Going Nome

On the first day I was working at the hospital one of the first things my coworker said to me was, “You have to get off the road system.” Me, being fairly new to Alaska didn’t actually know what he meant, like hiking off a road? I asked for clarification (as I had already done with every legal issue up to that point), “you know, the bush, fly out to a village.” Oh okay, sure, yeah I added it to my list of things to accomplish in Alaska before my fellowship ended. Most of the first fall I was still focused on racing and prepping for nationals. After I was back in January, COVID-19 began to thwart any plans of going to a village. Most villages locked down, and for good reason, the pandemic of 1918 has left scars throughout the state. They required an essential reason to travel and I did not have one. But with vaccines came some loosing of restrictions.

Early in the summer a friend mentioned trying to go to Nome to ride the three roads, not even knowing what those were I immediately said, yes, let’s do it. But this was early June and our schedule for the next two months didn’t exactly overlap for a weekend to do it and settled on next summer. I mentioned to Kevin how cool it would be to do that but put it on my ever expanding list of all the things I want to do.

For my birthday, Kevin bought me a ticket (and himself) to Nome to go ride the roads. I had a three day weekend in August and took an extra day so we would arrive on Wednesday afternoon and leave Sunday giving us time to explore the different roads. We booked tickets but then planning took a back seat as we did the Jurassic Classic followed by a long weekend in Denali, followed by a long weekend at a cabin in Seward, and my own personal turmoil figuring out if I was going to leave Alaska and lose Kevin or stay in Alaska and maybe at some point loose my job (more on that later, lolz). That decision was brought on by our landlord selling our house and us needing to be out by the end of August.

We realized that we didn’t have any spare time to not start planning though and were able to get a contact there, a friend of a friend who would let us camp in the yard. We also found a bed and breakfast off of one of the roads and another place to stay at the end of one of the other roads. We decided it would be worth staying at these places just so we would reduce the overall gear we’d have to haul. We’d do about 35 miles the first day, 100 miles the second day, and 55 miles the third day. Giving us a travel day on each end.

We packed up and a friend gave us a ride to the airport not realizing just how loaded down we were. I sat in the back with the bikes and kept thinking if we crashed all the ways my legs and hips would be messed up for life and just prayed a little extra harder especially because Anchorage drivers are bonkers. We settled into the airport, it was again strange to travel in the midst of a pandemic. For work I actually never interact with the general public and I’ve taken to ordering groceries so really have a very small bubble, which I realize how privilege and fortunate it makes me. Being at the airport I realized why we were were still in the midst of it all with noses hanging out and others having masks covering their chins, even one removing their mask to sneeze. I bought some postcards at the gift shop to send out and we situated ourselves away from anyone else. In 2017, I came down with some anxiety around flying that hit me out of the blue and has never entirely went away, I think it’s the whole trusting someone you’ve never met to get you to your destination safely. I’ve found ways to manage and usually in either doing work or writing to occupy my mind and telling myself, “I can’t die, I have to finish this.” Internally I felt so much turmoil that I was grateful that this flight did not also contribute to that. The last sentence I wrote before landing was, “about to arrive in Nome and I have no idea what the next 4 days will bring–hopefully a sense of peace, wanderlust, and healing but who knows.”

We landed and got picked up by Burr from the airport, she drove us to her house talking about the area and town, when they had moved, and giving us the lay of the land. Kevin had been there once before for the Iditarod but was there for only about 24 hours and in March. We got to her house and she offered up a spot to pitch our tent but then also offered up the dog kennel, where they put the dogs to sleep when it’s too cold.

That sounded amazing and I said yes absolutely, even better if we had the dogs with us. She said they only go in when it’s really cold and it wasn’t there yet. We unpacked, put our bikes together and then joined Burr and Tim inside for dinner. We chatted about the Alaskan experiences that we had had with some overlapping without realizing it. We asked a lot of questions about dog mushing and operating a kennel and they graciously answered all of them. We decided the next day that we’d hitch a ride into town with Tim when he headed to work so we could see them run the dogs too.

We went to bed and there was still tension between Kevin and I being in this weird space of am I leaving or going and where does that leave our relationship. I didn’t know what to say so managed a “I’m glad you brought me here, thank you” and left it at that. The next morning we saw the running of the dogs, you can feel the energy from the dogs and how much they want to run, heck it made me want to run.

They attached them all to the four wheeler (upgrade from the wooden carts that are maybe still in use some places) and took off, it was very cool to see. After some frantic packing on my part not realizing the car left in 10 minutes we made it in the car and on our way to town. I asked about the COVID situation in Nome how the response had been and what it had been like. It’s off the road system, which helped, so they reduced the number of flights in and then prior to vaccines did airport screenings upon arrival. We unloaded our gear and I loaded mine mostly on the bike but knowing we’d only be going about 35 miles and then would be stopping back by the house the following day was somewhat reassuring in case.

We spent some time in town knowing we didn’t have far to go, seeing the arch that they take to the Iditarod finish and stopping at a recommended coffee shop, from there we made our way to the beach and sat on some rocks for a bit and talked about the state of our relationship dispersed with information about the gold panning that still happens.

We finally were on our way out of Nome when Burr’s dad drove by and honked and waved at us, felt like we were already locals- ha. We headed out towards Solomon B&B, the road was pretty nice and could definitely ride a gravel bike on it, and not a lot of steep climbs so we were able to cruise for a bit. Outside of town I saw some wooden crosses on a hill and pulled off, kind of a when am I ever going to be back here to see these, and told Kevin I was going to venture up to see what they were.

The crosses offered little information about who was actually there and it seemed like they were remains that had been repatriated from various museums. I thought of myself and the connect to various lands that I’ve felt, especially in Alaska, and I wondered if the turmoil of being ripped from your land existed in the afterlife, if it did I hoped that maybe there were finally able to rest being back here.

I walked back down to the road, grabbing some blueberries on the way to snack on. We got back on our bikes and continued on. Kevin saw an opening for the beach and suggested we ride out there, I thought of my drivetrain but he was already in the sand and if I stayed on the road the shrubbery blocked him from view. I got on the beach and rode down near the water where it was mostly packed and my 2.2 tires had some traction.

There were a few houses and I couldn’t tell if they were lived in year round or just a summer cabin. I rode by one that had a large brown apparatus in front of it, it almost looked like a rusty fuel tank but was situated on the ground. I couldn’t figure out what it was and it was a little too close to the house to be snooping around. When I caught up to Kevin he asked if I had seen the dead walrus, “the head was cut off.”

“Ohhhh” I replied, “I couldn’t tell what it as and just kind of assumed it was a rock or something.” We talked about the reasons the head was cut off, maybe for the tusks after it had washed ashore and died, it didn’t seem like an animal would do something like that, and it wasn’t the only headless Walrus we would see on the trip.

We came up to the Safety Roadhouse, which we had planned to stop at for a drink. It’s the “last checkpoint” on the Iditarod Trail before Nome, about 22 miles. We went in and the walls were covered with signed dollar bills and Iditarod memorabilia. I couldn’t tell if it was a shrine or a dive bar.

We ordered some food making small talk with the caretakers. They were from Florida and had met the owners in Hawaii who offered them this job, they said they enjoyed it but wouldn’t be back because of how cold it was. At that moment it was 50 degree and they had some burly winter gear on. I, in shorts and a t-shirt decided that we both probably thought the other person didn’t have a good internal regulation of temperature. We grabbed our food and headed outside, they had a tee stand so we hit some golf balls, which immediately made me grateful I don’t do ball sports anymore as when I did finally make contact with the ball it made a pithy bounce off the tee and rolled close enough that Kevin walked a few feet to grab it so we could hit it.

When we left we only had about 15 miles or so our stop for the night and the road seemed to stretch on in this distance for miles, which it turned out it actually did. It reminded me of being in South Dakota in a strange way, there are a few areas that on one side you have the hills and the other side the prairie, except for here it was the hills and the ocean. When the road finally did curve, we got off to see the last train to nowhere, with its finally resting place being the marshy area that it had once traversed.

The locomotives were brought as part of a dream to build the most extensive rail system in the area. As with the boom and bust of a gold mine area, as the gold rush faded and only 35 miles of line put in over 5 years, the project was abandoned and the trails were left to deteriorate. 

We saw the Solomon B&B we’d be staying at and pedaled the last half a mile. There was a vehicle parked out front but we had been warned that no one would be there and it was a self check-in/check-out. We walked around to the back and the maintenance guy greeted us, telling us that he knew we were coming and we’d be in room 5. He showed us in, saying he’d be leaving in a bit and then went back out to finish his work. The place had multiple individual suits and a few common areas, including a pretty stocked kitchen, with fresh fruit (which we decided was a real treat given our location). There were enough twists in the hallways and creaks in the floorboards that I decided I would not be out of our room at night by myself. 

We learned that the place had been a former BIA boarding school and was currently ran by the Solomon Village tribe. With all the children remains being discovered this summer at various former boarding schools, I wondered if there were unmarked graves here. I decided that since it was now in the hands of the tribe they would be able to pursue that if they wanted to and I should leave it at that.

There was a large world map in the living room that reminded me of my looming decision. I saw just how far Alaska was from DC, I found it almost comical that we were considered the same country. I stared wondering if I could some how minimize the distance to make it feel physically closer, it didn’t move and I pushed the feelings of wanting to stay and feeling like I needed to leave down, that was a problem for future Kate I decided. 

We got up a bit early since we had 90 miles of pedaling in front of us, made breakfast, got packed up, and back on the road. It was a bit chiller than when we had started the day before, reminding me that winter, especially here, would be settling in soon.

We rode back to the Safety Roadhouse and stopped to change layers and stopped to eat our own food as it wasn’t open this early.

Getting back on the road we saw bear prints in the soft dirt on the shoulder, they were headed the same direction we were going and they definitely had not been there the day before. With so much vastness we found it odd that if there was a bear we were unable to see it, but we kept riding, seeing where the bear prints disappeared and reappear, thinking they must have gotten off for a car or something. We made it back to Nome, having decided to skip the cut across road so we could get some coffee and maybe some food. No luck on the food but we had plenty and I was really after the coffee, and a coffee mug from the shop.

We headed past town and on the road that would take us to the Pilgrim Hot Springs, it also happened to be the road that Tim and Burr live on so we planned on stopping to switch out gear. Right before the turn off for their road, I heard the familiar hissing of air being released from my tire, ohhh no, I got off and immediately identified the spot, it was the same spot that had released a week before but I thought I had gotten it to seal. I put some air in but it still wasn’t sealing so Kevin gave me a bacon (not actual bacon just look like it) strip to plug the hole with, it worked and with a bit more air we were back at their place and swapping stuff out. 

Tim was able to join us for part of the next leg; he told us about community, the land, the history, the hospital, how they came to Nome, it was almost intoxicating as I tried to weave it all together in my mind.

It came across how incredibly grateful he was to be here and how much him and Burr were taking advantage of everything the area offered. He point out Leonhard Seppala’s house, the musher who ran his dogs most of the way with the diphtheria serum and I thought of the barriers that still exist in accessing care and services in such a remote place like this. 

Tim turned back after about 15 miles with us, we told him we’d see him the next day and settled into a more relaxed pace, not sure who was pushing it when we were all together.

It had been drizzling but had mostly stopped when Kevin said there was a bear, me being quite terrible at any wildlife sightings did not see it and was convinced it was just going to pop out of the brushes, I dinged my bell, Kevin quickly hushed me, “don’t bring attraction to us, it doesn’t know we’re here”. Oh, I just figured it was better to let it know, sometimes I feel like I’ve made great strides in my backcountry competence and then other times feel like I’m fresh off the farm. I asked him where the bear was as my scanning still provided no glimpse of it, he said it was on the other side of the brush, which again I was like is that 5 feet or 50 feet. He told me to keep pedaling, which I did, with one hand over the bear spray. We got beyond the brush and looked over in the clearing, I squinted, what the heck is that, my mind tried to make sense or what I was seeing, is that a moose, what else would it be, I squinted more and then started laughing, it was a hiker with a large external frame backpack that stuck out against the landscape, he was also quite a ways a way, you thought that was a bear?!? Kevin explained that he only got a glance and just assumed since what else would it be, I agreed saying I thought it was a moose and my brain couldn’t figure out what else it would be since it seemed so out of context. I wondered where he had come from and where he was going and if I would ever feel that comfortable being in the backcountry by myself. We pedaled by giving a small wave. 

As has been the case over the past 18 months in the silent pedal strokes my mind wanders to COVID. This time it was focused on Nome though, thinking of their respond, did the fact that they have a spot in their cemetery dedicated to those victims of the 1918 flu impact the response, how about being internationally known for the serum run. With it being off the road system they had more control over those coming into the village, flights were reduced from 2 to 1 per day and they would test everyone at the airport as they arrived. I voiced some of these to Kevin, about how cool it would be to do a specific case study of Nome, tying in all these factors. He added that Nome was settled by gold miners and not an Alaska native village like some of the others, and that most villages had diphtheria outbreaks but Nome (being predominately white) was able to get the serum. At one point, Kevin used to be a tour guide, which is insanely useful for someone who is new to the state and looking for nuances in research questions. Ohhh interesting, yeah it would be interesting to do a comparative analysis between here and another off-the road village.

We began to see a lake emerge in the distance that told us that we were at least in the latter half of our distance for the day. The cabins that speckled the landscape were vibrant, seeming almost to belong in a Scandinavian country. Kevin said it reminded him of Newfoundland, where he lived for a year. I rode across a bridge and stopped, peering down at the water, “Kevin, look at this, it’s so clear, like I can see the bottom..” he reminded me that this is what water looks like when it’s not glacial fed and you don’t have the glacial silt. “I just want to jump in.” It might not be glacial fed but it’ll still be cold. 

