Last weekend, Lael raced the Kenai 250, a two hundred fifty-seven mile self-supported mountain bike race in the Kenai Peninsula, the only area with an extensive network for singletrack trails in Alaska.
Mile 165 (km 266), 2:57am, elapsed time 18 hours
I am riding through vapor on the Seward Highway to the spot where AK-9 turns into AK-1. There are eleven numbered highways in the whole state of Alaska. It’s a huge land with limited roads and even fewer trails. In the dead of night, there is no other traffic. A spotlight from my bars and one from my helmet cuts through the mist. I can see the lit particles of dew. Everything exposed is wet, the full shape of my body and bike. I’m grateful that I tucked a pair of rain pants into my pack the morning of the start. It’s close to freezing, but I’m not cold. I hit the junction at Tern Lake. It’s a slight descent. In a moment, the moisture is gone. I have a view of the lake and the mountains beyond. I realize it’s not actually dark. A twilight sky exposes all of the grey and blue tones. I feel like I shouldn’t be seeing all of this, but I am. I turn onto dirt on the Old Sterling Highway. Overhanging trees form a tunnel and I pass through.
The Kenai 250 routes on the only extensive singletrack network in Alaska– connecting trail to highway and bike path and dirt road. Probably the biggest accomplishment of this route is that it actually exists. We get to ride trails through wild places inhabited by grizzly bears and moose, lynx and marmots, ptarmigan and spruce grouse and so many other small birds and rodents. Then we hit a road and kick it into high gear and eat a snack and get to the next trailhead to tuck back into the woods until climbing above the treeline at 1,000 feet (300 meters). You don’t have to go high or far in Alaska to feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.
I’m late. At 8:50am I pedal away from the cabin towards the start when I realize it’s three miles away. I’m sprinting the race route backwards to get there. At the turn into the town of Hope, we spot them. It’s a momma with two baby moose on the side of the road, a breathtaking sight and potentially dangerous too. She’s territorial. I roll past slowly, looking for signs of agitation– ears back or raised hair, snappish movements. They’re calm and so cute. Rue stays to take photos and post up for us to race past them. It’s a welcome start to the morning.
I turn down Main Street to find a crowd of bikepackers lined up in front of the Seaview. I give out a cheer and Christina cheers back. I roll up and give Dylan his spare Tubilito. He smiles and says thanks. Michael Braun, the organizer, asks how I’m feeling.
“I’m so excited!”
“We are starting a minute late because of you.” He smiles jolly.
“Are you ready?”
He starts counting down, “Ten, nine, eight, eight and a half.”
“Three, two, one, go!”
We cheer and hit the pedals and we’re off. The fastest time on this route is 27 hours, 24 minutes. Here goes nothing.
I’m thrilled to be cruising the road. We pass the momma and baby moose again– single file and as far on the other side of the road as possible. I’m riding next to Dylan behind Dusty and Thrasher– those two have raced this route together multiple times as well as other endurance rides. They’ve been to hell and back together. They pedal side by side with matching shoes and tall compression socks. I can hardly imagine their joint experiences through sleep deprivation, mechanicals, the lows and the highs. I hear Thrasher ask Dusty if it’s supposed to rain. They talk about it a bit, but it doesn’t make much of a difference now that we’ve started. We have what we packed and we have over 250 miles to get back.
Dylan and I are talking about the moose and how in a moment like that nothing else really matters. It feels like time stops and how could we possibly be racing. Then I make a joke about yelling “Strava!” at the moose, like that would make them clear out of the way, and we both laugh.
I hear a guy behind me talking about other trips and gear and about a ride he did where he didn’t need to bring a shelter because he could sleep in his dry suit. I turn and see it’s Jim Jager, the dad of my friend Ana.
“Oh hey, Jim! I was spacing out so hard I didn’t even know it was you.”
We get to catch up riding the road to Resurrection Pass Trail. He tells me all about a bikepacking race in Costa Rica. I feel like this is a common theme– you’re out on an amazing ride talking about another amazing trip on the other side of the world. Sometimes it feels like pedaling with excited people is like lighting firecrackers in your brain. It’s endless.
