Wednesday, November 17, 2010
In preparation for the Colorado Trail Race in 2010, I spent months tweaking my gear list. I didn't want to carry a lot of extra stuff, but I also didn't want to end up leaving behind something important. While I've had a decent amount of experience with selecting gear for backpacking and mountaineering, the requirements for ultra-light bikepacking are somewhat different.
There are a number of great resources on the web that helped immensely. Some generous riders have posted their gear lists, which provided an excellent starting point. There are also some superb ultra-light backpacking sites that have good ideas for saving weight, many of which are applicable to bikepacking. Probably the best site on the web is www.bikepacking.net.
My final list ended up being pretty extensive, and therefore a little heavy. But I decided that I'd rather risk carrying too much than too little, especially in light of my relative inexperience.
Probably the most "contrary" equipment choice that I made was to ride with panniers. Very few racers use panniers anymore, instead choosing to use seat bags, frame bags, handlebar slings, and lightweight backpacks. But I didn't want to carry much more than water on my back, and most racers seem to carry pretty large packs because it's difficult to fit everything on a bike. On the plus side, panniers are incredibly flexible and easy to load/unload. On the downside, they tended to whack my legs when walking--and they weigh a couple of extra pounds. I was worried that they would stick out and hit trees, etc., but that was never a problem. Some people also warned me that panniers would unbalance my bike, but I honestly didn't notice them much. See this post for more thoughts on panniers.
For my next CTR attempt in 2011, I'll be re-thinking my entire kit, including whether to use panniers again. I now have a much better idea of what gear I really didn't need, so I'll easily drop a few pounds. With luck, next year will be drier, and I won't feel compelled to add a bunch of extra warm clothing at the last moment like I did for 2010!
Here's my CTR 2010 gear list. While overkill, I did manage to finish the race--and I never worried about being cold or being unprepared. I'll post my 2011 list when I get it sorted out.
fingerless bike gloves
bike shorts (2 pairs)
short-sleeve bike jersey (2)
heavy-weight long-sleeve bike jersey
mid-weight fleece pullover
rain jacket & hood
wool socks (two pairs)
extra contact lenses
small bottle of alcohol
toothbrush & toothpaste
GPS (Vista HCx)
batteries for all gadgets (GPS, headlamp, HRM, camera)
Velcro headlamp straps
cell phone & batteries
cell phone box
hear-rate monitor strap
bike lights (front and back)
small leatherman tool
TP & shovel
big Ziploc bags
small Ziploc bags
Aquamira water purification drops
7,000 to 5,000 calories/day
random extra bolts
3 extra chain links & quick links
derailleur hanger (2)
brake pads (6 sets)
spare tube (2)
tube patch kit
cleats & bolts
extra pannier clip
spare derailleur cable
needle and thread
Thermarest patch kit
If anyone has any specific questions about brands, models, etc., please feel to post questions in the comments section.
Friday, November 5, 2010
Going into the CTR (see this post), I gave myself 50% odds of completing it successfully, which is about the historic percentage of riders who have succeeded. There are many things that can lead to unqualified failure, such as a bike-destroying crash or broken bones. But many people have quit the CTR in past years for less obvious reasons. In the months leading up to the race, I put a lot of thought into my reasons for attempting it, in hopes that such clarity would help motivate me when faced with the seemingly inevitable desire to bail that so many riders seem to experience.
In the end, I didn’t quit. But I did think about it a number of times, and in different ways. Some were fairly obvious, while others walloped me out of left field. Being the analytical geek that I am, I decided to write down the experiences, including what happened and how I overcame them. As I learn more about racing, I’m sure that I’ll be learning more about the psychology of quitting, but here are my initial thoughts.
Expected reason for quitting #1: This race is too hard for me
Before the race, I was concerned that I would I discover somewhere along the ride that I wasn’t strong enough to make it to Durango. I imagined that such a realization would hit me on one of the grueling climbs, when I was most exhausted. There I’d be: Nothing but a weeping lactic-acid stain on the trail discovered by some amused hiker.
Oddly, this never happened. The day that I climbed over the Ten Mile range was, as I wrote in my log, “soul crushing.” Yet I never considered bailing then—or during any of the other hard spots. The physical struggles always seemed to give me purpose, and to enhance my motivation. Several times, it helped to recall my wife's parting words: "You're a bad-ass, and you can do this." Bad-ass or not, it helped to have someone else believing in me!
