Saturday, July 11, 2015

The best day

Me, Katie Monaco, and Lael Wilcox in Banff. It was great to hang out with these ladies before the race.
I've been meaning to ask Katie how long she wore those flip-flops.
 I spent most of the day before the start of the Tour Divide feeling slightly embarrassed. As the streets of Banff filled with cyclists, people stopped me to say they read my book, thanked me for the tips and inspiration, and asked questions. My face flushed and my friend Leslie teased me about being a "Tour Divide celebrity." I hardly felt like an expert. Let others decide the best gear and strategy; I'm just a tourist with platform pedals, a backpack, and no chamois. I can't offer secrets for success any more than I can offer guarantees. When pressed for advice, I'd answer, "Just stay flexible."

 Some asked me what's changed since 2009. I love that having raced the Tour Divide a mere six years ago — when organized Divide racing was already six years old — gives me status as an "old-timer." My answer was, "it's not all that different." There were 152 starters this year, as opposed to 48 in 2009. When I compare that to the 2,500 runners I've lined up with at UTMB, it's still a trickle. But it warmed my heart to see more people embracing this journey. "Everyone seems more prepared, like they understand better what they're getting into," I'd say. "In 2009, Matt Lee just handed us a cue sheet to the new Flathead Valley section at the start. It was up to us to find an unofficial GPS track, which was an older version of the border-to-border route, and a lot of people still relied on only maps. 'Ride the Divide' wasn't out yet. There wasn't all that much info on the Internet. We didn't have a clue."

Geez, I was starting to sound like a curmudgeon.

 But I did wonder what it would be like, returning to all these places I'd been before, now that I had something of a clue. My goals for the Tour Divide still weren't completely clear to me. Last fall, when I was down with injury following the Tor des Geants and Beat signed up for the Freedom Challenge, I told him I didn't want to commit to a long race in 2015. I hoped to plan an Alaska bike tour in March and maybe a week-long backpacking trip in the Sierras or Montana while he was in South Africa. "Maybe I'll sign up for UTMB," I shrugged, because damn it, I really want to complete a loop around Mont Blanc. Alpine foot races had dragged me through a series of failures that — I have to be honest — have hurt my self esteem. Beyond that, I've thought it would be healthy to take a step back from endurance racing, and try to renew my perspective on the outdoors and adventure.

 And here I was, back at the longest mountain bike race in the world. I've never made good on these promises to myself to take a step back, and true to character, I came home from Alaska and immediately signed up for the 2016 Iditarod Trail Invitational — the full thousand-mile race to Nome. This is something I've wanted so much, and been so afraid of, for so many years. I greatly admire people like Beat who have been able to jump into the Iditarod head-first, when I couldn't make the leap. A thousand snowbound miles is too long, I'd say, and I'm too weak. Struggles during the Freedom Challenge and injury during the Tor des Geants left me feeling even weaker. Then I embarked on my tour along the west coast of Alaska in a show-stopping windstorm (it brought the entire mid-pack of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race to a screeching halt.) It took me four days to cover the first 60 miles, often amid a struggle so great that I genuinely wondered if forward motion had become impossible. Why would I even dream of the race to Nome, given my sorry lack of strength?

"I'm going to need to do some serious preparation," I said to Beat. "Maybe I should ride the Tour Divide again."

 The Tour Divide is obviously much, much more than a training ride. It's a soul-rending journey in the best of circumstances, and one can hardly expect the best circumstances over three weeks of near-constant motion across 2,700 miles of muddy roads, big climbs, rocky descents, remote forests and arid deserts. But the desire to begin preparing for the Iditarod planted the seed, and embarking on training rides with Beat and Liehann solidified my desire. I love to ride my bike all day long. Here was a ready-made excuse for an endurance-minded summer bike tour, on a route I enjoyed, where logistics and planning were simpler because I'd done it before.

