Thursday, August 4, 2011


This year’s Colorado Trail Race attempt ended in failure.

Here’s the short version:

Just before hitting the Gold Hills section, my chain snapped on a short uphill section. I launched myself off the trail into a pile of logs, banging up both knees. By the time I got to the start of the Ten Mile Range climb, my knees were still killing me, and there was no way that I was going to be able to finish the race in the necessary seven days. So, I bailed in Frisco (thanks Alix & Max).

Here’s the long version:

This year’s CTR attempt was very different than last year’s successful race, even before I started packing up my gear. Perhaps most critically, I had to finish the race within seven days. Last year, I had no serious time constraints—I simply hoped to finish the race, and I really didn’t care how long it took or how I placed. And I rode accordingly, even taking six hours in Silverton to clean up my infected hands by taking a shower and washing & bleaching my clothes at a Laundromat.

This year, I had an important business meeting scheduled immediately after the race, necessitating a seven-day finish—and leaving no surplus time for dealing with setbacks. Along with the external pressure of needing to finish in in time for my meeting, I also faced some internal pressure to ride faster than last year. With a better bike, and stronger legs, I figured that upping the ante a bit by knocking off a day or so was a reasonable goal.

A bit of the mystique of the ride was also gone. Last year, I really didn’t know what to expect—and launching into the unknown was a huge part of the attraction. I even went so far as to state that, “I wouldn't be attempting this ride if I knew that I could do it”

So, last year was more the adventure than the competition. Yes, the CTR was a race for me in 2010, but I really approached it as a race against myself—not as a race against the clock or my fellow riders. My focus on was on the “adventure”—a wonderful word encompassing a whole myriad of meanings, and the “race” part of the CTR was simply some added incentive, not the ultimate objective.

But this year, I was there to race. With so much pressure on racing the clock, my head was in a very different space at the starting line. Unfortunately, I broke my chain within the first three miles. I was slow to fix the broken link and adjust my derailleur, only to realize after I got back on my bike that had another twisted link to fix as well. Unpacked the tools, replaced the link, repacked the tools. By this time, I had probably lost almost an hour. Staring down the barrel of a seven-day deadline, and already falling to the back of the pack, wasn’t a greatest way to start, especially when I was putting so much emphasis on racing.

The next section went reasonably well. I rode perhaps harder than I should have; my heart rate pegging the dreaded no-zone for longer periods than I knew was good. But I made up some time by the time I got to Bailey. And, despite the extra effort, I managed to eat and head over Kenosha Pass reasonably quickly.

At the base of Georgia Pass, it became apparent that I probably wasn’t going to make it over to the other side unless I rode until midnight or later. I was just about an hour short, and I didn’t want to sleep too high, especially on my first night. I also considered the descent on the other side of Georgia, and my memory of it was that it was rough—not something that I wanted to face at midnight after having ridden for 80+ miles on the first day. So I bivied early, planning on waking up at around 2:00 in the morning.

I slept horribly. Despite my best efforts to tune it out, the seven-day pressure kept intruding into every brief dream. Restless stewing ensued. Frustratingly, worrying about time actually cost me more time, as I ended up starting out at around 4:00—with very little sleep to show for it.

The climb up Georgia Pass went by easily, and I topped out at sunrise. The descent turned out to be far easier than I remembered—mostly fast and smooth, with a very short rocky section at the bottom that my new bike soaked up with ease.

Shortly before the Gold Hills section, my chain broke a second time. I was standing up on a short climb, and the chain popped under my full weight. Somehow I ended up launching off the downhill side of the trail into a pile of freshly-cut logs. I remember thinking, “tuck and roll!” And then thinking, “and how the hell is that going to help me survive flying into a log pile?!”

Yep, it hurt. But after sitting for a few moments, waiting for the knocks to dissipate enough to figure out what really hurt and what only sort of hurt, I was pleased to discover that nothing seemed broken or severely smashed. After hobbling back up to the trail, things seemed pretty good. Even my bike, aside from the broken chain, seemed OK.

