Five Minutes With... Meaghan Hackinen

Five Minutes With... Meaghan Hackinen

9 October, 2023

Meaghan Hackinen is a constant figure in the ultra-cycling world, particularly in her native Canada. She's conquered many races, including the Transcontinental Race and Trans Am Bike Race, with overall wins in different disciplines, such as the BC Epic 1000. However, she's well known for her writing, authoring a book on her Pacific Coast trip and her very new book Shifting Gears, focussing on the Trans Am Race.

1. What is your favourite racing memory, and why?

You've got such an impressive results list in your ultra-cycling history, ranging from the TransAm Bike Race in 2017, 24-hour world titles, the Big Lonely FKT and an overall win at the BC Epic 1000. As well as multiple wins in local gravel ultras, which we'll explore later. What is your favourite racing memory, and why?

Probably riding away with the lead on the first evening of the 2021 BC Epic 1000, a mixed-surface bikepacking race across most of British Columbia on rail trail, gravel roads, singletrack, with a little pavement to link things up. The BC Epic was a special event to me for so many reasons: it was both my first non-road bikepacking race, and my first event after Covid-19 lockdowns. The status of the event was touch and go right up until roll out, and I think the uncertainty of everything—would we get to race? Could I even handle pedalling 1,000 kilometres on gravel, dirt, and trail?—translated into excitement once I was finally out in the woods. Soaring temperatures picked off most of my competition, and I loved the feeling of pulling away from the pack as the day wore on. By sunset, I was racing over Myra Canyon’s spectacular wooden rail trestles alone as the bright lights of Kelowna—my hometown—glimmering in the distance. Relieved from the heat of the day, I felt like a million bucks and was ready to tackle whatever challenges lay ahead.

2. How do you balance so many races in a year at a competitive pace and what keeps you coming back for more?

This year, you've won a few gravel ultras in North America, the Buckshot (overall win), Log Driver's Waltz FKT (overall FKT ITT), the Lost Elephant (overall win) and now the Dark Divide 300 (women's division win). How do you balance so many races in a year at a competitive pace and what keeps you coming back for more?

The word balance isn’t in my vocabulary. I’m all in, or else it gets pushed to the sidelines. This summer, I’ve been so busy racing and playing catchup at work that I have fallen behind in other realms of my life, like my creative practice and personal relationships. But, I love bikepack racing: from the training to preparation, but most of all when I’m out on the course enjoying the payoff for all that hard work in lonesome, beautiful places. I enjoy competing, but more significantly I love the experience of rising to a challenge, and accomplishing things I couldn’t have imagined possible from the outset.

Photo Nathan Siemens

3. The gravel community in CA,  what about this community makes it such a great place for women in ultra-cycling?

One of your recent races, the Lost Elephant in East Kootenays is a 500km+ race that is gnarly and testing. The top five on the finish list contained FOUR women! This is exciting but also relatively unheard of, what about this community makes it such a great place for women in ultra-cycling?

It is exciting, right!? I’m not a social scientist, so I can only state my observations and make some guesses. I think that the uneven gender distribution in endurance cycling (even though we’ve seen women compete at the very tip of the pointy end) is complex and probably worthy of a PhD thesis. However, I do think that the high number of women crushing this particular event has something to do with the broader outdoor adventure culture of the East Kootenays and surrounding regions. I had a chance to revisit the start/finish city of Cranbrook and was impressed by the degree in which people there embraced the mountains and wilderness, getting out on foot, by bike, or offroad vehicle. I also noticed a lot of support and camaraderie in the outdoor community: things like mountain bike courses for women, and mixed gender groups who set out on the trails before the crack of dawn. So, when someone says, “Hey, I’m thinking of doing the Lost Elephant this summer,” her friends and family offer support and encouragement.

There are also two Lost Elephant courses: the Jumbo (which I did), or shorter Dumbo; both events are free, and the signup process is simple. I think having a shorter race is simultaneously a great challenge on its own, but also a nice steppingstone for folks—including women—who want to get into racing longer distances. And having more overall female participants in turn leads to a bigger pool of women competing for overall podium positions as well.

