The Colorado Tail Race might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Deep down, I knew it would be but when six of us assembled in Denver to ride the route west in early July, the question of reaching Durango and then turning around to race it back again was a distant and only vaguely disturbing possibility, not yet a reality and so no cause for alarm.
A few days spent in Durango, however, sitting around mourning the handful of cols we’d had to bypass due to snow and avalanche debris, helped me decide what to do. I had to get back to Denver one way or another anyway. Might as well do it the hard way.
As usual, I was nervous but as usual, it wouldn’t be the things I was wasting energy stressing about beforehand that would be the problem. It wouldn’t be the snow, the bears, the lightening, the technical descents from high cols in the dark and the rain. These things would present themselves but would inevitably be dealt with simply and without fear. It would be my inability to manage my own expectations that threatened to end my Colorado Trail Race prematurely.
Without much analysis, I felt that covering 530 off-road miles (even with more than 77,000ft of cumulative height gain) should have been possible for me in around five days. Setting such targets is essential but not always helpful if they then become something fixedly associated with success or failure. I was about to learn a valuable lesson.
75 riders left Durango at 4am on 28th July and after 5 miles spinning quietly through the dark streets, were funnelled steeply into ascending singletrack that would continue its general upward trend for the next three days. It was also the case that for the next three days I would battle constant nausea from the altitude. I ate quite literally nothing and existed in a slow moving bubble of my own discomfort. I missed all the drama and splendour of the San Juan’s as I beat myself over my own head for moving so slowly. I’d push my bike forward, put the brakes on, walk one foot towards it, then the other, slip back a bit on the steep, loose ground, stop, breathe, repeat. Why didn’t I quit? That’s a good question and one I asked myself three or four times a minute those first three days. Here’s why. I was waiting for the joy to come. It always had in the past despite (or perhaps because of) the physical discomfort. But nothing. No joy. Just sickness, fatigue and frustration. And so I held on. Waiting.
It’s easy to say now that pressing on was the right thing to do but maybe on reflection it wasn’t. Is a stubborn unwillingness to sit with that uneasy feeling of having bailed from something a good reason to keep going? It clearly was enough for me but does that make me strong or does it suggest the opposite? A deep rooted insecurity perhaps and the need for positive affirmation over and above extreme physical discomfort? I dunno. No right or wrong I suppose. What I do know is that when the turning point came (because it has to eventually) I was weak with hunger but also with gratitude.
The night before this change I had been experiencing my biggest emotional low. High up on Sergeants Mesa with no fast way down off the 11,200ft plateau that was exacerbating my sickness, I crumpled in a heap next to my bike before crawling into my sleeping bag and staying there for 9 solid hours. In the morning I forced myself vertical to complete the climb then dropped height like a stone off Fooses Pass. It was on this hour long descent (first through dry delicate alpine tundra then Ponderosa Pine and then damp scrubby oak) that tiny slivers of joy began to emerge. The bike seemed to handle itself, front tyre digging into the soft loamy turns that I encouraged it to take. It floated over roots and rocks and, as the air got thicker, my breathing and vision returned making me feel stronger and stronger with every minute that passed. Then, on the wet, stormy traverse over to Mount Princeton I suddenly realised I was starving! For the first time since leaving Durango the thought of food spurned me on. Three hours later, I arrived in Mount Princteon on wobbly knees where, in the shade of the same tree my five friends and I had spent a happy afternoon under two weeks previously, I devoured a pizza while speaking into the understanding ear of Jenny Graham on the phone. I was close to scratching and needed to say the words out loud. In doing so, I realised that reaching the end of this route was inconceivable to me but that I could get my head around travelling the next ten miles.
“Baby steps.” said Jen.
Just then, as I steeled myself to get back on my bike, I received a rare and precious gift; the perfect music playlist. This magical combination of calories and care meant that by the time I left town I felt invincible. I was actually dancing on my pedals and I didn’t stop moving until I’d banged out three more of the highest cols on the route. I was back. My riding was focused and intentional. For the first time on this ride, I was meeting my own expectations. I felt full and happy as I marched up and over Searle Pass to gain the high alpine basin above Copper Mountain. Up there completely alone at 13,000ft with Four Tet in my ears, and the setting sun causing the barren landscape around me to blush rose gold, I felt like the luckiest person in the world. I was replete, in control and perfectly at ease in my lofty surroundings. As the sun sank finally on the day and the moon took its place to guide me 3000ft to the valley floor, I paused once more and took stock of the ground I had covered that day. If it had all been for this moment, right then, it felt worthwhile.
After 3 hours of fitful sleep under a bush near the snowline, I rose shivering in the dark and prayed my mood from the night before would return. I put my earphones in, hit play and felt the eagerness to ride stir. At the same time, out of the gloom the outline of the ridge that marked the top of the Tenmile range emerged. The route would only trend towards sea level from here.
Long into the following day, past Breckenridge and up Georgia Pass, I floated effortlessly until I over-enthusiastically jumped some tree roots and my back wheel came out of its drop outs, jamming at a crazy angle in my frame and grinding me to an alarming halt. It took nearly an hour of swearing and disassembling to free my wheel and by the time it was all back together again, the rear brake was seizing on so badly due to a damaged disk rotor that I was unsure the wheel would roll. With some extra persuasion it did go round, but psychologically, this extra resistance training was not what I needed. I unbolted the brake calliper and taped it to my chain stay, promising myself through a fug of fatigue that I would remember to reattach it before every decent. Strange the things you remember. I would forget where I was and what I was doing occasionally but I never failed to reattach that brake before I needed it.
I had 100 miles left to ride and the magic was starting to ebb. In its place was a deep, dark fatigue and a sudden dreaded incomprehension of how I was going to manage the remaining distance.
I stopped at the last resupply point on the route before Denver; a one room dilapidated Saloon filled with very drunk locals, an old arthritic dog and copious hand written signs detailing codes of conduct. Pat, the owner and an avid dot watcher, welcomed me by name and then one by one, his clientele took it upon themselves to keep me company while I ate pasta off a paper plate at the bar.
“So. What do you think about Brexit?”
I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. I hadn’t used my voice in days and, just for a moment, I couldn’t remember what Brexit was. Luckily I wasn’t the only one with communication difficulties and I escaped from the Saloon without having to engage in any meaningful conversation.
It was my intention to ride through the night and get to the end of the route before the sun got too high in the sky but things had started to unravel. Torrential rain and bouts of narcolepsy forced me off my bike but eventually the sun came up and with it I felt a renewed determination to get this thing done. I was in a vast desert of sandstone and the rising sun was turning everything blood red. I tapped into the fire and potential drive of the new day and tried to increase my cadence. Around 7am I checked my GPS device and discovered that by some miracle the inconceivable distance I’d had to cover had diminished by 60 miles during the night.
I hit Buffalo Creek which had marked the end of day two on our amicable group journey west nearly three weeks ago. On that last morning, I covered the same ground in a total of five hours.
Pausing briefly on top of Lenny’s Rest with only a downhill roll to the end of the route, I found to my surprise that I was crying. Two mountain bikers out for the day were up there with me and took in my battered bike and dust covered bags, my legs caked in dirt and the tears trickling down my sunburnt cheeks.
“Just finishing the CTR?”
“…..[some sort of croaking, squeaking noise]…”
“Well done. That’s a hard thing to complete.”
I’m not sure that in that moment any of us realised just how much of an understatement that was.
On 3rd August at 14.20 Lee completed the Colorado Trail Race. It took her 6 days and 10 hours and she finished in 20th place.