SANTA FE, N.M. — Winning was not something Taos resident Caroline Colonna even considered when she first decided to enter the Mongolia Bike Challenge.
“I thought it was a great way to appease my thirst for competition while discovering a new country,” said Colonna, a doctor of Oriental medicine specializing in acupuncture and Chinese herbs. “I thought I ought to take the opportunity to do it. I spent a year training for it. I knew it was going to be a whole lot of miles for six days in a row.”
She’s a veteran of local and even national mountain bike racing, but the Mongolia Challenge represented a new horizon for Colonna.
“It was something different, something different,” said the 54-year-old. Everybody else told me it was crazy. At my age, I should never attempt to try something like that.”
She not only tried it, she owned it.
Colonna was the 22nd overall finisher with a time of 31 hours, 48 minutes, 2.8 seconds. That was the best women’s time in the race last month and it wasn’t even close. She finished more than five and a half hours ahead in the event that covered 560 grueling miles with a total elevation gain of 45,900 feet, calculated from the various climbs over the course.
“At the end, if you completed it within the allotted time, you were considered a Khan,” she said. “For some reason, that appealed to me. Having read a little something about Ghengis Khan, I thought that would be very cool.”
That required finishing each of six stages within the allotted time frame. Not only did she accomplish that, but also Colonna was the top female finisher in every stage.
And for Colonna there was a very real benefit to that honor because, much like the Tour de France, the general classification leader gets a new jersey each day, so she had a fresh racing outfit throughout the tour.
Considering this was a race through the wilds of a very wild country with minimal support – showers, for instance, were communal and filled with frigid water – a fresh racing jersey was a downright luxury, she said.
“One of the biggest challenges was to stay healthy for six days in a row,” she said. “We were sleeping in yurts or tents, not in a hotel room. You share the common areas, share showers with other people of both sexes. The organizers wanted showers to be cold to cultivate that feeling of being close to nature.
“We camped one night by the river, its freezing, no bathrooms. And then you’re racing the next day for another 80 miles. The challenge of living in a primitive sense and yet enduring such a long amount of miles and going as fast as you can go, so it was all to stay healthy.”
The course meandered through the Mongolian countryside, following a variety of trails ranging from Jeep roads to single tracks to open fields.
“You’re out there absolutely alone most of the time,” Colonna said. “But there are these beautiful, huge herds of goats and sheep, and horses and yaks. It’s how they live. The animals would cross the path in front of you and you had to stop because some of those animals have big horns, but it was a nice break into the solitude. Because you ride by yourself, everything is on GPS tracks.”
The second stage, which included more than 9,000 feet of climbing, turned out to be the critical stage and also provided one of the highlights of the event.
“It was a monster day,” Colonna said. “That’s why they call it the queen’s stage. I realized I was so far ahead of the next woman. And there was a huge monument to Ghengis Khan. You can actually get into it. It looked a little like the Statue of Liberty, but it was for Ghengis Khan.”
The race’s results available on the web show that the Mongolian Bike Challenge is for a select group of hardy souls. There were 53 finishers. Colanna was the best among five women from around the world.
Professional cyclist Ryan Standish, an American originally from Australia and who competed not too far from Colonna’s Taos home at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., was the overall winner in a time of 24:20:32.8.
When it was said and done, Colanna said, she was absolutely gratified to have participated.
“It was unbelievable,” Colonna said. “It was a life-changing experience. You’re aware the whole thing is definitely a physical race, but it’s way more than that. It’s mental endurance. Fortunately, I did not get any mechanical problems, but I did have a really bad fall in one of those muddy, cow pile, moisture-filled pasture areas. It was kind of painful.”
And to win was simply unbelievable.
“It just opened my mind to a whole lot of things,” she said. “Wow, I did not know I could do this. I was able to surmount the obstacles of difficulty. I wasn’t expecting to finish, but I did. I wasn’t expecting to win, but I did. It’s all possible.”