Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Elk Hunting and other Expressions of Incompetence

late afternoon

I've spent the last two weekends putting lots of energy and time into trying to get a clean shot at a cow elk. I picked Silver Creek, and that was the place to which I returned through the season. I expected to be competing with lots of hunters, and I knew that Silver Creek would keep most of them out. The trail starts with a nice steep slog up a trail carved out of a scree slope. It's more or less an hour of marching before you are into a place that would be likely to have elk.

I went up Silver from the furthest point that motor vehicles are allowed for the first time Saturday morning, October 19th. Opening day. It was just about 4 AM when I left my truck to start that slog. There was fresh snow. I saw the tracks of somebody who had been hiking with a dog, but those tracks were in the previous layer of snow. I was the first one up. I expected to see somebody else up there later in the morning, but for the first part of the morning at least the canyon was mine.

Turns out, I was the only one who hunted Silver during the entire season, unless there were people hunting down from the top. But I got 2/3 of the way up on a couple of occasions and never saw any tracks on the trail other than my own, rodents, a coyote or two, and one distinct set of bear tracks that were also in a previous layer of snow. Silver is the last major drainage in the south end of the game unit. The slope to the south was the divide between the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins.

I was hiking with a goofy 1970's era orange external frame pack. The pack mostly had things I would need to butcher a cow elk and pack her out. Knives, rope, snacks, water, my SPOT beacon, other odds and ends. Not much weight but awkward and bulky. Shouldering the rifle sling was not natural and easy with the pack on. I also had a pair of binoculars swinging around my neck. Sometimes they were joined by my GPS on a tether.

That first morning was demoralizing. It was chilly, and there was a clear sky with a huge Hunter's Moon. I felt like I was walking with a junk show on my back. The moon shone like a street light. There was new snow which should be a help, but it seemed to make the light level even higher. The elk were certainly able to move around easily all night, and could easily see me coming from quite a ways. And the snow made it easy for me to tell that I never crossed the path that an elk had walked since the snowfall on Thursday night and Friday. Just before dawn I found a place to sit where I could see for a fairly long way. But it was too cold to really just sit. I had to move around.

By the time I got back to my truck it was 10:30 and I was worked over. Taking all that junk off my back that had been hanging on me since 4 AM was heavenly. And then sitting down behind the wheel of my pickup, that was nice. I recall heaving a sigh after I started the truck and thinking about how clueless I really am as a hunter.

I didn't work up the energy to go again until Sunday afternoon, evening. It was a similar experience. A walk through a beautiful wild place that I had all to myself, watching the day fade into night. No new tracks, nobody had been in there other than me all weekend. Bright setting sun. Screeching hawk. Would have been nicer without all that stuff to carry, but nice.

All week I worked, and felt vaguely guilty that I didn't take a day off to go back up. I had lots of other stuff going on, and it was a productive week. But I didn't hunt. I was out late with friends Friday night, Saturday morning came and I felt an acute sense that I needed to do something a little more committed before I gave up the whole thing. But the laziness--so hard to overcome.

With a fair amount of effort, I got up off my ass around 1 PM and started putting together a kit to spend the night out. Get way up high, bivy, and be there in the middle of where they were. It was obvious, even to a clueless goof like myself, that they were still way up above where I'd been tramping around. It was a waste of time to go out unless I was going to get way up. And I felt that I needed to already be up there at dawn when they are moving.

So, the other hunts were exhausting, but this time I went with a sleeping bag, tent, pad, stove, extra clothing, more food. And of course a 10 lb rifle. I would haul all that up onto the ridge between Silver Creek and Starvation Creek. I really felt strongly that the ones in the area I was focusing on were probably in greatest number on the north-facing slope of Starvation Creek. It's a steep slope of dark timber. Getting up from the bottom on the Starvation Creek side is impractical. Too steep, too much down timber. And you just aren't going to sneak up on an elk from below. So from above. Early.

At about 3:30 pm I parked my truck in a familar place, hoisted a pack with actual weight (and no hip belt--if there was one on the pack in it's earlier life it had been removed) and left for the familiar slog up through the scree.


It was beautiful. I watched the end of a beautiful mid-autumn day up high where winter is everywhere. Ice on the beaver ponds, snow back in the woods. I've never actually seen a beaver in the wild. I've seen lots of what they do to the landscape, I have fished their ponds. But they've always been hidden away when I've been in their homes.

