The hardest bike race in the world is currently underway, and we’re not talking about the Tour de France. Started on June 13, the Tour Divide is a single-stage, self-supported mountain bike race along the Continental Divide from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
Most racers are still on course (or have dropped out), but the winner, Jefe Branham, is already home. Branham, a 41-year-old bike mechanic from Gunnison, Colorado, sprinted the 2,745-mile course in 16 days, 2 hours, and 39 minutes. That’s an average of more than 170 miles per day. (For comparison, riders in this year's Tour de France will cover 2,276 miles in 21 days.)
It’s not the fastest the course has ever been covered (the official record is some 10 hours quicker), but given that rain and snow strafed the racers for the first five days of the event, it’s an impressively fast, tenacious run. To wit, Branham finished over two full two days ahead of second place.
We caught up with Branham at his home in Gunnison to find out what it took to pull off the win at this year’s Tour Divide. For vivid firsthand accounts of the race, don’t miss Branham’s excellent blog.
OUTSIDE: How do you prepare for a race this big? BRANHAM: To be honest, it’s more about years of experience than the miles you put in. It’s how you deal when it’s not so much fun and things fall apart. After the first 24 hours, it’s mostly a mental battle. The more physical base you have, the easier it is. But when the race starts to hurt and you’re tired and you don’t really want to keep pushing, it’s the years of experience that keep you going.
You had a new bike for the event, right? Yeah, I rode the Ibis Tranny 29, which Ibis launched as I finished the race. It was definitely a little stressful. Ibis wasn’t sure if they were going to be able to get it to me in time. Leading up to the race, I actually built up my old Salsa El Mariachi, which is what I did the Divide on before. It’s a good bike but it’s heavy. I only got the new bike a week and a half before the race, so I didn’t have much time on it. I slapped it together and got a few rides. But it did awesome. I didn’t have any mechanicals. I basically changed my brake pads and lubed my chain.
Your kit seemed incredibly light. You didn’t even have a backpack. I don’t think I went ridiculously light, but most people probably thought that. I had a homemade bivy/sleeping bag/pad combo made from cuben fiber and Climashield insulation that weighed less than a pound.
I used an Exposure Revo light wired to a Dynamo hub and a Fenix LD22 on my helmet. I had a Garmin eTrex 20 for navigation, a few hygiene items like toothbrush, sunblock, and Handi Wipes, and basic bike repair items including two tubes, brake pads and chain links, and a small bottle of Stan’s. For hydration, I had two one-liter bottles and one 750ml bike bottle.
I wore a jersey, shorts, gloves, and a helmet. For extras, I carried a rain jacket, Salomon XC ski pants cut to knickers, a homemade puffy vest that weighed 115 grams, arm warmers, a wind vest, soft shell gloves, a Buff, and a wool Walz cap. I definitely wished that I had more clothes, especially those first five days. It was the coldest and wettest I’ve ever been over a sustained period.
How did the atrocious weather at the start affect your ride? The morning of the race it started raining. Once we were riding, rain turned to snow, and it was a bit of a slushy mess. There were maybe three or four hours it didn’t rain that first day, and I barely got out of my rain gear. I ended up pushing the whole first night, and it rained all night. It did that for the first four-and-a-half or five days. It mostly rained, sometimes it misted, and it snowed some. I wasn’t stopping for long, but when I did, it was miserable, with everything wet, no way to stay warm.
Leaving Butte, Montana, was the worst. Everyone was saying that it was going to snow that night. But no way was I going to stay in Butte because I figured others would catch up with me, and all that lack of sleep in the first few nights would be for nothing. So I went out anyway and rode all night. Coming over Fleecer Ridge, there was considerable snow, like six inches. Below the snow line it was raining, and I was just freezing. I rolled into Wise River around 5:30 a.m. and nothing was open, so I took refuge in the Post office 'till a restaurant opened. I couldn’t even hold a hot cup of coffee. I think I was borderline hypothermic.
