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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.