warned.

When prepping for the 250 I had no idea what to do, 250 miles self-supported. I’ve never done anything like that. One year when I raced Leadville, even with a mechanical I only had 8 minutes of stop time and that seemed like a lot but that’s with bottle hand ups/food passed off, no real stopping to get things and knowing that if things really go south you can limp to the finish line (as has happened in previous races). I wasn’t sure exactly what I would need so was maybe a little over cautious in my packing but I ended up using everything I brought (except my bike repair kit–thank you Chain Reactions for the pre-race tune!). I was also unsure of food and what would be available so packed rice cakes, meatballs, sour patch kids, maple syrup, coffee and potatoes to at least get me through the first 70-100 miles.

Not pictured the 5lbs of Sour Patch Kids

Thursday night I loaded up all my gear on to my bike and caught a ride down with a friend to stay in a cabin the night before. It was nice because this way I wouldn’t have to drive home after the race but more importantly would not have to keep track of my keys for that amount of time (I couldn’t find my driver’s license for 3 weeks after so this was a legit concern). We went through final checks on our bikes, hung out with some other racers and talked about what the days to come would bring.

At the start, I did a last minute gear check, not that it really mattered at that point, was fully into the ‘rung what ya brung‘ mode. I checked in and made sure my tracker was turned on and then went to find Grande around the start, we chatted a bit about our logistics, we had loosely talked about riding together but neither of us wanted to hold the other one back so we said we’d see what the day would bring, I was hoping to at least be with her through Russian Lakes (mile 70 and a lot of bears) and then go from there.

Right before the start

The start was anti-climatic (unlike Leadville where they shoot off a shotgun, more like, okay you guys can go now) Unlike every other race I refused to sprint at the start– it’s 250 miles like we have time. Fortunately, Grande also was taking a more conservative approach and we rode side by side to the trail head chatting with others along the way. We tucked behind two guys on the start of the singletrack and kept chatting. I couldn’t tell if I was going too hard or not enough which was a reoccurring theme, sure I was going hard but it wouldn’t be hard enough for a 100 miles race but maybe too hard for a 250 mile race, only time would tell.

We stayed in the group for most of the way up Res Pass, gaining a few additions, we checked in at the top and everyone was good to keep going. We started the smooth, fast descent towards Devil’s Cabin and then down toward Cooper Landing, at one point we caught up to some of the guys I know and was so surprised that I asked what they were doing there thinking they must have had a mechanical or something, he responded same thing as you–oh.

We rode down until the trail split, I stopped and regrouped with Ana and Grande debating which way to go, most of the boys decided to go left we opted to go right knowing what that direction would bring (both ended up in the same place a few miles later). We cruised by the cabin that Alvin did his first bikepacking trip to and I remembered the trip out being pretty quick to the trailhead. And it was for us as well, we came down into the trailhead parking lot and was met by a group of people which again my first thought was, what are these people doing in this parking lot and then it was a quick realization they were there for us, we picked up a ghost rider, Gus (who is dating Ana) and headed towards Russian Lakes (very infamous for bears). We stopped by a water tap to fill up even though it required going beyond the trail, I ate some food and topped off knowing that in about 20 miles we’d be at Wildman’s and could restock.

