The Colorado Trail Race: It will bring you to your knees
Updated: Jan 12
8 weeks ago I found myself in a Subway in Salina, OK contemplating what the hell I was doing. I was 13 days into the American Trail Race, in the middle of nowhere, tired, annoyed and not enjoying my ride. I was the only one in the restaurant. Hell, I might have been 10% of the town's population that day. The sandwich chef (everyone deserves a cool title) was trying to make small talk with me as I juggled my first human interaction of the day and an inner dialogue of how (not if) to pull the plug on this race.
Not long after returning home from ATR, the web exploded with Tour Divide amazingness. I felt like I had gone to the wrong party... and through all of this, I still had a lot of juice left in the tank. I had trained well for the ATR and after a week or two of recovery, my legs were still eager for something hard.
Like any good addiction, I began to peruse upcoming events, trying to find something that could satiate the remaining need for adventure. Nothing long, but something challenging. Close to home would be ideal to keep costs down. As I mulled over options, I kept coming back to the Colorado Trail Race. Brutal amounts of climbing. High altitude. Unpredictable weather. Challenging and technical riding. Close to home. Yeah, this could work. I focused my research more and more on the CTR, consuming race reports and scouring Facebook group pages. The next thing I knew I was on the Trackleaders web page registering for the start of Sunday July 28th.
I had about 3 weeks to get ready for the CTR. Not something I would really recommend doing; while I already had the fitness, there was still a lot of preparation to be had. I broke the prep out into a few areas:
I continued absorbing information. Previous race reports, snow level updates from the Colorado Trail Foundation, lurking on FB pages. Every morsel of information was worth digesting.
I modified the bike setup. My race setup from American Trail Race was geared towards long stretches without water and a 40 day camp setup. With the high snow year in the San Juan Mountains, I knew water would be plentiful on the CTR. I opted for a 2.5 liter setup and about 40 iodine tablets, refilling more but carrying less. I tossed the sleeping pad and tent and opted just for a bivy, bag and pillow. I needed to stay warm, not comfortable. All of my remaining training shifted to vertical feet. I worked in more single track than I typically ride. I did a few hike-a-bikes. I converted the rigid fork to suspension, and changed the gearing from a 32T/10-42 to a 30T/10-50.
I changed my pack list. The CTR course hovers around 10,000 feet, with weather that can change instantly. Afternoon thunderstorms above treeline were commonly talked about in race reports. Possibilities for hail were high, and it was a given that you'd be camping in the 30's. In 2017, the weather had been relentless, resulting in less than a 25% finisher rate. I took note, and thought about what I needed to handle the possibility of a severe weatherfest. A new rain coat, rain paints and waterproof socks were added to the gear list.
That's all I had time for. The rest would just have to work itself out.
Nicole and I arrived in Durango Saturday afternoon. We soaked in a little bit of downtown, then began looking for camping that night. While out looking for a site, we had a flat tire on the van. The lug wrench in the van wasn't the right size, which made the change a bit of a struggle. Luckily some strangers pulled over and were able to help us get on our way. With daylight soon disappearing, we headed straight for a local KOA so I could get the bike loaded. We arrived and ran into Peter Ineman setting up camp right next to our spot. It had been a long and stressful afternoon, and now being stationary for the night I could finally focus on getting the bike all dialed in. I spread out on a near by picnic table and started checking off the pack list item by item. A young boy stopped by to check out what I was doing. He was visiting with his family from Texas, and was keen to understand my bike and gear. His stoke level on the race was high, and as we chatted mine too kicked back up!
Alarms were set for 2 am the next morning to make the grand depart at 4. The first services on the CTR are in Silverton, pegged at 80 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing. I started to connect the dots in my head: a 4 am roll out was probably necessary to give a portion of the field a chance to get to services in Silverton before they close that night. This really began to put the challenge into perspective.
I packed about 10,000 calories with me that morning. I never really count. Probably should on stuff like this. "Looks about right" was the scientific measurement of choice. Sometimes I wonder if my subconscious is intentionally keeping the option in play that I'll run out of food and make things more interesting. The pack list contained the usual bars, nuts, 4 Egg McMuffins, a flask of maple syrup, a jar of peanut butter and an extra burrito from the night before. I wouldn't have enough to skip Silverton, so I best damn make it there in time.
I rode from the KOA over to the start at Velorution Cycles, weaving through the now empty streets of Durango and soaking in the last easy miles I would have for a while. In front of the bike shop, cyclists spilled out onto the streets, some small conversations going on but most just solemnly contemplating the undertaking ahead of them. It was great to see such a large field of crazies. Not long after Stefan gave a few short comments, the masses rolled out. It was a few miles through town to the trail head, which gave some nice time for riders to space out and find their rhythm before hitting tight single track. I tried to chat with a few riders; some were receptive, others seemed hesitant and pretty focused. I figured everyone would loosen up in a few hours.
We hit the trail head, immediately onto narrow, winding single track with consistent rocks and features. It certainly wasn't easy sailing from the get-go. I was constantly trying to find the right light setting to highlight the trail enough to ride it well, but so that I wasn't burning through battery on my lights too fast. I only had to pass a few people, and only a few passed me. It was great not to be caught in a stressful line of riders in those first few hours. I was finding that the technical nature of the trail was making it hard to grab my water bottle from the frame and also consume calories. I was wishing I had gone with a Camelbak, but had to remind myself of what my lower back felt like after a few days of weight on it. I knew as the race settled in, I wouldn't mind stopping to drink.
