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Lael Wilcox on Race Day Food, and Embracing Recovery

The ultra-accomplished, ultra-endurance racer is noted for her incredible unsupported long-distance bikepacking wins

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Lael Wilcox is one of the most accomplished ultra-endurance bikepackers on the planet. She spends hours and hours in the saddle setting records on grueling bikepacking routes around the world. Her highlight reel includes rides that most of us could never fathom planning for, let alone actually attempting to pedal, not to mention race. Wilcox gained fame in 2014 for winning the 4,400-mile Trans Am, then again for breaking’s the women’s Tour Divide record by two days, after riding from her native Alaska to the start line of the 2,745-mile race from Canada to Mexico. She’s since set the women’s record for the Baja Divide and took the 2021 women’s title for Unbound XL, a 350-mile gravel race through Kansas, in 26 hours and 55 minutes, among many other accolades. 

Food is fuel. Lael Wilcox in Alaska in 2020.

When we spoke last week, she’d just finished the Hope 1000, a route of 1,000 kilometers and 30,000 meters (that’s 100,000 feet) of climbing through the Swiss Alps she blew through in four days. She was preparing to set off on an 858-mile individual time trial in her native Alaska, following the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south, a distance she hopes to cover in four days. Wilcox departed today, and will be aiming to clock the Fastest Known Time in hopes that other athletes will venture up to Alaska to ride the route in the future (as an aside, you can follow along at Track Leaders). 

Ultra-endurance bikepacking survival kit.

But despite all of this, nutrition has never been a huge part of Wilcox’s training regimen. She races primarily unsupported, so she’s carrying whatever food she can on the bike, and stopping at convenience stores at all hours of the night to pick up candy bars (Paydays are the best, especially in the heat—packed with peanuts and no chocolate that can melt). For the Trans Am race, she drank mostly milk as she sped her way across the country.  

She knows a lot about gas station food, and has been known to down pints of ice creams, cookies, sandwiches, chocolate milk, potato chips, burgers, hot dogs, burritos—the more calorie-dense and compact, the better, as she attempts to refuel as much of the 20,000 calories she burns per day as possible. During the Hope 1000 it was so hot on the first day, that she bought ice cream, let it melt, then drank the creamy calories like a soda. 

“I think I kind of have an iron stomach,” Wilcox says….”I’m an expert at finding the one sandwich that’s like of course nobody would buy that.”

Stuffed croissants, Wilcox-style.

Eating is part of the job, and it can feel like work—snarfing down yet another trail butter mixed with coconut butter rolled in a tortilla for no other reason than fuel or guzzling cokes for energy to sustain a record-setting pace. Little tweaks to her set-up like wearing Lycra with pockets for extra food storage equates to more time saved because she can eat more on the bike. 

It requires planning to make sure that part of the race is taken care of, and the level of planning varies greatly depending on where she’s riding. In Europe, for instance, food requires little thought because there are pastry shops, cafés or self-service farm stands everywhere that are open all hours, even high in the Swiss Alps. But on the Alaska pipeline trip, there’s nothing. 

“If you find a gas station, you’re lucky. The first 240 miles, there are no resources at all, then there’s an ice road trucker cafe, but no store.” Wilcox is hoping to ride 200 miles a day, and will carry as many calories as she can on the bike for that first day via nut butters, cheese, burritos and a relatively new addition—vegan protein shakes. 

Since she signed on with Gnarly Nutrition as their sole ultra-endurance athlete, she’s started thinking about recovery, an aspect Wilcox never paid much mind to in the past; it was about making it through the ride or the race, then replenishing spent calories in the weeks after. 

“Now I’m also thinking about post-race: How fast can I get back? If I have greater protein intake during the race, will I recover faster after the race?”

Wilcox’s partnership with Gnarly Nutrition has given her new insight into the recovery aspect of her pursuits.

Gnarly’s vegan protein shakes dole out 20 grams of pea protein per serving, and Wilcox can carry enough powder for two shakes per day without too much of a weight penalty. She used them during the Hope 1000, a race she also did three years prior, experimenting with how much time it took to mix the shakes, and whether the potential protein gained was worth the extra three minutes, or if that time would be better spent sleeping or eating something else. In ultra-endurance, every ounce carried and every minute saved counts. 

Road-side dining.

“This time I slept twice as much as I did before and my pace was way faster,” she said. “I slept four hours a night, it was pouring rain the entire race, and I was dealing with these bad of conditions, slippy roots, and with those challenges, I needed to have my head in a good place to deal with situation better.”

For this week’s Trans-Alaska pipeline time trial, she’ll carry more shake mixes to offset the lack of available food, as well as Fuel2O, Gnarly’s high-calorie hydration mix made specifically for long endurance days. Wilcox’s partnership with Gnarly is as much an experiment for her as it is for the Salt Lake City, Utah-based company. Most of their athletes are climbers, runners or weightlifters. “They’re looking at me, saying, ‘How can you best perform as an athlete, what are your special needs? Of course, primarily we want you to eat real food, but can these supplements help?’ This is their first branch into endurance, it’s such a higher-calorie endeavor, they’re like, ‘Let’s see how this works for you.”

So far, so good. 

Happy and thriving even in the rain during the Hope 1000.

Photos: Rugile (Rue) Kaladyte