Colorado Trail Race -The Good, The Great and The Blessed
"I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. - Psalms 121, 1-2
Then there was the counting of steps.* One, two, three.....seventy-five. During the Colorado Trail Race, I would get to an extremely steep section where, inevitably, I would be walking and pushing my bike up the mountain. This was no easy task since the bike was heavy with my gear, all strapped up and tucked away in bags situated neatly on the bike frame. With altitudes over 11,000 feet, the air was thin and my body was tired, so, I would count my steps. If I could make it to seventy-five, I would stop, take five to ten deep breaths, and begin the process all over again. One, two, three.....
Mountains are magical places filled with beauty and danger, yet they call to me. Somewhat on a whim last April, I decided to tackle the Colorado Trail Race this July. An epic self-supported race from Denver to Durango covering some of the most difficult trail that Colorado has to offer, it did not disappoint and left with a feeling of gratitude and respect for the mountains I call home.
"I want to do the Colorado Trail Race instead of the Breck Epic this year." I remember telling both Des, the executive director of the Amy D Foundation, this after competing in the Whisky 50 down in Prescott, AZ. She just looked at me and said "You can do whatever you like, but you might want to consider putting in some longer miles. You know you have our support." I just smiled, and the planning began. From early May to the grand depart on July 29th, my husband Ben and I thought and read about my upcoming adventure. It consumed me. Every night I would read and memorize the route. Ben was excited to chip in and research the best gear required for such an adventure. On July 29th, I felt mentally ready to take on the adventure. I knew that I had neglected to put in the miles that Des had recommended back in April, but my optimism pulled me through.
Day one was rough. I immediately knew about 70 miles in that I was going to have to rally the troops to pull this off. I kept thinking that I should have put in more mileage! At about mile 80, I told myself to stop being negative, to accept any outcome and to enjoy the gift of cycling. At mile 100, I made it to the Stagecoach Bar for some food and a cold glass of ice water and I was back in good spirits. It was nice to chat with some of the other cyclists about their upcoming CTR journey, and to pick the veteran's brains on strategies. Upon leaving, I accidentally missed a turn and gave myself an extra four miles of riding. When I realized my mistake, I was quick to not beat myself up. I turned around, got back on course and kept riding. In the days leading up to the event, Ben and I kept debating over the best strategies; namely to sleep or not to sleep. Ben was in favor of sleeping, I was on the fence. When I got to about 9:30 p.m. on the first night, it was easy to side with my husband. I quickly found a great camp spot, pulled out my bivvy and sleeping bag, stuffed some more food in my face, looked over my bike, and went to sleep.
I awoke around 3 a.m. on the second day. I had a good five hours of sleep! I knew a lot of folks had passed me in the night, but I felt refreshed and ready to charge. Day two was a tough including Georgia Pass and the ten mile terror between Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. I only got in about 68 miles, including over 12,000 feet of elevation gain. It was a bit demoralizing when I realized how it took me the entire day to cover such a small distance. The views were spectacular, but my hear was broken already. I knew that my biggest competition, Liz, was ahead of me. This was the day that I decided not to focus on her. I decided to ride my own race and to relish in my own experience. Just to finish the CTR is an accomplishment of a lifetime.
So, when 9 p.m. rolled around, I found a good campsite outside of Leadville, and began to prepare my site. Immediately a little hopping mouse began to inspect my setup. He was bouncing all around my bivvy and my bike, quite the persistent little acrobat! I made sure to keep all my food tightly enclosed in the bags, but I did "accidentally" drop a few Lay's potato chip crumbs. I think he was grateful. I talked to him like a crazy girl while we ate our dinners, calling the little guy Wilbur. I got into my bivvy and almost asleep, I feel Wilbur jumping around on top of me! I think I screamed "Go to bed Wilbur!", and before I knew it, I was asleep again.
I awoke on the third day around 3:30 a.m. With another good 5 plus hours of sleep, I was ready to ride again. Day three was the beginning of the inevitable saddle sores, and I felt them immediately. The morning brought some stellar single track, and my saddle sore pain soon blew away on the crisp, cool morning air. The excitement of Buena Vista hovered in my thoughts. I knew I could use the town as a much needed resupply for food, and I was starting to get tired of the sports bars I had brought with me.
