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Tour Divide Day 9: What It Means to Win

I get a 5:30am start from Lava Mountain Lodge. I’m on a climb right away, the entre to the behemoth Union Pass.

I still have this faint gripping in my brain that I am racing – something holding on in my psyche, believing there might still be a mental shift to race-focus if I just stick with it. I am holding pretty tightly to this idea that I need a reason to stop, to slow down, to let go of my goals. Some sort of logical hat-rack to hang my quitting hat on.

But despite my ambivalence, I can’t find one that makes sense. I have no injuries, no illness, no irreparable mechanical, no lack of preparation. I have no excuse.

Finish what you start, finish what you start.

I climb the dirt road up to Union Pass. The weather is cool but sunny, and I wonder about Ryan, Beau and Robert who had gone over the pass the night before in the summer-winter storm. (If you’re curious, you can find out here.) Nate left the lodge just after me and joins me on the pass. He’s a better technical rider than I am, so he passes me on the steep ascents, but we rejoin in other places. Even in silence, I appreciate the company as we push our bikes through snow and frozen mud to the top of Union Pass.

Look closely and spot Nate.

The top of Union Pass must be the top of the world. We find ourselves in a wilderness at 10,000 feet: a rolling, treeless expanse that goes on for miles – with views across to the tops of all the mountains in the Wind River Range.

I stop to take in the view and my mind feels blank like the landscape, no emotion at all, just a sense of being a small speck of something in the vast universe.

The top of the descent is rough and slow, but I am cuing off of Nate and just holding on. Since my crash last year when I broke my shoulder I have been a more cautious descender. But the truth is that momentum is my friend – and hesitation the enemy – on rocky stretches like this. Plus, the repetition of rough riding over the last eight days has reinstated much of my confidence. I pick my lines well and find a flow through the ruts and rocks. I’m a better mountain biker than I was a week ago.

The descent of Union Pass is a bit false, as there are still about 15 miles of forest service roads to ride at 9,000 feet before we descend back into civilization. As soon as we’re off the technical bit that requires concentration, my mind reverts to race-mode, automatically starting the calculations: That was a pretty decent pace over the pass. At this rate, I can get to Pinedale around noon and get my derailleur serviced. Then I can push to Boulder and into the Great Basin by tonight. 150-ish miles should be do-able. I’ll camp there. Then tomorrow…

Suddenly, I hear a voice in my head. Its tenor is so loud that it drowns out those other thoughts:

I’m NOT doing it.     

The voice is as clear as day, and it is loud and demanding. It’s a kid’s voice, one that I hardly recognize but know somehow to be my own. Those same four words, again, louder this time.

I’m. NOT. Doing. It.

The voice is so loud that it shocks me, and I come to a complete stop to look around an make sure there’s no one there. We’ve reached the beginning of the forest service roads, and as I put my foot down, I watch Nate disappear into the woods.

It’s the last time I’ll see him.

I sit down on a rock. I feel helpless to go anywhere. That voice is all I hear. I eat a sandwich, and I still can’t make myself get back on my bike. I feel helpless against this tempest in my mind that’s being waged by a tiny child who isn’t even real but nonetheless has staked a brain claim and is not backing off.

I’m NOT doing it.

Now I see that this voice has a visage: small child, feet planted, hands on hips, eyes squinted in fierce determination. The adult in me feels absolutely powerless against it.

I sit on the rock for 15 minutes, wondering what to do.

Finally, I begin a discussion with it – maybe like a parent to a stubborn child who has launched a temper tantrum in a Walmart parking lot.

Okay, I say, you don’t have to do it. But you do have to get yourself off this mountain somehow. Just get on your bike and get down, and then we can talk more about it.

Please, I find myself begging. Please.

The tedious negotiations with my grumpier, smaller self are successful, if barely. Still feeling schizophrenic, I at least manage to climb back on my bicycle and start moving. Pedaling slowly on the way down, a strange mental détente descends. Things get quieter. I watch the scenery around me, and the emotional weight of the last week begins to lift a little. The cows seem not bothered in the least.

When I hit the pavement, the tailwind is so strong that I barely need to pedal for the 30 miles into the town of Pinedale. It’s probably the fastest 30 miles of my entire race.

I roll onto the main street in Pinedale and stop at the city park. Next to the park is a historical sign: “A Pause on a Journey” it says. I lay down in the grass by the river and stretch my arms over my head. I close my eyes and listen to the water. Something about it is perfect, and soulful.

The tiny audacious voice has subsided, but the point has been made. Letting go feels like the only path forward. Laying there in that park, I admit it to myself for the first time: I’m done racing.

I’m giving up. What I prepared for, what I thought I wanted: to compete, to ride as far and as hard as I could, to push myself beyond my physical limits, to prepare meticulously and test myself ruthlessly. I don’t want it anymore.

There’s a sadness, but also relief, in the surrender.

Eventually I get up and make my way to the Geared Up bike shop where I meet Andrew. Andrew works on my bike and we chat, and I meet his son Daxton. While there’s a part of me that wants to wallow in my complicated emotions, somehow it’s comforting to be in a bike shop, in a town, with people going about their daily business – working and picking up groceries and heading to the dentist and talking to their kids. A place where the Tour Divide bike race doesn’t consume the minds of everyone – or anyone. A place where someone might inadvertently right-size your distress by saying breezily, “Oh, right on. That’s a long bike ride. You’re lucky you get to do that, and to quit whenever you want. I’m jealous of your vacation.”

And they’re right. I am lucky, and it is a great vacation. I go down the road and rent a cabin for the night. The owner happens to have spare clothes for Continental Divide hikers and Great Divide Riders and, after one quick look at me, offers them up. I root around in his plastic bag and, lo and behold, there’s a pair of gold denim pants that fit me perfectly and a t-shirt that says “Pirates Booty.” I buy flip flops next door at the supermarket.

And walking down Main Street and opening the door to the brewery, suddenly I’m the luckiest quitter in the world. I’m wearing a pair of disco pants and flip-flops with beer cans on them. I’ve given up but I’m smiling. I’m exhausted but I’m free. I’m not trying hard, but I am drinking beer.

Maybe this time, and for me, this is what it means to win.

Tour Divide Day 8: Everything Old is New Again

Squirrel Creek Elk Lodge to Lava Mountain Lodge, 105 miles

It’s a second-cuppa-Folgers and clean-pair-of-socks kind of morning. There’s a soft dew on the ground when I get up and, despite warnings of snow, the sun is quietly shining. I stand on the porch of the cabin and wave to Nate as he heads out. I heard Robert, Ryan and Beau leaving around 5am and vaguely wonder where they are now.

I roll into the sunshine around 8am. I’m feeling relaxed, and grateful for the adventure. Somehow I feel aware that I am living a story – and a pretty good one at that – though I am completely unclear about where it is going.

The pavement ends shortly into the Targhee National Forest and onto rolling forest service roads that have been dusted with a layer of pea gravel, which makes the going bumpy and slow.

The riding is not particularly hard, but some of the hills are quite steep. Up one of them, I shift into my biggest (easiest) gear, and the shift throws the chain to the inside of the cluster, lodging it between the cassette and my spokes.

Uh-oh, full stop.

I walk to the top of the hill and eventually wrench out the chain, but I know this isn’t good. I wonder if I knocked something in my mini-crash yesterday when I landed on the drive side. The derailleur is intact and the hanger appears straight, so I hope that it’s just an adjustment issue. That said, I don’t like trying to adjust my derailleur myself, so I just decide to ride without my easiest gear. This is somewhat worrying, since both Togwotee Pass and Union Pass lie ahead, but best just take it as it comes.

I cross the state line into Wyoming. That feels like progress. By the time I reach Flagg Ranch, the south-bound weather system is catching up. I go inside to resupply and warm up, and I meet a dot watcher who is camping nearby with his family and doing a day ride of his own. He offers to try to help me with my derailleur, so I ride with him to his campground, which is on the route. We hang my bike in a tree and as his young daughter supervises, we work on adjusting the limit screws, which are the mechanism that keeps the derailleur from moving too far in either direction.

With all the world’s diligence – but none of its expertise – we succeed in making the problem worse. By the time I leave, I’ve wasted a bunch of time and my gears are either skipping or unavailable. Ah well. Work with what you’ve got, right? I’ve had my mind stretched enough by the single-speeders I’ve been riding with to realize that this is not really the problem I might have previously thought.

It’s starting to snow as I leave. There’s a long pavement stretch out of Yellowstone and through part of Grand Tetons. It’s not until I’m a few miles away from Flagg Ranch that I realize that the view looks familiar. For about ten miles, the Tour Divide track shares the route with the Trans Am Bike Race. It’s a popular tourist stretch, but for good reason: here the Tetons rise behind Jackson Lake with snow-topped strength and severity. It’s impossible not to stop and gawk.

This is the third time I’ve ridden this stretch of road, and each time it has been a completely different experience. In 2016, I was shivering in the early morning sunlight after sleeping in the woods in Yellowstone the night before (not recommended). In 2017, it was dark and I spent most of this stretch blowing a whistle, and then panting between blows, to warn off bears.

This time, it’s the first day of summer. And it’s snowing. I rode in a lot of cold weather this past winter in Colorado, so I’m not bothered too much physically. On a more cosmic scale, though, I am worried. Weather this tempestuous can’t mean anything good for our planet.

But. I’m not going to solve climate change today, that’s clear. When I make the left turn at the junction towards Dubois, it seems that I may have outrun the squall, as the dark clouds linger behind me. The Tour Divide route turns off the main road here, which is a welcome relief from the traffic, and climbs a back dirt road up to Togwotee Lodge, which is about halfway up Togwotee Pass. There it rejoins the Trans Am Route for the remainder of the climb on the paved road to the summit.

