QA with Lael WIlcox on The Tour Divide, Travel, and Life Off-Route
From my recent viewpoint, sitting on the sofa with drink in hand, I’ve been inspired by watching a barrage of badasses from afar. Somewhere amidst the amazing feats and performances of the (Women’s) World Cup, a bit of hype was swarming around a colorful little moving dot with the initials ‘LW’…
That little dot was the Trackleaders.com GPS map icon for Lael Wilcox as she flew through the Tour Divide at an astonishing speed. Then on June 27th at 9:47AM Mountain Time, Lael made history, completing the self-supported Tour Divide bikepacking race in a record-setting 17 days, 1 hour, and 51 minutes (17:01:51). Prior to tackling the Tour Divide, which covers approximately 2,770 miles with over 200,000 feet of elevation gain on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, Lael had previously competed in only five bicycle races, just two of which were endurance races. In April, she was the first female to ever compete in the Holy Land Challenge, a self-supported mountain bike race from the north to the south of Israel. As a warm up to the Tour Divide, Lael pedaled over 100 mi per day for 19 straight days from her home in Anchorage, Alaska to the start of the race in Banff, Alberta (over 2000 miles total). From there, she battled a severe case of bronchitis induced asthma, bloody knees, and bruises to finish in record time, with a smile.
To put it simply, Lael is a badass. And as is the case with the baddest of the asses, Lael is unassuming. She doesn’t toot her own horn. However, her partner and long time bike touring companion, Nicholas Carman, just can’t help himself:
“At the age of 18, only a year or two after shifting focus from soccer to running, she [Lael] ran her first marathon in 3:18, placing third. Back in 2010, she decided at the last moment to participate in the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon in Urique, Mexico. We had biked there from Tacoma via Baja. In 2013, while living in New Mexico, she rode from Albuquerque to the start of the Cedro Peak Ultramarathon, a 45km trail run with lots of climbing on rocky trails. She won, and rode home. In December 2013, returning from five months of bikepacking across Europe and two months in the southwest USA, she rode to the start of the Tucson Marathon and finished 4th. Last winter in Alaska she completed her first bike race, a 50mi fatbike race called the Frosty Bottom, and smiled all the way to the finish. She signed up for a few local XC mountain bike races in the spring for fun…On the Thursday before the locally-famous Fireweed 400, she signed up at the suggestion of a friend who offered to provide support. Borrowing her mom’s road bike and a set of slick carbon racing wheels from a demo Trek Madone, she raced to the front of the pack as the top female finisher, second in the overall standings, and only 12 minutes behind a man on a recumbent, in just over 27 hours. A few weeks later we left Anchorage for a period of travel expected to last up to a year. (Carmen, N., April, 2015 “Lael’s Other Half and the HLC” (gypsybytrade.wordpress.com))”
I had a few questions for Lael about her experience in the race, life, and world travels. Here’s what she had to say:
How long have you been involved in competitive endurance racing? And racing in general?
Tour Divide is my third endurance race. I started with the Fireweed 400, a 400 mile road time trial in Alaska last summer, I raced the Holyland Challenge (HLC) bikepacking race in Israel this spring. Overall, the Tour Divide is my sixth bike race ever after two short course cross-country races, the Frosty Bottom: a 50 mile fatbike race on snow with a road hill climb, the Fireweed 400, and the HLC.
Which race did you find most rewarding? Why?
Tour Divide. It’s long!
With Trackleaders, riders and “spectators” are able to track participants exact locations 24/7. How does knowing your status in relation to other riders effect your routine, approach, style? Or did you tune it out?
I didn’t have a smartphone so I didn’t keep up with Trackleaders. If I passed through a town and met someone following the race, they’d give me an update. During Tour Divide, I hardly saw any other riders. Riders usually only cross paths if one person stops to take a break or has a problem. For the first week of the race I struggled with bronchitis and bronchitis induced asthma. I’d ride well in the mornings and lose my breath in the afternoons. Racers caught and passed me in the evenings. Later in the race, when my health improved, I caught people when they stopped for breaks in town. I passed a group of six guys in Poncha Springs, but I didn’t see them because they were sleeping. It feels kind of sneaky, but it’s all part of the race.
