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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Biker Versus Runner: Ouray to Yankee Boy Basin

"Good health, peace of mind, being outdoors, camaraderie: those are all wonderful things that come to you when running. But for me, the real pull of running—the proverbial icing on the cake—has always been racing."  Bill Rodgers

Friday Morning: My internal alarm (bladder) prompts me wide awake at 5 AM sharp. "Damn," I mutter, shuffling off to pee. "It's race day with Leon." Butterflies!

Two things are evident: First and foremost, my legs are still sore from running the Perimeter Trail and hiking Twin Peaks back to back. Second, I'm oddly anxious about today's race, welling reservations regarding the leg-wrenching six miles and 2,500 feet of elevation gain up to Camp Bird Mine. Oh the numbskull, competitive realities one gets himself into after a couple of mugs of IPA Bravado. Why in Hell are we kicking off the summer racing series with Camp Bird?    

Bobbie isn't due at work till 3 PM, so I rope her into our escapade under the guise of "getting in a little altitude training." If we all leave the house at 8:30, she'd have a couple hours to drive up and park about halfway between Camp Bird and Yankee Boy and do a hike with hand-weights  to Yankee Boy Basin...12,500 feet above sea level. If all goes well, Leon can hitch a ride down with Bobbie and avoid nine miles of downhill knee abuse. Normally, Leon and I only race the six mile course from our house to Camp Bird Mine, at which point he must run back down while I get an effortless zoom-down on my bike. 

This all starts because I opened my big mouth to Leon about extending our outing from Camb Bird Mine to Yankee Boy Basin...another three-plus miles and 2,500 additional feet of grueling elevation gain. Thus, my request for Bobbie to provide logistical support. 

Leon rolls in right on time, ready to race.

Leon, sipping the last of his coffee and ready to run.

It's a beautiful day.
I start my Gaia GPS trail-tracker app and off we go. "See you at Camp Bird Mine! May the best man win.I don't hold back going down our steep driveway, and promptly leave Leon in the dust.

Our routes differ for a couple miles, mine being slightly longer. Leon stays on Oak Street due south for a little over a mile, then turns up the Box Canyon Falls Exit Road and runs through the bottom portion of Ouray's now ice-less Ice Park. He then jumps on a short steep trail that lands him on Camp Bird Road, just beyond the first bridge over Box Canyon. 

I, on the other hand, must divert through town by heading up Main Street Ouray (Highway 550). I ride the pavement for the  first couple switch backs beyond city limits, then hang a right on Camp Bird Mine Road, where our routes re-converge just beyond the first bridge.

I look for Leon while pedaling across the bridge. He's nowhere in sight. Just past the first bridge the road steepens such that and I must shift down to "Granny." It's the gear I'll spend most of the next two and a half to three hours in (ugh). 

Camp Bird is a steep, loosely graveled County Road whose surface gets carved into a continuous series of chatter-bumps as a result of automobile and ATV tires spinning for purchase. It's the first of numerous "reality checks" and has me questioning what the fuck I'm doing. That it comes so early on is disheartening. My heart rate always max's out on this section, topping 160 to 170. It's something I have to endure till the grade eases slightly after a mile or so...enough, anyway, for me to get a partial second wind and shift out of "Granny" into 2nd gear. 
My legs feel like they are on fire; screaming "We haven't recovered...We're not ready for this, fool."

By this time the sun is beating on my back. I'm seriously overheating and stinging sweat pours into my eyes. I unclip my helmet in order to loop it over my handlebars, figuring I won't be going fast enough to need it for the remainder of the race. It helps significantly by venting excess body heat from my head. In doing this, unfortunately, my sunglasses get caught in the helmet strap. Understand: I'm pedaling hard through this ordeal, trying to steer with my right hand while unzipping my hot jersey to let some air in. Next thing I see is my sunglasses falling to the road behind my front tire. I watch in too-late-now slow motion horror as my rear tire smashes them into pieces. Nooo!  I'm practically blind at altitude without sunglasses. The good new is, I'm still ahead of Leon. But can I hold it? 

There was a time...long, long ago...when Bobbie and I were both runners and bikers. Every spring we would participate in the Black Canyon Ascent...a 6 mile race with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The race starts at Highway 50 and ends on the rim of what is now, Black Canyon National Park. 

Our times back then were decent...always under an hour. One fine summer day we decided to bike the course instead of doing a training run, fully expecting it to be faster than if running. HA! It took almost twice as long to bike up as it did to run up.  

I point this out because we learned the hard way that biking up a steep hill...as in anything above 5 percent grade...is way tougher and slower than running up it. This explains why I constantly look over my shoulder on Camp Bird Road, expecting to see Leon closing the gap. I know he can run faster than I can peddle up the steeper portions of Camp Bird Road. Thus, whenever the grade relents in the least, I'm try to take advantage, upshift and crank with everything I have in order to gain back some of the ground I know he's making up on me. Today, my legs are not cooperative. Not enough rest between major events. Mind over legs; it's a "thing" right?

Okay, long story shortened: I continue looking over my shoulder and still, Leon's nowhere to be found...even as I pass the halfway point to Camp Bird Mine. Jeeps and ATV's have done a real number on the steep double switchback. It's loose, rocky and full of chatter-bumps. My worn out, original-equipment rear tire slips a little with each crank. 

I shift a little weight toward the rear of my seat for added traction and keep grinding. If for any reason I stop, the grade's too steep and loose to get going again and I'll be pushing my bike instead of riding it. Good news: I make the loose switchbacks. Bad news: Those switchbacks are followed by an unrelenting, will-crushing steep section where speed is measured in tenths of a mile-per-hour. To make matters even more wretched, I'm hit with 20 mph headwinds. 

