for now, CTR obsessions

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I wake up with heavy dew over the tent and damp sleeping bag. I curl deeper in my bag and wait for the light to turn from a dim grey. It’s not good to pack up when you can’t see, that’s how you lose things I remind myself.

I distinctly remember someone passing by about an hour or two ago. The sound of a bike pulls you right out of sleep, and I think it must be Jeff making a comeback of his own, pushing harder and sleeping less than I was willing.

I get going and feel groggy with a slight sensation of spinning, not unlike a good night of drinking at altitude. I decide I had pushed it hard enough the night before and was paying for it now. The problem is that when you feel good you want to ride fast, and riding fast never seems to pay off.

An hour into my day I have an oh shit moment where I realize my headlamp isn’t where it’s supposed to be on my waistbelt but soon find it stuffed in another bag.

I continue to feel worse as I cross the highway and climb fooses creek. In retrospect, having a muffin for dinner and breakfast is not working out. I learn slowly but by the end of the trip that pushing myself to these limits creates a hyper sensitivity where only certain foods work out. Sugar and soy protein seem to be two of the major culprits causing nausea.

Beautiful morning view looking west towards Monarch Pass

I run into several hikers. Sometimes they’ll volunteer information and other times I ask about the other racers up ahead. Most of the info is incorrect as we all look pretty much the same to them. My only purpose is find out if someone is just ahead and in that case it would be fun to catch them and chat a bit.  The one lone hiker I hear about an hour ahead is probably Max. It turns out it was he who passed me in the night after I’d unknowingly leap frogged past him. Hearing someone is close is motivating and makes you want to push the pace but more often than not pushing the pace requires more breaks and ultimately slows you down over the long run. But the thought of catching someone is still temping.

Yup, feeling sick already

Really nice trail on Fooses Creek before the hike a bike starts

Is this not steep?

Joining the Monarch Crest trail and last time I felt halfway descent for the day.

It’s hard to remember the names of everything but not too far past Marshall Pass a fairly violent storm develops and I hit the wall. I can’t eat another bite of food and I’m having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. I run into a hiker who tells me he came across another rider at 6am in the morning who’d ridden through the night, gotten rained on, and looked like hell. But I didn’t look much better he said. Was this Jefe, Ethan, or Jessie? Had one of them cracked or was looking like hell just all part of the plan?

It must appear a little reckless to the people you run into when you look like you could use a chaperon and you’re either pushing right into a storm or looking like a drunk trying to ride your bike fast. I guess we could be a bit safer by not racing so hard, not pushing our bodies to the limit, save ourselves from an overuse injury, save our families from the worry, but the track record so far is pretty good. It seems like most riders can define where the line of safety is, and lightening is always going to be there, exposing the dozens of hikers just as much as us bikers. If you want to play these are the risks. The only thing we should be ashamed of doing is not recognizing and accepting them before we go out there.

CTR 2012 feeling like puke from Matt S on Vimeo.

(I’m really talking nonsense here. I’m just a little tired of hiking and not biking. Every few seconds it looks like I’m going to puke)

There aren’t many flat spots to lay down on but I don’t want to traverse the mountain side any longer than I have to and I’ve learned that comfort needs to be minimal with this many layers of fatigue to shed. At 11,500 is where I make my camp and spend the next 7-8 hours, getting naps in and trying to slowly eat food and water. The diet turns to plain flour tortillas with a little bit of chocolate peanut butter. I question whether I’m sick when my body goes from hot and cold and face seems to be burning up but it’s more a matter of sunburn and the fluctuations that occur when you’re damp. This was my lowest moment of the trip physically but mentally I felt composed. I knew I was loosing valuable time, but I was doing everything I could. Pushing on with no food or puking was not sustainable for 3 more days. If I got my stomach back on track I would be able to race again and skip the next night’s sleep so that’s what had to be done.

My mental composure was probably the biggest surprise of the trip. I have to say I don’t like being tired and it easily affects my moods. I was nervous that by my second day I’d feel the whole trip was stupid and even though I’d vow to finish, would hate hundreds of miles and tireless hours of travel. This was not the case. Even though I slept more than others, I tallied about 13-14 hours for the trip or 3.5 hours average per day, I think I deprived myself enough to expect a mood shift. Throughout the trip I not only enjoyed every day, but found it mentally easy. I’d already made up the rules before the trip started. They were: 1. don’t question the purpose of doing the CTR. 2. Don’t overwhelm yourself with how much more trail is in front of you. 3. Be satisfied with doing the best you can do.  With those rules serving as my belief system, it was easy to be motivated. Finishing this thing at anything faster than touring pace is huge and I didn’t want to wait another year, as failure eats away at me, to try it again.