We checked the elevation profile, okay two more good hills with the last one being off the highway and up and down to the hot springs. As our elevation changed so did our layers with us putting our shells on before one of the summits so we wouldn’t have to do it at the top. I got a little warm but always much less concerned with temperature regulation when we aren’t sleeping outside at night.

We bombed down the descent and if Kevin hadn’t told me to keep and eye out for the turn off I definitely would have missed it as there was little marking, I turned left and saw Kevin waiting for me. Alright 7 miles left as we began the climb up, it really was just up and then down. I stayed on the bike to ride up, Kevin got off to walk, but he’s a much faster hiker than me.

I made it to the top a little before him and took in the views, in a lot of ways it felt like Denali with these looming mountains in the foreground and they seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Kevin reached the top and was just dumping gorp into his mouth, saying that he was reaching his limit, I reminded him that we have been riding for 93 miles, which I feel like my gauge is skewed for long distance mileage, but for mostly off the couch for him, he was a champ for only bonking at this point.

We descended down, avoiding the puddles as best as we could and turned onto the trail that went by the caretakers cabin, we stopped to check in and asked about the water situation just to make sure we would have enough for the next day, they said they would bring some more by in the morning. 

We got to the cabin and were surprised by the accommodations, a stove burner, pots/pans and real silverware. We unpacked a bit and then decided to make our way to the hot springs. I’m not exactly sure what was going through my mind when I was packing but I did not include a swimsuit, and for some reason had a pair of underwear (again for being in bike shorts all weekend those were not warranted). I kept the sports bra that I had been wearing that day on, having a clean one for the next day and wore my sleep shorts to the cabin by the hot springs to change. I slipped into the hot springs and there was already a family in the other side, I told Kevin, given my white underwear situation we would be outlasting them to leave. I made sure to keep my head above water because brain eating amoebas and can’t be too careful with those.

We made small talk with the family, with them having moved to Nome recently and they talked about the decision to do so and where else they looked. After a while they left and feeling like our muscles had been sufficiently soaked we also got out to go eat some dinner. I laid out some of my gear to try and dry out before going to bed. 

In the morning I woke to the thunderous sound of raining hitting the cabin, it was so boisterous that it covered up the white noise that I had put on. I figured we only had 50 or so miles to go in it if we needed to and rolled back over hoping Kevin wouldn’t be in a rush to get going. The next time I woke up the rain had dissipated and turned again to a similar mist we had had most of the day before.

We packed our bikes back up, I shoved my still wet clothes into a separate compartment to try and preserve some of my other layers and we rode to the caretakers cabin to check out. We asked about some of the buildings on the property, specifically the church. They said we could ride over to it, it used to be an orphanage for kids’ whose parents died during the 1918 flu, opening in 1919 and was run by the Catholic Church before being returned to the tribe in recent years. He also explained the network of travel that the surrounding communities used to get to the area and the history of the landownership. 

We rode over to the church which was pretty dilapidated, I questioned out loud if history was repeating itself with COVID, a recent number was that 120,000 children had lost their primary caregiver in the US. I also thought about potential unmarked graves, the orphanage would have been removed from any village and wasn’t easily accessible in those days. The area had a former larger church, dormitory and school, and living quarters for the staff, which all remained somewhat identifiable. The site closed in 1941. We walked around a bit but didn’t go too close to any one building as they seemed near potential collapse, which surely would bury any secrets that remained in their walls. 

We left climbing the hill that had delivered us the day before. I kept glancing back to take it all in, would this really be it. 

We turned back onto the main road and on the first climb a truck coming down slowed to tell us there was a musk ox ahead. They continued but we weren’t sure how far ahead so proceeded with caution, and going uphill we weren’t exactly moving fast. We were talking when the musk ox poked its head around some shrubbery, it was almost like it was peeking out to say hello and then quickly disappeared behind the bush. Kevin yelled and waved his arms. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m letting it know we’re here” He replied. “What? They’re not bears, they’re more like buffalo.” I finally felt like I had knowledge to contribute. We took a wide berth around and part of me was worried that we would run into the entire herd reminding me of the times I’ve had to duck into cars when riding through parts of South Dakota to avoid the buffalo herds. Here, there would be no cars. We got to what we felt like was a safe distance and popped back on the road. I glanced back to see if the Musk Ox had made any moves but it seemed to have retreated further into the shrubs.

The weather cooperated for the most part with no torrential downpour or really hard rain, I kept my shell on for the duration of the ride and we stopped more frequently to eat food with the two previous day of activities finally catching up with us. At one point Kevin saw a bear on the side of a hill about 100 yards away, through the misty clouds I said I was pretty sure it was a brush or rock or something, ignorance is bliss.

We made it back to Tim and Burr’s without much instance and got showered and dried off. Friends of their brought over salmon for dinner, the friends live one month in Nome, one month in Missoula working for both healthcare systems. Oh, unusual work/life situations can work, especially given the remoteness of Nome.

Because of the rain we got to sleep with two dogs in the dog shed, as when it’s raining they don’t go into their kennel outside.

We went to bed and the next morning packed up our bikes and headed to the airport. We got back to Anchorage, unpacked our gear and I hit the harsh reality of what I needed to face, or rather still tried to avoid it.

I felt like it was an impossible decision and kept going back and forth with the pros and cons of staying versus going. At one point this summer, when I was packrafting, I flipped over in the water and was stuck in the boat underwater as the skirt that normally releases did not. In the time I was submerged I realized that no one was around to save me and was able to release the skirt and get above water and back into the boat. This decision felt like I was still submerged underwater and the skirt wasn’t releasing no matter how hard I tried. As any former partner of mine will tell you I get a little stressed about decisions and really they could all probably form a support group. I felt like either decision would have huge ramifications, if I stayed it could impact my job, and I love my job and the trajectory I’m on; but if I left I was giving up so much of my life. I couldn’t tell if by staying or leaving I was running from or towards my life.

It didn’t feel like Kevin and I were on the same page for any of it which was also really painful because I felt like in the backcountry and on these trips we were really the best version of ourselves as a couple but we couldn’t get that to translate to day-to-day life and logistics. Finally, Kevin released the skirt on my metaphorical packraft by telling me he wanted to break up [Or maybe we were both submerged underwater and he got out to swim to the shore]. Back in May he had made other housing arrangements when our landlord sold the house and it didn’t seem likely that I’d be able to stay. I didn’t know how to respond, I thought about staying but felt like without a job or a relationship it didn’t make such sense. At least in some sense with his decision, I was out of purgatory.

I also had to be in DC most of the month of September so decided to leave and then figure it all out. I decided to move all my stuff and ship my van, that way if I decided I didn’t want to go back I wouldn’t have to go back to deal with it. At each moment that required me to do something I tried to resist. It reminded me of when my grandmother died and the whole time leading up to the funeral I didn’t want to do any of it, I didn’t want her to be dead, and I didn’t want to have to acknowledge she was. This felt similar, I didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was. I spent the final two weeks mostly in a state of tears, one friend reminded me that everyone dies so we all technically end up alone anyways, another friend reminded me that everything I was going through was really challenging and these decisions weren’t easy. Other friends took me on final rides and threw Hail Mary’s my way, they would use my van, or I could store gear in their space but felt like it didn’t make sense to do that. And part of me wanted to leave in part to lick my wounds. But in a lot of ways I felt like I was losing so much more than a relationship. I dropped my van off for shipping, still not believing it was actually happened. I spent the last morning riding a trail I hadn’t done before with Rachel.

I kept reminding myself that even if I wasn’t moving I would be gone for September anyways so I just pretended that was the case. Later that evening, Kevin dropped me off at the airport, which felt surreal the whole way there, I even played Kesha thinking that something would prevent me from leaving. I got to the airport and that was it, time had run out and I hadn’t figured out any other options.

Leaving gave me some of the clarity I felt like I was missing in August, I wasn’t able to see the forest through the trees when I was in the thick of it. I also spent a lot of time this past month saying ‘be a river not a rock’. I felt like I was grasping so hard for an expected outcome that it was suffocating– one of the little girls that a friend used to babysit was so excited when she got a hamster that she squeezed it so hard that it’s guts came out. I feel like in a similar way I was squeezing so hard to how I thought things should be that all the guts came out.

Jurassic Classic

After the Kenai 250 I lacked substantial feeling in both my legs below my knees. I didn’t think it was super abnormal since it was impacting both legs and others had mentioned feeling similar numbness. But always a little more worried about nerve issues since I had some when I broke my right leg almost 10 years ago. It probably didn’t help that I caught a cold at the tail end of the race and spent most of the week after lying down and not doing a lot of moving. When I did start to move, it wasn’t pretty with my calf muscles feeling like they were on the verge of seizing up at any moment. Normally, I would just ride out the recovery period with swimming, foam rolling, and yoga. And I did, except for Kevin’s birthday he wanted to do a 100-mile human powered loop around anchorage. For his present, I ran the logistics (but also secretly love spreadsheets so really a present for me) and promised to do the whole thing.

Three days before the depart and the start of us staging gear, Kevin voiced concern about my inability to walk up the stairs. “Oh I’ll be fine.” But internally I wasn’t convinced realizing we would be hiking uphill and this didn’t exactly bode well. I immediately texted a friend who was a PT to help me speed up the process, they suggested calf raises which seemed counter intuitive to me, but it did help quite a bit or at least enough that I was able to convince myself it would be fine.

Commemorative Sticker

Doing the whole loop required massive gear requirements, two sleep set ups to be left in different spots, a mountain bike, road bike, hiking gear, and packrafting equipment. We also designed it so that people could join and leave the various activities at different spots. On top of our gear drops it also required the coordination of others’ gear depending on when they would be joining/exiting and a few car shuttles and coordination (spreadsheets, they are a lifesaver). Everything came together rather amazingly and so on Friday afternoon around 3pm we departed our house for Stage 1.

Stage 1 Mountain Biking- Home to Glen Alps Parking Lot~ 16 miles

Three of us left the house and headed towards the Glen Alps parking lot where we would meet more people. We started on the multi-use path for a few miles before turning onto the single track to take the hillside trails up. I felt mostly okay but didn’t really have much power in my legs but thankfully my body still seemed to know what to do when it was on the bike. I still got off at some of the steep inclines and did a little hobble up still not having full extension of my calf muscles. After we climbed the single track for a bit we started on the double track which I briefly recognized from skiing (having lived in Anchorage for 2 years I still have a hard time connecting everything).

We were also met with blustering wind coming down the hills. I put on more gear despite the fact that I was going up hill. We talked about the storm clouds ahead, they looked ominous and all of our checked weather forecasts called for no rain. As a result, Tyler didn’t have any rain gear with him and near the top it started to spit small drops of water on us. Instead of waiting near the trail sign we headed up to the parking lot. I took shelter on the side of a building and ate some pizza while we waited for the others to arrive. Tyler decided to not take any chances with the weather since we were about to go over the pass and opted for a ride down from the shuttle that brought Maddy and Brianna up.

Stage 2 Mountain Biking- Glen Alps Parking Lot to Indian ~ 14 miles

Powerline Pass is one that I’ve heard talked about many times but have never actually done– kind of like when I lived in Boulder for a whole year before I rode Flagstaff Rd. As you can imagine it gets its name from following the powerline up a two track over the pass to the other side. We left the parking lot and to start the climb that would eventually drop us down into our camp site for the night. We alternated positions and chatted catching up on recent summer activities for the first part. We encountered a stream crossing and the only two options were walk through and get our feet wet or try to navigate around. I, opted for trying to navigate around as I will always try to avoid getting my feet wet.

It required some hike-a-biking and patching what looked like would not be super marshy areas together but we made it and were able to get back on the trail. As we approached the steepest part of the trail I found myself lacking any real power in my legs and found it easier to get off and hike and push my bike– which is saying something because I’m a rather terrible hiker and more so when I have to push my bike.

With some 80+ miles left to go no sense in totally thrashing what little power I had left. As we neared the summit the wind picked up and some loose rocks tumbled down the side. Kevin reassured me (from his WFR training) that a fall like this would be very survivable with minimum damage given the slope. Not entirely reassuring and opted to continue walking my bike while leaning into the wind to counter those forces. At the top we moved quickly as the wind had picked up, so much so that my bike felt like it might get lifted and blown away.

We began the descent and would end up dropping 3,251 feet in about 4.7 miles. It took about an hour as we would drop down for a bit and stop to regroup and let our brakes cool off. I led the charge which I’m always grateful for not having to worry about navigating with someone in front of me but also the first to greet any potential bear– and made sure I was yelling at the top of my lungs as I couldn’t remove my hand from the handlebars to ding my bell.

Thankfully no bears and the side trail we hopped onto to head towards the cabin proved to be the correct one. We arrived at Christina’s and had tents set up and sleeping gear ready to go. Other than the small bit of rain on our approach to the trailhead we were only met with blustering winds which was nice.

Stage 3: Camping in Indian

Christina lives at the end of a dirt road in Indian which happened to be on the route making for a good spot to camp. We had dropped our tents and sleep gear the day before and when we arrived the tents were already set up (hostest with the mostest). More friends met us to camp with Tyler rejoining and Kelly also coming out to camp. We ate dinner and sat around the camp fire for a bit before Kelly suggested we play ‘bite the bag’. I definitely thought it was going to be a drinking game and just a different version of ‘slap the bag’. Instead it was quite literally biting the bag. You put the paper bag down and then everyone has to bite the bag without using their hands/legs on the ground and really only your mouth.

