Distance is something that we like to measure, yet there are things that can not be simply measured in miles, vertical feet, etc. One such thing is the Colorado Trail. It covers some 470 miles, something like 65,000 vertical feet. But what the numbers don’t speak is the incredible difficulty that so many of these miles contain, not to mention the raw beauty of the places it traverses. Just ask anyone who has hiked or biked this monster, their legs, backs, shoulders and minds will attest to the fact that the CT is an experience best described as amazingly hard, brilliantly gorgeous and life changing.
This years Colorado Trail Race is no exception. The 2009 race course differs from the two year’s previous courses by adding more of the actual CT, thus more trail, less dirt road detours. The funny thing is the course is actually shorter, by some 50 miles, but the difficulty is sky high. It can be described in minute detail, the vertical plotted against mileage, etc, but as any of this years racers will tell you, it has to be experienced in order to be grasped and understood.
I came into this years race with high expectations for myself. I knew I was capable of doing it fast and maybe pulling off a win. The reality was to be a bit more difficult than I had imagined. I was a bit over tired, I was a bit distracted by the world of work and such I was trying to leave behind. I was perhaps a bit overconfident in my ability to rise to the occasion and be able to suffer through. In a nut shell I was not quite ready for battle with this monster, yet I was going into the ring anyways.
The start had some 38+ riders lined up to tackle this 470 mile beast, there were plenty of big guns here, some of the most experienced and fast multi day riders around. It was a gorgeous morning, weather calm and clear, I was giddy with excitement. About 15 miles into it I was already feeling myself fall apart. I went out a bit too hard in those first switchbacks combined with my lack of sleep the week before the race and I was melting. My legs were cramping up like never before, I felt hot, draggy and slow. I made a poor dismount sliding off a corner and tweaked my right knee. I was suddenly in 20-25th place. I convinced myself that I was committed to making it to Leadville, no matter what. So I plugged away.
The trail is a blast to ride all the way to Wellington Lake Road, plenty of climbing, but also fast and fun. Then a fast bomb down to Bailey and the unfortunate climb up 285 to Kenosha Pass. The busy pavement climb was choked with Sunday afternoon travelers, themselves racing for home or to get away. It was nuts, kind of like getting the s#7t scared out of you every minute or so, way too many close calls to mention. All the while my legs were cramping into tight knots, my head swimming and my knee twinging with pain.
Once off the pavement it is more delicious singletrack all the way from Kenosha to Highway 9 outside of Breckenridge. I stopped near Tiger Run to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come, I was wound just a bit too tight and couldn’t come down despite being oh so tired. Instead I pushed on up Miners Creek Trail in the wee hours of the morning, up and up and finally over the Ten Mile Range into Copper Mountain. This was a new section for the race and it contains some of the steepest hike-a-bike on the CT. Next more singletrack through Copper, then on up the Searle and Kokomo Pass, a very very gorgeous section of trail, high above treeline, just amazing. From here a fast descent into Camp Hale, then a nice climb and another descent into Leadville.
I resupplied in Leadville, about mile 200, now my pack and bike bags were bursting with 2 plus days of food. Although I was to hit Buena Vista next, I wasn’t sure I would be there early enough to get to the super market, so I made sure to have lots of quality food to get me to Silverton, the next true resupply point. After some dirt road riding I was back on the CT and again climbing. The trail up out of Halfmoon has been rebuilt and was so much nicer, but still a burly climb. Again this is some very sweet singletrack from here all the way to Clear Creek Resivour, were we leave the CT for some pavement and dirt road to Buena Vista. I managed to get there by 9:30PM, got a bit more food and climbed up Cottonwood Pass Road and rejoined the CT. I stopped here for a nap. I was able to get comfy and melt into unconsciousness, ahh sleep.
From Cottonwood Pass Road the CT follows mostly trail all the way to Cotchetopa Pass, there are so many climbs and descents, miles and miles of trail and not much else. Very pretty and fun stuff including the legendary Crest Trail. It was along the Crest that I was attempting to multi task by riding and applying lip balm that I snagged a rock with my front tire spun my handlebars into my chest and fell onto the bike. I got up but felt a serious knot in my chest and my stem was crooked. Ahh you will be fine I told myself, but every deep breath was followed by a sharp pain, I did my best to ignore it and push on. The trail turns west as it leaves the Crest and it begins the dreaded Cotchetopa Hills, or as most remember it as, Sargents Mesa. This is the one of the hardest sections of the CT, it is rough, it is remote, it is pretty dry, it tends to crack open even the toughest nuts out there. I was able to keep myself positive through this crux but it did beat me up. It was also along this section that I took my second nap break between Long Branch and Baldy Lake Trails.
After Cotchetopa Pass it is a bit more of dirt roads and then we leave the CT to detour around the La Garita Wilderness. This goes up Los Pinos Pass, down into Cathredral and up Mill Creek to Slumgullion Pass to Spring Creek Pass, and back on the CT. Here lies another new section for this years race, known as Coney’s(17 miles) and Cataract(15.9 miles). I had reconned this in the lead up to the race so I knew what was to come, yet I was still blown away. From Spring Creek Pass, 11,890, mile 360+, it is all above treeline and hits the high point of the CT at Coney’s summit, 13,200+. It is amazing up there, but also a storm magnet. Sure enough as I tried to push over I was hit by a sunset storm dumping rain and mostly hail on me for an hour. So I napped for an hour and pushed over in the dark with clouds whipping over the ridge in the moonlight. I was feeling extremely tired and had to stop often and gather up strength to keep moving, no good place to stop up there, all the while wanting nothing more than to curl up and sleep.
