Experience pays off for Refsnider in tight Tour Divide race

Kurt Refsnider (Salsa Cycles) won the Tour Divide mountain bike race for the first time last Sunday. The 29-year-old grew up in Minnesota but lives in Boulder, Colorado while he is completing his PhD in Geology at the University of Colorado. He is on track to finish up school in December.

Refsnider started in Banff, Canada, on June 10 and finished the approximately 2,745-mile race in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, at the US-Mexico border on Sunday, June 26.  Throughout, he was in a neck-and-neck battle with Jefe Branham, and the race wasn't decided until the final state along the Continental Divide route.  Long days in the saddle and the ability to keep going day after day helped Refsnider to his the win although oversleeping almost cost him the race.

Cyclingnews spoke with Refsnider after he had a few days to recover from his effort.

Cyclingnews: Have you done the Tour Divide before?

Kurt Refsnider: I did it once two years ago in 2009. It went amazingly well, I didn't know what I was getting into. I'd only done two multi-day races before that, and they were only about 300 miles long. I came in second behind (five-time winner) Matt Lee. I learned a ton that year about what I was doing right and wrong. I learned what worked and what didn't. It was a huge learning experience.

CN: Why did you decide to do it this year?

KR: After the first time, I said I would never do it again. It's painful and it degrades your body. It took 1.5 years for the tendonitis I developed at the last Tour Divide to go away. I was of the opinion that there were so many places to ride and to go that I'd want to do other things. Watching the race last year, I felt the spark to do it again. In the last year or two, I've gotten faster in endurance events. I wanted to see if I could win or go for the record or both.

CN: You won, but did you break the record?

KR: This year we had some snow detours en route, especially in northwest Wyoming, Montana and Canada. There were sections of the route 30 miles long which were under snow. Matthew Lee came up with some detours and some still had eight-mile sections under snow.

With the reroutes, it was 80-100 miles shorter than the traditional route and we had more pavement, so you can't really compare. The top three guys, me, Jefe (Branham) and Paul (Attala), who was going northbound, were all riding fast enough that we would have broken the course record.

CN: What do you do to prepare for the Tour Divide?

KR: Experience of this race or other multi-day races, including bike packing experience plays a huge role. You have to have your bike set-up perfected. You have to have your sleeping bag and repair parts all sorted. You have to know what kind of clothing to bring. It takes years to get that all hashed out.

As far as actual training, what works for me is a combo of moderate intensity long intervals for hours on end. I do hill climbing efforts every week, 30-40 minutes outside of Boulder to work on my speed a bit.

I do a lot of long back to back, 150-200 mile days on weekends.

I also do training binges where I spend a week and all I do is ride, for like 50 hours. You feel pretty horrible the week after, but it pays off a month or two later. I did one this year in St. George, Utah in February.

This year, I really did work on the speed side and not just the low intensity endurance.

CN: This year, you and Jefe Branham and Ethan Passant, who were all racing southbound together, were very closely matched. Did you know them before the race?

KR: We're all from Colorado which is amusing. I've raced Jefe a few times before on the Arizona Trail. Last year, he broke my old record on Arizona Trail 300. He broke it by a whopping six hours. Then I went down there a week later and time trialed the entire 750-mile trail. I ended up breaking his record by 18 minutes. Jefe also won the Colorado Trail race and Ethan did too, one year. We all knew how strong each other person is. In the race, there was a sense of friendship, but were all threatened by each other.

CN: Describe this year's Tour Divide.

KR: This year it felt much more like a race than two years ago. Then, Matthew Lee had pulled out to a lead right away.  While this year, Jefe, Ethan (Passant) and I were together. Right from the end of day one, the three of us separated ourselves from the rest. Jefe hardly slept at all the first night and went to an early lead of a few hours.

Jefe has done a lot of three, four and five days races and we didn't think he'd be able to hold up that strategy, so we weren't all that worried about him. Ethan and I rode together the first few days. We were putting in 180-mile days and he was still putting time on us, so we started to worry. Jefe was on a singlespeed and riding very strong, more so than we expected.

Six days in, my legs started to come around. I was still worried about Jefe's lead, so one evening when my legs felt especially strong, I decided to ride until they started to get tired. I made that decision and rode away from Ethan. I pushed through the night over Teton Pass under the full moon and then into northwest Wyoming. I put in 370 miles with about an hour's break in Pinedale for food.

