Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kokopelli Success!

Seventeen years ago, when my wife and I lived in Grand Junction, I never would have imagined that people would someday ride Kokopelli’s Trail in a single push. Fast forward to today, and people are regularly doing exactly that—with a few super-humans finishing the entire 140 miles and 15,000 vertical feet in less than thirteen hours.

Inspired by the fast guys, I decided to give Kokopelli’s Trail a go last weekend, May 21st. Based on my performance on the Colorado Trail in 2011 (where I rode about half the speed of the fastest guys), I figured that I could through-ride Koko in about 24 hours.

Andy Farish, who I met on the CTR last year, and Peter Scholz, another aspiring ultra rider from Fort Collins joined me for the start. Andy and Peter decided to carry minimal bivy gear to catch some sleep along the way, but I hoped to ride straight through so I only carried enough stuff to stay warm and dry.

After catching a shuttle with Coyote Shuttle (good guys, highly recommended!) from Loma to the Slickrock trailhead in Moab, we started riding at 11:15 AM. While most racers generally start at night, we figured that it would be nice to ride through the chilly La Sals in the daytime warmth, and then hit the lower desert at night to avoid the heat.

I climbed reasonably quickly up Sand Flats Road, while carefully watching my heart rate. With so much excitement that I was finally on the trail, it was hard to hold back—especially when so much of my training these days is focused on high-intensity intervals. But going fast for twenty miles wasn’t going to help me survive the next hundred, so every time my heart rate climbed into the red zone, I reluctantly throttled back a notch. The snowy-bright La Sals, rising out of the red desert into the blue sky, kept me smiling all way to the up.

The last little stretch before hitting the Mountain Loop Road was a bentonite nightmare. Although there had been a lot of rain leading up to the weekend, most of the trail had dried out reasonably well—except for this one short section. My bike quickly became encased in the most amazing sticky clay. It was like dirty peanut butter. Thanks to my Cannondale Lefty, my front wheel would roll even when encased in clay. But the back wheel just skidded uselessly along as I pushed, pulled, and carried my bike to the top. Fortunately, the mucky stretch wasn’t too long, and I found a nice big puddle where I spent a good twenty minutes cleaning up the mess. The remaining glop spun off my wheel in the screaming downhill.

The next big climb up Castleton Road was easier than I anticipated. Riding pavement can often be a bit boring on a mountain bike, but the view made the time go by quickly. Before I knew it, I was at my first water stop, Fischer Creek. I refilled my 100oz hydration bladder and two water bottles, and enjoyed a bit to eat while the Aqua Mira drops did their work.

The decent down to Fisher Valley was an absolute blast, which helped put me in a good mindset for the arduous climb back up to Sevemile Mesa. On some of the rough climbs, the amount of tire rubber that 4-wheelers have scraped off is astonishing. It must take those guys hours to move a hundred yards!

After putting on my headlamp and trading out the lenses in my sunglasses, I enjoyed the last bit of daylight as I zipped from Cottonwood Canyon to Dewey. The GPS track that I was following headed out across the void that used to be the Dewey Bridge, but I regained the path after crossing the river on the new highway bridge. Maybe someday there will be money to rebuild the old Dewey suspension bridge; I hope so.

One of the reasons that most people who race Kokopelli’s choose to start at night became readily apparent: for maximum speed, it makes a lot more sense to ride the smooth slow climbs and roads at night, and then to get some daylight for the jeep roads that come later. With only my not-so-bright lights, it was hard to find the clean and fast lines that would have been very obvious during the day. Having more nighttime riding experience would have obviously helped too.

As the disorientation of darkness, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation settled in, and I tried to turn on my autopilot and focus on simply riding. But it was a struggle to keep going. Robbed of the visual beauty of the desert, I felt like I was wobbling around in ever-tightening spirals in my little pool of light, dirt, and churning legs. At one point, I turned off my lights and looked toward the stars—which were as thick and bright as I remember them as a child. Time became so distorted that I sometimes thought that 20 minutes must have passed, but when I looked at my GPS I had only traveled a tenth of a mile.

Later, as I stopped to unwrap a Powerbar, I noticed a pair of electric blue spots looking back at me. My first thought was that they came from a small mammal, perhaps a mouse, as their eyes often return flashes of light from a headlamp. But as I crept up, I discovered that it was a spider, its eyes like little blue LEDs. For the rest of the night, I saw dozens, perhaps hundreds, of them along the trail--sometimes popping out of the darkness like little sparks, sometimes glaring at me as I skipped toward them through the gravel and dust. How can such little eyes reflect so much light?

