Penitente Canyon- No Excuses Now

Penitente Canyon. Okay - now, you've heard of it. There are no excuses for not making this a future destination. Websites discuss the wonders of the canyon and the pictures should lure you this direction.
The San Luis Valley Heptathalon is my unofficial name for the following sports. If these are of interest - mountain biking, hiking, trail running, bouldering, climbing and drinking good
beer - Penitente Canyon is a great place, though it is highly recommended to save the last one for the last one. These sports are all available. Campsites and RV sites are located at the entrance and lodging is available in nearby towns. There is a cost. Check the BLM website for
more info.

12 HOURS OF PENITENCE RACE - Penitence defined - remorse/regret for wrongdoing. But 12 hours of it? Why not?! Life is always fun to be part of the 1st annual anything. Though I am more of a trail runner than mountain biker I have always appreciated aid station volunteers at trail runs so why not return the favor? As I write this afterward I can easily say that I have no penitence for having done so.

- Bill, Bob and I were shuttled out to the Witches Canyon aid station after watching race director Sydney telling everyone to start their engines! Off to the east, the underbellies of the clouds over the Sangre de Cristos were torched in crimson fire, a magnificent opening act for the race and the sunrise! A cool morning with temps in the thirties is typical for October while a storm system over the San Juan mountains to the west made for a few heavy breezes, scattered dark clouds, spritzes of rain, intermittent sun, all as autumn is doing battle with the approaching winter. We set up our aid station and staged our food, drinks, and minimal first aid gear and began to solve the problems of the world, discuss our life stories and attempt to figure out the game of golf.

Penitente Canyon is high desert in the 7,700 to 8,500 foot range. As Edward Abbey put it - the desert is a place where there are things that can stick you, stab you, and bite you. He points out that the desert is also a place of amazing beauty and contrast. The racers faced both perils and pleasures this day. The course had deep sand, stony flats, serious twists and turns and high altitudes which are demanding on human physiology even though most of the riders were from Colorado. I have attempted to summarize the perils and pleasures with Cs and Ws.

PERILS - Crashes, Cactus, Crashing (bonking), Cramps, Crotalus viridis (rattlesnakes), Climbs, Corners, Crazy drops.
Crashes - This race course is highly technical and is not for amateurs. High intermediate status is the minimum requirement to negotiate the terrain. From the aid station I hiked and ran a bit of the course and though I can claim to be an okay mountain bike rider, on this course, I would much prefer to run it. To my pleasant surprise over the course of the day, we only heard of one fairly severe crash that required medical attention. Over the 21 mile loop and 2000 feet of elevation gain, there are many opportunities to crash whether going up or down. As riders came through the aid station they described a few diggers, close calls, and a few unhurt rescues where they needed assistance to get back on course.

Cactus - Yucca plants were prevalent near the trail but the main cactus culprit on course was the prickly pear. On one lap, one of the tough female participants fell and found a prickly pear cactus attached to her bun. Didn't feel good she reported. Cactus can also do a number on tires if a rider ventures slightly off the trail as cactus spines in numbers can easily pierce and flatten a tire.

Crashing - In an attempt to do as many laps as possible, eventually, fatigue sets in. Dehydration and lack of leg strength begin to take their toll. As Bob noticed, riders who bypassed our station, if they were fatigued, their heads were down and they were concentrating only on moving forward. The ones who stopped at our station were in need of food, water, electrolyte drinks and a bit of rest. After 6 hours or so hours, people were crashing hard and some were going to call it a day after finishing, or in some cases not, the lap on which they were riding. Besides, rumors of good beer coming soon to the finish line area later in the afternoon were beginning to circulate! Mindsets began to change.

Cramps - As electrolyte balances begin to get out of whack in the human body during extreme exercise, I hear riders began to discuss bad cramping. Some were not sure if they could continue racing if the cramping in their leg muscles would not go away with hydration and proper fuel in the form of aid station food or their own concoctions.

