Cloquet, Minnesota [Smoke-N-Fire 420]


I scraped together what little money I had left to buy a last minute ticket to Boise for the most important race of the year. I’d been watching ticket prices fluctuate from $700+ to $400, wondering how I could possibly make it out west one last time. A few days before the race, I saw a dip in prices and pounced. For something close to $200 dollars  I found a round trip ticket. After spending the money on the flights, I had less than $100 in my checking account; I was going to make it to Boise. The race was on. I had a few logistics to work out. I had to get to Minneapolis, which was easy enough. I’d drive, but parking the vehicle proved to be pricey. I couldn’t figure out where I’d leave my car while I was out of town, so I reached out to a few people on I prefaced my request with a warning of sorts “weird car parking request” and hoped for the best.

Several hours later, as I was finishing up all the homework I had due for the next week, I got an email from Chris, who said I could leave my car in his driveway! Incredible. Things were working out. He said he was unlikely to be able to drive me to the airport, but that was fine. I thought I’d ride my beater bike from his house and park it at the airport. He warned me bikes weren’t allowed at the airport (bummer), so I thought I’d arrange for a taxi ride and that would still cost less than parking. As I pulled into his driveway though, he was up, and at’er and offered me a ride! We chatted a bit, and I instantly realized how wonderful he was. He loves bike touring with all of his heart and has structured his reality around bikes. He wished me luck and I entered the busy airport.

My flight out of Denver was delayed, so I texted Russ to let him know I’d be late. I met him last year on the Smoke-n-Fire route. We’d been in cahoots pre-race and he had called me to confirm what time he’d pick me up from the airport. I wondered how that would happen; Russ is car free. As I left the terminal, he was awaiting my arrival with a paper that said “tarp gal”. I laughed and ran to hug him. As we walked outside, I grinned when I saw that he had biked a bike to the airport to pick me up. I had started my summer in Boise over memorial day weekend and closed out the summer labor day weekend…

This time I had big goals for the race. I wanted to place in the top 10. This was the first race I ever competed in back in 2017 and I was determined to see what one year of training could do. I was ready to push it to the extreme, and after a season of practice in several other bikepacking races, I knew what to do and not to do. I’d gotten some great advice on sleep from the female pace setter in the 2018 CTR, my friend, Liz, and I planned to put it into use. I’d dialed in my race kit to be as minimal as possible. My bike had been freshly repaired by another CTR competitor, Chad, (also, a new friend who hosted me upon my arrival back to Denver after my weird yo-yo) over at Elevation Cycles in Denver.

Alexandera had been beating her bicycle into the ground all summer. You probably can’t see her from your platform, but she’s a big human. No, no. I’m not saying she’s big, I mean at 5’10 and 185 pounds, she weighs quite a bit more than many of the others out there racing and she wears out her bikes faster than most of her friends. She doesn’t know that the pesky dent from that rock drop she launched off of too fast in the final descent back toward the Waterton Canyon Trailhead would rear it’s ugly head for the duration of the race. Good thing Chad put so much sealant in there, it kept her rolling longer than it would have otherwise; she wouldn’t be so positive about the tire issues during the race though. She also doesn’t know that her Sinewave Reactor would fail. Even after an hour of messing around with wires, bolts and a knife it would still be unreliable; her optimism stood no chance against the electronic circuit. She couldn’t have known that her back up power bank wouldn’t work either and she’d be trapped, chained to an outlet as she watched riders peel off into the sky. She got wrapped up in proving something; so the world challenged her to reset.

racedayzero: I had attempted to find sleep the night before, but nerves kept me awake and I slept barely 4 hours. The only thing that took the droopy out of my eyes was knowing that most of the other racers likely had the same terrible sleep that I did. Race eve sleep is always inadequate. The roll out was almost the same as last year. This year we stood perched on our bikes in a moment of silence for a local Boise cyclist whom had passed away after a mountain bike crash. It was really moving to see the love the Boise riding community had for Jason. Numerous blinky lights invaded my periphery as we wove about the Greenbelt. I reminded myself of my goals and looked to the note I taped on the top tube of my bike; NATE ISN’T SLEEPIN. If he can do it. I can right? The first climb comes quick, up, up, up and I’ve settled into the back of the pack. I start slow and warm up my body over the first century. I remember the most important thing; I need to take care of my body if I want it to do incredible things. I met and rode with Bobby, on a CHUMBA Stella, and he passes me. We leap frog a few times, and I never see him again after our stop at Nitz (I think that’s what it’s called). I meet Garret and Kevin, two firefighters out on their first bike packing trip. Fellow flat pedal brothers. There was Mike too, he caught me and then passed me. I meet Cynthia, and Jim, and Jim as they pass me several times. They’re faster than I am; I just plug and chug. The miles aren’t bad, but the floating orb of fire above is tearing me apart. When did I get so bad a riding in the heat? I had lived in the Sonoran desert. I should be able to adapt to this.  I only had $34 dollars in my checking account. I wanted to buy a Powerade. I needed to save my money for the possible taxi ride I would have to take to get to the airport though. I was hungry; I was already riding with the only food I packed for the entire trip. I’d make it. But damn, if every store I passed didn’t leave me salivating. I wondered how I could scrape money together, I wondered if maybe just one Powerade would be okay to purchase. Still, I blazed past each store as my fellow racers were lounging around outside.

