Summary: Three weeks after finishing first overall at the Salida Big Friggin Loop (10 June), I finished first overall at another Colorado Endurance Series event, the 2017 edition of the Durango Dirty Century (15 July). Both of these first place finishes represented significant additions to my growing list of accomplishments as an amateur, endurance- and ultra-endurance, mountain bike athlete. However, before I had much time to process these victories, luck and my 2015 Niner Bikes Jet 9 RDO with a pimped rear shock from Push Industries delivered one more surprise, a top-10 overall and 1st-place amateur (all ages) finish at the Breck 100 (29 July). Below I recall highlights of my preparation and experiences racing the Durango Dirty Century (DDC) and Breck 100 ultra-endurance events. Heavy rains the night before and during both events resulted in wet, muddy, trail conditions. In previous blog entries (scroll down) you'll find many details about the Salida Big Friggin Loop and other races I participated in during the second half of May and all of June. Looking ahead, by mid-October I'll return to Hamburg, Germany, my winter home, and ride-on until I reach my 10,000 mile year goal, then I'll transition to three months of winter training primarily off the bike. Thank you for following my cycling adventures here and on my Facebook page.
Durango Dirty Century: 15 July 2017
Part of the Colorado Endurance Series, the Durango Dirty Century (DDC) returned to it's classic (full) route in 2017 (15 July) after being snowed-in and rerouted for two consecutive years. The classic DDC route is as difficult as it is majestic. Along the way, the course delivers what may be an optimal dose of everything an ultra-endurance mountain bike junkie might wish for such as a whopping sixty-five miles of single-track including a hike-a-bike ascent of Indian Trail Ridge up to 12,260 feet. Indian Trail Ridge is close to the conclusion of about seven miles of continuous exposure at or above tree-line on the Colorado Trail.
This summer "monsoon rains" have been common place, in reality and discussion, in the mountain towns of Colorado including Aspen, Breckenridge, and Durango. Nonetheless, I was still surprised, as I made my way from Fort Collins, on the Front Range, to Salida, in the Arkansas Valley, two days before the Durango Dirty Century to drive into a wall of water, the so-called "monsoons", at close to 10,000 feet (3048 meters) in Fairplay. Fairplay is the largest township in the famous inter-mountain landscape known as South Park, a high-elevation, palatial, prairie complex between impressive Rocky Mountain vistas including a handful of 14ers, summits above 14,000 feet (4267 meters). Rain is not unusual in Fairplay or elsewhere in the Rockies in high summer but rain that persists including traffic-slowing deluges, from Fairplay all the way to Salida is very unusual. This extensive, atypical, atmospheric disturbance was the first "clue" that the 14th edition of the DDC was going to be exceptionally wet and muddy with all of the consequences you might anticipate including greasy tree roots and gushing streams.
Despite the unusual monsoon rains along US Route 285, once I reached Salida I quickly refocused and settled-in, rains not nearly forgotten but certainly in the background. I took a short ride in the Arkansas Hills adjacent to town, followed by nutrition, a carb dominated dinner, and Tour de France replays brought to me and my friend Andrew by NBC Sports Gold. The next morning I rolled-over to Subculture Cyclery early enough to help reassemble, out-of-doors, the for-sale and for-rental bike fleet, a process made much more efficient by many cooperative hands. At the same time, I was able to convince another friend, also labeled "Andrew" by his parents, to have a look at my whip. Andrew went to work, as he always does, not only fixing the issues I'd detected but also weeding-out a few others that easily could have been my undoing in a long, ultra-endurance, bike race, such as front brake pads worn nearly to the metal. You'd think I'd notice pads that were that worn or at least anticipate, because of accumulated use, their demise, but I'll confess this has happened before so apparently a racer, at least me, is capable of these sorts of egregious oversights.