I passed Jefe during the night when he was sleeping. I started to question that move later in the day and thought maybe it had been a stupid idea. I thought I'd have to recover and Jefe would pass me while I was sleeping. But I got lucky. A storm rolled in and then I rode across the Great Divide Basin. It's so desolate out there. My knees, ankles and butt, with saddle sores, were killing me after 35 hours straight in the saddle. I couldn't stand and I couldn't sit on my seat. Half an hour later though, I was slowly riding along on the two-track and just ahead I could see Jefe at 3:00 am getting ready to ride. We ended up riding together all that part and the next day.

My big move had pulled the race back together and I felt pretty good later that day, so the move hadn't exacted as much of a cost as I thought it would.

The next day in northern Colorado, we stopped at a lodge - I rolled in a little ahead of Jefe. Ethan had almost caught us, he was a half hour back, so we waited for him. That's when northbound rider Paul came through too. It was almost like a little party with all of us there. We sat back and relaxed for a few minutes.

Ethan had buried himself trying to catch us. He was so caffeinated when he got to us. Jefe and I were feeling pretty good.

The three of us rode together for the next day and a half. We were pretty relaxed and got a luxurious six hours of sleep that night. We had been averaging four hours per night.

The next day, Ethan wasn't riding like himself and was lagging on the climbs, and Jefe's knee pain was getting worse.

I was thinking ahead because it's hard to separate yourself from others in the Tour Divide. You can either sneak away in the morning or evening if you're all camping in the same place. The only place to get away is to ride away during the day. I knew the Colorado portion well and that there were passes that suited me well. Coming out of a canyon, I put in a huge effort to distance myself from them. I figured it would be an afternoon-long effort to get an hour's gap, what you need to make it stick.

I pushed hard over two passes and into South Park. I'd gotten one hour on Jefe and close to two hours on Ethan.

In a race like this, things stretch out over days. The normal road race tactics that take 10 minutes in a road race stretch out over hours.

I was on my own for awhile. Jefe chased and Ethan was losing ground. Trying to keep my lead, I wasn't sleeping much.

One night, I slept at 10,000 feet in New Mexico. My alarm went off at 3:00 am and it was too cold to get up, and I fell back asleep. I woke up to the sun up high and panicked. It was 6:00 am! Late, but not as late as I feared. I packed up quickly and got going, and Jefe hadn't gone by thankfully.

Then at one point I stopped in the middle of the two track and was dozing off and Jefe came up behind me. He caught me and I guess he had been just 10 minutes behind me all day.

It sounds crazy, but it was good to see him and share stories and have company again.

In central New Mexico, there is a long road section. It's pavement for 140 miles. He was on a singlespeed and that night I put in another long one and slept for just one hour. I got about four hours on him on that stretch and hoped I could hold that until the end, especially with my gears.

The next day three was 100-degree heat, and I hate that. Psychologically, heat wears on me. I was having trouble eating and it was a miserable day. There was smoke, too, from the forest fires in Arizona which impacted breathing. At the end of the day, I ended up at the Forest Service work center where I could get water. I filled up and fell asleep. Again, I had planned to sleep for three hours, but I slept for six hours.

I packed up in record time as I awoke and realized Jefe had passed me. I saw his tire tracks. I knew he needed a three-hour lead out of Silver City to stay ahead on the road section I did the math in my head. I figured he could be ahead by as much as four hours. But I knew he was having trouble staying awake. I was pissed - I was afraid I had lost the race because I had overslept.

From that point, it was 70 miles until the next place to get food. I inventoried my calories. I had 1,200 calories left in my bag. It was going to a problem no matter what happened. That was one of the lowest points in the race for me. Four guys on motos passed me - lots of them tour the route on motos while we ride. They offered me water, but they covered up Jefe's tracks. Later I saw his tracks on top of the moto tracks, which meant he was close and then I caught him half an hour later.

At that point, he was resigned to me beating him and we rode together until we both ran out of food and on section of singletrack, we both ran out of water in the 100-degree temperatures. It was hike-a-bike, and we were out there for four hours without water. We were in a bad place.

