Smoke N Fire 400: My First Bikepacking Race

I’ve long been the introverted, do-it-myself type. I like riding long miles alone, contemplating in silence. One might think these are ideal traits for a bikepacking racer.

And they probably are. But my recent finish of my first ever bikepacking race, the Smoke N Fire 400, had almost nothing to do with being alone, and everything to do with a community.

A community of women to be exact: Idaho Women’s Bikepacking. Founded by Laura Heiner, a long-time racer and multi-time finisher of the SNF 400, who was frustrated with the lack of women racing these events, the group taught me (and a lot of other women) how to bikepack.

We started in the spring doing monthly overnighters. On these trips, I slowly learned how and what to pack, when to pace myself, what to eat, and how to dress.

One of our training rides.

I also saw the good example of women taking time to take care of and prioritize themselves. I used to race mountain bikes a lot in my 20s but after having my son almost 10 years ago, I’d let being a mom take center stage (which was great). But for the first time in a long time, I had a goal that just had to do with myself. Seeing Megan, one of the other women with her three young boys and knowing she was doing it, made me believe I could do it too. A part of myself that had been in hibernation for a long time started to come alive, and I felt newly energized for life!

Six months out, I make a firm commitment to do Smoke N Fire. I told pretty much everybody I knew so that there was no way to back out. With that, I began obsessing over the route, over training, over what it would take to finish. Idaho Women’s Bikepacking helped inspire me every step of the way.

Smoke N Fire Lives Up To It’s Name

The last few years in Idaho have been plagued with smoke. So much so, that I often take a good chunk of the summer off of riding just to avoid lung damage.

This year we got a bit of reprieve with a wetter than usual June and a delay to the beginning of fire season. But fire season still found us. A week before the start of Smoke N Fire, the Boise valley started filling up with smoke. And 3 days before the race, the Ross Fork fire jumped the highway north of Ketchum causing evacuations and closing down a key section of the course.

Rumors swirled that the race might get cancelled, but a few hours later Norb, the race director, announced that race would be re-routed. Rather than a loop, the course would follow the last half of the original route to Redfish Lake and then turn around and return the same way. A little less mileage, a little more climbing, lots of mental adjustment at the last minute.

The last 48 hours before the race were the hardest part of the whole thing for me. I knew I was committed, but every last part of me wanted to pull out, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I really had no clue if I was physically or mentally capable of something like this.

The other issue plaguing me before the start was in infected big toe. Back in July, my toe had become infected and a round of antibiotics seemed to have no impact. A week before the start, I finally got into the podiatrist and had the toenail removed. Things seemed better, but not great. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to ride 400 miles with the infection.

Rolling Out In the Dark

On Wednesday morning, my alarm went off at 3:10 am to give me enough time to get dressed, eat a sandwich, chug some coffee, and bike a few blocks to the 4am start. Despite the pre-dawn hour, the start line was a frenzy of activity with racers, family members, and well wishers. I was touched to see that so many friends had come down to see us off.

The coolest part of the start line was seeing all of the women kitted up and ready to go. There were a grand total of 27 women, the highest number ever to participate in a self-supported bikepacking race. Most of the ladies I already knew, and the others I would get to meet over the next few days.

All the women before the 4 am start. Photo credit: Paul Wissenbach

At 4 a.m., we took off. Only unlike every other race I’ve ever done, the start was nice and slow.

We rolled a few blocks on pavement and then hit the trails. The nice part of this start for me was that I ride these trails every day. I don’t usually ride them in the dark, but it still helped take the edge off my nerves doing something that felt so familiar.

By the time I made it half-way up Shingle Creek, the sun was starting to rise. I took a deep breath and set an intention for the rest of the race: to pay attention to the beauty around me, to notice the sky and the wind, to listen to the sound of tires on dirt.

I’m pretty sure it was this attitude that helped me stay positive for 95% of the race. I was just so happy to be doing something I loved outdoors for 4 days, with nothing else that required my attention.

