This weekend I hitched a ride to the desert with Tim Stern for a very informal race on the 140-mile Kokopelli Trail that runs through canyon country between Moab, UT and Loma, CO. On Friday evening I spent a couple hours laying on the deck behind Pete B's new digs in town - he's no longer living in the campground. I think I managed to sleep for about 15 minutes before the lady next door started trying to call in her cat for the night. Little Mikey eventually wandered in and she finally shut up, but I couldn't fall back asleep. So I got up at 11:15, ate a fair amount, got packed up, and then rode to the park with Pete and Tim. A whole 9 souls showed up by midnight, and we rode up to the Slickrock TH, regrouped, and were off into the night. I had a goal of 14 hours given the forecast for light winds out of the north, so I knew there would be no chance at breaking 13 hours.
I wore a heart rate monitor for the first time in any long race, and I struggled to keep it from going to high during the first two hours of climbing up into the La Sals. The climb isn't steep except for a few sections, and the dirt road was in good shape. My legs felt heavy, but I was expecting they'd start to get going after a few hours. After 2 hours and 5 minutes I hit the pavement of the La Sal Loop Rd and put on some warm clothes (38 deg up there!). The windy, narrow descent was fun but over in less than 20 minutes, and then it was back to steady climbing up more pavement. The last quarter moon rose as I was on this section, and I was able to click off the lights and enjoy the wee hours of the morning. An enormous meteor caught my eye out beyond Castle Valley, and as I turned my head toward it, it exploded in an orange burst ringed by green, and then continued to streak down nearly to the horizon. Honestly, I think that was the most exciting part of the ride for me.
As I climbed up to the top of Beaver Mesa, the course became familiar from riding it the other way a year ago in the Grand Loop. The descent down Beaver Mesa was pretty loose but very rideable, and I had some fun surfing through the switchbacks. The stream at Hideout Canyon was flowing nicely, so I filled up with 7 L of water. The glow of the early morning was strengthening, and I turned the lights off as I pushed up the last climb before Fisher.
By the long, nasty Rose Garden Hill climb ~5 hours in, my legs finally started to come around. The hike up the first part went quickly, and I was able to ride up the loose, technical rocky sections up higher without too much difficulty. I could see from Pete's tire tracks the he must also have been feeling good, climbing all of it on his singlespeed. But that was the first and last time my legs would feel good all day. Before too long, my legs were back to feeling like they had been for the first few hours - sluggish. For a few hours I really focused on trying to push them and make them go. I did alright through Yellowjacket and down to McGraw Bottoms, but after that it just seemed like a lost cause. My goal of 14 hours change to 15 hours.
With my legs out of the game, my mind soon followed, and just continuing on became a mental struggle. I set a goal of the shade under the railroad bridge at Westwater for taking a short break. Between my legs and a bit of a headwind, I felt like I was crawling that entire stretch, and each mile seemed longer than the last. As it got hotter, none of my food sounded at all appealing any longer, so eating also became a mind game of sorts. Fortunately I had brought 1500 calories of Perpetuem, so that really paid off.
The break in the shade helped a bit, but the relief was short-lived, and soon I was hoping to just be done in 16 hours. The rest of the ride was more of the same, and my knee began to hurt occasionally, which didn't help my head any. I started to dwell on how there'd be no way I could ever finish the Divide if this is how I'd be feeling day in and day out and if my knee couldn't even survive a single day on the Kokopelli. I thought about bailing out more than once, but my stubbornness just strong enough to keep me on the trail. Fortunately, the knee pain never really developed into anything, and after much slogging, I finally found myself on the relatively good gravel road in Rabbit Valley, then hiking down the descent to Salt Creek (although an inviting patch of shade drew me in for quick break along that stretch). I filled up two bottles with the murky water and began the trudge up to Mary's Loop. The last 10ish miles are the most technical of the whole trail, and I was in no mood for technical. Or climbing. So I walked any sustained ups along those canyon rims, stopping occasionally to let other riders by. I got a lot of strange looks, probably because of my lights and the giant white salt deposits on my shorts and gloves. I likely looked rather out of it, too. A few guys asked where I was coming from and then just looked back in disbelief. Two of them offered me a Powerbar. That was about the last thing I wanted.
Eventually I was coasting down the last rough descent of Mary's and could see the final climb up to above the trailhead. 5 minutes later I rolled into the parking lot and found Pete napping in the picnic shelter. He finished in 15 hours (also apparently imploding toward the end), and I came in just a couple minutes over 16 hours. Tim had a string of bad luck and bailed, but continued to ride pavement all to Loma! I'm not yet sure when/if any of the others finished later in the day.
Unfortunately, I'm not really sure why I didn't ever feel good on the bike. It was undoubtedly my worst day on the bike all year. Most likely it was some combination of the midnight start, not eating as much as I should have early in the ride, and then losing any semblance of mental focus later on. I'll probably have to chew on this for a few days to figure out what I can learn from the whole experience. The Kokopelli really is a burly undertaking, especially if the goal is to do it quickly. I'm sure I'll do it again some day, but for now I'm just happy to have finished.