Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Trip Back: DNF The Long Way

About a week before the Colorado Trail Race began, working on the logistics of return from Durango, I contemplated the possibility that I might end up bailed out to some other town following a DNF.  I told myself that if this happened, unless it was absolutely impossible to do so, I would ride my bike back to Denver.  Looking back on it, I think this resolution was born partly from a desire to remain in keeping with the self-supported ethic of the race itself and partly from some aesthetic sense of the journey's balance.  Cadging a ride or buying a bus ticket would have the whiff of failure in a way that a return via bike couldn't.  If this resolution also served as additional deterrent to a hasty decision to bail off the route, so be it.

As fate would have it, I found myself rolling into Salida in the wee hours of Saturday morning, having just bailed off the route below Marshall Pass.  With a 24-hour Walmart, a backpackers hostel, friendly people, and innumerable decent places to eat, this is not a bad town to blow into tired, sick, and broken down.  I hit the Walmart first, buying food, a bike lock, and some non-bike-clothes and flipflops.  I changed in the bathroom and immediately felt less like a tumbleweed and more like a person.

After a shower, a hot meal, and a little lying around coughing and feeling sorry for myself, I went and found a computer.  I shot off a couple emails to tell folks I'd dropped out, and then checked the race's progress online.  Yep.  There was my SPOT's last ping at around 7pm the night before, next to a small stream in the middle of segment 14.  It must have fallen upside down or under a rock, in a position where it couldn't communicate with its satellite any more.  So my plan was to spend Saturday riding back up to look for my SPOT, then start the process of getting home on Sunday.

Before I could do any of this, I needed to get my front derailleur working again.  It kept getting clogged with mud and keeping it working on the trail had been increasingly difficult.  Absolute Bikes in Salida is a fantastic shop.  They genuinely appreciate and understand all the nutcases who come through Salida on long-haul rides, not just the CTR but also the Tour Divide racers, the coast-to-coast riders, and all the others.  Not only did they get the derailleur dialed in, they studied the maps with me to find the shortest road ride from town up to the trail, and let me leave my frame bag and other packs in the shop for the day while I went SPOT-hunting.

Good lord was I tired.  I hadn't slept since BV.  I can't believe I didn't just say fuckit and leave the thing out there. 
I'm not ashamed to say I walked it up this hill.  Okay, I'm a little ashamed.  When a family drove by in an SUV I felt like a cautionary tale: mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be mountain bikers.
If I had not been so sleep deprived I probably would have realized the SPOT hunt was doomed.  Riding the 13 mile climb up to the Mt. Shavano trailhead left no question about just how fatigued my body actually was.  No longer in go-go-go race mode, it was suddenly hard for me to ignore the aches that had been building up for days.  Riding up that gravel felt as hard as anything I'd done all week.  At last I reached the trailhead and turned onto the CT, this time northbound. It seemed like a lifetime ago that I'd been racing on it in the other direction, though it had been less than 24 hours earlier.  I got to the right section, and walked up and down on it for forty five minutes.  No sign of the bright orange SPOT.  Either someone had picked it up and turned it off, or it had fallen so far down into the rockpiles lining the trail that it was hidden completely from view.  Or it had fallen into the rushing waters of the stream and carried down somewhere below.

If I stayed any longer, all my gear would have been locked inside Absolute Bikes for the night, so I gave up on the SPOT and got back on the bike.  $150 worth of SPOT is out there somewhere.  Oh well.  I motored back to town, picked up my gear, picked up 2 burritos and some Odells IPA, then checked into a motel whose decor was unchanged since 1983.  That night I slept like the dead.

The next morning I headed back to Absolute Bikes.  I explained my desire to ride my race bike back to Denver, and they seemed to think this was a perfectly normal idea.  Then most awesome bike shop employee Fawn helped me pick out some cyclocross tires, so I wouldn't have to push the meaty 2.55 WTB Weirwolf treads over all those miles of pavement.  And then, THEN-- and this is where you really can tell how incredibly understanding this shop is of the long-haul rider-- she arranged for Absolute to mail my tires back to me in Asheville, because it was Sunday and the Post Office was closed, so I couldn't mail them myself, and I had nowhere easy to carry two bulky 29er tires on my packs.  Thank you Fawn, Scot, the other mechanics, and seriously every single person who works at Absolute. 