 My goals for the 2015 Tour Divide were to keep moving as much as possible, and try to finish in the 20- to 21-day range. I'd given the day-to-day strategy a fair amount of thought since my 24-day finish and 2009, and decided this would be a challenging but realistic goal. I planned to make every effort to keep the necessary 130-miles-per-day average, try to bank extra miles for inevitable setbacks, but still stop and rest for four to five hours a night to avoid falling apart. This is about as methodical as I get, but the combination of experience and a numbers-specific plan did inspire confidence. Nerves didn't really set in until after the start, as tandem racers Billy Rice and his daughter Lina led the neutral roll-out through Banff. I peeled off the peloton at the Spray River trailhead and rode up to my friends.

"I just need one more hug," I whimpered to Keith. "I feel so scared all of the sudden."

Keith indulged me for the ninety seconds it took to start at the very back of the pack. And just like that, I felt better.

 From Banff, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route cuts south through a series of narrow valleys flanked by craggy peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Many agree it's the most stunning section of the route, even though it tends to rile up the mountain runner in me: "Why can't we just go up there? Why do we always have to be stuck down here?" But I love that my bicycle allows me to travel so efficiently through these wild places, taking in many miles of jaw-dropping scenery in a matter of hours.

 I settled into a comfortable pace and leaned back on the saddle, cruising happily. There were frequent stops for photos and snack breaks, which wasn't part of the plan. But, hey, it was only the first day of a very long race. Decisions I made on this day didn't matter that much, anyway. Dark clouds began to blur the mountains surrounding Spray Lakes Reservoir, and then the rain moved in, dropping the temperature to 6C (43F. My digital thermometer was set to Celsius.) The sudden onslaught of cold air was exhilarating, and I was surrounded by a larger group of riders who I knew were going to bottleneck in the upcoming section of singletrack, so I didn't stop to put on my coat. The rain makes me feel so alive! But then my fingers went numb, and soon my legs felt kind of dead, and finally I stopped to pull on my eVent jacket and mitten shells. By then I was shivering forcefully.


As the trail wove through the forest, precipitation had become noticeably thick and white — snain. In the surrounding mountains, snowline descended nearly to the valley floor, and my thermometer had dropped to 4C. My base layer was soaked and I was not warming up. "That was dumb," I thought, and made an effort to increase my pace. Despite my cold body, I was riding a wave of joy, so happy to be moving through the world with nothing on my agenda but more miles. I munched on shelled pistachios and grinned as I stood and sprinted, then sat and soft-pedaled, shifting the pressure points on my feet and stretching my back, windmilling my arms and taking deep breaths, doing everything I thought needed to do to help my body adjust to all biking, all the time.


 There was this nostalgia factor, too — a window into the past that was already opening wide. Rain poured down and I cycled through memories that hadn't crossed my mind in years. Smooth spinning carried me around the Kananaskis Lakes, and I finally regained feeling in my extremities on the steep climb up Elk Pass. The descent was a comedy of bike racing. Everyone was hopped up on adrenaline and passing each other aggressively, slicing through the greasy mud and launching into puddles with no regard for delicate bike parts that wouldn't see real service for hundreds of miles. I watched two guys crash in front of me in quick succession, and then I skidded off the trail and flew over the handlebars into thick brush. I lost my bear spray in this crash, although I didn't realize it at the time. If I wasn't covered in mud before, I definitely was by then, but I could only giggle about it. A few miles later, an ambulance passed while negotiating the slimy road to collect a rider who was badly injured.

On the road into Elkford, we encountered our first patches of death mud — you know, the kind of mud that collects on a bike's tires and frame until wheels won't turn at all. The secret to death mud is to try and power through it, but power mudding is exhausting, extremely hard on drivetrains, and impossible for weaklings like me. Walk and the mud will probably pull your shoes off, if you wear them a size and a half too big like I do. Death mud can be incredibly frustrating, but I had a bemused attitude about it on this day. I passed Arizona rider Elliot DuMont as he was tearing into what looked like a full-sized baguette. We rode together for a stretch, and I enjoyed his animated company. I can be standoffish during these types of events — not intentionally, but socializing with strangers takes a lot energy that I don't necessarily have to spare. Long, solo races like the Tour Divide are full of introverts, and we don't always find the best ways to connect. It's nice to meet naturally social people who tell engaging stories and have a good sense of humor about death mud.

