The Geoff Roes Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp is really something special. A blog post doesn't even begin to do it justice, but here's a visual account of our time there nonetheless. Come check it out for yourself next summer. You won't regret it. In Flight
Day 1: Sheep Creek Trail/Shark Lake
Day 2: Mt. Roberts Tram Run/Gastineau Peak
Day 3: Point Bridget State Park - Mendenhall Glacier
Day 4: Juneau Ridge
Day 5: Wetlands and channel crossing
Eagles and Ice
I ease up 7th street, a casual jog - no watch, no phone, no camera, just running shoes, shorts and a long sleeve shirt. I’m slightly underdressed for late December, but like the feeling of freedom, reminiscent of summer. The flatirons come into sight, jagged tips above the large mansions that line the street. The sun peeks over the summit of the First Flatiron casting long, pyramidal rays across the meadow below- a stunning sight. For a split second, I’m disappointed that I have nothing, but my memory to capture the image. Yet, the feeling of lightness and momentary detachment from the electronic world far exceeds any desire to create a digital impression. My senses are touched with the right stuff- sunshine and fresh air. A warm burn runs down my legs as they propel me up the hill.
We live in a world of distractions. Running is so simple, so elemental, that it is often easy to forget how nourishing and freeing it can be. The trail is laced with bulletproof ice. Many people are out, sliding around, hiking off a weekend of celebration, eating and drinking. I dart off the main path, drop my hands to my knees and push with intent up the climb. Every part of my body is engaged. I focus on my breath- labored, shallow. In contrast, my mind is serene. It’s good to move. It’s good to run.
On July 26th 1981, my grandfather, Robert L. Payton, ran a marathon on a cinder track in Garden City, New York. He was a great storyteller and told me this particular one many times. Initially, he had been planning to run the Chicago marathon in the fall with a couple of friends but work and other commitments got in the way so he decided to challenge himself to the distance, alone. 105 laps with no support other than a brief stop half way when grandma, wondering what he was up to, came over to the track to bring him some water.
After his passing several years ago, we decided as a family to declare July 26, family sports day as a small tribute to him.
This Tuesday, July 26 will mark the beginning for me of a month long adventure, the Tour de 14ers - a solo, self-supported and self-powered link up of all the Colorado 14ers, by bicycle and on foot. Inspired by Justin Simoni’s successful completion of this trip last year, I will take on this challenge in similar style via a slightly different route starting and finishing at my home in Gold Hill, Colorado.
Adhering to the “do it yourself” bikepacking racing ethic, I will receive no outside assistance, relying only on small towns for resupply. I will employ light and fast tactics and carry a minimal amount of gear. The objective of the trip is to inspire people to pursue local adventures under their own power.
I would like to thank my wife, family and friends for the immense amount of support and help I have received before leaving.
Thank you also to Reeb Cycles, Oskar Blues Brewery, Hotbox Roasters, Oveja Negra Threadworks for all the bike related gear and support. Special thanks to Tim Moore at Cylhops Bike CANtina for getting the rig perfectly dialed and to Monty Wilson for the custom bags from Oveja Negra.
Finally, shout out and big thanks to Dean Leslie of Wandering Fever and Fred Marmsater for their outstanding contributions to the artistic dimension of the project. (I should note that Fred will be meeting me at a few locations on the route to shoot photos and collect some of my video footage, but will not provide me with any further assistance beyond the exchange of data.)
Prior to Ultra-Trail Mt. Fuji in 2014, I did a fun run for BUFF at Lake Saiko in Japan. During the run, I met Yuichi Shibui director of Mountain Martial Arts (MMA), a trail running and lifestyle brand. He was wearing a pair of print denim running shorts and I commented on how much I liked them.
Later that year at UTMB, Yuichi gave me a pair of the shorts along with a custom MMA Buff. Yuichi told me that the concept behind MMA was to produce stylish clothing for everyday use on and off the trail, meshing lifestyle with performance.
Earlier this year, we started discussing the idea of collaborating on a small clothing line for fall 2016. The driving concept behind the collaboration for both design and utility was to create clothing that connects town to nature from the streets of Tokyo to the mountains of Colorado.
All the designs and patterns are unique and created by Yuichi. All the clothes are made in Japan.
MMAW Logo Tee
Front view and rear detail (brown tee).
MMAW Panel Tee
MMAW Jogger Pants
Khaki Camo detail:
MMAW Denim Run Shorts
Rear pocket detail:
The Mt. Hiei 50k International Trail Run is a wonderful event hosted just outside of Kyoto, Japan in late spring. The 50k course is challenging with over 11,000 feet of climbing, on steep, technical trails through the dense forests of Mt. Hiei. Mt. Hiei is home to the Tendai Buddhist monks, also known as the marathon monks, since they incorporate running as part of their spiritual practice. The monks are very supportive of the race, leading a prayer at the start, and welcoming runners at the finish.
The place has a very unique, calm atmosphere inspired by the beauty of the land, the shrines and temples runners pass by and the palpable serenity the monks emanate.
I was fortunate to take part in the 2016 race and am ever so thankful to Hisao Takenaka and Tsuyoshi Kaburaki for this opportunity and their immense generosity.
The following is a selection of photos from the race by Shimpei Koseki that I find perfectly capture the feel of the event. If you are considering a trip to Japan, I would highly recommend adding the Mt. Hiei 50k to your list.
A couple weeks back, I was fortunate to visit Hawaii for the first time with my wife who was presenting at NAISA. We spent 5 days on Oahu and 3 on Kauai. A short, but awesome trip which definitely got us excited to go back and explore more. Oahu - Honolulu, North Shore, Manana and Lanipo Ridge, Nu'uanu Pali.
Kauai - Kapaa, Kauapea Beach, Na Pali Coast, Hanakapiai Falls, Waimea Canyon, Awa'awapuhi trail.
The inaugural Boulder Mountain Marathon took place on May 15, 2016. The race was organized by the Four Mile Fire Department and Flatirons Running as a fundraiser for the fire department. Thank you to everyone that came out to run and support the event!Here are a few photos from the marathon and an article I wrote on iRunFar about the race (well mainly about coffee): Coffee and a Mountain Marathon.
AZTR - Part 6: AZ Snowbowl / Grand Canyon / Utah Border. ~ mile 750 (finish)
I have about 70 more miles of riding to the Grand Canyon on what should be mostly a mix of fast, dirt roads, and trails. After yesterday’s stop in Flagstaff, I am fully energized. I start the morning pedaling with intention, surprised at how good I am feeling. The small shift in mindset the previous night has allowed me to tap into resources I did not think I had. I begin to think of possible finishing time scenarios. Breaking 7 days is pretty much impossible, but if I pull an all nighter and go as hard as can maybe I can still pull it off. I have 26 hours to ride 140 miles and hike 24 miles across the Canyon carrying my bike. It is completely delusional to think I can do this in that timeframe, but just the thought provides enough fodder to keep me digging deeper. It is also incredibly empowering to demand something so great of your body and actually witness it respond.
Just as I am getting a little too carried away with heroic thoughts, I hear pfff! pffff! as sealant spews out of my front tire. I hit a bunch of goat heads all at once, some creating big enough holes that I am losing air. I stop and patch a few of the holes as they are not self-sealing as fast as I would like. I add a little air to the tire and keep going. It is remarkable that my tires have made it this far without issue. I had preventatively patched a few spots on the side walls that got scuffed up on the 2nd or 3rd day, but since then nothing. A short while after, I feel a strange wobble under my left foot. As I slow down, my crank falls off! As I place the bike on the ground, the whole drivetrain comes apart. Oh no! This is really not good. I immediately think of how bad walking the last 120 miles would be. It actually sounds inconceivable. Thankfully, the crank was simply loose and I just had not noticed it. I put it back together and keep pedaling albeit with a little less gusto. I stop every now and again to check the crank, but it seems to be holding up ok. My bicycle is my companion. We work together and keep each other moving. I laugh at myself as I tell her not to worry, that we will make it together and I will push or carry her if need be. Just as I think we are back on track I hear some rubbing on my back wheel. The zip tie holding the Rohloff shifter cables is broken and the cables are now hanging loose rubbing the tire. I zip tie it back and put a strip of duct tape over it for good measure. I notice my wheel is a little out of true, which probably caused the rubbing. One spoke is very loose, so I tighten it, make a few adjustments to the other spokes, then keep going. I drop down into a wash and a large rock flicks up impacting my rim. In the process, it breaks one of my spokes and heavily dents the rim. Fuck. As I sit there, changing the spoke, I can feel the accumulation of fatigue creep back over me. The heat is oppressive and sweat stings my eyes. My elated morning buzz has now dissolved into the sandy wash. The wheel is slightly bent and out of true and my adjustments do little to improve rotation. I now have significant drag from the lack of proper alignment and wonder if I will in fact have to walk the final miles to the finish. With all these little mishaps the approach to the Canyon takes significantly more time.
As I get into cell service, I wonder if the Grand Canyon Village might have a bike shop that could help make some adjustments to my wheel. My google search yields one result, the Bright Angel Bicycles & Mather Point Cafe. That sounds ideal. I call them and a woman picks up the phone. “I’m riding the AZT and was wondering if you guys would be able to true a wheel this evening.” I ask, in a scratchy, nearly completely lost voice. “We can, but we close at 5 and the mechanic usually leaves at 4:30. Let me check if he can stay until 5.” she answers. “Ok, yes he can. Where are you?” “According to google maps I’m 5.5 miles away. Please don’t leave, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I tell her in a very desperate tone. “Well, if you’re here by 5, we’ll help you out, otherwise you’re outta luck.” It is 4:15 and I start sprinting with absolutely everything that I have. 680 miles of riding, 12 hours of sleep, a wonky wheel and here I am, stomping on the pedals in a complete frenzy on the paved, uphill road. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I repeat over and over. And, somehow, miraculously I pull up to the shop just before 5. The mechanic is in the back and greets me with a smile. I hand over the bike, tell him the wheels fucked and mumble something about riding for days and needing to hike the canyon tonight. “Oh wow! That’s cool man! I thought you were gonna be some tourist gumby, who broke a rental pedaling around the rim road.” The atmosphere is surreal. I am this lunatic, vagabond who just popped out of the woods into Disneyland. The owner of the shop comes out to say hi and as I catch my breath I start to share a few stories from the trail. Everyone is really nice and I feel a huge sense of relief knowing that my bike will get some attention and should carry me to the finish (or we will carry each other I should say). My wheel cannot really be fixed, but the truing helps and I get a few extra spokes in case I break more on the last section. I grab some food at the cafe, and restock the bike, keeping my supplies pretty lean as I want to minimize the extra weight I carry across the Canyon.
