Lael Wilcox has a $20 flip phone. At 29 years old, she still doesn’t know how to drive a car. She doesn’t own an expensive action camera. What she does know is her bike. For the past seven years, Lael and her boyfriend, Nick Carman, have been semi-nomadic, spending roughly half the year exploring the planet by bike—logging thousands of miles and visiting dozens of countries, from South Africa to Slovenia.
Last summer Lael, a former collegiate runner and preternaturally gifted athlete, confirmed what she has probably always known: she’s extremely fast and thrives in situations that push her mental and physical limits. After blowing away the competition on an 850-mile race in Israel, she decided on a whim to enter the Tour Divide, a self-supported 2,745-mile race from Canada to Mexico over rugged, remote terrain, which has been dubbed the toughest mountain-bike event in the world. But in case that wasn’t enough, she decided to ride from Anchorage, Alaska, to the start of the race in Banff, Alberta, a 2,100-mile journey.
The “warm-up” did her right. Despite getting sick and having difficulty breathing a mere 183 miles into the race—and even having rolled her bike into an ER in Montana to address the problem—she went on to not only win the event but also shave a whopping two days off the previous women’s record.
That fall, Lael and Nick made their way to Flagstaff, Arizona, where they planned to spend the winter working. Buoyed by her success and looking for her next challenge, she set her sights on the Arizona Trail Race, an unsanctioned endurance event in the same vein as the Tour Divide. “It’s not really a race,” Lael says. “It’s more a gentlemen’s agreement to show up and ride your hardest to the end.” Spanning the entire length of the Arizona Trail—the newly created 800-mile wilderness trail that bisects the state from north to south—the race traverses everything from boreal forest to scorching desert. Her plan was to ride roughly 100 miles a day for eight days, sleeping about four hours a night. “I know how hard it’s going to be,” says Lael. “If I can complete it with the focus I have, I’ll probably break the record.”
At 5:24 a.m. on October 26th, at the Stateline Campground, a campsite that straddles the Utah–Arizona state line, and just a few miles past the “Wave”—the iconic swirls of multi-colored sandstone at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument—Lael set off under bright, pre-dawn moonlight. She aimed to make it to the Colorado River where it cuts through the bottom of the Grand Canyon, some 80 miles to the south, before she lay down to sleep.
As the sun came up, the automatic updates from her satellite messenger device started popping up at steady intervals. That afternoon, at her resupply point at Jacob Lake, she stocked up on snacks for one of the race’s biggest hurdles: crossing the Colorado River. As with all national parks, it’s illegal to ride your bike on any trails in Grand Canyon National Park. When she reached the park’s North Kaibab trailhead, she broke her bike down, fastened it to her backpack—a process she’d practiced the night before—and took off on foot down the steep trail.
Lael had estimated that, with a short nap in the middle, it would take her approximately 16 hours to complete the trek, but she was feeling strong and reached the far side of the park at 4 a.m. the next morning, several hours ahead of schedule. She was making great time.
Later that evening, nearly 200 miles into the race, she was confronted with the same labored breathing she'd experienced in Montana during the Tour Divide. As she wound up the fire road to the Snowbowl, a ski resort north of Flagstaff at 9,000 feet, she began wheezing. Even though she was a mere 10 miles from a warm bed in town, she laid out her bivy sack to sleep. “I couldn’t make it into town,” she says. “It was like the Divide. My legs felt great, like I could ride forever, but I couldn’t breathe.” After sleeping more than eight hours, she got back on her bike. But her breathing remained labored and she simply couldn’t go on—she called it quits a half day after reaching Snowbowl.
While abandoning the attempt was hard, Lael didn’t dwell on it long. “Our lifestyle is on a bike, traveling, seeing things, doing things," says Nick. “Racing is just a sport—you just fast-forward through a trail.” While Lael already has plans to race again—in June she plans to compete in the Trans Am Bike Race, the longest self-supported road race in the U.S.—her focus remains the same: traveling the world by bike. “I don’t have a car or a house,” she says. “But I’ve got a bike. I have what I need.” A few weeks after she felt better, she and Nick headed off on a bike-packing trip in Mexico with a few friends, partly to map out an off-pavement touring route that will connect San Diego to the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, but mostly to have fun.