ADVENTURE BY BIKE®
Yesterday I typed up a quick list of questions for Kurt Refsnider with regard to his Tour Divide Race experience this year. He had time to answer as he is waiting in Silver City, New Mexico for his girlfriend Caroline to come through on her own journey toward the finish line.
An hour or two after I sent my email, his reponse came back with these answers. There is a lot of 'experience' in his responses. I'm sure you'll enjoy them.
If you have other questions for Kurt, please post them here using our Comment function. We're going to compile them and will then have another blog post later with his responses.
Salsa - What was the single toughest moment of this year’s Tour Divide for you?
Kurt - The toughest moment of the race was on the last full day, and it was a mental rather than physical challenge. In the early stages of the final push toward the Mexico terminus of the route, I put in a couple long days separated by only an hour of sleep and managed to put four hours into Jefe. But toward the end of that second day, my body started to fall apart – blisters on most toes, some awful chaffing where the sun doesn’t shine, and minor deydration due to 2 days of exceedingly hot weather. I was forced to stop for a few hours to let my body mend itself a bit before the final day of racing. I stopped at 10:30 in the evening, set my alarm for 1:30 AM, and was instantly asleep. When I opened my eyes, the first light of dawn was visible through the trees to the east. Startled by this, I felt around for my alarm, and found it buried in my sleeping bag rather than under my helmet where I had left it prior to falling asleep. Apparently I had shut it off without returning to consciousness. I frantically packed up my gear and was rolling within four minutes, surely a record fast time for me. I got back down to the route, and just as I expected, Jefe’s tire tracks showed that he had taken over the lead.
I pushed a steady pace through the steeply rolling terrain of the Gila Mountains, thinking about every possible scenario of when Jefe had passed me. I concluded that he was anywhere between 10 minutes to 7 hours ahead of me, but my best guess was 4 hours. He’s known for his ability to ride straight through the night in these sorts of races, so if he hadn’t stopped and I had previously had 3 hours on him, he now probably had 4 hours on me. I also knew that he would need a lead of 3 to 4 hours going into the final 125 miles of the course, which was all fast and mostly paved, to stay ahead of me. My oversleeping may just have given him the lead he needed to win the race. I cursed my stupidity. I inventoried my provisions as I rode, and I was alarmingly low on calories. But I pushed on, and after a couple hours, 4 motos passed me, obscuring Jefe’s tracks. But not more than ten minutes later, I thought I saw Jefe’s tracks atop the moto tracks. I turned around for a closer look, and surely enough, this was the case. Twenty minutes later, I could see Jefe up the road, mashing his one gear up a steep climb, and I felt a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders.
Salsa - Did you ever get lonely out there? Does it get to the point that you look forward to seeing people in towns and such?
Kurt - Not really. I do a substantial portion of my training and long rides alone. I’ve also done individual time trial efforts on a variety of routes, including the 750-mile Arizona Trail. So I’m rather used to spending long, hard hours alone in the saddle, and often, I really enjoy the solitude. On the other hand, I had a great time riding with Ethan and Jefe at different points during the race, getting to know them and sharing the highs and lows of racing.
Salsa - Can you give us a rundown of what an ‘average’ day on the Tour Divide was like for you (if there even is such a thing as an ‘average’ day)?
Kurt - Around 4 AM, my obnoxious alarm goes off, and I gasp at how cold it is outside my bivy. If I’m lucky, I’m not shivering already, but that’s not always the case. I slowly convince myself that it’s really worth getting up, and I slowly, awkwardly, and shakily try to stand up on achy knees and weak ankles. Everything hurts, nothing wants to bend, and life is generally awful. I pull my cycling shorts out of the bottom of my sleeping bag and put them on, change into the proper layering of all my other clothes, and dig out something to eat. My mouth is sore from always eating, so the first few bites are rather painful. While eating, I pack up the rest of my gear, lube my chain, and am hopefully rolling (err, maybe walking) down the trail within 20 minutes. The first 10 minutes of pedaling are usually downright painful, but as things warm up and stretch out, I start to feel a bit better. The early sunlight allows me to turn my headlamp off, a joyous event, and within another hour or two, my legs start to feel pretty good and the pace increases. I think about the resupply options and terrain for the day, and focus on steadily eating and drinking. Changing landscapes and wildlife pass, keeping things interesting. If I’m lucky, I might take an hour at some point to sit down and get a real meal, but this only happens some days. 70 miles by noon signals a good day, and 100 miles by 5 pm is a sign of an acceptable day. The sun drops lower in the western sky, and before long, it’s time to turn the headlight on again. Glowing eyes are everywhere along the trail, watching nervously as I pass. I press on until midnight or so, looking for another comfortable spot just out of sight from the route to stretch out for another few hours of sleep.
