BaseCamp alumnus Kathy Duryea shared her experience at the 2022 Mountain Man Invitational in Colorado.
Mountain Man Invitational – July 16, 2022, Twin Lakes, Leadville, Colorado, and surrounding area
Epic, Painful, Finished, Exhausted, Thankful
Swim 2.4 miles
Mountain/gravel ride 100 miles
Trail run 26.2 miles
Average elevation 10,000 feet
This race was everything I had hoped it would be. Epic enough to lure me in, challenging enough to require growth through pain, and exhausting enough to allow pause and reflection.
The early week forecast for rain on race day had cleared by race morning, and the sunrise brought a gorgeous sky and wonderful temps. I mention this because it could not have been a better day to race at 10,000 feet elevation with minimal threat of bad weather. I was stoked. Regardless, I kept my rain jacket, cold weather gloves, hat and knee warmers loaded in my pack strapped to the bottom of the seat on my bike – cheap insurance to keep the rain/hail away. I’ve learned without carrying extra gear, the weather would more than likely turn on a dime.
The swim was the event I feared the most in this race. 2.4 miles in a high alpine lake was something I had never attempted. The combination of the frigid temperatures and the high altitude would compound over time. Not knowing how my body would react was frightening. For this reason, I had accepted the challenge to begin with.
I’ve discovered when I do what I fear the most, I always have personal growth. It expands my boundaries, and my abilities to do even more challenging things. Fear is designed to protect us, and I don’t do EVERYTHING I am afraid of. You would find it hard to get me to walk naked in front of people. But when I can bundle up a particular fear in a package and find a solution to overcome that fear, it always pushes me to another level when I do overcome that fear.
For me to overcome my fear, it took time, in fact six weeks of time at altitude. We rented an Airbnb for 6 weeks so I could acclimate to the altitude of the swim. We stayed near a Natatorium at 7k feet elevation so I could get to the pool easily 2-3 times a week. We drove to the actual event site an hour away once a week for an open water swim in Twin Lakes and slowly increased my time in the water. I sat in the Arkansas River for 10, then 15, then 20-minute sessions to acclimate to the restriction of my wetsuit in cold water. I submerged in creeks without a wetsuit in the high country while hiking. I hired Namrita Brooke, a PhD in nutrition and coach with BaseCamp, to help me piece my race and nutrition together.
Due to attrition, the event participants had dwindled to just two women by the week of the race (my friend, Zoe G Nance, and me). The 4 men had dropped for various reasons. We walked to the edge of the water at 8:00am and Zoe began swimming the direction of the course; I swam the opposite direction about 50 yards to warm up. I returned to the starting line to clear my goggles and looked up. Zoe was still swimming; I assumed she was doing a longer warm-up than me. I talked to my paddle board crew (I was assigned 2) and I asked Riley, to stay directly in front of me, and Ashley, to stay to my right so I could site off her rather than the shore. I wanted to go as straight as possible. Zoe was still swimming. I went to shore to check with everyone and we all decided that she must have started. I reentered the water, waved goodbye to crew on shore and began my swim at 8:10am.
Riley and Ashley were both amazing in making me feel safe as they paddled ahead and beside me. My body was never hot nor cold. The gear that Zoe and I had dialed in together over the course of 6 weeks made us both the perfect temperature for the swim. We wore a neoprene vest base layer, a full hoodie that covered our ears and necks, a 5mm wetsuit, wool socks, booties, gloves, goggles, swim cap, and Vaseline on my cheeks, nose and chin that were exposed. I was able to not only complete my swim, but I exited the water 20 minutes ahead of the time I expected I would swim. I stopped every 20 minutes to consume 12 oz of nutrition. By the end of the swim, I had consumed all 48oz of my nutrition. I felt great when I left the water and transitioned to the bike.
The bike ride was spectacular. We followed a large part of the Leadville 100 mountain bike course, with the deletion of the Columbine Climb but the addition of the Colorado Trail plus two new sections of single track around Turquoise Lake, as well as the scenic Mineral Belt trail that circles the town of Leadville. It was over 8k feet of climbing spread over 100 miles, topping out over 11k feet elevation.