First water stop

We headed back the way we came and turned onto the Russian Lakes trail, I’ve only ridden it the other way so only had some idea of what was to come. We talked as if our lives depended on it, which it did to thwart off bears, making conversation about nearly everything– we also sang, and I tried yodeling which mostly made me sad that I only knew the first line from Sound of Music, “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo!” The last time I had ridden this trail I ran into a Sow and two cubs, the cubs were in a tree and the mom was on the trail so we turned around and went and ate lunch and then came back and they were gone but it seems like everyone has a bear story from Russian Lake and the amount of bear scat would certainly explain why. We ended up coming up on another rider, Duncan, who we had actually met last fall when we stopped to eat lunch on a trail and he stopped to join us. Riding with a group of 5 definitely made me feel better in our bear chance category, we passed the spot where I previously had the bear encountered and I warned of a deceptively deep puddle sometime afterwards but couldn’t exactly remember where, Ana identified it pretty quickly but stopped before submerging her entire front wheel. We stopped at one point to regroup and Ana mentioned having difficulty with her front brake, pulling the lever all the way back to the handlebar with no resistance. It was also maybe the worst mosquito area I’ve ever been in and was grateful when Duncan offered up some mosquito repellent while we assessed the situation. We thought maybe the line had lost pressure but upon closure inspection realized that the brake pads were completely missing and not in a worn down kind of way in a they fell completely out kind of way. We debated potential solutions and decided to ride the 15 miles to Wildman’s and get fuel and work on it there. After some bushwhacking on the final mile of the trail we emerged onto Snug Harbor Road, an 11 mile gravel road that would take us to the highway and to Wildman’s. We were roughly at 70 miles and I felt surprisingly good at this point.

We started cruising down the road and at one point saw a minivan that looked like mine, Grande pointed it out and it was another minute before I realized it was mine and Kevin was on course to see us, I didn’t stop and instead shouted, “we’ll see you at Wildman’s.” We got briefly on the highway before turning off into the Wildman’s parking lot. I went in to grab food and drinks while Ana worked on her brake and Grande held the bike.

I grabbed a handful of things still a bit unsure of what I was going to need for the next section, I was feeling pretty good and so wanted to focus on what was working because at some point I was convinced that it would stop working. We left the store, getting back on the highway before taking a 2ish mile gravel off shoot to avoid a no-shoulder zone and dropping out on the Old Seward Highway Road, a 10 mile gravel road that would take us to the Seward Highway. We got through that section relatively unscathed, I kept eating and drinking, or trying to, and we had multiple changes of clothes at the temperature started to flutter. As we turned onto the highway we decided to ride in a pace line to conserve energy and hopefully get there faster, we traded off pulls every 1-2 minutes and noticed the darkening storm clouds getting blown in from the sea.

We picked up another rider who joined in our pace line and soon we were pulled over and putting on our rain gear. It wasn’t raining hard but enough that knowing we’d be going through the night wanted to do our best to stay dry before temperatures plummeted. We did get caught in a bit more of a rainstorm but seemed to be out of it in about 20-30 minutes and mostly dry again before turning onto the Primrose Trailhead.

We picked up Kevin who would serve as a night Ghost Rider (someone who rides behind you but is there for bear safety/overall safety) and set up the trail. When we were still on the road I noticed some tightness starting to set in on my calves and was worried about cramping so downed some extra salt. We weren’t entirely sure about what we would be encountering at the top, reports of snow drifts and having to hike-a-bike for miles had been percolating the last few weeks but no one had real-time trail conditions so in anticipation of snow I had shoved my feet into plastic bags to create a moisture barrier and had latex gloves. Trail features that are normally familiar and rideable feel foreign under the added bikepacking weight and the previous 110 miles that my legs had already pedaled. Primrose, while normally has a few hike-a-bike sections, I felt like more hiking than biking going up. I figured the on and off the bike was upsetting my stomach as I started to notice it wasn’t settling right, I kept moving and kept drinking water hoping that whatever it was, it would be gone soon. Again, didn’t think this was too normal, most 100 mile races at some point my stomach gets distressed and its hard to take in any food/liquids and have found that to just keep drinking, tweaking what goes in a bit can do the trick to at least keep things going down. And not that rare that after an event I throw up. I tried to trouble shoot all while lifting my bike up over rocks and clamoring up behind, was it the salt, did I go too hard, is the temperature weird, maybe I need more gatorade, maybe I need less.

