As some of the three people who will read this know, the Vapor Trail 125 has been something of an obsession of mine for more than a few years. I was part of the creation of the event back in 2005, though it was not my idea. I was the event director for several years. I've had something to do with it every time it's happened, and I've ridden in the event 3 times and attempted it on my own once. I finished in 2009, but that was the year that a bizarre weather event caused the start to be postponed and the course to be cut down.
So, basically, I never finished it. And that's become a problem for me. Like in those trailers for bad movies where the narrator with the weird voice says, "...this time it's personal."
I'm signed up for my 4th Vapor Trail 125, it's happening this year Septemer 7-8. But I have been needing to finish this thing. Finishing the Vapor Trail 125 was one of my two big endurance goals for 2013 (the other was finishing the Durango Dirty Century--that one was also personal).
Given that I have an almost irrational need to mark this off my list. And knowing that things can happen that keep a person from finishing, things within and things beyond one's control (like crazy weather), I wanted to give myself at least two chances. So I've been watching for my chance this summer to make an attempt at finishing as an ITT (Individual Time Trial) of the Vapor Trail 125.
For those (of the three of you) who don't know, when Endurance Mountain Bike Geeks refer to an ITT, we mean something like, "I am going to go out and ride this thing on my own, and if it goes well I will write about it later on Facebook."
To properly execute an ITT, the geek must ride the course as it is defined by the official event, and should follow the rules and expectations of that event. For example, if I do the Tour Divide or Colorado Trail Race as an ITT, I should practice self-support in addition to riding the course verbatim.
I followed the VT125 course explicitly. I did start a little earlier than the event. The official event starts at 10 PM and I chose to start a little after 7 PM. But that really doesn't make it any easier. In fact for me it probably made it a little harder--I was in full darkness by the time I started riding singletrack and was even in full darkness as I started the tough descent of the Canyon Creek Trail. The VT125 has 5 aid stations. And I was self-supported (mostly). I sterilized creek water 3 times, and carried everything I needed. Except that I really wound up in need of more chain lube than I brought, and lucked out running into a friend and Vapor Trail 125 finisher Gary Pierson who gave me his spare bottle of lube.
That gift may have been the difference between finishing and not finishing. But it happened right where I would have had my bike on a work stand being cleaned and lubed for me while I sat in a chair and received whatever I needed from Dave Wiens and his family at Aid Station #2. So I'm going to call it even.
By now you may have guessed that I finished it. I did, and the relief is wonderful even as my muscles and joints still are bathed in fatigue.
I spent most of Saturday, August 3rd preparing mentally and tactically. I put a great deal of thought and care into what went into my pack. I kept close tabs on weather. If it looked likely to be bad up in the hills on Sunday I was going to scrub the mission. I thought carefully about what was coming, and reflected on the mistakes I have made in past attempts. I knew that I needed to retain a presence of mind, a thread of consciousness that would keep an eye on my own physical and mental state. I thought much about how critical it would be to manage the transition from night to day. For me, that has been when the mistakes and break-downs have been most likely to occur.
At around 7 PM I hoisted my pack onto my back and rode down to the F Street Bridge, because that's where the Vapor Trail 125 starts. As soon as I got there I reset my GPS then headed south on F Street, turning right onto 3rd and headed west. No fanfare, just a typical scene in Salida--a mountain biker riding through town with a pack on his back.
It was a little overcast with a mild headwind as I pedaled west toward the mountains. It took me a little longer than usual to get to Blank's Cabin and get onto the trail, but I was riding a very careful pace--an all-day pace. Twenty minutes before I got to the trail it was dark enough for lights. Just near the last light of dusk, a nighthawk boomed me. If you've ever had that experience you know how startling it can be. I took it as a good omen.