During my down time Dan, Jeff, Chris, and the Cat Morrison group all pass by, 7 in total, but as the last group passed I began to feel like I could do this again. Rise and shine, it’s 8pm. Packing up seems to take too long but I’m soon chasing after the last four, me with fresh legs trying to warm up, and the others close to that point where you’re falling off your bike.

With some fresh sleep behind me, riding through the night was easy but covering ground took longer than I thought. I targeted Sargents Mesa for a night ride as it’s known for rocky up and down with plenty of hike a bike. The repeated climbs above 11,000 each dip into the fog which bounced off my light, chilled my bones, and caused me to want to rail it a little harder to get lower. I follow the trail as it climbs and descends every little bump on the ridge, another section of the CT that doesn’t seem well planned for your hiking and riding pleasure. Suggestion: take the trail up to one or two highpoints with a view and the rest of the time have it contour along the side of the mountain in a playful and lightly undulating way.

The final leg switchbacks down into the famous Apple camp where smooth and fast singletrack begs to be charged even with sore wrists and blurry eyes. I come flying into a banked switchback but the tires find two rocks that send me flipping over onto my back and hip, the carbon frame getting scratched and dinged on the rocks. Rather than feeling much pain, I found this moment particularly funny. Not stupid, careless, reckless, or shortsighted, but funny.

At Apple’s camp I saw three bikes but didn’t recognize any of them. I wished I’d come through when it was light and gotten to enjoy this well known feature of the trail, but I was cold, stomach not ready for sodas or moon pies, and no one looked in the mood to hang out.

The plan was to push it until sunrise and then catch a nap. The following section of trail was fast and little did I know there was 55 miles of dirt road to follow, all making possible the fast times I had in mind.


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I sleep for 90 minutes and wake up still nauseous, sleep for another 90 minutes and feel better but it’s only 4:30 and I don’t want to head out while it’s still dark. Yuck. Pulling myself from the sleeping bag is one of the hardest things to do in the morning but I manage to get going by 6 or 6:30. There are other bums in the area, lying against trees, wrapped up in emergency blankets, and I try to leave some space between them and my morning bowel movement.

With the cold weather I notice my fork is as stiff as ever despite trying to remedy that my leaving the bike inverted for a while but it’s not long before the sun hits me and all 5 layers that seemed completely necessary minutes ago come off. Single speed Dan greets me from up on the hillside from where he slept but I’m still waking up, warming up the chaffed crotch, and don’t feel like waiting a few minutes for company, ba humbug.

I’ve ridden the upcoming section to HWY 24 several years ago and remember riding along this creek and the alpine cruising to come. While I’ll ride through beautiful areas at night along this trip, I’m timing this section just perfect and reach Searle Pass early enough in the morning that the sun still feels like a soft blanket. Between Searle and Kokomo is all above treeline, hero riding, but unfortunately I’m lacking a few more inches of suspension to really romp it.

Climbing up to Searle

Top of Searle

I look back and spot Dan, about 20 minutes back. This year I’ve ridden with some really strong single speeders, getting beat on some occasions, and even though he seemed dead yesterday evening, he’s definitely recovered.

I once again anticipate arriving in Leadville, trying to gauge how I’m doing on time. I’d like to be there at 10am and maybe make Buena Vista by 3:30 but I’ve killed 7-7.5 hours overnight so this is too ambitious.

The descent off Kokomo is steep but not as bad as I remember it. Several years ago I was riding rim brakes and now disc brakes really kick ass (XT brakes kick more ass than others).

Up to Tennessee pass I catch a Saturday start rider and she snaps a shot of me. In her mind I’m a fast rider. In my mind I’m getting killed by about 5 hours right now.

I summit Tennessee pass and expect to descend alongside the road but the trail has other plans. There are many more times to come where I expect the trail to follow a more direct way from point A to point B but it winds way to the side or sometimes even climbs when the ultimate goal is descent yet doesn’t seem to be heading to any point of interest. I declare the trail “stupid”.

I also wonder who left all their coolers out in the woods. I expected to see Apple at the end of Sargents but at this point I could live off sodas and moon pies. What the hell, I grab two moon pies from one of the caches but this is the only food I take on the trip. The problem is I’m horribly overpacked and coming to the realization that sodas and moon pies=puke.

In Leadville I contemplate fork service but it seems to feel good in warmer temps. I do realize I’m getting sores on my body from the pack rubbing so a tube of vaseline is in order. I’ve reached the point where slathering it liberally over any tender spot doesn’t feel dirty, adding to grime on my skin, but soothing and necessary, like wiping mud on yourself for sun protection.

Today is a high miles day because of the road riding but they aren’t passing by fast enough. The relative heat is uncomfortable to ride in but within 2 hours of Buena Vista scattered storms cool it off. Even before Buena Vista I’ve got my mind on a cold jump in the river but first I’ve got a number of miles south on the old railroad grade with a headwind in my face.

