Episode 030 – Strong Coffee Strong Women™ with Alenka Vrecek
“When you are suddenly thrown into a vortex of things that are completely out of your control, then you really start seeing what you’re made of.”
Alenka Vrecek, author of the book She Rides, was born at the foot of the Alps in Slovenia, a part of former communist Yugoslavia. She spent her earliest years idolizing the likes of Reinhold Messner and other great alpine climbers.
Born with a spirit for adventure, she came to America at twenty years old with a backpack, a pair of skis, and a pocket full of dreams.
Her run as one of the top ski instructors in Squaw Valley ended with an accident that left her with a shattered knee and torn ligaments. During her recovery from surgery, she got a cancer diagnosis that would change the course of her life.
Barely through her chemo and radiation treatment, Alenka decided that the way to get clarity was to jump on her bicycle and ride solo from her home in Lake Taho to her home in Baja, Mexico via one of the most grueling trails on the planet, the Baja Divide.
This is a story about one woman’s quest to summit her own personal Everest.
I love this episode so much. I rode the Baja Divide shortly after my conversation with Alenka and I have no idea how she did it. Actually, I do. She’s Alenka.
Listen to the end. It’s an amazing conversation with an inspirational woman.
Until next time, be nice and do good stuff.
- She Rides (Book coming June 2023)
Alenka was born at the foot of the Alps in Slovenia, a part of former communist Yugoslavia. Born with a spirit for adventure, she came to America at twenty years old with a backpack, a pair of skis, and a pocket full of dreams.
She was a ski coach and a director of Pedagogy for Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows (now Palisades Tahoe) Ski Teams for thirty years. Alenka owns Tahoe Tea Company and lives in Lake Tahoe, California, with her second husband, Jim, their four children, three grandchildren, and a Golden Retriever named Monty.
“A universal story of healing, hope, grit, and determination. Alenka’s bike trip from Tahoe to Baja is a heroine’s journey that will hold you in its grip. But it’s also a love story—about knowing what matters most and finding your way back home.”
[00:00:00] Chris: All right. Time to unset. How you doing today? How you feeling? That’s enough small talk. Let’s get after it.
[00:00:12] Hey, welcome to Strong Coffee Strong Women, the first episode of season three. I hope you’re doing great. What an amazing week it’s been. Wow. If you listened to episode 29, you know that March 20th was the International Day of Happiness, and I trust you celebrated in full fashion. Yes. March 20th was also the first day of spring.
[00:00:29] I know a lot of you guys out there are ready for it. Today is special for me, and normally I don’t like to ramble longer than I need to in these intros. But today I gotta tell you a little bit about why this episode has been languishing on my hard drive for two years, and it’s all my fault. I met AKA for the first time.
[00:00:46] Just prior to doing my interview with her, I reached out to her after I read her story. She posted on her blog, which you can firstname.lastname@example.org. I was so blown away by what she went through and more importantly, how she went through it that I felt like I needed to reach out, tell her just how much it resonated and inspired me.
[00:01:04] We started corresponding a little bit. She asked me where I was and when I told her I was in. She said she and her husband were driving this way in a couple weeks and graciously offered to stop and meet me for a cup of coffee. It was like meeting a rockstar, a very stoic, calm, graceful, and peaceful rockstar at the time.
[00:01:22] This podcast was just an idea, but Alinka was the first person I thought of for this segment. I was kicking around in my head called Strong Coffee, strong Woman. She is the reason I wanted to do this segment. She said, if I ever got it together, she’d be happy to be a part of it. So a couple of months later, I just decided to book an interview with her and my wife and I drove a few hours to her house.
[00:01:42] I was nervous and no matter how much I knew about her going in, I felt incredibly unqualified to be there. When we finished our conversation, I was really self-conscious and feeling like I’d done her a disservice. My questions felt clumsy. I stumbled over words. There was a ton of ambient noise, but Lenka being alanah handled it like a pro and gave me her heart and soul.
[00:02:06] When I got back to my house, I listened to the piece and I said, I can never publish this. I found a hundred reasons why it was terrible, and they were all about me. This is how we get in our own way, how I get in my own way. A few weeks ago, I came across the audio files on my old machine. I got curious and I listened again.
[00:02:24] It was nowhere near as bad as I remembered in a link. As magic came through, even brighter than I had remembered. As I was assembling the assets for this episode and editing photos and sound files, I got curious as to the exact date that we recorded it. Not surprisingly, it was March 20th, so everything in its own time, that’s what I have to believe, a chance to learn and.
[00:02:47] Okay, so she is an author with a new book coming out in June titled She Rides Chasing Dreams across California and Mexico. She’s a former champion, downhill ski racer and accomplished mountain climber and a cancer survivor. She didn’t just survive. She took what would kill most of us and uses to power a journey of hope, healing, perseverance, and grit in the.
[00:03:10] The link story is a love story about real love, so please, please listen to the end of this one. She is the entire reason. Strong coffee, strong women came to see the light today. She is a link of Raich. Welcome. Thanks for coming in and doing this with me.
[00:03:26] Alenka Vrecek: Yes. Thank you for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be a part of this, uh, awesome new podcasts and, uh, great coffee.