As I marched past the first major pond of many along Silver, I heard a plunk. Kind of sounded like what it would sound like if you dropped a rock the size of a cantaloupe into the water. I looked out and saw the disturbed water in the middle of the pond and knew the beaver had slapped to warn the surrounding area that there was an intruder. It's something they do.

When I came up to the next major pond I slowed down and did what I call my Elmer Fudd walk. Watching for sticks to avoid stepping on, trying to stay quiet. I saw the guy in the photo above and watched him for a while. Eventually he saw me and swam into the middle of his pond, and slapped. And then he was gone.

I marched up the Silver Creek Trail for about another 20 minutes until I saw the relatively mild slope to my right that I'd found by studying the topo maps at home. I left the trail and started bushwhacking up onto the ridge. I climbed about 700 vertical feet to the top of the divide between drainages. As I got closer to the top I started seeing some fresh tracks and fresh poop. I was actually getting up into where they were.

It was just getting dark so I hustled to set up my little camp. I was in the tent laying in my bag trying to read by 7:15 or so. Gusts of cold air quickly did away with any remnants of the relatively warm afternoon.

Faint in the wind at first, I heard sounds. Coyote howling in the night, or the elk talking to each other? As the air settled into windless night, the sounds became distinct. Elk were out there. They were exactly where I'd expected. North of me. Down the slope toward Starvation Creek. I figured they had to be at least 3/4 mile away from the way it sounded. Still down in the timber. But would they move during the night? Would they leave the timber to be over on my side of the ridge where the south-facing slope had more grass?

My hands got too cold to read. So I buttoned up the bag, and I think I was asleep by 8. I only have a 20° bag, but I had on lots of supplemental clothing including down booties. I was warm enough, but just barely.

cold camp

I woke up before dawn, especially since I was asleep so early. I started hearing the animals again just at the first light. I dreaded getting out of the bag. My bladder was full, and it was time to take advantage of where I was so early. But it took a pretty hard effort to get me up. I realized that I had neglected to bring a lighter, so my stove wasn't going to be making me any coffee.

I jumped out of the bag and pulled on my cold carhartts, boots and puffy as quickly as I could. I considered leaving camp set up and just going hunting, but then I would have to go back. And that would limit me. If I wound up far away following animals or sign of them, I might wish that I didn't need to go back. So I broke camp in less than 10 minutes, strapped it all onto my dinosaur pack, hoisted the whole thing onto my back and started heading north to see if there was a chance that I'd see some of those critters I'd heard all night.

Elmer Fudd walking is not nearly as relaxing as regular walking. You watch for every stick. You look for ways to walk around the patches of crusty snow and the most tangled blow downs. You do a kind of tai chi thing when you need to get over a high log. Soon I was needing to shove my way through a stand of dense evergreen. I knew that was a losing game. No way to be quiet when you have nylon scraping through branches.

I turned back to the south. Now I was going to hopefully see critters who made the tracks and poop I'd seen on my way up. I got to a place where I could see pretty far through the aspen, and I sat. Hoping that they had gone over to the south side and would be heading back soon to hide in the dark timber.

Cold. I listened. I scanned the furthest reaches of what I could see with the binoculars. Eventually I got too cold again, too cold for sitting. Elmer Fudd time.

I worked my way down the slope slowly. Stopping often to listen and watch. As I got close to Silver Creek again, I reached a curtain of dense evergreen. No way to continue without making some noise. If there were animals just below me who'd gone to drink, I'd have that much less chance to get a look at them.

dawn mountain
Mount Antora just at dawn

But I was right back at the trail anyway. And when I reached the trail I was in a dense enough bit of forest that there was snow. I stepped onto the trail, then lowered the pack to the ground and walked up canyon for half an hour or so. I was just at the beginning of a series of open parks. I was already tired, and I ached for a hot cup of coffee. And I had low confidence. There were sources of water and graze on the slope I'd just descended. They had no reason to be down where I was now. I saw no tracks. Would have been surprised if I had.

By then the blush was off the morning. I hiked up canyon for a ways, used my binoculars to scan the full circle. Then decided to just hunt my way down.

The familiar, routine walk back down Silver Creek Trail. Sun was lighting up the rock formations north of the trail where it terminates. So much beauty. The creaking pack I had grown to hate. The rifle, which it seemed was impossible to carry gracefully as it fought with the pack for position.