Water was never an issue on the trail. I would stop by fresh mountain streams, use my water bottle to fill my Osprey pack which had an inline Sawyer filtration system, then I would fill up the water bottle and sanitize with tablets. I would wait 45 minutes before I could drink the water in the bottle, and I always looked forward to it because I would put my Carbo Rocket drink mix in the bottle. The quick sugar rush always felt like a welcome break from the mostly high protein, high fat diet that I had packed.
I made it to Buena Vista around 2 p.m. on the third day. I immediately went to the grocery store and filled up on as much calories that I could fit. This is were I made my biggest mistake. I needed to sit there and eat more; I needed to analyze the amount of calories to pack for then next several days. I stuffed as much as could in my bags, as quickly as possible, and rode on. I wanted to get way past Mt. Princeton Hot Springs that night. The route between the hot springs and Buena Vista was a rough one with lots of rolling hills. I stopped to eat a lot of the food that I had bought. Around 5, I started to fill sick. It was if I had a cold with the stuffy nose and achy body. I made it to the hot springs, sat and ate some more food, and decided to push on. I did not make it far. Feeling like I had a cold, I decided to bivvy around 8 p.m. not too far from the trail head outside of Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. I quickly fell asleep.
I awoke on day four around 4 a.m. feeling like I still had a touch of a cold. I knew I had a good seven hours of sleep, but I still felt really groggy. Day four was the day of positive self talk. I immediately started thinking positive thoughts as I pushed my bike up the steep trail. With my handlebar light illuminating the trail in front of me, I counted steps.
It was around 7 a.m. when a couple of other riders approached me. Two men, one from England, the other from the states. I traveled with them a bit. I found that I would pass them on the descents, they would catch me on the climbs. Soon another group of three other guys caught up. It was nice to have company, and it made the time pass more easily for me. I would fly through the descents, the group would catch me on the climbs, and I was having a fun day.
We split apart on one of the road transfers. I stayed with a kid named Bryce. He was a happy guy who grew up in the Durango Devo program, had great bike handling skills, and expressed a love for skiing. We were riding and chatting when all of the sudden Bryce stopped. "Someone dropped some gummy bears!" he said with excitement. "You're not going to eat those are you?" He laughed and said, "Of course! We need all the calories we can get out here." I knew immediately that this was my kind of guy.
I left Bryce around the Monarch Crest, and continued alone for a while until two other guys, Donnie and Todd caught up. I had a great time chatting with these two. They soon became some of my favorite travel companions, and I owe my faster pace to them. Before I knew it, we were on Sargent's Mesa, a sinister section of riding that had been a dark cloud looming in my mind since April. Not too surprising to me, this became one of my favorite segments. I loved the technical challenges, the expansive views, I relished in the challenge of Sargent's Mesa. Stopping for some dinner with Donnie, Tom and some really nice hikers, we found out that I was in the lead! I got excited and wanted to jump up and leave immediately. Donnie brought me back to reality, "You're in the lead now, you need to take care of yourself and your bike, we have a long journey ahead of us." He was right, and I knew that the win was not easily mine. Looking into my bag, for the first time I noticed how dangerously low on food I was. At that point, I had less than 1,000 calories left, and we had more than 100 miles to Silverton.
We all stopped for camp a little past the high point of Sargent's. As I got into my bivvy, another cyclist passed with lights on and a steady cadence. I knew it was Liz. I fell asleep quickly, despite Donnie's snoring. At 2:30 a.m., we were up, and by 3:00 out of camp and moving. The boys took off faster than my body wanted, and I was once again alone. Pushing my bike up the steep hills, I reverted to the counting of steps. One, two, three.....
The morning air was refreshing as I hit the La Garita detour. I caught back up with Donnie and Todd, once again glad to have some company. This was the first time I voiced my food shortage out loud. Donnie said he was running low too, but was determined to charge on to Silverton. I wondered if he had the same amount as me, less than 700 calories. I tried to stay with the guys, but my saddle sores were particularly painful on the day, and I was beginning to feel the lack of calories.
At some point during my agony, Liz came up behind me. I really didn't remember passing her, but here she was. I was glad to see her, and glad for some company. We chatted a bit, and then she was off. I was riding without my chamois that day, and all I remember was stripping down on the side of the road to put the chamois back on. I cried. I ate as much food as I thought would be sufficient, and got back on the bike. I was down to roughly 500 calories and I had the most difficult terrain ahead of me. The San Juan Mountains are my home and I love their majestic beauty, but I know what they offer in regards to terrain. They do not relent. They are steep, they are rocky, they are dangerous. I was riding a slow steady grind to the top if Slumgullion Pass as my body screamed to dismount the bike and walk. And, once again, the counting of steps began. One, two, three....
