Friday, August 24, 2012

Lessons from the 2012 Colorado Trail Race

So much can be learned from racing the Colorado Trail Race. It's one of those experiences that changes conceptions about what's possible, both mentally and physically. Some lessons are immediate, while some take longer to process. I wrote a lot about this in 2010 (see here and here), and almost everything that I wrote back then applied to this year as well--especially the part about adaptability. Here are a few additional tidbits that have been rattling around in my head since I finished a couple of weeks ago. Nothing earth-shattering, but here they are:

Vaccination moment
During the four long rides that I’ve done, I have had what I term my “vaccination moment,” when the physical, psychological, and emotional stress truly sink in for real. This year it hit me on the top of Tennessee Pass, at the end of my second day. While I spent months before the race preparing myself for how hard it was going to be, I still found myself overwhelmed with how hard it actually was. There are two possible responses: quit, or keep going. Since I wasn’t about to quit, I kept going. Which is why I call it my vaccination moment: once I survive it, I’m capable of clawing my way to the finish. Overcoming a fresh and visceral encounter with desperation has a way of putting everything into perspective.

Riding position
During the 2010 CTR, my back, neck, and arms often burned so badly that I had to get off my bike and walk down hills. While I did some upper-body workouts over the winter, which likely helped some, I think that biggest difference was the fit of my bike. My previous bike was much racier, with lower bars and a longer stem. My new bike is a little more upright. Not a huge difference in riding position--but a massive difference in all-day comfort.

Eat before sleeping
I actually learned this in 2010, but I needed a little refresher this year. Often during the CTR, I didn’t feel like eating, especially in the first half of the race. During the day, I literally had to choke down food. Often I felt more like barfing than eating. Pulling into camp, the temptation was very strong to simply collapse into the sleeping-bag of oblivion rather than gag down another Powerbar. On one occasion, I neglected to eat before bed, and I woke up feeling truly horrible. Eating a bunch of protein and fat, along with some carbs, before sleeping makes for such a better morning.

Carrying good bivy gear is important
I carry a bivy bag, sleeping bag, pad, and lightweight down jacket. It's not the lightest setup out there, but it provides a crucial degree of safety. At any point in the race, even at 13,000 feet on Coney, I can simply climb into my bag and "stop the clock." Even if I were to crash hard enough to need a rescue, I would be warm and dry until help arrived. While I never faced such a dire situation this year, I did end up waiting for a huge electrical storm to pass before I could safely ride Indian Ridge. Idling at 12,000 feet in the hail, wind, and rain, it sure was nice to climb into my bivy and sleep a bit. Had I not had good bivy gear, I would have needed to either stay warm by riding (and risking electrocution), or faced getting dangerously cold--or possibly bailing from the race to seek shelter. When things go sideways, shelter is life. A warm and dry place to hide is worth every extra pound.

Full-suspension is awesome
In 2010, I rode a 1994 hard-tail Cannondale with a 60mm Headshock. This year, I rode a full-suspension Cannondale RZ 120-1, with a 120mm Lefty. Wow, what a difference. Rather than having to constantly search for a line and wobble my way down technical descents, I was able to just sort of point and roll. So much faster—and way more fun. Safer too.

This year, I rode hotel-free. Not by design, but because I never rolled into a town at the right time of day. Which was pretty cool, since I learned that I didn’t need hotels! Yes, a shower and some fresh sheets would have been nice, but I really enjoyed spending more time in the mountains, rain and all. Plus, I was faster!

Disc brakes are nice
In 2010, a very wet year, I rode with V-brakes. With the wet trail constantly depositing a fresh layer of grit onto my rims on every rotation, I went through six complete sets of brake pads. Just the drop into Silverton burned through a fresh set of XTR Extreme Condition pads! By the end of the race, the sidewalls of my formally-new RhynoLite rims were pretty thin. But this year, my new bike had disc brakes--and one set lasted the entire race.

The satisfaction of self-support
I've written a lot about ultra-racing rules, even having gone so far as to create what I think is a solid set of detailed rules that preserve the balance between racing with as little supported as possible, while still recognizing that carrying supplies for 4-10 days isn't very realistic. This year, I had to put my rules to the test when I cracked a derailleur pulley on the Gold Hills section. Unable to pedal my bike, I had to decide whether to go back to Frisco, or walk and coast to Copper. As I was pondering my decision, a day rider came through and very generously offered me the pulley from his bike. But I stayed committed to my decision to Do. It. Myself., and walked/coasted my bike to Copper. It cost me several hours, but it was damn satisfying to not accept support of any type on the race. That which doesn't kill you, makes you stronger!

Learn how to ride--while riding
I have a public confession to make: I’m not really much of a mountain biker. Unlike most of the other CTR riders, who compete in several mountain-bike races every year in addition to many training rides, I generally get out on the dirt fewer than a dozen times a year. My actual riding is 97% commuting to work on flat bike paths. Which means, of course, that my mountain-biking skills pretty much suck. But I worked hard to develop my skills during the CTR--which actually worked! I was ripping stuff by the end that I would have walked at the start. It is possible to teach old dogs new tricks, even when the dog is dog-tired.

Fitness counts
It’s been said that the CTR is more psychological than physical, which isn’t untrue. But having a strong physical base really helps keep things from unraveling. I was a lot stronger this year, and I was able to ride much faster and confidently with the same effort.

