Sunday, September 19, 2010

Groundhog Year

Kathy and I watched the movie Groundhog Day recently. I wanted to see it again after many years. I'd been thinking about passing days, the repetitive nature of living a workman's life, and familiarity.

aspen ridge

Today I rode up to Aspen Ridge, out in the dry Arkansas Hills north of town. I did this because I've been seeing the blazing colors up there on my drive home from Buena Vista each evening.

And I did this because it is something I do this time of year. Aspen Ridge is kind of like the Sea Otter--first big race of the season. The trees; up there they go all golden early.

aspen ridge too

So I rode up there, just as I did last year. It was a nice ride too, lovely fall weather and beautiful clear late summer light.

Looking at that post from last year I see that it was posted 364 days ago, and it's about doing exactly what I did today. And what's really weird: I write in that year-old post that Kathy and I had gone up to Silver Creek to ride the Rainbow at Silver Creek the day before. Well guess what? Kathy and I did that yesterday, just as we did 365 days ago.

aspen ridge three

I'm coming to the close of my 10th year in this little corner of Colorado. Mayberry in the Mountains. It's no surprise that I'm retracing my steps as these years float past. Given my new life, with vacation time more limited than at any time in the last 15 years, I've been playing close to home much more than normal. So I'm seeing the same trails, the same events, the same little seasonal traditions marching past. I did the Gunny Growler in May. Visited Crested Butte in July. 24 Hours in the Sage in August. In another month I will simply have to go to Fruita or Moab. Like the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano, I will feel compelled to put stuff into my truck and go west to the red sand for a few days. I just will.

aspen ridge four

At the conclusion of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character has fallen in love with a woman with whom he was trapped in a tape loop, and with the little town where he had been walking in his rabbit trails.

Maybe this is a good thing. Certainly, many things about it are good. Otherwise why would I still be living here, doing these things? But today, after feeling like I had done the same thing yesterday, and that yesterday was exactly a year ago, and both those days' real yesterdays Kathy and I had done the same thing also?

Just a little spooky.

Monday, September 13, 2010

2010 Vapor Trail 125

We had a dandy this year. The weather was clear, classic rocky mountain late summer perfection. It was chilly overnight, I think more than normal. But the stars were brilliant, the dawn was bright and beautiful, and it was dry.

I had a camera with me, but it never cleared leather. I've included three money shots from the most dramatic place on the course, taken last year on a recreational ride. And a couple shots Shawn got from Aid Station 1.

But first, the story.

There was probably the largest field we've ever had. I believe it was 47 starters. The stretch of F Street from the bridge to our turn right at 2nd was a bit crowded with cars and pedestrians as a large peloton of mountain bikers rolled through.

A Salida City cop car pulled in front of us just as we started crossing Sackett to do the neutral start. We've always made plans with the City Police Department to have this, but I can't remember any of the prior races where we actually had a cop with lights flashing leading the group.

It isn't easy to be a driver leading an actual neutral start. To be completely neutral, the car has to stay between 8-10 mph on flat or slightly uphill ground. It isn't easy to drive that slow actually, but if the lead car goes much faster, some riders have to hustle to stay with the group. After we got past the airport, my friend Kent Davidson and I dropped off the back of the group. I didn't have any desire to go anaerobic just to stay with the neutral start. To finish the Vapor Trail 125 I need to ride my pace. Period. So we were probably more than a quarter mile back from the 3rd-to-last rider when the lead car pulled aside. No biggie. Neither of us were in it to win it.

The dirt grind up to Blanks Cabin and the Colorado Trail trailhead always seems to take longer than it should, and we didn't get there until just before midnight. I was the last rider to get there, since Kent usually climbs a bit faster than I do. But I was feeling pretty good. I'd been staying on my own pace. Happy to be to singletrack and the peace and quiet that comes with being away from the lights of the sweep vehicle (being driven by Scot, which means there was a certain amount of ribaldry and shenanigans going on behind me).

