To the depths of determination - Vapor Trail 125

If I counted up the number of times that I thought about emailing Tom in the two months between Sheep Mountain and Vapor Trail 125, I would run out of fingers. I honestly thought that two months would be plenty of time to recover between races - after all I've done numerous big races stacked close together before and never had an issue. But I was wrong. It took me longer to recover from Sheep Mountain then I had anticipated. I would get on my bike for a long ride or workout and feel great one day and the next day I would be worthless. When even the gravel grind up Gold Camp Road felt like I was climbing Pikes Peak, I knew something wasn't right. A few easy days hoping to get some spark in my legs and nothing. It just wasn't coming back and I knew that I wouldn't be ready come 10:00pm on September 10th. Despite the inner dread I was developing as the race approached, I continued making my plans as if I was 100% and raring to go. Just finishing was lurking in the back of my mind, but I was determined to stick with my goal time. If nothing else, maybe I could mentally con myself into riding fast!


At the start with Nick - hopeful for the best
Photo - Kara Durland
Wishful thinking. The neutral rollout was very chill this year and we had the cops stopping traffic on 285 this time. I was at the nose of the race when the pace car pulled out and we made the turn onto the dirt. On the intial climb, I felt pretty good, but could tell that I had no spunk. I was working harder then I wanted to that early on and on that "easy" of a climb. Liz and I went back and forth a few times on road up to Blank's Cabin until she finally got a bit of a gap and entered the singletrack to the Colorado Trail a minute ahead of me. It was on the CT that I got the first glimpse of just how long a day it was going to be. I had no desire to be racing and just riding was about all I was motivated to do. I could see Liz's tail light just in front of me - pulling away on every climb, then coming back on the descents. Shortly after the first long HAB, I caught up and made the pass. Despite not riding the CT at all this year, I had a pretty good recall of the trail and was able to use that to my advantage to get a decent gap. I didn't know how much, but I knew it wouldn't last on the gravel grind up to Hancock Pass. I wasn't as quick as I wanted to be at the Cascade Aid station - filling my water for the long haul, eating some food and trying to slam a small coke. Keith D was hanging out and asked me how I was feeling. Being honest with him, I told him my climbing legs were on vacation! And then it was off into the darkness.

At first I was doing okay on the pavement heading to St Elmo. Ticking over the pedals, feeling like I was making good time. But the one by one - the guys I'd all caught and dropped on the CT began streaming by me. No matter how deep I dug, I couldn't match their tempo and get on a wheel. I would try, but even that short little effort sent me into the red zone. Not good. As the road turned to gravel and got steeper, the feeling of cement in my tires got worse and worse. When Liz caught me and passed me like I was standing still, I tried to pick up the pace and keep her in sight. If I could just stay with her until the top of Hancock, I would have a chance I told myself.  Not happening. Not with the steady, efficient pace she was setting on the road climb. She very quickly left me alone in the darkness and with the demons. Demons telling me I should stop, the hubris of packing so many big races into one year and the pride of having big goals that would be unreachable.

Passing Dan and Kara at the left hand turn to Hancock and I was tempted to just stop. Pull over, call it a day and head back to Salida with my tail between my legs. It would have been so easy. But I have never not finished what I have started - so I made the turn and kept pedaling. Telling myself that I would ride to the collapsed bridge and see if I started feeling better, I kept pedaling. The temperature had dropped significantly since the CT so I stopped to put my long sleeved jersey back on. I though again of turning around, but kept heading up, into the darkness of the night. At the collapsed bridge, I still felt like shit, unable to muster any energy to climb. But it wasn't that far to Hancock, I told myself. I could make to there... And once I got to Hancock, I told myself that there was no sense in turning around now - the Durlands would be gone and I would be SOL in terms of trying to find a way back to town. Might as well keep going. I just had to get over the passes and the HAB and I'd be able to have some fun on Canyon Creek.