After the bike fleet was reassembled for all to behold, Andrew unselfishly initiated disassembly and inspection of on my 2015 Jet 9 RDO as he had the day before the Salida Big Friggin' Loop three weeks prior. A few hours later, I rolled-back into the shop after a short, fast, hot lap advised by Andrew to break-in my new bottom bracket. I want to thank Andrew for another exceptional service, and also Jason and Will, co-owners of Subculture Cyclery, and Raphael, mechanic and cycle adventurer extraordinaire, for their patient assistance over the years. It really does take some considerable patience to manage a bike racer, especially one that came into the sport so late in life. My ignorance aside, trips to the valley wouldn't be nearly as fun, social, and efficient without their expert service and friendship. If you're in the valley don't miss the chance to introduce yourself to whomever might be wrenching or just hanging out at Subculture Cyclery. They'll have what you need including advice on where to ride, how fast to ride it, and where to quench your thirst when you're ready to talk about bikes and bike trails rather than ride them.
By about three or four postmeridian (PM), I was, "finally" you might say, on my way to Durango to make final preparations for an early, six antemeridian (AM), race start. Seemingly on cue, as if waiting for my departure, as I was descending into the San Luis Valley only a handful of miles from the Arkansas Valley monsoons returned. They were heavy at times, including electrical storms as I was exiting the valley westward, back into the Rocky Mountains, towards Pagosa Springs, Chimney Rock, and ultimately, Durango, on US Route 160. With two days of heavy rains to add to the mix, my thoughts settled into the implications of a monsoon summer for a course I'd never ridden, the DDC, including 65 miles of remote, rugged, high-elevation, single-track. The rain persisted, with few breaks, all the way to Durango, and the rains continued into the night and the next morning.
As I rolled into a wet Durango, the universe took liberty to advise, as it often does, on my lodging and without much warning I was departing an AirBnB that I'd already paid for in search of an inevitably more expensive, alternative, option. AirBnB has been an excellent way to save money yet still satisfy the conveniences of a warm bed, bathroom, and kitchen the night before a bike race. My luck ran-out in Durango when I walked into more filth than a human being is advised to tolerate, for their good health, especially when it's someone else's filth and that filth has reached the peak of it's crescendo. Perhaps if you lived through the opening stanzas of a filth symphony then a gradual, deceptive, tolerance would be enough to sufficiently soften the grand finale. But in my case, as noted, I arrived when filth had reached filthy and my senses were overwhelmed. I'll leave the details out of this blog other than to say that the state of the toilet bowl was the last (dirty) note that caused me to seek shelter elsewhere. When we're done changing, we're done, and along the way chance rules as much as anything else in our lives, which sums-up how I arrived from a trailer park a few miles outside of Durango to the family owned and operated Siesta Motel on US Route 550 in Durango. I'll say more about the Siesta Motel at the end of this, fairly long it seems, blog entry.
The next day, from the comforts of my ground-level suite, I exited into a wet, partially lit, morning and pedaled a handful of miles to the starting line at Carver Brewing. a brewery and restaurant in downtown Durango. About thirty-five participants made the same journey (maximum allowed for this unsanctioned event is 70 participants). Another 15-20, maybe more, were likely planning to attend but didn't, no doubt dissuaded by so much wet weather. Those that did make their way to Carver's seemed anxious to get moving, perhaps because of the cool morning temperature or anticipation that the next presentation of the 2017 monsoons was soon to make an audible debut. Those assembled signed-in to the system used to log the race start and results, a clip board, pen, and paper. A few minutes after our 6 am start time, still assembled, organizer of the DDC Danny Powers advised the group. Foremost, we'd be finishing at the end of the Colorado Trail (CT) rather than at Carver's Brew House. That would shorten the race by about 6 miles (from 100 to 94), and more importantly, avoid racing through traffic lights. The group rolled-out in neutral fashion at about 6:17 and we were chatty all the way to, about 10 miles away, the ascent of Hermosa Creek, initially paved, then dirt road, then single track.
I felt good on the roll-out, kept my head in the wind, and contributed to the chat. I wasn't sure where the neutral roll-out ended but was feeling restless when we arrived at the turn-off to Hermosa Creek. Two riders followed as I increased my pace, and Danny was just behind them. I maintained my pace to the Hermosa Creek Trailhead where I descended into what seemed like a rain forest including water-laden plants overhanging the trail. By this point, I wasn't able to see anyone behind me and hadn't been for many minutes. The group had no doubt settled into their own discomfort zones. From this point, I wouldn't see another competitor until the short and long loops recombined. Between that intersection and the finish, I overtook a few riders that had chosen the shorter route, which really isn't short by any measure.