Crotalus viridis - Western rattlesnake. Though on the upper end of their range in altitude, these snakes can thrive here as they have plenty of food courtesy of family Rodentia and the terrain also has numerous places for them to hide and thrive in summer. I did not hear the briefing on rattlesnakes but listening to many of the riders talk about the possibilities of snake encounters, someone had made an impression. As the sun did appear for awhile and the temps warmed up in the afternoon, debate continued on whether or not rattlesnakes might be on course. And there was also the rumor of a rattlesnake den in the canyon about which the BLM knew as the the place where hundreds of snakes go in the winter to 'huddle up' with each other. The image of a bundle of snakes did not sit well in some of the riders' minds!

Climbs - From our aid station, the next stage in the trail was 'the climb.' Not sure what the elevation gain actually was but a few riders were beginning to not have fun with this section as they fatigued later in the day. Only the fittest of the riders seemed to continue to face the challenge of this section with a 'get after it' attitude. A few who got to our station later in the afternoon decided to wave the white flag and not do the climb. No shame in that at all, as they understood their limitations. After the climb, came the dreaded technical downhill so 'intelligent injury avoidance' is always a good decision.

Corners - I went up the trail to see a few of the corners on 'the climb.' Yep they were steep, rocky, rooty, technical, demanding, and difficult. That ought to about cover it for corners going up. Going down? Be careful, for there can be unsuspecting perils of the same, only this time, the riders are carrying speed when they hit these obstacles, which can easily result in a fall.

Crazy drops - A confirmed rumor from many of the riders on one of the long descents was an area that came to be known as the dinner plate drop. This section was described by riders as riding over a pile of china dinner plates both in sound and feeling under their tires. It was too far from the aid station for me to investigate during the race but it will be a must see when I preview the course for next year.

PLEASURES - Weather, Water, Winning, Whispering Winds, Wonderful views, Windsor Hotel. Weather - While remnants of a Pacific hurricane were causing flash flooding in the southwest and heavy rains in the San Juans, those mountains blocked most of the moisture and Penitente only had ominous gray clouds, a few spritzes of rain, a bit of wind and occasional sunshine to warm up the day. In other words, a perfect day for mountain biking!

Water - The work effort required by the human body while mountain biking requires nutrients to flow all over the place! Every muscle and the brain, with each turn of the pedals, needs to work in harmony with the eyes to guide riders through this amazing course. There is no alternative to water! As this is a desert, there is no water to be found on the trail. At our aid station we had 15 gallons of the stuff as riders came by to reload their bottles, camelbacks, or knock back a few cupfuls from our five gallon coolers. Ah! Cool, clear, water!

Winning - We humans are a sporting species. And the object for the individuals and the teams was to win the day over the competition. The riders took great joy in knowing they were outdoing their competition. Being in the lead also helps to lighten pain and fatigue.

Whispering winds - As I walked part of the course, and climbed higher out of Witches Canyon, I felt the cool, dry desert breezes kissing my skin. Winds can heighten the senses to help riders concentrate on the task at hand and cool them down on tough climbs while negotiating this wild terrain.

Wonderful views - Fifty miles across the flat part of the San Luis Valley are the Great Sand Dunes that can be seen from higher parts of the course resting at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Glances at the big views to the distant horizons, while using the eyes for guidance over each inch of the course become implanted in memory. Cloud formations changed all day while daylight and occasional full sunlight played upon everything. Burnt oranges, tans, yellows, golds and reds were scattered throughout the course in the remaining colors of fall on the many species of plants and grasses.

Windsor Hotel - A restored hotel in Del Norte which originally opened in 1874 played host to a number of the riders and the Oktoberfest held on Friday night. Locally brewed beer from Three Barrel Brewing had to be hauled a half a block! A successful event that earned high praise from all attendees. Some people consider beer the original sports drink for carbo loading for, and recovery from, intense physical activity. Research to make this determination is ongoing.

RECAP - By having the race on a Sunday, the experience became a unique three day weekend for a number of the riders because they had not been here before. Everyone to whom I spoke planned on coming back. This part of Colorado will become one of the next destinations for fun in all of the above mentioned sports. Do a web search for the properties and places and begin planning trips to this part of the SLV! Start with and see where that will lead on your next big adventure in mountain biking...
Also - - scroll down and there is a link for mountain biking
though the map is upside down! It is readable though!

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