[00:03:34] Yeah. Thank you for sharing that with me as welcome. Well,
[00:03:37] Chris: you’re very welcome. Tell me about, let’s, uh, there’s so much stuff I want to cover, but I have to kind of, before we all get ahead of ourselves, I’m gonna go back to like you as a. Right. You grew up in Slovenia, former lo Yugoslavia. I want you to tell me about your hero as a kid, cuz it’s not the usual hero for a young girl, I would
[00:03:57] Alenka Vrecek: think.
[00:03:58] No. And I was probably not one of your most typical girls. Um, I grew up with a brother who was a year older than me. Uh, my dad introduced me to. Mountaineering and climbing. Very early on I was a ski racer, as you mentioned. Um, my heroes were mountain climbers. Um, and, uh, one of, uh, I grew up in the golden era of Slovenian, alpinism.
[00:04:29] Uh, our climbers were returning from, Scaling big roots from all over, over the Himalayas and all over the Alps. Uh, but one of the highlights of my life, which made an incredible impression on me. When I was 14, my dad took me to a lecture and a slight show by, um, a famous Italian mountaineer, Reinhold Miser.
[00:04:55] And, uh, I remember. I was a pretty tiny kid. I’m not a big woman now even, but, uh, I just remember going up to the stage. Uh, my dad knew one of the, uh, organizers of the, uh, lecture and, uh, Uh, I met a rockstar and I just melted and he had this big, huge bouchie, blonde mane of hair, and to me he looked like a giant and he was the giant of, of the, uh, alpinism and climbing and modern climbing, uh, him and his.
[00:05:38] Climbing partner, Peter Haer just returned from scaling, uh, Mount Everest without oxygen, which was considered an impossibility.
[00:05:49] Chris: Yeah, that was, wasn’t he the first to do it without
[00:05:51] Alenka Vrecek: oxygen? He was indeed. And uh, I just remember, you know, later on when that incident kept coming back into my life that. doing impossible things.
[00:06:06] Never is impossible when you have a strong desire to do
[00:06:09] Chris: it. Right. And so, and how old were you again when you did that? When you met him? I was 14. You were 14. So what, but what was the first, when was the first, like, cuz you had to have an idea that you were different, right? Like you were a different little girl.
[00:06:23] So like, when did you kind of figure out that you were just like gonna be into mountain climbing and not dolls? Like, you know,
[00:06:32] Alenka Vrecek: Well, probably whenever my parents were looking for me. . I was not in my room playing with the dolls . I was, we had this 300 year old linden tree, uh, in our backyard. And usually I was in the top branches of that tree.
[00:06:51] Just dreaming. I’m, I was definitely a dreamer. That’s wonderful. And a climber .
[00:06:55] Chris: Sure. Yeah. I mean, you were going for it. So, uh, I, I got a, I was tickled by the story about your brother. I was tickled by so many stories in the book. But your brother, jury, When, uh, he did his little William tell moment. How old were you for that?
[00:07:09] Was that you were younger than 14, weren’t you? Oh, God, no. We
[00:07:12] Alenka Vrecek: were little kids. We were latchkey kids. Uh, our parents were both working, uh, parents and, uh, we would get home from school usually a couple of hours before they would get home. And, uh, I honestly don’t know how we survived our childhood . I mean, literally it’s like, it, it.
[00:07:35] Probably, uh, an intervention from higher forces somewhere . But we did some pretty dumb stuff. Yeah.
[00:07:43] Chris: And tell me particular, cuz the people are gonna dig it. I, I love the story where you’re in the kitchen.
[00:07:49] Alenka Vrecek: We had this long hallway, narrow hallway. Um, my brother and I were both readers. My parents encouraged reading.
[00:07:57] My dad always read to us, my mom read to us. My dad would always. Uh, gave me big books to read. Uh, but my brother was a big fan of, um, adventure Books and William Tell was, uh, one of his favorite when he was a boy, and he thought that he would actually test his arching skills. Um, on me. There was the famous scene when there was, uh, William tell who was, uh, known to be a very good, uh, archer.
[00:08:36] Yeah, I would say Uhhuh . Um, um, but instead of, uh, bow and arrow, he used a knife. I had an apple on the top of my head, , and I was standing against the entry door. He was by the kitchen in this long hallway. And he was going to throw this knife right at the apple. And of course, if you can basically picture the Munch’s scream of horror.
[00:09:06] Um, I opened my mouth as the knife was flying at me and the knife got stuck right under my tongue. Oh, , . Of course, I fell down on my knees and, uh, there was blood just dripping everywhere. And, uh, the, the, the area under the tongue. Produces a lot of blood. It’s a very sensitive spot. Yeah. Yeah. And, uh, teacup after teacup.
[00:09:32] And then my dad, my, my, my brother of course begged me. He knew he was in trouble. Besides that, he was very relieved. He didn’t actually kill me. Um, I never told my parents until, Many years later. Right. So
[00:09:47] Chris: you got away, you, you got away with, you didn’t say, you said you did, you barely spoke for a week. Yeah.
[00:09:52] Because you were trying to hide it. And I think it’s absolutely miraculous that you did hide it . It’s really funny. Um, so that, that was, when, when I read that thing in the book, I started laughing. I said, this is gonna be phenomenal. So you got, uh, Mesner is your hero, right? You’re reading, uh, stuff about alpine climbing and.