A Hot Day 1

By the time I was on the Boise ridge, the temperatures were already high. I was running out of water by the time I made it to Around The Mountain and I stopped to filter water. It was here that I saw both Alissa Bell and Laura Heiner for the first time. At that point, I didn’t realize that I would yo-yo with the two of them for the remainder of the race.

My only goal for day 1 was to take it easy, to eat and drink plenty. I knew I wanted to finish the race in 4 days, and I was riding a similar pace as Laura (who’s done the race SIX times at a 4 day pace), so I knew I didn’t need to push it.

While I felt like I was taking it pretty easy, the heat did bother me. I kept chugging Osmo Hydration–which worked really well for me during the race–but had trouble eating.

At Donna’s in Placerville, I chugged a chocolate milk but ended up throwing away a microwave burrito. I knew it wasn’t great that I wasn’t eating but there was no way I could stomach food at that point.

Not long after leaving Placerville, Laura and Liz caught me. It was nice chatting with the two of them and it helped distract me from just how much I was sweating.

Mordor seemed to pass fairly quickly and we rolled into Garden Valley. It was here that we got our first “trail magic” of the race. Ray gave us ice cold Gatorade and I drank it in a minute flat.

We veered off course to make it to the Chevron and the Subway. I ate a foot-long sandwich, ordered a second for later, and called my family. They were busy dot-watching and it felt good to hear their encouragement.

I left Chevron with Liz and right behind Aaron and Meghan Null. The Nulls dropped us on the highway, but I still felt like we were making good time on the pavement.

Then we made the turn off to Scott mountain. It felt like right away our pace slowed waaaay down. Liz was on and off her bike walking; I was riding but not going any faster than she was.

As it started to get dark, Lauren and Alissa came up from behind. They were also walking and told us their plan was to make it to the summit to sleep. At that point we still had a long way to go, and none of us were moving fast.

The rest of the ladies were walking, but they were so fast walking, I had to ride! This became a theme for me for the rest of the race. Every time everybody else walked, I had to pedal to try to keep up or run.

During training for Smoke N Fire, I totally gave up on all cross-training other than lifting weights. In retrospect, this was such a bad choice! I should have continued hiking and trail running to prepare me for the hike-a-bike. Ya live, ya learn!

We ran into the Nulls setting up camp a mile or two before the summit, and I was so tempted to stop and bivy with them, but sheer stubbornness kept me going. I wanted to make that summit!

And we finally did–around 11:30 p.m. It was warm up there, and none of us wanted to continue on, so we crawled into our sleeping bags and called it a night.

Day 2: Into The Unknown

One of the hardest parts of the re-route for me mentally was that I had prepared so much for Days 1 and 2 of the original route. I had pre-ridden every little section of those days!

With the re-route, I had never seen any of the course between Garden Valley and Elk Mountain. So at 5 a.m. on Day 2, I was headed out into totally unknown territory and definitely scared me a little.

We began descending down Scott and I struggled keeping up on my drop-bar bike in the dark. Descending on that bike was never my favorite, and if I did Smoke N Fire again, I would absolutely do it on a hardtail mountain bike.

As the sun started rising though, I remembered to look around and enjoy the beauty. This got my mojo back and I was rolling strong for the rest of the morning.

My bike in Bear Valley on Day 2

Day 2 was so much cooler than the day before and that helped a lot. Climbing up to Deer Flats, we ran into a trail angel who gave me Coke (yessss!) and told us that some of the riders who pushed hard on Day 1 were suffering from stomach issues and the after affects of heat exhaustion. This made me really glad that I took it easy on Day 1.

Deer Flats and Bear Valley were both gorgeous, but I was still stuck with anxiety not really knowing what was coming or if I was making good enough time. There was also the mental struggle of knowing that every time I descended, I would have to turn around and climb it again the next day.

