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Frontier rider — Native Utahn trains for 350-mile endurance test in Alaska

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19 2008 12:27 a.m. MST

With bright sunshine in her face, Jill Homer rides across the frozen Mendenhall Lake on Jan. 10 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo provided by Jill Homer) With bright sunshine in her face, Jill Homer rides across the frozen Mendenhall Lake on Jan. 10 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo provided by Jill Homer)
"I slipped out the door at 12:31 a.m. and pedaled beneath the orange glow of suburban street lamps. Blasts of hard wind amplified the already tiny temperature, but only the crackle of rubber on ice betrayed a bewildering quiet. I rode toward the black mass of mountains that would swallow me for the night. I was consumed with the loneliness and awe of the conditions I was simulating. I had to keep reminding myself I was only a few blocks from my house."Jill Homer, Jan. 29

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Jill Homer has been called a lot of different things.
Strangers call her daring, yet crazy. Friends think she's bordering on insanity, but brave. Family members think she is amazing but worry openly for her safety.
But of all the adjectives Homer has heard to describe her, one fits best.

Hill rides downhill on the Dan Moller Trail on Jan. 7. Her bike is a Surly Pugsley, a specialized snow-riding bicycle with 4 inch-wide tires. (Photo provided by Jill Homer) Hill rides downhill on the Dan Moller Trail on Jan. 7. Her bike is a Surly Pugsley, a specialized snow-riding bicycle with 4 inch-wide tires. (Photo provided by Jill Homer)
"I kind of like 'adventurous,'" the 28-year-old Alta High graduate said. "I think it defines doing crazy things without being crazy."
Homer, indeed, does some crazy things. The craziest, though, comes on Feb. 24 when she mounts her bicycle and embarks on a journey few would feel confident, or competent, enough to attempt.
On that chilly afternoon, the adventure-loving cyclist will leave the shores of Knik Lake near Anchorage, Alaska, on a 350-mile journey that will take her through the wilderness of the Last Frontier with little more than her backpack and bike to keep her company.
As one of only 50 participants in this year's Iditarod Trail Invitational, Homer will pedal mostly in solitude as she meanders her way to the Kuskokwim River and the tiny village of McGrath.
Jill Homer rests and eats a sandwich for lunch in the shelter of an iceberg, a calved-off piece of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska. (Photo provided by Jill Homer) Jill Homer rests and eats a sandwich for lunch in the shelter of an iceberg, a calved-off piece of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska. (Photo provided by Jill Homer)
"When I tell people about it they all tell me they think she must be crazy to do something like that," her mother, Sheri Homer, said. "But I've grown to just accept it. In fact, there's a little part of me that really admires her.
"She loves to do things to the fullest."
Her story didn't start in Alaska and almost certainly will not end there. Homer, a University of Utah graduate and journalist working for the Juneau Empire newspaper, enjoyed long bike rides for years before heading off to the Land of the Midnight Sun. It's just that Alaska is now home to her greatest adventures.
"I never really raced my bike, but I used to take long rides out by Salt Lake," she said. "One summer, Geoff (Roes, her boyfriend) and I rode across the country. So I guess it isn't that weird that I like to ride for hours now."
 (Photo provided by Jill Homer) (Photo provided by Jill Homer)
As one might expect, attempting a race such as the Iditarod Trail Invitational has earned Homer a share of attention and notoriety. Her blog, arcticglass.blogspot.com, is one of the most popular cycling blogs on the Internet. In it, she details her life on two wheels amid the beauty and isolation of Alaska.
The stunning photography and descriptive writing earned her a nomination for best sports blog in the 2008 Bloggie Awards.
"Her blog has been a great blessing," Sheri Homer said. "We don't get to talk to her every day. But we can read her blog and we feel pretty connected to her."
Her almost daily posts include pictures of the routes she rides and detailed memories of her day. Some days are rest days; others include relatively short 25-mile rides.
 (Photo provided by Jill Homer) (Photo provided by Jill Homer)
Then there are days like Dec. 27.
On that day, Homer began her ride early in the morning. Long before the sun decided to poke its head out for its brief December appearance, Homer hit the road at about 8:30 a.m. Ten hours and 111.5 miles later, she rolled back to her home to celebrate a long day (and night) of cycling through the cold, dark beauty of southern Alaska.
"I could see sunlight on the mountain tops for most of this 'mostly cloudy' day," she wrote, "but the sun was always too low on the horizon for any light to touch the ground."
She competed in the Susitna 100 race in Alaska last year and has now upgraded her endurance ambitions to the 350-mile challenge that awaits her in late February as she pedals across the central wilderness of her adopted home state.
"I thought it would be a fun challenge just to train for it," she said.
Her father, Jed, may be the source of her adventurous spirit. The family frequently did outdoor activities like camping and whitewater rafting. But even he was surprised to see the extent she's taken her hobby.
"She's always had extreme kind of leanings," Jed Homer said. "Obviously, on one side there's concern. On the other side, we want to support her all the way. .. When she does things in extreme conditions like this, you can't make mistakes or there's a big price you have to pay. But she's always been extremely careful and prepared for everything she does."
Though Utah has "the greatest snow on earth," Homer didn't begin her frosty wanderings until she moved to Alaska. An avid recreational cyclist until then, Homer found herself devoting many hours per day to her bike. The journeys, though certainly a physical test, became therapeutic in many ways — especially during the long winter months when sunlight is rare.
"You have to get out just to keep your mental health," she said.
And that, perhaps, is what keeps the 28-year-old on her bike day after day. Accompanied by her boyfriend — Roes is an ultra-marathon runner who logs several thousand miles each year running — Homer recorded more than 6,500 miles during 2007.
During winter months, she rides a Surly Pugsley bike with mammoth-looking 4-inch wide tires. She keeps them inflated at a low air pressure to ensure they have the best traction and stability she can get. With wet and frozen roads the norm in her neck of the woods, Homer puts safety at a priority.
Still, even in Alaska, where virtually everything is extreme in one manner or another, she stands out on her bike.
"Suddenly, I've become this crazy bike lady that people recognize and feel compelled to question," she writes in her blog. "If I ride out to the lake on a semi-nice day, I almost have to put on an extra base layer so I can stay warm during all the time I'm stopped talking to people about my bike."
To cyclists in the "tropics" of Utah, her ride is a strange-looking creation. To Homer, the Pugsley is the perfect vehicle for the backroads of Alaska.
The bike will weigh nearly 65 pounds when she embarks on her journey. It will be loaded with a sub-zero sleeping bag, extra clothes, food, medicines, and virtually everything you might want — other than a portable heat lamp — while traversing the frozen backcountry of Alaska.
Jill Homer said she hopes to find a friend to pedal through the wilderness with. Company, she said, will help the time pass and create a support system in case of a breakdown or other emergency.
Some five or six days after starting, she hopes to cross the finish line in McGrath, where she will probably collapse — and begin dreaming up her next big adventure.

The Iditarod Trail Invitational

• Feb. 24, 2 p.m. at Knik Lake, Alaska
• 350 or 1,100 Miles
• Jill Homer's blog: arcticglass.blogspot.com


E-mail: jeborn@desnews.com

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