GMC Ultimate Mountain Challenge forms bonds among rivalries
Photo: Dan Davis

GMC Ultimate Mountain Challenge forms bonds among rivalries

Posted by: Katie Coakley

Half of Sunday’s UMC podium will team up for the much-anticipated return of televised expedition race

By Shauna Farnell & Tom Boyd
Adriene Levknecht and Mike Kloser are all smiles as they survey their prizes after winning the GMC Ultimate Mountain Challenge on Sunday at the GoPro Mountain Games.

All weekend there have been arguments about which event at the GoPro Mountain Games is the toughest: The mangy Steep Creek Championships? The brutality of the TIAA Bank XC Mountain Bike? The agility of the SUP athletes or perhaps the psychological challenges of being a highline slackline athlete?

In the end, the choice is clear: the 23 athletes competing in the GMC Ultimate Mountain Challenge are a few levels above the rest.

GMC Ultimate Mountain Challenge competitors must compete in six events over four days of the Mountain Games, each one ranked by placement and difficulty.

For two of the men and one of the women, this weekend is part of a year-long odyssey that will include a huge event looming on their horizon later this summer.

We’ll get to that in a second.

In the meantime, let’s give a shout-out for Greenville, SC kayak specialist Adriene Levknecht, who bagged her second straight UMC victory on Sunday. The format was much more manageable than last year, when competitors could participate in an indefinite number of events. That’s not to say it wasn’t a struggle.

The love connection

“Six events versus 12 last year? Yeah, I’ll take it,” said Levknecht, who fired off to an early lead in the UMC standings by winning the point-rich (and truly-terrifying-for-most-mortal-humans) Steep Creek Championship; she then made it to semi-finals in the GMC Kayak Freestyle and notched solid results in the GoPro Short Track Relay, the TIAA Bank XC Mountain Bike Race, the Wild Tonic Aprés 5K and the mandatory Pepi’s Face-Off.

“I’m in way better biking shape than I was last year but man, that cross country race is an ass-kicker,” she said. “I’ve been climbing up the mountain as much as I can in the Southeast, but that’s not got anything on what’s here. There were a few women out there giving me a run for the money and it was close – not close like the men’s contest, but close. I’m pretty fired up about how it ended.”

The winners of the GMC Ultimate Mountain Challenge from left to right: Sarah Niemeyer (5th); Gretchen Reeves (3rd); Adriene Levknecht (1st); Courtney Kerin (2nd) and Cait Boyd (4th).

Local multi-sport athlete Gretchen Reeves was right on her heels in second, and New Zealander Courtney Kerin – a kayaking specialist – was in third.

Rivals – soon teammates

The men’s GMC Ultimate Mountain Challenge race came down to a head-to-head finish between two of the Vail Valley’s most acclaimed athletes – not simply because they live here, but because they have global reputations.

Mike Kloser is a multiple Eco-Challenge Champion, and Josiah Middaugh is a world XTERRA champion and 10-time UMC champ. By Sunday when the final event – the Pepi’s Face Off – began, they both had 28 points.

Because he finished first place in his category in more events, Kloser edged into victory.

How old is Kloser?

We’re glad you asked. He is 59 years old.

That’s right, 59.

“Both of us have had our fair share of close calls and successes and disappointments,” Kloser said. “I had to play the rules game, here – the format game – and took advantage of what I could. Josiah is in a league of his own.”

The winners of the GMC Ultimate Mountain Challenge from left to right: Taylor Shelden (4th); Branden Rakita (3rd); Mike Kloser (1st) and Josiah Middaugh (2nd).

Kloser, too, is in a league of his own: in particular an age group of his own. His first place victory in the TIAA Bank XC Mountain Bike event became critical in the tie-breaker. It came because he won his age group (45+).

It was a risk – even a second-place finish in his age group in the XC Mountain Bike would have put him out of contention, but Kloser closed the deal and took the top spot.

Middaugh finished among the top professional competitors in every event he entered, including Pepi’s Face-Off, where the UMC outcome literally came down to a matter of seconds.

Intense drama on Sunday morning

Heading into Sunday’s Pepi’s Face Off event (required for every UMC competitor), Josiah Middaugh had to win outright. Not just beat the other UMC competitors, but also beat the the internationally-known and respected trail runner Andy Wacker (who, by the way, had NOT competed in 5 other events this week).

They both completed six laps up the wall-like slope of Pepi’s, a tremendous feat in its own right.

The 40-year-old Middaugh (who is not a trail-running specialist) was only yards behind the 30-year-old trail running phenomenon Wacker, but Middaugh finished second. It marked the first and only time that Middaugh had competed in the various incarnations of the UMC without winning.

But the race wasn’t over yet. Kloser still had to finish in the top 10 to beat Middaugh via tiebreaker.

According to the complex rules of the UMC, Kloser would have lost if he scored 11th, but would win if he scored 10th.

He scored 10th.

Rivals are now teammates

“Unfortunately it wasn’t the apples-to-apples I was looking for, but I still had a good time going to head-to-head with some really good competitors in each individual event,” said Middaugh, who will be competing in the monumental Eco-Challenge race, which takes place in Fiji this September after a 17-year-hiatus.

And guess who will be on his team when he competes?

None other than Mike Kloser and Gretchen Reeves, who competed for four days side-by-side with him this weekend in Vail.

“The intensity is just off the hook here, so it’ll make Eco Challenge seem a lot less intense, but that will be a totally different challenge for me,” Middaugh said. “I’ll be really out of my comfort zone, so I’ll definitely be looking to Mike for all of his experience.”

Kloser, a four-time World Adventure Racing champion, has won the Eco-Challenge three times. He too believes that the last few days competing in the UMC at the GoPro Mountain Games served as a much-needed jumpstart of preparation for the Eco-Challenge, a multi-sport, multi-day nonstop expedition over hundreds of miles of rugged backcountry. Celebrity reality show creator Mark Burnett, whose other television masterpieces include “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” created Eco-Challenge 24 years ago.

“I always left a little place holder for the Eco-Challenge in case it ever came back,” said Kloser who will be (as always) gunning for a win and agrees that the UMC served as an explosive thrust to the conditioning that lies ahead over the next couple of months.

“From a duration perspective, the UMC is easier because we’re talking four days, six stages here and the longest we’re racing is an hour and a half. In Fiji, it’s going to be six days, 24 hours a day with whatever sleep we can squeeze in,” Kloser said. “I thought of this as a block of intensity training, digging deep … that’s all part of it. The speed we were going today on Pepi’s, hopefully we won’t see that kind of thing in the Eco-Challenge … except maybe in the last mile of the race.”

Branden Rakita, 2018 UMC winner and fellow star triathlete, took third in the 2019 UMC. Competing in his first UMC, road cycling pro Taylor Shelden traded out his skinny tires for running shoes and notched fourth place while kayak pro Nick Troutman took fifth. On the women’s side, UMC first-timer Cait Boyd dug deep for fourth place while Sarah Niemeyer took fifth.

“This event is about so much more than results,” said Dave Dressman, Event Director of the GoPro Mountain Games for the non-profit Vail Valley Foundation, which puts on the event with the help of more than 350 volunteers. “There is now an email chain going around among all the competitors. They are following each other on cycling apps, rooting for each other in other competitions. It has really formed a connection between everyone who took part.”

Officials at the Vail Valley Foundation said they look forward to the growth of the event in the future.

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