We turn into the Resurrection Pass Trailhead. There’s a group of people cheering for us and I can’t help, but cheer back. We’re over the bridge and onto the path in the woods. Thrasher hits the pedals and flies away.
Dusty says, “I’m letting him go. Last year we went out too hard. We both got personal records on Resurrection Pass Trail from Hope to Cooper Landing and it took me a long time to recover. If I ride early with Thrasher, we push each other too hard.”
I ride with Dusty. We talk about his new trail maintenance business and work at Revelate Designs and his upcoming wedding. The air is a bit humid and perfect and everything seems possible. The trail is rolling, but generally climbing. He warns me that on the way back, these little rollers are killers.
He tells me, “Janice Tower calls them the five sons of bitches and that final motherfucker.”
We both laugh. Janice Tower is a huge local advocate for mountain biking in Alaska. She started Mighty Bikes, the local youth mountain biking program. She’s raced endurance for years. She’s a coach. She spends time and energy getting permission and funding for new mountain bike trails, for making it accessible to the public and encouraging them to get out there. She’s confident and composed. It’s funny to imagine her swearing at hills in the woods.
Anson Moxness pedals up with us. This is his fourth Kenai 250 and Dusty’s fifth. Their first year they rode together. It’s fun to hear them catch up about years past. Anson’s background is nordic ski racing. He has a well of fitness from years of training. For the past eight years, he’s been coaching the high school ski team, something that was really important to him growing up. I’m riding with really good people that care deeply about the community and helping folks get out and see this place. It doesn’t get much better than this.
We pedal above treeline and start getting views of the mountains. We make it to the first little lake and Dusty points out the spot where he proposed to Christina. He’s thinking of her and his biggest concern is that she has a good time during this race. Dusty takes the lead and I follow. We’re rolling through the tundra at speed. A marmot with a big fluffy tail sprints onto the trail in front of Dusty. He bumps it with his wheel and the marmot runs away.
Mere seconds later, a ptarmigan pops onto the trail in front of Dusty and I see feathers fly into the air and the ptarmigan flies away.
“I don’t know what’s happening!”
We keep going. I’ve never seen anything like it. We crest the high point and Dusty flies out of sight. I pull over before a bridge and let Anson pass. I have a fear of bridges since falling off one a few years back and breaking a couple ribs. I take my time.
Devil’s Creek Trail is a bit overgrown. My wide bars and bar ends are clipping leaves and branches. There are several stream crossings. I just let my feet get wet and they’ll stay so for the duration. I’m wearing wool socks. I’ll be fine. A couple weeks ago, touring this trail, we were pushing through snow. It’s all gone now.
Dusty and Anson are both pulled over to pee. I say hi passing and then they’re hot on my heels. I pull over to let them pass.
It’s all downhill to the road. A little crew including Ana Jager cheer for us through the parking lot. “How are you doing?”
“I feel great! So good to see you!”
I turn onto the road and start heading north. Thirty-six miles, three and a half hours and the first trail hurdle are past. I have 24 miles of pavement to the start of Johnson Pass Trail. I lock out my suspension, drink a GU liquid energy coffee and eat a little Lithuanian cheesecake bar. It feels like a cafe moment on my bike seat. I’m truly enjoying every aspect of this. I untangle my headphones and start blasting “Situation” by Yaz. I rest my forearms on my handlebars. After the tough trail miles, road riding feels like time travel. This is so fun!
I pass Summit Lake Lodge and get on the bike path near the junction to Hope. Ladies in a car pop their heads out the window to wave and cheer. I think that was Kellene. It’s lightly raining.
Soon enough, I turn into Johnson Pass Trailhead and straight onto the trail. I pull over to pee, fill up my water bottle, pack away my music and I’m back on the bike. The trail is wet and the rocks are slippery. I’m off my bike a lot more than I expect, walking stretches of trail because I can’t keep traction. I pass a group of boy scouts in red jackets. A little one says, “You’re in fourth place!”
