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

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!

Cracked.

Bar exam is done. Even though it was three weeks ago it seems like a bad dream at this point. And hopefully it stays that way, pending results. I had big plans post-bar. Standard go 100 mph right after with racing 50 miles on the Maah Daah Hey followed by a world tour with stops in Amsterdam, Greece, and New York. I even waited to register for the MDH until after the bar to make sure I was feeling up for it. I was until Friday when the logistics of getting there and racing were too much for my brain to handle. I felt like my brain was in overtraining mode and there wasn’t much to do about it. I pulled the plug on the MDH which I kept trying to convince myself if I could just get to the start then I would be okay, but even that proved to be too much. I though if I didn’t race I would be in better shape to head off to Amsterdam but just felt exhausted and coupled with the surprise fact of needing to find a new car the overseas trip seemed better suited for February when I need an escape from the cold (more on that later). After the plans got scrapped I quickly texted a friend who lived in the most remote area within a days drive: Cimarron, CO. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either but he works at a private ski resort near the wilderness with plenty of place to stay and the best perk of all: no service.

On my way I stopped and camped on Monarch Pass and rode the trail the next day with Sully. I hadn’t ridden that trail since 2013 but sections of it still felt familiar. We had the added bonus of getting to backtrack when my phone fell out of my pocket on a nice 4-mile section of descent. We liked it so nice we did it twice. For going from riding about 4 hours a week as the bar got closer to riding 4 hours a day my body handled it like a champ. Fortunately there wasn’t a lot of navigation required and my brain didn’t have to do much thinking, and if it did I just defaulted to Sully’s plan.

I didn’t do much in Cimarron, which was the plan. I rode for about 3 hours one day just taking in the views and avoiding bears. I even started reading a book for fun, it’s on the pursuit of endurance and stories about the FTKs on the Appalachian Trail but still not a law textbook so….

I attempted a trail run one morning with my friend before he headed to work but he put me to shame, I threw up twice on the trail (early morning + copious amounts of wine the night before = worth it for the views). It’s been a while since my body had to rally liked that but was a nice reminder that the thrill of adventure is still in there.

If only I had opened my eyes to see this view...

After a few days I headed to Leadville to see some friends and help crew for those racing the 100 mile race. I was surprised at how many people I knew who were racing but the endurance scene is pretty small and Leadville seems to be THE race so kind of made sense. I had two friends who I was able to see finish and had the most inspiring rides, so much that I left debating coming out of retirement.

Pro tip: wear a bright kit so everyone can see you coming

One friend took an 1:20 off her time and finished 6th over all for women. Watching her in the second half of the race it seemed like she was getting stronger as each mile passed. We had shared a podium a few years back; when her Leadville quest was just beginning and mine was ending. After the finish she asked me, “doesn’t it make you want to come back and go for sub-9”, which tempting but putting it on the back burner for now. My other friend finished just past the 12- hour mark, which put her within the finishing time of 13-hours but missed the cut-off for the belt buckle. She got hailed on in the last 10-15 miles and kept going even though she knew that she wouldn’t hit the time mark. I waited at the finish line thinking about how easy it is to keep going when you’re having a good day on the bike but it’s so much harder to not quit when enough little things add up to make it a long day. And there are two options: keep pedaling or quitting. But somewhere deep inside tells you to keep moving forward, speaking from experience the roller coaster of emotions makes quitting such a tempting option. I think I might have curled up at the last aid station and called it a day if I was her. It’s such a mental game and sometimes the most wicked.

With Leadville it’s deceivingly difficult, on the surface it seems like just a long race: not super technical and only a few long climbs. During the race it becomes a whole different story; multiple riders, altitude (which can impact breathing, digestion issues), equipment failures, and body failures can all contribute— plus it’s just a long-ass time to be on your bike without an issue (or multiple ones). It makes it even harder because for most (myself included) it’s usually the A race of the season and all the more devastating when the work leading up to it doesn’t come to fruition in a result representing that. Watching her cross the finishing line was such an impactful moment, you could almost feel the determination resonating off of her. So this is all to say that Leadville was/is off the table but I haven’t fully shelved the idea of returning after watching those women kickass.

But because I didn’t race, I had time to check out some sections of the Colorado Trail around Hope Pass and Mt. Elbert. I’m never disappointed by the sections of the CT I’ve ridden, which is because they aren’t the hike-a-bike sections that people remain traumatized from. I keep toying with the idea of doing the race or just getting a group of friends together to casually ride (probably with a support vehicle).

I was then convinced by some other friends who hadn’t raced as well to hike Mt. Massive outside of Leadville.

Views + Friends like these

It would have been my first 14er but because of our late start and my plans for dinner that night I had to ditch the summit a few hundred feet below and head back down. The views were completely captivating, I started to see the appeal of hiking up at that point.

Okay, this is nice.

I finally left Leadville and headed to Rollinsville and camped at Moffit Tunnel, with only one disturbance in the night coming from the train rolling through. The ride that I had planned to do was on my bucket list for a while. It’s an old railway to Winter Park and it seemed like all my friends had ridden it this summer while I was studying for the bar. It has trestle bridges which always look so cool in the photos. I took off in the morning and rode the 12-13 miles up to where cars can’t access and you have to hike over a blocked off tunnel.

If you aren't hiking, you aren't biking

After the tunnel there was some exposure to the side and the wind had picked up so hugged the hillside as I proceeded on. I got to the first trestle and stopped. In the pictures that I had seen I hadn’t really thought about going over them, kind of thought they would be almost buttressed into the hillside. Instead they seemed free standing with exposure on both sides. The wind was also really strong, and while I’m not at my racing weight still felt like I could be blown off the hillside at any minute.

