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Colorado Trail Race: Andrew’s Success and Katie’s Attempt

Andrew and I knew we wanted to take on the Colorado Trail since our buddy, Jake, shared his experience with us. He has hiked and biked the Colorado Trail and enjoyed it so much that he wants to go back again. We planned on touring the route but as we got deeper into our research, we became more intrigued by the race and after our tour of the GDMBR, we were curious about what we could do if we really pushed ourselves. In June, we made a trip to get a taste of the trail. It got us excited for what we’d see on the whole thing.

I was able to get out a couple weeks early to acclimate and Andrew met me there. We arrived at Velorution bike shop in Durango for the start, wished each other good luck one last time and began the bullet fast “neutral rollout” to the trailhead with ~75 other riders.

Day 1:
We entered the singletrack as a group but things strung out quickly and it was peaceful being on the trail so early in the morning.

People talk about the Durango start being tough because you gain 6500ft within the first 21 miles. You know what that means, the hiking starts early. Not long after I began hiking, the famous Alexandera Houchin showed up behind me. I let her pass and we talked while I tried my best to keep up. Within a few minutes, Alex began to pull away, marching up the super steep field of scree like it was no problem.

Andrew was already quite a ways ahead of me climbing up Kennebec. The hiking was steep and the views were unreal. At that elevation it was difficult to want to eat enough and riding anything more than a gentle uphill on his single speed had Andrew red-lining within seconds.
Andrew realized that he was hiking too slow when he kept getting passed by other racers, so he kept going past dusk over Rolling Mountain Pass. He descended into snow fields and as he got lower into mud and flooded creeks by the light of his headlamp. Craig Fowler was waiting at the bottom, talking with each rider as they passed through.

Andrew made it all the way to Silverton by midnight. He wasn’t there during gas station hours, but didn’t want to refuel anyways. We both started with enough food to get to Buena Vista and he wanted to feel like lugging all that food up the mountains the day before was worth it.

The first night I rode until 10:30 and set my alarm for 2:30. I wanted to get at least 4 hours of sleep, but decided on no more. My pace was just too slow to sleep longer than that and actually be racing.

Day 2 – Andrew:
Andrew bivvied until 4:30 and was rolling again at 5. Two other racers, Alexandera and Richard got to town as Andrew was scoping out the store for a water spigot. Silverton is on a wilderness area detour, which means the climb back to the CT was gravel, but Stony Pass is exceptionally steep and required some hiking. The Cataract Ridge area after Stony Pass was one of the highlights of the route, endless green mountains with wildflowers and scattered snow fields.

Cataract Ridge. Photo credit: Eddie Clark Media, @eddieclarkmedia

Andrew hit the high point of the trail 11 hours after leaving Silverton, then descended to a road and gravel detour. He decided to knock out Los Pinos Pass after dark and bivy on the side of the road for a few hours.

Day 2 – Katie:
I was already 12 hours behind Andrew by the time I climbed and descended from Rolling Mountain Pass. When I saw Craig Fowler at the bottom, he showed me a squinty picture of Andrew and said his message was, “ride fast.”

Photo Credit: Craig Fowler, One of Seven Project

We both walked just about everything uphill on day 2. Even though this portion of the route was rugged and required so much pushing, the views were absolutely worth it.

The second night I had trouble sleeping. After 2 hours of resting only to frequently wake in a coughing fit, I packed up my gear and headed up to the high point.

Day 3 – Andrew:
After finishing off the detour which shared a couple roads with the Great Divide route we rode last summer, Andrew climbed up to Sargents Mesa for a day full of pushing through the woods. This segment was a low point for him mentally, but eventually he made it down to Tank 7 creek, only to find more rocky trail before setting up camp with a couple other racers.

Day 3 – Katie:
As I got closer to the high point, my eyes got droopy and I found a spot sheltered from the wind to sleep for 10 minutes. Motivated by first light, I kept hauling my bike until I made it to the top at sunrise. The beauty of being there in that moment brought me to tears.

Descending from the high point required hiking through several snow fields. It was still cold up there and the snow re-froze into a hard, slick surface during the night. I had to really watch my step to make sure I didn’t lose my footing.
As I continued to descend, my rear brakes started sounding pretty awful. I probably should’ve started with new brake pads, instead I stopped on the side of the trail to put a fresh pair in. I had a battle with the pin and to get the pistons spread back out and finally got rolling again.

Day 4 – Andrew:
Andrew got an early start at 3:30am on day 4 with Brian, climbing up Marshall Pass and watching the sunrise. He descended a muddy Fooses Creek to Highway 50, checking his phone for the first time since the start. A quick exchange with parents gave him a boost, and a trackleaders check let him know that I was moving along, not too far behind.

