Vapor Trail 125

This is a long one- settle in with a snack.

I approached Vapor Trail 125 with an attitude of strategic indifference. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from racing it once and listening to the stories of others, it’s that if you set lofty expectations other than “do everything you can to ensure finishing strong” then you will often fail miserably. I held any other goals as well as the expectations of others at arms’ length, making my only goal an easy one- apply my improved fitness, experience, and elevation acclimatization to this year’s race and better my previous time of 17 hours, 36 minutes. That’s it- go faster than Memphis Me from 2014.

One thing that’s a bane to all racers is what to do on Saturday before the race other than lay around desperately trying to take a nap. Lucky me- the local farm-to-table had a field-gleaning day. They opened up the leftovers of the corn, broccoli, and cabbage harvest to the public to come in and take whatever they could find for free.

field1

broccoli

Matt and I picked for a couple of hours and then went home and took to processing it all. We blanched corn and broccoli for hours and ended up with a freezer full of veggies for the winter:

freezer

I had several gallons of broth in there prior to harvesting the veggies, so that went in the fridge to thaw. Yesterday, Matt turned the thawed broth and various veggie/potato additions in to nearly 8 gallons of soup. We’re pretty set for the winter now.

I digress…

So, most of my day was spent thinking about the vegetable blanching and freezing process. Around 5pm, we were winding down and cleaned up, so I ate dinner and got all of my stuff prepped for the 10pm race start. My plan was to sustain myself off of mostly Gu Roctane gel and blueberry pomegranate drink mix. I’d grab some solid food from the aid stations as needed and carry a Snickers bar in case I got hungry between (which I did, given that the time and effort between aids one and two is long and the most difficult portion of the course).

All of the black and white pictures coming up were shot by Jeff Kerkove as part of Ergon’s coverage/support of the race.

I’m not sure who came up with the number plate strategy of distributing them in alphabetical order, but they did, so I ended up with plate number one. I felt weird about it. That number is “supposed” to go to the previous year’s winner, and they handed it to me with Josh Tostado (said winner) in line behind me. I briefly begged letting us exchange numbers, but it was already set in race-stone.

absolute

number

map

That last one is my coffee table. The map of this area stays open there 24/7 as a permanent fixture.

I sat around drinking beet juice until the last possible minute before changing and rolling to the start a block from the house.

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lineup

start

The race begins with the most neutral rollout of any race in endurance racing history. We get a couple of miles out of town, stop for a pee/clothing adjustment break, then roll slow for a couple more miles until we get across highway 285 (safely crossing the highway as a group is the main priority for the neutral rollout). Not long after the crossing, the course turns up CR 250 towards the Colorado Trail, and the race is on.

I stayed at the very front of the group during the rollout for safety reasons, and as soon as the race started up the first road/climb, I settled into the pace I’d hold for the rest of the night and part of the next day. A lot of people passed me- according to Earl (VT125 Moto official and Manager at Absolute Bikes), who was recording numbers/times of racers as they entered the Colorado Trail, there were only 9 people behind me (out of 46 starters). I knew that there were a handful of women ahead of me, including Tracy Thelan (VT125 veteran and seasoned endurance racer). She’d taken off really fast at the start, and I knew that chasing at that time was a bad idea.

The Colorado Trail was in great shape. Afternoon rain showers meant hero dirt, so the traction was beautiful. I was feeling strong and really starting to warm up, but resisted the urge to burn any matches. I took it easy down the last CT descent (holy sketchballs) and rolled in to the first aid station. At that point, I was a little sleepy and the course ahead was daunting. However, at Aid 1, I saw a bunch of 92Fifty friends. It was a highly motivating and uplifting place to pass through at that time of night- exactly what I needed before riding off into the meat of the course.

The next few hours was more of the same. I paced myself, ate, drank, played songs in my head, and generally tried to think positive thoughts. The time flew by quickly, and, soon enough I was on the final hike-a-bike up Granite Mountain before dropping down Canyon Creek to Aid 2. I’d been only using my handlebar light on low for the anything that was non-technical climbing, and near the top of the hike, that battery finally died. It surprised me a little, and I exclaimed, “Oh, perfect timing!” The person hiking just ahead startled at my exclamation and took off up the trail. I then realized that I’d caught Tracy (for the first time).

I wasn’t in a hurry to chase at that point. It was <50 miles into the race, and the upcoming descent was really rowdy in some spots. I plugged in my backup battery, zipped my jacket, ate a snack, and generally made myself cozy before turning on the high beams and rallying down the mountain. I have some great lights (Light & Motion Seca 2000 on both handlebar and helmet), and I comfortably set a PR time down to the final bump in the trail before Aid 2.

At Aid 2, I saw Tom Purvis, and he let me know that Tracy had just left before I got there. I hit up the bathroom, refilled bottles, and ate a piece of breakfast sausage. I knew that the climb up Monarch Pass was the only thing between me and warm, dry socks and shoes. It’s also one of the parts of the course that poses the largest mental test to racers- you’ve been awake, pedaling all night, and the climb is a monotonous 9.25 miles of gravel road. The combination of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion can be overwhelming.