The first few hours of climbing out of Durango were challenging, but rideable. The trail was buff with some rocks here and there. I was working, but staying on my bike. I was glad to have changed the front ring to a 30T.
Sunrise came and revealed that we had already picked our way close to 10,000 feet. Riders continued to spread out and I found myself riding solo pretty quickly, only running into another rider if they had decided to stop. I had absolutely no idea where I was in the field of riders.
I knew something big was coming, but hadn't had time to study maps intricately enough to know when. Then, emerging from the tree line after a few hours of climbing was the first true hike-a-bike, a long scree slope up to Kennebec Pass. I'll tell you that this was a truly sketchy experience. The trail was cut across multiple, steeply pitched fields of sharp loose rock. A wrong step or two and you could find yourself sliding down the side of a mountain pretty easily. This was all magnified by trying to walk a bike next to you at the same time. Towards the end of the scree fields, the rocks were so steep I was hoisting my bike up onto ledges, and then pushing myself up after it. In my head I starting thinking about how challenging this type of terrain would be at night, and how I would need to prepare for that.
Up on Indian Ridge, I wouldn't say the terrain settled , but it wasn't straight up as it had been for the past 6 hours. The climbs were still punchy and long enough to earn your respect. I had only consumed 3 bottles in the first 7 hours, and a headache was quickly setting in. Getting caught up in early racing, I had ridden past several areas to refill bottles, just trying to keep pushing without stop. I rhetorically slapped myself in the face, and took a break for some water resupply and to try and get some more food in me. As the hike-a-bike segments became from frequent, I found those to be good opportunities to grab a quick bite and swig of water. That became my rhythm: if my foot swung off the pedals, it was 100 calories in the gullet and a wash of fluids.
My appreciation was growing for how arduous it is to navigate through these mountains with a bicycle. I'm glad I turned off the auto-pause feature on my Wahoo, or it basically would have been tripping constantly. I felt like I was going absolutely nowhere. One foot in front of the other, over and over, was the motto. I kept reminding myself that everyone around me, even if I couldn't see them, was facing the same struggle and the same hard path.
On came Blackhawk pass, which is where we started to catch a good amount of day riders. It was nice to see other people on mountain bikes, but jealously of how easily they were navigating the mountains on full squish and light rigs set in quick. My hard tail decision was quickly feeling like the wrong one. Mad props to the crazies who race this thing on full rigids!
I began to find a good routine for water filtering. With three bottles on my bike, I would refill when I got down to one remaining. This way the iodine could fully treat as I worked through the last bottle. The rotation worked well, the only issue was that the tablet packaging was often hard to get open.
My lack of course recon was now really starting to show. I kept believing I was close to the descent into Silverton. Wrong. So very wrong...and I would be so very wrong on this topic for the rest of the journey. I definitely had skimped a little on the elevation charts and profiles. I knew total distance/elevation between services, but hadn't plotted out the major climbs between each. It could have been one or seven, I really didn't know.... and not knowing was dragging the wind out of my sails. My over optimism for thinking "this has to be the last one" was getting thrashed by the minute. Without data, I needed to re-calibrate my thinking in the other direction, instead always prepared for another long climb. On top of all this, some nasty blisters were starting to form on my heels. I knew the shoes I had were not great for hiking, but I didn't want to buy a new shoe only a few weeks prior and risk other issues with pronation, knee tracking, etc. I figured some blisters were better than a bum knee, right? My thin wool socks were allowing a good bit of rub through the ankle with every upwards step. I had some thicker water proof sealskinz in the kit that I figured I would try for tomorrow to see if that helped.
Between miles 40-60, a few of us played leap frog. I was hiking and climbing a little faster than others, but getting caught on most descents. At first, everyone still had a bit of race face on but over time a little banter between passings ensured. I was riding in the same area that day as John Price, Kevin Conerly, Bryce Gordon and Josh Peters. I made it to the top of the last pass before Silverton a few minutes before Kevin, Bryce and Josh. John was shortly there with me, and we laughed and made jokes as we began to navigate down the ridiculousness of the north side of that pass. We hit large fields of late afternoon snowy slush, trail that had been taken over by a now rushing streams, and wheel-sucking mud fields. We were all tired, hungry and just wanting to move downhill at a faster speed than up, but it wasn't the case. Quickly Bryce, Kevin and Josh caught up with us and the five of us trudged through sloppy conditions, still hoping to hit Silverton before 9pm. The lower we got, the better the trail became. As we approached Molas Lake, the trail turned super pure and we all had shit eating grins on our faces. Craig Fowler was at Molas Lake greeting racers before we dumped out onto the highway and descended a few easy miles to Silverton. I was going to make Silverton before services closed, but with the raging headache I had all day I wasn't sure if I wanted to go back up to elevation that night.
The convenience store right when you enter town is where everyone was stopping. Like a good sheep, I figured nothing else must be open and rolled into the store like everyone else. The scene inside was a frenzy. 15 racers, all slightly incoherent, shuffling around a small convenience store filling up hand carts with piles of calories. Everyone was trying to move with purpose, but decisions were challenging. All hot food was gone, so it was about trying to find bars and snacks that would last for the 2+ day push over to the Buena Vista. I can't begin to describe how hard this can be when you're not fully in the right state of mind, and it's definitely something that came back to bite me later.
