Monday, July 30, 2012

Vapor Trail 125 on my own terms, Part II

Read Part I of this story if you haven't already...

The descent from the high point of Canyon Creek went well. Beautiful. Challenging. I was succeeding. The ride through the night went as well as it ever has for me, and it felt as though I was past the crux.

After I finished up the really steep upper part of the Trail, just before I got to the horse camp, I noticed that my front tire had gotten a little soft. It was a new tire, I'd chosen it specifically because it was light with a fast-rolling tread. I'd mounted it tubeless Sunday, and had not had good luck with it holding air. On Tuesday I took it down to Absolute Bikes and had Scot help me mount it properly. It had survived a test ride, and seemed to be good to go. It had held air the rest of the week, and it had been fine on the Colorado Trail and through the night, but throwing it around and cornering down Canyon Creek had apparently made it leak a little.

I was going to ignore it for the time being and go on, but thought better of it. I stopped just after crossing the creek at the horse camp and put my pump on it. As I tried to get some pressure into it, my pumping motion made air leak around the stem. I grumbled and pulled the pump off. I tightened up the stem nut as hard as I could with my fingers. Then I pulled out my CO2 and filled it up hard. I lifted the front of the bike and spun the wheel and held it horizontal so that the stan's would fill into whatever gaps were in the bead. Maybe it had been leaking around the stem the whole time?

Ah, the dilemma of the tubeless mountain bike tire addict. In retrospect, I should have just yanked the thing off, dumped the liquid latex out onto the ground and put in a tube. But we addicts will go to some pretty lengthy effort to make tubeless work.

I decided to leave some pretty high pressure in it for a while--leave it hard so that maybe it would seal up once and for all. I told myself that I needed to be a little careful and wary of my speed because the traction would be bad. Got back on and back under way.

The section of the trail after the horse camp had been seeing lots of horse traffic. The hay-burners had it nicely roto-tilled and fertilized. I really hate getting shit sprayed up all over my bike, my water bottle, my face--so I was watching for the piles and avoiding them.

I suddenly remembered that my last attempt at the Vapor Trail 125, during the 2010 event, had ended right on this section of trail with a stupid crash, the result of atrocious reaction time. Not this time! I may have even said to myself out loud, I need to be careful here...

I don't think 15 whole seconds went by after my self-warning before I saw another generous pile of shining wet fresh horseshit in the middle of the trail. I chose to take a line along the right side of it. My front tire, pumped up hard as a BB, dug into the steep slant of the trailbed and started to wash. I was going down! A log was sticking out right next to the trail! Wham. My chest and right arm slammed into the log. Damn! How could I do that?! What have I done?!

I picked myself up off the shitty sand and assessed the damage. Breathing hurt. It was my sternum. And elbow. Right arm. Knee.

Crap, Crap, Crap! How bad is it? Do I need help?!?

I spent a few minutes breathing, checking myself out. No, I can go. It hurts, but nothing life-threatening. As soon as I started riding I saw that my right hand brake lever and shifter had been twisted down to face the ground. Stop again, get out the mini tool, loosen up the clamps and put them back where they belong...

The whole thing turned on a dime for me. I had been living the dream, now I was annoyed, disgusted with my poor judgement. Hurting. All the energy drained from my legs. All of the confidence drained from my mind.

Am I not capable of riding from town over Granite Mountain and coming out of it with enough clarity to actually ride Canyon Creek to the campground without crashing? God this trail is trashed. Damn horses! Damn wet sandy crappy trail! Damn motos, look how they've torn this up! Jeez, just try to ride for 20 more minutes without crashing, OK dumbass?

I got to the end of the trail and rode into Snowblind Campground, looking for their water. The sound of generators was everywhere, as the fifth-wheel camper inhabitants sat inside having their morning coffee and breakfast. Would have been nice if the camp host had popped his head out so I could have asked where the water is. I wasn't inclined to knock on his door. I rode a couple of the circles through the campground and eventually gave up. I figured I had enough water to get up Old Monarch, then I could fill up at the Monarch Pass store. No need to load up with a bunch of weight that I have to haul up there anyway unless I really needed it.

I stopped and pulled off the pack. Ow. I got out food, I put my short-sleeves back on and put the long sleeve away. Leg warmers off. Clear lenses off, tinted lenses on. Eat.

I could still finish this thing. Time for my inner coach to get me over this moment. Just shake it off. Stop grumping and feeling sorry for yourself. You're still in it. You can still do this. Or you can give up. But either way, you need to climb out of this canyon and back up to the divide. May as well cheer up and face that with a smile; as much smile you can come up with anyway.

So I got some convenience food ready in the pockets on my hip belt. I pulled the pack back on, I took a long pull of water. And I got back on the bike and made my way down the Whitepine Road to the bottom of Old Monarch.

Settle in to the climb. My chain was a mess. Creek crossings, splattered with wet sand and horseshit, it was a black crunchy mess. I longed for a rag to dry it off with. Of course I had my little bottle of lube, but putting lube on a wet, muddy chain is not ideal. Wouldn't this be a good place for somebody to cast off an old sock?

I tried to find and establish a pace. I'd lost a good chunk of time, and of course my speed was greatly reduced. The last part of the trail had taken much longer than it should have thanks to my broken body and strong sense of goddammitbecareful. And I'd lingered at Snowblind for quite a while. It was about 8:30. I guessed that in my state the climb was going to take around 2 hours. Longer if I wallowed in despair. I tried to keep my cadence up and ignore the significant pain in my chest. Good posture hurt. Breathing hurt. My ass was getting that 12 hours of punishment sting.

The inner coach was working hard. You can still finish this thing. Of course it's going to hurt. Yes, the chest injury makes it worse. But you can get past that.