I arrive at my truck. I heave off the demon pack. Take out the stove, use the lighter that was safe in the cab of the truck all night to light it and start some water. Pull out the camp chair and set it in the crusty snow and think about the experience.

It's really about the experience. I can tell you with authority, beef is cheaper. After you buy a rifle, commit the time, put gas in a truck enough to 4-wheel up into the mountains several times, permits... If you bring home an elk every year, after 3 or 4 you might have paid for your rifle.

Some people are lifestyle hunters. They've done it all their lives and they have it down. They were taught the skills by fathers, uncles, grandfathers. Their rifle was perhaps a family possession handed down, they have traditions and knowledge, perhaps they have horses. Perhaps they even have been or currently are outfitters. For them it pays.

For schmucks like myself, if you don't enjoy the experience you're missing the point. It's not a good strategy for maximizing your food dollar. But it is a good excuse to have a more intense than usual experience in the natural world. You are tapped into your surroundings in a way that you probably never are on a normal recreational hike or bike ride. And you might just pick another day for a hike or bike ride when it's cold and windy.

But when you're hunting, you just have so many days and you have to go where your permit let's you hunt. If that time and place is cold and windy, it's probably better hunting. But it might be a little less pleasant than the day you'd pick. And if you don't feel like getting up and out there, you're just missing a day for which you paid to have the right to hunt.

On this bivy trip, comfort was definitely absent. Hard, laden hiking. Being way out there, far away from even a trail by myself was a little creepy. I ate a couple of energy bars, one for dinner and one for breakfast. No coffee.

But it felt like I was really doing it. I saw fresh sign and listened to those grand animals through the night and in the morning. I got skunked again, but by going in deep I got myself into a situation where I had a real chance for the first time.

That seems to be the point. It was hard and in many ways unpleasant. Uncomfortable at least. And if I had killed a cow up there, I would have had a huge pile of exhausting and painful work. A whole winter's worth of meat, but at a significant cost. But an experience. Intense.

I don't know about next year. We'll see. I have a buck deer tag for third season, starting this next Saturday. My game unit for that tag is far less rugged country than where I hunted elk. And you don't have to be at 11,000 feet to hunt deer, they can be found this time of year at almost any elevation in Colorado--mostly below 11K feet that is.

But it's going to be more tramping around rugged country on a day with weather that I don't get to choose. And I am going to be coming into it with hunt fatigue.

I suck at this, obviously. But I'm getting a few hard-won clues as I put myself into this. And I've got some good experience sucking at things I keep trying anyway; I have been working that angle as a mountain bike racer for almost two decades.

We'll see how the deer hunt goes. It will be what it will be, and that will be at least an experience.

To the extent that I have energy to actually do it anyway.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Getting Back Up Off My Ass

I had a really good endurance mountain bike season in 2013. I got as fit as I've been in 6 or 7 years, and it was better than other years because (I think) I now have a more demanding job, but one that leaves time for being active.

So I got good fitness, but I was too busy to overtrain as I have done in years past. At least that's my theory. It is the theory that I have, and what it is too.

I had two goals for the year: 1) Finish Durango Dirty Century, 2) Finish Vapor Trail 125. I achieved them both. And then I just kept going. Two weeks after I completed my ITT of the Vapor Trail 125 I went to Steamboat Springs to compete in the Stinger, a tough 50-miler. Then one week later I entered the 24 Hours in the Sage as solo. And I crashed on my first night lap. Hard. Best diagnosis of my injury was a bone bruise on the point of my pelvis at my left side lower back.

And that was it, I was off the bike. In too much pain to ride. And just burned out and kind of over it.

Then came the events to help run. First the 2013 Vapor Trail 125. Then the resurrection of the Banana Belt Loop Race. Then there was a trail work day last weekend for National Public Lands Day.

But most importantly, I was just feeling kind of lost. Crazy enthusiasm about bicycles has been a constant in my life since the 80s. I've gotten a little tired near the end of the season a few times, but I'm talking October/November. This year, I skipped riding the entire last month of summer, some because of pain but more because of Who Cares?