Alexandera knew that this moment would happen as she built up her bicycle for her summer adventure. She had taken $150 out of her cash stash while still in Minnesota and rolled it up tightly. She popped of the end cap of her left side handle bar, and tucked the money away. Traveling alone for the summer, she wanted to be prepared for any situation. So, if she got robbed, she’d have money. When she ran out of money, she’d have enough to get home no matter what. This small chess move she made had evaded her thoughts until…

OH MY GOD. I have $150 dollars in my handlbars!!! I pulled over at Nitz and frantically tried to get my bar end off. I felt like it was almost a fantasy, like maybe I already took the money out… But no; there it was, a green wad of rolled up cash. I laughed so hard, and tried to put into words the joy that coursed over my body to the strangers around me. They just didn’t seem to get it; I was elated and wandered into the store. I bought 2 Powerades, a Mountain Dew, a slushy and 6 or 7 Snickers bars. I sat for half an hour and refueled my body. This positive rocketed me to fly past Featherville and set sights on Smokey Bar. I had to stop there. It’s tradition now.

Last year, in the wee hours of the morning, on her final full day of the race, she celebrated her birthday alone in the mountains. The night was cold, the stars were bright, and she stuck a stick that was ablaze in a tiny coconut date roll. Though she was beyond miserable; tired, cold, damp, she couldn’t help but smile. She was doing her favorite thing in the world to celebrate another trip around the sun. She made a wish, packed up camp and headed up Dollarhyde for the first climb of what would end up being a series of suffering ascents to the sky. As the sun began to peek out from the sky, she pulled into the Smokey Bar. She’d been fantasizing about having a cup of coffee. She went to the door and it was locked. She didn’t realize that Kaylin was planning on her arrival and coming out of her trailer just as she pulled up. Disappointment weighed heavy on her, and just as she was about to leave Kaylin welcomed her in. They sat in the bar and chatted for quite some time while Alexandera drank endless coffee. She had forgotten it was her birthday in her sleep deprived state, and laughingly uttered “it’s my birthday” when she remembered. The coffee was free; Alexandera felt like she unwrapped the best birthday gift in the world. She’d never forget that feeling. 

My stop at Smokey Bar was longer than anticipated, but I relished my connection to place. For just one year ago, I sat on the bench more exhausted than ever chatting with people who had also underestimated the tax and toll this route charged on the body. I left a few men behind last year and carried on to chase Laura. This time I left before Laura and Cody, but in no time she passed me… as though the 100+ miles before were nothing and I watched her flutter up the 3000 foot climb until I was all alone again. Her cadence was beautiful, she effortlessly conquered climbs and I wondered how someone could look so elegant while crushing me into the dirt. My head was out of it, I was feeling defeated, nauseated, sick even from the day’s deep frying.

Already botched confidence denied each forward gesture. Her internal justification-knowing Laura motored nocturnally on- provided quantitative reason. Steadily tuckering up, victory wrought, xenial yells zipped out of her mouth… “I’m gonna catch you!” They were friends, sure, but a little competition encouraged them to grow stronger… 

I noticed the warmth in the air and was familiar with the cold in the miles up ahead. Seeing as I brought no sleep kit, I figured this was my chance for a few hours of shut eye. I hunkered down on the side of the road and rolled up in my blue tarp; 5×7, I fit snuggly inside as though I were the meat and potatoes of the burrito. I wasn’t confident that I would be able to run on no sleep for the duration of the race, so I would sleep for a few hours now. I slept deep and hard and woke to my alarm at 4:00 a.m. I immediately threw my tarp to the side, took my coat off and sat there shivering. I spent 30 minutes trying to remove the anvils from my eyelashes, and finally got back in the saddle around 4:30 only to generate some heat.

