Perseverance. Determination. Honey Badger. When I showed up for the Durango Dirty Century, I had a few things in mind, and happily rolling with any challenge was going to be the focus of my day. I had heard reports of deep snow on course and was shot some discerning glances from locals on Friday. I set my resolve and decided no matter what the course threw at me, I’d be a honey badger and not give a shit. Snow drifts? So what!!!! HIking and pushing a bike over the top of 12,500′ peaks? Bring it. No oxygen? No problem! I’ll take whatever the mountain throws at me, I don’t give a shit!
I have a very special relationship with the San Juan mountains. Perhaps I was a creature in a past life that lived there (hopefully a badass one!), but that place is very special to me. I can’t explain it, but we all have a place like that. My parents started taking me there since I was 1 year old and every year we’d return, and still do. This time, I’d return to take on an enticing challenge.
From 2006(gosh, I was 23?), only a couple years after I knew mountain biking existed and probably my first ride in the San Juans (aside from riding my kid bike around the campground as a child). Where is my HELMET?!?!?! And what am I doing wearing a heart rate monitor? I was also probably running tubes. Funny.
Colorado has some ultra-endurance underground racing meaning most of them have no entry, no number plate, no course marking, and usually no support. Bring a light, because if you’re out there you have to get back on your own. At 6 AM, a small but talented handful of crazies showed up at San Juan Cyclery. There was an option to do the “B” route which was 80 miles for those not wishing to traverse the Colorado Trail through Black Hawk due to all the projected snow drifts. 21 brave souls enlisted for the “A” route. 14 finished with times ranging from the winning men’s time of 12.5 hrs to the final finisher at 23 hrs.
My friend Matt puts this race on, and frankly I think it needs a new name. Durango Dirty Century is not a proper name for something as challenging and prodigious as this event. He was telling me his goal was 13 hours, and as a local and very accomplished endurance racer, I thought he might be pulling my leg. I had never ridden my bike more than 11.5 hours and I’ve done several 100 mile races. 13+ hours… really?!
We rolled out just after 6 and climbed up to the Hermosa trailhead where the real fun began. The majority of the race was on trail. There were maybe 10 miles of road, which was ALL uphill and in two segments.
A race of this grandeur is not really a race. You have to approach it with a different mentality. Compared to say, the Bailey Hundo, my strategy was completely different. With a race like this – projected times of 13+ hours and tons of hiking and super high altitude – “racing” could be a disaster and could result in a DNF. A steady pace that I knew I could hold most of the day was the ultimate goal. There wasn’t a moment where I was hammering, but trying to move forward with intention.
Durango sits around 6500′. Once we got up high, the course rolled between 10,000′ to 12,500′. There were three peaks I remember hiking up and over. The excitement and anticipation would build each time the trees started to thin out and I knew I was approaching the expansive ridgelines.
I used my GPS for the first time and was amazed how easy it was to follow the pink line. There were a couple spots where I got off course, but I noticed right away and found where I needed to go. I spent most of the day alone. A small group of us rode at the start together, but split up once we hit singletrack. I made sure to start slow on the road. By the time I got to the tough dirt road climb, I didn’t see any other racers – only their essence in the form of tiretracks in the dirt.
After the left turn at Celebration Lake, the hiking through the snow and over downed trees began. It wasn’t that big of a deal. There were a couple snow drifts that were a little scary. Each step had to be carefully placed. I did not want to risk falling, twisting an ankle, or losing my bike and having to go down the side of the mountain to get it.
Some drifts were very very big, mainly the ones above treeline were the trickiest to traverse.
The remaining 50 miles of the course would be ridden on the Colorado Trail. I was glad to get a preview before the Colorado Trail Race because they are very tedious (but beautiful) miles.
My solitude ended at Blackhawk. I stopped to filter water out of a cool, fresh mountain spring and saw a speck hiking on the trail coming my way. After a few minutes, the speck looked more like a person. I stopped to take a lot of of photos and found that it was my friend – Carney, who had gotten a little late of a start that morning (on his singlespeed). We crossed BlackHawk Pass together.
