Saturday, August 13, 2011

The 2011 Colorado Trail Race

Like all seemingly great ideas, mountain biking the Colorado Trail came to Eric and I while sitting around a camp fire, this time in Twin Lakes, one of our favorite spots.  I am sure a beer or two was involved.  This adventure was out of the norm as Eric had never really even ridden a mountain bike at the time.  I had no concerns about his endurance, but we had to get him going on a mountain bike, and fast.  The idea of the ride turned into the idea of doing the Colorado Trail Race as Chris Plesko recommended that because there would at least be other riders out there.  And so the obsession began...

Months of planning, reading, and studying the route began long before my first bike race of 2011.  This ride (race!) has so many details you need to cover.  What type of equipment do you need?  Food?  Where do you get food?  How much does my setup weigh?  Can I knock 3 grams off of that, ha ha.

Race day seemed to be approaching fast as July came around.  Weeks turned into days and nerves grew.  There are so many things that can go wrong when riding a mountain bike 20 miles, let alone 500 miles through extremely remote wilderness.  We thought we were preparing well, but a series of attempted bikepacking trips went wrong.  Yes, trips that turned out to be less than 10 miles (a lot less than 500 miles).

CTR start line.  80ish bikepackers!

The start of the race was broken into waves due to the amount of people and how soon the trail bottlenecks.  Eric and I lined up in the 6-8 day wave.  I would guess 40 to 50 people started at the same time we did.  I took off and was sort of cautious.  As soon as we hit the trail, it was like a cross country race in that riders were wheel to wheel.  I knew this was make Eric jittery as this was his first mountain bike race (yes folks, thats right).  In the first 6 or so miles I saw one rider with a broken rear rack and all his gear strewn across the trail.  Another rider tried to ride a punchy rock feature.  As I called out "walking," the rider fell and broke his seat.  Game over for these two, and so soon.  I crested a climb about 7 miles into the race.  Eric was no where to be seen, so I waited.  15 minutes later he makes it up the climb and has a look of disbelief on his face.  Something was wrong with the free hub body and his cassette would barely turn.  He could ride it, but it was strange.  I calmed him down and said we have two options.  Limp in to Breck, or quit.  Simple choice, off to Breck it was.  As we rolled down Segment 1, his free hub seemed to be working ok.  I tried to complicate things by crashing on one of the switchbacks at the end of segment 1.  When I put my hand out to soften the blow, I smashed a rock and hurt the palm of my hand and thumb quite a bit,  It would be quite sore for 2-3 more days and very black.  

We experienced a little bit of rain and a closed gas station in Bailey, which was to be our first resupply point.  Neither was an issue though.  A quick stop for a hot dog and the fact that we carried a little more food than "needed" and this was not a problem.  Both of us agreed we would prefer to err on the side of to much food and water for this trip.  A road ride up 285 and it was on to Kenosha Pass to Georgia Pass, one of my favorite trails.

Matt, me, and Eric.  The camaraderie of racers was amazing
First nights campsite about 7 miles up to Georgia pass after 72 miles

Day 2 we started with the remaining climb up to Georgia pass.  The ride down to Tiger road/Breckenridge was pretty fun.  There was rolling singletrack that lead to some rocky hike a bike sections for us.  I typically thought that I should ride at about 65% of my technical ability so I would not crash, end the journey, or break something.  A quick detour due to some forest service work lead us to a part of the CT that was new to me.  On to Breckenridge to resupply and to get Eric's free hub fixed.  Carver bikes was amazing.  They took care of the wheel and off we were.  The 10 mile range was our next obstacle.  Its a pretty burly climb with about 2,000 ft of hike a bike to get to the summit.  The reward was an amazing view of Breckenridge, Copper mountain, and the approaching storms....

The Lev on top of Georgia Pass

Summit of the 10 mile climb overlooking Copper mountain

We descended into Copper as the storm approached and pushed on in the rain and darkness.  After an hour or so of that we decided it was time to set up camp.  Night two was cold, rainy, and quite miserable.  I found out my tarp was not completely waterproof, and most of my stuff was sort of wet.  I was very thankful for my bivy for keeping my sleeping bag dry.   The cold and wet night lead to a miserable start to the next day.  Thankfully we got to climb off of the start and quickly warmed up.  
Marmot disappointed due to no snowmobiling

Our first obstacles on day 3 were Searle and Kokomo, two 12,000 plus peaks with amazing views and great weather.  The ride down from here was one of my favorites of the trip.  Lots of singletrack, some quite steep and rocky.  This descent seemed to go on forever through the lush forest.  It would make an amazing day trip.  It was also the first places I noticed myself bonking. I had nothing on the climb out and was starting to get agitated at stupid little things.  Eric noticed this too.  I started to force food down.  First it was a caffeinated gel, and went to a few other things.  A root beer at the top of Tennessee pass that we found in a container labeled "Trail Magic" courtesy of Leadville Hostel had me flying!  I felt great again and the trail down was sick.  I even rode into a segment we were not supposed to ride, and thankfully stopped before I got lost.  We hit the road into Leadville with visions of large burgers dancing in our heads.  On the way we came to a point where the road was one lane due to construction.  I warned the stop sign holder that she best let us through in a sarcastic tone because she was holding up our bike race and costing us about one minute on the way to Durango.
Pulling away to get that burger! 

