Ana Jager admits she didn’t know exactly what she was getting into when she registered for the Tour Divide.
The self-supported bike race, which runs 2,745 miles from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, is as isolating as it is grueling.
But Jager had inspiration from a hometown hero, her friend Lael Wilcox, who broke the women’s record in the 2015 Tour Divide.
Jager, a 25-year-old East High grad, saved some heroics for her own race, winning the women’s division this year in a time of 19 days, 54 minutes.
“It’s definitely an intimidating thing to sign up for,” Jager said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into at the start — or throughout really. It was a whole beast of its own.”
Wilcox “is a legend of the Tour Divide and has become a friend of mine,” she said. “She’s definitely my hometown hero. She’s made some movies about the Tour Divide and she inspired me in a big way.”
Traveling on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route featured tough trails and over 200,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. But weather conditions along the way only added to the physical strain of the race, Jager said. In Montana, she fought deep snow and ended up doing a lot of hike-a-bike in the early stages.
That involved “hours and hours of pushing my bike through deep snow when I was kind of expected to be riding, so that was a challenge,” she said. “It definitely had some physical repercussions, like my Achilles and knees really took a hit a little bit just from walking a lot.”
Toward the finish in New Mexico, she had been warned to prepare for parched conditions and blazing heat.
“But then it actually turned into, like, just these ridiculous monsoons,” she said. “And we were riding like, I’ve never had so much rain. It was crazy. I got really, really cold and wet one night in particular from these monsoon rains. It was definitely a low point in the whole experience.”
The race allows competitors to use facilities along the way, but no personal support is allowed. Jager camped most of the trip but did stay in hotels on a couple bad-weather nights.
“Getting a shower, it’s quite a reset to a surprising degree,” Jager said with a laugh.
As the days went on, Jager found herself in a spot with a chance to win. But then she hit a patch of bad weather, which changed her motivation.
“I was like, ‘I don’t care about placement, I just want to finish this thing,’ because it felt like such a grind,” she said. “So I don’t know, it kind of wavered with how much I thought about placement because the real challenge was getting it done.”
Sofiane Sehili, a Paris-based endurance athlete, won the men’s race and overall title, reaching the finish in 14 days, 16 hours and 36 minutes.
Jager had raced the Kenai 250 previously, but hadn’t raced a longer distance until the Tour Divide. She said she did a mix of cross-training to prepare, including plenty of skiing and fat-biking in the winter. But generally she prefers to do more practical rides. She rode to work daily and coaches in the GRIT mentorship program that Wilcox cofounded, which meant daily rides with middle-schoolers.
“I like to just ride my bike,” she said. “I like to ride from home and go right up to Arctic Valley or I rode out to the (Mat-Su) Valley and then went on a bike ride with friends. I like to just ride my bike to get places. So I think I kind of use that as an excuse — ‘OK, how can I, like, fit in longer rides and kind of like, cover ground?’ ”
Jager’s family is packed with athletes, including her brother Luke, who is an Olympic skier.
“My dad’s really into bike stuff,” Jager said. “My mom’s a big runner and she’s done a lot of bike touring in the past. I think that has always been like an influencing factor. My whole family’s very active. My brother is a big cross-country skier, so we just have kind of an active vibe in my family.”
Back in Anchorage, Jager has been in recovery mode.
“I’ve been taking a lot of naps,” she said.
But she said one of her goals for completing the race was to be back in time to watch her brother race Mount Marathon in Seward on Monday.
Jager isn’t sure what her next challenge will be, but she hasn’t ruled out another run at the Tour Divide.
“It’s kind of funny, there are groups ... people are obsessed with it,” she said. “And oftentimes, people that do it again and again. That seems just crazy to me after having done it once, but then another part of me kind of understands that because there’s so many little pieces you can become more familiar with. Finding good places to camp and good resupply systems, and you kind of like, dial all these things in. And that seems like a really satisfying thing to get better at each time you do It.”
Jager said she was grateful during the race to hear from friends, family and supporters, which kept her going.
“When things were rough and I’d get a text, (it) was like, ‘Wow, that’s so, so cool that they’re watching me,’ ” she said.