I always enjoy riding the Blanks to Chalk Creek section of the Colorado Trail, especially at night--technical, beautiful, quiet. I came off the trail 3rd to last; I had stayed ahead of Kent after he stopped at the trailhead, and I caught and passed Todd Schweitzer halfway through. That was encouraging, because Todd is a veteran of the Vapor Trail 125. When he starts it, he finishes it. If I'm with Todd I'm on a finisher's pace!

Here I am filling a bottle with HEED, that's Kent over my shoulder

I rode into the Cascade Aid where there was a fire, warm breakfast burritos and lots of friends. I had a burrito filled with scrambled eggs, potatoes, and an impressive blob of mayonnaise. I didn't want to get too comfortable there. I ate, put on my warmest long tights, and headed back out into the night on my way to the Continental Divide at Alpine Tunnel. I expected Kent to catch me and pass pretty quickly.

This climb into the wee hours always seems endless. The part from Aid 1 to St Elmo seems especially long. I was riding with just a meager helmet mounted headlamp, conserving battery for my main bar-mounted light, so I seemed to be missing some of the landmarks that help me gauge my progress. I was surprised and delighted when I noticed just in time that I was about to miss the left turn to Hancock and the Alpine Tunnel and ride into St Elmo. More than halfway from the Aid Station to the divide crossing! Neither Kent nor Todd have caught me, I must be climbing well!

I continued toward the divide in good spirits as it got to be around 3:00 AM. Shortly after I made the turn I noticed that it was getting colder, so I stopped to put on my jacket and took the opportunity to eat one of the mini-croissants stuffed with egg and potatoes that I brought. One of my instructions from Kathy (AKA Coach): eat much and eat often through the night! I should know that, but I don't very often do that. (Other key instruction: When in doubt, chill out.)

Sometime between that stop and my arrival at the Alpine Tunnel hike-a-bike over the divide, I started getting that 4:00 AM feeling. Tired, time starting to become oddly abstracted, darkness seeming very dark. I turned my main headlight on just for the company, so I'd have a little more to look at. Almost immediately the light's indicator went from blue to red--limited battery time left. I had an extra charged battery, but didn't want to bother digging it out. But the red-ness bugged me, adding to the 4:00 AM feeling of vague foreboding.

Just as the section from the aid station to St Elmo felt shorter than usual, the section from St Elmo to Hancock felt unreasonably long. There's an old mining building that leans out over the road just near Hancock. I kept watching for it to appear out of the darkness. Then, after what seemed like a really long time, I rode into Hancock and saw the tail lights of the Vapor staff motos waiting to watch the last riders pass through Hancock and up the railroad grade toward the tunnel trail. Never saw the building, but finally made it to Hancock.

The old mine building, obviously in daylight...

There's an odd thing that happens up in the mountains as you travel at night. You pass through temperature pockets. I had put on the jacket near St Elmo, but somewhere between there and Hancock it seemed to have gotten just a little warmer. I was perspiring, just a bit. I felt comfortable, and not so warm that I needed to strip off the jacket.

I was starting to feel pretty tired, and tired of the steady, relentless grade to the tunnel. I'd been on that same grade for 3 or so hours. Hiking sounded better than grinding along. The trail from Hancock to the Alpine Tunnel is 2 or 3 miles long, not really singletrack, but not graded gravel either. There are still railroad ties visible here and there from the narrow guage line that was abandoned before the turn of the last century, and there is close tree cover and some shallow water in a few places. The railroad ties were reflecting tiny crystals of frost. I had ridden back into a cold place. There were thin coatings of ice on standing water near the trail. But I was still climbing, and had a jacket on. I felt reasonably comfortable.

Arriving at the singletrack hike-a-bike over Altman Pass (the ridge under which the Alpine Tunnel crossed the divide before it collapsed for that last time over 100 years ago), I simply climbed off my bike and started pushing it without even a pause. I wanted to be over the top before first light. I knew I needed to be if I was on a finisher's pace, and it was a symbolic goal for me to be up there on the divide while it was still dark. I looked down after I'd been hiking for a while and saw the light of one of the two riders I knew were behind me, Kent and Todd. I marched on, pausing for breath periodically. Later I saw another lamp down there. All three of us were hiking to the divide.