I got off my bike and crouched/waddled across the first trestle to get my center of gravity lower and to make myself more stable in case a gust of wind did come up. I made it across and then walked to the next one. It seemed narrower than the first one (if that was possible). I debated for a while about going on but I’m pretty terrified of heights and had already ridden a while, had no service, and had only loosely given someone my riding plan so if I botched walking across well end of my story. I turned around and scampered back over the first one and over the tunnel closure.

I was only about 2-3 miles from the top when I slashed my tire. I looked at my watch, only 12 miles back to the car, not a lot of traffic on this road so I worked to patch it with a left over food wrapper and a tube. Man, for dating a mechanic for 5 years, I do not have great skills when it comes to repairing bikes. I think it took me a good 5-7 minutes just to wrestle the tire off the rim and another 5-7 minutes to put the wrapper in the right spot and hold it there while putting the tube in, and another 5-7 minutes to pump the tire up because I didn’t want to use a CO2 and accidentally explode my only extra tube. After I finished that I proceeded down the trail, holding my breath as the miles ticked down until I was in a comfortable distance if it blew again and I had to run the rest of the way to the car (ya know, when there was about a mile left).

I got my tire fixed the next morning in time to catch a ride back up to the mountains with some friends who are unemployed and others who were taking sick days. The first climb was a little rough for me, it was up a ski mountain and my legs were feeling all the riding that I had done the previous days.

Cresting the top I saw the trail trace the side of the hill, I asked if that’s where we were going and suggested that I take an earlier start since the exposure might ultimately slow me down. There was really only one or two places where I questioned my line knowing that if picked poorly I could topple off the side (no pressure, right).

It was so much fun going down though, after the ridge line the trail weaves into the forest and becomes a bit more shaded and a bit more rocky. After getting to the bottom we took a fire road over to another town and up a two-track trail, occasionally stopping to debate which way the trail went. We did a fair bit of hike-a-biking; more so when one guy’s hub broke so pedaling was pointless but with him walking up the hills it was a nice excuse to not ride up as well.

We got to the top and saw the faintest line of a trail descending into the woods. We turned our bikes down and into the trees where the trail became somewhat more noticeable.

I walked down this section

What met me was the steepest trail I’ve ever descended, I had to stop at a few points to let my breaks cool down. Breaking was almost futile because it would just lock up the wheel and slide out bringing a bed of forest underneath it down with it. That’s not to say I didn’t break, I was grabbing a handful of break trying to also gingerly balance not going over the bars. My fingers were the most exhausted at the end, as on the trainer I haven’t had to do any breaking so they were in for a pretty extensive workout. The ride felt so pure in ever sense of the pursuit of biking (super cheesy) but just so fun to get out into the woods with friends and ride, eat snacks, take breaks, not worry about heart rate or power outputs (in fact my computer died 3 miles in). That’s not to say I’m done training quite the opposite but a nice reprieve from it all. It’s one of those days that you can’t even really plan for, just go with a loose ride plan, some macaroons, and some good friends and you get trail magic.

One of the many trail debates.

After the ride I headed back to South Dakota to try to pack up for the next thing (also more on that later). I also had to deal with buying a car which is not a pleasant process for having to pull the trigger on something within a 24 hour time frame of making a decision. I went to Colorado to decompress and take a break post-bar but was abruptly met with the stark reality of having to deal with life on my arrival home from it. As a result I haven’t done much of anything in terms of being able to get rides in. I had a list of places I wanted to ride in the hills but seems like that will yet again have to wait another summer.

Tenzen working so I can go play.

A Different Kind of Lawyer

After the Maah Daah Hey 100, I took a week off and then started back to training. I knew I wanted a full season this fall and end in December with Cyclocross Nationals. In the past, I’ve usually taken about 3 weeks to a month off mid-August and then dabbled aimlessly for racing in the fall. Each year I’ve been in school (4 Falls) I always have the same thought of getting more in shape for shorter distances but then keep racing 100 miles. This year I’m making more of a concrete effort to get in shape and stick to shorter.

I had some issues with communication this summer on when a new bike would arrive. Part of the reason I left my old bike in Colorado, twice, only to have to figure out how to get it to Indiana. Less than ideal.

IMG_7453.JPG
Hand delivered! 

All of my stressors manifested themselves in this sole issue. It came flowing over when it was two weeks after the said ship date and no word on the arrival or the location it was going to ship to (yeah…). I found out the arrival date would be another month which really only put it here for nationals.  I was sitting at my kitchen table, crying over this issue when Sully reminded me that bikes should be fun, I agreed. Because my best friend, who is a therapist, was on her honeymoon, and there were no 100 mile races to be found, I signed up for a real therapy session with the counselor at the law school. I was hesitant about going, mainly because stress around bike racing is not really a common law student problem but it seemed kind of silly for how much it was impacting my life.

IMG_7592.JPG
When you’re just trying to be a ‘different kind of lawyer’ hahah (ND’s motto)

I went and talked through everything in 50 minutes (I’m cured!) and came to the realization that because I’m forging my own path forward (avoiding corporate law) it leaves a lot of questions up in the air of what next year will look like. Right now everything and everywhere is a possibility, which is amazing and terrifying! As a result I’m focusing so much on wanting good results this fall because in the back of my mind I’m like what if this is it, what if this is my last season. If I do terrible can I justify  racing when I have other things going on in my life that need priority too. The therapist thought maybe because bike racing is the one thing I can control, meticulously, with the racing schedule and all my training plans that I’m focusing so much on it as a result.