I lost Carney after a few snow drifts on the other side of the mountain. He was much more efficient than I at getting over the snow. I ended up stopping at Aide 2 where he was just leaving. I saw gatorade and cookies. I had enough water and food for the day because I wanted to run it self-supported, but I could not resist something cold to drink and baked goodies. I didn’t see Carney again for about an hour. When I saw him again I looked at my watch. It read 3 PM. I asked Carney what our mileage was and I expected to hear around 75.
Wrong. 64 miles…. in 9 hours.
I laughed in disbelief and encouraged that we keep moving, especially with the angry storm clouds building to our left. I knew we had about 20 miles to Kennebec, but I had no idea what was ahead of us. At that moment, we were meandering on the trail through the trees. Ride 50 ft, lift bike over a tree. Ride another 20 ft, get off and push through snow.
I didn’t see Carney behind me and hoped that he was pressing on. I was having trouble pushing the gearing on my bike. I love my SRAM XX, but I don’t think it was made for very long rides and I was missing having a granny gear. Soon, the trees thinned out and I saw the contour lines on my GPS. Going up to the most spectacular section of the course. I didn’t care that I had to walk most of it. It gave me a chance to take it all in and snap photos.
I glanced ahead and saw a spec on the side of the mountain, and then I started laughing hard. ”I have to hike up there?!” I don’t know why it was funny, but it was. I was actually excited for the challenge. Honey Badger. Later the spec (my friend Jordan) said he heard me laughing and wanted to know what was so funny. haha
Once I got over that peak, I saw the person ahead of me as a spec again, but this time it was even more burly. I didn’t laugh, but I kept moving forward. I also ran out of water. I had filtered at the last stream, but it was dry. I put some snow in the one bottle I had on me (I was carrying a pack with a 100oz bladder, water filter, batteries, food, first aide, tools, phone, camera, gortex jacket, emergency bivy, lights, ipod) and filled it with snow. I ate a little to moisten my dry mouth.
The hiking was not exactly smooth or flat. I imagined having to carry my fully loaded CTR bike after many days of fatigue through this final section. I imagined possibly having to do it in the dark. If I make it this far in August, at least I know what’s coming and the patience it will require.
There were a few times I choked on my thoughts and feelings, but they were not in frustration. It’s unbelievable to think that these enduring, divine mountains rest here day in and day out for millions of years, and that we were lucky enough to be moving over them.
DDC from Sonya Looney on Vimeo.
This video is shaky because I was trying to push up and over the summit and shoot video at the same time. Note – it was not Matt Turgeon in front of me… and I will race the gearing at CTR if I have to. I think that I’d probably still be walking a lot of that stuff if I had a granny gear, but it would have been nice to have.
I finally got to the last summit and saw water. I wondered if we had to go up the road traversing the side fo the mountain ahead and tried not to judge it as good or bad. I knew there was an aide at the Kennebec TH so I did not filter water from the lake.
I got to aide 3 and saw Jordan Carr who was the spec I watched hiking in front of me in the distance through that section. I spent longer than I normally do at this aide chatting about what we had just accomplished. I was craving something cold and bubbly. The options were beer and Red Bull. I chose the Red Bull and it felt revitalizing as I felt the cold itchy liquid go all the way down my throat. Carney rolled up and we took off after Jordan who had just left. 26 miles to go to Durango. It was 6 PM.
I assumed it would take less than 3 hours to get down, but I was glad I had my lights with me just in case. There was one more tough section of walking in the trees followed by a fun ripping 3000′ descent all the way back to town. Jordan, Carney, and I regrouped on the road and we rolled back to town together finishing in 14.5 hours. There were a couple of “ties” and our group was 6th overall.
The next cold, fizzy beverage going down my throat was a beer from Durango Brewery celebrating a finish and a win (which were one and the same for me). Now that’s a good day!
HUGE props to Jill and Rebecca who rolled in together at midnight, and also to Aaron who came in at 5 AM. That is determination.
Finishing this race with grace was a huge accomplishment for me because it was a huge step forward in my confidence and courage to take on CTR. Maybe I CAN do this. Even better was the ride I did 2 days later on a loaded bike on another section of the CT, and felt strong. Every morning(and many moments of obsession through my day), the first thing that pops in my head when I wake up is the Colorado Trail Race.
That I can do it. I can do it. I can do it. I can do it. I will do it.