I reach the South Kaibab trailhead on the South Rim at sunset. I had hoped to reach this point exactly at this time, to hike the Canyon at night and avoid all the people and mules that use the corridor trails. The rules dictate that you are allowed to have a bicycle in the Canyon as long as the wheels do not roll on the ground, hence the need to carry the bike across. I have 2 backpack straps that I brought with me from the start, a double length climbing sling, two carabiners and 2 ski ties to rig up my carrying system. I had played around with this in my yard and concluded that I could lock off the wheels with the ski ties, wrap the sling around the frame and attach it to the straps with the carabiners without needing to disassemble anything. The only rearranging I do is place my handlebar bag in the middle of my frame for better weight distribution. “Alright, this is it,” I exclaim out loud. I shoulder the bike, take a deep breath and drop in. After about 10 minutes, I realize that my system absolutely sucks. My tires catch on the sidewalls of the narrow trail, making the whole process exceedingly awkward. I make it down about 3.5 miles to Skeleton Point, where I choose to reconfigure my setup. I remove the front wheel, flip the bike vertically, and attach it to my pack, in conjunction with the extra backpack straps for a bit more comfort. The load is better balanced and I can now somewhat unweight the bike by lifting it from the fork and bottom bracket. The problem with choosing such a light system is that it is guaranteed to be uncomfortable, due to poor weight distribution and all sorts of pointy bike parts jabbing me in the back. Hiking with an awkward 45 pound load in bike shoes is not that pleasant.
Conceptually, hiking the Grand Canyon, carrying a bicycle after 680 miles of riding is one of the most spectacular finales you could imagine. In practice though, halfway down to the Colorado River, it is physically about as miserable as it gets. I try to feed off the beauty of the night, hiking under the full moon and really appreciate how incredibly magnificent and powerful this experience is. But, shiiiiit! It is soooo bloody hard. I am getting absolutely crushed and beginning to wonder how on earth I will make it up the other side.
It takes me about 4 hours to reach Phantom Ranch. I stop at the first spigot and take long, quenching sips of water. I carried very little water with me from rim as I did not want to weigh myself down anymore- a stupid move of course as I am now severely parched. Despite the late hour, a guy is out with a blue lamp looking for scorpions. He asks me if I am camping here tonight. “Nah, I’m hiking to the North Rim.” I tell him with evident false confidence. He wishes me luck as I stumble out of camp, trying to convince myself I can still reach the other side before dawn. A few miles later, I am confronted to the reality of my situation; I am simply too physically exhausted to keep going. I put the bike down, and sit propping myself up against a trailside boulder. Since I do not have an overnight permit, I am not allowed to camp. But, I reason that sitting in the dirt at 2am, in my bike shorts, without a bivy on the side of the trail does not really qualify as camping.
Two hours later, I wake up in the same position, stiff, cold and still horrendously worked. I pick up the bike and resume a very slow, stumble north. I could wax poetic about the contrast between pain and beauty, but truthfully I am barely holding on and all of my energy is entirely devoted to simply putting one foot in front of the other. I pass a few trail crews, struggle in the heat, and eventually reach the top of the North Rim. Eszter Horanyi and her friend are there and snap a few pics, along with a few other folks running the Rim to Rim to Rim. Eszter is Scott Morris’s partner. Scott created the Trackleaders website, which allows people to follow these events with the Spot tracker we carry. Speaking of my Spot, my batteries died and for some reason my spare are also dead, so I am sure people are wondering what I am doing still stuck down in the Canyon.
Photo: Eszter Horanyi
Thankfully, the water at the North Rim is turned on and I will not need to make a 3 mile detour to the visitor center to refill. I do not linger long, only taking the time to reassemble my bike and use the bathroom. Since there is snow on the rim, the track takes a more direct line to Jacob Lake, which is 41 miles away, mostly downhill on a paved road. This kind of easy terrain is deceiving in that I think that I should (or rather would like), to just immediately be there. But, 41 miles is still 41 miles. With any slight uphill or headwind I am on the verge of completely losing it. I am so depleted, out of food and struggling to stay awake. I play this little game, allowing myself to close my eyes as I count to 2 in my head- a minute amount of relief, followed by a jolt of adrenaline as I swerve trying to not come off the road. Thankfully, the road is still closed to traffic, so it is just me, alone, snaking my way down the pavement. I roll into the Inn at Jacob Lake, riding some sort of transcendent wave of delirium. I buy a twix, a can of pringles, 8 homemade cookies, a BLT sandwich and fries, a coke, iced coffee, a hot coffee and proceed to eat everything at once, sitting at the bar. The waitress looks at me with a mix of shock and fascination. She reminds me that my coffee is getting cold, so I down it between mouthfulls of cookies and fries and ask for a refill. Gone are my inhibitions. I feel as if I am in an alternate reality, certainly the closest I have been to actually being wild. I hurry out the door, 20 or 30 more miles to go, I do not know exactly. Nothing matters anymore. I pedal as hard as when I was racing to the bike shop yesterday evening. I am so close.
I am blasting north, up and down a few more washes, through the sagebrush, until finally I crest the last hill. Down below, I can see the campground which marks the end of line. The sun is setting, the fiery tint only enhancing the glory of Utah’s red rock. I cannot really express the feeling of these last 3 miles- extraordinary, sensational, no superlatives could do it justice.
My buddy Nico is waiting for me at the bottom with his dog Sol. He has set up his camp stove, and brought steak and beer to celebrate. I am moved beyond words at his generosity and could not imagine a better way to finish this trip.
Photo: Nico Barraza
Photo: Nico Barraza
I learned a lot on this ride, but perhaps the most important lesson for me was exemplified here at the finish. While I spent most of the week alone, I realize that this time of solitary reflection, did not turn me further inwards, but rather pushed my expression outwards to relate more deeply to the people and environment around me. I find that in these moments of vulnerability, our tendency is to repress our emotions, particularly as men, and to only value the physical accomplishment. Yet, the real transformation is one of the mind and how we choose to use what we have learned to grow, to thrive and to be better as people. I hope that as the acuity of the experience wears off, I will still be able to channel that feeling and remain grateful for how wonderful our time on this earth can be.
AZTR - Part 5: Pine/Flagstaff/AZ Snowbowl ~ mile 580
Drifting in and out of semi-consciousness, I try to make sense of the gentle chimes ringing through my ears. Is this it? Am I dying? No. Of course I am not. The sound is just my alarm, set to the “ripples” tone, nudging my weathered body to get up and going. I tap the screen to snooze and wait another 10 minutes. Damn. This is actually worse than yesterday waking up in the ditch. I can philosophize all day about how this is an elective endeavor, and how privileged I am to be able to take on these adventures. The truth though is that at 4am, freezing and exhausted, confronted to myself, I do not feel that serene. This is just plain fucking hard. Slowly, I get moving again. The sun rises (thank god for the sun!) and I begin to ease into the day. Within a few hours, I wonder why I was holding on to all that angst. Most of us have a self-preservation mechanism that allows us to forget difficult moments, or at least the intensity of those feelings, and only remember the positives. That is one of the main reasons I am able to keep doing long, trying events as I simply erase the bad thoughts from my mind and only hold on to the positive highlights. Typically though, this process takes at at least a few weeks, not a few hours! Maybe my highs and lows are just synced to the rhythm of the desert, with the ups and downs as extreme as the contrasts in environment and weather. The track transitions away from the dirt road and back onto tight, overgrown singletrack. I am moving slowly, but no longer frustrated. Knowing the Highline trail is up ahead, and how choppy it is, I need to prepare myself for a long slog to the Mogollon Rim. I arrive in Pine and stop at the first gas station. I microwave two hot pockets and sip a cup of weak coffee while waiting for them to cook. I take a bite and am immediately reminded of Jim Gaffigan’s stand up routine. “Will it burn my mouth? It’ll destroy your mouth.” Lava hot on the outside, still frozen on the inside. Great. As a precaution, I restock on toilet paper before leaving the store. The Highline, while much improved and a great running trail is pretty brutal on a bike. I push a lot, even on some of the downhills. I attempt to ride a more technical section only to go flying over the handlebars. In the process, I break the compression adjustment cap on my fork and my headlight. The fork is now locked rigid which is not great for my worsening wrist. I have been hooking my forearm under my saddle to lift the bike up steep sections as it is painful to grip and lift as I normally would.
I still have a good headlamp strapped to my helmet, but the loss of the handlebar light will slow me down at night and make it harder to stay alert. Since neither issue directly affects me in the moment, I do not dwell on them and keep hiking. I run into a couple of elder women on horseback. Before passing them, we exchange greetings and comment on the beautiful day. About 10 minutes later, they catch up to me and one of the women says, “C’mon! Shouldn’t you be riding!” “I’m trying,” is all I can respond, but I think to myself “my steed doesn’t ride itself!”
At Washington Park, the track diverts from the Highline and climbs up to the Mogollon Rim. I had thought this would be more challenging, but the climb is consistent, not super long and mainly in the trees. It reminds me of trails back home in Colorado- direct, steep, making it easier to apply myself compared to the last 20 bumbly miles.
The slow bumble fest resumes pretty rapidly though. I stupidly decide to skip stopping at Mormon Lake in favor of a campground on the trail that supposedly has reliable water. When I reach the campground, I am nearly dry. The small creek running through camp has a weird grey coloration. I notice a forest service truck and a man working maintenance on what seems to be the water supply system. I ask him where the spigot is to refill my water. “It’s out of order and I’m cleaning the system so I wouldn’t recommend drinking from the creek. Sorry.” Well, shit. That is unfortunate. I have around 30 more miles to go to Flagstaff, on slow terrain. My food supply is also nearly depleted. I had not anticipated the Highline trail taking me so long and underestimated what I would need. I have one Picky Bar, named “Lauren’s Mega Nuts,” which seems appropriate as I will be needing all the help I can get to make it to Flagstaff. I also have some gum. I chew a piece with a tiny bit of water in mouth, a trick to stay faux-hydrated. Adding to the challenge, there seems to be an ever increasing amount of gates to open and close. Gates are a highlight of the AZT. There are literally hundreds of them to open and close along the way. It is fascinating to see all the different styles of gates and closures, some with chains, others with barbed wire, and some with heavy iron deadbolts. Right now, my interest in the gates has given way to frustration as they only further interrupt the already choppy cadence.
About 14 miles from Flagstaff, I can see the San Francisco Peaks. I am a little delirious at this point. My water is gone, as are the mega nuts. I am running on fumes, fueled only by the wonderful comforting thought of all the amenities I am about to encounter. With 2 miles to go, I run into Nico (taking photos) accompanied by my friend Paul Hamilton. It is so good to see them, although following the rules of the event, we only exchange a few words before they ride off ahead out of sight, sipping their water and smelling like Axe deodorant. Finally, I reach Flagstaff and head straight to Whole Foods. I spend an unreasonable amount of money on food. It is fresh though - rice, chicken, fruits and veggies. I gorge myself in the parking lot until feeling uncomfortable, and then methodically refill the bike only with high quality foods. I spend over an hour replenishing my body and gradually start to feel better. Mentally, Flagstaff is a big milestone for me. Fed and rehydrated, I am now heading into the high country amidst the cool air and pines. My attitude is transformed and I pedal out of town at sunset completely reinvigorated. I am getting there. I am getting there!
