Here’s a little recap of my experience:
I bought my bike, a Specialized Epic Comp, this January for the Colorado Trail Race. At that point I had been mountain biking about 5 times since I moved to Colorado in 2007. I’m friends with Stefan, the race founder and organizer, though rock climbing. For those of you who don’t know, he is just as talented at climbing as biking, and still holds the coveted round trip record for the First Flatiron here in Boulder. After talking to him about the CTR, I decided it was the perfect adventure to give me training motivation and something big to be excited about. I was a serious expedition climber/alpinist for many years. Now 40 with a real job and a family, a week or so away seemed pretty reasonable compared to 4-8 weeks for a mountain trip. The challenge was huge and I got to be a beginner again – there was so much to learn about bike packing and racing!
On my first ride with Stefan this winter, I was timid on the descents and cramped up after 3 hours of riding. I had to walk my bike up every hill towards the end. Stefan later admitted to being surprised by what a gumby I was. It was my first time on a 29er, and I felt dangerously high and disconnected from the ground. But I was serious about my training, got better and entered a few longer distance races to tune up my skills and get some intensity. After pestering Stefan and reading Toby Gadd’s blog and others religiously, I was able to gain the experience and equipment needed to credibly enter the CTR. Two weeks before the race Stefan and I went out for a two-day tune up with 132 miles and 19,000ft of climbing. I’m lucky to have him as a friend and mentor.
After an incredibly cool and surreal breakfast at Carver’s (Is it really 3:30 in the morning? Is this really happening?) and an urban roll-out with everyone dutifully waiting at a red light for no one because it was 4am, I settled into my pace and tried not to continue second guessing my decision to bring 18,000 calories as opposed to my initial plan for 4,500. In climbing there is a saying, “if you bring bivy gear you will bivy”. By bringing 4 days of food I was almost certainly guaranteeing that I wouldn’t make it to Silverton before the grocery store closed at 8pm. But as a newbie, I decided that pushing more weight would be worth the peace of mind and quick transition in Silverton. I’m still not sure if it was the best decision, but it worked out.
All my conversations that morning were disembodied – I was talking to shadows in front and behind me, never putting a face to anyone. It was four days later that Pete Schuster and I would realize who we’d had a conversation about our families that morning. Much of the day was a blur, just trying to keep going. I know how my body performs at altitude when I’m acclimatized, and I was most definitely not acclimatized! After finally gaining Rolling Pass, I descended in the moonlight, avoiding turning on my lights until it was absolutely necessary. That descent is probably one of the highlights of the trip. I was surprised, however, at the amount of climbing required to get “downhill” to Silverton. This was my first lesson in patience on the CT. Sometimes you’re just going to be going slow, no sense in getting worked up about it! Keep chipping away…
I got to Silverton at 11pm. Though I heard that some people were camped out in a city park, I decided to keep rolling towards Stony Pass to find a nice quiet bivy site. Just outside of town I found a tree and slept a luxurious 6 hours. Any temptation I felt to try to climb Stony that evening was tempered by the knowledge that I was still dealing with the altitude and sleeping as low as possible would be a good move.
After taking an embarrassing 1 ½ hours to get rolling from the moment I awoke, I made good progress up Stony Pass and was pleasantly surprised to find that I had it all to myself! My legs felt good and the lack of people made me feel like I was doing well, or at least doing something others weren’t. I spent most of the day alone, though Tim Graczyk passed me as though I was standing still somewhere on section 23. A hiker found a water bottle and gave it to me, seeming to insist that as a racer it was my duty to reunite it with its owner. I emptied it out and put it in my jersey pocket. Later in the day, when I finally met up with some other riders at the high point of the Colorado Trail, I found the the bottle belonged to Eric Foster, one of the “Triple Crown” riders doing the CTR, Arizona Trail Race and Tour Divide all in one year. He was very happy to have it back. I guess neither of us considered this to be support. I think there’s a fourth rule implicit in the vibe of the CTR: Be Nice/Don’t Be a Dick. Eric and I found that we had a lot in common through the climbing world and rode together on and off for the remainder of the day. He’s accomplished a lot in his 24 years. The flowing descent from the highpoint of the trail was some of the best riding of the whole CT! Later that night, when a crowd descended upon the campground off Hwy 149 on the Garita detour, Eric and I slipped away and rode up to Los Pinos Pass to bivy.
Eric and I heard a number of riders go by our bivy that night and the next morning. Once we were rolling, we continued to chat and later met up with Paul Bosworth and another ride whose name escapes me. We rolled into Apple’s new location. This was my first experience with a trail angel – it was so much fun! The group atmosphere was super positive. Apple was very pleased to have a full tent, though he seemed a little more intrigued by three young women hikers than us CTR riders. We stuffed ourselves with chips and sodas while Apple told the story of Jefe refusing anything as he whizzed by.
As I got going from Apple’s tent I sensed that group camaraderie, while fun, isn’t always consistent with racing. I felt myself wanting to wait on people I had gotten to know, while other riders who were clearly in race mode were getting in and out as fast as they could. I was feeling good so I decided that I would start racing harder that morning. I wanted to be the guy that people saw at Apple’s tent and never saw again. I was able to pull away for part of the day, riding mostly alone until finally reaching Tank Seven Creek. A number of guys pulled in as I was getting ready to leave, including Todd Johnson and Pete Schuster. They were super friendly and supportive. I got rolling and ended up pushing into Fooses Creek with the company of Nate Stewart and Matt Fusco. I found a soft, level piece of ground before the trailhead and got a few hours of sleep.
