A year is a long time to be working towards a goal - espcially when there’s so many individual milestones to be met along the way. In 2018, ...

Sep 11, 2014

Into the Darkness and back with the Sun - Vapor Trail 125

Challenges take many forms - mental, physical and emotional. I knew that the Vapor Trail 125 would encompass everything - the mental highs and lows of riding some of the hardest and most fun trails in Colorado, the physical toll 125 miles takes on anyone and the emotional rollercoaster between riding like the wind and plodding uphill. When I emailed my resume and application in for the 10th anniversary of this legendary race, I was taking a chance. It was a year sooner then Nick and I planned, reducing our organization and scouting time significantly. I didn't want to wait - I wanted to step up and challenge myself. So after 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest, the preparation went into full swing. Armed with the knowledge gained from our long rides, I rolled up to the starting line on the F-Street Bridge with the goal of finishing with a smile and a plan to carry me through 125 miles of riding.
Nick and I ready for the start.
Photo - Kara Durland
10:00 PM - after a day of trying to chill out and calm the nerves it was finally time  to ride. A true neutral rollout meant time for gabbing and catching up with fellow racers. There was even a pee break stop at the top of the hill to ensure everyone crossed 285 as a group. We crazy cyclists warranted four cop cars stopping traffic at 10:15 on a Saturday night! And then we made the right hand turn onto dirt. No more niceties - it was time to ride. It was the last time I would see eventual winner Jari as she rocketed away into the night. It was too long a night to start racing so I kept riding steady. I could see a line of lights ahead and behind me. A light fog was dropping off the mountains to greet us as we climbed higher. Surprisingly, I was just behind Nick - his white knee warmers clear in the lights. Liz was hovering around him, following his wheel for the draft at times. I wanted to surge and catch them, but knew it was too early. Just ride. When I did catch Nick, he didn't look happy - told me what was going on and to ride my own race and not worry. Onto the Colorado Trail - the first section of singletrack. Everything was damp and slippery from the mist, meaning I needed to stay alert and pick smart lines. I'd passed Liz early on the single track, but she caught back on the first hike-a-bike. Again, too early to be racing. I kept waiting for one downhill section that had terrified me in the light last year, but never found it. Each section - nope, that wasn't it. Finally we hit the bridge over Brown's Creek and I had to smile. Then I saw Liz right ahead of me and it was focus time. The Colorado Trail is a trail of multiple personalities - from steep and chunky among pines to smooth and flowing thru meadows. It was awesome to be out there riding - seeing the city lights of both Salida and Buena Vista spread out to south and north and the moon dancing in and out of the clouds. Not that much time for site-seeing as I dropped the final descent to the Narrow Gauge trail and the first aid station.

I was a little earlier then I had anticipated hittling that first aid station, but my elation was tempered by the fact that I'd anticpated them being at the campground up the road - not at the start of the Narrow Gauge Trail. So I really wasn't early. I made that a quick pit stop, just refilling my hydration bladder and putting my longsleeved jersey on. I knew it was going to get cold in a hurry as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. Liz rolled in just as I was organizing to leave - it was still really close. I focused on the long road climb ahead, trying to to worry about racing yet. It was easy to do - between the near full moon illuminating the Chalk Cliffs and the rustling of animals in the bushes along the road there was plenty to distract me. I think I spent way too much time just looking around and staring at the terrain. So different in the dark then during the day. The road climb was long and steady and I was without good landmarks for how far I'd gone. I remembered sections from our ride from St Elmo to the divide last year, but it wasn't enough to have a solid bead. Every corner after the collapsed mine building I kept hoping for the Alpine Tunnel trail parking lot. It was dark, getting colder and I was alone. No lights around me, no signs of other riders. It didn't help that my right foot was going numb from the cold or that I was hearing large animals in the bushes. Not hallucinating - there was something big pacing along the road beside me for a while. Finally the runt off the road and into the double track. I could see lights below me in the valley, a line of bobbing stars among the mountains. Getting closer to the roof of the continent meant the first hike-a-bike was coming up. I was looking forward to the break from pedaling and hoping the feeling would come back to my foot when I started walking. The Alpine Tunnel hike-a-bike is short, but just enough a slap in the face. In and out of the trees, with lights dancing ahead of me. I started up the climb, keeping the pace brisk to stay warm. At the top, a short pause to look around - take in the stars and the moon and the dark mountains surrounding me. I debated throwing my rain coat on for the descent but opted not to. Not quite a mistake but close. After the short singletrack descent to the west side of the divide on more a goat trails thru the bushes, it was time for a long road descent. I was a little chilly as I dropped down towards the base of Tomichi Pass, regretting not putting on my jacket. But there was more climbing coming.... 