Photo: Nico Barraza Photo: Nico Barraza
I can feel a renewed sense of purpose as I pedal up the hill towards the Arizona Snowbowl ski area. My plan is to climb to the highpoint of the trail, which I think is just shy of 9,000ft, then drop down to the valley to bivy in a lower and warmer location. This section again feels like home and I am so much more comfortable in this environment than the desert. The top of the trail comes faster than I thought. I had heard that the backside heading into the valley is amazing, fast, flowing singletrack. Indeed, the trail is incredible, albeit with a few downed trees and some snow on the upper sections. It is freezing, but I am not nearly as bothered with the cold as the previous night. This is partly due to being better fueled, but also a shift in perspective. There is not much that could upset how content and happy I feel in this moment. I make it down to the valley and find a near perfect bivy spot on a soft bed of pine needles. It is 2:30am and with 2 hours of sleep I will be getting back on the bike just as the sun is rising. Small details make such a big difference and I now cannot wait to make it to the Grand Canyon tomorrow.
AZTR - Part 4: Superstition Mountains - Payson/Pine ~ mile 440
Waking up in a ditch after 3 hours of fitful rest is pretty shitty. There is really no other way to put it. My bike shorts and jersey are still damp from sweat making my skin cold and clammy. With each movement, I am painfully reminded of the unpleasant mix of salt with body parts rubbed raw. My frozen burrito and can of Starbucks coffee do not stir up quite the same excitement as they did a few days ago. This is the beginning of day 4 and I am really starting to feel the wear and tear. Getting organized and moving again, takes a little longer. Everything seems just a little more tedious and uncomfortable. Thankfully, I have 70+ miles of dirt road and highway up ahead, a section Kurt referred to as a recovery day. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard, but just a nice change of pace,” is how he put it. He is right. The long, dirt road parallels Apache Lake, Canyon Lake and the Salt River, cut through a deep, winding canyon. The landscape reminds me of parts of Utah, a good sign I tell myself that I am getting closer to my destination. In reality, I am barely halfway, but the gradual change in environment suggests that I am covering some ground and is mentally uplifting.
It takes me a good couple of hours to shake off the morning rust and get into a groove. The advantage of riding roads is that putting in a concerted effort is much more tangibly translated into real forward progress than on the trails, especially out here. Looking at the map, it has been difficult to gauge how long a 20 mile section of trail will take me as the terrain varies so greatly. On the road, I feel more certain about what I am up against. With that in mind, I decide to put my head down and stomp on the pedals with more passion. I ride hard, undistracted, standing and pedaling all the climbs in high gear. A number of times, I feel like I might be pushing too hard, but I do not back down until I reach the paved highway 188. By then, I am out of water. The heat emanating from the black top and the stifling air only add to the difficulty. I stare longingly at the massive body of water that is Theodore Roosevelt Lake as I ride by, questioning over and over whether I should detour down to its shore for a refill. Just as I am becoming desperate, I see signs for a campground and wonder if the water might be turned on in the bathroom. I try my luck at the first restroom and yes, the faucet is running! The water is warm, nearly hot, but still wonderfully quenching. As the days have gone by, my attention has narrowed to mostly focusing on the absolute essentials: movement, water, food, and rest. I say “days,” but really the whole trip feels like one continuous, uninterrupted push. Shortly after the stop at the campground, I run into the small town of Punkin Center, in the Tonto Basin, which has a grocery store right off the side of the highway. For a second, I regret wasting time stopping at the campground for water, but immediately remind myself just how satisfying that was. I refill my supplies, eat yet another burrito and a full tube of pringles. I also give my wife a quick call. I am fully reinvigorated after eating, so I am very upbeat on the phone. This positive energy is good for both of us, reassuring for her and a great additional mental boost for me to hear her voice. I tell her that I only have 30 easy highway miles to Payson and I that should be able to make it comfortably to Pine tonight another 20 miles after that.
I am familiar with section of trail just past Pine, the Highline, having run the Zane Grey 50 miler a few times. Despite knowing how difficult that trail is, the thought of reaching familiar terrain is a good intermediary objective for the evening. Unfortunately, the “easy highway” miles turn out to be more challenging than expected. The route detours a few times from the pavement, paralleling the highway on dirt roads. While this may sound nice, the alternative roads are interspersed with short, snappy climbs which are loose and gravelly. The riding is not that difficult, but since I had set my expectations to something faster and easier, I get frustrated and begin to force my effort out of impatience. In my current state of depletion, I ride a fine line between maintaining a good pace and crashing and burning. Less than an hour after leaving the store, I am sitting under a tree, bonking hard, trying to regain some composure sucking on a ginger chew. “Keep it together, keep it together.” I repeat over and over.
I arrive in Payson just as the sun is setting, still bonking, still very much depleted. I want greasy, fatty food and lots of it. Against my best judgement, I succumb to the temptation of the Golden Devil Arches. I walk into the McDonalds and order two double cheeseburgers, large fries, 10 nuggets, and a large hot chocolate. I inhale everything in minutes, get right back up and order the same thing all over again- disgustingly satisfying. Slumped over on the bench in a food coma, I text Tony seeking some encouragement. I know I just need to get back on the bike and keep going to Pine which is only 20 more miles, but my mind is at odds with my body, which is heavily protesting the last 4 days of abuse.
Payson sits at 5000 feet and I continue to gain elevation as I ride out of town. It is the coldest it has been so far on the trip and despite having all my clothes on, including my down vest and rain gear, I cannot stay warm. The accumulated fatigue is making me too weak to increase the pace needed to up my body temperature. After a couple of worthless miles, stumbling while hiking my bike up yet another loose climb, I pull over to rest. For the first time on the whole trip, I cannot sleep. I am too cold and lay there shivering for several hours, struggling with whether to stay put or get back up. The comfort of my sleeping bag is marginally better than keeping moving. I cover my face with the hood of the bag, cross my arms and tuck my hands in my arm pits. My breathing creates a small pocket of warm air around my mouth and eyes. I take long, deep breaths and try to internalize the sensation of heat I felt only a few hours prior on the scorching tarmac. “Just keep it together, just keep it together.” I repeat over and over.
AZTR - Part 3: Wash before Kelvin / Picketpost (300 finish) / Superstition Mountains ~mile 350
I am woken by the sound of Kaitlyn riding by my camp spot. She comments on how cozy I look bundled up in my bag. In reality, I am freezing and stiff from laying on the hard ground. She keeps riding which is a good motivator for me to get up and going quickly. It is just after 2:30am. I barely feel as if I have closed my eyes and I am already back on the trail. I see a couple of lights up ahead. One is Kaitlyn’s, the other one must be Calvin’s. It is funny to think that we only slept a couple of hundred feet apart without knowing of each other’s presence. The whole race is a strange mix of a mostly solitary experience with a collective umbrella. Small, abstract details are comforting such as knowing that my Spot messenger device is pinging the satellite, allowing friends, family and others to follow along. The proximity of other riders, even if I am not in direct contact with them, allows me to get out of my head in harder moments and realize that we are all going through similar challenges. Speaking of Calvin, I have noticed he sleeps longer than most of us, then rides harder to make up for it the down time. I envy his strategy as the sleep deprivation game is a tough one to play. I speed up on a short descent and just as I am about to catch up to Kaitlyn... “Pow!! Fuuuuuuck!!” my foot slaps a cholla cactus protruding from the side of the trail. She asks if I am ok, as I sit there whimpering, pulling the spines out of my foot. As I remove them, I get sharp, electrical pangs running down the top of my foot. Kaitlyn must be wondering how I got this far still relatively unharmed. Yesterday, she witnessed me perform a perfect swan dive over my handlebars coming off of Oracle Ridge, landing flat on my back. Somehow, I got up without a scratch. The cactus is more painful, but at least has the merit off shaking off the fatigue. I am now fully awake and alert. I ride a little further with Kaitlyn before pulling ahead. Her breathing is still limiting her, which will unfortunately force her to pull out from the race - a wise decision in my opinion, given the uncertainty of her condition.
As the sun rises, I ride some fast, engaging trail and 4x4 road below a string of powerlines- a weird, contrasting sight to the beauty of the desert. All things considered, I am feeling really good and plow through this section trying to remain as fluid as possible. The fast riding is punctuated by a long, ridge hike-a-bike just before Kelvin. I pause on the ridge for a good 5 minutes to take in the view and eat my last frozen burrito that is now warmed by the sun nearly to perfection.
I ride the downhill a little too aggressively, with a few close calls on some turns. I nearly slice a bull snake in half, but grind to a halt just before impact.
I have now drained all of my water, so I am thankful to reach a paved road for a short detour to Kelvin for a refill. Kurt had told me about a hose at this guy’s house, setup for AZT hikers and bikers. As I sit there filling my bottles, the owner of the house walks over, introduces himself and says, “Let me tell ya, boy...it’s some harsh country out there and ya’ll are really doing something special. Can I offer you a beer?” A beer sounds very appealing, but I decline mainly out of fear of finding a spot of shade and passing out. His wife chimes in and offers me a banana and some cookies. That I accept. She is the embodiment of the trail fairy. In moments like this, stripped raw, I do not have a veil over my emotions. I take each bite with an immense amount of gratitude. Each sip of water is like nectar to the soul and I can feel its vitality flow through me as my body readjusts to contentment. The ranch is in an idyllic setting, emanating a particularly soothing quality. It is quiet with just the sound of insects buzzing and the river flowing nearby. Maybe it is the overall wear and tear of the trail making me more vulnerable, I am not sure, but in this moment, it comes to my attention that I am indeed experiencing something special. I feel an ever so slight shift in perspective as my doubts and fears all evaporate. I have done a number of long, challenging events prior to the AZT, but have always found that my success or failure was determined primarily by my physical ability, rarely tapping into the real potential of the mind. In this instance, I can see the essence of possibility, far beyond the AZT or any arbitrary goal. I can feel my place in the universe and a simultaneous appreciation for the importance and utter inconsequentiality of our lives, and I know that everything is going to be alright. I do not want to sound too wishy washy here, but there is an honesty that manifests itself in moments like this that is hard to deny.
Back to pedaling. It is hot, so hot. I am above the river, which is taunting me with it’s fresh looking flow, as I hike and ride the choppy, rocky, desert track through the saguaros. This is the final push to the Picketpost trailhead, the end of the AZT 300. It is not that far, maybe 30 miles or so to go, but the terrain is slow, exposed and the heat is relentless. I left Kelvin with 150 oz of water, and have drank nearly all it, by the time I reach the last 10 miles of downhill. The trail is only sort of downhill, as it has plenty of frustrating little bops making me earn every last mile to Picketpost which I reach just after sunset and two and half days of riding.
