Thursday, August 12, 2010

Colorado Trail Race 2010

 Like half the field, I didn't finish, but the 2010 Colorado Trail Race was an incredible experience for me.  I am going to try to do a pretty exhaustive race report to try to describe the days of this amazing race, brutal weather, and beautiful trail. I figure there are people who might be interested.  It is gonna get pretty long.

An old climbing buddy from Oregon now lives in Denver, and she kindly drove me to the race start on the far southern outskirts of the city.  It started raining while we were driving out to the trailhead, and by the time Elasha dropped me off around 11 it was pouring.  As we unloaded my gear in the pitch dark the absurdity of the situation hit us and we started having a hysterical laughing fit, probably disturbing the other people trying to sleep in the campsites around us.

 In the midst of the late night hysterical laughing fit, trying to get my headlamp working.  (photo by Elasha)

I rigged my tarp over a picnic table and tried to keep myself and all my gear dry underneath it.  I don't think I got much sleep at all that night between the rain, the lumpy ground, and the many worries running through my head.

Around 4:30 am I got up and packed all my damp gear onto the bike, then rode the short distance over to the starting area.  With such a long race ahead of us, everyone was pretty laid back about the start and we rolled out at about 6:45.  The morning would include a lot of really beautiful singletrack and sunny hot weather.  The initial trail spur and the first segments of the Colorado Trail were fun to ride, buff with swoopy bermed corners and some excellent switchbacking descents.  Everyone was still pretty close together so there was a chance to chat with some of the other riders.  I suffered from some rear derailleur shifting problems for a couple hours during the morning, but after taking the time to do a little adjustment, my rear shifting was perfect for the rest of the race.  I also began coughing a lot and feeling miserable, the first suggestion of the altitude sickness that would eventually take me out of the race.

In the afternoon I overshot a turn for the Lost Creek Wilderness Area detour.  Like all other forms of wheeled transport, mountain bikes are not allowed in Wilderness Areas, meaning the CT biking route must include several detours from the official CT backpacking route.  In less than half an hour I had realized my mistake as the CT came to the boundary of the Wilderness, but during the time I was off-route a lot of people passed me.  I retraced my steps and got back on track but was feeling discouraged, coughing a lot and also dehydrated as the extra-hot weather had made me run through my water faster than expected.  I rode the detour's gravel roads into the small town of Bailey with a Fort Collins rider named Bob, and decided joining him and others in a sit-down dinner at a restaurant might improve my mood.  After Bailey the route continued for fifteen or so miles up US-285, a busy two-lane highway with a minimal shoulder, before reuniting with the CT at Kenosha Pass (elevation 10000 feet)

As we started up 285 the sky was threatening rain and dusk was near.  In the name of safety and increased visibility on the road, I stayed with several other riders for the long climb.  As we neared the pass the rain started, then an active thunderstorm blew in.  As we got to the turnoff for the CT lightning strikes were all around us, and heavy rains were blown in all directions by a strong wind.  I had intended to ride the trail over Georgia Pass by headlamp that evening before bedding down for the night, but in such heavy weather it would have been dangerous to go above treeline. 

Impossible to rig a tarp in those winds, so I found some shelter in the foyer of the Kenosha Pass Campground outhouse.   Two other riders joined me in this shelter solution.  The outhouse was remarkably clean but the floor was cold, hard cement and the violent storm made sleep difficult.  My head was well sheltered but the rest of me was still pummeled by the rain blowing into the foyer.  The damp cold left me shivering most of the night despite my bivy sack and sleeping bag.

When dawn broke it was still raining.  I felt awful and the cough that had developed the day before was much worse.  The campground host was nowhere to be seen but I didn't feel right staying in a USFS campground without paying.  Even if it had just been a few fitful hours under an outhouse overhang, I put a ten dollar bill in a fee envelope.  I didn't have a pen with me, but wouldn't have wanted to explain my "campsite" even if I had, so I left the envelope blank and just paid up.  I decided that I was hewing to the race's third rule as best I could given the circumstances.