By the time I return to the paved road to complete the climb, it’s early evening. For the first time in days, and despite the missing gears and the snowstorm, I’m in a really great mood. I’m rocking out to Kreasyshawn and  I reach the summit of the climb, just as an old beat-up sedan pulls over. A bearded guy gets out of his car and asks me where I am coming from. He says he is from Ohio, and he thought he was doing good just to be up here in his car.  From the looks of his car, he is.

We’re both doing good, I say. And we are.

The paved road plunges down from the top of the pass into Wyoming’s beautiful Wind River range, which is where I am headed eventually. But first, the Tour Divide route sends us on a snowy, muddy road called the Brooks Lake Loop at the top of the pass. Some is ride-able, some slide-able, some I have to walk, but there have been at least 20 riders there before so there is a nice, dirty track and I don’t sink too much.

On one of the rideable sections I catch a glimpse of something red as I am whizzing downhill. I stop and hike back up. It’s a red cap, and I stuff it in my seat bag. There’s an off chance I can find its owner – and if not, I have a new hat to wear.

The sun is dropping lower as I get past the snow. It’s another beautiful sunset and I fly downhill. Lava Mountain Lodge is near the bottom of our descent, and beyond that is the tough Union Pass. The clouds are low over those mountains and it looks cold. I’m sure Beau, Ryan and Robert are headed up, going over the pass tonight. This time, though – despite the fact that I have ridden less than ten hours today –  I don’t even consider it. In fact, riding less feels good.

I find Nate at the Lava Mountain Lodge. He’s just ordered pizza and I do the same. We are joined by Peter Kraft. We drink beers and laugh and shovel in pizzas. Peter is 26 years old, from the flatlands of Florida, and this is his third Tour Divide. He has dark quiet eyes but an easy smile. In 2012 after watching the movie Ride the Divide, he talked his dad into doing the race with him – and despite a crash that sent his dad to the hospital and an illness that sent Peter to the hospital – they finished together in 2013.

Just before we head off to our rooms, I remember the hat. Hey, either one of you happen to lose a hat? I ask. Peter’s eyes widen. It turns out it’s not only his hat, but a special one at that – he’s carried it for every Tour Divide so far. He’s so appreciative that I feel like I’ve carried a talisman. Maybe, I think, it will bring a bit of good luck to me in my own journey – though I still don’t know where it’s taking me.

*Kudos to Peter, who ended up finishing this year in 17 ½ days for 12th place. I’m pretty sure it was because of the hat.

 

Tour Divide Day 7: On Trying, and Failing, to Be a Quitter

Lima to Squirrel Creek Elk Guest Ranch, 132 miles

When I wake up in Lima, I’m out of food. It’s 86 miles, and another state, until the next place on the route I’ll be able to get some. The Lima convenience store and café open at 7, which is practically afternoon on the Tour Divide. Still, it’s not a hard decision at this point. I’m waiting.

There’s still a part of my brain that’s berating myself incessantly: for not doing better planning, for not caring more, for not being willing to pedal more hours a day, for climate change and war and everyone else’s failed relationships.

But that voice is getting a little weaker now, after the last seven days I’ve spent trying (and failing) to get myself to want what I thought I wanted just a week ago: to really race the Tour Divide. The shaming voice is not quite so loud, it’s not quite so insistent, and I’m more able to roll my figurative and literal eyes when I hear it.

I sense that the game is almost up, played out. But I’m not quite ready to surrender. It’s sheer stubbornness at this point, maybe tinged with a bit of curiosity, that’s keeping me going. Is stubbornness helpful or unhelpful now? Who knows. It is what it is.

I stubbornly ride out of Montana and into Idaho in the morning, amidst the threatening clouds and occasionally ferocious headwinds. The roads are nice, and even though I have a vague idea that I’m near Yellowstone, it’s quiet and I see very few people.

Leaving Montana into Idaho happens at the top of a short, steep pass, but it feels anticlimactic. I know the truism everyone says about the Tour Divide: “If you make it out of Montana, your odds of finishing go up exponentially.” Even though I won’t quit for another eight days, something inside of me already knows I’m going to be one of those who bucks the improved odds.

A few miles later, I turn on a road that meanders from open range to forest cover. It’s so lovely there, and there’s a patch of green moss that looks like a secret. Almost without thinking, I stop and lay down. It’s early afternoon, and I watch the clouds move quickly past a bright blue background, changing shape from elephant to teapot to dragon. The wind has been picking up through the morning, howling at times. But now that I’ve reached this canopy of trees it’s only a whisper.

The breeze brushes the skin on my filthy legs. So quiet here, so beautiful. Feels so good.

Get up, my brain says, bristling at the first feel of relaxation. Ten more miles to resupply. Lots of miles to go still today. No time for this.

I sigh and sit up. It’s true. But I still feel like a kid being pulled away to do chores from playing outside.

I throw a reluctant leg high over my bike and start pedaling down the forest road. Not paying attention to my Garmin, I immediately take a wrong turn. I ride for about ten minutes the wrong direction into the forest before I realize my mistake. This is becoming a habit. Sighing again, I retrace my bike tracks and return to the junction.

I meet Ryan who is riding up from the opposite direction just as I get there, and we make the turn together. I guess he must have also stayed last night in Lima. I’m happy to see him. Ryan has a joyful, almost musical, way of riding. He is constantly swerving around little divets in the road, standing to sprint over small obstacles, bunny hopping rocks and cattle guards.

I trail a bit behind him, trying to bunny hop. The first time I try, nothing happens – the loaded bike requires a lot more pull to get airborne than I anticipated. But the next time, I manage it right and get a little air. It’s fun. I’m following a couple bike lengths behind, trying to see the trail as he sees it. I feel a little like a kid riding a bike again.

We roll up to a closed gate over the road that we need to go around. Instead of dismounting and walking around it, like I normally would, I try to ride down the short but steep cut-around, and crash on the ground on my right side. No big deal, a small almost invisible abrasion on my right knee, a bit of wounded pride as I awkwardly unclip from the pedals.

A few minutes later we are in Sawtelle, Idaho (which also seems to be called Island Park, Idaho). It’s not much but a restaurant, two convenience stores, a couple of hotels. Ryan and I eat lunch on stools at the restaurant at a mahogany bar. One of the guys who works there comes out to tell us that he’s hoping to do some long-distance bike touring, and we encourage him. I can see the eagerness on his face. All he wants to do is get out of this restaurant and head off into an adventure.

We’re about to head out on an adventure of our own, it seems. There’s a storm coming in, promising snow. The Yellowstone and Teton tourists are stocking up on food and talking about hunkering down. The cashiers in the convenience store are saying this is the craziest weather they’ve ever seen the day before the summer solstice. It’s starting to get a bit blustery outside. I realize that, earlier in the day, I had no awareness of this impending storm. But now that I know it’s a possibility, it feels like some sort of inescapable emergency.

Compounding my worry, the next stretch of the route is rumored to be tricky at best, miserable at worst. It’s a 20-mile “rail trail” that we hear is covered with thick sand. We don’t actually know the details, but it sounds rather exhausting.

So I do the only thing that makes sense to me at the time: I try to quit my race. I walk across the street to the hotel and ask for a room. I’m at the end of my rope mentally, or at least that’s how it feels at the time. I’m done. What a relief.

But it’s a Thursday on a summer weekend and there’s no room at the inn. The owner can see that I am crestfallen to have been outwitted from my plan, and personally calls every other hotel in the area, to no avail. He offers that I can sleep outside the motel on the wooden deck in the cold, all the while looking dubiously at the darkening sky in the distance. The wind is picking up and there are pieces of trash starting to be lifted into the air and blown around the parking lot in little cyclones.

Well, that doesn’t sound like much fun either.

Ok, I announce to Ryan back in the convenience store parking lot, I’m not quitting. I can come up with no good reason to go on (besides the prospect of sleeping on a porch in a snowstorm), but I can also come up with no good reason to quit. It’s mental purgatory.

Get on your bike, ride to the next place.

And I’m happy that I don’t quit. At least today, because still ahead for me are unexpected blessings, like laughter and a sunset… and beer.

First Ryan and I ride the notorious rail trail, and it’s indeed sandy but we take it easy and chat about everything and as a result it does not live up to its reputation. Somehow, we slip between storm systems, only pulling on our rain jackets for a handful of drops, and the sun even peeks out every now and again.

Eventually Nate Stillwagon joins us, and we continue in a three-pack onto the swoopy trail along the Warm River that deposits us into a campground at dusk. The sky is black on one side of us, but the sunset is gold and orange and firing up the sky on the other. For hours, we’ve been riding somewhere in between.

We regroup at the Warm River Campground and agree to head to Squirrel Creek Elk Ranch for the night. Looking at his Garmin, Ryan reassures us, “Just one mile, then left for two miles, then right for three miles, then left for two miles, then we’re there.” Tantalized by the end point, we take off riding hard up the hill and then I just try to keep Ryan’s rear light in sight as we time trial (admittedly a pretty limp-noodle time trial, but it feels like light-speed so who cares) to the Squirrel Creek Elk Ranch.

On the front porch, the owner’s daughter is sweeping and welcomes me inside. It’s warm and light, and there’s a fully stocked bar and a menu on a chalkboard, and soon we have burgers and fries and beers on order. Ryan is joined by me, and then we’re joined by Nate, and then the three of us are joined by Robert, and then the four of us are joined by Beau. Each one has a different tale to tell – some variation on the same theme that we’ve all experienced today. It kind of feels like a party. A tired, lame party – but a party nonetheless. We’re even joined by a local drunk who wants to talk to us and slurs the same questions, over and over.

For my part, I feel like I escaped something today, but how long I can keep it at bay it isn’t clear to me. The guys plan to roll out at 5 and ask if I am coming. I’m non-committal and know that this might be my goodbye to most or all of them, even though I don’t say it.

“If I don’t show up at 5,” I say, “you know where I’ll be. And it won’t be down the road.”