Lightweight bikepacking bags are awesome
This year I abandoned the bright green panniers that I used in 2010 and 2011, and joined the cool kids with a frame bag, seat bag, and handlebar bag. Worked great. More thoughts on panniers versus bags here.

Check all the little details
Since overlooking the smallest detail can result in a DNF, Checking and re-checking gear is an important part of preparing for the CTR. This year, I almost failed because the little tube of glue in my Park patch kit was nearly empty. On the second-to-last day, I set about to patch a flat--only to find that the unopened tube was mostly full of air--with just one little itty bitty drop of glue. Fortunately, it was all that I needed. It’s impossible to check too many things.

KMC chains
In 2010, my 9-speed SRAM chain was toast by the end of the race, with at least 1% stretch. In 2011, I crashed when I broke a SRAM chain on the second day. But this year, my 10-speed KMC chain still had some life at the end, and it never broke. I don’t know what’s different about KMC chains, but I’m a fan.

Thoughts on quitting
In 2010, thoughts of quitting constantly plagued me (more on that here). For whatever reason, similar thoughts never arose this year. Maybe due to having more experience and confidence? Whatever the reason, it sure was nice to have more positive thoughts.

I didn't really do it alone. Thanks to:
My wife, Alix, is the best supported of all. Not only did she give me time to train, but she also dropped me off, picked me up, cheered me on, and vanquished some especially scary socks at the end.
Stefan Griebel, master of doing really fast things in the mountains deserves huge credit for the vision to start the CTR, and for continuing to organize the event. He's also got a healthy degree of patience with one particularly obsessed rider.
The Colorado Trail Foundation made it all possible by maintaining one of the more amazing trails in Colorado.


  1. You've got the shortest CTR write up I've seen yet. Yet it tells a lot. It was great meeting you out there. Hopefully the small downhilling demonstration I gave helped you out. ;-)

  2. Hey Dave, I really enjoyed crossing paths with you. It was one of those inspirational moments, when somebody is SO much better that it opens up new possibilities. Thanks for the demonstration--and for the positive and encouraging vibes!

  3. GREAT WRITE-UP, TOBY. Thoughtful, thanks,

  4. Thanks Bill. And HUGE thanks to the Colorado Trail Foundation for the superb trail. It was in great shape this year!

  5. Nice to know about the KMC chains, I had my doubts before, but your ride puts serious credence into trying one out.

    Great short review of your race performance as well. No way could I do this, btw!

  6. Anthony, I also used a KMC chain to ITT Kokopelli's Trail--and it was flawless then too. Even when it got gunked up with some nasty bentonite mud, it ran without any chainsuck. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I'm impressed!

    With some decent training, practice, and commitment, I think that almost anyone can ride the CTR in about a week. Critical skills include bike-maintenance knowledge, solid outdoor-living experience (camping in all conditions), navigational experience, and bone-headed tenacity.

  7. It was great riding with you this past Summer Toby, and reading your wrap-up was like a flash of reminisce. And by the the time on this reapply, you may tell that I've begun that winter time dreaming about the CTR again. Thanks too for sharing your wisdom and beta with the masses.... anyone suck on Indian Trail Ridge in that storm would have been completely hosed without the gear you had along. That was a vicious one for sure. Let's ride it eastbound from Durango in 2013!

    1. Likewise, it was great riding with you too, Ian! Indian Ridge was indeed a bit "alpine" that night, but the ride out in the morning after the trail drained was a hoot.
      Thanks again for meeting me at the trailhead. It was really nice to finish with someone who knew what I'd just been through. And I still owe you big time for chasing me down with my wheel!
      Great to hear that you're planning for 2013. I'm not sure about the W-->E approach, since I really like saving the best for last--and the mountains around Silverton and Durango are definitely the best. Plus, I might end up riding down 285 at rush-hour, which would really suck. But either way, I'm looking forward to at least crossing tracks with you again!

    2. Well, there are plusses and minuses to both directions and I'm just thinking the reversal may seem like a different trail in some ways. I was also thinking I'd start at night or early in the morning(like 4am) in order to get through Silverton on day 1 before the market closes at 8pm. Anyway, just stuff to dream about for now! I think Stephan is keen to the idea as well and considering offering a Durango group start next year.

      And on that 285 dilemma, I seem to remember reading something from someone from Bailey about some single track linked to Kenosha....not sure whats up with that, but wow would that be cool!

    3. The Bailey Trail project is aiming to build a trail that bypasses 285 ( It's probably years away though, so we'll be on the highway in 2013. I really hate that road!

      I'm considering ITTing the ride. It might be kind of lonely--but that would add to the challenge. Lots to dream about for sure!

  8. Late to the party here with my comment, but just wanted to comment on your SRAM chain experience. IMHO, don't know if it's fair to just throw all SRAM chains under this blanket. Which model did you have experience with, 1031, 1051, 1071? I've worn out many 1071 chains [the nickel-plated model] and their life seems right there, neither better nor worse, than several Shimano and a KMC 10-spd chains I've worn out. I do seem to think that the asymmetrical Shimano chains shift better than the competition. Before I went to a 10-speed drivetrain, I used quite a few of the SRAM 971 chains sans any problems. BTW, I use KMC quick links with all brands of chains because they are cheap, can be reused and work with any brand of chain.

    1. I'm a KMC fan for sure. Maybe SRAM chains are great--but KMC seems more reliable and better-wearing for me. Too small of a sample to be definitive, but I've simply had better luck with KMC. Good to have choices out there!