Outside the gas station, racers were checking in with family, pulling trash out from every pocket of their bikes, and reloading with twice as many calories. Every crevice and pocket served a purpose to hold sustenance. It was ~170 miles to the next opportunity for food, the longest stretch of the race. Chatter began between smaller groups of racers as to how far they planned to go tonight, and you could see others intently listening in the background. Everyone was sizing each other up a bit. Who had the legs and the heart to keep pushing into the night? Up next was a long climb to Stoney Pass, back up to 12,000 + feet. There was a lot of talk about going half way up. Josh Peters and I had chatted earlier about staying in the park in town, and didn't seem to be influenced by the others decision. We rolled out of the gas station before the others and pedaled to the north side of town. The town park is pretty nice, with a well kept green space, electrical outlets and toilets. We setup camp on the backside of the bathrooms; the first racers to arrive there that night. Josh asked what time I plan to get up in the morning- the ever so pressing question! I was thinking 2 am, Josh had his sights on about 5 am. I told him I'd try and be quiet as I left.
The stars were magnificent with not a bug insight. It did end up getting pretty cold that night, and without a pad there wasn't much between the ground and my bare ass (chamois off for sleep!) and I would wake up shivering a few times. Late into the night, a few other racers rolled into the park and quickly crashed out. I thought about them working through those last snow fields, creeks and mud in the dark, but quickly realized that this would become my norm as the race continued.
2 am came quickly, and I packed up quietly and rolled out of the park. The question was already looming in my mind- "do you have enough calories to make it to Buena Vista?". Part of me thought no, but the majority of me pushed that shit down and said it didn't matter now. Was I going to sit around and wait until 7 am for things to open back up and get more food? Hell no. So on I went. I was happy with my decision to camp low and use the dark hours to climb up to Stoney Pass. From Silverton to Stoney Pass is just a wide dirt road- starting out well graded but getting rocky towards the top.
As I climbed in the dark, I could make out shadows of large avalanche debris on the sides of the trail. I tread quietly as to not tip off any other racers in the area who might have been sleeping. The thicker Sealskinz socks were helping with the blisters for this hike-a-bike, and I was beginning to find new ways of planting my feet to avoid pressure and rubbing on my heels. Side or angled steps, and shorter more frequent shuffles seemed to keep the pain down. Between my three lights, I was able to make out a large portion of the road, picking what appeared to be the least arduous hiking path. Every few minutes, I would stop, nibble on some nuts, slurp down some cold brew coffee, and keep trudging.
One of my favorite parts of the day is when the morning fractions of light begin to shade your surroundings. There were no city lights to showcase landscape features, and the moon wasn't bright enough to tip me off to what was around me. In that 30 minute window before the sun really starts to show, the mountains become grand outlines. Remaining snow fields started to catch enough light to emit a nightlight effect. I could tell I was close to the summit and in an epic and expansive mountain setting.
Stoney Pass put me back up over 12,000 feet, where the course would remain for a good portion of the day. The headaches were gone and the energy levels were pretty good, all things considered. The high point of the course was in reach today, at 13,271 ft. I had an estimate in my head of about 2-3 passes before getting to the high point (spoiler: I'm wrong!). As I hiked up to the first peak past Stoney pass, Kevin Conerly was enjoying a little breakfast. He had slept halfway up Stoney, and must have gotten up shortly before me. Both of us agreed on the bad math for the high point. I trudged on, knowing that Kevin would catch me in the next technical section.
Every time I would be deep into climbing a pass, I would look at the elevation chart on my Wahoo (which is only the next mile of riding), see the large spike up, and think to myself this surely must be the high point. And over and over again, the pass would top out in the very high 12,000's, drop back down, and then repeat. With each one would come more hiking, and my feet would continue to remind me that there were large holes of skin missing on my heels, scraping away more and more by the minute.
I started asking thru-hikers when the high point was coming. "Just around the corner" was not the response. It was more of "well... you drop down towards this lake, climb maybe two more passes, and then look for a jeep road". The Jeep road became my critical data point; I knew once I saw that, I could assure I was close.
I should have taken a picture when the jeep road came into view- it was now obvious I was heading to the high point. The remaining pitch up was just epic, shooting straight into the sky while we already stood at 12,000 feet. Bryce was up ahead, only a little spec on the mountain. Kevin and I traded turns trying to ride for 15-20 seconds, forced to abandon and walk due to the sheer incline and lack of oxygen up there. It was some tough sledding. The winds were picking up as we approached the top, but no dark clouds in sight for the moment. Our goal was to get over this top before the typical afternoon storms rolled in. We had gotten up there later than expected, and knew the urgency of moving back down to lower elevations.
Descending off the top of the mountain was no easy business. There were more snow fields on the north slope of this mountain, with large boulder gardens for trails. You would ride for a minute, come to a halt, hop off your bike to fumble through a rough section, and then get back on for a little bit more. By this time I was noticing my arms and shoulders were getting a heavy workout. My front fork just wasn't complying well with the trail, and was battering me up pretty bad.
From the high point to the start of the La Garita detour, the trail was a mix of fast long single track descents and some long sections of just walking your bike through fields of misshaped bowling balls. Soon I would regroup with both Bryce and Kevin, all of us hoping to drop out onto the road for the La Garita detour soon. We were all craving pavement, which just shows how much of a battering we had all just taken.
