One of the most common themes across the women athletes profiled here is that they came to their respective sports relatively late—usually after college. For whatever reason, athletics didn’t catch on during their school years, or they didn’t think of themselves as athletic when they were younger.
46-year-old Bellingham native Jamie Van Beek is a variation on that theme. As a high schooler, although she knew she had athletic talent, she got discouraging feedback from the girls’ coach. There were few options outside of ball sports. Surprisingly, there was no girls cross-country team at her school until her senior year.
According to a recent study at Iowa State University in Ames, fitness experiences during the school years can have a lifelong negative impact:
“Many said that they had hated being chosen late or last for sports teams, or felt embarrassed “about bumbling sports performances.”
Every once in a while an outlier comes along. Despite the discouragement during her high school years, Jamie persisted.
After high school, Jamie became the first female firefighter and EMT with the Sumner Fire Department. There, she had the opportunity to rediscover and express her athleticism in ways other than being on a team or doing conventional sports.
After her stint as a first responder, she started competing in triathlons and running events.
“As a triathlete I always won my age group (20s), and I usually finished in the top 3 of women. I raced in the Danskin Triathlon pro division and got 1st in my age group and 8th overall. I have a lengthy list of wins as a long distance runner and triathlete, and was sponsored by a local running store here in Bellingham.”
When she was 43, as a result of a knee injury, she quit long distance running to focus on cycling. She got into competitive road cycling in 2013, and with the encouragement of her coach Brian Ecker, has developed an affinity for gravel races. She’s done all of the local gravel grinders–Goldendale, Ephrata, and Winthrop (her favorite)–where she was the 1st woman and 4th overall.
In 2015 an unfortunate turn of events inspired Jamie to go all-in and pursue her athletic dreams. As a triathlete, Jamie’s best friend and biggest fan Laura kept encouraging her to pursue her athletic interests as far as possible. Then, suddenly, Laura got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within 90 days of the diagnosis. After Laura’s death Jamie resolved to act on her friend’s advice and live her life to the fullest and to live in the moment.
Since then, and particularly in the last 12 months she’s been on a mission to inspire other 40-something women, and is having more fun than ever.
Coach Ecker says:
“It is pretty darn cool to see a mid-40s female pull it together and whoop-ass on a lot of folks, especially the over-egotistic masters male riders. It happens so frequently with her these days that it only incurs a wry smile when it happens.”
Unlike road cycling races, gravel races don’t segregate by gender into separate events. Jamie genuinely enjoys being in a mass start and competing directly against men. She likes the fact that gravel races are more challenging and adventurous than road cycling because they require navigational and mechanical skills. Jamie enjoys being self-reliant in the middle of nowhere and overcoming any obstacles that come may come her way. The downside for her: Not enough women racing gravel. Yet.
Jamie quickly progressed to the infamous Dirty Kanza 200-mile gravel race. She was simultaneously excited and scared when she first learned about it; fear is a major motivator for a lot of athletes. Jamie says she is always looking for new experiences that require her to push her limits, and Kanza was a perfect fit. Jamie turned her limits into opportunities for personal growth. To get ready for Kanza she trained for over a year with Brian Ecker. The scope of preparation ranged from getting her body ready do a hard 206-mile race, to learning how to deal with the range of mechanical issues that frequently happen in that event.
“Jamie represents the type of client I work well with, which is: she knows how to work hard and wants to work super hard. Just needs help pulling it all together. In that regards, I have had similar clients in the past and have had tremendous success. I call it “point and shoot.” They, of course, think it is more involved than that but when you are objectively standing on the sideline, it is pretty easy to identify the looming pitfalls and navigate around them.”
“It is true, she loves to ride her bike. The drive has only gotten stronger as her ability and confidence have grown. I didn’t know her prior to coaching so I can’t comment really as if that drive has always been there and whether her current state is just a refocusing of it on cycling or whether it is entirely new. Honestly, one of my main roles in coaching her is saying “no, you can’t go do that”. It’s like being a governor on a rental truck. Left to her own devices she would completely disintegrate herself……six weeks on her own and it would be like the engine overheated, tires worn bald, and the truck would be parked on the highway shoulder with its flashers on – fluid leaking out of every seal!. Given my riding history, most folks probably think it is the other way around, i.e. “Ecker is demanding she do these crazy 8+ hour epics.” It’s actually the opposite!”
Preparation for Kanza was a major learning experience for Jamie:
“I enjoyed every minute of training for the Dirty Kanza 206 mile gravel race. The only pressure to perform came from within myself. I did not set out to prove anything to anyone at Dirty Kanza. My goal was to simply be better than I was before….to improve myself. In order for this race to go well I had to fail, make mistakes and learn from them in my training. Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be powered by. Every single one of those failures in my training taught me valuable lessons on how to take care of myself both mentally and physically out there in 206 miles of gravel.”
Jamie says Whatcom County is a great place to be a cyclist and has been a great training ground for her ambitious objectives. The Artist Point climb is in her backyard. Hwy 20–the North Cascades Highway which is typically ridden as a 100+-mile epic–is relatively close. She also values how welcoming Bellingham’s cycling community, mostly guys, has been. She recognizes that in order to improve it’s necessary to ride with with people who are faster and more skilled.
“I am fortunate to be able to train, ride, and be mentored by some very talented men here in Bellingham.”
Jamie’s Kanza results: 13:09:00 (an average speed of 15.68mph): 68/1017 overall, 8/183 females, and 2/45 women 40-49. Simply finishing Kanza is considered a major accomplishment.
Think about it: A 46-year-old mother of three and full-time professor was 8th women overall at Kanza. The women who finished ahead of Jamie were all young professional riders.
Jamie also races on the road, and her successes last year led her to upgrade to category 2. In the 2018 season the Baker City stage race was her favorite road race. It was her first stage race, and it appealed to her search for new experiences because it tested her across several disciplines and multiple days.
In July I had the good fortune of racing against Jamie at the 2018 Race Across Oregon. She was on a 2-person team with Mick Walsh. Our 4-man team considered their 2-person team credible competition for the overall.
“Mick and I did very well at Race Across Oregon. We cycled 1000K and 33,000 vertical feet of climbing (in a relay format) in 32 hours. We got 1st place for two person teams and 4th overall, but to me this event was all about the experience and not so much about the placing. I was so honored when Mick asked me to do this ultra cycling event with him as a two person team. He is an incredible person and a phenomenal bike racer. I think it took me about 30 seconds to respond back to him with a YES.”
“In these types of ultra events you start the race knowing there will be highs, lows, and suffering, but the satisfaction you feel when you finish the journey is amazing. What I loved about this event was how much fun I had working with Mick and the camaraderie of all the competitors.”
To close the 2018 season, Jamie competed in Rebecca’s Private Idaho Stage Race near Ketchum, ID. This year’s event consisted of 3 mostly gravel stages (with a 4th optional stage on day 3) that all had to be done using the same bike. The race was scored based on the results of stages 1, 2, and 4. The “new challenge” for Jamie was riding the singletrack in stage one on a gravel bike. Jamie did well:
“I got 5th place in the final stage and 6th overall for the entire race. To all the mid-forties ladies out there: it’s never too late to go after your goals! Dig deep and most importantly enjoy the ride!”