Five Minutes With... Alice Lemkes
24 December, 2021
We sat down with Alice Lemkes, a familiar face in the ultra-distance community. In her first season of putting pedal to the metal competitively, she recently finished the notoriously challenging GBDURO in 7th place overall, a race with a 31% finisher rate. Luckily, we managed to catch Alice as she was about to head to an Edinburgh Cargo Movement meeting and got to speak to her face-to-face - a first for our Dotwatcher 5 Minutes With… feature. Alice is forever moving (hence why part of the conversation happened over the phone as she blasted along the Deeside Way) and always has some exciting and entertaining anecdotes to share. Her upbeat attitude and infectious laugh bring the stories of GBDURO to life. She has recently moved out of the city and is living with her partner, the equally impressive Lee Craigie, and their new border collie puppy Coire. Here is what she had to say about GBDURO and her cycling journey.
Photo by Maciek
1. Alice recently finished 7th in GBDURO, she told us a bit about her expectations for the race and how it actually happened.
Alice had two sets of expectations for GBDURO that she flicked between. One was simply finishing the mammoth race, “I’ve never finished a race… I felt like a fraud and kept thinking, can I even finish?”. Being surrounded by such strong athletes in your day-to-day riding, it is often difficult to gauge where you fit in the rankings.The other was proving herself and showing what she was truly capable of in a race environment; Alice has been training hard with Alison Wood (the coach for the Ultra Distance Scholarship) and knew she could be capable of big things this year at GBDURO.
After speaking to Alison, Alice decided to focus on the goal of finishing the race to ease the pressure and focus on solid goals. Taking this step made the colossal feat seem a little more achievable. Reflecting on this further, Alice commented, “It’s easy to think narrowly about your performance and how it reflects on who you are as a person, realistically it was my first race and I had a lot to learn through the experience”. This meant the weight of a particular performance was lifted and she could simply focus on getting in under the cut-offs, which she more than did!
It is really easy to have specific goals and expectations, but the only way to know how a race is truly going to pan out is to go out and do it; this is where the rollercoaster began. “10 days, alone with your thoughts, I started off just wanting to get to the end of stage 1”. There is a unique format to GBDURO: after every stage the athletes all group back together. This setup means that, for the majority of the race, the athletes are reasonably close together. Alice found this a double edged sword throughout and stage 1 was spent hyper-aware of how she was doing compared to the other athletes who were all so geographically close to each other.
Stage 2 was difficult as Alice’s partner, and fellow Adventure Syndicate athlete Lee Craigie, sadly scratched with navigational issues when she was 2 hours ahead. Alice reflected, “Lee and Phil (Philippa Battye) were such an integral part of why I was still on the course, I was trying to do well so I could be near them. When Lee scratched I had to remind myself of why I originally wanted to do the race - to experience what I was personally capable of, for no one other than myself.” Fighting through this tough moment she stayed strong and finished stage 2 with time to spare. After this she felt stronger and more confident that she could finish.
This is where the positive side of the proximity to athletes came in, “seeing other people throughout the race was so uplifting, as soon as someone went out of my sight I assumed they were getting further and further away but they were actually just around the corner. The stages worked so that everyone was passing each other all the time and that felt really inspiring.” The core group of women were congregating together, “I couldn’t believe I was sharing the road with these Badass women! Phil and Jamie didn’t sleep on the first day so when stage 1 ended it was nice to catch up with them and Emily, Sharn and Vicky were never far away either.”
Her final comments will really resonate with anyone who has hit the road of an ultra-distance race and will provide a pearl of wisdom for anyone who hasn’t: “you CAN imagine racing in your mind but the mind-body experience is so beyond the realm of imagination… When your brain thinks you have to do something, your body just has to comply. You’d be surprised how straight forward it becomes when that’s your sole purpose.”
2. She’s the co-founder of the Cargo Bike Movement in Edinburgh which has gained a huge amount of momentum. Alice explored this inspiring initiative with us.
