Thursday, January 27, 2011

Kokopelli Trail Race?

A few years ago, I came across a thread about the Kokopelli Trail Race (KTR), a 148-mile self-supported mountain bike race along the entire length of the Kokopelli Trail. Unfortunately, I discovered that it had been shut down by the BLM because the racers didn’t get approval and a permit. This was obviously very contentious, in large part because the race wasn’t a conventionally-organized race with sponsors, entry fees, etc. It was really nothing more than a group (ok, a group of 50 or so) of riders who just put a date on the calendar and headed out for a competitive ride. Apparently the BLM was unable or unwilling to distinguish between a commercial event and a small informal “disorganized” race, and at least one ticket was handed out. Since then, the “race” has taken place in one form or another, often by solo riders reporting ITT times. There have been some small groups out there as well, but only those in the know have been able to participate.

In October of 2009, I contacted the BLM about a running a legal KTR. Turns out that the requirements were relatively limited and seemingly easy to address. In a nutshell, the BLM needed a little paperwork (which requires several months of lead time), an insurance policy (surprisingly cheap), and a relatively minor detour around a few miles of trail outside of Fruita (mostly to facilitate parking at a more "hardened" area). I estimated that everything could be covered by about $30/rider, although I have forgotten the exact amount. The BLM guy that I spoke to seemed sincerely excited and supportive of the idea, and offered to personally help expedite paperwork, etc.

I didn’t proceed beyond the initial inquiry though, for a number of reasons. One was that many Kokopelli Trail Race veterans didn’t want to draw attention to the event, out of reasonable fear that the BLM would hide in the bushes and hand out tickets again. The other was it seemed stupid to essentially commercialize the KTR just to fulfill the BLM’s expectations of what constituted an allowable race—after all, one of the joys of the current ultra-racing ethos is the utter lack of glitz, glamor, money, and corporate meddling. Lastly, I caught a lot flack on for opening what turned out to be a volatile can of worms.

In hindsight, I think that a lot of the vitriol expressed on is fairly reflective of the tensions that exist between land-use agencies and land users in general. Every member of the public feels that their use of public lands should be allowed because they are the "public." Miners, ranchers, hunters, hikers, birders, ATVers, mountain bikers, river runners, etc. all want to do their thing without any regulations or unwelcome intrusions from other users, and they get pretty bent when they are told that they can't. On the other side, those who manage public lands are under continual attack from pretty much every side, and it gets especially heated when one type of land use interferes with another. They end up circling the wagons and hiding behind their desks, which I think is pretty understandable (if annoying) considering the circumstances. In practical terms, this means that they generally fall back on the legal regulations that have been hammered out after years of turmoil. In the case of the KTR (in its current low-profile, DIY style), the event simply doesn't fit the regulations very well--so the BLM didn’t know what to do with it, therefore they stick it into the best-fitting basket that seems relevant. In this case, that means treating it like a commercial race, which is an imperfect fit. Then, of course, people get angry because they feel (not without just cause) that the rules are clumsy, stupid, and capricious--and everyone gets testy until the cows come home.

Despite the acrimony, my interest in the KTR hasn’t waned. This year, I’m planning on through-riding the route in one shot with a couple of friends. We’re definitely not racing, rather just seeing what it’s like to ride for 148 miles without stopping. Although two of us completed the Colorado Trail Race last year, all of us are still pretty much newbies who are just looking for a demanding adventure.

If I successfully complete the ride, I suspect that the desire to race it will be just that much stronger. So, the question is, should I attempt to work with the BLM to start a “legitimate” KTR in 2012? Would I just face a huge time-suck and a mountain of grief? Or would it be possible to hold an event that retains the DIY spirit of ultra-racing, while enabling a bunch of riders to enjoyably race the KTR without being chased through the desert at midnight by BLM staffers?

I really don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but that’s why I’m posting it on my blog. I’m eager to hear what people have to say—although I would sincerely appreciate it if people tried to maintain a civil tone.


  1. I vote for working with the BLM and making a race, only if in small part because I'm still skeptical. Have you talked with both Utah and CO BLM? What insurance did they ask for and were any other stipulations required? Is a midnight start still possible? Still can be run as self supported event?

  2. Hi Chris, great questions! I only spoke with the Colorado BLM, but they explicitly offered to help me work with Utah. Insurance is a basic event insurance that is designed to shield the BLM for lawsuits in case someone crashes, gets lost, etc. I didn't ask about a specific start time, but they were OK with having people ride through the night. They didn't have a problem with self-support, although the insurance policy may require a sweeper to make sure that everyone actually returns alive.

    Great questions, thanks. I'll add the unanswered ones to my list should I decide to fully reignite this effort.

  3. To Be Blunt - The hell with the government. As long as it's considered a non-sanctioned event (like the CTR) and kept on the down-low I say we pick a date and just all start at the same time without telling them anything about it. The Pint to Pint race from Lakewood to Golden is done this way and everyone loves it. Part of bikepacking and adventure racing in this form is you know your on your own and it's up to you to take the risks involved. Let's ride!! Heck if anyone will be getting a ticket it will be me since I will be the slowest and last in line.

  4. Andy, I can't disagree with you completely. But I really don't want to pay the fines and court costs--which I've heard were significant. I really think the best solution would be for the BLM to understand and respect the distinction between a big commercial event and a small group of informal racers. But I don't thin that's a very likely outcome...

  5. During Pint to Pint we had people on the trail that we assumed were rangers asking us a lot of questions about the riders and if it was a race. Everyone just understood that the answers back to these guys were "they weren't sure why so many bikers were on the trail that day and they didn't know anything about a race going on". That would take care of it pretty easy.