Mike and I are currently back to training out of our favorite surf town in the southern hemisphere: Pichilemu. We are still reflecting on and recovering from the intense week of racing the Trans Andes Challenge from January 25 to 30.
As I look down at my scratched up legs and swollen ankle, it is obvious that it was a tough week on my body, and for sure, Mike and I both pushed our tolerance levels and boundaries in more areas than just riding our bikes.
Mike reflects on the Challenge
All the bigness and scary riding and getting lost and adversity only proved to make it something more memorable and incredible in the end. - Mary McConneloug
I kept the car keys on hand 24/7, throughout every stage all week. The Trans Andes Challenge racing experience was just that gnarly, and in the case of an emergency, breakdown, etc., I needed to be sure to have a way out, to end the suffering that lay ahead outlined in our inaccurate race profile books.
It was something that I could do on my own without help from the overworked staff or without having to ask with my dodgy Spanish. If it really came down to surviving rather than finding the next base camp, I needed to know that I was prepared (or to at least think that I was).
At the outset, it seemed as if we were getting ourselves into a bit of a South American summer vacation, complete with catering, wine sponsor and some solid mileage thrown in - perfect for our winter training needs. As it turned out, Mary and I ended up being greeted by something all together different - more incredible and tougher than anything we had anticipated.
We went into the event with a "get your feet wet in the stage race format type off season training" attitude, but we ended up taking the experience on as a personal challenge to be finished at almost any cost. After we unconsciously made this firm commitment, we were constantly tested in our resolve as things got tough along the way.
The terrain was big. The Garmin that didn't manage to rattle loose (Mary's currently lies somewhere out there along the tall, unkept, practically virgin trails that we passed) logged an excess of 250 miles and 35,000 feet of climbing in the six days.
The sight unseen, overgrown trails, sheer gradients of the technical Jeep roads and the merciless washboard roads kept the speeds pretty low - on average less than 10mph, even as the top team. This was wild, raw mountain biking. The only flaw was it kept us from fully appreciating the incredible scenery that was passing by.
At the race venue base camps, we quickly adapted to the competitive environment surrounding the food service. We got in to the habit of filling water bottles with milk, stashing pockets full of cookies, fruit salads, cooked meat and any other high calorie foods to have when the kitchen was closed. Even with all these self preservation techniques, we managed to burn enough calories to get down below fighting weight in just six days. As supplies thinned further in the week, we took to bartering mechanical services to keep ourselves in power food for the long days in the saddle.
Mary and I were signed up for the basic level entry that gave us a tent as accommodations and three meals a day at an ever changing outdoor camp style venue. Though we could find reasons to complain, this rugged camp style offered us what we felt was the pure experience and flavor of the event. Others who opted for the decidedly more plush (and perhaps more intelligent) hotel and restaurant -style tour were along for the ride but missed some of what we felt was the core experience of the event. Although the premium package was looking pretty sweet when we were taking cold showers and lining up at the single stall for the morning bathroom stop - but in hindsight, we wouldn't change a thing.
We got to know our neighbors, stories were shared in the evenings along with bike parts, medical supplies and most importantly, words of encouragement to keep on riding and finish the experience and challenge. Although on some level most were there to compete, the bottom line was more about helping and making sure everyone got through safe.
The remoteness of the event was part of the incredible experience but added greatly to its difficulty. At the outset, we were asked to put all our equipment for the week - clothing, bedding, and comfort items into a single 80-liter (this is small) duffel bag. This bag was shuttled from campground to campground by the race staff and really had to contain what we would need for the entire race. It was with an uncomfortable leap of faith that Mary and I that were able to put our normally well thought out and stocked up program to the side and get on the Trans Andes band wagon for the week of the unknown.
The lack of equipment in our possession gave me the opportunity to bust out a good number of nifty survival tricks. I actually used the emergency wrap of tape that I always keep around my seat post, and the often pointlessly brought along plastic trash bag in the jersey pocket actually became a poncho, effectively staved off hypothermia and allowed me to finish a wet and cold Alpine stage that took down over half the field.