But the doubts came on strong. And the rationalizations. And the visions of food at home, and my couch.

And then the pain got much more acute. I've suffered on this road many times. It's always a bitter pill. It's not a nice steady grade like the climb to Alpine Tunnel or to Marshall Pass. This isn't a railroad grade, it's an old highway.

My ass started to be a real distraction. The pain from there rivaled the pain from my chest. I had forgotten to bring that little bit of Chamois Butt'r that I had set aside. It would have been nice. Standing to relieve it revealed a bruise I'd taken on the knee when I crashed. Standing hurt. I couldn't really handle more than 15 or 20 seconds of standing pedaling, then it was back to punishing my ass.

After a while I saw that the chain had dried somewhat. Still filthy, but it would take lube. I stopped and lubed it and continued on.

I started playing a game with my GPS where I'd watch how many minutes to see 100 feet of elevation gain, then extrapolate that across the remaining feet I needed to get to the 11,400 foot Old Monarch. But that's a brutal game. GPS units don't always accurately show elevation. Sometimes I'd watch it click steadily up, a couple times I saw 100 feet advance in 4-7 minutes. Then a minute would go by where it didn't advance at all, sometimes it would go backwards. There I was putting my heart and soul into pedaling in granny gear. Oh yes, I was climbing. But the %#*!@# GPS said I was on flat ground!

Basically, it was grueling. My spirit was being broken. I had so many variations of pain. I stopped and ate. I kept drinking. I stopped to give my ass a rest. I tried to focus on good posture and cadence when I was pedaling. I stopped looking at the %#*!@# GPS. And eventually I came around a bend in the road and saw the summit. It should have felt like victory, but defeat was everywhere around me. I was a whipped dog.

Continental Divide Trail south from Old Monarch. An old picture (that Voodoo is two bikes ago).

I turned right onto the Continental Divide Trail to bridge over to Monarch Pass from Old Monarch. I was shelled. Utterly demoralized. Sore ass afire. The slightest uphill on the trail killed my forward momentum, off and walking. The downhills hurt my chest and the jarring made me aware of a bruise on my right tricep.

I would get to the pass. I would sit. And eat. This is predictable--Old Monarch Pass climb is always a low point of this course. I've gotten through the course to this point intent on quitting before, and I have gone on. I can go on. Don't give up. Don't give up. I set out to do this and knew it was going to be hard. Something always goes wrong, but lots has gone right. Must get to the pass, then rest. Let my body and mind have some time to recover. I am still in it.

I came down the last bit of CDT onto highway 50 and nearly crashed in the deep ruts and drop-offs. I was so tired. I was riding badly. I hurt everywhere. Climbing the couple hundred yards up to the pass on the roadbed was excruciating. I rolled across the wide lot past the sign that says Monarch Pass, 11,313 feet elevation. Joyless. Broken. I leaned my bike against the store. I checked for cell service so that I could let Kathy know I was OK. Nope.

It hurt just to stand there. My brain would hardly function.

I knew I had forgotten to bring my wallet. Was the $5 I leave in my seat bag in there? It took me a very long time to pull everything out and grope around looking for it. Maybe I could buy a cold can of coke and be transformed if it was in there. Nope.

Eat something, maybe that will turn me around.

Do I have any realistic hope of riding another 50 miles? Could I conceivably ride down Starvation and climb back up the road to Marshall again? Just thinking of the short steeps that are encountered on the jeep road over to the top of Starvation nauseated me. The idea of doing the whole Starvation down and back up loop seemed like a pipe dream. I could not imagine actually being able to complete the whole course. Not in my wildest dreams.

Assuming I'm going to bail, could I at least make it across the Crest so I can descend on something that isn't paved highway 50? Give up all that hard won elevation to a road descent, in the company of semis and RVs? The Crest is a treat. I am right here. Can't I at least ride the Crest?

Why? For fun? Because it would be a more fun way to end this adventure? Will it be fun? That was an easy question to answer. Hell no. It would be far more torture than fun. Just standing there breathing I was feeling the sharp pain in my chest. My ass, it was going to be very uncomfortable.

I gave up.

Going home was the only rational choice. Continuing to torture myself in the name of finishing at all costs just seemed insane. I really want to do this. I really want to finish. But at that point, on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say my pain was a 7. Somehow in the next 50 miles of grinding climbs and rough rocky descents it would get better? Crazy. Crazy.

I'm stubborn and willful, but I'm not that stubborn. And I was not riding well. I'm hurting, I'm exhausted. What if I screw up and crash again? If I continue, there's a very real chance that I'll get jacked up worse and somebody is going to have to come rescue my broken ass. I can't do that. I should celebrate what I've done by going home and starting to mend my wasted body.

So I put my jacket on, and I rolled east and let gravity bring me up to speed. It was a little after 11 AM when I left Monarch. I was able to get almost all the way to Maysville before I had to pedal. At Maysville I took CR220, since it parallels the highway but provides relief from the pavement and passing vehicles.

I came into the heat of mid-day once I was back down below 8,000 feet, and the closer I got to Salida the more uncomfortable it was. Hot sticky pain. I pedaled as long as I could stand it, then stood with my knees locked facing down. Looking up hurt my chest, sitting down hurt my ass. I must have looked like a mental patient, coasting in a downward-facing-dog pose for as long as my momentum would carry me. Then sitting back down to pedal with an audible groan.

So the story ends with a whimper. I got home. Called Kathy and told her the story. Shower. Food. Couch. The company of a small funny-looking cat.

So another story of not quite making it. Trying. Throwing my effort and energy at a goal; but not being able to conquer it. Will I ever finish that damned thing? Maybe, maybe not. I learn more with every attempt. I am in awe of it every time I encounter it. I love it and I hate it, that damned circle in the mountains.

