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Courtesy Ty Hopkins
Ty Hopkins rides through the Canadian Rockies during the 2018 Tour Divide mountain bike race.

PROVO — Before he was about to ride his mountain bike into country where he might encounter bears, Ty Hopkins, a professor of exercise science at BYU, asked his colleague Tom Smith, a bear biologist, if he had any advice.

“You should have no problem, but you’ve got to do three things,” said Smith. “Never ride alone, never ride at dusk or dark, and always carry bear spray.”

“Uh, what if I only do one of those three things?” asked Hopkins.

Smith just shook his head and walked off.

And that was before he heard the really crazy part: Hopkins had entered a mountain bike race that starts in Banff, Canada, and follows the Continental Divide for 2,725 miles along the spine of the Rockies until it ends on the Mexican border. The race is called the Tour Divide. It starts every year on the second Friday of June, and on average attracts about 150 entrants, part adventure junkies, part masochists, less than half of whom will finish.

Hopkins first heard about the Tour Divide in 2010, and try as he might, he could not get it out of his mind. He’d always been attracted to endurance sports. He’d competed in triathlons and more bike races than he could count. But this one exceeded them all. The sheer audaciousness of it mesmerized him.

“It gets in your blood; it’s like a sickness almost,” he says. And for Hopkins, he could rationalize that it could also count as work. He would use the crazy race to measure what happens to the body when it does crazy races. His fellow professors at the BYU Department of Exercise Sciences readily agreed to take him in the lab and test him and take measurements so they could compare them to more tests and measurements when (if) he got back.

He prepared by riding massive amounts of miles, regularly taking the commute less traveled, leaving his home in American Fork and arriving at his office on the BYU campus three hours later by way of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

One thought kept inspiring him: Once he got on the ride he could eat all the honey buns he wanted.

Then he was off. And the funny thing about the junk food he’d been dreaming about, when he could finally eat it he didn’t want to. Exercise in excessive amounts does that to an appetite. He was expending 11,500 calories a day (as verified by the lab) and the most he could stuff back in was 6,500 calories. He’d discovered the Tour Divide Diet. Eat everything in sight and watch the pounds drift away.

He saw four bears, by the way.

“More than my share,” he says.

The last one was in southern New Mexico when he thought he was out of bear country.

“I came around a curve, going downhill, saw the bear, skidded, and that thing took off,” he remembers. “I’ve never seen something run so fast. It must have been a 300-pound bear and it scaled a 40-foot wall. I sat there laughing, thinking if that bear had any idea how scared I was of it, it wouldn’t be running so fast.”

More than the physical, it was the mental strain that wore him down. On the last stretch of the race, a completely flat paved road, nothing technical, no bears, he laid down in the middle of the highway and hoped a truck would either run over him or drive him to the finish line. He’s glad one didn’t stop because he’s not sure he wouldn’t have gotten in.

Eventually, after about a half-hour of feeling sorry for himself, he climbed back on his bike and made it to Mexico, where the only thing waiting for him was the electronic eye that read his race chip and officially clocked him in at 16 days, 7 hours and 43 minutes. He finished fourth out of 166 entrants, averaging 170 miles a day at an average speed of 7 miles per hour. He was only a little over a day behind the 2018 winner, 28-year-old Lewis Ciddor, who did it in 15 days, 2 hours, 8 minutes, and just four hours behind the third-place finisher. (Seventy-seven people finished, some coming in weeks later; one guy took 110 days).

Hopkins came home, plopped on the couch, hugged his wife, Holly, and their four daughters, ate massive amounts of ice cream, went to the lab to be tested, and wrote a book about his experience. It’s called “Just Ride” and in it, besides describing the day-by-day racing, he goes into detail about the results of the physiological studies done at BYU.

The book is available on Amazon or at Mad Dog Cycles in Orem.

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The biggest questions Hopkins gets now that he’s back is what it was like and if he’s glad he did it.

His reply:

“Ninety-seven percent is pure soul-crushing effort; you just can’t imagine how much it hurts. But that 3 percent is unbelievable. I mean euphoric moments, and I can name them, I know exactly how I felt, I know exactly what I smelled, I know exactly what I saw in those moments. The problem is, they add up to like one hour in 16 days, there just aren’t very many of them. But they make it all worth it. They make me glad I did it.”