Such a big day, so many images and memories swirling around in my head. Ever since I came home from last year's DDC with my tail between my legs, returning and then finishing has been a minor obsession for me.
I started an hour before the official start last year. This year I pushed for an earlier start, and wound up rolling out at 4 AM with 10 others.
We faced twin threats: smoke and weather. The first San Juan Mountain monsoons of the season magically popped up the day we got there. In the big picture, this is very good news. Colorado's 2013 fire season needs to be closed. For my part, I would have appreciated it if they could have waited a couple more days. When we got to Durango, the Animas Valley was full of smoke, probably from the Gila Fire in New Mexico. I stayed with my friend Aaron at the Hostel in Durango (which is a sweet deal by the way). The window was open, and there was smoke in my nose as I tried to fall asleep.
The alarm went off at 2:30, and it was startling but I was awake right away. Had a cup of coffee to shake off the sleep and get my head together. Put the last stuff in my pack, mixed my first bottle of Tailwind, and headed to town to line up at Velorution Bike Shop and get ready to head out.
Rolled out promptly at 4 with 10 other riders. It was good to finally be starting this thing, after a year of waiting for my chance to get it done. We all rode smoothly and quietly up the road to the town of Hermosa, and then on up to the Hermosa Creek Trail.
It was first light about the time we go onto the singletrack. When the light came, I could see that the air was definitely hazy. But there wasn't overwhelming smoke odor that I could detect. Every once in a while I would seem to get a whiff of smoke, but I really think much of the haze was moisture from the previous day's rain. My eyes weren't smarting and I wasn't feeling the familiar burning in my lungs.
I felt like I was making really good time. I was keeping in mind Matt's advice not to time trial Hermosa Creek Trail, keep a modest recreational pace, and save as much as possible for the 40 or 50 miles of hard work that would be needed to get from Hermosa Park to Kennebec.
I made it to Bolam Pass a little after 10 AM after the hard slog up the jeep road, which gets steeper and rougher the higher up you go. The first rider who started at the regular 6 AM rollout caught me at 9:55. Turns out it was Jesse Jakomait, on his way to a course record finish. He was smoking fast up one of the truly steep pitches. I was pushing my bike and and he rocked past; incredibly impressive power.
Passed Celebration Lake, and then started some real work climbing the Colorado Trail through some of the prettiest mountain landscape you'll ever see toward the 12,000 foot summit of Blackhawk Pass.
Between Celebration Lake and Blackhawk Pass, with a rider who'd just passed me in about the middle of the frame
Another shot from that piece of trail east of Blackhawk. Pictures truly don't do it justice.
The final approach to Blackhawk Pass. The columbine were absolutely amazing. Beautiful setting for a sufferfest.
As I approached Blackhawk pass the sky was darkening and the mountains were echoing with thunder. A feeling of familiar dread came over me. We weren't going to have perfect weather. In 2012 I got here a muddy mess. Was that my destiny for today?
When I made the pass I could see that the storm making all the noise was east of me, and moving away. Seemed like a good omen, and my mood improved a little as I started the first of a series of exhilarating descents that would take me to the aid station at Hotel Draw.
But it wasn't over. As I approached Hotel Draw another thundershower rolled over me, and soon I was in rain and being pelted with sharp shards of small hail. Seemed like the whole area was turning into a nest of thunderstorms. I started thinking about how smart if might be to just call it good and bail down Hotel Draw as I approached the 50 mile mark after 8 hours of riding. It would still be a big day. I would have to ride Hermosa Creek again after descending down to Hermosa Park. After last year, the idea of avoiding the high bald gauntlet of Indian Ridge with the threat of lightening seemed pretty rational.
I rode into the Hotel Draw aid station with a head full of quit thoughts. The people manning the station were great, and they had lots of stuff available, so I went about filling my hydration bladder and getting ready to move on, one way or another.
There were several wet riders pacing around at the aid station, and there was lots of talk about how bad it might be getting out on the remaining part of the course. A young woman named Theresa had gone about a mile out and turned back. She had a rain jacket on with the hood cinched up tight and looked cold. Caroline who'd been one of the 10 who started at 4 AM had a map, and we looked at it to see what the bail options were. Corral Draw was just a mile or two ahead, singletrack down to Hermosa Park. Looked like a decent option.