Riding that section of the Colorado Trail at night has become a very familiar experience to me. But it's always new, and it's always a gas. I was riding carefully and at a moderate pace, but I kept moving with purpose. I stopped at Brown's Creek to use my steripen to sterilize some water. I don't like to take water from Chalk Creek because of the superfund site treating mine run-off up near Romley, so Browns was my last good source until I got over the Continental Divide.
It was fairly warm, but still overcast; no stars were visible. Nighttime rain could make things complicated, and we've had a pretty dramatic monsoon this year. I was hoping to see things clear off. It was almost the new moon, I had learned earlier that day that there would be a very thin waning crescent rising sometime around 3:30 AM. I like being out in the mountains with no moon, it makes the stars that much more dramatic.
Around midnight I dropped onto the old Denver and South Park railroad grade at Cascade off the Colorado Trail and started the long climb up to the Continental Divide at Altman Pass over the Alpine Tunnel. As usual, the temperature was at least 10° colder than it had been along the face of Mt. Antero up on the trail. A little breeze was coming down the canyon. Still overcast above, but looking up toward the divide I could see a few faint stars; an excellent sign that I had a good clear night ahead of me.
I stopped to put on leg warmers and mix a fresh bottle of Tailwind. I also drank half a red bull and put the rest into my water bottle. By the way, I did the whole ride on nothing but Tailwind Nutrition and two red bulls. (Get that caffeinated version of Tailwind out there guys! I would rather not have had to drink red bull, but it was the only source of caffeine that was practical for me--and it made me feel a little yukky. Too acidic!)
I made my steady way up, trying to maintain both a sustainable pace and healthy progress. I wanted to be over Canyon Creek and on my way up to Old Monarch Pass before it started getting too warm. And I wanted to be across the Monarch Crest before the potential monsoon storms started. Tick tock! I was focused on the goal.
When I do something like this, I feel that it's important to really be in the experience, celebrate the intensity of what I'm doing. But on this particular night I was focused on the goal. It isn't to say that I wasn't thrilled and overwhelmed by the grandness of it, but I wasn't going to be spending any time laying on my back staring up at the stars. The mission was my focus. I can go look at stars any time, tonight and tomorrow was about the goal.
That said, I did ride out from under the cloud cover and found myself under a blanket of utterly clear and magnificent stars. I made it to the Continental Divide a little after 3 AM. I stopped for just a moment to stare up amazed at the brilliance of stars seen from 12,000 feet with no artificial light visible anywhere. I scanned the eastern horizon for the moon but it wasn't there.
Made my way carefully down to the west portal of the Alpine Tunnel. The way down was treacherously eroded. It was obvious that there had been some huge gully-washer rains recently. The willows grow close together on that bit of the trail, and they drained their moisture onto my legs and arms as I brushed through them. Then it was time for the cold, cold descent down the old railroad grade to the intersection with the road to Tomichi Pass.
The hike-a-bike up to Tomichi, then on up to the top of Granite Mountain used to be an almost insurmountable soul-sucker for me. I gave the climb up to Tomichi the nickname "Quit Hill" the first time I attempted the Vapor Trail. Maybe now because I know exactly what to expect, that part of the course really isn't that bad. Just start marching next to the bike and keep moving.
I summited Tomichi Pass at about 4:15, and Granite Mountain on the Canyon Creek Trail just a little after 5. On my way up to Granite I finally saw my moon. The lit crescent was very thin, and the unlit orb of the moon itself was visible yellow-gold. There was a single planet shining directly either above or below (can't remember now). It was incredibly beautiful. When I was nearly all the way up, my right foot slipped on a rock that rolled under it and I mildly hyper-extended my knee. Luckily it was a little irritated but not enough to stop me.
I never really stopped on the summit of Canyon Creek Trail. I thought about how awesome it is to be there in the pre-dawn light, but I already have pictures and memories from that experience. Tonight (or more accurately this morning) is about the mission.
I turned both my headlamp and bar light to their highest setting, and told myself sternly DO NOT DO ANYTHING STUPID.