There wasn’t really any option but to keep going and that’s what I did getting further into a hole. I kept track of the 4 mile mark in my mind because someone had said that’s when the snow starts, when we passed it and there was no snow to be found I was pleasantly surprised. Despite my best attempts at mitigating my stomach I crossed the threshold where I realized my body was only interested in one thing: throwing up. I tried to fight it for a bit, thinking of the fuel that I would lose by throwing it up and how that would mess up my fueling plans but even trying to negotiate with my stomach was no use “you know you’re just going to be hungry later– or we really need this fuel.” But it was futile and at a moment of pause in the group, I put my bike down and slowly walked off the trail, near a tree. I’ve thrown up enough times in my life to be able to do it somewhat quietly but it was still apparent what my body was doing when Grande asked if I was okay– I replied “I should be now that I threw up.” What? Are you okay? Kevin jumped in quickly, “Don’t worry she does that a lot – she’s fine.” Okay mostly fine and sometimes do it so was hard to say exactly why I was doing it, stressed, tired, wrong food, too much salt, too hard, not hard enough, who knew, I didn’t. I knew I needed to eat as I just emptied all my stomach contents but that was challenging as my stomach settled briefly but then started to feel nauseous again. We kept moving, albeit, myself more slowly but at least we weren’t trudging through snow. I had dropped far enough back that Ana and Grande’s headlights became smaller and smaller beacons. We regrouped at the top to put on more layers before the descent. I didn’t feel great physically or in feeling like I was holding them back and wasting time waiting for me. I would often remind them that I would be okay if they left or needed to go faster but they seemed okay and after a while figured they would go if they needed to.

We started the descent down Lost Lake, which is arguably the best trail of the whole race so a little bummer to do it at night in the dark. While they call Alaska the land of endless summer sun, that’s not entirely true and we do have blips of darkness bookended by dusk and dawn. We were in the darkest patch going down. I led with Kevin following– fortunately I know my body and bike well enough and wasn’t too out of if that I was still able to respond to obstacles in the trail as they came up, which a few did. I also forgot about the drop off to one side so maybe going down in the dark helped. I would periodically remember to ring my bell to ward off bears and was mostly just screaming the whole time to try and let whatever might be in the trail have a warning. There was also a sense of if there is a bear there wouldn’t be much I can do regardless of my speed so will lean into the statistics that there won’t be a bear and just go (obviously a little tired at this point). We got to the bottom of the trail and regrouped in the parking lot, realizing that the lone van in the lot was a friend (who had done this multiple times and coached multiple athletes in the race) who popped her head out to chat. I don’t remember much other than sitting on the pavement and feeling the cold seep into my body.

She asked if I was tired, “No, I’m not tired, I have a deep rooted fatigue that sleep won’t even cure at this point.” Kevin also mentioned that if I didn’t sit/lay directly on the cold pavement I might be warmer, “Okay.” But didn’t move, laying down and taking in the cold seemed like a better alternative to standing.

I’m not sure how long we were in the parking lot, it seemed like seconds passed slow but minutes moved fast and before I knew it we were back on our bikes and descending down into Seward. We dropped Kevin off at the trailhead we would be back at soon and headed into town. We circled through town, riding by the Sea Life Center before heading back out to stop at the gas station. At the gas station I was trying to figure out what to eat, half my plan was to just make it Seward and restock but with my stomach the way it was, nothing seemed appetizing and so I wandered the aisles a bit, went outside, went back inside, and decided on some lime flavored tortilla chips thinking the salt would be nice and it was something my stomach hadn’t rejected yet. I smashed the bag onto a bike bag and strapped them down. The clerk inside told Grande that there was a food truck that did breakfast and opened at 4:30am. It was about 3:40ish so we discussed options, I liked the idea of getting real food and we thought maybe we could sleep while we waited. We settled on that, sleeping and then getting real food before going back out. Now we just had to figure out where to sleep, somewhere close to the truck, we scanned the area when Grande said, “I’ll be right back” and headed to the hotel across the street, 2 minutes later she popped back out, we can sleep in the conference room. She had gone in and asked if we could sleep in their lobby for 30 minutes and the clerk said, “No, but we have a conference room with couches.” We rolled into the conference room, setting our bikes against the wall.

Super lux accommodations

I was still chilled to the bone so put on my puffy pants and jacket over my cycling clothes and took off my shoes. We all ended up sleeping on the floor since there were only two couches and we didn’t want to get them dirty. I put my legs up on the couch and hoped that with the brief sleep I would awake feeling anew.

