Lael Wilcox Talks Arizona Trail FKT, Media Support Controversy, and the Importance of Inspiration [Interview]

Photos: Rugile Kaladyte, courtesy of Lael Wilcox

On April 12, bikepacking and ultra-endurance athlete Lael Wilcox set out on the Arizona Trail with two goals: set a fastest known time (FKT) record on the roughly 800-mile route — which spans from the Arizona and Mexico border to the Arizona and Utah border — and document the experience to inspire others.

Nine days later, Wilcox finished, setting a new record of 9 days, 8 hours, and 23 minutes. “So beautiful and so hard!” she said in Instagram post. “I’ve been thinking about this trail since 2015. Thrilled to have a clean run and a great experience out there.” What followed though, was an Arizona Trail Race record with an asterisk*, the little star thing, that usually means, “yes, but…”

John Schilling, the director of the Arizona Trail Race (AZTR) announced on social media that Wilcox finished the route more than two hours faster than the previous record holder, but since the AZTR doesn’t allow media crews on course, her time would be noted, but not acknowledged by the AZTR as the record. Though individual time trials are encouraged by the AZTR, Wilcox’s record would sit separately from the race because the AZTR views media crews as support.

“Her time is noted on the website, she did the ride,” said Schilling. “I’m not disputing that whatsoever. It was a fantastic effort, but supported. I don’t keep records for supported efforts.” Schilling declined a full interview to Singletracks in an email, but stands by his decision. Schilling explained the AZTR’s rules around visitation in an email, emphasizing that he felt visitation and support were excessive.

“So, for example, Rue and Lael live in Tucson in the winter, the route comes close to Tucson,” said Schilling. “So, by the rules, Rue could have gone out to grab some photos of Lael around Tucson. She did this, but also posted photos up in Summerhaven, top of Mt. Lemmon. To me, it was beginning to cross the excessive visitation line, so I reached out after Lael passed through Picketpost, the finish of the 300, and asked them to stop posting updates. They discussed and declined. The very next update Rue made, with all photos credited to her, she is clearly either close to Lael on the trail, in the same room as her, etc. I don’t know about you, but that constitutes visitation. And now it has gone on well past Tucson, to Gold Canyon, Payson, Flagstaff, etc. Essentially the entire route. That’s why she was relegated.”

Since the AZTR decision, the record has been fiercely debated. Some have supported Schilling for “staying true to the rules.” Others congratulated Wilcox for setting a new record, despite where it’s noted, and questioned what qualifies as support. When we interviewed Schilling about the AZTR in December 2021, he discussed the use of the asterisk, mostly to note how important it is for riders to stay on route.

On the AZTR’s rules page, the second rule says the “The AZTR views [pre-arranged camera/media crews] as support” and record times wouldn’t be supported for those with media support.

For Wilcox, the debate is strangely reminiscent of her FKT attempt on the Tour Divide in 2019, where she was questioned over having a media crew document her journey. She and the crew, consisting of Rugile Kaladyte, Wilcox’s partner, and others, had been transparent with the organizer far ahead of the race, but as they got closer to the start date, the demands of Wilcox and her crew grew.

The media crew was asked to wear GPS devices so organizers could ensure Wilcox and Kaladyte remained physically separate as to not provide any emotional support for Wilcox along the route since it could provide an unfair advantage or “boost.” Wilcox was asked to give up her phone during the race as well.

Wilcox and other bikepackers were eventually stuck at a lodge in Northern Colorado as snow muddied the route. The record slipped from Wilcox and she withdrew from the race and finished the route as criticism over media use from people on social media continued.

We caught up with Wilcox about a week after she finished the Arizona Trail to hear her perspective on the race, the record, and the controversy.

What made you decide to go for an FKT on the Arizona Trail?

I first attempted a time trial on the full route in 2015 and had to quit on the second day for terrible breathing problems. I had pretty bad asthma, so I quit. And since then, I’ve been back to hike almost the entire trail. And I did a time trial on the first 300 in 2019, but haven’t had the chance to go after the full route. And that’s really my strength as a rider; the longer the better. So I’ve been thinking about it for seven years, kind of waiting for a good window where my schedule allows, and the weather’s okay.

And the Arizona Trail, it’s really hard to ride completely because of the diversity of landscape. It’s blazing hot in the south, and then snow in the north. So to get a full run on it is hard to do, just logistically, and then for me physically, super, super hard. I mean, it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. So I’ve been eyeing this and I actually got a bike for it in 2020 and I was living in Tucson at the time and local, but I was so discouraged to go spend even a night outside at that time, in early pandemic days, that I just put it on hold. And last year, I couldn’t do it because I had other things in the schedule. And finally, this year, I got a chance. So I’m super excited that I got to go out there and that I got to ride the whole route and kind of challenged myself as much as possible.