Canyon Creek Trail in pre-dawn light
I find that there's a really interesting and strange thing that happens when I am up all night and transition into the day. Being awake at night, my reptile brain seems to be playing a prominent role. Don't know if it's just because I'm not sleeping, or whether it has more to do with the fact that I'm out in the dark in a wild place with bears and lions and other threats where I need to be vigilant for danger. In the night I'm relatively cold and analytical. When it becomes light, the emotional part of my brain comes around. It's like waking up from sleepwalking I guess. It's a vulnerable place for me. I can be susceptible to elation and the resulting irrational behavior can lead to mistakes. Or my emotional state can crash quickly if something bad happens.
The beginning of the descent into the Canyon was really a mess. There had obviously been a great deal of moisture Saturday afternoon and the mud was terrible. It was very slippery and it sprayed all over my bike and me. The bike was an absolute mess and I was having to carefully control speed. Eventually I got down closer to the creek and the trail became less muddy and more sandy. I stopped there and purified some of the prettiest creek water you'll ever see. By the time I was done getting my water it was light enough to turn off my lights.
All the way down the trail I was repeating the mantra DON'T DO ANYTHING STUPID! My last two attempts at finishing this thing have ended with crashes down this very trail in the early morning. My bike was totally trashed. Beyond the multiple creek crossings were numerous puddles, and the wet sand and horseshit was constantly being thrown up into my drive train and onto me and the rest of the bike. I had remembered to bring a cotton rag, so I knew that at least this time I'd have a chance to clean up the chain a little once I got to Snowblind Campground.
In the last couple miles of Canyon Creek there's a climb up out of the creek bed on a sandy trail into lodgepole pine forest. As soon as I turned away from the creek and started climbing and shifted into granny gear my chain sucked up into the gap between chainstay and rear tire. It was bad, and I know that conditions like that can actually lead to bending the rear derailleur and/or hanger. I knew I needed to stop and do something to get the drivetrain ready to go back to work or risk a major mechanical.
I started by using my hydration pack to spray water to wash mud and sand off the chain and both derailleurs. I wished I had a garden hose. Then I took out my rag and immediately wished I had brought one three times the size. I used the rag to wipe dry the chain as much as possible. Then I got the chain lube out of my seat bag. It would have been more effective to ride the bike for a while to dry the chain a little then lube it, but I felt like I had little choice. The bottle of lube felt really light. In a flash I realized that I had committed a serious tactical error. I had not confirmed that I had plenty of lube. What I in fact had was a tiny, almost empty bottle.
The bummer monster grabbed my tired early morning brain. I cursed my bad judgement and started desperately dropping precious lube onto the chain. I ran out before I had placed drops on more than two-thirds of the links. Aaagh! I cursed and muttered, packing up and getting back under way. "I didn't even bring enough lube to do the whole chain once!" The chain was making a hideous grinding noise as I pedaled (but it wasn't sucking any more).
Then I realized what was happening and started telling myself, quit the bummer.
Quit it. Everything is fine. I got down most of the trail. It's early... My self dialog was kind of like Walter Sobchak saying "Nothing is fucked here, Dude." I put it away. And I started hoping maybe I'd run into some moto dudes who had a big can of Tri-flow. I could even ask a hillbilly for some chainsaw bar-chain oil...
I popped out onto the Whitepine Road across from the Snowblind Campground. I looked both ways and saw up a couple hundred feet that there was a guy with a mountain bike getting ready to ride next to his pickup truck. I went straight up and asked if he had any chain lube. I recognized him right away, Gary Pierson from Gunnison. He said "Sure, I have some lube; whatcha up to Tom?"
I was saved.
I quickly got out my already filthy little square of old t-shirt cloth and wiped my chain. I dropped a generous drop of lube on each link. Gary was asking me if there was still a spot for this year's Vapor Trail and I told him hell yeah, you're in. Then I started to put his lube bottle back into his tool bag and he said, "I have an extra if you just want to keep that." Man, what a break. I thanked him and shook his hand, and off I went down the road to climb Old Monarch.