I reached the divide under an icy blanket of brilliant stars. The very first bit of gray light was appearing on the southwestern horizon. I was at once in awe of where I was and what I was doing, and also in the strange funk that comes from being deprived of oxygen, sleep, light and calories. I only paused briefly to take in the moment. Surreal and beautiful. Even though I didn't dwell long, the vivid memory of that moment was stored deeply.

As soon as I began my descent to the Alpine Tunnel West Portal, I was seized with the coldness of the air. I was no longer working, and was acutely aware of the moisture under my thin jacket.

I met Tracy Smith, Shawn's brother-in-law and the lead support moto rider for each of the Vapor Trail 125's that has happened, after passing the old railroad infrastructure at the west portal. He was waiting there to watch the three of us, the last riders, to be sure we were on our way to Tomichi Pass. Tracy was with the Search and Rescue crew from Western State in Gunnison who Dave Wiens had arranged to help out. They had a fire going.

I was in a state of grave concern about my body temp, and knew I needed to peel off everything I was wearing above the waist and replace it with the dry base and mid-layer clothes I had in my pack. If I had not had those dry things, my ride would have been over right then and there. I should probably have accepted Tracy's invitation to come over by the fire, but I was afraid of getting too comfortable.

I hurriedly peeled off my moist jacket and wet jersey. The frigid air hitting my moist skin was painful and I shivered as I pulled on my dry stuff and put the moist jacket back on over it. While I was doing that Kent rode up. I'm afraid I must have seemed rude, but I was just hurting with cold. He told me later that I wasn't but I doubt I was very nice. He rode on. Now I was 2nd to last.

I got out my winter gloves, put a beanie on my head and pulled a hood over that. I had dry stuff on, but I was shivering. It was time to eat. I didn't really feel like it, but the words of my coach rang in my head. I pulled out my chilly food and stuffed it in my mouth, shivering as I chewed. While I was doing that, Todd rolled up, talked to Tracy and I for a minute or so, and went on his way down to the bottom of Brittle Silver Basin and the beginning of the slog up to Tomichi Pass. I was DFL again, for the first time since we got to Blanks Cabin, 5 or 6 hours earlier.

Eventually I stiffly climbed back onto my bike. There was now enough dawn twilight to turn off my lights. The descent was only 10 or 15 minutes, but it was agony. Moving through the cold, cold air, my hands went painfully numb even through the thick gloves. I was worried about being able to brake properly, but even with my deep discomfort and strange negative mood, I was deeply moved by the stark beauty of the surroundings in that soft pre-dawn light. Through chattering teeth I whispered to myself "man, is this beautiful".

Then got to the bottom and jumped off the bike to start pushing it up the hill. Even though I knew I was starting one of the big challenges of the whole event, I was happy to be off the bike so that I could stamp my feet, flex my fingers, and begin working again to bring warmth back to my body.

The first time I attempted the Vapor Trail 125, I named the climb to Tomichi Quit Hill. It's a long, steep slope covered in bowling ball-sized rocks. Marching on the relatively clear sections, staggering through the steeper and looser ones, I made slow progress toward the top. I could see Kent in front of me. Todd was way up there, and eventually gone from my site. Todd is a closer. If I was with him I knew I'd finish, but as I fell back I was beset with the thoughts of failing. I started thinking about scenarios for how I would abandon.

I eventually made it to the pass. Of course. There were Tracy and Chad, moto support. They had passed me as I staggered darkly along. We saw Kent a few hundred feet below us at the Canyon Creek Trailhead, sitting down to eat. I talked to Tracy and Chad for a while, then rolled on down the quarter of a mile south to the trailhead and sat down next to Kent. I pulled out my food and started eating it. We were in similar moods, talking about how we really wanted to finish, but how it was starting to seem unlikely that we could. We talked about how the field all seemed so much faster then we were this year. They had just ridden away from us from the start. Gone. We talked about how badly the hike-a-bike climb to the top of Canyon Creek was going to suck.

