Sunday, June 28, 2009

Free day

I groped my way out of Silverthorne this morning along a series of confusing bike paths. Just when I thought i was home free, I came up on the tail end of a large breast cancer awareness walk. For nearly 10 miles, I weaved through a parade of people wearing pink shirts and waving balloons shaped like breasts. At first I cheered them on, but after four miles, I began to feel herd weary. I blew through Breckenridge and ran into my third human traffic jam up Boreas Pass, with Sunday drivers and bikers crowding the narrow road.

I dropped down the pass into much more lonely country, wide open country without even a tree to pee behind. I was slammed by a couple heavy thunderstorms, dropping hail and mixing up mud. I was pretty muddy when I rolled into Hartsel, which was teeming with bicycle tourists traveling the trans-America route. Everyone was curious about my mountain bike and muddy state, so I spent more than an hour chatting with fellow travelers, including a vehicle-supported group traveling cross-country to raise awareness about affordable housing. They weren't very impressed when I told them I was averaging 100 miles a day. Sigh. Roadies just don't understand.

Still, human contact is a good thing. I returned to lonely country to climb a couple more small passes, and then dropped 3,000 feet into Salida on the most breathtakingly scenic road. Sunlight filtered through curtains of scattered showers over a skyline of 14,000-foot peaks as I buzzed around the narrow edges of sandstone outcroppings. When I reached Salida, I realized that I felt totally fresh, like the 115-mile day didn't even take anything out of me. It felt like a free day. I decided to soak it in and enjoy it, because I'm certain to not get any more of those. :-)

Sent on the go from my Peek

Friday, June 26, 2009

Good luck, bad luck

I was grinding up a loose gravel road, feeling lonely and tired, with a gorgeous sunset fading quickly behind me. I watched my headlight beam bounce off pebbles until it illuminated a sign announcing 10 miles of private land. No tresspassing. I wondered if I would just keep going. I thought i should.

After 10 p.m., I passed the Brush Mountain Outpost. I lingered a moment, envying its comfort and warmth, before continuing up the road. I was about 100 feet past when a woman called out my name. "You hungry?" she asked.

Inside the warm building, she told me she was a fan of the race. She had been tracking everyone and inviting them in for meals and beds. She made mw a quesedilla and fresh fruit. She told me about the things that were going on in the world. She asked if I thought i was doing well in the race. "Well," I said, "If your goal is simply to finish the race, I believe it's 20 percent perseverance and 80 percent luck. So far, I've been pretty lucky."

This morning I left my warm outpost bed to greet the rainy, cold morning. Fog moved in and the showers picked up in intensity as I climbed the Watershed Divide. The descent was rocky, severly muddy and becoming muddier. Patchwork repairs in Rawlins had left me with new front brake pads, terribly worn back brake pads and no spares. I knew my brake situation was sketchy, but I feared the wheel-sucking mud and I wanted to get off that mountain. What I didn't know was that my new front brake pads were rapidly disintigrating to black goo. I didn't find out until a particularly steep, rocky slope. I pressed down on the brake levers and nothing happened.

I panicked and leaned toward the trail, bashing my left knee on a rock amid a geyser of mud and screeching metal. Sharp pain was followed by blunt anger. That was an unlucky thing to have happen.

I adjusted my back brake enough to get it working again. The front was pretty much metal on metal. The rational side of me wanted to walk down, but a deepset fear of mud drove me to ride the back brake all the way to Clark, where I arrived cold, stiff and completely frustrated.

I spent and hour icing my knee, warming my body, and trying to motivate to make the run to Steamboat Spring. I knew I needed to get there quickly to get my bike repaired, but I struggled to find the courage to get back on my bike. My knee was swollen and stiff, and I was in full-on hate mode. Eventually I toughed up, walked around for a while to loosen my knee, hosed myself down and started a slow but painful pedal into town.

My first stop in Steamboat was the bike shop, and despite the late hour of 4 pm, they were amazingly helpful. They put everything aside to refurbish my rear hub, install new brake pads and a new front rotar and caliper, new chainrings, chain and cassette, and sell me a couple spare brake pads. My bike was finally running again, but my knee felt like crap.

While the guys at Orange Peel were working on my bike, I tried to work up the courage to head down the trail tonight. But the stiffness and persistant swelling in my knee combined with more gathering storm clouds convinced me to stay in town, ice the knee, dry my gear and continue searching for courage.

I think my knee injury is just a bruise. So I plan to continue on in the morning. Wish me luck.

