Alone in the vast sea of Mon­go­lian steppe, Dr. Caro­line Colonna steadily pow­ers her moun­tain bike up one of the many hills en­coun­tered by ath­letes in the 350-mile Mon­go­lian Bike Chal­lenge.

The Taos News - - FRONT PAGE - By Arce­nio J. Tru­jillo sports@taos­news.com The Taos News

World cham­pion, pro triath­lete, Taos res­i­dent. And now, 2018 Mon­go­lian Bike Chal­lenge win­ner.

Dr. Caro­line Colonna trav­eled over 10,000-miles to the other side of the world in early Au­gust. Ul­ti­mately, it was so she could take a 373-mile bike ride on the un­du­lat­ing stepped ter­rain of the 18th largest coun­try on the planet, seek­ing a phys­i­cal, men­tal and spir­i­tual test to add to her list of ath­letic ac­com­plish­ments.

Listed as one of the 10 best moun­tain bike races by Na­tional Geo­graphic Magazine, the Mon­go­lian Bike Chal­lenge is a gru­el­ing race that pits some of strong­est riders in the world against each other, na­ture and even them­selves. This year’s race at­tracted ath­letes from 22 different coun­tries.

Held in the north-cen­tral re­gion of this sparsely pop­u­lated na­tion, beau­ti­ful land­scapes, an­i­mals and wide-open skies both daz­zled and tor­mented the com­peti­tors, lay­ing waste to mus­cle fibers, rub­ber tires and in­di­vid­ual con­sti­tu­tions.

This was Colonna’s first trip to Mon­go­lia. “This race was on my bucket list,” said Colonna who, as a child, dreamed of rid­ing horses in tra­di­tional long-dis­tance races there. “Plus, I had never done any­thing like this, and it be­came some­thing I re­ally wanted to try.”

A cham­pion triath­lete, Colonna burst onto the scene by cap­tur­ing a Na­tional XTERRA (1-mile swim, 20-mile moun­tain bike ride and a 6.2 trail run) ti­tle in Ne­vada Sept. 30, 2010. She would later go on to win a world crown in Hawaii as an am­a­teur in her age cat­e­gory and be­came a pro­fess­sional in 2011. XTERRA races gen­er­ally in­volve moun­tain­ous ter­rain with dra­matic climbs and plunges in the moun­tain bike and trail-run seg­ments.

“I heard about the MBC from a friend dur­ing a moun­tain bike tour in Nepal,” said Colonna, whose travel itin­er­ary in­cluded the drive to Al­bu­querque, a do­mes­tic flight to Dal­las, an in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tion to Paris, a lay­over in Mos­cow and a fi­nal flight to Ulaan­baatar, Mon­go­lia. She was the only woman from the USA en­tered in this year’s race. “I looked it up on­line and I re­ally be­came in­ter­ested.”

In­deed, the web­site is in­cred­i­ble and the fea­tured videos and pho­tos ren­der the beauty of the coun­try­side and show­case the bru­tal­ity of the race.

Nat­u­ral won­der­ment

Colonna said Mon­go­lia re­minded her of the Moreno Val­ley area be­tween An­gel Fire and Ea­gle Nest with its vast rolling hills and end­less views nes­tled among forested moun­tain chains. Three mil­lion peo­ple in­habit this land­locked coun­try wedged be­tween Rus­sia to the north and China to the south.

Yurts are the pri­mary shel­ter used by no­madic Mon­go­lian fam­i­lies, and they lay scat­tered through­out the im­mense, swelling plateaus.

“Of­ten, you don’t see peo­ple,” said Colonna, al­lud­ing to the huge gaps that lie be­tween neigh­bors. “We did see plenty of an­i­mals, though. I saw huge herds of goats, cows, horses and yaks. Some­times we spot­ted large ea­gles.”

Ulaan­baatar, the cap­i­tal city of Mon­go­lia, is home to ap­prox­i­mately 1.4 mil­lion res­i­dents and is lo­cated in the Tuul River Val­ley. Ulaan­baatar lies at an el­e­va­tion of 4,429 feet above sea level and is 14 hours ahead of Taos.

This was an un­ex­pected chal­lenge for Colonna as the jet lag was over­whelm­ing and re­quired a cou­ple of days of re­cov­ery be­fore her sleep pat­terns ad­justed.

Pr­erace tri­als

Be­fore even clip­ping up and thrust­ing for­ward from the first start­ing line, Colonna had to over­come a few other is­sues.

One such prob­lem in­volved her lug­gage, which was lost. Colonna’s bike did not ar­rive at the same time as she did. In fact, it took two days be­fore she was re­united with her clothes and moun­tain bike – only two days be­fore the race be­gan.