I made my first technical mistake on Hermosa Creek as I looked down to confirm a left fork, versus a right, on my GPS without scrubbing much speed. It was a controlled crash, no (new) damage to the bike or body, but enough to slam my right ring finger into the Earth. I'd dislocated that finger a few weeks before at the Fat Tire 40 in Crested Butte so the impact was unfortunate and unpleasant. To my now aching finger, the Hermosa Creek Trail (ascended in the DDC) offered plenty of rocks, all wet, roots, wet too, and many stream crossings. But discomforts aside and my naivete, I'd never ridden this trail, I nonetheless enjoyed the eighteen miles of single track. It was fast, flowy, and scenic despite the climbing as I ascended the Hermosa Creek drainage.
At the top of the trail, the upper trailhead, I was greeted by a group of three friendly lads on mountain bikes. They offered me water and anything else they had. I obliged the water and they kindly accepted my empty gel wrappers. From the upper trailhead the route continued on a fine, graded, dirt road for a few miles before transitioning to rough jeep road and a steep ascent, including switchbacks, to the Colorado Trail. Though for the most part insignificant, the jeep road was nonetheless significant for me because I had, wrongly, assumed that the road up to the CT would represent a break, an easing up, after the Hermosa Creek Trail. The jeep trail section would take it's share of my endurance for the day before I arrived to the CT. Fortunately, for my ambitions for the day, as I climbed this section I had excellent views behind me and did not see another bike and rider. Part way up, I stopped a vehicle to ask for a cable tie, I'd broken the mount for my Garmin Edge 520 when I crashed on the Hermosa Creek Trail. A few minutes later I had what I needed and rode on.
The initial section of the Colorado Trail and the few miles that follow give little indication of the challenges that await on this section of the course. In total, the Colorado Trail section of the DDC is a whopping 50 miles of single track. However, even if you were familiar with what was ahead, no doubt as a mountain biker you'd be celebrating being off the steep jeep trail where the sounds of ATVs and other motorized vehicles are not uncommon. With no experience with what lay ahead, I rode on under the trees, occasionally climbing, often descending. I felt good and so far the weather had been brilliant. The ride from downtown Durango to the CT had taken me about four hours. What remained, in hindsight, was over seven hours of mountain biking to the finish.
Eventually the CT ascends to tree-line and then maintains this elevation, or higher, for many miles. There really isn't any shelter and there are few exit points, such as a jeep trail to quickly descend. As I made my way along the ridges between forest patches the skies transformed and soon rain fell in showers, but never deluged, I was lucky in contrast to others that raced with me in the 2017 edition of the DDC. I was also lucky because I avoided close proximity to lightening strikes, something else some of my competitors experienced. The worst scenario for me unfolded as I ascended Indian Trail Ridge. The thunder shook the bedrock under my cleats. I made as much haste as possible as I hiked my bike, often pushing it seemingly above my head because of the steepness of the trail. This was the last of about four high points along the most exposed sections of the Colorado Trail.
On any other day other than a race day, the CT portion of the race would be an inspiration to absorb as much of the landscape as possible. The views, even amidst a developing afternoon monsoon and a racing priority, were among the very best that I've had the privilege to stock pile from 46 years of living. The trail is at times technical, especially the descent down to Kennebec Pass, but for the most part rideable and at a good pace other than short, steep, final ascents of the high points that I mentioned. For those summit approaches everyone will have to use their shoes. And regarding the descent off of Indian Trail Ridge to Kennebec Pass, I'd advise caution here, for most of us there is a section that will always be unrideable even on our most confident days.