Sent on the go from my Peek

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nearly stranded

Despite the daunting combination of heat, wind, desolation, remoteness, and lack of shade, food and water, I had been looking forward to the 140-mile trek across the Great Divide Basin. A big part of that has to do with my ancestry - my great-great-and-so-forth grandparents crossed the plains with the Mormon pioneers in the mid-19th century. They trekked across the Basin in the same area that the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route traverses today. And because of the aforementioned heat, wind, desolation, ect., little about the region has changed. I was excited to get out there and think about all the things they saw and felt, and draw inspiration from their struggle and perseverance.

I left Atlantic City at 5 a.m. beneath a beautiful sunrise and bid goodbye to the last tree for 135 miles. Shortly thereafter, I passed the Willie's Handcart Company historic site, a place where tragedy struck a group of pioneers attempting to cross the Sweetwater River in a winter storm in late October. A great couple that I met at the bar in Atlantic City, Marjane and Terry, told me that the company had been plagued with mechanical problems with their handcarts and had lost several oxen, and because of that had fallen behind schedule and got caught in a Wyoming winter. Many of them died or got frostbite. Pioneer tragedy was on my mind when, about 30 miles in, my freewheel started to slip.

After coasting down a long hill, I tried to pedal and nothing happened. I spun my legs wildly and the bike slowed down rapidly up the next hill. Panic began to set in. Even if I turned around, 30 miles was a long way to walk back to Atlantic City. And I was nearly 100 miles from the highway if I stayed on the route. Jeremy Noble, the closest racer to me, left Atlantic City the night before and was well in front of me. I was all alone. Just me and the pronghorn. Stranded.

Luckily, the hub finally engaged just before I stalled out. I pedaled wildly down a few more hills before I let it coast again. The freewheel froze up, again. More wild spinning would coax it back into gear, but I was beginning to realize that coasting or stopping wasn't a viable option. I might be able to coax it back to life, but what would happen when I couldn't? There were a couple of bailout options along the route, but even the best-case scenerios would put those places at a full day's walk. All of my romantic pioneer fantasies turned to pure stress.

I decided to continue forward on the route and hope I could limp it into Rawlins. It meant near-constant pedaling for 100 miles, which on Day 12 of this hard tour is a tall order. My legs are tired and they like breaks. A couple of times, I had no choice but to stop. I needed to tap into my water reserve, and I couldn't hold it any longer and wasn't quite willing to pee my pants. Each time I stopped, it took a few seconds to get the wheel to engage, but it did improve throughout the day. By the time I hit pavement on a remote county road, I could coast again for decent stretches.

I made it to Rawlins just before the bike shop closed, and talked to a woman there. She told me her mechanic wouldn't be in until 10 a.m. Thursday morning and she wasn't quite sure she had the parts to help me. Beyond the freewheel, I need another set of brake pads, new cables, new cassette and chain, etc. My bike's a bit of a junk show right now. But the freewheel has me worried. If the bike mechanic in Rawlins can't help me, do I risk 130 miles of possible stranding while limping it into Steamboat Springs? Do I have a bike shop in Utah overnight me a whole new wheel?

Because the freewheel just started slipping, and improved throughout the day, I may be able to go on with what I have. Steamboat is the mecca of Great Divide bike repairs, so getting there rather than having stuff done in Rawlins would be ideal. I'm bummed because the Rawlins stop means losing at least six hours that I would otherwise be riding, but worse things can happen. I could be walking a desolate road in the Great Divide Basin.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In Pinedale

I rolled into Pinedale, Wyoming, at about 11 p.m. Monday night after a ride that was, like most days on the Tour Divide, sometimes hellish, usually beautiful, and always intriguing. In the past two days, I crossed the borders of both Idaho and Wyoming with little fanfare, but the real sense of accomplishment has come in how much the landscape has been changing. From aspen groves to high alpine drainages to rolling sage valleys, the land is my gauge of progress. Like everyone else in this year's race, I've been caught in a fair amount of weather, but I've been lucky enough to miss most of the rain on trails where dryness is crucial. I did a long push yesterday around the Brooks Lake loop. It took me nearly three hours to go three miles. The snow pushing was fine - I'm used to it, really - but the muddy areas where the snow had melted had become that wheel-sucking, wet cement mud that freezes up my wheels within seconds. By the time I realized it, it was too late. I had to carry my mud-caked bike about a half mile along the rocky sideslope because my feet were sticking to the trail. Of course, I was cursing my 29-inch wheels and the nonexistent clearance they have on my small frame and the whole Adventure Cycling route that makes us go around Brooks Lake when it's so easy to bypass it. :-)

I really enjoyed the climb up Union Pass. Just took it super slow and enjoyed the views. I was slammed by hard winds at the pass. The south wind was mostly in my face, and when it wasn't, random 50 mph gusts were nearly strong enough to knock me off my bike. I just plowed into it, only slightly annoyed because the high alpine landscape was so beautiful, and I knew I was so far out there, and getting farther away. That's one thing about the Great Divide route that I really enjoy - it really puts you out in places that are far away from anywhere you might normally visit. Forty, fifty, sixty miles of nothing but dirt track and landscape that's changed little in hundreds of years. When I reach the Great Divide Basin, hopefully by Wednesday or possibly even tonight, that's going to be much farther from anything. I like that. Lots of space to think.

