The Last Woman Standing: Misty Nielsen and the 2022 Smoke ‘n’ Fire

Misty all loaded up.

It was only the first day of the 2022 edition of the Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire (SnF) bikepacking race, but the burning sun was already high in the sky. The rising temperatures had turned the act of drinking water into a full-time job, and Misty Nielsen stopped to filter water at Shingle Creek feeling less than confident in her ability to stick to her race plan. She’d already been stung by a wasp, and the sting on her calf pulsed with every pedal stroke. But she was determined to make it to Scott Mountain that night and to the finish line of SnF. Five days, nine hours, and nine minutes after rolling off the start line in Boise, Misty was the SnF’s Last Woman Standing, finishing the race a half day faster than she had in 2021. 

Rolling back into Boise. Photo: Molly Mouser

Like many of the women in this year’s SnF, Misty learned how to bikepack through Laura Heiner’s Idaho Women’s Bikepacking Group (IWBG). While she always considered herself an active person, bikepacking racing was something completely different. But planning, determination, flexibility, and a fearlessness of going downhill fast can go a long way in these events, and Misty had the right combination of grit, determination, and a good attitude to get it done. 

Misty had a plan heading out that first day, and she was set on getting to Scott Mountain on the first night. But once out there, she second-guessed her ability to make it that far on her first day of riding. She compared her ability to that of other riders, and if they thought they’d get to Scott, she’d never make it. But she kept going. As she pedaled into her camp for the night, pride radiated from her sleeping bag; she’d made it further than she thought she would and slept at the base of Scott Mountain. Each day of these events brings new challenges, and Misty had her fair share, but by refusing to dwell on them, she kept going, even through the most difficult of moments. 

A Drag-My-Kids-to-the-Park Kind of Cyclist

Misty bought her first mountain bike just a few months before she rode in her very first bikepacking race. In 2021, she’d ridden 424 miles to complete the SnF route in about six days (5 days, 23 hours, 32 minutes, or 5:23:32)and had completed the Boise Trails Challenge just months before. “I’m a terribly slow biker. I really only ever rode my bike with my kids to the park in our neighborhood. You know, just the occasional drag-my-kids-to-the-park kinda bike rider…” Misty always considered herself “an active person.” She shared stories of running through her neighborhood, at her local gym, and as a participant in various distance running races ranging in distance from 5k to half marathon. For years, her kids were too young to stay home alone, and riding mountain bikes seemed far too out of reach. Once they were old enough to stay home alone, Misty felt like she could take some time for herself to get her exercise outside.

The squad.

Misty is busy, and to maintain her identity as an active person, she also took fitness classes at the gym where Laura Heiner taught. Every year, before Laura would leave for a long weekend in September, she would tell her students that she’d be out of the classroom because she was participating in a bikepacking race. That’s what really got Misty thinking, “what is this bikepacking thing all about?” She would “bug Laura, asking her a million questions.” Soon enough, Laura started the IWBG Facebook page, and Misty joined. She scoured the resources Laura had provided for all the women interested in riding the SnF. 

A Full Platter

Misty is in her mid-forties and a single mother of two. She has a thirteen-year-old still at home while her oldest has moved out. Her mother lives with her now, and Misty works full-time as a nurse. She’s been a nurse for over twenty years, specializing in women’s services. “I kind of work towards keeping pregnant women pregnant.” It takes a lot of selflessness and compassion to be a successful nurse, and Misty describes herself as “kind and patient. I’m more patient with other people, though.” She admittedly has less patience with herself. 

One of the few summit signs along the SnF route.

She would set daily goals for this year’s SnF, but ultimately it boiled down to the idea that she would “go until my body doesn’t go anymore, until my mind won’t, until I can’t pedal my bike anymore. I just have so much determination to keep going and not to stop and quit.” But still, climbing on a bike was a chore, and she’d watch people fade away ahead of her as they pedaled up towering climbs. But time after time, she’d catch riders as she ripped down descents fearlessly. She giggles as she analyzes her bike racing style, “I am just really slow up, and I struggle, but I am just fearless descending. That’s what I love. I’m not the fastest up, but I go down faster than others and can end up keeping up with people.” She would find herself yo-yoing with some men and eventually found a group of a few other women she would end up camping with each night. 

The Squad

These long rides have a way of bringing people of the same pace together. Everyone is still riding their own speed and trying their best, with all the food and tools they need, but riding in community and relationship. One could argue that the women of SnF make up a special community out on the race course, as many of them spent months training and planning together.

On the morning of the race’s second day, Misty crossed paths with Mary Reiman, a fellow lady participant. Together they waited at the top of the Scott Mountain summit for Mary’s riding friends, Kirsten and Jane. The new group rode together until they made it just past the Deadwood Reservoir with Jane, Mary, and Misty staying together on the road towards Stanley. When Mary broke her pedal, both Jane and Misty rode alongside her as she “hobbled along” for 90 more miles. After trail angels helped Mary source a new pedal, they shared a hotel room in Stanley and would end up riding together until Bogus Basin, where their varying paces separated them for the rest of the race.

(From left to right) Misty, Mary Reiman, and Jane Van De Griff in Stanley.

Mary didn’t know Misty before this ride and couldn’t say enough good things about her. “She’s fearless! She’s got a can-do attitude and knows how to tie a good hitch knot for hanging our food bag at night.” 

A Little Adaptation, Preparation, and Some Magic

To train and prepare for this year’s SnF, Misty went on monthly overnight rides with the IWBG. Primarily gravel road-focused, the routes did include single track and predominantly focused on getting to know the SnF race route. Having raced the SnF in 2021, Misty was beginning to understand what exactly she needed to do to prepare for the race. When the race director rerouted the 2022 race course just days before the Grand Depart due to fires, she had to “re-plan everything.” She anticipated new food resupplies, mapped new water filtering locations, and double-checked her sleep kit. With help from Laura’s emergency last-minute post on the IWBP Facebook page, Misty knew she had to be extra prepared. She gambled on two different emergency meals. “I packed tuna packets with mayo, and a peanut butter, honey, and tortilla wrap. I had to eat both of them!”

She was prepared for the sixty-degree temperature swings, she knew how to deal with frozen water bottles, and she relied on her books on tape to carry her through a freezing four-hour ride out of Stanley; she had the process dialed without relying on anyone or anything else. So, when she encountered trail magic for the first time, she was elated. “I didn’t see any trail magic last year, but this year, I had four crossings with trail magic. It was just so incredible.”

Even though Mary pulled away from Misty on the last few climbs of the race, Misty wasn’t discouraged, having last year’s ride to think about. “I just remember being so exhausted last year that I couldn’t even ride my bike up any of the hills for the last 20 miles of the race. Towards the end, I just walked everything.” Whenever a negative thought came into Misty’s head this year, she would reflect, “hey, at least I’m still riding my bike.” 

Misty in good spirits.

She crossed the finish line at 5:09:09, more than half a day faster than the year before. It just goes to show that with a little determination and preparation, we can be like Misty, just a little bit stronger than we were yesterday and take pride in what we accomplish. When questioned about being the last woman on the course, Misty quickly points out that Mary “Slept out there as many nights as I did, but I was THE last finisher.

Misty, THE last finisher of the 2022 SnF. Photo: Molly Molly Mouser

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2 responses to “The Last Woman Standing: Misty Nielsen and the 2022 Smoke ‘n’ Fire”

  1. I love this recurring theme of THE last woman standing! Finishing the race at any time is beyond and SHOULD be celebrated. Brava, Townie!!

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