Some­thing else that needed to be planned for was food and wa­ter. Sick­ness from eat­ing un­fa­mil­iar foods af­fected a good por­tion of ath­letes.

“We could not drink the wa­ter in Mon­go­lia,” said Colonna. “Ev­ery­thing had to be boiled, and un­cooked foods were off lim­its.”

“High de­mand on the body means food is very im­por­tant dur­ing en­durance events,” said Colonna, who was in Mon­go­lia with her daugh­ter Clau­dine for 10 days. “Sta­ples for the lo­cals, like milk, (are) not eas­ily di­gestible for us.”

Stage 1

Hav­ing had a chance to tune up her bike and get a prac­tice ride in, Colonna and the other riders were now ready to em­bark on this ex­tremely long race in this far­away land.

Stage 1 be­gan un­der a heavy rain, but fea­tured a neu­tral zone for the course seg­ment that ex­ited Ulaan­baatar. This meant the en­tire con­tin­gent rode to­gether, pelo­ton-style, on the paved streets and road­ways of the city be­fore the first ma­jor climb to the fin­ish line.

“Not know­ing what to ex­pect or how to ap­proach this type of race, I found my­self rid­ing alone for most of this first stage, which was not a good idea,” said Colonna, whose main goal en­ter­ing the MBC was sim­ply to fin­ish the race within the daily al­lot­ted time. “If you don’t know how your body will re­act to the pun­ish­ment, you might burn your­self out early on.”

The first four stages of the race had a 10-hour time limit. But Colonna eas­ily crushed her self-im­posed time goal and fin­ished the 65-mile stage with a time of 5 hours, 38 min­utes, 37 sec­onds to claim her first stage hat and pink jer­sey (much like the yel­low jer­sey prize given to the leader of the Tour de France). Her near­est com­peti­tor, Brigette Jenkner from Ger­many, was over 23 min­utes be­hind.

Stage 2 - The Queen’s stage

With Day 1 be­hind her and on the down­ward side of the learn­ing curve, Colonna de­vel­oped a strat­egy and set out to run her race. Next, was the most dif­fi­cult stage. Known as the “queen’s stage,” the 75-mile loop in­cluded 1,650-feet of ver­ti­cal gain and over 9,000 feet of climb­ing.

This meant that com­pletely ex­hausted bod­ies had to rise from their rest­ing and re­cov­er­ing states to climb back on their bikes and get to work again.

For Colonna, it was be­yond a purely phys­i­cal sum­mons. The ques­tion that was con­stantly rac­ing through her mind was, “Can I do this?”

“Be­fore this race, I had been do­ing triathlons for 18 years,” said Colonna, re­fer­ring to her days as XTERRA world cham­pion and how she over­came the ob­sta­cles of the mind and the an­guish of con­sec­u­tive days of a sav­age phys­i­cal chal­lenge. “Ul­ti­mately, that’s what mo­ti­vated me and helped me. While do­ing this race, I just kept go­ing back to my train­ing.”

Colonna re­flected on how ex­actly she com­part­men­tal­ized each stage and trained ac­cord­ingly.

“Be­ing able to break it down is vi­tal,” said Colonna, who trained ex­ten­sively in places such as the Over­look Trail next to the Río Grande and on the road to Taos Ski Val­ley. “In this race it’s like rid­ing from Taos to Santa Fe, all up­hill. So it’s easy to talk your­self out of com­plet­ing the task.”

She equated each long-dis­tance stage with a spe­cific num­ber of loops on the Over­look Trail, then set out to sub­tract

Photo by Clau­dine Colonna

Photo by Clau­dine Colonna

On the fi­nal stretch, head­ing in to the mighty Genghis Khan Palace, Caro­line Colonna is flanked by proud lo­cal horse­men wear­ing tra­di­tional war­rior out­fits. Colonna was the cham­pion fe­male of the 2018 Mon­go­lian Bike Chal­lenge fin­ish­ing the gru­el­ing six-stage com­pe­ti­tion with a time of 31h:48:02.8. Plans to re­turn to Mon­go­lia in 2019 is a pos­si­bil­ity.

Photo by Clau­dine Colonna

Wear­ing her sym­bolic leader’s jer­sey—and her bike—Caro­line Colonna crosses the Tuul River in Mon­go­lia on Day 3 of the Mon­go­lian Bike Chal­lenge Aug. 14. This was only one of the many tests riders en­dured in this epic en­durance race that pit­ted ath­letes from 22 different coun­tries against each other, na­ture and them­selves.

Photo by Clau­dine Colonna

Wild Mon­go­lian horses graze on the vast steppe—a tem­per­ate grass­land lo­cated in the Mon­go­lian in­te­rior—and the site of the Mon­go­lian Bike Chal­lenge held in Au­gust.

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