Many people in their lifetime have probably come across the famous phrase coined by intellectuals like Mark Twain and Confucius: “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” And while it’s a phrase most people would have heard, it’s one that’s often not a reality for many. But for Lael Wilcox, this is his reality: a true passion for what he does, which he feels every day.
It radiates that zeal, even through the computer screen. Her smile is infectious as she talks so enthusiastically about her work as an ultra-endurance cyclist and runner and the meaningful work she is trying to do on two wheels. It would be hard to be in a bad mood after talking to Wilcox for five minutes. She makes you want to get on your bike and see where the road takes you. That’s certainly the motto she lives by, and one she’s carried with her since she started riding.
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Wilcox was 20 years old when she started cycling. Having never owned a car, she used to walk everywhere, but was fed up with the amount of time it took to get around, so looking for a faster alternative she found the bicycle. “I was borrowing a bike that was really big, and I remember having to go down a big hill to go to work and then back up to get home. I thought ‘that’s awful, why would anyone do that’? Wilcox mused, amused by his naivete about where his career would end up.
“That was my start. But I quickly realized how simple I could travel and how far I could go. I started going to the next town and then I thought, ‘Well, if I can do it, maybe I can cross the country?'” she added, clear that fear has never stopped her from jumping into the unknown. After a few months of traveling ever longer distances, she began her first trip along the US East Coast for three months, working on the end point to save enough money to continue his travels and do it again. And the more he traveled, the more routes he needed, so he found a clever way to quickly make the routes he needed But then one route led to another and the opportunity arose to complete one of the routes at the same time as an actual race.
“I started learning about bikepacking races, and at first I wasn’t thinking about races, but I was using their routes as my own travel routes because I thought if anyone has done this for a race, it’s probably pretty good,” he explained. . “I cycled through Israel, about eight years ago, and realized that I would still be in the country when the race [Holyland Challenge] was happening. My thought was, this is a really cool route, I’m enjoying myself, so I’m just going to go into this race and see how it goes. I had no expectations. I didn’t even know if I could finish it. I was also on a mountain bike and I’m not a mountain biker so I thought I’d just show up and see. I was the only woman and I was wearing a cotton T-shirt and running shoes.
“At the end of the first day, I was winning the race and I loved it. It was like suddenly, instead of pedaling to the next town, I was really excited to race. I never expected it. It was invigorating,” he beamed as he recalled the excitement he felt in that first ultra-cycling race. The many boundary-pushing aspects that have become synonymous with ultra-distance races like this, such as sleep on the side of the road for as little as 10 minutes to ride a bike through the night might turn some people off, but for Wilcox, he thrived on those aspects, and from his first racing experience, it opened up his you bring a whole new world.
“After this race, my idea was to go back to Alaska and then go down through Canada to the start of the Tour Divide,” he said. “Then I was going to race the Tour Divide all the way to Mexico, and that’s exactly what I did. It was a dream trip.”
Not only did Wilcox complete the Tour Divide for the first time (after covering hundreds of miles from Alaska), she broke the women’s world record by more than two days, completing the 2,745-mile race in 15 days and 10 hours . and 59 minutes. In 2023, he lined up for the long-running Tour Divide once again, his fifth time completing the epic race across America. It’s a race distance that few will achieve in their lifetime, let alone complete the race five times. Wilcox has competed and often won the women’s division many times since her debut career; Badlands, Migration Gravel Race, Trans Balkan Race, Baja Divide, Navad 1000, Arizona Trail 800, Kromvojoj and the list goes on.
Looking back on his life now, Wilcox could never imagine being a doctor, a career his parents thought he would pursue after graduation. “There’s a lot of time in there,” he laughed. “I really respect that, but I think I’d be looking out the window wishing I was out.”
It comes down to the fact that her parents have always been very supportive of her and her three siblings, never pushing them into things they didn’t want to do or didn’t like, and instead letting them find their own own way She believes that the reason she has continued to enjoy this “strange” career that she has is because her parents saw how much she was enjoying it and let her pursue this dream. In the end, he has found much more than a job and a means of travel.
“At first, it was a question of whether this was possible for me, and that’s what got me,” Wilcox said. “This all started for me and now I can’t believe I can say this is my job. I never thought I would be a professional cyclist. I feel very grateful for that.
“This year I’m going for the world record and I think it’s also good to find something new because I’m a little scared. It doesn’t seem possible. It’s a thought that keeps me up at night thinking, what if my bike breaks? What if this goes wrong? It’s hard to wrap my head around.”
But that’s also what Wilcox says drives him to accomplish these things: the adrenaline that courses through his body as he aspires to such a monumental task. She aims to break the current women’s record, held by Jenny Graham, by two days, completing the round-the-world in 110 days. “I’ve dreamed of doing this since 2016,” he added, when asked why he chose this year to go with the big record. “Now is the right time.”
While running and completing such long distances on his bike is what he enjoys doing the most, there is also another element he is now enjoying: sharing his passion. Wilcox carries out two initiatives aimed at two different social groups: women and young girls. For women, it partnered with navigation and route planning app Komoot in 2021 to host the Women’s Rally, an adventure cycling event open to women, non-binary and trans cyclists who want to embark on a great adventure in a support group, ultimately. breaking down barriers in adventure cycling by making it more accessible and less daunting.
Komoot Women’s Rally 2023
“The first one we ran I had like 20 women, and it was a lot of friends that I had asked to come,” Wilcox said. “Then, last year’s, which we did in Slovenia, we had more than 1,600 applicants. I know the sport has grown for men and women, but to see this growth in women who want to have adventures is amazing.”
She then encourages girls to explore the outdoors from a young age through her Tucson GRIT program, which has been running since 2017. It’s a mentoring program that gets students between the ages of 11 and 13 to create for six weeks before cycling and camping at the end. Wilcox believes it is extremely important to get young people outside, especially now with phones and social media. He added: “If they’re cycling, they can’t have their phones in their hands. Instead, they’re out, looking around and talking to someone in person. They don’t have to be great athletes either. I think that’s what’s so great thing about bikepacking, at any age, you don’t have to be an athlete, just someone who wants to take on a challenge.”
And Wilcox is proof of that. Starting in my 20s as a way to get to work, I was by no means an athlete, but I wanted to explore the world we live in and I couldn’t think of a better way to do it than on a bike. He is now preparing for a trip around the world in May for four months and has inspired many people around the world to take that step, to be curious about the adventure, to dive in and enjoy it, even though be only in the next city. .
Before embarking on a three-hour training ride, he ends by saying, “I’m at this point now where I’m 37, but I’m still excited every day to be there. It’s still a lot of fun.”