I also need to give credit to David Goldberg, an accomplished ultra-distance athlete, for helping me avoid this one. A couple of days before the race, Dave told me, with the greatest intensity and seriousness, to eat all the time. I did, and I never bonked once. I also wore a heart-rate monitor, and kept my heart rate at a manageable level throughout the race.
Expected reason for quitting #2: I’m not having any fun
I’ve read about this one in many ultra-racing blogs. Often relatively early in long races, some people just quit, seemingly without any significant reasons. They often stated that they weren't having any fun, and that the whole endeavor seemed rather pointless and stupid.
This one was the most insidious of all, largely because it’s very logical and rational. It first hit me as I was riding though the Coney/Cataract section, which is a stunningly beautiful part of Colorado. The massively ragged San Juan peaks are surrounded by delicate tundra and crisscrossed by burbling mountain streams. The sun was out, and I was warm and toasty—and I started thinking about how much fun it would be to share such a special place with my wife and son. Rushing through such beauty, often alone and sometimes in the dark, for so many days on end, suddenly seeming idiotic and selfish. Wouldn’t it be more fun to take the time to smell the proverbial roses and share the experience with those who I most love? It’s a fair question, and it led me down a dangerous path: If this isn’t fun anymore, and I’m supposed to be having fun, then maybe I should quit and go backpacking with my family.
I fought this one off by reminding myself that the CTR was mostly fun—but that over the course of a week, there will undoubtedly be times when something else would be more fun. Rather than dwell on the moment, it became important to look at the complete experience and to acknowledge that my family would still be there when I finished the CTR, and that we could enjoy the mountains together when I returned. Indeed, the struggle through Cataract motivated me to take an early-fall trip to Canyonlands National Park with my family.
Expected reason for quitting #3: My body is falling apart
There’s no doubt that the CTR took a toll on my body. By day six, little cuts on my hands and feet started getting infected. My left heel was starting to really hurt on hike-a-bike sections. My throat and tongue were so raw that it hurt to swallow and eat. Especially on descents, my neck and back cramped and burned. And my butt—well, my butt hurt in so many ways that I don’t want to talk about it! It was pretty clear that my body couldn’t go on forever.
I didn’t overcome this one lightly. Instead, I sat down and took stock of all my physical issues. I figured that nothing was presenting an immediate threat to my health or ability to keep moving, but that the infections might develop into something more serious if I didn’t sort them out soon. So I took some extra time in Silverton to grab a hot & soapy shower—and then to rip open every infection, scrub it out with soap and alcohol, and then pack it with antibiotic ointment. I also stopped in a Laundromat and washed my clothes with bleach. Fortunately, this seemed to work. In short, I had to remind myself that unless I was in danger of death of permanent injury, there was no reason to stop. Taking time every day to evaluate and/or treat emerging ailments helped me determine what needed attention, and what could be safely ignored.
Unexpected reason for quitting #1: What if I quit?
This one seemed to rear its little head more often than I ever imagined. It was never terribly serious, but it was incredibly irritating. Every hour or so, regardless of whether I was flying down some fantastic singletrack or slogging through mud in the rain, a little voice would ask, “What if I quit?” The answer was usually, “What the hell for? Everything is fine. Go away.” And it would go away—until it popped back up again just down the trail, for absolutely no reason.
I’m still not sure how to completely resolve this one. It’s like playing whack-a-mole: I just kept whacking away and focusing on something else.
Unexpected Reason for Quitting #2: Laziness
On about day three, I found myself lying in a warm aspen grove, eating a bagel with Nutella, and thinking that I didn’t want to get back on my bike. Nothing hurt and I wasn’t having an existential crisis. I wasn’t even really thinking or feeling much. I was simply zoned out and extremely comfortable and unmotivated. While it’s kind of amusing to imagine being overwhelmed with pure laziness in the middle of a bike race, that’s what happened.
Fortunately, my inertia was overcome when another rider caught up to me. We chatted for a bit, and with his encouragement I begrudgingly got back on my bike—and wobbled along for a good hour before the fog lifted and my motivation returned. (Thanks Andy Farish!) I was hit by similar episodes of laziness several times in the race, and they always evaporated once I started rolling again. The trick was to not worry about it or get worked up, just to start moving before I started to sprout roots.
