Testing the Limits - 2015 Vapor Trail 125

Like with most big races, I came into the 2015 Vapor Trail 125 with a plan. Time splits, light management, and food and water management. Would everything go according to plan? After a week of tapering and a day of sitting around getting nervous, it was finally time to find out.

Last year, when I lined up on the F Street Bridge in Salida, I had no clue what I was in for. This year, I knew what was coming and was eager to get started. That last four hours of waiting is the hardest. The sun sets, darkness envelops the town and finally, it's time to get ready for a long evening and day on the bike. It was warmer this year then last and I opted to dress lighter - knowing that if I was a little chilly on the climbs, it would be a good incentive to ride harder! No long-sleeved jersey - just wool tank undershirt and arm warmers and knee warmers with the standard kit. An old pair of booties over my hike-a-bike shoes, some warm wool socks and my mid-weight gloves with my rain jacket for the rollout. The hard decisions of the day were made. Nothing left but to pedal!

The crowd at the start was a mix of nervous excitement and fear. Nervous about the long day coming, excited to finally be at the starting line and fear of the unknown. My emotions were somewhere in between it all. I knew I was ready to ride, but nervous about my plan. And finally, the horn sending us off through Salida. 10:00 on a Saturday night and the town was hopping - the main street reasturants emptied out to cheer us on our way. The roll-out seemed easier this year - a slower pace, but much quieter. Not nearly as much gabbing as last year - everyone seemed focused and not interested in talking. After the clothing check stop, the pace stayed even slower. Turns out we didn't have the cops stopping traffic for us on 285 this year - after a short wait, all 70 of us sprinted across the road. And then it was back to a nice and slow pace. I decided too take advantage of the slower pace to make my way into the front group, right behind the lead guys. After all, out of sight, out of mind seemed like a great plan. Finally, the lead car accelerated away and the racing was on. Nobody really picked up the pace - we hadn't made the right hand turn yet. The minute we made that right hander up to Blank's Cabin, it was on. I was in 5th place at the turn, but knew it wouldn't last. Sure enough, the guys quickly started passing me. I found myself riding right with Nick again and even pulling away. I wasn't sure what was going on, but knew that I needed to ride my own race and not worry about Nick. I was pretty sure that he'd catch me on the Colorado Trail.

When I entered the singletrack leading to the CT, I hit a split and glanced at my computer. Yikes! I knew we were riding slow, but I hadn't realized it was that slow! Nearly 15 minutes slower then my goal for that segment and ten minutes slower then last year. Time to take a breath, relax and ride my bike. I wouldn't be able to make up that kind of time - but I would be able to lose lots more if I tried. Besides, the fun of the CT was just starting and I needed to focus on the trail. Unlike last year, the trail was dry and dusty, but no less challenging then the slightly damp conditions then. I settled into a good pace, finding my flow on the steep climbs and rocky descents. Due to the position of my lights, I couldn't see the time well on my computer, which was just fine. One less thing to distract me from riding my bike. I didn't feel like I was riding all that fast - but kept catching the guys in front of me. It was a constant state of yo-yoing. I would catch them and out descend them, only to have them right on my wheel by the top of the climbs. Finally, we reached the Cascade Aid at that start of the Narrow Gauge trail. I was in and out pretty quickly - refilling water and dropping some trash, then back into the darkness of the night.

During the pre-race meeting, we had been warned that the rockslide on the Narrow Gauge trail rendered it unridable. I'd seen some photos of people hiking over the huge boulders, but didn't realize how bad it was until I got there. Thankfully, Earl had marked that section really well to indicate the safe path through. Even then, it was a little sketchy at night! Once onto the road, it was time to settle in for the second long climb of the night. Only this time, I was pretty much all alone. Unlike last year, there was no moon and the only light was from my Exposure Lights Reflex. I had two mounted on my bars and was running one at a time. Even set on the 3/10 hour mode, I had plenty of light for the road climb up to Hancock town site. It was a long climb and in the darkness there were no landmarks. I just put my head down and rode, keeping the cadence high and the pedaling smooth. It was only sheer luck that I saw the collapsed mine building that marked near the end of the road. I happened to look around just as I passed it and the halo from my bar light was just enough to reveal the collapsing building. Almost to the tunnel trail and time to take stock. I didn't really know how long I'd been riding so far, just knew the pace was good and I felt pretty comfortable. My feet were fine - no issues with the numbness of last year. I was a little chilly, but not bad. I'd been eating and drinking - perhaps not as much as I should have, but one of my snacks hadn't quite settled well.