It’s somewhat comical that I decided to try and control the one area of my life that does not yield well to control. I haven’t had a clean race this season, either with mechanicals or crashes and have been able to roll with it.

 

IMG_7480
Lining up to start– photo from University of Louisville Cycling 

The first race of collegiate mountain bike started 2 weeks ago for me. The cross-country course was reduced from 4 laps to 3 the morning of. I didn’t think much of it because a 15 mile race vs. a 20 mile race is still the same in my mind compared to 100 miles. During the race, though, I was so glad we were only doing 3 laps. The race started on pavement and went up a climb of about 10-15% grade for 1/3 mile or so. Just enough to get my heart rate abnormally high. After hitting the trail I had to scramble with my bike to get over a log and then probably lost 30 seconds trying to get back on because my heart rate was just coursing adrenaline throughout my body, I scurried to the top of the hill to  find an even piece of land to get on from. The course was relentless, even the downhills offered little recovery as they were littered with rocks or technical turns that required ever vigilance. It was all I could do to drink.

Fortunately the start of the second lap took out the pavement climb and instead offered a traverse over the hill before zig-zagging up to connect to singletrack. On the traverse over I washed my front wheel out and went down, it happened so fast I didn’t even have time to react and took the brunt of the force with my knees and hip (better than my face!). I made the mistake of putting my Garmin mount from my road bike on my mountain bike (in the midst of switching parts over, I convinced myself it would be finnnnne! Jokes on me). The mount snapped off, luckily I found my Garmin lying in the trail and snatched it up and stuck it in my jersey pocket. The rest of the race was uneventful, and mostly just slogged away at the trail for an hour and 40 minutes. I got done and finished 3rd, more by default, only 4 women started and one dropped out due to a mechanical in the first lap. I thought she was behind me the whole time, which was nice to at least have that thought to push me.

IMG_7474.JPG

The next morning I debated doing the shorttrack race. It had rained overnight, so much so that I got a flash flood warning on my phone. Unsure of what the course conditions would be like I was hesitant to register before the first race of the day. The crew did a good job of restructuring the course at the last minute and avoided the areas that were flooded. To add a dimension to the now the mostly grass course they put in a death spiral. You ride all the way in for about 4 circles and then turn and unwind out. After the first race I saw that the bikes mostly picked up pieces of grass but not a lot of mud so decided to race (not looking to replace my drivetrain…again). They combined the A and B women so our field grew to about 9. After the pavement start we immediately hit the soft grass. It was slick and took one girl down when she slid out of a corner. I followed the train into the death spiral which was a really terrible idea because as I was circling in, others started circling out, while more were circling in and for someone who gets motion sickness, it was all I could do to orientate myself, and not throw up.

We raced for 25 minutes and after sitting on the 3rd place girl for 3 laps through the death spiral knew that I would be sufficiently dizzy if I followed her again, when we hit the pavement I went around and worked to put in some time in between the start of the death spiral, it worked but I still wasn’t completely out when she was entering but it was at least better. The race finished with pretty big gaps in between the finishers, I think I was almost 2 minutes from first place and 30 seconds behind 2nd (the girl who crashed and got up, yeah she’s fast).

IMG_7495.JPG

I felt good with my results (even if cross-country was by default). Since I’m trying to get my top end fitness firing for shorter distances, the weekend was more to figure out where I was and where my head goes during such short events. It’s much easier to stay in the race, I often find myself after 7+ hours of racing being like, where am I, what am I doing here, what food do I get to eat, yeah when it’s only 25 minutes those questions don’t come up…at all. 

 

Attack the Pack

I did my first collegiate road race and crit race a few weeks ago (okay, at this point over a month) and much to my astonishment, I did not crash. For some reason I had it in my mind that crits are just full of carnage, broken carbon, and skin shredded on the pavement. It was much more tactic based than I had thought given we were all riding for separate teams but still working together.

start of crit
Who knew that skin suits weren’t just for cross racing…

I went into the road race with the words of another collegiate racer telling me how fun and low-key it was, “we usually just sit up and talk during the race”- oh that seems nice. The race started very much that way, we rolled out and the girl next time me started chatting. I can definitely do this for 25 miles. Then about 5 minutes in we turned right and took a long descent and that was it, no more chatting. I stayed very much within my comfort when going downhill (thanks, brain injury–you’re welcome, mom) and soon found myself out of the lead group and for the most part by myself. Wow, the next 20 miles are really going to suuuuck if I’m out here by myself. Pretty soon a group of two road by and picked me and we continued to pick up stragglers as we worked to get back to the lead group and rotated through pulls. I kept trying to figure out how much energy I should expend off the front versus just tucking in the back and conserving my own energy. It was a delicate balance as I didn’t want to be perceived as not doing enough work but also didn’t want to do too much to be spent before the final hill climb. The final hill was a bit of a doozy, especially since I’ve only been on the trainer for the past 2 months. I was able to pull away from part of the group on the climb as it was deceivingly long and hold on for the half-mile flat stretch to the finish line. I finished 6th, which was nice for having no expectations.