I'm not sure about the mileage I've covered so far in my 10 days on the route - more than 1,000. Hard miles. Amazing miles. I honestly didn't believe I'd make it this far, but each new day makes me excited to make it farther.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tough day

I made it across the state line today and rolled into Sawtell, Idaho around 6 pm. It was an 85-mile day that ended about 40 miles short of my goal, but it was definitely one of the tougher days of the trip. John and I left Lima under dark skies and light showers that soon turned to heavy rain. By 10 am, the road had turned to wheel-sucking muck. No matter how much pressure I let out from my tires, I could not stay on top of it. The mud had the consistency of wet cement, and eventually i couldn't coax the tires to turn. For several quarter mile stretches, I had to pick up the bike and carry it along the thorny side of the road as mosquitoes swarmed me. It was pretty ridiculous - one of those situations where I couldn't help but laugh at myself and the idiotic things I get myself into.

After the tiny, remote town of Lakeview, the road surface improved somewhat, but the thunderstorms became more violent. In a particularly terrifying moment, I felt the wet hairs on the back of my neck standing on end when a bright flash of light shot through my peripherial vision, followed instantaneously by a deafening crack of thunder. I could have measured its proximity in feet. I slammed the pedals and amped my speed to 23 mph after spending a whole morning traveling between 2 and 7 mph. As John says, it's amazing what you can do when you're truly motivated. He was already long gone, though, motivated only to get out of the rain.

There will probably be more mud and rain tomorrow, but it is another day. I was bummed that I wasn't able to ride the Livestrong century in Seattle. I was hoping to ride 100 miles in honor of the event, and didn't eve quite hit that. But I wanted to dedicate my 85 miles of mud to Susan Nelson and her brave battle wth cancer, andto all of the many people who donated funds to fight the good fight. Thanks, everyone.
Sent on the go from my Peek

Thursday, June 18, 2009

In Butte

John and I arrived in Butte, Montana, just before midnight Wednesday night after a pretty solid 18-hour day on the bike. It was a tough day, 130 miles with six passes that added up to more than 11,000 feet in climbing. We pushed a lot of the Lava Mountain trail because of mud and huge boulders, but thanks to my GPS and John's memory, we didn't get lost. I was feeling really tired when we rolled into Basin and knew we had 30 miles of boring cattle trail and interstate riding ahead. But I pounded another King-sized Snickers Bar, turned the iPod on my Iditarod mix, and rolled with it. The last five miles into town were my favorite part of the day. It was dumping rain and pitch dark when we crested the pass and caught our first view of the sparkling city lights. After a day working our way through deep woods, rolling meadows and beautiful valleys, it was an amazing sight.

I am having a great time, even at the low times when I am wet and tired. I just checked the progress of the race for the first time since it began. I'm a bit surprised I'm in the thick of it. I really expected to be back of pack. :-) I'm looking forward to the coming days, difficult and daunting as every one of them is.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Back on regular Pepsi

I'm in Lincoln, Montana, after a super mellow day to rest and recharge before what I hope becomes a big push begins. It's funny to think that 65 miles with two decent climbs as a rest day, but that's what it feels like after five days on the Divide. I can feel myself getting stronger every day. My legs have pushed out the ache. My butt cheeks have hardened. I eat Snicker bars and traverse mountains carrying my whole life on a bicycle. Life is simple and good.

Since day 3 I've been traveling with John Nobile, last year's GDR winner who was a contender for this year until his knee went out just north of the border. Now he's touring with me for a few more days. It's been fun to have a traveling companion, especially one who knows the route so well. We've come across four bears on the trail, and he always charges ahead to chase them away, so that's a benefit, too.

I have managed to keep myself healthy and strong subsisting on gummy worms, chocolate, granola bars and peanut butter. I stop for a meal once a day and get the regular soda. It's just not the same. Today, because we had a short, easy day, I went to a gas station and bought 44 ounces of heavily iced diet Pepsi. It was heavenly.

Everything is tastier and more beautiful amid hard effort and continuous movement. I don't know what's going on in the race and really don't think about it all that often. John's usually the one who reminds me. He's all about planning and I'm all about not planning. We've managed to find a good balance so far, and by the time I'm on my own again, I hope I'll have established the perfect groove. The plan for tomorrow is a big day, four passes and 125 miles. I'm nervous, but I feel ready to start pushing. There's so much more big, beautiful country to see.

