The Durango MTB 100: mud, sweat and hail

I knew this was going to be quite a challenge, but little did I know what was in store. On paper, the course at Durango already looked like it could kill: 60 miles (100 km), a base elevation of 9000 feet and 12000 feet of climbing – that is a lot for a poor flatlander. There was also the 100 mile course, for which I hadn’t signed up, but in the back of my mind I kept entertaining the thought of attempting it in case I made good time and still felt strong after two laps; the course consisted of 3 different loops – at the end of each loop there was a cut-off time to be made to be allowed on the next loop.

What my trail maps and elevation profiles weren’t showing however, was the weather. The forecast called for scattered thunderstorms, 30% chance of precipitation – no big deal, standard mountain weather, I’d say. But the night before the race the menacing sound of thunder and endless downpours kept waking me up; that and the thin air (my first night at this elevation) didn’t leave me much rest – I reassured myself by thinking that in the morning things would look better.

Quod non. Hard rain, lighting and thunder accompanied the dawn of race day. Half awake, organizers and contestants were looking for shelter in the big tent that was erected on the plaza in Purgatory Village (who came up with this name, by the way?). The start was delayed until the first break in the storm appeared, around 7am. And off we went.
Cold and rain isn’t so much of an issue, that is why there are clothes and gear. For mountain bike riding, it means however: mud! And also: gooey stuff all over you and the bike, slippery roots and rocks, normally innocent singletrack turning into treacherous kamikaze descents, total loss of traction during climbs, chainsuck! You need a lot of mud for this to happen though, but as it had been raining the whole night…

The first and last couple of miles of each lap were part of the legendary 1990 World Cup course in which Ned ‘The Lung’ Overend and Julie Furtado were victorious; the first section was also the toughest climb of the day, and let’s say not exactly the ideal way to start a race without warm-up while freezing at 7am in the morning. And then the mud; losing traction on the climbs is one thing, you could always walk or run, but the chainsuck made life absolutely miserable: already after just a few miles, my chain refused to stay on the granny chainring, meaning I was forced to tackle all the subsequent climbs in the middle ring. Okay on the forest roads, not so okay on the steeper singletrack climbs.
The climbing continued on the forest roads, until we hit Relay Creek trail – in normal conditions without doubt a very nice single/doubletrack, currently mostly a marsh. We plodded on, and finally arrived at Graysil Mine, a former uranium (!) mine at which the mid-lap aid station was located. Unfortunately, more climbing was still in store, up to the highest point in the course, somewhere along the beautiful Colorado trail. Brutal beauty though, because it was mostly hike-a-bike for me (chainsuck sucks!). But after cresting the summit, there was finally some serious fun ahead: the descent on the Colorado Trail, with some nice technical sections. Unfortunately, something must have been wrong with my karma balance that day, as I wiped out while trying to avoid another rider that stalled just in front of me – the crash luckily was low-speed and minor, but wasn’t helping my morale (well, at least it wasn’t my fault). The singletrack dumped us on a forest road after a few miles but the descending continued – a wide fireroad with lots of big loose rocks and creek crossings, on which my Yeti 575 really shone – the only part on the course on which it wasn’t overkill really, since most of it was more than suitable for a (lighter) hardtail. Besides the chainsuck (which is hard to avoid in these conditions), the bike was doing excellent.

Many miles later, the downhill part of the World Cup section was up – here and there a few steep sections that were very slippery but I took it easy. The weather wasn’t really improving in the meantime, judging by the quarter-sized hail balls that were flying all over the place – a bike helmet turned out to be very useful indeed. Back at our starting point at the end of lap 1, the temptation to call it quits was high: the weather was crap, having just done over 36 tough miles had worn me out a lot, the chainsuck, many others were quitting, blahblah. But I know that if I’d stop, after ten minutes back in the hotel room I would feel lousy and there wasn’t a real, serious reason to quit, so the decision to carry on was made quickly. I was talking to some other guys and two strong women and we motivated each other to get going again. We could clean our bikes at the base station, and get the drivetrain working properly again.
The boosted morale held up until after a mile or so in lap 2 – that initial climb I talked about earlier, felt twice as grueling as before. I started feeling something weird in my right knee – the one I hit a rock with on my crash earlier on. Then, after reaching the forest road section again (though a different one this time) there was a rider coming from the other direction, frantically shouting at me that we were on the wrong road. Rick, from British Columbia, claimed someone must have changed the sign at the last intersection – the high elevation must have gotten to both of us, because I believed him and turned around and followed him for a while, until I finally realized that it didn’t make any sense. I turned around again, and kept going (Rick, 57 and in absolutely amazing shape would soon catch up as well). Some miles of downhill and ‘false flat’ sections later, the final major climb of the day was on – Hermosa Park road, which would bring us to Graysil Mine for a second time.
Hermosa Park road started with an entertaining river crossing and a modest grade. Just when I started thinking the worst was behind us, that grade started to increase steadily and at the same time, thunder and lightning combos started getting dangerously close. The rain was falling out harder than ever. There wasn’t much to do about it but continue – the storm clouds were all over and we were hours away from home in either direction. My knee was giving me decent trouble now, but luckily I had an invaluable item packed in my seat bag: Ibuprofen pills! Meanwhile, Scott, a twentysomething guy from Colorado Springs was having some trouble of his own: he had broken his chain – Rick could help him out with a chain tool though.

I suffered through the relentless climb (think two times Kennedy road) together with Scott and Kendra, one of the two women I’d started lap 2 with. And so we made it to Graysil Mine again. What remained was high-speed downhill, interspersed with some painfull short climbs – the weather had finally made a turn for the better and the sun had come out. For a while, at least, because dark clouds rolled in again quickly. But nothing would stop us now, I took no risks at the lower World Cup section and soon found myself crossing the finish line, covered in mud, exhausted, but with a big grin. Even though there was some adversity to overcome, racing a bike for 100 km in the Rocky Mountains turned out to be a terrific and totally satisfying way way to spend the (rainy) day!

Later I learned that the third lap (for the 100 mile course) was cancelled by the organizers because of the apocalyptic conditions, and that only thirtysomething riders finished the two laps.

Here are some press articles; and results have been posted on the official website.

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