When I heard that my wife, daughter and I were heading back to her home town of Durango Colorado for a friend's wedding I was keen to find a race to work in with the trip. Durango is an amazing part of the world with endless trails to ride. I found a MTB race that sounded right up my alley, the Durango Dirty Century. It is part of an 'underground' unofficial endurance race series that happens through the summer. With an ethos of unsupported , self responsibly and hard back country courses.
I was looking for a big challenge and everything about this ride made the hair on the back on my neck stand up! Everything from the remote back country course, the altitude, the wildlife (bears, mountain lions and snakes) to regular lighting strikes on the high exposed ridges. As I dug deeper into what the race was all about I become even more excited. Emails from the organisers to 'deter' people/ make sure everyone knew what they were in for made the fire burn brighter.
"This is NOT the ride to use for your first 100-miler.
It is not for beginners or intermediate riders – experts only!
The effort here will be about 2 times that to complete a Leadville 100.
If your rain jacket can fit in the back of your jersey pocket, this is not for you.
If you cannot rig a broken derailleur into a singlespeed, this is not for you.
If you want to bail when it gets cold and wet, this is not for you.
If you do not have night lights, this is not for you.
If rain bothers you, or you hate post holing through snow then this is not for you."
Talk about exciting!
One of the big things I knew was going to be a challenge was the altitude. The race started in Durango at 6500 feet (~2000 m) and climbed to 12258 feet (3736 m) which is close to the height of Mt Cook (3754 m) with an average elevation of 3049 m. I had ridden in Durango many times before, but never that high. We arrived in America 3 weeks before the race. I knew I would never be fully acclimatised in this time but I would do my best. The first week we spent in Denver which is ~1600 m where I did some easy riding while visiting with family in the heat and altitude so that when we headed to Durango I would hopefully already have a head start on the acclimatisation.
It was also during this week I found out that a week long family trip we were booked on was planned for the day BEFORE the race rather than the day AFTER like I had originally thought! I was gutted! With no way of changing the travel plans I made the decision to ride the course as hard as I could 3 days before the race in a time trial fashion and see how I got on. At the end of the day I wanted to challenge myself and I could do that with or without other riders around.
When we arrived in Durango I really felt the altitude I was riding ok but my heart rate was through the roof on even the most gradual climbs and I did not seem to have the power in my legs as usual. By the end of the week I was starting to feel like I was getting on top of the altitude, but how would it be as I went higher?
It was now or never. After a bit of a mini taper to try and freshen the legs up I was ready to roll. As I prepared my gear the night before my ride I wrote down some time splits that I had found online and taped them to my bike as a bit of a carrot to chase. With everything packed and ready to roll I went to bed for a restless night's sleep. It had been daunting enough going into the back of beyond knowing that there were 70 other riders around you, either clearing the way of wild animals or coming behind if something were to happen. Now it was just me! I had spent lots of time in the back country of NZ by myself, but never in America in the Rocky Mountains. This added another challenging aspect to the upcoming adventure.
As I set off down to the 'official start' at Velorution Cycles in the main street of Durango I had my first of what was going to be many wildlife encounters with the deer who had been hanging around the back yard for the last few days. Deer I can work with, bears and Mountain Lions not so much.
The first 15 km of the course is pretty flat on sealed road before the climbing starts into the single track of Hermosa Creek Trail. At the first time split I was only a couple of minutes off the splits and feeling pretty good. However this was not to last long.
After ~40 km of single track I hit a gravel road where the real climbing and the real butt kicking started. I am not sure whether it was the altitude, the heat, my borrowed bike not being 100% dialed in for me, my legs not being 100% or maybe it was just one of those days. All I know is that I could not climb to save myself. My heart rate was sky high even when I was in my granny gear spinning away, I was hyperventilating trying to catch up breath and my legs became burnt up after a couple of minutes of climbing. It was going to be a long day.
I took the climb in short pulls having mini breaks when I could not ride any more. By the time I hit Celebration Lake I was well off the time splits so decided to put these away and just focus on getting through the day in one piece(which I had a feeling was going to be a big enough challenge) while enjoying the views while getting some awesome photos and video.
Once up onto the Colorado Trail the going did not get any better. The steep pinches, snow mounds across the trial and un-rideable sections made going slow as I climbed up to Black Hawk Pass at 3657 m. Once at the top I was greeted with amazing views for a quick late lunch stop, then there was an amazing downhill section (it was nice to be actually riding my bike for once).
Looking up towards Black Hawak Pass
The downhill soon gave way to another solid climb up towards the highest point on the course Indian Ridge. Gradual at first then getting really steep on some exposed ridge tops I kept things steady riding what my legs would and pushing/ carrying the sections I could not. There were a number of 'bail out' options around this section and the thought crossed my mind a number of times to bail out early and head for home. However, I just could not do it. I did not know when I would get the chance to come back up here and I could not admit defeat!
As I pushed, sweated and gasped for oxygen on one non-descript steep ridge I heard a roar coming from the sky and looked up and to my amazement I saw the distinct shape of a B-2 Stealth Bomber flying over head. Like a kid in a candy shop I quickly got out my camera and got a photo of it, just as a second one came into view! When I was a kid I was a bit of a plane 'nut' and seeing these two Stealth Bombers in full flight in the amazing mountain setting rated right up there as the coolest part of the ride!
After 115km of riding/ pushing I finally reached the highest point of the course. From here the majority of it was down hill, apart from a couple of uphill pulls. As I started the descent I did a few quick calculations and soon realised that I would be riding the final hour or so in the dark. I made the most of the sweet 15 km downhill before having a grunty final 6 km climb before the final descent to the finish.
As I rode the closing kms by the light of my head lamp I was more than surprised to come across two riders in the middle of nowhere caught without any lights after doing some course familiarisation for an upcoming enduro race. I tried riding with them for a while to provide them some light but with the technical terrain it was difficult at best and they decided to keep walking the final 5 km or so to the carpark by the light of their iphone. This suited me fine as I was already running VERY late!
As I rolled into the finished my Garmin stopped at 16 hours 32 min, 153 km and 4000 m vertical of climbing which had made for a long hard day in the saddle.
I was disappointed that I was so far off the pace (winning time in actual race was 10 hours 26 min) , but proud of my effort and had a new found respect for the effects of altitude and how fast the guys that live and train in this area can ride.