the one time I attacked
The one time I attacked was pretty short lived

The crit was similar to cyclocross racing as we just road around in a circle but less dirty, less barriers, and with much more speed. The course was a large lap following a road around a parking lot. We did 10 laps, the start was flat and turned into an immediate downhill with a 180 turn back followed by a left corner with a slight incline, two rights and back through the start/finish. I stayed with the lead group but was severely inefficient in doing so– that whole descending at high speeds- yea, still not my thing. We’d go down the hill, I would be in the back of the pack and then within the 180 turn we would all be grouped together. It was like doing intervals when you’re already going as hard as you can.

nate's trailI opted out of racing the next two weekends as it was Spring Break and headed to Colorado and then up to my parent’s for a few days. This is going to sound strange but having multiple bikes in 3 states (the same locations that I keep French Presses) is a little overwhelming when trying to plan for rides and the future. I ended up taking both my cross bikes up to my parents house from CO with the intention of leaving my single speed one there and picking up my mountain bike. The weather was so nice that while some of the trails were snowpacked there were enough dry spots to patch together a ride. I took my cross bike up Battle Mountain thinking it would be mostly dry given the exposure and it was until the very last pitch before the top where it was still deep snow pack and ice.

bike in snow
Takes me back to Hartford Nationals

I didn’t think too much of it when I was up there and was trying to be mindful not to pack too much mud and clog up my derailleur. I made it to the top no problem and turned around to start descending. I’m not even sure at what point it happened but I could feel the tension give way in the chain and looked down to see my rear derailleur hanging off from my bike.

broken bike
At least the hanger did it’s job!

Ughhhh, fortunately it was all downhill so I kept riding and being conscious not to have it bang into the spokes of my wheel too much. I got to the bottom and turned onto the pavement. I ran out of momentum and stopped and called my dad, “Hi Dad, I broke my bike will you come get me- I’ll be in the courthouse parking lot.”  I texted Sully, he responded that I should have rode my singlespeed and asked if I had crashed. Uh, excuse me, I did not crash, I was just riding along and it happened. I sat for a little while longer and then realized all the times that I ran the Main Street Mile that it’s actually a slight decline down to my dad’s office. Tired of waiting, I hoped on my bike and adult stridered it down the road. I got some pretty weird looks from people driving as I was scootering but I feel like my hometown is definitely used to my antics by now.

If I had a dollar for every time I broke my rear derailleur at this point I would have $5…

Buff creek
More of this, please!

I spent the latter half of break in CO, riding and running some of the trails. It was definitely needed, but it made it that much harder to come back to South Bend after spending 4 days on dirt with friends. I was even lamenting as to why I didn’t go to CU for law school but then realized I would probably get far less work done than I do now. 

FullSizeRender 5.jpgThankfully finals are just around the corner (yikes!) and then I’ll be back to try to get some rides and racing in before starting my summer gig.

 

Stronger Together

I didn’t plan on doing the Leadville 100 this year, at least not after I didn’t get in through the lottery. I didn’t think about it when I was trekking through the Grand Canyon, finishing finals or traveling in Viet Nam. In fact, most of the time in Viet Nam I thought about how out of shape I was getting and thank goodness I wouldn’t be racing 100 miles. Then I got to Switzerland and started running and had a few long days on trail in France and the thought began creeping back in that maybe I can ride 100 miles with Sharon. When I got back to the states I contacted WBR and it was almost serendipitous as one guy had to drop out due to a medical condition and was willing to give me his spot to ride with Sharon.

gravel gridning
Recon training in Boulder last week

That’s been the thought the whole time, at least since Michelle planted the idea in my brain last December that the only way I would do Leadville is with Sharon. Sharon is another member of WBR and due to circumstances outside of her control wasn’t able to finish the Leadville 100 last year. Since we’re both passionate about WBR and riding long distances (she has quite the impressive stage race resume) thought we would be stronger together.

sharon and I .jpg
Sharon and I riding in Boulder

I really thought after Leadville last year I would be done, knowing I would be traveling for a good chunk of the summer and thinking I wouldn’t be able to do enough early season riding to build up the engine I would need to PR (4 years of training for Leadville has taught me a lot). I’m convinced that riding with Sharon is the only way I can top last year’s experience is to help someone else reach that finish line.

going up hall
Working on power output

This year, Sharon and I will both be riding for World Bicycle Relief. WBR is a program that helps distribute bicycles in Africa. After a year studying global health I truly believe that the one thing we can do that will create the largest impact and ripple in a community is to educate young people, girls especially. With a Buffalo Bike (the one that is designed for WBR) a student increases classroom attendance by 28%. In all my years of schooling, I’ve been granted the privilege of never having to worry about how I would arrive for my education.

Head on over to the World Bicycle Relief to learn more or wanting to donate head over to my donation page at WBR.

boulder riding
Hoping I look this ‘fresh to death’ after the Leadville 100

 

Thesis Training

When focusing on writing and defending my thesis, my blog posting fell to the way side–Here’s just a brief recap of what I’ve been up to since arriving back in the states in mid-June.

I arrived back into the states, did two trainer rides and signed up for my first mountain bike race in almost 10 months– and my first go back on my mountain bike in 7 months.

helmet pic
Well

It was a bit ugly and 2 hours later I wondered why I didn’t sign up for the 10 mile option instead of the 20-miler. I somehow survived and was surprised that my legs went out much sooner than my lungs, so maybe running actually did something. I decided to do the race to help ‘race my way back into shape’.

podium picture
Well, at least I wasn’t sandbagging!