As I write this, I feel strongly that it was not a defeat. Not for me. I had another rich experience. I took care of myself. I made some stupid mistakes, but I did all the paying and I bailed myself out.

And I lived to fight another day.

Taking on the Vapor Trail 125, on my own terms

If you haven't seen the preface to this post, read it here.

A little after 7:30 PM Friday night I stepped out my back door. There were some random raindrops on the concrete patio, I looked west. Of course there were clouds, it is July. A really dark one was crouching over the Shavano summit, right where I was heading. There wasn't a thunderstorm, and I was guessing this would be an evening with some light sprinkles. But weather is always a threat.

sunrise from Granite Mountain
Sunrise over the continental divide

I heaved a heavy, stuffed pack onto my back. I packed for the worst case. Not going to get caught without enough food, water, or clothing. I was bringing a surplus of everything, and steripen, extra battery for my headlamp, extra batteries for the GPS, SPOT, or MP3 Player. A big pack was a fact of life for doing something like this without support.

I rolled down to the F Street Bridge to start from the true start of the course. At exactly 7:45 I rode south off the bridge. It was sprinkling lightly as I rode up F Street, crowded with tourists. I turned right on 3rd Street, and followed it to where Poncha Blvd curves off to the left. And I headed out of town.

The sprinkles of rain came and went while I made my way west toward Blanks Cabin. Sometimes it was hard enough to make my arms shine with moisture, other times almost not noticeable. Of course, it was on my mind.

When I got to the road passing the airport, Kathy drove up from behind me. She had a few last questions about what to do if she saw my SPOT breadcrumbs stop moving or disappear, or if I were to press the help button. She was left with a very ambiguous situation. The last thing in the world that I wanted was for her or anybody to need to go out and find me. But really, she was the only person who knew what I was up to that night. Having the SPOT and having her watching it was really nice.

After we finished talking, and she headed back to town, I was on my own for the duration. As I made my way up to the turn at CR250 then on up past the cattle guards and onto the branch of 252, the rain sprinkles came and went. It was toying with me. After dark, it started coming down pretty hard. It stopped altogether when the terrain went from pinon and sage to fir and aspen. Every one of the spells of rain had me thinking that maybe this wouldn't be happening. Then it would slack or stop, and I'd think that maybe that was it.

But before the light was completely gone, I had seen a very dark cloud still camped out over Mt Shavano. I had a vision of being up the Chalk Creek Canyon in the wee hours, looking for someplace to be under shelter as a thunder storm raged. One of the remarkably stinky vault toilets perhaps. Then ultimately riding back down getting splattered with mud from head to toe.

No thank you.

In the last 5 minutes before I got to Blanks Cabin and the Colorado Trail, the rain started again. By the time I got to the trail, it was raining as hard as it had yet in the two hours I'd been out. All the twilight was gone; dark and raining.

Was this totally stupid, or just a little bit stupid?

At about 10:15 I was shoving my bike up the hike-a-bike that marks the beginning of the singletrack part of the Vapor Trail 125, it was raining hard enough that I started thinking about putting on my rain jacket. Get all wet from being rained on, or get soaked with sweat under a rain jacket as I exert myself? Again I thought about bagging the whole thing. I had forgone eating any of the caffeine-laced items in my food arsenal because of my doubts. If I bailed I could still resurrect a bit of a night of sleep. I could be home by 11 and in bed.

No, I'll go as far as Browns Creek, the next logical bail point. Perhaps after I got out from under that dark cloud that had been sitting on Shavano all evening things would get better. I was already out, I was packed, I was on schedule. Stay the course a little longer.

It worked out. Fifteen or twenty minutes worth of northbound travel, and the rain slowed to a sprinkle, then stopped altogether.

When I got to Browns Creek I decided it was time to put on leg warmers and a long sleeve (I'd been shorts and short sleeves up to that point, and warm enough despite the rain). I ate one of my croissants with egg and cheese and then decided I ought to at least steripen a water bottle full of water out of Browns. I didn't want to take any water from the Chalk Creek drainage because of all the mining activity--there is a superfund site up there. My hydration bag was still very full, so just a water bottle seemed like plenty. So I drained what was in the bottle and dipped it into the creek.

I pulled out the steripen, dipped it in, and pressed the button. Hmm. No blue light. I tried again. Nope. I watched the indicator light, when I pressed the button the light went green momentarily than flashed red. Batteries?! I've hardly used the thing! I've tested it in the kitchen far more times than I've used it outside.

I got my spare batteries out and swapped them. Same thing! Crap. So what, is that game over?

No, no I have lots of water in the bag. It'll be chilly all night so I won't need to drink all that much. And I can get water at Snowblind Campground in the morning. I'll be fine. I muttered a quick curse at the steripen and put it away. (Turns out, I was doing it wrong. You push the button, then dip it in the water. If the sensors can tell they are already in water, it won't work. I have known that before, and used it correctly. I had just forgotten. Never will forget again.)

I rode out the Colorado Trail section at a very moderate pace. Last time I rode this, I smashed my pinky on a branch and needed stitches during the Salida Big Friggin' Loop. Just one of the many mistakes/bits of bad luck I've had this year in attempts to complete big rides. Be mindful, I told myself: you're just at the beginning of a big night and day. Being 5 minutes quicker to finish this won't help. But getting hurt will be a bad thing. The rocks were wet and slick, and it was inky dark with the moon and stars obscured by thick cloud cover.