I was truly questioning my whole mission at this point, like why don’t I ever take a normal vacation and sit on the beach, drink margarita’s, sleep in. Why am I out here beyond tired, feeling like hell, wincing with every deep breath? I can usually come up with a good answer, like I love this stuff, or I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. Yet that night up there at 13,000′ with the icey wind cutting through my clothes, knowing that miles and miles of this was to come before Silverton, knowing damn well I was not going to let myself go off course to find shelter, I really didn’t have a convincing answer, I just stubbornly pushed on.
I made it down to Carson Saddle, and to Lost Creek, where I passed Doug Johnson, sleeping next to the trail, I pushed 50 feet past him and curled up on my bivy, hoping the storm was over. I got up after 3 hours of somewhat restfull some sleep, packed up and started to hike. Soon there were two sets of lights in pursuit. I made a wrong turn in the dark following the cairns, as there is no trail, here Doug and Stefan passed me and I had to backtrack to the “trail” and catch up. We rode and hiked the rest of Cataract Ridge in the glow of the rising sun, this is perhaps the most wonderfully gorgeous sections of the CT and in the morning light it was just amazing!
We all bombed down Stoney Pass and into Silverton, mile 400+. We ate food, drank coffee, Stefan somehow was able to chase own a new chain, next the Post Office to send home some extra gear not wanted for the last 70+ miles, then the grocery store for enough food to make it to the finish. It was a slow process as my brain was tired and unable to put together what I needed to do. Yet the t’s were crossed and the i’s dotted and up Molas Pass and the return to the CT for the remainder of the ride.
I can not say enough how cool this section of trail is, very fun singletrack to ride, huge swaths of wildflower covered hillsides, creeks filled with waterfalls, just too much to put into words. Yet it also seems to take much longer than any other 70 miles to cover, much more energy to complete. Hitting the top of Molas just before noon I wanted to make as many miles as possible before the sun went down. I figured out that when the sun was up I felt pretty good and was able to stay positive and make good time, once the sun set I slowly fell apart and into the negative trap.
Luckily I was leap frogging with Stefan through out the last section. Although I usually enjoy time alone during these races it was good to have someone to push off and chat with. Yet I a couple hours after sunset I started to fall apart. Every one of these multi day races teaches me something, often many things, the 2009 CTR taught me this; I am oh so human. The other races I did this year, AZT 300 and the GLR were so damn fun and I was able to find this amazing place of peace and happiness that propelled me through the miles, through the suffering. I just never really found that place in the CTR, I had to fight for every mile, struggle through every sleepless moment. It was hard to except that I couldn’t just tap into that glorious energy of feeling completely one with what I was doing, instead suffering physically, mentally unable to rise above my worries and anxiety. A very Hard thing to accept.
None the less I pushed on through the night, the finish and the food I was gonna chow down on keeping me moving, chasing after Stefan. I was amazed at his energy, he was riding almost all the uphills, just pedaling through it all. I was walking everything that wasn’t flat or downhill, I just had nothing left. As we approached Indian Trail Ridge the calm night sky began to fill with dark clouds sparking with lighting strikes. Soon the lightening became audible, my heart shook and pounded with fear. In my exhausted state I became irrationally scared of getting struck, getting soaked by rain above treeline. So I ran, I ran up and over those talus strewn mountains with the image of death behind me ready to take me if I should slow. I made it over, I could smell the fear in my sweat soaked body, my heart pounded on, I thought I was tired before, now I was done.
Yet the trail goes on, why didn’t I lay down and sleep, why not take a break and see if I feel better, recharged? I just don’t know why, by now I didn’t care a drop about beating anyone, or making a certain time, I just wanted to be done, no more trail, no more wet bivy nights, so I kept going, my heart, mind and mouth groaning aloud. As we climbed out of Junction Creek, I could see Stefans lights always ahead of me, always higher, it was killing me, there was more and more. I was cracking apart like never before, I wanted to lie down and cry, yet no one would hear me, no one would scoop me up and take me to the finish. There was no escape from hiking and biking the last 15 miles. The only way was me moving forward, yet I didn’t care, I wanted to curl up and disappear. I somehow had some thread of determination left that I was able to lean on and use to keep moving, yet with every step I fell more and more apart. I began to hallucinate, I began to believe that the trail was gonna go on forever and I was to be forever riding this trail in the dark wanting only to sleep. I began to swear, I began to cry, I felt the edge of madness creeping ever closer. It was right there tempting me to give in, go ahead throw your bike into the woods, lay down, give in, cry. I clung to my pain, my throbbing eyes, my aching knees, I clung to sanity as I gripped my handlebars tighter, I rode on, groans escaping my mouth, agony rippling through every cell. I made it to the finish, just behind Stefan who must have waited for me, we crossed into the trail head parking lot and we were done.
It was over but my head was still a blurry mess and I still had no answer to the question that started to plague me so many miles back, why? The best answer I have is to see if you can do it, cover the miles, keep it together. Also to see what else you can learn, especially about yourself. What I learned is that deep inside I still have this hope that when it all falls apart that someone out there is gonna magically swoop down and save me. It bothers me to come to this realization as I try hard to be a self supported kind of person in all aspects of my life. I feel so small, I feel so humbled, I feel like I have much, much to do.
Congratulations to all you attempted and finished the 2009 CTR, you are all my heros, you are all inspirational in your efforts, keep on keeping on…peace Jefe