Just like everything on this course, the pavement proved to take forever to reach. When we finally popped out onto the trail head, it was damn good to feel the smooth pavement on my tires. Ben Hanus and Josh Cameron were stopped on the side of the road filtering water. Bryce, Kevin and I joined for a minute, but Bryce and I pushed on quickly while Kevin still handled some business. He wasn't feeling too hot and urged us not to wait up for him.
It felt great to be riding a terrain that was predictable, smooth and easy to navigate through, even if it did have a few cars and trucks to keep in mind. Bryce and I quickly tackled Slumgullion Pass, which then led us to an absolutely epic dirt road downhill. We must have coasted down that winding dirt road, hugging a gorgeous river, easily averaging 20 mph for 10 miles. It was a great mental recovery from the harsh high mountains we had just come from.
Bryce blew a tire, so we stopped on the side of the road to repair it. I was enjoying the company and decided to hang out instead of carrying on solo. Soon Kevin arrived and the three of us were on our way again. The dirt road continued to meander through a scenic valley, well graded and lightly traveled. The three of us were able to ride side by side and chat while managing some small rollers here and there. Next up was Los Pinos Pass, a 6 mile gradual dirt road climb and the last pass of the detour. Bryce and I found a rhythm and casually knocked it out as the sun began to dip for the day.
Bryce, Kevin and I were shooting for the end of the La Garita detour as our stopping point for the night. It was here that a trail angels named Apple typically kept a cooler of snacks for weary hikers and bikers. All of us knew our calorie load would be strained tomorrow trying to get to Mt Princeton Hot Springs or Buena Vista, and hoped that we could snag a quick treat from Apple's cooler. He hadn't been there last year, so it was a dice roll to see if it would be there this year.
The complete La Garita detour is ~50 miles and when we began it, we felt we could complete it by sunset. Kevin was set on stopping at the end for the night, given how bad he was feeling. Bryce and I were having talks about pushing just a little further on. As we descended Los Pinos Pass and continued on the detour, the sun quickly set and we came to the realization that we were again, much further out than expected. We kept asking each other how much further we thought the end of the detour would be. No one really knew. "Just over this hill" or "can't be more than another mile" were slung around carelessly. We were all beat; our bodies hadn't yet adjusted to the long hours of racing. We were hoping for any type of sign..... and while the dirt road riding was good and fast, it was also monotonous, and hard to keep awake for.
Close to 10:30 pm we finally reunited with the CT trail head area. Kevin wasted no time finding a tree trail side to crash out. Apple was not there. Bryce and I had now lost any motivation to continue on that night, so we called it quits only a mile or two further down the road. I had been riding for 20 hours at this point, and could use a break.
We set up camp basically on the dirt road. I had been spoiled by the previous night's smooth grass at Silverton park. This was just a lumpy dirt field, making it difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position. It was 11 pm, and Bryce and I agreed on a 2:45 alarm.
At 1:45 am I woke up to the oncoming sound of a rear hub and a faint light in the distance. Another racer was working their way through our section, and stopped for water resupply close by. I was already tossing and turning, so I decided to get up for the day. Bryce woke up and quickly followed suit.
We were back on the CT that morning, winding through some heavily forested areas with smooth single track. Some sections were actually pretty fun rippers, Bryce leading the way and me trying to keep my wide handle bars from snagging a tree on the narrow path.
We rode for about 3 hours to the beginning of the Sargents Mesa, which I had been warned about as a pretty rough section of trail. In some race reports, I had heard it touted as the "worst 20 miles of mountain biking ever". I was intrigued, but also concerned. My front fork was now just a slow and sticky piece of garbage, and I was not looking forward to working it through more rocks. Anymore hike-a-bike and the blisters would open back up.
Bryce and I parted ways on the first climb that day, each working our own pace. Soon I found Andrew Carney in the middle of a climb and we exchanged a few words. My legs felt good, and I pushed the rideable climbs a bit. Soon the worst of Sargents Mesa was under our wheels. Continuously dense rock gardens littered the trail, and I focused hard to find the upcoming lines and slowly, with lots of torque and patience, pick my way up each of them. Any downhill section was laced with large, loose toaster-oven sized rocks to work through. It reminded me a lot of riding the Pinhoti trail in Georgia and I could see why some gave this section such a terrible review. It wasn't my favorite, but it wasn't all bad. I felt like I was making surprisingly good time through it.
I blazed down the backside of Sargents, hoping I had been able to build a little bit of time to those behind me through that section. I had no cell service, so I assumed that they were right behind me and I kept working quickly through the trail.
The concern over remaining calories was definitely growing. Buena Vista had been a possibility early that morning, but was now starting to look out of range. Mount Princeton Hot Springs was still in play, but wasn't a guarantee. I was now tapping pretty heavily into the jar of peanut butter, trying to ration small scoops every 30 mins or so.
The heat was setting in as elevation dropped, and the trail continued to be a mix of chunky rock to work through. I was sick of damn rock gardens by this time, belting made up songs about shitty trail to whatever creature in the forest wanted to hear. I rolled up to signs for Marshall Pass and a nearby hiker hollered "good luck going up that thing". Fantastic. Surely another hike-a-bike. The next mile or so of trail trying to get up to Marshall Pass was some of the gnarliest hike-a-bike on the whole route. It was hoisting your bike up on a ledge and then figuring out how you get up to it. 25-30% grades easily. The required massive leg extensions dug my shoes right into the open blisters. Profanity echoed through the trees.