The kicker is that after each person goes you rip off about 1-2 inches from the top of the bag and go again. It was actually quite hilarious, mostly because there were various levels of flexibility. I opted out of the final round, which was barely off the ground, realizing that being so inflexible at the moment could be the straw that broke my whole system. We went to bed having informed everyone there was a curious bear in the area (but had not been seen for a week) and figured my chances of survival with all of us out there were pretty high.

Stage 4: Mountain Biking -Indian to Girdwood ~ 20 miles

When Kelly came to camp she also grabbed a tote we had left that was full of breakfast food and necessities. We heated up breakfast burritos, drank coffee, and talked about the day plan. Brianna wasn’t feeling super great having come down with the cold that we all had shared earlier and decided to drive back to town. I said the only caveat was that she couldn’t mess up my logistics. It ended up working as she would drive Tyler’s car back and he would ride with us to Girdwood and drive Julie’s truck back from there (like I said multiple logistics). We gained another person, Oscar, for this trek and soon we were on our way. The path was paved the whole way but to make it work we were still on our mountain bikes. The forecast again not calling for rain decided to open up a bit and we huddled under a tunnel to put our rain gear on. With all the gear changes it seemed less dire if we got wet so we didn’t waste too much time waiting for the storm to pass and kept moving. We were in the most exposed part of the trail during the most rain but again knowing you have dry clothes waiting is a game changer. We came around a corner to see a bull moose just to the side of the trail and we all stopped. He definitely noticed us so we backed up a little bit and discussed our options, we waited a little bit to see what he would do, he was definitely curious or at least not disinterested. We debated going back to the highway and riding around but that seemed less safe with the cars and where we would have to jump on. We thought of bushwhacking around too. Someone suggested going by to see what it would do. I’m still new enough that any animal encounter makes me nervous and I usually default to the local Alaskans. This option made me particularly uncomfortable and I voiced my concern. We talked through how it would go, Maddy would go first and if the moose engaged we would stop and reroute and then each of us would go one at a time. I decided to go last which I couldn’t decided if that was dumb or not since four people would have by before me but would also leave me to be the one he engages with. With each person going by he would watch but not move. Everyone had left and I pushed off from what felt like a very safe area, I turned my head away as to not unintentionally make eye contact and scampered by as quickly as I could turn my pedals. He again, just stared at me as I rode by and once we turned the corner and out his view I relaxed, my heart rate had peaked at 155 during that encounter and didn’t even come close to that the rest of the day. We cruised down the rest of the path with the rain stopping, half joking that Tyler ended up joining us for the worst weather section.

We turned onto the gravel road that would take us up to the next portion and on the road got passed by Rachel driving her car to meet us and deliver pastries (not part of my logistics). We got to another friend’s house where we had done a gear drop of mountain bikes, changed into dry clothes, reallocated food from the my bike to my backpack, did a double check of everything and took off (much quicker typing that than how long it actually took). We picked up Julie and left Tyler, Rachel joined us for pastries and then headed back to Girdwood and Oscar turned around to head to back to his car in Indian (running into two bear cubs on the way and opting for the road).

Stage 5: Hiking Crow Pass ~ 13 miles

Now the real test of my legs began. I warned Julie and Maddy that I still had some lingering numbness which limited my full range of flection and probably wouldn’t be going for any speed records. We started up the gravel road only having to walk a mile and stopping to filter some water before getting onto the trail. I had never done this one and feel like I always ask what to expect, mostly to manage my expectations but like most of Alaska it was a you go up for a bit and then down for a bit.

The trail slinks around the mountain connecting various mining areas to one another and other than some left over cables and a warning not to drink the water there wasn’t much sign of the mining activity that took place years before. We did go up, and up, and up. One steeper section was loitered with baby heads and I warned that I would have to go even slower. I had to watch where I was placing my feet and in the most literal sense because I wouldn’t be able to feel if I stepped wrong or not. I awkwardly made it up and we kept hiking. This summer I feel like I found a new appreciation for hiking; last summer if I was hiking it usually meant I wasn’t biking which felt like such a foreign concept that it was a rough adjustment. This summer, I feel like I was doing a better job at appreciating the different activities that Alaska lends itself too.

And I feel like I’m finally in the conscious competent category for hiking or at least I don’t cry as much. We kept going up and I kept turning around to look at the valley. Part of the valley hosts the most northern rainforest in the world so it was a stark contrast to look ahead and be met with tundra and turn around and be met with lush green expansiveness over the valley floor. We made it to the top where it flattened out a bit. There is a cabin at the top which I added to my running lists of cabins to go back to–during COVID Alaska kept their public use cabins open and each cabin has a journal where people write down whatever and it’s always interesting to look at the ones from the early days of the pandemic, how people were or weren’t referencing COVID and thinking about how it’s transpired over time in the log books compared to what was happening in the state (anyone want to help find me funding for that one lettttme know).

I was then told that we would have 7 miles of mostly downhill that would take us to our camp spot for the evening. To begin our descent we had to cross a river as there was no option to navigate around. I debated leaving my shoes on or taking them off. Taking them off I might risk getting cut or slipping on the rocks; leaving them on I risked having cold wet feet the rest of the night and tomorrow. I had a dry pair of socks but it felt like a false sense of security and so I opted to take my shoes off. I plunged on foot into the glacier fed river, no going back now, and started making my way across.

I was half way through when some feeling crept through the numbness and I immediately felt a rush of intense pain and my body not knowing how to respond. I stopped realizing that either way would be the same amount of time in the water but there was a brief moment of hesitation where going back to the side I just came from seemed like the better option. I had to override the decision and keep walking forward. I made it to the other side and put my feet into my hands to provide some warmth. It wasn’t so much how cold it was as the nerve pain that had accompanied the shock. I put my dry socks and shoes back on and my muscles felt somewhat refreshed, not that a 3 minute ice soak would do anything but figured maybe I would get some thing of a placebo value.

We talked about the nearby glacier and the ski traverses that people had done on it– glacial traversing still seems very much out of my bailliwick but my interest was piqued. We did one snow field crossing with Julie lending me her extra pole so I could have an extra touch point on the soft snow. I peered down the ravine and thought about what might await my body if I slid but decided it would probably be survivable.

The next snow crossing seemed even more perilous and the markings that were left didn’t exactly show a clear crossing so we navigated down to where it was a narrower crossing and made our way down diagonally, again crossing one at a time just in case. After crossing we traversed back up to the trail and soon we were out of the tundra and crossing a bridge over some untamed water.

We joked about whether or not Kevin was scouting to packraft this section as the river ran with such a force it felt as if it was trying to break out of the channel. We came into more shrubbery and continued to make noise to ward off any bears that might be on the trail. With about 3 miles left my legs began to ache from the downhill and the awkward immobility of not being able to push off when walking, going downhill felt more clunky than going up.

The closer we got to the river the more in the thicket we became, Julie and Maddy got some distance on us, with Kevin staying behind me, to make sure I didn’t get too far behind. At one point I rolled my ankle beyond where it should have gone by normal standards but by my standards since there isn’t much left there isn’t much to roll, I feel like Kevin was slightly horrified seeing this and also confused that I appeared fine. I think he thought I was rushing to keep up with Maddy and Julie but the truth is that my ankle just does that sometimes regardless of how fast or slow I’m moving and Kevin suggested we all stick together for bear awareness.

We made it to the campsite, pitched our tents and sat by the river to eat dinner. For most of the trip I had brought the same thing to eat, peanut butter and apple on a bagel. It required no fuel, no cook time, and worked for whatever meal time we were at. I still waited to eat with the others and used the opportunity to put my legs up on a tree and let the blood rush out.

We finished dinner, hung our food away from the camp, and crawled into our sleeping bags. It was fairly early by Alaska daylight standards but we had had a full day and being off my feet felt like a well earned reward.

Stage 6: Packrafting ~ 8 no make that 9 miles

It took me a while to warm up to the appeal of packrafting and it wasn’t until this trip that I saw the full utility of it. Some of my hesitation is that while the risk of something happening is low the consequences are high and that doesn’t exactly pair well for me being in the conscious incompetent phase of not really knowing what to do. Like my strongest skill for packrafting is swimming and with the primary goal being to stay in the boat it’s not really a harmonized skill set. The raft I had was light for hiking (3lbs) and had minimum accessories to it, I kept referring to it as the dinky but with it being smaller than a normal packraft found it more maneuverable by just sheer force but not as quick to respond to any finesse (which I didn’t have so it didn’t matter).

The river itself was mostly Class 1/Class 2 with no Class 3. Oscar shared beta the day before about the put in area saying that it’s has the most technical aspect of the whole float. We were able to see the rapids from our dinner/breakfast spot and talked about options. Being in the smaller boat with limited skills I didn’t feel super comfortable looking at the rapids– I mostly didn’t want to swim this early in the float and talked about portaging around the bend. Kevin decided to attach the scout (my raft) to his raft with his rope to pull it through the rapids since it was narrow and rocky where I would be walking around. Julie and Maddy went ahead with Kevin following, I scampered around the shore watching Julie and Maddy pick their lines and feeling secure in my decision as what we didn’t see was a little drop that was definitely more than I wanted to start the day with. Kevin approached and I was in line with him watching him go over the rapid, there was a brief moment where Kevin stalled in the pool and the scout got swept up and flipped over and I wasn’t sure if Kevin was going to end up swimming or not (I’m sure he was in total control but from my perspective and lack of knowledge of what was happening I couldn’t tell). At this point in my life I haven’t lost a close friend in the backcountry, I’ve had friends of friends die in avalanches, falls, mountain biking, drownings, but very fortunate that no one in my immediate circle but it’s an accepted unacknowledged (mostly, except when I’m around to talk about death) part of these pursuits is that at some point it’s very likely we will all lose someone close in the backcountry. Why did I just go on that little tangent, well when Kevin stalled and I wasn’t sure what was happening I envisioned him swimming and getting smashed into a rock and then his death would be a result of him tugging the scout through the rapids. I morbidly joke that if my partner is going to die in the backcountry I would rather not see it or be present. He made it through and met me at the shore to deliver the scout. They all commented about the rapid being a little more spicy than it seemed from our vantage point and agreed that I probably made the right call. I feel like learning a new sport is a master class in letting your ego go; it’s very strange to go from being very skilled and technical in one area (cycling) to knowing absolutely nothing in another and having to acknowledge limitations that don’t exist for others simply because they started sooner.

I got in the scout and we started floating down, one of the tips for new boaters is to follow a ‘mother duck’ down the river and take their lines so I would usually stick behind one of the others and they made sure that I wasn’t the last one or the first one but safely tucked into the conveyer belt. It was mostly smooth sailing though, some areas were shallower than others and my raft would awkwardly scrap the bottom as I would contort my body to shift my weight to try to keep moving. Someone made the comment about getting out of my boat to walk when it was super shallow which immediately reminds me that I’m not very competent at this activity — and sometimes that was easier to do but sometimes it also seemed more awkward and unstable in doing so. The water was tame enough that if I did get out and fall it would have (more than likely fine) and the boat would have been easily recoverable.

Until this trip I had only ever done road rafting which is shuttling on river sections to practice certain skills and get comfortable. Being on this trip I finally understood how you can look at a river and see a highway, as we were certainly faster moving faster than hiking.

Being on the river was also a different vantage point, if we had been on the trail we would have been covered in trees and unexposed to the views were were able to take in. We passed a handful of waterfalls, some of which Julie had ice climbed and she would talk about that experience. Sometimes someone mentions an activity and I think oh that would be fun to try, ice climbing has not been one of them but I do appreciate hearing about those adventures and mostly in awe of those who can.

We came around a bend and heard the thunderous escape of water and eddied out, we realized we had missed the take out by about half a mile or so. We got out of boats and pulled them in the water as we walked back up stream and then had to cross back over to the shore. We got to the take out, deflated our boats, pulled off our dry suits, packed everything back up and started the 3 mile hike back to the road.

Stage 7: Hiking ~ 3 miles

We hiked on the Eagle River Nature Trail back headed to the Eagle River Nature Center where we would meet Jay and our road bikes. The trail was mostly mellow and my legs were mostly okay but still kind of shuffling. We talked about the food we would eat, I had stashed a bag of chips in the van to have after our hike and plans for the rest of the week. While it’s a popular hiking trail there are still a few bear maulings that have happened there so continued to make some noise even if it was just in our conversation.

I jokingly tried to run towards the end but it was really more of a hurried walk with my feet barely breaking contact with the ground. We saw Jay and were ecstatic– one more stage– we had made it

Stage 8: The Parking Lot

Jay broke the news first that there were 4 bikes but only 7 wheels in the van– Oh no! My luck with the logistics had run out. Our plan was that Julie would drive the van back to Anchorage with Maddy, Jay, Kevin, and I taking our road bikes the 30ish miles back to town. Jay offered up his bike to me and I felt hesitant to accept so we hummed and hawed for a bit with Maddy also debating whether or not to ride. After a while in the parking lot and some restlessness to get going I realized that I could take Jay’s front wheel and put it on my bike. Maddy decided she would ride with us to Eagle River and then turn off for Jay’s house and Julie would drop Jay off before driving the van back to Anchorage (Yay! Logistics).

Stage 9: Road Bike ~ 30 miles

After I profusely thanked Jay for the wheel we headed out on the last stage. My body being unconscious competent knew what to do on the bike but there wasn’t much power in my legs to get up the hills. Maddy and Kevin would soar up the small inclines as I felt the gap increase meant I was surely going backwards but slowly I would catch them as they waited at the summit of each small hill. On one of the hills we were able to catch a glimpse of a full moon that had peaked out for a bit.

On the descents I would tuck and try to put a gap back on them which never amounted to much. We enjoyed the rolling hills that took us 9 miles back to town.