In the 30 minutes that we allocated for sleep I was in it deep and woke up not feeling super groggy but was immediately met with waves of nauseousness again. Oh geeze and was consumed with a few dry heaves having nothing left in my stomach to discard. We packed up and left as quickly as we had arrived.

Ana had left a few minutes before us to place our order and I was surprised at the amount of people who were already milling around at that hour in the morning. We got our food and I got an ice coffee and shoved it into my feedbag. I ate some of the hashbrowns, eggs and sausage mix and then packed the rest to go hoping that having real food over the course of the morning would do the trick.

As we were waiting for our food, Ana checked the trackleaders board after one of the guys told us we were in the lead the night before. The woman in second (assuming the three of us were tied for first) showed to be on a boat in Seward when we were getting food, a bit odd but maybe she had a friend with a boat in the harbor she crashed on. We started riding out of town towards the trail head when we pulled over to readjust some tings Ana checked again showing Jenny ahead of us now. The leaderboard only pulls data every so often so not weird to see jumps. I realized my body was not up to the task of chasing anyone down so I turned to Ana and Grande, “you guys should go, you can catch her, I still don’t feel super great.” Grande also suggested Ana go ahead, she hesitated, “riding with you guys is so fun though” “Yeah but you can win, and we’re old you should go!” And with that we decided she would go and we would probably fall off her pace at some point. We rode the rest of the road to the trail, I felt off a bit and slowed to throw up what I had just ingested, oh shoot, I decided then that if I threw up a total of 5 times I would pull the plug regardless. We met up with Kevin and Gus again at the Bear Lake trailhead and ran into Jenny, in bit of a cluster as we navigated the overflowing water on the trail. Upon reaching the singletrack Ana and Gus went ahead followed by Jenny, Grande, Kevin and I. We got distance between the groups pretty quickly on the trail. I had ridden this trail once before but that was not enough to fully prepare for what awaited me.

Bear Lake trail is a bit notorious, first any trail name with ‘bear’ in it tells you a lot you need to know, the other is that it’s a lot of hike-a-biking but especially this year with multiple down trees. We started and having to get on and off multiple times in the first part navigating short inclines and sketchy side exposure. There is one steep hill in the middle where we gain about 1,000 feet in less than a mile. We started pushing our bikes up and as we climbed I fell down into a darker hole. Having not been able to keep food down for almost 8 hours at this point and lugging a fully loaded bike up this hill was my breaking point. I started crying while trying to remain engaged with Grande and Kevin so they wouldn’t know that I was in it deep. I tried to keep drinking in hopes of settling my stomach at some point and getting some calories in so I could get out of this hole. We kept pushing up and finally got some reprieve at the top to pedal which was abruptly cut short by having to lift our bikes over a tree. Even the act of lifting my bike over seemed like a gargantuan task and took everything I had to be able to do it.

Me realizing I need to do more than one push-up a year

On one of the descents my tire slid out on a water bar and I crashed, ripping my shorts in the process, I got back on my bike and cried harder. Shortly after, I crashed again on another water bar, Kevin (having recently been WFR certified) called for a coffee break, “hey let’s just take a break for a minute” but also knew he was assessing me to make sure I wasn’t going to go into volume shock or something. At this point I had taken my inhaler three times and was borderline panic breathing on this section. I took a few deep breaths, I realized I had passed the threshold for my body and was in uncharted territory, I was riding super sloppy and at this point was worried about getting hurt worse, I voiced my concerns to Grande and Kevin. But we kept moving, I was ruminating over my dark thoughts when I was startled by another voice in my head “Have some grace” it was overriding everything else in a way. It repeated, “Have some grace with yourself, you’ve never done this.” And as quickly as it appeared it left again with a vacant silence filling the space. It did make a good point, I have never done anything like this before. In that moment I knew I was going to finish no matter what. I’d like to say that I rallied and pulled it all together in that moment but it was a slow crawl out of the dark space I had been in, my stomach was still uneasy but I was able to get in some calories which helped. We finished the trail and I was so relieved my tears of despair turned to tears of joy. We stopped before the next trail and had another snack. We continued on our way, slowly getting out of the hole, my stomach still didn’t feel great but I hadn’t thrown up in a few hours and was able to keep everything down at this point, albeit it was a minimal amount of food.