Just as I was finishing up and getting ready to drop into the Chalk Creek Canyon, the light of the waxing gibbous moon getting ready to set shone down from the west. Good news, the clouds up on the divide were breaking up enough to let the moon shine through. I knew that moonset was 12:29 PM. It was just about that time. I hit the old Denver and South Park railroad grade just then and started making my way up to the Alpine Tunnel.

I was feeling good. Maybe this is going to work! My legs were still relatively fresh, I had kept up my eating and drinking. Normally the temperatures in the Chalk basin are markedly cooler than up on the Colorado Trail on the slope of the Sawatch, but tonight a breeze that was downright warm was blowing down. I got busy with the steady pedaling that would be my job for the next three or four hours, a consistent grade up a good road to reach the trail over the Alpine Tunnel. And the beginning of a couple hours of mostly hike-a-bike.

My pace was good. My mood was good. The clouds over head gradually broke up and stars shone through. My moon was long gone, so the night was dark. But the temperature was very comfortable and I had the stars to keep me company. I passed much of the night in a nice aerobic groove. I stopped at the intersection of the road up to the Mary Murphy Mine to eat and swap out my headlight battery. It died just as I pulled the fresh one out of my pack. Nice.

It's always interesting to see the creatures that are out and about at night in the mountains. On the Colorado Trail I had seen too many field mice running across the trail to mention. Near the end I saw what I think must have been a pine marten. At first I thought it was a squirrel, but it ran too gracefully and I don't recall ever seeing squirrels out at night. At one point as I rolled up the last section of railroad grade approaching the tunnel; the non-motorized part, bumping over 130-year-old railroad ties and through tickets of willow that dropped their moisture onto my leg warmers, something skittered across. As I passed I looked down and saw what looked like a large dry land sea anemone. Porcupine, in full defensive display. I told it that I didn't want any trouble, and went along my way.

It was nearly 4 AM when I got to the base of the hike-a-bike climb up onto Altman Pass, under which the tunnel passes. I was quite pleased with my pace so far. I was making good time. I was still wearing only a long-sleeved mid-weight baselayer and leg warmers, and regular full-finger bike gloves. I knew that the other side of the divide was always colder, and the descent off the divide into Brittle Silver Basin was always chilling. I would put on clothes including the new Marmot insulated water and windproof gloves I had gotten from work that day once I got to the pass. Or at least down at the roundhouse on the other side.

One of my favorite parts of the Vapor Trail 125 experience is the thrill of crossing the divide pre-dawn under a canopy of stars. I lingered at the top of the pass just for a few minutes, savoring the experience. It is so amazing to be able to do this! I was very grateful for the fact that my body is capable of getting me to this place from town under my own power.

The trail off the pass is a mess. It's too steep, and in places running water has eroded it down to piles of rocks in a deep rut. I rode up to one of these places and decided to get off and walk just for safety's sake. I put my foot down on a rock that rolled over, and then staggered trying to find solid ground. I rolled off the bike into the wet willows. Not hurt, but annoyed at my clumsiness.

It was really not cold. I knew that the 10-15 minute descent into the basin would be chilling, but it just didn't seem cold enough to warrant pulling out the jacket and gloves, since the hike-a-bike up to Tomichi Pass would start so soon, and I'd be warm enough then for sure. I committed myself to stopping if a chill came over me. But it didn't happen. I arrived at the turn to Tomichi and Hancock Passes. Time quickly came to jump off and push.

Something bigger than I'd seen so far scrambled off the road and into the willows. I saw the butt of a critter as large as a medium sized dog disappearing into the brush. Not big enough to be a bear cub, but perhaps a large raccoon, or porcupine. I think I was looking at the brushy short quills of a very large porcupine's ass.

I was on and off the bike for the next 15 or 20 minutes, granny gear climbing more of the approach to Tomichi than I remember every being able to pull off in the 5 or 6 times I've done this. I was amazed at how good I was feeling. I knew exactly what was coming. And I was OK with it. I had a long stumbling push up the rutted and rocky jeep trail to Tomichi, a brief descent, and then a ridiculous stumbling push up to the high point of the whole course at Granite Mountain--the start of the Canyon Creek Trail. So I started marching next to my bike. It was about 4:30 AM and there was no sign of dawn's light.

The climb to Tomichi was just not that hard. I called that staggering awkward climb "Quit Hill" the first time I did this back in 2007. And I was very fit that year. Maybe it was just knowing exactly what to expect. Maybe it was just that I stayed on task and took my medicine. I don't know. But it was fine. Before I knew it I was on Tomichi Pass, and I pulled off the pack and got out some stuff to eat. As I took a pee, I heard some rocks moving just south of the pass, and then heard the unmistakable sound of elk making warning sounds. It was a little eery, because I couldn't see them and had no idea how close they were. I talked to them a little, then got loaded back up and headed down the half mile or so to the intersection with the Canyon Creek Trail.

Tomichi Canyon

The hike-a-bike up to the summit of Granite Peak is just absurd. It's a moto trail, and much of it is fall line. It's a rut that's often about 4 feet deep and 8 feet wide. The bottom is lined with sharp-edged rocks of every size, and they move and shift. The bike hangs up on them and often has to be lifted and yanked. The right way to do this is to have a bike that's light enough to pull onto your back and just carry like a sherpa carries a huge pack. But I've never been able to pull that off.

Tomichi Canyon

Half way up the grunting hike-a-bike, the eastern horizon went from gray to rose. I switched off my lights. I listened to the sounds of animals reacting to the dawn. Hawks or falcons were calling. I could hear elk vocalizing, and there was a deep bass sound of their hooves thumping somewhere nearby. I marched, stopping occasionally to breath and look around. The thrill of seeing the dawn in this place breathed life into me. I've never been fast enough to be here this early, starting at 10 PM with the event. But starting before 8 I had been able to be here at this magic time. It almost brought tears to my eyes, the beauty of those moments.