Photo Nathan Siemans

4. How did you find this race with it being such a contrast to gravel races in your local area? 

Many people may know you from the 2022 Transcontinental Race where you were the third woman to finish. How did you find this race with it being such a contrast to gravel races in your local area?

Uuuuuuuggggghhhh! The Transcontinental was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I used to say that about every event, but no more: the Transcontinental is the event by which I measure all others against. I pushed myself past my mental breaking point and fell apart pretty catastrophically in the second half. That summer, I trained primarily on road in Europe to help prepare, which was a smart move, however I neglected some major areas in regard to logistical preparation.

I think a major difference between the Transcontinental and local gravel races is the population density of Europe, versus the remote nature of much of the off-pavement terrain close to home. I find city riding, as well as navigating busier places, to be quite stressful. I do better on my own in the wilderness, with more bears, hike-a-bikes, and water crossings, but fewer navigational cues and cars to watch out for. My favourite moments of the Transcontinental were frequently on gravel, where I opted for slower, rougher roads but was rewarded by amazing scenery in a car-free environment (I’m thinking of farm roads in Germany, Serbia, and Bulgaria).

That being said, I would do the Transcontinental again. There’s something uniquely alluring about it. On quiet roads, I love road riding in Europe, and then there’s the indisputably epic endeavour of crossing an entire continent under your own sweat and muscle.

5. Could you tell us your process for writing up such exciting rides and races and how it affects your relationship with the bike?

You've written a book called South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels. This read shares your trip from Terrace, British Columbia down the West coast to (almost) the tip of the Baja Peninsula where California meets Mexico. You've also got another book out, just released this month (October), Shifting Gears: Coast to Coast on the Trans Am Bike Race, which will cover your story there. Could you tell us your process for writing up such exciting rides and races and how it affects your relationship with the bike?

I pursued the craft of writing because I found that I was such a crappy storyteller: I could never keep all the throughlines straight in my head, and listeners always tuned out before I got to the climax. I don’t have the thickest skin, so it really hurt my feelings when people didn’t hear me out! So, I decided to write down my stories as a way of telling them instead. I think the reflective process of writing—spending time with an experience as you write, revise, and re-imagine how best to lay it out—helps me tell better stories as well.

First, I start with a process of reverie. I’m not the best at keeping a journal in non-race situations, and at the end of an event I’m lucky if I have anything more than a few text messages to go back to for source material. Instead, I look at a photo or imagine a place in my mind. I use that as a starting point for a scene, and just let myself step back into my imagination and walk around in those moments. Then, I pick up the pen (or pull out my computer) and free write. In these early stages, I write entirely for myself and without judgement. I just spill anything and everything onto the page until my timer goes off, and I move onto another scene.

After doing this a few times with different photos or place memories, I start to get an idea of what’s important/what stands out/what I’d like to say. I use my scribbles and the reflections that come out of them to create an outline for an essay or chapter. Then I sit down and write again, with a better idea of where I’m going now that I’ve done some warmup work. Later on in the process, I spend heaps of time revising and editing, as well as reading others’ work as a form of inspired procrastination. Whenever I read, I’m also studying craft and looking to understand how a piece works and evolve my own writing.

Photo Jocelyn De La Rosa

6. Do you have any tips for women looking to get into gravel ultras and how they should make the leap from 1 day to multi-day?

I jumped straight into multi-day and only recently began lining up on the start of single-day events—so I might not be the best person to ask! I actually find shorter event (anything less than a century) extremely stressful. With my background is in long-distance touring—not group or pack racing—I guess I just feel more comfortable on the road for longer stints. So, if I were going to give advice for someone getting started in multi-day events, I’d say “Go touring!”. Bikepack touring provides a low stakes opportunity to build up your confidence, become accustomed to the extra kit, and get comfortable without the amenities of home. All the preparation that you do for a tour—from tuning up your bike, assembling your toolbox and first aid kit, and analysing the route—will come in handy when it’s time to get ready to race.

Photo Jocelyn De La Rosa

7. Which do you listen to on rides, music, podcasts or nothing?

25% music, 25% podcasts, 50% nothing.