Kent went, after a while I got up and trudged off after him. Shortly I needed to stop to peel off my jacket and switch my clear glasses to sunglasses. The sun was streaming down on me. There was certainly relief in that!

But that climb is heinous. A deeply trenched trail, sometimes hip deep or more, with huge loose rocks. And sickeningly steep. And it's way up high in the thin air, baby. All the way up to 12,600 feet. I had to stop fairly often to catch my breath. But again, it was such a rich experience. Suffering, struggling--yet passing into a place of such splendor, and being warmed by the daylight and effort after being so cold.

Earl hikes the last bit to top of Canyon Creek
Earl hikes the last bit to top of Canyon Creek. (these pictures were taken during a different time of day, in a different month and year from the 2010 Vapor Trail 125, but they are what I have to show you about where it was and what it looks like)

I made the top. Kent wasn't anywhere to be seen, already on his way down. Earl Walker (shown in the picture above), also riding support moto was up there with Chad. He had manhandled his big KTM motorcycle up this gnarly trail, which had probably been at least as big an effort as it had been for me to push a bicycle up. I drank in the view for a minute or two, talked to Earl and Chad for a minute, then climbed back on the bike and started the most dramatic singletrack descent in this part of Colorado.

Top of Canyon Creek looking back toward Alpine Tunnel
Top of Canyon Creek looking back toward Alpine Tunnel, the way I had come.

Looking down onto Tomichi Pass
Looking down onto Tomichi Pass. See where the trail starts, down by those trees? It's way down there!

A few minutes after I started my descent I looked at my watch. It was just after 8:00. Wow. I realized that maybe it wasn't hopeless. Maybe I was still on a finisher's pace. One of the miracles of the ultra-endurance effort, turning from dark pessimism to giddy optimism on a dime. Started finding the flow of the trail, and truly enjoying myself.

I caught Kent about halfway down. He climbs just a little better than I do and I descend just a little faster than he does. We talked for just a bit as he let me by and then I opened it up and let the bike go again.

Only a half a mile or so later I heard my bike start making some wrong noises. When I hit bumps it kind of made a snapping sound. I wondered if I might have broken my frame. I stopped and looked down at it without getting off, and saw nothing wrong. As I got started again I noticed that the suspension didn't really seem to be working in the back, then I hit a bump before I was going very fast and it made the noise and then the suspension actuated. Lockout on, and the big bumps hitting the blowpast threshold?

My StumpJumper29 has a Fox Triad. The selection lever points back and to the right for ProPedal, back and to the left for free travel, and anywhere else with no detent keeping it in place is locked out. I glanced down and saw that it was facing forward. Lockout. It had been in free travel mode (of course) and I couldn't imagine how it had moved. I tried to put it back into free mode but the detent was gone. It was just spinning freely around the whole circle. Ah, I see. Blown.

Would this thing fully fail, keeping me from finishing? Or would it just stay in lockout mode, leaving me with a stiff ride and a nasty noise every time I hit a significant bump? Seemed to be holding air...

So now I was in a mode of travel where I wanted to make good progress while the course was pointing down hill, but my mind was busy mulling over the details. What time could I conceivably make it to Monarch Pass? The climb back up to the Divide is one of the two major obstacles to finishing--how will it go? Will I feel too crappy to make it up in time? Will the shock hold out? I bet Kathy's already at the Aid Station, looking forward to seeing her...

Then it happened. I came whizzing into a little meadow on a sandy section of trail in dappled sunlight. A large log blocked the trail. I was distracted and didn't see it right away. Then when I did see it, several beats passed before I realized that I needed to decide what to do about it. When I finally got around to reacting I spazzed and grabbed the brakes hard. I was in deep soft sand, and the front wheel buried. I was instantly going over the bars. I don't think I even took my hands off the grips. Wham!

