Q&A: Lael Wilcox on the joys of ultra-endurance racing
It’s hard to catch ultra-endurance cyclist Lael Wilcox when she’s not moving, but we managed to recently connect with her while she was home in Alaska. This week Wilcox is riding her bicycle from Louisville, Colorado to Emporia, Kansas, where she will complete the Dirty Kanza XL, a 350-mile route in eastern Kansas. Wilcox has made a name for herself as the queen of ultra-endurance racing, and she currently holds the record for the Tour Divide and Baja Divide routes. What compels someone to complete these races, and how accessible are ultra events to everyday riders? We asked Wilcox:
VN: Do you think ultra-distance cycling races are doable for every day riders? What do avid riders need to do to get to that level?
LW: Absolutely. It’s all about time in the saddle. If you want to ride long distance, you just have to get out and do it. The first couple of times I rode over 200 miles, my body had pretty strong reactions. My legs swelled up, and I was mentally fried. The strange thing is, the body and mind gets used to distance. Over time, riding distance became normal. Cycling became like breathing or drinking water. The human body is incredible. It can adapt to almost anything. I’d say the best way to prepare for a long ride is to try to accomplish that distance outside of a race setting– maybe even over a couple of days. That way, you can listen to your body, take breaks, make adjustments, and learn how to eat and drink on the bike without the pressure of the race. Multi-day bikepacking trips are also another great way to get big miles on the bike.
VN: What advice would you give to a novice ultra-distance rider?
LW: Set a destination that feels adventurous and ride there. A big part of my motivation is that I’m excited about where I’m riding and what I’ll see on the way. It keeps me going.
VN: What is your most valuable training?
LW: Probably, my rides to the start of races. Starting next Thursday, I’ll be riding 650 miles of mixed gravel and pavement from PEARL iZUMi headquarters in Louisville, Colorado to Emporia, Kansas for the Dirty Kanza. My goal is to arrive in Emporia three days before the race starts, so I can rest. I’ll be riding about 120 miles a day. The long days in the saddle really prepare me mentally and physically for long races.
VN: Is riding for hours and hours (and days and days) transformative for you? Do you have any stories that reflect that? Any epiphanies, emotional moments, moments of catharsis, etc? Do you ever get bored on the bike?
LW: No, I never get bored on the bike. Although, I have started listening to music and audiobooks more.
I crave the time on the bike. I fully let my mind wander and it goes to some pretty crazy places– experiences from my childhood, places I’ve traveled, people I’ve met.
In 2015, while I was riding to the start of the Tour Divide in Banff from Anchorage, Alaska (2,100 miles) I realized how I was going to break the women’s record. I had pulled over to order a sandwich in remote Canada, and I was in a pretty tight time crunch. At that moment, I decided that for the whole race I was just going to only eat on the bike. I’d never stop to eat. I realized I could save so much time and keep my average speed more consistent if I just kept moving. That whole ride from Anchorage to Banff was pretty huge for me. It was my first long solo ride and it was pretty remote – often 100 miles or so between gas stations, typically the only places to buy food. I saw 100 bears, and I was alone. I felt so free out there. I drank water from streams and slept outside every night, but one, where I stayed in a toothless man’s trailer to stay out of a lightning storm. I learned a lot. My mind went to some pretty scared and anxious and paranoid places, but mostly I just felt free and alive.
VN: What about coming off a long ride/race? What’s that like emotionally? Is it hard to come back to real life?
LW: The worst part about finishing a long race is the recovery period. After so much sleep deprivation and effort, it’s really hard to recover. I feel like I have no energy and all I do is eat. I really want to get back outside and be active and have fun, but I almost feel like I go through a month or so with a different personality. After a really long race, like the Tour Divide, it takes about a month to start getting excited again.
VN: Leave us with a favorite memory from a long ride.
LW: In 2017, I set out to ride all of the roads in Alaska, my home state. I broke this up into a series of rides. I’d go out for a week or two to cover a stretch and then come back to Anchorage to work at The Bicycle Shop. My first ride in June of 2017 was 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean – the farthest north you can travel on the road system in the US. I gave myself about a week to cover this distance. At the end, I made a plan to meet my mom just north of Fairbanks and we’d ride three spur roads to hot springs. My plan was to ride to Deadhorse and hitch back to meet my mom. On the way, I rode the Denali Park Road past grizzly bears, caribou and four bull moose standing in a line in the road. I slept in my old friends’ treehouse. I made all new friends and poured drinks at a bar in Nenana. I stopped at a 4th of July American Legion folk festival in Wiseman and took my only shower in a trailer. I rolled through mud and got close to muskox herding around the pipeline to take photos. I got my first camera for the Alaska roads project because I was alone and I wanted to show people what it’s like out there. It wasn’t a race, but I still wanted to ride long days – easy to do in the north country because the sun never sets in the summer. On the final day, I had 170 miles and 8,000′ of climbing on gravel to get to Deadhorse. On the way, I crossed a couple of spur roads and had to ride them – I was riding every road in Alaska, no matter if I had a deadline or not. I added on extra miles, riding north into a headwind. It was slow travel. A fox crossed my path, and I stopped to photograph Trumpeter Swans. Tourists in cars fed me Snicker’s bars and peanuts and topped off my water. I rode through the bright night. A mountain range became rolling hills and then flattened out to the sea. A construction flagger stopped me before the final thirty miles at 2am. The road was completely torn up for construction. He gave me a Bounce dryer sheet to put in my helmet to keep the mosquitos away and a pack of Oreos and I slowly pedaled the loose rocks on my 38mm tires. I made it to Deadhorse at 6am and went straight to the all you can eat buffet, the place to get food on the North Slope. My mind fried, I started asking oil field workers if they were heading back to Fairbanks and if I could hitch a ride. I found Collin, an ice field trucker and he offered me a ride. We’d leave in 45 minutes. I got a plate of eggs, sausage, french toast, hash browns and fruit salad. I charged my phone and washed my face in the bathroom. We strapped my bike to the back of Collin’s rig and I hopped in. Collin was the grandfather type. I told him about the ride and he asked if I’d like to take a nap. The back of the cab had a full sized bed. I slept for four hours. We stopped in Coldfoot for burgers at the Ice Road Trucker Cafe and then I got back in the cab and slept another four hours. My mom and I planned to meet at the pull out at the entrance to the Dalton Highway. When we arrived, she wasn’t there yet. Collin didn’t want to leave me on the side of the road, so we kept driving south. Twenty minutes later, we intersected my mom. Little did she know I was driving south in a semi. The road is out of cell reception, so I couldn’t call her. No problem at all, Collin got on the radio, and told his friend up the road to stop my mom and tell her to wait for us. It worked! Ten minutes later, I was in the car with my mom on the way to Manley Hot Springs so I could ride the road back.
Long distance riding is an adventure no matter how you look at it. You see and feel the terrain in the open air. The stories come from the people you meet, the weather, the challenges, and the surprises. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of this.