While casting about for a post-college sport after my fastpitch softball career was over, mountain biking pulled me in more than any of the other extreme thrills biding for my time. So, my Wild Bunch Desert Guides is a perfect extension of my passion for life behind a set of handlebars, and I absolutely LOVE any chance to expose guests to my sport-of-choice with Phoenix mountain bike tours. However, when guests are asking about a large group activity in the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix hiking tours are the better choice – primarily because everybody is travelling at a similar speed and sharing the same superb experience.
Just what the doctor ordered! Phoenix mountain bike tours next
Laurel Darren (left), owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, enjoys some Golden Oreos with Caron Jones (center) and Glenn Heumann (right) of the Lake City Hiking Club. The trio were celebrating reaching the summit of the 14,000-foot Redcloud peak during Laurel's "farewell" hike to her summer vacation in Colorado in late Sept. 2021.
Vacation is over for me. Time to get back to business and “real-life.”
The last four months in Colorado have been a sensational sabbatical from the day-to-day grind of operating a small mom-and-pop specialty shop.
With my Wild Bunch Desert Guides operating under special summer hours like the rest of the Phoenix adventure travel tours industry, I was able to escape by working remotely with guests and guides while mixing in a return to my mountain bike racing roots.
My last hurrah came Sept. 25 with one of my Lake City training partner gal pals Lydia and her son Jaden in the Canon City Crippler.
I was stoked to end my summer retreat on a high note, too – with the 65-mile gravel road race featuring 5,000 feet of climbing and some amazing scenery with panoramic views during a “climb and descent to test your limits,” as the race promotion promises.
Indeed, finishing sixth overall among females and No. 1 in my age group was an extremely gratifying bonus to both a wonderful homegrown event and an incredible overall break from offering high-quality, totally private, and completely customizable Scottsdale hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours.
Laurel Darren (center) enjoys a post-race wine festival with her Colorado training partners Amanda Hartman (left) and Lydia McNeese (right).
What I used to do
The pinnacle for me on a mountain bike was the year 2016.
I finished the grueling Leadville 100. I won the Flag-2-Grand Canyon. I also stood atop the podium at the C4, the Cave Creek and the Barnburner – setting a record in the latter event.
But tackling a super demanding schedule of hyper-challenging events at an insanely high level took a terrible toll on my body in my 40th year circling the sun.
I crashed hard coming down from that peak experience.
Despite a great fitness level, I started feeling tired all of the time.
I found myself unmotivated and uninterested in everything on the personal-side of my life – much less my passion for mountain bike racing.
I figured it was because I was so stressed out from being a first-time business owner with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
I knew how to give guests great guided Scottsdale hiking tours and guided Phoenix mountain bike tours, but I had a huge learning curve on the business side of operations.
But when these symptoms of melancholy persisted, I was introduced to Dr. James Smith of Inspired Health & Metabolism in Scottsdale.
Turns out, I had a pretty significant hormonal imbalance issue -- and that was a frustrating problem relapsing from years prior.
Part of the reason was that I needed to find a way to better handle the added stress from my new business – and I have worked hard to bring that part of my life in better balance because I have never been one to handle stress well.
But I also needed to back off my training regimen to let my body reset with the help of the vitamin supplements Dr. Smith recommended.
So, when I first started dating my boyfriend Brett three years ago, I was just entering a new and unfamiliar phase of my life on another front – facing the possibility I was stepping back permanently from competitive racing.
But with the help of the pandemic, I really focused on following what the doctor ordered – save for drinking Mountain Dew, which Dr. Smith is TOTALLY against and reminds me every time I talk to him (ha).
During my time away from racing, I kept my exercise at “normal” levels, and not the crazy, extreme, 8-hours-per-day regimen I was following in 2016.
Oh, I still went out on Phoenix mountain bike tours and Scottsdale hiking tours – but my work with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides served as my multi-tasking exercise fix.
I did sneak in a race of sorts in 2019, too – the Great Stair Climb in Bisbee, Ariz. The event is a 5-mile run featuring more than a 1,000-step stair climb. But I did no special training to prepare and only did the race because it is SOOOOO cool – and I love the free-spirited little town it calls home. There is such a great vibe there.
Thankfully, my sacrifice – the time away from competitive racing and going cold turkey on the training required to do so – produced some amazing results.