Sent on the go from my Peek

Saturday, June 13, 2009

In sparwood

Arrived in sparwood at about 10 am after a great first day and a nice long rest in elkford. i'm feeling super strong so far. I'm still going to take it easy for a few more days. Headed out for the reroute 100 miles of strange trail with no services and only a cue sheet to follow. I'm a little nervous about this section, and will be happy to cross the border.

Sent on the go from my Peek

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Going on Tour

Well, it's officially less than 12 hours until I head out with the Tour Divide with the hope of pedaling along 2,700 miles of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Canada to Mexico. It's an impossible concept to swallow right now, so I hope to find the strength to bite it off in small but consistent chunks.

I met a few of the people who will be riding the route, but most of the Tour Divide racers are still strangers to me. I hope to become better acquainted in the next week or two. The fellow crazies and their stories are one of the main reasons I'm here now, along with the scenery, the challenge, the flow and the opportunity to do something for myself. I'm in this for the experience. That's probably obvious to most who read my blog, but if you're waiting to get caught up in the forward-drive "race" of it all, don't expect miracles from me. :-)

A bike mechanic in town graciously gave my bike one last once-over and everything's good to go. It's not ultralight, but it's comfortable and strong, and the things I'm taking keep me comfy and happy. I feel good about it, and anything I get sick of hauling I can always throw away later.

Against the advice of most fast GDR and Tour Divide veterans, my race strategy is to have no strategy. I have a few tentative goals for the first couple nights, but my plan is to be completely flexible. If I push myself to hit rigid goals, I'm going to end up pushing too hard and will likely end up frustrated and burnt out. If I only make it 30 miles one day because I got a few dozen flats or hid from a hail storm, so be it. I plan to start out at a really mellow pace and, after a few days, make adjustments once I start getting "in shape." I plan to eat as much as I can put down and recover every night with lots of sleep. If I can stay healthy, there will be plenty of time later in the race to go fast if the old body and mind will allow.

I don't feel like I'm going into this with a strong race mentality, but that may crop up later if things go well. There appear to be three other women in the Tour Divide besides me. One is riding a fixie; another is riding tandem with her husband; the third is on gears (she's super nice. I met her tonight.) But in this race, which is technically an "individual time trial" event, the main competition is the record. The women's record from border to border (about 2,500 miles) is 21 days, 23 hours, 47 minutes, set by Trish Stevenson in 2005. The women's record for the full route is 28 days, 16 hours and 40 minutes, set by Jenn Hopkins in 2008. Both records are certainly a possibility if things go well (the border-to-border record would have to go really well.) But it's certainly a tasty carrot to reach for. (However, I'm not even going to glance that way until at least the first week is comfortably behind me, so it's pretty unlikely I'll reach it.)

I plan to update my blog occasionally along the trail via my Peek. Coverage has been good so far, and as Elden the Fat Cyclist mentioned to me recently, I'll never be able tell my story if I can't remember most of it. So the on-trail blogging will be my way of taking notes. But there are plenty of other ways to follow the race:

Tour Divide homepage: http://tourdivide.org/

Leaderboard: http://tourdivide.org/leaderboard

My individual tracking page: http://tourdivide.org/leaderboard/2009/individual?name=Jill%20Homer

Racer call-in reports: http://mtbcast.com/wordpress/

My individual call-in page: http://mtbcast.com/wordpress/?page_id=743

Bikepacking forum, where there's sure to be spectator chatter: http://www.bikepacking.net/forum/index.php/board,2.0.html.


Thanks for reading. By grace go I into the Great Divide.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Paradise in a bubble, part two

Right now, I feel happier than I have in a while. I credit both having finally made a definite decision about riding the Divide, and the stunning scenery of the Canadian Rockies. The word "healing place" is overused, especially in the context of the most photographed spots in Canada, but there's a reason these places draw so many people. They really do mean something.

I set out on Leslie's cruiser this morning to check out the first few miles of the Spray River Trail, where the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route begins. I actually meant to go on a few errands, which is why I had the cruiser in the first place, but the trail was in such great shape that it didn't even matter. The weather again was gorgeous - just cloudy enough to block the sun, but warm and dry.

Then, instead of going on my errands, I veered off on some horse trails and ended up at the hot springs, where I parked the bike and set out on foot up the Sulfur Mountain Trail. You can take a gondola up to the top, but the walk is much more fun - about 6 kilometers with 2,500 feet of elevation gain. There was snow at the top. New snow. Not to mention a whole lot of people wearing flip-flops.

But regardless of whether you walk or ride, everyone gets to look at the same scenery.