Between the spiders and the stars, I finally found the beauty and mystery necessary to lift me out of my funk. My nose picked up the unfamiliar scents of the desert, some bright and fresh like the odor of unseen springs, and some sulfurous and fierce like scorched minerals.

At about 3:00 in the morning, I found myself at the junction to the Westwater Ranger Station, my second and final water stop. I had read that there was a spigot there, which would save me the trouble of dealing with silty water from the Colorado River. Although it was a perfectly legitimate and legal source of water, I felt like a thief skulking through the sleeping compound in search of a forbidden elixir.

Most of what remains of the night is crumbling memories of fighting sleep. Rubbing salt crystals from my cheeks. Watching the little black line on my GPS. The constant mental reminders to eat and drink. The cries of rebellion from my stomach. The inability to divide 142 miles by anything, in vain attempts to calculate my time and distance. Little blue eyes. A yellow moon rising late and illuminating little.

At dawn, I found myself riding down toward Rabbit Valley. At the awkward hour when the sun isn’t yet bright enough to fully illuminate the trail, but my headlamp seems too dim, I had my one and only crash. I simply didn’t see the rut; but fortunately I was riding slowly and cautiously, so I only skinned my elbow. My calf briefly cramped, but it passed quickly with a little stretching.

When the sky brightened with the colors of the sunrise, I stopped in utter confusion, as the sun seemed to be rising in the west. Slowly and awkwardly, I unwound the twists of the night, forcing my mind to accept that the sun was in the right place, and it was my internal geometry that needed correction. Finally able to see clearly, and with blue skies above, I accelerated through Rabbit Valley to the singletrack above Salt Creek.

My apologies to those who actually like Troy Built, but I personally think that it’s one of the more horribly-designed and pathetically-maintained trails in Colorado. Fortunately, Kurt R. had advised me to bring some extra gels just for the last twenty miles, and I had saved some chocolate GU packets. Yum, pure energy that my stomach didn’t have time to question before it was already in the tank. Thanking Kurt, and cursing Troy, I skittered, walked, and wobbled my way to Lion’s Loop.

A rush of familiarity hit me as I turned one corner on the trail. I hadn’t ridden Lion’s Loop since I lived in Grand Junction, perhaps fifteen years ago, but it was one of my favorite trails back then. Even after so many years, I rode through technical sections on muscle memory alone, like magic.

As Lion’s Loop merged with Mary’s Loop, I realized that I was close to my goal of riding Kokopelli’s Trail in 24 hours. A little too close—I needed to pick it up if I was going to make it under the wire. No longer needing to reserve the little strength that remained in my legs, I found myself standing up on the last remaining climbs, and railing down on the descents, a stupid grin on my face.

And then, I was done. Standing next to my car in the parking lot at 11:11, surrounded by hoards of day riders primping to the beats of their car stereos, I felt like a dirty and desiccated alien with my awkward headlamp and salt-stained jersey. Dazed in my elation, I tried to organize my thoughts enough to find my car keys.

Andy showed up out of nowhere as I was digging through my pack. Although he had unfortunately bailed out and hitchhiked back to the trailhead, his big smile and booming voice revealed none of his own disappointment--just unabashed excitement that I had managed to finish. Damn, that’s a true friend. Thanks Andy!

Later that evening, Andy and I drove out to pick up Peter from Rabbit Valley, just as the skies released enough rain to hydroplane Andy’s truck down I-70. Back together again, the three of us spent the evening sharing memories of fun and crazy moment with each other over beer, brats, vodka and tequila--with a great old friend in Grand Junction (thanks Kirk!). For Peter, it had been two days of so many “firsts,” that it was hard to keep count—his first bivy, his first time riding at night, his first long ride... Although he didn’t make all the way to Loma, it was clear that he was a winner—and primed for the next adventure.

As I finished writing this, I got an e-mail from Andy. He thinks that he might like to try again in October. Peter, are you in?


  1. i missed the "race" but would be game for october...

  2. As far as I know, there wasn't a coordinated race this year. Several people have done ITTs this spring, with people starting on different days, at different times, and even riding different directions. I'm looking forward to 2012, when there will be a traditional mass start.

    I'll let you know when I head out there in October!