Living in Edinburgh in 2020, Alice was recovering from COVID-19 and trying to find ways to deal with government restrictions that were particularly intense in Scotland. “We had two cargo bikes in the entryway that had been there since the Resolutions Race. We decided to do something with them, we got involved with a project picking up old food from supermarkets to the new homeless shelters set up in the pandemic. During the day we delivered groceries for the local shop to those who were isolating.”
Then the momentum picked up with the local council recognising their remarkable efforts and providing funding. Alice took on rota management and “it kind of grew its own legs, people in Edinburgh really wanted to get involved and it went from there.” Naomi, one of the team, wanted to go full time and with funding the team has become bigger than imagined, 10 cargo bikes and a comprehensive training programme.
Alice now runs the financial side of the programme, “I love spreadsheets so I enjoy the accounting and organising. I like the idea that things aren’t beyond your grasp, both ultra-endurance racing, accounting and even plumbing! I plumbed in a sink today”. Reminding us that ultra-racing is a state of mind rather than an on-off switch!
3. “The Adventure Syndicate is a collective of extraordinary cyclists who happen to be women and who aim to challenge what others think they are capable of.” Alice is a core member of the team and told us a little about how she got involved.
Alice first came across the Adventure Syndicate in 2016 at an event in Oxford about women in cycling - everything after that was history. She later met Philippa Battye and a host of other incredible women and began routinely going on adventures together. Her involvement with the Adventure Syndicate became a little more formal through the famed Resolution Race with Lee Craigie, Jenny Graham and Philippa Battye. She continues to go on silly adventures under the Adventure Syndicate banner - recently recreating a hostel-hopping tour of the highlands from 1936. The Adventure Syndicate has a lot of different facets which involve more outreach with women and young girls which she'd be keen to be involved with in the future and which forms the most important part of their work. She's also cooking up some ideas for the future, including some women-led mass starts. For now, we will simply say watch this space!
4. We went into Alice’s approach on how to balance riding and her PhD.
“I haven’t found a balance yet.” Alice’s response is somehow reassuring, many of us have struggled to train for events, juggle jobs, family priorities and especially COVID. But Alice has come up with a couple of ways to deal with it, mainly blocking work into sections and riding without working on certain days. The flexibility of the PhD gives her time to work on a project solidly for a chunk of every month and the rest of the time to train and ride, as well as getting lots of projects in order.
5. Will we be seeing more of Alice in the ultra-racing world during 2022?
“YEAH I AM!!!!! I’m going to sign up to the Highland Trail, it’s everything I fear about bike races; being wet for days just sounds brutal and the pace gets so slow, I get grumpy when I’m not making progress. It’s going to take a lot of mental fortitude but I’m going to spend the winter mountain biking to prepare.” Sure enough, you’ll find Alice Lemkes on the start list for the Highland Trail 550, along with a lot of other women. For those of you who don’t know too much about the Highland Trail take a look at our coverage from last year.
“I haven’t really thought much further ahead, I’d like to keep going off road but we’ll see what happens.” After pressing Alice on whether she’d do GBDURO again it seems she’s keen for the future races but maybe having a year off, “It’s so compelling, the race format is just so cool. With the Ultra Distance Scholarship scholars racing hopefully it’ll have a different feel.” This comment led us down an interesting tangent with Alice contemplating “We often focus on the big names, if you paid all of us to ride our bikes everyday we’d all be excellent, it shouldn’t be a surprise when a full-time cyclist is good. The alternative narrative is much more exciting.”
The 2022 Ultra Distance Scholarship winners will be tackling GBDURO. Hopefully the momentum from last year might open up a different perspective to ultra-racing, no longer chasing the big names but focussing more on those who’ve had to challenge the most barriers to get onto that start line.
6. Alice finished by sharing her top tip for wild swimming whilst bikepacking:
“Just get in the water! There’s lots of times I didn’t get in the water because I was too self aware and I’d pass up the opportunity. But in reality everyone is too preoccupied with themselves to give a s**t about you, so just go for it!”
“On the Mary Harvie trip it was high up, wet, grey and cold and we were in full waterproofs. Phil just said ‘come on then, let’s go!’ I would’ve normally just gone past but it was amazing!”.