Thursday, December 4, 2014


I actually wrote and posted this briefly last winter, but removed it after I thought that it had served its purpose. But people keep asking why I left, so here it is again.

From the archives:

As many people know, I've been an active member of for a number of years. Most of my posts have been about the Colorado Trail Race, GPS devices, adventure, safety, etc. It has been a fun and rewarding place to learn about, and share, the practical and passionate aspects of bikepacking and ultra-racing.

But I've also been a vocal and tenacious advocate of the "Do. It. Yourself." ethos and rules of ultra-racing, which has often put me in opposition to those don't share my perspective on the sport.

While I've received a lot of  support and encouragement for beating the self-supported drum, I've also received a lot of very pointed, angry, and downright aggressive personal attacks. These attacks sometimes result in "piling on" by those who relish reducing nuanced discussions to bar brawls and shouting matches. Some people simply aren't able to discuss complicated issues without lashing out. I never would have guessed anyone in the the bikepacking community carried so much hate in their hearts.

I've had enough.

Last week, I asked Scott Morris to delete my account and remove my name from the system.

Scott and Eszter asked me to reconsider my decision, which was thoughtful and kind. But I'm done. The truth is that the lack moderation of the forums enabled the types of personal attacks that succeeded in driving me away from the site. There's no room for rational discussions when "fuck you" becomes an acceptable response to an idea. The anonymity of the Internet erodes personal accountability, which ultimately spills into the real world if left unchecked.

I'm not entirely happy with my decision. Actually, I'm really bummed. I feel like I've let the bullies win. But when the vitriol of the virtual world seeps into the real world, things get ugly. I've got other passions in life that matter more to me than those on I'd rather simply "Do. It. Myself." than absorb/deflect any more anger and hate. Which is why I'm "Done."


Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Dangerous is the Colorado Trail Race?

When I describe the basic logistics of the Colorado Trail Race, people often ask how dangerous it is. A fair question. With 60,000+ feet of climbing over almost 500 miles, long sections over 11,000 feet (and a high point of over 13,000), it's a tough route through some of the wildest and most remote areas of Colorado. Below freezing temperatures are common, as is snow, hail, and days of rain. Most of the trail is technical singletrack. Add the lack of support crews, many days of sleep deprivation, and minimal ultra-light gear--and, yes, the CTR is potentially very dangerous. Climbers and hikers die in the Colorado Rockies with some regularly, so it's reasonable to assume that CTR competitors face similar risks, potentially exacerbated by the additional demands of high-level competition.

As with all mountain adventures, there are two primary types of risks on the CTR: objective and subjective hazards. Objective risks are those over which you have very little control. Getting run over by a drunk driver in Leadville is a good example of an objective hazard. There is very little you can do to avoid that fate, short of not entering the race to begin with. In comparison, subjective risks are those over which you have lot of control. A good example of subjective hazard is getting electrocuted during a raging thunderstorm because you didn't choose to wait an hour for it to clear before riding over Georgia Pass.

Most of the serious hazards faced by CTR racers are of the subjective sort, which is a good thing because they can be mitigated with experience, preparation, good judgment, and some common sense. But objective hazards still exist, and it’s good to know what they are, especially when they can be lessened somewhat, or at least rationally repressed.

So, here’s a break-down of what I think the biggest risks and hazards that CTR racers face, in order of severity, along with what can be done to improve your odds.