The bulk of the mid-pack was thoroughly wet and shivering by the time we reached Elkford, which is 110 miles from Banff. I stopped into a convenience store to restock for the next 170 miles to Eureka, so I wouldn't need to go into Sparwood, which I figured would be mostly closed by the time I arrived. Inside the store, eight other riders were huddled around counters and smearing mud pretty much everywhere. I felt bad for the employees, but it was marginally warm inside the building, and I was desperate for a hot drink. I filled a cup with coffee and dumped about four creamers into it — a strange thing for me to do, as I usually drink coffee black. But I tend to make odd food choices in the heat of battle, and always arrive at the conclusion that calories are calories and the specifics probably don't matter much.

"This is the most amazing thing ever," I announced to the others as I downed the sickly sweet brown water. I microwaved a frozen mystery meat sandwich and purchased a large bag of nuts, a block of cheese, some energy bars, some chips, and one bag of candy. The specifics of calories may not matter too much, but I was determined to get more protein this time around.

Most of the other riders at the convenience store seemed reluctant to leave town, and there was talk of sharing rooms at the only hotel in Elkford. I had no interest in calling it a day. I felt like I was finally warming up, and was surprised when my legs balked on the climb out of the valley. "I guess I do have a hundred miles on them," I thought. Elliot caught up to me at the Josephine Falls trail, and we fumbled around for a bit, trying to discern the correct route from a maze of fading logging roads and deer trails winding through clear-cut forests. After descending a faint singeltrack, we landed in a morass of the worst death mud. Elliot and I plowed forward in good humor. "I just lubed my chain!" Elliot exclaimed with indignation, and I laughed. After a few hundred feet my bike locked up completely, but when I tried to pick it up, I couldn't because it was at least thirty pounds heavier than before.

"Argh," I'm so weak, I grumbled. I picked up a stick to scrape mud from the frame and continued shoving the locked-up wheels through sludge.

Daylight faded completely as we dropped off the muddy logging roads onto the gradual paved descent into Sparwood. Alice caught us at the highway and I soon fell off the back. I suppose that's embarrassing, as Alice was on a singlespeed, but I expected that most everyone was a faster rider than me. The road into Sparwood was choked with cars leaving some kind of Friday night event, and I was annoyed by all the traffic. I had everything I needed, so at the turnoff to town I just continued straight and quickly put the chaos behind me.


I didn't have a plan for the next stretch, but already figured I'd just ride until 1 a.m. and then set an alarm for 5 a.m. As I pedaled along the highway, shivering set in again. I amended my plan to stop shortly after the turnoff to Corbin Road, so I could crawl into my sleeping bag and get warm. Ten miles past Sparwood, I rode down a steep path and found a nice, secluded spot next to the river. Clouds had cleared out entirely, and the sky was splattered with stars. As I unrolled my bivy and tried to remember the steps to this bedtime routine, I noticed that the puddles surrounding my campsite were already glazed with ice.

"It's going to be a cold night," I thought. This realization should have made me uneasy — I was already cold, my clothes were still wet, and I was relying on a seven-year-old sleeping bag that was never rated for temperatures below freezing. My bear spray was gone and just a few minutes earlier I heard coyotes yipping. But all I felt was an encompassing sense of tranquility. I'd been on the move for 16 hours and traveled 150 miles through the Canadian Rockies, and I found what I came here to find — peace. My moving tunnel of peace.

I crawled into my sleeping bag, still shivering, and hoped I'd warm up soon. Having finally stopped long enough to relax, I realized that my throat was quite sore. Also, my lungs had a strange, scratchy feeling with I breathed.

"Damn, I hope I'm not catching a cold," I thought. But I wasn't too worried. I don't get sick all that often. Beat will catch a cold that will take him out for a week, and I'll catch the same virus, get a runny nose for a day, and move on. Little cold viruses had nothing on the challenges I was going to face in the coming weeks, and I knew it, because I'd been here before. I shrugged off my sore throat, curled into a ball, and shivered myself to sleep. 

13 comments:

  1. "Argh, I'm so weak".

