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. 


  1. Let go of the fact than it's a race. Ride it one pedal stroke at a time, drink every bit of it in and frankly, f#%& the clock. With that kind of mindfulness you'll float down the trail. Best of luck!

    1. I can understand why racing is a contemptible concept to people, especially in the context of an enjoyable and beautiful bicycle touring route. But I value the parameters of the "clock." Outwardly they seem oppressive, but inwardly, they're valuable tools against fear and complacency. I'm keeping my 20-day goal close to my heart, but if I blow it early, I wouldn't quit over that. Ultimately it's arbitrary and meaningless, and I know that.

  2. I echo the above, just enjoy it and let others worry about the clock, you have been there and done that. I hope we can follow you via a gps link. GOOD LUCK AND ENJOY.

  3. This is great news for your readers! Looking forward to the reports and sequel - "Be Brave and Strong, Rinse and Repeat".

  4. I'm so excited that you're going back. I can't wait to live it through your words.

  5. Fantastic Jill ! I was waiting for you decision on this . I just loved "Be Brave Be Strong "

  6. I'm so excited for you...and, selfishly, for myself - I loved Be Brave Be Strong, and I can't wait to follow another one of your journeys.

  7. Awesome! Can't wait to follow your blue dot as it makes it way down the divide for a 20 day finish.

  8. Your first tour divide is where I discovered your blog and amazing exploits. I'm not letting go.
    Have a blast. keep safe.

  9. Whooo Hoooo! I wondered if you would ever do it again. It seemed to be a pivotal race for you. It will be fun to follow you again.

  10. A 20 days goal could also mean a sub-19:03:35 time if all goes well and with a dose of luck? Watch out for Alice Drobna, Czech chicks kick ass as much as Czech dudes do!

    1. The math is not in my favor with Eszter's record. I'm fairly generously giving myself a moving average of 9mph, based on my 2009 pace and recent training. Also, these days it's a gamble to presume that fire detours in Colorado or New Mexico aren't going to derail anyone's record attempt. The record is a cool (unattainable) idea, but I'd rather race myself and the route of 2015.

      I'm looking forward to meet the female contingency this year. Is Alice one who raced before? Besides Eszter, I don't think a woman has finished faster than 22 days, so I'm excited for a strong field to supply motivation.

      I'll know within the first few days if I have a possible ~20-day in me ... after that, a whole lot has to go right. :)

    2. Here's a list of some of the women racing and their finish goals from a cursory glance at the spreadsheet. I didn't see Alice on there, and I'm guessing there are more who aren't on there. I'll add whatever information I find about the women's field to my race resources post before the start.

      Bethany Dunne, rookie, 20 days
      Michelle DuLieu, veteran, 20 days. Couldn't find previous finish times.
      Lindsay Shepard, veteran, 20 days. Previous finish 2014, 30:17:19.
      Eleanor McDonough, rookie, 22 days
      Sarah Dallman, veteran, won in 2013 in 22 days, 19 hours
      Rudiger Muller, returning after a DNF, 23 days
      Jennifer Marsh, rookie, 23 days.
      Hannah Dhonau, rookie, 25 days
      Lynne Slivovsky, rookie, 25 days
      Markéta Marvanová (another Czech chick!), rookie, 25 days
      Rosemary Lee, rookie, 27 days
      Sarah Jansen, rookie, 30 days
      Lisa Downing, rookie, 30 days
      Tracy Burge, veteran, 40 days. I met her on Boreas Pass during the 2012 Divide. Beat and I happened to be in Frisco while he was training for the Hardrock 100. I think her 2012 finish was around 50 days.
      Carolyn McClintock, rookie, 40 days.

      Megan Dunn is a woman from Canmore who was going to race this year, but sprained or tore her LCL in a fall — very similar to an injury I sustained last year during the Tor des Geants. I feel for her.

      And then there's Lael Wilcox from Alaska who is going to destroy all of us handily. She's a natural athlete (fast marathoner) who has been training for years by bicycle touring all over the world. She rode the 2,100 miles from Anchorage to Banff in 19 days, winning the crown for longest bike commute to the start of the Tour Divide.

  11. I started following blogs back in 2008 or 2009 and I soon stumbled across yours. All of that Alaskan scenery and mountainbiking lured me in..... then I read about the Tour Divide. I was hooked instantly and yes, it IS all your fault. ;)
    See you in Banff!

  12. Alice Drobna is going for the Triple crown this year, having just established a new women's record on the AZT

  13. We ran into Tracy Burge at the top of Wilder Ranch (Santa Cruz) this past Saturday! We were admiring her incredible bikepacking rig, and also just chatting in general. I asked and she said she has met you! She also told us that she was going up for the GDR, but likely won't be doing the "Grand Depart", just doing her own thing...she was awesome! Can't wait to follow ALL of you...and GO JILL!!! I'll be rooting for you all the way! Love it that you're doing this again...I like to peek at the Tracker board every few hours every day and see who's where and how fast they're moving, and then TRY to imagine what it's like out there (which is impossible for me but I try). Be safe and kick some trail-butt!

  14. Good luck Jill! Be brave, be strong is still my favorite adventure book, ever. And I've read many. Actually, maybe I should have spent more time training than reading so I that I could be heading towards Calgary as well - instead of being relegated to watching blue dots. ;-) I''ll be curious to read whether and how the much larger field has changed the character of the race. Have a great race, stay brave, stay strong, and let go!

  15. The last two sentences of the first paragraph are quite evocative. Peace on your journey.

  16. You are amazing Jill! Let go and go fast!

    1. Hmm, blogger profile diabled apparently. It's Yukon Jenn ;)

  17. WAHOO!! Enjoy the full expression of your filthy stanky Big-Gulp-guzzling endurance Beast. So stoked for you n Beat hitting seriously gnar adventures on opposite sides of the planet together ? :)
    Have a blast Jill - will be thinking of you both and sending the good vibes.

  18. Adventure! Adventure! ADVENTUUUUUURE! (I'm shouting it. Any Yay! Jills coming to Banff for a visit!)

  19. Great post and good mantra, Jill. But, gosh, you really shouldn't spray paint it on rocks like that!


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