This expression means "I slept in an outhouse last night."  Just above Kenosha Pass.
 High alpine riding up to Georgia Pass.  The tiny silhouette of another rider on the horizon.
The rain finally dried up and the morning ride was a great one, up to Georgia Pass and down the fun descents of the back side before hitting the excellent singletrack of Segment 6 into Breckenridge.  Some vaguely familiar-looking fast guys, who I couldn't quite place from some race or another, passed me on the way up to Georgia Pass and offered encouragement.  I responded with "thanks, I slept in an outhouse last night" to which one of them said "hardcore!" but which didn't really feel all that hardcore at the time.  I felt awful.  My lungs were full of crud and my breathing was shallow.  As the day wore on, several times I just got off the bike and lay down on the side of the trail for ten minutes or so.  In retrospect this was clearly a symptom of altitude sickness but at the time I figured that it was just due to poor sleep and rainy conditions.

Pushing uphill on Day 2
I was feeling so bad I was considering quitting entirely.  But the last part of Segment 6 is amazing: a series of ripping descents that seems to go on and on forever.  I may have been feeling crappy but my mountain bike skills were intact so I got the most out of those miles and had a smile on my face as I did it.  And I remembered something someone had written on about races like this, something to the effect that if you feel like quitting, eat.  If you still feel like quitting after you eat, sleep.  If you still feel like quitting after you wake up, pedal a few miles.  Only if you still feel like quitting should you finally pull the plug.

After the fun ride down into the Breckenridge-Frisco area, the trail gets much more rugged and goes steeply up and over the Tenmile Range.  Looking across to those mountains at 4 pm, the skies were already dark and heavy with impending rain.  Another night out in the rain sounded horrible, and a bike path crosses the CT and leads up to the town of Frisco.  Although it was early I decided I really had to take the opportunity to eat well and sleep solidly, try to jump-start my race.  I rode the four miles into Frisco, checked into a motel, and ordered a large sausage and mushroom pizza delivered to my room.  I ate almost the entire pizza while I texted with friends about the race and checked weather reports.  I sacked out early and set my alarm for 4am, hoping to get my race back on track the next day.

When I woke, the town was getting pounded with a deluge of rain and lightning.  I was reluctant to start over the Tenmile range in those conditions.  I finished off the previous night's pizza, then did a lot of damage at the hotel breakfast bar while I waited until the rain stopped. 

Riding the bike path from Frisco back to the CT and starting up the climb, I was hurting a lot.  The previous days I had been riding near some other people but now I was alone.  I was glad not to have to chat.  I found it hard to even exchange brief hellos with other trail users.  I had hollowed out a nice little pain cave for myself, and there was really only room for one person in it.

I used my Pisgah Productions water bottle for extra mojo during the CTR.  Sometimes when I drank out of it I could faintly hear Eric Wever's emphatic (yet totally untrue) statement to me during the Pisgah 36, "I guarantee you can finish this."

By the time I got up above treeline, I gotten into a groove.  I was not feeling better physically, but mentally I felt like I could keep suffering along at a moderate pace for a good deal longer.  The fast guy on bikepacking had given good advice: I had eaten, then slept, then pedaled a few miles, and now I didn't feel like dropping out any more.
 A little slap-happy up in the thin air
Seeing rain pummeling the ridge to the south kept me pushing the pace as best I could over the highest section of the Tenmile.  This rain didn't hit me until I was on the other side of the ridge, descending the steeps back below treeline.  
Signs of civilization seen from the windswept alpine tundra. Treeless swaths of the Copper Mountain ski runs and the twin concrete ribbons of Interstate 70. 
By the time I got to the Copper Mountain gas station, it was pouring again.  I ate heartily at the Quiznos, filled my bottles with iced coffee, and replenished the supply of M&Ms in my Mountain Feedbag.