Some of it is about being tired and spending maybe too many long days just grinding away at the pedals. But some of it is really straight from the crash. I was dead on riding through The Notch at Hartman where I crashed all day long. Five laps. Perfect, never a dab or a bobble. Then I came into it on my first night lap and my eyes saw something that wasn't there. I saw a line that was smooth but it actually was not. My vision--my night vision--failed me. Night riding has been fuel for my passion for over a decade. Is it over for me? Can I safely trust my ability in the dark? I think it's kind of like nearly drowning when you think you're a strong swimmer.

I bought a dirt bike several weeks ago. It's been fun, but I'm such a complete newbie I have to be really careful. Elk season is a couple weeks away, and I've been using the bike to get up into the hills so I can scout.

But I've been lazy. And the weather and other distractions haven't helped--being super busy, then finally getting a free day and watching it start raining before you can finish your morning coffee, kind of takes the wind out of your sails.

So there was a kind of lousy month there. Colorless and odorless.

    2000 Suzuki DR-Z400EY

But Sunday I think it turned. Sunday I rode up the Marshall Pass Road then the Droz Creek jeep road on my Suzuki DRZ-400. I hid it in the woods and hiked up onto a high ridge leading to the northern shoulder of Mt Ouray.

My physical condition has definitely degraded in that month off the bike. But I was able to summon some energy for a hard bushwhack up through an endless aspen slope, and then down into the dark timber of a north-facing slope. I saw a little elk sign, found a couple game trails that are being used a little, but nothing compelling. Saw three does, what appeared to be a bighorn ewe, but no elk.

But it was the most successful of the three scouting trips I've taken so far. I was able to find a bushwhack route that is passable, and more importantly I had the energy to really stay out there and make my legs burn.

Monday after work, feeling sore from a full day of trail work (Saturday) and then a fairly big-for-me hike, instead of cracking a beer and settling onto the couch as has been my pattern during these doldrums, I hiked up into the Arkansas Hills Trail System for an hour. Need to toughen up my hiking muscles.

But most importantly, I need to get off my ass. I know the passion for cycling will come back, in some form. But right now I have a cow elk permit that starts in less than 20 days, and then a buck permit in early November. It's a mission. Scout for elk, hunt elk, scout for deer, hunt deer.

The fire in me isn't yet burning hot, but I think it just needs some stoking. So I'm working on getting stoked.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bruised, Battered and Tired

I think I may be burned out on endurance mountain biking.

This happens, and it's rarely a permanent condition. I can't say it's ever happened to me, and at this point I'm not entirely sure what's going on. But a couple things happened this weekend while I was riding solo in the 24 Hours in the Sage that are making me feel burned out.

The obvious thing was going over the bars and doing a headstand on the bare granite drop called The Notch, and then landing on my back on something pointy. Right above the belt line left of my spine I have a deep bruise of some kind that gives me a sharp bolt of pain if I make certain movements.

I DNF'd, spent half an hour talking to an EMT who suggested I go get a CAT scan. Another hour having friends from Salida who are health care professionals help. They felt around finding the impact spot and using their knowledge of human anatomy to confirm that it couldn't be a short rib that might puncture my lung or a bruised kidney. Probably right near the top of my pelvis there's a muscle that's been smashed. Maybe a little splinter of pelvis bone that moves around in that sore meat when I bend? Kind of feels like that.

The other thing? During the six laps I did ride I was feeling more and more like I was going through the motions.

I don't really do lap races anymore. Except when I do. When a race has some sentimental and social significance I get attracted. That feeling brought me to the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo in February, and fond memories were the definite deciding factor for going to 24 Sage. It's a great party, KOA Dave is an awesome host, and I always see lots of old friends. At registration Friday night Dave had a local caterer with a little brick oven on a trailer set up, and they cranked out fresh tasty pizzas one after another. And there were kegs tapped.

It's a great event, and I did see old friends. Got to hang out and talk with Dave and his wife Kirsten. Dave has fielded 24 Hour teams using the name Mud Pigs for over a decade. I rode my first 24 Hours of Moab in 2001 with the Mud Pigs.

