Dispatches from the Dark Divide 300

Meaghan Hackinen shares her experience racing the 330-mile, cross-Washington bikepacking race known as The Dark Divide, and tells us a bit about what allows her to push herself past her limits the way she does.

Words by: Meaghan Hackinen

Photos by: Meaghan Hackinen & Tyler Botts

The Dark Divide 300 is a challenging 531-km mixed-terrain cycling route that traverses the expansive ancestral lands of the Squaxin Island Tribe, Nisqually Tribe of Indians, Cowlitz Indian Tribe, and Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, through what is known commonly as southern Cascade Mountain Range in Washington. According to organizers, “Resupply is limited, cell phones are useless, and the terrain can be steep, rutted, and utterly unforgiving.”

For Meaghan Hackinen, 2023 marked the inaugural grand depart, with approximately 30 riders setting out from Olympia toward the Cascadian hinterlands via the Elbe Hills State Forest. They pedalled deeper into the backcountry through unmaintained and forgotten forest roads and seldom-traveled scenic byways until they reached the Dark Divide Roadless Area, one of the most rugged and beautiful landscapes on the continent. 

It is in the aforementioned Dark Divide Roadless Area that Meaghan found herself now: traversing Juniper Ridge on a precarious trail that wasn’t designed with bicycles in mind, alone in the dark. Clamouring through the woods, she finds it increasingly difficult to fathom the existence of pavement, let alone the finish line in Portland, Oregon.

I pull into the parking lot of Trout Lake Grocery at 1:30 am. Back on Juniper Ridge, I spotted the lights of second-place rider, Seattle-based Becca Book, on an extended hike-a-bike. After catching her, we trekked uphill together. When Becca paused to shake the gravel from her shoes, however, we split. Each returning to her own rhythm as the night twinkled bright with glimmering starlight.

            Now, I think of Becca—no doubt gaining ground with every second as I fill my hydration pack from a garden hose and wipe my lenses clean. I crossed paths with lead rider Andy Leveto just minutes ago on the out-and-back to Trout Lake, so I am keenly aware of my standing—wedged between first and third—with no time to waste.

Giddy up, I think to myself as I hop back on the saddle, tuck into the drops, and drive hard toward the next monster forest service road ascent. 

Before the Dark Divide 300 rolled out, I had the opportunity to pre-ride the route. After Jan Heine of Rene Herse Cycles set a new course record of 37 hours and 34 minutes, my partner James and I spent five full days pedalling as we pleased. We packed swimsuits and novels, pitched camp overlooking pristine rivers and fields of fireweed, cooked one-pot wonders and slept until the morning sun baked us inside our bivies. In addition to an incredible journey, we also gained some course-specific intel, noting key water sources and using our field experience to make informed tire choices. Yet nothing could assuage the glaring, inescapable fact that racing the Dark Divide was going to be really, really hard. 

Sure, the route was gorgeous—but so is a mountain lion. And both will eat you alive if you’re not careful. 

After hours of tunnelling through inky darkness, I’m caught in the glow of another bike light on a climb. My initial reaction: sprint. But I’ve been on the bike over 20 hours and busting out a sprint is about as far-fetched as mingling in the pro peloton of the Tour de France Femmes. Instead, I focus on power and consistency to keep the rider at bay. When the slope plateaus, Andy surges alongside.

            “Did you see me sleeping in that pullout back there?” he asks.

            “No,” I reply. Though I witnessed plenty of other sights, including an SUV parked diagonally across the forest road, the cozy tents of PCT thru-hikers, and potholes deep enough to swallow a tandem bicycle. We back off the pace enough to converse as the skyline pales to reveal the blue-green slopes of surrounding mountains, then part ways on the descent—this time around it’s me eating dust. 

            He’s so strong, I think to myself. But so are you.

Meaghan’s the type that’s always been competitive. After highschool team sports, she discovered roller derby while living in Vancouver. With roots in bikepack racing, however, stem from non-competitive cycling disciplines like commuting, touring, and randonneuring, she didn’t dip her toes into self-supported racing until her third ACL tear, when she finally threw in the towel on full-contact sports and quickly realized that bikepack racing—with its ditch naps, gas station smorgasbords, and friendly bonhomie—was for her. Recognized how much satisfaction she derived from endurance cycling’s uninterrupted state of motion—flow. In racing, her secret to going long is simply to find the flow and ride it out, and failing that, simply resorting to number crunching, or obsessively checking the tracker. 

Without cell service on the Dark Divide, I relied on flow. While the knowledge that other riders were close at hand undoubtedly spurred my progress, the onset of fatigue reduced my mental bandwidth to the here and now: that I was on track to surpass Jan Heine’s FKT meant nothing. Yet in the dips and bumps in the road, I found contentment. When the sun finally arose to reveal a vast and all-encompassing wilderness, I discovered awe. 

The final big climb is little more than a foot path winding through the bush. I dismount often to trek over downed logs, but stop only once to remove my layers and re-apply chamois cream. When it’s safe to shift focus away from the trail, I trace the thick trunks of ancient timber as they soar through leafy maples, and merge into the vaulting canopy. 

Hours later, I emerge from the understory myself, rewarded with top-of-the-world views from yet another incredible ridgeline quad trail. Portland is less than 100 km away, a distance that could easily be covered in a single training ride.

But of course, this is not going to be easy.

The descent into Yacolt Burn State Forest is fast and loose; rutted with washouts and accented by fallen rock debris. During the recon, I lost traction and went over the bars. Once I dusted myself off and disinfected my scrapes, I white-knuckled the brakes until the terrain levelled out—nerves on edge. This time around, I can’t afford to waste time or get hurt. I coach myself down the mountain. Kind, but firm:

Choose your lines. Look beyond your front wheel. Stay low. You’ve got this.

I reach the East Fork Lewis River without incident, though my hands and feet are numb from the jackhammer descent. Worse, I can’t get my legs back. I am tapped out—no fuel left in the tank (despite the steady ingestion of carbs). My body only weakens as I approach city suburbs and then the Columbia River, yet the sinew that holds everything together remains strong. I’m tired, but I’m happy; humbled, but still rolling along.

I arrive at the New Seasons Market in Portland at 3:16 pm, wrapping up the Dark Divide in 32 hours and 16 minutes. Andy finished just 20 minutes prior, claiming both the win and new fastest known time (FKT) while I snag second place and the women’s FKT. There are no familiar faces to greet us, just an affable local cyclist who offers to keep an eye on our bikes while we wander the grocery store aisles in a ravenous daze. Soon, we are basking in finishers’ glory at a picnic table in the shade, shovelling down food and swapping stories as our phones buzz with incoming messages of congratulations. 

Final reflections:

I’m proud of how I kept it together out there on the Dark Divide. The spirited race between the three frontrunners made for edge-of-your-seat dotwatching, and I’m stoked that I could be part of the action. After my singular resupply in Packwood at 173 km, I stopped only to take care of essentials, and managed to balance my needs while staying in motion. Aside from flow (and a long-haul love affair with competitive sport) I think that my ability to push so hard for so long comes from knowing my limits and riding within them. The energy it takes to crawl back from heatstroke, a bad crash, dehydration, or a major navigation error is immense, and best avoided.