Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The (next) ultimate bike tour

Date: April 7
Mileage: 27.2
April mileage: 242.1
Temperature upon departure: 41

So I’m thinking about heading up to Banff on June 11 and lining up with whoever else shows up for the 2009 Great Divide (formerly known as the Great Divide Race.) I’ve actually been thinking about this since 2006. When Geoff decided to enter the race last year, I certainly didn’t feel ready myself and wasn’t at a point in my career where I felt comfortable just dropping everything for a trip south. I still don’t feel ready for such an extreme physical endeavor, but I am at a good place to hit pause on my life in Juneau for a few months. This may be the best window I ever get. Might as well go as far as I can.

Why the GD?
Since I first found out about the existence of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, back in 2003, I’ve looked to it as an ultimate bike tour. I started out as a road tourist and I’m not bothered at all by the fact that this route mostly follows gravel roads and jeep tracks. In fact, I prefer it. I appreciate a good piece of singletrack as much as the next mediocre mountain biker, but I certainly wouldn’t want to ride a couple thousand miles of singletrack, or even a couple hundred, at least not until I become much more comfortable with technical riding. What I do want to ride is large swaths of vastly empty space, beautiful mountains, stunning desert vistas, punchy snow, soul-crushing climbs and soaring descents. The GDMBR is set up in such a way that a person like myself with my talents (turning cranks, hike-a-biking, looking past pain and generally outlasting myself) actually stands a chance of succeeding.

But why the race? Why not just tour it and have fun?
One of the more rewarding things I’ve done in recent years is my 2007 “fast tour” of the Golden Circle. I set a time limit of 48 hours to ride 370 miles of remote Alaska and Canadian roads that I had never ridden before, all by myself. I packed light, rode well into the evening, slept in a bivy sack in bear country with tuna juice all over my hands, saw beautiful country, sweated in 90-degree heat, fought fierce headwinds, suffered a fair amount, sought refuge with friends, shivered through subfreezing mornings, and finally crested that last pass knowing I “could do it.” I met my goal. The fact that I had that time limit on top of the crushing distance, that I pushed and pushed and pushed and overcame the loneliness and hardships, made the ride so much more rewarding. It still look back on that trip as one of my best accomplishments, right up there with my first Susitna 100 and the 2008 ITI. The Golden Circle wasn’t even a race, but it had the perimeters and therefore challenges and rewards of a race. And I realize that it’s one thing to push yourself near the limit for two days, and quite another to try it for 25. But you never know if you don’t go.

Are you and Geoff going to ride together?
No. Geoff has several ultramarathons he’s been planning and training for the better part of a year. And I’m of the opinion that ultrarunning is his true calling and he owes it to himself to give it his best shot while he’s near the top of his game. The truth is, if he did decide to drop everything and join me, I’d be inclined to try to talk him out of it.

My reasons are partly selfish, too. I benefit most from endurance challenges if I go it alone. The solitude is one of the virtues I seek, although I also value new friendships and comraderie ... that’s one of the main benefits of lining up with others in the context of a race. And the fact is, it is a race. It’s hard to commit to riding with another person for the entire distance. Groups are only as strong as the weakest rider (cough, cough, me), and are almost guaranteed to never hit their highs and lows at the same time. While teamwork most certainly helps fellow competitors work through the low points, it can be tough on a relationship. I’ve joked with other endurance junkies about creating a couples race on the GDMBR. We’d call it the “Tour Divorce.”

So why the Great Divide and not the Tour Divide?
For those unfamiliar with the whole issue of the two races, the race split in two last year based on differences of opinion about the route and rules among its participants. It remains two races, and anyone who wants to line up with other people has to pick one. So that’s my answer. I had to pick one. The GD has a race philosophy I’m already familiar with. It also seems smaller and more willing to fly under the radar, and that’s probably a good place for an in-over-her-head competitor to be. Plus, GD starts a whole day earlier than the TD, and that one-day head start may give me more opportunities to ride with others.

And just how qualified do you really think you are?
Probably the best ride on my resume is a 2003 bike tour from Salt Lake City to Syracuse, N.Y. Sure, we only averaged about 50 miles a day on pavement (propelling about 70 pounds of bikes and gear a piece, mind you.) But no other ride I’ve done could have better prepared me for the realities of camping in ditches, having to find all of your food and water, pushing through the bad days and relishing in the good, and generally just living outside among strange people in a strange land for weeks at a time. The 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational, of course, helped me become more familiar with the realities of back-to-back 15 to 20-hour days of solid physical work. Life in Alaska has made me more comfortable with remote places and bear country. As far as endurance races, I’ve only done a couple solo 24-hour races and a handful of winter races. I’m of the opinion that race history does little to help a person finish the GDMBR. It’s really more about good planning, a healthy dose of luck, and heaps of mental fortitude.

So how do you plan to prepare?
Geoff and I leave Juneau on April 22. We’re heading to San Francisco so Geoff can run the Miwok 100K, and I’ll have some time amid the travels to amp up my bike mileage. We’re going to spend the month of May near Teasdale, Utah, where I can ride and camp in the desert and Boulder mountains and hopefully (hopefully!) adapt to heat and elevation, both big weaknesses of mine, living as I do in a temperate rainforest at sea level. I realize a month isn’t a lot of time to prepare, but it’s more than many people get. The idea for this forlough started out as being all about Geoff’s races and my fun forays into bicycle camping. I also wanted to spend more time focusing on my writing. Adding the GD as a big punctuation mark was a distant dream that started to make more and more sense. Who knows if I’ll be ready come June 11? The worst I can do is fail. But it will be incredibly exciting just to try.

What about your foot?
It's mostly better. My toes are still quite sensitive. I’m hoping the pain continues to wear off so I can start to walk longer distances more comfortably, but I am no longer in danger of doing further damage as long as I don’t freeze them again (possible but very unlikely on the GDMBR in June).

What gear will you take?
Super cool stuff! More to come ...