Riding gravel on Day 2. Photo Credit: Laura Heiner

In Bear Valley, we saw both Tim and Jay P who were leading the race. That was kind of exciting to see the first of the return riders. A while later on Marsh Creek Road we saw Lauren Brownlee who was riding in fourth place overall, and the first place female.

Lauren looked like she was out for a leisurely Saturday afternoon ride. She was all smiles and stopped to talk to us for a long time. You never would have known she was racing, or that she would eventually finish in second place overall. She just makes it look that easy.

By Elk Mountain I was finally feeling tired and REALLY ready for a real meal. But I was also happy to be back in an area I was familiar with, and on singletrack. Also Elk Mountain is freaking pretty–it’s hard to be in a bad mood there.

Liz and Laura on the Elk Mountain singletrack.

When we got to the top of Elk Mountain, Liz announced that she was going to scratch in Stanley. At first I thought she was joking–she was riding as fast or faster than me all day and I never heard her complain once. I was hoping we’d get to Stanley, get some food in her belly, and she would keep going.

My primary obsession at this point was getting to Stanley for dinner, but on the road out past the Stanley Lake campground, we ran into road construction. An old man with a stop sign told us the “pilot vehicle will be here in 15 minutes.” At first I thought he was joking, and when I realized he wasn’t, I lost my shit.

This was the only mental tantrum I had during the race. I literally couldn’t deal, so I threw my bike on the ground and laid down. The stop-sign guy kept asking questions, and Laura–bless her heart–kept answering them. I just couldn’t.

Once we got rolling again, I gunned it into Stanley as fast as I could. My first stop was the grocery store where I promptly opened and downed a can of peaches. Best thing I ate the whole race.

When I finished at the grocery store, Laura, Alissa, and Liz had rolled in and were debating eating a real meal at the sit down restaurant. Food seemed like a no-brainer so I agreed to join them.

Stanley was buzzing with activity. There were racers headed south to Redfish, racers headed back north, and lots of racers dropping out. We ran into several folks we knew who were still sick from the heat on day 1 and were waiting to get picked up. It felt like a bit like a graveyard.

At dinner, Liz ordered a beer and announced that she was absolutely done. Up until then, I’d been feeling really mentally positive, but her dropping out was one of the lowest moments of the race for me.

I hadn’t even known Liz a few days before, but after riding with her for a day and half, I wasn’t sure I could go on without her! Her energy was so good, and just riding near her, even if we weren’t talking, had been keeping me going. I also felt that she was stronger than I was, so if she couldn’t continue, I wasn’t sure I could either. There were tears in my eyes, and I felt really low and a little stupid, so I went to the bathroom to wash up and cry for a minute.

At that point I just wanted to start riding again before I could change my mind and scratch. I packed up, made sure I had enough resupply, and the next thing I knew Lauren and Alissa were ready to roll too.

We headed out on a smooth, rail-trail-esque path toward Redfish. The sun was setting and we got to watch it disappear over the Sawtooths. What a treat! The wind had been blowing south all day, so despite the nearby fire, there was only a little bit of smoke, but it was just enough to turn the sunset all sorts of beautiful colors.

As true dark fell, we hit the singletrack leading into Redfish. I was totally unprepared for how technical this section of trail was. In the dark, I couldn’t ride much, and once again I found myself stumbling and running trying to keep up with Laura and Alissa. They were so freakishly fast on the hike-a-bikes! In here, my infected toe also started really hurting for the first time. This stressed me out mentally, but thankfully, the pain was short lived.

We made it to Redfish around 11. It was so empty and beautiful, with twinkly lights shimmering across the water. It was also cold, and we knew we needed to get back up onto the ridge if we had any chance of staying warm while we slept.

Danica had passed us about an hour before, and when I saw her bike on the ridge, I pulled in to bivy nearby. Laura and Alissa joined as well. This was a good choice as we all had a reasonable night of sleep, while everybody lower down nearly froze to death.

Day 3: Smoke N Light N Solitude

Another 5 am alarm greeted a new day of riding. This day would also prove to be my absolute favorite day of Smoke N Fire, and honestly, one my favorite days of my entire life.