Within the first week of arriving back into the states I secured a spot for Leadville (yikes!) but with no aspirations of defending my age group title. Instead, I’m hoping to be in good enough shape to ride with another WBR team rider and get across the finish together (more on it all later, promise). It should be a great day and I’m looking forward to it.

thesis picture
This was my view for the past few weeks

Given the limited time frame to get into shape and the fact that I was writing my thesis, I got in touch with my coach from last year to come up with a plan, which meant a lot of road and trainer rides.

road biking nd
At least other ND cycling people were on campus

I did not tell my parents about Leadville until I absolutely had to because was worried my mom would worry more about my stress level between training and writing. Riding gave me a good excuse to take a break and ruminate on what I had been working on. Only once did I go to the doctor to get some blood drawn and have a resting heart rate of 92, minor detail.

I defended my thesis and passed, if you’re interested in reading 97 pages about influenza vaccines, lettme know! I found that prepping for a thesis defense was similar to an endurance race.

podium dome .JPG

You spend a lot of time, resources and energy working towards the goal. Don’t change your equipment the day of– I walked halfway across campus with the podium I had practiced with, and the night before you realize you have done everything you can at this point and just need to get some good sleep. Afterwards, I was able to spend about a week and half in South Dakota before heading back to ND for graduation.   bh trailsI was able to get some trail riding in with Barb why home. I’m now on my way back to South Dakota and will head down to CO in about a week for Leadville. After Leadville, it’s back to law school!

with parents
Pre-graduation dinner and not cycling clothes!

group at door

It happened to be baton twirling national championships at ND this weekend and I found a discarded baton in the grass that allowed me to relive my glory days, much to the amusement of my family- ha!

Leadville 100- 3rd Time’s a Charm

Racing bikes can be devastatingly, heart breaking. At the finish line of the Leadville 100 I collapsed into a heap of sobs. A nice lady came up to offer me water which lying on the ground and gasping for breath between tears would have been a choking hazard so I waved her off. A man came and laid my finisher’s medal on my stomach and patted it before walking away, trying to offer some level of comfort. I laid there for a while and closed my eyes thinking back to what I could have done differently. Nothing. That’s what hurt so much because I gave it my all and came up 7-minutes short.

IMG_7775
The Team!! A few pros, even an olympian (who Wayne has beat in a race–I did not!)

The week started much like any other race week with me scrambling to find lodging for the race. I think part of me didn’t think it would actually happen, that I wouldn’t actually race and so put off dealing with it. Fortunately the World Bicycle Relief Team had me covered, and I arrived in Leadville with a place to stay. Thursday and Friday both consisted of warm-up rides on the college trails and getting ready for race day with meal-prep and going over logistics with the team, Sully, and my parents.

college trail
Pre-Race spin to take in the views. Photo: Claire Geiger 

The start of the race is always a bit chaotic, I was in the third corral and was trying to start with another of the WBR girls. I found a spot and lifted my bike over the fence but had some hesitation with trying to jump over it, it was pretty wobbly and I didn’t want to be the first crash of the day. Sully held the fence secure and I cautiously made my way over. I saw Katie, the girl I was trying to ride with, behind me. And my parents on the other side of the fence. The gun went off and I slowly started to roll but waited for Katie to go through the start with her. As soon as I found her we were caught up in a sea of people and

katie and i at the start
Katie (on the blue bike) and I (on the red bike) ready for the day!

separated as soon as we had joined. I always get nervous for St. Kevin’s because there are horror stories of the bottle-neck and people jamming up and having to walk. I’ve never had a bad experience and this year was no different. They had recently groomed the track for St. Kevin’s so even more people were riding than in years past.  I did start the race with arm-warmers but vowed to drop them wherever (sorry not sorry) and not have one end up in my rear derailleur like last year. 

I got through the first aid station and started the pavement descent. Racing is the only time I do sketchy things like tuck on my bike, to get more aero, I got so aero I passed someone with aero bars on their bike. 3 miles on pavement soon turns into an uphill that feeds into the backside of Powerline. One of my teammates, Dave passed me at this point and I sat on his wheel for a little bit but he soon dropped me and I had the plan of riding a bit conservatively to start with. During the climb I had my first Untapped Maple Syrup shot ever (one of the guys brought some for everyone at the house, so I shoved 2 in my camelbak as just in case for the day) straight maple syrup, SOOOOO GOOD! I got to the top of Powerline and opened up my suspension a bit more.

coming down powerline
At the bottom of Powerline. 

This is the only sketchy part of the race where most people are prone to crash. I figured everyone would be taking the “A” line, which is pretty buffed out and easy to navigate which would leave the “B” line, a little more sketchy with loose rocks, open to me. I was right. I’m not the most skilled descender (as a brain injury will tell you) but have enough confidence in my abilities and my bike to be able to handle my own. I blew by people who were jammed up waiting for their turn and was able to gain back some time I had lost on the climb. Even some of the guys started to cheer for me going by them, which I could have ended my day right then.. I mainly kept going so I could eat some more maple syrup.

It was a short 20-minute section on pavement after that to get to the first big aid station, Pipeline and I realized I was only an hour or so out of Twin Lakes. This is maybe the only mistake I made during the race and that was not having pacing times-I was only going off of memory and trying to remember if I was ahead or behind my pace from the last year. I had decided to do this because I was worried that if I didn’t make a split it would create a negative feedback cycle that would take me longer to get out of. I kept riding constantly thinking to push a little harder because it will all matter in the end.

IMG_7803
“I’m just here to get some syrup!”