[00:10:12] I’m gonna jump forward just because there’s so much A and b, I don’t wanna spoil the whole book, so you’re just gonna have to read, uh, a Lincoln’s book when it comes out. But, so what, what Dre drives you? What drives you to come to the States?
[00:10:27] Alenka Vrecek: Um, I, as I said, I was a ski racer, um, and it was pretty, um, common or.
[00:10:41] Normal for a lot of the students at that time. A lot of my friends would go and take a semester off and go teach skiing somewhere else. Um, and most of the places were in Europe where, uh, German was spoken. Uh, even though I speak German and I spoke German much better than I do now. It was not my favorite language.
[00:11:09] Mm-hmm. . Um, I, it’s
[00:11:12] Chris: a hard language. That’s a, it’s a very, really hard language.
[00:11:14] Alenka Vrecek: Very, yeah. It’s, uh, I try to learn to German. Um, to listen to German music is pretty painful. I mean, that’s j I’m more of a romantic language. I hear you person. I hear you. I hear you. I like the softness. Uh, and, uh, so. Came to Squaw Valley, California to teach skiing for the semester.
[00:11:39] Of course, immediately fell in love with a place. It was very much reminiscent of the place where I grew up. Big mountains, lakes, ocean was closed by and that’s kind of what led one thing, led to another. I transferred then my credits and my studies to, uh, university of Nevada Reno, and they had a ski team, so I got on their ski team with a scholarship.
[00:12:06] Uh, And, uh, later also for the scholarship in my department in psychology. So I ended up finishing, uh, my studies, uh, in physical education and psychology at University of Nevada Reno, kind of jumping back and forth between Berkeley and Reno. And
[00:12:25] Chris: that’s when you won the downhill nationals? US down
[00:12:28] Alenka Vrecek: Nationals?
[00:12:28] No, it wasn’t us. No, that was, I won the downhill when I was still back at home in really miss. So
[00:12:35] Chris: you were younger than 18. You were young when you won that. Yeah. Wow.
[00:12:39] Alenka Vrecek: Okay. I came here into the States when I was 20. Okay. Yeah. Got it. I couldn’t go to the bars. .
[00:12:46] Chris: Well, that’s probably why you were a really great skier.
[00:12:50] Alenka Vrecek: I, it was really funny because all the people that I would meet, oh, we’ll give you fake ID so you can go to the bar. I’m going. Why? Oh, you have to be 21 to go to the bar. We used to go to the bars when we were 16, but it wasn’t really important to me. I was not into that scene. Right. That much. I was definitely more into the outdoors and living life outside,
[00:13:15] Chris: so, okay.
[00:13:16] So you’re in Nevada, you graduate school. Uh, um, I’m trying to segue into the bike and how you discover Baja. You know, there’s a grand point to this whole thing that I’m getting to, but, so you had a bike when you were a kid named Franjo, named after your old first boyfriend. I love it that you tore apart.
[00:13:34] You did what I did. Whenever I got a new bike, when I was a kid or anything, I tore it apart. My mom would be livid. You know? Your father was the same. He said he came home and it was all over the ground. You br you changed the name when you broke your heart. .
[00:13:48] Alenka Vrecek: It’s just, I actually didn’t just change the name, I took it apart and I painted it a different color.
[00:13:56] it was blue and then it was red. Okay. And I rode that bike all the way through college. Did you? Yeah. Awesome. Yeah, it was my first, uh, bike trip actually was, I was a very spontaneous person too, which I still am. I basically, Go do things and I’ll just figure it out when. Go do them. Um, sometimes for better or for worse.
[00:14:21] Chris: Yeah. I, I, and that’s why I identify with you so much, cuz I do the same thing. Sometimes it blows up in your face, sometimes it acts, it, it comes out really, really well.
[00:14:29] Alenka Vrecek: But, but it’s a learning experience. It’s you e even from bad experiences and I’ve tried to raise my three kids that way. Not to protect them.
[00:14:39] They are, I mean, that’s a totally different subject, but so many kids nowadays, we try to overprotect them. We hover over them and don’t let them learn from their own mistakes or learn from bad experiences. We’re not here just to have good experiences. That’s not what life is. That’s not what life will ever be, and I’ve learned that part the hard way as.
[00:15:06] Chris: Yes, indeed you have. And we will get into that. That is, um, you know, we, we touch hot stoves, right? That’s how we know not to touch the hot stove again.
[00:15:14] Alenka Vrecek: And if you do it again, then it’s by golly, your fault, . What is they, what is it saying? You fool me once,
[00:15:21] Chris: shame on you, fool me twice. Shame on me. Yeah, exactly.
[00:15:24] I mean, and I’ve, what I’ve done is I’ve written down so many quotes that you used in the book too that resonated with me on, on all levels. So it was a fantastic.
[00:15:34] Alenka Vrecek: And you are a guy. Thank you. . Yeah. Oh, are you kidding? It’s an adventure story.
[00:15:38] Chris: You, you, you, you, uh. Invoke, you know, Mesner books and I hadn’t read pot.
[00:15:45] The book that you, uh, talked about from your other idol, you’re gonna have to say his name cuz there’s no way I can fake my way through
[00:15:51] Alenka Vrecek: that one. Nate Zlotnik? Yes. It’s actually Port, port, p o t.