Tour Divide Day 6: On a Roll

Butte to Lima, 192 miles

I’m on the road by 4am from Butte. With the mental enthusiasm that only an early morning 5-Hour-Energy shot can provide, I’m bound and determined that this is a day of redemption. I crank hard on the pedals on the bike path out of town. A part of my brain still believes that my ambivalence is about “not riding well” – meaning, I’m not riding enough hours a day. If I can stay mentally strong enough to get those hours in today, I figure, I’ll be back in business.

But first, I have to take off my shorts. I’ve got a saddle sore that’s beginning to rankle, so I stop under the moon in front of a darkened house, do a half-hearted squat behind a calf-high shrub, strip off my yoga shorts, and switch to my chamois.

Better.

I’m not really sure what today has in store. The first few days I treated my cue sheets like a treasure map. But in the immediate future of the route, the only things I take note of are “Fleecer Ridge – HAB” (hike-a-bike) and “Bannack Road – IMPASSABLE WHEN WET.”

Fleecer Ridge comes about 45 miles into the day. The climb begins on a pleasant road, then a sharp turn off on a faint two-track heads straight up to the top of the mountain. I can see the top of the mountain, and I am visually fixated on it. It’s far, but not that far. I ride as far as I can up the steep track, and then when I can no longer pedal, I begin pushing my bike. My breath is strong and labored; I’m actually breathing harder than I have in days, maybe since day one. It feels good.

I wonder about the view from the top. It must be spectacular. It’ll be worth it, I tell myself. Worth the burning in my quads, my back, my triceps. I’m not far from the top when I come to an intersection of sorts in the tall grass. I stop to catch my breath and check my Garmin.

And there’s that thin, blue line again, hanging out in space. I’ve missed a right-hand turn, which turns out to go to the actual Fleecer Ridge. I’ve given so much attention to that summit that I think for a half a second about finishing the climb anyway. But just half a second.

Once I’ve found the correct Fleecer Ridge, I also find Beau in the trail, fixing a flat. He says things are under control. The descent down the ridge is absurdly steep and rocky – way more than I imagined – and I stumble-jog my way down through the grass and flowers on the hillside, not even bothering to stay on the trail itself. It only takes about ten minutes, but there are definitely a few moments of panic as I pick up speed and my bike threatens to lurch away without me. I know some people actually ride this, but I can’t imagine it.

In the town of Wise River, I refuel and check the map. High Country Lodge is a mere 30 miles away, and I shouldn’t stop again, but it’s a famous Tour-Divide stop-over. As I’m packing up, Ryan Simon rolls in. Ryan is riding a single speed and wearing a plaid collared shirt. He introduces himself, and I like him right away. His face is serious, but I get the idea he might laugh easily if provoked. He plops down in front of the ice machine on the ground and eats a sandwich.

I head out on a beautiful road along the Wise River. It’s paved but there’s very little traffic. The road trends uphill, but I barely notice it because the grade is gentle. There’s a light breeze, and I don’t want to jinx myself but it feels like it’s a bit of a tailwind. I can get in my aerobars and move pretty fast on this type of terrain, and as a result I pass several riders.

Near the top of the ascent the grade in the road kicks up, and I’m surprised when Ryan comes by, standing on his pedals and cranking hard. I feel like I am moving well, but he is absolutely hauling.

We arrive within a few minutes of each other at the High Country Lodge, a hunting and fishing lodge owned by Russ Kipp, an avid Tour Divide dot watcher. The wood-paneled great room has floor to ceiling windows with imposing deer heads looking down from 20 feet above our heads.

Ryan and I sign our names on the dry-erase board dedicated to the 2019 TD riders. The boards from years past are propped behind the bar in the living area, and I see Mike Hall’s signature at the top of the 2016 list. I imagine the circumstances under which that signature was scratched – perhaps in fatigue but likely good humor nonetheless, as Mike was en route to a Tour Divide record that still stands. That signature remains an earthly symbol of all the things that Mike left behind to so many, even those like me who knew him only by story and legend.

Ryan and I sit across from each other at a table the big dining room for almost an hour, eating Russ’ homemade lasagna. These seated meals remain so unlike anything I have ever done in a bikepacking race but I’m so tired of the voice in my head shaming me for slowing down that I simply ignore it. Plus, I really enjoying chatting with Ryan. He’s from Stillwater, Oklahhoma, and even though I’ve never been to Stillwater in my life, this creates an immediate connection for us because it’s where I was conceived when my parents were working at the university in the 1970s.

Eventually I make my way outside to head towards Lima on the Bannack Road. With a barren next 100 miles between us and the town of Lima, and with good weather conditions, Ryan and I have both agreed that it makes sense to try to ride there tonight. He’s coming too, but in a few minutes, so I say goodbye.

Ephemeral personal connections are a unique attribute of this sport. “See you down the road” is a standard thing you say to a person you may have just shared a cry or your life story with – and you never even know if it’s true. Maybe they’ll come by in five minutes; equally likely, you’ll never see them again. We all make these personal connections without social obligations, which is both bizarre and refreshing. Just two people thrust together by the common sharing of an entirely unpredictable adventure, passing as itinerants through the same mountains and rivers and deserts.

At the turnoff to Bannack State Park, there’s a white clapboard house with a man outside on the porch smoking a cigarette. He waves, and I ask him if I can fill up my water bottles, since it’s a long stretch ahead and I am unsure how long it will take. He invites me into the house, where three women and two young girls are crowded around a kitchen table meant for four. Heavy smoke fills the air. The women point me to the sink and ask what I am doing. When I tell them, they say wow. Then they take puffs of cigarettes and watch me at the sink, not unkindly but silently. The two girls remain quiet too.

When I am finished, I say thank you and begin to open the screen door. Suddenly, the older girl who is probably eight, blurts out, Is it hard?

I stop and turn around. It’s hard, I say. But you could totally do it.

She looks at her sister, and they both begin laughing and shyly bow their heads. I might be imagining it, but I think I see a light of recognition in the older girl’s eyes. They’ll probably forget that moment. But it’s fun to think they might not, too.

You can see for miles down the Bannack Road, and near the end I see the dusty dot of another cyclist in the distance. I figure it’s Ryan, who must have passed me while I was getting water.

When I catch up, though, it’s not Ryan. The rider introduces himself as Nate Stillwagon. Nate is an ER doctor who lives in Boise, Idaho, but he and his brother Bear grew up in Butte. He is not enjoying this part of the ride, it’s hot and dusty and desolate.

It’s funny because, despite my own deep misgivings about this whole venture, I really want Nate Stillwagon to be enjoying himself. I find myself kind of selling the ride to him. The conditions are great, I say. (It’s pretty hot, actually.) How about this tailwind? (I’m talking loud over a crosswind.) The route is beautiful. (There’s shrubs and dirt set against a giant sky, with a road to seeming nowhere.)

At some point, I realize I may be trying to convince myself more than Nate.

Soon I spot our right-hand turn onto Medicine Lodge Road in the distance. I can see from the elevation profile that we are about to start a climb that will rise slowly, but steadily, for the next 32 miles. At the turn there’s a lone figure waiting, and as we get near we can see she has a cooler of cold drinks.

Sweet relief, and perfect timing. We thank her gratefully and she introduces herself as Lauren, an ornithologist working in the area. She is also a long-distance cyclist herself and tells me she has been following me on social media. She thanks me for inspiring her, which I’m even more grateful for than cold drinks on a hot dusty road.

I find myself riding alone during the last 20 miles or so of the climb. The scenery is by turns desolate, then beautiful, but always vast. I’m looking forward to what appears on my elevation profile to be a 30-mile descent to Lima. As I crest the top of the last lung-and-leg-busting climb, it’s getting to late evening and I stop to pull on my down jacket. I can hear the cows mooing and I wonder what they are saying.

The descent begins rollicking and screaming through a high desert dotted with shrubs and flowers and herds of cows. The wind is howling here in this treeless expanse, but it’s at my back and it feels like flying. Eventually the road levels out a bit and enters a long canyon cut by a roaring river. The road is covered with fresh gravel and takes longer than I expect, and the shadows of nightfall start to throw themselves into the canyon. I pass campsites with people making fires and cooking dinner and prepping fishing rods for evening angling. A few ATVs come by and the people inside wave. The sun throws changing colors across the sliver of sky I can see above the canyon. The air is beautifully cool and the rush of the river drowns out almost all the other sounds.

Eventually it’s dark, and the road dumps me out onto the feeder road for the highway. Cars rush past at what seem like superhuman speeds on the highway, but there’s not a single car on the feeder road. I am getting pretty good at voice texting, so I send a couple of texts back and forth to friends as messages come in with cell reception. My plan is to head to the 24-hour convenience store in Lima, load up and start again early. I’ve ridden almost 200 miles today, and I’m on a roll so I’d better use it.

When I arrive, around 10:30pm, I find that there’s in fact no 24-hour convenience store in Lima. Poor planning on my part, as I’m out of food except for the crust of one peanut butter and jelly sandwich made by Russ’ mom at the High Country Lodge after lunch. That already seems like eons ago.

Luckily, the motel owner has some frozen burritos and cokes behind the check-in desk. I ask for three of each and head to my room. The shower is set to pressure-hose levels, which means the water droplets hit my skin hard like shards of glass. I stand there forever anyway, letting the spray wash roughly over me. I’m thinking about that canyon and the sky with the colors, and that long beautiful, desolate road, an I’m wondering what it really is that I want after all.

 

Tour Divide Day 5: Relenting Forward Progress

Barbara and John’s couch to Butte, 113 miles

I wake up on Barbara and John’s couch with their dog sleeping next to me. It’s still dark as I pack up, and I head out shortly after Dylan Gonda, who slept on the floor in the dining room. It was a packed house last night at the llama farm, and as the sun rises I spot Beau climbing in front of me, and Dylan a bit later. Dylan is off his bike and I stop to see if he is ok, but he says he is just dealing with a cleat issue and waves me on.