It’s hard to say how those first days affected the rest of my ride. I was still keeping pace, but I just dug a hole that I couldn’t get out of. By day four, I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Your capacity to race without sleep is legendary, like your first sub-four-day CTR with less than four hours of sleep. How do you do it? Good question. I don’t really know why. I guess I’ve just done it a lot. I kind of know what to expect. For the most part, sleep deprivation is kind of just a weird head-trip. That being said, the whole race was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I think the sleep deprivation was a big part of that. The first few days, I was so bent on getting 200 miles a day that I just wasn’t letting myself sleep. I think it was a tactical error. I should have slept more at the start. That was the plan, but I also wanted to get out front, so I just kept pushing.
I don’t know that I’m going to be doing any races that require sleep deprivation in the near future. I might be done with it completely. It just really hurt.
What's the longest passage between food and water resupply? How do you deal with it? Water isn’t too bad until you get into New Mexico. From Atlantic City to Rawlins, all in Wyoming, is around 170 miles. I hit it at night, so even though I was tight on water, I made it okay.
New Mexico, on the other hand, is a huge challenge. I made some big mistakes here last time I rode the Divide. Between Grants and Silver City, which I think is 250 miles, I ran out of food and water and it basically shut me down. This time I was determined not to make the same mistake.
I was okay on water this time, but I didn’t have enough food. You buy $60 of food and you think, “There’s no way I can run out.” There’s so much that you have a hard time finding places on the bike to put it. And then 10 hours later you look down and you’re like, “Where did it all go?” I never ran out, but I was rationing after Pie Town, and when I got to Silver City I was starving.
I imagine that the mental aspect of being out alone and pushing yourself day after day is even harder than the logistics, right? For sure. It was incredibly difficult. Once I blew off a lot of my steam at the start and settled into a pace where I was sleeping more, like five hours a night, you’d hear that alarm and it was really hard not to find excuses to re-set it. In the shorter races, three or four days, it’s easier to make yourself get up and keep going. But there’s a big difference in going hard for 16 days straight.
I had that conversation with myself a million times. “Why am I doing this?” “Because you’re racing.” “Why am I racing?” “Because you think it’s fun.” “Why do you think it’s fun?”
Mornings were the hardest. From when I got up until noon, I’d be thinking, “This sucks. I can’t ride. I’m exhausted.” But then in the afternoons, I’d come around and I’d be like, “This is awesome. I’m flying. I love being here.” The highs and lows were difficult. I just had to remind myself that I chose to be out there, nobody was making me do it.
Did you enjoy the racing? At times, for sure. There were so many amazing moments. There were enjoyable moments, but mostly it was head down, in the pain cave, get it done. I was definitely racing.
There’s a video of you arriving at the finish, and it looks like such an anti-climax: Just you riding into a lonely, dusty fence-line on the border. Did it feel like a letdown?
It’s definitely anticlimactic. If someone were to organize a new race, it would be the worst finish ever. It’s 65 miles of straight, flat, hot pavement. I was so tired that I was falling asleep. It’s kind of an insult at the end. You try to be present most of the way. But on that last section, you just think about being at the finish, taking off your terrible shoes, getting out of your chamois. I was so glad to have someone there to meet me. I think it would be heartbreaking if you rolled up and there was nobody there. The border guards don’t even come out because it’s too hot.
Does it bother you that the Tour Divide doesn’t get more recognition? I don’t do it for recognition, so no it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard to pull off. Financially it was tough for me to even get to the start. I carpooled with three other guys who were doing it. And when I was out there racing, I probably spent $1,200 just on food. And I was doing it cheap: I got one bed during the whole race, and other than food, all I bought was chain lube. So yeah, if I was going to try to keep doing these types of races for a long time, I guess it would be nice if more people knew about them so it would be easier to support yourself.
That makes it sound like maybe you’re finished with endurance racing? I’m not going to say it for sure. Last time I did the Divide, I said for sure I’d never do it again. Then you can’t help but look at your mistakes and want to make them better. But I think my desire to do races that involve sleep deprivation is waning.
