AK: Biking a Century

biker on clean air challenge
Biker on the Clean Air Challenge route. Photo Courtesy of ALA.


Have you ever thought about biking one hundred miles in one go? KSKA’s Anne Hillman did, so she signed up for the Clean Air Challenge. It’s a bike ride the American Lung Association hosts every year to raise money for education and research on lung disease. This year’s route ran from Talkeetna to the Denali viewpoint and back. At first Anne was in it more for the challenge of the ride than for the cause. But then something happened along the way.

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Let’s set the scene here a little bit. First off we have the main character, that’s me. I’m Anne. And my quest is that I’m trying to ride 100 miles in the Clean Air Challenge. Now, I ride my bike everyday. But I don’t ride my bike 100 miles every day, I ride 5 or 10 miles every day. I’m someone who puts on jeans and tries to get from point A to B point.

So the day before the ride, I roll my bike through the pattering rain and ask the volunteer mechanics to look it over.

“I feel like it’s in good shape,” I say as they hoist it up on the bike stand. “I just got a new seat post; it doesn’t wiggle.” My standards are pretty low.

Unlike most of the other bikes that people are wheeling into the parking lot, mine is a bit clunky. It’s an old commuter bike supped up with fenders, a rack, and neon lights. I’ve hauled furniture with this thing. It is not fast, unlike the sleek carbon-frame bike Sherry Price rolls up with.

“You have to use your whole hand to pick it up…” I ask hopefully.

“Emmm…” she replies, knowing it’s much lighter than that.

“Can I see you pick it up with two fingers?”

Price lifts it with barely any effort. She’s been training for the event all winter in Arizona, riding 40 or 50 miles every other day. But she still says 100 miles is a challenge.

“It’s not an easy thing. It’s a lot of endurance and everybody pulling each other along as a team. You pull and you push. So, we take turns.”

Her attitude is much different from Pete Adams, who rolls up with a borrowed bike and an inquiry about why it keeps leaking air.

“Why a loaner?” I inquire.

“Well, I didn’t have one.”

Bikers on the Clean Air Challenge route. Photo courtesy of ALA.
Bikers on the Clean Air Challenge route. Photo courtesy of ALA.

“Period?” I ask, incredulous that someone at a large-scale bike event didn’t own a single bike.


“Do you bike much?”

“No, I hadn’t biked at all really until two months ago.”

“Are you going to do the 100 tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Now I’m hooked. I just bought one from her,” he says, indicating the mechanic.

“You’re not worried?” I continue as he shakes his head. “What’s the longest you’ve done?”

“30 miles.”

He wanders off, and I glance at the seasoned bike mechanics.

“Does that happen all the time? People are just like ‘yeah, I rode 30 miles…. No one’s concerned about this?”

“Well they will be at mile 70,” the mechanic chuckles.

I suddenly feel a bit better. I’m a middle-of-the-packer.

After a decent night sleep, I get my bike clothes on — padded shorts hidden by yoga pants, a t-shirt, and my neon yellow jacket. “Ok, this is it,” I mutter into my microphone. “The morning of the event. And I’m more tired than anything. And it’s cloudy, but it’s not raining.”

I leave the starting line and begin trudging up the bike path out of Talkeetna. Groups of friends chat around me, greeting me as they roll past. The first 14 miles are easy, and then I hit a snag. Sitting in the middle of the bike path was a songbird that had been hit by a car. It was struggling, and there was nothing I could do to help it, no organization I could call.

So I picked up the bird and I moved it to the side of the road and I kept biking and I kept thinking, there are a lot of situations in life where you can’t do anything. But there are a lot of situations in life where maybe you can.

Anne at the halfway point. Photo courtesy of another biker who was willing to knell in the rain with her iPhone.
Anne at the halfway point. Photo courtesy of another biker who was willing to knell in the rain with her iPhone.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that bird and why it bothered me so much. I mean, I try to be a good person – I volunteer, I recycle, I adopt pets from the pound. But unlike most of the 265 other riders, I decided to do the Clean Air Challenge for selfish reasons. I wanted the experience of biking 100 miles and knowing that if I struggled, a community of people would help me out. Fundraising to help prevent lung diseases was a side note.

So for 25 miles I thought about that bird and what it meant. And then my thoughts turned to the other riders. Some were survivors of lung cancer, others lost family members. And it occurred to me that being here and biking and cheering on everyone around me could be that little thing I can do in this situation.

By the time the steady rain set in around mile 40 and I arrived soaked at the halfway point, my thoughts had taken a less introspective turn.

“Brownies! Cookies! Bagels! Cream Cheese!” called out the enthusiastic volunteer, showing off her calorific wares as I hovered over like a vulture.

Bikers shake with cold from the persistent rain and 40 degree temperatures. Many contemplate scratching there or at the next stop, others try novel approaches to keeping warm.

“These are Subway sandwich bags,” Linda Smith says, pointing at her new sock covers. “They are very inexpensive, lightweight wind block. They’re also waterproof so it keeps the heat in.”

My feet are already drenched and nothing will help, but I climb on my bike and slowly head up the hill and back toward Talkeetna. When I arrive at the 70-mile rest stop, the lawn is a sea of abandoned bicycles. I’m soaked and cold but determined.

Finally, nearly three hours later, ten hours after I started….

“Anne Hillman, you just biked 100 miles. How do you feel?” Jeanette asks, holding the microphone out to me like I’m a champion.

I finished!!!! Photo courtesy of Jeanette Alas.
I finished!!!! Photo courtesy of Jeanette Alas.

“Uh-huh. I feel…. You know I feel a lot better than I thought I would,” mutter, words slurring slightly. “I think stopping ten miles ago and eating some trail mix was good. But I must be sleepy because I’m a little bit out of it.”

As I park my bike, Pete Adams walks up, already showered. He’s the guy with the borrowed bike. He finished with no problems. So did Sherry Price.

So, do I want to try biking a Century again? We’ll see in two weeks. I’m already signed up for Bike MS

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at ahillman@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Anne here.

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