I pass a guy out for a day ride with his dog. I make it past the lakes and and the pass and it’s rolling to the other side. Rue is shooting near the southern trailhead. Petra Davis and Stacey Neider are there cheering and I see Ana Jager and her friend. It’s raining steadily now. I’m loving the pavement and the tunes go back in.
Next up is a little trail loop at Crown Point. I see Dusty exiting as I’m entering. The clock is ticking. We’re all experiencing these stretches at different moments in our own worlds and
minds that intersect. It’s a loose, rocky fire road to the trail entrance with ferns and moss and wildflowers. If I didn’t know and I had to guess, I’d think we were in the Pacific Northwest, maybe near Bellingham. Flowing water crosses the trail several times and then I’m back out on the connecting dirt road and then back on the highway heading south towards Seward. Dylan Morton catches me. He is one big smile.
“I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do today. This is amazing!” It is!
“How’s everything on your bike?”
Dylan rebuilt my bike. I owe him big time for all of the expert work he’s done. I am super grateful to have such a pro mechanic as a friend and, when it comes to bikes, nobody’s more helpful than Dylan.
“Everything is great except the shifting is a little off. It’s totally rideable, it just skips around a bit.”
“Looks like something is off with your chain tension. Should be okay.”
We leapfrog to Primrose and up the northside of Lost Lake Trail, the jewel of the Kenai 250. It’s wet and rooty and there’s quite a bit of walking, but I appreciate that it keeps me toasty. We rise out of the forest and up to alpine tundra. The trail smooths out. It’s a magical strip through the green with mountains on either side, past the lakes and then a full view of Resurrection Bay and Seward and a rocking descent along a gorge. I pass through the trailhead– music back in and on a mission to cruise down to Seward, around the bay on the bike path, back up the main road and back to Lost Lake. I stop at the trailhead to plug my Wahoo ROAM into a power bank to charge it, throw away trash and I plan to lube my chain. At that moment, I realize that my chain lube and mosquito repellent both flew out of my bag. Oh well. Corrie Smith and another guy pop into the trailhead from the north side.
“Hi Lael! I have to pee so bad!”
She pulls her shorts down and starts peeing. She’s a buzzball of energy. We talk a minute and head opposite directions.
There’s a forest service closure on the old Iditarod Trail due to a problem grizzly. For the 2020 race, we double up on Lost Lake Trail instead. A cool aspect to this is that we basically get to see the full field and cheer for each other. I hit the alpine trail around midnight, just after sunset. The clouds are a light and bright pink. Rue is up high taking photos– so glad she’s there to capture this!
I run into Janice Tower and Jason before getting back into the woods on the Primrose side and a good time to get my lights out. I have the Hope R4+ on my handlebars and the Lupine Blika for my helmet– definitely more lighting than I expect to need for the four dim hours, but the Primrose woods are really dark and I’m grateful to light night into day.
“Have you guys ridden with Christina?”
“Yeah, she’s just behind with Dan Bailey. We’ve been with her all day. She’s doing great!”
I see Christina and Dan pushing up the climb.
“How are you doing?”
“Oh pretty good, but my shifter broke.”
She shows me. She pushes the lever and nothing happens.
“Shoot! That’s terrible.”
“Yeah, I can’t get into any of my easy gears. I either have to stand up on all of the climbs or walk.”
She’s thinking about stopping in Seward. She’s still in high spirits, but I know it’s tough. “You look great, Lael! You’ve got this!”
I start down into the rooty, dark woods. It’s not raining anymore, but it’s wet. I’m on and off the bike a lot. My only focus is to get down without falling and I do. I’m thrilled to hit the trailhead. There are a couple of ladies standing in the parking lot. It’s after 1am.
“We’re just doing some late night spectating.” “Cool! I just have to get my Wahoo.”
I pull it out of my pack and put it back on the mount and start heading north on the road, into the mist. I pull over to put on my rain pants. It’s chilly and wet.