We split from Maddy at a stoplight with her going into Eagle River and the two of us continuing onto Anchorage. We both commented on how impressive it was that we only had 20 miles of the route that we didn’t have anyone else on. And both agreed that it was really nice of the friends who were able to show up in the various stages and in various ways.

We also talked about what it would take to do the whole loop self supported and I mostly just laughed. As we turned onto the path by Arctic Valley that would take us home I called another friend to see if she wanted to meet us to ride the last 5 miles, she was just getting into town but her house was on the bike path so we picked her up when we got to town.

We got to recap the past 48 hours of adventures telling her all the things we had done and relive most of the moments. We arrived back at our place almost 48 hours after departing. Early enough that we were able to do a final stage of dinner in Girdwood while picking up the gear from our friend’s house on Crow Pass.

Oh hey, my wheel!

At dinner we toasted to a very successful adventure, still somewhat surprised that the only thing I completely forgot was my front wheel but also somewhat bummed that the only thing I forgot was my front wheel. The place we had dinner have very similar vibes to the Chalets in Chamonix which almost transported me back for a brief time thinking about the adventures that I have been lucky to pick up along the way.

Girdwood or Chamonix?
Chamonix or Girdwood?

Last summer I really struggled with being in Alaska during COVID and this summer I couldn’t believe how grateful I was to be in Alaska and get another chance to experience a ‘real Alaskan’ summer. Thank you vaccines and lots of therapy.

While I put together the logistics it really couldn’t have gone off without the help of a lot of friends who shuttled/brought gear, gave us camp spots, let us do gear drops at their house, shuttled different vehicles, dropped pastries, and joined us in the adventures for however brief–especially those we kept joking were our ‘Platinum Sponsors’. I’m not going to name individual names because I inadvertently always leave someone off so if you are thinking you would be named, you definitely would be on the list. Let me know who wants in for the Winter Jurassic Classic.

Also a lot of people asked about the name so here it is. There is an event in Alaska called the Wilderness Classic (or The Classic) that is a backcountry adventure where you use human power to get from point A to point B all self-sufficient. Kevin had talked about doing it this year but some other things came up so when he was thinking about this he half joked that it was like ‘The Classic’ and then since it was for Kevin’s birthday I called it Kevin’s Jurassic Birthday Classic (which became Jurassic Classic). And then I kept being like well you know the Jurassic period happened where we’re doing this and then people would be like didn’t happen every where and I would say yes so this can happen anywhere. The other option was Kevin’s Abasic Birthday Classic but I didn’t want to have to explain that abasic sites are the result of DNA damage from the loss of a nucleobase by hydrolysis that then generate an abasic site but then I would anyways because I would be like well the other option was this– so hit me up for all your naming needs.

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

No Sleep Till Valdez

When people are dying or faced with the prospect of dying they talk about home–either where they came from or where they hope to return. Which is how I learned a lot about the remote places in Alaska; someone would come in and their story would come out about their village, their way of life, their lineage. I would often nod along as if I knew the reference points they were citing. After I was in the clear I would quickly google to learn where the place was located and would soon find that no roads enter/exited the community. Which is still hard for me to fathom, at times Anchorage feels isolating. Through these conversations it painted a picture of Alaska that is often overlooked on a map. And from staring at those maps it’s also how I learned that there are only 5 highways in the state or at least primary highways, Glen Allen Highway, Seward Highway, Richardson Highway, Dalton Highway, and The Parks Highway (which you would think is after Denali National Park because it takes you there but is in fact after a guy named George Parks, first resident governor of Alaska). In my time here I’ve actually only driven on three of them, The Glen (arriving and leaving), Seward, and the Parks Highway. Dalton goes to Valdez and Richardson (fame of Ice Road Truckers- I think…) starts at Prudhoe Bay and runs down to Fairbanks.

Nothing a little super glue and duct tape couldn’t fix when this happened right before we left

Which means in my planning a trip to Valdez I only had minimum navigation. I convinced a friend, Grande to come, which really didn’t require too much convincing other than “hey want to ride to Valdez and catch the ferry back” and coordinating schedules. The trip is about 300 miles so we figured we would ride Friday/Saturday and then ferry back on Sunday. Only after selecting the one weekend that really seem to work for both of us until July or August we realized we wouldn’t be able to leave until at least 2pm on Friday. That’s fine, we’d probably only ride 100 miles on Friday anyways. We continued with our planning which wasn’t much and really only figuring out stove requirements, tent set up, and potential camp spots. Kevin has never witnessed me prep for an adventure like this and suffice to say I think he was shocked at how little effort I put into the logistics. But also felt like there wasn’t much beyond what we figured out, leave time, stop places, and when to show up to the ferry. I packed my food, which ended up being enough for a week, sleeping gear, riding gear, and a few extra layers. I didn’t checked the weather till the day before because as I told Kevin it doesn’t really matter since this is the one weekend we can do it, we’ll ride in whatever.

Make your friends ride for 200 miles and take photos like this haha

In what should surprise no one, we didn’t actually leave Anchorage until 4ish on Friday which resulted in Grande’s husband driving us up the road to start. We shaved about 50 miles off and got dropped off in Palmer which also meant less traffic on the highway. I rode with a tail light and we both had safety vests, although Grande’s mostly put mine to shame but we did what we could to be seen. I still struggle with riding on the highway and even in town, I can do everything right, lights, vest, stay on my side/area but all it takes is someone deciding to look at their phone, drive under the influence, or become distracted and that’s it. We had all positive and/or neutral interactions with cars so that was nice. Most of our ride followed the same pattern, ride, pull off to change gear, ride some more and then figure out where our next stop was. Grande’s husband had connected us with a friend who had some land we could camp on near what we anticipated being our first stopping point. We got ahold of him and got directions and after about 4 hours of riding we turned off the highway and descended down a gravel road that gave us a full vantage point of a glacier. We got a little bit turned around and ended up calling him again to get direction and he offered up his arctic oven tent for us to sleep in. We made it to his property and we were amazed at the views he had, he was working on building a cabin but for the time being had a sauna and outhouse which is really maybe all you need? We made camp in the tent he provided and ate dinner with a view point of the glacier.

We got into bed and then tried to factor what was the last possible time we could wake up without getting into Valdez super late and settled on 6am, both being master snoozers it was closer to 6:30 when we actually arose. We packed up, unable to figure out how to get water from the tank on the property and decided to ride the 4 miles to Sheep Mountain Lodge to fill our bottles.

When we got to Sheep Mountain we also ordered coffees and then we got breakfast but figured it would be to go and then we decided to just stay and eat. I got another coffee and then about an hour later we were back on the road, having only tackled 4 miles of the days journey.

We decided that when we saw a spot for water, we’d stop just to make sure we wouldn’t run out but otherwise the next juncture would be Glennallen, about 70 miles away. I was told that it was mostly downhill but having lived in Colorado my judgment of downhill vs uphill is a bit skewed, what I envisioned was all downhill with minimum pedaling, what greeted us instead was rolling hills and with an overall decline in elevation. It was also strange because the only time I had been on this road was entering and exiting Alaska, and the current landscape was a stark contrast to the last time I was out there, dark, snowy, cold, alone— now it was mostly sunny, some warmth, greenery for miles with mountains on the horizon, and also not alone. 

Mostly a lot of this

We arrived in Glennallen and opted to stop at the grocery store over the gas station, we took separate turns going in getting food and then sat on the picnic table outside to eat a bit before getting back on the bikes. It was about 2 pm at this point and we realized we still had about 115 miles to go, which was almost comical but we kept joking we just had to be in Valdez in time to catch the ferry which didn’t leave till 11am the next day so really plenty of time.

When you really have no idea what you’ll want during a ride

We turned right out of town, our only real turn of the trip and headed towards Valdez. The mile markers counted down towards our destination which was nice because I’m terrible at math but also at moments of slowly ticking by, depressing. The only thing on this route worth noting was Thompson Pass but we were unsure of where it actually showed up in the route. Grande had done this ride but as part of a 400 mile race and had never actually seen Valdez in the daylight as she got to town at midnight stopped at the gas station and then turned around and headed back out. She also warned me that when you get done with the pass there is still like 15-20 miles of riding into town.

With less traffic we rode side-by-side for most of the stretch and trading off leads when cars were approaching. We spent time talking about everything and nothing, being in the bike industry, work life balance, dog life, and getting back to racing when your fitness and speed isn’t where it used to be, among other things. Really it’s easy to find things to talk about when you have nothing else to do but pedal. We kept an eye on the impending clouds in the distance and some scattered sprinkles throughout the day led us to multiple gear changes. We kept joking that we didn’t care what the weather did when we were riding so long as it was “sunny for the cruise” on Sunday. We noticed some cars coming towards us with their wipers on and stopped to put on more rain gear getting back to riding just before getting caught in a storm, water gushed down filling my shoes with ice-cold water. Everything else remained mostly dryish or at least not terribly uncomfortable.

Once the rain stopped and we had dry roads for a bit I started to calculate how much further we’d have as my feet had become frozen from the rainwater and then the dropping temperature. Hmmm, about 5 more hours, could my feet make it in this condition, unlikely. I have my sleep wool socks I could switch out that would at least get them dry and some toe warmers I could put in so if they were warm would not be worried about any damage. I asked Grande to pull over, we also debated hitching a ride and decided that if I car stopped we would get in. I started peeling off my wet socks and replacing them with dry socks sticking a toe warmer on top before sliding them back into the damp shoe, the wool sock and toe warmer created some barrier to prevent the cold from seeping into my toes and I decided this would be fine. Left with an extra toe warmer I decided to stick it to the back of my neck as a way to get warm blood flowing through my body — only the next day when I peeled it off did I realize why they recommend not having it placed directly on ones skin as I had a nice little burn spot– in the moment the warmth took over and I didn’t even realize it was burning through- oops. In case you’re wondering no car stopped and we kept pedaling on.

When it’s 10:30 pm at night but you have no idea since it’s still so light out

We reached the Thompson Pass summit just around midnight but at this point hadn’t even pulled out our riding lights, with only dusk settling in around us. I pulled my headlight out and switched it to a red light to have a taillight for the descent (since mine died) and Grande used her headlight, between the two of us we had a complete set which is more than I’ve had in previous rides. We started the descent and the drop in elevation made it seem like the darkness grew quicker as we were also getting overshadowed by the mountains we had just climbed. Still mindful of traffic we pulled off each time a car was behind us which made me realize how little of a shoulder exists on this side, and also encountered the highest stream of cars in a one section of the road with 4 cruising by us all around 12:30am, which made me question why they were out so late but they were probably questioning why we were out so late.

We got to the bottom and I was met with resign as the mileage post still showed 20 miles into Valdez, what a buzzkill, even with Grande’s warning. We stopped and did jumping jacks to warm up because at best we had another hour of riding and at worst, well longer. The rest of the road was at least positioned on a decline so while we were pedaling, less effort was required, or we were doing less effort since it was 2am. The road into Valdez is littered with waterfalls and the thundering release of water echoed through the canyons as we approached. It was really pretty, even in the dim lighting and made me wish I could see it in the daylight. Grande pointed out which waterfalls were popular for ice climbing–while Valdez is a premium destination in the winter for skiing and ice-climbing it didn’t seem like there was a lot to do in the summer other than hike around.

We finally got to town, or where the mileage posts stop counting and came to a darkened intersection. A lighted gas station was to the right, what appeared to be a giant hotel of some monstrosity was to the left across the water (we realized the next day it was the oil pipeline terminal) and some faint lights were a little in front of us. Huh, we pulled out our phones to look up a hotel and make sure we didn’t have to do any extra pedaling, we found one 3 miles away in the area with all the other hotels. How is this where the highway ends but the town doesn’t begin for another 3 miles. We joked that we only have 3 more miles to go, what’s that on top of the 201 we’ve already done. We got to the hotel and was greeted by someone who gave us a room key and told us what time breakfast was. We made it to the room, turned up the heat, showered, and then both put on our puffy clothes and climbed into our sleeping bags in the beds– yes we had been that cold for that long.

We got up the next morning just in time to get the continental breakfast and then rode over to grab some coffee. We ended up chatting with a guy who started talking about the oil spill (okay maybe I started talking about the oil spill) but he basically works for one of the citizen non-profits that was started after it so talked about how it was a catalyst for changing the laws and regulations in the oil-industry and how there is community and citizen oversight with what is happening from an environmental standpoint. He also mentioned how everyone always said it was a matter of ‘when not if’ the big one would happen. Which took me back to closing remarks on the PIP Framework at the World Health Assembly in 2017 where the chairperson said the world is not equipped for a pandemic and it’s not a matter of if but when. So maybe post-COVID we’ll have some new laws/regulations that foster the development of public health agencies and response to disease outbreaks. But who knows, the Valdez oil spill is 30 years out and the impacts are still being felt in surrounding communities.

After about a 45 minute break and two coffees we headed to the ferry where we checked in, the documents that I had been carrying for our vaccination proof were no longer necessary as of that morning–given that most of my work is on COVID policies I asked what changed, the guy didn’t know but he did say they weren’t necessarily doing anything with them anyways in terms of contact tracing more just served as a reminder for people that COVID was a threat. We got on the boat and took a seat outside with another cyclist joining us and we discussed our approach to getting through the tunnel since we weren’t allowed to bike through.

Sunny for the cruise!

The tunnel is a single lane tunnel that connects the town of Whittier to the rest of Alaska, there is no other way around. Pretty soon a couple came up who asked if we were the cyclists but I’m pretty sure the gear we had on gave it away. We talked with them for about an hour and then we asked if they would be willing to drive us through the tunnel, which they didn’t hesitate in their response and were convinced that three bikes would fit in the back of their RV. We spent the next few hours basking in the sun, which as we had requested it was “sunny for the cruise” and taking naps after our lack of sleep the night before.

