Hardest thing I've ever done.
This was the sentence that repeated itself over and over in my head as I approached Aid Station 2 near Whitepine, CO. This was around 8 AM Sunday, September 9 after about 50 miles of the nearly 130-mile route. I would be on my bike for 10 more hours after that.
Saturday was busy for me. I was trying to pull together all the loose ends of organization that would hopefully make the event go off smoothly. My friend Trey Beck helped me most of the day getting the registration process lined out, stocking Aid Station kits, and all sorts of other little jobs.
As the evening wore on, riders started massing outside Absolute Bikes like Salmon at the base of a dam. At 9 PM we started having them fill out waivers and lining them up for a medical check. Then I stood up on a chair and talked to them for about 15 minutes about the day that wouuld start in a few hours.
Finally I grabbed a Red Bull and ran out to my truck a bit before 11 PM to drive out to the tPOD and get my own ride gear together. At 10 minutes to midnight I rolled on my Lenz toward the F Street Bridge with the rest of the riders. Shawn counted down from 10, and then we were rolling through Salida and beyond, west toward the Colorado Trail in the darkness.
The rollout went a bit faster than I would have chosen and the pack was strung out pretty well by the time we got to County Road 250 and started climbing on dirt toward the first singletrack section.
The Colorado Trail from Blanks Cabin to Chalk Creek has always been an uncivilized bit of rocky punishment. After this year's monsoons, it has become even more dramatic. Lots of sand and soil has been washed out. In the dark it was a voyage of discovery. Luckily I had only one minor crash, when my front wheel dropped into a deep rain rut. I was able to just step off the bike. But it left me feeling jumpy. Hard to go very fast on the remaining singletrack.
Arriving at the first Aid Station was a real comfort. There were people there, a fire, and Jon handed me a freshly made breakfast burrito. I washed it down with a Red Bull, then mounted back up and headed up the railroad grade toward the Alpine Tunnel. It wasn't quite 4 AM.
As I climbed the easy grade toward our first Continental Divide crossing, I chatted first with Sean McGuiness then with Adam Lisonbee. Adam rode ahead of me from the intersection with the Tincup Pass road, then I caught him just at the Hancock townsite and rode ahead of him to the top of the Alpine Tunnel.
Riding hard, alone in the cold darkness, one’s mind can be visited by many unhelpful thoughts. Endurance sport is a mental as well as a physical challenge. After riding through the night, dawn almost always boost one’s spirits. But as long as there is more ground to cover the task of staying positive and confident is a constant challenge.
Me hiking up toward the Continental Divide above the Alpine Tunnel, photo by Adam Lisonbee
Dawn greeted me as I hiked up to the divide pushing my bike. When I first felt the sunshine on the back of my neck, I turned to see the sun just clearing a mountain behind me to the east. I experienced a sense of elation that is hard to describe. I threw my head back and laughed. My mind was full of joy and I hardly felt tired, even though I was cold and had been riding hard for almost 7 hours.
Less than an hour later, as I started climbing toward Tomichi Pass, all my confidence and energy left me. I thought about quitting, excuses coming quickly to mind.
The course took us south toward Whitepine over Tomichi Pass. The 2nd Aid Station, located just north of Whitepine, was staffed by the legendary mountain bike racer Dave Wiens. I sat in a chair staring at a hot campfire while Dave Wiens oiled my chain. I was thinking that I might quit soon, but I certainly didn't share that with Dave. After I had been sitting there for a while, one of Dave's sons gave me a 4-leaf clover. I still have it.
Getting to Aid Station 2 was a huge challenge, but it was only the start.
Leaving the second aid station we proceeded south through Whitepine and on to the Old Monarch Pass Road. The 2500 foot climb to Old Monarch Pass in a bit over 9 miles took us to the halfway point of the Vapor Trail 125 course. This climb to the Continental Divide was the 4th long climb of the day. I started expecting to quit when I reached the Aid Station at Monarch Pass. Somehow by the time I reached the Old Monarch Pass summit I had talked myself into continuing.
Once more, incredibly supportive, positive, and helpful volunteers at the Monarch Pass Aid Station helped to fuel me up and get me on my way, energized and ready to get back to work finishing the Vapor Trail 125.
I proceeded south on the Monarch Crest Trail, into a chilly wind, watching a storm brewing up ahead. I knew that it was likely that I would ride into the wet storm, but I saw no reason to quit. I felt positive and energized. I rode quickly with purpose, toward the beginning of the Agate Creek Trail, eight miles from the Monarch Pass Aid Station.
Riding downhill is usually so much more fun and so much easier than climbing, it rarely is thought of as hard work. The descent down the Agate Creek Trail toward the intersection with the Lime Creek Trail was difficult. It was steep and very technical, with lots of ruts, rocks, and drop-offs. The effect of the summer’s monsoons on the trail made for some very tired hands and shoulders.