I expect that next year’s race(s) will reveal more on this topic, as different races and different objectives will reveal different pressures. But at least I can add some “unexpected” reasons for wanting to quit to the “expected” column—and thereby have better plans for dealing with them. Hopefully I'll never quit a race for a reason that I later regret!
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The truth is that some of the riders are indeed mutants! Riding the CTR in 4-5 days is an incredible feat of physical and psychological endurance. But, after finishing the CTR myself, the truth is that almost anyone who takes the time to develop a few strengths and abilities can complete the race in about a week. It’s a difficult and committing experience, but it is within reach of most mortals.
While finished quickly requires more talent, training, and planning, here’s what I think that it takes to finish in 7-9 days:
- Good aerobic capacity. Riding (and sometimes walking) a fully-loaded mountain bike 60-80 miles per day, often above 10,000-11,000 feet in elevation, is going to raise your heart rate. The race isn’t a sprint though, but more of an all-day slog. Most of my training was road-bike commuting, and I averaged about 19-21 MPH over 34 miles (with panniers) on training rides. I also ran a fair bit, and averaged 7:20-minute miles for 4-8 miles on my runs. I trained 3-6 days a week for about a year. With limited time for training, I included a lot of intervals (fartleks mostly) into my workouts.
- Good high-altitude genes. I live at about 5,000 feet, and I didn’t spend any time acclimating to the higher altitudes of the CTR. Fortunately, I’ve always been strong when the air gets thin—and I’ve never been altitude sick. If your genes aren’t great, a little acclimation goes a long way!
- Good mechanical skills. If your bike breaks, you’ll need to fix it. While there are bikes shops in Leadville and Buena Vista for major repairs, you’ll need to be able to get there first. Knowing how to replace broken brake & derailleur cables, replace spokes, etc. will keep you rolling. Rolling is much faster than walking. I completely re-built my bike before the race (except the Headshock), which helped me familiarize myself with how everything worked and which repair tools and parts I should pack. As an added benefit, I like to think that one reason that I didn’t have any mechanical issues was because I prepped my bike myself.
- Good mountain-living skills. Experience with long-distance backpacking and/or overnight mountaineering is very useful. You’ll need to be comfortable slogging all day through the rain, sleeping in a bivy bag or micro tent, and then doing it again every night for a week.
- Decent navigational skills. While the Colorado Trail is generally well marked, it is crisscrossed with a bewildering network of trails and roads. In some places, such as Coney’s, there isn’t much of a trail at all—and riding it in the dark would be nearly impossible without a GPS. Getting lost is bad. You’ll need to be able to use a GPS (including loading waypoints and tracks), read a map, and follow rough and obscure trails.
- Reasonable bike handling skills. Much of the ride is extremely technical, with miles of rock gardens, talus, steep climbs and descents, muddy singletrack, scary side-cut trails, etc. But if you don’t mind being slow, you can walk the sketchy parts—which is what I did. Hopefully I’ll be able ride more next year (especially if I get a new full-suspension bike).
- A durable bike. I rode the CTR on a 1994 Cannondale Delta V 700. It did have some major upgrades such as new wheels and brakes, but it’s certainly a far cry from today’s carbon fiber full-suspension trail-eating machines. But my bike was tough and able to take a beating for 500 miles without falling apart.
- Proper lightweight gear. I’ll post my gear list in a bit (and you can find several other CTR gear lists on the web). After function, the overriding considerations are weight and bulk. Every extra pound really adds up when you’re powering your bike up 10,000+ vertical feet per day. Of course, the lighter the gear, the lighter your wallet. When asked how much his gear weighed, one CTR rider responded with, “I stopped weighing it once I couldn’t afford to buy anything more!”
- Perseverance. Assuming that your frame doesn’t break (and maybe even if it does!), the most important characteristic that you’ll need to finish the CTR is perseverance. The CTR will beat you down, and you’ve got to have enough bull-headed stubbornness to deal with the adversities on the trail and press ahead. You will want to quit, and your brain will start providing all sorts of reasonable justifications (see this post)—but with enough psychological strength you can stay positive and keep moving. See my previous blog post on this topic for more thoughts on this.
- Good luck. Good planning can help reduce the odds that some bad luck will knock you out of the race (for example, enough warm clothes will help if you have some unlucky weather), but sometimes fate will win in the end. I’m not terribly superstitious, so I simply tried to plan for bad luck, and then cheered any good luck that came along.