So the clouds really parted for you this year?

Yeah, I had actually set the date for April 7. And was like “Oh, this will be so cool. I can invite to have a women’s start,” which has never happened. I was just going out for a time trial. But anybody can come out, because the route is public, free, it’s amazing, but so many people are intimidated by it, especially women. They’re a very low percentage of the race. I know very few that have ever even ridden it, even sections of it.

So I had this whole plan that we camp out together and then people could ride whatever stretch they wanted to. It’s like 100 miles back to Tucson, so I figured most people would want to do that. We got close to the date, and the weather was just not good in that window: heat waves in the south, followed by 20° in Flagstaff.

So I pushed it back five days, and I actually had to change my plans to fly to Europe. But, I wanted to set myself up to have the best time possible. So I started April 12. And everything was about as good as it could have been. There was still snow in the north, but I was able to get through dozens of downed trees that I had to climb over with my bike. But that’s just how it goes. On the trail, some sections have been worked on recently and some haven’t been worked on for a year. So that’s just kind of what you get.

And this was a time trial on the AZTR route?

This was totally a time trial just on the route. I could set the clock whenever I wanted to go and that’s how I did it in 2015 as well. The organized race usually has room for 74 people, and that’s both distances, the 300 and the 800. That’s because it’s pretty sensitive trail, and you can’t have that many people riding it at once, which has always been why I do it on my own, because I feel like, this is a very similar challenge that we should just take on when we can fit it in and do it on our own. And what’s different too, is it’s much easier to race against people, instead of just racing against the clock.

You actually have people who you can catch and pass and talk to and ride through the night with; a level of camaraderie versus just going out totally solo and, and just racing the clock.

What was your goal documenting the FKT on the AZTR?

I love sharing these stories. The main goal is to show people — so I had my ride documented in 2015, when I failed, as well. And that was my first video I’ve ever collaborated with and it inspired so many people just to get out and ride. Most people have never heard of bikepacking. Most people have never heard of the Arizona Trail, so if they get exposure to either of these things, it’s inspiring.

Also, bikepacking can be a super dirtbag sport. You’re out on your own with whatever bike equipment you have, and that’s how I got into the sport. I toured the world for seven years before I ever raced, but I just happened upon it. I was like, I want to ride across the country. So I did, but then you don’t always just come to that conclusion.

So by sharing these stories, people see this as a possibility. And I love that because, then they write me later and they’re like, “I didn’t even know I could do that.” So the main thing is to share that positivity, and also to share the beauty of the route and the reality of the route. I rode through cactus blooms and wildflowers and this really beautiful diverse state, which is now my home state.

But it’s also super rugged and super, super hard. So the first video I did I feel like it didn’t quite do justice to the challenge of it. It didn’t show overgrown trails, it didn’t show loose rock, it didn’t show the harshness, the heat. So, I want to show how this is. This is a mixed experience. It’s back breaking, but it’s also fantastic. So I love sharing those stories. It’s one thing for me to live them, but to show them to others and for them to get inspired to have their own experience is huge for me.

Were you familiar with the rules around media?

That became a rule in 2019. So I did my first trial on it in 2015 and that was not a rule at that time. And I didn’t even know that was the rule now, because I’m not really looking at a list of rules to change. Basically, I think if a ride is self-supported, that means you do everything on your own. And that’s how it goes.

And then, the race organizer came out to see me and take my picture at Picket Post trailhead (outside of Phoenix). And shortly after that he started texting Rue, my wife, who was documenting my story, and said what you’ve done so far is fine, because she was posting on my Instagram.

He’s like, “Well, what you’ve done so far is fine because you’re local to Tucson, but if you continue documenting Lael’s ride, then her ride won’t count.” Or basically, I’ll have an asterisk if I get the record. Which at that point, I was only 300 miles in, so there’s a lot to go. And at the next spot, where I was filling water, Rue told me about that, and I’ve been dealing with this since 2019…people kind of doing this to me in a variety of ways. And I said, you know, I don’t really care.