[00:15:56] Chris: And it’s not the pot you smoke or roll up. It was you, you explained it in the book. It’s a really kind of an awesome
[00:16:01] Alenka Vrecek: title.
[00:16:02] I traveled, actually, it’s the only book that I brought with me when I first came to United States, uh, with a backpack and a pair of skis. And that one book, which was like my bible. And, uh, I belong to the same climbing mountaineering club as Nate Zlotnik, who beautifully wrote about his climbing experiences from all over the world.
[00:16:27] Um, I even had a pleasure to climb with him, uh, before I came to the state, uh, way before when I was still in high school. Um, and he was later killed on Manaslu by, by an avalanche. What was
[00:16:41] Chris: it like climbing?
[00:16:44] Alenka Vrecek: It was ano just like climbing. I was just a little girl and it was like a climbing with another giant, but he was so gracious and um, yeah, just a cool guy.
[00:16:55] Really, really cool guy.
[00:16:56] Chris: That’s good to hear because you know, they say, don’t meet your idols. Never meet your idols, because a lot of the times they turn out to be assholes and you get your heart broken. But you know, it’s nice that when you meet. , you’ve met your, you know he, if he especially he was your, you call that book your Bible.
[00:17:12] That’s kind of what I wrote down too in my notes. You called it your Bible. So I mean, it’s nice to, if you had that experience even as a young girl, that he wasn’t a jerk. Right. It was, it was kind of cool. Cuz mountaineer, you think they’re just big barely guys that just are like, They’re gonna be just unapproachable maybe because like who climbs Everest?
[00:17:32] Alenka Vrecek: Yeah. But I think a lot of those people who are genuine people, um, mentor young people, and I think mentoring someone who looks up to you. not to belittle them or say, oh, you’re just a young girl. What am I gonna do with you? Why would I go climbing with you? Because I think that’s what really reveals a true person.
[00:18:07] And uh, I’ve actually had a pleasure to meet. Many people like that, that, um, are willing to just, uh, reach out and pull somebody up behind them. That’s
[00:18:22] Chris: great. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? So, okay, we’re gonna jump forward Now. You, you’re in the states and, um, what happens to, we have to kind of segue into, so when did you get married, by the way?
[00:18:37] Like, are you, are. , uh, skiing and, and the accident, the ski accident that happens.
[00:18:45] Alenka Vrecek: Well, I got married in my first born, my firstborn daughter was born in 1988. Uh, and
[00:18:58] to give you a clue, I got married in 1989 . Okay. Uh, I. , I think. Yeah. Um, so, and then we had three kids, but you know, for all reasons that the marriage didn’t work out, it didn’t work out. But we ended up with amazing kids and we’re all good friends and, um, we just had different views about, Things in life. And those became more and more apparent as the kids were growing older too.
[00:19:35] Um, American materialism was something foreign to me that I never fully was able to embrace. And one of the reasons why I came down here, um, to Baja was to get away. , basically Americanized Christmas. I wanted to just be the family, have the kids to read books and run on the beach and, uh, play games, uh, and just be with nature.
[00:20:14] Um, and, uh, we did lots of things. To try to save the marriage, but in the end, you know, we didn’t, but we saved the kids and our relationships and we saved ourselves in that, through that process as well. . So in a nutshell, . Yeah.
[00:20:34] Chris: Yeah. Well, it’s, it’s in the book. And like I said, I’m not gonna spoil the book, but I’m trying to get us to the point where you are, um, you’re skiing and you, uh, you’re leading a group of kids down the mountain on a really bad, snowy day, right.
[00:20:49] Squaw Valley. Is that is in Squaw Valley? Is that where this happens?
[00:20:53] Alenka Vrecek: Yes. Yes. Um, For years I was coaching, skiing. Um, I, I loved working with kids. That was always my passion. And, uh, of course I wanted to. give that passion to my own children as well. Uh, so they, they all grew up ski racing and competing. Um, so I was an assistant director for one of the programs.
[00:21:26] Um, Squaw Valley is the largest ski team in United States. We had a thousand kids and I helped run one of the programs of that ski team. One of our coaches had to go home that day. She wasn’t feeling well, and I took over her groups and, um, it was a kind of a rainy, snowy day. We call it puking. Uh, it was very heavy snow and, uh, on, as it always happens, it was the last run of the day.
[00:22:01] And, uh, my ski tip got caught. Heavy snow and uh, when I tried to turn, I dislocated my knee, ripped out all the ligaments and they, the day was over. But you know, the ski and knee injuries are very common, uh, with athletes and where we live. You don’t actually know a friend who has not. Reconstructive knee surgery.
[00:22:36] Um, but unfortunately my surgery went really badly. My nerve, uh, my femoral nerve was damaged during the surgery. Um, and um, it basically caused a lot of issues. Like I still can’t fill my, my right quad and, uh, it cramps horrifically when I overuse it. And, uh, that ended up ended ending my ski coaching career.
[00:23:07] And I ac unfortunately I haven’t skied since. Really?
[00:23:10] Chris: And that was what, like 2 20 16, right? Is that around
[00:23:14] Alenka Vrecek: that time? Yes. January 23rd, 2016. I will never forget that day.
[00:23:18] Chris: I, I bet, I bet you can’t. Um, so we skip a little forward and you’re down here in Baja. I should mention that’s where we are right now.