  1. Cars. It’s the unspoken truth about the CTR: for a mountain-bike race; there’s a lot of riding on roads. But thanks to Stefan’s decision to re-route the race away from Highway 285, the scariest section of the CTR has been eliminated. I really hated riding up 285 in the pouring rain and mist, with 18-wheelers and RVs slaloming by at 70 miles per hour--often without even the relative safety if a decent shoulder. But even with the safer route, the race still shares many miles of roads with cars piloted by drunks, inattentive texters, bottle-throwing rednecks, etc. Lots of objective risk, over which we have very little control. Reducing the risk is still somewhat possible though: wear bright clothes, stick a blinker light on your bike, and pay attention to your surroundings. I’m always amazed to see riders cruising through Leadville or Buena Vista at night--in dark clothes without so much as a light. A blinker weighs all of an ounce or two, and bright clothing doesn't weigh anything extra. While being seen won’t necessarily prevent a drunk driver from running you down, it will ’ reduce the odds of death-by-car.
  2. Lightening. Hikers and climbers are regularly killed during lightning storms in Colorado. Unfortunately, this isn't much of a surprise to me. Electrical storms often sweep in quickly, especially during the monsoon season (which overlaps with the CTR). Seeing a storm approaching from the opposite side of a high ridge can often be impossible, so you can be caught off-guard right at the worst moment as you top out into the maelstrom. Objective hazard territory for sure. But certainly not entirely. I've watched riders climb right into the middle of a massive electrical storm, with bolts of lightning hitting simultaneously with claps of thunder. Is a bike race really that important?!? Fortunately, Colorado storms tend to move along as quickly as they arrive. Instead of facing the wrath of Apollo, take an hour-long break to do something necessary such as sleep, eat, lube your chain, contemplate your loved ones, etc. Knowing where to safely hide is a good idea, too. Here’s a great article that may save your life:
  3. Crashing. While it's happened (not on the CTR though), it's hard to kill yourself by crashing your bike. If it were easy, most racers with enough experience to consider entering the CTR would have died long ago. But it's still easy to get hurt severely enough to need a rescue. Indeed, the only evacuation that I've heard of during the CTR was due to a rider crashing hard into a talus pile and ripping a huge gash into his leg. While not fatal, a bone-breaking crash could make for really miserable day--especially if it’s sleeting, and you don’t have enough warm gear to fend off exposure (see below). There are also a few short sections where a crash would be fatal, especially in the San Juan Mountains. The trail occasionally cuts across steep slopes and cliffs, where you could fall for several hundred feet. Crashes happen, so paying attention, especially when riding in the fog of sleep-deprivation, is critical. Crashing is mostly a subjective hazard, so walking down technical sections that you’d be able to ride on a normal day isn't a crime--I do it all the time, especially when staring into the maw of a 300-foot cliff inches from the edge of the trail. But what if you do crash and hurt yourself? A basic first-aid kit, with enough tape to reduce blood loss until you can get to safety, should be mandatory equipment.
  4. Exposure. Surviving a sub-freezing night during a sleet storm at 12,000 feet is par for the course on the CTR. Almost every racer has done it, and it’s not even that miserable if you have a waterproof bivy bag, a warmish sleeping bag, and enough dry clothing. But imagine the same cold and wet night after a hard crash, especially if you have insufficient gear. You're in shock from a broken arm, you didn't bring that extra pile sweater--and the above-treeline wind is blowing gallons of cold water right under your ultra-light tarp into your sopping sleeping bag. Yes, you could be dead by morning--even after activating your Spot. I've seen riders quit the race after realizing that they weren't prepared for the cold summer storms of Colorado. Better to quit than pushing on through though, so some belated good judgment us better than never. But even better is bringing enough warm and dry gear so that you can survive the night, even when exhausted and injured. Exposure is generally a subjective hazard, often compounded by other subjective hazards such as not riding conservatively enough through technical sections.
  5. Sleep deprivation. If humans don’t get enough sleep, we go crazy. First our reflexes slow and our reasoning skills lessen. Crashes become more common, and mental exercises such calculating mileage get tricky. Then we start to hallucinate. I've seen monsters in the darkness, even though I knew they weren't real.  Finally, we become delusional. The monsters aren't imaginary anymore, or so our sleep-deprived brains tell us. That’s when things get really scary. One racer in 2012 went bat-shit crazy, abandoning his equipment and flipping out only a few miles from the finish. If another racer hadn't come along and escorted him to civilization, bad things might have happened. But some degree of sleep deprivation is required if you intend to be competitive (it is a race), so knowing your limits is crucial. For me, hitting the hallucination phase is the point when I know that I need sleep within a few hours. That doesn't necessarily mean six hours of full-on beddy-time, but usually at least a fifteen-minute catnap. Learn what works best for you, and then remind yourself where to draw the line--before you get there.
  6. Getting lost. OK, you won't die if you get lost. But you might get pretty hungry, exhausted, and scared. And then that's an ideal precursor to worse things, such as crashing hard, exposure, etc. Fortunately, the well-marked trail makes lost during the CTR pretty hard, and most people also carry GPS units with accurate tracks. But still, bringing some paper maps with clearly-marked bail-out spots is a good idea, so that you get escape the race without getting lost on the way out.
  7. Bears. Many out-of-state racers get worked up about bears. Well, put your mind at ease. While it's certainly possible to get mauled by a black bear in Colorado, it’s actually extremely unlikely. Bears are hunted here, and therefore they tend to be more afraid of you than you are of them. I've seen several bears in Colorado over the years--but usually just their rumps, as they crash through the forest to escape. But bears do occasionally bite people, which largely turns out to be the bitee's fault, not the bear's. If you don't want to meet a bear in your sleeping bag, don’t sleep with your food. Bears generally don't want to eat you, but they do very much want to eat your food. You are tempting fate by cuddling up for the night with a tantalizing bag of buffalo jerky. Last, but not least, try not to run into bears (or any animal) at night. I mean that literally, not figuratively. Crashing your bike into a bear on the trail is a bad idea. While the bear is more likely to run away in fear, it might decide that its best option is to beat the aggressor (that's you) into submission first. Keep your eyes open, and make some noise when riding through dense vegetation.
  8. Dehydration. There are only a couple of short sections where water is limited. Otherwise, water is very abundant. If you die from dehydration during the CTR, then I applaud your Darwinian creativity. But combined with other potential hazards, such as getting lost, cold & wet, and crashing, dehydration could add to the misery and danger. Always carry a little in reserve in case things go sideways.