Then I was laying on the ground on my back. My head hurt, I had smacked it down. At first it seemed like I was really busted up, as in, Search and Rescue busted up. Slowly I picked myself up, carefully checking to see if anything was broken. After a while Kent Davidson rode up. He's an M.D. and he asked me how I was. Slowly it became clear to me that I was OK. Certainly OK to get out the mile or so left to the 2nd aid station. The sweep motos, Tracy and Chad, rolled up and Chad checked my eyes (he's an EMT/Ski Patroller). After a while Kent and Chad rolled on and Tracy followed me.

I was able to move, and after a while able to move pretty easily. I was rattled, so I wasn't going very fast, but I was able to function. When I first crashed I was certain that I was done, dropping. But as I got back underway I was thinking about it. My major concern was with the lack of focus that had led to my crash. There was lots more ground to cover, much more dangerous descending than the smooth, open bit of trail I'd crashed on. I wanted to talk to Kathy about it, but my rational mind got me thinking about grownup values. How important to finish? Worth risking long term health? Why couldn't I consider the rich experience I'd already had a success? Why force myself to accept only a true finish, even under the circumstances?

It was great to see Kathy when I rolled off the trail. She was standing right at the end of the trail, taking pictures of me as I approached. I knew pretty much completely that I was going to abandon when I saw her.

We walked over to the aid station where Dave Wiens and the crew were cleaning bikes, making pancakes and generally helping riders do what they needed to do. An old friend from Buena Vista, Ron Gillingham, took my bike and asked if it needed any attention. I told him about the shock. He looked at it and we saw that it was barfing oil all over the downtube. I started eating a pancake wrapped around a sausage, and then told Tracy that I was dropping. He cut off my wrist band and my Vapor Trail 125 for 2010 was over.

It was a great experience. Maybe I'll never finish one. Maybe I will. Maybe I'll go out sometime with a few friends and do the loop without the structure of the event and finish it as a big ride. Either way, I can celebrate the event as a success. It'll always be part of me, no matter what happens next year or in years to follow.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Vapor Trail 125, 2010 Edition

Here it comes.

If you're wondering what got me thinking about blogging again, wonder no more.

As I approach this year's biggest riding milestone, working to make myself train enough and to keep my mind in the right place I've been thinking much about limitations, and the acceptance of them.

Team Velveeta, the ongoing story of an athlete of limited talent. And now, one whose time and energy for training is constrained in addition to his physical limits.

For a goofball like myself, finishing the Vapor Trail 125 is a problem to be solved with the brain as much as it is a problem at which to throw brute force endurance. If I set an expression of grim determination on my face and grind away like satan is chasing me, I will almost certainly fail. I've learned and forgotten this lesson several times. But I really want to solve this one. I've got to keep that lesson up there, even when things get weird with pain, oxygen debt, and low blood sugar.

Stay loose. Eat enough. Keep your head. Keep moving, but don't move in desperation. Be appreciative of the fact that you can do this stuff at all. It's a miracle--as are the surroundings.

The start of this trail marks the last 15 minutes of the first climb to the Continental Divide
The start of this trail marks the last 15 minutes of the first climb to the Continental Divide. On this year's course, with the 10 PM start, if I'm on the pace I need to finish I'll be mounting this climb in complete darkness.

Watch the action of the 2010 Vapor Trail 125 from a satellite's-eye view at Starts at 10 PM Saturday, Mountain Daylight Time. 11 PM Central.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Summer Weekends

The summer has been quite full for me really. What I've done during most of it is to retrace my steps through local haunts. I haven't taken many pictures this year, because most of the places I've been riding and hiking are places I've been before on a routine basis, and of which I have stupid numbers of pics already.

One day in July I rode Starvation Creek and took I think some decent pictures:

Just before I hauled out the camera that day, I was up on the ridge before dropping into the Starvation Creek canyon when a bull elk in velvet trotted across the road in front of me. I thought, "those guys hang out together during summer before the rut starts." I could have gotten the camera out then in anticipation of seeing this guy's buds. Sure enough 45 seconds later two bulls in velvet came from the same area the first one was, and one was a whopper. Opportunity lost.

