When Mary Ehlers rolled into the Junction Creek Trailhead as the fourth and final woman finisher of this year’s Colorado Trail Race, she’d owned a mountain bike for less than half a year. Not only that, but she’d finished on a single speed during a race where over half the field had dropped out. And while for the first 15 minutes after finishing with a time of 13 days and 13 hours, she insisted she was done with ultra racing, by the time she left the trailhead an hour later, there was already talk of an attempt on the Arizona Trail Race next year.
But none of this is surprising given Mary’s history of jumping into big things and pulling them off with grit, determination, intelligence, and stubbornness. In 2021, she finished the pandemic-shortened border-to-border version of the Tour Divide after having only spent two days bikepacking on gravel prior to lining up for the event. “Sometimes I think I can do more than I can,” she laughs when asked about her propensity for setting ambitious goals. But given her results in the Tour Divide and CTR, it could be argued that actually, she can do far more than she thinks she can.
A Love of Bike Travel
Unsurprisingly, Mary jumped into the deep end when it came to riding bikes. Living in St. Paul, Minnesota, she started touring with her husband, Aaron Ehlers, and two kids while in her 20s, doing small local trips before heading out for a week-long tour along the California coast. The two kids, aged two and three at the time, rode in a Burley trailer and the family covered 20 to 30 miles a day, camped, hung out, and had a great time. As the kids reached the awkward age of being too heavy to tow but too young to ride on their own, Mary turned to ultrarunning, competing in several races, including the 80-mile Tuscobia Winter Ultra.
But there was just something about bikes. An avid commuter, Mary loved using her bike to get places. Not only could she get to her destination without a car, she could get some exercise and enjoy some much appreciated alone time. Wary of hills but still curious about bikepacking, Mary and Aaron took a trip to ride the Florida section of the Atlantic Coast route from St. Augustine to Key West. After a 200-plus mile day, Mary was hooked, thinking, “I can see how this is fun.” She followed that trip up with riding the North Star Bicycle Race, a 650-mile route from her home in St. Paul to the Canadian border and back.
As the kids got older, Mary and her husband took them down to southern Arizona to ride the Sky Islands Odyssey route. By all accounts, the trip did not go smoothly due to a variety of factors. But it was Mary’s first time bikepacking on gravel, and curious to see more, she and Aaron returned without the kids to explore more of the route shortly afterwards.
Mary initially didn’t think the Tour Divide was for her. After picking Aaron up at Antelope Wells after his 2019 race and seeing part of the course, she thought, “I could never do this.” But like many, after spending 2020 at home during the Covid pandemic lockdowns, she started to have second thoughts. After running the numbers on her trip on the Sky Island Odyssey route for distance, elevation, and time spent on bike, her calculations led her to believe that she’d be able to finish the Tour Divide in the amount of time she had off of work.
But there was the pesky issue of climbing, with the 2,745-mile Tour Divide route having more than 200,000 feet of elevation gain. She’d watched a film on the race where a rider claimed, “You have to like climbing to do the Tour Divide.”
“But I hate climbing,” Mary laughs when recalling the situation, “But I can still do it. It felt like a challenge.” And she did, finishing the border-to-border race in 25:12:12. “You have to overcome your fear of what you hate, or you have to learn to not hate it.”
On to the Mountain Bike
Finishing Tour Divide made Mary feel invincible. Looking for something new to do, she jumped into some local mountain bike races put on by Aaron’s bike shop. She rode her fat bike and had a blast. When she received a mountain bike, a Salsa Ti Timberjack, for her birthday in the spring of 2022, her thoughts immediately drifted to what she could do with it. For Mary, the Colorado Trail Race was the obvious answer.
Without a huge number of places to mountain bike in the immediate area, she decided to spend the entire month of July in Salida teaching herself how to ride trails. As the registration day for the CTR came closer, she had to figure out if she could actually mountain bike, so she headed out to recon a section of the trail, choosing to ride one of the most fun, if potentially easiest, sections just west of Leadville. “This isn’t that bad!” she decided, and registered for the race.
While some would claim that this was foolhardy, there’s more to completing a bikepacking race than being able to ride your bike, and what Mary lacked in technical mountain biking ability, she was able to make up for with other bikepacking skills. She knew how to camp with her bike, carried six pairs of socks to help combat wet feet, and had the self-knowledge and outdoor experience to make good decisions that would keep her out of major trouble. “I was always carrying five to six days of food. I never wanted to be stranded,” she says. “The mountain biking was new to me, but I knew enough about the other aspects to do it.”
She also knew herself well enough to choose to ride a single speed in order to simplify her setup. “I know what I can and can’t ride (uphill),” she explained, and she figured that having gears wouldn’t actually allow her to ride that much more than she would on a single speed. While she knew that having gears on the flat detours would have been nice, not having to worry about breaking a derailleur was worth the trade-off. “Plus,” she says laughing again, “It seems like everyone is riding single speeds right now, so I should too!”
A Shift in Focus
Mary is a planner, and her plan was to finish the CTR in nine to ten days. “I had a whole strategy in place. I planned out every day, and every day went nothing like I thought it would.”
She realized early on that her goal pace wasn’t going to happen. “I thought I was way better than I was,” she admits while talking about struggling with the rocky descents, being on and off her bike frequently and getting frustrated. But instead of quitting, she shifted her focus from completing the race in a certain number of days to simply completing the trail. The Bikepacking.com route description had recommended 13 days for the trail, so Mary booked her flight out of Durango for 15 days after the start. “I’m pretty stubborn and don’t want to quit things, so I wanted to make sure I had enough time,” she explains. “Though I would have loved to do it in less.”
Through some of the most challenging weather in CTR history, she kept moving forward, often riding well into the night to wait for the evening rains that plagued the race this year to stop so that she could change into dry clothes before setting up camp. And amazingly, she never seriously thought about quitting. The closest she came to the thought was on the third day after cresting the top of a pass, wanting a big view, and only getting a wall of clouds that limited her vision to 10 feet. She questioned her motivations, “Do I really want to be here, or am I out here out of obligation?” Carrying a GoPro to document her ride, she told her camera at one point, “This is supposed to be fun. I don’t know if I’m quitting yet, but I don’t know what I’m doing next.”
But she didn’t quit, riding consistently day after day, and even putting in an all-night effort through the high-altitude Segments 22 and 23 to roll into Silverton at 3 a.m. “That was a fun night,” she recalls afterwards. But by the final miles of the route, she’d had enough, deciding, “I’m never riding this bike again. I’m giving it to my son.”
Still, after sitting with her trailhead welcoming committee for a while, her tone, like that of many who finally get to take their soggy shoes off and sit on something other than a bike saddle, started to change toward the positive.
CTR: A Learning Experience
At some point of time out on the trail, Mary thought, “This is probably going to be the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. Or will do.” She acknowledged that the trail was really pushing all of her skills and knowledge, from mountain biking technical terrain to camping in the rain to riding long hours in order to make her flight out of Durango.
“All I can do from this experience is learn from it,” she says. How to be a better mountain biker, a better camper, how to push herself harder. “As hard as it was, I learned a lot, and I know I can improve.”
And when asked about the potential of trying the Arizona Trail Race next, she wasn’t able to hide her interest in it. “If I say I want to do it, I will. So I’m scared to admit it out loud. There’s a lot of mountain biking I need to practice!”
Needless to say, it doesn’t sound like her son is getting a new bike, at least not Mary’s bike, any time in the near future.
Your support means the world to us. If you enjoy our work, please consider making a donation to help us with our mission.