We turned left to head up Hancock pass this year and I was I immediately off the bike and pushing. It wasn't that steep but the baby heads... I couldn't ride through the loose rocks at the start of the pass. I tried once or twice to get back on my bike a pedal, but no luck. So there I was, alone in the dark - alone save the pinpricks of light above and below me and with nothing to do but continue with the forward momentum. One step in front of the other. Going for a hike with my bike in the dark. One thing I noticed about Hancock was the amount of water on the road. Lots of little streams and puddles. It was nearly impossible to keep from stepping in the water. The other thing I noticed was that those little streams were starting to freeze! It would be a cold cold descent on Canyon Creek. But first I had to focus on getting over the summit of Hancock and Tomichi passes. One pass at a time. Before I crested Hancock, I decided to put my jacket on. It was getting colder and the wind was kicking up. I did take a few minutes at the summit to look around - tiny pinpricks of lights ahead of me on Tomichi and Granite, as well as below me on Hancock. Alone but not alone. Tomichi wasn't as bad as I remembered - but that might have been because I was walking! I had few dark moments pushing my bike up Tomichi, but I was well beyond the point of no return. A few times I debated just taking the road down to Snowblind and calling it a day (night?) but that would mean missing the fun of Canyon Creek! And even though it involved another spit HAB, I didn't want to miss Canyon Creek. So I turned right on to the single track and prepared myself for another long stroll with my bike.

And this was actually one of the prettiest strolls with my bike the entire race. I've always loved being able to see the lights of the other riders ahead on the HAB and then below me on Tomichi pass and Alpine tunnel. This year with Hancock was even better - a light would appear in the dip between the mountains and then start slowly descending. So many flashes of light all around. Add in the shooting stars and it was a stunning night. I could tell I was going pretty slow on the HAB as the colors of dawn started filling the sky. Last year I'd hit the top in nighttime darkness. This year, a sunrise at 12,000 feet. I didn't really need my lights starting the descent of Canyon Creek, but I had them... so I used them! Remembering my freezing hands from last year, I'd also put on my over gloves before reaching the summit and heading down. Hands were happy and warm and I was happy. Finally getting to ride my bike! It wasn't my fastest descent, but that didn't matter. I was still able to catch a few of the guys who'd blasted by me on the roads so many hours before. And how cold was the descent this year? Well, my dropper post froze near the end - the water being sprayed up from the rear tire was freezing around the post!

At Snowblind, I must have looked miserable. Tom asked me what I needed - a new pair of legs was the response. No such luck, but I was able to enjoy two of Dave Wien's famous breakfast sausages while re-supplying for Old Monarch Pass. Before I'd pulled into Snowblind, I'd pretty much written the day off and was pondering dropping at Monarch. It wouldn't be too hard to snag a ride to Salida from the Top of Monarch... But then Tom told me that Liz had only checked in 14 minutes ahead of me - and had left maybe 5 minutes before I arrived. Huh. Motivation to try to climb Old Monarch a little quicker? Yes. I didn't dawdle and was back on the road pretty quick. Old Monarch was going to be hard - but I just needed to keep pedaling. The whole keep pedaling part wasn't super successful. I did stop to push a few times - but kept the tempo up while pushing. Surprisingly, I wasn't caught by as many guys as I though I would be. My fast walking was doing the trick.

Into Monarch Pass. I had a clear run at crossing 50. The Salida HS mountain bike team was there again - with the usual variety of helpful teenagers (from very to....) I had one of the helpful teens. I was not efficient with my stop at Monarch Pass. Sitting down felt good and I kept forgetting what I needed to do - simple things like change gloves, swap helmet and sunglasses. It was still cold and I couldn't figure out knee warmers or not - I ended up not bother with stripping off my knee warmers or changing shoes and socks. Just didn't feel like it. My wool Swiftwick Pursuits were doing the job - I only would have swapped the 12s for my 4s. I was also trying to decide what food I wanted to bring with me, knowing that Marshall was just about 90 minutes away. Assuming I opted to keep going. The thought of dropping was still on my mind. I knew the singletrack portions would be fun, but brutal on the climbing. I ate a plate of bacon while deciding, chatted with another rider for a while and then finally though to ask about Liz. She had checked in 33 minutes before - so had gotten a solid gap on me with the climb up Old Monarch. But there was very little gravel grinding left.... And all I really needed to do was finish. What was another 50 miles? Mind made up and mentally refreshed, I took off.