This event is unique in that you can provide much of your own support (or as little as you want). I was fortunate that every 10-15 miles or so, I would see my own personal support crew, Johnan Ratliff & the pups (Gracie & Howie), while riding my bike. They carried my refills of nutrition/water bottles, and I was able to refill my nutrition every 1-1.5hrs. It was reassuring to always see them and their smiles.
Lorinda Putter, an awesome mechanic for the Wounded Warrior Project, had my back for any possible mechanical failures. She rode along in the truck with Johnan (further insurance everything would run smooth). I also brought a spare bike, but fortunately never needed it. I wanted to finish on the bike I started on. Lorinda made sure both bikes were in good order just before the start of the event. Back home, my local bike shop, Mad Duck Cyclery, sent me off in one piece, and Absolute Bikes in Salida where I stayed for 6 weeks helped with some new tires, a tune-up and various other spare parts I needed.
Then, mid-way through the ride, I began to feel sick at my stomach and was unable to make any power in my legs. My stomach had turned on a dime. It became progressively worse as I coasted into downtown Leadville at the “Cycles of Life” aid station. I do not know why I felt sick. The first half of my race I felt perfect and strong; maybe even too strong.
The race director, Sam Piccolotti, gave me a ginger ale to drink. I was able to keep this down (for the time being). I was no longer able to consume my nutrition I had on board my bike, and I began taking sips of water as I could handle it. I also received a handful of ginger candy from Mia (Sam’s daughter and Wilderness First Responder) at the aid station (thank you), and I slowly sucked on these over the course of the next two major climbs (St Kevin and Hagerman Pass).
For me, the St. Kevin climb is the hardest climb on this bike course. It was a struggle to make it to the top without walking. In retrospect, maybe I should have walked the steepest sections, but I didn’t. After St. Kevin was a quick reprieve descending the paved road around the spectacular views of Turquoise Lake. I smiled through my grimace; the views were amazing. At the bottom, I saw my support crew before ascending another climb, Hagerman Pass. It was beautiful, yet rocky up top on the 4-wheel drive jeep road that connected up and over to what is known as the “Powerline Descent.”
Powerline Descent was steep and rutted, but not too loose because of rain the night before. Ideally you would want a mountain bike here with at least front suspension. I had chosen to ride my gravel bike with drop bars (because I felt it favored the rest of the course), so this was the hardest descent of the day for me. It was hard because my hands were cramping, yet I needed to be feathering (lightly squeezing) on both my brakes most of the descent to control my speed. Fortunately, there was no rain (which would have made it technically harder), and the descent was steep and therefore quick.
I had support again at Fish Hatchery checkpoint where I still struggled to take on nutrition. Johnan and Lorinda had purchased multiple food items for me to choose from that might sound good to my stomach. Pickles - nope, Chips – one (our dog Gracie had eaten the rest anyway), Cashews – nope, caramels – nope, pretzels – nope. I tried a bite of a new bar and took it with me – something with organic oats in it. It was hard to eat as well.
Next up was a long ride down a relatively flat pipeline (I don’t remember that many ups and downs during this section – only a drone that was out filming me) and a downhill of fun single track. I saw my support crew again and told them I was feeling worse. They followed me on the next segment as it was a gravel road where they could follow behind. Near the top of the climb, my stomach flipped, and I started vomiting off the side of the bike. What I believe was 3 waves of vomit came over me until my stomach began to cramp and I had to get off the bike and bend over to continue the process of purging. I was 10 miles to the finish by then (a quick descent followed by more single track). I continued, throwing up one more time in the single-track trail before the end of the bike.