Salsa - It looked like you went sleepless once or twice during the race this year. What were those experiences like? Are you comfortable with that type of effort, or were you nervous about possible negative effects? Have any hallucinations out there?
Kurt - I had one all-night effort during the end of the first week, riding 370 miles from southeastern MT to southern WY in one push. After spending the day riding with Ethan, my legs finally started to feel good for the first time in the race. I slowly rode away from Ethan in a long headwind stretch just after dark, and the more I pushed, the better my legs felt. Jefe was around 5 hours ahead of us, and we had failed to make up any ground on him in several days, so catching him was also on my mind. I climbed over the Teton Range in the wee hours of the morning under a nearly full moon. Riding late at night under a bright moon is one of my favorite times to pedal, so I really enjoyed the dark hours. During that time, I silently passed Jefe while he slept and pushed on to Pinedale, WY for an early lunch. By this time, I began to second-guess my decision to forgo sleep for the night. My legs finally were starting to hurt a bit, and it was a long way to the next town, and the one restaurant there closed at 7 pm. After a quick break, I pushed on, hoping to get there in time for a burger and milk shake. Steep hills and a temperamental headwind took the last life out of my legs, and I struggled more than I had yet in the race. Alarm bells went off, but I pressed on, arriving with ten minutes to spare. I ate a big meal and then went to sleep in the teepee in front of the restaurant before it was even dark. Jefe passed by sometime while I was asleep, but I caught back up to him around 3 AM after I got back on the bike. Amazingly, my body bounced back from the effort quite quickly, and a day later, I felt great again.
I also had one 2-day push through central NM with only a 1-hour break for sleep, and the final night I pushed straight through to the finish at Antelope Wells. These were partially to beat the daytime heat and partially to stay ahead of Jefe. The most exciting part of these efforts were all the glowing eyes my headlamp illuminated along the sides of the road – fox, porcupine, skunk, elk, deer, jack rabbits, owls, etc.
Salsa - How do you keep your nether regions from getting too nasty?
Kurt - For most of the race, I carried only a single pair of cycling shorts, and these were only washed once. The two most important things I’ve found for this aspect of hygiene is to wipe everything down with an anti-bacterial wipe at the end of the day and to not sleep in my cycling shorts.
Salsa - Assuming you use chamois creme, how do your carry enough of it?
Kurt - I carried a little container with 2 oz of chamois cream. I used a bit the first day, a bit the second day, and then none until I start having some chamois chaffing problems in the 100-degree weather during the final few days. Using a familiar saddle and shorts, as well as not wearing a backpack, really kept the need for chamois cream to a minimum, and I finished with more than half of what I started with.
Salsa - From the Trackleaders SPOT page, it appeared that you and Jefe Branham spent some time together, both riding and hanging out. Was there a feeling of rivalry out there or was it more a feeling of being compatriots and of being in it together?
Kurt - I spent a few days early on riding with Ethan, one with Jefe mid-race, one with both after Ethan bridged up to us, and then a few days off and on toward the end with Jefe again. Usually things were very friendly, and we were all happy to have some company for a while, someone to share stories with, and someone to chat with to help pass the hours. I could, however, feel a bit of uneasiness when all three of us were riding together mid-race. It was nice to ride at a civil pace for a little while, enjoy a few more breaks than normal, and sleep a bit longer for one night. Then I was the jerk that attacked climbing out of Gore Canyon and restarted the racing. Near the end of the race when I again rode with Jefe, we were more or less in survival mode while simply trying to make it through a third day of 100-degree temperatures. We both ran out of food and water for many hours, so it was good to have a partner in suffering for that afternoon.
Salsa - Mike Dion got a nice shot of you smiling as you pushed over one of the snow fields in a high pass. It seems a perfect image of the attitude that is necessary to successfully complete and event like the Tour Divide. How important is it to have a sense of humor out there?
One has to be able to adapt to the unexpected, laugh at the absurdly difficult, and find some level of enjoyment at even the toughest times. I’m sure it’s possible to finish the race with a less-than-stellar outlook, but it’s going to be hell. The hardships along the way are often unique and new, and one really needs to find some positive aspect of them to keep the morale up.
Salsa - How aware of the race were the people in the towns along the course? Are they engaged at all in what’s happening?
Kurt - Residents living along the course, particularly in the smaller towns, are becoming very aware of the race, and most are quite excited to see racers passing through. Some even follow the GPS tracking of the race and come out to cheer you on as you pass by, which is fun to experience. A few businesses along the way also stock up on provisions TD racers commonly buy to make sure they don’t run out.
