Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

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By Micah Drew

Gary Johnson Tackles Tour Divide

It's Beautiful and It's Brutal


Micah Drew, Pathfinder

Gary Johnson packs up his bike before leaving Seeley Lake. Johnson carries 40 pounds of gear with him on the self-supported race.

SEELEY LAKE, MONT. - Thursday evening, June 15 Gary Johnson slowly walked across Highway 83 in Seeley Lake, carrying his wrapped up leftovers from dinner at the Filling Station and shivering. He looked his 64 years of age.

Johnson shuffled up to the window of the Ice Cream Place and ordered a large chocolate milk shake.

"I'm doing the Tour Divide Ride," he told the girl at the window. "I need all the sugar."

Typically Johnson doesn't eat sugar in his diet-he also hasn't had a drop of alcohol in 30 years-but this is a special occasion.

Johnson was 522 miles into the 2,745-mile Tour Divide Ride, a mountain bike race that stretches from Banff, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. The Tour Divide is billed as the world's toughest bike race.

Johnson called it his greatest physical challenge yet, this from a guy who climbed Mt. Everest shortly after breaking his leg.

"Relating it to the Seven Summits, you go on these expeditions and the days you are actually climbing... there's downtime mountaineering," said Johnson. "This is cumulative to the Seven Summits on the climbing days. It really is something."

He only has 2,200 miles to go.

Riders left Banff en masse June 9. The leaders are somewhere in Wyoming.

At 64 years of age, Johnson isn't competing with the top riders but he is far from the last one on the course.

* * *

With a fifth of the distance behind him, Johnson took solace in having an actual bed for the night. He lounged in his hotel room, drinking his milkshake. The room, crammed with his bike and 40 pounds worth of gear strewn everywhere, felt like a sauna. Johnson cranked the heat up to maximum before getting his food.

The bikers racing for the win will skip the luxury of a hotel but they're trying to finish in a little more than two weeks.

"I'm not going to win, but holy cow to finish this thing..." Johnson trailed off as he took a slurp of his shake. "That's my goal, to finish."

Johnson estimated it will take him about 40 days to finish the ride.

Not bad for someone who didn't start mountain biking seriously until his 50s.

Growing up, Johnson participated in a lot of sports. He remembers being the only kid in high school who bicycled and the only one who biked home at midnight after work. He claims to have been a half-hearted biker, half-hearted swimmer and half-hearted runner but discovered that when he combined all three he was a pretty decent triathlete.

He's completed four Hawaii Ironmans since then.

Johnson said that running was actually his best of the three disciplines-he has a 2:47 marathon to his credit and has run the Leadville 100 run in Colorado.

In that race he got 84 miles into it-by running backwards down the hills due to sore quads-and couldn't move another step.

"But what are you going to do, quit with 16 miles to go when you have 6 hours and 45 minutes to do it?" He finished 15 minutes before the 30-hour cutoff.

The ability to push himself will certainly help as Johnson tackles the remaining 2,200 miles of the Tour Divide. His mental fortitude is the least of his worries.

Mechanical issues are a much more common problem. Johnson has already been delayed a few hours waiting to buy replacement brake pads. He also had to backtrack nearly 40 miles after misreading his GPS and going off route.

It would take a real physical injury for Johnson to even consider not finishing the race.

He has only dropped out of an event once-he had severe nerve pain the ball of his feet (known to endurance cyclists as 'hot foot') after riding 485 miles in 36 hours.

Johnson still claims this is the hardest event he's done, even if he's not even halfway done.

"Compare: I've done TransAlps twice, Trans Portugal once, Cape Epic once, Breck Epic once... I think this is cumulative of all of those," he said. "Cumulative!"

This was not your typical weekend warrior.

* * *

To those who are not avid followers of ultra-distance cycling, Johnson is the most well-known person in the Tour Divide's roughly 200 person field.

Johnson was the Libertarian candidate for president in 2012 and 2016. He was called the fittest person to ever run for the office but he said exercised less during last year's campaign season than ever.

In a typical week Johnson trained approximately 15-20 hours. Last year he was lucky to get in six.

"At the end of the campaign I weighed more than I'd ever weighed before," he said. "I will finish this event 30 pounds less than I finished the campaign."

While campaigning is relentless, the job of an elected official is much easier in terms of recreation opportunities. When Johnson was governor of New Mexico from 1995-2003, he raced all the time.

"I would get up at 4:30 every morning, religiously so I would get my workouts in," he said. "As governor I was ultra fit."

Does he think he was the fittest governor in the country?

"No question," he said shaking his head. "No question."

* * *

The Tour Divide Race is a fitting crown jewel to Johnson's adventure resume.

He isn't done however.

Johnson plans to sit down with fiancée Kate Prusack, an avid biker herself, and figure out a bucket list of events to do together. Sailing around the world is likely to make the list.

Until then, Johnson has more pressing things to think about.

Micah Drew, Pathfinder

At 5:45 a.m. Friday morning, Johnson was already awake, packing up his bike for the day. He planned to make the trip to Lincoln, Mont., about 65 miles.

He has 1,500 miles to go before hitting his home state of New Mexico. The last 700 miles will be on trails and over mountains that he's familiar with, but "New Mexico is the hardest."

For now, Johnson is focused on getting through each day's challenges as they come.

"Guess I'd better start with this," he said, pulling a green rain jacket out of his pack to fend off the early morning rain.

Even the rain doesn't dampen his spirits.

"It's all fun!" he exclaimed with a big grin, as he got ready to leave. "I've really enjoyed the continental divide my whole life, but to get to roll through it, this is something special."


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