A She hero, an interview with Lael Wilcox

 #11 מאי 2015     שטח   
A She hero
An interview with Lael Wilcox
By Noa Luria
Photos: Nicholas Carman
From Hebrew: Danny Seelenfreund


For not so few people in our discipline, the 9th of April has designated the end of all other activities and the full attention has been dedicated to the online tracking of around twenty orange spots, each bearing the initials of a rider, that were wondering on the trackleaders website over the map of Israel. One spot didn’t conform to the rest – it was pink. It had the letters LW on it.
Soon enough it became clear to the followers that Lael Wilcox is something completely different. Not only had she rode on the first day 245 km and way ahead of the rest of the competitors, had she dashed through impossible muddy passes in the middle of the night, had she slept in a showery night under a tree when the temperature has dropped to only few degrees while most of the others have opted for a B&B or similar, had she crossed affluent streams and almost got drifted, had she crossed the desert on her solely own and finished in the top three – she did all of that riding a plain, old hard-tail bike, dressed in a T-shirt and wearing snickers. Gloves or padded pants are totally out of the question.
The Facebook community of the HLC (Bikepacking Israel) was in a turmoil. “The fifth element” so they named her. “Our Khaleesi”. A Hundred of friendship suggestions that were sent from newly joined groupies remained unanswered due to the simple fact that the lady does not even carry a smartphone.
I had to wait patiently for the race to end in order to meet with this phenomenon and to understand how the hack does it work. I just wanted to get acquainted directly with Lael and to get some inspiration. The opportunity popped up through a mutual friend, Niv Amos, who has also participated (and won) in the HLC.


I met a child-woman, so lean and so tanned, full of contrasts. Strong yet fragile. Smiley and hectic for a moment, dreamy and introverted in the following one. Telling spooky stories about challenging the nature and the route with no traces of arrogance, as if it was trivial. Indeed, for Lael this is trivial.
Lael, 28, travels the world with her significant other, Nicholas, for 7 years so far. She is from Anchorage, Alaska, he is from upstate New York. Every year they go home (Alaska) for a few months, to work and save some dough and to get ready for their next endeavor. In the rest of the year they spend their time on their bikes, wondering as vagrants, as a couple of gypsies. Nicholas’s photos-rich blog, Gypsy by Trade is highly recommended.
Lael, how and when did you hear about the HLC?
“We were riding in South Africa and got an email from one of the Israeli bikepacking community founders, Ilan Tevet, informing us that the winter time would be wonderful for us to come and ride in Israel. We have seen pics of last year’s event and the thought has crossed our minds: damn, we ought to do this track”. Lael confesses that they had no plan to compete, only to ride as a trip. Indeed, they have ridden sections of it in March, but eventually Lael has decided she wants to race. Nicolas assumed the role of the remote cavalier, shooting, documenting and reporting. Races are not his cup of tea.
This is not the first time for her to get tempted, on the spot, to join a race that ordinary people make their best to prepare for. In 2010, while riding from Seattle to Mexico, they passed not far away from Copper Canyon where the Caballo Blanco takes place. This race is deemed as one of the top toughest in the world. “We got to the place with all the runners, we knew it’ll be there so we decided to take a break and look around. I have been asked if I’m going to run and I’ve decided, why not. I ran 60 km. It was hard but possible. The next day I could hardly move. Nick carried me to the river so I can soak my feet in the water. We had to stay there for two weeks of cooking classes and Ping-Pong until the legs recuperated. Then we fled”. Lael likes to jog. When she and Nick ride days in and days out on their journeys, she takes breaks and makes use of the last hours of daylight to run a little bit.


So, in fact, you are used to “live on your bike” and ride whole days. By what does it differ than riding in the HLC race?
“That’s totally different. Sometimes I ride very slowly and many times Nicholas is waiting for me. Sometimes I have other preferences like going out for a run or stop to see some interesting stuff. On a touring ride you can take the time and ride whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like. If the weather is getting bad, you take a day off and waits for it to get better. But when I race, I’m totally committed and focused on the race. I rode much more hours than on a regular touring day and I very much liked it. This is a different mentality, I try all the time to move on, to keep going, on and on. I rode around 20 hours a day.”

Equipment wise, have you arranged differently or have you used the same as usual?
“I took less equipment. I did not carry a tent, I slept outside with only a sleeping bag. I didn’t even took my thin mattress.”


Right at the beginning in Majdal-A-Shams, it was clear to the followers that you are racing. Can you explain your insane pace?
“Since we (Nick & I) have ridden most of the track in the two month preceding the event, I knew what the condition of the terrain would be during and right after the rain. When the forecast became imminent I knew the trails won’t be in a condition that enables riding so I started seriously to consider doing the track from Eilat northbound. But that was too complicated logistics wise. Everything was set already and everybody were determined on the southbound ride. So I decided to go with the current and start with all the rest. Thus, my plan was to ride as fast and as long as I could before the rain stops me.”
Eventually, the mud and the rain truncated the whole race, and three days into the event it was decided to skip the mid part and restart at Arad. Lael and the other participants took the challenging route till finishing few days later in Eilat.