[00:23:28] pretty awesome because where the story ends, uh, I am actually at that place with you. So if you hear birds and trucks and the wind piping up, it’s because we are sitting in a really cool spot and Alinka was great enough, gracious enough to let us hang out here at her house while we do this. So two, 2016, your surgery in January.
[00:23:48] It’s April, you’re, you come down to your shed here in Baja to recoup. .
[00:23:54] Alenka Vrecek: Yes, my parents came from Europe. Uh, I’m still on the crutches from, uh, the surgery. Um, cuz I, it was a complicated surgery and, uh, I’m laying in bed, uh, as you saw downstairs. We have an outdoor bed and, um, just laying in bed, my mom brings me coffee and, uh, I just happened to reach up to my breast.
[00:24:23] Um, , which I encourage all the women to do breast exams themselves. Uh, and I felt the lump and I immediately knew what it was. It was just that intuition. I had no doubt that it was. A tumor. I didn’t want to tell anybody. Of course. I mean, I don’t usually jump to conclusions, but I’ve been noticing this lump for a while.
[00:24:54] Um, but you know, I was at the age I was, uh, 52 at that time. Um, I was like, oh, come on. You know? Yeah. Your breasts. I’m starting to lose their luster and just age gracefully. I wanted to accept things in life and, uh, but it didn’t look right. It didn’t feel right. Um, so. Uh, my daughter was, my middle daughter was graduating, uh, college and, uh, I didn’t wanna raise any alarms.
[00:25:32] I didn’t wanna get my parents worried before I actually knew anything. So secretly I went to the doctors, went to have the tests. It was by far the longest period and most excruciating period in my life because I wasn’t able to tell anybody. I didn’t wanna share that with anyone until I was absolutely certain.
[00:25:56] And, uh, yeah,
[00:25:57] Chris: yeah. So you’re, you’re sitting in bed and you feel a lump and you don’t wanna spoil your daughter’s party. So you’re having all these thoughts in your head. Um, you know, immediately you say your intuition, you know your body and you. . That to me, it was an amazing moment when I was reading your book, like the, you kept it all inside, which adds to the pain and the grief.
[00:26:20] To me, it’s like, you, here, you are going through this thing, but you’re going through it by yourself for a moment. So,
[00:26:28] Alenka Vrecek: you know, I, I think it’s also a part of my personality. Um, I very rarely. Ask for help from anyone else. Um, I am usually the coach and the counselor for other people. And, uh, I’m not used to sharing my own fears or troubles, and so I had to hold it inside of me.
[00:26:59] And yeah, that was, you know, to protect people. who love me and yeah. Whom I love. Sure. And you don’t wanna hurt anyone? Not with, you know, my kids were older at the time, but you know, it’s you again, you cannot protect your kids from all the things that are happening. And that was the hardest thing that I could not protect them from, from was.
[00:27:30] myself and my own trouble. You know, you want to, you wanna be strong for the kids, you wanna be their mother, you know? That’s our role is it is to protect our kids. When you are a mother, when you’re a parent, .
[00:27:49] Chris: So June, 2016, you get the positive, uh, on your cancer.
[00:27:54] Alenka Vrecek: It was pretty amazing. Um, I was in my, uh, workplace.
[00:28:00] Uh, I have my own workplace downstairs in our home. Um, and my office, uh, I have a tea company. Um, and, uh, the phone rang and. I picked up an, an exact moment when the doctor told me that the test was positive. A small chicky bird slammed into the window and it, and it shocked me and it left me breathless and speechless.
[00:28:35] And, uh, yeah, it’s, it was, uh, the moment of. and the moment of truth is sometimes very painful
[00:28:52] Chris: and so, , you. Uh, so, so after that happens, of course you talk to, I mean, where is Jim in all of this? How is he? Jim is your husband. I, we’re 30 minutes into this and I, it’s the first time I’ve even mentioned him, so I, I don’t even know. We’re so far into this with you. I’m, so,
[00:29:10] Alenka Vrecek: Jim is my second husband, uh, the love of my life.
[00:29:16] Mm-hmm. and. , he’s my hero and my best friend. Um, he at that moment still does not know I protected him as well. Um, I, he knew that I went to get a mammogram and. . I just told him it was routine and routine testing and I’m just doing my physicals, and that was it. But he’s a very intuitive person. He’s a very quiet guy.
[00:29:52] He doesn’t say much. He doesn’t pry into your. Private life. Uh, he’s very respectful of that. Um, but I walked up with my crutches up our driveway. He was outside in a driveway with a friend, uh, and he just looked at me and his questioning eyes was, what’s going on? and I just had to tell him it’s not good.
[00:30:26] And, um, went to the post office and went to sit by the lake. Um, he just hugged me before I left. He knew, he knew how hard it was. It’s, you can’t in those kind of moments. You can’t hide. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:30:42] Chris: I, uh, I, I, I, I was about to say, I can’t imagine, but I really can’t imagine. I mean, uh, so. Okay, so you have this incredible event that you’re processing and then is it’s shortly thereafter that Jim gets diag a diagnosis of his own.