racedayone: I summited Dollarhyde in the dark, and hopped off the bike to switch the cables from my generator light to the Sinewave Reactor. I plugged in my Garmin and started to descend. I noticed early on that my Garmin wasn’t charging so I figured something was loose in the set up. I’d check it out later once the sun rose and I basked in the glory of the descent. Last year I was freezing and miserable on this very road, this year, the sun was already evident as I used the silhouette of the mountains to guide me to Ketchum. I felt rested and strong. I’d felt the miles of this descent carried on forever. This time, it was true; all downhill to Ketchum. By the time I’d arrived to the bike path, I was ready for breakfast. I found a bench and turned on my cell phone for the first time. A few texts came flooding in. My friends were cheering me on and I shed a few tears because of the nice words they’d sent my way. I’ve never had so many people believe in me before, and the energy that comes from that is mighty powerful. This was the day of singletrack, and I couldn’t be more overjoyed. A few miles into the single track, however, I realized that my battery cache wasn’t working either. Well, my only option from here to the finish was to find an outlet every 12 hours. I knew I was only 4 or 5 hours from Galena. I’d look at my map there and plan out charging locations. I find Scott on my descent and fly past him. I’d never felt stronger and crushed out the Harriman Trail to Galena. I’d passed Ladd and accidentally underestimated the mileage to Galena. I told him we were almost there.

She finally had caught Cody and Laura. Alexandera didn’t want to stop, she’d felt so strong and had enough food to get to Stanley. She had to charge her Garmin though. Tethered to the outlet, she watched Cody and Laura leave for Titus. Then another rider came and left, and another, until finally she couldn’t wait any longer. 95% charged is good enough. She was still 6 hours ahead of where she was at this point last year. She rode with Scott for an hour or so until the hike-a-bike began and she asked to pass. She was going to make it to Stanley at any cost.

I had eaten two bowls of soup at the lodge. The cashier questions, “weren’t you here last year?” I told her I was. “I remember you!” I’d felt tremendous joy that she’d remembered me. It was probably the boots, or that fact that I’m the only person who doesn’t look like a cyclist in the whole lodge. Either way, I pace around, trying to act cool all the while I felt stress about just sitting. The race clock was ticking away, and 2 hours had already passed. I need to make it to Stanley tonight. I can nap while I charge things then. I remembered the climb up to Titus Lake, but felt strong so I wasn’t worried. The miles peeled away beautifully. I stopped at Pole Creek and basked in the warm air around me. I took a photo of my bike in the exact place I’d eaten focaccia with Russ. I’d looked for my gloves I’d forgotten in the rush of packing up in the morning. Gone. I carried on to Fisher Creek. The best loop of the whole route, it’s a cleaner climb than last year. I’d recalled the road being washed out, but this time, thick rocks peppered the earth. I’d heard run off running down the side of the hill and drank fresh from the source. I filled up my water, summited to a torrential wind and just stopped to watch the sun disappear from sight. It would be dark soon. I let the wind swirl about my hair and turned my hat backwards. Time to descend; this time it wasn’t raining. This time, I could go fast. I’d carried on to the Williams trail head and hit the pavement. Fast miles ahead, I’d see the headlamp of another racer ahead of me. I was going to catch him. Her. Was it Laura? I rolled Decker Flat as fast as I could. Before I knew it, I was on my last hike-a-bike before the descent to Stanley. I’d roll into Stanley at 1:30 a.m. to see that business hours are 9:00 a.m. I couldn’t wait until then… I plugged in the Garmin. I changed into all of my clothes. I repacked my bike, I’d counted my Snickers. I had 7 left. That will get me to Garden Valley. I slept sitting upright in the Porta-John. Alarm set for 4 a.m. sharp. My Garmin was fully charged, but I had to charge my lights too. I’d only brought one wall charger. I charged for another hour and was back on the road by 5 a.m. The freezing air of Stanley was paralyzing and I barely rolled out of town with my eyes open.

racedaytwo: I’d ride through the dark until sunrise. At 7:00 a.m. I’d yet to warm up and stopped on the side of the road. I had nothing in me. No drive, no energy and a text from Justin came through. He’d been watching my miles and said I was crushing it and I had nearly caught up to Jess. I didn’t care, I couldn’t pedal any more. I told him I was cold. He said, “You’re from Minnesota. Suck it up.” With that, I’d remembered, oh yeah, it’s a lot colder back home. I was off with a new found strength. As the sun kissed my cheek, I’d found the big puddle. I took my boots off and stepped into the crisp water. I’d ridden hard, and fast for the duration of the day. I’d felt great; strong, unstoppable. Then, the Deadwood Reservoir singletrack. Not single track, but an overgrown miserable hiking trail that took me hours to traverse all the while being cooked in the afternoon sun. Finally out the other side, the never ending climb tests my drive. Just around every corner, I’d seemed to think I found the summit. False, and I continued up even longer. Steep, it was so steep, but my legs were too proud to walk. Finally, the summit, and a descent equally as steep launches you down the mountain to a pavement descent all the way to Garden Valley.