All of the above stuff makes it sound like the CTR is pretty dangerous. Which isn't necessarily fair, at least not for those who are properly prepared. Most of the hazards can be avoided with proper equipment and good judgment. In a nutshell: Carry enough warm gear, don’t ride up high during electrical storms, make yourself visible during the road sections, and keep your wits about you. And, yes, carry a Spot locator beacon (just please don’t hit 911 unless you really need it). Compared to other mountain sports that I've enjoyed, such as mountaineering or kayaking, the CTR is very safe. Which is one reason why I love it. It's a serious undertaking that requires absolute commitment--but you’ll still make it home for your loved ones. Have a great adventure!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Miscreants, Goody Two Shoes, and More

When addressing the rules of their sport, ultra-endurance mountain bike racers tend to fall into one (or maybe more) of the following categories:
  1. Goody Two Shoes. Those who adhere to all rules, erring on the side of caution when dealing with any gray areas. Likely the silent majority--and probably the nicest people to ride with because they will be first call out a beautiful rainbow or share an encouraging word. Not much fun on web forums though, since they tend to lurk.
  2. Opportunists. Those who interpret the rules in "creative" ways. For example, riding through trail closures--and then retroactively declared that the Forest Service isn't a law-enforcement agency, and therefore their actions weren't actually illegal (wrong). Sometimes aligned with Anarchists, but usually hoping to be viewed as Goody Two Shoes.
  3. Tax cheats. Those who know the rules well enough, but cut little corners here and there. Nothing big enough to change the outcome, but significant enough to avoid small inconveniences or frustrations. They'd be Goody Two Shoes or Opportunists if they had stiffer spines.
  4. Miscreants. Those who willfully and knowingly break uncontested rules. For example, the guy who hitched a car ride around some tough sections in the CTR. Everyone hates miscreants, including themselves--unless they are sociopaths (which is likely). Lance Armstrong would be a Miscreant if he bikepacked. Thankfully a fairly rare segment.
  5. Ignoramuses. Those who are ignorant of subtle rules, but not willfully so. For example, people who call ahead to order food and/or reserve hotel rooms during the CTR. Often wide-eyed and surprised that a specific rule even exists. Had they bothered to read the rules FAQ, they'd probably be Goody Two Shoes.
  6. Pugilists. Those who are extremely well-versed on rules and ethics, but passionately believe that their approach is "obviously" superior for one obscure reason or another. Pugilists tend to argue incessantly and annoyingly about tedious nuances such as trail magic, cell phones, unplanned sharing, Spot stalking, etc. Only a Pugilist would create a list like this.
  7. Anarchists. Those who hate anyone else's authority, and therefore do pretty much what they want (including breaking rules, following rules, ignoring rules, whatever)--while still declaring that they are part of a race. Although it's not really a race, wink, wink.
  8. Pedants. Those who attempt to shut down debates without contributing anything thoughtful, insightful  or productive, because such discussions "ruin the vibe."
Which are you?

For a Pugilist's unfiltered view of the rules, click here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Kokopelli's Trail GPX Track

I've through-ridden Kokopelli's Trail twice, both times self-supported. The first time took me 24 hours, and the second took 26 hours. Not very fast compared to the fast guys, who do it in 12-16 hours, but still fast enough to have a great, soul-searching adventure. There are very few things to compare to riding a bike in the desert through a full cycle of the sun!

Although Kokopelli's Trail is reasonably well marked, riding it with a GPS significantly simplifies route finding. While churning through the darkness of night after so many hours of riding, there's something very reassuring about looking down at the little line on a GPS, and seeing that you're still on the route. I've literally felt like I was riding in spirals a couple of times!

The last two times that I've ridden Kokopelli's Trail, I've used GPX tracks that I found online. While they worked, they weren't terribly accurate in places, and they lacked waypoints for water and other significant features. So, I sat down last week to clean up my tracks, add waypoints, and to otherwise prep them to post here on my blog.

Please note that I've included the short out-and-back deviation to the Westwater Ranger Station. There's a spigot by the maintenance shed, which is a crucial water source for most self-supported through-riders.

As an added bonus, I've also included a PDF profile of the entire route.

Simply right-click to download the file, unzip, and enjoy. There are two GPX files in the zipped file, one that's a single 7,000-point track (for newer GPS units), and one that's got 10 tracks of 500 points each (for older GPS units). Both files also have a bunch of waypoints.

If you have questions, discover errors, etc., please post a comment below or contact me offline. Thanks!

Disclaimer: This is not an official Kokopelli's Trail track file. I'm posting my personal GPX file simply as an additional planning and research tool for your enjoyment, comparison, etc. It may contain huge errors that send you over treacherous cliffs to your premature death. Use at your own risk. Have fun, and be careful out there!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Lessons from the 2012 Colorado Trail Race

So much can be learned from racing the Colorado Trail Race. It's one of those experiences that changes conceptions about what's possible, both mentally and physically. Some lessons are immediate, while some take longer to process. I wrote a lot about this in 2010 (see here and here), and almost everything that I wrote back then applied to this year as well--especially the part about adaptability. Here are a few additional tidbits that have been rattling around in my head since I finished a couple of weeks ago. Nothing earth-shattering, but here they are:

Vaccination moment
During the four long rides that I’ve done, I have had what I term my “vaccination moment,” when the physical, psychological, and emotional stress truly sink in for real. This year it hit me on the top of Tennessee Pass, at the end of my second day. While I spent months before the race preparing myself for how hard it was going to be, I still found myself overwhelmed with how hard it actually was. There are two possible responses: quit, or keep going. Since I wasn’t about to quit, I kept going. Which is why I call it my vaccination moment: once I survive it, I’m capable of clawing my way to the finish. Overcoming a fresh and visceral encounter with desperation has a way of putting everything into perspective.