Before arriving in Colorado in June, my last round of blood work returned to show I was at impeccable levels, so Dr. Smith gave me the green light to get back to some training and racing this summer.
The difference this time was I had to promise to listen to my body and take days off when I was overly tired – and I still needed to watch what I was putting into the “engine” for fuel, save for my Mountain Dew addiction.
Laurel Darren (right) enjoys some personal time in Colorado this summer while sitting in some unique chairs with longtime boyfriend Brett.
What I did on vacation
As far as training goes, I started from scratch when I got to Colorado.
The first day on the bike in Lake City I could not breathe.
Shoot, I could not even get up the freaking ski hill on my mountain bike.
So, when we started our summer journey together, I could not even stay with my Lake City training partners Amanda Hartman and Lydia McNeese.
But I refused to get discouraged and kept moving forward – and continued showing up every time Lydia put out a ride date and time.
And on the side, I went out with the Lake City Hiking Club and my dog to hike up to 10,000 feet, even though I was dying, and Daisy Mae was pulling me up the hills.
As I gained strength, I did everything I could stay within a mile of Lydia on the bike. If I could at least hang with her? That was the definition of a good day.
And once I started having more and more of those days, I knew I was ready to race.
As planned, I signed up for Lake City’s Alpine 50, which is a 50-mile, 2-major mountain pass fire road race that is extremely bumpy, rutted, and chunky.
You go up Cinnamon Pass, which tops out at 12,640 feet and come down the backside, and then you go right back up Engineer Pass, which is tops out at 12,800 feet.
In other words? The race features 50 miles of brutal, are-you-kidding-me, what-hell-am-I-doing-this-for mountain bike riding.
But OH MY GOD, the scenery is amazing.
I trained all summer with Lydia and Amanda specifically for that race. Everything we did was climbing.
At the same time, I kept my body in check. I stuck to the supplement program Dr. Smith put me on.
I spoke with the good doctor after I did the SBT Gravel Race, which was my official comeback event in mid-August just before embarking on the Alpine 50.
Dr. Smith was so stoked that I had just done a gravel race and my time was way better than I ever expected. He was so proud of how far I had come over the last five years.
And then the news got even better.
I finished fifth overall among women at the Alpine 50, and my time was sub-6 hours, which made it even more awesome.
Amanda was unfortunately sick and unable to compete. However, Lydia won the race – she is so fantastic -- and I am so proud of the work we put in together to make that happen.
Before conquering the Crippler to end my summer, I also did The Gunni Grinder in Gunnison – and missed a turn, so I did an extra 10 miles.
I was proud of myself in that race, though, because I caught the tail end of the back-of-the-pack 60ish riders. I was able to pass 4-5 riders, turn around at the aid station and come back and pass 6-7 more. So that goes to show my fitness is at a good level.
Prior to returning to Arizona, I also completed my second 14er by hiking up to Redcloud Peak with Glenn Heumann and Caron Jones from the Lake City Hiking Club.
My first 14er was Handies Peak in June, but trust me, they do not get easier. We had a rock-boulder field we had to work together to get through. Glenn was slipping and I was slipping. But we had each other’s backs. It was so cool.
A 14er is SOOOOO hard – but SOOOOO worth it when you summit.
What a powerful feeling when you look around and realize, “Wow, I’m 14,000 feet up.”
(TOP) Laurel Darren comes flying around a turn during the Canon City Crippler mountain bike race Sept. 25 in Colorado. (Bottom) Laurel is thumbs up excited while posing on her bike in front of a sign on Trail 401 in Crested Butte, the Wildflower Capitol of Colorado.
What I learned this summer
I am returning to Arizona feeling like I am on top of the world.
Everything seems so balanced -- my work vs. personal life; my biking vs. hiking cross-training. My body, mind and soul are all nourished. My sense of satisfaction is off the charts.
During the Alpine 50, I can recall where the second, third and fourth-place finishers all passed me, and that might have haunted me in the past as a competitor.
But now instead I appreciate how epic all the women were in that race – we all finished within 30 minutes of Lydia, who I know is a beast right now.
I was so stoked to post a sub-6-hour time AND feel good again after a race. It was so much fun just getting a chance to compete with those other women as well as myself.
Returning to racing also has taken away some of the stress from owning a small business -- and to be honest, brought the competitive side of me back to the surface.
