rising to top of adventure racing circuit
| Mike Freeburn jumps
on the rope and speeds down the red rock walls at
this year’s Adventure Xstream race in Moab.
Freeburn and fellow Team Colorado members Corey
Nielsen and Mona Merrill won the race, finishing 30
minutes ahead of their competition. The race series
comes to DMR this Saturday./Photo by Todd Newcomer
At the time of day when most riders are returning from
epic mountain bike rides, Corey Nielsen and Mike Freeburn
are just embarking on one. It’ll likely be a grunt
to finish the 30-something-mile ride before nightfall,
but pushing the envelope is nothing new for these two.
In fact, for Nielsen and Freeburn, going balls to the
wall is the preferred modus operandi.
“Fast races, I like that kind of pace,” says
Freeburn, a seasoned multisporter who makes up one third
of Team Colorado, an adventure racing team that also includes
Nielsen and Mona Merrill, of Breckenridge. Fresh from
a win at the Adventure Xtreme race in Moab in March, the
team is gearing up to defend its title this weekend when
the second race in the four-race series hits Durango.
The teaming of Freeburn and Nielsen is an ironic turnabout
for the two kayakers, who have competed against each other
for years. Freeburn, a former U.S. Olympic wildwater,
or downriver, racer, and Nieslen, a two-time U.S. Team
Trial competitor in slalom, decided to join forces after
Nielsen was bitten by the adventure bug at last year’s
“After Corey did the Eco Challenge and got jazzed,
we decided we’d do as many races as we could together,”
adventure-race bug wasn’t the only one that bit
Nielsen during the nine-day odyssey, which sent him and
three others – including teammate Merrill –
traipsing through the jungles of Fiji.
“On the final leg – a nine-hour paddle –
I got dysentery,” he said. “I was puking and
feeling like death, and Mona was in front of me in a tandem
kayak asking, ‘How’s my forward stroke looking?’
She wanted a full-on kayak clinic. It was brutal,”
he recalled with a laugh, the misery softened with time.
The race was notoriously bad, even as Eco Challenges
go, with 58 of the 81 teams dropping out of the 350-mile
trek, which crossed more than 100 rivers.
“Mona said it was over the top,” said Freeburn,
validating his teammates’ experience.
Nevertheless, there is something in the sport of adventure
racing that keeps them coming back for more. Perhaps it
is a classic case of over-achieveritis. In addition to
being a family man, Freeburn is the dean of students at
Durango High School and is currently finishing up a master’s
degree. And when he’s not training for his next
slalom race, Nielsen runs a consulting and a motivational-speaking
Or maybe it’s just selective memory that eggs the
men on – that and the constant playful banter that
can come only from years of friendly competition.
|Nielsen, top, and Freeburn discuss
race-day strategy before embarking on a final training
ride Monday afternoon. /Photo by Todd Newcomer
Whatever the approach, so far it seems to be working:
Team Colorado beat its closest competitor in Moab by more
than 30 minutes.
For Freeburn and Nielsen, the Adventure Xtreme series
is a far cry from the distant shores of Fiji or Borneo,
where Freeburn recently completed a four-day stage race.
Rather, it’s an extension of the life they lead
in Durango, a natural fit for two men who already spend
every free second outdoors.
“We’re doing it all anyway,” said Nielsen
of their “training” regimen, which includes
long rides, trail runs and paddles. “That’s
the cool thing, anything goes. We just start out our front
“It’s the Durango lifestyle,” added
Freeburn, who at 39 brings the lion’s share of experience
to the team, with more than a decade of adventure racing
under his hip belt. In fact, he was adventure racing before
it was even called adventure racing, cutting his teeth
on (and winning) Jackson, Wyoming’s, “Pole,
Pedal, Paddle,” which combined nordic and alpine
skiing with road riding and kayaking.
“It was the original multisport race, it’s
been going on since the ’70s,” he said.
And while the former mountain bike racer said sprint
races – meaning ones that cover only seven or eight
hours as opposed to multiday sufferfests – are his
forte, he has begun dabbling in the longer races. Last
year, he participated in a multiday race in Kirkwood,
California, as well as the race in Borneo.
Likewise, 2002’s Eco Challenge was only Nielsen’s
second “real” adventure race. Despite a highly
respectable seventh place finish for his team, Nielsen
said the severity of the race took him by surprise.
“When you’re out there, the absurdity will
hit you,” he said. “But until then, you have
no idea what it’ll be like.”
Nevertheless, they say they are ready for this weekend’s
dose of absurdity, which includes a 14-mile paddle, an
area where Team Colorado dominates.
“In Moab, we passed everybody on the river,”
said Nielsen. “We didn’t think we were going
that fast, but then we’d pass people like they were
That, and the fact that the race is taking place in their
back yard, should give the team a definite home court
advantage. Although the race’s exact route won’t
be revealed until the day before the race, Freeburn said
he is comfortable with whatever the race throws his way.
“As long as we’re careful, navigate well
and plan well, it doesn’t matter,” he said
“Wherever we go is fine with me.”
|Mona Merrill and
Nielsen during one of their infamous paddling excursions
– Colorado River,
Moab./Photo by Todd Newcomer
As for Nieslen, he said he is looking forward to reliving
a little of his Eco Challenge glory.
“I can’t wait to paddle with Mona again,”
And barring any repeat of that ill-fated journey, after
this weekend, the team will set its sights on Breckenridge,
site of the third race in July, and the final race, in
Vail in September. If all goes well, they’ll return
victorious – and $10,000 richer.
And while the cash and prizes will be nice, Freeburn
and Nielsen insist it’s not their only motivator.
When asked why, then, someone in his right mind would
subject himself to such a frenetic pace of physical and
mental exhaustion, they look at each other and shrug:
“’Cause it’s fun.”