Up and over Marshall Pass, the trail did begin to show a few signs of smoothing out, just as most say. There were a few good rippers before dumping out on to a forest service road to yet again climb up to another peak. I think it was around here that I passed another racer. We didn't exchange many words, just a head nod and kind of a "this shit is no joke" type vibe. Of course, the forest service road pitched back up and slowly slimmed into a trail while storms started to rumble in the distance. I hadn't gotten caught in a storm yet, but honestly I would have welcomed it. It had been a hot afternoon, and my energy was low. I could have used a good scare to get the blood pumping and wake my ass back up.
I could see the summit of the next pass coming up ahead, mostly rideable with a few sections of hike-a-bike. By now the skies were pretty overcast and you could tell rain was pouring down in the surrounding areas. I hit the sign for Fooses Creek, snapped a picture and decided it was time to get off that mountain.
Fooses was a tough descent for me and the ol' hardtail (with no dropper). It was pretty damn steep in several areas, with tight rocky creek crossings and a plethora of mud pits. Not until the bottom did it start to smooth out and some fun could be had. My front fork had all but quit on me by now, and I would tense up every time rocks came into view.
The trail ended and was followed by a super fast few miles on dirt road. I wanted more dirt road by this point, and would grin every time a stretch came around. Right before crossing Highway 50, Jimmy and Janie Hayes pulled up for a surprise visit! We laughed and chatted for a few minutes, and then another racer just popped out of nowhere. This wasn't someone I had ridden with before. It was Steve Denny, who mentioned he had accidentally descended Monarch Crest, realized his mistake, and then climbed back up it to the route. Holy shit. We had just come close to 10 miles off the top of the pass. He must have been way ahead. I can't imagine accidentally adding that much more vert to the craziness.
Steve and I got going, trading a few words but Steve was quickly further off ahead as we started navigating the segment past Highway 50. In my mind, Mount Princeton Hot Springs was close by... no less that 5 miles was my thought. But as the trail continued, it felt like I could be very wrong. I ran into a woman walking her dog, eyes Colorado red, and asked her opinion. The answer started with "oh geez" and finished with "at least 4-5 hours away". Ughhhh... I continued on and started doing the math myself, confirming that she was probably right- another 15 or so miles of rocky single track to the resort. I contemplated just stopping on the trail for the night, and hitting Mount Princeton in the morning for breakfast. But the late night kitchen menu was open until 11, which gave me a slight chance. I was completely out of food. I had now been licking the bottom of the peanut butter jar for the last 4 hours already, and my energy was starting to get pretty low. Food tonight was better than food in the morning.
This section of trail was pretty challenging. Large rock beds with swooping turns and steep embankments. No real sustained climbs, but pretty technical to navigate and keep momentum. I pushed on as fast as I could. I couldn't stop if I wanted to make a meal that night.
The already challenging trail got even harder as darkness crept in. My lights were bright, but depth perception in all the large boulders made it more challenging to pick through. In one corner I slid out, flipped over the handle bars and landed right into a spruce tree growing up the side of the trail. I was stuck in its branches, with my left leg lodged between my front wheel and down tube. I reached my hand below to gain leverage to push myself up, but there was nothing but thin air below me. I realized I needed to be pretty careful to hoist myself up using the tree, or I might be falling even further off the side of the cliff. It was definitely one of the hairier moments of the race, and one that had me walking my bike down the remaining steep embankments that night.
The trail eventually ended and dumped out on to a dirt road which told me I couldn't be far from Mount Princeton Hot Springs. It was about 9:45 pm and I was swerving all over the road at this point, delirious from lack of sleep and food. After a few miles of thinking that I missed the resort, a small compounds worth of lights came into view. Steve was parked outside, having just finished a burger himself and was now off to try and find a cozy pit toilet to sleep in. I barely had energy to order food, let alone figure out a place to camp in that area. We were in a pretty residential part of the course in the pitch black. Plus, my cache battery and lights were pretty much depleted. I knew I needed some electricity overnight, so I picked up a couple cheeseburgers from the grill and decided to treat myself to a (way overpriced) hotel room.
I pushed out of Mount Princeton Hot Springs about 3:45 am the next morning, treated to a nice road climb onto a wide dirt road. I was climbing over Mount Princeton, on the way to Buena Vista finally. Being burned so many times of time/distance calculations, I was hesitant to think what time I would arrive in BV. I had a BLT leftover from last night and I just kept pedaling and hiking, trying not to think of estimates. I hadn't seen any fresh tracks on the trail, so I figured Steve was behind me but not by far. I was happy to see that the rocks were lightening up and the rideability of the trail was increasing. Soon the sun was illuminating the trail and I was able to increase some speed and tenacity towards BV. The section from Mount Princeton Hot Springs to BV is only about 18 miles, and soon I was descending a super fast paved canyon road towards BV. It was a great win that morning, services coming earlier than expected which gave hope for a solid day of riding.
County road turned into city road and main streets came into view. This was the first town I'd seen in over two days, and ideas starting swarming of all the delicacies I could treat myself to. Relax at a cafe, eat a delicious breakfast and drink coffee for an hour? That would be nice, but no. I worked hard to focus my brain on a quick stop and go. I opted for the City Market where I could get a good assortment of calories and also the much needed blister treatment, and then get back on the road.