We found ourselves embracing the rugged six days of mountain biking in the Andes above everything else in the experience. Even through our physical pain, mental duress and even injury we realized that this was in some ways the most pure and real race experience we have had even after almost two decades of various competitions and was not something to give up on or miss.
At the Trans Andes, I realized firsthand how difficult stage racing is. I also learned that there are some really special times and challenges involved in racing as a duo. I saw my desire to continue racing influence Mary to push through a rude injury that I am certain would have ended the experience if she were just riding on her own.
I had preconceived notions that competing in this race as a duo mixed pro team would be a walk in the park for me as I am typically stronger than Mary in our training rides. This turned out to not be the case as all extra energy was spent in supporting Mary with a push, a pull, a draft or an encouraging word that would help motivate and drive on the team for the greater good. I am in awe of how strong Mary could be in the face of so much adversity and pain and how alive battling together at the event made us feel.
Riding out in front of 120 racers with Mary breaking trail on wilderness roads that haven't been seen by more than a handfull of horses since they were once upon a time used as logging roads was one of the greatest mountain bike experiences that I have had the pleasure to cut my arms and legs to shreds on. I am looking forward to next year already!
The six days of racing and surviving expanded my perception of what I thought was possible. I was reminded how the mind controls the body. That it is possible to be much bigger, stronger and more powerful together as a team than on our own.
It was amazing to race alongside Mike. He was my rock, my support and as always my best friend. It was a tough decision to continue racing after I sprained my ankle 10km into the 105km (monster) stage 2. I was unable to walk at first, but eventually found that I could pedal. From there, the unforgiving terrain and tremendous descents forced me to grit my teeth and just beg for the end to come.
Mostly what kept me going was my commitment to the team. Our duo race tactics were extraordinary and almost instinctual - when the hills got too steep or challenging for me to ride , Mike would run behind me and push keeping me upright and spinning. He would carry my bike as we crossed the deep rivers clinging to a cable, he stocked us up at the feed zones, passed me food and drink, gently sweeping me along with his hand on my back, keeping me moving forward... fast. We ended up winning all six stages in the mixed category and even managed to win the first and third stages - overall, ahead of all the men's teams.
Our equipment was practically flawless thanks to Mike keeping our gear cleaned and tuned daily. We fueled well the whole time with our Clif and Guayaki energy products. I rode my legendary Titanium Seven Sola (built in 2003) and Mike rode his attention-getting 69er Sola. We both rocked the Kenda Small Block 8 tires mounted on Stan's new "podium mmx" wheelsets - this combination proved to be an incredible, lightweight and durable setup that gave us sure-footed traction on the rugged volcanic terrain. I chose to ride the smaller gear combo of SRAM's XX (26x39 front and 11x26 rear) and it was everything we needed and more, even in the extreme gradients.
We were stoked to not have ANY mechanical problems the entire race. Although Mike was one of the only to bring spare equipment just in case, and seemingly the most knowledgeable mechanic on site - he found himself being asked by many for advice, which he kindly lent, despite his fatigue.
The race experience itself brought a level or style of difficulty that constantly brought us to our limits and beyond. Though the tent city setting brought its own challenges it was the people who were part of the event that we often relied on for strength and comraderie to keep on track and ultimately finish with such success. All the bigness and scary riding and getting lost and adversity only proved to make it something more memorable and incredible in the end.
Huge respect to all who were there, challenging themselves in the heat, dust, rain, cold. I am humbled by and grateful for the whole experience.
We would like to thank Juan Pablo Santiagos (www.santiagos.cl) for envisioning and masterminding this incredible adventure on mountain bikes. And huge props to his hardworking and friendly staff.
We are staying down in Chile for the next two weeks learning how to come off a race like this with a positive outcome for the rest of our season. Things with the body are improving slowly - mostly we are both still struggling with a primal urge to compete for food resources.
We both feel that the Trans Andes will leave a permanent scar in both mind and body - We are clearly hooked as well!
Mary and Mike