Looking South across the horizon from Granite Peak

There were pockets of fog in the valleys and depressions I could see all across the horizon. I forgot to bring my good camera, so these images are the best that my crappy cell-phone camera can produce. Even a mega-bucks SLR would be unable to capture what it was really like though.

Continue Down Canyon Creek

I did not linger for long at the summit, beautiful as it was. A chill wind was blowing from the west, and for the first time I was compelled to yank my rain jacket from the pack to protect myself from the cold. I snapped one last picture and started the spectacular traverse across the high ridge to the descent into Canyon Creek.

When I was out on the ridge shown above, my herd of elk crossed over in front of me from the right. There were easily 40 of them; beautiful healthy animals.

Then came the brake-burning descent into the upper Canyon Creek basin.

I had made it through the night, and had come over the high point of the course. I had passed the entrance exam. Now I was admitted to the University of Suffer. I knew what the day ahead of me would be like. If everything went perfectly, it would be incredibly painful; an exercise in will.

The first class I had, Suffer 101, would be the climb to Old Monarch.

To Be Continued...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Creating Adventure

Full time Information Technology jobs can make for an overly homogenized life. Lots of sitting in front of the computer, tapping away writing programs and investigating problems. Lots of sameness, physical safety, fluorescent lighting, and completely man-made environment and experience. The life of the IT Geek is just about as man-made as you get.

I've been craving intensity. Raw life experience. I have been riding quite a bit, having some great days in the mountains. But it has not been enough.

And then there's the Vapor Trail 125; my haunting nemesis. For half a decade it's been a big part of my life, coming along every late summer. I've ridden in 3 of them. The only one I finished was the one where a huge weather event forced us to move the start back and trim the most intense parts off the course.

Every year as the summer wears on, I'm confronted with the question: Will I throw myself at another attempt?

This year I came up with a new plan. Individual Time Trial. Take on the course on my own terms. Start when I want, no concern about making cut-off times. Choose the day based on my own needs and good timing with regard to current weather conditions. All the resources and motivation come from me. No help from aid station volunteers, no cookies provided with a strong dose of encouragement. No EMTs on course in case I break myself.

Because of our busy back-to-school season in July and August at work, we have a moratorium on taking vacation. July and August are really the prime months for doing an around-the-clock bike ride in the Colorado mountains. Early September is the time when the official event happens, but that's because Absolute Bikes is too busy to deal with anything other than business through the summer. Has to be after Labor Day.

For my ITT, I wanted to go during July or August. Mid-summer. About a week ago I had the experience that we have every summer at some point; the realization that there were only so many weekends left in the summer. What am I waiting for? I decided that it should be this weekend. Was I ready? Are you ever ready for something like this?

The only way I saw to do this thing inside a weekend, when I was expected to be at work on Monday at 8 AM, would be to get home from work Friday, pack my pack, and roll before nightfall. The official event starts at 10. But at my speed, which is well documented after 3 official attempts, a 10 PM start doesn't necessarily allow enough time for me to finish before nightfall the following day. So I would leave earlier. Between and 7 and 8 PM.

Working all day then leaving for a 24 hour bike ride that begins by riding through the night, 2 hours after getting home from work, is not an ideal plan. But doing it starting Saturday night would mean finishing Sunday night and having less than 24 hours to rebound before arriving at my desk Monday morning. How about sleeping then leaving early Saturday morning? That would put me up in the super high country starting when the afternoon storms are pounding away up there.

So I got home, rushed around getting packed up and ready, ate a very light meal, and left the house a little after 7:30 riding west into overcast twilight.

I could have invited a number of people to ride with me. Several friends had heard me say that I wanted to ITT the Vapor Trail 125 course, and expressed interest in coming with me. But I felt reluctant to bring somebody into my flawed plan. What if I got slammed down with exhaustion around midnight and had to bail? I came off a 40 hour week, and often I find myself fairly comatose on Saturday mornings. On a certain level, my plan was stupid. I didn't want to bring somebody else into my goofy experience.

And it was a vision quest for me. I wanted to not only finish the Vapor Trail 125, but I wanted to finish it based on my own motivation, my own strength. I did not want to need somebody to support me. And on the flip side, if I decided I wanted to bail I wanted to be able to do it without negotiation.

So there's the set up. Story to follow. After I take a little nap...

Monday, July 16, 2012

Back to the Ordinary (and that's OK)

Classic Rainbow Trail Pic

The week that followed last weekend's Durango Dirty Century was a fairly long one. Back at my desk. Plenty of (too much?) time to think. Excitement, challenge, exposure to the raw power of Mother Nature; replaced by fluorescent lighting and getting lost in a world of data and logic.

Wednesday I got back on the bike, just for a routine after work loop that usually takes me 45-50 minutes. The active monsoons were pounding up high in the Arkansas Hills back behind my loop. I wanted the ride after three days of the workplace. And I wanted back on the horse. Would I be spending the rest of the monsoon season hiding in the house for fear of water, mud, and lightning? Storms up there north of town go off the back of the hills and into South Park. Should be fine for 40 minutes. I left for the ride as soon as I could after getting home from work.

Twenty minutes after I started I was getting spattered with rain. I hammered a very hard pace, intent to finish. But for the last 10 minutes of the ride I was pounded with hard rain and chased by lightning with thunder booming inside a 5-count. Damn! Two rides, two chances to be killed by Mother Nature! One miles and miles away from any shelter high in the San Juans, one within a couple miles of my house.

Thursday night I got in a ride with only a light spattering of rain and no close lightning. Friday morning I went in to work late and got a lovely morning ride on the local trails.