As I was getting ready to roll Todd and Pete came blazing by. I managed to catch up with them briefly on Segment 14 but not for long. This was when I began to realize that I really suck at walking my bike uphill. Every time things turned to hike-a-bike, I went backwards. There was another brief rendezvous at the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs shop, with everyone stuffing their face with soda, chips and ice cream. I rode alone for much of the ride into Buena Vista. I reunited with Todd, Pete and Nate there and it seemed that we reached an unspoken understanding that we’d all ride together for a while. After resupplying, calling family and stuffing our faces again we were off. It was really fun to ride with these guys. I knew they were all better riders than me, so I felt lucky on several levels. As we left the road and began the hike up to Twin Lakes, I was again reminded of how much I suck at hike-a-bike. Why didn’t I train for it, at all??? My only saving grace was that I was able to spin up most sections in my granny gear as the other three walked. I hung on by my teeth all evening, announcing several times that I was off the back only to somehow climb back on again 10-20 minutes later. We all camped together before the descent into the Leadville Detour.
We awoke to rain and stuffed wet gear into our bags and were off. We elected to avoid Leadville and froze our butts off on the bypass. Somehow riding the highway made all the fatigue come to a head – we were barely able to stay awake until we finally got on the single track and the amazing ride into Camp Hale. I had a hard time on the climb up to Kokomo Pass. At some point Pete and Todd turned on the gas and I had nothing. They literally just walked away from me and I couldn’t spin my granny gear fast and long enough to stay with them. That was the last I saw of them. Nate stayed with me, however, and I took the lead coming down off Elk Ridge, determined to crawl back on once again. This was a mistake. I’m not a great bike handler on a good day, and when I’m exhausted I’m much worse. I had a spectacular wreck coming off the high point of the ridge and went down hard on my shoulder and head. I tweaked something in my shoulder (it still hurts) but was otherwise OK. Nate stayed with me as I got my bearings. After several minutes, with no warning, my front sidewall burst open spraying white sealant in a stream. I ran over and applied direct pressure (thank you, first aid training) which stopped the bleeding momentarily. Nate insisted I take the wheel off. He banged the tire on a rock, this way and that, until the rip finally sealed. The sidewall held the rest of the race! Once he knew I was OK, Nate took off and I went very, very slowly, feeling timid due to my wreck, my shoulder and the increasing amount of rain. My bike was shifting really poorly too. I made it to Copper, got a table at a restaurant, and replaced my bent derailleur hanger as my waitress told me about getting third in a mountain bike race just the day before. Cool! I rolled out before Nate and began the Tenmile ridge climb. Nate soon caught up with me and we began questioning the wisdom of climbing this thing with so much thunderstorm activity. Even in good weather I think it is a silly place to bring a bike. As we neared the top, a middled aged woman wearing a garbage bag for rain protection and a young boy passed us going down. They were riding cheapo mountain bikes and said they felt sorry for us. Very surreal. We crested the ridge and got down the other side in one piece, though one strike in particular sounded very close. We climbed a few miles up from highway 9 and crashed for the night.
After 6 hours of sleep, Nate and I awoke to several sets of fresh tire tracks. We eventually came upon David Pickett-Heaps spinning up the trail. His head was bobbing to some rocking tunes, so it was really hard to get his attention to pass. He soon passed us on the descent, however, and that was the last we saw of him. I lost Nate somewhere before Kenosha pass. The race was taking its toll on me at that point. I made my way, solo, to the Tarryall detour. I really hated the first 10 miles and started grumbling under my breath. Things got a little better at the little store (Stagestop Saloon) when I got an unexpected Coke, chips and enthusiastic commentary from the proprietor. With no prompting from me he told me my standing and also said I could probably chase down the two in front of me – he pointed out two figures along the lake. I took off and was able to catch Matt and Brad from Asheville, NC. They hadn’t slept at all the night before and were starting to feel it. Soon we were all reunited with Nate in the Tarryall penalty box for a 20 minute wait on the pilot car. As soon as Brad’s head hit the grass he was asleep, and talking in his sleep too. We had a good laugh at his expense. We dealt with the flag lady who was nuts (for real) and ended up getting a ride in two trucks, which was weird but what are you going to do? After being dropped off, Nate and I took off, though he soon pulled away from me again. Perhaps this would be a good time to note that Nate rode a RIGID SINGLE SPEED for the CTR. No gears, no suspension. Cruising through the burn area and marvelling at all the boulders and crags made me really appreciate the detour – I think it is a keeper. Nate and I rejoined once again at the campground and I decided I’d do what I could to stay with him this time. We eventually stopped for dinner and within minutes Matt and Brad came walking up the hill. These guys don’t stop! Matt refused to sit down, and soon they were off again. As we completed the detour that night, Nate and I went back and forth with Matt and Brad several times before pulling away.
Nate and I decided we’d like to hold our position in the race, and the only way to do that was no sleeping. We took three 15 minutes naps that night as we pulled closer to Denver. Some of the riding was great, but my ass was hurting so much that I could no longer sit normally. Pain was the predominant feeling that night and morning. On the last descent I wrecked once again (I must be one of the worse bike handlers to do the CTR) and this time my rear brake felt really squishy afterwards. So I went super slow on the way down. I told Nate that he should go ahead and I’d meet him at the end. He seemed to consider this for a moment, but then looked me in the eye and said, “no, we’ll finish together.” What a gentleman. And that’s what we did, though through a cruel twist of SPOT fate, I was awarded 14th and he got 15th. So it goes.
We did it! I did it. My shoulder still hurts, my right hand is numb but luckily the swelling is mostly gone from my legs. I have spent much of the last 3 days in bed. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this worked. I gave it everything I had, which feels great. And I met a lot of wonderful people and saw some amazing sights. Too early to say if I’d ever do such a thing again. For me, the CTR runs the fine line between type 2 fun (fun in retrospect) and something beyond. It was an awesome experience and I feel very lucky to have gotten to know some of you through it all. Thank you!