A guy there who turned out to be one of the riders at the Salida Big Friggin' Loop earlier in June from Telluride (sorry, can't remember his name) told us that Corral Draw was a good trail. He also said he thought that we were going to be all right, that the weather didn't look to him like it was developing into a big problem, just a normal summer afternoon. He said that just past the Corral Draw trail there was a place where we'd be able to look around at the big picture to get a clearer impression. But he was going on, he had no hesitation.
After 10 or 15 minutes of deliberation, Caroline, Theresa, Stephanie (another woman who'd started with us at 4) and I decided to go on and just see how it went. Seemed stupid not to at least go to the Corral Draw and then look around. And there was always the option of just continuing on until it was obvious that we should turn back. Indian Ridge was still many miles away, and those miles were almost completely in the cover of timber.
On the first climb out of the Hotel Draw aid station, I felt the deep fatigue from the miles of climbing I already had in my legs. I knew how much work there was to be done to get to Kennebec Aid. Just getting to the beginning of Indian Ridge had lots of hard work, I remembered hours of bike pushing--then of course there was the heinous hike-a-bike on the ridge itself. I was having trouble keeping up with the three tough young women I'd fallen in with. Quit thoughts were heavy in my head.
We got to the Corral Draw trail sign. I looked at it descending away, down to safety. How easy it would be to just let gravity take me down.
The four of us had a little pow-wow. It wasn't currently raining, not even anywhere very close to us. But the mutter of thunder was around. We talked about how we wanted to finish, how we didn't want to die in a stupid attempt to finish, how it would still be a certain amount of work to get back to town even if we bailed.
Finally it came down to the round robin. Each of us were to declare whether we wanted to bail or continue on. I was secretly prepared to bail if any of the others said they wanted to. When it came to Caroline's turn she said with a determined expression on her face, "I want to do this, I'm going to keep going."
For some reason, that cinched it for me. Yep. I'm going. I'm going to be rational, I won't go out onto that long open ridge if it looks dangerous, but I'm not quitting. Not yet.
We headed out, all four of us. I felt a renewed energy. Amazing about what kind of energy can come out of an improved attitude.
After a little while, my friend El Freako from Rico came up and asked for a pass. I didn't realize who he was until he went around me on his fat bike. Seeing him on that huge bike tearing through the singletrack just kind of jazzed me up. I jumped on his wheel and we talked a little and rocked through the skunk cabbage. Then he rolled on away ahead of me.
After that, something really changed for me. I started feeling a really strong energy and my attitude got even better. We were getting glimpses of the broader horizon and things really started looking OK. And my legs were working. For the first time since we'd left Hotel Draw I was out in front of my posse, and I started really rolling on the descents. They weren't catching me on the climbs. I stopped periodically to let everybody catch up. Some really pleasant miles went by. I was feeling really good.
Then, with little warning, another thundershower caught us. I was moving through an open area with no tree cover when the rain started coming down hard and the hail started stinging my arms and legs. I rode hard to get into a stand of trees and stood in under some to keep the hail and moisture landing on me to a minimum.
After a while Caroline rode up and got into the shelter. Then Stephanie came and told us that Theresa had turned back. We had another little pow-wow and we all declared our intention to go at least a little further. I told them that we would be in cover for quite a few more miles before reaching Indian Ridge. Then the storm moved off and the rain petered out. We all got back onto our bikes and continued on.
Pretty soon we got onto the long hard climb that I remembered; that takes the trail up from just under 11,000 feet to the roughly 12,000 Indian Ridge section. I had walked almost all of it in 2012. I remembered it as a nauseating, endless slog. This time I rode almost all of it. It was tough, but nothing like I remembered.
At the top of the really steep part I stopped to wait up for Caroline and Stephanie and drank the red bull I'd brought along. When Caroline got there she said that she thought I ought to go on ahead. She said she and Stephanie would look out for each other and that I seemed to be moving pretty well. Obviously they are pretty tough women, and I knew they would be fine so I decided that I ought to just get moving. It really looked like we had a nice window to get through the gauntlet.
