Thursday, June 11, 2015

Following the 2015 Tour Divide

Last pre-ride — spinning with Keith near Cascade Mountain. 
Before I set out on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and don't update my blog for a month (hopefully), I wanted to post all links for tracking my progress in the Tour Divide and Beat's progress in the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa.

Beat's race began on Thursday, June 11. The 2,400-kilometer route across South Africa involves mountain and desert crossings, several off-trail portages, and map-and-compass navigation. Beat and Liehann are traveling together and aiming for a 20-day finish.

The Tour Divide begins Friday, June 12. The 2,750-mile route travels from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, along the Continental Divide. I am hoping for a 20-21-day finish, but mostly aim to remain flexible and have another fantastic and soul-rending experience.

Following the Tour Divide: 


Official Tour Divide tracking page.

My Delorme tracking page (with text updates)

My Twitter account (text updates)

My Facebook page (encouraging notes appreciated)

Race discussion at Bikepacking.net forum

MTBCast call-ins (I have a feeling this service, while great, is going to be bogged down this year. I may or may not try to call in during the race.)

Following Beat in the Race Across South Africa: 


Official Freedom Challenge tracking page and race updates.

Beat's personal tracking page for the Race Across South Africa.

Liehann's personal tracking page for the Race Across South Africa.

Freedom Trail Twitter chatter


If you haven't read my book about my first Tour Divide adventures, you can purchase an eBook (Amazon provides software to read on any device) or paperback at Amazon. Purchases help keep me in Sour Patch Kids and Babybel cheese wheels for the duration of my ride. I also have three other books:

Ghost Trails: Journeys Through a Lifetime

Arctic Glass: Six Years of Adventure in Alaska and Beyond

8,000 Miles Across Alaska: A Runner's Journeys on the Iditarod Trail

It looks like there will be a large showing for this year's Grand Depart of the Tour Divide — probably more than 150 riders. I looked on Trackleaders to get a sense of the women racing.

Here's a short intro to some (probably not all) of the Ladies of the Tour Divide, southbound GD, 2015:

Lael Wilcox | Anchorage, Alaska | Rookie. I spent a fun evening with Lael on Wednesday. There are going to be more experienced racer types on the trail this year, but I think Lael will be a top contender for the win. She has natural athleticism, lots of bike touring experience, and the right attitude all working in her favor. She was leading this spring's Holyland Challenge in Israel (in front of all the men) before severe weather forced a restart. She toured across South Africa, Egypt, Greece, and Israel during the winter. She rode more than 2,100 miles from Anchorage to Banff over 19 days, as a nice little warmup. She's strong and ready.

Alice Drobna | Bend, Oregon | Veteran. Alice won last year's Tour Divide on a rigid singlespeed Moots, finishing in 22 days, 6 hours, and 36 minutes. I believe this is the second fastest women's finish on the full GDMBR route, next to Eszter Horanyi's record of 19 days, 3 hours, and 35 minutes. Alice set a new women's record on the Arizona Trail 750 in April. She is attempting to become the first woman to finish the "Triple Crown" of bikepacking, which is the Arizona Trail 750, Tour Divide, and Colorado Trail Race in the same year.

Sara Dallman | Willmington, Ohio | Veteran. Sara won the 2013 race in 22 days, 19 hours. She also finished in 2012, and has more than a decade of adventure racing behind her. Lael, Alice, and Sara are probably the women to beat, but this is the Tour Divide and there are always dark horses and a lot of luck involved. (And no, I'm not talking about "You make your own luck." No, real luck.)

Bethany Dunne | Canberra, Australia | Rookie. Bethany and her husband, Seb, are both riding the Divide, but I'm not sure whether they're planning to travel together. Both are shooting for sub-20-day finishes. Bethany was the first woman in this spring's Kiwi Brevet in New Zealand.

Sarah Jansen | Northfield, Minn. | Rookie. I scrolled through Sarah's Tumblr and she appears to be your typical bright-eyed rookie with big dreams who put a lot of preparation into this event.