Near the top, I decided to sit down for five minutes. Under a small group of Aspens, laying next to my bike, I quietly enjoyed the shade and the breeze. A car pulled up next to me, and out walked an older lady. "Honey, are you alright?" She spoke in a southern accent. "Yes mam, I'm okay. It's just that I'm racing a long bike journey from Denver to Durango, and I'm a little tired at the moment." In utter shock she looked at me and asked, "well, do you need some water?" "No mam, I have plenty, thank you." "Well, do you need some snacks?" Now, let me be completely honest. Hell yes I needed snacks. I was starving. The rules are clear about accepting food. You are allowed to accept food from strangers, but not from anyone that you know. So, after my "trail fairy" posed the question of snacks, I quickly stood up like a zombie rising to feast on the brains of a group of wayward high school students. "Yes!" And, she unloaded! Half a package of Almond Joy, the king size, some peanut butter, and some pistachios!!! I think I cried, until she handed me the diet Dr. Pepper.... I accepted it anyway. Diet or not, I was so thankful. This precious generosity brought me back up to almost 700 calories. Still too low, but definitely better than before. I thanked her profusely, jumped back on my bike pushing, slowly, forward.
I arrived to the start of Spring Creek still hungry, but determined to continue. The weather was brewing, and it started to rain on me. Since the next segments of the Colorado Trail were all mostly over 10,000 feet, I decided to hunker down in a bathroom and wait out the storm. This was when two cyclists, pulled up and asked if I was one of the crazy folks doing that race. "Why, yes, I am!" I smiled through my obvious starvation mode. "Would you like some snacks?" I couldn't believe my luck, and once again, I stood up. "Yes!" They gave me FOUR Luna bars, a Gatorade, and one fruit snack! As they left, I cried holding the precious calories in my hand. This was over 700!
The weather was looking promising, and I set out moving ever so closer to the high point of my journey, 13,271 ft. I was still feeling a little weak, but pressed on. This was when a sweetheart of a girl, Erica came upon me. Erica was doing an ITT (independent time trial), and had left Denver the Thursday before the racer's grand depart on Sunday. Words can not express how thankful I was for a woman's companionship. We talked of life, of goals, where we had been, where we are going. Before we knew it, we were above 10,000 feet, sheep surrounded us, the sun was setting, and the rain was back. I knew we needed to find shelter, or at least a good clump of trees soon. I remembered Donnie and Todd talking about a yurt this segment, and we decided to try and make it to this possible dream shelter. Night set upon us as we began to descend back into the trees. This was when I noticed my last light battery had run out of juice. My headlamp was all I had left for the remaining journey. Thanks to Erica's eyes, we found the yurt. By this time, we were soaked through, cold and desperate for some shelter. I knocked on the door and walked in. "Can we stay here tonight?" Immediately, I heard Donnie's voice, "Ash? Is that you?" I knew we were in! Thank goodness for friends. He immediately said, "We will make room for them." Todd was there as well, but all the other beds were occupied by four other hikers. I took the spot right under Todd's bed with Erica beside me on the floor. As I settled in to bed, the smell of dirty feet surrounded me. Donnie snored away, and one of the hikers rattled off a string of flatulence that left me giggling like a little school girl.
I set two alarms. One for 3:00, one for 4:00. I slept through them both! It was 6:30 a.m. when I finally awoke to the sounds of one of the hikers making coffee. I was devastated. I knew I let the win slip through my fingers with this stupid mistake. However, I also knew that my body was starved of the nutrition that it needed to complete this epic battle, and sleep was my body's way of gaining some ground on the caloric deficit. I had one Luna bar for dinner the night before, and as I was leaving, the hiker asked, "aren't you going to eat?" I looked at her, grabbed one more Luna bar, and said "Of course, I have this bar here." I jumped on my bike, and continued my journey. Silverton was ahead, over 40 miles ahead, but I knew I would make it.