Crossing the ski runs of Copper.  The view of tourists driving go-karts and playing mini-golf (in the rain) was a really surreal interruption of my visual landscape.  The sublime and the ridiculous are always pushing up against each other, especially in Colorado.
As the day went on, I was still riding slow and feeling lousy but was feeling more motivated and had set my goal on pushing to Leadville that night.  When I got up to Searle Pass at about 7pm heavy clouds were blowing through, spilling over the pass and scraping across the peaks to either side.  But it had stopped raining entirely.  I rode the high alpine tundra beyond Searle in the halflight of evening, watching the beautiful changing views as clouds came and went across the empty mountainsides.

 Nearing Searle Pass, just before the clouds started enveloping everything
When it finally got dark I put on my headlamp and did my traditional day-into-night-ride happy dance.  I settled in for some riding alone in the dark, hitting some great new trail and experiencing the nighttime world of the mountains.  When you ride at night you don't miss the view: you get a view, it's just a different one. I rode some gnarly descents with the extreme focus afforded by having no peripheral vision, spotted a bunch of deer by their glinting yellow eyes, smelled wildflowers I didn't see, and made up several songs which I sang loudly into the lonely dark (including a great one about Eddy Merckx with a lot of quality rhyming).  I hit Wurtz Ditch Road at about 1 am, as the rain set in again.  This marked the beginning of another Wilderness detour of the CT, just outside the town of Leadville.  I set up camp in the woods right at the junction, knowing that everything in town would be shut til the next morning.

Around 3am I woke in agony.  I was wearing a pair of compression socks (I had brought two pair of socks-- quite the luxury-- Swiftwick Merino 4s for most riding and Swiftwick Ole Compression 12s for recovery and as backup daytime socks), and my legs were swelling so much from peripheral edema that the socks were cutting painfully into my knee.  My hands were swollen, the fingertips painful to the touch, and my lower eyelids were swollen so much I could see them.  My cough continued to nag whenever I exerted myself, with lots of fluid in the lungs.  The altitude at this camp site was probably around 10600, which is not really all that high, but was high enough to cause problems.  This was when I really had to admit I was exhibiting many of the symptoms of full-on altitude sickness.

I've had plenty of experience living, backpacking, climbing, skiing, and riding bikes at high altitudes.  I've only once before experienced any notable high altitude issue (I passed out in an especially intense Bikram Yoga class in Taos a few years back).  I'd been at or above 8000 feet for about two weeks before the CTR began.  In my non-professional estimation, the terribly rainy weather plus the go-go-go of the CTR format were combining to magnify the physiological problems of altitude.  The altitudes we were riding at were 8000-13000 feet, which is not extremely high, but the realities of the race format meant the effects were hard to avoid. Maybe the sustained high heart rate in mountain biking was making the effect of altitude greater for this race than they might be in a more muscle-oriented endeavor like climbing or skiing.  In a one day race, the effect of high-level exertion at altitude would be felt for just a few hours, not for days on end, so it wouldn't build up to cause so much problem.  Even a traditional stage race has so much rest and recuperation time built into the format that the effects of altitude would be less significant.  In any case, the official word seems to be that altitude sickness hits randomly, even people who've never had any issues before, and it seemed to have hit me.  I ripped off the compression socks and went back to sleep.

The next morning I rode the easy miles of the Holy Cross Wilderness detour into Leadville.  My first stop was Proving Grounds, where I unexpectedly ran into a racing friend who was in town for the Leadville race. We chatted for a bit and not until afterward did I realize how appalling I must have looked: plastic bags between my dry socks and wet shoes, face puffy with edema, pine needles in my hair, days' worth of mud on my legs and clothes.  I am pretty sure I wasn't swaying anyone in that coffee shop from the slick corporate racing format to the grungy CTR format.  I hit the always-awesome Cycles of Life bike shop for a brake adjustment too.  I was sure I was in last place (it turned out I wasn't, but I sure felt like I was), and they gave me a "DFL Discount" and were super encouraging and sweet.