Riding position
During the 2010 CTR, my back, neck, and arms often burned so badly that I had to get off my bike and walk down hills. While I did some upper-body workouts over the winter, which likely helped some, I think that biggest difference was the fit of my bike. My previous bike was much racier, with lower bars and a longer stem. My new bike is a little more upright. Not a huge difference in riding position--but a massive difference in all-day comfort.

Eat before sleeping
I actually learned this in 2010, but I needed a little refresher this year. Often during the CTR, I didn’t feel like eating, especially in the first half of the race. During the day, I literally had to choke down food. Often I felt more like barfing than eating. Pulling into camp, the temptation was very strong to simply collapse into the sleeping-bag of oblivion rather than gag down another Powerbar. On one occasion, I neglected to eat before bed, and I woke up feeling truly horrible. Eating a bunch of protein and fat, along with some carbs, before sleeping makes for such a better morning.

Carrying good bivy gear is important
I carry a bivy bag, sleeping bag, pad, and lightweight down jacket. It's not the lightest setup out there, but it provides a crucial degree of safety. At any point in the race, even at 13,000 feet on Coney, I can simply climb into my bag and "stop the clock." Even if I were to crash hard enough to need a rescue, I would be warm and dry until help arrived. While I never faced such a dire situation this year, I did end up waiting for a huge electrical storm to pass before I could safely ride Indian Ridge. Idling at 12,000 feet in the hail, wind, and rain, it sure was nice to climb into my bivy and sleep a bit. Had I not had good bivy gear, I would have needed to either stay warm by riding (and risking electrocution), or faced getting dangerously cold--or possibly bailing from the race to seek shelter. When things go sideways, shelter is life. A warm and dry place to hide is worth every extra pound.

Full-suspension is awesome
In 2010, I rode a 1994 hard-tail Cannondale with a 60mm Headshock. This year, I rode a full-suspension Cannondale RZ 120-1, with a 120mm Lefty. Wow, what a difference. Rather than having to constantly search for a line and wobble my way down technical descents, I was able to just sort of point and roll. So much faster—and way more fun. Safer too.

This year, I rode hotel-free. Not by design, but because I never rolled into a town at the right time of day. Which was pretty cool, since I learned that I didn’t need hotels! Yes, a shower and some fresh sheets would have been nice, but I really enjoyed spending more time in the mountains, rain and all. Plus, I was faster!

Disc brakes are nice
In 2010, a very wet year, I rode with V-brakes. With the wet trail constantly depositing a fresh layer of grit onto my rims on every rotation, I went through six complete sets of brake pads. Just the drop into Silverton burned through a fresh set of XTR Extreme Condition pads! By the end of the race, the sidewalls of my formally-new RhynoLite rims were pretty thin. But this year, my new bike had disc brakes--and one set lasted the entire race.

The satisfaction of self-support
I've written a lot about ultra-racing rules, even having gone so far as to create what I think is a solid set of detailed rules that preserve the balance between racing with as little supported as possible, while still recognizing that carrying supplies for 4-10 days isn't very realistic. This year, I had to put my rules to the test when I cracked a derailleur pulley on the Gold Hills section. Unable to pedal my bike, I had to decide whether to go back to Frisco, or walk and coast to Copper. As I was pondering my decision, a day rider came through and very generously offered me the pulley from his bike. But I stayed committed to my decision to Do. It. Myself., and walked/coasted my bike to Copper. It cost me several hours, but it was damn satisfying to not accept support of any type on the race. That which doesn't kill you, makes you stronger!

Learn how to ride--while riding
I have a public confession to make: I’m not really much of a mountain biker. Unlike most of the other CTR riders, who compete in several mountain-bike races every year in addition to many training rides, I generally get out on the dirt fewer than a dozen times a year. My actual riding is 97% commuting to work on flat bike paths. Which means, of course, that my mountain-biking skills pretty much suck. But I worked hard to develop my skills during the CTR--which actually worked! I was ripping stuff by the end that I would have walked at the start. It is possible to teach old dogs new tricks, even when the dog is dog-tired.

Fitness counts
It’s been said that the CTR is more psychological than physical, which isn’t untrue. But having a strong physical base really helps keep things from unraveling. I was a lot stronger this year, and I was able to ride much faster and confidently with the same effort.

Lightweight bikepacking bags are awesome
This year I abandoned the bright green panniers that I used in 2010 and 2011, and joined the cool kids with a frame bag, seat bag, and handlebar bag. Worked great. More thoughts on panniers versus bags here.

Check all the little details
Since overlooking the smallest detail can result in a DNF, Checking and re-checking gear is an important part of preparing for the CTR. This year, I almost failed because the little tube of glue in my Park patch kit was nearly empty. On the second-to-last day, I set about to patch a flat--only to find that the unopened tube was mostly full of air--with just one little itty bitty drop of glue. Fortunately, it was all that I needed. It’s impossible to check too many things.

