Ogichidaakwe: Alexandera Houchin’s Reflections on Her Tour Divide Race

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Ogichidaakwe: Alexandera Houchin’s Reflections on Her Tour Divide Race

Ogichidaakwe

I was always insecure about the fact that I was “uneducated” before I entered academia. Growing up in a trailer park and as the first person in my family to have ever attended a university, I was certain that I was something less than my entire life. The apple never falls far from the tree. And in attending University, I’ve learned that everything I was taught whilst growing up was lessons in obedience. I, an Anishinaabe woman, celebrated the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving time and Columbus on Columbus day. I always thought that I wasn’t Indian enough because I didn’t grow up on my reservation, I didn’t know my tribal language, and I didn’t look Indian. Tell me, what does an Indian look like? How could I trust a system that denied the lived history of my ancestors?

I proudly say now, that, I am not a scholar, an academic. I can’t, rather don’t want to, prove the reasoning behind my ideas. I’ve learned that believing in impossible things makes my impossible attainable. I’ve done impossible things. I need not see something to believe it. I know it is there because I feel it. That is enough for me.

I’ve learned how to blend in, to pretend; I’ve learned how to use the language of those post-secondary school elites. I’ve learned to properly obey, to cite my sources, and to smile with a nod when someone asks me if I am a student. Shouldn’t we all smile and nod? I have big goals that involve too much procedure. But, I love those who are yet to be born. Right now, people are living for themselves in the now, we need to move toward thinking about the collective and our future. This is the secret to my success, I am trying to use my individual talents to carve a space for the future Anishinabeg to give the same to those who come after them. It’s not only what I want, but how can I nurture the self while providing for the future.

Take my silence as a warning.

I’ve been busy integrating dbaadendiziwin, ask ma’iingan what that word means, into my being. I don’t seek words, I wait for them to find me. I wait because that’s what an Ogichidaakwe does. You can’t unsay something and sometimes impulses don’t speak truth. I’m on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, the big three-oh, and I’m a couple of months away from pulling a ‘win’ for the woman’s field on the Tour Divide aboard my single-speed Stella and I haven’t even written about it yet.

I generally write about everything, because, I would explode if I didn’t. I’m so full of ideas that I need to put them to word and try to explain it to you. Complete silence, however, has been the form my victory has taken, and that, that is rare for me. It was an emotional win, a very emotional win, that perhaps few recognize. I went into it thinking there is no way I could win; reason one, Lael would be there, and reason two I was on a single speed. I’d left behind a home and a man and selfishly set out on the bicycle. The finish was a victory, a moment in time, that I shared with one stranger, Tomas, as he took my photo at 4:20 a.m. in the chocolately pre-dawn sky. The very few moments after a race are the summation of all the emotion one held on to in the miles pedaled. It’s mind-blowing to watch yourself conquer a goal over 18 days. He captured some posed pictures, some candids, but the moment we hugged and the tears that fell from my eyes were just for the finish line.

With the idea of “winning’ out of my head, I was simply looking to dissolve into the trail and maybe screw my head back on. I was falling apart before the race. I suppose part of me is always falling apart. I’m far too emotional and passionate and seek raw human connection on every level. I want that rich, full, passionate life experience. I know that there is no light without understanding the dark; as Kirsten says, I’m a cliff diver. I believe that when it comes to love, in any form, the best people are.

I think about my origins quite often. How was my brain molded as a child? What things have I accepted as truths without even knowing why? How has this affected me as an ultra racer?

The calendar on my bedroom wall has both the name of the month in the language I grew up learning, English, and the Ojibwe name. Every month in Ojibwe is named for a moon. The moon is the great, grand Mother in the sky. She is the governess of cycles. I like cycles. I grew up, like most people here in the states (and elsewhere for that matter) planning my life around the Gregorian Calendar. The Gregorian Calendar came to in the late 1500s, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII of the Catholic Church.

My way of rejecting this colonial structure, is to celebrate the year as I entered the world. My new year begins on September 16. And every year, on that day, I reflect about where I started, and how I feel today. Am I better now than I was last year? The answer is, yes. Yes, I am. I had an epic year full of trials and tribulations. I won wars you never saw me fight. I suppose that will have to sum it up, because some of the shit I endured this year almost conquered me.

The Moons named in my indigenous language have been the same since we’ve lived here because they are named for what we do when that time of year comes about. The maple sap moon, the little spirit moon, the falling leaves moon… You probably call it June. But, this year, for the first time ever, I truly understood what moon was guiding me on this adventure. I left my home to race the divide as the Ode’imini-giizis rose in the sky. It translates to Strawberry Moon. It’s more than that though because ‘ode’ in Ojibwe translates to heart. ‘Min’ is for berry. Ode’imini-giizis is our heart berry moon. So, I left with but one organ guiding my traverse; my heart, it’s the only way I know how to navigate anyways.

