Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Contrived Failure, and a Clear Win

Thursday, July 30, 2015 I worked like normal, but left around 3:30. Went home and started darting around, fussing with my pack and trying to make sure I was remembering everything. Then a little before 7 I rode down to the F Street Bridge to do an offical start.

lining up with myself for ITT start
lining up with myself for ITT start

I had been planning for several weeks to make an attempt to finish a Vapor Trail 125 ITT. I did this in August of 2013, and it was the hardest (physical) thing I had ever done.

I was more or less satisfied after my finish in August. It was a feat of 1-day endurance that was good enough for me; I felt no compulsion to find a harder thing to trump a Vapor Trail 125 finish.

But then 2014 happened. I came into 2015 feeling like I could get fit again if I could put in some work, but something like a VT125 ITT felt like one of the things I could do before the accident, and when I was younger. But those days were past.

Some time this spring, I got the fire again to ride far and push my own limits. I finished the Salida Big Friggin' Loop, which opened my mind to the possibility that maybe I could finish another ITT. Once I had that thought, I knew I was going to need to try. I upped my training and then picked a date.

I borrowed a GoPro in order to document the experience, so I have some footage. Futzing around with the GoPro cost me some time, but I'm happy I did it because I have some good footage.

The ride started with a warm evening. It was a little cloudy, but looked like a normal nice summer evening. Right away Mother Nature let me know that she controlled the game with 20 minutes of good hard rain. The smell of ozone was in the air, but thankfully no lightning. But I went from a little too warm to damp and chilled. By the time I got to dirt after the first 40 minutes or so the rain was a memory and I started to dry off and get warm again.

Creatures started showing themselves to me. First it was rabbits and other rodents. Then a mule deer doe. And then, before I had even gotten above 9,000 feet elevation I saw a cow elk who looked like she'd just come from a salon. Beautiful healthy coat, standing in good grass and vibrant flowers. Our land is bursting with fertility this summer, and this huge animal looked like she'd been eating grain and alfalfa all summer.

My buddy Ryan met me just as I got to the Colorado Trail. He'd been on an adventure all day, all the way from Cotopaxi to Monarch Pass, then the CDT over Chalk Pass and on to the Tincup Road. Then all of the Colorado Trail from Chalk Creek to Blanks where we met. He knew I was going to be out there, so he'd arranged to find me on his way home as I was on my way out. That was cool, great to see a friend as the last light faded. He was just finishing up a huge day and I think he waited around at the trailhead to see me.

As I started my night and the Colorado Trail singletrack, light rain fell for about 20 minutes, but not enough to soak me. Just enough to make things nice and cool, and to remind me about who really controls the night (Mother Nature). I had borrowed a light from a really cool guy Jay Buthman who has a company called Amoeba. I'd always been curious about his lights, and didn't have a great solution for my helmet mounted light. Jay sent me a demo unit, which is so cool. I hadn't had a chance to mount and test it in darkness, and had to tinker around a little to get it right, but damn, what a light! Made the tech chunk on the CO Trail all the more fun. And made my own bar mounted light seem pretty weak!

Here's a video of me pushing up the first hard hike-a-bike, which is about 15 minutes into the CO Trail section (2 minutes):

Here's a video showing some of the trail riding, smooth:

Here's a video showing some of the trail riding, chunk:

That section of CO Trail is probably my favorite night ride; challenging parts, smooth parts, beautiful woods and creeks. I took enough water to get to my next water stop at Canyon Creek from Browns Creek. Wonderful tasting clear water.

I should mention that for this entire effort, starting from a couple hours before I left, I was feeding using Tailwind Nutrition powder. I had a supply that I used to mix and refill my water bottle from the clear water in my Osprey hydration pack. I used their caffeinated product through the night and switched to normal after dawn. I was using a Steripen to sterilize the water, since it was absolutely gin-clear but certainly carrying some beaver fever. I don't take water from creeks that flow out of mining districts.

I felt really good during that whole trail section, and popped out onto the road to St Elmo at midnight feeling strong. Time to get to work knocking out that climb to the divide. Three hours of constant, relentless climbing. No way to get it done other than to get started and keep going.

Stayed on task relentlessly from Cascade all the way to the bottom of the trail up to Altman Pass (Alpine Tunnel). When I got there I had my first crisis of fatigue. When you do these things, there typically come times when the effort gut punches you. I couldn't catch my breath. My legs were aching and shaking. I had probably pushed too hard up from Cascade.

On this course, when you get to the divide you better take stock. Continuing means you're over on the west side of the divide in a wild, remote place. There is no help or cell service and no easy way home once you're over there. If you go over there you better be ready to work. Even turning around heading home from the Alpine Tunnel means a two-hour ride home. If there's any question about where you're at, it's time to do a full diagnostic.

Luckily, I was unwilling to turn around without at least making it to the continental divide. I pushed the bike up there, and by the time I got to the top I could catch my breath, even though I'd just pushed hard for 20 minutes over rocks and up slippery gravel. That made me happy. I had gone from beaten to back in the game. That's key to finishing something big. Down times will happen, but you can beat them if you try. Or you can let them take you down.

I made it up and over to the west side, rode the railroad grade road down about 2 miles to where the Tomichi Pass Road branches off to the south. From there, it was time to push the bike for two hours. I had a nearly full moon, but clouds kept it mostly obscured. Until I was stumbling over the bowling balls of the Tomichi Pass Road. Suffering in moonlight, and stoked to be there.