Aspens somewhere between Leadville and Buena Vista

Descending down to FS 390

Railroad tunnels leading to Buena Vista

I almost drop my shorts in front of an old grimy fisherman down at the waters edge and he promptly leaves to find a new spot. Feeling all clean and pretty, with dirty chamois hanging off the back of the pack, I ride a few more minutes into BV, checking the time to see it’s about 6pm.

The transition there takes longer than expected. There are a couple of reasons: One is that I’m second guessing what to buy for food, not wanting so many bars and at the time thinking more apple pies, muffins, and coffee cakes might be good. The City Market also doesn’t sell sub sandwiches which means a trip to subway and wait in a line, but after Leadville, I realized a sub sandwich sits really well.

Feeling good, which at this point means not sick, but moving slow out of BV, my goal is to catch at least one of the 4 leaders and get myself back in the mix. Having ridden this section 2 months ago I anticipate the hike a bike, but that works out well at night. I push it until around 3am but don’t think I’ve caught anyone. I’m about 5 miles from hwy 50 and figure I’ll try to sleep 2-3 hours and be moving by 6.

This is a bad thing. It means most of the easy parts are over.

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I’m up at 3 am this morning and never fall back asleep. It’s become common that I only sleep 4-6 hours the night before a race even when I consciously feel calm and without angst about the race. The subconscious knows.

The CTR is less of a race where you’re nervous about the start, how you place, and how you’re going to feel that day and more of a tour of duty where the mission is to follow the course while obeying a certain code of conduct, but that mission is a gigantic, daunting task. Finishers complete a rite of passage and become part of a select group of the highest caliber sufferers on a mountain bike.

So really nothing to be nervous about I tell myself, but the subconscious knows.

Driving to the trailhead in my sister’s car I’m reminded of my fatigue as I already don’t feel 100% behind the wheel of a car. I know day 1 and maybe the second day are no problem but I’m worried how I’ll react to several days of little sleep and all day riding in a row. A mile from the trailhead I spot 4 riders getting in some extra mileage on the way to the trailhead. Be careful. Don’t hit them. I’m tired!

I assemble my bike and attach the homemade packs. There’s some worry that the rear bag might not hold up. Everything is first version and first time sewing, so I’d brought a needle and floss for when I find my belongings strewed across the trail.

Can’t believe my buddy Winston shows up to give his support

I look around and see people with far less gear. Some have just a pack while others have fit everything but a camelback on their bike. I’ve had this insecurity for a few days, ever since I started asking how much weight others were carrying. I pared mine down to less than 15 lbs but then added a spot, cell phone, and batteries and assume I’m back up in the 15-16 lb range.

I went to college with this bad ass. Although he doesn’t finish due to injury, he runs two back to back 75 mile days.

After a small talk, mainly concerning the code of conduct, (rules) we’re off on the dirt road. Months of planning is finally coming to fruition. No more anticipation. No more short one hour test runs on boring trails. And no more time inbetween for anything to go wrong. With the camera at my side I snap a few photos that years down the road will hopefully jog my memory.

These are average people, and look at what we’re capable of.

I’m fine for now with the front group but when the trail points up I’m quickly off the back

It doesn’t take long for me to feel the weight of my pack and the pace a little too hard. That’s confirmed as soon as the climbing begins. A group of 10 makes its way easily past me and I can hear them chatting breathlessly several switchbacks ahead. It’s a group that includes all the favorites – bad ass riders that push what’s humanly possible in suffering and bicycle travel – but also people I’ve raced against and know I’ve got the speed to keep up with. I take a hand off the handlebars and lift the backpack. Is this what’s stopping me or have I slowed after months of hammering it? Either way it’s time to resign to the fact that plenty of fun cool people will be going my pace and it’s going to be what it’s going to be and I can only do what I can do.

Just cause I’m not at the front, it’s still cool riding with this dude ( I have no idea who he is).

Although I think I know the trail between Waterton Canyon and 285 in actuality I’ve maybe ridden just 5 miles of it. There’s a mix of riding through treeless open areas either natural or burn and moist woody trail that was far less sandy.

Nice front range burn area

The GPS screen would repeatedly stare at me every minute or so reminding me of the time and mileage. Trying not to feel like I needed to get somewhere, I had set some checkpoint goals, the first being making it to Bailey by 12. I also wanted to get out of the heat and up to higher elevations.

I made it to Bailey by 12 and was not feeling good. Mostly I was lethargic, but my legs felt heavy most likely from my nutrition not matching the demands I was putting on my body. Even pedaling easy seemed to be too hard.