We left Leadville happy after a large burger, fries, and many Cokes.  Segment 11 north of Twin lakes was a lot of fun and things were looking good.  Once at Twin lakes though, rain for the 3rd day in a row was imminent.  The crazy idea of pushing on into Buena Vista for a hotel room became the goal.  My mindset changed to mission mode as I pushed hard around the lake and into the next section of segment 11.  We rode through rain, lightning, and darkness for the next 4.5 hours.  Towards the end of segment 11, I could tell Eric was hitting the wall.  On the long descent I was periodically looking to the right to see if I could see the signs of the road 800 ft below.  Every time I turned my head to the right I noticed that he would too as I could see his headlamp a second or two after me.  After doing this several times, I half turned my light two consecutive times only to see him do the full turn.  I broke out laughing as I was messing with him, which we tended to do at times.  Seriously though, it was helpful for us to ride together to help each other through the bonks and to suggest things like eating, resting, or anything else that we needed to do to get though the adventure.  The rest of the night was road riding into Buena Vista.  We ended up arriving into town at about 11:30 PM, which made for an amazing push and a well deserved hotel where we each devoured breakfast twice in the morning.  

Taken before the ride down to Twin Lakes
Buena Vista hotel room destroyed by dirty bikepackers, sorry
Departing from Buena Vista happy, full, and well rested

A 10 mile road climb up from Buena Vista dumped us into segment 13, which had some pretty fun stuff to ride.  Another great meal at Princeton Hot Springs and it was on to segment 14, which I dreaded since riding it with Brad about 6 weeks ago.  An extended hike a bike climb, followed by a valley that we rode in while getting rained on and long rocky sections barely rideable with camping equipment pursued.  This section went on for what seemed like forever. We reached hwy 50 late and decided to camp about 30 ft from the road.  A RV site 1 mile east was our last resupply point until Silverton, some 150 miles away.  The RV place had Gatorade, breakfast Mountain Dew, more candy bars, and little packages of cereal.  After this, it was time to tackle Fooses creek trail.  

A little steep as you can see

Fooses Creek brought us to the iconic Monarch Crest trail.  Here we rolled past many day trippers while rocking our full setup.  It was great seeing faces of riders as we rolled past them with a loaded bike.  The occasional "are you guys in the race," which we got every so often throughout our ride was inspiring too.  It was pretty cool that people knew of the small underground race we were participating in.  If you have heard of the the Monarch Crest trail, you know the downhill and singletrack here rocked and was more than worth the effort to get to the top of Fooses Creek.  The next few segments flew by, as the adventure often times seemed to.  There was a long section with very limited water.  
 Local wildlife as seen in Segment 16
 "Apple's" camp, a Trail Angel after a tough Segment 17

We departed from Apple's camp with stomach's full of breakfast Oreo's and Cokes.  The trail after hwy114 started off with a fair singletrack climb but rolled into a long valley.  The long rolling valley was a nice treat after days of high mountain passes and burly terrain. 

At this point of the race we were literally in the middle of nowhere.  It was nice to have a pace dog for a couple miles.  He seemed pretty cool.  I only wish he would have been with us longer.  My pace dog and I were riding side by side and quickly approaching a cattle guard.  I was interested to see how a smaller dog at full speed would get past a cattle guard.  Poor dog attempted to hurtle the cattle guard and ended up a little short.  I did not see what happened, but Eric, who was riding a little ways behind me, said he appeared to hurt himself fairly good, but was still moving a bit.  

The day was coming together quite nicely and we were well on our way for setting ourselves up for the section that scared us the most-the Coney Cataract section.  We heard many tales of people getting stuck in afternoon storms there and it sounded as if it had its own climate.  Our campsite was the night before this section was just below treeline and we were primed for an early start.

Campsite just past Spring Creek at 11,600 ft
An early start to hopefully avoid storms above treeline

The first few hours had a mix of walking and really fun wooded singletrack, which was a fair surprise given how high up we were.  Then we hit some of the tough stuff.  I have to admit, I have mixed feelings about segments 22 and 23.  These segments were probably the most beautiful, but also the most difficult.  We probably pushed bikes more than 25 miles as we progressed through this area.  Here it was evident that I lack proper hiking fitness.  My body would never fully recover or feel strong after passing through this area.  Even Eric said he was beat after these sections.  He runs and walks a fair amount, so he was better prepared for this than I was.