I had many great days like this, and one very memorable day hiking and gawking near Crested Butte (Schofield Townsite) with Kathy and her folks. Here from the summit of West Maroon Pass:

toward Snowmass from West Maroon Pass
Looking toward Schofield from West Maroon Pass

toward Schofield from West Maroon Pass
Looking toward Snowmass from West Maroon Pass

It's been a good summer. Now on to ushering it out by finishing the Vapor Trail 125.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Bless me readers for I have slacked.

It has been 6 months since my last posting.

(This is a picture of a confession booth in a Catholic church, in case you don't recognize it)

I've been not blogging for the last half a year. You might have noticed, or not. That happens sometimes. Since I started this thing I have often let it go for a month or so, but this has been kind of a fundamental shift. Those of you who know me at all have heard me explain (in nauseating and repetitive detail) about how my lifestyle has changed.

It has.

I spent most of this decade living a life of copious freedom in a little Colorado mountain town. I worked from my house or I worked at a bike shop. It wasn't what you call regular work, and I didn't have to show up anywhere at 8 AM 5 days/week. It was really flexible, and quite often really seldom.

When I moved to Salida it was to be a telecommuter. I was really busy in my little home office at first, then things changed at my company. My workload started wandering off to the Far East. My deadlines began to be more like critically ill-lines. Then out of the woods-lines. Then completely cured-lines. Finally I got laid off. Freedom to do whatever became my lifestyle.

After I became a divorced guy several years ago my freedom and independence increased even more, as amazing as it is that that's even possible.

Lots of you have heard this shite before, so let me fast forward to my point: I got really really spoiled during this decade, the one that's hard to name (the oughts?). I got used to the idea that work is something that happens in no particular place, without any set schedule. Sure, I also got used to spending into my savings account almost every month, but I took for granted that work really didn't interfere with My Life™ to a very significant extent.

Then, almost by accident, I got offered a good job. The kind that pays enough that you can actually SAVE money. But here's the hitch: 8 to 5, 5 days per week. Holy Crap!

It was a dramatic, sometimes painful adjustment. But I've adjusted for the most part. I have a routine that involves heading up to Buena Vista, CO every day, getting there around 8 and leaving around 5. Every two weeks a paycheck lands in my account. The same amount every time. Magic.

So that brings me back to this blog. It started out as Team Velveeta™, the story of a man of modest natural athletic ability who would seek the limits of his physical capabilities and write about what it's like to do things on a bicycle that the actual elite riders do, only much more slowly. I did big underground races like the Rim Ride Moab and various NMES and AZES rides. I rode in 24 Hour races, and mainstream hundies like the Cascade Creampuff, the Crested Butte Classic 100, and the Leadville 100, finishing among the last and slowest. But doing it! Finishing all of it. And I did big solo efforts, like my midnight ride down Agate Creek under a full moon, and several circumnavigations of the White Rim. I took pictures and I wrote. And I rode a TON. I was fit. I had time to be fit. For a while there, fitness and this blog were what I really had going.

So now what? What's up with Team Velveeta™? Well, now I guess I'm really everyman. Now I still want to do those big things but I really only have two days per week to train. And often I am so dead tired in the brain that I just don't feel like going when the door is open!

So maybe now Team Velveeta is really about Velveeta more than Team. I'll be doing what I can, a man with not much natural athletic ability and constrained time to train. I'll be fighting weight gain more than budget problems. I'll have days where I ride way out there only to find out that I'm too tired to ride home--finding that I wasn't really fit enough to be doing it at all.

Maybe I'll be writing about the after work rides. Riding on rollers during lunch hour in the warehouse at work. And probably, commenting about what others are doing. Voyeurism. Yikes.

But seriously, thanks for actually keeping tabs on this silly blog to a point where you notice a posting after 6 months of none. I'll try to put something interesting here once in a while as time rolls forward.