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I’m going to tell you a story about a woman I’ve come to know really well over the years. We’ll call her Ditibised, the Ojibwemowin word for wheel. You know, because, she’s learned to roll with the punches, or maybe because she’s like a circle. Continuous, never-ending, built from starting and ending at the same point. Or, just maybe, because the circle presents itself in every facet of her life. The wheel, the sun, the moon, the earth…

Long ago, the star world was created as Gichi-Manido’s heartbeat and thoughts vibrated out towards infinity. Like other Ojibwe, she fluttered about in the ethereal as an idea tucked between the spaces in the stars. She preferred hanging near what some of us call Spica, one of the brightest stars in the night sky. It’s not the brightest, but the brightest in the constellation we know as Virgo—for that constellation is the heart of fertility in the solar system.

Fertility made her think of womanhood; she wanted to embody womanhood entirely. She was woman in her soul, and wanted to surround herself with that energy. So, when it came time to decide what her life on Earth would look like, she’d scour the planet until she found a curly-headed teenage girl with a complicated identity and a father who was growing up in poverty. She’d have much to learn from these characters. So as the waatebagaa-giizis, leaves turning color moon, rose in the sky, she popped out of that young girl’s belly and into the world.

And that’s how she came to be in the Rock River valley of Southern Wisconsin. Farm country. Brown water country. She was ultimately responsible for the way her life panned out, after all, she chose her parents, but why?

Time travel with me back to the days of her youth, that man she chose as her father had a jolly mother. She had the type of laughter that when she laughed, every inch of her body would jiggle. Home Ditibised would think as she tried to wrap her arms around Nokomis to hug her. If that’s what love was, then Ditibised too wanted to be as jolly and robust as Nokomis.

As she got older, she began to notice that those people weren’t laughing with Nokomis, they were laughing at Nokomis. The warm squishy body Ditibised had come trust had become a lie embodied. It was then Ditibised started to stuff shame into her belly. The shame grew and grew until Ditibised found her scale to read more than 300 pounds.

Shame was heavy. Her identity as an obese girl would go on to shape her life for the rest of time. Whether the pounds were physically there or simply the extra skin as a constant reminder, she would always carry that shame from abusing her body with food. How do you learn to love something you’ve hated, something you’ve punished for so long? Her elders always told her, food is medicine. Why hadn’t she listened?

Any type of medicine abused leads to altered brain processes; our thinking and judgment become impaired.

She needed a reprieve from the dark places in her mind. Somewhere, those neurotransmitters were being produced in excess or not being produced at all. Our brains actually change with addiction. Everyone knows about drug addiction, alcohol addiction, but it’s those same biological processes that get altered with any addiction. Ditibised was addicted to food. The pleasure and reward circuits in her brain were hijacked at such a young age. She’d wanted to be a drug addict. She’d hoped alcohol would be her forever vice. But, always, it was food and will be food, the purest medicine of all.

There’s no magic cure. It wasn’t until this year that she was finally ready to recover. For the binging, the purging, it was always escape. It was always number one; more important than her relationships, more important than school, more important than anything in the world to Ditibised. To heal, she’d use the bicycle; she was a fan of nontraditional recovery, and it’d helped her cope with a break up that one time.

Food isn’t a drug to her if she’s using it as fuel. Somehow, she needed to reprogram her brain. She went on her first bike tour with no knowledge of how to do it, but with one goal in mind how much weight will I lose? In a season of bike travel, she’d lost 15 or 20 pounds. Not substantial when compared to the 100 she’d already lost by giving up food and adopting this eating disorder.

She’d get back home, and pile the weight back on 40 pounds gained as the snow covered the ground. She longed for the trail because she’d turned bike touring into another addiction; it was escape from the hell she’d created surrounded by food. Food was only fuel on the trail. It would take her several more years before she dared to give it, the disordered eating, up. This may never make sense to any of us, but for Ditibised, food was her best friend, her tortured, forbidden love, the most nurturing companion she’d ever known. Full. She was so fucking tired of feeling so god-damned… Empty.

The summers of bike touring continued over the next several years. There was the time she rode to Columbus, Ohio, and out to Boulder, Colorado. Pounds lost, pounds gained, the cycle. Then that winter bike tour, in below zero conditions and the one along the Mississippi all the way to Canada. There was that time she got a ride, and that other time she hitched to make it to town before the store closed. As she aged, it got harder to find companions for the traverses. Her last bike tour was alongside a foe turned friend; Tucson to Banff in anything but a conventional tour. Racing seemed like the only option to leave the loneliness behind, and after 6 or 7 years of learning how to bike tour, she set out to race her first Ultra.

It was going to be a solo trip down the continental divide. It was going to be proof she wasn’t a fat girl. It was going to be something to make him proud. It was going to show everyone else something she didn’t even believe in.

She wasn’t strong enough. Or, that’s what she thought. She’d soon learn that she was racing for the wrong reasons; she was plenty strong. While reflecting on her year in the weeks before the waatebagaa-giizis rose in the sky, she decided to make the next year count. 28 was going to be the year she learned to love her body. She was too old to hate a body that worked magic the way hers had. To do that, she’d become an athlete.

It’s impossible to hate your body and be a strong athlete. Because the mind and the body are one.