The route crests a couple of passes, which go by unremarkably, before dropping into the outskirts of Helena. I join weekday morning traffic for the last 20 miles into the city, wondering where everyone is going.

There’s this game I play with myself when I’m riding into a town. I look at the people in the cars passing me and I make up stories about their lives.

That guy looks like a teacher. Sensible car, clean-shaven, collared shirt, late-20s. Middle school, maybe.
Wait, why is he turning into the Burger King?
Maybe he woke up late because his alarm clock didn’t go off. Then he realized all the power was off and he couldn’t make coffee.
Yep, that’s definitely it.
But isn’t he late for school? Oh wait, school is out, isn’t it? It’s summer.
Oh okay. He’s probably going to the library.

Such dull stories. But the time passes.

I haven’t heard from Jimmy since he urged me to continue on with my plan yesterday morning. I get a text from him while I’m in Helena.

Get any mojo back?

I don’t know how to respond, so I decide to choose optimism.

Mojo back, I reply. Maybe typing it will make it true.

At Hardees, I order a bacon egg and cheese and an egg and cheese and a large coffee, and they give me the coffee for free because they mess up the order and put bacon on the second one. The manager comes out to effusively apologize and I have one of those moments where I see myself from outside myself, standing at the counter dirty and disheveled, and I want to say, “Ma’am, if you had any idea what is going on out there in those woods, you too would appreciate the true insignificance of this situation.”

I spend a while eating food and staring out the window at the busy street, instead of eating on the go like a racer should. Then I amble over to the grocery store next door to look for A&D ointment for an emerging saddle sore.

I walk up and down the aisle, squinting at the face creams and the painkillers and the first aid, and I can’t  find it. When I ask the shelf-stocker where I can find A&D, to my surprise he launches into an angry tirade about how they don’t stock it, and it’s ridiculous because every kid needs it, and there are a lot of parents around who need it and they come here and can’t find it. It turns out it’s also personal, because one time his kid had a diaper rash and he ran into work late at night to get some and discovered that the store didn’t stock it and then had to drive all over town in the middle of the night while his kid was crying at home.

So.

I take the climb out of Helena and eventually reach Lava Mountain Road – a tedious section of on-the-bike, off-the-bike rocky, rutted and steep road. Luckily I encounter Beau there, and we chat for a bit which passes some more time. Beau lives not far from me in Colorado, and we have mutual friends. Unfortunately, he’s suffering from Achilles issues. I remember hearing from some other racers in the Trans Am about how taping their ankles with physio tape helped them, so I mention that. (Turns out, it helped. And even with a complaining Achilles, less than two weeks later Beau would post an incredibly speedy Tour Divide finish time of 18 days – you can read about his great journey here.)

Lava Mountain Road. Photo Brandi Blade

The Lava Mountain Road ends, eventually, and I am happy to be riding nonstop again. The route funnels out onto logging roads, and I start riding uphill into the forest onto a rough red dirt road.

The road climbs and climbs, becoming rougher, and eventually hitting a snowdrift that I have to get off my bike to pick a slow line through.

I vaguely notice that there are no other bike tracks, but only in the vaguest of ways. I remount and begin pedaling uphill again. At some point, the road comes to an intersection and I realize that my Garmin has not alerted me to a turn. That’s when I notice that my location is marked by a lonely, thin blue line on the screen, hanging far away from the strong, thick pink line that represents the route. I’ve missed a turn, and not by a small distance either.

Oh, brother.

Luckily my dalliance has been uphill, so I have paid the piper already. Within a few more short minutes I’ve rejoined the route and head in the correct direction downhill to the tiny town of Basin, alongside the highway.

There was a time about 15 years ago when I was taking a lot of road trips. At some point I had this idea to create a coffee table book featuring the old houses (and people who live in them) whose front yards had been overtaken by highways, during some development initiative or another. I always wondered about the reasons why the people in those houses stayed, while presumably many others left, their houses bought, torn down and recovered in asphalt divided into six or eight car lanes. Those houses, I thought, still stood as physical, crumbling reminders of how rural America used to be.

I never got around to that book. But to me Basin felt like a small-town version of those houses. A main street with a jumble of old houses sitting right on the busy I-15 highway, neither the traffic nor proximity to Butte seems to have spurred its economic development. There’s a certain charm, though. I see two Tour Divide rigs outside the old café. Even though I have done enough sitting and eating today to meet a several-day quota, I decide to join them.

Inside at a corner booth I find Beau, and also Alex, who I have not yet met. Alex is a Brit with an easy laugh and an irreverent sense of humor. This trip is his first time to America, and his first time eating fried chicken. I order a giant plate of fries and drink several cokes from a straw out of a thick red plastic cup.

It’s a warm afternoon, around 80 degrees, when I head back outside after another 45 minutes. In fact, the whole day has had a slow-motion feel, almost lethargic. The riding has been slow, for sure; with 8,000 feet of accumulated climbing so far, some hike-a-bike, and a snow detour, I’ve only managed to cover 80 miles so far. Still, it’s not evening yet, so I should be able to get well past Butte, which is only 30 miles away, tonight.

As I get on my bike, I spy a sticker on Beau’s top tube. It says simply, “Relentless forward progress” – no doubt a useful motivational motto for him, and one I have used many times before to get me through tough times in races. In 2014, in fact, when I raced the Kona Ironman and spent most of the second half of the marathon having diarrhea in the lava fields, this is the very saying that got me, finally and in the dark, to the finish line. One step after another, relentless forward progress.

But today, simply reading that saying has the exact opposite effect on me. I feel something inside of me recoil at the words, and a wave of actual nausea washes over me. It all happens completely instinctively, and in a split second, and I shake it off quickly. Whether it’s too many fries, or anxiety about the mental suffering I am experiencing over the race, I have no idea.

Regardless, I enjoy the ride to Butte. There’s climbing, but it’s steady and not too steep, and the route runs along a full stream that meanders alongside the dirt road. I ride ahead, but Alex quickly catches me. We talk about bike racing, and his impressions of the US. He drops me on a rowdy downhill, but I can just keep him in sight as we hit a hilly paved road into Butte. It’s lucky, because my Garmin dies just as there is a series of turns; I have to ride hard so I can see where he is going.

The route enters Butte from high above the city, and I stop and enjoy the view over the valley. We turn onto a technical section of singletrack to descend into town, and I skid out and almost dump the bike on the last sandy downhill to the road.

It’s evening by now, but not late. There’s plenty of light in the sky as I roll downhill through Butte’s downtown. I feel completely disinterested in riding ahead but know that I should. If I don’t, it’s a second day in a row of not hitting the mileage I’ve planned for – and I should have another 20-30 miles in me, easy. I screw up my eyes and try to muster up the will to go on. I call Jimmy from the Subway parking lot. He’s still riding and says he has a couple of hours left.

I order two footlong Subway sandwiches. I decide I don’t care, and I’m not going any further. Maybe, just maybe I think, I’ll wake up early and get it done tomorrow.

Surely, tomorrow my mojo will be back.

Tour Divide Day 4: “Get on your bike. Ride to the next place.”

Holland Lake Lodge to Barbara & John’s living-room couch, 120 miles

I wake up with my alarm at 3am. The moon is shining so bright. Nothing inside of me wants to get up and get on my bike. That’s ok, I’ll feel better after coffee.

I walk creakily down the equally creaky stairs. This lodge is charming, but old. There’s freshly brewed coffee on the bar where I ate steak with my hands last night. David is dressed to ride, and drinking a mug. I pour myself one.

“Look outside,” he says.

I go outside. The moon is sitting quietly over the lake. It’s so beautiful. For the second time in 24 hours, I have tears in my eyes. It’s not all because of the view.

I go back inside and sit on a stool next to David. I tell him that my heart isn’t in it, that I’m going to give myself some more time. He says he understands. He and two other guys are loading up. It’s a good time to start riding – they’ll be up Richmond Peak around sunrise. I give David a hug and say goodbye. That’s the last time I’ll see him.

I check Track Leaders to see where my husband Jimmy is. He’s about a day’s ride behind. I send him a text message.

“I’ve had a change of heart. I want to pull the plug on the racing thing. I’m not really having fun – and less interested in the abuse required. I want to see stuff and ride bikes with you. I’m going to wait for you at Holland Lake Lodge.”

As soon as I send it, I feel a sense of relief.

Jimmy’s response is quick, and not what I expect.

“’Try to regroup – and go on. I would love riding with you but give it a bit more time before you wait for me. I love you. You’re strong.”

Then a follow up that’s more directive:

“Get on your bike. Ride to the next place. Come on. You can. You’re trained to understand what you’re feeling.”

Damn it.

I was hoping I had found an easy enough solution to my internal struggles. But now our text conversation is just mirroring the two voices in my head.

“Keep doing the thing because you said you were doing it.”

“Do something different because you don’t want to do it anymore.”

I’m going to have to figure this out for myself.

“Get on your bike. Ride to the next place.” That message is easy enough to understand, even for a nimwit like me.

I reluctantly pack up and roll out of Holland Lodge, but not until 9:30am. It feels practically like afternoon, and I’m berating myself again. Wasted time, wasted time, wasted time.

The other part of my brain despises this way of thinking. I think about Mike Hall’s words in Inspired to Ride during his record-setting Trans Am Bike Race in 2014: “We’re not curing cancer. We’re just riding bikes.”

It’s just a bike ride. Stop being so serious.

I decide that “ride with joy” is my mantra for today. I am ironically stern all day with myself on this point, and for the most part, it helps.

I ride over the single-track on Richmond Peak, hooting out loud on the descent, only stopping to chat with a forest service worker out to clear trees on this remote pass. The trail swoops and loops down the mountain and I feel like I’m bombing down from on the top of the world.

