13 August, 2009

Colorado Trail Race 2009

I've just about assimilated back to civilian life here in Asheville after my brief but intense stint along the Colorado trail. I still wake up in the middle of the night with anxious thoughts about mileage covered, or a just-out-of-reach feeling of urgency and focus. I spent the better part of 4 days in that state, and its having a hard time leaving my body, with nothing else to replace it.

The start of the 2009 CTR looked a lot like any other small race gathering. There were about 40 racers who chose to start at the suggested start date and time of 6:00 am on Sunday August 2nd. With all the family and support help, drop off chauffeurs, and the like, the parking lot was full just as the sun was rising. I had stayed in a hotel 6 miles north with Max, Lee and Scott, and the four of us had ridden by headlamp to the start. The forty people represented a doubling of racers from the previous year, the big names were still there, but also a good number of newcomers, like myself, and a healthy batch of folks that were back to avenge shortened trips the year prior.

The group rolled from the start line at 6:07am, and stayed together for the initial 5 or 6 miles of gravel trail towards the dam. It gave us all the time to introduce ourselves to whomever occupied the wind sheltered spot next to you in the bunch, and for the veterans, time to catch up and talk about their rides this year. The real race started with a switchbacked climb on wooded singletrack. I hung with a group of 8 riders until the short hike a bike sections started to spread everyone out. The initial climb lasted about 6 miles, we gained a ridge and then descended to the Platte River, passing a few day hikers along the way.

The next segment climbed out of the Platte River canyon, and had already taken on a different feel. The soil was rockier and drier, and as the climb finished up, we popped out into a very dry, desert like trail system for the next 24 miles. There wasn't much major elevation change, just some rolling terrain with short steep ups and downs, loose corners, loose hike a bike climbs, and a general lack of water. I passed an off route detour to a campground for water, thinking I had enough to make it out, but slow, exposed climbing out of segment 3 took it out of me. I reached the end of the segment a little dry mouthed, and was finally able to get water at the trailhead.

I assumed, with absolutely no grounding, that the trail would be relatively high, so all the detours through cities would be quick descents. I even let this misinformation influence how much water I grabbed at the FS560 trailhead. Wrong move. After a little gravel road descending, I found myself slowly grinding up a long, exposed gravel road climb, breathing in the dust of all the passing traffic. This was a little bit of a mental blow, but I kept turning the cranks. I spent the next miles clearing my head of any and all expectations I had for the rest of the race, knowing that miscalculations and missed expectations only served to defeat the psyche a bit more.

Bailey was a welcome site. Between staying in the tight bunch at the start of the race, and chasing down some riders through the burn area, I hadn't been eating as regularly as I needed to for an event like this. I pulled into a little restaurant, had a big cheeseburger and two cokes, ordered a cheddar baked potato to go, and hit the road again. We had 11 miles of road, along 285, to get to Kenosha Pass. A mixture of spinning, walking to give my ass a break, and dodging traffic got me to Kenosha pass at around 4 pm, 10 hours into my day. I started the singletrack of Segment 6 and immediately wasn't feeling great. The cheeseburger was a ton of calories, but was probably taking a long time to digest, and I still, in retrospect, hadn't been taking in a lot of simple sugar to keep me going. I made it 6 miles in, to Jefferson Creek, saw water and a flat spot, and decided that that would be my camp for the night. The other option meant going up and over Georgia Pass, probably in the dark, and I was NOT moving fast already, and knew that the climb would take me hours of frustrating walking. Twelve hour day behind me, and about 73 miles in, and I wasn't feeling great about my chances. This is where I met Kurt, in a similar situation, a little sick from too much food and calling it a day.

Monday saw a 5 am start as I broke down my little camp and started the climb to Georgia Pass by headlamp. I passed couple of other riders that must have come through at night and set up camp just beyond mine. Kurt had made better time out of camp and was already out of site on the climb. I made it a point to eat more during the day, and through the wooded climb to Georgia Pass, felt generally better than the day before. Georgia Pass, at 11,860, was a beautiful alpine meadow, the first of the race, laced with smooth singletrack. The backdrop and the pace I could maintain recharged me a bit and I descended swiftly off the pass, through wide open bermed trail, and some rocky technical sections all the way to the Swan River, where I watered up and found Kurt. We started the next climb together, but again, he pulled away and out of site. I stuck to the plan; keep eating, conserve energy etc, and crested the second short climb of the day, and started the descent to the powerlines, through the subdivision and on to Hwy 9 near Breckenridge.