I look over my shoulder again. Oh no! There's ole Leon...not a hundred yards back and closing. He's got me in his sights now, and it couldn't happen in a worse place. Uphill, Head wind, 10,000 feet of lung sucking elevation. I'm toast!

A few minutes later, ole Leon pulls along side and says, "I thought I was ahead of you!" I have only enough breath for three words: "You da Man!" I watch, helpless, as he pulls away...50-100-150 yards...and there's not a Goddamned thing I can do about it. 

It's a strange camaraderie we have. Instead of dejection, I was happy for Leon. He worked fucking hard to snatch this victory from the jaws of defeat. Good for him. He deserves this moment of glory. "You da man, Leon." 

I know what's coming and it will be my last chance at victory.  Just before the final pull up to Camp Bird's finish line, another ball-breaker to say the least, there's a quarter mile section of ever-so-slight downhill. If I muster every last bit of commitment and glycogen, enough to stand on the pedals and run up through a few gears, I might just be able to pass ole Leon. For this to work out into a victory, given that last steep pull to the finish line, I will have to be at least a hundred feet ahead of him as we turn uphill. 

The time has come, the crux, where races are won or lost and bragging rights are earned...at least till next time. The road levels out; It's now or never. I stand and crank with everything I've got, gaining ground but will it be enough? Finally I'm on his heels. I know he can hear me gasping...hears my 3 inch knobby-less tires crunching gravel...feels my hot breath on his sweaty neck. But Leon has another gear, too. Just as we hit the final rise, we are blasted with a god-awful headwind. It literally slows me to a stop and I'm forced to dismount and push the last hundred feet. Leon pulls away to a hard-fought, well-earned victory. 

There's more than a little irony in such races where one is on foot versus another on a bike, that it all boils down to a few seconds that separate winner from loser.

Leon: 1 hour, 17 minutes, and 30 seconds.
Mark: 1 hour, 18 minutes, and 15 seconds

But honestly? There is no loser. We embrace, high five, and genuinely congratulate each other. 

Though the race is over and decided, we still have to reach Yankee Boy Basin in order for Leon to catch his ride down with Bobbie. The wind causes us to cut our break short at Camp Bird, just enough time to pop a caffeinated Shot Bloc, down some Gatorade, then back on the "horse."  

Now we are a team, poking along side by side. With the official race behind us we can relax, joke around, relive the story and Leon's glory as we climb on up toward heaven. 

Snow deepens, as does our sense of camaraderie, joy, and sense of gratification at having give our all in a race that means absolutely nothing to anyone beyond ourselves. It's difficult to explain the deep satisfaction that comes with having pushed beyond limits to finish some objective you thought was beyond reach. 

Leon, heading through the "notch."

Sun shines on Stoney Mountain as Leon heads for Yankee Boy Basin

Approaching 3,000 feet of elevation gain the wear begins to show

Remnants of an avalanche and the Atlas Mill...

Bound for glory...

Getting close!

Look who's coming down to meet us? Hand-weights and all :)

Twin Falls...otherwise known as "Coors Falls," with 14'er Mount Sneffels in the background.

Geezer Power!

Jeep Tour

Almost to Yankee Boy!!!

Deep leftover snow from huge winter avalanches 

Yankee Boy Basin!  12,500 Feet.

A well spent 33rd anniversary...topped off with Colorado Boy IPA's and Pizza

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."  T. S. Eliot


  1. A quick and I hope not too personal question, just what are your ages? I am amazed at your abilities to deal with the altitude and terrain. Beautiful photos always!!
    Don in Okla.

    1. Hey Don, I think Leon is 64...and I'm 68 (and a half). Hoping if we don't stop doing what we love doing we'll be able to keep doing it for a while longer. Of course the Universe could have "other plans" for us. Whatever. One could do worse than dying while they're doing what they love. mark

  2. Replies
    1. Not really...just persevering old farts who love competition :)

  3. Great story. Congrats on a solid effort! I "ran" (mostly hiked) the Camp Bird Road from Ouray to Yankee Boy Basin in 2017, so I was right there with you for the brutal climb. I loved the idea of a rider-runner challenge, and hope to figure out a good place to organize one of these for friends in Boulder.

    I used to have a couple of climbs in California that I would both ride and run, and being an avid Strava user, would compare times and compete with myself. Usually I was rooting for runner Jill, but cyclist Jill still beat her every time. Yes, even on a 17% loose gravel doubletrack at sub-3 mph. But I can agree that cycling steep grades is harder work ... runner Jill is just kind of a weakling. ;-)

    1. Ah, you've felt my pain...or maybe Leon's pain. Bring your bike next time :)

  4. Huge smile on my face all thru your post! The fun shines through so brightly!

  5. Oh Boy - you guys ROCK! Say hi to Leonard for us! -scamp

    1. Leon says "Hey." Enjoy your summer...If it gets too hot come on up!

  6. WOW.....most exciting blog on this side of the Rockies....way to GO guys.
    It's 90ยบ in Guerneville today (Tues) and those snowy peaks looked like HEAVEN, hey if you live in the San Juans you're Lucky Enough
    Stay Thirsty guys

    1. Just a humble small-town life in the Rockies :)
      Thanks for the kudos my Sonoma pals...
      mark and bobbie

  7. My quads hurt just reading this post! Well done both of you!

  8. I loved reading this. It's so fun to push ourselves like that, and to have a friendship like yours and Leon's.


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