Asking the Right Question for 2,700 Miles
By Corrine Leistikow
“I quit,” I said to myself, sobbing. “This is too hard. I don’t care anymore. I’m done.”
I dug out my cell phone to call my husband. I was less than 250 miles from the finish of a 2,700-mile mountain bike race. I had already made it through snow, rain, high mountain passes, and headwinds, but today I was quitting.
I didn’t care that I was so close. Or that I would disappoint friends who were cheering me from afar. I was hot and tired. I had fought strong headwinds for about the millionth day in a row. I was sick of awful roads with soft washboards that made pedaling slow and difficult.
And now my neck was giving out. Again. My muscles were so fatigued I couldn’t hold my head up fully. I couldn’t keep riding like this. Crying, I turned on the phone to call Eric. I didn’t care if I finished or not, I just wanted to go home.
Damn! I had seen those two words on my phone for much of the Tour Divide Mountain Bike Race. But this time was different. This time I really wanted to quit.
Only I couldn’t. What was I going to do? I couldn’t just give up and lie down in the middle of the road. I had food and water for only one more day. I had to ride at least 40 miles to reach a paved road that might have cars on it. I had to keep going. So I did.
The Tour Divide is a 2,700-mile, self-supported mountain bike race that goes from Banff, Canada, to the border of Mexico at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. I had known about the race for years and I wanted to challenge myself to see if I was physically capable of such an endeavor. For three years I planned. I did some shorter races, had my bad knees replaced with implants, and got the time off work.
In early June my husband Eric and I drove from Fairbanks to the start. Then he took off to do his own thing. The Tour Divide requires racers to be self-supported, so I couldn’t rely on Eric, but I knew he would be available if I really needed him. Some racers thought having that option might make it easier to quit. But I knew I was too stubborn to quit. Until I wasn’t.
I realized the race would be hard, but it was so much harder than I ever imagined—physically, mentally, and emotionally. More days than not, I wanted to quit. When doing endurance races I have a question I ask myself when I want to quit: Am I in danger or just uncomfortable? If I’m just uncomfortable, I tell myself to keep going. Things will get better. And they usually do. But on the Tour Divide every day was hard. I was uncomfortable every day. But I was never in danger. So I would tell myself to keep going. Also, I usually had no choice, as I often didn’t have cell service to call for a rescue!
OK, I didn’t want to quit every day. The first day in the Canadian Rockies was beautiful with varied terrain from single-track to double-track to dirt roads.
|The pump-you-up start of the 2018 Tour Divide. Corrine is in a green jacket, standing middle row, middle of the photo.|
|The Tour Divide started gloriously! Koko Claims was yet to come.|
But by day two I was already getting my butt kicked. Going up Koko Claims was horrendous. This new section—added in 2017 when a bridge washed out on the original route—was six miles of hike-a-bike up steep rocky trails. I was already tired from the first day. I thought my arms would give out lifting my heavy bike over big rocks and snow avalanches that covered the trail. And my stomach shut down. I ended up dry heaving at least six times. It took me five hours to go the six miles to the top.
I tried to text Eric, who had planned to spend a day in Fernie, British Columbia, riding single track. I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue if my stomach didn’t cooperate. Pitiful, thinking about quitting on the second day, but fortunately: No service. Luckily, other racers had started a fire in a cabin at the top of Koko Claims and I was able to rest and recover. I made it another 50 miles to Fernie and got a hotel for the night. I woke the next morning to rain, but I felt better so I continued even though I couldn’t imagine continuing for 20-some more days. I decided to take it a day at a time.
Those days kept adding up. Most of the next week was cold and rainy and even snowy. (Yep, snow in June in Montana. At Red Meadow Lakes I camped in a snowstorm!) The roads were muddy. Everything on my bike, including me, was covered in a layer of mud. It wasn’t much fun, but I kept going.
Then my neck started giving me problems. I was developing Shermer’s neck, a weakening of the neck muscles that sometimes occurs in multi-day endurance cyclists. A couple of Tour Dividers from the year before had suffered from it, forcing them to quit. I could still lift my head, but it was very difficult and my neck ached. I could barely look ahead on the downhills to see what was coming.
|Corrine and fellow TDer, Michael James, on a forest service road as they near Helena. Corrine is |
lifting her head as high as she can.
I made it to Helena, Montana, where Eric was visiting friends. I told him I didn’t think I could go on. Eric and my friend, Lynne, who had done the race in 2017, said I should take a rest day, get a massage, and see what happens. I did and after a day was able to continue.
I rode in intermittent rain to Butte, Montana, and then had constant rain up and over the passes after Butte. The streams were raging due to the excessive rain. While crossing one I fell in, but it didn’t really matter, as I was soaking already. Was I in danger? Only if I stopped, since I would probably get hypothermic. If I kept moving I was just uncomfortable. So I kept moving. That day I rode for 12 hours with no real breaks. I finally made it to Wise River, Montana, as the rain stopped. I was able to get a cabin, dry out, and eat. It’s amazing how much better you can feel when you are warm, dry and well fed. I also met up with two other riders, Chris Ellison and Phillipa Liles from the United Kingdom, and we commiserated. They had almost quit in Butte, but after a rest day continued on, too.