I didn’t feel good up the climb, but I expected that. The sun hadn’t risen over the top of the mountains, so my body was still wondering why TF it hadn’t slept all night, and, though my pacing/eating/hydration were good, my legs and stomach were whiny. My back hurt a lot from carrying a *pack and helmet light all night.

*The pack didn’t have water in it- just my light battery and my “Alpine Kit” that I always carry  when I’m going to be in the backcountry and up high for long enough to get hypothermic if I were to get caught in rain/thunder. It’s a waterproof jacket, rain pants, warm gloves, and a thin wool hat. I feel irresponsible carrying less for outings at Vapor Trail elevations. It’s saved me more than once.

I had to really work to keep it together up that climb. The back pain was terrible, though the immense amount of discomfort was doing a good job of keeping me from falling asleep while riding. My legs kept trying to slow down, but I willed them on with the thought of dropping the pack and switching to a lightweight helmet at the next aid station. I finally made it up the pass and across the short, but seemingly endless section of Continental Divide Trail that connects Old Monarch Pass to (new) Monarch Pass.

At Aid 3, I caught up to Tracy again. She was about to leave as I rolled in. I felt bad, so I dumped my bike on the ground and immediately started the process of doing what I needed to do to feel better. Right then, I was only thinking about survival and finishing, but, in the back of my mind, I knew that the short break, lightening of my clothes, and sunlight above treeline were probably going to bring me out of my hole.

Also, they had bacon and peanut butter sandwiches, which magically sounded like the most delicious thing in the world, even though my body had been rejecting all thoughts of solid food prior to that moment.

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DSC00774

Matt was there to help out and take photos of my exhaustion.

It’s easy to dwell too long at Monarch. Everyone is nice, there’s food, and the asphalt is warm to sit on.

The knowledge that it’s possible to emerge from the sort of hole I was in is something that you only gain through many races of experience. Very slowly, the pain lessened in my back, and the full sunlight brought some awareness back to my senses. My body started to come back online, and I was able to dig up the strategy I’d thought of the night before- go back to the same pace I’d started with and then start going harder after negotiating the Starvation Creek/Poncha Creek loop.

Crest

I can only assume that all of the people being shuttled up there were told that there’d be Vapor Trail 125 racers on the Monarch Crest trail, because everyone I passed seemed to let me by quickly.

The Marshall Pass aid station sits at the top of the Starvation/Poncha Creek loop, so you pass it twice. When I arrived there, my coworkers Leah and Roland were there and let me know that Tracy had JUST left. I drank some warm Coke and saw some sort of monstrosity of a creme-filled maple-glazed doughnut that looked like the best thing in the world, so I crammed half of it in my mouth and left the other half for my return trip.

The Starvation Creek jeep road that leads to the trail takes you up a mind-melting series of rollers that seem to get progressively steeper and longer. Every time you think you’re finished with them, another bigger/steeper one is in front of you. It was there that I caught Tracy. She was walking. I got off to walk a particularly steep pitch, passed her, and then got back on my bike to ride the last one. I didn’t look back… I just started riding as if she were going full-gas to chase me down.

Somehow, at that point, it was as if I hadn’t been riding all night. I set a PR time down the Starvation Creek singletrack, then, when I made the turn to go back up Poncha Creek road, I was able to settle right back in to climb it at a decent pace. I encountered Earl on his moto about halfway up the climb, and his enthusiasm of seeing me leading the race snowballed into my energy up the climb. I ended up with the Strava QOM for the loop, knocking it out in an hour and a half.

At the top, there was some thunder in the distance. I inhaled the other half of my magical doughnut, filled just one bottle, and took off as quickly as possible. The course from there is mostly downhill (except for the parts where it’s not), so I switched from endurance pace to cross-country pace (well, as close to XC pace as you can get at mile 90something). At the top of the Silver Creek trail, I paused briefly to slam some Roctane gel and some water in order to ensure a strong finishing pace on the Rainbow Trail at the bottom.

I miraculously felt like the remainder of the course flew by. I had no idea how far back Tracy was, but I kept riding as if she were closing in fast any time I’d let up. I rolled in to the parking lot of Absolute Bikes at 2:16pm- finishing time of 16 hours and 16 minutes, and 11th overall…

finish

As soon as I sat down, my backbone was the only thing providing my body with any structural integrity

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Link to Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1178438336

Winning Vapor Trail is something I didn’t think I’d ever do. I’ve felt burnt out on endurance races for a hot minute now, so the fact that I wanted to push myself that hard was somewhat surprising (Cross Country is whole ‘nother thing that I’ve been thoroughly enjoying). I feel like this performance was a perfect last chapter to the previous 6 years of endurance-distance competitions. It feels a little conflicted, because I’ve finally gotten good at it. But, knowing how to race a 100 miler means nothing if you don’t have the motivation to do it.

The long races have always served me as a vehicle for seeing new trail and new adventure. Now, living in Salida in such close proximity to so many new trails and new adventures, I am ready to explore outside the confines of the race course.

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