I know you went out chasing a record time. Do you think it’s fair to compare efforts year to year given the disparity in conditions? It’s a really good question. I read an interview with Jeff Oatley after he won the Iditabike, and it was awesome to hear him talk about how records don’t really mean anything. It made sense to me. That’s the thing about a route this large. So much stuff happens. Construction zones, snow, rain.
But I still think records are interesting because they provide motivation. And I’m not blaming the weather for missing my goal. I’m not making excuses. I just didn’t have the legs. I couldn’t go faster and I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Do you look back and think, “Wow, if I’d just done this or that, not stopped here, I could have broken the record?" When I was out there, I made myself crazy thinking, “Just go a little faster. Just do six miles more a day.” That doesn’t sound like much. But then you’re at your limit, pushing as hard as you can, and it’s a lot harder than it sounds. I wasted more time than I should have getting in and out of towns. So yeah, there are things I could have done better. But at the same time, I rode my ass off out there. I rode my heart out.
So you’re not disappointed with your result? I’m content. It would have been awesome to break the record. But I think it’s better to have lofty goals and not accomplish them than to not set big goals for yourself. I left it all out there. I have to be happy with that.
Are you done with the Tour Divide? I’m still having dreams about it. I’m still having trouble sleeping. But no, I don’t think I want to go back and do it again. The only reason for me to go back would be to go faster, and that would just be so painful. It already hurt so much. So yeah, I don’t think I’ll do it again.
[Branham laughs.] But who knows? I’ve got a year to think about it.
Earlier this year, a biologist at the University of Zurich published a study showing a strong correlation between how riders performed in the 2012 Tour de France and how they ranked in an online survey rating their attractiveness. The findings suggest a surprising link between good looks and athletic prowess.
To test that theory, the staff of Outside online held an internal poll ranking 10 of the top riders in this year’s Tour by their looks. After tallying the votes, one thing is clear: Vegas may be betting on Chris Froome, but he won’t be stealing any hearts.
A little after 4:30 a.m., I double-knotted my sneakers, slipped on my headlamp, and crept out of my hotel room. What I was leaving behind: two sleeping girls curled together like cats, my husband half-buried under a pillow, and a 10-month-old puppy that desperately wanted to join me. Where I was going: the start of the Angel Fire 100K Endurance Race, which I'd spend the next 12 hours running.
Normally I get nervous at the start of a race. I don't like the jumbled, busy energy of hundreds of fellow runners checking their watches, jiggling their quads, and jogging to warm up, or, God forbid, actually running. The whole predawn scene—the haste to find a parking spot, the distracted small talk while waiting in long lines for the Porta-Potty, the last-minute fumbling with race bibs, the many anticipatory minutes spent shivering in bare legs—gets into my head and makes me wish I'd stayed in bed.
But as I left my sleeping family and walked the two minutes from the lodge to the starting line, I could tell the Angel Fire race was going to be different. A small group of runners were huddled in a circle in the gravel parking lot. The race officials were taking roll call, ticking our names off a paper roster. It didn't take long. Only about 50 of us had signed up to run four distances on the trails of Angel Fire Ski Resort: 50K, 50 miles, 100K, and 100 miles. I placed my drop bag on a tarp on the ground beside a handful of others, exchanged a few words with a couple of runners, and listened as the race director briefed us on the course. Then he cried, "Go." I'd rolled out of bed, walked to the line, and hung around for all of 10 minutes—not even enough time to feel jittery. The worst was over. Now all I had to do was run. For 63 miles.
This was my first attempt at 100K and my first trip to Angel Fire, a ski resort about 30 miles east of Taos, in northern New Mexico. It was also my first time bringing my children with me to a race. As spectator sports go, ultrarunning isn't especially kid friendly. Races can be tediously long and lacking in entertainment and action. They're spread out over miles of backcountry trails, many of which are inaccessible to support crews. You might run for 10 hours and see your family once for a few hurried moments at an aid station as you refill your hydration bladder, shove a few M&M's in your pocket, and plod on. In some cases, reaching the aid station by car requires navigating bumpy forest roads and tricky logistics that are challenging enough for your support crew to pull off solo, let alone with little ones in tow.