 Pretty typical view during 22 and 23

Thats me pushing my bike up

The final pass before dropping into Silverton

Silverton was the final resupply point of the race.  We made the long stretch from Buena Vista to Silverton with some food left over, so we were confident we could make it from Silverton to Durango.  Dinner and another motel capped the night.  1/2 a box of family sized Raisin bran and a 1/4 gallon of Milk got us off to a fine start the next day.

Silverton the next day on our way back up

The day started off great 4 hours in or so there was even talk of an all night push to finish, which was 80ish tough miles from Silverton.  At about noon that all ended.  I fell apart.  I was hungry and tired, both physically and mentally and nothing I did could help me overcome this.  I dug deep though.  we carried on and probably got another 6-7 hours of moving time in, which is amazing when you think about it.  This whole ride/race we continued to find our limits and push them farther than ever before.  Monday I found a way to continue to move until 8PM or so even though I felt terrible.  

How down can you be when this is the view from your bed?

The next morning it was a lot of the same. My body struggled to find its rhythm.  The last four segments, 25-28 made for some pretty amazing riding.  It would make a very fun shuttle if you could get someone to pick you up or drop a car at the Junction creek trailhead.  

A "sign" the adventure is coming to a close

Shortly after seeing the above sign, we reached the high point for the day.  All that was in front of us was a 3,000ft descent, a 1,000ft climb, and a 2,500 ft descent.  It was hard to believe that we were so close after all we went through.  The initial descent above treeline was super sketchy.  I rode some and walked some.  Think a shoulder width path with nothing but loose shale below you and a really steep drop off to the right.  Once we hit treeline though, the smiles began.  The forested singletrack was amazing, and I could tell the temperature and humidity was going up.  We had been higher than 9,000 ft for days, and it was strange to see the lower elevations flora.  The final climb kicked me back to the reality that we were not quite done yet.  But the final descent was one hell of a way to wrap this up.  My mind and body felt much better with the feeling of accomplishment rising up inside me.  The final trail would have been a great way to end any ride, but it was an amazing way to end this ride.  

Departure time 6:42 AM on 8/1 from Indian Creek trail head/Arrival at Junction Creek 4:07 PM on 8/9

 Post ride beers, Steamworks, Durango
Cajun broil dinner, motivation for months and 500 miles of pedaling 

Final stats:  85.75 hours of moving time, 497 miles covered, 65,378 ft climbed

I would like to thank Chris Plesko, who motivated me through my progression as a biker and helped immensely with recommendations on equipment throughout the preparation process.  Thanks to Mark Hansen for picking us up at 4:30 AM on Monday morning and driving us to the trail to see us off.  Chad Behling for being our emergency contact should something have gone wrong on this journey.  And luck-we needed quite a bit of it to finish, and it was mostly on our side.

I would also like to thank Eric quite a bit.  He was an amazing person to go on this adventure with.  We helped each other overcome many things on this journey.  It was really cool seeing his progression as a mountain biker over the 500 miles.  I could not count the times he said something like "this is the best trail I have ridden."

What worked:
-Scwalbe Racing Ralphs with Snakeskin and Stans-durable, handled great, and never had to pump them up and no flats the whole trip
-Steripen classic when we both left, we were nervous about me bringing this and the thought was Eric's MSR water filter would be more reliable than this, the filter died though, and we relied on the Steripen for water purification
-Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pad-so comfortable, arguably my favorite item on the trip
-Mountain Feedbag-kept food at my fingertips
-Blackdiamond Storm headlamp- fairly bright and waterproof
-Pearl Izumi Enduro II-super comfortable and great for hiking PI makes a great shoe

What did not work
-Garmin Edge 705-great one day GPS/cycling computer, worthless for long navigation trips
-Solio Rocsta solar charger-took way to freaking long to charge, though woods and overcast weather did not help its cause
-MSR E-Wing tarp-supposedly waterproof-I got wet-enough said

What I ate:
Candy bars! Snickers, Almond Joy, but may favorite were 3 Musketeers
Pringles crushed in a ziplock bag-amazing
Honeystinger Ginsting gels, where I could find them, caffeine and carbs in a small packet


  1. I had a hotdog with you guys in Baily. Good to see you made it to Durango!

  2. Awesome! - Congrats on finishing the beast!!!

  3. Way to go boys! Great write-up!

  4. Cant wait for next year!!

  5. Thanks for sharing. Makes me want to do it!