Wet, happy Sage Brush next to Whitepine Road near bottom of Old Monarch Pass Road
Early light on the upper Tomichi Creek Valley
I've gone over the divide and wound up needing to climb back up to Old Monarch to get home many times over the years. I can't remember ever having done it as easily as I did that Sunday morning. It's not that it was easy, I was tired and it's a long climb. I think it was just that it was my mission, and my mission was going well. It was something I had to deal with in order to get on with what I wanted to do. I've slogged my way up that road many times with a grimace on my face in a dark mood, and it's felt like an eternity before I saw the top. This time it just took a while.
During my climb to Old Monarch I started being entertained by benign hallucinations. It was a kind of Gestalt run amok. Something about the sleep deprivation and information overload: I'd look up into the woods and see some piece of timber or rock formation, and it would become a wizard, or a bear cub, or one of the knights that say ni. A tired brain at play? A stressed brain desperately trying to make sense of what I was seeing? I don't know. But it was entertaining. The theme seemed to be very Lord of the Rings.
I got to the summit, took the connector trail over from Old Monarch to Monarch Pass, got there a little after 10 AM. I chugged my second red bull and made my way up to the Crest.
I don't think I put a foot down all the way from Monarch to Marshall. My mission was clear. I needed to get onto the next challenge and deal with it so that I could get on with the challenge after that.
I ran into a couple guys from the midwest on the Starvation Creek road who were looking for the Starvation Creek trailhead and couldn't find it. We talked a little and I described how to find it, then they pulled ahead of me up the evil steep little climb on that jeep road. Ultimately I caught them, and was there to shout it out when they were about to pass the trailhead again. It really is kind of easy to miss. They stopped to eat sandwiches and I dropped in so that I could get to the creek to purify some water.
The fatigue was working on me as I descended Starvation. Descending was becoming almost as much an effort as the climbing. My arms and hands were killing me. The jarring bumps made the meat of my arms and shoulders just hurt. And my hands were wasted. Index fingers were exhausted from braking, wrists exhausted from pounding shocks.
Got to the end of Starvation where it dumps out onto the Poncha Creek Road. A group of fast riders who'd passed me when I was dealing with water were hanging out there. I rode through the middle of them and said, "what kind of retard climbs back up?" They laughed, and I went on to pursue my misery.
That was when it got really hard for the first time. That climb up the Poncha Creek Road is not terribly steep, but I was in a place where climbing in the saddle was slower and more painful than walking. I walked almost all of it. I was suffering. But I knew, this is the last big climb. The energy that got me up there was total goddammit determination. Giving up was not an option. I couldn't guarantee I'd ever again have the luck, energy and health to get this far toward finishing the Vapor Trail 125.
One foot in front of the other.
Finally I reached Marshall Pass again. From the crippled way I'd clawed my way up the Poncha Creek Road, I was afraid I'd be walking every climb the rest of the way home. But it's a funny thing about singletrack--as soon as I got to the CT-CDT with that first steep little climb, I found enough energy to stay in the saddle and gut it out. Not that I didn't wheeze, not that I didn't have to jump off and walk a couple of those punchy little climbs, but I was probably only 10 or 20% slower than normal.
Combined Colorado Trail-Continental Divide Trail on the way from Marshall Pass to the Silver Creek Trail
When I got to the top of the Silver Creek Trail I brought back my mantra: DON'T DO ANYTHING STUPID! It was time for a 6 mile descent. Going fast wouldn't do anything good for me at this point other than being done maybe 5 minutes quicker. But crashing could ruin it all. Fifteen more miles of singletrack, then ten miles of road--just ride it out. It'll take as long as it takes.
Hard descending was agony by this point. Everything hurt. I ride a full-suspension bike. I can't imagine having done the miles that were behind me on a rigid bike and being still able to function.