Ever since I started running long distances a couple of years ago, I've tried to keep my two worlds—running and mothering—separate. I figured this was better for everyone. I did all of my runs, including my longest, six-plus-hour training missions, on weekdays when my two daughters were at school so I wouldn't miss out on weekend family time. Sometimes I'd drop them off at preschool and run straight until it was time to pick them up, in my grubby clothes, ankles ashy with New Mexico dust. I didn't bring them to races because I thought they were too young, and I was intimidated enough by the distance that I had trouble imagining being able to run 32 or 50 miles without complete focus. I worried that they'd keep me up the night before. I wondered how we'd shuttle them from point to point along the course, and who would mind them while my husband, Steve, paced me the last few miles. I gratefully took my friends up on their kind offers to babysit back in Santa Fe, while I soldiered off alone, or with Steve, as though to war, or so it felt.
But the farther I ran, the more I missed them, day in and day out, short or long training runs, weekday or weekend, morning, noon, or night. Coming home to them was becoming the best part of every run. Just as I knew trail running was integral to my writing—some of my best ideas and most fluid thinking come when I run—I knew also that running was more intimately tied to parenting than I could fully comprehend. I started stashing notecards and a pen in my running pack so I could write down my ideas when they hit me, and one recent morning, on a high-altitude ascent of 12,600-foot Santa Fe Baldy, the only words that ran through my head on the 6.5-mile climb were, "When I run, I long for my children." At the summit, staring down on the Pecos Wilderness, with the icebergs on Lake Katherine glittering up at me, I took out my notecard and wrote down those words so I wouldn't forget.
As I trained for the Angel Fire 100K—my longest distance yet—my worlds diverged even more. Longer training runs, more miles, more time away. Despite my focus, or because of it, my running was suffering. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was running through their childhoods, missing out on the best of it. By separating the two so diligently, I'd given myself so much time and space to think about running that I was overthinking it. The more I fretted about nutrition and cross-training and obsessed over nagging injuries that were little more than normal wear and tear, the more distracted and impatient I was at home. I never wanted our family to be defined by my running, but that's exactly what was happening. My good intentions were backfiring.
In the weeks leading up to the race, I knew I needed to shift, to reinvent the way I run. Angel Fire is a small race, only three years old, put on by ultrarunners from Oklahoma, with a laid-back vibe and a respectable, if not exactly ruthless, course up and down the ski resort. A running friend who'd raced the 50-mile told me it was "nothing to take very seriously." Which is like trying to tell a greyhound not to bother going out fast for the rabbit. I knew I would take it seriously and try my best, but I also knew it wouldn't have the usual hard-charging competitive atmosphere of some of the bigger races I've run. What I didn't know was that Angel Fire would be the perfect place to reintegrate my two worlds.
If you want to bring your the kids to an ultra, it helps to choose the right race. Point-to-point courses, such as the Western States 100, require driving, shuttling, or walking from one aid station to the next. Ditto big loops with big fields of runners, like the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile, which I ran last December. Access to the Marin Headlands was so limited that my sisters and stepmother spent the better part of the day trying to support me on my run and only made it to two aid stations. (But, oh, was it worth it: The sight of them and my six-year-old niece, Cate, still in her ballet costume after a recital, nearly made me weep with relief and helped propel my wobbly quads for the last six miles.)
The Angel Fire Endurance Race, on the other hand, is a perfect family ultra. The course consists of two distinct sections repeated several times, depending on your distance: a rolling 6.5-mile greenbelt loop and a 19.5-mile out-and-back up and over the 10,800-foot ski mountain. For the 100K, I would run the greenbelt loop four times and the mountain out-and-back twice (not in that order) and pass through the base aid station five times over the course of 63 miles. The ski resort—which has become a legitimate summer mountain-biking destination, New Mexico's take on Crested Butte—caters to kids with a bouncy house, climbing wall, chairlift rides, canoeing pond, and a beginner mountain bike park. There was so much to do, all within easy range of the base aid station, that bringing the girls was a no-brainer. They could cheer me on at the aid station every few hours. The rest of the time, while I ran, they could frolic.
