NCCN is fortunate to interview an amazing endurance rider and winner (women) of the Tour Divide, Lael Wilcox. We would like to thank Lael Wilcox and Nicholas Carman for the interview.
Follow Lael and Nicholas’ journey: www.gypsybytrade.wordpress.com
Flandria: Why did you decide to race Tour Divide? What is appealing about the race to you?
Lael: I decided to race the Tour Divide this past April. I was racing the Holyland Challenge (HLC) in Israel. The HLC is an 850 mile self-supported mountain bike race. It crosses Israel from north to south. I was having so much fun during the race, I thought I might like the Divide. At 2700 miles, the Divide is much longer. It is an exceptional dirt road route that closely follows the continental divide of the US. It is pretty remote and there is hardly any traffic. Over the distance, there is almost 200,000 feet of climbing. I love climbing!
Flandria: What kind of training did you do and how long to prepare for the Tour Divide?
Lael: My boyfriend, Nicholas, and I bike toured from July 2014 until May 2015. We split our time between Eastern Europe, South Africa and the Middle East. We spent our time exploring dirt roads and trails and rode almost every day.
In May, we flew from Tel Aviv, Israel to Anchorage, Alaska (my hometown). Nick helped me put a new bike together and I left Anchorage the next week to ride 2100 miles to the start in Banff, Alberta. The ride down took me 19 days. I rode between 100 and 130 miles a day and camped out every night.
I never specifically trained for the Divide. I just ride a lot.
Flandria: I heard that you rode your bike from Alaska to Banff which is the start of Tour Divide, what made you do that, is that part of your training? What recovery strategies did you do after riding to the start of the race from Alaska to Banff? Did you take a few weeks off, days off etc?
Lael: From Israel, I realized that the timing was perfect. I could see my family in Alaska, get my gear together, figure out a route and take off in a week. I’d never ridden or driven the stretch of road from Alaska to the continental US. It was really cool to make the connection– to see how Alaska physically connects with the rest of the US. The road through Alaska and Canada is pretty remote. Often, I’d ride 100 mile stretches without seeing any services or people. It was a lot of alone time, but mentally and physically prepared me for the Tour Divide.
I rested for ten days between my ride from Alaska and the race. During that time, I only rode my bike around town. I spent most of my time in Canmore, a town 12 miles from Banff. Canmore is the base for the Canadian national ski team, so they have excellent facilities for athletes. I ran in the pool every day and went to a lot of yoga classes. I spent time studying the Adventure Cycling Association’s Great Divide Mountain Bike Route maps. I had my bike serviced at Rebound Cycle and made sure all my gear was ready to go. I drank a lot of juice and ate a lot of vegetables. I went for a hike in the Canadian Rockies and checked out the first 20 miles of the Great Divide Route with a friend.
Flandria: What type of support did you have for the Tour Divide? As far as equipment, did you have everything you needed after leaving Alaska for the Tour Divide?
Lael: The Tour Divide is an entirely self-supported race. In fact, if you receive any help– even as simple as a banana or some water, you risk getting disqualified. People you know are not even supposed to visit you unless they live close to the route. So, I received zero support. Racers may only use commercially available resources–like bike shops, grocery stores, gas stations, etc. and they can not help each other. You have to carry all of your own equipment, food and water. If your bike breaks, you have to fix it yourself or walk and hitch to a bike shop.
However, people along the way were very encouraging and positive.
I actually sent some equipment home after my ride down from Alaska. I wanted to pack as little as possible. I traded my heavier bivy for an emergency bivy and sent my sleeping pad home and slept on the ground instead.
Flandria: Give us a quick view of your gears and their benefits during the race. How much did it all weigh and are you a weight weenie when it comes to choosing what gears to bring?
long underwear top and bottoms
long wool socks
Western Mountaineering Summerlite 32F sleeping bag
Western Mountaineering HotSax vapor barrier liner, which I used as a bivy
2 oz sealant
spare derailleur hanger
needle and thread
presta valve adapter
I got bronchitis and bronchitis induced asthma during my first week of racing. I went to the hospital in Helena, Montana and carried an inhaler and medicine for the rest of the race, which filled the large top tube bag under the nose of my saddle.
3 liter bladder
2 water bottles
Flandria: Can you give us a view of your meals for the day during your 100+ miles per day on the Tour Divide? Explain a bit about why you chose to eat such food during the race.