And the best part about walking to the upper terminal of a gondola is you can have a fountain Diet Pepsi and a $5 brownie at the summit before heading back down.

I spent the afternoon actually doing my errands. It's bad to start a big event in a town with all kinds of outdoor gear stores, because I end up second guessing all of my stuff and buy new, untested things. I switched out gear hours before both Iditarod races, and for this ride I decided to buy a new rain coat. It's probably a good thing. My old one was a soft-shell pullover with no hood, and I don't know what I was thinking. I'm going for the seam-sealed, pull-string bottom, fully waterproof jacket with a hood. Bring on the downpours.

In the evening, Leslie and I drove out to Lake Louise for more hiking. I hiked Sulfur Mountain a little hard and was already feeling it in my quads, so I was hoping for an easy evening stroll. But Leslie is a distance trail runner, so for her easy is 10 kilometers and 1,700 feet of elevation gain.

Probably not the best taper strategy. But, really, is it best to relax before a big push, or is it better to get fired up?

I'm gonna go with fired up.

I have to say, since the only thing I accomplished was buying my food and a new rain coat, which I probably didn't even need, and let more than 4,000 feet of direct impact pound my legs, which they probably also didn't need, that this has been a most unproductive day. And yet I feel so revitalized right now, that if I could go back to this morning, I wouldn't change anything about today.

Thursday is the last day before Tour Divide begins. I hope to do that thing I've been actively avoiding, which is a round-up blog post about the race. But since I also have to do that other thing I've been actively avoiding, which is prepare for the race, I'll have to wait and see if I can find the time. But stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Paradise in a bubble

We arrived in Banff on Tuesday afternoon. I met up with locals Leslie and Keith, who kindly offered me a place to stay during my time in town. Keith took me up to an overlook to survey the lay of the land. "Banff is a town in a national park," Keith said. "There are no scars on the mountains, because there's no mining or logging here. The town is as big as it's going to get, because it has a set footprint and it can't develop any further. We have this great law called the 'need to reside clause,' which means you have to work here to live here, which means there are no million-dollar second homes in the hills. Because of tourism, we're stocked with all the dining and retail options of a good-sized city in a town of 8,000. The biking is incredible, but the trails aren't mapped so they're not crowded. We ski tour all winter. We trail run all summer. As long as this is a national park, nothing is going to change. That's not the real world down there."

"So, basically, it's paradise in a bubble," I said.

Keith smiled. "Exactly."

We toured the town on a tandem cruiser. It was my first time on a tandem bike. Before we climbed on, Keith gave me a stern warning - "You can't steer and you can't brake. It's definitely not for control freaks." I quickly realized that literally the only thing I needed to do was spin my legs, and the rest of me could gaze around, snap photos and daydream to my heart's content. Really, that's my kind of riding.

I only have two days to explore this little bubble of paradise before I head back into the real world, in a sense. Keith showed me pictures of a hike he and Leslie did this morning, through a couple inches of fresh snow (it fell last night!) By the time I arrived in town, the weather was sunny and mild, about 15 degrees Celsius with almost no wind, and looking to stay beautiful for at least the next few days. It seems every time I travel through Canada, I hit the ideal weather windows. I have this theory that Canada loves me, at least in the short term. Here's hoping that love affair continues.

In Canada

We just crossed the border into Alberta after spending the night in Great Falls. The weather has been cool and cloudy with lows in the 30s and the snow line low on the mountains. Currently, we're out of sight from the peaks. The rolling prairie reminds me of the simple joys of life on the bike. I'm starting to feel much more excited about the prospect. I love the paradox of fast touring. Life is never so simple and at the same time never so hard as life on a bike. To me, it's the ultimate way to live ... Moving in the open through open space, breathing clear air, drinking fresh water, consuming all the beauty and joy and pain that a body can possibly absorb, through the filter of fatigue that so effectively removes all the white noise and gray emotions of that other kind of life, real life.

And then there's the race. I'm getting more excited about that, too. There's a post in my sidebar under the heading "Some of my better posts" called "Dear Canada, Fear me." I wrote it a year ago, but it remains relevant. :-)

Sent on the go from my Peek

Monday, June 08, 2009

Testing remote blogging

I'm currently traveling up i-25, just north of Casper, Wyo. I had a fun visit in Denver. My aunt mapped me out a scenic bike ride in Castle Rock that ended up following a century that just happened to be going on at the same time. Toward the end, I passed a few people who seemed completely wrecked plowing into a 30 mph headwind. The sky was nearly black, with swirling clouds that threatened tornadoes (i found out later that one touched down nearby.) One lone roadie bent over his aerobars looked at me with bloodshot eyes and asked me what I had in my bags. I told him ... Camping gear, food, rain clothes. "Why so much?" he asked. I shrugged. "You never know." He shook his head. I think he was bummed that a severly overprepared mountain biker caught him. I should have told him I wasn't even riding the century. I was 40 miles into a fairly lax ride with only another two miles to go. But then I wondered how I would feel if our roles were swiched, and I was a wrecked Divide rider being passed by fresh century cyclists. I'd really just rather not know.