After fixing my chain and getting back on my bike, my knees weren’t happy. Especially the right one. But I figured that I just needed to slow down for an hour or so to let them recover—although I wasn’t looking forward to Gold Hills climb. But much to my surprise, the Colorado Trail was closed due to the same tree-cutting operations (pine beetle remediation) which had provided my earlier landing zone. The reroute took me down a smooth gravel road, giving my knees a nice break.

Regaining the Colorado Trial at the base of the Ten Mile Range climb, I started having some real worries. My knees were feeling worse, not better. And the seven-day window seemed impossible if I couldn’t maintain a reasonable pace. Nevertheless, I started up anyway, hoping that my knees would loosen and feel better.

At the top of the first climb, my knees were still killing me. Every pedal stroke hurt, and walking wasn’t much better. I stopped for a couple of hours, called my wife, ate, and chilled in the sun. When I stood up, my knees were even stiffer and sorer, probably from the swelling. While I could tell that nothing serious was wrong with them, and that I could likely keep on riding, I wouldn’t be able to move quickly for a day or two. As such, there was no way that I was going to get over Ten Mile and Kokomo by bedtime—which meant that I wasn’t going to be able to finish in seven days.

Race over.

As a relative newbie, with only ultra-endurance rides under my belt (CTR 2010, Kokopelli’s Trail 2011), I have been lucky to succeed both times. But, as they saying goes, one learns more from failure than from success. So, rather than let this failure get me down, I’ve actually been enjoying thinking about what happened out there, and why. Here are the main points that I’ve come up with so far:
  1. Had I not been forced to complete the race in seven days, I expect that I would still be out there. Instead of quitting, I likely would have headed into Frisco for some ice, and taken the remainder of the day to reduce the swelling and get my head back in the game. But an eight-day finish simply wasn’t an option. I don't want to start another race with a time limit.
  2. Needing to complete the race in seven days wasn’t good for my head, even before I crashed. With so much energy diverted to hitting an arbitrary time target, I found myself missing out on many of the pleasurable parts of the race—the mountains, the people, the adventure, etc. In truth, a little extra time to enjoy the ride wouldn’t have slowed me down much, but the pressure of finishing in time was simply overwhelming. Every setback, no matter how small, seemed to put completion in jeopardy, making me increasingly negative. Not without reason, it turned out.
  3. Adventure trumps competition as a motivator, at least for me. Last year, I really didn’t care how I placed, as long as I survived and finished. I just wanted to push hard and enjoy the trip, which was wonderful and soul-enriching. In contrast, embracing the “race” this year made me to single-minded and obsessive. Not that competition is bad (it is the Colorado Trail RACE, after all), but I think it’s better as an incentive, not as the objective. I might feel differently if I were in a position to win the CTR, but that's not going to happen!
  4. Panniers on full-suspension bikes suck. Really. While panniers worked very well with my old hard-tail Cannondale last year, they caused the rear triangle of my full-suspension Cannondale to wag, shimmy, and jiggle like a bowl full of Jell-O. I kept wondering if something was going to break—which might have eventually happened if I had ridden for more days. If I’m going to ride a full-suspension bike, I need a new gear setup.
  5.  Full-suspension bikes are awesome on the CTR. I was able to ride faster and far more safely this year. Blazing down rough sections of the trail on my Cannondale RZ 120 was simply a blast! For that matter, climbing over roots and rocks was easier as well.
  6. Gear matters. Last year, I had one mechanical: I dropped my chain at the start (weirdly, at almost the same place that I broke it the first time this year). I'm still trying to figure out why my chain broke twice this year, but I sure would have had a better time if it hadn't.
  7. High-intensity training was great for power, but some longer training days are important too. I didn’t get many long days in this year, so I tried to compensate with more intervals and greater intensity. I suspect that this led to some minor digestive issues, as I had a harder time eating than I expected. I’ll definitely try to add more 2+ hour rides in the future. But I did have a lot of power compared to last year, so I’m not abandoning intervals anytime soon!
So, there it is. Toby 1, CTR 1. I don’t know if I’ll try again next year, since prepping for the CTR is such a time-consuming and absorbing effort. But a shot at redemption would be nice, not to mention the opportunity to apply some new lessons to the game.