It was about an hour later that I arrived into the aid station where I was greeted by World Bicycle Relief Crew, Sully, and my parents. I handed my bike off to Sully and dashed into the grass to go pee. Thankfully I had a skirt on which provided some coverage so I wasn’t too worried about it. I got back to the tent and asked for more maple syrup. I handed my camelbak to Sully (as was part of the plan) and took a bottle with lots of salt in the drink mix to head up Columbine, knowing it would be at least 2 hours before I was back.

leaving aid station
See ya later!

I knew what lay ahead of me but it didn’t make it any easier. This section could make or break my race and I was determine to make it. I locked out my suspension and got into a rhythm of climbing in the saddle and out of the saddle. I kept drinking and taking in syrup and rice cakes. Towards the top I peered over my should to see a large chase group coming up after me (okay they weren’t really chasing me, but they were a large group) and I was determined to beat them to the goat track so I wouldn’t get stuck behind them. I did and when it funnelled into the track I kept riding, this section wasn’t as congested as it has been in the past and I was able to navigate around those walking without too much hassle. At the end of the first steep pitch I had to get off my bike because I had hit a soft spot with my front wheel and couldn’t save it. I hiked up maybe about 10 steps before it flattened out again and I could get back to riding. I knew I was faster if I rode rather than hiked, not a lot, but enough that it would make a difference and so I continued to slowly turn the pedals over and ringing my bell to let the hike-a-bikers know I was behind them. I only had one guy give me a hard time when I went around him while he was hiking (I’m going to blame it on a language barrier-he was wearing an Italia jersey, and didn’t ever respond when I called I was coming (hence the bell, boys don’t know a girl is trying to get by)) after I had gone around him and gotten back in line he rammed his front wheel into my rear. I held my line but expressed, “what the heck man?!?” he didn’t respond. Maybe I had gotten too close or maybe he hadn’t noticed that he was that close but I kept my eye on him just to be safe.

Shortly after that encounter I heard my name called out, I looked behind me to see another WBR rider, Jered, coming up behind me. Jered is always smiling and was so enthusiastic to be on course that every time I ran into him it immediately put me in a better mood. He was climbing like a champ and cruised by me like I was standing still, which I certainly almost was at that grade. I saw him ride off into the distance and at this point had to get off and walk again knowing that it wouldn’t last long and it would be the last time as the top was well within sight.

columbine
Thinking about stuff and things….

After I crested the top it’s 50 yards down to the aid station and I made a plan to get in and out. I Refilled my bottle, took some watermelon, orange slices and then was off. I was behind a fat-biker at the top which I thought would be a good one to make a line for me but soon realized I could go a little bit faster and quickly went around only to land behind…the guy in the Italia jersey from earlier. Realizing this was no place to let my pride get in my way I stayed behind him because well he was going faster than me and letting people know he was coming, and with people coming up so close it’s sometimes all I could do to not knock handlebars. I tried to cheer for everyone coming up as most of them were now stuck in the waiting line that had backed up to the beginning of the goat trail. The Italia guy made it around one guy on a pretty sketchy pass and being so close to where the trails opens up into the gravel road, I stayed behind the guy and tried to keep my distance because he was a little all over the place which made me nervous. It flowed into the gravel road and I took a breath to relax as that section makes me so tension. I wasn’t even able to get through a full breath when the guy in front of me crashed and I was somehow able to not have him take me down with him. I’m still praying the rosary for that save. The fat biker pulled up beside me and said, “you must downhill on the weekends, you are so great on the descents!” I responded, “nope, I just chase my boyfriend around!” which is true. Sully is such a fast, fluid descender–and I like to think so of it is catching on…

IMG_7809
“I’mmmm back!”

The section back to the aid station was quick and I kept trying to push it a little more, knowing that I had lost some time on the climb. I was back to the aid station and chugging pickle juice before I knew it. Sully gave me my camelbak, I grabbed more maple syrup (I had dropped one riding Columbine and let out an agonizing scream, not because I actually needed the food but because it was so delicious), rice cakes, another bottle, and made my way out of the aid station, after drinking more pickle juice. I can remember staring at a

IMG_7815
And I don’t even like pickles….

bottle of IBUprofen on the table when I came in thinking I should take some. My right quad had started to feel strained and I wanted to get on top of it. I left without taking in and was focused on getting something at the next aid station. I got onto the next section and followed the wheel of two guys who pulled me for a good portion back to the Colorado Trail Singletrack. It was only a mile on the section (much too short) before getting back on two-track that took us down, up, down, up, down, up and then down into the aid station (this is a rolling, quick, section that I always try to recover on). I pulled up to the medical tent, “do you have aspirin?” “No.” “No? What kind of place is this?!?” The guy then hesitated, “hold on, I’ll get my personal bottle from my car” which luckily was right behind the tent. “How many do you want?” “4, will you give me 4?” “Good girl, I had someone ask for 2 earlier and I talked them into 3” I really should have said, ‘how many will you give me’ but had gobbled them up and jumped back on my bike before I had thought of that witty response. singletrack down