Turning an ultra into a mini family vacation has other perks beyond the obvious mid-run moral support. You're so focused on your kids that you barely have time to worry about the race. During the two-hour drive to Angel Fire, when I might have been stewing about the distance, I listened to them sing, "This is an annoying song, this is an annoying song!" over and over. It had the opposite effect, so effectively distracting me from what awaited as to be almost soothing. Even at bedtime, when Steve wrestled with the girls while I laid out my clothes and set my alarm for 4 a.m. and they jumped from bed to bed, squealing and terrifyingly awake, I put in my earplugs and tried to reassure myself that it was only 9:30. Eventually they would fall asleep, and so would I.
The next morning, as I set out from the starting line, the night was still black save for a faint, hopeful brightening behind the ski mountain. It was the longest day of the year, and within half an hour I clicked off my headlamp and loped through the first gray light of summer. Unlike previous races, I felt none of the fleeting, piercing loneliness that overtakes me when I realize how far I have to go, all on my own. The field of runners was small and congenial—from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado—all of us doing different distances yet still bunched together for the first six-mile loop. My plan was to go out at an easy pace that I could sustain for the next 60 miles, so I held myself back from the jostle and practiced running patiently for the long haul. Even when the pack spread out after the first aid station and I was alone on the twisting switchbacking climb up the mountain—near-perfect, runnable singletrack— I wasn't truly alone: Steve and the girls and Pete the puppy were out there somewhere, and they'd be waiting for me at the base when I passed through at mile 25.
I was still feeling fresh when I arrived—energized by the enormous black bear I'd seen chowing grass at the top of the ski area and the sprawling views of leprechaun-green valleys and red farmhouses far below. I saw them before they saw me: two small girls on red bikes, riding in circles around the parking lot. I whooped and Steve came out to meet me, grabbing my race vest to refill my hydration bladder while I restocked energy gels. The girls were excited and a little shy, cheering but also holding back, as though they sensed my urge to keep running. I wasn't even halfway done. Less than two minutes after I'd arrived, I was on my way again. In any other race, I might have felt guilty about rushing through, but I knew they were excited to hit the bouncy house. Maisy pedaled with me to the edge of the parking lot and then peeled off, sending me off for two laps on the 6.5-mile loop. If they weren't there in an hour, Steve called, they'd see me there in two.
They weren't there an hour later, at mile 31, nor when I came through at mile 37. "Katie!" an older aid station volunteer, who was beginning to look familiar, cried out to me. "I haven't seen your husband and your two little blonde girls since the first time you came through!" He refilled my electrolytes and sponged the back of my neck with ice water from a plastic jug, and sent me on my way. I was only a little disappointed, figuring they must have been having so much fun that they'd lost track of time. Less than a mile out of the aid station, though, my maternal paranoia began to kick in. What if one of them had pitched off her mountain bike and broken her arm or landed on her head? How would I know if they were in trouble? I knew I shouldn't expend my energy on worrying when they were probably fine, but I couldn't help it. I was a runner and a mother that day—and every day.
Around a couple bends, I saw a familiar face. Nancy, a 50-something organizer I'd met the day before who was also running the 100K, was on her way down the mountain. She slowed to a jog when she saw me. "I saw Steve and the girls at the aid station on top!" she exclaimed. "They were waiting for you there. Maybe they still are!" How she knew his name I had no idea, but I was grateful for the update. Seeing the relief on my face, she added, "Everything's okay. They're beautiful!" If I'd have been one of 500 runners at a bigger, more competitive race, no one would have been cheering my name as I came through the aid station, nor would they have been keeping tabs on my family for me. For the first time, I'd brought my own personal pep rally, but the volunteers were so helpful, I almost didn't need it.