A couple of guys are hanging out, following along on the Trackleaders site. They congratulate me and tell me a few stories of other riders that have come through. While it is a nice feeling to reach Picketpost, the reality is pretty anticlimactic. I am at trailhead, just off the side of the highway, with no amenities and I am not even halfway done with the race. The forest service bathrooms are heated which is great since the desert has flipped the night switch and it is now freezing cold. I spend about 20 minutes in there, putting on clothes and getting reorganized. The guys thought I had fallen asleep.
Back to pedaling. I am just outside of Phoenix on some easy, mostly dirt roads. The change of pace is welcome and my focus has shifted to reaching a 24 hour gas station about 40 miles away. The route takes a few turns off the main road, connecting a number of smaller ranch roads. I am thankful for the GPS since it would be impossible to find the exact route through here without it. The gas station comes as a huge relief. It reminds me of the feeling of driving on empty for far too long and repeating the hitchhike/gas can scenario in my head over and over, when finally, deliverance, “gas” next exit! It is just after midnight. There is a rowdy couple in the store, yelling at each other “Hey, porky! How about these fucking chicken bites?!” Chicken bites sound strangely appealing, but I stick with frozen burritos, hot chocolate and the usual mound of candy. I manage to spend nearly $50, without even getting any gas. The couple has gone and it is quiet now as I sit on the bench out front, eating and repacking my bike. The gas station clerk comes out and asks in an unfriendly tone, “You gonna stay here all night?” “No. No, I’m not. I’m just eating” I reply. “Well, I’ll give you another 5 minutes and then you need to move on. This is considered loitering.” “Really? I’ve been here for 15 minutes, just spent $50 on food and can’t have a minute to eat in peace?” “No.” Is all says, and with that goes back inside. I am too tired to argue, so I finish packing, pee on the bench, and leave. Well, I did not pee on the bench, but it felt like a reasonable thing to do.
What a contrast the city is to the time spent alone in the desert. I am eager to get out of Phoenix, but the frustration is not enough to keep me awake on the bike. I manage to ride about another 10 miles out of town, before I sneak under a barbed wire fence on the side of the road and fall asleep in the ditch. It is cold, uncomfortable, and I hate the city. But, you know, everything is going to be alright.
AZTR - Part 2: Tucson - to somewhere between Oracle and Kearny ~ mile 230The previous night’s detour to Tucson yields two major benefits. First, by only getting to sleep at 5am, I wake up 2 hours later with the warm, morning sun. It is a lot easier to pack up my gear and ready myself for a day of riding in daylight rather than the middle of the night. Nights in the desert can be very cold. I tend to struggle during the hours between midnight and 4am which make riding quite a bit slower. The ideal scenario is to get to sleep around 2am and be back on the bike at 5am. This way, the challenges of the night are front loaded, so once I wake up early morning, I can ease into the next day with the sunrise providing a strong mental boost. Such is the case this morning, albeit on a slightly delayed scheduled. The second benefit to my detour was the stop at the gas station. I loaded up on frozen bean and cheese burritos that I let thaw out in my bag. I also purchased an 8oz can of Starbucks double espresso. A breakfast burrito and coffee while basking in the morning makes everything alright.
It is interesting how daylight changes my perspective on the environment. What seemed like an interminable bumble up and down loose, rocky washes a few hours earlier, is now quite pleasant riding. Before long, I rejoin the singletrack on the actual AZT ending the bike detour around Saguaro National Park. The trail is well marked, but intersects with many small off-shoots, washes, and dirt roads. I make a number of navigational errors, including a lengthy (stupid) detour on a ranch road. I keep wishing I had a magnifying glass to scrutinize the GPS better and the accumulated fatigue is not really helping with good decision making. Slowly, but surely I ride and hike the bike through Willow Canyon. The air is hot and stagnant, and the effects of the harsh desert environment are starting to wear on me. A large red lizard with black speckled spots crosses the path in front of me. It has short, stumpy legs and waddles its way over into the tall grass before I have time to take a picture. I will later find out that it is a Gila Monster, a rare sighting in the wild.
Neil Beltchenko on one of the many hike-a-bike sections / Photo: Nico Barraza
After some choppy, tenuous hike-a-bike, followed by an engaging descent, I reach the highway that leads to the summit of Mt. Lemmon. The road sign reads 21 miles to the ski area. I have a couple more miles on the trail before rejoining the highway, for the long, steady climb to the top. This is a popular tourist area. It feels a bit weird interacting with people out for a day hike emerging from my insular bubble of pedal and thought.
“Where you headed?” a guy asks, hiking with his kids. “Utah” I reply. “Hun?” he responds quizzically. “Well, eh…Mt. Lemmon.” I shoot back, trying to make my answer relatable before continuing forward.
The 18 miles or so of road climbing up to Mt. Lemmon are as challenging as I thought they would be. Pedaling up a sustained climb in the heat, on pavement, on a loaded mountain bike is a drudging affair. I decide to simply take my time and occupy myself people watching. I am passed by a few Tour de France style riders, who zip by effortlessly on their speed machines. I begin this ongoing joke in my head that Neil is up there attacking the climb, dropping all the roadies, while I am just turtle grinding in my lowest gear, waddling up the hill like that Gila Monster. A huge truck swerves in front of me, nearly cutting me off as the woman in the passenger seat rolls down her window and yells, “You wanna a ride?” “No, thanks,” I reply. The driver hits the gas and speeds off leaving me in a cloud of exhaust. I must be looking pretty terrible for them to stop and offer assistance when I am still on the bike and pedalling! I notice a trickle of water coming down off the cliff side, so I stop for a partial refill of my bottle and to wet my cap- a nice refreshment half-way up the climb.
Road climb to Mt. Lemmon / Photo: Nico Barraza
My objective to restock my food and water is the small town of Summerhaven, which sits at about 8,000ft and is less than a half-mile off the route. As I enter town, I bump into Calvin who is just leaving a restaurant. “Better to stop here and get a real meal than make the detour to Oracle” he says before getting on his bike. I agree, although I continue down the road a little further to the gift shop as I want a broader variety of bars and snacks to take with me. The gift shop is crowded with tourists buying homemade fudge. I wonder around the aisles, grabbing everything that strikes my fancy and feeling self-conscious about how rancid I smell. I check out with 3 cans of cheese ravioli, a freeze dried meal, an unreasonable amount of candy, and a wide selection of beverages. I sit on the park bench out front, eat the ravioli and pack the rest of the food in my bike. It is approaching evening and it is kind of chilly now especially at this altitude. I have rarely found myself in such a drastic, rapidly changing environment, where temperatures shift from unbearably hot to freezing cold, literally within minutes. A short, steep climb out of town leads me to the Oracle Ridge trailhead. This is an infamous part of the course, a thorny, rocky bushwhack and I had heard that even the downhills were unrideable.
Just as I reach the trail, I am joined by Kaitlyn Boyle. She is also riding the 750 and looks to be in great spirits. We are both happy to have some company on the ridge. She looks very dialed and strong. She tells me she has carried all of her food from the start, so she has not made any stops or detours. I am impressed with how well she is executing her race. Seeing that she has the same GPS as mine, I tell her about my woes with the damned camo track and wonder how she navigates with it. “You can change the track color, you know?” Wait, what? And, sure enough in the settings there is an option to change the color to bright pink no less! I feel pretty stupid, not having known about this, but a whole new world of digital clarity just opened up and I could not be more excited. Chatting away, we barely notice the difficulty of the ridge. I get stabbed a few times by yuccas, and am reminded every time I lift the bike how messed up my wrist is. I strained a tendon on my right wrist at some point earlier in the race and I now have a golf ball sized swollen lump right above the crease of my hand. The trail must have been cleared up significantly because the downhill is sensational. After all the slow miles, it is so much fun to open it up and enjoy the full capabilities of the bike floating to the bottom which we reach right at sundown.
Kaitlyn cruising down Oracle Ridge.
Kaitlyn is struggling with a strange breathing issue, that has been bothering her from the start. I am amazed at how well she is doing given this problem, but unfortunately it does not seem to be improving. There is still a lot of remote, difficult riding ahead and the uncertainty of whether or not this will resolve itself is concerning. She tells me she wants to relax the pace a little, hang back and see how things improve during the night. Her boyfriend, bikepacker extraordinaire Kurt Refsnider (who holds the current AZT 300 and 750 records), is riding in the opposite direction and it should not be too long before he crosses our path. That reassures me, knowing that Kaitlyn will be able to touch base with him, assess her condition and decide whether or not to keep riding. Less than an hour later, I run into Kurt. He is in a great mood despite having a knee injury that will force him to pull from the race. We chat for a few minutes and he kindly reminds me not to miss the water resupply in Kelvin tomorrow morning which is a bit off route, but necessary for the final push to the 300 finish.
I tell him that I hope to ride until 2am before stopping for sleep. The riding is not particularly difficult through here, up and down some classic loose AZ washes, but by midnight I am fading. I pull over on a clear patch of dirt among the cactus, which I scrutinize as best I can for thorns. I put all of my clothes on, wrap up in my bag and just like the previous night pass out instantly. I am happy with my progress and look forward to reaching the first big milestone of the race tomorrow, the finish of the 300.
AZTR - Part 1: Mexican Border - Tuscon (E. Redington Road) ~ mile 150 Photo: Nico Barraza
We crest the final climb at sunset, leaving the city of Sierra Vista in our wake. Nico, who has kindly offered to drive me to the start of the Arizona Trail Race at the Mexican border, slowly maneuvers the van down the rocky, dirt road. Nico’s a good friend and very generous with his time, but it is still a lot to ask to ferry me all the way down to the border. We picked up Neil Beltchenko 20 minutes earlier in Sierra Vista. He is sitting in the back, staring at his GPS, trying to guide us to the exact location of the start. Neil runs Bikepackers Magazine, an incredible resource for anyone wanting to adventure by bicycle. He is also a very accomplished bikepacker, having posted very fast times on the Colorado Trail Race, the Tour Divide, and the AZT 300, among others. Our cell phones all ping us with “welcome to Mexico” texts so we know we are pretty close. The lights of the city of Santa Cruz light up the horizon, or maybe it is Nogales. It is hard to tell and it always feels more intimidating arriving in a place at night with little to no bearings. We soon come across a large group of cyclists, all camped out in a circle. The atmosphere is festive, and we are relieved to have finally arrived after a long day of driving from Flagstaff. We drop Neil off, and continue down an extra quarter mile to the border fence, where there is a decent pull out to post up for the night. With all the stigma and current politics surrounding the border, it is hard not to feel a little unsettled camping right by the barbed wire fence. We joke about Trump’s wall, but there really is nothing funny about it. It is a disgraceful proposition and it saddens me to think this kind of idea is even entertained, much less that it has supporters. The past three days of final preparations and the long drive from Boulder have been so intense that I have a hard time thinking about much else and pass out pretty much instantly as soon as I hit the van floor. The grand depart is given at 7am. I wake up about an hour before, sip some cold brewed coffee, eat a bagel and pack the last bits of food into my bike bags. Riders begin to arrive. There are about 40 of us lining up to ride the 750 miles to the Utah border and a similar number starting the 300 mile version.