I had nothing left in my stomach at the transition area for the trail marathon. It took me about 20 minutes to change clothes for night-time cooler temps of running in the dark and putting my shoes on was a struggle. I remember someone put one of my shoes on my foot and asked me to tie it as tight as I liked. Monica was my pacer for the run. In this event you can elect to have a pacer that carries your pack (filled with hydration/snacks/tracker/phone/etc.). I don’t remember if I had anything more in my pack, like a spare couch; I hoped not for Monica’s sake. I had forgotten to warn her that I carry lots of provisions. She also had her own pack to carry, so she wore my pack over hers. She never complained once - not once, the entire night and into the next day. There is something to learn from her. I want to be this person when I grow up.
Monica and I started the run, and I immediately threw up what little liquid I had just consumed at the transition area. OK, so I was starting the marathon in a calorie deficit. I didn’t know how I would make it, but my subconscious knew just one foot in front of the other.
And so it went – walk, jog, walk, jog, walk, jog, walk, swerve, walk, swerve, walk, swerve, until at 5 miles in on the single-track trail, I needed to stop and lay down. I’m foggy on what happened here, but Monica called the race director or other support crew members, because soon, I had about 10 volunteers huddled around me covering me in blankets, supporting my back, placing a pad under me, spoon feeding me chicken broth/water and dipping my finger in Liquid IV to place between my gums. I shivered, then I got warm, then I shivered some more, and then I got warm.
Eventually I dosed off, but laughter woke me up. I don’t remember what I said during this time, but I remember telling stories in a faint voice. I remember lights shining at me, and I remember them checking my Oxygen levels because I wanted to know. 96% - good. After 1-2 hours, I had to pee. This was a great sign they said. Kim, who had been supporting my back all this time, held one arm and took me behind a bush and Sam’s daughter, Mia, had my other arm. That was a first – a new lesson on peeing in the woods with two companions holding me up. But pee meant I could now continue, and so we did.
The trail was more technical now I was still struggling to walk a straight line. Sam held one arm and his son, Nico, held my other to make sure I didn’t fall off the side of the trail. Not far to fall, but not ideal either. We emerged from the trail at mile 6, Willis Gulch Trailhead. Johnan was there, and I got into the vehicle to rest and hydrate some more. Sam asked where we had planned to stay tonight and I told him, “Well when I finish, we plan to drive home”. That was always the plan.
I dozed in and out of sleep for a few hours – questioning my own self whether I would continue. I could barely hold my eyes open. Sleep sounded good, warmth sounded good, and a happy stomach sounded even better. I asked Johnan her opinion. She didn’t give me an answer. Smartest girl alive my friends tell me. That was my decision to make and live with.
My eyes popped open at 5am, ready to go. I stepped out of the truck and had to pee again. That was more progress. Johnan woke all the support crew up and told them I was ready to continue. Bless their hearts; they all crawled out of surrounding vehicles and off we went again – Monica, me and even the race director, Sam, joined us.
Our parade of 3 headlamps/waist lamps marched down the road, walking at first, and eventually jogging again on the downhills. Ashley followed behind on Hwy 82, flashers on. The rising sun illuminated the mountains behind us and as it rose from behind the hills ahead provided energy for my forward momentum.
Sam said, “I like this, walking the uphills and running the downhills; thank you.”
I said, “Sure,” mustering up a chuckle.
We passed a small pond and mother duck was swimming with her babies in the misty waters of sunrise. It was gorgeous and peaceful, and Sam talked about a mountain lion that Mia had seen there earlier.
And so it went, one step at a time, one minute at a time, one mile at a time, one hour at a time, until we reached the transition area for the first time (one complete lap around the lake), which meant we had finished 15 miles and had another 11 to go on a 2nd lap that was out and back.
We refueled (had a few bites of a volunteer egg/potato burrito that was amazing), checked in with the crew, and then reversed directions and went backwards on the course about 5.5 miles out and then 5.5 miles back to the finish.
Not much happened in those last 11 miles. I stepped on some slow moving army ants and we talked a lot about all sorts of stuff, ran some, walked some, got encouraged by Johnan, Ashley and the camera crew at various intersections of road and trail. One crew member had soup for me in an insulated cup (ramen noodles I think). I had a sip and handed it to Monica to carry.