Out of BV the dirt was smooth as we road north along the river. A slight headwind was forming, but I didn't care. I would have happily road into a steady gust as long as it was smooth.
In my rush out of BV I picked up everything except water. While there was plenty of water in the river next to me, the embankments were too steep to access it. As the dirt turned to highway, I noticed a sign for AVA rafting company about 4 miles ahead, which I remembered as a possible stop depending on time. Luckily I would hit it during mid day to fill up a few bottles, otherwise it would have been a while before the next creek crossing.
The higher pace of the pavement and reduced strain on the hands and back was nice, but the constant pedaling was highlighting some chamois chafing. The safe, easy to navigate environment also brought on some yawning. The route cut off the highway and back onto a dirt road for a few miles to reconnect to the CT. Leadville was the next small goal although I planned to bypass it and head straight towards Copper Mountain. Eddie Clark was snapping pictures at the top of the first pass off the dirt road, and we chatted for a brief minute before I descended down into the valley on the other side.
Closer to Leadville, down by the reservoir, the heat of the day started to set in. I don't mind the heat, but when I'm tired it's extremely tough to fight off the afternoon slump. I tried laying down a few times for a 20 minute nap, but the flies in the area were too aggressive. On and on I kept trudging. Ride a little, walk a little. The pace was extremely slow and this time it felt like me, not the terrain. I reached back to adjust the tension of my helmet, only to break off the twist mechanism and be left with an extremely loose helmet. I would stop several times again to try and rig it with some medical tape, but with no luck. From then on, I would have a jostling and loose helmet to deal with, which would fall down into my line of sight on steep descents (not very fun on rocky trail!)
The elevation increased enough to cool down the air, and a lurking afternoon thunderstorm ushered in a hint of rain to help wake me up. The thunder quickly situated itself in my vicinity, now booming around me, but I was well below tree line and didn't see any lightning in the area. There was a nice, long gradual descent to the paved roads outside of Leadville, but I was in a dark place. I was stopping every 10 minutes or so to collect myself, trying to stave off the exhaustion. I was moving like a snail in a rather fast section of the course- not ideal. Eventually I found a small pit toilet and rest area where I decided to take a 30 minute snooze. I put on all my clothes, ate some peanut M&Ms, laid on the concrete slab and immediately passed out.
It's amazing what a quick power nap can do for your energy levels and focus. Upon waking up, I was ready to tackle another few hours. It was another 5 miles or so of pavement riding after leaving Leadville, then turning back onto dirt to tackle Tennessee pass. Tennessee pass was just amazingly smooth single track. I quickly descended down into the valley where the old munitions bunkers were.
The valley floor was wet from the storm I had just missed in Leadville. My luck so far with downpours had been pretty damn good. I began plugging my way slowly out of the valley, noticing the buff single track gradually transitioning to large rocks. Soon I was back to scrambling up steep rocky inclines. I looked at the surrounding mountains, and knew I still had a ways to go before cresting the top. That night, I had my mind set on finding a flat space to sleep before the sun went down. The rocky terrain mixed with the lingering memories of a bad nights sleep on the lumpy roads of the La Garita detour had me hyper focused on a good nights sleep tonight.
I found a good spot about 8:30pm and decided to get some rest. This was the earliest I had called it, but I knew tomorrow was going to be a long day of climbing. Copper Mountain services wouldn't be open until 7 am tomorrow morning anyway. Copper was about 4 hours away and I had to stop for a refill, so there was no reason to push long into the night.
About 2 am, I heard the faint sound of a bike past my camp site. At first I thought I was dreaming, but I knew that if any of the racers behind me had kept working through the night, they would catch me. I figured it was Kevin, and went back to sleep until the 3 am alarm.
The next morning was a steep hike-a-bike for what must have been a solid 3 hours. I mumbled and cursed as my blistered reopened within the first 5 minutes. I could no longer fully lift my legs and kept stubbing my large left toe on every rock. A few hiker's tents lined the trail side, seen only slightly by my headlight. I eventually noticed outlines of a few snow fields, which confirmed I must be close to the pass. The thought of the lone racer passing me in the night continued to linger. I was in awe of the push that this individual must have made in order to bridge the gap, and their willingness to work through the entire night this late in the race. I was still happy with my decision for sleep (longest one of the race), and wondered if I would ever see that racer again.
The descent off the pass down to Copper Mountain was a pretty good one- a mix of some smooth trail and a few rock gardens. It was great to see the chair lifts and ski signs come into view, telling me I was close to a good breakfast.
I dumped into the main area of Copper and noticed a bike leaning up outside Starbucks. It was Kevin! I rolled over to chat with him, and sure enough he had rode through the night to get there. Self admittedly, he was in a bad spot. He had hoped to arrive a few hours earlier and sleep while waiting for the shops to open but he had only arrived a few minutes before me. We scored some coffee and burritos at Camp Hale and discussed what lie ahead. Two large climbs (10 mile and Georgia) to get over to Stagestop Saloon by 10pm. 56 miles in 13.5 hours. We both knew it was going to be a lot harder than it sounded. We had already been burned several times by missed distance calculations.