Salsa - Not including the bike itself, do you have a favorite piece of gear in your Tour Divide kit?
Kurt - The only item in my kit that was substituted for something heavier in recent years was my sleeping pad. In the past, I used a 1/8” thick foam pad that weighed a scant few ounces. This year, in the interest of improving recovery while sleeping (and sleeping well), I began using a Thermarest NeoAir inflatable pad. It’s warmer and infinitely more comfortable than the foam I used to use, and amazingly, I have yet to puncture it. At the end of the day, I always looked forward to stretching out on this pad.
Salsa - Were the snowshoes ever useful?
Kurt - To put it succinctly, no. The snow was firm enough in most places that one’s foot never pushed more than a few inches down. Scouting reports prior to the race claimed sections with 6-8 miles of soft, rotten snow, but apparently these scouts didn’t hike in past the first few hundred meters. Usually past that, things firmed up nicely. So I lugged the snowshoes all the way to Whitefish before giving them to a guy there who was rather excited to receive them.
Salsa - In your first Tour Divide race I think you rode a soft tail with a front suspension fork. This time around you rode fully rigid. How was the experience different? Did you miss having front suspension at all?
Kurt - There were only a few rocky descents on which I missed the suspension. It felt great to shave a few points off the bike by using a White Brothers carbon rigid fork. And the bit of fore-aft flex in this fork also worked wonders to smooth out the endless miles of wash-board bumps, something suspension forks always struggle with. My hands felt fine at the end of the race, and if I ever do the race again, I’ll definitely use a fully rigid configuration again.
Salsa - Any ailments now that you finished the ride? Numbness? Tingling?
Kurt - Jefe, Ethan, and I were all amazed at how hard the first week of the race was on our bodies. Our muscles and minds were okay, but joints and connective tissue seemed to be taking the brunt of the abuse. I had both my Achilles tendons taped up for most of the race, and I seriously contemplated dropping out several times as I worried about doing permanent damage to my body. Two days after the race, here’s the laundry list of ailments:
- Both Achilles tendons swollen and achy
- Peroneal tendon on left ankle very tender
- Tendon/ligment on front of right ankle very tender
- Both knees still achy, especially in the morning
- Some numbness in my right foot
- Blisters on the bottoms of most toes healing up
- Right index fingernail swollen and sore from catching it on my front tire as I reached for the water bottle under my down tube
- Feet and lower legs very swollen due to fluid retention
Salsa - From a spectator’s view of things, I think we like to imagine that you riders experience some fantastic ‘ah hah’ moments out there, that perhaps you discover the meaning of life. Anything like that actually occur? Or are we romanticizing it too much?
Kurt - Both years I raced the Tour Divide, I went in thinking something similarly along these lines. But in reality, I just relished the simplicity of pedaling and sleeping, pedaling and sleeping, pedaling and sleeping day in and day out. The mind wanders, but most that wandering is directed by the stimuli in the environments through which I was passing. I can’t say I had any revelations, but having adventures like these really makes me realize how important it is to take time out of your routine life to experience something in a tremendously different manner and learn more about yourself in the process.
Salsa - Your girlfriend, Caroline, is in the event this year? Did you find yourself wondering where she was and how she was doing while you rode?
Kurt - Oh, of course. She was on my mind a lot, and while I was racing, I only had the chance to talk directly to her a single time, but we’d leave voicemails for each other whenever we got into towns with cell service. She’s riding amazingly well, averaging 120 miles per day, and she’s been enjoying herself most of the time from what I can tell despite having had a couple bad crashes. Knowing that she can take care of herself and knows her limits helps keep me from worrying too much.
Salsa - Prior to the start this year, did many of the other riders seek you out to ask for advice?
Kurt - Yes, I helped a half dozen or so riders with some advice ranging from bike component selection, to sleeping kit options, to course details. It’s fun to be able to share some of this knowledge with rookie TD racers, and it was even more fun to see some of them ride impressively well.
Salsa - The field of this year’s race was the biggest ever I believe. Some folks have expressed worry about it becoming too big, that the essence of the event is changed, or changing. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Kurt - Leading up to the race, I did have some concerns about this, but so far, I don’t think much beyond the field size has changed. I hope this holds true in the coming years, too, because I was very glad to observe this during the 2011 race.
Salsa - You’ve raced this twice now. Would you ever like to tour it at a more casual pace?