I got onto the pavement section and had a guy come up behind me saying something about “ginger power” I was slightly offended at first because a.) I did not want to pull him back to Powerline and b.) If anything my hair is red not ginger. He got in front of me and only then did I realize that he was a ginger and then I thought it was hilarious. We worked together to get through the headwinds and around to Powerline. I thought maybe I would see Sully somewhere near the bottom where I did last year (we had a rough plan of it) but as I kept getting closer to the climb without seeing him I started to count what calories and figure out if it to make it last  90 minutes. I saw Katie’s husband who didn’t think Sully was there and he gave me a syrup and a push which was awesome. I started up Powerline and shifted into my lowest gear and just slowly kept turning over as people around me were beginning to walk up. I turned the right hand corner to see the WBR girls cheering me on. Claire used to be a coxswain in college and it’s pretty amazing how well she can motivate you, she also calls out to everyone, “Girl riding, get out of the way!” Yeah, she’s the best! I kept riding up to see Sully there waiting, he began walking up along side of me (that’s how slow I was going) when again I hit a soft spot and jumped off to take another bottle, a straight shot of salt and was on my way. And by on my way I mean hiking up. Just before the top I was greeted by a little old man, “You are the first girl I have seen today in a skirt…Pound it!” I pounded him and laughed and then he called all the guys behind me perverts. They just don’t make them like they do in Leadville. At the top there was a guy in a pizza suit (or maybe banana) who after I got on my bike he pushed me for a while and told me not to pedal- it was great! Powerline is only a 200 yard section but really I think of it as the 3 mile climb that it entails, it has 4 false summits and a few relief points but it’s about 45 minutes of suffering at 81 miles in the race. All I knew was that I need to keep pedalling and do as little amount of walking as possible. Which I did, again not fast, but faster than hiking. At the top I saw a group of guy riders all congregated around a table. I kept going around them only to see a girl handing out “Hot Shots” “Do you want one?” She asked me. “What is it?” It’s for muscle cramps and soreness” Remembering my right quad I grabbed it and drank a sip. Ohhhh I get the name now, it’s hot, like Fireball (later we made everyone at the house who hadn’t try some and they all made the same face I did). I immediately dropped the rest of my bottle and went for my camelbak trying to squash any remaining taste. Plus I was getting so close, one more descent and then one more 3 mile climb and then I’m at the last aid station. IMG_7808.jpgI tried to do the mental math of what my pace was, going sub-10 was going to be close, so, so close but it might just happen. I kept pushing and going between tucking and pedalling whenever I started to lose momentum. I began the laborous climb that would bring me into mile 90. It’s not very steep or very long but at mile 87 it’s more than I wanted to be doing. I stayed focus though and got into a rhythm again of climbing, just 20 minutes in the pain cave. I made it to the top at about 9:15, I saw my parents, dropped my camelbak with them, grabbed another bottle, gushers, some chews, and a chunk of chicken and took off. It was going to be sooooo close to get under 10 but I had to fight. I went, I pedalled and climbed and when it released into the last descent I opened it up and went down with everything I had, making sure to keep eating and drinking because it’s really 104 miles and not 100. I was frantic and when the downhill slope slowed I kept pedalling and mashing. I came around a corner and a volunteer told me and two other guys I was with at that point that we were going to be so close to 10 hours but we had a shot. That was all it took. There was one section left, up the boulevard, which is just enough of a grade to destroy your soul if you have it left. The guy in front of me started pulling harder and I held on. Although I’ve never done a time trial, I imagine those last 4 miles were a similar experience. I could tell the guy in front of me wanted to go under 10 just as bad as I did. We kept taking over other riders who would hold on to the rear briefly before getting dropped again. We were so close but so far still-get there, get there, get there! The gravel takes you back onto the road that we started on and back to the finish, with one more crest being on the pavement. I saw a girl in front of me and figured she would be the one to beat to not get 8th for the third time (at least 7th would be nice…) I knew if I could get in front of her before the descent I could maybe hold her off. I made my move on the small climb to start going but she immediately quickened the pace to keep on me.coming into finish

I couldn’t shake her and fell behind her wheel. We were going down and quickly up into the finish shoot and it was all I could do with one last great effort to put my head down and begin to sprint with everything I had left. Thankfully at this same moment I was greeted by Claire’s voice telling me to go now, go now, go now! I did. I over took the girl and finished. 10:07:24.

finish
All the feelings 

This now brings you back to the beginning. After picking myself up and rushing to my mom I told her I just wanted to go under 10 so I could be done with this race, I just wanted 9-something, that’s all. But Leadville doesn’t care what I want. Sully called me the glass-half full girl given that I had PR’d. I hesitantly looked up the results, figuring I would have to settle for 8th again. “Holy fudge!” except I didn’t say fudge. I had won my age group, which was shocking but this year they had a separate pro category so that helped to take the really fast women out of my age group.  I’m really happy that I won and it’s a nice ending to the season that seemed a little tumultuous with training during law school, racing in South Dakota, not doing a lot of high-atlitude rides, changing schools and programs (more on that later), and bouncing down to Colorado to try and race. It put a lot of strain on my personal relationships though and when I had finished I wondered if it was all worth it, if all the sacrifices to feel like I had come up short were. As much as I shouldn’t say it, it was. The struggle, the process, it was all worth it because I gave everything I could at Leadville. That’s what’s so beautifully heart-breaking about bike racing because it demands so much and you might come up short but then again, you might not.

IMG_7826

IMG_7828
My crew–it was their 3rd Leadville too!

IMG_7829
Mary only showed up for the photo-op 

IMG_7830
Grateful he hasn’t dumped me through this process….

IMG_7832
Laurens crushed it in his first MTB race (he did the Tour de France for his training-ha) and Katie not only took an hour off her Leadville time but raised enough money for over 100 bicycles!

I’ll be transitioning to collegiate racing this fall (yay for club sports that don’t have eligibility rules). But I also intend to take next summer off from Leadville and do some reassessing in terms of what my goals are when it comes to racing and riding.

on podium
I’ve peaked! 

