Monday, September 13, 2010

2010 Vapor Trail 125

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

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

But first, the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old mine building, obviously in daylight...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ed said...

Nice work toeing the line again Tom. It was good to see you out there.


Tom Purvis said...

I can't tell you how good it felt to meet up with you on Monarch Ed. You were sitting there in a chair with the sun on your smiling face. Walking away from your 6th VT125 and enjoying every minute of it. I felt the same way. I really walked away with a smile.

Next time we cross paths I hope I'm not busy going somewhere so I can hang with you and Jeny for a while.

Sandblogger said...

Great seeing you there Tom. Sorry you had some bad luck out there. Enjoy the rest of your fall in that beautiful place.


Matt said...

Hi Tom - It was great to see you again at where else?.....another bike race! ha. Sorry about the DNF, but if you keep trying for the VT125 finish you will be assured of some darn great riding year after year after year after year....

Take care!

Other Matt

sundog7 said...

Hi Tom,
It was a great experience working at the Snowblind checkpoint with Dave Wiens. Let me coin a phrase to describe Dave - "The Aggressive Volunteer". He camped-out the night before, woke-up before dawn, and had the pancakes and sausages ready for the very first rider at about 6:20am. Fantastic. The trouble is, the riders will expect this treatment every year! We need to get Dave back!
It is always hard to quit a race, but looking at that shock, well, that was it. Keep going! I hope to see you out there next year.
Ron Gillingham

Carney said...

Great work out there Tom! Having a mechanical be the reason behind a DNF if always frustrating but it sure beats DNFing because the body broke.

I walked a busted frame 6 miles out of the Park City P2P race the week before!

Great effort!

MC said...

Hey Tom-

If you ever decide to do it as "just" a big day ride, where sights are seen and ingested, conversations are had and enjoyed, and the ride just sort of flows it's way along, please lemme know. I'd jump at the chance.



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Freako said...

Hey Tom. Just now got around to reading your write-up of the 2010 VT125. Sorry you had to DNF but still an epic ride. I was overly happy to finally finish this one. What an amazing ride with never ending emotions during the ride.
Take care and happy new year!
Jeff Hemperley