Before Ovando, I stop to watch horses playing, their stomachs heaving and manes flowing as their hooves kick up small tornadoes of dust. They run with such ease and power, no thinking just doing. It looks like freedom.

I encounter Aaron again, and we ride forest service roads into Ovando. Scott and Davy are there, and I chat with famous dot-watcher Kathy from the Blackfoot Angler fly shop. It’s fun to meet the icons of the Tour Divide, people who go out of their way to be generous to riders, despite the fact that most are out in the wilderness in an effort to escape our nonstop day-to-day world of human-ness. These encounters make me remember that our whole world is an ecosystem: the mountains, the animals, the plants, and us – the humans – moving like tiny specks through a moment in time.

I go across the road to the convenience store where I am welcomed like a champion by the owners, even though they’ve seen at least twenty of us already. I buy homemade brownies and factory-made twinkies and Gatorade. They don’t even look at me funny when I come back in the third time for what I forgot the first and second time.

Photo Kathy in Ovando

The road out of Ovando is a dirt, washboard track that goes off straight into the horizon for several miles before heading into the trees and up and over the next pass. There’s a headwind. I’m playing around in my aerobars, riding hard and enjoying watching the next forested mountain get slowly closer. I pass Davy from Ireland and we chat for a minute before I crank on.

I roll into Lincoln, Montana around dinnertime. I’ve only ever heard of Lincoln because it was where the Unabomber was arrested. I remember the day I heard that news; it was my birthday, April 3 in 1996. I was living in Austin and writing my senior thesis, about to graduate from college the next month. I had just run my first marathon in February and was still on a high from doing something I never thought I could do. My best friend Kim was pregnant and about to give birth to a baby daughter.

Terrorism still seemed mostly like something that happened to other people, in other places. In my mind at the time, Ted Kazcynski was filed away into a special category, only joined perhaps by Timothy McVeigh. The file was labeled something like “one-off lunatics” – alienated loners whose actions raised terrible questions but were extremely rare.

Now more than 20 years later, how many more names are in that file, and how much things have changed. On the other hand, rolling slowly through Lincoln and looking at the old motel, the Restaurant-Lounge-Casino, the aging Coca-Cola signs, it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot that hasn’t, too. I think about that first marathon. How here I am, too, over 20 years later, still trying to push my mind and body to some imaginary horizon.

On my way out of town to head towards Stemple Pass, I stop and call Barbara Nye. I’ve got her phone number scribbled on a cue sheet, as a trail angel who hosts cyclists on the other side of this pass. She answers and greets me more like an old friend than a smelly stranger. She tells me that their cabins are full, but I am welcome to sleep on a couch on their porch. This sounds like luxury to me.

I’m racing the sunset as I ride up Stemple Pass Road and grind up the last handful of rough steep miles to the top, always thinking I’ll have to get off my bike, but never quite having to. I’m slowly learning that the sections of this route that I dread the most are often those that feel the most satisfying. I like the attention, and the focus, required by the steep, rocky and rooted sections. The riding is consuming, and rewarding in a strange way.

I coast the steep downhill towards Barbara’s that loses more than 2000 feet of elevation in seven miles. Parts of the road are rough but lit by a strong moon and a cloudless sky. I’m feeling more exhilarated than tired – partly due, I guess, to my late start to the day. Still, it’s been a solid day, full of good riding, beautiful scenery, and the kindness of humans.

It’s almost 11pm, but there’s more still to come. Barbara has given me the mileage from the top at seven miles, and I start wondering if I’ll be able to find her place in the dark. Suddenly, ahead of me, there’s a spotlight shining. As I roll up, a man with long white hair and a friendly smile calls out my name.

“I’ve been waiting up for you,” he says, and ushers me into the house.

John has Trackleaders up on the screen like a command center, next to the digital weather station, and he shows me how he’s tracking the riders one by one as they near. He apologizes that Barbara is already asleep and offers to make me dinner and points me to beer in the fridge. He shows me where the bathroom is and where I can plug in my electronics. I tell him I am happy to sleep outside, but he points to the couch in the living room and gives me a pillow. He and Barbara are hosting ten cyclists tonight.

I’m blown away by the whole thing – the welcome, the kindness, the generosity. John says they don’t want donations, or a review, just to “pay it forward.” It’s funny, I think as I fall asleep, that in this big quest for a solo, wilderness adventure, some of the most remarkable moments stand out because of the simple generosity of humans.

Tour Divide Day 3: Searching for “Why”

Tuchuck Campground to Holland Lake Lodge, 177 miles

I’m fast asleep on the floor of the pit toilet. It’s sometime after midnight.

I snap awake to a heavy banging on the door. It takes a second to remember where I am and what is happening.

“Please can I come in?” calls a voice on the other side. I think I hear a tinge of desperation in the tone.

It’s dark. I fumble around, flip on my headlight and reach over and turn the handle, unlocking the door.

Another rider barrels in, headlight on. Dueling headlights, neither one of us can see each other in the small, cramped space. We both turn our heads away, so not to blind each other. My stuff is all over the floor, so I start grabbing things, piling food, electronics, bike shorts, stuff sacks, water bottles all into one pile by the base of the toilet. It’s a roomy pit toilet for one person, but two is most certainly a crowd.

The rider says thanks. I can tell he’s relieved to be off his bike and what must have been a cold descent from the top of the pass. It’s clear he only wants one thing – sleep – and I can’t blame him. He lays out his sleeping bag next to me and is asleep within two minutes. Given the space constraints, his legs are draped over mine. As he sleeps, he tosses and turns, sighing heavily as he does.

I feel for him. This race is brutal on the body and the mind – for everyone. We are only two days in, and the toll is already becoming clear. I stretch my legs out, pushing his to the side, noticing my sore quads and hips. I am now wide awake.

So far for me, the weight of the race feels much more mental than physical. I am tired, of course – I have ridden for 28 hours and 300+ miles over the last two days. Still, I feel I am riding within my physical abilities. My power is respectable, and my riding speed is close to what I expected. I’m hitting my mileage targets so far.

That said, my mental game could use some help. Pushing myself to remain relentlessly focused – hour after hour, day after day – on the miles, time, logistics has already started feeling like a chore. But that focus is what is going to take for me to not only reach my race goals, but to reach the finish line period.

Day three hasn’t even begun, and it’s pretty clear that this is not a good sign for the days ahead. In the Trans America Bike Race, I remember, every day also brought some sort of a battle. There were deep struggles along the way, many dark moments and minutes and hours. But alongside those deep dark times, I also found so many periods of light and joy and transcendence – moments that made the challenges worth pushing through. Moments that hinted that the answer to that ultimate “Why?” was somehow quietly being answered within me.

I just needed to find my Why again.

My sleeping partner sighs deeply again, almost in pain. I’m not finding that shit while I’m laying here wasting time off the bike, I think. I fire up my headlight and gather my pile of everything, trying not to make too much noise as I leave.

It’s 3am and I step out into the Montana night. It takes me some time to re-organize my gear, but soon I am coasting back down the road. It’s not as cold as I expected, and the moon is big and bright. The rockier track soon turns into smoother forest service road. I reluctantly turn on my speaker to ward off bears; it doesn’t seem right to be blaring Pit Bull in the face of all this serenity but I do it anyway.

The only pass between me and Whitefish now is Red Meadow Pass, and it’s light by the time I start the climb. It’s a beautiful ascent, winding through thick forests with bear grass and other wildflowers lining the side of the road. The air is still cool, but I’m working hard enough to sweat a bit, so I’ve been able to shed my down jacket. Occasionally I can get glimpses of the rising sun between the clouds to the right. Once in a while there’s a small cluster of houses or cabins. My friend Kim from Whitefish is an interior painter, and I know she is painting one of these houses. I examine each one to see if I can tell which it is.

Soon, another rider pulls up to my left and says good morning. It’s David from Australia, who turns out to be the inhabitant of the second “Montana Hilton” available in the campground last night. After not riding with anyone for more than a few minutes over the last two days, it’s great to have company. David raced the Tour Divide in 2017 and has also toured on the route; this year, he’s looking to improve upon his time in 2017, which was just under 21 days. David generously shares insights about the route; I note to myself that this would be a good person to stick around with. (*Shout out to David, who ended up smashing his 2017 time, finishing in 13th place this year in just over 18 days.*)

David and I are talking as we round a bend, and suddenly there up ahead is a black bear in the road. He has his back to us. David quickly reaches for his camera, I immediately start yelling, and the black bear ambles into the woods before David can get a good shot. Ooops, sorry, I say. Ruined the shot.

Scared bear! Photo David Langley

We aren’t sure whether there is any snow on the road at the top of the pass, and around each corner we keep expecting it. It never comes. Red Meadow Lake is the reward at the top of the climb. It takes my breath away when it comes into sight, and I have to put my foot down to stare. In the morning light, the still water looks glassy green, almost the color as the mountains behind it. The mountains have little pockets of snow still, the remnants of winter, like cool whip dabs on the slopes. Fir trees line the shores. As far as I can see, a blanket of green.

It’s so beautiful that tears come to my eyes.

There’s plenty more to gawk at on the descent. We pass Upper Whitefish Lake and bomb downhill on miles of forest service roads. As we get closer to Whitefish, we see cyclists from town making the early morning ride up the road and we wave hello.

Photo David Langley

Coming into town, we spot Alexandera up ahead. She can only go so fast on the flat road on her single-speed, so David and I catch up pretty quickly. I say hi and try to fist-bump her as I go by, but we miss. There are so many dudes in these races, it’s so nice to see women.

David asks where I am going to stop for resupply and I pick a coffee shop I know in Whitefish, which is a few blocks off route. I get an espresso and two sandwiches for the road. My friend Kim finds us there and gives us hugs, and a small crowd gathers watching us pack up for the next stretch.