The darkness was surreal as I started up Tomichi Pass. The moon hung heavy and orange to the west, the glow fading from the mountains. As the moon set, the stars sparkled brighter and brighter in the sky. Ahead of me I could see riders on the Granite Mountain climb, hiking into the black sky. I had wanted to ride most of Tomichi Pass, but wimped out. The first section was too loose and rocky... So I walked and ate something. I picked my way around the streams and started up Tomichi proper. Tried riding, but again wimped out. I found myself hiking with a single speeder and we talked as we pushed our bikes. The night was still and I stopped several times to just admire the stars and the string of lights coming off the Continental Divide. One of this lights was Nick, I knew it. I was anticipating him catching me any time, especially once we started down Canyon Creek. But there was more hiking to come - the dreaded Granite Mountain. I stuck to a steady pace, choosing my footsteps carefully. The sky to the east was fading from midnight to dawn as I hiked higher and higher. I stopped just before the summit to put on my rain jacket and swap out Diablos. Then it was time for flying. With every light on high - Toro, Reflex and Diablo, the alpine trail was a bright as day. I was happy for the recent rides down Canyon Creek as I plummeted off the roof of the world back onto the trees. All alone on the trail - just me and my bike. It wasn't my fastest trip down Canyon Creek, but close. It was also the most fun and alive I'd felt on my bike in weeks.

That feeling would fade quickly. Another fairly quick stop at the Snowblind Aid station for water, a bike cleaning and some yummy sausage for the road and it was back on the bike. I had the Old Monarch Pass climb to tackle - I figured it would be about an hour and a half of climbing - easy railroad grade climbing again. The sun was out so I was back down to just my long sleeved wool shirt as I settled into climb. And Oh My God. I'd been worried about another long road climb, so hadn't taken this one seriously. Old Monarch Pass was the back breaker. Nothing but road and trees, endlessly winding up and up and up... My confidence sunk and my speed slowed. Was this same implosion I'd had at Como during the Breck 100 faced with the climb up Boreas Pass Road? I was struggling to keep the focus going and was spending more time looking over my shoulder then on the road in front of me. But I had those sausages from Snowblind and they sparked enough life to keep me pedaling. I did stop a few times to walk and stretch - more a mental break then anything.

Finally - the sounds of traffic rejuvenated me. Monarch Pass was calling. A fun section of singletrack and I popped out onto Hwy 50 and scooted across before any cars appeared. Time for new shoes, clean jersey, more food and the start of the fun part. I tried to be quick, but took a little longer then I planned. One of the volunteers told me he'd be sure to tell Nick how far ahead of him I was. I just laughed - it should be the other way around. Then it was time go. I rolled out with Jeff "El Freako from Rico" and we chatted for a while on the start of the Crest Trail. Then I got off to walk and he charged ahead. I'd catch back up a few times, but Jeff is a monster. I could see him wrestling with his single speed ahead of me, riding up things I would end up walking. And when he was off and walking, it was a trot - much faster then my ambling pace. There's a few things I could learn from him! On the last alpine climb before Marshall Pass, I watched him vanish ahead of me while I pushed my bike and ate a Snickers Bar. I thought about riding, but decided the snickers bar held more attraction then attempting to ride. 

The Crest Trail was fun but rough. I was feeling the miles before, but still trying to push the pace. It was crowded too - compared to the isolated riding of the prior 11 hours. Shuttle bunnies, motos and hikers all out enjoying the perfect weather. I used my bell a few times, in awe that I was still moving faster then the other riders despite my fatigue. But most people stepped to the side and started cheering. Encouragement that lifted my spirits at that time.