I packed up and stopped by the bike shop to get a little more air in my front fork. It helped a little, but still felt sticky. Oh well. I had made it through the chunkier sections of trail, and figured I could hold out till the end.
Out of the two passes to get to Stagestop, I knew Ten Mile Crest was going to be a painful hike-a-bike. It was one of the notes I had actually made in my course review. There was a string of racers behind me by only half mile increments, keeping me focused through some really tough inclines. Some of these were so steep, I would push my bike up for 2 feet, rest 5 seconds, use the bike to hoist myself up, and then repeat. At a snails pace, I made myself up this damn mountain, constantly looking up to see when the tree line would start to thin. I remember pausing for a second to look back to where I can come from. As I turned around, I couldn't see a thing. Copper Mountain was currently engulfed in a grey cloud, practically invisible. The wind was starting to pick up in my general area. I had set a goal to get above the tree line, but now I was thinking about finding trees. The wind became stronger and stronger, now mixed with rain. About 300 feet ahead was one of the only standing tree patches- about 5 medium spruces bunched together. I pushed hard those 300 feet, although it still took 5 minutes, and dove into the underbrush to put my rain gear on. My blisters were on fire, but the pain was masked by the rush of the imminent storm barreling down on me. Temps were plummeting down into the 40's as I peered from my makeshift shelter. I waited... and waited a little more... nothing. Another fake out! I crept out of my cozy shelter and could see Kevin about a half mile down still pushing up the hill. I quickly got moving again towards the top of the pass, a little bummed about the missed storm. I mean, I had bought some fancy rain pants and coat, and I kind of wanted to use them!
The top of ten mile is just a massive rock field. I carefully stepped through each uneven boulder, scraping my blisters with every foot slip. The descent off ten mile felt even worse, my crap ass front fork refusing to absorb the continuous ledge drops and large rocks. My arms and hands burned from getting worked. My spot tracker actually became untied from it's strap on my seat bag from all the jostling. Again I found myself signing songs about shitty trails. I'm sure the trails aren't shitty, but for me, in that moment, they were the worst.
I dumped out off the bike path, crossed the highway and hopped onto the next section of trail. I was on a mission, no time for unnecessary stops. Ah yes, smooth trail! This section was one of my favorites, with some challenging (yet rideable) climbing and some flowing gradual descents. This was the last small pass before hitting Georgia Pass. I was riding strong, but still knew the timeline would be tight to Stagestop.
The beginning of Georgia Pass started with quite a few boulder fields, but as the trail went up, they became smaller and more roots came into play. With the recent rain, the roots were quite slick, and I would lose grip constantly while trying to creep over them. I ran into a few southbound riders, and did my best to chat a bit with them, but kept it brief and tried to convey a hurried yet polite attitude. Stagestop or bust!
After ten mile, Georgia felt pretty easy. Steady climbing with only a few short hikes. I knew this was my last big pass of the race, and it felt good to check it off in a positive mindset and still with a shot to get to the Stagestop. The surrounding mountains were shrowded in fog, but I snapped a quick pick and then bounced out.
Coming down off Georgia Pass was a mixed bag. There were sections of great smooth downhill mixed with abruptly flat and challenging rock gardens. I would find myself frustrated every time the pace would slow, as I was counting every minute to Stagestop. Why was I so obsessed with Stagestop? It's the last potential service before the finish, and I didn't buy enough supplies in Copper Mountain to get me to the finish. If I missed Stagestop closing, I would have to wait until 10am the next day, at Stagestop, for them to open. I would effectively lose about 7-8 hours of riding time if that happened. With about 5 racers only a few hours behind me, I could increase the gap by catching Stagestop right before they closed, and then continue on for a few more hours.
Off the pass, in my head, I figured it would be a fairly direct downhill to Stagestop. Recalling the elevation map, I remembered seeing a very gradual descent and just assumed it was shortly after Georgia. Wrong, for the the 20th time. While there was some downhill, it was more of a traverse. Light was dimming, the trail was very tight, and I found myself hitting hidden rocks and slipping out on corners. My light was only on my handlebars, and wasn't adjusting as fast as the trail was turning. I had noticed a sign earlier that informed me bikes could only go another 6.5 miles before hitting the edge of wilderness, so I had a definitive marker to get me off trail and onto something.
I kept checking time against my mileage calculations. I knew I would hit stagestop when my route said I had exactly 100 miles left to go. I dumped out on to a dirt road: 108 miles read on the computer at about 9 pm. This was going to be close. I began contemplating a call ahead, but I didn't have service. I was beginning to lose hope that I wouldn't make it in time.
I had no idea what my surroundings looked like. I was now off-trail and on a pitch black dirt road with a few off shoots. Occasionally I would see a truck with an RV and concluded I must be in some type of dispersed camping national forest area. 4 miles to go at 9:35. I wasn't going to make it. I decided to leave my phone on for service, with headphones in, in case I hit a pocket of coverage.
I rolled over a cattle guard and my headphones blew up with notifications. Extended 3G! I found the Stagestop number and started walking around the road with the phone in the air trying to get the call to connect. It finally connected on extended network, and a gentlemen named Pat picked up the phone. "Hi Pat, my name is Tim and I'm a bikepacker headed your way..." was all I got out before he said "I'm waiting on ya, hurry up and get your ass here" with a chuckle.
I was beyond stoked. Pat's generosity to hang around was going to save my ass from becoming stationary earlier than I wanted. Turns out too that those last 2-3 miles were extremely fast and I showed up pretty much at 10 pm.