Saturday I was kind of sleep-walking through much of my day. I spent most of the day doing things that hadn't been getting done, like taking recycling to the drop-off and mowing my lawn. The high country looked totally socked in starting by lunchtime. We had a hard rain in town mid-afternoon.

Kathy and I waited too late, then tried to dash out for a late-afternoon ride between storms. Guess what? We got caught in a ridiculously fast-moving storm. Once again, lightning flashed over my head and the thunder came so soon that I knew it was less than half a mile away!

Sunday I got myself up and going. I wanted at least one decent long ride for the weekend. I headed from town toward the Marshall Pass country. I left home before the sun cleared the horizon. Plan was to get up to a decision point between climb to Marshall and much shorter climb to the Rainbow Trail Head. Either 3.5-4 hour ride if that's all Mother Nature would allow, or 6-6.5 hour ride if things looked safe. Rule #1 was to stay away from storms. Just say no to being killed by lightning, or even soaked to the skin again.

I pedaled like I was in an XC race right from the house. I was racing for a chance to finish a whole ride.

Made my bread-and-butter town-Marshall Pass-Silver Creek Trail-Rainbow Trail loop without any foul weather. Turns out the clouds built up a little later than they have been, I started early, and I rocked a pace that I haven't pulled off for years. Got to Marshall in less than 3 hours from the house. I can't remember doing that kind of pace for years.

dawn at Marshall

I rode the first 4/5s of the ride as fast as my legs would take me. Hit a bit of a wall on the Rainbow so my overall time was relatively ordinary, but the rain didn't catch me.

It was weird to have a grand, beautiful loop seem completely ordinary. I never get tired of it even though I do it at least 8 or more times per year. But by comparison to what I did last weekend, it was totally ordinary and routine. But that's OK.

The monsoons this year are hard core. Damn good thing. The forests and scrub lands need it really badly. It's obviously cramping my style, but I'll take it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Durango Dirty Century 2012

It's been several days since I left the Durango Dirty Century course; cold, wet, and emotionally rattled. I've been trying to sort out my memories and feelings about it since then. It was an intense, personal experience. I'm going to relate the story, but it will be like a picture taken of a glorious landscape--it won't do the actual experience justice.

  colo trail

The event official start time was 6:00 AM Saturday July 7. But some of the riders of more moderate speed like myself agreed to meet at Velorution Cycles to start at 5 AM, hoping for a better chance of finishing at a decent hour. This ride is a big one. The fastest rider in 2011 finished in over 12 hours. That kind of difficulty and distance leaves somebody of my ability facing an 18 or more hour day.

Very light rain was falling as five of us rolled through a mostly deserted Durango, heading north toward the Hermosa Creek Trailhead. As the dawn brought light to the day, the sky was gray overcast and the ground everywhere was moist. But it was warm enough for shorts and short sleeves.

The easy climb up Hermosa Creek was pleasant, it's a beautiful trail and normally a person has lots of company. But when you hit the trailhead around 6 AM it's pretty much deserted.

bolam pass road

After the first aid station we jumped onto the Bolam Pass road. Everything was beautiful and green, and there were clumps of misty cloud up on the mountainsides above. The climb is mostly very aerobic, but as the top of the pass nears the road gets steeper and lumpier.

colo trail

I was feeling really good. I was keeping up on my food and hydration, my legs felt good, and the temperature was perfect. The moist air was kind to the lungs. I stuck with Matt's advice, and rode at a relaxed, recreational pace. The ride from town, up Hermosa, all the way to the pass is pretty much a prologue. As Matt explained, the real work starts after Bolam and continues to around mile 70 at Kennebec Pass. Don't burn up your legs getting up to Bolam from town, save it for what comes after Bolam.

colo trail

The section of Colorado Trail that we jumped onto at the pass is absolutely stunning. It's probably the prettiest bit of Colorado Trail I have ever seen. All of the Colorado Trail that I saw during this event was remarkable. It's rugged and dramatic, and with all the moisture that's been coming to the San Juans lately the vegetation was spectacular.

colo trail

As I worked my way south, rain started falling lightly. I passed among peaks that were shrouded in cloud. As I said, it was beautiful--a dramatic landscape in muted light with vibrant flowers being fed by soft moisture.

But then the rain began to fall harder. And harder. Soon it was a full downpour. I stopped and pulled out my rain jacket. The trail filled with water, and where it went up or downhill it ran with red mud. I was mostly climbing or traversing, but then came to a point where it was time to descend through a series of switchbacks. In dry conditions I would have been able to make good time, but it was far to slippery to let myself gain any momentum.

Then I had my first crash. I was rolling along at a very moderate pace and needed to avoid a large stick in the trail. I rode up onto the left side of the trail, but the slant of the trailbed caused my front wheel to slip then wash out. I tried to stop my crash by throwing my left leg out to the side but before I knew it I was somersaulting off the bike into the muddy wet grass.

When I got back on and started descending again I noticed that my front brake lever was almost contacting the grip as I pulled it. I had put brand new pads on both front and rear days earlier in preparation. I use mechanical discs, so when the pads wear they need to be adjusted for slop manually. I wondered if my cable was slipping, but finally concluded that the pads were wearing so fast that I would need to adjust them already. The grit and mud was melting them away like butter.

Eventually the rain slacked and the trail leveled out. But the tread was so sloppy and the rocks so slick, it was difficult to ride. I wound up walking way more than I should have needed to. Several riders caught up to me at this point. It was discouraging. I was concerned about the toll this was taking on my bike. I was about halfway in miles, and had only started the hard part.

The picture above is from Blackhawk Pass. I crashed 4 or 5 times descending off that pass. The rain had stopped but the trail was pure grease. They weren't bad crashes, just slow rolls. But they rattled me. I could hardly go slow enough to keep from washing out the front tire.

