It all started as I sat at home between skis one February afternoon, doing my best to avoid studying. The ringing phone jolted me out of my meditative repose - let's face it, I was probably playing solitaire - and I found myself talking to Nick Miller, an old co-worker from Bushtukah and a (so I'm told) fairly accomplished freestyle kayaker. After establishing that I would probably be up to no good this summer, Nick directed me to www.redbulldivideandconquer.com - a website for a race to be held in Colorado, the Red Bull Divide and Conquer, billing itself as "4 parts mountain sports relay - 1 part impossible" - and urged me to join his team. As usual at moments like these, I let my central decision-making process take over. This consists, essentially, of three stages. Stage one: "why?", stage two, "why not?", and stage three, "good point". This debate concluded, I assented, and found myself half of an extreme adventure race team.
Half, you ask? What happened to four parts? The race I had agreed to participate in was indeed to consist of four parts. It would start with a trail-running section (11.38km, start 2834m, highest point 4056m), followed by paragliding, then kayaking (45km), and finishing off with mountain biking (around 47km, total climb around 2000m). As my mother disapproves of my paragliding habit, I became the designated trail-runner, with Nick kayaking. The other two team members? We finally found a fellow Ottawa local, Rob Orange, to ride our mountain bike leg and eventually to become our spiritual leader, and Rob Samplonius of Abbotsford, B.C., to fly the paragliding section. In an inspired moment, Rob the biker came up with the name "The Blazing Young Studs and Rob" (subsequently butchered by various race announcers), and a legend was born. (This name, of course, recognizes the fact that while Nick and I, at 20 and 19, are in our youthful prime, both Robs are older than the rock of ages. Well, around 40.)
Due to differences in employment status and an unspoken agreement to avoid any kind of logistical planning, while Rob O. had an airplane ticket to Durango with his name on it, the blazing young studs found ourselves piling into a Grand Am with a bike, two kayaks, Rob's espresso machine, and Nick's folks to deal with gas money and customs agents. After thirty-nine hours and plenty of bonding, we found ourselves in Durango, mecca of the outdoor lifestyle.
Durango, in the San Juan mountain range of southwestern Colorado, is a pretty neat place. The Animas River, which runs through it, has about 30 playspots for paddlers, and the surrounding hills have an extensive trail network for trail running and mountain biking. This network includes several trailheads on the highway up towards Silverton, with Durango Mountain Resort and its 1990 World Championship mountain bike course in between the two towns. Our race was to take place in this landscape, starting with a run up Kendall Mountain near Silverton. The paragliders would then glide back down to where the Animas runs through the town, tagging the kayakers, who would paddle to Rockwood Gorge, not that far from Durango, leaving the bikers to make their way back uphill to finish at Durango Mountain Resort.
Nick and I, with a week to prepare ourselves for the race, decided to do a bit of training in between sampling the myriad local microbrews on tap at the many pubs on main street. Nick's focus was finding paddlers with whom to run the Animas before the race, whereas I made the strategic decision to avoid the race course until the race, and just try to adapt to the altitude. After all, what you don't know can't hurt you, right? Actually, as Nick found out, it can. Four days before the race, Nick ran the river with competitor Steve Fisher, and both missed the sign for the takeout. After the takeout, the river becomes apparently unrunnable, and several people have in fact gotten killed on it. Nick and Steve got out at close to the last possible place, having to climb out of the gorge and losing their boats and paddles in the process. Thankfully, they made it out and Nick found another boat to borrow, so we finally found ourselves with a full team come race day.
With a race start at 6:00 and over an hour drive to the start, this went down in record as the earliest I have ever woken up on a race morning, at 3:40. This was probably a good thing, as it was too early for my brain to realize what my body was planning on doing. The race began down a few streets in Silverton and then up a small hill, going into a slightly technical single-track running section with a few creeks to run through. The pace started out moderate, and I was in good position, but even just as we began to get into the single-track section my warning bells began to go - I felt like I was working far harder than the pace called for and my legs were just plain heavy. Uh-oh. I was used to the elevation of Durango, at just above 6000 feet - not that of Silverton, just above 9000.
I backed off a little bit and lost a couple of spots in this flat section, finding myself already alone and in seventh position as the course began to climb a bit on dirt roads, still making its way around the northwest of the mountain, away from Silverton. I made an early decision not to push too hard trying to run hills at the beginning, and paced myself by ski-walking any steeper early hills. I was already thankful for the two litres of e-Load I'd brought with me. (This race involved carrying mandatory gear, including a means of carrying water, an emergency blanket, and a windproof shell.) These early hills in the single-track, of course, segued into a steeper, more constant climb, as the course turned onto an old pack road for silver mining. This road switchbacked up the side of the mountain, into an area called the Arrastra Basin, between arms of the mountain. This road included, ominously, the first patches of snow.
This snow got more and more common as I climbed the road, chasing the back of a runner who always seemed to be one switchback ahead of me. After one switchback, I looked up and saw that he was still visible - there were no more switchbacks! Finally, I thought. I then registered what the course became instead. Giving up on the road, it turned straight up the middle of the basin, and this climb started with a snow slope. Fortunately, as it was still early in the morning - probably around 7:00 at this point - the snow was frozen, and we didn't sink into it. Unfortunately, this meant that every step had to be extremely careful, so as not to slip back down towards the rock below. It also made the trail that much harder to follow - the signs became only periodic, and interspersed between them were large gaps where I had to run on faith that I was going in the right direction. As I climbed this snow, and a steep section of scree that followed, I saw that there was a small pack chasing me, with one runner closer than the rest. At this point, there wasn't much I could do about them but try to keep moving forward and up, and hope whatever speed I managed it at would be enough. My lungs had, by this point, realized I wasn't going to let them stop to get oxygen, so they were grudgingly keeping me going, if a bit sluggishly.
At the top of this steep section, the trail opened up into a sort of plateau between two arms of the mountain. The terrain was rough and scrubby, the trail actually non-existent, and the snow-patches common, broad, and rough. It was almost impossible to run on the snow, as it was frozen into waves with sharp tops and rounded bottoms, so I found it took about all the extra energy I had making sure I landed on the tops of each wave. This section of the course ended up being not only mercifully flat (well, relatively so, the climbs actually had spaces between them), but impressively historical. We ran by several mounds of old, rusty mining debris from the old silver mines, and even several dilapidated shacks and rail-tracks. This was also where I was passed by the one closer runner behind me, who proved to be a much better scrambler than me, though I could keep even with him in most other places.
Finally, as the course reached the end of the basin, it hit the most challenging part of the course - an extremely steep scramble up the saddle of the mountain, right at 12700 feet. This required hands as well as feet, and even so had the nature of a "ten steps forward, take a rest" kind of section. It had its reward, though - the top opened up to possibly the most beautiful view I'd ever seen, over the peaks of the San Juans, unobstructed. Unfortunately, I had only a few seconds to appreciate the view - it was time to keep going, down this time. The final race challenge was a scree slope downhill, which turned into a river of small rocks when stepped on. This is a technical challenge we just don't seem to have out East.
I have never felt quite so fulfilled crossing a finish line as that one, near the top of a mountain with almost no one to see. Time: 2:03 for 11.38 km. There were warm clothes, sweet sweet food, and transportation down the mountain - though I ended up finding myself peer pressured by some racers finishing after me to run down the mining road back to town with them. (Got to warm down, right?) Still, the best feeling was that of having come through with something that started as a harebrained idea back in February. My team all finished, and though we didn't win - not close - we still had that feeling of having overcome a big challenge. And hey - there's always next year…