Do you ever get fatigued?
“Don’t know…I guess I do not” she says with a bit of apologize. “When I finished the HLC in Eilat I was a bit uncomforted. The joints – knees, ankles and wrists. But the muscles were all right”.


Is it true that you are not even wearing a butt pad?

And doesn’t it never hearts?

So, I’ll have to ask you – what is it that you are made of?
Big giggle.

I’m serious, what makes you different?
Lael ponders a bit then saying: “I always do something. Even when we ride, I always do something – jumping a rope, yoga, I’m always in a motion. And riding is not much different. So if when I’m racing I’m only riding and not doing the other stuff, it’s not a big deal.
I think that the difference between me and other people is that I never get bored. So I don’t have to come up with excuses to stop. I simply enjoy it. It is fun and I can go on and on and on. And I don’t think about riding at all. I just …ride. And above all, when I’m in a motion my thoughts are crispier.”

Have you always been an endurance, a sports person?
“I grew up playing football, then switched to running and to long distance running. At 16. Aside from that, I was always used to walk great distances. As a matter of fact, it was only in the last summer that I found out I can ride so much. I started with a road bike and realized that I can ride 20-24 hours. Mountain biking is a new discipline for me. I started three years ago and prior to that we were riding on roads with touring bikes. The MTB started with my fatbike that I was using during winter time for commuting in the city. But it opened the way for more demanding condition rides as snow, ice and mud.”

And now, are you favoring that on other terrains?
“Definitely! Now we ride almost solely on non-paved roads. Israel is a terrific place for that. There are so many excellent paths and trails. In other countries paved roads are comprising bigger chunks of our rides.”

So, your trip mode has changed?
“Yep, it completely transformed into mountain biking and I like it. It is way more fun. The camping is better, places are nicer and prettier. We meet more interesting people and get to more remote spots. It is harder and more physically challenging but more bliss.
When we returned from Europe Nick bought me mountain bike and we started to ride the Colorado trail. 500 miles of a singletrack that was real tough and way more technical than what I was used to so far. We just started and I said, you must be kidding – it’s ridiculous, it’s not even fun! But overtime I started to learn and could imagine how fun it could become and now I really enjoy it!
Mountain bike riding is different. You need to learn so many things. And it does not matter how long you are doing it, there’s always more to learn. I still feel like a complete rookie…”


What do you eat?
“During the race I ate tons of sandwiches, self-made or purchased. Usually I eat lots of fruits and vegetables but in such a race you need to eat all the time and sandwiches are simply handier, more available and faster to consume. It is just ridiculous the quantity you have to eat. I also took with me some gels and energy snacks. Eventually I ate everything. It does not matter anymore what you eat.”

What were your feelings towards the other riders like?
“Most of the time I was riding alone so I had no clue who’s in front of me and who’s behind. Occasionally, people I’ve met on the track updated me. I assume the rest of the riders were more or less informed as they had smartphones…”

What scares you, the dark, snakes, scorpions?
“No, I’m not afraid of animals. I’m concerned of getting severely injured. Often times in technical descends, I think about it and am scared. But with time I get savvier and become more comfortable.”

And when do you find it hard?
“When there is chill and it is rainy and I’m not dressed enough. Then you can’t stop thinking about the frozen feet and when it will all be over, then it is a little hard. But on the race it is a risk that you take and fortunately it is not really cold in Israel”

Did you have moments that you were thinking of scratching?
“No, I had none. Besides, it wasn’t that long…”


What did you like the best (route wise)?
“The south, the desert. It is the best part of the route. Keturah Ascend - that was amazing. A perfectly shaped trail. Generally speaking, the desert trails in Israel are at the world’s top scale. They take you to the most gorgeous spots and they aren’t too technical, so you can even enjoy the view. I’m sure it will attract more riders from all over the world.”

So, what’s next?
Mid June, Lael is planning to ride the Tour Divide, the founding fathers of the bikepacking races. Its route crosses USA from Canada in the north to Mexico in the south, 2745 miles long. “On May we are going back to the US. My plan is to ride alone from home through Canada to the depart point of the TD (Banff Canada). I assume it will take a month and will probably be harder than the tour itself. Then, I’ll probably fly back home to work and to be with the family”.


It was a pleasure for me to share a good dinner and some beer with Lael and Nicholas, to hear stories of the HLC and from the universe and to try to understand what’s behind this spark in the eyes and behind the courage and forces of this amazing lady. I’m not sure I completely understood, but one thing is quite positive: Starting on the 13th of June, the rest of the world will have to share my attention with one pink spot, the initials LW on it, and it is again, moving forward southbound, full of persistency and inspiration.
This is the second year of the HLC. 22 riders have departed, less have finished. Lael Wilcox is the first lady to participate.