Dave center, Steve left
I've had a successful season. I'm as fit as I've ever been. Before I signed up for 24 in the Sage I had met my goals for the year. I've ridden a bunch all over Colorado, and been in as many events/races as any year since 2007. My riding log as of today shows almost 3,400 miles. The season started early and has been quite full:
  1. January: Lots of long training rides, including tough 50 and 60 mile days at Lake Pueblo State Park
  2. 2/10: Tour de Palm Springs, 100 mile road century
  3. 2/17-18: 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, Solo, 194 miles
  4. 4/28: Big Gravel Grinder around Black Mountain in South park, 82 miles
  5. 5/19: Dirty Double Fondo Gravel Grinder, 128 miles, 13 hours
  6. 6/8: Salida Big Friggin' Loop, DNF due to odd afternoon brain goof, but still 83 hard miles
  7. 6/29: Durango Dirty Century, 100 amazingly hard miles, 17 hours and 20 minutes
  8. 7/13: Chama Redneck, 82 hard miles, 12 hours and 20 minutes
  9. 8/4: Vapor Trail 125 Individual Time Trial, 125 spectacularly hard miles, nearly 23 hours
  10. 8/17: Steamboat Stinger, 50 hard and intense miles, 7 hours and 20 minutes
  11. 8/24: Six laps of 24 Hours in the Sage ending with crash in the dark
Got a good night's sleep in the truck Friday night with a little soothing rain after dark. Up Saturday, hot coffee and getting things ready. Then the start.

The first couple laps were pretty fun; mountain biking at Hartman Rocks on a course I know well, only with a couple sections of new singletrack that made it even more fun. It was going pretty well. Then at the start of the third lap I rode through a 15 minute rain squall that soaked me to the bone and made my chain all grindey and noisy. The squall passed and eventually the sun came back out, but it gave me a little dose of negative.

In subsequent laps I started feeling like a machine. The familiar feeling of finding a pace that I can maintain indefinitely as fatigue sets in. Turn the cranks. Deal with the climbs. Recover on the descents. Breath in, breath out.

I'm pounding out laps. My goal was 15. At the completion of every lap I'm doing the math and concluding that I'm on pace to pull it off if I can stay strong through the night. And I keep thinking, "Why is it that I'm doing this? Why exactly do I have this goal, and why is it important? Maybe I should have just paid the entry fee to come over here and party?"

So there's that. But I'm wanting (needing?) to go straight ahead into that bare, raw experience of being on a bike at 4 AM near exhaustion; for the purpose of getting in touch with myself in a way that can only happen when the filters have been washed away. I have some things that I need to work out (when in life do we not?). Some things in my life are happening just now that I don't think I'm really understanding or getting in touch with during my normal waking routine. I know that riding around the clock determined to finish 15 laps will probably take me there. The lap count goal is ultimately a means to bringing on a vision quest.

So I keep at it. Ride a lap, go through start/finish and say thank you to the people at the timing table. Back to my truck, fill up my bottle and do whatever else I need to do. Back out for another lap. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Then it gets to be sundown and I mount up my lights. The start of the interesting part. The part I'm really here for.

I roll into that 6th lap, a third of the way to my goal. I'm feeling as good as I probably ever have at that stage of a 24 solo. I know it, and it's good, but it's just kind of a basic fact. Not particularly joyful, just a fact. This season I've been riding well and feeling good, and often experiencing the happy feeling that I'm holding up better than I might have in past seasons. But in previous events it's been way more positive. Saturday afternoon and night, it was just kind of neutral.

I'm finishing out the 6th lap. I roll into The Notch, the technical test at the end of the singletrack part of the course. I've ridden it five times already during this race with no incident. But I've crashed here before, at night during this same event years ago.

For some damned reason I rode a different line than what I'd chosen all day. My front wheel dropped into something and stopped, back wheel comes up and I smash down onto my head then over and onto my back. Sharp, horrible pain. I'm laying on my side in the dust; my bar mounted light is blazing up into the sky. I yell out an expletive or two.

I know immediately that my race is over, but how bad is it? Am I going to need search and rescue to get my ass out? Hurts!!

I hear a voice and see a light above me, "You OK Tom?"

"Who is that?"


I know Jefe is in this race to be on the podium, maybe win. And I'm in this... why?

He asks me if I need help and I tell him no, go on. I actually didn't know yet if I would need help, but there will be other people coming through; people who aren't in it to win it. I know he'll stop and help me if I ask, but I don't want Jefe compromising his race. If I need help I'll ask somebody else.

The rest of the story is nothing special. I figured out that I could walk. I was worried that it could be my kidney, and it really hurt. Electric shock pain and muscle spasms when I make certain movements, like bending to pick up my bike. But I'm able to move. I'll get to the road then ask the course marshal for help if I need it. Turns out I don't, I can ride the road back to the KOA.

