Dynamic duo
Durangoans 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 Eco Challenge.

“After Corey did the Eco Challenge and got jazzed, we decided we’d do as many races as we could together,” said Freeburn.

The 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 business.

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 door.”

“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 standing still.”

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,” he said.

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.”








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