SnF 2022 Women’s Podium: Lauren Brownlee, Carolyn Mason, and Irena Netik

Just days before the grand depart was set to leave, the original SnF course that looped around the Sawtooth National Forest and the Sawtooth Wilderness, was changed to an out-and-back route due to active fires in the area. After months of planning, scouting and preparation by many, riders were forced to adapt to the last minute changes. For those who dreaded the Scott Mountain climb, that meant two grueling efforts up each side of the mountain. The heat at the 4:00 a.m. hour of the 2022 Smoke ‘n’ Fire  didn’t make any of the ride ahead seem easier. It was already sweltering. By hour 12, riders were battling nearly 100℉ temperatures and smoke-filled skies. Despite this, Echo Sarlya was the lead woman in ninth place overall and Lauren Brownlee, hot on her tail, held down twelfth place.

Lauren after her win Photo: Paul Wissenbach

As the fatigue began to set in, rider after rider bedded down for the night, but not Lauren. By sunrise, Lauren had carved out a massive lead on the women’s race by foregoing sleep and pedaled into fourth place overall. In the lonely hours of the night, Lauren continued pedaling on day two of the race to pass two more fellas while they were sleeping and make second place hers. She finished the SnF just a little bit before 4:00 p.m. with a finish time posted on Trackleaders of 2:12:08 (days:hours:minutes), winning the women’s race and placing second overall. “I took 6 naps total all less than 20 min” Lauren said in a text message a day after the race, “Body is totally messed up and I haven’t even showered yet…” Post-race exhaustion is sometimes all consuming, but the pull to greet finishers as they roll in is often stronger, pulling the most exhausted bodies to cheer on the incoming finishers. 

Lauren sneaks out after some rest to congratulate her friend, Hannah Dhonau Photo: Paul Wissenbach

Some 10 hours after Lauren cruised in, Carolyn Mason earned herself a second place women’s finish in twelfth overall. Before the race, Carolyn had voiced concerns about cutting sleep. She stopped roughly seven hours on night one, then indeed, found herself pushing sleep deprivation for the duration of the race and it paid off! The first day of the race brought Carolyn adrenaline highs that pushed her to ride longer than she ever expected for herself, and the washboarded road to Stanley helped her fall in love (okay, she said like, but probably meant love) with climbing, because, “you can at least make progress walking when you are tired/ hands hurt.” When questioned about her experience about the weather, Carolyn responded, “[t]he weather was mostly perfect.” In a race that saw such high attrition due to the dramatic shift in temperatures (13℉-100℉+) and a rainstorm that soaked many, a positive mental attitude can really take you places, like to a second place finish in a really long bike race.

Irena smiling at the finish Photo: Paul Wissenbach

On day three, at around 5:00 p.m., Irena Netik greeted the finish line as the third woman to complete this year’s SnF out-and-back course. With her greatest fear about this race being the wildfires, she put her will to the test by even starting the race. She had a plan of riding until 11:00 p.m. every night and then looking for a place to camp, but worried that she wouldn’t be able to ride that many hours on the first day of the race. Despite not being sure whether or not she’d be able to, she rode until 10:30 p.m. that first night. Still cruising along at a pretty good clip, Irena reflected that “it’s not bad to be slow sometimes and miss the rain and wind storm on the first night.” The temperature swings were a lot to deal with and Irena said she woke up to a 13℉ morning just outside of Stanley and found herself in 90℉ weather later in that same day. When asked about post-race Irena, she said she was still “smiling, to myself at all the wonderful community surrounding SnF.” From projectile vomiting all over her bag, gloves, and bike light, to smiling and answering questions to her husband at home dear, were you racing bikes or just chain-smoking unfiltered Marlboros in Idaho, she wrapped up the women’s podium in style. 

Hannah and Sarah roll in together Photo: Paul Wissenbach

Congratulations to the first three finishers of the 2022 Smoke ‘n’ Fire Out ‘n’ Back. It’s been powerful to collect so many different stories of the women who are showing up for these events. It’s been even more powerful for us to witness the dots as more than just initials, but as women with fears and excitement for the journey ahead of them. Every woman out there, regardless of the number of miles they traveled on the course, overcame fears and stretched their limits. It just goes to show how a long bike ride always has room to teach us something about ourselves.

In it for the long haul Idaho Women’s Bikepacking (IWBP) at the finish Photo: Paul Wissenbach

Further, congratulations to every single woman who had, in the words of the infamous Laura Heiner, “an ass on a saddle”. The SnF has grown into such a success story of community and visibility; it’s a hope this narrative permeates throughout the ultra-racing world. So much about these Grand Departs is about building community and exploring our relationship to all things and beings, not just about winning a race. Hard work, long journeys and a shared experience create possibilities for bonding that perhaps push us out of our comfort zones and forge relationships that we may not otherwise form. Competition doesn’t always have to be about being better than someone, but it can be about trying our best in relation to each other. 

Massive shoutout to Mary Reiman for pedaling over 70 miles on a broken pedal! Her clipless pedal detached from the axle, so to keep pedaling, she had to slide the pedal (still attached to her shoe) on and off the axle every time she wanted to detach herself from her bike. Determined to at least make it to Stanley, she begged and pleaded for someone to give her a pedal. Someone finally did and she is marked as a finisher.

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