I turn onto the Old Sterling Highway. It’s punchy ups and downs on dirt. The riding is fairly easy. I start getting really sleepy. I didn’t expect this. I’ve ridden through the night plenty of times– once even riding through two nights on an Arizona Trail time trial. I’ve got to get it together! I start listening to Mythos by Stephen Fry. It’s his funny rendition of Greek Mythology– pretty weird to listen to in a sleep deprived state, but it keeps me awake. At some point, my bike computer freezes, but I don’t notice. I descend to the main road and I think I’m following the track and I take a right. The sky is getting brighter. This just doesn’t seem right. I zoom in and out on my bike computer and realize it hasn’t changed in many minutes. I stop to check the track on my phone on Komoot– I’m definitely off. I pull up the cue cards.
“Leave Sunrise Inn and head west (left) on Sterling Highway.”
Whoops! I turn around and pedal three miles back to the track. It happens.
Back on track, I turn up a steep dirt road and up to fantastic views of Kenai Lake. Then, I’m back down to the pavement through Cooper Landing. At four in the morning, even if it’s light out, I don’t expect anything to be open. To my surprise, there’s a large brown tent advertising coffee and crepes. I actually brought crepes with me on the ride and I’m still packing them. I’m not stopping. I see Dylan’s bike and then Dylan out front. I pass Wildman’s and then turn left on Snug Harbor Road and past a sign that says “Old Lives Matter” in dripping red paint. Dylan catches up with me and we start chatting on the climb. I’m warming up.
“Did you see that place back there? I stopped to have a coffee. A guy at the stand saw you ride by and asked if you were my riding partner. Then, he said it should be illegal to ride this road on a bicycle.”
We both laugh. We’re wearing matching grey jackets and we definitely look like some kind of team.
We pull over at different times to take off layers. My chain is making a total racket and it’s driving me nuts. In desperation, I squeeze some hand sanitizer on it and move on.
“No more pants!” Dylan calls out.
I feel the hot sun on my skin. Dylan is stopped at the Russian Lake trailhead having an energy bar. I stop to take my inhaler. He pulls out a toothbrush and toothpaste.
“It’s a new day!”
The trail goes right back into the shady woods and it’s cold. I start seeing bear scat close to the entrance and continue to see it throughout the trail. I don’t keep count, but there must be at least twenty piles. We are in their territory.
Dylan and I are back and forth and sometimes together. I’m mentally losing it and turn to tell him so.
“Really?!” He responds in a goofy grin and in that moment I know we’re both totally out to lunch.
I start listening to Mythos again and take a caffeine pill and hope I can pull it together. The trail is very overgrown. I can’t always see the surface and I take my time riding over it. I’m listening to the origin of Cupid and Psyche and it’s all very weird– Stephen Fry calls it a cross of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella and my brain is in a strange place. If it wasn’t so wet or so cold, I’d probably stop and close my eyes for a few minutes, but it must be near freezing and I have to keep moving. The last time I see Dylan, he’s pulled over putting his rain pants back on. The only other person I see is a male hiker with long hair, a beard and a short rain skirt. I hate to say it, but he kind of has a Charles Manson smile. I know I need to eat. I have a large pouch of Trailbutter with a screw op. It’s so cold that it’s congealed into a brick. I try squeezing it out the top, but it won’t budge, so I rip the package in half and start gnawing at it. It kind of feels like eating a baseball of nut butter and it tastes damn good and I’m feeling pretty savage cause I know this is going to make a huge mess in my Mag-Tank.
After hours of slow pedaling, I make it to a wide gravel trail and I feel like crying out in joy. I put in pop and start cooking. Now, I’m passing hikers out on this beautiful Saturday morning and I feel like a million bucks. I hit the roads for a minute and then turn into the Cooper Landing trailhead for Resurrection Pass and this is it– I just have to go up and over and back to Hope. It’s baking sun. I keep listening to music and I’m loving it. The lower section is overgrown, my knuckles are knocking into branches and I keep pushing through. Higher up, I pass through the burn area from a massive forest fire last summer. Then, I’m next to Juneau Lake and then I’m up to the tundra and I take the winter route. It’s a little longer and it’s narrow, but it’s rideable. Some day riders pass me the opposite way. Once beyond them, I see a fun size Snickers and some loose M&Ms and a couple of hunter sticks. I imagine at another time if I had run out of food, this would’ve saved my bacon. I’m drinking GU Roctane Summit Tea and I’m feeling great and I’m sweating like crazy. I’m still wearing a wool long sleeve because I don’t really want to stop, but I realize this is ridiculous. I stop and take it off and pee and put my music away.