[00:31:01] Alenka Vrecek: Well, so I. Um, started my, uh, you know, first you go through surgeries. I had my, uh, tumor removed. I had, uh, um, the, um, lymph nodes removed and then, uh, I started the, uh, chemo and after chemo I had radiation. So that, that was that whole
[00:31:29] Chris: Right. So how long, how soon after your, in June that you get the positive, did you go for your, like, did it, was it immediate that they wanted to get you in there and get that going?
[00:31:39] Alenka Vrecek: You get sucked into the system so fast you, you can’t. Say yes or no to anything. Um, we are very fortunate in, uh, Tahoe. In Truckee. We have a brand new, um, uh, cancer center. Um, my doctor who was my gynecologist and he delivered my babies, so he was actually a friend. Um, Kind of took over right away. He called me the next day, he made an appointment for me.
[00:32:15] Uh, I went in and met all the doctors and surgeons right away. And uh, you know, even though when being that I have an organic tea company and I lived this natural life and, uh, healthy life, and we were all about healthy lifestyle. I thought I would never go down that way of treatments. Yeah. You’re
[00:32:47] Chris: doing what you’re supposed to do, right?
[00:32:48] Yeah. You, you’re,
[00:32:50] Alenka Vrecek: but you know, you, I was, I didn’t have time to experiment. Uh, I had to think of my kids and at least. I would have been able to say, I’ve done everything that I possibly could have done if this doesn’t work. Uh, so I, I went the traditional way of treatments. That was just the choice that I make made at that time.
[00:33:15] Um, so I had surgeries, uh, and then, um, I started chemo on August 2nd, 2016. So, 2017 was the biggest snow year on record in Tahoe. I mean, our house, um, at the lake level in, in Tahoe was. Buried over the roof. It was unbelievable, amazing. All we did the whole winter, I got in shape actually pretty quickly just by shoveling the snow and after your
[00:33:57] Chris: chemo you get in shape.
[00:33:59] Alenka Vrecek: get, you get. I had no choice. amazing. I had no choice. I would finish shoveling. I’m still limping after my knee surgery. I’m shoveling. , um, I mean, it just never stopped snowing. Um, I would come around the house and I’d have to go in, make lunch or you know, whatever meal for a gym. He was in snow removal business.
[00:34:23] He was out in his machines 17 hours a day and night. Um, and, um, one day in February, he. , he’s been complaining about his stomach hurting and um, some other things that were happening that he was worried about. And, uh, one day in February, uh, it was a very gray mo morning, I remember that. He just looked up at me from the computer and he said, um, I think I know what I.
[00:35:03] and I’m like, okay, yeah, sure. You self-diagnosed yourself. Good for you. I, I have to admit, I was a bit of a, I don’t know what the word for that would be, but, uh, it’s like, okay, why don’t you tell me what you think you have? Um, and he goes, I think I have Parkinson’s. And, ah, the, the room just started spin.
[00:35:29] and I didn’t really know that much about Parkinson’s, but I knew enough that all the symptoms that he was talking about, we’re, oh my God, he’s right, he has Parkinson’s.
[00:35:45] Chris: Right. So you, you’re, you’re not even done dealing with the knee surgery. Right. The reason I ask is just because the compounding of this, you, you, you, you tear your ligaments, you have a knee surgery, it goes bad.
[00:35:59] You’re femoral artery, you’re still recouping. dealing with that emotion. Then you get the breast cancer diagnosis, and then you go through the surgery and the chemo of that, and you’re trying to process that, and then you get this diagnosis for Jim. I mean, what’s it like for you? Um, how, how do you, I mean, to revert back to these mountaineers who, you know, you talk about, one thing I I loved in your book was when you mentioned that your father used to take.
[00:36:26] Hiking and he would tell you to take little steps and look back and see how far you’ve come when it gets really hard. So how are you, where are you mentally, even though you’re the badass that Alenka is and ski champion and strong mother, where are, where, where are you now when these just successive within the span of a year come into your life?
[00:36:50] Alenka Vrecek: I think. . I am so fortunate to have had that background and I often think people who are perhaps not in tuned with their bodies or not so close to the outdoors, um, or have. Never climbed the mountain that they didn’t think they could survive. When you know that you just have to go that next step to survive.
[00:37:32] Um, I’ve had that in my life and I was able to draw from my own experiences. , that does not mean that I would not just collapse in my husband’s arms and cry in the middle of the night and just needed to be held because it was so difficult. Um, there were all this, you know, aging. A trying process to begin with.
[00:38:10] And you know, there’s a lot of acceptance that goes along with that, uh, of the things that we suddenly cannot do that we were able to do. That’s sobering in itself when you are suddenly thrown into a vortex of things that are completely out of your control. , then you really start seeing what you’re made of to how you deal with that and.
[00:38:47] What you do to survive. And all I can say to anyone who is going through that is just baby steps. Small, small baby steps, one moment to another, and somehow, you know, you, you do survive. You know? And life does go on and.
[00:39:19] Chris: And on that note, you say you, what you do to get through it, what you did was you came up with an idea. to ride your bike from your home in Lake Tahoe to your home in Baja, but not only just ride your bike, you on the one of the most grueling trails in the world, which I’m fascinated with, which is how we met originally because you did the Baja Divide.
[00:39:43] But how do you. Solo, I should say solo, self-supported, and nobody knows I’m jumping ahead. I’m ruined in the whole thing, but nobody really knows unless you know this trip of, of what it’s involved, it’s a a 1800 miles. So how you are recouping all of this and you come up with this. Idea, which was a lifelong dream, right?