Kurt - To be honest, I don’t think I could handle the monotony of touring this route at a more casual pace. I’ve seen the landscapes and towns along the route twice already, so I’d be inclined to spend my time riding someplace new. The one aspect that I would enjoy at a more casual pace would be chatting with locals and other riders along the route for more than a scant couple minutes. Everyone has so many stories to share, and at race pace, these just get pushed by the wayside, which is a bit of a shame.
Salsa - Favorite section of the course? Why?
Kurt - I really enjoy the northernmost section of New Mexico. When racing south, you finally pass into the final state and can feel that the end isn’t too far away. But this area in the northern part of the state seems nothing like the New Mexico of which I typical picture in my mind. Ridges standing at 9,000-10,000 feet elevation are covered by mature stands of spruce and poplars separated by broad flower-filled meadows. This area has a unique beauty that’s not experienced anywhere else on the route, and riders have the pleasure of meandering through this terrain for nearly 50 miles before dropping down to the hot, low elevations in the vicinity of El Rito and Abiquiu.
Salsa - Any frightening experiences during this year’s race?
Kurt - Just one...see response to the next question.
Salsa - When you did stop to bivy, was it hard to get to sleep or are you so tired that you just conk out?
Kurt - The first night, Ethan and I camped in a dense, wet forest above Fernie, BC. It was the first time I’d camped in grizzly bear country since having some rather frightening close encounters with polar bears in the Canadian Arctic a couple years ago. Apparently, the trauma from those encounters wasn’t quite resolved in my head, so I remained awake for most of the night as any noise in the forest around us spooked me. It didn’t help that we camped on an elk trail, so every 45 minutes, an annoyed elk would start snorting in disgust at us before clomping off into the night. I might have managed an hour of sleep that night. Fortunately, every night after that, I was asleep within seconds of becoming horizontal. Averaging only 4 hours of shut-eye per night, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t a challenge to fall asleep quickly. I also took a few 10-15 minute naps during the last week of the race when I’d have trouble keeping my eyes open. These usually worked wonders and let me continue riding for a few hours longer.
Salsa - Did you have a favorite food item during the ride? Or were you sick of everything?
Kurt - I really was enjoying dried banana chips a lot. I had never really eaten them before on long rides or races, but they are full of fat calories, tasty, and easy to eat even when you're dehydrated. I also ate a lot of cashews and peanuts, cheese sticks, Mountain Dew, and the occasional Red Bull. During the final 3 days of hot weather, I drank 3 gallons of orange Gatorade out of my bladder! Sandwiches and burritos in my jersey pockets were always exciting compared to regular gas station provisions. But by the end, I was really getting tired of all the junk food and sweet drinks.
Salsa - Can you imagine singlespeeding the route? Any other thoughts on Jefe’s ride?
Kurt - In my first go at the Divide in 2009, I spent 12 days riding with Chris Plesko, another singlespeeder, and this year, I rode off and on throughout the race with Jefe. Having one gear makes you climb fast and coast a lot on the downhills, providing a little recovery time that geared riders often use to try to gain a bit more speed at the expense of a higher power output. In theory, I can see how these guys ride so fast. In reality, I don't think that there's any way I could do the same, especially considering the knee problems I've had over the years. Jefe put in a HUGE ride, and I was continually impressed by how well he was going all they way up to the final climbs of the race. But could he win the race had he been on a geared bike? I'd love to know the answer to that question...perhaps we'll find out another year!
Salsa - What were the emotions like when you hit the ‘finish line’?
The finish was surprisingly anticlimactic! I pushed through the warm air of the final night, and the first ambient light of the new day's sunlight was just coming over the horizon as I hit the last mile. The last 45 miles of the course is pavement across a desolate desert plain, and all that there is at the border is a small border crossing station that's open 8 hours a day. From a couple hundred yards out I looked around as I approached for any signs of life. I half expected Mike Dion to be there filming, or Eddie Clark to be there snapping photos, or Jefe's friends there waiting to pick him up. But in the end, it was just me. I quietly rolled up to the gate, tapped it gently with my hand, and coasted over to the fence a few feet off the road. I turned off my lights, unbuckled my helmet and shoes, put on a long-sleeved jersey, slumped back against the fence and slid to the ground. It couldn't have been more than 20 seconds before I was asleep. But riding in, I was in a state of disbelief that I would be the first one to the line, and in a state of relief as I was finally done with the beast for a second time. I wouldn't have to ride all day, wouldn't have to rise at 4 AM the following morning, and wouldn't have to eat out of gas stations until the next race like this.
Our thanks to Kurt for sharing this experience and these memories with us. If you have other questions for Kurt, please post them here using our Comment function. We're going to compile them and will then have another blog post later with his responses.
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I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.