Pat made me a burrito and I did some quick shopping and changed my blister bandages. I finally had a chance to check maps and realized the screaming downhill was now about to start, and mostly pavement. Pat mentioned Pete and Kevin were still about 2 hours back. I figured I could roll the pavement for another few hours, get an hour or two of sleep, and then crank out the rest.
I was still at high elevation, and the temps were dropping fast. Pat fully closed down, leaving me on his front porch to do my thing. I put on all my clothes, loaded all the groceries for the final day, and headed back out to the road. It was an amazingly long downhill, probably 15 miles, only requiring me to pedal in a few places. With the easiness of the road also came the urge to fall asleep. There was no danger or continuous change in conditions to keep me on my toes. I sang out loud, slapped myself a few times and pushed some heavy gears to keep awake. It was approaching midnight and there wasn't a soul or light on this road.
I wasn't sure when we would be dipping back on to singletrack, but figured it had to be soon. My goal was to ride until the trail head, sleep for an hour or two and then get back at it.
The trail head never came though. The pavement turned to gravel, and the constant swerving across the road told me it was time for a break. It was about 12:45 and I set my alarm for 2:15. I laid down on a patch of lumpy dirt with 2 rocks protruding into my shoulder blades. I fell asleep instantly.
When I awoke, it took me a few minutes to realize where I was and what I was doing. I also felt like I had heard a cyclist pass by the trail while I was sleeping. Was it real? I didn't really know. I sat up in my sleeping bag, hoping a semi vertical stance would keep me from falling back asleep. I had played out the math in my head. Peter might have passed me if he had kept biking all night. I felt that was unlikely, but kept the notion in my head to motivate me to make forward progress.
To my surprise, the morning's riding was filled with about 30 miles of pretty smooth dirt roads, and the Lost Creek wilderness area was absolutely gorgeous at sunrise. It was quite chilly, but the undulation kept enough firing in the legs to stay awake and warm.
There was still no cell service to check in on Trackleaders. "Just keep pedaling and don't worry about it; less than 30 miles to the finish" was what I kept telling myself. The detour came to an end just pass Wellington Lake's property (they are very adamant about signing their property), and it was back to a great mix of smooth single track. I passed some trail dwellers who offered to sell me some camping gear. I'm sure it was intended for south bound hikers who were a day or two in and may have forgotten something. I mumbled "hell no, I'm getting off this trail today!" and sped on.
Soon the trees disappeared, the elevation dropped, and the heat set in. With only 90 mins of sleep last night, I was at my outer limits and the heat was zapping the life out of me. Less than 20 miles now.
I knew about the last large climb- I had finally made a decision to check some RWGPS maps. It wasn't bad, topping out at 7,500 feet, but with no gas left in the legs and barely being able to walk, it would still be a challenge. I hit a few bits of cell service to inform Nicole about when I'd be finishing. Trackleaders noted I now had close to a 5 hour lead to Pete, so I decided to dial it back just a touch and try and enjoy these last miles. While I desperately wanted to finish, I also knew I'd be itching to get back out here not too long after.
I cross the river and started up the final large climb of the race. I could climb each section except the switchback itself. Somehow they were just a little too sharp for my remaining energy. As I would get off the bike to push upwards, the soaring pain from my heels would come back. Less than 10 miles.
I hawked the elevation on my GPS, watching each foot slowly tick closer to 7,500. I would convince myself to ride for at least 20 feet of vert, stop for a break, then continue. Eventually the box was checked, and the Wahoo elevation map was pointing down. The descent that proceeded was so much different than the climb on the front side- large rock drops, over and over again. I had to tell myself to just hold on for a few more minutes and the Waterton canyon road would be in sight.... but before that could come, another short climb! I had learned by now that there was no such thing as a straight descent down in Colorado. Every descent had to be abruptly stopped with a climb in the middle.
Finally the sign for Waterton Canyon trail head, 6 miles down a winding gravel road. Yes! I knew the single track was over for good. I still had 6 miles left to pedal though, and Waterton Canyon is not a fast downhill. I would try and stand up to stretch the legs but my lower quad would immediately seize up. The only thing I could do was rest my arms on the bars and soft pedal down. It seemed to take forever, and I tried to distract myself by observing the wildlife in the area. I saw a big horned sheep not but a mile from the finish, which was actually the most exciting wildlife I had seen the entire trip!
The adventure was over, but the memories will last a lifetime. This was exactly the right outlet to satiate the void from earlier this summer. My lack of planning certainly showed, but I tend to think my perseverance filled the gap. If you're thinking about tackling this one, I highly recommend it!
A few numbers:
Total Mileage: 530
Total Climbing: 71,105 ft
Total Race Time: 5 days, 10 hours, 30 mins
Total hours of sleep: ~18 hours
Total misc stopped time (non-sleep): ~5 hours
- My lack of course profile work showed, and led to several moments of disappointment. More time spent here would have helped in managing expectations.
- I should have invested in better hiking shoes, but with very little time to test I still wonder how that could have affected other things, such as knee issues. I had some pretty bad swelling in my left leg for a few days post race, likely due to over-tightening my shoes to try and reduce rubbing on the ankle.
- Being able to drink on the go is likely a better strategy for a technical course such as this.
- Pack more food, it's always longer than you think!