From here I rode with Max and Kurt up until Kenosha pass doing that leap frog sort of thing. It rains and everyone puts on their gear and then the sun returns and you reverse the process although everyone picks a different time to do it. Kurt was riding the triple crown of bikepacking events this year and after the tour divide his legs and energy never really recovered so he couldn’t really be worried with what anyone else was doing and was riding his own pace. Max had attempted this event at least once before but last year pulled out after forgetting batteries in BV and missing some other essential gear. This year his plan was to ride to BV without sleep and pick up his bivy there. At the time that plan seemed suicide. But after being exposed to the rituals of the leaders, it now seems like a viable option. They pushed my idea of what is possible so much further.

Past a quick and always violent storm, I’m in the clear for now

Riding sleepily and now with some knee pain through the aspen forest right after Kenosha I ran into Jefe and Todd. They were on the side of the trail taking a break and looked like they just got caught doing something illegal. I made a joke about smoking weed but maybe that’s what they were doing. Later I realized this was the point where Todd dropped out so maybe it was just pep talk. As much as Jefe was trying to keep moving I realized he stops and chats with people who seem like they’re hurting, making sure no one is too out of it to keep going, getting all around good guy points in my book.

A shot of Jefe showing me how winners do it. Winner don’t carry backpacks

Rain threatens on the way up to Georgia Pass but nothing falls but a sprinkle. There’s thunder all around but it seems safe to move higher. The trail switchbacks and climbs a gentle grade but this is where I fall a couple times and hit my handlebars on a tree. I just feel drunk with drowsiness. At treeline the storms have seemed to clear. I snap some shots and eat slowly. Jefe catches me and moves right over the pass.

Wild trees and wild skies somewhere between here and there

Hey take my pic please

I bet no one has taken a shot like this before

The descent is one of the most consistently rooty and rough descents of the trip and claims two riders frames. My hands and wrists are killing me and my fork isn’t doing its job.

I’ve decided my RS Reba is really a low altitude fair weather fork, working well in warm and dry temperatures. Once the temps are in the 50s or lower it sticks and moves as if it’s locked out. But working in the bike industry for a year I gather consumers will soon view their choices in the same manner we elect politicians. Quality is going down everywhere. You’ll pick from the best of a couple of choices but both are failing you. Whether it is Fox or Rockshox, Shimano or Sram, expect to service and replace often.

I ride my pace and stay on my bike almost all the way on the next large climb. I’ve recently ridden this stretch on the other side of Tiger Road twice in the last month but the descent is worth doing 100 times. It’s there I make contact with Jefe again.

I’m not stalking you Jefe, but teach me your ways, how do you win it?

He’s being more deliberate than me in protecting his sidewalls but I’ve got a secret weapon not just in the form of glitter and all kinds of garbage I’ll hope coagulates around any hole in my tire but actually a spare tire in my bag. While the chances are very good I won’t need it, I can’t allow the possibility of a sidewall cut ending my ride. I hadn’t yet tested the Maxxis Ikon tires enough to know their durability but they end up being the heroes of the trip. 200 miles on them going into this trip, 500 on the trip, and the front and rear look barely different. Not bad for a 580 gram tire with beefy knobs.

Just plain perty

There are plenty of spots to take photos so rather than trying to pass, I just stop and snap, then catch up again. At the bottom, 3-4 miles from highway 9 we run into Dan on a singlespeed. Right now he’s in the phase of being slow and tired but throughout the trip I’d watch him snap back and ride at XC race speed, putting an hour on me in an hour!

The goal for the evening is to make it to Copper by 12 but that isn’t set in stone. I know getting over the 10 mile range has some hike a bike but some sections I truly struggled to get my bike over. Any upper body muscle I gained this spring had all but dissolved over the 1000s of miles since then. It’s also about this time that I begin the feel nauseous. Given the slow pace I’ve settled into for 15 hours I figured I could eat almost anything but that proves to be a mistake. For starters, corn chips and gas station coffee cake will be left off any further bikepacking race diet. I’m not the only one to have stomach problems. I catch Jeff on the climb and he’s crawling up towards the pass. He’s thrown up and it might have been the sodas or cakes he ate earlier despite how good they felt at the moment.

There’s a lightning storm to the south of us. It’s close enough to illuminate the hillside but far away enough that it seems safe to climb to 12,400. This is one of the moments I’d looked forward too –climbing the 10 mile range at night. I look back and see Jeff and Jefe’s lights and look ahead and have no idea where I’m going, making out just shadows against the sky.

Once on top it’s not just downhill but a bit of a traverse. It’s technical so the cautious side of me thinks it would be good to walk sections but on the other hand I’m confident in my descending abilities, even at night.

It’s around 11 when I make it down the trail to copper. I wash up in the creek (still civil at the end of day one), set up my tent, and try to sleep but nausea, hunger, and excitement keep me up. Before I sleep I hear Jeff, Jefe, and Max come through, probably pushing on farther.