I rode on and off with Chris and Phillipa for the next couple of weeks. And the weather finally changed. Now instead of being too cold and too rainy it was too hot and too windy! Being from Alaska, I don’t do well with heat. It was over 90 degrees most days! And the winds were ALWAYS from the south, so headwinds. Every. Single. Day. I awoke earlier and earlier to ride in the calmer mornings, but the winds always picked up by late morning. I could make good mileage for half the day. But the afternoons were hell.
|Phillipa dealing with a deep rut on the infamous Bannack Road. It was rideable when Corrine was on it. |
|Corrine enters Idaho. Canada and one state (Montana) down!|
|Corrine has an early, early breakfast with Chris and Phillipa at Wild Bill's B and B, |
an excellent establishment in Atlantic City, Wyoming.
I didn’t know if I could fight hot headwinds for two more weeks. I sure didn’t want to. When we were riding into Hartsel, Colorado, on a flat paved road we should have been riding about 20 mph, but with the ferocious headwind we were only clocking about 4 mph. Oh, and add constant traffic. No shoulder to ride on. New wildfires just north of town. I got to Hartsel and wanted to quit. Chris and Phillipa headed on to Salida. I stopped for a meal and to see if I could stay in Hartsel. No hotels. I tried to call Eric to get his opinion. No service!
|Corrine rides Ute Pass Road as she approaches Silverthorne, Colorado.|
|This wildfire, seen from along Ute Pass Road, was one of several that rerouted or threatened|
Corrine's Tour Divide. That's Phillipa riding ahead.
I considered. Was I in danger? Maybe from the traffic, but the route out of Hartsel took me off the main road. If I stayed hydrated and rode more in the cooler hours I wouldn’t overheat. I had plenty of water. No, I was just uncomfortable. And sick and tired of the heat and headwinds. I headed toward Salida and camped on the open range as night fell.
The next morning I unknowingly passed Chris and Phillipa while they were sleeping. They hadn’t made it to Salida either. This was our typical pattern. I would get up earlier and get ahead, but they were faster and stronger and so would pass me sometime during the day. We would complain about the heat and the headwinds and keep riding. They would usually go a little farther than me, but I would pass them the next morning.
|Along the Tour Divide there's just not enough time for beauty sleep! |
And so I continued day after day. I kept asking myself, “Am I in danger or just uncomfortable?” No on the first. A resounding YES on the latter! I was extremely miserable at times, but I kept going. And I got used to the conditions. Sort of. They weren’t fun, but the scenery was awesome and, hey, I was racing this awesome race. A bad day on the bike almost always beats a good day at work. Most of the time.
Then early in New Mexico I made a wrong turn and biked five miles downhill in the wrong direction. Instead of turning around right away, I stayed the night in Abiquiu and then spent the next three days trying to catch up to Chris and Phillipa and get back on schedule. I started even earlier—around 3 a.m. instead of 4 a.m.—and rode longer.
But then my Shermer’s neck came back. And the New Mexico backroads had awful washboard. And it was still hot. And there were still headwinds. Every. Single. Day. In the middle of the Gila National Forest I decided to quit. That’s when, after a good cry, I dug out my cell phone to call Eric and…No service!
A short day-by-day account of Corrine's Tour Divide.
About 3 minutes in is her New Mexico breakdown.
So, I kept going eight more miles to the Beaverhead Work Station, manned by firefighters, where I was able to get water and put up my tent. I could have asked them to rescue me, but by then that seemed lame and embarrassing. Besides: Am I in danger or just uncomfortable? I had enough food and water for at least another day. Even if I had to stop every hour for 5-10 minutes to rest my neck, I could make it to Silver City, which was only 125 miles from the finish—mostly flat miles and half on pavement. I could do this even if my neck didn’t work. I was just uncomfortable – and slow.
As I camped my last night I was glad I hadn’t been able to contact my husband earlier. I knew I could make it to Silver City on my own. I figured I could rest there and then ride on to the finish.
|Corrine approaches Silver City, New Mexico.|
|Corrine chows down in Silver City.|
But I wasn't ready to stop. After a large breakfast, I rode the remaining 145 miles to Antelope Wells. I finished the Tour Divide in 30 days, 15 hours, 26 minutes. As I closed in on the finish, I was really glad I hadn’t quit. I had accomplished so much. I believe I am the oldest woman—59 years old—to race the Tour Divide and the first Fairbanksan to finish it.
|Corrine approaches the finish, sans helmet, to relieve her tired neck muscles.|
|Corrine at the finish!|
But I found out I wasn’t as tough as I thought I was. I couldn’t believe how many times I wanted to bail. If I had been able to reach my husband would I have quit? I like to think that I am so stubborn that I would have gotten back on my bike after talking to him, but who knows? I’m glad I never had the chance to find out. But I also found out I am pretty darn tough. I was able to continue even when I really, really wanted to quit.
I’m really glad I had my question: “Are you in danger or just uncomfortable?” It helped me to keep going. Oh, and I’m really glad for one more thing: No service!