Lael Wilcox is a woman of many firsts. The 29-year-old Anchorage resident and world bicycle traveler just won the 4,200 mile Trans Am bike race. She was the first woman and the first American to win the grueling race. Wilcox started the race on June 4 in Astoria, Oregon and won yesterday in Virginia. The Trans Am race is self-supported. Wilcox said you have to carry what you need or buy it along the way.
WILCOX: So people just do whatever they can to get to the other side of the country. And the first person to cross wins. So you decide when you sleep, when you eat, how you’re going to manage your days to make the greatest distance.
TOWNSEND: You’re really kind of a relatively new racer in these ultra long distance races. Tell us how you got started.
WILCOX: I just started commuting on the bike about 10 years ago to get to and from work. I’d never owned or driven a car. And then after commuting, I started traveling on the bike with my boyfriend Nick. And we’ve been traveling all over the world for the past eight years. Usually we travel for about six months and then work for the other six. So I’ve got a lot of experience just being on the bike and then I transitioned that into ultra endurance racing.
TOWNSEND: And when was your first long distance race? That was in Israel, is that correct?
WILCOX: Right. Well, the summer before that I did ride the Fireweed 400, which is a 400-mile road race from Sheep Mountain Lodge to Valdez and back. And that’s supported, so I had a friend following me in her Jeep, and that as the first time I really did anything long. And then the following spring, I did the race in Israel which was an 850 mile mountain bike race. And this time, self-supported. And I just had a great time and after that I decided I would continue and go for the even longer distances.
TOWNSEND: Have you surprised yourself at your ability? You’re a woman of many firsts and you’re quite young. How does this feel, to just in the last few years, discover this tremendous ability that you have?
WILCOX: It is really surprising. It’s just not something you really could know you could do until you try. I had no idea. It’s like, I started to realize ‘Wow! I recover a lot faster than other people and I’m able to ride more.’ And my body doesn’t really wear out. Mentally I stay focused and I stick with it.
TOWNSEND: During the race that you just completed, Steffen Streich was in front. You rode hard to catch him and had an interesting exchange on the race route when you met up with him. Tell us about that.
WILCOX: I had been chasing this guy for two weeks basically. I’d never seen him, never met him, didn’t know what he looked like. But everyone is telling me, ‘Steffen is about 50 miles in front of you.’ They can watch how we’re doing. We have no idea how the other person’s doing. You’re just kind of out there by yourself. And then, in the middle of the night, the day of the end of the race, I took a cat nap for about half an hour and then I got up to ride. I saw a light coming towards me and it was all dark otherwise. We’re in really rural Virginia. And I thought, ‘Who is that?’ Somebody on a bike with a really bright light. When I caught up to him, we crossed paths and then he turned around and started riding the same direction as me. And I looked over at him and, you know, he looks like a racer. And I asked, ‘What’s your name?’ and he said ‘Steffen.’ And all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is the guy I’ve been chasing.’ So I just took off and started sprinting away. And he was of course holding on; we’re both sprinting side by side through basically farmlands in Virginia in the middle of the night. And we’re making turns there’s stop signs. I was riding really aggressively just ’cause I was giving it my all. But at the same time, we’re 130 miles from the finish. So, I knew that I wasn’t gonna be able to sprint for 130 miles. I took a wrong turn on the track. I wasn’t focused enough on the map, and I turned to the left. And he said, ‘It’s to the right!’ And he kind of slowed down for me to catch up. And he said. ‘I want to talk to you for a minute. We’ve been battling for two weeks. Why don’t we just finish this together?’ And I said ‘No way. This is a race. I’m gonna finish it.’ So I just kept riding hard. We rode together for a couple more minutes and then he dropped off. And I never saw him again.