Soon the second aid station appeared. It was such an incredible shot in the arm. There was plenty of water that could be used to wash down the bike, getting some of the mud out of the chain, derailleurs, and brakes. And the rain had stopped. And they had some great food. Including bacon! And of course, great people. Lots of smiles and friendly encouragement. The volunteers for this event deserve some real credit; they were wonderful.

So maybe that was it for the weather, perhaps the day was going to become moderately dry from here on out. Sure seemed like it was clearing out and getting nice.

colo trail

The sun actually came out as I road south away from the second aid station. My bike slowly dried off, and eventually it was dry enough that I could re-apply chain lube. I scraped drying mud off the derailleur jockey wheels. I adjusted my brakes one more time. I started riding and it was actually feeling like a normal bike. We had survived the deluge.

But there were some hard miles ahead. I was feeling the strain of the day. But I kept drinking and putting food in my mouth, and I had taken in some good calories at the aid station.

As I approached a section called the Highline Trail, there was some tough climbing. It wouldn't have been bad if I hadn't been so hammered. But for me, at that time, it was hard. I took Matt's advice again, don't stop. Keep moving. I would pedal granny gear until I started to see stars, then jump off and immediately start pushing. No standing around trying to catch my breath, I caught my breath as I was walking. And then watched for relatively level spots to get back on and start pedaling again.

As I worked on this long steady climbing section, muttering thunder started getting closer. I could see a dark gray cloud ahead. I could not see any lightning, but I could hear it. We seemed to be on a collision path. But there was nothing for me to do but keep marching. If the storm overtook me I would just have to wait it out. I wasn't planning to be done until after dark anyway.

It was about 4:30 PM. My GPS showed less than 1 hour of stopped time, and I was into my 11th hour of moving time. I was feeling pretty haggard, but I was resigned to stay the course, as the saying goes. On the DDC course, there aren't any easy bail points. And from where I was there was only backtracking many miles to a viable bail point. The only real choice was to move forward.

But then once again, things looked up. I arrived at something of a summit, and saw a sign that said Highline Trail. The storm that had been seeming ready to overtake me now was clearly moving off to my right. I had missed it! I was OK. I hopped onto the bike and the trail started to flow for me. There were ups and downs, but it became a flowing, rideable trail. I was moving again! I was actually covering miles!

Things looked good for me at that point. I saw that I was moving into the upper 60s in miles traveled. Matt had said that the hardest stuff was up to about mile 70. So perhaps I was on the verge of arriving at Kennebec Pass and the final aid station! It was around 5, and I had heard somebody say at the last aid station that anybody who got to Kennebec after 5:30 would be finishing in the dark. Well I had planned to finish in the dark. If I arrived at 5:30 maybe I would be there sooner than nightfall!

Then I got to a sign post. The sign read, Kennebec Pass, 5 miles. Ouch. A bit further along was another sign that said Kennebec Pass Road, 6 miles. My GPS said 68 miles. So, Kennebec would be at roughly 73, and the road at roughly 74? Where would the aid station be, the pass or the road? I assumed the road.

But would it even be there by this late? I had been told not to expect aid stations to be running past a certain point. They would not wait for every rider.

And then the trail turned sharply upward. Ouch again.

I ran into a fellow rider. Robin from Fort Collins was stopped for a rest and saw me hike-a-biking up the trail. We talked about bike polo. He was wearing an Oskar Blues jersey and riding a Dean belt-drive singlespeed. Robin and I made our way onto a segment that I see on the topo maps labeled as Indian Ridge.

It was dramatic, but it lead to a series of hard, rugged hike-a-bikes up over 12K + summits. Eventually I lost site of Robin.

colo trail

Time was passing. 5:30 was long gone as I chugged my way up and over these tough hills. The miles ticked by very slowly. But I held to my conviction to keep moving. Keep marching. Ride when possible, push when riding was not possible. But keep moving.

I eventually made an exception to that rule because I started getting the unmistakable feeling that it was time for another influx of calories. I pulled off my pack, sat down, and began stuffing food into my mouth and chewing it and swallowing it. I was stopped for less than 5 minutes according to my GPS. It was now saying that my total stopped time for the day was about an hour and 10 minutes. Moving time was in the neighborhood of 13 hours. Miles traveled over 70.

colo trail

I approached one of the summits, and it was shrouded in cloud. It was beautiful. Awesome. I was exhausted and nervous, but inspired. I was in such an overwhelmingly dramatic place. I trudged up into the cloud, and immediately realized that it wasn't just mist. It was rain. I marched on into the soft rain, and my nervousness ticked upward a notch.

Then the rain got harder. My rain jacket had been stowed back into the pack after the last storm ended. Time to get it back out. I stopped for as short a time as possible to haul it out and put it on. I was feeling a bit of anger. Most of it was directed at myself for being so slow that I was going to be caught in another shower. And I was annoyed that the best part of this ride was to be the long singletrack descent back to the western terminus of the Colorado Trail. And now, would it be a river of mud like I'd experienced in the morning? Crashing? Brake pads worn down to a point of worthlessness? Walking the descent because of failed brakes?

Then the sleet started and the rain came down harder. I crested a summit, only to see that there was another beyond it. I felt a wave of exhausted frustration. I tried to mount my bike to descend off the summit, but the rocks were too slippery with mud and sleet. I had to walk down. I muttered and stumbled toward another summit.

I staggered my way up through loose rock onto the next ascent trying to increase my pace. The rain and sleet came down hard and as I left the rock and got into low willows, and the trail again ran with mud.

Then came the first flash of lightning. I instinctively started counting immediately.

I did not get to count to two. The clap of thunder was severe. It was close. It was on me.