Katie Monaco | Portland, Oregon | Rookie. I used to ride with Katie when I lived in Missoula, Montana. We were part of a women's Tuesday Night Ride group, the Dirt Girls. Katie started bike touring shortly after I moved away from Montana, and we occasionally e-mailed back and forth with questions and advice. I'm thrilled that she's starting the Tour Divide this year.

Michelle Dulieu | Rochester, New York | Veteran. I believe Michelle has raced the Tour Divide twice before. She had some setbacks that took her off the trail for more than a week in 2012, but she returned to the course to finish that year.

Lynne Silvovsky | San Luis Obispo, California | Rookie. Lynne is a computer and electrical engineering professor at Cal Poly. In 2013 she broke a women's powerlifting record with a 292-pound deadlift (!). She's aiming for a 25-day finish. 

Eleanor McDonough | Knoxville, Tenn. | Rookie. Eleanor is racing in honor of her brother to raise money for brain tumor research. That's about all the info I found in my cursory Google searching, but I believe she's shooting for a ~22-day finish.

Marketa Marvanova | Czech Republic | Rookie. Marketa is just 20 years old, but she's won the Craft 1,000 Miles Adventure two years in a row.

Tracy Burge | Clarksville, Ohio | Veteran. I met Tracy during the 2012 Tour Divide. Beat was acclimating for the Hardrock 100 in Frisco, Colorado, and I rode up Boreas Pass one rainy afternoon and just happened to bump into her. I think she had many setbacks in 2012 that led to a finish around 50 days. She's back again and no doubt (like me) looking to fix the cracks.

Carolyn McClintock | Cincinnati, Ohio | Rookie. Carolyn and Tracy plan to travel together. She's also riding a Moots YBB (which is what I'm riding), and stated that she's aiming to finish in 40 days.

Jen Marsh | American living in South Korea | Rookie. Another friend of Tracy's. It seems she's aiming for a 23-day finish. From her letter of intent, she said she's been dreaming and preparing for this attempt since 2007.

Team Rice Burner | Texas | Rookie/Veteran. The stoker on Billy Rice's awesome Cjell-Mone-built 29+ tandem is his 16-year-old daughter. I met her today and she strikes me as a sweet, quiet, typical teenager, with her nose buried in her smart phone. I'm astonished at her taking on this ride with her dad. I'm sure they'll have an incredible experience.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Banff doesn't change

Six years ago, when I rolled into Banff three days before the start of the Tour Divide, I connected with two trail-angel types, Keith and Leslie. Although we were strangers at the time, they invited me into their home, fed me dinner, and then whisked me away on all the grand tours we could possibly squeeze into what amounted to a 48-hour period. Within about twenty minutes of my arrival, Keith drove me to an overlook where I believe Parks Canada filmed that infuriating earworm cute "Sheep and Goat" video. He stretched his arm toward the kingdom, complete with a massive castle they call the Banff Springs Hotel, and characterized Banff as "paradise in a bubble." Regulations from the National Park and other policies strive to ensure this little village nestled in the Canadian Rockies never changes. 

We've since become good friends, and we have a number of adventures behind us. For this reason, and also because Beat and Liehann just happened to be flying out on Friday night, I purchased a ticket to Calgary one week ahead of the Tour Divide start. I thought this would give me plenty of time for relaxing, visiting and meeting folks, tying up loose-end work, prepping my bike, and a couple of pre-race adventures, in that order. My flight out of SFO turned out to be something of a debacle. I've had relatively good luck with air travel and didn't see it coming, but Beat is cynical enough that he noticed a discrepancy on my ticket and prepped me for battle (it's one of those long boring air travel stories, but in a nutshell, I purchased an Air Canada ticket online that was actually handled by United, which has terrible bike policies and refused to put my bike on the plane even for their ridiculous $200 fee.) Well, it was a hiccup, but I made it here with a good amount of time to spare.

True to precedent, I awoke in this stunning paradise and was quickly whisked away on "low-key" adventures that have already involved 30 (!) miles of not-easy hiking, along with a couple of test spins on my bike. 