KMC chains
In 2010, my 9-speed SRAM chain was toast by the end of the race, with at least 1% stretch. In 2011, I crashed when I broke a SRAM chain on the second day. But this year, my 10-speed KMC chain still had some life at the end, and it never broke. I don’t know what’s different about KMC chains, but I’m a fan.

Thoughts on quitting
In 2010, thoughts of quitting constantly plagued me (more on that here). For whatever reason, similar thoughts never arose this year. Maybe due to having more experience and confidence? Whatever the reason, it sure was nice to have more positive thoughts.

I didn't really do it alone. Thanks to:
My wife, Alix, is the best supported of all. Not only did she give me time to train, but she also dropped me off, picked me up, cheered me on, and vanquished some especially scary socks at the end.
Stefan Griebel, master of doing really fast things in the mountains deserves huge credit for the vision to start the CTR, and for continuing to organize the event. He's also got a healthy degree of patience with one particularly obsessed rider.
The Colorado Trail Foundation made it all possible by maintaining one of the more amazing trails in Colorado.

Friday, August 10, 2012

2012 Colorado Trail Race Gear

Here's my complete 2012 Colorado Trail Race gear list. It looks like a lot, but everything fit nicely. The key is to choose lightweight and/or compact versions of everything. All I carried in my pack was water, rain gear, and a few smallish items like sunscreen, lip balm, maps, etc.

I don't expect to make many changes for the next time that I race the CTR. While I do carry a couple of pounds more gear than some, I also have a higher safety margin--and never needed to consider bailing, even in the worst weather.

The photo below includes enough food to get to Leadville. The front half of the frame bag was empty, as was the gas tank. But I needed the extra space for food for the BV to Silverton stage.

2011 Cannondale RZ 120-1 (26" wheels, 2x10 drivetrain, tubes)
Continental Mountain King II (front) & X-King 2.2 (rear) with ProTection
bottle cage
water bottle
GPS mount

frame bag
handlebar bag
handlebar sling
handlebar dry bag
seat bag
gas tank
feed bag
extra tie-down straps
Spot pouch (on pack shoulder strap)

sleeping bag
bivy bag
pile-lined stuff sack
small ditty bags for gear
stuff sacks for pad, bivy, and bag

bladder (in pack)
Aquamira drops

Clothing (on me)
bike gloves
short-sleeve bike jersey
bike shorts
wool socks
bike shoes
Road ID allergy bracelet
heart-rate monitor strap

Clothing (packed)
rain jacket & hood
rain pants
lightweight pile pullover
down jacket
long underwear bottoms
warm gloves
bike shorts (extra pair)
wool socks (extra pair)

For Toby
A&D ointment
lip balm
contact solution
contact case
glasses case
asthma inhaler
dental floss
wet wipes

small leatherman tool
waterproof pen
3 sheets of waterproof paper
driver's license
cash ($200)
credit card
cell phone
cell phone case
bandanas (2)

GPS (with lanyard)
GPS memory card
bike computer
backup maps, GPX files, etc., on phone
micro compass
maps (with detour cues)
profile (x2)
food cue sheet
calories cue sheet
services cue sheet

handlebar light
tail light
velcro headlamp straps

GPS (2xAA)
headlamp (3XAA)
bar light (2 AA)
Spot (3xAAA)
cell phone x2

Tool Kit
brake pad spacer
chain lube
small grease rag
upholstery needle and thread
duct tape
zip ties
spoke repair kit
tube patch kit
tire boots (2)

Spare Parts
brake pads
derailleur hanger (2)
spare bolts
spare derailler cable (pre-cut)
chainring bolts
seatpost clamp
cleats & bolts
4 quick links
4 extra chain links
spare tube

First Aid Kit
spare contacts
oral thermometer
non-stick gauze pads
athletic tape
band aids
antibiotic cream packs
emergency pain killers

Friday, July 27, 2012

Colorado Trail Race 2012

The Colorado Trail Race starts on July 30, 2012, at 6:00 AM. If you want to learn more about the race, or to follow it in real time, here are some tools: This is the "official" tracking site that will show the locations of all riders. Almost every rider carries a Spot, which transmits his or her location to a satellite, which then sends it to Trackleaders. Please note that sometimes not every tracking message gets through, usually due to heavy tree coverage, failing to reset the Spot, etc. Until the race actually starts, Trackleaders shows some random locations, etc. From time to time, riders will be calling in to report their progress, etc. You can listen here. Cell phone coverage is pretty thin on the CTR, so riders only call in periodically.

Twitter: I'll be sending text messages to Twitter, and you can follow me. I've also set up Twitter to forward tweets to this blog (see block to the right), and to my Facebook page.

Colorado Trail Race website: The "official" CTR site. No live updates, but complete information about the race.

Colorado Trail Foundation: Information about the Colorado Trail. Not race-specific. Note that the CTR doesn't use the same wilderness bypasses that the Foundation recommends; we race a harder route.