We docked in Whittier found our ride and got to the other side of the tunnel, with a 5am meeting the next morning I wasn’t sure I had 50 miles of pedaling in me but luckily Grande’s husband came and met us about 8 miles from where we got dropped of– I was especially grateful given the headwind we were battling.

I signed up for the Kenai 250 which is happening this weekend, it’s 250 miles connecting the trails on the Kenai Peninsula. It was one of those things that didn’t appeal to me until it did, or maybe Rachel and Grande finally got to me. It scares me (but in a good way, Mom!) because I don’t know what my body will be like at hour 20 and there is a very real possibility that I will not finish– and I haven’t felt some of these feelings in a long time — it’s very similar to how I felt when I first started racing 100 milers like I didn’t know what my body was capable of or where the limits existed (if they do?) and the very real possibility that my body will break down and I’ll have to pull the plug. So it’s a lot of confronting insecurities and uncertainty all while trying to figure out what I’m going to want to eat at hour 32 and wondering if I will in fact regret not carrying an extra pair of shorts when I run into a bear by myself and pee my pants. I keep reminding myself that it’s okay to stop when I stop having fun (and that’s my general approach to bike racing) and that I have more value than my best (and worst) place finishes. It’s strange because I still consider myself an endurance racer but I haven’t done a long race in almost 3 years now (bar studying and then COVID). And I think some of the uncertainty is if I don’t finish how will I define myself, can I still be an endurance racer or do I get demoted to ‘attempted endurance racer’. Only one way to find out…

It starts on Friday (tomorrow-eek!) and I really have no idea how long it will take- anywhere from 38-55 hours. There is still snow for a good portion on one of the trails so that section will be slow going. I’m not planning on sleeping much, beyond a few 20 minute naps if needed and instead trying to push through– but if I do get stuck out the second night will probably try to sleep a few hours and then continue on. I’m probably most nervous about dealing with bears but as a friend who has done this before told me, bears hate Beyoncé so just blast that (also currently accepting other song recommendations). If you are so inclined to follow along you can track me at: http://trackleaders.com/kenai21

And if you’re even more inclined to track me and come find me on the trail to ride with, well that would just be the best! I’m low-key pretending it’s my going away party because at some point I will be leaving Alaska for DC (which, yes will be of a rough transition– no saying if I’ll be able to stay away though so come celebrate at your own risk).

But it might also just be a lot of this + bears sooo

Radical Hope

In the past months I have started and stopped writing more times than I can count, thinking I needed to find the right words for the right audience but I’ve realized that I don’t do this for you I do it for me and if I’m trying to craft the right words for the right reader well then that will never happened because who is the right audience (like besides my parents who already get mini life updates 3-4 times a week).

I still spend a lot of time working on COVID so it still occupies a lot of my mind (globally, we had our highest daily case count this week) but with the vaccines coming online here it feels like I can breathe easier knowing my parents, family, friends, and community are protected. Then I feel guilty because all of those individuals who still can’t access the vaccine while still tracking everything that is happening worldwide and knowing that our individuals actions can have large and lasting impacts beyond our immediate contacts. I’m sure it’s been a wild ride for my therapist and she’s probably learned more about pandemic preparedness and vaccine deployment than she probably ever anticipated knowing about. And it’s been exhausting to see peoples’ response and while I won’t get super deep into my thoughts I will say that I hope when this is over we invest in public health, education, and mental health resources.

Alvin did become a pretty good trail partner

To catch you up from last fall I drove through Canada while the border was closed, with Alvin- the best backseat driver. I didn’t think I could handle an Alaska winter during COVID and it was the longest I had not seen my parents in person like ever (which is very fortunate). We left here in late October (figured if there was a coup during the election resources to Alaska would be cut off first– and that was only funny to joke about until an insurrection happened).

When I drove up to Alaska I promised on my return I would not do it in that amount of time again, I’d take like 2-3 weeks really make a trip of it, well I at least kept half of that promise and did not do it in the same amount of time, but rather quicker. The border was closed (and still is) except for essential travel. My plan was to drive most of my things down before the roads got too bad in case work was like hey we need you in DC and honestly was not sure I could handle Alvin flying beneath me in cargo, let’s be real. I had to show way more documentation to get into Canada than I thought was possible (they did not even seem to care that Alvin was vaccinated). I was given strict instructions and a number to call if I developed symptoms on the drive. It wasn’t too bad just long, and having Alvin at least forced me to stop every few hours to get out and walk around.

When we got to the US border I was met with one question, “where did you stop” and well because I’m me had a list of all places that I had stopped even briefly in case they needed to contact trace, I handed them the list and he goes “oh no, we just need to know if you have any fruits or vegetables that could be carrying something” I looked at him as if I was not the potential carrier of something. I said I had no fruits or vegetables and he waived me through (again not concerned about this wild village dog). I turned my paperwork into the Canadians to avoid getting a bench warrant on me and entered the US. After another 12 hours of driving, and quarantining before hand, I finally made it to my parents and was oddly relieved to see them alive (even though weekly Facetime calls told me they were).

I planned on going back to Alaska and decided to sign up for a running race the first week of March figuring it would give Alvin and I something to do while we were home. And it did, I spent most of the time hiking, trail running, and entertaining both Tenzen and Alvin.

I found a friend to run with who knew the trails in Wind Cave, which I had never spent much time in because too many snakes in the summer but with winter only had to do a few bison detours. And she was even down to run 15 miles without thinking twice about it.

I left Alvin at home when I came back to Alaska because I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying for. It was incredibly challenging, because we had basically spent the past 9 months together like all the time and obviously very worried about traumatizing him by leaving him with Tenzen but he seemed unfazed by it, probably had to put up with more in the village. I do get daily updates and pictures from my parents, and my sister has sworn that she will not be getting a dog (as my parents are currently watching both Frank and I’s…)

I came back to Alaska and continued running and started skiing more which was similar to a baby giraffe figuring out what to do with its legs but had kind friends who would take me out, share tips, and wait for me as I side stepped steep hills (you’re welcome mom).

I did the Homer Epic and raced (ran) 30 miles, it was a time trial start with each participant spaced out by about 30 seconds so I started alone and spent most of the day alone. I figured it was a good way to get to see Homer, albeit a bit slow but it was a blue bird day so could not complain.

I felt great until mile 12 and then the snow lost it’s firmness and it became soft and squishy with a sideways wind picking up the snow and whipping it around me, reminding me that it was in fact a winter race. I made it to the half way mark and recognized one of the aid workers from previous bike races, we briefly chatted and then I took off again. Because of COVID I didn’t make any plans to stop at aid stations and carried what I thought I would need in my backpack and then Kevin carried other things I thought I might need and met me at two points, mile 10 and around mile 21.

After the halfway point I started what seemed to be the only climb of the day, or at least memorable one, it seemed to go on for about 3 miles. It started with a short climb that made me think it was over but upon cresting the summit realize there was still more to come, I started the downhill before getting to the next uphill approach when a woman rode the opposite direction towards me, she yelled something like, “woohooo go lady!” And that was enough to make me cry, like full on sob, I think because in that moment everything felt so normal, like every other race before there there is always someone yelling “go lady” or “girl power” or cheering in some form and it felt just like that, except it wasn’t, we were (are) still in the midst of a pandemic that had claimed so many unnecessary lives, caused so much financial upheaval, and torn at the very fabric of our society. So I think it was a culmination of things, plus having ran like 17 miles before maybe didn’t help my ability to control my emotions but then I cried most of the way up the hill and just like embraced it, like let it all out and it felt real good (or maybe it was the runner’s high).

I met Kevin at mile 21 and was very much looking forward to the processed turkey meat I made him haul out for that mile. I ate the food from him, lamented on how much I wished I was running on concrete since the soft snow had been my nemesis for the past 10 miles. Kevin packed up to ski back to the finish line, but it was rather anti-climatic as he never fully disappeared from my viewpoint for a few miles. I finished in around 8 hours and got 2nd (but the field was very small, although more than 2). The finish was pretty anticlimatic too, I almost tripped going across the finish line and then walked to the car and convinced Kevin to get takeout food from Alice’s Champagne Palace and that was it.

I took a few weeks off and putz around going back to skiing and lifting and then realized it was March and should probably start thinking about biking–got a little thrown that spring was here given how much snow was still around. I loosely started training and have some things in mind for what I want to accomplish this summer/fall but feel like it’s still too premature to state concretely that I’ll be doing these things, like I’ll somehow jinx it and will spend another summer grieving for time that keeps marching on. It’s been nice to get back on my bike, last summer I struggled without much structure in place, among other things, and I feel like my risk factor assessment was skewed in being able to properly assess what was required of me and others.

My academic training taught me a lot about how to prepare for pandemics but in all of those years studying I never once stopped to think about the day-to-day life of the people living through an outbreak– again law focuses on facts and not feelings. But now I realize how detrimental it is to neglect feelings and human behavior and I’m sure all the behavioral scientists are like yeah, duh. After the Exxon/Valdez oil spill a lot of researchers moved to the area, scientists, toxic marine biologists but also sociologist and anthropologists. We had never dealt with an oil spill of that magnitude and weren’t exactly sure how to respond, like after the crash happened nothing happened for 3 days, the oil just stayed in the water while people tried to figure out the best course of action for retrieval, the 4th day a huge storm moved in and displaced the oil up and down the coast of Alaska going from an isolated area to impacting many small communities that rely on the water for fishing and other ways of life. A class action law suit happened, with something over 30,000 plaintiffs but as my dad will point out, justice is not always swift with the lawsuit dragging out for more than a decade. The lawsuit got appealed all the way to Supreme Court and they did in my opinion a terrible job of articulating what punitive damages are for– basically reducing them from an initial award of $5 billion to then $2.5 billion at the Court of Appeals and finally to the Supreme Court saying that punitive damages for maritime related cases should not exceed compensatory damages which was an award of $200 million. So Exxon went from losing one year of profits in punitive damages to 1-2 days. But in exchange we’ve recovered 8% of the oil that was lost. Why did I just tell you this rather depressing information, well because in addition to this legal information, we have sociology and anthropology research that came out it too. I’ve often found the law does an awful job of telling the true realities, which makes sense because you want facts and not feelings making legal precedent but as I’ve written about before, law school only teaches case law and not the human emotions that go into walking into someone’s life on their worst day, as I often felt when walking into a patients room to complete a Will so they could be discharged into hospice and die. My story stops at completing their will and their story stops shortly after but there is no mention of the turmoil one goes through in having weeks to get their affairs in order before leaving this earth. So what did a lot of the behavioral research show after the Valdez oil spill, well it showed that communities come together when dealing with a natural disaster (i.e., disease outbreak.acts of God) but they get torn apart based on acts of humans. Basically technological disasters (acts of humans) were more psychologically stressful than natural disasters, n=177. In addition to the trauma response to the disaster, the community became divided because the longer it went on the more people were split on how it should have been handled- if it should even be litigated vs. just moving on. But there is no playbook for things like this, there is no trauma response class in schools, some people going through the legal system is healing, for other’s it’s putting salt in a wound they don’t want to have open anymore. This is all to say that I’m not sure this leaves us post-COVID, it’s been hellacious seeing our response and I often think of the 1918 Flu because we don’t have a lot of information on that, and some of that was in part because of the sedition acts but I think a lot of it was it was probably really traumatizing for individuals. Now we have all the information but will it get suppressed because of human behaviors. I don’t know but that’s what I spend time thinking about, how do we heal, how do I heal.

I did my first big ride since before COVID this past weekend and it’s the moment I’ve been waiting a year for where this desire finally trickled up and I couldn’t put it off any longer (kind of like finally blogging). Before it wasn’t there, I would think about doing long rides and going on treks but just couldn’t get over whatever barrier was there in my mind. And they weren’t barriers put up by biking but more about how society functioned during COVID which I don’t need to get into here but they have been identified and working through it with my therapist. But I knew the moment was here when I was met with either driving 100 highway miles or riding my bike and riding my bike seemed easier and more enjoyable. Which I know you’re like what, and I would have been like what all last year too. And I was amazed at how quickly my body settled into the rhythm of riding, sure I’ve done longish rides at this point but nothing really over 2-3 hours. It became mechanical again when to eat, when to drink, like I had never stopped doing it. I got done and finished at 95 miles, Kevin suggested I go ride 5 more for a century but I thought best not to over do it right out of the gate.

Why ride 5 more miles when you can go eat hot dogs

I guess my hope is that whatever you have endured this past year, whether COVID related or something else, whatever barriers you had that made you stop, take a break, and question everything that you know, that when you pick up you don’t just think about going back to where you were but are in a place where you get to think about how to make things better than they were before for yourself, your community, wherever you feel called. I also got sent this article this morning by a friend on how the pandemic mental wounds are still wide open, it helped me so maybe it will help you.

I’m headed to Valdez this weekend, it’s been on my list to go for a while and missed the opportunity to get there this winter. I have a lot more thoughts I feel like I need to get out but seems like the best thing for me is to ride 300 miles and see how this community healed after trauma. And in a way all these things tell me that I’m healing.

“If you insist on entertaining hopes you might as well be ambitious in your desires do not bother fantasizing about a return to how things were before you might as well be ambitious in your desires hope that things will be better than they were before” -Plague Poems

Photo by Rachel Heath and I hope everyone has a friend like her in their lives

Blackout

I find the darkness disorienting, or maybe that’s still the head cold I picked up from CX Nats. It wasn’t until I went home for Christmas and returned to Alaska that I realized just how dark it is. The mornings prove especially difficult when waking up any time between 6 am and 9 am casts the same amount of darkness. It seems like everyone’s day sleepily unfolds, including mine. Normal weekend activities that used to begin at 8 am are now leisurely attempted at 10 am because there is only a fraction of light so why rush. My sunlamp helps and most morning I sit in front of it for longer than is recommended before peeling myself away and getting cast back into the darkness for my drive to work. While my natural tendency is to fight disorder and chaos realizing the importance of just sitting and acknowledging these times of off-periods is just as important before taking the next step (you can thank my therapist for that one).

