The world took notice of Lael Wilcox in 2015, when she shattered the women’s record on the 2,768-mile Tour Divide. With that ride, Wilcox challenged the existing notions about what women could do in the world of ultra-endurance racing.
This summer, Wilcox made history again. Not only did she beat all competitors (male and female) in the 4,400-mile TransAm race, she also broke the women’s record by three whole days.
Last week, Wilcox took some time to answer a few of my questions about her career. Naturally, she showed up on her bike.
Jan: Your boyfriend, Nick, provided updates on your TransAm ride via his blog. In one update he mentioned you thought TransAm was harder than the Divide. Can you elaborate?
Lael: This may sound backwards, but what made the TransAm harder was that the riding was actually easier. I’ve spent a lot of time mountain biking and climbing and the TransAm in the west has a lot of flat riding.
I really had to learn a road bike out there. I had to learn to sit and push the pedals. It took a lot more mental focus than I was expecting. Also, the TransAm is longer—both in distance and time and the miles wear on you. I averaged 237 miles a day, but most days I really felt like I hadn’t done anything until I reached 200.
Jan: At the beginning of the race we learned that you didn’t feel like you were doing very well. What mental strategies did you rely on to keep your mental game strong and keep pushing yourself?
Lael: I was over 100 miles behind the leaders. I felt like I just couldn’t keep up, but I just held on with the hope that I would improve. I also stuck to my own strategy. For the middle of the race I slept 5 hours a night—much longer than the people ahead of me.
Sleep is crucial for mental and physical recovery. I felt rested enough that when I made it to Missouri, I really starting riding my own race. The terrain from Missouri to the end of the race in Virginia is much more challenging than the riding further west. It’s hilly and steep.
Jan: On your last Divide ride, you mentioned that knowing that Nick would be at the end helped push you to the finish. When you would hit a low point in this race, what did you find that kept you turning the pedals over and kept you moving forward?
Lael: Nick met me at the end of the TransAm! The last three nights of the race I got a combination of about six hours of sleep. I was really tired and just wanted to sleep, but I knew if I wanted a chance at winning I had to keep moving through the night. The last night of the race I took a cat nap in a field for just over half an hour and pushed to the end. I didn’t really feel like I lost motivation during the middle of the race, it just felt like it was never going to end.
Jan: I saw that you mailed back your sleeping bag before the start. What was the motivation for mailing it back before the beginning of the race? How did you approach the uncertainty of not having a sleeping bag for a race across the country? Was there anything else that you mailed back that you maybe wished you had with you?
Lael: Up until the race I was watching the weather forecast and saw that it was going to be really hot with warm nights for at least the first three days. I knew I could get through those nights without the sleeping bag and felt like I needed to commit to a minimal system.
I don’t regret sending the sleeping bag home, but I did wake up shivering several of the mornings. Once I got past Colorado, the nights were warm and I didn’t need it anymore. A bigger issue was having to charge my electronic shifting. I really thought the battery life would last much longer than it did. I felt tied to staying in motels, just because I needed to charge my shifting. I’d definitely consider using mechanical shifting in the future. There are a lot of services along the Trans Am route and you really don’t need to pack much.
Jan: Is there one memory from this race that stands out in your mind?
Lael: Catching and passing the leader, Steffen Streich, in the middle of the last night of the race.
Jan: Lael, what’s next for you?
Lael: Nick and I are flying to Denver to ride the Colorado Trail. We’ll be in the west for the fall and riding the Baja Divide next January.
To follow Lael and Nick, check out their blog.