Here's a map that I made that shows the route:
Colorado Trail Race profile and map

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ultra-racing Rules

Self-supported ultra-endurance mountain bike racing is losing its soul.

In the 2012 Arizona Trail 300, at least twenty percent of the finishers rode in cars. In the 2011 Colorado Trail Race, at least twenty-five percent of the racers chose to ignore an official National Forest trail closure. In the 2010 Tour Divide, a whole group of racers drafted each other from Banff to Mexico. All of these were clear violations of specific rules--and yet violators often begged for leniency and exceptions. Race organizers were inconsistent with their responses, with the majority refusing to mete out disqualifications or relegations.

Yet those are just a few of the most blatant examples of major rule infractions. There are many other instances of racers dabbling in gray areas. All it takes is a glance through race-report blogs to find examples if riders sharing gear and food. Even “trail magic,” a term once reserved to describe serendipitous moments such as finding an unopened candy bar on a tough climb, is now regularly invoked to justify begging for water and dinner from other trail users. Bystanders have even gotten into the act, handing out goodies to their friends and stashing coolers full of snacks in remote locations.

As the boundaries that define the spirit of ultra-racing are trampled and distorted through ignorance and entitlement, the sport is quickly becoming a free-for-all, where the final results justify the means. One racer even tried to argue that, since ultra-racing isn’t sanctioned, there aren’t really any rules anyway.

But there are rules, and there always have been. When John Stamstad initiated the ultra-racing genre with his pioneering individual time trial of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 1999, he established a simple set of principles, predicated on the concepts of self-sufficiency, self-discipline, and equal-opportunity. Racing utterly alone against the clock, Stamstad rode a defined route exclusively under his own power, and without any sort of support. He ate and resupplied only at commercial establishments, and never bummed goodies from other riders. And in doing so, he brought the essence of other self-supported races such as the Vendee Globe sailboat race to bicycle racing. In other words, he defined, by example, the spirit of ultra-racing. While I don’t personally know Stamstad, this quotation from him says so much: “…angst is quickly replaced with the adrenalin rush of knowing you are facing the trail, the elements, and yourself and nothing else—the world is simplified.”

Those who have followed in Stamstad’s tracks have attempted to recreate his original accomplishments and vision. In so doing, the “first” organized ultra-race, the Divide Race, codified Stamstad’s vision: “The overriding principle is simply do to it yourself. All of the pedaling, pushing, bike wrenching, food buying (and eating…), water filtering, suffering, and all logistical figuring.” Simple enough, it would seem, both in concept and execution.

But the devil is always in the details. While race organizers have tried to keep the rules simple, with the idea that a few basic principles will be properly interpreted to address a myriad of unforeseen situations, more specific directives have often been added for clarification. Indeed, the Tour Divide and Colorado Trail Race have a growing list of rules, and many pages of FAQs, addressing such issues as visitation, cell phone usage, alternative routes, etc.

So, why can more ultra-racers be cutting corners, when the rules are getting more complicated and specific? That's a hard question to answer. My best guess is that, as more people are drawn to the ultra-racing format, incompatible preconceptions are brought with them. For an experienced cross-country racer who’s accustomed to fully-stocked feeding stations, bumming some food from a fellow racer may not seem like a big deal. Further, the competitive landscape changes the picture drastically. While Stamstad always focused on the “adventure,” many racers now focus on winning. It isn’t that Stamstad wasn’t competitive (he was!), but rather that the rules of the event became a huge part of the competition: instead of beating everyone at their game, he made a new game that was stricter and far more committing. The behavior of too many racers today seems to be about bringing the race to their level, rather than pushing themselves to new heights.

Ironically, in order to move ultra-racing forward, we need to look backward. Not to replicate the past, but to recapture the passion that drove the sport to discover new boundaries in the first place. We need to rekindle the adventure of exploration, to put ourselves in uncomfortable positions--to rediscover what it’s like to depend only on our own skill, strength, planning, and independence.

The following is a proposed set of ideas, principles, thoughts, and rules that I believe will re-focus the spirit of ultra-racing so that it can continue to advance. It’s by no means an original work, but rather a fresh compilation of existing ideas. A resurrection perhaps. Nor is complete and comprehensive, but rather something that I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about--and that I intend to keep working on. If nothing else, it will define how I ride and race.

First, some principles:
  1. Self supported racing is just that—self supported. Do. It. Yourself.
  2. Organized events are exactly that: organized. If you join a race, accept the rules. If you're an anarchist, then go do your own thing. 
  3. Don't bring the race down to your level. If you find yourself unable to adhere to a rule, then quit honorably (or self-relegate from the race and start touring). Try again later, when you’re smarter, better, etc. After all, who truly deserves more respect: the guy who quit honorably, or the guy who cheated but kept going?
  4. First, racing is a personal commitment to yourself and to every other rider out there that you will act honorably and with integrity. Secondly, it's to see who can go faster.
  5. It’s OK to set higher standards for yourself, if you think that the race is too soft. Just don’t expect everyone else to follow your lead—although some will.
  6. Ride in a way that doesn't jeopardize someone's ability to follow in your track. For example, don't do things give land managers and/or land owners reason to dislike racers.
  7. A race means that you should try to ride fast and push yourself. If speed is totally unimportant, then tour the route instead.
Some specifics:

