But for many riders taking on spectacular routes like the Colorado Trail or the Arizona Trail for the first time, there’s something unsettling about missing so much of the surrounding natural beauty by pushing through the night, missing the opportunity to exchange stories with other adventurers out on the trail, and spending consecutive days and nights pedaling through the fog of exhaustion.
The more I ponder this, the more I’m reminded of the Mayan creation story in which the second race of humans were created from wood by Heart-of-Sky. They wandered through life, spiritless with empty minds and no respect for their creator. I’ve lost count of how many ultras I’ve raced, but in nearly every one, I’ve felt like one of these wooden people. Fortunately, I have yet to be smote like Heart-of-Sky eventually destroyed the wooden people.
Two weeks ago, I flew to Denver to ride the Colorado Trail. The recent race weighed heavily on my mind as I packed my bikepacking gear and planned my ride. Should I race the route and chase Jefe’s time? My form and willingness to suffer were lacking after the Tour Divide and my recent Coconino Loop push, so I knew full well that coming within even 8 hours of the new record was highly unlikely. Should I just tour it? It sure sounded appealing, but with a 7-day window to work with for the ride, I had to go somewhat fast. Then I missed my flight out of Prescott, delaying the start of my ride and shortening my window to 6 days. Undecided, I opted to roll the dice and see how I felt after a day of riding.
I began climbing up Waterton Canyon under the cover of a cloudy, moonless sky at 4 am. The ambient light of Denver quickly faded behind me as a feeling of ensuing solitude filled me from within. The early climbs of the trail passed by quickly, and the usually sunbaked burned areas west of the South Platte River hid beneath wisps of fog. This burned off as the sun rose higher, and I pushed on over Kenosha Pass toward Breckenridge. The trail was deserted, and the only people I saw all afternoon was a family of hikers wrapping up an overnight trip, their first with two young kids. We chatted for a bit, with the shy 4-year-old curiously inquired about how I got over rocks and why I did not have a tent. He hid behind his grandmother after getting an answer. As I continued on, I tried to remember if I had ever seen a three-generational family backpacking outing.
Night fell as I pushed my bike up over the Tenmile Range. The stars shone nearly as brightly as the lights of towns far below me, and I felt a combination of frightful isolation and exhaustion before beginning the rough, rocky descent into the trees below. I curled up against a pine trunk on the far side of the valley, catching a couple hours of sleep before resuming pedaling.
The miles, however, did not come easily in the pre-dawn still. My butt hurt. My knees hurt. My legs felt empty. And the fog had returned, only this time it found its way into my head. I struggled to find the beauty of the tundra riding between Searle and Kokomo Passes. The exciting descent to the quiet valley below did little to get my blood flowing, and the subsequent rolling singletrack through montane forests simply frustrated me. I had descended into the emotional rollercoaster so often characterizing my multi-day race experiences. The lows broke through the bottom of what I used to think possible. The highs often reached a seemingly insurmountable peak, only to be abruptly truncated by a plunge off the precipitous heights. Day in and day out, I’ve battled through these in the past, and frankly, I had no desire to repeat the cycle any longer.
Somewhere during that morning slog, as I inched toward Leadville, I made the decision to back off and simply enjoy the ride. I pushed onward through the afternoon to reach the post office in the next town to pick up my box of tasty treats before closing, grabbed a motel, and slept for nearly ten hours. I woke up excited to ride and feeling relatively fresh. The mental fog had dissipated, my reflexes were no longer sluggish, and a curiosity to know what was around the next bend or over the next climb replaced a dread of what might lie beyond.
That’s what riding should be like. It’s why I started riding, and it’s what keeps me riding.
And so I rode. I stopped and talked with every through hiker I encountered. One older fellow was hiking from Denver to his 50th high school reunion in Denver. Another older couple was hoping to cover 50 miles in 7 days after not having backpacked in years. A solo woman from Breckenridge was delighted to have someone to talk to for a bit after not having seen any other hikers for several days. A couple from Fort Collins seemed to need someone with whom to converse. And the angriest hiker I ever met needed someone to vent at about how there should be signs warning hikers prior to long waterless stretches. He also needed someone to pour some water in his empty bottle. But the stories everyone had to share were delightful and memorable. You never know what you’ll miss by simply riding past someone with a quick greeting and nothing more.
When the sun set, I’d ride just far enough that I’d awaken in the morning to a new view and new surroundings before finding a comfortable place to sleep. A small fire would keep me warm as I enjoyed some food, and then I’d drift off to sleep. And each morning, I’d wake up around dawn and be moving just as the first glow of morning spread across my little piece of the world.
For the last three days of my ride, I was in mostly unknown territory, and it was absolutely spectacular. The brightly painted rocks of the San Juan Mountains did not disappoint. The extended stretches of trail across the alpine ridges were delightful. I’m not sure I’d ever tire of riding across the sky. The plentiful hiking was easily tolerable. The afternoon thunderstorms and showers parted as I approached, allowing my raincoat to remain buried at the bottom of my pack all week. My eyes were open all day, never once drifting closed due to the all too familiar insurmountable urge to stop and sleep. And I’m surprised my face did not get tired from all the grinning.
I haven’t enjoyed a long ride that much in quite some time.
I drifted into Durango just after dark after 5.5 days of riding. Much of my body was rather weary after another big effort, but rather than mentally exhausted, I felt refreshed after my mountain sojourn. That’s something I rarely have experienced in recent years. Perhaps I’m getting old in my young age, or perhaps I’ve finally realized the full extent of what is sacrificed when my competitive spirit takes ahold of the reins.