After that sketchy descent, made even more so by fresh rains, I remounted my bike and sped down to the lake level. Given what I'd already ridden that day, this section of the course should have presented no serious threats. But perhaps that's when we, as bike riders, are at our most vulnerable, when we allow ourselves a moment to relax, to take a breath. That's what I was doing when I allowed my front wheel to roll onto what seemed like just another muddy patch in the trail. However, this muddy patch had depth and soon I was crashing into the back-side of a trench and flying at race speed over my handlebars towards the ground. The impact shattered the otherwise calm space that my right ring finger had descended into, and sent a shock through my body that took many miles to subside. But worst of all, two rocks pealed open my left knee with the efficiency, and effect, of a cheese grader on a block of soft cheese. I was left with two significant chunks of meat hanging off my knee. I tried to remove them in my pain haze, but they proved to be rubbery, not something you could easily tear off. I quickly gave up, remounted, and swore my way to a happier place. However, I was soon at the second aid station, aid stations are unusual for self-supported events like the DDC but welcomed. My head was still spinning from the crash as I made contact with the generous soul offering water and food, I chose to ride-on without stopping, made a wrong turn, quickly recovered, before swearing to the open spaces (not anyone or anything in particular) my way past the same person. My guess is they weren't impressed, I'm not either in hindsight. For me, it was an unfortunate coincidence to have contact so soon after a hard fall. A few miles down the trail, after I'd eaten an Organic Honey Stinger Waffle, I was feeling better, well enough to resume my focus on the trail and the race.
What remained of the CT was extensive, I had to go very deep to maintain even a moderate pace, not really a race pace by this point, all the way to what seemed like a descent that would never come. Between were countless more wet stones and roots, dozens of stream crossings, steep off camber scree fields high-up on massive summits, tight trees to navigate, and climbs that led to more climbs and those to still more climbs. It was a tour-de-force of a challenge, the body was deep in the pain cave for miles that stretched to nearly twelve hours. In previous editions of the DDC the course has been ridden (annihilated) in just under 10 hours, the record pace set a few years ago. However, in the conditions leading-up to and that prevailed during the race, ten hours seems an unlikely, perhaps unreachable, conclusion even for the fastest, freakish, ultra-endurance racers.
My hope was to finish in under 11 hours, instead I had to settle for 11 hrs and 43 minutes. And keep in mind this does not include the ride into town, another ca. 10-15 minutes. Add those additional minutes and I'm a 12-hour finisher, well behind the top-times from previous DDCs. However, if I re-consider the weather before and during and compare the finish times of my nearest competitors, including a few with many years of experience riding in Durango, my time was perhaps very good given course conditions and other variables. Among the 'other variables', the 2017 DDC was my first experience ridding any of the course. But analyses aside, I'm thrilled with my time and my place. Even more so, I'm thrilled that I took the advice of Ben Parman, teammate and friend, to sign-up for the Durango Dirty Century. It delivered so much in such a short window of time. My reflection will continue and will never completely subside, I'm guessing, until I return to the Planet Earth that made me.
With a knee that looked like a botched surgery, I eventually found my way back to the Siesta Motel where Larry and Marlene, second generation owners and operators, were smiling as they greeted their far-flung visitor. The night before, Larry had generously given me the last room for a discount, after tax, just 88 dollars - a fantastic price for busy, overbooked, Durango. And that price included three beds, a full kitchen, and palatial living- and bath-rooms. Upon rolling back into their company, I discovered that their units were completely booked and I'd failed to realize how much I'd need a room on this night. It's a long story, briefly I had friends visiting Colorado from Florida and they were staying in nearby, up the million dollar highway, Ouray. The thought of camping on a floor in their tight cabin was enough for me to inquire about staying another night with Larry and Marlene. As my leg continued to bleed, I was greeted by one of Larry's guests, briefly again because this story has already trickled on and on, she offered to let me stay with her and her traveling companion in room #6, the same room I had the night before. And so, after some assessment, and meeting her roommate, I accepted. An hour later, following recovery food, a shower, and bandaging, I was on my way to the post-race social at Carver's Brew House.
I want to thank all of the strangers, including my competitors but especially my hosts on this second night, for their kindness. They contributed to a story that was as unexpected and eventful as a day spent in Alice's wonderland.
Breck 100: 29 July 2017
Despite how much time has passed it's still my intention to capture my experience from the race in a short blog entry. Stay tuned ...