The best ghost rider

Seven miles later we were back in the parking lot that we had picked Kevin up almost 12 hours prior. We said goodbye to our ghost rider and got back on the highway riding for a few miles before turning off to take a 5-mile loop going up a double-track mine road, the instructions weren’t entirely clear so we bypassed the trail we were suppose to get off on and hiked up further before questioning and going back. I stopped to pee and as I crouched down looked down and was startled to find a deep red substance starting back at me. Now for anyone else it would probably be obvious that this is blood but remember I’m like 30 hours into this race and not expecting my period for another 2 weeks. I stared at it wondering if maybe it’s not period blood, is something else happening down there, am I chafing that bad, no. Okay, must be period blood, hmm well did not prepare for this. Thank goodness I had a chamois on. I decided to just go with it and free bleed, I didn’t have a tampon and thought maybe I would try to get one at the next stop. Once we figured out where to turn off the trail it was a nice two mile descent back to the gravel road to exit back to the highway. I saw my van, thinking Kevin was around but couldn’t see him and figured we had missed him so we kept going. We talked about how fun that little trail was but with only being 5 miles we wouldn’t exactly drive down there just to ride that trail but was cool to check out.

We were back on the highway and headed towards Moose Pass which would be our last stop in all likelihood since we wouldn’t reach the last one before it closed. We pulled into Moose Lodge and saw some friends in the parking lot, they said the food wait time was about 30 minutes, too long. Being low on resources I told Grande I was going to check out the general store across the street. I went in and still wasn’t sure what my stomach wanted so wandered around for a bit, seeing they made sandwiches I asked if they had gluten free break. “What is that?” What? I didn’t even know how to respond, “oh like wheat free, I’m allergic to wheat” “No, we don’t have that”. Hmm, okay I thought, “Can you give me $10 worth of just turkey meat?” “Yeah….we can do that.” I was also being mindful because I only had $20 in cash and it was cash only. I also grabbed two rice crispy treats and skittles. I went back to the Lodge parking lot, running in to go to the bathroom, still no tampons in sight but also after sitting on a saddle for 30+ hours I’m not sure I even wanted to mess with that. I also convinced myself that since I had already torn my shorts people maybe wouldn’t think that much of it but I’m also not sure I really cared at this point. But it was nice to finally be able to use some toilet paper.

We continued on the highway and making small talk to get to the next trail head, it went by briefly and we pulled in, seeing the van and thinking Kevin was in the bathroom we stopped for a bit but I finally yelled out and didn’t hear anything so we decided to keep going. We started up the trail and Kevin popped out of the woods to take photos, each time I saw him or the minivan there was a small rush of adrenaline that helped to keep me going.

I called out something but don’t remember what but took that little boost with me into the next section of the trail. I still had to walk up small hills as the weight of my bike seemed to be beyond my pedaling capabilities and power output at this point. The overgrowth wasn’t too bad and we kept climbing towards the lakes that would mean we could reap our reward on the descent. As we were approaching the lake we saw two guys laying down in the grass, we assumed they were racers but didn’t recognize them and only one had a large load on his bike. We decided to circumnavigate the creek crossing saving our feet from being wet and instead rode on the shore around and through parts of the lake which seems counterintuitive for getting our feet wet but Grande knows all the tricks. We descended down a rocky section and getting through it made me feel more confident, that I had gotten over the dark patch and my body knew what to do when it was on the bike again. We talked about how we only had one trail left after this and thought maybe we would finish at 10-11pm. We got down to the Johnson Trail parking lot and saw some people who were waiting we found out on the rider who had been sleeping on the side of the trail. Someone gave me some water and another friend pulled into the parking lot who had done this before, back when it was more of a tour and had camped out for a few nights. She said when she got to the split on the highway where you go left to stay on course or go right to take the quick way back to Hope, she realized if she took the right she would get there in time for last call so did that and bailed on finishing the event. I also had that realization, the split is 15 miles downhill on the highway to Hope, the course is about 35 more miles of highway/trail to get back to Hope. We stayed longer than we had anticipated and right as we were about to leave, Kevin pulled in. We briefly stopped to talk to him, “Caleb took 7 hours to go from here to Hope” “What?” We were thinking maybe another 3-4 hours. I had enough food for about 40 miles but I did not have enough food for 7 hours of riding. Alright well, I guess we should get going. We calculated it out, 7 hours would put us at 3-4am, we turned back onto the path next to the highway, we cruised down it talking about how we were feeling.