One aspect of Banff that has been stunningly different this year is the weather. Snowline is considerably higher than it was in 2009, and it's been well above 80 degrees and sunny the entire time I've been here so far. I know that can change in a heartbeat and I should be grateful for any time I spend near the Continental Divide not shivering or wallowing in mud. But even California-acclimated, I'm roasting up here at this altitude, and sunburned my forehead despite best efforts not to do so. Also, four years in California hasn't made me immune to northern summer mania, where getting out on a nice day feels paramount to rest and food and oxygen. 

My first day in town, I followed Leslie on an 11-mile jaunt up and around Sulphur Mountain. She just returned from hiking 600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and her hiking pace is fierce. Most of my training this spring has been either cycling or trail running, and Leslie's version of hiking feels harder than both. (Truly! It's not just taper anxiety phantom weakness, I swear.) I was a wheezy mess above 6,000 feet and fought to keep up, because I did not want to miss these views. 

My friend and home-based bike mechanic Dave put my bike together for me, tuning it up to near-perfection (or the best I can get for a three-year-old bike with many miles and some neglect.) I took it out for an easy spin on the first ten miles of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, then back. Out of the gate, the route follows a nice gravel bike path along the Spray River. There were more rolling climbs and descents along this path than I remembered, and I actually had a little freak-out about this ("I thought this first section was flat. It's hard!") Then I laughed at myself, because it's not actually that hard. I'm just truly going into panic mode at this point, and fighting it with every ounce of distraction I can find. 

Distractions, unfortunately, come with a bit of a price. In the evening, Keith and Leslie told me we were going out for a "stroll through town" to get ice cream, which was a trick because this "stroll" included a thousand-foot ascent of Tunnel Mountain. 

Okay, it's true, I would have gone anyway. The views are pretty fantastic at 9:30 p.m., which is still before sunset at this latitude. Downtown is full of fun people-watching, and I haven't even run into any obvious Tour Divide cyclists yet. 

The next morning, Leslie was going hiking at Lake Louise. It was again 80+ degrees and clear, so how could I resist? I asked her if she was going for a "long hike" and she said, "no, just a short one." Leslie's version of short is 13 miles with 4,200 feet of climbing that includes a dash of late-spring snow slogging. Just in case you were wondering.

But wow, Lake Louise. I'm not sure you could ask for a better bang for your mileage. It was worth it.

Climbing the Beehive.

Plain of the Six Glaciers. The trail climbs to the end of a valley, where we stopped and had lunch while listening to the thunder-booms of distant avalanches, and eyed overhanging seracs for evidence of calving.

PB&J bagel with a view.

Up there is the Continental Divide. Sadly, not part of any mountain bike route.

After we returned from the Plain of the Six Glaciers, we visited the Valley of the Ten Peaks. This place is unreal. It often feels like standing on a movie set in front of a massive blue screen — it just doesn't look like a landscape that actually exists. The scenery also doesn't translate well in photos taken under mid-day light. You should visit ... before it melts.

I'm working up a blog post on info for this year's Tour Divide, which will remain at the top of this site while I'm away. It looks like there will be well over a hundred cyclists lining up at the start on Friday morning, and between 10 and 15 women. I'm becoming more nervous as the memories come flooding back, but mostly I'm excited. It's going to be a completely different experience, of that much I'm certain. 

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Letting go

It was the second to last climb of our long ride, a grunty 2,000-foot ascent with occasional 19-percent grades and a funny Strava segment, the "Pomponio Climbo." I never race it, but I usually feel faintly shattered, with invisible lead weights pulling on my calves and a sharp pain in my shoulders. Not this day, though. This day, like the rest of the day had been after a somewhat ragged 90-minute warmup, was just pleasant spinning. Late-afternoon light saturated the golden hillsides, the familiar half moon hovered over rock outcroppings, and that intoxicating sensation vibrated through my body — the one that flutters behind my eyeballs, slows my heart to a seeming murmur, and tells me to keep going, don't stop. Here, inside this tunnel of motion, it tells me, is peace.

