Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Can anyone ride the Colorado Trail Race?

When people first hear about the Colorado Trail Race, they often assume that the racers must be mutant super humans. At least that was my first thought after reading about it. After all, who can ride almost 500 miles and climb almost 70,000 feet in a week?

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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!”
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
So, there you have it. If you’re up for a personal challenge, and you’ve got time to train, plan, and prepare, then go for it!


  1. Andy Farish (Sanjuanrider)September 8, 2010 at 7:31 PM

    Great write up Toby! Thanks for posting this and sharing your thoughts. I especially like #12. I can see you are prepping for next year.

  2. Thanks Andy. Yep, I'm already training for next year. I'm obsessed...