What’s really incredible though regardless of my time or where I finished is that the WBR team raised more than $80,000!!! That puts more than 500 bicycles in the field, that’s 500 lives that have a real impact. I’m so lucky to be able to be a part of it!

with gold pan
My parents made me do a photo shoot in the Safeway Parking lot…casually

  • Here are the numbers:
  • Time: 10:07: 24
  • Avg. Speed: 10.2
  • Distance 104.3 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 11,631 feet
  • 50 oz. camelbak with water (finished it twice)
  • 6 bottles, a mix between Skratch and GU (500 mg of salt per serving)
  • 5 or 6 rice cakes
  • Roughly 12 Untapped Maple Syrup (seriously, so good- and water soluble so it did not destroy my stomach!)
  • 1 Skratch chomps package

 

Copper Crush…Crushed It

I did not want to do the Copper Crush. Most of the week leading up to it I felt discombobulated, having spent two days driving, one day flying and not a whole lot of time on the bike. Throw in a wedding the night before and it was all I could do to even fathom racing. My coach thought it would help just to shake things out after the Tatanka and as much as I didn’t want to I had to admit that he was right. I was slightly nervous that the race would end up more or less of the same as the Tatanka and not actually boost my confidence going into Leadville. I had just enough champagne the night before at the wedding though to think that racing wouldn’t be so bad. I didn’t preregister just in case the wedding drinks got the best of me but I was up and ready to go the morning of the race. I opted for the 30 mile course instead of the 50. It would be three laps, 10 miles each, a 5 mile uphill section followed by a 5 mile downhill section. Didn’t seem that bad.

wedding
Yay weddings…and bikes!

They started the women last, and all together, which made it seem like there was a lot of us, and we would not have to worry about the guys trying to get by right away. The race began with a neutral role out, which was really the first neutral role out I have experienced and we actually talked about how most of the time people are gunning for it. We hit the single track but even then the pace didn’t quicken. Maybe people knew something I didn’t, then a lady made a move around me and I quickly got on her wheel and we made our way to the front. We started climbing and I soon realized this climb was going to be more than I had anticipated so I settled in while still trying to push to keep position. We made our way to the top and after about 4 miles it opens up to a gravel road that loops you back around the single track, I kept grinding not sure what the descent would bring. By now we were spaced out enough that I wasn’t too worried about getting overtaken on the descent so long as I held on.The descent was fast, with some technical sections, enough that I had to pay attention and fully open my suspension. Lap one was done at 1:20. As I came through I was on the wheel of a pro woman who had gotten lost three times on the first lap as we went through the finish line she told me she got lost almost right  away and not to take that turn again. We took that turn and only realized our mistake when riders started coming towards us on the single track with mystified looks on their faces. Oops we cut through the field and got back on course. out of the woods

The climbs seemed a bit steeper the second time around but being a little more familiar with it I knew where to push and where to save. After about a mile or so up I made my way around the lady and kept trying to pick off the guys in front of me. I also knew there were still two women in front of my but wasn’t sure of their lead time. I made it to the top and was relieved again to open up my suspension and make my way downhill. The single track opens up to a gravel road about a half mile from the finish line, I was cruising down it when I saw a green bike and yellow shoes making its way up. Sully had stayed to help with post-wedding activities and I wasn’t sure I would see him. I stopped and switched out a bottle with him and told him I would grab food on the way through and that I would see him in an 1:20.

The third lap presented more of a challenge. I got passed back by the pro-lady who told me to eat something, which I had been doing but I don’t think I had eaten early enough and out of teh woods 2now was slowly bonking. Just get to the top, just get to the top. I started to count down 1/10
of a mile while trying to do mental math of how many yards that would be. That definitely kept me occupied for a good portion as I’m not sure my math actually ever came out right. I got to the top and saw a volunteer, I asked him for salt as I had been borderline cramping going up and had an in-depth conversation about salt with Barb after the Tatanka. He didn’t have any salt but could get some as I kept climbing up before looping back around to his post. That certainly helped to keep me going, the thought of getting salt. When I arrived back, even with it being a downhill I knew that I could easily cramp and the time it would take to stop and get some salt would save me time. He had ran into the resort at the top and gotten a salt shaker. I shook it directly into my mouth, it’s the first time that much salt has not been accompanied by tequila. I immediately realized (probably placebo effect) why people risk so many potentially fatal diseases for this jewel of the earth. It was like a flip had been switched and I felt like a human again, I imagine that salt is what Pinocchio received each time he became a real boy. I crushed the descent, okay not really but I felt really good and was able to finish strong as a result.

podium
Where my girls at?!?!

I finished first in my age group, the other girl had dropped out after two laps and was 2nd for women overall. As much as I despised having to race before hand, I’m really glad I did, especially because it was at altitude, and it certainly helped to realize how much salt factors into my performance level. I ended up taking the Leader’s Jersey and when I told a friend that she asked if it was like the Tour de France…I responded, “exactly like that” 😉

I had struggled the week leading up to the race with wanting to race Leadville, I went back and forth with it more times that I could even list, and really debated for the first time ever just walking away from everything. I’m not saying that winning helped, it was more of a conversation with my Godfather who pointed out that even if I didn’t want to when would I get another chance like this. I’ve just been getting nervous because even with breaking my rear derailleur last year I had a great race and I’m just not sure I’ll be able to top it. There is only one way to find out!