“You’re just a cog in a well-oiled machine, close to the wheel in front of you but not close enough to clip it, keeping an even pace even when it feels like your quads will explode, finding the strength to break the wind for a 20-second pull that can feel like an hour. When you drop back to recover, you’re elated to be part of this weaving snake of riders.”
A professional women’s bike racerAlways an athlete, Stefani Jackenthal found herself looking for a sport that was challenging and social while attending business school in 1991. She joined the New York Cycle Club and recalls that after completing the 11-week training series, “I was hooked.” At the urging of a fellow member she started racing, forming a team with other cycling friends the following year. Stefani Jackenthal was the sprinter. Sponsored by Screaming Yellow Zonkers (“A caramelized popcorn, so we had popcorn all over our jerseys and skin suits,” she explains), the seven women followed the national road-racing circuit through 1995.
A crash ends a cycling careerThe prize money (usually a few thousand dollars for top finishers) at a circuit race in Sommerville, New Jersey, in 1995 was bigger than usual. People were taking risks, especially in the last lap. “When a top racer came out of a turn very tight, she knocked over 25 people. I ended up in the hospital with stitches in my elbow and a banged-up hip,” recounts Jackenthal. However, her injuries didn’t keep her out of Philadelphia’s prestigious Corestates Race the following weekend, the first time women were allowed to compete.
But the fall led to bursitis, and later in the season Jackenthal’s hip joint seized up to the point where she simply couldn’t pedal any more. Fortunately, she’d developed a career as a journalist, and she continued to cover the bike-racing scene for cycling magazines and the Summer Olympic Games. “I get bored easily, so being an in-action sport journalist and writing from a first-person point of view keep things interesting,” she explains. Her writing assignments follow what’s new in the ultra-endurance world, from triathlons to adventure racing to ultramarathons (anything longer than 26.2 miles).
No mere marathons, thanksJackenthal kicked off 2005 with a seven-day, 150-mile footrace down the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, which she was also covering for Runners World. A wrong turn on the Osa Peninsula left her stranded at high tide for an hour, so dehydrated that her muscles were starting to seize up. “I thought, ‘This could be it,’ ” the athlete admits, but fortunately experience kept her rational enough to retrace her steps.
That misadventure was a piece of cake compared to the event she’s currently training for: a six-day, 150-mile footrace across South Africa’s Kalahari Desert. The Costa Rica race was supported: a crew transported her belongings between stages and manned regular aid stations. But in the Kalahari she’ll need to carry a 20-pound pack with all her provisions, except for a tent and water: “all of my food, a sleeping bag, and some sort of a pot. So that’s another, definitely more challenging part of being self-sufficient.”
Jackenthal refers to marathons as “vanilla sports: fun but predictable.” Expedition-style races, on the other hand, “are a rocky road, but they’re so wicked cool.” Just for fun, she and eight friends flew to Arizona in May to tackle the Grand Canyon. Starting at 5 a.m., they ran down the South Rim, across the inner basin, up to the North Rim (where sharing a chocolate espresso brownie inspired Jackenthal to do a Snoopy dance), and then turned around and retraced their steps back to the top of the South Rim. Forty-eight miles in 13 hours—not bad for a day’s play.
What makes her do it?Jackenthal compares endurance events to peeling an onion: “You get to a certain level and you can go deeper, one layer at a time.” As fatigue sets in, a whole new perspective emerges: the body goes into survival mode, and the brain adjusts. “You forget you have bills to pay, or a dinner appointment,” she says. The surroundings “start to pop”: the ancient striations on the Grand Canyon’s walls look richer, howler monkeys’ shrieks in the canopy sound louder, the flowers and manure and brick-red mud caking her bike in the Borneo rain forest smell riper. “Things around you become bigger than life, and you only have the brain space to focus on what’s important at that moment.”
Not that Jackenthal would swap her everyday life for life in the wild. “I like good wine and The New York Times delivered every day,” says the Manhattan-dweller. “But it’s truly this huge payoff. You get to see remote areas of the world. You become primitive, just existing as a being and learning what you’re made of. It makes you appreciate yourself and your world. And you meet the coolest people. It’s so much fun.”
[back to top]
Name: Stefani Jackenthal
Born: Englewood, New Jersey, 1966
Where I go to watch IMAX films: Sony Theater in New York City
Education: MBA in Marketing
Book/s I'd want if I were stranded on a desert island: Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Jhumpa Lahari’s Interpreter of Maladies, Ruth Riechl’s Garlic & Sapphire
Favorite place to visit: Nepal, Italy, Spain, Borneo, South Africa
Favorite food: Freshly baked whole-wheat raisin walnut bread, wild blueberries, seared tuna steak, garlicky broccoli rabe, Ciao Bella chocolate sorbet
Favorite artist/kind of music: Good ol’ rock ’n’ roll
Biking experiences: I got my first green Schwinn, with a flowered banana seat, for my sixth birthday from my grandfather, and have been riding ever since. I won the co-ed division Team RAAM (Race Across America, four-person team) in 2003, and have competed in triathlons, Ironmans, and adventure racing.