Move only under your own power
  1. Don't get in a car or other contraption. Ever. Not even if you return to the same place that you started. It’s a bike race.
  2. No drafting. Push the wind out of the way yourself.
  3. No pacers or cooperative tactics. This isn't a team sport.
  4. No devices devised to specifically capture wind energy.
  5. Areobars, fairings, and other devices and strategies to reduce wind drag are acceptable.
Follow the route (even when/if the route changes)
  1. No shortcuts. Follow the published route. If you miss part of the trail by accident (even a mile!), go back and ride it--or DQ/relegate yourself.
  2. No longcuts. If it’s not the route, it’s not the route.
  3. Missing ten miles, and then adding ten miles elsewhere doesn't count.
  4. If you're going to take credit for a ride, be prepared to provide proof that you rode it (GPS, Spot). Yes, people trust you. But they trust you more with proof.
  5. If the route changes mid-race (fire closure, trail crew closure, road construction, washed-out bridge, etc.), take a legal detour that gets you back on track as soon as possible. Let the organizer decide whether it counted or not.
Ride unsupported
  1. Nobody can bring you anything, anywhere, any time.
  2. Don't beg/buy/steal/swap food, gear, water, advice from other riders, or from bystanders. “Do it yourself” applies to bringing the stuff you need, and the knowledge to use it.
  3. There’s no difference between “inside” and “outside” support. All support is support.
  4. There’s no difference between “unplanned” and “planned” support. All support is support.
  5. Trail magic is unnecessary, and there are too many gray areas. Just keep it clean and decline. Trade words and memories, not Kit Kats.
  6. No caches, drops, etc.
  7. Traditional trail angels are OK, as long as they are available to all other racers and trail users. No race-specific angels. Don't accept food, showers, supplies, or lodging from strangers.
  8. Fix your own bike (unless at a bike shop). If you can’t fix it, then push, pull, or drag it to a bike shop.
  9. No mailing stuff ahead to anything other than an official post office. Once you are racing, nobody can mail you anything--although bike shops can order replacement parts if necessary to repair your bike.
You can’t ban bystanders, fans, etc.
  1. If someone wants to meet you on the route, fine. You can’t control where other people are allowed to go. But don't encourage them, and remind them that you are supposed to be doing it yourself.
  2. Bystanders can’t assist you in any way whatsoever, so you must refuse their offers of water, food, parts, and other supplies.
It’s OK to buy stuff in towns, and at commercial establishments
  1. Don't call ahead for services, hotel reservations, etc.
  2. OK to buy food and supplies.
  3. Eating in restaurants is fine. No trailside deliveries though, so don't call Dominos.
  4. Having your bike fixed in town is fine.
  5. Sleeping in hotels is fine, although camping is better style.
  6. It’s OK to trade stuff in towns with other riders to avoid waste--but only if exactly the same stuff can be acquired in that same town.
Pre-race planning is good
  1. Before the race starts, it's OK to read trip reports, borrow gear lists, create cue sheets, analyze GPX data, swap strategy secrets, etc.
  2. Once the race starts, you're on your own.
Casual information-exchange acceptable, up to a point
  1. If you’re riding an organized race with other riders, it’s OK to casually chat about the route and trade experiences--but mostly because it’s probably impossible to avoid it.
  2. Following tire tracks is fine--just be aware that they might go off-route, leading to a disqualification. 
  3. No "team" navigation. If you don't know where you’re going, read your own maps, GPS, etc.
  4. No "team" tactics. While riding with someone who matches your speed is acceptable, it's not OK to form a team (either before or during the race) that cooperatively shares tactics, strategies, etc.
Gadgets are fine
  1. This isn't the Tour de France--don't call friends or family for race-related information or advice.
  2. Taking and making phone calls (or e-mail) is fine, as long the purpose is not to arrange for support, locate other racers, or otherwise seek a strategic advantage. In other words, it’s OK to talk to your boss or tell your kid at bedtime that you love him, or even tell your spouse that you saw a moose. 
  3. Don't log into,, or other race-tracking sites. Not in towns or with smartphones. Need to find out who’s in front of you? Ride faster! Worried about someone catching you? Ride faster!
Don't break the law
  1. If racers break the law, races get banned. We are often racing below the radar, and the minute we give land-use agencies reason to stress, they will shut us down. It’s already happened once, and the Kokopelli Trail Race was shut down for good.
  2. Follow all NFS, BLM and other land-use agency’s regulations, restrictions, rules, laws, etc.
  3. Obey trail closures, re-routes, etc. If the route changes mid-race (fire closure, trail crew closure, flood, etc.), take a detour that gets you back on track as soon as possible—with missing as little of the original as possible.
Respect the trail and other users
  1. It's not a closed course. This isn’t the 24-Hours of Awesomeness. You are not any better than any other trail user, so respect the trail and other users.
  2. Yield to uphill riders, horses, hikers, and other non-motorized users.
  3. If you come across trash that you can easily carry, pick it up and earn style points.
  4. Don't cut switchbacks, lock up the back wheel, etc. Trails are delicate, and racing doesn’t give you a license to trash them.
  5. Close gates, if they are closed. Leave them open if they are open.
  6. Don't hog resources that other trail users need. For example, don't sleep in outhouses unless you're truly in danger of freezing to death (yes, someone may actually need to use it for its intended purpose).
Follow leave-no-trace principles
  1. No littering or abandoning gear. If you don’t need something, throw it in a trash can. If there’s no trash can, ride until you find one.
  2. Poop in a hole. Racer-crap is nasty, so bury it properly.
  3. Respect wildlife and livestock. They don’t care that you’re an epic racer; they were there first.
Don’t take performance-enhancing drugs
  1. Race on your own merits, not the merits of a pharmaceutical company’s latest concoction.
Don't risk a life (yours or someone else's).
  1. Don't become someone else's liability--plan for adversity, and self-rescue when possible.
  2. Help anyone who might need it. Golden rule, right?
Don't be a jerk
  1. Be kind to other racers, hikers, equestrians, etc. If people hate us, we’ll get banned from public trails.
  2. It won’t disqualify you to give other racers something (food, gear, etc.) But it’ll disqualify them if they accept it.
  3. Don't intentionally mislead other racers (navigation, resupply, etc.)
If you can't ride it now without breaking the rules, figure out what needs changing and try again
  1. Be honorable and accept personal responsibility for your actions and decisions.
  2. If you break the rules, disqualify yourself--don't wait or ask someone to do it for you.
  3. If you break a rule, it OK to finish the course. Just disqualify yourself first.
  4. A disqualification or relegation isn't that big of a deal in the grand scope of things, so take it like a grown-up. Just think of how good it’ll feel when you try again and succeed!
Support the route
  1. Trails don't build and maintain themselves. Support whatever organization(s) maintains the trail that you're racing by sending them some money, volunteering for some trail work, etc. OK, this isn't really a rule--but it's good karma!