On this adventure, I felt that my fitness for hike-a-bike was solid. HAB is never fun, but I was able to tolerate a lot of effort and kept it going very well. There is a TON of HAB on the night-time part of the Vapor Trail 125, and in years past it gutted me. But I've been hiking more, and riding more primitive stuff on my recreational rides.

I made the summit of Granite Mountain right around 5:30. Pink light on the eastern horizon, beginnings of daylight, but still not enough ambient light to ride without lights. Here's a video where I can be heard explaining the nature of the risk as I begin my descent.

As I began my descent, I noticed that some kind of noisy birds were squawking as I went past. I was apparently disturbing them too early. Then I heard much more animal noise up on a ridge to the west. I looked up and saw this:

Amazing! What a privilege to be in that wild place at that time of day in mid-summer!

In another mile the trail came close to the creek. A high mountain creek, just below the headwaters. Gin clear and cold. It probably didn't need to be sterilized, but I gave it the steripen treatment. Don't need me no beaver fever.

Canyon Creek is a long, challenging descent with a painful punchy 15-20 minute climb at the end. The descending part, for somebody with my skill and risk tolerance, is well over an hour. That descent at first light has been the setting for bad crashes for me two different times. This time I made it down in decent time, unscathed, and had a blast. Success!

Making it to Snowblind Campground where the Canyon Creek trail ends, is a huge milestone as part of the Vapor course. It's a transition. Made it through the night and getting ready to tackle the day. Lube your chain. Take off a layer. Steel yourself for one of the two remaining long climbs on the Vapor Trail 125.

The 2,500 foot ascent of Old Monarch Pass. You finish Canyon Creek with a sense of elation. Old Monarch Pass road replaces that elation with exhaustion. It's relentless. Not a terrible climb when you're fresh, but after the night portion of the Vapor course, it's a soul-crusher. But without help from somebody who has a vehicle, you have no choice for getting home but to tackle it.

I know from past attempts, best thing to do with the Old Monarch climb is just to get to work and stay on task. Don't let it get to you. I did as well as could possibly be expected, but I was tired and the Old Monarch grind took a toll. A high point was seeing two more cow elk just a mile or so above the valley floor. I looked into the woods and saw what my brain first identified as horses. Because they looked like they'd been curried. Maybe it was my semi-hallucinatory sleep deprived state, but I tell you, those critters looked healthy. Fat and happy like a domesticated ungulate.

I was deep into my keep-moving-and-don't-think-about-quitting mode. When you make the Old Monarch summit there's a strong urge roll on over the top and point it down. If you want to finish you have to put that out of your mind. Descending on the highway sux. What a waste of all that climbing, with so many good descending trails.

I rode the singletrack link from Old Monarch Pass to Monarch Pass. My inner dialog during the latter part of the climb and the link over to Monarch Pass was about how I would be OK with it if I decided to just do Starvation Creek then call it a good effort and head home. Or maybe I'd rally (the Crest Trail can be quite a kick in the junk when you really need it) and want to take on the last 3-4 hours after finishing Starvation. Either way, I had no doubt that I had 15 miles to the Starvation trailhead in me. I wasn't even thinking about bailing down 50.

As I started climbing past the tram on Monarch I felt deep fatigue. Nauseating heart-pounding dead legs fatigue. As soon as I hit the steep part of the first jeep road climb I had to jump off and push. It only got worse. I knew I was properly hydrated and my nutrition was good. This wasn't a bonk. I hoped it was just a low point that I'd ride through.

There was a threatening dark cloud ahead, even though it was only around 10:30 I was concerned about getting caught and considered taking the first exit, Fooses Creek down. Before too much longer I decided to take Fooses regardless, because it was only a couple miles away and I was shelled.

Then the bottom fell out. I walked through a ride-able rocky section. When I tried to re-mount the bike, my balance was bad. I had the staggers. A couple of novice riders were catching me, so I got off the trail and sat. Did I have enough energy left to get to Fooses? A couple miles maybe, 300 feet of climbing?

Then I thought, is it even safe for me to try to descend on singletrack? I'm kind of a shit show, stacking way up on the Colorado Trail would not be an ideal way to end this adventure.

As disappointing as it was to forgo one more singletrack descent, my practical mind kicked in. Nope. Go home. It's been a memorable experience. It's been a huge success. 80 miles already, nearly 30 more just to get home on the highway. Visions of pre-dawn in a wild place. The memory of a mouse running across the Colorado Trail last night as I floated through the night.

Why risk tarnishing all this goodness? I had already happily capitulated to the reality that trying to finish would be un-fun. I was fine with that, why get greedy about the end of the ride?

So I rode down.

My fitness is very good, and I'm very grateful that I've gotten back from my injury. From the way this ride went, it's obvious to me that the capability is there--it would just take deeper training. In 2013, the year I did this successfully, I had already done a 24 solo, the Durango Dirty Century, the Redneck Epic, Dirty Double Fondo, etc. This year I've done some great riding, lots of very long days, but nothing like the endurance base I had by August of 2013. This was a nice big chunk of training too, beyond all the other wonderfulness that it was.

I pushed through several low places, and got myself home without needing or taking any assistance. I had logistics covered, meaning I never needed something that wasn't in my pack. You can forget how to prepare for these things, and that can mess you up just as badly as lack of fitness.

I needed to know how much two more years of age and a big injury had taken. Answer, not enough to matter.

That's a win. Solid win. I put more golden memories into the bank. I made an adventure. And I satisfied my inner critic. For now.

Hot damn.