In the 38 consecutive years that cyclists have been racing from Logan to Jackson Hole, Wyo., David Bern has finished all but seven. And he attests that rolling across the finish line is an experience like no other.
“As you’re coming into Jackson, you see the Grand Tetons, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just rode my bike 200 miles!’” said Bern, who co-founded the race in 1983. “This rock is the magnet that’s pulling you, and when you cross that finish line, the feeling of accomplishment is just amazing. It’s an amazing feeling to do that.”
The roughly nine to 14 hours prior to that moment, however, likely feel considerably worse.
LoToJa is the longest single-day road race sanctioned by USA Cycling. Over the course of its 200 miles, none of which dips below an altitude of 4,500 feet, its racers crest three mountain peaks and gain nearly 10,000 feet of elevation. At Geneva Summit, — the second of those peaks, about 85 miles into the trek — it’s not uncommon to see cyclists dismounted on the side of the road and buckled over with cramps or heaving from dehydration.
And yet, it’s the surmounting of those and a multitude of other obstacles sprinkled throughout the race that makes LoToJa an annual favorite among road warriors. Not even a pandemic could change that. On Saturday, about 1,250 cyclists will roll out for a race heavily adjusted to protect them and their crew from the transmission of COVID-19.
“It’s been really gratifying to see how LoToJa has grown and become so important to a lot of people,” Bern said.
LoToJa was the brainchild of Bern, then a Utah State Student, and Jeff Keller, the owner of Sunrise Cyclery in Logan. They wanted to create a race similar to the famous single-day events that had become popular in Europe, such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. When he and about seven other guys wheeled up to the starting line for that first edition, though, Bern wasn’t even sure what they were about to attempt was possible. Sure he’d scouted the course several times on a motorcycle, but he hadn’t once attempted it with his own two legs.
That year, Bob VanSlyke of Logan, proved it could be ridden in just over nine hours. His record has since been trimmed to 8:18:29, set by Spencer Johnson of Riverton in 2018. The fastest time for a female to finish the race is 9:35:00, recorded by Melinda MacFarlane of Draper in what was apparently a very fast 2013 race. The next two best women’s times also come from that year.
While some come to test their speed, most come to test their mettle.
These days, around 5,000 people apply for a race bib each year, though only about 2,000 get one (This year, the threat of cancelation due to the coronavirus kept numbers in check). Many opt for the less competitive sport class and many already have multiple LoToJas behind them. They look forward to reuniting with people they know only from years of sharing a slipstream or a post-race toast each September. Some are chasing a milestone, such as becoming a member of the 2,000-mile club. Others are just gluttons for punishment.
Among those this year is Andrea Alberson of Lindon, a LoToJa rookie. Alberson, 29, said she’s dreading the cold, 5:15 a.m. start and “that mental wall that you hit, and having to push through it.
“But,” she added, “it feels so good when you push through.”
Although this weekend will be her first endurance bike race, Alberson isn’t naive about what she’s getting herself into. Her mother completed LoToJa a few years ago (and was supposed to join Alberson this year before getting injured) and her uncle Scott Lambert of Draper has 10 rides and seven finishes behind him. She, Lambert and a handful of others have been training together around Utah Lake and will ride as a team under the name “Just Keep Pedaling.”
If the group can do just that for more than 12 hours, its members will experience that glorious feeling of crossing the finish line — which this year that will take place at Jackson High for the sport class of riders to help with social distancing. But keeping moving is not as easy as it sounds, said Lambert, 48. Nutrition, energy management and mental fortitude all play a key role in successfully completing this feat of endurance.
Those people on the side of the road near the Geneva Summit? They may have charged too hard out of the gate, or maybe they didn’t eat or drink enough or not the right things.
Lambert said he made that mistake in his first attempt at LoToJa. He and his buddy Terry Praag stopped at a 7-11 for breakfast the morning of the race. They chose chocolate milk, which a few hours later the pair learned is not the best fuel for a calorie-incinerating day of pedaling up mountains.
Somewhere between their unplanned recovery stops, the two got separated. They nonetheless were eventually reunited at the finish line.
“Terry said, ‘I’m never doing it again,” Lambert recalled. “I said, I’m doing it again but with a bigger team.
“And, by the way,” he added, “Terry has said he’s never doing it again every time for the past 10 years.”