Friday, December 25, 2020

Wild Winter Way

It started, as most endeavors have in 2020, with widespread cancellations. One by one, all of our winter races dropped from our calendars — the Tuscobia Winter Ultra, Fat Pursuit, Arrowhead. My favorite social media group, the "Wild Winter Women," proposed putting together a virtual race for the final weeks of the year. If there's anything that makes my heart happy during this isolated holiday season, it's watching other women embrace the joys of the winter slog. I took on the role of de facto race director, in that I set up a Web site and promised to publish results afterward. The premise of Wild Winter Way was effectively "do what you want." But as a nod to Tuscobia, we established the long distance at 160 miles. 

160 miles was an intriguing distance for a winter bicycle ride — something that could be done in a single day, although once you factor a hilly course with mixed snow and ice, grinding the high resistance of studded tires, and carrying the requisite supplies necessary for a full day out in cold temperatures, maybe just barely. I wanted to start from home and make a big loop east of the Continental Divide while mostly avoiding the urban corridor. I had fun drawing up a route that was exactly 160 miles — with 21,000 feet of climbing — following snow-packed gravel roads, unmaintained back roads, and long paved climbs. The best bike for the job, I decided, was my good ol' Moots 29er: mostly because it's my most comfortable bike. Also, with aggressive studded tires, it's arguably my most capable bike for winter road riding. Fat bikes can do almost anything, but because they're designed to float rather than dig in, they tend to wash out in the sand-snow chunder so common on rural roads. 

I packed three liters of water, about 4,000 calories of food — mostly cheese sticks, banana bread and ham sandwiches — three batteries for a handlebar light, one helmet light, one spare headlamp, a water filter, wind pants and jacket, two puffy jackets, primaloft mittens, mitten shells, spare hat, socks, neck warmer, extra buffs, a mask, assorted electronics, full repair kit and pump, spare tube, and assorted personal items. The forecast called for a high of 48 degrees in Golden, where I expected to be at noon, and an overnight low of 15 in Ward, where I hoped to be at midnight. What was daunting about the weather was the wind. We were pummeled with 60 mph gusts in the days leading up to the ride. Although the forecast called for slightly lower wind speeds on Monday, the ongoing whistles and howls through my restless night convinced me that I'd probably have to face the teeth of the gale. 

My planned "race date" was the Winter Solstice — the shortest day of the longest #$&! year of our lives. With sunrise at 7:20 a.m. and sunset at 4:38 p.m., I had 9 hours and 18 minutes of daylight to work with, which is a lot, really, when you think about it. I remember reading somewhere that everywhere on Earth receives more or less the same amount of daylight over the span of a year — Alaska greedily consumes all of theirs during the summer and endures deprivation through the winter.  The equator dutifully doles out daylight in equal rations all year long. These mid-latitudes swing between 15 and 9 in either direction, which ... eh. Is there really that much difference in the modern era, when most of us spend day and night in front of screens? Yet, it is fun to celebrate Solstice — that time of year when the sun is most angled over these gentle latitudes, and color and light are infused with a richness that you never see in June. 

I headed out at 6:15 a.m. The temperature was 34 degrees and winds were still gusting well over 30 mph. An ominous if beautiful sunrise portended a difficult battle — "sailors take warning" and all that.  Buffeted by gusts, I had to engage a hard effort just to reach Flagstaff Road — two miles with a steep descent and a 500-foot climb. "I can't afford to burn all these matches right out of the gate," I thought. I also started shivering. 34 degrees isn't terribly cold, but after enduring twenty minutes of stiff headwind, the spare layers were already coming on. "Maybe I should turn around and grab my puffy shorts and once more coat," I thought. "Nah, I'll be all right." 

One problem with starting an endurance challenge from my front door is the tyranny of familiarity. There are too many sections that I know by heart; I know how far I need to travel, and I know how long these miles should take. Through a barrage of crosswind gusts, I raced to keep a good pace on Gross Dam Road, then turned into the teeth of the wind to ascend another 2,000 feet up Gap Road. Gap Road is named for a veritable wind funnel of a notch between two 10,000-foot mountains. Riding this road on a windy day feels like wrestling with an angry ghost. You can't see the ghost and you never know which way he's going to shove you; you just know it's going to hurt. 