Even though I was feeling increasingly bad I intended to sleep in Buena Vista that night.  BV is down at 8000 feet, and my hope was that sleeping that low for a night might be enough to keep me in the race.  It was a long day from Leadville to BV, with a fair bit more rain, but the trail miles were pretty easy and included a lot of Wilderness detour on gravel road.

Starting the long slow grind back up to the mountains after Leadville,
Some muddy trail in the rain on Segment 11.  This false flat was dismal, went on way too long, and was not very interesting.  It was actually the only singletrack of the race that was neither fun nor painful, just boring. 

Beginning of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness detour into BV... hey look! More rain!
The route goes through old railroad tunnels blasted out of the cliffs along the Arkansas River near BV
In Buena Vista I hit the supermarket and grabbed a motel room.  As I ate yogurt and rotisserie chicken in my room, I marveled at the fact that I was in a race that took so long that there was actually time mid-race to watch an episode of Project Runway and some Golden Girls reruns.

The next morning I felt rested, but I still had a lot of peripheral edema and was coughing like a lifelong smoker.  I packed the bike with enough to get to Silverton.  At the same time I told myself that unless I felt much, much better when I got back up to 11000 feet on segment 15, I was going to have to bail.  The extended high altitudes and lack of easy bail-out options on segments 16, 17, and beyond would be no fun at all unless my breathing improved.  So I began my fifth day of racing knowing it would probably be my last.  I wanted to race this race on my own terms, though, and only quit racing when I absolutely had to quit.  The great thing about the CTR format is that it's pretty much up to the individual rider when or if they quit the race in the face of misfortune.  Until you either announce you've dropped out or do something that disqualifies you (like accept a ride in a car) the race clock is still ticking and you're still in the game.  You could taco your wheel, hike out to a town, buy a new wheel, ride back, and keep racing.  You could crash, ride your bike to the hospital, get treated, ride back to the trail, and keep racing. The race decisions you make are yours alone.  YOU are responsible for YOU.

 Comanche Drive-In Theater in Buena Vista.  It's for sale, if you're interested.
I rode up from BV to where the route rejoined the CT in the middle Segment 13.  Lucky Thirteen was a lot of fun, definitely the most mountain-bikey trails since the first day.  Plenty of well-built, buffed out trail and elevations below 10000 feet meant I had a great time here.  The trail finally ended with a smooth, easy road descent to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, and I was in a fantastic mood when I got there.  Although I was trying to ride as fast as I could given my limitations, I was intent on enjoying the Colorado Trail as much as possible all day because I was pretty certain it would be the last day of my race.  I bought some ice cream in the general store and ate it lying on the lawn, feeling pretty happy, though also regretful about my health.  But I jumped back on the bike looking forward to the next part of the ride.

Thoroughly enjoying myself on the hot and sunny push up from Mt. Princeton Hot Springs
Songline on the CT.  The Collegiate Peaks in the background.  After this race report post, I also have another post about some of the gear I used on the CT, and how great this Niner SIR9 was for me out there.
The afternoon was more super fun singletrack on segment 14, lots of great rideable rock gardens through aspen forests.  I was having a great time, riding pretty well and happy the rain had held off for a while. 

As darkness fell I pulled out my headlamp and did my happy dance again.  I had a good evening in front of me, riding new trails and seeing what the future held.  I was open to whatever happened next.  The trail alternated between pine-and-aspen forest and open scrub-filled meadow, with occasional long views out over the darkening valley.  The sky was clear and full of stars.  As I popped out of the woods into one such meadow, I skidded to a halt and caught my breath.  Before me, my headlamp illuminated two glinting yellow eyes and the vague outline of an animal, an elk-- much too large to be a deer-- bedded down for the night right in the middle of the trail.  Looking at me, not startled, it got to its feet slowly.  It stood there for a long moment before stepped off the trail and out of reach of my light, swallowed into the blackness of the wide meadow.  Gripping the handlebars, standing there still, I looked up to see the Milky Way shining so vividly in its full sweep across the sky.  The solitary human, the elk, the meadow of scrub and grass, the trees beyond-- this thin living skin of the planet-- was all dwarfed by the infinity of the stars.  And every decision I had ever made in my life had led me to this precise moment.  I was so thankful for the people who'd built this trail, fabricated my bike, and designed the race that caused me to be propelling my tired and sick self forward deep into the night, giving me this privileged view of the darkened world. 