Kim (who had cradled and supported my back when I was down for the count) somehow got a different type of chicken soup for me a few minutes further and delivered it on the trail to me in her own Yeti insulated mug. I gave it to Monica to carry after taking only 1 sip. Poor Monica is now balancing my Tailwind nutrition/water, and two soups in one hand. I don’t know how or when she got rid of them all. I couldn’t keep track. It seemed like so much work for the crew when all I could drink was one sip at a time.
Johnan found a breakfast burrito for me in the town of Twin Lakes – one bite of that was enough, and then our pups, Howie and Gracie, were happy to consume the rest.
Sam told me I would feel better once we turned around and I was heading to the barn. I agreed. We made the turn around and I could see light at the end of the tunnel. I have always heard you can do anything for one more step, one more minute, one more mile. My legs were not tired; only my stomach revolted if I ran very long. Zoe came by on her bike (she had opted to sleep in Leadville after heart issues at mile 85 of bike), and she had gotten back on course the next morning where she left off to finish the remaining 15 miles of the bike course on the Colorado Trail. What a trooper. We were on the same trail. We traded hugs and she pushed on to wait for me at the finish.
Gracie and Howie (our pups) ran with me for a few miles, Gracie being sure to keep us all herded and Howie stayed off the front on the prowl for a chipmunk.
We arrived near the finish area, but my watch needed 1 more mile. We found some extra trail to do in the camping area and wondered around for one more mile. Zoe was on foot now looking for us and found us running around the woods. We all ran into the finish together where there was a No Zero Days banner waiting for us at the finish. I was very excited (internally) to finish, but unfortunately don’t wear my emotions on the outside. I grabbed the banner, held it up and showed it off. I gave Johnan a big hug and then Sam and I took a dip in the water to celebrate. I do admit it felt amazing by then. Things had really heated up. Monica came in also for a hug in the water and I might have gotten her wet.
I remember telling Sam the lake smelled like dog poop while we were in it. Turns out it was my wool shirt that turned sour when it got wet. Maybe it smelled that way the entire time, but I didn’t smell it until it got wet in the lake. I realized this when I later took it off. I have since washed it twice, and I apologize to any crew member that smelled that shirt. Fortunately, it was only on my body the last 11 miles.
Champagne mimosas and a belt buckle were waiting for me and a much anticipated nap when we got home (come to think of it I fell asleep on the way home to the cabin only an hour away). It has taken a few days for my hunger to come back and I’m finally starting to eat my normal meals again. I can’t say enough amazing things about this amazing race. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a challenge or their next epic thing to accomplish that might scare/challenge them a bit.
I can honestly say I could not have finished this event without the unbelievable support I received as 1 of only 2 participants. We are stronger together, and had I have been alone, I would not have had the physical presence to shelter from the cold on the side of the trail at night, to force feed myself, or to carry the gear I needed when I was feeling the worst. I certainly didn’t have broth with me.
For an event of this magnitude, it is important that the crew knows your personal goals and plans before the event starts, and even your fears (which I shared with Riley on the swim), so they can help you make capable decisions when the going gets tough about dropping out. They can help remind you of why you are here, and that you can do more than you think you can, and always that you can go one more step, and then one more – whatever it takes.
27 hours on the course was nothing compared to the 6-month commitment of hard training to arrive at the race capable and healthy, not to mention the expense. Being an accountant, I was going to analyze the actual cost of this race and put all the facts and figures in a spreadsheet, so that at the end of this race recap, I could divulge the cost, and then say, “Price of a Mountain Man Invitational Belt Buckle – priceless”. But in the end, as I write, I realize it was the memories and friendships I made on this day that cemented my purpose for being here. The love and support that all those volunteers provided over the course of two days was priceless. It took a hard day for that to unravel. And excitedly, I don’t need to compile yet another spreadsheet; I am burned out on spreadsheets this late into tax extension season.