On this day it was more of a mud wrestling match. Several inches of old snow had drifted across the road, churned into sugar, and then stirred up by traffic. The resulting chunder is difficult to describe. It's not sand, it's not mud, it's not snow — it's really all of the above, just gross and loose and seemingly bottomless. The angry ghost landed a solid jab just as my rear wheel washed over a chunder pile, and I crashed ear-first into the muck. I spit out a string of obscenities and looked at my watch. Three and a half hours! It usually only takes me two and a half hours to ride to the end of the road, which was still more than three miles away. I swore some more and ground into the pedals, swerving and churning, pegging my heart rate for four miles an hour. 

I reached Panorama Point, which was deserted, and sat on a bench overlooking angry clouds to the west. I ate two thick slices of banana bread even though I only brought four and they were supposed to be treats for later in the ride. Then I had a little cry. I like to have little cries during my endurance efforts. Tears reset the system and release extra endorphins. But when I'm not yet to the end of Gap Road ... not even at mile 20 of a 160-mile ride ... maybe that's not such a good sign. 

Finally, I started a long descent into the urban corridor on minimally maintained roads through Golden Gate Canyon — Mountain Base Road, which was awash in drifts, and Drew Hill Road, which was a fun mix of chunder over black ice. I was grateful for those studded tires! But I had to take care not to wash out, wherein studs won't save you. As I crept downhill through the shaded canyon, my core temperature plummeted. Even a puffy jacket and the mitten shells didn't ward off the chill. This was supposed to be the warmest part of the day. Maybe that's not such a good sign. 

I arrived in Golden feeling defeated. The wind still howled at the lowest altitude of my route. I also was as far east as I was going to go — no more tailwinds. It took a healthy dose of energy just to pedal west along flat city streets. I thought about turning north and heading home. Who would care? It's not like this Wild Winter Way really meant anything. It was a virtual race that I made up. Still, if I gave up now, just because it was hard, I would have to give up all of the rewards I was seeking — traveling through the beautiful day into the long night, relishing a simple, almost childlike state that forgets fear and expectation, and opening my mind to wonders beyond my usual rigid perceptions. 

It's difficult to describe the inner state of these journeys. I recently finished the book "How to Change Your Mind" by Michael Pollan, and many times found myself nodding, "That's It!" This book summarizes Pollan's personal and academic research into psychedelic drugs, exploring their history, biology, and potential for therapeutic applications. Now, I have never tried psychedelics and don't intend to still. But I can relate to the mystical journey, the pursuit of awe that Pollan frequently describes. 

 “When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest," Pollan writes. "What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.” 

So instead of heading north toward Boulder, I started up Lookout Mountain, where the gusty, angry ghost regathered his strength and pounced. Crosswinds became an insurmountable obstacle. I just had to throw a foot down and wait for a lull. Eventually, the ghost caught me off guard, shoving body and bike into a guardrail. My knee and shin throbbed as I teetered over an alarming precipice. After that, every time I had to round a switchback and change my defensive stance, I stepped off the bike and walked. It was shameful, but at this point, I was committed to the ride. It didn't matter how long it took or how slow I went. I was going to finish this thing. Because of this almost imperceptible shift in expectation, I felt more content — happy, even. 

My resolve was further tested along an unmaintained bike path paralleling I-70, which was just ... interminable. Here the fat bike would have been better, but one can only ride so well through loose yet crusty sugar. The infernal west wind roared directly in my face, so there was no more need for defensive wrestling moves — just a dull grind into an invisible wall. For nearly ten miles I churned along miserably, spending the rest of my energy matches just to ride the bike rather than walk it, and gaining almost no real altitude when I still had a 4,000-foot climb up Echo Mountain to contend with. There, my ride would top out at 11,135 feet, but it would be a faint victory. After that, nearly 100 miles and more than 10,000 feet of climbing still remained. I probably stopped 20 times to sulk and text Beat variations of "This Wind Is Kicking My Ass." There was no cell signal, and none of the messages went through. Probably for the best. 

I was grateful to leave that infuriating bike path and veer onto the long paved climb toward Echo Mountain — more than 15 miles of steady uphill grind. A fair amount of snow had drifted across the road and no one had yet been through to plow it, so the wrestling match commenced. The wind would not give an inch. I had listened to its roar for eight solid hours. There would be no relief. 

As I neared the top, sunset cast gorgeous pink and gold light across the mountainous horizon. The wind had swirled up a particularly impressive lenticular cloud, and I enjoyed open access to these views at the perfect time of day. The space felt immense, and yet the chill became increasingly confining. I stopped to put on most of my spare layers. I felt a tinge of fear for the many hours of darkness in front of me. I turned on the front headlight only to find it barely worked — it would only flicker in its dimmest setting. I tried a second battery and then the third with similar results. I probably should have anticipated that these batteries might not work so well when cold. My anxiety spiked substantially because the long night was coming and I was nearly blind — I had only one helmet light battery and thus needed to keep it on its lowest setting. I wanted to save my headlamp in case everything else failed. 