Over her 28th year of life, she raced in eight races. Eight, eight is her number. The eighth fire. The experience of preparation, of showing up, of committing to the experience without getting too hung up on the outcome, was exhilarating. For the first time in her life, she didn’t hate her body. Her body, her blemished, abused body had done EVERYTHING she’d asked of it. How can you hate something that proves you can become any self that you want to be? Dynamic.

She didn’t quite love her body yet, but she was willing to try. She was willing to be open to see what her body could do if she put a little love into it. For 29, she’d race the Tour Divide again. This time, on a single-speed, because she wanted to see what that body could do without any easy exit. No shifting, no excuses; she was seeking the purest form of intimacy she’d ever felt, commitment to the cog. She knew she wouldn’t win; the women’s record holder would be there and she was much faster than Ditibised would ever be, she has the body of an athlete. She’d read that article, why does anyone else even bother? She figured, maybe I shouldn’t bother I don’t have the body of an athlete. Why even try, I’m not fast. Slow and steady.

Day one of the race, Ditibised pedalled nearly 200 miles. And carried on for a few days like that. Her body was strong, the fat was a friend. She found that boy she met some years back and they shared miles. Her heart smiled as much as her face had. He’d seen her on this same trail, a weaker version of herself. She was working on loving herself now, that had to count for something.

Soon enough, her body began to tell her that it was exhausted. Sister, take better care of me. Her cadence slowed. She couldn’t breathe. She wanted to ignore it, but it was the ignoring of her body that let her balloon to 310 pounds. She was trying to heal that part of herself, so for the first time ever, she tuned into the station without cursing it. That’s enough for today legs. And she camped early outside Lima. She heard the boys pass, her lungs were burning, her thighs were tight. Her coughing wouldn’t stop. She was getting bloody noses and leaking mucus from her face. She couldn’t hear and her tongue was rubbed raw from all the salty food. Eating hurt. This is temporary, she’d remind herself. Maybe they’d get stronger if they communicated; like, real honest communication between the body and the mind. Her body and her brain were becoming buddies. As she started to recover during the first week of the race, she’d held on to first place single speed. How was she beating all the men on one cog? The weather started to test her. Rain, mud, then that snow.

And she spent 14 hours at Brush Mountain lodge. In the comfort of Kirsten’s heart, she let second place single speed pass her. She lost that drive to compete somewhere in that 9-hour-dream session in cabin A.  All the former firsts were together; first place man, first place woman, and first place single speed. The weather had played it’s all powerful hand and leveled the playing field again. Who pushes forward when the going gets tough?

It was at Brush where the race changed this year. It was something inside Ditibised. It was something that reaffirmed everything she set out to learn. She was good enough. Her body was strong, beautiful, powerful. You don’t have to be the fastest, the best, the pick; you can win if you keep on moving forward. Slow is steady, steady is fast. Just last year on the porch of Brush, Jay had called her an athlete. He was the first big name racer she’d ever met. And she remembered almost crying at that sentiment. He hadn’t known how much those words meant coming from his mouth; he had no idea the war she fought to get to that Colorado border. People would moo when she walked into a room when she was a teenager, that sound never leaves your psyche. They should have been roaring Ditibised thinks. Brush was her magical place.

As she pulled into Steamboat Springs, she’d learned she moved into first place female. Steel toe boots and one cog wandered to that burrito stand in town. She stops there every year; it’s not worth winning a race if you skip out on the community. She stopped at all the stops; High Country Lodge to sign that board, to sign that sweet girl’s T-Shirt on the side of Bannack Road, and that spring by the horse stables… Because it’s in place that there is power, and in place, we find actual connection.

As she downed the carne asada, more tears fell to the ground. She saw that second place single speed had passed her, and strangely she didn’t care. She had already won the woman’s field once, and as long as she carried on forward, she’d win again. Comfort in a sizeable “lead” allowed her to make this race what it was really about. Anyways, it’s not about beating the other women, it’s about using them to push harder within the self. It’s love, not competition.

Racing ultras for Ditibised is about bothering. It’s not about the win, it’s about a win. Anyone can win the Tour Divide, for, herself. One may not be the fastest or the best now, but you don’t get there overnight in either case. Don’t stop. Ditibised didn’t gain 150 pounds overnight, it was a process years in the making. She didn’t lose the weight overnight either. If she never bothered, she would have never crossed the finish line as the first woman in a race that spans nearly 3000 miles two years in a row.

How do we do it? You get there by questioning every lesson in obedience you’d ever been taught. They all will say you can’t. How would she ever know what she was capable of if she didn’t line up at starting lines with the most experienced athletes in the community?

How would she ever know that she had the strongest, most beautiful body in the world? How would she finally decide that she wouldn’t trade her body for anything? After a lifetime of wishing she’d had different skin, the Tour Divide showed her that she was already everything she dreamed she could be, it was just a matter of digging deeper to find it.

Her body has done everything she ever asked it to, and your body will too and that’s the lesson she learned as she pedaled across the United States beneath the Ode’imini-gizis. Race with full heart, and you’ll always win.