We also decided to charge our lights for when we would need them on the final descent which on our timeline would coincide with the darkest patch of the night. We cruised down the path and it spit us out at the juncture for Hope or staying the course. We stopped. Grande talked about pulling the plug, she had some things she needed to get done and didn’t want her partner to have to come get her at 3am to go back to Anchorage. I said I was going to keep going but in my mind was mostly just like “oh fuck, bears” but understood where she was coming from. We stood there for a bit longer and talked about what I would need for the final push. It took me a minute to realize, before exclaiming, “We have a minivan! We can take you back to Anchorage!” volunteering Kevin to drive us back after (which was the plan anyways just now with another person). “Yeah, we can fit all the bikes and us in the van and we’ll get you back so Dusty won’t have to come down in the middle of the night!” That was enough to make it work, we planned on stopping a bit further so Grande could call Dusty. I had rapidly been firing messages off to Kevin with my satellite phone that went like this:

 “Grand is going to head to hope, I’m going to try and make a push of it”

“We can sleep in the van in Hope or whatever after”

“Going to try and catch the guy in front of me to ride with”

“Scratch that– we’re going to drive Grande home with us and keep riding together”

None of these ever got delivered because I forgot to switch my bluetooth on (good thing I didn’t actually need to relay any important information) so after handing Grande her lights back (which she gave me when I thought I would be solo) we took on on the final push.

We started riding again, this time on the highway which was a bit of a slog, Grande put a gap in on me and I didn’t have it in me to catch and sit on her wheel. The race director pulled in front of me to see how it was going and to say he probably wouldn’t be at the finish line. I switched my rear light on for cars watching the miles tick by on my watch. Kevin again pulled in front of me, I relayed the whole scenario and apologized for volunteering him to drive us back, he was good with the plan and said he was going to head to Hope to get some sleep. He was also glad that Grande would be with me for this section, I said yeah me too, I understood her stopping but also didn’t fully process what riding in the dark by myself would have actually entailed. He left me and again I was alone with my thoughts, it was still too early in the race to even envision finishing so mostly just focused on one pedal stroke at a time. We stopped at the last spot before we’d lose service again until we were done, Grande touch based with Dusty, who said he would leave Anchorage when we were at a certain point. After what seemed like and was ages on the highway we finally reached Devil’s Creek Trailhead. We again saw Wes (the racer who was sleeping earlier) and his crew. He was going to sleep for a bit and then take off. We decided to start the push of what we hoped would be the final leg. We both felt good, not energized but not too tired and decided we would wait until the descent to use our lights so they would be fully charged. We left the trailhead around 10 or 11pm and still had some daylight, we descended down the trail which was a nice reprieve before starting our last climb. Okay, 10 miles to the Res Trail and that brings us back to Hope. Mind you it was still about 25 miles from the Res Trail to Hope. We started the slow climb up and at a few of the switch backs I got off to walk even though under different circumstances they aren’t too challenging to ride. Have Grace, it’s okay to walk you aren’t doing this fresh. As we climbed we got denser into the shrubbery and it got darker, we still refused to use our lights still anticipating needing them for the descent and so we plunged further into the darkness. Even with it being close to solstice there are waning period of lights, it’s not fully pitch black but easy enough to lose yourself in the darkness. There is something so lovely about the dark and it felt extra special being submersed it for how much daylight we had. In high school and most of college (much to my roommate’s dismay) I would do late night runs when the world was asleep and it felt like the night had stay up just for me. That’s how it felt now, as if we were the only two souls out there at the moment with the vastness swallowing up anyone or anything else.