Also, because I don’t really care to be considered in the Arizona Trail Race. It’s an FKT on the route. And the rule says, you can’t follow one specific person, but I was the only person out there. It was not the group start. So hypothetically, if you were at the group start, and you documented more than one racer that would be okay. But I wasn’t even at the group start, so that seems a little bizarre. But, at that point, I’m like, alright, well, I’m gonna set an FKT on the route, which is not owned by the race director. The race director is pretty loose on this one, they don’t really actually have any association with the trail.

And when you heard the news at Picket Post, you thought, “oh well, I’m going for this anyway?”

Yeah, because it’s happened to me in the past. It happened with the Tour Divide, which is actually Adventure Cycling Association’s route. And the interesting thing is that the people that are actually responsible for the route are always very supportive of what I do. It’s whoever made themselves race director, and, took somebody else’s route that makes specific rules like this, which is fine.

You know, anybody can start a race and make the rules anything. They can say, you can only wear a blue T-shirt, and then you have to do that. So, it’s fine, then, I’m disqualified from that. But then there’s no way you can tell me I can’t set the best time on the trail, because it exists outside of the race. And then essentially, what it means is that my name is not going to be on the website, which is fine.

Do you feel like there is a mental or emotional support aspect to having media on the route?

No, I feel like it’s kind of a mixed bag. Because it took me a while to get accustomed to being documented. When you’re sleep deprived, and you’re going to a gas station to buy food for the next two days, it’s distracting to have a camera in your face.

Or when you’re trying to charge your electronics or get your equipment together, or you have a mechanical and then somebody’s documenting it, it’s hard not to think about what they’re documenting, and your level of performance, and how much of a crazy person you look like, at that time. But also to make a video, you have to piece together the story. So I have to stop and give updates of what I’m doing. That takes time. So it’s kind of a mix. Of course, it’s nice to see a friendly face. But then at what cost?

But then that was benefit as well? I’d way rather share the story than just have it to myself. It’s worth it, even if this race director says “you’re no longer in my race.” That seems absurd. I was never in the race in the first place. I started by myself.

What are the rules typically on an FKT or bikepacking competition?

There are very few rules, but this one came up after I raced the Tour Divide in 2019. There was a big controversy about that. And then it kind of has affected the three biggest bikepacking races in the US which are the Tour Divide, the Arizona Trail, and the Colorado trail. But in Europe, this is not an issue at all, or really, almost anywhere else in the world.

But otherwise, the rules are; it’s a continuous clock, you have to carry what you need, you can use third party resources, you can use your phone. Basically, everything is free game. But then this is a very nuanced rule about emotional support from media. And sometimes visitation is ruled out. Your friends and family can’t come see you too many times on the trail. But that’s also pretty ambiguous, because it’s not qualified of how many times.

Different people have different rules also, but many men have had videos about themselves, not specifically on the Arizona Trail, but on the Tour Divide. and they never had a problem. It was only when I did it, then there was a problem. Yeah, I don’t know, I think different rules for different people.

Does this feel reminiscent of the Tour Divide?

Yeah, very much so, but now, I’ve gotten a thicker skin, and I’m able to kind of deal with it, so that’s better. And also, I feel like so many more people came out in my defense, which is funny. I actually don’t really need defense, but it’s nice to have people thinking these stories are valuable and that my time actually happened. Those are good things.

But a lot of like ugliness came out too. Also the race director accused me of having the media coverage do more than document me, which is crazy. I mean, what does that even mean? And what is he trying to say there? First, isn’t it enough that I broke his rule? And to accuse me of actually cheating is pretty crazy.

Note: Schilling says he did not accuse Wilcox of anything aside from having media/support along the ride. The accusation is in reference to a social media post where he said “the media crew was clearly doing more than simply documenting the ride…”

Can you tell us about the documentary?

Yeah, actually, the editor just sent us the first edit. It should be released by May 3, so it’s coming up soon. And it’s basically sharing the story for the Radavist. I think that was part of the problem, too is that we were under the umbrella of the Radavist, not just as individuals, but I don’t see why that should make a difference.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

No, I’m super grateful I got to ride the route. And super proud of Rue, for how she documented it, and the response we got from that. And basically, four days later, we flew to Spain (for the Komoot Women’s Montañas Vacías Rally), and we’ve moved on.

We have 54 women from around the world riding. So it’s not a race, but just riding this route together and having fun camping out at safe places. Stopping at cafes and stuff. It’s been really cool so far. We have about a week to ride the route.

But it’s all good. I’m surprised this was such a controversy. But I also didn’t take it [too] personally, this time. I know where I stand. I want to share these stories. There’s so much positivity in that. And then, actually it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I feel like I’ve hardly talked about or processed the ride. I finished just over a week ago.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.