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Back from the high country: Cyclists describe trials of 2,745-mile race

Riders in the 2,745-mile Tour Divide backcountry bicycle race from Alberta to New Mexico follow a gravel path in the mountains near Banff, Alberta. Duluth's Jeremy Kershaw, who took this photo, was one of seven Duluth riders who took part in the race and one of five who finished. Jeremy Kershaw photo1 / 3
At some points in this year's Tour Divide mountain-bike race from Alberta to New Mexico, riders encountered snow-packed roads where they were forced to walk their bikes. This spot is near Whitefish, Mont. Seven riders from the Duluth area took part in the race. Jeremy Kershaw photo2 / 3
Riders in this year's Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile mountain biking race from Banff, Alberta, to the Mexican border labor up a creek bed with their bicycles near Elkford, Alberta. Jeremy Kershaw photo3 / 3

They are home now, their saddle sores healed, their energy reserves rebuilding. They are eating meals of actual food again.

For most of a month through June and part of July, seven Duluth-area cyclists were among nearly 200 who took part in the brutal and unforgiving Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile bicycle ride along the spine of the country — the Continental Divide — from Banff, Alberta, to the Mexican border in New Mexico. Five of them finished the race, their times ranging from 22½ to 29½ days. Two decided to drop out.

The race began June 9.

"It was as hard as I had imagined it might be," said Duluth's Jeremy Kershaw, who finished in 22 days, 12 hours. "Pretty much every day was hard in a way I wasn't expecting."

"It's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done," said Duluth's Leah Gruhn, 38.

She was feeling weaker by the day in Colorado, well into the race, and at one point checked herself into urgent care "to see if something was wrong."

Her symptoms likely were due to the altitude, a doctor told her. She rested for a day and kept going. She finished in 29 days, 10 hours — just under a month in the saddle.

The long and arduous backcountry race follows gravel roads and more primitive pathways through parts of Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. The race has no checkpoints, no aid stations, no entry fee, no cash prizes. Riders must be self-supported and may have no pit crew help. Most camp along the trail each night. They are allowed to buy food and refill water reservoirs in trailside towns.

Outside Magazine ranks the race among the 13 toughest races in the world.

Brian Lucido, 40, of Atascadero, Calif., a rookie, won the race in 14 days, 22 hours and 45 minutes. Marketa Peggy Marvanova of the Czech Republic was the first woman in 22 days, 18 hours and 4 minutes.

The trail climbs to near 12,000 feet and drops into searing valleys with no respite from the sun. Nighttime temperatures dropped into the low 30s, said Jim Reed, 57, a retired Duluth firefighter. Kershaw, seeking shelter one night, rolled his sleeping bag out in a Forest Service outhouse.

Mostly, it was the relentless climbing and descending and the long, hot valleys that wore riders down.

"The best part of my day was evening, when we stopped," Reed said. "I looked forward to setting up the tent and crawling in my sleeping bag and being horizontal for a while."

Saginaw's Richie Mattson, 60, another retired Duluth firefighter, often rode in proximity to Reed and Gruhn's husband, Jere Mohr. They all finished together in 27 days, 23 hours.

The Duluth riders averaged about 7½ to 8½ miles per hour while riding in the taxing terrain. Most were riding mountain bikes that, fully loaded, weighed about 50 pounds.

"It was crazy how slowly we were crawling along," Gruhn said. "I'd look and see that I was going 6 miles per hour, and I'm thinking, 'This is pretty hard.'"

Several of the riders talked about how the terrain and the challenges — muddy roads, a snow field, steep climbs — changed frequently.

"I think what got hard quickly was not knowing what was coming up," Kershaw said. "I got into the habit of saying, 'We'll wait and see.' I really had to keep my brain from going too far ahead."

Rob Milburn, 49, of Duluth had completed the race in 23½ days in 2015, riding it from Banff to New Mexico. This year, he tried riding it the other direction, starting in 95-degree desert heat.

Milburn first developed painful saddle sores. Riding awkwardly to compensate for those strained his lower back, which has given him problems in the past. Taking no chances, Milburn peeled off the race route after seven days.

"I shed a couple of tears when I left the route," he said. "I had a hard time doing it — just quitting."

He said the experience taught himself something.

"I had a friend who congratulated me for quitting. He said, 'I didn't know you had it in you.' " Milburn said.

Ron Williams of Duluth, who also started from the south end, dropped out of the race as well.

Without outside support of pit crews, the cyclists were forced to forage at convenience stores and small trading posts for calories. In one stretch, riders had to go 180 miles between food resupply points, with just one water stop in that span. Riding for 10 to 13 hours a day in difficult terrain, they burned everything they could take in.

"The whole idea was to take on as many calories as you could," Reed said.

Selection was limited, and the riders often survived on candy bars.

"You learned to eat your chocolate in the morning," Reed said, "because it melts in the afternoon."

"It was like eating out of a vending machine," said Gruhn, a vegetarian. "You're asking your body to do so much for a long duration, and you're feeding it with garbage. My breakfast the second-to-last day was Oreos and Fritos and two caffeine pills — and that was not that crazy of a breakfast."

The race took the riders through some terrific country, they said.

"It was amazing to me — all this work to get to the top of a huge climb, and you're rewarded with an incredible view," Mohr said. "So many times, I was struck by the fact that I wouldn't be in this place if it were not for this event."

Kershaw found it an emotional, as well as a physical, ride.

"Frankly, after day four, I was in tears part of every day. Something would trigger a really strong emotional response," he said. "Usually, it was triggered by music (in his earbuds). I was emotionally kind of raw."