By the time I started the Rainbow Trail I was spending much of my energy blocking the pain and thinking about being done. I've ridden that section of the Rainbow maybe 100 times. I know it like the back of my hand. I even have named many of the challenge spots. Creek with Hard Climb, False Creek with Hard Climb. Sweep and Scree. False Gwana. Gwana. Stupid Rock Grunt.
I was counting them off. There was a storm over in the San Luis Valley and the thunder muttered off to the south. I knew it could be on top of me remarkably quickly but I was thankful that, doing this in this monsoon season, I had not been touched by a drop of rain and would likely get all the way home without getting wet. But I kept moving--no need to tempt fate.
The hallucinations were wonderfully entertaining by then. At one point on the rainbow I looked up into the woods and saw a dead tree that made me think of woodsy the owl. I thought to myself, "yeah, that was part of an awareness ad campaign... for what? Littering? Or maybe 'don't rape people'?"
I know. Weird. But that's what happens when you ride a mountain bike for 20 hours and don't go to sleep at all. At the time it was some pretty funny shit.
Don't try this at home kids.
There wasn't really any joy in riding a mountain bike as I made my way through the last 9 miles of singletrack. It was just a job that needed to be done. However there was joy in finishing this thing, solving this problem that had been in the back of my mind for years. Years!
I was like a machine. A clunky, uncomfortable, tired, hallucinating machine. A machine with incredibly sore hands and ass, and a weird sense of humor. I wasn't really capable of exhibiting any externally visible emotion. I could possibly have worked up a smile if you'd given me a chance to catch my breath and let me rest for a couple minutes...
But there was this kernel of happy deep in my tired brain. Even as I groaned my way down the choppy, rocky descents and wheezed my way up that last few climbs to the end of the trail, there was a piece of consciousness in my head that was happy. Content. It's done. All I have to do is get to the pavement without stacking and then coast downhill to Poncha Springs. Then ride 5 damned miles back to Salida.
And I did those things. It took an eternity, or so it seemed, just to roll downhill to Poncha. I didn't really have the will to pedal the big ring down, so my downhill speed tended to vary with the grade. Then I got to the intersection of highways 50 and 285 and was almost killed by an RV with Louisiana plates that was towing an Escalade. It passed me with maybe 8 inches to spare; almost brushed my shoulder. Normally I might shake my fist at a vehicle that does that, maybe try to read the license plate. But all I could really muster was to say, "Hey. Dude. In Colorado it's 3 feet to pass. Not cool."
Five miles. County Road 120. Slightly downhill. Took forever. Finally I got to the Salida City Limits. Needed to go to the parking lot behind Absolute Bikes. That's where the Vapor Trail 125 ends. FOREVER. My God, I thought this was just a small town! What is this friggin' Chicago?!
Then I was there. Keith Darner sees me pull into the parking lot and then turn to leave. He shouts out to me. It occurs to me that since it isn't 6 PM yet it's still happy hour at the River's Edge restaurant, which is where I am. It also occurs to me that if I buy a beer, it will probably not be socially acceptable for me to take off my shorts and get that offensive chamois off my incredibly sore ass. I tell Keith what I've just done. We high five. I doubt I smiled. Don't think I had it in me.
Then I ride the 10 or so blocks to my house. The breeze is ruffling a tree across the street, and that tree is made out of hundreds of little kings, like the ones in a deck of playing cards.
Good God I'm done. Done and DONE.
Shower. Put clean cotton onto my butt.
Sleep. The deepest, most content sleep.
I am grateful, very grateful to have been able to do this. I am 49 years old, and I am healthy and fit enough to do something like this. I couldn't have done one tenth of this when I was 20. I know people my age and younger who have health problems. We all need to count our goddamn blessings when we have our health. It can be yanked away from us in a heartbeat. My sincere thanks to the universe for letting me be there doing that. It was amazing and satisfying. I will remember forever.