I rode on.  I came to the powerlines that heralded the end of the segment, and descended to US-50.  It was pretty late but I kept going.  The CT followed a couple miles of gravel before turning to gnarly, steep, rocky trail.  I tried to keep a good speed toward the next split point of the race.  As I climbed I was not breathing well, and knew I was going to be turning around before long.  I passed the split point, which would register my time to that location on the trackleaders site.  I went some ways farther, but my head was telling me to stop and when I sat down for an extended coughing fit, I decided it was time to start retreating.  The descent chilled me, and I went to get my warm jacket out of my seat pack.  What I saw nearly made my brain explode.  Somewhere out there, my SPOT unit had gotten ripped off despite being double-zip-tied to an anchor point.  At some point during the day I had stopped transmitting my location to trackleaders.  In all likelihood, all the painful hasty push up to the Monarch Crest split point had been for naught and my hard fought split time had never registered.  I got philosophical.  It really didn't matter, I was just doing it for myself anyway.  I would have done it even if I had known I hadn't had a SPOT.  Although I might have glanced at my watch as I hit that split, if only I had known the SPOT was gone.  Oh well.

So that was the farthest place I got on the route.  Some unknown location below Marshall Pass, some unknown time after 2 am on the fifth day of the race.  On the retreat I shortcut off the CT and onto a side trail my GPS called Green Creek Trail, which then led to a gravel road, which then led to the town of Salida.

This race report has gone on far too long.  The stories of the complicated logistics of ending up in a town other than the one I expected, my attempts to find my SPOT, and my return to Denver via bike, deserve their own post.  And they will get one, which I will write tomorrow.  Stay tuned for the story of DNF the Long Way, some shout outs on gear that worked, and maybe some final thoughts about this fantastic race.


  1. thanks for letting us armchair spectate on your journey. enthralling and inspiring.

  2. Awesome! Question is now....will you be back in 2011?

  3. Great race report and photos. Shame the elevation didn't treat you well.

  4. Wow! Amazing! I've been spectating, watching the SPOT, hoping you were doing well. I am in awe that you would do this alone. Wish I had the courage! I'd like to do this one day with company!

  5. Fantastic write up Emily! Crazy to ride 250+ miles for a DNF huh? Also nutty to spend so much time acclimatizing only to fall prey to altitude sickness anyway. These things we have in thing you got from the race that evaded me is the sense of amazement for planet earth in your first CTR.

    Gutsy, smart ride. Can't really say I recommend doing it twice given your susceptibility for altitude sickness.

  6. Dave, thanks, and I think you may be right. The altitude problems were bad enough to make me think it might not be worth planning on doing CTR again any time soon. The trail will always be there, of course. But maybe I'll plan for the AZT 300 next year...

  7. Enjoyed the write up. Pulmonary and cerebral edema are scary things to be carrying along into the high country!

  8. I knew this post was going to be good. But I wasn't prepared for it to be this good.

    "The solitary human, the elk, the meadow of scrub and grass, the trees beyond-- this thin living skin of the planet-- was all dwarfed by the infinity of the stars. And every decision I had ever made in my life had led me to this precise moment. I was so thankful for the people who'd built this trail, fabricated my bike, and designed the race that caused me to be propelling my tired and sick self forward deep into the night, giving me this privileged view of the darkened world."

    I don't even know what to say.

  9. No Doubt, Great write up Emily

  10. Nice write up Emily.

    It was nice to meet you at the start even if it was a brief hello. I am sorry the race didn't go as planned!! but it sounds like you still have some good memories. Good luck with your next adventure!

    Emily Sportsman