[00:40:04] To ride your bike.
[00:40:06] Alenka Vrecek: I was at my daughter’s soccer game up in Medford, Oregon, and I was just riding my bike between the games, um, at the tournament. And I wrote down in the back of my little roomy poetry book, um, that I wanted to write to connect all the confusing dots of my life, and I was desperate to. Be alone to have the time to myself and to do something that was bigger than me.
[00:40:53] And I think any parent can relate to that or anyone who. Is maybe bombarded with things in their lives that they just kind of want to run away for a little bit and regroup. So I wrote that down and it just shows you the power of writing something down, um, which you then keep staring at every, every time I would open up that little pocket roomy book, um, of poetry, which I always carried with me.
[00:41:27] It’s a very well worn copy. . I would look at that. I’m going, oh my God. That’s just the dumbest thing that anybody could ever want to do. . . Why would you wanna do that? Ride a ride. A ride a bike from Tahoe to Baja, and, but I didn’t know about the Baja divide when I wrote that down. It was. To ride the bike on the main road.
[00:41:55] I didn’t really know about this Back roads, uh, of Baja Divide that came. Much later.
[00:42:04] Chris: Well, it was only divide. It was very close because the Baja Divide only came about in 2017. So you were right on the heels. But you discovered that trail online, right? When you’re doing your research about riding?
[00:42:14] Alenka Vrecek: No, it was actually right here in Baja.
[00:42:18] uh, a friend of mine, Blake Bia, is um, um, a long distance bike racer. I didn’t even know what that was when then I started looking at what he does and this people just like ride for days at time and race. And I thought, well, those, those guys are nuts. Uh, but him and his. Came and did the Baja loop, uh, the, the loop part of the divide, which is Cape End part.
[00:42:47] Mm-hmm. the Cape Loop. Mm-hmm. Yeah. Beautiful ride. Strenuous ride too. And we went to meet him Mink, um, for breakfast. And, um, he was the one who turned me on to, uh, the whole Baja Divide concept. And it was in, literally in tfo. And I’m like, wow. , this is it. Yeah. It was like an epiphany. Yeah. I gotta do this. I can actually do this.
[00:43:14] It’s the back roads where there’s no trucks and you know, and I, it’s through the mountains. It’s the mountains. It’s where you I, it’s where I’m home. I wanted to come home to the mountains by riding a. and I was familiar with the bike part of things I’ve never bike packed in my life, but, um, I, I was a mountain biker
[00:43:40] Chris: and what’s the family think when mom says, Hey guys, I, I just tore my knee out and I’m just had chemo and I’m gonna get on a bike by myself.
[00:43:50] Solo supported through one of the most grueling. Arid regions on the planet. Um, I’ll see you in 60 days, . Wow. How’s that go over ?
[00:44:02] Alenka Vrecek: I think, well, I was really interested. My kids just looked at me and they, and they said, uh, yeah. Wow, mom. They, my kids know me pretty well. Um, I did ask my son, my youngest one, uh, if he wanted to come with.
[00:44:20] Um, but he said, yeah, sounds like a great idea. It’s dangerous, but I’m actually gonna hike John Muir Trail. So, , see you later, . Um, that gives you a little bit of an idea about what my kids are like as well. Yeah. That’s, they have their own lives. It’s pretty awesome. That’s good. But the kids accepted it even though that I, they thought I was crazy.
[00:44:46] My husband did not accept it until literally the day I left and my brother. literally said, do not tell our parents about this trip. Your mother will not survive worrying about you. But I told them, I, I had to tell them, and it didn’t go over too well. , my parents worried. You never stop worrying about your hi kids.
[00:45:16] Doesn’t matter if you’re two or 20. A hundred .
[00:45:24] Chris: And so what, what, um, the, the, the divide is tough enough. Um, and I’m, I, I don’t want to give away the book, um, but the ride from Tahoe to even before you get to Mexico, you have the Sierra Mountains is correct, um, south from Tahoe to the border of the US to get through.
[00:45:44] Alenka Vrecek: That was a good practice. Um, I got in shape. it was, uh, you know what? Honestly, I said to you earlier that I just kind of jump into things without really doing much planning or thinking about what’s ahead . And I think if I knew how much climbing I was going to do on the bike, Uh, I, I don’t know if I’d really
[00:46:13] I mean, you know, you just, I, I did it. It was maybe to jump ahead as well myself, uh, by the time I got down here, and this kind of ties the whole story together about climbing Everest and meeting Mesner and him saying to me, someday you’ll climb your own impossible mountain. . By the time I got down to my house here in Baja, uh, I climbed Mount Everest five and a half times from ground zero to the top.
[00:46:53] That’s how much climbing I did. There was some big mountains. Um, , the Sierras are big. There’s all these ranges that I would go down and then I would just have to climb back up again and down. And, um, every time I would climb and I would just say just, you, you got this just a little bit longer. You know, you can just do, just like climbing the mountain one step at a time.
[00:47:21] It’s one rotation at the time when, when you’re on the. and, uh, you zone out. You just, you just do it. You climb and, uh, you get into this space where nothing else matters. And there’s, um, and I think that’s where a lot of the climbers climb the mountains. Nothing else matters. You are in that zone. where you are just one with what you are doing, and there’s an incredible purity in that and it creates this space for joy.