 I thought about seeing a bear, if I would even see it, and surely I was going to so slow it wouldn’t be threatened, would I be threatened, all the adrenaline had seeped out of my body over the past 38 hours, my heart rate wasn’t even getting about 125, so if anything now was the best time to see a bear because in all likelihood I wouldn’t be able to overthink the situation. I also imagined that this is what it must be like to ride drunk as my front wheel would sometimes weave back and forth on the trail and I was grateful it never fully went over the edge. At one point we both realized we had gotten sleepy but were navigating how to assess the other person’s status. I told Grande something to the extent of you know I think I’m tired and could probably take a nap but not sure I’m fully tired and could also probably keep going. We had some coffee and kept trotting along but the darkness continued to steal our energy. “You know there is a campground just up ahead we could take a little nap, being in the dark made me more sleepy.”  “Oh yeah, that works for me.” We crossed through a river and took a bend in the trail which put us right at the campsite. During day trips I always found it strange it was there, only 5 miles from the trailhead who would ever use it. Luckily for us  no one was and we put our bikes down, pulled out our puffy gear and bivys (mine was really an emergency bivy which made me feel like a chipotle burrito. I thought about how close our bikes were to us and the food on it and then my eyes shot up worrying about the blood in my shorts, I wracked my brain trying to remember if it was an urban legend that bears stalk women on their periods or not. I convinced myself it must be but surely if it was true we wouldn’t be there that long. I clutched my bear spay harder and tried not to think of what I was potentially attracting. Wes rode by us not too long after we settled in asking if we were sleeping, Grande responded and he kept going. The alarm came all too soon this time and I asked Grande if we could snooze another 10 minutes, she agreed but this was a dangerous game as we were both master snoozers. In that brief time it was enough to have a very real dream of a man standing at the camp telling me it was time to leave and waking up to realize that my bear spray had nestled in under my back. We got up with the next alarm and put away our bivys, I mostly just stuffed mine away since folding it seemed to require too much brain power. We stayed in our puffy clothes to help warm up. We commented how we timed it right because when we woke up it was light enough we didn’t need to use our lights, so much for charging them the whole time. We stopped and filtered some water and I made some coffee. I tried to take some syrup in but my stomach immediately threw it back up, no matter we were close to being done and I was on fumes anyways.

Time seemed to be arbitrary during the race but this was 5:30am

We began to cross what was maybe the most treacherous crossing of the ride, Grande went first and started riding but soon hit a rock and tipped over submerging most of her body and bike into the water. The current was working against her, she wasn’t in any real danger just having to lift her bike back up and get out of the water. I felt helpless as I just watched as there wasn’t anything I could do from shore and she quickly exited the stream. I put together enough rocks to scamper across not caring anymore if my feet got wet. We came upon Wes who was sleeping in his clothes next to his bike, he stirred awake and asked if he could ride with us, sure no problem. We took off on a flowy section and about a mile later came to a snow crossing, I went to grab my phone to snap a picture but panicked when I couldn’t feel it—“I dropped my phone” I had it when we were coming up on Wes because I went to get a picture of him sleeping but then decided against it. I’ll go back and look, you don’t have to wait, Grande didn’t mind so she could change out her wet socks, I sprinted (or what sprinting looked like at 44 hours) back and right after we had seen Wes my phone laid in the trail, relief washed over me because in all honesty was going to leave it if it wasn’t there and deal with it later.

After finding my phone

I got back to Grande and Wes and took off realizing we were close to the summit maybe a mile or two away. Still too soon to think about the finish. We regrouped at the summit, realizing it was mostly downhill I pulled out my speaker to blast some tunes—not so much for us but for any potential animals and anyone coming up the trail. We rallied down, hooping and hollering (or at least I was), my body in perfect sync with my bike as I navigated the trail, pure trail magic. There were six brief uphills on the trail which we regroup on during the first five. On the last one Grande and I waited a bit for Wes and ultimately felt bad ditching him but we were close enough to the finish and he had given us permission. We took off down the trail and crossed the familiar bridge that had led us up the trail nearly 2 days earlier, okay now just 6 miles into Hope. We cruised on the road, stopping briefly to take a photo with a sign for the Kenai 250 riders.