Lael: I ate all of my meals on the bike. I often resupplied at gas stations, so I’d buy whatever hot food they had (burritos, egg rolls, chicken strips) and eat it as I was pedaling. I filled my bottles with juice whenever I could. I was on antibiotics for five days of the race, so I drank probiotic drinks (kombucha and Goodbelly) whenever I could find them. I ate lots of fritos and sliced cheese because it tasted like nachos. I probably ate about 100 Clif bars. This food is all high calorie and easy to eat on the bike. I was so focused on covering distance that I intentionally chose to eat only ready prepared foods and to always eat on the bike. I averaged 161 miles a day over the course of 17 days. I ate a lot!
Flandria: How did you deal with the illness that plagued a few of the riders this year during the early part of the race? (bronchitis, allergies etc)
Lael: I had an awesome first day from Banff. I rode 183 miles and had so much fun. There was some pretty tough weather– rain, frozen rain and hail. I didn’t really care because I was so excited to race. During the day, I started to feel my lungs burning. I figured, I was just adjusting to the altitude and that my lungs were opening up. I was wrong. I contracted a serious infection. On the first night, I laid down to sleep at 1AM. I was gasping and wheezing. I tried to slow down my breath, so I could sleep. I dozed for a few minutes and then woke up gasping. I laid there for two hours, but couldn’t breath slow enough to sleep, so at 3:30AM, I got up and started riding again.
That second day was really tough! By the early afternoon, I was so winded, that I could no longer pedal up my third pass of the day. I had to get off my bike and slowly push the final five miles. It was excruciating. From the top, I coasted down a 3000 ft descent from Galton Pass to the Canada/US border at Roosville. It is another ten paved miles from Roosville to the first real town, Eureka. I struggled. I was making so many strange wheezing noises that I didn’t know if they were coming from me or the birds around me. I thought my race was over. In Eureka, I could hardly breath enough to talk. I took some Dayquil. I pulled my sleeping bag out in a grass field and laid there for four hours, focusing on my breath and trying to relax. After about an hour, I started coughing up tons of bright green phlegm. It was a huge relief. I could breathe a little easier. I decided to ride a few miles down the road, camp and see how I felt in the morning. I loaded up on cough syrup and juice and camped just out of town.
The next morning, I felt much better. I was still definitely sick, but I felt good enough to keep going. I had a great 100 mile ride to Columbia Falls, Montana, but could feel my breath shortening. I resupplied at the grocery store in town and pedaled out in the afternoon. As the day progressed, my breathing got worse and worse. By 9PM, I could hardly pedal, so I camped early and hoped for the best in the morning. The mosquitoes were terrible. I burrowed myself in my sleeping bag and didn’t move until the morning.
The same cycle continued for the next five days. I’d feel fine in the morning and progressively worse throughout the day. It was frustrating. My health was preventing me from riding. I had to camp early every night. My legs felt great, but my lungs were really weak and limiting.
Finally, in Helena, Montana I got off the route and took myself to St. Peter’s Hospital. The doctor took an x-ray of my lungs. Fortunately, I didn’t have pneumonia and could continue the race. He gave me an albuterol treatment that made me feel much better. He gave me a prescription for an inhaler and antibiotics. I got my prescription filled at the Walgreen’s, bought groceries at Safeway and got back on the route. I felt so good and relieved from my hospital visit, that I pushed over Lava Mountain in the dark and arrived in Basin at 3AM. I woke up the next morning at 5AM to keep riding. The same thing happened that night and I passed out by the road just before Polaris, MT. I felt good in the morning and terrible in the evening. It was so disappointing. I thought, if my condition didn’t improve, I would have to stop racing.
My plan was to take a few days off and continue touring the route, but on the next day, I felt much better. I still had a pretty nasty cough, but I could breathe. What a relief! I started riding a lot farther each day and catching people.
Flandria: What was the worst experience you had during the race? Was there a time you wanted to give up? How did you overcome it?
Lael: Getting sick for the first week was definitely my biggest challenge.
Flandria: How did it feel to win Tour Divide and in looking back, what made it all right during the race for you? What did winning the Tour Divide mean to you?
Lael: It was awesome. I really did the best I could out there. The route is terrific. It was awesome to cover so much beautiful country in such a short amount of time. I rode from my home in Alaska to the Mexican border in just over a month.
Flandria: If someone had a dream of racing Tour Divide, what advice would you give them? What does it take to finish Tour Divide?
1. Be prepared to deal with unexpected challenges
2. Become comfortable living outside
3. Do the best you can. Participate in the Tour Divide if you’re prepared to give it your best– otherwise just tour the route. The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is exceptional: it’s beautiful, remote, and practically traffic free. Touring is an awesome way to experience this route– it allows you more time to take in the beauty and enjoy camping. Racing is competitive.
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