    Jill, you are so NOT weak...OMG...you are the NOT WEAKEST person I know (albeit one that I've not yet had the honor to actually meet in person). Obviously you speak only of straight-up physical strength...because you are a mental GIANT! In 09 you did this race almost on a whim, and set the new women's record if I recall...24 days and some hours...that's TWENTY FOUR STRAIGHT DAYS riding your bike for a ridiculous number of hours each and every day through whatever mother nature threw your way! Pure physical strength is only a small part of events like this. There you were in this current race, riding in a freezing downpour, then death mud, yet somehow having an upbeat attitude with 2600 miles of riding still ahead of you! Everybody else is hovering inside a gas station not wanting to go on, and there YOU are talking about a horrid cup of gas station coffee like it was liquid gold! That is attitude, and you have that in spades!

    I'm so excited that you are now telling your tale from the beginning! Already you have me totally sucked in, anxiously awaiting the next installment (even though we sadly know how this trip ended).

    Hope your recovery is going well... it's time to let your body win it's battles.

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  2. Jill - So glad to read more of your Tour Divide experience this time around. Such good writing...can't wait to read more.

    Hope you are recovering well and gaining back your strength.

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  3. How many of those 152 riders did your book, at least partially, inspire to try the race for the first time?

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    1. The impression I got was that many (most?) folks were initially inspired by the film "Ride the Divide," and then read my book later while researching the race.

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    2. There's a movie? Watching it now on Amazon!

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  4. I followed your posts last time you rode in 2009 and am looking forward to the reading about your adventures this time.

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  5. Just a suggestion, but maybe you should add an epilogue to "Be Brave, Be Strong" that would include your most recent Tour Divide experience.

    BTW, I sent you a question via email but will also include it here: Do you make more money from a person buying the paperback version of your books than the Kindle version? I'm going to purchase a copy of "Ghost Trails" and want to buy whichever gives you the larger amount of $$.

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    1. Thank you! With Ghost Trails, I actually receive about the same royalty for the paperback and eBook, even thought he eBook is only $2.99. The paperbacks are distributed by an old publisher that I commissioned in 2008, and their royalty system is fairly terrible. I've been meaning to create a new edition of Ghost Trails, but for now I'm still focusing on new projects. Thanks again!

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  6. "My bear spray was gone"--does that mean it had been used up warding off bears or did you just lose it?!

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    1. The spray tumbled out of my pack in a crash earlier in the day (the one I described on Elk Pass.) I intended to look for new bear spray in Whitefish, but admit that I never acquired another one. During the race I only saw one bear from a far distance, near Helena, so it must have been a black bear.

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    2. Whew, that's definitely a better kind of gone.

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  7. hi! since youre wondering about the flip flops... i ended up wearing them a little bit more than half of the time. i usually wore my regular shoes in the morning and at night but i actually did a lot of the hike-a-bikes in the flip flops. they made the water crossings and muddy sections a little bit less of a hassle. but it just comes down to the fact that they are so damn comfortable and since i do so much commuting in them and ive brought them on every bike tour ive done so they just feel natural. by no means are they the safest choice (i never said i was a role model) but i did luck out with the weather being so warm. but still, my feet are comfortable while pedaling in them in temps as low as 45 degrees F. you wouldnt believe how many comments i got from other riders!! i never knew what to say, i dont even know that it needs an explanation anyways... after the first couple days of people wondering who this crazy girl in flip flops is, i was just like "dont believe me just watch" hahaha... i will definitely bring them next time!

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  8. hi! since youre wondering about the flip flops... i ended up wearing them a little bit more than half of the time. i usually wore my regular shoes in the morning and at night but i actually did a lot of the hike-a-bikes in the flip flops. they made the water crossings and muddy sections a little bit less of a hassle. but it just comes down to the fact that they are so damn comfortable and since i do so much commuting in them and ive brought them on every bike tour ive done so they just feel natural. by no means are they the safest choice (i never said i was a role model) but i did luck out with the weather being so warm. but still, my feet are comfortable while pedaling in them in temps as low as 45 degrees F. you wouldnt believe how many comments i got from other riders!! i never knew what to say, i dont even know that it needs an explanation anyways... after the first couple days of people wondering who this crazy girl in flip flops is, i was just like "dont believe me just watch" hahaha... i will definitely bring them next time!

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