Racing again has proven a real confidence booster for me; it has made me feel so good about myself.
The biggest give for me was taking days off from training when I felt tired. I always fought through the fatigue before to try and keep pushing to become better and better. But I have learned discretion is the better part of valor. Live to fight another day.
I have realized I am not going to win anymore, but that is OK if I am not the one breaking the finishing line tape.
Instead, I am “winning” in other ways. Now, racing is about enjoying the personal challenges of finishing and the feeling of accomplishment.
After five years between events, I am just grateful for the chance to race again.
You truly never realize what you have until it is gone. Now the goal is to race as long and as hard as I can and enjoy as many more moments as possible on that peak.
My racing and training are not that serious anymore, so the goals are different, too. The other benefits – and how that makes me feel – are the definition of winning.
I’m moving in the right direction – it is about kicking ass in life, not just in one race.
So, it is OK to stop and just look at the Golden Aspens turning colors.
It is OK if Lydia is passing me – because I know how hard she has worked.
It is OK to stop for a break and be grateful.
So let me share this euphoria with the great team of people around me.
That list starts with Brett, who is my main source of love and support. Brett is No. 1 because he always puts up with all the shit from me and my business stress.
Brett is a big reason why I am better able to manage situations now when I’m emotional. He’s not afraid to tell me the way it is.
The team of Lydia and Amanda have taken me under their wing to show me the epic beauty of Lake City. They have pushed and guided me and made sure I remain on the right path.
We have had a lot of emotional moments because of outside challenges happening, but we have managed to come through those fires together. I have been truly fortunate to have them by my side – on and off the bike.
And then there is the Lake City Hiking Club, especially Glenn, who took a huge amount of time out of his day and away from his wife to spend a half day with me on each of the 14ers.
The club embraced me and my racing and helped bring back that joy to my life by being people I can depend on.
Last but not least is Dr. Smith, who I sent everything I won at the Alpine 50 because he deserves all the kudos.
He’s always giving me shit – “Are you drinking Code Red or the real stuff?” he will ask about by Mountain Dew habit. And when I tell him, “Code Red,” he’s like, “Hmmm. That’s great Laurel. That’s why your hydration levels suck.”
Dr. Smith is so real – and not just there for the money. He really does care. He truly is rooting for me and my best interests.
So, during all of the races the last two months, I could not help but think, “Dr. Smith, I love you.”
I truly shudder to wonder where I would be without him these last five years. He literally saved my life from a raceless purgatory.
But then everybody mentioned played a vital role in the return to my racing passion.
Laurel Darren, owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, contemplates her future while surrounded by the natural summer beauty of Colorado.
Where do I go from here?
I have been told I should continue mountain bike racing because I have been training at over 9,000 feet this summer. I mean, why waste that hard work?
But the problem is when I get back to Arizona, the busy season starts Oct. 2 for the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
Tons of conventions and corporate events visit Phoenix in the late fall, winter, and early spring. That means countless business travelers and group outings looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And with the Wild Bunch constantly busy, and continually growing and evolving, that makes it hard for me to find time to train, much less race.
I have to manage the daily business challenges and details. The buck stops here, so I am the last to be able to do anything I really want to do because I have to be available to do everything from handling logistics to taking guests myself on Scottsdale hiking tours or Phoenix mountain bike tours.
I definitely want to keep my riding going – but I have yet to decide what I will do as far as racing.
I have to watch the books and see what kind of groups we have going out.
A lot of my guides actually race, too, so a lot of my staff already has asked for time off to race, and somebody has to work when they do, and that somebody is me.
I would like to continue racing, but it is really dependent on the Wild Bunch schedule – and the races available.
The return to racing has sharpened my focus, though, and has my competitive juices flowing again.
In terms of business, I am good friends with my fellow small mom-and-pop hiking and biking outlets. So, we are not really competitors – we actually help each other out all the time and support one another, whether that means loaning equipment or manpower or sharing advice and information.
So, it is not the desire to kick the ass of those other businesses as much as striving to give our guests great tours and one-of-a-kind experiences.
My own vacation and return to racing only reminds me how important our role is in delivering the best times to our visitors.
That is the motivation of the Wild Bunch every time out on tour, but now karma demands me to flip the script in making sure others have a great getaway.