I was back on singletrack and feeling at home despite the fatigue. Instead of getting mad at myself for walking, I had a new strategy for the push across the Crest - walk early and walk quickly. It was working because I was still catching the day riders on the Crest and dropping the guys who had left the aid station with me. I'd pulled myself back from the brink I'd been peering over. There was only one option left - move forward any way possible and finish the race. Across the Crest to the descent in to Fooses - there were plenty of riders stopped to take photos and they all cheered. The rocky climb and chunky descent to Greens - more riders and more cheers. I walked the climb to agate, off my bike as soon as my legs started protesting the climbing. I was maintaining my distance with one of the day riders who was still pedaling. Past Agate, taking some chances on the singletrack descent and then the road plunge to Marshall pass road. Yay!

Nick getting some super secret hydration from Leah at top of Marshal
Photo Jesse Ward


Climbing up the hill to Marshal Pass.
Photo Jesse Ward
Nick on his way back to Marshall Pass - He would finish 7th in 16:11
Photo - Jesse Ward
The mental turn around must have been evident to Tom and Keith. They had both made the circuit of the aid stations - with Keith driving his party bus from Cascade to Snowblind and finally to Marshall. Tom looked kinda surprised at how happy I was now, versus the down and ready to be done Tracy of Snowblind. And why was I happy? Starvation. Sure I had the climb back out to face but Starvation... No jelly doughnuts at the aid station, but plenty of info. Nick was doing great and was expected back at the aid any minute. Liz was now only 25 minutes ahead of me. And I was going to get to go downhill for while! As promised, Nick was rolling back out of the loop shortly after I started. He did look good, like he was having fun. A wave and a thumbs up  and then we were off again - him towards the finish and me towards Starvation. First, the jeep road to get to the singletrack. I pedaled as much as I could, but stuck to my walk early and quickly strategy from the Crest. It didn't take too long to reach the faint but well marked entracnce to Starvation. I opened up my suspension, lowered my dropper and pointed the bike downhill. Without a pre-ride, I wasn't sure what to expect from Starvation. It would be a test of my skills, processing and nerves to ride as fast as I wanted. And my ability to just let go of the brakes and let the bike fly. There were some sketchy moments - Starvation is narrow and painted on the right side of the hillside. I took a few corners a bit fast, needing to grab a handful of rear break to correct once or twice. I also wasn't as smooth as I would have liked - there was a little more plinko chip style riding then in a while. I'm slowly figuring it out - through the air is always faster, but picking the landing zone is key to a smooth run. It's the landing zone choices that are slowing me down now. It only took me 20 minutes to drop Starvation. Twenty minutes of fun for which I was now facing an hour or more climb back up to Marshall. Such is the nature of Vapor - from the highest of highest on the super fun descents to another stroll with my bike up Poncha. I didn't remember all the landmarks on the climb up Poncha but I was close. The initial level section, the steep climb, then another short level section, then into the trees for the steady climbing. The whale rock signaling about 1.5 miles to go; the rocky creek crossings  I was riding a decent amount but it was slow. I was almost faster walking! And that's what I was doing when Earl rode down on his moto - talking my bike for another hike...

Heading out for the Starvation/Poncha Loop
Photo Jesse Ward
Back at Marshall, I refilled for the short trip  to the Rainbow checkpoint. Still no jelly doughnuts! I've been missing my Marshall Pass jelly doughnut since the first year... There were some other doughnuts, but not what I wanted. Oh well. Despite my slow climb up Poncha, I'd pulled another 5 minutes back. The gap was down to 20 minutes. Could I dare hope that I would be able to make up 20 minutes between Silver Creek and Rainbow? I left Marshall with renewed motivation - but motivation does nothing to make the body feel better! My strategy of walk early and walk fast was still key on the Colorado Trail. I wanted desperately to be able to ride the climbs that are normally so easy for me, but there was nothing in my legs but now drying cement. Instead of focusing on the gap and berating myself for dawdling at Monarch, I focused on the fact that I all I needed to do was finish. And it looked like I would still break 19 hours. I pushed most of the jeep road leading to Silver Creek. On the steepest slope a large group of day riders caught me - they were all kitted out in baggies, long travel bikes with fenders and all padded up. I figured they would be out of sight pretty quick on Silver Creek - their bikes all had at least 2 inches more travel then my little Camber. But no - the whole gang was at the top of Silver, eating a snack and enjoying the views. I couldn't wait - but hopefully, they wouldn't catch me. There were more chances taken on Silver Creek, but it was hard to keep the speed going. My hands were hurting and my triceps were cramping. But I remembered the trail well from my last ride and was able to pick my landing zones better. Through the air is really smoother.... It's hard not to have fun, no matter how tired you are, then descending Sliver Creek. At the bridge after the shale descent through the Gates, I caught one of the groups of day riders I'd seen stopped at Foose's. They weren't having a great day - one of them was walking with his arm in a tire sling. I told them about the mini-aid Rainbow Checkpoint ahead and kept riding - I'm sure that every racer that passed them had told them the same thing...

