stories • happenings • adventures
Interview by Jill Homer, Photos by Josh Kato
Josh Kato, a 40-year-old nurse from Washington, won the 2015 Tour Divide in record time — after 2,745 miles of racing across the Rocky Mountains, he finished just minutes in front of his closest competitors in 14 days, 11 hours, and 37 minutes. It was an incredible ride, and Kato approached it with a humility and gratitude, determined to savor the experience rather than fixate on competitive aspects of the race.
Kato has already answered many questions about his gear and race strategy. In this interview, he gives more insight into his mindset on the trail: Overcoming physical setbacks, marveling in the landscape, and battling a mental low that nearly convinced him to end his race 400 miles from Antelope Wells.
In 2014, you had a number of unfortunate mishaps early in the race, that eventually forced you to withdraw with multiple injuries. Did you experience any major setbacks this year? How did you overcome them?
Last year’s Tour Divide seems like a totally different race to me. I did have a few physical challenges this year, but nothing like last year. I truly believe that most ailments will go away with a bit of time and maybe some small changes to your daily habits on the bike. Listening to your body is important. For example, pushing into severe sleep deprivation may not be the best answer for everyone to go fast.
On days two to for this year, my knees were killing me. I really had to ease up on the pedals for a while. I think that most knee pains that arise on the bike will likely go away with time and will rarely result in long-term injury. Of course everyone’s bodies are a bit different. I found that wearing my leg warmers more helped the pain go away. I wore them until it became too hot to handle in the day. The pain subsided by day six and never became an issue again.
I also notice that many of us on the Divide get a horrid cough at least for some time. I didn’t ever mention in my blog from last year but I had a pretty ugly cough from day two onward. It prevented me (and those around me) from sleeping well a few nights. It just seemed like the least of my worries. I ran into this cough again this year but not quite so badly. I know that a few of the guys around me also had this cough. It sure feels like a combination of mild pulmonary edema mixed with over-exertion and breathing in all sorts of dust and allergens. I couldn’t sleep well on nights three to five this year because of the coughing. It worsened when stopped and persistently nagged when on the bike. Whatever it was, it eased by day six and went away fully by Colorado. We are putting our bodies through some pretty extraordinary stress out there, and something’s gonna give eventually.
Then there was my stomach. Ugh! Having to stop every hour or so to heed the call of nature during a race this long is no fun. There was probably a day and half that my progress was quite slow due to these repeated stops. It was probably around day five or six that my stomach revolted and it still isn’t quite right. Of course, drinking unfiltered water from a culvert along the road in New Mexico probably isn’t helping my continued stomach ills at all. I only sat down for four meals during the race. I couldn’t eat large quantities all at once after day five so I just nibbled while on the bike. Donuts and ice cream seem to have helped the most.
What would you say is your favorite or most memorable moment from the 2015 Tour Divide? Besides rolling into Antelope Wells?
Wow, that’s a hard question. I have so many beautiful memories from the race. So many.
One that really stands out in my mind right now was the night that I rolled over the Medicine Lodge-Sheep Creek Divide in Montana. The sunset was absolutely gorgeous. As I descended, night arrived and brought a lovely crescent moon with amazing starlight. I turned off all my lights and rode slowly down the rough, dirt road guided only by that sliver of moonlight. I started to hear sounds all around me so I stopped and paused. I could hear breathing that was not my own. I turned on my helmet light and found that I had ridden into a huge herd of elk surrounding the road. Their bugling chorus resonated in my soul. I turned off my light and remained motionless. It felt like someone was pounding on a huge hide-covered cedar drum as the herd scattered. I left my light off and continued to ride for several miles. It was beautiful.
What would you say was your most difficult moment during the 2015 Tour Divide?
Waking up! I like my sleep. I had a total of four items with alarm clocks. I set all four most nights.
In all honesty, there was a point that I thought I might not continue racing. It was the evening before I got to Grants, New Mexico. I’d caught Jay P and Neil in Cuba earlier in the day, and then passed them that evening on the road leading to Grants. For that small amount of time (it must have been less than five miles), I was in first place. I began to have all these “racer” thoughts. I was calculating distances, average speeds, plotting stopping points, pre-meditating what items I could get at resupply points the fastest, figuring caloric intakes, expenditures. I was so caught up in “racing” at that moment that I don’t remember any part of the night sky or the dimly illuminated horizon.
For that moment I forgot my personal reasons for being out there. I was no longer challenging the course and myself, but was making it all about racing. My inner dialogue disappeared. For a while, I thought that Jay and Neil were stalking me with their lights off and I began to have these negative thoughts towards them and the race in general. I was in first place and had this weird reaction of not wanting to do it anymore. I stopped, and a few moments later Jay and Neil passed. I rode on for a bit longer, stopped again, found a comfy spot in the ditch, turned on my phone and texted my wife with a single word — “done.”
Wow, what an interesting reaction to have at that point in the race, and even more impressive that you moved past it. Joy is no doubt a strong precursor to success. What are your personal strategies to remain positive even when you’re hurting or things aren’t going your way?
I really was happy. You gotta stay in a positive place out there — I don’t know how a person would finish otherwise. I rode from Wamsutter, Wyoming, to Silver City, New Mexico, pretty much alone. That’s a lot of time for your demons to haunt you, and a lot of time for negativity to seep through the cracks of happiness.
Luckily I find a lot of joy in just being outside. If you are racing the Divide, that means you’ve been able to somehow sneak away from societal obligations for about three weeks. What’s not fun about playing hooky from life? It’s like being a kid on a really sweet set of wheels with a credit card and carte blanche in the junk food aisle. Yeah, it hurts a lot, but you’re out there doing something awesome, and you get to eat a lot of donuts while doing it. When I was hurting, I would try to tell myself that no matter how bad you feel now, you will feel better eventually. Nurses always say “all bleeding stops… eventually” Tour Divide pain is the same.
There are many people that can’t get out and do something like the Divide. They can’t for any number of reasons. Physical, financial, time or whatever. We need to realize how truly lucky we are just to have the chance to be out there. Wind in our faces, sunsets, sunrises, mountains all around, a chance encounter with a herd of elk. It’s all so beautifully simple. If I wasn’t having fun out there, it was my own fault.
Do you think you’ll come back?
For most Divide racers this is a one-and done- affair. Getting time off of work more than one year running to complete the Divide is a monumental challenge. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’m done chasing all of my Divide dreams. I’m not sure that will mean coming back to challenge the Grand Depart. For me, it was always about the personal journey out there. However, I suppose coming back on a tandem could be more of a shared journey.
Thanks Josh! We’ll have a brief part 2 with some final notes on Josh’s gear.