Here the CT follows the Blue River along the rec paths that I had been acclimating on all week. A welcome site, as was Kurt, again filling up water, and he had caught another racer, Chris Neumann. The three of us left the rec path and started towards the Goldhill trailhead. I stopped to use someone's cell phone, and let them climb ahead. I hadn't checked in with the family and girlfriend for a while, and figured doing so before crossing Wheeler was a good idea. This meant I did a lot of the section alone. Pushing my bike up impossibly steep and rocky sections of trail. Up and over, a nice little descent through the trees, and then more climbing. The real climbing. I stopped to eat quite a bit along this section, and filled up my water often, opting not to carry a lot of weight. I eventually caught Chris and Kurt in the stream meadow just before the steepest section of hike a bike. The three of us grunted and leaned on our useless bikes all the way to the saddle, where I had promised myself a rest. No such rest did I get. Grey clouds were turning black, and we'd be above 12 for a while until we made Wheeler pass. I had done this section, and new how much walking we had ahead of us. Fearing exposed walking, we just continued to push the pace, racing the storm and ignoring the desire to sit a spell and eat something, knowing that 10 or 15 minutes could cost us safe pass over the exposed narrow Ten Mile range.

About 45 mins of mostly walking got us to the continental divide at Wheeler pass. We paused for just a few minutes to don some extra layers, and take a 360 view of clouds in various stages of storm state. Up ahead actually looked as though it was thinning and we started the western ridge traverse with a little more confidence. Not 15 minutes into it, it all started to go to hell. The door behind us shut quick. Clouds turned black, and we warned a couple west-east hikers that they should probably turn around and head back down. Our bikes that had been so useless on the ascent, were proving vital now, as we covered a lot of ground quickly, and descended from the alpine area before the rain started. Beneath the relative safety of treeline, we continued the fast descent to Copper, and pulled into the Quizno's just as the rain really opened up.

Warm food was a bonus, and we just waited out the rain, joined by a few other riders, and all of the I-70 traffic that had been diverted due to a chemical spill. The Quizno's was a chaotic place to be, but we made the most of our rest. Kurt, feeling he wasn't prepared for weather with his gear selection, pulled the plug before ever starting again. That's a tough thing to be around. Both Chris and I were hurting after our efforts over Wheeler, and saying goodbye to a comrade doesn't make it easy to continue. I think we were both secretly envious of his soon to be comfortable situation, but a few pedal strokes later I was glad to be back on the bike.

Chris and I leapfrogged back and forth up toward Searle Pass in the late afternoon. I was feeling really strong for the first time in the race, and the more gradual climb to Searle was a welcome change for the legs. I caught up to Chris at Searle just as the sun was dipping beneath the horizon to the west. We continued on the generally flat alpine singletrack along the ridge, and made the final push to Kokomo pass under a mix of moonlight and ambient orange glow. I was again inspired by the beauty of that time and place, and it gave the legs a little extra kick as I descended ahead of Chris. The moonlight barely lit the downhill trail, and I opted to leave the headlamp in the pack. I was loving life, loving riding my bike, and the feel-as-you-go moonlight descent was a reward for all the hardwork we had put in today. That second day we had crossed Georgia Pass at 11,800, Wheeler Pass at 12,440, Searle at 12,040 and Kokomo at 12020, with lots of ups and downs in between. The addition of the Goldhill to Copper segment this year changed the race for a lot of people, but ultimately it was behind me now, and the elevation was dropping off rapidly as the light disappeared. We reached the abandoned Camp Hale Bunkers under clear skies, and I threw down my sleeping pad, crawled in my bivy and ate some cold ravioli before falling asleep. It had been a 16 hour day, and we covered roughly 60 miles. Even with the extended stop at Copper, it was slow going tough day, and sleep came fast.