I still haven't figured out why they call it a mini aid station- it's one of the best stocked of the entire race! The volunteers there already knew about the guy who'd crashed, and were keeping an eye on his progress down even through he wasn't part of the race. I slammed a container of OJ - yay for quick sugar that wasn't candy! One more section of trail left. Rainbow. What is normally just an hour pedal for me - I was getting closer to the finish. And closer to my goal. Liz was now only 12 minutes up on me. I'd reeled back 8 minutes on the CT and Silver Creek. I knew Rainbow was going to be hard. It was one of the sections of trail I'd been dreading while pedaling up Old Monarch Pass. Between the off camber turns, the steep descents into the creeks and the steep grunter climbs, Rainbow is really my least favorite section of trail. And I was tired and hurting. None of that mattered. I needed to dig deeper and find another level of determination to keep pedaling. There was less then two hours of racing left and I was running out of time. I left the aid station on a mission. Ride as hard as I could, be smart with my walking and just keep pushing. Such a far cry from the broken down, near tears Tracy struggling to pedal up to Hancock, or the discouraged Tracy sitting at Monarch Pass eating bacon. My legs still felt like crap and the fatigue was settling deep into my bones. I know I wasn't riding as fast as it felt like at that point - but I had a target - and it was getting closer. My trip down Rainbow this time was all about conservation of energy - and speed. The smoother I rode and the less I used my brakes, the more speed I was able to carry into the steep climbs. I kept looking for tire tracks coming out of the creeks - the only trace that I had of where anyone was at this point. At first, no tracks. But as I traversed further to the east, I started seeing the damp lines from tires. Hope. Such a powerful thing when there is nothing left. And so I kept digging. I pushed up the stupid steep kicker before the road crossing - I've only ridden it once and that was not in the final miles of single track during Vapor. I was down to the last two significant climbs - the one right after the road and then the rocky chunky one halfway to 285. I walked them both, but flew down the following descents. Over the rocks, through the air, trying to find the smoothest line. Smooth is fast and fast is smooth. On the final descent to 285, I kept hoping that I would see another rider in front of me. Anyone - I'd been alone since I'd left Marshal Pass. No luck. On 285, I tapped out my gears, got low and as aero as I could on the Camber and let gravity do the work. Not pedaling much at 40mph! I lost a little focus on the road leading back into Salida. With no traces of riders ahead of me, I pretty much gave up and did more coasting then I should have. My legs were hurting, my ass was sore and coasting felt good.

Turning into the Absolute Bikes parking lot, I saw Liz, still standing next to her bike. I hadn't closed the gap - running out of real estate. But it had been close. So close. I think it was the closest women's finish ever. From 33 minutes at the top of Monarch Pass, when I'd almost quit for the fourth time, to just three minutes at the finish. And despite having no climbing legs and feeling like crap for most of the race, I was still just 50 minutes off my best time. Sure, we climbed over Hancock instead of Alpine Tunnel, but that was a wash with how much I hiked up Hancock. I could stand tall and be happy with my ride, regardless of place. From the depths of despair, I'd managed to pull myself from the edge. I had turned around a disaster of race at the top of Hancock to an awesome descent down Canyon Creek, a fun ride on the Crest and then a close race for second on Rainbow. And with finishing, I joined a small but elite crew of women who had finished three times - Cat Morrison who started four times and finished three and Ezster Horanyi who started and finished three times, including the wild weather rain shortened race in 2009.

Is there a fourth attempt in my legs?

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