We started back on the technical singletrack in the pitch dark. I rode what I could, walked the rest. Half way through, we ran into Cassidy headed toward Redfish. We’d been waiting for Cassidy to catch up for the past 2 days and here she was!

It still seemed entirely feasible that she would catch us and ride with us at some point. Unfortunately, this was the last time we saw her as she ended up breaking her shifter later in the morning and had to scratch.

And that’s the hard part of a race like this. Sometimes you train hard, prepare perfectly, and things still don’t work out. I’m super grateful that nothing like that happened to me, and yet I know that if I do enough of these races, eventually it will.

Early morning photo with Cassidy. Photo credit: Laura Heiner

After a quick photo opp, we continued north and hit the gravel path just as the first light began to make an appearance. It was immediately clear that it was quite a bit smokier than it had been the day before. The sunrise was muted, the air smelled acrid.

We rode thru a fire camp, the firemen all getting ready to start their day. I could hear a helicopter taking off, but couldn’t see it thru the smoke.

Everything felt a little bit blurry–sleep deprivation–but in addition to the smoke, I could sense that it was getting colder and colder as we rolled into Stanley. When we stopped at the gas station, my water bottle had turned to slush, the bite valve on my hydration pack was frozen solid.

There were only 10 minutes until the gas station opened, so Laura, Alissa, and I decided to wait. The best choice! Hot coffee and a hot breakfast burrito raised my spirits ten fold. It was so cold outside that we loitered inside the store drinking our coffee until there was really no choice but to continue.

Drinking coffee at the gas station in Stanley. Photo credit: Laura Heiner

At this point, Danica was ahead of us (or so I thought) and I was feeling the need to be a little independent. I didn’t ever want Laura to feel responsible for me, nor did I want to go the whole race without riding alone.

So when I looked back on Nip and Tuck road and didn’t see Laura or Alissa, I decided not to wait. I just kept going. And going. And going.

The whole day was a sleep-deprived beautiful, blur. I’d pick a point mentally that seemed like the next logical place to stop and I’d ride until I’d get there. Then, I’d stop for a few minutes, eat something, filter water, and put more A&D on my chaffed bottom.

The only time I really got jolted awake was half way up Cape Horn summit when my right hip started burning like crazy. I was carrying pepper spray in the hip pocket of my hydration pack and it somehow went off.

In the process of getting the pepper spray out of my pocket, I managed to get more on my hand and then my upper lip. Everything was burning like crazy!

Luckily there was a spring running along side the road, and I jumped off the bike and into the water. I tried the best I could to wash my skin, my shorts, my jersey, and my hip pack.

The result was somewhat successful, and with the help of my first ibuprofen of the race, I was able to continue on. The funny thing was that whenever something started to hurt or bother me on the race, I knew just to wait because soon it would fade and something new would start to hurt or bother me. I just never expected it to be a pepper spray burn!

Eventually the pain faded, and I just kept pedaling. All thru Bear Valley and Deer Flats and on toward Deadwood, the smoke turned the sky beautiful shades of yellow and orange. The light was exquisite and I no longer felt in my body. If ever I’ve had a spiritual experience, those hours were it. I didn’t think about home, or about work, or about the future. I was just there in that moment, so happy to be.

Eventually, it started getting later in the day. Deadwood started falling behind me and I began the climb up Scott Mountain. By then, I felt fairly confident Danica wasn’t in front of me (she wasn’t) and I had no idea how far behind me Laura and Alissa were.

As if sensing my anxiety, I soon heard Laura coming up behind me. A trail angel had told her my derraileur hanger was broken (it was another racer) and she was so happy to see me. After being alone all day, I was really happy to see her too!

Unfortunately for me, the meeting was short-lived. Laura was feeling good and strong, and climbed up that mountain like a beast! I, on the other hand, crawled to the top. Once again, as soon as it got dark, I hit a wall.