Marshall Pass take one. Jeff was still there, chowing down on a doughnut. Mmmm doughnutsIn spite of my hesitancy to eat unusual foods, there was a jelly doughnut calling my name. I only took half, to the laughter of Jeff. Between that and the can of Coke, I was ready to tackle Starvation Creek and Poncha Road. About five minutes after leaving the station, I was wishing I'd asked them to save the other half of the doughnut for the final stretch! Then Jeff caught back up with me and we talked a little longer. Again, he charged ahead of me on a steeper climb and this time I wouldn't see him again till the finish. But I was looking forward to the descent down Starvation. Another super enjoyable section of singletrack. I was able to ride it all this time, even the chunky, rocky sections I hadn't been sure about during our prerides. It was fast. It was fun. I was somewhere between flying over the rocks and plinko chipping through them. Without having Nick to follow, I was picking my own lines and pushing my comfort zone as the trail plunged down to the creek then meandered swiftly through the meadows and trees. But when I hit the bridge over Poncha Creek, reality set in with a smack. I now had five miles of climbing, gaining nearly 2000' to return to Marshall Pass and the hopes that the second half of the jelly doughnut would be waiting. The climb took me nearly an hour on fresh legs - it would be much longer today. There was some walking, some trudging and plenty of bargaining. "If I ride until that rocky spot, I can walk for a few minutes..." Again, I wasted time and energy looking over my shoulder and worrying instead of just riding.  But Poncha Road wasn't the mind numbing, energy sucking black hole of riding that Old Monarch Pass seemed to be. It was steep but short. Hot with little wind, but cooling as I climbed. I felt like I knew the climb and the landmarks that would tell me how much I had left to go. Kept the ride - push pattern going until near the top. Then it was time to pedal.
Having a blast on the Starvation Creek descent
Photo - Joy from the Salida Library
Back into Marshall Pass. My half a doughnut was gone, much to my disappointment. So I filled my water bottle, checked my hydration bladder, drank another half can of coke and asked when Nick had gone through. After all, he couldn't be too far behind me, right? The response wasn't what I wanted - drop at Monarch... They didn't know what had happened, but I knew it couldn't be "serious." Not a bad wreck or something like that - otherwise he wouldn't have made it to Monarch. But it also meant that I was truly alone for this next section of trail. I set off onto the Colorado Trail, determined to finish strong and keep the rubber side down as I entered some of the most fun riding of the afternoon. No more crushing road climbs - just singletrack. It wasn't all downhill and there was some more jeep road, but the reward was Silver Creek. Two more short hiking sections - again taking advantage of being off the bike to eat. I passed more day riders, dinging my bell in response to the cheers. Each pedal stroke took me closer to that fun descent. Silver Creek. I dropped in confidently and with a smile. Time to have some fun. Didn't matter how tired my legs were or how sore my arms were. There was more plinko chip riding then line picking this time due to my fatigue and I was very happy Nick had opted to swap out tires for ones with thicker side walls. There's no way to describe the descent of Silver Creek other then fun. (I say that now - ask me two years ago? Different answer...) Narrow trail, plunging from near alpine all the way into the trees. Slalom like curves combined with techy rock gardens. Then the final drop through the Gate in the middle of a scree field. I rode it all - maybe not as fast as I could, but as fast as I wanted to at that moment. 

There was a small aid station right at the start of Rainbow Trail. I inhaled a handful of peach slices and some yummy fruit squeeze thing. The rice cakes looked delicious, but at that point I was finished with rice cakes. Refiled my water bottle again and started down the Rainbow. Ahh - Rainbow Trail. A trail of with two sides, with big rocks littering the trail at the start, swooping dives into creeks followed by nasty climbs that would be a kick in the ass any other day. Wide open trail in sage meadows and then a narrow line of singletrack painted against the hillside. Rainbow Trail - a treat under any circumstances. Even fatigued with over a 100 miles under my tires it was still blast. I knew I'd be walking the nasty climbs and didn't even try to ride them. I worked on my hustle, trying to push the tempo with my hiking breaks. I've only done Rainbow a few times, but felt comfortable and relaxed. Having fun and grinning - each climb meant I was closer to the road. 

I got lucky again - no traffic when I popped out on 285. Now for the final time trial back to Absolute Bikes. I hit 35 mph on the highway - tucked low and areo. The intersection with 50 was a little interesting, but I could see the yellow sign just north of the stop sign. Turning east, with S mountain off in the distance it was the longest feeling stretch in the race as the mountain dragged closer. Three more turns and the bike shop and finish was in view. Nick was waiting for me as I rolled into the parking lot. Finished - and I was still smiling. I will never be a Vapor Trail 125 rookie again and it was an experience I'll never forget. I was also lucky enough to take 2nd - hours behind Jari - among a record seven woman starters. 

I didn't ride fast enough to beat my Garmin battery - something for next year... 

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