Photo: Nico Barraza
The 300 starts an hour later, roughly 20 miles up ahead at the actual beginning of the AZT and finishes at the Picketpost trailhead just outside of Superior, AZ. We’re an eclectic crew, riding all kinds of bikes, from full carbon, full suspension, to fat tired rigid bikes, singlespeeds and even a unicycle. I feel a mix of nervous anticipation, having no clue what to expect and excitement to just get riding. I am mainly distracted by my GPS, fiddling with the settings. I seem to have accidentally added some waypoint that draws a straight, very intrusive line from the start to the my current location. I cannot really see anything on the screen from the glare of the sun, so as we set off, I decide to turn it off for now and deal with it later.
Photo: Nico Barraza
We start unceremoniously right around 7 pedaling the bikes north on a dirt road. Sam Aspacher cranks up ahead with Neil, Calvin Decker, and myself in toe. Since the riding is straight forward, I spend these early miles observing what other riders have packed. Sam has platform pedals, is wearing Hokas, has lots of water on his bike, and no pack- a setup that seems quite appropriate for what we are up against. Neil’s gear is fairly similar to my own, although he is riding a full-suspension, full carbon bike and probably has a lot less food. Since it is my first time on the route, I have decided to carry a lot of food and water to avoid running out like I did on the Colorado Trail last year. Calvin seems to be the most “desert appropriate” with white arm and leg sleeves and a bandana floating on top of his helmet for the sun. In Colorado, I am familiar with the trails. On the Colorado Trail there is water everywhere and overall it is just a much more comfortable environment for me. The AZT is a more complex route, and I am generally not that great in the heat, so I planned my food and water more cautiously. The environment is very harsh- rocky, sandy, dry, very hot during the day and very exposed. After about an hour or so of riding, we leave the road for the first bit of singletrack and shortly thereafter pass the start of the AZT 300.
Photo: Nico Barraza
I had heard horror stories of the difficulty of the Canelo foothills, how hard the riding is, and to not hold on to this section as being representative of the whole route. Maybe due to the fact that I was expecting the worst, the trail actually does not feel that bad. It is definitely slow going, choppy, with short, loose ups and downs, but I am fresh and the excitement of finally being on the trail trumps the difficulty. We soon run into some of the AZT 300 starters. It is a bit congested for a while on the tight track, but it is nice to see friendly faces and share a few miles with different people as the pack thins out. With more bikes to look at and people to engage with, time is flying by and I’m really enjoying myself. I pass a guy wearing a tutu and a few quality beards. It’s early, so everyone is chipper and eager, even when pushing up the sandy washes. Before long, I am alone again with my main focus being to not take the corners too hot as anything off trail is sharp, thorny, poisonous, and generally just ready to rip you apart with any small mistake.
Photo: Nico Barraza
I arrive in the first town, Patagonia, unscathed and just in time for a quick lunch at the local market. I refill my water, grab a few candy bars, and resume riding the 12 miles of paved highway to Sonoita. I am in great spirits. In Sonoita, I catch up to Sam who had skipped Patagonia and is just leaving the corner gas station. The decision as to when and where to stop for food and water will prove somewhat difficult, especially in the first 300 miles. It’s hard to gauge time over unfamiliar terrain. The first 50 miles took me 6 hours despite a fairly mellow looking profile. Sam and I ride out of town together, a few extra road miles, before turning onto a long, open dirt road, straight into a headwind. The miles go by slowly and I remind myself not to force the pace and simply stay comfortable even if I am not moving quickly. I am focused on just pedaling and not really distracted by anything else. I like this feeling, neither bored, nor overly engaged, just at ease mentally. Much of the early miles of the race roll by like this, just pedaling the bike gradually finding a good rhythm and syncing to the pulse of the desert.
The next highlight on the trail comes a little before Tucson on the trails preceding and in the Colossal Cave Mountain Park. I share some miles with Pete Basinger through here who is on a singlespeed and an absolute master of the craft. It is fun to watch him ride as he demonstrates supreme command of the bicycle. The Mountain Park trails are clearly designed with biking in mind. Despite the fact that it is now approaching midnight, it is hard to stop pedaling as the trails are so engaging. It is a blast pumping the track and flowing around corners. Again, there is no room for error as the path is lined with thick cacti on all sides. But, exhaustion brings a strange level of focus and I somehow never miss a beat. Occasionally, I am surprised that my body is able to follow my mind. My internal dialogue is calm and positive, which reflects externally as I am able to keep riding with relative ease. My plan was to sleep around 1 or 2am, but I am having so much fun on the Colossal Cave trails that I don’t want to stop. This is a bit of a mistake as I make it to the road skirting the city of Tucson and am now out in residential areas with no good spots to bivy. I still have not quite figured out my GPS, which I find terribly hard to read. I have the AZT bike track upload on the device, but the route is dark green superimposed on a yellowish/green desert palette and with the stupid waypoint line from the start getting in the way, I wonder how the heck people navigate with this thing. I have to laugh at myself for not spending more time with the GPS before the race. Now I am stuck with the “camo track” as I call it and play a time consuming guessing game on turns through the city. The night track changes to dark blue on a black background so it is no better. The city streets are also bluish, so I have to keep stopping to scrutinize the route. I take a wrong turn and parallel the proper route for a while before the street leads me towards downtown. By the time I have figured out that I am off route, I have ridden a good three miles downhill to town. I decide to take advantage of my mistake and make a late night stop at a 24hr gas station. The clerk watches me, amused as I prowl around, stocking up on snickers, frozen burritos, and hot chocolate. We do not say much, but he does call me “sir” at the checkout, which makes me laugh. El duderino would probably be more appropriate at this point. I am less than 150 miles in and already slipping into complete ferality. I weave through the lit up streets making my way back to Redington Road for the climb out of town. It is a relief to be back on dirt and my focus turns to finding a good spot to get a couple hours of sleep. It is nearly 4am now and I am surprised to see so many people still awake camping off the side of the road. I approach a large bonfire and can hear people partying. Just as I pass by, they unload a bunch of rounds, hollering “fuck yeah!!” Gunfire coming from a group of drunk rednecks is not the most reassuring sound for a spandex clad cyclist, rolling by at such a late hour. Thankfully, the track soon leaves the road and connects into a series of rocky jeep washes away from the ruckus. I make it another couple miles, before pulling out the bivy sack to catch a couple hours sleep just before dawn.
I’ve been on the move for 22 hours, so when I hit the ground I do not notice how cold it is or the rocks poking into my back. I have just enough energy to set my alarm for a two hour nap, take one conscious, deep, restful breath and fade off to sleep.
It’s 2pm. I’m sitting in the hotel ballroom for the pre-race meeting next to Allen Hadley. Allen’s completed the Grand Traverse (GT) every single year since its inception in 1998. The crowd of 400 racers erupts in a loud cheer when the race directors announce that conditions are favorable for a full traverse from Crested Butte to Aspen. Allen, cries out “Yeeeeeah!!!” fist pumping in the air. This will be his 19th year and his excitement does not seem to have waned in the slightest. The race starts at midnight, so skiers still have a number of hours to eat, rest, or in my case, pack and repack gear obsessively rethinking every detail. It feels like I have been packing my race bag continuously for the past 3 days but, still find something to readjust to occupy the rest of the afternoon. Initially, I had planned to race with Tony, but he unfortunately injured his knee a couple days prior. My friend Jason Killgore who was also racing got into a small avalanche whacking his leg on a tree causing him to also have to pull out from the race. His partner David Glennon and I decided to team up, as the “TKill Memorial team” and put up the good fight for the fallen brethren. David’s a great runner and a skilled skier, so I knew he would be a great partner and help keep me on point. The GT is not an easy race logistically. However, David is extremely well organized. We’d be traveling with a fine crew of Boulder folks, in a rented minivan with a driver (thanks Kevin!), and staying at the Crested Butte hostel (a lot better than sleeping in the truck!). For dinner, we opt for sushi. I find a rice, avocado, and salmon roll to be the perfect pre-race food. Somehow I misread the menu and order sashimi - a $16 thimble sized piece of raw fish wrapped in cabbage. Not quite the optimal fuel for a 40 mile race, so we fill up on microwave bean burritos at the hostel. At 9pm, we begin to hear rumors about the traverse being changed to a reverse because of excessive snowfall, meaning that we wouldn’t ski to Aspen, but instead stay on the Crested Butte side. The course would be close to the same length and elevation, but wouldn’t have the aesthetic appeal of traveling point to point. Shortly thereafter, the news is confirmed to our great disappointment. Spending the night skiing around in the foothills just sounds a lot less exciting. While we understand the safety concerns, neither David nor I get our motivation back up until about 3 minutes before the start standing on the line. Then, the electric atmosphere just takes over, disappointment dissolves, and we are ready to ski.