The road trip with the Pleskos has been fun. I get to ride in back with the bikes. Kim looks like a hog next to Chris's singlespeed. He weighs his chapstick! I feel more intimidated than ever, but I'm just going to let it roll.

Sent on the go from my Peek

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Enjoying the last days

My sister came out today and helped me box up my bike. As we hoisted it into the truck, she said, "Are you going to be able to carry this across the airport?" "I better," I said. "After that, I have to carry it across the country."

We started down the road as dark clouds billowed over the Oquirrh Mountains and a swirl of dust obscured the valley below. "Are you nervous?" she asked. "Kind of," I said. "I mean, it's not like this is it. I'm just flying to Denver. But it feels like this is my last chance to bail out. Once I get on a plane, it's going to be a lot tougher to back out."

The past few days in Salt Lake City have passed by in a blur. I've spent a total of an hour riding my bike since I returned from Heber on Tuesday. There just hasn't been time. I've had too much to do ... get a few last-minute things fixed on my bike, sort and re-sort my gear, track down charger tips for all of my miscellaneous electronic devices, print out map notes, and wander around REI looking for that secret item that will fix all of my problems. In what little time I wasn't muddling through preparations, I squeezed in the things I wanted to do before I left Salt Lake ... lunch in the Avenues, a hike on Mount Olympus, shooting engagement pictures for my baby sister, my first post-breakup date at a humorously bad baseball game, touring the Oquirrh Mountain Temple with old friends, a big sushi dinner and a late-night heart-to-heart with my sisters. To my sisters, especially, I want to say thanks. It was eye-opening to realize that even though we lead very different lives, we're all fighting similar battles and yes, we're all going to be OK.

So I'm spending Sunday with my aunt and uncle in Denver, and on Monday I head out with Chris and Marni Plesko en route to Banff. I'm going to spend a few days in town and then my plan - hope - goal - is to roll south on Friday with the Tour Dividers.

I have several reasons for opting out of the Great Divide Race. First of all, the GDR starts June 19. Despite the extra 200 or so miles of Canada, starting June 12 still gives me a better time window to actually finish the thing. Second, the Tour Divide has about 40 people on its start list.
Even though I’m likely to end up riding most if not all of the race on my own, having other people in the periphery - just knowing there are other nuts out there working through the same challenges - can be beneficial. Meeting these nuts is also a big part of why I like to participate in organized events such as the Divide races, as opposed to embarking on my own fast tour. The Great Divide Race has no published start list. I would guess a majority of people who plan to show up for that race are dedicated racer types, going for the record. The clock would start, they’d shoot off the front, and that’s it. All alone. For most of a month.

And finally - and this is the rule I did the most soul-searching about - is that silly cell phone rule. Tour Divide allows the use of cell phones. GDR does not. No cell phones in a race setting actually makes the most sense. It is easy and probably very tempting to use them to arrange outside support - either calling ahead to make hotel reservations, order a pizza, or tell your friends to show up at this intersection at this time with a spare tire and cold drinks. So GDR banned use of phones. Tour Divide organizers argue that racers are responsible for their own ethics. It’s a solo “time trial” anyway. If you want to cheat, nothing is going to stop you. I’ve always been fine with the non-use of cell phones. In fact, I didn’t even own one until early February. But now I feel like my situation has shifted. Going almost-completely-out-of-touch solo doesn't appeal to me the way it used to. This summer has been tougher than normal. I’ve had random periods of time where I slip into that dark, lonely place that’s so hard to climb out of. In these situations, I’ve usually been around my family and friends, who have helped me cheer up and put things into perspective. I recognize that a cell phone is only going to work about 5 percent of the time on the GDMBR. I realize that I’m always going to slip into that dark, lonely place when I’m the furthest from cell phone range. But, to be perfectly honest, just having the knowledge that at some point I’ll have the ability to call my mommy or my sisters and let them talk me off the ledge is very … comforting. Call it an emotional crutch. That’s exactly what it is.