I ran out of food a little before noon. I remember feeling good, although a little loopy. My friend Dana caught up with me. He is one of those guys that you always run into at events and on the trail; a math professor, a great cyclist and an all around amazing guy. He told me he rode into Lake City the previous day to fix a mechanical and to refill on food. I had debated doing the same, but the extra 18 miles and 2,500 ft of elevation gain changed my mind. He actually offered me food! I declined. He was a fellow cyclist, but also a friend and, being a stickler for rules, I wasn't sure if I should take the food. His pace was too fast for mine, and he soon passed me. The terrain was steep and rugged. Soon I found myself back in the territory of step counting. One, two, three....
I made it to Silverton. I was dizzy, I was tired, but I made it. After my first hot drink in days, I left the coffee shop and spent $75 at the local grocery store. I met back up with Dana and we both had our brake pads changed out at the local bike shop. I stuffed my face with food while chatting with the mechanic and Dana. After some quick mechanical magic, I headed back out.
I made it to the Molas Pass turn off in good time. I knew that Liz was ahead of me, but it didn't matter. I was going to finish this beast. I debated riding through the night. If I could keep riding, I might have a chance to catch Liz. As I crested a pass with only my headlamp, I soon realized how slow I was moving. It was difficult to see, and I was tired. Deciding to bed down for the night, I pulled out my bivvy, didn't even bother to blow up my sleeping pad, and fell asleep immediately.
I awoke around 4:00 a.m. It was cold, and I got moving as quickly as possible. I rode for about an hour before my stomach, despite the continued snacking, revolted in hunger. I stopped, sat down, and ate almost an entire bag of Cheetos. There was something peaceful about that early morning. I told myself that I WOULD finish, I would be home soon.
The early morning light grew as I crested a hill. Looking ahead was my first view of Lizard Head, an iconic local landmark that told me I was home. I cried--long stupid sobbing that I am now slightly embarrassed about. The rest of the day is a blur. I just kept moving, kept riding and of course, there was the inevitable counting of the steps. One, two, three....
I finished the Colorado Trail Race in six days, fourteen hours and thirty-three minutes. I arrived to find my beloved family and friends waiting. I thought I would be sobbing when I arrived, but I wasn't. I was just tired and, of course, smiling. Then I heard Des say, " Liz's hub blew up, she had to scratch, you won!" This was when I cried. After such an epic battle between us, I knew she would be so devastated. As someone who has had their own share of bad luck in races, I couldn't help but feel for her. When this kind of thing happens, it almost feels like no one wins.
The question I am asked again and again is why. Why put my body and mind through such a beating? I thought long and hard about this over my journey, and there are a few reasons. One; I wanted to. I am often racing against some of the best in the mountain biking scene, and I lack experience. This was a way for me to gain more experience. Two; life is not easy. In fact, it is guaranteed to be difficult. Even though I believe that the world operates in a mathematical and statistical fashion, we understand it in a narrative context. Sports are a way for us to craft the narratives that help us understand the world around us.
I leave you with this quote from Sir Winston Churchill: "Never give in, Never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."
A special thanks to all the folks that helped me with this journey. First to my husband Ben, my partner in crime, who has had faith in me for much longer than I have had faith in myself.
To my sweet parents; they support me, even when my goals are crazy.
To the Amy D Foundation for all their ongoing support. I am proud to ride in Amy's name.
To Des, my friend, and counselor.
To Lauren Hall and Brad Huff; you are my friends, mentors and heroes. Also pretty good companions at Trivia night.
To Pearl Izumi; I had ZERO foot issues because of your well-made shoes, which still basically look new! Thank you for your ongoing support and your quality products.
To Stan's NoTubes; the wheel set and sealant held up through the entire 527 miles. Not a single flat over some of the roughest terrain around.
To Maxxis for making the best tires on the market.
To Carbo Rocket; the drink mix that fueled me, and continues to fuel me on workouts! (I only wish I had more on this journey!)
To Lazer Helmets; the Z-1 kept my head safe and cool!
To the guys at Kokopelli Bike and Board for a last minute total bike overhaul; NO mechanicals! Thank you for always putting up with me, thank you for your encouragement and ongoing support.
To Rick Tillery, thank you for your support, and for capturing this adventure through film.
To Jim Capra and Tyler Hamilton, your coaching got me to where I am. Thank you.
To all the other women in this race, YOU ROCK.
* Opening line, with apologies to Ernest Hemingway, taken from his opening in A Movable Feast