Some of my leisurely attempts at life these days can be attributed to my lack of structured training. After Nationals, I decided to take a minimum of 1 month off the bike, to give myself a mental break and physically recover from what seemed like the longest race season of my life. Mainly because of the bar exam but seemed like I started training last March to really only start racing in September. And while I feel like I have a high penchant for trainer rides, I’m still not quite ready to get back on. I know, I know, but what about a fat bike you ask? I’m not ready for that either, mostly because it’s been (what I’m told is) abnormally cold for Anchorage with temperatures in the negative. If I don’t have to get outside right now, then don’t have the motivation to bundle up for minus 10 and look like Randy from a Christmas Story. The first few times the temperature dipped it felt colder than was reported. In South Dakota I’ve experienced -35 but finally figured out because the lack of sunlight here there isn’t any additional radiation of warmth happening.

Since I haven’t been riding my bike and obviously not blogging what have I been doing with my time? Well, after CX Nats I took the first week completely off, mostly to try and kick my head cold but also to just give my body time to recover. I flew home the next week and embarked on my first physical activity which was just a short run around my parent’s house- leaving the house at 5:30 pm I was thrust into darkness but had at least been able to enjoy the sun for most of the day.

Molly, Wayne, and I hiked Black Elk on Monday, almost convincing Mary Clair to come with us but she bailed at the last minute– but at least Molly and I finally had someone to take photos of us.

We even got her the essentials to come hiking

Coming down from the summit we were along the ridge line when the sun seemed especially bright and I started singing “sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy.”

The next day I headed back up Black Elk with my dad, I wasn’t planning on it but wanted to see if I could get to the top in less than 50 minutes and the weather for the rest of the week meant that Tuesday was my only window. I was able to get to the top in 47 minutes and back down for a round trip of 1:27, leaving me 4 minutes off of the women’s (unofficial) fastest known time–I didn’t even think to check the times before I left and thought of going back up to see if I could take the 4 minutes off but set myself back with my cold that day. I took almost another week off from any exercise because of my cold, but was still able to spend plenty of time with family and friends.

Some new additions this year!
Why yes, Little Women is being remade…lolz

The trip back from South Dakota was a bit rough, having to drive down to Denver (thanks again, Barb!) and then fly back to Anchorage meant it was about 27 hours of travel time, which is about the same amount of time it takes to get to Viet Nam. Getting submerged into the dark, coldness has meant that I’ve been exploring more things inside, like swimming, bouldering, and a workshop on reduction poetry hosted by the museum.

Don’t worry Mom, only about a foot off the ground

Reduction poetry (or Blackout Poetry) is created by redacting words from already published work; it’s constraining and freeing because the words are there but requires you to be open to the possibility of what could be while also shifting your expectations as you go. Much like life you learn to let go of the expected outcome, go with the flow and almost count on getting interpreted by some guy asking where the bathroom is when you are on the cusp of a perfect sentence only to loose it and spend the next five minutes trying to recreate it. And no, I don’t know where the bathroom is–which I showcased later by accidentally walking into the men’s….

Reduction poetry is also a rabbit hole to go down, it’s most pronounced form is censorship with the works taking a political stance. But where does the line between editing and censorship for individuals exist? I thought it was a somewhat appropriate space to explore as I had just re-submitted a publication after suggested edits from the editors resulted in 580 revisions. And wondered how much of my voice or narrative got lost in the hopes of having my name in print.

It was 20-ish pages but still….

So now it’s been a month since Nationals, my mandatory period off the bike is over but still not inspired to get on a fat bike yet. Yes, I know I have that 100 mile race coming up in March but not looking or planning on being in peak shape for it mostly because my race season goals for next year are mostly focused for August-December so would rather not supernova this season where I burn super bright at the start and then explode for the rest of it. Plus, feel like as long as I do a few plate pushes and get on the bike 4-6 weeks out that’ll be enough, or it won’t.

Trying to find inspiration somewhere

I have been spending some time in the gym because (1) I don’t want to add too much winter weight, gotta keep my market value up; and (2) “exercise causes endorphins, endorphins makes you happy, and happy people don’t kill their husbands”. So until that sun comes out will be taking more than the recommended daily dose of Vitamin D and keeping my endorphins elevated.

I just felt like running #nottraining

Bikepacking 101 and Bears

“Oh, going on an adventure?” The REI cashier asked me as I handed him my bear spray. “Yeah, it’s called moving here.” I responded.

When I was in the process of moving I thought about bears and moose encounters but they seemed so far away (literally, more than 3,000 miles), but upon arriving here, I quickly realized that it’s real life and I’m playing the game for keeps. The first few days in Anchorage I didn’t really venture out, I mostly moved my things in and spent time in the garage painting furniture where my chance encounter with a bear was relatively low.

I also realized that I can’t stay in the garage this entire year smelling paint fumes. I saw a flier for a bikepacking course, including an overnight trip by Alaska Bike Adventure. Perfect, baptism by fire in bear country. I figured it would serve two purposes I would likely meet cool people who like to ride far on their bikes and it would introduce me to bikepacking in a way that was structured and comfortable to figure out if it’s something I’d want to further pursue (like when I sell my car and ride my bike home). I always felt like it was similar to alpine touring where it’s something I was interested in but not enough to want to spend money on it first to find out.

I’ve loosely thought about bikepacking. After I did White Rim, Sully got me some bags for Christmas, a seat bag and a top tube bag– apparently when you get off the trail at 1:30am with minimum headlights it warrants the discussion of setting up camp or to keep going. I’ve used the top tube bag for a few races but never the seatbag, because that would mean I’d have to camp. It’s not that I’m adverse to camping, I don’t really mind it but have never slept in a tent by myself, I don’t even own one. If I’m with someone else I’ll sleep in their tent or if I’m by myself I’ll sleep in my car, this is usually a safety thing and it’s definitely limiting in terms of how far you can explore without having to turn back for single day solo-trips.

Had to say goodbye to Tenzen

The bikepacking course was modeled after a NOLS course, we had 4 hours of instruction and then a 24 hour trip. I showed up for the first course and found out I was the only one who signed up– 2 guides for 1 Kate is a great ratio. We chatted for a bit at the start and they talked about the races and tours that they’ve done and I immediately recognized that I was going to be in very good hands. The first course we went over gear for the bike, looking at the design and application. From the function and weight of the gear it was apparent that the gear for the bike was racer/rider designed. We talked about what gear of my own to bring. They humored me by answering my most remedial questions from lycra vs. baggies to all things bears (like how close to the tent to pee is too close?).

The next course was me pulling out my bin full of gear and asking about this versus that option but at the end felt confident with my gear choices. The morning of I packed up my camelbak with my snacks, gloves, book, and light rain jacket and put my riding gear in the car. I met them at the trail head about an hour north of Anchorage. Being in the parking lot assuaged my fears a bit as kids were pouring out of cars–surely parents would not be sacrificing all of them to bears so figured the risk must be pretty low. We loaded up our bikes and split some more group gear and took off.

Here we go

The trail was mostly flat but I appreciated that when getting used to the gear being on my bike. I found that the front end actually felt more stable with the loaded weight. We rode about 10 miles out. We pulled off to a campsite and then rode through some trees to arrive at a gravel bar that was on the opposite end of the lake from where we started.

We scoured for a position to place our tents that would offer some shield from the wind and then they explained the bear triangle to me. Basically you position your cooking station and your food storage at the bottom end of the triangle with the tents as the third prong, all dependent on wind position. We unloaded our gear and set our tents up –I tried to played it cool, like I knew what I was actually doing when I in fact had no real idea because Sully usually set the tent up, but they even helped me with that.

We took our bikes and explored the trail a bit more until it dead ended at a public cabin that you can reserve (remembering that for later). Then we turned around and headed back to the campsite to cook dinner. First they showed me how to filter water (beyond just dumping iodine tablets in) and we got 10 liters of fresh glacial stream. Then we made tacos for dinner and chatted for a while because it had started raining and it seemed like 7pm was maybe a little too early to go to bed. Like I said they have a well of knowledge when it comes to long distance riding and racing, so we talked about everything from the race scene in Alaska to training to other races and routes to explore. They were maybe the perfect people to spend my first weekend in Alaska with.

We finally headed off to bed but tied our food up first. I stayed up and read for a bit, mostly to distract me from any thoughts about what my body would look like if I got mauled (do not google images that). The rain and wind had settled in which also provided enough of a white noise to cover any noises I might have been startled by. After the sun set, I soon realized I had to pee but I didn’t want to have to get up and go pee just in case there was a bear (plus it was raining). I spent time convincing myself I did not have to pee until I fell asleep for a bit but then woke up to the realization I still had to pee. I still wasn’t sure how close was too close to pee to the tent but didn’t want to go far so I came up with a plan; I would pee right next to the tent but then dump my extra water on top just to help neutralize the odor quicker. I moved quickly, kept my head down, and my bear spray close. I then dump all my water out but lost my pillow because I had been using my water bladder as a headrest– but worth it if I didn’t end up with a grizzly sitting on my body, right? After that I finally fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning we cooked an egg and hash brown scramble, and drank copious amounts of coffee while taking in the morning fog rolling out of the mountain valley.

We packed up our gear, I was grateful that the wind had pushed the rainstorm through in the night so I didn’t have to have most of the gear end up soggy in the stuff sacks. We headed back on the same trail but I swear it was more amazing heading back.

The mesmerism of the landscape tugged at me and on that trail I realized how easy it is for people to stay here [the tables might turn come December and no daylight].

We got to the end and unloaded our packs to divvy things up. I returned the bags but keep a new found sense of ‘hey, I just might be able to do this’. It wasn’t nearly as daunting as I had envisioned and like the idea of exploring multi-day routes. Still need to figure out the whole potentially sleeping outside by myself thing but baby steps. Through talking with the guides I’ve found that the community in Anchorage of endurance athletes runs deep, I gather it’s from the magnetism of the landscape that draws people to want to explore but with limited access (limited roads, trails) they pursue activities that give them that ability. I even left contemplating returning to Colorado next year to take on the Colorado Trail Race and see what I’m really made of beyond a single day event.

I told the guides that if any of my friends who ride come and visit I would probably just have them guide us on a trip like this (so now you’ll know what we’ll be doing when you visit and you can pack accordingly).

We also didn’t see any bears on the trip, which is good and bad. It feels like the early spring days when you start to venture outside and at some point you know you’re finally going to run into the first snake of the season. It’d be nice to just get it over with running into a bear or moose on the trail and being like see I survived, I can do this…unless I didn’t survive… which would a real bummer. I think I struggle with the wildlife because in our ever increasing controlled and manicured lives, they serve as a blunt reminder of how unpredictable and uncontrollable mother nature is. There are definitely things that I can control (like bear spray, proper food storage, bear bells) but in the end it can come down to simply bad timing. But then I remind myself that I’m much more likely to be attacked by some guy up here than any wildlife (Alaska is the #1 state for violence against women, South Dakota is #2). So maybe I’ll just carry bear spray on me at all times…

Some of it is just giving myself time to get comfortable in this space, I keep reminding myself I’ve learned to live with running into rattlesnakes, buffalo, mountain lions, getting caught in lightning storms, and reminding myself that it’s okay to be afraid and do it anyways.

Nature is pretty neat.
Plus views like this certainly help

I do start work this week so that will in all likelihood limit my penchant for merrymaking. My cyclocross bike did just arrive though so planning on racing this weekend (race my way into shape, heyo!).

If you’re interested in checking out the gear I used it was from Revelate Designs. I would definitely recommend if you’re in the market for bike gear. If you want to visit Alaska and plan your own bike adventure I can’t speak highly enough of Grande and Dusty at Alaska Bike Adventures!

Trust the Process

After graduation I drove back home with my mom. It seemed with each state we crossed into my spirits lifted a bit more–I think it’s directly correlated to the lack of humidity, the unfettered sunlight, and the increased elevation. I had this professor in undergrad that I think of often. She was a corporate lawyer, making a ton of money, getting in a town car at 7am and returning home at 10 pm and she talked about how from the outside people viewed her as money-driven and power hungry but internally that wasn’t what she valued at all. She quit the law and got a PhD and is now a philosophy professor. I don’t tell you this because I’m already jumping ship and wanting to quit the law. More that when I got the end of the semester I didn’t feel like my internal values had been externally represented. It created a weird crisis of conscious; who am I, how to I define myself and how are others defying me, are they even defying me, does it matter, should it matter? I don’t know.

I ended up going home for a few days to unpack/repack/see Tenzen and just decompress.

Which do you think we got first?

I did a bit of riding but also mostly took days off, like three days in a row, and nothing happened, the world kept going, it was slightly reassuring. I had hoped to get to Gunnison, CO for a race but the logistics of it all just meant that I started studying for the bar a few days early.

This is about where I turned my ride around in SD

I moved into a place in Laramie, Wyoming to study. Pretty random spot but I had a few requirements: (1) access to a law school for studying, (2) access to trails, (3) not humid, and (4) low snake count. I initially planned on Boulder or Denver but was slightly worried I would let myself get distracted by friends who want to ride or grab dinner and then 5 nights of not studying I would be freaking out. So I looked a little further north and Wyoming is pretty perfect, it checks all the boxes and I have no friends so plenty of time to study. I should say it’s not completely random, my mom has deep roots to her alma mater and my sister just graduated from here. It’s worked out so far and I actually really like Laramie, it even snowed last week and I was still happy.

