Pushin’ it on the Fireweed 400

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You know the story of Lael’s recent discovery and infatuation with long-distance road riding.  In short, she couldn’t run due to an achy achilles so she borrowed her mom’s road bike, enjoyed it, then proceeded to ride every paved distance across the state, unsupported.

Since her two and a half day epic from Fairbanks back to Anchorage, she embarked on a 220mi ride from Anchorage to Homer, reaching the end of the highway in 24 hours.  Leaving town at 1PM, she planned to ride through the night and if she wanted to rest her eyes, she would do so in the heat of the morning sun when a sleeping bag is no longer necessary and the mosquitoes might have subsided.  As such, she carried very little on the bike and rode quickly and efficiently, while leaving time to take pictures and nap for a few hours.

This past week, less than ten hours before the registration for the Fireweed 400 race closed, Lael jumped into the ring.  Again, she borrowed her mom’s Specialized Ruby Elite road bike, mounted a pair of carbon wheels borrowed from a friend’s brand new, unridden Trek Madone.  She also borrowed a pair of carbon aero bars, an aero helmet, and a couple extra layers in the likely event that she got soaked.  The forecast called for rain, and more rain.  About the only thing that she brought to the race are her own legs and lungs, and her new favorite Sidi shoes.  She pulled the sagging broken Cannondale saddle and shiny new carbon seat post from her mountain bike and slid it into place on Ruby.  When the sun came out for a couple hours, she stripped down to a vintage purple track jersey that I acquired at Cortland High School.  The Cortland Purple Tigers would be proud.

The course traverses mountains and interior Alaska, cresting Thompson Pass and descending to sea level at Valdez.  The full 400 mile race returns by the same route, climbing 2500ft out of Valdez in several miles, in the middle of the night, in the rain.

The only other female competitor, Janice Tower, is a local legend of the endurance scene.  She is also the former record holder.  Lael says to herself as strategy, “I’m going to stay on the bike and eat like it’s my job”.

And she raced!  She rode hard but not too hard, and stayed on the bike, and ate like it was her job.  She kept her Revelate Gas Tank filled and she says, “I never ran out of gas”.  Forty two miles from the finish, a woman in an aero helmet passed her.  She thought it was JT, the legend.  Lael dropped the hammer and pushed to the finish as hard as she could, passing the rider in the aero helmet and a few others.

She finished a few seconds over 27 hours, completing the full 386mi distance only twelve minutes behind the fastest male competitor, who was riding a recumbent.  The rider in the aero helmet was actually a competitor on the 100mi race, who must have been surprised when a 400miler raced her to the end.  She bested Janice by more than an hour, although it seems Janice may have had a “distressed stomach”, so says another competitor in the night, as they chatted at a road construction stop.  Janice still holds the second fastest female time on the course, just over 25 hours.

Completion of the Fireweed 400 in less then the maximum 33 hour cutoff time automatically qualifies for the Race Across America (RAAM).  “Yeah right”, says Lael.  She didn’t even expect to be riding a road bike this spring.

Thanks to Christina, Harrison and Laura for supporting Lael on the ride!

Photo and video: Christina Grande

 

Alaska Randonneuse

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She rode her bike a lot, and took a few pictures. 

Her Achilles has been a little tight, although it is getting better.  At one point the snow was rotten and gone, and the dirt trails were too wet to ride, and running wasn’t the best way to heal.  She rolled her mom’s Specialized Ruby Elite out of the basement and took it for a ride.  A permanent smile on her face suggested that something about the experience was right.  She kept talking about doing one of the rides promoted by the local randonneurring club.

One day, she had the idea to take the train to Seward and ride the 127 miles back to Anchorage.  At dawn, she rolled out the door to the train station.  After a several hour train ride, and just over ten or twelve hours of riding into headwinds, she arrived back at home, elated.  Over the next few weeks, a similar pattern of impulsive big rides would continue.

Each morning that she planned to leave, I’d pack some snacks into her bag.  I’d nestle a small camera between Emergen-C packets and a well-used iPod.  Then, she rides.   

Seward-Anchorage 

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On this ride, Lael left home with a tattered fleece, which she planned to leave somewhere along the route.  Coming back towards town along Turnagain Arm, she purchased a cotton sweatshirt at a gas station late in the evening.  She arrived home wearing a “Deadliest Catch” hoodie.  

Lael wrote about her ride from Seward to Anchorage.  

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Anchorage-Palmer-Anchorage

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The following week, Lael pointed her tires towards The Valley.  She rode out of town with a friendly cycletourist we’d me the day before, en route to Argentina via Prudhoe Bay.  She and Scott left town in the late afternoon.  She arrived home at 1AM.

The Knik River looks very different in the summer.

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Fairbanks-Anchorage

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Another week later, Lael’s got another big idea.  As her mom is packing for a flight to Fairbanks for a week of professional training, she realizes a unique opportunity.  If she also flies to Fairbanks, with a bike, she can ride home, a total distance of nearly 370 miles.  The next morning at 6AM they are both on a flight to Fairbanks.  Lael begins pedaling the borrowed bike by 10AM.  She is back in town two and a half days later, barely half and hour late for work.

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These are familiar views to us, as we lived and worked here in the summer of 2009, just outside of Denali National Park.  The recipe for the strawberry-rhubarb coffee cake at McKinley Creekside Cafe (mi 224 on the Parks Highway) comes from Lael’s family.

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She also started clipping in, mostly the result of lots of rooty mountain bike trails.

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A late start on the second day means she is riding into the night.

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By 5AM, she arrives at her family’s rustic cabin via dirt roads.  The Ruby handles dirt well, she says.  This bike is the sister to the Roubaix in the Specialized family.

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Three hours of sleep is enough, before rolling towards home.  Ninety miles and eight hours later, she is expected to be at work.

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Back in town just in time, although a few minutes late to the job,  It has been a long commute, they’ll understand.

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All images: Lael Wilcox