When did you realize that you were off course in the race? How did you process that information or what were your thoughts, i.e. Was your resolve to continue the race dampened at all? Do you feel like the resolution to the situation is a fair one?
I loaded the Tour Divide GPS track in the middle of May before I left Anchorage, AK to ride through Canada to the start in Banff. I was unaware that TD organizers published a new track at the end of May. I found out mid-race in Pinedale, Wyoming.
They welcomed me into the shop and the owner took me to his apartment upstairs. He had already downloaded the updated 2015 track. The only problem was that the Garmin etrex20 kept freezing when I tried to download the track. I sat in the apartment for two hours, trying to delete the old track and add the new one. The shop was pretty busy downstairs, so the owner would try to help me, run downstairs to help a customer and then come back up to check on me. He really is the greatest! Finally, I tried to load the diluted track and when it froze, I let the device sit for ten minutes and stared at it. Magically it loaded! The owner and I both cheered and I was on my way. I just wanted to keep racing. I didn’t know about the debate Nick had with the TD organizers. I was focused only on my race.
I was seriously sick for my entire ride through Montana. Once I got to Wyoming I started feeling much better. Having the wrong track just felt like another setback. In the days leading up to this event, I’d felt paranoid about getting disqualified to the point where I doubled back a quarter of a mile at Flagg Ranch because I’d accidentally come in on the main road instead of the parking lot. I was really trying to ride the exact TD route. The fact that I’m being punished for my route deviation kind of hurts my heart. I put my best effort into the Tour Divide. Ultimately, my new course record stands, and that’s what is most important to me.
In that vein, do you have any thoughts on how to improve the race experience for participants?
Organizers should probably clean up the webpage and keep it up to date. A single page with the current track, Grand Depart date, rules, and information on how to sign up for the event would be welcomed, especially as people are coming from all across the globe. Nicholas has told me that there have been routing issues in the past, including some riders who followed the old route along I-15 near Butte, MT. He said that over ten riders tracked down Boreas Pass Road in CO, bypassing the required Gold Rush Trail. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clear understanding of the current track, but I was the only one that was left home before the new track was published on the Topofusion website. It also took me some time to figure out how to register my SPOT for the event. In the end, I had to use the contact form on the outdated Tour Divide website to contact Matthew Lee personally.
Some of the race rules seem to be somewhat controversial, the “visitation” rule particularly so. How do you feel about the “visitation” rule? How Do you think that the ability to spend time with friends or family during the course of the race would change the experience for you?
The rule states that locals can come out and support the race. I have friends in Colorado and New Mexico from previous bike tours. They surprised me along the route a couple of times. It was great to see them! At the same time, I was so focused on the race and staying on the bike, that I didn’t have much time to talk.
Speaking of friends & family, have you and Nicholas ever competed in the same race?
We both raced the Frosty Bottom, a fifty mile fatbike race on snow in Anchorage, Alaska. This is the only race Nicholas has ever competed in and was my first race as well. We had just finished a seven month bike tour in Europe and the southwest US. We traded our mountain bikes for fatbikes and had a great time.
You two have toured all over the world and have just recently returned from an extended cycling tour of Eastern Europe, South Africa, and the Middle East. How would you compare the dynamics and challenges of cycling with your partner to racing as an individual?
When I race, my sole focus is covering distance. I try to spend as much time as possible on the bike. I skip all my other normal activities like running, sitting down for meals, talking and reading. Instead, I ride. I sleep less. If the weather is rough, I ride through it. I’m on a mission.
Were you training for the HLC and TD on your last tour? Any specific regimen other than riding day to day?
My biggest hurdle was navigation. Nicholas always navigates. I have a terrible sense of direction. To help me prepare for the race, Nicholas mounted the GPS to my handlebars and I navigated us for the month leading up to the HLC. It was really tough, but it totally changed my life. I’ve had a long-standing fear of getting lost. With the help of the GPS, I feel empowered to set out on my own.