- A supportive partner (if you’re attached). Training, planning, preparing, executing, and recovering will be an all-consuming affair for months. My wife was (and still is!) incredibly supportive and understanding, which was helpful beyond words.
- Good character. One rider was disqualified from the CTR this year. The first time that this has ever happened. Among other things, he hitchhiked around a tough section of the route. People like that shouldn’t even bother to show up.
Friday, August 20, 2010
- Stay safe, focus on not crashing or breaking gear.
- Eat and drink lots and often. Forward motion requires calories, so keep them coming--even when wanting to barf more than eat.
- Don’t get emotional when things don’t align with expectations—just adapt and move on.
- Listen to my body, and try to figure out what it needs and what it doesn’t.
- Maintain some forward motion, even when “resting”—even if that means just walking.
- Deal with small issues before they become big issues (blisters, getting cold, mechanical problems, etc.)
- Don’t get overwhelmed by the many small pains and maladies like blisters, saddle sores, swollen hand & feet, tired legs, multiple infections on hands & feet, trashed shins, etc.
- Don’t get scared about things that I’m prepared for, like snow, hail, etc.—even if it looks like crap.
- Believe in myself, and embrace the encouragement of others. Right before I started riding, Alix (my wife) told me that I could do it because I was a "bad-ass." Amazing how much her words helped at times!
- Ignore the negativity of others. That includes naysayers beforehand and anyone whining on the trail.
- Have a good time, and focus on all of the positive things about riding a bike through 485 miles of one of the more beautiful places in the world.
I'm not planning on changing much for next year, although I hope to ride two days faster. I will train harder, especially my upper body. I will carry a little less gear, and I'd like to have a better bike with full suspension. Knowing the route and having a better idea of what can be ridden quickly and what can't, where to get water, how much food to carry, etc. will help a lot.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
- Colorado's mountains are incredibly beautiful. Spending a week in the alpine wilderness, amidst wildflowers, pikas, and granite is good for my soul.
- Adventures are good. It sounds kind of silly to say it, but I wouldn't be attempting this ride if I knew that I could do it. It's good to try things with uncertain outcomes. If I fail this year, I can always try again next year.
- I like physical work. Yes, churning up a 13,000-foot mountain pass on a bike does hurt. But it also feels good. Our bodies weren't designed to sit on the couch all day, right?
- Escaping the confines of civilization, if only for a few days, is good. No rat race. No stop lights, McDonald's, or billboards. Just a bike and a trail.
Yes, there's more to it. But this is a start.
The Colorado Trail Race is extremely challenging. To finish in seven days, I'll need to ride about 70 miles a day--most of it on steep and rocky trails. Some sections are too steep and/or rough to ride either up or down, so walking is required. An average of 10,000 feet of vertical climbing (and 10,000 descending), every day. Climbing up passes as high as 13,000 feet, I'm likely to see snow, hail, rain, and freezing temperatures. Broken bikes, injuries, exhaustion, and fear are pretty good reasons for quitting.
There is no "outside" support. I'll mostly sleep on the ground in a bivy sack (although the route does pass through a few towns, and hotels are allowed). I'll carry all of the clothing, navigational equipment, camping gear, spare parts, food, etc. that I'll need for the race. I will re-supply in small towns along the way, but nobody is allowed to meet me along the way and give me stuff--and I'm not allowed place caches beforehand.
There is no race organization, or race support. Absolutely no aid stations or sag wagons. I'm on my own--if I get lost, hurt, cold, or hungry, I need to sort it out myself. In cases of dire emergency, I can use my Spot beacon to call 911. Hopefully I won't need to use it.
This year there are 40 racers. A few are truly racing for a win. Most of us are just out there hoping to ride long and hard, racing against ourselves as much as each other. If the past is a fair indicator, at least half of the riders who line up to start won't finish.
Trackleaders.com: This is the "official" tracking site that will show the locations of all riders.
MTBCast.com: From time to time, riders will be calling in to report their progress, etc. You can listen here.
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.
Spot: I'm carrying a Spot locator beacon, and my personal page will show my location. Kind of like trackleaders.com, but only my track.
Colorado Trail Race website: The "official" CTR site. Probably not any 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.
It's pretty steep in spots, climbing to over 13,000 feet. Lots of passes over 11,000! I'll be climbing (and then descending) over 60,000 feet in total. Here's a profile:
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Here's some information on the Colorado Trail: http://www.coloradotrail.org/