The race starts off at a reasonable pace up a blue run under a clear sky. With a wave of 400 headlamps and a near full moon illuminating the snow it does not feel like midnight. Ski racing starts are always a bit chaotic with planks and poles click clacking all around. I keep my eye on David as we jockey into position in the lead pack of about 5 teams. David surges around a few teams, yelling at me to follow, so we get into the skin track behind the leaders. It is more efficient to skin in a track even on a groomer. Our initial goal is to open up a little gap on the bulk of the field to avoid the congestion at the top of the first climb for the transition. We arrive there in 3rd place, rip our skins, and begin skating the one mile or so of rolling groomed road before the descent. Skating is very physical and neither David nor I have practiced much this year, so we maintain a steady effort without forcing the pace. We’re passed by several teams here, including Brent Knight (an ex-pro nordic skier) who cruises by effortlessly declaring “I love nordic skiing!” I can barely answer him gasping for air while flailing up a small rise. The descent down into the valley is short and sweet. Skiing at night is fun and I focus on staying relaxed, letting my legs absorb invisible bumps and inconsistencies in the snow. The wide groomed trail bottlenecks into a very short bootpack. David and I had planned on putting on our skins just before this point while still on the groomer. This proves to be a good move. A half-dozen teams pass us up the bootpack, but we immediately repass them when they stop to put their skins on in a more awkward spot on the hill side. The skin track now stretches far out ahead of us over rolling hills. We can see the 3 lead teams a few minutes or so in front of us. The glide is incredible on a layer of light, fluffy snow. I am really enjoying myself and push the pace a little with David right behind me. We negotiate a few bumbly sections over creeks and spots with minimal snow mainly trying to avoid scraping our skis or catching them on protruding brush. Once the trail improves, we begin a 7 mile, gradual climb up to the turn around just past the Friends hut. David clips into the tow rope behind me. This is not so much for towing, but rather to keep our pace in sync. If I let up, I can feel David’s skis bump against mine. If he lets up, he feels a tug on the rope as it tensions. This is a good team strategy and while we speak very little, we feel like one unit moving along the trail. It is pretty cold as we pass Friends hut and our pace is just sufficient to keep us warm. I am shivering at the turn around, and fumble with my skins, taking a little longer on the transition. As we engage the downhill, a volunteer yells “point ‘em straight! Pow turns!!” We indulge in a couple hundred feet of glorious powder- good fun, but not much help to raise my body temp. The good skiing is short lived though as we merge back onto the skin track and start double poling over flattish terrain. While I thought the downhill would provide a bit of reprieve from skinning, the double poling, awkward occasional skating, combined with oncoming traffic proves to be the hardest part of the race for me thus far. Thankfully, David takes over the team lead, keeping our pace honest while I struggle with cramping triceps and hamstrings. I was a bit worried before the race about coming down a tight trail with oncoming skiers, but everyone is incredibly gracious, stepping aside to let us pass and voicing their encouragements. This proves to be a big mental boost as we leave the out and back section to close the final clockwise loop around Mt. Crested Butte to the ski area. We cross a small creek, taking the opportunity to put our skins back on, just as we are caught by Billy Laird and Eric Sullivan. The have a total of over 25 combined finishes at the GT many of which on the podium. They are also fit and very skilled skiers. While they had been looming right behind us the entire race, we thought we would put a decent gap on them above Friends Hut, but they were descending much better than us. It is surprising how important technique really is even on non-technical terrain. Thankfully, we made the right decision to transition at the creek. As Billy and Sully try to skate through the increasingly deep powder track, we pass them and put some concerted effort into the next climb. By the top, their lights are out of sight again and we ski a cruiser trail down into an open meadow. We skate along a road where David nearly falls, as his ski grinds on some gravel. Another quick transition, and here come Billy and Sully again charging hard. Billy gives David some lip, telling him he’s done and should quit now. This is all in good fun as they race each other a lot, but still gives us a boost and we again pull ahead. From the course map, I remember there being two final climbs in the last 4 miles. I tell David we should not rip skins until the ski area. He clips into the tow rope and we surge up the first of the two climbs with everything we have got. We enter a wooded section of tight, rolling singletrack. It is hard skiing the downhills with skins on especially with the accumulated fatigue. We reach a point where it is difficult to tell how far down the trail descends. Going against our previous decision, we stop to transition again. Just as we lock down our heels, Billy and Sully crank by us shouting “Don’t rip! Skins to the resort!” A classy move, but it’s too late for us and we’re stopped transition again. David and I both agree that while this small mistake cost us the battle for 4th place, Billy and Sully were closing way stronger than us and were technically much more proficient on the tight singletrack. With less than a couple of miles to go, we are completely exhausted and painfully shuffle our way up the last, frustratingly circuitous climb to the ski area. At the top, a volunteer on a snowmachine points to a lift and informs us that the final descent is right pass it. David mumbles something rude about the last climb and keeps pushing. I apologize to the guy on the snowmachine who looks at me quizzically, telling him that was not direct at him and it was just the fatigue talking. It is snowing heavily now and we point ‘em straight down the green run to the finish line, which we cross in 7:25 good for 5th place. Regardless of whether we got to ski to Aspen or not, the Grand Traverse is still quite the experience. I am very thankful to have shared it with a great partner and an awesome group of friends. It sure made for a memorable weekend. Congrats to all finishers- ‘til next time.
I drop down into the canyon at dusk. I want to capture the last rays of light hitting the water before dark. I run the steep, loose trail that leads me to an abrupt 20 foot drop off midway down the gully. I lower myself into a slot stemming precariously on wet granite. The light is just how I’d hoped - a golden flicker scattered across the surface of the torrent. I hop from boulder to boulder across the water, rushing to get in position for a photograph before the moment is lost. In my haste, I misstep, slip and crunch my midfoot in a way it typically would not bend. I sit, holding my ankle, sputtering expletives, breathing heavily to diffuse the pain. It takes me a few minutes to collect myself. Looking back upstream I decide I don’t like this angle anyway. I hobble over to a better spot, but the light is gone. I’m frustrated at myself for missing the shot, and for hurting myself so stupidly. A few days later, my foot still hurts. It’s improved, but won’t allow me to run just yet. Since I’m restricted in my movement, I’ve decided to try an exercise of standing in place and shooting 12 frames from the same spot. Rushing is what got me injured in the first place, so the process serves as a reminder to slow down, contemplate and practice looking, whether the light or scene is good or not.
Poetry does this to us. You can quickly either soar or drown in depression. You can have a pretty good first line but not a strong enough thought to tag along more lines and sometimes in the middle words become bored and make war on one another. Notebooks are full of these fragments, shrapnel of our intention. Life is short on conclusions and that's why it's often a struggle to end a poem. Some are lost forever. Sometimes you walk around with versions of a poem in your head that won't come clean. You are enslaved to this language of disorder and can brood upon it for days and weeks. Jim Harrison
Here's my gear list for the The Colorado Trail Race.
Bike build: The Reeb Sam's Pants is the ultimate all-rounder. The idea behind this bike was to build a versatile machine for riding my home trails and dirt roads around the Colorado Front Range and for future self-powered adventures. While riding the CTR on a fully rigid bicycle isn't an easy task, the Sam's performed exceptionally well as I had zero mechanical failures (save worn brake pads).
Frame: Reeb Sam's Pants (hand built by master welder Chris Sulfrian) Fork: Whisky Carbon N9 Wheels: ZTR Crest 29er Rims // Maxxis Crossmark 29x2.1 tires Afterburner cranks and stem // Crank Brothers egg beater pedals Rear hub: Rohloff Speedhub with Gates Carbon Belt Drive Front hub: Son Dynamo Hub Bars: Salsa Woodchipper 44cm (which I'm changing to the Cowchipper in 46cm) Brakes: TRP Spyre disk brakes Saddle: Brooks B17
Bike Maintenance: 1x carbon belt drive 2x spare tubes 4oz stans and tire patch kit spokes, bike multitool, leatherman, tire lever, lighter, spare brake pad, pump, zip ties.
Other extras: i-phone + Goal Zero charger Mini sawyer water filter + 1L platypus 2 headlamps ; Armytek Wizard and Petzl Tikka RXP Med kit: duct tape + Buff Suunto Core watch Colorado Trail Data Book Combination lock (never used) Tooth brush and paste 2x26oz bike bottles (Tailwind and water)
Clothing/Sleep System:Dale's Pale Ale Evel Knievel bike jersey Vecchio's bib shorts Pearl Izumi leg and arm warmers Arc'teryx Motus long sleeve shirt (kept dry for emergencies) Arc'teryx Cerium LT down jacket Arc'teryx Norvan Gore-Tex jacket + rain pants Summer bike gloves + Rei Novara TransMitt over glove Shoes: Giro TerraduroDrymax bike socks x 2 Buff x2 ; one original Buff and one merino wool. Bivy: SOL Escape Bivvy + Western Mountaineering Highlite down sleeping bag
Bike bags: Oveja Negra half-frame bag (used for some maintenance kit, clothes, extra food) Oveja Negra seat bag (bivy sack and sleeping bag) Revelate Designs gas tank and mountain feedbag (food) and jerrycan (tools)
Food: My food mainly consisted of Tailwind, sandwiches, burritos, nut butter, candy bars, ice tea and the occasional hot meal.
A little over a decade ago, I spent the summer on La Reunion, a small French island off the coast of Madagascar. One weekend, I decided to circumnavigate the island on a bicycle. I borrowed my friend’s rickety, single speed cruiser and bungeed a tupperware of rice and vegetables for lunch to the rear rack. I set off at 4am to ride 250kms with the hope of making it back in time for dinner. I did little to no planning, brought no spare clothes or repair kit and figured that if it didn’t work out, I’d simply sleep on the beach and hitch a ride back the following day. I was less concerned with the final result of whether or not I’d make it around the island, being far more compelled by the excitement brought forth by a spontaneous adventure. Last July, sitting at the Oskar Blues’ (OB) Tasty Weasel Tap Room, sharing a few pints with Derek, Chad and Tony, I was beginning to rekindle the desire to get back into some long distance bicycle shenanigans. Since Tony had been dealing with a stress reaction in his shin for several months, he’d taken to riding his bike a lot, which had naturally opened the door to all sorts of ideas for future self-propelled projects.
Derek has spearheaded OB’s venture into the coffee business and roasts small batches of high quality beans under the name of Hotbox Roasters in his own little corner of the brewery. We met through running and immediately hit it off with common interests in the bean, the brew and bikes with fat tires. Derek introduced me to Chad who’s in charge of Oskar Blues’ marketing and heads up Reeb, OB’s handmade bicycle fabrication business. Everything OB does has a focus on craftsmanship, driven by a group of incredibly creative people. With Tony’s and my interests and aspirations lining up with Reeb, Oskar Blues and Hotbox Roasters, we were eager to start collaborating on self-powered adventures.
I’d done a little research on Reeb’s different bike models and the Sam’s Pants stood out to me as the ultimate all-rounder. I used to be obsessive about finding the best travel gear, stuff that had multiple uses, equally at home on the trails or at the pub after a long day in the mountains. If I were to bring one shoe to go around the world, what would it be? I’m still unsure of the answer, but I now know what bike I’d ride.
Chad plainly describes the Sam’s Pants as “a bike”. In a world of increasing specialization, it’s refreshing to build a simple machine, that can ride road, dirt, and even technical trails. The Sam’s Pants might be a simple bicycle, but its clean, matte black coat of paint hides expert craftsmanship, made with American steel beautifully welded by Chris Sulfrian.
While Tony and I have long term goals of linking peaks self-powered by biking, running and climbing, I had a more immediate desire to ride The Colorado Trail Race (CTR), a 560 mile self-supported mountain bike race from Durango to Denver.
“When’s the race?” Chad asked
“In a couple weeks…” I replied
Chad continues “I can probably get you a rig really quickly...you been riding a lot?”
“euh...a bit.” I responded with confidence infused by hopes rather than reality.
A couple of days later, Chris had welded and painted my frame and I was at CyclHOPS bike shop picking out parts with Tim Moore, the shop manager, who worked until midnight that day to have my bike ready to test a week out from the race. I was overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity and couldn’t believe that the whole project was actually materializing.