With a strong sense of anger and frustration, I dropped my bike and crouched down in a gap between the willows. Time to hunker down and wait for the electricity to pass. I could see the slope curving to the rounded summit above me--I was right near the top.

Another violent flash and almost simultaneous boom made me jump. I went from crouch to sitting right on the ground to get lower. I hunched over. The icy cold wetness of the ground came up through my lycra shorts. I knew immediately that the rain jacket alone wasn't going to cut it. I needed to put on my rain pants. I pulled them out of my soaked backpack, but was hesitant to stand up enough to get them on. I pulled them on awkwardly then immediately sat back down. I also pulled a lycra beanie out of the pack, yanked it onto my head and pulled the rain jacket hood on over it. I faced down watching the sleet piling up on my feet and legs.

Time started passing. The lightning and hard sleet and rain continued consistently.

Emotions and thoughts flashed through my head; I was irritated with my luck. I was irritated that I hadn't been fast enough. I regretted having stopped to spend 5 minutes eating. But with every flash of lightning my anger and frustration was chopped away and replaced by fear and shame.

I was overwhelmed with a profound regret at my own hubris. I congratulate myself that I know what it takes to be in the high country. I bring rain gear. I have extra warm things that I can put on... but I only had one pair of gloves, and they were soaked. I had a thick base layer still in the pack, but would it be enough, even nearly enough? I didn't want to try to put it on at that point because I'd have to take off my rain jacket...

Was the aid station gone? Was I going to have to find my way down through 25 miles of wet chill and mud to get back to safety and shelter? I knew there was one more significant climb after Kennebec. Would I be able to handle it? How much water did I even have left?

When would the core of this storm move off?!? How long had it been already, half an hour? I started to shiver. It dawned on me then that I might get hypothermia before the lightning ever moved off allowing my to safely climb down off this summit.

It's hard for me to admit to how deep my fear ran. I will admit to wailing out a few loud sobs. I was becoming more frightened with every passing minute. The possibility that this could be the last day of my life began to feel very real. I could get hit by lightning even as I sat here bent over in the mud. I could get so cold that even when the storm did relent, I would be unable to think clearly, move, get myself out. And even if I did get down off this crazy place, I was miles and miles and miles from being safe.

I decided I had to move. I jumped up, still staying as low as possible and pulled on my sopping wet pack. I picked up my bike and ran next to it with my head low. The summit truly was right there. I had been sitting only about 100 feet from the top. I crested it as lightning continued to flash and thunder roared. I ran off the other side of the peak and saw a basin cirque below with a lake. The trail down was steep and rutted and rocky. It ran with a river of mud. I slipped and scrambled down until it looked like I could safely ride then I jumped on and rolled through a running river on the trail. The lightening was every bit as close as it had been when I was on top. Thunder came immediately after every flash. My outbreaths produced panic noises. Once again I could feel my brakes squish down--the pads were melting away ridiculously fast even as I descended only a moderate slope.

I came to an intersection and had to wipe the mud and water from my GPS screen to confirm that I was taking the correct branch. Going the wrong way now could be a lethal mistake.

Eventually I heard the thunder recede behind me, but the rain continued to hammer down.

I came over a slight rise, and saw an easy-up with 5 people standing under it. The aid station was still there! Relief washed over me. I felt so grateful, so lucky, that help was there.

My ride ended there. Two aid station volunteers and three other riders were waiting there. They had been anxiously watching for me. I was very, very close to showing them all some real tears of relief and fear.

I was shivering badly even now out of the rain. I reached into my pack for the last remaining piece of clothing I could put on, a Patagonia Capilene 3 mid-layer. It was soaked. Totally soaked. If I had needed to rely on it I would have been sorely disappointed.

It was obvious that none of us was going to attempt to finish. All we wanted to do was figure out how to get down. Get back to civilization.

An acquaintance of one the volunteers was just driving by in an old Toyota Land Cruiser. We waved him down. He offered to take people and bikes down. The aid station guys just had a little 80s Toyota truck. We had been considering stashing the bikes in the bushes and putting the four of us in under the shell to drive down. The Land Cruiser took four people and two bikes, the other two bikes went into the truck and we headed down.

The rest of the story is interesting, but this is already a long story... Suffice to say that it took a full hour of 4-wheeling to get down to Hesperus, 20 minutes west of Durango. From there friends were called to pick us up and give us rides back to town. The aid station volunteers turned around to go back up to Kennebec to break down the aid station. I gave them $20 and told them that there wasn't any amount of money that could express my gratitude.

It was 10 PM when I got dropped off at my motel where I could peel off my wet muddy clothes and get a warm shower. And go to bed. I didn't really sleep though--my nerves were too jangled and my body too thrashed.

  colo trail

Colorado has gone from scary dry to wet as Seattle in November. Last night, the third rain storm of the day came hammering down on Salida. I took this picture out my kitchen window. I stood there in my kitchen, safe and dry, and watched nature do what she would. I felt a rush of memory of those long minutes on the summit, and an appreciation for how fragile we are. Or at least how fragile I am.

I love those mountains. I have always been in awe of their power, beauty, and stark indifference to our safety and comfort. But this past Saturday I had my illusions of preparedness and control stripped away. When we go up there, we can be prepared. But can we be prepared for anything and everything those mountains might throw at us?

I learned a great deal on Saturday. It was a very rich day for me. I lived through a crazy dangerous situation, I saw achingly beautiful landscapes, the people around me vastly exceeded any reasonable expectations I might have for their capacity to watch out for each other (for me specifically). And I learned about being prepared. I'll be better prepared next time, but I won't fool myself into thinking that I've got any guarantee that it will be enough to keep me safe in any situation.