[00:48:13] Chris: even amidst the grueling suffering that you’re doing out there, you’re, because it sounded like even I read between the lines, you were, you know, you had a crash. You and I, I can’t even, it would take us an hour just to tell people who aren’t familiar with the divide what it is. Right. It’s just this harrowing trail where you have to carry all of your water, all of your food.
[00:48:35] The, it’s, the surface is almost like the moon at points, but so in your. , you’re, you’re grueling climbing this mountain. You’re having a good time.
[00:48:48] Alenka Vrecek: I think it compares to what life is. I think life isn’t. always just joyful and happy, and I think people make a mistake thinking, oh, I am just gonna be happy.
[00:49:08] You have to create that happiness, but you also have to notice those moments. of what happiness is, of what that joyful moment is in the midst of all the suffering of all the hardships of grueling, you know, process that you are in. And I, my parents gave me that. My parents gave me the gift. to see the small things in life to, not to sound like overly philosophical, but uh, life is about those small moments.
[00:49:52] that if you miss them, they’re gone. And then you think you’re just miserable the whole time. Well, you’re not, you just didn’t see that you were actually happy for that moment. It’s the moment in time that we have created ourselves. It wasn’t given to us. And I think when you earn something the hard way,
[00:50:18] It is that much more powerful and rewarding, and we have to go out of our comfort zone to find those moments.
[00:50:31] Chris: And how are you feeling now?
[00:50:37] Alenka Vrecek: You know, it’s sometimes I kind of just like, I go, oh, . Are people glazing over this or No? I
[00:50:45] Chris: mean, I’m, is there another Everest that is, is like I, because you know, and I don’t mean to interrupt you, but there, there’s this sentiment that I’ve heard. The scariest. There’s one thing scarier than not accomplishing your dream.
[00:51:00] and that’s accomplishing it because then you have to come up with another one. Is there another Everest for Alinka or are you just like, I know you’re never gonna, you’re, you are like this bursting ball of really calm energy here, like sitting there across from me that you’re just, is there something else that you feel you need to complete now or is it, are you kind of in your.
[00:51:23] Alenka Vrecek: you know, life is a continuous Everest. There will never be the end of that mountain that we have to climb. Um, my bike journey, which as grueling and difficult as it was, it was also incredibly beautiful and rewarding and full of new experiences. part of that journey was to heal from all the things that I have gone through.
[00:52:04] Part of it was to see what I was still capable of doing and to accomplish something that I wanted to accomplish gave me a lot of strength. . But I think also a big part of it was to prepare for my future
[00:52:31] in which I know that my husband’s Parkinson’s will have a center stage. Um, um, I, I’m okay with what I have done. Will there be more? Who know? . I just at this point also hope that I can stay around for my husband, who needs me, who will need me more and more. I wanna stay around for my grandkids. We have two grandbabies.
[00:53:11] It’s pretty cool. They’re a joy of our life. We miss ’em very much right now while we’re gone here in Baja, but they’re at home. And thank God for Zoom and FaceTime and all that. Um, I can say that yes, probably, uh, my future Everest is just. and, uh, we’re still gonna be out writing and doing whatever we can for as long as we can.
[00:53:46] Chris: Well, I’m excited. I could talk all day to you, but I’m not gonna take up any more of your time. I’m, uh, you’re working on a new novel. That’s coming. Correct. Um, we’re gonna do a whole bumper at the end of this thing. If your tea company is Tahoe Teas mm-hmm. , correct. In Tahoe, Tahoe teas.com. Tahoe teas.com.
[00:54:03] Yep. You can find there. And she’s actually graciously drinking coffee with me today, putting her tea, which is
[00:54:08] Alenka Vrecek: an amazing, which is actually an amazingly smooth coffee, uh, Guatemala coffee. You said it has A little bit of
[00:54:14] Chris: Guatemalan. A little bit of Oaxacan. Mm-hmm. yum. So,
[00:54:17] Alenka Vrecek: yeah. Very smooth. Very smooth. Well,
[00:54:19] Chris: uh, so, and.
[00:54:22] Just like you, strong coffee, strong women, it has been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for sharing your house and your story. And if anybody wants to read more of a link of stuff, they can go to my life suspended.com. Um, and her book will be, we will actually do an update on the book coming out. We will put it in the show notes.
[00:54:41] We’ll let you all know when it comes out, when it launches, and where you can find it. A link of Raich. Thank you so much for being on my Strong Coffee Strong woman. , thank you
[00:54:50] Alenka Vrecek: so much for talking Yeah. Uh, with me and, uh, taking the time to share my story. Yeah. I really appreciate it. I hope it inspires people and lets them go follow their own dreams, which is really why I want to share my story.
[00:55:06] I think if you have the dream, don’t waste your time. Just go.
[00:55:15] Chris: Hey, thanks for listening. If you like what you’re hearing, make sure to subscribe or follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Share it and tell your friends because the show doesn’t go anywhere without you. We drop new episodes every Wednesday. If you wanna listen to back episodes or find out how you can support the show, you can do email@example.com.
[00:55:36] Okay, next week I’m flying solo, and until then, be nice. Do good stuff.
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