Climbing Scott, the smoke had turned the full moon orange and the sky around it was purple. Dead trees stood on the horizon, outlined by moonlight. When I think back on it, it was crazy spooky, but I never felt scared. Just determined to get to the top of that darn mountain!

In the week since I’ve been home, I’ve dreamt of climbing Scott under that big harvest moon nearly every night. Half nightmare, half beautiful dream. I’m not sure when my psyche will choose to move on, or if those hours are now a part of my subconscious forever.

The climb up was hard, but the descent in the dark felt even harder. Once again my drop-bars were bothering me and my mechanical disc brakes needed to be adjusted. I was pulling the levers to the bars. Every 10 minutes or so, I would have to stop to roll my shoulders and shake out my neck.

Around midnight, I hit the highway and at the intersection were two coolers. Inside were sodas, water, beer, snacks, baby wipes, and A&D. That gave me such a good laugh and helped raise my spirts.

Riding the highway in the dark was something I was really worried about. I have a young son at home who needs his mom! Fortunately, the moonlight reflecting off the river lit up the road, and I only had two cars pass me the entire 10+ miles.

When I rolled into Hot Springs Campground just outside Garden Valley, I heard Laura call my name. She was bivyed off to the side of the campground by the water spigot. Despite it being well after midnight and short on sleep, we spent a long time chatting and laughing before finally saying goodnight.

Day 4: Homeward Bound

Laura set an alarm for 6 am and I woke up a few minutes before that and started getting dressed. One thing I learned is that it takes a ridiculously long time both to get ready to sleep at night and to pack up in the morning–around 30 minutes each time.

At night, I needed to change into dry clothes (I sleep cold), clean and treat my bottom, check my infected big toe, plug-in my lights to my cache battery, and eat some food. Mornings were a bit faster, but not much.

Just before 6:30, I pedaled the few miles back to the Chevron in Garden Valley. I washed my face with warm water in the bathroom and noticed my eyes were nearly swollen shut. Coffee and a warm breakfast helped and I felt ready to tackle my final day.

Heading down the highway back to the intersection, I could see Alissa riding the road toward me. She had spent the night at the top of Scott mountain and woke up early. Shortly thereafter, Laura caught us.

At this point, it was obvious that while we each had our strengths and weaknesses, on the whole we were all riding the same pace. There really wasn’t any point in riding separately any longer and we spent most of the rest of day 4 riding together.

Riding (hiking) Mordor with Alissa on Day 4. Photo credit: Laura Heiner

I loved biking through Mordor with the ladies, chatting away. It was really cool to be around other strong women who like doing the same things I like doing. I don’t have many friends that think riding 400 miles is a good idea, but these ladies do!

At the exit of Mordor, we ran into Greg Durand who had some trail magic for us! We ate strawberries and soda water, and fed off of his good energy.

I didn’t stop for long at Donna’s, wanting to just get Mores mountain over with and get home! The climb to Harris summit was the hottest part of the entire race for me, there was no shade and I felt my skin melting. Near the summit, I saw Michael and knew he was there with more trail magic! He’d had to drop in Stanley due to heat illness on day 1, and was there to help us beat the heat. He had some sort of freezer in his truck and had ice-cold water and watermelon for us. Without him, I probably would have laid down there and had a bit of a cry.

Mores was a slog. It was hot and I should have been eating and drinking more but I just wanted to get home. (Big mistake). Alissa and Ben (who had caught us) were riding strong thru here and I tried to match their pace.

At the Shafer Butte campground, Blair and Parker (my husband and son) were waiting for us. They had ridden up on their dirt bikes. Oh man, those were some good hugs. They had been there most of the afternoon and needed to get going before dark, and so did we, so we didn’t linger, but it made me excited to get home to them!

We rode Around The Mountain in the last few hours of daylight and got our first glimpses of Boise and of home. There were even a few moments there where I was sad that the adventure was almost over.