OK, that’s a whole lot of stuff. Based on previous rules discussions, I’ve probably pissed some people off, and inspired others. It is worth noting that MOST people still race with great ethics--but that more and more people aren't. Please feel free to add constructive comments below.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Colorado Trail Race: GPS/GPX Tracks and Waypoints

Edit: July 17, 2018: This is the same track as last year. No changes required for the 2018 race!

Click here for the official Colorado Trail Race website.

With Jerry Brown's generous permission (Bear Creek Survey), I have added his waypoints to my GPX file. These waypoints are the same that ones that are used in the Colorado Trail Data Book (6th Edition), and the Official Colorado Trail Guidebook (10th Edition), which makes finding water, etc. far easier. Please note that the waypoints from Jerry Brown's file are coded to make them shorter and easier to read. For the key, please buy a copy of the Colorado Trail Data Book (6th Edition)--not only will you have a amazing on-trail guidebook, but you'll also be supporting the great folks who make the Colorado Trail possible. Last, but not least, visit Jerry's page at, and click his "donate" button to buy him a beer or six. Thanks! 

Simply right-click to download the file, unzip, and enjoy.

Download Toby's 2017 CTR Track.

Note: This version also includes a GPX file for the optional Leadville bypass.

If you have questions, discover any errors, etc., please post a comment below or contact me offline. Thanks!

Disclaimer: I'm posting my personal CTR GPX file simply as an additional planning and research tool for your enjoyment, comparison, etc. It may contain huge errors that send you over treacherous cliffs to your premature death. Use at your own risk. Have fun, and be careful out there!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Gas or GU?

Does it cost more to commute to work by car, or by bike?

Seems like the answer would be rather obvious. Gas is expensive and cars are inefficient and heavy--while bikes are cheap, light, and efficient. Surely, then, riding a bike much be cheaper!

But fancy energy foods like GU and Powerbars aren't cheap. One packet of GU (100 calories) costs about $1.35 at REI. How many GU packets do I need to pedal my bike to work?

Time for a spreadsheet. According to my Garmin bike computer, I burn about 1700 calories on my 34-mile ride to and from work (I ride fast, since I'm training for the CTR). That translates into 17 GU packets, for a total cost of $22.95.Yikes!

OK, but what about driving. Between my Honda Element and Honda Fit, I get about 28 miles/gallon. Therefore, I burn about 1.2 gallons of gas getting to work and back. At today's gas prices, that's about $3.95.

So, it looks like riding is WAY more expensive than driving. Even adding in the cost of wear and tear on the car, maintenance, etc., I'd have a hard time stretching $3.95 anywhere close to $22.95.

But I don't eat GU packets for breakfast--or for lunch. How about if I power my bike commute with Cheerios and skim milk (the breakfast of Cat 6 champions)? That comes out to $3.62. Much better!

Lots of college students ride their bikes to work, and they're not exactly flush with money to buy GU. When I was in college, I ate a lot of Ramen noodles. My spreadsheet reports that commuting on Ramen only costs 76 cents. Yeah, WAY cheaper than driving! Maybe I should eat more Ramen.

Now that I've got my nifty spreadsheet, I'm going to plug in some more foods. Steaks, pinto beans, etc...