We’ve already ridden 50 miles this morning, and people are just now heading out on the roads to the lake or church or breakfast. David stops to get some drinks at a shop in Columbia Falls, a little past Whitefish, and I carry on, assuming he will catch me a bit later down the road.

It’s Father’s Day, and I check my phone for service. I decide I’ll call my dad at the next stop. This will be my third time calling my dad to wish him Happy Father’s Day during a cross-country bike race. I think about all the worry I have caused him over the decades – with my sometimes-risky travels, sports endeavors, and occasionally ill-fated adventures – and wonder if he hopes it will run its course at some point. Nah, I think, he’s probably got it figured out by now. Despite the fact that I know they worry about me, both my mom and dad are always supportive of these ventures, which I know not everyone can say. And I think they like the stories (most of them anyway) – at least once I’m done and safely home.

I ride the pavement with happiness, as usual. Traffic is low and the roads run through neighborhoods with the occasional small rolling hill. I pass Alexandera again; she smiles as I come by and we connect on the fist bump this time. I meet Stefano Romualdi and we head off route together before Huckleberry Pass to a small market to resupply for the afternoon. It’s getting warm and I drink two cokes.

On the pass, it’s social hour. Stefano soon passes me again. Stefano is Italian and has limited English. He keeps apologizing for it, but I’m amazed that he is brave enough to race across a country in a self-supported race where he may never encounter someone who speaks his native language. I wonder if I would do the same. He keeps telling me that I am “really fast,” and I finally realize that he thinks I am Lael, so I have to disabuse him of that notion.

Near the top of the climb I finally get to meet Kim Raeymaekers, who had some mechanical troubles on day one and is working his way back up the field. We have mutual friends but have never met in person, so he slows to chat for a bit before carrying on.

The relationships in this sport can be as ephemeral as the short moments it takes to make a catch and pass. Still, I realize, each one makes a lasting impression in my mind.

Photo David Langley

There are no views to bring me to tears at the top of Huckleberry Pass, and it’s hot there. After the descent, there are now dozens of miles of forest service roads to reckon with – none of them particularly tough, but none particularly remarkable either. Riding the somewhat confusing maze of roads, it finally hits me how tired I am from the 5 ½ hours of sleep in two nights. I think about taking a nap. Instead I put on a playlist from the 90s and rock out to angry-white-guy anthems. I sing Offspring and Green Day and Oasis out loud for what I realize, even at the time, is way too many hours.

Eventually the terrain changes a bit and we ride a stretch of faint double-track. I meet Aaron on his singlespeed. He is having some knee issues but is game to chat for a while, which makes time go by faster.

Soon we are on the paved road headed towards Holland Lake campground and lodge. I meet up with Alexandera once again. I remain impressed with both her strength and speed on the bike, and efficient use of time. We chat for a while and talk about sandwiches. I ask her for route advice, and she tells me just to make it out of Montana and I’ll be fine. I can tell from the way she talks when I ask her about her own race that she is focused and determined to reach the finish line knowing that she gave it everything she could.

Even though I am not feeling the same inspiration, the thought crosses my mind: maybe I can feed off of her motivation.

There’s a tourist lodge called Holland Lake Lodge up ahead, where I have decided to stop for the night, even though it’s not close to dark yet. Stopping there is expensive, and indulgent, and perhaps not the best decision from a racing perspective. But I’m tired and hungry and want to sort out my split thinking. Maybe a rest and some good food will help.

Stefano is there when I reach the lodge, and we eat dinner at the bar. David comes in just a bit later and it’s like seeing an old friend, even though we just met today and saw each other a few hours ago. There’s no cell service, so I still can’t talk to my dad, which makes me sad. I send him a text and hope he understands. Despite my dirty and smelly state, I eat a fancy steak. My right hand already has nerve damage, so I have trouble cutting the food, so after furtively looking around to make sure no one is watching I just eat with my hands.

When I’m done, I take a shower and look out my window at the lake. The moon is bright outside and the bed is soft. I set my alarm for 3am to hit the road again. Things will be better when I wake up again.

Tour Divide Day 2: Near-Death on the Wall to a Montana Hilton

Fernie to Tuchuck Campground, Montana, 151 miles

At 4:30am, I head next door to the 7-11 in Fernie. There are already three other bikes outside, leaning against the ice machine and the trash can. I need to ride over three passes, clear 100+ miles and reach the US border before another food stop. I stuff Twinkies and honey buns and cherry pies in every nook and cranny of my bike, and fill my water bottles with Gatorade.

I’m rolling my eyes at my day’s diet, even as I cram cupcakes into my mouth and chug a cup of coffee while I shop the familiar aisles.  Resupply on the Trans Am Bike Race, which is the only other bike race more than a handful of days I have done, was a lot easier. Hauling a day’s worth (or more) of food on my bike is a new experience.

But hey, I think as I roll out of Fernie, I’ve got a handlebar bag full of Hot Tamales, Junior Mints and yogurt covered pretzels. Who am I to complain?

Photo Brandi Blade

The first pass takes a while, but the grade is mostly pleasant. A couple of guys pass me and say hello, but no one wants to slow down to chat. It’s only day two, and energy for most is still high.

I feel just okay. Not great, but not bad either. It’s another beautiful morning. I watch the sun come up and wonder how today will unfold. I’m hoping to make it another 150-ish miles, which would put me somewhere in between Eureka, Montana and Whitefish. Just focus on today, I remind myself.

I’m eating a honey bun about a mile from the summit when a north-bound tourist comes bombing down the hill. I put my foot down, which cues him to stop. He’s European, and he’s pumping his fist. “The next woman is just ahead, just ahead,” he says excitedly. “She just went over the summit a few minutes ago. You can catch her.”

Oh really? I ask. I take another bite of my honey bun. We chat for another minute and then I continue up the pass.

I figure he means Alexandera on the single speed. I saw firsthand yesterday what a strong rider she is, and I figure she must have come through Fernie about the same time as me and camped somewhere up the pass last night.

Observing my reaction to his encouragement, I note how it cues an emotional response in me of…nothing. No excitement, no competitive fire, or even kindling. Kind of strange, but I tell myself this reaction is a good thing, since racing anybody at 200 miles of a 2700-mile race is pointless. Still, there is a motivational aspect of being part of a race that can stoke a helpful competitive fire, even early on. Knowing other riders are around – in front or behind – can push you to go a little faster, do a little more.

Anyway, feelings are just feelings, I tell myself. Things always change.

The riding is varied and rugged here, just like yesterday. Between passes, we ride a fun section of faint two-track through meadows with high grass on either side. I blast Ke$ha on my speaker, as this looks to me like a place I would want to roam around if I were a grizzly. (And everyone knows, bears run far from pop stars with punctuation in their names.) The world feels lush and green and wild.

We reach a small section of soggy, noodle-thin singletrack with some sharp drops and stream crossings. I’m off my bike, and on it again. Then off.

Then shortly, there’s the Wall – jutting straight up in front of me.

The Wall, like Koko Claims from yesterday, is another route feature with a notorious reputation. They say the grades reach 50 percent at the bottom. Unlike Koko, though, this one is only about 400 meters long, so I’m not too concerned.

How hard could it be?

As it turns out, hard. Hard, if you get your bike wedged upside down on a downed tree within the first 15 meters of ascent. Hard, if you’re trying to pry your 45-pound bike from upside down to right-side up on a 50-percent grade. Hard, if you’re precariously balanced on a trail the width of your pinky and a steep drop to your left down to the river.

I think about taking a photo, then remember an article I just read about how many people have lost their lives taking selfies on precarious ledges. Don’t be a statistic, Hayes. Just don’t do it. I tug at my handlebars, breathless, then the seat.

Finally, after a handful of minutes that feel like an hour, I somehow wrestle my bike to upright. I’m breathing harder than I have since the race started yesterday, but I’m relieved to still have a bike with me. The rest of the climb is steep but straightforward hike-a-bike. I’m relieved when I reach the rocky track that announces the beginning of Galton Pass, my last ascent before the US border.

Galton Pass is tough – lots of steep pitches and physical riding. In the saddle and out. It’s getting warm and I think about eating a sandwich in the shade. Then I remember I don’t have a sandwich, just Twinkies, and that I’ve just wasted time getting up the Wall, which are minutes I have effectively taken away from myself in sleep tonight. I also realize that nearly another day has gone by and I haven’t taken a photo.

The negative voices trickle in steadily. They subside a bit as I bomb down Galton Pass and hit the pavement. The border appears quickly, and I chat with the guard for a while about the race. He wishes me luck and waves me through. Twelve miles to resupply in Eureka, Montana.

I hold a dirty little secret from my fellow TD compadres: I love to ride on pavement. Among many of the racers, there’s a collective disdain for the trappings of civilization, with paved roads symbolic of that. For the most part, the route’s concessions to society are purely utilitarian – just points for resupply before heading back into the wilderness.

I get it. The wildness of this route is incredible. Still, the sealed road is a bit of luxury I embrace. I love how the tires roll smoothly. I love how the miles go by. I love letting my mind wander and watching the countryside drift on either side. I appreciate not having to concentrate on what I’m doing to keep from falling over.

I smile the entire ten miles from the border to Eureka. I wave at the few cars that go by and wonder if there will be a Slurpee machine in Eureka. It’s warm now, and I’m looking forward to a bit of blissful air conditioning.

If I’m a diva for it, then sue me.

I lean my bike outside of the Subway in Eureka. I order two 12-inch subs and eat one in a yellow booth with my helmet still on. I fill and refill my large cup from the soda machine. I won’t hit another resupply until after Whitefish tomorrow, so I need food for the next few hours of riding, before going to sleep (wherever that may be), breakfast when I wake up, and riding fuel for the morning.

As I pack my bags, a family gathers outside looking at my bike. The woman asks me what I am doing, and when I tell her she calls her son to come out of the convenience store. He’s 19. His eyes get bigger and bigger, and he asks me questions – about packing, training, food, sleep.