Under a crush of cold and darkness, I was overcome with irrational urgency, an inner voice screaming that I needed to descend into Idaho Springs as quickly as possible. I launched into the descent with my sad headlight blinking white flashes into otherwise jet-black darkness. These were surreal miles, coasting in panic mode with a kind of disco light effect guiding the way, shivering so profusely that I could barely steer the bike, my hands too numb to do much with the brakes, and wondering with slight detachment what would happen if a deer suddenly darted out in front of me. 

"This is so trippy," I thought, and laughed with a thirdhand observer's amusement about the poor choices I was making. 

Luckily, the spell broke before anything bad happened. I finally stopped to windmill some blood back into my hands and fiddle with the lights, coaxing one to work on a more solid setting and stuffing the other two batteries down my bra for rewarming. I started to daydream about the one gas station I'd pass in Idaho Springs, and the hot coffee with cream I was definitely buying alongside the few liters of water I needed. I originally planned to complete my ride unsupported but justified making this stop. It was coffee and water. Who would care? 

I pulled into the parking lot, propped my bike against a window, and was again fiddling with my lights when a large Greyhound bus pulled up to the store. The marquee read "New York" and the interior was completely packed with passengers. Dozens of people poured out of the bus and into the store, lining up at the bathrooms, filling the aisles, and swarming around the nearby garbage cans outside. I haven't been around this many people since the pandemic started. It's just my luck that my first crowd experience in nine months happened in the midst of a long and deeply fatiguing solo ride where my anxiety was already spiked. I panicked. Even though my backpack was slung over one shoulder with half of my stuff hanging out, I mounted the saddle and began pedaling away, forgetting I'd clipped my helmet to the rear wheel. A clunk halted my pedal stroke — "Why did my bike stop working?" — before I remembered I put it there to trip up potential thieves for a few seconds while I purchased coffee. As I struggled with the helmet straps, smokers continued encircling me, masks off and cigarettes lit. I fully lifted the bike and carried it across the street until I was safely out of the store's spotlight, where I could lean against a chain-link fence and put myself back together.

Whew! Who even knew that cross-country bus travel was still a thing right now? I was greatly relieved to pedal away from the lights of I-70 and into the yawning darkness of Virginia Canyon. Sure, I didn't get my coffee. And sure, I was now going to have to scout out frozen creeks to collect water that I needed sooner than later. But any difficulties ahead were much less daunting than that crush of humanity. I was slightly agoraphobic even before the pandemic. I wondered if I'll be able to function normally in a crowd, ever again.

After that adrenaline spike, the world returned to surreality. My next section took me through a maze of barely traveled jeep roads to bypass a crush of humanity in the casino towns of Black Hawk and Central City. Snow was deep and grades were steep, and I stumbled along, gazing bleary-eyed at the snowy forest where a few random trees held strings of Christmas lights. From there I descended into Apex Valley, where a bridge crossed the ice of North Clear Creek. Just below the bridge was an open lead with enough rocks around it to spur some confidence about straddling the ice. Balancing on top of rocks proved tricky, but I was grateful to take a sip of icy clear water and know that I had earned it. Since the water temperature was already close to freezing, it rapidly turned to slush in my water bottle. I took a few more sips while standing in place — my first moments of real stillness since the start of my ride. What was that strange sound? For the first time in more than twelve hours, the air was simply quiet. 

The angry ghost had been subdued. Late evening had arrived, and almost all traffic had disappeared from these mountain roads. The air was quiet, the land was quiet, and the sky was filled with an expanse of stars and a lopsided half-moon.  A giddy sort of "endurance buzz" took over, and I pedaled onward in a state of bliss. I tackled the climbs with renewed zeal, half believing in this strange out-of-body sensation — that time had ended and yet consciousness remained. Now I was free to roam the universe without the nagging demands of a body. This would last until I felt woozy because my glucose tanked, and then I'd have to stop to cram down a few more bites of sandwich, after which a higher level of lucidity — and thus mental fatigue — would return. But I loved my night ride along Peak to Peak Highway. Loved it. How often does one just continue moving through an expansive and starry night, the only sentient being in the universe, breathing frosty air and sipping slushy water so cold that it sparks a thrilling electric jolt? (I believe these are called ice cream headaches.) This was exactly the experience I was seeking, reason enough to travel all of those grueling miles while wrestling an angry ghost.