Onto the Tunnel trail and time to prepare for the first longish hike-a-bike. A few more guys caught me on the double track Tunnel Trail. Then it was hiking time. I hoisted up my bike and set off up the trail at decent climb. I did stop a few times to look around, taking in the stars above and the flares of light from riders below me. Before I reached the summit of the Alpines Tunnel, I stopped and put on my jacket. Learning from my mistakes - I wasn't going to freeze on the fast road descent off the Alpine Tunnel this year! One of they guys hiking just behind me said that he'd been riding with Nick and that he looked good and was just a little bit behind us. I took that to mean he'd for sure catch me on Canyon Creek and it would be all over. But until then... Flew past the Bacon Station manned by Jefe and Rachel, and then made the left hand turn running smack dap into the uphill of Tomichi Pass. There was some riding and some walking this time, as I opted to get off earlier and not fight the loose babyhead rocks scattered across the trail. Earl was out on his moto, heading in the opposite direction of the race and stopped to cheer us on. Up and up we climbed, higher and higher into the inky blackness of the moonless night. At the top of Tomichi, I paused to look around. A trail of light ahead of me traced the hike-a-bike to the summit of Granite Mountain. And to the north, the riders behind me illuminating where I'd just been. One of those lights was Nick. I made good time on the hike-a-bike this year, keeping moving, one foot in front of the other. I alternated between carrying my bike up the steeper, rockier sections and pushing on the flatter sections. Had one guy pass me carrying his hardtail and ask me how my day was going, "I wish my bike was a little lighter!" I responded, knowing that in just a few minutes, I would be loving every extra pound I was lugging up the mountain.

Canyon Creek. Last year, I'd had only a few minutes of darkness on the descent. This year, there was no color in the eastern sky and no light but what I was carrying. Diablo - high! Reflex (both of them!) - high! I didn't need the sun to see where I was going! With my fastest time down the alpine descent of Canyon Creek, I think the darkness might have made me faster. I was completely focused on the trail and where I was going - not on the consequences of missing something. Even once I dropped into the trees, I was still flying - focused solely on the trail and the lines in front of me. The only problem was, my hands were starting to freeze. Last year I'd put my over gloves on at the summit only to take them off quickly. So I hadn't bothered with them this year. And halfway to horse camp, my hands were nearly numb. It was still dark out and I kept thinking the sun would rise and warm things up quickly. But that wasn't happening. Finally I had to stop. There was no way I would make it Snowblind without getting my hands warm! I needed to be able to brake, shift and use my dropper.... It didn't take too long once I got the over gloves on to be able to feel my fingers again. And then it was back to flying. I was giddy hyper when I reached Snowblind - the thrill of the dawn descent combined had not yet worn off.

It would quickly as I headed out after another quick pit stop. No sausage for the road this year - although maybe I should have take a few links for the climb up Old Monarch. I had a different plan this year for tackling Old Monarch. Instead of staring at the Garmin, letting the numbers get into my head I was going to try something new. Normally, I can't stand music. It gets in the way of the trail sense, distracts from the road noise and isolates. But at 7:00 in the morning, there was no traffic on the 9 mile road slog up to the summit on Monarch Pass. So I was willing to try some tunes. I'd tucked my little iPod shuffle into the pocket of my pack. It had been tempting to whip it out on the road climb from Cascade to Hancock, but I hadn't wanted to deal with it during Canyon Creek. Now was the time. Settled one ear bud in and started jamming. I could still hear the world around me, but I had something other then the pedaling and the road to focus on. I still don't think I could handle music on a trail or in a busy area, but for that moment, it was perfect. I was at the summit and darting across US 50 right on schedule for that segment and feeling pretty good.

All that was about to change. My stop at Monarch Pass with my drop bag was longer then I'd planned. I wasn't thinking orderly and wasn't doing things in the most logical order. I wanted to drop lights, change shoes, socks, helmet and sunglasses as well as refill food stash and hydration bladder. All that shouldn't have taken too long, but somehow was over 15 minutes before I started pedaling again. I'd chatted with the volunteers, gotten an update on Nick (he hadn't caught me on Canyon Creek, which I found really surprising. He was only 10 minutes behind me entering Snowblind though.) And by that time, my legs were noticing what I was doing to them. It was going to be a long 50 miles to the finish...

The Crest trail was busy this year. Very busy. I felt like I was riding through molasses on the climbs, but was still slowly catching most of the shuttle bunnies - at least on the downhills! I kept pushing to try to ride more of the climbs, but found myself off and walking frequently. It was turning into a game of leapfrog - I'd gain some ground the rolling descents and the shuttlers would catch right back up the minute the trail tipped uphill. I was watching the time now, seeing my goal for that segment not only slipping away, but getting obliterated with how slow I was moving. Discouraging after how well I'd ridden in the first half of the day. I started setting smaller goals - the first being get to Marshall Pass and hope for another awesome jelly doughnut. I couldn't think about what came after Marshall.