I headed out, and when I popped out of the trees it looked like the ridge ahead was safe. There was a cross breeze with an occasional spritz of very light rain droplets, but no storms on the visible horizon. I put my game face on and threw every bit of energy I had into getting through it. I was taking no chances that the weather would degrade--until I saw some reason to do otherwise I was going to put singular focus into getting to Kennebec.
I didn't stop for anything, but when this little guy popped out of the rocks 10 feet away to check me out I had to stop to get a portrait. But mostly I was either riding the crazy technical descents or marching up the hike-a-bikes. It was serious suffer, but memories of last year kept me on my mission. I wasn't going to let off the throttle until I saw the aid station.
And of course, eventually I did.
Another great group of volunteers there, so grateful that they gave up their day. These folks intended to stay overnight, just in case people showed up in need of help at any point.
I was elated. The object of my fear had been confronted. I won't say that I conquered anything, I just was given a chance to pass this time by mother nature, or maybe the spirit of Chief Ouray. What a blessing.
Time to continue. Time to finish this thing.
I had to cover a section of Colorado Trail that I'd never seen, then drop back down into the Animas Valley on a section that is very familiar to me. I knew there was a climb at the end of the unfamiliar section that has a reputation for being quite unpleasant. But I also knew it was only a little over 1,000 feet. I climb that much on my normal after work rides. I can do that.
Immediately when I left the aid station, I felt like it had to be wrong. It just felt like I was going the wrong way. I was heading off to the right, to the west. It felt like I should be going almost directly the other way. I checked my GPS more than once--it confirmed that what I was doing was right. At least if the track I'd loaded was right, I was on course.
Then the descending began. The beginning was a scree field descent that was crazy long and steep. My brakes started making a tortured screeching noise, and then started to fade. Eventually I stopped for a couple of minutes to let them cool off, and luckily after that the down grade moderated a little and they were able to keep up. But the escalator ride down continued.
I came to a dirt road. It was the road that I'd been given a ride down last year that goes to Hesperus. There was a lady there at the intersection who cheered me on. I asked her if this was right and she said it was, that I would descend down and cross the La Plata River, then need to climb to the far ridge. She pointed to it. Yikes. It looked big. And the canyon I was descending into looked bottomless. I thanked her and went on.
The trail down appeared to have been worked on quite a bit recently. It was awesome, but there were some truly treacherous wet waterbar timbers and roots. Slick as greased glass. I was very conscious of the fact that I was tired, and that the potential for a bad crash was high.
Down and down. The trail routing was amazing. I could see that there was a ton of elevation that needed to be given up, and the canyon sides were super steep. The trail traversed down into a side canyon I was so focused that I almost missed the spectacular box canyon I was riding into with a thin waterfall.
That side canyon drained into another side canyon, which the trail followed down and down until finally the bridge over the La Plata appeared. Wow. Wow. I am in awe of that trail section. An artist laid down that route.
The climb out of the La Plata to the High Point, and the entry into the Animas River drainage really was, uh, unpleasant. I walked a great deal of it. There were a few traversing sections that were rideable by someone in my condition, but much of it was just a slog. I marched. It couldn't last forever. Eventually I would hit the high point, and I knew that the way down to town from the High Point was a wonderful descent with almost no climbing. I couldn't wait to get back to town, sign in, and go to Carver's where I would certainly be able to buy a wonderful hamburger.
When I started descending with a smile as wide as my limited energy would allow, it was a little after 8 PM. The light was getting a little thin, so I turned on my lights. The descent was very good, but it was endless. The rocks in the trail were coated with the dust from the trail, so the trail and rocks were the same color. Again, I was very conscious of the danger of a crash. I wanted to be done very badly, which was incentive to go fast, but I kept myself in check. I wanted to finish in good shape. I wanted to be eating a hamburger, not sitting in an emergency room waiting for somebody to set a broken bone.
And then I was in the trailhead parking lot. Then rolling down the Junction Creek Road pushing the big ring. Then into one of Durango's nice residental neighborhoods. Then crossing a pedestrian bridge over the Animas River. Then finally, finally I was in front of Velorution signing in. 9:15 PM. Seventeen Hours, Fifteen Minutes.