I reached my furthest north point at the quirky mountain town of Ward, sometime before 2 a.m. Here I again bundled up after shedding most of my layers — even though temperatures had dropped well below freezing, with the wind gone, I'd heated up rapidly — and launched into a 4,000-foot descent into Boulder. As I was zooming down Lefthand Canyon, I passed a dark driveway with something softly lit on the ground. It looked like my name. At first I thought I was half-hallucinating, as one does at 2 a.m. after 20 hours on a bike. But it was real! An acquaintance left out this encouraging sign and a cup of warm tea. The tea was caffeinated and the perfect temperature to gulp quickly — unlike my headachy slush water — and I relished the infusion of energy and hydration, along with warm gratitude. Simple acts of kindness can mean so much.

The wind had returned before the end of the descent, so the steep climb up Lee Hill renewed a punishing battle. My overnight bliss had faded, and all that remained was seemingly insurmountable fatigue. I'd burned up all of my energy matches. I burned them while the sun was still up, while battling chunder and angry ghosts. There were only fumes and fantasy to carry me through the darkness. Now even fumes were gone. I'd ridden my bike nearly 150 miles. It wouldn't be so bad if I could call that distance good and just stop here, but I still had one final 3,000-foot climb to surmount before I was physically at home. Ten miles of pure pain. Was it even possible? I had lots of snacks still — I hadn't eaten nearly enough calories — and resolved to stop every mile, catch my breath, and cram down a few grams of sugar before continuing. 

Again, I was back in familiar territory. Again, I knew where my capabilities should fall. "SuperFlag" climbs 2,000 feet in 4.5 miles. My best time on this segment is 45 minutes. It's mediocre, but it absolutely crushes the 105 minutes it took me during the wee hours of Tuesday morning. It had become so late that it was now early, and the first commuters were rolling down the icy pavement on their way to work. I made sure I was never walking my bike when I saw headlights — dignity and all — but once the road crossed that ten-percent-grade threshold, I wasn't even capable of pedaling. I had nothing left. Just nothing. A deep nausea set in, and I could no longer consume the snacks I promised during more frequent breaks. While pedaling, it was all I could do not to vomit. There were a few moments when I genuinely wondered if I could even walk my bike home. But finally, just before 6 a.m., the lights of my front door came into view — just as I'd left them, 24 hours earlier. 

One short day. One long, strange trip. This is the Wild Winter Way. It has its up-front costs, and this one felt particularly high given the slowness of my recovery since. But bodies are fickle. Nausea and soreness fades. The awe, the wonder, the expansive perspectives — those remain. It's worth it. 


  1. Crying big crocodile tears for you 'cause you had to ride this on your shortest day! Seriously, though, excellent job. We may have to deal with a lot of dark up here in Fairbanks, but we don't have to deal with that kind of wind. Ufda! Good on ya!

  2. Once again KUDOS Jill for making this happen. I know that wind was tough, your batteries iffy and you had to flea crowd of people but over the years I’ve read so many of your adventures and I never doubted your success. I admire your braveness so much and I thank you for constantly inspiring me to get out there.

  3. My jaw is dropped...I don't know what to say. I can't stay awake 24 hours, let alone on a bike. It's unimaginable, but then again, you are Outdoor Jill and I am not. I will always be a lurker in your ginormous shadow...grateful to read about some gal who doesn't shy away from setting her bar so incredibly high. Yes, you are inspiring. I will think of you next time I think it's time to head back, and tack on another 10 miles.
    Box Canyon

  4. Beautiful write up! I felt like I was on the ride.

  5. I am sitting in my Montana kitchen reading this on my laptop. I am layered up and have wool socks and Ugg slippers on and I am still shaking while reading about your frigid endeavor. I can't fathom doing the rides and runs you do in the extreme cold but I am inspired to get out in it for a few hours at a time. I am also about half way through Be Brave, Be Strong and enjoying it immensely. Thank you for writing!

  6. You continue to amaze! I am such a wimp in comparison!

  7. Thank you for sharing this! I really appreciated reading it. I also need to buy your books both for me to read and to include in my school library collection! Do you ever do virtual author visits?!

    1. Yes, I have done a few virtual book club chats. If interested, e-mail me at

  8. Jill, you may have read this article from the Adventure Journal, but it describes so well the Heart/Brain relationships when taking on enormous challenges like you do.

    1. Thanks for sharing! I remember reading this when Adventure Journal first published it in 2019, but I'll have to return to it. It's a great essay.

  9. This inspired me to try and think of a long ride or run I could do from my house this weekend!


Feedback is always appreciated!