After this semester I realized my approach to studying for the bar needed to radically change from my approach to law school. It’s odd because while law school is suppose to prepare you for the bar, and it certainly does, I actually find myself drawing more on my endurance training to approach it. It’s long, 2 months of mostly 8+ hours of studying every day; it’s easy to compare yourself to others, but just like training everyone is individual in their approach and what works best for them doesn’t necessarily translate to you, it’s easy to think you’re overtraining or undertraining but never hitting that sweet spot. Mentally it seems like you’re just going for a PR; not to set a course record. Plenty of people have hit the marks you want, this isn’t uncharted territory. Occasionally you’ll think you know nothing and your whole approach is going to set you up for failure–similar to when your training for 100 miles and 3 weeks before you crack on a ride, cry near the side of a trail for 20 minutes convinced yourself you are the slowest human being ever to sign up for the race, once you pull yourself out of that hole you realize you’ve done what you’re capable of and go race your bike.

Totally how I look studying for the bar…

That’s not to say I don’t hear the quirks of my professors when reading a certain rule or subject, I do, and am slightly amazed at how much I can recall being talked about. I half joked with my dad how much more I would remember if I hadn’t stuck an extra year in for my master’s.

I’m not going to get much into the specifics of actually studying or where I’m at in case someone prepping for the bar is reading this and gets overwhelmingly stressed by my approach. I will say it’s going okay, I’m finding my rhythm and find that I actually like studying (probably why I’m thinking about a PhD). I also know that at some point I’ll cry and be convinced I’ll fail–which probably just means I’ll need a snack.

5 minute pedal from my door

Two other reasons for Laramie, it has a mid-week race series that pending studying I might jump in on; and it’s close to Colorado which means that while racing is much more selective this summer it’s close enough that it’s feasible. Last summer I felt that every weekend I was jumping into the closest race I could find, whereas this summer I find that I’m having to be much more selective. Instead of chasing points and podiums, I feel like I’m targeting ones that are filled with community.

The first of maybe only two races on the docket at the moment I did today, the Beti Bike Bash. I had a friend text me about a week ago telling me he would be there and I responded that I’d be studying and no way. I got an email telling me to register this past Wednesday and previewed my study schedule for the rest of the week, I could work ahead this day and be able to get work done before and after the race. But also realized that my mental state is so much better when I’m riding and racing, so signed up.

The race was pretty hot and the course is super fast. The past times I’ve raced I’ve ended up on the podium but have also usually been racing for at least a month or two at this point, not the first race of the season. The race started and I was able to get a good position but on the first initial climb found myself getting passed by quite a few people. So climbing legs aren’t exactly there yet. The race format is four laps of four miles each with three punchy climbs each lap. I burned a few matches on the first lap trying to keep up with people and with the heat just put myself into a hole that I could not recover from, but I kept pedaling and tried to focus on the person in front of me which only made me realize that they were slowly pulling away. I finished the race 7th out of 8th, and emailed my coach after, “normally would be super bummed by that performance but was just happy to finally be racing.”

Who knew I could look so happy getting almost last!

But like I said, not after podiums or points this year, I went to the BBB because it’s an all women’s mountain bike race and because of that unlike almost any other race I’ve done. It’s filled with this electric, supportive, community that is enthusiastic that women are racing. Plus it helps that I know the Yeti Betis who put it on and am always so appreciative to see them and catch up.

I figured it would give me the mental recharge I needed to carry me for the next month or so. I feel like it definitely did. Plus they have a drag category, which my friend Parker didn’t decide till he was volunteering at the race to do, luckily he wore my shorts better than I do–not sure if that’s what’s meant by the hashtag ‘More Girls on Bikes’ but provided endless entertainment.

Any other season I would be pretty bummed about my placing, but after Nationals I realized that this year would be mostly spent as a developmental year so feel like any race that I can get under my belt is good training. That’s certainly helped my focus and has taken some pressure off of it. I was also reminded when I was riding in Boulder just how far I’ve come. I was riding Walker and I had to do some intervals so I decided to go up the trail that I usually go down. I had only gone up it once before, six years ago-that ride was also my first time up Flagstaff and wanted to get a big ride in because my first Leadville was 3 weeks away. Sully suggested it and gave me various versions of doing it. I picked the worse one. I did Flagstaff and then went right on Walker and instead of doing it as an out and back did the whole loop. I carried my bike down the portal (stairs) and got back on the trail to do the two miles uphill. I looked at my garmin– it was something like 18 miles in 3 hours. At this point I was severely calorie deficient and I cried and I cried and I cried on the side of the trail. With this performance there was no way I would finish Leadville, I wouldn’t even make it through the first checkpoint. Luckily, I had no service and no option but to eventually pull myself out of it and start walking. I’m not even sure I got back on my bike at all on the trail. I just remember hiking up that 2-mile section and the trees rustling with my failures. Its remained in my mind the darkest section of trail in Boulder. In the six years since, I’ve never attempted to go up it. I always assumed it would take at least 30-40 minutes and there is a nice bail out option after going down where you can ride the road back around to the parking lot. That day, I finished the ride and it was 35 miles, 5+ hours and over 7,000 feet of climbing (which made me feel a little better). Fortunately I had dinner that night with other cyclists who told me it was a hard ride and 3 weeks later I finished Leadville well under the cutoff.

Recently, I wanted to ride down this trail (because it’s super fun to go down) and was a little pressed for time so the only logical thing was to do intervals up it, I had six so hopefully that would get me to the top. I got to the top in two and had to keep re-descending down to go back up again. When I finished I couldn’t believe that in the six years I had never once attempted it because it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had made it up in my mind. Why am I even writing about this, especially because those not from Boulder probably have no idea of these references. It made me realize that too often, I am comparing myself to who I was yesterday, last week, last month, last season. It made me stop and think that if I had told myself when I was crying on the side of the trail the things I would accomplish in the next six years, she would still probably be on that side of the trail out of shock. So instead of comparing myself to who I was last season, I think it’s important to remember where I started, and while often it can feel like a step back, as long as I keep moving, that’s progress.

Climbing out–this time no tears!

The American Birkebeiner

My first year in Boulder, I lived in a house with mostly engineers–and if you want an idea of what that experiences was like I suggest watching The Big Bang Theory–I’ll give you a hint, I was Penny.

While many hilarious antidotes came out of this living situation, so did some learning moments like the Fermi Paradox, Schrodinger’s Cat, and most importantly when throwing stars come out it’s really best to go to bed.

I think mostly about Schrodinger’s Cat at the moment (and quick recap for those at home: it’s this theory that if you place a cat and something that could kill the cat in a box and sealed it, you would not know if the cat was dead or alive until you opened the box, so that until the box was opened, the cat was both “dead and alive”– or you can watch it here–just like Wayne explained it to me). I think about it because I’m still waiting to hear back from anything and all those decisions are in this box where in theory I have something lined up for next year and also don’t have anything lined up for next year (and I’m sure I botched that analogy- but you get the point).

When your roommate gets you.

February was mostly this state of anxiety because one of the applications said they send out responses in Feb/March so most of February was spent refreshing my email. At the end of the month my professor told me to relax that it probably wouldn’t show up till after spring break (that would have been helpful a month ago).

It was so much that I thought about pulling the plug on the Birkie to just sit at home and wallow in my state of being, while also constantly refreshing my email. Instead, my roommate kindly pointed out that I like to exercise for long periods of time, there was a group of us going and all staying in a cabin, and she made me homemade granola for trail snacks. She made excellent points and so we set out on an 8-hour car trip to Haywood, Wisconsin.

1 dog, 3 people, 2 sets of skis, a million snacks

There were six of us staying at the cabin, with 2 doing the Korte (the 18 mile version); 2 doing the Birkie (the 31 mile race); and 2 along to crew and provide support (really the hardest job). It was nice because the 2 doing the Korte raced on Friday so we were able to go through the production of getting to the start line. Which involves parking in one lot and getting bused to the start line. We saw them off at the start and took the bus back to our car to drive back into Haywood to see them at the finish line in approximately 2-4 hours. I had some work that needed finished so headed to the public library (seriously, public libraries are soooo amazing!). I got back to the finish line just in time and when I greeted Ann at the end she said, “I wouldn’t want to have to ski another 12 miles- ha!”. Gulp.

Ann finishing the Korte!

The two of us racing the Birkie did packet-pickup where I bought another pair of gloves, convinced that the two pairs I had brought would not be optimal (I tell ya, you get caught in a blizzard during one mountain bike race without adequate gloves and it’ll leave a mark). Afterwards, we both picked their brains on a little more course information and race tactics but still slightly unnerved about what was going to happen. It felt different than any other long distance race I had done because my longest ski at this point (pretty inadequate snow conditions) was about 10 miles. And some of it was worrying about how to dress, balancing higher nutritional needs, and generally having no idea how my body would preform after 10 miles. After a few outfit changes and packing different clothes entirely for the start I okay about starting.

Still unsure of this whole skiing business

The morning was smooth getting there, the other guy doing it had a start time 15 minutes before me so I was knew if I just followed his plan I would be there on time. Megan and Jeff came to the start which was nice so they could grab our things and I could wait until the last minute to take my jacket off. They have staging gates (which really reminded me of a cattle branding) they herd you into one and then when one wave goes off release you to the next holding area until you get to the start. I jumped in right before they got to the start when you run for position and have to start in a track. If this makes no sense to you, I assure you it made even less sense to me at the start of the race. Because I had never done this race I started in the very last wave and while I had a good starting position before the gun went off by the time I crossed the start line (less than 30 seconds later) I was in second to last place. I looked around and everyone had left, there was one guy to the side of me who was literally leap frogging in his skis to gain position and boy did he. I blame him because I was so memorized by this form that I just stood there shell shocked and then realized I needed to go.

The last wave start

Right from the start the course went uphill, it reminded me of baby turtles making their way back to the water from the sand, everyone’s skis were splayed out and we all neatly formed four lines. The first few miles were pretty uneventful. Around mile 4 we were stopped at the top of a hill where someone had crashed and needed a medic (they were able to get up but the people were apprehensive to go down until everyone was on the side). I looked at my watch…oh wow, it’s been an hour. Now, I’m not good at math but knew I had 8 hours to finish and in my mind that didn’t really calculate to enough time to do so. I turned to a guy next to me who had a bib indicating he had done it multiple times, “how strict is the cut-off, will they pull us at the aid station?” He told me not to worry as long as I didn’t take 20-30 minutes at each aid station. I thought that seemed do-able but also have found myself laying on cardboard slabs at aid stations for well over an hour so really it was anyone’s guess.

I made it through the first 10 miles feeling okay. As soon I passed the 10-mile mark it was like my body realized this was the furthest it had ever skied and started to hurt. I made sure to keep eating as best I could but also knew I was behind on nutrition. I found the whole carrying a ski-pole, having to take off gloves and unpack some food, made me less wanting to invest in eating.

Snow nice to see people on the course (get it?)

I saw Jeff and Megan around mile 15 and stopped for a bit to chat and eat some more food. It was maybe the last time I felt good on the course and was entering a somewhat delirious stage. I went downhill (not a pun, there weren’t a lot of downhills) pretty fast after that and entered a pretty dark place for the next 11 miles. It was totally food related, the course was a bit crowded now with the two styles (classic and skate) merging onto one, but in my mind people were working together to keep me boxed in (yeah they definitely weren’t). One guy kept sprinting by and then halfway up an uphill would just stop to rest and turn his skis to take up a good chunk of the course. In my moment of wanting to ski over his skis to show him how inconvenient of a place it was to stop, I instead opted to eat some granola which helped.

The one thing I noticed is that when biking long distances, I definitely get tired and enter similar mindsets but my body knows what to do. It has ridden enough to keep turning the pedals over (like the MDH when all I wanted to do was sleep, my legs at least knew what to do). With skiing, there was no familiarity in the muscle memory, so each movement required conscious thought to keep propelling myself forward.

I had been leap-frogging with Judy from TDA most of the day and was also nice when I saw her on course, we both joked how we were ready to start biking after this with it being both our first Birkie. In the last few miles she pulled ahead of me and figured I would see her after the race was done. In the last four miles, I caught my second, really my first wind. I felt like I was able to somehow get into a groove, the snow was less slushy and more crunchy/icy, which was similar to what I was used to skiing in South Bend. I even got my sense of humor back, when one spectator said we were looking good another participant yelled, “you are definitely lying there is no way we look good.” I poked back, “speak for yourself”. The last two miles contain a lake crossing (1 miles) and then a passage through town over a bridge and down main street. The lake route was groomed and I felt like I could really move–and I did, I put in my fastest mile of the day going over the lake around 7:30.

I came into town and up the bridge, I was a little concerned about going down because of how many people would see you crash but was able to navigate it successfully. I came up the main street and saw Judy stopped right before the finish line, I caught up to her as she picked up her glove. Woooohooo! We made it and skated across the line together.

Skating in with Judy

Ann greeted me with warm clothes and boots- the other part of the group was with Aaron who had finished only minutes before me. We then went to the beer tent, and Megan bought me a sausage to get some real food and because I had no cash. We all talked about various aspects of the day and then went back to the cabin to cook dinner and decompress.

Megan was right, it was a fun weekend, despite having to ski for 6 hours, it was nice to get out of South Bend and hangout in the woods for a few days. I took a few days off without too much soreness only in my shoulders, before I started biking again.