The entire day had been spent riding on dirt, and Alexandera was able to follow the tire tracks of the racers in front of her. She’d only used maybe 6 hours of the Garmin throughout the whole day. She’d gone the wrong way a few times, but would turn on the device to confirm every half hour or so. She checked at the turn before Garden Valley. She could maybe make it to Placerville before charging. 1 Snickers left. At this point, there was no other option. She didn’t want Laura and Cody to catch her. She lay in the grass for 45 minutes catching a brief nap before her final push to Boise where Scott caught her. She’d popped up immediately.

I was shocked to see Scott, I thought that I’d lost him back at Galena. He was beat from the first day, but managed to pull it back together and come back with strength unknown to me. We chatted while I packed, and he pressed on. I was determined to catch him and chased his little light up the mountain. I’d eventually caught him. He said he’d thought that was the last time I’d see him; he was feeling strong too. We both wanted to push on to Boise and kept leap frogging through the dark night. I’d been shocked at how sweaty I felt. I pressed on anyways. I’d eaten my last Snickers. My Garmin had dropped to 10% battery and I was too scared to turn it off for all the black roads looked the same and there were so many turns. I’d lost Scott somewhere. Disappointment enveloped me, I thought I was feeling strong, but he’d just vanished. My stomach hurt a little, but I’d figured I was dehydrated or just hungry. How could he climb so fast, so I dug even deeper. 8%. I had 5 miles left before Placerville. I hope there’s and outlet. Please. With 1% battery left, I see lights. Placerville! Yes, someone is watching out for me. I find an outlet behind the store and post up to charge. I realize I wasn’t sweaty, in fact I’d bled through my only pair of pants. I’d cleaned myself up; there was plenty of water at this stop. I’d taken my pants off and put my shorts back on. I was freezing, so I paced back and forth. Too cold to sleep, I tried to keep busy until I saw a headlight. There they are, I thought. Cody and Laura finally caught me. It was Scott! He’d taken a wrong turn. We chatted, he had brought too much food and gave me another Snickers. Yes! He left and I stayed behind for a few hours to charge the Garmin. Finally at 70%, I’d figured that was enough and set out to catch Scott.

racedaythree: I spent at least a half hour talking with a fella touring with his daughter. It was a glorious way to start out the day, but I had to get going. I’d finally hit Boise Ridge Road, and spent hours on end up, down, up, down tracing the sawtooth profile of the ridge. A woman finds me on the singletrack only to tell me she’s been tracking me and asked if I’d stop for a picture with her. Of course, and I stick out my tongue. We pedal away from each other and I’m running off endorphins from that for a couple hours. I finally set to climb my last peak on the Garmin. I feel my rear tire getting squishy but ignore it. At the summit, I stop to look down at the top of Hard Guy. I love that descent. I’d climbed it, I’d descended it. It’s my hello and goodbye to Boise. I set down and launched off a rock to celebrate the descent. My tire unseated, sealant leaked out and I came to a sudden stop. I had to put a tube in, just a few miles from the finish; I didn’t know who was behind me. My pump was mostly useless, my tube took forever to pump and I was scared that a million people would pass me as I sit on the side of the trail fixing my flat. I was shakey, I spilled all of my tools. I had to stop to gather myself. Just gotta finish. The only climb left is out of this trail system. Eventually, I cleaned up the mess, no one passed me and I bumped tunes down the entire Hard Guy descent.

As I rolled into Boise, I cried. 11 hours faster than last year. I felt that this route was significantly harder. I finished 11th behind Scott, who’d taken the place I’d been seeking to call mine. He earned every bit of it. I spent one year training for this very race, and I improved by nearly a half of a day. This is what can happen when I set out for a goal. I am stronger than I ever knew. I still struggle with my body image, I still struggle with my weight and food. It’s a struggle that will be with me forever. It’s a struggle many of us share. This was supposed to be the last race of my 8-in-28 goal, but Marji ended up being the final one.

I think it was supposed to happen that way. I finished the Marji in 17 hours. I need to cut 5 hours off my race time to get that belt buckle. Now, next year, my goal is to get that belt buckle. I will spend one year training for that race.

Now I ebb into to role of a student. I dissolve into local relationships and spend the winter training for next summer which is training for next fall.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Ingram says:

    Nicely done ! Love the way you write about your races, and how cool it was when you remembered that cash in the bars ! Congrats on an awesome summer of riding !!!!


  2. Brad Taylor says:

    I have to applaud your drive and creativity but mostly that mental strength! You set goals and don’t let much get between you and achieving them, perhaps even dangerously so. Not many people will go that far. I found this blog from your video of riding the divide, which I rather enjoyed. Your writing style is such that once I started to read, I couldn’t stop and that’s saying something with my well developed adult ADD. Keep riding, keep writing and we’ll keep reading! Till the snow melts and then it’s game on.


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