No jelly doughnuts... I pouted for about five seconds while refilling my hydration bladder with Skratch. Time to face the fun of Starvation and the hell of Poncha Creek without the sugar rush I'd been dreaming about. I made due with another waffle and bag of Skratch fruit drops. Not as satisfying at that point in the race, but still calories my stomach was willing to accept. I knew it was going to be a long loop when the jeep road to Starvation was kicking my tail. I should have been able to ride most of it, but I was off and pushing, getting cranky with how tired I was. At the pace I was moving, I would have to descend like a stone - I didn't know where the next woman was and I was starting to get a little worried. I'd gone out hard at the start and was paying the price some 80 miles later. I took some chances on Starvation, testing the limits of my bike and my mental processing speed. I haven't ridden the trail enough to know all the landmarks, but knew I had made good time when I popped out onto Poncha. Said hi to the volunteer at the turn and started chugging my way back up to Marshall. Another rider was paused at the bottom and he quickly caught me, asking if the road stayed this nice and easy for the rest of the climb. "Nope." It only gets harder and just when you think you're at the top, there's another little kicker for good measure. After riding all of Monarch Pass, I was hoping to be able to ride most of Poncha. No such luck. The bargaining was back - ride five minutes, walk one, ride 10 minutes, walk three.... I was wishing I hadn't left my iPod in my drop bag!

Finally, the tent of the Marshall Pass Aid station appeared. Only three more hours of riding and I would be finished. I got an update on Nick (now 40 minutes behind me) a refill of fluids and headed off onto the Colorado Trail. Later one of the volunteers would say that the changes in the riders between the two stops at Marshall were amazing. From just tired, but still ready to ride to completely beat - mentally and physically. That is what the Starvation loop does at mile 90. But I was through with it - onto the next section. Just a few more little hills and then the Silver Creek descent. I wasn't looking forward to the hills, knowing I would end up walking more then a few of them, but I was giddy for Silver Creek. Sure enough, the jeep road got the better of me and I was pushing again, getting even crankier with each step. I wanted to be riding all that, not hiking. My crankiness evaporated once I made the turn onto Silver Creek though. Time for some fun - 20 minutes of descending. I was trying to go over the rocks this time, not just pick my way through them. Sometimes, I made it, flying over the sharp rocks and dusty roots to a smooth landing beyond them. Other times, not so smooth...

The Rainbow Aid was well stocked. I inhaled two of the fruit squeezes they offered - to the amusement of the volunteers who said I was one of the first people to realize what exactly those things were! And then it was time for Rainbow. I kept telling myself that it was trending downhill. Yeah, trending downhill, but with a few stout climbs to get that downhill! At least I was at the point where I could count the hills I'd have to walk on one hand... I was however starting to catch some different shuttle groups again. And they weren't quite as aware as the groups on the Crest. It was an annoying game of leapfrog as I would catch the stragglers of the group, pass the leaders while they waited and then have the faster riders on my tail again. Eventually, I left the groups behind, riding just enough faster then their slower riders to be able to hold my ground. With each dip into the creek, I knew I was getting closer to the end. But my rear tire didn't feel right drifting through some of the corners. I stopped after the jeep road crossing and checked it - low, but not flat. My no-holds barred, kinda reckless descents of Starvation and Silver had almost gotten the better of me. Decided to add some air, not wanted to risk a blowout or sidewall tear on the chunky descent that was coming up. The few minutes lost pumping might save even more time putting in a tube. Even so, I was a little ginger and cautious on the last two descents on Rainbow, trying to pick smooth lines instead of bouncing over everything.

Once I made it to 285, I could relax a little. The wind had picked up and I was getting blown all over the road on plunge down to Poncha Springs. I hit 40 mph coming down that road though! There wasn't much pedaling involved - one of the few times that I'm spun out with my 30. One more turn and the S over Salida stared me in the face. That's where I was headed. I think I was blown back into town with the tail wind! Spin for a few seconds, whined the speed up to 25 mph, then let the wind take me. Two more little turns back to Absolute Bikes and I was finished. First woman with a decent time - 17:55. And Nick hadn't caught me....

I'd started with a very well defined plan and several goals. I knew at the start that I would have to go hard and test my limits to meet one of those goals - and I wasn't even sure that I would be able to do that. As I was blown back into town, I had met one of my goals - to win the women's race. But I'd left it all on the roads and trails, and not met my time goals. I was 12 minutes faster riding this year then last, and many of the guys were saying that this was a much slower year for some reason - before even factoring in the slow roll out. So the fact that I'd still managed to go faster was great, but not enough for me. I'd made all that time in the first half, plus some, then managed to lose most of it in the last 50 miles. I didn't reach the implosion stage, but I had been very close and that was frustrating. So I still have unfinished business with the Vapor Trail 125. I will be back, with better training and a more focused approach to the event. I made the first 75 miles well. I need to ride them even faster and then still be able to maintain that momentum on the Crest and beyond.

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