At the start/finish I tell the timers that I've crashed and I'm dropping. I'm having trouble talking because the spasms keep forcing the air out of my lungs. They call Michael the EMT and he checks me out, then uses a golf cart to get me back to my camp. Another event staffer follows pushing my bike. Brian and Sarah see me being brought back and start helping. Jari, who is in the camp next to mine supporting Jefe, brings a bag of ice and they all help me crawl into my truck to lay face down with ice on my back.

Eventually with the help of Brian and Sarah I conclude that I don't have a life-threatening injury. Getting myself out of my bike clothes and into comfortable clothes takes a half hour of awkward movements and yelps of pain. But I wasn't desperate enough or hurt enough to ask somebody to get me naked and help me put my undies on.

I pee'd and saw that there wasn't blood in it.

After a while Brian, Sarah and I went over to the race HQ to get some food. I was more or less OK as long as I didn't try to bend at the waist. If I do the penalty is swift. But I could walk, and even smile a little.

I'm still trying to sort out how I feel about things. As always, it could be much worse. I could have had hospital injuries, could have even been a spinal or brain injury. Being busted up makes a person grumpy, but I am also really thinking about that feeling I had as I warmed up the diesel--going through the motions.

I'm probably out of the Vapor Trail 125, two weeks away. But that's OK, I already slayed that beast earlier this month. Finishing that and the Durango Dirty Century were my only real endurance riding goals for the year. I did those things. I have my health, in fact I'm in great health. I know people my age who are not so fortunate. The source of pain and discomfort in my back will heal.

I think I'm going to turn to other aspects of my life for a while. I have an elk permit in October and a deer permit in November. If I care about that I should spend some time scouting my game areas. I can help with running the Vapor Trail 125. I can enjoy the good things going on in my life and spend some energy dealing directly with the hard things.

And I can heal and rest. No reason to keep beating the dead horse that is my body right now.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Vapor Trail 125 on my own terms. End of story.

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
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.

canyon creek

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.

canyon creek

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.

canyon creek

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.
  tomichi valley
Wet, happy Sage Brush next to Whitepine Road near bottom of Old Monarch Pass Road

tomichi valley
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.

tomichi valley
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.


Ice Cream.

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.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Durango Dirty Century 2013

Holy Cow.

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.

Indian Ridge on Colorado Trail

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.

Indian Ridge on Colorado 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.

Indian Ridge on Colorado Trail

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.

Indian Ridge on Colorado Trail
Between Celebration Lake and Blackhawk Pass, with a rider who'd just passed me in about the middle of the frame

Indian Ridge on Colorado Trail
Another shot from that piece of trail east of Blackhawk. Pictures truly don't do it justice.

Indian Ridge on Colorado Trail
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.

Indian Ridge on Colorado Trail

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.

Indian Ridge on Colorado Trail

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.

Indian Ridge on Colorado Trail

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.

Indian Ridge on Colorado Trail

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.



Thursday, February 21, 2013

24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, 2013

Wow, it's been over two months since I've written to this blog. Guess I've been busy enough, but I'm kind of sad to see it go so stale. But in those two months I've started a new job and become obsessed with training for the Old Pueblo solo. It took me a while to light a fire under my dead ass and get going. But once I got going it was pretty much work, eat, sleep, train for the last part of December, all of January, and pretty right up until I left for the southwest. I had a great visit with family in SoCal. I did the Tour de Palm Springs century ride the Saturday before race day.

   Tour de Palm windmills

Then I went over to San Diego and hung out for a couple days with two of my sisters.

La Jolla From Glider Port

Then on Wednesday the 13th I headed back east to Tucson to stay with my friends Jake and Tracy for a couple nights. Rode a day with Jake, had a great dinner Thursday night and then had the pleasure of showing up at 24 Hour Town Friday morning well-rested and clean.

24 Hour Town

I settled in and got as organized as possible Friday after taking a quick practice lap to be sure my bike was working right.

24 Old Pueblo Course

The first lap is always a tough one for staying on strategy. It's a major downside of lap races. I want to start right out with an all-day pace, but in a pack full of people of varying ability, I am compelled to pass slower riders, sometimes half a dozen at a time when the course opens up to allow it. And then need to put in hard efforts to stay with the faster riders I've been able to bridge to. The conga line effect.