Not a bad place to spend a long weekend

While I’m still waiting to hear back on applications, March seems to be so busy with deadlines that I’ve mostly stopped constantly refreshing my email and focusing more on what I have to get done. I won a free entry into the TommyKnocker 10 in Silver City, New Mexico this weekend. I changed my flights to reroute through Phoenix for break, but earlier this week realized that I just didn’t have the mental energy to race for 10 hours. So I pulled back and decided to stay in Phoenix for the Cactus Cup, which has a short-track, 40 miler, and enduro. I’m currently signed up for all three but still waiting for my bike to show up so might just end up doing the 40-miler. I definitely was not planning on starting my season this year, but also realize that when I’m studying for the bar I’ll do little to no racing so might as well even if I’m not in racing shape (12 days on the bike won’t do too much for fitness levels).

I’ve also been hitting up therapy again, because as my friend Gen pointed out on her blog, exercise is a great tool, but not really a substitute for actual therapy. Also realizing that anxiety and excitement mask themselves in the exact same physical symptoms, so now just tricking myself to be excited at the endless opportunities that are available instead of anxious about none of them being available.

Maah Daah Hey 100

The morning of the Maah Daah Hey 100 I surprised myself with how well everything came together. The chaos getting to North Dakota (shipping a bike from CO after I had left– thanks again, Chris! Driving from Indiana to North Dakota, somehow only forgetting my headlight, which Barb was able to save me with an extra one!) settled and I felt ready, excited, and nervous. One of my friends put me in touch with the 3x time winner, Kelly–thanks again, Amy! I was able to pick his brain about the trail, mechanicals, and even what time zone it started in. He was very generous with his accrued knowledge. He gave me a heads up about the third section, to mentally prepare for 30 miles and not 25. He also talked about what an amazing race it was and how I would probably surprise myself. He gave me enough confidence that I felt excited but not so much so that I still wasn’t nervous about what I was about to embark on. My plan was to go as hard as I could for first 50 miles and then go from there…I mean I had 18 hours to get there so what’s the worst that could happen?

I pulled into the campground with my parents and started going through my routine.

bug spray .JPEG
The first of many sunscreen sprays for the day

I noticed that my front tire was a little squishy and figured I had a slow leak somewhere but it would hold for at least 18 hours, this logic was based on nothing other than optimism. I chatted with a few other riders which also helped to take the edge off. The staging area is self-selected depending on how fast you think you’ll be. I saw the first girl a few rows back from Kelly and slotted myself behind her. She turned around and said, “if you’ve won your age-group at Leadville you should definitely be in front of me…sorry I stalked everyone online.” I laughed and told her I had no idea how this was going to go so was going to stick to my spot.the start .jpg

The race started quickly, I moved up to get a good position for the climb as I didn’t want to have to maneuver around too many people. I missed the lead group but managed to get in a pack of 4. I knew from talking to others that the first climb was about 3 miles and 800 feet up. I stuck on the back of the group until about half way up I realized I could get around them and put more distance in between me and the others.

I got to the top and it released into–maybe the only flat section of the day. It was also the only two-track of the day and I saw that my front wheel looked a little low. Hmmm, it’s probably fine but just in case took my phone out (also probably the only place I got service) and texted my dad, “bring my pump to aid station”. I rolled through the first check point at mile 10 and shouted, “does anyone have a floor pump” and drew blank stares. One woman said she did but at her car down the hill, I passed, it wasn’t that low, and turned the corner. I shouted it once again and a lady grabbed one from the back of her car. I popped it on, 20 psi…hmmm I definitely had at least 24 in it this morning, pumping it up. Just make it to mile 25 and get more air.

At mile 14 I heard a noise I couldn’t place right away but my subconscious recognized it as it sent chills down my spine. I immediately searched for the culprit and saw it right in front of me, my front tire was shooting sealant out (bet you thought I ran into a snake). Nooooooo! I hopped off and spun my front wheel like I was on the Price is Right trying to get a dollar. Please catch, please catch, please catch as I kept spinning. It did and fell silent again. Ohhfta that was close. I hopped back on and started to catch the guys who passed me.

My brain quickly went through scenarios of what I should do. This happened to me once before at my very first 50 miler, I got a puncture, got it to seal and rode it for the next 27 miles to get 2nd. The next day when the tire was holding air Sully told me, “you did the right thing, ride it until you have to put a tube in.” Okay I told myself, ride it until you have to put a tube in it and then go from there. But here’s the thing, under no circumstances did I want to have to put a tube in. Given the terrain I figured if I did put a tube in it would puncture again and would need to be replaced at least 1 if not 2 more times. Less than ideal. 

I constantly fluctuated from trying to ride gingerly, including holding my breath at moments of peril when I thought it would go again to might as well go hard while I can. It blew again around mile 18 and I pulled off to the side and spun it again, and again, and again. And then in a genius ‘past Kate’ moment I realized that I had my hand pump with me (I didn’t want to use a CO2 in case I needed it for a tube). I pumped more air into the tire and spun it again. It was at this stopping point that a woman passed me. I mentally took note and finished as quickly as I could to keep her in sight.

I wasn’t sure my strategy now, I wanted to try to stay close enough that I could be within striking distance if something happened but also with 80 miles left in the race had no idea how it would play out. We traded positions once again and came into the first aid station together. I found my parents and a volunteer filled my camelbak while my parents restocked me with maple syrups, peanut butter, and bananas. I checked my tire again and put chain lube on.

fixing my wheel
Almost took my finger off in one of those spins…

The tire was still sitting around 25 psi. I saw the woman lead out of the aid station and the volunteer was still fumbling trying to figure out how to close my bladder. I took a breath as this wasn’t going to make or break any position. Number one rule I have when racing: Don’t be an asshole to the volunteers, no seriously, they are amazing. I told him to screw it on and then jokingly asked, “is this your first rodeo?” He said yes, I told him he was doing great and he would have plenty more to practice with during the day. I headed out knowing I would meet my parents at the next aid station mile 50.

For the first few miles out of aid one I was able to keep the woman in my sights. I really tried to not let the mechanical get in my head. I reminded myself that it’s still a long race and that anything can happen, and that I’ve benefited from other’s misfortunes before- it’s part of racing. I prayed to anyone or anything that would listen asking them to hold the seal on the tire and get me to aid 50.

At the start of the race one woman was talking how her husband (who was racing) showed her a video of Devil’s Pass and she couldn’t even watch it because of the heights and exposure. My mom was like, do you know where that is? I responded, no, I don’t even know what that is while laughing.  I found it on this section.

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Image from: Maah Daah Hey Trail Association

There was a sign followed by a cattle gate and it pretty much turned into a narrow ridge that has dropoffs on either side. I hit the ridge line and starting singing very loudly, not even coherent words, just a automatic response to the build up of fear in my body.  Luckily, no one was around as my voice leaves much to be desired. I got to the other side and was greeted again by a cattle gate. I stopped and figured I might as well take a picture but just as I did my tire burst.

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The only photo I got from the day!

I did the same thing as before, spin, spin, spin, air, spin, spin, spin. It seemed to do the trick.

A few miles later and close to the 50 mile aid station I was greeted with the Little Missouri River crossing. I hoisted my bike and shouldered it across. The passage had smooth rock on the bottom and the water hit just below my knees offering a brief reprieve from the heat that had began to coat the land. The aid station was a short climb away and on the climb up my tire blew again. Noooo, seriously?!? I got it to catch again and rode into the aid station asking if there was a mechanic there. I put more air in and got it to catch, and then not catch, and then catch, and then not catch, and had a volunteer spinning it while another lubed the chain and I debated putting a tube in. My parents were rockstars and switched out my bottles gave me maple syrups, peanut butter, bananas, and potatoes.

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The only time I ever eat pickles…100 mile races

I left the aid station but didn’t feel super confident so asked my parents to meet me at the next check point, Mile 57. As I was about to turn onto the trail another rider said, “great riding” I didn’t hear him but saw that his wife had a Santa Cruz bike on her car, “Is that a Tallboy with non-boost wheels?!?” Homegirl was dessssssperate. They both looked at me and then I explained what was happening and thought maybe she would switch wheels with me (ha!). It was a 27.5″ wheel so no luck but then her husband who is racing goes, “do you want some more sealant”? “Oh my gosh you have some, that would be amazing”. Here’s the thing, I knew if it blew again at some point I would be out of sealant and would have no choice but to put a tube in. His wife pulls out this tool box with a valve-core remover, a syringe for the sealant, and then it dawns on me…Ohhhh this is what people have if they don’t have extra wheels or a mechanic on course, huh…I’ll have to remember this. They were quick and efficient putting a full shot of sealant into my tire and pumping it up to 30psi (I told them to just in case it blew again I would have extra air in there). I thanked them profusely and offered beers at the finish line (and #42 if you’re reading this please send me your address so I can send you all the beers!). I took off with more confidence in my tire. It did blow one or two more times but it was more when the sealant monster would fall off and pull what was cauterized with it before it could reseal. There was enough sealant in there that I didn’t have to get off my bike at all.

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All the snacks!

I checked in with my parents at Mile 57. It was still at 30 so the small blows weren’t really anything. I got another potato and said I would see them at Mile 80. Kelly’s info really helped me prepare for this section and I was grateful. There were two more checkpoints after that. The first one I stopped at and there were so many women there that I said, “this is the most women I have seen all day.” They were all part of this team that were either crewing or racing, they gave watermelon and filled up my camelbak at both checkpoints. I was feeling really good going into aid 3. I met my parents, grabbed more syrup, another potato, and a fresh bottle. I told my mom, “Uh, I think I’m going to ride back to town now” she looked at me, “you’re quitting?” “Oh, no I’m just going to ride this last segment.”  So maybe I wasn’t feeling that fresh and the heat was starting to get to me.

Soon after leaving Aid 3 my stomach started to resist anything and everything. I was able to force down another maple syrup to try to get some energy but was having none of my drink mix. I kept trying to force water down.  I went by the first check point and the workers asked if I needed water and I literally just stared at them because I couldn’t comprehend what that meant. I kept pedaling and forcing down the water.

getting a push off
Just a few more pushes and I’ll be there…

The last 15 miles were the hardest miles I have ever done in my life. I was so tired, I could barely keep my eyes open and even tried to closed them twice for extended periods, “I’m just resting my eyes” really only works when you’re lying on the couch. I convinced myself that was a really good way to get another brain injury. I also debated taking a nap, I had 6 hours till the cut-off so I could take a little nap but then what if the lady in 3rd is close to me and I’m napping. Then I thought maybe I would just lie on the side of the trail that way whoever the next rider was would wake me because they would think I was injured or dead, also not a great plan. Finally, I convinced myself that getting through the last few miles would be the quickest way to take the longest nap. I settled on that reasoning and kept pedaling. I topped my bottle off with fresh ice water at the last check point.

I made it to the final 5 miles that I had pre-ridden the day before. Now I should mention the cattlegates, they are spring loaded so you lift from one side, it fans up, you go under, and it releases back down. Now I have been doing one pull-up so you can gauge my strength. There are probably 12-17 on the course. There were maybe 3 in the last 8 miles, which let me tell you were a struggle. I wondered at some point if I would just have to wait for someone to show up to open it. At the beginning of the race I would hop off, bend over, lift it up, wheel my bike under, release, and hop back on. Well, by the last few miles I would hop off, squat down, load my legs, use all my strength to thrust it over my head, hold it up, wobble underneath, while praying I didn’t release it onto the back tire, and after a moment of sheer panic thinking my bike would get smashed, get back on and ride away.

After getting through the last cattleguard I was somewhat relieved that I just had to pedal home now. I got back on and started down the first little descent when I suddenly saw the first snake of the day. At mile 103, I just stopped and went, “excuse me sir, I’d like to pass, would you be so kind to get off the trail.” Yeah, I was fully delirious at this point because I definitely did my best Mary Poppins impression. I wasn’t even scared I had no energy for any kind of emotion, it was like all my adrenaline was gone, there was no flight or fight response. But he obliged and slithered off the trail. “Thank you!” And I continued on my way.

finish line photo
Okay, so maybe my parents could improve on the finish line photos hahaha

I hit the last section being the only pavement of the day and went under the finish banner. I immediately pulled off to the side, got off my bike, and laid down.  I laid there for a while, taking everything in, like when you do savasana in yoga to absorb all the good juju. I laid there as everyone talked around me swapping stories of the day with me interjecting when I could muster. I remember thinking this is what it is all about. nap at the end .jpg I finally got up and talked to the woman who beat me. She was an incredibly strong rider, having done the whole thing on flat pedals which convinced me that even without my mechanicals she would have beat me.

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When you finish just in time for the awards ceremony…haha

Am I going to do it again? Ohhhh you betcha! I’m honestly a little sad that I spent so many years doing Leadville because this race and community is so amazing. Every rider that passed me when I was dealing with my mechanicals offered to help, every volunteer was so great on course, my parents also put in a long day and even drove my car through a river to get to an aid station.

I for the life of me can’t figure out why this race isn’t sold out every year. The terrain is incredible, it reminded me of the Grand Canyon, where there is just so much life and levels of vegetation–definitely not what I was expecting spending time in the South Dakota Badlands. And it’s 99% singletrack. Next summer I’ll be studying for the bar so was thinking of doing it as a team with 50 miles each (yes, you read that as an open invitation), and hoping the next year to possibly go after the women’s course record. My time was 12:45 and I had 44 minutes of stop time, for a comparison at Leadville I usually have 8 minutes of stop time.

Here’s the thing, I’ve never had a race crack the ‘Top 5 Experiences on My Bike’ list but this one definitely did.

with age group
Taken right before I ate a whole chicken.

with barb
Barb won her division in the 25-mile distance

with parents
My parents should definitely win an award for how willing they are to jump into my adventures!

“That’s what the trail means. You can go out there by yourself and cry and nobody will hear you except the spirits, and they’ll help you.” -Mr. Baker.