Segment 14 after Hwy 50 is much faster than the segments preceding it, which was a welcome change. It felt good to knock out some miles on flowy trail.
Getting closer to Buena Vista, the trail is mostly rideable, until you get close to the road that descends into town. Then you turn the wrong way and parallel the road for 3 miles, which took Andrew around an hour of riding/pushing. When he finally hit the road, it was smooth sailing into BV for a quick re-supply. With enough food to get to Copper, he headed out on another road/gravel stretch up to Twin Lakes for the night.

Day 4 – Katie:
On my 4th day I felt like I was never going to get to Buena Vista and was starting to wonder if it actually exists or if I was stuck in some kind of Sargents Mesa purgatory forever. It was a short day for me both in mileage and time. I crested Marshall Pass and began the descent down Fooses Creek when my spare headlamp batteries crapped out on me, so I slept on the side of the hill until the sun provided enough light to safely descend the rest of the way.

Day 5 – Andrew:
Andrew bivvied on the side of the trail at Twin Lakes, and heard Alexandera roll past him before falling asleep. His alarm was set to 4am, but as a chronic snoozer, he let time slip away and next thing he knew, it was 5:15am. In a panic, he packed up his things and started riding hard, sure that Alexandera (also riding singlespeed) was hours ahead by now. After riding for an hour or so, he turned a corner in an aspen forest to find Alex right in front of him. Her alarm hadn’t gone off, and she had started at a similar time. Funny how those things work out.

Fun singletrack, followed by a long hike up Kokomo Pass filled the afternoon. There’s some surreal high altitude riding between Kokomo Pass and Searle Pass, Andrew said he had to stop to take it all in. Dropping down into Copper village, a few racers enjoyed hot dogs and other nutritious foods outside the gas station together. He hiked up Ten Mile Range as the sun set, descended in the dark, and started the long climb towards Georgia pass before camping trailside after midnight.

Day 5 – Katie:
Day 5 I would finally get to Buena Vista. Climbing up Mt. Princeton, there were dark clouds all around. Fortunately, the storm held off until I was deep in the trees. There was some super fun singletrack down from the paved/dirt climb but I was more focused on the thunder and lightning crashing around me. I always ride quite a bit faster with that adrenaline running through my body and had a pretty epic leaping bail from my bike as it flipped over a slick root. Earlier in the day I stood at the intersection of highway 50 contemplating just riding to Salida so my head needed a serious reset and my knee, breathing, and blisters made me think a physical rest was a good idea too. At this point, it wasn’t about the race as much as just making it to Denver.

I arrived in BV around 9pm and started looking for a place to spend the night indoors. I rode to the 3 motels I could see and they were all full. I figured I better get dinner before kitchens close. I stopped at The Lariat and there was another loaded bike outside. Colin was touring the CT westbound. The instant friendship and connection experienced on the trail is special and something I don’t typically experience in “real life.” Colin shared his table with me and I ordered a beer and the most delicious chicken sandwich I’ve ever had after eating almonds, poptarts, and soggy breakfast burritos for the past few days. I called a few more hotels, all full. Colin said he was staying in his buddy’s converted school bus that he rents out on airbnb and I took him up on the offer to stay there. I totally forgot to take any pictures, but it was a pretty sweet setup!

Day 6 – Andrew, the final push:
Andrew allowed himself 4 hours of sleep before what he hoped would be the final day of his race. Another rider had passed by during the night, but within a few minutes, he rode past a bike and bivy on the side of the trail. After several hours of climbing up to Georgia Pass, there’s a wide open, fast descent toward Kenosha pass. This was euphoric on a sunny morning, slowing down only to make room for day hikers headed up to the pass. 

Andrew and I had previously ridden the rest of the trail after Kenosha Pass, and he was itching to get started because he knew he could make up some time on the 70 mile road/gravel detour. A quick stop at the Stagestop Saloon to refuel, and he was off to surf a tailwind on the rolling pavement.

When the detour turned north into the wind and onto gravel, Andrew put his head down and welcomed the chance to open up the throttle. It had been a slow week of riding/pushing/walking/shuffling/cautiously descending, and he finally felt at home on the wide open gravel. This created a comfortable gap between Andrew and the riders he had been leap-frogging over the last couple days.

After a few hours, it was time to hop back onto segment 3 of the CT. This segment is so flowy and fun on the way down towards segment 2, if only it could be that easy all the way to Denver. But the CT doesn’t play nice. You’ve gotta earn those last few miles.