We chatted about what had transpired over the past two days and both agreed we’d probably do it again (this was Grande’s second time). We turned onto the mainstreet of Hope and to our surprise there were actually people waiting for us, I scanned the crowd and with my terrible eye sight only made out Grande’s dog, “Lil Snugs!” I yelled, “oh man we’re here”.

Seeing the finishing line made me realize I was actually going to finish

And we rolled into the finish but were quickly told that we actually had to ride another 20 yards to the official finish, which we did and then came back to meet up with our friends. We arrived in around 47 hours and soon were swapping stories with other finishers and friends. I love sharing the individual pursuits that we all collectively experienced. It really was a different race for everyone out there. Grande and I even joked that we won’t ride together unless it’s at least 200 miles.

Felt like I had just won Miss Mount Rose
For not being allowed an official crew, this guy sure showed up a lot during the race

Kevin took me out to breakfast which when I ordered two dishes the waiter thought I was ordering for Kevin and I but had to quickly correct him that they would both be for me. The recovery period proved a bit longer than anticipated, I quickly came down with a cold and spent most of the following week taking it easy. But fortunately was able to recover in time to participate in the Jurassic Classic.

A nice change from the sour patch kids

Riding the 250 was like finally being able to exhale. I had no idea how much my body missed riding/racing until I was back doing it. And I wasn’t exactly sure if those deep reservoirs still existed after taking time off to study for the bar and then COVID. What was I made of, who was I, could I still consider myself and endurance racer even if I had not done any race over 45 minutes in 2 years? The rhythmic turn of the pedals allowed my brain to finally stop turning and just be, to exist, not worry about COVID numbers, data, work, or what the future might look like, all I had to do was pedal and that’s what I did.

Roads that lead us home

Over the course of the race a good family friend died, I got word when were in Seward before the hellacious trail and before my moment of grace, after the race I texted one of her kid’s this, “I got notification of your mom passing when I was on course, a few blimps of service kept me updated and my mom told me when I was about 130 miles in and headed for the hardest section of the race – I often think a lot of the draw of doing endurance events is how ethereal the next world feels, like a thin veil and often finding myself thinking of the grandparents, songs will come on that I’ve associated with them for years and I feel like they’re right next to me. When I was in the thick of it during the 250 and I mean the thick of it like I had never been before while racing—I had thrown up twice, was crying, was pretty worried about how I was riding and how I was going to continue, there was an overwhelming presence that just drowned out all my thoughts and told me to “just have some grace, you’ve never done this before” I’d like to say in that moment I turned things around but truth be told it was a slow process out of the dark hold but it was the start of crawling out of it. I didn’t think much of it at the time like maybe my body had finally had enough fighting and it telling me to go with it but also not fully convinced it wasn’t one of the grands or your mom reminding me of my own strength when I was doubting myself (as is so often done).” Maybe it’s this draw of tapping into this infinite grace that exists but is so easily drowned out by the daily hustle that continues to draw me to trail. The stillness and simplicity of just having to pedal.  

Big thanks to Grande for riding with me, Ana for hanging with us the first day, Kevin for being everywhere during the race, riding with us, taking photos, and just silently encouraging me when I was near my breaking point. Rachel for being a “gold sponsor” and loaning me the bike repair kit + all the bike bag gear (one day I will get my own). Chain Reactions for getting the bike in race shape so I did not have to use my bike repair kit. Juliana Bicycles for making such a rad bike. The race organizers for putting together this amazing event– and mostly everyone reading this and who followed along while we were out there. It’s such a fun little event and I was blown away how many people reach out after to say that they had so much fun tracking us– here’s hoping to recover fully in time to do it next year- ha

2 thoughts on “Kenai 250 — Finding Grace in the Alaska Wilderness

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