Then on lap two, it seems like a waste not to gap on the slower riders that were passed in lap one and try to get into the fatter part of the bell curve. By nightfall, everything will have shaken out. But on lap two my perception is always that it's worth it to stay ahead of slower riders, so there's more riding at an effort level that is counter-productive to the long haul.

I was by my self for this event, and was planning to just operate out of the back of my Toyota Matrix. But my neighbors at 24 Hour Town were supporting their 68-year-old mom who was riding solo singlespeed. I have met her, she's the close friend of one of my close friends. Her support were her son and daughter-in-law, Randy and Sherri W from Prescott, AZ. Randy is brother to one of my friends in Salida, Jeff W. We hung out for a while Friday night, and it turned out we have lots in common beyond knowing many of the same people. Similar age, similar opinions about bike industry stuff and old equipment. And they lived for years in the same town where my parents spend winters. Randy was part owner of the bike shop my dad goes to! It was fun getting to know them.

And then, when I came in off my first lap and wandered over to my car to get myself a fresh bottle of Tailwind Nutrition (a new product for me that worked GREAT by the way), Randy offered to help me out any way he could. He started by taking my Tailwind and extra bottle and promised to have replacements mixed and ready to go at the end of each lap. Their help turned out to be really key to my good experience. And their mom Wendy took third in women's solo singlespeed! She is bad-ass!

Weather? Wind. Hard constant wind out of the east. The course isn't terribly climbey, especially by Colorado standards, but there is one mile or so section of the Corral Trail which leads onto a 3 or so mile trail called Rattlesnake that were straight into the wind. The Corral section is a false flat, Rattlesnake is a series of climbs with tiny little breaks. So that bit of trail on the back side of the course was tough during those first twelve hours. After midnight the wind slacked off for the most part, but it was a real factor for the first twelve.


The night never got super cold. I'd say 40° F was as cold as it got. Very manageable. And it can be wet. This year there was no precip at all and the course was totally dry. But there was dust. The wind and traffic in the first 12 hours was making dust a real factor. It was making me a little nauseous.

At the end of my 3rd lap I stopped to mount lights. I had my NiteRider MOAB HID system, which I haven't used much the last couple of years. When I've done nighttime stuff like Vapor Trail I have tended to use my much lighter NiteRider MiNewt LED system. It has way less output, but I find it quite adequate for singletrack like the Colorado Trail from Blanks Cabin to Cascade simply because you rarely can pick up much speed. The Old Pueblo course is fast. It's easy out outrun the output of the MiNewt.

You may be able to see where this is going. I mounted up the battery and lamp. It wasn't dark yet, but I decided I better fire it up to be sure it was working. No sale. Hitting the power button had no effect. Crap. I got out my spare battery. Hooked it up. Same.

Randy came over. He pointed out that his mom had the exact same light, would I like to try her battery to see if it worked, because her system was healthy. Yep, he brought it over, we hooked it up, nobody home. My lamp was dead even when hooked to a known-good battery.

Randy asked if I'd like for him to carry it over to the Niterider tent to see if they could figure out what was wrong. Wow. That was huge. I wouldn't have taken the hour or so it was likely to take to do that. But Randy took time away from supporting his mom to carry it over.

I left for a lap with my backup MiNewt. Turned out I didn't need it for that whole lap, I was back before it got dark. When I got back from lap #4 Randy told me that Niterider had identified the problem, a faulty connection in the power plug. They were fixing it under warranty (it's 7 years old by the way). He said he would have it for me when I got back from my next lap. Wow. I took the bottle he had mixed for me and headed out. He was going to be leaving his support camp to make a second trip over to the Niterider tent for me.

That was my first night lap, and it was clear that the MiNewt was holding me back, and probably wasn't really strong enough to be safe. I was really looking forward to having my HID lamp. Thanks to Randy I had it for the rest of the night after that first one.

I rode two more laps and finished my 7th around midnight. It was a low point. My ass was hurting bad and I was feeling really shelled. When I got back Randy had a fire going and told me by all means come sit by the fire. I put on a fresh pair of shorts, slathered on some chamois butter, grabbed a red bull, a bag of potato chips and some fabulous Trader Joes inside-out carrot cake cookies (highly recommended).