Tuesday, Day 3 started early as my sleeping bag was soaked, presumably from the inside, and a layer of frost covered the ground. A 45 degree bag would have been barely sufficient, but a wet 45 bag was surely not doing anything. I got up and jumped around a bit, trying to warm up before putting on a frost covered chamois, jersey, socks, armwarmers, and shoes. Lesson learned. Even though its a clear Colorado night, when you are camped by a river, expect some moisture, put a tarp up, and sleep with your clothes. It was a hard lesson to learn slipping frozen bike shorts on. The immediate climb helped, but the wooded trail dripped with moisture, and the frost covered fields near Hwy 24 reminded me of how cold it was.

Both Chris and I were still together. It was a twosome that was working well. Motivation, conversation, new found friend, whatever it was, it was more important for me to share this experience with like minded people than to race ahead, or drop back, and do it alone. The Doc Holiday bar and grill was breakfast in Leadville; steak and eggs, OJ and lots of good dark coffee. The opposite side of the street was bathed in warm morning sun, and we spread out everything we owned. The intense sunshine at 10,200 ft, even at 9 am, had everything; bag, bivy, layers of clothes, socks, and shoes, dry by the time breakfast was done, and we left Leadville, and headed into the woods.

Shortly after the Halfmoon Creek Trailhead, my GPS line was a little off, and after climbing almost all the way up to the Mt. Elbert side trail, we descended back to our start. I was sure that we missed a turn. Nope. Got back to our start and saw nothing. On the second climb up towards Mt. Elbert I noticed a distinct lack of blazing, and a lot of freshly cut trees. It seems we were on a newly rerouted section of trail that hadn't made my GPS route. The CT foundation is apparently pretty active, and this was the first of two re routes that we'd second guess ourselves on this day. Oh well. I tried to keep positive as we pushed the second time up, passed the Mt. Elbert trail and started a nice descent towards Twin Lakes.

The Twin Lakes area is again, very dry, desert like riding. We literally popped out of an overgrown Aspen grove, lined with tall thin grass, into a blinding, white rock and sand, desert scrub lined traverse of the Lakes. If I never have to do this section again I'd be happy. The miles came easy, it was dead flat, but our conscientious equestrian trail partners had been hard at work ruining the trail. What should have been a fast, roller coaster ribbon of singletrack had been horsed in the last time it rained (a long time ago) and was a baked in mess of horse prints that resulted in miles of washboard, energy sucking trail, out in the sun, and choking dust. I'd obviously rather be pedaling my bike that pushing it, but this section remains in my head as a least favorite.

The backside of the lakes changes back to wooded singletrack, and a very steep push up 900 feet to the ridge. The trail swoops around, does another short section of climbing, and you find yourself on a second ridge, looking back across a vast field at the ridge you were just on, above Twin Lakes. A mix of singletrack and ORV trails, up another short steep push, and you pop out on the dry side of the mountain again, descending quickly, steeply, sharply, and soft cornered through the kitty litter trail towards Clear Creek Road. The switchbacks on this section are very loose, and I basically trials-hopped around all of them. By the bottom my arms were pumped and my rotors were ping-ing back into shape.

The rest of the way to Buena Vista involves a gravel road out of Clear Creek, a short stint on hwy 24, and then more gravel along CR371. 371 wasn't so bad, very scenic as you follow the Arkansas river, and see all the boater camps and put in/take out parking areas. You pass through some old railroad tunnels, and interesting rock formations get closer and closer before eventually passing you by. It is a little long though...and I definitely seem to have a problem staying motivated on long flat gravel sections. I start to feel every pound on my back, shift uncomfortably on the saddle, pedal pedal stand and coast, get frustrated, slump back in the saddle and repeat. I need to get over it.

B.V. came, as did some more hot food; always re-energizing. As we sat over dinner, we realized, or remembered, that this was basically it for civilization before Silverton, unless we went drastically off route to resupply. I think Chris was a little daunted by it, and if I wasn't daunted by it, it may have been a bit of my own naivety. The plan was to just get a hotel here in town, get some good food, good breakfast, load up on supplies, and formulate a plan. We found a room, and started looking at maps. Chris was definitely in a bad place. We both made the mistake of looking at how far we still had to go, but I was finally getting used to the days, and my body was feeling good and recovering fast. I layed out some goal mileages for next few days, and it seemed to appease Chris. A few more calls to folks at home and we were both in bed, resting up after a day of fairly efficient 70 ish miles in about 13 hours.