Up in the tundra, passing Devil’s Pass cabin a woman standing by a bike calls out, “You’re Lael, right?”
“Nice to meet you!”
I keep cruising. At the actual pass, there’s a mix of young people and older people on bikes with camping gear. It’s idyllic. I’m so happy to be up here. Over the top, I’m behind a group of three on bikes. I don’t want to spook them, so I ride a little way until they notice me and pull over. I’m flying down and having fun and trying not to think about the actual mileage to the finish– trying to enjoy this, but my wrists start hurting and if I’m to be honest, I really want to get there. I remember the story of the sons of bitches and the big MFer and I stay patient until the end. Impass so many families enjoying the day. Everyone is kind. We’re sharing this place and we’re happy to be here and I’m thrilled that I get to finish under the sun.
I make it to the trailhead and the dirt road and there are five miles left, mostly downhill and I’m thrilled. I pass Stacey and Scott and it’s so great to see them. I pass a big group with a lot of kids by the airstrip and they’re cheering.
“Two miles to go!”
I get that lump in my throat and I almost start crying because it’s so nice to be welcomed back. It’s only a day since I left, but it feels like there’s a whole world in between. I’m physically and mentally spent and I’m pedaling with all my might, but I don’t have high gears and my chain is skipping all over the place and I don’t care. I love riding my heart out at the end of a race. There’s no feeling quite like it– you just want to get there. It’s like returning home. I make the turn onto Old Hope Road, then past Food on Second, to A Street and Main Street and the Seaview. A small crowd of bike people are cheering and everyone else is just doing their own thing. It’s a perfect day for a picnic in Hope.
Dusty calls out, “Keep going!”
So, I do and I hit the brakes in front of the Seaview and my oldest sister’s oldest friend Meghan is sitting there with her husband and her three year old and they say good job.
I stop. I put my foot down and dismount. Rue is there and I give her a huge hug. Then, I look at the time cause we have to self record our finishes.
“It’s 3:18pm– just over thirty hours total.”
I unclip my fanny pack. It feels so good. Someone offers me a camping chair. I think it’s Anson. Michael Braun hands me a beer. I sit down and take off my shoes and socks.
“That was really hard.”
Rue is excited. She went up in a bush plane with Anson. He had to scratch after Johnson Pass because of knee problems. He flew back this morning to see the finish and took Rue up to shoot us on Resurrection Pass. Rue boils some water in the camping stove and makes me Ramen with broccoli. I eat out of a Tupperware container with a camping spoon in the back of my parents’ old minivan and I’m so happy. Dusty and Thrasher are there. Everyone is beat and everyone has a story and I’ve heard bits and pieces along the way and we talk about it, but more importantly, Christina is still out there. In Seward, because of her mechanical, she switched bikes with Janice Tower. Janice told her she’s ridden this route so many times and she doesn’t want Christina to quit, so she better take her bike. They both ride size small, so it works. Jason helped move Christina’s saddle, pedals, and equipment to Janice’s bike. They stopped to sleep for half an hour and kept going.
“Let’s go see them!”
We limp into Christina’s Jeep and head for Cooper Landing. Dusty’s up front, I’m in the back and Rue’s driving. We turn into the Resurrection Pass Trailhead. Janice Tower and Darcy and Petra Davis are there. It’s a parking lot party. They pull out camping chairs and we catch up. We’re all here for Christina and she comes through with Jason. She’s smiling and looking fresh. Dusty gives her a hug and they keep going– just one more trail, up and over Devil’s Pass to Hope, Alaska. It’s as simple as that.