When I got to the aid station in a green valley at the far end of the mountain turnaround—a beat-up 1980s Westfalia with its pop-top up—the friendly race volunteer materialized yet again, lurching out of his lawn chair to offer me a cup of Gatorade. "Still haven't seen those kids of yours!" he said, as he refilled my hydration bladder. And then, scolding gently, "You've got too much water in here. You need to be drinking more." I hung around for a couple minutes, forcing down a few spoonfuls of boiled potatoes and enjoying the conversation. Running ultra distances, I find myself craving human contact even more than carbs.
It was all I needed for my last big push: a slow but determined jog 1,500 vertical feet and four miles to the summit, where Steve would be waiting to pace me the last 12 miles to the finish. My friend Anna had offered to drive up to Angel Fire for the afternoon to watch with the girls while he ran with me—an act of generosity that both humbled and inspired me. At the top, there was Steve, waving his arms and pulling me in for a hug. I knew, not for the first time that day, that everything was okay. If I stayed on my feet for the loose rocky descent, I'd make it to the bottom to see the girls and Anna. Then Steve and I would set out on one final 6.5-mile victory loop, and I'd be done.
Pippa and Maisy were waving homemade signs when we got there: "Go Mommy! Mommy, Mommy!" scrawled in thick colored marker, ribbons and bows waving in the breeze. "Katie! Katie!" and my age, according to the five-year-old: "402." (Eleven hours in, I was beginning to feel that old.) Not only had Anna driven two hours to babysit my daughters and dog, she'd turned a two-hour wait into a spontaneous aid-station arts-and-crafts session. Her efforts, and the girls' enthusiasm, stopped me in my tracks, and I dawdled long enough for hugs and photos and M&M's doled out with love by little hands.
Running an ultra is like giving birth. No matter how many people are there to support you, no one but you can finish the race. The final four miles reduced me to my usual whimpering. "I'm so ready to be done," I whined to Steve. "Do you want to walk?" he asked uncharacteristically just before the finish line came into view. But that was the last thing I wanted. For the first time all day, I started running flat out, my legs spinning as though it were mile one, not 62. I was running home, to my girls, like always. Only this time, they were right there, waving their signs. This time, for the first time, I'd brought home with me.
I'd held steady and finished in 12 hours, 20 minutes, fast enough for first place overall. Better than the bragging rights, though, was realizing that I didn't have to compartmentalize my life anymore. I'd always suspected that, when it's flowing well, running makes me a better mother. But now I knew that being a mother made me a better runner, that when you let the messy, wonderful chaos in, running becomes bigger than running. It's real life.
We were hosting a birthday party for the girls the next day—family life, continued—so we couldn't linger. As I limped on stiffening legs to our truck, Pete tore through the aid station one last time, nose to ground like the bear I'd seen gallumphing up high, sniffing hopefully for dropped bits of turkey and PB&Js. "Hey, Pete! C'mere, Pete!" cried one of the volunteers, clapping his hands and running a hand over his back—a perfect farewell to the Cheers of ultra races, where everybody knows your name. Even your dog's.
Personally, it’s made us want to get back out on the pitch, even if we haven’t kicked a ball around since elementary school. To remedy our rusty skills, we’ve been been messing around with Adidas’s miCoach smart ball, which functions sort of like a friendly U11 coach.
Integrated sensors built into the size 5 regulation weight ball provide almost instant feedback about the speed, spin, trajectory, and strike point of our kicks to an accompanying smartphone app. And supplemental coach notes tell us what all that data means (though some are admittedly more helpful than others. Helpful: "To get a better power kick, the ball spin should be below 150 rpm." Less helpful, but encouraging: "It takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at a task").
Adidas also thoughtfully incorporated various challenges for once we master the basics, so we’ll be able to practice bending and knuckleballing like the pros. Our touches might be slower than they once were, but we’re going to crush the competition at next week’s co-ed rec game.