The CTR is ridden as an unofficial time trial, since permitting the entire route would be a nightmare and involve all sorts of liability and insurance issues. The race switches directions each year with the grand depart being in Durango this time around. Riders typically carry a Spot GPS device to track their progress and follow one overarching rule “Do.It.Yourself.” This is an honor system whereby all riders agree to carry all of their own gear and receive no individual assistance that isn’t available to all other riders. This means riders cannot share food or gear, or have caches or planned assistance. Riders can resupply in towns for food or gear or get a room as this is available to everyone.
The night before leaving for Durango, my good friend Fred Marmsater, stopped by the house to check out the bike and wish me well. As I was giving him the rundown of my gear, I mentioned I wasn’t planning on wearing bike shorts. “What?! You’re absolutely crazy man! Your ass is going to get destroyed…” was his response. Fred used to race bikes at a high level so I trust his judgement. He told me to get some high-end, preferably European made, thin road shorts and chamois cream. The next day, right before leaving, I picked up a pair of fine Italian shorts and still a bit nervous of “getting destroyed” switched out my new saddle for my trusty old Brooks leather one.
While the whole process of getting to start line was hasty and a bit all over the place, I felt strangely serene on the drive down to the San Juans. My style and enthusiasm was certainly not uncharacteristic, but this was an involved project with lots of uncertainties. Tony had graciously offered to drop me in town and while he was outwardly encouraging of the whole endeavour, I knew there was some definite head-shaking going on inside his mind. For me though, the thrill of a looming old fashioned adventure, far exceeded any nervousness or doubts I could have about anything that might possibly go wrong.
Day 1 - Durango to Cataract Lake
I arrive at the start at quarter to four in morning, in front of Carver Brewing with roughly 60 other riders lining up in the street. Stefan Griebel, endurance athlete extraordinaire and the driving force behind the CTR, reminds us of the “do it yourself” rule, to respect the law and wishes us well before setting us off on our way.
When starting in Durango there’s a short prologue on the road that leads to the Junction Creek trailhead where we all funnel on to the singletrack for 6000 feet of climbing up to Kennebec Pass. I get onto the track behind roughly a dozen or so other riders as the climb begins in earnest.
The first thing I realize is that I’ve never really ridden trails at night. My front hub has an internal dynamo system so I can generate my own light. The brightness is sufficient for climbing, but I find myself wishing for an extra headlamp when descending, something I’ll remedy the following nights.
The climb is gradual and I get into a good rhythm riding most of the way, save a few choppy sections. Occasionally, someone in front will dismount causing everyone behind to do the same, but within an hour or so we start to spread out allowing for more fluid transitions on and off the bike.
The first major descent is incredible. Tight singletrack cut into the side of the slope, a great mix of flowy and rocky trail. Halfway down my pedal clips a root, with the shock sending me flying over the handlebars. I’m uninjured, but lose my sunglasses out of my jersey pocket without noticing.
Having never really ridden a mountain bike before, these first few hours are deeply thrilling and I find myself getting unreasonably excited for what is still to come.
I also know very little of the trail, having only seen the last 80 miles to Denver and bits and pieces around Leadville. The San Juans are one of my favorite mountain ranges, so it’s without surprise that the trail through here is of exceptional quality.
My bike is set-up with a Rohloff internal gear hub and a carbon belt drive, making the drivetrain essentially maintenance-free and giving me a very wide range of gears. The gearing makes climbing efficient and allows me to stay seated on the bike. It’s easy to relax in this position and I patiently work the climbs. The tops of the passes are often loose and rocky forcing me to get off the bike and push. Being a mountain runner, I probably enjoy this more than most, even though pushing a loaded bicycle is fairly strenuous and awkward. My bike shoes feel like clogs with the cleats pushing uncomfortably into my forefoot.
I’m surprised to catch up to Jefe Branham hiking up one of the early passes. Jefe is a CTR legend and one of only 2 riders to ever break the 4 days in the race. While I seem to be able to keep a reasonable pace on the uphills, the technical downhills are challenging on a fully rigid bike. I need to pick my way carefully down the trail, still getting constantly pounded like wielding a jackhammer. I get no breaks up or down and get to Silverton, worked, after 15 hours of riding.
My emotions are torn between elation from the extraordinary section I’d just covered and a bit of concern, that if the technical trail doesn’t relent, I’m unsure if my body will hold up to the beating.
I take a necessary break at the convenient store to eat, drink and restock the bike with food as the next resupply is close to 200 miles away. I cram as many calories as I can into my jersey pockets and frame and top tube bags. Still, I know I will be cutting it pretty close especially if something goes wrong.
I leave town with Alex Lussier from Montana just before dark. We’re both exhausted and hike the bike slowly the entire way up Stony Pass road, the last section of the Weminuche Wilderness bike detour. We pass several other riders who are bivvied alongside the road. It’s tempting to stop for a nap, particularly as the next section around Cataract Lake is all open and up high, at at least 12 thousand feet. My preference though is to push until 2am and sleep for a few hours then, in an attempt to not mess too much with my circadian rhythm. Alex and I stumble along a bit longer and after 22 hours on the go, find a half decent spot to lay down our sleeping bags. I sleep remarkably well for 2 hours, despite the high altitude, wet ground, lack of sleeping pad and damp clothes.
Day 2 - Cataract Lake to Sargents Mesa
I wake up coughing violently, hacking up phlegm, with a taste of blood in my month. I feel sort of asthmatic or as if I might have a lung infection. I pack up the bike and put a Buff around my neck, trying to mitigate some of the soreness in my throat. As Alex and I are preparing to leave, Aaron Johnson rides by and we join him on the climb to Carson Saddle, the highest point of the CT.
Our little group splinters on the descent before beginning the second detour around La Garita Wilderness. I’m surprised at how pleasant these detours are, mostly along scenic dirt roads with little pavement. This type of terrain is much more suited for my bicycle. I pedal hard even on the descents, trying to keep my body as relaxed as possible to absorb the vibrations from the waterbars.
The temperatures are rising and the road exposed so I make it a point to stop and filter water next to a cow pasture before the climb up to Los Pinos Pass. Aaron Denberg catches up to me and stays close in arrears as we grind our way up the climb. While I feel relatively good, I don’t like the heat much, so I stop again to camel up at a small creek.
I’m starting to pick up the rhythm of the trail, my bike and body gradually breaking in, my mind open and elated.
A little before night fall, approaching Sargents Mesa, I catch up to Aaron Johnson. This segment is notorious for its difficulty. It’s remote, rocky and slow going and for us comes at a difficult time as we enter the second night. Aaron J. raced the CT in 2013 so he’s familiar with what’s up ahead. I can only base my knowledge on what others like Stefan have told me. Unanimously, everyone agrees that Sargents Mesa is particularly challenging, so Aaron and I decide to rest for a few hours before attacking it this section.
I lay down my sleeping bag on a soft bed of pine needles. It’s warm in the forest. I lay on top of my bag sweating, coughing, with mosquitos biting my face and hands for a restless few hours. Aaron is in a similar predicament and neither of us gets any rest.
I set off a little before him around midnight, crawling along the rocky trail, physically uncomfortable, yet mentally calm.
Day 3 - Sargents Mesa to Clear Creek Reservoir
Just before Sunrise, Aaron J. catches back up to me and pulls ahead, while I rejoin Aaron D. We have an interesting dynamic, leap frogging, occasionally in sync and happy for the company, but also very much alone. Aaron D. and I take a minor wrong turn, rapidly realising our mistake after a few miles. Once back on track, we begin the very strenuous, loose, rubbly climb towards Marshall Pass. I had underestimated this segment looking at the map and it proves to be the most challenging so far. Progress is extremely slow and I’ve began rationing my food for fear of running out before the Princeton Hot Springs convenient store.
Stupidly, I miss another turn to the Fooses Creek Trail and continue along towards Monarch Pass, but again only straying for a few miles. Aaron D. had warned me that Fooses was a steep, technical trail that he’d taken a bad fall on while on a recon ride. Down in my drops, I grip my brakes with everything I have and somewhat miraculously make it down in one piece. While I’m taking a beating, I’m amazed at how well the bike and tires are doing through the constant thrashing.
At highway 50, my food has dwindled to but one last honey stinger waffle with roughly 25 more miles to go to the Princeton Hot Springs. I’m running on empty, having rationed for the past 8 hours. I choose to hold on to the waffle for as long as I can to not bonk, nibbling on tiny pieces that I let dissolve under my tongue.
Aaron D. and I are back together, moving slowly and both deteriorating in the intense heat. At the top of one particularly difficult climb, I lean forward in agony putting my head on my handlebars, breathing heavily. I turn to Aaron to complain, but before I can say anything he smiles and proclaims “man, I love this!” How could he be so positive, when he’s clearly struggling just as much as me. “Yeah. It’s awesome.” I reply, halfheartedly.
I gaze down the precarious final descent to the springs, uncertain as to whether I can manage it. The waffle is gone, so is my water. I’m dehydrated and lightheaded. I lay in the dirt for a few seconds to collect myself and keep repeating “just hold it together, just hold it together.”
Somehow, we make it down to the Princeton Hot Springs convenience store, scoring some trail fairy loot a couple miles out from a table set-up for CT racers.
At the store, I eat and drink a lot. I sit in a blissful food coma on the soft grass out front, as the previous dire hours dissolve into my bag of chips. I’m approaching 300 miles of riding and have only slept for a couple of hours. I can feel it. Aaron leaves the store before me, heading up the paved road towards the Princeton trailhead to rejoin the CT. I have to consciously focus on restocking my bike with food and prepare to leave so as not to succumb to a longer rest on the grass.
On the way up the paved road, I turn on my phone and receive 3 texts of encouragement from Deanne, Tony and Fred. The combination of fatigue, bonking and soreness in my body heightens my emotions. On the bike, I mainly exist in my own head, so these small outside messages of support provide a tremendous amount of comfort. I’m reenergized and start to pick the pace back up, catching Aaron D. before the highway into Buena Vista.
We roll into town together, stopping at Ks for burgers, fries and a shake. As we eat Aaron asks if I want to split a room for a few hours of sleep. I hesitate as it’s still early and I want to make it to Clear Creek Reservoir before resting. However, my cough has noticeably worsened, so I rationalize that a couple hours in a warm bed might do me good.
It’s hot in the room, extremely hot. I lay there sweating, tossing and turning, coughing and all around uncomfortable. Aaron is out cold. His snoring doesn’t help my case, so after an hour without sleep, I decide it’s best to leave. Aaron is extremely apologetic, blaming himself for my departure. I assure him that it’s not his fault, that my body is simply rebelling and I need fresh air. To my surprise, he decides to leave too, so we head out of town together. It’s a beautiful night. The dirt road that parallels highway 24 makes for an easy and pleasant ride. Once we pass Clear Creek Reservoir, we begin a dusty, sandy singletrack climb towards Twin Lakes. I’m struggling to keep my eyes open and push the bike with difficulty. There are no good resting stops until we reach the top of the climb, where we both collapse on either side of the trail for a few hours.