This is right up your alley, his mom says. You should totally do it.

You totally should, I say enthusiastically. There’s only a hint of doubt in my voice, and I hope neither of them hear it.

As I ride out of the parking lot, I notice several riders checking into the motel. On a normal bike tour, I think, this is the early-evening time that you would arrive in town, happy and thankful for a solid day of riding in a new place with beautiful views. You’d be hungry for a burger and a beer. You’d check into a room and crank the air conditioning. You’d scroll through photos on your phone, re-living the tough and beautiful sections. You’d lay down on a pillow and…

I cut that inner monologue short. This is racing, not touring, and that’s just an unhelpful line of thinking at this point.

It’s after 6pm, and it’s starting to get cooler as I ride out of Eureka. The road continues south on pavement for a good portion of the way up the next pass, Whitefish Divide. There are small waterfalls and streams gushing out of embankments, and I can see peaks with snow in the distance.

My mood lifts, and I’m thankful for the day, the effort and the beauty of the two countries I’ve been in today. I crest Whitefish Divide on a dirt road while there’s still plenty of light in the sky. Dusk begins to throw shadows as I head down the hill and start to think about a sleep spot.

Only about six miles down the rocky descent, Tuchuck Campground appears on the right. It’s not dark yet, but with close to 15 hours of riding in hand today, it seems a reasonable place to stop. There’s no one at the campsite, and there’s a beautiful stretch of grass next to the river.

Perfect. I set up my sleeping bag and bivvy quickly. Equally quickly, a swarm of mosquitoes forms a body halo around me.

Damn it. I scoop up everything and wander back towards the road.

I head towards a forest service pit toilet in the middle of the campground. Upon further inspection, it is clean, warm and well lit – perfect for a night’s sleep. I laugh at how giddy I feel to have discovered such luxurious accommodations. I can even air my shorts out while I sleep. It’s getting chilly and I spread all my gear and food out inside.

About 30 minutes later, I hear the sound of another bike wheel spinning into the campground, then a knock on the door. “Is anyone in here?’

“Yes, I’m here,” I answer.

“Is that Alexandera?” the rider asks.

“No, it’s Janie.”

“Ah, hello. Okay, let me look around for another Montana Hilton,” he says, then a few minutes later, “I found another one. Fantastic.”

I turn the light out and fall asleep laughing. We’re all in the same boat – or pit toilet, as it may be – out here on the Tour Divide.

Tour Divide Day 1: Embrace the Cuckoo

Banff to Fernie, 155 miles

Recap post here.

Because the race doesn’t start until 8, Brandi, Jimmy and I have time to eat breakfast at a coffee shop before we roll to the start line. Once we are full and caffeinated, we roll from town towards the YWCA in the still-early-morning light. We merge into a huge crowd of riders across the bridge.

Everyone is gathered in the parking lot of the YWCA. Such a huge crowd of people. I know the numbers – 150+ starters – but seeing the mass of riders and bikes is overwhelming. Loaded bikes strewn everywhere, across the pavement and the lawn. The nervousness is palpable.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Photo Cindy Hayes

Crazy Larry is already into his performance, warming up the crowd. My sister Cindy is there along with a crowd of other family and friends of many of the racers. We all pose for a photo, smiling and unsure where to look with the dozens of cameras. I see Lael and give her a hug. She looks calm, excited.

I feel nervous. I say to Jimmy and Brandi let’s ride to the trail start and wait for the big group there. The entrance to the Goat Trail is the legit starting point for the race, and I’m nervous about 150 excited riders funneling onto the narrow dirt track. They agree, we hug Cindy goodbye and we ride over.

A few minutes after we arrive, the group comes hurtling through the parking lot. I watch the sprinters pass, and there are a lot of them, then wait for a reasonable gap and slot in. Suddenly there’s the sound of hundreds of bike tires rolling on dirt. Snap, crackle, pop, good morning.

And just like that, “We’re racing the Tour Divide!” This thought is palpable. Everything feels fresh and clean, easy. I know it’s only fleeting, but I’m going to enjoy it.

I find myself by Lael for a minute. She is riding fast – certainly faster than me – and I watch her ride away. I know she wants this record, maybe the win, and I want it for her. Within only a few minutes, I notice that there are more women than I have ever seen in an ultra bikepacking race: Zoe, Hannah, Alexandera. Everyone says hello. We’re all fresh and happy to finally be racing.

My day one goal is to get to Fernie, 155 miles down the trail. There’s some tough riding ahead, and only one resupply point, so I’ve chosen to carry all the food I’ll need for the day. I have about 6,000 calories on my bike and I start eating right away. I’m pretty determined to take care of myself today. You’re eating for tomorrow, I tell myself.

Photo Brandi Blade

The day’s route is one of the most varied of any. We ride through meadows and past lakes and on bridges of over streams, on jeep track and wide gravel road and faint walking trails. Always in the backdrop the giant mountains loom – promising or threatening, depending on how you choose to see them.

To me, on this day, the promise feels like a good one.

We do a long stretch on swoopy singletrack. At first I’m alone, but then a line of guys line up behind me. I offer to let them by so they can go at their own pace. But because I am blasting a James Brown song on my grizzly-prevention loudspeaker and they are singing, they tell me don’t worry.

I am not a good singletrack rider, but the High Rockies trail makes me wish I was. It’s flowy, with lots of whoop-de-doos. I fail at keeping good momentum through corners, which has the effect of slowing us all down. Normally I would stress about this, but I just tell myself don’t worry – get through these sections that aren’t your strength and focus on what’s ahead. I finally do pull over, despite the protests, and let a few go by. Jimmy is there, which I am happy to see.

Around this time, I also find myself riding with Evan. I laugh. It’s a tradition, and a good one. Evan and I met each other in 2016 the very first day of my first Trans Am Bike Race. We made instant friends, chatting and laughing about our jobs and travels and racing. The next year, when we both raced it again, we found ourselves riding together, a mini reunion, on day one.

Evan went on to smash the Trans Am Bike Race record that year, and I know he’ll be gone from my sights soon this year too. Still, it’s nice to have this camaraderie. The friendships in this sport are often instantaneous, and they have a way of sticking. Shared hardships and shared joy make good glue.

At about mile 50, Evan and I hit Elk Pass and ride over together – or kind of. The first pitch is quite steep at the bottom, and we hike our bikes for a bit there. But then as we are back riding again and the grade begins to gradually follow the power line up to the summit, I watch Evan get a little further, then further into the distance.

On the top of the pass, the valley is spread out like a painting below, and I spend a few seconds at the top stunned at how far I can see. There’s a vague realization of how new and expansive everything seems right now, and how that in itself is a novelty. I wonder how things will feel in a few days. As I bomb down the rocky descent, I’m also subtly aware that I’m still cautious while descending as a result of the crash last year that broke my shoulder. I wonder whether my comfort level will change over the coming days.

So much to wonder about. And only one way to find out.

There’s a long fast dirt road stretch where I chat with a few guys – one from Australia, one from New Zealand. At 100 miles in, we make the famous turn onto Koko Claims. There are numerous spots on the Tour Divide that have already taken on legendary status in my mind – either because they are especially hard, or dangerous, or both. Koko Claims is one of them. I have many of these spots marked on my cue sheets, though I almost wish I didn’t, because just knowing they are there creates a deep anxiety of anticipation.

What I will come to realize over the coming days is that most of these obstacles themselves don’t justify the looming anticipation. My fears are really about the unknown, I’ll come to see, not the thing itself. The thing itself is manageable. It’s my mind that can create mountains out of…well, let’s be honest, they’re still mountains.

Koko Claims, however, does live up to the hype. Unfortunately, I have misunderstood the details of the hype.

What I think I know about Koko Claims is that it is a 2-4-hour (depending on which reports you read) continuous, uphill hike-a-bike through essentially one large rock garden. In believing this, I plan to be very smart by bringing a pair of Nike Frees with me to wear for this section to avoid turning an ankle on the hike through boulders.

At the turn onto the Koko Claims road, I immediately reach a hike-a-bike section. Here we are, I think. I get off my bike and spend the time to put on my Nikes and securely fasten my bike shoes to my saddle bag. They’ll be hard to get out later, but I don’t want to lose them either.  However, just after clearing that section, there is a ride-able stretch. I get back on my bike and realize that Nike Frees are terrible choice of footwear to use for this rooted, rocky section. But still, I think I know what Koko Claims is, so I keep them on.

I keep riding. And still riding. This goes on for much longer than I expect. My feet are bouncing off the very small platform created by the SPD pedals, and my bike seat keeps jabbing me in the crotch as I get hustled around. I keep having to put my foot down and adjust my position. Around every corner I think I’ll need to hike, but I keep being able to ride. My feet continue to slip and bounce over the roots and rocks. I’ve never quite looked forward like this to a hike-a-bike before.

This mostly-riding stretch goes on for about 2.5 very tedious miles. We round a bend and – okay! – there it is, the hike-a-bike through the avalanche field. It is indeed incredibly steep. Take a handful of steps up, drag your bike beside you over boulders, wish you had done those gym workouts with a little more gusto, hold your brakes, stop for breath, repeat. This goes on for an hour and a half or so.

Lael pushing up Koko. Photo Dylan Morton – IG @made_of_salt

At the top, I am joined by Zoe and Alexandera. Another thing I didn’t understand about Cuckoo Claims, as it is now known in my mind, is that the initial descent is nearly just as gnarly as the uphill. Zoe and I drag our bikes down the sandy, rocky boulder fields – pumping the brakes, simply trying to keep the bikes and all our luggage from hurtling down the trail away from us. Alexandera rides most of the boulder sections, and we find her filling up water bottles at a stream at the bottom.

