Truth number one: The Tour Divide was one of the greatest romances of my life.
So many moments that will always 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 across my muddy legs while I lay on my back, watching the clouds move across the sky. Stripping off my 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 felt like 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 feel a lot of emotions: 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.
I am a bike racer. While I hope my identity spans beyond being an athlete, it’s true that since I discovered ultra-bike racing a few years ago, training and racing has become a passion. I’ve spent lots of money and even more time. 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 a strange 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. Unencumbered. Lonesome.
Self-supported ultra-racing reveals the soul. It’s a vulnerable place to be, immersing yourself in a world where the goal is equally simple and exhausting—ride your bike to the next far-away place as fast as you can, nothing more and nothing less. After a few days of riding all day and most of every night, I’m exhausted and barely moving, yet things are becoming clear. I may be unable to open a package of Twinkies, but I see colors more vividly. When pressed I struggle to put together a sentence, yet a kind word from a stranger in a gas station can bring tears to my eyes. The heat seeping off the pavement and burning my eyes, or the cold piercing my skin, makes everything sharper. I’m more aware of myself, my emotions, my true self. Maybe, of god.
A longing emerges that, during the small wantings of everyday life, remains obscured. Being out there and hurtling down that cliff of emotional exposure feels like a blessing.
Like love, in all its painful pleasure.
In 2018, I decided to take on the Tour Divide. It seemed like a next logical challenge for me – a significant, but reasonable, step up in my racing progression. 2,700 miles of rugged, off-road riding from Canada to the Mexican border across the US. Bears, mountains, thunderstorms, dirt. Perfect.
I wanted to be good, because in this world that is what I know to try to do. I set a big-time goal for the Tour Divide. I targeted Lael Wilcox’s race finish time in 2015, which was 17 days. A 17-day finish means averaging around 160 miles per day, on varied surfaces and lots of elevation gain. In the Trans Am in 2017, I had averaged about 220 miles per day. That said, the two courses are far from equivalent. I knew to ride that many miles on this kind of course would be a tough ask, but I craved an ambitious target.
To meet this, I felt that I needed to measure where I was so I could see where I needed to go. I focused on heartbeats and watts and intervals and the language of fitness. I worked hard and I worked every day. I was building something, and those numbers were a way to quantify its size and form.
Over time I began to love the numbers, and the possibilities they suggested. From January through May I rode 5,500 miles and 220,000 feet of elevation gain, mostly on my mountain bike. I rode through 30 mph winds, 20-degree weather, and snow. I raced the punishing 340-mile Iowa Wind and Rock gravel race in April and crossed the finish line as one of only six finishers. I tested gear and often rode my bike fully loaded. I craved the accumulation of miles and height and time. I wanted to do more, and I could. I was getting better. I could be good.
There were signs that other things were changing, too. I was feeling less, thinking more. I was learning the rules—of physiology, of equipment, of the weight of things. Riding felt a little more like business, and a bit less like longing. Still, there was a satisfaction to that, too. I chalked it up to experience, an inevitable evolution along the path to mastery. The 10,000 hours to proficiency, the engineering of achievement.
One day on a ride, I mentioned the shift to my friend Brandi. About the emotion that is provoked by the hours and days of hard riding, I said a bit wistfully, “I don’t get that feeling anymore.” I told her it was an inevitable evolution of experience. Maybe I thought now that longing was a luxury for neophytes, like the early stages of infatuation. Maybe I thought I had moved on, outgrown it.
I had fallen in love with the process, the steppingstones to success.
On June 14, the Tour Divide began from Banff. 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 crush of wheels on gravel. My fellow racers, when I encountered them, were from all over the world, with interesting perspectives and good stories. The route was rugged but doable. Many parts were challenging, but none were overwhelming. My body was in good shape, the numbers were good, and I felt positive about my fitness.
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 nine days through BC, Montana, into Idaho, and Wyoming, I didn’t believe what was happening, 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 4 am. I rushed through convenience store stops, politely cut short conversations with locals, kept a keen eye on my elapsed time to my riding time. I was averaging near 150 miles a day.
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 refused to embrace it.
I felt blank. I was doing the work. But the longing never came.
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-plus miles per day. When I found myself curled up on the bathroom floor in Steamboat Springs, 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.
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 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.
Until they’re not. Now having quit the race and watching it recede into my rearview mirror, the whole thing remains confusing and a little sad. In its search for answers, my mind wants to assign blame. Did I try too hard? Was I too fixated on performance? In my search for something more, did I open the gates that let that original longing slink away too easily? My mind has stumbled around all of these echoing corridors in meandering self-judgment.
But feeling betrayed by our own minds probably always means an opportunity to take a lesson, to consider 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.
My husband Jimmy, who rode to the finish of his own Tour Divide, 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. And failing at the Tour Divide helped me understand my love for the racing in all its complexity. Love requires a tight-rope balance, between what we feel and what we think. It’s both an effort of architecture, and a product of the mysterious power of longing. There’s no one right path, and maybe we won’t understand what we want until we take the risk of the first step, or pedal stroke. And even then, we could remain strangers to ourselves.
And as with any love, the only way to find the truth is to move straight through the forest, on the darkest of nights and with the belief that the colors of the dawn will eventually appear. To be open to our own experience, and most of all to hold the unspeakable wonder of the world.
To long for love, to hold it lightly when it comes, and to accept that it can slip away.
Top photo: Brandi Blade