The GDR is a solo-driven challenge. It’s a racer’s event. I respect everything about it. I’ve just, over the course of deciding what I really want out of this ride, realized that GDR goes deeper into the racing aspect of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route than I’m ready for. It's a freakin month for crying out loud. I really need to approach this as a bike tour - one in which I actually will have occasional fun and not suffer the whole time - if I’m to even have a shot at succeeding. My goal is still to complete the course in less than 25 days. I recognize that there’s still an ideological divide between the two races, and by choosing one, I’m essentially choosing sides (which I hate to do. I have deep respect for the pioneers on both sides of the border.) But I have to do what’s right for me. In the end, I’m the one who has to ride it.

So that’s where I stand right now. The pilot just turned on the fasten-seatbelt sign, which means I’ll soon be landing in the city where I was born, which means it’s time to stop typing. But I’ll try to keep up with the posting en route to Banff to talk about a couple other things - LIVESTRONG fundraising and the ride in Seattle; final gear choices; the awesome community of endurance cyclists, etc. Thanks again to everyone who has supported me, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Darlin don't you go and cut your hair

I told the 19-year-old stylist at Supercuts to lop off at least a foot. She talked me down to 9 inches. "You'll still be able to pull it back," she said. "I just want something light for summer," I said. What I meant to say is, "I just want something that's not going to snarl into one massive dreadlock that I'll never be able to untangle after it's coated in several days' worth of sweat, dirt and sunscreen."

It's a small thing, but it matters - a physical act, something tangible to remind me that I'm on track to do that which I came down here to do, which is ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I've been somewhat pulled back from that goal for most of my trip south. That's probably been obvious ... the lack of direction in my "training," the radio silence about a looming big ride at the end of all of this frivolous vacationing. I've continued to prepare for the possibility, but in the back of my mind I've been searching for ways to back out of the whole thing without inciting the rage of my coworkers, who have suffered through my long furlough and at this point expect tangible results.

I've just had a hard time getting my head in the game. It would be easy to blame my recent breakup for my plunging stock in bike passion, but to be perfectly honest there were hints before April 20. The Iditarod, disaster that it was, never had time to approach that mental "race space" wherein I experience the pure joy of unhindered moment-to-moment living. The only race I participated before that was the 24 Hours of Light - as the only solo woman and, after about eight hours, with a nearly uncontested second-place standing and no prayer reaching first place. Continuing to ride through the night was fun but ultimately a practice in insanity - doing the same hard thing over and over and hoping for different results. My Kokopelli trip was scenic and fun, but still somewhat disappointing because I couldn't have completed it without the considerable support I ended up receiving from Geoff. In fact, the only endurance biking I've done since the 2008 Iditarod that had any sense of accomplishment wasn't a race at all. It wasn't even a difficult goal. It was a vacation ... bike touring the Golden Circle in late September. And the reason it was so rewarding? Because it was hard, and I suffered, and I continued to push through it, and it only got better as I went. And I did it completely on my own.

Therein lies my doubt ... and also the reason why I still need to head out there and give it a shot. I know to even attempt something as hard as this, a person has to have their head completely locked in the task, and, like I said, I'm just not sure it's there. But there's also the fact that I'm drifting right now more than I have in a long time, and a chance to immerse myself in a single-minded task, a chance to do something completely on my own, may be exactly what I need.

Then there's the simple fact that all I'm really doing is going out and riding my bike - something that, through it all, I still really enjoy. The GDMBR in 25 days or less may be impossible but it's certainly worth a shot. And if I don't finish, who cares? I've come close enough to not even starting that any mileage on that route is probably going to feel like an accomplishment.

I bought a plane ticket to Denver that leaves on Saturday. From there, I'm heading with friends up to Banff. I'm starting to get more excited and nervous about the endeavour - both good things. I'm not ready. But who really is? It's just a bike tour, I keep telling myself. Just another bike tour. I've done it before - two months' worth, back when I was in much worse shape and barely knew how to ride a bike. So what if the daily grind on the GDMBR is at least three times as hard? I'm just going to follow the Mountain Turtle, Kent Peterson style, peanut M&Ms and all, and see where it takes me.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Wish you were here

Dear Pugsley,

How are things going up there in Juneau? It's been a while, hasn't it? Last time I saw you, leaning against boxes in that dark storage unit, you looked a little forlorn. I thought I'd take the time to drop you a line and say hello. I hope it cheers you up.

As you know, I've been down in the States, trying to wrap my head and legs around this whole summer biking thing. It's hard! Much harder than I anticipated. When you swerve out of control down a patch of scree, there's nothing soft on the ground to cushion the blow. And everything around here is bumpy. We're talking boulder fields that could break teeth (and spokes and derailleurs.) But for the most part, it's been going well. Just this past weekend, I took an overnight trip to the Uintas. You would have liked it there, Pugsley.