At the bottom, the track is faint, and Zoe and I make a wrong turn together. I realize within a half mile or so and call her back. We continue on another long dirt stretch, relieved to have that obstacle behind us.  I wonder whether that was really epic, relatively speaking, or if we will face many more obstacles like that.

Time to get your mind in the right place, girl. Embrace the Cuckoo.

There are still a lot of riders around, which I enjoy. I pass some. Some pass me. Probably most of us are bound for Fernie that night, though some will continue past to get miles into the night. The last pass before Fernie is magical. It’s 10pm and the light is just starting to wane as I go up. It feels like a celebration of summer, a welcome to the first day of the Tour Divide.

I suddenly realize that I haven’t taken a single photo all day. That’s embarrassing. Still, I don’t think I should stop unless I have several things to do. Still, beauty. I stop and snap one measly photo. I turn on my lights for the first time, partly to justify the stop.

I roll into Fernie at 11pm. I don’t feel particularly tired, at least not as tired as close to thirteen hours in the saddle would suggest, but I also don’t feel interested to carry on. I note this feeling. “Only” thirteen hours on the bike a day is not going to cut it if I want to meet my time goal, the sterner part of my brain says.

On the other hand, it was a good day of riding. I check TrackLeaders quickly and see that Evan has arrived an hour or so earlier. Traditional.

The couple who own the motel next to the 24-hour 7-11 are sitting outside at a rickety table, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the cool late-Friday evening. We chat and make the jokes about a ride around town being a long way, how they’re actually the smart ones, about all the dirty, tired riders they’ve already seen, myself included. I wish I could stay and talk longer. I take the key with a keychain from them and head to my room.

Day 1 of the Tour Divide is complete.

A Romance and a Heartbreak on the Tour Divide

Truth number one: The Tour Divide was one of the greatest romances of my life.

So many moments that give me shivers of pleasure: Watching the waning Canadian light at dusk turning a snowy peak from gold to pink and back to gold again. A breeze in the Idaho forest blowing gently across my muddy legs while I lay on my back, watching the clouds move across the sky. Stripping off my sweaty t-shirt and dunking it into a freezing, gushing spring in Montana. Wondering at snowflakes on the summer solstice in Wyoming. Laughing out loud next to a brand-new friend that I feel like I’ve known forever. Understanding the permanence of the Milky Way in a vast Great Basin sky.

Truth number two: The Tour Divide was a bad breakup, one that comes slowly and painfully.

I quit my race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, just a bit over halfway. Injury didn’t force me, and I didn’t have a race-ending mechanical. I wasn’t even sorry to stop. In trying to come to terms with what happened out there I watch a lot of emotions fighting for space: betrayal, confusion, relief, the helplessness of feeling at the mercy of something out of my control. The tug of war in the brain.

The thing I thought I wanted, out of reach and slipping away.

Before

I am a bike racer. While I hope my identity spans beyond being an athlete, it’s also true that since I discovered ultra-bike racing a few years ago, training and racing has become a growing  and ever-more-consuming passion. I’ve spent lots of money, and even more time,  on training, racing, bike parts and gear, planning.

Photo Anthony Dryer

Since 2016 I’ve raced more than 12,000 miles on my bike – road, gravel and mountain. Two Trans Am Bike Race finishes, the BC Epic 1000k and a lot of “shorter” races (usually 12 hours+). I love the preparation process, the planning and anticipation, the camaraderie of pushing myself alongside fellow competitors, the thrill of testing myself to reach a goal.

My favorite races go somewhere. Not in a circle, but on a journey. Bikepack racing always feels like the purest form of freedom. It’s like a fast road trip, a chance to see the world at quicker than a snail’s pace but slow enough to sense my place in the world. Ticking off distance while also living like a vagabond, sleeping in ditches and catching snatches of towns and quick conversations with locals. Solo and simple, just relying on myself. Unencumbered.

Photo Brandi Blade

In 2018, I decided that the Tour Divide was a next logical challenge for me. It seemed like a significant, but reasonable, step up. 2700 miles of rugged, off-road riding from Canada to the Mexican border across the US. Bears, mountains, thunderstorms, dirt. Perfect.

With most of my adult years spent road riding and doing triathlons, mountain biking is relatively new to me. But six years ago, when I moved to Colorado a whole new cycling world opened up. I have spent the last few years learning to ride rough terrain, gaining skills by taking instruction and watching riders much better than me (of which there are many).

Last summer while training for the Leadville 100, I had a downhill crash on the highest, most remote point of the course, going over my handlebars in a rock garden and breaking the top of my shoulder into several pieces. I had surgery and rehabbed the shoulder, and by this winter I was in full-commitment mode.

Because I love racing against the clock, I set a big time goal for the Tour Divide. I targeted Lael Wilcox’s race finish time in 2015, which was 17 days. I knew there would be many strong female riders this year, but I wasn’t competing against others. I wanted to compete against the route, against my own best effort. A 17-day finish means averaging ~160 miles per day, on varied surfaces and lots of elevation gain. In the Trans Am in 2017, I had averaged more than 215 miles per day. That said, the two courses are far from equivalent. I knew riding that many miles on this kind of course was going to be a tough ask, but I also felt ready to set an ambitious target.

For this race, I knew I needed to not only train fitness, but also wilderness prep and mental toughness. Pushed and guided by my excellent coach Greg Grandgeorge, I rode 5,500 miles and 220,000 feet of elevation gain this year before June, the majority of it on my mountain bike. I did some big efforts, including the notorious 340-mile Iowa Wind and Rock gravel race in April, but kept the racing to a minimum. I tested gear and often rode my bike fully loaded. I rode in Utah, Arizona, Colorado on sandy, rocky, mountainous routes. I made new friends. I rode with a lot of joy, even at hours that some weeks neared those of a full-time job.

While there are always improvements to be made in training, I arrived in Banff feeling I had done the best I could with the time that I had. It was a good feeling.

During

On June 14, the race began. The course was stunning at every turn, far beyond my expectations. Rushing water (so much water!), mountain vistas, bears and antelope in the road, no sounds for hours but sounds of my breathing and the the crush of wheels on gravel.

Photo Cindy Hayes

My fellow racers, when I encountered them, were from all over the world, with great perspectives and good stories. The route was rugged, but doable. Many parts were challenging, but none were overwhelming. My body was in good shape, and I felt positive about my fitness.

Photo Kathy in Ovando

But something was very wrong inside my head. Almost from day one, I didn’t want to race. I don’t know how to describe it very well beyond that. My legs were working, but my mind wouldn’t play along. I wasn’t interested in logging the big miles, in maximizing time, in being efficient – all things it takes to achieve the goal I was after.

For several days – through BC, Montana, into Idaho, Wyoming – I didn’t believe what I was feeling, and I continued to collect the miles anyway. I told myself to be more grateful, that I just needed time to get into a rhythm. I would force the sleep out of my eyes and start riding at 4am. I rushed through convenience store stops, politely cut short conversations with locals, kept a keen eye on my elapsed time to my riding time.

Contrary to previous experiences, it was a terrible feeling. I was logging the miles, but I didn’t want to. I rode in a headspace of shock and confusion. I love racing, and I had come there to race. But something in my brain continued to refuse to embrace it.

Eventually, after nine days, I gave in. I stopped and waited in Pinedale for my husband Jimmy, who was racing his own race. We rode together across the Great Basin of Wyoming and into Colorado. We chased a black-sky storm and slept under the stars. We stopped early one day and drank margaritas in the town of Wamsutter, hated by most Tour Divide racers but thoroughly enjoyed by us.

Finally, I was having fun. Still, though, I was mentally exhausted, and Jimmy was still setting a strong pace of 100+ miles per day. When I found myself curled up on the bathroom floor in Steamboat Springs for a night, suffering from food poisoning, it felt like an easy choice to pull the plug, despite knowing that I could have waited, recovered, and gotten back on the trail if I chose. As the wheels literally came off my bike, I felt nothing but relief. Then the follow up: guilt, for feeling glad.

After

In retrospect, and writing this, it seems a mental lapse to not have been either able to suck it up one way or the other: either to control my fickle mind well enough to focus on the initial goal, or to more quickly adapt and adjust to the signals my brain was sending me to do something different, like simply enjoy myself.

Rather, I stayed in a strange purgatory space of emotional doughboy for a while. We spend so much time and effort practicing mental toughness, forcing the brain to think positively, to not identify with hard times or with weakness. This too shall pass. Finish what you start. Push through to the end. Grit, resilience. These are our highest values.

Photo Jackson Lester

Until they’re not. Now having quit the race and being a week removed, the whole thing remains confusing and a little sad. It’s hard to explain what happened without sounding like I think I was a victim to something out of my control. Or to sound ungrateful and like a maniacal overthinker; after all, in the end we’re simply out there to have a good time and ride our bikes across this beautiful country.

But this is my journey and this is my adult lesson: Contradictory (even opposite) things are often true at once. And feeling betrayed by our own minds probably always means an opportunity to take a lesson, to reflect on what we think we want, and what we believe it takes to get there. At the heart of it I believe I was gifted an opportunity – albeit a confusing, painful one – to reflect on something more complicated than racing, maybe something at odds with getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible.

I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think in time it will become clear.

My husband, Jimmy (who is completing his awesome race as I am writing this), said to me when we met up during the race, “I have to admit that I have kind of wanted you to have an epiphany. I just wanted it to happen after the race.”

But I guess that’s what an epiphany is. A moment of truth that occurs where we least expect it. The only question is whether we stop to pay attention. And what a blessing to be able to learn these lessons on the road – harsh, beautiful, rutted, and full of wrong turns as they are.

Following this post I plan to reflect on each of my 15 days on the Tour Divide. I hope that sharing these hold lessons for someone. If nothing else, look at the photos. The route is magical, and every day was an adventure.

Maybe at the end of the day, just a good, old-fashioned love story.

Photo Jackson Lester