Cloquet woman wins Tour Divide

Body: 

The air was hot over the open, desolate land when Alexandera Houchin biked toward the 2,745-mile Tour Divide's finish line at the Mexican border in Antelope Wells, N.M., on July 2.

"I saw the border crossing station. My eyes teared up a bit, like, oh my God, I can't believe I made it. Then I pull across the little gate to cross the border and there is a pop machine and a chair, like a fold-out chair, and that's it. So I got orange pop, sat in the chair and drank it all by myself. I'm like, OK, now what?" the Cloquet resident said. "I asked the Border Patrol guy if he could take my picture and he was like, 'I can't leave my post.' OK. Nobody can even take my picture by the sign."

Houchin, 28, is this year's female winner of the Tour Divide, finishing the race from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells in 23 days and three hours. Although she had a quiet win at the finish line, she was able to hang out with a few people who finished after her that day. Her friend from Tucson, Ariz., also arrived with cake and beer. Houchin started sobbing when she saw her friend — in the way that you cry when you see someone in a big moment who knows how far you've come, she said.

The Tour Divide is one of eight biking and running races she's completed. The races are physical challenges, but mental and emotional reasons fuel her desire to compete. She got into biking seven years ago when she was struggling with her weight. After losing 120 pounds, she realized she could do anything on a bike.

"A lot of this bikepack racing is me proving to myself that my body is beautiful and strong, even though it doesn't look like everybody else's body. It's really hard to be in society today and just have this 'You're supposed to look this way if you're beautiful.' But I'm actually really beautiful because my body can peddle up mountains and I can go for days on end and do all these incredible things. I show up for these races not only to prove to myself that I'm super strong and beautiful, but to also show all the other racers and all the other people that aren't racing: All you have to do to finish a bike race is show up and cross the finish line. It doesn't matter how fast. It doesn't matter what you look like. You just go out there, do your best and sometimes your best is first place. Who knew?" she said with a laugh.

Her Tour Divide win this month caps a year of changes in her life that began when she quit the Tour Divide after 300 miles last year because she wasn't emotionally ready for it, she said.

"On the journey north, I grew homesick for the Great Lakes. For the first time in my life, I began to realize the significance of belonging to an Indian nation. As we journeyed through reservations on our way north, I interacted with and spoke to Indians of the southwest and traversed their reservations. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that (we) are the future of our nations. Soon enough it will be up to my generation to continue our legacy, to carry on the future of the Ojibwe. This cannot end with me," she wrote in her Tour Divide intention letter explaining why she was competing in 2018.

Following her attempt at the Tour Divide last year, she moved in with her mother on the Fond du Lac Reservation. She grew up with her father in southern Wisconsin and after moving in with her mother last year, she began repairing their relationship. She transferred to the University of Minnesota Duluth, where she's double majoring in chemistry and American Indian studies. It has given her a larger context of Native American history to help her understand her family's history and her future, she said. She also trained, running up to 22 miles at a time last winter.

"I ran the roads of my reservation breathing in the oxygen produced by trees that may have known my ancestors. I traversed that land that generations of my ancestors fought for. I'd never been so connected to a place in my life, and drew strength from a winter of training there," she wrote in her intention letter.

Her Tour Divide win was unexpected this year — her only goal had been to finish the race. She found out she was in first place in Ovanda, Mont., and while she's not normally competitive, knowing the second-place woman was about 40 miles behind her pushed her to keep the lead, she said.

She was also hoping to complete the race in 21 days, but bad weather during the first week slowed her down, she said. She added that it was "a lot of walking, a lot of hike-a-biking and when it rains for 12 hours a day, it just wears on you." She biked between 100 and 150 miles per day, with an overall average of 117 miles a day.

She ended up "leapfrogging" with four or five racers who had a similar pace to her and they got to know each other. They were people she'd not likely meet otherwise, but during the race, they'd find themselves riding side by side through miserable weather and great scenery while learning about each other's lives, she said.

"You pull each other through these miserable things where you're not even trying to be there for somebody, but you just are. The friendships that come out of it are so inspiring," she said. "We're just normal people doing this extraordinary thing."

Houchin first heard about the Tour Divide while leisurely biking the route in 2015. She came across Tour Divide racers and thought, "That seems really cool. I'd probably never do that."

But it was that 45-day bike ride that set her life's course on a new path.

"Before that, my life was just kind of aimless. I was just wandering around, trying a bunch of things, working a whole bunch of really crappy jobs and not really having a general direction in my life," she said.

She met a stranger on the trail who had been accepted into dental school. As they rode together, the topic of dental school continued to come up. She thought it was interesting that he seemed focused on building a career, she said.

"We started talking about the fact that I am Native American and Indian Country just is really underrepresented in the dental field. He was the first person that made me realize that anybody can do anything that they want; it's just a matter of setting your goal and chasing it," she said.

Once home from the trail, she began researching dental health disparities for Native Americans and the lack of Native Americans working in dentistry. She decided to set her sights on going to dental school.

"I was like, oh my gosh, I have this responsibility to do something for my people," she said, explaining that she's also receiving tuition assistance as a Fond du Lac member. "My tribe helped me, I'm going to help them. It was all just that one little trip where I met this person just by fate and I've been chasing that goal in academics ever since."

After two bike races, a marathon and the Tour Divide, she's not done yet. She spoke to the News Tribune from Madison, where she was getting ready to bike to Milwaukee to catch a train to a race in Colorado. From there, she plans to take a bus to a race in Georgia. Then it'll be back to Minnesota and UMD for the fall semester.

She said it's a challenge to get back into day-to-day life after an endurance event because it doesn't feel hard and she feels like she's underachieving. She's already planning to return to the Tour Divide again, even though she spent the entire race questioning why anyone would do it more than once.

"That's the crazy madness — you finish and you're like 'I'm never doing this again' and then literally the next day, you're like 'I can't wait to get back out there," she said.