So rested, fed, cheered, and lightened in tire, I headed out from Salida at 2:30 Sunday afternoon.  It was only around 150 miles back to Denver but I was super tired and still feeling the effects of altitude sickness.  I decided to embrace the mindset of le cyclotourisme europĂ©en and enjoy the scenery, take any workable detour from pavement onto gravel, and go as slow as I wanted.

Sometimes the roads were lovely.
Sometimes not so lovely.
Some of the route I managed to find nice gravel alternates.

Spent some time contemplating this Pi flag, and the tiny, irrational nation that might exist down that drive.

Snack time! Ah yeah, this is real touring style. Cheese, crackers, prosciutto, even a beer.  Miles and miles from anything.  Sat for a while here, watched the dragonflies.  (Note that I moved my sleeping pad from inside my pack to across the rear of the seat bag.  The blue is super visible, and I swear most drivers give you more space if you have something horizontal across the back of the bike.  I think they can't figure out how far it sticks out.)
I was feeling kind of low after a while, thinking about the altitude sickness and the DNF.  I was riding slowly up a gravel climb, and it seemed to take forever.  As a black pickup passed, a little blond kid in an orange tshirt leaned halfway out the passenger side window, turned back to look me straight in the eye, and gave me a big smile and an emphatic thumbs-up.  As the truck roared off I burst into laughing tears, I was so overflowing with surprise and gratitude.  Even right now, thinking about that kid makes me smile.

It could be easy to fall into the trap of calling this race a failure, but it was still a pretty fantastic ride.  And the adventure continued, I was still riding that bike.  Even in that low state of mind, moping along at half speed, inching back toward the city, I apparently looked like I was having enough fun to merit the hearty approval of a little kid.  That thumbs-up gets at the real truth of this whole trip.  Biking is fun.  Camping is fun.  Biking and camping together? Now that's really fun.

Out of the Arkansas Hills, into the shortgrass prairie of the intermountain basin. 
Up this road spur into the Pike National Forest, where I slept for the night.  After sunset lightning storms settled in over the Front Range on the horizon, flashing silently in the distance, entertainment before sleep. 
The next morning I rode across this basin.  It was neither as windy nor as boring as you might expect.  And at the end, there was a barbecue stand!  Again, in the spirit of laid back cyclotourism I forced myself to stop and partake.
 In the background, where I'm heading, is the back side of Kenosha Pass.  The route is meeting back up on itself as I near Denver.  The basin I just rode across is visible over my shoulder in this photo from just above Kenosha Pass on the second morning of the race.
I rode up to the top of Kenosha Pass and down the other side to Bailey.  After Bailey, I was riding into the farthest-out exurbs of Denver Metro.  The plan was to ride the bike paths into town and right to my friend Elasha's apartment in the heart of the city.  The road got busier.  Construction forced me to ride off the shoulder, on the grass.  As I entered the actual suburbs, a police car pulled up and starting asking me questions.  A cyclist with a fair bit of gear on the bike seemed to read pretty much as homeless to paranoid suburbanites.  After proving to him that I was no vagrant, he insisted on giving me and my bike a ride to the edge of his district.  Who was I to argue really, it was raining again and the construction was a pain in the ass.  As I got in the car and closed the door, accepting the ride, I realized it was the first thing I had done contrary to the race rules.  Two and a half days after I had left the course, I had finally left the race.  


  1. Hi Emily,
    Really enjoyed reading you CTR report and your blog in general.
    Looking forward to some more postings on your equipment especially your Niner. Love those bikes.
    Great to be able to read of such adventures whilst sitting at my computer down in Oz

  2. Wow! You rode back to Denver. I'm impressed.

  3. Like I told you when we met during the Dirty Kanza this year -- you ROCK Emily Brock. You're right... Your DNF did have style. Thanks for reminding me that I can always do better.

    Oh, and your recollection of the kid giving you the thumbs up brought tears to MY eyes just reading it... Good stuff. Thanks for sharing that.