Wednesday started off a little slow. Chris needed to go to the post office to get some resupply stuff he had missed the night before, and hit a gear shop for more back packer meals. We eventually started our trip out of B.V. at around 930, and pedaled more flat road, started the climb towards Cottonwood pass and hit the trail at the Avalanche trailhead. A short and steep climb got us up around 10,000 where the trail leveled off and played in the forest a bit. Really fun cross country riding, short ups and downs, but nothing you had to sit and spin on. The occasional hike a bike, either from terrain, fatigue, gear load or one of the any other reasons you get off and push your bike on the CT, but nothing too sustained and we were making good time. One last little ridge climb, and we were on our way descending through Eastern PA style rocky singletrack, diving in and out of stream fall lines with high bermed g-out turns. It was great trail, and reminded me a lot of the east coast. I was having an excellent morning on the bike, and making good time.

The trail eventually dives out onto a gravel road that travels through a few horse and youth camps before descending to the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort. Maybe I was a little tired, maybe I was anxious to get to some more food, but for all the technical descending I had done, leaving race buddies in the distance each time, and getting compliments (on MY descending?!!?) I decided to get a little fast and loose on the descent, hit a little booster bump, nearly miss a sharp turn, and end my race. I landed a little jump with not enough time to slow and turn before a serious drop off, grabbed a little too much front brake on a marblely, loose on hard corner and the front end dissappeared as if on ice. I hit the ground pretty hard and was sliding. I remember trying to get up on my back, but nothing worked and I came to rest, immediately feeling the blood soak my shorts and drip from my arm. I got up, jumped around a bit, full of adrenaline, but checking to make sure things were okay. I took a look at my arm and tears welled up in anger, frustration, and a mix of other exhausted brain chemicals coming to light with the reality of the situation.

Chris caught up to me, and I think knew immediately that my race was over when he saw the damage. I got myself wrapped up, and coasted the remaining miles before the Hot Springs with one arm in the air, elevated to try to slow the bleeding. Immediately the fast paced slidewhow started in my head; images of everything I had been through, suffering, until the parts I felt good, including today. Every hike a bike step, every 12k pass, every cold meal.

My race ended at the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Country Store when I jumped in the truck of a concerned citizen and headed to the Salida Hospital. I was only 225 miles in, feeling great, and leaving a race against my will. I had put a lot of time and planning into the ride, and it seemed to be going well. This thing claims at least a few riders this way every year. Plenty pull out because of fitness or getting lost, or weather, or isolation; and all those decisions seem easier to deal with than those of us who make stupid mistakes, hit the dirt, and have our races ended without even a second of mulling over options.

Even in this abridged version, this is by far the hardest thing I've done, on a bike or otherwise. As the post event depression fades, and I give some more positive thought to the experience, I remember that I was doing well enough, had the mental and phsyical challenges under control, and was still riding with the unquenchable thirst to see what was over the next ridge. I now have 12 months to think about it, and I'm sure the memories will fade, but I've yet to shake the feelings of being out there on the trail.

The Dr. said jokingly as he numbed me up and dug around in my arm to remove all the sand and gravel embedded in my muscle and tendons that "it looks like you've become one with the Colorado trail." I liked his phrasing, just not necessarily his meaning at that moment. It was a great experience and one that I'll hopefully carry willingly with me, and not be haunted by, over the next year, until I return to ride the trail again.


ExtrmTao said...

Great detail on the race and the ride.

Live and learn or something. . .

Also, I must admit that you had my chuckling with "My descending!"

See ya soon.

PisgahWorks said...

Lived through you on that one. Thanks for sharing.

beth said...

damn... rough ride alright... great read!

Chris said...

Nice write up man. Looking forward to riding with you again in 2010. Don't let it haunt you too much but use it.