Ridge Road had a surprising amount of climbing I’d never noticed going that direction before (ha!), but Shingle was fast and easy going downhill. At the junction with Sheep Camp, we ran into a Tupperware of home baked cookies and I almost cried with gratitude that someone cared enough to hike all the way out there and leave them.

After the fact, I saw an Instagram story by Jay P asking if all the trail magic in this area matched up with the ethos of self-supported bikepacking. Obviously I’m a novice and my opinion on this doesn’t matter all that much, but I thought it was beautiful and indicative of the amazing bike community we have in Boise. I had plenty of water and food to take care of myself at all times, but knowing somebody out there was watching and cared, gave me all the warm fuzzies.

Unfortunately, that home-baked cookie was not enough to make up for a whole day of barely eating or drinking. I’m not sure why I let my good habits go on day 4, but what a mistake that was. As night fell on us, I could barely move. We were riding trails I ride all the freaking time, I could see the lights of town, I could almost see my house, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Hiking up the final climb on Corral’s (something I usually bike up no problem), knowing everybody was waiting for me at the finish, and that Alissa and Laura were slowing their pace to wait for me, was just too much. I cried super ugly, snotty tears. I wanted to get done so badly, and just couldn’t seem to do it.

But at a snail’s pace, I did do it. I worried that I’d cry sad tears at the finish, but as the three of us rode down 13th street together and everybody started cheering, I couldn’t do anything but smile.

Finishing with Laura and Alissa was so powerful, and I was so grateful for the amazing community of women that showed up at the finish. Lauren Brownlee (the first place woman) was there (and she was there for the rest of the women as well), as were most of other ladies that had either finished already or who had scratched. Each of them were supportive, kind, and beautiful humans. When or where else do you find a group of women like that?!

At the finish line with all of these amazing women! Photo credit: Paul Wissenbach

Looking Back

In the end, I felt proud of myself as an individual for finishing my first bikepacking race, but more so I felt proud to be part of a community. A group of women who were brave and showed up and gave it their all. A group of women who set a record for the largest female participation in a self-supported bikepacking race ever!

I hope that this can be the start of a trend. That at the Tour Divide, and the Arizona Trail Race, and other smaller, community-driven races like ours, that women (kind, strong women) can be a visible, vibrant part of the energy there.

The other thing that I hope is that anybody reading this (male or female) that has an interest in bikepacking racing will give it a go. There’s a bit of an exclusiveness in bikepacking racing, and I think many of the “established” racers would have you believe you need to be a super-human to be a part of it.

That’s simply not the case. I’m a 38 year old mom with a kid and a puppy who struggled to find enough time to train. I’ve never been very fast on a bike (though I do have good endurance). Physically, I’m pretty average.

And yet I finished, and (with the exception of those final few miles of singletrack) I feel like I finished pretty dang strong. There were way more moments during the race of joy and peace and elation than there were of suffering. If you have a strong desire to do one of these races and the mental stubbornness, you can absolutely do it too.

Smoke N Fire was one of the best experiences of my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, or what the future holds for myself as a cyclist, but I do know that I feel excited and enthused for life again. I feel enthused to be a part of women’s cycling, of the beautiful community here at Femme Cyclist, and the bike community at large. It’s slowly (sometimes painfully) becoming more inclusive and more diverse, and we all win as a result.

Learn More About Idaho Women’s Bikepacking

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About The Author

kristen bonkoski

Kristen Bonkoski is the founder and owner of Femme Cyclist.

An avid cyclist for a few decades now, she took to cycling during her late teen years — a time when she needed something to help boost her self-esteem and confidence.

Mission accomplished, the sport has become an important part of her life.  Kristen’s favorite disciplines are mountain biking and bike commuting, although you can also find her cranking out a century on her road bike and touring with her husband and son.  If it has to do with two wheels, she enjoys doing it.

Kristen is a certified USA Cycling coach, and she runs Rascal Rides, a website about biking with kids.

IG: @femme_cyclist

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