Day 4 - Clear Creek Reservoir - Wellington Lake Road TH
With the rising sun comes a new sense of purpose, as if I hit the reset button and forget about the distance already covered. Another huge boost is knowing I’ll make it to Leadville around mid-morning, a most perfect time to enjoy a cup of coffee and food at City on a Hill coffee shop, one of my favorites in the state.
Leadville also brings familiarity. I now mostly know what lies ahead and with roughly 150 miles to go, I’m in proximity of the finish. However, this slight shift in mindset dampens my focus with my positivity rapidly waning as I start the ascent up Kokomo Pass.
It’s hot again, and I’m really feeling the wear and tear and fatigue as I struggle to keep riding, defaulting to pushing the bike more frequently than I should. By the top of the pass, I’m bonking hard and sit there for a good 15 minutes eating and re-hydrating. I spend another 15 minutes trying to tighten my brakes, but the tedium of the micro-adjustments only brings frustration.
While I had been able to relax on most of the technical downhills, lessening the pounding on my body, I’m tense coming off the pass, feeling every rock and inconsistency in the trail. The only thought on my mind is making it to Copper before the store closes so I can stock up for the final push to Denver.
I make it to the ski area a little before 7pm. I immediately buy a pizza and collapse on the gravel road, too beat to walk over to the bench. I call my wife for the first time on the trip. “I’m fucking beat, babe...I’m bonking so hard...everything hurts...I’ve got the Tenmile range coming up and I don’t know what to do...” I complain. Deanne’s supported me through these types of situations many times before and knows exactly what to say. She’s positive and encouraging, but keeps her answers short and pragmatic. “Get to the store before it closes, stock up the bike and gently get back on your way.” That’s all I need really- a bit of venting and some straight talk.
I thank her, tell her I love her and that I’ll see her soon before heading over to the store. After my episode coming into Princeton Hot Springs, I cannot mentally afford to run out of food again. I buy several frozen burritos, that I’ll let reheat naturally in my bag, along with a number of candy bars and a plastic jar of nutella in case of emergency.
Just out of town, I stop at the bottom of the climb to ponder whether or not I should make it over the Tenmile range now or after a few hours of sleep. It’s only 8pm, so it feels too early to sleep, but the climb ahead is strenuous and the descent on the backside, steep and technical. As I sit there undecided, Sam Koerber pulls up to the trailhead. He’s in a similar indecisive mood so I say with false confidence “I’m gonna go.” To my disappointment, Sam answers “yeah, you’re probably right. Let’s do it.” Dammit!
As night falls, pushing up the steep trail, we see a light coming down our way. It’s Aaron Johnson. He’s broken a hub and can’t go on any further. He’s called the bike shop in Copper who have the parts for the repair and he’s planning on setting off again in the morning. I’m extremely impressed with his determination and his relative nonchalance towards the situation.
Sam and I push on over the pass and he immediately puts some distance on me with his masterful skill on the downhill.
I’m struggling on all levels. Four hundred miles and I’m reaching my limit. I’m physically destroyed. I can’t see or focus properly on the line ahead, trying with everything I have to not fall off the bike. I’m grunting, cursing out loud and feeling exceedingly vulnerable. The trail is too rocky to stop and sleep. It’s cold out too and for the first time in the whole trip I’m losing control. I’m frustrated with my poor judgement to tackle this climb in such a state.
Somehow, miraculously, I make it down into the woods, following a trail that’s gradually improving until I find a good place to stop. I drop the bike, pull out my sleeping bag and pass out without setting an alarm. I sleep for a good 4 hours and take another hour to get back on the bike.
Last night’s feeling of precarity all but vanishes in the warm, early morning sun. I snap into a good rhythm on buffed out, quality trail past Breckenridge to Kenosha Pass. I’m amazed at the contrast of how my mind and body feel after only a handful of hours of rest.
The final bike detour around the Lost Creek Wilderness, named the Tarryall detour is about 70 miles mainly on a dirt road. I’m joined by Sam “Papa Murphy” Harney, for the first stretch to the Stagecoach bar. He’s a nice fella from Portland, Oregon.
The bar is a welcome stop for a last hot meal before the final push to the finish. It’ss crowded with folks playing pool, a hearty bunch eager to hear our stories from the trail. Sam and I order a pair of meatball sandwiches, which we inhale as soon as they are served. I get a chicken sandwich for my jersey pocket to eat later and we’re on our way. Sam bums a cigarette off one of the guys which we all find amusing. The smoke doesn’t seem to impede his athletic ability though as he quickly drops me on the road out from the bar.
While the Colorado Trail is very well marked, the detours aren’t marked at all. I don’t have a GPS, so I nervously make my way forward following directions from the pocket sized trail databook. A massive storm is brewing up ahead, providing an incredible lightning display.
As night falls, I resume my struggle with sleep deprivation, frantically checking the databook to ensure I haven’t missed a turn. The negative thoughts that stem from exhaustion appear to sit more placidly in my mind tonight, a sort of adjustment to the discomfort.
My objective before resting is to finish the detour and reach the trail which I regain at 1am. I decide on one final bivvy, allowing myself to sleep until 4am, which will mark the start of the 5th day.
Day 5 - Wellington Lake Road TH - Waterton Canyon
Upon waking, I notice my Spot device is flashing red so I’m unsure if I’m still emitting a signal. My phone has 5% battery left and I foolishly brought the wrong cable for my back up Goal Zero charger. I’m now much less concerned with the last 40 miles to Waterton Canyon than the idea that Deanne might not be there at the finish because of the phone and Spot failing.
The track is good now, rolling and flowing and I enjoy riding in the cool morning air.
Right before the Little Scraggy trailhead, I’m stopped by a guy sporting a retro unitard, riding a vintage mountain bike, exclaiming “whatever you do, don’t go that way! There’s a group riding horses and there’s shit all over the trail.” I laugh and answer: “I don’t mind the horse shit. It probably smells fresher than me.”
Thankfully, I only catch up to the group of about 60 horses at the South Platte River with plenty of space to pass them. Only one more climb to go before the long downhill and 6 miles of dirt road to the finish. With the excitement, I ride the entire way up the climb. I fall a couple of times as the sole of my bike shoe is completely coming apart. It’s like riding in flip flops and hiking is no better. As I engage the final descent, I’m too lazy to stop and readjust my brakes, so with my shoe flapping and dragging on the ground, I precariously skid my way down the hill. I simply don’t care about anything anymore and will walk it in barefoot if I necessary.
Once I reach the final stretch of road, I have mixed feelings of relief, contrasting with a strong desire of not wanting the trip to end. The past 5 days condense into this one moment, a raw slice of life, palpable and real. I pass day hikers, riders and people fishing, a strange return to civilized living, a sort of counter-culture shock from my feral ways.
I drop my water bottle and drag my foot into the dirt to stop my brakeless machine. Trying to dismount, I fall off my bike, pick myself up, looking around wild-eyed at the bewildered passers-by, before grabbing my bottle and hustling on forward.
At the trailhead, Deanne is there waiting. My voice is hoarse and I can barely speak. I tear up, so thankful to see her, overwhelmed with love. I feel a deep sense of contentment not just from finishing, but from the profundity of the whole experience.
Stefan Griebel said prior to the race that riding the Colorado Trail is a life-changing experience. For me, it has shifted my perspective back to a place of excitement, curiosity and wonder of the simple joys of self-propelled adventure.
I’m eternally grateful for the support and generosity of the good folks at Reeb, Oskar Blues, Hotbox Roaster and CyclHOPS. Special thanks to Derek, Chad, Chris and Tim for everything bike related as well as Tony for the ride down, Fred for the advice, Jenny from Tailwind and Deanne and Bella B for being the bestest!
I will write a follow up post with a complete rundown of the bike and the gear I brought on the race.
What is best about our lives -the moments when we are, as we would put it, at our happiest- is both pleasant and deeply unpleasant. Happiness is not a feeling; it is a way of being. Mark Rowlands It’s been a strange winter thus far. Storms with heavy snows, followed by stretches of 70 degree weather. One day I’m running and scrambling shirtless in the Boulder peaks, the next I’m skiing deep powder. My dog has already started shedding her winter coat. On Monday, she’s rolling around in a snowbank to cool off on our run. On Tuesday, she lifts her frozen paw complaining to me of the ice and cold. I’ve added to this seasonal disfunction by travelling to Costa Rica to get blasted by 90 degree heat and 100% humidity in February. So, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that I was momentarily confused as to why there was snow on Vail pass, on my way out to Moab last weekend. I’d been cruising along I-70, thinking about my grandfather who would always joke that “he grew up with radio” when I’d expel the virtues of finding quality news on the internet. I’ve recently become pretty obsessed with podcasts and rarely has the prospect of a 6 hour drive become so intellectually stimulating. I flip between TED talks, Radiolab, Invisibilia, shows about music, books and some comedy. Time flies by as I find myself completely engrossed in a world of curiosity. Effective radio isn’t a passive medium as it demands the full engagement of the listener. If I drift off into my own thoughts, I lose the thread of the narration. With its lack of visual stimulation, our assiduity in listening allows us to enter the imaginative space. Running for me requires a similar level of attention as it is most compelling when I’m fully engaged in the moment. Over the years, I’ve found that the hardest part of running a hundred miles is the ability to stay focused for the entirety of the event. When I manage to direct my mind and energy only towards running, the meaning of the activity is articulated in its practice. I revel in the simple aesthetic of movement which fills me with wonder.
Halfway into the Moab Red Hot 55k, I hit a wall I don’t often encounter. I'm not bonking, as I’ve been fueling well and am only a couple of hours into the race. Instead, I feel this hollow sensation of deep fatigue, as if my core energy has all of a sudden vanished. I stare at the short steep climb up the slickrock ahead moving from running, to a shuffle, to a walk. I hadn’t expected much from this race, as it was only a short week after Costa Rica and my body was clearly still in full recovery. All I can think of is “why the fuck do I do this to myself?” Other runners fly by me as I stumble along in discomfort. My legs start to seize up, my hips are stiff and crampy, my nose begins to bleed and I get intermittent feelings of sharp stabbing pain in my stomach and chest. It’s hard to not doubt oneself in these moments, difficult to conceptualize the feeling of joy that running so often confers. What I realize though, is that running for me isn’t about pleasure or pain, but about being there. The commonality of our experiences, whether in flow or struggle is found in the brief moments where we are completely present. There is an undeniable reality and rawness to feeling the moment, something we all share, but have difficulty conveying to one another. I like to put myself out there, to be vulnerable, to not be tentative or protect myself from failure. I derive great value from these exercises in persistence and while they might not do much for my development as a runner, they certainly nourish me as a human being.