As exhausting as the descent was, the climb up the Lime Creek Trail was far more devastating. For perhaps the forth time since midnight, I found myself feeling utterly exhausted. My thoughts turned negative, and I lost confidence in my ability to finish the ride.
Another difficult descent, this time down the Indian Creek trail, brought me to the 4th Aid Station. Once again, the support and encouragement I received from volunteers turned my experience back toward positive confidence. Restocked with food, water and encouragement, I rolled onto the Marshall Pass Road and made my way east toward the pass.
A headwind sapped my momentum. But I kept turning the pedals. All I needed to do was reach Marshall Pass, then ride south to the top of the Silver Creek Trail. From there I'd have the familiar Silver Creek Trail descent, which would surely be a shot in the arm. The prospect of finishing with a ride down the Rainbow Trail to highway 285 was quite daunting, but I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
As I ground along climbing the Marshall Pass Road my stomach started to be upset. I had trouble keeping food and water going into my body. The full body ache started to work at me. After all those climbs, all that pedaling, I was beginning to bonk. I stopped to answer nature's call, and Sean McGuiness caught me. I rode along with Sean for a while, but there really wasn't any talk. I didn't have anything to say. Sean also seemed occupied.
After we crossed the washout 4 miles west of Marshall Pass, we started talking about the cut-off and how much time remained. I pointed out that we had plenty of time to get to Marshall by the cut-off, but that we better keep a pace up. Then, after 5 minutes or so I said, "of course we're still racing to get to the Silver Creek Aid Station by 6:30 to make that cut-off". Sean had thought it was just easy downhill from Marshall to Silver Creek, but I explained that there was about an hour of climbing from Marshall to the top of Silver Creek. "You don't have to wait for me," I said. Sean said nothing but doubled his cadence and rode away from me.
After Sean left, my mind turned to despair. Just continuing to turn the cranks made me feel ill. My mind wallowed in pity--"I'm not going to make it." Soon Tracy, the sweep moto rider came alongside me and asked me how it was going. I told him I was shelled. He asked if I was going to make it to Marshall and I said I was committed to getting to Marshall under my own power.
When I arrived at Marshall it was 4:30. Tracy took my bike and I slumped to the ground. I sat in the dirt with my head between my knees, trying to keep tears from filling my eyes. It was obvious to me that I would not be able to ride the remaining 20 miles of singletrack on the course. Failure. Failure.
Andrew rode up on Shawn's motorcycle. I couldn't look at him. I stared at the dirt. After a while they asked me what I was going to do. I told them I would ride down the Poncha Creek Road and go back to town. Andrew warned me that it was hammered by the summer rains, as all the routes we had been using were hammered.
Eventually I staggered to my feet. I clumsily swung a leg over my bike and started toward the Poncha Creek Road. I rode the rough jeep road down, descending several thousand feet over about 7 miles, my hands and shoulders aching from the effort. A grimace of shame and failure all over my face.
A light rain started to fall on me. I was still wearing shorts and short-sleeved jersey. I was unwilling to stop and take out my jacket. I just wanted to be down.
I knew I would need to make an appearance at the post-ride barbecue. I didn't want to show up there all bummed out and full of self-pity. I decided to ride through town, get my truck from where I'd left it near the bike shop, and drive home where I could shower and pull myself together. As I rode down the highway, a big tail-wind pushing me to well over 40 mph, I thought about how inappropriate my little pity-party was. I was being terribly self-obsessed.
Then it occurred to me that I was still in the throes of the mind game that get's played out when we do these silly-long endurance efforts. My brain was starved of glucose, and my mind was full of the self-created drama that keeps us on the bike, pedaling long beyond exhaustion.
Yep, it's a bummer that I'm not finishing. It's the first big event I've entered in a year that I didn't successfully finish. But look at the day I just did. Huge Colorado Trail effort. A whole series of huge climbs. Miles and miles of work done well above 10,000 feet elevation.
Will I be the only person at the barbecue who didn't finish? Nope. But I may be the only one who's moping around, whining about it. Grow up. Go home, shower, put on some comfortable clothing, and get myself to the barbecue to celebrate the biggest physical effort of my life. Sure, I didn't "finish". But did I fail? That's for me to decide.
So that's what I did. One of my biggest accomplishments of the weekend, and one I'm fairly proud of--I fixed myself up, slapped myself across the face, and got on with life. It's a good life. Why focus on the dark side? I missed my chance to finish the Vapor Trail. But life is like that. Renewal is part of it. I can face the Vapor Trail next year with renewed resolve if it's that important to me.
So that's my story. Great day. Mixed outcome for me. But goddamn, what a great success the 2007 Vapor Trail 125 was! Largest starting field ever. Eighteen finishers out of 33 who lined up. No injuries. No major mishaps. It happened. It worked. I got through most of it, and I learned a whole new batch of stuff about myself.