We managed to get out and ride to the next town to get ice cream and coke.

On the last day, I put three hours on him.

CN: It seems like the ability to tolerate sleep deprivation while logging huge miles is key. What was that like?

KR: It was really back and forth - mind games at times - the whole way. It was a question of how little sleep you could go on. A few years ago, I was sleeping comfortable amounts and riding all alone. It didn't feel like a race. This year, it really felt like a race. That made it hard. We really beat up on each other.

CN: Was there any point where you thought about quitting?

KR: A few times. Once in south central Montana when I was riding with Ethan, one of my knees was bothering me. I have had trouble with it on and off for eight years. A few months ago, I crashed on it in the Arizona 300, and I hit my kneecap on a rock. I had to drop out and not push through, and it bothered me up until the Divide Race started this year. To cope, I drastically changed my position by moving cleats back and my saddle forward by one centimeter. That helped tremendously, but it was excruciatingly painful for one day. I ended up stopping early that day... I just couldn't ride any more. My knee slowly improved the rest of the race.

There was that morning in Wyoming when I almost quit, as I was about to head into a remote, 140-mile stretch. But three hours later, after my body warmed up, I was feeling a lot better.

CN: Your girlfriend Caroline Soong is still out there racing and she's leading among the women. Did you talk her into it?

KR: She has been an endurance athlete for a long time. The past few years, she focused on ultra running: 50 and 100-mile trail runs. She did a week-long ultra running stage race in Utah and won every stage last year. She hadn't done a lot of mountain biking in a long time. She'd raced on the road years ago and was interested in doing something beside running.

I planted the seed last year when she started mountain biking. She can go out and hammer all day on dirt roads although, she doesn't have the technical part down yet.

She has the endurance and we did bike packing trip for the first time last year.

She was in the lead by one day. There are four women behind her still in it. I think she'll finish on Sunday. Yesterday, she ran over a huge chunk of metal that went through the sidewall. She got it running again and I got her a new tire shipped overnight to her.

CN: What other endurance races have you done?

KR: I've done the Arizona 300 three times and the and Arizona Trail full distance of 750 miles once last year. There was also the Grand Loop in western Colorado and Utah - that's 360 miles, very remote. I did that and finished and vowed that I'd never do that again, but three weeks later, I was thinking how I could shave eight hours off my time and that was the beginning of the end.

The full Arizona Trail is the hardest. You have to carry your bike on your back across the Grand Canyon. The wheels can't touch the ground on National Park trails.

Last year, I tried to time trial the Colorado Trail. I felt good the first day, but then my legs imploded. I couldn't even walk up the slopes. So there are walls in endurance. I turned around and went home.

CN: How long does it take to recover from the Tour Divide physically and mentally?

KR: There's the mental recovery and there's the muscular recovery from the damage you've done. Then there is the connective tissue. Last time, that took 1.5 years to get back under control. I think it's a couple of months until all three are back. Just pedalling around today, my legs didn't hurt, but my knees and ankles will take another month I think.

CN: Will you do it again?

I don't know. I said after the first time I wouldn't do it again. My goal was to finish, do well and have a good time. It's one of those things. It's 2.5 to three weeks out there plus lots of time preparing and learning about the course. It takes weeks to deal with that ahead of time. It's a huge time commitment. There are other places to explore. I'm still in disbelief that I was able to win this year. I don't know how we were able to do 170 miles per day. I can probably count the number of days I've done that much on a mountain bike on two hands before the this year's Tour Divide, and we just did it daily for two weeks.

I think it would be interesting to race it again in a few years when more guys are here. It'd be fun to get Matthew and Jay (Petervary) back out again. at the same time, looking at what Jefe and I did to each other this year, I think it'd be a complete suffer fest and you might risk too much permanent damage to knees and tendons. So I don't know if it's worth trying to do again.

KR: I used to race on the road and then I specialized in cyclo-cross. I'd train all year for 'cross. My top results at elite nationals was top 30. I had some good speed in short events. To be honest, I got tired of riding around in circles, as fun as those races were. There was no adventure like ultra endurance races offer. A few years ago, I did some cross country mountain biking but it didn't have the lure of the long self-supported races. In the past two years, I've only done these types of racing.

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