Jeff Caspersen
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

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July 25, 2012
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Riding under blue skies

Greg McKennis considers shorter, regional mountain bike races a fun ride, but he lives for the big-distance grinds in exotic locales.

Real big distances.

The 59-year-old New Castle man persevered through the annual Trans-Portugal race - all nine days and more than 700 miles of it - four times. He's punished himself with the Tour Divide, a nearly 2,800-mile trek from Antelope Wells, N.M., a town situated on the Mexican border, all the way north to Canada's Banff, Alberta.

More torture is on deck for McKennis, who has raised his family to have an affinity for the outdoors. He leaves today for the "Land of Blue Skies" to compete in the Mongolian Bike Challenge, in which he will contend with 10 stages and nearly 870 miles of terrain packed with plenty of elevation gain.

"It'll be a big variety of terrains," he said. "Semi-deserty, grasslands, and then we get more into the timbered mountain area. It should be good."

McKennis learned of the Challenge from fellow competitors at last year's Tour Divide, a self-supported race in which there are no stages. You just pedal your way through the race at whatever pace your legs and lungs can tolerate.

"I actually met two guys from Switzerland who'd done it," McKennis recalled. "Some people come from the south and some people come from the north, so you see so few people during the Tour. It could be two or three days and you don't see anybody. You're all on your own. So you say hi and just talk briefly. They said they'd done this crazy race in Mongolia."

So McKennis did a little research and decided he would head to Asia in 2012.

"It looks well organized and there's actually some pretty big talent," he said. "I'm the oldest guy in it. I'm just hoping to finish every day in the allotted time and have a great time."

With all the training McKennis has poured into the preparation process, chances are he will hold his own. The 100 or so miles of the White Rim Trail in Moab, Utah, and some lengthy local routes have been his go-to training rides.

A man who rarely rests, McKennis is fit and ready for his next endeavor - mentally and physically.

"I really like to do the hard races," he proclaimed. "They're just such a challenge, with the training and preparation and just the, you know, mental aspects of it when you're racing. You're out there and you're going to finish."

Mountain biking is a relatively new addition to McKennis' athletic repertoire.

He's an avid skier and was a big kayaker back in the day. He's spent pretty much his entire life engaged in outdoor activity of some kind.

As the owner of a number of ranches, including one just outside New Castle that produces hay and features a horse-boarding operation, McKennis has always spent his days toiling under the sun.

At the age of 50, McKennis began searching for an activity to keep him fit.

"After I turned 50, I started looking at all my friends and said, 'Wow, I don't want to go downhill,'" he said.

He ran for a while, even competing in a Vail trail running series for a summer, but injuries cut that venture short.

It was a trip to Canyonlands with his daughter, Alice, that sparked McKennis' interest in mountain biking some six years back.

"We did a five-day tour out there on little dirt roads," he said. "I just thought it was incredibly fun. We came back from that and bought a couple bikes and just kind of ramped it up from there. This is only my fourth year of actual racing."

To say mountain biking's been McKennis' passion since might be something of an understatement. And he's come along way since his initiation to the sport.

He's gone from suffering through his very first Trans-Portugal to finishing 19th this year.

"Every day was the worst day of my life," McKennis said, smiling as he revisited memories of that first Trans-Portugal race. "It was so hard. I did finish every day within the time allotted, but it was ridiculously hard. This year was my fourth year doing it and I finished 19th, which is really good. I was very proud of that. I could see the progression of my training over the years."

And that training never stops or lulls.

"At my age, you have to stay going," he said. "You can't stop. You might take a week or two off, but you can't take off three or four months. No way. It's too hard to come back."

Athletics and the outdoors are family pastimes for McKennis and his two adult daughters, Alice and Kendra.

Alice is a World Cup skier who competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics and Kendra is training for her first marathon.

"We all have our competitive something, at whatever level," McKennis said.

Growing up on a ranch, both daughters were busy with equestrian activity, and both were introduced to the concept of hard work early in life.

"It's a great life," the elder McKennis said. "I've seen how well my daughters have done with their lives, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way we lived. It's was kind of more self-reliant, I guess you'd say. It's been really good."

And he didn't waste time putting Alice and Kendra to work.

"As soon as they could pick up a shovel or pitchfork," dad joked.

His 2-year-old granddaughter, Jill, is already busy on the ranch.

"If I'm working in the barn or irrigating or something, she'll come along and carry a wrench or whatever the best she can," McKennis said with a pride-packed grin. "We're getting her organized with it, too. It's a great lifestyle. We've been very lucky."

It's abundantly clear this proud patriarch will have plenty on which to reflect as he pedals his way through Mongolia in the coming days.">class="NormalParagraphStyle">

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The Post Independent Updated Jul 25, 2012 11:57PM Published Jul 25, 2012 11:55PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.