I sat for probably 20 minutes or so. I ate my first solid food after 12 hours of only Tailwind Nutrition (which had been working for me remarkably well--my longest effort on purely liquid nutrition ever). I think the sitting and the red bull did the most for me. When I got up and staggered back out to the course, I found that I was re-energized.

I also found that when I got out on the course, it was relatively deserted. Lots of the riders, especially the more novice and slower riders, go to bed during the wee hours. I love the wee hours. One of the reasons I even bother with these things is the buzz of being out there at 2 AM riding under the stars. The wind had slacked off, the dust was down because of the lack of traffic, I had a renewed energy level.

I rode three laps in a row only stopping in pit for the fresh bottles of Tailwind that Randy always had waiting for me. At the end of the second of those, nobody was up in camp but there was a bottle right where I would expect to find it.

Those laps were great. I connected with a series of fellow solo riders. Most of them were women. We chatted and helped each other maintain steady pace. There were also long solitary periods. To me that is what makes a 24 hour solo. The night. The silence. The dancing beams of lights from my lamp and other riders' lamps. I found the hallucinations during this race to be top-notch. Crazy shadows of cholla and joshua trees. The perception of movement, phantom running dogs and cats. Snakes that turn out to be sticks.

When the line of light on the eastern horizon signaled the coming of dawn, I was spanked again. I came back to camp to find Randy and Cherri in camp. The fire was out but they had a little propane heater pointing at a chair in their easy-up. I took my lights off the bike. I put on my third pair of shorts, my favorite pair. I put perhaps a pound of chamois butter on my butt and the chamois. I grabbed another red bull, my chips, another Trader Joe's baked product and sat in that chair for 15 or 20 minutes.

At that point I had 10 laps. I wanted 13. When I got up to get back on course, it was right at 7 AM. Three two hour laps would be easily within reach. That would have me finishing at 1 PM. All I needed to do was keep the pace I had during the night and not spend too much time in pit. With my best shorts on and plenty of chamois butter, my butt actually was not uncomfortable at all. Seemed like I was good to go.

Lap 11 introduced me to a problem I hadn't been aware of. I injured my left shoulder back in September at the Crested Butte Classic. It was never bad enough to have me see doctor or physical terrorist. Just a little wonky. I have been doing some of the classic shoulder therapy exercises with a bungee cord, and a little bit of tricep work with some light dumbells. But apparently through the course of the last 19 hours of racing I had been weighting that arm differently than the right.

During lap #11 I found that my left tricep and deltoid were very fatigued. Much more than the right. Also I felt that my left arm was supporting my weight in a different way than the right. I wasn't sitting the bike in a symmetrical way. My left shoulder was dropping. My ability to ride flowing trail was impaired. I found myself riding sweeping right turns imprecisely. I also felt that on flat and climb sections my back wasn't straight as I pedaled. It was robbing my power and just felt uncomfortable.

My shoulder didn't hurt, but my upper body was just wrong. My speed suffered and the passing fast riders started to be very disruptive. The fast teams were in the final stretch. Their stress level was clearly higher. Their pass requests were more immediate and urgent. I felt like I was needing to get out of the way constantly, which meant I had to slow or stop then get started again constantly.

I still wanted my two more laps. My pace during #11 wasn't actually terrible, and I was still on schedule.

I left for lap #12. The first third or so of the course is fast and easy. I was riding it fine. Everything seemed like it was going to work out. But once I got to the tougher sections of the course, I totally fell apart. It was that left side. I could hardly pedal. I could hardly exploit the faster flow sections at all. The passing riders were eating me alive.

When I got to the last 3 or 4 miles of the course I was Quasimodo, a hunched over, puffing, suffering disaster. The major climb of the course had me stopping every minute or two. It was taking me forever to get through the lap. I was going to be back in time to take my thirteenth if I wanted it, but I knew it was pointless. I was somewhat disappointed because I felt like I still had the legs, but I was also ready to be off that course and off the bike. The decision to stop was easy.

At about 11 AM I rolled back to camp and put my bike on the rack. I started eating, and I got out of my lycra. And it was good. It was fine. I had nearly 200 miles on me and my GPS showed over 20 hours of moving time.

End of First Night Lap

Official result was 14th out of 87. But more important result was great experience, great weather, great people.

I simply cannot thank Randy and Sherri enough. And I am so proud of their mom Wendy for being on the podium. She shared that podium with women half her age. Bad. Ass.