The summertime thrills of many dedicated outdoor enthusiasts – paragliding, peak-bagging, trail-running, kayaking and long-distance mountain-biking – are being combined into extreme adventure races that have established a starting line in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and Utah’s canyonlands.
The popularity of these marathon events has taken off in recent years, boosting tourism and massaging the West’s reputation for rugged terrain with hardy athletes who play here.
But the sport’s fast and furious rise to fame has also left local land managers with the difficult challenge of balancing a new use of public lands with the tread-lightly philosophy of responsible environmental stewardship.
“There is a limit to how many of these races the forest can hold,” reported Carolyn Long, recreation specialist with the Columbine Ranger District. “And the San Juan National Forest, with all of its rivers and mountain trails, has become very, very popular with this sort of activity, so controlling it is something we‘re thinking about a lot.”
In the last five years, the region went from a few long-standing single-sport events like the Silverton’s Kendall Mountain run, Hard Rock 100 and the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, to, in some cases, multi-day relays with dozens of teams, hundreds of support staff, vehicles, helicopters, camera crews, and a feast of corporate sponsorships featuring SUV and outdoor-gear companies as main courses, with sides of chalky power bars washed down with trendy sugary energy drinks for dessert.
Run, fly, boat, ride
The latest approved event was touted as North America’s most extreme one-day relay races. The Red Bull Divide and Conquer was modeled after the world-famous Dolomite Man race in Austria. On June 20, it began early with a grueling 8-mile run up Arastra Gulch near Silverton, Colo., to near the summit of Kendall Mountain at 13,200 feet.
From there, No-Fear participants like Aaron Denberg of Durango took the baton and launched themselves off a perfectly fine mountain-top, serenely gliding down 4,000 feet in modified, performance parachutes to teammates waiting in kayaks on the banks of the Animas River.
The 26-mile whitewater section of the Animas to Rockwood is run by professional kayakers familiar with churning chain rapids rated at Class IV and V, the two highest ratings — besides waterfall-dropping. that is.
At the take-out, boaters gathered up wobbly river legs, heaved their specialized boats onto their backs and ran to the finish line a steep uphill mile away.
“It was smooth — I only spun out once and rolled once,” remarked participant Rusty Sage, 23, after crossing the finish line. “One guy I saw was pinned on a rock but he was able to swim to shore; that should be a disqualify.”
Bikers then grabbed the baton and pedaled up 7,000 vertical feet over 27 miles of rocky single-track to the finish line at Durango Mountain Resort. Remarkably, the best times are under eight hours.
In Durango, Gravity Play Sports and Marketing has organized several events, including the Mountain Bike 100 on existing trails north of Durango, Adventure Xstream at Durango Mountain Resort and the Adventure Xstream Expedition, a multi-day event taking place in Utah’s canyonlands Oct. 7-11.
“Triathletes wanted something more challenging, and these mountains and canyons are perfect for a more difficult event,” said Gravity Sports president Will Newcomer. “It allows athletes to combine activities they love into one race with a team of peers.”
He is optimistic about organizing more races and said participation has increased 10-20 percent every year since Gravity Sports began putting on events.
However, land managers say there will be a cap on how many races can be held in Southwest Colorado.
“We’ve approved two or three more in the last couple of years, with this Red Bull being the largest, but the amount of requests keeps growing and growing,” Long said. “Most proposals are denied and I don‘t see us likely approving any more larger ones.”
Races considered by the Forest Service and BLM are carefully scrutinized for public acceptance and environmental standards and are therefore not usually contested, Long said. Once they have one event, the likelihood of it being approved again is good, if it is the exact same race. But in the past there have been problems.
Race organizers go through a little-known loophole in public-lands rules known as a “categorical exclusion.” CE’s are meant to streamline approval for routine public-lands maintenance away from exhaustive environmental review, such as in picnic areas, fencing of livestock, erosion control, building stock ponds or for small one-time group events that fall into the basic allowable uses of public lands.
Adventure races are approved under CE’s but critics say the amount of public input regarding races is minimal under that system and could lead to abuse.
“It takes the public out of the process and seems unfair for other users who live here and are trying to obtain a limited amount of special-use permits allowed for the forest, like outfitters and education programs,” said Vera Smith of the Colorado Mountain Club.
She vehemently fought the Subaru Primal Quest in Telluride in 2002, citing lack of environmental review and public notice. The Colorado Environmental Coalition and the town of Ophir threatened lawsuits against the race as well.
The Forest Service quickly produced the proper approval documents, but information about even the course itself was kept secret until right before the race, “which for locals was really unacceptable especially because it was a major fire danger that year,” Smith said. “The race just appeared out of nowhere and was a done deal without awareness from the local community.”
Those mistakes have been learned from, land managers say.
“Unannounced courses are not allowed with us and many proposals are denied because of that, or abandoned. (The organizers) are really hung up on keeping the course a secret for the sake of an interesting race for participants but it does not work for our management responsibilities and the environmental review process,” Long said.
Races must use existing roads and trails, be non-motorized, avoid wilderness areas, have adequate safety crews and equipment and reasonably limit the number of teams and support vehicles.
For example, the Red Bull race required lookouts with satellite phones in the Animas River canyon. The helicopter could not fly within the Hermosa Creek drainage where nesting peregrine falcons reside.
A $2 million insurance policy or bond is required from race organizers.
Pressure for approval
A review of upcoming races showed that promoters advertise these events as a sure thing before the permit is granted.
The Red Bull event was posted on the Internet well before the late-May Forest Service approval. And the Adventure Xstream Expedition in Moab is being promoted now, although as of June 17 the permit had not been signed by the Utah Manti-La Sal forest district, confirmed resource-permit clerk Michelle Steele.
“We give pre-approval if the course looks reasonable and uses existing roads and trails,” Steele said. “It looks good and will be signed off by us soon.”
In the Columbine District in Colorado, Long said her office tried to prevent any advertising before adventure-race events, but found they could not really stop the companies from doing so.
“It is a difficult dilemma, so we remind organizers that we are not responsible for their losses if the permit is denied even if racers are arriving,” she said.
That was almost the case with the Red Bull event, she said. The difficult terrain led to safety concerns by Durango Fire and Rescue Authority, which dropped out of its coverage proposal because of what it said was lack of cooperation and resources from race organizers.
“At one point we seriously considered denying the permit because of the safety issues,” Long said, adding that reports that organizers would run it anyway and swallow the fine were troubling.
“They know the fine is only $10,000 so we’re looking into increasing that amount to discourage violations,” she said, noting that operating without a permit could include up to six months’ jail time. .
CE’s do not typically require public-comment periods or notices. For bigger races, a notice is put in the newspapers, Long said. Also, every private landowner adjacent to the race or its staging grounds is notified by mail in advance.
CE’s also must be reported in the Schedule of Proposed Actions, which is itemized for each forest. For the San Juan National Forest, go to http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/projects/sopa.pdf