I left Heber in the early afternoon on Sunday, climbed to Kamas and aimed at getting over the pass on Highway 150. I was hoping to connect with some gravel and work my way down to the Weber River. The pavement just climbed and climbed and climbed, right into a down-canyon headwind. Now, I know how much you adore climbing (Ha! Remember the last time we climbed Eaglecrest? I think you tried to roll backward.) But I could have used you near the top. The pavement was getting precarious.

I hit the end of bikeable road at about 10,700 feet. Temps had been pretty cold and the once-groomed snowpack was just crusty enough to allow fairly easy travel on foot. Kim's tires, on the other hand, just wanted to dig in. I kept thinking, "If only I had Pugsley, I could probably summit this pass and drop down the other side." It probably would have turned into a slushy postholing nightmare. It was, after all, the last day of May. But as I looked into an expanse of white, I missed snowbiking. And I missed you.

Anyway, Kim and I had to turn around and form a new plan. My map showed six forest roads and trails heading north off 150, and I decided to try them out and see what I could find.

"Break up" is happening in full force up in the mountains right now, which means nearly unlimited sources of water ... and mud. I could have really used you on some of those forest roads. Sticky, gloppy muck occasionally grabbed my wheel, but I could usually find a way to steer around it.

And, of course, once we were high enough, all roads ended in snow. It was pretty much a given ... at about 9,000 feet, patches of snow started to interrupt the gravel. By 9,500 feet, the roads were impassable. As I moved down the highway, I had to climb further to reach the dead end. But it was always there, in some muddy unscenic spot, just waiting to mock me and the 2,000 feet of effort I had just wasted.

It wasn't all a waste, though. While looking for a lake that I never found (probably took a wrong turn or several in there somewhere), I stumbled across a great campsite next to a swollen creek. You would have been so proud of me, Pugsley - I managed to start and sustain my own raging campfire (Remember that time I spent an hour trying to light some frozen twigs next to Herbert Glacier? Ha!) This time, I didn't even need fire to survive, and I built one anyway! It felt so luxurious. In keeping with my theme of simple gas station foods as a source of bike trip calories, I ate Corn Nuts, peanut M&Ms and CarboRocket for dinner by the fire. It was delicious. Now, I don't need your nutrition lectures, Pugsley. People cook up fancy freeze-dried dinners on their stoves and still get the same calories, carbs, fat and protein, but they need to carry and prepare all that crap. Keep it simple. You taught me that.

Temps were cold that night. I saw 37 on the thermometer before I went to bed. It likely dropped to freezing before sunrise. I know to you that sounds warm, but I'm traveling much lighter down here. I have a sleeping bag that's only rated to 32 (positive!) and didn't know how well it would perform on the margins. I'm pleased to report that it worked beautifully. I slept eight and a half solid hours and likely snored the whole time. I probably would have slept even longer, but this young buck wandered into my camp and wouldn't leave. He approached within a few feet of my bag while I was snoozing. I went into full-on "bear" mode, jolted upright in a near-panic and looked right at him. He hardly even flinched. It was almost as though he was just curious about me. Now, don't be jealous, Pugsley. When I say young buck, I mean he was actually a deer. You know you're still my one and only.

Morning brought more forest road exploration. Man, these Uinta roads are rough. I could have really used you, Pugsley. When you and I go mountain biking, we can just monster-truck over everything and not even break our line. With the skinny tires, I have to display a lot more finesse. A lot more than I have. Front suspension and all. I did a lot of walking on the uphills. A lot more than I needed to. But then, you know all about hike-a-biking, Pugsley. I think even you'd admit that it's a nice break from the constant turning of pedals.

Still, I'm getting more comfortable every day. Don't fret, Pugsley. I will eventually return to the land of rain and snow. But I remain in awe of Utah's sweeping beauty, in all of these places that until now where vague images from a distant past. I love the desert, but I still think Utah saves its best for the high country. Maybe it's because the alpine is so similar - sometimes achingly so - to Alaska.

With the exception of being dead-ended on every route I tried, the overnight ride went beautifully and I got everything I needed out of it. I was rained on several times, enough to soak my outer layer and show me that I can keep myself warm and my sleeping gear dry in wet and cool conditions. I slept out in near-freezing temperatures. I pedaled my way to near 11,000 feet and didn't pass out, although I have to admit I was wheezing. I ended with about 140 miles of pedaling, 12,000 feet of climbing, 30 pretty pictures, 12 hours of luxury camping with my bivy and a bold young buck, all in the span of just over 27 hours. The day went by amazingly fast. I just rode my bike and everything else fell into place.

It was a tough ride but not overly so. I went out for 10 more miles with my friends in the evening. I could get used to this lifestyle, and maybe I'll have to. Either way, I'll have to return to real life someday. I hope until then you don't collect too much dust. Winter will be here before you know it.

Miss you.

Love, Jill