As we reached the top of Alpine Road, I hinted at extending the ride over Russian Ridge or perhaps Indian Creek. But by the time we descended into Stevens Canyon, the guys could smell the barn at the end of 80 miles, and raced up Bella Vista away from me. I couldn't catch them in time to make my case. "That extra 10 percent effort costs too much," I explained. "But actually I feel really good. At this pace, I could keep going for another 80 miles." I can't always say that at the end of this route, and took this as personal confirmation that my "Forever Pace" fitness is in top form. "Then again," I thought as the urge toward motion continued to pull at my heart, "that's often the only element that differentiates our ability to keep going, and the need to stop. Desire."

It was our last long ride of this particular training season. This Friday, the guys leave for South Africa to ride the Freedom Challenge, and I will fly to Calgary to meet my wonderful friends Keith and Leslie. After a long spring of looking for someone or something to tell me no, I finally arrived at the conclusion, "Why not?" So on Friday, June 12, I plan to line up with the hundred-plus others at the Spray River trailhead in Banff, and start the 2015 Tour Divide.

For those who didn't follow my blog back then, the Tour Divide is a 2,700-mile, self-supported bike race from Banff, Alberta, to the U.S. border with Mexico in Antelope Wells, New Mexico on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I rode it in 2009, in 24 days and 7 hours, and wrote a book about the experience, "Be Brave, Be Strong."

Why, after six years, would I return to such a time-intensive endeavor? The years have their way of both softening and sharpening memories. A lot of experiences happened and a lot about my life changed since 2009, but the Divide is a place I find myself going back to frequently — a place of fierce beauty, discovery, and moments of crushing weakness that pushed me into murky depths of my mind, only to discover strength I never knew I possessed. Also, the second half of the Divide was a place where I was truly alone, and no one was coming to help me, and I had to work through each struggle on my own. In sifting through these memories, I realized it's been a while — six years, perhaps — since I've experienced anything quite like that. A challenge where I had to think ahead in days. Where I made all of my own decisions. Where the parameters weren't rigid, but entirely of my own making. Where the only reason not to quit was my own stubborn desire. What if I could go back to that place? Would I rediscover deeply buried pieces of myself? What would seem different? What would look the same?

What I'm seeking is the edge of the galaxy — the sort of self-transcendence that results in intense and satisfying engagements with both inner and outer landscapes. Endurance racing fosters these experiences, by setting parameters beyond what I believe to be possible, forcing me to break through my own perceived limitations. Much has changed in six years, and to reach that far edge, I'm going to have to push these parameters little bit farther. My goal is to ride the route in 20 days. To do this, I'll need to cover between 130 and 140 miles per day. At my Forever Pace, that's likely to require 15 to 16 hours a day of moving time — meaning sitting in the saddle and turning pedals. Stopping to stretch my back, eating a snack, collecting water from a stream, chatting with locals — every moment of stopped time must be subtracted from the eight hours that remain. Sleep will have to be rationed, and often caught in naps inside my bivy sack. It's ambitious, and I don't know if I have it in me. The ability or the desire. But I won't know unless I try.

I still remember how hard it was in 2009. Time hasn't softened those memories. When my body feels spent and my mind is tangled in a whirlwind of emotions, I often find solace in repetitive mantras. In these moments, there's often nothing left of me but a scared little girl who has long been hidden away behind years of experience and convictions, only to be exposed when the walls are torn away in the storm. She's terrified to move forward, and I can feel the storm about to consume her, so I often start chanting, out loud, and it helps. During my first journey on the Iditarod Trail in 2008, this chant was "I'm scared, but I'm okay," sung as a lyric in "Going, Going, Gone" by the Stars. In the 2009 Tour Divide, it was "Be Brave, Be Strong" — a mantra that followed me for years afterward. During the Freedom Challenge in 2014, I'd repeat "Every day is a gift," when I felt frustrated or stressed. Although the 2015 Tour Divide has not yet started, this is the mantra I already have in mind:

Let go. Let go of your lonely thoughts. Let go of your hangry grumbling. Let go of your anger about the peanut butter mud. Let go of your angst about walking at two miles per hour through miles of snow. Let go of your fear of that big black cloud hanging over the mountain. Let go of your attachments to unnecessary comforts. Let go of your unwanted aches and complaints. Just let go.

I can't wait to get going.