I am hyperactive. In addition to riding every day, I also spend about an hour a day running. Last summer, I injured my achilles and couldn’t run for six months. I missed running so much that I started going on huge bike rides to fill the void. There aren’t very many roads in Alaska. I’d pull out a map and choose destinations and ride long distances on my two days off from work. My first long ride was from Seward to Anchorage. I borrowed my mom’s road bike, took to morning train to Seward and rode the 127 miles back in a day. Even though there was a ripping headwind the entire way, I loved it! A couple of weekends later, I flew to Fairbanks and rode 370 miles back to Anchorage in two and a half days and went directly to an 8 hour bar tending shift. I was a total zombie, but I learned a lot and realized that I just liked riding distance. It gives me a lot of time to think. When the Fireweed 400 came around last July, my great friend Christina Grande asked if I wanted to do it. Is singed up on a Thursday for the weekend event.
In South Africa this spring I was still trying to recover from my achilles injury. I read that jump roping can help strengthen the achilles tendon. I started jump roping twice a day for six and half minutes at a time. I’d fit it in whenever I could. Often, Nick would go into the supermarket to buy groceries and he’d come out to find me jumping on the sidewalk with a crowd standing around staring. At the time, we were touring the Dragon’s Spine Route, a 2500 mile dirt route across South Africa and Lesotho. It’s pretty hard to jump rope on dirt and grass, but also pretty hilarious. I had to curtail the jumping in Cairo because it drew too much attention. I even went running in Cairo a few times, in shorts, which was pretty wild. I started again in Israel when we crossed the border in Eilat. It all paid off and I can run again.
I’m a certified yoga instructor and have been practicing yoga for 12 years. On bike tour, I fit in a little yoga when I can–often focusing on core strength and hip-opening. I started traveling with a cheap foam sleeping pad instead of an air mattress because it doubles as a yoga mat. During the HLC and the TD, I ditched the yoga and raced without a sleeping pad. I slept on the ground.
Which do you find to be generally more rewarding, racing or touring?
Definitely touring. Living on the bike and traveling with Nicholas is the core of my life. We structure our lives so we can continue to travel. Racing feels more like a special occasion. I engage in competition and ride obsessively. It’s a lot of fun, but I can’t imagine scheduling my life around races and training. I will continue to race because I love it, but I only do it if it fits into whatever else we’re doing. In the best case scenario, we can travel to a country together, tour a route and then I can race it afterward. I’ve heard people complain about racing because you can’t take the time to truly enjoy a place. I feel like I can have both. When I’m touring, I take the time to explore, make connections and meet people. When I’m racing, I focus on riding, spend a lot of time thinking and do whatever I can to stay on the bike and cover distance. Racing and touring complement each other.
Have you started planning your next tour?
I just got back to Alaska a couple of days ago and will start working in a restaurant this week. I haven’t worked in a year! I need to start saving money for our next trip. It usually takes us about five or six months to save enough to travel. We’re always looking toward the riding, but our destination depends on when we take off– it’s nice to travel in places with decent weather and in places that interest us right now. If we leave in the fall or winter, I’m looking at Mexico, Austraila, New Zealand or maybe a road tour starting in Cairo and heading south. If we start in the spring, maybe we’ll head for Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. We usually don’t know where we’re going until about a month before we leave. Everything seems to come together at once and we take off.
Are there any other races that are on your radar?
I’d consider riding the HLC again. Mountain biking has taken off in Israel in the last ten years. The Israelis are madly building trails including a continuous cross-country MTB singletrack trail called the Israel Bike Trail (IBT). Half of the country is desert and I love desert riding. In the same vein, I’d consider racing the Arizona Trail. Nicholas and I toured parts of the route in 2013. It is exceptional.
I miss road riding. I’d like to race the Trans-Am. I’ve never ridden east to west across America. That was our original plan in 2008 on our first bike trip, but we rode down the east coast instead.
If there’s a race happening in a place we are already touring and it works with our schedule, I’ll race. It seems like new races are organized every year, so we’ll see what happens. I’m open to new destinations.
Thanks for the great insight, Lael! To follow along with Lael’s travels, check out her blog at Lael’s Globe of Adventure. Also, check out Gypsy By Trade for more great photos and stories from Nick and Lael’s two wheel adventures.