It was dark by the time he started segment 2, which for the most part is rideable, except Andrew had made some critical mistakes when charging his batteries over the last day or two. With a dynamo hub, he was charging things while moving, but had neglected to charge his helmet light. The helmet light was crucial, because as soon as he slowed down for a trail feature, his dynamo powered headlight went dark, and it’s tricky to get started moving again when you can’t see anything. So Andrew found himself less than 20 miles from the finish, standing on the trail, in the dark, charging his helmet light for a few minutes from his cache battery before moving again. Rinse and repeat 2-3 more times before reaching the end of the singletrack on segment 1. Ugh. Those last few rocky miles seemed to go on forever due to hiking, fading lights, and recharge stops. When he finally reached the 6 mile gravel descent down Waterton Canyon, it was 2am and it was all over. Immediate relief that there was no more gnarly trail to push a bike up, but an intensely bittersweet feeling, knowing that his adventure was done.

Andrew arrived at the Waterton Canyon trailhead to an anticlimactic finish (5 days, 22 hours, 17 minutes on the race clock). In the dark, an unofficial welcoming party consisting of two guys, Brett and Ryan, sat up in their bivys and said, “Woohoo, you did it!” They were waiting for Alexandera who was a few hours behind. A bit delirious, Andrew didn’t have anywhere to go so he shared some of his leftover food with the guys and slept at the trailhead until he was rested enough to make his way into town.

Day 6 – Katie:
After a decent night’s sleep in the bus in BV, I went to a diner for breakfast to get one more good meal and to charge my dying electronics before another long stretch without services. I wanted to find some moleskin to protect my blisters, but I went to several stores with no luck. I used 9 bandaids and KT tape to recreate the desired effect.

The 12 hour Buena Vista stop did just what I hoped. I felt rested and happy to be on my bike again. The day before I had to tell myself I should be happy and grateful to be out there, but that day I actually was, and there was some really fun riding between BV and Twin Lakes.

As the sun went down, Tim caught me, the first racer I’d seen all day. I followed Tim on the flowing singletrack before Kokomo pass. Tim asked how far I was planning to go tonight. I told him I wanted to get over Kokomo, “isn’t that still quite a ways?” Indeed it was. Tim was planning to ride for an hour after dark but changed his mind and we rode all the way up Kokomo and down to where it was tolerable to camp.
That night at camp, I had enough cell phone service to check in on Andrew’s dot. He was almost to the finish and I was ecstatic for him. Finishing the Colorado Trail in under 6 days as his first bikepacking race is freaking amazing. I set up my bivy and took off my shoes. I’d been suffering with blisters for several days now and had been really conscious about taking care of my feet, but when I took my socks off tonight I was worried.

Day 7 – Katie:
I slept near Copper and when I woke up, I had Ten Mile Pass ahead of me. The term “hiking” probably isn’t appropriate for how I traveled up the pass. It was more like a sad, slow shuffle. I cried the whole way up, partially out of pain, but more out of anticipation of the inevitability of pulling the plug. I went only one mile per hour and called Andrew at the top. I knew what the rest of the trail looked like and I processed what it would look like in my current state. I made the call to have him pick me up in Breckenridge.

The anticipation of quitting was worse than actually making the call. I had a slow hike/ride down to the trailhead on Highway 9 to dry my tears and change my attitude before Andrew met me. Over the week, I was taking care of my feet using antibiotic ointment, bandaids, and KT tape and making sure I was always switching out of wet socks, but I neglected to look that closely because I was afraid of how bad it really was. When I finally peeled my socks off to look at my feet when I was done, I felt justified in calling it. I’ll spare you the details and pictures, but it was nasty.

Andrew showed up with a ton of food and beer. He gave me a big hug and set up a chair. He noticed a woman having trouble with her bike and he helped her get it running again because that’s the kind of guy Andrew is. I finally felt like I could exhale and we decided to go to the one place that I knew would help me recover physically and emotionally from the destruction of the trail. During my previous trip to Brush Mountain Lodge, Kirsten said some people were headed there for a CTR after party. That was just what my soul needed. Warm people, some like Andrew and Alexandera who celebrated their success, some like me who were recovering from the trail getting the best of them, and still others who were there just for fun.

I was kind of surprised how well I dealt with my failure emotionally. I know that if there was no chance of failure, the success and the process would be less rewarding. I learned a lot being out on the trail and I gained confidence in bikepacking solo. While I was out there I swore I’d never do it again but alas, endurance amnesia has already begun to sink in and I’m sure we’ll both be out there again, next time with different shoes.

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