After 24 days, 7 hours and 24 minutes, Jill Homer leaned against an international border gate near Antelope Wells, N.M.
And she smiled.
A quick photograph marked the end of her 2,475-mile journey from Banff, Canada, south across the United States to the Mexican border. Homer had just won the women's division of the 2009 Tour Divide bike race. In doing so, she also set a new women's record, beating the previous one set by Jenn Hopkins, by four days. But there were no crowds cheering her those last few feet. There will be no award money, prizes or medals.
According to Homer, she wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
"It's funny because that last 70 miles, I was really emotional," Homer said. "I was being really reflective on my life, and that last mile was kind of sad. Then I saw my parents. They were the only people there and they had their arms up in the air waving. I'm kinda glad there weren't other people there. I was able to share that moment with them."
Biking as a lifestyle
The sport of biking, which she picked up around 2000, has become a lifestyle for Homer. The Juneau resident powers out rides almost daily, in and around the mountains that rise above town. There are few trails she hasn't ridden, and Homer knows the name of nearly every peak by heart. And when it comes to extreme riding, Homer finds satisfaction in the afterglow of exhaustion.
"One of the great things about putting in a good, hard day on the road or trail is that supreme feeling of tiredness you get right afterward - those rare moments when you curl up on the couch with a cold can of Diet Pepsi and let your fatigue wrap around you in a blanket of calm satisfaction," she said.
She relishes in the tours, the distance riding that tests endurance both mentally and physically. Homer has competed twice in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, twice in the the Susitna 100 in 2006 and 2007, multiple 24-hour races such as the 24 Hours of Light, and the 24 Hours of Kincaid.
She's biked from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Syracuse, N.Y., - just because she "thought it would be fun." And according to her, it was. In fact, she says it was that trip that got her hooked on biking.
But one would never guess Homer does such things. As the Deputy Managing Editor at the Juneau Empire, Homer quietly - but efficiently - does her job.
She rarely mentions her rides - let alone her races - unless a curious co-worker inquires. Perhaps this is because it's just how Homer is, or perhaps it is because nearly all is unveiled on her blog: arcticglass.blogspot.com.
"It's like my journal," Homer said. "I don't get too personal, but I definitely talk about what's going on in my life."
It's there she delves into what it's like to complete and compete in endurance races others would never dream of doing. It's there she examines her love and admitted addiction to biking.
She talks of her struggles and her successes. She offers glimpses into her biking passion in a way that keeps readers, fans and "followers," which now tally 311, coming back.
Touring the Tour Divide
"Against the advice of most fast GDR and Tour Divide veterans, my race strategy is to have no strategy. I have a few tentative goals for the first couple nights, but my plan is to be completely flexible."
Homer posted this on her blog 12 hours before setting out on a journey that would become the ultimate test of her strength in multiple ways.
She had just emerged from the depths of dealing with the break-up of an eight-year relationship, and she faced nearly a month of unknowns, all of which she confronted alone, often miles away from aide of any kind.
Regardless, she began the race with optimism, and as she put it "so innocent, so full of hope ... so clean."
But Homer also said she never really believed she would finish the race. Sure, it was a goal. But to her, an impossible one.
"At that point, I had no concept of really riding my bike all the way to Mexico. and didn't really believe I could do it in the time frame I had set for myself," she said. "I thought my body would shut down, or my mind would, or both. The task I had set to, in all honesty, looked impossible."
But after leaving the starting line on June 12, Homer kept peddling.
She faced roughly 2,700 miles of mountain passes, valleys, desert and flatlands. As a racer, Homer was required to provide all of her own food, water, find shelter and stick strictly to the official ACA Great Divide Mountain bike route. The race is the longest and most challenging mountain bike race on the planet, according to the Tour Divide Web site.
The best and the worst
Each of the 24 days brought both monotony and variation, the details of which should be told by Homer in her own time. But like any memorable adventure, there were epic highs and extreme lows.
The peak of it all came around Sliverthorne and Salida, Colo. It was a day marked by approximately 115 miles and 7,000 total feet of climbing biked in less than 12 hours.
"I finished the day and wasn't even tired. I thought 'this is it, I'm in the best shape possible,;" she said.
It was the perfect cocktail of training, rest, endorphins and attitude. Homer said she felt like she could do anything, but admitted that it all went downhill from there.
Two days later, she nearly quit.
She was just outside Platoro, Colo., near the border of New Mexico, and had weathered a "horrific thunderstorm" on top of Indiana Pass when she saw the flashing lights of emergency responders.
Two ambulances inched down the road. A friend and fellow Alaskan had been hit head-on going 25 miles per hour by a truck. Homer was allowed to sit in the ambulance with him and found him alert and in good spirits, despite his broken arm and collar bone.
She called into the Tour blog site from a pay phone once she reached Platoro. Despite her best efforts, her voice sounded shaken.
"I climbed up Stunner Pass just completely distraught ... just because of everything, you know," she admitted. "Something like that happens to somebody you know, somebody who's doing the same thing you're doing, and you just start to think about the things that are important. And you start to think that the things you're doing aren't really that important."
Homer admitted later that if the tiny town of Platoro had been anything more than just a few buildings, she would have hopped the first bus home.
Homer reached her goal and accomplished more than she believed possible.
What's next for this quiet explorer?
"I really don't know," she said.
And she's okay with that. Perhaps she'll enter the occasional foot race, and perhaps she'll be on the start-list for the 2010 Sustina 100.
But certainly, she'll continue to bike, hike and blog about her life in Juneau and beyond. Because what drives her comes from within.
"I just hunger for adventure," she said. "I want my life to be interesting. I want to see as much as I can, and travel. I'm driven by a sense of trying to make the most of life that I can."
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